Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ironclad

2/4

Starring: James Purefoy, Paul Giamatti, Aneurin Barnard, Kate Mara, Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi, Jason Flemying, Jamie Forman, Vladimir Kulich, Mackenzie Crook, Charles Dance

Rated R for Strong Graphic Brutal Battle Sequences, and Brief Nudity

For a movie that advertises itself as "Heavy Metal Gets Medieval," which is a great tagline by the way, "Ironclad" is little fun.  Nor is there any of the advertised heavy metal in the soundtrack, unless you count swords and shields clashing.

King John (Giamatti) is a tyrant of the worst kind.  He's so bad that the local barons rebel and he's forced to sign the Magna Carta, which leaves him on the throne but limits his power.  As you can imagine, King John isn't too happy about this, so he teams up with a 1000 Dutch mercenaries, led by the ferocious-looking Tiberius (Kulich).  His first objective is to take the castle at Rochester, which would allow him to control all of Southern England.  Realizing that that is his plan, Baron William D'Aubigny (Cox) gathers up a motley crew of warriors, including a very tormented Templar Knight named Thomas Marshal (Purefoy), and prepares for a siege.

I was watching "Braveheart" the other day, and while watching "Ironclad," I was reminded of Robert the Bruce, played by Angus MacFayden, saying that Scotland was a country "without any sense of itself."  I will say the same about this movie.  It tries to be everything and ends up being none of them.  Multiple screenwriters could be to blame.

For example.  The movie begins where the Baron is recruiting his old team, it has, or tries to have, a sense of fun.  It looks like this is going to be a rousing adventure.  But the film's bleak cinematography and lack of humor argue against that.  Later on, the film takes a turn for the grim.  And that's leaving aside the gore, which is considerable (it's not up to "Saving Private Ryan," but it's close).  There are also some silly cliches that find their way into the film, such as the thought-to-be-dead guy coming to the rescue at just the right time.  Mention must go to the romance between Thomas and Lady Isabel (Mara), which is so lacking in chemistry that it brings the proceedings to a dead halt every time the film brings it up.  It should have been left on the editing floor.

The cast includes some of Britain's most criminally underrated character actors.  James Purefoy will forever be Marc Antony from HBO's "Rome" in my mind, but he does a solid job as the conflicted soldier.  Sadly, there's just not enough meat for him to chew on.  Paul Giamatti is in full-on bezerk mode, which is great, since no one foams at the mouth like him.  King John isn't half as much fun as Hertz from "Shoot 'Em Up," but I still got a kick out of it.  Aneurin Barnard is wonderful as Guy the Squire, who's beginning to understand what taking a life means.  Kate Mara is inconsistent as the obligatory local girl; it's a good performance, I guess, but there's something off about her.  Maybe it was the accent, which sounds convincing, but strange coming from her.

Jonathan English has absolutely no idea of what he wants his film to be, so it tries everything.  As a result, it's a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas and messy storytelling.  Actually, "messy" is a good way to describe the film, since it's drowning in gore and English has a tendency to shake the camera frenetically during the action scenes (although only in the beginning).  Careful, I'm about to go on a Paul Giamatti freak out!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Family

0.5/4

Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John D'Leo, Tommy Lee Jones

Rated R for Violence, Language and Brief Sexuality

"The Family" is a complete disaster.

It is amazing how often this movie misfires.  And how badly.  Apart from a few (I counted four) amusing moments, there isn't a single element that works.  It's so bad that I am in awe.  With some movies, like "Strangeland," it's not really a surprise if the movie turns out to be shit.  But this movie stars three legendary actors and is directed by Luc Besson, a French filmmaker who knows what he's doing.  Then again, so does Robert Redford, and he made "The Conspirator," which is just as bad.

The Manzoni family used to be part of the mafia in New York.  But after Giovanni (De Niro) became a rat, they went into the Witness Protection program.  They've had trouble adjusting to civilian life, so they've been relocated for the umpteenth time.  Now they're the Blake family.  Giovanni is now Fred, his wife is Maggie (Pfeiffer), and his children are now named Belle (Agron) and Warren (D'Leo).  Of course, old habits die hard, and their handler, a gruff man named Stansfield (Jones), points out that unless they get their act together, it's only a matter of time before the mafia finds out where they are and tries to finish the job.

This could have been a great black comedy: an ex-Mafia family tries to survive in a small French town the only way they know how.  But the jokes are so weak that I missed them, and the script is a mess.  It's badly organized and the story is all over the place.  Putting it simply, it's not a well-put together motion picture.

The acting doesn't help matters.  Both Robert De Niro and Tommy Lee Jones are in "take the money and run" mode.  They know the movie is shit, and just want to earn their money.  Michelle Pfieffer, who is in far too few movies these days, gives it a game try, but there's little that she can do.  She tries so hard that I felt bad for her.  Dianna Agron appears lost, while John D'Leo has the closest thing to a personality, but is let down by the script and a lack of screen presence.

There are so many problems with the movie that if you were to name one and say that it was the final nail in the coffin, you'd be right.  In addition to having a disaster for a script, the film is shockingly unfunny.  I mean, it's like totally unfunny.  Is it supposed to be funny to watch Robert De Niro track down who is responsible for the brown water in his house and torture anyone who tries to screw him over?  It sounds like something straight out of a Wes Anderson movie, and that's not a good place to be.

Then the film commits character assassination.  At the beginning of the film, the Blake family are a quartet of badasses, but when things get tough, they turn into wusses.  What the hell?  These lived the mafia life?  Bull.

There was such a great opportunity here.  Mob movies have always been big, with some of them ranking as being among the best films ever made ("The Godfather," "Goodfellas," etc.).  It was about time that someone skewered the genre (there was a "Godfather" spoof called "Mafia!" made in 1998, but I don't think anyone saw it).

With all of this talent, I had a right to expect more.  A LOT more.

Red River

2.5/4

Starring: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, John Ireland, Joanne Dru

Not Rated (probably PG for Violence)

I have nothing against the Western genre on principle.  I'm sure you can make a great movie with horses, six-shooters and cowboy hats (and tumbleweeds, of course).  It's just that I haven't seen any good entries.  The ones I've seen are either overrated ("Unforgiven," the "3:10 to Yuma" remake) or horrible ("Shane").  Surely one starring John Wayne, whose name is synonymous with the genre, would be great.  In truth, not really.

Thomas Dunson (Wayne) is as stubborn as they come.  If he makes a decision, he sticks to it no matter what.  Not even his best friend Groot (Brennan) can change his mind.  So when he decides to abandon a wagon train to grow a cattle herd, he and Groot do so despite the objections of the train leader.  It turns out to be a smart move, as the train is attacked and everyone, including Fen (Coleen Gray), the woman he loves and promised to send for, is killed.  The only survivor is a kid named Matthew Garth (Mickey Kuhn), whom Dunson and Groot unofficially adopt.

Cut to more than a decade later.  Dunson's herd has grown to 9,000, but staying in one place has made it unprofitable.  He decides that the only way to make any money is to take it to Missouri and sell it, and that's a dangerous journey.  With Matt (now played by Clift) and Groot, he and a bunch of the other men set out on the trail.  But Dunson's financial woes have made him desperate, and that leads him to push the men harder than they would like (or is safe).  Soon, there is enough dissension in the ranks to pit Dunson against Matt.

The idea behind "Red River," based on a story from the "Saturday Evening Post" by Charles Schnee (who co-wrote the screenplay), has potential.  But the film is poorly paced.  Shave about ten minutes off the first hour and I might be able to give the film a bit more than a marginal recommendation.  Conflict is king in the movies, and there are times when it feels like Hawks is more interested in the minutiae of how to transport 9,000 cattle over 1,000 miles.  But that stuff can really only be supplementary, not the focus of a film.

John Wayne is an icon, arguably one of the most famous stars ever to come out of Hollywood.  Believe it or not, this is the first movie I've actually seen him in (edit: that's a lie.  I saw him in "The High and Mighty").  He gives a good performance.  In truth, it's better than the screenplay allows.  Dunson is written as a one-dimensional lead, but Wayne makes sure we understand why he acts the way he does.

Although it wasn't the first movie Montgomery Clift made ("The Search" was filmed first), it was the film that made him an overnight sensation.  It's a good performance, although I thought he was better in "From Here to Eternity."  Matthew is loyal to Dunson, but won't support him when he crosses the line.

Of the supporting characters, Walter Brennan provides the most color as Groot (he also provides the narration).  Not to be forgotten is John Ireland, who plays the silky and rather mysterious ranch hand, Cherry Valance.  Both of them steal scenes and are fun to watch (especially Brennan).

"Red River" did not have the most harmonious cast.  Clift didn't get along well with either Wayne or Brennan (he was a closeted gay Democrat while they were staunchly conservative Republicans).  The studio claimed that the three of them had agreed not to discuss politics, but in reality they avoided each other like the plague.  Clift actually turned down a role in "Rio Bravo" because he didn't want to work with either of them again.  John Ireland's bad behavior (caused by alcoholism) caused Hawks to drastically reduce his role, which was originally offered to Cary Grant (who turned it down).  And there were lots of injuries and illnesses on set.

I won't deny that there is some compelling material here.  Some scenes land, particularly the action scenes.  Others do not, due in no small part to the script, which contains some truly awful dialogue.  The ending is also horrible.  I could see what Hawks was trying to do, but it backfires and feels like a cheat as a result.

This isn't a terrible movie, but it should have been a lot better than it was.

Ouija

1.5/4

Starring: Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Daren Kagasoff, Bianca Santos, Douglas Smith, Shelly Hennig, Lin Shaye

Rated PG-13 for Disturbing Violent Content, Frightening Horror Images and Thematic Material

"Ouija" exists for one reason only: to extract money from texting tweens who pay more attention to what they read on social media than what's on screen.  It's the ultimate paper tiger; there's nothing here.  It's all marketing and branding.  And with Michael Bay producing it, you know he's going to make sure that every teen has to see this movie or risk being out of the loop.

The story, for anyone who cares, is about a group of stupid teenagers who learn that trying to contact the spirit realm generally isn't a good idea (haven't any of them seen any horror movies?).  A pretty blonde girl named Debbie (Hennig) has just killed herself.  Her friends, led by the adult-like Laine (Cooke), decide that using her old Ouija board to contact her is the best opportunity to find out why and to say their goodbyes.  Smart move.  Naturally, creepy (a term I use loosely) things start happening, and they're all in danger.

Yawn.  While it's true that stories are less important than the skill that is used in the telling (compare "Halloween" to any garden variety slasher), "Ouija" has an especially lame plot.  Even worse, it doesn't kick in until the movie is half over.  The first half is a look at the grief process involving the teenagers, which would have been fine, had it been better written and acted.  For those who are looking for a movie along those lines, Todd Field's "In the Bedroom" is an excellent choice (about grief, not ghosts and movies based on anything with a "known name").

As is the case with most horror movies, the characters are both stupid and boring.  The only one of them who is of any interest in Laine, and that's primarily because she's in almost every scene.  No one else can hold the camera's attention, let alone ours.  Lin Shaye, who after the "Insidious" movies is becoming more famous for horror movies than her nude scene in "There's Something About Mary," also makes an appearance, but while she's the most interesting character in the film, that's not saying much.

After the "Transformers" franchise, Michael Bay has become a popular whipping boy.  Yes, they're stupid and kind of dull, but not nearly as bad as everyone says.  I've resisted getting on taking part in Michael Bay beatdowns because I know what he's capable of, but my resistance is waning.  Not that he cares; Bay is one of the most successful directors working in Hollywood because he knows how to target teenage boys from around the world.  Still, I can't help but wonder what it he could accomplish if he would put his energy into a worthwhile project,

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Interstellar REVISED

3.5/4

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Mackenzie Foy, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Topher Grace

Rated PG-13 for Some Intense Perilous Action and Brief Strong Language

Note: Normally I don't go back and re-edit a review. although I do occasionally change a film's rating ("Hollow Man," "The Descent," and "Carriers" are three examples).  But with "Interstellar," a second viewing was mandatory.  There was some brilliant stuff in this movie, but the overbearing sound drowned out much of it.  Having seen the movie the way it was meant to be seen, I can say that the original rating was totally inappropriate, and have given it the one it deserves.

One thing I like about Christopher Nolan is that he is a risk-taker.  While it's true that he has a number of stylistic touches and a way of telling stories that make it clear that he's the one in charge (downbeat storylines, color desaturation, repeat casting, to name a few), he's always pushing the limits of his talents and trying new things.  "Interstellar" is unlike anything he's ever done.  Nolan has always demanded that the audience use their brains while watching his movies, but not even "Inception" was this cerebral.  In fact, it's closer to an arthouse film than his "Batman" franchise.

That doesn't mean it's inaccessible.  Far from it.  There's plenty of action and adventure, although this is far removed from "Star Wars" or "Star Trek." To use a cliche, it puts the "science" in science fiction.  "Interstellar" is a mentally dense film; turning off your brain will result in the viewer getting lost...guaranteed.  In fact repeat viewings are probably going to be essential for many people.

That's okay, though, because the movie, if viewed in the manner Nolan intended, is incredible.  It's a beautiful, exhilarating, scary and enriching film.  Truly stunning.  So many action movies are content to be directed by studio executives and marketing teams (like "Godzilla" and the "Transformers" franchise).  But Nolan has always been a storyteller, and that's what he does here.

By now, everyone has read my original review, or more likely, seen the movie already, so I'll skip a plot overview except when I need to.

The performances are outstanding.  Matthew McConaughey has never been better than he is as Cooper.  Sure, traveling to the stars is something we as a species have only dreamed about, but it comes at a heavy cost: he has to weigh the chance of seeing his family again against the fate of mankind itself.  In theory, it's a no-brainer, but McConaughey personalizes it.  There's a scene where he is watching a video of his children, and its heartbreaking.  Manipulative, yes, but if there's one scene that is going to get the actor another Oscar nomination (which is very likely), this is it.  He's surrounded by an able supporting cast, including a tart but emotional Anne Hathaway, a terrific Jessica Chastain and Nolan regular Michael Caine, but this is McConaughey's show.

Nolan's movies have always boasted impressive visuals, but nothing compares to what he has in brought to the table in "Interstellar."  I like Wally Pfister's work (Pfister couldn't be Nolan's cinematographer on this film, as he was working on his directorial debut, "Transcendence"), but "Interstellar" is flat-out gorgeous.  There are some impressive shots in this film, such as the dust storm or the space station, but the shots set in space and on the other planets are works of art.  The planet Saturn makes an appearance, and it will take your breath away.  If I didn't know any better, I'd swear that Nolan went out there himself.

Apparently I'm not the only one who had problems with the sound in "Interstellar."  Seeing it in a different theater made some improvements, but apparently, Nolan wanted the audience to experience sound in chaos, where the characters couldn't understand each other.  That aspect doesn't really work, however, because it leads to confusion.  Plus, some of the science is confusing for those without physics degrees.

Still, seeing it again was a remarkably different experience.  "Interstellar" demands repeat viewings and discussion.  It is also one of the best films of the year.


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Hoop Dreams

3/4

Rated PG-13 for Drug Content and Some Strong Language

James Berardinelli said in his review of "American Movie," a documentary about a filmmaker trying to make a movie, "to succeed in the independent film industry, a director must possess three critical attributes: luck, drive and talent.  The absence of any one of those characteristics can be fatal."  I think that's true of any industry with a lot of demand and few opportunities.  Berardinelli was describing Hollywood, but it applies to other areas of life, from being President of the United States to the next Mark Zuckerberg.  Or an NBA star.

Actually, Berardinelli simplified things for the purposes of making his point, and "Hoop Dreams" proves just how much.  Becoming a "star" of sorts in some respect takes those things that he listed, but it also takes incredible drive and sacrifice.  It's also a situation where if one small thing doesn't line up in your favor, everything you worked for can come crashing down in an instant.

The film follows William Gates and Arthur Agee, two kids living in inner-city Chicago.  Both of them are have dreams of playing in the NBA, and have enough talent that a scout recruits them both to play for St. Joseph's Academy, a private school with a killer program and reputation.  Fate, as it turns out, has different ideas for both of them.

The best thing about the film is that it pays attention to the forces that shape William and Arthur's lives.  They are governed by forces both in and out of their control.  For example, only one of them ends up playing for St. Joseph's, while the other has to go to a local school.  And yet, some of what decides their future rests on their shoulders (one has a scholarship to a good school, but needs to get his ACT scores up before it can be offered).

The contrast between the two boys is refreshing because it is so realistic.  One's life seems to be perfect, while the other seems to be destined for failure.  But then their fortunes switch.  And switch back.  And switch part way.  The filmmakers do not attempt to manipulate the footage into a certain mold.  They simply let each boy's life unfold.

"Hoop Dreams" was originally going to be a 30 minute short for PBS that focused on one playground and its players.  That is, until the filmmakers realized what they had on their hands.  It soon turned into an 8 year long project that included about 250 hours of footage that was edited down to a hair under three hours.  The wealth and verisimilitude of the material is astonishing, and is directed in such a way that it seems cinematic.  This is a documentary that doesn't seem like a documentary.

Famous film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert wildly praised this film, with both of them calling it the best film of 1994.  Ebert put it on his "Great Movies" list and said it was the best film of the 1990's.  Their outrage over how it (and "Crumb") was snubbed out of a Best Documentary nomination led to change in Academy rules.  I wish I could praise it as much as they did, but I can't.  It's a good movie to be sure, but not great.

The main problem is it's length.  I'm not known to be a stickler about a movie's running time.  It's just not something I usually notice.  But here, I did, and for all the wrong reasons.  "Hoop Dreams" simply runs on for about 20 minutes too long, and there were definitely times when I looked at how much time was left.  It limits the power of the material to a fraction of what it could be.

Nevertheless, this is a movie that is worth seeing.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

2.5/4

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Sam Claflin, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, Some Disturbing Images and Thematic Material

I'm not the world's biggest fan of this franchise, and that's mainly because the world the story takes place doesn't seem very real or interesting.  The settings of "Harry Potter" and "The Lord of the Rings" felt alive; it was as if the filmmakers had created whole entire worlds rather than just telling the stories.  Middle Earth and the Magical World of Harry Potter had personality.  Panem is just a word.

Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) has been responsible for turning her world entirely on its head.  An act of defiance has caused her home district to be flattened by the Capital, which is led by the ruthless President Snow (Sutherland).  There are survivors, including District 12 President Alma Coin (Moore), and allies from other districts.  They want her to be the Mockingjay, the symbol of a revolution, but it's a role that she doesn't necessarily want.  Making matters more difficult is that Katniss's boyfriend Peeta (Hutcherson) is being held captive in the Capital.  But after seeing the devastation of her home town, Katniss accepts the role, but that means learning just how ruthless Snow can be.

Plot coherence has always been a problem with the franchise, and that's the case here.  This is a movie that is meant for fans only; you have to watch the first two films in quick succession in order to understand everything, although I'm not sure that that will help.  The script feels half-finished, as if there is more going on behind what we see and hear.

The stakes also don't feel very high.  Director Francis Lawrence doesn't do a good job of setting the stage.  The limits of his vision were apparent in his first film, "Constantine," and his ability to handle big projects hasn't improved.  We never get a sense of how big this world is or how it works.  He needs to learn the merits of the saying "show, don't tell."  The only action scene that generates suspense does so because it features characters we know.

Of all the sci-fi/fantasy heroes and heroines, Katniss Everdeen has to be the weakest.  Just about everything she does is because she's forced into it.  Few decisions she makes are her own; everyone tells her what to do.  Everyone tells her what to do and while she protests at times, she does it anyway.  Every good hero needs a backbone; the underlines follow his orders, not the other way around.  It's not that Jennifer Lawrence is bad, it's that her character is badly written.  She's got way too much reluctance and not enough strength.

The franchise has attracted some high-profile names: Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (in his final role, which was completed using rewrites).  All do solid jobs, but there's not much for them to work with.

It's easy to guess who should see this movie.  If you like the books or the first two movies, see this one.  If not, skip it.

Predators

3/4

Starring: Adrien Brody, Alice Braga, Topher Grace, Walton Goggins, Olek Taktarov, Laurence Fishburne, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Mahershalalahshbaz Ali

Rated R for Strong Creature Violence/Gore and for Pervasive Language

To be quite honest, I wasn't all that enthused with the original "Predator" starring Ah-nuld.  I gave it a 3/4, but if memory serves me correctly, I wasn't very enamored with it.  The 2010 reboot produced by Robert Rodriguez isn't a classic (and neither was the original), but it's better.

A man wakes up to find himself falling through the sky.  It's a common nightmare, only this guy (he's named Royce, and played by Adrien Brody), isn't dreaming.  Fortunately a parachute opens up and he hits the ground in one piece.  Shortly thereafter, he hooks up with a number of other people in the same position.  None of them know where they are or how they got there, but that's going to be the least of their problems.  It turns out that they are on a different planet, and have been brought in to be hunted by some nasty aliens.

"Predators" works because it delivers exactly what is expected.  A diverse group of badasses (most of whom are on hand to fill up body bags.  Or worse) packing impressive firepower.  Nasty aliens with shoulder-armed guns, nasty cutlery, heat-vision and invisibility.  And gobs of gore.  More importantly, director Nimrod Antal is able to raise the tension to an acceptable level and stage some good fight scenes.  He's no John Woo, but he's much better than Jonathan Liebesman or Len Wiseman.

If you're looking for someone to cast as an action hero, chances are Adrien Brody isn't going to be on the top of your list.  He looks more like a bohemian than an action hero.  Surprisingly, he does a great job as the gritty mercenary.  He's surrounded by a solid supporting cast, although apart from Alice Braga (who is in entirely too few movies) and Topher Grace (another odd but effective choice), no one has much to do.  Laurence Fishburne appears for a bit as a total whackjob, but he's miscast.

I do have one criticism with the film, and that's the pacing.  The film takes a while to get going, and there are times throughout the film where I wish it would hurry up.  But the once it starts, it rarely lets up, and that's an acceptable trade-off.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

What's Love Got to Do With It?

2/4

Starring: Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Jenifer Lewis, Chi McBride, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, Vanessa Bell Calloway

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

Few things are more dull than a paint-by-the-numbers biopic, and that's what this is.  Not only does the film recycle old cliches without giving them any sort of life, it doesn't even fully present them.  So not only are we seeing things we've seen in just about every other showbiz drama (the film opens with one of those generic Deep South settings, with the minimalist bluegrass soundtrack...yawn), we're not even seeing all of it.

That's a shame, because Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne give performances that should be seen.  Both were given Oscar nominations (deservedly, I might add), but neither the script by Kate Lanier and director Brian Gibson do them justice.  The story is generic and the script is weak.  Only in the second half are the two allowed to really shine.

The film covers Turner's (Bassett) life from the 50's (after a brief clip where Tina, who's real name was Anna Mae Bullock, got kicked out of the choir for too much passion and came home to find that her mother had left home with her sister), when she met Ike Turner (Fishburne) to when she made her comeback in the 80's.  30 years is too long for a 2 hour movie to cover when you're trying to include everything.  The film seems more like a "greatest hits" album rather than a fully constructed narrative.  No pun intended.

By far the weakest portion of the film is the beginning, which is constructed purely out of showbiz drama cliches.  Let's see, you've got the naive small town girl who has moved to the big city, gets noticed by the artist himself at a concert where she blows away the posers and wannabes for his attention, the mother who is reluctant to allow her daughter to try and make it as a musician...the list goes on.

Once we see Tina and Ike's marriage disintegrate, that's when the film takes off.  The script slows down a little and allows Bassett and Fishburne to show what they can do.  But director Brian Gibson keeps imploding it by inserting concert footage between each scene.  The music is great and Bassett does an amazing job of lip syncing and dancing, but it gets repetitive.  Dramatic scene, concert scene.  Repeat.

The film's construction is sloppy in general, actually.  Characters come and go without warning (for example, Tina's mom disappears from the film without warning or explanation), and genuinely interesting ideas are left undeveloped (like Tina's understanding of Ike's abandonment issues).  It's too bad, because some of this material could have given the film life and personality that it so desperately needs.

It's a real pity.  Bassett displays more range here than in all of her other movies combined, and Fishburne is magnetic as Ike Turner.  They deserved better.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Nosferatu the Vampyre

3.5/4

Starring: Klaus Kinski, Isabella Adjani, Bruno Ganz

Rated PG (probably for Scary Images)

Watching Werner Herzog's re-imagining of of F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent classic starring Max Schreck will make you realize how twisted the "Twilight" franchise actually is.  While there's certainly no rule against taking common folklore and putting your own spin on it, I'd be less eager to use that as a counterpoint if it wasn't so awful.

"Nosferatu the Vampyre" is unlike any vampire movie you've ever seen (unless you've seen the 1922 film).  There's little in the way of violence and almost no blood and gore.  It's all atmosphere.  This is a movie that works because Herzog takes his time.  Rarely has the presence of evil slithered off the screen like this.

The story is like a bare bones version of "Dracula" (the copyright on "Dracula" expired long before this film was made, which wasn't the case with the 1922 version, which had to change names and significant portions of the plot.  It didn't work, since Bram Stoker's widow sued, and won, for copyright infringement).  Jonathan Harker (Ganz) is assigned to go to the Transylvania to sign over a house with a man named Count Dracula (Kinski).  His wife Lucy (Adjani) has a bad feeling about this, and doesn't want him to go.  But this will bring him a great deal of money, so despite her objections, he embarks on the long journey.  When he gets there, he finds that Dracula is a mysterious man with some odd habits (such as staying up all night and sleeping all day).  But Jonathan doesn't judge until the Count decides to snack on his neck.  Then he realizes that Dracula has designs on Lucy.

There's no denying that this is a scary movie, although not in the traditional sense.  There are no "jump" scenes, no chase sequences, and no large cutlery.  Herzog has higher aspirations than a blood-soaked gorefest, or god forbid!, a tween romance.  He uses sound and images to unsettle us, and it works.  The film opens up with images of mummified children forever locked in tortured screams.  It's a brilliant start, and it never lets up.

Credit must go to Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein, whose camerawork is brilliantly eerie.  He carefully controls the amount of light and shadow on screen, and it shows.  This is a gorgeously creepy looking movie.  In addition to the opening credits, there is also a coffin march that is truly disturbing.

The soundtrack by Popal Vuh is mixed.  When it's meant to be creepy, it's genuinely scary (the chanting will raise the nape hairs on your neck).  The lighter score works during happier moments, but not in contrast with the darkness.

The acting is effective, although due to the nature of the production, it relies more on body language than dialogue.  Kinski, Adjani and Ganz are the only actors with more than token screen time, so in that respect, the film rests on them, and they deliver.

The best (and showiest) performance is given by Klaus Kinski.  Kinski's reputation was as monstrous as the character he plays, but Herzog was the only director able to work with him.  Dracula is neither a cultured killer that had been the norm after Bela Lugosi played him, nor is he pure malevolence.  He's a man who is tortured by his own desires.  In fact, he's closer to an addict than a remorseless killer.

Isabelle Adjani also had reputation of being difficult to work with, although for polar opposite reasons.  Rather than being a diva (as is the stereotype), Herzog had to constantly reassure her that she was doing a good job.  And she did.  Her body language may make this seem like a stuffy arthouse film at times (these are one or two moments in a 100 minute film), but all in all she plays a great devoted wife.  Lucy is filled with genuine warmth and light, and that's because of Adjani.

Bruno Ganz is effective, but due to the nature of his character, he's mainly a reactor, and they generally aren't as interesting as more assertive characters.  But Ganz, who would become an acting legend in Germany (and would turn down the lead role in "Schindler's List"), is effective in his own way.  Jonathan loves Lucy, but he's not the brightest bulb in the bunch and gets in way over his head.  Ganz allows us to sympathize with him anyway.

There are two versions of this movie: one in German and one in English.  According to iMDb, it was filmed in German and dubbed into English (Kinski and Ganz are German born, and Adjani is French but speaks both German and English fluently).  That's strange, since the lip movements sync up to the words perfectly, and when Jonathan writes a letter, it's in English.  James Berardinelli said that Herzog filmed the two versions back to back (only the scenes featuring dialogue).  That makes more sense.

As non-traditional as it is effective, "Nosferatu the Vampyre" is not easily shaken or forgotten.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Big Hero 6

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, Daniel Henney, Maya Rudolph, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk

Rated PG for Action and Peril, Some Rude Humor, and Thematic Elements

"Big Hero 6" is big time fun.  That's probably the best thing I can say about the movie, but since a single too-cutesy sentence isn't a review, I'll go on.  Happily.

"Big Hero 6" is a superhero movie that doesn't feel like a superhero movie.  It uses a number of the same conventions but in different ways.  For example, many films, such as "Spider-Man" and it's way too early reboot "The Amazing Spider-Man," use a tragic death to jump start the story.  That's the case here, but whereas the Spidey movies used the death of Uncle Ben as a way to launch the plot, "Big Hero 6" uses a superhero story to explore it.  Really, this is an animated action comedy about the grieving process.  It sounds totally bizarre, but it's true.

The film takes place in a version of our world where San Francisco and Tokyo have been merged into a single city called San Fransokyo.  Hiro Hamada (Potter) and his brother Tadashi (Henney) are both science geniuses, capable of creating wondrous inventions with just a little time and effort (this is a fantasy, so such things come with the territory).  Despite being smart enough to graduate high school before puberty, Hiro has rejected going to college, believing it to be for nerds.  That is, until Tadashi shows him the cool stuff he and his friends are doing.  But Hiro's invention, which was his ticket into the university, is stolen and a fire kills Tadashi.  Later, Hiro learns that the fire was no accident, and someone is using his invention for sinister purposes.  Now he, Tadashi's robot Baymax (Adsit) and Tadashi's friends must band together to bring the evildoer to justice.

The central relationship in the film is between Hiro and Baymax, which is essentially a walking, cuddly hospital.  There's nothing revolutionary about the trajectory, but it's essayed well by the script and voice acting.  I believed in it, and that's what counts.

Also worth mentioning is the sensitivity in which the filmmakers deal with the death of Tadashi.  "Spider-Man," for all of its pluses, shortchanged the relationship between Peter Parker and Uncle Ben.  Once it served its purpose to the story, it was dropped.  That hasn't happened here.  The relationship between the two brothers is carefully built, and Hiro's grieving process is handled with skill and honesty.  It's really the focus of the entire film, actually.

That doesn't mean that the film is grim.  Far from it in fact.  By and large the film is light and fun, with some truly hilarious comic bits.  The voice acting, particularly by Potter, Adsit and Henny, is right on the mark.

The problem with the film is that while the action scenes are skillfully put together, they last a little too long and there are too many of them.  That's a small quibble, particularly when most action movies rarely provoke more than yawns.  A far greater problem is the ending.  It's not so much what happens, but how it's handled.  It feels as if the filmmakers were trying to pigeon-hole it into a traditional superhero movie mold, which isn't a good fit.

It's not as complex and enchanting as "Spirited Away" or as awe-inspiring and exhilarating as "Rise of the Guardians," but it's still a great family movie.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Redemption

3.5/4

Starring: Jason Statham, Agata Buzek

Rated R for Strong Brutal Violence, Graphic Nudity, and Language

Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.
That's a quote from John Milton's "Paradise Lost."  It was used as a tagline for the serial killer thriller, "Seven," and oddly, enough, it's an appropriate descriptor for "Redemption."  You couldn't find two more different films, but the idea applies to both of them.

It is human nature to make mistakes.  It's how we learn.  Anyone who says otherwise is only kidding themselves.  When we screw up, we have to make things right, and often times that easier said than done.  Especially when by trying to do right, you inadvertently make things worse.

John Smith (Statham) is an ex-Special Forces soldier who ran away from facing a court-martial because of something that happened in Afghanistan.  He's a full-time drunk and living on the streets of London, and shares a box with a woman named Isabelle (Victoria Bewick).  After a pair of thugs collecting money and drugs take her and sell her to a pimp (and beat the crap out of John), John ends up in a nice apartment whose owner is away for the next few months.  With the encouragement of Sister Cristina (Buzek), a kind nun who runs a soup kitchen that he frequents, John sets out to make something of himself and make amends for those he wronged.  Of course, as Sister Cristina points out, working for some Chinese gangsters isn't the best way to go about it.

Anyone looking for something like "The Expendables" or "Crank" will not find it here.  "Redemption" is primarily a drama; there is some violence, but it's to illustrate something about John's character.  Adrenaline and eye candy aren't on the menu (although Agata Buzek is beautiful).

This is a two-character piece between John and Cristina, and they are fascinating people.  Both have their demons, which we only find out as the film goes on.  Few films take the time to develop characters as well as them.  It helps that they are being portrayed by more than capable actors.

Jason Statham is like Arnold Schwarzenegger; he's known mainly for being able to kick ass and toss off one-liners.  Action stars like them aren't really known for their thespian abilities, but when Statham got me to care about Chev Chelios in the utterly ridiculous "Crank," I knew that there was more to him than his muscles.  Statham is excellent in the role of John.  He's a man who has seen horror and is unable to escape it except through running into a bottle.  He also believes that being a driver for guys like Mr. Choy (Benedict Wong) is worth it because it allows him to give back to those who need it and those he screwed over.  I was surprised at how much I cared about him.

Easily equaling him is Polish actress Agata Buzek.  She doesn't have much of a resume, but she's a natural.  Cristina calls John a hypocrite for what he does while secretly realizing that she's the same way.  Taking a 500 pound gift from a drunk man to buy a ballet ticket isn't exactly the most righteous thing to do...even if he tells you to spend it on yourself.  Like John, she's got secrets of her own.

The developing relationship between John and Cristina is much more than a simple romance.  That's out of the question, although there is no doubt that they've had a profound impact on each other.  It's hard to explain, so the best advice I can give is to just watch the movie.  You won't be disappointed.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Railway Man

2/4

Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgaard, Sam Reid, Tanroh Ishida, Hiroyuki Sanada

Rated R for Disturbing Prisoner of War Violence

This review contains spoilers.  I try to avoid spoiling anything, but here it's necessary to give a little more information than I usually do.  That being said, I don't think it will have much of an impact on the viewing experience if you read the whole review before you see the film.

When we study wars in history class, or see war movies, we like to think that once the white flag goes up, it's all over.  Win or lose, you go home and live your life.  We know that that's not the case, but it gives us comfort.

Few movies take the time to remember this.  I haven't seen "The Best Years of Our Lives," arguably one of the first, and definitely most famous, movies to look at the emotional scars of war, but I did see "In the Valley of Elah," which was haunting and sad, but its emotional impact was limited due to the fact that Tommy Lee Jones was completely miscast.  "The Railway Man" seeks to do the same thing, but sadly, it has even less success.

Eric Lomax (Firth) is a quiet man living in England in 1980.  He keeps to himself, even when hanging with the guys at the club for war vets.  He has a fascination for trains, which leads him to meet a woman named Patti Wallace (Kidman).  They fall in love and are soon married.  But Eric endured horrible things during the war, and even after 40 years, he's been unable to get over them.  Patti is desperate to help him, but as Finlay (Skarsgaard), Eric's old superior officer, tells her, she will never understand.  She's determined to help him, however, and may get her chance when Finlay finds that Tagashi Nagase (Sanada), the man who tortured Eric mercilessly is in fact still alive.  Eric sets out to meet with him.

"The Railway Man," which is based on a true story, is a powerful story, and it's one that needs to be told.  But the film version of it feels shallow, sanitized and pedestrian.  There's little depth to this film, and what complexity there is is ruined by the melodramatic way it is presented.  The questions it asks and the conclusions it comes up with are ones that we have all seen before, and director Jonathan Teplitzky doesn't do anything special with them.

The film's biggest problem is Colin Firth.  In the right role, such as Bertie in "The King's Speech" or the "stiff Brit" stereotype that made him famous, he can be a great actor.  But Firth's range is limited (according to James Berardinelli, he made a laughable action hero in "The Last Legion").  There are moments when he is effective, but they are few.  Nicole Kidman doesn't have much to do but play the worried wife, which is a shame because she's quite good here.  Jeremy Irvine makes for a much better Eric Lomax, although he's arguably a little too restrained.  Stellan Skarsgard is his usual reliable self as the older Finlay, although his character is more or less a cliche.  Sam Reid, the actor who plays his younger self, is very, very good.  The best performance goes to Hiroyuki Sanada, a Japanese actor who did solid work in small roles in movies like "Speed Racer" and "The Last Samurai."  Sadly, Teplitzky fails to capture the power of his performance.

It's obvious that Jonathan Teplitzky is trying to ape Steven Spielberg here.  He's not trying to make "Schindler's List," but he is going for the grand manipulation that Spielberg is famous for.  Unfortunately, he keeps missing the mark; the violence and brutality lacks intensity and immediacy and the big emotional moments come across as overwrought and cheesy.

The script is also very, very shallow.  Teplitzky and the screenwriters seem to be content to stay on the surface.  The characters are stick figures, and the situations they find themselves in are attacked with little vigor.

Then there's the film's central villain.  When we finally find out what happened to Eric, we learn that the man who has haunted him for 25 years didn't actually inflict any violence on him.  He was just asking question while someone else put him through unendurable suffering.  This is an instance where some dramatic license should have been taken.

All in all, the only word I can use to describe "The Railway Man" is "disappointing."


Friday, November 7, 2014

Interstellar

2.5/4

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Mackenzie Foy, Michael Caine, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace

Rated PG-13 for Some Intense Perilous Action and Brief Strong Language

Christopher Nolan is one of the most popular filmmakers working today.  Apart from Steven Spielberg (who at one point considered directing the film) and James Cameron, no one can claim a mastery of popcorn entertainment, and no one's next project is ever more highly anticipated by the public.

There's a reason for this: Nolan is one of the hardest working and most talented directors in the industry.  Unlike Michael Bay, he doesn't waste his talent in the search of a quick and easy buck.  Nolan is always challenging himself, willing to take that chance and do something different.  Many filmmakers, even the best ones, shy away from taking risk.  Not so with Nolan.  He's always pushing himself to do something totally different and testing the limits of his considerable talents.  More than that, he has consistently met the high expectations he has set for himself.

With "Interstellar," Nolan has attempted his most challenging and audacious film yet.  He seeks to explore the challenges and dangers of interstellar space travel.  Rightly knowing that the film wouldn't succeed with mass appeal without a human face on the conflict, he has the strong relationship between a man and his daughter as our gateway into the drama (actually, family relationships in general are Nolan's emotional focus here).  The results are mixed, but the film's problems have less to do with the science-talk (which is occasionally confusing, but not unforgivably so) and more to do with the fact that the soundtrack and special effects drown out a substantial amount of the dialogue.

In the near future, the Earth is no longer capable of sustaining human life.  Farming is essential for the survival of the human race, but crops that are able to provide food for mankind are dwindling.  Cooper (McConaughey), a fighter pilot turned farmer, has been seeing some strange things going on in his house, and eventually this leads him to what remains of NASA.  His old professor, a man named Brand (Caine), has come up with a plan to travel through a wormhole to a nearby galaxy and see if there are any planets capable of sustaining human life.  He wants Cooper to fly the shuttle with his daughter Amelia (Hathaway).  But due to time dilation (which would make everyone on Earth age much faster than him), Cooper must face the reality that he may not see his daughter Murph (Foy as a child, Chastain as an adult) until she is elderly...if at all.

"Interstellar" is not a space opera.  Warp Drives and light sabers have no place here.  Nolan is more interested in the science aspect of it, and the grim realities that come with it (such as the fate of a few scientists).  Cooper and his crew total four people (plus a robot).  The odds of survival are not on their side.

Unfortunately, Nolan has fallen into the same trap that he did with Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises," only this time it's much more extreme.  I was engaged by what I understood of the film, but at least half of what the characters are saying is drowned out by the sound effects or Hans Zimmer's dramatic score.  In the past, Nolan has had the respect and confidence in his audience that they will be able to follow his dense plots.  Apparently that has changed.  This is inexcusable (not to mention a huge pet peeve of mine).

That said, the performances are top notch (a Nolan trademark...he's one of the few action directors who knows how to direct actors).  Leading the pack is Matthew McConaughey.  McConaughey doesn't have great range, and I wasn't particularly enamored with "Dallas Buyers Club," the film that won him the Best Actor Oscar last year.  But in the right role, the Texas native can do great work, and this is easily, easily the best performance he has ever given.  I would be surprised if he doesn't get an Oscar nomination.  We can really feel how he is torn between the love of his daughter, who never forgave him for leaving, and the mission.  Choosing between the love of a child and saving the human race may seem like a no-brainer, but I felt his conflict, and appreciated how neither he nor Nolan turn it into a soap opera.  It's played very realistically.  The other members of the cast do fine work, but this is all McConaughey.

I'm having a tough time deciding whether or not to recommend the film.  On the one hand, I appreciated the chances that Nolan takes and how he doesn't talk down to the audience.  McConaughey's work is strong enough that it would be worth seeing in a terrible movie (which "Interstellar" is not).  And there are some truly awesome scenes in this film (the film is guaranteed Oscar nods in those areas).  On the other, a huge portion of the dialogue is unintelligible, which leads to quite a bit of confusion.

As it stands now, I'm going to give it a 2.5/4, although I reserve the right to change it once I see it on Blu Ray with subtitles.

J. Edgar

2/4

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench

Rated R for Brief Strong Language

The structure of "J. Edgar," a biopic of the man who built the F.B.I. as we know of it today, is that of Biopic 101: an elderly character reflects on the most important events in his life through rose-covered glasses.  Such a choice is odd, since J. Edgar Hoover's story, as screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and director Clint Eastwood see it, is filled with darkness and pain.  Surprisingly, this storytelling decision of theirs works, but it's one of the few that does.  What doesn't work is an unfinished screenplay and a sorely miscast lead actor.

Shortly after WWI, there was a large Communist following in the United States that threatened to destabilize the country.  The Bureau of Investigation is impotent because they cannot arrest people simply for their beliefs.  But an ambitious young agent named John Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio), or "Edgar," as everyone called him, is willing to break the rules to deal with the threat.  After a huge and successful crackdown, Edgar is made director of the organization that would later become to be known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Helping him are his loyal and faithful secretary, Helen Gandy (Watts) and Clyde Tolson (Hammer), his number two man and secret lover.

Like in most biopics, a few select events are used to explore the lead character and his impact on the organization he created.  Here, it's a would-be communist uprising, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the mob, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  That's all well and good, and four events is enough for a two-and-a-quarter-hour movie.  Unfortunately, Black's screenplay fails to sufficiently explore all of these events and what impact they had on Hoover.  Eastwood's decision to present the film out of order without clear organization certainly doesn't help matters, but many of the ideas that Black wants to present are half-formed.

Of far greater concern is Leonardo DiCaprio.  I've been a huge fan of the actor since I first saw "Titanic" seventeen (!) years ago, and he has proven to be capable of giving electrifying performances.  But he can't do everything, and the role of J. Edgar Hoover is outside his range.  I'll give him points for the attempt, but I gotta be honest: he's rarely convincing, and at times he's cringe-inducingly bad.  He's worse here than he was in "The Great Gatsby."  Fortunately the same cannot be said of his co-stars.  Armie Hammer is in top form.  While there is one scene where he can't reach the necessary dramatic depths, for the most part he's excellent.  Hammer radiates warmth and genuine feeling.  The actresses, Naomi Watts and Judi Dench, have almost nothing to do (Watts especially), but as is the case with the best performers, I'm just going to keep my mouth shut and be grateful for the opportunity to see them on screen.

A word has to be said about the make-up used to turn DiCaprio, Hammer and Watts into elderly people.  The decision to age them using make-up was most likely financial as well as practical, but the effects are mixed.  The work done on DiCaprio and Watts is entirely convincing, but Hammer's make-up job is looks like something out of a cheesy Halloween store.  It's awful and calls attention itself in the worst ways.

Director Clint Eastwood has kept the film fairly understated in terms of tone.  Eastwood has always remained a relatively low-key director, and while a figure as powerful and controversial as J. Edgar Hoover probably deserves a grander and more active portrayal, such an approach is fine for what Eastwood is trying to explore.  But the film lacks focus.  What he is saying with each set piece is unclear.  The editing by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach is also problematic.  The film is coherent enough that calling it haphazard would be unfair, but there doesn't seem to be much of a method to their madness.

There is some good stuff here.  The film always looks great, and it earns most of the emotions it strives for.  Plus Armie Hammer proves why he is an actor to watch.  But there are far too many problems to call it anything other than "disappointing."

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Heavy Metal

3/4

Starring (voices): Percy Rodriguez, John Candy, Eugene Levy

"Heavy Metal," the cult animated film from Canada (of all places) is all 80's.  From the garish visuals to the cheesy animation, it can't be mistaken as being from any other time than from when Reagan was President and Michael Alig and his friends painted the club scene red.

Based on science fiction and fantasy stories from "Heavy Metal" magazine, this film is an anthology of short animated stories that radiate with pulp energy.  Nolan's "Dark Knight" has no place here.  Think "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow."  Granted, it's nowhere near as innocent as Kerry Conran's criminally underrated movie, but it has the same "gee-whiz" energy.  A better analogy would be the "Spaceman Spiff" strips from Bill Waterson's "Calvin and Hobbes."

The stories vary in terms of plot and quality.  Most are sci-fi and fantasy, although there is one futuristic film noir called "Harry Canyon" (which doesn't get the film off to a good start) and "B-17" a WWII horror story (which is good, but far too short).  My favorites were "Den," where a nerdy kid gets transported to another world and transformed into a bronze Adonis (it's pure space opera) and "So Beautiful and So Dangerous," where a woman accidentally gets kidnapped by aliens (two of whom are voiced by John Candy and Harold Ramis).

The problem with an anthology format is that there's so little time for real development (this was a problem for "New Year's Eve" as well).  Five or ten minutes isn't enough time to get an audience involved in a story.

Another criticism I have with the film is the treatment of women.  I have nothing against sex or nudity on film (and there's a lot of the latter), but it's different here.  They are constantly sexualized in a way that even I found distasteful, and they're portrayed as either violent vixens or whimpering idiots.  Nice message.

"Heavy Metal" was not very popular during its initial release, but, like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," it became a cult hit during midnight screenings.  That doesn't surprise me.  This isn't mainstream entertainment.  It's meant for a select few, but those who enjoy this sort of thing will find a lot to appreciate here.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Nightcrawler

3.5/4

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton

Rated R for Violence including Graphic Images, and for Language

Sorry comic book nerds, this isn't a film version of the "X-Men" character (thank God...).  Instead, it's about an odd duck who finds a niche, and will do anything to rise to the top.

Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a strange young man living in Los Angeles.  Blessed with extremely limited social skills, he uses petty crime to get by.  Then he sees an accident on the freeway where two police officers are pulling a woman from a flaming car.  Also on the scene is Joe Loder (Paxton), a "nightcrawler."  A nightcrawler is a someone who records footage of crime scenes (the more carnage the better, and preferably without police interference) and sells them to news stations.  Lou thinks that this would be an easy way to make a quick buck, and decides to do it himself.  He turns out to be very good at it, which earns him the admiration of Nina Romina (Russo), who runs a low-rated news station.  But Lou is ambitious, and he'll do anything to get to the top.

"Nightcrawler" is part character-study and part-thriller.  Lou is a fascinating character with an interesting way of looking at the world.  He is not a normal individual; he views himself as a CEO of a major company (complete with all the mantras) despite the fact that he's barely able to make ends meet and has only one assistant (a guy named Rick, played by up-and-coming British actor Riz Ahmed) under him.  He's socially awkward with borderline-autistic personality traits.  He's also very ambitious and highly intelligent.  Not even I was prepared for some of the things that he does.

The cornerstone of the film is Jake Gyllenhaal.  The young actor has made a name for himself playing darker characters ("Donnie Darko" being a prime example), although he is more than capable of handling lighter material like "October Sky."  Lou Bloom is easily the most twisted character Gyllenhaal has ever played.  Having dropped 20 pounds for the role, the athletic looking Gyllenhaal looks emaciated (not to the extent that Christian Bale did in "The Machinist" though). and his striking eyes are hollowed out.  Director Dan Gilroy highlights this and photographs them in such a way that Lou seems more unhinged than he already is.  While it's too early to tell if Gyllenhaal will get an Oscar nomination, it's definitely a possibility.

He's surrounded by an able supporting cast.  Rene Russo was once one of the premiere leading ladies in Hollywood, but has laid low over the past 10 years (the only films she appeared in were "Thor" and its sequel).  She's not the world's greatest actress, but for the most part the role is within her limited range.  Nina is a high-powered newswoman who pays lip service to Lou's ambitions and likes the material that he gets her, but things quickly go way too far.  Riz Ahmed and Bill Paxton are also very good in small but important roles.

When I first heard of "Nightcrawler," it sounded like another "Network" clone, and that my viewing of "$ellebrity" was eerily prescient.  But while Dan Gilroy, a screenwriter making his directorial debut (who is also the spouse of Rene Russo), pays lip service to our love of carnage and the media's willingness to exploit it, he's not interested in repackaging old ideas.  Instead, he's created the anti-"Working Girl."  Both Lou and Tess McGill are trying to get ahead, but while Tess is merely impersonating her two-timing boss, Lou's methods are much more sinister.

The problem with the film is, ironically, the film's central character.  Lou is a fascinating individual and Gyllehaal is absolutely marvelous in the role, but the character is underwritten.  I never got inside his head and understood how he saw the world.  This is crucial for a character as unusual as Lou, but Dan Gilroy's script is in need of some rewrites.  Or a longer running time to further develop the subtleties of Lou's personality.

Nevertheless, "Nightcrawler" remains compelling viewing.  It's a tough sell because it's not easy to describe it completely in a few sentences, but it's well worth seeing.  Trust me on this.

The Snowtown Murders

0/4

Starring: Lukas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall

Not Rated (Probable R for Language, Some Strong Violence, and Sexual Content involving Molestation)

I watch movies to be told stories through images and sound.  I want to get sucked into a compelling narrative filled with interesting people.  I also want to be viewed with respect by the filmmakers.  If I wanted to inflate someone's ego by looking at their crap, I'd go to the nearest museum of modern art.

Either someone didn't tell Justin Kurzel making a movie isn't a testament to his ego, or people actually like watching pretentious puke like this.  Surprisingly, Roger Ebert loved this movie (he gave it a 3.5/4).  He might have been the only one.

This is a movie where the director mistakes blank looks for deep thought, and thinks he can make jumping on the trampoline artistic.  If the film wasn't so deadly dull, I'd be laughing at what a clown Kurzel is.  If I want to see a movie about a serial killer (or killers, in this case), I want darkness and suspense, not ego-stroking.  The scariest scene in this movie is when a snake makes a meal out of a dead mouse.  Gripping stuff, huh?

What can I say about the plot?  Not much, since it's almost completely incoherent.  Either Kurzel is trying to make "Memento" Part 2 (and failing miserably), or his editor was actively trying to sabotage the movie.  Perhaps both.  On paper, it's a telling of The Snowtown Murders (hence the title), where John Bunting and his accomplices murdered 11 men and one woman.  In reality, it's an ego-trip of pointless conversations and bad storytelling.

There is a big difference between reality and movies, and that's the way audiences want it.  Is "The Lord of the Rings" meant to resemble real life?  Of course not.  It's a fantasy, just like every other movie.  I don't know about you, but I watch movies to escape reality, not pursue it.  Meaning, I want to avoid small talk that doesn't hold any meaning for anyone except the characters.  Most of the time during this movie, the characters talk and talk about nothing.  It's meant to be hyper-realistic, which would be a good effect if there was any point to it all.  But there isn't.

Apparently, Justin Kurzel loves eating as much as Michael Bay loves explosions.  The reason I can safely assume that is because in half the scenes in this movie, some or many people are eating.  That wouldn't be anything more than a repetitive oddity if Kurzel didn't insist on blaring all the gross sounds from it.  Seriously, he picks up every chew, clink of china and slosh of saliva.  What was he thinking?

There's not much I can say about the acting.  Except for Daniel Henshall (who shows some ability but no charisma, which is apparently Bunting's main reason he had such success) and one other actor playing a bit part, all are non-professional actors from Snowtown.  The background characters (like the dinner party) are successful in the way they seem straight out of reality.  But that's not something that has a place in movies.  It feels off putting.  Lukas Pittaway is not very good.  Kurzel places a lot of emphasis on his facial acting, but it's not something that he excels at.  When he's supposed to have buried anger or pain, he simply wears a blank look on his face.

With movies like "The Rover," "The Square" and "Animal Kingdom," I'm about to write off every Austrialian "thriller" as something to avoid (at least "Acolytes" was easy to make fun of).  They've all been dull at best and wretched at worst.  "The Snowtown Murders" is just another reason to give them a wide berth.