Monday, February 25, 2013

City Island

3/4

Starring: Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, Ezra Miller, Steven Strait, Emily Mortimer, Dominik Garcia-Lorido

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content, Smoking and Language

The first time I watched "City Island," I didn't like it.  I said in my review (in general), "the characters in this film do three things: smoke, lie and talk in low gravelly voices."  But a number of the scenes and characters got stuck in my head, and after seeing the trailer again and reading reviews, I decided to give it another shot. I'm glad I did.  "City Island" is a lot of fun.

The Rizzos are a dysfunctional family living in the Bronx.  Vince (Garcia) is a blue-collar prison guard who is so ashamed of his love for acting that he lies about taking an acting class to his wife and says that he's going to a poker game.  Naturally, his wife Joyce (Margulies), doesn't believe this for a second, and thinks he's having an affair.  His daughter Vivian (Garcia-Lorido) is not in college as her family thinks she is; instead, she's working as a stripper.  And their son, Vince Jr. (Miller) harbors a secret love for big women, like his neighbor across the street.  Then there's Tony (Strait), an ex-con who is Vince's son from an affair long before he met Joyce (which, I might add, he hasn't told anyone about).  Throughout the course of this movie, these secrets will force the characters into tighter and tighter moral quandaries.

Although it may seem like I have given away half the plot, I have not.  This is all set-up.  The meat of the movie is establishing the characters and how they interact with each other, and how they deal with these secrets (which most characters don't know about).

If you name an actor to play a blue collar Joe Blo, chances are you'd probably think of Robert DeNiro (who is mentioned by name in this movie) rather than Andy Garcia.  Within the first few minutes, it becomes clear that Garcia is the only man who could have done this role.  Garcia's range is limited ("When a Man Loves a Woman," anyone?), but this has to be one of his best performances, if not the best (I'll have to watch "The Man from Elysian Fields" again).  Garcia is so good that we can not only see ourselves in him, but our parents as well.  Equally strong is Julianna Margulies, who deserves more fame than she actually gets.  As the acid-tongued Joyce, Margulies tosses off some biting lines with relish, but also gives the character a vulnerable side.  Ezra Miller's character is essentially superfluous, but he's so good and plays such an interesting character that he earns every second of his screen time.  Dominik Garcia-Delgado (Garcia's real-life daughter) is also good, but underused.  Steven Strait is uneven, but usually effective.  The best performance goes to Emily Mortimer, who plays Vince's bubbly acting partner Molly.  It's the knid of role that she does so well and it's always a joy to see her on screen.

What sets this film apart is its specificity and inventiveness.  The characters are real, but the details that writer/director Raymond de Felitta uses to paint them with are unique.  I don't think I've ever seen a teenage boy's fetish for fat women treated in such an honest way (frankly, I don't recall seeing a teenage boy who loves fat women period).  Also having a ring of truth is Vince's audition for a DeNiro/Scorcese movie (no cameos by either of them, although you can bet de Felitta asked).  This stuff is both inventive and realistic, and de Felitta knows just how to tweak it to make it funny while still being honest.

The film is curiously edited.  de Felitta interweaves all of the plotlines together, but it's not seamless.  The edits are at times jarring, but only mildly so.  And at 143 minutes, it's a little long.

Still, this is a movie that is worth seeing again and again, and it will likely grow on you.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Last King of Scotland

2.5/4

Starring: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Simon McBurney, David Oyelowo, Gillian Anderson, Kerry Washington

Rated R for Some Strong Violence and Gruesome Images, Sexual Content and Language

In a world where media is free (or at least the rumor mill is), everyone in the news has to be a showman.  Idi Amin understood that.  He was a charismatic leader; he had the presence to draw one's attention simply by standing there. and the deep dramatic voice helped a lot too.  He also had a sense of humor and loved to have fun.  Of course, that doesn't mean much once people realize that you're killing everyone who speaks against you.

Nicholas Garrigan (McAvoy) is a young Scotsman who has just graduated from medical school.  Eager to escape the shadow of his father, he spins a globe and decides to go the first place his finger lands on (after Canada).  In no short order, he has found himself in Uganda working at a clinic.  That's when he first sees the new leader of the African nation, Idi Amin (Whitaker).  He's immediately captivated by the magnetic man, and after he patches up Amin's hand, he discovers that the feeling is mutual.  So much so that Amin invites Nicholas to be his personal physician and, eventually, trusted adviser.  Nicholas is having the time of his life, although some, like a fellow doctor at the clinic (Anderson) and a member of the British government (McBurney) tell him to be wary.  But the more he discovers, the more he realizes that he has to get out of Uganda.  But being the President's right hand man has as many downsides as perks.

The acting is consistently strong across the board.  Forest Whitaker gives a terrific performance.  Amin is charismatic and likable, but he holds a frightening capacity for violence.  Whitaker is able to handle these 180-degree personality changes without stumbling.  He's not as forceful of a presence when he's in one of his explosive tantrums, but never mind.  James McAvoy is also very good.  This was his next role after coming to the world's attention as Mr. Tumnus in "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe," although he wasn't a star yet.  McAvoy succeeds in a role that many others have failed at: playing an everyman who can compete with a force of nature title character.  Idi Amin is an electrifying individual, but Nicholas is the one we relate to.  At no point does McAvoy let Nicholas fade into the background; we're with him every step of the way.  Simon McBurney and especially Gillian Anderson are good in supporting roles.  They've seen people like Amin before, and despite the people's hopes for a better future, they know what's coming.

Kevin MacDonald broke into the film world with his overrated "One Day in September" (for which he won an Oscar).  But the film that really put his name on the map was the part documentary/part re-enactment of a climbing disaster, "Touching the Void."  "The Last King of Scotland" was his first narrative film, and it's a solid debut, but the script runs into problems during its second half.  Characters are undeveloped (specifically the romance between Nicholas and Kay (Washington), one of Amin's wives), the plot becomes too murky and some sequences are mishandled.

All in all, I can't recommend this movie, although there are definitely some aspects worth taking note of.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Basic Instinct

3/4

Starring: Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, Jeanne Tripplehorn, George Dzundza

The version being reviewed is the unrated one.  For the record, the theatrical cut was rated R for Strong Violence and Sexuality, and for Drug Use and Language

"See, the problem is that God gives men a brain and a penis, but only enough blood to run one at a time."-Robin Williams
That's Detective Nick Curran's problem.  He's so infatuated with Catherine Tramell that thinks that he can outsmart a killer who has always been one step ahead.

The film opens with a gruesome murder.  A man is having a night of rough sex with a beautiful blonde woman.  Things get kinkier when she ties his hands up against the bedposts.  That's when she grabs an icepick and stabs him in a frenzy.  Curran (Douglas) is on the case, and the woman who was with him last night is Catherine Tramell (Stone), a wealthy inheritor and author.  Incidentally, she wrote a book about the crime that she is being questioned about.  The evidence against her is weak, but Curran believes that she's guilty.  He gets close to her to get her to slip up, but he ends up falling for her.  And who is the killer, really?

For such a shameless mix of sex and violence, the acting is surprisingly strong; this is not a porno.  Michael Douglas gives a solid performance as the obsessed detective, although this is not his best performance.  Sharon Stone hit the big time after playing Catherine Tramell, and it's not hard to see why.  She's beautiful, intelligent and dangerous.  Stone is able to use her eyes, voice and body to become sizzling hot.  Douglas and Stone have chemistry, although they don't catch fire.  Jeanne Tripplehorn, in her film debut, is very good as Nick's therapist and sometimes lover (she violates some serious ethical boundaries, but this isn't a movie where this sort of thing applies).  George Dzundza supplies solid support as Nick's partner and friend Gus.

"Basic Instinct" is an erotic thriller, and few other directors are as brave to show such frank depictions of sexuality in their films than Paul Verhoeven (his next film was "Showgirls," which instead of having the repeat success of this movie bombed majorly and effectively killed any chance of the NC-17 being a marketable rating).  The sex is really, really, really hot, and the violence is super gory.  Verhoeven knows what kind of movie he's making, and what his audience expects from it.  The film had to be submitted to the MPAA to get an R rating, which Verhoeven was prepared for.  He shot the sex scene between Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas from dozens of different angles so he could be free to edit it in a number of ways.

Which leads us the the film's most infamous scene: the leg crossing scene.  Not much is visible, but as we all know, suggestion is more powerful then actually seeing it.  Interestingly enough, there is a bit of controversy between Sharon Stone and Paul Verhoeven.  Some sources say that Stone was all for it, while others say that she was betrayed.  Either way, it does nothing to diminish the scene's effectiveness.  And it helps set up Catherine's character, so it has that going for it too.

As mindblowingly sexy as it is controversial, "Basic Instinct" earns its reputation for being hot as hell and a good thriller (although an imperfect one).

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Bad Moon

1.5/4

Starring: Mariel Hemingway, Michael Pare, Mason Gamble, Primo

Rated R for Horror Violence and Gore, Brief Language, and a Scene of Sexuality

More so than Roger Ebert, James Berardinelli is my favorite film critic.  I first recall reading his review of "L.A. Confidential" (a movie I didn't like) and found him to be one of those wannabe hoitey toitey critics than only loves the popular movies.  But the more I read, the more I respected his opinion, and am now a devoted reader of Reelviews.net.  It is thanks to him that I've seen some truly good movies, like "Once Were Warriors," "The War Zone," and "Before Sunrise" (I've also seen some movies I didn't like even though he gave them positive reviews, although none were awful).  But his strong writing capabilities sometimes, in what I wholeheartedly would be his honest opinion, backfire.  What really turned me onto his site is his vicious tearing into of a number of bad movies, like "Ghost in the Machine" or my personal favorite, "The Mangler."  "Bad Moon" is among those elite reviews that is so funny that I just had to see the movie.  Sadly, while "The Mangler" was cheesy fun, "Bad Moon" is simply dull.

On a research trip, photojournalist Ted (Pare) gets into a hot encounter with his squeeze, Marjorie (Johanna Marlowe Lebovitz).  While they're practicing their bedroom acrobatics, the rest of the people in the camp run away at the sound of a roar.  Their refusal to heed this warning sign means that Marjorie is devoured by a werewolf while Ted escapes with a bite (although it appears to be a slash from a paw).  Back in the states, he goes to stay with his loving sister Janet (Hemingway) and nephew Brett (Gamble).  And their protective German Shepard, Thor (Primo).  Of course, his new life has a hitch: he tends to grow fur and muscle, and slaughter everything in sight.

"Bad Moon" is dumb, although that descriptor is almost a requirement of the genre.  Horror movies rely on characters doing stupid things because if they had a single brain cell, the audience wouldn't get what they're paying to see: lots and lots of violence and even more blood, guts and gore.

Unfortunately, blatant stupidity isn't just an affliction of the characters.  The film itself is stupid.  There are more continuity goofs here than in any movie I can think of, and even more obvious mistakes in science and common sense.  For example, the dog Thor quickly becomes suspicious of poor Ted.  Now, I get that for the movie to work this is essential, and that German Shepherds are really smart dogs (they tie Poodles for the smartest dogs in the world after the Border Collie), but the way this is handled is extremely silly.  Thor thinks like a human being, not a dog.

The acting is weak.  At best, Mariel Hemingway is adequate, although such moments are rare.  Michael Pare sounds a lot like Eric Roberts, only without the talent.  And Mason Gamble lacks polish (like he did as the title character in "Dennis the Menace").  The only one who gives a legitimate performance is Primo the dog, who is excellent except for the times when the script forces him to do some amazingly stupid things (I think that if he could read, he would have turned the role down).

The special effects are no better.  The gore is cheesy and the werewolf, when he appears, looks ridiculous.  Not only does he look like a shaggy dog with weird eyes that can walk (not well) on two legs, his movements are so stiff I thought it was a really bad set of animatronics (it's actually stuntman Ken Kirzinger).

Through the trifecta of bad acting, bad writing and bad storytelling, "Bad Moon" earns its title.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bullet to the Head

2.5/4

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Jason Momoa, Sarah Shahi, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Christian Slater, Jon Seda

Rated R for Strong Violence, Bloody Images, Language, Some Nudity and Brief Drug Use

When we go see a movie, we expect to be told a story.  Lots of action is fine (in fact, it's encouraged), but the audience expects more than a series of shootouts.  Sadly, that's what happens with "Bullet to the Head."  As the great critic Dustin Putman pointed out, "Bullet to the Head" is aptly titled: nearly every scene where a gun is pulled, someone gets put down with a...bullet to the head.

James Bonomo, aka Jimmy Bobo (Stallone), has just finished a hit with his partner Louis (Seda), and they're waiting at a bar to get payment from the man who hired them.  Little do they know that they're about to be had.  Another killer, the nastier than nasty Keegan (Momoa), is there waiting for them.  He expertly dispatches Louis, leaving Jimmy to vow revenge.  As fortune would have it, Keegan is also responsible for the murder of cop Taylor Kwon's (Kang) partner.  At Kwon's suggestion, they join forces.

This could be the set up for a great revenge movie, had the film taken the time to develop a decent plot.  But as the characters keep saying, it's a game of finding who the next target is and the hunt is on again.  There's little to no variation on this theme.  It's search, interrogate, kill, repeat.

What saves the film is the fact that Walter Hill has style (imagine what the result would be if the studio had handed things over to Len Wiseman...now there's a scary thought!).  The film looks good, and the action scenes are put together with panache, even if Hill cuts a little too frenetically at times.

The acting is decent enough for the film's purposes.  Stallone proves that he can still be a badass.  Sung Kang does his best not to get drowned out by Stallone, but it's a futile effort.  He's good, but lack's Stallone's considerable presence.  Another problem is that they don't have chemistry; Jimmy and Kwon don't click in an interesting way.  Hill tries to make the film into a sort of gritty buddy movie, but it doesn't work for this reason.  Jason Momoa is fierce enough (he looks like Casper Van Dien circa "Sleepy Hollow" on steroids), although talking ruins the effect since he sounds like Josh Hartnett for some reason.

This isn't a terrible movie.  It's moderately engaging and has some pretty good action scenes (there's a fight with fire-axes).  It's just a little too thin on story and a little too repetitive to recommend except for the most undemanding viewer.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Side Effects

2.5/4

Starring: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum

Rated R for Sexuality, Nudity, Violence and Language

"Side Effects" is what happens when the screenwriter and director are not on the same page (ironically, this is the third collaboration between writer Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Sodebergh...the other two being "The Informant!" and "Contagion," respectively).  Burns's script is a cross between "Primal Fear" and "Basic Instinct," while Sodebergh thinks the film is more cerebral and an examination of guilt and responsibility.  The result is a film that, while never uninteresting, doesn't really work.

Emily Taylor (Mara) is feeling a mixture of happiness and anxiety.  Her husband Martin (Tatum) is about to be released from a 3 year prison term for insider trading.  Both love each other very much, and are determined to work together to get back on their feet.  That's when Emily's clinical depression sets in, and after she drives her car into a brick wall, she's put on antidepressants by a kind doctor, Jonathan Banks (Law).  Nothing seems to work until she tries the new wonder drug, Ablixa, which helps considerably, although it has some serious side effects.

Because "Side Effects" is, at its essence, a thriller, I must be vague.  There are a number of twists and turns in the plot, as their must be, but because of the disconnect between Burns and Sodebergh, they come across as clumsy and poorly-motivated.  To it's credit, the film starts out strong.  The characters are real and well-acted, and the film doesn't talk down to its audience.  It's when it moves into thriller territory that the film runs into trouble.

Like in every Sodebergh movie, the acting is exceptional.  Whether it's Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich," or  Channing Tatum in "Magic Mike," Sodebergh has proven himself to be a master director of actors.  Rooney Mara, in her first major film since her Oscar-nominated performance in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" remake, is terrific as the depressed Emily.  It's a complicated role, although I can't say more than that.  Jude Law continues his ride back to fame with another strong performance, despite being given an underwritten role.  Banks is a man who simply wants to do the right thing.  Catherine Zeta-Jones is perfectly mysterious as Emily's last psychiatrist.  Channing Tatum gives another outstanding performance as Martin as well.

It's about halfway through the film that the film turns into a mystery/thriller, and while it never falls flat on its face, it stumbles quite a bit.  The lead character's motivations are weak for what amounts to an obsession, and there are far too many twists in the final reel.  It never seems to want to end.

Supposedly, this is going to be Steven Sodebergh's final film (although he now has a movie for ShoTime in the can about Liberace and his lover).  If so, which I doubt for some reason, he will be missed.  "Side Effects" isn't the swan song we'd hope for, but it's a respectable final project from one of Hollywood's most interesting filmmakers.

Sin City

3.5/4

Starring: Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Rosario Dawson, Powers Boothe, Nick Stahl, Jessica Alba, Devin Aoki, Elijah Wood, Carla Gugino, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Madsen, Alexis Bledel

Rated R for Sustained Strong Stylized Violence, Nudity and Sexual Content including Dialogue

More than anything else, "Sin City" is a comic book brought to life.  Oh sure, comic books are slapped onto film as fast as Hollywood can buy the rights.  But never before, or since, has there been a comic book movie like this.  Directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller (who authored the comics upon which the film is based) used the comic panels as storyboards.

The film tells three stories: two in the middle that are squeezed in the middle of a third.  The first (and last) involves Hartigan (Willis), a cop with a bad heart on the verge of retirement.  Before he turns in his badge at the end of his shift, he wants to close one last case: the son of a powerful senator has a habit of kidnapping and raping young girls.  Just as he is closing in, he is betrayed by his partner (Madsen).  Next up is Marv (Rourke in his comeback role), who wakes up from a bender next to a dead hooker.  Since Goldie (King), as she was named, was the only person in a long while to be nice to him, he decides to get revenge, come hell or high water.  The fact that he was framed only encourages him.  Finally, there's Dwight (Owen), who inadvertently starts a turf war between the cops and the hookers of Old Town after he saves a waitress from her sleazy boyfriend (played with over-the-top malice by Del Toro).

Needless to say, these aren't pleasant people.  And they're not the only ones.  You've got a corrupt senator (Boothe), a powerful and corrupt Cardinal (Rutger Hauer), a sexy lesbian parole officer (Gugino, who clearly has no qualms about appearing on screen sans clothing), a 19 year old stripper (Alba, who, unlike Gugino, does not appear without clothing), a creepy cannibal (Wood), and a hooker who has a love of all things sharp and shiny (Aoki).

The film's biggest strength is its visual sense.  It looks exactly like a moving graphic novel.  It has the same visual and storytelling sensibilities, and the movements of the characters and their surroundings are slightly animated (I think).  In movies like "Sherlock Holmes," this adds a cheese factor.  Here, it makes them seem more like comics come to life.  It's literally a feast for the eyes.  But not the stomach.  This film is extremely violent to the point where an NC-17 would have been appropriate.

Directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have absolute control over the material.  The only flaws are that the acting by Alba, Bledel and King is a little stiff, and the visual effects aren't convincing in one brief clip and the final scene.  Still, this is a great rush of adrenaline and testosterone.  Definitely can't wait for the sequel.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Identity Thief

0/4

Rated R for Sexual Content and Language

Starring: Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy, Amanda Peet, Robert Patrick, Genesis Rodriguez, T.I., Morris Chestnut, John Cho

There is a scene about halfway through this movie where the two lead characters, mild mannered twit Sandy Patterson (Bateman) and Diana (McCarthy), the whale who stole his identity, are in the woods and invaded by snakes.  I was praying that the snakes would kill them both and the movie would be over.  Alas, it was not to be.

"Identity Thief" is a shoo-in for the worst movie of 2013.  I hope there isn't one that top it, because I don't know if I can take another movie this bad.  Hell, it's even worse than "Killer Elite," and that was two years ago.  The jokes aren't funny (the funniest joke in the trailer is replaced with a lamer one liner), the characters are annoying, and the film takes a direction in the reprehensible at the end.

Sandy, as we learn, is a pushover for his obnoxious boss (Jon Faverau in a truly annoying performance).  His boss forces Sandy to give him outrageous bonuses at the expense of everyone else.  So he and his co-workers decide to form their own compay.  But just before he starts his new job, he runs into a whole heap of trouble too tedious to explain.  In short, as we know from the trailer, his identity has been stolen by a woman named Diana in Florida (Sandy has never been there).  Since these cases are so tied up with red tape and a bad credit rating would look bad to clients, Sandy decides to go down to Florida to bring the behemoth back to Colorado.  Needless to say, Diana doesn't come easily.

I have long since grown sick of Jason Bateman.  When he first hit it big, his meek, self-deprecating schtick was amusing.  But Bateman does the exact same thing in every role, and it's gotten really annoying.  There is evidence here that he can play a role straight, so either he should do that, or retire to Lifetime.  Melissa McCarthy, on the other hand, can be funny; "Bridesmaids" proved that.  She certainly gives it her all, and there are times when she manages to get a grin.  But the material she's been given is so awful that there's little that she can do.  Poor Amanda Peet, who is also talented in comedy, has nothing to do but play that worried wife back home.  Robert Patrick is surprisingly bland as the bounty hunter on their tail.  Genesis Rodriguez is certainly sexy and badass, but she suffers from the same syndrome that everyone else does: bad material.

The film was directed by Seth Gordon, who made the surprise hit "Horrible Bosses" two years ago.  I found that to be sporadically amusing, but not nearly as funny as everyone else said it was (in my opinion, "Bad Teacher" was a lot funnier and better made).  Still, that movie could at least boast some amusing jokes.  "Identity Theft," on the other hand, is just awful.  Gordon can't generate a decent joke if his life depended on it.

But what really sinks this movie is the fact that it turns into a buddy comedy.  Not only does it not work, it's reprehensible.  There are a lot of people who are victims of identity theft, and it can be a very frustrating and financially draining experience.  Turning this movie into a mismatched buddy movie is just ugly.  McCarthy does okay work here, but that doesn't save it.

This is the worst movie I've ever seen in a theater.  It has only about, oh, a minute of mildly amusing material (the best of which, I might add, is too weak for even a January release).  Everything else is garbage  Unlike other zero star movies, like "Soul Plane" or "Ben & Arthur," I didn't have the luxury of pausing the movie when the pain got bad enough.  I had to sit through all of the way-too-long two hours.  The only reason why I didn't walk out is so that I could warn you, dear readers,  to avoid this movie like the plague.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Top Gun

3/4

Starring: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerritt, Val Kilmer, Michael Ironside, James Tolkan

Rated PG for Action, Language and Some Sexuality (I guess...)

"Top Gun" defines the word "cool."  The stars are hotter than hot, the action is exciting, and then there are those sunglasses.  No wonder this movie was a hit when it was released in 1986!

Maverick (Cruise) and his wingman, Goose (Edwards) are two of the most talented pilots in the world.  They're also as reckless as they are skilled, pulling moves so daring and so insane that the only reason they aren't punished is because they're so good.  In fact, their commander (Tolkan) is (reluctantly) sending them to Top Gun, where they will be trained with the best of the best in aerial dogfighting.  There, their skills make them fierce competitors, but as a fellow pilot named Iceman (played with a delicious chill by Kilmer), warns Maverick, his belief in his invincibility is dangerous.  Maverick also gets hot with his instructor, a bombshell named Charlie (McGillis).

While the movie doesn't feature a lot of bullets and explosions, that doesn't mean it's devoid of action.  Far from it in fact.  There are lots of scenes of planes zooming everywhere and lots of adrenaline.  They're sometimes confusing, since the late Tony Scott has trouble establishing who is where from time to time.  Still, they're a lot of fun.

The performances work as well.  Tom Cruise was in his heyday when this movie was released, but this cemented his stardom.  This is one of those instances where the actor is so right for the part that it's impossible to imagine anyone else taking the role.  With his flashy and mischievous smile and his likability, Cruise is perfect for the role.  He has good chemistry with the red-hot Kelly McGillis (who, ironically, came out as a lesbian in 2009).  Their romance is shortchanged, but their chemistry makes up for it a little bit.  Character actor Antony Edwards provides good support as Goose, showing the talent that would make him a TV star 8 years later on "ER."  Val Kilmer radiates a presence that's antagonistic, but not villainous.  He's a fierce competitor, and Kilmer plays him as such.  Actually, Kilmer didn't want to appear in the film, but had to because of contractual obligations.  Tom Skerritt is in fine form as the wise instructor.  James Tolkan is terrific in the small role of the cigar chomping commander in the film's opening and closing scenes.

"Top Gun" is arguably Tony Scott's most famous film, although not his best (in my opinion, that distinction goes to either "Unstoppable" or "Enemy of the State").  Still, it looks awesome, and it's never boring.  In short, it's a lot of fun.

About the 3D re-release: "Top Gun" is a movie that needs to be seen on as big of a screen as possible.  With the 3D re-releases of a few other movies, one would hope that a monster hit like "Top Gun" would have been better served than this.  In short, the conversion is awful.  The color is darkened to the point where it looks like it it was played on a VCR.  And I saw it in IMAX.  If you're that desperate to see it on a big screen, go ahead, but otherwise, stick to your Blu Ray player.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Bubble

2.5/4

Starring: Debbie Doebereiner, Dustin Ashley, Misty Wilkins

Rated R for Some Language

"Bubble" demands patience.  For those who are looking for a fast-paced thriller or an amped up melodrama, this isn't for you.  Not much happens in this movie, but it is well-acted (none of the actors who appear on screen are professionals) and has an astonishing sense of verisimilitude.  But I don't know if there is enough substance to be worth watching (although it is only 73 minutes long).

Martha (Doeberiner) is a worker at a doll factory in a run down town.  She gets up, goes to work, and comes home at the end of the day to care for her ailing father (Omar Cowan).  She gives Kyle (Ashley), a co-worker, a ride to work and to his next job.  Neither of their lives is going anywhere, despite their dreams of getting out.  Conflict arises when a new worker named Rose (Wilkens) joins the factory and gets close to Kyle.

Steven Sodebergh eliminates any whiff of melodrama or sensationalism in this story.  It's very realistic and low-key.  There's a voyeuristic pleasure in watching a movie like this.  We get to see life as it really is, not as Hollywood claims it is.  "Junebug" and "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" had a similar feel, although not to this extent.  Unfortunately, none of the characters are strong enough for a whole film.  This might have worked better as a short.

There's nothing wrong with the performances.  All the actors do their jobs well and there's no sense of artifice in any of their acting.  Unfortunately, the script by Coleman Hough (although much of the dialogue was improvised), doesn't give us much to hang on to.  It's tough to feel for any of them even with the sense that these are real people.

The release of "Bubble" was interesting.  It was released on Video on Demand, DVD and in theaters at the same time.  It was a risky marketing strategy, but with Steven Sodebergh's name at the helm it made fiscal sense, although it didn't make back its $1.6 million budget (according to Wikipedia).

There is worthwhile material here.  I'm just not sure that it's worth the time unless you're really interested in this sort of thing.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Mike's Musings: Preconceptions

The goal of a film critic is to be honest and open minded.  I've said before that in order to be fair to a movie, you have to give it the benefit of the doubt.  Sometimes, however, that's not possible.  How is it possible to have an open mind when someone has already told you that to movie sucks?  Or it stars Katherine Heigl?

Such is the case with "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Ghost World."  I saw them both years ago when I was younger.  One could argue that I was both too young to get the movies, and was blindsided by their impact.  I'd give weight to both, although I don't think they would have changed my opinion very much with either film.

But the question is that is it fair to review a movie you have preconceived notions about?  I mean, your reader probably hasn't heard much, if anything, about the movie.

It's an interesting question.  The answer is probably not, although in some cases, a person needs a place to express their vitriol.  If they had that reaction to it, there are going to be others who do too.  Especially if they have been misled by critics or people who are misrepresenting the film (this includes trailers).  Take "Ghost World" for example.  The trailers make it out to be an openly funny comedy, if one of a dark variety.  The reality, however, is far different.

An even better example is "The Royal Tenenbaums."  I remember hearing critics rave about the movie when it first came out, and not just from quote whores who are all but paid for blurbs movie studios can plaster on the ads.  Roger Ebert was one of many who gave it an excellent review (3.5/4 to be exact, the same rating that my local critic gave).  And the cast was amazing: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson (although he's an exception, since he's the sole bad apple of the bunch), Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, and with Alec Baldwin providing the narration.  I was dying to see this film.  You rarely see a movie with a cast like that, and it's a rare thing indeed to find "reputable critics" raving about a comedy with big names (Ebert gave "Tommy Boy" a 1/4, and apparently few other critics liked it either).

When I actually saw the movie, I was horrified.  I felt so depressed and angry, I generated an immediate and toxic hatred of Wes Anderson (who, by the way, I still hate, although for less vicious reasons).  I felt violated.  For someone who at the time was a social misfit, seeing a film that made fun of characters like that in such a dark and uncompromising way was deeply wounding.  I don't blame Anderson entirely, although I did consider him a sadist until I re-watched the film; it was his film to make.  I don't blame the critics either, since they were just doing their jobs by voicing their opinion of the film.

So how could I, with such a festering hatred, approach these two films with an open mind?  I couldn't.  I freely admit that in the reviews.  But is this an act of dishonesty, even though I admitted it?  I'm not sure.  In the case of "The Royal Tenenbaums," probably not, since "Moonrise Kingdom" reaffirmed my view that Wes Anderson is in love with his quirkiness to the point where his films are trophies to his ego.  With "Ghost World," however, things are a little bit more gray.  I could see some wit in the film, and I kind of felt for Enid a little.  Still, she's a rotten character and I despised her like no other (perhaps because I knew people just like Enid who were gleefully miserable and proudly misanthropic).  I don't know how much the rating would change, if at all.

So what is this Mike's Musings really about?  Is it a confession?  A rationalization?  Honestly, I have no idea.  I have burning thoughts on my conscience and, like with every movie review or Mike's Musings, it's simply a way for me to get them out on paper.  I don't know what you're supposed to get from reading this.  I don't know what I'm supposed to get from writing it.  I just hope that, after this confession, that you, dear readers, will still find me a trustworthy critic.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Ghost World

1/4

Starring: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Illeana Douglas, Brad Renfro

Rated R for Strong Language and Some Sexual Content

When I first saw this movie, I hated it.  I despised it as much as "The Royal Tenenbaums."  And there is one reason for that: the lead character is one of the most obnoxious, nihilistic, cruel and vicious beasts ever to grace the screen.  Keep that in mind when I go on a rant here.

Enid (Birch) and Rebecca (Johannson) are outsiders, and proud of it.  They think anything or anyone normal is a boring loser and anything weird or annoying is cool.  In other words, they're ultra-hipsters.  Shortly after graduation, they decide to play a prank on a guy who put a personal ad in the paper.  His name is Seymour (Buscemi), and they drag their friend Josh (Renfro) to watch as he sits sadly in the diner stood up by the date he thought he had.  Cruel, huh?  It gets worse.  Rebecca realizes that being normal isn't as terrible as it sounds and gets a job.  Enid, on the other hand, avoids conventionality like the plague, and strikes a kinship up with Seymour.  To her credit, she takes an art class led by the earthy Roberta (Douglas), but the only reason she isn't thrown out is because Roberta is loopy enough to buy her bullshit.

Can a single detestable character tank a film?  Apparently so.  Granted, there are movie characters that we're not supposed to like.  Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho," Jeffrey Dahmer in "Dahmer," any movie villain.  None of the characters I've listed were intended to be sympathetic.  But they were interesting enough that watching a movie about them was a worthwhile, if not entertaining, experience.  Enid, on the other hand, is such a vile individual that I wished one of two things for her: she'd get mental help, or run into Billy from "Silent Night, Deadly Night."  In the comic by Daniel Clowes (which I was forced to read for school), there's no plot.  It's all about how Enid and Rebecca make fun of everyone they come across.  If Clowes (who co-wrote the screenplay with director Terry Zwigoff) meant this to be dark comedy, it doesn't work.  There are a few witty moments, but for the most part "Ghost World" is a depressing experience.

I can think of two arguments in defense of "Ghost World," both equally valid.  Defense #1: we're not supposed to like Enid until she grows up.  An excellent point.  There are many films where we start out hating the protagonist until they grow a brain and a heart.  Zwigoff attempts for Enid to fall for Seymour, but there are two problems.  First, Enid is such a bitch that after the first ten minutes all I wanted was for her to go away and never enter my mind again.  Second, the film is so depressing that I ceased to have any change in emotion at all.  Defense #2: Thora Birch gives a wonderful performance.  So she does.  Birch makes Enid into a real, three-dimensional woman.  That's actually the problem.  Trying to make us feel for such a hateful person isn't going to endear many people to the film.  I don't know about you, but spending 90 minutes with such an annoying and aggressively evil person isn't my cup of tea.  When I watched "American Psycho," I was engaged and in the company of a compelling protagonist.  That isn't the case here.  I just wanted her to shut up and stop being such a bitch.

There are good things about this movie.  The acting is strong across the board, but that's saying much when the whole cast is made up of freaks and losers that one doesn't want to associate with.  Roberta is the exception (well, so is Josh, since he's really a patsy).  Douglas plays her with enough flakiness that she's funny.  Douglas gets the role.  Sadly, she's only on screen for a few scenes.

Look, I'm sorry I'm ranting here.  I'm not a hateful person.  But I don't think I can express just how annoying and aggravating Enid is.  Why would anyone want to spend 90 minutes with her?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Warm Bodies

3/4

Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Analeigh Tipton, John Malkovich, Rob Corddry, Dave Franco

Rated PG-13 for Zombie Violence and Some Language

Without a doubt, Summit Entertainment is hoping for lightning to strike twice.  After all, the "Twilight" franchise and "Warm Bodies" share the same central premise: a human girl falling for a studly member of the undead (zombies this time, not vampires, but who cares?).  Despite being unquestionably better, I don't see that happening.  Summit hasn't been marketing it as aggressively, and although it takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting, it's hardly epic.  That, and few people have heard of the book upon which it the film is based.

R (Hoult) is a zombie.  He doesn't remember much about his past life.  Or even his name.  It begins with an R (at least he thinks so).  But he's a different sort of zombie.  He's self-conscious and tries to do the right thing.  He doesn't like having to eat other people's brains, but he's at least conflicted about it, unlike the mindless Boneys, who are a mindless horde.  One day while on the hunt with his pack, he spots a beautiful girl trying to get medicine for the compound that she lives in.  Her name is Julie (Palmer), and to his unintentional advantage, R eats the brains of Perry (Franco), Julie's boyfriend, and gets his memories.  When she runs out of ammo, R saves her from the horde, and takes her to his "home."  Because he is attracted to her, he lies to keep her with him.  They of course fall in love, but most humans, like Julie's father General Grigio (Malkovich), want to destroy the zombie horde.  The funny thing is, the closer R and Julie get, the more alive the zombies become.

Yes, it's sort of a zombie "Romeo and Juliet," although it's hardly a tragedy.  In fact, it's often quite funny.  Being dead hasn't cost R his sense of humor, and some of his one-liners during his voice-overs are very witty.  There are other sources of humor, although the most clever bits are about R trying to live as a zombie.  It's the kind of thing that comes from human experience, except for the fact that zombies aren't real ( at least they weren't the last time I checked...).

The film rests almost entirely on the shoulders of British actor Nicholas Hoult, who became famous for his performance in "About a Boy."  He succeeds because he has more talent than Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner combined.  And unlike either Edward or Jacob, he's a much more likable character because he's funny and real, and not a bipolar drama queen.  Teresa Palmer is good as well.  What I like about her is that not only is her performance solid (although she lacks Hoult's presence and charisma), it's that she's not a dolled up princess.  She doesn't have gallons of makeup caked onto her face, which makes her more real, and in my opinion, much prettier.  John Malkovich and Analeigh Tipton are on hand in supporting roles and Rob Corddry shows that he is capable of light drama (although he's mostly here for comic relief).

The film was directed by Jonathan Levine, who made "50/50," which apparently everyone liked more than me.  Still, the man's work is solid; he's able to move from drama to action with little trouble, and able to convey zombie behavior while keeping the gore at a PG-13 level without making it obvious.  It's a little long, but it grew on me.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Client

3.5/4

Starring: Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Renfro, Anthony LaPaglia, Mary-Louise Parker

Rated PG-13 for A Child in Jeopardy and Brief Language

During the 90's, there was no author bigger than John Grisham, and due to the cinematic and suspenseful nature of his novels, the rights to his books were snapped up by Hollywood as fast as he could write them.  "The Firm" was the first, and it was followed by "The Pelican Brief."  "The Client" was the third, but by no means the last.

Mark Sway (Renfro) is sharing a forbidden cigarette with his brother Ricky (David Speck), when they spot something disturbing.  A drunken man connects a hose from his car's tailpipe to his window.  Realizing that this man is trying to commit suicide, Mark tries to save him.  But the man catches him and amid his drunken ramblings, he reveals the location of a dead body.  That dead body is a missing senator, and he's been offed by a mob killer known as Barry "The Blade" Muldano (LaPaglia).  It doesn't take long for the mob and an attention-loving US Attorney (Jones) to realize that Mark knows where the body is.  Fearing for his life and the lives of his mother (Parker) and brother, Mark turns to the first nice lawyer he comes across.  Her name is Reggie Love (Sarandon), and she agrees to help him for the price of a dollar.

The story isn't what's really engaging.  It's a little thin, and not particularly interesting.  It's also, essentially, irrelevant.  This is really about three people trying to achieve the same aim.  They all have different motivations, and that's what makes it so interesting and so compelling.  Attorney Roy Fotrigg wants a conviction to jump start his political career, and he's willing to do anything, including some blatantly unethical (not to mention illegal, as Reggie points out) methods to get Mark to talk.  Reggie wants Mark to talk too, but protecting him is more important.  At the center of it is Mark himself, who has seen something no one should see, and is terrified that the mob is going to kill him and his family.

The increasing pressure on all three of these characters and how they react to it is where the real drama lies (the stuff with the mobsters isn't very interesting because the acting, save for Anthony LaPaglia, is flat), and Schumacher handles it with utmost skill.  We know and like Reggie and Mark, and we understand what drives Roy.  In the latter's case, Schumacher resists the temptation to turn Roy into a sleazy lawyer who is just as nasty as the mob.  Roy may not be likable, but he's not evil.  He just has a large ego and thinks (wrongly) that he can push people around.

The performances are terrific.  Tommy Lee Jones shows that he is capable of playing more than versions of Sam Gerard from "The Fugitive" and "US Marshals."  Fotrigg believes his own press, but his ultimate goal is getting Mark to talk, and if that means backing down (at least momentarily), then he'll do that.  Brad Renfro, a talented actor who died of a drug overdose a week before Heath Ledger, makes his film debut here.  He's quite good, although there are moments where he's a little rough (mostly because of clunky dialogue).  He's tough, but scared.  The way he plays the character is refreshing.  The best performance is given by Susan Sarandon.  Reggie forms a motherly bond with her young client, and it's due to the strength of her performance that this rings true.

It is a stroke of genuine wisdom that Schumaker makes this movie the interactions of the three characters rather than the plot.  Lest I make this movie seem like an arthouse drama, I assure you, it is not.  There is real suspense in the increasing pressure all of the characters are under, and wondering what they will do next.  The only real flaw is that the ending descends into action scenes that aren't particularly credible.  Still, they are at least well crafted.

Of all the films based on John Grisham's books, this is easily the best I've seen.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2

.5/4

Starring: Eric Freeman, James Newman, Elizabeth Kaitan, Ken Weichert

Rated R for Violence/Gore, Rape and Language

Like "Wishmaster 2," the only reason I watched the sequel to "Silent Night, Deadly Night" is because it came with the original, not because the quality of the first one was high.  The sequel, on the other hand, is beyond awful.

It's not unusual for a sequel to reference or even give viewers a short breakdown of what happened in the first film.  It's a good reminder for those who haven't seen the first one in a while and for those who skipped the original.  Usually, though, it takes about five or ten minutes, give or take.  In "Part 2," it takes half the film (literally, I checked).  In between the flashbacks, we are given narration by Billy's younger brother Ricky (Freeman), who is either in prison or a mental hospital for as yet unknown crimes.  Once he recounts the events of the first film, we see his crimes.

First of all, devoting half the film to rehashing the original isn't clever or useful.  It's laziness on the part of the screenwriters.  It might have worked if Ricky had added a new viewpoint to what happened, but he's basically repeating it for the psychiatrist, played by James Newman.  Even worse is the fact that we have to watch Freeman act, or more appropriately, try to.  He's horrible, giving Jason Behr in "The Tattooist" a run for his money in the "worst performances of all time" category.  John Newman is decent, and Elizabeth Kaitan and Ken Weichert are okay, although maybe that's because they're up against Freeman, who is more like a robot than an actor.

Second of all, Ricky doesn't don the Santa costume until the final scenes.  What is the point of calling it "Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2" if the killer barely dresses up in the signature costume.  I mean, marketing reasons I guess, but the original wasn't exactly a legendary hit.

Frankly, the only reason I'm not giving this movie 0/4 is because the flashbacks of the first film are decent enough, and they're the best thing about the movie.  Everything else is shit.

Silent Night, Deadly Night

2/4

Starring: Robert Brian Wilson, Lilyan Chauvin, Ginger McCormick, Britt Leach

Rated R for Violence/Gore, Rape and Language (I guess)

"Silent Night, Deadly Night" created a storm of controversy when it was released.  Angry parents were furious that beloved children's icon was being portrayed as a psychotic killer (despite the fact that, according to iMDb, "Tales from the Crypt" had done the same thing 12 years prior).  Siskel and Ebert famously derided it.  The controversy rose to such a furor that the film was pulled from release after two weeks (it did make a small profit, however).  Part of the reason it caused such a furor is that ads for the movie, showing an ax-carrying Santa Claus, were shown on TV.

Still, after viewing the movie, it's hard to understand why it created such a controversy.  Slasher movies were not a new thing in 1984.  "Halloween," the movie that gave birth to the genre as we know of it today, was released six years earlier.  "Friday the 13th" was released in 1980.  Admittedly, having a movie about Santa going bezerk sounds a little sleazy, but slasher movies always are.  It's in their DNA.  It's not like it was aimed at kids (and any parent who actually took their kid to see the film deserved what they got).

Another reason why it's hard to understand the controversy is the movie itself.  It's really not that good.  It's certainly not scary.  Frankly, it's so dumb and so over-the-top that it's hard to take seriously.  The characters in this movie range from dumb to idiotic to "thank God they ran into the slasher so they can't reproduce."

The story is more complicated than it needs to be, indicating that either the producers didn't know their audience, or god forbid, they thought they were making a horror movie with a sophisticated psychological undercurrent (if that was the case, which I doubt considering the marketing campaign, they were sorely mistaken).  In any event, the film opens with a little kid named Billy (Jonathon Best) going to visit his senile grandfather (Will Hare).  His parents think that Grandpa is a vegetable, but Billy doesn't after creepy Grandpa warns him that all the bad kids are punished by Santa and not just given coal.  Then of course his parents are murdered by a robber in a Santa costume.  After that, he's raised in an orphanage.  The trauma of the crime is still affecting him, as kindly Sister Margaret (McCormick) believes.  But Mother Superior (Chauvin) believes that she can stamp it out, and takes her mantra of "tough love" too far.  Years later, Billy (Wilson) has grown up, and is helping Mr. Simms (Leach) move boxes in his toy store.  Billy is the town's golden child, until Christmas comes around.  That's when he gets a little on edge.  And after a little none-too-subtle "unintentional" prodding, Billy loses it and goes on a rampage.

The film is sillier than it sounds, mainly because the script is dumber than dumb, and many scenes are played so far over the top that it's impossible to think that Charles E. Sellier, the director, wasn't winking at the audience (the scene where Billy is the helpful hunk around the store appears to be straight out of a 50's sitcom like "Leave it to Beaver").

Acting-wise, the film is on at least adequate ground.  The three stars, Robert Brian Wilson, Lilyan Chauvin, and Ginger McCormick, are effective.  Britt Leach, however, is beyond awful.  No one else bears a mention.  Really, this is typical for a horror flick.

If Charles E. Sellier was trying to scare his audience, he failed miserably...sort of.  The film, as I've said before, is ludicrous and stupid, but the score, by Perry Botkin, is pretty creepy.

I suppose the movie is kinda dopey fun in a campy sort of way.  There are plenty of laughs in the film, all of which appear to be unintentional.  But it's hard to find (I found it through sheer dumb luck at Best Buy, although that may be because the remake has just been released...without any fanfare, I might add).  But if you're looking for a black comedy/horror flick featuring Santa Claus as a villain, you're better off going with the Canadian movie "Santa's Slay."  It's cheesier (if that's possible), but it's also funnier.