Friday, November 29, 2013

Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn

3/4

Starring: Tom Green, Anna Popplewell, Enisha Brewster, Ayelet Zurer, Max Carver

Not Rated (probably PG-13 for Intense Sci-Fi Violence)

If you haven't already guessed, based on the fact that I'm reviewing this, I'm a huge "Halo" nerd.  I admit it without qualm or embarrassment.  I've been a fan of the franchise from the moment me and my brother put in the original "Halo" in the Xbox after Christmas 2001.  I've played every subsequent "Halo" game except "Halo: Wars."  I'm making my way through the books, and my copy of the "Halo Encyclopedia" is very worn.

"Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn" was originally produced as web series consisting of five 15-minutes episodes (which probably contributed to the narrative problems) in order to build hype for "Halo 4" and expand the interest of gamers who weren't fans of the franchise.  All in all, it's not an essential part of the "Halo" mythos, but it's still fun to watch.

From a narrative standpoint, the connection to "Halo 4" is tenuous.  Apart from short bookending sequences, this is a prequel to the whole saga (including the fall of Reach).  Tom Lasky (Green) is a young cadet at the prestigious Corbulo Academy of Military Science.  Like everyone else, he comes from a long line of highly esteemed military families (his mother is a respected colonel and his brother Cadmon (Carver) is an ODST Shocktrooper).  Unlike everyone else, he has ethical and moral questions about the war against the insurrectionists.  This hampers his ability to perform in action, although as the base commander Mehaffey (Zurer) tells him, he has talent.  Further complicating matters are a series of mysterious rashes and bruises that are afflicting him.  But circumstances are in motion that are causing him to rethink his situation.

The acting, mainly by unknowns, is quite good.  Of the cast, only Ayelet Zurer (she had a key role in  "Angels and Demons," and supporting parts in "Munich" and "Man of Steel") and Anna Popplewell ("The Chronicles of Narnia").  Tom Green (not to be confused with the MTV comic) is a new face, and he does a very good job.  It doesn't take long to form a bond with him, and he has a very expressive face.  Anna Popplewell is very good as well; she's a natural in front of the camera.  Everyone else does good work, but worth singling out is Max Carver, who plays Tom's older brother.  Shown only in recorded messages to Tom, Cadmon provides a lot of emotional heft to the story, and it's mainly due to Carver's excellent work.  He's the perfect best friend/older brother.

The film's problems lie mainly in the first half, and a lot of that probably has to do with the fact that it was made into five parts and then spliced together to make a full-length film.  The good news is that it doesn't feel like it was five short films strung together (certainly not in the way that "Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story" was).  The bad news is that the narrative doesn't give the supporting characters much in the way of personality and the narrative doesn't hit any of the emotional buttons (including one plot development that, while obligatory, is effective but its ramifications are completely ignored); it's on the same level from beginning to end.  The film also has two of my biggest pet peeves fully in evidence (multiple times, in fact): indistinguishable dialogue and a soundtrack/special effects that drown out the characters dialogue).  Some elements of the plot are confusing because of this.

Whatever problems afflict the first half (and they're not enough to warrant skipping the film), the second half rectifies much of them.  It's action-packed and guaranteed to leave you breathless.  After viewing "District 9" (which I liked very much), I was convinced that Neil Blomkamp was not the right person for the job of directing the "Halo" movie (which is still stuck in development hell, although rumors tell that it's being turned into a TV series).  The grainy faux-documentary quality of "District 9" did not fit the game's epic nature.  Stewart Hendler's sharp and colorful approach is more appropriate (speaking of, I was surprised to learn that this was only made for $10 million...it looks like it was made for at least $50 million).  He has a flair for atmosphere and choreographing action scenes.  There isn't much shaking of the camera to be found here.

I don't know if this will turn people onto the "Halo" franchise (although considering it's one of the biggest, if not the biggest gaming franchise out there right now, how could anyone with an Xbox not be one?), but it is a lot of fun.  Definitely recommended, especially if you're a fan of the franchise.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Right Stuff

4/4

Starring: Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Pamela Reed, Veronica Cartwright, Barbara Hershey, Donald Moffat, Mary Jo Deschanel

Rated PG (for Language and Momentary Nudity...I Guess)

Just because a movie is educational doesn't mean that it's not entertaining.  In general, audiences don't go to the movies to be educated...they have enough of that in school.  They want to be entertained.  And that's what happens with "The Right Stuff," a movie that has a straightforward and compelling primary narrative, with plenty of thematic content for seasoning.

The film, in general, details the U.S. Space Race.  It opens with a test pilot trying, and failing, to cross the sound barrier.  The casualties for this quest are astronomical, until a former fighter pilot named Chuck Yeager (Shepard) volunteers to go.

After about a half hour, the film shifts gears to tell the story of the Mercury Space program.  After Soviet Russia sends Sputnik into space, the U.S. Government is desperate to put a man in orbit.  They select seven astronauts for the program: Alan Shepard (Glenn), John Glenn (Harris), Gordon Cooper (Quaid), Gus Grissom (Ward), Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) and Wally Schirra (Lance Henrikson).

The film has an astonishing cast, most of whom were relatively new faces.  Because it would take far too long to gush over their performances (much as they all deserve it), I'll briefly talk about the few that stuck in my mind.  First up is Sam Shepard, the character actor and playwright that became famous for roles in "The Notebook" and "Black Hawk Down."  Shepard plays Yeager as a calm man who is driven to push the limits.  He's not an adrenaline junkie, but instead is more obsessed than anything.  Ed Harris is wonderful as they Marine pilot who's such a goody-two shoes that you almost want to strangle him (the film acknowledges this, often to amusing effect).  And Dennis Quaid is a true scene-stealer as Gordo, with his triangle smile and penchant for jokes.  Also worth mentioning are Pamela Reed, who plays Gordo's strong wife Trudy, and Mary Jo Deschanel, who plays John's timid wife Annie.  They're both excellent.

What makes this film so special is that Philip Kaufman takes his time.  Adapting from the book by Tom Wolfe, Kaufman risks overstuffing the film.  There's a lot going on here, including a strong narrative and complex characters.  But Kaufman provides lots of little subplots and scenes that illustrate how the characters are feeling (the scene where Shepard meets a fan at the end is a case in point).  The fickleness of fame, the line between duty and sanity, the impact and stress that the wives endure, and how brotherhood (and sisterhood) can carry people through anything.

The audience will feel just about every emotion in this film.  Considering the subject matter, a fair amount of suspense is to be expected.  There's also heartbreak, fear (the images of "the demon at Mach 1"), thoughtfulness, romance, pathos, and so forth.  Also noteworthy is the amount of humor.  There are times when this movie is laugh-aloud-funny.  Gordo always has a wisecrack and there's some character based humor.  Some scenes (the bathroom scene and Shepard's pre-flight trouble) are just hysterical.

Kaufman stirs all this together with the skill of a master.  There are a few moments where the film drags a little, and the scene where the astronauts realize that they have to band together is written in a way that makes it contrived, but these are isolated moments.  For the vast majority of the film, this is an enriching and thrilling piece of cinema.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Wanted

3/4

Starring: James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp, Thomas Kretschmann

Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence Throughout, Pervasive Language and Some Sexuality

"Wanted" gives new meaning to the term "over the top."  Curved bullets?  Been there.  Slinky femme fatales?  Done that.  Russian director Timur Bekmambetov combines those and more into a whole that, while not doing much for the mind, is still a lot of fun.

Wesley (McAvoy) is a cubicle rat on the verge of going postal.  His best friend Barry (Chris Pratt) is sleeping with his girlfriend, his boss delights in tormenting him, and the realization that he is contributing nothing to society is giving him panic attacks.  While filling his prescription one night, a gorgeous babe tells him that his father (who abandoned him when he was a week old) was one of the greatest assassins who ever lived, and his killer is standing right behind him.  After saving his neck (the second of many eye-popping action sequences), she tells him that his father was a member of The Fraternity, a group of assassins who, among other things, can curve bullets. With their help, Wesley can avenge his father's murder.

Putting it simply, "Wanted" is so much fun because it's executed so well.  Like "Speed," which is a classic of the genre, this film is expertly assembled.  Bekmambetov doesn't just throw special effects at the screen in the hopes that the audience will be impressed.  He takes great care in staging his action scenes.  His camera angles are carefully chosen, and the editing is precise.  "Wanted" brings to mind John Woo, Zack Snyder and Michael Bay.

True, the film wouldn't be the same without a cast of strong performers.  James McAvoy makes for a good everyman.  He's like Ron Livingston in "Office Space" only with more anger and cynicism.  Angelina Jolie is perfectly cast as Fox, playing her as a cross between soldier and a biker babe.  Morgan Freeman makes for a surprisingly decent villain (he's played villainous roles before in films like "Outbreak" and "Dreamcatcher," but not like this).  And you get to hear him drop f-bombs.

Not content with car chases, Bekmambetov has Angelina Jolie lying on the hood of the car while shooting shotguns.  And bend down to avoid getting hit by a train tunnel.  And helping Wesley destroy a train.  And he has a man's reflection shatter as he jumps through a window.  This is really cool stuff.

This isn't exactly great art, but for those of you who are looking for a violent, action-packed thrill ride, this is a great choice.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Greetings from Tim Buckley

0.5/4

Starring: Penn Badgely, Imogen Poots, Ben Rosenfield

Not Rated (contains brief language and brief sex/nudity)

It's always hard to tear down a movie that is a passion project for its lead actor or director.  Such is the case with "Greetings from Tim Buckley."  The film's star, the up-and-coming and very talented Penn Badgely, has been a Jeff Buckley fan since he was 17.  He even told his agent that if they were making a movie about the singer that he had to do it.  Unfortunately, this film doesn't to justice to either its subject or its star.

Actually, that's an understatement.  This movie is dreadful.  There's no plot, no characters and no dialogue of any interest.  The only good things about this movie are the performances by the two leads and the music.

Jeff Buckley (Badgely) is a musician who has just been invited to a tribute concert for his father, the cult musician Tim Buckley (Rosenfield).  Because Tim all but abandoned him, Jeff is resentful towards him.  But he flies from LA to New York City anyway.  There, he meets Allie (Poots), who is helping put on the show.  They spend a magical night together (although this is so far off from "Before Sunrise" that it's an insult to Linklater's near-masterpiece).

This is what happens when the need to be indie rules everything.  The dialogue is naturalistic to the point where it sounds improvised, but they're not saying anything of any interest.  Director/co-writer Daniel Algrant is almost obsessed with the minutia of character interaction.  It's meant to make the film seem more real, but a little of this goes a long way, and there's way too much of it.  The scene at the record store is a case in point.  Jeff sings a song from a record to impress Allie.  At fifteen seconds or so, this would have been a magical and amusing scene, but it goes on for a whole minute.  The scene overstays its welcome and becomes annoying.  The final concert scene is also far too long.

It's not the actors fault.  Penn Badgely throws himself into the role.  He does his own singing and guitar playing, and he's excellent at both (although some of his improvisational vocalizing is a little irritating at the higher pitches).  He has one or two stiff moments in his acting performance, and he's not a very good crier, but those are minor blemishes.  Badgely remains an appealing actor.  Likewise, Imogen Poots is very good, although she struggles to match Badgely for screen presence (which she has...she held her own with Juno Temple and Eva Green in "Cracks").  Ben Rosenfield is fine as Tim, but his character is superfluous.

Ultimately the film's biggest failing is that it's unbearably boring and completely pointless.  The movie doesn't have anything to say about Jeff or Tim, and the characters are not even given one dimension.  Jeff, Tim and Penn deserve better.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Eye See You

2/4

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Charles S. Dutton, Polly Walker, Robert Patrick, Christopher Fulford, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Berenger, Stephen Lang, Angela Alvarado, Robert Prosky, Sean Patrick Flannery, Courtney B. Vance

Rated R for Strong Violence/Gore and Language

Why would Universal Studios sell the rights to $55 million dollar film and then disown it?  Because it's jaw-droppingly awful?

Hardly.  It's just relentlessly mediocre.

"Eye See You," which also goes by the name "D-Tox," was filmed in 1999, but the release was delayed for several years until the studio grew tired of the film and sold the rights to DEJ Productions, a small independent film company.  But the blandness of the final result made it clear that it would not be a hit (and would likely be a complete bomb).  Still, it's hardly deserving of the treatment that Universal gave it.  After all, there are many other big budget productions from Universal that are much, much worse ("The Purge" and "Identity Thief" come to mind).

FBI Agent Jake Malloy (Stallone) is tracking down a serial killer whose victims are all cops ("Nine dead cops inside of six months!" one of his friends says).  Malloy is doing the best that he can to catch the killer, but in his words, the guy is a "different breed."  No style, no trademarks, and worst, no evidence.  But the case turns personal as the next victim is his girlfriend, Mary (Dina Meyer in what amounts to a cameo).  Now choosing to live his life finding the bottom of a bottle, Hendricks (Dutton), his superior and friend, has found him a rehab facility that specializes in treating cops.  But Malloy soon realizes that trouble has found him again.

Despite having a stellar cast, there isn't much acting to be found.  The script doesn't give them the latitude and director Jim Gillespie moves the film so fast that there's no time.  Stallone is effective as the guilt-ridden cop, but there's not much that he can do.  Polly Walker is also good (that should be no surprise).  Ditto for Robert Patrick, who plays Noah, the resident asshole.  No one else has enough time to make an impression.

While some of the problems have to do with the script (which is based on the book "Jitter Joint" by Howard Swindle), the majority have to do with the direction.  Putting it simply, Jim Gillespie (who did a very good job directing "I Know What You Did Last Summer") makes just about every mistake possible.  The film lacks atmosphere.  The characters are too thin to be considered one-dimensional (apart from Malloy and Jenny, I didn't know anyone's name, which makes the story confusing), and make the usual stupid mistakes.  The pacing is erratic.  The editing is frequently awkward.  Gillespie and Oscar-winning cinematographer Dean Semler fail to make use of the location (a snowstorm outside a military installation-turned-mental health facility-turned-rehab center...that looks creepy as hell).  There are too many inserts of Mary laughing that fail to provoke an emotional connection to Jake, even after we get the point.

All that said, the film is watchable.  It's moderately engaging, and I was curious to find out who the killer was.  But it could have been so much more (I wonder what the film would have been like if Ron Howard, the original director had made it).  But in the end, it's just another generic slasher movie (with levels of violence and gore to the point where the term anemic comes to mind) dressed up with name actors.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

12 Years a Slave

2.5/4

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch

Rated R for Violence/Cruelty, Some Nudity and Brief Sexuality

Typically, studio interference is usually bad news for a film ("Mimic" is one of many examples).  In the case of "12 Years a Slave," however, I think that the opposite is true.  Director Steve McQueen's previous two features, "Hunger" and "Shame" were fantastic looking bouts of extraordinary self-indulgence.  Here, McQueen is using an actual script.  While the film is too problematic for me to recommend outright, it is compelling and well-acted.

Solomon Northrup (Ejiofor) is a well-to-do black man living in New York.  He is married to Anne (Kelsey Scott) and is the father of Margaret (Quvenzhane Wallis) and Alonzo (Cameron Zeigler).  While his wife and children are away, Solomon (who is a skilled violin player) is asked by two men to tour with their band for a short time.  But he is tricked, and after a night of dinner and drinking, Solomon wakes up to find himself in chains.  Because he doesn't have his papers that prove he is in fact a free man, he is transported to the South and sold into slavery.

The acting is exceptional, although apart from Ejiofor, Fassbender and Paulson, no one has more than token screen time.  Chiwetel Ejiofor has been touted as the front runner for this year's Best Actor race, and while he does as good of a job as any actor can under the circumstances, he's not given the latitude to really shine.  Ejiofor buries himself deep inside Solomon, but the script is half developed.  McQueen concentrates more on the actor's facial expressions, but as he proved in "Shame," this is not a substitute for dialogue and action.  Michael Fassbender, in his third performance for McQueen, is fantastic.  Fassbender switches from a brutal slaveowner to a drunk and to an insane man as the script demands.  Fassbender never misses a beat.  Also impressive is Sarah Paulson, who plays Epps (Fassbender) wife.  She's alternately sympathetic and ruthless.

Steve McQueen prefers to tell his stories through images.  That's perfectly fine; it worked for Sylvain Chomet in "The Triplets of Belleville" and Andrew Stanton in "WALL-E."  But there is a difference between those two films and McQueen's films.  The former films showed images of action and expression.  They told a story.  McQueen's films show people's bodies and scenery.  He concentrates on the minutiae.  That's fine for setting the stage for action, but it doesn't make the film.

Fortunately, his third outing rectifies the most egregious error of his first two films: a lack of dialogue and plot.  People actually talk in this movie and do things.  They do not, however, talk like real people.  They speak poetically, like Shakespeare.  While it is often hard to understand what they're talking about (partly because the microphones don't always pick up every word), it's entertaining enough just to listen and appreciate the good writing.

Fox Searchlight is clearly hoping that this is going to dominate the Oscars.  They're going into overdrive promoting it, and while critics seemed to have adored it, I don't see it having much mainstream appeal.  I'm actually surprised that the studio put up the money to show it in the multiplexes.  This is definitely not mainstream fare.  I think a lot of people will be unable to figure out what to make of it.  It will probably get more than a few nominations, but I don't see it taking home many statuettes.  Audience reception favors heavily into how the Academy votes, and I think that that is going to be what keeps this film from dominating the Oscars.

In a way, I was reminded of "The Tree of Life." Visually amazing (cinematographer Sean Bobbitt is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination) and compelling, but it feels like you're only getting half the movie.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

2/4

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo

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

Was anyone really wanting this movie?  I mean seriously, I know that "The Avengers" dominated the box office (sadly, it's the all-time box office champ after "Avatar" and "Titanic"), but did the Norse God need another movie of his own?  I recall seeing a poll on iMDb a while back about which superhero movies people were pumped up to see, and "Thor: The Dark World" was at the bottom of a list of 10.

The reason "Thor: The Dark World" exists is because...drumroll please...money.  Hollywood's number one incentive.  It's certainly not because anyone felt there was another story to tell, because based on the evidence, no one is particularly excited to be a part of it.  Except Stan Lee, who once again shows how large his ego is by appearing in yet another cameo (although his acting skills have improved over the last year).

In the time before time, there was a war between the Asgardians and an evil race known as the Dark Elves.  Their leader, Malekith (Eccleston), wants to use something called the Aether to take control of the Nine Realms.  He is stopped by Odin's (Hopkins) father, but now the time has come for Malekith and the Dark Elves to try and take over once again.  Now it's up to Thor (Hemsworth), his new girlfriend Jane Foster (Portman) and, surprisingly, Loki (Hiddleston) to stop him.

The original "Thor," directed by Kenneth Branagh, was entertaining.  It told a complete story, and it worked.  This one, however, isn't as much fun.  The story, which appeared to be cool in the trailers, isn't very interesting, and no one seems invested in the project.  A movie will never be good if the actors don't care about what they're doing.

The original cast is back, and all of them appear to be sleepwalking.  Chris Hemsworth reprises his role easily.  Natalie Portman seems to be doing this just for the money.  Anthony Hopkins is awful.  As strange as it is to say that, the legendary actor is rarely convincing.  Tom Hiddleston is the most interesting character onscreen (not that there's much competition), but the character is at times poorly written.  It is a testament to Hiddleston's talent that he does so much with such an inconsistent character.  Rene Russo is flat as Frigga.  Christopher Eccleston makes Malekith into a pretty generic villain, although considering that he's buried under a lot of makeup and a distorted voice, it's kind of useless to have an actor of his talent.  I blame the writing; it's not as if Eccleston is incapable of playing a villain (see "Elizabeth" or "A Price Above Rubies" if you don't believe me).

"Thor: The Dark World" was directed by Alan Taylor, whose credits are mainly of the TV variety.  His inexperience at handling a big budget film are obvious.  The fight scenes are either too anemic or too over-the-top, and he can't hide the fact that the film's plot blatantly steals from "The Lord of the Rings" and some of the air fight scenes steal from "Star Wars: Episode 1."  Plus the plot doesn't always make sense.

At least it's not an abomination.  It is watchable and on some level engaging.  But I didn't care about anyone or anything in this movie.  And that's its fatal flaw.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Nil By Mouth

0.5/4

Starring: Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Charlie Creed-Miles, Laila Morse, Jamie Foreman, Edna Dore

Rated R for Graphic Drug Use, Non-Stop Strong Language, Brutal Domestic Violence and Some Nudity

I have nothing but the utmost respect for Gary Oldman.  One of Britain's most versatile actors, Oldman has given some truly remarkable performances.  Although he is most famous for his role as Commissioner Gordon in Nolan's Batman trilogy (which I don't think is his best performance), he has also played hissably evil villains like Ivan Korushnov in "Air Force One" and Senator Shelly Runyon in "The Contender" (where he was so good that it was impossible to believe that it was him).

Which is why it pains me to say that his writing and directing debut, "Nil By Mouth," a film that is at least partly autobiographical, is awful.  There is no beating around the bush.  It's an atrocity.  Almost nothing works, and much of it is borderline unwatchable.

The film details the lives of a few people in a poor part of London.  Ray (Winstone) is an alcoholic who is prone to sudden violence against his wife Valerie (Burke).  His brother-in-law, Billy (Creed-Miles) is a heroin addict who's constantly in danger.  Also in the mix is Billy's mother, Janet (Morse).

There's not much of a story here.  Frankly, there's really not much of anything.  The characters simply exist.  I think Oldman is trying to tell a slice-of-life story here, but the characters are paper thin.  Even after spending two hours with them, I knew nothing about anyone in this film.  As such, I found it impossible to care about them or what happens to them.

It's not for a lack of trying on the actor's part.  They give it their all, especially the leads Winstone and Burke, but it's all for naught.  The writing (which features 522 uses of the word "fuck," more than any film other than the documentary about the word) is bland and Oldman isn't able to develop them into real people.  The editing is also awful; many crucial scenes happen off screen, and far too many scenes go on for much longer than necessary (Ray's drunken rant in front of a mirror is a case in point).

I thought it would be impossible to create a movie about alcoholism and domestic violence that would be so dull.  Both are as terrifying as they are prevalent, and yet through a seemingly unending list of miscalculations, Oldman has done it.  For those who want a truly riveting look at these issues, rent "Once Were Warriors" instead.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Four Brothers

1.5/4

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, Andre Benjamin, Garrett Hedlund, Terrence Howard, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Charles, Sofia Vergara, Fionnula Flanagan

Rated R for Strong Violence, Pervasive Language and Some Sexual Content

Few things are more depressing for a film critic than a movie that has the potential to be something far greater than it actually is.  The list of movies that botched a great premise is long.  "Crimson Tide," "Leatherheads," "Children of the Corn," and "Possession" are a few examples from my list of reviews.  And there are plenty off others.  Add John Singleton's "Four Brothers" to that list.

John Singleton's movie "Four Brothers" had the potential to be a powerful crime thriller about revenge or family ties.  But while there are times when it dives into that bleakness, more often than not is a formulaic revenge story featuring plastic characters and a rushed storyline.  Actually, there are times when Singleton seems to thing that this is a lighthearted caper movie (a descriptor that I use with reservations because none of these scenes actually land).

The Mercer brothers were adopted by their foster mother, Evelyn (Flannagan).  They are the hotheaded Bobby (Wahlberg), con-man and ex-soldier Angel (Gibson), family man Jeremiah (Benjamin) and rock star wannabe Jack (Hedlund).  They were all problem children to the extreme, so instead of shipping them off the new families, the saintly Evelyn adopted them as her own.  Now, she's dead, the victim of a grocery store hold up.  The Mercer brothers vow revenge, but things aren't what they seem.

There's very little that's worthy of praise in this movie.  The performances are flat.  The storyline, apart from having a few interesting twists in the third quarter, is not particularly interesting.  The characters are not very likable, and even worse, uninteresting.  The script is awful.  The film is rushed and superficial, and the tone varies wildly from scene to scene.  About the only thing that is good is that the film's cinematography, by Peter Menzies, Jr., is effectively bleak (which makes the lighthearted scenes not only awkward, but feel like a slap in the face).

The acting is, at best, flat, and at worst, irritating.  Mark Wahlberg is okay as Bobby, although this is a role he could do in his sleep and it's plainly obvious that his heart isn't in it.  Tyrese Gibson, who has worked with Singleton in two other films ("Baby Boy" and "2 Fast 2 Furious") is forgettable.  Andre Benjamin is an even bigger nonentity.  Garrett Hedlund, a talented up and coming actor, has almost nothing to do (he is however, front and center in the film's most effective, if obligatory, scene).  Terrence Howard gives the best performance as the sympathetic cop who knows the Mercers are up to something, although it would take a truly incompetent director to muzzle his talent (let's hope he never works for Wes Anderson).  This year's Oscar frontrunner Chiwetel Ejiofor is vicious enough, at least until the end.  Josh Charles is alternately flat and malevolent.  Fionnula Flanagan is good enough to make her presence felt in the film, but she's not trying very hard.  And Sofia Vergara is simply annoying.

In 1991, a new urban drama called "Boyz N The Hood" took Hollywood by storm, garnering 2 Oscar nominations and becoming the most financially successful film of that year (in terms of investment...$56.1 million from a $6.5 million budget).  Since then, Singleton has struggled to find his footing again.  Apart from a few other films, he directed "2 Fast 2 Furious" (unseen by me), "Rosewood" (another missed opportunity due to mixed tone and a bad script), and the awful Taylor Lautner debacle "Abduction."  I haven't seen "Boyz N The Hood" yet, but if it's as good as its reputation suggests, then this is just another aberration on Singleton's resume.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Crimson Tide

2.5/4

Starring: Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, Viggo Mortensen, Matt Craven, George Dzundza, James Gandolfini

Rated R for Strong Language

The premise of "Crimson Tide," which has two commanders of a nuclear submarine battling each other for control of a nuclear submarine, is gripping.  Raise the stakes by making the outcome determine whether or not the world descends into nuclear war and you've got yourself a movie.  Add Denzel Washington as the soft-spoken analytical new XO and Gene Hackman as the "black and white" commander, and your movie just turned into a legendary masterpiece.  Or so one would hope.

Don't get me wrong.  "Crimson Tide" is not a bad movie.  It's just one that constantly shows how it could have been greater.  There's no denying that this movie is consistently suspenseful, but there are some fairly serious problems.

A conflict between Russia and Chechnyan rebels has turned into an outright civil war.  A rogue Russian commander has taken control of a nuclear launch installation and has threatened to launch against the United States and Japan.  The USS Alabama, a nuclear submarine, has been sent in to patrol the area around the site and launch a nuclear strike should the rebel commander start fueling the rockets.  Long time commander of the sub, Captain Frank Ramsey (Hackman) needs a new XO, and Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Washington) is at the top of the list.  The two do not see eye to eye; Ramsey, one of the last commanders to have actual combat experience, follows procedure by the book and without question.  Hunter, on the other hand, is an eductated man, well versed in miltary tactics and analysis.  The two make an effort to work with each other, although that may be a fool's hope.

While near the Russian missile site, they get a message to launch their missles.  As they are preparing to launch, they are attacked by an enemy sub.  During the attack, the radio is damaged, so the next message they receive is incomplete.  Ramsey thinks that it's irrelevant and that they must launch.  Hunter thinks they should wait until they get the radio repaired to confirm their orders.  Both men are willing to do whatever it takes to prevent the other man from taking control.

Periodically, film critics toss around the term "miscast" when describing an actor's performance doesn't fit the character.  For example, motormouth comic Chris Tucker wouldn't be the most appropriate actor to play the introspective Hamlet.  But while neither of the leads is miscast (both are fine, but unspectacular), director Tony Scott is.  The late Tony Scott, brother of Ridley Scott, is better known for making action movies like "Top Gun" or "Unstoppable."  Directing a psychological thriller, which is essentially what "Crimson Tide" is, requires a defter touch.

To his credit, Scott doesn't completely blow it.  Far from it in fact.  Scott does a respectable job, but I can't help thinking that someone who knows the genre better might have made a better film.  Maybe Jon Amiel, who helmed "Copycat."  Or Jonathan Demme, who made "The Silence of the Lambs."  Come to think of it, Kathryn Bigelow did something similar to this movie in "K-19: The Widowmaker" ten years later.  The problem with Scott's direction is that the suspense doesn't build very much.  It starts at 90% and goes from there.  He doesn't know at what level to play some of the scenes, which makes some of them (including a shouting match between Washington and Hackman) ring false.  The script also needed a few minor rewrites; as it is, it is overstuffed and prone to confusing plot inconsistencies.  In a dumb action movie, such things are excusable, but in a movie like this, they're magnified.

Speaking of which, the main thing that is missing from this movie is a sense of desperation and claustrophobia.  We see that the characters, especially the young sailors, are being pushed to the point of a breakdown by the uncertainty of a situations where the consequences of action are terrible no matter what happens.  But we don't feel it.  The tension feels rather routine, even if it is present.  More disappointing is the lack of claustrophobia.  A submarine is a great place to set a thriller because it's usually a war situation (always a great setting for drama) and it's an enclosed space and as anyone who has been in a tight space can attest, claustrophobia is a sure-fire way to increase the tension.  That sense of being trapped in a small space is missing from this movie.

To Scott's credit, he allows Ramsey and his cohorts the latitude to explain their points of view.  These aren't war-mongering psychopaths eager to spill blood.  They want to strike first because if those rockets launch, then huge areas of the home country are going to be wiped out.  And the clock is ticking.  To them, it's worth risking open war to stop.  For Hunter, it is not.  He wants to wait and get the radio repaired and confirm the orders.  Unfortunately for all of them, the clock is ticking.  Sadly, Scott doesn't allow the actors to play their characters with shades of gray.  The script may not portray these men in black and white, but the actors do.

Acting wise, the film is on solid ground.  Washington and Hackman are effective, but these are roles they can do in their sleep, and that's what they're doing.  Still, with their talent, that's more than acceptable for a movie like this.  The supporting cast is made up of reliable character actors like Matt Craven, George Dzundza, and pre-famous Viggo Mortensen and James Gandolfini.  All do solid jobs.  Jason Robards has a cameo at the end.

In the end, "Crimson Skies" has all the pieces for a masterful game of "king of the hill," but Tony Scott doesn't assemble them quite right.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ender's Game

2/4

Starring: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Stanfield, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Moises Arias

Rated PG-13 for Some Violence, Sci-Fi Action and Thematic Material

"Ender's Game," based on the classic sci-fi novel by the now-controversial Orson Scott Card, feels like a missed opportunity.  There's plenty of material here to chew on, and to be fair to the film, it does mention it.  But it skirts over the thought-provoking stuff in a race to the finish line.

Seventy years ago, Earth was ravaged by the vicious alien species known as the Formics.  Earth won, although many were convinced that the Formics would return.  Children were being trained as generals to fight the Formics, but no one has been up to the level of Mazer Rackham (Kingsley), who found a way to defeat the Formics.  Colonel Graff (Ford) thinks he has found the next Mazer Rackham in Ender Wiggin (Butterfield), a young boy.  But is he right, and if he is, can he train him to become the leader Earth needs in time?

"Ender's Game" probes a lot of interesting issues.  The conflict between the "win-at-all-costs" mentality versus compassion, the ethics of child soldiers, the age old question of whether murder is ever justifiable, and others.  But more so than anything else, this is a character study of Ender, who goes from being a shy but intelligent boy to a brilliant tactician and leader.  The latter is of paramount concern to screenwriter/director Gavin Hood, but unfortunately it's the film's biggest problem.

Why is it that Hollywood is so afraid of intelligent action movies?  The two are not inherently at odds with each other; in fact, they compliment each other well (just look at "Minority Report" or, for a sounder financial arguement, Nolan's "Batman" trilogy).  And yet, in order to get every last person in the theater, intelligence is diluted to the point where no one is interested.  "The Dark Knight" made over a billion dollars because it asked difficult questions and forced the characters into impossible moral positions (which, oddly enough, is the cornerstone of this film).

I started reading "Ender's Game" a few years back, and liked what I read, but never got around to finishing it.  Based on its reputation, I have a hard time believing that the book was this thin on thematic material.  I also have a hard time believing that Gavin Hood is this shallow on his own.  Two of his previous features, "Tsotsi" and to a lesser extent, "Rendition," were intelligent, thoughtful pictures.  Here, the film pays lip service to the issues raised and nothing more.  Character development is even thinner, which makes the main thrust of the film (Ender's maturing into a leader) seem like a trailer for a deeper, better movie.

The acting is the best thing about the movie, although no one is given anything to work with.  Asa Butterfield, who made waves in Martin Scorcese's criminally underseen "Hugo," acquits himself very well as Ender.  This is an intense character, and Butterfield does everything he can to show us Ender's focus and growing intelligence.  Unfortunately, the script lets him down.  I have no doubt that, had the script afforded him the latitude, Butterfield could have done something truly amazing with the character.  Harrison Ford is also in top form (he doesn't often speak in a forced growl), but he suffers from the same problem: shallow writing.  Graff is meant to be a father figure/sort-of-antagonist rolled into one, and Ford plays him as such, but there's no depth to his portrayal.  Viola Davis is wasted as Major Gwen Anderson, who values compassion, and is relegated to being a sounding board for Graff's "win at all costs" mentality.  Hailee Stanfield and especially Abigail Breslin (whose character was a cornerstone in the book) are wasted.  I hope that they were at least well paid.  Ben Kingsley's part is important to the story, but due to the poor writing, the character is largely forgettable.

Aside from the shallow script, there are other problems as well.  While the action scenes are nicely filmed, the movie itself moves way too fast.  Hood should have recognized that this isn't necessarily an action picture.  It's a sci-fi drama with action elements.  One thought kept entering my mind throughout the whole film: SLOW DOWN!  "Ender's Game" also suffers from "Pacific Rim Syndrome," where the loud special effects drown out the dialogue.  It doesn't happen to that effect here, but key part of Mazer Rackham's story is lost due to the blaring soundtrack.  The script's shallowness isn't the only problem; the writing gets poorer as the film goes on the point where I was almost completely lost in the film's finale.

"Ender's Game" isn't really a bad movie.  The story is engaging to an extent, and despite having no depth, it's nice to know that a movie is willing to at least pay lip service to compelling moral questions.  But I can't help feeling frustrated since it could clearly have been so much more.

Mike's Musings: The Boycott of Orson Scott Card

When I first heard that they were making a movie of "Ender's Game," I was disgusted.  Card is an outspoken opponent of gay marriage and former board member of the National Organization for Marriage.  Should we, in this day and age, be allowing such people to be paid millions for their stories to be turned into movies?  How could I, as a gay man, give money to a film whose author said that anti-homosexuality laws should remain on the books (if only to let people know that the behavior is unacceptable)?

For a long while, my gut instinct was to say no, and to refuse to give any money to someone who says such horrible things.  Since then, my position has changed.

After reading an article, in "The Advocate," no less ("The Advocate" is probably the biggest gay magazine in the United States, for those of you who don't know...), that argued in favor of seeing it, I realize that things aren't that simple.

First off, Card is not the only person making the film.  Far from it.  There are, according to the article, 667 people who took part in the film's creation.  666 people (I'm not going to mention the fact that this is the "number of the beast") who were simply doing their jobs and trying to make the best film possible out of what is considered to be a sci-fi classic.

Second, Lionsgate, the studio, is well aware of the controversy surrounding Card, and has gone into overdrive to distance themselves and the film from his views.  In fact, one executive considered the possibility that Card may be a liability to the film's success.  The studio created a special screening of the film where all the proceeds will go to LGBT causes.

The people heading the production, including its stars, have also immediately dismissed Card's views.  Harrison Ford said that, in a nutshell, Card lost the argument and he knows he lost.  Producer Roberto Orci had no idea about Card's writing before the film went into production.  Stars Asa Butterfield, Halee Stanfield and others have also criticized Card.

But the question is, can a man be separated from his art?  Even if he has gone back on his views and resigned from NOM, is it still ethical to view the film?

I think so.  How can we blame everyone else for his views?  Plus, there's no way in hell Lionsgate is going to let a penny of the profits go to any anti-LGBT causes (this is what makes it different than Chick-Fil-A, which may still be donating to organizations that are pro-"traditional marriage").

This is a murky area, and your decision is your own.  I can understand the impulse to boycott the film, and I'm not going to criticize anyone who refuses to see the film on these grounds.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Order (2003)

2/4

Starring: Heath Ledger, Benno Furmann, Mark Addy, Shannyn Sossamon, Peter Weller

Rated R for Violent Images, Sexuality, and Language

not to be confused with the 2001 flick starring Jean-Claude Van Damme

"The Order" is bizarre.  Not so much in terms of its plot (although no one will call it conventional), but because so awkwardly constructed.  It's unfocused and suffers from erratic pacing.  And the script could have used some rewrites too.  But the real reason is that it doesn't know what it wants to be.  A psychological thriller with elements of the supernatural?  A character study?  A morality play?  A special-effects geared horror movie?  Writer/director/producer Brian Helgeland doesn't know, and the result is a weird tale, although not necessarily a successful one.

Alex Bernier (Ledger) is a priest of the Carolingian order, a dying group of priests whose obsessive search for knowledge has made them outsiders among the Catholic Church.  The head of his order, Dominic (Francesco Carnelutti) has just died, and although it was said to be suicide (a mortal sin in the Catholic Church), Alex quickly realizes that he was murdered.  The investigation with the only other remaining member of his order, Thomas Garrett (Addy), puts him on the trail of a Sin Eater, who can take away the sins of the unrepentant (even immortal sins), thus getting them into Heaven when they shouldn't.

The film's biggest problem is that the premise of the plot simply doesn't work.  Not only does it fly in the face of the basic tenent of Christianity, it makes the mistake of making the villain seem much more good than the "good" guys.  When we side with the villain, the conflict becomes moot.

The acting isn't the problem, although considering the mess of a screenplay that the actors are working with, that's praiseworthy.  Heath Ledger is effective as the intense and conflicted priest, although this isn't his best performance (that distinction would go to his role as Ennis Del Mar in "Brokeback Mountain" or The Joker in "The Dark Knight," take your pick).  There's just not enough for him to work with.  Benno Furmann acts alternately sinister and sympathetic, depending on what the situation calls for.  Shannyn Sossamon and Mark Addy are wasted in thankless roles.  Peter Weller is only on for two or three scenes.

Because he is the writer, director and producer, most (if not all) of the film's problems have to be laid at the feet of Brian Helgeland.  Looking on his profile on iMDb, I can't find many of his projects to get psyched up about.  "Green Zone" was ehhh.  "Mystic River" and especially "L.A. Confidential" were grossly overrated.  Only "Man on Fire" managed to entertain to any real level.

Helgeland's skills are mainly known for writing, although he did direct "Payback" (which was reviled in test screenings and forced the studio to make drastic reshoots...which didn't help matters), "A Knight's Tale" (also starring Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon and Mark Addy, and was also critically reviled) and this year's "42," which was unseen by me, although going on advance word, it was supposed to be solid at best).  As evidenced here, he needs to work on both.  There's no reason this couldn't have worked with better handling.  It's an intriguing idea, but it needed some radical reworking in order to be an effective story.

The film isn't terrible, I'll give it that.  The film has some effectively creepy scenes and I was kind of curious as to where it was going.  But in the end, it isn't worth your time.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Free Birds

1/4

Starring (voices): Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, George Takei, Colm Meaney, Keith David

Rated PG for Some Action/Peril and Rude Humor

It would be too easy to call this movie a turkey since it is, in fact, about turkeys.  No doubt the filmmakers would consider that a compliment of sorts.  So let me give you some other adjectives to describe how awful this movie is: terminally bland, boring, banal, trite, preachy, and unfunny.

The story, which is a mix of "Avatar" and "Chicken Run" (and an insult to both), is completely uninteresting.  Reggie (Wilson) is a odd duck turkey.  While his family members blindly follow food and are incredibly dense, Reggie is a little smarter.  So when they finally figure out that they're going to end up on a platter, they volunteer Reggie.  Fortunately for him, fate has something else in store for him: he's a "pardoned" turkey, meaning that he'll be able to keep his head and live the good life of pizza and TV.  Then he's kidnapped by a tough, but dim, turkey named Jake (Harrelson), who insists that they go back in time to prevent turkeys from being served at the first Thanksgiving and starting the long held tradition.  While there, they meet up with the local turkey population and get into a fight with the townspeople, led by Myles Standish (Meaney).

"Free Birds" is one of those movies that has depressingly low aspirations, and can't even meet those.  The characters are boring, the story is paper thin, the jokes are non-existent (and when they occur, they're not only unfunny but belabored...the lamest bits never end), and the action scenes are lifeless.  The only reason this movie exists is to cash in on the tie-in with the holiday and try to woo holiday shoppers into the theater.  They'll get a much needed nap and the little kids in tow will be able to play a game on Mommy's cell phone (no kid possessing half a brain will be interested in what happens during this movie, no matter how old they are).

The one piece of good news is that from an acting standpoint, it's on solid ground.  Owen Wilson doesn't mug the camera and Amy Poehler is unrecognizable.  Woody Harrelson tries to have some fun, but the material defeats him.  Ditto for George Takei (the filmmakers had a wonderful opportunity for some clever humor with the talking time machine, but they didn't bother).  Colm Meaney could be menacing had the film afforded him the screen time.  And Keith David, always reliable even in the worst movies ("Lost Treasure of the Maya," for example) supplies his deep voice to the proceedings.

It's always obvious when a movie exists only because the studio is looking for a quick cash payday (the rushed production schedule is evidence to this), and that's the case here.  No one who actually took part in the making of the film had any interest in the story they were telling.  They just did the bare minimum to get their paychecks.

I know how hard it is to find some good family entertainment.  With all the heavy Oscar movies coming out, there's not much to take the kids to.  But please, please, please don't spend any time or money watching this drek.  Rent "Rise of the Guardians" or "Spirited Away" (or preferably, both).  You and your kids will be so much happier.  And the world will be saved from having to sit through another adventure with these fowl creatures.

I'm not much of a turkey fan, surprisingly enough (I prefer the stuffing).  But I'll have a double helping come November 28.  If this is what we get for saving them, then they deserve it.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Lilya 4-Ever

3.5/4

Starring: Oksana Akinshina, Artyom Bogucharskiy, Pavel Ponomaryov, Lilya Shinkaryova, Elina Benenson, Lyubov Agapova

Rated R for Strong Sexual Content, A Rape Scene, Drug Use and Language

"Lilya 4-Ever" is a tough, tough movie.  Almost unremittingly bleak with only a few magical moments of levity, and even those are mostly under a grim shadow considering the context in which they occur.  The saddest thing is that the protagonist's story happens far too often in real life.

Lilya (Akinshina) is a 16 year old living in Estonia.  She's elated that her mother's new boyfriend is taking her and her mother to live in the United States.  She brags to her friends Natasha (Benenson) and Volodya (Bogucharskiy) about how excited she is and what life will be like.  Then her mother drops the bombshell that she and her boyfriend are going alone and will "send for her later."  Right.  Her aunt Anna (Shinkaryova) doesn't care about her and makes her move into a much crummier flat, and Natasha betrays her.  Only Volodya stands by Lilya.  With no money, she is forced to prostitute herself.  Just when things couldn't get any worse, she runs into a handsome man named Andrei (Ponomaryov), who offers her a lift home from the club.  He doesn't want sex, but instead takes her out on a date.  Volodya has a bad feeling about Andrei, but Lilya is certain that he is who he says he is (or at least is willing to believe it).  Then Andrei says he has to go back to Sweden...

The performances are just about flawless.  There's no sense of artifice in any of the acting.  Of the cast, Akinshina is the best.  The film rests on her shoulders, and she delivers.  It's all the more impressive considering it was her second performance and she and director Lukas Moodysson had to communicate through an interpreter.  Lilya is a normal girl in hellish circumstances, yet she does what she needs to do to survive.  It takes one second for us to get on her side.  Her co-star, young Artyom Bogucharisky (in a debut performance), is excellent as well, filling the function of Lilya's best friend, little brother, confidant, and voice of reason.  Bogucharisky is excellent because he is neither too cute or too precocious.  The third member of the cast, Pavel Ponomaryov, is handsome and sweet enough to fool Lilya, and make us believe that he's genuine, although he doesn't have as much charisma as one would have hoped.

In style and content, "Lilya 4-Ever" bears mention to "The War Zone, which was released 3 years prior.  Both are shot on extremely low budgets with digital video, and have a "you are there" quality to them.  While "Lilya 4-Ever" doesn't have quite the same impact as Tim Roth's masterpiece (the film doesn't ask as many questions and concentrates more on narrative), there are times, particularly at the end, when it comes close.  The film's third half is extremely painful not because of what happens but because of how Moodysson films it.  It is a visceral experience.

Moodysson adds a little "magical realism" to the second half, and it has mixed results.  On one hand, it works from a storytelling perspective (except for it's first appearance) and it adds a much needed element of hope to the proceedings.  On the other hand, it looks fake (no doubt the film's low budget had a hand in this).

Like many films that are so difficult to watch, it's hard to persuade people to see it.  But as a critic, I must be forthright and honest: this film is punishing to watch, but extremely powerful.  If this sort of thing appeals to you, then this movie is not to be missed.  If not, watch it anyway.