Thursday, May 29, 2014

Gladiator (Extended Cut)

2/4

Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Derek Jacobi, Oliver Reed, Djimon Hounsou, Richard Harris

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the original version is rated R for Intense, Graphic Combat

"Gladiator" is one of those movies that everyone seems to like but me (although neither Roger Ebert nor my local film critic liked it either).  It's only fair, I suppose, since there are plenty of movies that I like that everyone else hated.  The line between an emotional epic, like "Braveheart," and one that misses the mark, like "Pompeii," is pretty thin.  So I guess I'm not surprised that it worked for a lot of people.  I will, however, say that the decision to award it the Best Picture Oscar is an embarrassment (my vote went to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," although any of the films that year was more deserving than this).

The premise is great for a larger-than-life spectacle: as the villain, Commodus (Phoenix), puts it, "The general who became a slave.  The slave who became a gladiator.  The gladiator who defied an emperor."  Unfortunately, the movie just doesn't come together very well.

Maximus (Crowe) is a Roman general who is beloved by his men and the emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Harris).  Aurelius knows that he is dying, so he asks Maximus to be his successor.  Maximus is looking forward to the peaceful life, but he and Aurelius know that choosing his son Commodus would be a disaster for the Roman Empire.  As Maximus is pondering his options, Aurelius breaks the news to his son.  As you might expect, Commodus does not take it well and kills his father.  After he refuses loyalty to him, Commodus has Maximus and his family killed.  But Maximus escapes, and ends up becoming a gladiator for Proximo (Reed, who died during filming).  The Roman Senate, led by Gracchus (Jacobi), knows that Commodus must be removed from power by any means possible, but the Games he is throwing in honor of his father make him popular with the people.  They see an opportunity when Maximus realizes the potential for being a popular gladiator, and they begin machinations to bring Commodus down.

This could be an absolutely epic movie, but unfortunately it's a misfire.  The script is embarrassingly bad and Ridley Scott pulls out all the stops in order to generate the grand emotions from the audience.  The manipulation is so obvious and the storytelling is so mechanical that it's impossible to get sucked into the story.

When I say the script is bad, I mean it's really bad.  Character development is nil; the characters are stick figures, and it's only the performances that breathe life into them.  The plot moves in such a herky-jerky fashion that it feels like a car with a dead battery.  And there are the obligatory metaphors and profundities that are meant to appease the critics, but offer nothing in subtext.  They're senseless and waste time.

The acting is good, considering what they have to work with.  Russell Crowe does what he can to make Maximus a hero we can get behind.  He's actually pretty successful despite the fact that some of his dialogue is unintentionally funny.  The role of Lucilla is within Connie Nielsen's very limited range; she's actually pretty good.  Joaqin Phoenix isn't as successful; Commodus is worthy of our dislike, but he's not a very compelling villain.  Part of the reason is how the character is written, but Phoenix isn't blameless.  He plays Commodus as a cross between a egotisical celebrity and a spoiled brat.  He's more annoying than vicious.  Derek Jacobi looks bored; he's in "take the money and run" mode, but like all the great British actors, that's still acceptable.  Oliver Reed, whose death during filming forced the production to use stunt doubles and CGI, is good, but wasted.  Djimon Hounsou has even less to do (I kept thinking of "Not Another Teen Movie," which skewered the archetype that he plays), which is a pity, considering his considerable range and talent.

Ridley Scott is a director who defines the term "inconsistent."  Some of his movies have been amazing, like "Alien," "Black Hawk Down," and "Body of Lies."  Others, such as "Kingdom of Heaven," "American Gangster," and "Hannibal," have been less than impressive.  There's a lot going on here, but due in part to jittery editing and directorial manipulation that defines "over-the-top," "Gladiator" neither raises the pulse or the emotions.  It's not quite stillborn (the machinations to bring about Commodus's downfall are interesting and somewhat suspenseful), but Scott can't make all the elements gel appropriately.

Despite all its problems, "Gladiator" remains watchable, and the special effects are impressive (especially on Blu Ray).  Pity about the story.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Pact

1/4

Starring: Caity Lotz, Casper Van Dien, Hayley Hudson, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Agnes Bruckner

Rated R for Some Strong Bloody Violence and Language

In order to enjoy "The Pact," you have to be both inattentive and stupid, although I'm not sure if that will help.  More testing is required, but doing so would probably be outlawed by the Geneva Convention.  This is a really bad movie.  It's dumb, nonsensical and so boring it threatens catatonia.

Nichole (Bruckner) is having a rough time.  She's gotten sober and has temporarily left her daughter Eva (Dakota Bright) with a friend.  And her mother has died, but their relationship was terrible, so she's doing the planning out of obligation than love.  Then when she goes to check on something in a dark place, she goes missing.  After three days, her friend Liz (Perkins) is worried.  Then she goes missing too, and something invisible has scared the living hell out of Nichole's sister, Annie (Lotz).  She goes to the police, but the detective thinks she lost all credibility when she mentioned something supernatural.  Desperate to find her sister and her friend, Annie digs into her mother's past, and finds some nasty skeletons.

There's not one thing worthy of faint praise.  Okay, fine, there are a few successful shocks and Hayley Hudson, who plays the obligatory clairvoyant (who is, of course, blind and vulnerable), is pretty good.  Everything else is either terrible, or not even bad enough to warrant that descriptor.

The script is completely underwritten, which says a lot about Nicholas McCarthy's talent (or lack thereof).  The film keeps explaining things as it goes along, which means boredom.  The characters do a number of amazingly stupid things (to the point where it is painfully obvious that they are props of the script and not real people).  Adding insult to injury, he's in over his head as a director.  His shot selection is so unorganized that the house where just about everything takes place seems to have a layout that changes from scene to scene (I hate it when that happens).  Maybe Annie's time would have been better spent investigating that instead of what happened to her dumb sister and her equally dumb friend.

The acting isn't much better.  Star Caity Lotz is boring.  I didn't care what happens to her.  And what does it say about a film when the best you can get for a lead role is Casper Van Dien?  I haven't seen him in many movies, but the man has the range of a block of cement.  Paul Verhoeven was smart and talented enough to use that to his advantage when he made "Starship Troopers," but the same cannot be said of McCarthy, who is the poster child of ineptitude.  Agnes Bruckner got good reviews for her performance in the indie film "Blue Car," but she's only adequate here (probably because she just took the check and ran after filming her one scene).

This movie is so bad that I predicted the ending halfway through.  Considering how bad I am at predicting whodunits, I think that says enough.

Wait, one more thing...the movie doesn't even bother to answer the film's main plot line (although it's easy to guess), that's how bad it is!

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Conjuring

3/4

Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor

Rated R for Sequences of Disturbing Violence and Terror

I've always wondered what it would be like to live in a haunted house.  On some level, I think it would be kind of cool.  It would be at least an interesting story to tell at parties (whether I could get someone to believe me would depend on how many drinks that person has had.  Probably.).  Most paranormal instances seem to be relatively benign: flashes of light, changes in temperature, spectral sightings that are there one moment and gone the next.  Then again, after watching what happens to the Perron family, maybe it wouldn't be such a hot idea.

It's 1971.  Roger (Livingston) and Carolyn (Taylor) have just moved into a lakeside cottage with their five daughters.  From the moment they get there, things seem a little off.  The dog won't go inside.  Strange smells are coming from a room upstairs, and someone is pulling one of the girls' feet while she sleeps.  Things soon escalate, and Carolyn soon seeks out professional paranormal experts Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine (Farmiga) Warren.  It doesn't take long for Lorraine, a clairvoyant, to realize that there is definitely something wrong with the house that this nice family just took up residence.

In short, "The Conjuring" is a genre movie done well.  There's nothing particularly special about it except for that the performances are universally strong, and director James Wan knows how to wring as much terror from a scene as possible (anyone who has seen "Saw" or "Insidious" can attest to that).  The script is nothing special, however.  In fact, it's pretty generic, and doesn't give the characters a lot of depth.  Still, the other qualities necessary to make a movie work are in evidence, so it's a good pick if you're in the mood for a scare.

Of the cast, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are the best.  Both are underrated actors, and they're given a rare opportunity to lead a film.  They're professional but affectionate with each other, and they have a lot of chemistry together; they make a good team.  Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor provide solid support, but because of how the film is put together, they can't match Wilson and Farmiga for charisma.

Aside from a weak set-up (Wan doesn't do a very good job of introducing the Perron family, although considering that there are seven members of the family, it's understandable...maybe he should have used some dramatic license and kept it to two or three kids), the film suffers from the problem that afflicts most big budget horror movies: it's too busy.  Shocks and jolts are fine, but they release much of the tension; a film is at its most scariest when the director allows the scares to build slowly and soak in the atmosphere.  "The Innkeepers," another ghost story, worked so well because Ti West didn't go for the quick payoff.  I will say that the most of these jolts land, and there are a few times when Wan slows down a bit that it approaches spine-tingling terror (the scene where Carolyn wakes up screaming is a case in point).

I saw this movie twice (once in the theaters and once on Blu Ray).  I liked it.  I got spooked.  When it comes to ghost stories, it's "The Innkeepers" all the way, but this is definitely worth seeing.

Renaissance

2.5/4

Starring (voices): Daniel Craig, Catherine McCormack, Jonathan Pryce, Ian Holm, Romola Garai

Rated R for Violent Images, Sexuality, Nudity and Language

"Sin City" was a comic book come to life.  So is "Renaissance," albeit in a different way.  Robert Rodriguez used CGI and real actors with the panels from the comics used as templates for his camera shots.  "Renaissance" used motion capture technology and computers to make it seem like a black and white comic book come to life.  The result is astounding; it's so great that the film is almost worth seeing just for that.  If only the same could be said for the plot...

Paris, 2054.  A young scientist named Illona Tasuiev (Garai) has been kidnapped.  Detective Barthelemy Karas (Crag) is on the case.  Of course, the more he investigates, the greater the danger.

"Renaissance," which has nothing to do with the historical time period, is a futuristic detective story.  Karas meets all sorts of low-lifes and freaks, and gets pulled into a crazy story involving a shady conglomerate and bad science experiments.  But it all doesn't make any sense.  I had trouble figuring out who was who and what they knew.

The film starts off on the wrong foot.  It doesn't set the stage, and in a science fiction story where the setting is so important, this is a fatal mistake.  It continues to make mistakes all the way through because when we get information about the story, we don't get a sense of its significance.  For example, just how big is Avalon, the company that plays such a huge part in this story?  Is it a Big Brother-type business that controls the world, or is it a Wal-Mart-sized one (granted, Wal-Mart's size is big enough that it might be a bad contrast, but I hope you get the idea).  And what about progeria, the disease that serves as a catalyst for the story?  Is it an epidemic, or is it as relatively small as it is in real life?  These are questions that a film like this must answer, but "Renaissance" doesn't.  It doesn't provide a context for what happens.

The voice acting is terrific, which helped me avoid total boredom.  Daniel Craig, the reliable character actor that he is, fully disappears into the role (it helps that his animated alter-ego looks nothing like the actor, although such a discrepancy can work against the audience's acceptance of a character if the actor isn't talented enough).  It's not a great character, but Craig sells it.  Catherine McCormick, who hasn't done anything big since "Spy Game," is also very good as Bislane, Illona's black sheep of a sister (who inevitably falls for Karas, although this subplot is so underdeveloped that it wasn't worth keeping in the film).  Jonathan Pryce and Ian Holm provide solid support as well.

The film is too short.  More time filling in the holes would make this movie much more compelling.  It's a shame, really, since the film looks so great (despite the coloring, there is little confusion about who is who or what is happening on screen, which I initially feared would happen after seeing the trailer).  There is real suspense and the action scenes are well choreographed.  Pity about the story.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Looney Tunes: Back in Action

3/4

Starring: Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Steve Martin, Timothy Dalton, and the voice of Joe Alasky

Rated PG for Some Mild Language and Innuendo

To me, the Looney Tunes were the ultimate cartoons.  They were clever, well drawn, and often very funny.  The Disney canon was sweet, but they didn't make me laugh as often or as hard.  It's a pity that today's kids are growing up with the utter garbage on Cartoon Network, but I digress...

Anyway, after their stint playing basketball in "Space Jam," which I liked as a kid, but haven't seen since, the Looney Tunes are back in their own big budget movie.  This time, the filmmakers were truer to the source material.  Really, the only way to describe it is a cross between "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and "Scary Movie" (I'm only speaking in terms of structure...there's nothing in this movie that isn't entirely suitable for the whole family).  The connecting story is a spy spoof, but the real meat of the story is the little skits and asides.

DJ Drake (Fraser) is a wannabe stuntman working in Hollywood.  His dad is megastar Damien Drake (Dalton), but DJ wants to work his way up on his own.  He's going to get into a bit of a pickle with Warner Bros. two biggest stars, Daffy Duck (Alasky) and Bugs Bunny (Alasky).  You see, Daffy has had it with Bugs stealing all his thunder, so he wants executives to work out a new deal or he walks.  When Kate, the Vice President of Comedy (Elfman) calls his bluff, she fires him.  She orders DJ, who works as a security guard until his career gets going, to throw him out.  That's when DJ and Daffy discover that his father doesn't just play super-spies, he is one.  Apparently, he was trying to prevent something called the Blue Monkey from falling into the hands of the Chairman of ACME (Martin), but was caught.  Now it's up to DJ and Daffy to save the day, plus Bugs and Kate (eventually).

Let me state one thing up front: the connecting story is pretty lame.  It's a generic spy spoof, but the genre has been done to death (I kept thinking of "Austin Powers"), and the filmmakers don't do much that's original with it.

That being said, that's not where their interest lies.  Or ours.  Audiences want to see the Looney Tunes characters, and the filmmakers deliver.  There's always something going on, even if it's in the background, and it's usually amusing.  Sight gags, ironic plays on words, cartoonish violence, it's all here, and usually with a self-referential twist.  For example, Yosemite Sam owns a casino in Vegas with Foghorn Leghorn as an emcee and casino dealer.  Marvin the Martian is an exhibit at Area 52 (don't ask).  And the careers of Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzales are over because their characters aren't politically correct.  The best bits are about the rivalry between Daffy and Bugs.

"Looney Tunes: Back in Action" isn't afraid of taking potshots at a wide variety of targets.  Big business, virtually everything related to Hollywood, political correctness and politics are just a few areas that the film throws relatively innocent, but still incisive, gags and one-liners at.

As amusing and numerous as this stuff is, it's rarely uproarious.  The timing and the jokes are a little lacking, which causes them to provoke smiles rather than full-bellies laughs.  Stars Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman appear a little lost too (Elfman more so), probably because they're interacting with characters that weren't onscreen during filming.  Steve Martin is awful.  He's so over-the-top that I felt embarrassed for him.  Thankfully, the voice acting is great.  The men and women who play the Looney Tunes characters are almost dead ringers for Mel Blanc, who voiced just about every Looney Tunes character (Blanc died in 1989).

This isn't great art, but it's great fun for the entire family.  It wasn't a box office success, which surprised me, but box office numbers don't always correlate to success.  Rent this one from Netflix.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Enduring Love

3/4

Starring: Daniel Craig, Rhys Ifans, Samantha Morton, Bill Nighy, Susan Lynch

Rated R for Language, Some Violence and a Disturbing Image

The trailer, and the premise, of "Enduring Love" make it seem to be a British art-house version of "Fatal Attraction," but that's not a fair representation of the film.  While there is a stalking situation in the film, it's a subplot.  The film's main focus is on how tragedy and guilt can warp a man's life.

It was a beautiful day.  Joe (Craig) and Claire (Morton) are having a picnic in the English countryside.  Just when things are getting romantic, Claire spies a balloon in trouble.  They rush to help, and Joe tries to bring the balloon down to save a young boy inside.  A gust of wind sends it soaring into the air, however, and Joe and the others let go.  Only one man stays, but eventually he falls to the ground and is killed instantly.

Joe is reeling from the accident, suffering from survivor's guilt and probably PTSD.  Claire tries to be sympathetic, but he shuts her out.  That's when Jed (Ifans), one of the men who tried to save the boy in the balloon, contacts him.  Joe doesn't want to, but when he relents and meets him, Jed claims to want something from him.

There are really three main plotlines in this movie.  One is, of course, the stalking of Joe by Jed, although one could make a valid argument that this is the least important one.  Second is Joe's reaction to the trauma, which threatens his relationship with Claire.  The third isn't really a plotline, more of a theme: whether emotions like love are real or biological actions.

The film's problem is that while these are wed into a coherent whole, it's not elegantly done.  The film was directed by Roger Michell, who made "Notting Hill" and "Morning Glory."  I don't remember much about "Notting Hill" except that I thought it was lame, and I hate "Morning Glory" more every time I think about it.  Michell lacks the expertise to turn something this complex into a complete film.  It's not a disaster, but he's unable to juggle all of which the screenplay (based on a novel by Ian McEwan, who also wrote the novel that the film "Atonement" was based on) tries to address.  Additionally, he gets way too artsy in the film's most intense scenes, which limits their power.

The acting is great, and with a cast like this, one would expect nothing less.  Daniel Craig, who is more than capable of playing roles other than James Bond, gives his best performance as Joe.  Joe is a good man, but the accident fundamentally alters his personality.  He's angry and jittery, and at times obsessed.  He's become more cynical, too.  Samantha Morton is wonderful as always as Claire.  She's sweet and loving, but there's only so much that she can take.  Rhys Ifans is creepy as Jed; he exhibits the tendencies of both an erotomaniac and a religious fanatic.  The irreplaceable Bill Nighy, Ben Whishaw and Andrew Lincoln (from "The Walking Dead") have cameos.

Do I think it's worth seeing?  I think so.  I was never bored, and was engaged by the ideas and the relationships between the characters (the one between Joe and Claire feels completely real).  It's not for everyone, that much is clear.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Moms' Night Out

3/4

Starring: Sarah Drew, Patricia Heaton, Andrea Logan White, Abbie Cobb, Sean Astin, Trace Adkins, David Hunt, Alex Kendrick, Kevin Downes

Rated PG for Mild Thematic Elements and Some Action

When I learned that "Moms' Night Out" was a Christian film, I dreaded going to see this movie.  Thoughts of something wretched like "God's Not Dead" flooded my mind.  But, as a film critic, I had to see it (if nothing else, it would help fill up my Bottom 10 list).  To my surprise, not only was "Moms' Night Out" eons better than the previously mentioned disaster, it's actually a good movie.  It's fun, fast-paced, and frequently very funny.

Allyson (Drew) is a young mom of three children.  She's a blogger about family life (although no one reads it) and raising her wild children is driving her to the point of a breakdown (it doesn't help that she's a clean freak and a worry wart).  Noticing that her two friends, Izzy (White) and Sondra (Heaton) are just as stressed out, so she suggests that they take a night out together while the dads look after the kids.  Needless to say, things do not go as planned, and all hell breaks loose as they run into problems such as a missing baby and a tattoo artist who goes by the ominous name of Bones (Adkins).  The dads' night isn't any better, either.

In a nutshell, "Moms' Night Out" is a screwball comedy (a genre I have a fondness for).  And unlike many movies these days, it's entirely family friendly, although I'm not sure that kids will be able to relate to what's going on.  The jokes are frequent and most of them land because they poke fun at human foibles rather than trying to take the words "crude" and "disgusting" to the next level.  Many films, such as "Shrek" and "The Princess Bride," have proved that you don't need to be dark or gross to earn a laugh.  "Moms' Night Out" does too, and it's all the better for it.

"Moms' Night Out" was produced by Affirm Films and Provident Films, which are the faith-based arms of Sony.  But you could have fooled me.  "Moms' Night Out" works as a Christian film because it doesn't fall into the traps that "God's Not Dead," which is an example of Filmmaking Ineptitude 101 (even many Christians hated it, as is evidenced by the reviews on iMDb), did.  The characters are shown with their warts and all, it's not political, and it doesn't preach.  It also helps that the acting (which includes the likes of Sean Astin, Patricia Heaton and "Glee's" Harry Shum, Jr.) is strong across the board.  The biggest reason is that it shows its message, rather than spouts it incessantly (no one, not even the pastor, played by Alex Kendrick, recites anything from the Bible).  It's also willing to have fun and let its hair down.  No one in this movie is perfect, but they're all likable, and that's the film's message: you may be flawed and make mistakes, but you're still A-OK with the man upstairs.

Aside from all that, the film is just a good film, period.  The jokes are clever and well-timed, and it features a chase scene that is well-staged and edited.  It's actually exciting and, considering the context and what happens in it, is a lot of fun.

This is not a perfect film; there are two scenes that get a little too close to preaching for comfort and the ending scenes aren't perfectly set up well, but so what?  Is the film entertaining enough to warrant a trip to the theater?  Absolutely (especially if you're a mom).


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Not Another Teen Movie

3/4

Starring: Chris Evans, Chyler Leigh, Jamie Pressly, Eric Christian Olsen, Deon Richmond, Mia Kirshner, Eric Jungmann, Ron Lester

The version being reviewed is the unrated one.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong Crude Sexual Content and Humor, Language and Some Drug Content

I'm almost ashamed to admit that I liked this movie.  I laughed, and laughed, and laughed.  I'm ashamed to admit it because the humor is so dumb.  I mean really dumb.  Now, "Scary Movie," which brought the spoof genre back to life (to which we owe Friedberg and Selzter's careers to), was not known for sophisticated humor.  But compared to this, it was in Merchant/Ivory territory (if they ever made a sex comedy).  This stuff is so stupid and brainless that I'm surprised that I was laughing all the way through it.  Oh well.

It's really pointless to discuss the plot, since that's the least important part of any spoof.  "Not Another Teen Movie" rips every popular teen movie from the the 80's and 90's to shreds.  The main plotline skewers "She's All That," a romantic comedy that I remember liking.  Other teen movies like "Bring it On," "Varsity Blues," "Cruel Intentions," and "Pretty in Pink" get their dues, as does "American Pie."  Even "West Side Story" takes its lumps.

It takes real skill to satirize a comedy, but director Joel Gallen knows what he's doing.  He doesn't satirize the jokes, only the behavior of the characters in those movies.  Like in "Scary Movie," the characters know their roles in these kinds of movies (such as Malik, played with zest by Deon Richmond, who knows he is only there to say racial cliches) and offer commentary on them.

As dumb as most of the humor is (most of it is just slapstick and self-aware humor), there's some clever stuff here and there.  In a satire of "Pretty in Pink," unseen by me, Ricky Lipman (Jungmann) tries desperately (a word I emphasize tremendously) to confess his feelings to Janey Briggs (Leigh), but she always exits the conversation inadvertently before he can.  These scenes are really well written, and Jungmann has a gift for physical comedy.

When it's satirizing the cliches of the teen movies, the film is almost always funny.  When it's satirizing the movie plots or key scenes, it's on less sure ground.  The bits that skewer "Cruel Intentions," for example, aren't as funny (mainly because the movie was so funny to begin with).  There are a few dead spots towards the end, and some of what passes for acting borders on painful (Evans and Olsen in particular).  There are also some good performances too.  Chyler Leigh is a dead ringer for Rachel Leigh Cook, and understands the concept of comic timing, and Mia Kirshner gives Sarah Michelle Gellar a run for the money in terms of playing an ice cold bitch.

Look, this is not great art.  But if you like to laugh, this is time well spent.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Neighbors

1/4

Starring: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz

Rated R for Pervasive Language, Strong Crude and Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, and Drug Use Throughout

This is a letter to Seth Rogen, star and co-producer of "Neighbors."

Dear Seth,

SHUT UP!

God, do you even know how to stop talking anymore?  I know that you started out as a stand-up comic when you were 13, and you probably like to improvise, but seriously dude.  There is such a thing as overkill, and you cross the line a lot in this movie.  A whole lot.  The great William Shakespeare once said, "Brevity is the soul of wit."  You should think about that the next time you make a movie.

The concept is a pretty good one for a comedy.  You play Mac (Rogen), who is married to Kelly (Byrne...good choice here) and you have a cute baby named Stella (Elise and Zoey Vargas).  You've moved into a happy home when all the sudden you have neighbors.  Instead of the gay neighbors you think you're getting, you have a frat house of rowdy frat boys led by Teddy (Efron), the frat president, and Pete (Franco), his right hand man.  Initially, you guys get along great after Teddy and Pete agree to keep it down (and invite you two to the party).  But when you call the cops after the second party (and Teddy sees you), it turns into all out war.

Like I said, it's a great idea for a comedy.  "Animal House" meets "War of the Roses," right?  Apparently not.

Seth, I can safely say that either you completely overestimated the worth of the script, or you completely tanked it on your own.  Some of the potentially funny bits are ruined by how long they go on.  The scene where you and Rose Byrne debate on how to approach the frat brothers was amusing at first.  Then it went on.  And on.  And on.  A comic riff can't survive for more than about 10 seconds, and you two dragged it out to 30 seconds, if not longer.  Either have it build to something, or keep it short.  Will Shakespeare, remember?

And that's not the only instance where this happens.  The majority of the film's scenes are like this.  You know the scene where Pete apologizes to Teddy, and they start rhyming?  First of all, it's not even close to being clever, and it's dragged out soooooooo long!  What were you thinking?

I'd be lying if I said that the film is completely devoid of laughs.  It's not.  There are some bits where, in spite of myself, I laughed pretty hard.  But here's the thing: they were short.  Will Shakespeare, remember?

As a producer, it is up to you to make sure that the script is workable and things move in a positive direction.  Rose Byrne and Zac Efron, who would be more effective if he had better things to say, do what they can, but the jokes run on for far too long, and frankly, they're not all that funny to begin with.  You've lost the human touch that made your past movies so funny.  Movies like "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and to a lesser extent, "Knocked Up," were funny because the allowed us to see the funny side of human nature (albeit in a crude and gross way).  Here, it's just gross with no edge or humanity.

It's not as bad as "This is the End," mainly because I didn't feel supremely cheated by a waste of a great concept.  But unless you get your act together, I'm going to tell people that if your name is on the marquee, then they should stay away.

Seriously man, talk to Kenneth Branagh.  He knows all about Shakespeare, and could definitely give you some tips.

Sincerely,

Mighty Mike

The Machinist

3/4

Starring: Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, John Sharian, Michael Ironside

Rated R for Violence and Disturbing Images, Sexuality and Language

"The Machinist" is probably best described as a member of the "mindfuck" genre.  It's a movie that messes with the lead character's head...and yours.  Oddly enough, I was re-watching "Black Swan" earlier tonight, which is also a member of this genre.  "The Machinist" isn't as good, but for those who like these kinds of movies, it's a well-spent 100 minutes.

Trevor Reznik (Bale) hasn't slept in a year.  He's exhausted (obviously), and emaciated to the point where people tell him, "If you were any thinner, you wouldn't exist."  Trevor is also a loner...the only people he has much contact with are Stevie (Leigh), a prostitute who loves him, and Maria (Sanchez-Gijon), the waitress goes out of his way to see.  But lately, some strange things are going on.  Someone is leaving cryptic Post-It notes around his apartment, there's an accident at work, and that's just the start.  And who is Ivan (Sharian), a mysterious man that no one but Trevor can see?

The first thing one notices about "The Machinist" is Christian Bale.  Bale is handsome and muscular, but not here.  He's so thin that it's actually quite scary.  He dropped his weight from 173 pounds to 110 pounds, and wanted to go down to 100 but the producers wouldn't let him out of fear for his health.  The effect works, and it helps us accept the character.  Still, one has to wonder if Bale crossed the line between being devoted to his craft and being psychotic.

Bale's appearance is the most striking thing about this movie, but it's not the movie's only selling point.  The story is weirdly compelling and the acting is so strong that if it spends a little more time with the characters than is absolutely necessary, I didn't notice (or care).  Jennifer Jason Leigh is terrific as Stevie, a more eloquent and loving prostitute than you usually find in the movies.  Equally strong is Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, who has lost none of her luminosity since the other film I saw her in, "A Walk in the Clouds."  She's not nearly as traditionally beautiful here, but her warmth makes her lovable.  John Sharian is perfectly chilling as the mysterious Ivan, although that's all I'll say.

Brad Anderson is a talented independent filmmaker.  He doesn't limit himself very much, and favors character-oriented psychological thrills.  This can be seen in the terrific film "Transsiberian" and the flawed but still compelling "Session 9."  Anderson has crafted a bleak thriller, he desaturates the color to the point where it's almost monochromatic, and takes his time so we can soak in the atmosphere.  This isn't a happy movie, as you might imagine.  But it is undeniably compelling.

Friday, May 16, 2014

How to Make Love to a Woman

2.5/4

Starring: Josh Meyers, Krysten Ritter, Eugene Byrd, Lindsay Richards, Ian Somerhalder

Rated R for Strong Sexual Content including Graphic Dialogue, and for Language

There is a sense that "How to Make Love to a Woman" should be a lot funnier than it actually is.  Whenever the film goes for laughs, it's not nearly as uproarious as it wants to be.  At best, it manages to get a chuckle.  It is, however, surprisingly sweet.

Andy Connors (Meyers, brother of SNL star Seth Meyers) is a talent agent living in Los Angeles.  He's dating a raven-haired beauty named Lauren (Ritter), but there's a problem.  He's not good in bed.  He's done after six seconds, which leaves Lauren unsatisfied.  Fearing a break-up, he decides to go with his friend Layne (Byrd) to ask people how to be better in bed.  Meanwhile, Lauren has a job opportunity to die for in Chicago, and her boss (Ken Jeong) is hoping that an old neighbor named Daniel (Somerhalder) will convince her to take it.

This could be a great romantic comedy, but it's not all that funny.  The jokes aren't bawdy or insightful enough.  It has the same problem as "Think Like a Man;" it presents its ideas about men, women and relationships as unique when they're really common place.  Oddly enough, the film's closest cousin is Stanley Kubrick's final film, "Eyes Wide Shut." Both are about the search for sexual/emotional fulfillment, but Kubrick's film is much more intelligent and a lot better made.

The acting is okay, which is nice considering that it appears that each scene was only done in one or two takes.  Josh Meyers is a pretty likable average guy, even if he's a little too low-key.  Krysten Ritter, one of the funniest women working in Hollywood, is also very good.  Much of why the ending works is because of her.  Eugene Byrd and Lindsay Richards (as a singer that Andy is trying to promote) are typical of any halfway decent direct-to-DVD fare: effective within the context of the movie, but I'm not expecting them to become big stars anytime soon.  Ian Somerhalder is good in his small role as Daniel, who isn't the romantic rival that Andy thinks that he is.  Still, he's really good.  After one scene I was hoping Lauren would end up with him.  Less impressive is Ken Jeong.  Jeong has proved in movies like "The Hangover" series and "Role Models" that he can be absolutely hilarious.  Here, he's kept so low-key that he's boring.  Actually, he's pretty annoying.

Putting it bluntly, the film looks like shit.  Scott Culver, who made his directorial debut here, isn't going to become the next Stanley Kubrick.  The shot selection is depressingly stale, and it feels like it was rushed through production.

Evidently, Culver wanted this to be a traditional romantic comedy rather than a raunchfest.  That would be okay if it was more insightful and better made.  As it is, it's best enjoyed late at night on TV.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

3/4

Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Destruction, Mayhem and Creature Violence

Godzilla is probably one of the most famous movie monsters.  Put him on the same list as Dracula, Frankenstein and the Xenomorph.  He's a far different kind of creature, but he's still big and scary (emphasis on big).  He's received a number of big screen appearances over the years (most have been reported to be very campy) after his debut in 1954.  His last big budget movie was in the 1998 film directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Matthew Broderick.  I'm pretty sure I saw it, but I don't remember any part of it.  By all accounts it was a travesty.  I was actually wary of this film due to last year's kaiju movie, "Pacific Rim."  Fortunately, Gareth Edwards has a greater interest in telling a story instead of making a bloated, movie length trailer that makes you feel gross.

Joe Brody (Cranston) is a scientist working at a nuclear power plant in Japan with his wife Elle (Binoche).  Surely their names are a reference to "Jaws;" it can't be a coincidence.  They're are getting some strange tremors at the plant, and Joe wants to investigate.  That's when the plant is destroyed.  Years later, Joe's son Ford (Taylor-Johnson), who witnessed the accident, has to go bail out his father, who was trespassing on the quarantined site.  He believes that it wasn't an accident as the government claimed, and he intends to prove it.  Ford thinks he's nuts, but it turns out that he was right.  As two workers for Monarch, Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Hawkins) inform Ford, those nuclear tests in the 50's weren't tests.  They were trying to kill a monster known as Godzilla.  Now, another creature that looks like a pterodactyl from hell, has risen from beneath the Earth and may destroy the world.  But is Godzilla here to protect humanity or destroy it?

I'll admit, the sight of creatures twice the size of the Empire State Building pounding the hell out of each other is pretty cool.  That's because it's effectively staged and directed.  Director Gareth Edwards isn't simply using special effects, he's using them well.

Unfortunately, the sound effects drown out a lot of the dialogue, making the first half of the film confusing.  Either because they're speaking under masks, via radio or against explosions or the loud soundtrack, 90 % of the dialogue in the first hour is indecipherable.  It's a frustrating experience.  Fortunately, things clear up at the halfway mark, and I could relax.

The film's biggest problem (after the bad sound), is the script.  The story is trite and little more than a studio pitch (whatever happened to twists in the story?).  There's no room for character development or much in the way of acting.  The actors, all of whom have lots of talent, are just props.

Do I recommend the film?  Yeah, I do.  It's fun and entertaining, and the 3D gives it an extra pop without blur or dimming of the image.  I was gripping the armrests and jumping at certain points.  It's a pity about the dialogue and the story, though.  If it was stronger in both of those departments, they could have had a real winner.

In Fear

3/4

Starring: Iain De Caestecker, Alice Englert

Rated R for Some Disturbing Violent Content and Terror, and for Language

Ask anyone who knows me, and I can guarantee you they will agree on (at least) one thing: I am terrible with directions.  I get lost so easily, and making matters worse, that's my biggest phobia.  That's probably the main reason why I responded to "In Fear," a largely improvised horror film.  That, and it has some terrific performances doesn't hurt at all.

Tom (De Caestecker) and Lucy (Englert) are going to meet some friends at a concert in Ireland.  They have been dating for two weeks, but are comfortable with one another.  As a romantic gesture, Tom arranges for them to spend the night at an out of the way motel and head to the concert tomorrow.  Lucy agrees, and a truck from the hotel agrees to guide them.  He ditches them halfway, and it isn't long before the two are lost.  And that's when the real terror starts.

"In Fear's" closest cousin is "The Descent," although that's a pretty big stretch.  This is a largely psychological horror film, much as the first hour of Neil Marshall's masterpiece was.  Aside from the mental stresses that are transported to the audience, the film's are almost entirely different (a closer cousin would be "Penny Dreadful").  There is also a reference to "Wrong Turn," although considering how low profile that film was (it made $28.5 million against a $12.6 million budget...not exactly record-breaking numbers), I have to wonder whether or not it was intentional.

The acting is terrific.  Iain De Caestecker is pitch perfect as Tom.  He's handsome, friendly, and charming.  The film opens with him leaving two voicemails asking Lucy to the concert; halfway through the first one, I was ready to follow him anywhere.  If every horror movie had a guy this likable, I'd watch a lot more of them (and I already watch plenty).  Alice Englert isn't at the same level, but she's pretty good.  She just can't match the level of her co-star.

For a horror movie, which isn't a genre known for its good performances (remember "Strangeland?"), this would be impressive.  For a movie that's almost completely improvised, that's amazing.  The film is more or less unscripted.  Director Jeremy Lovering had the story idea worked out, but he didn't tell that to the actors.  They only had two weeks to rehearse (just as Tom and Lucy were only dating for two weeks) in order to generate the appropriate chemistry.  What this adds to the proceedings, I'm not sure, since it seems like a regular, old-fashioned chiller (albeit a very good one), I don't know.  It lacks the sense of innovation that "The Blair Witch Project" and "Cloverfield" had.  Regardless, far be it for me to complain about a horror film that manages to scare me.

Alas, the film isn't as good as it could have been.  For one thing, Lovering isn't good at framing some of his shots.  When a shocking moment happens, I wouldn't have realized it without the sudden, loud music.  The characters do some obviously stupid things, and while that's a given in this genre, I still wanted to shout, "You're being a moron!" at the characters.  A movie like "The Descent" or "Sinister" will have you too freaked out to think like that.  The film also strains credulity to the breaking point a few times, and breaks it at the film's biggest scene.

All that being said, if you're looking for a new movie to shred your nerves, here's another movie to add to your Netflix queue.  Especially if you have a tendency to get lost.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Beloved

1.5/4

Starring: Oprah Winfrey, Kimberly Elise, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton

Rated R for Violent Images, Sexuality and Nudity

It really sucks when you have to trash a movie that is a passion project for someone involved.  Either because you like them as an actor/filmmaker or because you know how hard it is to get a film off the ground, especially if it's not a guaranteed blockbuster.  For years, Oprah Winfrey wanted to bring Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the screen.  Unfortunately, judging by the result of her passion and hard work, it probably should have stayed a novel.

Sethe (Winfrey) is an ex-slave who lives with her daughter Denver (Elise) on the outskirts of Cincinnati.  Their house is haunted, but when Sethe's old friend Paul D (Glover) comes, it goes away.  That's when they meet a mysterious young woman who calls herself Beloved (Newton).  Sethe forms a motherly bond with her almost instantly while Denver is ambivalent.  Paul D doesn't trust her and eventually leaves.  It soon becomes clear that Beloved is going to open up some of Sethe's old wounds.

"Beloved" is a ghost story, although anyone expecting a traditional ghost story is going to be bored out of their minds...then again, so will everyone else.  This isn't a horror movie.  It's a drama about coming to terms with the horrors of the past and the price we pay for our actions.

If the film fails, it is not for lack of trying on part of the actors.  Having Oprah, the talk show queen, star in a movie may seem like the work of an overgrown ego or a studio wanting quick marketing cash at the expense of quality.  Fortunately, this is not the case.  Oprah gives a terrific performance with only a few flat spots.  Even those who didn't watch her show (like me), she's a recognizable face.  But it doesn't take long for us to forget it's her.  And that's the mark of a good actress.  Her interpretation of Sethe is fascinating because we understand her way of thinking.  She has done some horrible things, but horrible things have also been done to her.

Able support is provided by Danny Glover (who is better than the "Lethal Weapon" franchise) and Kimberly Elise.  Thandie Newton is a strange case.  Newton is a gifted actress capable of terrific performances ("Crash," her guest stint on "E.R."), but Beloved is annoying.  She's supposed to be an infantile woman, but Newton doesn't know how to play her.  It's not her fault, however.  The character is ineptly written.

And thus we come to the film's biggest problem, one that happens far too often: the script.  This is a badly written film.  Maybe the source material was unfilmable.  But the film version is filled with inconsistencies, bizarre interludes (the streamers) and is about an hour too long.

The film was directed by Jonathan Demme, who made "The Silence of the Lambs."  He's an odd choice for the film, and this is why.  He doesn't know what to do with the script or the material.  Demme gives it a game try, but he should have insisted on some drastic rewrites in order to clean things up.

It's sad, really.  This could have been a powerful story and Sethe is a great character.  At least they tried something different, which is always encouraged, even if the result is a disaster like this.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Fish Called Wanda

3/4

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, John Cleese, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, Tom Georgeson, Maria Aitkin

Rated R (probably for Strong Language, Sex-Related Material and Some Violence)

I've seen "A Fish Called Wanda" three times now, and this is the first time I've liked it.  I guess British humor is an acquired taste.  But watching "Death at a Funeral" and "Burke and Hare," two comedies so hilarious that a person would have to be dead in order to sit completely stone faced through them, will do that to a guy.

The film has a terrific set-up for a madcap screwball comedy.  Four thieves are intending to relieve a bank of some jewels.  George (Georgeson) is the brains, Otto (Kline) is the brawn, Ken (Palin) is the support, and Wanda (Curtis) is the getaway driver.  The robbery goes off without a hitch, until Otto and Wanda (whom everyone thinks are siblings but are actually lovers) make a call to the police and finger George for the crime.  Their plan to cheat the other two out of the loot goes awry when they realize that George had already hidden the jewels.  Now Wanda has to seduce George's lawyer, Archie Leach (Cleese) to find out where they are.

From top to bottom the performances work.  John Cleese plays the straight man who's caught in a situation that could charitably be called bizarre, although he still allows himself to get more than a few laughs.  Jamie Lee Curtis is oh so sexy, and one of Wanda's kinks is that someone speaking in a foreign accent is a huge turn-on.  Kevin Kline is hilarious as Otto ("Don't call me stupid!"), who is nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is.  Otto is a total whack job, and that's what makes him so funny.  Everyone has their share of humorous bits, but Kline is always hysterical.  Michael Palin is also very good as a man who is assigned to bump off a witness but ends up killing her vicious dogs instead.  Making matters worse is his stutter, which brings to mind Colin Firth in "The King's Speech."  And his is worse.

My past criticism with the film still applies, although not to the point where I won't recommend it.  The film is poorly directed by Charles Crichton.  Comedy must have energy, but Crichton stifles it to the point where it isn't nearly as funny as it should have been.  It is only the skills of his cast and the screenplay that make enough of the jokes work.  In comedy, timing is everything, and Crichton doesn't get it right.  He wants us to feel for the characters as we're laughing at them, but this is a difficult balance to achieve and Crichton misses the mark.  Consider the scene where Archie is apologizing to Otto, only to have the camera turn 180 degrees to reveal that he is hanging out of the window.  The movement is too slow for it to have the payoff that it deserves, and a similar problem affects a lot of the jokes in this film.  If his direction were as manic and quick as Kline's performance, the film would be a masterpiece.

I guess the only way to judge British humor is like a ski slope.  "Burke & Hare" is a green, "Death at a Funeral" is a blue, and "A Fish Called Wanda" is a black diamond.  Yeah, that's how I'd put it.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Sunset Blvd.

3.5/4

Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olson, Erich von Stroheim

Not Rated

"Sunset Blvd." is really a sad story.  I wouldn't call it depressing, but it definitely has a sense of melancholy about it.  It makes sense; after all the central character is a faded star who is teetering on the edge of insanity, and the "hero" takes advantage of her for her money.  But it's really about the realization that the glory days are behind you.

Joe Gillis (Holden) is a screenwriter who can't get a job.  His car is about to be repossessed, so he's desperate.  While on the run from the guys who intend on collecting it, Joe gets a flat tire and pulls into the driveway of an old mansion.  He thinks it's deserted, but it's not.  It's tenant is none other than Norma Desmond (Swanson), one of the most famous silent movie stars.  She thinks he's there to bury her beloved chimpanzee, but when she hears that he's a writer, she insists that he look at her script for "Salome."  It's a mess of melodrama and non-sensical ramblings, but Joe senses an opportunity.  He can live there rent free with all of his needs cared for as long as he works on the script.  But Norma, who is teetering on the edge of insanity, is a demanding employer, and when he begins to work on a script with a pretty writer named Betty Schaefer (Olson), she resorts to drastic measures.

"Sunset Blvd." is well-known as a "Hollywood" movie, but it's not a fantasy.  It shows Hollywood for what it really is: a place of magic for those who are in the spotlight, but where people are commodities as easily used as paper and using people is a way of life.  Director Billy Wilder takes an even-handed approach to the material, which suits it well.  It's neither too bleak nor whitewashed.

The performances are top-notch.  William Holden (taking over for Montgomery Clift, who backed out two weeks before filming) is well-cast as Joe.  Known for his dramatic performances laced with black wit, that suits him well for the role.  In a position like his, I suppose having a dark sense of humor is a life-saver.  Unfortunately, his motives are at times a little hard to understand, particularly when Wilder concentrates on the living situation with Norma.  Saying more would be a minor (although unimportant) spoiler, but those who watch the film will see what I mean by the halfway point.  I haven't seen Gloria Swanson in any other films, but she gives an amazing performance.  Norma Desmond is one of the great movie characters and while the intelligent and deep script certainly helps, the majority of it is because of Swanson.  She successfully straddles the line between a tragic woman and a complete lunatic.  It is readily apparent from when she appears on screen that she is not right in the head, but as the film goes on we realize more and more that she is utterly insane.  Able support is provided by Erich von Stroheim as her faithful butler Max (interestingly enough, von Stroheim directed Swanson in a number of films, including "Queen Mary," which killed his career behind the camera and left their relationship on a sour note) and Nancy Olson as the lovely Betty.

Billy Wilder has been named as one of the great filmmakers to have ever worked in Hollywood, and his resume includes some of Hollywood's most celebrated titles, including "Some Like it Hot," "The Apartment," and "Double Indemnity."  This is because he is a student of film technique and a great storyteller.  He takes his time and gives every element their due.  He's also a gifted director of actors, having cultivated flawless performances from his cast.

"Sunset Blvd" was almost lost to time.  The original negatives have long since disappeared, and the only film version of it were 35mm inter-positives from 1952, and they were in poor condition.  You wouldn't know it by watching the film, however.  Each frame has been lovingly and meticulously restored, resulting in a glorious production.

Part tragic story and part dramatic thriller, "Sunset Blvd." has lost none of its potency.

The Other Woman

1.5/4

Starring: Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Kate Upton, Niki Minaj, Taylor Kinney, Don Johnson

Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Material, Sexual References and Lanaguage

At the heart of "The Other Woman" is a good idea: three women discover they're sleeping with the same man, and then band together to get revenge.  Unfortunately as countless movies have proved, a good premise does not necessarily mean a good movie.

Carly (Diaz) is a successful lawyer with a history of bad relationships with men.  But as she tells her sassy secretary Lydia (Minaj), she thinks that this latest one is a keeper.  His name is Mark (Coster-Waldau).  He's smart, sexy and totally into her.  But when he has to postpone a dinner date with her father because of a plumbing accident, she's had it.  Then her father (Johnson) tells her to give him the benefit of the doubt, and go to his house to help him out (and get in some extra credit, if you get my drift).  She does so, only to find out that not only is he cheating on her, he's married.  His wife Kate (Mann) puts two and two together, and they rely on each other for moral support (much to Carly's reluctance).  They eventually realize that Mark has a third mistress, a sexpot with some big bazooms named Amber (Upton).  The three of them form a girl trio and decide to make Mark pay.

With a smart script and good performances, this could have been a winning comedy.  Unfortunately, "smart" is a term that no one will use to describe this drek and there isn't a good performance to be found during the way too long hour and fifty minutes it takes to tell the story.  Admittedly, I did laugh a few times during this film, but it's the majority of the material that sucks.

The biggest surprise of the film is Cameron Diaz.  Known mainly for her beauty, Diaz has tremendous talent, playing anything from a golden girl that draws all kinds of weirdos to her ("There's Something About Mary") to a pretty pickpocket ("Gangs of New York").  This is not one of her finest moments; she's coasting through on her charisma, which can lend itself admirably to bitchy characters (see "Bad Teacher" for an example) if the situation calls for it.  Diaz doesn't read scripts, which may account for her participation in this insipid production.  At least she's better than her co-star, Leslie Mann, who is just flat out irritating.  Mann does not have a lot of range.  In fact, she's only tolerable in small doses, like in her roles in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" or "Knocked Up" (both of which were directed by her husband Judd Apatow).  Diaz, even though she's obviously bored out of her skull, carries her scenes.  Mann isn't able to do that, which hurts the film considerably because she's required to carry half the movie.  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is certainly sexy and worthy of our hatred, but I got the sense that the script limits what he can do.  I can't say much about Kate Upton's thespian abilities since she doesn't show up until the film's final third and doesn't have much to do.  Pop star Niki Minaj clearly has little in the way of acting talent (although her lame comic relief isn't all her fault...she doesn't have any good lines), while Don Johnson is completely forgettable.

"The Other Woman" is a chick flick that is meant to be counter-programming to all the action and special effects.  It would work if the film was good.  But it's not funny and it's not interesting.  It's way too long, and the characters are irritating.  For the most part, they're either sniping at each other or acting like sorority girls.

At least it's not godawful, which considering what has been passing for comedy lately, is saying at least something.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Frontier(s)

3/4

Starring: Karina Testa, Aurelien Wiik, Maud Forget, David Saracino, Chems Dahmani, Jean-Pierre Jorris

The version being reviewed is the unrated one.  For the record, the original cut was rated NC-17 for Extreme Sadistic Graphic Violence and Gore

"Frontier(s)" will only appeal to those who have a high tolerance for violence and horror.  This is an extremely violent horror film that will turn off most of the people who view it.  "Saw" has nothing on this movie.

A group of thieves have been interrupted in their getaway.  One of them, Sami (Adel Bencherif) has been shot and is gravely injured.  They split up with Yasmine (Testa) and Alex (Wiik) taking Sami to a hospital while Tom (Saracino) and Farid (Dahmani) head for a B&B on their way to Amsterdam.  It is there that they run into a horrific family of neo-Nazis who will literally put them through hell.

How can I describe how violent this movie is?  I don't think I can.  A lot of this stuff, such as stabbings and related maiming, is common for this sort of thing.  What makes this film different is the way Xavier Gens directs it.  He has a keen sense of atmosphere and puts us right down in the bowels of this nightmare with the protagonists.  He shakes the camera, but does so effectively.  This increases the amount of tension (which is considerable to begin with).  Gens also holds nothing back.  The most extreme moments are shown in their full graphic, bloody glory.

The performances are strong across the board.  I was with the heroes every step of the way, and was actively wishing for the villains to suffer appropriately brutal ends.  Briefly, I want to mention a few of the performances.  Leading the pack is Karina Testa.  As Yasmine, Testa is terrific.  Not only does she show fear with consummate skill, she shows the psychological toll it is taking on her.  Next up is Maud Forget, who plays the tiny voiced and deformed Eva.  She's chilling as the twisted, doll-like wretch.  Jean-Pierre Jorris is absolutely chilling as the psychotic leader of the family.  He's the ultimate horror psychopath, and a lot of that has to do with his frightening performance.  Also worth mentioning is the fact that Samuel Le Bihan, who played Fronsac in "Brotherhood of the Wolf," appears as Goetz, one of the villains.  I hope my love of the character won't be lessened after seeing this film.

Let me state again that this is absolutely, unequivocally not for kids or the faint of heart.  Even I, a huge horror buff, had to turn away a number of times during this film, and there were times when I thought I was going to vomit.  I'm not kidding.  Now that I'm going to sleep, I'm going to put something on that will take my mind off of it.  Like "Planet Earth."

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Limbo

3/4

Starring: David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Vanessa Martinez

Rated R for Language

There's really not much of a plot to John Sayles' 1999 film "Limbo," another movie that I had a fascination with but haven't seen until now.  It simply follows three different characters for about two hours.  I like these kinds of movies as long as the acting is strong and the characters are interesting.  That's the case here.

Donna De Angelo (Mastrantonio) is a small-time singer with a history of bad relationships.  She moves from place to place so she can keep singing, and takes her teenage daughter Noelle (Martinez) along for the ride.  They're now in a small town in Alaska, where Donna has just moved out of her boyfriend's house.  Almost immediately, she meets Joe Gastineau (Strathairn), a soft-spoken man who also has a bad past.

Saying more would spoil the film, and yet at the same time would be completely pointless.  These characters are the same at the end as they are at the beginning.  Really, this is a character study, although such a descriptor is too simple.  "Limbo" is like that: a simple film, but difficult to describe.

The performances are top notch.  David Strathairn, an underrated actor who always impresses, is terrific as Joe.  He's kind and sensitive, but with hints of darkness in his personality.  He's able to listen and knows what it's like to have skeletons in the closet.  Likewise, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio also gives a strong performance.  She's a broken woman who refuses to let life get her down, even when things couldn't get any worse.  I haven't seen Vanessa Martinez in another film (although she did have a small role in "Warrior," apparently), but she's very good.  Noelle is a rebellious teen, whose pessimism hides darker wounds (she cuts herself).  And yet, we still get on her side.

The film's first half is a little rough.  Sayles has his camera act as a fly on the wall and overhear conversations from a number of different individuals, but aside from the main trio, they don't have much to do with the story.  He interweaves a number of conversations together, but it's inelegantly done and doesn't add up to much.  Once the film enters the second half and the three characters become the film's sole focus, the film takes off.  Additionally, some of the dialogue is a little too artistic, and as a result feels a little stilted to the ears.

"Limbo" was controversial due to its open ending (according to James Berardinelli, someone threw something at the screen when the end credits started).  I'm at a loss to understand why.  Sure, it stings a little, but it made sense (although that may be because I knew about it beforehand).  Some movies do well with open endings, and this is one of them.  This is because what happens feels almost beside the point.

Nevertheless, this is a film that is worth seeking out for adventurous filmgoers.  It is not multiplex fare, however.

Dante's Peak

3/4

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Linda Hamilton, Jamie Renee Smith, Jeremy Foley, Charles Hallahan, Elizabeth Hoffman

Rated PG-13 for Disaster-Related Peril and Gore

When I was growing up, we had a box of VHS tapes (how times have changed...) that could only be watched on family movie night.  We had two cabinets in the basement for "lesser" movies to sate my voracious appetite for movies, but the ones upstairs were the Holy Grail.  "True Lies," "The Peacemaker," "Tommy Boy," and "Air Force One" were included among them.  So was "Dante's Peak."  It's not as strong of a film as the others, but it's still damn entertaining.

Harry Dalton (Brosnan...surely it can't be a coincidence that he shares the surname of Timothy Dalton, one of his James Bond predecessors) is a volcanologist based out of Washington.  A few years after an eruption killed his girlfriend, his boss tells him to head to Dante's Peak to investigate some murmurs from the volcano right next door.  Almost as soon as he's there, he realizes that something's cooking (and it's not deer meat).  He wants to warn the town, but his boss thinks otherwise.  Of course, Harry's hunch is right, and Dante's Peak goes kaboom.

The performances are effective, but they're dwarfed by the special effects.  Still, the acting by Brosnan and Hamilton is enough to get us on their side.  Brosnan plays Harry as an aloof scientist, but he's more than capable of caring about people.  Hamilton plays Rachel Wando, a local shop owner, town mayor and single mom rolled into one.  She's very good here, but like Brosnan, there's only so much that she can do.  Also worth mentioning is character actor Charles Callahan, who plays Harry's boss, Paul.  It is a requirement of the genre to have someone disagree with the lead before things go to hell.  It allows the tension to grow and the voice of reason to the lead's instincts.  However, unlike in some entries in the genre, Paul is not a jerk.  He's a nice guy who just disagrees with Harry.  Both have been in this situation before with different outcomes.

The film is directed by Roger Donaldson, who has been working in the film industry since the late 70's.  He knows what he's doing, and he creates a pulse-pounding genre movie.  Unfortunately, the script is on the thin side, and so are the minor performances.  With a little more TLC, this could have been a masterpiece, on par with "Twister" (which it shares a mild kinship with).  Of course, this isn't what I thought when I was a kid, so my modern review may be a little jaded.  Regardless, it gets a recommendation from me with no reservations.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bunraku

2/4

Starring: Josh Hartnett, Gackt, Woody Harrelson, Kevin McKidd, Ron Pearlman, Demi Moore

Rated R for Bloody Violence and Language

"Sin City" meets "West Side Story."

Sounds intriguing, doesn't it?  I had no idea what to expect when I put in "Bunraku," a direct-to-DVD movie with a good cast and some cool images on the back.  The latter is the best part of the movie.  It looks great, like a comic book/video game hybrid as a stage musical.  And it would be as awesome and weird as it sounds, except for the fact that the story is completely incoherent.

And I don't mean incoherent in ways that only an astute film critic would see.  I mean incoherent to the extent where only about 10 minutes of the film makes any sense.  And it's a two hour movie.

This is a post-apocalyptic action movie, that much is clear.  After all the wars and murders, everyone decided to bury every gun ever made.  The most powerful man on the East Coast is Nicola (Perlman), who rules with an iron fist.  He has 10 men under him (called Killers, and they each have a number), plus a lot of minions who wear red suits.  His right-man hand is Killer No. 2 (McKidd), who does his dirty work.  One day, two men come strolling into town: The Drifter (Hartnett) and Yoshi (Gackt).  The Drifter's motivations are hazy, but Yoshi wants a special necklace that happens to belong to Nicola.  Also involved is The Bartender (Harrelson) and Alexandra (Moore), a local whore.

That's really all I could get.  I'm telling you, the script is a disaster.  It wants to be a pulp-noir on stage kind of thing, but even though the dialogue is suitably hard-boiled, it makes zip sense.  It's a shame, really, because there are some good performances and the film looks fantastic.

On the acting front, there isn't a weak note to be found, which considering the script, is an accomplishment.  Josh Hartnett, who has long since shed his "teen idol" image, is effective as the mysterious Drifter.  He's like a less psychotic version of his character in "Sin City."  Gackt, a Japanese actor/musician, is also good.  Woody Harrelson is his usual reliable self, as is Ron Perlman.  Demi Moore has almost nothing to do however.  The real scene stealer is Kevin McKidd, who plays the character as a cross between a mime and a Broadway dancer.  Speaking ruins the effect, however.

Let me go on about the visuals for a minute.  I said this movie looks incredible, and I mean it.  From the comic-like transitions, to the computer animations in the beginning to the very CGI swooshes over the landscape, the film is never boring to the eyes.  Director Guy Moshe directs this as if it's one huge Broadway stage.  The lighting and the camera angles enhance this effect, and some of the fight scenes look like musical numbers.

If only the same care and attention had been paid to the script...alas, it's an utter mess.  Maybe a lot of it was left on the cutting room floor.  Surely a script that is this nonsensical wouldn't be given the green light as it is, but one never knows...

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Dogma

3.5/4

Starring: Linda Fiorentino, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Alan Rickman, Chris Rock, Salma Hayek, Jason Lee, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, George Carlin

Rated R for Strong Language including Sex-Related Dialogue, Violence, Crude Humor, and Some Drug Content

"Dogma" is a comedy about ideas.  That's an extremely rare thing to find.  It would be too easy for Kevin Smith to spend a surprisingly quick 2+ hours taking cheap potshots at religion,  but fortunately he doesn't take the easy way out.  Rather, he finds humor in the philosophy of religion and his characters' viewpoints.

Bartleby (Affleck) and Loki (Damon) are two fallen angels who have found a loophole to get them back into heaven.  Of course, this presents a problem for everyone because it would render God fallible, thus destroying our entire reality.  That's when Bethany (Fiorentino) gets a visit from Metatron, The Voice of God (Rickman), who tells her to head to New Jersey to stop them.  She has help from Metatron, Rufus, the 13th Apostle (Rock), a muse named Serendipity (Hayek) and two prophets, Jay (Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith).

The performances are terrific from top to bottom.  Linda Fiorentino, whose difficult nature made Kevin Smith regret hiring her instead of Janeane Garafalo (who has a cameo in the beginning as Bethany's co-worker at the abortion clinic) is great as the sarcastic but vulnerable Bethany.  The role demands comic and dramatic skills, and Fiorentino has both.  Ben Affleck and Matt Damon make a great duo (Affleck has never looked sexier), with Damon in particular having fun playing a character with limited brainpower but a love for doling out judgement.  Alan Rickman also shines in a role that, like Fiorentino, requires him to do drama and comedy.  Everyone else does fine work, too.

What I liked about the film is that while provoking smiles and laughs, it gave me things to think about.  It's not all crude sex jokes (although there are some of those).  Instead, it's about figuring out what it all means.  Life, faith, and so on.  These are things that Smith ponders, much of which is presented with a humorous slant.  It is, after all, a comedy.

Upon its release, it was hugely controversial.  The Catholic League protested it loudly (but then again, they protest just about anything), and I recall a news story about how deeply religious people were offended by it.  I have no sympathy for either group.  The Catholic League is wound way too tight, and anyone who walked into a Kevin Smith movie looking for clean entertainment deserved what they got.  Actually, the Catholic League's reaction is exactly what the film is speaking out against.  Smith argues that people treat religion as an "obligation" or "following the rules" rather than simply having faith.  I would have been surprised to learn that William Donahue of the Catholic League blasted the film for six months, except for the fact that he hadn't seen it.  After he did, he requested a "special screening" of the film with Kevin Smith to talk about it intelligently.  Smith quipped, "So what's he been doing for the last six months?"

I admire the film more for its ideas and intelligence rather than its humor quotient.  I'm not saying it's devoid of humor, it's just that it's more of a "wit" variety.  I also applaud its respectful treatment of Catholicism and religion in general.  While Smith has some fun at the Bible's inconsistencies and past blemishes, being mean is not on his agenda.  That's something to be happy about.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Auto Focus

2/4

Starring: Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Maria Bello, Ron Leibman, Rita Wilson

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

A thought kept recurring in my head while I was watching "Auto Focus:"  Who cares?

There is one thing that a film must do in order for it to work.  It must make the audience care about the characters and the story that they find themselves in.  "Auto Focus" doesn't do that.  The characters aren't interesting and the story isn't effectively realized.  It's just boring.

Bob Crane (Kinnear) is a radio jockey who hopes to have his acting career take off.  Although initially reluctant to take a TV role, much less a comedy set in a POW camp, he accepts the role of Robert Hogan on "Hogan's Heroes."  The show became a massive hit, and but he did not handle stardom well.  His marriage ended, and he lost control of his life to sex addiction, and was ultimately murdered with a camera tripod.

This movie was so unremarkable that it's difficult to find the energy to write a review of it.  I guess the first place to start is talking about the performances, since they are the film's most glaring flaw (although by no means the only one).  Greg Kinnear has made a career out of playing the "everyman," and he's good at it (although he can play sinister individuals...see "Green Zone" if you don't believe me).  So I suppose it makes sense to cast him as the squeaky clean Bob Crane, even if there is minimal resemblance between the two men.  It turned out to be a poor fit.  Kinnear is trying too hard to be the "average guy" or be funny.  Also unimpressive is the usually reliable Willem Dafoe.  Dafoe is no stranger to playing creepy characters, but his performance as Crane's leech-like friend is flat.  That's partly due to the fact that the script by "Taxi Driver" Paul Schrader doesn't hold up well either.  Maria Bello and Rita Wilson are also flat.  The only who gives a memorable performance is Ron Leibman, who plays Lenny, Bob's supportive agent.  But he has nothing substantial to do.

It could be argued that Schrader has tried to do too much.  In a roughly 100 minute movie, he explores the rise and fall of Crane's career, his two failed marriages, his descent into sex addiction, and his relationship with Carpenter.  It's too much, which means that a lot of material is left unexplored.  Crane's sex addiction, which is really the heart of the movie, is woefully underdeveloped.  Had I known nothing about Crane beforehand, I wouldn't have realized what the problem was.  And what the hell was with those dream sequences?

In the end, "Auto Focus" is just another generic biopic.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

2.5/4

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field, Jamie Foxx, Colm Feore

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action/Violence

The good news is that "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is better than the original.  The bad news is that it's still not worth your time and money.  The first one was almost a play-by-play of the original, and ten years is far too short a time for a remake (if only in spirit) of a mega-blockbuster.  This sequel, on the other hand, does what a reboot should do: take the characters and put them in a new story while maintaining a connection to the original.  Unfortunately, there are too many plot holes and confusing plot elements to make it worth a trip to the theater.

There's a lot going on in this movie, and most of it is pretty coherent (surprisingly).  Peter Parker (Garfield) is having a grand time being the famous web-slinging superhero, although it does put an internal strain on his relationship with his girlfriend Gwen Stacey (Stone).  He's got a lot on his plate: an obsessed fan turned electric supervillain who calls himself Electro (Foxx), a dying old friend from the past named Harry Osborn (DeHaan) who needs Spider-Man's blood, and finding the truth about his father (Campbell Scott).  Plus we have Harry's personal struggles with Donald Menken (Feore at his sleaziest), the man who is vying for control of Oscorp and his fight to save his life.

Some elements work better than others.  The best plotline is Peter's search for the truth about his parents.  It's mysterious and compelling, although the answer is a letdown.  His relationships with Gwen and Harry are effective, but not well-written.  Electro would be an interesting villain had he been better written (a common theme in this movie...).  Ditto for the scenes with Menken, although they are even less developed.

The least impressive elements are the action scenes.  This is disappointing because they looked really cool in the first entry (especially the first person POV shots).  But director Marc Webb steals from Zack Snyder, and the playing with speed in action scenes has gotten kind of old.  The action in this movie is generic.  That being said, there are some pretty cool special effects.  Electro in particular looks amazing; there's one scene where I thought of the Kevin Bacon's transformation in "Hollow Man."

The acting is effective, which, with a cast like this, is to be expected.  I love Andrew Garfield, and he makes a great Peter Parker.  Tobey Maguire was effective in the original, but his range is limited.  The only problem with Garfield is that he has trouble tossing off one-liners.  He needs more practice with comedy.  Emma Stone is lovely as ever, and Dane DeHaan impresses once again as Harry Osborn.  Jamie Foxx gives a good performance, but his character is underwritten.  Max Dillon is a lonely and insecure man who, after Spider-Man saves him, develops a stalker-ish crush on him.  When he becomes Electro, he realizes that he can gain respect and Spider-Man's attention.  Sadly, this element isn't well-developed.  Sally Field and Colm Feore also appear.  Sadly Chris Cooper is only on screen for one scene, and Paul Giamatti only shows up at the beginning and the end.

Anyone who has seen the trailer will realize that some of the scenes have been left on the cutting room floor.  Either editor Pietro Scalia cut out too much or not enough; some parts of the film are confusing and incoherent (especially the action scenes).  It's a shame, since two of the most compelling scenes in the trailer (the scene where Harry reveals that Oscorp had Peter under surveillance and Aunt May's (Field) great line: "I once told you that secrets have a cost...the truth does too") are missing.  Actually, half the trailer is missing in the film.

This isn't a terrible movie, and while I'm thankful that it's not a regurgitation of one of Sam Raimi's films, I wish it was better.