Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Equalizer

1.5/4

Starring: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Melissa Leo, Bill Pullman

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

While it is probably impossible for Denzel Washington to give a bad performance (he's too talented and too devoted to the job to do so), he has, on occasion, coasted through roles on his charisma alone.  "Virtuosity," "Fallen," "Flight," "Safe House..." there aren't many, but Washington has done it.  That's what he's doing here.  Fortunately, he's still an engaging presence on the screen.  Unfortunately, even if he was trying, he wouldn't be able to save this movie.

Robert McCall (Washington) leads a simple life.  He works at a hardware store and in his free time, helps one of his co-workers Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) lose weight so he can become a security guard.  He doesn't sleep a lot, so he spends his nights reading at a late night diner.  That's where he meets a young prostitute named Alina (Grace-Moretz).  They form a careful friendship, but when she is brutally attacked, he decides to get revenge for her.  Needless to say, that doesn't go over well with the local chapter of the Russian mob, so they send a psycho named Teddy (Csokas) to take him out.  Before he knows it, Robert has begun a one-man war with the entire Russian mafia.

It's obvious that Denzel's heart isn't in his performance.  He's still an arresting presence and delivers his lines as only he can, but this isn't one of his finer moments.  Chloe Grace Moretz is terrific as always, but her role is small.  It's a supporting role, not a co-starring one.  As the villain, I got the sense that Marton Csokas could be more menacing had his part been better written.  There are moments when he is creepy, but his role isn't written strongly enough for him to be truly creepy.  Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman show up for one scene.

The film's problem is not that it's formulaic.  I've defended films that follow a formula as long as they do it well ("Avatar," anyone?).  That's not the case here.  The film is poorly paced and kind of dumb.  The villains make at least two obvious errors, and that destroys a lot of the film's credibility.  If it didn't take itself so seriously, I might be able to look the other way, but director Antoine Fuqua wants this to be a dark, gritty thriller.

Director Antoine Fuqua has had a varied but never spectacular career.  He was behind "Training Day," which one Washington his second Oscar, and "Shooter," but he was also responsible for "Olympus has Fallen" and "Brooklyn's Finest" (the latter of which I didn't even finish).  This is not one of his better movies, in case you haven't figured that out.

The film's climax, which takes place in a department store, is nicely executed, and that double meaning is intended.  Instead of the avenging angel that he's been for the majority of the film, he attacks his enemies with the zeal of a slasher movie villain.  It's "Home Alone" with a body count.  And a lot of good will is destroyed by the scene's end, which descends almost to the point of self-parody.

"The Equalizer's" worst sin is that it's boring.  Skip it unless you need a sleep aid.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Lazarus Effect

1/4

Starring: Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Sarah Bolger, Evan Peters, Donald Glover

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Horror Violence, Terror and Some Sexual References

How bad is this movie?  In addition to having the usual problems of bad horror movies (bad acting and characterization, bad pacing, an incoherent plot and supposedly smart characters doing stupid things), it's so badly made that it took until the climax that I realized the set-up was over.

"The Lazarus Project" is like "Splice" and "Hollow Man."  It's a movie where a group of brilliant (at least that's what we're told, but evidence clearly suggests otherwise) scientists push the boundaries of science and pay the price.  Both of the earlier movies had their problems, but they were entertaining.  Not so with "The Lazarus Project," which is just stupid.

Frank (Duplass) and Zoe (Wilde) are two scientists trying to find a way to keep people alive for longer.  Meaning, if you've been shot up like 50 Cent and your heart has stopped, they want to be able to keep you alive for longer so the doctors can fix you up and you can show off the bullet wounds to your fans.  They've done it with a dog, but despite the warnings of one of their crew, a pothead named Clay (Peters), they keep it alive.  Circumstances, which I will not reveal, will force them to do a quick test and Zoe ends up dead.  Frank, who has been engaged to marry her for years, is determined to use this new science to bring her back.  It works, but as CCH Pounder once said (paraphrased of course), "There's something wrong with Zoe."

I've seen her in a few movies, and I have yet to be convinced that Olivia Wilde has much talent as an actress.  Sure she's cute, but her range is at best limited.  She's solid in the opening scenes, when she's playing a normal individual, but when things go wrong, she goes over-the-top.  Mumblecore mainstay Jay Duplass is just boring.  I haven't seen a horror movie character this dull in a long time.  Sarah Bolger (playing the obligatory newbie hired to record their success at playing God) is even worse.  She's over-the-top shrill to the point where I was actively wishing for her to die.  Evan Peters is wasted while Donald Glover while Donald Glover gives Jay Duplass a run for his money in the "most boring individual on the face of the Earth" category.

The film was directed by David Gelb.  He directed the documentary smash "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."  I haven't seen it, but I've heard good things.  Considering the result, my guess is that studio executives picked an arthouse director at random and forced him to become a hired gun.  Either that, or he should stick to documentaries.  He hasn't the slightest clue about what makes a horror film work.  Plotholes abound, the pacing is erratic, and the plot is all over the map.  The best thing I can say is that he knows how to create a decent jump scene.

Trust me.  Give this one a pass.  Some things are better left off dead.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Still Alice

3/4

Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, Stephen Kunken

Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Material, and Brief Language including a Sexual Reference

It's the little things that signal to Alice that something isn't right.  A slip of the tongue, the inability to recall a random word.  Alone, they're nothing to worry about.  We all have them.  But when the highly respected linguistics professor gets lost on her own campus, she begins to worry.

"Still Alice," the film about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer's, has enough problems that I'd be on the fence about recommending it, except for the fact that it has Julianne Moore playing the lead role.  Moore, after three previous nominations, finally got to take home a statue for playing Alice Howland, and she deserves it.  The film as a whole is heavily flawed but shows flashes of brilliance, but it's Moore that holds it together.  In a way, I was reminded of last year's "Blue Jasmine."  Both are heavily flawed movies about mentally challenged women that are saved by their lead performers (and incidentally, both won the Oscar for Best Actress).

The film occasionally takes a unique look at Alzheimer's, mainly from it's point-of-view.  Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland present the film from Alice's perspective.  For example, we  suddenly learn that things they've talked about happened previously, or many times previously, even though we are seeing them for the first time.  It's very effective and gets us into her mindset, but unfortunately, it doesn't happen enough and the directors do too little with it.  A potentially crucial bit of information, which regards the possibility of Alice passing on the gene for her disease to one, or all, of her three children (Stewart, Bosworth and Parrish) is raised but closed up with no mention after it.  Surely its revelation, which I will not reveal here, would be more important to the Howland family.

The film's plot trajectory, which echoes the progression of Alice's illness, is also clunky.  I understand that Alzheimer's doesn't progress at a set pace, but there are times when Alice is clearly affected, but in the next scene she's still talking like a linguistics professor.  It's more than a little jarring and hurts the film's fragile flow.

Moore is supported by an able supporting cast.  The two with the most screentime are Alec Baldwin, who does a solid job with an undeveloped character.  John is determined to help his wife, but the script doesn't offer him the chance to really do something with his character.  He's mainly someone for Moore to play off of.  Kristen Stewart, who plays their black sheep daughter Lydia, has a juicier character, and does a solid job.  But the film focuses a little too much on her and not enough on John.  Bosworth and Parrish are also good, but they have little to do.

For those who think that this movie is a complete downer, it's really not.  It's more thoughtful and perceptive than depressing.  There are also some moments of dark humor early on, most of which (I think) are intentional.

Aside from Moore, who is a revelation, the film doesn't have quite enough to recommend seeing it in the theater, but performances like these should be savored.  Moore has never been a risk-averse actress.  She chooses her projects carefully (not to mention reads every script that she receives) and is choosy about the films she takes part in.  She's always a good actress, and to see her at the top of her game is always worth it.  Even if the movie is flawed.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

50 Shades of Grey

3.5/4

Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden

Rated R for Strong Sexual Content including Dialogue, Some Unusual Behavior and Graphic Nudity, and for Language

I was not looking forward to seeing this movie.  The source material is based on "Twilight" fan fiction and the advance word was horrible.  Funny how things work out, isn't it?

"Fifty Shades of Grey" has been controversial ever since the book was released, and that hasn't changed with the film.  I'm not sure why except to say "only in America."  The film contains plenty of sex, but certainly nothing to get worked up about.  After all, it's about S&M, isn't it?

Anastasia Steele (Johnson) is an English major in Seattle.  Her roommate Kate (Mumford) is sick on the day she is to interview the sexy and mysterious billionaire Christian Grey (Dornan), so she sends Anastasia instead.  Christian is cold and aloof, but something grows between them.  Soon, a much deeper connection forms, but Ana finds out that his personal tastes venture into, shall we say, the exotic.

What makes this film work is that director Sam Taylor-Wood is interested in exploring their relationship, not exploiting it.  This isn't a cheap sex film, nor is it pornographic in any way (although some of the sex scenes are hot).  Both Anastasia and Christian are well-developed, and Taylor-Wood takes care in developing their personalities and the forces that drive them.

The performances help as well.  Both Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan give strong performances.  They're not Oscar-worthy, but I accepted them as real people, and for the film's second half to work, that's essential.  Neither of them is who they seem at the beginning of the film, and they know it.  For example, initially Anastasia seems to be a mousy doormat, but she has inner strength in her that surprises Christian.  Conversely, Christian seems like a stone wall, but he has his reasons for being who he is.  Taylor-Wood handles the development of their characters like a seasoned pro.

Taylor-Wood plays the material reasonably straight, but isn't above having a little fun with the material.  There's a scene between Anastasia and Christian that's conducted like a board room meeting with business executives in expensive suits; on paper, it sounds sleazy (I won't say more because I don't want to give anything away), but in execution it's hilarious, bringing to mind the infamous business card scene in "American Psycho."

The connection to "Twilight" is tenuous.  While that one was all about teen angst and use vampirism and the visual appeal of its stars to sell tickets, this one is more honest.  It also helps that the dialogue is stronger, the acting is better, and there's less posturing.  This is a movie about sexual exploration than a shallow tween romance.

I will argue that the film starts too late.  For someone who captures the attention of the first two characters we meet (Ana and Kate), Christian is given no introduction.  For Christian's entrance to have the effect that Taylor-Wood wants it to have, his entrance needs a better build-up.  By the same token, the film is about ten minutes too long and drags here and there.  I loved the ending, however, and found it incredibly daring.

Ultimately, "50 Shades of Grey" works because it's less of a movie about sex than a movie about relationships.  Having a romantic relationship, even one that seems as strange as this one, takes work, and the parties are going to have to learn to accept each other the way they are.  Adjustments have to be made on both sides of the relationship, and that's how Taylor-Wood sees the story.

This is not for the tightly-wound or conservative movie-goer.  But it's also not the sleazy sex-fest that you might think.

Summer of Sam

2/4

Starring: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Rispoli, Michael Badalucco

Rated R for Strong Graphic Violence and Sexuality, Pervasive Strong Language and Drug Use

Like many flawed movies, it is easy to see what “Summer of Sam” was trying to do.  It is also easy to see where it failed and why.  What Spike Lee wants “Summer of Sam” to be is a mix of an intense, gritty film filled with claustrophobia and paranoia.  What it actually is, is a rather lifeless movie with no atmosphere about characters we don’t care about.

Summer 1977.  Brooklyn is terrorized by a serial killer who shoots people at random.  The police are helpless and residents are terrified.  But that’s just background.  “Summer of Sam” is only tangentially related to the search for the killer.  Instead, it concentrates on the actions of a large group of people in a Brooklyn neighborhood.  Vinny (Leguizamo) is a hairdresser and is married to the lovely Dionna (Sorvino), although he is unfaithful to her.  His friend Richie (Brody) has discovered punk rock and adopted a new hairdo and wardrobe (much to the alarm of the neighborhood) and is dating the neighborhood floozy, Ruby (Esposito).  After narrowly missing being murdered by the .44 Caliber Killer, aka Son of Sam, aka David Berkowitz (Badalucco), he resolves to remain faithful to Dionna, although that doesn’t last long.  On the other hand, Richie and Ruby grow closer.  Meanwhile, just about everyone is looking for the killer.  Two cops (played by Anthony LaPaglia and Roger Guenveur Smith) enlist the help of the neighborhood mob boss Luigi (Ben Gazzara) to help with the search.  That leads one of his underlings Joey T (Rispoli) to do so as well with his lunkheaded flunkies.

That’s a lot of set-up, but it’s ultimately pointless.  Or at least it feels like it.  Despite some solid acting, particularly by a pre-famous Adrien Brody, the characters are boring.  I didn’t feel much for Vinny, Dionna, or anyone else.  That’s a problem, since in order for a movie to raise the adrenaline, they have to get the audience to care about the people in the film.  Perhaps this is because they weren’t the original antagonists.  The focus was originally going to be Berkowitz, but his victims’ families complained because they feared Hollywood glorification.

Also lacking is a sense of atmosphere.  In an attempt to heighten the film’s tense foundation, Lee doesn’t soft-pedal the violence or the sex (two minutes had to be cut in order to avoid an NC-17), but it’s unsuccessful.  The film looks generic; the script makes a big deal about the killings and the heat wave, but it’s the director’s job to make the audience feel that.  Lee proves to be unable to rise to the challenge.  Lee is also prone to inserting fantasy sequences and bizarre camera tricks (sometimes Lee shows us something only to reverse and show what really happened…and it’s usually a minor event), but all it does is make him seem like an Oliver Stone wannabe.

Lee’s decision to have Berkowitz onscreen presents more problems than it’s worth.  For one thing, it increases the running time to the point where it feels like it will never end (“Summer of Sam” feels like a very long 2.5 hours).  Second, it decreases the tension.  Movies that concentrate on the fear of violence (slasher movies, for example), work best when the threat is off-screen.  Consider “The Blair Witch Project,” which never showed the villain.  I'd also point out that the film takes the point of view that Berkowitz was ordered to kill by his neighbor's dog (a story that he recanted), but since the film takes place in the here and now, I'll let it slide (the scene where the dog talks is unintentionally funny, however, and that I won't let slide).

It is also problematic for the film’s ending.   Not only is it dragged out longer than it needs to be by showing nearly every single moment of Berkowitz’s capture, but it makes some characters seem comically stupid.  Without giving too much away, I will say that the dramatic underpinning of it relies on what they think they know, but by showing who Berkowitz is, we know they’re wrong.  As a result, the characters become so stupid that they’re impossible to take seriously.  Add to that overhyped violence that ends in a cheat, and you’ve got a lame movie that can’t even manage a good ending.


I will admit that movies like this are difficult to make.  It is much easier to make a movie where you show the violence.  It’s easier to go for that easy gratification, and it can be effective.  But to get the audience to feel the threat of violence, to feel that paranoia, is a rare thing.  I’ll give Lee credit for the attempt, but he misses the mark, and by quite a bit.

Steamboy

2/4

Starring (voices): Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina, Patrick Stewart, Kari Wahlgren, Oliver Cotton
Rated PG-13 for Action Violence

I love steampunk movies.  I don’t know what it is, but seeing something like a car or a plane work not by microchips but by steam and gears lights up my imagination.  So you can imagine that I really wanted to like “Steamboy,” but unfortunately, it’s just not very good.  The plot has more holes than Swiss cheese, the characters are boring (and in one case, incredibly irritating), and the movie never wants to end.  At least the action scenes are cool.

Ray Steam (Paquin) is living in London with his mother (Kim Thomson) and a few neighborhood children.  His father, Dr. Eddie Steam (Molina) and grandfather, Dr. Lloyd Steam (Stewart), are in Alaska working on a top secret project.  One day a package arrives for Ray: it’s a metal ball sent by Lloyd.  Almost immediately thereafter, he’s running away from men who want it for their own nefarious means.  He soon learns that this metal ball could revolutionize the world…or end it.

You gotta hand it to Katsuhiro Otomo: he’s ambitious.  Like the earlier film “Metropolis” (for which he wrote the script), the film covers a lot of ground: morality, ethics, family ties, conspiracies, romance, and of course lots of action.  All of which are combined into a unique vision of the future.  Also like “Metropolis,” it doesn’t really work.  “Steamboy” feels like a jumble of half-baked ideas cobbled together like a jigsaw puzzle, only Otomo doesn’t take the time or energy to make sure that they fit into a cohesive whole.

The voice cast, despite the talents of Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina, and Patrick Stewart, leaves a lot to be desired.  This is due in part to the script, which is awful, but none of them are on their game.  It is common practice in Japan for a preteen male character to be voiced by an actress, and the filmmakers have decided to do that here.  It is a catastrophic miscalculation.  I like Anna Paquin, but she is totally wrong for the part of Ray Steam, which makes it next to impossible to accept the character.  Alfred Molina decides to deliver his lines in a monotone for some reason, while Patrick Stewart goes over-the-top (perhaps in the hopes that we won’t notice that his lines are awful).  Kari Wahlgren plays Miss Scarlet, the obligatory love interest.  To say that this character doesn’t work is to understate matters.  If the film were solid in every other respect, she’d tank it all by herself.  Not only is Wahlgren’s performance awful, the character is written as such a bitch that I was actively wishing for her to die.  She’s a self-centered little shit who spends half the movie whining, and for comic relief, she punches her little dog (twice).


Watching this movie, I kept thinking of Hayao Miyazaki’s charming film “Castle in the Sky.”  That movie had its flaws, sure, but the storylines are sort of similar (the casting of Anna Paquin enhances the connection further) and both take place in a similar world.  “Castle in the Sky” was a good yarn.  This is what would happen if Michael Bay tried anime.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mulberry St.

1/4

Starring: Nick Damici, Kim Blair, Ron Brice, Bo Corre, Tim House, Larry Fleischman, Larry Medich, Javier Picayo

Rated R for Creature Violence/Gore and Language

“Mulberry St.” is as mainstream as they come…except for the fact that it was made for $60,000 (and looks it too).  The plot is pure formula, characters do some amazingly stupid things, and there are gobs of gore.  That doesn’t mean that it’s good, however.  “Mulberry St.” is a snoozefest, with nary a character worth caring about and a director who loves to shake the camera and get artsy,

It’s a hot day in New York City.  The tenants of one apartment building have just found out that their home is going to be torn down to make way for a new skyscraper.  They’re your average bunch with average concerns.  Clutch (Damici) is an ex-boxer awaiting the return of his daughter Casey (Brice) from her tour overseas.  Coco (Blair) is his gay neighbor/roommate/lover/something (the movie isn’t too clear on this).  Kay (Corre) is a bartender raising her son Otto (Picayo), whom she thinks is sick but is really playing hooky.  Larry (House) is the superintendent who is trying to fix everyone’s plumbing.  And Frank (Medich) is caring for his sick father Charlie (Fleischman).  But something weird is going on, with reports of people getting attacked by rats and suddenly dying.  Soon Manhattan is on lockdown, and that’s when the trouble really starts.

On the acting front, no one bears mention.  Nick Damici has the most screen time, which isn’t surprising because he co-wrote the script with the director.  Bo Corre gives what is arguably the best performance, but I wouldn’t bet on seeing her on the Oscar red carpet any time soon.  No one else bears mention for good or bad.

The film gets off to a good start.  I knew from the first few minutes that I shouldn’t expect anything special, but a decent late-night movie wasn’t out of the question.  The characters and the setting are adequately established.  Neither is anything special, but it gets the job done.  Once director Jim Mickle tries to ratchet up the tension, the film gets out of his control pretty quickly.  He lacks a good sense of atmosphere, and his sense of pacing is off.  He knows what this kind of film needs, but he can’t assemble the parts correctly.

The biggest question is what the evil creatures are.  According to iMDb and the characters, they’re giant rat people.  What little I saw of them (Mackie shakes the camera and cuts too often for us to get a good look—probably a wise move if he wanted to avoid audience laughter) didn’t convince me.  They looked like zombies.  They scream, they eat people, and their victims turn into…well, whatever they are.  As the saying goes, if it walks like a duck…


One could make the argument that I should be more lenient on the film because of its lack of budget.  True, the filmmakers couldn’t afford decent actors or equipment for such a small money pile, but remember that “Paranormal Activity” was made for only $15,000.  That doesn’t excuse a bad script or bad storytelling.  You can’t put a budget on those.

The Shrine

3/4

Starring: Cindy Sampson, Aaron Ashmore, Meghan Heffern, Trevor Matthews

Not Rated (probable R for Strong Violence and Gore, and Language)

Isn’t it awesome when a movie you had low expectations for turns out to be good?  To be quite honest, I wasn’t expecting much from “The Shrine.”  A direct-to-DVD horror flick with a no-name cast that was too cheap to be sent by the MPAA (not that that means much) isn’t a ringing endorsement.  In fact, it’s usually a sign that says “Stay Away!”  Imagine my surprise when I found out that not only is it not a waste of time, it’s actually good.

Carmen (Sampson) is a workaholic journalist who is in hot water with her boyfriend Marcus (Ashmore) and her boss (Philip Craig).  Marcus thinks she works too much, and her previous story apparently got her into hot water.  She has a hunch that a number of disappearances in Europe are connected, but her boss doesn’t want to hear it (he assigns her a story about a decreasing bee population).  Undaunted, Carmen goes to Poland anyway, with Marcus and her intern Sarah (Heffern) in tow.  Of course, when they get there they realize that chasing this story could cost them their lives.

Until the bloody climax, “The Shrine” is less of a horror film than a mystery.  We don’t know what’s going on, and director Jon Knautz does a good job of keeping us in suspense.  From the minute the trio arrives in this little town, we know that there’s something seriously sinister at work here.  Knautz also has a gift for atmosphere, both in its visual sense and its story.  I never knew where the story was going next.

Knautz takes his time, too, which is to the film’s benefit.  This kind of story demands a slow build-up.  Apart from a shocking act of violence in the beginning to set us on edge, there’s little in the way of action or gore until the film enters its third act.  The reveal is a bit of a letdown because it goes a route that we’ve seen before many times, but it’s crafted with skill, so I’m not coming down too harshly on it.

Unfortunately, the performances are merely adequate.  No one is bad (considering the genre, that’s almost a compliment) and we are with the heroes every step of the way, but the main actors don’t dazzle with their thespian abilities.  Part of the reason has to do with the script, which contains a few clunkers, but no one displays great range here.


I was surprised at how involved I got with this film.  It’s not perfect, but if you’re looking for a low-budget chiller, this is a good pick.

Jupiter Ascending

3/4

Starring: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Nikki Amuka-Bird

Rated PG-13 for Some Violence, Sequences of Sci-Fi Action, Some Suggestive Content and Partial Nudity

In 1999, The Wachowskis released a sci-fi action extravaganza called “The Matrix.”  Not only did it include kinetic and ground-breaking fight scenes, it dealt with thought provoking material revolving around technology and our reality.  It was a complete sleeper hit, surprising just about everyone with its reception.  Two sequels followed, but neither one matched the quality of the first.  Their next film, a mega-budget version of the Japanese anime series “Speed Racer” bombed at the box office (although I loved it).  After that, they teamed up with German action wonderboy Tom Tykwer (he directed the cult classic “Run Lola Run,” which was a lot of fun, but he also directed “The International,” which was anything but) to make “Cloud Atlas,” a hugely ambitious sci-fi epic that worked surprisingly well considering the needs of its plot and characters.  That didn’t have the reception that the indie studios wanted either.  So have The Wachowskis found their way again, or are they destined to be one-hit wonders?  The jury is still out, but I hope this film turns their fortunes around.

Jupiter Jones (Kunis) is a Russian immigrant working as a maid.  Actually, she was born in the middle of the Atlantic because her father was murdered shortly before she was born and her mother and aunt illegally immigrated to the US in their grief.  They are not wealthy people, but Jupiter is seeing some strange things going on around her other than what’s in a toilet bowl.  Specifically, aliens are trying to kill her.  One, a man named Caine (Tatum), is there to protect her.  Apparently, there is a family squabble between a trio of siblings for the control of the Earth.  One, Balem (Redmayne) wants her dead, but the other two Titus (Booth) and Kalique (Middleton) may not.  And Jupiter has found herself in the middle of it.

As anyone who has seen the trailers (or any promotional media related to the film) can attest, the film looks incredible.  There hasn’t been a sci-fi movie that looks this incredible since “Star Wars: Episode III.”  Compare that to the bland, clunky special effects of something like “Thor: Dark World,” and you’ll see what Hollywood needs to do if they’re banking on special effects alone.
Unfortunately, the plot isn’t up to snuff.  The first half is great fun, but once the Wachowski’s world is explained at the halfway mark, it turns into a bit of a soap opera.  The siblings don’t really know where to take the story, and it gets a little repetitive.  That said, it is never boring.

The acting is on solid ground.  The role of Jupiter is within Mila Kunis’s limited range.  She does her best work in films set in contemporary times and in comedy.  Drama isn’t her forte, so it’s fortunate that she’s not required to do a lot of it.  Channing Tatum is suitably heroic, even with bizarre make-up (it’s explained in the film…at least I think so).  Sadly, Sean Bean does not impress.  Not only does he mumble his lines to the point where almost nothing he says is intelligible (and he explains a lot of the set-up), his performance seems to be on mute.  I got the sense that, for some reason, he was banned from ever having his morning coffee.  Eddie Redmayne plays his part with relish, vamping it up to new heights; he’s fun to watch in a kind of campy way, although he’s still a capable antagonist.

What sets the film apart is adrenaline.  These days, hack filmmakers throw action and superheroes at the screen with lots of noise and violence without any understanding of how they work.  The Wachowskis, like George Lucas, known how to please the eye and raise the adrenaline.  The action scenes are a blast; one sequence that has spaceships zipping around Chicago worth the price of admission alone.  This is a movie that needs to be seen on as big of a screen as possible.


This isn’t the next “Star Wars.”  The story isn’t as engaging, and the script could have used another rewrite.  But it is fun.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mike's Musings: 2015 Oscar Predictions

Sorry, folks.  I've been a little busy, thus I haven't been able to do my Oscar predictions until now...three hours before the event.  Usually I bemoan the fact that I don't get paid for being a film critic, but this is one instance where I'm glad I'm doing this for the love of the game.

When I first did this, I said something about each nominee.  I'm not going to do that this year.  It takes too long and causes the article to drag.  I will say who I think will win and why, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to write a lot about Steve Carrel's nomination for Best Actor.

So here they are:

Best Picture

Nominees:
"American Sniper"
"Birdman"
"Boyhood"
"The Imitation Game"
"The Grand Budapest Hotel"
"Selma"
"The Theory of Everything"
"Whiplash"

There are 8 nominees this year, but like most years, it's come down to two films: Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" and Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's "Birdman."  I haven't seen the latter film, but it's been doing well on the awards circuit.  However, I don't think that it's earned quite enough mainstream acceptance to take home the gold statute.  It seems to be a little too on the artsy side, and that's the vibe I've been getting from what I hear of the film; it's gotten tons of nominations from lesser known awards, but save for the Golden Globe for Best Musical Comedy, hasn't taken any home, and that's probably due to the lack of competition.

"Boyhood," on the other hand, is this year's "little film that could."  It's that surprise hit that came out of nowhere and became a major player.  Both daring in its construction and story (or lack thereof), Richard Linklater's film has taken top honors at almost all of the awards shows, and those are good predictors.  The fact that the movie is absolutely incredible doesn't hurt its chances either.

"American Sniper" is being touted as a dark horse candidate, but it's not going to win.  Not because it isn't a good film, because it is (then again, quality plays second fiddle to marketing for the Oscars), but because the release date was botched.  For whatever reason, the powers that be chose to release the film at the tail end of the release window.  Maybe they didn't know what they had on their hands.  Regardless, it may have cost them the statue.

Who should win: "Boyhood"
Who will win: "Boyhood"

Best Actor
Steve Carrell, "Foxcatcher"
Benedict Cumberbatch, "The Imitation Game"
Bradley Cooper, "American Sniper"
Michael Keaton, "Birdman"
Eddie Redmayne, "The Theory of Everything"

A few months back, it looked like the newest Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch, was the front-runner for this year's Best Actor Oscar.  How times change.  Now the competition is between Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne.  Keaton has the upper hand.  He was super famous in the late 80's and early 90's, but fell out of the spotlight.  Again, I haven't seen "Birdman" yet, but Hollywood loves a comeback.

I really hope Eddie Redmayne doesn't win.  Not because I don't like the actor (I do), but because the movie was so awful.  I don't think he will win, however.  He has emerged as the rival too late in the game, and unlike Keaton, he's just starting his career.  I don't know if he has the charisma to be a major movie star, but he could end up in the top five again later in his career, and I think that that's how the Academy feels too,

My choice is neither.  In fact, my choice for the Best Actor Oscar wasn't even nominated.  Who was it?  Dan Stevens for "The Guest."  Few other performances have chilled me so absolutely, and so few actors have been so perfectly cast.  Unfortunately, almost no one saw the film, which killed his chances of getting any Oscar love.

Who should win: Dan Stevens, "The Guest" via surprising write-in candidate.  Failing that, Benedict Cumberbatch for "The Imitation Game."
Who will win: Michael Keaton, "Birdman"

Best Actress
Marion Cotillard, "Two Days, One Night"
Felicity Jones, "The Theory of Everything"
Rosamund Pike, "Gone Girl"
Julianne Moore, "Still Alice"
Reese Witherspoon, "Wild"

Julianne Moore is like Joan Allen: a highly-respected actress whom everyone knows and loves, but still can't manage to win the Oscar.  This is her fifth nomination, and she appears to be unstoppable.  Compared to her, her closest competitor, Rosamund Pike for "Gone Girl," comes across as a poser.  Julianne Moore's Oscar is in the bag.  And even though I haven't seen it, she's got my vote because it's long past time she's won one.

Who should win: Julianne Moore, "Still Alice"
Who will win: Julianne Moore, "Still Alice"

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall, "The Judge"
Ethan Hawke, "Boyhood"
Edward Norton, "Birdman"
Mark Ruffalo, "Foxcatcher"
J.K. Simmons, "Whiplash"

Like Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons has been winning just about everything for his portrayal as the sadistic drum teacher in the indie hit "Whiplash."  I haven't seen it, but I thought that he should have gotten a nomination for his performance in the overrated "Juno."  I have no problems with him winning because Simmons is as reliable as they come.

Just don't give it to Robert Duvall.  Please?  It's not going to happen, but he shouldn't have even been nominated.  It's Oscar favoritism at its most shameless, and frankly his performance wasn't anything special.

Who should win: J.K. Simmons, "Whiplash"
Who will win: J.K. Simmons, "Whiplash"

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, "Boyhood"
Laura Dern, "Wild"
Keria Knightly, "The Imitation Game"
Emma Stone, "Birdman"
Meryl Streep, "Into the Woods"

For whatever reason, I keep forgetting who was nominated in this category.  Not because there weren't some strong performances, however.  Unlike in the other categories, there are three performances that could justifiably win.  Patricia Arquette has been winning a lot of awards for "Boyhood," but I don't think that she gave the best performance in this category (or in the film, for that matter).

More deserving are Keira Knightly and Laura Dern.  Keira Knightly is one of the best actresses working right now, deserving to be listed among the likes of last year's lead actress winner Cate Blanchett or fellow nominee Meryl Streep (who shouldn't have been nominated...I love Streep, but the movie and the role were bland).  She was wonderful as the one person who understood Alan Turing.

Laura Dern is a character actress best known for playing Dr. Ellie Sattler in the dino hit "Jurassic Park," although she also starred in David Lynch's controversial (but overrated) "Blue Velvet."  As Bobbi, Cheryl Strayed's late mother, Dern radiated warmth and love.  She led a hard life, but Bobbi wouldn't change a minute of it because it's what got her to where she was.  And I believed it.  Apologies to Reese Witherspoon, who was marvelous in her own right, Dern is who made the movie special.

Who should win: Laura Dern, "Wild"
Who will win: Patricia Arquette, "Boyhood"

Best Director
Richard Linklater, "Boyhood"
Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, "Birdman"
Bennett Miller, "Foxcatcher"
Wes Anderson, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Morten Tyldum, "The Imitation Game"

Everyone thought that indie film mainstay would finally nab a Best Director Oscar.  Linklater has been working against the Hollywood grain for the majority of his career (his only mainstream feature was the delightful Jack Black comedy, "School of Rock."  So when he turned out an instant classic with the brilliant and daring "Boyhood," he became a powerhouse.

Then came the DGA.

Usually (I think James Berardinelli put it at around 80%), if a director wins the Director's Guild Award, he wins the Oscar.  And that went to Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu for "Birdman."  Innaritu has been getting a lot of love for making it seem like the entire film was shot in one continuous take, but he's up against the guy who shot a film over 13 years.  Both were daring approaches to filmmaking, and they're neck and neck.  Still, I put statistics over my gut feeling, considering how predictable the Oscars are.

Just don't give it to Wes Anderson.  For obvious reasons.

Who will win: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, "Birdman"
Who should win: Richard Linklater, "Boyhood"

Best Original Screenplay
"Boyhood"
"Birdman"
"Foxcatcher"
"The Grand Budapest Hotel"
"Nightcrawler"

Once again, the competitors are "Boyhood" and "Birdman."  They're the heavy hitters of the night, and they're neck and neck here.  My gut feeling is that "Boyhood" is going to win the top honors, so that means that the Oscar is going to go to Linklater.

The dark horse candidate is critical darling and indie film god Wes Anderson.  Once a total outsider, Anderson has been getting a lot of love over the years.  Still, I don't think he'll win: his style is too quirky and he's got nothing on "Boyhood" and "Birdman"

Who will win: "Boyhood"
Who should win: "Boyhood"

Best Adapted Screenplay
"American Sniper"
"Inherent Vice"
"The Imitation Game"
"The Theory of Everything"
"Whiplash"

After Best Actor and Best Director, this is the next biggest nod for "American Sniper."  The reception that Clint Eastwood's film got surprised just about everyone, and the Academy is going to remember that.  Screenwriting gets little love from anyone, so this one is hard to call, but that's my vote.

Who will win: "American Sniper"
Who should win: "American Sniper"

Best Animated Film
"The Boxtrolls"
"Big Hero 6"
"How to Train Your Dragon 2"
"Song of the Sea"
"The Tale of Princess Kaguya"

The Academy surprised everyone when they left "The Lego Movie," another of the year's sleeper hits, off the list for Best Animated Film.  My guess is that it was replaced by "Song of the Sea" and "The Tale of Princess Kaguya," so they could be shout-outs to everyone who thinks that the Academy has no respect for film as an art.  Still, the main contenders are "Big Hero 6" and "How to Train Your Dragon 2."  The former made a bit more money, but not much.  In this case, I think quality will win out.

Who will win: "Big Hero 6"
Who should win: "Big Hero 6"

Best Cinematography
Emmanuel Lubezki, "Birdman"
Robert D. Yeoman, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, "Ida"
Dick Pope, "Mr. Turner"
Roger Deakins, "Unbroken"

Three arthouse movies, one nominee who won last year, and the legendary Roger Deakins.  The arthouse guys have to be satisfied with their nominations, and Lubezki won last year for "Gravity."  Roger Deakins is considered a living legend (not to mention a favorite of the Coen Brothers, who are beloved by the Academy).  Sadly, he has 12 nominations, but no wins.  Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken" was positioned as an Oscar contender, but didn't wow the Academy or audiences.  Still, it's long past time that Deakins win a statue.

Who will win: Roger Deakins
Who should win: Roger Deakins

Best Original Score

Alexandre Desplat, "The Imitation Game"
Alexandre Desplat, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Hans Zimmer, "Interstellar"
Johann Johannsson, "The Theory of Everything"
Gary Yershon, "Mr. Turner"

The lack of love for Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" was surprising.  Easily one of the most ambitious and successful films of the year, it should have gotten nominations for Best Picture, Director and Actor.  Nolan is best remembered for his Batman trilogy, and it's a reputation that he's been trying to shake.  Still, "Interstellar" was critically and commercially acclaimed, so Zimmer may win a second statue (his work was exceptional, by the way).  But Alexandre Desplat has been nominated 8 times without winning, and is highly respected.

Who will win: Alexandre Desplat, "The Imitation Game"
Who should win: Alexandre Desplat, "The Imitation Game"

Well, those are the ones I'm doing.  The rest, visual effects, editing, etc., are impossible to predict, and I haven't seen any of the foreign films (the only movie anyone has mentioned in that category is "Ida," so that's obviously going to win).

Let's see how well I do in an hour.




Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Kingsmen: The Secret Service

2.5/4

Starring: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Sofia Boutella, Michael Caine

Rated R for Sequences of Strong Violence, Language and Some Sexual Content

Just because you assemble the same crew doesn't mean that lightning will strike twice.  Just look at "National Treasure" versus "National Treasure: Book of Secrets."  The cast, premise, writer, director and producer stayed the same, but the quality didn't.  The first film was a lot of fun, while the second felt like a wannabe.

Granted, "Kingsmen: The Secret Service" is a different genre than "Kick-Ass" (thus having different casts and stories) but they are both based on comic books by Mark Millar, are co-written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, and are directed by Vaughn.  Both have similar goals: to both embrace and parody their respective genres.  "Kick-Ass" was wicked, if warped, fun.  "Kingsmen" doesn't make the cut.

Harry Hart, codename Galahad (Firth) is a secret agent in what is called The Kingsmen.  They're basically the British counterpart to Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Team America (complete with a stiff upper lip).  Anyway, one of his fellow agents has just been killed in action, and he's auditioning replacements.  He's putting his money on a street tough named Eggsy (Egerton), whose father saved his life many years ago.  The question is, does heroism strike twice?  Meanwhile, a billionaire named Valentine (Jackson) is promoting himself as the best thing since sliced bread, but the Kingsmen think that he has something sinister in the works.

What went wrong with this movie?  Maybe it's that spy spoofs have been done so often that trying to find a new wrinkle is an exercise in futility.  Much of the film's story (which has plenty of holes) is a retread of other, but not necessarily better, films.  Vaughn seems to be trying to recapture the lovingly irreverent tone of "Kick-Ass," but for the most part, it doesn't work.  There are a few laughs, but the warped tone of the 2010 sleeper hit isn't very much in evidence.

The acting varies.  Newcomer Taron Egerton has a few stiff moments here and there, but for the most part he carries the film well.  He's not Robert Pattinson, and for that we can be thankful.  Eggsy is rude, crude and doesn't take any shit from anyone, no matter how powerful they may be.  Colin Firth seems perfect for the part of a stiff Brit spy.  After all, that's what he's famous for.  Firth had a wonderful opportunity to poke fun at himself, but he takes the role too seriously.  There's no joy or subversive humor in his performance, and that deals the film a real blow.  Samuel L. Jackson appears to be enjoying himself, but Vaughn doesn't let him go on one of his trademark profanity-laden shouting sprees, which would have been allowed by the teen-unfriendly R-rating.  "Kick-Ass" villain Mark Strong underplays his Q-like (he's actually called Merlock) role, which may not have been the best decision.  Sofia Boutella is adorable as another competitor.  And Michael Caine has a small role too.

I don't know if Vaughn is a comic book geek or not, but "Kick-Ass" could only have succeeded if it was a labor of love for its filmmakers.  A movie like that can't have a single atom of its being in the wrong place, or else it will fail completely,  I didn't get that lovey feeling from "Kingsmen."

It's not a bad movie by any means, in fact, some parts are enjoyable.  I especially liked Valentine's assistant, Gazelle (Boutella), whose feet have been replaced with swords, and Samuel L. Jackson utters the f-bomb in a great one-liner.  Ultimately, though, I would say that this movie is better left for Blu Ray/Netflix, particularly in this weather.  At least there you can have subtitles to understand some of the thick Cockney accents.

Showgirls

2/4

Starring: Elizabeth Berkley, Gina Gershon, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Ravera, Alan Rachins, Robert Davi

Rated NC-17 for Nudity and Erotic Sexuality Throughout, and for Some Graphic Language and Sexual Violence

Leave Your Inhibitions At The Door
That tagline (also occasionally followed by "The Show is About to Begin"), paired with a nude woman on a black background whose naughty bits are covered, represents the poster for "Showgirls," the first movie widely released with the NC-17 "adults only" rating.  Sadly, for lovers of movies not altered by demands from the MPAA (although I have to admit that an NC-17 is at least defensible due to a graphic rape scene), the film bombed (but it did great on video), letting the film remain burdened with the nickname "kiss of death."

The film is a mix of "All About Eve" (an overrated film if you ask me) and "42nd Street."  Spice it up with copious amounts of nudity and sleaze, you get "Showgirls."  It's not a bad place to start for a movie about Las Vegas strippers, but it's saddled with flat performances and a script that is unbelievably, irredeemably bad.

Nomi Malone (Berkley) is a small town girl with a bad past.  After being picked up (and then ditched) by a creep who gives her a ride, she meets Molly (Ravera), with whom she becomes fast friends.  She gets a job at the Cheetah Lounge as a stripper, but through Molly she meets Cristal Conners (Gershon), the star dancer at the Stardust.  The bisexual Cristal is smitten, and gets her a role as a dancer.  But Nomi is ambitious, and eventually she comes head to head with Cristal.

"Uneven" is a better word to describe "Showgirls" than bad.  There are scenes don't work, but there are some that do.  The tete-a-tete between Nomi and Cristal is occasionally interesting, mainly due to the scenery chewing Gershon does.  It would be more interesting if her co-star could match her, but Berkley is uneven.  She's fine as a starry-eyed kid looking to hit the big time, but when she bares her teeth (Nomi has a temper problem), she goes over the top.  Ironically, she doesn't win in the "over-the-top" category.  That distinction goes to Kyle MacLachlan, who is never credible.  The only good performances are given by Gina Ravera, who is surprisingly sweet, and Lin Tucci, who plays Nomi's appropriately-named friend from the Cheetah Lounge.

I like Paul Verhoeven's work.  He knows what he's doing, and has created some fun films.  "Basic Instinct" is a fun ride the first time you see it (unlike "Seven" or "From Hell," it's not really worth revisiting once you know who the killer is), and "Starship Troopers" is hugely entertaining (if you can make Casper van Dien look perfectly cast, you've got it made).  His last (thus far) film is "Black Book," which is just short of a masterpiece.  But he's working with a sub-par script and I don't think he knows what to do with it.  There are times when it seems like he's trying to make an intentionally campy movie, but other times the film wants to be taken seriously.

For all the sex and nudity, the film lacks any true eroticism.  It's all too over-the-top (as the late great Roger Ebert put it, "If all lap dancers get as carried away as Nomi does, I'll bet they're constantly seeing a chiropractor about their backs.").  "Showgirls" is all about the instant gratification.  Sure it looks nice (the shows themselves are impressive), but if you want something that is truly sexy, you have to build the heat.  One might claim that my sexual orientation indicates bias, but remember that I fully believe that the portrait-drawing scene in "Titanic" is the sexiest scene in any movie I've seen.

"Showgirls" isn't as bad as its reputation suggests.  Nor is it a camp classic.  It's just a mediocre movie that doesn't deserve any of the attention it gets.  If you're looking for great nudity and great cinema, better go with "Mrs. Henderson Presents."

Friday, February 13, 2015

Joe

3/4

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, A.J. Wilson McPhaul

Rated R for Violence, Disturbing Material, Language and Some Strong Sexual Content

Nicolas Cage has been a popular whipping boy for a while now, and I'm not sure why.  To hate him has become the "in" thing to do.  Whenever I ask someone why they hate him, I can't get a good answer.  It's all "Nicolas Cage sucks" or something.

I'm not sure where all the hate is coming from.  Sure, he appears to never turn down a role these days, but he had most of his money invested in the housing market prior to the bust in 2008.  But I have yet to see him in a bad performance, and some of his work ("The Rock," "Leaving Las Vegas" "Face/Off") has been superb.  Granted those were in the mid-90's, but "Joe" was released 2 years ago, and you know what?  He's still got it.

Joe (Cage) is an ex-con who runs a rather shady business.  Lumber companies can't cut down living trees, so they pay Joe and his crew to hack at them with poisoned axes so they can be chopped down.  One day, a young kid named Gary (Sheridan) walks up looking for work.  Joe gives him a job, and the bond forms between the two is the film's core drama.

"Joe" is not for everyone.  The plot meanders with an almost improvisational nature, and not much happens in it.  But the performances from Cage, Sheridan, and the rest of the cast are strong enough to keep us interested in them.  The tone that director David Gordon Green chooses to tell the story is understated; not on mute, but there's no mistaking it for something that would be shown in a multiplex.

Cage gives one of his best performances as Joe, burying himself deeply into his character's skin.  Joe is a drunk himself, and has been dealt some hard knocks by life.  Some are not his fault, but by his own admission, Joe has a temper and can turn violent.  Young Tye Sheridan, an actor who is quickly building a name for himself on the indie film circuit (he played the central character's brother in "The Tree of Life" and also starred opposite Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon in "Mud"), is surprisingly capable of holding his own against Cage.  There are times when he can't quite reach the right note, but that's as much the script's fault.  Also worth mentioning is Gary Poulter.  Poulter was a non-actor discovered by Green on location (Green does this for many of his films), and he gives a great performance; the only fault is lies with the script, which doesn't give the character the depth to bridge the gap between a harmless drunk and a vicious monster.  Perhaps this is because the role mirrored Poulter's life so closely.  In real life, Poulter was a homeless alcoholic, and the producers feared that this would cause problems for filming.  Sadly, Poulter was found dead shortly after filming ended.

The film needed a better editor.  Some of what happens occurs off-screen or is scripted so obliquely that it's unclear what's going on.  "Joe" is less of a plot-oriented film than one that simply watches its characters and follows them around.  For those looking for a point of reference, I kept thinking of "Redemption" with Jason Statham.

"Joe" remains a compelling film until the end.  In short, the climax falls flat on its face.  Not only is it a cliche that belongs in a different movie, I didn't believe a second of it.  It relies on a character doing something incredibly stupid for no reason.  Once it starts, nearly every moment is completely predictable.

Nevertheless, for those who enjoy quiet, character-based films like this, "Joe" is worth seeing.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

2/4

Starring: Jessica Biel, R. Lee Ermey, Eric Balfour, Jonathan Tucker, Erica Leerhsen, Mike Vogel, David Dorfman

Rated R for Strong Horror Violence/Gore, Language and Drug Content

The good news about "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake is that it's better than the original.  The bad news is that, considering how horrid the original was (I nearly fell asleep watching it), that's not saying much.

The original film was not a good movie, and for reasons I cannot understand, is considered to be a horror classic (it spawned three sequels, a remake and a sequel of the remake, and a reboot with prequel to follow...god, will this remake obsession ever end?).  Enter Michael Bay, who has long since prostituted his considerable talents for pure greed, who produced this remake.  For its director, he chose Marcus Nispel, another music video director (albeit one with little talent, as he went on to direct the "Pathfinder" remake, the "Friday the 13th" remake, and the "Conan the Barbarian" remake).  It's his best film, but once again, one must consider the quality, or lack thereof, of his filmography in order to realize that that's so close to a backhanded compliment that one could rightfully think it would be an insult.

Five young people are going to a concert in Texas.  Erin (Biel) is hoping for a wedding proposal from her boyfriend, Kemper (Balfour).  Morgan (Tucker) is getting as stoned as possible.  And Andy (Vogel) is getting hot and freaky with Pepper (Leehrsen), a hitchhiker they picked up.  That's when they find another hitchhiker (Lauren German) wandering along the road.  After a few minutes of rambling, she blows her brains out.  Trying to get a hold of the cops, the group finds themselves facing a far more dangerous crisis: a chainsaw-wielding madman (Andrew Bryniarski).

As far as horror films go, it does a few things right.  There is a fairly consistent amount of tension, particularly in the second half, and even though Michael Bay is the king of PG-13, the movie doesn't skimp out on the gore (in fact, it overdoes it to the point where "vomitorium" is an apt descriptor).  It also does some things wrong, like a flat script, awkward editing and bad acting.

Acting is rarely a hallmark of the horror genre, and this film is no different.  Even established (Biel, Ermey, Tucker) and underrated actors (Vogel, Dorfman, Kathy Lamkin) are flat.  None of the unknowns should expect to get a call from Martin Scorcese anytime soon either based off their work here.  The heroes are here to look hot and fill body bags while everyone else is on hand to look ugly and scary.

This isn't a good movie, but at least it's watchable.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Seventh Son

1.5/4

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes, Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams

Rated PG-13 for Intense Fantasy Violence and Action Throughout, Frightening Images and Brief Strong Language

There are two reasons a person who is not a film critic would be caught in a screening of "Seventh Son:" they're a cinephile mistakenly thinking they're going to a screening of Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" (the one where Max von Sydow plays chess with Death) or they're a teenage boy desperate for more fantasy action (who has watched "The Lord of the Rings" to death).  Neither is going to get their fix with "Seventh Son:" the cinephile will have a heart attack over seeing what film has become, and the teenager will be bored out of his mind.

If anyone is wondering why no one goes to the movies anymore, one need not look any further than "Seventh Son," yet another would-be fantasy franchise.  It's so chock full of action sequences and special effects that they become the movie; the plot is a mere pitch-line and the actors have virtually nothing to do.  Apparently, it's based on a book, but considering how little story there is in this
movie, I'm betting that Joseph Delaney is not pleased with what Hollywood has done to his book.

Master Gregory (Bridges) has just lost another protege.  He's looking for the "seventh son of a seventh son," who is the only one he can train.  I guess...why this is the case is left unexplained (or maybe I couldn't hear it between Bridges bizarre accent and his trippin' goatee).  Anyway, he's found it with a young lad named Tom Ward (Barnes), who becomes his new student.  But what would normally take years is something he'll have to learn in a week (and on the go).  That's because a witch named Mother Malkin (Moore), who is not out of a nursery rhyme, has special plans for the Blood Moon, which happens once a century.  And that next occurrence is in a week.

How could this have misfired so badly?  You've got some supremely talented actors here: Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes, Julianne Moore, Olivia Williams, and Djimon Hounsou.  The screenwriters are Charles Leavitt ("Blood Diamond") and Steven Knight ("Redemption," "Locke," "Closed Circuit").  And the director is Sergei Bodrov (I haven't seen any of his films, but his "Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan" made some waves in the art house circuit).  Strangely, it ended up having to be delayed by a whole year for "production delays" and the split of Legendary Pictures from Warner Bros.  Considering the final result, I'm guessing that there's more to the story.

I really wish Hollywood would stop trying to dilute filmmaking to a science so they can appeal to a worldwide audience.  It doesn't work.  Hollywood has been doing this for years, and it's gotten worse.  Audiences around the world have responded in kind.  Hollywood had a terrible year last year, and movies like this are why.  Special effects alone don't impress anyone anymore.  You have to have a story and characters worth caring about.  Wonder why movies like "Titanic," "Avatar." and "The Lord of the Rings" (a better comparison to this film than the James Cameron pictures) make billions while movies like this and "47 Ronin" bombed?  No one cared about anyone or anything in those movies.  Compare that to "The Dark Knight," which had people talking about this philosophical aspects of it, not to mention hanging on the edge of their seats.

Aside from the special effects, which are nicely staged (Bodrov doesn't shake the camera or frantically cut the film...for once), and the anemic plot, the film still doesn't impress.  The performances are bland, although that's mostly due to the script.  Everyone is hopelessly lost because they don't have a character to play.  Jeff Bridges is in particular is awful.  He talks like he has no tongue, which makes half of what he says unintelligible.  Ben Barnes sports a flawless American accent and good looks, but brings none of his charisma or talent to the film.  Julianne Moore, this year's frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar (it's about time), chews the scenery, but she's miscast.  Alicia Vikander is pretty, but fades into the background.  The best that I can say about her is that she doesn't embarrass herself.  Olivia Williams and Djimon Hounsou have almost nothing to do, and considering how underrated they are, I hope they were at least well paid.

Maybe if they keep churning out crap like this (and seeing appropriately less than stellar returns), Hollywood will get the message and stop making crap like this.  Probably not, but hey, a guy can dream, right?

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Black or White

3/4

Starring: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Bill Burr, Mpho Koaho, Anthony Mackie, Andre Holland

Rated PG-13 for Brief Strong Language, Thematic Material involving Drug Use and Drinking, and for a Fight

The biggest strength of "Black or White," the new film from Mike Binder, is that it doesn't take sides.  The story centers on a custody battle over a mixed-race child, but Binder presents it with sympathy from both sides.  No one is truly good or bad, and neither resorts to dirty tricks or dick moves to win.  In fact, they're less aggressive than their legal teams.

Elliot Anderson (Costner) is raising his granddaughter Eloise (Estell) with his wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle).  His daughter died during childbirth and Eloise's father is a drug-addict who is out of the picture.  But Carol is killed in a car accident, and Eloise's other grandmother, Rowena Jeffers (Spencer) thinks that the girl would be better off living with her.  Elliot disagrees, and because neither is willing to share custody, both end up in court to see who gets custody of Eloise.

This is a complicated story, and Binder never pretends that it isn't.  While Binder has softened some of the material to make it less grim than it might otherwise be, that doesn't come at the expense of its intelligence or even-handed nature.  We see the case from both sides of the fence.  Both Elliot and Rowena have their faults (he's an alcoholic while she is very stubborn, and both of them have tempers that cause them to say things they shouldn't), they are essentially good people.  Through everything, they remain on good terms, and that is what sets this apart from most other dramas of this kind.

After his career as Hollywood's leading man imploded after the disaster that was "Waterworld," Costner has become a character actor.  He's still more than capable of headlining a film, but he's acting his age.  He's also been able to stretch his acting muscles and become a better performer.  This isn't his best performance, but he's nonetheless effective.  Likewise, Octavia Spencer gets a rare chance to headline a film, something that she is also capable of.  Known primarily for her feisty characters and comic timing, Spencer shows real aptitude for drama.  The two work well together, and their relationship is believable.  Also worth mentioning is Jillian Estell, who makes a sparkling theatrical debut (in fact, it can be argued that she gives the best performance in the film).

Not only is the film even-handed, it's perceptive too.  While sometimes the film gets a little melodramatic, it is rescued by what is going in the film and how the characters deal with it.  Everything that happens is more or less believable, and that makes the film consistently engaging.  I don't know whether Binder has been in this situation or not, but it rings true.

I would have like to have seen more of Rowena's character.  Rowena is not a bad person, but the film is presented from Elliot's point of view (not surprising, considering Costner paid for the whole thing himself...not to mention his notorious ego).  It's a solid movie as it is, but presenting it from a neutral position would have given the film more power.

This isn't a movie that's going to bring in a lot of money at the box office.  The subject matter may turn off some people because it sounds too grim (which it isn't...there's plenty of low-key humor in the film) or too personal, but it deserves to be seen.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Blood Ties

1.5/4

Starring: Billy Crudup, Clive Owen, Zoe Saldana, Marion Cotillard, Mila Kunis, Matthias Schoenaerts, Noah Emmerich, Domenick Lombardozzi, James Caan

Rated R for Violence, Pervasive Language, Some Sexual Content and Brief Drug Use

If there was any movie that was tailor-made to be directed by Martin Scorcese, this is it.  "Blood Ties," with its themes of family. twisted loyalties, crime and violence (not to mention guilt), demanded the Scorcese touch.  Alas, we have French actor/director Guillaume Canet, who is completely in over his head.

The film takes place in the 1970's.  Chris (Owen) has just gotten out of prison.  His brother Frank (Crudup), ironically, is a cop.  Their father Leon (Caan) is dying of cancer and their sister Marie cares for him.

The brothers' love lives are also important.  Chris's ex, Monica (Cotillard) is a drug addict and a prostitute, and he finds a connection with the secretary at his new job, a lovely girl named Natalie (Kunis).  Frank has past history with Vanessa (Saldana), the wife of Scarfo (Schoenaerts), a violent low life.  However, to him, the fact that he was sleeping with the wife of the man he put away is less important than the fact that she's black.

Good so far.  To be honest, this story, a remake of a French film (starring Canet himself) that was based on a novel, had a lot of potential.  But as directed by Canet, it's almost entirely unrealized.  The characters are boring, the acting is stiff, and the dialogue is clunky.

For a cast this great, it's surprising that there's only one truly memorable performance to be found, and that's because Clive Owen is like Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino: completely incapable of giving a bad performance.  Owen is effective, but can't save such a thinly written (not to mention cliched) character.  Billy Crudup is miscast.  His range is limited, and while he is a decent character actor (like in "Big Fish" or "Almost Famous"), he lacks the presence or gravitas to handle the lead in a crime epic.  The supporting characters aren't much better, although this is partly due to the fact that they have so little screen time.  The exception is Mila Kunis.  Like Billy Crudup, her range is limited to comedy ("Ted") and playing psychos ("Black Swan").  Drama is not her forte, and this shows why.  Thankfully, she doesn't have a lot of screen time (lest I seem to hard on her, I like Kunis as a comedienne and I thought she was terrific in "Black Swan").

The script is paper thin.  There's very little in the way of character depth, emotional complexity, or even interesting dialogue.  For a movie that is, at least on paper, about family loyalty in the "cops and robbers" genre, Canet does surprisingly little with it.  He is more concerned with giving everyone screen time that he forgets what the film is actually about.  The film is poorly focused and in badly need of editing.  The script could also have done with some rewrites.  Heavy ones.

Few types of movies are more disheartening than movies that don't reach their potential.  "The Giver," "Shanghai," "Pieces of April," "Firelight..." the list goes on.  Add "Blood Ties" to that unfortunate list.