Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How to Make a Monster

0.5/4

Starring: Clea DuVall, Steven Culp, Jason Marsden, Tyler Mane, Karim Prince

Rated R for Violence/Gore, Language and Nudity

"How to Make a Monster" boasts a clever, if not terribly original, concept: a video game character enters the real world and starts killing people.  This sort of thing has been done before, many times in fact, but the coat of paint is different.  Done well, this could have been a lot of fun.  Alas, it's an utter waste of time.

A video game company is in a tough spot: their latest game, called "Eviloution," has been met with ridicule by its target audience.  Desperate to turn the game around, the company hires a ragtag group of "genius" (a term I use with thick sarcasm) developers to revamp it.  While they initially balk at the timeframe, they change their minds when a million dollar check is dangled in front of them.  They decide to use an AI to choreograph the character via a special suit.  Which one, the hero or the villain, is anyone's guess.  I didn't know, and I'm not sure the movie does either.  Of course, an electrical storm fries everything, and soon the suit comes alive and uses people's body parts to look like the character that it thinks it is.

This movie is the pits.  There's no better way to put it.  It looks like it was filmed for the price of a used computer, the acting is some of the worst I've ever seen, the dialogue is banal, and every single character is an annoying moron.  It's not as bad as "Child 44," but that's probably because I watched it from the comfort of my living room.  Had I driven to the local multiplex and spent money, I would have been less kind.

When it comes to horror movie characters, persons of any interest, much less sympathy, are rare.  Here, they're all morons and they're all extremely irritating.  With bad movies like "The Lazarus Project," it takes a while for them to aggravate me to the point where I'm actively wishing for them to die horrible bloody deaths.  Here, it takes about two minutes.  They're that annoying.  I mean, what does it say about a cast's thespian abilities when the best performance is given by the whiny Clea DuVall?  Granted, she's decent here, but that may be because she's on-screen with the likes of Tyler Mane (as the obligatory snarling macho meathead) and the arrogant, token minority Karim Prince.  Jason Marsden is a talented and highly respected voice actor (see "Spirited Away," or virtually any direct-to-video Disney animated movie), but he's out of his element in a live action role.  As the obligatory uber-nerd with a bad skin condition, Bug is so unpleasant that I wanted him to go away lest I catch whatever disease he has.  And as their boss, Steven Culp is just bland.  Skin flick queen Julie Strain shows up to show her gifts, but looks old and tired.  And her acting doesn't impress either.

The film was written and directed by George Huang, who made "Swimming with Sharks" in 1994, which was based on his experiences working with mega producer Joel Silver.  That got good reviews, but I haven't seen it.  He also filmed Elijah Wood's audition tape for "The Lord of the Rings."  He must have some talent, since the former achieved theatrical distribution and the latter netted Wood the lead role in one of the biggest (and best) franchises in film history.  Evidently, he forgot how to write and direct for this piece of crap.

There's really no reason to subject yourself to this movie.  The plot has been done before in other, better movies.  The characters are horribly acted and incredibly obnoxious.  The script is just awful.  The special effects are kind of cool, but like everything else, it was done to better effect in another movie ("Virus," for those of you who are interested).

Just stay away from this one!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Water Diviner

3/4

Starring: Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Yilmaz Erdogan, Dylan Georgiades, Jai Courtney, Jacqueline McKenzie

Rated R for War Violence including Some Disturbing Images

For whatever reason, Hollywood shies away from movies about World War I.  There are plenty of movies about The Civil War ("Glory," "Gettysburg"), The American Revolution ("The Patriot," "1776"), Vietnam ("Platoon," "Apocalypse Now").  The other great war, World War II, probably has more movies to its name than every other war combined.  Yet the conflict that took place between 1914 and 1918 is rarely the subject for films (other than "All Quiet on the Western Front" and "Joyeux Noel," I can't think of any).

I'm not sure why that is.  It's not like it's not cinematic; a truly visionary director could definitely make a thrilling spectacle of trench warfare.  Perhaps it's because the conflict was too complex to be approached.  It's a shame, really, because there are bound to be many fascinating stories from the period waiting to be filmed.

Russell Crowe's directorial debut, "The Water Diviner," isn't the definitive WWI motion picture.  It's a heavily flawed film to the point where I almost considered giving it a 2.5.  Another reason is that, for the most part, it takes place three years after the war has ended.  The story is about picking up the pieces, and how for some, war doesn't end with the surrender.

Joshua Connor (Crowe) and his wife Eliza (McKenzie) have not gotten over the death of their sons, who died in the Battle of Gallipoli.  They are being torn apart with their grief, particularly at the fact that they are buried in some foreign land.  After Eliza drowns herself, Joshua takes it upon himself to bring them home.

I gotta hand it to Crowe: he's ambitious.  He's bitten off a bit more than he can chew, but for the most part this is an effective debut.  The film loses focus from time to time and many scenes don't have the effect that Crowe would like, but I will give him points for the attempt, especially since there are definitely scenes that are quite effective.

Crowe's agenda is two-pronged: show Joshua's search for his sons' bodies and his experience with the Greek invasion of Turkey.  His melding of the two conflicts isn't always seamless, but overall it works.  Both are compelling, and I was never bored.

The performances work.  This isn't Crowe's best performance (that goes to his portrayal of John Nash in "A Beautiful Mind"), but as a grieving father who will do anything for closure, he does a solid job.  The best performances are given by his co-stars, the always luminous Olga Kurylenko (playing Ayshe, the Turkish hotel manager whose husband is missing) and Yilmaz Erdogan (playing Major Hasan, a Turkish commander who sympathizes with his plight.  Both are excellent, playing rather clichéd characters with heart and honesty.

On a superficial level, there's not much that is original to be found here.  But the flavors are so different that by that element alone they have found new life.  It's amazing what a change of scenery can do for a familiar story.  Of course, solid performances and storytelling, not to mention superior cinematography (Crowe has an eye for setting...some of the scenery shots are breathtaking) help, but still.

One sequence I would like to mention specifically is when Joshua is searching for his sons on the battlefield.  It's cross-edited with scenes from the battle, and represents a harrowing five minutes.  It's not as innovative or emotionally-taxing as the Omaha beach segment in "Saving Private Ryan," but it's nonetheless difficult to watch.  It's good enough that it's worth the admission price just to see it.

I also liked how Crowe allows his characters to reflect on their situation.  One Australian remarks to a Turk that a few years ago they would have killed each other, but now they're having tea together.  This introspective nature of the film lends it emotional weight.

As I said before, "The Water Diviner" is closer to a misfire than a success.  But I'm recommending it for a few reasons.  First is the aforementioned battle scene.  Second is the change in setting.  And finally because it takes chances (something that I will always give a film credit for).  Plus, I got a kick out of the fact that the scene in the Blue Mosque brought back memories of my visit to Istanbul 9 years ago.  That carries weight too.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Woman in Gold

3/4

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Helen Mirren, Daniel Bruhl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Antje Traue

Rated PG-13 for Some Thematic Elements and Brief Strong Language

They say that in movies, change is king.  I'd give greater weight to conflict since there are more than a few movies about characters who don't change at all, but I can see their point.  Change is king in "Woman in Gold," a David and Goliath story about a woman's attempt to reclaim a famous painting that is rightfully hers.

After the death of her sister, Maria Altmann (Mirren) finds a few letters regarding a painting of her aunt Adele (Traue) from pre-World War II.  That painting is the so-called "Woman in Gold" by Gustav Klimt.  Maria was extremely close to her aunt, so she would like the painting returned to her.  Unfortunately for her, the painting is world famous (at least one character calls it "the Mona Lisa of Austria"), and the Austrian government, despite promises of reparation for art stolen by the Nazis, is prepared to fight tooth and nail to keep it.  Maria's friend, Barbara Schoenberg (Frances Fisher) offers to have her son, Raoul (Reynolds), look into it.  This is way above his pay grade (and he knows it), but he thinks she may have a case and they go to Austria to see if they can get it back.  It's unsuccessful, but that doesn't stop them.

This is a safe, formula film for those people who like undemanding entertainment.  The court case aspect of the film is predictable, so it's fortunate that director Simon Curtis spends more time with the characters.  Specifically Maria.  We learn a lot about her past and what her family meant to her.  This is meant to give us an emotional investment in her attempt to reclaim the painting, and it works.  The painting becomes more than just a work of art.  More interesting is Maria's experiences before she fled Austria when the Nazis came.  Her escape is legitimately suspenseful.

There is one thing that you can count on when Helen Mirren is in the cast, and that is that she will be wonderful.  Mirren doesn't disappoint; she's terrific as the stubborn, plucky, but heartsick Maria.  She may be a little young to play the role, but whatever.  Less successful is Ryan Reynolds.  He's not bad, but his range is limited.  Reynolds is known more for his comic aptitude than dramatic skills, and there are a few examples here that explain why.  His big scene with Mirren, when one of them wants to quit, rings false because he doesn't have the dramatic skills to pull it off.  Daniel Bruhl appears as a helpful journalist, although I got the sense that many of his scenes were left on the cutting room floor.  Supporting work by Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons and the luminous Antje Traue is also good.

The film's first half is better than the second.  The court case seems to go at two different speeds; slower at first than way too fast in the second.  It's not that big of a deal, but it feels less fleshed out than I would have liked.  The film's final scene, which is emotionally true and an example of good editing, is noteworthy.  James Cameron did something similar to better effect in "Titanic," but it works well here.

The best way to ensure that we don't forget the past is to personalize it.  Reading words in a news story is totally different than seeing the people on screen, even if they are dramatized.  Steven Spielberg did that with "Schindler's List," and while "Woman in Gold" isn't in the same league (nor does it try to be), there were times when it has a similar effect.

"Woman in Gold" isn't a perfect movie, but it's definitely worth your time.

Child 44

0.5/4

Starring: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Vincent Cassel, Gary Oldman, Fares Fares

Rated R for Violence, Some Disturbing Images, Language and a Scene of Sexuality

There are good movies, like last year's masterful "Boyhood."  There are bad movies, like this year's dud "Unfinished Business."  And then there are movies like "Child 44," which make bad movies look good.  The film may be top heavy with talent, but had any of them been using this as a way to break into stardom, they'd go back to waiting tables by the end of opening weekend.  Fortunately, all of them have talent, and will survive this debacle because of this.  Me?  I'm not so sure.  I have a rugby match tomorrow, so I'm hoping to get knocked around a bit in order to forget this monstrosity (if not, there's always the free beer after the game).

What's wrong with this movie?  A better question is what's right, and the answer is almost nothing.  The acting is almost uniformly terrible.  The story makes almost no sense, with scenes going one way and going in another direction in the same sentence.  The action scenes, and more than a few dramatic ones, are ruined by the fact that the cameraman and the editor were both jacked up on cocaine while attempting to do their jobs.  The cinematography makes bad 3D look good.  And not only does it fall victim to the notorious "Talking Killer" syndrome, the movie seems to never want to end.  It's so bad, I almost wished I was watching "Belly."  At least that movie had the virtue of occasionally looking good.  Alas, I was stuck watching this piece of crap.

The film takes place in Stalin's Soviet Union.  Leo Demidov (Hardy) is a hero of the Soviet Union after being photographed holding up the flag when the Soviets conquered Berlin in 1945.  Now married to his wife Raisa (Rapace), he's a security officer in Moscow.  One day, he starts investigating the death of a young boy found by the train tracks.  He was clearly murdered, although his superior Major Kuzmin (Cassel) tells him to claim it was an accident because "Murder is a capitalist crime."  Another officer, a snaky sort named Vasili (Kinnaman) accuses Raisa of being a traitor, and the two are sent to an out of the way town, and then...

By this time, I had given up.  Hoping for any sort of a coherent plot, let alone one worth caring about, was something I came to realize was a lost cause.  What really sucks is that, from what I could gather, the film could have worked with a defter touch.  The film was produced by Ridley Scott, who was the original director.  With him at the helm, this might have been a great movie.  Sadly, we have Daniel Espinosa, who directed the high-energy but silly "Safe House" three years ago.  That movie was dumb, but it was a masterpiece compared to this.

Complicated accents/voices are not Tom Hardy's forte.  He can do English (his native accent) and American, but Southern and Russian are clearly not among his considerable strengths.  Not only does it cause him to mumble his lines and detract from his performance, it makes his character flat-out irritating.  Seriously, he's almost as bad as he was in "Lawless," where he spoke in the aforementioned Southern accent.  And this is coming from a guy who has been a fan of his since he played Shinzon in "Star Trek: Nemisis" back in 2002.

His co-stars fare even worse.  Apart from Hardy, the only one who has any significant screen time is Noomi Rapace, although her motivations for tagging along are muddled.  Adding insult to injury, she appears to have forgotten how to act.  Joel Kinnaman is perfectly sleazy when his Russian accent doesn't get in the way, and while Gary Oldman shows up in a supporting role, he's essentially a non-entity.  Ditto for Jason Clarke, who, like in "The Great Gatsby," is in a highly publicized but ultimately thankless role.  The only one who displays any life or talent is the always creepy Vincent Cassel, but he's on screen for all of five minutes...and that's spread all over the very long 2+ hours.

Apparently, this was on the Black List of best unproduced screenplays.  Considering "Transcendence" was too, I'm guessing that those who judge them don't read them.  This is an awful screenplay helmed by an awful director and results in a godawful movie.

Seriously, skip this movie.  If any of my comments seem clever enough to make you want to see this movie in a campy mindset. trust me, it's not that kind of a movie.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Furious 7

3.5/4

Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell, Jason Statham, Jordana Brewster, Djimon Hounsou

Rated PG-13 for Prolonged Frenetic Sequences of Violence, Action and Mayhem, Suggestive Content and Brief Strong Language

I almost didn't see this movie.  For one thing, I've only seen the first film in the franchise.  Second, even though I love Paul Walker, the fact that this is his last film is something I'd rather not think about.  Still, I'm glad I did.  It's a lot of fun, and the film's farewell to Walker is note-perfect.

Dominic Toretto (Diesel) is living the high life with his "family:" his best friend Brian O'Connor (Walker), who is married and has a son with his sister Mia (Brewster), his girlfriend Letty (Rodriguez), and friends Roman (Gibson), Tej (Ludacris) and Hobbs (Johnson).  But the brother of an old enemy, a nasty piece of work named Deckard Shaw (Statham), wants revenge for nearly killing his brother (Luke Evans in what amounts to a cameo).  He's coming after them one by one, intending on getting revenge in blood.  A mysterious man without a name but packing a small army (Russell) knows how to get him, but to do that, they have to rescue a hacker with a very powerful spy program (Emmanuel).

The plot takes things to new heights of preposterous.  It's so far over-the-top that there's no term for it.  Parachuting out of an airplane in a car, crashing through skyscrapers a half mile in the air, and a crash between a car and a flying helicopter.  The story, which is paper thin, seems to be built around two things: the stunts and making the actors look fantastic (admittedly, not hard to pull off).  The script is godawful, containing more howlers than the average comedy, but in a way that adds to the film's charm.  Even so, you didn't expect David Mamet in a "Fast and the Furious" movie, now did you?

It seems that everyone who has ever been in a movie in this franchise has at least a cameo.  Some are only around for one scene, if that, while others have larger roles.  The script doesn't allow them to do much other than drive and look good, but few bring much to the table.  Vin Diesel, who played his thinly written character with weight and gravitas in the first entry, is merely a one-dimensional badass here.  There's no depth to his portrayal, which makes him a little flat.  More interesting is Paul Walker, although his death probably limited his screentime (CGI and his brothers playing body doubles helped finish his scenes...the work is entirely convincing, by the way), but he's given little to do.  Still, it makes you wonder what could have been, especially since he was improving with every new film that he made.  Kurt Russell is always welcome on screen, although he's beginning to look his age.  Dwayne Johnson hams it up, displaying little of his unrecognized talent (see "Faster" for an example of what he can do if given the chance).  Jason Statham acts as menacing as he can, but other than wearing a scowl and shooting a gun, he doesn't have a lot to do.  Everyone else does their jobs, although the less said about Jordana Brewster, the better.  She was cute and talented in the original, but time has not been good to her: she looks like she old as hell and has lost her talent.  She's awful.

Horror-meister James Wan may seem like an odd choice to helm such an over-the-top action fest, but the guy knows his stuff.  The action scenes are well-staged and terrifically exciting, save for the first one, although that's mainly due to the writing (not even Spielberg could choreograph a battle between twenty cars without confusion).  He knows that the script is dumb, so he uses that to his advantage.  This movie contains about 10 times as much testosterone as it does brain cells, and in some ways, it's all the better for it.

So the movie gets a 3/4 from me for its audaciousness and the fact that the action scenes are exciting.  But I'm upping it to a 3.5 for one reason: Walker's farewell.  It's splendidly choreographed, and may even bring a tear to the eye.  If nothing else, the film is worth seeing just for that, especially if you're like me, and were a fan of the actor.

Ex Machina

3.5/4

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander

Rated R for Graphic Nudity, Language, Sexual References and Some Violence

What is consciousness?  What is the line between machine and something capable of free will?  For as long as there have been science fiction stories, questions like these have fascinated science fiction authors and their audiences.  Now, celebrated fantasy author Neil Gaiman, in a striking directorial debut, has added his spin to the argument.  Gaiman doesn't give a definitive answer, but his questions are presented with style and thought.

Caleb (Gleeson) is a 26 year old coder who is working at the world's largest internet company.  He thinks he hit the big time when he gets to spend a week with the reclusive owner, a man named Nathan (Isaac).  When he gets there, he finds the real reason for his visit: Nathan has created an AI by the name of Ava (Vikander), and he wants Caleb to test her and see if she has her own conscience.  But there are mysterious things going on, specifically the power outages in Nathan's super high-tech house.  And there are also signs that Nathan has ulterior motives for bringing Caleb to his house.

What sets this film apart is the fact that Gaiman allows Caleb and Nathan to have frank philosophical discussions about consciousness.  Most films, in an attempt to avoid turning off or confusing the audience, shy away from dialogue like this.  Not so here.  Both characters are smart, and their tete-a-tetes about these ideas are fascinating, and more importantly, easy to follow.  It is highly unlikely that anyone will get confused about what they are talking about (the technobabble is a different story, but for the film's purposes it's essentially irrelevant).

"Ex Machina" is a three character show: Caleb, Nathan and Ava.  The film is all about them, and they give terrific performances.  Domhnall Gleeson is a perfect window for the audience.  He's in a constant state of awe, both at being invited to the house of this billionaire genius and interacting with an artificial intelligence.  But when he learns that things aren't what they seem, he grows a backbone.  Gleeson doesn't miss a beat.  Oscar Isaac, another up-and-coming actor, is even better.  Nathan is not at all like what would think.  He's a cocky young guy in a state of arrested development (not to mention a borderline alcoholic), but very personable.  He's also highly intelligent and, perhaps rightly, paranoid about security.  Alicia Vikander, who didn't leave much of an impression in "The Seventh Son" (considering the utter lack of quality in that film, it's at least forgivable), is very good as Ava.  Sympathetic and alien, the gorgeous Vikander gets the complex role of the robot down pat.

Gaiman keeps things low-key; there's no real action, but that's okay since it's the characters and their situations that are the real draw.  This is a thinking person's movie, so if you're looking for action, see "Chappie."  Actually, that's a good comparison, since they deal with similar material, albeit in a very different way.  "Chappie" was an emotional, action extravaganza while this is a low-key, cerebral drama-thriller.

I have a few complaints, but they're mostly minor.  The first half is a little slow going, and the plot isn't immune from holes (even upon cursory glance), and there's one plot point that's confusingly told.  Nothing to get worked up about.  Of greater concern is the fact that Gaiman keeps the characters at an arm's distance.  He's making a highly cerebral film, which is fine, but the lack of emotional connection to the characters limits the effectiveness of the ending, which contains a few great twists.  I also wondered why Caleb never asks Ava's opinion on something.  Surely that would settle the argument?  Not that it matters.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Spin

2.5/4

Starring: Ryan Merriman, Paula Garces, Stanley Tucci, Dana Delany, Ruben Blades

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements and Some Violent Images

"Spin" is a small, character-oriented drama that has some nice performances which are hampered by an inconsistent tone.  Many scenes in this film are either too somber or too melodramatic, and as such dilute the strengths of this simple story.

The film takes place in the 1950's.  Eddie Haley (Max Madore) is staying with his uncle while his parents are flying their plane.  Then his uncle Frank (Tucci) returns and tells him that they have died in a crash.  Frank takes him in, but is called away overseas soon after.  The two people he employs to help keep up his house, Margaret (Delany), an American, and Ernesto (Blades), are left to raise him.

Cut to ten years later (give or take).  Eddie has grown up into a handsome, if rebellious, 17-year-old (now played by Merriman).  He views Margaret and Ernesto as his parents, so when Frank returns home, there's going to be a lot of friction.  He's also falling for Francesca (Garces), a girl he met as a child and has run into again.

For a movie that deals with such complex material, director James Redford has a good sense of balance.  Neither plotline is short-changed, and that lends weight to both.  Both of Eddie's relationships are engaging and presented with depth and feeling.  Tonally, however, is where Redford struggles.

The performances are solid.  Ryan Merriman, who is probably best known for playing the lead in "Final Destination 3," is effective as Eddie, capturing his rebellious but caring nature.  He's certainly handsome, but he's got some acting chops to back it up.  His co-star, Paula Garces, is positively delightful.  Like Merriman, she's known mainly for bit parts but is famous for a bit part in a cultural phenomenon of sorts (she was Maria, the girl that Harold is smitten with in the "Harold and Kumar" movies).  She brings life and energy, not to mention talent, to her scenes as the lovely Francesca.  Merriman can't match her for energy or charisma, although that may have been an intentional choice by the director.  Stanley Tucci, on the other hand, isn't as successful.  Normally an actor who can always be counted on to steal scenes, Tucci's performance doesn't really work.  He's not bad (how could he be?), but he's miscast as the aloof but loving father figure.  Dana Delany and Ruben Blades provide support, but that's really all they are.

I was going to give this film a tentative recommendation until the film's final third.  It's not what happens that doesn't work.  It's how Redford handles it.  Whether it's due to the writing, the direction, or both, a grim turn of events comes across as a sudsy soap opera rather than a gut-punch.  It recovers, but the damage is done.  There are other problems, such as plot holes and subtext that isn't adequately set-up, but those are excusable.  This is not.

There are some things in this movie worth applauding, such as the performances by Merriman and especially Garces.  In the end, however, it's too troubled for me to suggest seeing it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

November

1/4

Starring: Courtney Cox, James LeGros, Nick Offerman, Anne Archer, Michael Ealy

Rated R for Violence and Some Language

Words cannot express how much I hate movies like "November."  Movies that are vehicles for the director to show how "artistic" he is and how "not mainstream" he is.  I can't be the only one who feels this way, can I?  I guess so, because judging from the reception of "The Rover" and Wes Anderson's fanatical following, there are plenty of people who drink this stuff up.

Sophie (Cox) is a rather mousy photography teacher whose boyfriend Hugh (LeGros) was murdered in a robbery gone bad.  Naturally, she's pretty broken up about this and is suffering from headaches, not to mention guilt (she cheated on him once, but never told him).  Somehow, a photograph of the corner-store where Hugh was murdered shows up in one of her presentations at school.

I don't know whether editor/director Greg Harrison thinks he's some sort of auteur, trying to impress the avant-garde crowd, or just an incompetent hack, but the result is the same: the movie sucks.  Not only is it pretentious to the extreme (lots of needlessly long reaction shots or shots of inanimate objects), but the plot is a mess.  There's nothing wrong with messing with a story's timeline or including dream sequences.  Or even having the plot go in the polar opposite direction at a moment's notice.  But there has to be a reason for it.  A "method to the madness," if you will.  Meaning, the audience has to understand what is going on and how it fits in with the movie's "rules."  That doesn't happen here; Harrison seems to be mixing and messing with timelines and alternate versions of what happened the night of the murder, but he doesn't do it well.  Looking back, I can see what he was trying to do, but when it's frustrating in the moment, you've got problems.

It's a shame, really.  Courtney Cox gives a decent performance as Sophie, and considering what she has to work with, that's impressive.  Cox doesn't have great range, but she keeps us attuned to her character amidst all the gimmickry (including, and I'm not kidding about this, stuff that would make Andy Warhol proud).  James LeGros is handsome alright, but he's on the miscast side.  Nick Offerman continues to show dramatic chops in addition to the comic ones he is known for.  Anne Archer and Michael Ealy show up for a few scenes each.

This could have been a good movie.  It really could have been.  But no.  It's a piece of crap.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Irreversible (contains spoilers)

2.5/4

Starring: Vincent Cassel, Monica Bellucci, Albert Dupontel, Jo Prestia

Not Rated (Definite NC-17 for Extreme Brutal Violence including a Vicious Rape Scene, Strong Language, Graphic Nudity and Drug Use)

This review contains spoilers.  I'm on the fence on advising to go ahead and read on because in a way, the film is spoiler-proof.  It's not that kind of movie.  But on the other hand, viewers watching it without any foreknowledge may have a different experience than those who are aware of the director's methods.

There's no denying that Gaspar Noe's 2002 film is tough to watch.  Featuring a particularly brutal act of revenge and one of the most graphic rape scenes ever committed to film, "Irreversible" is definitely not for everyone.  However, it's debatable whether or not it actually works as it is intended, even on its own level.

"Irreversible" could be described as an "anti" revenge tale.  The story is the same, but the approach takes all of the adrenaline and the pleasure out of it.  Like Michael Haneke with "Funny Games," Noe is trying to show how morally reprehensible Hollywood revenge pictures are.  Also like "Funny Games," it doesn't really work because of ego.

The story is a simple one, detailing a fateful day in the lives of three friends attending a party.  Marcus (Cassel) is a party animal and in love with the beautiful Alex (Bellucci).  Joining them is Pierre (Dupontel), who is Alex's ex and friends with Marcus.  But what starts out as a night of fun turns to horror as Alex is viciously attacked and raped by a man named La Tenia (Prestia).

To set his film apart from movies like "Death Wish," Noe does two things.  One, he tells the story backwards.  Two, he doesn't censor the violence.  Taken alone, it would be difficult, but not impossible, to experience some of that adrenaline that audiences crave when they go to see movies like this (although my personal preference is for psychological revenge as opposed to physical violence, but never mind).  But together, there's no way a member of the audience could get any sort of pleasure from watching what unfolds.  The film featured a number of walkouts when it was originally shown at film festivals, and three people fainted during a screening of it.

"Irreversible" is very violent.  We see a man's face get crushed by repeated blows with a fire extinguisher in its full graphic glory, but it's not very convincing.  It's easy to tell that it's fake.  Much more difficult to watch is the scene where Alex is raped, mainly because Noe doesn't cut away from the action.  It's a 9 minute long scene featuring Bellucci in a totally convincing performance.  And after that, we are given the pleasure of watching La Tenia grab her hair and repeatedly smash her face into the ground.  Sounds lovely, doesn't it?

However, the film has some definite flaws.  For one thing, the film is almost entirely improvised.  There's nothing wrong with improvisation in general (many great lines and scenes are the result of improvisation), but in general drama isn't a good genre for it.  The dialogue is banal and character identification is next to nil.  I never got a sense of who Marcus, Alex and Pierre were, so I found it hard to care about what happened to them.  All three give great performances, but Noe's approach, which consists of almost entirely of medium shots of unvarying length (many of which are static), robs the film of its drama and intimacy.  It's incredibly distancing.

But far more problematic is the film's opening scene.  By his own admission, Noe used sound and camera movements to induce vertigo, nausea and disorientation.  Noe is trying to get us inside Marcus's head, whom we later realize is both high and consumed with rage.  But he goes too far with it; his technique overshadows the storytelling.  It goes on for too long and Noe has a tendency to show off.  It's so over-the-top that, rather than conveying to us what is going on in Marcus's head, simply tells us.

"Irreversible" is more like an experimental film than a narrative piece.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Dead Snow

1.5/4

Starring: Vegar Hoel, Stig Frode Henrikson, Charlotte Frogner, Lasse Valdal, Evy Kasseth Rosten, Jeppe Beck Laursen, Jenny Skavlan

Not Rated (Probable R for Strong Zombie Violence and Extreme Gore, Language, and a Sex Scene)

"Dead Snow" has become an underground cult hit, garnering enough attention and dollars to not only produce a sequel (not that that means much), but a chance for co-writer/director Tommy Wirkola to make it big in Hollywood (he directed the surprisingly well-received "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters").  Then again, so did Vincenzo Natali, and he directed "Cube."

The premise, a group of horny twenty-somethings running into a nasty group of Nazi zombies in the middle of the mountains, has a lot of potential.  A sort-of "300" meets "Dawn of the Dead" with the sensibilities of "Hatchet."  The problem?  The comedy.  More specifically, the lack thereof.  In an attempt to have his cake and eat it too, Wirkola forgets that he's making a horror comedy.  He takes the film far too seriously.  In fact, he repeatedly steals from "The Descent," including its unremittingly bleak tone.

Even as a simple horror movie, the film still doesn't work.  The characters are not only stupid (which is something of a requirement for the genre), but they're boring.  It's hard enough to remember who is who, much less give a damn whether they live or die.  The editing is haphazard, with characters suddenly appearing without rhyme or reason, or in one case, having a mounted machine gun without any explanation of where he got it.  Jump cuts and general sloppiness abound.  And while the term "deus ex machina" isn't explicitly mentioned in the film, everyone who watches it will become well aware of what it is by the time the end credits roll.

The film isn't even well-paced.  It takes forever to get going, and when it does, it's a bait-and-switch, becoming the very thing we were led to believe it was going to parody.

None of the actors are particularly memorable.  That's not uncommon in horror movies, but the audience has to be able to form some sort of bond with them.  But these people are totally deprived of personality.  The zombies exhibit more life and interest.

The film contains a considerable amount of gore.  In addition to the usual blood and viscera that fly everywhere (in amounts that probably exceed what is in a normal human body), we are treated to a zombie commander with a strange fetish for taking the end of a person's intestines and pulling it out in various ways (in one instance, we are treated to a sort of POV shot of the victim).  In a different movie, this might be gratuitous, but here it's only preventing the audience from falling asleep.

"Dead Snow" isn't devoid of humor.  There are some one-liners and gruesome gags sprinkled throughout (including one instance that will cause guys to wince), and by the end of the film Wirkola has pulled out all of the stops and has some fun with the premise.  But it's too little too late.

Maybe the sequel will be better.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Arlington Road

2.5/4

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Hope Davis, Joan Cusack, Robert Gossett, Spencer Treat Clark, Mason Gamble

Rated R for Violence and Some Language

Your Paranoia is Real
I love a good tagline.  They're the most underrated forms of marketing, and some of them are quite clever.  While not as ominous as "Let he who is without sin try to survive" ("Seven") or "Think you're alone?  Think again" ("Hollow Man"), taken into context it's a pretty good one.

The premise of "Arlington Road," that your new neighbor across the street is a terrorist, is compelling and provocative, especially in this day and age.  "Arlington Road" was released in 1999: two years before 9/11, but three years after Oklahoma City.  The film uses our memories of the latter to enhance the atmosphere, but director Mark Pellington doesn't exploit it; they're mainly in quick montages and flipping pages.

Unfortunately, as has been proved many times in the past, a good premise doesn't necessarily lead to a good movie.  That's the case here.  There are definitely some things to like here, particularly in the first 45 minutes.  But with a script that's in need of some rewrites and a director who isn't particularly good a sleight-of-hand, "Arlington Road" becomes a movie that I have serious reservations about recommending.

Michael Farraday (Bridges) is a college professor at George Washington University who teaches a course on domestic terrorism.  It makes sense since his late wife worked with the FBI's ATF task force, but less so after she was gunned down on a sting gone bad.  Despite the fact that he has a loving girlfriend (Davis) and son (Clark), his wife's death has left him on the paranoid side.  He also has some new neighbors, Oliver (Robbins) and Cheryl (Cusack) Lang, whom he meets when he discovers their son Grady (Gamble) wandering down the street with his arm half blown off after a fireworks accident.  Michael makes fast friends with them, especially since Grady is causing his son to open up again, but there are little things about Oliver and Cheryl that bother him.  Are they really the All-American family that they would have him believe, or are they hiding something?

In the right role, Jeff Bridges can be a terrific actor.  With his laid-back style and unique drawl, there are some roles he was born to play (I'll admit that I haven't seen "The Big Lebowski," his most famous role).  But he is simply not right for modern-day Hitchcock movie.  With another actor in the role, some (but not all) of the problem's might be mild enough to overlook.  Bridges is fine when he plays the everyman, but when the "evidence" starts to pile up, he stops being able to convince.

His co-star, Tim Robbins, is excellent.  We all know a guy like Oliver Lang: polite, hospitable, goes to his son's scout meetings, knows how to grill a burger and drink a (cheap) beer at the same time.  Guys like him are everywhere, and that's how Robbins plays him.  It makes the film all the more chilling.  Paired with Joan Cusack, in a decidedly non-comic role like ones she is known for, they make for a suburban couple straight out of a Better Homes and Gardens magazine ad.  They, along with Pellington's eye for detail, provide an excellent foundation for the film.

Alas, the script by Ehren Kruger, is in need of some rewrites.  This was his first filmed screenplay before he went of to write, at least impart, "The Ring" and the "Transformer" movies.  He's not a bad screenwriter (if you remember, I liked "The Ring," and I also liked "Scream 3," which he also wrote), but his scripts tend to be unfinished.  The storyline and characters are good, but the second half is on the muddled side and the are definitely some contrivances.  Smooth out some of the obvious kinks in the screenplay and you'd have a winner.  It might also have saved the ending, which makes less sense the more you think about it.

All that aside, "Arlington Road" feels like a missed opportunity.  Pellington has presented the film as a Hitchcockian thriller.  There's certainly nothing wrong with that, but the film touches on some interesting material such as paranoia versus reality.  Hitchcock's playground was with the wrongfully accused or the guy who knows the truth but can't get anyone to take him seriously (or, more likely, both).  Had "Arlington Road" taken the extra mile and made this about the feeling of paranoia, this could have been a truly amazing thriller.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Insurgent

3/4

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer, Ashley Judd

Rated PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action Throughout, Some Sensuality, Thematic Elements and Brief Language

As much as I dislike these tween franchises like "The Hunger Games" and "Twilight" (or would be tween franchises like "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones"), "Divergent" was unexpectedly entertaining.  It was a little overlong and dully scripted, but anchored by two solid performances and Kate Winslet playing a villain, it was fun.  So I admit that I was anticipating the second installment, "Insurgent."  Much to my pleasure, it's just as entertaining.

At the end of the first film, Tris (Woodley), Four (James) and a few others have escaped a brutal crackdown engineered by Jeanine (Winslet).  Jeanine has designs to consolidate the whole city, the last bastion of humanity, under her control, but to do so, she needs Tris to open a special box.  Meanwhile, Tris and Co. are trying to regroup with the rest of the Dauntless to take down the whole system.

The plot isn't anything special, having been cobbled together from a number of different sci-fi and fantasy stories (including, believe it or not, the "Halo" video game franchise).  Not that that's a bad thing...some of the best storytellers, from Quentin Tarantino to William Shakespeare, have taken others' ideas and incorporated them into their own.  But it's effectively presented in one, two-hour long entertaining package.

Unlike in most other tween franchises, where physical appeal and marketing (I'm talking about you, "Twilight!") trump acting ability, the "Divergent" series has boasted strong performances all around.  Shailene Woodley is a heroine that everyone can get behind: smart, tough, but concerned about those around her.  Her co-star Theo James is equally good, doing surprisingly a lot with an underwritten character (Four is relegated to offering support and defending her).  I like Shailene Woodley, but Theo James trumps her in terms of screen presence and appeal.  But that's just my opinion.

The supporting cast is also good.  Kate Winslet returns as the bitch in high heels.  Winslet doesn't chew the scenery, but that doesn't mean that she's not a formidable adversary.  On the contrary, Jeanine is powerful and ruthless.  Winslet has come a long way from playing Rose DeWitt Bukater in "Titanic."  Just as imposing is Jai Courtney, who plays Eric, the former Dauntless member turn Jeanine's attack dog.  Miles Teller does an excellent job of making us question where his character's loyalties lie, adding layers of bite to many of his lines.  Sadly, Ansel Elgort doesn't hold up his end, although his role is pretty small.  New to the franchise is Naomi Watts, whose character is unpredictable.  Watts hasn't played a character this edgy before, and she gets to face-off against Winslet.

German director Robert Schwentke has taken over the reigns from Neil Burger.  Schwentke's resume doesn't really make one want to jump for joy, seeing as both "Flightplan" and "RED" were as bland as weak tea.  Maybe because he had Burger's blueprint to work with, but the film impresses from a directorial point-of-view.  The action scenes are thrilling, and with one exception, actually decipherable.  And Schwentke doesn't tip his hand when it comes to choreographing the fates of certain characters.  Just because they're a main character doesn't mean they will survive to see the end credits.  Don't expect to see anything truly shocking, but the movie caught me by surprise a few times.

"Insurgent," like its predecessor, is not the next "Star Wars" or "Harry Potter."  But for what it is, it's entertaining.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Rescuers Down Under

3/4

Starring (voices): Bob Newhart, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Tristan Rogers, George C. Scott, Adam Ryen

Rated G

There is something to be said for having too much of a good thing.  Too much food packs on the pounds.  Too much booze gets you a hangover.  And too many action scenes, as exciting as they may be, limit character development and emotional involvement.  Don’t get me wrong, the sequel to “The Rescuers,” which came out 13 years after the original, is a lot of fun and well worth seeing.  But it’s too busy; there’s so much going on that it dilutes the focus of the film.

Cody (Ryen) is an adventurous young boy living in the Australian outback.  He’s friends with all the animals, and one day, he is tasked with saving Marahute, a massive golden eagle.  That puts him in the sights of a vile poacher named McLeach (Scott), and his nasty lizard, Joanna (Frank Welker).  A mouse whose position as bait was the reason that McLeach captured Cody frantically contacts the Rescue Aid Society, who immediately sends Bernard (Newhart) and Miss Bianca (Gabor) to rescue him.  But they’re not there.  They’re having dinner at a posh restaurant, where Bernard is working up the courage to pop the question.  But before he can do so, they’re off to the continent down under.

The film gets off to a fantastic start.  After a few moments establishing the setting, the screen hurtles down the desert as the opening credits roll.  It’s not as gripping as the opening to “TheLion King,” but it’s strong enough to make me think of it.  The filmmakers waste no time with set-up; they assume that we’re familiar enough with the first film that nothing more than a bare bones background is necessary.

Bob Newhart and Zsa Zsa Gabor slide easily back into their roles; you’d never know that 13 years had passed since they last played the characters.  Unfortunately, they play second fiddle to the action scenes.  While the original most certainly had some action set-pieces, Bernard and Miss Bianca were always at the forefront.  That doesn't happen here, where they seem to be props of the story.

The film also has far too much going on.  You've got Cody’s adventures in captivity, the new albatross’s adventures in a military hospital, and Bernard dealing with a local mouse ranger named Jake (Rogers), who is competing for the affections of Miss Bianca.  It’s all very entertaining, but that’s exactly the problem.  It makes it hard to form an attachment to any of the characters.

To be fair, the action scenes are well staged and exciting.  McLeach is a terrific villain, although he may be a little too scary for the very little ones.  And it’s impossible not to love any character played by the late great John Candy.  But the script lacks some of the cleverness and the heart of the original.


As I said before, it’s still great fun and well worth your time.  I just wish they had remembered what made the original truly great.

The Rescuers

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Bob Newhart, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Geraldine Page, Michelle Stacy, Joe Flynn
Rated G

When I watched “The Rescuers” tonight, one movie came to mind: “The Secret of NIMH.”  While this film was made before Don Bluth formed his own production company, he was the directing animator on this 1977 feature.  Clearly, he took something from it or vice versa, because this and many of his other films possess a similar feel.  It’s not as complex as his other mice-centered film, but perhaps that’s for the best (while it fit the story, “NIMH’s” subtext about animal testing was as horrifying as it was unfair).  “The Rescuers” is as light as they come, but it’s the whole package: action, adventure, laughter and a little romance.

The Rescue Aid Society is made up of mice from around the world who gather together to help those in need.  One day, they find a bottle containing a cry for help from a girl named Penny.  The beautiful Hungarian representative, Miss Bianca (Gabor), chooses the superstitious (he gets nervous about anything related to the number 13) but privately enthusiastic janitor Bernard (Newhart) to help her save Penny.  Penny is an orphan being held hostage by a maniacal pawn broker named Medusa (Page) and her pudgy assistant, Mr. Snoops (Flynn), and it’s up to Bernard and Miss Bianca to rescue her from their clutches.

“The Rescuers” isn’t usually listed among Disney’s animated classics (those honors go to the overrated “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” “The Lion King,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” among others), but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining.  There’s a lot to like about this movie, from its humor (the scene with the organ that turns into a gunfight) to its genuine thrills (the scene in the cave).  It may be entirely family friendly, but both aspects are very effective.

Part of the reason is the fact that the voice actors are well cast.  Bob Newhart brings the right mix of enthusiasm and anxiety to the role; he makes Bernard into a heroic yet vulnerable lead.  Zsa Zsa Gabor’s Miss Bianca wins hands down in the bravery department; to her, this is a fun adventure.  The gender switch adds an element of freshness to an already strong production.  Broadway legend Geraldine Page, widely regarded as one of the best American actresses, makes Medusa into a formidable villain.  She’s over-the-top in the same way that, say, Cruella de Vil is, but she’s also easy to dislike since she abuses just about everyone except her precious alligators, Rufus and Nero.  And Michelle Stacy is simply adorable as Penny.  It’s impossible not to get on her side, especially considering the hell that she’s living in.  All she wants is a mom and a dad, but instead she’s been kidnapped and is stuck with Medusa and Mr. Snoops (at one point, Medusa cruelly asks her who in the right mind would adopt her…it cuts deep).


If there’s a nitpick, it’s a small one.  And that’s that the romance between Bernard and Miss Bianca is a little undercooked.  Some stronger dialogue and a few more minutes of screen time could have really allowed it to take off.  But that’s what sequels are for, right?

Doom

1/4

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Karl Urban, Rosamund Pike, Richard Blake, Dexter Fletcher

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

Rarely has a movie’s title been so appropriate: doom is the situation anyone who views this movie will be in.  I heard that this movie was bad, so I went in fully expecting something totally cheesy and getting a few campy laughs and some perverse enjoyment at seeing all the bullets and body parts fly around.  But “Doom,” based on the popular video game, is so bad that it makes it impossible to watch for camp value.  It’s just a really, really, really bad movie.

The film takes place in 2046.  A portal to Mars has been discovered on Earth, and a research facility has been built there to figure out who built it and why they left.  But something has happened, and a team of hard-core marines has been sent in to take care of it.  Led by the gruff Sarge (Johnson), they’re a tough bunch, although by and large they exhibit far more testosterone than brain cells.  Needless to say, what they find on Mars is not a pretty sight (the scientist sister of one of the marines, played by the lovely Rosamund Pike, being the exception.

I usually like to find some element of praise, however small, in every film I review, no matter how bad it is.  But I’m having a tough time with “Doom.”  The acting is uniformly awful, the characters are boring, and in one case, vile enough to make one wish they would get ripped apart as soon as possible, and the story rarely makes any sense.

What really sets the film apart is the film’s look.  For a $60 million price tag, you’d think that it would at least look halfway decent.  In reality, it looks like shit.  Not only does director Andrzej Bartowiak confuse darkness for atmosphere (most of the action scenes are impossible to see), but camera shots are bland and unsophisticated.  The film looks like it was made for the Sci-Fi channel’s Wednesday afternoon line-up.


Trust me.  Don’t waste your time with this piece of garbage.

Run All Night

3.5/4

Starring: Liam Neeson, Joel Kinnaman, Ed Harris, Vincent D’Onofrio, Genesis Rodriguez, Boyd Holbrok

Rated R for Strong Violence, Language including Sexual References, and Some Drug Use

“Run All Night” is more than it seems to be.  Much more, in fact.  Although it kind of sounds like “Taken” meets “The Warriors,” the film is more concerned with the ties that bind us, be it fathers and sons or between friends, than gratuitous violence.  That said, there is plenty of bone-crunching brutality for those sick of superheroes and tween franchises.

Jimmy Conlon (Neeson) has been working as a hit man for local mobster Shawn Maguire (Harris) for decades.  Perhaps it is because Shawn has most of the police on his payroll that Detective Harding (D’Onofrio) hasn’t been able to thrown Jimmy in prison for the rest of his life.  As a result of his occupation, not to mention abandoning him at an early age, Jimmy is estranged from his son Michael (Kinnaman).  Maguire, on the other hand, is close to his son Danny (Holbrook), although their relationship isn’t any more healthy (despite Danny’s attempts to impress him, Shawn views him with disdain).  In an attempt to prove himself, Danny attempts to negotiate a deal with a pair of drug dealers, although this goes up in flames.  Michael, a limo driver, is a witness to Danny brutally murdering them, which puts him in the sights of the coked-up Danny.  Before Shawn can smooth things over, Jimmy kills Danny in self-defense.  Shawn swears revenge, and now Michael must rely on his distant father to keep himself and his family alive.

While not as developed as one would hope, it is clear that Jaume Collet-Sera, a young director who shows talent and versatility with each new film he makes, has higher ambitions than a simple adrenaline cocktail.  He occasionally takes time to explore the relationships between the characters, although sometimes the visual style is too energetic for it to have the dramatic impact that it could.  Like with the unfortunate “Blood Ties,” I kept thinking that this would have been a perfect film for Martin Scorcese.  The themes of Catholic guilt, the Irish blue collar mobster setting, and the uncensored violence (the film deserves its R rating for once) are all trademarks of his.  Still, this is an excellent movie in its own right, and for that I am entirely satisfied.

The performances are solid.  Liam Neeson is the go-to guy for the beaten down, alcoholic killer role, but he seems bored.  He needs to do something else to get out of the cliché he has become typecast in.  That said, there is a scene where he plays Santa while extremely intoxicated.  I don’t know if the filmmakers intended for it to be as funny as it was, but it’s a riot.  My guess is yes, but regardless, it’s totally worth it.  His co-star, Joel Kinnaman, has never particularly impressed me with his acting ability, having relied on his good looks and charisma in the past.  He has a few hiccups, but overall it’s a solid performance.  Ed Harris leads the trio as Shawn.  Harris has always been able to be counted on to give a terrific performance, but he hasn’t had this good of a role in years.  Boyd Holbrook does an excellent job of portraying a total nutcase, and Vincent D’Onofrio is edging closer and closer to forgiveness for playing Detective Goren on "Law and Order: Criminal Intent," the second most irritating character in history (after, of course, Enid from “Ghost World”).


There are flaws with this movie.  I would have liked it better had the script been stronger, and Collet-Serra taken more time nurturing these relationships.  There were definitely times when I could feel that there was more dramatic power itching to get out.  And there is one instance where a character makes a stupid mistake just so there can be another action scene, which includes an unexplained twist.  That said, this film does contain some real drama and is packed with adrenaline.  So it gets a very enthusiastic recommendation from me.

Being Julia

3/4

Starring: Annette Bening, Shaun Evans, Jeremy Irons, Juliette Stevenson, Miriam Margolyes, Bruce Greenwood, Tom Sturridge, Lucy Punch

Rated R for Some Sexuality

Note: This review contains some rather vague spoilers.  Reading the review won’t damage your enjoyment of the film, but I’m putting it out there nonetheless.

Many consider “All About Eve” to be the ultimate movie about the theater.  I do not.  I didn't think it was that great of a movie, and frankly, kind of boring.  For me, that honor goes to “Mrs. Henderson Presents.”  “Being Julia” isn’t as delightful or charming, but it’s entertaining, plus it contains Annette Bening’s best performance.

Julia Lambert (Bening) is a legendary actress in pre-WWII London.  She’s married to Michael Gosselyn (Irons), who handles the business side of things.  But she’s bored and exhausted with her life and wants to cancel the show that she’s doing.  That changes when Michael introduces her to a young American named Tom Fennel (Evans), who is a huge fan of hers.  She becomes hopelessly infatuated with him, and they begin an affair, which makes her love life again.  But when another woman comes along, she has a perfectly malevolent plan for revenge.

To me, Annette Bening has always been talented, but never truly wowed me.  That’s changed here.  The role of Julia is a difficult one; there’s a little bit of Norma Desmond in her in the sense that she’s always giving a performance (only Julia is perfectly lucid).  Bening handles it beautifully.  Her co-star, Shaun Evans, isn’t as good.  He’s adequate, but can’t match his older co-star.  It’s only Bening that makes their relationship, which is rather shortchanged, work.  Jeremy Irons is in top form as Michael, who doesn't mind her affair as long as it makes her performances better.  Special mention has to go to Bruce Greenwood, the long-time character actor who was at one point a favorite of Atom Egoyan.  His character is almost superfluous, but it’s a good performance (and he sports a flawless British accent).

The film’s flaws mainly have to do with the script.  The first act is too long, and director Istvan Szabo should have pared it down about 10 minutes.  And Julia’s revenge scheme lacks a big punch because of how it is written.  One thing that is interesting is that the script has Julia talk to her old drama teacher, Jimmie Langton (Gambon), who has been dead for years.  This kind of thing is difficult to pull off well (“Hitchcock” comes to mind), and the results in “Being Julia” are inconsistent.  While it becomes somewhat essential in the second act, it’s an impediment in the first.  That said, Michael Gambon is one of those rare actors who it is always a pleasure to see on screen.


“Being Julia” was never going to be a movie that had a wide audience.  But for those who like good acting and movies about the theater, “Being Julia” represents solid entertainment.

Whiplash

3/4

Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

Rated R for Strong Language including Some Sexual References

There are two reasons to see “Whiplash,” and they are named Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.  The movie itself is intense, but has an uncertain narrative flow with poorly developed secondary characters.  But when Teller and Simmons lock horns, the movie is absolutely brilliant.

Andrew Neyman (Teller) is a young jazz drummer who is as talented as he is ambitious.  One day he is spotted by Terence Fletcher (Simmons), who runs the school’s top band, and offers him a secondary spot.  Soon he is the core (i.e. playing in concerts) drummer.  But Fletcher has standards that are impossible to meet, and one mistake will get you on the wrong end of a vocal tirade that will leave the hardest man in tears.  But Andrew won’t let Fletcher push him around, and the repeated clashes between the two are escalating into all out war.

Forget Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson.  Compared to Simmons’s Fletcher, their “foaming at the mouth” characters are posers.  Simmons is positively frightening in the role, and what makes him even more frightening is that there are teachers who are like this.  I’ve had one or two myself.  Certainly not to this extreme, but there are definitely “tough love” teachers out there, and Fletcher is one of them.

Miles Teller doesn’t get as showy of a part, but that’s the nature of the beast.  Andrew is the hero we are supposed to identify with.  But Teller’s work shouldn’t be discounted.  He’s obsessed, but a strong individual.  Fletcher may indeed have met his match.

Don’t think that because this is a movie about a teacher and his student that it is going to be something like “Dead Poets Society.”  It’s not.  Far from it.  In fact, “Whiplash” is closer to a case study of a sado-masochistic relationship than a coming-of-age story.  Fletcher is ruthless to the point of being a psychopath, but he has his reasons.  And Andrew’s eagerness to prove himself is on the verge of an addiction.

At 107 minutes, the film is too short.  More time spent developing Andrew’s mindset would have made the ending more believable.  His relationship with his girlfriend is shortchanged to the point where it’s almost superfluous.  As his father, Paul Reiser’s role is little more than a cameo.  More time with both of them would have given this film a bigger punch.

Damian Chazelle also fails to establish a consistent narrative momentum.  It kind of starts and stops in a herky-jerky way.   More time smoothing out the screenplay and some creative editing were needed to make it truly great.  That said, the climax is set up so well that the outcome is impossible to predict.  You don't find that very often.

“Whiplash” is definitely flawed, but with Teller and Simmons as the leads, it’s going to floor you.

Whiteout

3/4

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Gabriel Macht, Tom Skerritt, Columbus Short

Rated R for Violence, Grisly Images, Brief Strong Language and Some Nudity

“Whiteout” is the rarest of all breeds: a mystery done well.  There are no superheroes, no fantasy creatures (and certainly no tweens with pasty skin), and no numbers attached to the end of the title.  It is based on a graphic novel, but then again, so was “From Hell.”

Surprisingly, this movie has some similarities with “From Hell,” although they are extremely superficial.  For one, both films are serial killer movies.  Two, despite the large cutlery, neither is a slasher movie.  And three, both are heavy on the atmosphere.  “From Hell” took place in the seedy parts of 1888 London, where evil slithered around like opium smoke from the lead character’s pipe.  “Whiteout” takes place in Antarctica, and director Dominic Sena makes sure that we can feel the cold.  When someone says hell frozen over, this is what they mean.

Carrie Stetko (Beckinsale) is a Federal Marshal working at a base at the bottom of the world.  After a collar that went bad, she’s content to handout citations for misdemeanors until her term of service is up and she can go back to “sunscreen and bikinis.”  Days before she’s due to leave, someone has found a dead body out in the middle of nowhere.  It doesn’t take long for Carrie to realize that it wasn’t just some unfortunate soul who lost his way: he was murdered.  Now, as a storm front closes in and the body count rises, Carrie must solve the mystery before the killer escapes for good…or be left behind for a six month long winter in the coldest place on Earth.

“Whiteout” is solid entertainment.  It’s tautly paced, smartly written, and with one exception, well acted.  There’s no sense that it’s been dumbed down for tweens and foreign audiences, there’s no ego trip on the part of the director, or anything like that.  It’s something rarer and much better: good storytelling.

I like Kate Beckinsale (despite the fact that she’s married to one of the biggest hacks working in Hollywood, Len Wiseman).  She can always be counted on to give a solid performance, and while this isn’t her best work, it’s effective.  Her co-star, Gabriel Macht, on the other hand, is just awful.  He’s stiff as a wooden board, and the movie comes alive again whenever he’s off screen (if the producers wanted a blond hunk, they should have gotten Paul Walker…wouldn't have that been fun!).  Tom Skerritt is as reliable as ever, and it’s always nice to see him again.

Atmosphere is crucial in a thriller, and for the most part Dominic Sena gets it right.  I felt the time pressure, and even indoors, I felt chilly watching this movie (and no, it’s not the frigid cold outside).  It’s less impressive in the dark when the screen is only lighted by flashlights, but those moments are few.  The fight scenes are well-choreographed for the most part.  The exception is the final one, which is messy due to the fact that all the characters on screen are covered from head to toe and it takes place in a blinding snowstorm (different colored coats do not help the situation).


“Whiteout” is by no means a classic, and your life will not be misspent if you do not see it.  But good mysteries, especially ones aimed at adults, are rare, and when a good one is made, it’s worth taking notice.

Get Hard

2/4

Starring: Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Craig T. Nelson, Alison Brie, Edwina Findley Dickerson, Ariana Neal

Rated R for Pervasive Crude and Sexual Content and Language, Some Graphic Nudity and Drug Material

I am not a Will Ferrell hater.  Used correctly, he can be hilarious.  Left to his own devices or in the hands of someone who thinks him simply standing in front of the camera will send the audience into paroxysms of laughter (I'm talking to you, Adam McKay!), watching him on-screen is nothing short of agony.  "Get Hard" is a little of both.  There are far too many jokes that fall flat because Ferrell is trying too hard, but there are also some hilarious bits.

James King (Ferrell) is a high powered business executive with more money than God.  He's engaged to Alissa (Brie), the vapid daughter of his boss, Martin (Nelson).  At their engagement party, he is arrested for corporate crimes.  But he is in fact innocent, and under the mistaken belief that justice will prevail, he declines to take a plea bargain and is sentenced to 10 years hard time.  Unfortunately for him, he's not going to Club Fed; he's going to San Quentin.  Realizing that he won't make it one day in that hell hole, he turns to Darnell Lewis (Hart), who takes care of the cars at the office.  Because he's black, James assumes that he's been in the prison system.  This is not the case, but Darnell needs 30 grand to send his daughter to a private school instead of a dangerous public one.  So in exchange for the tuition money, Darnell will play the part.

On the whole, "Get Hard" is not a very good movie.  I did more eye-rolling than laughing, and when a grin formed on my face, I was ashamed.  The jokes were usually too dumb or simply crude to get a laugh.  I was glad that I saw it in a crowded theater; with a less energetic crowd, I'm sure this would have been as painful as "This is the End" or "Neighbors."

Will Ferrell knows how to get a laugh.  He proved that in "Elf" and "Old School."  But that implies that he has good material.  When he doesn't, he seems to realize it because he resorts to over-dramatizing it or shouting it.  Perhaps it's an attempt to breathe life into it.  It doesn't work and reeks of desperation.  His incessant malapropisms aren't funny either.  But when he does have something to work with, which he occasionally does, he knows what to do with it.

The first film I saw Kevin Hart in was "Soul Plane," which I detested.  But he's growing on me.  Ferrell's career is on life-support, and he seems tired.  Hart, on the other hand, steals many scenes, and some of his reaction shots are priceless.  But with such limp material, there's little that he can do.  He does have a nice chemistry with Edwina Findley Dickerson and Ariana Neal, who play his wife and daughter.

"Get Hard" is too long and too dumb to be worth checking out unless you're a die hard fan of Ferrell or Hart, but at least it's not physically painful to sit through.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

It Follows

1/4

Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Lili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Jake Weary

Rated R for Disturbing Violent and Sexual Content including Graphic Nudity and for Language

We go to the movies to escape reality.  Whether it's for a good laugh ("Ted"), a good cry ("The Notebook"), or even a scare ("The Innkeepers"), we watch movies to have an experience we wouldn't otherwise get in our ordinary lives.  That's why the best movies reflect reality rather than imitate it.  For example, no one in real life talks like they do in a Quentin Tarantino movie (wouldn't it be cool if they did?), but it's certainly fun to watch those movies because we get to hear people speak so eloquently and mix violence with comedy.  Really, movies are theater without the constraints of the stage.

Which is why it isn't a good idea to imitate reality.  Having people speak and talk like they do in real life is a recipe for boredom simply because we see and hear it every day.  We want to see, hear and feel the emotion in the characters and be told a story.  Someone didn't tell writer/director David Robert Mitchell.  In an attempt to avoid melodrama and going over-the-top, he has leeched any sense of personality from his actors.

Jay (Monroe) is excited.  She is going on a date with a hunky guy named Hugh (Weary), but that ends badly when he attacks her with chloroform after sleeping with her.  His motives are less sinister and more a desire to warn her (surely he could have done this in a less sleazy way) of the very real danger she is in.  Apparently, he was stalked by a...thing, which can change shape, and if it catches up to its target, it kills them.  The only way to stop it is to pass it on through sex.  Now Jay and her friends have to figure out how to stop this thing before it kills her.

I am known to criticize movies for being "indie" or "artsy" just for the sake of doing it, and "It Follows" is ever so guilty of it.  Long, slow takes, performances that are low-key to the point of lifeless, and general pretension.  I don't know if it ever went to Sundance, but I'm sure everyone there would have loved what Mitchell's film has to offer.  Watching this movie made me imagine it being directed by a 20-something guy wearing a tiny fedora, horn-rimmed glasses, a flannel shirt and some very skinny jeans.

One of the reasons that the film sucks is because the characters are boring.  Everyone is so lacking in energy that they're more likely to put you to sleep than get you to care enough about them to get scared.  Not only that, they're self-absorbed to the extreme.  They regard everything with so much ennui that it's impossible to believe that they are interested in anything except themselves.  Since at least two of the cast members, Maika Monroe ("The Guest") and Keir Gilchrist ("It's Kind of a Funny Story"), have show talent in the past, I'm going to chalk it up to Mitchell's attempt to portray disaffected teenagers.  But hell, if I wanted two hours of that, I'd hang out at my local high school.

It is clear that David Robert Mitchell knows his horror movies, and studied some of the classics in preparation for making this film (James Berardinelli cited "Halloween" as an influence, but a more notable one would be "A Nightmare on Elm Street").  It is also clear that none of John Carpenter's or Wes Craven's talents have rubbed off on him.  The references are clear, but save for a jump moment or two and a somewhat intense climax, this is a scare-less chore.