Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Mike's Musings: Bottom 10 of 2014

Every year has its stinkers...movies you wish you could un-see.  Since that's not possible, I can allow myself (and those unfortunate to have seen these monstrosities) a little chance for revenge,  And one last warning to those who are considering watching these movies.  Be forewarned, these are the worst of the worst of the year.

10.  Wish I Was Here.  Not only is this a bad movie, it's not even a complete movie.  It's more of a trailer than a complete film, and while I love movie trailers, there's a reason why they are only a few minutes long.  Either Zac Braff got completely lost after making the wonderful "Garden State," or his editor should never be allowed to cut a film again.

9.  The Drop.  I hate it when directors let their egos control the movie.  Art is only art when it's actually good.  Here, director Michael R. Rocksam is convinced that his film is "groundbreaking" and artistic when really it's just a mess.  Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and the late James Gandolfini deserved better.  At least the puppy was cute.

8.  Into the Storm.  I like an action movie as much as the next guy.  Even if it's dumb and won't change my life.  But it has to be fun, which "Into the Storm" is not.  It's gimmicky and shamelessly manipulative.  It also never stops moving, which would be a good thing if the story was interesting and there was a character or two worth caring about.  Say what you want about "Twister," but Jan de Bont knew what he was doing.

7.  The Best of Me.  One might defend this movie by saying "it's a Nicholas Sparks movie."  Of course it is, and you get what you paid for.  Schlock filtered through rose-colored glasses.  But that's okay.  It is, after all, a Nicholas Sparks movie.  But the script is embarrassing to the point where the actors (the ones who can act) are helpless, and the film's violence rubbed me the wrong way.  Let's hope that Sparks' next romantic saga (it's called "The Longest Ride" and stars Scott Eastwood and Britt Robertson...due out next April) is better.

6.  The Giver.  Now here is a movie that just pissed me off.  The book was wonderful and the film adaptation practically made itself.  But for reasons I cannot understand, they turned it into an action movie.  There are no conversations of any substance, nor any that last more than a few seconds.  The film's crucial and mysterious set-up is over within the first ten minutes, and the film ends on a chase scene.  A chase scene!  That's like ending a film version of "Hamlet" as a slasher movie.  True, "The Giver" isn't "Hamlet," but the mistake is just as dumb.

5.  Neighbors.  Oh, Seth, what happened to you?  The funny, everyman schlub that wormed our way into our hearts with "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" has become an egotistical, stand-up comic.  Seriously, the jokes aren't funny, and repeating them different ways doesn't change that.  Just shut up, bro.

4.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Michael Bay is a popular whipping boy these days, despite the fact that his movies make tons of money.  I've never gotten on the bandwagon because I know he has talent ("The Rock" ranks as one of the best, if not the best, action thrillers ever made).  But the man is becoming increasingly hard to defend.  Not content with making good movies, he's been making crass and sleazy marketing schemes and shoving them in our faces to the point where it's distasteful.  Bay didn't direct the reboot of the Ninja Turtles, but he did produce it, which is almost as bad.

3.  Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (released in 2013, but seen in 2014).  Will Ferrell, will you please stop working with Adam McKay?  You can be so funny, but you need a script and a director.  McKay loves you so much that he thinks whatever you say will be hilarious.  And you must have some idea of how bad the material is because you resort to shouting your lines in a desperate, but futile, attempt to get a laugh.  By and large, it doesn't work.

2.  The Rover.  You know how sometimes people make fun of art films as being dry and inane (I remember an episode of "The Simpsons" where the family gets free tickets to a movie at an arthouse theater, which turns out to be run down, where the characters speak bland dialogue in deadpan monotones)?  This is what they were talking about.  The problem is that it's meant to be taken seriously, and that means a considerable amount of pain and agony for whoever actually sits through this.  A lot of critics seemed to like it, which begs the question whether we saw the same movie or they were trying to impress the indie crowd.  As bad and pretentious as "The Drop" was, it was a lot better than "The Rover."

1.  God's Not Dead.  Was there any other choice?  It's the only movie a gave out a zero-star rating to.  This.  Movie.  Sucked...BIG TIME.  I mean, it's awful.  It preaches instead of exploring a fascinating question that has puzzled mankind from the dawn of existence, the commercialism in it is appalling (the awful cameos by Willie and Kori Robertson are just the start), and the film is divisive when the religion that it seeks to emulate is inclusive (every Christian is a saint while every atheist is a raging psychopath).  And the movie doesn't even work on its own terms.  The acting is terrible, the characters are stupid, and the hole's in the hero's logic are painfully obvious.  It's so bad that even members of its target audience hated it, although it made a killing at the box office.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014



Starring: Tom Hardy, and the voices of Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels, Tom Holland, Bill Milner

Rated R for Language Throughout

I watched this film to see if it would end up on my Top 10 list for the year, only to realize that it came out last year.  So much for that idea...

Not that I didn't want to see it.  I'm a big fan of Tom Hardy, and I heard the film was great.  Surprising, considering that it's just Hardy in his car talking to people for 90 minutes.  But the key to the movie's success lies not in the premise, but in the execution.

"Locke" isn't a thriller, at least not in the usual sense.  But because I want to keep the film's revelations a secret, I will tread lightly.

Ivan Locke (Hardy) gets into his car for a long car ride.  He has a number of important calls to make, and by the look on his face, he's not excited to make any of them.  But they all result from one decision he made a long time ago, and what he decides to do about it will cost him everything.

Tom Hardy is one of Britain's most versatile young actors.  Forget the tween stars like Robert Pattinson.  You want talent and good looks?  You go with someone like Tom Hardy.  Although he is mainly known for his intense performances in movies like "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Inception," he is more than capable of handling lighter material such as "This Means War," which made my Top Ten list two years ago (although apparently Hardy did not enjoy making it).  This is Hardy as we've never seen him.  He's playing an average guy whose life crumbles around him.  Hardy isn't as volcanic and angry, but he's no less honest.

Hardy is surrounded by an able supporting cast, but due to the nature of the production, they're all off screen.  This movie is all Hardy, and he is more than capable of carrying a film on his shoulders.

"Locke" was written and directed by Steven Knight, who also made the surprisingly effective "Redemption," starring Jason Statham.  Both are thoughtful, pensive films about good people who do bad things and try to make amends.  For both Joey (Statham's character) and Ivan, it won't be easy (if it's even possible at all), but that doesn't stop them from trying.

Interestingly, I thought of Hardy's personal life when watching this movie.  Hardy battled an addiction to alcohol and cocaine, eventually getting sober in 2003.  I don't know if that influenced his decision to take the role or how he played it, but it would be easy to believe either explanation.  For an addict, honesty is key (as was demonstrated with tragic consequences in "Smashed," starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and when you screw up, you have to own up to it.  That's what Ivan is doing, and knowing this little factoid about the actor adds a little subtext to the film and his performance.

Despite the film taking place almost entirely in Ivan's car, this isn't "My Dinner with Andre" (although I checked the clock a few times).  Knight keeps things moving, and Hardy is good enough that I wanted to know what happened to Ivan before and after the film's story.  Ivan's one-sided conversations with his father don't make a lot of sense, although it's easy to understand their general meaning.  It's also unclear what he learns at the end.  But these are pretty small quibbles for such an innovative and riveting film.

Into the Woods


Starring: James Corden, Emily Blunt, David Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Johnny Depp

Rated PG for Thematic Elements, Fantasy Action and Peril, and Some Suggestive Material

If you haven't noticed, I quote/reference James Berardinelli a lot.  This is because I like him a lot as a critic.  I have a voracious appetite for his work and check his website daily to see if he has written anything new.  Not only is he a good writer, he's very knowledgeable about film and knows what he's talking about.

In his review of the film version of "RENT," he said, in a nutshell, that it's usually not a good idea to directly lift a stage musical and put it on the screen.  There is an intimacy between the stage actors and the audience which can't be replicated on screen, thus a replacement must be found.  I liked the movie "RENT," although it may be because I saw it before I saw it on Broadway, which I subsequently did.  Twice (you haven't seen a Broadway show until you've heard Frenchie Davis belt out a solo in the "Seasons of Love" reprise live on stage).

But that's beside the point.  What I'm trying to say is that I know what he's talking about.  "Into the Woods" seems to be a stage musical set to a green screen, and I couldn't help wondering how they did some of the songs on stage.  Other times, it was plainly obvious.  That would be a definite irritant if the story wasn't lame and the songs weren't so generic.

In other ways, the play has gone under some significant changes.  According to Berardinelli, one important character has been omitted, changes the fate of another and tones down the sexual nature of two relationships (reportedly, composer Stephen Sondheim was not pleased with this).  Not having seen the stage production, I can't comment on whether or not these tank the film, but I will tell you that they have not resulted in a movie that is worth seeing.

The Baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt) are childless.  This causes them great grief, which alerts them to The Witch (Streep).  Apparently, The Witch was screwed over by The Baker's father (Simon Russell Beale) years ago, and she placed a curse upon the house that they lived in.  In order to lift it, the couple has to find four things: a milk-white cow courtesy of Jack, from "Jack and the Beanstalk" (Huttlestone), a golden slipper that turns out to be owned by Cinderella (Kendrick), a red cloak from Little Red Riding Hood (Crawford) and golden hair from...ta da! Rapunzel (Mauzy).  But the Witch has her own motives.

Of the actors, Emily Blunt and Chris Pine are worth mentioning.  Yes, Meryl Streep is wonderful as always, but frankly, this is something she could do in her sleep.  Emily Blunt is wonderful.  This is the best and most touching performance she's given, and the film really takes off when she's on screen (which, thankfully, is the majority of the film).  Chris Pine doesn't have a lot to do or much screen time, but he has a surprisingly good singing voice.  Who knew?  Also worth mentioning is Lilla Crawford, although for less positive reasons.  Usually she's good, but there are times when she toes the line of being obnoxious.

If the first two thirds are lacking in energy and filled with cheesy CGI (it's the bad, grainy, creaky CGI that's obviously made on the cheap...see "Sherlock Holmes" for an example) and bad editing, then the film comes to a dead halt at the third half.  I mean, it stops dead in its tracks.  The characters essentially stand around wondering if they've made the right decisions.  It's not cinematic, and director Rob Marshall should have realized that it wasn't going to work as written.  It needed to be radically re-visualized (the same goes for the entire production, in fact) or drastically cut down.

This is a disappointment from Marshall.  Both "Chicago" and "Memoirs of a Geisha" were just shy of brilliant, and while "Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides" was lame, it was better than this.

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)


Starring: Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan, Dan Byrd, Vinessa Shaw, Aaron Stanford, Emilie de Ravin

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

I don't ask a lot from a horror movie.  I really don't.  An engaging story (originality is preferred, but not required), a character or two worth caring about, and a creepy sense of atmosphere is all I ask for.  Sadly, director Alexadre Aja can't even manage that.  Apart from a few legitimate shocks, this movie is a total waste of time.

I haven't seen the original 1977 thriller directed by Wes Craven, but according to James Berardinelli, this one is better.  He wrote: "The story has been tightened up, the acting is better, and the blood-and-gore effects aren't as hokey."  Considering how bad this movie is, I should be thankful that I haven't seen the original.  I thought this might be a surprising idea as I was writing this.  Then I remembered "My Soul to Take."

The story, such as it is (and it's not a very strong plot), is about the Carter family and their ill-fated trip to San Diego.  Big Bob (Levine) is the gun-toting, liberal-hating ex-cop (I kept thinking of the nuts in Georgia who took advantage of their "open carry" law and would bring their guns to Starbucks, Wal-Mart and the like).  Ethel (Quinlan) is his Bible-thumping wife.  Vinessa Shaw plays Lynne, his oldest daughter (the dress she wears is frumpy enough to make her look like one of those fundamentalist Mormons we heard about when Warren Jeffs was arrested) who is married to Doug (Stanford), a liberal, gun-hating, borderline hipster (who turns out to be the world's biggest pussy).  They also have a baby together, which is obviously important to the film's plot.  Also on board are Bobby (Byrd), the teenage son that wants to emulate Big Bob, and Brenda (de Ravin), his snotty older sister.  Big Bob insists on taking the "scenic route" to San Diego, much to the chagrin of his family, and makes the mistake of taking a short-cut to the highway (offered by the obligatory inbred-looking hick, played by Tom Bower).

Everyone does stupid things in horror movies.  Without that fact, we wouldn't have horror movies.  The key is to raise the tension to levels where we don't notice or if we do, don't care.  "Halloween" did that.  "Fear" did that.  "Sinister" did that.  "The Hills Have Eyes" does not do that.  These people are dumb.  And when I say dumb, I mean dumb enough to the point where killing them is a public service.  They do the usual idiotic things, such as trusting a guy whose family history involves inbreeding going back at least five generations, splitting up when they're stranded, and running after the dogs into the middle of nowhere (these dogs get loose so many times that I wanted to call the Human Society).  But seriously, how can you not notice two deformed psychos in your trailer, especially if one of them is sexually assaulting a family member ten feet away?  That's not just stupid, it's negligent.

After three movies, I firmly believe that Alexandre Aja is a hack filmmaker.  His movies are much more graphically violent (the film had to have 2 minutes cut to avoid an NC-17, and considering the MPAA's leniency when it comes to violence, that's saying something).  But so was "Saw," and that was genuinely scary.  Why?  Because James Wan knows what he's doing, whereas Aja is the Wes Anderson of horror movies: a talentless douchebag who is convinced he's making something innovative and important.

The bottom line is that the movie sucks not because it's gratuitously violent and gory (that's to be expected), but because it's so goddamn boring!  Pacing is essential for any kind of a thriller, and Aja doesn't have a clue.

At least the scenery looks nice, although I don't think Big Bob would be able to appreciate the irony that it was filmed in Morocco, and not 'Murica.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Theory of Everything


Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Charlie Cox, Harry Lloyd, Simon McBurney, Maxine Peake

Rated PG-13 for Some Thematic Elements and Suggestive Material

It's hard to imagine a movie about Stephen Hawking, one of the most important figures in the science world, could be so dull and lifeless.  But just because they are famous and influential doesn't mean that their life story could lend itself well to a cinematic adaptation, and I have my suspicions that Hawking's story is one of them.  Apart from his life-altering disease, not much out of the ordinary happens to him, and "ordinary" is (usually) a recipe for boredom.

Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) is a brilliant young graduate student at the University of Cambridge.  He impresses everyone, especially his mentor, Dennis Sciama (Thewlis), with his revolutionary ideas.  Socially, he's awkward and physically gawky and clumsy.  But he engages in a successful courtship with Jane Wilde (Jones), and they eventually fall in love.  Then the bombshell drops: he has "motor neuron disease" (aka ALS).  Because that comes with a two-year life expectancy, he and Jane decide to marry.  But he defies all expectations and is still living today.

Director James Marsh, who directed the hit documentary (as far as documentaries not directed by Michael Moore go) "Man on Wire," concentrates more on the marriage between Stephen and Jane than the science that made Hawking world famous.  I suppose that's the right way to go, since concentrating on the latter would limit the film's appeal to physicists (what science material there is makes little sense).  Unfortunately, Marsh's approach is generic, making the film closer to a "disease-of-the-week" TV movie rather than legitimate drama.

The film's two leads, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, are high contenders in this year's Oscar race, Redmayne especially.  Upon viewing the film, I don't know why.  Neither is bad, but neither is especially good.  Redmayne portrays a cripple and Jones plays his increasingly over-extended wife.  But they don't exhibit much in terms of personality, and as such, aren't very interesting.  They are constantly overshadowed by the supporting characters.  Much more lively and engaging are Charlie Cox, who plays Jonathan Hellyer Jones, the choirmaster who helps the family out (and eventually falls in love with Jane...and later marries her) and Harry Lloyd, who plays Brian, Stephen's best friend.  David Thewlis is also in fine form as Sciama, Stephen's mentor and friend.  Christian McKay (Orson Welles in "Me and Orson Welles"), Emily Watson and Simon McBurney also appear.

James Marsh won an Oscar for making "Man on Wire," the documentary about Philippe Petit, the man who walked from one corner of the World Trade Center to the other.  That movie may have been flawed, but my hands are sweating just sitting here thinking about it.  The only thing I'm going to remember about this movie is how good it looks; the cinematography by Benoit Delhomme is Oscar-worthy.  What I'll try to forget is the boredom, the lost potential, and the borderline shameless attempt at being a "prestige" film.  It's not as bad as "Million Dollar Baby," but it's close.

It's rare that an Oscar-bait movie misfires so badly.  This one does.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Interview


Starring: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Randall Park, Lizzy Caplan, Diana Bang

Rated R for Pervasive Language, Crude and Sexual Humor, Nudity, Some Drug Use and Bloody Violence

No one can stop talking about "The Interview" because of the whole controversy behind it.  Sony was hacked by North Korea, who then threatened retribution if they released the film.  The company then pulled the film from release, which resulted in an outcry from George Clooney to President Obama.  Now seeing "The Interview" has become an act of defiance against tyranny and a celebration of the First Amendment.  That would be all well and good if the film was actually worth seeing.

I was not looking forward to seeing this movie.  Seth Rogen used to be one of the funniest men in Hollywood, but his ego led to some potentially funny films ending up as travesties.  His thirty-year-old-manchild schtick has grown stale and his bromantic relationships teeter on the edge of being offensive.  I'm all for gay jokes, by the way, as long as they're funny.  Sadly, Rogen loves doing riffs on the same joke that have the same moderately funny punchline.

To my surprise, "The Interview" is not as bad as I thought it was going to be.  There are plenty of painful sequences, including five bits where Rogen and his good pal James Franco keep doing various takes on the same joke (I kept thinking to myself, "I get it!  Move on!").  But there is also a surprising amount of material that works, and anything with Randall Park, who plays the much hated dictator, hits paydirt.

Dave Skylark (Franco) is the host of trash news show "Skylark Tonight," and with the help of his producer and bro Aaron Rapaport (Rogen), it's become as watched as any other news show.  But after a run-in with a former classmate, Aaron begins to want to go legit, and convinces Dave to do the same.  That's when they get a call from North Korea, saying that the new dictator, Kim-Jong Un (Park), is a fan of their show and wants to appear on it.  After broadcasting their plans to the world, a pretty CIA operative named Agent Lacey (Caplan) asks them to "take out" the dictator (this is one of the many sequences that Rogen and his co-writer/co-director Evan Goldberg stretch out long past the point where it's even remotely amusing).  Eventually they agree, but both Dave and Aaron are morons, and they keep screwing up.  More trouble arises when Dave begins to think that Kim isn't such a bad guy and Aaron falls for one of the censors who is overseeing the newscast (Bang).

I am tempted to write the same thing I wrote for every other recent Seth Rogen movie: funny when the bits are short, but Rogen insists on delivering the same punch-line again and again.  For example.  One of the gags is how they find Lacey attractive and how that can be used to manipulate them.  It's funny when we discover that Dave has become aroused by her bosom that she doesn't show, but do we really need to hear (and see) another variation of the joke and two others about what they plan to do about it?  Or do Dave and Aaron really need to spend a whole minute trying to get over the awkwardness of telling each other that they love each other (obviously in a totally hetero way)?  The answer is no on both counts.

Rogen keeps himself in check for the most part, and that's to the film's benefit.  Lately, he's become a stand-up comic in his movies, rather than a stand-in for ourselves, and shooting his mouth off about the same lame jokes rather than offering an insight (if a juvenile one) into male behavior.  James Franco, on the other hand, is the walking definition of "trying too hard."  I'll give him credit for landing a few successful jokes, and he and Park have comic chemistry, but more often than not he's so irritating that I wished that someone would just shoot him or throw him out of a window.  Lizzy Caplan is once again forced to play a cynical bitch, even though she's proven that she can act (see "Cloverfield" for an example).  Randall Kim is a scene-stealer as Kim-Jong Un.  He's given the best lines and understands the concept of comic timing and reaction shots.  Diana Bang is adorable, but she's really just a pretty face.

It would be pointless to criticize "The Interview" for being sexist or homophobic.  Rogen and Goldberg have deliberately avoided anything resembling political correctness, which is fine by me.  They give voice to common male insecurities about their sexuality; that's their appeal.  But am I the only one who is tired of Rogen and his crowd obsessing over the size of a girl's boobs are or what kinky sexual things they would do to the girl (no mention is made of what the girl would do, or even giving her a possible point of view, which in addition to being insensitive, ignores some very intriguing and potentially hilarious jokes and gags).  And can we please have an end to the "bromantic" posturing?  It was daring when Rogen and his friends first started doing it, but now that homosexuality is more accepted, it's become old, tired, and way passe.  Surely we can show a two guys telling each other how much they care about each other without all the awkwardness?

So what about the controversy?  For lack of a better expression, it's "all fury, signifying nothing."  While Kim-Jong Un isn't shown in a positive light, neither are we.  Just about everyone in the film is a complete jackass.  Stupid characters are fine ("Borat," "Tommy Boy," and the "Bill & Ted" movies are examples), but they have to be smartly written.  But the jokes here are lazy.  In fact, there's a major plot hole at the end.

Of course, this backfired with huge fanfare, as is always the case with harmless movies that are subject to complaints by people who aren't portrayed as perfect individuals (just ask the Catholic League, who used to pitch a fit at any movie that didn't portray priests or Catholicism in general as flawless).  Sony has successfully capitalized on that, and now "The Interview" is a must see.

In the end, though, "The Interview" is another movie that's dwarfed by the unwarranted hype.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


Starring: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitrage, Ian McKellan, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly

Rated PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Intense Fantasy Action Violence, and Frightening Images

"The Lord of the Rings" is a landmark film (and yes, I consider them to be one film divided into three parts by necessity...they were written and filmed as one giant project).  Easily worthy of any list of all time great films next to "Casablanca," "Psycho," and "Spirited Away."  Naturally, New Line Cinema was hoping for lightning to strike twice with the prequel, titled "The Hobbit," but due to tangled rights and lawsuits, it took nearly a decade for the first installment to come out.  Expectations were high, but they haven't been met.  The story just isn't as interesting and dividing a single novel into three movies reeks of studio greed and results in bloated movies.  The first two movies were decent, but nowhere near the level of quality of "The Lord of the Rings."  I can, and will, say the same thing about "The Battle of the Five Armies."

Now that Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) has been expelled from the dwarf city, everyone seems to want their share of the riches that are inside.  Bard (Evans) wants Thorin Oakenshield (Armitrage) to honor their agreement to be paid enough to rebuild his city in exchange for defeating Smaug, while Thranduil (Pace) wants a specific jewel inside (I think).  But the gold is cursed, and Thorin's refusal to play fair may result in all-out war.  Bilbo (Freeman) tries to play peacekeeper, while Gandalf (McKellan) and Legolas (Bloom) and Tauriel (Lilly) make their own disturbing discoveries.

"The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" is divided into two parts: set-up and battle.  Both are effective, but nothing special.  The former moves along at a decent clip and effectively sets up the pieces, but lacks the emotional investment that made the 2001-2003 film so awe-inspiring.  Still, we get to see Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Sarumon (Christopher Lee) do battle with some nasty spirits/ghosts/whatever, and that's worth the price of admission in and of itself.

Few people know how to stage a battle as well as Peter Jackson.  Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, George Lucas...there really aren't many.  The battle scenes in the originals were awe-inspiring and packed with high drama and adrenaline (and even some humor).  The climactic battle in this film, while effectively staged and executed, doesn't begin to compare.  It's closer to a video game than an actual movie.

What's really disappointing is the film's look.  While the film doesn't seem to be in High Frame Rate like the first two (despite the fact that I saw neither in that for the first few minutes of the first film), the film's look is generic.  Jackson has taken the easy way out with the special effects.  It's all CGI, and looks like it.  The massive armies are too perfectly composed, and the re-vamped creature designs are cheesy looking and the use of computers is painfully obvious.  It was almost seamless in the original, which is strange, since each "Hobbit" film cost roughly the same amount as the entire "Lord of the Rings" series combined.  And was made nearly a decade later.  So much for making it better for cheaper!

The acting is fine, although the only ones who are especially memorable are the ones we have gotten to know from the original film.  Martin Freeman lacks the screen presence and appeal of Elijah Wood (and Ian Holm), making us miss Frodo and Old Bilbo.  Ian McKellan has no trouble sliding back into the old gray outfit.  Richard Armitrage is effective as Thorin, but not much more.

What I missed with this film and the other "Hobbit" movies is the sense that I was exploring a new world.  "The Lord of the Rings" was a window into a world that felt so real that I wanted to touch the screen and explore every part of it.  Middle-Earth here feels small and depressingly generic.

Should you see it?  Sure, if only for completeness sake.  It's no better or worse than the previous entries, and if you want to see how the story ends, it's at least not a waste of time and money.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Imitation Game


Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightly, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech

Rated PG-13 for Some Sexual References, Mature Thematic Material and Historical Smoking

There are so many movies and books about the battles of World War II that it's easy to forget that there were things happening behind the scenes.  There are plenty of movies like "Saving Private Ryan," "The Longest Day," and "The Thin Red Line" and few like "Black Book," "Atonement" and "Casablanca."  That's a shame, because done right, they can be just as riveting.

"The Imitation Game" is not the first film do deal with the Enigma machine, a code-breaker that turned the tide of the war against Nazi Germany.  It was the driving force of the "U-571"'s plot (although it was almost a macguffin in that film) and the creatively titled "Enigma," a 2001 thriller starring Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet, which I haven't seen.  "The Imitation Game" is the latest film to look at the Enigma machine, and considering its importance to world history, it likely won't be the last.

More specifically, "The Imitation Game" is a biopic (as Oscar-bait movies tend to be) of Alan Turning (Turning), the Enigma's creator.  He's played extraordinarily well by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is deservedly getting Oscar buzz for his portrayal; a nomination is a certainty, and a win isn't out of the question.  Turning is your average uber-geek that turns up in movies like this: intellectually superior but socially awkward to the point of being unlikable (I kept thinking he had a severe case of Asperger's Syndrome).  His co-workers can't stand him until a lovely girl named Joan (Knightly) shows him the ropes.

The bulk of the film takes place during World War II.  The British have captured the Enigma code machine via a double agent, although that's the easy part.  The hard part is cracking it.  There are a trillion different combinations, and the code is changed daily.  Commander Deniston (Dance) and his superior, MI-6 operative Steward Menzies (Mark Strong) have assembled a team of brilliant mathematicians to crack it.  These include Hugh Alexander (Goode) and John Cairncross (Leech), among others.  Also a part of the group is Turning, although he doesn't socialize with them.  They're trying to crack the code the old-fashioned way, but he believes that it takes one to know one, so he's inventing a device that will break it down and guess what is coming next.

That takes up the majority of the film.  The film is built upon a police interrogation where Turning tells a police detective (Kinnear) his story.  This is the film's biggest problem; while presenting the majority of the film as a flashback works (although there's little misty-eyed nostalgia to be found in its presentation), having him tell a police detective ten years after it occurred does not because the whole operation wasn't de-classifed until a half century later, and spilling the beans to a man accusing him of gross indecency (Turning was a homosexual) would have gotten him shot rather than two years in prison or, as Turning chose, chemical castration.  Also included is a brief examination of young Turning (Alex Lawthor, who, while not a dead ringer for Cumberbatch, makes it easy to believe that he grew up to be the same Turning we spend the majority of the film with) and Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon).

Cumberbatch is terrific, but he's ably supported by the always wonderful Keira Knightly.  As Joan, Knightly plays the only other person other than Christopher that understood him.  She knows he's not normal, but she also knows that she's not either.  More importantly, she accepts him for who he is.  Matthew Goode is terrific as well, although his role is relatively unimportant for someone who has made at least a minor name for himself (he played Ozymandias in "Watchmen," one of the leads in "Stoker," and should have gotten an Oscar nomination at the very least for his performance in "Match Point").  "Game of Thrones" mainstay Charles Dance and British villain-on-speed-dial Mark Strong have small but important roles.

The film was directed by Morten Tyldum, who directed the Swedish hit "Headhunters," a foreign film that impressed everyone but me.  But the results speak for themselves.  First-time screenwriter Graham Moore has written a script (based on the book by Andrew Hodges) that captures the complexities of the story and its central character with little confusion.  While trying to explain how the Enigma machine and its counterpart (which Turning dubbed "Christopher") work would have turned many audience members off, a brief explanation would have helped things.  Worth mentioning is the strategies that they used to keep the fact that they cracked the Enigma a secret, and the heavy cost that they paid for it.  This material lends more weight and gravitas to the production.

"The Imitation Game" makes no secret of its outrage over what happened to Turning.  For someone who had done so much for the Allies and gave birth to the computer, arresting him for being gay and forcing him to go to prison or undergo chemical castration was reprehensible.  Tyldum makes sure that we know it (no doubt that this aspect of the film appealed to Cumberbatch, who is a staunch and outspoken supporter of gay rights).  Turning's fate didn't bring a tear to my eye, but then again that rarely happens to me in movies.  Still, this is one of the best films of the year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Top Five


Starring: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, JB Smoove

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

"Top Five" wants to make us laugh and touch the heart.  It's a difficult line to balance, and while there are some moments of each to be found in this film, it's really not that funny, insightful or touching.

"Top Five" takes us into a day in the life of megastar Andre Allen (Rock).  Andre is a former stand-up comic turned actor, famous for playing a crime-fighter dressed in a bear costume.  He's getting married to Erica Long (Union), a reality TV star, in two days.  And he's trying to get people interested in a new dramatic film about a slave uprising that he made, but it's a tough sell: people only want to see him be the funny bear.  He's being interviewed by Chelsea Brown (Dawson), who is trying to wear down his defenses and get a real story.  Guess what happens?

Chris Rock can be hilarious.  When he's given the opportunity to crack jokes or give monologues, the results can be very funny.  But here's the thing: he can only play Chris Rock.  And that's a problem when you stick him in a movie.  He has no range, and just because someone is funny on stage doesn't mean that they can be funny in a movie.  Stand-up and playing funny characters are two different breeds of theater, and Rock only excels at the former.  Andre is someone I found difficult to care about one-way or another.

Fortunately, he's surrounded by co-stars who know what they're doing.  Rosario Dawson's talents as an actress are totally underrated.  Everyone knows that she's great, but for some reason she doesn't get the buzz or the drawing power that she deserves so much.  She acts circles around Rock, and is responsible for much of the film's appeal.

This is Chris Rock's third film which he directed (not including an episode of a TV show he produced, "Everybody Hates Chris"), and to be quite frank, it's not very good.  He thinks that his script and direction are stronger than they really are, and as a result, things can get pretty dry and pretentious (the double-dutch sequence is a case in's a cutaway over dialogue that has nothing to do with it).

There is some good stuff here, but not much.  Better wait til you can find them on YouTube.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Mike's Musings: What to do about "The Interview"?

A few days ago, my friend asked me what I thought of the whole controversy about "The Interview."  To be quite frank, I don't really care.  I would if I was excited to see the movie, but after seeing "Neighbors" and "This is the End," Seth Rogen's name on a marquee means I should probably stay away.  Once a rising comic star, his ego has swollen to such a huge degree that he believes that standing around and shooting his mouth off or screwing around with his friends is enough to be paid millions to do.

Sony was criticized by just about everyone for pulling the film after North Korea threatened retaliation if it was shown.  That and the cyber attacks showed Sony that they are willing to make good on their word.  However, North Korea is more bluster than anything (past history backs this claim up).

But here's the point that James Berardinelli made, and I think that it makes Sony's position clear: Berardinelli said that while he would be willing to risk the infinitesimally small chance of a terrorist attack if it was just him in the theater, he wouldn't be willing to do the same for his son.  That kind of thinking has merit to a nation that starkly remembers the massacre in Aurora, Colorado at a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises."

Many, including President Obama, have criticized Sony for backing down to a threat by a bully with no real force behind his words.  North Korea is, after all, a small country, poor country with few friends. For them to actually commit an act of terror against the United States because of one movie (even one that centers on a plot to kill their leader) would be an act of almost suicidal lunacy.  Not that that has ever stopped a power-mad dictator, but I digress.

So does it set a bad precedent?  Yes, especially if there are other ways to release it (video-on-demand, Blu-Ray/DVD, etc).  But they're thinking in financial terms, and that's going to be the bottom line every time.

"The Interview" will not be hidden forever.  In fact, I don't expect it to be hidden for very long.  Considering the backlash against their actions, it will probably be released in some way very soon.  I'm just not excited to see it.  Rogen is annoying as hell, and with him and his writing/directing partner Evan Goldberg at the helm, it sounds painfully bad.  Unlike "This is the End," the duo's previous film, it has gotten mediocre reviews.  This, by the way, could be one reason why Sony pulled the movie.  They saw an opportunity to capitalize on controversy, and controversy always brings in dollars.

But if "This is the End" was a smash hit that got great reviews, I shudder to think of how bad "The Interview" will be if it's supposedly worse.

Sunday, December 21, 2014



Starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller

Rated R for Some Drug Use and Brief Violence

"Foxcatcher" is based on a true story, but even after seeing the movie, I wouldn't be able to tell you what happened or why.  That's because the film is 10% substance and 90% subtext.  Little of what happens is very clear, and the majority of the time the characters talk, their dialogue is just dances around what they mean to say.

Mark Schultz (Tatum) has already won an Olympic gold medal for wrestling, and is training for a second.  His brother Dave (Ruffalo), also an Olympic wrestler with a gold medal to his name, trains him.  One day, Mark gets a call from someone speaking on behalf of Jon du Pont (Carrell), who wants him to lead a team of wrestlers to victory at the next Olympics.  Jon wants both Mark and Dave to move to his estate and coach the team, but Dave is unwilling to uproot his family.  Mark sees this as a great professional opportunity and a chance to become his own man, so he accepts Jon's offer.  The two grow close, but eventually their relationship sours to the point of violence.

I have nothing against movies that demand audience thought.  In fact, I enjoy them much more than brain-dead flicks.  Unfortunately, "Foxcatcher" crosses the line between intellectually demanding and an obtuse mess.  Subtext only works if your plot and characters are strong enough that the audience can understand what is going on underneath what is (or is not) being said.  That doesn't happen here.

The performances are adequate, but the hard work of Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell and Mark Ruffalo is dealt a severe blow by the incomplete script and bad direction.  Channing Tatum doesn't always seem to fit in with his character, particularly at the beginning.  Whether it's the script or the direction or simply being miscast, I'm not sure, but this isn't Tatum's strongest work.  Steve Carrell shows that he has dramatic acting chops, but the script doesn't give him anything to work with.  Jon is a creep whose interest in wrestling (specifically Mark) has homosexual undertones that are hard to miss, but for the most part his lines consist of verbal diarrhea.  Mark Ruffalo gets the worst treatment.  With his high-pitched voice and constant "Mommy-ing" of Mark (their relationship, as played here, is almost as creepy as the one between Jon and Mark) and over-the-top body language, Dave comes across as cartoonish.

I haven't seen "Capote" or "Moneyball," the two previous films of Bennett Miller (although I do own them), so I don't know if this is Miller's style or just an unfortunate accident, but the result is a movie that just doesn't make a lot of sense.  There are scenes that work, but they're short and almost universally ignored.  Subplots (like the drug use) are introduced then ignored.

Sony Pictures Classics hasn't done a good job of promoting "Foxcatcher," which annoyed me, but it's obvious why: it's just not very good.

Friday, December 19, 2014



Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Carla Gugino, Maggie Grace, Matt Gerald

Rated R for Strong Violence, Some Drug Use and Language

I love mysteries where the motivations are hidden from us.  Too often, movies are so eager to explain why people do what they do when they're often more interesting when the movie makes us wonder.  A film that asks "why" is usually going to be better than one that asks "what."

A man (Johnson) is just being released from a 10 year prison sentence.  No one knows his name, but everyone seems to know his face.  The day after he walks out of the prison gates, he goes into a telemarketing office and puts a bullet in a man's head.  He then vanishes without a trace.  A drug-addicted cop approaching retirement (Thornton) is on his trail, as is a contract killer (Jackson-Cohen) hired by an unknown employer.

Saying more would spoil the movie, but this isn't your garden variety thriller.  Those looking for edge of your seat suspense or bone-crunching action won't find it here; it's not that kind of a movie.  In many ways, it's as much a tragedy as a thriller.  This is a movie about people who are varying degrees of "bad," although some of them try to be good (or at least have a good motivation to do what they do).

The performances are strong across the board.  Dwayne Johnson, who has long since buried his WWE past, is quite good as the unnamed character (he's only referred to once as "Driver" by a subtitle).  He doesn't have a lot of dialogue, but Johnson has tremendous screen presence and a surprisingly expressive face.  As the Cop, Billy Bob Thornton is his usual reliable self, playing a man who is barely keeping himself together.  It's not a terribly unique character, but Thornton doesn't sleepwalk through it.  The most interesting character is the Killer, played by another young Brit who is on his way to becoming famous for playing creeps: Oliver Jackson-Cohen.  He's not as terrifying as Dan Stevens in "The Guest," but then again he isn't meant to be.  The Killer is vain and narcissistic and approaches contract killing as a hobby, and in an interesting turn of events, his girlfriend Lily (Grace) is well aware of his homicidal tendencies (she even helps him pack his weaponry).  Up until their subplot takes a turn for the conventional, these two are interesting enough for their own movie.  That being said, I wouldn't mind spending more time with them.

Director George Tillman Jr. directs the film with a more pensive tone than one might expect.  There's plenty of gunplay, but it's in short bursts.  He's interested in slowly revealing what drives the characters.  None of this comes at the expense of pacing, which runs along at a perfectly balanced clip.  Not too slow but not to fast.  Tillman also demonstrates a gift for sleight-of-hand; I never figured out the answers until he intended me to, and the final twist at the end blindsided me.  Special mention must go to a showdown with a preacher, which due to the performances and the careful handling by Tillman Jr., crackles with suspense and human drama.

This isn't the movie that you'd think you'd get, but it's much, much better.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Fifth Element


Starring: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sci-Fi Violence, Some Sexuality and Brief Nudity

It's obvious that Luc Besson wanted "The Fifth Element" to be "Star Wars" for the 90's.  A rugged hero, a megalomaniacal villain bent on destroying life, space aliens everywhere, and so on.  Unfortunately, instead of a successor to George Lucas's masterful series, Besson has created an epic disaster.  The characters aren't very interesting, the creature effects are herky-jerky and the plot doesn't make a lick of sense.

Every 5,000 years, four special stones and something called the Fifth Element have to be activated to keep the forces of evil at bay.  And in the near future, an ex-military guy turned cabbie named Korben Dallas (Willis) gets pulled into this mess, trying to retrieve the stones and protect a girl named Leeloo (Jovovich), who has an important mission.

This could have been good cornball fun, but sadly it's just trash.  It's totally ridiculous, yes, but that's to be expected.  It's also unbearably boring.

The cast doesn't seem to be having fun.  Bruce Willis clearly looks bored and coasts by on his charisma.  Gary Oldman chews on the scenery, which he was famous for before Hollywood pigeonholed him into versions of his James Gordon character.  Oldman looks like he'd rather be anywhere else.  Ian Holm, on the other hand, looks totally out of his element (pun intended).  One might assume that he only agreed to star in this monstrosity under the threat of violence.  Milla Jovovich is gorgeous, but the role doesn't demand much from her limited range other than to look sexy and speak gibberish.  Chris Tucker adds a dose of much needed energy as TV star Ruby Rhod, but his character quickly becomes so superfluous that even Besson keeps forgetting he's even in the scene.

What saves this movie from being completely unwatchable is that it looks nice and the stars are charismatic.  That's not much of a reason to watch this instead of something else.

American History X


Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D'Angelo, Avery Brooks, Guy Torrey, Stacey Keach, Ethan Suplee, Fairuza Balk

Rated R for Graphic Brutal Violence including Rape, Pervasive Language, Strong Sexuality and Nudity

I first saw "American History X" on July 12, 2008 according to my review on iMDb, and all I could say is "Wow."  Upon second viewing, the effect of this film has lessened slightly, although this is a hugely powerful film.  No other film that I've seen has taken such a frank and brutally honest look at racial hatred.

Three years ago, Derek Vinyard (Norton) was the poster child for a white supremacist gang in Venice Beach, California.  He is highly intelligent and a fiery orator, which makes him the right hand man of Cameron Alexander (Keach), the group's unofficial leader (he stays in the background to keep his hands clean).  That all changed when he was convicted of manslaughter for killing two black men who were trying to steal his car.  It is there that he sees the error of his ways, but when he gets out he finds that redemption is not easily attained.

Whenever someone mentions this film, Edward Norton's name is going to come up within seconds, and for good reason: he gives a tremendous performance.  Although he has a reputation for being difficult to work with (most sources claim that he took control of the picture from director Tony Kaye in the editing room in order to give himself a better shot at an Oscar nomination…one that he received), Norton remains one of our most electrifying performers.  Derek Vinyard is a fascinating individual; it would be too easy to make him a simple racist, but Norton is too smart for that.  Instead, he portrays him as a smart kid with a bad childhood.  His father (played by William Russ) was murdered by black men and he fell in with Cameron Alexander, who was all too willing to groom him into a recruiting tool.

Norton is surrounded by an able supporting cast, including reliable character actress Beverly D'Angelo (best known for playing Ellen Griswold in the "Vacation" franchise) as Doris, Derek's mother, who both loves and fears her son, and Edward Furlong, who plays Derek's kid brother Danny.  Danny is well on his way to ending up right where Derek did, something that Dr. Sweeny (Brooks), the one black man that Derek respects, urges him to prevent.  Both do excellent supporting work.

While Norton deserved every bit of praise that he got, two performances that are unfortunately overlooked are given by Avery Brooks and Guy Torrey.  Brooks plays Sweeny as a man who understands Derek and is unwilling to give up on him, but at the same time is unwilling to flinch against his hateful rhetoric.  Guy Torrey plays Lamont, a fellow prisoner whom Derek is forced to work with.  Initially, Derek clings to his racist beliefs, but time and Lamont's personality wear him down (the guy is impossible not to like…he finally breaks Derek's barrier down with an impromptu description of a sexual encounter that's laugh aloud funny).

What makes "American History X" such a powerful film is what may turn some viewers off.  The film refuses to turn any of its characters into caricatures.  They are allowed to be intelligent and make points that, to someone in their circumstances (no one has much money, jobs are being taken by illegal immigrants, and gangs have trickled in from other cities) may seem valid.  But the film takes great care to show how through twisted logic and pent-up frustration, a kernel of truth has been distorted into an ugly lie.  At no point does the film endorse any of the racism in this film, but it does allow us to see how these people think and understand why they think that way.  It puts an easy label on societal dysfunction and gives a sense of belonging to those who feel alone and vulnerable.

There times when Kaye uses too many close-ups and too much slow motion, but those are few.  There's also a rather big plot-hole that allows a crucial scene to take place, but since only the circumstances, not the content, are hard to swallow, I'll let it slide.

"American History X" is not easy to watch, but like "The War Zone" and "Lilya-4-Ever," it deserves to be seen because it's a powerful experience that sheds light on something we need to see.  Even if we'd rather not. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Iron Sky


Starring: Julia Dietze, Christopher Kirby, Gotz Otto, Stephanie Paul, Peta Sergeant

Rated R for Language and Some Violence

Although I watched this in a sober state of mind, I strongly suspect that "Iron Sky" will play better to audience members who are drunk, stoned, or otherwise mentally impaired.  It's too silly to be taken seriously.

Not that it's meant to.  From frame one I knew that director Timo Vuorensola wanted me to laugh at the film.  The acting is intentionally bad, there isn't a single character with an IQ above 10, and the action scenes are ridiculously cheesy.  The problem is that it's not all that funny.

James Washington (Kirby) is a black astronaut taking a stroll on the moon when his fellow spaceman sees something very strange on the dark side of the moon (yes, there is a Pink Floyd reference, although I missed it).  Apparently, the Third Reich established a moon base there, and is preparing to retake the Earth.  How they got from Germany to the Moon after being so soundly defeated in 1945 is left unexplained, which is a fault because such an explanation necessitates being totally warped, which would have fit right in with the silliness.  The Nazis, led by the new Fuhrer Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Kier, taking a break from working with Lars von Trier...I'm dead serious), need a power source to use their ultimate weapon.  So after a somewhat amusing scene involving a cell phone, Kortzfleisch authorizes his underling Klaus (Otto) to go back to Earth and find a new power source.  Tagging along is Renatae (Dietze), Klaus's fiancee, who falls for the captive the now-white (don't ask) James.  Meanwhile, The President of the United States (Paul, playing a Sarah Palin clone) is desperate to get re-elected, and her campaign manager Vivian Wagner (Sergeant) thinks that she can use these lunatics to her own advantage.

"Iron Sky" might have worked better as a short film.  There are some bits that are funny, but they're fleeting, and the flimsy "wink wink nudge nudge" plot can't stay afloat amid all the cheese.  The acting is bad by design, but there are times when it's physically painful.  And there are plenty of jokes that don't work, like the reference to "Downfall" (it would have been better with stronger writing and acting).

The film's closest cousin would have to be "Starship Troopers," which should give you some idea of what the film is actually like.  Unfortunately, while the 1997 gore-fest is a blast from start to finish, "Iron Sky" feels feeble.  That's mainly because Timo Vuorensola is no Paul Verhoeven.  True, "Iron Sky" had a fraction of the budget that Verhoeven had ($10 million vs. $105 million), but he doesn't have Verhoeven's deft touch for tone.  Actually, for such a small budget, the film boasts some impressive visuals, and the obvious CGI touch-ups enhance the film's charm.

The bottom line is that "Iron Sky" can't be viewed in any normal setting or state of mind.  It demands audience involvement, like in late night showings or sleepovers with friends and booze.  Most people will either be bored, annoyed or turn it off part way through, but for a select few, you'll have a great time.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Hurricane Streets


Starring: Brendan Sexton III, Isidra Vega, Lynn Cohen, David Roland Frank, Antoine McLean, Mtume Gant, Carlo Alban, Shawn Elliot

Rated R for Language, Violence and Drug Use involving Teens

Occasionally, the efforts of an actor or actress can save an unremarkable screenplay and pedestrian direction.  There are plenty of instances, although for the life of me I can't think of any examples off the top of my head.  Sadly, "Hurricane Streets" is not one of those instances.  Despite the best efforts of its cast, specifically the lead actor, there are better ways to spend 90 minutes of your time.

Marcus (Sexton III) is a young toughie living on the streets of New York City.  With his father dead and his mother in jail, he's essentially on his own.  He and his friends use petty crime (i.e. shoplifting and selling the loot) to get by, but he dreams of living with relatives on a ranch in New Mexico.  Then he meets Melena (Vega), a girl who also dreams of getting out of the Big Apple and away from her overprotective father, Paco (Elliot).

The film's central character is Marcus, and because he's present in almost every scene, the film rests almost entirely on his shoulders.  Brendan Sexton III, who would go on to become a decent character actor in the indie film scene (he was Tom Nissen in "Boys Don't Cry"), is very good.  He elevates the material to a degree where I could see that without him, the film would be unwatchable.

Marcus is not a bad kid per se.  He's a smart guy who just got dealt a bad hand by life, and is surviving in the only way he knows how.  There is an element of rebellion in many of his actions, and while stealing CDs and selling them to kids is okay by him, there's a line that he won't cross.  Unfortunately, his friends (especially Chip, played with a dash of anger by David Roland Frank) don't have those standards.

While Sexton is very good, his co-star Isidra Vega is almost his equal.  She doesn't have as much screen presence and appeal as Sexton, but there's not enough of a gulf between them to hamper the effectiveness of their relationship.  The two have chemistry, and their interactions are effectively written.

The dialogue and the acting sound natural.  Director Morgan J. Freeman (not to be confused with the legendary actor) knows this world and how these kids talk and act.  Unfortunately, that's only half the battle.  Character development is spotty; they're all stick figures.  Even more so, Freeman seems to lack the courage to take the film to the dark depths that it needs to go to in order to attain maximum effectiveness.  There are times, specifically during the film's final act, where it's obvious that he's holding back.

The ending is the film's biggest problem.  The climax is ineptly handled to the point where I didn't know if I was supposed to laugh.  It's badly directed.  The home stretch is better and contains some suspense, but with stronger writing it would have been more successful.

This isn't a terrible movie by any means, but I wouldn't recommend seeking it out.

Mask: Director's Cut


Starring: Eric Stolz, Cher, Sam Elliott, Lawrence Monson, Dennis Burkley, Laura Dern

Not Rated (for the record the theatrical cut is rated R, albeit undeservedly, probably for Language, Drug Use and Sexual Content)

"Mask," not to be confused with the Jim Carrey vehicle, "The Mask," is one of those rare movies that you wish would never end.  It's so well-acted, the characters are so likable and so interesting that I wish it would go on and on and on.

"Mask" is loosely based on the life story of Rocky Dennis, who had craniodiaphyseal dysplasia.  In English, it's an extremely rare bone disorder that causes calcium to build up in the skull.  He lives in Azusa, California with his mother Rusty (Cher).  Rusty is a tough-talking, no-nonsense sort of woman who is in a biker gang and abuses just about every drug she can find.  But she loves her son deeply.

Director Peter Bogdanovich concentrates less on what happens to Rocky and Rusty and more on who they are and how they relate to each other.  Both, in their own way, rely on each other for strength and support.  Rocky's disfigurement gets him strange looks and insults, but she and her motorbiking buddies give him the courage to deflect it with intelligence and humor.  He knows that he looks strange, but he's not too insecure to poke fun at himself.  On the flip side, Rusty's drug use and unending string of boyfriends puts a strain on their relationship.  She's unable to keep her life in order, and relies on him to do that.

The thing that makes this movie work is that everyone is so damn nice.  There are a few jerks, but they don't stick around for more than a moment or two.  That makes this film unique because there are no obvious villains.  Nor should there be; the character interaction between Rocky, Rusty and the others are strong enough that one isn't needed.

Of course, the film wouldn't be what it is without two very strong performances from its leads.  Eric Stolz, famous for playing Keith Nelson in "Some Kind of Wonderful" and Lance the drug dealer in "Pulp Fiction," is terrific as Rocky.  I'll admit that his appearance is a turn-off.  But his warmth shines through so brightly that I was ready to follow him anywhere by the time his first scene was over.  Cher is equally good as Rusty.  She's not the ideal mother, but she does what she can.  Cher plays her with a mixture of toughness and vulnerability that is impossibly endearing.  Rusty's love for Rocky jumps out of the screen.  Of the supporting cast, special mention has to go to Laura Dern, who plays Diana, a blind girl that Rocky falls for (and she for him).  She's very good.

At no point does director Peter Bogdanovich expect us to feel sorry for Rocky.  Rocky doesn't feel sorry for himself, so why should we?  He's not making a "disease-of-the-week" movie that shows up on the Hallmark channel, and that's what makes this film so special.  He focuses on Rocky's strength and how being with the right people, even if they are atypical, can get him through anything.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Apocalypto (spoilers)


Starring: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Raul Trujillo, Rodolfo Palacios, Morris Birdyellowhead

Rated R for Sequences of Graphic Violence and Disturbing Images

Note: I discuss the ending, and its resulting controversy, in detail.  Those who haven't seen the film and want to should bail out now and come back later.

The first time I saw "Apocalypto," I hated it.  But like with a few other movies, such as "Hollow Man" and "The Jackal," curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to give it another shot.  My views have softened, although not by much.  "Apocalypto" is too violent for its own good.

Jaguar Paw (Youngblood) is a young man living in a small village.  He has a wife named Seven (Hernandez), who has given birth to one child and is pregnant with another.  One day his peaceful village is attacked, and those who are still alive are captured and taken to a Mayan city.  The women are sold as slaves, but the men are to be sacrificed to the gods.  Jaguar Paw escapes, and is pursued by a number of men, led by Zero Wolf (Trujillo) and Snake Ink (Palacios), intent on killing him.  Making matters worse is that rain is coming, and in an act of desperation, Jaguar Paw hid his wife and child in a large hole in the ground during the attack.

I am not one to criticize a film for its violence and gore.  Like everything, it has its place.  But there's something about "Apocalypto" that I found to be a turn-off.  It seems to revel in the violence and brutality in a way that made me feel uneasy.  I have seen movies that were more intense ("Frontier(s)") and gorier ("Saving Private Ryan"), but neither of those rubbed me the wrong way.  There is an air of cynicism running throughout this film that casts a pall over the proceedings.  Adventure movies don't have to be as light as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to work, but they should have a sense of joy and fun.  That's missing here.

Perhaps had the film given me a character worth caring about (or failing that, feeling something for), it might have worked.  But no movie will succeed when the central character is upstaged by just about everyone else and the scenery.  Director Mel Gibson chose non-actors for his cast, and while then-newcomer Rudy Youngblood isn't bad, he's more or less invisible (to be fair, the script doesn't do him any favors).  Of the other members of the cast, the only ones who are worth mentioning are Raul Trujillo, the main villain since he's given a little depth, and Morris Birdyellowhead (who play's Jaguar Paw's father, Flint Sky), who is quite good.

Like his other two directorial efforts, "Apocalypto" was faced with a number of controversies.  Some felt that it was racist against the Mayan people, showing them to be nothing but violent and brutal.  This isn't true.  Both the heroes and the villains are Mayan, and Jaguar Paw's tribe is made of loving, happy people.  He commits violence only as a means to survive.  Others criticized it for its lack of historical accuracy, but such a complaint is moot, since it's not a documentary.

Nothing about this movie was more discussed and debated than the ending.  Some said that Gibson was evangelizing and portraying the incoming Spanish conquistadors as white heroes who will solve everything by converting everyone to Christianity.  I don't buy that, just as I don't buy that "Braveheart" was homophobic or that "The Passion of the Christ" was Anti-Semitic.  First off, Gibson isn't a political filmmaker or actor, nor is he politically conservative (he applauded Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" and even offered to finance it, and he said that the "fearmongering" in "Apocalypto" reminds him of the Bush Administration), nor is he an evangelist (to offer an example: he was given the opportunity to voice himself in a "Family Guy" episode that parodied him and "The Passion of the Christ.  He turned it down, but later regretted it because he thought the episode was hilarious).  Second, there's no follow through.  We don't see the Spanish doing anything but rowing to shore.  Finally, the surviving characters say that they're going back into the forest and look for a new beginning.

Different films speak to different audiences.  "Apocalypto" is light on story and character because its appeal is intended to be purely visceral.  So if Jaguar Paw forges a deeper connection with you than he did with me, you'll probably like it.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Mask of Zorro


Starring: Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stuart Wilson, Matt Letscher

Rated PG-13 for Some Intense Action and Violence

I got the sense that "The Mask of Zorro" should be a lot more fun than it is.  The performances are solid, the action scenes are sufficiently exciting, and the film rarely slows down.  And yet, I didn't really enjoy myself all that much.  Certainly nowhere near as much as I did when I re-watched "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" a few days ago, which is another movie inspired by serials.

The character of Zorro, like many long-standing heroes, started out in pulp magazines.  His first appearance was in 1919 and was written by Johnston McCulley.  By day, he's a cultured nobleman by the name of Don Diego de la Vega, but by night he's the adventure hero in black.  If that sounds familiar, it's because Zorro was a major inspiration for Bob Kane, the creator of Batman (in an interesting turn of events, Anthony Hopkins, who plays de la Vega in this film, was offered, but turned down, the role of Alfred Pennyworth in "Batman Begins").

Spanish rule of Mexico is at an end.  The nobles are leaving, but one, Don Rafael Montero (Wilson), has one more loose end to tie up: killing Zorro (Hopkins), his sworn enemy.  With the help of two boys, Alejandro (Jose Maria de Tavira) and Joaquin Murietta (Diego Sieres), Zorro saves the day, but Don Rafael tracks him back to his home where his wife is murdered and his baby daughter is taken to be raised by Don Rafael.

Twenty years later, Diego and Alejandro have become two bandits.  They are captured by Captain Harrison Love (Letscher), and Diego is murdered.  At the same time, de la Vega escapes from his prison to exact revenge on Don Rafael, who has come back to California...with Elena (Zeta-Jones) in tow.  The two meet up, and de la Vega trains Alejandro to take up the mask and become Zorro.

The problem with the film is that it's using an assembly-line screenplay.  It's not bad (unlike many cookie-cutter scripts), but it's not very good.  The characters are stick figures with little in the way of depth and the plot just isn't very interesting.

It is only the superior efforts of director Martin Campbell, who deserves far more recognition as an action director than he gets, and his cast that save this film.  Campbell has a gift for action scenes (he did, after all, direct "GoldenEye," the slightly overrated "Casino Royale" and "Vertical Limit") and the cast appears to be having fun.

Antonio Banderas can do comedy and drama, but he ventures a little too far in both directions (depending on the occasion) for him to be taken as seriously as he needs to be (and the movie is anything but serious).  Still, he's a solid Zorro.  Anthony Hopkins is clearly enjoying himself as the older Zorro; moments where he doesn't have a look of slight bemusement on his face are few.  Catherine Zeta-Jones got her big break here, and she deserves it.  She's the ideal female in this type of movie: lovely and innocent, but with a backbone and the ability to hold her own in a fight (I believe that this is the first time that I've seen a sword fight used as foreplay).  Stuart Wilson and especially Matt Letscher make for great villains.

There may be too much action in this movie.  It's all well done and exciting, but it hurts the film's pacing.  That really uncovers the film's problem: the film seems to be created not by character or plot but by what is a necessity in an action movie.  The movie contains everything we expect at exactly the right time.  And predictability is the death of plot.

So it's not a great movie.  At least it's more than passably entertaining.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Life is Beautiful


Starring: Roberto Benigni, Giorgio Cantarini, Nicoletta Braschi, Horst Buchholtz

Rated PG-13 for Holocaust-Related Thematic Elements

It is impossible to ask us to have a good feeling when watching a movie about the Holocuast, and Roberto Benigni wisely doesn't ask us to.  Comedy is a tool, not the focus, of this film.  The heart of the film is the bond between a father and son, and the fight to save those we love amid terrible horror.

"Life is Beautiful" is divided into two acts: first is a light romance between a goofy man named Guido (Benigni) and a pretty girl named Dora (Braschi, Benigni's real-life wife).  She's a teacher who is engaged to a politico while he is a waiter, but for Guido, it's love at first sight.  The second act takes place after they are married and have a child named Joshua (Cantarini).  World War II has broken out, and both Guido and Joshua have been sent to a concentration camp (Dora goes voluntarily in a desperate attempt to be with her family).  Determined to shield Joshua from the unthinkable reality of their present situation, Guido creates an elaborate scenario where their situation is part of a game, and the winner gets a real tank.

Telling this story was a daring move for Benigni.  If he didn't do it correctly, it would have offended a lot of people.  Indeed, some said it mocked the Holocaust.  This is simply not the case.  While there are instances of humor in Guido's antics and storytelling, Benigni never lets us forget what is really going on.  Aspects of the Holocaust have been lessened slightly (it is possible for Guido to sneak into a radio booth with Joshua and play a song for Dora over the loudspeakers without getting caught and suffering a terrible death), but only to the point where Benigni can successfully tell his story.  If nothing else, he gets the tone right.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the script.  It's just not strong enough to make the characters true individuals.  I felt for them mentally, but not emotionally, and that's what keeps this film from being truly great.  It is also about ten minutes too long (the first act could have been cut down a bit).

The acting is on solid ground.  Roberto Benigni has his over-the-top moments, but those are few.  His rubber face and glee are at times impossible to resist.  Nicoletta Braschi is not as successful.  She can do okay with the drama and subtle humor, but the big stuff (like the hiccups) doesn't land.  Giorgio Cantarini is solid, but lacks polish.  This was his first film, and it looks like it.

Ultimately, it is Benigni's daring and the father/son relationship that gets the film a recommendation from me.