Thursday, December 31, 2015

Mike's Musings: The Top 10 of 2015

2015 was a fantastic year for movies.  Not only were there 22 movies competing for a spot on my Top Ten list, they were spread out over the course of the year.  Usually, Hollywood saves the best films for the end of the year, trying to get the attention of the Academy.  Not so here.  Even back in February (January, if you want to count "Unbroken"), there were excellent movies coming out.  It seems that no one liked "50 Shades of Grey," but while it didn't earn a spot on this list, I highly enjoyed it.

So many good movies has a downside.  Moviegoers, especially those who don't go to the movies that often, will miss some.  It's a shame.  Still, for those who are looking for good movies, there were plenty of choices.

Narrowing the field was a challenge.  Obviously, the four movies that earned a 4/4 were going to be on it and the top, so that left 16 movies for six slots.  Tough choices had to be made.  Then came ordering them, which proved to be even more difficult.  Eventually, by going back and reading the reviews again, I settled on a list that I think reflects my views for the best films of 2010.

10.  Ex Machina.  The conflict here was easy to recognize: "Ex Machina" or "Chappie."  Both are equally good movies that address the same material in different ways.  "Chappie" is more expressive and action-oriented while "Ex-Machina" is more cerebral.  It was a tough call, but I gave the honor to "Ex Machina" because I liked that it took the chance to be driven by its ideas and characters, rather than action.  I enjoyed "Chappie" very much, but when push comes to shove, movies that take chances will always come out ahead.

9.  The Martian.  As can be evidenced by the success of "Chappie," "Ex Machina," "Jurassic World," "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," and "The Martian," 2015 was a good year for science-fiction.  Perhaps because I am partial to the genre, but I find it a welcome change from fantasy movies.  Because let's face it, apart from "The Lord of the Rings" and the "Harry Potter" movies, none of them overcame the genre's reputation of being the ugly stepchild of science-fiction.  Like "Ex-Machina" and last year's "Interstellar," "The Martian" tries to be as realistic as possible.  It asks questions and answers them with as much honesty as possible.  I love "Star Wars," but in some ways movies like "The Martian" pack a bigger punch because they stick so close to reality.  That, and the fact that it has an Oscar-worthy performance by Matt Damon.

8.  San Andreas.  Those who read my reviews know how tired I am of superhero movies.  With each new release, my fear that the genre will never die grows deeper.  Some of them, like Nolan's "Batman" trilogy have been great, but most of them were safe, cookie-cutter pictures that will only please the fans who are pre-disposed to liking it.  On an artistic level, "San Andreas" is not a great movie.  But for pure, mayhem-oriented entertainment, it was a blast.  It was packed with adrenaline and eye-candy, and for once, the 3-D was an asset.

7.  The Gift.  Like "Ex Machina," "The Gift" was a movie for adults.  Not just by the MPAA standards (everyone knows how I firmly believe that giving a movie an R rating simply for profanity is absurd), but in its content.  This movie is about adults and made for those who can appreciate a movie that slowly builds to its climax.  There's next to no violence in it, but the suspense is palpable.  A trio of fine performances and a young director who understands the genre and how to play with it only sweetens the deal.

6.  Trainwreck.  Most romantic-comedies lean towards the latter category.  After all, it's easier to find someone who can deliver a punchline and a reaction shot than two actors who "click."  But "Trainwreck" plays both genres equally well, and that's what makes it so special.  Amy Schumer and Bill Hader give terrific performances, but more importantly, they work well together.  We wanted Amy and Aaron to end up together.  It's so rare to find a romance that works, and when we do, it's worth singling out.

5.  Spotlight.  I'm getting tired of biopics like I am of superhero movies.  Hollywood treats them the same way: as long as it has a "brand name," we'll take it.  The one consolation is that they're usually great.  "Spotlight" sets out to do two things, and it does them exceptionally well: tell a story that needs to be told and do so in a compelling way.  It had an ensemble cast of great performances, and while the Golden Globes didn't single out anyone for a nomination, I have a feeling that the Academy won't make that mistake.  Although not as raw as "The War Zone," it achieves some of the same power.

4.  Scout's Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse.  I did not expect to like this movie.  The reviews were bad and the studio did next to not marketing for the film.  Not a good sign.  To say that I was pleasantly surprised is to understate matters.  This movie is funny, scary, touching, and subversive...often at the same time.  More importantly, it's just great entertainment.  I told my best friend to see it and he loved it so much that he went and saw it a second time.  Zombies are in vogue right now, and I can't think of a better movie for a lover of the undead.

3.  Brooklyn.  A sense of balance is essential for every movie.  Plot, character, dialogue, setting, pacing...they, and more, must hit the right notes on their own level and in comparison to the other parts of the film.  So few movies can do this right, but John Crowley, whose movies get better and better with each new release, accomplishes this with ease.  I can't wait to see what he does next.

2.  In the Heart of the Sea.  This movie never had a chance.  For some boneheaded reason, the studio decided to release it a month before the new "Star Wars" movie.  What were they thinking?  Sure, it may not have lasted head to head on the same week as "The Hunger Games," but after a month the overrated teen franchse closer was on its last legs.  Releasing it a week or two earlier would only have helped it, and brought it a significant box office return.  There's no better marketing tool than word-of-mouth, but because of poor decision making on the part of Warner Bros., "In the Heart of the Sea" never got the chance to attract an audience.

1.  American Sniper.  A lot of people, most of them conservative, criticized the Academy for almost completely overlooking this film.  While there's no denying that Hollywood tends to lean towards the left, it's not that simple.  It was overlooked because, like with "In the Heart of the Sea," the studio botched the release date.  They didn't think it could stand on its own legs against the heavy-hitters at Oscar-time, so they released it right before the cut-off.  Although the film became insanely popular, it didn't do so before the nominations went out.  I tend to lean towards the left politically as well, but I agree with them whole-heartedly.  This film should have been a big contender at the Oscars, specifically for Best Picture and Best Actor.  My vote would have gone to "Boyhood" but the idea that "Birdman" was a stronger contender than "American Sniper" (and "Boyhood," as it turns out), makes me want to gag.  Regardless, there's no denying this film's power.  I remember exiting silently through much of the film's end credits, and as I was walking out, I could hear people crying and reflecting on what they just saw.  This is a stirring portrait of an American hero that succeeds because it holds nothing back and doesn't fall into the traps of Hollywood-ization or patriotic jingoism.  It allows the story to speak for itself.

Laura (1944) Extended Version

3.5/4

Starring: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price

Not Rated (contains Brief Violence)

Everyone loves a good mystery.  Witness the popularity of movies like "Seven" or anything by Alfred Hitchcock.  Hell, Hitch essentially defined the genre.  While the Master of Suspense didn't have anything to do with this film (it was directed by Otto Preminger), I have no doubt that he would have been pleased.

When the film opens, Laura Hunt (Tierney) is already dead.  She was murdered with a shotgun blast to the face.  Detective Mark McPherson (Andrews) is on the case, and has narrowed the suspect pool to two men: her patron, Waldo Lydecker (Webb), and her (ex?) fiancĂ©e, Shelby Carpenter (Price).  Both have motive: Waldo had a possessive streak and Shelby perhaps just wanted her for her money.  But which one is it?

"Laura" has the benefit of having a screenplay that is frequently brilliant.  Character development is strong and much of the dialogue, particularly Waldo's, is deliciously witty.  It is also beneficial that the film is in the hands of someone who knows what he is doing.  Preminger allows the mystery to unfold with the elegance of a master.  He keeps his cards very close to his chest, and when the big twist comes at the halfway mark, it blindsides us because we weren't expecting a twist of any kind.

The acting is terrific.  Dana Andrews, best known for this film and the post-WWII drama "The Best Years of Our Lives," is solid as the stone-faced detective.  We never know what he's thinking, but he's smart and we know he'll get to the bottom of it.  However, this has a downside: he's so emotionless that when people talk about him falling in love with Laura, we don't feel it.  As the title character, Gene Tierney shines.  Tierney, whose career was on a high note when this was made but was sidelined a few years later due to her mental instability, has a difficult role.  Through sheer personality, she must get us to understand how three men could become obsessed with her without overpowering us.  She pulls it off, and in that sense, I thought of Cameron Diaz in "There's Something About Mary."

The other two actors, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price, are equally colorful.  As the arrogant, quick-witted Waldo, Webb shines.  He has all the best lines, and I thought of Claude Rains in "Casablanca."  As polite as he is, there is definitely something sinister, almost pathological, about him,  Ironically, Darryl F. Zanuck didn't want to cast him because of his homosexuality, which was an open secret in Hollywood at the time.  But Preminger insisted, and Webb scored an Oscar nomination.  Future b-movie horror icon Vincent Price plays a far different role than he would become typecast as.  Shelby initially seems like a rather dense fellow, but then we realize he's anything but.

The beauty of "Laura" is that with each new revelation, our confidence in what we think we know about what happened erodes.  And, unlike many movies that feature a big twist, such as "Seven," "The Sixth Sense," and so on, the big twist doesn't solve everything.  In fact, it turns everything on its head.

The film's score must be mentioned.  Although it was not nominated for an Oscar, it proved to be so popular that fans demanded recordings, and the studio published the sheet music for purchase.  It's no surprise.  The music enhances the film's mood without being ostentatious, just as all good musical scores should.

The film can get a little confusing, and the ending is a little too abrupt, but all in all this is a must for lovers of film-noir, mysteries, or quality filmmaking in general.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Mike's Musings: Bottom 10 of 2015

My dad asked me tonight why I should be so negative as to compile a list of the worst films of the year.  I mean, who would want to read it?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.  Each year I've done it they've earned a lot of hits.  Plus every other film critic does it, so why not me (and if you use that jumping off a bridge analogy that everyone's mom did, you do not have permission to read my reviews ever again).

There were some definite stinkers this year, and I had more than enough choices for a Bottom 10 list, but on average it wasn't as painful as in previous years (for example, there are no movies that earned a 0/4).  That said, the movies on this list are still really bad.

10.  Hot Pursuit.  I dislike the term "chick flick" because a good movie is a good movie regardless of who it's aimed at.  However, if there is a movie that fits that descriptor, it's "Hot Pursuit."  And it gives all chick movies a bad name.  The humor is trite, the plot is dull, and the characters, with one exception are boring and/or irritating.  The exception is Randy, the local played by Robert Kazinsky.  He's appealing, but not on-screen enough to save this movie from appearing on this list.

9.  Seventh Son.  This is what happens when broadening the appeal of the movie becomes all-important.  There are no characters.  There's no plot.  Just special effects, and considering the cost of the movie ($95 million), they're pretty cheesy.  It's all noise for the texting, ADD-afflicted teens.  Not even the scenery chewing of Julianne Moore, which she's never gotten to do before, could save it.  Thankfully, it bombed at the box office, so we won't be seeing any sequels.

8.  Southpaw.  I don't have anything against grim movies in general.  Many great movies are incredibly depressing ("American Sniper," "Lilya 4-Ever," "Saving Private Ryan," and many, many others).  However, they earned their emotions with strong writing, directing and acting.  "Southpaw" makes the fatal mistake that if its grim enough, we won't notice its flaws.  Problem is, we do.  The characters are flat, the direction is pedestrian, and some nice performances can't save it from sinking like a dead weight.

7.  Focus.  Will Smith has had an interesting year.  He has taken a break from special effects behemoths and tried to flex his acting muscles.  The results are mixed.  He has given one of the year's best performances in "Concussion" and one of the worst in "Focus."  It's unfair to lay the blame at his feet since it's mainly because he's so miscast, but he's the film's biggest problem.

6.  Captive.  There's no reason why this Christian film couldn't have reached its target audience and spoken to the multiplex crowd at the same time.  After all, what could be more tense than having to stay alive with a murderer in your apartment while struggling to maintain your sobriety?  However, the film plays it far too safe.  The writing and directing are so lacking that there's little that an actress like Kate Mara can do.  That it essentially contains an advertisement for Rick Warren is rather obligatory, but considering what comes before it, it only adds salt to the wound.

5.  The Lazarus Effect.  Movies made on autopilot never work.  But when you start there and continue to fumble the ball at every turn, the result is downright ugly.  There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the premise.  In fact, done right it could have been a seriously creepy, and provocative, movie.  But the goal here is simply to make a quick and easy buck, and it's painfully obvious.  Unfortunately, it's the audience that suffers.

4.  It Follows.  Everyone seemed to love this movie.  I hated it.  I'll give it points for trying to be different, but there's no denying that this is a colossal misfire.  There is a fine line between reflecting reality and mimicking it.  "Boyhood" understood that.  "It Follows" does not, and as a result feels like something Wes Anderson would make if he ever tried to make a horror movie (if his "dramedies" weren't already horrifying enough).

3.  Dragonball Z: Resurrection "F".  I was debating whether or not this movie applies since it was released as a special event.  But iMDb included as a 2015 release and it was released on DVD and Blu Ray.  Nuff said.  Not only is "Dragonball Z: Resurrection" insufferably irritating and trite, it's downright offensive.  It offends me as a film lover to see the form violated so crassly.  It offends me because it gives an entire genre a bad name, and will turn away people from seeing good anime like "Spirited Away," "Princess Mononoke" (anything by Miyazaki, really), "Grave of the Fireflies," or "Cowboy Bebop: The Movie."  But above all, it offends me because it charged me more than the usual price for a ticket and robbed me of 93 minutes of my life (plus the intro) that I will never get back.

2.  Blackhat.  That this movie came from the mind and skill of the man who made "Heat," one of the best crime thrillers ever made, is nothing short of shocking.  It's horribly acted, almost totally incoherent and an all-around bore.  The only thing that saves it is the action scenes, which, as is the case with Michael Mann's work, are realistically staged.  But that's it.  It's equally tragic because it could have been so great.

Drumroll please...

1.  Child 44.  It's the only movie that got less than 1/4.  And for good reason.  This movie sucks.  It's gritty and violent, yes, which I am thankful for (no PG-13 here).  It also makes no sense, wastes a cast of excellent actors (if they aren't downright awful, they're slumming for a paycheck), and never wants to end.  If you're looking for a good serial killer movie, I can recommend some.  But only if you promise to avoid this monstrosity like everyone else.

Concussion

3/4

Starring: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks, David Morse

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Material including Some Disturbing Images

"Concussion" is a safe, reliable "David vs. Goliath" film.  No more, no less.  What it does, though, it does well.  The film is consistently compelling and features a great performance from Will Smith.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers player and hometown hero Mike Webster (Morse) has just been found dead.  The final months of his life he had been acting strangely, losing his money and living as a homeless person.  The pathologist examining him, Nigerian-born Dr. Bennett Omalu (Smith), is curious how a man who has everything could suddenly go insane and die like this.  Using his own money, he performs a series of tests and discovers that Webster suffered from a degenerative brain disease caused from repeated head trauma.  Of course, that does not go over well with the NFL, who goes on the attack after someone dares to give a name to their worst nightmare.

Storywise, there's nothing new here.  It follows the regular beats (even if just to say it did) and plays it safe at every turn.  Those who like these stories will like this movie.

The main thrust of the story is effective.  The NFL seems sleazy, but not nasty enough.  That's probably because the main face of the NFL in the film, Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson), is only on screen for five minutes tops and never mentioned elsewhere.  He also shares no screen time with the central character.  Writer/director Peter Landesman tries to make up for this by showing us pictures of NFL stadiums with sinister music, but it doesn't work.  More effective are the clips of football players getting hit.  It's amazing what context can do to a situation.  During a football game, they provoke adrenaline.  Here, they're devastating.

The scene where he explains his findings to other doctors doesn't work.  It only occurs after he sees it in Webster.  Scientifically speaking, that doesn't say much, and some computer animations don't convince us.  Better writing and handling would have made it land better.

Will Smith is one of the most charismatic and popular movie stars out there, and for good reason.  He's enormously likable, can bear the weight of a mega-blockbuster on his shoulders with ease, and understands the concept of comic timing.  But his range as a dramatic actor is limited.  He was okay in "The Pursuit of Happyness" and awful in this year's "Focus."  With "Concussion," Smith is getting Oscar-buzz, and a third Oscar nomination is a definite possibility.  As the slightly dorky, naiive but idealistic Bennett Omalu, Smith has found a role he can disappear into.  It took me only moments to forget I was seeing Will Smith.

Also good is Alec Baldwin, who plays Dr. Julian Bailes, who used to work for the Steelers.  Their relationship is interesting because they both want the same thing, but Omalu is naiive, and after the strong-arming by the NFL, he doesn't trust Bailes to be not corrupted by them.  It's Baldwin's best work in years.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Prima Mutsio, Bennett's roommate turned wife.  The character is under developed, but the actress does solid work.  Albert Brooks is in fine form as Bennett's boss and friend, Dr. Cyril Wecht.

While the film's main plotline is fine, the stuff surrounding it is shortchanged.  It's obvious that much of it was left on the cutting room floor (for example, we only know that Preta is pregnant when Bennett suddenly starts talking to the fetus).  And while much is made of Omalu's nationality, too little is done with it to make it meaningful.

So "Concussion" remains a solid drama, but not much else.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Joy

2.5/4

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Isabella Rossellini, Edgar Ramirez, Elizabeth Rohm, Bradley Cooper

Rated PG-13 for Brief Strong Language

The role of Joy Magnano was made for Jennifer Lawrence.  It's a part that requires spunk, stubborn determination and a bit of luck.  It's the kind of role that Lawrence plays so well.

Joy (Lawrence) is a single mom living in a very dysfunctional house.  Part of the reason is that she can't say no to anyone.  Her grandmother (Diane Ladd) lives upstairs, her soap opera-addicted mother (Virginia Madsen) never leaves the house, and her dad's (DeNiro) new wife just returned him, so he's moving into the basement, right next to her ex-husband (Ramirez).  Joy has been an inventor all her life, but life seems to have taken her in a direction that she didn't plan on.  One day while on a boat with her family, she cuts herself on some spilled wine glass.  That gives her an idea: the Miracle Mop.  You can clean it without getting your hands dirty and throw it in the washer.  Of course, getting the idea was the easy part.  Making it and selling it is a different story.

The one thing that holds this movie together is Jennifer Lawrence.  A highly talented young actress who's easy to love (both on and off screen), Lawrence is the anchor.  She keeps us anchored in the unfocused first half which is filled with David O. Russell's trademark off-kilter, almost artsy-style humor.  Although I have loved a few of his movies, such as "The Fighter" or "Three Kings," I've rarely found his stuff funny.  Robert DeNiro and Isabella Rossellini are also good, but this is Lawrence's show.  Despite top billing after Lawrence, Bradley Cooper doesn't have a substantial role in the film.  Adding insult to injury for his fans, it's not a great performance.  He plays a low-key, consummate professional, but his acting lacks the life and energy that made him a star.

Despite having the reputation for terrorizing everyone he comes across and being an all-around jerk (he got into a fistfight with the famously easy-to-work with George Clooney on the set of "Three Kings" and famously got into a screaming match with Lily Tomlin, also known to be easy to work with, on the set of "I Heart Huckabee's," but apparently the two actors have made up with Russell), there's no denying Russell's talent.  He's inconsistent, yes, (I didn't like "American Hustle" or "Silver Linings Playbook") but most definitely capable of brilliance (I loved "Three Kings" and "The Fighter").  "Joy" isn't a high-profile release for him, probably because it's a middle of the road picture.  There are aspects of the film that are compelling, but the film takes a while to hit its stride.  Russell is known for taking chances, and while they don't always pay off, some of them do.  For example, even though the first act is overlong and not well focused, the flashbacks are intriguingly melded into the film.

Is the film worth seeing?  Tough to say.  There are things I liked about it, especially after the film takes off once it focuses on the Miracle Mop.  But there are also things I didn't like, such as the muddling first act and it's unsuccessful attempts at humor.  It's too uneven to recommend seeing in the theater, but if you're interested, a night with this in the Blu Ray player won't be one that's wasted.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Princess and the Frog

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Woodley, Jim Cummings, Peter Bartlett, Jennifer Cody, Jenifer Lewis, Oprah Winfrey, Terence Howard, John Goodman

Rated G

In some ways, "old-fashioned" can be seen as a criticism.  That's not the case here.  "The Princess and the Frog" is a throwback to Disney classics like "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King."  While not as good as either of those, it comes close.

Tiana (Rose) is a hard-working waitress in New Orleans.  Her dream, nursed by her parents James (Howard) and Eudora (Winfrey), is to open a classy restaurant in the city.  She works two jobs to reach her goal, but money is hard to come by.  At the same time, Prince Naveen of Maldonia (Campos) is visiting, and Tiana's friend Charlotte (Cody) is hoping to marry him.  Before that can happen, the evil Dr. Facilier (David) has put a curse on him and turned him into a frog.  He asks Tiana to kiss him, believing that it will make him human again.  Instead, it turns Tiana into a frog.  Oops!  Now the two of them, with the help of a jazz-loving crocodile named Louis and a lovestruck firely named Ray (Cummings), have to find Mama Odie (Lewis) so they can become human again before Dr. Facilier takes control of New Orleans.

"The Princess and the Frog" is the first Disney movie to have a black princess.  However, the original story, in which Tiana was a maid named Maddie, caused a lot of controversy.  Not having read the original script or the novel, I can't comment on the film's possible quality.  However, I will say that "The Princess and the Frog" overcomes the notorious obstacle of dramatically changing a story mid-production ("Gigli" being perhaps the most infamous casualty of this sort of thing) and is a great movie.

The voice acting is strong.  While there are big stars in the cast (John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard), their roles are small.  The film goes back to the Disney tradition of using character actors.  Soft-voiced Anika Noni Rose is good, but lacks real charisma.  Still she remains appealing.  Bruno Campos is also very good as the womanizing Prince Naveen.  As cocky and self-centered as he is, he grows on us.  Keith David, the talented character actor that he is, makes for a ferocious villain.  I don't think anyone else could have played the character.  And Michael-Leon Woodley and Disney animation mainstay Jim Cummings are also solid.

What I really liked about it is how New Orleans comes alive.  It's not realistic, and I'm guessing it's not how it was in real life, but it feels real.  It captures the infectious nature of jazz, the quirkiness of voodoo and the laid-back southern atmosphere.  It's one of those movies that makes you want to touch the screen and let yourself get sucked in.

Co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker clearly know their stuff.  They were behind movies like "The Little Mermaid," which launched the New Golden Age of Disney Animation, "The Great Mouse Detective," and "Hercules."  Their love and affection for these movies is evident in every frame, as is their knowledge of what made them great.  This movie works.  The characters are appealing, the story is well-told, and the music is catchy.

As soon as the film ended, all I wanted to do was press "play" again.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Daddy's Home

2.5/4

Starring: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, Thomas Haden Church

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Crude and Suggestive Content, and for Language

Will Ferrell can be hilarious if he is used correctly.  With a strong director who knows his talents and how to use them, he can be hysterical.  Left to his own devices, he can be grating.  Although there are many fans of the "Anchorman" movies, I am not among them.  I found them to be two of the worst movies ever made.

Fortunately, Sean Anders is not Adam McKay.  He keeps Ferrell in check and makes him stick to the script.  There's none of his infernal screaming or shouting the dialogue in an attempt to make bad dialogue funny.  He's given clever dialogue and funny situations.  And he's required to create a character rather than play himself.  The result is some truly inspired comedy.

If only the same could be said for the production as a whole.  I won't claim that it's not funny, because it is.  The laughs and cringes are frequent and one scene nearly had me in tears.  But the film drags.  There isn't a lot of improvising, but it feels like it should be moving at a faster pace.  A screwball comedy like this should escalate in both laughs and pace.  Unfortunately, it doesn't.

Brad Whitaker (Ferrell) is a happy man.  Unable to pass along his seed due to a mishap at the dentist's office, Brad, who loves children, is determined to be the best step-dad to the son and daughter of his wife Sara (Cardellini).  Everything seems to be going fine until Sara's ex Dusty (Wahlberg) calls, and the eager-to-please Brad invites him out for a cold one.  Although they initially get along amicably, Sara knows better.  Dusty is being passive-aggressive and trying to push Brad towards a breakdown, and that's when his real motives appear: he wants to replace Brad.  A game of one-upmanship ensues, starting with bedtime stories and finishing a treehouse (complete with a skateboard ramp).  And Dusty is just getting started.

Tonally, the film is on solid ground.  While I often wondered what John Landis or Danny DeVito would have done with this material, it has enough of an edge to work (even if some of the humor is straight out of a sitcom).  Garry Marshall this isn't.

Will Ferrell is funny, and so is his co-star.  Dusty is a leather jacket-wearing, military (ish) badass.  Few people these days play tough guys like Wahlberg ("Fear," "The Departed," and so on), but he also has a sense of humor ("Ted," "Ted 2").  Wahlberg cheerfully lampoons his image to hilarious effect.  Ferrell and Wahlberg make a great duo (to his credit, McKay recognized this with "The Other Guys," which was funny until Ferrell took center stage).

The scene-stealer is Linda Cardellini.  Although she's been in a few movies like "Scooby-Doo" and "Brokeback Mountain" (she was also Jeremy Renner's wife in "Avengers: Age of Ultron"), but here she proves that she's more than an actor for hire.  Someone give her a headlining role already.

As funny as it is, and it's at times very funny (the scene at the basketball game, which is used in the trailer, is almost worth the price of admission), I can't recommend it for the theaters.  It drags too much.  The film clearly needed some tightening up on the scripting or execution stage.  However, when it comes to DVD and Netflix, I would give it a hearty recommendation.

Friday, December 25, 2015

American Mary

3/4

Starring: Kathryn Isabelle, Antonio Capo, Tristan Risk, John Emmett Tracy, David Lofgren

Rated R for Strong Aberrant Violent Content including Disturbing Images, Torture, a Rape, Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Language and Brief Drug Use

The subject matter of "American Mary" is enough to turn off a sizable majority of the film's potential audience.  I mean, how many people want to see a movie about a girl who gets into the body modification business?  But the film's non-judgmental approach that ensures that this will be anything but a freak show.  Rather, we see it as Mary, the film's heroine/anti-heroine sees it: par for the course.

Mary Mason (Isabelle) is an aspiring surgeon.  She's almost done with medical school and about to start her residency.  Unfortunately, she's broke and without a source of income.  While applying for a job at a sleazy strip club, she helpfully puts her skills to use on an injured man.  Her would-be employer, Billy Barker (Capo), is impressed.  A stripper at the club named Beatress (Risk) asks her to do a very odd surgery on a friend of hers.  Soon, Mary's skills are in high demand among those who have strange views on self-expression.  But after she is raped, she uses her talents for her own benefit.  Which puts her in the sights of Detective Dolor (Tracy).

There's nothing truly original about the film's plot, but the seasoning is so different that it gains an element of freshness.  I can't think of any movie about body modification, and the film gives an insider look at the culture.  It's not deep or philosophical, but that's okay.  This isn't Merchant/Ivory, nor should it be.  The cast is solid and the Soska sisters know what they're doing.

Kathryn Isabelle, today's "Scream Queen," has a challenging role.  She does some reprehensible things in this movie and yet she guides us into a culture that many would find bizarre.  But she pulls it off.  Antonio Capo is okay as her contact, who isn't as sleazy as he first appears.  He's half in lust with Mary and half terrified of her, which is an intriguing mix.  Tristan Risk makes a truly weird character sympathetic.  For someone who has tried to make herself look like Betty Boop, such a hurdle is difficult to overcome, but the actress makes it work.  And John Emmett Tracy is also good as a cop who knows what Mary has done but also what has been done to her.

Sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska risked a lot to make this movie, even going so far as to have their parents mortgage their house to raise funds.  This is a story they wanted to tell, and while passion is always good for a film, it can be bad if it's misguided or not effectively channeled.  Fortunately, that's not the case here.  The film is consistently engaging, although calling it a horror film will lead to unrealistic expectations.  "American Mary" defies easy description, but the best way to put it is a "crime-drama/coming-of-age story."

The film suffers from a few minor errors that afflict a lot of low budget films, such as jittery editing and awkward shot selection.  Overall, those are relatively minor complaints.  Less easy to overlook is the ending.  It's abrupt and doesn't pay off the way that it's intended.  It's easy to see what the Sosa sisters were trying to do, but trying is different from succeeding.

Nevertheless, it's worth seeking out for adventurous filmgoers.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Piano

2/4

Starring: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Sam Neill

Rated R for Moments of Extremely Graphic Sexuality

Art house films have a reputation for being super serious and obtuse.  Usually it's an unfair assumption, but in the case of "The Piano" such is the reality.  There's a lot of talking and "deep" material here, but it doesn't take a lot of thought to realize that it doesn't add up to much.

Ada McGrath (Hunter) has been a mute since the age of six.  Although she uses sign language so her daughter Flora (Paquin) can act as an interpreter, or failing that, she writes on little slips of paper that she keeps around her neck.  But her most precious avenue of communication is her piano.  Only through playing it can she truly express herself.

Her father has married her off to a man named Alisdair Stewart (Neill), who lives in New Zealand.  They have never met, and Alisdair is too self-centered to care about Ada's need for the piano, so it is left on the beach.  He sells it to George Baines (Keitel), a British man who has embraced the Maori culture.  Baines is willing to give the piano back to Ada, but she has to earn it.  Ada has no idea of the price she must pay in order to regain possession of her beloved instrument.

The problem with this film is easy to identify (apart from the sleazy nature of the plot): it never says what the film is actually about.  Is it about culture clashes?  British repression?  Sexual fulfillment?  Forbidden love?  Passion?  The film certainly doesn't know.  In fact, I'm not sure that writer/director Jane Campion does either.

Its refusal to state what the film is actually about isn't the only problem (the film suffers from pacing issues and the storyline feels more reprehensible the more you think about it), but it is the biggest.  If we don't know what the point of it all is, how can we be involved?  I know I bring of "The War Zone" as a point of contrast in just about every other review, but it does things that so many movies attempt and fail at.  It is true that Tim Roth's film was incredibly oblique and messy.  However, it stimulated the mind and gave us enough detail to allow us to form our own opinions.  That doesn't happen here.  It's all posturing and babble.

At least the acting is strong.  Holly Hunter, a choosy actress who always excels, is brilliant.  Apart from two brief voiceovers (one that opens the film and another that closes it), Ada doesn't speak.  Hunter must rely on body language and particularly her expressive face to convey the complexities of her character.  She succeeds admirably; Ada is a woman we know and understand.  Her Oscar was well deserved, and not just because she did her own piano playing.  Harvey Keitel is too low-key as Baines, but it's impossible for him to give a bad performance.  Here, he was just misdirected.  Anna Paquin made a stunning debut as Flora, despite the fact that her character is underwritten and Paquin only got the part because she was attending the audition along with her sister.  In many ways, Flora is more mature than Ada, yet at the same time she has the heart and mind of a child.  That Paquin captures this complexity despite the deficiencies in her role is astonishing.  And Sam Neill provides solid support as a man who would give anything to break out of the rigid mold society has groomed him into becoming.

The film at least has the virtue of looking excellent.  The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh is excellent (he lost the Oscar to Janusz Kaminski for "Schindler's List."  Ironically, Kaminski later married Holly Hunter), as is the production design by Andrew McAlpine.  If I didn't know any better, I'd swear I was taken back to New Zealand in the early 19th century.

Sadly, good visuals and strong acting can't save a film as confused as this.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Black Mask

3/4

Starring: Jet Li, Ching Wan Lau, Karen Mok, Francoise Yip, Kong Lung

Rated R for Strong Violence including Martial Arts Combat, Some Sexual Content and Language

A movie like "Black Mask" is hard to review.  Things like plot, character development and acting aren't considered essential by either the filmmakers or the audience.  They just exist to support the star attraction of martial arts extravaganzas: action scenes.  So since the normal standards one would use to judge this movie don't apply, I must review the action.  And on that level, "Black Mask" is a success.

Truth be told, there is a plot, although considering how little is done with it, it's surprising that it's engaging on any level.  The government created a group of supersoldiers who are super fast and super strong, and who feel no pain.  However, when one of them kills a group of policemen in a fit of rage, the government abandons the project.  One of their number, Simon (Li) helps them escape, and goes off to live the civilian life.  But when the city's crime lords are being murdered, Simon thinks they're behind it.  The police, led by his buddy Rock (Lau), are helpless, so he dons a mask and goes after them himself.

It's not the pinnacle of originality, but it keeps things moving.  I was able to accept it for what it was, and for a movie like this, that's all that matters.

To my horror, the film is dubbed, and even on Blu Ray, you can't watch it in its natural language.  However, after a few minutes you get used to it and realize that that adds a degree of charm to the film.  Like the early Jackie Chan flicks, there's a affectioinate level of silliness that the dubbing adds, particularly because it's so poorly done.  The voice acting is flat, and for all I know, was done by only one or two people.  It's doubly effective because the dialogue is at times very silly.

There's a reason why Jet Li was at one point considered to be second only to Jackie Chan in terms of martial arts master: he kicks ass like few other people.  But in place of action mixed with comedy (or is it the other way around?), Jet Li is all action.  Sure, there are times when he is obviously using wires to fly through the air, but he makes it work.

Simon may not be the most interesting individual, but Li has screen presence.  Ching Wan Lau is effective as the obligatory best friend who is on his tail (the resolution to this conflict isn't exactly fresh, but it doesn't play dumb for as long as many other movies do).  Karen Wok is hilarious as the ditzy love interest, and is responsible for some of the film's funniest scenes.  And Kong Lung makes for a perfect villain in this context.  "Campy" doesn't really cover it.  Long hair, cheesy shades and a cape only begin to describe his character.  I'm dead serious.

Great art, it isn't.  Even without the dubbing.  But as 99 minutes of undemanding testosterone, it gets the job done.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Krampus

3.5/4

Starring: Emjay Anthony, Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Horror Violence/Terror, Language and Some Drug Material

"Krampus" is a much better film than you'd think.  The mainstream debut behind the camera of Michael Dougherty, who made the cult hit "Trick 'r Treat," "Krampus" does what one might think to be impossible: create a Christmas horror-comedy that's both scary and funny.

The film begins much like a darker version of "Christmas Vacation."  Actually, it begins with a dead-on satire of Black Friday shenanigans covered by a Christmas tune that might well have been sung by Bing Crosby.  Then it focuses on the Engel family.  Youngest son Max just got into a fight at the pageant with another kid about the existence of Santa (this included a drop-kick on Max's part, but he claims that he was under the influence of candy).  Then, much to the aggravation of everyone, the relatives show up.  Sarah's (Collette) sister Linda (Tolman) married the trailer trash country bumpkin Howard (Koechner), and in addition to their brood of four kids, they brought along the obligatory hard-drinking, politically incorrect Aunt Dorothy (Ferrell).  Fed up with everyone, Max tears up his letter to Santa and wishes for everyone to go away.  The next morning, everyone wakes up in a severe blizzard and strange things going on.

Dougherty has an eye for atmosphere.  The gloom and terror choked me as soon as I saw the snow.  Believe me when I say that my teeth started chattering in the theater.  It's a perfect setting for a horror movie, and Dougherty knows how to push our buttons.  He limits the amount of time we see the evil creatures, relying primarily on the audience's imagination (which will be in overdrive).  Even better, what we see of them is twisted and grotesque.  Not quite to the level of the Xenomorph or Bughuul, but creepy enough to get the job done.

That's not to say that "Krampus" is all scares and no fun.  Dougherty inserts plenty of one-liners into the film, and while the film leans more towards horror, they're funny enough to compliment the tension...and allow us to stop gripping the armrests.

The cast, primarily of character actors and unknowns, shines.  Adam Scott is effective as the every-dad, although he seems a little young to be married to Toni Collette.  Never mind.  Collette is good as always, proving that, unlike some actresses, she's more than happy to lend her considerable talents to projects without prestige or huge paychecks ("The Way Way Back" is another example).  David Koechner and Conchata Ferrell provide the majority of the humor.  Ferrell, whose abilities as a scene-stealer are so great she should just use that as a job descriptor, has the best lines and biggest laughs.  And Emjay Anthony, who played the social media savvy son in last year's underrated "Chef," continues to grow as an actor.  Max misses "what Christmas used to be:" good cheer and a gathering of a loving family instead of bickering and passive aggression.

I thought of "Santa's Slay" while watching this movie.  That film had its pleasures, but "Krampus" takes it to the next level.  It's a lot funnier, and actually scary.  Be warned, however.  The film is intense and violent enough that I was surprised that it skated by with a PG-13 rating.  There are instances where profanity and gore were avoided in an attempt to get avoid an R (despite the fact that it would have made the film seem more honest), but this is as hard of a PG-13 as can be found.

For those of you who are looking for something a little different this Christmas, "Krampus" will satisfy.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Sisters

3.5/4

Starring: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ike Barinholtz, James Brolin, Dianne Wiest, John Leguizamo, John Cena, Madison Davenport

Rated R for Crude Sexual Content and Language Throughout, and for Drug Use

"Sisters" is funny.  Not subversively or understated funny.  Just plain funny.  I laughed.  And laughed.  And laughed some more.  And when I thought I couldn't laugh any longer, that's when the movie really gets going.

Kate (Fey) and Maura (Poehler) are sisters and best friends.  They're also middle-aged, but have the maturity level of someone half that.  Kate has a full-grown daughter named Hayley (Davenport) who is much more grown up than she is and has been away for a month.  Maura still hasn't gotten over her divorce two years ago.  But when their parents Bucky (Brolin) and Deana (Wiest) decide to sell the home they grew up in to a snobby yuppie couple from New York, they're furious.  While packing up their rooms, they realize that good-girl Maura never had a party where she could let loose, so they decide to have one final bash with their high school friends to say good-bye to the place.  Kate also sees this as an opportunity for Maura to hit it off with James (Barinholtz), the hunky neighbor.

It makes sense that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would do a movie like this.  Both are able comediennes and close friends in real life.  This is just the natural extension of their off-screen friendship.  While not necessarily a "classic" duo, they make a good team and play off each other with ease.  What the script lacks in character development and sharp dialogue, Fey and Poehler make up for with their comic timing and delivery.

This is definitely their show, but they're given a strong supporting cast.  Leading the pack is Ike Barinholtz.  Not only does he look the part (he's good-looking, but not impossibly so), he has enough warmth to make him credible as a romantic lead.  And he has good chemistry with Poehler.  And John Cena earns a lot of mileage playing a stone-faced drug dealer.  Finally, the sight of James Brolin and Dianne Wiest playing randy empty nesters with foul mouths is worth the price of admission in and of itself.

Sadly, the film occasionally falls into the trap of many modern comedies: comic riffs that overstay their welcome.  Unlike Seth Rogen's schtick (which has no point or focus), these actually pay off, but a little tightening would have made them work better.

"Sisters" is being offered as counter-programming to "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."  Universal is hoping to score big money from people who don't want to see the new "Star Wars" film (are there such people?), people who have already seen it, or people who couldn't get tickets to it and are already at the theater.  The good news is that this movie is good enough to warrant a trip to the theater just to see it, and not as some sort of consolation alternative.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

3.5/4

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence

To me, "Star Wars" has been just movies.  Great movies, to be sure, but just movies.  I was never a die-hard fan.  I like George Lucas's tinkering with the original trilogy.  I love Episodes I, II, and III (in some ways, more than IV, V, and VI).  I don't hate the Ewoks.  I think that Jar Jar Binks is funny.  That's all they are though.  Just movies.

There.  Got that out of the way...

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens," easily the most anticipated movie of the year, does exactly what a sequel/reboot should do: take the core ideas, themes and characters of the original and move them forward while still honoring its roots.  Director J.J. Abrams has a lot of love for the franchise, and it shows.  However, it's sufficiently different enough that it doesn't feel like adulation.  Arguably the film's most impressive achievement is that it he finds the right balance between individuality and reverence.  It's not perfect in this respect, but the original six movies aren't so closely imitated that it feels like a wannabe.

30 years after the fall of the Empire, a new threat has risen.  The First order, led by Kylo Ren (Driver), seeks to do what the Empire could not (for very long), and they do so with enough gusto to make the Empire look like the aforementioned Ewoks.

Of course, there is a resistance, led by the now General Leia (Fisher).  A pilot for the resistance, named Poe Dameron (Isaac), is bringing them a droid with the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Hamill), who has been missing for years.  But he is captured and after escaping with a defecting stormtrooper he dubs "Finn" (Boyega), they are shot down and Poe is feared dead.  Now Finn, with the help of a local named Rey (Ridley) and Han Solo (Ford), they set off to find the resistance, and Luke Skywalker, with the First Order right on their tail.

Unlike the previous films, which did not boast acting as one of their most positive qualities, "The Force Awakens" boasts strong performances.  Newcomer Daisy Ridley is delightful, playing her character with heart, passion and a touch of vulnerability.  I can't wait to see what's in store for her.  John Boyega is good, but nowhere near as interesting as Rey or Poe.  While Rey is the central character, Poe is only on-screen for a handful of scenes.  Harrison Ford slides easily back into his role, but Carrie Fisher is slightly less successful.  And I'm not going to say anything about Mark Hamill that anyone with access to the internet doesn't already know: he does appear in the film.  Adam Driver gives depth and turmoil to the role of the main villain.  Kylo Ren is a vicious and formidable foe.  As is Domhnall Gleeson, who plays his right hand man, General Hux.

"The Force Awakens" provides plenty of fan service, nut not so much that it forgets to move the story forward.  Many remakes, reboots and sequels are too afraid of disappointing fans or hold too much reverence for the source material to carve out a new identity (most of the tween sci-fi/fantasy franchises fall into this category).  Not so here.  "The Force Awakens" is very much its own movie.  Mostly for the better.

J.J. Abrams is in many ways trying to emulate George Lucas, and he's moderately successful.  He uses a lot of Lucas's trademark editing techniques (screen wipes, iris cuts, etc.) and some of the screen shots and creatures seem to have been lifted right out of Lucas's mind (and for all I know, probably were).  But in other respects, he comes up short.  Abrams and his usual cinematographer Dan Mindel favor darkness and tight camera lengths.  It makes the film less of a spectacle, and in the case of the former, far less innocent and optimistic.  Finally, there's some contemporary-style humor that, while occasionally funny, doesn't really fit in a "Star Wars" movie.  In this respect (and in many others), the "Star Wars" movies have always been affectionately corny so fast-talking, energetic humor feels out-of-place.  Finally, Abrams simply lacks the visual creativity of George Lucas.  No one does visuals like him, and Abrams proves that.

That said, it's still a lot of fun.  The story is engaging and moves at a brisk pace, the action scenes, while not on par with Lucas's work, are well-executed.  There's also a stand-off that crackles with unbearable tension, and Abrams manages to blindside us with a couple of neat twists.  And for once, the 3-D is an asset.

"Star Wars" is back in a big way, and I couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Specialist

1.5/4

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, James Woods, Rod Steiger, Eric Roberts

Rated R for Strong Violence, Sexuality, and Language

With Marvel movies, sequels and reboots dominating the summer movie landscape, it's easy to look back fondly at an earlier time when action movies succeeded not by the size of the budget or a built-in audience, but by the skill of the people making them.  Movies like "Speed," "The Rock," "Air Force One," "Independence Day" and others make me nostalgic for those times.

Of course, not every movie of the 90's was as good as those movies.  "Turbulence," "Mercury Rising," and "The Last Boy Scout" were also released at that time.  Despite having a decent concept and the physical appeal of Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone, "The Specialist" belongs in the latter camp.

May Munro (Stone) wants revenge.  Years ago when she was a little girl, her parents were murdered at the hands of the not-so-nice wise guy Tomas Leon (Roberts).  Now, she's trying to entice explosives master Ray Quick (Stallone) to help her wipe the whole Leon family off the face of the earth.  Ray doesn't want anything to do with her, because of course, he doesn't do this sort of thing.  But when she decides to take them on herself and gets into trouble, he leaps into action.  And that's just what Ned Trent (Woods), Ray's old CIA partner-turned-right hand of the Leons, wants.

"The Specialist" doesn't aspire to be more than a formula action picture.  That's okay, because this is the kind of high-concept action thriller that can work despite a routine plot.  Provided, of course, that it's well-written and executed.  Sadly it's not.  The script is lame and the direction isn't much better.  The word "pedestrian" comes to mind when describing them.

The role of an action hero demands a larger-than-life persona, which is why guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Keanu Reeves can succeed in this arena despite the fact that they're not the male version of Meryl Streep.  Stallone should know this better than anyone, having starred in the "Rambo" movies and numerous other action pictures.  Yet he underplays the role.  It's a decent performance, but it belongs in a different movie.  Rather than intense or heroic, Ray looks sad.  Sharon Stone does what she can, but considering the bland dialogue she has, it isn't much.  She and Stallone have chemistry, but that doesn't help the fact that the barbs they trade are goofy rather than pithy, and that their obligatory sex scene seems like something out of an R-rated Bond movie (the accompanying score by John Barry further enhances this connection).  James Woods, playing the frothing at the mouth villain, looks like he'd rather be anywhere else.  In the right role, he can be delicious fun to watch on screen, but here he seems bored...mainly because few of his trademark wisecracks have any wit.  And Rod Steiger is sorely miscast as Joe Leon.  He does as good of a job as he can, but this is so obviously a "Kirk Lazarus" thing that it's almost offensive.  Eric Roberts is slightly more successful, but that's it.

I was surprised at the subpar direction of Luis Llosa.  Not only are the action scenes ineptly staged, there's no atmosphere (two things that made "Anaconda" so much fun).  Characters are poorly fleshed out and Luis Llosa doesn't even bother to camouflage the holes in the story (of which there are many).  People come back from the dead a lot in this movie.

I suppose there is a certain irony in calling a movie this lame "The Specialist."  However, it will only dawn upon those unfortunate enough to actually watch it.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Mike's Musings: 10 Examples of Great Entertainment

Stanley Kaufman once said that it is easier to make good drama than good entertainment.  I think that's true.  If you look hard enough, you can find movies that compel and move you, but they're not always "fun."  At least not in the traditional sense.  So while Oscar-bait movies like "Spotlight" or "The Imitation Game" come out every winter, and there's always a classic movie like "2001: A Space Odyssey" that you have to see, movies like "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse" that are simply fun to watch are much more rare.

So I have compiled a list of 10 movies that I enjoy when I want to sit back, relax and just be entertained.  No "give and take" required on my part, nothing that's hard to stomach or uncomfortable, no understatement...just pure enjoyment.

Of course, everyone has their go-to movies.  This list is a little different.  Big hit movies like "Guardians of the Galaxy" or "Tommy Boy" won't be on this list, nor classics like "The Godfather" or "Boyhood."  It's safe to assume that pretty much everyone has seen them, so putting them on here would be redundant.

I'll also add that not every movie on here will be a 4/4.  A highest rating is nothing without context.  Consider "The War Zone."  Brilliant?  Absolutely.  Easy to watch?  Not on your life.  Plus, I want to give some little known movies a chance to shine.  They may not be perfect, but they're a lot of fun.

I'm also not going to order them because in this case doing so would be unfair.

"Burke and Hare:" Comedy is subjective.  What one person finds hilarious, the person right next to you might find tedious and stupid.  For example, I hate Will Ferrell when he's working with Adam McKay (the "Anchorman" movies, "Talledega Nights," "The Other Guys," etc.), although I do like him elsewhere.  I know someone who is perfectly intelligent who hated this movie.  I think it's hilarious.  It's streaming on Netflix at the moment, so see for yourself.

"Sneakers:" This movie is a lot of fun, and while it was a box office success, it's too laid-back to imagine it being a blockbuster in theaters.  "Sneakers" is like the easy-listening station on the radio.  It hits all the right notes (suspense, humor, twisty plot, interesting characters, etc.) without pushing your buttons too hard.  It's couch-and-popcorn entertainment at it's finest.

"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow:" This movie bombed at the box office, and I'm not sure why.  A throwback to early serials, this is a fun, light-hearted adventure that remembers what comic books are all about.  Sorry, Christopher Nolan, but there are times when we want our heroes strong and simple, heroines plucky, and villains only concerned with world domination (of sorts).  This movie is so positive and upbeat that it's impossible not to smile.

"Into the Blue:" Another movie with tremendous appeal that somehow bombed at the box office.  You got hot stars wearing as little clothing as possible, a story set in the Caribbean, thrilling action, great humor, and lots of money caught in the middle.  Sure, the acting is at times stiff, but where else can you find the late Paul Walker in board shorts and Jessica Alba in a bikini for the majority of the running time without it ever seeming to be contrived?

"Anaconda:" "Anaconda" is a movie of paradoxical descriptors, and all of them are good.  It's scary and funny, creepy and campy, serious and goofy.  All at the same time.  It never pretends to be something other than what it is, and therein lies its success.  True, anacondas don't grow to be as big as they do in this movie, and I've never heard of one eating a human, but it's the kind of movie where a lost tribe of the Amazon is called the "Shirishama," and the cast members are able to suggest how silly they know it is while keeping straight faces.  Screaming and laughing are par for the course in this movie.

"The Way Way Back:" I remember going to summer camp when I was a kid and watching movies like "The Goonies" or something similar.  Fun, but unpretentious, and totally mainstream.  "The Way Way Back" fits in with that oeuvre like a glove.  It's got a few laughs, plenty of smiles, and some truly awesome characters that are worth visiting again and again.  It's a feel-good movie that will make you miss your childhood summer vacations.

"Cowboy Bebop: The Movie:"  Incidentally, I tried to get my friends to watch this movie the other night.  They refused to even watch the trailer because they didn't want to watch another "anime" movie.  Believe me, I have sympathy.  When crap like "Dragonball Z" is considered to be the pinnacle of the genre, I'd run the other way too.  But what if I told you that the plot is a mix of "Blade Runner" and "Guardians of the Galaxy?"  Or if the action scenes bring "Star Wars" to mind?  Or that it has a wicked cool soundtrack and a villain who is as tragic as he is deranged?  If nothing else, you have to give a movie a shot when opening scene so hilariously sends up the dreaded "talking killer" syndrome.

"The Peacemaker:" I debated whether or not to include this movie here because there is some tough stuff to be found in this film, but so there was in "The Rock."  Still, the evidence speaks for itself.  Clooney and Kidman at the top of their game.  A game of chicken and bumper cars between luxury cars on the streets of Vienna.  And a chase scene through downtown New York City during a huge traffic jam.  How does that not sound cool?

"Speed Racer:" You know when you see a teaser trailer for a blockbuster that's coming next year, and you only see a few clips from it?  It's so exciting because you believe that the possibilities are endless, and it could be the most awesome movie ever made.  Imagine that feeling of awe and excitement replicated for two hours and you've got "Speed Racer."  Sure, the colors are garish and it's noisy and busy, but it's packed with adrenaline and the racing scenes are out of this world.  Plus, it has a villain who gives new meaning to the phrase "over-the-top."

And...

"Brotherhood of the Wolf:"  Sure, it's French.  Sure, it's a period piece.  Sure, it has no "name" actors.  But assuming that it's an arthouse movie just because those things apply is a huge misconception.  In fact, Universal Studios released it under its mainstream label rather than one of its indie offspring.  If you do a shot by shot remake of this movie with American stars, it would reign king at the box office for months.  Actually, I'm surprised that Universal hasn't remade it yet.  I have yet to meet a person who has seen this movie and not loved every minute of it.  I know one of my friends refuses to watch it because it's subtitled and doesn't have any actors that he knows.  I did show it to a girlfriend of mine and she thought it was just awesome.  So, friend, and you know who you are, we ARE going to watch this movie.  And you will love it.

Clean and Sober

2.5/4

Starring: Michael Keaton, Diane Baker, Morgan Freeman, M. Emmett Walsh, Brian Benben

Rated R (probably for Language, Drug Content, and Brief Nudity)

Addiction movies come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are feel-good movies ("28 Days") while others are absolutely brutal to watch ("Once Were Warriors").  Some are realistic ("Smashed") while others are totally whacked-out ("Requiem for a Dream").  The 1988 film "Clean and Sober" is different because it's not about addiction itself, but addictive personalities.

Daryl Poynter (Keaton) is having a really bad day.  A girl he picked up has OD'd on coke in his bed and he can't find a way to pay back the considerable sum that he embezzled from his company.  Unable to get out of the country, he is all out of options when the radio gives him a brilliant idea: a rehab facility with 100% confidentiality.  Daryl hides out there while he figures out what to do with himself.  His case officer, a man named Craig (Freeman), sees right through him, however.

What sets "Clean and Sober" apart from other addiction movies is that its focus not on substance abuse, but on Daryl himself.  I forget where I heard the term "addicted to chaos," but that describes Daryl perfectly.  He needs to be on the go 24/7.  He needs the stress, the rush, the "go go go" lifestyle.  His addiction may manifest itself through alcohol and cocaine, but it's his personality that is the real problem.  Many addiction movies, even the good ones like "The Lost Weekend," think that it's the substance that is the problem.  "Clean and Sober" is smart enough to know that it's the other way around.

Had the film followed this route to its natural conclusion, it would have been a good film.  But for whatever reason, the filmmakers decided to turn it into a romance.  Daryl is a relentless womanizer, and a fellow addict named Charlie (Baker) catches his eye.  She knows he's phony (probably because he does little to hide it), but she has an addictive personality too.  She's attracted to dangerous men like her husband Lenny (Luca Bercovici).  It would be hard enough to set aside the fact that this sort of thing is frowned upon in AA (from what I understand), but Keaton and Baker don't have any real chemistry, despite them giving nice performances.  Morgan Freeman is a little flat, although that's mainly due to the fact that his role is a clichĂ©.  Much more interesting are M. Emmett Walsh as Daryl's sponsor and Brian Benben as Daryl's co-worker.

It's true that the events in the second half illustrate a hard lesson for Daryl, but I just wish that they felt more honest and less like a soap opera.  Then I might be able to recommend this film.

Friday, December 11, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea

4/4

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Cillian Murphy, Charlotte Riley

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action and Peril, Brief Startling Violence, and Thematic Material

There's nothing worse than the feeling of being helpless when the world seems to be against you.  It's especially horrible when you're on a whaling vessel in the 1850's and stranded in the middle of the ocean.  And you have a monstrous whale nearby who is intent on killing you.  Not only does death seem like an inevitability, but it would be a long, torturous one.

Ron Howard is one of the rare filmmakers who can make arthouse films appeal to the multiplex crowd.  He is a master craftsmen and, perhaps being an actor himself, knows how to mold his actors into giving compelling performances.  Chris Hemsworth, for example, does not have great range, but in the hands of Ron Howard (who directed him in the underrated "Rush"), he can be an excellent actor.

Howard also has a flair for spectacle, which he has never been given the chance to show.  Sure, movies like "Backdraft," "Apollo 13" and "Rush" showed that he had visual flair, but nothing in those movies compares to what he does with the inspiration for "Moby Dick."  The action scenes are awe-inspiring, and at times, just as intense as those in "The Perfect Storm."

The story is told mostly in flashback.  Author Herman Mehlville (Whishaw) is interviewing Tom Nickerson (Gleeson) about the tragedy of the Essex.  Initially reluctant, Tom agrees with the promise of a considerable amount of money and the encouragement of his wife (Fairley).

Whaler Owen Chase (Hemsworth) is assigned to be the first mate of the refitted ship Essex.  He is furious at the appointment, having been promised his own ship by the bosses.  The fact that the captain is George Pollard (Walker), a sailor with little experience who is appointed because he comes from a powerful whaling family only deepens the wound.  Nevertheless, he agrees to go.  The film runs into trouble almost immediately.  The ship runs into a violent squall, which Chase advises avoiding but Pollard wants to skirt to show his mettle.  And they only find one whale, which is about a quarter of their expected haul.  Not wanting to come back empty handed, they venture out to a place almost off the map.  There, their ship is destroyed by a huge whale.  And that's just the start.

The genre that best describes "In the Heart of the Sea" is "epic."  It is filled with rousing adventure, larger than life characters, and heart-pounding excitement.  There are a number of scenes that took my breath away.  Literally.

This isn't an actor's show, but the performances are solid.  Chris Hemsworth is steady and talented enough to build a big budget film around, but this isn't one of his best performances.  Benjamin Walker isn't as impressive.  He's solid as the inexperienced captain, but he can't match Hemsworth screen presence or charisma.  What should be a tense tete-a-tete feels one sided.  Fortunately, that's only a minor aspect of the story and easily overlooked.

The flashback structure of the narrative is arguably not necessary, but it provides an acceptable emotional payoff and both Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson are in top form (Gleeson has never been better).  If anything, it gives us a moment to catch our breath between the horrors that the Essex crew faces, something that "The Perfect Storm" elected not to do.  Not that that's a criticism...

Speaking of horrors, that's the best way to describe the crew's encounters with the whale that would serve as inspiration for "Moby Dick."  He appears multiple times, and he grows more terrifying with each successive appearance.  While that aspect of the plot doesn't have the closure you'd expect, it has something that ties it up in a perfectly satisfying way.  What happens is clear, but it goes unsaid because dialogue is simply not necessary.

In what appears to be a complete lack of confidence in the film, Warner Bros. has elected to release "In the Heart of the Sea" a week before the new "Star Wars" movie opens.  I'm not sure why.  This film can stand on its own two legs, and is best seen on as big of a screen as possible (the 3-D is hit and miss...little eye strain but not very noticeable).  That leaves the film one week in IMAX theaters.

Do yourself a favor.  Take some time, either this weekend or sometime during the week, to see this film in IMAX 3D.  You will not regret it.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Brooklyn

4/4

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Fiona Glascott, Jane Brennan, Jessica Pare

Rated PG-13 for A Scene of Sexuality and Brief Strong Language

"Brooklyn" is a much better movie than you'd think.  The film is being marketed as a romance aimed at the "Twilight" crowd, and while it does feature two love stories, it is about much more than that.  It's about cultural assimilation.  It's about self-discovery.  But more potently, it's about longing.  Longing for what we hold dear to us, be it home or the ones we love.  The feeling of longing is palpable from beginning to end.

Actually, the comparison to "Twilight," specifically "New Moon," is appropriate.  Both are about a young woman torn between two men, two cultures and two lives.  When said character is with one, she can't imagine being with the other.  However, that's where the similarities end.  "New Moon" was hamstrung by atrocious dialogue, a considerable amount of misogyny, and the woeful "acting" of Taylor Lautner.  Instead of being romantic, it was deadly dull.  "Brooklyn" has well-developed characters, realistic dialogue, and impeccable performances.  The actors have tremendous chemistry and both burn with that fire that so many romances aim for but few ever achieve.  More importantly, it uses these love stories to enhance the lead character's growth.  It could be argued that "Brooklyn" is more of a coming-of-age story than anything else.

The film takes place in the early 1950's.  Unable to find a decent job, Irish lass Eilis (Ronan) decides to emigrate to America, leaving behind her mother (Brennan) and sister (Glascott).  With the help of Father Flood (Broadbent), she is set up with a room at a boarding house run by the feisty Mrs. Kehoe (Walters) and a job at a department store.  To further help her acclimate, Father Flood enrolls her in a bookkeeping class three nights a week.  However, she only really comes alive when she meets a handsome Italian boy named Tony (Cohen).  They quickly fall for each other, and she agrees to marry him.  But, for reasons I will not reveal, she must return home to Ireland, where she meets an old friend named Jim (Gleeson), whom she also grows feelings for.

This sounds straight out of a soap opera, but much care has been taken.  The script, based on the novel by Colm Toibin, was written by Nick Hornby, and it is absolutely lovely.  The dialogue is rich without ever being pretentious, the characters have depth, and the plot is carefully constructed.  The people in this film feel real, and they are given room to breathe.  Hornby, who wrote such novels as "Fever Pitch" and "High Fidelity," was nominated for an Oscar for his work in adapting "An Education."  If he's not nominated again here, I will be very surprised.

It sure helps that the acting is on a consistently high level.  Saoirse Ronan came to the world's attention when she effortlessly essayed the complex character of young Briony Tallis in the masterful "Atonement."  She was rightfully given an Oscar nomination for her performance, and her work in "Brooklyn" is equally good.  Whether it be a homesick young girl all alone in a new country and doing the best she can to survive or a woman torn between two very different men, Ronan never misses a beat.  The actress is getting Oscar buzz for her performance, and the results of her hard work are strong enough that she has a good shot at winning.

Ronan is the focus of the film, but she is supported by two able-bodied actors playing her love interests.  As Tony, Emory Cohen plays him with a bit too much swagger, but perhaps that's just a defense mechanism.  Regardless, Cohen is very good as the blue-collar boy who loves this girl and is trying his best to not push her away, either from coming on too strong or his cultural heritage.  His Irish counterpart, Domhnall Gleeson is just as good.  Unlike the cocky Tony, Jim is quiet and studious, but earnest.  He loves her just as much.

The film's greatest strength is its sense of balance.  Although primarily a drama, "Brooklyn" features emotional highs and lows, heartbreak and hilarity (the dinner scene, and the preparation for it, are laugh-aloud funny).  That statement also fits the characters and setting as well.  Jim and Tony are developed well enough and have enough chemistry with Ronan that we get the sense that she could be happy with either man.  Enhancing the conflict is that their environments are just as developed.  Busy, aggresive New York City is far different from simple, slow-moving Ireland.  Each has their pluses and minuses, and director John Crowley makes sure that we feel the appeal of both settings.  If Eilis could split herself in two and have both lives, I'm sure she would.

"Brooklyn" has its problems, such as taking a little too long to draw the audience in or the fact that Jim has less screen time than Tony.  But such are minor blemishes and have almost no negative impact on the film.  We identify with Eilis and the difficulties that she has to face.  This is one of the year's best films.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Age of Innocence

3/4

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder

Rated PG for Thematic Elements and Brief Mild Language

Martin Scorcese does Merchant/Ivory.

If that sounds strange, well, it is.  Scorcese is known for brutally violent and/or decadent movies like "Taxi Driver," "Goodfellas," "Gangs of New York" and "The Departed."  Him making a Victorian era costume drama seems like a very odd choice.  Then again, he did make the raunchy and outrageous "The Wolf of Wall Street," so maybe it's not as big of a stretch as one might assume.

Many of Scorcese's films deal with guilt of some kind, and boy is "The Age of Innocence" ripe with it.  When your life is hermetically sealed off from the rest of society and everyone too wealthy to concern themselves with anything other than what everyone else is doing, you have to watch your step.  And if your in that situation in Victorian era New York City, falling in love with a wanton woman is essentially committing social suicide.

That's the situation that Newland Archer (Day-Lewis) finds himself in.  A wealthy lawyer, he's a part of the cream of the crop in New York City shortly after the Civil War.  Everyone knows everyone in that part of society, and reputations are everything.  Fortunately, he's helplessly in love with his cousin, the polite and innocent May Welland (Ryder), whom he wants to marry as soon as possible.  However tradition dictates that they be engaged for a year or two.  In the meantime, Countess Ellen Olenska (Pfeiffer) moves back home after her husband cheats on her.  This causes quite the scandal, and as Newland makes moves to bring her back to respectability, he finds himself falling in love for her.

This is one of those movies where tradition and propriety take place over everything else.  As such, the mantra "say what you mean" does not apply.  Demanding that the audience read behind the dialogue and action is a risky proposition, but when done well it can pay off in droves.  Sadly, the screenplay by Scorcese and Jay Cocks is uneven.  It usually works, but the first half is rocky.  Scorcese has trouble delineating who is who and how they relate to each other, and in a story where the complex social structure lies at the heart of the film, that's a big problem.

As is always the case in a Scorcese movie, the acting is exceptional.  Daniel Day-Lewis, whose career would see a resurgence nearly a decade later when he acted for Scorcese in "Gangs of New York," is in fine form here.  Famous for his intense preparation and volcanic performances, Day-Lewis plays a relatively low-key individual.  That's not to say that his performance is bad, which it certainly isn't.  Merely that he's playing a mild-mannered individual.  But the actor causes Newland's inner turmoil to bubble to the surface in a way that's palpable.  Even if I didn't understand everything that was going on, I felt his conflict.  Michelle Pfeiffer is every bit his equal (despite her accent having a minor hiccup every now and then).  She loves Newland, but knows that if anyone found out, they would both be ruined, and she loves him enough to not take that chance.  And while Winona Ryder's character seems one-note in concept, the actress gives her hidden depths, making her sympathetic, tragic or vicious, depending on the circumstances.

Romance has never been a particular trademark of Scorcese's, and that hasn't changed here.  The chemistry between Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer takes too long to build.  It does happen towards the end, but the lack of heat between the actors shortchanges the early portions.  However, the connection between Day-Lewis and Ryder is almost instantaneous, and that's mainly due to Ryder's spirited innocence.

This is not one of Scorcese's greatest films, and will have little interest outside of it's target audience.  But in the end I think it's worth seeing for those who wish to seek it out.  If nothing else, the score by Elmer Bernstein is wonderful.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Letters

3/4

Starring: Juliet Stevenson, Rutger Hauer, Max von Sydow, Priya Darshini, Kranti Redkar,  Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal

Rated PG for Thematic Material including Some Images of Human Suffering

What makes Mother Theresa so compelling and inspiring is that despite her fears that God has abandoned her and the struggles against India's caste structure, she steadfastly remained compassionate and non-judgmental.  To many, the poor were society's cast-offs, not worthy of a second thought.  To her, they were human beings who deserved help and respect.

When the film opens, Theresa (Stevenson) is a sister at Sisters of Loreto in Calcutta.  She dedicated her life to teaching, but she witnessed the suffering of the poor outside her windows.  Eventually, she realized that her true calling was to go beyond the walls of her convent and live among the impoverished and do what she could to help.  Of course, doing so isn't that simple.  It requires permission from the Vatican.  Even when she gets permission to do so for a year, she faces stiff opposition, both from her Mother General (Mody-Kotwal), who cites regulations and eventually her stealing would-be nuns from her convent, and the people she is trying to help, who see her as both a British sympathizer (this takes place shortly after Indian independence) and an evangelist.  Nevertheless, she soldiers on and does what she believes to be God's work.  Her fame and popularity grows to the point where she is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

The film starts out roughly.  The dialogue is flat and the direction is pedestrian.  Eventually, the power of the story gains our interest.  Gene Siskel once said that if nothing happens by the end of the first reel, nothing will happen.  Fortunately, this is an exception.

I am of two minds regarding the casting of Juliet Stevenson as Theresa.  On the one hand, she's miscast.  The actress doesn't fit in her character's skin (the absence of any age-related make-up in the film does not help matters).  On the other, she gives it her all and I eventually accepted her as the character.  But it's a much tougher sell than it should be.  This isn't quite the "known name" habit of Hollywood that "Tropic Thunder" so viciously parodied, but it comes close.  Eventually, Stevenson won me over.  The other two known actors, Rutger Hauer and Max von Sydow, are effective as priests discussing Theresa's life, but they're wasted.  Max von Sydow is relegated to providing background about Theresa, most of which would probably have been more effective if it had been shown rather than told.  I like the actor, but this is not the best use of his considerable talents.  Hauer has even less to do.  Apart from asking a question or two and making a case for her beatification, his entire role consists of sitting down to listen to von Sydow's character.

What I especially liked about this film is its refusal to evangelize (doing so would go against what she stood for).  Theresa's doubts about God play a huge part in the proceedings and add depth to the character.  This is not hero worship.  Her goodness is shown through her love and compassionate nature.

"The Letter" feels incomplete.  Just when things are getting interesting, it starts to tie everything up.  I guess that the budget had something to do with it.  Mother Theresa deserves, and will eventually get, a biopic worthy of her, but this is a respectable effort.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Voices

1.5/4

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver

Rated R for Bloody Violence, and for Language including Sexual References

In a not entirely strange way, "The Voices" reminded me of the 1998 black comedy "Very Bad Things."  It's a comedy-thriller with a body count and a tremendous amount of gore that is funnier if someone summarizes the plot for you instead of having to watch the movie.

Jerry (Reynolds) is a likable guy.  Socially awkward, yes, but always pleasant and enthusiastic.  He has his eye on Fiona (Arterton), the pretty temp upstairs and his court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Warren (Weaver) encourages him to pursue her.  However, what no one at the plant knows is that he's just been released from the mental hospital, and can talk to his dog Bosco (Reynolds) and cat Mr. Whiskers (Reynolds).  But when Jerry gives Fiona a ride home and a misunderstanding leads to her becoming a corpse, Jerry's life is about to get topsy-turvy.

As one can imagine, a story like this demands a completely warped approach.  Think Danny DeVito meets David Lynch.  A straight approach is not an option, but unfortunately that's what happens.  Nothing is pushed far enough to earn a laughs, and as a result feels weird and dull.

The problem is obvious: director Marjane Satrapi (yes, the same woman who wrote the powerful graphic novel "Persepolis" and co-directed the film version) wants us to like and care about Jerry.  We do, but that prevents us from laughing at him and the absurdity of the situations he finds himself in.  A good black comedy needs characters we laugh at as they get their just desserts.  While it's certainly possible to create a member of this genre, of which I have a fondness for, while allowing the characters to grow on the audience ("Burke and Hare" is an obvious example), it's a difficult task, and Satrapi isn't up to the challenge.

Whatever failings the film may have, they're not because of Ryan Reynolds.  The Canadian redhead doesn't have a lot of range, but here, he is entirely believable as the eccentric Jerry.  He finds the right balance between earnest and unhinged, and as a result, he's the most interesting character in the film.  He also voiced Bosco and Mr. Whiskers, totally camouflaging his voice in the process; I didn't know it was him until I saw it on iMDb.  Gemma Arterton plays a great stuck-up bitch (in the beginning) and a truly nutso severed head (after Jerry accidentally kills her).  Anna Kendrick is uneven.  At times too perky, but usually lovely.  And Jacki Weaver is good as always (and sports a flawless American accent).

Even apart from Satrapi's diametrically-opposed approaches, the film doesn't even work on its own level.  Would-be gags are so badly handled that I wasn't sure what was supposed to be funny.  For example, there was no greater opportunity for humor than the talking pets, with Bosco being the simple-minded "good guy" and Mr. Whiskers encouraging Jerry to become a serial killer.  But few of the lines they say have any humor (partly due to timing and delivery, but more often than not it's because they're just not funny).  Ditto for the suspense.  With one exception, we never feel the noose tightening around Jerry (again, partly due to scripting, and partly due to Satrapi's direction).  Imagine what the late Wes Craven could have done with this material.

In the end, "The Voices" shoots for the sky, but crashes after 50 feet.