Thursday, January 31, 2013

Tin Cup

3/4

Starring: Kevin Costner, Rene Russo, Cheech Marin, Ben Johnson

Rated R for Language and Brief Nudity

I'm not a golfer.  Like half the people who play golf, it seems, I can't swing a golf club to save my life.  I did try, actually.  I was on the golf team for two years in high school, and on the one day where I got to compete in a match, I broke my driver on the first swing.  Yeah, I'm that bad.

Anyway, "Tin Cup" is said to be a romantic comedy, and while those elements are definitely there, it works better as a sports movie (the same is true of another romantic comedy/sports movie, "The Cutting Edge," although that one didn't really work because the director thought it was a rom-com when it was really a sports movie).  Its stars, Kevin Costner and Rene Russo, have chemistry, but their interaction is shortchanged for the underdog story.  Doesn't matter, though.  The movie is still fun.

Roy "Tin Cup" McAvoy (Costner) is an extremely talented golfer who was on his way to the pros when, in an act of hubris and stubbornness, he tried for a next to impossible shot and missed.  Now, he's resigned to drinking and being the manager of an out of the way driving range.  In walks Dr. Molly Griswold (Russo), a firey psychologist who wants to take golf lessons, because (as Roy rightfully assumes) she's dating a guy who plays golf.  What Roy doesn't realize is that she's dating his old rival, David Simms (Johnson), who played safe and is now in the pros.  To win her heart, Roy decides to try for the U.S. Open (which of course pits him against Simms).  But he's got a problem.  His risk-taking behavior may be his undoing, so in exchange for golf lessons, Molly will examine his head.

Okay, so there are elements that are shortchanged for other things.  Really, there are enough things that could be more developed, but the movie already clocks in at two hours (dangerous territory for a romantic comedy).  But I didn't care.  "Tin Cup" is a breezy comedy that doesn't waste a second.

The performances are solid across the board.  Kevin Costner is his usual reliable self, making Roy into a likable loser with stubbornness issues.  He's someone we can get behind.  Rene Russo isn't as successful.  She's a little stiff at times, but we like her anyway. Cheech Marin is on hand for comic relief and Roy's voice of reason (even if doing so is an act of futility).  Ben Johnson is perfectly slimy, but not a caricature.

Ron Shelton is the go-to guy for sports movies.  He's made his mark on them with "Bull Durham" (also starring Costner, "Cobb," and "White Men Can't Jump."  He understands the rhythms of the genre and how to make them seem fresh and alive.  This isn't a perfect movie (the ending is fitting, although not as fitting as I would have liked), but it's still plenty of fun.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Last Stand

3/4

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jaimie Alexander, Eduardo Noriega, Rodrigo Santoro, Luis Guzman, Zach Gilford, Johnny Knoxville, Forest Whitaker

Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence Throughout, and Language

During the 1980's and 1990's, there was no bigger action star than Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Sure, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone gave him a run for his money, but Arnold reigned king.  He debuted on the screen in 1969 with "Hercules in New York," but his real fame came thirteen years later when he starred in "Conan the Barbarian."  Two years after that, his superstardom was assured, when he stepped in front of the camera for James Cameron and played the iconic role of the Terminator.  His star faded a little by the end of the nineties, and when he entered politics in 2003, he all but vanished from the screen (he did appear in a few cameos over the next 8 years).  But when you're as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger, you can never really fade away.

Which brings us to "The Last Stand," Schwarzenegger's first starring role after being governor.  It's a return to what made Arnold famous: blow huge numbers of bad guys away with a huge amount of firepower and show off his impressive physique.

In terms of plot, "The Last Stand" is a modern-day "High Noon" amped up about 20 times.  Schwarzenegger plays Ray Owens, who is the Sheriff of Sommerton Junction, a tiny town on the border of Mexico.  Owens used to be a member of the LAPD, but years ago he retired to the tiny, out of the way town.  And that's just the way he likes it.

Trouble comes his way when notorious drug kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Noriega) escapes from custody and makes a run for the border.  Normally one man driving a (very souped up Corvette) wouldn't be much of a problem, but Cortez is very powerful, and has a number of hired stooges helping him.  FBI agent John Bannister (Whitaker) is frantically tracking him, but Cortez slips out of his grasp every time.  Their last chance of stopping Cortez from reaching freedom is Owens and his deputies, rookies Sarah Torrance (Alexander) and Jerry Bailey (Gilford) and dim bulb Mike "Figgy" Figuerola (Guzman).  Also joining the fight are war hero turned town drunk (and Sarah's ex) Frank Martinez (Santoro) and gun-loving whacko Lewis Dinkum (Knoxville).

Acting-wise, the film is adequate, although no one goes to a Schwarzenegger movie to see powerful acting.  Schwarzenegger, whose reputation as an actor is a little underrated (see "T2" and "True Lies" for examples), is a little rusty, but he quickly finds his groove.  Jaimie Alexander is adequate, while Zach Gilford is pretty good.  Rodrigo Santoro sort of fades into the background.  And Johnny Knoxville and Luis Guzman are on hand for comic relief (which they both excel at).  Forest Whitaker is surprisingly awful.  Either he's miscast or he's not cut out for this kind of a role, but the result is the same.

Every action movie needs a good villain.  "Die Hard" has Hans Gruber.  "Face/Off" has Castor Troy.  "Speed" has Howard Payne.  "The Terminator" has The Terminator.  "T2" has the T-1000.  "The Last Stand" has...Gabriel Cortez.  Suffice it to say, Gabriel Cortez is not going down as one of the great action movie villains.  He's rather bland, and his end leaves a lot to be desired.

The film is directed by the South Korean filmmaker Jee-woon Kim.  It's a solid American debut (Kim made waves in the arthouse circut with "I Saw the Devil" and "The Good, The Bad and the Weird"), especially because he takes chances.  Kim tries to mix the summer action genre with some rather bleak tragedy.  It's not a perfect mix, but it at least changes things up a little.

So far this movie hasn't done well at the box office (not that it will make much difference for Arnold...he's too big of a star to have his career completely fade away after one flop.  And he's got about a half dozen new projects in the pipeline).  It's a shame, but it's understandable.  It's January and although it's good enough to have been released in the summer, it might have been lost in the summer blitz.  Also, after the recent Newton shootings it might be too soon for some to watch a loud and bloody action movie (despite the fact that in no way bears any similarity to a massacre like that).  Still, as a critic, it's my job to encourage people to see movies that are worth seeing and to avoid ones that aren't.  This is one of the former.

Monday, January 28, 2013

My Dinner with Andre

2.5/4

Starring: Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory

How does one begin to review "My Dinner with Andre"?  For one thing, by clearly stating that it is not a normal film.  The 1981 arthouse smash has little of what we expect from a traditional movie.  Save for two extremely short book-ending sequences, the film takes place entirely at a restaurant and almost always between two characters, Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory.

Wally Shawn (Shawn) is a struggling playwright and actor who is meeting an old friend: his mentor, Andre Gregory (Gregory).  They were very close, but a few years ago, Andre fell off the radar and no one heard from him for years.  Now he's returned, and an unnamed friend insists that the slightly burned Wally have dinner with him.

In terms of plot, that's all there is.  It's really just two hours of these two men (mostly Andre) talking.  One might assume that watching two men eat and talk would be boring, and they would be right.  But not as much as one might think.  They talk about things that, while not revolutionary, are intriguing, and the performances are strong.

The film is essentially divided into two parts, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.  First, Andre explains in detail where he's been the last few years and what he did.  This part is interesting because Gregory is a good actor, but the stories he tell are filled with, I think, magical realism, and are thus hard to follow.  Plus Gregory's soft voice threatened to lull me to sleep on a few occasions.  The second part is where Andre explains what he learned from his experiences, and this is interesting because we get to listen to a philosophical tete-a-tete between Wally and Andre.  Unfortunately, because of his experiences (we don't know much about what he was like beforehand), Andre has become an elitist and a nihilist.

Essentially, Andre has become convinced that the constraints of modern society have turned us into creatures of habit and we thus have lost the ability to relate to people on a real level.  There's some merit to this thought, and to an extent I agree with it.  But Andre takes it way too far, to the point where he says there are times when we have to drop everything to get back to our natural selves.  According to him, we're essentially sheep who do things because we're expected to, be it jobs or relationships.  He suggests abandoning everything that doesn't give us "real" joy.

Sound words to live by, but he neglects to think about the comfort that can exist in routine and normal society.  As Wally points out, one doesn't have to climb to the top of Mount Everest to truly live life.  There's joy to be found by simply waking up to a good cup of coffee and spending time with your spouse.  And if we find joy in that, it doesn't mean that we've turned into robots.

The performances by Shawn and Gregory are excellent.  It would be a natural, if misplaced, assumption that the two actors are merely playing themselves on camera (you try acting like yourself when told to.  Being conscious of being told to do it makes it hard...especially if you've got specific lines to say).  They're good enough to make us believe it, but that's not the case.  They said that if given the opportunity, they would love to play the other character.

The film was directed by Louis Malle, and although the camerawork is effective, the constraints of the script would make any sort of directorial style or flourish a hindrance.  This is a movie that could be simply listened to on an iPod with almost nothing lost (and perhaps a little gained).

I really can't recommend the film.  It's too long and confusing in the first half, and the longer the film goes on, the more unlikable Andre becomes; he's the precursor to the intellectual elite (those morons who only like stuff that's dry and incomprehensible) and the hipster.  But it is not as boring as it could have been.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Gangster Squad

2/4

Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena

Rated R for Strong Violence and Language

"Gangster Squad" acquired a certain degree of infamy after the Aurora tragedy because the trailer, which featured a shooting at a movie theater, was pulled and the film reshot to omit the scene.  Frankly, that's the only thing worth mentioning about this film because, like many January releases, there's not much else to say about it.

Los Angeles, 1949.  The City of Angels is ruled with an iron fist by Jewish gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn), who believes that ruling the city is his destiny.  He has a judge who, for a fee, will free any of his cohorts, so he's essentially untouchable.  The Chief of Police (Nolte) decides to fight fire with fire.  He tells one of the few police officers with the guts to save a girl from being raped by one of Cohen's underlings, a man named Sgt. John O'Mara (Brolin) to round up a squad of officers to work outside the law to destroy Cohen's empire.  They are: womanizer Jerry Wooters (Gosling), tough street cop Coleman Harris (Mackie), gunslinger Max Kennard (Patrick) and his protoge Navidad Ramirez (Pena) and techie Conway Keeler (Ribisi).  All six of them band together to raise hell for Cohen by any means possible.

The film sounds a lot like "The Untouchables" because it is.  There are enough similarities to call it a rip off, and sadly it's not even a very good one.  The script is paper thin, the characters are, at best, stick figures, and there are times when the movie doesn't make a lot of sense.

The only actor in the film who is of any interest is Josh Brolin, mainly because he actually has something to work with.  He's a fighter who, after the war ended, is left without a fight.  His wife Connie (Mireille Enos) wants him to stop being a hero due in part to the fact that she is heavily pregnant.  Ryan Gosling has nothing to do but throw a few weak one-liners and woo Mickey Cohen's squeeze Grace Farraday (Stone).  Gosling and Stone have chemistry (as was proved in "Crazy, Stupid, Love"), but so little time is devoted to their relationship that I could care less about it.  Sean Penn froths at the mouth, but he's given so little to say that he's not compelling.  Penn seems to know that the script is crap and sleepwalks his way through the role.  No one else has much screen time.

Director Ruben Fleischer gained a certain amount of fame for directing "Zombieland," a zombie movie that, while entertaining enough, made me want more of what it had.  The same thing applies to "Gangster Squad." It's got the goods, but it feels empty.  The film looks stylish, but Fleischer can't decide whether or not he wants it to be a love letter to 40's film noir or a live action comic book, and the result isn't as appetizing as it sounds.

There are things that work.  Some of the action scenes are fun, and there are a few amusing one-liners.  The squad's first outing, a bank robbery, is pretty funny as well.  It's not a total waste of time, but it's better left for late-night TV.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

2.5/4

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Pihla Viitala, Thomas Mann, Peter Stormare

Rated R for Strong Fantasy Horror Violence and Gore, Brief Sexuality/Nudity and Language

"Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" would be a guilty pleasure if it had more little pleasures.  The plot is thinner than one-ply toilet paper and the performances are lazy all around.  Still, the fight scenes are pretty cool.

As young children, Hansel and Gretel were abandoned by their father in the middle of the woods.  They find their way to a house that, as we all know, is made of candy.  Inside, they find an ugly witch who wants to cook them alive.  But she is defeated by her two captives and roasted herself.  Now, these two orphans have grown up to become Hansel (Renner) and Gretel (Arterton): Witch Hunters.  But with more and more kids being snatched by evil witches, it becomes clear that the Grand High Witch, a nasty piece of work named Muriel (Janssen) is planning something...

The acting is surprisingly flat.  None of the cast members appear to be working hard.  Renner and Arterton are sleepwalking their way to big paychecks, and Janssen hams it up, although not nearly enough.  Peter Stormare is utterly wasted.  The only ones who distinguish themselves are Finnish actress Pihla Viitala as Hansel's love interest and Thomas Mann as the groupie.  Both are good.

The problem is that there's really not much here.  The plot is way too simple and the characters are undeveloped.  Not only are they undeveloped (although their relationship is close to incestuous at times), they're stupid.  First off, the "big plan" isn't going to do what the witches say.  It will solve part of their problem, but not all of it.  Second, the characters talk way too much.  I know, I know, this is expected in a movie like this, but Hansel & Gretel also suffer from "talking killer" syndrome (or in this case, should that be "talking hero?").  Even worse, the one-liners lack any sort of wit or punch.

There are a few clever moments here and there.  A number of witches are dispatched in cool ways (some provoked chuckles that I think were intentional), and a few pop culture references (with Middle Age terminology).

Look, this isn't great art.  It's not even great popcorn entertainment.  I don't recommend it (especially not the 3D, although the opening credits look really cool in the glasses), but for what it is, it's at least not terrible.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mama

1.5/4

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash

Rated PG-13 for Violence and Terror, Some Disturbing Images and Thematic Elements

Generally speaking, January isn't the best time to release a horror movie.  People are catching up on the Oscar bait movies, trying to stick to their New Years resolutions of eating less and exercising more, and staying out of the bitter cold as much as possible.  So when a major studio releases a movie that's intended to scare the living hell out of people in January, it's usually (although not always) a bad sign.  Unfortunately, that's the case here.

Shortly after the financial meltdown, Jeffrey (Coster-Waldau) shoots his wife and flees with his two daughters.  After the car runs off the road, Jeffrey takes them to a remote cabin, intending to kill them and himself.  But something stops them.

Jeffrey's hipster brother Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) hasn't given up searching for his nieces, despite the fact that it's killing his finances, as his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) tells him.  In a stroke of luck, the girls have been found alive.  Lucas and Annabel adopt them, although Annabel isn't so keen on the idea.  The court-appointed psychiatrist (Kash) offers them a deal: he'll let them live in a state owned house rent free if they allow him to study the girls.  They agree, but it becomes clear that there's more going on here than re-adjusting two young girls into normal life.

The best thing about this movie, in fact the only good thing, is that director and co-writer Andres Muschietti can craft decent jump scenes.  Everything else, except Jessica Chastain, is crap.  The screenplay is sloppy, the storytelling is even worse (there's a fairly obvious time gaffe about halfway through), and the story is a lame cross between "Mirrors" and "The Ring."

Jessica Chastain had a big year in 2011, and she didn't slow down in 2012.  She's the front runner for the Best Actress Oscar for "Zero Dark Thirty," and it's obvious that she's just getting started.  Chastain's talent lies in making her characters seem natural.  Chastain is so convincing that it's hard to believe that it's the same actress who played the tenacious Maya.  Her co-star, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, is likable, but bland (probably because he's conveniently injured in various ways for most of the movie.  Young actresses Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse effectively straddle the line between sympathetic (but not too cute) and creepy.  I'm sure there were computer effects for the scenes where they crawl around, but if not, they should try out for the Olympics/

The ending is the worst part.  Muschietti can't decide whether he wants to have a dark or happy ending, so he goes halfway, which isn't going to satisfy anyone.  Trust me, avoid this big hairy "Mama."

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Dahmer

2/4

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Artel Kayaru, Matt Newton, Bruce Davison, Kate Williamson, Dion Basco

Rated R for Aberrant Violence, Sexuality, Language and Some Drug Use

Surely a figure as notorious and horrifying as Jeffrey Dahmer, convicted cannibalistic serial killer, deserves a more compelling biopic than this.  Strictly speaking, this is less of a biopic than a character study, but despite the best efforts of its star, "Dahmer" fails to develop Jeffrey into a three dimensional figure.

"Dahmer" doesn't really have much of a plot.  Instead, it's mostly a series of interactions between Jeffrey (Renner) and three men: a gay man named Rodney (Kayaru), a straight teen named Lance (Newton), and his father, Lionel (Davison).  Interspersed with it are montages and clips of Jeffrey.

What saves this film from being a complete and utter waste of time are the performances.  All four leads are excellent.  Renner can always be counted on for a performance that's at least interesting ("The Bourne Legacy" being the exception).  The actor buries himself into the role, which is impressive since there's really not much for him to work with.  Jeffrey is antisocial and socially awkward, but craves human connection.  That's not original at all, but Renner imbues the character with life.  Also good are Artel Kayaru and Matt Newton.  Kayaru has the difficult task of making a character seem fresh and lively when we first meet him, but annoying by the end.  Kayaru handles it effortlessly.  Matt Newton plays Lance as a straight teen who gets in over his head.  He's also very good (ironically, he played a gay teen in "Poster Boy" two years later).

In terms of how it's put together and what does and does not work, "Dahmer" brings to mind Steve McQueen's "Hunger."  Fortunately, "Dahmer" is better (although not successful) because co-writer/director David Jacobsen actually gives the characters the opportunity to talk and interact, rather than going McQueen's route and showing random, bizarre images.  Jacobsen tries to tell it in three chords, but it doesn't really work because the characters are so undeveloped.

There's always a perverse fascination with death and depravity, and there's always that in a serial killer movie.  Especially a character study of one.  But what holds "Dahmer" back is that all three of its leads are undeveloped.  We don't know anything about them.  Dahmer is especially disappointing, not least of which is because he's the central character.  But we really don't learn anything about him.  We don't learn of the circumstances that got him to where he is or the compulsions that drive him.  In the end, he becomes just another misfit who happens to brutally drug, rape and murder men.

Considering the subject matter, I can't decide whether or not I should be glad that the film didn't go as far as it should have.  One one hand, it would have been compelling filmmaking, but on the other, it would have been incredibly disturbing (and it's already quite unsettling as it is).  It really doesn't matter, since the film that we have just isn't worth seeing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Acolytes

2/4

Starring: Sebastian Gregory, Hanna Mangan Lawrence, Joshua Payne, Joel Edgerton, Michael Dorman

Not Rated (Probable R for Strong Graphic Violence and Sexual Content, Language and Drug Use)

Here's a helpful hint for everyone who wants to live until their natural death: if you suspect someone of being a serial killer, don't try to blackmail them.  If that sounds like obvious advice to you, imagine how hard it is to care about the fates of three boring teenagers who decide not to follow this piece of common sense.  Admittedly, they do try to do the obvious and call the police, but still.  If you find a dead body in the woods, that doesn't give you license to do something so stupid.  Get the cops attention any way you can.  Lead them by the hand if you have to.  But don't blackmail the killer into doing your dirty work for you.  It can only end one way, and that's the way you don't want it to end.

With three protagonists that are this lacking in common sense at the center of the plot, the movie is essentially sunk.  It's next to impossible to care about people this dense in a movie that wants to be taken seriously.  Granted, horror movie characters are never Nobel Prize material, but this is inexcusable.  Unfortunately, the idiocy of the protagonists isn't the only problem with this film.  The editing is terrible, and the characters are constantly ahead of the viewer.

Three best friends Mark (Gregory), Chasely (Lawrence) and James (Payne) are walking home from school one day.  For reasons that aren't immediately clear, Mark and James are nervous because a guy named Parker (Dorman) has been released from prison.  Then (after a sudden and obvious cut) Mark spies someone digging in the middle of the woods (what Mark is doing there and why isn't ever made clear).  The three of them decide to go back and dig up whatever the guy was burying there, and discover (gasp!) that it's a dead body!  They call the cops, but for reasons not convincingly explained, they don't want to give their names.  But after doing a little sleuthing on their own, they discover who the killer (Edgerton) is (giving credence to the possibility that the police are just as dumb as they are, and therefore actually giving them anything short of a neon sign and fireworks show above the killer's house probably wouldn't have helped matters).  In what is probably the most moronic act in film history, they call the killer and threaten to turn him in unless he offs Parker.  Of course, this doesn't go as they had hoped since the killer isn't one to back down.

To its credit, the film does a few things right.  The cinematography is decent and director Jon Hewitt manages to create a few decent jump scenes, one of which literally made me jump.  That doesn't outweigh the mistakes the film makes, like the editing or the lack of compelling protagonists.

They say that editing can make or break a picture.  That may be true, but it wouldn't have done much for a film about three "heroes" who are not only stupid, but boring.  None of the three leads is capable of holding our interest, much less our sympathy (nor do they act in ways that a normal human being would, but considering the premise, I guess that went out the window once the movie started).  Mark, the lead, is so dull that the other two are actually interesting next to him (but they're less interesting than a plaster wall).  Joel Edgerton could make a compelling villain, I suppose, since he's got the looks and the voice to sell it.  But he's not given anything to work with.  Surprisingly, Michael Dorman is lacking as well.  Dorman was very good in "Triangle" and "Daybreakers," but he's not cut out to be a bad guy.

As if it weren't bad enough, the film lacks a decent editor.  The film is littered with jump cuts, and the characters are constantly ahead of the audience.  I hate it when the characters talk about things that they know and we don't.  It's like, "What the hell are they talking about?  How do they know this person, and when did that happen?"  There are times when the film looks like a Paul McGuigan movie, whose every film is guilty of this.

Ultimately, the best that I can say about this movie is that it's not that bad.  It's a snoozer, but it's not bad enough that you want to put a foot through a TV.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Impossible

3/4

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast

Rated PG-13 for Intense Realistic Disaster Sequences, including Disturbing Injury Images and Brief Nudity

There's no doubt that "The Impossible," based on a true story of a family who survived the 2004 tsunami, is a harrowing film.  But everyone will agree that it could, and should have, been so much more.

The Bennett family, which includes Henry (McGregor), Maria (Watts), Lucas (Holland), Thomas (Joslin) and Simon (Pendergast), is spending the holidays in Thailand.  A few days into their stay, a tsunami hits.  The island paradise is now a chaotic wasteland filled with pain, death and destruction.  The family has been split up; Lucas tries to find help for gravely injured Maria, while Henry tries to find his family members with his younger two sons.

There's nothing wrong with the performances.  With Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as the leads, that's not particularly surprising.  Both are fine, except that McGregor isn't a good crier (as one can see in the trailer).  But to me, the actor who stuck in my mind the most is young Tom Holland.  A newcomer to film (his only previous credit apart from his theater work was a voice role in "The Secret World of Arietty"), Holland effortlessly handles the relatively complex role of Lucas.  He's a little too serious for a boy his age, and he's pretty aloof in terms of showing emotion freely.  But he does care about people and is willing to help ("Go help people," his mother says.  "You're good at it").

The problem is that the script is on the thin side, and director J.A. Bayona is prone to self-indulgence (such as the part when Maria goes into surgery).  The plot feels a little too simple, and the script just doesn't give the actors enough to work with to make this a truly memorable film.  One easily identifiable problem is that we're not given enough time to get to know the main characters.  Five minutes is not enough time to introduce five characters.

Still, I recommend the film.  It is a powerful film and the emotions it generates are real.  The tsunami scenes are particularly intense.  Bayona doesn't whitewash the destruction or the casualties; the film pushes the PG-13 rating to the limit.  It's not as good as it could have been, but for what it is, it does a solid job.

Storm of the Century

4/4

Starring: Tim Daly, Colm Feore, Casey Siemaszko, Jeffrey DeMunn, Debrah Farentino, Becky Ann Baker

Rated PG-13 for Intense Thematic Material and Violence/Gore

When deciding whether or not to recommend "Storm of the Century" to you, there's really only one question I have to ask: can you stand 4.5 hours of constant chills?  If the answer is yes, then definitely check this one out.  If not, go for something shorter, like "The Descent" or "Halloween."

Granted, "Storm of the Century" isn't as frightening as either of those films, but it isn't trying to be.  It's really almost Hitchcockian.  If Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie collaborated on a supernatural thriller, it may have turned out to be something like this.  Apologies to Stephen King, of course, who wrote the screenplay.

Tall Island is a small village off the coast of Maine.  Everyone knows and looks out for each other.  But more importantly, they can keep secrets.  They're bracing for a huge storm that's going to pummel them for three days at least.  But just before it hits, a mysterious man wanders in and brutally murders an elderly inhabitant.  Shopkeeper and constable Mike Anderson (Daly) and his friend and partner Hatch (Siemaszko) arrest the man, who calls himself Andre Linoge (Feore).  Linoge surrenders without incident, although it's no surprise why.  Linoge is not a normal man.  He can read people's darkest secrets and manipulate them into doing what he wants, be it killing themselves or others, or leaving the ominous message "Give me what I want and I'll go away."  As the body count rises, Mike and the rest of the residents have to figure out how to stop a man who doesn't need to leave his cell to cause death and destruction.  And what exactly does he want?

All across the board the acting is first rate.  For the most part the cast is comprised of TV character actors, although many have done film work as well.  The best performances are given by the two leads, Tim Daly and Colm Feore.  Mike Anderson is really the perfect small-town hero.  He may not know how to stop Linoge, but he does the best he can and instills confidence in the townspeople.  He's also a tenacious adversary for the killer; no matter how bad things get, Anderson doesn't give up.  Tim Daly plays him in his typical low-key fashion, and it works.

As his nemesis, Colm Feore is truly chilling.  With his slow deliberate movements and unreadable body language, Feore can get the nape hairs on end by simply sitting there (although the all-black eyes that sometimes get red pupils are a nice touch).  Similarities with Anthony Hopkins' performance as Hannibal Lecter are impossible to ignore, but there are enough differences in how Linoge is written and acted to avoid making the character a cheap rip-off.

Like his actors, director Craig R. Baxley comes from a predominantly TV background.  His shot selection is basic but effective.  Where Baxley really shines is with atmosphere.  This is a stifling, claustrophobic and constantly menacing setting; a perfect place for Andre Linoge to push his victims to the limit.  While undoubtedly some of the special effects are cheesy, it adds to the creepiness.  Plus they are outnumbered by the special effects that do work.

As much as I loved "IT," "Storm of the Century" is superior.  The characters are better defined, the story is more compelling and it's a hell of a lot scarier.  

Friday, January 11, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

3/4

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong

Rated R for Strong Violence including Brutal and Disturbing Images, and for Language

Before 9/11, few people had heard of Osama bin Laden.  After the terrorist attacks that left nearly 3,000 dead and more than 6,000 injured, his name became infamous around the world.  It took nine and a half years to track him down and kill him in what was celebrated in most parts of the world as a stunning blow against terrorism.  Due to its fame and inherent interest, it was inevitable that a film version would be made.  Pity the film isn't better.

Maya (Chastain) has a hunch: a courier that a lot of detainees say has high connections may be the key to finding Osama bin Laden.  Unfortunately, without a lot of evidence and more terrorist attacks taking place, Maya's hunch is being tossed aside by higher ups like Joseph Bradley (Chandler), until her persistence finally gets attention and it turns out that she is right.

That's about all I could get from the plot.  Putting it simply, it's a mess.  The story is next to impossible to follow for half the film and it's full of obvious holes.  Nevertheless, director Kathryn Bigelow manages to keep an acceptable amount of tension throughout the film.  There are scenes that are just brimming with suspense, and the violence is sudden and brutal.

There are two reasons why I'm giving this film a mild recommendation: Chastain and the raid.  Ever since she burst onto the screen last year in 5 movies (including "The Debt," which made my Top 10 list) and scored an Oscar nomination, Jessica Chastain has become a relatively known name.  She scored another Oscar nomination for her performance in "Zero Dark Thirty" and it's understandable.  Maya is tough yet vulnerable, able to learn and play with the big boys.

Bigelow has always been good with action scenes, from "Blue Steel" to this.  Therefore it should come as no surprise that the raid on bin Laden's compound is the best in the film.  It crackles with tension and the verisimilitude is stunning.

But are those two things worth sitting through the messy first hour?  I think so.  Even though it may be confusing, it still has the capability of grabbing one's attention.

Grown Ups

3.5/4

Starring: Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Kevin James, David Spade, Rob Schneider, Salma Hayek, Maria Bello, Maya Rudolph, Joyce Van Patten

Rated PG-13 for Crude Material including Sexual References, Language and Some Male Rear Nudity

In today's world, where quick electronic entertainment is so easy to get to, real fun and happiness that comes from our interaction with others and exercising our brains is becoming increasingly rare.  That's ironic, because ultimately that stuff is far more memorable than what you did playing "Halo."  "Grown Ups" works because it remembers this simple fact.

In 1978, five friends won a championship basketball game.  They part ways and only reunite 30 years later after their beloved coach passes on.  All five players return, with their families in tow, for the funeral.  They are Lenny (Sandler), who was become a mega successful Hollywood agent and is married to a fashion designer (Hayek) with a naiive daughter and two spoiled sons, Kurt (Rock), who is a house-husband to his pregnant wife (Rudolph), family man Eric (James), whose wife (Bello) is still breastfeeding their four year old, Rob (Schneider) who loves melodrama as much as he loves older women (his wife is played by Van Patten), and Marcus (Spade), who is in a state of arrested development.

The beauty of the film is that it's smart enough to know that it doesn't need a plot.  There are movies that need plots (like "Black Book"), while others do not.  "Grown Ups" is the latter.  Since the set up is so ripe with promise, constraining the jokes to a narrative will only hamstring the film.  Instead, the filmmakers have established the characters and let the sparks fly.

The male cast members have such good chemistry that it's not hard to believe that they have a relationship off screen.  They're natural performers and none of them reach for laughs.  A lot of the dialogue seems (and probably was) improvised.  The actresses are good, but really, they're just there for the guys to play off of.  Only Salma Hayek gets a chance to do something with her character, and she, like everyone else, appears to be having a lot of fun.

"Grown Ups" has another round in the chamber: nostalgia.  I challenge anyone to watch this film and not be reminded of those fun summers as a kid when you did all those crazy things with your friends and family.  Watching this movie reminds me of that, and I can't wait to revisit them this summer (although it does star Taylor Lautner.  Still, he's playing a frat boy villain, so we can hope that he'll get what's coming to him).

Mike's Musings: BLAME HOLLYWOOD!

After the Aurora shootings, I was hoping that instead of blaming guns or politics people would focus on the real issue: mental illness.  Sadly, it took another shooting, the Newtown shootings, for people to get the picture.  Still, there's a lot of talk about gun control and while banning certain dangerous weapons and making it more difficult for the mentally unbalanced to get firearms can't hurt, that's not the issue.  That being said, I suppose it was inevitable that loudmouths would blame violence in Hollywood.

The theory that violence in the media causes people to become violent is not new.  It's been around pretty much forever.  Even Plato expressed his concerns over it affecting the children.  Still, whenever a violent incident happens, someone is bound to blame the movies.  And given my frequent criticisms of the MPAA due to their lax views on violence, one might assume that I subscribe to this view.

Actually, I don't.

Personally, I think it's bullshit.  There are a lot of kids who watch action movies and play violent video games that wouldn't hurt a fly.  The research backs this up as well.  While there are some who claim that there is a connection, the evidence is weak and the research is seriously open to question.

What really makes me mad is that after shootings like the one at Newtown there are talking heads spouting this crap to people who for the most part don't know any better.  Then we get into this pointless discussion instead of tackling what really matters and what can really change things.  Even if Adam Lanza was just an evil sociopath who killed 27 people including 20 kids, it doesn't change the fact that the mental health system in this country is abysmal.  Some states don't even have one.  People who need help aren't getting it, and until we find a way to stop squabbling over politics and actually do something, we will keep having more events like this.

So why do I give a shit about the MPAA's hypocrisy?  Because seeing a guy get ripped in half ("Clash of the Titans" remake) is incredibly disturbing for a little kid.  I got panic attacks after seeing a man's arm blown off when I saw "The Jackal" in theaters.  Granted that was rated R, but so was "True Lies," which should have gotten a PG-13 rating.  The inconsistency causes so much confusion that many people have given up, and even more simply don't care.  What is the point of having a ratings system if all you're doing is screwing everyone over?

On a final note, I find the gossip magazines' attention to the tragedy vile and reprehensible.  While some bottom feeders may want to "know" the kids, pestering grieving parents about it is awful.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Mike's Musings: The Top 10 of 2012

I put this off for a while on the account that I haven't seen the last two Top 10 contenders.  I went to see "Les Miserables," but left early because the audience members were so rude (they brought their own food and didn't understand the meaning of the term "be quiet").  I didn't care for what I saw, but as a film critic, I'll see it again.  I saw "Django Unchained" last night, but I was tired so I want to see it again before I review it.  Because neither film is going to be on my Top Ten list, I'm free to write it.

So here goes...

10.  This Means War.  Admittedly, this movie went down a few notches because it wasn't as funny on repeat viewing.  Or maybe it was because the TV in the kitchen is so high that it became distancing.  Whatever the reason, "This Means War" was one of the year's most enjoyable surprises.

9.  21 Jump Street.  2012 was a great year for comedy, and although this isn't the funniest movie of the year, it's up there.  Channing Tatum was in his first of two excellent movies, and he shows that he is capable of getting a laugh.  Consistently funny and occasionally sidesplitting, this is one of four of the years great comedies.

8.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  I did not expect to like this movie.  I did, but it was so much more than an entertaining 107 minutes.  It was emotionally rich, realistic and ultimately uplifting human experience.  If there's any reason why this movie doesn't reach up higher its because Logan Lerman's performance is low-key to the point where it's a little hard to form a connection to him.  But the experience is worth it because we get to spend time with some truly interesting and real characters.

7.  The Cabin in the Woods.  When I first saw the trailer, I was intrigued.  But most trailers promise more than they deliver.  Not so with "The Cabin in the Woods."  It's a throwback to old style horror with plenty of gore and nudity.  At first.  Then things start getting really weird.  But with all the twists and surprises, director Drew Goddard never forgets to craft characters we can identify with and some decent scares.  Well done.

6.  Ted.  The most successful R-rated comedy of all time overwhelmingly deserves a place on my Top 10 list, albeit for a reason entirely different from its box office performance: it's funny.  It's very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very funny.  Not only is it a laugh-till-it-hurts comedy, it's also touching.  I believed in and I liked the characters.  Nuff said.

5.  Looper.  Rian Johnson's sci-fi thriller is definitely ambitious, and more importantly, successful.  It successfully navigates the philosophical trappings of time travel, and presents a compelling story and characters.  It's a movie that demands repeat viewings.

4.  Rise of the Guardians.  2012 was a great year for Chris Pine.  Not only did he appear in one of the funniest movies of the year, he appeared in the film with the most dazzling computer animation I've ever seen.  It's a good movie too, and a lot of that has to do with Pine's vocal performance.  It's a pity that there's no Oscar for voice acting, because Pine would win hands down.

3.  Brave.  The year's other big animated movie is better, albeit marginally, than "Rise of the Guardians" because it packs a slightly bigger emotional punch.  The growing bond between Merida and Elinor is not exactly new ground for a film, especially an animated one, but it is touching.  And the humor works too.

2.  Sinister.  I've only seen a few movies that scared the living hell out of me, and I can count them on one hand.  "Sinister" is one of them.  Move over Wes Craven, John Carpenter and Neil Marshall!  There's a new name in terror, and his name is Scott Derrickson!

1.  Magic Mike.  One of the downsides of being a film critic is hearing people scoff when you try to tell them to see a good movie.  This happens with essentially every foreign film, or independent film that is not directed by Wes Anderson.  "Magic Mike" is one of them.  Unfairly described as "the male stripper" movie, "Magic Mike" is so much more than that.  It's about the conflict between money and personal happiness (delivered in a way not usually addressed), and it features a truly eye-opening performance by Channing Tatum.  This is one of those movies that was stuck in my mind for hours after watching it.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Malcolm X

3/4

Starring: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman, Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee

Rated PG-13 for A Scene of Violence, and for Drugs and Some Language

Malcolm X was too important a figure for a film not to be made of his life.  Arguably the most influential civil rights activist next to Martin Luther King, Jr., the country would not be the same had it not been for the work of the man.

Born Malcolm Little in 1925, the future civil rights leader did not have a promising start in life.  He witnessed racial violence first hand, and his father was murdered.  He began his life working for a seedy bookie West Indian Archie (Lindo), then moving to hustling and thievery with his pal Shorty (Lee).  After his arrest, Malcolm meets a man named Baines (Hall), who opens his eyes to the pointless existence that he is living.  He converts to Islam and starts working for the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad (Freeman Jr.).  Now known as Malcolm X, he becomes a fiery and charismatic speaker, which frightens other NOI members like Baines, and eventually, Elijah Muhammad.

The performances are standout.  Denzel Washington is at his best when he's playing electrifying individuals such as Malcolm X.  It's a good performance, but there were times when he seems like Denzel Washington playing Malcolm X.  It's not the actor's fault, it's just that he's so recognizable.  Also good is Angela Bassett, who plays Malcolm's wife, Betty Shabazz.  She's good because she's mainly low-key.  Albert Hall and especially Al Freeman, Jr. impress as Malcolm's friends turned enemies.

Originally, this film was going to be directed by Norman Jewison, but he was replaced by Spike Lee (sources differ as to why...either it was Spike Lee who asked him and Jewison stepped aside willingly, or he faced pressure to have the film directed by a black filmmaker).  Lee directs this with a startling amount of control; the film always looks good and is well-acted.  There are some truly inventive shots, like when the camera precedes Malcolm and Shorty strolling along in their zoot suits.

At 3.5 hours, this is a very long movie, although it doesn't seem like it.  Actually, it could have used a bit more time (ten minutes or so would have done the trick, or at least another rewrite at the scripting stage).  This was Spike Lee's first big budget endeavor, and there are times when it's clear that he struggles to juggle everything.  There are subplots that are introduced and/or dropped ineffectively, and the editing is at times suspect as well.

Do I recommend the film?  Absolutely.  It's flawed, yes, but it is so important, and there is a plethora of good material here.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Altered

3/4

Starring: Adam Kaufman, Brad William Henke, Mike C. Williams, Paul McCarthy-Boyington, Catherine Mangan

Rated R for Strong Violence and Gore and for Pervasive Language

Like many movies, "Altered" is obviously flawed, but the end result is worth seeing.  It could be argued that the film is more of a psychological thriller than a straight horror film.  The plot is a little jerky early on, but the acting is solid and there's a consistent level of tension from the get-go.

A trio of rednecks, big Duke (Henke), dim bulb Otis (Williams), and loose cannon Cody (McCarthy-Boyington) are hunting in the woods at night carrying big guns and a harpoon.  They catch what they're looking for, but this makes them extremely nervous.  They decide to take what they've caught (it's still alive) to their old friend Wyatt (Kaufman).  He won't like it, but he'll know what to do.  Now the four of them, plus Wyatt's girlfriend Hope (Mangan), have a dangerous alien on their hands, which they can't kill because doing so will spell doom for the entire planet.

Most thrillers rely on a sense of claustrophobia to build tension.  "P2," "The Descent," and so on.  The logic is sound; many people get extremely uncomfortable or fearful in enclosed spaces.  Replicating that on screen is a definite way to get you audience on the edge of their seats (just thinking about the scene in "The Descent" where Sarah gets stuck in the hole gets me tense).  Director Eduardo Sanchez does a solid job of accomplishing this.  Save for the beginning and the end, the film takes place entirely in Wyatt's house.

The performances are quite good for a horror movie.  Leading the pack is Adam Kaufman.  I was blown away by his guest role on an episode of "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" (he stars in the season 2 premiere 'Wrong is Right').  Every emotion Wyatt gives, be it fear, sadness, or anger, rings true.  His cast members are also good, none of whom strike a wrong note (it's worth mentioning that Mike C. Williams played "Mike" in "The Blair Witch Project").  The only performance that doesn't work is Catherine Mangan, who is stiff as Hope.  Fortunately, she's not that bad and she doesn't have a lot of screen time.

The film is on solid ground in terms of plot, although Sanchez reveals his story obliquely; the characters know more than they're telling and only after a while do we begin to understand what's going on.  This sort of thing can work ("Donnie Darko" did something similar to masterful effect), but I felt a little frustrated.  Another rewrite or two would have made it work better.  And while there is atmosphere, there's not enough to ratchet up the tension to unbearable levels.

Still, for a horror movie that I got in a 4-pack at Best Buy, it's worth seeing.

Slither

3/4

Starring: Elizabeth Banks, Nathan Fillon, Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry, Tania Sauliner, Brenda James

Rated R for Strong Horror Violence and Gore, and Language

"Slither" is one of those horror movies that throws on the gobs of gore with a few yuks along the way.  While it's neither funny or scary enough to be truly great, it does have its charm.

In a small southern town, Starla Grant (Banks) lives with her husband Grant Grant (Rooker).  No one can understand why these two married except for her to escape a bad home and into money.  Especially not Sheriff Bill Pardy (Fillon), who has long loved her from afar.  One after Starla declines his pleas for some bedroom Pilates, Grant goes for a walk with Brenda (James), a girl who has loved him from afar.  There, he gets stung by what looks like a king sized larva.  Soon he's changing: first it's rashes and boils, then it's large growths that make him look like a very inbred squid.  Of course, it's not long before all hell breaks loose and the townspeople start becoming zombies.

The acting is effective.  Elizabeth Banks is good as the hick woman.  She takes it a little too seriously (not enough ditziness), but if there's any actress who knows how to be funny, it's Banks (her "marriage is a sacred bond" speech to a mutated Grant is pretty funny).  Nathan Fillon is the best of the bunch.  Bill Pardy is extremely likable and I felt for him in his feelings about Starla.  I'm not sure that that's something that writer/director James Gunn intended, but it works.  Michael Rooker is okay, but apart from the first few minutes, he's mainly a special effect that speaks through surrogate.  Gregg Henry is meant to be comic relief as the freaked-out mayor, but he's actually kind of annoying.  Tania Sauliner is okay as a survivor who received visions of the creature's plan during her attack.

James Gunn got his start in Troma-ish movies, and that doesn't surprise me.  Strictly speaking I have never seen a "true" Troma movie, but I've seen enough movies that reference them to have some idea of what they are.  It's cheesy, yes, but it's a fun kind of cheesy.  It's closer to "Tale of the Mummy" or "Anaconda" than to "The Man with the Iron Fists."

The problem is that there are a few dead spots, particularly in the beginning.  At 95 minutes, "Slither" is relatively skinny, but Gunn could have shaved a few off here and there to make it a leaner and funnier movie. Adding a little more humor wouldn't have hurt, although there are plenty of in-jokes.

It's a close call whether or not to recommend it, but I liked it the first time I saw it and I have an affection for it now.  There's my answer.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Mike's Musings: The Bottom 10 of 2012

Another year, another Bottom 10 list.  I saw more movies in theaters this year so the movies on both my Top and Bottom list are more appropriately chosen.  My best friend was skeptical that I put "Bridesmaids" on my Top 10 list last year.  I would have been too, but I didn't see enough movies.  Ditto for the Bottom 10 list.  All movies on this list have a 1/4 or less.

Looking back, there are more 1.5/4 movies and below, so it feels like there were more bad movies than good ones, despite everyone's beliefs to the contrary.  I share those views; this was a great year for movies.  Keep in mind, however, that 0 to 1.5 encompasses 4 ratings, while the Top 10 (3.5/4) encompasses 2.  So really it's not so bad.

Enough prattling on...

(Dis)Honorable Mention: "Lawless." Honestly, I can't remember why I gave this a 1.5/4 rather than a 1/4...in my mind it seems to be worse than the Madea movie, but I'm not going to revisit them to figure out why.  This movie makes zero sense and it wastes the powerful acting skills of Tom Hardy and forces him to create one of the year's most annoying characters.  Bottom of the barrel indeed.

10.  "Madea's Witness Protection."  Tyler Perry has a lot of fans in the black community (which isn't surprising since that's who he makes the movies for).  He also has a lot of fans in the gay community, which is surprising (maybe it's because the lead character is Tyler Perry dressed in drag).  I've only seen one movie with the salty Madea, and based on the evidence, I have no desire to see any more.  It's badly acted, messily plotted and only contains a few laughs.

9.  "Total Recall."  After viewing "Underworld," I didn't think that Len Wiseman had much talent as a filmmaker.  It was corny but incoherent.  He appeared to believe he was making a music video rather than a feature film.  But nothing prepared me for the unglorious badness of his "Total Recall" remake.  Who could think that a movie that had so much going on could be so boring?  This is a total waste of $200 million.  I was glad that it failed at the box office because then we wouldn't get a sequel, but somehow Universal selected Wiseman to helm the reboot to "The Mummy" franchise (which I like a hell of a lot better than the original "Total Recall").  Sob!

8.  "Rock of Ages."  I love musicals.  I really do.  Even a mediocre musical like "Joyful Noise" is something I can enjoy (although I haven't seen the notorious "Xanadu").   But "Rock of Ages" is a dead zone.  It's lifeless and a complete bore.  Whether it's because Adam Shankman didn't open it up for the film version or because, by the nature of its setting, it was unfilmable, "Rock of Ages" is a "Bore of Ages."

7.  "Hope Springs."  I never thought it was possible.  Unless she decided to appear in a Wes Anderson movie (she did provide a voice for his animated kids film "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," which I haven't seen), there's no way I could have predicted that Meryl Streep could have ended up on the Bottom 10 list.  It's not her fault.  She's wonderful as always.  But she must have misread the script, which is superficial and not intriguing enough for a direct-to-DVD movie.  Streep is one of the best actresses who ever lived, but not even she can save this movie.  As they say, everyone makes mistakes.

6.  "John Carter."  Looking back on it, it's not hard to see why Disney thought "John Carter" would work: it's a beloved book series (and has sequels), and director Andrew Adamson has made a number of classic movies for Pixar.  So far so good, but they missed out on two important things that sunk the project: a coherent script and a lead who can act.  Taylor Kitsch looks good, but despite creating a supposedly memorable character in the TV show "Friday Night Lights," he can't act.  No wonder this turned into one of the biggest cinematic bombs in history.  Remember, Hollywood, visual appeal may be important, but it's not everything.

5.  "The Cold Light of Day."  As glad as I am that this not a remake, sequel or based on a book/comic book/toy/TV show, it might have been better if it was.  This movie sucks.  The only good thing about it is a slumming Sigourney Weaver, and it's too low profile for anyone to worry about "Man of Steel."

4.  "Hit & Run." Dax Shepard must be a really nice guy in real life.  He's engaged to Kristen Bell, one of Hollywood's rising stars, and he got a bunch of people to agree to appear in this stinker.  Actually, this was a "just for fun" movie with his friends, since half the budget went to getting the rights for the music.  If only that money went into the script.  At first it's almost hypnotically weird, but then you realize it's not going anywhere at all.

3.  "The Man with the Iron Fists."  I'm not a big B-movie fan.  It takes a really silly bad movie ("Texas Chainsaw 3D" for example) for me to enjoy it.  But "The Man with the Iron Fists" is one of those cheesy B-movies that Quentin Tarantino based his overrated "Kill Bill" saga off of.  It's not my thing, but that's not why it sucks.  It's badly acted, senseless and ineptly filmed.  That's a problem that is not par for the course with these movies.

2.  "Moonrise Kingdom."  I really don't understand Wes Anderson's appeal.  I like to think that I have a fairly wide range of humor, but this is comatose.  Dramatic pauses are fine for some films, but not for every joke.  A lot of people commented on the emotional ring of truth between the two lovebirds.  I'm wondering if  saw the same movie.  First off, Anderson's style is so distancing that it's impossible to feel for anyone.  Second of all, the two lovebirds are bizarre caricatures with no resemblance to how normal people would act, making it impossible to relate to them.  And on top of that the film is just plain boring and pretentious.

1. "Wanderlust."  What does it say about a film that is less funny than a movie by Wes Anderson?  Words fail me about "Wanderlust."  You have Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd, two able comedians, and the creators of "Role Models."  How could this go wrong?  But it does go wrong.  Very wrong.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Texas Chainsaw 3D

2.5/4

Starring: Alexandra Daddario, Tremaine 'Trey Songz' Neverson, Tania Raymonde, Keram Malicki-Sanchez, Shaun Sipos

Rated R for Strong Grisly Violence and Language Throughout

"Texas Chainsaw 3D" is hilarious.  Unless it's a "Scream" movie, that's a bad thing for a horror movie.  But the film is so openly comic and so silly that it had to be on purpose.  In fact, one could argue that this film belongs more in the "comedy" genre rather than "horror."

Heather (Daddario) is about to go on vacation to New Orleans with her boyfriend Ryan (Neverson) and friends Nikki (Raymonde) and Kenny (Malicki-Sanchez).  Shortly before their departure, Heather gets a letter saying that she inherited a house from her grandmother.  Strange, since all of her grandparents are long dead.  Still, she goes to claim her inheritance with her friends tagging along (plus a hitchhiker named Darryl (Sipos)).  What she doesn't know is that the huge mansion comes with a very unwanted occupant: a chainsaw wielding monster who uses the faces of his victims to create masks.  And Heather and her friends would make nice additions.

This film is so funny that I know that director John Lussenhop (who previously made the stylish "Takers") had to be in on it. The story is beyond ridiculous, and the script requires the characters to do some amazingly stupid things (as horror movie characters are want to do),.,  But these people are so dense that they become more like Bill & Ted rather than Sidney Prescott.

The acting isn't anything special.  Alexandrea Daddario is okay as the heroine, but doesn't have much in the way of dramatic acting.  Tremaine Neverson is okay as the token black guy.  Tania Raymonde is hot but apart from her husky voice, there's nothing to distinguish her from a random scream queen.  Keram Malicki-Sanchez is worth mentioning because kids who grew up in the 90's  will remember him as the curious alien named Zardip for those cheesy videos they showed in class.

Lussenhop finds the correct balance between horror and comedy.  It's never too fatuous nor too dark, and a lot of the funny scenes really land.  There are more one-liners than in most action movies today, and I'm pretty sure that they were intentional.

The film gets off to a rocky start, although there are a few very effective jump scenes here and there.  The film's final act rests on motivation that can only be described as "poor."  There are too many problems for me to recommend it outright, but for those who love cheese and who have a twisted sense of humor, this is kinda fun.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

In Dreams

2/4

Starring: Annette Bening, Aidan Quinn, Paul Guilfoyle, Robert Downey, Jr.

Rated R for Violence/Terror and Language

Like "The Bodyguard," "Greedy," and "Firelight," "In Dreams" is one of those movies from my childhood that I was intrigued by but never got the chance to watch until now.  I remember being especially interested because news reports warned parents not to take their kids to this movie (although I can't understand why...there's nothing here that doesn't occur in other, better R-rated movies).

Claire Cooper (Bening) has had strange dreams all her life.  Lately, however, the dreams have begun to frighten her because she sees clues about the serial killer who is abducting and killing young girls, although the clues only make sense after they find the bodies.  She begins to think that she has a psychic link to the killer (even she admits this is very silly).  But when her own daughter becomes a victim, Claire's connection to the killer grows stronger and he begins to possess her.  Now she has to find him before he kills again.

Putting it bluntly, this film is a fantastic looking mess.  The film just looks awesome.  It's almost worth seeing just to look at all the cool images that director Neil Jordan has constructed (generously helped by acclaimed cinematographer Darius Khondji and production designer Nigel Phelps).  If only the story equaled it...

As silly as it is, the premise has promise.  But unfortunately it's the same old story: good premise, bad execution.  The film rests on the connection between Claire and the killer, but it's tenuously made.  The rules of how this works aren't clearly established, and it isn't until the end that they begin to make sense, and even then they are broken.

I like Annette Bening.  She's usually an impeccable actress, whether it is in a goofy movie like "Mars Attacks!" or a mysterious woman in "The Siege" (I thought she was a little shrill in "The Kids Are All Right," although apparently I'm the only one who thinks so since she got her fourth Oscar nomination for it).  But she's just not very convincing here, going over-the-top on at least three occasions.  This is partly due to this script, which is lacking, but Bening isn't blameless either.  Aidan Quinn has nothing to do but play her worrying husband.  Paul Guilfoyle fades into the background.  Robert Downey Jr. is clearly coasting through his performance as Vivian, the killer.  You'd think that everyone would want to do good work for respected director Neil Jordan.

Unlike many people, I am not the world's biggest fan of "The Crying Game."  It's a well-made movie, but not particularly involving.  Jordan does have an amazing visual sense (this can be seen in "Interview with the Vampire").  This is a very weak movie from someone who has made acclaimed movies like "Michael Collins" and "Mona Lisa."  It doesn't always make sense and it drags in the middle.

Pity, because it just looks so good!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Shattered Glass

3/4

Starring: Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloe Sevigny, Melanie Lynskey, Hank Azaria, Steve Zahn

Rated PG-13 for Language, Sexual References, and Brief Drug Use

We take our news as truth.  The stories we read in USA Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and so on as fact, although the writer spins it the way he or she wants it.  Occasionally, a mistake is made, as in the name is misspelled or a fact is wrong (such as when Ryan Lanza was originally reported to be the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, when it was in fact his brother Adam...okay, so that's not minor, but you get my point).  The paper then publishes a retraction and issues an apology.  Not much harm done usually.

With the case of Stephen Glass, it's a little different.  Glass was a hotshot writer at The New Republic, which is "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One."  He didn't just fudge facts or use sources that were unreliable.  He completely made up parts of or all of 27 out of the 41 stories he wrote for the magazine.

As presented through the eyes of writer/director Billy Ray (based on the article by Buzz Bissinger), it's not hard to understand how Stephen Glass (Christensen) got away with it.  He's probably the least likely to do something like this.  He's shy, self-deprecating but also a charmer.  The people around the office regard him as a kid brother or a puppy.  His lies begin to catch up with him when the editor, Michael Kelly (Azaria), is fired and replaced by Chuck Lane (Sarsgaard).  This creates a lot of tension around the office because Michael was warm and defensive of his writers while Chuck is cold and unfeeling.

Stephen has just written a piece called "Hack Heaven," where a teenage kid gets a lucrative deal after hacking a big tech company's website.  A writer at a fledgling website, Adam Penenberg (Zahn), is doing a follow-up piece to this story, but he can't find any of the sources that Stephen used.  Naturally this arises suspicions, and that's just the start of it.  Initially, Chuck is on Stephen's side, but the deeper he digs, the less he believes it.

For a $6 million budget, the film boasts a strong cast, giving weight to my belief that when you've got a good script, you don't need to throw a lot of money at it to get the big stars.  The best of the lot is, surprisingly, Hayden Christensen.  Christensen received a lot of flak for his performance as Anakin Skywalker, and quite frankly, it's not hard to see why.  He was stiff as a wooden board in "Episode II" but was better in "Episode III."  As Stephen Glass, he shines.  He makes Stephen into someone you want to hug and protect, and that's exactly why his performance works.  The other main actor, Peter Sarsgaard, is uneven.  When he's cold and aloof, he matches Christensen.  However, when he lets all the emotion come out, he's Peter Sarsgaard (a good performance like always, but we no longer see Chuck Lane).  The other actors are good, but special mention has to go to Hank Azaria and Steve Zahn.  Both are known for playing comic roles, and they excel in dramatic performances.

The film is terrific until the final 10 or 15 minutes.  It doesn't implode by any means, but it descends into hard-to-swallow melodrama that it doesn't earn.  Additionally, Chuck's realization that Stephen didn't just make up the "Hack Heaven" story but made up most of his work is poorly motivated.

Still, there is an amazing amount of verisimilitude in the way that Billy Ray tells it.  I believed that this is how a real newsroom looked and how people acted there.  Ray avoids sexing up or Hollywoodize the movie.  Too much, actually.  This is an emotionally cool movie, which is distancing (the same was true of his next, and thus far last, film as a director, "Breach").

All in all, this is a fascinating movie with terrific performances.