Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Secret in their Eyes

1.5/4

Starring: Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil, Ricardo Darin, Pablo Rago, Guillermo Francella

Rated R for a Rape Scene, Violent Images, Some Graphic Nudity and Language

There are two reasons why "The Secret in their Eyes" doesn't work: one, it's far too long, and two, director Juan Jose Campanella goes for understatement when this kind of story demands grand melodrama.

Benjamin Esposito (Darin) is a retired police investigator trying his hand at writing a novel.  One case from the past, the brutal rape and murder of a schoolteacher named Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo), has hung over him for the past thirty years.  Now that he's no longer working, he sees an opportunity to tackle the mystery again.  This brings him into contact with his old boss, Irene (Villamil), whom he has loved for decades.

A story like this has to pump up the nostalgia and longing.  That's why we watch movies like this.  We have to feel it intensely because those emotions feel intense in real life.  Unfortunately, Campanella elects to tell this in a more realistic fashion.  It's not "Dogma 95," fortunately, but it's enough to drain a lot of the life and energy out of it.  Think of what "The Notebook" would be had Nick Cassevetes had elected to tell it without the grandness, and you'll understand the fundamental disconnect this presents.  The result is a film that is only sporadically compelling when it should touch the heart via faded photographs.

At least the acting is good.  Ricardo Darin is too low-key, but he does shine in some of the quieter, subtler scenes.  Still, there are times when he can't carry the audience through the times when the story lags.  Soledad Villamil is wonderful; not only is she gorgeous, she gives a terrifically lovely performance, and she shares the right kind of chemistry with her co-star.  Pablo Rago gives a scene-stealing performance as Ricardo Morales, Liliana's grieving husband.  When the film becomes a trial, which it does frequently, all the film has to do is to have him appear on screen for the film to hit its stride.  Guillermo Francella gives a good performance as Pablo Sandoval, Esposito's alcoholic partner, but for someone of so little importance he has entirely too much screen time.  The film would have been much better served had more of Pablo's screentime to Ricardo.

Campanella's misunderstanding of how to present the material is the film's biggest stumbling block, and it sinks the film.  I can do with a film that goes on for a little too long, but when a film is played out with an entirely inappropriate tone, it can't work.  I will admit that the film has some scenes in the final act that strike the right note to an extent, but that's really all the film has going for it.

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle

3/4

Starring: George Pistereanu, Ana Condeescu, Clara Voda, Mihai Constantin

Not Rated (Probable R for A Violent Situation, an Implied Sexual Assault and Some Language)

"If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle" is the kind of movie that people think of when they hear the term "art house" movie: low-key performances, lots of dramatic pauses, no soundtrack, no artificial lighting, etc.  It's very Dogma 95.  I've been known to criticize some of these movies as pretentious ("The Snowtown Murders" comes to mind...much as I would like to forget it), but this Romanian film is actually very good.  It does not have mainstream appeal, but I was engaged by it.

Silviu (Pistereanu) is slightly more than two weeks from being released from a youth penitentiary.  His younger brother comes to visit him and tells him that his mother wants to take him to Italy with her, and when he gets out, Silviu can join them.  For reasons as yet unknown, Silviu doesn't like this idea.  Also involved is Ana (Condeescu), a young woman who is interviewing Silviu prior to his release.  These two plotlines collide in the film's final act.

I didn't know that this Romanian film was based on a play until after I watched it, but it doesn't surprise me.  This is not a plot-heavy film.  Unfortunately, it's not very talky either, with co-writer/director Florin Serban filling up time with dramatic pauses and the like.

What saves the film is the debut performance of George Pistereanu, who had no previous acting experience.  It's a very effective performance, and Pistereanu is good at using his body, particularly his eyes, to speak volumes.  He's a natural performer (there's no lack of polish that sometimes afflicts even the best acting debuts) and the camera loves him.  He's supported as well as the script allows by his supporting cast, but he is more than capable of carrying the film on his shoulders.

The problem with the film is its presentation.  By so resolutely rejecting any form of manipulation (there isn't even a soundtrack), Serban renders his film next to inert.  There's something to be said for not going over-the-top, but in many ways a flat approach like this is just as bad, if not worse.  There is definitely some of the pretension that afflicts movies that are desperate to be "cinema verite."  Side question: does anyone find this sort of thing appealing?  I guess so, since there are plenty of them released every year.  But the difference here as opposed to dreck like "The Snowtown Murders" is that it allows the actors to perform rather than intentionally robbing them of their charisma, and tells a story.

Like I said.  This isn't going to be a movie that many people will get.  But there is good stuff here, particularly the debut of Pistereanu, who may have a solid career if he wants it.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Strange Magic

2/4

Starring (voices): Evan Rachel Wood, Alan Cumming, Meredith Ann Bull, Elijah Kelly, Kristen Chenoweth, Sam Palladio

Rated PG for Some Action and Scary Images

"Strange Magic," an animated fantasy loosely inspired by William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," is overstuffed to the max.  There is so much going on (which varies in quality) that I got the sense that the filmmakers threw everything they could into this film without thinking about whether or not it worked.  The result isn't a complete disaster, and while I'm fairly certain it won't end up on my Bottom 10 list this year (it's still January), but parents who are looking for a movie they can take their kids to will have to wait a little longer.

Marianne (Wood) is the princess of the fairies.  It's her wedding day, and she's going to be married to the handsome and dashing Roland (Palladio)...that is until she spies him locking lips with another girl.  Depressed and angry, she refuses to see him or attend any of the dances in the hopes of finding another guy.  Roland, who wants control of the fairy army, is determined to win her back, so he sends an elf named Sunny (Kelly) to find the Sugar Plum Fairy (Chenoweth), who can make a love potion.  But she's imprisoned by the Bog King (Cumming), who hates the idea of love so much that he's destroyed all of the primroses, which are needed to make the potion.  Sunny finds the last leaf to make the potion, and that's when things get really crazy.

A movie like this should feel light and energetic with a dollop of zaniness to really work.  Unfortunately, "Strange Magic" feels bland and lifeless.  The voice acting, which includes the criminally underrated Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming, is tepid; everyone fades into the background to varying degrees.  The exception is Chenoweth, and that's because it's virtually impossible to mute her energy.  Even she struggles at times.  The script is also weak; characterization is poor and the dialogue feels like it's just explaining the plot.  For the first half of the film I was thinking that this was a direct-to-DVD movie that somehow found its way into theaters (in some ways I still do...if you feel like you must see it, that's the place to do it).

The film is badly need of focus.  The film contains so many ideas (few of which are original or compelling) that they take away attention from the film's central storyline.  Ensemble movies are difficult to get right, and "Strange Magic" is one of many that gets the recipe wrong.  Once the film narrows its concentration around the halfway mark, director Gary Rydstrom lets loose some of the stops and things start to get fun.  Some of the romances work and there are some clever moments here and there.  But there are also scenes that fall flat, too.

In the end, "Strange Magic" is a failed experiment.  It's a mess; three screenwriters are credited based on a story by George Lucas, and Rydstrom said listed about five sources of inspiration, ranging from the aforementioned Shakespeare play to "American Graffiti" (no wonder it's so confused!).  But it has its moments.

Monday, January 26, 2015

DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp

3/4

Starring (voices): Alan Young, Russi Taylor, Rip Taylor, Richard Libertini, Christopher Lloyd

Rated G

Boy, this takes me back.  I remember popping this movie in the VCR (yes, I was alive when everyone used VCRs) and sitting back to watch this longer adventure of Scrooge McDuck and his newphews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and his niece Webby.  I also devoured the TV series (the episodes that my mom would buy for me).  So, the question is, does the movie still hold up now after 20 years?

Sort of.  It doesn't enchant like it did when I was a grade schooler, but it does still entertain.  There's some good humor here, and high spirited adventure.  Kids will like it more, but at least the adults won't be bored out of their minds.

Scrooge McDuck (Young), the miserly, greedy duck who apparently has more money than the GDP of the entire planet, is on another adventure with his family.  He's spent 40 years looking for the treasure of Collie Baba, and thinks he's finally found it.  After a seeming dead end, they find a map that leads them to the real treasure.  Unfortunately, their guide, a weasel named Dijon (Libertini), has been secretly working for a malevolent figure named Merlock (Lloyd), who wants a specific piece of treasure, and has been waiting centuries to get it.  Dijon and Merlock send the Duck family to their doom, but the quick thinking Ducks rise to the occasion.  Disheartened, Scrooge returns to Duckburg empty handed...or so he thinks.  The worthless lamp that Webby (Taylor) took with her is actually a magic lamp with a genie (Taylor) inside.  The triplets (Taylor) and Webby make selfish wishes while trying to keep it a secret from Uncle Scrooge.  But it's only a matter of time before Dijon and Merlock find the lamp, something that terrifies the genie.

The voice acting is uninspired.  All do their jobs, but no one really stands out.  Alan Young ably brings out all sides of the cantankerous but kindly Scrooge.  Russi Taylor can get a little annoying as the kids, but not really.  Rip Taylor is the scene stealer as the genie, who is called Gene.  He has some of the best lines and delivers them perfectly.  Christopher Lloyd lacks the gravitas of, say, Vincent Price or Boris Karloff, but he's still a more than threatening villain.  As Dijon, Richard Libertini does little to hide the fact that his character is a crude stereotype of Arab men, but such a connection will escape every kid (and most adults).

The story may be a little on the thin side, but it does some interesting things with the premise.  For one thing, Genie points out the selfishness or ridiculous nature of some of the wishes (Webby's first wish is for a baby elephant...guess how well that turns out!) with some great one-liners.  Unfortunately, if someone makes a wish, he has no choice but to follow it, which is why he's so terrified of Merlock.  Plus the final third has some neat twists that I wasn't expecting.

Look, Miyazaki it's not.  Nor is it "Raiders of the Lost Ark."  But even though the dialogue is thin and the film is a little padded (even at a very skinny 74 minutes), and the animation is clunky, it's still fun for the whole family.  And you really can't ask for more than that with a movie like this.

The Boy Next Door

3/4

Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Ryan Guzman, John Corbett, Ian Nelson, Kristen Chenoweth

Rated R for Violence, Sexual Content/Nudity and Language

"The Boy Next Door" is what a film critic calls a "guilty pleasure."  Meaning, that while the movie is extremely stupid and cheesy as hell, I'm recommending it because despite all my expectations, I enjoyed myself.

Claire Peterson (Lopez) is a Classics teacher at a local high school.  She recently split up with her husband Garrett (Corbett) after he cheated on her with his secretary, but much to the irritation of her best friend Vicky (Chenoweth), she's not yet ready to serve him with divorce papers.  So she and her teenage son Kevin (Nelson) live at home when one day they meet Noah Sandborn (Guzman), a hot young stud who is moving in next door to help his grandfather (Jack Wallace) out when he has a bone marrow transplant.  Noah hits it off with the bullied Kevin, and has an open invitation to have dinner at their house every night.

After a bad date that Vicky sets her up on, Claire goes over to hang with Noah.  That leads to steamy night of adult activity that she supremely regrets the next morning.  Noah, on the other hand, thinks it's true love.  When Claire begins to have second thoughts on divorcing Garrett, Noah takes it personally.

"The Boy Next Door" is extremely dumb.  Not only do the characters make the obligatory stupid mistakes (like not telling the police when things are getting really out of hand, or how someone covers for another person in a way that would never happen in reality), the film is constructed with little respect for the intelligence of the audience.  Like, is Noah's past as innocent as it seems?  Will his handiness with all things mechanical come into play?  Or what about Noah's severe allergies?  Will he have an attack at a time that's convenient for the plot?

The answers to these questions should be obvious to anyone familiar with this sort of a story.  What makes this film so entertaining is the way that director Rob Cohen, an action director whose past resume (including "The Fast and the Furious," "Stealth," "XxX," and that godawful third "Mummy" movie) screams "Michael Bay wannabe," chooses to present them.  Foreshadowing is crucial to a thriller, but it must be done with a deft touch; we have to remember it only in the back of our mind.  Cohen highlights them lights that could help land an airplane piloted by Mr. Magoo.

And yet, the performances of the two leads allow some genuine tension to develop.  The role of Claire Peterson is within J-Lo's limited range, and she forms a rapport with the audience.  At age 45, she still looks great, and while we don't get a look at her God-given gifts, the choreography allows us a very good idea (which, by design, makes it all the more sexy).  Her co-star, Ryan Guzman, is also a good actor (he gave a winning performance in "Step Up: Revolution").  Also like Lopez, he looks incredible (more so to a guy like me).  Unlike Lopez, he shows more, including his cute butt (which is ironic, since Lopez is famous for her rear end).

The film's sex scene, a must-have in the movie, is red-hot.  It's choreographed and filmed with maximum erotic charge.  Not since Leonardo DiCaprio drew Kate Winslet's portrait in "Titanic" has there been a scene this sexy.  And that's not an exaggeration!

While Lopez and Guzman can keep it afloat for a while, the film becomes too ridiculous to take seriously around the halfway mark.  That's okay, because Cohen and his cast seem to be in on the joke.  They allow the film to unfold with a perverse charm that makes it easy to laugh at.  Characters suffer from brain cramps and the script becomes so cornball that they have no choice but to overact.  There is also at least one plot hole; there may be more, but I was too busy laughing at the film to notice.

Should you see it?  Depends.  If you can take this movie on its own terms, then yes.  If you're looking for something with brains and real psychological tension, rent something else.  By pure happenstance, there is another movie that deals with erotic obsession, called "Fear," that is much more successful.  It was what this movie wanted to be (scary) because it was something that this movie wasn't (smart).  But as a total ridiculous cheesefest, it will play great to people who like that sort of thing.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

American Sniper

4/4

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Jake McDorman, Luke Grimes

Rated R for Strong and Disturbing War Violence, and for Language Throughout including Some Sexual References

I'm sitting here at the computer, trying to find the words to open a review of Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," the biopic of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, "the most lethal sniper in U.S. History."  I am at a loss.  How can I adequately describe the emotional effect of watching this film?  I cannot.  What I will say is that this movie is bravura filmmaking by a man at the top of his game, and it's anchored by a brilliant lead performance by Bradley Cooper.

Chris Kyle (Cooper) was a relatively simple man with simple ambitions.  He was a Texas farmboy until he was affected strongly enough by the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi to join the Navy.  He eventually became a SEAL, and married a girl named Taya (Miller) that he saved from being hit on at a bar by a married guy.  After 9/11, he shipped out to Afghanistan and eventually became a famous sniper; the U.S. forces called him "The Legend" while to the Taliban he was known as "The Devil of Ramadi."  But despite his patriotism and devotion to his fellow soldiers, war is taking a toll on his personality and his relationship to Taya.

The film's biggest strength is the performance of Bradley Cooper, who is is positively tremendous as Kyle.  Originally a lightweight character actor known for comedies like "The Hangover" and "Wedding Crashers," his career received a huge boost when he scored an Oscar nomination in the overrated romantic comedy smash "Silver Linings Playbook."  His career has blossomed both as a movie star and a legitimate actor, with him becoming the 10th actor to earn three consecutive Oscar nominations for Best Actor (two of which were from working with the notoriously difficult David O. Russell).

I say this to prove to any doubters about Cooper's abilities (I was one of them until I saw this movie): the man can really act.  This is a career-defining performance, capturing the complexities of Kyle's character without highlighting them.  One of the most original, not to mention effective, aspects of his performance is how he and director Clint Eastwood tackle his difficulty leaving the war behind.  They portray him as a man who is trying to save everyone, which is becoming an all-out obsession.  Of course, no single man can fight a war alone, but the thought of him putting everyone in danger by not being there gives him real pause.  But this carries a heavy mental price, which includes PTSD and the decreasing stability of his marriage to Taya.

Cooper takes pains to make sure that Kyle is not "too good to be true."  He is intensely devoted to his fellow soldiers and can be charming and friendly, but he has some serious personality flaws.  In the zeal to protect the Marines, he becomes obsessed with killing Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), his Taliban counterpoint.  He becomes emotionally closed off and at times curt.  Neither the actor nor the director soft-pedal the violence (which is bloody and at times very disturbing) or the resulting trauma.  Through it all, Kyle remains intensely sympathetic, which gives the film a lot of its punch.

In a much different way, Clint Eastwood deserves as much credit for the film as Cooper.  Although he's played a few legendary tough guys (particularly "Dirty" Harry Callahan), he has exhibited some skill as a director.  His relatively low-key and unforced style has resulted in an uneven resume, which has some good films ("Changeling," "Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil") and some duds ("Play Misty for Me," "Million Dollar Baby").  Nothing could have prepared me for his work on "American Sniper," however.  The action scenes are executed with the skill of a consummate craftsman, uncensored and packed with tension and adrenaline (there is one in a sandstorm that is almost unbearably intense).  This is a movie that achieves startling intensity without sacrificing it's emotional complexity.  Comparisons to "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Deer Hunter" are entirely appropriate.

As good as the film is, there are a few nitpicks.  The editing in the first half is a little choppy, and some of the dialogue is hard to make out.  Also, Mustafa's role, while well-integrated, is a little too Hollywood-ized.  He's too pumped up to become totally effective.  Two of his comrades, his sniping assistant Marc Lee (Grimes) and Biggles (McDorman), his fellow SEAL, are given too little development for them to have the effect that Eastwood desires.  And is it really believable for Kyle to be talking to Taya when he's sniping in the field?  But those are nitpicks, and dismissed fairly easily.

The film has come under fire by some, including Michael Moore and Seth Rogen, as being "pro-war."  I'm wondering where they got that idea.  The film is totally apolitical.  The Bush administration isn't mentioned even tangentially, and the reasons for being in Afghanistan aren't brought up at all.  Kyle is shown to be a hero, but Eastwood doesn't lionize him or anyone else.  The film isn't about anything but it's subject, and in doing so, it puts a human face on people who have become statistics.

Eastwood has taken us right down into the middle of this chaos and emerged with a powerful, unforgettable experience.  As I was leaving the theater, there were more than a few people who were choking back tears.  Believe me, I could sympathize.  It's as a thought-provoking and emotional experience that I've seen in a long time.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Booty Call

1/4

Starring: Tommy Davidson, Jamie Foxx, Tamala Jones, Vivica A. Fox

Rated R for Non-Stop Sexuality including Sex-Related Dialogue and Crude Humor, and for Strong Language

Sometimes the best sex in the world...just isn't worth it.--tagline for "Love Stinks"
There is a reason why sitcoms are only 30 minutes long (including commercials).  It's because their plots and characters can't sustain themselves for much longer than that.  For a comedy to be able to last 90 minutes (which is typically as long as any comedy can last), it has to have an idea that can grow and change direction.  The idea, following two guys who are trying to get lucky, has promise to be a raunchy, madcap screwball comedy like "The Three Stooges" meets "There's Something About Mary."  The execution, on the other hand, does not.

Rushon (Davidson) has been dating the lovely Nikki (Jones) for seven weeks.  Much to his irritation, she has not given him entrance to her golden temple, if you know what I mean.  Desperate, he sets his best friend Bunz (Foxx) up on a double date with Nikki's BFF, Lysterine (Fox), who, conveniently for the plot, lives across the hall.  While Rushon and Nikki play lovey-dovey, it's hate at first sight between the womanizing Bunz and the man-eating Lysterine, until they realize that they can both speak Chinese.  Then both couples pair up, which in a better world would lead to the end of this dud of a comedy, but alas the film is just getting started.  And not for the better, unfortunately.  You see, Nikki is all about safe sex, and convinces Lysterine to be the same, so Rushon and Bunz have to go out to buy condoms, and...

You get the idea.  Granted, expecting anything highbrow from a plot like this is a lost cause, but expecting a few cheap laughs is definitely realistic.  Unfortunately, the film plays safe at every corner, going for the quick and easy punchline.  There are a few clever one-liners, I'll admit, but 95% of it is what you'd expect to get on a TV sitcom if there was no FCC breathing down the writers' necks.

None of the characters are sympathetic.  They're either a, obnoxious (Bunz), b, bitchy (Lysterine), or c, invisible (Rushon and Nikki).  Worse, they're boring.  The former isn't fatal to a comedy, but the latter descriptors are.  How can we laugh at someone who is less interesting than watching paint dry?  It would be like watching the mos personality deprived individual try and do stand-up.  Every person would be counting their Z's in a heartbeat.  And the film doesn't even earn it's high moral stance on safe sex, since it uses it just to stretch out the plot to (barely) over an hour.  The girls are as much concerned about being safe as they are manipulating their ever-horny dates (the latter of which is unbelievable in and of itself, considering the time period the film takes place under).

The acting is uninspired.  The straight men (so to speak) are Rushon and Nikki, but neither gives a memorable performance.  Tommy Davidson has little charisma or talent; in fact, the word "desperate" couldn't be more obvious had he been wearing it as a sign around his neck.  Tamala Jones is adorable, but gives a very flat performance.  The film's comedy, a term I use very loosely, is provided by Jamie Foxx and Vivica A. Fox.  Both are good actors (Jamie in everything, and Vivica in "Independence Day" and "Set it Off"), but not even actors of their talents can rescue this limp material.  Interesting side note: Takashi Bufford co-wrote this film and the aforementioned "Set it Off," starring Vivica A. Fox.  He was also set to direct it, but backed out for personal reasons.

The film was directed by Jeff Pollack, who has directed three films, "Above the Rim," a film starring Tupac that I haven't seen, this, and "Lost and Found" starring David Spade and the lovely Sophie Marceau.  As bad as that would-be romantic comedy was, this is worse.  His shot selection is completely generic; it looks and feels like a sitcom.  A really bad sitcom.

A final word about nudity.  Normally, this isn't something I notice in a film since in most movies not named "Basic Instinct," it doesn't make a difference.  But since this film is so lame, I had to find other ways of not turning off the film.  For a film that is so focused on sex, or the lack thereof, there is no nudity.  Male or female.  It's not really a big deal, except for the fact that it makes the sex scenes so obviously fake.  I don't know whether it was because of no-nudity clauses or what (considering American prudishness and the pervasive existence of these in Hollywood, I'm guessing that this was the case), but if the director is careless enough to show a guy with his underwear on after a girl rode him ragged, the movie is screwed.
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No pun intended.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Third Man (SPOILERS)

2.5/4

Starring: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Orson Welles

Not Rated (contains Some Brief Violence)

Never before has a good movie so obviously shot itself in the foot.  While there are definitely movies that have contained questionable material that damages the goodwill that they have built up ("Hollow Man" comes to mind, although I have to admit that the film has grown on me to become a guilty pleasure), none are as blatant and damaging as the soundtrack for "The Third Man."  Without the music, it's an easy 3/4, possibly even a 3.5/4.  But with it, the film isn't worth your time.

So what is so bad about the film's soundtrack (an essential, albeit undervalued, part of a film)?  It uses a zither.  It's a stringed instrument that sounds like a ukelele, which would be fine for a romantic comedy set in, say, Hawai'i.  But "The Third Man" is a post-World War II thriller set in Austria.  If you can imagine the soundtrack of "Seven" being comprised of The Beatles in their hippie phase can imagine how badly this misfires.

Holly Martins (Cotten) has just arrived in Vienna.  His friend Harry Lime has told the self-described "hack writer" that he can get him a job.  But when he gets there, he finds that Harry has died after being hit by a truck.  He grows suspicious when people tell him conflicting stories of what happened and begins to investigate.  Everyone, including a local cop (Howard), warns him to walk away, but he will not be dissuaded.

The story is a little on the thin side, but it's relatively engaging for the first hour or so.  However, once  Harry does show up, the storyline collapses.  It has no card left to play, which means a lack of interest on the part of the viewer.

It does feature a trio of good performances.  Joseph Cotten is a natural at playing the hard-drinking cynic that's a mainstay in film noir; the only one who could do it better would be Humphrey Bogart.  He has a good deal of chemistry with his co-star, Alida Valli (who also gives a good performance).  Orson Welles is adequate, but he can't live up to the hype.  Trevor Howard reminded me of Conrad Veidt in "Casablanca," although he's nowhere near as arresting (no pun intended).

Where the film truly shines is in it's visual sense.  The film looks absolutely gorgeous.  Director Carol Reed and his cinematographer Robert Krasker (who won an Oscar for his work) have created images so stunning that they belong in a museum.  Reed frequently uses Dutch camera angles (tilting the camera) to increase the suspense, but only does so when necessaary.

I'm not the biggest fan of using a soundtrack to counterpoint the action on screen.  It rarely works, since a good soundtrack compliments the action rather than calling attention to itself.  There is definitely some good stuff here, but I can't recommend "The Third Man."

Bonneville

3/4

Starring: Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Joan Allen, Christine Baranski, Tom Skeritt

Rated PG for Some Mild Language and Innuendo

"Bonneville" will probably work best for relatively conservative, middle-aged women.  That's who the film is about, after all.  The film's comedy is decidedly low-key and content not to push the boundaries.  In fact, it's so lacking in edge that it is only the talent of the three actresses that wrings any humor from it (I was thinking of Ned Flanders line: "It's just the kind of surprise I like...mild!" Only Flanders could make that line funny).

Joe Holden has just died.  His widow, Arvilla (Lange), is naturally devastated, all the more so when her step-daughter Francine (Baranski) forces her to make an impossible choice: deliver the ashes of the travel-loving Joe to be laid next to his first wife in Santa Barbara, CA, or face the loss of the house that he shared with Arvilla for the past 20 years.  Arvilla can't find the new will he created when Joe married her, so she has resigned to giving the ashes to Francine.  Going along for the ride are her two best friends, outspoken Margene (Bates) and tightly-wound Carol (Allen).  The trip doesn't turn out the way they expect.

"Bonneville" is a formula road picture featuring no real surprises.  That's okay.  Character development is strong enough that we see Arvilla, Margene and Carol as more than characters, and they're being portrayed by three of the best actresses working today.  I don't have many complaints.

What's interesting about this film is it's conservative bent.  Hollywood is famous for its leftist leanings, and movies these days that feature right-leaning characters are few (those that aren't imitating Frank Capra at least).  That's not to say that "Bonneville" isn't political.  Far from it, in fact.  It's just the way they act, and while there are a few moments that go a little over-the-top, it's kind of refreshing to see a movie a movie where the one of the central characters is embarrassed for swearing.

Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Joan Allen are some of the most versatile actresses in Hollywood.  Unfortunately if you're over 50 and not named Meryl Streep, that can make it difficult to find work.  It's a shame because they're almost always worth seeing on-screen, even in bad movies.  Jessica Lange ably conveys the deep love she felt for her late husband.  Since this is central to the plot, the film would have been more or less sunk had Lange not succeeded.  Kathy Bates has some funny moments as the anti-PC (relatively speaking) Margene.  "I guess I've always had a problem with authority figures," she says at one point, although that's limited to drinking coffee (they're all Mormons) and being open about sex education.  And it's fun to see Joan Allen, who by her own admission usually plays tightly wound individuals, let her hair down.  Again, that's relatively speaking.  Christine Baranski makes it easy to hate her without turning into a caricature (which she usually does, although in such cases that's what's desired).  Tom Skerritt (as a friendly trucker) and Victor Rasuk (as a studly hitchhiker) have small appearances.

"Bonneville" isn't an excellent film, or even an especially memorable one.  Even at 93 minutes, it's a little too long, and the script, while written with insight for character, lacks real depth.  Still, if you're looking for some undemanding entertainment, this is a solid choice.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Blackhat

1/4

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Wei Tang, Leehom Wang, Viola Davis

Rated R for Violence and Some Language

Ah, January...the time of year when all of the Oscar hopefuls have been released and the theaters are empty of people wanting a break from their holiday shopping, hyperactive kids or squabbling relatives (and if they're really unlucky, all three).  It's the perfect time to release a movie like "Blackhat," a movie that had potential, but turned out to be more rotten than week old stinky cheese.

What's really strange is that this comes from director Michael Mann.  Mann is no hack director, having been behind two very good movies ("The Insider" and "Collateral") and a certified masterpiece ("Heat").  Mann has been in a bit of a slump lately, not having done anything memorable since the Tom Cruise/Jamie Foxx thriller.  "Blackhat," his first film since "Public Enemies" in 2009, does nothing to change that.  In fact, it's just as bad as "Manhunter."

It's a pity, too, since the film has a lot of potential.  Technology is everywhere, and we have only just realized how much in the open we all are.  It takes a lot of work to really prevent someone from finding out your most intimate secrets.  A movie that could tap into that fear would certainly be a terrifying experience, but sadly, Mann gives us a lame, globe-trotting mess that's closer to "Mercury Rising" than "The Net."

The plot only occasionally makes sense, which is probably for the best because when it does, you realize how absurd it all is.  I'm always more than willing to suspend my disbelief for a movie unless it crosses the line, and I set the bar pretty high.  It's not as ludicrous as last year's monstrosity "God's Not Dead," but it comes close.

A nuclear reactor at a Chinese power plant unexpectedly malfunctions, and while a total meltdown is averted, more than a dozen are dead and many more are injured.  Soon after, the US Commodities market is rigged and an unknown person walks away with $70 million.  A Chinese agent named Dawai (Wang) realizes that not only were both incidents the result of hacks, they came from the same program that he created years ago as a joke with his roommate, Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth), who is now serving a lengthy prison sentence for computer crimes.  It's been modified, and to track down the perpetrator, he needs Hathaway's help.  So in exchange for commuting his sentence if he finds the culprit, Nick, Dawai, Dawai's sister Lien (Tang) and Hathaway's handler Carol Barrett (Davis) follow the clues before the real trouble starts.

This movie just sucks.  Not only is the plot a mess, it's badly acted, and the cast is compromised of actors who are reliable or have shown talent in the past.  Chris Hemsworth's talents are limited, but with the right role and the right director, he can do excellent work (he deserved, but did not get, an Oscar nomination for his work as James Hunt in "Rush").  But here, he's so one-note that it's hard to believe that it's the same guy.  "Stiff" doesn't begin to describe the work of Wei Tang, which is odd, since she was wonderful in Ang Lee's NC-17 rated "Lust, Caution."  Leehom Wang, who also starred in Lee's film, blends into the background.  As for Viola Davis...well, if you can make her look like a bad actress, then something is really wrong.

Had I not known that this was directed by Michael Mann, I never would have guessed.  There's little style or beauty in the film.  Mann has a gift for making every day life look incredible (see "Heat"), but "Blackhat" is painfully generic.  The only trademark of Mann's is the realistic gunplay, which is realistically staged except for the film's biggest firefight, where he goes over-the-top.

The film feels unfinished.  The sound quality fades in and out, the score is generic and underused, and the film lacks an editor who knows what he's doing.  Someone should have realized long before it was released that this film was headed in a bad direction and pulled the plug.

Mike.  Buddy.  What were you thinking?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Selma

2/4

Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Andre Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Ralph Abernathy, Tim Roth, Cameron Ejogo

Rated PG-13 for Disturbing Thematic Material including Violence, a Suggestive Moment, and Brief Strong Language

Has it really taken until 2015 that we have seen a biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr.?  Yes, it is, in fact.  Strange, isn't it, since biopics are all the rage these days in Hollywood (they're the only Oscar-bait movies not based on books), and we've seen everyone from an Olympic athlete turned prisoner of war (Louis Zamperini in "Unbroken") to Bob Kearns, the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper ("Flash of Genius").  Surely Hollywood would race to bring Dr. King to the screen as fast as possible, seeing as he's a known name and has a great life story?  Apparently not.  What's worse is that the film isn't very good.

"Selma" does not strive to provide a comprehensive look at King's entire life.  In one of her few correct creative decisions, director Ava DuVernay realizes that such a thing would be next to impossible given the time constraints (unless you're Spike Lee, who had no problem making a 3.5 hour long biopic of Malcom X...not that I had any complaints about that).  Like the overrated "Lincoln" 2 years ago, "Selma" uses a single event, in this case the march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery, to explore what happened and (to a lesser extent), the man at the center of it all.

The film received some controversy in regards to President Lyndon B. Johnson's involvement with the march.  In the film, he's against it, but only because it interferes with his political agenda (both he and King want blacks to be treated fairly, but he wants King to put the march on hold).  In reality, he was a staunch supporter of civil rights and supported the march.  I have no problem with biopics fudging the truth or even completely making it up as long as it suits the film's plot.  Narrative films are not documentaries, and should not be treated as such.  As they say, "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,"  The problem is, "Selma" isn't a good story. or at least not the way it's told here.

By doing this, it takes away the antagonist of the story, who is always necessary.  Some movies do okay without a clear-cut bad guy, but they need to have strong storylines and character development.  Neither of those are in evidence here.  There's no counterpoint to King, which leaves somewhat of a lack in conflict (DuVernay doesn't shy away from the violence of the police or the anger of the white townspeople).  Tim Roth's George Wallace looks as if he might fill the void early on, but he's only on screen for a few scenes.  That's probably for the best, since he's so over-the-top that he becomes cartoonish.  I love Roth (both as an actor and as a filmmaker), but he neither looks nor acts like the man he's impersonating.  For those of your who don't know what the man looked like, the initial casting choice was Robert De Niro.

In all actuality, this isn't as much of a problem as are the lackluster performances or the self-important tone.  David Oyelowo gives a woeful interpretation of Dr. King.  Physically, he bears some resemblance, but that's only a small percentage of the battle.  In an attempt to make him seem more human, Oyelowo goes for an understated portrayal, i.e. muttering all his lines and speaking slowly.  It doesn't work.  He's boring.  When he speaks publicly, he's fire and brimstone.  But what he truly lacks is magnetism.  It's impossible to believe that this man changed the course of history for an entire race of people who endured so much hate and suffering.  I always enjoy seeing Tom Wilkinson on screen, but he's miscast as Johnson.  Wilkinson doesn't embarrass himself, but there is a disconnect that's hard to overcome.  No one else is important enough to be memorable, except Oprah Winfrey and Jeremy Strong, both of whom make brief appearances.

When I said "self-important" tone, I don't mean to trivialize the actual march or the circumstances in which they transpired.  The story needed to be told (although there are arguably more important and cinematic experiences from Dr. King's life that could have made better movies than this one), but "Selma" is like "Million Dollar Baby" in the sense that it is trying so hard to be a "classic" film that becomes painfully obvious.  The sheen of pretension is palpable from frame one, and while some films can get away with that, "Selma" isn't one of them.

Let's hope that the next time MLK Jr. comes onto the big screen (and I guarantee that it won't be the last), it will be better.  For now, stick with "Malcolm X."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Breaking the Waves

3/4

Starring: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgard, Katrin Cartlidge, Adrian Rawlins

Rated R for Strong Graphic Sexuality, Nudity, Language and Some Violence

"Breaking the Waves" is challenging viewing.  It demands an investment on a mental and philosophical level that most films do not.  That's not to say that it's oblique or particularly difficult to digest.  Just that it's different.

Bess McNeill (Watson) is marrying oil rig worker Jan Nyman (Skarsgard).  Her simple nature and child-like outlook make it difficult for those in her rigid, deeply religious community to accept her, but she has earned the love of Jan and her dead brother's widow, Dodo (Cartlidge).  But when Jan is paralyzed in an accident on the rig, he makes a strange request of her: he wants her to find other lovers and then tell him about it.  She doesn't want to because she loves him, but he tells her that it's the only way they can be intimate.  Bess agrees.

Thematically, there's a lot going on in this film.  Multiple forms of love, faith versus religion, love and intimacy, and so on.  Most prevalent is whether Bess is sane or, as she believes, talking directly to God.  Sadly, while co-writer/director Lars von Trier brings these up, he has trouble wedding them together in a well-balanced concoction.  The film's themes do not feel smoothly presented as they do in the best films.  In fact, I'm not sure I would have realized what von Trier wanted to convey about Bess's mental state had I not read James Berardinelli's review.

The performances are terrific.  The supporting actors, Stellan Skarsgard, the late Katrin Cartlidge, and Adrian Rawlins, are wonderful.  I felt their love and concern for Bess, and they ably handle the complexities of their roles.  All three are required to function as friends (or in Skarsgard's case, a spouse) and as parents.

The lead, Emily Watson, is more difficult to describe.  Easily one of the most talented English actresses working, Watson certainly set the bar high for her film debut (she was previously a stage actress).  Bess is hard to truly sympathize with.  At first I thought that she was sometimes over-the-top, but later I realized that she was playing an over-the-top character.  The weaknesses in her performance have more to do with the writing than the actress, so in that way, the film may work better upon the second viewing.

Director Lars von Trier is widely respected for his talent (he burst onto the foreign film stage in 1991 for "Europa"), but he is also notorious for his temper and controversial behavior.  According to James Berardinelli, he has repeatedly blasted the U.S. for being unfriendly and hostile to foreigners (and has made two movies to that effect) without having visited the country (he is apparently terrified of flying and travelling).  Regardless, there's no denying that the man knows what he's doing.  He's definitely ambitious, but he's also got the talent to back it up.  "Breaking the Waves" may have it's flaws, but it's because it's trying to do something amazing.

I don't usually say this since I believe that most foreign/independent films would work for larger audiences than the studios give them credit for (I blame audience aversion to subtitles and, depending on the film, a lack of a known name), but "Breaking the Waves" isn't for everyone.  It's kind of out there, and yet, not.  I don't know.  Give it a shot and prove me wrong.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mike's Musings: Free Speech at Any Cost

The freedom to express one's self without fear of government oppression is essential to our way of life.  It allows us to grow not only as people, but as a civilization and a culture.  We learn just as much about ourselves, other people and the world we live in by talking to people, watching a movie, listening to music or reading a book than we do sitting in a classroom.  In fact, we may learn more.

The slaughter of 12 people working at the satirical newspaper "Charlie Hebdo" is an assault on humanity itself.  It is a tragedy that inspired outrage from all corners of the world, and deservedly so.

This Mike's Musing's is not a discourse on politics or terrorism.  Rather, it is a response to Bill Donahue's comments about the attack, which are as disturbing as they are reprehensible.

But first, a little history...Bill Donahue is the CEO of the Catholic League in the United States, and has been since 1993.  He's become infamous for his protests of a number of Hollywood films and TV shows like Antonia Bird's 1995 feature "Priest," featuring a closeted gay priest facing a two crises of conscience, the TV show "Nothing Sacred" (he claimed it was offensive, although not all Catholics felt that way), and Joan Osborne's song "What if God was One of Us?"  But most infamously, he publicly blasted Kevin Smith's film "Dogma."  He railed against it for months (even before it was released) and set up a number of protests.  Then it became known that he had not actually seen the film yet.  Six months later, he contacted Smith and requested "a private screening of the film so he and Smith could discuss it intelligently" (Smith quipped..."So what has he been doing for the last six months?"  And apparently he invited Smith out for a beer afterwards).

But never mind the hypocrisy of that.  That's just background.  What really made me mad was his insinuation that the editor of "Charlie Hebdo," Stephane Charbonnier (aka Charb) was asking for it.

The link to his column is posted here, but two sentences royally pissed me off: "It is too bad that [Charbonnier] didn't understand the role he played in his tragic death.  In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said "Muhammad isn't sacred to me."  Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive."

The idea that Charbonnier played a role in his own death is deplorable, and Donahue should be ashamed of himself.  Not having read the magazine, I can't confirm the kinds of things that they put in there, but apparently it was risque (it is only beginning with physical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, which is considered by Muslims to be blasphemous in and of itself).  But to imply that he was complicit does two things: it puts the blame on the victim, a man exercising his right to express himself, and lends justification to what the event really was: a savage act of terrorism.

If I wasn't so angry, I'd be having a dark laugh at Donahue's expense.  Apparently he is unaware (or so full of himself that he thinks himself above it) of the blatant hypocrisy of his statement.  The same rights that gave Charbonnier and his staff to make fun of anyone and everyone they pleased (one that they paid the ultimate price for) are the same rights that allow him to criticize Charbonnier in the way that he has.  While there are a number of people who have called him out on his comments, the government can't do a damn thing about it.

Freedom of speech is not without its limits (you can't yell fire in a crowded movie theater if there's no fire without getting arrested).  So while Donahue can criticize the Bush Administration for using "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" on their greeting cards or complain about Kathy Griffin mocking those who thank Jesus when they win awards (both of which he has done), the public has every right to get pissed off.  It's a two-way street.

I'm not necessarily defending what "Charlie Hebdo" did.  Satire is a tricky thing, especially if you're trying to push buttons.  Do I think that all religions should be respected?  Of course.  Unequivocally.  What I am defending is their right to do it.  Twelve people died for exercising that right, and Donahue cast the blame on them.  That, in my book, is despicable.

Monday, January 12, 2015

New Jack City

1/4

Starring: Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, Allen Payne, Judd Nelson, Mario Van Peebles, Chris Rock, Russell Wong

Rated R for Strong Violence, Drug Content, Sensuality and Language

I'm sure there are many who wonder why we, as a society, are so obsessed with gangster films.  Sure, some of them ("The Godfather," "Goodfellas," "Scarface") have been amazing films in and of themselves, but movies about the mob or crime bosses in general have dotted the landscape for as long as there have been movies.  Perhaps it is because of our fascination with the lurid, or being able to vicariously live a life without morality and the law.

It's an interesting question, but such philosophical discourse is best-suited for a more deserving film.  Just as there are good comedies ("Ted") and bad ones ("The Royal Tenenbaums"), there are good crime films ("Hoodlum") and bad ones ("Belly").  Take a look at the rating and guess which category "New Jack City" falls under.

Nino Brown (Snipes) is a low-level drug dealer with an ambitious business plan.  He knows how to get his hands on a lot of crack cocaine, and by taking control of an entire city project, he can make big money and be essentially untouchable.  The plot works and he makes millions.  Naturally, drug dealing and murder make him enemies of law enforcement, and four cops, Scotty (Ice-T), Nick Peretti (Nelson), Park (Wong) and Stone (Van Peebles), set out to take him down.

This could have been a glorious crime epic, except that the script is hopelessly generic, the direction is pedestrian and the acting is lackluster (save for Snipes, who is always fun to watch).  Honestly, this feels like a direct-to-video movie, except that it was released in theaters to great reviews (including Roger Ebert, who gave it a 3.5/4 for some reason...then again, he gave "Shane" a 4/4) and became the biggest grossing independent film of 1991.

Before he went to prison for tax evasion, Wesley Snipes was one of the biggest action stars in Hollywood, especially for headlining the "Blade" franchise.  But as can be seen in a number of his other roles, he's an effective actor ("U.S. Marshals").  As Nino, he's bad to the bone, an intelligent psychopath who grows more vicious as he gains more money and power.  It's a decent, but not spectacular performance.  It's also the film's lone bright spot, since nothing else can be mentioned positively.

His co-stars are less than impressive.  Ice-T's casting is laced with irony.  The rapper turned actor was a part of the hip hop group "Public Enemy," whose song "Cop Killer" was so controversial that conservatives (including Charlton Heston) got Warner Bros. to drop the group from the label.  He nearly turned down the role of the Scotty because he feared that playing a cop would ruin his career.  In another ironic twist, it did the opposite and jump-started it, which culminated in him playing Odafin Tutuola on the hit show "Law and Order: SVU" (a personal favorite of mine, by the way).  Everyone else does amazing jobs of blending into the background except for Vanessa Williams (playing Keisha, one of Nino's cohorts...so nice to see that not every villain has to be a muscle-bound behemoth), who is surprisingly villainous, but unfortunately she doesn't have a lot of screen time.

The film doesn't get off to a good start and keeps going downhill.  The story is boring and there isn't a single character worth caring about; Ice-T and Snipes show flashes of humanity, but they're helpless in this sea of mediocrity.  It would be bad enough that there isn't a likable character in the film, but no one is sufficiently developed or interesting.  Without that, the movie is sunk.

Van Peebles has a decent grasp of what it takes to create action scenes.  He's no John Woo or even Paul Verhoeven, but they're moderately entertaining.  That's actually the problem: they're filled with impressive stunts and pyrotechnics, and as such, belong in a different movie.  They're over-the-top and silly, which is fine for Arnold Schwarzenegger, but fatal for a movie that wants to be taken seriously.

Finally, there's the film's utter lack of intelligence.  The film gets dumber and dumber as the film goes on.  The climactic fight is absurd even by Schwarzenegger-ish standards, and the ending will make anyone roll their eyes.  Van Peebles has an ax to grind, and while his points are valid, he would have served his thesis better by creating a movie with real characters and real story.  At least it's not as bad as "Strangeland," another abysmal failure with high moralistic expectations.  But it did make me think of that film, and that's bad enough.

Mozart's Sister

2.5/4

Starring: Marie Feret, Marc Barbe, Delphine Chuillot, David Moreau, Clovis Fouin, Lisa Feret

Not Rated (Probably PG-13 for Some Sexuality)

"Mozart's Sister," a fictionalized story about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's sister (hence the title), Maria Anna, or "Nannerl," as she is called, has it's good aspects and not-so-good aspects.  Where the film shines is in the acting department; all of the cast members are quite good.  Where it doesn't shine is the film's tone, which is so serious and threadbare that instead of being realistic, it's lifeless.  The actors do all they can, but ultimately it's not enough.

The Mozart family, father Leopold (Barbe), wife Anna Maria (Chuillot), and the two surviving children Wolfgang (Moreau) and Nannerl (Marie Feret), are touring through Europe.  Their next stop is Paris, where they will play for the Dauphin (Fouin), who is in grieving for his wife, who died in childbirth.  On the way there, the carriage suffers a broken axle, and they must seek refuge at a convent for a few days.  Nannerl makes fast friends with Princess Louise (Lisa Feret), one of the Dauphin's sisters (she and the other two youngest sisters were sent there to grow up under the advice of the cardinal), who asks her to deliver a letter to a boy she has a crush on.  Nannerl agrees, which is how she meets the Dauphin.  There is an almost instant attraction between them, but their lives will make it hard to act on it.

The film also explores how Nannerl's talent and passion for music is squashed by her father.  She is a talented violinist and composer, but Leopold believes that the violin is a man's instrument and that, as a woman, she would be unable to handle the complexities of composing.

Many of the film's flaws would have been rectified had writer/director Rene Feret not taken such a self-important tone for the film.  He directs this film without any sort of manipulation, as if it's (speaking in a deep monotone) "the most important film ever made."  Clearly, he's trying to be anti-Hollywood (as if that were a bad thing by definition), but it results in a sterile, emotionless experience.  Only the film's second half has any real power, but it's severely limited by the film's tone.  It's not as bad as "Free Fall" because the subject matter is more compelling and the acting & writing are better, but it's similar.

While none of the French greats (Gerard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Sophie Marceau, Fanny Ardant, etc,) appear since the budget probably couldn't support them, that doesn't mean that the acting is less than great.  In fact, the acting is strong from top to bottom, with Marie Feret and Clovis Fouin leading the way.  Marie Feret is the director's daughter (her sister Lisa plays Princess Louise), and while I have no idea if nepotism had anything to do with her being cast, her performance is her best advocate.  She's terrific; showing strength and inner turmoil about her love for the Dauphin and her desire to learn how to compose.  As the Dauphin, Fouin (who looks startlingly similar to a very young Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) jump-starts the film almost single-handedly.  The first hour of the film is only a notch above painful, but Fouin's energy and charisma give the film some badly needed life.  Also worth mentioning is Marc Barbe, who plays Leopold.  Despite his chauvanism, he is a loving and caring father, and Barbe ably conveys that.

Story-wise, the film is a mixed bag.  On the one hand, the romance between Nannerl and the Dauphin works.  Marie Feret and Clovis Fouin have a great deal of chemistry, making it easy to become invested in their relationship.  On the other, it comes at the expense of the arguably more fascinating material, which is the realities of a woman in that time period, especially if she shows talent in a male-dominated field.  Feret explores this, but not enough to satisfy.

I might be more kind to this film had Feret not taken such a serious tone with the material.  I can't stand self-important movies like this any more than the average person, and the film's successes are unable to make the film worth sitting through it.  Better watch "Amadeus" instead.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Juror

2/4

Starring: Demi Moore, Alec Baldwin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Heche, Michael Constantine, Lindsay Crouse

Rated R for Violence, Language and Sexuality

How could this go wrong?  You have a gripping premise for a psychological thriller being adapted by Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for his "The Silence of the Lambs" script and Demi Moore, one of the most in-demand women at the time as your leading lady.

Annie Laird (Moore) is a single mom raising a pre-teen son named Oliver (Gordon-Levitt) in a small town.  She needs a little excitement in her life, so when she's offered to sit on the jury for the murder trial of the notorious mob boss Louie Buffano (Tony Lo Bianco), she accepts.  Right around that time, Annie meets a man (Baldwin) who buys some of her pieces (she's a sculptor) and then takes her out for wining and dining.  That's when he reveals that he's The Teacher, a notorious killer the mob uses on an as-needed basis.  He wants her to get Buffano off, even though he's clearly guilty.  If she fails, she and Oliver are going to sleep with the fishes.

Problem number one: the movie is really, really dumb.  It starts out okay, with the relationship between Annie and Oliver nicely developed.  But then the story starts going and it loses its way very quickly.  Supposedly smart characters start getting brain cramps repeatedly and the characters lose any sense of spunk (Annie) or menace (The Teacher).

Problem number two: Alec Baldwin.  I like Alec Baldwin.  He usually does good work, but never has he been this bad.  It's not that he can't play creeps and psychos (see "Glengarry Glenn Ross" if you don't believe me), but The Teacher comes across as a self-absorbed buffoon as opposed to the smart and sinister psychopath he's supposed to be.  I've seen Disney villains that are more threatening.

Problem number three: the film is directed by Brian Gibson.  Gibson's credits are mostly in TV, and when you screw up a movie with Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as the leads ("What's Love Got to Do With It?"), you should probably be doing something else.  Many scenes could work with more careful handling, but Gibson doesn't have a clue about suspense.  Some scenes strike such a wrong note that they're funny while usually talented actors (such as Michael Constantine, who plays the judge...he was the father in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding") turn in awful performances.

I haven't read the book the film is based on, but now I want to.  There is some good material here, like the scenes between Annie and another mafia low-life played by James Gandolfini.  There are also some nice twists at the end.  And The Teacher certainly has potential.  Maybe producer Irwin Winkler thought that he could bring out the film's potential by hiring Ted Tally, who brought Hannibal Lector into the legion of legendary psychos (to be fair, credit must also go to director Jonathan Demme, Anthony Hopkins and to a lesser extent Jodie Foster).  Pity it didn't turn out better.

Akira

2.5/4

Starring (voices): Cam Clarke, Barbara Goodson, Jan Rabson, Bob Bergen, Melora Harte

Rated R for Graphic Violence and Brief Nudity

For reasons I don't understand, "Akira" is considered to be a classic.  I don't know how it earned such lofty praise, since it doesn't deserve it.  Don't construe that to mean it's a bad film, which it's not.  It's a trippy, totally off-the-wall sci-fi action movie with some beautiful visuals but a storyline that is occasionally incoherent.

The film takes place in Neo Tokyo.  31 years ago, the city of Tokyo was destroyed and World War III begins.  In 2019, the new city of Tokyo has been built on the rubble, but while it looks successful and glossy, the Neo Tokyo that "Akira" shows us is a diseased state riddled with corruption and crime.  The streets are overrun with kids like Kaneda (Clarke) who get their kicks by riding around on their motorcycles (which look way cool, by the way) and beating the crap out of each other.  One night while chasing down a rival, Kaneda's friend Tetsuo (Robson) crashes his bike and is captured by the military.  There, he undergoes shady experiments that give him tremendous psychic powers, but he can't control them.

That's what's I could figure of the plot, and that's about 75% of it.  The other 25%, which deals with political corruption and a military coup, doesn't make a lick of sense.  Either the film was butchered in the editing room or crucial parts of the plot weren't animated.  Whatever happened, it hurts the film.

The film's English translation is decidedly unimpressive.  I don't know how much of a demand there was for this film in the US when it was released, but surely it deserved a better treatment than this.  The dialogue is bland, and the voice acting is painfully generic.  It's the kind of thing you find on Adult Swim, or god forbid! Cartoon Network.

While watching the film, I kept thinking of another anime film I saw a while back, "Metropolis."  The film was written (based on his comic book) and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, which could account for some of the story and tonal similarities, since he wrote the screenplay for it (although he did not write the original manga or direct the film...those honors went to legendary Osamu Tezuka and Rintaro, respectively).

Is "Akira" worth seeing?  It's a tough call.  For one thing, it's not a normal film.  Watching it feels like a weird dream; it's totally bizarre and whacked out, but on some level it you buy into it.  It's kind of like late night TV.  If you find that acceptable or even desirable, than go ahead.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Blue Car

3/4

Starring: Agnes Bruckner, David Strathairn, Margaret Colin, Regan Arnold

Rated R for Sexual Content and Language

"Blue Car" is a sad movie about sad people.  They're struggling to make it through each day in one piece, but they have wounds so deep that it will take more than band-aids to fix them.  Each attempts to get out of their situation, but in doing so they inadvertently make things worse (both for themselves and each other).

Meg Denning (Bruckner) is a high school student in small town America.  Her dad up and left, leaving her mother Diane (Colin) to care for her and her younger sister, Lily (Arnold).  Diane works full time and is going to school in the evenings, which means that Meg has to babysit Lily.  Lily is extremely troubled; she's clinically depressed and cuts herself, and while Meg knows this, Diane doesn't know or (doesn't want to know).  Meg is in AP English, which is taught by Mr. Auster (Strathairn).  One day, she writes a poem about her father leaving that impresses him, and he thinks that she has a shot at winning a poetry contest in Florida.  He offers to help her work on it and in so doing, they grow closer.

"Blue Car" is one of those movies where the real drama takes place beneath the surface.  While there's plenty going on at face value, the most compelling material is what is expressed behind the words.  Subtext has always played a huge part in movies, but rarely is it as important as it is here.

Fortunately, writer/director Karen Moncrieff knows how to convey this without being too subtle and artsy or going overboard.  She strikes the correct balance on both a scripting and directing level; she requires her cast, especially Bruckner and Strathairn, to do a lot of acting with their eyes, so we know exactly what they are thinking.

The stunning performances of the two leads cannot be under-appreciated.  Both Bruckner and Strathairn do outstanding work.  Bruckner is in every scene, and in her first starring role she proves that she can carry a film as well as any seasoned professional.  She's your average teenage girl; intelligent and articulate, but reserved and rebellious.  I liked how she and Moncrieff didn't turn her into a caricature.  To her, poetry is a way of self-expression, not a lifestyle (she's not a hipster and you wouldn't find her at poetry slam).  David Strathairn is every bit her match, portraying a man whose passion and caring hide deep wounds and feelings that he knows are best unsaid.  Margaret Colin, best known for playing Jeff Goldblum's ex in "Independence Day" and Regan Arnold provide excellent support as Diane and Lily.

The film loses some of its effectiveness during the final third.  Moncrieff's grasp of subtext and non-vocal emotion lessens and I became unsure of why the characters were doing what they did.  At the same time. there are some scenes that have real power.  The film as a whole works more on a mental rather than an emotional level, but with a movie like this that's almost a blessing.  The ending leaves a few loose ends that I would have preferred to have seen tied up, but since it's easy to guess what happens, it's a small quibble.

"Blue Car" is not for everyone.  Some may be turned off by what happens in the final third, and while the film isn't coy, it's not graphic or exploitative.  It shows what it needs to then moves on.  But for those who enjoy these small, character-based dramas, it's worth seeing.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Hot Tub Time Machine

2.5/4

Starring: John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry, Clark Duke, Sebastian Stan, Chevy Chase, Lizzy Caplan

Rated R for Strong Crude and Sexual Content, Nudity, Drug Use and Pervasive Language

James Berardinelli described the ambitions of Steve Pink's 2010 film as "The Hangover" meets "Back to the Future."  Or at least he said that that is what the film wanted to be.  I liked the film a smidge more than he did, but he's right.  This could have been a great comedy, but the story is just a flimsy clothesline for the actors to improvise and shoot their mouths off.

Three friends have hit rock bottom.  Adam (Cusack) was dumped by his girlfriend, Nick's (Robinson) life is stuck in neutral and his wife is cheating on him, and Lou (Corddry) is a nutjob.  The three used to be best friends, but after Lou nearly dies from carbon monoxide poisoning (he claims it wasn't a suicide attempt, although that's probably a lie), they take him plus Adam's nephew Jacob (Duke), who lives in Adam's basement playing computer games, to the ski resort they went to as kids.  But what was once a paradise is now a run down dump, and after a night of drinking in a hot tub, the four wake up during 1986 Winterfest, on the night that changed all their lives.  The repairman (Chase) warns them of the butterfly effect, however, and if they screw up, Jacob may cease to exist.  Natrually, their attempts to do everything they did 25 years ago turn into an attempt to right past wrongs.  And of course, this doesn't occur without hijinks of varying hilarity.

I got the sense that "Hot Tub Time Machine" should have been a lot more insane and hilarious than it actually was.  The plot doesn't do anything truly clever or daring ("Back to the Future," which I found to be a little overrated, explored this with more vigor, inventiveness and humor.  Not to mention heart, which is sorely missing from this film).  There are some very funny moments, including a reaction shot from a little girl (don't ask) that nearly had me in tears, but most of the humor is tepid at best.

The performances are on the bland side.  John Cusack can do wonders in the right role ("Say Anything" and "High Fidelity" are two great performances of his), and while he has more range than people give him credit for ("Max"), he can't do everything.  Cusack isn't the first name that comes up when one thinks of a crude sex comedy, and this is why.  He's not bad, but he's an odd choice that doesn't really pay off.  His other cast members are more successful, and while they can land a joke, they lack the dramatic range to be sympathetic.  It's really hard to care about any of these guys.  Sebastian Stan, an actor who has show promise, is a little over-the-top as the obligatory jerk, becoming more of an annoyance than someone worthy of our hate.  Chevy Chase kind of fades into the background, while Crispin Glover (another "Back to the Future" connection) contributes to the film's running gag (he plays the one-armed bellhop that Lou is constantly waiting to see if he will get his arm lopped off).

In the end, "Hot Tub Time Machine" is your standard order comedy: diverting, but ultimately forgettable.

Snow Falling on Cedars

1/4

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh, Max von Sydow, Rick Yune, James Rebhorn, James Cromwell, Sam Shepard, Richard Jenkins

Rated PG-13 for Disturbing Images, Sensuality, and Brief Strong Language

In general, if you're making a somber romantic melodrama, it's best not to imitate Oliver Stone, especially not his controversial film "Natural Born Killers."  Stone may be a good filmmaker, with "Patton" being a bonafide classic and "JFK" only a notch or two below (I'm not the world's biggest fan of "Wall Street," although I will freely admit that Michael Douglas deserved all the fame he got from playing Gordon Gekko), but "understated" isn't a word in his vocabulary.  This is what happens when you take a Stone's approach to a slow-burn thriller: it's a disaster of epic proportions.

The film takes place shortly after WWII in a sleepy Northwestern town with a sizable Japanese population.  Prejudice is still in evidence, although not as out in the open as in the Deep South.  One morning, a boat has been found adrift in the harbor.  The town sheriff (Jenkins) senses something amiss, and he and his deputy (Zac Orth) go aboard.  Shortly thereafter, they pull aboard the body of the ship's owner, a man named Carl Heine Jr. (Eric Thal).  Arrested for the crime is Kazuo Miyamoto (Yune), a local man and a war hero.  Covering the story is Ishmael (ho ho) Chambers (Hawke), but of far greater interest to him is Kazuo's wife, Hatsue (Kudoh), with whom he fell in love with when he was a boy.

"Snow Falling on Cedars" was directed by Scott Hicks.  He made the critically acclaimed biopic of pianist David Helfgott, which won Geoffrey Rush an Oscar.  I didn't think the film was all that great, but that's beside the point.  He's no hack, but based on this, I would have to say that he was actively trying to sabotage his own film.  Either that, or he inhaled massive amounts of cocaine before every take.  There's no gimmick that he doesn't use: flashbacks (and flashbacks of flashbacks), bizarre camera angles, constant voice-overs over little scenes from the past, asynchronous dialogue (the voice on the telephone starts moments after the human voice), slow motion, and so on.  It's a mess.  Forget being involved in the story, I was happy I was able to watch the movie without getting motion sick!

When the film slows down, it works.  There is one scene that deals with the Japanese Americans being forced from their homes and sent to internment camps.  It's an effective 20 minute segment, and I thought of the famous "Goodbye, Jews!" clip from "Schindler's List."  It's not nearly as disturbing and sad, but it does have some real power.  If only Hicks hadn't insisted on making this for the ADD crowd.

What can I say about the performances?  Their best attempts to act were sabotaged by the director and the editor (Hank Corwin, who did indeed edit "Natural Born Killers."  His first film, apparently).  If Ethan Hawke has his flat moments, I'm going to absolve him of them because of it.  He and the lovely Youki Kudoh don't have a lot of chemistry, but I'm guessing that Hicks and Corwin may have had something to do with it.

During the opening credits, I saw two names that gave me high expectations: Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.  They are two of the smartest people in Hollywood, both having been behind some great films ("Jurassic Park" being one of them).  They're married in real life and have their own production company.  Both are producers, with Marshall occasionally directing ("Congo" and "Eight Below" are two of his films) and Kennedy being behind many of Steven Spielberg's films.  These two are not amateurs.  I don't know if they gave Hicks free reign to do whatever he wanted with his film, but the job of the producer is to make sure that things go smoothly and the film makes money.  The film wasn't a success at the box office, and I'm not surprised why.

Just avoid this monstrosity.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death

2/4

Starring: Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Irvine, Oaklee Pendergast, Helen McCrory, Adrian Rawlins

Rated PG-13 for Some Disturbing and Frightening Images, and for Thematic Elements

Ah yes, January.  The time of year when Hollywood's good movies have all come out (although "Selma" and "American Sniper," the two remaining heavy hitters, have yet to be widely released) and the movies that didn't turn out as expected or were made simply to make a quick and easy buck at the expense of quality (hey, you gotta fill those discount bins at Wal-Mart somehow) are released into theaters for the sake of texting tweens and adults who are looking for any excuse to get a babysitter.

Actually, "The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death," a sequel in name only to the 2012 horror flick starring Daniel Radcliffe and Ciaran Hinds, isn't that bad.  That's different from it being "worth seeing," which it isn't, but at least it's not as bad as some other January releases.  Remember "Mama?" If you don't, or didn't see it, consider it a blessing.

Unlike the 2012 film (and the 1989 TV movie, which shared the same novel as the source material) which took place in the 19th century, this new film takes place in the early years of WWII (1941 if memory serves).  Because their families can no longer care for them during wartime, two teachers, Eve Parkins (Fox) and Jean Hogg (McCrory) have agreed to take them to a remote island mansion.  One child, Edward (Pendergast) lost his parents the night before, and writes little notes instead of speaking.  Also involved is Harry Burnstow (Irvine), the handsome pilot Eve meets on the train.  When they get there, they soon realize that there is something going on.

"The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death" is really two films: one decent but with potential, the other nonsense.  The first is the attempts of a schoolteacher to survive in an isolation during wartime with co-worker for whom the term "strict" is a personal motto, and her fledgling romance with Harry.  This is interesting and reasonably effective; not groundbreaking stuff, but watchable.  The other is a horror film, which feels like an act of desperation on the part of the filmmakers.  Director Tom Harper doesn't have an eye for atmosphere or pacing, although he can set up a decent jump scene.  Sadly, when the film is half over, the horror story takes over and that's when the film falls flat on its face.  Because of bad sound, the villain's key motivation is unintelligible, and that results in the final act making zero sense.

The acting is good.  Phoebe Fox looks cute and can project warmth, but doesn't display great range or screen presence.  Jeremy Irvine doesn't have much to do other than look sexy and heroic in a bomber jacket (which he does).  Young Oaklee Pendergast doesn't look that creepy or vulnerable, which is all that's required of him.  And Helen McCrory plays Jean as someone who is very strict, but has humanity.  Adrian Rawlins, who played the lead in the 1989 film has a small role as the bus driver.  Trivia fact: both McCrory and Rawlins had roles in the "Harry Potter" film franchise; McCrory played Draco Malfoy's mother Narcissa (having had to turn down the much bigger role of Bellatrix Lestrange, which was then given to Helena Bonham Carter, due to pregnancy) while Rawlins played the role of Harry's father, James.

I'll admit fully that the film looks great; cinematographer George Steel gives us two or three beautiful images.  But that's different from atmosphere, which is created from sound, lighting, camera movements, and above all, pacing.  That's where the film falls short.  It doesn't have the rhythm or the patience to be an effective horror movie.  I think that Harper should have watched "Cracks" and "The Innkeepers" beforehand for inspiration.

Still, there are some worthwhile moments here, including an unintentional laugh or two.  For example, whenever Eve takes a run through the woods she emerges without a scratch on her and a hair out of place, and when she takes a tumble down a muddy hillside she emerges looking like she had just showered and put on freshly laundered clothes.  There are also some impressive pyrotechnics (!) and the ghosts look and act like zombies.

It's not great art, but for what it is, it could have been a lot worse.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Unbroken

3.5/4

Starring: Jack O'Connell, Domhall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock, Takamasa Ishihara, Garrett Hedlund, C.J. Valleroy, John D'Leo

Rated PG-13 for War Violence including Intense Sequences of Brutality, and for Brief Language

The story of Louis Zamperini, a troublemaker turned Olympic athlete who flew bombers during WWII, only to have his plane crash and spend a record 47 days in a raft and be captured by the Japanese army where he was brutalized, seems too good to be true.  Had this not been a true story, the script would have been laughed out of the office of every producer in Hollywood.

But it is true.  Well, mostly (some details have been changed for dramatic effect, but that's often necessary for a film to work), but still.  Universal actually bought the rights to the story in 1957 in the hopes of making it with Tony Curtis as Zamperini, but the project fell through.  Later, Nicolas Cage expressed interest in making the film.  It took until 2014 for the film to be released.

It's not hard to see why someone would want to turn it into a movie.  Zamperini's story is extraordinary, and it's surprisingly well-told by Angelina Jolie, making her second feature.  It is not a perfect film, but it's very, very good.

Louis (Valleroy as a child) is a troublemaker.  A young Italian kid, he resorts to drinking and stealing as a way to pass the time and deal with being bullied.  But his brother, Pete (D'Leo), encourages him to start running instead, telling him, "If you can take it, you can make it," meaning, if you can take the pain, then you win.  It's an expression he takes to heart, and it's put to the test after the aforementioned plane crash (where he is with two other men, Phil (Gleeson) and Mac (Wittrock)) and when he is tortured by a vicious guard named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, whome the prisoners nickname "the Bird" (Ishihara).

The film succeeds based on its storytelling.  I haven't seen Jolie's directorial debut, "In the Land of Blood and Honey," although I do own it.  I will say that she knows what she is doing.  The camerawork is crisp (courtesy of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins) and the editing clear.  There are moments of triumph and tragedy, although Jolie stumbles a little with two of the "big moments" near the end of the film; they lack effective set-up.

Acting-wise, the film rests almost entirely on the shoulders of Jack O'Connell, an up-and-coming British actor (he was Calisto, the eager warrior in "300: Rise of an Empire").  The script doesn't allow him the latitude of a lot of depth (which happens a lot in mainstream films), but that's okay.  His performance is good enough that we accept the character and form a bond with him.  That's all that matters.  Everyone fills their roles as character actors, meaning they do their jobs but don't steal the spotlight from O'Connell.  The exception is Takamasa Ishihara, a Japanese musician with the stage moniker Miyavi.  He's a little frightening, and well worthy of our dislike.

If there's any small quibble, it's that I would have liked more time with the story.  It's clear that Jolie wants the relationship between Louis and Pete to be meaningful, but too little time is spent with it.  The scene in the raft, as strong as it is, lasts a little too long.

But these are small quibbles.  This is definitely worth seeing, and could possibly end up on my Top 10 list for 2015 (as a holdover).


Hellbound: Hellraiser II

2.5/4

Starring: Ashley Laurence, Clare Higgins, Kenneth Cranham, Imogen Boorman, William Hope

The version being reviewed is the unrated one.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R (probably for Strong Violence/Gore, Sexuality, Nudity and Language)

To be quite honest, "Hellbound: Hellraiser II" isn't very good.  It has its moments of tension, but can't rise to the level of the first one.  And yet, there are some visuals and special effects that are truly impressive.  About another problematic but effective horror film, "Feardotcom," the late great Roger Ebert said, "Strange, how good "feardotcom" is, and how bad.  The screenplay is a mess, and yet the visuals are so creative this is one of the rare bad films you might want to actually see."  I could say the same thing about "Hellbound: Hellraiser II."

The plot of this film is a mess.  That's definitely true.  The original wasn't the hallmark of originality, but it did retain a level of coherency.  In any event, Kirsty (Laurence) is recovering at a psychiatric hospital after the events in the first film, in which her stepmother Julia (Clare Higgins) became a serial killer to resurrect her dead uncle, who had gotten himself sent to hell with the Cenobites.  He's looked after by Dr. Channard (Cranham), who ranks somewhere near Hannibal Lecter on the list of doctors you don't want to have looking after you.  His assistant, Kyle MacRae (Hope), is much more benevolent, and believes Kirsty.  He goes to look for evidence of her story and finds a resurrected (albeit without skin) Julia.  In any event, Kirsty, Julia, Channard and Tiffany (Boorman), a silent girl from the hospital with an obsession with puzzles, find themselves in Hell.  Literally.

The film's first half is weak.  It's confusing and badly written, and therefore not particularly interesting.  When the characters end up in Hell, that's when the film takes off.  The story doeasn't become more coherent, but the visuals make up for it.  These include the usual forms of torture and murder (such as skin being pulled off or getting your skull popped open) you'd expect from a movie with "Hellraiser" in the title, but then there's the setting, which looks like an M. C. Escher painting come to life.  With all the weird rooms and so on, I kept thinking of "The Cell."

Acting-wise, the film's only memorable performances are given by Clare Higgins and William Hope.  Higgins seems to be enjoying herself immensely playing one of the most vicious women in horror movies.  She even said as much herself; according to her iMDb page, she said, "I had to come back, because to be the queen of hell, you see, it was an opportunity I couldn't miss!"  William Hope is probably best known for playing the impotent Lt. Gorman in the horror classic "Aliens," and he's much nicer here.  Ashley Laurence resembles Winona Ryder, but lacks the more famous actress's range.

Although he came up with the story (which was forced to undergo changes after Andrew Robinson, who played Kirsty's father in the original, refused to appear in this film.  Supposedly, this accounts for its messy storyline), Clive Barker didn't write or direct the film.  It was written by Peter Atkins and directed by Tony Randel.  They let their imaginations run wild, and while it's not a very good movie, it does have its pleasures.  But only if you're into this sort of thing.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Inside Job

3/4

Narrated by Matt Damon

Rated PG-13 for Some Drug and Sex-Related Material

Numbers are not my strong suit.  When it comes to stock markets, financial wizardry and complex business deals, it goes in one ear and out the other.  Before watching "Inside Job," the extent of my knowledge of the financial crisis was this: greedy bankers and big business deliberately screwed over the common people, caused a financial crisis, and still pocketed billions.

So it was helpful to have a documentary that took my through what happened step by step.  The film is neatly divided into how it was allowed to occur (starting with the de-regulation overseen by the Regan administration), how they did it, what happened when it went belly up, and the aftermath.  It is still perhaps a little too clean or too complex because I think I'll have to watch it a few more times to fully grasp the subtleties of what happened (one of the arguments made by these CEO's was that these schemes are too complex for most people to understand...yeah, right).

What's really scary about the whole thing is that it wasn't just one or two people that were behind it.  It was a whole culture that was rotten from top to bottom, and had the money and the political know-how to ensure that it was essentially untouchable.  That, and the fact that making these risky bets and wins lit up the brain in ways similar to cocaine, created a culture that was broken and diseased, but so profitable and so entrenched that no one would, or even could, do anything about it.

The choice of Matt Damon as the narrator helps the film immeasurably.  Not only is he well-known and popular, which helps for advertising, he's a good actor, and relatively low-key.  He's also not known as a particularly political person, which eliminates charges of bias.  Not that one can make that assumption, since this film is definitely apolitical.  Regan, Clinton, both Bushes, and Obama are both shown as being complicit.

Although the film concludes on an element of hope, I don't see it.  Big business is too entrenched in politic for the people to have much of an impact in their government.  They'll spend billions to keep things in their favor, and the majority of us would rather watch Kim Kardashian or buy a new iPhone rather than research who they want to vote for.  Add the social commentators who make millions by firing up their audiences who in turn tune in like a drug addict getting their fix, and you have a very bad situation.  Making it even worse is a pervasive sense of helplessness in the political infrastructure.  Big business and wealthy donors don't have any limits on how much they can spend on campaign donations, giving the belief that politicians can be bought.

Maybe it will change.  Maybe if people pay attention they will see things for what they are and not be fooled or easily misled.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Grave of the Fireflies

3.5/4

Starring (voices): J. Robert Spencer, Corrine Orr

Not Rated (probably PG-13 for Disturbing War Images)

When it comes to war movies, the best rise to the top.  "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan," "Casablanca..." All are fondly remembered and well-regarded, and for good reason.  "Grave of the Fireflies," isn't typically on that list, although it should be.  Film critics and movie lovers know of Isao Takahata's 1988 film but it hasn't been embraced by the general public.  Perhaps because it is anime, and not made by Disney or Pixar (Hayao Miyazaki, despite winning an Oscar for "Spirited Away," is still a cult filmmaker).  Or perhaps it is because it is a mature and deeply sad film as opposed to the cute and funny stuff we see in animation.  Unlike most animated films, it's not for kids.  It is simply too sad and disturbing.

By the time "Grave of the Fireflies" starts, Seita (Spencer) has died.  It's the tail end of World War II, and he is a young Japanese teenager.  After his mother dies during a bombing, he and his young sister Setsuko (Orr) are forced to seek refuge with his aunt (Amy Jones), but she is cruel to them.  Eventually, they have to find a way to survive on their own.  Money is scarce, but food is more important and it is even harder to find.  It is a situation that would try any person, much less a young kid with a kid sister in tow.

The film's biggest success is the relationship between Seita and Setsuko.  It's nicely developed by Takahata's screenplay, which is based on the novel written by Akiyuki Nosaka.  Nosaka lost his sister in the war, and wrote the novel to deal with his guilt.  As sad as this movie sometimes is, it's counterbalanced by moments of lightness.  There are plenty of cute and heartwarming moments to be found here.  The bond that the two share forms the core of the film.

It is indicative of the story's raw power and the strength of the telling that it can, and is, be seen in two ways.  In the U.S., it is seen as an anti-war film and a tragedy.  In Japan, it is seen as the price a kid will pay for not respecting his elders (Takahata subscribes to this point of view).  I saw the film a few years ago not knowing this information, but knowing it, I see that it plays to both points of view.

The film looks great.  Takahata, who is a friend and contemporary of Miyazaki, has full confidence in the story and it's ability to enrapture an audience.  He doesn't cheapen it with humor or quirky supporting characters, nor does he insult the audience's intelligence.  His view of the film is stark and uncompromising; there were times when I thought that, had it gone by the MPAA (which it didn't), they might have given it an R rating.  That is to the film's benefit.

The film's only real drawback is the voice acting.  It's adequate, but not standout.  J. Robert Spencer is very good as Seita, bringing the young boy to life with warmth and empathy.  Less successful is Corrinne Orr, credited as Rhoda Chrosite.  The actress is middle-aged in real life, and while it's not a terrible performance, it's not good either.

Still, the movie will leave a strong impression on everyone who watches it.  That's all we can ask for, right?