Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Mike's Musings: Will Everyone PLEASE Shut Up About Ebola?

The way the media and politicians are going on about it, it is only a matter of time before this Ebola outbreak becomes a modern day Black Death (which killed around 75-100 million people from 1346-1353, including 30-60% of Europe's population).  In reality, it's more like the O.J. Simpson trial: a moderately interesting news story that doesn't deserve a fraction of the coverage it gets.

Don't get me wrong.  Ebola is a deadly disease with a fatality rate between 25 and 90% (admittedly, not a very specific statistic).  There is also no standard treatment except to try and alleviate the symptoms.  It is also highly contagious.

It sounds very scary, but here's the thing: transmission is difficult.  In order to become infected, you have to have contact with the blood or body fluids of someone who is infected...and that's only AFTER they begin to show symptoms.  If a person isn't showing symptoms, they're not contagious (and if they are, they're going to head to the hospital because they're going to become very sick very quickly).  Ebola isn't the common cold.  It's not going to be passed around the office as if it had a mind of its own.  The virus needs a host to survive.  While you can get it if you're coughed on by someone who is infected (in theory), it's not airborne.  It doesn't just hang in the air waiting for someone to infect.

So why is everyone terrified of this Ebola outbreak, especially when there are a number of other more deadly diseases out there (such as the flu, which kills far more people every year)?  For one thing, it's devastating West Africa.  Thousands have become infected and many have died, and it has only just started to show signs of slowing down.  The CDC estimates that it will take at least six months before it's under control, and will cost billions.

Such an event, despite there being confirmed cases here, is unlikely to happen in the United States.  This is for a number of reasons.  First, we know about Ebola, which wasn't the case in Guinea, where epidemiologists suspect it began.  Ebola outbreaks have flared up occasionally since the first known outbreak in 1976, but not in that area.  Second, many in that area live in extreme poverty with limited access to running water, much less decent healthcare.  There are also traditional burial practices that involve kissing and touching the bodies of the dead.  Finally, the political and healthcare infrastructures in those countries are feeble and lack the ability to deal with a crisis like this.

It was only a matter of time before Ebola reached our shores.  But the likelihood of an outbreak on par with what's going on in West Africa is infinitely small.  We may have our problems with healthcare, but that's mostly due to the greed and aggressive behavior of pharmaceuticals and insurance companies.  On a technical level, we are more than capable of preventing an outbreak.  A minor slip-up here and there is to be expected (we are, after all, human beings), but we are not going to have an Ebola epidemic here.

Why is Ebola dominating the news these days, and why are people suddenly scared out of their minds?  While we may not be faced with an outbreak of Ebola, our society is in a prime position for a culture of fear.

For one thing, our smartphones enable limitless access to media.  The news, smelling a story, is aggressively pursuing the Ebola and positioning it like the apocalypse for the sole reason of keeping people tuning in.  Fear sells, and there is a lot of money to be made in getting people scared out of their minds.  Social commentators are adding flame to the fire for the same reason: they want ratings.  The impending date of a big election exacerbates the situation further.  Politicians up for election want votes, and to do that, they need to show their constituents that they're doing something about the outbreak.  Which is why we have people like the Louisiana attorney general not allowing the family of Thomas Duncan, the single person in the US who has died of Ebola to bring his ashes into Louisiana to dump them into a hazardous waste landfill.  It's a decision so stupid that if it wasn't doing more harm than good, it would be absolutely hilarious.  And the story of the Texas town that was quarantined due to a family of five being infected is false (it was first posted on a fake news site).  The real number of people infected with Ebola that are in the U.S. is four.  That's hardly worth double checking on the news.  There are more people with more dangerous diseases that come into the U.S. every year, and we don't hear about them because the news can't make money off of it.

There are members of the media who are tossing out theories about what could happen with Ebola down the line, but they range from the unlikely to the absurd.  Yes, Ebola is evolving.  All viruses do.  But Ebola evolves very slowly, so it's not going to suddenly be able to hang in the air like the common cold any time soon.  The worst people are perpetuating the theory that someone is going to "weaponize" Ebola.  In theory, that's possible, but highly unlikely to the point where it's closer to science fiction than plausible.  I'm sure there are those who would like nothing better than to set loose weaponized Ebola in the U.S., but they lack the expertise, not to mention the facilities, to do so.  More than likely, those who attempt to make Ebola into some sort of weapon are more of a risk to themselves than us.

The men and women who are using the Ebola epidemic for their own gain should be ashamed of themselves.  What they're doing is sleazy, unethical and downright sadistic.  Hazmat suits and transferring patients in plastic bubbles do nothing but make the panic worse.  Masks, rubber gloves and quarantining are fine, as is remembering to wash your hands.  Want to know why we haven't heard any more about the people who were on the plane with the man who had Ebola?  Because they're not infected.  They were perfectly safe.  And banning flights from West Africa from coming to the US is pointless since there are no direct flights from there to the U.S.  Stories and theories like these create buzz, but they're at best overreactions and at worst needlessly scaring the hell out of just about everyone.

But what is a film critic doing shooting down claims about Ebola?  Is he a doctor?  No, I'm not.  But my dad is, and my brother is doing his residency.  My mother is also working in the medical field.  I also attended a lecture by a man who studies Ebola for a living (and, ironically, worked with my dad when he was just out of medical school).

The bottom line is that, at least in the U.S., the Ebola scare is all hype.  It's been packaged and dubbed with catch phrases and lingo.  In other words, it's fear designed as a product.  Nothing more.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

$ellebrity

3.5/4

Not Rated

A few years ago, I recall seeing a story about Kelsey Grammar (I think) falling onstage.  He didn't get hurt, and it wasn't even a big fall.  If I remember correctly, he was on the edge of the stage and his foot slipped.  He fell to his knee and got back up.  I remember thinking to myself...so?  Who cares?

To be perfectly honest, the concept of celebrity bores me.  I really don't care what so-and-so does in their free time.  I'd rather watch one of Angelina Jolie's movies than see a gossip spread in US Weekly about what the interior of her home looks like.  And I really could care less about what Nicole Kidman was wearing when she took out the trash yesterday.

Apparently, though, there are people who drink this stuff up.  Celebrity photography is a billion dollar industry, and the problem is only getting worse.  Major news outlets are running celebrity gossip stories now too.  A story about whatever Branjelina is doing is on CNN?  God help us.

"$ellebrity" is produced and directed by Kevin Mazur, who is a celebrity photographer.  He is also highly respected among the movers and shakers in Hollywood, and celebrities pose for him at film premieres.  He makes it absolutely clear that he despises what our celebrity culture has become, and the borderline violent methods that the paparazzi use to capture candid photos of famous people.

With this film, he has four goals: show how celebrity photography began, how and why it descended into the madness it is today, why the paparazzi are allowed to terrorize actors and actresses mostly unchecked, and what it means to society.

Originally, film actors were held in such little regard that the studios wouldn't even release their names.  Actors were known by their look.  An actress named Mary Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks changed that.  Soon, studios began to realize the marketing potential in glamour, and they would hire photographers for film premieres.  The goal was to make the stars look, well, like movie stars: beautiful and god-like.  Then a sleazy magazine called "Confidential" started publishing sensational stories about celebrities (which weren't always true).  Lawsuits forced the magazine to shut down, but the public's insatiable desire for dirt is like a vampire's need for blood: it's unquenchable.  And people sank lower and lower to gain an edge on the competition.

Magazines will pay top dollar for any shot (a shot of Britney Spears' shaving her head went for $400K alone), and they'll take anything they can get.  That makes people like Ricardo Mendoza resort to stalking, camping out in front of celebrities' homes, and forcing them to play chicken on the middle of a freeway.  All to get a single shot picture.

Mazur has no shortage of interviewees, including Jennifer Aniston, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez & Marc Antony, and Sarah Jessica Parker.  They're very candid about the stresses they face from being terrorized by men and women photographing them without their permission and being unable to do anything about it.  Lopez and Antony have had paparazzi crawl over their walls, and a helicopter hovered over their backyard wedding.  Sarah Jessica Parker had to change clothes and switch places with a woman on a motorbike to get away from them.  And everyone knows that the paparazzi bear some responsibility for the death of Princess Diana.

Also talking on camera are Darryn Lyons, a once-legitimate journalist who went after bigger money by running a gossip magazine and Antonio Mendoza, a real-life paparazzi.  Lyons believes that he's the one who is responsible for making celebrities famous (only if your Kim Kardashian...Daniel Day-Lewis is a household name, but you don't see him being stalked by photographers).  Antonio Mendoza spends six or seven days a week hunting celebrities, brags about using valets and store employees as a network for news on who is where, and considers himself a photojournalist (Edward R. Murrow is rolling in his grave).

The paparazzi and the gossip magazines hide under the First Amendment, but even a First Amendment lawyer says that it has gone way too far.  Freedom of Press has its limits, but filing a lawsuit is so expensive and time-consuming that it is rarely worth it (and is usually futile).  It can also make the situation worse.

Of course, some photography is allowed.  Even Jennifer Aniston admits that.  Photo spreads, film premieres, that sort of thing.  It's part of the act and enhances the image of the celebrity.  But is having photographers crawl over your walls, snap pics of you in your backyard with a telephoto lens, and shove your kids out of the way to get a pic of you okay?  Is that part of the life that you asked for, as one especially shallow-sounding girl says?  Of course not.

Mazur poses a terrifying possibility: that celebrity news is replacing legitimate news.  These days, it seems plausible.  Gossip magazines are everywhere, the paparazzi's methods are becoming far more terrifying, and it's invaded all the major news networks.  I recall seeing a brief article comparing what the candidates were wearing in a Presidential debate (as if that mattered at all).

Everyone admits that some legislation is needed, and likely within legality.  But the real culprits are us.  We need to stop reading this crap, and magazines need to stop buying pictures from sleazebags like Mendoza.  One solution is sort of like what WashU does: pre-arrange a story with a big magazine.  Cut out the stalkers.  No one will buy one of Mendoza's pictures if they already have one of professional quality.

I really wish that every reader of TMZ or US Weekly would see this movie.  Then they'd know just how horrible the people are who brought them their "info-tainment" as it's called.

Pride

3.5/4

Starring: Ben Schnetzer, Joseph Gilgun, Faye Marsay, Dominic West, George McKay, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Jessica Gunning, Paddy Considine

Rated R for Language and Brief Sexual Content

Gay movies are common enough that they are their own genre, but they're mostly direct-to-DVD (and for good reason...remember "Ben & Arthur?").  Gay movies that are strong enough to get a theatrical release are rare.  "Pride" (not to be confused with the 2007 sports movie starring Terrence Howard and the late Bernie Mac) is among the select few that is a gay movie of high quality.

It's 1984.  Margaret Thatcher has closed down a number of mines, which has led many miners to go on strike.  A young activist named Mark (Schnetzer) decides that the gays and lesbians of London should support them.  He faces hostility from his fellow "gays and lezzies" ("What have the miners ever done for us?" one asks), but he is undaunted.  The few who agree to help raise enough money to earn a visit from one of the townspeople (whose village they picked at random).  At first, town council member Dai (Considine) is nervous, but once he gets talking with them, he realizes that they are nice people.  But convincing Dai that they're not perverts is one thing.  Getting a whole town to overcome their prejudices and accept the generous help is another thing entirely.

There are two problems with this film: the accents and the running time.  This is a British film, and a lot of the accents are very thick.  Enough of the dialogue is hard to understand that it might be better to wait and catch this on Blu Ray so you can watch it with subtitles.  It's not as bad as "50 Dead Men Walking" or "My Name is Joe," but there are definitely times where I had no idea what was going on because I couldn't understand what the devil anyone was saying.

The film is also too short.  Even at two hours, the film is pared down in places where it is extremely obvious.  There are a few plotholes and instances of characters acting with a lack of motivation.  Ten minutes or so would have helped the film seem more complete.

That said, there is enough humor and heart to warrant a trip to the theater.  The acting is strong, particularly by screen neophyte Ben Schnetzer, Imelda Staunton (as a bubbly townswoman who is thrilled by the gays from the get go) and Jessica Gunning (as another energetic townswoman who stands by the gays).  Special mention has to go to Dominic West, who has a dance sequence that can only be described as "standout" (remember, this is the guy who played the super sleazy Theron in "300").  His performance is perhaps a little too low-key, but he's still fun to watch.

Director Matthew Warchus has set out to create a feel-good movie, and he has done it.  It's not a perfect movie, but it's fun and cheery and occasionally very funny (the scene where the little old ladies go to the gay clubs is hilarious).  These days, it's all special effects, superheroes and teen angst.  Here's a movie that remembers that sometimes it's the people who make the best stories.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Annabelle

2/4

Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola

Rated R for Intense Sequences of Disturbing Violence and Terror

There are four things every horror movie must have: a threatening atmosphere, a sense of rhythm and pacing, identifiable characters, and a plot that establishes a set of rules about what can and cannot happen...and follows them.  These are absolute and non-negotiable.  No horror movie can succeed without them.  "Annabelle," the prequel in name only to last year's surprise hit "The Conjuring," only succeeds in one area.  I bought into the world that the filmmakers established and believed that everything that happened was plausible in it.  Unfortunately, more is needed.  The film doesn't have a lot of atmosphere, is poorly paced and the characters are boring.

The film opens with a short clip of four girls being interviewed the Warrens (it's from the original film).  The clip is a mistake; it's inclusion is only to provide a tenuous link to "The Conjuring" so the studio can market it as a prequel.

Sorry, I'm getting on a rant.  Anyway, the film is about Mia (Wallis) and John Gordon (Horton).  They are squeaky clean, church-going average Americans living in California.  Mia is heavily pregnant and John is in medical school.  Mia collects vintage dolls, and as a surprise, John presents her with a rare Annabelle doll.  That's when strange things start happening; she thinks she hears a murder next door and is soon attacked herself.  Without giving anything away, I will say that she asks John to throw the doll away, but it's not going to be that easy to get rid of this nasty piece of work.  The terror only escalates to the point where she and her child are threatened by a demon.

The story isn't terribly interesting, but the pitch lines for horror movies rarely are.  I mean, a masked man stalking a bunch of teenage girls ("Halloween") doesn't sound any scarier than a group of girls attacked by monsters in a cave ("The Descent").  It's how the film is made that makes it scary.  Sadly, while Carpenter (in the case of his 1978 classic) and Marshall knew what they were doing, the same cannot be said about John R. Leonetti, a frequent cinematographer for James Wan (the director of "The Conjuring," "Insidious" and its unfortunate sequel, and "Dead Silence").  Little of Wan's talent for scaring the hell out of his audience has rubbed off on him.  There are a few decent shocks, but that's it.

What's frustrating about "Annabelle" is that it is easy to pinpoint exactly what went wrong.  Directing a good horror film requires patience.  Even an action-oriented one like "The Descent" spent half the movie slowly building to the violence-and-blood-soaked second half.  That doesn't happen here.  The escalating tension that is essential for every horror movie is missing.  Leonetti goes full-speed from frame one, and that never works (even "Aliens" set the stage and had a build-up before James Cameron pulled out all the stops).

The acting certainly doesn't help matters either.  Granted, the horror genre isn't known for its Oscar-related performances, but hiring actors who have a scintilla of ability could only have helped things.  But Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton display more wood than in any movie this year.  They're not terrible, but they're not very good either.  80's Broadway mainstay Tony Amendola, who plays a sympathetic priest, is also stiff as well.  Only Alfre Woodard, playing the obligatory minority who knows everything about (or at least believes in) the supernatural, manages to be moderately convincing, but she's definitely not trying.  Woodard just wants a paycheck, and it shows.  Hey, even respected actors gotta eat!

"Annabelle" isn't completely devoid of scares.  For all his flaws, Leonetti shows skill when it comes to creating effective shocks, and the standout scene (it takes place in an attic) is moderately creepy (even though it could, and should, have been better).

Unless you've got your heart set on seeing this movie, I'd suggest skipping it and watching something else.  Try "The Innkeepers," a ghost story that surprisingly few people have heard of.  It's the scariest movie of its ilk that I've seen.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Fury

3.5/4

Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Shia LaBoeuf, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs

Rated R for Strong Sequences of War Violence, Some Grisly Images, and Language Throughout

In 1998, Steven Spielberg released his revisionist WWII epic, "Saving Private Ryan," which changed the face of war films forever.  The days of gung-ho macho warriors were over.  Movies like "Black Hawk Down" and "Enemy at the Gates" were the face of war in film.

This year, screenwriter-turned-director David Ayer has tried to do something similar.  "Fury" isn't as innovative nor is its punch as strong as "Saving Private Ryan," but Ayer takes some of Spielberg's ideas and further develops them.  Next to the battle scenes, the most impressive aspect of the film is Ayer's attention to detail, which is fine-tuned and adds to the sense of realism.

"Fury" is more of a slice-of-life movie than a story-oriented one, although that's only sort of true.  It details the experiences of a tank crew at the tail end of WWII.  The top (leader) is Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Pitt).  Also a part of the crew are Boyd "Bible" Swan (LaBoeuf), Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Pena) and Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (Bernthal).  They lost one of their crew in the last battle, and their replacement is Norman Ellison (Lerman), a typist with no training or experience inside a tank.

The battle scenes are the film's undisputed highlights.  Ayer has always shied away from making his movies cinematic, which can be seen in "Sabotage" and "End of Watch," his two previous films.  He prefers realism, which he accomplishes without calling attention to it.  In previous films, there was a documentary style quality, and that has been carried over.  But "Fury" is not "Cloverfield" (nor should it be).  He doesn't shake the camera or intentionally make awkward cuts.  Yet the effect is just the same.  The battle scenes are real, scary and frequently brutal.  Ayer has paid careful attention to the technical aspects of the story, but doesn't highlight them.  For example, we see tracer bullets (and learn what they are), we see how people deal with a dead man inside their tank, and how people really die when they are cut down by machine gun fire.

Sadly, the performances are not up to snuff.  The acting is, on the whole, flat, and characterization is non-existent.  No one, apart from Don and Norman has much of a personality.  In the best movies of this ilk (such as "Saving Private Ryan" and "U-571," which Ayer co-wrote, although he hated what the studio did to his script), we understand and care about the people in the film.  That doesn't happen here, which limits the film's emotional component.  I suppose the acting is partly to blame.  Brad Pitt is hammy while Shia LeBoeuf is just awful.  Michael Pena is okay, but doesn't have a lot to do.  Logan Lerman and especially Jon Bernthal are in top form, however.  They are consistently on their game, and Bernthal, a character actor who normally plays sleazy characters, deserves (but won't get) an Oscar nomination for playing the slightly unhinged hick.

Ayer has attempted a lot.  He provides a realistic view of daily life during war time while telling a story about five men in a tank.  Ultimately, his ambitions exceed his grasp, but he has taken that chance and gone the extra mile.  I always applaud directors who are willing to take that risk, especially if they succeed.  "Fury" is a mixed bag, but the stuff that works really works, while the stuff that doesn't is at least acceptable.  The action scenes radiate with tension and unpredictability, there is a sense that anything could happen at any time.  A brief encounter between Norman and a local girl (Alicia von Rittberg) is quite touching; the scene lasts for far too long, but there is good material there.

"Fury" is like that.  It's by no means a perfect movie, but it is at least willing to venture outside the norm.  And it usually succeeds in doing so.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Book of Life

2/4

Starring (voices): Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Hector Elizondo, Carlos Alazraqui, Christina Applegate, Ice Cube

Rated PG for Mild Action, Rude Humor, Some Thematic Elements and Brief Scary Images

Guillermo del Toro really wants "The Book of Life" to be just like something out of the Disney canon (the good ones from the early 90's).  He and his director, Jorge R. Gutierrez, even borrow from the best of them, the most obvious being "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "Hercules."  Sadly, it doesn't really come together.  The film definitely has its moments and gets points for spectacle, but it lacks the one thing that made the Disney greats so special: humanity.  The characters in movies like "Beauty and the Beast" felt like living, breathing creatures.  The ones in the book of life are stick figures.

A group of kids are being herded to a museum for a field trip they have no interest in.  Instead of being taken on the regular tour, a beautiful woman named Mary Beth (Applegate) takes them into a secret area.  There, she tells them the story of two gods, La Muerte (del Castillo) and Xibalba (Perlman), and their wager.  Xibalba is sick of being in the Land of the Forgotten, and wants to switch places with his lover, La Muerte, who oversees the Land of the Remembered.  Xibalba suggests a wager over who rules over which place, and after seeing three young children play, he finds the perfect bet.  Two boys, Manolo (Emil Bastian-Bouffard) and Joaquin (Elias Garza) and a girl, Maria (Genesis Ochoa) are best friends.  Xibalba suggests that they bet which boy will marry Maria.  La Muerte picks sensitive Manolo while Xibalba chooses the mighty Joaquin.  Then a prank ends up with Maria sent to a Catholic school in Spain.  Both boys promise to wait for her.

Cut to years later.  Manolo (Luna) has become a bullfighter like the rest of his family, although he prefers playing music.  Joaquin (Tatum) has become a war hero and the town's golden boy.  That's when Maria (Saldana) comes back into town, and has to choose which man to marry.  Through a series of events that include an invincibility-granting medal and a group of outlaws, Maria ends up dead, so Manolo too must die so he can go to the Land of the Remembered to rescue her.

For a children's movie, this is a plot heavy movie.  Maybe that's the film's problem; it spends so much time unfolding the plot that there's no time to get to know the characters.  I didn't care about anyone in this film, and that's a big problem.

The voice acting is also uninspired.  No one really botches it, although Channing Tatum, who continues to mature as an actor with each performance, doesn't always feel comfortable in his character's skin.  There is a time when his jokes feel awkward and forced.  Everyone else is invisible, which I suppose is the point.  The sad part is that they're all flat.

"The Book of Life" is not a bad movie.  It takes chances and on its visual front, it's impressive (especially the scenes in the Land of the Remembered).  Some of the humor also works, particularly when it pokes fun at itself.  It's never uproarious, but occasionally amusing.

That's what this movie is like: lots of stuff going on, but not much heart or personality.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Best of Me

1/4

Starring: Michelle Monaghan, James Marsden, Liana Liberato, Luke Bracey, Gerald McRaney, Sean Bridgers

Rated PG-13 for Sexuality, Violence, Some Drug Content and Brief Strong Language

Nicholas Sparks has distilled the "romantic tearjerker" genre down to a science.  He's become a genre all on his own.  When someone says "a Nicholas Sparks movie," you know exactly what you're getting: relaxed, Deep South culture, rich girl meets poor guy (both of whom are very photogenic), romance that most are against except a sage old man, violent/deadly plot twists and and ending that wraps everything up in a nice tidy little package.  No, it's not realistic, but Nicholas Sparks is not Richard Linklater, and none of his movies have ever been "Before Sunset."  Sparks sells a fantasy, and he knows how to package it and sell it so that people will come back again and again.

I haven't seen every movie based on his books (I've seen "The Notebook," "The Last Song," and most of "A Walk to Remember" when I caught it on TV one time a few years ago), but I know enough about him to know his style.  That's okay.  I loved "The Notebook."  It did exactly what it was supposed to and cast a wonderful romantic spell.

That, as they say, was then.  "The Best of Me" is now, and it's not a pretty picture.  Hollywood has always tried to make filmmaking quantitative so there's less risk, but sadly for them, it's not that simple.  And if there's any genre that is more difficult to get right than the romance, I haven't seen it.

The latest Nicholas Sparks movie is called "The Best of Me," and there's no beating around the bush ladies and gentlemen: it is awful.  I mean, it's really bad.  It would be unfair to call it over-the-top and cheesy, since that comes with the territory (one does not go to a Nicholas Sparks movie expecting anything resembling reality).  But it is horribly written, way too long, and occasionally a little offensive.

Dawson (Marsden) and Amanda (Monaghan) are two people living in the South.  He works on an oil rig while she is a housewife.  Both of them get a call saying that a man named Tuck (McRaney) has died.  Both of them return to fulfill his wishes, and it is immediately obvious that there are some deep wounds between them.  That's because they were once deeply in love.

Cut to 20 years ago.  Dawson (Bracey) is a kid from a bad past who is trying to finish high school, but his nasty uncle/father/some kind of relative, a nasty piece of work named Tommy (Bridgers), wants him to enter into the family business (which is drugs, and by the looks of it, meth).  One day, his car breaks down in the middle of the road at a red light.  He can't get it to start long enough to get it off the road until a popular, pretty girl named Amanda (Liberato) comes to help.  She wants to see him again, but he is hesitant.  Amanda is a strong-willed girl, and even after he stands her up, she won't take no for an answer.  Long story short, they fall for each other hard.  But even after seeking refuge at the house of the obligatory gruff-but-kind man who calls himself Tuck, Tommy finds him and wants to bring him back into the fold.  Or else.

This isn't necessarily a bad premise for a movie.  A little hokey and maybe a little too dark for something as light as a Nicholas Sparks movie, but it could have been decent at the very least.  That would imply that the people making this movie are the least bit competent, which I know some of them are.  But based on the evidence, they have less of a clue about what to do with this material than the Boogeyman.  "Inept" is too mild a word for this disaster.

I know for a fact that Michelle Monaghan, James Marsden and Liana Liberato can act because I have seen them do it.  Michelle Monaghan is one of those actresses who is constantly giving strong performances but can't seem to cross into the A-list.  James Marsden, who inherited the role from Paul Walker after he passed away (I would have loved to have seen that), knows exactly what is required of an actor in a Nicholas Sparks movie, having been in "The Notebook."  And Liana Liberato was terrific in the little seen "Trust," a film that every Nicholas Sparks fan should see.  None of them give very good performances, which isn't entirely their fault.  They're working with a script that contains plenty of howlers and rank cheese that most people would have turned and run.

The only member of the main quartet I didn't mention is Luke Bracey, and for good reason: he's awful.  The Australian soap stud is just terrible to the point where I cringed whenever he showed up on screen.  He's not attractive (in fact, he looks like a deer caught in the headlights) and he certainly can't deliver a simple line of dialogue convincingly.

That's the first half.  The second half is better because Monaghan and Marsden are given more to do, and both are too talented to completely blow a role because the script is bad.  There is some chemistry between them, and there are times when the film delves into interesting territory.  But the script constantly lets them down and director Michael Hoffman occasionally demands that they go over the top.

Sadly, there are some scenes of violence that rubbed me the wrong way.  I have nothing against violence in movies, even ones as fundamentally light as this.  But you have to treat it in a respectful and honest way.  That doesn't happen here.  Without giving anything away to the diehards who actually want to see this movie (please don't!), I will say that incidents like these happen far too much and are too devastating to only pay lip service to.  It's not what happens that offends me, it's how it's treated in the story.

As if it weren't bad enough, the movie never seems to want to end!  The ending is so protracted and filled with more twists than many psychological thrillers.  But instead of surprising me, they just made me roll my eyes.  Kind of like the movie itself.

Dracula Untold

2.5/4

Starring: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Art Parkinson, Diarmaid Murtaugh, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Warfare, Vampire Attacks, Disturbing Images and Some Sensuality

It seems that every few months we get another vampire movie (thank you, Stephanie Meyer!).  At least in this one, there's no teen angst, goth girls and emo boys, and the bloodsuckers don't sparkle.  But it is PG-13, and that turns out to be its undoing.

20 years ago, the Turkish sultan came to Transylvania demanding 1000 boys for his army to be used as cannon fodder.  He also took the son of the king, who eventually put a stop to it by ravaging one of the Turkish towns, thus earning himself the name Vlad the Impaler (I think...the intro isn't especially coherent).  But Vlad is not the psychopath that history and legend have rumored him to be.  He is, in fact, a loving husband to his wife Mirena (Gordon) and son Ingeras (Parkinson), and a good king to his people.  Now, the sultan's son Mehmed (Cooper) has come calling again, once again demanding 1000 boys, plus Ingeras.  Vlad refuses, but Transylvania is a small kingdom and stands no chance against the Turkish army.  Desperate, he makes a deal with the devil: he goes to an ancient wretch (Dance) living in a mountain to become a vampire so he can defeat his enemies.  He has three days of ultimate power, but if he can resist his blood lust, he will return to human form.  If not, he is doomed to become a vampire forever.

I've never considered Luke Evans to be an especially good actor (especially since Britain has given us a number of legendary actors...then again, they did also give us Robert Pattinson).  He tends to blend into the background against, well, just about everything.  So I was wary when I heard that he was not only the lead in a movie, he was playing a heavy.  Surprisingly, he does a solid, but not spectacular job.  He's stronger in the low-key scenes, and he can look fierce when the occasion calls for it (makeup and CGI help too).  His co-star Sarah Gadon is very good, although to be frank, she doesn't have a lot to do other than be the damsel in distress.  Art Parkinson is also very good as their son.  Dominic Cooper, on the other hand, is absolutely awful.  I was stunned to learn that he played the part of Mehmed because his performance is cringe-inducing and he's normally a very good performer.

With all the special effects and action sequences, I figured this would be just another generic action movie designed to appeal to texting tweens and audiences halfway around the world.  But Gary Shore, directing his first feature, concentrates more on telling the story than the special effects.  He's not Len Wiseman or Jonathan Liebesman, and for that I was grateful.  It's not "The Lord of the Rings," despite the fact that the second half blatantly steals from "The Two Towers," but it's effective enough.

Alas, it's PG-13.  I'm sorry, but when you have Vlad Tepes as an action hero, it's gotta be bloody and violent as hell.  Actually, Shore is talented enough that he could have gotten away with it had he not shaken the camera.  The action scenes are sloppy and confusing.  Played straight with minimal blood would have been more effective.

The fact that it's PG-13 doesn't usually bother me too much because it's rare that a studio will spend $70 million (the budget of this movie, which is kinda small for a genre movie like this) or more only to have to make cuts demanded by the MPAA.  But here, Shore thinks that it necessitates shaking the camera and cutting quickly, and that is not to its benefit.  Never mind that we see vampires melting then explode (but with no blood).

So yes, it's definitely watchable and at least moderately entertaining.  But I'd rather see a version with cleaner action scenes.  Maybe an unrated version will be better.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

2/4

Starring: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine

Rated R (probably for Graphic Violence)

Chalk this one up with "Hollow Man" in the list of movies that should have been a lot better than they actually were.  I mean, what is scarier than living in a small town with a masked killer on the loose and police who are unable to catch him?

1946.  Texarkana, Arkansas is a small town on the border of Texas and Arkansas.  The majority of the town's young men have returned from fighting in World War II, and everyone seems to be looking forward to peace and rebuilding.  One night, two young people seeking some private time in one of the town's many "Lover's Lanes" are viciously attacked by a man in a mask.  The police are on the case, but there's very little evidence to go on.  Shortly thereafter, two other people are attacked, but they don't come out of it alive.  Now the town is gripped with fear as a local cop named Norman Ramsey (Prine) and a legendary detective named J.D. Morales (Johnson) are hunting a killer with no mercy.

Despite its reputation and being referenced in the popular horror movie "Scream," "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" is less of a scarefest than a mystery.  It bears a closer resemblance to something like "Zodiac" than, say, your average slasher movie.  While the attack scenes are violent for a movie that looks so old (surprisingly, it was made only two years before "Halloween," the godfather of the slasher movie as we know it today), it's light on gore and director Charles B. Pierce is more interested in following Ramsey and Morales track down The Phantom, as he is eventually called.  Unfortunately, the film is so feebly scripted that it's impossible to care about them, or anyone else in the film.  The dialogue is consistently bland; characters talk only to explain what they are doing and why.  The only personality that these characters have is because of the work by the actors themselves, and it's nowhere near enough to make them interesting.

On a technical level, the film is on more solid ground.  Specifically, the kill scenes (I'm just going to ignore the ridiculous and out of place car chase scene, which belongs in something like "The Love Bug").  Pierce and his cinematographer Jim Roberson have constructed them with great care.  They chose their shots carefully for maximum intensity.  They're good at making jump scenes, and it's hard not to get creeped out when you can hear the killer's heavy breathing.  John Carpenter did the same thing to much better effect two years later, but it's nevertheless effective.

Sadly, the film can't sustain the tension when The Phantom isn't around.  The narrator (which is voiced by Vern Stierman), goes on and on about how the town is gripped in fear, but it's not convincing.  We see people boarding up their windows, empty streets, and lots of cops, that's it.  A good thriller will get us to feel the fear.  That doesn't come close to happening.

Like seemingly every movie ever made, "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" is getting a remake.  Actually, it's going to be released this Thursday, so we will have to see if it's an improvement.  To be honest, it wouldn't take much for that to happen.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Judge

2/4

Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton

Rated R for Language including Some Sexual References

"The Judge" is a movie as bland as its title.  Two days after seeing it, I remember almost nothing from it except the notes I took after the movie was done.  Compare that to "The Guest," which I've been raving about to anyone who would listen.

With it's high-profile cast and gripping premise (not to mention its release date), "The Judge" has aspirations of being an Oscar contender.  I would say that it isn't going to happen, but The Academy is difficult to predict, and is notorious for making boneheaded decisions ("Shakespeare in Love," anyone?).  The movie plays is hopelessly predictable and plays safe at every turn.  This is a movie that you'll enjoy only if you haven't seen a movie before.

Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) is a slick lawyer who doesn't give a damn whether or not his clients are guilty; he just wants to win.  But his mother has died, and he has to go home for the funeral.  That means reconnecting with his brothers Glen (D'Onofrio) and Dale (Strong), not to mention his father Joseph (Duvall).  Hank and Joseph have been estranged for years, and the thought of having to interact with his father is making Hank want to get out of there as soon as possible.  That's going to be impossible when Joseph finds himself charged with murder.

Moments in this movie that aren't ripped off from another movie are few.  Hank is the lawyer cliche: the bloodsucking lawyer who is blinded by greed and ego that he gets his guilty clients off.  Joseph is the small-town conservative who berates him for selling out and losing his values.  Glen is the older brother whose promising future was lost after an accident (that Hank was responsible for...of course), while Dale is the obligatory simpleton who is on hand to provide cuteness and faux-sentiment.  Vera Farmiga is the hometown girl that got away.  And Billy Bob Thornton shows up for a few scenes as a fellow lawyer that Hank once beat and desires revenge.

You know the characters, you know the story, you know pretty much everything that's going to happen in this movie.  I wouldn't be so critical of this (after all, I watch all the "stranger within" thrillers I can get) if it had been done well.  But it's not.  The script is superficial to the extreme, and it's not just predictable in broad strokes.  Even the little details are easy to guess before director David Dobkin reveals them, and they don't enhance the film's main storyline because they feel so artificial.  Very little in the film feels authentic or believable, and that makes watching "The Judge" feel like watching a bad TV sitcom.

At least Dobkin has assembled a cast talented enough to ensure that the film isn't horrible.  It may be totally predictable and built from parts of other, better movies (which include "The Devil's Advocate," "A Few Good Men" and any movie based on a John Grisham book).  Robert Downey Jr. is as reliable as they get, but he's coasting through on his charisma.  A slippery lawyer with a lightning fast tongue is something Downey can do in his sleep, and sadly, that's what he does here.  The role is pure Downey, but I think he's getting bored playing a Tony Stark clone, and it shows.  Only when the film gets really into the drama (a phrase I use loosely) does he come alive.  Robert Duvall took the part hoping for a shot at another Oscar nomination.  He's good, but the constraints of the role limit what he can do with the part.  He's also willing to show himself in rather embarrassing situations (I won't say any more to avoid spoilers).  Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong are wasted.  Both deserve more fame and attention than they get, but they're stuck in roles that could be played by anyone.  And while I love seeing Vera Farmiga on screen, I wish she had been given a meatier role.  If there's anyone who deserves it, it's her.  And Billy Bob Thornton shows up for a quick paycheck too.

A poor choice of director didn't do the film any favors.  David Dobkin has never been a risk-taking director, nor one of any considerable talent.  He's a director-for-hire, mainly making comedies (few of which are very funny) like "Wedding Crashers" and "The Change-Up."  Asking him to direct a movie with Oscar potential is a fatal mistake.  This would be a movie for someone like Steven Spielberg or Clint Eastwood.  Or Cameron Crowe.  His approach is clinical and without life or personality.

Clearly, Warner Bros. is hoping for some Oscar nominations with this film.  I really hope it doesn't get any.  I would think, with the mediocre reception it's getting from critics, that it wouldn't, but audience favor plays heavily in their decisions too, and it's making money.  The Academy is hard to predict, but hopefully there will be other movies this Oscar season that will make everyone forget about this bland, flavorless (not to mention way overlong) drama.  A fate that it deserves.

Say Anything

3/4

Starring: John Cusack, Ione Skye, John Mahoney, Lili Taylor

Rated PG-13 (probably for Some Sexuality and Brief Language)

The romance has to be the most difficult genre to get right.  That's my guess, at least (although action, comedy and horror seem to be pretty difficult too).  It's weird, since the central feeling of falling in love is so universal.  Just about everyone has fallen in and out of love at some point.

I think what makes the genre such a difficult playground is that it's essentially an all or nothing approach.  A romance either works, or it doesn't.  And the most important quality isn't something that can be generated with hard work or special effects: chemistry.  Writing, acting and directing are all important, but a romance is sunk if we don't believe that the two central characters are lovebirds who are destined to be together.  That's why our hearts swooned over Jack Dawson and Rose Dewitt Bukater (from "Titanic" of course) & Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist in "Brokeback Mountain."

The problems with "Say Anything…" are less about the chemistry between the two leads than the script.  It's paradoxically in need of rewrites and totally overwritten.  Some scenes end prematurely, others don't seem to have a point, and there are a number of times when the characters speak with such would be-eloquence that it becomes pretentious.

Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) and Diane Court (Ione Skye) are graduating from high school.  Diane, widely known as a brainiac, has a scholarship to a school in England where she is moving to at the end of the summer.  Lloyd, on the other hand, is a slacker who has no idea what he wants to do with his life.  After sitting with her briefly at the mall, Lloyd is infatuated with Diane, and asks her out the next day.  She eventually accepts his invitation, and they soon fall deeply in love.  But Diane's father James (John Mahoney), with whom she is very close, is concerned that Lloyd may be a distraction that will break her heart or worse.

I liked how the characters break out of their shells.  Writer/director Cameron Crowe doesn't allow them to become cookie cutter protagonists.  They have real feelings, fears, and are able to express them.  For example, Lloyd isn't some bad boy couch potato; he's an aimless guy who doesn't know what he wants to do with his life (who hasn't felt like that before?).  Diane had such tunnel vision about her future that it is only after graduation that she realized what she missed during high school.  And while James doesn't approve of Diane and Lloyd's relationship, he's not a sinister jerk solely to try and split them up.  His concerns are real and understandable.  Lili Taylor has a small role as Lloyd's earthy friend Corey, who provides some insight and humor.

The film as a whole is wildly uneven.  There are some scenes, such as the famous montage and boombox scene that are covered by "In Your Eyes" by Peter Gabriel, that are just wonderful.  But there are others that either just don't work or are badly handled.  Some, such as the aforementioned boombox scene, are introduced but don't go anywhere.  Others, like some of the confrontations between Diane and James, go on for far too long.  A better editing job was needed.

One of things about movies I find most irritating is filmmakers who think their movies are more important and deep than they actually are.  I hate it when characters talk and talk and talk without saying anything (no pun intended).  It's egotistical and annoying.  That doesn't happen here, but there are definitely times when the characters say things with far more detail and eloquence than is believable.  There is a fine line between a literate script (such as Michael Mann's masterpiece "Heat") and verbal diarrhea ("The Rover").  Crowe doesn't cross the line, but there are moments when it comes close, and it hampers the superior efforts of the cast to make this movie magical.


As I have said before, I'm more lenient on movies that try to go the extra mile.  "Say Anything…" never settles for the easy road, and it's all the better for it.  It may not be perfect, but I do think it's worth seeing for the romantic in all of us.

Chinese Box: Director's Cut

2/4

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Ruben Blades, Michael Hui

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

How could a movie starring the irreplaceable Jeremy Irons and international superstar Gong Li ever be boring?  I never thought it could be possible, given their considerable talents.  The script is a good place to start.  It's totally generic; there's very little in the way of character depth or interesting dialogue.  It makes attempts at both, but it comes across as a wannabe of something more substantial.  The direction by Wayne Wang is pedestrian.  His approach is clinical and without any personality.  It's a shame really, because considering the talent in front of the camera and the potential of the story, it had the potential to be something truly special.

The film takes place from December 31, 1996 to June 30th, 1997, as Great Britain prepared to hand over control of Hong Kong, which had been a British colony for the past 100 years, to China.  A British journalist living there named John (Irons) is pining over Vivian (Li), a woman he had an affair with and still loves.  She loves him too, or at least he thinks so, but is engaged to a man named Chang (Hui), with whom she rose up from the bottom with.  John has a lot of pent-up feelings for her, but when he discovers that he is dying, he makes one last desperate play for Vivian.  Meanwhile, he's chasing down a street girl named Jean (Cheung) to interview her.

It would be unfair to call "Chinese Box" a bad film because it isn't.  Despite everything, Irons and especially Gong Li keep things watchable.  But it is disappointing.  There are some effective moments here and there, and the two leads have chemistry.  There is, however, always the sense that this could have been so much more.

Jeremy Irons is a gifted British actor with tremendous range, but here he's mostly coasting through.  Irons' performance lacks life and energy save for a few scenes.  Gong Li, on the other hand, is wonderful.  Considered by many across the world to be one of the greatest working actresses (not to mention a personal favorite of mine), Li does a terrific job as Vivian.  The strength of her performance is impressive because not only is this her English-speaking debut, there's little trace of an accent (which was very heavy in "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Miami Vice") and she manages to make a totally absurd scene (where she makes reference to her past) seem credible.  Maggie Cheung is also quite good as the feisty Jean, although her subplot is almost entirely superfluous and not sufficiently wrapped up.  Ruben Blades and Michael Hui provide support, but neither is especially memorable.

Apart from the generic dialogue and approach, there's a fundamental flaw in the way the story is told: there are very few scenes with John and Vivian.  When we first meet them, their affair has already ended, and a brief montage doesn't cut it as a substitute for real character interaction.  "Casablanca" did something similar to much better effect because we spent quite a bit of time with Rick and Ilsa during their affair.  We know what happened before, during and after their brief romance, which was the building block for the rest of the movie to stand on.  That doesn't happen here, so we have no investment in the love story between John and Vivian.  In fact, Vivian is on screen for far too short of the running time (that may be because Gong Li didn't speak English at the time…by her own admission she understands the language, but prefers to learn her lines phonetically.  I'm not sure if this was the case in 1997, though since according to iMDb, she didn't know English when she made "Memoirs of a Geisha" 8 years later).  The same thing afflicts Jean's story.  It's the perfect sort of material for a tearjerker, but the approach is so dull that not even Maggie Cheung's sparkling performance can generate much interest.

Wayne Wang is as much at fault as the script.  For a film that spends so much time extolling the mystery and complexity of Hong Kong, we never get to see the real city.  Going into non-touristy parts of the city doesn't cut it.  In a film like this, the director has to give the city a distinct personality, and while Wang gives it a game try, it doesn't work.  Hong Kong feels completely ordinary.  There are some attempts at symbolism, but they're clumsy and don't make any sense.


In some ways, movies like "Chinese Box" are worse than regular stinkers because it is so easy to see what it could have been.  When they share the screen together, there is chemistry between Irons and Li, and there are some effective moments here and there.  But it just doesn't come together.

The Guest

3.5/4

Starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelly, Leland Orser

Rated R for Strong Violence, Language, Some Drug Use and a Scene of Sexuality

It's a funny thing.  This year, like seemingly every other year for the past half decade, is chock full of sequels, remakes/reboots and re-imaginings (basically, attempts to make lightning strike twice while changing as little as possible).  Two, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and "The Purge: Anarchy," where infinitely better than their predecessors.  While "The Guest" has no relation to director Adam Wingard's pseudo "wink wink nudge nudge" of a slasher movie (that wasn't a "wink wink nudge nudge" slasher movie) save for an Easter Egg, it's a significant improvement upon "You're Next," which I disliked intensely.  And all things considered, it's the best of the three.

One morning, a man shows up at the door of an all-American family.  His name is David (Stevens).  He knew their son Caleb, who died in Iraq.  David was with Caleb at the time of his death, and promised him to look after his family.  Caleb's surviving family, which includes his parents Spencer (Orser) and Laura (Kelly), and younger siblings Anna (Monroe) and Luke (Meyer), react to him in different ways.  Laura and Luke worship him, while Spencer is a little more ambivalent.  Anna is the most guarded, but after she witnesses a phone call he makes, she gets suspicious enough to call the base that Caleb was stationed at and find out who exactly this guy is.

"David" is one of the great lunatics in cinematic history.  In a statement I do not make lightly, he belongs on the upper echelon of psychos along with Hannibal Lecter and Heath Ledger's Joker.  He shows up less than five minutes into the film, and as soon as he faced the camera, my blood turned to ice.  Much of that has to do with the deliciously creepy performance by Dan Stevens, who has gained some fame as Matthew Crawley on TV's "Downton Abbey."  I haven't seen the show, but marketed correctly, "The Guest" could earn him an Oscar nomination.  If Anthony Hopkins and Heath Ledger won those coveted gold statuettes for their villainous portrayals, Stevens should at least get an nomination.

"Creepy" doesn't really do the character justice.  He's flat out disturbing.  An actor's appearance is usually a minor detail when it comes to acting, but here, Steven's features only add to the scare factor.  The actor is handsome and looks like a small town's golden child.  Except for the eyes.  Steven's eyes, which Wingard highlights with the utmost care (credit must also go to the cinematographer and make up department), are viciously cold.  One look from him is enough to make you cower in intense discomfort.  I kept thinking of Lance Armstrong in "The Armstrong Lie."

If his appearance were the only successful element of his performance, "David" would still be chilling.  But the role is well-written by Simon Barrett.  "David" is a fierce protector and capable of startling violence.  His moods are also volatile especially when someone gets too nosy.  He can change moods in a flash, so there's always a sense of danger when he's on screen.

Stevens uses everything at his disposal to make "David" real, and the effect is intensely disturbing.  He's surrounded by an able supporting cast, but they're mainly reactors for Stevens to play off of.  Wingard, Stevens and the rest of the cast build the character carefully, and then stick him into a mysterious, if not terribly original, story.

I hated "You're Next," especially considering the insensitive release date.  I loved this movie.  It's truly chilling, occasionally quite funny, and highly entertaining.  Wingard takes chances, mainly with the film's tone.  It's understated and askew, and while it usually works, there are times, particularly at the end, when a straight approach might have worked better.  The ending is also a tad on the weak side, with supposedly smart characters suffering from brain cramps and an ending that might fit in a less intelligent movie, but reeks of desus ex machina in this one.

Adam Wingard seems to enjoy mixing and matching genres and tones.  For all its faults, "You're Next" tried to do for slasher movies what "Kick-Ass" did for the superhero genre.  It misfired spectacularly, but fortunately, the same fate hasn't afflicted "The Guest."  The film contains elements of film noir (this is a much better member of the genre than the year's earlier wannabe, "The Rover"), "stranger within" movies and conspiracy thrillers.  I applaud filmmakers who take chances, and Wingard makes it clear that he's throwing away the safety net from frame one.  As he himself proved last year, doing so can lead to a horrible movie, but fortunately that fate doesn't afflict "The Guest."  The result of his guts and his skill, not to mention Stevens' impeccable work, make this the premier choice for those who are looking to satisfy their annual craving of terror and general creepiness.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Amusement

3/4

Starring: Kathryn Winnick, Laura Breckenridge, Jessica Lucas, Keir O'Donnell

Rated R for Horror Violence, Terror and Disturbing Images

Most horror movies that fly under the radar do so for good reason: they're horrible movies.  Examples include "The Ice Cream Man" and "The Nun."  Occasionally, though, you find a diamond in the rough like "Amusement."  I won't pretend it's a perfect movie (in fact it has some very serious problems).  But for what it is, it's a chilling 85 minutes.

"Amusement" is made up of three short films about three old friends that tie together at the end.  First up is Shelby's (Breckenridge) story, where she and her boyfriend (Tad Hilgenbrink) face a nightmarish situation on the road.  Next up is Tabitha (Winnick), who has a very creepy experience babysitting (she and Laurie Strode would have a lot to talk about).  Finally, there's Lisa (Lucas), who is searching for her missing roommate.  A figure from their past is after them, and he has something very bad in store for them.

By far the best sequence in the film is the middle one.  Tabitha's segment is splendidly spooky, to the point where I was reminded of "Halloween."  Shelby's tale is not as strong, but creepy enough and features one hell of a plot twist.  Lisa's story is the weakest; it's not as clever or dynamic as the other two.  The climax is solid, but it stretches credulity to its breaking point.

The most impressive aspect of the production is its look.  "Amusement" looks fantastic.  It's dark but colorful and has a lot of atmosphere.  The cinematography by Mark Garrett and the production design by Craig Stearns is first rate.  This is one of the few movies where watching it on Blu Ray is going to make a whole lot of difference.

"Amusement" doesn't have any especially good performances, but horror movies rarely do.  That said, the acting is effective only by horror movie standards (and lets face it, no one goes to a horror movie expecting Oscar-worthy acting).  All of them have their flat moments, but for the film's purposes, they get the job done.  Veteran psycho Kevin Gage (he played Waingro in "Heat") and Rena Owen from "Once Were Warriors" have brief appearances.

The film suffers from the common maladies of many horror films: characters doing amazingly stupid things, deus ex machinas, the occasional pacing issue or editing gaffe.  They're there and occasionally fairly obvious, but they're not bad enough to completely ruin the movie.

This is by no means a classic horror movie.  Or even an especially good one.  But, I've seen it twice and I enjoyed it both times.  If you're looking for a scary movie and have seen everything else, this is one to try.

The Monuments Men

2/4

Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville

Rated PG-13 for Some Images of War Violence and Historical Smoking

George Clooney never takes the easy road.  He makes only the projects that he wants to, and few of those outside of the trilogy where he played Danny Ocean are easy sells.  He's acted in some unusual movies ranging from "Three Kings" (where he infamously got in a fistfight with the notoriously difficult David O. Russell) to "The American" (unseen by me, although I've heard that it is decidedly not mainstream.  "The Monuments Men" was Clooney's fifth outing behind the camera, and having seen all but "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," I have to admire his passion and willingness to be outside the mainstream, but I can't excuse his ability to tell a compelling story.

In an age where the height of our culture is compromised of reality TV, superhero movies and remakes, and Wes Anderson's ego, art needs all the help it can get.  Clearly, George Clooney thought so too because he clearly wants to impart on us the value and importance of art, new and old, to our way of life.  Unfortunately, Clooney isn't the one to tell it.  The story is all over the place, the characters are stick figures, and usually reliable performers give lackluster performances.

World War II is coming to a close.  Hitler has been stealing priceless works of art and hiding them until he can build a museum to store them all in.  That's the happy version of what's going on at the start of the film.  The unhappy version is that art is being destroyed in battle or on purpose by the Third Reich.  Fred Stokes (Clooney) wants to save as much of it as he can, believing that society without its culture is meaningless.  So with the permission of FDR, he has assembled a group of art historians, museum directors and curators to track down missing art and save it from being lost or destroyed.

The problem with this film is that Clooney is too ambitious.  Clooney wants to create an adventure movie about a lovable gang of misfits and underdogs trying to save something bigger than themselves.  But there are seven main characters, and developing them into a crew we want to follow across Europe for two hours requires a far defter touch than Clooney possesses.  Apart from Clooney and Matt Damon, no one has a lot of screen time (and even Clooney and Damon have trouble anchoring the film).  Clooney also wants to get the audience to respect art and ask us what it means to our culture.  Unfortunately, the script he co-wrote with his good friend and partner Grant Heslov is paper thin, and he's unable to effectively wed that with the main story.  As a result, he resorts to preaching to the point where it's a little insulting.  The story feels too simplified.  Surely finding millions of pieces of art wasn't as easy as Clooney says it was in this movie.  Clooney uses two works of art to provide the film with focus and dramatic tension, but it doesn't really work since the movie moves so fast (it feels like a trailer) and the characters mean nothing to us (it makes sense if you watch the movie).

This is a cast to die for, but surprisingly, no one gives a good performance.  Clooney and Damon are flat, and just about everyone else fades into the background.  Bill Murray in particular is almost invisible (but it at least got him away from Wes Anderson, if only for a short while).  Special mention has to go to Cate Blanchett.  Easily one of the best actresses working today, Blanchett has given brilliant performances in just about everything she's been in (the exception being "Notes on a Scandal").  So it would surprise you to learn that she's pretty bad in this role.  Whether it's the script or her accent, Blanchett doesn't make her character sympathetic or interesting.  In fact, Claire Simone is kind of annoying, and it's fortunate that she's strictly supporting.

I wanted to like this movie.  It's not awful by any means, but it is very disappointing.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Gone Girl

2.5/4

Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Fugit

Rated R for A Scene of Bloody Violence, Some Strong Sexual Content/Nudity, and Language

David Fincher was a respected music video director in the early 90's before moving into film.  By all accounts, his version of "Alien 3" was butchered by the studio, and while the movie wasn't good, it was weird enough to be compelling.  Fincher was given a second chance by directing "Seven," which shocked and terrified audiences in 1995.  From then on, he's been making one good film after another, earning a Best Director Oscar nomination for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and another for "The Social Network."

I like Fincher's work.  Known for his careful (almost obsessive) attention to detail and demanding many more takes per scene than is par for the course, the director has been behind some of the most innovative and suspenseful thrillers of the past two decades.  Lately, however, he's been in a bit of a slump.  At least that's my opinion.  Critics and audiences loved "The Social Network," but it's been since "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" that he did something really great.  "Gone Girl" isn't a reversal of that trend.  Actually, despite being positioned as an Oscar contender, it's his weakest film.

Nick (Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Pike) are a happily married couple living in Anytown, Missouri.  At least that's what everyone thinks.  But like many couples, the cracks begin to show when things get really tough.  Previously upwardly mobile New Yorkers, they were victims of the Great Recession and had to move to Missouri when Nick's mother got sick (actually, it was Nick's decision and Amy wasn't consulted).  Now, their marriage is on the rocks and they are probably heading towards a divorce.  Suddenly, Amy has gone missing in an apparent kidnapping.  Tough as nails detective Rhonda Boney (Dickens) and her partner Jim Gilpin (Fugit) are on the case.  But strange things are going on that cause everyone to wonder if this is really a kidnapping, or if Nick killed Amy.

The film's biggest problems are the sluggish first hour and the ending.  There's some worthwhile material here, but it's book-ended by disappointment and occasional boredom.

"Gone Girl" does something interesting with the manipulation of the audience's perception (this is not meant to be a criticism, since a story like this relies upon it and it's skillfully done).  While Nick is the protagonist, Fincher and Gillian Flynn (who wrote the screenplay based on her bestselling novel) construct the film in such a way that we don't know if we can trust him.  It works, but it would have worked a lot better had Ben Affleck given a better performance.  Affleck is a good character actor, and shines in low-key material such as "Good Will Hunting" and "The Company Men" (although he was frighteningly vicious in "Boiler Room").  Nick is meant to be an exhausted everyman who acts in ways that make us not trust him, but Affleck overshoots the mark.  Affleck is too low-key, and in a movie like this, it leaves him without much of a personality.  Nick is hard to empathize with, which limits the power of the first hour.  His co-stars are much more impressive.  Rosamund Pike gives a much more balanced portrayal, allowing us to see who everyone says Amy is and what Nick says she is without losing a connection between them.  Carrie Coon provides solid support as Nick's twin sister Margot, and Tyler Perry shows talent when he's working with a script and a director that is not himself.

The real surprise is Kim Dickens.  When I saw her name in the opening credits, I groaned.  Her wretched performance in "Hollow Man" and her not-much-better bit part in "The Gift" convinced me that she is a terrible actress.  I was proven wrong.  Boney is a great detective with fire and spunk, but also smarts.  She doesn't match up to Marge Gunderson in "Fargo," but who could?  Boney is easily the most interesting character in the movie, and the lion's share of the credit has to go to Dickens.  I wished she were in more scenes.

"Gone Girl" reveals what really happened to Amy about halfway through the movie, but that doesn't mean that the film loses its energy and momentum.  On the contrary, that's when things start getting really interesting.  I love movies that are able to continually surprise me, and that's the case here.  Just when you think you know what's going to happen, the movie proves you wrong.

Fincher's approach to the film is too serious.  "Gone Girl" is a mystery and not much more.  But Fincher takes it with such deadly serious that it appears that he thinks it deeper than it actually is.  There are themes and ideas about how relationships can go sour and how love can turn into hate, but these aren't exactly new or revolutionary.  They're pretty common place, and it makes the film seem a little pretentious.  Worse, it magnifies the film's plot holes (of which there are at least three).  Fincher does take some time to make some telling points about the media and trash journalism (Missi Pyle does a dead-on impersonation of Nancy Grace), but that's it.

The worst part of the film is the ending.  It's not believable and it is certainly not satisfying.  Fincher gets us ready for something we weren't expecting, but the film concludes on a whimper.  Flynn wrote a different ending than the one she used in the book to keep viewers interested and to avoid spoilers.  She probably should have kept the one she had.

I was hoping that Oscar season had started with "Gone Girl,"  Sadly, it appears we will have to wait a little bit before the really good stuff comes out.