Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Hundred Foot Journey

2.5/4

Starring: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon

Rated PG for Thematic Elements, Some Violence, Language and Brief Sensuality

There a few really good "food" movies out there: movies that create such wonderful images of food and cooking that you wish you could touch the screen and dive into the feast.  Some examples include the indie hit "Big Night," and the early Ang Lee masterpiece "Eat Drink Man Woman."  The highly talented Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom has tried to create another entry in the genre, and while it certainly has its pleasures, it doesn't have enough juice to succeed.  Pun intended.

The Kadam clan is a family of culinary geniuses.  They owned a very successful restaurant in India until an act of political violence cost them the restaurant and the life of the matriarch.  Papa (Puri) has decided to pack up everything and head to Europe.  He eventually decides to buy a restaurant in a small French province, but doesn't realize that it's across the street from Madame Mallory (Mirren), a restaurant owner and a culinary wizard herself.  Mallory doesn't take kindly to competition, and when Papa refuses to be bullied away, it becomes all-out war between the two restaurants.  Meanwhile, Papa's son, Hassan (Dayal), is quickly becoming a superb chef in his own right, and is smitten with Marguerite (Le Bon), the girl who rescued them when their car broke down on the edge of the village.  Making matters worse is the fact that Marguerite is Mallory's sous chef.

"The Hundred Foot Journey" is meant to be a feel-good melodrama like 2011's surprise hit, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."  This is the kind of thing Miramax used to make before it went belly up.  It's a very safe and unoffensive movie that concentrates more on acting and character development rather than special effects, so in that way, it's a welcome change from what's usually showing at the multiplex these days: special effects extravaganzas ("Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" or any other generic comic book movie) or raunchy comedies ("Neighbors" or "A Million Ways to Die in the West").  Sadly, while it's a change of pace, it's too vanilla to really stand out, and contains a fair amount of problems of its own.

The acting is very good, although anyone who knows who Helen Mirren and Om Puri are probably guessed that already.  Mirren can (and will) do just about anything, and while this isn't a particularly challenging role for her, she doesn't sleepwalk through it.  The role demands that Mirren is able to speak French (or English with a French accent), and be both a bitch in an apron and a motherly romantic.  Mirren has no trouble with any aspect of her role.  When we're supposed to hate her, we want to see her suffer intense agony.  When we like her, we wish her all the best.  Om Puri is not as well known on this side of the Atlantic, but he is a star in India, and has made a number of art-house hits, like "East is East."  Puri is every bit Mirren's equal, playing the role with wit, pathos, and empathy.  He loves his family and is passionate about cooking and believing that people will like his restaurant when they try it.  He may be a little out-of-touch culturally and isn't above dishing out a bit of pain to the harridan across the street, but he is persistent and in the right.  It doesn't take us long to get on his side.

The other couple in the film is Hassan and Marguerite.  They make a cute couple, and the actors portraying them display a handsome amount of chemistry (as do Puri and Mirren, by the way).  Dayal is effective as the young man whose talents may take him away from his family, but the true find is Charlotte Le Bon.  She's a true scene-stealer from the minute she appears on screen.  Her life and wit make the character quite endearing.

The film's flaws lie at the hands of Hallstrom himself.  While the film is competently told and has moments that really land (there are some amusing bits here and there, particularly a balcony argument that is the antithesis of "Romeo and Juliet"), but Hallstrom's approach feels bland.  It's too broad and too safe.  Tonally, it's uneven, which is ironic since the successful mixing of opposing tones is one of Hallstrom's trademarks (see "Chocolat" or "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" for examples): sometimes it's too dark while others it's too light.  The film is also about 15 minutes too long; it never seems to want to end, even though there are plenty of opportunities to do so.

This is not a bad movie by any means.  Adult moviegoers looking for something more mature (only in the sense of its material...there's absolutely nothing inappropriate for children here, but they will most likely be bored out of their minds) will find something to enjoy here, but it will work better on Blu Ray when expectations are lower.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Black Death

2/4

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Carice Van Houten, Kimberley Nixon

Rated R for Strong Brutal Violence and Some Language

A good movie needs one of two things to succeed (or preferably both): an engaging story and strong characters.  Without them the movie will tank.  That's what happens here with "Black Death."  The story is thin and trite and the characters aren't very interesting.

The film takes place in the year 1349.  The Black Death, or "pestilence," as it's called here, is in full swing.  A young monk named Edmund (Redmayne) is debating whether or not to leave the monastery he calls home to flee the city with his lover, Averill (Nixon).  He gets his answer when a man named Ulric (Bean) comes to the monastery looking for a guide.  He's going to the same place to hunt a necromancer, and Edmund thinks that this means that God is telling him that he should meet up with Averill.  Of course, nothing turns out like he expects.

The film is lacking in just about every department except the acting (considering how talented and underrated the three main cast members are, that should come as no surprise).  There's not much atmosphere to speak of.  The movie doesn't slow down enough to allow the sense of fear and uncertainty to bleed into the movie; "Contagion" did this much more successfully.  The story is clunky and not very interesting.  The pacing is awkward, and the action scenes are severely limited in effectiveness by an over-caffeinated cameraman.

The hard work by Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean and Carice Van Houten can't carry the film (the script doesn't allow any of them the latitude to utilize their considerable talents), but it keeps things watchable.  The film's central character is Edmund, and consequently he's the one I felt for the most.  Edmund is out of his element, and guilt has warped him after he makes a series of bad decisions.  Redmayne deserves much more praise than he gets, which is why it's sad that the film isn't good enough to see.  Sean Bean has the highest billing, but of the main trio, his role is the smallest.  Bean, as underrated an actor as there is, doesn't have a lot to do other than act tough and be a religious fanatic.  And poor Carice Van Houten!  As talented as she is beautiful, her career never took off like it should have after "Black Book," and she's forced to subside in bit parts like this, although she did have a role as the witch Melisandre in the "Game of Thrones" TV series (which also had Sean Bean among its cast members).  Van Houten does what she can, but the script just doesn't do her justice.

"Black Death" is a standard order adventure story that could have been a post-"Lord of the Rings" (sorry for all the Sean Bean references...) fantasy movie, except that the direction is stale and the characters are grumpy misanthropes rather than likable heroes.  They're a cheerless bunch, which wouldn't be such a hard sell if they were interesting.  Sadly, they're pretty boring.  Things come to a dead halt when it turns into a Middle Ages version of "The Wicker Man" with all of its flaws (it's hard to side with the heroes when the villains, at least for a time, are being persecuted)

To give credit where credit is due, the film touches on themes such as faith, revenge and temptation.  That's all well and good, but none are developed very much.  Any potentially rich material is dropped as soon as it becomes inconvenient for the story.

I've long awaited a good movie about The Black Death.  Sadly, this isn't it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Giver

1/4

Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Odeya Rush, Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgard, Cameron Monaghan, Taylor Swift

Rated PG-13 for a Mature Thematic Image and Some Action/Violence

When I heard that Lois Lowry's powerful and haunting novel was being adapted for the screen, I thought, "It's about time."  The novel was published 1993, with three sequels that followed in the years since (which surprised me, since I've never heard of them).  Given Hollywood's obsession with special effects and toning down everything to appeal to those with the lowest IQs, I was nervous.  Still, the novel is still widely read in middle schools, so I was hopeful that the filmmakers would realize that the majority of the audience would be able to grasp its complexities and rich thematic material.  No such luck.

Philip Noyce's film version, which Jeff Bridges has been trying to make for the past 20 years, is exactly what I feared the film would be.  It dumbs down the thought-provoking material to the point where it's a shadow of the source material, paced like an action movie trailer, and the ending is an action scene.  What the hell were they thinking?  As someone who is a fan of the book and still finds it compelling to ruminate over decades after reading it, I found such shoddy treatment to be shameful and insulting.

In the future, a new society has been created.  Choice, feeling and individuality have been removed from daily life.  Every aspect of daily life is organized and controlled down to the last detail.  At age 16, each citizen is assigned a job based on the person's volunteer history, although for one young man named Jonas (Thwaites), things don't go according to plan.  He has not been chosen for a job, but selected as a Receiver.  With the help of The Giver (Bridges), Jonas will experience all the joy and sorrow that his society doesn't allow for instances when the Elders, led by The Chief Elder (Streep), need to access to old memories in order to keep their carefully constructed community alive.  But is Jonas able to handle the truth about his life?

Problem number one: the film's setting is not adequately established.  In many ways, the society that Lowry created is one of the most fascinating elements of her story.  It's not particularly original, but she created it with such care and vivid detail that I can still visualize it in my mind.  It's like a sci-fi version of "Pleasantville" crossed with "Equilibrium."  Unfortunately setting the stage takes all of five minutes.  We know Jonas is going to work with The Giver after the first ten minutes.  This lack of set-up robs the film of all of its possible involvement on the part of the audience, and the suspense that was palpable in the novel is non-existent here.

Problem number two: the film's story, which was a parable of communism, is so diluted that it becomes a waste of time.  The ideas in the book were powerfully presented.  Frankly, with a straight approach that didn't underestimate the intelligence or the popularity of the book, it had a shot at some Oscars.  Here, they're skimmed over.  There's little in the way of depth and feeling in this film.  The characters are too thin to be called stick figures, and the thought-provoking material the formed the bulk of Lowry's narrative is almost entirely ignored.

Problem number three: the acting is terrible.  Lead actor Brenton Thwaites showed promise in "The Signal," the ambitious thriller from earlier this summer, but he appears to have forgotten how to act during the last month.  He's flat and uncharismatic.  This was Jeff Bridges' passion (he helped produce the film, and even filmed a version of it with his family), but he should have had the good sense to let someone more age-appropriate play the role.  The Giver is meant to be played by an elderly actor, and Bridges, who has a fair amount of range, tries to do so.  The 65-year old tries to play the part, but he comes across as Jeff Bridges acting like an old fart with a bad experience getting a tongue stud.  Meryl Streep is creepy, in a role that was expanded probably because the novel lacked a physical villain, but her part is so thinly written that I'm wondering why she, who is fairly choosy about the roles she takes, agreed to participate.  Katie Holmes is awful as Jonas's mother, while Alexander Skarsgard does a great job of blending in with the scenery as his father.  They act like brainwashed cult members.  Odeya Rush and Cameron Monaghan are utterly forgettable as Jonas's friends.  Taylor Swift makes an appearance as Rosemary, although her character's significance is robbed of all its power due to the speed in which the film hurtles towards the climax.  Speaking of...

Problem number four: The climax is jaw-droppingly awful.  It's really bad.  First, it closes with a chase scene that has far too little adrenaline.  This is not an action-oriented story, and as such, a race between a motorcycle and a plane would be out of place even if it was done well (which it isn't).  The book's ending was more low-key, which allowed it to retain feelings of melancholy and hope at the same time.  Additionally, the stakes have been raised in the film, which would be fine had it been written better, but as it is, it feels ridiculous.  "The Giver" is not "The Hunger Games," and that's the film's biggest mistake.  Then there's the scene when Jonas finds out the darkest truth about his community.  This revelation in the book was done perfectly.  It had its capacity to shock, but it was appropriate.  The one in the movie is just sick, and it shows it in all it's disturbing glory.  "Boyhood" gets an R while this gets a mild PG-13?  Unbelievable.

"The Giver" made me angry.  It had such potential, but the filmmakers continuously underestimated the brainpower of everyone in the audience.  "The Giver" is a powerful and thoughtful story.  The movie is just trash.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Great Mouse Detective

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Barrie Ingham, Vincent Price, Val Bettin, Susanne Pollatschek

Rated G

Somehow, if he had lived to see it, I don't think that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have imagined his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes, to be brought to the screen quite like this.  Not only is it an animated movie featuring mice as the lead characters, it features three song and dance numbers and ends with a fight on Big Ben.  Still, I'd like to think that he'd be at least entertained if nothing else.

Actually, "The Great Mouse Detective" is not directly based off of the most frequently adapted character in cinema.  It's comes from a book series called "Basil of Baker Street," although the similarities are so numerous that the filmmakers do little to hide them.  Basil Rathbone's (who is widely considered to have given the definitive portrayal of the famous detective) archived voice is even used in one brief scene.  Everything is there, from the hat and pipe to the deductive reasoning, to a doctor as a companion (the voice of Watson is Laurie Maine instead of Nigel Bruce, Rathbone's frequent collaborator, as the vocals were taken from a reading in 1966 when Bruce and Rathbone worked together in the 1940s).

The story takes place in 1897.  A doctor named Dawson (Bettin) is returning from military service in Afghanistan looking for some peace and quiet.  While looking for an apartment, or at least a way out of the the rain, he comes across a crying little girl.  Her name is Olivia Flaversham (Pollatscheck).  Her father was kidnapped, and she's looking for the famous detective, Basil of Baker Street, for help.  Taking pity on her, as well as having nothing else to do, Dawson helps her find Basil.  Basil (Ingham) is a little too scatterbrained and self-absorbed to be of much interest, until Olivia reveals that her father was kidnapped by a bat with a peg leg.  Basil immediately knows that his arch-nemisis, the vile Professor Ratigan (Price), is behind it.  Before either Olivia or Dawson know what's going on, the case is afoot!

I grew up watching old Disney movies like "The Great Mouse Detective," and unlike some other kids movies from my childhood, such as "Heavy Weights" and "An American Tail," it has aged very well.  Sure, Basil and Ratigan are a little too fatuous for my adult self, but those are small quibbles.  The mystery is engaging and no one can claim that Ratigan isn't fun to watch.  Price plays the character with the correct mix of villainy and loopiness.  He may be comical and off-his-rocker, but he's still a formidable foe.  And as aloof and single-minded as he sometimes is, Basil is likable and easy to get behind.  The supporting characters are just as good.  Olivia, voiced by Susanne Pollatcschek, is adorable and Dr. Dawson is perfectly fatherly; I could still feel the growing bond between the two of them.

The film is filled with great moments of high adventure and some inspired comedy.  The action scenes are exhilarating rather than obligatory.  The scene in the toy store is vividly realized, and the climax at Big Ben is truly awesome.  The latter is the first time computer animation was used in a full-length animated movie and the first time animation and computers were mixed (I was surprised to learn this...it's entirely convincing, unlike the Hydra fight in "Hercules," which came out 11 years later).

If there's any real flaw, it's that the film is too short (74 minutes including the end credits...not even one and a quarter hours).  I realize that animated films were difficult to make back then (and still are).  But with the help of computers, production only lasted a year. With a little more time and effort, the film's story, which is on the thin side and feels rushed, could have had more room to breathe.

All that said, this is still worth seeing even as an adults.  It's still great fun!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

2.5/4

Starring: Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mickey Rourke, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis

Rated R for Strong Brutal Stylized Violence Throughout, Sexual Content, Nudity, and Brief Drug Use

"Sin City" was a breath of fresh air.  It was a dark, brutal and ultra-violent film noir that packed a knockout punch.  It used the panels from Frank Miller's graphic novels as storyboards for the film, giving it a unique look and personality.  The long-awaited follow up, "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," attempts to replicate its success, but there's something missing.

As was the case in the first film, there are three interlocking stories that are (mostly) told consecutively.  First up is "Just Another Saturday Night," where the heavily scarred hulk Marv (Rourke) hunts down a bunch of violent frat boys.  "The Long Bad Night" has Johnny (Gordon-Levitt) in a poker battle with the vicious Senator Roark (Boothe).  "A Dame to Kill For" has Dwight McCarthy (Brolin in the role previously played by Clive Owen) trying to resist an old flame, Ava Lord (Green).  Finally, there's "Nancy's Last Dance," where Nancy Callahan (Alba) makes a vow to avenge Hartigan (Willis).

The problem here is two-fold.  First, the spark of innovation is gone.  Audiences hadn't seen a comic book come to life in that way.  "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" lacks enough gas in many respects to recapture the same "WOW" factor.  There is a definite "been there, done that" to the proceedings that directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller are unable to avoid.

The second problem is on a more basic level: the stories just aren't as interesting.  The stories that make up this sequel feel like leftovers.  They're either derivative and not dynamic ("The Long Bad Night"), ineptly told ("A Dame to Kill For") or too short (the other two).  The first problem is small enough to be overlooked had the intangibles been in place.  Sadly, they're not.

Another thing that the original had were flawless performances.  Cast members were selected not because they were popular or tabloid stars, but because they were perfect for their roles.  Rourke made a big enough comeback to get an Oscar nomination for "The Wrestler" (which was overrated, but never mind) and to become the villain in "Iron Man 2."  "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" isn't as top heavy with talent.  Most are effective, but no more.  Eva Green and Powers Boothe are scene-stealers.  Green has a ball chewing on the scenery, and she & Rodriguez make it clear that she can smolder the screen like few others.  Powers Boothe is truly chilling as Roark; he's the patron saint of all evil in Sin City.  There are some missteps.  Michael Clarke Duncan played the small role of Manute in the original, but his death necessitated recasting.  Sadly, Dennis Haysbert lacks Duncan's gravitas and deep pipes.  Christopher Meloni and Jeremy Piven are awful.  Meloni gives it a game try, but Piven is so bad it made me wonder what the hell the directors were thinking.  Fortunately, the two are only given token screen time.

The film isn't unwatchable.  It's always engaging, but it lacks punch and life.  Despite, you know, all the killings.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Eagle

3/4

Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Tahar Rahim

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical version is rated PG-13 for Battle Sequences and Some Disturbing Images

The mystery of the Ninth Legion (correctly labeled as Legio IX Hispana) has fascinated students of history for decades (it was also the focus of Neil Marshall's underrated adventure, "Centurion").  It went to North Britannia and was never seen again.  While there are theories about what happened to it, no definitive archaeological evidence exists, and it is unlikely that we will ever know conclusively what happened to the 5,000 soldiers in the legion.

Kevin MacDonald's film, "The Eagle" doesn't attempt to provide the answer.  It's based on a work of fiction by Rosemary Sutcliff.  Instead, it uses the incident as a jumping off point for an adventure with a roman soldier and his slave.

Marcus Flavius Aquila (Tatum) has just been given command of an outpost in Britannia.  He was sent there by choice: his father was the commander of the Ninth Legion, and their Golden Eagle, an important icon for Rome, was lost.  As a result, he was branded a coward.  Marcus intends on finding it, and when no one wants to send an army to find it, he insists on going alone with Esca (Bell), his slave.  But Esca hates Marcus and Rome, and being alone in the middle of wild Britannia means that deadly betrayal is a very real danger for Marcus.

There's nothing particularly original about this film.  It's fairly predictable, but that doesn't mean it's not entertaining.  The performances by Tatum, who seems to get better with every movie I see him in, and Bell, who is in entirely too few movies these days, are strong, and they work well together.  To be quite frank, neither one of their roles is especially well-written (for the first hour, Marcus is the patron saint of doing the right thing without fail), but both actors work hard to give their characters personality, and that saves them from being boring.

They're surrounded by a few other actors, but the film is mostly about them.  Donald Sutherland and Denis O'Hare (as Marcus's second in command) do solid work, and Tahar Rahim is a decent villain.  Mark Strong is a little flat.  But this is all about Marcus and Esca, and no one tries to do any scene-stealing.

The film is directed by Kevin Macdonald, who won an Oscar for "One Day in September," but is probably best known for helming "Touching the Void," which is a much better film.  "The Eagle" looks gorgeous; the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle includes some breathtaking shots of England's country.  But it's a little too long (maybe because I watched the unrated version), and perhaps a little too somber.  Nevertheless, this is an entertaining movie.

If it comes down to it, "Centurion" is the way to go.  It's leaner, meaner and bloodier, and packs a ton of adrenaline.  This is slower (the search for the eagle doesn't kick in for about a half hour), but it's still worth seeing.

The Sessions

3/4

Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Adam Arkin

Rated R for Strong Sexuality including Graphic Nudity and Frank Dialogue

Sex is so volatile and controversial in American culture that even the most open-minded person feels like they are in a pretzel of moral and social conundrums.  It's a shame, really, since it's universally agreed that it's one of the best things about life.  So it's rare to find a movie like "The Sessions," which strips it of all its controversy and treats it exactly like a sex surrogate would: professionally.

Mark O'Brien (Hawkes) has been crippled by polio since the age of 6.  He is required to sit in an iron lung for most of the day and requires constant care.  But after he becomes attracted to Amanda (Annika Marks), his new nurse, he realizes that he's never had sex with a woman, and with the urging of his priest, Father Brendan (Macy), he seeks to do the deed.  He hires a sex therapist named Cheryl (Hunt) to help him understand his sexuality and to achieve intimacy with her (and other women down the line, ideally).

For an American movie, the film is very frank about sex (as it would have to be), and is all the better for it.  Helen Hunt spends a lot of the movie topless, and while we don't see Hawkes' full naked body, it is implied that he is nude as well.  The latter is actually a little odd; there are a number of instances where the film is obviously being coy about Hawkes' body.  Considering Hawkes' penchant for taking risky roles (not to mention exposing himself emotionally), I'm not sure that this was his decision, and was more likely a precaution against an NC-17 by the MPAA.  I could be wrong though.

The film essentially lives and dies on the performances of the two leads, with Macy being around for humor and the role of Mark's sounding board.  John Hawkes has always been a good character actor (he was the "Star Maps" guy in "Rush Hour" and Bugsy in "The Perfect Storm"), and here he proves that he is more than capable of carrying a lead role.  And it's not an easy role, either.  We are well aware of Mark's disability, but Hawkes makes sure we see him, a devout Catholic with a self-deprecating sense of humor, and not a victim of fate's cruelty.  Some of his one-liners are very funny and occasionally raunchy, and his lack of success poses some tough theological questions for him.  Hawkes makes sure that it is through that that we see Mark, and that makes him endearing.  Helen Hunt has laid low for the last decade, and she has lost none of her talent or sense of humor.  For Cheryl, this is strictly a job, although she begins to care deeply for her client.  I was worried that the film would descend into romantic melodrama, which would be totally dishonest to the characters, but director Ben Lewin and Hunt sidestep this.

The problem with the film is that there is little chemistry between Hawkes and Hunt.  As I said before, the film isn't a romance, but they form a strong bond.  Unfortunately, I didn't feel it.  I understood it mentally, but not emotionally.  The ending didn't make me show much emotion.

Part of the reason lies with the approach taken by Lewin.  It's rather clinical, relying more on the performances rather than directorial skill.  Lewin also employs cutaways and flashbacks to show both sides of the same moment, but they're frequently awkward.

I think that the reason why people, especially Americans, are so skittish about sex is that it is very complicated.  Physically and emotionally, it's a minefield.  Here is a movie that understands that and why.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What If

2/4

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Megan Park, Mackenzie Davis, Rafe Spall

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content, including References Throughout, Partial Nudity and Language

"What If" is a romantic comedy, but it fails in two key categories: it's not romantic and it's not all that funny.  There are a few sparks of each, but for the most part it doesn't work.

Wallace (Radcliffe) is a guy who lives in his grandmother's attic and has a job writing technical manuals.  He was in medical school but dropped out.  His last relationship ended very badly, and a year later he's still really cynical about love.  Then at a party, he meets Chantry (Kazan), and hits it off magically with her.  But of course she's been dating Ben (Spall) for five years.  Just his luck.  Still, they agree to just be friends.  Guess how well that turns out.

"What If" is "When Harry Met Sally" for the Millenial generation.  That means it asks whether or not a guy and a girl can remain friends without romance getting in the way (and that's all it asks).  It also means quirky characters and heavy doses of cynicism and angst.  Those last two characteristics are killer.  They're meant to make it more appealing to people my age, but it causes this would-be romantic comedy to become a little grim rather than light and frothy like the other entries in the genre.

Since hanging up the cape as Harry Potter three years ago, Daniel Radcliffe has been trying to avoid becoming another actor whose star fades once the franchise they were most famous for ties up (a fate that is in store for Taylor Lautner but Robert Pattinson has thus far managed to avoid, despite a bad reputation as an actor...he must have a very good agent).  He certainly has the talent to do it.  Radcliffe shines as the lead in this film, and balances cynicism and likability in a way that director Michael Dowse cannot.  Radcliffe knows what this movie is trying to be and delivers.  He also understands the concept of comic timing, which he hasn't been able to show before.  Less impressive is Zoe Kazan.  She's not bad.  Just bland.  She lacks charisma and charm, something that her co-star has.  The film could still work if Radcliffe and Kazan had chemistry, but they don't.  There's no spark between them, so if there was any reason to care about anyone in this movie, it's because of Daniel Radcliffe.

The supporting characters aren't much better.  Adam Driver, who is soon to be famous for playing a role in the upcoming "Star Wars" movie, plays Wallace's obligatory sexually successful best friend Allan.  He's meant to add some color and humor to the film, but he's actually pretty boring.  Megan Park (as Chantry's sister who has the hots for Wallace) and Mackenzie Davis (as Allan's girlfriend Nicole) do amazing jobs of blending into the background.

If Michael Dowse's previous credit, the hockey comedy "Goon," is anything to go by, at least some of the film's failures have to do with him.  He doesn't have a good idea on how to nurture any kind of chemistry between actors, which sinks the film.  It also suffers from the need to be "indie."  The dialogue and the performances are too "natural," and the film isn't able to cast a spell that puts a song in our hearts and makes us come out smiling.  If there's any genre that needs a bit of fantasy to work, it's the romance.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

1/4

Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fitchner, Noel Fisher, Alan Ritchson, Jeremy Howard, Tohoru Masamune and the voices of Johnny Knoxville and Tony Shaloub

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence

Everything you heard about how awful the new "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie is is true.  It's noisy, maddeningly aggressive, often incoherent and dreadfully unfunny.  I'm glad I'm home now.  I can watching something of quality that isn't going to give me a headache.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have seen various incarnations over the past 20-odd years.  They started out as a comic book in the early 80s, but they didn't break into film and TV until 1990, when the first movie came out.  Two sequels followed, and three attempts at a TV series as well.  The franchise was dead and buried until an animated movie starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ziyi Zhang came out in 2007.  It didn't establish a franchise, and that was the last we heard from them since, save for video games that have been coming out with a semi-regular frequency since 1989 (some of which were supposed to be very good, although the most recent one got a brutal beating from GameTrailers).

Which brings us to 2014.  Michael Bay, who has let his ego and producing know-how to eclipse his considerable talent, has decided to give the turtles another try.  He has selected Jonathan Liebesman, who made the chilling "Darkness Falls" and the video game wannabe "Wrath of the Titans," to helm the project.  The resulting film is a soul-sucking monstrosity designed for one purpose: to bring in teenagers (a fickle, but undemanding audience) and get their money.

The plot is not only paper thin, but derivative and boring.  The Foot Clan is wreaking havoc on New York City.  April O'Neil (Fox) is a reporter assigned to fluff pieces but she's determined to become a real reporter.  The plucky April follows leads and begins to believe that there is a vigilante out there who is fighting back, although as her editor (Whoopi Goldberg in what amounts to a cameo) tells her, she has no proof for what any lay person would consider ludicrous.  Eventually, she runs into the humanoid Turtles, and discovers a connection between them.  But the leader of the Foot clan, Shredder (Masamune), wants the Turtles for his own nefarious means.

We go to movies for a number of reasons, depending on the genre (most people don't go to action movies to have a good cry, unless it's "Titanic").  But the main reason why we go is to be told stories.  "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" doesn't aspire to that.  It wants to assault viewers with action scenes so aggressive it can be argued that it's criminal behavior, and to market the film so intensely that people feel an obligation to see it.  If that's not sadistic, I don't know what is.

The acting is uninspired, but as is the case with anything by Michael Bay, any good performances happen solely by accident.  Megan Fox, who apparently has made up with Bay after her getting the ax from the "Transformers" franchise for calling him a Nazi, does what she can.  She's not the world's greatest actress, but she gets more flak for her acting ability than she deserves (I'd watch any movie with her over one with Katherine Heigl or Taylor Lautner any day of the week.  And twice on Sunday).  William Fitchner is slumming for a paycheck, but he can only give a bad performance if he's actively trying to do so.  Tony Shaloub is unrecognizable as the Turtles sensei, Splinter.  Considering the resulting product, that's a good thing for his career.

Then there are the turtles themselves.  They're obviously special effects and look it.  They're almost totally deprived of personality.  They're only distinguishable by the color of their masks and a single personality trait: the guy in the red is the "leader," the guy in the purple is the obligatory techno-geek, the guy in the orange has the hots for April, and the guy in the blue is...just the guy in the blue.

The best movies are filled with passion and a desire to tell their story.  They display craftsmanship and respect for the material and their audience.  "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" has nothing but contempt.

Dead Calm

3/4

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Billy Zane, Sam Neill

Rated R (probably for Violence, Language, Sexuality and Nudity)

In general, I don't like minimalist movies.  They're usually artsy for the sake of being artsy and exist solely to impress the critics and counter-culture crowd (examples would be anything by Wes Anderson, "Greetings from Tim Buckley," and this year's "The Rover").  There are exceptions, however, such as "The Blair Witch Project" and "The Samaritan."

"Dead Calm" is an effective but imperfect thriller.  Aside from a few plotholes and an only adequate sense of atmosphere, the film features three strong performances and is effectively paced.  The premise, being trapped on a boat in the middle of the ocean with a homicidal lunatic, is sufficiently explored for the purposes of the movie, but the film's presentation is definitely not Hollywood.  In some ways, that's a good thing.

After the death of their young son, John (Neill) and Rae Ingram (Kidman) are taking a long vacation in their yacht to get away from it all.  Rae, who was driving the car at the time of the accident, suffers from nightmares, but she's beginning to heal.  Their solitude is interrupted when John spots a battered ship not far away.  There is one survivor who makes it to their boat in a dinghy.  His name is Hughie Warriner (Zane), and at first he appears to be just a shell-shocked sailor.  But John doesn't believe his story, and when Hughie is asleep, he boards to boat to find out what happened.  He makes a horrifying discovery, but before he can warn Rae, Hughie wakes up and steals the boat with Rae on it.  Rae must match wits with her deranged passenger while John must find a way to rescue her.

"Dead Calm" works because director Philip Noyce keeps things low-key.  This is a slow-burn thriller where the suspense from inaction.  It's all mood and atmosphere.  While it's definitely effective, there are flashes of brilliance that show what the film could have been.  The film's cinematographer is Dean Semler, and while the film always looks good, there are some shots that stick out in my mind: one is a point-of-view shot from the approaching dinghy and another has Hughie facing the camera during an insane screaming session.  Those clips are innovative and very creepy.  Had the rest of the film matched up to that level, "Dead Calm" would have been a masterpiece.

The performances are terrific.  Nicole Kidman always impresses.  Rae is scared for her life, but she's also smart and resourceful.  Many thrillers have women playing impotent until the final moments, but not here.  She may not always be successful, but this aspect keeps things more interesting.  Sam Neill is his usual reliable self, although to be quite frank, there's not a lot for him to do other than act determined.  The film is all Rae and Hughie, and he understands that.

The real scene-stealer is Billy Zane.  Zane is at his best when playing sleazy characters (such as his most famous role, Cal Hockley in "Titanic"), but he is totally convincing as Hughie.  It would have been too easy for him to sleepwalk through the role and make the character a one-dimensional psycho.  But like Mark Wahlberg did in "Fear" a few years later, he works hard to make the character a living, breathing human being.  We can see that his mind does not work normally, and that's what makes him scary.

Style is probably a word I'd use when discussing the direction of Phillip Noyce.  His approach to the material is not necessarily weird or strange, but it's different.  It has the sensibilities of an art film, although Noyce has assembled it in a manner that makes it universally accessible.  He doesn't overplay any of the violence or sex.  His goal is to create a sense of menace, and he succeeds.

It is not perfect, but for those who like these slow-burn thrillers like this, it's one to catch.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Let's Be Cops

3/4

Starring: Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans Jr., James D'Arcy, Nina Dobrev, Andy Garcia, Rob Riggle

Rated R for Language including Sexual References, Some Graphic Nudity, Violence and Drug Use

"Let's Be Cops" is a very, very dumb movie.  It is filled with what my best friend calls "stupid humor."  Nevertheless, the film is frequently hilarious, with two sequences that brought down the house.

Ryan (Johnson) and Justin (Wayans Jr.) have been best friends since their college days at Purdue.  They've moved to LA to seek their fortunes, but neither one has found it.  Ryan is a professional layabout who fancies himself a football coach to a group of kids while Justin is a doormat working at a video game company.  When attending a reunion party, they realize that their lives are going nowhere fast.  They have dressed as cops (this results in a joke that I won't give away), and on their way home, they are impressed with the attention that they're getting.  Ryan thinks it would be cool to pretend to be cops and abuse his powers, but Justin doesn't want anything to do with it (he is convinced when they get a call at a sorority house, which leads to what is probably the single funniest scene all year).  They quickly get in way over their heads when they pick a fight with a nasty thug named Mossi (D'Arcy).  Now they have to figure out how far they are going to take their mischief, which could get them arrested or killed.

Admittedly, this is an amusing if juvenile concept for a movie, but Jake Johnson is very funny as Ryan.  His energy and comic timing make a lot of the jokes as funny as they are.  Less successful is Damon Wayans, Jr.  He may be related to the guys behind "Scary Movie," but little of their comic skills have been passed onto him.  Justin is supposed to be a party pooper who gets corrupted, but he takes it too far, and as a result is a pretty boring individual.  He has little chemistry with the sexpot waitress Josie (Dobrev) due in part to his lackluster performance.

This is their show, but they're surrounded by a solid supporting cast.  Nina Dobrev is cute, but that's all the screenplay allows her to be.  James D'Arcy pumps up the fierce, so much so that he's more threatening than funny (which is odd in a movie like this).  Ditto for Andy Garcia, who's unbilled part is a pretty big surprise for those who aren't expecting it.  D'Arcy appears to be having fun, but Garcia takes his part a little too seriously.

The film was directed by Luke Greenfield, whose resume is spotty.  He directed a Rob Schneider vehicle, "The Animal," which I didn't see, and "Something Borrowed," which I did.  But he also directed "The Girl Next Door," which the great critic Dustin Putman gave a 4/4 rating to.  But in filmmaking, past history doesn't mean much.

Not every joke works.  The first 10 minutes are pretty painful, but when Ryan and Justin start pretending to be cops, the film takes off.  It's still in no way sophisticated (the film's concept lives or dies based on whether or not you accept that everyone in LA is a complete imbecile), but even at the end, Greenfield doesn't take things too seriously.  That's to the film's benefit.  The stuff with Mossi doesn't really kick in until the final act, and Greenfield keeps it strong enough to engage but simple enough for a comedy.

"Let's Be Cops" is a little uneven, but it's definitely funny enough for a person with a sense of humor to go out and see, especially considering the dearth of watchable material this August.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

2.5/4

Starring: Hugo Weaving, Terrence Stamp, Guy Pearce, Bill Hunter

Rated R for Sex-Related Situations and Language

Drag shows are not my thing.  When I see one going on, I'll stop in for a few minutes and watch, but it's not something I'll go out of my way to see.  I do, however, understand the appeal.  It's a cross between a Broadway musical and a comedy club.  The music is fun and upbeat, but the costumes and dancing is beyond outrageous.  The humor comes from the fact that the whole show is so over-the-top, and everyone is in on the joke.  "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" understands that.

The film's stars are Mitzi (Weaving), Felicia (Pearce), two drag queens, and Bernadette (Stamp), a transsexual (a man who is transitioning into a woman, in this case).  They're a trio of drag queens who perform in Sydney, Australia.  But they have a show to get to in the small town of Alice Springs, and Felicia buys a broken down charter bus (which he dubs Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) to get them there.  Needless to say, the trip is not without obstacles.

Road movies, which this movie is, rarely have complex plots.  They're all about the journey, rather than the final destination.  Stephan Elliot, who wrote and directed this movie, knows this, but for a character study, the three main characters don't have much of a personality until the film's final act.  Despite the best attempts of the actors, they remain stick figures for the majority of the running time.

The film stars three of the best actors from Down Under: Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terrence Stamp.  Stamp had been a well-respected actor for decades before the film's release (he got an Oscar nomination in 1963), although he faded from view after a 10 year sabbatical; his performance as the dour and lovelorn Bernadette put him back in the limelight.  Stamp is wonderful in the role, playing what could easily have been a caricature with depth and feeling.  Hugo Weaving is also very good.  Known for his intense performances and Alan Rickman-like style of speaking, Weaving has become typecast as villainous (Mr. Smith in "The Matrix" and its sequels) or serious characters ("The Lord of the Rings").  Mitzi is unlike anything you've ever seen him do, which is a testament to his talent and versatility.  Mitzi drags Bernadette on this little adventure after the death of her lover, even if it means confronting some skeletons in the closet (this subplot is resolved in a fresh manner, although the beginning doesn't hold up in retrospect).  And Guy Pearce, who was a soap star at the time of the film's release, is on hand for comic relief as the politically incorrect Felicia.  Pearce rarely plays comic roles these days, but like the best actors, he knows what he's doing.

The problem with the film is that it's not as funny or as moving as it wants to be.  The script is on the weak side, and many of the jokes feel feeble.  The whole production feels waterlogged.  And then there are those cutaways and flashbacks that are meant to build the characters backstories, but feel awkward and jarring.

I got to like the film at the end, but was it enough to give the film a recommendation?  It's a close call, but I don't think so.  There are some good qualities about this movie, such as the relationships between Bernadette and Bill (Hunter), the lonely mechanic, and Mitzi and wife & son.  Those are touching.  But there is just as much material the falls flat or isn't as strong as Elliot thinks it is.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Raid: Redemption

1.5/4

Starring: Iko Uwais, Donny Alamsyah, Yayan Ruhian, Joe Taslim, Pierre Gruno, Ray Sahetapy

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong Brutal Bloody Violence Throughout, and Language

I like a loud, hyper-violent action movie as much as the next guy.  Done right, they can be a lot of fun, but the reverse is also true.  No guesses as to which side of the line this one falls on.

"The Raid: Redemption" is a no-holds-barred action movie.  There's minimal plot and even less character development.  That's not such a bad thing; in the case of a movie like this, it will only serve as a hindrance since taking the time for a complex plot or characterization will only slow the film down.  As long as there's plenty of dazzling testosterone and adrenaline, I have no complaints.  Sadly, this film has little of either.  It's a total bore.

The set-up is simple: a squad of heavily armed police officers is going into a building to take down a ruthless drug lord named Tama (Sahetapy).  Tama has offered free room and board to anyone who puts up a defense, so most of the building's tenants act like they're in "The Purge: Anarchy." Naturally, most of them end up in body bags fairly early, and for the most part it's one man named Rama (Uwais) against a building full of heavily armed psychos.  He doesn't stand a chance.

This is a great concept for an action movie because there are few limits that writer/director Gareth Evans can put on what Rama will face.  Sadly, Evans is no John Woo.  The fight scenes are badly staged, the direction is pedestrian at best, and the editing is completely inept.  That's three strikes, and this movie is definitely out.

There's not much that I can say about the acting.  By the nature of the beast, this isn't a place for acting.  All that's required is that the cast members have enough personality and charisma to get us to like or hate them, whichever the case might be for a given character.  That said, no one really stands out in the acting department.  The performances are adequate at best, but only for the purposes of a direct-to-DVD movie.  Iko Uwais is handsome and has some ability, but that's about it.

The problem with the film is that Gareth Evans wants this to be a gritty thriller, yet also have the glee of being deliciously over-the-top.  For example, this movie includes a man whose grave injuries brought to mind the soldier from "Saving Private Ryan" who was crying for his mother as his intestines were spilled out on the side of him, and yet later in the film we see the hero toss a guy over a railing only to have him land with his back broken by a banister a few floors below.  There is a disconnect on a fundamental level between something so serious and something so absurd.  Evans wants to have his cake and eat it too, but he doesn't understand that this sort of movie necessitates being over-the-top and ridiculous.  "Shoot 'Em Up" and "300" worked because the filmmakers took things to the 11 and never tried to be serious.

One thing I must mention is the film's score.  It's loud and mechanical, which suits the genre fine.  It's also generic, repetitive and painfully annoying.  I haven't seen a movie with a score this bad since "Ben & Arthur."

There are plenty of other movies out there for those who are looking for a violent, bloody adrenaline cocktail.  Rent one of those instead.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Martyrs

0/4

Starring: Morjana Alaoui, Mylene Jampanoi, Catherine Begin

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the rated version is rated R for Disturbing/Severe Aberrant Behavior involving Strong Bloody Violence, Torture, Child Abuse and Some Nudity

Back in the early years of the last decade, the term "torture porn" was used to describe horror movies like "Saw," "The Collector," and so on.  Those movies scared audiences through showing characters facing not only death, but horrific pain.  Of those, I've only seen the original "Saw" (which was good) and its first sequel (which was not).  "Saw" may have been horrifically violent and graphic, but it, as the adage goes, it's only a movie.  "Martyrs," on the other hand, is anything but.

I can think of no other purpose for "Martyrs" than being pornography for individuals who experience pleasure from watching women in pain.  Almost the entire movie is watching women getting tortured.  90 minutes of women being forced to experience unbearable physical pain and humiliation.  This is one sick movie.

A ten year old girl named Lucie (Jessie Pham) has escaped her captors.  She is unable to tell anyone what happened to her, but authorities figure out that she was kidnapped and horrifically abused.  She's placed in an orphanage, where she makes fast friends with Anna (Erika Scott).  Soon, the girl begins to heal.

Cut to 15 years later.  Lucie (Jampanoi) has her mind set on tracking down the people who robbed her of her childhood so violently and getting revenge.  She has enlisted Anna (Alaoui) to help her, but Anna doesn't know how far Lucie intends on taking it.  Lucie has escaped Anna's watchful eye and brutally gunned down a family, having been convinced that the parents were her torturers based on a photograph she saw in a newspaper.  After events too tedious and nonsensical to explain, Anna finds out first hand what really happened to her friend.

There's almost nothing here in terms of plot or character.  Writer/director Pascal Laugier, who probably needs to have some long sessions with a shrink about his issues with women, doesn't care about anything else but watching Anna get tortured.  What she goes through is vile and humiliating.  Misogyny really doesn't begin to describe this movie.

The performances are okay, with Alaoui and Catherine Begin, who plays the main villain, being particularly effective.  But in service of what?  They have nothing to play.  Alaoui just has to scream and writhe in pain while Begin merely has to be a one-dimensional psycho, whose motives (when revealed) are laughable.  Being scared requires that the audience form a bond with the protagonist.  In another movie, I think these actors might have a shot, but here, all I could think was, "Why the hell am I watching this garbage?"

As I have said before, I have nothing against violence or torture in movies, even horrific acts of both ("Frontier(s)," another French horror film, is a fine example).  They are worthy of defense if they are in the service of a strong character or story.  That's not the case here.  It's all about how sadistic Laugier can get, and he goes very far.

Aside from the violence and hatred of women, the film is still a load of crap.  Character development is so scattershot that the characters never have consistent motives or behavior.  The editing at times is unbelievably haphazard.  And the film can get downright cheesy.  Take for example when one character gets repeatedly beaten on the head with a sledgehammer (believe me, this isn't half as awful as what Laugier has in store for Anna later on).  The woman's head doesn't bleed, spill brains everywhere or anything.  It was probably a rubber hammer and Laugier didn't bother to make it seem real (not that Laugier was being coy...once the film shifts to present day, there isn't a scene that goes by where someone isn't covered in blood and body matter.

This movie attracted my attention through iMDb, and as I'm writing this review, I'm looking at what some of its defenders have said.  Apparently, Laugier called it the "anti-'Funny Games,'" (Michael Haneke's revisionist revenge thriller that sounded a lot better than it actually was).  The film's staunchest fans called it "brave" and "daring" and so forth.  A few have admitted that this is not a film that one "likes," which is certainly true.  Attempts to put it into some sort of philosophical or political metaphor, which undoubtedly some have tried to do (I've never understood why that is...are they trying to impress the intellectual crowd?), would be hilarious if the movie wasn't such a sickening piece of shit.

Trust me, there are many more films that are scarier, more intelligent and visceral than this garbage.  Watch one of those instead.  If there's any justice in the world, every copy of this movie would end up in a landfill next to the "E.T." cartridges for the Atari.  I can think of no better fate for this monstrosity.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Into the Storm

1/4

Starring: Richard Armitrage, Matt Walsh, Sarah Wayne Callies, Nathan Kress, Max Deacon, Alicia Debnam Carey, Kyle Davis, Jon Reep

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Destruction and Peril, and Language including Some Sexual References

Now here is an ugly movie.  "Into the Storm" is a cynical exercise in soulless and ridiculously over-the-top special effects and manipulation so overblown that it becomes offensive.  It's 90 minutes of loud, expensive trash.

The film takes place in an unnamed small town in Anywhere, USA.  Gary (Armitrage) is the vice principal for the local high school, where his two sons Donnie (Deacon) and Trey (Kress) attend.  He wants them to interview the townspeople for a time capsule.  Donnie sees a chance to talk to Kaitlyn (Carey), whom he likes.  At Trey's encouraging, Donnie swoops in on the stressed out Kaitlyn, which has the unintentional effect of leaving Trey to film the graduation ceremony alone.  But a storm is brewing, and Gary thinks the ceremony should be rescheduled, but the principal isn't having it.  Also involved are a couple of storm-chasers led by hard-ass Pete (Walsh) and mother Allison (Callies), and two "Jackass" wannabes named Donk (Davis) and Reevis (Reep).  Needless to say that a legendary storm hits and all of these stories converge.

It's damn near impossible to make a movie watchable when only two of the characters, Gary and Allison, are worthy of our sympathy (or at least understanding).  Sadly, they're surrounded by idiots who are boring (that's just about everyone) or so irritating that I was wishing the tornado would suck them up and throw them away (the two rednecks).

A lot of the film is filmed in a pseudo-documentary approach.  Done right, it can be effective filmmaking ("Cloverfield," "District 9," "The Blair Witch Project," etc.).  But lately, it's turned into a cheap gimmick, and that's what happens here.  It's a sleazy ploy to gain our sympathy for the characters who would be unbelievably boring otherwise.  It doesn't work.  The dialogue by John Swetnam sounds scripted and director Steven Quale hasn't got a clue as to how to do this sort of thing right.

But what really made me mad is not the story, which is trite and dumb, nor the laughably extreme special effects.  No, what made me mad is the syrupy manipulation and sermonizing that the film does, and the exploitation of the film's would-be tragedy.  All of the moments that should be powerful and/or suspenseful are so ham-handed that I wanted to throw my popcorn at the screen.  A "last words" recording is stupid and cloying rather than sad.  And when a main character dies heroically, we follow his character right up until his death.  It's things like that which permeate the film.  The "gung-ho" patriotism and hopeful speechifying is so phony and obligatory.  Each and every thing that happens in this movie feels so calculated and rehearsed.

There are some intense moments in this film.  I will give it that.  But they're wrapped in such an artificial and ugly film that they made me feel dirty and angry.  The film doesn't care about any of its characters.  It's a cynical and lazy cash grab.

For those of you who are less than 20 years old, there is another tornado movie that attempts the same thing with much better success.  It's called "Twister," with Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt.  It's everything that "Into the Storm" should be, but isn't.  It's fun, exciting and suspenseful.  The characters, while not necessarily three-dimensional, are appealing enough that it becomes a pleasure to spend time with them.  The plot is just as ridiculous, but the movie is entertaining enough that you won't care.  Rent that one instead of paying ten bucks to see this disaster of a disaster movie.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Boyhood

4/4

Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke

Rated R for Language including Sexual References, and for Teen Drug and Alcohol Use

"Boyhood" is a one of a kind movie.  There has been nothing like it before, and it is unlikely that there will ever be anything like it again.  This is a movie that took 12 years to make; not because of egos or running out of money, but because it follows one boy and his family from age 5 to 18.

Yes, as you have heard, this movie took 12 years to make.  But it's not a gimmick.  Writer/director Richard Linklater took this long because there was no other way to make it.  Spending less time and using actors at different ages wouldn't have had the same effect.

To do this, Linklater shot what was essentially a 10-15 minute short featuring the same characters each year, then edit them together as a feature film.  Naturally, this wasn't an easy sell for IFC, but they contributed $200,000 each year for the film (a total of $2.4 million), and this is the result of everyone's hard work and determination.  Believe me when I say this: it is a truly, one-of-a-kind experience.

The film follows Mason (Coltrane), from age 5 to 18.  He lives with his mother (Arquette) and sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter) while waiting for his bohemian father (Hawke) to grow up.

"Boyhood" works because Linklater doesn't try to force feed the film into a plot.  He simply watches as the characters grow up.  There was a script, but it was written before each shoot and a collaboration among the four main cast members.

Linklater consciously worked in what Coltrane was going through at the time.  We see him as an energetic little boy, a socially awkward pre-teen and a rebellious, artsy teenager.  The effect is that we seem to see life itself happen.  It's exhilirating, especially in how it mirrors reality.  There are some scary moments, sad moments, and more than a few that are very funny.

There are a number of risks that a film like this faced, and Linklater sidesteps them all.  One is that it seems more like a trailer for a richer, deeper film.  The film doesn't trip up in this way because Linklater follows what is more interesting rather than concentrating on giving every year of his characters lives equal screen time.  Some years take up only a few minutes, while other years take up a substantial amount of the film's running time.  Other issues, such as a lessening of interest on the part of one of the young cast members, since contracts that last more than 7 years are illegal (Lorelai Linklater actually did lose interest for a time and asked to be killed off, but her father refused, saying it would ruin the film's tone.  She did regain her passion for the film).

The performances are astonishing.  I saw myself and people I knew in many of the characters.  Front and center is Ellar Coltrane, who was not a professional actor when he was cast.  Whether he is like this in real life or not, the effect of his performance is entirely convincing; an Oscar nomination would not be out of the question.  Patricia Arquette is good, but not great.  The role requires more range than she possesses, but when she's on the mark (and she usually is), she's terrific.  Lorelei Linklater is also very good as Samantha; her relationship to her brother is very believable.  And Ethan Hawke, who has worked with Linklater 8 times including this film, has rarely been better.  He loves his kids, but he had them too early in his life.

As impressive as this film is, there are a few issues I had with it.  Some plotlines are suddenly dropped and never picked up again.  An example is the first marriage, which ends with the family fleeing a domestic violence situation.  But we have gotten so attached to the other characters that I wanted to know what happened to them (and a similar situation ends even more abruptly).  Also, the film's ending is a little too protracted.  Mason is more interesting as an adult than a kid because his personality is developed, but the film seems like it wants to end before it actually does.  All things considered, these are relatively small complaints.

The fact that this film was made is amazing in and of itself.  But to overcome so much and turn out to be one of the best films of the year (if there's any justice with the Academy, and there often isn't, this will be up for a number of Oscars this year) is astonishing.

Please, do yourself a favor, and see this wonderful film.  There's nothing else like it.

Note: The MPAA gave this film an R rating.  This is one of those instances where the Ratings Board has made such a stupid decision that it pissed me off.  There is nothing in this film, except for a few utterances of the word "fuck," to warrant such a rating.  "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," another coming of age story that came out two years ago, earned a PG-13 despite being much racier.  "Boyhood" is a perfect film for teenagers.  In fact, it might mean more to them than it would for adults.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

2.5/4

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Glenn Close

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

"Guardians of the Galaxy" is the sleeper hit of the summer.  Clearly, Marvel was hoping for a good reception for the film in order to make back the $170 million budget, but it's become the movie to see.  An action movie released in August is never a good sign, but "Guardians" has defied a lot of people's expectations.

Frankly, I'm not able to understand why.  Sure, it's fun, but it feels like a "Star Trek" ripoff.  The special effects are impressive and there are some amusing bits here and there, but it lacks personality and warmth.  I didn't really care about anyone in this movie.

Minutes after his mother's death, a young boy is abducted by aliens.  His name is Peter Quill (Pratt), although he would prefer to be known as the notorious thief Starlord.  He's been hired to steal a mysterious orb, although he tries to cut his partner Yondu (Michael Rooker) out of the deal.  It turns out that they are not the only ones looking for it; just about everyone is, and no one is more obsessed with getting it than Ronan the Accuser (Pace).  Having been locked in prison with a pretty assassin named Gamora (Saldana), a vengeful humanoid named Drax (Bautista), Rocket (Cooper), an experiment that looks like a raccoon with a foul mouth and fouler temperament, and Groot (Diesel), Rocket's tree-like sidekick.  After working together to escape prison, they decide to work together and pawn off the orb for a bounty worth billions.  That is, until they realize what's inside.  Now they have to stop Ronan from getting his hands on it and destroying a planet.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" is an irreverent space adventure based on...drumroll...a comic book (and yes, Stan Lee, the comic book legend with no shame, has a cameo).  It has the potential to be a lot of fun.  But the story is on the thin side and there's little chemistry among the cast.  The characters never click in the way that the ones in the new "Star Trek" movies do.  The performances are fine, especially Bradley Cooper (in his first animated role), whose feisty mammal has some great one-liners, but they don't have much personality.

The film was directed by James Gunn, a confessed comic nerd himself.  As anyone who has seen "Slither" can attest, Gunn has a warped sense of humor.  He brings that to the table, and as a result, there are times when the movie feels like "Kick-Ass."  But there's not enough of it to truly satisfy.

And he does the one thing that truly drives me nuts: much of the dialogue is impossible to understand.  This drives me nuts, and with movies these days trying to succeed on visual and audio pizzazz alone, it's a problem that is becoming more and more common ("Godzilla" and "The Dark Knight Rises" suffered from this too).  The bottom line is that if your characters speak, the audience should understand what they're saying (unless they're not supposed to).

Maybe this will work better on Blu Ray, where I can watch it with subtitles...

Hercules (2014)

2/4

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt, Rebecca Ferguson, Ian McShane, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes

Rated PG-13 for Epic Battle Sequences, Violence, Suggestive Comments, Brief Strong Language and Partial Nudity

Hollywood is trying to bring back the "sword and sandal" genre back again, with "300," "Immortals," and "300: Rise of the Empire" and this year's earlier film starring Hercules, "The Legend of Hercules."  Audiences want them because the good ones tend to be filled with copious amounts of violence, blood & gore, and some gratuitous sex and nudity.  But Hollywood isn't giving it to them.  They're still chasing the billion dollar mark for every movie, even if they're guaranteed a sizable profit for a smaller audience.  "The Legend of Hercules," a PG-13 movie, bombed (although that may have had to do with the low quality of the film...it's only worth seeing for those who love high camp) and this new "Hercules" with Dwayne Johnson (also PG-13) is DOA at the box office.

Aside from the PG-13-ing of the film (which couldn't be more obvious), the film just isn't very good.  The story is thin and clunky, and frankly not all that interesting.  It's an origin story, but unfortunately, the most interesting material (Hercules' tasks) is glossed over for a "Last Samurai" wannabe of a plot.

Hercules (Johnson) is a badass in the ancient world.  Everyone knows him, although even he admits that his reputation is (slightly) overblown.  While he's a talented and tenacious fighter, he wouldn't last long without his companions.  While toasting a victory, a woman named Ergenia (Ferguson), recruits them to defend the city of Thrace from Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann).  After promising their weight in gold, they agree.

The more I think about it, the more similarities I see with "The Last Samurai."  While director Brett Ratner (a loooooong way from the "Rush Hour" movies) gives it its own identity, the result is just the same.  The training, the violence, the betrayal, etc.  It's not a note by note ripoff, but it's very similar.  And the comparison only makes this new "Hercules" seem weaker by comparison: spending most of the movie watching a bunch of soldiers train for battle is not nearly as interesting as seeing them fight for real.

This new "Hercules" is only slightly more faithful than the 1997 Disney movie, but that doesn't mean its more successful.  Flawed as it was, it was pretty entertaining.  The only thing this one has going for it is some nicely choreographed fight scenes and a surprisingly effective performance from Dwayne Johnson.

Johnson has long since left his wrestling days behind him, and he continues to mature as a performer with each new film.  I don't see him on the Oscar stage very soon, but he is more than capable of handling an action film.  His Heracles is a little softer and heroic than a Schwarzenegger clone might be, although the murders of his wife and child are glossed over so quickly that they're almost not worth leaving in.

He is surrounded by a solid supporting cast.  No one really sticks out from his crew except for Rufus Sewell, who is wonderful as always.  Sewell doesn't upstage Johnson, but it wouldn't be right not to mention him.  This is a change of pace for John Hurt, although more than that I will not say.  And Joseph Fiennes is actually halfway decent.  I'm dead serious.  In previous films, such as "Elizabeth," "Shakespeare in Love" and "Enemy at the Gates," Fiennes has been an awful performer.  But as he proved with "The Red Baron," he is capable of giving a halfway decent performance when he's not forced to go over the top.

This is a change of pace for Brett Ratner, but frankly, this could be a director-for-hire.  There's no style (not that Ratner ever possessed any) or much humor.  It's an adequate directorial job, although he must receive credit for creating fight scenes that are capable of producing adrenaline.

This is not a terrible movie by any means.  Some parts are pretty good.  But the thin script, lame story and obvious neutering hold it back.  I should also mention the end credits, which are violent and bloody drawings of cast members.  They are a taste of what the movie should have been.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Crumb

2.5/4

Rated R for Graphic, Sex-Related Cartoons and Language

"[Terry Zwigoff] makes a specialty of depressed, antisocial, oddballs." - Roger Ebert, in his review of Zwigoff's later film, "Bad Santa"
Those words are definitely true.  Few people are stranger than the famous underground cartoonist Robert Crumb.  He's shy, super dorky, and hates just about everything.  In fact, with those oversized glasses and worn-down clothes that are clearly too big for him, and with his stooped posture and strained way of speaking, Crumb looks like a real-life cartoon.  If nothing else, he's an interesting character.

The problem with making a personal film is being too close to the material to see it objectively.  "Schindler's List" was a hugely personal film for Steven Spielberg, but it worked because he was able to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.  Zwigoff isn't able to do that.  He is so infatuated with Crumb that he is happy to listen to him merely talk about anything or draw.  While some of what he shows of the artist is objective and he examines his most controversial work from all sides without judgement (this consequently is the most interesting material in the film), most of the film feels like hero worship, and that is exactly what not to do when creating a biopic.  Such reverence can ruin pacing and/or lead to boredom, which is what happens here.

As I said earlier, Robert Crumb is an interesting individual.  He's highly intelligent and his views on life and the world how he sees it are unusual and occasionally amusing.  His need to draw is a lifeline from a troubled childhood, and his ability to express his deepest fears and hurts makes him easy to relate to even when he's giving voice to, or satirizing, deeply held prejudices.  I felt like I understood how Crumb viewed the world to the point where if I ran into him on the street, I'd have a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Crumb is not always likable (his views on sex are strange and his cynicism towards just about everything is enough to annoy), but I was at least able to understand where he came from.  Crumb is frank about his past and his views on the world, which allows us to get to know him.  Some of what he said, like his experiences with high school bullies and the girls who favored the brutish Cro-Magnons as opposed to kind and sensitive guys like him, hits home.  He is also very candid about his home-life, which was dysfunctional to the extreme (his mother was an amphetamine addict and his father was physically and emotionally abusive).

Zwigoff, who struggled to keep the film going and was suicidally depressed due to back pain, wants us to become emotionally attached to Crumb, but it's a tough sell.  Crumb is too strange and too aloof to form a connection with.  He's a straight version of an outsider artist that is satirized so frequently in movies and on TV.  One problem is that in order to understand how his views are reflected in his art, you have to read the entire comic (which don't appear to be very long) to get the full picture.  Only once are we able to view a whole comic, but it feels like an inside joke that goes on for five minutes.  There are other comics that would have been more revealing or enlightening.

When Zwigoff examines Crumb's art, what drives him and why he is controversial, the film is compelling.  But that only represents about 75% of the film's running time.  There are too many shots of Crumb in his usual hangouts watching the freaks and weirdos he finds so interesting and privately insulting normal people who walk around wearing shirts that support their favorite sports team.  The montages of him drawing or his actual drawings (which are interesting at first, but lose their luster without context) are too frequent and last too long.

The film is also too long by a half hour.  The final 30 minutes are about Crumb's interactions with his family, save for his two sisters (who declined to be interviewed).  These are not normal or happy people.  A team of psychiatrists could retire on all of their problems.  But by the time that we arrive at this point, we already know enough about them to get a good idea of Crumb, and the final act doesn't tell us anything more.  In fact, the way that Zwigoff, Crumb and Crumb's brother Maxon laugh about his past history of molesting women is offensive.

I would be lying if I told you that the film is easy viewing or easy to digest.  It is for adventurous filmgoers only; conservative people would do best to avoid this portrayal of a true weirdo.  But at least he's an interesting weirdo.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Money Pit

3/4

Starring: Tom Hanks, Shelly Long, Alexander Godunov, Philip Bosco, Maureen Stapleton

Rated PG (probably for Language, Sexual Content and General Mayhem)

Everyone has a story (or knows someone who does) about a construction project that went to hell.  Something so simple and straightforward turns out to be a nightmare that takes a lot longer, costs a boatload more money and will try the patience of a saint.  It happens all the time, which is partly why contractors have just as bad of a reputation as lawyers.  So, taking this relevant situation and amping it up about, oh, a dozen levels, and you'll have "The Money Pit."

Walter (Hanks) and Anna (Long) are a young couple very much in love.  Walter desperately wants to marry Anna, but she is reluctant to marry period after her last marriage went down in flames.  That's when their happy lifestyle goes up in smoke when a bunch of guys come barging through the door, telling them that Anna's ex, Max (Godunov), is returning home from a year abroad and wants his apartment back.  Needing a place to stay ASAP (in New York City, no less), Walter gets in touch with an old friend who puts them in touch with Estelle (Stapleton).  Estelle is desperate to sell her house (which is probably worth millions) for a slim 200 grand.  Walter and Anna know that there has to be a catch, but they take it anyway.  It turns out that the house needs a little work, like a staircase that falls apart when you walk on it or the sinkhole on the second floor.  The two lovebirds tell themselves (and everyone else), "It'll be great," but how long can they last before they kill each other?

To be quite frank, this movie isn't very good.  There are some parts that are very funny, while others aren't as funny as they should be due to inept timing, and still others that fall flat.  On the whole, the dead spots don't really justify the running length, except for the fact that I became invested in Walter and Anna.  Both are good actors and understand the concept of comic timing (except for when director Richard Benjamin pushes them over the top), but more importantly, they have chemistry.  I believed in Walter and Anna's relationship and wanted them to live happily ever after.

Supporting-wise, the other cast members are basically bit parts that give the two leads someone to play off of.  An exception would be Alexander Godunov.  The Russian-born actor (who came from a background as a ballet dancer) is most famous for playing the blond terrorist Karl in "Die Hard" is effective, but not standout, as Max.  Max is by his own admission shallow and self-centered, and looks to be a generic plot contrivance.  But this aspect of the plot is wrapped up in a way that feels fresh.

Speaking of which, another of the film's problems is the ending.  It's not what happens, since it's pretty much inevitable, but it feels abrupt.  A few more minutes setting it up would have allowed it to breathe.

This isn't a great comedy, but for those who have been through this kind of a wringer, it will salve the pain a little.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Lucy

2/4

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked, Min-Sik Choi, Pilou Asbaek

Rated R for Strong Violence, Disturbing Images and Language

"Lucy," a relatively ambitious thriller, falls flat because it fails to follow the mantra that every movie that doesn't take place in reality must follow: consistency is everything.  Time and time again, we have seen movies that, either due to lazy screenwriting or inept direction (or both), fail to establish a set of rules of what can and cannot happen.  Without this crucial part of storytelling, we can't buy into the premise, and the movie is sunk.

The plot is built on a commonly-held belief that is actually untrue.  That's not necessarily a bad thing (I liked "Double Jeopardy," which had a similar problem with its underlying premise), but the director must set up the plot to the point where we can believe that it's true.  Director Luc Besson doesn't do that.  He presents the theory that a human being only uses 10% of their brain as fact, and builds a movie from that with no sense of fun or humor.  It's a colossal mistake that tanks the film.

Lucy (Johansson) is a young student who has met a man named Richard (Asbaek) that she has had a week-long fling with.  He wants her to deliver a briefcase to a man named Mr. Jang (Choi).  All she has to do is tell the receptionist that she's there and she can hand it off when Mr. Jang comes down.  She refuses because she's only known Richard for a week and he won't tell her what's in the briefcase.  Eventually, he handcuffs it to her and forces her to deliver it.  That's when things go from bad to worse: Richard is murdered and she's forced to become a drug mule.  The drug in question (which was in the briefcase) is a synthetic version of a hormone that builds a fetus's brain, thus making an adult who takes it much smarter.  After she's beaten by one of her captors, the packet that was surgically inserted into her body breaks, and the drug starts to affect her.  Now she has to avoid Mr. Jang and his goons long enough to get to Professor Norman (Freeman), who can help her.

Or something like that.  The plot isn't very coherent, which is a shame, because Besson tries to get the audience to think about what we would do with so much brainpower.  Unfortunately he uses a flawed premise to explore it.  Despite the reputation of French cinema, Besson has never been an arthouse filmmaker.  He appears to be trying to straddle the line between a cerebral science fiction film and a bloody action movie.  He never gets the two genres to fully gel.

The acting is effective for the film's purposes.  With Scarlett Johansson (who fits surprisingly easily into the ass-kicking heroine with ease) and Morgan Freeman as the two stars, you can at least count on them to deliver.  Neither one gives a great performance (both are slumming for the paychecks), but they're always good even when they're not trying.  Sadly, no one else is memorable.  Amr Waked is completely forgettable as her sidekick, but that's partly because he has absolutely nothing to do but play the male version of the "tough damsel in distress."  And Min-Sik Choi has to be one of the least threatening villains of recent memory.

If the premise and how it was handled was the only problem, I might have been able to overlook it.  Done right, this could have been a fun, if brainless, adrenaline cocktail.  Sadly, there are other problems too.  One curiosity is how Besson handles Norman's speeches.  When he's talking about the creation of Earth or the intelligence of other animals, Besson cuts away to shots of whatever subject Norman is talking about.  It makes sense, but they last so long and are so patterned that I thought I was watching a commercial or a NatGeo special.

Then there's how Besson handles Lucy's growing intelligence.  We see what Lucy can do, but not how she gets there.  For example, soon after she wakes up from the absorbing the drugs and escapes her captors, she can suddenly speak Chinese.  I'll buy into that she could perhaps memorize the language in a short amount of time, but just because you get smarter doesn't mean that you automatically know how to speak a language.  It's little mistakes like that that damage film's already shaky credibility.

Finally, there's the climax.  It's not effective because the stakes aren't high and we don't know what exactly is going on.  It's weird with over-the-top special effects (some of which are cool), but I didn't care because I didn't know what it meant to the story.

I'll give credit to Besson for trying for something greater than a generic adrenaline cocktail.  But the result just isn't worth seeing.