Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hatchet

3.5/4

Starring: Joel David Moore, Tamara Feldman, Deon Richmond, Mercedes McNab, Parry Shen, Joleigh Fioravanti, Kane Hodder, Joel Murray, Richard Riehle, Patrika Darbo

The version being reviewed is the Unrated one.  For the record, the rated version is rated R for Strong Bloody Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity and Language

"Hatchet" is marketed as "Old School American Horror."  Taking the tagline for its word, I had a few expectations: a bunch of hot people pursued by a serial killer (few of which, if any, will make it to the end credits), blood and gore in copious quantities, plenty of gratuitous nudity, and lots of slicing and dicing by a big ax.

I was not disappointed.  Adam Green's film has all of that, and it's put together fairly well, with a few shocks that made me jump.  But there's one thing that the movie has that I did not expect: comedy.  As intense and gory as the film is, it's more often than not absolutely hysterical.  I was splitting a gut from beginning to end.

Ben (Moore) is in New Orleans for Mardi Gras with his friends.  But his recent breakup is hard on him, and the thought of spending the week insanely drunk with his friends catching glimpses of topless girls has little appeal.  So he decides to go on a haunted boat ride with his friend Marcus (Richmond), who has unsuccessfully tried to steer him back towards the booze and boobies.  Also along for the ride are uber-tourists Jim and Shannon Permatteo (Riehle and Darbo), Joe Francis-wannabe Doug Shapiro (Murray) and his "actresses," dumb blonde Misty (McNab) and NYU grad Jenna (Fioravanti), quiet Marybeth (Feldman), and the incredibly annoying guide Shawn (Shen).  While out on the river, they run into the local spook story, Victor Crawley (Hodder)...in the flesh.

Clearly, Adam Green, knows his stuff.  He knows what genre fans expect from movies like this, and he knows how easily these expectations are to skewer in order to get laughs.  It's not so much that it's laughing at itself (at least not like "Scream" did), but that he pushes things just a little farther than usual for comic effect.  He is careful how he shoots the scenes and how he directs the actors movements.  They're just a little too silly to be taken seriously, and that's the idea.  Such a grim setting makes for harder laughs than one might suspect.

The performances are good.  Joel David Moore, who appeared in "Avatar" and Paris Hilton's much hated rom-com "The Hottie and the Nottie," is surprisingly effective.  Someone who looks and sounds so dorky isn't what you'd expect from a lead in a slasher movie (who are usually buff studs, who take off their shirts more frequently than the ladies), but that's what everyone thought about Adrien Brody in "King Kong" and "Predators."  Tamara Feldman is a little stiff as the gun packing local who knows all about Victor Crowley, but she's not bad.  Everyone else is on hand for comic relief.  Special mention has to go to Mercedes McNab, who plays the airheaded valley girl.  It's a stereotype, yes, but Green doesn't take the easy way out.  Like in the "Bill and Ted" movies, the obligatory dim bulb is given smartly written dialogue, which makes her character hilarious rather than obligatory.

To enjoy "Hatchet," you have to be a genre aficionado and have a stomach of steel.  Or maybe not, and all that's required is a sense of humor (a very warped one).  But a stomach of steel is most important.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Dreamers

3.5/4

Starring: Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel

Rated NC-17 for Explicit Sexual Content

"The Dreamers" is alive in a way that few movies are.  It is in love with movies, ideas and its characters.  It radiates vitality and energy from every frame.  So few movies have their own identity that it is rare that there is a movie that is built from one.  It is the cinematic version of being a college student.

I'm not talking about "Animal House" or anything.  "The Dreamers" has higher aspirations than that.  Its characters thirst for knowledge and ideals, although they don't necessarily know what to do with them.

The year is 1968.  Matthew (Pitt) is an American student studying French in Paris.  Like many young people at the time, he is obsessed with movies (compare that to today, where people see move theaters as a way to text with their friends and go gaga over the latest teen star or superhero flick.  During some of the pro-cinema riots, Matthew meets twins Theo (Garrel) and Isabelle (Green).  After a few days meeting, they invite him to live with them while their parents are away on vacation.  With three characters in their 20's in one place, sex is bound to enter into the picture (if the NC-17 rating wasn't a dead giveaway already).  That's when Matthew realizes how close Theo and Isabelle are, and they are willing to bring him into the fold.

For all the energy and life that "The Dreamers" has, it remains hard to classify into a genre.  That's because there really isn't much of a plot.  It's a slice of life drama, I suppose, although it has a beginning, middle and end.  But the film doesn't have much of a clear focus of what it wants to say.

That's not really much of a problem, however.  The film is consistently engaging and the characters are well acted, if not precisely defined.  The film also looks fantastic.  More than anything, it has a sense of place.  Paris in 1968 comes alive through Bertolucci's camera.

The performances by the three leads are excellent.  That's a good thing, since the whole film rests almost entirely on their shoulders (Theo and Isabelle's parents show up at the beginning and the end, and there are a few minor speaking roles, but none stay around more than a minute or two).

Michael Pitt is terrific as the naiive but intelligent Matthew.  There are times when Pitt, who usually plays psychos ("Murder by Numbers" and Michael Haneke's American version of his own film, "Funny Games"), resembles Leonardo DiCaprio (although that may be because I read that DiCaprio was offered the role but had to turn it down due to his commitments with "The Aviator").  At first, he finds the relationship with Theo and Isabelle to be liberating.  It is rare to find people you truly connect with, especially in a foreign land (Bertolucci doesn't dwell much on Matthew's isolation, but it doesn't really matter because that's not on his agenda), and that, plus their free-spirited ways, attracts him to them.  But he's strong enough to wake up when things go too far.

As the twins, Eva Green and Louis Garrel are on equal footing with Pitt.  Green has always been a great actress, be it as a twisted teacher ("Cracks") or a sexy femme fatale ("Casino Royale").  This was her film debut, and it's a great one.  There isn't a hint of artifice in Green's performance as the lively, hyper-sexual Isabelle.  Her attachment to Theo is unsettling, but Bertolucci takes a relatively non-judgmental view of it, and Green successfully navigates that tightrope.  Louis Garrel doesn't stand out as much as Pitt or Green, but that's okay.  Theo is more reactive usually, and Garrel draws our attention to Theo without being too ostentatious (except for when the occasion calls for it).

Bernardo Bertolucci, who directed "The Last Emperor" (which I didn't like as much as everyone else), directs this with knowledge and love.  He gets the minute details right which gives the film its energy and identity.  He also directs this with a love of film; anyone who watches this movie will log onto Netflix and put some classic movies into their queue.  While some of the plot points are a little fuzzy and the meaning of the ending isn't as clear as one would hope, it's still compelling cinema.

Like with all NC-17 movies, it's impossible talk about the film without discussing its rating.  As open and appreciative of sex and naked beauty in cinema as I am, this is one of the few times where I agree with the NC-17 rating that the MPAA slapped it with (remember that, dear readers, because I guarantee I'm not going to say that again for a long, long time).  There is some pretty graphic stuff here, and some scenes are pretty hot.  It's not pornographic because it is used to tell a story (that being said, for those filmmakers who wish to marry hot sex with storytelling, this is a good how-to guide).  It's necessary to the plot and Bertolucci captures its beauty rather than inserting it in for shock.

"The Dreamers" is a must see for anyone who wants a nostalgia trip or loves movies.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bones

1/4

Starring: Snoop Dogg, Khalil Kain, Bianca Lawson, Pam Grier, Clifton Powell, Michael T. Weiss, Sean Amsing, Merwin Mondesir

Rated R for Violence/Gore, Language, Sexuality and Drugs

Unleash the Dogg
Clearly, the studio was trying to market "Bones" to fans of rap artist Snoop Dogg, but they had no idea they were describing the movie itself.  Or maybe they did, since they made it.  No matter.  The movie is still really lame.

In 1979, Jimmy Bones (Dogg) is beloved as the neighborhood protector even though he runs a numbers racket.  Then he is betrayed by his friends and a corrupt cop named Lupovich (Weiss). and his body is entombed in a nice looking brownstone.  Years later, four young people, Patrick (Khan), Bill (Mondesir), Maurice (Amsing) and Tia (Isabelle), seek to turn said brownstone into a nightclub, unaware of its history.  But as everyone knows, history sometimes comes back with a vengeance.

"Uninspired" is probably the best word to describe this movie.  Character development is spotty, the special effects are cheesy (although I liked the talking disembodied heads, and I would have liked them more had they been given more interesting dialogue), the gore constantly calls attention to itself because it looks so fake, and the story is ineptly handled.  The acting varies; Khalil Kain and Sean Amsing are good; they work hard to create personalities with what they're given (and that's not much).  Everyone else is boring, except for Pam Grier, who is just awful.  As the title character, Snoop Dogg is bland and uncharismatic.

The film was directed by Ernest Dickerson, whose credits do not include music videos (surprisingly).  Dickerson got his start working as a cinematographer for Spike Lee, and already had a few movie and TV credits to his name by the time he made this dog.  Clearly, none of Lee's talent rubbed off on him.  It paradoxically moves too slow and too fast.  He shows little skill for fleshing out characters.

I don't expect a lot from horror movies.  A few good scares or a creepy story will fit the bill nicely.  "Bones" brings to mind "The Nun" with its plot.  Like in that stinker, this is about how parents' mistakes come back to haunt them and their kids.  Unfortunately, "Bones" does nothing with the idea, and as such, is just as bad.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Freddy Vs. Jason

2.5/4

Starring: Robert Englund, Ken Kirzinger, Monica Keena, Jason Ritter, Kelly Rowland, Chris Marquette

Rated R for Pervasive Strong Horror Violence/Gore, Gruesome Images, Sexuality, Drug Use and Language

On some level, I have to admire "Freddy Vs. Jason" for its willingness to embrace itself.  What I mean is that it is one of those few movies that never tries to be anything than what it is.  Not out of fear of failure (its box office success was all but assured), but out of a sense of affection.  While the slasher movie genre got its start as scarefests in the late 70's, they quickly became gore and cheesefests (which the "Scream" franchise poked fun at with such glee).  "Freddy Vs. Jason" is undeniably silly, and it knows it.  It invites you to laugh along with its silliness.

Freddy Krueger (Englund) is steaming mad.  As the result of a conspiracy, he's been completely forgotten.  That means that he has no power to enter the dreams of not-so-innocent teenagers and slaughter them in whatever way inspires him.  So he gets a way around it by resurrecting Jason Voorhees (Kirzinger) to kill a bunch of teenagers, which will make the townspeople think that he is back, which will give him more power, which will allow him to go on a killing spree.  And somewhere in there are a few teenagers who try to figure out what's going on and how to take them down: blond Lori (Keena), neurotic and sensitive Will (Ritter), sassy Kia (Rowland), and a few others (none of whom last long).

If that plot synopsis seems a little hole-filled, you're right.  "Freddy Vs. Jason" isn't the pinnacle of narrative.  It's really just a thread to set up the kill scenes, which are numerous.  It's still the film's main problem.  It doesn't make much sense, which is worsened by awful editing by Mark Stevens.  Slasher movies typically rely on story or character, and that's the mistake that Yu makes.  This should have been a relatively, undemanding 90 minute blood-and-cheese fest.

Still, in other aspects of the film, the film is on solid ground.  It's clear that either Ronny Yu is a slasher movie aficionado or at least knows his stuff.  He pushes everything just far enough over the top that it becomes amusing rather than corny.  The acting is bad, yes, but I think that was intentional.  The actors are clearly too old to play high schoolers and elements of the plot appear to be straight out of a soap opera.  That's actually part of the joke.  So are the cheesy special effects, some of which are quite inventive.

"Freddy Vs. Jason" is like that.  A slasher movie parody that's not a parody.  If you think of it like that, then you'll have a good time.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mike's Musing: A Few Rules for the MPAA

The MPAA is the biggest eyesore in the film industry.  Proclaiming themselves to be a guideline for parents, they're really more like a "talk to the hand" to the audience and filmmakers without enough dough to all but bribe them.  The corrupt nature of the MPAA is so extreme that it's become impossible to hide.  People have been taking notice, but no one except critics and avid film lovers gives a damn.

I think, and I'm not the only one who shares this view, that the MPAA needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.  It's not so much that there's something fundamentally bad about having the G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17, it's that they're used and abused so much that they're essentially irrelevant.  Filmmakers with big reputations and big pocketbooks can push the boundaries while little films are given the cold shoulder.  Hypocrisy is essential to the MPAA's ability to function.  Profanity and sex and nudity are no-nos, but violence is A-OK.  Boggles the mind.

Since there's no way in hell that the MPAA is changing anytime soon (studios will spend gazillions to keep the status quo and politicians will have an apoplexy if things change), I have no reservations about giving my two cents to make it more reasonably effective (everyone has their own opinion on what is and is not okay for kids, so it will never satisfy everyone, which is one of the reasons why it's been able to stay the same for so long).

1.  No movie can be rated R simply for language.  This fear of profanity has got to go.  Kids are swearing in middle school hallways more during ten minute intervals than in all of Quentin Tarantino's movies combined.  That may be an exaggeration, but not by much.  It's an exercise in futility to keep swear words out of their mouths, so they might as well give up.

2.  An actor or actress is not nude unless they remove all their clothes.  While I'm trying my best to forget the 90 minutes or so I spent watching "You're Next," I did remember one thing…despite the MPAA's rating reasons citing "nudity," none of the characters actually stripped all the way.  If a character has their underwear or bra on, they're not "nude."  End of discussion.

3.  The film's rating must take into account the context in which a film's objectionable content occurs.  I can't tell you the amount of times I've been shocked at the MPPA's obsessive reliance on its rules, which are foggy at best (I can only count three that are followed with anything close to consistency, and all of them have instances where they are broken: more than one "fuck" is an automatic R rating, wall to wall violence is okay for a PG-13 as long as there's no blood (and anything goes in terms of that for an R rating), and no actress can take her top or bottom off in a PG-13 movie).  It's one thing to show a superhero blowing away a bunch of guys and leaving a city half-destroyed (and getting a hero's praises).  It's another thing to show a character committing an act of violence and dealing with its ramifications.  It's one thing to have a character taker her top off to arouse an audience member.  It's another thing to have them take their top off to give girls a positive self-image.  This is the reason why I understood, if not support, Jack Valenti's proclamation that "Saving Private Ryan" should have been PG-13.

4.  Get rid of the religious officials entirely.  Although they have no voting power, the landmark documentary "This Film is Not Yet Rated" (which every parent should see) said that there are religious officials of various kinds in the room when they decide the rating.  I believe that is perilously close to blackmail.

5.  Have people with actual psychological backgrounds decide the ratings.  It'll at least make more sense because I'm sure they'll know what's best for kids better than parents from one corner of Southern California whose credentials are questionable even by the MPAA's sloppy standards.

6.  Have a studio blind rating system.  Considering what's on screen and all the marketing, it's impossible to not know which movies are big studio movies and which are independent films, but it would at least decrease the amount of influence the studio can have over the rating.

7.  Make studios subject to the same rules as independent films.  If a studio can get advice on what to cut out to earn an R or PG-13 rating, independent studios should be offered the same service.  Frankly, not telling any filmmaker what is causing the higher rating than desired, regardless of where the film comes from, is absurd.  If they don't want to interfere with the filmmaker's vision, then they should just give it the appropriate rating and be done with it.

8.  Be more harsh on violence.  Seriously, this is a no brainer.  If nothing else, it will force studios to place more emphasis on storytelling and less on eye candy.


Like I said, I'll become President via a surprising run-in before the MPAA takes any of this seriously.  But it is food for thought.

Mike's Musings: Hollywood's Giant Boo Boo

Hollywood is bruising from what was an awful summer.  Many summer movies made a meager profit at best, but performed well below expectations.  Some did horribly, with "The Lone Ranger" and "R.I.P.D" becoming two of the biggest box office disasters in history.  Adjusted for inflation, it's number three (right before "R.I.P.D.").  Without factoring it in, it comes in at number seven (again, right before "R.I.P.D.").  "Man of Steel," the anticipated Superman flick that was supposed to make a borderline legendary killing at the box office, made only half as much as expected.  $662 million (give or take) against a $225 million budget.  A respectable profit to be sure, but not nearly what was hoped for or expected.  Only "Star Trek: Into Darkness" did better than expected.

Clearly, things need to change.  A lot.

One thing that needs to change is the reliance on special effects over story and dialogue.  To be fair, once Hollywood figured out that audiences crave the "ooh" and "ahh" (or more likely, the lack of visual boredom) factor, summer movies depended on that.  That's not the problem (not really).  The problem is that they're taking place over characters and story.

The need for everything to be diluted and for storytelling to change to appeal to foreign audiences has concerned me for a while.  Not because I'm xenophobic, but because they're taking away all the reasons to see the movies.  While we like the adrenaline and the eye candy of the special effects and the action sequences, we ultimately return to the movies because we like the characters and stories.  You think "Pirates of the Carribean" would have made as much money without Johnny Depp's delightfully weird performance as Captain Jack Sparrow?  Not a chance.  Had Depp played the character straight, Disney's pocketbooks would not have been singing as loudly (and they needed it, considering the one-two punch of "John Carter" and "The Lone Ranger" that came after).

Just look at "Man of Steel" for an example.  It had a near-record breaking opening weekend ($116.6 million, the second highest of the summer and right behind "Iron Man 3"), and had the 20th highest grossing weekend of all time.  What happened after everyone saw it opening weekend?  Few people came back.  Box office tallies dropped 65%, 68% counting the Thursday night screening.  They had seen all the special effects once, and the lack of characters or any compelling story or dialogue meant that they didn't care to see it again.

What's the difference?  For one thing, none of those movies were really good in the first place.  That's the most important thing.  Audiences don't give a damn about special effects or marketing tie-ins (unless they can see it for free) unless they think it was worth their time and money.  The "Star Trek" sequel is going to be near the top of my Top 10 list this year because it told a compelling story with interesting characters who did more than explain the plot.  "R.I.P.D." wasn't as bad as "Man of Steel," but it moved so fast that no one could even get sucked in before the end credits.

What needs to change?  A few things.  First off, the stories and characters have to be of more, or at least of equal, importance to the special effects.  Movies like "Avatar" and "Titanic" set box office records (number one and two, respectively) because they used special effects in the service of a story.  Everyone liked the special effects, yes, but they had an investment in the fates of Jack Dawson, Rose DeWitt Bukater, Jake Sully and Neytiri.  They cared.  I don't know about the die hard fans of Superman, but I really didn't care whether Superman saved the world or not in "Man of Steel."

That means bad news for people like Len Wiseman, who deal only in special effects.  Music video directors can only shine if they know how to tell a story, and that is something that escapes Wiseman's meager talents (apparently, he left "The Mummy" reboot due to "scheduling conflicts," but I think there's more to the story here after his "Total Recall" debacle.  At least the thought lets me sleep at night.)

Second, the reliance on remakes, sequels and built-in franchises also needs to be lessened.  Once upon a time, a hit book or TV series was converted into a movie only when it was huge.  It became an "event" movie.  Now, books we've never heard of are being turned into franchises.  It's become overkill and people are getting bored.  Unless you're The Coen Brothers, chances are you're not making a movie from an original screenplay (although some of the movies on the yearly "Black List," the list of the years top 100 best-unproduced screenplays, are getting filmed...and that's a good thing, because they're usually good, or at least interesting, in the case of "Stoker").

Films should be allowed to speak for themselves.  They should be allowed to stand on their own without their own marketing blitz.  "Star Wars" was supposed to be a non-entity, but as word got around, people flocked to it and it spawned one of the best-known franchises in film history.  People will always come to see a movie if they think its good.

The problem is that the studios are greedy.  They're obsessed with chasing that billion dollar mark.  It makes fiscal sense, sure, but they keep getting the recipe wrong.  If you look at the difference between "Man of Steel" and "Pirates of the Carribean" (pick any, even the fourth one, lousy as it was), you'll see the difference.  The movies have to contain something other than special effects.  They have to contain a story.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Captain Phillips

4/4

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali

Rated PG-13 for Sustained Intense Sequences of Menace, Some Violence including Bloody Images, and for Substance Abuse

Warning: this movie is not for people with heart problems...

"Captain Phillips" has a silly title.  The movie, however, is not silly.  It's a genuine near-masterpiece.  The level of suspense is nearly unbearable, and there isn't a false note in any of the performances, four of whom have no acting experience.

Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks) is a average guy who happens to be the captain of the container vessel Maersk Alabama.  They are travelling through a rough part of Africa, and are boarded by pirates.

Plot-wise, there's really not much more that I can say without giving anything away.  Suffice it to say, that it goes in directions no one expects...especially not Phillips or the pirates, led by the gaunt Muse (Abdi).

What makes this movie so compelling, at least in part (acting and direction no doubt have a part too), is that the crew of the Alabama and the pirates are in their way evenly matched.  The pirates have weapons and determination, but the crew knows their ship better and they have a captain who is intelligent and able to think on his feet.

This isn't exactly Hanks showiest acting role (certainly not in the way that Forrest Gump and Robert Langdon are...or even Captain Miller in "Saving Private Ryan" are), but it's one of his best performances.  Phillips is not an action hero by any means, but he is skilled at using what he has to get out alive.  He is personable and able to think on his feet.  His main concern is the safety of himself and his crew, and he uses his guile, and more importantly, his amiability, to diffuse the situation as much as he can.  The easy way for Hanks to approach this would be that of a smooth-talking con-man (similar to what Leonardo DiCaprio did in "Blood Diamond."  Not that that's a mark against DiCaprio...it worked in that context).  Instead, Hanks plays him as a business manager.  This is a more believable action, not to mention more effective.  If Hanks doesn't get an Oscar nomination (which he will), it will be one of the great shockers in Academy history.

His co-stars are just as good.  Although he looks like a complete psychopath in the trailer, Muse is not the most threatening villain (that distinction goes to Barkhad Amdirahman, who plays Bilal, Muse's second in command).  He's intelligent and dangerous, yes, but he's also pragmatic and not impulsive.  What is really impressive about the acting is that most of the performances by bit parts are so realistic that it could have been a documentary.  The Navy rescuers are particularly good.

Paul Greengrass has always been an interesting director, but his trademark shaking of the camera is often his undoing (like in the Bourne movies and "Green Zone").  But here, like in "United 93," it works.  Not only is it toned down to where we know exactly what is going on in every frame, but the action is real and desperate.  There's no sense of "Hollywoodization" here.  Apart from Hanks, who is so good that you forget that it's him, it could very well be a docudrama.

The bottom line here is that this is a truly amazing movie.  It's unbelievably intense and emotionally draining (both of which are compliments, by the way).  It's going to make anyone who watches it feel spent.

This is one of the great movie-going experiences of my life.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Children of the Corn

2/4

Starring: Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton, John Franklin, Courtney Gains, Robby Kiger, AnneMarie McEvoy

Rated R for Horror Violence and Gore (I guess)

An Adult Nightmare
That's what "Children of the Corn" was billed as.  The idea of fanatically religious children killing all the adults in town at the behest of a cult leader (also a child) is chilling.  Unfortunately, the film doesn't exploit this effectively.  It's a gimmick, really.

Burt (Horton) and Vicky (Hamilton) are on their way across the country.  They are taking the back roads (as every horror movie character does) and while they are fighting over a map, they run over a young kid.  But they weren't the ones who killed him.  He was murdered.  Unable to find a way out of town, the two look for help in the nearby town of Gatlin.  But this is no ordinary town; the adults are gone and the children are crazed killers who follow the word of Isaac (Franklin), a young prophet.  And he has a plan for the adults who wandered in.

There are two problems with "Children of the Corn."  The acting is awful and the film fails to really deal with the idea of killer children.  Of the cast, the only one who gives a decent performance is Linda Hamilton, whose star-making role in "The Terminator" would come out later that year.  Hamilton is good until the script lets her down towards the end.  Peter Horton is uneven.  There are times when he is convincing, but he's usually flat.  The kids are awful.  John Franklin is terrible as Isaac.  He's so stiff that he becomes cartoonish; he's impossible to take seriously.  Courtney Gains, who plays Isaac's henchman Malachai, at least has skill at non-vocal emoting, although speaking kind of ruins the effect (in all fairness, Franklin's make-up job is terrible).  The two sympathetic kids, Job (Kiger) and Sarah (McEvoy) border on being too cute.

I think the film missed a great opportunity here.  At no point do either Burt or Vicky really mention that these killers are kids.  They never talk about how this changes things as opposed to killer adults.  It doesn't make much difference to them, apparently.  Nor do the kids ever act like kids.  They're like lobotomized psychos.  Having them act like children would have made the film a lot creepier.  Perhaps director Franz Kiersch was too afraid of exploitation.  If that was the case, he didn't go far enough to give the film much of an edge.

While the film is too problematic to recommend, there are some high points I should mention.  The film does have its creepy moments here and there, and the score by Jonathan Elias is creepy (if strangely reminiscent of John Carpenter's "Halloween" theme...but as they say, "if you're going to borrow, borrow from the best").

This isn't a terrible movie by any means, and it's certainly watchable.  But one can't help feeling that it should have been better.  It certainly had the potential.

Metallica Through the Never

1/4

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Metallica

Rated R for Some Violent Images and Language

The film industry depends on innovation (despite studios' preference to the contrary).  Without visionary directors willing to take chances and push the boundaries of filmmaking, it would die out.  Which is why "Metallica Through the Never" intrigued me despite the fact that I am not a Metallica fan (and harbor a mild resentment towards them after they helped bring down Napster).  The film purports to be a blend of concert footage and narrative filmmaking.  I was definitely interested.

Unfortunately, what we get is a 90-minute long music video featuring a band that's so generic that all their songs sound the same.  It doesn't take long for monotony to set in.  As for the story, it's trite, undeveloped, and not very interesting (despite the presence of Dane DeHaan since he has nothing to do or say).  And adding insult to injury, it's left incomplete.

The story, what there is of one, is about a young worker named Trip (DeHaan) that's helping the band get ready for the concert.  Apparently, a truck carrying something for the concert has run out of gas.  Trip is sent to get it.  On the way, he encounters a mob and an evil horseman who is hanging people from light posts.

The rest of the film is concert footage.  For the first few minutes, Metallica's energy carries us through.  They play with fire and life, but it doesn't last.  With a movie that features musical numbers, the director must find a way to capture, or (more likely) substitute, the energy of being at the concert/play that is lost in translation.  Director Nimrod Antal tries his best, but he can't do it.

It's not his fault, however.  It's the band's.  Either their range of music is non-existent, or they refused to play any of their different sounding songs.  Whatever the reasons, every song sounds exactly alike.  The effect nearly put me to sleep.

It would be dishonest of me to predict whether or not Metallica fans will like this, since I am not one (and based on the evidence, never will be).  Not only is it deadly dull, some of the things that happen during the movie (which I will not give away) make it clear that this is a vanity project for the band.  Not only are they untalented and/or not risk takers, they're egotistic.

There is one small positive thing about the film.  There are times when Antal uses the story to mirror what is happening on the stage (for example, at one point there is machine gun use in the narrative, which is matched by a light show that looks and sounds like machine guns).  That's kinda cool.  Had the film taken more chances like this and tried new things, the film might have made up for the lack of quality in the music.  As it is, it's just a waste of time.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity

3.5/4

Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and the voice of Ed Harris

Rated PG-13 for Intense Perilous Sequences, Some Disturbing Images and Brief Strong Language

"Gravity" is both beautiful and intense.  It demands to be seen on as big of a screen as possible, and for once, in 3D.  The images that Alfonso Cuaron, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, has created are a feast for the eyes and need to be seen on as big of a screen as possible.

Medical Engineer Ryan Stone (Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) are repairing a satellite orbiting Earth.  Then an explosion from a Russian anti-satellite test causes debris that rips through their ship, leaving them stranded.  They must fight against impossible odds to make it back to Earth alive.

It's an impressive premise and Cuaron exploits it as much as he can.  This is a visually dazzling and intense thriller of the first order.  As soon as one crisis is solved, another begins.

There's really only one performance, and that's Bullock.  Ryan is out on her first mission and is in over her head.  She's been trained for situations like this, but nothing prepares you for it (and it doesn't help that she failed some of the simulations).  Bullock gives a good performance, but for some reason she doesn't have much presence or appeal here.  That's odd, considering her screen appeal is one of her best qualities.  George Clooney doesn't have a lot of screen time, but it is one of his best performances.  Matt is a calming presence amidst the chaos.

Unfortunately, the film is emotionally cold, and the plot features one deus ex machina.  A movie this intelligent and beautiful doesn't need to resort to those kinds of cheats.  The narrative can be confusing at times as well.

For Alfonso Cuaron, this is a triumph of direction.  This is one of the most beautifully made films to come along in a while.  And while Cuaron does showcase the setting (Earth has never looked so good), it doesn't come at the expense of tension.  There are times when the film is very intense and suspenseful.

I think 3.5/4 is a little high (although a simple 3/4 is too low) for this film, but I applaud it's ambition and its willingness to take chances.  Putting an $80 million film on the shoulders of one character is a risky proposition (although the teaming of Bullock, Clooney and Cuaron clearly soothed Warner Brothers fears), and it pays off.  The fact that it's not a biopic, based on a novel no one read, a remake/sequel or based on a comic book gives it an air of freshness.

This is definitely a movie to see, but you must see it in IMAX 3D.

Friday, October 4, 2013

State and Main

2/4

Starring: William H. Macy, David Paymer, Alec Baldwin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rebecca Pidgeon, Clark Gregg, Sarah Jessica Parker, Julia Stiles, Charles Durning, Patti LuPone

Rated R for Language and Brief Sexual Images

Aside from Quentin Tarantino, there isn't a screenwriter alive whose dialogue is as instantly recognizable as David Mamet (I'm not counting William Shakespeare).  Not only with the words, but how these words are presented.  His actors often speak rhythmically (Mamet uses a metronome to get his actors to perfect it).  While it's not as obvious here as it was with his 2004 thriller, "Spartan," the actors' speech does sound a little rhythmic.  Unfortunately, that little quirk is really the only thing that the film has going for it.

"State and Main" details the misadventures of a film production team trying to direct a movie in the small town of Waterford, Vermont.  The film is called "The Old Mill," only when Walt Price (Macy, a Mamet regular), the director, gets there he finds that the town's old mill burned down in 1960.  The lead actor, megastar Bob Barrenger (Baldwin), can't keep himself away from a 14 year old delivery girl named Carla (Stiles).   His co-star, the uber-ditzy Claire Wellesley (Parker), has suddenly found religion and now refuses to take her top off.  The meek writer, Joseph Turner White (Hoffman) is struggling to keep up with the rewrites demanded by Walt (fortunately, he has help from Ann (Pidgeon, Mamet's wife), the lovely bookstore owner).  To make matters worse, the town's wannabe politician, Doug Mackenzie (Gregg) is trying to hold up production any way he can since Ann left him for Joseph.

Talent-wise, there isn't a weak link to be found.  All the actors have down fabulous work in the past, and they certainly give it their all.  The standout is David Paymer, who plays the Type-A producer Marty Rossen.  He has all the best lines.  Alec Baldwin is surprisingly flat.  He's playing Alec Baldwin.  Charles Durning and Patti LuPone, who play the town's mayor and his wife, are almost entirely superfluous.

The film has a ring of authenticity.  I have no doubt that at least some of these crises have happened to Mamet on a film set (if not him, then someone else for sure).  And yet, he doesn't spin them into comic gold.  Some bits are amusing ("How do I make a movie called 'The Old Mill' without an old mill?").  Others are closer to non-sequiturs than true wit.

Ultimately, "State and Main" doesn't work because it's building for the entire movie.  The film never achieves take-off speed.  What could have been a great screwball comedy is actually a lifeless sitcom.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Rush

3.5/4

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Alexandra Maria Lara, Olivia Wilde

Rated R for Sexual Content, Nudity, Language, Some Disturbing Images and Brief Drug Use

When I first walked into the showing of "Rush," I saw that the film had already started.  Disappointed (I never review movies that I haven't seen from beginning to end), I settled into my seat to watch the remainder of the film.  As soon as I watched the screen, the adrenaline started pumping.  Once I realized that the scene was much longer than a usual opening, I asked the gentlemen behind me if this was the beginning of the movie, and he said it wasn't (I know, I broke the cardinal rule of not talking in a movie.  Forgive me...).

The reason that I opened the review with this little anecdote is to explain the skill and craftsmanship of director Ron Howard.  Formally an actor famous for his roles on the sitcom "Happy Days" and in "American Graffiti," Howard has proven himself to be a skilled filmmaker.  He has directed a number of classic films like "Apollo 13," "A Beautiful Mind" and both Robert Langdon movies (he also directed "Backdraft," my favorite film of his).  Of his films, "Rush" is near the top.  It satisfies two needs demanded by moviegoers who attend movies like this: it takes time to introduce and develop two interesting and three-dimensional characters, and provides a number of racing sequences that raise the adrenaline to levels that pass expectation.

The film, of course, details the relationship/rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt (Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Bruhl).  Hunt is, or at least acts like, a rock star.  He sees his talent as God-given and effortless.  He surrounds himself with women and parties, and despite his ego, has many friends.  Lauda, on the other hand, is his polar opposite.  He's gruff and blunt to the point of being abrasive, hyper-focused and demanding.  He has no friends because he doesn't need any.  All that matters is that he is the fastest.  They're also ruled by different motivations.  Hunt drives on instinct, while Lauda is all numbers and analysis.  Their rivalry, which lead to a devastating crash that left Lauda disfigured, is as simple as it is complex.

"Rush" is free of all the cliches of a sports rivalry.  Neither driver sabotages the other (Lauda makes a dick move, but it's legal), and their rivalry never descends into violence or hatred.  They're competitive with each other, but neither would go so far as to seriously injure or sideline the other.  Winning fair and square is as important as leaving the other in the dust.

And that last fact is what drives the film's narrative and makes it so refreshing and interesting.  Their rivalry pushes each other harder and harder.  It's as constructive to both of them as it is nonconstructive.

As with most films by Ron Howard, the performances are strong.  I recognized Chris Hemsworth's talent after his one tragic scene at the opening of the 2009 "Star Trek" reboot.  Still, with his fame with popcorn movies like "Thor," "Snow White and the Huntsman" (his lone bad performance) and "The Avengers," I still was unprepared for his performance as James Hunt.  I could see him as a party animal and a racer.  I could not see him as a multi-dimensional figure who is ruled by his ego and his talent.  This is a performance that should be in the running for an Oscar nomination (it's too early to say if he'll get one...that depends on the film's reception and the competition).

His co-star, Daniel Bruhl, is not a familiar face to American audiences, although he did have roles in "Inglorious Basterds" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" (he also had the lead in the arthouse hit "Goodbye, Lenin!"  Bruhl also demands Oscar consideration, even more so than Hemsworth (although that's almost an unfair statement).  The German actor resists the temptation to turn him into a caricature.  Lauda is not a likable character, but he's not a hissable villan.  Bruhl allows us to understand the forces that drive him and why he does the things he does.  His share of the rivalry is fueled by competitiveness and a sense of fairness rather than passion.  In fact, there are shades of the Salieri/Mozart relationship from "Amadeus" in this film.

Ron Howard, with his screenwriter Peter Morgan (who's written at least one Oscar hopeful a year for the last decade), concentrates on the characters, but does not forget the races.  Each race is riveting; the editing and the camera shots are flawlessly integrated for maximum adrenaline.  There were a number of times in this movie where I was gripping the armrests.  And at the final race, I was biting my nails in suspense (which I almost never do).

The film doesn't get off to a great start.  It takes about 20 minutes for the film to find its groove and establish the characters and their relationships.  It's not bad, but it's a little confusing at times.  Plus the final scene is a little fuzzy on the lesson the two characters learned.

The film fudges the truth a little (Hunt and Lauda were close friends since the beginning of their careers), but that's to be expected.  Besides, it makes for a better story.  And while biopics are overexposed these days, this one manages to rise to the top.