Friday, March 29, 2013

Metropolis (2001)


Starring (voices): Brianne Sidall, Tony Pope, Jamieson Price, Michael Reisz, Rebecca Forstadt, Scott Weinger, Simon Prescott

Rated PG-13 for Violence and Images of Destruction

One can call Rintaro's "Metropolis" (not the 1927 Fritz Lang classic) many things, but no one can claim that it is not ambitious.  On the whole, the movie doesn't work, but at least it tries to do something different.  And as is usually the case (except for when the director is completely in over his head or on an ego trip), it's more interesting for all the themes and ideas it presents.

The city of Metropolis is the city of the future.  It consists of three zones which together form a fully functioning society.  A major politician (and the city's unofficial leader), Duke Red (Price), has just completed the Ziggurat, a technological breakthrough of a building.  The opening of the Ziggurat is besmirched by a revolution, where anti-robot protesters are revolting against the increasing reliance on robots because they take their jobs.  Meanwhile, a private detective named Shunsaku Ban (Pope) and his nephew Konichi (Sidall) are in Metropolis to arrest Dr. Laughton (Prescott), who is wanted for organs trafficking.  But Laughton is working on a secret project, a robot named Tima (Forstadt), for Duke Red, which angers his adoptive son, Rock (Reisz), enough to try and destroy Tima.  These plotlines will collide and how they resolve will determine the fate of mankind itself.

"Metropolis" contains many influences, ranging from Fritz Lang's landmark film to the Bible.  There's so much going on that it's impossible to keep track of it all.  That's really the film's problem.  The filmmakers try to do too much.  The set-up is inadequate, and the story is unorganized with a few glaring plotholes.  The ending itself is a disaster; it doesn't make any sense at all.

The film has a terrific pedigree.  The manga upon which the film was based was written by the Godfather of Japanese animation, the late Osamu Tezuka.  Tezuka created, among other things, the iconic "Astro Boy."  The film was written by Katsuhiro Otomo, who wrote the manga "Akira" and directed the film version of it (which I found to be overrated).  The film itself was directed by Rintaro, who directed "Galaxy Express 999," which I haven't seen.  Considering the creative forces behind the film, the troubled result of the film is a little surprising.

The voice acting is also lacking.  Unlike Miyazaki's films, with which great care was taken to adapt and cast the English translation, the English dub is pretty bad.  Of the cast, only Rebecca Forstadt, Dave Mallow (who plays Pero, the robot who assists Shunsaku Ban) and Scott Weinger (who plays Atlas, the leader of the revolution) distinguish themselves as being good.  Everyone else is either unremarkable, or in the case of Jamieson Price and Michael Reisz, awful.

The film isn't as bad as I've made it out to be.  For one thing, the film is visually dazzling, at times approaching Miyazaki (although this film is completely different than anything the Japanese master ever created).  It's literally a feast for the eyes, especially the shots of the top level and Zone 1.  Although the action scenes use bizarre montages as substitutes for showing the action are unsuccessful and a little annoying (it's at least understandable since it would take thousands more drawings to illustrate), on the whole it's almost worth watching just to soak it all in.  The merging of hand drawn images and computer animation is at times inelegant, but I think it works this way because it gives a sense of being futuristic (which, obviously, is the setting for the film).  And as messy as the plot is in the first half, I was always curious as to who Tima was and what role she had to play in this story.

I can't recommend this film since it's really doesn't work, although because it has so much ambition and shoots for brilliance, I respect it.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

House of 1,000 Corpses


Starring: Jennifer Jostyn, Erin Daniels, Chris Hardwick, Rainn Wilson, Sid Haig, Bill Mosely, Karen Black, Sheri Moon

Rated R for Strong Sadistic Violence/Gore and Language

If you're going to pay homage to something, make sure that it's worthy of such an honor.

"House of 1,000 Corpses" is Rob Zombie's love letter to those cheesy exploitation films that littered the underground theaters in the 70's.  Strictly speaking, I haven't seen one of them straight through, but I know enough about them to know what they are.  While I can see the appeal of some of them to a certain kind of audience (Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino made "Grindhouse," a double feature designed to emulate these movies), I can't really see anyone finding much to appreciate with Rob Zombie's directorial debut.

There's really not much of a plot.  It starts out like many other horror movies, where a few young people make an amazingly stupid decision and end up paying for it with their lives.  In this case, the young soon-to-be-among-the-dead are Denise (Daniels), Bill (Wilson), Jerry (Hardwick) and Mary (Jostyn).  They're on a cross-country road trip with the intent of writing a book on roadside attractions.  When Jerry doesn't fill up the tank with enough gas, they pull into a gas station that also sells grisly odds and ends, and has an amusement park ride with a history of serial killers.  Then the owner, who calls himself Captain Spaulding (Haig), tells them that the place where his most notorious killer, Dr. Satan, was hanged, is right nearby, the travelers decide to find it.  On the way, they pick up a perky hitchhiker (Moon) who knows where it is.  And that's when things go horribly for them.

What little there is of a plot is similar to just about every horror movie of this type.  The teens think they're doing something fun and adventurous, but by the time they realize that they're in trouble, it's too late.  The difference here is that Zombie knows nothing of escalating tension.  Or tension at all.  All he can manage is a few halfway decent jump scenes.  The film also suffers from the fallback of every lacking serial killer movie: the talking killer syndrome.  Only Zombie takes it to an extreme.  These killers never shut up!  And nothing they have to say is of any interest whatsoever.

It goes without saying that the acting is awful.  That's a given for most horror movies, especially the "Grade Z" ones, which Zombie so desperately wants his film to be one of.  Of the four leads, only Rainn Wilson is decent.  The veteran actors are better, but only Sid Haig seems to be enjoying himself.  Sheri Moon (who later married the director) is quite good as the appropriately-named Baby.  She has the voice and mannerisms down to the point where it's actually creepy.

The film just looks bad.  Everything looks like it was made on a set, and the camera movements are inelegant and cheesy.  But what really kills the film is Zombie's ego.  He's constantly changing camera filters, camera types and constantly adding in little cheesy inserts that tell us we're supposed to be getting creeped out with the subtlety of a nuclear warhead.  At least Oliver Stone had a reason when he did this in "Natural Born Killers."

The trailer for this movie made it look like a insane freakshow, with lots of horrifying scares and jolts.  The actual movie only has one of those descriptors.  "House of 1,000 Corpses" isn't scary or an effective homage (although the opening scene is pretty funny in a dark sort of way).  It's just demented.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Killer Inside Me


Starring: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Simon Baker, Eilas Koteas, Ned Beatty

Rated R for Disturbing Brutal Violence, Abberant Sexual Content and Some Graphic Nudity

“The Killer Inside Me” is one of those annoying movies where everyone talks but doesn’t say anything.  That may work for classic literature, but not for a potboiler like this one.  Screenwriter John Curran doesn’t understand this, since he wrote this movie (based on the book by Jim Thompson) and directed the equally senseless “Stone.”  At least this one has a semblance of a plot (much as Curran tries to hide that fact).

Lou Ford (Affleck) is a sheriff’s deputy in a small Oklahoma town.  One day, he is sent to run a prostitute (Alba) out of town.  He meets her and after beating her, they discover that they both have an interest in S&M.  After a few weeks of nightly encounters, she tells him that she is being run out of town because the son of Chester Conway (Beatty), the richest man in town, is in love with her, and he can’t stand the shame.  Lou is intrigued by the fact that she’s getting $10,000 to leave, and he sets in motion his own plans to blackmail Conway for his own reasons.  Of course, doing that involves killing a lot of people, which he has no problem with.

It’s such a shame that an array of great performances is so totally wasted.  Casey Affleck, who was just known as Ben Afleck’s brother until 2007 (when he hit the big time with the one-two punch of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “Gone Baby Gone”) is in top form as Lou.  Although he’s a nice normal guy from the outset, it doesn’t take long for us to realize that beneath that smile and pleasant disposition lies something severely twisted and rotten to the core.  Jessica Alba, whose talents are largely unrecognized, gives one of her best performances as Joyce Lakeland, the prostitute.  Although Alba doesn’t do nude scenes, she does technically bare it all (her breasts are always covered by her arms), and she is willing to show herself in some very compromising positions (these sex scenes are surprisingly hot).  She goes just as far with her acting, literally throwing herself into the role.  Those who think she has no talent deserve to sit through this, if only to see the few scenes that she’s in.  Ditto for Kate Hudson, who hasn’t done anything to be proud of since her star-making turn in “Almost Famous.”  If she ever wants to get back on top again, she needs to work at it like she does here.  Support is provided by reliable character actors like Ned Beatty and Elias Koteas, but Simon Baker is miscast.

The problem with the film is easy enough to identify.  The script is lousy, and acclaimed director Michael Winterbottom seems to think that there is some potential in the story.  If there is, he hasn’t uncovered it.  It tries to be a mix between a psychological thriller a la “The Silence of the Lambs” mixed with pulp noir.  Admittedly, that sounds more interesting than the film actually is.

As wretched as Curran’s script is, Winterbottom isn’t entirely blameless, since he makes some big mistakes as well.  For one thing, there’s no one for the audience to identify with.  Had we been able to identify with Lou (or anyone else), this would have been a deeply disturbing story that would be able to get under our skin.  But Winterbottom keeps everyone at an arm’s distance; I admired the acting, but I didn’t care about anyone.  Also, he mimics Antonia Bird’s technique of running light-hearted music over tense scenes, but to much less effect (and it didn’t really work for “Ravenous,” either).

The bottom line is that this movie is a stinker.  And, as if it weren’t bad enough, this film was given an R-rating by the MPAA.  Ironically, this is a film that deserves an NC-17 rating, which was given to Ang Lee’s much better film, “Lust, Caution,” which included similar scenes of graphic sex and violence.  Regardless, this movie sucks, whatever it’s rated.

My Best Friend's Girl


Starring: Dane Cook, Kate Hudson, Jason Biggs, Alec Baldwin, Lizzy Caplan, Riki Lindhome

The version being reviewed is the unrated one.  For the record, the theatrical cut was rated R for Strong Language and Sexual Content Throughout, including Graphic Dialogue and Some Nudity

These days, when audiences want a comedy, they want it raunchy and they want it raw.  The more disgusting and the more outrageous, the better.  But, it's a bonus if they can add a dose of sweetness to it, like in "American Pie" (also starring Jason Biggs) or "There's Something About Mary," which arguably started the trend of sweet but raunchy comedies.  "My Best Friend's Girl" tries, with some success, to enter into this arena.  Despite the sharing of three of four words in the title, this should not be confused with "My Best Friend's Wedding."  It's raunchy, but it's not nearly as funny or romantic.

Dusty (Biggs) is a shy guy who is hopelessly in love with his co-worker, Alexis (Hudson).  She, on the other hand, considers him just a friend, and when he confesses how he really feels about her, he blows it.  So, he asks his roommate and best friend, Tank (Cook), for help.  Tank has an unorthodox way of helping guys like Dusty.  When a girl dumps her guy, he stages a "meet cute" and gets the girl's phone number.  Then he takes her out on the worst date imaginable.  She'll be so shocked by the other fish in the sea that she'll fly back into the arms of her ex.  Tank is the best in the business, and Dusty hires him to do his magic on Alexis.  Problems occur when Alexis turns out to be looking for some fun and doesn't care is he's an asshole, and he ends up falling for her.

Oddly enough, there's a bit of similarity between this and "There's Something About Mary."  Both are romantic comedies with dark sexual humor where the wimp hires the nasty guy to woo a beautiful woman and they both fall for her.  But instead of Ted (or Dusty, in this case), the film focuses on Healy (whose function is provided by Tank).  Although there are a few hilarious sequences in this film (mostly towards the beginning, although there are a few towards the end), it's not nearly as successful as the Farrelly Brothers' movie.  The writing isn't as strong, the direction is lacking, and none of it is as inventive.  "There's Something About Mary" had hilarious situations built into the plot, and there's nothing here that comes close to its bawdiest scenes.  The raunchiest it gets is euphemisms for a woman's vagina and a woman who mistakenly thinks that a guy wants to suckle on her tit.  Kinda raunchy, yes, and still amusing, but compare that to the "frank and beans" or "hair gel" scenes.  "Mary" was bolder and more clever.

The performances are okay.  Dane Cook does what Dane Cook does: act like an asshole and make him funny.  Cook can deliver laughs when he's given good material, but he fails at drama.  Kate Hudson blew the world away with her performance in "Almost Famous" (for which she should have won an Oscar), but her later performances have shown that either she was a one-hit wonder, or she's not giving it her all (reportedly, she was great in "Desert Blue," which got her noticed).  She's solid here, for the most part, although she has her stiff moments.  Even more problematic is that she and Cook don't have a lot of chemistry, which is the most important part of any romantic comedy.  Jason Biggs, on the other hand, is miscast.  Biggs' appeal has always been his adorable schmuck appeal; he's so lovable that you feel for him while everything explodes in his face...even though you're laughing at him.  His scenes in the "American Pie" movies landed so well because he was able to emulate that.  Here, Biggs is trying to stretch his range, but it doesn't work.  Dusty comes across as creepy.  If he was going to do this right, he should have gone dark the whole way through, and played the character with some nastiness.  Alec Baldwin and Lizzy Caplan are on hand for supporting performances, but while they're meant to be colorful comic relief, neither one is especially funny.  The only supporting character who got my attention was Hilary (Lindhome), the Christian girl who finally gets Tank to realize the error of his ways (since this plot turn is inevitable in essentially every romantic comedy, this isn't a spoiler).

Howard Deutch doesn't have a particularly sterling resume.  He was a protege of John Hughes in the 80s, directing some of his most beloved movies, like "Pretty in Pink" and "Some Kind of Wonderful" (his first two movies), but after that he started making sequels to movies that didn't need them (he directed "The Odd Couple II" and "The Whole Ten Yards").  The fizzling of his career doesn't surprise me.  There's no style evident and his shot selection is stale and unsophisticated.  Some of the jokes don't work because they're poorly handled by him.  And the film is also way too long.  I realize that I watched the unrated version, but that only adds 10 minutes, and a romantic comedy really only needs 90 minutes, not almost two hours, to tell its story.

This isn't a terrible movie by any means.  Like I said before, there are some truly funny sequences, but not nearly enough to save a romantic comedy where the romance is DOA.  

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Fight Club


Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf

Rated R for Disturbing and Graphic Depiction of Anti-Social Behavior, Sexuality and Language

"Fight Club" is a mixture of brutal violence, philosophy and film noir.  It contains elements of "The Matrix," "Office Space," and "My Dinner With Andre."  Needless to say, this is not a boring movie.  Overlong, yes, but it's still interesting.

A man (Norton) is living with insomnia.  He's going through each day like it's deja vu.  His doctor blows him off and tells him to go to support groups to know what real pain is.  Surprisingly, the culture of honesty and openness is therapeutic and he gets addicted.  That fizzles out when he meets another support group tourist named Marla Singer (Carter), who becomes distracting.  One night, after one of his numerous and dehumanizing business trips, he comes home to find that his apartment has exploded.  He gives a call to a man he met on an airplane, whose views on life he found provocative.  They meet for beer, and this man, Tyler Durden (Pitt) tells our hero to hit him as hard as he can.  Needless to say, the unnamed man is both skeptical and disbelieving, but he does what he is told.  It hurts, but he feels alive.  They begin a "fight club," where man can release all the anger and frustration pent up inside by the constraints of modern society.  Things are going great.  The Narrator is becoming less of a doormat, and he's earning respect.  But Tyler has far greater plans than this...

The theory presented by Tyler is that modern day society is so oppressive that we have become numb to any emotion at all (echoes of Andre's philosophy).  We are cogs in a machine and nothing else.  It's dehumanizing and the only way to break free of it is to fight.  Pain will free you.

I can see his point, although I wouldn't take it that far.  How monotonous it must seem to go into an office filled with gray cubicles, sit at a computer all day and push money around online for a living.  "Office Space" skewered this with hilarious results, but "Fight Club" is not a comedy.  Far from it in fact.  It's a grim, bleak and violent motion picture.

The acting is terrific.  Edward Norton, an actor capable of electrifying performances (like in "American History X") is great as the spaced out doormat.  Norton is nicely understated; the Narrator isn't too comical or too dull.  He's a wimp, but we can get behind him.  Brad Pitt is terrific as Tyler Durden.  He's a colorful study in intensity.  Tyler is a loose cannon, but an intelligent one.  He's always in control, which is increasingly unsettling.  Helena Bonham Carter is perfectly icy as Marla Singer, who ends up sleeping with Tyler.

David Fincher has always been a visual director ("The Social Network" aside).  There are plenty of visual tricks in this movie, and some of them are pretty cool.  The problem is that the film they distance us from the story and characters.  The film becomes a thought piece rather than a conventional narrative.  That can work for a time, but eventually it wears thin.  "Fight Club's" strengths are the beginning and the end.  The middle drags a little.

Unconventional and provocative, "Fight Club" is interesting, but not satisfying/

Friday, March 22, 2013



Starring: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox

Rated R for Strong Disturbing Violence including Rape and Some Language

I've heard "Deliverance" described as a "classic" in some circles.  Such a description confounds me.  While there are some intense scenes and a little philosophical musings in the first act (which always impresses the critics, although none of it is developed or enlightening), the film is a bore.  The themes and ideas that the film is built upon are trite, and they've been done better in other films.  "Deliverance" brings to mind a number of later films, including "The Descent," for reasons which are obvious (including a word for word line that serves the same purpose), "A Simple Plan," and, surprisingly, "I Know What You Did Last Summer."  All three of those movies are superior to "Deliverance."

The Cahulawassee River is about to be dammed up, turning much of it into one huge lake.  Four friends, peaceful Ed (Voight), mountain man wannabe Lewis (Reynolds), arrogant Bobby (Beatty) and geeky Drew (Cox), decide to take a canoe trip before the dam is completed.  They meet some locals (which include the dueling banjo scene) and proceed to make fun of them for being hillbillys, doing little to hide it.  After a day of canoeing, Ed and Bobby see some men in the woods, and go to investigate.  This stupid decision, and a few others, force them into the fight of their lives.

There are definitely some suspenseful scenes in this film, and its most infamous one is tough to watch.  But the film is nowhere near as intense as it should be.

First off, there is little character development.  Director John Boorman takes his time introducing the four main characters, but the script by James Dickey (based on his novel) is thin on that side of things, so it just ends up being boring.  Second, what we do know of the characters doesn't endear them to us.  They're all jerks (especially Lewis and Bobby), so it's hard to get us invested in their fates.

Finally, John Boorman's direction is lacking.  Instead of putting us right in the middle of the story, Boorman's style does the opposite.  We're always looking at the story from a clinical point of view, and feel no real connection to the characters.

The acting is fine, although all of them get drowned out by the scenery.  With a cast like this, even early on in their careers, that's a little surprising.

"Deliverance's" reputation is overblown.  The film's most intense scenes are a little shocking, but not nearly as much as they could have been because it's impossible to feel anything for them.

The Untouchables


Starring: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia, Charles Martin Smith, Robert DeNiro

Rated R (for Graphic Violence and Some Language...I guess)

"The Untouchables" is one of those grand gangster epics that brings to mind "Goodfellas" and "The Godfather."  Director Brian De Palma widens the scope with huge, spacious shots to increase the size of the to speak.  It's not flawless, but it is entertaining.

In the 1920's, Prohibition was in full swing.  Because the demand for alcohol is still high, the law leaves an opening for the mob to battle for the control of liquor.  The so-called "Beer Wars" are ravaging Chicago, with legendary mafioso Al Capone (DeNiro).  Capone has his fingers in every part of the law, so he's essentially untouchable.  A Treasury officer named Elliot Ness (Costner) has been sent in to take down Capone, although it's tough going.  Then he meets a beat cop named Malone (Connery), who tells him that he's going to have to get clean men and be prepared to get down and dirty to nail the mob boss.  So, with Malone, a new recruit named George Stone (Garcia) who's skilled with a gun, and a government accountant named Oscar Wallace (Smith), the four men go to war on Capone.

There are a number of interesting subtexts to this film, which adds to the richness of the narrative (a narrative that, I might add, is a little on the thin side).  For example, everyone knows how to get Capone, but no one is willing to cross him so they just take his bribes and do what he wants.

The acting is great.  Before his ego decreased his star status significantly, Kevin Costner was once one of the most famous movie stars in the mid 80s to mid 90s, starring in such movies as "JFK," "The Bodyguard," "Bull Durham," and of course, "Field of Dreams."  It's not hard to understand why.  As Ness, Costner is the ideal hero: handsome and clean cut, noble and fighting for justice.  But Cosnter gives him enough vulnerability that he doesn't seem too good to be true.  Sean Connery won an Oscar for playing Jimmy Malone.  He's quite good as the Irish cop who is still on the beat because he won't take bribes from Capone.  He knows how to bring him down, but he can't do it alone.  Andy Garcia doesn't have much to do as Stone, although maybe that's for the best because his performance is too understated and stiff.  Charles Martin Smith, who went on to become director as well as a character actor, is a terrific nerd.  Robert DeNiro appears for a few scenes as Capone, but he's just okay.  Far more intimidating is Billy Drago, who plays Frank Nitti, Capone's henchman.

This is a triumph of style and visual appeal.  Brian De Palma has been known as a Hitchcock imitator, and there are a few instances where this shows (specifically, the point of view shots that Hitch was so fond of).  But they are in a different context, which makes them fresh rather than a ripoff.  The film is also visually dazzling; the cinematography by Stephen H. Burum is excellent and the production design is also top notch.

Sadly, although the dialogue is strong (the film was written by David Mamet, so that's a given), there are a few plot holes here and there.  Minor, but they are there.  And the story, while interesting, could have used a little more depth and development.  Frankly, this film could have used some more time to tell it's story.

"The Untouchables" is great entertainment.  There's plenty of action, great drama and some genuine suspense.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Call


Starring: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Eklund, Roma Maffia, Evie Thompson

Rated R for Violence, Disturbing Content, and Some Language

"The Call" is a thriller that depends on how many wrenches and new twists the writer can throw in the story.  With "The Call," screenwriter Richard D'Ovidio (who came up with the story with Nicole D'Ovidio and John Bokenkamp) comes up with enough ideas to sustain a 90 minute movie, and director Brad Anderson keeps things moving fast enough that he never loses our interest.

Jordan Turner (Berry) is a 911 dispatcher in what appears to be Los Angeles.  She's very good at what she does, able to calmly help everyone who calls from people who have shot someone or witnesses to an injury, or the local drunk.  One day she gets a call from a young girl, Leah Templeton (Thompson) who is in a panic because there is a man who is breaking into her house.  But when Jordan makes a mistake that leads to her death, she loses all her confidence.  Six months later, she's training new dispatchers, when a call comes in from another panicked girl who has been kidnapped.  Jordan soon realizes that this girl, Casey Welson (Breslin) is the newest victim of Leah's killer, and she has to find where Casey is before she suffers the same fate.

What helps the film immeasurably is the fact for the first 100 minutes, Jordan is on the phone.  There is a lot of tension in this situation, where the person can only listen and talk to the helpless victim.  Brad Anderson is smart enough to realize this, and exploits this tension as much as he can.  The trailer shows Jordan going after the killer herself, but that doesn't happen until the very end.  It's not very believable that Jordan does this, but we've been with her for the majority of the movie and we'll stick with her to the end.

The performances are solid.  Halle Berry is her usual reliable self, able to seem warm and empathetic.  Abigail Breslin, clearly having grown up since her days as a child actress (she's shown in a bra and uses profanity), is also very good.  Morris Chestnut is okay, but not especially memorable as the cop on the case, and Jordan's would-be lover.  Michael Eklund is creepy as the villain.

The flaws come towards the end.  The first is explaining the killer's motives.  Frankly, it's not necessary.  The film would be just as effective if he had simply been shown to be a remorseless killer.  But because Anderson includes this, it's a mistake because it's only partially explained.  If you're going to do something like this, you have to follow it through.

More egregious is the final scene.  It rings false and doesn't offer any closure, and for a sort-of open ending, it's not satisfying either.  I never for a second believed that the characters would do this, and it's so poorly motivated that it falls flat on its face.

This is one of those movies where you either buy into it, or don't.  There were people laughing at this movie when I saw it, and I'm not surprised.  If you allow yourself to get sucked in, then it works.  But if you make the film work for it, then it's going to be a waste of your time.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Burke and Hare


Starring: Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, Jessica Hynes, Ronnie Corbett

Rated R for Some Sexual Content, Disturbing Images and Language

There's nothing wrong with changing the facts to make it a better story.  It happens all the time.  In the case of "Burke and Hare," the story of two murderers in 1828 London, an entire genre.  Admittedly, there's something creepy and sinister about making two serial killers into lovable rogues, but at least the film is honest about it.  And with John Landis at the helm (who established long ago that he has an offbeat sense of humor), rest assured that it's going to be an unusual tale.

In 1828, there is a competition between two rival surgeons, Dr. Robert Knox (Wilkinson) and Dr. Alexander Monro (Curry).  They're battling over a lot of research money and recognition, and both will do anything to get ahead.  Meanwhile, two con men, William Burke (Pegg) and William Hare (Serkis), are looking for another way to make money.  When they overhear a local gangster saying that before the militia guarded cemeteries, he used to make a pretty penny stealing bodies from graves and selling them to Knox.  Burke and Hare think this is a brilliant idea, but after a disastrous attempt in the graveyard, they seek to make their own merchandise.

I have to admit, I had a lot of fun watching this movie.  My sense of humor runs pretty dark, but Landis is a master of tone.  It's impossible to take any of this movie seriously because it's so silly.  There are a number of truly outrageous sequences, especially those featuring McClintock (Corbett), the captain of the militia.  McClintock has to be the most incompetent investigator in the history of film, and Corbett gets huge laughs from the character's obliviousness to his stupidity (and as a very funny touch, one of his officers faints in just about every scene at the sight of blood or a body).

Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis make a good team.  Pegg has proven himself time and time again that he is fully capable of getting laughs.  But he's given the chance to show some dramatic chops (in small doses), and he does well there too.  Andy Serkis, best known as Gollum from "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, is also very good as Hare, who has no crisis of conscience about their new occupation.  His remarks about the economics of it are funny because they are so true.  Pegg and Serkis make a good team; it's a pleasure to spend 90 minutes with these two.  Isla Fisher is decent as Ginny, the prostitute turned actress that Burke falls for, but Fisher has never had a great range (frankly, she's never particularly impressed me, period).  Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry are great in supporting roles.

The film isn't flawless; it takes a bit to establish the characters and find its groove.  Also the editing is a little stiff at times, and one brief scene isn't as funny as it should be because the timing isn't as crisp as it should be.  Still, this is one movie where the successes greatly outweigh the flaws.

John Landis has a bizarre sense of humor, and that suits him well.  No one could make this movie without one.  True, it could have made a good horror movie or thriller a la "From Hell," but then we wouldn't have this under the radar gem.  It's a lot of fun, provided you are willing to see two murderers as lovable heroes.  But then, we always sympathize with Arnold Schwarzenegger, right?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Cell


Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dylan Baker, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jake Weber

Rated R for Bizarre Violence and Sexual Images, Nudity and Language

If I had to pick one word to describe "The Cell," it would be this: ambitious.  Tarsem Singh's feature film debut (after directing music videos) attempts to do a startling amount of things within a 107 minute time frame.  This includes: tell a crime story about a serial killer, explore the psychology behind said serial killer, establish and use a pseudo-science that the plot depends on, and tell a coming of age story (of sorts) of a social worker.  In the end, it's a little too much for Tarsem to juggle, but that doesn't mean it's a failure.

Catharine Deane (Lopez) is a social worker with an extremely unusual practice.  Instead of talking to her patients, she uses a machine to go deep into their subconscious.  There, according to her, is where they can she can see what her patients don't want other people to see.  She's working with the comatose son of a billionaire, but progress is slow.

Meanwhile, FBI Agent Peter Novak (Vaughn) is tracking a serial killer who keeps his victims in a cage until they drown in water.  But the suspect, a man named Carl Stargher (D'Onofrio), has gone into a deep coma from which he will never wake.  The only one who may be able to help them is Catharine, but going into a mind as disturbed as Carl's is extremely dangerous.

The performances aren't standout, but neither do they cause the characters to be lost among the bizarre locales and special effects.  Jennifer Lopez is effective, although it's not close to her breakthrough role in "Selena."  Vince Vaughn is less successful, but adequate.  He's decent in the low-key dramatic scenes, but struggles with heavy emotions.  Vincent D'Onofrio is very good in what is really a demanding role, although I still don't forgive him for annoying the hell out of me for playing the inexplicably popular character Det. Van Goren on "Law and Order: Criminal Intent."  Dylan Baker and Marianne Jean-Baptiste provide solid support.

Tarsem Singh's most obvious trait is his visual style.  From the bizarre settings and even more bizarre costumes, Singh's films are never uninteresting to look at.  The costume design by the late Eiko Ishioka and April Napier is both strange and beautiful, and the production design by Tom Foden is creepy.  Actually, that's part of the problem.  The camera moves a little too quickly at times and with the purposefully obtrusive score by Howard Shore, it becomes a little overbearing.  I'm sure that that is the effect that Singh wanted, but it becomes a little too much.

I always appreciate films like "The Cell."  They try new things and never take the easy way out.  Although the explanation for Carl's violence is cliche, it's at least presented effectively and without exploitation.  This kind of risk taking should be encouraged.  Who knows what kind of films we might get if filmmakers were allowed to push the boundaries?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Man from Elysian Fields


Starring: Andy Garcia, Mick Jagger, Julianna Margulies, Olivia Williams, James Coburn, Anjelica Huston

Rated R for Language and Sexual Content

I'm a writer.  That should be plainly obvious since I write movie reviews for about 99.9% of the movies I watch.  No, but seriously.  I write novels in my free time.  I just finished one earlier this year.  I guess this is one of the many reasons why I responded so well to the characters in "The Man from Elysian Fields."  The characters in this film are intelligent and articulate, and the subject matter about the process of writing rings true.  Any writers or lovers of literature would do well to see this film.  And any lover of good, intelligent cinema.

Byron Tiller (Garcia) is a talented but unsuccessful writer.  His first novel, "Hitler's Child," got great reviews, but didn't sell.  His newest work (which he spent the last seven years on) has been rejected by his publisher. Desperate, he tries to find an income in other areas while he writes another novel.  In walks a man named Luther Fox (Jagger).  Luther liked Byron's book, and offers him a way to support his family by becoming an escort.  Byron doesn't like the idea, but desperate times call for desperate measures.  His first lady is Andrea Alcott (Williams), the beautiful wife of legendary author Tobias Alcott (Coburn).  Alcott is dying, and his last novel is shit.  With the urging of Andrea, Alcott hires Byron to help him to rewrite it.  Of course, so much time away from home is taking its toll with his loving wife Deena (Margulies).

"The Man from Elysian Fields" probably has the best script I have ever heard.  Each line is written with wit, depth and intelligence.  Just hearing the lines is pure pleasure.  Not bad for Philip Jayson Lasker, who got his start writing sitcoms.

The acting is strong as well.  Andy Garcia is pretty good, although he has his stiff moments.  He's one of those artists who, in his hunger for fame and fortune, blinds himself to the fact that he's losing the very thing he seeks to protect.  Olivia Williams is cool and sexy as Andrea; it's impossible not to be seduced by her.  James Coburn is terrific as Tobias, who is dying with wit, if not grace.  Julianna Margulies and Anjelica Huston provide solid support.

The real star of the film is Mick Jagger.  Yes, that Mick Jagger.  The lead singer for The Rolling Stones.  Jagger doesn't have many acting credits to his name, but you wouldn't know it watching him as Luther Fox.  Jagger seems like a seasoned professional, performing his lines with ease.  He's a total scene stealer, and should have gotten an Oscar nomination (how he hasn't gotten one for music is beyond my comprehension, but whatever).

Visually, the film is a little stale, although it does have atmosphere.  I was reminded of that old writer's cliche. You know, the man with a five o'clock shadow, a wife beater sitting in a hotel room with a bottle of cheap liquor, a cigarette and a typewriter trying to write the next American novel.  "The Man from Elysian Fields" is built upon that feeling: the yearning for recognition and the price for the chance of getting there.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Vertical Limit


Starring: Chris O'Donnell, Robin Tunney, Bill Paxton, Scott Glenn, Nicolas Lea, Izabella Scorupco, Steve Le Marquand, Ben Mendelsohn

Rated PG-13 for Intense Life/Death Situations and Brief Strong Language

"Vertical Limit" succeeds because of the excellent staging by director Martin Campbell.  The film is Screenplay 101 (okay, it's well written for an action movie, but still), but because of the top-notch performances and especially the energetic direction, this movie is a real winner.

Peter Garrett (O'Donnell) and his sister Annie (Tunney) have been climbers all their lives.  They were taught how by their father, renowned climber Royce Garrett (Stuart Wilson).  After a tragedy on a climb, Peter hasn't been on a mountain since.  Annie, however, has become internationally famous, which brings her into contact with business mogul Elliot Vaughn (Paxton).  Vaughn wants to climb to the top of K2 and wave on the inaugural flight of his new airline, and he's hired Annie and expert guide Tom McLaren (Lea) to help him do it.  The team is on schedule until a storm they thought was going to pass by hits them head on, and they get trapped in a cave.  Now, it's up to a new team, led by Peter and a hermit named Montgomery Wick (Glenn) to make a speed ascent to rescue them.

The acting is solid across the board, including two performances that are very good.  Chris O'Donnell, a fine young actor whose career turned to TV and independent film after this movie (for reasons I can't understand).  He's the ideal lead character: tough, but sympathetic and vulnerable.  We can feel his emotions and believe that he cares about Annie enough to launch this expedition, which many (of course) say is pointless, or worse, suicidal.  Robin Tunney is adorable as his sister Annie.  We're always praying that she makes it out okay.  Scott Glenn is suitably mysterious. and Izabella Scorupco (in her second movie for Martin Campbell, after the classic Bond movie "GoldenEye") is in fine form as a nurse who tags along (although her scream has not improved.  Steve Le Marquand and Ben Mendelsohn would provide effective comic relief if I could understand what the hell they were saying.

The two standouts among the cast are Bill Paxton (no surprises there) and Nicolas Lea.  Bill Paxton is in top form as Vaughn.  The Texas mogul is likable, charismatic, and a good showman.  But he's also egotistic, selfish and, worse, untrustworthy.  He claims to have everyone's interest at heart, but when push comes to shove, the only one he really cares about is himself.  Nicolas Lea is also very good as Tom McLaren.  It would be easy to go overboard to drain the audience's tearducts, but McLaren successfully avoids that trap. As the gravely injured member of the party, it's rarely easy to watch him onscreen and not feel like you got hit in the gut.

Martin Campbell is one of the most underrated action directors out there.  He gets work, but people don't know his name.  "GoldenEye" saved the Bond franchise from death, and turned out to be one of the in the franchise.  He also was behind the second reboot, with "Casino Royale."  He also directed "Green Lantern," one of the best superhero movies in recent years (which had an undeserving reception).  Campbell knows exactly how to stage an action scene while wringing out as much adrenaline as possible.  "Vertical Limit" earns its tagline.  Hold your breath, indeed.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful


Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King

Rated PG for Sequences of Action and Scary Images, and Brief Mild Language

As anyone who has seen the trailer for "Oz the Great and Powerful" can attest, the film looks fantastic.  There's eye candy a plenty to be found in Sam Raimi's tour of Oz.  Sadly, while it has enough visual dazzle for a whole summer release window, it lacks in other areas, like story and acting.

Oz (Franco) is an arrogant, small time magician who wants to be a great man.  After he's proven to be a charlatan when asked to perform an impossible task (making a little girl (King) walk again), he's run out of his show.  Later on, when he's being chased by the Strongman (for reasons not explained), he escapes into a hot air balloon.  It's short-lived relief because he ends up flying into a tornado (a cool, but overlong, sequence, by the way) and landing in a bizarre world called, wait for it...Oz.  There, he meets a lovely young woman named Theodora (Kunis) who believes that he is the wizard destined to defeat the evil witch.  Then she meets Evanora (Weisz), who gives him the rundown of all that is his, or will be, once he vanquishes evil.  Of course, the one who he thinks is the evil witch, Glinda (Williams), is in fact the good witch, and Evanora is the bad one.

The only level upon which the film can be enjoyed is the visual element.  It just looks amazing.  It's so vivid and detailed, and for once, the 3D enhances the effect.  It's like a big screen Blu Ray movie.  The Emerald City is particularly amazing to look at.  However, there are other things to consider when judging the quality, or lack there of, of a film.

Next to the visual appearance of the film, the acting is the most noteworthy, although for less positive reasons.  Putting it bluntly, the performances suck.  Few people in this film understand how to act, or have absolutely no interest in what they're doing.  James Franco, never an actor of significant range, is adequate but a little he is in most of his other movies ("Milk" and "127 Hours" being the exceptions).  Mila Kunis, on the other hand, is awful.  Kunis has never been an actress of great range, but as Theodora, she has enough ham to feed Genghis Khan's army twice over.  "Stiff" is too kind of a word.  If she ever wants another acting job, she better hope that no one ever sees this movie (not possible, given the inexplicably good reception its getting).  Rachel Weisz proves she can play a good villain, but she doesn't have any interest in Evanora except for the paycheck that comes with it.  Michelle Williams does her best not to stumble on her dialogue or get drowned out by the special effects.  She sort of succeeds on both counts (which considering her lack of presence, is noteworthy).  The only good performances come from Zack Braff and Joey King.  Apart from brief, in the flesh appearances in the opening scene, both are animated (he's a flying monkey while she is a china doll).  Braff is funny and lovable (the perfect sidekick, in other words), while King is simply adorable.

Sam Raimi is a good filmmaker.  His "Spider-Man" trilogy is a lot of fun, and "A Simple Plan" is a masterpiece.  Here, he forgets the goal of a movie: to spend an hour or so with interesting characters in a compelling story.  Granted, the script is crap, but Raimi should have known that it's entirely possible to make a good kids movie with a smart script.  Look at "The Goonies" or "Spirited Away."  Both of those movies were visually dazzling, had intelligent scripts AND were beloved by children.  Here, it's just a waste of great special effects.

Keep the Lights On


Starring: Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth, Julianne Nicholson

Not Rated (Contains Strong Graphic Sexuality and Nudity, Explicit Sexual Dialogue and Drug Use)

"Keep the Lights On" is one of those movies that has solid material, but it feels like you're only getting half of the story.  There are lots of holes that should be plugged, and the characters' relationship feels half-baked.  I bought everything I saw except the final act, but I felt like I was missing a lot of what went on behind the scenes.

Erik (Lindhardt) is a filmmaker living in New York City.  He's single, but craves love.  He fills the void with anonymous sex, which is how he meets Paul (Booth), a closeted publisher.  But like Erik, Paul has his own demons, specifically an addiction to crack cocaine.

The first problem is that the beginning of the romance between Erik and Paul is rushed through to the point of being non-existent.  In order to have an investment in their fates, we have to see them more as people on screen.  We have to grow to love them as characters and love them even more together.  The performances help some, but we still watch from a detached eye.  I felt for them mentally, but not emotionally.

The acting is solid.  Thure Lindhardt is good.  We can feel his anguish at the complexities of his relationship with Paul.  It borders on being self-destructive and obsessive, but Lindhardt is good enough that we sympathize with him, even if we sometimes don't approve of or understand (a flaw of the movie) what he does.  Less impressive is Zachary Booth.  He doesn't have Lindhardt's presence, which causes him to fade out into the background.  Additionally, he's a little too low-key, especially in the scenes where he is high.  When you're high on crack, you don't just become a little more energetic and flaky.  Julianne Nicholson is good, but she has far too few scenes.

Ira Sachs approach to the film is clinical.  Visually, this is a stale looking film, like one of those movies in those quirky indie theaters.  It encourages distance from the characters, which is another knock against it.  I don't get why "hip" filmmakers do this.  When I watch a movie, I want to be involved (for better or worse).  I don't want to watch from a distance because that gets real boring real fast.

The film is both too long and too short.  There are many ideas that Sachs wants to address in the film, but he never gives any of them their due.  He presents them, but that's it.  There's no follow through.  There are many interesting directions he could have taken the story and the characters, but merely presenting them while going the "safe" route is a cheat.  On the other hand, the film moves so slowly.  My interest in the characters lessened as the film went on, and by the time the movie ended, I thought I had watched "Gone with the Wind."  And this movie is only 100 minutes long.

Finally, the ending is weak.  I understand what Sachs was going for and it sort of makes sense, but it's so poorly motivated that it's not really believable.

Saturday, March 9, 2013



Starring: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Anthony Hopkins, Donald Sutherland, Maura Tierney, John Ashton, George Dzundza

Rated R for Some Intense Violent Behavior

Sometimes the choice of a director can tank a film.  Take "Die Another Day," Lee Tamahori's Bond entry.  It was so bad that it sent Hollywood's longest running franchise into turnaround.  While it's unfair to lay the blame of "Instinct's" inadequacies solely at the feet of Jon Turteltaub (script problems are ever present too), a lot of it is because Turteltaub, known previously (and after) for kid's movies like "3 Ninjas" and "While You Were Sleeping."  This is not the kind of pedigree one needs for an emotionally charged psychological drama/thriller.  Instead of the thematically complex and provocative film I was hoping for, I ended up with a shallow, occasionally preposterous and frequently overblown misfire.

Theo Caulder (Gooding, Jr.) is a psychiatrist on his way up.  His mentor, Ben Hillard (Sutherland), is looking for someone to assess an anthropologist from their university who went native and killed two men.  Theo, sensing career advancement and a book deal, he asks for the case.  It's a tough case, since the scientist, Dr. Ethan Powell (Hopkins), hasn't spoken a word in two years.  But eventually Theo gets through, and Powell begins to open up about what drove him into the wild and why he committed a double murder with a club.

Needless to say, the strongest scenes are those between Theo and Powell.  The film is built around them, and while both Gooding, Jr. and Hopkins do fine work, they're often at odds with lame dialogue about loopy psychobabble.

Where the film runs into real trouble is when Theo tries to clean up the area of the prison that houses the mentally ill.  It's overseen by brutal guards, especially a nasty piece of work named Dacks (Ashton), and an overworked psychiatrist (Dzundza).  This stuff is rarely credible, and is on more than one occasion so overblown it goes beyond self-parody.  Not kidding.

What keeps this movie from being unwatchable are the performances.  Both actors do what they can with the meager material they have been given.  Apart from his Oscar-winning performance in "Jerry Maguire," Cuba Gooding, Jr. hasn't had much of a career (considering his career is mainly direct-to-DVD movies, methinks he needs a new agent).  Gooding Jr. is usually solid, although when it comes to heavy emotion or when he's playing the egotistic doctor in the film's early scenes, he's not credible.  Anthony Hopkins doesn't appear to be trying very hard, but with Hopkins, he can make magic simply by appearing on film.  Maura Tierney is also good, although this isn't her finest hour (due mostly to the lack of good material).  Donald Sutherland is wasted.

Considering its flaws, "Instinct" is better than it had a right to be.  But that doesn't mean that you should see it.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Tale of the Mummy


Starring: Jason Scott Lee, Louise Lombard, Sean Pertwee, Jack Davenport, Michael Lerner, Shelly Duvall, Christopher Lee

Rated R for Violence and Gore, and for Some Language

There are two ways to look at this movie.  As a straight horror movie, it's the definition of mediocrity.  As a cheesefest filled with unintentional laughs, it approaches the level of "guilty pleasure."  The acting is decent, but the special effects are embarrassingly bad.  So bad, in fact, that they produce laughter rather than chills.

A group of archaeologists, led by Sir Richard Turkel (Lee), has unearthed a long forgotten tomb under the sands of Egypt.  But just as they open the tomb, a mysterious force turns them all to stone.  Fifty years later, Turkel's granddaughter, Samantha (Lombard), follows his footsteps and unearths a mummy (whose burial has absolutely zero connection to anything that happened in Ancient Egypt, but that's par for the course).  Back in England, the mummy's wrappings get free and go on a killing spree all over London.  Chasing after it are two detectives, Riley (Lee) and Bartone (Davenport).  But the main suspect, a colleague of Samantha's named Bradley Cortese (Pertwee) proclaims that the mummy they unearthed could bring about the apocalypse.

The biggest problem with the film is that it only occasionally makes sense.  The European version of the film was 20 minutes longer, but Miramax shaved it off once it got across the Atlantic (this begs to mind why Miramax, the bastion of independent and foreign film quality, would spend money on a movie like this...).  In general terms, the plot is simple enough to follow, but there's still a lot of room for confusion.  And there is one scene of painfully obvious dubbing.

The acting is solid.  Louise Lombard was a late replacement (the previous actress had to drop out after she was bitten by a dog with rabies), but she makes the role her own.  She gives a solid performance, and sounds a lot like Angelina Jolie.  Sean Pertwee, always an interesting actor, is good as the token friend who has gone off the deep end.  And it's always nice to see Jack Davenport, who was good in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," but is more famous for playing Commander Norrington in the first "Pirates of the Carribean" trilogy.  The weak link is Jason Scott Lee, who does an excellent imitation of a cement block.

The main thing worth noting about the film is the special effects.  I know, I know, this was made 15 years ago.  But you know what, "The Matrix" came out a year later, and even though it had a fraction of the Wachowski's budget, that's no excuse.  The live action effects are good, but the CGI is just awful.  They look like something from an old Macintosh from when this film was made.

Under the circumstances, director Russell Mulcahy does about as good of a job as can be expected.  The opening scene is the best, and it radiates the same atmosphere of those old pulp horror films.  What scenes are intact are okay, and he manages to generate a fair amount of tension.  But between the action scenes it's a little lame, and the decision to excise 20 minutes of film is a huge mistake.

Considering what it had behind it, I suppose "Tale of the Mummy" is as good as one could hope for.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Relic


Starring: Penelope Ann Miller, Tom Sizemore, Linda Hunt, James Whitmore, Clayton Rohner, Chi Muoi Lo

Rated R for Monster Violence and Gore, and for Language

Monsters, museums, science (well, what passes for it in a horror movie)...yes please!

"The Relic" is a very silly movie.  There's no doubt about that.  It's also a lot of fun.  But only if you're into this sort of thing.  Anyone who doesn't appreciate loving nods to the genre conventions with a sizable amount of gore need not put this into the DVD player.

The film opens up deep in the Amazon, where a scientist (Lewis Van Bergen) is attending a ritual of a local tribe.  They give him a potion to drink, but once he does, he loses it.  A week later, a ship arrives from Brazil with lots of blood splattered everywhere and severed limbs in a container.  Detective Vincent D'Agosta (Sizemore) is on the case, which grows more strange when a security guard at the museum is found decapitated and missing his hypothalamus as well.  He's under constant pressure to finish his investigation by the head of the museum, Dr. Ann Cuthbert (Hunt) because in two days time, the museum is hosting a huge gala celebrating the opening of their newest exhibit, titled "Superstition" (ha ha).  But the killer is not a "murderer who makes Jeffrey Dahmer look like a cub scout," as D'Agosta thinks.  It's a vicious monster with an appetite.

I recall reading "Relic," the book by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child a few years ago, not realizing that the movie was based on it (no doubt Universal had "franchise" in their eyes, although the hopes were dashed when the film bombed at the box office).  It was a decent yarn, and seeing as this is a horror movie, the plot and characters are simplified.  Too much.  There's a lack of depth in the material that makes most of the movie, especially everything prior to the bloodbath in the final quarter, a little thin.

The acting by the two leads is effective.  Penelope Ann Miller can act, and she possesses a nice set of lungs, but I don't know.  There's something off about her.  She lacks presence, I guess.  Tom Sizemore is better, since presence is something Sizemore has an abundance of.  The two veterans in the cast, Linda Hunt and James Whitmore, are very good.  It might have been better to center the film around them.  It would have at least been more inventive (can you imagine?  Tiny Linda Hunt and wheelchair bound James Whitmore running away from a giant monster?  Sounds totally groovy!).

The film is effectively directed by Peter Hyams, who doe his own cinematography.  That's actually the problem.  The DVD has a substantial loss of color and brightness, which makes a lot of what goes on difficult to see (not in a good way).  The trailer looks fine, so I'm thinking something got lost in translation.  I have to see it on Blu Ray to be sure, though.

Despite that, this is a fun monster flick.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

My Kid Could Paint That


Rated PG-13 for Language

I'm not the world's biggest documentary fan.  Due to the nature of the genre, they can come off as more school lessons than movies.  Done right, however, as is the case with "My Kid Could Paint That," they become more fascinating than many fictional movies.

The film is about Marla Olmstead, a four year old girl who likes to paint.  The thing is, she's really good.  So good, in fact, that she attracts the attention of artist Anthony Brunelli, who is looking to open up his own gallery.  He sees her paintings in a coffee shop and agrees to have a showing for her work.  Her works sell like wildfire, each painting garnering higher and higher prices.  The four year old girl is the talk of the art world, and Marla and her family are swooped up into this whirlwind of attention and media frenzy.  That's when an interview on "60 Minutes II" changed everything.  Ellen Winner, a child psychologist claimed that Marla wasn't a prodigy and was coached, and that the painting she shown on the show wasn't as strong as the others.  That's when the Olmsteads and Brunelli were vilified by the art community and the world.  Redemption came when Marla's parents taped her painting a piece from beginning to end.

Literally, this is a documentary that can make you feel the same emotions as the people in it.  There's excitement as the family is getting all this attention, and shock, despair and rage after it all comes tumbling down after the "60 Minutes" show.

The people in the film are surprisingly well-developed.  Director Amir Bar-Lev takes time to allow us to see multiple sides of each of the people involved.  Mark, Marla's father, loves the attention (maybe a little too much...), while Laura, Marla's mother, does not.  Both of them want to give Marla as normal a childhood as possible, but that's a struggle because they're living in a whirlwind of attention and fame that they didn't necessarily want.

Bar-Lev also takes time to look at modern art in general.  A number of people that he interviews think, or at least give voice to the idea that modern art is a sham.  A few cool scribbles on the page might be worth a hundred bucks or so if you're feeling generous, but being sold for millions as auction houses like Christie's?  Holy crap!

Could the claims of fraud on the part of Marla's parents be due to an insecurity that if a four year old can do what modern artists are being paid millions for, they'll be out of a job?  Possibly.  Certainly, some claims of modern art are questionable.  I recall seeing a piece at the modern art museum that's basically a huge box printed halfway with purple and the other half black.  It looks like something I could make on my printer if i could If that's art worthy of putting in a museum, then what's the cutoff?

There's discussion about our fascination with child prodigies.  People think it's unique to see a child operating on an adult level, although the film doesn't go much deeper than that.

Also interesting is the fact that Bar-Lev becomes a part of his own documentary.  His subjects as him questions on how he feels about what he's filming and what he plans to do with his footage.  And he admits to feeling conflicted about the possibility of having to claim that some very nice people are frauds.

Ultimately, this film is about the controversy of whether Marla did or did not do the paintings herself.  If Bar-Lev has any doubts, he doesn't show it (well, he has doubts at the end, although it's impossible to understand why.  The evidence doesn't hold up.  There are videos of her painting by herself, and the evidence of "coaching" is hardly that, even if it is what it looks like.  Saying "Paint on the red" is hardly guilty.  She may have followed his instructions on where to paint, but what she painted is of her own devising.  My guess is that "60 Minutes II" wanted to keep the story alive by feeding on the public's need to tear down idols (celebrity gossip magazines, anyone?) and hired someone looking for their 15 minutes of fame.  The evidence just doesn't back it up.

Still, this is a fun and very entertaining ride.