Saturday, June 29, 2013

White House Down

3/4

Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Joey King, James Woods, Jason Clarke, Nicolas Wright, Richard Jenkins

Rated PG-13 for Prolonged Sequences of Action and Violence including Intense Gunfire and Explosions, Some Language and a Brief Sexual Image

I like Roland Emmerich's movies.  "Independence Day" is one of the best disaster movies ever made (I saw it three times in the theater, including once while on vacation), and "The Day After Tomorrow" is grim but entertaining.  Emmerich is the master of epic popcorn movies, although "White House Down" is probably the smallest scale movie he's done since "Stargate."

Before I go any further, it is impossible to avoid mentioning this year's other "White House under attack" movie, "Olympus Has Fallen."  Emmerich's is better, mainly because he realizes that the story is ludicrous, and doesn't try to take things too seriously.  The CGI is less cheesy and Channing Tatum is a better lead in this sort of thing than Gerard Butler.

John Cale (Tatum) is a bodyguard to the Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins).  He wants to be a member of the Secret Service assigned to protect President James Sawyer (Foxx), but in an interview with Carol Finnerty (Gyllenhaal) squashes that dream.  That's when 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue gets attacked by a bunch of bad guys led by Emil Stenz (Clarke).  Now it's up to Cale to save the President, take down the bad guys and rescue his daughter Emily (King), who was with him on a tour of the White House after his interview.

Putting it simply, "White House Down" is a mess with limited entertainment value, but I enjoyed myself.  And with such a dreadful year of movies thus far, that's a relief.  The plot meanders a lot, subplots are introduced then dropped, and some of the performances are flat.  The film lacks focus, which for an action movie is crucial, since little else matters but the simplistic plot and the action sequences.

The acting varies.  Channing Tatum is very likable as John Cale.  While this isn't his best performance, it proves that he can carry a big budget action movie on his shoulders ("G.I. Joe" aside...).  Jamie Foxx is also very good.  People have been making a connection between Sawyer and Obama, but Foxx never attempts to ape our current president in any way.  Sawyer is a consummate politician: charismatic, friendly and intelligent.  It's always nice to see Maggie Gyllenhaal although she doesn't have much to do but talk to Cale through a headset.  Everyone else is adequate at best, but James Woods is awful.  Normally a terrific actor even in the most bizarre circumstances ("Hercules" and his semi-recurring role on "Family Guy" are two examples), Woods hams it ups so much that he hurts the film.

Emmerich seems to be a little lost with this script.  This isn't his forte, and it shows.  Still, the action scenes are fun and exciting, and I was gripping the armrest.  The film is really closer to "The Rock" (particularly at the end) than anything else, except maybe "Die Hard."

This is not a perfect film, but for a movie year that has been this bad, it's going to satisfy those who crave new movies.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

This is the End

1.5/4

Starring: Jay Baruchel, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride

Rated R for Crude and Sexual Content Throughout, Brief Graphic Nudity, Pervasive Language, Drug Use and Some Violence

If there's any movie that has a good premise, it's "This is the End."  It's about celebrities (playing themselves) facing the apocalypse.  The pitch line alone made me want to see the movie.  Unfortunately, it's just another in a long line of disappointments and dreadful "comedies" in 2013, which has so far suffered the curse of "13."

Jay Baruchel is visiting Seth Rogen.  Jay doesn't like LA, but he's friends with Rogen, so to make him feel better, Rogen has gathered all of Jay's favorite munchies, and they proceed to get stoned.  That's when Seth suggest they head over to James Franco's place, where he's having a house warming party for his new pad.  So the two head over there and we meet other celebrities like a coked-out Michael Cera (the idea of which is more funny than it actually is), Rhianna, Kevin Hart and Jason Segel.  That's when the apocalypse strikes, and everyone except Jay, Seth, James, Craig, Jonah and Danny (who sneaked into the party uninvited and shows up the next morning) is either dead or pulled up by a big blue light in the sky.

While the film occasionally gets a joke that lands, in general "This is the End" is a dreadful experience.  It's not funny, it's overlong and it's boring as hell.  About the only nice thing I can say is that the special effects are impressive.

These days, if a comedy wants to make money, it has to be crude and gross.  The lines of the R-rating have to be pushed as far as the MPAA will allow (and given their kowtowing to big studios, it's an impressive distance if you've got the dough).  But the key to success is not being more disgusting than the last movie, it's being gross while getting a laugh.  That's what eludes everyone involved in this misfire.  There's a difference between being gross and funny and just being gross.

In Roger Ebert's review of the Steve Martin vehicle, "The Jerk," he explained why he didn't find it funny.  "It seems to me," he wrote, "that there are two basic approaches to any kind of comedy, and in a burst of oversimplification I'll call them the Funny Hat and the Funny Logic approaches.  The difference here is elementary: In the first, we're supposed to laugh because the comic is wearing the runny hat, and in the second it's funny because of his reasons for wearing the funny hat."

That's the key here.  This is really a one-joke movie.  Goldberg and Rogen appear to think that anything is automatically hilarious because these celebrities are playing themselves.  But they're not doing anything funny.  Part of the reason is that we expect these people to be gross and funny.  All of them have appeared in movies for Judd Apatow, and he's the new king of gross-out comedies.  It might have been funnier if instead of these guys, we'd have people like Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, or any other high class actors (at least for a while...the script is too weak to sustain a short film).  That's why the scenes with Michael Cera are amusing (as far as amusing goes in this movie).  We expect Cera to play the awkward teenager, not a coked up sex fiend.

It wouldn't surprise me to learn that much of the dialogue is improvised.  In fact, I'm sure it is.  But none of the actors say anything funny.  They just mug the camera and squabble about this and that.  The plot ideas aren't particularly clever and the riffs don't go anywhere.

Finally, the problem is that the characters, such as they are, are undeveloped.  Because the cast members are playing versions of themselves things are a little different, but the same principle still applies.  We don't know who these people are, so when they do something strange for comic effect, how can we laugh?  Rogen and Goldberg missed a great opportunity here to poke fun at their own images.  But the images of the cast members are so similar that they're interchangeable.  If you called Jonah Hill Fred, it wouldn't have made much difference.  You have to have something to make fun of.  The only interesting characters are Emma Watson (because she does things we don't expect) and Danny McBride because he is the sort-of villain in the piece (and he's not particularly interesting).

This is such a waste.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

3/4

Starring (voices): Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, James Woods, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence

As computers grow more and more advanced, it became inevitable that Hollywood would try a movie like this: a big-budget animated extravaganza where the characters aren't cute, cuddly and funny.  This is not a Disney movie.  It's violent, suspenseful and intelligent.

My experiences with the Final Fantasy franchise is limited, but I don't recall any game that had this kind of a plot.  In any event, it details the work of scientist Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na).  She's looking for "spirits" that will help her and her partner, Dr. Sid (Sutherland) end an alien invasion that devastated the planet decades ago.  But she is under a time crunch, because her opponent, General Hein (Woods), wants to use the Zeus cannon in a last ditch attempt to wipe out the Phantoms, and that may do more harm than good.

The voice acting is effective.  They manage to accomplish what is necessary for a movie like this to succeed: earn our sympathy and not get lost amongst the visuals.  Ming-Na, who was famous for playing Dr. Deb Chen on "ER" at the time of the film's release, is usually solid as the idealistic and determined Aki, although she has a few stiff moments.  Alec Baldwin, on the other hand, has never been better.  He's incredibly sympathetic and heroic (some credit has to go to the animation department, who makes his character, Gray, very studly).  Donald Sutherland provides reliable support as the scientist with all the answers.  James Woods is adequate.  He's too nasty, especially for someone who has his reasons for doing the things that he does.  The writing for his character is on the weak side, making him seem like a one-dimensional megalomaniac at times.

Storywise, the film traverses interesting territory.  There's no movie that I've seen that has these kinds of ideas.  It's a little on the thin side and doesn't always make sense (particularly at the end), but it's definitely interesting.  It also doesn't feel like a video game put on screen.  The film's plot isn't mindless babble that exists solely to fill space between the action scenes.  It takes time to develop characters and a story.  This is how you develop a movie from a video game.

But let's not beat around the bush any longer.  The animation is incredible.  Even today, when a big budget game can boast graphics that are almost life-like, the film's visual appeal is its strongest asset. Not only is it extraordinarily beautiful, but it's inventive.  From the city landscapes to the cutscenes on the alien planet, the film is always dazzling to watch.

The film bombed at the box office, which is a shame.  I'm not sure why.  Were people turned off by the unusual story?  Not enough action (doubtful, considering how much there is).  But it sucks.  Think of what kind of movies we're missing because Hollywood won't try this again.

Fried Green Tomatoes (Extended Cut)

3/4

Starring: Mary Stuart Masterson, Mary Louise Parker, Jessica Tandy, Kathy Bates, Stan Shaw, Cicely Tyson, Gailard Sartain

The Extended Cut is not rated, but the theatrical cut is rated PG-13 (for language, thematic material and some violence, I guess)

"Fried Green Tomatoes" is a good old Deep South melodrama with tragedy, romance and all sorts of stuff that comes straight out of a soap opera.  Which is what the movie, based on the novel "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" by Fannie Flagg (who co-wrote the script) is.  The difference is that the acting is strong and the story is effectively told.

Evelyn Couch (Bates) is a frumpy and depressed housewife.  Her husband, Ed (Sartain), would rather sit in his chair with a beer and watch whatever game is on instead of spending time with her.  One one of the many days Ed drags her to the nursing home to visit his aunt (who despises Evelyn so much that she throws whatever she can at Evelyn for just saying hello).  Having hit rock bottom, she sits in a chair where she meets an old woman named Ninny (Tandy), who begins telling her a story about a murder that happened when she was growing up.  She backs up, explaining that the story won't make sense unless Evelyn knows the characters, specifically the fiery Idgie Threadgoode (Masterson), whose close friendship with Ruth Jamison (Parker) brought about the violent turn of events.

In the best of these movies, the acting is strong.  Mary Stuart Masterson is quite good as the tomboyish Idgie.  She's tough and stubborn, but always likable.  Ruth is calmer and quieter, but by no means is she a door mouse.  Jessica Tandy is lively and energetic as Ninny, making it easy to believe that Evelyn would come back to visit this woman she hardly knows just to hear more of her story.  Kathy Bates is the best of the quartet as the woman who gains strength to be her own woman after being inspired by Idgie.

The film is likable, but it takes a while to get going.  The biggest problem is that it lacks a strong sense of nostalgia.  Director Jon Avnet (who was behind Al Pacino's monstrosity, "88 Minutes") appears to be holding back in an attempt to avoid being too melodramatic.  What he forgets is that these movies are built on that.

"Fried Green Tomatoes" is popular in the LGBT crowd, and that doesn't surprise me.  The relationship between Idgie and Ruth is so close to being romantic that it's impossible to ignore.  I kept waiting, even hungering, for them to finally admit it to themselves and others.  Just kiss already, I thought.

This is not a perfect movie ("The Notebook" did something similar to better effect), but it represents solid entertainment.


Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Matador

3/4

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Hope Davis, Philip Baker Hall, Dylan Baker

Rated R for Strong Sexual Content and Language

It isn't long after I started watching "The Matador" that I realized I was in good hands.  Many films open with a radio announcer saying "Good morning!" and so on in a voice so cheery that they must be considered early birds by senior citizens.  "The Matador" does the same thing, only it starts yelling at the lead character to wake up.  The next clue comes a few moments later.  Pierce Brosnan empites his bedmate's purse, but only so he can paint his toenails.

"The Matador" is a winning comedy that's nearly undone by the pacing.  It's too slow, and the film drags as much as it is being funny.  But when it works, it really works.  It features two reliable actors giving terrific performances, and there's some ingenious comedy and suspense.

Danny (Kinnear) is an everyman who is desperately trying to get a job in Mexico City.  While celebrating a good omen, he meets Julian Noble (Brosnan).  After their initial conversation ends on a sour note, Julian invites Danny to a bullfight.  That's when he tells Danny that he is, in fact, a hitman. And to prove it to the skeptical Danny, he goes on a mock hit at the bullfight.  But Julian is not the most stable of individuals.  He drinks too much and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  This makes his boss very nervous, and the only way out requires Danny's help.

Ever since he donned the tuxedo in "GoldenEye," which proved to be one of the best movies in the long running franchise, Pierce Brosnan has proved himself to be a more than capable actor.  But he's never done anything like this.  Julian is a drunk, sleeps with anything possessing the correct body parts, and has no qualms walking through a hotel lobby in a speedo and cowboy boots (and nothing else).  Brosnan plays him with likability and humor, but also a sense of mystery; there are times when we don't know if he is serious or not.  And when you're dealing with a hitman, that's a big if.

Greg Kinnear has made a career of being an average guy.  It's not as easy as it looks, but Kinnear is wonderful as the small-town guy who married his high school sweetheart, Bean (Davis).  When Julian first tells him that he's a hitman, Danny doesn't believe him.  But he plays along until he realizes that Julian is serious.  But it's his innocence and earnestness that really makes the performance work.

Unfortunately, the film drags, and quite often.  Richard Shepard is a good director of actors, but the film is poorly paced and some of his shot choices are questionable at best.  And while there is good writing here, it's not enough to bring either Danny or Julian to three-dimensional level, which is where Shepard clearly wants them to be.

All in all, I think it works.  If nothing else, Pierce Brosnan's perforamance makes it worth it.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Man of Steel

2/4

Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence, Action and Destruction, and for Some Language

The biggest movie of the year is also the biggest disappointment.  It's not terrible by any means, and won't come near my bottom ten list, but for a movie that's loaded with talent from top to bottom, it's a pretty big letdown.

Planet Krypton is dying.  The people of the planet have exhausted its resources to the point where its destruction is imminent.  General Zod (Shannon) tries to throw a coup to save the Kryptonians (kind of pointless since it's already falling apart).  Jor-El (Crowe) steals the one thing that could reseed the Krypton race and sends it away with his newborn son, Kal-El.  Zod's coup fails, and he and his cohorts are sent to the Phantom Zone, while Kal-El is sent to Earth.  Kal-El, who is raised by Jonathan (Costner) and Martha (Lane) Kent to become Clark Kent (Cavill as an adult), must find out who he is and what he is destined for.  Meanwhile, Zod and his cohorts have been freed when Krypton is destroyed, are searching for the little tyke.

That last paragraph is badly written.  I admit that.  It's fully of short, unimaginative and clunky sentences.  But the truth is that "Man of Steel" is so broad and diluted that it has zero depth of any kind.  There are no characters.  They're human props designed to propel the plot along.  The movie is a two-and-a-half hour long trailer.

It's hard to discuss the performances because the actors have so little to do.  With a stronger script, this could have been amazing.  I mean look at the cast!  Four Oscar nominees and two winners.  And the lead is an up-and-coming star (he had a recurring role in ShoTime series "The Tudors," which I haven't seen.  Considering that it stars Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, maybe it's time I gave it a shot).

"Man of Steel" is directed by Zack Snyder, who became a wonder boy to comic book geeks and action junkies when he made the adrenaline cocktail "300" and the intelligent action movie of the classic (but overrated) "Watchmen."  Sadly, his work here is lackluster as well.  There's no sense of style or artistry here that was evident in his previous films.  Snyder became famous for playing with speed in his action sequences (slo-motion then speeding up), but the action scenes are played fairly straight here.  There's also little humor, although that keeps with every post-Nolan action movie out there these days.  The exception is a small politically satirical scene at the end which, in addition to not being particularly funny, comes so close to being a PSA that it's almost insulting.

Warner Brothers is hoping to make a killing with this movie.  Reports have said that the studio won't be satisfied unless it hits the billion dollar mark.  It's not going to happen.  In an attempt to reach every single person on the planet, they've diluted it to the point where it's only going to get a "meh" from everyone.  It's going to dominate the box office for a while, that's for sure.  But once the comic book geeks get their fix, it's not going to have much sustaining power.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Freaky Friday (2003)

3/4

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Lindsay Lohan, Mark Harmon, Ryan Malgarini, Chad Michael Murray

Rated PG for Mild Thematic Elements and Some Language

Some movies deserve to be remade because the story can be relevant to a new audience with some new tweaks and spins.  I don't recall much of the original film incarnation of "Freaky Friday" (which starred Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster as the mother and daughter) except for an exploding typewriter.  That being said, an update isn't unwarranted because the story's theme, that friction between parents and kids is due in part to the fact that they don't often understand each other) will always be relevant.  And thirty years is about enough time for a generation to change.

Anna (Lohan) is in a tough spot because her band has the chance of a lifetime: a "Battle of the Bands"-ish competition is about to take place, and after one of the bands drops out, they have a shot at stardom.  The problem is that the competition falls on the night of the rehearsal dinner for her mother Tess's (Curtis) wedding to Ryan (Harmon).  Asking her mother's permission to ditch the rehearsal dinner to play in a concert is almost futile to begin with, but Anna and Tess's relationship is strained to the point of all out war.  When things finally boil over at dinner at a Chinese restaurant, they are given fortune cookies by the mother of the restaurant's owner.  When they wake up the next morning, they've switched bodies with each other.  Now they'll have to survive the day (which has important events for each) and figure out why this happened and how to undo it.

There are many laudable qualities to this production, but if there's one reason to see this movie, it's Jamie Lee  Curtis.  Curtis, whose career got a jump start after the genre-defining horror classic "Halloween" and has since gone on to include the overrated John Cleese movie, "A Fish Called Wanda," and one of my favorite movies, "True Lies."  Curtis is absolutely hysterical.  Every scene in which she appears is guaranteed to keep the viewer in stitches (or at the end, heartwarming).

Less successful is Lindsay Lohan.  Lohan (this was before her personal life had become tabloid fodder) is good, but is almost always overshadowed by Curtis.  Part of it is because of how here character is written (a problem solver's solutions exploding in her face isn't as funny as a adult acting like a teenage girl), but part of it is because Lohan isn't as strong of an actress as Curtis.  There are some scenes that come across like an after school special.

The supporting cast is adequate, although Curtis and Lohan dominate the movie.  The character of Anna's grandfather (Harold Gould) doesn't work, and while Chad Michael Murray is certainly hot enough to be a heartthrob, he's not always convincing.

The script, by Heather Hach and Leslie Dixon, is insightful and incisive, but a lot of the film's bite is undone because director Mark Waters plays things too broadly.  Still, even if it were a disaster, which it isn't at all, it would be worth it just to see Curtis.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Purge

1/4

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Heady, Rhys Wakefield, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Tony Oller

Rated R for Strong Disturbing Violence and Language

In theory, "The Purge" is "The Strangers" mixed with "Minority Report."  In reality, it's more like any generic home invasion story mixed with the ugly stepchild of "Turbulence" and "Teeth."  Being scared by a movie requires many things, but two are very important: intelligence and identifiable characters.  None of those two things is ever in evidence during the 85 minutes that the film takes to tell its story.

Admittedly, the film's premise is interesting, but like the aforementioned "Teeth," it does absolutely nothing with it (in fact, the film's foundation presents more problems than it's worth).  After the US approached anarchy, sociologists and psychologists brainstormed The Purge.  During a 12 hour period, once a year, just about anything goes.  You can rob or destroy anything you can, or you can kill anyone (save for a few important people).  Anyway, James Sandin (Hawke) designs security systems to protect people and their homes.  It's made him and his family, wife Mary (Heady) and two kids Charlie (Burkholder) and Zoey (Kane), stinking rich (and the envy of the neighbors.  Charlie doesn't like the idea of The Purge, so when he sees an injured homeless man (Hodge) running down the street pleading for help, he unlocks the fortress that is his house to let him in.  That raises the ire of the group of masked psychos, led by a surprisingly polite lunatic (Wakefield), who demand that the Sandins give up the homeless man or face their wrath.

It's impossible to care about what happens in a movie when the characters are either stupid or psychotic (or in some cases, both).  Like "Turbulence," "The Purge" has a set trajectory that it wants to follow but takes the most idiotic ways to get there.  The characters' change of heart (which is obligatory) is poorly motivated and unconvincing.  A sudden act of violence early on in the film is able to happen only because one character's unbelievable stupidity (yes, hormones can sometimes make us do stupid things, but not this dumb).  And the list goes on.

The acting is uninspired.  Ethan Hawke is clearly slumming for a paycheck.  Despite the fact that they were released six months apart, this film doesn't deserve to be associated with Hawke's last scarefest, "Sinister."  That movie was scary as hell.  This one is just stupid.  Lena Heady tries her best, but she's undone by the script.  Rhys Wakefield appears to be channeling a religious guru by way of Patrick Bateman, which would be intriguing if the character wasn't so boring.  The Polite Stranger, as he is credited, is about as menacing as a prep school's golden child (which he is dressed as).

Clearly, the film was given the green light based on James DeMonaco's idea.  DeMonaco has co-written some good scripts ("The Negotiator," "Jack" and the "Assault on Precinct 13" remake), which makes me wonder if any of the work in those finished projects was actually his.  He does so little with his idea that it's almost entirely superfluous; edit it out and the film wouldn't change much.  Actually, it might make it better.  As countless movies have proved, horror movies work best when we don't know the villain's motives.  The Polite Stranger spouts out pretentious babble about the need to "purge" himself, but that only makes him more comical than frightening.

There is one positive thing I can say about this movie: it's short.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Now You See Me

3/4

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Dave Franco, Melanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine

Rated PG-13 for Language, Some Action and Sexual Content

The closer you look, the less you see.
Magic is based on illusion or deception.  But is this entertainment, or taking advantage of saps who don't know any better?  There are people on both sides of the issue, and that's an issue brought up by the movie (not that it does anything with it).

Nevermind.  It doesn't matter.  Louis Leterrier and his cast have set out to make a thriller that keeps us guessing, and they do that.  It's not perfect, in fact it's almost flawed enough to make it best to wait for DVD.  But, it is entertaining.

Four magicians, arrogant J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), Atlas's ex-assistant turned solo performer Henley Reeves (Fisher), mentalist Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) and con man Jack Wilder (Franco), have all received tarot cards summoning them to an abandoned apartment building.  Shortly thereafter, they've become The Four Horsemen, the hottest thing to hit the world of magic.  For their debut performance, they have a member of their audience teleport into a bank in France and steal a fortune and give it to the audience.  That arouses the suspicions of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo).  Paired with Interpol agent Alma Dray (Laurent) and with the aid of magician debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman), Rhodes is on the trail of these modern day Robin Hoods.  But his quarry is always one step ahead (if not more).

The film runs on hyperdrive from frame one, and that's both an asset and a detriment.  On the positive side, it preserves the illusion of the magic (which, obviously, is crucial for a film of this kind) and doesn't give us a chance to ask questions or think about the plotholes (of which there are a few).  On the down side, however, it makes it difficult to care about anyone.  So when something unexpected happens, it provoked an eyebrow raise at best.

The performances are effective, but there's really no time for anyone to really act.  All do their jobs, although special mention has to go to Isla Fisher.  Fisher has never really impressed me with her acting ability, but she's pretty good here.

The biggest downside to the film is that Leterrier's camera moves constantly.  It keeps the energy up, but it becomes overbearing.  Especially when he shakes it, which leads to frustration since we can't see what is going on (thus preventing us from "oohing" and "ahhing" at the tricks).

The film is entertaining.  There's no doubt about that.  But it might be more so on DVD.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Goodfellas

3.5/4

Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco

Rated R for Graphic Gangster Violence, Language, Sexuality and Drug Use (I guess)

"Goodfellas" is a triumph of directorial ability.  This is easily the most skillfully made movie I have ever seen.  There are tons of neat shots and camera movements, effects and storytelling techniques.  One could write a whole essay on how Scorcese uses the camera and editing to tell his story in a dynamic way.  He uses a lot of camera and storytelling tricks (multiple narrators and making the camera act as an observer), but like the best directors, Scorcese doesn't overdo it.  He has a reason for everything he does, and he never shows off.

The story is, on paper, about Henry Hill (Liotta), who wanted to be a gangster ever since he could remember.  It wasn't the money that attracted him to "the life," although that certainly helped.  It was the respect.  Doors would open, he would get the front of the line at clubs and get front row seats automatically.  He would get nice clothes.  Any problem he had, it would be taken care of.  A young kid would be easily seduced by this lifestyle, but one thinks that Henry would have joined no matter what age he was.  To him, it's a fantasy, only real.  Sure, you had to do some criminal activities, but to Henry, it's like being a mischievous prankster.  With his friends Tommy Vito (Pesci) and Jimmy Conway (De Niro), Henry Hill rises through the ranks.  But as it is with every fantasy, reality has to take over, and even Henry begins to realize that it's not a pretty sight.

At least that's what moves the film along.  But "Goodfellas" is really about life in the mob.  This is, and is not, a story oriented film.  Henry Hill may be the protagonist, but the focus is on how these people lived and operated, or at least who Henry, and later his wife Karen (Bracco), saw it.  It's a fully developed world, completely closed off from the outside, but where everyone is close knit and does everything with each other.  If you're going on vacation, you go with the family.  It's a cross between a cult and a fraternity.

The performances are terrific, as is the case with all of Scorcese's movies.  Ray Liotta, whose career turned from being a big star to being a character actor, is in fine form.  He's low-key, but he makes Henry a man we can stick by through everything.  Joe Pesci won an Oscar for playing Tommy, a man who can go from a funny crowd pleaser to a violent psychopath in an instant.  Scorcese favorite Robert De Niro is also very good, fully disappearing into the role to the extent that I was sometimes shocked that Jimmy Conway was played by "the" Robert De Niro.  Paul Sorvino and Lorraine Bracco are also very good.

The whole film is like a travelogue through about 20 years or so in Henry Hill's life.  And that's what it feels like.  It's great to look at and experience, but it feels somewhat superficial.  I don't mean that necessarily as a criticism.  Due to time constraints (the film is already 2.5 hours long) and perhaps the film's subject matter, I felt like I was an outsider looking in.  For all the time that we spend with the characters, none attain three-dimensionality that would make this film truly great.  I almost wished that the film was longer so we could get deeper and deeper into the characters and the people that live in them.  That's the beauty of a miniseries or a TV show; there's more time to work with.

As a director, Scorcese has always been talented and a risk taker.  Even in his less successful films, like "The Aviator" or "The Departed," his skill is unmistakable.  His style in subtle, but unmistakable emotions.  The mood in this film traverses a spectrum of emotion in such a subtle fashion that you almost don't realize it.  There is a shot that is repeated a number of times in the film, and it's just wonderful.  Scorcese has Henry tell us who is who while the camera, in a first person fashion, travels through the bar or club.  It's absolutely stunning.

"Goodfellas" is widely considered to be a classic film, and while I can understand those who think that, I do not agree.  This is a visually dazzling and richly made film, yes, but as I said, there's not enough to truly grab onto emotionally.  A lot of films have trouble with stories that span wide stretches of time, and while Scorcese has an interesting solution, it's not completely successful (but much better than most biopics).  I never felt completely submerged into Henry's world.  Maybe that's what Scorcese had intended.  Be that as it may, this is a film that approaches brilliance, but doesn't quite get there.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Arrival

2/4

Starring: Charlie Sheen, Ron Silver, Lindsay Crouse, Teri Polo, Tony T. Johnson

Rated PG-13 for Some Sci-Fi Violence and Terror, and for Brief Language

"The Arrival" starts out strongly, like Alfred Hitchcock meets "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."  But the longer the film goes on, the sillier it gets, and it wasn't long before I stopped caring.  The idea, that aliens are the cause of global warming, has merit, but the execution does not.

Zane Zalinsky (Sheen) is a researcher looking for extra-terrestrial life.  He and his co-worker, Calvin (Richard Schiff), come across a strong signal, but it goes away before they can officially verify it.  Nevertheless, Zane takes it to his boss, Gordy (Silver), who promptly fires him.  More mysterious things are going on, which leads to Zane to believe that the aliens are here already.  Meanwhile, a climatologist named Illana Green (Crouse) is investigating why the climate is warming up so rapidly.  Both of them end up in Mexico, where they make horrifying discoveries.

The problem with this movie is that it's dumb, and when it gets going (around the 40 minute mark), it loses its creepiness factor and ends up being a chase movie.  During the second half of the film, Zane does one of two things: run/drive away from someone, or breathlessly explain the plot.

The acting varies.  Three performances, Sheen, Silver and Polo, are good.  Crouse is effective.  Tony T. Johnson, however, is awful; every scene without him is a breath of fresh air.  Special mention must be made of the late great Ron Silver, who is splendidly creepy.

I'm not the world's biggest fan of David Twohy.  Of the four out of five movies I've seen him direct, only one of them I liked ("A Perfect Getaway").  He's not a very good writer or director.  The film is littered with plotholes and jumpy editing (one scene has Zane racing to a truck to find that the keys to the building are locked in the car, then the film cuts and he's unlocking the door...what?).

There is some legitimate suspense, and I was guessing who was really human and who was alien, and one of the answers did surprise me.  But that's not enough to recommend the film.

The Siege

3/4

Starring: Denzel Washington, Annette Benning, Bruce Willis, Tony Shaloub, Sami Bouajila

Rated R for Violence, Language and Brief Nudity

"The Siege" came out almost three years before the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001.  The filmmakers made a film that asked difficult questions about what we are willing to do to protect our freedom from an enemy that is as impossible to track as it is to see.  They had no idea they were making a film that was chillingly relevant.  Consider what happened after the Boston Marathon bombings a month and a half ago, which resulted in the city being locked down.

The US Army has captured a known terrorist named Sheik Achmed Bin Talal (Ahmed Bin Larby).  After diffusing a false terrorist attack, FBI Agent Anthony "Hub" Hubbard (Washington) receives a fax with a page that says "RELEASE HIM."  He doesn't know who it pertains to, and since the no one was injured and the only damage don was blue paint splattered all over the inside of a bus, Hub doesn't pursue it with much vigor.  Then a duplicate situation occurs and this time it's real, and it ends in death.  More terror attacks occur with increasing frequency and magnitude.  Eventually, the president declares martial law, and General William Devereaux (Willis) rules New York City with an iron fist.

I'll give Edward Zwick for giving the topic it's due.  Terrorism is a complex issue, and Zwick examines it from all sides.  The infighting between the divisions of government, the nature of modern terrorism, how terrorist cells operate independently, and so on.  This is all thought-provoking stuff, but unfortunately it causes the pacing to lag.

"The Siege" is intense and suspenseful.  There's no doubt about that.  What it doesn't have is desperation.  Sure the characters are desperate, but I never felt it.  It doesn't come off the screen and make you grip your armrest.  "The Dark Knight," which was released ten years later, did this sort of thing to a much better effect.    In Nolan's movie, you felt helpless at the Joker's grasp, and that anything could happen at any time.  That doesn't happen here.  The film is too overstuffed, and Zwick isn't able to streamline it like Nolan did.

The acting is solid, although no one gives any Oscar-worthy performances.  Washington, Benning, and Willis are all capable actors, and they do their jobs.  We understand them, and in the case of the first two, get on their side.  In Willis's case, we disagree with him, but understand why he does what he does.

I'm going to recommend the film because it does what it sets out to do: create a suspenseful two hours.  It asks difficult questions and has the good sense to provide answers while allowing us to think about our own feelings about them.  It's not perfect, but it is compelling cinema.