Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

0.5/4

Starring: Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hansen, Paul A. Pertain, Allen Danzinger, William Vail, Terry McMinn

Rated R (probably for Strong Violence and Gore)

Tobe Hooper's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is one of the most famous slasher movies ever made.  Made for a little more than $80,000, it terrified audiences upon its release.  I remember my mother telling me about how when she saw it with her girlfriend at the drive in; she recalled watching Leatherface chase Sally Hardesty (Burns) through the woods and listening to the guys they were with shout "Kill her! Kill her!" while she and her friend sat terrified in-between them.  Needless to say my dad was not among them.

So as a film critic, it is a must that I see this film at some point.  I was surprised at what I found.  Not only has it aged like stinky cheese, it's impossible to see how anyone could find this movie the least bit scary.  It fails just about every rule of a horror movie, and then some.  In the end, it's all just a bunch of noise that serves no purpose.

A group of friends, including the unfortunate Sally, are driving through Texas one afternoon.  Someone has dug up a few graves and made a gruesome sculpture (director Tobe Hooper missed a fine opportunity to take a potshot at Andy Warhol with this), and Sally and her brother Franklin (Pertain) want to make sure that their relative's remains are intact.  Then they continue on their way to a house that they own, which turns out to be a dilapidated mess that should have been condemned long ago.  That's when a hulking monster who wears a mask made of human skin (later known as Leatherface, played here by Gunnar Hansen) shows up to add some new members to the local cemetery.

The film's biggest problem is that there's not enough story to sustain a 90 minute feature, and Tobe Hooper extends the "big" scenes (which aren't that intense to begin with) long past being effective.  For example, during the big chase scene between Sally and Leatherface, Hooper switches between the two for about 60 seconds without adding anything new.  Or when Pam (McMinn) stumbles into a gruesome room; Hooper spends about 30 seconds showing us clips of what she sees in there even though one or two moments would have done the trick.

The second problem is that every single character is completely devoid of personality.  And I don't mean like in a lame action movie.  Like I mean, they make non-famous people in political cartoons seem three-dimensional.  It is crucial to any horror movie that we form a bond with the characters, otherwise there's no suspense.  "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" doesn't even come within a mile of this.

Then there's the utter lack of atmosphere.  There is a big difference between not being able to see everything, and not being able to see anything.  The former demands that we use our imagination, which hopefully under the circumstances is going haywire.  The latter just pisses us off.  Take a guess which side this movie falls under.

So you see, Hooper and his screenwriter Kim Henkel completely botched what could have been a terrifying experience.  The film was remade in 2003 by Marcus Nispel, who made the wretched "Pathfinder" remake and the "Conan the Barbarian" remake, which wasn't much better.  Here's to hoping it's better than this.  It's hard to imagine it being worse...

Tusk

3/4

Starring: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez

Rated R for Some Disturbing Violence/Gore, Language and Sexual Content

"What the hell did I just see?"

That's what I was thinking as soon as the end credits started to roll.  "Tusk," the second horror film from noted funnyman Kevin Smith, is not a traditional horror movie.  It is sometimes funny, quite often cringe-inducingly gross, and frequently so bizarre that few people will know what to make of it.  Some people will love what "Tusk" has to offer, others will hate it.  But make no mistake, this has "cult movie" written all over it.

Wallace (Long) and Teddy (Osment) run a hugely popular podcast where they find bizarre, stupid and/or hilarious videos on the internet and laugh about them.  Wallace (always Wallace, since Teddy hates travelling) goes and interviews the subjects and then talks about it on his show.  They have found a short clip of a kid playing with a samurai sword who inadvertently cuts his own leg off.  The two think that this is hilarious, so Wallace goes to Canada to interview the guy.  His girlfriend Ally (Rodriguez) thinks that this is sleazy, but Wallace won't be dissuaded.  Unfortunately, when he gets there, he finds that the kid is deceased.  Not wanting to waste his trip, Wallace finds a flyer seeking someone to listen to an old man's stories.  Wallace thinks this is the best idea ever, and agrees to go.  Naturally, this isn't what he thinks, and he's in for a night of horror.  Three days of no contact has left Ally pissed off, but when Wallace leaves a frantic voicemail to them, she and Teddy (who are sleeping together) set out to find him.

What can I say about "Tusk?"  Really, it defies description.  It's so weird and so bizarre that it's impossible to really wrap my mind around it.  Watching it is kind of like "Donnie Darko."  You know what's going on, but you're like, "WTF?"

The acting is effective.  Justin Long is good, but not great.  Maybe it's his character, but I found Wallace to be a little obnoxious.  Or maybe it's the way that he was filmed, but he gave me a bit of a headache.  Michael Parks is perfectly creepy as Howard Howe, the man who hires Wallace, and he proves here that he is willing to do anything (and I mean anything) for the role.  A butt shot is just the beginning.  A super bloated Haley Joel Osment (where has he been?) and Genesis Rodriguez provide able support as the would-be Sam Loomis/Lila Crane of the film, but neither is especially memorable.  There is one other performer, whom I will not name, whose performance is truly inspired.  The character, an ex-cop named Guy Lapointe, is totally whacked out and has the film's best lines.  You won't get me to say his name, but you will agree that he is the only possible choice.

Kevin Smith is known for his comedies like "Clerks," "Chasing Amy," and "Dogma," but he made "Red State," a horror movie that no one saw (which also starred Parks).  I thought it to be far too violent and cynical for its own good and said that Smith should stay in a genre where he understands the rules better.  It would be way too much to ask that he actually saw my review (and took my advice), but I will say that he has rectified a lot of those flaws.  It's certainly gross, but it straddles the line between being funny and being disturbing.  A lot of times, I didn't know how to react to what I was seeing, thus the only thing I could do was laugh (I'm sure being in an auditorium with people who were laughing too only helped).  I think that's what Smith is going for, and on that level, he succeeds.

Should you see it?  It's a tough sell.  The movie is totally off-the-wall; I'm tempted to reference a movie that I haven't seen, but know enough about to provide a point of reference, but will refrain from doing so to avoid spoilers (and believe me, this is one movie where you're better off going in blind).  That said, I was entertained.  In a strange way, absolutely, but entertained nonetheless.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Hamiltons

3/4

Starring: Cory Knauf, Samuel Child, Joseph McKelheer, Mackenzie Firgens, Rebekah Hoyle, Brittany Daniel

Rated R for Strong Violence, Language, and Some Sexual Content

For a movie that was clearly made for next to nothing (it looks like it was filmed on a high end camcorder), "The Hamiltons" is a pretty good movie.  It's by no means perfect, but for what it is, I enjoyed it.

The Hamiltons are a tight-knit all-American family.  Sadly, their parents died a few years ago, so David (Child), has taken over their duties.  Studly Wendell (McKelheer) and goth Darlene (Firgens) are the troublemakers.  And Francis (Knauf), who narrates the film, is simply trying to find his way in the world.  That's difficult when you live with a family of serial killers.

Despite the premise and the fact that it was selected for After Dark Horrorfest in 2006, calling "The Hamiltons" a horror film is a bit of a misnomer.  There is some violence and gore, but it's more of a mystery.  For example, we know fairly on that David, Wendell and probably Darlene are murderers, but we don't know why.  And who is the monster in the basement called Lenny?

No one in the cast deserves an Oscar nomination.  Or even a career break.  All of them have their raw moments and lack the "it" factor that is necessary to dominate the box office marquee.  But they are effective for the film's purposes.  Leading the pack is Samuel Child, who appears to have stepped out of "Leave it to Beaver."  He's quite good.  Joseph McKelheer and Mackenzie Firgens are perfectly creepy as the twins.  They do little to hide their true personalities (according to Francis, Wendell is the reason why the family has to move a lot), and they're not above getting kinky, such as passionately making out with each other in a game of "Dare, Double Dare."  Cory Knauf is the least effective.  Many of his scenes hit the wrong note, and he lacks any sort of charisma or screen presence.

The film was directed by The Butcher Brothers (their real names are Mitchel Altieri and Phil Flores, and they're not related).  They concentrate on the dynamics of this strange family.  Or not so strange, actually.  They have some of the same dysfunctions (Wendell and Darlene tease Francis, and David would probably become a member of the PTA if they were able to stay in one place for a long enough time).  They just have some skeletons in the closet, and deal with them as best they can.  Wendell, of all people, puts it best: "We do, what we do, to survive."

The Brothers are also skilled at sleight of hand.  I was engaged and curious about the mysteries the film opened up without being jerked around.  And the ending twist took my by surprise.  It's not "Seven," but I didn't see it coming.

If you're looking for blood, gore and a psycho slasher, this isn't you're movie.  It's not that scary, nor is it intended to be.  But if you're looking for something a little different, and are willing to overlook an obviously small budget, then this is a movie you might want to check out.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Maze Runner

3/4

Starring: Dylan O'Brien, Aml Ameen, Will Poulter, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Blake Cooper, Kaya Scodelario

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements and Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, including some Disturbing Images

With book series turned movies like "Harry Potter," "Twilight," and "The Hunger Games" making big money at the box office, Hollywood is buying up the rights and filming every teen sci-fi or fantasy book franchise they can find.  Some, like the aforementioned box office kings, have done amazingly well at the box office while others such as "Beautiful Creatures" and "The Mortal Instruments" have disappeared so quickly I'm not sure even their fans knew they were made into a movie.  "The Maze Runner" has already dominated the box office for a week, and the sequel has gotten the green light (duh), and while that's not always indicative of quality, the movie is good enough where I'm actually curious where the story is going to go next (although I think I'll wait until the movie comes out).

A young boy (O'Brien) wakes up in a rusted metal cage.  He has no idea who or where he is.  The cage rises up into a field, where he is met by a bunch of other boys.  They welcome him, and after a rather violent rite of passage, he remembers that his name is Thomas.  Thomas isn't the only one who has arrived in the field, which is surrounded by a stone maze the size of skyscrapers (which is of course impossible to get through or to survive the night in).  There are a few dozen others, some of whom, such as Alby (Ameen), the leader of the group, have been there for three years.  But with Thomas's arrival, things are changing.  Some, such as Gally (Poulter), are hostile to the change, believing that it may make their situation worse.  But circumstances may force these young lads into making a desperate escape attempt...whatever the cost.

Studios have nailed down what it takes to make one of these franchises to work: photogenic lead characters (preferably ones with arthouse cred), themes of persecution, the need for independence, and Machiavellian adults, and of course action and special effects (which must be kept at a PG-13 level).  It's easy to be cynical about it, especially when they don't bother to submerge them deep enough in the story (the first two "Twilight" movies come to mind).  But it's hard to to be at least somewhat entertained by what "The Maze Runner" has to offer.  It's not a great movie, but for what it is, it's decent enough.

The common flaw in all of these franchises is the writing.  All of them have had bad scripts to one degree or another, and "The Maze Runner" doesn't change that.  It's not nearly as bad as Melissa Rosenberg's scripts in the "Twilight" movies (which contained more howlers than in most comedies), or even Steve Klowes' clunky "Harry Potter" adaptations.  But it is most definitely pedestrian.  The cast gives it their all, but the script doesn't allow them any good dialogue or much in the way of personality.

That leaves it up to the actors to fill in the gaps.  A few, O'Brien, Poulter and Brodie-Sangster, are up to the challenge.  Lee and Cooper are only memorable because they have a lot of screen time.  The lone girl, Kaya Scodelario, shows up in the second half and doesn't have much to do.  While there are a number of actors who can coast by on their charisma (such as Will Smith), it's unfair to ask any actor to do so.

Dylan O'Brien, who hit it big on YouTube, which eventually led to a role on the teen TV series "Teen Wolf," is an effective leading man.  O'Brien is athletic in the role, but not an Adonis, which helps him emphasize his leadership and intelligence rather than becoming just another teen hero.  British child star Thomas Brodie-Sangster also impresses as Newt, the best friend turned peacekeeper.  Arguably the best performance is given by Will Poulter, who plays Gally.  Poulter's efforts are pretty much wasted since the script doesn't allow him to become anything other than the obligatory idiot opponent who exists solely to provide conflict.  All three actors are better than the material that they are given, which made me wish that the film had took the chance and done more with what it had.

Because this is a YA franchise, there's going to be action and violence.  I have nothing against either, but there's something about what happens in this movie that rubbed me the wrong way.  Unlike many movies about teenagers, the cast looks their age.  When a character dies, as they surely must, it's a little disturbing to watch in a way that I don't think first-time director Wes Ball intended.  There were times when I was wondering why the MPAA gave this a PG-13.  Still, the action scenes are coherent and sometimes genuinely creepy and exciting.

There has been a lot of ballyhoo about the ending being disappointing, and I'm at a loss to understand why.  It's a cliffhanger, and those are nothing new, especially if it's a planned franchise.  There is closure while setting the stage for the next chapter (which comes out next year).  What's wrong with that?  The set-up is more problematic because it takes far too long to get going.

I don't see this movie having much appeal outside its target audience.  Ball has decided not to open up to adults, and that's okay.  I don't think that it would have much appeal for them anyway.  But if you go, I don't think you'll be disappointed at the spent time and money.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones

2.5/4

Starring: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Boyd Holbrook, Bryan "Astro" Bradley

Rated R for Strong Violence, Disturbing Images, Language and Brief Nudity

It seems all too rare these days that we get a movie like this: a movie made for adults.  True, movies like "300," "Sin City" and their sequels were awash in bloody violence and some gratuitous sex and nudity, but that was the point.  Ask any teenage boy if he's seen them, and chances are he's said yes.  With a movie like "A Walk Among the Tombstones," there's little in the way of traditional action.  It is violent, but the tone is more dour and brooding than over-the-top.

Matt Scudder (Neeson) is a retired police detective who acts as a private investigator who will help clients operating on the wrong side of the law.  A recovering alcoholic, Matt quit being a police officer after a traumatic shooting eight years ago, and he's still dealing with some horrible demons after the incident.  One night, he's contacted by a fellow member of his AA group, an ex-junkie named Peter (Holbrook).  Peter's brother Kenny (Stevens) is a drug kingpin whose wife was kidnapped and brutally murdered the day before.  Kenny wants Matt to find out who did it so he can enact some biblical revenge.  Matt accepts when he realizes that this wasn't a one-time crime: a pair of serial killers is targeting the city's drug dealers.

For a film noir, it is odd to note that the film's central mystery is its least successful element.  It's poorly written and filled with holes.  Every time the film turns back to the murder mystery, Matt seems to know something he couldn't possibly know.  For example, we never find out how he found out the killer's identities or their motives.

Fortunately, there's more to the story than that.  The subplots of him interacting with a homeless teenager named TJ (Bradley) and wrestling with his past are much more effective.  Sure, they (just like the rest of the movie, are ripped off of other, better movies ("The Crow," "Seven" and "The Silence of the Lambs" come to mind).  But they keep things watchable.

The other saving grace of the film is the level of acting.  Even if the film was better received (critics are ambivalent towards it while audiences have ignored it), it wouldn't be up for any Oscar statuettes.  That doesn't mean there isn't some good acting here, though.  Liam Neeson is on his game as always.  The role of Matt Scudder isn't as original as it would seem, but few actors these days can play dour and intense like him (that being said, there is nothing in this film other than the lead actor that can be likened to "Taken").  Dan Stevens is intense to the point where he's a little frightening.  Stevens is a British actor on the up and up thanks to the popularity of "Downton Abbey," and he uses his cold eyes for maximum effect.  Boyd Holbrook makes for a good junkie and Bryan "Astro" Bradley is a natural talent (if a little rough around the edges at times).

This is the second film directed by Scott Frank, one of Hollywood's most reliable screenwriters (his credits include "Out of Sight," "Get Shorty," and "Minority Report").  His first film, "The Lookout," was a compelling character study/heist movie that put Joseph Gordon-Levitt back on the map.  This film isn't as successful.  I got the sense that Frank had tried to do too much; three plotlines is too much for a movie that's just shy of the two hour mark.  Still, there are things worthy of praise in this film, such as the acting and the climactic action scene in the graveyard, which is well-staged and a little exciting.

It's not a terrible movie by any means, but with the talents of Neeson, Frank and the producing team of Danny DeVito, Stacy Sher and Michael Shamberg (the three of them have been behind a number of terrific movies such as "Erin Brockovich," for which they received Oscar nominations, and "Contagion"), it is disappointing.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Free Fall

2/4

Starring: Hanno Koffler, Max Riemelt, Katharina Schuttler

Not Rated (Probable R for Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Language and Some Violence)

What is it with all these indie filmmakers who think that the only way to make a good movie is to suck out all the emotion from it?  Granted, there are some movies that do well to be told in an understated fashion, but a formula romance movie generally isn't one of them.  It's not that the film is depressing (which it is).  It's that its depressing without substance.  There's nothing behind it, and as a result, it's a dead zone.

Marc (Koffler) is living the good life.  He's training to become a police officer, is in love with the beautiful Bettina (Schuttler), and has a baby on the way.  That's when he meets Kay (Riemelt), another man at the academy.  They don't get along well at first, but Kay is interested in him...and not just as a friend.  That's when Marc begins to have feelings that he has never experienced before.  Things are getting complicated for Marc, especially with the baby on the way and a bunch of macho guys at the academy.

"Free Fall" makes a lot of wrong moves, and not a lot of right ones.  Character development is sketchy; we don't know what makes any of these people tick (except for the obligatory homophobe, a guy named Limpinski, played by Shenja Lacher...it's an effective performance, surprisingly enough).  The only sympathy we have for the characters is because of the charisma of the actors, which director Stephan Lacant (who co-wrote the screenplay, if you can believe it) does his best to muzzle.  The film doesn't have a good sense of flow or balance (both of which are key for a romance).  And, as is always the case for self-important arthouse movies like this, there are lots of handheld shots that distance us from the characters rather than establish a rapport.

The film is badly in need of focus.  Lacant doesn't know what to concentrate on.  I think he's more interested in Marc's inner turmoil, but that's not enough to sustain a 100 minute film.  It gets repetitive.  Plus, Lacant spends too much time with Marc and Bettina.  I have no bad things to say about Katharina Schuttler, but let's face it, Bettina is the least interesting character in the movie.  More time spent with Kay would have given the film a stronger impact.  So little time is spent with him that the love story is DOA, primarily because Kay comes across as a petulant stalker.

If the film's romance would have taken off, those criticisms would have been forgivable.  What kills the film is the tone.  It's dull and lifeless.  For example, no one laughs or smiles in this movie, it's always cold and gray, and no one shows a scintilla of emotion save for a few scenes.  During a would-be intense scene, the lead character utters his dialogue as if he's in a library.  In a movie like "The War Zone," this sort of thing works.  That movie was dark and grim, and the lack of emotion made us wonder what the characters were thinking.  "Free Fall" is not "The War Zone," could never be "The War Zone," and should never have tried to be "The War Zone."

It is impossible to sympathize with lifeless automatons, and that's why this movie fails.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

No Good Deed

2/4

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Idris Elba, Leslie Bibb, Henry Simmons

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Violence, Terror, Menace and for Language

It would be unfair to say that the failures of the new thriller "No Good Deed" are due to the film's pacing issues, but they are by far the film's biggest fault.  There are other problems with the film, such as supposedly smart characters doing amazingly stupid things, badly staged fight scenes, and an obvious grab for a PG-13 rating, but the poor pacing and lack of rhythm is the most glaring flaw of this film.  And in a "stranger within" thriller like this, good pacing and rhythm is essential.

Terri (Henson) is a loving wife to Jeffrey (Simmons) and mother to two young children.  She and Jeffrey are a little testy with each other, but they make plans to get away for the weekend (without the kids) to reconnect after he gets back from taking his father on his birthday golf trip.  Her best friend Meg (Bibb) will invade her house for a girl's night now that Jeffrey is out for the weekend.

Meanwhile, Colin Evans (Elba) is up for parole.  Everyone knows he's a serial killer who brutally murdered five women, but no one could prove it.  He only went to jail after killing a man in a bar fight.  Now he's up for parole, but it's denied (this is one of the many scenes that doesn't ring true).  But Colin is a "malignant narcissist," and when someone pisses him off, he goes completely loco.  That's when he escapes en route back to prison (this was done better in "The Fugitive"), but crashes his car while driving away.  Guess whose house he ends up at when he needs a phone?

I'd be willing to forgive a few basic credibility issues if the film were more effective.  There some dumb stuff in this movie, such as Terri never uses her cell phone when the phone lines are cut, or how Colin can get hit in the head with a fire extinguisher (that Terri just happens to have lying around) and regain consciousness ten seconds after tumbling down the stairs from the hit.  That stuff comes with the territory (ever seen a slasher movie?).  But some legitimate suspense and shocks make such flaws invisible, or failing that, easy to overlook.  Sadly, "No Good Deed" is relatively thrill-less.

The performances are adequate, but no more.  Taraji P. Henson got an Oscar nod for playing Queenie in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," but you wouldn't know it here.  She shows some ability and charisma, but that's it.  Her co-star Idris Elba is less impressive.  People have long been saying that Elba is the next big thing in Hollywood, but I've never bought into it.  He's had some decent performances, such as in "Prometheus" and "Takers," but he doesn't have a lot or range.  Frankly, he looks bored; Colin isn't very menacing.

I'll give it props for trying to do something with Colin's mental state (the images and sound start to blur and echo when he begins to lose it).  Sadly, it's not terribly innovative or convincing, and it's dropped as soon as it becomes inconvenient for the plot.

Then there are the action scenes.  They're badly staged and lack tension, primarily because they're neutered for a PG-13 rating.  Some genres, like slasher movies, demand an R rating.  If not for gore, then for psychological tension.  Director Sam Miller is constantly trying to avoid the restrictive rating, and his walking on eggshells couldn't be more obvious.  Then again, one wonders why he bothered since the MPAA gave this film a PG-13 even though Terri says "fuck you" to Colin.  Twice!

As much as I like the genre, I'm going to have to recommend giving this movie a pass.  The script is terribly weak and the film takes forever to achieve take-off speed (and when it does, it's still pretty dull).  Even the big twist is set up so badly that I didn't know if it actually made sense.  Just watch "Single White Female" or "Fear" instead.  Preferably both.

The Drop

1/4

Starring: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz, James Frecheville, Ann Dowd

Rated R for Some Strong Violence and Pervasive Language

The good thing about filmmakers taking chances is that they can do something unexpected and brilliant.  "Kick-Ass" is a fine example.  Matthew Vaughn tried to make a legitimate superhero movie while poking fun at it at the same time.  Doing so is a difficult balancing act, and by risking it all instead of doing something safe and conventional, he made what is probably the best superhero movie since "The Dark Knight."  The opposite is also true.  If a filmmaker is untalented or flexing his ego, the film can be a disaster.  That's what happened with "The Drop."

Generally speaking, I like to set up the story to give my readers an idea of what the film is about.  That's not possible here because after viewing it, I haven't the slightest clue what is going on in this movie.  It starts out with the main character, Bob (Hardy) telling us how money drops work, and how the bar he works at was robbed, but after that, I got lost very quickly.  It's all subplots.  The only storyline that makes any sense is the one where Bob finds a beaten up pitbull puppy in the garbage (it's not graphic, thankfully) and takes it into his home.  That's how he meets Nadia (Rapace), on whose property the dog was found (and yes, they fall for each other), and Eric Deeds (Schoenaerts), the dog's nasty former owner.

Putting it simply, the film's plot is a mess.  Characters float in and out, storylines are introduced then ignored, and the characters talk and talk but don't say anything of interest.  The film was written by Dennis Lehane, whose novels served as the basis for movies such as "Mystic River," "Gone Baby Gone," and "Shutter Island."  It's based on a short story of his called "Animal Rescue."  Short stories are always risky source material for a movie because there's rarely enough content to justify a feature-length film.  Maybe that was the case here, and the added stuff Lehane used to beef up the story was a load of crap.  Not having read the story, I don't know.

Director Michael R. Roksam bears some of the blame.  Roksam should have known that the screenplay was a mess, and insisted that someone clean it up.  Or maybe it made sense on paper and was destroyed in the editing room.  Regardless, this is one of those pretentious movies where the characters talk and talk but say nothing.  It's one of those movies where the characters argue about bar stools and car trunks.  It brought to mind the burger conversation in "Pulp Fiction," but that is a whole lot different.  Tarantino's movies tend to be dialogue heavy, even when they're not talking about anything of consequence.  But Tarantino's movies are filled with wit and life.  The same cannot be said about Lehane's script, where it's all anger and ego.

The cast is lost among the crap.  Tom Hardy is strangely muted.  He was on my list of actors to watch since I saw him as Shinzon in "Star Trek: Nemesis," and he has continuously impressed me with his talent and versatility.  But either he is miscast or the part is just badly written (my vote leans toward the latter), but Bob isn't very interesting.  Hardy's best performances allow him to dominate the screen in some way, but Bob is low-key and ineffectual.  He's not as bad as he was in "Lawless," but it's only a step up.  Poor Noomi Rapace.  A highly talented Swedish actress, she's been given virtually nothing to do here.  I thought her performance as Lisbeth Salander was slightly overrated, but she's too good to be wasted like this.  And being the last completed film of James Gandolfini, it bears the distinction of being the second horrible epitaph for a good actor (the other being Paul Walker's "Brick Mansions").  He does what he can, but there's no saving the film.  Matthias Schoenaerts makes it easy to hate him, but his role is so poorly explained that his efforts are wasted as well.

Frankly, the only interesting scenes in this movie are the ones where Bob is learning how to raise the dog.  They're the only ones that have any sort of coherency, and boy is that little dog adorable!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Colony

1.5/4

Starring: Kevin Zegers, Laurence Fishburne, Bill Paxton, Charlotte Sullivan, Atticus Mitchell

Not Rated (probable R for Strong Violence/Gore and Language)

There is a niche that "The Colony" fits into.  It's small and not where any self-respecting movie wants to be, but it is there.  It's the kind of movie that is ideal for insomniacs: there's enough going on that you're not actively wishing a horrible death for director Jeff Renfroe (who co-wrote the screenplay), but it's so deadly dull that you'll be joining Little Nemo before the plot actually starts.

"The Colony" is a post-apocalyptic thriller (a term I use only to describe the genre it aspires to, since this film is completely devoid of suspense) that's a mix of "The Day After Tomorrow" and "Dawn of the Dead."  Apparently, the attempts to control the weather to battle global warming have majorly backfired, and the Earth is in a new Ice Age.  Humans are an endangered species, and by the looks of it, nothing else has survived.  The ones who are still alive are barely eking out an existence in compounds that look like the prison in "Eye See You."

Anyway, Colony 5 has just received a distress signal from Colony 7.  The leader, a man named Briggs (Fishburne), decides to go investigate, leaving his hard-ass second in command, Mason (Paxton) in charge.  Going with Briggs are Sam (Zegers) and Graydon (Mitchell).  At Colony 5, they find some good news: the sun has started shining on one area of the globe.  It's also infested by zombies (or something).

Let me come right out and say it: the majority of the film's problems lie at the feet of Jeff Renfroe.  He has three reliable actors and can't get a decent performance out of anyone.  The fight scenes look sloppy and appear unrehearsed.  Atmosphere is non-existent.  And don't get me started about the intelligence level, which starts out dumb and gets more and more stupid as the film goes on.

At least we have Zegers, Fishburne and Paxton to fall back on.  Kevin Zegers deserves far more attention and respect than he gets (he played Felicity Huffman's son in "Transamerica," among other roles), and provides as solid an anchor as possible under the circumstances.  Laurence Fishburne and especially Bill Paxton appear to be bored out of their minds, but they're among the elite crop of actors who are probably incapable of giving a truly awful performance.  Their two co-stars, Charlotte Sullivan and Atticus Mitchell, are not as impressive.  Sullivan looks kind of cute, but she can't act.  Mitchell, on the other hand, is profoundly irritating.

While watching "The Colony," a new general nitpick arose in me.  Can we just lose the scenes where the characters run into zombies without knowing what they are?  No one who has seen a zombie movie or experienced today's pop culture will be unaware of what a zombie is.  If their skin looks like stone, they have blood all over them and try to eat you, guess what?  They're a zombie!  I'll admit that things may be a little different in this case, since the zombies possess all of their body parts and use weapons.  But they have skin the color of stone, are covered in blood, and eat people.

Aside from this quibble and Renfroe's probable pretension, you're still left with a really bad movie.

Volcano

2.5/4

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Don Cheadle, Gaby Hoffman, Jacqueline Kim

Rated PG-13 for Intense Depiction of Urban Disaster and Related Injuries

In the late 90's, disaster movies were all the rage.  Arguably starting with Roland Emmerich's "Independence Day," the role that made Will Smith a megastar, violence and destruction on a massive scale became common place from May to August each year.  1997 featured two films where the characters faced off against a volcano, but ironically, the one that was released in February ("Dante's Peak") is the better film.  "Volcano" has its pleasures, certainly, but overall the Pierce Brosnan picture is more fun.

It's early in the A.M., and people in Los Angeles are just starting out their days when a minor earthquake hits.  For Los Angeles, this sort of thing is old hat ("I hate it when that happens," a nurse says after having crawled under a stretcher).  But it is not any normal quake.  Mike Roark (Jones), is the head of the Office of Emergency Management, barges into the office to take charge.  He's supposed to be on vacation, but he wouldn't be played by Tommy Lee Jones if he was a pushover.  Meanwhile, seven service workers are killed by a steam rupture underground.  Geologist Amy Barnes (Heche) is convinced that there is something else going on, and intends to investigate.  Of course, what they don't know (but the audience does), is that there is a volcano about to erupt in the middle of downtown.

When the film sticks to action scenes and special effects, the film is on solid ground.  Character development and dialogue are a different story.  Just about everyone except Mike or Amy is a complete moron straight out of a cheesy horror movie.  It makes you almost root for the volcano so they can't pass on their genes.  By far the dumbest character is Mike's daughter Kelly (Hoffman).  Gaby Hoffman is a good actress, but there's not much that she can do with a character so obviously lacking in brain cells.  She is in this film solely so she can get into danger and Mike or someone else will have to rescue her.

Tommy Lee Jones does not have a lot of range as an actor.  He can really only play variations on his trademark crotchety jerk that we begrudgingly like.  The role of Mike Roark calls for just those qualities, and he delivers.  His co-star Anne Heche, is much more lively and fun (and has a terrific one-liner early on in the film), but she's stuck playing second fiddle to Jones.  Don Cheadle and John Carroll Lynch are on hand providing solid support as comic/melodramatic relief.  Also worth mentioning is Jacqueline Kim, who plays a tough and tenacious doctor.  She's quite good.

When it first came out, "Volcano's" special effects impressed me (maybe that's because I was a little kid at the time), but now, they seem a little weak.  Director Mick Jackson lacks the true imagination to give the film the epic scope that it deserves.  The film is in a way like "Contagion" in the way that it's about what would happen if a volcano erupted in downtown L.A.

I'm tempted to recommend it, but the bottom line is that there are other, better choices for movies out there, naed

Monday, September 8, 2014

Notorious (1946)

2.5/4

Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Claude Rains, Madame Konstantin

Not Rated

Alfred Hitchcock is rightfully known as The Master of Suspense.  Few filmmakers, either living or dead, are as uncannily skilled at raising the adrenaline in a viewer.  He is not, however, known for his passionate romances (although they featured in many of his movies).  This is perhaps the reason why his 1946 film, "Notorious" doesn't really work.  It's not a bad movie by any means, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are consistently good and there is some definite suspense towards the end, but the majority of the film feels like a bad soap opera rather than a thrilling love story.

Shortly after World War II, a man named Huberman has just been convicted of treason against the United States.  His daughter Alicia (Bergman) is celebrating with some friends when she starts talking to a man at the party.  During a drunken joyride, he reveals himself to be named Devlin (Grant), and works for the US Government.  The next morning, he explains his interest to her: there is a group of Nazi sympathizers in Rio de Janeiro who are trying to get the Third Reich back into power.  He needs someone on the inside, and he thinks that Alicia's opposition to her father's politics make her the ideal lady.  She agrees.  When in Rio, she falls for Devlin and he for her, which makes things complicated when she has to seduce one of the group, a man named Alexander Sebastian (Rains) in order to find out what's going on.

The majority of the film is centered around the romance between Alicia and Devlin, and how her mission complicates it.  That's all well and good; Grant and especially Bergman are good (the former has a stiff moment or two), and they share some chemistry with each other.  But the script by Ben Hecht is pretty bad.  The story isn't especially interesting, and there are plenty of howlers that the actors are forced to say.  I was thankful that I was watching two supremely talented actors spout these lines.  As Gong Li proved in "Memoirs of a Geisha," a great performance can make an audience take a bad line at least semi-seriously.  There's nothing as bad as "I shall destroy you!" here, but there are some that come close.

The pairing of Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains brings to mind "Casablanca," and the connection only serves to make "Notorious" look that much worse.  Granted, "Casablanca" is an undisputed classic, but still...the connection is there.  Once again, Claude Rains practices the art of scene-stealing, and has what is the most interesting character.  Sebastian is no Louis Renault, but Rains is still fun to watch.

The best performance is given by Madame Konstantin, who plays Sebastian's mother (echoes of Hitchcock's later, and arguably most famous, film, "Psycho").  She's chilling in the role, and does quite a bit with the meager material that she's given.

This is not a terrible movie by any means.  But it is disappointing.  Ironically, there is another, better movie about a woman undercover in the same time period.  It is, of course, Paul Verhoeven's near-masterpiece, "Black Book."  A film that Hitch would have enjoyed tremendously had he lived to see it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Goal! The Dream Begins

3.5/4

Starring: Kuno Becker, Stephen Dillane, Marcel Iures, Alessandro Nivola, Tony Plana, Anna Friel, Sean Pertwee, Kieran O'Brien

Rated PG-13 for Some Sexual Content, Language and a Brief Drug Reference

Few things can compare to watching a good sports movie.  There's nothing else like it.  I've seen "Speed Racer" many times, and to this day, I still am up on my feet hoping against hope that Speed Racer will fly through the finish line at the Grand Prix in first place.  I had a similar experience watching "Goal! The Game Begins."

So it might surprise you to learn that the film is a catalog of sports movie cliches.  If the story (an impoverished immigrant turns out to be a genius soccer player, and gets a chance to play for a big team seeking to recapture its former glory) wasn't so involving, one could pass the time by ticking off each one as it plays out on screen.  They're all here, and I mean, all of them.  Let's see, you've got: the down on his luck hero who is a diamond in the rough, the chance meeting, the fish-out-of-water element, the friction with the teammates, the seduction of the hard partying lifestyle, the supportive girlfriend who doesn't date soccer players.  And of course, you have the father, played by Tony Plana, who doesn't approve and wants him to stay home and support the family.  Yes, the film has literally every sports movie cliche.

And yet, and yet...I enjoyed the movie immensely and found it incredibly involving.  For one thing, the cast, made up of underrated actors, gives it their all.  Mexican actor Kuno Becker is impossible not to like and root for, and that's more than half the battle.  He has a stiff moment here and there where he can't really reach the emotion that he's going for, but such moments are few.  As Glen Foy, the man who spotted him and his personal cheerleader, Stephen Dillane is very strong as well.  Glen sees something in this young soccer star, and he'll do anything to give him a fair shot for Eric Dornhelm (Iures), the coach.  Marcel Iures is also wonderful (no surprises there), building a real person out of the cliche of a character that Dornhelm is on paper.  He's tough and aloof, and even a little threatening, but an entirely normal individual.  Alessandro Nivola is good as Gavin Harris, but not great.  Gavin's story is the one shred of originality that made it into the production.  Tony Plana, Anna Friel, and Sean Pertwee provide solid support as well.

Director Danny Cannon clearly knows how to make a movie in this genre, and he breathes life into the cliches.  The film sometimes moves so fast that it feels like a super-long trailer, but it works nonetheless.  It's certainly better than "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer."

To be perfectly frank, there's not much of a difference between this movie and something like "The Mighty Ducks" or any other sports movie.  But that's okay.  It doesn't aspire to be anything more than a well-made sports movie, and it succeeds at that.  Movies like "Goal! The Dream Begins" are made for a select audience that knows what it wants from a sports movie.  As long as the director and his cast assemble the parts correctly, the movie will turn out fine.  That's the case here, and that's why I'm recommending the film.  I cannot wait to see the sequels.

Monday, September 1, 2014

As Above, So Below

2/4

Starring: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar

Rated R for Bloody Violence/Terror, and Language Throughout

The element of suggestion is paramount to a horror movie.  A movie will not scare its audience without it.  Paraphrasing Roger Ebert (again), what we see is never as scary as what we think we see (the lone exception, of course, is "Alien").  This is why, done well, shaking the camera or cutting quickly can up the scare factor ("Cloverfield" and "The Descent" are two masterful examples).  Sadly, it's not done well here.

Scarlett (Weeks) is a young graduate student looking for the fabled Philosopher's Stone, which, as anyone who has read or seen the first "Harry Potter" book/movie knows, will turn whatever it touches to gold and grant you immortality.  She thinks she's found where it is, and is going to the Paris catacombs to find it.  With her is her cameraman, Benji (Hodge), and their guides, Papillon (Civil), Souxie (Lambert) and Zed (Marhyar).  Her friend George (Feldman) doesn't want to be there, but is forced into it.  It doesn't take long for things to go dreadfully wrong, and soon finding the stone becomes of secondary importance to staying alive.

It is impossible to watch this movie without thinking of Neil Marshall's 2005 masterpiece.  Both films feature enough similar situations (getting lost, things trying to kill them, claustrophobia, etc) that a comparison is inevitable.  The most intense scene from "The Descent" is replicated here, although it doesn't come close in terms of scare factor.  Giving credit where credit is due, it's unfair to compare the two films, but it's impossible not to.

This is a "found footage" movie, although it's been a long time since any filmmaker has employed it well.  Repetition has replaced innovation, and filmmakers think that they can get away with being lazy ("Into the Storm" is an example).  As used by John Erick Dowdle, it's above the level of gimmick, but not effective enough to justify its utilization.  A more straightforward approach probably would have been better.

Dowdle shakes the camera excessively, and while it's justified here (unlike in the "Bourne" movies, "Public Enemies," and the like), it's not done well.  The idea behind shaking the camera is to create suspense by building uncertainty.  We don't know what is going on and that scares us.  But there's a difference between the good movies ("Cloverfield") and the bad ones ("Into the Storm") that utilize this storytelling method, and I think I've finally figured out what it is.  In movies like "Cloverfield" and "The Blair Witch Project," which started the trend, the dialogue and the performances are completely natural.  We believe that these are real people whose camera footage has been found and assembled into a movie.  In the former films, telling the story seemed to be of secondary importance.  It was fully submerged beneath the characters' interactions.  More importantly, the camera was never on (at least intentionally) when any sane person would turn it off and run.  That doesn't happen here.  It's still a gimmick, and Dowdle can't always make the camera movements or angles seem convincing (if someone is being pulled into a flaming car, I'd hope that the camera you were holding would be the least of your concerns).

Dowdle is also trying to create a sense of confusion and panic among the characters, which is understandable considering their situation.  He shakes the cameras to show that they're running, scared, etc., but the effect isn't convincing, and this is why: it's confusing to the point of being frustrating.  In the successful entries in the genre, we can't see much (if anything), but we know what they're doing and why.  We know they're running down the hall or street to get away from the ghost/demon/monster, whatever.  That's not the case here, where Dowdle makes things so messy that I got completely lost as to what they characters were doing, period.

I'm not going to claim that the film is entirely worthless.  It's not.  There are some legitimate shocks and scenes that are fairly creepy.  The film also has two great performances, and the horror genre is rarely known for that quality ("Wishmaster," anyone? "Friday the 13th?" The list goes on...).  Perdita Weeks is quite convincing as the gutsy and slightly obsessed Scarlett.  She's brave to the point of being reckless, but she's not an idiot.  She just thinks that the end negates any possible concerns.  Her co-star, Ben Feldman, is also very good.  As the slightly preppy voice of reason, Feldman is just adorable.  I believed in the relationship between these two.  No one else is especially memorable, but these two almost save the film.

"As Above, So Below" feels like it should be a lot scarier than it was, and there are moments that would be with a more stable camera and organized cinematography.  Genre lovers will get their fix, but everyone else would do best to rent another scarefest.