Monday, April 29, 2013

Pain & Gain

2/4

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shaloub, Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson, Bar Paly, Rob Corddry

Rated R for Bloody Violence, Crude Sexual Content, Nudity, Language Throughout and Drug Use

One has to give Michael Bay credit for trying something different.  Bay, the king of monster budget special effects extravaganzas (like the "Transformers" franchise and "Bad Boys" and "Bad Boys II"), opted to do a smaller budget ($25 million, which is a fraction of his usual budget) movie for a change of pace.  Fair enough.  I'm about as sick of metal robots pounding the hell out of each other as he probably is.  The film looks great, as his films always do.  Unfortunately, he commits the cardinal sin of any movie: he filmed the movie with a script that is in desperate need of a few rewrites to clean it up.

Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) is a personal trainer at a gym that he has saved from ruin.  But he wants his own version of the American dream, especially after he helps a rich asshole named Victor Kershaw (Shaloub) get in shape.  So Daniel hatches a plan that's so simple and so boneheaded that laughing is all one can do to keep their jaw from hitting the floor.  Daniel and his two friends, ex-con Paul (Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Mackie), whose steroid addiction left him with erectile dysfunction, will kidnap Kershaw (in disguise of course), make him sign over all of his assets, and send him on his way (with a protein shake).  Their problem is two-fold: none of them are blessed with any intelligence whatsoever and Murphy's Law is in full force.

This has all the makings of a great action comedy, and I'm sure that that's what Michael Bay had in mind.  A sort of Tarantino meets Clark Griswold.  But the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is a mess.  It's unorganized to the point where it frequently gives flashbacks of the characters' backstories (which are oddly placed) and it's constantly tripping over itself to explain everything.

The acting is adequate.  Mark Wahlberg is his usual reliable self, although this is not his finest hour.  Dwayne Johnson is terrific as the now-sober ex-con who is trying his best to stay on the straight and narrow.  He also proves that he understands comedy as some of his antics and lines provide the biggest laughs.  Anthony Mackie is surprisingly weak.  In the past, such as in the "Half Nelson" and "The Hurt Locker," Mackie has proven himself to be a more than capable actor.  But here, he fades into the background.  Tony Shaloub isn't dislikable enough to be truly convincing.  Rather than a man who deserves what he gets, Shaloub plays him like Mr. Hertz in "Shoot 'Em Up."  While this leads to some humorous moments, it decreases the asshole factor that the character needs.  And of course, Ed Harris is his usual reliable self.

Michael Bay is a popular whipping boy these days, and to be honest, I'm not sure why.  Sure, the "Transformers" movies were dumb, but blame the studios for greenlighting those scripts.  Michael Bay was simply doing his job, and let no one argue that he doesn't have visual panache.  If he's given a great script, he can make a masterpiece like "The Rock."  Unfortunately, the script he got wasn't very good.  Bay does what he can with what he is given, including some ironic uses of title cards.  But it's not enough.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Margin Call

3.5/4

Starring: Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Penn Badgely, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons, Mary McDonnell

Rated R for Language

No gunshots.  No car chases.  Unbearable suspense.

How is this possible?  When you have a top-notch everything, a lack of violence and stunts is irrelevant.  The acting is superb from top to bottom.  The writing is strong and intelligent.  The direction, by a filmmaker who has only made one other professional short, is terrific.  Those three things, my friends, are what really make a good movie.

A major financial company is going through severe cutbacks, and Eric Dale (Tucci), the risk management division head, is one of the victims.  Before he leaves, he hands a jump drive to one of his underlings, a 28-year old guy named Peter Sullivan (Quinto), with the warning to "be careful."  The jump drive contains a project that Eric was working on but wasn't able to finish.  When Peter fills in the blanks, the results horrify him.  The products that they are selling are close to worthless, and due to how they are made, they are forced to keep them on their books longer than they'd like.  If everything goes belly up, the company is sunk a zillion times over.  Now Peter and a few other executives at the company are scrambling to figure out what to do, and the choices are ugly and uglier.

Of the nine members of the main cast, all are actors who have made names for themselves, either in TV or in film.  Two Oscar winners and two nominees, two movie stars, and two leads on hit TV shows.  All of whom, I am pretty sure, have been paid more for one film/TV season than the entire budget ($3.395 million) of this film.  There's only one way you can do that: you have a script that's so good that they want to be in it.  A lot of times, actors are offered so much money to do a film that it would be insane to turn it down (for example, Demi Moore was paid $12.5 million, nearly four times the budget of this movie, to appear in "Striptease").  It's not hard to see what appealed to the actors: the story is relevant and the script is strong enough to allow them to use all of their talents in their performances.

Every single actor in this film gives a brilliant performance.  Zachary Quinto is terrific as the young worker who stumbled onto something out of his worst nightmare.  Penn Badgely is just as good as his friend Seth, who jokes about it until he realizes that it means that his job is gone (the scene where he makes one desperate play for his job is heartbreaking).  Kevin Spacey gives another brilliant performance as a man who is stuck in the muck and watching in disbelief and disgust at what people around him are doing to get out of it.  Simon Baker is positively chilling as division head Jared Cohen, who will do anything to escape unscathed and will destroy anyone who gets in his way (reportedly, studios were offering writer/director J.C. Chandor more money if he agreed to make one of the characters an out-and-out villain, but he refused.  I suppose he got his way, although Jared Cohen makes Gordon Gekko look like a pussy).  Demi Moore (taking over for Carla Gugino, who had to bow out at the last minute) gives one of her best performances as the professional who reminds Cohen that she warned him that this could happen, but the fact that she's no match for Cohen in terms of ruthlessness gives her a dose of vulnerability.  Finally, there's the irreplaceable Jeremy Irons, whose John Tuld radiates power (the scenes that build up to his entrance make up the film's most suspenseful sequence...it's masterful).  And while the character is based on the much despised ex-CEO of Lehman Brothers, Tuld is not entirely unsympathetic.  He may be ruthless and do some despicable things, but he has his reasons and he at least acknowledges that what he's doing is bad (although he marginalizes the implications of them).

The film is really divided into two parts: a thriller and a tragedy.  Surprisingly, both are on equal footing.  When we come to realize how big this problem actually is, it's incredibly suspenseful.  People are squabbling over whose fault it is and growing intimidated at having to tell the next guy on the top of the food chain.  Part two is a tragedy.  Once all the pieces are laid out and a decision is made, the characters fight to do their jobs and keep their heads up as they essentially screw the whole world over.

There are only two real flaws with the film.  The first is that the film opens up with a huge layoff, which begs the question why they would fire such a huge amount of people if they didn't know what was coming.  The second is that for a lay person, the actual problem isn't very clear, and even when it's presented in layman's terms, it's still not very clear.  After the third time watching it, I finally get it (pretty much).  Strangely, though, it almost doesn't matter because the performances, script and direction are so strong that we understand in (very) general terms what is going on, and more importantly, what it means.

"Margin Call" is made for the thinking person in mind.  You have to pay attention, but it's so engrossing that that won't be hard at all.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Stealth

2/4

Starring: Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel, Sam Shepard, Jamie Foxx, voice of Wentworth Miller

Rated PG-13 for Intense Action, Some Violence, Brief Strong Language and Innuendo

While it's unfair to lay the blame of "Stealth's" failings completely at the feet of director Rob Cohen (the script is ambitious but half-baked, and the performances are flat across the board), most of it has to do with Cohen's utter lack of talent as a filmmaker.  Cohen can only make brainless popcorn flicks, and he's not even very good at those ("The Fast and the Furious" was wimpy and I'm going to pretend that the third "Mummy" movie doesn't exist).  At least he has flair, unlike another special effects director who shall remain nameless...

Ben Gannon (Lucas), Kara Wade (Biel) and Henry Purcell (Foxx) are the top three pilots in the Naval Air Force.  As such, they are assigned to fly on the cutting edge of military technology.  Now, the three of them are given another wingman.  His name is EDI (Miller), and he's completely, 100% machine.  Ben and Henry aren't cool with the idea, but Kara is ambivalent.  Despite their reservations, their commander, George Cummings (Shepard), orders them to fly with EDI.  Things change when EDI becomes aware of himself and stops obeying orders.  Now they'll have to stop him before he starts a war by himself.

The acting is, shall we say, uninspired.  All of these actors have given good performances elsewhere, but they're all coasting through.  Josh Lucas is usually reliable, but he lacks any sort of life.  Jessica Biel has absolutely nothing to do, which isn't so bad because she is pretty stiff.  Jamie Foxx uses his considerable charisma to get by.  Sam Shepard looks like he'd rather be anywhere else.  I can't give an opinion on Wentworth Miller because his voice is so mechanized.  The ever reliable character actor Joe Morton is also flat.

The script is ambitious...at least for a movie with a $135 million price tag.  The film talks about the ethics, risks and consequences of using computers to fight battles.  That's all well and good, but unfortunately the script by W.D. Richter is pretty shallow, so there's not much follow through on these ideas (none of which are particularly revolutionary).  The character development is attempted, but ineffective.  Of greater concern is the sexism of the film.  There are some lines that are pretty demeaning towards women in the first half; they're disguised as innuendo, but it doesn't work and it made me feel a little unclean.

Rob Cohen is clearly in over his head.  The script tries to do a lot; the film changes formulas repeatedly, particularly in the second half, and Cohen struggles to keep up.  The film keeps tumbling all over itself towards the finish line and ends on a note of mediocrity instead of adrenaline, or at best, dumb fun.  The film looks great, but so did the third "Mummy" movie.

In the end I can't recommend it, although I have to give it credit for at least making a solid attempt at being something different.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

3/4

Starring: Bailee Madison, Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Jack Thompson

Rated R for Violence and Terror

"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" does exactly what it sets out to do: chill viewers for 99 minutes.  This is a creepy monster movie that will cause the hairs on everyone's back to stand up.  It's not particularly ambitious, nor does it take any chances, but it is effective.

Sally (Madison) has just been shipped off to New England to live with her father Alex (Pearce) and his business partner/girlfriend, Kim (Holmes).  She's uncommunicative with her father and borderline hostile towards Kim.  Things change when Sally discovers a basement to the house that Alex and Kim have been refurbishing.  It gives the three of them a chance to bond, although that doesn't last long when Sally begins to realize that there are creatures living underneath the house and they want something from her.

The film is solid, but not spectacular, on all fronts.  The performances are effective.  Each actor has their stiff moments, but for the most part they're good.  Young Bailee Madison is quite good as the young girl who is first curious about the voices coming from the grate, then horrified when she realizes what their true motives are.  It's a lot to ask of a young actress to carry an entire movie on their shoulders, but Madison does it with few awkward moments.  Also good is Katie Holmes.  Although she has a few weak moments in the beginning, she becomes a real woman that I cared about.  Kim believes Sally when no one else does.  Sadly, Guy Pearce isn't as strong as he usually is.  He's coasting on his charisma as the overworked father who is procrastinating dealing with the increasingly terrifying situation until the house gets put on the cover of an architecture magazine.  Still, it's probably impossible for him to give a truly bad performance.

Guillermo del Toro produced this film, and his influence is felt when one gets a good look at the creatures (director Troy Nixey doesn't show them until about halfway through the film, using the "Jaws" rule).  Although not as creative or creepy as the creatures that del Toro has featured in his movies, the creature design gets the job done.  These guys are creepy.  And it helps that the CGI is convincing.

The problem, in so much that there is a problem, is that the film settles for merely being good when there are hints of greatness to be found here.  There are a number of truly chilling sequences in the film (one takes place in a bed and the other in the foyer), and some scenes are actually moving.  Had Nixey been willing to take a few chances, this film might have really been something.  He certainly has the talent for it.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Oblivion

3.5/4

Starring: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence, Brief Strong Language, and Some Sensuality/Nudity

When I watched the trailer for "Oblivion," I was intrigued because it looked awesome, but I had absolutely no idea what it was about.  There's a reason for this: the film is about ideas, rather than action.  No doubt Universal wanted to highlight the gunfire and special effects to bring in the teenagers.  They'll earn their money's worth, although not in the way they were expecting.  This is not "Star Wars."

A war has decimated Earth.  In Jack's words, "We won the war, but lost the planet."  Jack is a technician who cleans up the last of the aliens that attacked Earth, and making sure that the machines that are being used to extract the last of Earth's resources (which are going to be moved to Titan, Saturn's largest moon).  But strange occurrences are happening around him that are causing him to believe that things are not all that they appear to be.  Jack's partner, Victoria (Riseborough) wants him to ignore his misgivings so as to not jeopardize their future on Titan, but Jack is determined to find the answers.

"Oblivion" is more of a mystery rather than an adventure.  There are some action sequences and they're competently done, but there's not much of it.  This is about ideas and story.

The acting is effective, although this is Tom Cruise's show.  And as we all know, he is one of the few actors working who can carry a $120 million movie entirely on his shoulders.  Cruise is terrific; this is the actor's best performance in years (looking at his credits, the last film that comes to mind is "The Last Samurai," and that was released in 2003).   Also good is Andrea Riseborough, who brings to mind Jennifer Ehle.  Olga Kurylenko has her stiff moments, but is usually just as good.  Morgan Freeman, despite getting heavy billing, doesn't have a lot of screen time.

The film looks fantastic.  This is a visually dazzling and vividly imagined movie.  Considering that it was co-written and directed by Joseph Kosinski, who made "Tron: Legacy," that's not surprising.  The film is built around technology that could be invented in another few decades (I kept thinking to myself, "why haven't they made a plane like the one in this movie?").

Emotionally, this is a pretty chilly movie.  While I understood the characters and wanted to see the movie through to the end, I didn't feel much for them (it is there, just understated).

Finally, there are some problems with the plot.  When the truth is explained, I was confused.  Either the writing was bad or I didn't catch the dialogue, I'm not sure.  It becomes more clear later on, but it makes for a frustrating ten minutes.

I think this movie is worth seeing.  It has a compelling storyline and it's well acted and directed.  It's not the best film of the year, but it is worth seeing in a theater (preferably in IMAX).

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Mike's Musings: I'M GAY!

As you all know, I'm a strong supporter of gay rights.  The LGBT movement, which has been in full swing for the past thirty years, is the great civil rights battle of our time.  Progressions towards gay marriage are sweeping the nation, including a trio of issues that are before the US Supreme Court.  Support for gay rights has never been higher, and numbers are growing.  Celebrities like George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Steven Spielberg (to name a few of many) are active supporters.  Businesses are also taking note, adding protections against discrimination in the work place and giving benefits to their gay employees.

But there is another, more important, reason why I'm such a gay rights booster.

I'm gay myself.

Coming out in public isn't an easy decision for anyone, and it wasn't for me.  I've come out in stages, starting shortly after I first realized and accepted it towards the end of my junior year in high school.  Admitting it is threatening in and of itself, and telling others is even more so.  But I've had the support of my friends and family, and I've come out in stages over the years.  The question I've been asking myself isn't so much who knows but who doesn't know.  I assure you, the number of people that I interact with on a regular basis who do not know are few.

The real fear of coming out is being discriminated against.  It's like being bullied, and it's not fun.  But my fear of that has lessened along with my other fears related to my sexuality to the point where I'm having trouble coming up with convincing reasons to stay in the closet in any form.

Let's start with the basics: Facebook.  When I first created an account in 2006, after I got accepted into the University of Iowa, it was still a fairly new thing.  For the first moments I had an account I listed myself as "Interested in Men and Women," not because I was bisexual, but because I was open to talking to guys and girls (silly me).  Not wanting to encounter discrimination so early, I said I was straight on my profile, and it's been that way until now.

But why should I still set myself as straight on the world's largest social network?  Will people unfriend me if they knew?  I'm not sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did.  Still, I have over 1,000 friends on Facebook, about 90% of whom were people I met at a party in college or just on Facebook and haven't talked to since.  Why should I care what they think?  If they unfriend me, it's their loss.  They won't get updates when I post a new review (ha ha).

How about the job market?  The job market sucks enough as it is, so I don't need to publicize anything that could keep me from getting a job.  But here's the thing: it's 2013.  There are lots of protections against discrimination because of sexual orientation (not so much in the government...yet) in many businesses.  If it came out that a business refused to hire or fired me because I was gay, the backlash would be huge.  Their company would take a massive hit in the public eye, and they would have to make their PR department go into overdrive to do damage control.  And even if that were the case, would I actually want to work at a company that wouldn't be accepting of my sexual orientation?  Of course not.  Being out saves me a hell of a lot of grief.

Then there's the potential for violence and bullying.  This is a very real threat, but everyone has that threat by simply breathing in and out.  I live in a big city, and while Missouri is pretty conservative, Saint Louis is not, especially when it comes to gay rights.  It's more embarrassing to be against gay rights than it is to be gay or an open supporter.

Finally, there's the potential for stereotyping.  Again, everyone is stereotyped in some way, so why should this be any different?  And I'm my own best defense against the stereotypes.  I'm not feminine; I don't talk like Chris Colfer (although I love "Glee").  I drink beer, although I won't say no to a mixed drink.  I have terrible fashion sense, mainly because I don't care about it (I feel more comfortable in a t-shirt and shorts than in a button down and slacks).  My brother is a much better dresser than me when he's lounging around the house, and he's been dating the best girlfriend ever for so long that I've lost count.  I don't have a weird hairdo (provided that I've had a haircut recently, because I do have Irish hair, despite the fact that it's brown).  I don't have any piercings or tattoos (neither of which are predominantly associated with being gay, by the way).

In practice, I'm essentially out in every way but in name.  I date.  I hold hands with guys I like.  I've even kissed them in public places.  Who cares?  I'm certainly not in your face about it, but I'm not doing to live in fear of my actions being construed as me being gay.

And it's not like I can keep it secret forever.  I mean, I plan on getting married and having a family someday. That would be really awkward on my wedding day and for the family album.  Why not start now?

I'll admit that doing this is a little threatening.  But I'll get over it.  Living openly and being comfortable is refreshing.  I don't have to worry about how I word things in my reviews or online.  I can openly say in the next Paul Walker movie that he is the most gorgeous individual I have ever seen (and for someone who is going to turn 40 in September, he still looks fantastic).

With all the progress in the fight for gay rights, I think it's a little hypocritical for me, who is comfortable in his own skin, to still hide behind this small bastion of insecurity.  It's not worth it unless you take advantage of it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

2.5/4

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ryan Gosling, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendehlson, Rose Byrne, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Bruce Greenwood, Mahershala Ali, Harris Yulin

Rated R for Language Throughout, Some Violence, Teen Drug and Alcohol Use, and a Sexual Reference

There's no denying that Derek Cianfriance's sophomore feature is ambitious and has potential.  But while there are elements that are worthy of high praise, the film is too problematic for me to recommend.

Luke (Gosling) is a stunt motorcycle rider for a travelling circus.  He wants to reconnect with an old flame, a pretty waitress named Romina (Mendes), but she's already in a relationship with Kofi (Ali).  But Romina has given birth to Luke's son, of which she only just now has informed him.  Luke wants to provide for his new baby, but a job is hard to come by.  With the help of a mechanic named Robin (Mendelsohn), Luke takes up robbing banks.  But then he has an interaction with a police officer named Avery (Cooper), which changes their lives forever.  Avery is now known as a hero, although rising in the police force has its drawbacks as he is strong-armed into becoming corrupt.  Fifteen years later, Luke's son Jason (DeHaan) and Avery's son AJ (Cohen) become friends, although because of their personalities and their fathers' relationship, this friendship is primed to explode.

"The Place Among The Pines" contrasts Luke and Avery, and how their actions influence the lives of their children.  This kind of story is brimming with potential, but due to the way Cianfriance writes and directs the film and a surprisingly flat performance by Ryan Gosling, there are stretches, particularly in the first half, where the film becomes pretentious and boring.

Cianfriance's style is hyper-realism.  There's no sense of theatrics or drama with which the characters act or talk.  Normally this would be refreshing, especially since many scripts in big budget endeavors are crap, and many "stars" of today are acting-challenged but photogenic models.  But Cianfriance overdoes it.  Realism may be good for real life, but the way it's done in this movie makes it impossible to feel for the characters a lot of the time because they are completely normal.  And normal people don't exactly make compelling movie characters.  Cianfriance loves dialogue, but unlike Quentin Tarantino, another dialogue lover, the characters often don't say anything of real interest or that concerns the story.  I get that some scenes are needed to set up the characters and show them in relatively normal times, but the film is about a half hour too long (most of the film's first act could have been excised).

Also problematic is Ryan Gosling, which is shocking.  From playing a Jewish neo-nazi in "The Believer" to a lead in a romantic comedy in "Crazy, Stupid, Love" Gosling has been known for his talent as well as his guts.  But here, his character doesn't say much, and Cianfriance doesn't capture the nuances in Gosling's body language.  As a result, Luke becomes an extremely boring individual.  And due to Cianfriance's need to be "indie" with grainy camerawork and lots of dramatic pauses, the film's first act becomes insufferable.

Once Avery enters the picture, the film picks up.  The story moves quicker and the characters are more interesting.  Bradley Cooper, who has been moving away from comedies that jump started his career, has never been better.  As a cop who tries to do the right thing, he's believable and sympathetic.  While there have been cop movies where a good cop is trapped in a situation where they have to do some unsavory things, this conflict is played out in a fresh manner.  Eva Mendes is also good, although due to the nature of the character or how she was directed, she exudes little screen presence (my guess is on the latter since she has proven before many times that she can command the camera's attention).

The film's strongest section is the final third.  It stars Dane DeHaan, one of film's most exciting new actors, and Emory Cohen, whom I haven't seen before, as the children of Luke and Avery.  While there is a "twist" in this act (which I won't reveal), it's not the focus of the story and frankly, it's obvious from fairly early on.  This is where everything comes full circle, and the characters are forced to confront their responsibility in all that has taken place.  This leads to great drama, and a fair amount of suspense.  Both DeHaan and Cohen give strong performances, and everything is resolved in a fresh but honest way.

As strong as the final two thirds are, I can't recommend the film.  The first third is so sluggish that it becomes painful, and the other two acts are overlong.  This is a movie that's almost twice as long as it needs to be.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Jeffrey

2/4

Starring: Steven Weber, Patrick Stewart, Michael T. Weiss, Bryan Batt

Rated R for Strong Sexuality and Language

What a weird movie.

"Jeffrey" is as unconventional as they come.  From the bizarre asides that show what the lead character is feeling (the movie takes the "show, not tell" rule to new heights) to humorous asides which include weightlifting as a metaphor for sex and advice from a randy priest, this is not a normal movie.  But for all the cleverness and rule-breaking the film does, it doesn't work.  The comedy isn't funny, the acting is flat, and the writing is shallow.

Jeffrey (Weber) is a sexually compulsive gay man.  But the AIDS crisis and a number of bizarre in-bed experiences has led him to give up sex.  Then he meets Steve (Weiss), a handsome man at the gym.  Steve is interested in him and the feeling is mutual, but thinking that it would lead to uninhibited sex, Jeffrey bails.  Eventually, Jeffrey agrees to date Steve, but then Steve drops a bombshell: he's HIV positive.

I have to at least give the film credit for doing something different.  Screenwriter Paul Rudnick (adapting from his play) and director Christopher Ashley fill the movie with all sorts of weird wackiness.  For example, in examining his feelings about his sexual life, the film throws Jeffrey, his friend Sterling (Stewart), and a waiter into an impromptu (and imagined) game show.  Then Sigourney Weaver (in an over-the-top and not particularly convincing performance) as "the nation's hottest post-modern evangelist."  Then there's Mother Theresa (Irma St. Paul), who shows up when Jeffrey gets injured.  Finally, in the film's wittiest scene, Jeffrey talks about sex with his mother (Debra Monk) and father (Peter Maloney).

Unfortunately, the result isn't nearly as entertaining or even interesting as it sounds.  The asides are part of the problem.  They take away our attention from the characters, who are flat enough as it is.  As such, our interest in Jeffrey, Steve, Sterling or Sterling's ditzy lover Darius (Batt) is minimal.  This wouldn't be much of a problem if the comedy was actually funny, but it's not.  It's at best, mildly amusing, and at worst, tedious.

The acting isn't particularly good.  Steven Weber is pretty bad as Jeffrey.  Instead of a guy whose fears we understand and feel for, Jeffrey becomes a neurotic loser whose treatment of Steve borders on emotional abuse.  I kept waiting for him to get his act together and stop being such a jerk.  Patrick Stewart, a powerful and versatile actor (who seems to be willing to do any kind of role), is surprisingly flat, although considering the limitations of the script, it's not really his fault.  Bryan Batt is certainly ditzy enough, but he suffers from the same problem.  Frankly, the only one worth feeling for is Steve, although the way his character is introduced is a little offensive.

In the end, the only pleasurable thing about this movie is spotting the stars (which, in addition to the ones listed, include Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski, and Kathy Najimi) and seeing what kind of wacky aside is coming next.  That's not nearly enough cause to watch this movie though.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Nine Months

3/4

Starring: Hugh Grant, Julianne Moore, Tom Arnold, Joan Cusack, Jeff Goldblum, Robin Williams

Rated PG-13 for Language and Sexual Innuendo

Typically in romantic comedies the formula is meet cute, fall in love, complications, then get back together and happy ever after.  With "Nine Months," that's not strictly the case.  It goes from being in love to complications.  And the complications are what typically happens after the final reel (or close to it): pregnancy.

Samuel's (Grant) life is, in his words, "dangerously close to perfection."  He's a successful child psychologist (despite everything pointing to the contrary), has been in love with Rebecca (Moore) for the past five years, and has a gorgeous Porsche.  But Rebecca is missing something in her life, and it's only after she says the two words no man in the movies ever wants to hear that she knows what it is.  Samuel's perfect life is changing, and he's either got to get with the program or lose Rebecca and his baby forever.

Hugh Grant's best asset has been his British charm, and that's on full display in his American film debut.  He's handsome and intelligent, but immature and a little gawky.  The latter two give him a sense of vulnerability that makes him seem more human rather than a Harlequin romance figure (which are explicitly referenced in the film).  Julianne Moore is also in fine form, although this is far from her best performance.  It did get her noticed, and considering her later, deeper work, well, I have no complaints.  Tom Arnold and Joan Cusack are meant to be comic relief as Samuel and Rebecca's new babymaking friends Marty and Gail, but they're a little stiff and shrill; only about half of their scenes work.  Jeff Goldblum gives another fine performance as Samuel's defiantly childless friend Sean.  He's a true scene stealer.  And of course, Robin Williams turns in a hilarious performance as Dr. Kosevich, the Russian doctor who can barely speak English and is delivering his first baby.

Chris Columbus has always been a solid comic filmmaker.  From the "Home Alone" movies (not the third) to "Mrs. Doubtfire" and this, Columbus has always known how to set up scenes that keep the audiences in stitches.  There plenty of laughs in this movie, but there are three scenes worth mentioning.  One is where Samuel and Marty get into a fist fight with a Barney-clone with a bad attitude and foul mouth.  The scene is worth the price of admission in and of itself.  Another is when Samuel and Rebecca are racing towards the hospital and having to pick up passengers along the way.  Finally, there's the delivery scene itself, which is just a scene of craziness.  His skills have never been in character development or acting (the first two "Harry Potter" movies are a case in point).

This isn't exactly a great movie, but if you're looking for a fun 90 minutes with a few hilarious scenes, this is a good pick.

In the Line of Fire

3/4

Starring: Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott, John Mahoney, Fred Dalton Thompson

Rated R for Violence and Language

The best villains know the heroes as well as they know themselves.  They know their weak spots (their wives/girlfriends, their kids, past mistakes, and so on), and they know how to stick a knife in the wound and twist it.  Any man can kill someone.  It takes a special breed of psychopath to punish the hero as he races against time to prevent a tragedy.

Frank Horrigan (Eastwood) was once "the best and the brightest" in the Secret Service.  He was JFK's favorite agent until he failed to take a bullet for the President.  Now nearly washed out, he is doing undercover work with his new partner, Al D'Andrea (McDermott).  Then he gets a call from a creepy man (Malkovich) who knows all about him, and reveals that he plans to kill the president.  Horrigan must play the man's game in order to trap him before history repeats itself.

Thrillers are always better when the hero and the villain are on an even playing field.  That happened in "The Silence of the Lambs" (in a strange sort of way) and that happens here.  Horrigan is smart, but so is the would-be assassin, a man named Mitch Leary.  Leary likens their relationship to a game, and it really is.  This is a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse, only the mouse isn't the prey.

Eastwood has been more of an icon rather than a traditional actor like Daniel Day Lewis or Sean Penn.  That's not such a bad thing, since we all love our movie stars.  Eastwood can actually act, and when Horrigan reflects on his past mistakes and his burgeoning relationship with Lily Raines (Russo), a fellow agent, we feel for him.  John Malkovich wasn't the first choice for the role of Mitch Leary, but he is the right one.  No one can play a creepy villain like him.  Leary is dangerous, but he's also intelligent.  To him, this is simply a game.  He wants to win, but his motivation is merely boredom.  He's doing it because he can.  Rene Russo has a few stiff moments, but is usually pretty good.  Dylan McDermott is too low-key, however.  He's a character actor, not someone can hold a movie camera's attention for an extended period of time.  And as a young rookie, he's not believable.

This is a departure for Wolfgang Peterson, who gained fame for his beloved submarine thriller, "Das Boot" (which I found to be overrated).  Peterson works best in closed spaces, like in his masterful action-thriller "Air Force One."  That doesn't apply to "In the Line of Fire," which jumps to more than a few parts of the United States.  Peterson at times struggles to keep things moving, although there is some genuine suspense and some wonderfully inventive shots in the climax (the clip of Leary going up an elevator in disguise is a case in point).  Unfortunately the climax is resolved in a cliched way (mostly).

"In the Line of Fire" is an effective thriller because it concentrates on the characters that inhabit it.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Splice

3/4

Starring: Sarah Polley, Adrien Brody, Delphine Chaneac, Simona Maicanescu, David Hewlitt, Abigail Chu

Rated R for Disturbing Elements including Strong Sexuality, Nudity, Sci-Fi Violence and Language

Typically speaking, it's a filmmaker's second feature that stinks (hence the term "sophomore slump").  Due to studio interference, a lacking script, or just plain inability to make lightning strike twice, many careers have taken a hit (and a few have been snuffed out...at least in the mainstream) after the second, better funded film turns out to be less than stellar.  With Vincenzo Natali, the opposite is true.  His "breakthrough" first feature, "Cube," was a abomination of a motion picture.  "Splice" is actually a good film.  Not flawless, but it at least follows through with what it promises.

Clive (Brody) and Elsa (Polley) are two scientists who live for pushing scientific boundaries.  They genetically mix different creatures' DNA to create new species to harvest genes for new medicines and treatments of diseases.  Both of them (especially Elsa) are overzealous; neither one of them really pauses to consider the implications of their actions.  When an executive (Maicanescu) says that they're shutting down the lab to concentrate on creating medication from the data they got, both of them are outraged.  They want to introduce human DNA into the mix.  When they don't get the go ahead, Elsa convinces Clive to do it anyway.  Their creation, which calls itself "Dren," is a fast growing being with both human and animal characteristics.  At first, Clive and Elsa find her fascinating, but things turn dangerous when Dren (Chu as a child, Chaneac as an adult) becomes hard to control.

Oddly enough, "Splice" resembles Paul Verhoeven's should-have-been-a-whole-lot-better sci-fi thriller "Hollow Man."  Both are films about scientists who break the rules in their insatiable desire to push boundaries and end up regretting it.  But whereas "Hollow Man's" interest in exploring the implications of being invisible was limited to the lead scientist chasing his female co-workers and feeding his need to dominate, "Splice" is more ambitious.  It asks a lot of questions about morality and ethics.  For example, how  does one interact with something that is only part human?  Elsa is paternal towards Dren, while Clive is cool and detached.  Or what about when Clive realizes whose DNA was used to create Dren?  Or in the film's creepiest turn, what do they do when Dren becomes aware of her sexuality?

Of all the people who could possibly be in this type of movie, Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are probably the last you'd think of.  Brody is the actor who is so strange looking and acting that when you hear that he is cast in a certain type of role (an action hero in "King Kong" and "Predators"), you'd think it laughable until you see the movie and realize that they were right on the money.  Brody is usually effective, but there are times when he's a little too low-key (like in the action scenes).  Sarah Polley, a Canadian actress who is beloved by director Atom Egoyan, is far from mainstream (although she did appear in "Go" and the "Dawn of the Dead" remake).  She's quite good; Elsa is talented but feels invincible to the consequences.  Also worth noting is Delphine Chaneac.  Chaneac doesn't have any dialogue (she uses Scrabble letters to form words, although not much), so the actress must use body language, and especially her face, to communicate how Dren feels.  Chaneac is excellent at this, using her eyes to communicate.

The film trips up in the final act.  It's not what happens (considering the genre and the fact that it's a major studio film, it's pretty much inevitable), but how it's handled.  The climax isn't set up especially well (weak writing is to blame), and the two leads suffer extreme brain cramps, breaking the most obvious (and most commonly broken) rule of horror movies).  Also, considering how frank the film was up until that point, it's a little tame (although the final scene is not).

I saw "Splice" long before I saw "Cube," so I wasn't expecting another cinematic disaster (I experienced the opposite when walking into "Moonrise Kingdom").  Still, "Splice" does a lot of things right.  Maybe this was an instance where studio interference helped the film (Guillermo del Toro and mega-producer Joel Silver are listed as executive producers).  It really doesn't matter how it happened since the end result would be just as satisfying.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Evil Dead (2013)

1/4

Starring: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore

Rated R for Strong Bloody Horror Violence and Gore, Some Sexual Content and Language

I have not seen Sam Raimi's breakthrough cult classic "The Evil Dead," although I own it on Blu Ray (courtesy of the discount section at Best Buy).  Reportedly, it is a mix of scary horror and goofy humor and filled with obscene amounts of blood and gore.  The 2013 remake, has only the latter.  It's not scary and it's not funny.  All in all, it's a drag.

Five friends are spending some time at a remote cabin in the woods, although this is not a weekend getaway.  Mia (Levy) is a drug addict, and her know-it-all nurse friend Olivia (Lucas) thinks that time in forced seclusion with no dope will cure her.  Along with them are her estranged brother David (Fernandez), his girlfriend Natalie (Blackmore), and their cynical hipster friend Eric (Pucci).  In the basement, Eric finds a mysterious book, and in a contrived act of idiocy, he reads from it.  That awakens a zombie (or something), who possesses Mia.  Mia goes haywire and starts attacking her friends, and then they start to get possessed.

Or something like that.  Coherency isn't at the top of director Fede Alvarez's priorities.  The script, which includes, of all people, Diablo Cody as one of its writers, fails to establish a set of rules for what can and cannot happen.  The only thing that Alvarez cares about is the red stuff, and there's a lot of that.  A ton of it. What he doesn't realize is that gore doesn't make a horror movie.

It's hard to care about a group of characters who are either stupid, annoying, or boring.  Or all of the above. Now, as has been the case since time immemorial, horror movie characters are not known for their intelligence.  But these people are so dumb that they must have lost their way from "Turbulence" or "Acolytes."  At least they were in a horror movie, which means that most, if not all, of them won't be alive by the end credits, therefore they cannot pass their tiny IQs on to unfortunate offspring.

The acting is, at best, bland.  Jane Levy's performance is as flat as her scream (a no-no for a decent horror movie heroine).  It's impossible to care whether she lives or dies.  Shiloh Fernandez is the best of the lot, although that is very faint praise, especially considering how unbelievably stupid his character is.  Jessica Lucas is nowhere near bossy or self-centered enough to be marginally credible as the Type A personality.  And Lou Taylor Pucci, who was so good in the little seen "Carriers," is incredibly annoying as the moronic hipster.  I kept thinking to myself, if he doesn't die by the end of the movie, I want my money back.  Elizabeth Blackmore is so boring is easy to forget she's in the movie until she pops up onscreen.

Fede Alvarez's direction can be best described as a hack job.  There's no style or quality evident.  Just lots of screaming, running around, and blood that flies everywhere.  To his credit, Alvarez remembers that the most minor and realistic injuries are the scariest and most cringe-inducing.  But there's never any set-up or even close to competent handling, so when they pull nails out of their arms, I barely raised an eyebrow.  Compare that to Nora-Jane Noone's injury in "The Descent."

I'll admit there are a few mild shocks and moments of humor.  But they don't save the movie however, and none of them are shocking or funny enough to make your life incomplete if you miss them.  If you do see it, which I don't recommend, bring a barf bag.  Preferably a few of them.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen

2/4

Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Rick Yune, Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Dylan McDermott, Finley Jacobsen, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser

Rated R for Strong Violence and Language Throughout

After watching "Olympus Has Fallen," I can guess the pitch to the studio with a fair amount of certainty what the pitch was: "Die Hard" meets "Air Force One."  It's solid thinking, since both were highly successful action movies.  Unfortunately, director Antoine Fuqua has taken elements of the aforementioned movies and cobbled them together in a less than satisfying result.

Mike Banning (Butler) is a trusted Secret Service agent assigned to protect President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart), Asher's wife Margaret (Ashley Judd in a cameo) and Asher's son Connor (Jacobsen).  After a car accident claims Margaret's life, Banning is sent to the Treasury Department (despite the fact that everyone knew it wasn't his fault.  Then, the White House is attacked by a group of highly trained soldiers, and Banning ends up being the only one who has a chance of taking back 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue before the President is killed.  Or worse.

The script is built upon so many cliches that it has trouble finding time to include them all.  It's overstuffed to the point where when one little subplot is resolved, it's done in such a quick and unsatisfying way that "perfunctory" is almost too kind.  Although it's not nearly as crappy as Chuck Pfarrer's script for "Red Planet," it does bring that sci-fi bomb to mind.

The film also has the unfortunate tendency to waste the considerable talents of everyone on screen.  Gerard Butler is miscast.  His best qualities are his charm and amiability, although he can play intense characters, like in "Machine Gun Preacher."  Butler tries to be both at the same time, and it doesn't really work.  Aaron Eckhart is wasted.  All he has to do is be tied up and tell his cabinet members to give up their part of a code (it's explained in the movie) to save their own necks.  As wasted as Eckhart is, that doesn't come close to describing what happens to Morgan Freeman.  The role of the Speaker of the House is so limp and generic that it's almost insulting to cast Freeman in it (one hopes that he was paid a lot of money).  Still, Freeman coasts through the role, giving the most (okay, let's face it, the only) lackluster performance of his career.  Rick Yune is also a weak villain, which is surprising because he was so chilling in "Ninja Assassin."  Kang is meant to be vicious and in control, but he's really a pussy.  Melissa Leo gives the best performance (she's unrecognizable as always) as the tough Secretary of Defense; I could feel her pain.

Antoine Fuqua is at least partly responsible for the lackluster quality of production.  For one thing, "Olympus Has Fallen" is one of those movies whose special effects look like special effects.  They're so fast moving and so cheesy that they're impossible to take seriously.  What should be a harrowing and tough to watch opening sequence is actually corny and goofy.  The film also lacks the claustrophobia necessary to make this kind of a movie work.  What made "Air Force One," and to a lesser extent, "Die Hard," so exciting is that I felt like I was right there with James Marshall/John McClane on the plane/in Nakatomi Plaza.  That didn't happen here.

There are some nice moments here and there, and I was never bored.  But it had such potential.  Maybe Channing Tatum's rescue of the White House will be better.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

3.5/4

Starring: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Giovanni Ribisi, Angelina Jolie, Bai Ling, Michael Gambon, Laurence Olivier

Rated PG for Sequences of Stylized Sci-Fi Violence and Brief Mild Language

I can't believe it's taken me this long to review "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow."  I've seen it many times and I always have a ball watching it.  It's certainly not flawless, but it's definitely a lot of fun.

Kerry Conran's debut feature is a love letter to those old serials that were popular in the 1930's.  The handsome and tough but vulnerable hero, the plucky heroine, the genius inventor, and the megalomaniacal villain.  You won't find brooding, tragic heroes or aliens or alternate dimensions here.  Conran keeps everything simple and innocent.

Polly Perkins (Paltrow) is reporter chasing down a story of some missing scientists.  While she's chasing down a crucial lead, the city comes under attack but a bunch of flying machines.  Fortunately, hero-for-hire Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Law) comes to the rescue.  The two of them will have to put aside their past romance to track down a mad scientist intending to end the world.

There's nothing truly original about this movie, but that's not the point.  This is a good old-fashioned adventure.  From the ground up (the film was shot almost entirely on blue screen, save for the actors and a few props), this is meant to be an old fashioned comic book come to life.  Cast a classic movie hero and dame and you wouldn't tell the difference.  The images are faded and desaturated to emulate film of the time period.  Aside from the fact that the actors are well known, the effect is almost entirely convincing (the special effects are a pretty big giveaway).  Interestingly enough, Steven Sodebergh used the same filming equipment and sets to make "The Good German" seem like a Bogart movie, but the effect was muted because he used modern filming techniques to tell the story (a messy script and a miscast Tobey Maguire didn't help either).

If the performances were at the the same level, the film would be a masterpiece.  Sadly, even with Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow as the leads, they aren't.  Surprisingly, Law and Paltrow are a little weak (and this isn't their first time working together, either.  They both starred in Law's breakout role, "The Talented Mr. Ripley," also playing lovers).  Law is uneven.  Usually, he's effective as the heroic Joe, but there are times when he seems miscast.  Paltrow doesn't seem to be invested in her role very much (when she's running underfoot of machines the size of skyscrapers, she doesn't seem to be freaked out at all).  Angelina Jolie is perfectly cast as Joe's old war buddy, Franky.  Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Gambon provide solid support. And Laurence Olivier appears on screen using archive footage.  It's done tastefully (it's purposefully jerky to the point where you can't even see his lips move), so it's not "grave robbery."

Kerry Conran got his job after his short film caught the eye of producer Jon Avnet, who then approached him with the goal of turning it into a feature film.  Avnet's eyes were right on the money...at least creatively.  As good as this film is, and it is very good, it didn't do well at the box office.  What a shame.  This movie is a lot of fun.