Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Mike's Musings: The Best Worlds

I've found that the best movies take place in worlds so immerse that I wish I could touch the screen and get sucked into it.  I love movies that just seem to whisper "Explore Me!"  Not all movies have this quality, even the good ones (as much as I like "Saving Private Ryan," it's a movie I'd rather experience from a safe distance).  Believe it or not, "Brotherhood of the Wolf" will not be appearing on this list.  It's a great movie, but due to the nature of the story, the world it inhabits isn't as inventive or expansive.

So here are the five movies (or in most cases, franchises) that I would love to visit and explore...

5. Heat: This may seem like an odd entry for this list, since it takes place in our reality, but let me explain.  Not only is everyone (based on the evidence) intelligent, thoughtful and unique, Michael Mann created a vision of Los Angeles that is vividly realized.  I got a sense of how his LA worked and how segment of society lived.  Not many movies can make that claim.

4. Star Trek: A no brainer.  I'm a huge sci-fi buff, and the colorful crew of Pine's Captain Kirk and Quinto's Spock is a group of people that I'd love to hang out and go on adventures with.  The world that Gene Roddenbery and J.J. Abrams created is terrifically appealing, and the exporation-themed nature of the story appeals to me deeply.

3. Harry Potter.  I've been a Harry Potter fan ever since I picked up the first book.  Admittedly, the first book was a little slow going at first, but it wasn't long before I got hooked (actually, I didn't read it from cover to cover until the second time I opened the pages).  But J.K. Rowling created a secret, magical world that was quirky, weird and meticulously created.  I remember talking to people and wishing that I'd get a letter from Hogwarts and having debates about this character and that.  The films aren't as imaginative, but they're still entertaining enough that it's a pleasure to see them brought to life.

2. The Lord of the Rings:  I couldn't get through the books by J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was entranced by Peter Jackson's vision from frame one.  Like Rowling, Jackson didn't settle on merely telling the story, but bringing Tolkien's world to life.  Anyone who watches the movies will see that this is a place of life, history and depth.  Jackson finds the perfect note in creating Middle Earth.  There's always stuff going off screen that has nothing to do with the story, and I want to see it all!

1. Star Wars:  Is there really any contest?  George Lucas created a world of infinite expanse and potential.  It's gorgeously imagined and a feast for the eyes.  This is one of the reasons why I'm excited for the "Star Wars" sequels: there's so much of the world that Lucas didn't get a chance to explore.  While I was disappointed that Disney got their hands on LucasFilm considering what they did to "John Carter" and "The Lone Ranger," I was relieved when they picked Kathleen Kennedy, one of the smartest people in Hollywood (and frequent collaborator of Steven Spielberg) to run it.  I cannot wait!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Wish I Was Here

1.5/4

Starring: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Josh Gad

Rated R for Language and Some Sexual Content

For a brief period, Zach Braff's directorial debut, "Garden State," was my favorite film of all time (emphasis on brief, since I only saw the film once, and that was years ago).  The same will not be said about his newest film, "Wish I Was Here," which is just awful.

This new dramedy feels like a trailer for another movie, although it would be stretching it to say that it would be good.  There are plenty of "emotional" moments that would look good in a trailer, but Braff doesn't build upon them.  The whole thing feels like an assembly of little clips that, by themselves, are decent enough, but they don't really add up to much.

Aidan Bloom (Braff) is a struggling actor.  He has the support of his lovely wife Sarah (Hudson), but his father Gabe (Patinkin) considers him a failure.  After Gabe's cancer returns, he chooses to spend his remaining money on an experimental treatment instead of his grandchildren's tuition.  Since public school is out of the question and Sarah has to bring home the bacon, he takes it upon himself to educate them, and in so doing, he learns that what we do for each other is more important than what we do for ourselves.

To be perfectly frank, there wasn't much of a chance that this story would be something substantial, but a serviceable tearjerker wasn't out of the question.  But Braff botches it.  Subplots are raised and dropped with alarming frequency, scenes end far too quickly, and when he touches on something that could be meaningful, he skims over it.

The humor is also limited.  Some of it, like the rabbi and the Segeway, belongs in a really bad sitcom.  Most is so weak it's hard to realize that Braff is making a joke.

The performances are adequate.  Leading the pack are Kate Hudson and Mandy Patinkin.  Hudson isn't as bubbly as usual, but she's warm and encouraging, and those are some of her strengths.  There are times when she's required to have a backbone, like when dealing with an obnoxious co-worker who loves talking about his "mid-boners" (played by the always oily Michael Weston), and she's still rather good in these scenes.  Mandy Patinkin, looking nothing like Inigo Montoya, is terrific as the grumpy and abrasive Gabe.  He's a total jerk, but Patinkin makes his desire for redemption believable.  Josh Gad and young Pierce Gagnon provide solid support as well, but Joey King is flat, playing the very conservative daughter.

Zach Braff has shown range and comic timing in the past, but here, he's merely adequate, and some of his supposedly funny scenes, like the stuff with the swear jar, don't work.  His heart doesn't seem to be in it, which is ironic, since he co-wrote, directed and co-produced this movie.

Then there's the ending.  It would be bad enough that it's melodramatic and sappy.  That comes with the territory, but not only does Braff overdo it, it's not even set up well.  Sappy endings are bad.  Poorly manufactured ones are even worse.

Just avoid this movie.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Hunter

1/4

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Morgana Davies, Frances O'Connor, Finn Woodlock, Sam Neill

Rated R for Language and Brief Violence

God, I really hate movies that do nothing with an interesting premise.  It reeks of ego.  Audiences are coming to see a movie based on the premise that they heard about.  But to only give it cursory mention in favor of half-baked individuals that have nothing to do with the story is a slap in the face.

The idea, that a company would want to find the last member of a species so they could kill it, copyright its DNA and bring it back into existence, is interesting and provocative (the film was made two years before Molecular Pathology vs. Myriad Genetics, which ruled that genetic patenting of naturally occurring genes is illegal).  Sadly, the only thing that director Daniel Nettheim does with it is provide some segments of Martin (Dafoe) running around the woods of Tasmania setting traps or hiding from the elements.  The bulk of the movie is his development of a paternal relationship between him and the two children of the woman that he's staying with.  Making matters worse is that they're totally undeveloped and their breaking down of Martin's barriers couldn't be more boring or less complete.

At least the acting is on solid ground.  Willem Dafoe is always interesting, even in lackluster movies like this or "The Reckoning."  But there's little for him to work with, so the amount of rooting interest that he generates in Martin is a lot.  Young Morgana Davies shows spunk and ability as the foul-mouthed daughter of Lucy (O'Connor), the invalid whose room Martin rents.  She's neither too cute nor too ostentatious.  Finn Woodlock, in his feature debut, appears to be bored out of his mind, but then again he doesn't say anything and is nothing more than a plot device present solely to manufacture sympathy and mystery.  Sam Neill is his usual reliable self, but his character is entirely superfluous.  Frances O'Connor has virtually nothing to do.

The film saves the worst for last.  It's rushed through with such cheap theatrics that it borders on insulting.  Total "WTF."  And just when the hunting plotline was getting interesting, it wraps up in a series of bait-and-switches that come in rapid fire succession.  Nettheim wants the film to have its cake and eat it too, but the result is a cheat with a poorly motivated topping.

I kept thinking of another movie that takes place Down Under that wastes another interesting premise on pointless twaddle.  That movie is "Tracker."  Like that film, it has an interesting cast and it looks great.  Also like that film, it totally blows.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Doubt

2/4

Starring: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis, Joseph Foster

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Material

Doubt is an uncomfortable position to be in.  You don't know the truth, and the pain of not knowing can frustrate tremendously.  Just look at a missing persons case.  How do you think it feels to not know where your loved one is?  Granted, "Doubt" doesn't deal with a missing person, but a crime, if one indeed occurred, that is just as terrifying.

Donald Miller (Foster) is the lone black child at St. Nicholas Catholic School.  It is 1964, so life is understandably difficult for him.  He has been taken under the wing of Father Flynn (Hoffman), the progressively minded parish priest.  That raises the ire of Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep), who believes that things must stay the same.  But when young Sister James (Adams) sees Donald acting a little odd after being called to a private meeting with Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius is convinced that the priest molested him.  Sister James thinks that that's a far out conjecture to make, but the tenacious nun sets out to prove her suspicions and won't let anyone stand in her way.

"Doubt" explores differing philosophies (liberalism, conservatism) and what happens when they come to blows.  Father Flynn is forward thinking.  He's personable, optimistic, and open.  Sister Aloysius is rigid, tenacious and suspicious of everything.  Father Flynn's willingness to wear his flaws on his sleeve allows Sister Aloysius, who feels that her way of life is threatened, to come in and take him down.  And poor, innocent Sister James is caught between them, trying to please both.

The film was based on a play by screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (he also directed the film), so it should come as no surprise that this is an actor's show.  Meryl Streep is in top form as Sister Aloysius.  She is a strong woman, but also incredibly stubborn.  The evidence against Father Flynn is, at best, flimsy, and yet because of her past and her personality, she is convinced that the man is guilty and won't stop until she has proven that.  She is also willing to destroy any innocent bystanders to do so; I kept thinking of Mike Nifong, whose dogged prosecution of the Duke Lacrosse players a few years ago caused a nationwide scandal and put innocent young men through hell.  Aloysius may have her heart in the right place, but her personal motives and quirks could destroy everything.  Tiny voiced Amy Adams is effective, but can't quite match her co-stars.  There is at least one scene where her range (which is considerable) is stretched beyond its capacity.  The late Philip Seymour Hoffman steals his scenes as the friendly Father Flynn, but he is more than capable of being able to go up against Sister Aloysius without backing down.  Viola Davis got her big break as Donald's mother.  She's only on screen for two scenes (the latter of which she is in the church audience and doesn't speak).  Mrs. Miller loves her son, and because of how much Father Flynn is helping Donald, she isn't going to go against Father Flynn without harder evidence (which shocks Sister Aloysius).

This sounds like a gripping psychological drama or thriller, and it should be.  Sadly, it's not.  The film lacks focus; there are scenes and subplots that feel extraneous and save for a few scenes, it doesn't feel intense.  The film should radiate with tension, but instead it feels limp.  The screenplay has its weak moments.  Characters sometimes have radical and poorly motivated changes in character, and then change back just as suddenly.  Mistakes like these hurt the film's credibility and ability to sustain tension.

"Doubt" is not a terrible film (with these strong of actors, how could it not?), but it is disappointing.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

3.5/4

Starring: Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Kodi Smitt-McPhee, Andy Serkis, Toby Kebell

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

I know, I know...

I said I'd go see "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" right after I saw the first one.  And I did!  I just missed the first few minutes of the movie (actually, probably only about a minute), and it is a personal policy that if I miss any part of the movie, I don't review it (this is why there is no review of "Mirror Mirror," among others).  So, I've finally gotten a chance to see it again and review it.

I mentioned that James Berardinelli said that "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is much better than the first one (3.5/4 vs. 2.5/4).  He was right.  This is an improvement on all fronts.  The plot is more complex, the storytelling is considerably better, and the stakes are higher.

After the events in the first film, the medicine that was supposed to cure Alzheimer's instead made the apes super intelligent.  It also created a plague that wiped out the majority of humanity.  The apes are now in control of the planet, and the ones in the remnants of San Francisco are led by Caesar (Serkis), the ape who was cared for by a kind human named Will Rodman (played by James Franco...he and baby Caesar appear in a brief clip in this film, although I'm not sure if it was made specifically for the sequel or if it was in the original).  They haven't seen any humans in two years, so they assume that they are extinct.  But they aren't.  The humans are living in a man-made compound in the city and are led by Dreyfus (Oldman).  But their fuel supply is running low, and their only hope is to get a nearby dam working again.  That puts them right in the path of Caesar and his large community of apes.  Caesar reluctantly gives them passage.  As an uneasy truce builds between Caesar and the small group of humans sent to repair the dam, there are those who believe that a truce can only lead to failure and death.

The true strength of the movie is that there are no true villains.  The closest we come to one is Koba (Kebell), Caesar's right-hand ape.  Koba does some awful things, but not out of pure malevolence.  He was tortured in the lab, and therefore sees all humans as evil.  Caesar, on the other hand, has seen both great good and great evil come from human kind, which gives him a guarded practicality towards them.  He takes a "wait and see" attitude and eventually trusts Malcolm (Clarke), Ellie (Russell), and Alexander (Smit-McPhee).  Koba believes that this can only lead to betrayal and the destruction of all apes, and intends to strike first while his enemy is weakest.

The performances are effective, but this isn't an actors show.  We accept the characters are human beings that we care about, and that's all that the movie demands.  Nevertheless, Jason Clarke and Keri Russell are solid in their thinly written parts.  Kodi Smit-McPhee has little to do.  Gary Oldman is disappointing.  It's not that he's bad, it's that, save for being a little more black and white, he's exactly like Jim Gordon from Nolan's "Batman" trilogy.  Oldman is too talented to be pigeonholed.  Of the humans, the one who stands out is Kirk Acevedo.  He plays Carver, a man whose suspicion of the apes threatens to make any sort of peace impossible.  He blames the apes for everything (to the point where its the equivalent of racism) and stubbornly sticks to that view without bothering to censor himself.  He's easy to hate.

Andy Serkis is the go-to guy for motion capture roles.  After playing Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" movies (where he would have gotten an Oscar nomination, and perhaps a win, had he not been ruled ineligible due to the fact that Gollum was created onscreen by CGI), he's a known name, and even when you can't see any resemblance to his past characters, studios demand him.  It is perhaps fitting that an actor with his considerable range and versatility can make a CGI character so completely different.  The movements and the voice are completely unlike Gollum in every way; you'd never know it was the same guy.

As Koba, Toby Kebbell is truly vicious (credit the computer animators for that...his hideously scarred face pumps up the fierce), but Kebbell allows us to see that Koba at least has his heart in the right place.  He just commits some horrible deeds to get there.

There are two problems with the film.  First, director Matt Reeves keeps things too low-key.  This formula, which bears some resemblance to "Avatar," deserves to have the scale and melodrama pumped up to an 11.  "Avatar" worked because it never tried for subtlety.  Reeves wants his movie to be grittier and more realistic, but by doing so, he limits the story's power.  Also, the ending is not satisfying.  The need to set up the sequel leads to a pretty big and obvious contrivance.  A rewrite or two would have smoothed things out and made it more credible.

Nevertheless, whatever flaws the film may have (and there really aren't many), let no one say that this movie isn't worth seeing!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Super Mario Bros.

1/4

Starring: Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Samantha Mathis, Fisher Stevens, Richard Edson, Fiona Shaw

Rated PG for Action Violence (I guess...)

"Super Mario Bros." is what happens when a studio hopes to cash in on a new trend and hires filmmakers without a clue.  I would be extremely surprised if the writers (Parker Bennett, Terry Runte, Ed Solomon) and/or the directors (Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton) have played any of the Super Mario games.  Granted, the film was made in 1993, and the latest release at the time was "Super Mario World" for the Super Nintendo, but at the time it had what passed for a plot in those days (unlike the original arcade game).

Anyone who has played any of the games in the series would tell you that if it could be pegged into a genre, it's fantasy.  It's lighter than air and cuter than cute.  Yet, the people who turned the beloved games into a monstrosity of a movie have made it into a gritty sci-fi action movie.  What the hell?

Anyway, the plot, which is both bizarre and utterly ridiculous, goes something like this.  Mario Mario (Hoskins) and his younger brother Luigi Mario (Leguizamo) are plumbers living in Brooklyn who can't catch a break.  All their business is being taken up by construction magnate Scapelli (Gianni Russo), who looks and acts more like a mafia don than a buisinessman (he's even flanked by two big flunkies).  He's pissed off because while he was breaking ground on a new building, he ran into some fossils, and the local university has taken over for excavation purposes.  He does his best to intimidate the head of the dig, a spunky student named Daisy (Mathis), but she's not having it.  Daisy, as it turns out, is the daughter of the king of the dimension next door (it was created when the asteroid killed the dinosaurs on this side, if you follow me).  So two bumbling nitwits from the dino dimension have kidnapped her because she and the rock she has around her neck are the missing pieces of the asteroid, which would blend the worlds, and allow the local despot, a man named Koopa (Hopper, sporting a bizarre hairdo that is meant to look like reptile fins, I think) to rule both dimensions.

Yeah, it's beyond silly.  That isn't such a bad thing, but the result has to be fun (like "Anaconda").  That's not the case here.  This is a loud, noisy, and boring adventure movie.  It's so stuffed with action scenes that range from the bland to the unbelievably stupid that it's impossible to care about anyone, much less the threadbare plot.

The acting saves the film from being worse than it is.  The late Bob Hoskins seems like an odd choice for the mustached plumber, but he gives it his all nevertheless.  He does as good a job as anyone, although the actor called the experience "a fucking nightmare."  His co-star, John Leguizamo, was on the rise at the time, and he outshines Hoskins (although to be fair Hoskins was probably bored out of his mind during filming).  Luigi is simple-minded and naiive, but lovable.  And his love for Daisy is endearing.  Samantha Mathis has a limited range, but she is lovely as Daisy, the one bright spot in all the muck.  Like Hoskins, Dennis Hopper (no stranger to playing deranged characters) looks as if he'd rather be anywhere else.

There are few positive things I can say about this movie.  The movie looks good, albeit for a different movie (I was reminded of "Total Recall").  And the score is nice, but again, it belongs in a different movie (think "Sneakers").  Clearly, the people behind the scenes didn't have a clue as to what they were doing.

The one truly good thing about this movie is the conversation Hopper had with his son Henry (who would become an actor himself).  As the story goes, Henry asked him why he appeared in this film.  Hopper replied, "Well, Henry, I did that so you could have shoes."  Henry then told him: "Dad, I don't need shoes that badly."

Nuff said.




Monday, July 21, 2014

The Lost Weekend

3.5/4

Starring: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling, Frank Faylen

Not Rated

Few movies can be seen as "game changers."  Movies that have fundamentally altered the way movies deal with a subject.  "Saving Private Ryan" changed the way war films have been made (to be fair, there were other movies that looked at the dark side of war, but not even "Platoon" was as frank or brutal).  "Brokeback Mountain" was the first mainstream movie to show a homosexual romance.  And while it came out a half century before either, "The Lost Weekend" changed the way the world looked at addiction.

Before Billy Wilder made "The Lost Weekend," which was based on a novel by Charles R. Jackson (Wilder picked up while riding on the train, and by the time he reached Hollywood, he had decided to make this his next film), America was divided as to whether or not alcoholism was a disease or a weakness of character.  But 8 years after its release, the AMA listed "alcoholism" as an illness.

Despite the passage of time, "The Lost Weekend" retains much of its capacity to shock.  This is because the central character, Don Birnham, is a fully realized individual that we sympathize with despite the less than honorable things he does.  He lies, he steals, and he treats his ever-devoted girlfriend Helen St. James (Wyman) like dirt.  His brother Wick (Terry) is has been suffering from Don's behavior for years and has given up on the failed writer.  As a last ditch attempt to get Don to clean up, they plan to take him to the country to clear his head.  But he slithers out of it to drink uninhibited.  But the time has come for him to face his addiction head on and decide once and for all who is going to get the better of Don Birnham: his sobriety or the booze.

Billy Wilder has always placed character development and acting over everything else.  This can be seen in movies like "Sunset Blvd." and "The Apartment" as well.  The flawless acting and strongly written characters allow this film to have a knockout punch (unlike "When a Man Loves a Woman," where they were lost in favor of the message).  The film's showiest performance is Don, since the film is about him.  Not lost, however, is Helen, who suffers almost as much (albeit in a different way).

Upon completion of the film, Billy Wilder predicted that Ray Milland would win an Oscar for his performance.  Wilder's prediction was correct, and everyone who watches this movie will understand why.  Milland, already a big star at the time, gives the performance of a lifetime.  There is not a moment when he doesn't command our utmost attention.  We can relate to him because we know what it is like to crave something we shouldn't (candy, fried food, whatever), and what it is like to be unable to catch a break.  This is the way that Milland and Wilder choose to present Don, and it's a stroke of genius.  You don't have to be an addict to relate to the character.

The supporting characters are just as strong, but of them, the only one who stands out is Jane Wyman (the former Mrs. Ronald Regan).  Helen loves Don dearly, and is willing to stand by him through anything.  Wyman uses everything at her disposal to make Helen seem real rather than a candidate for sainthood.  What Don puts her through is beyond cruel, but she understands that it is not his fault.  She also knows that only he can make the decision to quit drinking.  Character actors Phillip Terry and Howard Da Silva provide adequate support, but neither is especially effective or memorable.

Watching the film in the context of its time (when addiction was poorly understood and highly controversial) will enhance the film's impact.  Another aspect of its place in time is the fact that this was the first "pull no punches" movie to be released.  To one degree or another, movies like this are common place.  "Saving Private Ryan," "Requiem for a Dream," "The War Zone," there are plenty of different productions that don't sugarcoat anything from the audience.  That's not how it was in 1945.  The film also struck a chord due to the fact that many soldiers were returning home from the war and using alcohol to deal with their PTSD.

The film isn't perfect.  When describing the aspects of addiction, the script can seem a little heavy-handed, particularly in the beginning (I'll let that slide due to the time in which it was released).  The script contains some vivid and brilliant dialogue, but occasionally it gets a little too literate for its own good.  The ending also doesn't satisfy completely; it's a little too open-ended and abrupt.  Just as there are some flaws, there are some truly amazing scenes in the film, too.  One such instance is when Don sees a way to pay for drinks he can't afford.  And the scene in the sanitarium is genuinely disturbing.

While not necessarily as graphic as many other movies of its ilk, "The Lost Weekend" still has the power to compel.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Sex Tape

2/4

Starring: Jason Segel, Cameron Diaz, Rob Corddry, Ellie Kemper, Rob Lowe

Rated R for Strong Sexual Content, Nudity, Language and Some Drug Use

The good news about Cameron Diaz's new movie, "Sex Tape," is that it's better than her other film this year: "The Other Woman."  The bad news is that it's still not very good.

What is it with comedies these days that never stop belaboring the jokes?  Comic bits either have to keep it short or build to a climax.  There are stretches of time in "Sex Tape" that feel straight out of "Neighbors," and that's not a good place to be.  The scenes in "Sex Tape" are much funnier than the ones in Seth Rogen's ego trip because they're funnier jokes (Cameron Diaz berating Jason Segel about accidentally sending their sex tape to a bunch of people is a lot funnier than watching Seth Rogen saying he doesn't know how to talk to a bunch of frat boys repeatedly).  But I got the sense that it should be funnier than it actually is.  Either because of bad timing or flat jokes, "Sex Tape" provokes chuckles rather than belly laughs.

Annie (Diaz) and Jay (Segel) are a loving couple with two kids.  When they were dating, they had sex whenever and wherever they could.  But after getting married and having kids, not only is it impossible to find time to have fun under the covers, they've lost their sex drive.  Both of them are unhappy about this, so one night, Annie drops the kids off at Grandma's (Nancy Lenehan) so they can have a night of uninhibited passion.  It's a great idea, but it doesn't work out.  Undaunted, Annie decides to make a sex tape.  So, they get drunk and perform every position in "The Joy of Sex."  Jay promises to delete it, but he forgets.  Soon, he's accidentally sent it to everyone he's given an iPad to (he needs to upgrade constantly for work).  Not only do these include their friends Robby (Corddry) and Tess (Kemper), but also Hank (Lowe), Annie's potential boss at a family-values toy company.  Thus begins a race to find all the iPads and delete the video.

This had the potential to be a great raunchy screwball comedy (the beginning reminded me of another comedy from this year, "Moms' Night Out"), but it fails because it stretches the set pieces to long after they expend their humor quotient.  I kept thinking of another raunchfest that Cameron Diaz made while making this movie.  It is, of course, "There's Something About Mary," a much funnier R-rated comedy than this one.  Both are loaded with sex gags, and share crazy scenes with a dog as one of their highlights.  Instead of Matt Dillon trying to resuscitate a dead terrier or Ben Stiller battling with said terrier when he's on speed, we have a snooping Jason Segel running from a very overprotective German Shepard.  It would have been a great set piece, but the scene runs on longer than both of "Mary's" dog scenes combined.  Screwball comedies only work with lots of short comic set pieces rather than a few long ones.

The acting is also better.  Diaz and Segel reunite with director Jake Kasdan after the hilarious "Bad Teacher," in which they also played love interests.  Their chemistry is rekindled and nurtured till it catches fire.  Both are highly accomplished comic actors.  Diaz hasn't lost any of her presence or comic timing, and at 42, she still looks incredible.  She even has a nude scene (whether its her or CGI is anyone's guess...I wouldn't put her in the shy category, but she's never done nudity before, and there could be body doubles at work in some of the other scenes).  Jason Segel has the adorable lug quality down pat, having a similar appeal to what Rogen had before his ego got out of control.  Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper are pretty much wasted; they're brought along for the ride, but the movie ditches them after they become unnecessary (and they are almost superfluous anyway).  Rob Lowe appears here, poking fun at himself decades after his own sex scandal in 1989.  Considering what happened, it toes the line between bad taste and insensitivity, but it's less offensive than Roman Polanski's appearance in "Rush Hour 3."

This movie may have some of the same problems as "Neighbors," but it's a much better film.  Still, it's probably best to skip it and re-watch "There's Something About Mary" instead.  Watching this movie will make you wonder, "Is that it?"

The Purge: Anarchy

3.5/4

Starring: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zoe Soul, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez

Rated R for Strong Disturbing Violence, and for Language

There are two reasons I went to see "The Purge: Anarchy" even though the first installment was on my Bottom Ten list last year: the story was opened up, which meant new possibilities for things to happen to the characters (not to mention a pretty cool trailer), and if nothing else, I needed another entry for this year's Bottom 10 list.  Boy, was I surprised!

Not only is this sequel an improvement on its predecessor, it's a HUGE improvement.  I don't think I've ever seen such a surge in quality in a franchise, much less between two entries (the reverse is another story).  There are few other ways to put it: "The Purge: Anarchy" is way cool.  It's tense, very violent, intriguing and more than capable of generating a few laughs as well as effective shocks.  Not many movies can make that claim.

Six years ago, the US Government fell, and a way to restore order was found: for twelve hours every year, all crime, including murder, is legal.  In the first installment, we found ourselves trapped in a house with the Sandins, who were facing off with a trio of psychos wanting to purge themselves.  This time, the playing field has been opened up considerably.

The film follows five people racing through the city trying to get to a friend's apartment without getting killed by one of the numerous lunatics out for blood.  Mother and daughter pair Eva (Ejogo) and Calli (Soul) have been kidnapped by armed mercenaries with unknown motives, only to be saved by a sergeant (Grillo), a Purger with a conscience.  Joining them shortly thereafter are Shane (Gilford) and Liz (Sanchez), a recently split-up couple whose car quit working just before the Purge began.  The five of them have to rely on each other in order to make it to the apartment building where Eva's co-worker lives, so they can find sanctuary and the sergeant can carry out his personal mission.

After watching this movie, I think I found the real problem with the original film: the setting was far too limiting.  The premise of the franchise is ripe with possibilities, both physical and philosophical.  A home invasion story doesn't do the idea justice.  Thus, DeMonaco had to fill it up somehow, and unfortunately it was all pretentious psychobabble that was, as they say, "all fury signifying nothing."  It was as if Jan de Bont had set "Speed" just in the airport.  There's only so much one can do in such a constrained idea, especially if the premise has such potential.  Here, with the setting opened up to an entire city, DeMonaco can truly let his imagination run wild.  We can meet more characters with different motives and in different situations.  The possibilities are just about endless, and DeMonaco makes the most of it.  It's as if he read all the critics reviews and took them to heart.

The film is also more successful on a basic level.  The characters are better developed (as far as that goes in a genre like this) and are more engaging.  The characters are also smarter; sure they do a number of insanely stupid things, but no more than is required for the film to work.  There's no one as moronic as the teenagers in the first one.  The editing is also tighter and the direction is staged more effectively.  The film begins generating tension from frame one and it doesn't let up.  DeMonaco shows adeptness at tone; some scenes are both creepy and funny at the same time (the auction, which is hinted at in the trailer, is one such instance.  Special mention has to go to Judith McConnell, who plays the auctioneer.  As one can see in the trailer, she's totally demented).  The philosophical questions that the film raises aren't hammered in and are instead mostly generic to the story; there's no time for excess babble here.

The acting is also stronger.  Both Ethan Hawke and Lena Heady are accomplished actors, but they were slumming their way to a quick paycheck in the first installment, and it showed.  That's not the case here, where the cast is made up of up-and-coming character actors.  Frank Grillo, who is quickly making his way up the ladder, is terrific as the sergeant.  He's driven to do something on Purge night, and won't let anyone get in his way.  But he's also willing to risk his safety to get the four helpless civilians to safety, even if it's so he can get a car.  Grillo has been on my radar since "Warrior," and I hope his renown continues to rise.  I'm willing to forgive Carmen Ejogo for "Sparkle" after this.  She disappears into her character as a loving mother trying to protect her daughter (although I have to admit that her relationship to Calli is confusingly written, but it hardly matters).  Zoe Soul is also good as Calli, even if she spends too much time trying to convince the sergeant to hide out the night instead of risking his life in the hell that the city has become.  Zach Gilford (another interesting, and cute, actor to watch) and Kiele Sanchez are convincing as a couple who are trying to decide when to tell people that they're splitting up (ironically, she and Gilford have been married in real life since December 2012).  Michael K. Williams has a small role as an anti-Purge activist, and he bears a striking resemblance to Spike Lee.

I don't know what more I can say about "The Purge: Anarchy." It's good old R-rated (the film doesn't hide from its violence...some of it is pretty disconcerting, but it doesn't dwell needlessly on the carnage) entertainment.  And the best news is that you don't have to watch the first one to enjoy this movie.  Apart from the premise and the re-appearance of one minor character, this is a stand-alone sequel.

I may be a little lenient on the film because I was so pleasantly surprised (I doubt that it will end up on my Top 10 list), but considering where it came from, it deserves that extra little bit of love.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

2/4

Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Frieda Pinto, John Lithgow, David Oyelowo, Tom Felton, Brian Cox

Rated PG-13 for Intense and Frightening Sequences of Action and Violence

The original "Planet of the Apes" movie was released in 1968 and followed by four sequels and two short-lived TV shows.  I haven't seen it, but it was widely popular when it was released, and in some circles its fandom rivals "Star Wars" and "Star Trek."  It survived a "re-imagining" by Tim Burton in 2001 that did okay at the box office, but 20th Century Fox decided against a direct sequel and instead reboot the franchise a decade later.  Thus, we have "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

Will Rodman (Franco) is on a mission.  His father Charles (Lithgow) is dying of Alzheimer's, and Will is convinced that he's found the cure.  After a test with a chimpanzee goes horribly wrong, his research is stalled.  Undaunted, he takes baby of the tested chimp (who was shot to death when she went bezerk trying to protect her baby...surely someone would have realized her pregnancy before then) home to study.  The serum was passed onto him, whom Will names Caesar.  Caesar's intelligence surpasses all expectations, and he and Will, plus Will's girlfriend Caroline (Aranha) grow close.  Sadly, a misunderstood act of protection forces Will to place Caesar in a sanctuary.  There, under the cruelty of the owners, John (Cox) and Dodge (Felton) Landon, and broken promises from Will, Caesar decides to break out on his own.

The main problem with the film is that the script is weak (isn't this the way it is with all bad movies?).  The film is of acceptable quality until the final act, when due to unconvincing motivations and a poor set-up, it implodes.

The acting is acceptable, but no one really stands out.  James Franco does not have a lot of range.  When he's miscast or out of his element, the results can be cringe-inducing ("This is the End," "Oz: The Great and Powerful").  Fortunately, this is one of his stronger performances.  Franco plays the teacher/parent/straight man combo with consummate skill; there isn't a false not in his performance.  Frieda Pinto, who never became the "it" girl that Hollywood thought she would be after "Slumdog Millionaire," is effective, but doesn't have much to do than play off of Franco's character.  John Lithgow does solid work with an underwritten part; his performance is better than the script deserves.  David Oyelowo, an English actor well on his way to the A-list (he's playing Martin Luther King, Jr. in an upcoming biopic), is quite good as Will's profit-obsessed boss.  His character isn't ruthless, just pragmatic but short-sighted.  And Tom Felton's Dodge is so vicious that he makes Draco Malfoy look like a pussy.

The CGI looks great, but when the apes move around, it's clunky and unconvincing.  They don't seem to interact believably with their environment.  "Ted" did this to much better effect a year later (which isn't that long in terms of CGI improvement history).  Director Rupert Wyatt should have slowed it down and added more weight to the creatures.

Then there's the plot.  The final act is inevitable, since we know what's going to happen once the end credits role.  In terms of plot structure, I was reminded of "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith."  George Lucas's epic was like watching a train head towards a collision.  This left me unmoved.  There are a few reasons for this.  Most egregious is a lack of convincing motivation for Caesar.  He (rightly) has a beef with two or three characters, but I never bought that he would be able to form a revolution based on that (and the other apes' grudges against John and Dodge).  Second, their success is partly due to the complete ineptitude of the humans.  They're under prepared and without a clue.  If this group of bumbling dumdums is all we think we need to put down a revolution by a group of apes, we deserve what we get.  The stakes don't feel very high either (which is essential for any movie like this).  Finally, I'm not sure how I was supposed to feel about the revolution.  Early on, our sympathy lies with Caesar.  Then as he is wreaking havoc in San Francisco, we're supposed to see him as the villain.  And it switches back at the end.  Wyatt wants it both ways, and the result is a confused and ambivalent audience.

I'm going to see "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" tonight.  According to James Berardinelli, it's supposed to be lightyears better than this one.  I hope so.

London Boulevard

2/4

Starring: Colin Farrell, Keira Knightly, Ray Winstone, David Thewlis, Ben Chaplin, Anna Friel, Eddie Marsan

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

The longer "London Boulevard" goes on, the less sense it makes.  It starts off effectively, but loses its way pretty soon after setting the stage.  I guess that's what to expect with a movie that's high-powered on both sides of the camera but can't manage a theatrical release.  At least it's not as bad as "The Resident."

Mitchel (Farrell) has just been released from a short stint in prison.  Not wanting to go back, he decides to leave the criminal life behind him, much to the annoyance of his squirrely friend, Billy (Chaplin).  After fending off a few guys who get too close to a beautiful woman, he gets a job as a bodyguard to a shy starlet named Charlotte (Knightly).  But his past comes back to haunt him after he wants to get vengeance for a friend who was murdered.  That puts him in the sights of a vicious gangster by the name of Gant (Winstone).  Also in the mix are Mitchel's drug addicted sister Briony (Friel) and Jordan (Thewlis), the failed actor who lives with Charlotte.

That's as far as I got with the plot.  It's really a mess, but it's a watchable mess, and for that I am grateful.  Few things are worse than having to watch a bad movie that can't be bothered to let you know what is happening on screen.

The film is saved by the performances and the writing.  With a cast like this and the writer of "The Departed" writing the script, it's no surprise.  Colin Farrell can always be counted on to give an effective performance, even when he's in a shitty movie like the "Total Recall" remake.  I felt his increasingly dangerous position, even if I didn't understand all the ins and outs of it.  Keira Knightly is also very good as the withdrawn starlet (life imitating art?), but her role isn't meaty enough for her to do something truly special.  Ray Winstone, no stranger to playing vicious thugs ("The Departed," "Nil by Mouth," for example), is menacing, and he does what he can with the few details about the character that he is provided.  David Thewlis, an underrated English actor, is also good, but doesn't have a lot to do other than act drugged out and give Mitchel the inside scoop.  Ben Chaplin is excellent as the truly annoying Billy (that's a compliment, by the way); he's a far cry from the light roles he is known for.

From this directorial debut, I learned two things about William Monahan: he can write well (which is confirmed by "The Departed") and he knows how to get a good performance out of an actor.  And yet something got lost in the translation.  The film is confusing to the point where I gave up about halfway through.  At least I had the good dialogue and acting to fall back on.

Super Troopers

3/4

Starring: Jay Chandrasekhar, Eric Stolhankse, Paul Soter, Steve Lemme, Kevin Heffernan, Brian Cox, Marisa Coughlan

Rated R for Language, Sexual Content, and Drug Use

"Super Troopers" is less of a movie than a series of loosely connected skits featuring a group of unbelievably incompetent cops that are loosely connected by the flimsiest of plots.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing.  If a sketch comedy like this is funny enough, a plot can only get in the way.  "Super Troopers" works for the same reason that "Grown Ups" did: it's pretty damn funny.

This is the second film by the comedy troupe Broken Lizard (the first one was a college comedy called "Puddle Cruiser," which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival to great reviews, but they turned down the offers to go wide with it).  The group, which includes Chandrasekhar, Stolhanske, Soter, Lemme, and Heffernan, originated in 1990 at Colgate University, when Chandrasekhar was asked to put on a comedy skit for the student theater.  So he gathered some of his fraternity brothers and the group "Charred Goosebeak" was born ("Charred Goosebeak" continues to exist at Colgate to this day).

The plot of "Super Troopers" is thin, but ripe with potential.  In rural Vermont, there is a turf war between the Highway Patrol, led by Captain O'Hagan (Cox), and the city police, led by Chief Grady (Daniel von Bargen).  Budget cutbacks are forcing one of them to close, and both are battling each other for survival.  With the discovery of a major drug bust, O'Hagan's crew of misfits and slackers would have the upper hand, but they keep screwing up.

On paper, the film was directed by Chandrasekhar, but seeing as they are a collaborative group, it wouldn't surprise me if they didn't all have a hand in it (all are credited with the script).  They work well together in a way that only long-standing and well-functioning groups can.  This isn't a happy coincidence; anyone who watches this movie will realize that these guys have been doing this for a long time.

The other cast members, Cox, Coughlan and Von Bargen, fit in well too.  A less astute filmgoer might assume that they're a part of Broken Lizard too (they're not).  Cox, never an actor known for comedies, is right at home as the exasperated captain.  He's also completely comfortable acting like an ass when the situation calls for it, and is front and center for the film's funniest joke.  Coughlan, who starred in the notorious Tom Green comedy, "Freddy Got Fingered," is sweet and sexy as Ursula, the city cop who gets so little respect that she falls for one of the patrolmen and acts as a spy.  This romance subplot is actually kind of touching.  And Daniel Von Bargen makes it easy to hate him.

This isn't a perfect comedy; some of the jokes don't work (either because they go on too long, are too stupid to be funny, or just aren't as amusing as Broken Lizard thinks they are), but there's more than enough to satisfy someone who craves a lot of gut-busting laughs.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Devil's Pass

3/4

Starring: Holly Goss, Matt Stokoe, Luke Albright, Ryan Hawley, Gemma Atkinson

Rated R for Some Violence/Disturbing Images, and for a Sexual Reference

As I sat down to watch "Devil's Pass," I was grinning to myself.  I was hoping to get spooked by learning the horrifying "truth" behind the Dyatlov Pass incident, a mountaineering expedition that ended in the deaths of the entire party.  I eagerly awaited the tension of feeling the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and wondering what terror lay beyond the camera's light.

I wasn't disappointed.  "Devil's Pass" may not be the scariest movie ever made (far from it), but it contains enough shocks and chills to warrant a viewing for those who enjoy this sort of thing.

College students Holly (Goss) and Jensen (Stokoe) have received a grant to investigate the Dyatlov Pass incident by taking the same route as the ill-fated hikers.  Going with them are two expert climbers, JP (Albright) and Andy (Hawley), and Denise (Atkinson), the sound girl.  It doesn't take long for mysterious signs (warnings?) to appear, but like all horror movie characters, they soldier on, but perhaps not to their benefit.

This is a "found footage" horror movie like "The Blair Witch Project."  It lacks the 1999 chiller's innovation (the genre has had numerous entries) and its expertise.  There are too many establishing shots.  For example, on the hike, there are long shots of four climbers walking up the mountain.  At that altitude and in that much snow, would you really believe that anyone would take that time to get a shot from fifty feet away?  Didn't think so.  That, and the superior image, limits the effect.

The performances are good across the board.  They're never less than convincing.  Holly Goss is terrific as the slightly-obsessed leader, and Matt Stokoe is also good as the conspiracy theorist.  Neither one descends into caricature, which helps us accept their characters.  Luke Albright and Ryan Hawley are also very good as the hunky experts, and Gemma Atkinson equals them as the obligatory oversexed female.

The level of acting is surprising, considering that director Renny Harlin has never been concerned with that (see "Deep Blue Sea" for an example of how little attention he pays to actors).  Harlin is an odd choice for a director.  He's always done big budget action movies, but never horror, and nothing he's done has had a "found footage" element.  His sense of atmosphere, which is essential to any horror film, is so so, and robs the film of much of its tension.  Still, the story is developed nicely and the characters are interesting enough to follow through the admittedly long set-up.

The film has been marketed as a "midnight movie."  IFC has released it under its IFC Midnight banner and The New York Times proclaimed it as such.  That's probably the best way to look at it.  Expectations for movies like that are a little lower and are of a different vein.  This is a movie that you watch late at night with your friends and giggle at whoever gets spooked.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Earth to Echo

2/4

Starring: Astro, Teo Halm, Reese Hartwig, Ella Wahlestedt

Rated PG for Some Action and Peril, and for Mild Language

"Earth to Echo" is a "found-footage" story that's cobbled together from other better movies like "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" and "The Goonies," with elements of "Super 8" mixed in (which in and of itself borrowed from movies like the ones I mentioned, only it did a much better job).  The result, while not unwatchable, is disappointing.

Three best friends are faced with a sad future: their neighborhood is being bought up to make room for a freeway.  One of them, Alex (Teo Halm), is moving away the next day, with Munch (Hartwig) following soon after.  When Tuck's (Astro) family is moving away is never stated.  Their phones have been scrambled by a mysterious force, and when they realize that instead of being broken, they've turned into maps, the three of them decide to follow it.  There, they find a cute little alien they name Echo, who needs help rebuilding himself and getting back to its ship.

There are more than a few problems that hurt the film severely.  First, the found footage element isn't done effectively.  I'm a big fan of these movies, but filmmakers utilizing them have become sloppy.  "The Blair Witch Project" and "Cloverfield" handled this perfectly; the intended effect was never less than entirely convincing.  "The Last Exorcism" wasn't far behind.  Despite problems in its execution, "Chronicle" still managed to entertain.  Here, it's botched.  The point of view switches frequently and the screen turns into a souped up version of MapQuest any time the characters need to go somewhere.  Such busy-mindedness ruins the effect.  The dialogue sounds scripted, which hurts the film even further.

"Busy" is probably the best word to describe the plot.  For 90% of the movie, it's the kids going from one place to another like they're on a scavenger hunt.  That means plenty of action and movement, but it doesn't allow us to get to know the characters.  This limits the poignancy of the fact that this is their last night together.  Only the bookending scenes, which deal with this directly, have any emotional impact.

The acting is also less than impressive.  The leads aren't particularly engaging, in fact, they can get a little annoying.  Munch, despite Tuck's promise to his YouTube following that proclaims otherwise, is annoying.  Fortunately, he's gone for most of the final third.  Tuck, who narrates the film, got on my nerves occasionally too.  The only ones who convince are Teo Halm, whose character is adopted and has abandonment issues, and Ella Wahlestedt, who plays Emma, the girl of their dreams (who ends up getting dragged along).

There are also serious lapses of intelligence, mainly by the adult characters.  Granted, they're off screen for the most part, but the government agents who pop up now and again are unbelievably dumb.  Surely there was a more creative and intelligent way for the same result to happen.

"Earth to Echo" is not unwatchable.  But it falls far short of what it is trying to achieve.  You're better off watching "E.T.," "The Goonies," or "Super 8" again.  Or for "found footage" junkies, "Cloverfield" or "The Blair Witch Project."

Monday, July 14, 2014

Thelma & Louise

2.5/4

Starring: Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Christopher McDonald, Michael Madsen, Brad Pitt, Stephen Tobolowsky

Rated R for Strong Language, and for Some Violence and Sensuality

"Thelma & Louise" is one of the most famous "chick flicks" (a term I dislike intensely, by the way...a good movie is a good movie, regardless of whom its intended audience is).  So much to my surprise when I put the movie in the Blu Ray player, I found that not only is the movie overrated, it's not even very good.  There are some elements of the film that work, particularly in the second half, but on the whole its a mishmash of inept screenwriting and a wildly uneven tone.

Louise (Sarandon) wants to take a fishing trip with her friend Thelma (Davis), despite the fact that neither one knows how to fish (one of Louise's friends is about to lose his cabin in a divorce, so he's inviting everyone he knows to use it while he still has ownership).  Thelma is a meek housewife who is under the thumb of her now-cruel high school sweetheart, a vile individual named Darryl (McDonald), so it's going to take a lot for her to get the nerve to ask him.  Eventually she decides to go without telling him, and they're off.  Thelma is excited about the opportunity to have fun, so they stop at a bar, where she wins the affections of a man named Harlan (Timothy Carhart).  But instead of the kind stud that she thinks he is, Harlan is a monster who attempts to rape her when she's drunk.  Louise saves her, and after he insults her, she shoots him dead.  Now they're on the run, but as they're beginning to break out of their shells, they're digging themselves into a whole heap of trouble.

I'm surprised that Callie Khouri won an Oscar for her screenplay (her first produced script), since it's the film's biggest problem.  For all the time we spend with the two leads, they're stick figures for the majority of the film.  Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon give it their all, but there's only so much that they can do with such subpar material.  Other characters fare even worse.  The detective on their case, a man named Hal (Keitel), is so sloppily written that his motivations change with the needs of the plot.  His caring for his prey is  almost totally unmotivated.  Then there's the case of a perverted trucker (played by Marco St. John) that's just doesn't work at all.  This is due in no small part by the fact that St. John is terrible in the role, but the writing is awful too.  Director Ridley Scott (an odd choice...) should have known that the admittedly amusing payoff just isn't worth the time we spend with this annoying hick.

The supporting performances are good, but this is all about the title characters.  Harvey Keitel is always welcome in a movie, even if his part is underwritten.  Brad Pitt got his big break as the hot stud that Thelma and Louise run into (he got the role over future bromance partner George Clooney, who refused to watch the film because he lost the role, although when he did, he admitted that Pitt was the better choice).  He's perfectly adequate, although not nearly good enough to shoot him into mega-stardom (in this case, the end totally justifies the means).  Christopher McDonald goes a little over the top as Darryl, but we still hate him.  And Michael Madsen plays a character who isn't creepy for once.  And veteran nerd Stephen Tobolowsky plays a completely normal guy.

Ridley Scott should have taken a less realistic approach for the start of the movie.  These characters live such rundown lives that it's pretty depressing.  I got a grimy, ugly feeling while watching it.  Once the film's storyline takes off, Scott proves unable to save the radically shifting tone (considering the script, it's not entirely his fault).  Sometimes it's a gritty thriller, other times it's a breezy adventure.  The film eventually finds its groove, but only in the home stretch.

Ironically, there is another film that deals with similar characters and situations in a much more skillful and successful way.  I'm thinking of the criminally underseen Jada Pinkett Smith/Queen Latifah movie, "Set it Off."  Both movies feature similar characters and situations but F. Gary Gray did it better.  The 1996 thriller featured a much stronger script, better characterizations, and a more engaging story.  That's the one you should see.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Deliver Us From Evil (2014)

2.5/4

Starring: Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn, Joel McHale, Lulu Wilson

Rated R for Bloody Violence, Grisly Images, Terror Throughout, and Language

Not to be confused with the 2006 documentary

Scott Derrickson knows the "demonic possession" horror genre better than anyone (apologies to fans of "The Exorcist"...it may have been scary when it was released, but I've seen it twice and found it to be a dud both times).  "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" used a real-life case of possession to explore the line between faith and science, and delivered a number of truly suspenseful sequences.  "Sinister" is the second scariest movie I have ever seen (after "Fear").  He knows his stuff.  Which is why his latest film surprised me.  It's not a bad movie, but it is disappointing.

The film follows the exploits of Ralph Sarchie (Bana), a Bronx cop who has been seeing some nasty things lately.  An Iraq veteran beat the crap out of his wife and a woman tossed her baby into a lion encampment.  But there are some disturbing signs left at each crime scene that appear to be connected, and Sarchie and a Jesuit priest named Mendoza (Ramirez) must stop a possessed man from bringing a demon into this world.

Ask any student of horror films, and they'll tell you that two things are absolutely mandatory for a horror movie to succeed: atmosphere and pacing.  Without these, a horror film will not work.  "Deliver Us From Evil" has a passable amount of the former.  The creepiness doesn't ooze off of the screen like it does in "Seven" (a film that shares a certain kinship with this one), but it's acceptable.  Unfortunately, the pacing of this movie is all wrong for a horror film.  The story hurdles from one scene to the next with breakneck speed, and that is precisely what not to do when making a horror movie.  In order to truly scare the audience, the filmmaker must proceed slowly and deliberately, allowing the atmosphere and the plot to build to a terrifying boil.  Derrickson knows this, and more importantly, he knows how to do it well.  I blame Jerry Bruckheimer, who is better than anyone when it comes to action movie.  This is his first horror movie since "Cat People" in 1982 (which he was only an executive producer) and based on the evidence, he should stick to the genre that he knows inside and out.

The acting is effective, which helps the film considerably.  Eric Bana is a convincing blue collar cop and a loving dad.  Edgar Ramirez is very good as an atypical priest except when he's forced into the usual cliches at the end.  Joel McHale is terrific (and very sexy) as Butler, Sarchie's quick-witted partner.  Olivia Munn doesn't have much to do as Sarchie's loving wife, but she's good too.  And Lulu Wilson isn't insufferably cute as their daughter (and she has a great scream).

Even though this movie is a misfire, at least it's an entertaining one.  There are enough tense scenes that I almost recommended it.  But in the end I cannot, except for maybe Blu Ray.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

2/4

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Binbing Li, Titus Welliver, and the voices of Peter Cullen, John Goodman, Ken Watanabe and Frank Welker

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, Language and Some Innuendo

Last night, I watched "The Rock" again.  For those of you who haven't seen it and are among the now many who constantly spew bile at Michael Bay's name, give this one a watch.  It is a masterpiece lovingly crafted by a man who knows exactly what he's doing.  Which is why I sat in "Transformers: Age of Extinction" wondering what happened.  Where is that passion to make the most exciting film that he could?  Where is the heart and soul?  None of the skill and technique that made the Nicolas Cage (another popular whipping boy these days)/Sean Connery film so exhilarating has made it into the newest "Transformers" movie.

The film takes place an unspecified time after "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."  The head of the CIA, Harold Attinger (Grammer), wants all Transformers, good and bad, off Earth.  He claims to be hunting down the Decepticons (the evil ones), but he's really taking down ALL of them.  That's because he's in cahoots with the CEO of an engineering corporation that seeks to create its own Transformers for big bucks.  But Attinger is looking for Optimus Prime (Cullen) for reasons that will later be revealed.

Meanwhile, wannabe inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) has found an old truck that he and his friend Lucas (T.J. Miller) have found and bought for $150 bucks (it is here that Bay takes a stab at Hollywood's obsession with remakes and sequels, which is odd because Bay is too smart to be unaware of the irony surrounding this).  That turns out to be Optimus Prime himself, and soon he, his daughter Tessa (Peltz) and her boyfriend Shane Dyson (Reynor) are on the run with Prime.

The film's biggest problem (other than the usual stuff with the franchise) is its running time.  This is the longest film in the franchise (2:45), and all of them were long in the tooth.  Roger Ebert once said that "No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough."  That's true here.  I don't mind long movies on principle (I own the Blu Ray Extended Edition of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and love every minute of it), but for a movie as dumb and thin as "Transformers: Age of Extinction," it's a killer.  There's barely enough material here for a two hour movie, but in an attempt to market the movie as bigger and badder and more epic than the previous ones, Bay has padded the film to an extent that by the time the big climax occurs, the soda will be gone and the popcorn will have gone stale.

The performances are effective, but really, this is not an actor's show (Bay is notorious for filming acting scenes as quickly as possible).  Nevertheless, everyone does their jobs.  Mark Wahlberg is great, although this is not his first time acting against non-human co-stars who weren't visible during filming (I am of course referring to "Ted," a much better film).  Newcomers Nicola Peltz and Jack Reynor are solid as well.  Kelsey Grammer makes for a truly nasty villain, and Stanley Tucci is very good as a businessman who finds himself way in over his head.  The voice acting is effective too, I guess, although it's heavily mechanized.

Bay is gaming for a world audience here, specifically in China (a billion potential viewers...nuff said).  To do so, he has the climax set in Hong Kong (which, unfortunately, looks generic and rundown), and has cast Chinese actress Bingbing Li as Tucci's right hand lady.  She's quite good, and could have a nice career in Hollywood if she plays her cards right.  Still, I kept wishing for a cameo by Gong Li or Zhang Ziyi.  Both are talented and popular in their native countries, and it could have gone over well with the critics (not that Bay has ever cared what they think about his movies).

The bottom line is that if you go see a "Transformers" movie, you know what to expect, and Bay delivers.  Unfortunately, in an attempt to give you more, you end up getting less.

Snowpiercer

3/4

Starring: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Kang-Ho Song, Ah-Sung Ko, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner

Rated R for Violence, Language and Drug Content

Based off of its premise and the first few minutes, I thought that "Snowpiercer" would be a retread of last year's "Elysium;" a sci-fi story about class divisions where the struggling lower class revolts against the powerful upper class and equalizes everything.    While there are some similarities, it's not the same movie.

In the near-future, global warming has become a planet-wide disaster.  In a last ditch attempt to save Earth, a chemical is sent up into Earth's atmosphere to repair it.  Unfortunately, it backfires, killing almost every living being on the planet within a very short amount of time.  The only survivors are those aboard a train that runs across the globe.  The residents of the train are clearly divided.  Those in the back of the train, who are the lower class, are angry and preparing to revolt.  They are led by Curtis (Evans), who is mentored by the local leader, Gilliam (Hurt).  Success, however, isn't easy, nor is it assured.

The film doesn't get off to a strong start.  After a brief set-up of the environmental crisis (provided by subtitles and news clips), the film dives right into the plot.  While it takes a while until things really get going, the crucial scenes that set-up the characters and the setting are missing.  The latter has an excuse, since it adds an element of surprise and suspense when we are faced with the question of what lies behind the next door.  The former, however, is essential.  We're given no time to get to know anyone on board, or understand how their situation is miserable enough to make them want to revolt.  Nor do we understand some of the routine abuses that those in the back end of the train face, such as the medical exam for the kids (it plays into a scene later on in the film, but we don't understand why the characters fear it).

The performances are effective.  Chris Evans has never been a very strong actor, but he continues to mature with every performance.  Truth be told, there's not much that he has to do other than act determined and heroic, but we accept him as a character.  Jamie Bell is in top form as Edgar, Curtis's right hand man.  He makes you wish he would take more roles.  South Korean actor Kang-Ho Song is okay as the drug-addicted man who can bypass the locks, but he kind of fades into the background.  Much more impressive is Ah-Sung Ko, who plays his daughter.  John Hurt and Octavia Spencer are their usual reliable selves.  Tilda Swinton, however, is a little disappointing.  She disappears into her role (as is always the case with her), but she has her over-the-top moments, even for playing an over-the-top character.

The film's main flaw is that the story is limited.  South Korean filmmaker Joon-Ho Bong desperately tries to add something more substantial to the film, but the script (or the graphic novel upon which the film is based off of) is too narrow.  Although there are plenty of weird and action-filled moments (some of which are surprisingly brutal), he can't camouflage the fact that the plot is pretty much the characters going from room to room in order to get to the front of the train.

Nevertheless, this is an interesting and effective action film.  The Weinstein Company hasn't been doing a lot to promote this movie, which is a shame, because the film's potential audience is probably a lot larger than they're giving it credit for.  So it's up to me to tell you to catch it wherever it's playing.