Thursday, August 29, 2013

Shanghai

2/4

Starring: John Cusack, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chow Yun-Fat, David Morse

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

Ever since I heard about this project a few years ago, I was dying to see it.  I'm a huge fan of Gong Li, and the thought of her (not to mention two of Asia's biggest male stars appearing with her) made me drool with anticipation.  I waited patiently for its release.  And waited.  And waited.  Anticipation gave way to frustration as the film had been delayed for two years (even though it had been submitted to the MPAA), and through research I concluded that the film would never see the light of day in the U.S.  Finally, I decided to see if I could get it on Blu Ray, which I eventually did.

The obvious question is why the film wasn't released in the U.S.?  I mean, it has John Cusack and his Asian co-stars aren't exactly unknowns.  Ken Watanabe got an Oscar nomination for "The Last Samurai" and starred in two movies for Christopher Nolan.  Chow Yun-Fat is a John Woo favorite and had the lead in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Gong Li is widely regarded as one of the best actresses working today, and starred in three mainstream US movies.  Given that, and the fact that studios will release anything that they can market ("John Carter" is a perfect example), it's an interesting question, but it has an obvious, but unsatisfactory answer: there's no way the film would make a profit in the U.S.

For starters, the story is film noir, which can make a profit, but usually doesn't bring in megabucks.  Second, the film isn't very good.  The acting is nice, but character development is minimal and the story only occasionally makes sense.  The film was clearly designed with Oscar potential in mind, but two years in the editing room proved how troubled this film actually was.

The film takes place shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Paul Soames (Cusack) is a spy who has been sent to Hong Kong.  His best friend Conner (Morgan) has been found murdered, and his superior Richard Astor (Morse) wants him to find out who killed him and why.  Conner was investigating Anthony Lan-Ting (Yun-Fat), a crime lord who pays the Japanese army enough to make them leave him alone.  That gets him involved with Anthony's wife Anna (Li) and a cop for the Japanese army named Tanaka (Watanabe).

As is to be expected, the acting is good, although not as good as you'd expect.  The script, by Hossein Amini (who has never written a good script), doesn't give them much latitude (it's one of those scripts that wants to be intelligent and hip by only giving you have of the information you need).  John Cusack, who lobbied aggressively for the role once he found out they were considering him for it, is effective but little else.  Gong Li, the force of nature that she is, is wonderful, although there is one scene where she seems unfocused.  Although Cusack and Li are both wonderful performers, they don't have any chemistry of any kind.  Ken Watanabe has to act like a villain while Chow Yun-Fat has absolutely nothing to do.  Ditto for Franka Potente and Rinko Kikuchi.

"Shanghai" was the brainchild of Oscar-nominated producer Mike Medavoy (he was nominated for Best Picture for "Black Swan").  Born in Shanghai, he had developed the project through his company Phoenix Pictures, and it was bought by Harvey Weinstein whil he was still at Miramax (yes, I know, that is a very long time).  After 8 years, the film was finally produced and it's not as good as I think Medavoy have hoped.

Many scenes by themselves work well (with a cast like this, how could it not?).  It's just that they have been connected in a very unsatisfactory way.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Last Castle

.5/4

Starring: Robert Redford, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Steve Burton, Clifton Collins Jr., Delroy Lindo

Rated R for Language and Violence

Movies like "The Last Castle" piss me off.  It's unbearably boring, serious to the point of making a funeral look happy, and lacking in any sort of intelligence.  What kind of a moron thought that this could work?  Sure, there are a few nice performances, but for what?  To speak asinine dialogue in the service of a story that is afraid to have any shred of darkness?  To continually insult the brainpower of anyone who watches it?  To put insomniacs to sleep?  I don't know, but I'd like to ask director Rod Lurie and screenwriters David Scarpa and Graham Yost.  And I want payment for my pain and suffering for watching this garbage.

The film can boast at least a semi-interesting idea: a prisoner rallies up the fellow inmates to take over the prison from the brutal warden.  Unfortunately, any shred of promise that this premise has quickly goes right out the window.  It takes forever to get going, takes another forever to unfold, before quickly wrapping things up in a violent climax that would be rousing if it weren't so obviously contrived.

General Eugene Irwin (Redford) is serving a 10 year sentence (what he is charged with is revealed later).  He's been sent to The Castle, a military prison that is overseen by a man named Winter (Gandolfini).  Winter is a fan of Irwin; "They should be giving him a medal, not sending him here," he tells his robot-like henchman Peretz (Burton).  That is until Irwin realizes that Winter is a sadist who keeps control by brutalizing the prisoners, sometimes to the point of murder.  After his complaints to his friend, General Wheeler (Lindo), fall on deaf ears, Irwin decides to take over the prison.

Lurie doesn't know how he wants to push the film.  At times, Winter's methods are brutal, but at others, he's just a bully.  This indecision essentially tanks the film because we feel indifferent to Winter since he's a writer's construct (despite Gandolfini's attempts to make him real).  There's no sense of danger until the end, and even then, when all hell has broken loose, the guards still only use rubber bullets (which are only deadly in rare circumstances).  Real guns are pulled out at the end, but it's so contrived.

The performances by the three leads, Redford, Gandolfini and Ruffalo, are effective, but that doesn't save the film at all.  Redford does his low-key inspirational guy thing, Gandolfini ups the bluster to portray Winter as a man who's both a pussy and a moron.  Ruffalo is interesting as the may-be traitor, but the writing lets him down in the final act.  Soap stud Steve Burton is awful as Peretz; he looks like a member of a boy band than a soldier, and he acts like a deer caught in the headlights.

Rod Lurie has made some interesting, if imperfect, films.  "The Contender" was a dense and intelligent thriller about dirty politics that was undone by one hell of a deus ex machina, and "Nothing But the Truth" was a provocative thriller about the necessity and price of free press that had a dumb script (and a big deus ex machina).  Lurie did not write the script for "The Last Castle" as he did most of his other films, but that doesn't excuse him of blame (at least not entirely).  He takes things way too seriously; someone who wrote a script as intelligent and perceptive as "The Contender" had to know that there is no way anyone could have taken this seriously, and yet, there isn't a one-liner to be found.  Then there's the pacing.  The film is only 2 hours and fifteen minutes long, but it seems to take forever.  It goes on and on and on.  The film likens the conflict between Irwin and Winter to chess, which would be interesting if the characters weren't so dull.

Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli both gave the film a positive review, and Berardinelli mentioned the patriotism of the story.  They have their opinions, but even if I saw the film 12 years ago, I don't think it would have changed.  Even taking in the context of its release, the film still sucks.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Astronaut's Wife

2/4

Starring: Charlize Theron, Johnny Depp, Joe Morton, Clea DuVall, Donna Murphy, Nick Cassavettes, Blair Brown, Tom Noonan

Rated R for Violence, Language, and a Strong Scene of Sexuality

Psychological thrillers are fairly risky to make.  A good thriller in general is hard to get right, but a thriller like "The Astronaut's Wife" can't fall back on action scenes or chases to keep the audience from falling asleep.  Done right, you can end up with "Single White Female" or "The Debt."  Done poorly, you can end up with something like "The Astronaut's Wife."

Rand Ravich's directorial debut is not a terrible movie.  Despite his miscalculations, his two stars, Charlize Theron and Johnny Depp, are consistently good.  The story is engaging enough, and he effectively sets up the story.  That being said, there are plenty of serious problems that keep this "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" movie from being the terrifying thriller that it could be.

Second grade teacher Jillian Armacost (Theron) is married to the handsome astronaut Spencer (Depp).  They are deeply in love, and Jillian wants to savor every moment with him before he goes up in space on a mission to repair a satellite.  During the mission, NASA lost contact with Spencer and his fellow astronaut, Alex Streck (Cassavettes) for two minutes.  The team was brought down early in response to the incident, but there's something strange.  Spencer is perfectly fine, but Alex is not.  Further events cause Jillian to question not only what really happened during those two minutes, but whether her husband is still human.

It's pretty obvious that this is a directorial debut, more so than with other filmmakers.  Ravich doesn't have a good sense of story rhythm (a must for a psychological thriller), nor does he know how far to push the emotional level of a scene.  Some scenes start out effective, but lose their impact as they go further over the top.  Because Theron and Morton (Depp is kept low-key and effective) are so talented and intelligent, it can't be blamed on them.  Two scenes are a case in point: one is where Jillian faces a difficult decision and the other is when NASA Representative Sherman Reese (Morton) is trying to tell Jillian something important.  These two important scenes don't land because they aren't handled correctly.

Really, this is a two-person show.  There are other characters, but the ones who really matter are Jillian and Spencer.  Theron and Depp are two talented actors, and they generate a surprising amount of heat together (their sex scene, which features a very cool transition, is kind of hot).  And they don't stumble on the sometimes clunky dialogue.  Joe Morton isn't very good, and Clea DuVall isn't as irritating as she usually is; it's the best performance she's given, although that's not exactly saying much.

There are many times when the film shows flashes of what it could be.  The premise is terrifying, and because of the acting by Theron and Depp I bought into it a little.  Ravich bungles the job, yes, but it's not a total loss.

Speed 2: Cruise Control

3/4

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Jason Patric, Willem Dafoe, Temura Morrison, Brian McCardie

Rated PG-13 for Frenetic Disaster Action and Violence

"Speed" was an unexpected blockbuster for 20th Century Fox.  Originally an August release, it was moved up to July when a producer for the studio realized that he had a hit on his hands when test audience members were walking backwards to the bathroom so they would miss as little as possible.  Easily one of the best and most original action thrillers ever committed to celluloid, the box office success demanded a sequel.  Which brings us to "Speed 2: Cruise Control."  While it has earmarks to its successor (including the return of the leading lady, Sandra Bullock), they're wildly different movies.  "Speed" was a white knuckler with moments of humor to release the tension.  "Speed 2" is more comical, almost to the point where it is appropriate to classify it as an action comedy.

The film begins with two scenes: Annie (Bullock) is retaking her drivers test since it was revoked for speeding before the events of the first film.  It doesn't go well, since her instructor (veteran comic Tim Conway) suffers through about a half dozen close calls with the Grim Reaper.  The second scene features Annie's new boyfriend, Alex Shaw (Patric), who is chasing down an ice cream truck filled with stolen computer equipment.  Naturally, he saves the day, but Annie sees the aftermath, which annoys her since she believed he was a beach cop.  To save face, Alex presents her with tickets to a cruise in the Carribean aboard the Seabourn Legend.  Someone forgot to tell him about her tendency to get into life-threatening disasters.  A psychotic computer genius by the name of Geiger (Dafoe) quickly takes control of the ship and intends to make it join the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean.

Apart from the setting, the biggest change with the film is the lead actor.  Keanu Reeves nailed the part of Jack Traven in the original.  Declining the role to tour with his band Dogstar, the studio hired indie actor Jason Patric to fill his shoes, something that the actor is ill-suited for.  I've seen Patric in a number of roles ("Sleepers," "Narc," "In the Valley of Elah") and have never been impressed with his acting ability.  His "talents" lie in low-key intensity, which has no place in a movie as silly as this.  To be fair to the actor, there are times when he's decent, but he tends to get drowned out by all the mayhem and his higher-wattage co-stars.  Speaking of which, Sandra Bullock returns as Annie Porter.  In an interesting twist, Annie has learned from her experiences with Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper in the original), although that doesn't help with her lack of luck.  Bullock is as adorable as ever, and tailors her character to fit the lighthearted nature of the plot.  She's more fun and has a lot of one-liners.  Willem Dafoe digs into his bag of tricks and makes Geiger a suitably menacing psycho, but the writing isn't as strong as it was in the original, which makes the character less memorable (although who can forget his "nurses?").  "Once Were Warriors" star Temuera Morrison and Scottish actor Brian McCardie are two members of the crew who are struggling to regain control of the ship.

While it's true that the premise of "Speed" was absurd (action movies are rarely set in the "real" world), "Speed 2" takes absurdity to new heights.  Jan de Bont, who returned as the director, is smart enough to know that he couldn't get away with taking this movie even half as seriously as the first film.  This is a silly premise, and he knows it.  The film is loaded with jokes, and if there's a moment that's not played with the tongue at least partly in cheek, I missed it.

"Speed 2" did not do well at the box office, although all things considered, it did make a small profit.  Most everyone hated it.  Their loss.  This is a movie where you can just sit back and relax.  It never pretends to be something that it's not.  It's got lots and lots of action, comedy and general silliness, but that's what makes it such a blast to watch!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Gentleman's Agreement

2.5/4

Starring: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Anne Revere, John Garfield, Albert Dekker, Dean Stockwell

Not Rated

It's easy to "talk the talk" but difficult to "walk the walk."  What I mean is that it's easy to say that we'd stick to the moral high ground, but when push comes to shove, we usually give in to social, economic or political pressures to make life easier.  But as Phil Green learns, appeasement only keeps the vicious cycle of discrimination going.

Widower Phil Green (Peck) has just moved from California to New York City to write an article for a left-wing magazine.  His editor, John Minify (Dekker), wants him to do a piece of anti-Semitism.  Initially, Phil is enthusiastic, but becomes despondent when unable to find a new and interesting angle.  That's when he decides to use his well-worn tactic of immersing himself in the stories he writes.  He'll pass himself off as Jewish to get a first hand look at anti-Semitism and its effects on Jewish people.  The only people who know the truth are his mother (Revere), his son (Stockwell), Minify, and Minify's niece Kathy (McGuire), with whom he falls in love.  At first, the role is easy, but the longer it goes on, the deeper he realizes the problem is.

This is a gripping idea for a story.  Unfortunately, the way in which Elia Kazan (who did not get along with his star) decides to tell the story robs it of much of its urgency and power.  Kazan spends too much time developing the relationship between Phil and Kathy.  While this is important for the ending to have its punch, it's a lot less interesting than Phil's experiences as a Jewish person.  Only at the end does the film truly delve into this area, but it gives way to so much sermonizing I wanted to gag.

The performances are first rate.  Although he wasn't the first choice (which was Cary Grant, who turned it down), Gregory Peck makes it his own.  Peck was well known for his staunchly liberal beliefs, and like his most famous character, Atticus Finch, Phil is a man who fights for justice, albeit in a different sort of way than Harper Lee's character.  At first, it's just curiosity for Phil, but when prejudice rears its ugly head, it gets personal.  Dorothy McGuire is lovely as Kathy, who is thrilled with the idea (or so she says).  But when circumstances put her views to the test, she backs down.  Anne Revere is terrific as Phil's ill, but supportive, mother.  The best performance is given by Celeste Holm (who won an Oscar for her work) as Phil's brassy co-worker, Anne.  She's lively and fun, and the film comes alive whenever she's onscreen.  Not to be forgotten is John Garfield, who is Phil's lifelong friend, Dave Goldman.  Dave is Jewish, and he knows what Phil is going through all too well, and the hypocrisy of others that is as much a cause of the problem as is outright discrimination.

In addition to his testimony to the House of Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, Elia Kazan was known primarily for three films: "Gentleman's Agreement," "A Streetcar Named Desire," and "On the Waterfront."  While he won his first Best Director Oscar for this film, it is not a flawless directorial job.  Some scenes, mostly during the set-up, are as awkwardly handled as they are written, and more than a few scenes end just as they are getting interesting.

Nevertheless, the film is notable for its perception.  Kazan and his screenwriter, Moss Hart, don't go for caricatures.  With one exception, a drunken goon at a restaurant, the discrimination is more subtle and realistic.  It's the little actions and prejudices that are just as painful; I can't tell you how many times I've seen these very same scenes play out in my life, only with "gay" instead of "Jewish."

Some films, like "Casablanca" or "Gone With the Wind," are good enough on their own that a remake is a waste of time ("Casablanca" has already been remade).  "Gentleman's Agreement" is an exception.  With a stronger script and direction, this could be a powerful film, regardless of what type of discrimination it chooses to represent.

The World's End

2.5/4

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike

Rated R for Pervasive Language including Sexual References

Everyone seems to "get" British humor but me.  I'm not a Monty Python fan, and I didn't care for "A Fish Called Wanda."  In both of those, I saw the jokes but found them to be so lacking in life and energy that I wasn't laughing.  The same goes for "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz."  Could see the humor, but wasn't laughing.  Which brings us to "The World's End," the final film in the trilogy which Simon Pegg and co-writer/director Edgar Wright dubbed, "The Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy."  It's the best of the three, with more than a few laugh out loud moments, but it's too inconsistent for me to recommend.

The plot sounds like "The Hangover" meets last years misfire "The Watch."  Five friends reunite twenty three years later to attempt a legendary bar crawl after failing the first time around.  The premise is golden enough that it really doesn't need the sci-fi action bent, although that aspect of the film is hardly a failure.

Gary King (Pegg) is a thirty something man-child.  He dresses like a rock-star from the 80's, and has what one could charitably call "poor" impulse control.  Anyway, the film opens up with him telling the members of his NA meeting about how after graduating from high school, he and his four friends tried to conquer "The Golden Mile," a night of binge drinking at twelve pubs.  When someone points out that he didn't finish it, he feels the sense of incompleteness.  So he gathers the old gang to try again.  Of course, his friends Andy (Frost), Steven (Considine), Oliver (Freeman) and Peter (Marsan) are in no way able to do this, much less have the desire.  Nevertheless, Gary lies and cajoles until they all return home.  But something is odd, and as the night goes on, things are going to get stranger when they realize that the townspeople have suddenly become violent robots (who aren't robots).

The film is at times very funny.  The thought of a meek Eddie Marsan beating the crap out of a bully is more hilarious than it sounds (Marsan is known for playing dark and angry characters...see "Happy Go Lucky" for an example).  Some of the wordplay is also amusing, and there's a bit straight out of "Burke & Hare," where Gary can't finish a drink because the robots keep breaking his glass.  But the humor is hit and miss; sometimes it doesn't fly, other times its because the accents are too thick for a yank like me to understand.

The cast is a "who's who" of British character actors, most of whom have made some inroads in the US.  Pegg is in the new "Star Trek" movies, Frost is known for his Pegg/Wright movies, Paddy Considine was in the arthouse hit "In America," Martin Freeman is the new Bilbo, Eddie Marsan is Lestrade in the new "Sherlock Holmes" movies.  All of them do their jobs, often playing against type.  David Bradley, Filch from the "Harry Potter" movies, shows up as the obligatory batty guy who knows what's going on (Wright has some clever fun with this stock character).  And Pierce Brosnan shows up for a few scenes; Brosnan rarely plays comic roles, which is a shame because he has a gift for it ("The Matador" ranks as one of his best, and funniest, performances).

Look, this isn't great entertainment.  It's not even a great comedy.  But I'm sure that fans of "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" will enjoy themselves, and non-fans who were dragged along won't be bored.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

You're Next

1/4

Starring: Sharni Vinson, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Rob Moran, Margaret Laney, AmySeimetz, Barbara Crampton

Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence, Language and Some Sexuality/Nudity

Why would anyone want to see this movie?  Seriously, there is nothing of value here unless you're looking for a bunch of generic slasher movie scenes strung together with a plot too thin to sustain a ten minute short.  The acting is lousy, the characters are boring and stupid and annoying.  And the camera rarely stops shaking.

For their thirty-fifth anniversary, Paul (Moran) and Aubrey (Crampton) are bringing their children (plus each's romantic interest) to celebrate at their out of the way vacation home.  Crispian (Bowen) brings his new girlfriend Erin (Vinson), Felix (Tucci) brings goth Zee (Glenn), Drake (Swanberg) brings Kelly (Laney), and Aimee (Seimetz) brings Tariq ("The Innkeepers" director Ti West, who might want to deny ever appearing in this film if he wants to keep his reputation as a master of horror).  As they're having dinner, Tariq gets up and investigates something from outside.  Then he gets an arrow through the head, although it takes an awfully long time for everyone to realize it.  That's when more arrows start flying and the body count rises.  They soon realize that there are three psychos wearing animal masks on the loose intending to create a bloodbath in the middle of nowhere.

One of the main problems is that director Adam Wingard has no idea what he wants his film to be.  Is it a "wink wink nudge nudge" spoof of the pseudo-documentary horror?  Is it a black comedy/slasher?  Is it camp?  Wingard doesn't know, and appears to be attempting all of them.  It doesn't work.  At all.

After a violent opening scene, the film starts by introducing us to the way too numerous characters.  Unfortunately, it's all tedious.  The characters are personality deprived jerks.  The exception is Erin, who turns out to have a legitimate character to play (or what passes for one).  Shortly thereafter, the bloodletting starts.

Not that it gets any better.  The kill scenes are badly staged, and occasionally funny (albeit entirely unintentionally).  Even worse, Wingard insists on going the Paul Greengrass route and shaking the camera so we can't get a good look at what's going on.  Done right, this sort of thing can work.  It is not done right here.  Looking back, I'm wondering if the cameraman was drunk.

In all fairness, Wingard's film isn't a complete disaster.  He manages to successfully produce a shock or two, and one or two of the lines are moderately amusing.  Plus there was one twist that I didn't see coming (not that I cared).  But that's it.

In a small way, "You're Next" is a victim of timing.  After the senseless murder of Christopher Lane, an hour of pointless (I'm not going to punish it for being gratuitous, since that comes with the territory) brutal violence is in bad taste.  I would be more kind to it, I suppose, if it was in the service of a story or served a purpose, but that's not the case here.  Controversial material, even if it addresses fresh wounds, can be acceptable if it deals with the material in an intelligent and honest way ("O, "Tim Blake Nelson's modern-day "Othello" and Greengrass's  "United 93" are two examples).  That's not the case here.  The violence doesn't serve any purpose except to satisfy gorehounds who are sick of "horror" movies for the "Twilight" crowd.  Lionsgate should have pushed back the release date after the tragedy (or, considering its utter lack of value, buried it next to "ET" game for the Atari).

The film received great reviews at midnight screenings.  I'm wondering if those audiences were as intoxicated as the cameraman appears to be.  Only a person with impaired faculties could find any enjoyment from this movie.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Lee Daniel's The Butler

2/4

Starring: Forest Whitaker, David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr.

Rated PG-13 for Some Violence and Disturbing Images, Language, Sexual Material, Thematic Elements and Smoking

"Lee Daniel's The Butler" (the director's name was added after a lawsuit filed by Warner Brothers) suffers from too much ambition.  There's simply too much material to cover in a hair over two hours.  While there are instances where a movie of a decent length has encapsulated a large amount of time and characters ("Memoirs of a Geisha" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" are two, although they were both around 2.5 hours as opposed to 2 hours 10 minutes here), they're the exceptions to the rule.  It has the cast, but the script is weak.

Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) grew up on a cotton plantation.  After his dad was murdered on the job by one of the owners there (a stiff Alex Pettyfer), one of the older women on the plantation (Vanessa Redgrave) makes him a butler.  By keeping his head down and doing what is required of him, he acquires a reputation that leads him to the White House, where he serves a number of Presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Ronald Regan (Alan Rickman).  While his faith in change for blacks lies in the Presidents, his son Louis (Oyelowo) takes an increasingly radical position.

We've seen this movie before.  So many times that it has become a formula.  An everyman through sheer luck and being in the right place at the right time influences history.  It's "Forrest Gump" meets "The Remains of the Day."  It's a traditional biopic that the Weinsteins were hoping had Oscar potential (the August release date makes it clear that they realized it wasn't going to happen).  Unfortunately, there is so much going on and so many characters that it's impossible to really feel for any of them.

The actors pick up the slack, but there's only so much they can do.  Forest Whitaker, after giving a lousy performance in "The Last Stand," returns to form as a performer capable of brilliant performances.  Cecil is wise, but knows that speaking out to people above him is a bad idea.  He has to put his faith in people.  His son, however, because of his experiences and youthful idealism, believes that action is the only way to gain civil rights.  The conflict between these two is meant to be the crux of the film, but it's undeveloped and in place of depth, we have a game of "spot the star" and "spot the historical event."  All the famous events and presidents are included (some of who have almost nothing to do).  Robin Williams is misused as Eisenhower, James Marsden is a dead ringer for JFK, Liev Schrieber is a woeful stand-in for Lyndon B. Johnson, and Alan Rickman is okay as Ronald Regan.

This is Lee Daniels' next film after the weakly recieved "The Paperboy" starring Zac Efron.  Daniels became a known name after the emotional powerhouse called "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" that was released in 2009.  Daniels does as good of a job as anyone could with the material he has.  The film isn't bad; it's watchable and rarely uninteresting.  But it could have been so much more.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Zodiac: The Director's Cut

3.5/4

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny, Elias Koteas

Rated R for Some Strong Killings, Language, Drug Material and Brief Sexual Images

During the late 1960's and early 1970's, Southern California was terrorized by a serial killer who called himself the Zodiac and taunted the police through the newspapers.  He was never caught.

David Fincher's film details the investigation from the second murder to the Robert Graysmith's resolution (while the killer was never officially caught, the story is resolved).  At first, we follow police inspectors Dave Toschi (Ruffalo) and his partner, William Armstrong (Edwards) chase down leads and investigate.  Once the killings stop, the film shifts gears as the investigation comes to a standstill.  From there, the film's focus turns to Robert (who up until this point has been more or less a background character) whose obsession with closure may make him an unofficial casualty of the Zodiac.

There are three things one can be certain of when going into a movie directed by David Fincher: the acting will be strong, the film will please the eye, and it will be compelling (even if it doesn't quite work).  All three are evidenced here.  Fincher doesn't play favorites when it comes to cast members, seeing as he's never used a name actor more than once (at least thus far).  From top to bottom, the actors are in top form.  Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific as the Eagle Scout First Class who nearly solves the case.  At first, Robert is like the young intern, tagging along with the big boys like legendary journalist Paul Avery (Downey Jr.).  But when the case dries up for everyone else, he takes up the reins, and becomes more independent (and obsessed).  Robert Downey Jr. is great as always as the rebellious writer who is sinking deeper and deeper into addiction.  Mark Ruffalo has never been better than playing the devoted but pragmatic lead investigator.  The supporting cast reads like a dream list of character actors (in a way, it's kind of like "JFK"): Chloe Sevigny, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Philip Baker Hall, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, Dermot Mulroney, Zach Grenier and Clea Duvall (who, surprisingly, is actually pretty good in her one scene).

David Fincher has a superior visual sense (he did, after all, make his mark on music videos).  That's certainly true here, but not like in "Seven" or "Alien 3."  Rather, the shot composition and the cinematography are extremely pleasing to the eye.  It has a feel of one of those classic thrillers from the 70's (in fact, the opening logos for Warner Bros. and Paramount are the ones they used at the time the film is set).  There are some truly beautiful cityscapes, bringing to mind Dante Spinotti's work in "Heat."

At 2.5 hours, the film is a hair long.  There are so many characters that it's hard to keep track of who is who, and how it all fits together.  There are times when it drags a little, particularly in the middle.  A little judicious pruning, even for the director's cut, would only have helped things.

That said, anyone who loves crime stories must see this movie.

Monday, August 19, 2013

See No Evil

2/4

Starring: Kane, Christina Vidal, Luke Pegler, Samantha Noble, Steven Vidler

Rated R for Strong Gruesome Violence and Gore Throughout, Language, Sexual Content and Some Drug Use

There's really not much that differentiates "See No Evil" from any other slasher movie.  Sure the actors are different, as is the killer's m.o., but that's pretty much it.  A group of stupid characters do stupid things and pay a grisly price for it.  People who venture into this movie will get what they paid for.  Pity it isn't better...

In this movie, a group of juvenile delinquents are a part of a new program.  In exchanged for getting a month off their sentences, they'll spend a weekend cleaning up the Blackwell Hotel.  Naturally, none of the teen's (who have various criminal records...not that the film really puts their "talents" to good use).  They do what everyone does in a slasher movie: pair up for hot encounters and get picked off one by one.

This time, the killer is Jacob Goodnight (Kane), a serial killer who was caught by Williams (Vidler) four years ago.  Jacob, as it turns out, has a love for eyes.  When he kills someone, he'll dig it out and put it in a jar.  That's certainly a unique characteristic of a serial killer.  And getting the obvious out of the way, Zooey Deschanel does not have a cameo (provided there wouldn't be any "indie for the sake of being indie" pretentiousness, that could only have helped things).

It goes without saying that the acting is lousy.  The only people who seem to have any talent are Luke Pegler, who plays the requisite bad boy, and surprisingly Kane.  Kane doesn't say much (in fact, he only says three words in the whole movie), but he has an expressive face, which director Gregory Dark is usually successful at highlighting.  Surprisingly, he doesn't have a lot of screen presence for someone who is nearly 7 feet tall and built like a tank.

Dark's only concern in directing this movie is visual flair.  The film looks like a comic book come to life; sort of like "Saw" meets "Sin City."  The film is atmospheric, I'll give it that, and it has some intense moments.  But the plot is paper thin and is full of holes that are apparent even while it's unspooling (I get that there are secret passages, but Jacob seems to be able to teleport to places around the hotel).  Not that anyone goes to a movie like this for story, though, right?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The People Vs. Larry Flynt

3/4

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton, Bret Harrelson, Donna Hanover, James Cromwell, Richard Paul

Rated R for Strong Sexual Material, Nudity, Language and Drug Use

Next to Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt is the most well-known (and in some circles, infamous) figure of the pornography industry.  A staunch supporter of free speech and an unapologetic rabblerouser, Larry Flynt is not the easiest man to get along with.  That said, he survived an assassination attempt and a landmark Supreme Court victory.  This guy is one tough cookie.

Larry Flynt (Harrelson) started out in relatively humble beginnings.  He was a moonshiner as a kid, and grew up to own a few strip clubs.  But due to the laws at the time, his ability to spread the word about his business nearly caused him to go under.  So he decided to print a newsletter, come hell or high water.  That brought in the customers, but also incurred the wrath of Charles Keating (Cromwell), and important figurehead of the anti-pornography movement.  But after he publishes nudie pics of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the company takes off.

In addition to telling the story of an interesting, if not always likable, protagonist, the film takes time to discuss a number of issues.  For example, when defending Flynt in his first charge of obscenity, Alan Isaacman (Norton), asks how we can deplore having nude women in a magazine while having photos of gruesome crime scenes on the news.  Or how we can claim that what we say is free speech but not someone else's simply because we don't like them.

The performances are solid across the board.  Woody Harrelson got his first Oscar nod for his performance as Larry Flynt.  It's a good performance.  In the first half, Larry is not really worldly and a little naiive.  But as the film goes on, he gets smarter and more feisty.  There are times when he seems to want to raise hell just to be an asshole.  And yet, we're always on his side.  Courtney Love, best known as Kurt Cobain's wife, is very good as Larry's love Althea.  Drugged out or sexy, she always impresses.  The always impressive Edward Norton (who took the role so he could work with Milos Forman) is very good as Alan Isaacman, Larry's much harried lawyer.  The amount of abuse and humiliation he goes through because of Larry makes him a candidate for sainthood.  Special mention has to go to Donna Hanover, who is wonderful as Ruth Carter Stapleton (who briefly converted Larry to Christianity) and Richard Paul, who is a dead ringer for Jerry Falwell.

For Milos Forman, this is a respectable, if basic, biopic.  It does what it sets out to do, but there's really nothing unique about it.  Compare it to his two most famous films, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus" and it comes up short (it's still better than "Goya's Ghost."  Quite a bit in fact).  Part of the reason is that the script, in addition to being a little flat, is too overstuffed.  Two hours is not nearly enough to cover a story that takes place over 20 years when Forman tries to include everything that happened to Flynt.  "Milk" worked because it narrowed its focus.  In fact, there are times when the editing is so sloppy that I thought that there were scenes missing.  The film could have used a little bit more room to breathe (Charles Keating in particular is undeveloped, and for an actor of James Cromwell's stature, one would have thought that he would have had a more important role).

This is not a bad movie and recommend it without reservations.  It's a little slow to get going, but once the assassination attempt occurs (about halfway through), the film really takes off.

Supernova

1.5/4

Starring: James Spader, Angela Bassett, Peter Facinelli, Lou Diamond Philips, Robin Tunney, Wilson Cruz, Robert Forster

Rated R for Sexuality and Some Violence

I've heard "Supernova" described as "sci-fi porn."  While none of the characters get freaky with aliens like Captain Kirk does in the "Star Trek" movies, it has the same level of entertainment value.  The story is trite and often doesn't make much sense.  The script is awful.  The special effects are lousy.  The direction is shitty (constant close-ups).  The acting is okay when the director (who I'll get to later) isn't forcing his actors to mumble their lines.  All in all, it's a movie that deserves its status as a legendary bomb.

In the future, humans have achieved space travel.  Medical rescue vessel Nightingale 9 has received a distress call from deep space.  They have a small crew: Captain A.J. Marley (Forster), medical officer Kayla Evers (Bassett), medical tech Yerzy Penalosa (Philips), paramedic Danika Lund (Tunney) and computer tech Benjamin Sotomejor (Cruz).  The pilot, recovering drug addict Nick Vanzant (Spader), is a newcomer.  Not that the film does anything with their jobs aboard the ship; for the majority of the film it's all about who is sleeping with whom (Yerzy and Danika have as much sex as they can, Kayla and Nick have an emerging relationship, while Benjamin is dealing with flirtations from the ship's computer.  A.J. just overanalyzes cartoons for some graduate degree).  At least until they get a distress call and a survivor named Troy Larson (pre-"Twilight" Facinelli) comes aboard.  Then it's more sleeping around and Troy goes insane because of some purple thing he brought with him.  Then he starts killing people.

How could anyone think this script could have worked at all, much less thought it was worth spending $90 million on?  This is a pretty lame idea for a movie, and they made just about every mistake they could putting it into production.

In general, this is a sci-fi slasher movie, although without the slashing.  The action scenes take about 30 seconds each.  The rest of the time is devoted to sex scenes (none of which are hot in any way) or the characters blabbing about the plot that no one will give a shit about.

The biggest mistake is that the characters mumble their lines.  I get that there's no need to shout at each other during normal conversation, but there is something to be said for good diction; a lot of the dialogue is unintelligible.  Closely following it is the over-reliance on sci-fi mumbo jumbo.  Not only does it make zero sense, it's entirely pointless.   None of it amounts to anything.

The only thing that keeps this movie a shade above painful is that the actors can act.  Even Lou Diamond Philips has his moments (probably because he isn't given anything to do).  Peter Facinelli seems to be eager to have some fun with his role, but all he has to do is play a seducer-turned-serial killer.

On paper, the film is directed by Thomas Lee.  This is a pseudonym.  Previously, directors whose work was taken out of their hands to the point where they don't want to be associated with it would replace their name with "Alan Smithee."  But then a movie called "An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn" made the pseudonym well known, so it was replaced with Thomas Lee.  The original director was acclaimed director Walter Hill (who made "The Warriors" and "48 Hours"), but reshoots directed by Jack Sholder were so prevalent that very little of his film remained.  Regardless of the drama behind the scenes, the end result is still the same: the movie sucks.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh

3/4

Starring: Aaron Poole, Julian Richings and the voices of Vanessa Redgrave and Charlotte Sullivan

Not Rated (contains scary moments)

Clearly, writer/director Rodrigo Gudino is a fan of those survival horror video games, specifically the point-and-click ones.  The whole film feels like one of them, from the camera angles to the characters movements.  The lead character finds a clue, solves a puzzle and moves on.  Normally, a video game come to life isn't necessarily a good thing, but those games were all about solving puzzles and clicking things rather than shooting badguys, so not much personal involvement has gone away.

Leon (Poole) has been estranged from his mother Rosalind (Redgrave) ever since the death of his father.  A devout believer in a mysterious sect of Christianity, Rosalind desperately tried to bring Leon into the fold.  Leon wasn't having any of it, and now that she's dead, he intends to sell the place.  But during his night's stay in her creatively decorated house, there are some mysterious things going on.

There isn't a lot of dialogue in this movie; it's all about Leon exploring the house.  Because Gudino doesn't fancy himself an artist and doesn't have an ego the size of Wes Anderson's, this works.  There are no shots of him staring into space.  There is dialogue, but it's sparse; just enough to move the plot along.

The acting is good.  Many of the actors take dual roles (probably to cut down on the film's budget), although this is apparent in one scene.  Aaron Poole has enough presence to get us behind him early on.  Charlotte Sullivan is terrific as Anna, Leon's calming friend.  And Vanessa Redgrave is wonderful as usual (she has a little too much dialogue, but whatever).

This isn't really a movie you'd expect.  It's low-budget and it's basically an extended short film (too short, actually...a few of the more intriguing elements are left unturned).  The creature effects are cool and there is a sense of atmosphere through most of the film.

For a Redbox movie, this is kinda cool.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Night Train to Munich

3/4

Starring: Rex Harrison, Margaret Lockwood, Paul von Henreid, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, James Harcourt

Not Rated (contains some Violence...probable PG)

"Night Train to Munich" is a blend of suspense, action and romance.  It's an interesting confection to be sure, and while it doesn't always gel, it's definitely a lot of fun.

The story begins in the days leading up to World War II.  The German army has just invaded Czechoslovakia, and the government is desperate to get one of their scientists, Axel Bomasch (Harcourt), out of the country.  Bomasch has been researching a new kind of steel plating, and that would spell doom for freedom if it fell into the hands of the Nazis.  They have arranged for him and his daughter, Anna (Lockwood) to flee to England.  But while Axel escapes, Anna is caught and sent to a concentration camp.  There, she meets Karl Marsen (von Henreid), who helps her escape.  Unfortunately, Karl is a double agent, and is using her to get to her father.  Now it's up to a dashing secret agent named Gus Bennett (Harrison) to get them to safety.

The three leads, Rex Harrison, Margaret Lockwood and Paul Henreid, are best known for other movies.  Rex Harrison won an Oscar for playing Henry Higgins to Audrey Hepburn's Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady" and played Julius Caesar in the legendary bomb "Cleopatra."  Margaret Lockwood played the lead in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes."  And everyone knows Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo in "Casablanca."

All three do fine work here, although Lockwood has some over-the-top moments.  Rex Harrison steals the movie as the colorful and quick-witted Gus.  While there are times when his charm struggles to keep things afloat, overall he's a terrific, if unusual, lead.  Margaret Lockwood is good as the damsel in distress, but as I said, she has some moments where she's not credible.  Paul Heinreid is also very good, playing a romantic or a slimeball as the situation requires it.

Like his stars, Carol Reed has an established record of directed films.  He's best known for directing Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles in the classic thriller "The Third Man," and directing the 1969 Best Picture Winner "Oliver!"  What Reed does is ambitious and mostly successful.  There are some moments of inspired comedy (Gus always has a one-liner or a pithy comment for every situation) and genuine suspense.  Other elements don't work as well.  The romance, while having chemistry, is undercooked, and the verbal repartee between two bumbling British men (Radford and Wayne) is more tedious than amusing.  They have some funny moments, but they have too much screentime.  Additionally, the plot hinges on the Nazis being a little too gullible for the plot to really be something.

Regardless, this is a fun little adventure.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

JFK: The Director's Cut

3.5/4

Starring: Kevin Costner, Jay O. Sanders, Michael Rooker, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman, Sissy Spacek, Wayne Knight, Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones

Rated R for Language

There are few days in our nation's relatively short history that stand out with tragedy and urgency.  Pearl Harbor entered us into World War II.  September 11, 2001 started the War on Terror and Operation Iraqi Freedom (the former of which is still going on).  Another event is November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.  While that didn't provoke a war, it did shake the American people to their core.

Oliver Stone has always made films with a message or to show an opinion of something.  "Platoon," "Natural Born Killers," "Wall Street," the list goes on.  With "JFK," Stone raises questions about the most tragic and mysterious event of the 1960's.  Based on two books (one by the lead character, Jim Garrison) and extensive research, he purports that there was a huge conspiracy behind the death of JFK.

The film begins with the events leading up (including a briefing on the political situation at the time) to the shooting and shortly thereafter.  This is historical footage and film footage that is meant to look historical.  It's a great run through of the events that took place so we know what happened before the Stone starts asking questions and filling in the holes.  Jim Garrison (Costner) is a district attorney in Louisiana when he learns of the assassination of the President.  Information comes to him about links between the shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald (Oldman) and a colorful lowlife named David Ferrie (Pesci).  Ferrie is a terrified man who talks about a conspiracy, but the matter is dropped after Oswald is shot dead by Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle Murray).  But when Garrison talks in passing to Senator Russell B. Long (Walter Matthau in a cameo) who tells him of some inconsistencies in the story, Garrison reopens the investigation.  That leads him to a terrifyingly huge conspiracy reaching all corners of government and complicity from top to bottom.  He aims to take a conspirator, wealthy businessman Clay Shaw (Jones) to trial for his role in the conspiracy.

As noteworthy as its subject are the cameos.  The cast list reads like a "who's who" of famous actors: Jack Lemmon, the aforementioned Walter Matthau (he shares no scenes with his frequent co-star, the only time this happened), Ed Asner, Vincent D'Onofrio, Pruitt Taylor Vince, John Candy (in a delicious performance), Kevin Bacon, Donald Sutherland, and narration by an uncredited Martin Sheen.  The Director's Cut includes more names, including Lolita Davidovich, John Larroquette, Ron Rifkin and Frank Whaley.  While there are many films that have a "who's who" of big stars ("The Player," "Smokin' Aces" and "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" are a few examples), this isn't stunt casting.  All the actors, regardless of the size of their role, do their jobs.  Special mention has to go to the late great John Candy, whose performance as the flamboyant lawyer Dean Andrews is Oscar-worthy.  The film also includes people who were involved in the case in real life, including the real Jim Garrison (who plays Chief Justice Earl Warren) and others in non-speaking roles.

Stone takes his time telling his story.  But with a story this important and this complex, it's going to take a long time to tell.  Too long, as it turns out, but Stone has a lot of material to get through, and the film rarely sags.  It's so complex and the script is so talky (Stone uses a lot of voiceovers and flashbacks to remedy the situation) that the viewer must pay attention if they don't want to get lost.  Subtitles and rewinding are going to be a necessity.

Regardless of whether or not this is factual in any way, the film still represents great cinema.  Stone does his job.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Apt Pupil

2/4

Starring: Brad Renfro, Ian McKellan, Bruce Davison, Ann Dowd, David Schwimmer

Rated R for Scenes of Strong Violence, Language and Brief Sexuality

Every now and then, film critics toss around the term "good premise, bad execution."  What this means is that while the idea is good, the filmmakers screwed the pooch when adapting it to the screen.  Such a term describes the film "Apt Pupil."  The idea, an innocent young boy being seduced into evil by a Nazi war criminal on the lam, is interesting.  But Bryan Singer fumbles the ball...majorly.

Todd Bowden (Renfro) is a brilliant high school student in Southern California.  He's on his way to becoming the school's valedictorian, but one day he spies a curious man on a bus.  That man is Kurt Dussander (McKellan), a notorious Nazi war criminal.  Dussander has been in hiding for the past 40 years, and Todd has a hunch that it's him.  When confronted with the truth, Dussander agrees to Todd's demands that he tell the young boy "everything" that happened in the death camps.  But this frightens Todd and his grades start to fall.  That's when Dussander shows him that it takes one to know one.

Putting it simply, the first half of the film is shit.  It's borderline unwatchable.  Part of the reason is that the script, by first time screenwriter Brandon Boyce, is awful.  By trying to get all of the pieces set up, he and director Bryan Singer use short scenes to set up the plot, characters, and themes.  It doesn't work.  It feels like a jumble of half-baked ideas and characters, and the plot moves along in an extremely jerky way.  What's more curious is what Singer concentrates on.  For example, the scenes of Todd researching his hunch and realizing that the old man is in fact Dussander, are missing.  This robs us of the crucial time to get us behind Todd and want to see his story to the end.  Instead, we have scenes like the one where a girl tries to have sex with him (and he later dates, I think...the movie isn't so good on clarifying this) and him having a loco moment while playing basketball.  This is all meant to show us what effect his meetings with Dussander have on him, but they don't work because there's no follow through.  Merely showing it is not enough, it has to be wedded into the story.

After the halfway mark, the film takes off.  When Dussnader turns the tables on Todd, the film finds its groove.  There's a considerable amount of tension in these proceedings, at least until the end.  It's easy to see what Singer was trying to do, but it doesn't work.  The story feels incomplete, especially the issue with the homeless man played by Elias Koteas.  One would think something like that would have been dealt with differently.

The film received a lot of criticism from people like Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli over the use of the Holocaust in a story like this.  Ebert and Berardinelli felt that using such a horrible period of history in a formulaic thriller was exploitative.  I shared those feelings to an extent, but only to the point where it could have been any tragedy.  Dussander could have been a serial killer and the script wouldn't have changed much.  Singer is too concerned about pushing buttons to really deal with the issue.

The acting is a problem.  Brad Renfro was a great young actor before his untimely death, is not very believable as Todd.  Whether it was because his heart wasn't in it, the character was badly written, he was badly directed or just miscast, the result is the same.  Todd isn't someone we form much of a bond with.  Ian McKellan is better than the material warrants.  As written, the character is inconsistent (come to think of it, that may have been Renfro's problem as well), but McKellan picks up a lot of the slack.  It's really not enough, however.

I think the main problem is that Bryan Singer just doesn't know how he wants his audience to feel about the two lead characters.  Is Todd the hero turned villain?  Are we supposed to like Todd then fear for him?  Or be in shock at the horrible things he does?  Is Dussander as bad as he seems?  Singer doesn't know, and that's why "Apt Pupil" doesn't make the grade.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Charlie Wilson's War

2.5/4

Starring: Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Om Puri, Ken Stott, Julia Roberts

Rated R for Strong Language, Nudity/Sexual Content, and Some Drug Use

"Charlie Wilson's War" is one of those movies that sounds a lot better than it actually is.  A biopic about a hard-partying congressman of little importance who, through hard work and smart moves behind the scenes, ends up saving a nation from foreign invaders.  That sounds good, doesn't it?  Unfortunately, the film is really dry and not particularly interesting.

Charlie Wilson (Hanks) is a member of the U.S. Representatives from Texas's 2nd district.  He has no real importance (one of his first scenes has him trying to convince a Christian zealot (Peter Gerety) to back off protesting the fact that he can't have a manger on the parking lot of a fire department), which leaves him time for his real passions: women and booze.  But then he sees a news segment about the plight of the Afghan people, who are fighting a losing battle against Soviet aggressors.  Moved by the story, he increases the budget for the covert war from $5 million to $10 million.  This attracts the attention of socialite Joanne Herring (Roberts).  She urges him to do more, and with some of the wheelin' and dealin' that he's so good at, Good Time Charlie ends up ending the Cold War (in part at least).

The problem with the film is that it's really not that interesting.  This is a talky picture, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the characters are sketchily developed, and the script (by the usually reliable Aaron Sorkin) fails to give the characters any sort of depth.

The acting is uneven.  Tom Hanks does what he can, and it's always a pleasure to see him on screen.  Hanks works hard to make Charlie into a likable rogue who has finally found something he is passionate about.  Philip Seymour Hoffman gives the best performance as the foul-mouthed cynic Gust Avrakotos.  His lines drip with relish and bite.  The third big name in the cast, Julia Roberts, is the weak link.  Roberts gives it a try, but she is just not right for the part of an ultra right-wing, born again Christian socialite.

The film was directed by Mike Nichols, who was behind "The Graduate," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Working Girl."  "Working Girl" is a great film because it took its time.  That doesn't happen here.  The film feels rushed and it feels like its more concerned about giving the actors times to shine rather than telling a compelling narrative.

It's not a bad film by any means.  It is watchable, and there are some scenes that really land (the scene where Gust is trying to talk to Charlie who is dealing with a scandal is amusing in a screwball-ish way).  But it promises more than it delivers.

Munich

3.5/4

Starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Mathieu Almaric, Michael Lonsdale, Ayelet Zurer, Lynn Cohen

Rated R for Strong Graphic Violence, Some Sexual Content, Nudity and Language

Too seldom do we get a movie that is as provocative as "Munich."  The film asks many difficult questions, and wisely doesn't answer them because it knows that there are no absolutely correct answers.  It is impossible to sit through this film without taking a long look at the world today and how we live in it.

September 1972.  The world watches as a group of Palestinian terrorists kidnaps 11 Israeli athletes at the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.  The incident ends in disaster, with all the athletes and 5 terrorists dying (a German police officer died as well).  Israel's Prime Minister, Golda Meir (Cohen), vows to retaliate.  "Forget peace for now.  We have to show them we are strong," she says.  She send five men to hunt down and kill those responsible for the bloodshed.  Aver (Bana) is the leader.  Steve (Craig) is the muscle.  Robert (Kassovitz) assembles the explosives.  Hans (Zischler) forges the documents.  Carl (Hinds) is the clean-up.

There are so many questions that the film raises that it's nearly impossible to list them all.  Is Israel's motive for going after the perpetrators "defense," as Meir claims, or revenge (notice how Meir tries to justify her actions to herself and others in an early scene).  What is the morality of revenge, especially when the results aren't what you'd hoped?  Or what about the cost of violence?  The more people they kill, the less of an effect it has on them.

Many critics have pointed out the connection to the "War on Terror."  In past wars, you fought the enemy (who had bases and uniforms) and pummeled each other until one of you surrendered.  It was very simple when you got right down to it.  Here, things are no longer as simple.  The enemy is widespread, but hiding in plain sight.  There is no "one" leader like Adolph Hitler or Benito Mussolini.  It's a large number of independent cells.  And because they are driven by faith and ideology, there are no shortage of members who are willing to replace those who have been killed.  The same principle applies to Black September as it does to the "War on Terror."  This theme has lost none of its relevance and never will because Spielberg is not making a comment on a specific time period; he is making a comment on human nature.  A person is much more dangerous when they're fighting for personal reason they think is worth dying or killing for than a man who is simply wearing a uniform and holding a gun.

But what really struck me about this film is that it displays the power of personal interaction.  For most of the film, the enemies are just names and actors with next to no dialogue.  We see them as the characters do: out and out villains who need to be killed.  But there is a scene where the five agents end up in the same room with a number of PLO operatives (by accident, of course).  There, Avner and one of the PLO members have a frank discussion about their points of view.  Both think that they are fighting on the right side.  But Avner sees his opponent (who doesn't know he's Israeli yet) as a human being, rather than a target.  This not only influences Avner's actions later on, but the film's as well.  When Avner and the others confront an assassin, we hear her talk.

Or what about Avner's source, Louis (Almaric) and his father Papa (Lonsdale), who have become so disenfranchised that they have become apolitical?  You give them the money and they'll tell you where to find your target.  They don't work for governments because whenever a leader is taken out a worse one always takes their place.  Is this the reality of the world, especially when violence begets violence?

The true genius of Spielberg's film is that he weaves all of these fundamental questions into a compelling narrative filled with all the trademarks of espionage thrillers like this.  Gun battles, races against time, betrayals, secrets...they're all here.

Unfortunately, this all comes at a cost.  Character development is minimal; apart from Avner, the majority of the characters are one-dimensional.  The performances are all fine (as is the case with a Spielberg film, "War Horse" being the exception).  Special mention has to go to Michael Lonsdale, whose performance of Papa is wonderful.  Papa has a strict code that he has set for himself and his family.  Yet, he has no qualms about conflicts of interest, which makes him threatening.

On a technical level, the film is also very good.  The film is wonderfully shot by Spileberg's constant collaborator, Janusz Kaminski.  The film looks more professional than much of Kaminski's works; there's very little desaturation and graininess.  It's still just as gritty and suspenseful as anything Spielberg has done.

Ambitious in scope and thematically rich, "Munich" is a thought piece that is definitely worth savoring.  Especially if you have people to talk about it with afterwards.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Long Run

3/4

Starring: Armin Mueller-Stahl, Nthati Moshesh, Paterson Joseph, Desmond Dube

Rated R for Some Language and Nudity

Running is a huge sport because it's so easy to do.  Everyone runs for one reason or another, and to do it for exercise, all you need is a good pair of shoes and weather appropriate clothing.  Most run for exercise or for fun, but some run competitively.  Then there's Barry Bohmer, whose whole life revolves around running, specifically the Comrades Ultramarathon.

Barry (Mueller-Stahl) is a running coach in South Africa.  He is training, with the sponsorship of a brick-making company, four runners for the legendary Comrades Ultramarathon.  But due to political correctness, Barry is forced to retire three years early, and replaced with a new hotshot named Gasa (Joseph).  For Barry, this is a crushing blow to his soul.  Then he sees a woman running, and she piques his attention.  Her name is Christine Moyo (Moshesh), an illegal immigrant.  After she is arrested by immigration, he springs her from immigration to train her for the Comrades.  Barry puts her on an intense regimen, but while Christine has talent, she doesn't have his passion (or interest).

"The Long Run" is a sports movie, but it's an atypical one.  While the final race is important, that's not the film's focus.  This is really about Barry's redemption, so to speak.  Barry is not a bad man.  He is a control freak, yes, but not out of malice or sadism.  He wants to coach someone who will finish the Comrades, and he thinks he has found it in Christine.  What he doesn't understand is that her interest in running the marathon is minimal.  She runs as a hobby, and Barry forces her to do it competitively without meaning to.  Barry's tunnel vision is irritating Christine to no end ("You can't have my life," she tells him in frustration).

The acting by the two leads, German legend Armin Mueller-Stahl and newcomer Nthati Moshesh, is wonderful.  Mueller-Stahl plays Barry as an obsessive, but good-natured, man.  He's got tunnel vision to the extreme and prone to melodramatics.  I was reminded of Alfred Kinsey, whose interest in sex was so focused he had no idea that he might be hurting someone.  Barry is the same way; he can't understand that Christine isn't as interested in the race as he is.  For her part, Nthati Moshesh makes a sparkling debut.  Christine is paying lip service to the man who helped her, but when he is controlling every part of her life, she won't have it anymore.  But she does care about him; the relationship between them is non-sexual, but the chemistry between them is strong.  Paterson Joseph is perfectly sleazy as the man who tries to steal Christine away from Barry, but his character is underdeveloped.  More time fleshing him out would have helped the film.

Less impressive is the direction by Jean Stewart.  The pacing is uneven and the film has a tenuous emotional flow.  She never finds a storytelling rhythm, which hampers its effectiveness.  Some scenes are too short and don't feel complete, and the editing is a little odd.  Of greater surprise is the cinematography.  Few places are more beautiful than tropical Africa, but Stewart fails to capture its majesty nor give the film a sense of place.  While the budget may have limited her camera options, that doesn't excuse it.  The film has a gray overcast feel, and Stewart doesn't take time to establish a personality for South Africa.  It feels like any other place.  Only during the Comrades race does the film take off from a visual standpoint.

I liked this film, although it's indie roots are apparent.  It's not Dogma 95, but there's less melodrama and plot.  It's more of a character study than a sports movie, and on that level, the film works.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

2 Guns

3/4

Starring: Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Edward James Olmos, Paula Patton, James Marsden, Robert John Burke, Bill Paxton, Fred Ward

Rated R for Violence Throughout, Language and Brief Nudity

"2 Guns" is preposterous.  In fact, it's so absurd that it attains a new level of affection in me long after the movie is over.  This is a movie where you see, pretty boy James Marsden as a gun toting villain and a five way shootout.  And both occur during a stampede of bulls on their way to the rodeo.  Sold!

Bobby (Washington) and Stig (Wahlberg) are two con men who are making a deal with a drug kingpin named Papi (Olmos).  When he screws them, they vow to steal his money from a bank.  It's around $3 million (which for a kingpin, seems more like pocket change and that he would more likely get pissed about being disrespected than being out $3 million, but whatever).  Surprisingly, when they open the lockboxes in the bank, the realize that there's a hell of a lot more cash than they realize.  There's more than $43 million there.  But there's something that the two of them don't know about each other: Bobby is DEA and Stig works for the Navy.  And everyone wants the money.

The acting is effective.  Mark Wahlberg plays a motormouth moron (or someone who seems to be dumb).  Denzel Washington is surprisingly good.  After a career playing intense characters ("Training Day," "The Hurricane," "Glory," the list goes on).  Edward James Olmos is a long way from "Battlestar Gallactica."  James Marsden appears sans flowing hair and shoots people (he's still cute though).  Paula Patton is sexy and has a scene with Denzel without clothing (although sadly this isn't as sexy as you'd think).  Robert John Burke plays someone who isn't slimy for once.  And Bill Paxton chews the scenery for a few scenes.

The problem with the movie is that it takes the first half to set up, and because the plot twists while introducing the characters, it get pretty confusing.  From scene to scene though, it's entirely watchable.  But once things get rolling (when Washington and Wahlberg play the most inventive game of bumper cars since "The Peacemaker"), the plot clears up and things really take off (note: the twists in the plot do not stop after this point).

Baltasar Kormakur directed this film (he directed last year's "Contraband," also starring Wahlberg, and it was a remake of a movie he starred in).  It has a solid second half, but scripting problems hamper it.  The film could have used another rewrite.  I was reminded of Christopher McQuarrie's (who wrote "The Usual Suspects") directorial debut.  It has the same setting and the same super-twisty feel.  Looking back, it feels as if I was jerked around a lot, but it's fun while it's unspooling.

Pathology

3/4

Starring: Milo Ventimiglia, Michael Weston, Lauren Lee Smith, Johnny Whitworth, John de Lancie, Alyssa Milano, Keir O'Donnell, Mei Melancon, Dan Callahan

Rated R for Disturbing and Perverse Behavior Throughout, including Violence, Gruesome Images, Strong Sexual Content, Nudity, Drug Use and Language

The doctor who believes himself to be God is a common cliche, and happens more often than might think.  The thought that the doctor in charge of your life believes himself to be infallible is frightening.  This theme has been used in movies such as "Malice" and "Hollow Man," but "Pathology" takes it a step further.  A group of pathologists (doctors who perform autopsies to determine cause of death...a field that some consider to being the next best thing to God Himself) play a deadly game: they kill people and dare each other to find out how.

Dr. Ted Grey (Ventimiglia) is a brilliant graduate of Harvard who is studying pathology in one of the best programs in the country.  His most esteemed colleague is Dr. Vincent Gallo (Weston), another student whose considerable talent is outstripped by his ego.  Initially, Ted gets off to a rough start, with Gallo and the rest of the doctors bullying him.  The only ones who are kind to him are his teacher, Dr. Morris (de Lancie) and Dr. Ben Stravinsky (O'Donnell), another doctor who is also put upon but worships Ted.  But eventually Gallo warms up to him and invites him to join their deadly game of sex, drugs and murder (it helps that his fiancee Gwen (Milano) is away finishing law school).  He accepts, but when things go too far, he wants out.  Unfortunately, Gallo and the others won't let him leave alive.

There is no doubt that this is an intense movie.  With the amount of degradation and, putting it bluntly, evil, that permeates through this film, it is not for the squeamish.  There's nothing that director Mac Scholermann doesn't show; it's awash in gore and graphic sex (how it avoided an NC-17 is beyond me).

That being said, this film does what it promises.  It's consistently suspenseful, but it's also intelligent; while those with a medical degree may be able to follow the medical jargon, everyone else will still get it because it's easy to understand what it means to the story.  It's not flawless; there's a fairly obvious plot inconsistency and the tension stays constant rather than increases (for the most part).

The acting is top form.  Milo Ventimiglia has a difficult job: he must get us on his side despite the fact that he is a murderer.  But Ventimiglia, whose claim to fame at the time was his role in the TV show "Heroes," looks more like the school's golden boy rather than a psychopath, which makes it impossible to truly dislike him.  His co-star, Michael Weston, steals the show.  Gallo is downright chilling, sometimes approaching Hannibal Lector creepy.  He's a total psychopath, yes, but he believes that he is untouchable.  Not content with killing people and sleeping with his co-workers, Gallo forces Ted to play terrifying morality games with him.  Alyssa Milano is adorable; she and Ventimiglia have a nice chemistry.  Keir O'Donnell (most famous for playing the misanthropic brother in the overrated "Wedding Crashers") is equally lovable as Ben.  The other members of the cast (Smith, Whitworth, Melancon and Callahan) are perfectly freaky.

"Pathology" is not for the faint of heart.  It deserved a better release than MGM (which was in its final death throes) gave it.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Smashed

3/4

Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Octavia Spencer, Mary Kay Place

Rated R for Alcohol Abuse, Language, Some Sexual Content and Brief Drug Use

Addiction movies are a dime a dozen.  The topic so relevant (and always will be), and there are so many different directions that one can take to explore it.  "Once Were Warriors" used it as a way to explore how it can turn a nice person into a monster.  "When A Man Loves A Woman" showed how it can strain a marriage (not very well, as it happens).  "Smashed" does a little of both, although without the intensity of the former and the mawkishness of the latter.  This is a story that, for 75% of the film, feels honest and real.

Kate (Winstead) and Charlie (Paul) are a happily married couple who are in love with booze as they are with each other.  But lately, Kate has been feeling as if her life is spiraling out of control.  She wakes up for work to discover that she has wet the bed during the night.  She offers (if one can call it that) a woman a ride home and ends up smoking crack.  She vomits in front of her class and lies that she's pregnant.  She tries to slow down, but that doesn't last very long.  Eventually, a co-worker of hers (Offerman) realizes that she's an alcoholic and when she decides to get sober, he takes her to a meeting.  But getting sober isn't easy, especially if your husband is still living like a college student and partying all night and every night.

The performances by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul sell the film.  I could see that, with a different cast, this film wouldn't be nearly as effective or interesting.  Both of them are low-key, but realistic.  They're so realistic that it's hard to believe that they are actors.  In this small of a film, that's an asset as opposed to heavy dramatics a la Daniel Day Lewis circa "Gangs of New York."  Winstead plays a woman who's forced to keep lying, even as she gets sober, and the AA mantra of living honestly has a price.  That struggle makes her life even more difficult than it already is.  Aaron Paul has an equally difficult role.  He's an alcoholic too, but he doesn't realize it, nor does he understand what "being sober" means.  He feels as if he's lost his best friend.  But he does love Kate, although that may not be enough.  Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally (as the principal at Kate's school) provide solid support as well.

Co-writer and director James Ponsoldt directs this film with a sure hand.  Up until the final act, he doesn't push the material or his actors.  He keeps things realistic, and therein lies it's power.  Sadly, the film nearly implodes on its way to the finish line.  It's not what happens (from a storytelling perspective, it makes sense), but how it's handled.  I never believed that the characters would act like this, and there are a number of glaring contrivances.

Still, the performances of Winstead and Paul are strong enough that, for all its flaws, make "Smashed" a movie worth seeing.

Tumbleweeds

3.5/4

Starring: Janet McTeer, Kimberly J. Brown, Gavin O'Connor, Jay O. Sanders

Rated PG-13 for Language, Sensuality and a Scene of Domestic Discord

Recently, I've been watching slice-of-life character studies (unintentionally, I might add).  "Win Win," "From Here to Eternity," "Vera Drake" (unfinished).  Gavin O'Connor's debut film, "Tumbleweeds," fits into the category where the characters are so well drawn and so interesting that a plot would be more of a hindrance than anything.

After her latest marriage ends in a scene of near violence (the amount of tension nearly approaches "Once Were Warriors" level), Mary Jo Walker (McTeer) flees with her daughter Ava (Brown) in tow.  After a bit of debate, they decide to head out west to California.  On the way, the car breaks down and they're helped by a handsome trucker named Jack (O'Connor).  When they get to California, Mary Jo runs into Jack, and they hit it off again.  In no short order, Mary Jo and Ava have moved in with him.  Mary Jo thinks that she's finally found the right guy, but Ava knows the pattern.  She knows it's only a matter of time before this relationship fizzles up and they'll have to go on the road again.

The amount of character development is astonishing.  So few movies take the time to flesh out the characters to this level, and Gavin O'Connor proves himself to be a master storyteller (he co-wrote and directed the MMA movie "Warrior," which made my Top Ten list two years ago).  All four of the leads, Mary Jo, Ava, Jack and Mary Jo's kind co-worker Dan (Sanders), become three-dimensional people we know and understand.

It goes without saying that the performances are outstanding (all four deserved Oscar nominations, although only McTeer was awarded the honor).  Janet McTeer is excellent as Mary Jo.  She's a devoted mother and has self-respect, but she always chooses the latter when it comes to "fight or flight."  Also excellent is her young co-star, Kimberly J. Brown.  Ava is smart enough to know her mother better than she does, but lacks Mary Jo's worldliness.  Their relationship is interesting because in some ways Mary Jo is the more mature one, but in others it's Ava.  Co-writer/director Gavin O'Connor is also very good as Jack.  Initially, he's a stud, and we want Mary Jo to ride off in the sunset with him (Mary Jo is one of those people who is in love with the "honeymoon" period).  But the more we get to know him, we see that he's got anger issues and is not exactly who we thought.  But arguably the most impressive performance is given by Jay O. Sanders.  Sanders is a character actor of some repute, and he gives a kind and gentle performance as Jack, who has been attracted to Mary Jo from afar.  This guy couldn't be more lovable if he tried, and his sad story tore at my heart.

Apart from a few rookie mistakes (jumpy editing), this is essentially a flawless film.  Those who watch it will definitely feel as if their time has been well spent in the company of a few very interesting and likable people.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

3/4

Starring: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schrieber, Kimberly Elise, Jon Voight

Rated R for Violence and Some Language

"The Manchurian Candidate" is a remake of the 1962 Cold War thriller starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury.  In that film, Communist China had the Vice President's stepson as a mole in the White House.  Here, it's megacorporation that has the vice president himself under their control.

Ben Marco (Washington, playing Sinatra's role) is a commander in the U.S. Army.  During Desert Storm, he and his squad were ambushed by Iraqis and nearly killed.  One of his soldiers, Raymond Shaw (Schrieber, playing Harvey's role) took control and saved all but two of the men.  Marco immediately recommended Shaw for the Medal of Honor.  At least that's how the story goes.  But Marco is having strange nightmares, and one one of his squadmates comes to him with bizarre rantings, Marco begins to suspect that not all is what it seems.  Making things more dangerous is that Shaw, who came from a political dynasty, is now a Senate wonderboy, and his mother Eleanor (Streep in Lansbury's role), is grooming him for the White House.

The idea behind the film, that a major corporation would be in control of the most powerful man in the world, is terrifying.  There is an air of menace and paranoia that seeps into the film.  Newscasts and political speeches take on a sinister turn.  Unfortunately, director Jonathan Demme isn't able to sustain it, mainly because the script is not ready and the editing is at times confusing.

While it's true that most psychological thrillers don't hold up to scrutiny, the best ones are suspenseful enough to make you forget that until you're already home (Hitchcock called these "refrigerator movies," because you realize the holes in them once you go to the fridge for a late night snack).  "The Manchurian Candidate" has holes alright, but many are readily apparent while the film is unspooling.  Characters act in inconsistent ways, and there are times when credibility goes out the window.

The performances are all fine (with a cast like this, it's to be expected).  Denzel Washington has yet to give a bad performance, and while Ben Marco isn't the best character he's ever played (there are times when he's a little too unhinged for the plot to be believable), he does a fine job of getting us behind a man who may be on the right track, but is not a normal individual.  Meryl Streep chews the scenery, but she's still frightening as the viciously competitive (and possessive...her relationship with her son is more than a little creepy, and there are some incestuous overtones).  The third main member of the cast is Liev Schrieber.  At the time of the film's release, he was a relative unknown (his most famous character was Cotton Weary in the "Scream" trilogy).  This was his break into leading man status, and he gives the best performance in the film.  Schrieber has the most difficult role; he must be almost too perfect, but still give the character an air of being unhinged.  He nails it.  Kimberly Elise and Jon Voight are solid in supporting roles.  Also on screen are pre-famous actors Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Mackie and Vera Farmiga.  Special note goes to Simon McBurney, who plays a mad scientist.  He is absolutely chilling.

Director Jonathan Demme creates an atmosphere of malice and fear in this film, but he isn't able to sustain it.  There are times when this movie is downright creepy, such as when Ben realizes how desperate the situation has become.  No one is above suspicion, and the question of who he can trust is not answered until late in the film.  Like in his most famous film, "The Silence of the Lambs," he concentrates on his actors facial features, but the effect isn't the same.  There is also a lack of establishing shots, which makes it difficult to tell where everything is at times.  Finally, the film does not get off to a good start.  Marco's realization that he was brainwashed is contrived and glossed over (Shaw suffers from this as well).  It's not the actors' fault, it's the writing by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris.  The script in general is a little sloppy; it could have used another rewrite to smooth things over and close some of the plotholes.

Despite all of this, I do recommend the film.  The plot is gripping and there is real suspense to be found here.  For those who want a truly chilling political thriller, this is a solid choice.