Tuesday, July 30, 2013

R.I.P.D.

3/4

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Bacon, Stephanie Szostack, Mary-Louise Parker

Rated PG-13 for Violence, Sci-Fi/Fantast Action, Some Sensuality and Language including Sex References

Call it the guilty pleasure of 2013.  It moves way too fast.  There are some big plotholes.  Half of Jeff Bridges dialogue is unintelligible.  But, I had fun and I enjoyed myself.

Nick (Reynolds) is a cop in the DC police department.  He and his partner Hayes (Bacon) have taken some gold that they found on a bust and kept it for themselves.  But Nick's conscience gets the best of him and decides to turn in his part while telling Hayes that he can do what he wants.  For this, Hayes betrays him on a bust and kills him (never has an attempt to get a PG-13 been more obvious than in this scene).  Nick is thusly zoomed up into the afterlife, and the person he meets there (a dryly funny Parker) gives him two options: risk Judgement (lying is a very bad idea) or join the Rest In Peace Department for a term of 100 years.  Nick chooses the latter.  He's paired up with a lawman from the Old West named Roy (Bridges), who of course, doesn't want a partner.  They're task is to find and take down Deados, recently deceased who have escaped judgement.  But Nick is interested in doing some actual police work, and he and Roy end up on the trail of a machine that could bring about the apocalypse.

People have been making the connection between "R.I.P.D." and "Men in Black."  It's an apt comparison.  The premise is more of less the same, and it feels like a "Men in Black" movie.  While Reynolds and Bridges don't have quite the same chemistry as Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, they work well enough together.

The supporting cast is also solid.  Kevin Bacon is as slimy as ever (considering how silly this movie is, he probably could have had more fun with the role).  Stephanie Szostack is certainly sweet and has great chemistry with Reynolds.  More scenes with them together could have made the love story aspect of the movie more potent.  And Mary-Louise Parker has some dry one-liners.

Director Robert Schwentke's resume doesn't give a vote of confidence in his abilities.  "Flightplan" was a thriller with a solid script but limp direction.  "Red" (also starring Parker) was what "The Office" would have been like if it were an action movie.  But the man does solid work here.  It's fun, breathless and energetic.  I just wish there had been more.  "Men in Black" worked because Barry Sonnenfeld gave the story room to breathe.  Schwentke doesn't do that.  It moves so lightning fast that neither we nor Nick have time to really soak in what is happening.  Here's to hoping that there's an extended version on Blu Ray.

The Innkeepers

4/4

Starring: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis

Rated R for Some Bloody Images and Language

The best horror films are built on universal feelings.  "Sinister" was all about having an image stare back at you.  "Halloween" had an emotionless, unstoppable killing machine.  "The Innkeepers" touches on the feeling that there's someone standing right behind you.  Throughout the movie, I was checking behind me to make sure there was no ghost ready to pounce on me.

It's the last weekend of business at the Yankee Pedlar Inn.  Once a bustling hotel, it has now been driven out of business by big hotel chains.  It's also haunted, and it's two employees, tomboy Claire (Paxton) and nerdy Luke (Healy), are determined to get proof that the ghost of Madeline O'Malley haunts the inn.

Plotwise, there's really not much else to say.  There are a total of four guests in the movie, only one of which has an important role.  That's Leanne Rease-Jones (McGillis), a retired actress-turned-psychic.  Although initially hostile, she is willing to help Claire in her quest to get in touch with Madeline.

What makes "The Innkeepers" so scary is that writer/director/editor Ti West takes his time.  He takes care to develop the characters into people we care about.  Claire and Luke are interesting and likable enough that it would be worth watching a movie of them shooting the shit and messing around the hotel.  Putting characters with that quality into a horror movie is a huge step for a filmmaker who wants to scare the living hell out of his audience.

West is also exceedingly careful in not only how he shoots the scenes (the camerawork is perfect and the atmosphere slithers off the screen) but how he edits them.  The shots last longer than usual for any movie, especially a horror movie.  It has been every scary movie's goal these days to ape movies like "Aliens," with as much action as scares.  With one exception ("The Descent"), all these attempts have failed spectacularly.  West is smart enough to know that in order to truly chill a viewer, you have to take things slowly.  He moves the camera and edits the shots slowly so we have time to soak in the atmosphere, and he lingers the shots so that we're wondering if something is going to jump onto the screen and surprise us.  The effect is like one of those pranks that became popular online, where the person becomes involved in a simple task (like a maze) until there's a flash of Regan MacNeil from "The Exorcist" accompanied by loud music.  We know something is going to happen (or in some cases, already is), but West keeps us hanging.

It helps enormously that the film has a cast of more than capable actors.  Sara Paxton is adorable as Claire.  She's sunny and sweet, and enthusiastic about getting footage of Madeline O'Malley.  When she does something wrong, she looks to the floor and gets a little shifty.  We all act in the same way when we're in her shoes.  Her co-star, Pat Healy, is also very good.  He's nerdy and a little cynical, but not so much that it's off putting.  He's a nice guy who is passionate about something.  That's something we can all relate to as well.  Kelly McGillis, the sexpot from "Top Gun" and the lawyer in "The Accused" (who hasn't done much outside of those two movies and "Witness") is also impressive as the alcoholic psychic.  She believes in what she says, but is smart enough to know when Luke is making fun of her.

Ultimately, "The Innkeepers" works because Ti West knows how to push our buttons.  He knows how to draw us in and leave us hanging.  And that's when he lets us have it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Mary Reilly

1/4

Starring: Julia Roberts, John Malkovich, George Cole, Michael Gambon, Glenn Close

Rated R for Notable Gore and Some Strong Violence

As I put my recently purchased copy of "Mary Reilly" into the my Xbox, I had no idea what I was going to see.  I knew it was a new take on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic tale, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," but the cast and crew reads like something out of a high voltage drama.  Julia Roberts' career has never involved a horror movie, and Stephen Frears is to horror what Uve Boll is to Oscar contenders.  But I knew I would be in good hands because Roberts and Malkovich are always good, and Stephen Frears had yet to direct a movie that I didn't adore (his credits include "Mrs. Henderson Presents" and "High Fidelity" to name two).  Needless to say, I was wrong.

Mary Reilly (Roberts) is the new chambermaid at the household of wealthy scientist Dr. Henry Jekyll (Malkovich).  She comes from a bad past, but her new employer takes a liking to her.  He's aloof and cold, but kind.  Then one day Jekyll announces that he'll be having a new assistant, Mr. Edward Hyde (Malkovich), who will have the run of the house.  Both Jekyll and Hyde fall for Mary and she for them.

There is little in this film that actually works.  The characters are so thin that calling them two-dimensional would be greatly overestimating their depth.  The acting is lousy.  The story doesn't make a lot of sense.  The script is self-important to the nth degree.  There are plot holes and continuity gaffes everywhere.  About the only thing I can compliment the film on is that it looks great.

Julia Roberts is a great actress, but this is easily the worst performance she's ever given.  Roberts is shockingly stiff as the mousy maid, and rather than being an interesting character we can get behind, Mary comes across as a whimpering wimp who does things only to move the plot along (and it's already at a crawl).  John Malkovich fares somewhat better.  Jekyll is somewhat sympathetic, although Hyde is just a creepy pervert.  Glenn Close chews the scenery in the few scenes in which she appear (and her bad performance doesn't help matters).  Michael Gambon is the only one who gives a legitimate performance (he plays Mary's alcoholic dad).

Stephen Frears must have been under the assumption that no one knows the basic storyline of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."  We know that they're the same person, so we're waiting for an unending amount of time for Mary to figure it out.

Maybe it was the source material, but the script for "Mary Reilly" is atrocious (I'm arguing that it was Valerie Martin's novel, as screenwriter Christopher Hampton wrote the scripts for "Atonment" and "The Quiet American").  Most of the time, the characters talk in banal dialogue that serves no purpose.  When they actually have a conversation, they talk in various profundities that, when you take the time to really think about them, make no sense.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with the film is that none of the three leads are developed.  Not only are they boring, their lack of depth doesn't allow the theme of Stevenson's story to come to the surface.  Jekyll and Hyde seem like two different people.  So not only is the film tedious, it's completely pointless.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Y Tu Mama Tambien

3.5/4

Starring: Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, Maribel Verdu

The version being reviewed is unrated.  The Edited Version is rated R for Strong Sexual Content involving Teens, Drug Use and Language

The sad thing about American culture is that our attitudes towards sex are so backward.  Teenagers aren't able to get an honest understanding of the ins and outs of sex and its complications.  It's become a dirty joke or something to be feared.

True, the characters in this film do joke about sex (as teenagers do), but the film is uncensored in a way that is refreshing.  There is a lot of sex in this film (some of which is very hot), but director Alfonso Cuaron doesn't tiptoe around it.  He presents it in a matter of fact and realistic way.  In American movies, even R-rated ones like "Basic Instinct" or "American Pie," sex is treated in such a coy way that robs it of all its mystery and excitement.  Quick cuts, blankets and unrealistic "choreography" to the point of absurdity make the scenes feel immature and artificial.

Does that mean that "Y tu Mama Tambien" is pornographic?  Not at all.  Cuaron uses sex to tell a story.  He does not mean to titillate (although, considering how convincing it is, that may happen to some viewers) or to shock.  Rather, he uses it to illustrate the challenges that occur when sexual fantasy becomes reality.

Tenoche (Luna) and Julio (Bernal) have been best friends for years.  While they are in different classes (Tenoche is extremely wealthy, while Julio is middle class), they are comfortable enough with each other to masturbate on diving boards and chase one another around the shower room naked (it makes you realize how our treatment of sex is so bizarre that attempts to think about it logically will turn your mind into a pretzel from hell).  At a wedding, they meet the gorgeous wife of one of Tenoche's cousins.  Her name is Luisa (Verdu).  They invite her to come with them to Heaven's Mouth beach (which doesn't exist), but she shoots them down (she tells them that her husband would think it a wonderful idea).  But when Luisa gets a call from her husband who drunkenly confesses to cheating on her, she takes them up on their offer.  The journey does not turn out like any of them expect.

This sounds like a plot for an American sex comedy.  In fact, it sounds like a teenage fantasy: going on a road trip with a beautiful woman.  It's obvious that both Tenoche and Julio are hoping to score with Luisa.  This is, after all, the kind of stunt many boys would pull when hormones have pushed their brains out of the way.  On some level, they knew that it would never work.  It's all a fantasy to them.  But when it becomes reality, it turns out to be very different.

The acting by the three leads is exceptional.  Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal have been best friends since childhood, and their relationship in real life has made it to the screen.  Tenoche and Julio are normal teenagers.  Every guy will see themselves, at that age, in these two, especially in how they act with each other.  Maribel Verdu, the great Mexican beauty that she is, is wonderful.  She knows the effect that she has on the boys, which lead her to do things that are just as stupid, but she also has self-respect.  She's a sexual being, but she's not a fantasy.

Alfonso Cuaron has directed a wide variety of movies.  He has one Harry Potter movie (his next movie after this one...no doubt certain pushy parents would be horrified if they knew), a movie based on a book by Charles Dickens, and a movie aimed at young girls to his credit.  Cuaron has a great attention to setting; this film is set against political and social change in Mexico.  This adds a lot of flavor to the story.

Unfortunately, the film is on shaky ground at the end.  The conflict is tied up too quickly, and what Tenoche and Julio learned from their experience is unclear.  This is a movie that encourages discussion afterward.

Then there's the narration.  The movie constantly pauses and gives information about the characters.  Some of it is helpful, but a lot of it is redundant.  There's way too much of it and it interrupts the movie's flow.

Despite, or maybe because of, the sexual content in this film, I think this is a great movie for high schoolers.  They'll be able to relate to the characters, and it will encourage thought and discussion.  Compare that to crap like "Pacific Rim," which requires a lobotomy and a vomit bag.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Mike's Musings: Jenny McCarthy's Big Blunder

A week or so ago, when it was announced that former Playboy Bunny Jenny McCarthy was joining the morning talk show "The View," it was released with a storm of controversy.  McCarthy has become infamous for her activism against the MMR vaccine, which she believes caused her son's autism.  People think that the position will give validity to her claims, which have been repeatedly shown to be untrue.  I share those fears.  This is a dangerous medical hoax, and we need to do everything we can to prevent this rumor from spreading.

Before I go any further, let me state my belief about this controversy: there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.  Not only have numerous studies by reputable organizations failed to find any link whatsoever, the scientist behind the "findings," Andrew Wakefield, has been charged with just about every ethical and methodological misconduct one can think of, including 12 counts of abusing mentally challenged children and falsifying data.  He has been discredited and barred from practicing medicine in the UK.  This "connection" has been described by one medical journal as the "most damaging medical hoax in 100 years."

Normally I'd say that a person who takes medical advice from a celebrity (especially advice that has been so resolutely discredited) deserves what they get, but it's not that simple here.  Parents have become afraid due to this publicity, and often times the victims of these diseases are children who aren't old enough to be vaccinated.  It's impossible to know how many deaths there have been due to this hoax.

While there have been numerous and constant attempts to assuage people's concerns, people are still scared.  It's easy to get people afraid of something, but next to impossible to make those fears go away.  We are, and have been ever since the paper published Wakefield's crap.

Which brings us to McCarthy's appearance on "The View."  I am a firm believer in the right to free speech.  McCarthy has every right to saw what she wants to.  But while the government cannot censor her, the network can.  Without a doubt, ABC is smelling increased viewership based on the controversy.  But considering how damaging and deadly her false claims are, it's irresponsible.  This is a different case than having a political nutcase on Bill O'Reilly or Rachel Maddow.  There, the content is not the same, and lets face it, often taken less seriously than something like a vaccine that causes autism in kids.

I feel for Jenny McCarthy.  Raising an autistic child is not easy, and having your child develop it must be devastating.  But even if she doesn't talk about the MMR vaccine (which she undoubtedly will), it gives her attention, and that's something that needs to be avoided.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Con Air

2.5/4

Starring: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Colm Meaney, Rachel Ticotin, Mykelti Williamson, Monica Potter

Rated R for Strong Violence and Language

I feel jealous of mature filmgoers during the 1996-1997 time period.  Three classic action movies were released during that year: "Heat," "Face/Off" and "Turbulence"...ha ha.  Just kidding.  I meant to say "The Rock" (as if anyone with more than a quarter of their brain could consider MGM's bomb a "classic"...).  While "Con Air" certainly isn't among those masterpieces, it does have it's pleasures.

Cameron Poe (Cage) is an ex-Army Ranger who has just left the armed forces.  While celebrating with his lovely wife Tricia (Potter), he is attacked by three drunken goons.  While Tricia runs for help, Cameron kills one of them in self-defense.  Refusing to take a plea bargain, he is sentenced to seven years in the slammer.  Now out on parole, Cameron is one flight away from rejoining his wife and meeting his daughter (Landry Allbright).  The problem is that the prison transfer flight he's on is carrying some of the most dangerous psychopaths around, specifically Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (Malkovich), who in one person's words is "the poster child for the criminally insane."  Now the plane has been overtaken, and if he wants to make it to his family alive, Cameron is going to have to take back the plane.

It's a promising set-up, sort of "The Rock" meets "Air Force One" (which was released a month and a half after this one, but never mind).  Sadly, it's only about half realized.  The first quarter of the film, where all the characters are introduced and the stage is set for lots of violence and pyrotechnics, is really messy, and it isn't for a while until we get a feel for what's going on.  In all honesty, the film could have used one more rewrite before Mr. Blockbuster (aka Jerry Bruckheimer...his first solo effort after the death of his longtime producing partner, Don Simpson) put it into production.

The acting isn't spectacular either.  Nicolas Cage is weak.  This is probably the weakest performance he's ever given, although that's partly due to the weaknesses of the script (no one is painted in any shades of gray).  Cage plays the character as a cross between Bruce Willis and a comatose Jimmy Stewart.  Cameron is so noble that he becomes boring.  He's never anything but altruistic (although he does cough up a weak one-liner or two) and his "reluctant hero" bit mixed with an awful southern accent make him seem like he's about to cry whenever he utters a line of dialogue.

The two supporting performances would have been much better had they been given something to do.  John Cusack, a great actor even in the weakest of films ("Grosse Pointe Blank," anyone?), is his usual reliable self, and makes for a good hero despite the script's failings.  This is primarily because John Cusack is probably the least likely guy to be in this kind of a mess.  John Malkovich is rarely ever better than when he's playing a psycho, and he's just begging to be let loose.  But Scott Rosenberg's lines don't give him anything to really sink his teeth into (the two best ones are presented in a context that robs him of their deliciousness).

The bit parts are fine.  Colm Meaney is angry and dumb enough to make us hate him (although his change of heart is absurd).  Rachel Ticotin is let down by the script; odd as it may seem, she was more interesting in "Turbulence."  The psychos are all types and violent enough to make us wish for their deaths (although M.C.Gainey is kinda fun).  The exception is Steve Buscemi.  There's nothing wrong with his performance, but his character, a serial killer whose victims include children, is treated as comic relief, and having him in a scene with a child is distasteful.

Simon West may have made the only decent movie in his career (apart from "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," which succeeded in a way he probably did not intend) had the script been ready.  Sure, the drama is DOA, and Cage's performance is completely wrong for the film.  But it is nicely photographed, and while the editing is a little too frenetic to cleanly tell what is going on, there is a lot of action and adrenaline to be found here.

I can't recommend the movie, but it does make you miss the days where the heroes fight with bullets and actually kill their opponents instead of dressing up in silly costumes while beating their enemies to just short of a concussion.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Way Way Back

4/4

Starring: Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Language, Some Sexual Content and Brief Drug Material

The last time I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that the movie I was seeing had another scene to go was "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."  But "The Way Way Back" is one of those movies that you wish would never end.  The characters are so interesting and likable (with a few exceptions), the story is winning and it's honest.

We've all been awkward during adolescence.  It's part of growing up.  That's no different for Duncan (James).  Duncan knows he's awkward, which is why he's too shy to really do anything.  He's been dragged to Trent's (Carrell) beach house for the summer.  Trent, whom Duncan hates, is dating his mother Pam (Collette).  Also along for the ride is Trent's daughter Steph (Zoe Levin).  Duncan's outlook is bleak, since Trent is a jerk who regards him as a personal servant, and his mother will only socialize with the adults and leave him alone to his own devices.  That all changes when he wanders into Water Wizz, the local water park.  Owen (Rockwell) gives him a job, and through his interactions with him and the other workers there, he begins to open up and grow a backbone.  And talk to the pretty girl next door (Robb).

These days, it's a rare thing to get a coming-of-age story.  Despite its universal appeal, they (usually) don't rely on special effects and aren't particularly raunchy (although there are exceptions to that as well).  Plus, big studios prefer hot stars and broad humor over something more real (but no less funny).  "The Way Way Back" is different in that it's so true and so intelligent about life at that age.  Older audiences will have flashbacks while younger audiences will relate on a more immediate level.

The performances are excellent.  Leading the pack are Sam Rockwell and Steve Carrell.  Neither has ever been better.  If there is any justice in Hollywood (and there often isn't), both will be in the running for Oscars.  Rockwell is a character actor who has risen through the ranks in the past decade.  Since playing the cowardly suck-up in "Galaxy Quest" to now, he has established himself as an actor to watch.  Here, he proves that he is capable of stealing an entire movie.  Owen is funny and encouraging, but not overbearing.  He's a good genuine friend who, despite being stuck in arrested adolescence, is capable of reading people and offering appropriate wisdom.  Rockwell is likable and charismatic in the role, and while the film is always good, the film really takes off when he's on screen.  Carrell is surprisingly effective.  Known for playing geeks ("The 40 Year Old Virgin") and idiots ("The Office" and "Anchorman"), Carrell plays a truly unlikable person.  Trent earns our hatred because Carrell does not go over the top.  He's selfish and immature, but not a caricature.  Trent is a three dimensional human being that we understand, which makes the film so much more effective because he provides much of the film's foundation.

Able support is provided by the rest of the cast.  Toni Collette is fine as Pam, although her character is a little underdeveloped.  AnnaSophia Robb is okay, although she has her rough edges.  Maya Rudolph and the other cast members who work at the park are funny.  Alison Janney, Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry are very good as Trent's friends, none of whom have any interest in the kids.  If there's a weak link in the cast, it's the lead, Liam James.  He's not bad, but he lacks screen presence.

The film was written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, both of whom appear on screen (Faxon is Roddy, who's always stealing glances at girls butts, and Rash is the hypochondriac lifejacket/swimsuit renter).  This feels like a personal project; it has that loving energy and earnestness.  It's so specific and intelligent that it's impossible to believe that some of their memories didn't make it into the film.  The film has plenty of nostalgia; while it's a better film than "Grown Ups," it mines similar territory.

Despite its large and famous cast and superior quality, Fox Searchlight has done little to promote it.  It's showing in few theaters and aside from some trailers before the movies, there hasn't been much word about it.  The film has a tiny budget ($4.6 million) and the studio was clearly thinking it would get lost in the summer blitz of special effects and raunchy comedy.  The film needs word of mouth to kill the box office (or at least stay afloat), and I'm going to do all I can to spread the good word.

Black Irish

3/4

Starring: Michael Angarano, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Guiry, Melissa Leo, Emily VanCamp

Rated R for Some Language and Brief Violence

They always say that you can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family.  I think that the McKays would agree with that sentiment.

The McKays are a broken family living in South Boston.  None of them are happy in the slightest, and as a family, they're broken beyond repair.  Desmond (Gleeson) is a failed ball player who turned to alcohol when his dreams fizzled out, and now carries a secret from his family.  Margaret (Leo) is a devout Catholic whose attempts to do the right thing do more harm than good.  Oldest son Terry (Guiry) is an out of control menace who's going to end up dead or in jail (whichever comes first).  Katie (VanCamp) is pregnant and unmarried.  And Cole (Angarano), the youngest son, is simply trying to keep his head above water.

There's really not much of a plot to this movie.  It's not that kind of a movie.  What it is is an examination of a family on the brink of disaster.  These are all good people (even Terry has his moments), but with so many problems, it's not nearly enough.  Having your heart in the right place doesn't mean much with issues like these.

The acting is on solid ground.  Michael Angarano, who has yet to give a bad performance, is terrific as the protagonist.  Cole is the boy next door, which makes him an easy window into this story.  He only has to smile for us to form an instant bond with him.  Cole is struggling to find his way in the world, but his turbulent family life could send him down Terry's path.  While Cole is too good of a kid to become like his brother, I see what they meant.  Tom Guiry is also in top form as Terry.  Terry is the walking definition of the term "problem child."  He's a bully, prone to violence and has a long criminal history.  He does some reprehensible things, but he's not a bad person.  He's been given the short end of the stick so often that he's given up.  Clearly, he needed therapy from an early age at least.  Guiry makes Terry into a person we fear but understand.  He's so good that it's hard to believe that he played the hapless dork Smalls in "The Sandlot."  Emily VanCamp is also good as Katie, although she doesn't have as much to do (partly due to her lack of screen presence).

The two established actors, Brendan Gleeson and Melissa Leo, are surprisingly the weakest.  Both of them struggle with their accents and have scenes that strike the wrong note.  But they are effective overall.

Sometimes it's obvious if a project is personal to a filmmaker.  "Schindler's List" is a good example.  While "Black Irish" is nowhere near that level of greatness (nor does it aspire to be), it has such a ring of truth that it had to come from personal experience and a place of passion.  This was writer Brad Gann's first time behind the camera (and the third screenplay he wrote, although it was the second one filmed).  It has a ring of authenticity that few films have.  While the film has its rough spots, it works overall.  Gann inserts some surprisingly effective comedy into the film (two scenes, one involving a "birds and the bees" discussion and the other involving a bird, had me laughing out loud), which keeps things from becoming too intense (although the R-rating is inexplicable...I've seen PG movies that are more explicit).

Sadly, there's really not much of an audience for this movie.  It's definitely flawed, and the characters aren't always the most likable people, but it is well-acted and I'm not at all unhappy that I saw this movie (twice, in fact).

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport

4/4

Narrated by Judi Dench

Rated PG for Thematic Elements

The wide range of human nature amazes me.  We are capable of both great evil and great good.  I mentioned "evil" first and "good" second not because I am a pessimist, but because that's how the story goes.  The film begins with acts of terror and horror, but we see that just as people can force children from their parents and slaughter millions, there are others who can take in children they do not know for no incentive other than the goodness in their hearts.

As Adolph Hitler gained more power and spread the evil of the Third Reich into Austria and the Sudetenland, life in those areas became more and more hostile and dangerous.  Getting out was, due to the legal requirements, next to impossible.  When word of the Jewish peoples' plight reached London, the English Parliament approved a plan for Jewish children under the age of 17 to be shipped out of their home countries and into England.  This is the story of those children.

What surprises me is the wide variety of stories the film tells.  There's no way a narrative film could have done the subject justice.  There are too many stories and singling out one would leave so much unexplored.  Due to the time constraints, we are given a sampling of many stories (each one very different from the next), but enough information about each person's experience is enough to get the tell a complete story for each (even if I was hungering for more).  Each person becomes someone we understand and care about.  I can't say I remember their names, but that's because there are so many of them.

For all of that, the film doesn't lose its emotional power.  No one story sticks out more forcibly than another, but that's okay.  Director Mark Jonathan Harris as made a collage of different stories and experiences into one emotional and historical mosaic.  This makes it a different, but no less powerful, experience than a movie like "Schindler's List."  Judi Dench, with her soothing but confident narration, is the perfect person to narrate this film.  Harris resists the urge to overuse her.  She speaks only when it it necessary to give background to set up the next chapter in each story.

There are two things worth noting about this film.  First, there is a plentiful amount of primary documentation, be it pictures of the interviewees and their families, or archive footage to set the stage.  In fact, there is so much of the latter, all of which is so specific, that I was convinced that Harris had filmed the footage himself.  This material personalizes the story in a way words or rehearsed images cannot.  Some of it, like the images of smiling children before they were forced away from their homes and families, is manipulative, but it gets the job done.  Harris never overuses or exploits any of the material at his disposal.

The second is the candidness in which the interviewees speak about their experiences.  Not only are they extremely open about what they went through (I never got the feeling that someone was holding something back or that there was a hole in their story), but time has allowed them to offer a perspective on it.  Some admit that they behaved poorly at times, or they now understand why some of their guardians were cool towards them.  This is fascinating because most films, even documentaries, are stuck in the moment.  They focus only on the now.  By having the subjects give opinions or have views on what they went through makes it a much fresher and vivid tale.

I'm not the biggest documentary fan.  By the nature of how they are made, they can be distancing or extremely dull if not put together well ("Terror's Advocate" is an example).  But "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport" is not a hack job.  Far from it in fact.  It has the emotional and cerebral punch of even the best narrative films, and the skill in which it is put together is something that one can savor as it is unfolding.  Not only is it that, but it is both a superior historical document of a little known but important part of history and an outstanding film in general.  Of all the documentaries I've seen, this one is the best.

Friday the 13th (1980)

2/4

Starring: Adrienne King, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Kevin Bacon, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bertram, Mark Nelson, Peter Brouwer

Rated R for Violence/Gore, Sexuality/Nudity, and Drug Use (I guess)

The "Friday the 13th" franchise is one of the "Big Three" slasher franchises (the other two being the "Halloween" saga and the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies).  After having seen all three of the movies, I'd have to say that "Halloween" reigns supreme.  That's the scary one, while Freddy Krueger's debut was creepy and inventive, but not on the same level.  "Friday the 13th" certainly has its moments, including one very effective shock, but for the most part it's just a poser.

Camp Crystal Lake has a bad history.  The year after a child drowned, two counselors looking for a hot encounter were butchered, and the camp has been plagued by misfortune ever since.  This year, the son of the Christys, who own the camp, plans to reopen the camp.  He's brought in a bunch of horny teenagers to help him run it.  Needless to say, most of them don't survive to welcome the kids.

If this sounds like a rip-off of "Halloween," you're right.  It was meant to be from the ground up.  Producer/director Sean S. Cunningham wanted to make a movie that would scare his audience, but unlike his inspiration, he wanted the audience to laugh as well.  Indeed, the film is kinda funny.  The characters are uniformly dumb, the acting is, at best, adequate (including Kevin Bacon, who was an unknown at the time.), and it seems at times to be aware of its silliness (although not in the same way that the "Scream" franchise is).

Even knowing what the film was meant to be, it's still not very good.  The characters are undeveloped that it's hard to know who is who.  While characterization is not a prerequisite for even the best horror movies (like "The Descent" or even "Wrong Turn"), it is essential that we are at least able to tell them apart.  Otherwise, who cares if they live or die?

The film is really a series of set pieces that revolve around one of the teens getting murdered.  You know how they go...someone gets confused by a sound or goes looking for someone, the creepy music starts, the false kills, then the character gets stabbed, carved up or filleted.  It's a formula that "Halloween" made classic, but that was because it was put together with skill (Cunningham's direction is sloppy and the editing is jumpy) and passion.  Here, it's just a geek show, and not a very good one.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

World War Z

2/4

Starring: Brad Pitt, Mirelle Enos, Daniella Kertesz, Fana Mokoena, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove

Rated PG-13 for Intense Frightening Zombie Sequences, Violence and Disturbing Images

Movies as troubled as "World War Z" are typically disastrous.  "Gigli," "Supernova," the list goes on.  Hollywood's latest zombie movie, based on Max Brooks' bestselling novel, is surprisingly not the disaster I was expecting.  It's not perfect, and I don't recommend it.  But compared to drek like "Pacific Rim" and "The Purge," it's decent entertainment.

Gerry Lane (Pitt) is a former investigator for the UN, but is now a husband to his wife Karin (Enos) and father to his daughters Constance (Jerins) and Rachel (Hargrove).  His life seems idyllic but then he and his family hit disaster.  Zombies are running amok but fortunately, Gerry and his family escape, but Gerry's former co-worker, Thierry Umutoni (Mokoena), sends him back into the field to find out where the disease started so they can find a cure.

As a zombie movie, the film is adequate.  As an adaptation of the book, it's a failure.  I might be more kind to the fact that nothing from the book has made it into the movie (Hollywood's love of brand names at its best) if it was more than passably entertaining.  But it isn't.  There are some intense scenes, particularly at the beginning, but that's about it.

When I heard that Hollywood was going to turn Brooks' faux-biography into a movie, I was curious about how they would implement it, but I was wary of the result.  The challenge with the film is that the story is essentially a narrator interviewing survivors about their stories during the Zombie War.  It's not inherently cinematic, especially since it means a lack of a consistent character throughout the film.  It would essentially be a few short films with a connecting thread.  Kind of like the video game "Halo: ODST," I guess.  But Hollywood is not known for taking risks, especially when big budgets are involved.  Therefore we have something relatively safe, and as a result of screenwriting decisions, generic.

The film could have been different had they settled on a character different from Gerry Lane.  What made the book so involving is that few of the characters were anyone in charge of anything.  They were normal people who were involved in very narrow and specific situations.  The scope, which involves Gerry being on an aircraft carrier, and in Korea, Wales and Israel, is too big.  And Gerry also has a way with fighting.  He's more like Jason Bourne rather than a normal guy who doesn't know what to do with a gun.  As a result, any vulnerability he could have had that might have made us wonder if he'd get out of a situation alive goes right out the window.  There's no real sense that he's in any danger.  He always knows what to do and how to do it.

To be fair, Brad Pitt gives a nice performance.  He's low-key, but not so much that he gets drowned out by the special effects.  Mirelle Enos, who is a regular on the TV show "The Killing," is effective, but she has nothing to do.  Daniella Kertesz is also good as Gerry's sidekick but she has nothing to do either.

Marc Foster began his career as with primarily dramatic films.  I haven't seen "Monster's Ball," which put him on the map, but I did see "Finding Neverland" and "The Kite Runner."  He directs Oscar-bait movies, not action thrillers.  "Quantum of Solace," which rivals "Die Another Day" as the worst Bond movie ever made, was ruined by him shaking the camera frenetically.  Although it's not as incomprehensible as his Bond entry, the plot doesn't make much sense and he does shake the camera too much.

Finally, there's my beef about the PG-13 rating.  Zombie movies are like slasher movies.  By design, they need to be intense and gory ("Warm Bodies" is an exception because it's more a romantic comedy than a horror movie).  But with the big budget Paramount clearly didn't want to alienate the teen crowd with an R rating.  While it is intense, it lacks the punch that an R rating would give it, and there are scenes were it becomes painfully obvious that this is a PG-13 only by orders from the studio.

If you insist on seeing it, wait for Blu Ray.  Otherwise, just read the book.

American Beauty

3.5/4

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, Allison Janney, Peter Gallagher

Rated R for Strong Sexuality, Language, Violence and Drug Content

I just don't want to be ordinary.
When we're little, we all have big dreams about what we want to be.  "I want to be a fireman!"  "I want to be a police officer!"  "I want to be a doctor!"  "I want to be a movie star!"  When we're young, the possibilities seem endless, as if we can get anything we want.  While it's true that America is the "Land of the Free" and with hard work you can do anything you want, the reality is that either through circumstance or changing interests, most of us don't become what we dream of and end up sitting in a cubicle somewhere pushing money around on a computer.

While that's certainly a cynical viewpoint, there's a lot of truth in that belief.  Does every "director" of whatever imagine that they're going to be doing that for the rest of their lives when they're four?  Of course not.  A lot of that has to do with said four year old not knowing about the business world, but still.

That's the reality that the Burnham family has faced, and they're all just beginning to realize it.  Lester (Spacey) has been walking through life in a semi-comatose state, until his mind and spirit are awoken when his daughter's gorgeous friend Angela (Suvari) arouses his animal instincts.  Carolyn (Bening) has bought into the superficiality of suburbia and is desperately clinging to what little comfort it provides as she sees her husband rebel.  Their daughter, Jane (Birch), despises her parents, especially when they "try to take an interest in her."  She's being videotaped by Ricky Fitts (Bentley), the mysterious boy next door. Initially, she finds this to be creepy, but then finds it cool and affectionate.  Ricky's relationship with his parents is also hostile, with his dad (Cooper), a clearly disturbed Marine, lives his life as if he's still in boot camp, and his mother (Janney) is barely aware of the world around her.

The film is about how people try to find themselves once they realize that their lives are a fantasy.  Many films have taken this route, but few have been as bleak and as cynical.  There is humor in this film, but much of it is of the dark variety.  I think a lot of people will do some deep soul searching after watching this movie.  It's that kind of film.

The acting is terrific.  Kevin Spacey, one of our most versatile actors, is great as the man who finally stops buying into the bullshit and openly defies it.  He is excited by his interest in Angela and begins working out to impress her.  Annette Bening is good, but has her over-the-top moments.  She's deeply superficial, but not because she's a narcissist, but because her life has become all she knows, and the reality that she is deeply unhappy is something that she wants to avoid acknowledging.  Thora Birch, who would later go on to portray the most aggravating character I've ever seen in "Ghost World," is quite good as the teenager whose contempt for her parents has caused her to give up hope that they'll ever be tolerable.  She has great chemistry with Bentley, who manages to be creepy and sexy at the same time.  Their story is in some ways the most interesting because they are so good.  Mena Suvari is adequate as the Lolita who takes advantage of Lester's interest in her, but there are moments where she is stiff or over-the-top.  Chris Cooper is genuinely frightening as the deranged Frank.  This man is not right in the head.

"American Beauty" is the film debut of director Sam Mendes (after two TV movies).  He was chosen by executive producer Steven Spielberg, whose instincts are right on the money.  This is a provocative and well thought out movie that forces us to look at our lives.  The characters and their situations are compelling and more importantly, it's intelligent and knowing.  Everyone will see themselves in at least one of the characters, and will likely see someone they know in one of them.  The exceptions are Ricky and Frank, although that's not really a criticism since they're so well written and acted.

It's not flawless; some scenes are played too broadly and would be more effective if they displayed a harder edge, and Carolyn's dalliances with the uber-successful and sleazy real estate agent competitor Buddy Kane (Gallagher) aren't as interesting because Carolyn doesn't come across as real as everyone else.  And there's clip at the end that is part of the finale but how it fits into it isn't explained (although it's easy to guess).  Still, this is a eye-opener.

Vampires

1.5/4

Starring: James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Tim Guinee, Thomas Ian Griffith, Maximilian Schell

Rated R for Strong Vampire Violence and Gore, Language and Sexuality

I was fortunate enough to run into John Miller (name changed to protect his identity) earlier tonight.  Because Mr. Miller is a real-life vampire hunter and devoted film buff, I thought it would be interesting to hear his opinion on John Carpenter's 1998 thriller "Vampires."

Me: So John, let's start with the obvious.  What did you think of the movie?

John: It was lame.  It had its moments, but I quickly grew bored.

Me: Same here.  I nearly fell asleep (although in my defense, it was kind of late).  And it had a good premise for kicking a lot of vampire ass.  I mean, there's James Woods in full scenery-chewing mode playing a slayer named Jack Crow, who after his team was slaughtered, goes on the hunt for the first real vampire, Jan Valek (Griffith).  It's sort of a revenge story with lots of blood and guts.

John: Yeah, but James Woods was awful.  I didn't buy him for a second.

Me: Oh, I didn't think he was that bad.  I think he was just saddled with an inconsistent character from a poor script and bad direction from John Carpenter, who hasn't done anything halfway decent since "The Thing."

John: Yeah, the script was pretty lame.  But all Woods does is yell and scream a lot.  He doesn't seem to be invested in the role.

Me: I thought so too.  Plus watching him and Daniel Baldwin make jokes while fighting vampires must have been uncomfortable.

John: No, that's pretty real.  When you do this day in and day out, you kinda have to build up a sense of humor.  Only way to keep your head.  My only complaint is that the jokes weren't funny.

Me: Yeah, Woods seemed so badass in the trailer.

John: And he wasn't the only one who was disappointing.  Daniel Baldwin kept making me wish for his brother Alec.  And Sheryl Lee didn't have much to do either.

Me: She was in "Twin Peaks," you know.

John: Yeah, but I never saw it.  I liked the priest guy, Tim Guinee.  He was good.

Me: Do you have a priest with you when you go hunting for vampires?

John: Not officially, although many of us are.

Me: Oh.  So what did you think of the action sequences?

John: Borrrring! Seriously, they looked so unprofessional.  Like it was done on the first take with no rehearsal.  In real life, everyone is an expert with firearms and martial arts.  You have to be if you want to survive for long.  And when you drag a vampire into the sun, the fire is a lot bigger.

Me: What about the storyline?  Have you heard of any cross that can let vampires walk in the daylight or anything like that?

John: Nope.  They don't exist.  If they did, the Vatican would know about it.

Me: So you do work for the Vatican.  What about the ending?

John: It was the worst.  So ridiculous, so false and so boring.  Nuff said.

Me: At least these guys didn't sparkle like they did in "Twilight," right?

John: Bartender!  Three shots of tequila!  Stat!

Me: Yeah, I'll take a beer.  A movie this lame...you kinda have to have one.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Waitress

2/4

Starring: Keri Russell, Nathan Fillon, Adrienne Shelly, Cheryl Hines, Jeremy Sisto, Andy Griffith

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content, Language and Thematic Elements

"Waitress" is an enthusiastic little film that certainly has some laudable qualities, but ultimately doesn't quite work.  It's more insightful than many comedies these days and it has energy, but it feels like a mish-mash of tones and genres that isn't quite streamlined enough.  It's a fantasy, but it doesn't come together.

Jenna Hunterson (Russell) is a pie-making genius.  She can come up with unusual pie recipes off the top of her head that make everyone salivate.  Sadly, the success of her culinary skill does not translate to her personal life, which is a disaster.  Her husband Earl (Sisto) became an insecure but aggressive brute after they married and is determined to keep her under his control.  She's making plans and saving money to run away, but she discovers a little problem growing in her belly.  Her luck seems to turn around when she hits it off with the handsome new doctor in town, Dr. Pomatter (Fillon).

The acting varies.  Keri Russell has a few stiff moments here and there, but in general, she's a revelation.  You can't help but like Jenna.  She's smart and kind, but her disastrous personal life gives her vulnerability that makes her endearing.  She also has a set of values; both she and Dr. Pomatter are married, and she knows that having an affair with her doctor is wrong.  Less impressive is Nathan Fillon.  Fillon, a TV actor who is famous for his roles on the crime show "Castle" and the cult TV show "Firefly," can act, but the role of Dr. Pomatter is out of his range.  He is constantly hammy, and every time he utters a word of dialogue it comes off wrong.  Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelly are on hand for comic relief as Jenna's co-workers.  Hines is a little too perky as the ditzy Becky but Shelly is adorable as the shy Dawn.  The best performances are given by Jeremy Sisto and Andy Griffith.  Sisto is frightening but not too frightening as Earl.  He understands exactly how far to take the character without ruining the tone (which is frequently inconsistent).  Andy Griffith is perfectly cantankerous as the owner of the diner, although his relationship with Jenna is underdeveloped.

The best flaws are when a movie tries to do something different but doesn't quite make it.  These kinds of choices should be encouraged.  Shelly, in her last film before she was murdered for the money in her purse, is trying to make an off-kilter feel-good comedy.  It doesn't quite make it, but it leads to some interesting tangents.  The main problem is that there's so much that she's trying to do that we don't get a feel for the characters.  And with Fillon's inadequate acting, the film's central relationship isn't successful.

This isn't a bad film, and it's a sad epitaph for an actress and filmmaker who had more, better films in her.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Pacific Rim

1/4

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, Robert Kazinsky

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Violence Throughout, and Brief Language

I love big and loud action movies as much as the next guy.  Intelligence is preferred, but it the action is good I'll give the film a little bit of leeway.  But movies like "Pacific Rim" scare me.  Is this where big budget action movies are going?  Are studios so obsessed with just getting everyone on earth in the theater that they've become terrified of having actual characters, plot or even dialogue that might turn the one person on that deserted island away?

The movie is the unholy mix of "Transformers" and "Godzilla."  Think about that.  Could this movie ever have been good?  It sounds like one of those cheesy direct-to-DVD movies you find in the discount bin at K-Mart (not even Wal-Mart will stock something this silly).  But then I learned that Guillermo del Toro had co-written and directed it, so my curiosity was piqued, as was my hopeful nature.  But alas, it was not to be.  This movie is a disaster.  A waste of $180 million.

In the near future, coastal cities are being attacked and destroyed by giant behemoths from deep in the ocean.  The Kaiju, as they are called, appear from the ocean and destroy everything they can.  It seemed as if humanity, the dominant species on the planet for the last hundred thousand years or so would end up on the Endangered Species List.  That's when the world governments set aside their differences and worked together toward a common goal (believe it or not, this is the part of the movie that's easiest to swallow).  They created the "jaeger" program (ironic because that's what you'll need to drink in order to enjoy this movie.  And lots of it!).  The jaegers are robots the size of skyscrapers that are built to take on the monsters.   It worked for a while, but then the monsters got bigger and the jaegers couldn't keep up. Because they're so big, they take two to operate.  That's explained in the movie, albeit not in a particularly coherent way.  Two of the best jaeger pilots are Raleigh (Hunnam) and Yancy Beckett (Diego Klattenhoff).  They're brothers so their bond is stronger. But during an act of ego by the Beckett brothers, the Kaiju they're fighting gets the upper hand and snatches Yancy away to his death.  Of course, Raleigh disappears and sulks over the trauma, until his old commander (Elba) tracks him down when things get bad.  Then he's matched up with an unproven but energetic pilot Mako Mori (Kikuchi), and...

You know the rest.  This is a formula as old as storytelling, and the only new twist that "Pacific Rim" puts on it is to give little snippets of it instead of merely regurgitating it.  This is a 2 hour long trailer for an uber-cheesy version of a movie we've already seen.

Aside from all the usual problems (unnecessary 3D, incomprehensible action sequences, not being able to tell who is who, plastic characters, mediocre acting), "Pacific Rim" has two problems that we rarely see (thankfully) and could sink a movie on their own.

Problem #1: unintelligible dialogue.  Whether it's from thick accents or the incessant blaring soundtrack (or both), I couldn't understand half of what anyone was saying.  The characters could have discovered the meaning of life for all I know.  I'd put off writing the review until I saw it on Blu Ray with subtitles, but the movie is about as pleasant as fresh cow dung regardless of what they're saying so I'm not going to bother.

Problem #2: extremely little dialogue.  Telling a story with limited dialogue is always risky (to date, the only movies that I can think of that did it with any amount of success are "Wall-E" and Sylvain Chomet's "The Triplets of Belleville").  But with "Pacific Rim," it's not an act of ego or artsyness (as is usually the case).  It's the studio wanting to make sure that everyone can "get it."  There isn't a conversation that lasts more than thirty seconds in this entire movie.

What can I say about the acting?  Not much really, since no one has anything to do.  They just have to show up, move around in front of the camera, and make appearances at Comic-Con.  Lead actor Charlie Hunnam, who was so chilling in "Cold Mountain," tries to make Raleigh into a dashing, rule-breaking hunk that is in every movie like this, but he underplays the role.  Rinko Kikuchi tries to do what she can, but it's not much.  And Idris Elba simply looks like he's there only under protest.  Maybe he lost a bet on the way to shooting his TV show "Luther."

I refuse to believe that this disaster can be blamed only on Guillermo del Toro.  I haven't been a "fan" of everything he's done ("Cronos" was overrated and the "Hellboy" movies were cinematic cotton candy,although I liked "Mimic" and "Pan's Labrynth"), but del Toro is no hack filmmaker.  My only conclusion is that it had a lot of studio interference (and this wouldn't be del Toro's first battle with the studios.  Remember "Mimic?").  Evidence for the prosecution is the fact that del Toro's trademark, visually interesting creatures, are not present (although longtime friend and collaborator Ron Perlman has a small role, and his character is part of the only two legitimate surprises in the film).  Both the robots and the monsters look completely generic.

Please, just avoid it.  Unless you're a bad movie connoisseur.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Lone Ranger

2/4

Starring: Armie Hammer, Johnny Depp, William Fitchner, Tom Wilkinson, Helena Bonham Carter, Mason Elston Cook, James Badge Dale

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Action and Violence, and Some Suggestive Material

News reports can't seem to stop talking about how poorly Disney's new movie, "The Lone Ranger," is doing at the box office.  While box office isn't necessarily tied to quality ("Speed Racer" was a huge loss for Warner Brothers, as was "Green Lantern"), it is in this case.  "The Lone Ranger isn't a bad movie per se, it's just relentlessly mediocre.

A young boy (Cook) is wandering through a museum at a fair when he comes across a mannequin of Tonto, the sidekick to the legendary hero The Lone Ranger.  But as the boy finds out, the mannequin is not made of wax, but is in fact the real Tonto.  Tonto begins to recount one of his exploits with John Reid (Hammer), who would become the masked hero.

John is coming home from the city to the small town where his brother, lawman Dan Reid (Dale).  Also on the train are Butch Cavendish (Fitchner), an outlaw and Tonto (Depp), a Comanche Indian.  Butch's gang springs their leader from the train, which derails at the very spot where railroad tycoon is commemorating the joining of the Transcontinental Railroad (echoes of countless other Westerns). Dan enlists his brother as a Texas Ranger, and they go offto find Cavendish to bring him to justice.  But the quest fails utterly, with everyone being killed.  Fortunately, Tonto comes across the carnage and his horse raises John from the dead (much to Tonto's irritation, since he prefers Dan).  John is now The Lone Ranger, and the two of them get pulled into an adventure involving Indian mysticism, business, and lots of cursed rocks.

Not only is the story lame, it doesn't make a lot of sense.  This is especially curious since the writers are Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who wrote the "Pirates of the Carribean" movies, and Justin Haythe, who wrote the script for "Revolutionary Road."  Studio interference anyone?

The acting is surprisingly weak.  Johnny Depp is an acting legend and Armie Hammer is a promising new talent.  Sadly, neither one of them creates a memorable character.  With Depp's case, it's more along the lines of the character being poorly written and him having almost nothing to do (consider what "Pirates of the Carribean" did for Captain Jack Sparrow).  Armie Hammer suffers from a similar fate, although there's more to it than that.  Whether the actor misinterprets the character or is miscast, Hammer is not a good fit for The Lone Ranger.  William Fitchner, the chameleon that he is, disappers into the character of Butch Cavendish to the point that I could hardly tell it was the same guy who played Sully in "The Perfect Storm" or Roger Van Zant in "Heat" (both infintely better films than this one.  Even worse, the talents of both Helena Bonham Carter and Tom Wilkinson are utterly wasted.  Their efforts are thankless (hopefully they were well paid, and with a bloated $250 million budget, they better have been).

Clearly, Disney hoped for another blockbuster franchise.  Take the director and star of their previous big name series, dip into a genre that has been fertile ground for the director (Gore Verbinski won an Oscar, albeit undeservedly, for "Rango"), and put it all into a brand name that is beloved by older audiences, and you have a recipe for a hit.

Or so they thought.  The resulting film is lackluster in every sense of the word.  The characters are boring.  The story is messy, derivative and lame.  The action scenes are too few and far between, and even worse, they're little fun.  Ditto for effective comedy (not only isn't it especially funny, it's not there).  But the most obvious thing missing is a lack of heart.  With the "Pirates of the Carribean" movies, everyone involved seemed to be fully invested in the project, as if they would have done it for free just so they could tell the story and revisit the characters.  Here, everyone seems to be going through the motions.  No one seems to care about the project except Disney, who clearly only wants a big payday.  Even Jerry Bruckheimer, the uber-producer that he is, doesn't seem that interested in promoting it (the hype around the film is minimal, despite the prevalence of cutouts at movie theaters and the occasional news article).  Not surprised.


































































































































































































































Monday, July 8, 2013

Mike's Musings: Five Actors to Watch

Al Pacino.  Robert De Niro.  Meryl Streep.  Johnny Depp.  Will Smith.

Many great actors become are famous actors.  That's where we get the term "movie star."  But for all the movie stars we have, there are many great actors who have talent but aren't famous at all.  Or at least, don't get the recognition they should.

So, here are five actors to watch out for.  If you see a movie with them, it will probably be good, and their performance definitely will.  For your benefit, I've linked their names to their iMDb profile pages.

Dane DeHaan: I first took notice of Dane DeHaan after his performance in "Chronicle," the pseudo-documentary superhero movie.  With his boyish face and breaking voice, he looks a lot like a high schooler (he's really 26...and married).  But it's his raw talent, especially for simmering anger, that has kept him in my radar.  He was terrific in the otherwise awful "Lawless," and very good in "The Place Beyond the Pines."  Two of his future roles are playing Harry Osborn in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" and an unspecified role in "Devil's Knot," Atom Egoyan's Westboro Memphis Three movie.  I can't wait!

Christian Coulson: Okay, fine, I admit.  I haven't really seen enough of Christian Coulson's work to know if he has any talent whatsoever (only one movie and a few clips on YouTube, including his ten second appearance in "The Hours," although he merely had to act spaced out and push a book cart).  That being said, if you're able to steal a Harry Potter movie away from everyone, including classical British thespians, that's saying something.  "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is my favorite book in the legendary series, and the one thing that I remember about the movie is Tom Riddle.  Coulson, who was 23 at the time of filming (far older than the 15-17 year old age group that the producers were looking for), played the character perfectly (and didn't stumble over Steve Kloves' clunky dialogue very much, a feat that eclipsed many of the cast members). Tom Riddle was dark, handsome and charismatic, and the young actor added a hint of sexuality to it that made it (SPOILER ALERT! but is this really possible?  I mean, who hasn't read the books or seen the movies?) believable that he could bamboozle an adolescent girl and become one of the greatest villains in literary history.  He hasn't been in much lately, although he has some independent films in the pipeline.  Here's to hoping he'll get the recognition he deserves.

Gong Li: In all honesty, it's probably unfair to include her on this list because, at least in the arthouse circut, she's far from an unknown.  But, as a devout fan of her work, how could I not?  The Chinese legend has impressed me even when she's in something truly awful, like Wong Kar Wai's "2046."  Michael Mann and Rob Marshall, two American directors who have worked with her (Mann in "Miami Vice" and Marshall in "Memoirs of a Geisha"...talk about alliteration!) have both called her "the Asian Meryl Streep."  Truer words have never been spoken.  She may not be as well known on this side of the Pacific as she should be, but once you see her on screen, you'll gobble up all her movies as fast as you can.  I'm still waiting for "Shanghai," the movie she did with John Cusack, Chow Yun-Fat, Ken Watanabe and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, to be released.  It's been 3 years, Hollywood!

Ezra Miller: Unconventional is probably the best way to describe Ezra Miller.  He's far from a heartthrob, and looks like a goth/emo version of a super young Cillian Murphy (Scarecrow from Nolan's "Batman" saga).  In any event, his credits speak for themselves.  He played a teenager secretly attracted to big women in "City Island," a high school age spree killer in "We Need to Talk About Kevin," and a gay outcast in last year's brilliant "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."  Next up is the role of Leon in "Madame Bovary" opposite Mia Wasikowska, Rhys Ifans, and Paul Giamatti.  Need I say more?

And finally...

Penn Badgely!

No, I'm not a fan of "Gossip Girl."  I tried to watch that show once, mainly because of Badgely, but also because of all the guest stars I was feeling left out.  I didn't make it through one episode.

Anyway, this young actor first came to my attention when I saw him in "Margin Call."  His charisma and everyman quality were both striking, and he was easy to identify with.  I went to college with guys like Seth Bregman.  I next saw him in the utterly worthless "The Stepfather" remake, where I was impressed with his boy next door quality (including being incredibly attractive) and his screen presence.  He's a low key actor, but he has the presence to hold his own on screen with actors of more wattage.  His next movie is "Greetings from Tim Buckley," which hasn't been released in Saint Louis, although Badgely's performance has gotten great reviews from Rolling Stone.  After that, he has a role in a romance called "Parts Per Billion," with Rosario Dawson, Josh Hartnett, Alexis Bledel, Frank Langella, and Gena Rowlands.  It's got a minuscule ($1.3 million) budget, but with a cast like that, it could be very good!

I CAN'T BELIEVE I FORGOT HIM!

Michael Angarano: I've been a fan of Michael Angarano's for years.  He's given great performances in a number of movies, including "Black Irish" and "Red State."  I like him for the same reasons I am excited about Penn Badgely.  His boy next door charm.  But while Badgely's is more studly, Angarano is more the cute best friend, and in some ways it makes him more adorable and sympathetic.  Take for example his performance in "Black Irish."  Angarano's natural, unforced acting gave us a window into a loving but broken family.  And Angarano showed no sense of artifice or reaching during the heavy emotional scenes, which trip up many actors (including some established ones).  Angarano has established himself as a working character actor in the indie film circuit with a number of leading roles, including the aforementioned "Black Irish," "Gentlemen Broncos," "One Last Thing..." and some supporting roles in more mainstream roles (including the hero of the wretched Jackie Chan/Jet Li movie, "The Forbidden Kingdom."  Coming up are a number of films, including "The Brass Teapot" with Juno Temple (which he has the lead, and looks to be a twisted comedy), Dito Montiel's bank robbery thriller, "Empire State," with Dwayne Johnson, Liam Hemsworth and Emma Roberts, "The English Teacher" with Julianne Moore, Lily Collins, Greg Kinnear and Nathan Lane, and "Heat" (not to be confused with the DeNiro/Pacino masterpiece) with a huge cast including Jason Statham, Sofia Vegara, Milo Ventimiglia, Stanley Tucci, Anne Heche, Jason Alexander and Hope Davis.

In the words of Senator Palpatine (paraphrased of course), "I'll be watching their careers with great interest!"

Take Shelter

1.5/4

Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Wigham, Tova Stewart, Kathy Baker

Rated R for Some Language

It is the director's job, in every movie, to make his characters grow.  While they may be caught in stasis, we have to see that the things that happen to them are affecting them.  That doesn't happen here.  "Take Shelter" is Jeff Nichols' second film (his third was "Mud," which was released earlier this year), and it suffers from a crawling pace.  The film is so slow going that it completely tanks the film and makes the two lead performances an exercise in futility.

Curtis (Shannon) is a loving husband to Samantha (Chastain) and father to Hannah (Stewart).  He has a job in construction and works with his best buddy, Dewart (Wigham).  But he's seeing storms and raining oil that no one else is seeing, and he's having violent nightmares that cause him to behave in bizarre ways.  Convinced that there is a devastating storm approaching, Curtis begins to revamp the storm shelter in his backyard.  His increasingly deranged behavior is alienating him from his friends and jeopardizing his marriage and his career.

The film gets off to a strong start.  It's atmospheric and creepy.  Nichols develops a potent sense of foreboding.  But he isn't able to sustain it.  Nichols spins his wheels far too much and the whole film starts to move at a sluggish pace.  It didn't take long for me to stop caring about the characters.

It's not for a lack of trying on the actors part.  Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain give it their all, but it's not enough.  Shannon, who usually portrays characters on the brink of insanity, is given an interesting character.  Curtis's mother (Baker) was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic when he was 10, and has been living in a facility ever since.  Curtis knows that this may be the cause of his problems.  But Nichols' script doesn't allow him to bridge the gap between the sickness and the part of him that knows he's sick.  Jessica Chastain's role is mostly obligatory, since someone has to play the straight man that points out that the main character isn't behaving rationally.  But Chastain is one of those rare actors who can take anything and spin it into gold.  This isn't her best performance, but she's very good.

Ultimately, the film is undone by it's poor pacing.  Stuff happens, but Nichols doesn't bring it out very much.  This is one of those movies that feels about three times as long as it actually is.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Monsters University

2/4

Starring (voices): Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Helen Mirren

Rated G

"Toy Story."  "Toy Story 2."  "Monsters Inc."  "The Incredibles."  "Finding Nemo."  "Brave."

Those are a few of the masterpieces that Pixar Animation Studios has produced over the past 18 years.  Sadly, "Monsters University" is not among them.  It's not a bad movie, just a mediocre one.

"Monsters Inc." introduced moviegoers to an interesting world where monsters are not only real, they scare kids for energy.  It told a complete story with a beginning, middle and end.  Although the idea for the film's prequel is interesting and, with the chemistry and talent of Billy Crystal and John Goodman, had potential, it's mostly unrealized.

Mike Wazowski (Crystal) has wanted to be a scarer ever since he snuck in with a legendary scarer to watch him work.  Ever since then, becoming a scarer has become his sole focus.  Before he walked on campus, he knew more about scaring than anyone.  What he lacks is talent.  Despite his best attempts, he's not very scary.  Meanwhile, James "Sulley" Sullivan (Goodman), comes from a family of legendary scarers, and thinks he can coast through on his family name and his talent.  When their rivalry gets them kicked out of the famous scaring program by the frightening Dean Hardscrabble (Mirren), they'll have to work together to win a competition in order to get back into the program, or Mike gets expelled.

"Monsters University is the sitcom offspring of "Revenge of the Nerds" and "Harry Potter." The idea has merit, but the execution does not.  The plot is anemic and plays safe at nearly every turn.  The humor is limp to bordering on non-existent (did director Dan Scanlon let Crystal improvise at all?).  Only one scene made me laugh.  And the heart that separates all Pixar movies from the rest is missing completely.  Mike and Sully were protagonists that we felt for in the first one.  Here, they're stick figures.

Crystal and Goodman slide easily back into their roles, although the chemistry is diluted due to the nature of the story.  Helen Mirren is clearly slumming for a paycheck.  Of the cast, no one else bears a mention.

Director Dan Scanlon plays it so safe that the movie becomes stale.  It reeks of being written by committee.  There are far too many action sequences and too little laughs, including one that's in kind of bad taste for a kids movie (and it's not very funny).  Like Feburary's disaster, "Identity Thief," the most amusing gag from the trailer (the party in the dorms where Mike gets decked out like a disco ball) isn't in the movie.

This isn't a bad movie.  Just a depressingly mediocre one.  And that's a huge disappointment coming from Pixar.  Maybe next time guys.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Patriot: Extended Cut

3/4

Starring: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, Tom Wilkinson, Tcheky Karyo, Chris Cooper, Joely Richardson, Lisa Brenner

The Extended Cut is Unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong War Violence

Seeing as yesterday was our Independence Day, I thought I'd review a topical movie (I watched it last night, but I was too tired to write the review).

"The Patriot" is a solid action war movie.  It's got a hero we can get behind, a hissable villain, a hunky heartthrob, spectacular action, and a rousing story.  While Roland Emmerich, who made his name in disaster movies like "Independence Day" and, later, "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012," may not seem like the ideal choice to direct a war movie, he does an effective job.  Sure, it's a little too melodramatic and the issues of race are dealt with in a way that is shallow and naiive, but it's good entertainment.

Benjamin Martin (Gibson) is a farmer living in South Carolina shortly before the Revolutionary War.  His neighbors are fed up with being pissed on by the British and want to revolt.  Martin agrees with their position, but does not want to go to war.  This surprises his friend, Col. Harry Burwell (Cooper), because Martin is a war hero.  Martin's sons, Gabriel (Ledger) and Thomas (Gregory Smith), are eager to fight for their freedom, however, and Gabriel enlists despite his father's objections.  But when a brutal British Colonel named Tavington (played with vicious zeal by Jason Isaacs) murders Thomas, Martin forms a band of guerrilla warriors to raise hell for the British.  The British general, Cornwallis (Wilkinson), horrified at the "ungentlemanly" tactics of Martin's militia, reluctantly gives Tavington free license to track down Martin by any means possible.

If nothing else, "The Patriot" can illustrate the versatility of a screenplay.  The writer, Robert Rodat, also wrote "Saving Private Ryan," which changed the way that we viewed war movies (while Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" and Oliver Stone's "Platoon" led the way, "Saving Private Ryan" was the one that sealed the deal).  "Saving Private Ryan," as anyone who has seen it can attest, is a devastating look at the hell of real war.  It saw it for what it really is: terrifying, bloody and cruel.  In many ways, "The Patriot" is the very film that "Saving Private Ryan" was arguing against.  It brings all the war movie cliches to life: the reluctant hero, the melodramatic catalyst, the colorful comrades, and an out and out villain.  And yet, it works because Roland Emmerich takes time to illustrate some of the same themes that Steven Spielberg conveyed: war is dangerous and deadly.  Taking a more conventional and a considerably softer look at war than Spielberg did works because Emmerich shows the price of war.  That he does it in a different way is irrelevant because the two films have different goals, and because it works.

The performances are effective across the board.  Mel Gibson plays a reluctant hero very well.  It's impossible not to think of "Braveheart" with Gibson as the lead (and that film's reception was undoubtedly what Columbia was hoping for).  Gibson plays a grieving father very well, and we know he can play a warrior just as good.  Heath Ledger is also good as the obligatory hunk, and while his performance isn't up there with Ennis Del Mar or The Joker (the script doesn't allow him that latitude), he's effective nonetheless.  Jason Isaacs is chillingly good as Tavington.  No one plays a bad guy like him, and with his icy eyes and voice dripping with maniacal pleasure and disgust, you can bet that it won't be long before we're actively waiting for Mel Gibson to dispatch him with the panache of, say, Patrick Bateman.  Or Leatherface.  Joely Richardson is lovely as Martin's sister-in-law whom he shares common ground with through love and grief, although she seems miscast at times.  Less impressive are Lisa Brenner, who plays Gabriel's love interest Anne (she looks and sounds a lot like Amanda Peet), and surprisingly Chris Cooper, who is too subdued.  More effective are Tom Wilkinson, Leon Rippy (as a colorful member of the militia) and Joey D. Viera (as Anne's father, who does some funny things with an ear horn).

For Emmerich, this is a case of balance.  Emmerich is trying to create a balance between a rousing war spectacle while not being exploitative.  He does a solid job.  What I really liked is how he took care to illustrate what war is like when it's fought on the home front.  We see lots of destruction in war movies, but few take the time to illustrate what it's like when it's fought on your own backyard (the only film that comes to mind is Ken Loach's ambitious misfire "The Wind that Shakes the Barley").  It makes you thankful that we haven't had a war on the homefront since The Civil War.  Less successful is Emmerich's handling of the race issue.  At best, these scenes are melodramatic.  At worst (the growing respect by racist Dan Scott (Donal Logue) of slave Occam (Jay Arlen Jones)) they're bordering on being offensive.

The film was released with two controversies: one, the character of Benjamin Martin was based on a racist, and two, there is a scene where two of Martin's children shoot (and kill) British soldiers.  The first one I can't really excuse, except to say that none of the real Benjamin Martin's racism has made it into the film (in fact, his relationship with his black farm workers falls in with one of my previous criticisms about race in the film).  The other criticism is a sling at the film that's simply unfair.  Yes, Nathaniel (Trevor Morgan) and Samuel (Bryan Chafin) do kill British soldiers.  But while Benjamin Martin eventually goes into bezerk mode, they do not.  They are terrified kids who do not want to fight, and when it is over, all three are clearly disturbed by it (Nathaniel says, to Benjamin's horror, that he's glad they killed them, and Samuel won't speak to his father).  Hardly as offensive as it sounds.  Not to mention the fact that it's R-rated, but that never stopped anyone from showing their kids a violent action movie...

The extended cut is overlong, but all in all, this is solid entertainment.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Robot & Frank

3/4

Starring: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon, Jeremy Strong, Jeremy Sisto and the voice of Peter Sarsgaard

Rated PG-13 for Some Language

While "Robot & Frank" is accessible to anyone over the age of 10, I have a sneaking suspicion that older adults will enjoy it more.  The Millennial generation gets skewered in this otherwise light comedy-drama that's heartfelt and occasionally very funny.

Frank (Langella) is a retired cat burglar who is losing his memory.  He forgets who his children are until they remind him and occasionally leaves milk in the fridge until it spoils.  His worrywart son Hunter (Marsden) is worried about him, and gets him a robot (Sarsgaard) to help around the house.  Frank doesn't like the idea ("That thing will murder me in my sleep," he says).  But once he realizes that he can manipulate the robot to steal jewels from the town's biggest douchebag (Strong), they bond.

Frank Langella ably handles the role of Frank, which is slightly more complex than it would seem.  Frank's memory may be failing, but his intelligence has not.  He quickly figures out how to logically get the robot to help him do some blatantly illegal activities.  Langella doesn't overdo it either.  The former sex symbol (he played Dracula in the 70's) is an actor capable of powerful and versatile performances, like in "Frost/Nixon."  And while playing a character with a mental affliction often attracts Oscar attention, this movie is lighter than air, and Langella understands this.

His co-star, Peter Sarsgaard, is also in top form.  Sarsgaard gives the robot a personality while still making it seem not human.  It's a difficult balance, and Sarsgaard pulls it off (I was reminded of Kevin Spacey's performance in "Moon," where he did something similar).  It helps that the role is strongly written; the robot is logical and caring, but easily manipulated.

The supporting cast is, with the exception of Liv Tyler (who is unnecessarily shrill), solid.  James Marsden continues to grow as an actor.  He's caring but a little too neurotic even under the circumstances.  Susan Sarandon is lovely as the friendly librarian Jennifer.  Jeremy Strong, whose one scene appearance in "The Messenger" proved that he was an actor to watch, is uneven.  When he's playing the insufferably obnoxious yuppie, he's so annoying that you want to strangle him (I mean that as a compliment, by the way), but when he's an angry accuser, he isn't intense enough.  Jeremy Sisto rounds out the cast as the local cop.

"Robot & Frank" is smartly written and directed.  The script is well-thought out but not so much that it becomes too dense and dark.  This is a script of ideas, not depth (although it has that to an extent that a movie as light as this can have depth).  The direction is also strong.  It has a good sense of place; it takes place in the near future, but it's not "Star Wars" or "Minority Report;" the world could, and likely will, look something like this in the near future.

The one criticism I have with the film is the ending.  It's not what happens, but how the director handles is.  It doesn't seem as complete as it should be, and if we're to take it at face value, there's a pretty big loophole.

Still, this is a fun little movie that could brighten up anyone's day.