Monday, March 31, 2014

Swing Time

2/4

Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick

Not Rated

There were really two Hollywood dancers: Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.  Fred Astaire came first, starring in many films, although he was most famous for the ten films he starred with Ginger Rogers.  Their partnership started in 1933 with "Flying Down to Rio" and ended in 1949 with "The Barkleys of Broadway."  Despite its "classic" status, "Swing Time" is probably not one of their best.  In fact, it's not a very good film in general.

John "Lucky" Garnett (Astaire) is a happy-go-lucky dancer who is about to leave his troupe so he can marry his girlfriend Margaret (Betty Furness).  But his co-workers don't want him to leave, so they scheme for him to miss the wedding.  When he shows up at her house, he's in hot water until he tells her father that he's going to make his fortune in New York City.  Once he has $25,000, he can come home and marry her.  It isn't long before he and his old pal Pop (Moore) end up at a dance school where he meets Penny Carroll (Rogers).  They hit it off and become big dancers, but trouble starts for Lucky when he realizes that he's falling for Penny, and she for him.

"Swing Time" is, at its core, a romantic comedy, and romantic comedies rarely have strong plots.  Such is the case with "Swing Time," only instead of having a weak plot, it has no plot.  Really, things don't get much more complicated than I've described.  As such, the film loses much of its energy fairly early.

The two stars, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (who listed this as her favorite of all the films she did with Astaire...surprisingly), give it all they got, but even with their considerable talents, the film drags frequently.  Of the duo, Astaire is the stronger performer.  With his handsome face, quick smile and effortless charm and humor, Lucky is impossible not to like.  Astaire is so good that he causes Rogers to fade into the background whenever they share the screen.  They have chemistry, which helps a lot, but that's it.  As the supporting characters, Victor Moore (as the dim-witted Pop) and Helen Broderick (as Penny's sassy co-worker Mabel) are fun when they have something to do.

The problem with the film is that it's empty.  There's nothing for the actors to really do and nothing to grab us.  Sure, there is some amusing comedy here and there, and the dance sequences are great (Astaire has a lovely singing voice, too), but who cares?  I didn't.

"Swing Time" has not aged well either.  The film's show-stopping dance number, which lasts about five minutes, has Astaire doing some great tap dancing.  It would be fun had director George Stevens not decided to put his star in blackface.  It casts a pall on the proceedings and ruins what should be a great number.

Astaire and Rogers deserved better.  Hopefully one of the other movies they made allowed them to show what they can really do.  God knows that they can do better than this.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Armstrong Lie

3.5/4

Narrated by Alex Gibney

It's easy to see why Lance Armstrong was so easy to root for.  In addition to setting records after a cancer battle that nearly claimed his life, he's handsome and charming with an easy smile.  He's the perfect protagonist for a real life fairy tale.  But watching Alex Gibney's documentary, "The Armstrong Lie," I saw another side to that face.  With his penetrating stare and cold, gray eyes, I saw someone who was ruthless, vindictive and dangerous.  This is not a man to be trifled with.

Everyone knows the story about Lance Armstrong.  Gibney doesn't dwell on it very much because of this.  What Gibney concentrates on is what went on behind the scenes.  Armstrong's career was far from the fairy tale that we believed, or as Gibney puts it, wanted to believe.  It was a fight to survive in a culture that was rotten to the core.  And one that Armstrong found himself in a perfect position to take advantage of.

You see, everyone knew he was doping.  But the fairy tale that people believed was his life was bringing too much money to risk destroying what little press the Tour de France received.  He wasn't the only one.  Doping was so common that he and others rationalized that that was what it took to win.  Today, Armstrong admits that it was wrong to do it, but had no crisis of conscience about doing it then, or taking advice from a shady scientists in order to gain the extra edge.

For the most part Gibney uses his no-nonsense approach to documentaries that won him an Oscar for the searing and disturbing "Taxi to the Dark Side."  There are some moments that are quite confusing (particularly when going over the beginning of Armstrong's career), but it's a fascinating portrait of a deeply flawed and controversial individual.

The question that remains is how Armstrong was able to fool everyone.  Gibney and his interviewees, including Armstrong himself (who is surprisingly candid), offer their own theories, but the filmmaker wisely doesn't give a definitive answer.  Armstrong had a tremendous amount of drive to win, and he would do anything to do so.  And once he had it, he would do anything to keep it, including betraying his friends, ruining careers and sue his enemies.  Armstrong was the lead in a fairy-tale, and he simply played the part.

"The Armstrong Lie" has something that few documentaries have: involvement.  Originally, this was going to be an inspirational documentary about Lance Armstrong's comeback.  But during filming, which occurred over four years, Armstrong was finally caught in his lies and had no choice but to come clean.  Gibney went back recorded new interviews and allowed him to put a new perspective on the events that he observed.  "The Road Back," which was the original title, became "The Armstrong Lie."  Few other documentaries can boast such a claim (the only one I can think of is "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" about the West Memphis Three).

There are a lot of people who are wary about documentaries, particularly because of the pontificating that Michael Moore does.  Plus, a lot of the mediocre ones like "The Brandon Teena Story" are dreadfully boring.  But Alex Gibney knows what he's doing behind a camera.  "The Armstrong Lie" has as much power and involvement as some of the best narrative films.  Particularly because it's about such a timely and fascinating event, this is a must see.

Mike's Musings: A Few Random Thoughts...

I have a lot to say at the moment, and very little of it is connected.  Bear with me, please...

I have a giant movie collection.  I've lost a definite count, but I think I have at least 1200 movies (some are in combo packs).  As I'm still living at home and have acquired them while jobless, how did I afford them (with my parents help...thanks, guys!)?  Simple.  Discounts.

Putting it simply, it's often more cost effective to just buy the movie rather than rent it.  For example.  I was curious about the movie "Firestorm" for years, and I looked it up on Amazon.com.  It costs 9.98 from Amazon (plus shipping).  But the independent buyers sold it for $3.82.  So, including shipping and handling, that's 7.81.  Less than the price of a movie ticket.  Either I could have ordered it from Netflix, in the place a movie I wanted and most likely can't get for cheap, and wait a week (which is the average time it takes to send a movie in and get the next one to my front door), or just order it and watch it whenever I want.

Amazon isn't the only one that has good deals.  Superstores like Best Buy and Target certainly have their wildly overpriced movies (not all of which are new releases), but tucked into corners are some good deals.  Ten bucks for a Blu Ray steelbook of "The Departed?" Half that for a Blu Ray copy of "Frailty?"  And I've seen better ones.  I got three Stanley Kubrick movies on a Blu Ray combo for 12 bucks.  Normally in this kind of pack, they're usually crappy ones that no one remembers (and for good reason).  Not here.  The movies were all classics: "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange," and "The Shining."  Anyone who wouldn't have snapped that up probably has no knowledge of movies whatsoever.

Plus there are stores that sell used DVDs, often at a steal.  This is where you have to be careful.  If they repair the movies, then go nuts.  If not, like in a Blockbuster liquidation, then be prepared for skipping or paying for it out of pocket (and waiting a long time).  But if they're clean, the variety is often huge and the prices are usually insanely low.

The point is, while Netflix is certainly a must-have for movie lovers, often times bargain movies are a better deal.

Another thought...

Hollywood and the MPAA have been bitching about piracy and the lack of consumers going to the theaters.  The ideas that theaters are going the way of the dodo is saddening to me, since I have so many fond memories of watching movies in the theaters.  Plus piracy is taking money away from movies that would have "honestly" earned them.

Hollywood has no one to blame but themselves.  In an attempt to decrease risk, Hollywood has put all of its energy into remakes, franchises and superheroes.  Sure, some of them make big money, but remember that movie ticket prices have skyrocketed.  It's all about boosting their egos about the big opening weekend.  It's not enough to make a movie that has to have long lasting power.  It has to have a big opening weekend (see "Man of Steel" for an example of this).

While piracy is illegal and it should be, I don't feel sorry for them in the slightest.  If you're a teenager, or any moviegoer, going to the theater, paying 10 to 15 bucks for a ticket (and an equal amount for snacks) and spending two hours is a pretty big commitment.  People don't want to go if it's going to suck, and seeing it online, in low quality, gives a preview of what the movie is really like (trailers can rarely be trusted for this sort of thing).  I've seen movies online, and even on Netflix, the quality is questionable (and it's downright awful in pirated sites).  If they see it online and decide they like it, they'll go see it.  James Berardinelli pointed out that this could be a powerful marketing tool, but Hollywood refuses to think outside the box and use it.  Instead, they go after teenagers who are merely curious while ignoring large companies that make money off of this sort of thing.

Theaters aren't all innocent either.  They know that the theater experience is declining.  Rude customers, bad lighting and increasingly small screens do little to enamor audiences for the theater experience.  Complaining about rude customers is an exercise in futility.  They can't afford to turn anyone away.

Making movies is a big risk.  When you spend $100 million on a product, you want to make sure that you're getting a return on your investment.  But word of mouth is a powerful tool that used to be the lifeblood of the film industry.  Now with all these marketing blitzes it's become a thing of the past.  But here's the thing.  There's only so many times you can raise the price of a ticket before people just stop going.  If you make a good movie that people want to see, they'll come in droves.  Without fail.

Which brings me to the globalization of the film industry...

The quest for reaching foreign audiences has concerned me for a while.  Not because I'm xenophobic but because they take away all our reasons to see the movies in the first place.  Take "Independence Day" for an example.  It dominated the box office and made a killing.  Why?  Because it told a story with interesting characters.  Take the "Man of Steel" for example.  That movie did about half as well as expected because there were no characters and no story.  People came because of the marketing, but didn't come back because there wasn't anything to revisit.

This is also why we have seen so few tearjerkers, dramas and other non-special effects movies.  There's no money in it.  But here's the thing: they're not that expensive to make.  Make a few good, small budget movies and they can see a big payout when it all comes together.  Making $300 million after spending $90 million on five movies sounds a lot better than seeing $200 million after spending $500 million on one movie, doesn't it?

Sabotage

3/4

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia Williams, Mirelle Enos, Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Terrence Howard, Harold Perrineau, Josh Holloway, Troy Garity

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

"Sabotage" is a much different Schwarzenegger vehicle than his other flicks.  Movies like "T2," "True Lies" and "Total Recall" were definitely violent, but they were also fun.  There was an enjoyable quality to them (some more than others).  His new film, "Sabotage," is different.  It's gritty, grim and ultra-violent.  While there are some one-liners, there aren't many.

Schwarzenegger plays John "Breacher" Wharton, the leader of a group of DEA agents who are bad to the bone.  They are: Joe "Grinder" Phillips (Manganiello), Eddie "Neck" Jordan (Holloway), Lizzy Murray (Enos), James "Monster" Murray (Worthington), Julius "Sugar" Edmonds (Howard), Tom "Pyro" Roberts (Max Martini), Bryce "Tripod" McNeely (Kevin Vance), and "Smoke" Jennings (Mark Schlegel).  They're like one big, testosterone-and-alcohol infused family.  After taking down the leader of a vicious drug cartel (from whom they stole $10 million of the $200 million cash prize they found), they are being picked off one by one.  But who is behind it?  More importantly, who stole the $10 million before they could come back and get it?

David Ayer has been writing cop thrillers for the better part of a decade ("Training Day," "Dark Blue," the "S.W.A.T." movie, and "End of Watch" are all movies that he had a hand in writing).  Like "End of Watch," "Sabotage" has a documentary quality to it, although not to the extent that the 2012 film had.  The naturalistic dialogue and performances make it seem unrehearsed (which, in this case, is a compliment), but there's no one holding a camera, and there's little shaking (thank God!).  Still, Ayer needs to know how to work a microphone.  Much of the dialogue is unintelligible, which makes the plot confusing at times.

Schwarzenegger is trying to broaden his range in this role.  He's gritty and grungy, and tosses off profanity like a middle-schooler.  Never before has he been this dark and brooding.  Olivia Williams is in fine form as Caroline, the officer who is investigating the first officer's murder, and picks up on the fact that it was no accident.  Her Southern accent is a little forced, but her performance is not (I wonder why Ayer had her do this...she's British, and no one else bothers to use an accent).  And she gets to do some gunfighting, which is akin to seeing Meryl Streep shooting off some impressive weaponry.  Everyone else fills in like character actors; there's nothing distinguishing one from another, except for Mirelle Enos, who is decidedly not glamorous and borderline psychotic (her final scene is hammy on her end, though).

The film is not flawless.  Far from it in fact.  For one thing, the characters aren't especially interesting.  We see that they function as a family, but I never felt it.  The documentary-like quality of the film hampered my ability to connect with them.  "Twister" did something better nearly 20 years ago (has it been that long?).  There are confusing moments in the plot (mostly due to the bad sound), but there are some twists that I didn't see coming.

I was surprised at how involved I got in this film.  It's difficult to like, but it's involving and it stays with you.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Aviator

3/4

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Matt Ross, Kate Beckinsale, Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Sexual Content, Nudity, Language and a Crash Sequence

Howard Hughes was someone who saw something he wanted and went for it.  It was probably because he was an outsider that allowed him to be that way.  When one of his advisers told him that something wasn't possible, he really didn't understand the difficulty of doing what he wanted.  Money was no object either, since he was incredibly wealthy.  Hughes wanted it all, and got it all.

Martin Scorcese's biopic of Howard Hughes begins when during filming of his classic film "Hell's Angels."  He's trying to direct a massive air battle, but it's not coming together.  When he hires a scientist named Professor Fitz (Ian Holm) to help him find clouds, he finishes the picture and it becomes a massive hit.  A Hollywood rebel, Hughes continues to make pictures until his interest goes into making planes.  That leads to problems of its own, including a Senate hearing and a crash that leaves him disfigured.  But as his success increases, cracks begin to show in his mind, culminating in a massive breakdown that leaves him confined to a room in his office.

As is the case with Martin Scorcese films, the performances are terrific.  Leonardo DiCaprio essentially replaced Robert DeNiro as the director's favorite leading man with "Gangs of New York."  This isn't as strong of a film as the 2001 epic, but DiCaprio's performance is better.  DiCaprio buries himself in the role, creating a Howard Hughes that worth caring about.  We understand how his mind works and he quickly wins our sympathy.  The film is stolen from him by Cate Blanchett, who rightfully won an Oscar playing the fiery and feisty Katherine Hepburn.  Visually, she looks similar to the legendary actress, but her mannerisms and personality are a dead ringer.  It's uncanny how convincing she is.  John C. Reilly and Matt Ross provide solid support as two of Hughes's workers.  Alec Baldwin is effective as Juan Tripp, the owner of PanAm, Hughes's rival.  Special mention has to go to Alan Alda, who is perfectly sleazy as Senator Brewster (who is in Tripp's pocket).

This is very effective piece of directorial work by Martin Scorcese (can we expect anything less?).  His use of changing color tones as time goes by is unique, and he gives a thorough look inside Hughes's life.  Too thorough, in fact.  At nearly 3 hours, the film is too long.  Scorcese and his screenwriter John Logan have tried to cram too much into the film.  It's more like a step-by-step guide of Howard Hughes life.  Some parts should have been eliminated and others explored more thoroughly to make the film more effective.

Nevertheless, the film is strongly acted and always interesting.  I think it's worth seeing if you're interested in it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Aliens: Special Edition

4/4

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Lance Henrickson, Bill Paxton, William Hope

Rated R for Monster Violence, and for Language

Typically, when you make a sequel, it's a just a continuation of the story.  Meaning, it's the same thing with some new tweaks. "Scream" and its sequels, or more recently, "300" and its sequel.  "Aliens" is different.  The 1979 horror film was a haunted house movie in space, more akin to a superior slasher film than a space opera.  "Aliens," on the other hand, is intense, all-out action.  It's just as scary, but instead of being stalked in dark corridors, we have a bunch of marines pinned down by xenomorphs.

Ellen Ripley (Weaver) has been adrift for 57 years.  She was picked up by a salvage crew after the terrifying events on the Nostromo that left her entire crew dead.  Because the company didn't believe her story, her license was revoked.  But a company man by the name of Carter Burke (Reiser) gives her an opportunity to get her life back.  LV-426, as anyone who watched "Alien" knows, is the planet where they found the xenomorph.  It is now a planet being terraformed, only the company has lost contact with the colonists.  If she tags along with a group of marines to check it out and lend her expertise, she'll get her license back.  These marines are a tough bunch, and they're packing significant firepower.  Unfortunately, when it comes to battling with an army the deadliest creatures in film history, that doesn't mean squat.

If there's anyone who knows how to craft a superior action flick, it's James Cameron.  Few filmmakers have such a mastery of this genre, which is littered with disappointments ("Man of Steel") and bombs (Len Wiseman's bastard child of a "Total Recall" remake).  Cameron has always been a perfectionist, but his films excel not only because they are brilliant on a technical level, but because he is a superior screenwriter.  20th Century Fox loved the first 90 pages of his script so much that they allowed him to go and make "The Terminator" before completing the script.  For those of you that don't know, that kind of thing is unheard of in Hollywood.

Back again playing her most famous role is Sigourney Weaver.  In "Alien," she was just a normal grunt.  Here, she's tougher and more focused.  She goes along because she needs to put the demons to rest ("Just tell me one thing, Burke.  You're going out there to destroy them, right?  Not to study.  Not to bring back.  But to wipe them out.").  But a mother daughter bond between her and the lone survivor, a little girl named Newt (Henn) adds another dimension to her character and the story, especially the climax.  While this is the most celebrated aspect of the film, it's also the least successful.  I felt the bond mentally, but not emotionally.

She is surrounded by a solid supporting cast.  Paul Reiser is alternately sympathetic and sleazy as Burke.  He pays lip service to caring about Ripley, but his only real care is himself.  Carrie Henn, in her only film role, borders on being too cute at times, but that's a minor quibble.  Lance Henrickson is perfectly lovable as Bishop, the "artificial person" who, after the events in the first film, Ripley is extremely suspicious of and hostile towards.  Michael Biehn is suitably studly as Hicks, although the real heroics are performed by Ripley.  In addition to Biehn, two other Cameron regulars, Jenette Goldstein and Bill Paxton, play marines as well.

There's really not much more than I can say about this movie.  It's a thoroughly exhausting roller coaster ride that contains some excellent action and scares.  Now that you've finished reading the review, it's time to put the movie in the Blu Ray player and experience it for yourself (by the way, the Special Extended Edition is Cameron's preferred version).

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Divergent

3/4

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Kate Winslet, Mekhi Phifer, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn

Rated PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action, Thematic Elements and Some Sensuality

Now that the "Twilight" franchise is done with, Summit Entertainment (which was bought by Lionsgate because of the "Twilight" saga...the thought of more movies in that series gives me goosebumps) is looking for a new young adult book series to turn into a franchise.  Taking after the success of "The Hunger Games" (much of which is unwarranted), they have turned Veronica Roth's "Divergent" trilogy and are hoping for repeat success.  Considering how lame those movies are, it shouldn't be surprising that this movie is better.  Or, maybe considering the lack of quality in the films appealed to the tween demographic, maybe it is.

"Divergent" is a cross between the aforementioned "The Hunger Games" and "Harry Potter."  The first half so strongly resembles J.K. Rowling's franchise (specifically, the first and second book) that it borders on theft.  Factions=sorting houses, the lead character has to make a choice about which faction she chooses, etc.  It isn't until the latter half that "The Hunger Games"-ish stuff kicks in.

After a devastating war, the last surviving city has been separated into factions.  Beatrice (Woodley) has been raised in the Abegnation faction, who are defined by their selflessness (and as such make up the government).  Her test is coming up, and while she can choose to go against the results, she will end up as the "Factionless" if she chooses wrong.  Something startling happens, however.  She is found to be "Divergent," meaning she exhibits traits evident in more than one faction.  Because they don't follow the norm, they are hunted.  She chooses to join the "Dauntless," which are the protectors of the city.  There, she must prove herself to be worthy.  But there's something mysterious going on involving a high ranking woman of the Erudite faction named Jeanine (Winslet).

The film is at its best when it follows Beatrice (or Tris, as she begins to call herself) as she fights her way into acceptance.  The conspiracy stuff doesn't make a lot of sense, and it doesn't take center stage until the film's final act.

It helps tremendously that the acting is strong.  Shailene Woodley, who got Oscar buzz (although she failed to receive a nomination) for her performance in "The Descendants," although she's best known for her work in the TV show "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" and last year's indie hit "The Spectacular Now."  Woodley has a natural, unforced acting style.  She's an "every-girl," and it's impossible not to identify with her.  She's been paired with an obligatory hot young stud named Theo James, who plays her trainer/love interest, Four.  Unlike, say, Robert Pattinson or (shudder!) Taylor Lautner, James can act.  In fact, he's very good.  Four is tough and aloof to the point of being fearsome, but James is able to show that he cares about Tris.  The two have good chemistry.  The weaknesses of the script limit its effectiveness, but the two work well together.  It's entertaining to see Kate Winslet playing a villain, although there's not much that even she can do with such a pedestrian script.  Special mention has to go to Jai Courtney, who plays Eric, another trainer.  Courtney is truly vicious in the role.

The film was directed by Neil Burger, who directed "The Illusionist," a flawed but interesting tale about a magician played by Edward Norton.  His approach to the film is relatively clinical; the film looks handsomely budgeted, but stale.  There's no power in the setting that he creates.  It is coherent and entertaining, but the stale script and direction keep it from being something truly great.

Nevertheless, this is solid, if overlong, entertainment.  I'm curious as to where it's going to go, but I can wait until the sequel comes out next year.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

2.5/4

Starring (voices): Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Allison Janney, Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann

Rated PG for Some Mild Action and Brief Rude Humor

"Mr. Peabody & Sherman," which is a film version of the "Peabody's Improbably History" segments of "The Rocky and Bulwinkle Show," suffers from a similar fate that befalls most kids movies these days: too much action.  While it's true that young children don't have the patience or attentions spans of adults, kids movies don't have to be hour and a half long video games to be successful.  Look at "Beauty and The Beast," "The Lion King" (which was directed by Rob Minkoff, who also directed this film) or "Spirited Away" for examples.  Sure, those had action scenes, but they were germane to the plot.  They came out of the story, rather than being inserted just to keep kids interested.

Mr. Peabody (Burrell) never had a family growing up.  His intelligence and wit didn't endear him to kids looking for a cuddly puppy.  So he devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge, eventually becoming capable of more or less anything (there's little that he is unable to do, apparently).  He has a child named Sherman (Charles), that he found in an alley and adopted.  They have a close relationship, helped along by The Way Back, a time machine that he uses to give Sherman a first-hand learning experience of history.  But as all kids do, Sherman has grown up and must go to school.  It does not go well.  His intelligence makes him prey for Penny Peterson (Winter), who mercilessly makes him act like a dog in front of the whole lunchroom.  He bites her arm during the fight, which brings Mr. Peabody to the attention of Ms. Grunion (Janney), who has designs to take Sherman away from Mr. Peabody.  As a way to patch things up, he invites Penny and her parents over for a nice dinner to smooth things over.  That's when mischievous Penny and Sherman get into the Way Back, and Penny ends up becoming engaged to King Tut (Zach Callison).

Minkoff seems to think that no scene can end without some sort of action.  Be it a lunchroom fight or an escape from the guillotine (this serves as the introduction to the main characters, and it would have worked had it been shortened considerably), there's never a dearth of action in this movie.  But this limits the amount of emotional connection the characters have with each other and the audience.  And for a movie that's focused on the father-son relationship, that's a big problem.

The voice acting helps.  Ty Burrell is terrific as Mr. Peabody.  He's witty but aloof, and yet there is an underlying caring nature of his personality.  His performance is better than the film deserves.  Max Charles is also good as Sherman, whose experiences allow him to grow up.  Ariel Winter is also good as Penny, who isn't as nasty as she seems.  Everyone else, for reasons only known to the filmmakers, seems to shout all their lines.

There's no subtlety in this film.  The filmmakers have made the same mistake that made "The Lorax" misfire two years ago: they have underestimated their audience.  And that is why I am not recommending the film.

Dick Tracy

2/4

Starring: Warren Beatty, Charlie Korsmo, Glenne Headly, Madonna, Al Pacino

Rated PG (for Violence, I guess)

Let's get the obvious out of the way: "Dick Tracy" looks fabulous.  Warren Beatty has attempted to bring a comic book to life, and while the effect as a whole is not always successful, the film's look is amazing.  Beatty has deepened the colors and has carefully chosen how to set up the shots to lend the film a comic-like sensibility.  Unfortunately, the film runs into trouble when it comes to acting and plot.

Dick Tracy (Beatty) is a detective with a reputation of bending the law to catch the bad guys.  His obsessive need to be in the middle of the action is frustrating his girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Headly).  Meanwhile, someone has knocked off Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino) and Dick thinks it was Big Boy Caprice (Pacino).  But he doesn't have any evidence, so he has to convince lounge singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna) to testify against him, which considering Caprice's viciousness, is no easy task.  But there is also another shadowy figure with his hands in the story...

Putting it bluntly, the film's plot is a mess.  It rarely makes any sense.  The script by Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. goes anywhere and everywhere, and Beatty, who directed this film, struggles to hold everything up.  It's a valiant effort, but an unsuccessful one.

The acting is also problematic.  No one seems comfortable in their characters skins or in the midst of this weird setting.  Not even the acting veterans are convincing; they're either miscast or just bad.  Warren Beatty plays Dick, and it's not a role that he is suited for (although it's not hard to understand why he took the part, since he directed the film).  Dick is meant to be played by a Humphrey Bogart-ish tough guy, and Beatty isn't it.  Former kid star Charlie Korsmo is stiff and rarely convincing.  Tiny voiced Glenne Headly is not the right actress for this kind of a movie.  Al Pacino just shouts a lot, and his performance quickly becomes irritating.  The only actor who gets the film is Madonna, ironically (maybe it's because she's used to this kind of over-the-top visual stuff...after all, she is Madonna).

Beatty paces this film like a film trailer.  It never slows down.  A film-noir has to be able to stir in its own juices before accelerating to the climax.  "Dick Tracy" is all about the acceleration.

It's a shame, really.  The work by the people who created the sets and costumes deserves to be seen and appreciated (it did win an Oscar for Art and Set Decoration, but Vittorio Storaro lost the statue for his camerawork).  The makeup (which earned an Oscar for John Caglione Jr and Doug Drexler) is ambitious but not particularly successful...some cartoons don't lend themselves well to reality.

My advice is to skip this one and watch "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Sin City," two movies that did similar things to much better effect.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

3/4

Starring: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightly, Geoffrey Rush, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally

Rated PG-13 for Action/Adventure Violence

"Pirates of the Carribean" is so goofy that it's impossible to dislike.  Not that there are many reasons to.  Other than an overlong running time and a momentary bit of confusion here or there, this is a lot of fun (as can be attested by the franchise's box office success).

Will Turner (Bloom) is a young blacksmith who pines for the girl who rescued him from certain death many years ago.  Her name is Elizabeth Swann (Knightly), the daughter of the governor of Port Royal.  But she has a proposal from the local commodore, Norrington (Davenport), which leaves him in the dust.  Fortune is blowing his way, however.  The cursed pirate ship, the Black Pearl, has come to Port Royal, and the pirates, led by the ruthless Captain Barbossa (Rush), have kidnapped Elizabeth.  In order to rescue her, Will has to make a deal with the devil.  A pirate, actually, by the name of Jack Sparrow (Depp).  Jack, sensing an opportunity for his own gain, agrees.  But Will's past is about to change the fortunes of all.

The movie would not be as successful as it is without the delightfully weird performance of Johnny Depp.  An actor who can, and will, do just about anything, Depp steals the entire movie from everyone.  Jack Sparrow is one of the great movie characters.  He is smarter than people give him credit for, and has a way of using quirky logic to arrive at the right conclusions.  He's also not trustworthy, which makes things more interesting.  We never know what his ulterior motives are.

His two co-stars, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly, do their best to hold their own against a force of nature like Depp, and they mostly manage it.  They both realize that this is Depp's movie, but neither gets lost in the background.  Geoffrey Rush appears to be enjoying himself immensely as Barbossa.  He's badder than bad, but still manages to effortlessly convey feelings of pathos.  After Depp, the true scene-stealer is Jack Davenport.  As the stiff Brit Norrington, Davenport is a worthy antagonist, although his intentions are hardly malicious.  He's just enforcing the law.  His delivery leads to some big laughs and true feeling when the situation calls for it.  Jonathan Pryce and Kevin McNally provide solid support.

Gore Verbinski knows what he's doing.  Going from a splendidly creepy horror film ("The Ring") to blockbuster is a pretty big leap, but Verbinski handles the shift with skill.  This is a deeply atmospheric (to the point of being a little spooky at times) action movie that's loaded with quirky humor.  It's got a pretty British sense of humor, including lots of slapstick, innuendos, and twisted logic.

Ultimately, the film's major failing is its length.  There are times when this movie drags, which isn't good for a breathless roller coaster (no pun intended) ride like "Pirates of the Carribean."  The swordfights are fun, but they get a little repetitive.  After all, it's hard to generate tension about a swordfight when one or both members is immortal.

Still, this is a lot of fun.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Blue Caprice

0.5/4

Starring: Tequan Richmond, Isaiah Richmond, Tim Blake Nelson, Joey Lauren Adams

Rated R for Disturbing Violent Content, Language and Brief Drug Use

If I have to sit through another film that is artsy for the sake of being artsy, I'm going to scream.  I swear to God, I am so sick of them.  Movies are meant to tell stories and to allow audiences to get to know interesting characters.  But things ("Blue Caprice" doesn't earn the right to be called a film) like this just make me ready to throw my Blu Ray player (or Xbox 360, in this case) in the garbage.

Normally, one would think that a movie about the Beltway Sniper attacks would be next to impossible to screw up.  But first time feature director Alexandre Moors (who's background is in shorts, and you guessed it, special effects) manages it.  In fact, it's unbelievable how far he misses the mark.  Something this atrocious could only have been produced by one of three types of people: someone who is stroking his own ego, someone who is trying to impress the avant garde crowd (it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival and was one of its "Official Selections," if that gives you any idea), or someone who is trying to make the worst movie of all time.  No one who knows how to utilize a simple camera's basic functions could make something this shitty.

During the month of October 2002, the D.C./Baltimore area was paralyzed with fear as two men shot and killed people at random.  The perpetrators were John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.  Of course, their spree started earlier that year and covered eight other states (not including Maryland and the District of Columbia).  "Blue Caprice" attempts, with next to no success, to tell the killer's story.

All but abandoned by his mother, Lee (Richmond) tries to drown himself, but is saved by his neighbor John (Washington).  The two head to Washington where they shack up with Ray (Nelson) and Jamie (Adams), two of John's friends.  Then they begin their murder spree.

This is one of those movies where instead of listing the ways the film goes wrong, it would be easier, and less time consuming, for me to list the two things that it does right: the film is atmospheric (although in the wrong way...it feels like a jungle rather than a cold New England that has a terrifying pair of serial killers) and the violence is shocking.  Everything else is awful.

Okay, fine, the performances are good.  But that's little consolation when one considers how little they have to do.  Instead of diving deep into the two lead characters's heads (which would be a fascinating, if terrifying, journey), we know next to nothing about them.  All we know about them is that John has his kids taken away from him and has a grudge against the world (he all but quotes from The Joker in "The Dark Knight") and Lee is a quiet kid who is from Antigua.  We don't know why John would resort to murder or why Lee would go along with it (eventually).  Instead, we have a bizarre soundtrack and images of characters doing something.

Look, Alexandre Moors is a young, handsome guy who has made his first feature film.  I'd be a little more lenient if the film wasn't so offensive to its viewers.  It's not a movie, it's an ego trip.  And that's what makes the film so sickening.  Using such a devastating story to make an impression to the indie crowd is morally reprehensible.  Just avoid this movie.  Please?  And make Moors go back to film school or switch careers to flipping burgers.

Monday, March 10, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire

3/4

Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, Jack O'Connell, Lena Heady, Rodrigo Santoro

Rated R for Strong Sustained Sequences of Stylized Bloody Violence Throughout, A Sex Scene, Nudity and Some Language

"300" was a violent, bloody adrenaline cocktail that had "cult movie" written all over it.  I had a friend who said that he knew someone who watched it over and over again for days.  Adrenaline junkies flocked to it.  It made a killing at the box office (just shy of $500 million), so a sequel was inevitable.  It was in the pipeline for a number of years in various incarnations until finally, last Friday, the film was completed and released to the public.

The film's plotline covers events before, during (although in another theater of the war), and after the events in the first film.  Themistocles (Stapleton) is a legendary naval commander who, during the battle of Marathon, threw the spear that felled the Persian king Darius (Igal Naor).  He did not seize the opportunity to kill Darius's son Xerxes (Santoro), a decision he later regrets.  Then he realizes that the Persian army is on the warpath, intending to wipe Athens from the map of history.  They are led by Artemesia (Green), a Greek who was attacked by her own people and left for dead.  Now Themistocles must fight the forces of Artemesia, whose ships are more numerous and more powerful than his.

The best way to sum up "300: Rise of an Empire" is probably this: you'll get what you paid for.  People will go to see this movie because they want to see copious, over-the-top violence, streams of blood, and some naked boobs.  The film has all three in great quantities.  Those who liked the first one will appreciate what Noam Murro has unleashed.

The acting is effective, which helps the film considerably.  The lead, replacing Gerard Butler (who was invited to have a cameo, but turned it down.  He still appears in archive footage, however), is Sullivan Stapleton, a relative unknown in the US (he did have small roles in "Gangster Squad" and "Animal Kingdom," though).  Stapleton gives a good performance, but he doesn't have Butler's presence or charisma.  Nevertheless, we get on his side, and that's all that matters.  Eva Green was the studio's only choice for Artemesia, and it's a part the she plays with relish.  Artemesia is bad to the bone; she's the kind of girl who will interrogate a prisoner, slice off his head, and kiss its mouth (with tongue) before tossing it nonchalantly overboard.  Still, there were times when I thought she could have chewed the scenery even more.  Everyone else is a character actor, and fills their jobs admirably.

Director Noam Murro attempts to replicate Zack Snyder's signature style in the action scenes, and he is mostly successful.  It has about 90% of the adrenaline that the first film had, and I'll take that gladly.  Less effective is an examination of Themistocles guilt over the carnage that he is somewhat responsible for.  It's not convincing, and frankly, has no place in a movie like this.  This is a movie where the warriors are thrill-seekers, eager for the bloodletting to begin.

I like how Murro and his crew don't try to make a carbon copy of the first one.  For the most part, the action takes place on ships.  It's cooler because it's different and more epic, but no less satisfying.  For those who crave the sword-and-sandal slaughter, there's plenty of that too.

All in all, this is exactly what a good sequel should do: retain the identity and thrust of the original but take it in a new direction.  The ending, however, is less than satisfying, however.  Not that that's much of a detriment.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Mike's Musings: Farewell to the Master

The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you'd thought special, particular to you.  And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead.  And it's as if a hand has come out, and taken yours. --- Hector, "The History Boys," written by Alan Bennett

That's the way I'd describe Hayao Miyazaki's films.  Whenever I watch one, I get blanketed in their warmth and imagination.  Watching them is a truly trans-formative experience.  Once the film starts, the world around me ceases to exist, and for the next two hours, I am transported to a wondrous, weird and loving world.

In 1971, Hayao Miyazaki began his directorial career with an episode of "Lupin the 3rd," based on the classic manga.  It didn't last long (23 episodes), although it went on to be a cult phenomenon due to its numerous reruns.  Six years after the show went off the air, Miyazaki created a film version of the show, called "The Castle of Cagliostro."  But it wasn't until 1984, with the release of "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind," that he became a known name.  Since then he's been making movies on a fairly consistent basis.  It wasn't until the one-two punch of "Princess Mononoke" and "Spirited Away," that he became internationally famous.

As a film lover, there has been no other filmmaker who has had such a profound impact on me.  Not even Steven Spielberg, or Martin Scorcese, or any other big name film directors, have created so many films that struck such a deep chord within me.  Whenever I'm feeling bad or am having trouble sleeping, I just throw in one of his movies, and I'm out like a lightbulb fairly quickly.

But his films mean more than that to me.  It's not something I can put into words.  I tried writing a farewell piece to him when I first heard about his retirement, but it turned out to be awful.  Not nearly the sendoff, if that's what "The Wind Rises" is, he deserves.

When I first heard that he was retiring, I was deeply saddened.  There would be no more magic from him.  I check iMDb occasionally to see if he has something in the pipeline.  It's usually around five years between each film (not bad, considering that he draws most of the frames himself and allows no more than 10% of his films to be CGI), but I could wait.  Even his misfires ("Kiki's Delivery Service" and to a lesser extent, "Howl's Moving Castle") were at least engaging and interesting.

There is hope, however.  Miyazaki has planned on retiring many times throughout his career, so his announcement should be taken with a grain of salt.  Granted, he is 73, so he is at the later end of his career, but here's to hoping that he reverses his decision and creates one or two new masterpieces that I know his fans are clamoring for.

But, if indeed this is the end of his career, he has left an indelible legacy on film history.  No other filmmaker will ever be able to replace the magic that he has created.  And for that, Miyazaki-san, I thank you.

The Wind Rises

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci

Rated PG-13 for Some Disturbing Images and Smoking

"The Wind Rises" is Hayao Miyazaki's final film (although this must be taken with a grain of salt, since he has planned retirement many times), and it is a good one.  It is also unlike anything that he has done before.  His previous films, such as the legendary masterpiece "Spirited Away" or "Princess Mononoke" have relied heavily on fantasy.  That's not the case here.  With one minor exception, this is a fantasy free film (the dream sequences don't count because that's a different kind of fantasy).  That doesn't mean that it's lacking in quality compared to his other films, because it is not.  Rest assured, this is a very good movie.

Jiro Horikoshi (Gordon-Levitt) has always had a fascination with airplanes.  He dreams about them, translates magazines that are in English in order to read about them, and would like nothing better than to fly one.  But his poor eyesight prevents that from occurring, so he plans on designing them.  He ends up creating the design for the infamous Japanese Zero.  He also falls in love with a beautiful girl named Nahoko (Blunt), but she is sick with tuberculosis.

The voice acting is great.  No one tries to steal the spotlight; in fact, it's hard to tell that some of these characters are voiced by famous actors.  The names in the cast include the aforementioned Gordon-Levitt and Blunt, plus John Krasinski as Jiro's best friend and co-worker Honjo, Martin Short as his boss Kurokawa, and Stanley Tucci as the great engineer Caproni.  William H. Macy, Mandy Patinkin, Mae Whitman, Jennifer Grey, Werner Herzog, Darren Criss and Elijah Wood also contribute their talents.  None are recognizable.

Director Hayao Miyazaki's most famous quality has been the beauty and complexity of the images that he creates.  That's the case here, although not in the same sense as his other films.  They are more realistic, but no less gorgeous.  Miyazaki also takes time to add the minutiae for realism.  Even the Disney films use static backgrounds in their films, and limit the amount of characters and movement on screen because it takes less time and energy.  Not so with Miyazaki.  The backgrounds are alive, and it's filled with extra characters doing their own movements, such as smoking or running.  He takes his time, and the film is all the more beautiful because of it.

Miyazaki has replaced his whimsical tone for something more somber and thoughtful.  This is a more mature effort for him.  Content-wise, there's really nothing objectionable in this film, but I don't think kids will be enamored with this movie.  There's no real action in it.  This is a talky and slow-moving effort.

Unfortunately, editing problems in the first 20 minutes prevent this film from receiving a 4/4.  Additionally, the film is more understated emotionally than his other efforts, so I didn't get swooped up in the drama I was watching and listening to.  Nevertheless, this is a truly special motion picture, and will certainly be on my Top 10 list this year, and probably near the top.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Shane

0.5/4

Starring: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon De Wilde, Emile Meyer, Jack Palance

Not Rated

I am not an "old movie" hater.  While some, such as "All About Eve," are either overrated or outdated, many have stood the test of time.  "Casablanca," "Gone with the Wind," anything by Alfred Hitchcock...just because it's in black and white and stars actors who haven't been around for more than a few decades doesn't mean it's bad or boring.  Of course there were crappy movies then too, just as there are now.  "Shane" is one of them.

Oh, this is a terrible movie.  I mean, it's really bad.  The fact that many consider it to be a classic makes me wonder what those critics were actually watching.  There's almost nothing here worthy of praise.  The only good things about this movie (and there aren't many) are undone by one of the movie's many egregious flaws.

The story takes place on a farm shortly after the Civil War.  The Starretts have a good farm going, but a local rancher by the name of Ryker (Meyer), is trying to chase out all the homesteaders so he can move his cattle herd to grazing territory with much more ease.  Joe Starrett (Heflin) won't stand for it, but Ryker and his cronies are making staying in their homes much more difficult.  One day, a stranger who calls himself Shane (Ladd) wanders into their farm.  He's kind, upright, and moral.  The Starretts take a liking to him, especially their young son Joey (De Wilde).  Joe hires him as a helping hand, and he's going to need it once Ryker's methods start escalating into violence.

This is a good idea for a movie, and one that could have worked within the constraints of the Hays Code.  Unfortunately, the script is awful.  Not only are there lots of clunkers and some conversations run on too long simply because the characters are repeating each other, but it allows no depth to the characters.  They're boring.  There are so many cliches that the only way to survive watching it may be to count them: the harmonica player, the precocious kid, the moral hero, the whiskey, and so on.

The acting doesn't help matters.  Alan Ladd makes Shane as interesting as he can, but in the end the script turns him into a generic hero.  The character, a mysterious man, deserves a better movie than this.  Van Heflin is stupid and dull.  Jean Arthur is just awful; at no point is she ever convincing.  Young Brandon De Wilde earned an Oscar nomination at the age of 11 (although the film was made two years earlier), and I'm at a loss to understand why.  Joey is just another one of those precocious kids who worships the hero and asks him obvious questions in an attempt to look cute.  He's annoying.  Emile Meyer is okay, I guess.  We hate the character, but that's the script's lone success.  Jack Palance is sufficiently creepy as Wilson, the notorious gunslinger, but he has so little screen time.  The film would have been better served had director George Stevens concentrated more on him.

George Stevens was one of the most famous directors in the Golden Age of Hollywood.  He directed films such as "Giant," "A Place in the Sun," and "Woman of the Year."  About the only good thing I can say about his work here is that the film looks great in the day time, although the camera trickery to turn day into night onscreen couldn't be more obvious.  Editing problems also abound: awkward cutting, plotholes and jump cuts are all present.  The film is also far too long.  A movie about attrition between two people (or groups of people in this case) can be compelling, but only when time is used judiciously.  I kept thinking of "Hight Noon," another film that is sort of similar, and did it to much better effect.

The bottom line is that this movie is awful.  Just horrid.  Don't make your mind up about how all the classics are boring.  If you want a Western, just watch "High Noon" instead and leave this one to the tumbleweeds.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Wonderland

2/4

Starring: Val Kilmer, Kate Bosworth, Dylan McDermott, Josh Lucas, Eric Bogosian, Lisa Kudrow, Ted Levine, Franky G, M.C. Gainey

Rated R for Strong Violence/Grisly Images, Pervasive Drug Use and Language, Some Sexuality/Nudity

The Wonderland Murders are one of the great unsolved mysteries in U.S.  Four people were brutally murdered in retaliation for a heist, but the specifics of how everything went down and who did what remain a mystery.  The two people who knew, John Holmes and David Lind, were not credible witnesses.  Lind had a long criminal history and both were drug addicts.  Director James Cox tries, with limited success, to tell both Holmes' and Lind's version of the events (and perhaps his own version of what happened).

John Holmes (Kilmer) was The King of Porn.  With his legendary penis and fame in the pornographic film industry, he was as notorious as he was famous.  But with the advent of video, his work dried up, and he turned to drugs.  The film takes place after his fall from grace.  But in June 1981, he was the connection between businessman/drug lord Eddie Nash (Bogosian) and the murders of the Wonderland gang.

James Cox has constructed his film as a puzzle.  David Lind tells his version of the events, then later we see Holmes' version.  There are also flashbacks interspersed in these stories, as well as the "main" plotline, which follows John around as he struggles to find the next high while staying out of trouble.  Even some of these scenes are open to question, because we see them through the eyes of his girlfriend Dawn Schiller (Bosworth) and his estranged wife Sharon (Kudrow).  But what they say isn't always what really happened.

It's all very complicated.  For the most part, it's well organized enough that we can understand what's going on, although there were a number of times where I was confused, and had to rewind the film a few times in order to get some idea of what happened (or what someone said happened).

The acting is the film's strong suit.  Val Kilmer has always been a strong actor in films like "Heat" or "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang."  He gives a terrific performance, one that might have warranted an Oscar nomination (one that is long overdue).  Unfortunately, Cox's kinetic style mutes his charisma.  Ditto for Kate Bosworth, although she doesn't have much to do other than sit in a hotel, do drugs, or be told to wait in the car.  Dylan McDermott is quite good as David Lind.  McDermott's range is usually limited to low-key performances, but he does well as the intense, foul-mouthed David Lind.  Eric Bogosian manages to chill once or twice as David Nash; this is not someone to be messed with.  Josh Lucas, Ted Levine and especially Lisa Kudrow provide solid support.  The film also has a number of known names in cameos, like Tim Blake Nelson, Christina Applegate, Natasha Gregson Wagner and Janeane Garafalo, but they're in bit parts.  It's impossible to recognize them because they have so little screen time.  Paris Hilton also shows up for a bit part.

Ultimately, Cox's hyperactive style is the film's undoing.  It is so energetic that we lose sight of the story and the characters.  This is a compelling story and Cox's approach is unique, and it would have worked without the Michael Bay-ish coloring.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare

3.5/4

Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Miko Hughes, Tracy Middendorf, David Newsom, Wes Craven, Robert Englund

Rated R for Explicit Horror Violence and Gore, and for Language

In many ways, this is a superior film to the original "Nightmare on Elm Street."  It's better scripted, edited and the special effects aren't as cheesy.  It's also much, much more ambitious.  In fact, it's a lot like "The Lego Movie" in the sense that I wanted to keep watching to see where Wes Craven would take it.

The film takes place ten years after the original was filmed.  Heather Langenkamp (as herself) is dividing her time as an actress with being a mother to Dylan (Hughes).  She's married to Chase (Newsom), a special effects artist.  But weird things are going on.  There are lots of earthquakes, Heather is dealing with a stalker, and Dylan is acting weird.  It's not just her.  Robert Englund is painting strange pictures and Wes Craven is having nightmares (which he pores into a script that he's writing, which is the new "Nightmare on Elm Street" movie).  Apparently, when they made the first film, they allowed a demonic entity a way into our world.  And the only way to keep him at bay is to make more movies.  Now, Wes thinks he's figured out a way to defeat him once and for all, but he needs Heather to play Nancy one last time.

"A Nightmare on Elm Street" dealt with the line between fantasy and reality.  "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" takes it a step further.  For example, where is the line between the actor and the character?  Or if Freddy is an entity that has crossed into our world, then how is Wes going to be able to stop him with writing?  Everything is so blurred that we don't know what's going to happen or where Craven is going to take us.  This makes the film a refreshing and creepy experience.

How can I discuss the acting since the actors are playing themselves?  I will say that Langenkamp is great, and ditto for Miko Hughes.  I also liked Tracy Mittendorf, who plays Dylan's nanny Julie.  David Newsom and Robert Englund are stiff, but in the case of Englund, maybe that's how he is in real life.

This is a superbly constructed movie.  It makes itself up as it goes along, yes, but that's okay here.  Craven knows what he's doing, and there are rules of what can and cannot happen.  The story follows its own logic.

But Craven doesn't forget about the scares.  There are some truly creepy sequences in this film.  The body count is pretty low (and the gore level is even lower...apart from one mildly gruesome scene, it's relatively bloodless).  Not so much in what happens (although there are some great set pieces), but in the general atmosphere.  Craven does an expert job of putting us on edge merely by establishing the setting.

Apart from a few minor missteps on the script level (a few more lines here and there would have cleared up a few things), this is almost a 4/4.  Fans of the franchise shouldn't miss this one.  Nor, for that matter, anyone who enjoys adventurous movies and great storytelling (note: it would be helpful to watch the first film, but it's not essential).

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

3/4

Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, John Saxon, Ronee Blakely, Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri. Robert Englund

Rated R (for Horror Violence/Gore, Sexuality, and Language...I guess)

The three biggest horror movie villains are Michael Meyers ("Halloween"), Jason Voorhees (the "Friday the 13th" series) and Freddy Krueger ("A Nightmare on Elm Street").  There are plenty of others (Leatherface, Chucky, Pinhead...just to name a few), but those are the big three.  Of them, "Halloween" is the best, but "A Nightmare on Elm Street" is pretty darn good (I've seen the original "Friday the 13th," and if someone could enlighten me on why that actually started one of the biggest horror movie franchises, I would really like to know).

One of the most common staples of a horror movie is the dream sequence.  It goes something like this: the heroine is being stalked down a dark corridor by the villain (usually carrying some nasty cutlery of some kind), and just as the killer is about to butcher his prey, she wakes up gasping.  It was only a dream.

"A Nightmare on Elm Street" is built on that idea, only in reverse.  Nancy is dreaming, but she can't wake up.  That's bad news because if she dies in the dream, she dies in real life.  It's a truly innovative idea, because while we all have scary nightmares, we know that sleep is our safe haven.  The thought of that being taken away is truly frightening.

Tina (Wyss) is not feeling well.  The night before, she had a very scary dream.  She was being chased by a heavily scarred man, and she woke up just as he was about to kill her.  Only when she woke up, her nightgown was shredded.  Her friend Nancy (Langenkamp) had a similar nightmare.  Soon, events make Nancy realize that the only time she and her friends are safe is when they are awake.

"A Nightmare on Elm Street" is a rarity: a smart horror movie.  Most horror movies, even the best ones, rely on acts of stupidity by the characters (usually before they are brutally murdered by the killer).  Not here.  Nancy Thompson is a resourceful girl, and she's determined to stay one step ahead of Fred Krueger (Englund), a sadist with knives for fingers.

Wes Craven is one of the most famous names in horror, and for good reason: he knows what he's doing.  More importantly, his willingness to take chances allowed him to stay ahead of the game.  Other directors like John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper have fizzled out because either they were one-trick ponies or because they weren't willing to do anything different.  An idea this inventive needs to be handled correctly, and that's something that Craven understands.  Consistency is everything in a movie like this, and for the most part, the film stays on the right side of the line (there are times when Craven breaks the rules, but they're brief and few...his attempts to make us question whether Nancy is dreaming or not don't work, but at least he took the chance).

This is a good horror film, but not a great one.  It's spooky and involving, but not especially scary.  Movies like "Halloween" and "Sinister" show what a horror movie can truly be; "A Nightmare on Elm Street" doesn't approach that level of terror.  The ending is also problematic.  Although it is foreshadowed, it flies in the face of the entire movie.  The final scene is a neat twist on the surface, but it suffers from the same problem when you think about it.

For horror movie buffs, this is definitely a movie to check out.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Adore

3/4

Starring: Naomi Watts, Robin Wright, Xavier Samuel, James Frecheville

Rated R for Sexual Content and Language

"Adore" is either a romance or a tragedy, depending on your point of view.  Maybe it's a bit of both.  I'm having trouble myself figuring out how I feel about it, or for that matter, how I'm supposed to feel about it.

Lil (Watts) and Roz (Wright) have been best friends all their lives.  Even as adults, they live next door to each other.  Lil's husband died when her son Ian was very young, and it didn't take long for them to pass on their friendship to their children.  Now teenagers, Ian (Samuel) and Tom (Frecheville), are turning into handsome, virile young men ("They're like gods," Lil says as she and Roz watch them shower after a day of surfing).  And as is par for the course, the boys hormones have started to rage.  Ian's attention has turned to Roz, and in a moment of temptation, she opens herself up into temptation.  But when Tom finds out what happens, he figures that this can go both ways.  Soon each mother has fallen for the other's son.

This is a twisted premise that is likely to turn off a lot of people.  And while it doesn't follow to the same conclusion as one might think (or hope), it at least has the honesty to follow through with its conviction.  Director Anne Fontaine, in her English language debut, doesn't exploit the situation.  She allows her characters to constantly take a look at themselves and try to find a way out of the situation.  Lil and Roz know what they are doing is wrong, but they can't resist the boys they have fallen in love with.

The performances help the film a lot.  In fact, the film would not survive without them.  Naomi Watts, never one to back away from risky or controversial films, is excellent as Lil.  Of the two women, she's the one with the weaker conviction.  Robin Wright, an underrated actress, is even better.  Roz is more mature, but she understands Lil through and through, and is willing to forgive because she is in the same boat.

The two boys, Xavier Samuel and James Frencheville, are also outstanding (not to mention incredibly attractive...that's not just me talking since it's crucial for the film to work).  Samuel came to the role almost directly after playing Riley Samuels in "Twilight: Eclipse."  Fortunately, he has more talent than most of the people in that stupid franchise.  Ditto for James Frecheville, whose turn in the overrated "Animal Kingdom" was just a taste of his talent.  Both try to move out from the nest (Tom more so), but the ties that bind are very strong.

It is not uncommon for a young man (or woman) to develop a crush on an adult.  Take a look at the teen magazines as an example.  They're filled with pictures of older celebrities.  Or on the reverse side, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.  Of course they know that there's no chance that they'd meet their fantasies in the flesh, but that's okay since it's just a fantasy.  But things change when fantasy becomes reality, especially when the adult doesn't act in a way that they should.

While I am reasonably sure that Fontaine wanted us to think of this movie as a romance (that is if the last shot was of what I thought it was, and it probably is, since it's the only logical thing that it could be), I'm glad that she told it in such a way that I was able to interpret it in my own way.

Oh, and the cinematography by Christophe Beaucarne is amazing.  It's enough to watch the movie just to see the images that he creates.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Non-Stop

3/4

Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Shea Whigham, Corey Stoll, Linus Roache, Scoot McNairy, Anson Mount

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action and Violence, Some Language, Sensuality and Drug References

I love a good whodunit.  I'm notoriously bad at guessing who is the culprit, but the difference between a good whodunit and a bad one is one that actively involves you and keeps you hungering for the answer.  There are very few good members of the genre (the constraints make them difficult to film effectively).  Off the top of my head, the only one that comes to mind is "Identity."  Fortunately, "Non-Stop" is one of the good ones.  As much as we're wondering what is going to happen next, director Jaume Collet-Serra keeps us guessing who the killer is.

Bill Marks (Neeson) is a bitter, alcoholic U.S. Marshal.  He's on a transatlantic flight over Europe, when he gets a text message on an encrypted service.  Someone on the plane is demanding $150 million, and will kill a passenger every 20 minutes until he gets it.  But who is it, and which passenger is next?

Alfred Hitchcock coined the term "refrigerator movie" for films just like "Non-Stop."  They make total sense while they're unspooling, but after you get home and get a nighttime snack, you see the holes in the plot.  "Non-Stop" is like that.  It moves too fast and is too exciting to think about the plotholes (of which there are a few) until long after the end credits have finished.

The performances are fine, although this isn't an actor's show.  Liam Neeson is as unlikely as they come for an action hero (he looks ready for his AARP card), but the "Taken" movies have cemented his bankability in the genre.  Actually, the connection between these two movies is a misnomer.  There's not much action, so to speak, in this movie.  This is a thriller, not something that could feature Arnold Schwarzenegger or The Rock.  Julianne Moore is also in fine form as Jen, the ever-helpful (maybe too helpful...?) woman sitting next to him.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra proves that, with a good script, he knows what he's doing (I'm pointing to "Orphan," not "House of Wax," because lets face it, that movie had a lousy script).  He doesn't go for the quick payoffs.  He allows the suspense to build slowly, although not slowly enough.  There are a few too many slo-mo shots in this film; one or two would be effective if used judiciously, but he overplays the technique.  Also, he commits one of my biggest pet peeves: unintelligible dialogue.  I hate it when I can't understand what the character is saying (either because of their accent or because of their low tone of voice).  If someone is talking, you should make sure that the audience can understand what they are saying.

Making an action movie set on a passenger jet is a tricky thing after 9/11.  It's impossible not to think about it when watching a film like this, and for the most part, the film stays on the right side of the line.  It mentions the disaster (how could it not?), but there is one big action scene that, considering what happens and the context in which it occurs, comes a little too close to exploitation to comfort.  However, the film recovers well, and provides a suitable resolution for the scene.  Of greater concern is that the climax has a speech that is almost sickeningly preachy.

The question that Universal had to ask themselves is, are we ready for a movie like this?  The box office says yes.  The film has been doing really well (it has already made back its budget after a week), and it shows no signs of stopping.  I think that is a good sign.  We've not forgotten 9/11 (and never will), but we are able to have action movies in the sky again.

Donkey Punch

3/4

Starring: Nichola Burley, Julian Morris, Jamie Winstone, Jay Taylor, Tom Burke, Sian Breckin, Robert Butler

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for A Scene of Strong Sexual Content involving an Aberrant Violent Act, Graphic Nudity, Violence, Language and Drug Use

"Donkey Punch" looks to be a British exploitation horror flick.  Lots of T&A, even more violence and mayhem, and plenty of hot sex.  While it has all three (in copious quantities...), looks can be deceiving.  From the start, the film looks to be the sex-and-blood movie that I described, but by the end of the movie, it has turned out to be something quite different.

Three friends named Lisa (Breckin), Tammi (Burley) and Kim (Winstone), are taking a vacation in Mallorca, Spain.  Tammi's relationship just ended, so her friends are trying to get her to have a good time.  After a day of clubbing, they run into four hot guys who as it turns out work on a yacht.  Marcus (Taylor), Bluey (Burke), Sean (Boulter) and Josh (Morris), invite them on the yacht for a night of sex, drugs and partying.  After determining that they can't be too loud when in the harbor, they sail out into the open sea.  Then the partiers go down below for some fun with each other...and that's when things go horribly wrong.

This isn't a slasher movie.  It's really a dramatic thriller about people in a bad situation that, because of the decisions they make, inadvertently make things infinitely worse.  Unlike most thrillers of this ilk, it doesn't rely on cheap shocks and plot twists.  The film is smarter than that.  The characters analyze their situation and act accordingly.  Of course, different motivations and misunderstandings can have deadly consequences in such a situation like this.

The acting is great, which helps us accept the characters and their situation.  For the most part, they're on an equal playing field, although Julian Morris (a regular on TV's "Pretty Little Liars") and Jay Taylor (whose character can be charismatic and sexy or ruthless, depending on the situation) deserve special mention.  Tom Burke is good, but his accent is so thick that it's hard to understand half of what he says (this goes for the majority of the actors, although Burke has the most trouble).

I like how director Olly Blackburn doesn't settle for the lowest common denominator.  He allows things to unfold naturally, which sometimes changes the genre here and there.  Some of what happens doesn't hold up, even on cursory reflection, or we wonder why one character did something, but the majority of it does.

This is not for the squeamish or the puritanical (the sex is pretty hot, and I believe all but two of the actors spend quite a bit of time sans clothing...then again, the Brits have never been shy when it comes to that sort of thing), but it's not sleazy.  And that's what makes this movie so good.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Hocus Pocus

3/4

Starring: Omri Katz, Bette Midler, Thora Birch, Vinessa Shaw, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, and the voice of Jason Marsden

Rated PG for Some Scary Sequences, and for Language

Affection is a funny thing when it comes to movies.  Rewatching old favorites with new eyes can make a critic see a film's faults when they couldn't before ("Heavy Weights" is a good example).  But do the fond memories cloud the judgement enough to recommend the film when it's not especially good?  More importantly, is it right to deny a child the pleasure you had as a child simply because the film has not aged well for you?  What to do...

"Hocus Pocus" isn't a terrible movie, but it's not a very good one either.  The dialogue is pretty bland, and there are quite a few clunkers.  Some of what passes for acting is an embarrassment to the profession.  There's also a serious continuity error that allows the climax to play out the way it does.  But maybe my judgement is clouded by my fond memories because I still liked it.

In 1693, three witches named Winifred (Midler), Mary (Najimy) and Sarah (Parker) were convicted of witchcraft and hung.  They vowed that when a black flame candle in their home was lit by a virgin on Halloween night, they would return.  Three hundred years later (considering the specific conditions in which their resurrection can occur, it's no wonder it's taken them so long), Max (Katz), a new kid in town, lights the candle to impress his would-be girlfriend, Allison (Shaw).  Big mistake.  Now the witches are back, and Max has to find a way to put them back in the grave before they kill his sister Dani (Birch) to extend their lifespans.

The acting varies wildly.  Usually, it's pretty good, although I must mention Bette Midler.  Midler is a talented actress and singer, but she goes too far over-the-top as Winifred.  By their nature, the three witches are meant to be comical rather than frightening, but director Kenny Ortega pushes them overboard to the point where they are as irritating as they are funny (their experiences in the 20th century are pretty amusing).  Omri Katz is an effective lead, although he has his stiff moments.  We get behind him fairly early (his best scenes are the ones that set up his relationship with his sister).  Thora Birch gives the best performance as Dani, the precocious kid sister.  She's cute and funny, but not to the point where she ceases to become real.  Vinessa Shaw is also very good as Allison, who indirectly started this thing when Max was trying to impress her.  On the other hand, Jason Marsden is flat (although I remembered his voice acting fondly until I rewatched the film).

In some ways, this is like a standard order horror movie, only for kids.  Characters do some amazingly stupid things, the plot is pretty thin, the acting isn't Oscar worthy, and it's not very intelligent.  But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't entertaining.

This is a movie for kids.  There's no beating around the bush.  In general, they are less demanding when it comes to plot sophistication, character development, and acting.  For a critic, this isn't an especially good movie, and many adults may find sections of this film a trial.  But kids will be enchanted and entertained.  That's all you can ask for in a movie.

Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles

3/4

Starring: Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Kirsten Dunst, Christian Slater, Antonio Banderas, Stephen Rea

Rated R for Vampire Violence and Gore and for Sexuality

When Anne Rice wrote "Interview with the Vampire" in 1976, it was a radical new vision of the horror staple.  Previously, the vampire was pure evil.  A heartless killer.  Rice saw them as deeply tragic figures tortured by their need to kill.  This new vampire forever altered the way we think of the bloodsucker, giving birth to everything from "Blade" to "Twilight."

After the death of his wife and unborn child, Louis (Pitt) has lost his will to live.  He prays for death to take him.  That puts him in the sights of Lestat (Cruise).  Lestat is a vampire, and after biting Louis, he gives him a choice: die or become a vampire.  Louis chooses the latter.  It's a decision he soon regrets, for he is required to kill in order to survive.

The performances are strong.  Brad Pitt, who did not have a happy experience making the film, is outstanding as the tortured Louis.  He tries to resist the need to kill, but the machinations of Lestat, and more importantly, his need to survive, are too powerful.  As Lestat, Tom Cruise is equally good.  By turns manipulative, sadistic, and petty, Lestat is a compelling character, and Cruise nails it.  Kirsten Dunst is also very good as the child vampire Claudia, although she has some moments where she strikes the wrong note.  Christian Slater, taking over the role after River Phoenix's death, is solid in the relatively undemanding role of Louis's interviewer.

The film is more of a study of vampires than a narrative one, and while it's interesting and compelling, the proceedings drag at times.  Neil Jordan, in an attempt to give the film a brooding, Gothic atmosphere (the cinematography and production design are amazing), pushes the slow burn pace too far.

More troublesome is the film's final third.  Once the characters arrive in Paris, things get a little confusing.  Oblique scripting and violence without motivation hamper the film.  This also leads to a pretty big plot hole as well.

Nevertheless, this remains a very intriguing story that is worth seeing.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Constantine

2/4

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LeBoeuf, Tilda Swinton, Djimon Hounsou

Rated R for Violence and Demonic Images

"Constantine" is a mixture of film-noir and religious horror.  In the right hands, this could be intriguing and a lot of fun.  But in the hands of Francis Lawrence (who made his feature film debut here), it's dull and a little depressing.

John Constantine (Reeves) is a demon hunter.  Born with the "gift" to see demons in our world, he attempted suicide to be rid of it.  Since suicide is a mortal sin, he's been slaying demons ever since in order to get back into heaven.  Of course, it's not that easy, as the angel Gabriel (Swinton) delights in telling him.  He doesn't have faith and is a selfish jerk.  Making matters worse, a cancer diagnosis has only given him a short time to live.  Redemption may have come in the form of Angela Dodson (Weisz).  She's a cop whose sister Isabel (Weisz again) just killed herself.  Angela doesn't believe that her sister, a devout Catholic, would have condemned herself to Hell, and she wants Constantine to help her find out what really happened.

There are a lot of things wrong with this movie and few things that are right.  First is the story, which, frankly, isn't all that interesting.  This isn't so much a suspension of disbelief problem as it is being a dime store detective story with no sense of fun.  Reeves coughs up (no pun intended) a few obligatory one-liners, but none of them are witty or amusing.  They're just cynical.

The performances don't help much either.  The two leads, who have done effective work in the past, are not in top form.  Reeves and Weisz are walking through their roles, neither of which are tailored to their strengths.  I'll give them credit for trying to expand their ranges, but they should have done so with a better script and a more experienced director.  Tilda Swinton shows up, but she doesn't seem androgynous enough (ironic, considering her appearance) for the character.  Djimon Hounsou is just awful.  Shia LeBouef is good, but has nothing to do but beg Constantine to let him tag along.

Clearly, the highlight of the film was meant to be the visuals, and boy, are there a lot of them!  Unfortunately, few of them are any good.  They're the sort of thing you can find in any decently budgeted movie (considering the final product, I'm guessing that the majority of the film's bloated $100 million budget went to the salaries of Reeves and Weisz).  The whole movie feels really small, which speaks to Lawrence's lack of experience and imagination.  I kept wishing that someone like David Fincher would have directed this movie...now that could have been something!