Monday, September 30, 2013

Romper Stomper

2/4

Starring: Russell Crowe, Daniel Pollock, Jacqueline McKenzie

Rated R for Brutality and Violence, Sexuality and Language

Premiere said this was one of "The 25 Most Dangerous Movies."  James Berardinelli said it is impossible to watch this movie and not be affected.  I was expecting something that was absolutely punishing to watch, on par with "Once Were Warriors," or more appropriately, "American History X."  Instead, I got...this.

"Romper Stomper" is the definition of mediocre.  The direction has a fierce energy, particularly in the fight scenes (one of which, the main one, goes on far too long), but the story is thin and the characters are two-dimensional at best.  That's not to say that the performances aren't strong, which they are.  It's just that the actors aren't given much to work with.

Hondo (Crowe) is the ringleader of a gang of skinheads.  They resent people of Asian descent, whom they view as intruding on their turf.  When the reprisal from one of their attacks goes south, Hondo, his best friend Davey (Pollock, who killed himself shortly before the film was released), and Gabe (McKenzie), the girl he picked up at the pub, and their friends go on the run.

As far as plot goes, that's pretty much it.  Same for character development.  Hondo is a hothead, Davey is a quiet romantic, and Gabe is an epileptic.  Apart from that, there's not much more to any of them; and the other characters are so undeveloped that the only character whose name I can recall is Bubs (James McKenna) because he's the kid who tags along with the other guys.

The film was written and directed by Geoffrey Wright.  The film looks great, but that's it.  It has all the makings of a great movie except a good script.

Movies like this are the hardest to review.  They're so empty that there's really nothing that I can say about it.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Don Jon

2/4

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johannson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly

Rated R for Strong Graphic Sexual Material and Dialogue Throughout, Nudity, Language and Some Drug Use

There is a difference between fantasy and reality.  We all know this.

...or do we?

When we watch a movie like "Titanic," "There's Something About Mary," or any other romance, we fall in love with the characters and want them to be together until the end of time.  When we watch pornography, we imagine ourselves having sex with the beautiful woman (or man) we see.  They're both fantasies.  It's unlikely that Ted and Mary will go through life without a single fight (if they even get married) and there's no chance in hell that an average guy sitting at his computer will get with the gorgeous babe or stud he sees on the internet.  Still, they allow us to believe that it's possible.

The problem is when we start believing that these fantasies are real.  For the two lead characters in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's writing and directing debut, "Don Jon," this is their flaw.  Jon (Gordon-Levitt) prefers pornography over real sex (although he has no trouble finding gorgeous women to take home) because there's not bullshit attached.  Some girls may not be willing or skilled enough to do the things that he wants.  With pornography, he can find videos and images of anything that excites him.  Barbara (Johannson), on the other hand, believes that "true love" means the "perfect" guy.  She loves Jon, but there are things about him (the fact that he watches porn and that he doesn't have a college degree) that she doesn't like, so she sets out to mold him to her liking.

As they are right now, neither one of them is going to find what they're looking for.  As Jon's classmate Esther (Moore) points out, they have to learn to accept each other as they are in order to have a real connection.  They have to open themselves to each other.  Only then will they experience "making love" as opposed to "just sex."

For his debut behind the camera, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has chosen two of the best actresses working today to co-star with him.  Neither actress has ever played a part like this.  Johannson has played the object of a man's affection ("Match Point," "Lost in Translation"), but never has she been this sexual.  Johannson doesn't take her top off (well, she does, but it's from behind and in the dark) but that doesn't mean she doesn't throw herself into the role.  There are more than a few sex scenes with her and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  But far more impressive is how she deep she becomes buried into the character.  Barbara is a sexpot, yes, but she's also stubborn, has a heavy Boston accent, and a perfectionist.  Julianne Moore has not played a very sexual character before either, but she does in "Don Jon."  She also dives headlong into the role, playing an atypical voice of wisdom for Jon.  Ester does not have her life together.  She's neurotic and insecure, but knows more about life than he does.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has become one of the best actors of his generation.  Time and time again, he has challenged himself by taking a diverse array of unusual and difficult roles, and nailing them every time.  Jon is a bit of a narcissist.  He works out excessively, sees himself as a total stud, and prides himself on how much tail he gets.  And yet, he's someone we understand, and to a degree, care about.

In his review of Quentin Tarantino's debut "Reservoir Dogs," Roger Ebert wrote, "Now that we know Quentin Tarantino can make a movie like 'Reservoir Dogs,' it's time for him to move on and make a better one."  I will say the same thing about Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  He knows what he's doing.  This movie is fearless and in-your-face.  The former is admirable.  The latter is a killer.  Gordon-Levitt uses inserts, montages and shots of the characters faces to get his point across.  It's certainly alive, but that's the film's problem.  The style interferes with our relationship to the characters.  They're not as interesting as they seem early on and I didn't really care emotionally what happened to them.  Big problem.

All that aside, Joseph Gordon-Levitt remains one of the most talented and courageous people working in Hollywood.  I'm always excited to see what he does in front of the camera.  Now I'm curious to see what he does next behind it.

Penny Dreadful

3/4

Starring: Rachel Miner, Mimi Rogers, Liz Rivers, Chad Todhunter, Mickey Jones, Michael Berryman, Tammy Filor

The version of the film being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the rated version (if one actually exists) is rated R for Violence/Terror, Some Sexuality and Language

The trailer for the After Dark horror film "Penny Dreadful" is without a doubt the best trailer I have ever seen (and I watch them all the time).  Not only does it suggest the story without giving anything away, the trailer itself is flat out terrifying.  While the film itself doesn't quite live up to its potential (it deviates somewhat from the trailer's premise), it's still pretty intense and scary.

After surviving a car crash that killed her parents, Penny Deerborn (Miner) is terrified of cars.  She can't get in one without throwing up.  Her therapist, Oriana Volkes (Rogers), believes that the only way she can get past it is to bring things full circle and drive to the place where her parents died.  On the way, Oriana hits a hitchhiker, and in an act of penance, gives him a lift to the middle of nowhere.  That's when the two of them realize that the tire has a hole in it and it isn't long before they're stuck in the middle of the woods.  Much to Penny's horror, Oriana leaves her in the car to try to call for help.  But the hitchhiker has special plans for her.

In a strange way, "Penny Dreadful" bears similarity to the horror films "Saw" and "The Descent."  While Richard Brandes' film doesn't feature obscene amounts of torture and gore (in fact, it can be argued that the movie isn't really a "horror" movie at all, and is instead a psychological thriller), it does contain similar themes.  Penny's ordeal of being trapped by a killer who thwarts her every attempt to escape recall's James Wan's 2005 hit and the use of an environment being as much of a threat as the killer brings to mind Neil Marshall's classic.  There's not much blood or gruesome violence in this film; it's built on the sense of being trapped with no way out.

The only character that matters is Penny, and Rachel Miner (who was at one time married to Macaulay Culkin) does a solid job.  We're with Penny every step of the way.  Slightly less impressive is Mimi Rogers (who was also married to a movie star, only it was Tom Cruise), although it's partly due to the script.  The problem with the casting is that Miner and Rogers don't "click" together.  I never bought that they had a meaningful relationship, which limits the suspense.

Director Richard Brandes does a solid job of generating suspense and psychological tension.  He isn't as masterful as Neil Marshall was with "The Descent," but it's good enough.  He also has a tendency to show off at times, although these instances are minimal.  Of greater concern is the editing.  Horror movies are never long, and "Penny Dreadful" is no exception.  But even at 92 minutes the movie is a hair too long.  Shave a minute or two of Penny huddling in the car, and the film would be leaner and meaner.

That all being said, for those who like intense psychological thrillers, this is a solid pick.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

New York City Serenade

3/4

Starring: Freddie Prinze Jr., Chris Kline, Jamie-Lynn Sigler

Rated R for Language, Brief Sexuality and Drug Use

"New York City Serenade" is one of those movies that uses naturalistic dialogue and intentionally normal and non-dramatic elements to tell its story.  Often, these can be good movies, like "Win Win" or "Tumbleweeds."  This is a tricky thing to pull off, and when a filmmaker doesn't get the right mix, the film can come off as unbearably boring and pretentious.  For the first half of the movie, character actor Frank Whaley's third directorial project seems to be heading down that route.  The dialogue is bland and the characters aren't likable or interesting.  But the film takes off during the second half.

Owen (Prinze Jr.) is an aspiring filmmaker working at a dead end job.  He's engaged to a college student named Lynn (Sigler), although he is not faithful to her.  His best friend Ray (Klein) is an alcoholic drummer in a state of arrested development.  When Lynn finds out that Owen slept with another girl, she dumps him.  That leaves an opening for Ray to go on a trip to a film festival where Owen has a short film that is playing.  But Owen's desperate attempts to get Lynn to forgive him and Ray's irresponsible behavior are causing a lot of friction between them.

The two leads, Freddie Prinze Jr. and Chris Kline, have been known mainly for making teen movies (where physical appeal trumps acting ability...Taylor Lautner, anyone?).  While neither one of them has impressed me with their thespian skills in the past, they're both quite good here.  Each of them has a stiff moment or two, but for 99.99% of the film, they completely inhabit their characters.  It doesn't take long to stop seeing Ray from "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and Oz from the "American Pie" movies.  Jamie-Lynn Sigler is good, but her character is more of a plot device rather than a legitimate character, and as a result isn't particularly interesting.

Frank Whaley is best known for playing squirrelly characters in movies such as "Broken Arrow," "Swimming with Sharks" and "Pulp Fiction."  Here, he proves that he knows what he's doing behind a camera.  He has, with his two leads, created two interesting and three-dimensional characters (I'm sure a career as an actor helped him a lot), and has told an engaging story.  While it's billed as comedy-drama, Whaley's emphasis is on the latter.  There are some amusing moments here and there, but it's not going to have anyone rolling in the aisles.  What Whaley needs is a better editor.  The first half drags on for what seems like forever.  There were times where I nearly gave up on the film.  But all in all I think that the strong second half makes up for its shortcomings, especially if this type of indie flick appeals to you.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Devil's Own

3/4

Starring: Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Ruben Blades, Treat Williams, Natasha McElhone, Margaret Colin, Paul Ronan

Rated R for Strong Brutal Violence, and for Language

Don't expect a happy ending.  This isn't an American story.  It's an Irish one.  --Frankie Maguire

From its very inception, "The Devil's Own" was in deep water.  Current events and other factors demanded rewrites (including filming without a finished script), much to the displeasure of star Brad Pitt, who called it "a disaster" and "the most irresponsible piece of filmmaking" (Pitt wanted to back out, but doing so would have cost him "$63 million for starters").  It was originally going to be released for Oscar attention, but test audiences hated it, so it was pushed back to a March release date.

While such drama is normally a really bad sign, "The Devil's Own" manages to rise above it and come out as a decent flick.  It's by no means perfect, but for what it is, it's entertaining.

Frankie Maguire (Pitt) is a notorious IRA terrorist known as Frankie the Angel.  Wanted for dozens of murders, Frankie barely escapes with his life after the British try to take him down (killing a number of his friends in the process).  Frankie is sent to the US to pick up some stinger missiles, believing that to be the only way of getting the British government's attention.  Now known as Rory Devaney, he is staying at the home of an IRA sympathizer's friend, a cop named Tom O'Meara (Ford).  But the past doesn't stay buried forever, and Frankie's true purpose for being in New York is bound to catch up with him.

Despite all its problems, the film is strongly acted.  Ford and Pitt, two consistently good actors, do solid work.  It's not Oscar-worthy material from either of them, but they do their jobs.  Ford is his usual reliable self playing a good, moral cop facing a number of difficult choices.  Pitt manages to get us on his side despite the fact that he is a terrorist capable of brutal acts of violence.  Ruben Blades provides solid support as Tom's partner, although his story is almost superfluous (it's meant to give the film color and understand Tom's motivations for the final act, but it doesn't really work).  Treat Williams turns up the nasty as a gunrunner.  And Natasha McElhone is good as Frankie's contact/love interest.

This was the final film of Alan J. Pakula, a director of some repute (he was killed in a car accident shortly after the film was finished).  It's solidly told, but there are a few concerns I have about the film.  First, the film makes no mention of any part of The Troubles.  The backdrop is generic; substitute any conflict in its place and almost nothing would change.  Not only is this a little insulting to those who were affected by the conflict, it robs the film of a lot of texture and possible conflict.  Second, Pakula uses a light jaunty over a montage of Frankie and his friend, Sean (Ronan), preparing their boat to take the missiles back to Ireland.  It's a little disconcerting, especially after 9/11.  Finally, the film is a little too violent for its own good.  With a darker tone and more weight to the script (apparently this was the case for the original script that convinced Pitt to sign on, but rewrites diluted it), the brutality would have been appropriate, but as it is, it comes across as excessive.

Watching this movie, I couldn't help wishing it was more.  With a stronger, richer script and characters who exhibited more dimensions, this could have been the film it deserved to be.  It raises a lot of interesting questions.  Questions like, is terrorism ever justified (which "Munich" asked nearly a decade later)?  How does witnessing or committing acts of violence affect a person?  How does the act of arresting or possibly killing a man affect you if you know and love the person?  Compelling questions to be sure, but unfortunately there is no follow through.

If you're looking for a good thriller, this is an okay choice.  I liked it.  I was entertained.  But I kept seeing the film that it could have been.  If only...


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

3/4

Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Elliott Reid, Tommy Noonan, Charles Coburn

Not Rated (contains nothing offensive)

There's nothing heavy about "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."  It's a lighter than light screwball comedy/musical with madcap hijinks, wordplay and some extravagantly staged songs.  It's by no means perfect, but it is fun.

Lorelei Lee (Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Russell) are two lounge singers and best friends.  Lorelei is engaged to be married to rich dork Gus Esmond, Jr. (Noonan), while Dorothy is lovelorn and single.  Unfortunately, Gus's controlling father doesn't approve of the relationship, so he sends Lorelei and Dorothy to France to wait for him.  Complications ensue: Lorelei, who will fall for anyone who so even mentions the word "diamond," gets into some compromising positions with Piggy Beekman (Coburn), a diamond mine owner, and Dorothy gets the hots for the dashing Ernie Malone (Reid), who happens to be tailing Lorelei to see if she's as faithful as she claims.

Like I said, this isn't a serious movie.  It's light and airy, and occasionally quite funny (the scene where Lorelei gets stuck in a porthole is a case in point).

It helps the the acting is solid across the board.  Marilyn Monroe has a few hammy moments early on, but gets better as the film goes on.  Lorelei is the "dumb blonde" stereotype that Monroe made famous, but she's not as dumb as everyone thinks.  Jane Russell (who got along well with Monroe and was the only one who could coax her out of her trailer before the days shoot) is very funny as the sharp-tongued Dorothy, who will go after any man who has got good looks (much to her delight, there's a male Olympic team on board).  Elliott Reed is perfect in a role that might well have been played by Cary Grant.  Charles Coburn is amusing as Piggy, who has become instantly smitten with Lorelei (who wraps him around her finger).  The weak link is Tommy Noonan; he's too dorky for his relationship with Lorelei to be believable.  Fortunately, he's only onscreen for a few scenes at the beginning and the end.

The film was directed by Howard Hawks, who is one of the most famous directors from Hollywood's Golden Age.  Despite only getting one Oscar nomination (Best Director for "Sergeant York," although he did receive an Honorary Award in 1975), Hawks was behind a number of Hollywood classics such as "Bringing Up Baby" (which was a flop when it was released but is now considered a classic), "His Girl Friday," "The Big Sleep," "Red River," and "Rio Bravo."  The film, based on a Broadway musical, is nicely staged, and Hawks keeps things moving.  The comical sound effects Hawks uses (such as the tweeting birds when Gus is stunned by a kiss from Lorelei) are unnecessary, however.  They should have stayed in the cartoons.

That said, this is an enjoyable trip.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Insidious: Chapter 2

1/4

Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Steve Coulter, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Terror and Violence, and Thematic Elements

How far titans fall...

Two years ago, James Wan and Leigh Whanell, the creators of the "Saw" franchise, unleashed "Insidious" onto the public.  In my opinion, it was one of the scariest movies ever made (I was shaking for 45 minutes after the movie was over) and it made my Top 10 list that year at number 2.  Last week, Wan and Whanell continued the story of the Lamberts.  The result is an abysmally bad movie.

"Insidious: Chapter 2" feels like a rush job from beginning to end.  No one appears to have any interest in making this movie.  The actors, all of whom have shown talent in the past, are awful, Wan's direction is lightning fast and lacks atmosphere, and the story frequently makes zero sense.  About the only one involved who appears to have any investment in the film is the studio, who is so blinded by greed that they don't care if the movie is crap.

I'd give a little plot synopsis as I usually do, but the fact of the matter is that this movie doesn't make any sense.  About all I can figure out is that when Josh Lambert (Wilson) went into the netherworld, he brought back a demon or something with him, and now it's possessed him and is after his family.  Or something like that.  So his wife Renai (Byrne) is terrified for and at her husband and shields her kids from him as much as possible, while his mother Lorraine (Hershey) goes off on a quest to find the truth behind the spirit that haunts them.  I think that's how it goes.

There's really only one performance that works, and that's by Lin Shaye.  The character actress became infamous for showing her fake boobs in the Farrelly Brothers' sleeper hit "There's Something About Mary," and reprises her role from the first film (from the grave...of sorts).  She has warmth and energy, and steals her scenes as Elise.  Unfortunately, she's on screen for far too few of them.  Patrick Wilson has a few creepy moments, but usually he's just saying the lines so he can pick up his paycheck.  Rose Byrne, who has never given a bad performance until now, is just awful.  She's both shrill and stupid.  Barbara Hershey is a real trooper, but clearly understands that the script is shit and looks like she'd rather be anywhere else.  As Carl, Elise's old ghost hunting pal, Steve Coulter blends into the background.

James Wan appears to have even less interest in this film than his stars.  He rushes through the story (or what passes for one) as fast as possible, and not a scene goes by without something "creepy" happening.  Of course, this only magnifies the film's flaws, but he doesn't appear to care.  Still, he manages a few decent shocks, which is impressive under the circumstances.  The scariest parts of the movie are the title cards at the beginning and the end.

The bottom line is that this movie is about as bad as a follow-up as one can imagine.  And the ending leaves room for a sequel.  Here's to hoping that the inevitable third chapter is better.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Stoker

2/4

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman

Rated R for Disturbing Violent and Sexual Content

"Stoker" is one of those movies that makes you want to take a shower.  A long, hot shower with lots of soap.  Or, considering how creepy this movie is, something stronger.  Like hydrochloric acid.

Despite its title and the surname of the majority of the characters, Chan-Woo Park's film has nothing to do with Bram Stoker, the author best known for writing "Dracula."  Instead, it's about a very rich, but very disturbed, family living in what looks like New England.  Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney in a small role) has just died tragically.  His wife, Evelyn (Kidman), is saddened (supposedly).  His daughter India (Wasikowska), who was reportedly close to Richard, doesn't seem to care one way or another.  After the funeral, in walks Richard's brother Charlie (Goode), whom India never knew existed.  Evelyn warms up to him too quickly for India's taste, but Charlie's interest is mainly with India.

Whether or not you will enjoy this movie depends on two things.  First, you have to be willing to spend 90 minutes with three equally repulsive individuals.  In a perfect world, these three would get hit by a bus or something.  They're that creepy.  India is an emo who doesn't say much and rarely smiles.  She looks like a more twisted and malevolent Samara from "The Ring."  Evelyn is self-absorbed and doesn't seem to really grieve once she finds Charlie's open arms.  And Charlie is just creepy.  He only has to look at one of the characters for a feeling of intense discomfort to set in.

The second critera is that you have to be able to tolerate a level of artsiness that approaches Steve McQueen's work in "Hunger" or "Shame."  While the film is significantly better than either of those films (excepting the scene in "Hunger" with Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham), it has the same "look what I can do!" feel to it.  Admittedly, some of the visual flair and editing tricks that Chan-Woo Park does is cool and the film is always atmospheric.  But there's too much of it; there's hardly a scene where Park doesn't try something like mixing with the timeline or using show-offy camera movements.  Sometimes it works, but usually it doesn't.  There's also a frustrating lack of dialogue.  In principle, I don't automatically hate movies with little or no dialogue (the two "Fantasia" movies and "The Triplets of Belleville" are some examples) as long as there is a story to be told and characters to develop an interest in.  That doesn't really happen here.

That's not to say that the film is completely without merit.  The three performances by Wasikowska, Kidman and Goode are terrific.  Wasikowska radiates intensity and unpredictability.  You never quite know what she's thinking (which causes some trouble in the film's final act).  Nicole Kidman is underused; Evelyn isn't as developed as either India or Charlie, but Kidman makes the most of it.  And Matthew Goode makes for a perfect psycho.  Goode first came to my attention as Tom Hewitt in the criminally underrated masterpiece "Match Point."  Tom was as charming as he was handsome, and the ability to play a character like that suits him well here.  He's both of those things as Charlie, but it's all a facade.  It's going to be a long time before anyone will think of him as a stud again (although considering his talent, maybe not...a good performance can erase any feelings about a previous one).

There are good things about this movie, I will fully admit.  But I don't think it works.  Regardless of whether or not it "works," it's been made for a very select audience.  Apparently, I'm not a member of that select group.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Samaritan

3/4

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Luke Kirby, Ruth Negga, Tom Wilkinson, Deborah Kara Unger

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

If you keep on doing what you've always done, you'll keep on being what you've always been.  Nothing changes unless you make it change.
That's what Foley (Jackson) is trying to do.  A former grifter, Foley spent the last 25 years in prison after being forced to kill his partner in crime and best friend.  Now he's out, and his old friends (those that are still alive) want as little to do with him as he does with his old job.  But Ethan (Kirby), the son of his old partner, wants him in on a grift.  Foley doesn't want any part of it, but Ethan will do anything to convince him.

"The Samaritan" is a quiet thriller.  While there is suspense, it's understated.  There are no car chases, over-the-top action sequences or outrageous twists.  There is some violence (some of which is quite bloody), and there are plot twists that you don't see coming (they are a requirement of the genre), they're subdued.  This isn't something like "Seven" or "Now You See Me."  It requires patience.

That's not to say that it's not interesting.  For one thing, the characters are well-developed.  We know what makes them tick.  Samuel L. Jackson is in top form as Foley.  The "ex-con trying to go straight but is pulled back into crime" is an archetype as old as the hills, but co-writer/director David Weaver has more respect than that.  Foley will do anything to keep himself on the straight and narrow, but he also has his new girlfriend Iris (Negga), to worry about.

The acting is solid.  Jackson is known for playing loud and profane characters like in "Pulp Fiction" or more recently, "The Other Guys" (where he hilariously parodied his image, before he exited the film and Adam McKay left the film to Will Ferrell in "annoying" mode).  Jackson is more quiet and soft here.  Foley is a thoughtful and regretful man who is trying against all odds to get his new life together.  But try as he might, he can't escape it.  Jackson has his moments of intensity in the role, but for the most part his character is trying to escape that behavior.  Luke Kirby is menacing, but there's more to him than meets the eye.  Ethan is in control, but he's not experienced in this sort of thing, unlike Foley.  Both of them know this, which makes their relationship more interesting.  Less impressive is Ruth Negga.  She's uneven; the actress is generally effective, but she has moments where she is stiff.  And when she shares the screen with Jackson and Kirby, her deficiencies are magnified.  Tom Wilkinson and Deborah Kara Unger are on hand for small roles.

Even at a relatively skinny 90 minutes, the film is a little too long.  Cut out about ten minutes in the first half, and the film would be a better paced film.  As it is, it sometimes drags, which is a terrible thing for a thriller.  Slow, deliberate pacing is good for a thriller like this, but Weaver doesn't quite get the recipe right.

Still, this is an intriguing and well-acted film, although the audience for it is small.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Amistad

3.5/4

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Djimon Hounsou, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, David Paymer, Nigel Hawthorne, Stellan Skarsgaard

Rated R for Some Scenes of Strong Brutal Violence and Related Nudity

"Amistad" is a traditional courtroom drama done well.  The story is powerful, the performances are effective (and in one case, superb), and it does exactly what it sets out to do.  Unfortunately, there's not much that's really special about it either.  It doesn't go the extra mile.

In 1839, a slave ship called "La Amistad" was subject to a revolt by the Africans it was carrying toward slavery.  Led by a man who was later called Cinque (Hounsou), the Africans succeeded in overtaking the ship, and demanded to be taken back to Africa.  But they were tricked, and instead ended up off the coast of Long Island, where they were arrested and charged with murder.  Two abolitionists, ex-slave Theodore Joadson (Freeman) and activist Lewis Tappan (Skarsgaard), take up their case.  The lawyer they have is Roger Baldwin (McConaughey), a property lawyer.  The film recounts their struggle for freedom all the way to the Supreme Court.

I suppose it's impossible to talk about "Amistad" without mentioning "Schindler's List."  In his review of this film, James Berardinelli said, "'Amistad' is to 'The Lost World' as 'Schindler's List' is to 'Jurassic Park.'"  In a strange way, it's at least an understandable comparison (although the comparison between the two dramas isn't as strong as the connection between the two dino monster movies).  While the two films are more different than they are alike, they are hard-hitting yet inspirational dramas.  In terms of quality, however, "Amistad" doesn't come close.

The film's flaws mainly have to do with the script.  David Franzoni's (who would next write the overblown bore "Gladiator") script is, at best, serviceable, and at worst, shallow.  Compare the lack of depth to what Steven Zaillian did with "Schindler's List," and you'll see my point.  There isn't a single three-dimensional character in this film.  They're all types.  Well acted types, but still types.

Without a shadow of the doubt, Steven Spielberg is one of the smartest and hardest working filmmakers in Hollywood.  But even he is not flawless (actually, he's been in a slump since "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull").  He overestimates the strength of Franzoni's script, causing some of the big emotional moments that he is known for the come across as unnecessarily melodramatic and overblown.

The performances are, with one exception, solid.  Matthew McConaughey has his weak moments, but he's an effective lead.  Djimon Hounsou, who learned Mended for the role, is quite good as the imprisoned Cinque.  Cinque is a man who is troubled and frightened, but will do what he has to in order to get home.  Some of the film's limited comic relief comes from his observations of the other characters.  Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgaard are more or less wasted (Skarsgaard disappears from the second half of the film with no explanation), but then again, they're always welcome on screen.

The exception I mentioned is Anthony Hopkins, whose portrayal of the frail but firey John Quincy Adams is absolutely riveting.  Hopkins is unrecognizable in the role (much credit must go to the makeup department), playing him as a man whose body is failing him but his mind is as perceptive as ever.  His final speech, which takes up about ten minutes, is stunning.

Steven Spielberg knows what he is doing behind a camera.  Anyone who doubts that has not seen enough of his movies.  He's a master storyteller, and for all its flaws, this is a good film.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Rosewood

2.5/4

Starring: Jon Voight, Ving Rhames, Michael Rooker, Esther Rolle, Bruce McGill, Elise Neal, Catherine Kellner, Loren Dean

Rated R for Violence and Some Sexuality

There is no doubt that the Rosewood massacre is a story that needs to be told.  It is a tragic tale of a lie that destroyed a whole community and lead to the deaths of many (casualties vary wildly depending on which source you consult, anywhere from 8 to over 150).  But is this the film to tell it?  I don't think so.

The year is 1923.  Rosewood is an almost all-black settlement that neighbors Sumner, a white town.  The inhabitants are self-sufficient and happy; one person calls it paradise.  But when a woman named Fannie Taylor (Kellner) is caught in a lie, she claims that a black man raped and beat her.  That heats up tensions between the two settlements, and not a day goes by before mobs form and chaos ensues.  There are two people who help the blacks flee for their lives: Mann (Rhames), a war vet turned drifter that had wandered into town shortly before the violence started, and John Wright (Voight), a white shopkeeper who lives in Rosewood.

"Rosewood" is a movie of extremes.  There are many scenes, particularly in the second half, that really land.  On the other hand, there are scenes that are badly written, miscalculated or simply don't work.  The movie seems to be pulled into two different directions: a gut punch like "Schindler's List" (or more appropriately, "Hotel Rwanda," which also starred Don Cheadle) and a safe crowd pleaser.  The push and pull of these two types of films (which, by the way, are not mutually exclusive) leads to some awkward scenes that hamper the movie's tenuous success.

Part of the reason for the film's shortcomings is that the script by Gregory Poirier, is at best half-baked and at worst, offensive.  Characters are sketchily developed; only Wright, Sheriff Walker (Rooker), and Aunt Sarah (Rolle) come across as real people.  Everyone else is a stick figure or less.

Of greater concern is how the script treats the black characters.  Particularly in the first half, there are times when they seem like racist caricatures.  They say things like "Yes suh" and "massa" and act like simpletons.  Few of them are given much in the way of personality.  Not only is it hurtful to the film from a storytelling perspective, it's more than a little uncomfortable watching it.

The acting varies.  Jon Voight is terrific; he wants to mind his own business and hopes that things will blow over, but he quickly realizes that this is not the case.  It is his conscience that propels him into action.  Less successful is Ving Rhames.  Rhames is known mainly for action movies like the "Mission: Impossible" movies and playing Marcellus Wallace in "Pulp Fiction."  But Mann, a fictional character written for the film, doesn't really work.  He's written as an action adventure hero, complete with a trench coat billowing behind him as he walks in front of an inferno.  In a movie like this, that sort of thing is out of place.  Rhames tries his hand at drama, but the actor's limitations are clearly evident in more than a few scenes; his romance with Scrappie (Neal) is undercooked, but the lovely Neal outacts him at every turn.

The best performances come from Michael Rooker, Esther Rolle, and Bruce McGill.  Rooker, who has made a career out of playing intense characters, is good in a somewhat softer role as Walker.  Walker is a racist, but he's not cold.  He's trying to stop the bloodshed, but isn't strong enough to overcome the mob mentality (fueled by alcohol, of course).  Esther Rolle, known primarily for playing Florida Evans on "Maude" and "Good Times," is exceptional as Aunt Sarah.  She knows all too well what happens in situations like this ("Nigger is just another word for guilty," she sadly muses).  Bruce McGill, a character actor of some note, is truly chilling as Duke Purdy, a drunken racist.  His hatred of blacks is so ingrained that it has become a way of life for him.  He forces his son, Emmett (Tristan Hook), to learn how to tie a noose and to look upon a pile of corpses.

John Singleton become the youngest person to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar for his film "Boyz in the Hood."  I haven't seen the film (although I do own it), but he does show that he has talent here.  I liked how he set up the film; things aren't always in black and white (no pun intended).  Not every white person, apart from Wright, hates black people (Aunt Esther is beloved by many in Sumner), and not every black person is likable (Sylvester, played by Don Cheadle, is stubborn and abraisive).  He ably sets up the situation that allows this massacre to happen.  But there are things that he does, or in one case, does not do, that are questionable.  For once, the initial scenes of the massacre are underdeveloped.  For example, we only see Sylvester's house get attacked; everything else, including the fates of many townspeople and their homes, happens off screen.  The result is a feeling that something was left on the cutting room floor.  Then there are standard action movie cliches that surface (firing two guns at once, people returning from the dead, etc) that don't fit in this kind of a movie.

Can I recommend the film?  It's a difficult question.  There are some things in this film that are top-notch, but it has some big problems.  Part of me wants to say yes, but I think that all in all, the film is too troubled to recommend.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Empire

3/4

Starring: John Leguizamo, Delilah Cotto, Peter Sarsgaard, Denise Richards, Vincent Laresca, Treach, Rafael Baez, Isabella Rossellini

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

The American Dream is that with hard work you can do anything you want.  Ideally, that's true, but it's a vast simplification of what real life is.  The ties that bind us to our lives can sometimes hamper our ability to move from one world to the next.

Victor Rosa (Leguizamo) is a drug dealer living in the South Bronx.  For him, life is all about money.  He sees it as what makes everything in the world work, and getting more of it (and keep it) is the guiding principle of his life.  He has a girlfriend, Carmen (Cotto), and loves his life.  Through one of Carmen's friends, a sexpot named Trish (Richards), he meets Jack Wimmer (Sarsgaard).  Jack is an investment banker, and he has a glorious opportunity for Victor to make a lot of money.  Victor isn't interested at first, but when circumstances cause him to rethink his life, he jumps at the chance to do business with Jack.  Of course, that presents a whole new set of problems for him.

Oddly enough, I kept thinking of the "Grand Theft Auto" video games while watching this movie.  The theme of a criminal rising to the top is similar.  Movie-wise, it's closer to "Belly," although let's for a second pretend that Hype Williams monstrosity of a crime movie doesn't exist except to point out that every single thing that was wrong with that movie is right in this one.

What's interesting about this movie is that writer/director Franc. Reyes (whose next move was the utterly forgettable "Illegal Tender") pays attention to the difficulties of moving up in the world.  Movies like "Working Girl" and "Boiler Room" make it seem that a change like this is relatively easy.  "Empire" is more perceptive.  As much as Victor wants to get out, he's constantly pulled back in.  He's still more or less owned by drug queen La Columbiana (Rossellini), especially when his best friend/replacement Jimmy (Laresca) gets into trouble.

Also interesting is the interaction between Victor and Jack (with Carmen's story serving to enrich it).  They're both interacting with people they don't understand.  Victor's life has always been in cash, usually lots of it, with quick and immediate transactions.  This is obviously not the usual case when dealing with multi-million dollar investments.  As savvy as he is about the world of drug dealing in the South Bronx, he knows nothing about the white collar world.  This leaves him vulnerable to having things explode in his face.  For Jack, his business is typically done with bank accounts and computers; handling this amount of cash is incredibly threatening to him.

I like how Reyes takes his time to explore this (a little too much time, if you ask me) rather than going for cheap thrills.  He pays attention to the characters that he has created and lets them react to their environment in their own ways.  Of course, some of the camera movements are too ostentatious, and the frequent musical montages are annoying (the one at a funeral is especially so).  He sometimes forgets that he's making a narrative film, not a music video.  There are also some editing gaffes as well.  The ending, while inevitable, is also problematic because it happens too quickly.

The acting is exceptional.  John Leguizamo, who is listed as an executive producer, has never been better.  Typically cast as a hothead ("William Shakespeare's Romeo+Juliet," "Executive Decision") or for comic purposes (the "Ice Age" franchise, "Moulin Rouge!") and almost always always in a supporting role, Leguizamo takes full advantage of the dramatic possibilities that exist for this character.  It's not Oscar-worthy material, but it is eye-opening.  Leguizamo plays Victor as an intelligent man who is in a world he doesn't know, but is too excited to realize it.  When he moves up, he sheds his past as quickly as he can, much to the irritation of Carmen and his best friends.  Peter Sarsgaard, is perfect for the role.  He's a white collar guy who is not used to dealing with people like Victor, but uses his skills anyway because he sees a mutually beneficial opportunity.  They're both dealing with new challenges, and react only in ways they know how.  The supporting performances by Cotto, Richards (believe it or not), Treach, and Rossellini, are strong as well.

Flawed, yes, but always interesting and perceptive.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Bone Collector

3/4

Starring: Denzel Washington, Angelina Jolie, Queen Latifah, Ed O'Neill, Michael Rooker, Luis Guzman

Rated R for Strong Violent Content including Grisly Images, and for Language

Like "Seven," which this film bears a similarity to, "The Bone Collector" is a thriller that is not so much about who the killer is, but what he will do next, and whether the detectives can put together the clues in time to save the victims.  It's not as good as David Fincher's infamous thriller (the plot isn't as strong, and while it looks nice, Dean Semler's cinematography has got nothing on Darius Khondji's work), but it's one of the few serial killer movies that is both smart and suspenseful.

Detective Lincoln Rhyme (Washington) was once New York City's leading forensic cop.  But while investigating a crime scene, a beam fell from above and "nearly ripped him in half.  Now bedridden, Rhyme only has movement in one finger and his head and shoulders.  He also suffers from violent seizures which threaten to turn him into a vegetable.  He's made arrangements to "cross over on his own terms."  That's when a police officer named Amelia Donaghy (Jolie) finds a murder victim and photographs the forensic evidence.  It soon becomes clear to them that they are on the trail of a serial killer with a thorough knowledge of forensic science.

The performances by the two leads are effective, but both Washington and Jolie have done better work elsewhere.  Washington has the most difficult role; he must create a character using only his voice and facial expressions.  The actor, who is almost always good (last year's "Flight" being an exception), is solid.  He's cynical and depressed, but for all its morbidity, this new case gives him something to do and live for.  Angelina Jolie is also good as the rookie cop, but like Washington, the script limits what she can do (more so in her case).  Queen Latifah and Ed O'Neill are reliable as always.  Michael Rooker, on the other hand, is an eyesore.  It's not his fault, though.  His character is the obligatory obstacle meant to increase conflict, but his character is annoying and unnecessary.

There's no doubt that the film is intense and intelligent (a rarity among thrillers), but it doesn't go the extra mile.  Director Philip Noyce doesn't give it an extra spark to make it truly memorable.  Compare this to something like the aforementioned "Seven" or "Copycat," and it comes up short.  At least Noyce doesn't waste time trying to make us guess who the killer is, since for the purposes of this film, it's almost irrelevant.  But with an extra "oomph," this could have risen to the higher echelon of serial killer movies.

Pitch Black

2/4

Starring: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Keith David, Rhiana Griffith

The version being reviewed is the unrated one.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Sci-Fi Violence/Gore and Language

The problem with "Pitch Black" is that it takes itself far too seriously.  Although the premise is sound, the execution is not.  David Twohy's script is feeble and the film looks like one of those Z-grade movies that pop up in the darkest corners of Netflix.  Still, it is watchable.

A spaceship crash lands on an uninhabited planet.  Most of the passengers don't survive, but those who do are a rather uninteresting bunch.  Carolyn Fry (Mitchell) is the pilot, William Johns (Hauser) is a cop, an imam (David) is also on board with three young Muslims on a pilgrimage to "New Mecca," and there's a kid (Griffith) on board too.  There are others, but most of them don't last long.  The most interesting person aboard is Richard B. Riddick (Diesel), a convicted murderer being transported to another prison.  Riddick is a nasty piece of work: he cares about no one, he can dislocate his joints at will, and he can see in the dark.  There's enough drama about finding a way off the planet to fill a whole movie, but the stakes here are higher.  There are creatures on this planet who are bloodthirsty killers, and the only way to stay alive is to keep in the light.  And that's a commodity that's quickly running out.

With the exception of Vin Diesel, no one really bears mentioning.  Radha Mitchell has ability, but no presence.  Cole Hauser is hot, but his dramatic range is limited.  They're both character actors, and neither one of them is cut out for a lead role.  Keith David is his usual reliable self, although there's almost nothing for him to do.

The one reason to see this film, which I don't recommend, is Vin Diesel.  Although he's known for his appearance and gruff voice, it is interesting to know that Vin Diesel is not some meathead who got lucky.  He's been acting all his life, and it shows, even in lame movies like "The Fast and the Furious."  On paper, Riddick is only moderately interesting.  But Diesel works to create a living, breathing person.  Riddick is pretty creepy.  He has a habit of turning up when no one expects it, manipulates people, and worse, is unpredictable.  Even when we see his eyes, we never really know what he's thinking.

About all I can say about David Twohy's job as a director is that the aliens are creepy.  They're like less slimy versions of the Xenomorph from the "Alien" franchise.  But the editing is sloppy, the camerawork is bland, and the movie keeps spinning its wheels.  About five minutes or so could have been shaved off without losing much (I know, I know, this is the unrated version).

This isn't a terrible movie, but there are other, far better, movies of this kind out there.  Let's just hope that the sequels, including the newest one out Friday, are better.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Ultimate Gift

3/4

Starring: Drew Fuller, Bill Cobbs, Abigail Breslin, Alli Hillis, James Garner, Lee Meriwether, Brian Dennehey

Rated PG for Thematic Elements, Some Violence and Language

In 2004, megastar Mel Gibson released his super hyped, and controversial, film about the final hours of Jesus Christ.  The film, though incredibly violent and disturbing (the fact that it got an R rating instead of an NC-17 is appalling), was a massive success.  Film studios, always on the lookout for the next genre to bring in money, began to see a new, and almost completely neglected, market: Christian films.  While they still are coming out occasionally (in limited release), the market wasn't as large as Hollywood hoped.  None of the successive Christian films have come within a mile of Mel Gibson's film.  In general, I kind of stay away from them because I expect to be preached to (although I liked "Hardflip").  But "The Ultimate Gift," based on Jim Stovall's best-selling novel, works.  It's actually really good.

Jason (Stevens) is a spoiled brat in a $2000 suit.  He's vain, superficial, and an all around jerk.  When his grandfather, wealthy businessman Red (Garner), dies, Jason expects to get a sizable inheritance so he can live the high life while contributing absolutely nothing of value to society.  His inheritance isn't what he suspects.  After dishing out a giant middle finger to his equally spoiled relatives, Red offers Jason a series of gifts that he has to complete in order to receive "The Ultimate Gift."  Jason doesn't like the idea, but he does it anyway so he can get his cash.  Naturally, things don't turn out the way he expects.

We've seen this story so many times before (like in "Real Steel" with Hugh Jackman) that we know all the beats: a vain egomaniac loses everything, meets someone who shows him the error of his ways, and through hard work becomes a better person.  The formula is rock solid, and "The Ultimate Gift" doesn't stray from it much.  What makes it work is the performances.

Drew Fuller, an actor I haven't seen before, is terrific as Jason.  Fuller's role is difficult; he must be a big enough asshole for us to see that he needs redemption, but not so much that we wish he would get hit by a bus no matter how saintly he becomes (this is where "Ghost World" went horribly wrong).  Also, he can't be sickeningly sweet at the end.  Despite its frequent appearance, this is a relatively difficult line to bridge, and Fuller does an excellent job.  Abigail Breslin is saddled with a cliche and melodramatic character, but the actress's energy and life make her spunky and adorable.  Bill Cobbs is wise and Lee Meriwether (best known for playing Catwoman with Adam West's Batman) is dutiful, but superfluous.  The weak link is Alli Hillis; she's not bad, but comes across as stiff and un-charismatic next to her co-stars.

Michael O. Sajbel resists the urge to get overly sentimental.  Nothing is worse for a movie, particularly one that wants to send a message, to turn preachy.  With a few minor slips, Sajbel stays on the right side of the line.  The film is not masterpiece (sometimes the budget's limitations are obvious), but the film is consistently well-acted, Jason's character arc is effectively presented, and there are times when the film is genuinely moving and funny (Emily, Breslin's character, always has a clever quip for every occasion).

I enjoyed this movie.  A lot more than I thought I would.

Closed Circuit

3.5/4

Starring: Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Ciaran Hinds, Riz Ahmed, Denis Moschitto, Jim Broadbent, Anne-Marie Duff, Julia Stiles

Rated R for Language and Some Violence

"Closed Circuit" is so effective that I'm willing to forgive a lot.  Some of what happens in the story doesn't hold up on cursory examination (not much, but still) and some things aren't as clear as they should be, but I didn't care.  The suspense is high and consistent, and there are a number of shocking twists.

A truck explodes in a London marketplace, killing many people.  A suspect, Farroukh Erdogan (Moschitto), has been arrested and charged with the crime.  Martin Rose (Bana) has been assigned to defend him.  Also working with him is Claudia Simmons-Howe (Hall), a lawyer who is trying to get the secret evidence against him made public (this is an official position, by the way).  Martin and Claudia are ex-lovers and can't stand each other, but they have a duty to their client.  But the deeper they dig, the more they realize that there is more to this story than meets the eye.  And there are those who are willing to do anything to make sure that Farroukh gets convicted and the truth stays buried.

If you step back and think about it, even when it's unspooling, the film's story is completely preposterous.  That's okay, because it allows director John Crowley (who directed the unforgettable "Boy A," which put Andrew Garfield on the map) to show his skill for highlighting twists in a plot.  The sense of distrust is palpable.  Apart from Martin and Claudia, no one is beyond suspicion and Big Brother is always watching.  Surprisingly, this isn't a political movie.  Crowley has no agenda, he just wants to keep the audience in suspense.

That's actually kind of the problem.  With a cast like this and a director this skilled, you'd expect something more intelligent.  The plot is dense, and those who aren't paying attention will get lost.  But it really doesn't matter because it's all a lot of fun.

I can't discuss the performances too much because I don't want to give anything away.  The two leads, Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall, are as reliable as they are talented, and "Closed Circuit" does nothing to change it.  Both are great (Aussie Eric Bana's British accent is peerless) as characters who are easy to get behind even if they aren't always likable.  Ciaran Hinds is his usual reliable self.  And Jim Broadbent is truly chilling.  Broadbent, known for his light-hearted roles in "Moulin Rouge!" and to a lesser extent, "Gangs of New York," is positively creepy as a government official with an agenda.

It has it's problems, but you'll be gripping the armrest and gasping in surprise from beginning to end.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

3/4

Starring: Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell-Bower, Robert Sheehan, Jemima West, Kevin Zegers, Jared Harris, Lena Heady, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers

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

Before "Harry Potter" became a worldwide phenomenon, fantasy movies were regarded, at best, silly, and at worst, the ugly stepchild of science fiction.  Then with the one-two punch of "Harry Potter" and "The Lord of the Rings," magic and wizards became something that people hungered for.  Unfortunately, it returned to its old rut (at least creatively) after "Twilight" came out.  Instead of grand adventure, we're left with teen angst, photogenic but acting-challenged teen models, and lots of cheese.  Fortunately, like "Beautiful Creatures" earlier this year, "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" manages to buck the trend, at least somewhat.  It doesn't ascend to the level of "Harry Potter" and certainly nowhere near Peter Jackson's masterpiece, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't entertaining.

Clary (Collins) is a young girl living in New York City.  She's relatively normal; her best friend Simon (Sheehan) loves her but her feelings for him are strictly platonic.  She's been drawing and seeing a weird symbol everywhere, but things get weird when she sees a young man kill someone in a goth dance club.  That man, whose name is Jace (Campbell-Bower) is completely surprised that she saw him, since he is a Shadowhunter, someone who hunts and kills demons.  When Clary's mother Jocelyn (Heady) is attacked and kidnapped, Clary (with Simon tagging along) is forced to follow Jace to find her mother and prevent a powerful object from falling into the hands of Valentine (Rhys-Meyers), a fallen Shadowhunter.

Frankly, the film is so troubled that it's closer to being a failure than a success.  The biggest reason is the plot.  It's so overstuffed that it'll lose anyone who isn't paying attention or isn't a fan of Cassandra Clare's books.  Half of the film is used to set up the plot and explain how everything works.  And even then the film doesn't always make a lot of sense.

Unlike "Twilight," and to a lesser extent the "Harry Potter" movies, the performances are solid.  The three leads, Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell-Bower, and Robert Sheehan are effective.  Lily Collins, who was stiff in last year's first Snow White tale, "Mirror Mirror," is more relaxed here.  It doesn't take long for us to get behind her.  Jamie Campbell-Bower, who got a big break by being cast in Tim Burton's "Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," is the best of the three.  The romantic subplot between Clary and Jace is awkward.  On the one hand, the two actors give fine performances and have chemistry.  On the other, Campbell-Bower is so androgynous looking that it feels awkward.  Robert Sheehan, who was good in "Season of the Witch," is also effective as the lovelorn and supportive Simon.  The rest of the cast is good, although it's cool to see Jared Harris in a fight scene and watch Jonathan Rhys-Meyers overact to the point where he is foaming at the mouth.

Harald Zwart, the director, does not have a resume that gives me much confidence.  Reportedly, most of his movies were crap (although I haven't seen any of them).  He was behind both "Agent Cody Banks" movies and "The Pink Panther 2" with Steve Martin.  But the man does a solid job.  The special effects are convincing (there's not much CGI overload) and the action scenes are nicely choreographed (although I could have done without the shaking of the camera).  For so much plot and explanation, I was able to follow the film about 90% of the time, which is acceptable.

I'm not sure if anyone who isn't a fan of the books would be interested in seeing this movie, but for what it is, I had a good time.