Monday, March 30, 2015

Onibaba

1.5/4

Starring: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Oshimura, Kei Sato, Taiji Tonoyama

Not Rated (Probable R for Some Violence and Language and Sexuality/Nudity, although I'd give it a PG-13)

When it comes to classics, it's really a shot in the dark if you're not a critic.  Some are timeless and have aged well.  "Casablanca" is one such film.  Some were probably good for their time, but with improved technology, they seem dated.  "The Wages of Fear" belongs in this category.  Others were shit to begin with.  "Shane" is one of those.  While not nearly as dreadful as George Stevens's wretched western, "Onibaba" is still a waste of time.

The film takes place in an unspecified time, but it's probably during feudal Japan.  There is a war going on, which makes starvation one of many real worries for those not fighting.  Two women are struggling to survive without Kichi, the man they share in common.  They are Kichi's mother (Otowa) and Kichi's wife (Oshimura).  To make ends meet, they kill wayward samurai and sell their armor to Ushi (Tonoyama) in exchange for food or other provisions they need.  One day, a neighbor and friend of Kichi's, a man named Hachi (Sato), returns home.  He tells them that Kichi was killed in action, and asks to stay with them.  Kichi's mother doesn't like him and sends him to his own home.  Kichi's wife, on the other hand, finds him attractive (despite the fact that he all but sexually harasses her).  When she begins an affair with Hachi, her mother in law takes it personally.

There's nothing wrong with the premise.  It's a solid, if not terribly original, idea for a story.  Unfortunately, the film moves at a crawl, and writer/director Kaneto Shindo knows nothing of term "atmosphere."  There are a few pretty images, but most movies can boast at least that much.  There are a number of editing gaffes, including one murder that is edited so badly that it could provoke laughter.  It comes early on, so the majority of viewers won't be asleep yet.

It certainly doesn't help matters that none of the three lead actors are especially interesting.  Nobuko Otowa plays the film's central character, although Kichi's mother isn't terribly compelling.  She's alternately suspicious, possessive and jealous, but doesn't display much in the way of ability or charisma.  Jitsuko Oshimura is little more than a plot device, and spends half her screen time running from one house to the other.  The best, a term I use loosely, performance is given by Kei Sato, which is impressive since his character is a drunken lout who occasionally screams and writhes on the ground for no apparent reason.

iMDb has listed "Onibaba" as a horror movie, but that's a misnomer; a better comparison would be the arthouse film "Far North" with Sean Bean and Michelle Yeoh (it's a better movie, although considering how bad Asif Kapadia's film was, that's not really a compliment).  It's not especially scary, and up until the final 20 minutes, it's not intended to be.  There's a hole in the ground that is set up early on as the "Doorway to Hell" (and yes, the film does get philosophical, and not to the film's benefit since its ideas are obvious and simply take up time), but it has a decidedly non-supernatural explanation to it.

Trust me.  Regardless of whether or not you're looking for a horror movie, skip this one.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Whole Nine Yards

3.5/4

Starring: Matthew Perry, Bruce Willis, Amanda Peet, Natasha Henstridge, Michael Clarke Duncan, Kevin Pollack, Rosanna Arquette

Rated R for Some Sexuality, Nudity and Violence

"The Whole Nine Yards" is a great Friday night movie.  It's well-acted, unpredictable, clever, and above all, very funny.  A mix of film noir and screwball comedy, this underrated gem is distressingly overlooked, and that's a shame since these days screenwriting for comedy ends at the pitch stage (thank you, Seth Rogen).

Dr. Nicholas Oseransky, or "Oz," as he is known, is not having his share of the American dream (or Canadian, since he lives in Canada).  He married Sophie (Arquette), the daughter of his late business partner, only to have her end up being a total bitch.  And since her father stuck them with a load of bad debt, she won't divorce him until it's paid off.  His fortune changes when his new neighbor, Jimmy Jones, moves in.  When the ever-polite Oz goes over to welcome him to the neighborhood, it only takes him a few moments that Jimmy is in fact Jimmy "The Tulip" Tudeski (Willis), a contract killer for the infamous Gogolak gang.

Since this is in large part film noir, I'm not going to go further to avoid spoiling any of the surprises, of which there are a few.  Director Jonathan Lynn delights in taking the turns of the plot and tweaking them for laughs.  Much of what happens, we don't expect, and Lynn uses that for big laughs.  When you're kept in suspense only to have the answer be a joke, that laugh is going to be harder than it would otherwise be.

The film is perfectly cast, and one of the great things about the screenplay is that it gives every actor a moment to shine.  Matthew Perry is the ideal Oz; a doormat who is thrust into a dangerous situation he wants no part in.  Perry is in top panic attack form, demonstrating great comic timing and an aptitude for physical comedy.  Some of the film's biggest laughs are his reactions to how nonchalant everyone around him is when the subject is killing people.  For the most part, Bruce Willis's acting roles don't require him to do more than have screen presence, but this is one of his best performances (he certainly seems to be enjoying himself).  He can alternate between being the friendly neighbor and a menacing killer in a flash, and that lends the character an element of unpredictability.  And when you're dealing with a notorious hit man that has killed 17 people and refused Witness Protection, that's a big if.  Natasha Henstridge isn't as impressive, but she's adequate.  Michael Clarke Duncan, Kevin Pollack and Rosanna Arquette turn in terrific performances.

As good as the cast is (and they're excellent), and as clever and fun as the story is (and it's both), the film is entirely stolen by Amanda Peet.  Peet plays Jill St. Claire, Oz's ditzy dental assistant.  Although the role wasn't written for her (she was an unknown at the time), she is the only possible choice.  With her great big smile and teasing eyes, you know that every time she appears on screen she's going to do something funny.  And she does.  There is plenty to like about this movie, but the film's undisputed highlights are whenever she's on screen.

Probably the best way to describe "The Whole Nine Yards" is The Coen Brothers lite.  It's got the same warped sense of humor and mixes comedy and suspense in a similar way (think "Fargo"), but it's much more accessible.  Unfortunately, Lynn lacks their talent and cinematographer David Franco is definitely no Roger Deakins.  That being said, this is one hell of a great comedy.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Cinderella (2015)

2.5/4

Starring: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Nonzo Alonzie, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Stellan Skarsgard, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell

Rated PG for Mild Thematic Elements

Given Hollywood's obsession with "brand names," not to mention the timeless quality of the tale, I suppose a big budget, live action version of the tale of Cinderella was inevitable (the fact that Disney has already made a classic animated version of it probably made it all the sweeter for studio executives).  My memory of the animated version is fuzzy at best, but despite owning the tape, I remember hating the idea of it because it was a "girly" movie.  Boys will be boys, I guess.

This new version isn't half bad, but considering what it has going for it, it is disappointing.  Cate Blanchett is one of the leads, Stellan Skarsgard and Derek Jacobi play supporting roles, and it's directed by Kenneth Branagh.  It should have been great, but alas, the first half drags interminably and the lead can't act.

Ella (Eloise Webb as a child) is a happy 10 year old living with her mother (Atwell) and father (Chaplin).  Sadly, her idyllic childhood is not to last.  Her mother grows ill, and before she dies, she tells Ella to "Have courage and be kind."  It's a mantra that she takes to heart when her father remarries the Lady Tremaine (Blanchett).  When her father dies while away on business, Ella's new stepmother and stepsisters Drisella (McShera) and Anastasia (Grainger) waste no time in transforming Ella from the lady of the house to servant girl.  One day while out riding her horse, she meets a handsome apprentice named Kit (Madden).  They are instantly attracted to her, although he's not who he says he is.  He is in fact a prince, and when his ailing father (Jacobi) insists that he marry, he invites every girl in the kingdom to a ball to find her again.  Lady Tremaine won't allow this, so she and her daughters destroy the dress that Ella made.  Of course, that's when her fairy godmother (Carter) enters the picture to save the day.

By far, the film's first half is the weakest portion of the film.  The pacing is sluggish and lead actress Lily James (of "Downton Abbey" fame) gives a flat interpretation of the title character.  To be fair, that's partly due to the script, which is generic and lacking in depth, but James doesn't show much ability.  Once Helena Bonham Carter (who is delightful) enters the picture, the film picks up (the scene where Ella transforms from wearing a wrecked dress to gorgeous gown is impressive).  That's bad news for James' career, because if Kenneth Branagh can't get a good performance out of you, you've got problems.

Her co-star, Cate Blanchett, is in fine form.  It's not her best performance, but she brings depth and feeling to a fairly thin character.  As much of a bitch as Lady Tremaine can be, and she can be pretty cruel, Blanchett makes sure that we understand her.  It's Blanchett's touch, and it's something that the film desperately needs.

Of the supporting cast, no one really bears a mention.  Richard Madden (Robb Stark on "Game of Thrones") is hunky, but doesn't do much in the way of acting.  Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger are too fatuous and irritating to be effective comic relief.  Stellen Skarsgard and frequent Branagh collaborator Derek Jacobi are wasted.  Neither has much to do.

Kenneth Branagh has always possessed a great visual sense, and that is occasionally on display here.  It's got nothing approaching his version of "Hamlet," but the transformation scene and the ball are gorgeous to look at.

Is it worth seeing?  It's a tough call.  There are some elements worthy of praise (Colleen Atwood is a shoo-in for her costume design at next year's Oscars) and it's hard not to get caught up in it at least some what.  But the script is bland and Lily James makes for a flat heroine; Branagh has her do a big scene against Blanchett, which while important to the story, highlights the limitations of her abilities as an actress.  The target audience (pre-teen girls) will probably enjoy it, but everyone else would do better to wait for DVD.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

My Name is Joe

3/4

Starring: Peter Mullan, Louise Goodall, David McKay, Anne-Marie Kennedy, David Hayman, Gary Lewis

Rated R for Pervasive Language and Some Violence, Sexuality and Drug Use

Ken Loach frequently makes movies about the British working class.  Surprisingly, or perhaps not, it's not all that different from the American working class: blue collar jobs, scarce money, and cigarettes being common.  Loach keeps the characters at an arm's distance, but the performances are strong enough that it makes for worthwhile viewing.

Joe Kavanagh (Mullan) is a recovering alcoholic and approaching his one-year sobriety.  He paints houses, and with his friend and co-worker Shanks (Lewis), coaches a soccer team.  One of his players, Liam (McKay), is an ex-con and former drug addict with a wife Sabine (Kennedy), who is also an ex-addict, and a three-year-old son.  They're being watched over by a social worker named Sarah Downie (Goodall).  Joe becomes smitten, and embarks on a romance with her.  But Liam owes money to a local drug lord named McGowan (Hayman).  Joe wants to help him, but that could ruin everything.

This is not a happy story.  But it lacks real power because, for whatever reason, director Ken Loach makes it difficult to form a bond with the characters.  Whether due to obvious budget constraints or bland cinematography, it's difficult to become actively involved with any of the characters.

It's a shame, really, because there are some terrific performances to be found here.  Scottish character actor Peter Mullan (he was the veteran who advocated running away from battle in "Braveheart," and the drunken father in "War Horse") dominates the film by giving a fantastic performance.  Joe is impossible not to like; he's affable, friendly, and truly loves both Sarah and Liam.  He's present in almost every scene, so the film essentially lives or dies on his shoulders, so it is fortunate that he delivers.  Easily equaling him is Louise Goodall, who plays Sarah.  She's a hard-working single woman who deserves love, and finds kinship with this likable, almost happy-go-lucky man.  But she soon finds out that he has his demons.  Veteran creep David Hayman turns up as a drug lord as well.

Do I think this movie is worth seeing?  Yes.  The performances are strong enough to overcome the deficiencies of Loach's approach.  Be warned, however.  The Scottish accents are so thick that the distributor put in English subtitles, despite the fact that the characters are, in fact, speaking English.  Indistinguishable dialogue, be it from accents, loud action or soundtracks, is one of my pet peeves, but believe me, you'll be thankful.

The Brave Little Toaster

3/4

Starring (voices): Deanna Oliver, Jon Lovitz, Timothy E. Day, Timothy Stack, Thurl Ravenscroft, Phil Hartman

Rated G

I remember being entertained, if not enchanted, by this little movie when I was a kid.  All these years later, I find that it's not nearly as good (for my money, if you're looking for a good family movie, "Rise of the Guardians" or anything by Hayao Miyazaki would be a much better investment of your time).  Still, I think there are enough moments here to delight kids and to make sure that their parents aren't incredibly bored.

Five appliances, the Toaster (Oliver), Lampy the lamp (Stack), Blanky the electric blanket (Day), and Kirby the vacuum cleaner, are awaiting the return of a little boy that used to play with them.  But when a mean air conditioner (Hartman) tells them that the boy moved away, they decide to set out to find him.

Admittedly, a road movie about five household appliances doesn't sound like an appealing concept, even for a kids movie.  It would be like "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey" meets IKEA.  But actually, the movie isn't half bad.  It's no masterpiece ("Toy Story" took a similar idea and presented it with more humor and emotional honesty), but it's not as bad as it could be.  The "Toy Story" connection is perhaps not coincidental: John Lasseter, one of the creators of Pixar, was the original director, but Disney fired him, so he went off to create Pixar Animation Studios.

The voice acting is adequate, but few have much charisma or presence (the script has to be partly to blame, though).  The majority hail from the Groundlings improv group, but their lines are bland and few of the jokes have teeth (note: it is entirely possible for a film to have a successful sense of humor and still be entirely family appropriate...just look at "The Princess Bride").

"The Brave Little Toaster" is not a particularly good movie.  But it has its charm (pure 80's charm, but whatever), and contains moments of humor, drama, pathos, adventure, and some scares.

So yes, that's why I'm giving it a 3/4.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Mrs. Brown

2/4

Starring: Judi Dench, Billy Connelly, Geoffrey Palmer, Antony Sher, Gerard Butler

Rated PG for A Beating, Language and Brief Nudity

"Mrs. Brown" is a buddy movie for the Merchant/Ivory crowd.  As much as I liked "The Remains of the Day," I don't mean that as a compliment.  When people call art house movies stuffy and dull, they're thinking of movies like "Mrs. Brown."  This movie is so badly written and awkwardly
constructed that had it not been for the valiant, if futile, efforts of it's leads, it would have been
legitimately unwatchable.  As it is, it's a well-acted mess.

The husband of Queen Victoria (Dench) has died.  Their marriage was one of the happiest in the history of the monarchy, and she is so depressed that she has taken herself into seclusion into the Scottish Highlands.  John Brown (Connelly), who was with her husband during his final days, is brought in to bring her out of her depression.  Although they don't see eye to eye at first, a deep bond grows between them.  But the fragile Queen Victoria is neglecting her duties, which is causing turmoil in Parliament.  Her relationship with Brown is also subject to scandal...

Key to any movie like this is growth.  The director has to show a growing connection between the characters, and the actors have to sell it.  Neither happens in "Mrs. Brown."  The problem is two-fold: director John Madden (not the sportscaster...the guy who would go on to direct the grossly overrated "Shakespeare in Love") tells us what happens, but not how.  Meaning, there are no scenes of any growth between them.  One minute they're polar opposites, then there's a title card for some time later, and they're inseparable.  That's how not to do this sort of thing.  I think that Madden is relying on the ability and chemistry of Dench and Connelly, both of which they have, but he keeps them so tightened up and the cinematography (which includes some beautiful shots of the Highlands) is so cold that it's impossible to feel anything for them.

The less said about the subplot about Benjamin Disraeli (Sher) and others trying to get Mrs. Brown, as she's called at times, to return to London, the better.  To call it a mess would be far too charitable.  It's a disaster.  Little of it makes any sense, and even less is developed.  I didn't know what to make of Disraeli's character, and everyone's sudden hostility towards John Brown comes across as being a plot device.  Clearly, the script was in need of heavy re-writes.

At least the acting by the two leads is great.  Judi Dench is very good as Mrs. Brown.  It's not her best performance (that would go to her playing the title character in "Mrs. Henderson Presents"), but it's the one that got her noticed despite the fact that she was in her 60s at the time (according to her, she told Harvey Weinstein, who saved it from a made-for-TV fate, that she got a tattoo of his name on her rear end.  It wasn't true, but she had someone in the make up department whip up something, which she said he has never forgotten).  Billy Connelly, famous for his stand-up comedy, is also in fine form, but his role, like the rest of the script, is underwritten.  He does what he can, and that's surprisingly a lot (it's clear that he can handle more dramatic roles).

This is a rare miss for Miramax, but because it launched Judi Dench into Hollywood superstardom, I'll have to forgive it a little bit.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Chappie

3.5/4

Starring: Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver, and the voice of Sharlto Copley

Rated R for Violence, Language and Brief Nudity

I just love it when movies defy my expectations.  Whether through quality ("Redemption") or content ("Faster"), I love the feeling of being immersed in a film that takes me into unexpected directions.

At first glance, "Chappie," the new film by South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, looks to be a ripoff of "Robocop" (the original or the remake, take your pick).  In fact, while it takes elements of both (there's even a machine that looks like a camo version of ED-209 from Verhoeven's original, and it plays a big role in the film), a closer cousin would be "E.T."  A more violent version, but the story similarities are hard to miss.

Johannesburg is in chaos.  Criminals run rampant on par with those in "The Crow," and the police are unable to deal with the problem.  Enter Tetravaal, a company that builds robots to take the load off police.  The CEO, Michelle Bradley (Weaver), has selected the Scouts, designed by Deon Wilson (Patel), to be the first one out of the gate, and they are a massive success.  Another worker, Vincent Moore (Jackman), has designed something called the Moose (the ED-209 looking thing), but everyone says it's too over-powered to be useful, much to his frustration.

Deon, however, has found a way to create sentient A.I.: artificial intelligence that can think for itself.  He wants to test it on a Scout that is headed for the scrap heap, but Bradley gives him the no-go, citing the red tape.  Undaunted, he takes the soon-to-be destroyed machine for himself to test out his program, but that's when three thieves kidnap him in the hopes that he can turn off the Scouts so they can commit a heist.

What I like about this movie is that it gives everyone their own motives, and it's economically done.  We learn what drives Deon, Ninja, Yo-Landi, Vincent and Chappie the robot (Copley).  I also liked how the characters have hidden depths; some aren't as bad as they seem while others are worse.

The performances are also top-notch.  Dev Patel, who hasn't done much since "Slumdog Millionaire" apart from the much-despised live action version of "The Last Airbender" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," is very good as Deon.  He's a father-like figure to Chappie, and this relationship is nicely developed.  Yo-Landi Visser is also good as Yo-Landi, the only one of the thieves who views Chappie as something more than a criminal associate.  Sharlto Copley, performing the part via motion capture, lends innocence and earnestness to the character.  He's impossible not to sympathize with.  Chappie can make you laugh, cheer, or cry.

The real surprise is Hugh Jackman.  Easily one of the most handsome and likable actors working today (both in the characters he plays, and according to reports, in real life), Jackman is oh-so-easy to hate in "Chappie."  It'll be a long time before I'll be able to accept him as a nice guy in a movie.

What I like about Neill Blomkamp is that he doesn't underestimate the audience's intelligence.  He successfully combines visceral action and adrenaline with thought.  His breakout hit, "District 9," was a parable about Apartheid while "Elysium" was a sci-fi metaphor for the growing distance between the rich and the poor.  "Chappie" isn't really a parable, but it deals with what it means to have consciousness and to be human.  These aren't revolutionary, or even new, concepts, but Blomkamp gives them a very fresh coat of paint.

The film's story isn't free of contrivance, character development is on the thin side, and the ending is simultaneously padded while not giving at least one of the characters satisfying closure, but ultimately these are small quibbles.  It's the old adage, "third time's the charm" for Blomkamp, and considering the high quality of his previous films, that's impressive.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Paprika

1/4

Starring (voices): Cindy Robinson, Yuri Lowenthal, Brian Beacock, Doug Erholtz, Michael Forest, David Lodge, Paul St. Peter

Rated R for Violent and Sexual Images

I've noticed that when I dream, or at least when I remember them, they make total sense only in the moment.  After I wake up, I'm left wondering whether my subconscious was on some sort of illegal drug while I was asleep.  Satoshi Kon, the director of the terminally bland "Tokyo Godfathers" (there's a visual reference to his earlier film), has apparently tried to replicate this in a film.  While I applaud his attempt, there's no denying that "Paprika" is an utter failure.

This is a really bad movie.  It's so bad that for 95% of it, the storyline is so incoherent that if you set the film on shuffle, it wouldn't make any noticeable difference.  There are some nice visuals and some offbeat moments to be found here, but they don't offset the frustration.  Or the boredom.

"Paprika" is so scrambled that I can't even begin to tell you the plot.  Or the characters.  Both seem to change with every line.  What I could piece together is that a super fat scientist has created something called the "D.C. Mini," which records your dreams and lets you watch them when you're awake.  I think you can also watch and enter into other people's dreams, but I'm not sure.  Apparently, there's some criminal who is using this device for nefarious purposes and is wandering into other people's dreams and causing them to go crazy and die.  Or go into comas.  I'm not really sure.

The film takes elements of "The Matrix," "eXistenZ," "Strange Days," and most noticeably, "Inception" (to be fair to Kon, Nolan's film came out later), and stirs them up into a total mess.  By their nature, movies about dreams and different realities are tough to pull off.  Especially when you're trying to make the audience wonder what is real.  But Kon forgets to establish a set of rules of what can and cannot happen.  Without it, the film will appear as if it is making itself up as it goes along, which is what happens here.  There's no reason this idea couldn't have worked; Nolan proved that with "Inception."

Kon has tried to do something difficult, and I give him points for trying.  He throws everything he can at us to make us question everything, such as what is real and if a person is in fact that person (people seem to interchange with each other on a frequent basis).  At one point a character says that he can manipulate the world however he wants.  That's all fine and good, as long as the film's setting is on a solid foundation.  But that doesn't happen.  There's no clear set-up of this world, so instead of intriguing us, "Paprika" merely frustrates.

I can't give "Paprika" a 0/4 because despite everything, it's not as painful to watch as some movies I've seen (I thought of "Ben & Arthur" and "Soul Plane" while watching this movie, and immediately recognized that this is far less painful of an experience).  So I'll give "Paprika" one half for its audaciousness and one half for some cool visuals.  That adds up to a 1/4.  Still not worth your time, but it's above painful.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Bringing Out the Dead

2/4

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Rosanna Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, Marc Anthony

Rated R for Gritty Violent Content, Drug Use and Language

Few will argue that Martin Scorcese is one of the most talented innovative men to ever get behind a camera.  His resume is littered with classics ("Taxi Driver") and near masterpieces ("Goodfellas," "The Departed," "The Wolf of Wall Street").  Sadly, while "Bringing Out the Dead" allows him to show off his skill as a filmmaker, it doesn't make for compelling cinema.

Frank Pierce (Cage) is a paramedic working in New York City.  He hates his job (in more than a few scenes, he begs his boss to fire him) because the ghosts of the people he couldn't save are coming back to haunt him...and it's been months since he's saved anyone.  He's also embarking on a tentative relationship with Mary Burke (Arquette), the daughter of a man he tried to save.

"Bringing Out the Dead" lacks much of a story, which is okay, since this is a character study.  Problem is, the central character isn't interesting.  It's not Nicolas Cage's fault, although despite it being the type of strung-out, weird guy that he's so good at playing, it could be argued that he's miscast.  Cage gives it his all, though, which is commendable.  Less successful is Rosanna Arquette, last year's Oscar-winner for Best Supporting Actress.  She's talented, but her range is limited, and this isn't a good role for her (her having been married to Cage at the time of filming may have had something to do with her being cast).  Ever reliable character actors John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore play his fellow co-workers while one-time hubby of J. Lo Marc Anthony tries to do some scene stealing as a drug addict.

I have no problem with character studies, even ones that lack plot.  The problem here is that the script, by Scorcese's sometime-collaborator Paul Schrader, is bland.  The characters are poorly defined and not very interesting, and the philosophical musings that always seem to show up in movies like this are just gobs of verbal diarrhea.  The characters (usually Frank) talk a lot, but little of what they say adds up to much.

Scorcese's view of the world has always been dark and violent, and his film does not present a pretty picture of the life of a paramedic.  Not only is it physically and emotionally draining, they're a bunch of lunatics and psychos.  Not exactly the kind of people you'd want to come save you if your life is in danger.  Again, I don't have a problem with this, but I just didn't believe most of it.

Even when he's making a less successful film, Scorcese can always be counted on to do a good job behind the camera.  There are some intriguing sequences, such as the fast forwards in the ambulance and the scene where Frank needs constant stimulation to make the ghosts go away.  The film also boasts an interesting look (credit goes to cinematographer Robert Richardson).  Unfortunately, he's working with a subpar script and ill-chosen leads.

"Bringing Out the Dead" feels less like a film from a master than a talented senior thesis.  It allows the director to show his talent and his fearlessness and gives his cast a chance to shine.  But there's no life to it.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The People vs George Lucas

3/4

Not Rated (Probable R, but should be PG-13 for Language)

I enjoy the "Star Wars" movies, but I am not a "fan."  Meaning, I don't own any "Star Wars" media, and I really don't care whether Han Solo shoots Greedo first.  I also enjoy the prequels (although after watching them all in succession, I think that the original trilogy is better...albeit marginally since they're all wonderful).

In fact, I am so out-of-the-loop with all things "Star Wars" that I didn't know there was a fan controversy in the first place until I read some of James Berardinelli's thoughts on the subject (God bless Reelviews!).  That's when I started thinking, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought that the fans should just get over themselves.

That is until I saw this movie.

"The People vs. George Lucas" offers a reasonably balanced portrayal of the arguments against George Lucas.  While some fans hate Lucas, there are others who defend him.  The film also explains the arguments fans use to bash him.  Both are given equal weight, and this makes from an enlightening 90 minutes.  It's insightful, rather cheery, and occasionally funny.

No one can doubt that "Star Wars," or "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope" as it was later known, struck a chord with children of that age.  The maverick filmmaker who was burdened by the studio system and went ahead to create a masterpiece on his own.  The triumph of absolute good over insidious evil.  The creation of a whole new, strange and weird universe.  It's no wonder it created such a sensation.

George Lucas, ever the businessman, allowed the marketplace to explode with memorabilia (Lucas accepted a lesser salary in exchange for full merchandising rights...a huge gamble that paid off big time, seeing as everyone but Steven Spielberg thought the film would flop).  Fans would re-enact their favorite scenes and come up with new stories, something that LucasFilm encouraged.  For years, fans and Lucas had a two-way street of creative love.

Things changed when Lucas released the Special Editions of the original trilogy.  Lucas tweaked a few things here and there, and even changed a relatively crucial scene or two (Greedo shooting first).  Fans were not pleased, and feelings towards Lucas soured.  They turned rancid when he wouldn't release copies of the unaltered trilogy.

Still, it wasn't all out war until the prequels released.  Ask anyone my age or older, and they will be able to tell you all about the level of anticipation leading up to May 19, 1999.  The level of anticipation was high, but the response was low.  It didn't match up to their expectations (how could they?).  That's when fans turned on Lucas for good.

The film asks a number of intriguing questions.  At what point does a filmmaker have a responsibility to his fans?  Some argue that they bought so much merchandise that Lucas created, and that they in turn elevated the franchise into a cultural phenomenon.  Does that mean that "Star Wars" belongs to the public, or should it remain with him?  Fans who are displeased with his changes are clamoring for the release of the unaltered originals, but in a response to a petition, LucasFilm claims that the originals were too degraded and that the studio has no plans to release them (but according to James Berardinelli, they're still available, albeit not in Blu Ray).

Also addressed is hatred for the prequels.  I can't tell you how often I hear that the prequels suck.  I don't get it.  For all their flaws (and there are some big ones, such as more than a few clunky lines and some stiff performances) I enjoy them.  Others do not, and I think the film touches on something intriguing.  It argues that the fans have simply grown up and that the films have taken on a life of their own.  There were cultural and emotional components that went into "Star Wars" that no filmmaker could recapture.

Finally, the film examines the Oedipal nature of the relationship to the fans.  It's a weird relationship, which the fans recognize (one woman claims to have lost her husband and son to her "Star Wars" obsession).  But it's gotten over-the-top; some even go so far as to claim that Lucas "raped" their childhood.  Where does that come from?  Disappointment in his lack of fan service to or to the fact that they simply grew up?

On a technical level, the film is decent.  It looks great, and the film gives each argument its due.  But it's too long, and director Alexandre O. Philippe has too much love for fan re-enactments.  Some of these are necessary to get his point across, but he should have found something else to use in place of talking heads to keep things moving along at a decent clip.

What would have made this film truly eye-opening is something that would be realistically impossible for it to have: a completely candid interview with Lucas himself.  It would be interesting to hear his views on all of this hoopla, but there would be no way that he, or anyone for that matter, would be willing to show himself in such a compromising position.  Especially for a movie that probably couldn't pay him very much.

The film ends too abruptly.  One minute they're talking about how vile the hatred for Lucas has become, but the next they're saying they still love him.  Huh?

This isn't a movie that's going to have a wide appeal, but for people like me who are curious about all the hate for George Lucas, this represents an interesting 90 minutes.

Unfinished Business

1.5/4

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, Dave Franco, Sienna Miller, James Marsden, Nick Frost

Rated R for Some Strong Risqué Sexual Content/Graphic Nudity, and for Language and Drug Use

"Unfinished Business" wants you to think it's what would happen if Judd Apatow crossed "The Hangover" with "Tommy Boy:" a raunch-fest with a trio of underdog businessmen who get into all sorts of anti-PC shenanigans on a European business trip.  Alas, even with the talents of Vince Vaughn and Tom Wilkinson, it doesn't work.  Not only isn't "Unfinished Business" funny, it typically doesn't try to be.  The film is more concerned with the drama, which would be fine, except that it's half-baked and too broad for a sitcom.

Chuck Portnoy (Miller) has cut Dan Trunkman's (Vaughn) salary by 5%.  Needless to say, he's not happy about this, and ends up quitting and going into business designed to compete with her with Timothy McWinters (Wilkinson), a co-worker who was forced to retire because he hit the age ceiling, and Mike Pancake (Franco), a potential job candidate who is too nervous to form complete sentences.  Cut to a year later: they're close to broke, but have snagged a potential deal with another company that could put them in the black.  This journey, which takes them to New England and Germany, is not without its detours.

There is absolutely no reason this movie couldn't have worked.  Vince Vaughn has demonstrated numerous times that he knows how to be funny, and can do adequate dramatic work (such as in "The Lost World"), especially if it's supporting a mainly comic film.  Tom Wilkinson is one of the most underrated actors working these days.  And Dave Franco is much funnier than his brother, who, let's face it, isn't as good at improv as his "Freaks and Geeks" buddies (Seth Rogen, et al) think he is.

But it doesn't work.  The direction is unsure and the script fails to take advantage of potentially hilarious situations.  It thinks that the idea, being forced to live in a hotel room that's really a modern art exhibit or a leather gay pride event, is funny enough in and of itself.  It's one of those "comedies" that introduces ideas but doesn't do anything with them.

At least the actors don't embarrass themselves.  They do the best that they can, but ultimately without some re-writes and a more competent director, there was no saving this movie.  It's not a complete disaster, but the few amusing or dramatically effective moments don't justify sitting through it.  Better stick at home and watch an old favorite instead.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

1.5/4

Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan

Rated R for Language Throughout, Some Sexual Content and Brief Violence

There is no denying that "Birdman" takes risks.  For the most part, it appears to have been all done in one take (it wasn't...clever editing camouflaged necessary cuts).  It also has something to say.  But being audacious and having an important message doesn't make a good movie.  I respect what the director, Mexican wunderkind Alexander Gonzalez Innaritu, is saying, but I don't like the way he goes about saying it.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a has-been movie star who is trying to re-invent himself as an artist by putting on a Broadway play about Raymond Chandler.  It is not going well.  One of the actors was gravely injured on set and the opening is days away.  His leading lady, Lesley (Watts), brings in her boyfriend, the uber-talented and super method Mike Shriver (Norton), whose ego and antics may cause the project to collapse before it even gets out of the gate.  And Riggan's daughter Sam (Stone), who has just gotten out of rehab, is hanging around, making him regret how little he was around.  Making matters infinitely worse is the fact that Riggan sees, and can talk to, Birdman, the comic book character that he played 20 years ago.

Admittedly, having a movie appear to be in one, almost two hour long take is impressive. Unfortunately, a good idea, even if well done, doesn't make it worthwhile.  There are times when Innaritu gets too cutesy, such as when he has the drums on the soundtrack suddenly appear on screen.  He also repeatedly breaks the rule of getting artsy, but that's a point I'll come to later.

The acting is solid, but unfortunately the characters are boring.  Leading the cast is Michael Keaton, who made a minor comeback in the "Robocop" remake and got an Oscar nomination for his work here, is quite good here.  Present in every scene, Keaton makes a game try to make the film work, but unfortunately, his efforts are overshadowed by Innaritu's message and ego.  Emma Stone is also very good as his cynical daughter; the scene where she launches into a tirade about how he is no longer relevant is what probably scored her the Oscar nomination.  Edward Norton parodies his image of being a nightmare to work with to good effect; Mike Shriver is totally in love with himself and totally nuts.  Norton hasn't been this good in years.  Zach Galifianakis (in a mostly dramatic role), Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan provide effective support.

Unlike most films, "Birdman" has something to say.  He claims that we as a society have lost all respect for art and only want crass, dumbed-down schlock like comic book movies and the "Transformers" series.  It's a depressing sentiment, and I believe he has a point.  But Innaritu hammers down the message like a sledgehammer.  There are countless times when he shows off and gets "artsy" when he doesn't need to.  For what seems like half the movie, the soundtrack consists of a single drummer warming up, which is fine for an intro to a set at a jazz club, but comes off as pretentious in a movie like this.  There is also a lot of surrealism in this movie (the film opens with Riggan levitating in his room) that serves absolutely no purpose,  I have to admit though, the scene where a walk down the street turns into a battle between helicopters and a mechanical monster is pretty cool.

What I really didn't like is the elitism and condescension to the audience.  "Birdman" comes across as insulting to any person who likes mainstream entertainment.  Therese a scene where Spider-Man and Bumblebee from the "Transformers" movies dance on a Broadway stage, and a scene implies martyrdom for the sake of art.  As a result, Innaritu comes across not as someone with a valid point to make but as one of those whiny "outsider art" loving bohemians that only love dull and dry crap and hates anything that's accessible to the masses.  To say that art and entertainment can't be mixed is preposterous; last year's "Interstellar" is a fine example.  It is also a much better movie.

Ironically, or perhaps not, I thought of "God's Not Dead" when watching this movie.  Both filmmakers have valid points to make, but make huge mistakes in the telling.  "God's Not Dead" was a reprehensible preach-fest while this is an exercise in pretension.  The focus in both of those movies was the message itself, not the telling of it.  And that is why I recommend you give this movie a pass.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Howl's Moving Castle

2.5/4

Starring (voices): Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Billy Crystal, Josh Hutcherson, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner

Rated PG for Frightening Images and Brief Mild Language

One of the many, many things I admire about Hayao Miyazaki is that he took chances.  I've said it before and I'll say it again and again because it's so rare and so valuable to the film industry and to storytelling in general.  They didn't always work ("Lupin the III," "Porco Rosso"), but the results were always at least interesting.  However, when they do work, he ended up with something truly special, like "Spirited Away" or "The Wind Rises."

"Spirited Away" didn't exactly make Miyazaki a known name, but it did introduce him to a lot of fans who would have otherwise passed his films up (him winning the first ever Oscar for Best Animated Film certainly helped, although I would argue that he deserved a nomination for Best Director, Screenplay and Picture as well).  For fans of his work, "Howl's Moving Castle" was his much anticipated follow-up.  I've seen it twice now, and my reaction remains the same: the first two thirds are solid, but not spectacular, while the final act makes almost no sense.

The film takes place in a steampunk version of the turn of the century.  Sophie (Mortimer) is a shy, young girl working at a hat shop.  One day, she is harassed by two soldiers, only to be saved by Howl (Bale), a wizard with a reputation for eating the hearts of pretty girls (literally).  Later that night, a large woman known as the Witch of the Waste (Bacall) puts a curse on her that turns her into an old woman.  The newly old Sophie (now voiced by Simmons) seeks out Howl in an attempt to get the curse lifted, but the problem with this specific curse is that she can't talk about it.

"Howl's Moving Castle" has all the hallmarks of a Miyazaki picture: a fantasy setting that is begging to be explored, strange creatures, transformation, an unpredictable plot, magic, and romance.  And of course, visually breathtaking animation that is accompanied by Joe Hisaishi's score.  And for the first hour, it appears to be another great entry on a sterling resume.  Not as good as "Spirited Away" or "Princess Mononoke," but on par with "Castle in the Sky" and "Ponyo."

Then when the film hits the 90 minute mark, it falls apart.  When Madame Suliman (Danner), who plays the head of the country's witches and wizards, makes her first appearance, the plot stops making any sense whatsoever.  Miyazaki has tried to do too much, and not even he can handle the complex goings on of the final act.

Part of the reason is that Miyazaki fails to establish a clear set of rules of how the world he created works (credit must also go to Diana Wynne Jones, who wrote the book upon which the film is based).  This is essential for a film like this to work.  Miyazaki gets away with it when he keeps things simple, but when things get more complicated, the story gets out of his control.

At least the voice acting is solid.  Jean Simmons, in one of her final films, is terrific as Old Sophie.  The bulk of the film is centered around the elderly version of the character, and Simmons does a fine job.  Emily Mortimer is as adorable as ever as Young Sophie.  Christian Bale, who signed on after seeing "Spirited Away," is less successful.  Bale is known for playing dark and intense characters (Batman, anyone?), which is fine here, but there are times when Howl is light and cheerful, and Bale isn't convincing in those times.  Lauren Bacall is perfectly villainous as the Witch of the Waste (both she and Miyazaki were fans of each other), and Josh Hutcherson does a solid job as Markl, Howl's wizard-in-training.  And Billy Crystal is amusing as Calcifer the fire demon without being too ostentatious.

As flawed as the final act is, I am tempted to recommend "Howl's Moving Castle" anyway.  The images are so breathtaking (watching the castle move alone is almost worth seeing the film for), the characters are so appealing, and this world is so intriguing.  I am sorely tempted.

I'll split it down the middle and say that if you are in any way curious or intrigued by this film after reading this review, see it.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

4/4

Starring: Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Amrish Puri, Jonathan Ke Quan

Rated PG (probably for Action Violence, Disturbing Images and Brief Language)

I think that Indiana Jones' second outing, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," is a far superior feature to the entertaining but overrated "Raiders of the Lost Ark."  Don't get me wrong, "Raiders" is a blast with a number of spectacular action sequences, but the storyline is on the thin side and it's a little too energetic for its own good.  That's changed with his second outing, which boasts a stronger plot and packs a bigger punch.  Plus, as creepy as Toht, the panting, trenchcoat-wearing villain from "Raiders" was, he's got nothing on Mola Ram.

"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" is a prequel to "Raiders," and is set a year previous.  After a deal in China goes bad, Dr. Indiana Jones (Ford) makes a hasty escape with a pretty but feisty lounge singer named Willie (Capshaw).  Their escape is foiled when the pilots make a secret escape, and the trio ends up in India.  They arrive at a town that has the word "run-down" written all over it.  Apparently, there are some seedy things going on at a palace nearby, and recently all the children and the town's sacred stone were taken.  It's up to Dr. Jones to figure out what's going on and save the day.

For those of you that care, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" is not politically correct.  The infamous dinner scene, which is more gross than any raunchy sex comedy I've seen ("Borat" included), is filled with stereotypes.  And while the villainous Thugee cult did in fact exist, it was so different than what is presented in the movie that they might as well have changed the name.  But the movie is so light and silly that this isn't even worth arguing.

Harrison Ford slides easily back into the leather jacket and fedora.  Ford's acting talents have mostly gone unrecognized (he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for "Witness"), but he makes an excellent Indiana Jones.  Tough, handy in a fight, but not immune to physical punishment (the rock crushing scene is a case in point).  And let's not forget his phobia of snakes.

He's surrounded by an able supporting cast.  Kate Capshaw, who ended up marrying the director, has received little love from fans over the years, but I like Willie.  I think she's funny, and Capshaw has a great scream.  Then again, I also like Jar Jar Binks.  Jonathan Ke Quan, who was found when he was tagging along with his brother (who was auditioning) for moral support, is also very good.  And Amrish Puri radiates malevolence as the main villain.

There are a few reasons why I like "Temple of Doom" better.  First, the setting is different.  As fun as "Raiders" is, Nazis have been done to death.  They have been, and are, in everything.  A Thugee cult is new and intriguing.  The story is also stronger and more inventive.  Finally, it occasionally slows down to let us catch out breath and flesh out the plot and characters.

The film was controversial when it was released due to the violence and dark tone.  A scene in which a minor character's heart is ripped out through his chest and lights on fire as he is lowered into a pit of lava is widely cited as the reason the MPAA instituted the PG-13 rating (which caused a whole 'nother set of problems, but that's for another day).  But that dark edge is precisely why I like this movie better.  Plus, you can't beat the infamous mine cart ride, which is just sensational.

"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" has everything an Indiana Jones movie should have: great action, great humor, and lots of fun.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Focus

1.5/4

Starring: Will Smith, Margo Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, B.D. Wong

Rated R for Language, Some Sexual Content, and Brief Violence

Ask anyone who the world's biggest movie star is, and it won't take long before someone blurts out Will Smith.  He's the Meryl Streep of blockbusters.  No matter the budget or the genre, when it comes to charisma and star power, no one comes close.

Playing a likable con man is something Smith could probably do in his sleep, so it would probably surprise you to learn that he's the film's biggest problem.  His lackluster performance is not the only reason why this movie sinks within the first ten minutes, but it's certainly the most surprising.

Nicky (Smith) is the ultimate con-artist; he knows all the tricks of the trade, and can lift your wallet, purse, ring without you realizing it.  A wannabe pickpocket named Jess (Robbie) wants to learn the tricks of the trade, and after she shows potential, he takes her under his wing.  Things get complicated when he falls for her.

This could have been a great comedy, except for one thing: Nicky's nickname (which he hates) is "Mellow."  That's not an adjective you'd associate with Will Smith.  Smith has more charisma and screen appeal than anyone, but his dramatic range is limited.  He does not do very well in low-key roles, and this is why.  "Focus" would have been a lot more enjoyable with someone else in the lead.

Fortunately, his co-star, Margo Robbie, is more appealing (I shudder to think of what the film would be had they cast Katherine Heigl in the role).  After getting the mother of all big breaks by starring as Leonardo DiCaprio's girlfriend in "The Wolf of Wall Street," Robbie has lied low since, but none of her talent has dissipated.  She both outshines and outacts Smith at every turn.

Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have decided to emphasize the romance aspect of the film over the caper stuff, which is fine by me (they made the positively charming "Crazy Stupid Love" in 2011).  The problem is that Smith and Robbie have zero chemistry.  Few romances have been more in need of passion and life.

I'll admit that some of the caper stuff is interesting, and there's a twist or two that I didn't see coming.  "Focus" also manages to have some legitimate suspense too; it takes place at the Superbowl, of all things, and features an unrecognizable B.D. Wong.

Sorry, Mr. July.  Stick with what you know.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Drugstore Cowboy

2.5/4

Starring: Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James LeGros, Heather Graham, James Remar

Rated R (probably for Language and Drug Content)

Gus Van Sant's career has been inconsistent.  He was behind movies like "Good Will Hunting" and "Milk," which were excellent, but he was also behind movies like "Paranoid Park" and his much despised version of "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues."  So I guess it's just as well that "Drugstore Cowboy" is just as mixed.  The first half is boring and aimless, but the second half is more interesting and compelling.

There really isn't a plot to this movie, which considering the material, is perfectly fine.  It follows four drug addicts who rob drugstores looking for drugs.  Bob (Dillon) is the leader, and his "crew" includes his wife Dianne (Lynch), his friend Rick (LeGros), and Rick's girlfriend Nadine (Graham).  They are tailed by a cop named Gentry (Remar), who would very much like to put Bob away.

Movies about aimless characters aren't fundamentally bad, as long as the characters are compelling.  That's not the case here.  The four leads don't really do anything very interesting, and they have an endless supply of pretentious, nonsensical dialogue.  The first half of the movie is Exhibit A for why a lot of audiences are wary of independent fare (a view that, to an extent, I share).

The second half is much better.  Bob's journey of self-discovery is much more interesting, and the pretension has been lessened.  It's not quite enough to redeem the boredom of the first 45 minutes, but it is engaging.

At least the performances are effective.  Matt Dillon, always an interesting actor, does well with the part of the young rebel (a role in which he was typecast early on in his career.  Kelly Lynch is much better here than she was in "Virtuosity."  James LeGros and Heather Graham are also in fine form.  The scene stealer is James Remar, who is quite effective.  Gentry is poorly written, but Remar picks up a lot of the slack.  The film would have worked better had it focused on him.

In fact, a lack of focus is what really holds this film back.  Shave ten or fifteen minutes off the first 45 minutes (and it's only 102 minutes long), dial back some of the pretension, and you might have a movie.