Sunday, February 23, 2014

Pompeii

2.5/4

Starring: Kit Harrington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris

Rated PG-13 for Intense Battle Sequences, Disaster-Related Action and Brief Sexual Content

"Pompeii" isn't so much a bad movie as it is a disappointing one.  Essentially, this is a doomed love story set against a huge disaster.  Unfortunately, a frantic pace and mediocre storytelling nearly sink the movie.

In AD 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii under a fountain of lava and ash.  Estimates vary (in fact, it's highly unlikely that a conclusive number will ever be reached), but around 16,000 people died in one of the most devastating natural disasters in human history (the film's bookending sequences come a little too close to exploitation because of this).  The majority of the film takes place in the days leading up to the eruption.

Milo (Harrington) is a young gladiator who is dominating in the ring.  He is set to go against Atticus (Akinnuoye-Agabe), who is one win away from retirement.  On the way to Rome where he will fight to the death, he puts down an injured horse.  That gains the attention of Cassia (Browning), a young Patrician returning from Rome.  Their second meeting causes them to fall deeply in love.  But there is another man who has his sights set on Cassia.  That's Senator Corvus (Sutherland), a truly nasty piece of work that Cassia's father (Harris) must schmooze to get an investment from Rome.  Fate has other ideas for these people.

This is great material for an epic melodrama like this.  Forbidden love, violence, betrayal...all the good stuff.  There's no reason this couldn't have worked had it been handled better.  Unfortunately, that's the film's key failing.  The skill needed to tell a grand melodrama like this exceeds the limited talents of action director Paul W.S. Anderson.

In order to understand where "Pompeii" went wrong (and there are a few obvious ways where it did), it's probably best to compare it to it's role model, "Titanic," as James Berardinelli did.  First and foremost is the pacing.  James Cameron took his time crafting his characters and exploring the ship.  Sure, it took three hours, but stories like this need room to breathe.  Anderson paces his film so frantically that every time we get involved in the scene, he rushes to the next one.  The eruption itself is more like an interruption rather than a catalyst.  Second, he allowed the romance to slowly burn then catch fire.  We spent almost the entire film with Jack and Rose.  Milo and Cassia only share a few scenes. Harrington and Browning have chemistry (although neither one gives a particularly good performance), but they spend so little time together that we have little investment in their relationship.  Finally, there's character development.  Jack and Rose were three-dimensional people that we rooted for and cared about.  Milo and Cassia are stick figures.  Who cares what happens to them?

The performances don't help much.  Anderson isn't an actor's director, and it shows.  Talented actors like Harrington, Browning and Carrie-Anne Moss are flat.  Jared Harris is interesting mainly because he isn't playing someone sleazy (for once), but he has so little screen time that there's nothing that he can do.  The only one who sticks out is Kiefer Sutherland, who is deliciously evil.  Admittedly, the thought of Sutherland in a period piece makes one think of Jack Bauer playing dress up, but Sutherland is having a ball chewing the scenery.  The film is almost worth seeing because of him.

Another failing of the film are the special effects.  With all the tools at his disposal, Anderson can't create a sense of spectacle.  The film never becomes larger-then-life.  There's no "wow" factor.  When we first see Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius, it's decidedly unimpressive (the second shot is more epic).  As lame as "Gladiator" was, it at least understood the genre.  The film looks like it was made on the cheap.  The eruption is a case in point.  There are some pretty cool special effects, but Anderson can't capture the immensity of it.  Compared to the sinking of the Titanic, this is flat-out boring.  Part of the reason is the special effects.  Admittedly, the film looks great, and there's plenty of eye-candy.  But that's all it is, just some cool visuals.  Pompeii never becomes real.

Simply put, this is a poorly told story.  Epic melodramas are difficult to get right, but Anderson botches it at every turn.  He doesn't understand the rhythm of a story like this, and has no idea what are the emotional highs and lows.  The big emotional scenes are surprisingly limp.

Also disappointing is the PG-13 rating.  A film about gladiators demands an R rating, and the editing needed to eliminate the blood and carnage couldn't be more obvious.  While an R rated version wouldn't mean much in terms of the quality of the film, it would be more honest and less emasculating.  I hope they release an unrated extended version.

This is not a terrible movie.  I was never bored and some of this stuff is pretty involving.  But I was disappointed and frustrated because I kept seeing how good this movie could, and should, have been.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Robocop (2014)

3/4

Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Garrow, Michael K. Williams

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action including Frenetic Gun Violence Throughout, Brief Strong Language, Sensuality and Some Drug Material

The good news about the "Robocop" remake is that it hasn't been dumbed down.  In fact, it's a bit better.  The script is stronger, and while it's nowhere near as violent as Paul Verhoeven's film, it's an effective piece of filmmaking.

Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) is a good cop, even if he is a little impulsive.  After his partner (Williams) is nearly killed, Alex makes it his mission to take down Antoine Vallow (Garrow), the drug lord responsible.  Unfortunately that ends badly, Alex is left on death's door after his car explodes.  Enter Omnicorp.  The company has robots keeping other countries safe, but a law prevents robots from being used in combat in the United States.  As a result, Omnicorp is losing billions.  CEO Raymond Sellars (Keaton) finds a way to go around it by creating a cop that is half man and half machine.  In this way, he'll put a human face on the issue and sway public opinion in his favor.  And he's found the perfect candidate in Alex Murphy.  But there's a problem: Alex's emotions prevent him from being just as good as a robot, which would make the entire project pointless.  Sellars wants to dial them down, while the lead scientist, Dennett Norton (Oldman), prefers to keep them.  Who will win?

In nearly every way, "Robocop" is different from the original.  It has the same basic premise, but the treatments are radically different.  The original was a satire of big business.  This one is a comment on politics and and science fiction.  The line between national security and freedom is a prevalent issue now, movies included.  "Robocop" gives both sides of the spectrum equal due; there's an ongoing political commentary by a Sean Hannity-inspired newsman played by Samuel L. Jackson that emphasizes this point (side note: this is an innovative way to present these ideas.  The film neatly divides the film into chapters, and the story plays out the points that Jackson's character makes).

Additionally, the focus of the film is on Alex's soul, if you will.  The plotline of him fighting crime or taking down Vallow is kept on the backburner.  Director Jose Padilha's focus is on finding the balance between man and machine.  That's not to say that there's no action (there is, and it's nicely staged), but this is a more thoughtful picture than one might anticipate.

The performances are effective.  Joel Kinnaman is too low-key as Alex, but he gets us on his side, and that's all that's required.  Gary Oldman's performance is too similar to Jim Gordon in Nolan's Batman trilogy to be coincidental.  It's not a bad performance, but what happened to the energy and charisma that he displayed in movies like "Air Force One" and "The Contender?"  I'll give points to Michael Keaton for trying to stretch his range as a villain, but he's merely adequate.  He doesn't have the edge he needs to be truly unlikable.

By all accounts, this movie did not have a happy production history.  Director Jose Padilha complained of studio interference during production.  That's almost never a good sign, but fortunately, this is one of those instances where it doesn't show.  This isn't a visual blitz to bring in foreign audiences.  It's about ideas, and that's a rarity in movies these days.

This Boy's Life

2.5/4

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, Ellen Barkin

Rated R for Strong Language and Sexuality

Strange, this movie is.  Not in so much that it's a weird movie (it's a relatively normal biopic), but in how close it comes to a solid recommendation.  There's a lot of good stuff here; the performances are consistently excellent and the characters are well-developed.  Unfortunately, it suffers from awkward editing and a meandering script.

Caroline Wolff (Barkin) has bad luck when it comes to relationships.  The men she gets involved with are jerks, abusive or perverts.  She and her son, Tobias (DiCaprio), decide to head out west (this trait of moving after a relationship goes south brings to mind the much better and insightful "Tumbleweeds").  After a uranium search in Utah, they end up in Seattle.  Caroline meets the handsome and charming Dwight (DeNiro) soon after.  She's smitten (or at least convinces herself that she is), but Tobias (who goes by the name of Jack) immediately realizes that Dwight is as phony as a two-dollar bill.  Caroline is determined to make the relationship work, but Dwight is determined to get the rebellious Jack in line (his motto is "kill or cure").

The three lead performances are astonishing.  We expect that from DiCaprio and DeNiro, but Barkin is a surprise.  Known mainly as a character actress, Barkin truly shines in the complex role of Caroline.  She's a mother who is ill-equipped to deal with her own troubles as well as a rebellious teenage son, although she's giving it her best shot.  Also terrific is Leonardo DiCaprio.  The actor has proven that he is more than capable of outstanding performances, but this was his first major role (before this, he was known for TV work).  Few actors can stand toe to toe with a force of nature like Robert DeNiro, but even at that young age, DiCaprio is up to the task.  From innocent to rebellious, DiCaprio allows Jack to grow into a self-sufficient adult who can stand up to Dwight.

It wouldn't be a surprise to say that DeNiro is outstanding.  He's never given a bad performance (even in awful movies like "Stone"), but this is probably one of his most impressive and demanding.  Roger Ebert probably described Dwight best in his review when he said that Dwight is like a child.  Dwight is immature and unable to effectively live as an adult.  The last level of maturity has bypassed him, and he's even less able to deal with a teenage kid than Caroline is.  The complexities that DeNiro is able to capture in Dwight is incredible.

Michael Caton-Jones, a Scottish import, directs this film with a sure feel for character development, but the editing is confusing.  The timeline is fuzzy; it's sometimes difficult to determine how much time has passed from one scene to the next.  Chris Cooper's scene is a case in point.  I didn't know if it was a flashback or not.  Such poor handling is severely detrimental to a film, especially a character-based one.

The film is also far too long, especially the first hour.  These characters are interesting, yes, but the film moves too slowly.  A little aggressive pruning would have probably earned the film a solid recommendation (ten minutes would have probably done the trick).

As it is, it's an almost-but-frustratingly-not-quite movie.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Blue Jasmine

3/4

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Sarsgaard, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg

Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Material, Language and Sexual Content

I first became aware of Cate Blanchett the same time the rest of the world did.  It was in 1998, when she came out of nowhere to become Gwyneth Paltrow's number one rival for the Best Actress Oscar at the Academy Awards (an award that she should have won, by the way).  Her career is as diverse as her talent, having starred in movies for everyone from Jim Jarmusch to Steven Spielberg.  With one exception ("Notes on a Scandal"), I have never been less than floored by her performances.  Her performance as Jasmine, a modern day Blance DuBois, has once again put her in the Oscar spotlight (she's the frontrunner now, and will likely win the award).

Jasmine (Blanchett) has lived extravagantly all her adult life.  Having been married to Hal (Baldwin), a Wall Street hotshot, since her junior year of college (she dropped out to marry him), the loss of everything after his arrest has pushed her to the brink of insanity.  She's a wreck; she drinks too much, wrecks havoc on everyone's lives, and sometimes talks to herself.  She's gone to San Francisco to stay with her blue-collar sister Ginger (Hawkins) until she gets back on her feet.  Suffice it to say, it's tough going for her.

"Blue Jasmine" is less of a plot-based movie than a character study.  Every actor gets their chance to shine, but Woody Allen's focus is on Jasmine.  She's not a particularly likable character.  She's stuck up, neurotic and dampens the mood of everyone around her by just being there.  But with Blanchett playing the role, we still see her with sympathy.  Sally Hawkins is also wonderful as Ginger, who is divorced from Augie (Clay), whom Jasmine hates, and is engaged to Chili (Cannavale), whom Jasmine dislikes almost as much.  Allen follows Ginger around as she decides whether her future is with Chili or the kind Al (C.K.).  For her part, Jasmine is looking for a new sugar daddy, and she thinks she's found it in Dwight (the always wonderful Sarsgaard).  Michael Stuhlbarg is perfectly dorky as Jasmine's dentist boss, who carries a torch for her.

Actually, Blanchett's performance saves the film from a script that at times feels incomplete.  For example, Allen does too little with Jasmine's scrambled mind; he doens't do much with the scenes of her talking to herself.  Blanchett fills in the blanks to the point where this deficiency is almost too subtle to pick up on, but it is there.

For such a depressing story, the tone of the film remains relatively light.  The sun is always shining, and there's a bit of humor here and there.  And yet, the film doesn't shy away from dark material either.  Jasmine is a disaster, and there are two scenes of domestic discord that, while not especially violent, are intense (they brought my mind back to "Once Were Warriors").

This isn't a perfect movie, but there are many reasons to see it.  The main one is Blanchett's brilliant performance.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Roger Dodger

3/4

Starring: Campbell Scott, Jesse Eisenberg, Elizabeth Berkley, Jennifer Beals, Isabella Rossellini

Rated R for Sexual Content and Language

In order to appreciate "Roger Dodger," two things are required.  First, you have to have a pretty extensive vocabulary.  This is a talky movie, and for the lead character, "words are my business."  Second, you have to be willing to spend 90 minutes with an arrogant, chauvinistic jerk.

Roger Swanson (Scott) is an advertising executive living in New York City.  His boss, Joyce (Rossellini), has just broken off their sexual affair, which leaves him stung (he then goes to a bar and tries to destroy the self-esteem of two women as some sort of revenge).  The next day, his nephew Nick (Eisenberg), shows up in his office.  Nick had an interview at Columbia University, and wants to hang out with Roger to pick up some tips on how to score with women.  Roger takes him on a night on the town and tries to get Nick laid.

Campbell Scott, the son of legendary actor George C. Scott, first came to my attention when I saw "The Dying Gaul."  The movie was forgettable, but Scott was not.  Then I saw "Roger Dodger," and became an instant fan.  This is his movie, and he nails the role.

Roger is not a likable person.  In fact, he's a generally repulsive individual that we wish Nick would get away from.  But he is a compelling character, and while some of his views are barbaric (in the opening scene, he has a monologue about how the male sex is going to be rendered useless in the near future), they are interesting.  Plus, he has a gift with words; many of the things he says are very clever, and his wit is so sharp and lightning fast that it causes whiplash.

Scott is surrounded by an able supporting cast, but this is his show.  None of the cast members, which include Jesse Eisenberg in his debut role, Elizabeth Berkley and Jennifer Beals, get lost next to him, but they cede the spolight to Scott.

This is the film debut of Dylan Kidd.  He's a fantastic writer, but the film appears to be shot on a handheld camera (budget requirements may have had a hand in this).  It look amateurish, and it can be come a little dizzying.  Plus, as interesting as the film is, it feels a little padded at times.  The final scene is also curious; it can't decide what it wants to do with Roger's character.

Still, for those who are into talky movies about intelligent people (even if they are despicable), this is worth seeing.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Lego Movie

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Allison Brie

Rated PG for Mild Action and Rude Humor

"The Lego Movie" appears to be like "Battleship," a movie that was made solely because it's a brand name.  While that may be the case, this is a project where the cast and the crew worked hard and tried to make a truly good movie.  And they did.

This is one of those movies that never stops re-inventing itself.  The film constantly moves in unexpected directions, and while I suppose it sticks to a formula, it does so in endlessly creative ways.  It's also not above poking fun at itself.  The film, in addition to containing so many references and in-jokes (everything from Abraham Lincoln to "Air Force One") that it's impossible to list them all, goes a step beyond self-aware.  While much of the film's humor is more of a "wit" variety, there are more than a few laugh-out-loud moments.

Emmett (Pratt) is a happy-go-lucky everyman in a world created by Legos.  He follows life's instructions to the letter, and as such, is the world's most invisible individual.  One day, he falls down a pit and touches a magic Lego block.  Apparently, he is "The Special," a Master Builder who will take down Lord Business (Ferrell), who seeks to use the "Kragle" in order to stop everything from changing.  With the help of the smart aleck Wyldstyle (Banks) and the wizard Vitruvius, Emmett may end up saving the world.

This movie is filled with many great moments.  From Morgan Freeman doing slapstick (his character screams after he gets kicked off a ledge) and cracking jokes to watching an innocent and happy unicorn (think "Hello Kitty") named Unikitty (Brie) trying not to go loco, there's never a moment when something amusing isn't happening.  There's also a pirate who has rebuilt himself into a Transformer, and Lord Business's building rivals The Tower of Babel for the tallest building ever conceived.

The cast does great work.  Chris Pratt is effective, but he's not recognizable, which helps us only see Emmett.  No one does any showboating (except Morgan Freeman, since that's part of the joke).  Special mention has to go to Liam Neeson, who is clearly enjoying himself playing Lord Business's henchman Bad Cop.

"The Lego Movie" was directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who made "21 Jump Street" two years ago (it's sequel comes out this summer...and in another reference, both Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have cameos).  This isn't as gut-busting hilarious as the raunch-fest that made my Top 10 list, but their skill in poking fun at just about everything still applies.

In the end, I enjoyed the movie more for where it would go next rather than what would happen next, but it's still a lot of fun for the whole family.  If they can keep coming up with new ideas, I hope there is a sequel.

The Kite Runner

3.5/4

Starring: Khalid Abdalla, Homayoun Ershadi, Shaun Toub, Zekeria Ebrahimi, Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada, Atossa Leoni

Rated PG-13 for Strong Thematic Material including the Rape of a Child, Violence and Brief Strong Language

Guilt and redemption are common themes in storytelling because they are so powerful.  We make mistakes as human beings; it's how we grow up.  But when we do, we must make amends no matter how much it hurts.

Afghanistan was a much different place in the 1970's, before the Soviets invaded.  People danced, music played, and lamb kabobs cooked in the streets.  Amir (Ebrahimi) lives with his wealthy father, Baba (Ershadi) in Kabul.  His best friend, Hassan (Mahmoodzada) is a servant there with his father.  The two are as close as can be, and make a killer team when it comes to kite fighting.  After winning a tournament, Hassan chases the fallen kite, but is brutally assaulted by a bully.  Angry and confused, Amir betrays his friend by lying to his father.  Hassan and his father leave.

Cut to 2000, San Francisco.  Amir (Abdalla) and his father have settled into the United States, albeit with a lot less money.  Amir marries the lovely Soraya (Leoni).  Then he gets a call from an old friend.  Rahim Khan (Toub), Baba's old business partner, has beckoned him back to Pakistan.  Hassan has died, and his son, Sohrab (Ali Danish Bakhtyari) has been sent to an orphanage.  Rahim tells him that by rescuing Hassan's son, he can redeem himself from what he did to his friend, who was never anything less than loyal.

When it comes to books, I take critics with a grain of salt.  Most of the books that the high class critics recommend are so dense that they're impossible to digest.  I remember reading the first few pages of "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy on my iPad.  It didn't take me long to set it aside and read something more entertaining.  But Khaled Hosseini wrote a book that relied on good storytelling rather than trying to impress someone.  I was amazed at how fast I read it and how deeply it made me feel.

The film isn't quite as good, but in the hands of the supremely talented Marc Foster, it's almost as good as it could be.  By necessity, he and screenwriter David Benioff have excised some details or altered things to make it a successful cinematic adaptation (it's been years since I've read it, so I can't say exactly, although there is one instance where too much is cut).

The first act is the weakest.  The acting isn't as strong as it could be, so it takes a while to get a feel for the characters.  Once the film's catalyst takes place, the film finds its groove.

As is the case for Foster's work (I'm going to pretend that "Quantum of Solace" was directed by an imposter), the acting is strong.  All of the cast members have their weak moments (especially the young stars, who were acting in a film for the first time), but overall it is very good.  Khalid Abdalla is excellent; kind but sensitive.  It's impossible not to form an emotional bond with him right off the bat (ironically, he played one of the terrorists in the film "United 93" a year earlier).  Homayoun Ershadi is excellent as Baba; sometimes stern, but always loving.  Shaun Toub is also excellent as the wise and caring Rahim Khan.  All three deserved Oscar nominations (which none of them got).

Marc Foster is a storyteller who pays attention to acting and character development.  The film looks great, yes, but Foster isn't making a travelogue or a special effects extravaganza.  He's telling a story, and while it would be hard to completely botch it, it is better than one could ever hope.

That all being said, I have to raise an objection to the film's PG-13 rating.  Putting it mildly, it's an embarrassment for the MPAA, and one of their most egregious.  I don't know what they were smoking, but no film that features the rape of a child should be anything less than an R.  No matter how carefully it's edited (considering how obviously it steps on tiptoes, it's a little insulting for the viewer and especially those who have been assaulted).  I've seen movies get an NC-17 rating for less.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Movie 43

3/4

Starring: Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Naomi Watts, Liev Schrieber, Anna Faris, Chris Pratt, Kieran Culkin, Emma Stone, Richard Gere, Jack McBrayer, Kate Bosworth, Aasif Mandavi, Justin Long, Jason Sudekis, Uma Thurman, Kristen Bell, Leslie Bibb, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jimmy Bennett, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Gerard Butler, Seann William Scott, Johnny Knoxville, Halle Berry, Stephen Merchant, Terrence Howard, Elizabeth Banks, Josh Duhamel

The version being reviewed is the unrated one.  For the record, the theatrical cut was rated R for Strong Pervasive Crude and Sexual Content including Dialogue, Graphic Nudity, Language and Some Violence

"Movie 43" is like one long episode of "Saturday Night Live," only with a running story that fills in the space between the segments instead of a host, and a cast of movie stars instead of stand-up comics trying to act.  There's also no hint of Judd Apatow's crew around (considering how far Rogen and Co have fallen, not to mention how over-exposed they are, that's a good thing), despite the fact that the film's raunchiness makes his movies seem like they came from Disney.

There are thirteen skits in the film.  They vary in terms of quality, but most are pretty funny.  The film opens up with "The Catch," where a woman (Winslet) goes on a blind date with the perfect guy (Jackman) who has a very strange physical deformity.  Next up is "Homeschooled," where two parents (Schrieber and Watts) go to astonishing lengths to give their homeschooled son (Jeremy Allen White) a normal high school experience.  Then there's "The Proposition," where a man (Pratt) rethinks his marriage proposal after his girlfriend (Faris) makes a strange request.  After that, it's a weird segment with Emma Stone and Kieran Culkin called "Veronica."  Richard Gere plays a dim-witted CEO who is oblivious to his new product's malfunction in "iBabe." Superheroes (Long, Thurman, Sudekis, Bell, Bobby Cannevale) go on a speed date in "Super Hero Speed Dating."  Two brothers (Bennett and Mintz-Plasse) deal with a girl's (Moretz) problem in "Middle School Date."  "Happy Birthday" has Seann William Scott and Johnny Knoxville duke it out with an angry leprechaun (Butler).  Breaking the ice on a blind date between Halle Berry and Stephen Merchant goes way too far in "Truth or Dare."  Inspirational speeches get skewered in "Victory's Glory," which features Terrence Howard.  Finally, there's "Beezel," where Elizabeth Banks deals with her boyfriend Josh Duhamel's pet, an animated cat who has it in for her.

Like I said, some of these skits are funnier than others.  My favorite was "Happy Birthday," which is hysterical (although I must say that the make-up/special effects that turned 6'2" Gerard Butler into a leprechaun are creepy, and I don't know if it was intentional).  "Truth or Dare" and "Beezel" are also hilarious.  "The Catch" is so gross you can't not laugh, and ditto for "Homeschooled."  "The Proposition" is gross, but not all that funny.  "Veronica" is just strange and non-sensical...nothing happens in it.  "Victory's Glory" is amusing too, but the rest are forgettable.  There are some faux-commercials in-between that are pretty funny as well.

The filler story changes depending on which version you watch.  The R-rated version has something called "The Pitch," where a weird screenwriter (Dennis Quaid) pitches a bizarre story to a producer (Greg Kinnear).  It's pretty lame.  The unrated version has a trio of kids looking for "Movie 43," which is so bizarre that you wonder where it will go (and it goes in pretty unexpected directions).

When it was released, the movie bombed and was hated by just about everyone.  I'm not sure why.  I laughed hard, cringed, and laughed some more.  This movie appealed to the kid in me who was getting away with watching an R-rated sex comedy.  Plus, it's not every day that you see established actors like Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman and Naomi Watts being this gross.  It's got that going for it too.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Princess Bride

4/4

Starring: Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Ben Savage, Peter Falk, Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn

Rated PG (for Mild Action Violence and Brief Language, I guess)

"The Princess Bride" is an absolutely marvelous movie.  It's an enchanting story that contains just about everything.  Romance, adventure, revenge, action...you name it.  But it's most notable for its humor.  There's plenty of humor in this film (much of which is truly inspired), which is befitting for a movie that is as much a spoof as it is a genuine adventure.  In a sense, it's like "Kick-Ass," which pokes fun at the genre while embracing it (only this movie is much more family friendly).

Buttercup (Penn) delights in tormenting her stableboy, a handsome man named Wesley (Elwes).  Every time she makes a demand of him, he simply replies, "As you wish."  Of course, it doesn't take long for Buttercup to realize that she loves Wesley, and the feeling is mutual.  When Wesley goes off to make his fortune abroad, his ship is attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts, and he is killed.  Five years later, Prince Humperdinck (Sarandon) selects her to be his bride, even though she doesn't love him.  Of course, his motives aren't pure.  He has her kidnapped in order to start a war.  But then the mysterious Man in Black comes along...

The bulk of the story (it's a story within a story...an old man (Falk) reads it to his sick grandson (Savage)) takes place in a land where naming your kid Buttercup or Humperdinck makes total sense. Which is to say, it's impossible to take seriously.  It's the perfect place for a satire, and that's really what this is.  And yet, for all the silliness, I still came to care about the characters.  It takes a truly skilled filmmaker like Rob Reiner (before his slump) to accomplish that.

The performances are strong across the board.  Cary Elwes, a character actor who can perform in just about every genre ("Liar Liar," "Twister" and "Saw" are just a few titles on his extensive resume), is in top form as Wesley.  The role demands a lot from the actor; at various times, he's required to be a heartthrob, a hero, a villain and a buffoon.  Elwes doesn't miss a beat.  Robin Wright is lovely as Buttercup; she and Elwes have great chemistry.  Chris Sarandon mixes humor, ferocity and stupidity as the dastardly Prince Humperdinck.  Wallace Shawn is hilarious as the lead kidnapper who claims that he is the smartest man alive.  Mandy Patinkin is terrific as the vengeful Inigo Montoya (who  says one of moviedom's most famous lines).  Former pro-wrestler Andre the Giant is also very good as the simple-minded giant Fezzik.

There are so many great scenes in this movie that the best thing to do would be to just watch the movie.  The film's quirky humor really lands too, and there's a lot of it.  There's slapstick, bizarrely logical conversations and Elwes has a scene where he demonstrates great physical comedy.  Also worth mentioning is the swordfight between Wesley and Inigo, which is the next best after "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."  The actors trained for months, and it pays off tremendously.

It's so difficult to make a movie that is a genre movie while poking fun at itself.  Hollywood is littered with failures.  But in the hands of a strong screenplay and a talented storyteller, "The Princess Bride" becomes a modern classic.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

2.5/4

Starring: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightly

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Violence and Intense Action, and Brief Strong Language

Paramount must love Chris Pine.  He's the star of the "Star Trek" reboot, the studio's cash cow, and he's headlining a reboot of the Jack Ryan franchise (a character that has been played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck).  It's not hard to understand why.  He's handsome, talented and charismatic.  What more do you need?

For starters, you need a better script than the one that this movie has.  It often doesn't make a lot of sense, and when it does, what we see and hear isn't particularly interesting.  The strong performances from the cast help a lot, but as everyone from George Clooney to Uwe Boll has claimed, you can't make a good movie without a good script.

This is an origin story (a decision that is kind of questionable since the franchise is too low profile for a revamp to be noticed or desired).  Jack Ryan (Pine) is finishing up his graduate studies in England when the Twin Towers are destroyed.  He drops out and joins the Marines.  There, he falls for his lovely nurse Cathy (Knightly) and meets Tom Harper (Costner), who recruits him to the CIA as a financial analyst.  Ryan uncovers some inconsistencies at his "office" with a Russian account and goes to Moscow to investigate.  He discovers that a man named Viktor Cheverin (Branagh) is hatching a plan to send the US into the next Great Depression, and it's up to Jack to stop him.

This is pure formula.  While it's clearly modeled after "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," the film has a stronger resemblance to "The Peacemaker"  Both films, it should be said, are stronger than this one.  But that's not the film's problem.  The details are nonsensical and the idea isn't very compelling.

All four leads are in top form, which helps a lot.  Chris Pine can always be counted on to give a good performance, but his Jack Ryan is like Captain Kirk without the mischief.  It's not enough of a change to fend off deja vu and mild disappointment.  Keira Knightly is lovely as ever and sports a flawless American accent.  Unfortunately, she's almost superfluous.  Kevin Costner is reliable as Jack's mentor, but his role is underwritten.  Kenneth Branagh is the shining star.  He's played villains before (such as Iago in Oliver Parker's "Othello," unseen by me), but he's a formidable adversary.  Sadly, his Russian accent keeps some of his dialogue from being clearly audible
Branagh is as famous a director as he is an actor.  He's made a number of fine films from behind the camera.  He's also willing to work in just about any genre, from Shakespeare ("Hamlet," among others) to superheroes (the first "Thor" movie).  This is not up to those standards.  The script is lame and his direction exacerbates some of the film's plotholes.  That said, there are some well constructed sequences, and the performances are always interesting.

I can't recommend it at the moment, but I think seeing it on Blu Ray with the subtitles on may change my mind.

The Company Men

3/4

Starring: Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Rosemarie DeWitt, Maria Bello, Craig T. Nelson, Kevin Costner

Rated R for Language and Brief Nudity

Anyone who has spent time looking for a job, especially in this economy, will be able to identify with the characters in this film.  I spent my fair share of time waiting for one.  Dressing up and going to interviews, thinking that I nailed it until I got a pre-written email saying that "unfortunately they were going in another direction" or something like that.  I kept thinking, I have a college degree from a state university!  What did someone else have that I didn't?  I now have a job that I love, but that didn't stop me from having a sense of deja vu while watching this movie.

It would be an honest mistake to claim that John Wells's film, "The Company Men," is a drama about unemployment, when it is in fact satirical.  Ordinarily that may make a person think that the film would be humorous, which is usually the case for satires.  "The Company Men" is not a comedy, however.  While there are few moments here and there of understated humor, this is a drama, and a pretty bleak one at that.  Wells has an ax to grind, and with a little exaggeration he rips the whole corporate culture to shreds.

Bobby Walker (Affleck) is a successful executive at a shipbuilding company called GTX.  He has a luxurious life with his wife Maggie (DeWitt) and two children.  One day after a great game at the country club, he goes into work to find that he has been laid off (this happens so quickly that it's a wonder that Bobby doesn't feel more insulted than he actually is).  Soon to follow are his co-workers Phil Woodward (Cooper) and Gene McClary (Jones).  All of them are out-of-work and desperate, especially because they have families to feed and have to keep up with the lifestyle that the expected to be able to live for the rest of their lives.

Our window into this story is Bobby, and he's a character everyone can identify with.  At first, he's confident that he'll only be unemployed for a short while.  After all, he has an MBA and years of experience.  Then reality sets in.  His brother-in-law Jack (Costner) offers him a carpentry job until he gets back on his feet, but Bobby has become too proud and all but throws it in his face.  Then desperation sets in and he comes back begging.  He goes to interviews and despite assurances that the company likes him a lot and has the job in the bag, is shot down without so much as a personal phone call.

For the entire running time, I was thinking, "I've been there."  It was eye-opening to see a movie that really gets it.  While "Up in the Air" certainly had its pleasures (and, all things considered, is a better film), no movie I've seen has been so dead-on in its portrayal of a man looking for a job.

Much of the reason why the film works is that the performances are top notch.  With a cast like this, that's to be expected.  Ben Affleck is terrific; this is a low-key role, and one where he can shine.  Few performers are more likable and more convincing as everymen, and that's what the role requires.  The supporting roles are excellent.  Chris Cooper plays a father who is desperate to find a job to support his family, but his age is working against him.  Tommy Lee Jones is also in fine form as GTX's second in command, who is the voice of conscience to James Salinger (Nelson), the CEO with whom he built the company from the ground up.  Nelson is very good as the CEO who has been so warped by his success and luxuries that making the bottom line has become all important.  The second the economy shifts, he starts cutbacks and layoffs so he can keep his luxuries (although he claims its to answer to the stockholders).

John Wells is showing what the corporate culture has become.  What started as a good business that allowed men and women to make enough money to support themselves and their families has become a cold and ruthless machine.  It's become all about corporate jargon like "consolidating" this and "restructuring" that.  No one understands what they're talking about except to the extent that they know when they are making money and losing money.  Here, business talk and greed squash humanity and common sense.  Balance sheets and suits have replaced honest work and looking out for your fellow man.

The film isn't flawless.  For one thing, it's poorly paced.  Some scenes seem to drag on for far too long, while others (including some important ones), are given the short shift.  The ending in particular is troubled in this respect.  It happens so quickly that it seems more like a deus ex machina than an honest and hopeful closure (which it certainly had the potential to be).  Also limited is character development.  While the cast certainly gives it their all, there's little that they can do with such limiting roles.  Only Bobby, Gene and Salinger (despite most of his actions being off screen) gain our sympathy (or in Salinger's case, hatred).  Phil, Maggie and Jack are given the short end of the stick.  Phil is in many ways the film's most desperate and tragic character, but he's underdeveloped.  More could have been done with him to make what happens to him have a bigger impact.

The Weinstein Company, despite their sometimes questionable business practices and handling of good films, knows a good film when they see it.  They paid a mid-seven figure sum for this film at the Sundance Film Festival, but they did surprisingly little to promote this film.  Maybe it's because that while they realized that it was a good film, its audience is limited.  Movies like "Up in the Air" and "Margin Call," despite having relatively dry material, had acceptably large audiences to warrant wide releasing.  "The Company Men" does not.  This is a film for adults in the corporate work place.  It's a talky film where not much happens.  Unless you identify with these characters, you're going to be bored out of your mind.  For those who know this world, it's 90 minutes well spent.

Deliver Us From Evil

3/4

Not Rated (contains Language and Graphic Discussions of Sexual Abuse involving Children).

Amy Berg's incendiary documentary, "Deliver Us From Evil," will leave anyone who views it sick to their stomach and boiling with rage.  Those are compliments.

Everyone has taken care to remind people that the sleaziness of the priests in this documentary is not typical behavior among the men of the cloth.  Most are good people who wouldn't hurt a fly, much less rape a child.  People like Roger Mahoney, who let their ambition and ego overrule the need to protect children, are the exceptions.

Berg focuses on Oliver O'Grady, who openly admits to molesting so many children that he has lost count.  At first glance, he seems almost grandfatherly with his boyish face and kind voice.  But he is a far more terrifying individual than most horror movies can come up with.  He is a pedophile whose acknowledgement of the pain he caused is debatable.  Also featuring prominently is Mahoney, a bishop who not only knew of O'Grady's history of abusing children but lied to the parents of the victims.  He assured them that he would be moved to a monastery away from kids if they promised to stay silent, when in fact, he moved O'Grady to another parish, out of the local police's jurisdiction, where he was free to abuse more children.

The film also introduces us to three of O'Grady's many victims, who are fighting to deal with their traumas (some are doing better than others).  We understand what happened to them, and how it affected their lives.  It's not a pretty sight.  Lives are forever altered and families are broken beyond repair.

Berg also does what I never thought possible and makes the problem even more insidious than it already is.  Not only were these people violated sexually and emotionally, but spiritually as well.  The Catholic Church is built on community and trust.  Not only is that trust broken, but those at the head of the community throw their trauma in the faces of the victims and place the blame on them.

Much like "This Film is Not Yet Rated," Berg establishes the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church and how it is utilized to keep people in line and to allow the powerful to consolidate absolute control over the most powerful religious organization in the world.

There are those, like Father Tom Doyle, who are risking their careers to make people listen.  He takes the victims to the Vatican to plead their case, and gives them the first apology on behalf of the church that they have ever received.

This is not an easy film to watch, nor is it a perfect documentary.  But it is a story that needs to be told, and gives voice to people who desperately need it.

The Believer

3/4

Starring: Ryan Gosline, Theresa Russell, Summer Phoenix, Billy Zane, Elizabeth Reaser

Rated R for Strong Violence, Language and Some Sexual Content

Now here is a truly challenging film.  Fiercely controversial and always provocative, "The Believer" refuses to be ignored.  No distributor would touch it after it inspired protests at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.  A small company called Fireworks Pictures picked it up after a showing on Showtime was cancelled after 9/11.

The subject matter alone will turn off most people: the film is about a Jewish neo-Nazi.  It is inspired, but not based on, the true story of Daniel Burros, a high-ranking neo-Nazi who killed himself after a journalist for the New York Times published the fact that he was Jewish.

Danny Balint (Gosling) is a fervent anti-Semite.  He has such vicious hatred and anger towards the Jewish people that he can hardly contain it.  The bile he spews is so poisonous that it almost turns-off the fascists that he comes into contact with (played by Zane and Russell).  But while the others in the group are there because they're too stupid to realize the lunacy of hatred, Danny's reasons are more complex.  We, and the others, know this after he won't let the mindless thugs touch the torah because they don't know what it is.

Danny isn't so much an anti-Semite as he is a deeply confused individual.  He sees the persecution of the Jews as weakness on their part because, in his view, they didn't fight back when they had the chance (by this way of logic, he considers the Israelites to have "transcended their Jewishness" because the have fought for, and won, the land of Israel).  But he is a faithful follow of the Jewish faith at heart.  His problem is that he feels weak and insecure, and his way of fighting it is to destroy, or at least say he will, the people that he feels are weak even though he is one of them.

You can see how this film would be such a polarizing lightning rod with audiences.  Many, including Roger Ebert, feared that this film would be harmful.  I don't think so.  I think that a person who watches it will realize that writer/director Henry Bean's intentions are not to create a film that is anti-Semitic, but to explore how a person's own intelligence can completely warp their world view.

The film would be little more than a curiosity had it not been for the work of then-unknown Ryan Gosling (in fact, the film probably wouldn't have worked at all).  Gosling has always been a fearless actor, and this is his riskiest role.  He is absolutely riveting.  Danny is a person of profound, but clear, contradictions.  The young actor uses his eyes to show what is beneath the venom.  At first, we hate him because of the monstrous things he says and plans to do.  But we come to care about him because we eventually see that he is not an evil man, just a lost soul.  Able support is provided by the rest of the cast, but this is his show.

It is commendable that Henry Bean does not back down from the film's explosive content.  He does not soften his punch or step on eggshells because he realizes that doing so would have muddled the film's thesis.  This is a movie that may not entertain, but will not be forgotten.