Monday, April 28, 2014

The Warriors: Ultimate Director's Cut

2/4

Starring: Michael Beck, James Remar, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, David Patrick Kelly, Dorsey Wright, Brian Tyler, David Harris, Tom McKitterick, Marcelino Sanchez, Terry Michos, Lynne Thigpen

Rated R for Violence and Language

On the basis of style and visual flair, "The Warriors" is a flat-out triumph.  The film looks fantastic.  It is so rare to find a movie that looks great without being ostentatious, and Walter Hill manages to do this.  But when it comes to other areas, like plot and characterization, it comes up short.  Simply put, this is not a well-written motion picture.

The film takes place in the near future from when the film was released (1979).  Gangs rule the city, and there are a lot of them.  All combined, they outnumber the police three to one.  That's why Cyrus (Roger Hill), the leader of the most powerful gang in the city, makes a play for this gangs to join forces so they can rule the city.  It's going well until he is shot dead by a lunatic by the name of Luther (Kelly).  He fingers The Warriors, a small gang based out of Coney Island, as the perpetrators.  Now, they have to find a way back home when every single gang member in the city is out for blood.

"The Warriors" is based on a novel by Sol Yurick.  Not having read it, I can't say whether something was lost in translation or if it was simply flat to begin with.  Regardless, the film doesn't give us anyone to care about or identify with.  Character development is not a necessity in an action movie, especially one like this.  Many films, like "Speed" or "Twister," have proved that you can get away with that as long as you see the characters as individuals.  That doesn't happen here.  Apart from Luther (and that's stretching it), the characters in this film are completely devoid of anything resembling a personality.

As such, it's hard to discuss the acting.  The only ones who stand out are Deborah Van Valkenburgh and David Patrick Kelly.  Van Valkenburgh plays Mercy, a tagalong with another gang who ends up joining with The Warriors as they pass through her neighborhood (at least I think that's how it goes.  I may be wrong, though).  She's tough and spunky, and it's a solid performance.  David Patrick Kelly is terrific in the small role of Luther.  The writing doesn't always allow the actor much to work with, but on the occasions that it does, Kelly chills the bone.

Walter Hill has style.  There's no denying that.  But he needs to concentrate more on scripting and characters (his last film, "Bullet to the Head," suffered from this problem too).  With a stronger script, this could have really been something.  There are some truly memorable scenes, such as the fight in the park and the bathroom brawl, with no one to care about, the possibilities are limited.  Style and flair are great, but they will only get you so far without the basics.

Brick Mansions

1.5/4

Starring: Paul Walker, David Belle, RZA, Catalina Denis, Ayisha Denis, Bruce Ramsay

Rated PG-13 for Frenetic Gunplay, Violence and Action Throughout, Language, Sexual Menace and Drug Material

I almost didn't see this movie.  Paul Walker was favorite screen star, and I had a huge crush on him.  So when I heard of his death last year, I was devastated.  I feared that it would be too painful.  But I saw it anyway, and unfortunately, it's pretty lame.

Few things are worse than bad action movies, and "Brick Mansions" is one of them.  The film is constantly moving, but there's no point to it all.  I didn't care about the plot (which is very lame), and it takes itself far too seriously.

In 2018, Detroit is a war zone.  The worst part of town is Brick Mansions, a housing project that is a cross between Cabrini-Green and Estonia as portrayed in "Lilya-4-Ever."  The mayor wants to tear it all down and rebuild, but the question remains about what to do with all the people living there.  Then a neutron bomb is stolen by Tremaine (RZA), Brick Mansions' crime lord.  The mayor sends in a local detective named Damien (Walker) to find it and disable it, and he's paired up with a cop killer named Lino (Belle), whose girlfriend is held captive by Tremaine.

Or something like that.  Plot coherence isn't on director Camille Delamarre's agenda.  All he cares about are the action scenes.  That wouldn't be such a bad thing, except that they're not very good either.  They're so fast that the camera can't keep up with it (and the fact that Delamarre is constantly moving the camera and frantically cutting the shots certainly doesn't help matters).  There are some nice stunts like jumping up walls and flying through windows, and one scene where Damien and Lino jump on bad guys' backs and flip off them, but that's it.  It's a lot like freerunning, only it's so inept that it's impossible to even "ooh" and "ahh" at it.

The best thing about this movie is the late Paul Walker.  While he didn't have a lot of range, his talents were completely unrecognized.  I liked him in "Into the Blue" and "Running Scared," but this is his best performance.  He's focused and always convincing.  The film is rarely very good, but it ventures into "unwatchable" territory whenever he isn't on screen.  David Belle is okay, but I won't be awaiting his next film with much anticipation.  RZA is kind of dull; he's not a good villain.  More interesting is his cohort, Rayzah (Denis), who loves violence as much as Xenia Onatopp in "GoldenEye."

The film is dedicated to Paul Walker.  It would be a more fitting epitaph to a life cut short if the film was better.

Buffalo Soldiers

2.5/4

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Anna Paquin, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Gabriel Mann

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

"Buffalo Soldiers" was as much a victim of timing as it was anything else.  It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on September 9, 2001.  Naturally, after the horrors that occurred two days later, the market for a black comedy about soldiers running a drug ring dried up almost instantaneously.  The film would be slammed as being "unpatriotic," and two years later a woman in the audience threw a plastic water bottle at the filmmakers during a Q&A session in an outrage over the film's presentation of American soldiers.

While I can see that point of view, it's a little misguided and unfair.  It's not so much that these guys are bad people, it's that they're stuck with nothing to do.  Selling stuff on the black market simply fills up time.

Elwood (Phoenix) loves three things about Germany: his Mercedes, the fact that there's no speed limit on the Autobahn, and that he can sell anything on the black market.  Because the base commander, a man named Berman (Harris) is a total moron, Elwood can do pretty much whatever he wants.  This encompasses everything from decking out his private quarters with a TV and couch to cooking heroin for a drug dealer.  When he and his friends find trucks filled with army weapons (including Stinger missiles) ripe for the taking, he intends to sell them for big bucks.  Things get complicated when the base gets a new Top (i.e. commander), a tough cookie named Robert E. Lee (Glenn) that won't play ball.

There are a few things that I liked about the movie.  First are the performances.  Joaquin Phoenix, before he disappeared from the screen only to perpetrate a bizarre hoax on the public, was once one of the elite actors of his generation, appearing in movies such as the grossly overrated "Gladiator" and "Signs."  Phoenix plays Elwood as a guy who has gone one step beyond prankster.  He's not a bad guy.  He's just taken his mischief to the next level.  Anna Paquin is lovely as ever as Robyn, Lee's daughter.  Initially, Elwood dates her just to piss Lee off (which Robyn figures out pretty quickly), but then he falls for her.  Ed Harris is very good as Berman, who isn't a quarter as smart as he thinks he is.  It's a definite change of pace for the actor.  And Scott Glenn is effective as Lee, but no more than that.  He's been better, and more intense, in other movies ("Vertical Limit" comes to mind).

The film's failures have to do with the film's director, Gregor Jordan.  An Australian import, Jordan concentrates more on the daily life of the characters rather than their personal development or plot.  That wouldn't be such a bad thing if it was better developed, but it's not.  Subplots are constantly shortchanged to the point where it's easy to become lost, and relationships are under cooked (I for one would have loved to see more of Robyn).  It's obvious that a lot of the footage ended up on the cutting room floor.  Jordan has also directed the movie with the sensibilities of an art film.  He takes things much more seriously than they are meant to be.

So the movie doesn't work.  That doesn't mean it's a total loss; in point of fact, there is a part of me that thinks it's worth seeing.  There are some amusing moments (such as the fate of a car), and the film is never boring.  But there are too many problems for me to recommend it without reservations.

Saint Ralph

3.5/4

Starring: Adam Butcher, Campbell Scott, Gordon Pinsent, Jennifer Tilly, Michael Kanev, Tamara Hope

Rated PG-13 for Some Sexual Content and Brief Nudity

Inspirational stories are a dime a dozen.  Few are as enthusiastic or entertaining as "Saint Ralph."

Ralph (Butcher) is a gawky, socially awkward freshman at a Catholic high school in Canada.  His hormones are just starting to act up, which runs him afoul of the headmaster, a stern man named Father Fitzpatrick (Pinsent).  In other words, he's your average teenager.  His father died in the war and his mother is in the hospital, Ralph is also living on his own.  When his mother falls into a coma, a sympathetic nurse named Alice (Tilly) tells him that it will take a miracle to wake her up.  After a cutting remark from his cross country coach, Father Hibbert (Scott), Ralph decides that he'll perform a miracle by winning the Boston marathon.  Reluctantly coached by Father Hibbert, Ralph sets out on his dream.

The acting goes a long way in selling the film.  It's clear that the film was made for next to nothing, and budgetary limitations are frequently obvious.  But the high caliber acting made me more than willing to overlook them.  Adam Butcher is very good as Ralph.  Although he has a few moments where he strikes the wrong note, overall he gives a terrific performance (in both voice and appearance, he brings to mind the late great Jonathan Brandis).  He pursues his goal with such zeal and and enthusiasm that it's impossible not to like the kid.  One could argue that the events that inspire him to run the marathon are contrived, I found them believable because they come from adolescence.  No one's mind runs exactly normal at that age.  Campbell Scott is in top form (is he ever not?) as Father Hibbert.  After watching "Roger Dodger," it's surprising how warm and sympathetic he is.  Gordon Pinsent has the most difficult role as Father Fitzpatrick.  He thinks that Ralph chasing miracles is blasphemy, but considering the context, it's more than a little hypocritical.  He believes that he has Ralph's best interests at heart, which makes him more than a one-dimensional villain.  Jennifer Tilly provides solid support as Alice.

There aren't really any "problems" with the film so much as elements that I wish writer/director Michael McGowan had explored further.  For example, the scenes that explore Ralph's adolescent mind are fresh and original, and I wish McGowan had given them greater depth.  Also, the ending isn't as satisfying as it could be.  It feels rushed, and lacks closure.

In a rare moment of lucidity, the MPAA elected to give this film a PG-13 rating.  There's some stuff that is racy for what the MPAA deems appropriate for teens, but nothing that a teenager shouldn't see.  There's a scene showing a woman showering in the nude (from behind) and a scene in a pool that would be at home in a raunchy teen comedy (what happens there is something I will leave you to discover).  If the MPAA made smarter judgments like this, they wouldn't be such a laughingstock.

All that being said, this is a wonderful, charming movie.  Definitely recommended.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Hellraiser

3/4

Starring: Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Sean Chapman, Andrew Robinson, Doug Bradley

Rated R (probably for Extreme Horror Violence and Gore and for Some Language)

"Hellraiser" is a frightening little horror film with some nice performances and impressive special effects.  On that level, I recommend the film.  However it must be said that this is a very disturbing and extremely graphic film that will turn off many who try to watch it.

Julia (Higgins) is not particularly enthused about moving from the city into the house that once belonged to her husband Larry's (Robinson) parents.  It was also lived in by his brother, Frank (Chapman), and judging by appearances, he was still living there before he disappeared (I think that's how it went...the film isn't too clear about this).  Actually, Julia's coldness isn't so much the move, but the fact that she's living with Larry when she was really in love with Jack.  Jack had an affinity for the weird, and when he got his hands on a puzzle box, he was taken into Hell.  Now escaped, he needs Julia to kill for him so he can regenerate and leave the demons of Hell, called Cenobites, in the dust.  Further complicating matters is that Larry's saintly young daughter Kirsty (Laurence) is poking around...

Reading that paragraph again, it looks like I've either described a lurid melodrama or black comedy (neither of which could be used to describe the film).  No, it's a straight horror film, and a pretty effective one at that.  It's drenched in atmosphere to the point where I was thinking of Werner Herzog's "Nosferatu: The Vampyre."  The film's aren't alike in the slightest, but they share the same "opera hell" feeling.

The performances vary.  Clare Higgins is quite good as Julia.  It only takes one stare from her before we realize that she's up to no good.  Higgins is very good at using her eyes to communicate a sense of cold, ruthlessness.  Julia is one cold-hearted bitch, but Higgins allows her to have some humanity.  Ashley Laurence is a natural performer as the loving daughter Kirsty; it was only until after to movie ended that I realized that her character is essentially superfluous until the final act.  Andrew Robinson fades into the background as the husband while Sean Chapman is just awful.

There are some truly impressive special effects.  I especially liked the scene where Frank's body regenerates itself.  It's pretty cool in a very morbid sort of way.  The Cenobites are also just creepy looking.  They're not as genuinely scary as the Xenomorph from "Alien," but this is one instance where they don't stop being scary when we get a good look at them.

There are a few problems in the editing stage that hamper the film's opening scenes, but other than that this is a pretty well put together horror film.  Clive Barker has made a solid directorial debut after two shorts and some horror novels.

I must reiterate: this is a very disturbing and incredibly graphic horror film.  It is not for younger viewers or the easily squeamish.  It is also difficult to like.  I admire it for its craftsmanship and its ability to scare, but I didn't "enjoy" myself.  Even after the scariest horror movies like "The Descent" or "The Innkeepers," I giggled to myself for being spooked by a movie as my heart rate slowed down to normal levels.  That wasn't the case here.  I was still unnerved, and I'm not going to watch the sequel for a while.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Phantom

2.5/4

Starring: Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams, James Remar, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bill Smitrovich, Patrick McGoohan

Rated PG for Action/Adventure Violence and Some Mild Language

Superheroes were much more interesting when they kept things simple.  Good guy wears costume, fights evil.  The trend towards Shakespearean tragedy or being bigger and more extravagant than the last one has made the comics and their film counterparts lose sight of why we go these movies in the first place: to see the likable hero kick ass, defeat the villain, and of course get the girl.  "The Dark Knight" is a great movie, but sometimes we want something more innocent and fun.

"The Phantom," based on the comic by Lee Falk, remembers this.  It's got all the hallmarks of the simple adventure yarns that everyone loves to romanticize but no one wants to make anymore.  The tough but sensitive hero who holds a torch for the rich girl, the villain bent on obtaining a MacGuffin in order to take over the world, and the sidekicks.  But the film version falls short of the mark, due to sloppy scripting and a sorely miscast lead.

The Phantom is a costumed hero who has been protecting good for the past 400 years.  At least that's what he wants you to think.  The truth isn't as fanciful: he comes from a long line of men to don the costume and fight evil.  Kit Walker (Zane) is the 21st successor, and he's about to come in the sights of Xander Drax (Williams), a megalomaniac who wants to obtain 3 magical skulls to obtain supreme power.  Intent on stopping him is Diana Palmer (Swanson), the daughter of a newspaper mogul and the object of Kit's affections.

There's nothing terribly complicated about "The Phantom."  It's a fun little adventure yarn that has been rightly compared to "Raiders of the Lost Ark," but a closer cousin is "The Mummy," which came out 3 years later.  Unfortunately, comparing this film to either of those movies, it comes up short.  It's not as fun or as breathless as either (although the stunts and special effects appear to be real, unlike the recent "Captain America" movie, which was clearly CGI).

Billy Zane is utterly miscast as The Phantom.  Maybe it's because of my affection for "Titanic" (which came out roughly a year and a half later), but I never bought him as a costumed Indiana Jones.  Zane gives it a game try, and there are moments when he's effective.  But he's better at playing sleazy, evil characters like Cal Hockley or Hughie Warriner in "Dead Calm."  Kristy Swanson is adequate as the feisty damsel in distress, but she lacks wattage and sex appeal (even if it's a family movie).  Treat Williams overacts to his heart's content and is clearly enjoying himself doing so.  James Remar is very good as Drax's right hand man but Catherine Zeta-Jones is pretty stiff.

Director Simon Wincer has all the parts to make a good serial, but he hasn't assembled them very well.  The whole thing never quite gels in the way that "Raiders" or the first two "Mummy" movies did.  It's certainly not a bad movie (I have a fondness for this sort of jungle adventure).  But it's also not a very good one either.

The Art of War

1/4

Starring: Wesley Snipes, Marie Matiko, Anne Archer, Maury Chaykin, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Donald Sutherland, Michael Biehn, James Hong

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

"The Art of War" was a military treatise that was written nearly 2500 years ago by Sun Tzu, and its ideas have been used ever since.  But that is incidental to the film that takes its name from Tzu's work.  For the most part, Tzu's philosophies have little to do with the film itself; they're barely mentioned a few times at the end.  The real story is a complete bore.

Alex Shaw (Snipes) is an operative for the United Nations whose assignments are always on the shady side of the law.  Now, shortly before the signing of a trade agreement between China and the West, which was facilitated by the Secretary-General (Sutherland), a Chinese Ambassador (Wong) is assassinated.  Shaw is fingered for the crime, and he and a pretty translator named Julia Fang (Matiko) are on the run trying to unravel the conspiracy and stay alive.

The most cardinal sin the film commits is the fact that the film's story is boring.  Economics rarely provide interesting backbones for movies, unless they're about bank robberies.  "The Art of War" is no exception.  No action movie is going to succeed without an engaging story.

Having a dumb and dull story is hardly the film's only problem.  The script is bland; the best lines are when one of the characters quotes Sun Tzu.  The action sequences, while helped by a constantly moving camera, fail to raise the pulse more than a few degrees.  Director Christian Duguay has an annoying tendency to use a sort of "heat vision" flashback device to allow us to see things that we might have missed.  It's either a lack of faith in the audience or that he realized in the editing room that his direction was sloppy.  My guess is that it's probably both.

The film's lone bright spot is the acting.  Everyone gives a good performance, with special mention going to Marie Matiko and Maury Chaykin.  Both are quite good.  Wesley Snipes does what he can, but he's clearly slumming for a paycheck.  Anne Archer, never an actress with great range, is pretty good as Shaw's icy boss.  Donald Sutherland isn't very good; his weird hairdo is more memorable than he is.

Watching crappy action movies like "The Art of War" or "The Corruptor" (another bad action movie featuring Chinese gangs) make you appreciate skillful action movies like "The Rock" or "Air Force One."  Action movies are supposed to make you grip the armrest as you "ooh" and "ahh" at all the impressive pyrotechnics.  This stinker only acts as a sleep aid.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Oculus

3/4

Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalisse Basso, Garrett Ryan, James Lafferty, Miguel Sandoval

Rated R for Terror, Violence, Some Disturbing Images and Brief Langauge

"Oculus" is an ambitious little horror film, that may not succeed in its ultimate goal of scaring the audience, is successful and audacious enough that it's worth seeing.

Tim (Thwaites) has just been released from a mental institution.  He's been there ever since his parents died, but his psychiatrist (Sandoval) thinks that he's no longer a danger to himself or others, and suggests that he be allowed to leave.  His sister Kaylie (Gillan) is waiting for him.  She drags him back to the house where their parents died and has set up an experiment.  She knows that it wasn't as simple as him killing her parents.  She believes that a cursed mirror is the real culprit, and sets out to prove it.  Meanwhile, we get to see what happened to them and their parents 11 years ago, where their parents (Sackhoff and Cochrane) lost their minds and ended up dead.

"Oculus" attempts to make us question whether if what we see is what is really happening.  In that respect, the film is a tremendous success.  Apples turn into lightbulbs, hallucinations become real, and past and present blend together.  The film is more of a "mindfuck" rather than a straight horror film.

Unfortunately, this comes at a price.  All the visual and storytelling trickery makes it difficult to form an attachment to the characters, which means that the film really isn't that scary.  There are some intense scenes here and there, but I don't think that there are going to be many people who will be spooked by mirrors after watching this movie.

That's not to say that the acting is bad or lacking in charisma.  It's neither; everyone does solid jobs, especially Karen Gillan, who is bright and energetic as Kaylie.  And since I'm a huge "Battlestar Gallactica" fan, I have to say that it's nice to see Starbuck (aka Katee Sackhoff) again.

What director Mike Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard have attempted is definitely ambitious.  It takes real skill to create a good mindfuck movie, especially one like this.  The climax can get a little confusing, but all in all it's a successful movie.

Mike's Musings: Responsibilities of a Film Critic

It seems pretty obvious what a film critic is supposed to do, right?  Watch a movie, and write what you think about it.  Nevertheless, I've heard comments that make me want to write down my thoughts about the job.  With something this opinionated, clearly there are going to be times when people are going to be wondering what I was thinking.

First and foremost is honesty.  I have to be completely honest about what I thought about a film.  If I give a positive review to a movie I didn't like (or vice vera) because it's a popular movie or something, my credibility is shattered.  No one will ever believe that what I'm saying is my honest opinion.  There are definitely some movies that I like that many others didn't ("Congo" and "House of the Dead" are two examples) and others that everyone seemed to like but me ("The Avengers," "Gladiator," anything by Wes Anderson).  But if I gave them a positive review just because everyone else did, no one would trust me and they would think I'm simply trying to be "cool" and "in."

That can sometimes take guts.  Take "The Avengers" for example.  That was a hugely anticipated movie by many, including myself.  Fanboys were going to love it no matter what, but considering that it is the third biggest moneymaker of all time means that a lot of other people liked it too.  Should I take it easy and go with popular opinion, or should I stick to my guns and give it the 1.5/4 that I thought it deserved.  I did the latter, and while I'm fortunate enough to be too low-profile for fanboy hatred, I did get a comment criticizing it.

This also has a risk too.  After I gave a (mildly) negative review to "Parental Guidance," I was warned that I was losing touch with my audience.  For a critic, that's a chilling thought.  If no one agrees with you, then no one is going read your stuff.  Not that anyone does anymore...my internet went out for a month a while back and couldn't publish anything...apart from when I came out, the most hits I've had this past year was for the review of "God's Not Dead," and that was 66.  When I first started out, I was getting big numbers for every movie, even ones that I watched on DVD and that no one had heard of.

Maybe the guy was right.  But my opinion still stands.  If I'm not honest, then it's not worth doing.

Another comment I received was that I should be more lenient on some films because of circumstances outside of the film itself.  For example, I was told that I should be more lenient on "God's Not Dead" because Christians are being persecuted in the Middle East.  It's an interesting thought (never mind that "God's Not Dead" had absolutely nothing to do with what's going on in that part of the world), but I disagree.  A good movie is a good movie, and if a movie isn't successful at tackling a certain subject, chances are that there is another movie that did something similar with more success.  "God's Not Dead" was a preachy movie that stereotyped its characters to the point of irresponsibility and ruined its own argument by using faulty reasoning.  "Hardflip" was a Christian film that addressed a real issue of the Christian faith with much more success.  And for those who are looking for a good film about the existence of God, Jon Amiel's "Creation" did it with much more success (and I think creationists will find value in it too...it's very evenhanded).

Finally, I've received criticism about trashing bad films.  This is one area where I'm more gray.  While it's certainly fun to get some manner of revenge by ruthlessly tearing a bad movie to shreds, the bottom line is that there are a lot of people who worked hard on the film and that it's impolite, not to mention insulting, to make fun of something that they put a lot of time and effort into.

There's a flip-side to that argument though.  I put time and money into that film expecting to be entertained.  When I'm not getting enough for what I put into it (one of which I will never get back), I should be able to say exactly what I think about it, don't you?  Especially when a movie is as bad as "Identity Thief," or worse, "Ben & Arthur."  They're making money by giving me such an awful product.  Sure, I made the mistake of watching both movies, but shouldn't I be able to reciprocate it?

Then again, there are movies that are so silly that it's impossible to write a serious review of them (for example, "Turbulence" or "Silent Night, Deadly Night").  I challenge anyone to watch those movies and be able to give your honest opinion to someone while keeping a straight face the entire time.

The bottom line is that my only obligation is to give my opinion and say why I thought that way.  That's it.  If I can get someone to see a good movie and avoid a really bad one, I've done my job and I'll be happy.

Transcendence

2/4

Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action and Violence, Some Bloody Images, Brief Strong Language and Sensuality

"Transcendence" was the second movie of 2014 that I was really looking forward to (after Hayao Miyazaki's "The Wind Rises").  While "The Wind Rises" was slightly disappointing because my hopes were too high (a filmmaker as talented as Miyazaki will do that to a guy), "Transcendence" is a complete letdown.  It's another case of "good idea, bad execution."

Will Caster (Depp) is a computer genius who makes Steve Jobs look like Borat.  He is close to creating a self-aware, artificial intelligence.  He has a prototype called PENN, although it's not quite there yet.  But his ambitions (however noble they may be) and his genius have made him a number of enemies (led by Bree, (Mara)).  After a TED-ish conference, he is shot by a techno-terrorist.  He survives, but not for long: the bullet was dipped in radioactive material, and he has only a few weeks to live.  Desperate, his wife Evelyn (Hall) and best friend Max (Bettany) debate whether or not to upload his mind into PENN.  They do so, but the computer-Will wants more power, so she connects him to the internet before the terrorists destroy it.  The procedure works, and Will is able to achieve all of his dreams.  But then he starts acting strangely and taking things way too far.  The question is how to stop him?

The script for "Transcendence" was on the 2012 Black List, which is the yearly list of the best unproduced screenplays.  This is ironic, since the screenplay is the film's biggest problem.  I can only come to three possible conclusions for this: one, the people who decide what goes on the list didn't actually read it, two, Wally Pfister dumbed it down considerably (doubtful, considering he has been Christopher Nolan's cinematographer since "Memento," and Nolan & Emma Thomas, Nolan's wife and co-producer, are listed as executive producers on this film), or three, studio interference.  Regardless of how it happened, the script is in desperate need of some heavy rewrites.  Plotholes are plentiful, some scenes in the beginning that set-up the plot are clumsily written, there's way too much confusing technobabble, and the ending is a whimper.  There's also the issue of the film starting at the end and making 99% of the movie a flashback.  In some cases, this can work, but this isn't one of them.  It effectively kills almost all of the dramatic tension that could have been salvageable.

The acting varies.  Aside from Depp and Hall, no one has a lot to do.  Depp is actually the film's biggest problem apart from the script.  He underplays the role, which leaves Will without much of a personality.  He's pretty boring, and since the romantic relationship between him and Evelyn is a huge underpinning of the film's plot, that's a big problem.  Paul Bettany is his usual reliable self, but there's not a lot for him to work with.  This is even more so with Freeman, Murphy and Mara (all of whom are great actors).

This is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, who as has been stated many times before, is Christopher Nolan's longtime cinematographer.  It's not a successful debut, but I think that, with a good script, he can make a solid movie.  Sadly, this isn't it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

October Sky

3.5/4

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Chris Owen, William Lee Scott, Chad Lindberg, Natalie Canerday, Laura Dern, Scott Miles

Rated PG for Language, Brief Teen Sensuality and Alcohol Use, and for Some Thematic Elements

How rare it is to see a movie succeed simply because it's a good story.  Sure, there isn't a weak link in the cast and the film is splendidly put together, but there's no showboating on either side of the camera.  No one tries to call attention to themselves in any way, and that allows the story and the characters to take center stage.  Exactly what every movie should do.

It's October 1957.  The town of Coalwood, West Virginia is talking about Sputnik (much like the rest of the world), the satellite that was launched into space by the Russians.  After watching it fly by, Homer Hickham (Gyllenhaal) decides that he wants to build rockets.  So he, his two friends Roy Lee Cooke (Scott) and Sherman O'Dell (Lindberg), plus the class geek Quentin Wilson (Owen), decide to build them.  Their attempts are met with failure, but their determination inspires the entire town.  And with the help of their encouraging teacher Miss Riley (Dern), they end up going farther than they ever imagined.

Just as important to the story as the rockets is the relationship between Homer and his father, John (Cooper).  John works at the coal mine, and has it in his head that Homer and his brother Jim (Miles) will follow him into the mine.  But the mine is drying up, which puts the whole town in jeopardy.  Plus, Homer's lack of interest in the mine and his determination to build rockets creates a lot of conflict between the two of them.

The film would not work without the terrific performances by each and every member of the cast.  Jake Gyllenhaal was a rising star when the film was made, and once again he shows why he is one of the best actors of his generation.  It's impossible not to be infected by his spirit.  Between the starry-eyed dreamer and the stubborn son, Gyllenhaal doesn't miss a beat.  Chris Cooper, no stranger to playing fiercely conservative characters, is excellent as a man whose world is changing forever.  He wants his sons to be him, but the reality that they're not slowly dawns on him.  Laura Dern is also very good as the warm and sunny Miss Riley, but she's underused.  The film's biggest failing is that she's not in more of the film.  Miss Riley is an important character, and her lack of exposure leaves a pretty big hole in the story.

Joe Johnston has been making popcorn flicks since 1989 with "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!", but his skills as a director are largely ignored.  He is no hack, and has made some truly wonderful movies like "Jumanji" and the aforementioned Rick Moranis picture.  If Steven Spielberg had made "The Right Stuff," it would probably turn out something like "October Sky."  It has the same warm-hearted emotionality as Spielberg's early movies like "E.T."  Johnston knows just how far to push each scene for maximum effect.

This is a great movie for anyone who loves science, and an excellent one for everyone who loves movies.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Headhunters

2/4

Starring: Askel Hennie, Synnove Macody Lund, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Eivind Sander, Julie R. Olgaard

Rated R for Bloody Violence including Some Grisly Images, Strong Sexual Content and Nudity

"Headhunters" is a thriller with a couple of neat twists and smart characters.  Those are rare in movies these days.  Unfortunately, a confusing story and a lack of an interesting protagonist keeps the film from ascending to the greatness it strives for.

Roger Brown (Hennie) is a headhunter for a business in Norway.  He's married to the beautiful Diana (Lund), who has expensive tastes.  To supplement his income in order to make her happy, Roger steals artwork and fences them.  A new man in town named Clas Greve (Coster-Waldau) turns out to be in possession of a very valuable painting that was stolen by the Nazis during WWII.  It's so valuable that if he were to get his hands on it, he and Diana would be set for life.  The robbery goes off without a hitch, but it doesn't take long for Clas to realize what had happened, and he'll stop at nothing to get revenge.

I love a good cat-and-mouse thriller.  For some reason, the psychological gamesmanship of a good movie of this ilk appeals to me.  There are times when "Headhunters" shows flashes of brilliance, but for the most part the film is kind of a bore.

That's because Roger isn't a very interesting protagonist.  The character is both flatly written and acted.  I never cared if he lived or died, which dramatically limits the amount of tension.  Additionally, the lack of involvement on my part makes the seams in the plot magnified.  A lot of leeway can be granted in a film's plot if the tension reaches high enough levels ("Twister" is a good example), but that's not the case here.

Apart from Hennie, the cast acquits themselves reasonably well.  Synnove Macody Lund is wonderful as Diana.  Not only is it a good performance, she has genuine screen presence and appeal.  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, an effective actor known mainly for playing Jaime Lannister on "Game of Thrones" (unseen by me), is decent, but lacks true menace.  Eivind Sander is good as Ove, Roger's partner-in-crime, as is Julie R. Olgaard, who plays Lotte, Roger's mistress.

Director Morten Tyldum manages to generate some tense scenes here and there (including one where Roger hides in an outhouse and another where he has to shave his head), but sometimes the film moves so fast that it's hard to keep up with (particularly where Roger explains how he pulled off one of his cons).  Tyldum doesn't waste time on character development, which is a risky move.  That can work if the actors are well directed and are likable and interesting.  That's not the case here, sadly.  Maybe the inevitable remake (which was in the pipeline at one point, according James Berardinelli, but it's not listed on iMDb) will be better.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tokyo Godfathers

1.5/4

Starring: the voices of Toru Emori, Aya Okamoto, Yoshiaki Umegaki

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Violent Images, Language and Some Sexual Material

Meet the ultimate dysfunctional family
That's the tagline for "Tokyo Godfathers," an extremely warped Christmas movie.  The protagonists are three homeless people, and during their time between Christmas and New Year's, they run into crazy adventures ranging from a mafia hit to a drag club and a bizarre car chase.

This sounds like a great movie, and I'm sure it could be.  The problem is that I didn't care about anyone in this movie.  The characters are undeveloped, and their backstories (when reveales) fail to make them interesting.

The homeless trio is Gin (Emori), a grumpy drunk who became homeless after he got caught throwing a bike race to save his wife and unborn child (who later died), Miyuki (Okamoto), a sassy runaway, and Hana (Umegaki), a devoutly Christian transgender.  While arguing among themselves, they hear a baby crying.  Someone abandoned a baby amid some trash, and Hana insists that they should track down the parents and return the child.

"Tokyo Godfathers" wants to be a heartwarming, if slightly dark, Christmas comedy.  Unfortunately, it's not really either.  There are some amusing bits here and there, but that's it.  The interest level in this movie quickly fades away, and the film becomes a real trial.

The voice acting is unmemorable.  None of the actors does anything truly interesting with their characters, and some of the jokes and gags don't land because of their delivery.

At least the film is fast moving, and the chase scene at the end is kind of fun.  But that's little consolation when the protagonists are so boring.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Secondhand Lions

2.5/4

Starring: Haley Joel Osment, Michael Caine, Robert DuVall, Kyra Sedgwick, Nicky Katt

Rated PG for Thematic Elements, Language and Action Violence

There is a good movie lurking within the 109 minutes of "Secondhand Lions."  It is a wonderful, nostalgic and magical film.  Alas, we don't get to see it.  "Secondhand Lions" isn't a bad movie at all, but due to poor direction and the occasional stiff moment from the actors (all of them have moments where they fail to convince), the film never becomes the heartwarming family film it so desires to be.

Walter Caldwell (Osment) is entering the seventh circle of hell.  His flighty mother Mae (Sedgwick) is dumping him off at his great uncles' farm in the middle of nowhere for the summer while she takes a court reporting class.  He's never known them and based on the evidence, neither does Mae.  They've been gone somewhere for 40 years and have just resurfaced.  Rumor has it that they're sitting on a bunch of money, and Mae wants her son to get on their good side so they can inherit the money.

Walter's uncles (who are actually his great uncles) are not normal people.  They are fiercely territorial (woe betide any travelling salesman who comes on their property), go fishing with shotguns, and for farmers, haven't the slightest idea of how to raise crops.  Hub (DuVall) in particular loves getting in fights with teenagers while Garth is totally content to let him have his fun.  And, much to Walter's horror, they don't have a phone or a television.

I have no doubt that this could have been a great family movie.  In fact, there are moments where the film achieves the cinematic magic that it reaches for.  But the film doesn't come together as a whole.  The script is underwritten; more scenes would have landed had they been more strongly scripted, and the film goes for the obligatory "big moments" without sufficient foundation.  Many scenes in the film seem to be unrehearsed (particularly the action scenes).  Maybe Tim McCanlies didn't budget his time well.

Surprisingly, the performances are not up to par.  All three leads disappoint, which is especially surprising since two of the leads are acting legends.  Haley Joel Osment was pretty big in the early 2000's after he starred in the (overrated) box office smash "The Sixth Sense."  "Secondhand Lions" was his last big movie (he's been doing TV guest spots and voicing Sora in the "Kingdom Hearts" video game series).  He's effective, but has his stiff moments.  Michael Caine is good, but he plays down to the script's level; the role is beneath him, and he plays it as such.  Robert DuVall is miscast.  At no point is his heart ever in his performance, and it's a poor fit for the actor.

I admire Tim McCanlies ambition.  Done right, this kind of movie never loses its appeal.  But instead of being something like "Big Fish" (a movie that is very similar to this one), it misses the mark.

L.I.E.

3/4

Starring: Paul Dano, Brian Cox, Bruce Altman, Billy Kay, Walter Masterson

Rated NC-17 for Some Explicit Sexual Content

Michael Cuesta said that "L.I.E.," his directorial debut, is about sexuality.  So it is.  What he says about it is ultimately unclear.  As a character study of an aimless teen abandoned by just about everyone (in one way or another), it's much more successful.

Howie Blitzer (Dano) is going through a rough time.  His mother recently died in a car accident.  His father doesn't get him, and appears to be more interested in his business and his new girlfriend than his son.  His relationship with his friend Gary (Kay) becomes close enough to raise suspicions about his sexuality among his friends.  He's also falling into a life of crime, committing petty robberies with his friends.  One day Gary convinces him to rob a house containing two expensive pistols.  When caught, Gary fingers Howie to the homeowner, a man named Big John Harrigan (Cox).  Only able to find one of the guns, Big John makes a deal with Howie with dark overtones.

The problem with the film is that the film skirts around the issues it raises.  Pedophilia is a big part of the film, but in an attempt to keep the depth of the relationship between Howie and Big John a mystery, Cuesta misses the mark.  Not enough is suggested by the film to allow us to have some sort of idea of what it is.  Is Big John a predator or a father figure who happens to be a pedophile?  I wasn't sure, and that robs the film of a lot of its power.  Interestingly enough, Lot 47 Films, which produced the movie, also produced "The War Zone," which did something similar to much greater effect.

The acting is strong across the board.  When he's not appearing in weirdo hipster movies, Paul Dano has shown himself to be an electrifying actor.  He's impressive in movies such as "Looper," "There Will Be Blood" and "Prisoners," but this is his most impressive performance.  Howie is unlike any character Dano has ever played; he's a normal teenage kid, and while his young age may have been a factor, it's still impossible to believe that this is the same guy who played the self-imposed mute in "Little Miss Sunshine."  Dano conveys Howie's feelings of helplessness and the sense that he's given up on life, yet still able to nurture the hope of something better.

Brian Cox, one of England's best character actors, is in fine form as Big John.  He's a nice guy.  Friendly and gregarious.  Yet he has some skeletons in the closet.  Big ones.  And Cuesta either doesn't know how he wants us to feel about him or doesn't convey it.

"L.I.E." is sort of big in the gay community, which surprises me.  Sure, Howie is at least bisexual, and the relationship between Howie and Gary is not tiptoed around.  But it's not a positive view of a gay relationship because of what happens in it.  That, and a gay relationship is not the film's focus.

Still, I'm recommending the movie because of the strong performances and well-written characters.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Queen of the Damned

3/4

Starring: Stuart Townsend, Marguerite Moreau, Vincent Perez, Paul McGann, Aaliyah

Rated R for Vampire Violence

For a movie that was made simply because the rights to the books were about to expire, "Queen of the Damned" is better than expected.  You see, Warner Brothers purchased the rights to the first three novels in Anne Rice's vampire saga, but only the first film ever made it to the screen.  During the last year that they had the rights to the novels (after which time they would go back to Rice, who could sell them to someone else), they realized it was their last chance to see a return on their investment.  So they combined the second two novels, "The Vampire Lestat" and "Queen of the Damned," into one film.  The result has its problems, but it's pretty decent for a rush job.

Jessie (Moreau) is a young student in London studying the paranormal.  She thinks that she has found a vampire coven, and goes to investigate.  There, she meets Lestat (Townsend), to whom she becomes fascinated and infatuated.  Lestat, who was bored with immortality, had taken a nap for a century, but now has woken up.  He has never liked living in the shadows as instructed by Marius (Perez), the vampire who turned him.  So he turns himself into a rock star and proudly shows off his vampirism.  This of course puts him on the hit list of other vampires, but it also awakens Akasha (Aaliyah), the mother of all vampires.

Neil Jordan's version of "Interview with the Vampire" was deeply atmospheric, strange, and sad.  "Queen of the Damned" is a cross between a music video and an action/horror film.  It's not necessarily a bad change, but a lot of the perception and subtlety that made the first film so interesting has been lost.

At least the acting is solid.  The script isn't as strong as the first film, but the actors get the job done.  Stuart Townsend's interpretation of Lestat is radically different than Tom Cruise's.  Cruise saw the character as a vicious predator that craved connection to others.  He was a villain, if a tortured one.  Townsend plays him as a celebrity with an ego to match, but he's more of an antihero in this one.  Margurite Moreau is also good as the curious Jessie; she's an effective stand-in for us.  The most interesting characters are Marius, who is perfectly played by Vincent Perez, and Akasha, played by Aaliyah (her final role...she died in a plane crash shortly after filming was completed).  Unfortunately, Akasha is only on-screen for a few scenes at the end (and she doesn't have much to do...she's not as badass as she is in the trailer).

Actually, the stuff with Akasha is the film's Achilles' Heel.  Not enough is done with it to make it satisfying.  The movie builds up to it bit by bit, but when it comes, it's a let down.  The final fight scene should have been a violent adrenaline rush, but it's so short and so limp that everyone will be disappointed.

As must be for any big budget movie, the film is loaded with special effects.  Most noticeable are how the vampires' bodies trail after them when they fly.  It looks cool, I'll admit, but does it really belong in a movie like this?  I don't think so.

Also worth mentioning is the sound editing.  For the first ten minutes, the words we hear obviously don't match up to the character's lips.  Whether this happened during the translation to Blu-Ray or not, it's jarring and unacceptable.

I liked this movie, actually.  It's still interesting to see how vampires live, and Perez and Aaliyah are fun to watch.

Shuttle

2/4

Starring: Peyton List, Tony Curran, Cameron Goodman, Dave Power, James Snyder, Cullen Douglas

Rated R for Strong Violence, Terror, Language and Brief Nudity

"Shuttle" aspires to be something more than a common horror film.  The final scenes are bleak and sad because they are so real (in a very general way).  But is that the right way to end a movie that features many horror cliches, such as characters doing stupid things and not hitting the bad guy when he's down?  I don't think so.  It's an effective ending, but in the wrong movie.

Mel (List) and Jules (Goodman) have been best friends for years.  They have just gotten back from a trip to Mexico when Mel drops the ball that she broke off her engagement.  Needing a ride home, they are ditched by one shuttle but offered a ride by another man who says he'll take them for half the price of the first one.  Also along for the ride are Seth (Snyder), a horny 20-something who saw them in a bar in Mexico and tries to hit on Mel, and Matt (Power), his handsome best friend, and a meek accountant named Andy (Douglas).  It soon turns out that the driver (Curran) has something different in store for his passengers than mere transportation.

Characters doing stupid things in horror movies is not new.  The genre relies on it.  But rarely has it been so obvious than in "Shuttle."  For one thing, the characters plot and assess their situation within earshot of the driver and don't even bother to quiet their voices.  There are also plenty of opportunities to seize control of the van, or keep it, but they don't.  While the skills of Edward Anderson as a director lend a definite tension to the proceedings, the lack of intelligence in his script is glaringly obvious on a fairly consistent basis.  I'll admit that I was surprised a time or two in this film, but usually I was rolling my eyes.

The performances are good, even if they are cliches.  Mel is the resourceful heroine, Jules is her blond BFF that needs to be saved repeatedly, Seth is the lothario who will hit on anything possessing the right body parts, Matt is the sensitive guy who may be just what the vulnerable Mel needs, and Andy is the older nerd who is present probably to be the first one to fill a body bag so they can show his resolve.  The actors, especially Peyton List, are good, although Tony Curran leaves something to be desired as the villain.  He's not all that frightening.

The film looks like a horror film; the cinematography by Michael Fimognari is bleak and sinister, and the film is well-paced.  Unfortunately, it's undone by the utter lack of intelligence in the script.  No serious film, even a horror film, can survive such lapses in common sense.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

3/4

Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence, Gunplay and Action Throughout

Another year, another superhero movie.  The genre has seen entries for as long as there have been movies, but they've never been bigger than they have been in the last decade and a half.  Despite what can only be described as "oversaturation" (and that's not coming close to covering how many there are), the genre is still going strong.  Anything Marvel is cinema gold, especially after "The Avengers" became the third biggest blockbuster in history two years ago.  Still, as tired as I am of the genre, the second "Captain America" movie is at least entertaining.

Despite being frozen for the better part of a century, Steve Rogers (Evans) is adjusting to his new period in history.  He's a mega hero and one of S.H.I.E.L.D's poster boys (he even has his own museum exhibit.  But an attack on a battleship has caused him to question his alliance with the organization, and one of its leaders, Nick Fury (Jackson).  His suspicions arise after Fury is murdered by a nasty assassin known as The Winter Soldier (Stan).  Now he and Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) are on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D, and it's CEO, Alexander Pierce (Redford), who has set in motion a plan that could forever alter life as we know it.

The film's greatest weakness is the plot.  There are lots of plotholes, and badly recorded dialogue makes some scenes confusing.  In general, it's easy to piece together, and it's kinda fun.  Still, it suffers from a lack of ambition.  The story deals with the line between freedom and safety, and as topical as the question is in today's world, it's been asked before.  Many times in fact, and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" doesn't bring anything new to the table.

Where the film really shines is in the action scenes.  Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have accomplished what is really a lost art to all those who are not named Christopher Nolan or James Cameron: create action scenes that are actually exciting.  Through tight editing, careful staging, and a great score, the Russos have fashioned a number of sequences that raise the adrenaline to acceptable levels...and they rarely shake the camera!  These guys know what they're doing, and they'll be back (they're already attached to direct the sequel).

The acting is good, but no one really has enough meat to their roles to allow them to really shine.  Chris Evans, who said that he will retire from acting once his contracts are up in order to concentrate on directing, is effective as the idealistic Captain America.  Evans does not have great range, but he does solid work.  Scarlett Johansson gets more than a glorified cameo (in what I believe is a first for the Marvel canon) and does solid work.  She's good, but has been better in other roles.  Samuel L. Jackson s back as Nick Fury, and Anthony Mackie joins the team as Sam Wilson, the Captain's sidekick.  Robert Redford, in a very surprising change of pace, plays a villain, and he does a solid, if unspectacular job.  Sebastian Stan is definitely malevolent as The Winter Soldier, which is all the more impressive because he doesn't have much dialogue.

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is like that.  It's good, but doesn't have the guts to try for greatness.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Bad Words

3/4

Starring: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall, Allison Janney

Rated R for Crude and Sexual Content, Language and Brief Nudity

You gotta love a movie that has the guts to be as deliciously nasty as "Bad Words."  Because it stars the one-note comic actor Jason Bateman, I was fearing it would be the second coming of "Identity Thief."  Fortunately I was wrong.  Although it's a little too long, "Bad Words" is an often hilarious dark comedy.

Guy Trilby (Bateman) is the world's biggest asshole.  He's a bigger jerk than Roger Swanson from "Roger Dodger."  He insults and berates everyone he comes into contact with, and is not above cheating and humiliating the other contestants in a kid's spelling bee.  You see, Guy has found a loophole that would allow him to compete in a spelling bee against kids who haven't yet hit puberty.  And, for reasons not immediately revealed, he intends on winning it.  Naturally, this infuriates just about everyone, including the bee's director, Dr. Bernice Deagan (a very low-key Janney).  But Guy has the spelling skills to take on any bizarre word that they can throw at him.  Then there's a weird kid named Chaitanya Chopra (Chand), who insists on being Guy's friend.

How bad is Guy?  Without spoiling the surprises, I'll say this: he takes a kid on a night out that would make the guys from "The Hangover" jealous, makes fun of kids a quarter of his age on national TV in order to win (including sabotage), and does some truly awful things with ketchup (what those are is something I'll leave you to discover).

Guy is also unrepentant, which gives the film its edge.  Had Bateman given the character a sort of "wink wink" kind of feel, few of the jokes would have worked.  But because Bateman doesn't soften him, the jokes are hilarious.

When I wrote my review of Jason Bateman's last film, the unspeakably horrid "Identity Thief," I said that he should either start going after straight, non-comic roles or retire.  Guy Trilby is neither, but there's none of Bateman's usual "meek doormat" schtick so it works.  Bateman is expanding his range, and it works.  His co-stars are less successful.  Kathyrn Hahn is boring, Rohand Chan is almost too cute for his own good, while Philip Baker Hall and Allison Janney compete with each other to see who does the best job of blending into the background.

This is Bateman's directorial debut, and he proves that he knows what he's doing.  He has a good grasp of comic timing and knows just how far to push the jokes without becoming cruel to the audience.  There is one instance where it approaches this line, but Bateman stays on the right line, which results in one of the movie's biggest laughs (and there are plenty of contenders for that honor).

The problem is the ending.  It goes for the easy, feel-good route instead of staying the course.  While it's not overly schmaltzy and Bateman finds a few new riffs to make it seem fresh, it's still a little disappointing.

Still, there are more than enough guffaws to justify an admission ticket.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

God's Not Dead

0/4

Starring: Shane Harper, Kevin Sorbo, Cory Oliver, Hadeel Sittu, Trisha LaFache, David A.R. White, Benjamin Ochieng

Rated PG for Thematic Material, Brief Violence and an Accident Scene

CONTAINS A MINOR SPOILER!

I am a difficult guy to offend.  Perhaps it's because I have a "glass is half full" point of view when it comes to movies, but there are very few films that have angered me or made me uncomfortable simply because of their content.  Thankfully, movies like "God's Not Dead" don't come along very often.

The idea behind "God's Not Dead" is a great concept: a college student has to prove that God exists to his atheist philosophy professor.  Unfortunately, director Harold Cronk tanks the film by trivializing thoughtful and complex issues and using thin character types as avenues to explore them.  Cronk is only interested in one thing: preaching to the converted.

Josh (Harper) is an incoming freshman to an unnamed university.  As an elective, he chooses Intro to Philosophy.  The student who registers him, seeing his cross, tells him to choose another professor.  But since that would change his entire schedule, he decides to go ahead.  There's a reason why he was warned: Professor Radisson (Sorbo) is a radical atheist who, on the first day of class, forces his class to write that "God is Dead" on a sheet of paper and sign it.  Josh refuses due to his faith, and Radisson tells him that he can drop the class or sacrifice a third of his grade.  Josh suggests that he try and prove that God exists and let the class decide.  There are also other characters in play: a liberal reporter named Amy (LaFache) faces a cancer diagnosis and Aiysha, a girl from a Muslim family (Sittu) hides her Christian faith from her family.

It is not the film's point of view that offends me.  A lot of people, myself included, believe in a higher power of some sort.  What offends me is how it treats the issues it raises and the characters we follow through the film.  For example, the characters are completely divided: all the non-believers are jerks while all Christians are saintly.  Take Amy for example.  When interviewing Willie and Korie Robertson (appearing as themselves), she identifies herself as being from a left-wing newspaper and is super snotty towards them.  Or in the film's most reprehensible storyline, Ayisha is forced to wear a scarf by her traditionalist father.  And when he finds out that she's secretly a Christian, he beats her then throws her out of the house (adding insult to injury, this occurs during a really sappy pop song).

There are some nice performances, particularly by Shane Harper and Kevin Sorbo, but in service of what?  They don't have any real characters to play. They're props in the service of the message.  Sorbo's case is particularly sad.  He does a good job of getting us to hate him and presents a worthy antagonist, but his character is so over-the-top that he's never credible (at one point he tracks down and threatens Josh...that's okay for a thriller, but not in a drama like this).  No college or university would hire a man this divisive, much less allow him to force his students to sign a paper saying that "God is Dead" or risk their academic careers.

As if that weren't bad enough, the film shoots itself in the foot by when making its own argument.  The science that Josh cites in his argument is faulty, and hardly five minutes goes by without someone uttering a Bible verse.  This kills much of the film's dramatic tension.

And while the concert at the end, which is where everyone ends up (except one), has some good music, it lasts too long, and the fact that their tour shares the same title as the film and one of their albums makes the film come perilously close to an advertisement for the band.  Willie Robertson makes another appearance at the concert that also reeks of ego, and the text at the end that illustrates how Christians are persecuted on college campuses is offensive due to the context in which it is presented.  Persecution prevalent for all religious beliefs, but making a movie like this is not going help solve the problem.

I don't bash movies for their views.  I liked "Hardflip," another Christian film, and I found validity in "Unthinkable," despite disagreeing with it.  The difference is that those films used real characters and thought to explain their position.  "God's Not Dead" simply preaches.

The Constant Gardner

3/4

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Donald Sumpter, Gerard McSorely, Pete Postlethwaite

Rated R for Language, Some Violent Images and Sexual Content/Nudity

John Le Carre's novels are not easy to digest.  There are so many characters, double talk, and twists that reading them turns one's mind into a pretzel...and you still don't know if you've got it all right.  That was the problem with "The Tailor of Panama," another film based on one of his stories, and it's true of "The Constant Gardener."  But Fernando Meirelles follow-up to his masterpiece, "City of God," which is probably one of the best films ever made, is confusing in specifics, the general thrust of the story is not.  But what really makes the film special is the love story between Justin and Tessa Quayle.

Justin (Fiennes) is a mild-mannered diplomat who is giving a speech in the place of someone higher up.  He is bombarded with questions by a firey woman who causes such a disturbance that everyone leaves.  She apologizes to him and he takes her out for a drink.  Her name is Tessa (Weisz), an activist with a focus on Africa.  They fall in love and marry.  While on a trip to Africa with her friend Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde), she and Bluhm are killed.  Justin smells something funny, but his superiors tell him to drop it.  He eventually comes across a conspiracy involving drug companies and the British government with the African people caught in the middle.

The thriller elements are the least successful in the film, which is surprising considering that it comes from a novel by John Le Carre.  The story is complex, and the script by Jeffrey Caine doesn't do a good enough job of telling us who is who and what is doing.  Meirelles's handheld camera movements also inhibit a feeling of paranoia.

What saves the film are the performances.  Ralph Fiennes is able to play just about anything, from a psychopathic Nazi guard ("Schindler's List") to a lawyer betrayed by love ("The Reader").  While Justin Quayle isn't a flashy role by any stretch of the imagination, it's one of his best performances.  Justin is a pencil-pusher and a doormat; the perfect guy for powerful politicians who need someone to face the music for them.  He has no change when he comes across someone so filled with life as Tessa.  Tessa was his life, and he wants to know what happened to her.  It his her passion that, even after her death, gives him purpose.

Rachel Weisz was probably the only person who could play Tessa Quayle.  The bubbly librarian from the first two "Mummy" movies, Weisz is a bundle of energy.  But while Caine's script may have fumbled the ball with the plot, he has developed her character into something truly special.  With a mix of headstrong passion, endless love and a dash of vulnerability, Tessa becomes refreshingly real.  It's impossible not to fall in love with her.

The supporting cast is made up of British character actors, all of whom do effective work and none of whom try to steal the spotlight from Fiennes and Weisz.

"City of God" was bursting with energy.  It was gritty, violent and explosive.  Fernando Meirelles has used that same kinetic style for "The Constant Gardner," but I'm not sure that it fits.  It hampers our ability to follow the story and figure out who all the characters are and where they fit in to the story.  Maybe he was trying to plug the holes in the plot, but it doesn't really work.  Still, he is a master at directing actors.  The chemistry between Fiennes and Weisz catches fire from their first conversation, and burns passionately.  That's why I'm recommending the film.