Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Lady

2.5/4

Starring: Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis

Rated R for Violence including Some Bloody Images

Looking at her picture, you wouldn't imagine that Aung San Suu Kyi would be the thorn in the side of a brutal military regime.  She looks kindly, soft-spoken and motherly; closer to a teacher than a revolutionary.  And yet, she ended up winning the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring democracy to Burma.

After her father was murdered for trying to bring democracy to the tiny East Asian nation, Aung San Suu Kyi was raised in England, where she married a man named Michael Aris (Thewlis), with whom she had two children.  Her homeland is ruled by a military junta, whose violent oppression of its people has brought about a number of massacres.  Suu's mother has had a stroke, and when she goes to visit, the academics believe that she should be the one to carry on her father's legacy.  Despite having no political experience, she reluctantly agrees.

The failing of "The Lady" is one that afflicts the majority of lesser biopics ("Frida" comes to mind): it tells us what happened to the central character but not who she is.  Surely, Suu's story is extraordinary enough to deserve its own movie, but the limitations of the script and director Luc Besson's vision never make her more than a pawn in her own story.  A good biography must have a three-dimensional character at its center.  I watched "Schindler's List" again recently, and it serves as a good counterpoint to "The Lady."  The story of Oskar Schindler is incredible, but his character flaws and complexities make it engaging.

Asian superstar Michelle Yeoh plays the lead role, and while she's known for action movies (she has co-starred with Jackie Chan numerous times and starred in the James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies"), she is a gifted actress.  This isn't her best performance, which was "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (a performance that should have netted her an Oscar nomination), but it's nonetheless effective.  She brings a quiet strength and dignity to the character, despite Besson emphasizing Suu's tiny, almost frail, appearance.  Her co-star is David Thewlis, but his role is strictly supporting.  In fact, he has too much screen time...the scenes of him struggling to raise his children without her are unnecessary and dilute the film's focus (it doesn't help that his performance occasionally strikes the wrong note).

The film was directed by Luc Besson, France's answer to Tony Scott.  Stating the obvious, this is not an action movie, and it's evidence that Besson should probably stick to a genre that he knows.  He lacks the grand vision to pull something like this off, and his portrayal of Suu comes close to idolization (she's virtually without flaws...it is a testament to Yeoh's talent that Suu is as sympathetic as she is).  The film's timeline is shaky and beefing up the back story and the diversity of Burma's people (and the difficulty that presents in overthrowing a government) would have helped.

"The Lady" is definitely watchable and almost always engaging.  It is too problematic for me to recommend without reservations, but political junkies and fans of the genre will probably like it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

2001: A Space Odyssey

2/4

Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, and the voice of Douglas Rain

Rated G

Stanley Kubrick was always an intensely cerebral filmmaker.  Even "The Shining," which was certainly terrifying, was horror of a psychological kind.  Never has that been more true than in "2001: A Space Odyssey."  There are definitely elements of this film that are worthy of praise, and the visual effects are brilliant (even by today's standards).  But the amount of time and effort (Kubrick's films are not "easy viewing") that the film demands doesn't reward enough to recommend sitting through it.

The film's plot is not its strong suit.  It's paper thin and not very interesting.  A large black monolith has been discovered, and two astronauts (Dullea and Lockwood) have been sent on a secret mission, although they don't know its parameters.  The rest of their crew is in cryosleep, but when the ship's computer, HAL 9000 (Rain), detects a problem that doesn't exist, the scientists stop trusting him.  It's something that he takes personally.

Watching this movie, I was surprised at how many moments I had recognized from other films.  The film's opening, dramatic scene has been parodied numerous times, and elements of the plot echo other films ("Gravity" and "Interstellar" come to mind, as well as every other sci-fi movie where a machine has gone homicidal).  Sadly, that only makes this film look worse, since the aforementioned films took Kubrick's concepts and improved upon them.  That's partly due to the screenplay (which has very little dialogue...a pet peeve of mine as many of you know) and partly due to the fact that Christopher Nolan, and to a lesser extent Alfonso Cuaron, are better filmmakers than Stanley Kubrick.

Just because I'm giving this movie a negative review doesn't mean I hated it (hence the 2/4).  I liked "The Shining" and "Eyes Wide Shut" very much.  Kubrick was a gifted filmmaker.  There is a undeniable element of craftsmanship here.  But there's so little to grab onto that it's hard to remain invested in the film.  It quickly becomes one of those movies that is decent while you're watching it, but if you have to pause to go to the bathroom, you'll find yourself struggling to motivate yourself to push "play" again.

The biggest flaw of the film is that it is far too long.  I don't mind slow-moving or subtle films on principle.  Some of them, like "The Samaritan" or "Star Wars" (any), have been enjoyable.  But they had plots that I wanted to see through to the end and characters I could identify with.  That's not the case here.  There's barely enough material for a 90 minute movie.  In fact, a better filmmaker would have realized that the majority of the film's first hour could have been cut without losing anything.  And while clips of slow movement set the film's tone, pace and mood, Kubrick overdoes it.

And yet, the film looks fantastic.  It's astonishing, really.  Kubrick was infamous for his obsessive desire for perfection (even taking days to get a single shot), and that shows here.  "2001: A Space Odyssey" is a feast for the eyes.  If only it had been the same for the mind and the emotions as well.

Film lovers might do well to check it out if only so they can say that they saw it.  Everyone else should stick to "Interstellar" and "Gravity."

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Terror Train

1/4

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, Hart Boechner, David Copperfield

Rated R (Probably for Violence/Gore and Sexuality/Nudity)

Everyone gives slasher movie villains such a hard time.  I mean, they do kill people, but so does Arnold Schwarzenegger.  But instead of misguided men with testosterone issues or aliens, mad slashers ensure humanity's survival by offing the species' most stupid members.  That's not villainy, it's community service!

All joking aside, "Terror Train" is a pretty shitty slasher movie.  The characters are some of the dumbest people to ever wander in front of a camera (even by slasher movie standards), the script is in rough draft form, the atmosphere constantly mistakes darkness for being ominous, and the film moves along at a crawl (it's as if the filmmakers were convinced we actually cared about the characters, none of whom have anything resembling a personality).

The premise for the film (a fraternity finds out years later that pranks have a price, especially if they go wrong) is a slasher movie staple, but it's at least dressed up with intriguing (if improbable) details.  Money aside, what fraternity could, or even would, book a train to host a party?

Whatever.  It's just an excuse to set up the kill scenes, but sadly, they're not good.  They're short, relatively bloodless, and not well staged (in most cases, we only see the before and after).  As such, they lack any sort of visceral impact, which is really the only level that "Terror Train" could have hoped to succeed as.

After "Halloween," Jamie Lee Curtis became a hot commodity in the horror genre.  This, "The Fog" (also directed by John Carpenter), "Prom Night."  All slashers.  It wasn't until "Trading Places" in 1983 that she escaped from being typecast, and went on to make movies like "A Fish Called Wanda" and "True Lies."  I like Curtis very much, but I gotta say, her acting is pretty bad.  At least she's in good company, with Oscar-winner Ben Johnson (who seems to have misread the role) and Hart Boechner (who went on to play the sleazy co-worker in "Die Hard") also turning in flat performances.  No one else is memorable.

This was the film debut of Roger Spottiswoode, who went on to direct, among other things, "Turner & Hooch" (the dog movie with Tom Hanks), a James Bond adventure, and an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (the pun is not intended, I assure you).  Then again, he also directed the much despised Stallone comedy "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!"  Methinks he would do best to leave this title off of his resume too.  After all, it was probably a bad sign if the writer's wife said it sounded stupid based on the pitch alone.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Unlawful Entry

2/4

Starring: Kurt Russell, Madeline Stowe, Ray Liotta, Roger E. Mosely

Rated R for Terror and Violence, and for Sexuality and Language

"Unlawful Entry" is a mediocre "stranger within" thriller; better than "The Resident" but certainly nowhere near the level of "Fear," or more appropriately, "Fatal Attraction."  With its pedestrian direction, bland screenplay and flat performances, it's just poor filmmaking.  But more than that, it feels like a missed opportunity.  After all, what could be scarier than being terrorized by a police officer?

Michael (Russell) and Karen (Stowe) Carr are settling in for the night when their home is burglarized.  While Karen is briefly taken hostage, she escapes without a scratch and the robber flees.  Two police officers, Officer Pete Davis (Liotta) and Officer Roy Cole (Mosely), answer the call.  Michael plans on buying a gun, but Pete talks him into getting a security system instead.  Pete is one hell of a nice guy: he takes care of the security system installation and takes Michael on a ride-along.  Michael is impressed until Pete invites him to beat the crap out of the robber.  Michael wants to distance himself from the clearly unbalanced officer, but Karen thinks he's great...at least at first.

Two things are required for a thriller like this to succeed: pacing and character development.  Pacing is essential for any thriller (actually, every film needs to be paced appropriately in order for it to work).  But character development is non-negotiable for a "stranger within" thriller, especially when it comes to the villain.  The audience must understand his mindset, his motivation, and what he is capable of.  Without that, the movie won't work.  While the screenplay (credited to three different people...not a good sign) offers some details about Pete's personality, including possible PTSD, they're dropped as soon as they're raised.  As such, Pete is a one-dimensional psychopath.  Compare him to Alex Forrest, who was a fully-realized woman.  There was a wealth of material that could have been explored to give the film a bigger punch, but sadly, it takes the easy way out at every turn.

None of the three leads possesses great dramatic range.  Despite being well-known as a pleasant family man off-screen, Ray Liotta has a reputation for playing psychopathic characters ("Turbulence" being the exception since he was so over-the-top that he became comical).  So the villain in a "stranger within" movie would seem like a good fit for him, but it's not.  While there is definitely some menace here and there, Pete eventually comes across as cartoonish (the screenplay is partially at fault).  Former Disney kid Kurt Russell is effective, but the screenplay lets him down; any false moments in his performance (of which, thankfully, there are only a few) are a direct result of that.  Ditto for Madeline Stowe.  Stowe is usually a good actress even in bad movies ("Pulse," "The General's Daughter"), but she's stiff in the role of the misled wife.  I expected better from her.  Special mention has to go to Roger E. Mosely, who is just awful as Pete's partner.  Nothing that comes out of his mouth convinces.

The film was directed by Jonathan Kaplan, whose career has turned to TV episodes.  The film actually feels like a TV movie; visually stale and episodic.  Instead of raising the stakes, he concentrates on a few things that Pete does to terrorize the Carrs and expands upon them.  That's not the way to make this kind of a movie.  The villain must push his victims closer and closer to the edge; once we see what he does, the film must move on.

Skip this one and watch "Fatal Attraction" again.  That movie at least understood the rules.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Butcher Boy

2/4

Starring: Eamonn Owens, Alan Boyle, Fiona Shaw, Stephen Rea, Sinead O'Connor, Aisling O'Sullivan, Brendan Gleeson

Rated R for Language and Violence

With a title like "The Butcher Boy," one could be excused for believing it to be a horror movie about a kid.  While the film's central character is certainly a terror in his small Irish town, it's a misguided assumption.  In reality, "The Butcher Boy" is a coming-of-age story laced with some black comedy.  It's a pretty simple story, but telling it effectively requires a defter touch than Neil Jordan possesses (at least in this case).

Francie Brady (Owens) is the walking definition of a "problem child."  He's a bully to Phillip Nugent (Andrew Fullerton), the son of his nemesis, Mrs. Nugent (Shaw), has a foul mouth, and will lie to and con just about anyone he can.  Considering his home life, with his father (Rea), "the best drinker in town," and mother (O'Sullivan), whose sanity hangs on by a thread, it's understandable.  Francie's life becomes a Greek tragedy, and he will have to find a way to survive in 1963 Ireland.

Asking an audience to sympathize with a dislikable protagonist is always difficult, but it can be done ("Cruel Intentions," which I watched again recently, is a good example).  Francie is certainly not a very likable character, but it's clear that Jordan wants us to like him.  It's a tough sell, and that's mainly due to the performance of Eamonn Owens in his film debut.  He's not bad, per se.  Owens has plenty of fire and energy, but it's not effectively channeled by Jordan.  There are scenes where he manages to give off the right vibes, but those are few.

Owens is present in every scene, and the other cast members just orbit him, wandering in and out depending on where he is and what he is doing.  Alan Boyle plays Francie's only friend Joe, Fiona Shaw plays the haughty Mrs. Nugent (Shaw allows the audience to see why Francie hates her, but understand her point-of-view), Stephen Rea is both frightening and resigned as the alcoholic Da, and Aisling O'Sullivan shows the light and dark of a woman with bipolar disorder.  Sinead O'Connor adds warmth as the Virgin Mary (the irony of casting her is delicious, especially because she gives a good performance).  A number of Irish character actors also appear in various supporting roles, including Brendan Gleeson, Sean McGinley, John Kavanagh (all three of whom starred in "Braveheart"), Ian Hart, and Gerard McSorley.

The problem with the film is that I'm not sure that Neil Jordan knows what he wants his film to be.  A satire?  A drama?  A black comedy?  A tragedy?  A coming-of-age story?  There are attempts at all of them, and more, and the result is a mishmash of tones, ideas and various other stuff that doesn't gel.  Much of what Jordan does is in direct conflict with something else.  For example, he wants Francie to be three-dimensional while still being the product of satire.  Note, I won't claim that it is impossible for a visionary director to blend these tones and genres, but Jordan isn't it.

One of the more interesting things that Jordan does is have the narrator (Francie as an adult) occasionally speak to Francie.  It's certainly innovative (the only other movie that I can think of that did something so unusual with an off-camera narrator was "The Opposite of Sex," where Christina Ricci's character spoke directly to the audience and had some fun at their expense), but it doesn't happen often enough and isn't used effectively.  This, along with the scenes with the Virgin Mary, are his attempts to get the audience inside Francie's head, but it's only halfway successful.

What the film does have is a sense of place.  Neil Jordan grew up in Ireland, and that's probably why the setting and the feel of the town feel so real.  But without a central character that the audience can form some sort of connection to and a lack of focus, "The Butcher Boy" is only good for making you want to go to Ireland.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Inside Out

3/4

Starring (voices): Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, Richard Kind, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan

Rated PG for Mild Thematic Elements and Some Action

No other studio is as reliable as Pixar Animation.  Aside from "Toy Story 3" and "Monsters University" (I can't count "Cars" since I fell asleep during the middle of it), they haven't had a misfire, and have two undeniable masterpieces in their cannon ("Finding Nemo," "Brave") and the rest is up there.  I think James Berardinelli put it best in his review of "Up:" "Pixar views their films as creative and artistic endeavors; Dreamworks and Fox see theirs as products. With Pixar, it's about the movie.  With most other animated features, it's about the marketing."

I think that's why they are so successful (apart from utilizing top talent instead of whoever will sign the dotted line).  They tell these stories not because they will make a quick and easy buck, but because they want to tell them.  Pixar also encourages filmmakers to take risks.  Both of these quotes came from Andrew Stanton, who directed "Finding Nemo," and considering the abomination that was "John Carter," I'm guessing he didn't have that freedom with that piece of garbage.

The premise of "Inside Out," about the activities of the five central emotions in a little girl's head, is so abstract that I was wondering how anyone thought this could work.  It's such a complex and far-out idea that it seems unfilmable.  But that hasn't stopped Pete Doctor and his co-director, Ronaldo del Carmen, from trying.  The result is not an unqualified success (in fact, compared to the rest of the Pixar canon, it's close to a misfire), but I do think it is worth seeing.

In the world if "Inside Out," every person has five emotions in their brain: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust.  They guide the actions of the person they inhabit.  In the mind of Riley (Dias), the leader is Joy (Poehler), who has made it her mission to keep Riley happy, and that means actively preventing the other emotions from taking over (or failing that, solving the problems as quickly as possible).  However, Sadness (Smith) is getting in the way, and a fight over one of Riley's core memories (which govern her personality), leads them to get sucked out of the Control Room and go deep into Riley's memory storage.  Now, they must find a way back before Riley becomes unable to deal with her new life in San Francisco.

"Inside Out" at times has the sensibilities of an art film.  While "Wall-E" certainly raised questions of whether or not children (Pixar's core audience), would connect to such a film (which its massive box office numbers definitively answered), "Inside Out" is even more out there.  It's not necessarily difficult, just more intellectually demanding than you'd expect.

Part of the reason the film works is that the actors are perfectly cast.  Amy Poehler tones down her snark and makes Joy into an effervescent and appealing character.  No one does downbeat insecurity like Phyllis Smith, so her casting is perfect, as is Lewis Black as Anger.  Mindy Kaling and Bill Hader round out the emotions as Disgust and Fear respectively.  Of those, only Smith and Black are recognizable, and that's a good thing because in all cases it helps with their performances.  Kaitlyn Dias makes for a good pre-adolescent, but due to the nature of the script, she doesn't have a lot of screen time.  Ditto for Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane, although all are effective.

"Inside Out" never stops inventing itself.  There's always a new twist or new adventure around the corner, and while that's appealing from a storytelling perspective, it makes it hard to get involved in the story.  That's doubly true with so many characters and so much going on.  Narrowing the focus a little would have helped the film immeasurably.  The rules of how all of this works are also on the fuzzy side, which makes it a little difficult to buy into the film's world.

Nevertheless, "Inside Out" manages to entertain.  It is by turns amusing, suspenseful and poignant.  I'm okay with that.

Note: "Lava," the opening cartoon that precedes the film, is dull and irritating.  I recommend coming in a little late so you'll miss it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

In the Company of Men

2/4

Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Matt Malloy, Stacy Edwards

Rated R for Language and Emotional Abuse

Let's hurt someone.
That's the line that grew into this screenplay.  The premise, about two businessmen playing a cruel joke on a vulnerable woman, is sleazy, and despite aspirations to do otherwise, it doesn't do much else.  Writer/director Neil LaBute forces us to watch these characters, neither of whom is likable, talk and talk and talk.  That's fine, but they don't say anything interesting or insightful.

Chad (Eckhart) and Howard (Malloy) are sitting in a nameless airport talking.  Both of them are burned from bad break-ups, but Chad is especially angry because he sees women interfering in the "man's world," and how the workplace bends over backwards for their sake, but he has to walk on tiptoes around them lest he get fired for saying the wrong thing.  Both are travelling businessmen, so on their next six-week trip, they decide to "find a girl vulnerable as hell," get her to like both of them, and then dump her at the same time.  Mostly because he is seduced by Chad's charisma, Howard reluctantly agrees.  Their target is Christine (Edwards), a deaf but pretty typist.  The game doesn't turn out either of them expect.

Had this film presented us with real characters and/or shed some kind of light on the human condition, the inherent cruelty of the film's plot might be justifiable.  But all three of the leads (no one else has more than a line or two) are so thinly drawn that they can be defined by a single characteristic: Chad is a borderline psychopath, Howard is a masochist with self-esteem issues, and Christine is a doormat.  It's a good starting point, but they don't even grow enough to fill out the clichés that LaBute has pigeonholed them into.

It's not for lack of trying on the actors' part.  They try their best, but there's just nothing they can really do with so little to work with.  Aaron Eckhart, always an interesting actor, does his best with what he has.  It is a testament to his talent that there are moments when he shows how truly malicious Chad is.  Matt Malloy does a good job of portraying a doormat with a conscience, but apart from that there's nothing really unique about his character or his portrayal.  Stacy Edwards gives the best performance in the film, although she doesn't have much to do other than make us wait for the hammer to fall on her.  Interestingly, she nearly couldn't star in the film because her wedding date was around the time when shooting was to start.  The producers pushed back shooting to accommodate her.  Considering the result, it was a wise decision.

Neil LaBute often makes plays and films about how men and women relate to each other, and he certainly has a cynical view about it (his films include "Your Friends and Neighbors" and "The Shape of Things").  Unfortunately, he doesn't really say much of any interest.  A better investment of everyone's time would to show Chad seeing a shrink to deal with his issues with women, sending Howard to a Tony Robbins seminar, and showing Christine in a relationship with a guy who actually respects her.

I will fully admit that the end of the film has a twist that I didn't see coming.  But you have to deal with the bland 90 minutes before and the equally bland (and badly open-ended) 5 minutes after to see it.  It's not worth it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Sayonara

2/4

Starring: Marlon Brando, Miiko Taka, Red Buttons, Miyoshi Umeki, Patricia Owens, James Garner, Kent Smith, Martha Scott, Ricardo Montalban

Not Rated

"Sayonara" is primarily a victim of its length.  I have nothing against long movies in principle, but that excludes movies that last longer than they need to.  "Sayonara" has a running time of nearly 2.5 hours.  A half hour, or more, could easily have been cut off with little lost.  More compelling protagonists would have helped immeasurably, as well.

American servicemen were still stationed in Japan after World War II.  Military policy tried to prevent servicemen from marrying Japanese women, although 10,000 members of the armed forces did so anyway.  One of them was James A. Miechener, who wrote the book upon which the film was based (Michener's first novel was "Tales from the South Pacific," for which he won a Pulitzer and was the basis for the famous musical).

Major Gruver (Brando) is a pilot serving in the Korean War in 1951, but he is pulled out by General Webster (Smith), who is the father of his girlfriend Eileen (Owens), and sent to relative safety in Japan.  Eileen and her parents want Gruver to marry her, but he seems reluctant to pop the question.  Shortly before leaving, one of his men, Joe Kelly (Buttons), tells him that he is defying policy and marrying Katsumi (Umeki), a Japanese woman.  Although he disapproves of such marriages, Gruver agrees to attend as Joe's best man.  He reassesses his position when he spies theater star Hana-Ogi (Taka), with whom he becomes instantly smitten.  They soon fall deeply in love, but there are forces trying to pull them apart.

Aside from the way-too-long running time, the film is dealt a severe blow by the simple fact that there's only one interesting character in the film, and it's not even the protagonist.  That distinction goes to Joe Kelly, played with humor and pathos by noted comic Red Buttons.  It's an obligatory character, but Buttons plays him well.  He has all the best moments and best lines; everyone else is either obligatory or underdeveloped (or more likely both).

Marlon Brando is arguably the most famous movie star who ever lived.  Even those who haven't seen him in any movies know who he is.  While I concede that he has talent (his performance as Don Vito Corleone in "The Godfather" is legendary, and rightly so), I've always found him to be overrated.  Plus that nasally voice of his always makes him sound like he has a sinus infection.  His work in "Sayonara" is serviceable, but no more.  Gruver isn't a particularly interesting character.  Ditto for Miiko Taka.  She's adequate, but not stand-out.  Miyoshi Umeki, like her co-star Red Buttons, won an Oscar for her performance as Hatsumi, Kelly's wife, but she doesn't have much to do.  Next to Buttons, the next interesting character is Eileen, and that's because Patricia Owens does a lot of good covering up the fact that her character is not well written; her storyline with Brando lacks closure while she has a platonic relationship with Ricardo Montalban (go figure).

There is an interesting note about the casting, and it's the very thing that "Tropic Thunder" parodied so mercilessly.  Audrey Hepburn was first offered the role of Hana-Ogi, but turned it down because she rightly realized that she couldn't play a Japanese woman.

Like the script, the direction by Joshua Logan is pedestrian.  It makes the mistake of telling us what we need to know, rather than showing it to us.  For example, much is made about Gruver doesn't want to disappoint his father, but his father never appears.  Nor is his much mentioned fame shown.  The forces that conspire against the lovers remain abstract concepts, and as a result, the stakes feel lower.  That's just bad storytelling.

There are moments here and there that do work, particularly at the end.  But it's too long and too dull to recommend seeking out this hard to find flick.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Angel Eyes

1.5/4

Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Jim Caviezel, Terrence Howard, Sonia Braga, Jeremy Sisto, Shirley Knight

Rated R for Language, Violence and a Scene of Sexuality

Bring on the suds!  "Angel Eyes" is a would-be tearjerker that is too dim-witted and too inept to provoke any streaming of tears in anyone except those who will cry if they see a little kid get a paper-cut.  In fact, there are definitely times when the film ventures into self-parody.

Sharon Pogue (Lopez) is a cop working in Chicago.  There is a mysterious man watching her, but instead of confronting him, they just exchanged soulful glances at each other.  It's a good thing too, since he saves her from getting shot by a criminal.  When she invites him out with her buddies in thanks, sparks fly.  His name is Catch (Caviezel), and he's kind of an odd duck: polite, innocent, but socially awkward ("I was imagining what you looked like without your clothes," he tells her.  It's not what he meant, but you get the idea).  However, he's got some obvious secrets, and the harder Sharon falls for him, the more she needs to know who this man is.

"Angel Eyes" is "Twilight" for adults.  It's all about these two posturing around the one thing they want (in Sharon's case) or need (in Catch's case) to talk about.  Far too much time is spent watching them argue about Catch's demons.  She wants him to let her in, but he's in denial.  Yawn...  It might have worked with more honesty, but director Luis Mandoki (never a director with much talent) is content to keep things on the surface level.  For a TV soap opera, that's okay, but an audience has the right to expect more from a feature film.

Neither of the two leads possesses great thespian abilities, and what little skills they have are certainly not on display here.  Lopez's case might be in part due to miscasting (she looks good in a uniform, but I had a tough time buying her as "one of the guys").  Jim Caviezel, on the other hand, gives a flat, lifeless performance.  Normally a low-key actor, Caviezel overdoes the wounded, emotional hunk type to the point where Catch is easy enough to ridicule.  The two also share very little chemistry, which makes the film all the more dull.  The other actors are wasted.

Part of the reason the film misfires is because of the script.  In addition to being overlong and poorly constructed, there are more than a few lines that are unintentionally funny.  The film is too sudsy to be enjoyable as camp, but there is some of that masochistic quality on evidence here.

The film also suffers from some rather obvious problems on a more basic scale: awkward editing, uneven pacing, and a lack of rhythm.  In other words, this is just another case of bad storytelling.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Jurassic World

3/4

Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Vincent D'Onofrio, Omar Sy, B.D. Wong, Judy Greer

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Science-Fiction Violence and Peril

Everyone has their favorite moment from the original "Jurassic Park:" the T-Rex chase, the kitchen fight, the final battle (for action scenes, my vote goes to Dennis's run-in with the dilophosorus, which still scares me to this day).  But the scene that sticks out in my mind the most is when we see the merchandise while John Williams' theme plays softly in the background.  It's a poignant moment, perfectly composed by Steven Spielberg.  It gives us a sense of John Hammond's vision of what Jurassic Park could have been.

"Jurassic World" is built on that idea.  Not the poignancy, but the imagination of what Jurassic Park would be like when it actually opened.  Now called Jurassic World, the park is indeed open, but as we all know, when man plays god, he loses.

When the film starts, Jurassic World has been open for years and is a huge moneymaker.  But audiences are growing bored, and while attendance spikes when they create a new dinosaur, investors want something big and ferocious to maximize the pizazz.  So they experimented with genetic modification to up the ante, creating the Indominous Rex.  The head honcho of the park, a Type-A workaholic named Claire (Howard), sends in Owen (Pratt), the velociraptor wrangler, to make sure the enclosure is fortified enough.  However, the dinosaur gets loose and goes on a rampage, heading straight for the visitor center.  This is good news for a man named Hoskins (D'Onofrio), who wants to test the ability of making the velociraptors into war machines.  Meanwhile, Claire's nephews, Gray (Simpkins) and Ryan (Robinson) are trapped in the park.

There are some good things about "Jurassic World" and some not so good things.  The goal of this movie is to provide some intense dino action, and it delivers.  It's scary, it's violent and there's lots of adrenaline.  On that very important level, the film is a success.  Unfortunately, it lacks what made the original, and to a lesser extent the sequels, so special: a heart.  The characters in this movie are all types, and none of them has anything coming close to a personality.  We identified with Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, Ian Malcolm, and the rest of them.  That's not the case here, and it holds the film back.

The acting is adequate (which considering the odd choices, is to be expected), but no more.  Chris Pratt, coming fresh off of "Guardians of the Galaxy," okay, but I got the sense that another actor could have done it better.  Bryce Dallas Howard plays a decent anal-retentive suit that grows a heart.  Vincent D'Onofrio is miscast as the gung-ho military guy; his character is obnoxious, and not in a good way.  Sadly, Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson aren't successful.  Putting it bluntly, they're really annoying, especially Robinson, who is both too young for the role and gives a terrible performance.

Colin Trevorrow was picked to direct this movie after he made the indie romantic comedy "Safety Not Guaranteed."  I haven't seen it, but it got good reviews (including those outside of the Sundance crowd).  Here, he's trying to imitate Steven Spielberg, but lacks his imagination and deft touch.  Some moments don't have the impact he would like because he isn't able to think on the same grand scale, while others simply don't land correctly and come across as cheesy and overwrought.  Nevertheless, it packs in the thrills, and when action these days is all about 3D and visual assaults on the brain, that's to be praised.

Apart from the acting and the flat characterization, the film lacks heart and wonder.  Spielberg has always been an optimist, and that has shown in many of his movies like "E.T." and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."  That's missing from here.  I got a kick out of seeing what the park is like (there's everything from a water show that puts Shamu to shame to a petting zoo where little kids can ride the baby dinosaurs), but they feel like in-jokes.  I didn't feel like I was there, and the excitement at seeing the actual park dissipated pretty quickly.

Part of that may be from the social satire of big business greed, instant gratification, and the addition to all things bigger and badder (they certainly explain why this superhero mania hasn't died yet).  While it's definitely on-target, it's more than a little cynical, and that has filtered into the project.

The film's look is also worth mentioning.  The original three films were bright and colorful, but here, the color contrast has gone to extremes.  The bright colors (i.e. sunlight) are super-bright, while the darks (i.e. the forests) are super-dark.  It's meant to make the film more visually appealing, but it has the result of making every part of the image look like it was created by CGI.  It's less realistic, and that hinders our involvement in the film.  It also shows the dinosaurs for what they are: images created on a computer that are put in after filming is done on a green screen.  Again, it looks nice, but the color shading, not to mention their movements, make them look fake, which hampers our involvement.  The creatures in the original were the combination of animatronics, models and CGI, which was by all accounts extremely difficult, but it paid off tremendously.  "Jurassic World" lacks such intimacy.

All that said, "Jurassic World" is worth seeing.  It does what it sets out to do, and while it could have been a lot better, it's still entertaining.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Insidious: Chapter 3

1.5/4

Starring: Stefanie Scott, Dermot Mulroney, Lin Shaye, Tate Berney, Hayley Kiyoko

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

The good news about the prequel to the 2010 shocker (that made my Top 10 list that year) is that it's better than the second chapter.  The bad news is that the first sequel was a trainwreck, so that statement must be taken as a back-handed compliment.

"Insidious: Chapter 3" is a prequel, although the only difference it really makes is a quick scene at the end and sparing Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Barbara Hershey and most of the rest of the cast from the indignity of appearing in this blatant cash grab.  Apart from the two ghost hunters played by Leigh Whannel (who wrote and directed this installment) and Angus Sampson, the only returning character is Lin Shaye, who appears bored for the most part.

Quinn Brenner (Scott) lost her mother to breast cancer a year and a half ago.  But she wants to communicate with her, which leads her to Elise (Shaye), a psychic.  After initially declining, Elise agrees to help the girl, but that only leads to bad experiences for both of them: Quinn is being threatened by some very violent demons and Elise is having a run-in with a demon from her past that has it in for her.  Quinn's father Sean (Mulroney) and brother Alex (Berney) are helpless, so Elise will have to decide how much she is willing to risk to help the poor girl.

Horror movies are rarely known for good acting, and "Insidious: Chapter 3" is no exception.  In fact, I will claim that the film is dealt a huge blow by the flat performance of Stefanie Scott.  She's one of those generically cute tween starlets that appears with regularity on the Disney channel and teen soap operas.  Which is to say, she looks appealing, but her acting abilities only go so far as being able to read the script.  Her more famous co-star, Dermot Mulroney, isn't much better.  He doesn't have a lot of range, but the charm he had in "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "Copycat" doesn't show up here.  Instead, he does a good job of blending in with the furniture.

This is the directorial debut of Leigh Whannell, who has written all of the horror movies directed by his long time friend and collaborator James Wan.  Wan didn't return to direct this sequel because he had signed on to make "Furious 7," although he does have a cameo.  Although the two have worked together for nearly 15 years, Whannell has inherited little of Wan's ability to scare the living hell out of an audience.  He can create solid shocks, but can't sustain the suspense.  What's curious is that he concentrates on the grief of the two characters (Quinn and Elise) for much of the running time.  I guess the intent is to develop them more, but the script and Scott's acting are so weak that it ends up being a waste of time.

Better save your gas and watch "The Innkeepers" and wait for "Jurassic World."

Taking Lives

1.5/4

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Tcheky Karyo, Olivier Martinez, Gena Rowlands, Kiefer Sutherland

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong Violence including Disturbing Images, Language and Some Sexuality

I remember shortly before "Taking Lives" came out the studio released the first ten minutes as a marketing ploy.  It was a scene featuring the then-unknown Paul Dano and Justin Chatwin (who is fantastic) as the killer and his first victim.  It's the best part of the movie, which I suppose makes sense from a marketing standpoint, since once word got out about how awful the rest of it was, no one would see it.

"Taking Lives" is a serial killer movie, and as is the case with almost all serial killer movies, it has a gimmick.  In this case, the killer "takes lives" both literally and figuratively.  When he gets tired of one, he kills someone who doesn't look like he will be missed and then inhabits the new person.  It's a compelling idea, or at least it would have been had it been employed with any degree of intelligence.  Hasn't anyone in this movie heard of DNA evidence?

A body has just been uncovered on a construction site in Montreal.  It's not the first, and it won't be the last, so the lead inspector, a man named Leclair (Karyo), enlists the help of FBI profiler Illeana Scott (Jolie).  Scott is one kind of crime-fighter.  She only needs the burial spot and the body to figure out everything.  That doesn't stop another body from turning up, only this time there's a witness.  His name is Costa (Hawke), and can show them what the killer looks like.  Naturally, a witness isn't something a killer wants to leave alive, so Costa is in danger, although apparently not enough that he and Illeana are prevented from falling for one another.

"Taking Lives" is one of those rare movies that experiences a drop in intelligence with every passing minute.  I'm not kidding; each scene is dumber than the one before it.  The majority of the film is barely watchable, but the final act is just awful.  It's stupid, drawn out, and approaching the level of "88 Minutes" in terms of absurdity.  For those of you who were unfortunate enough to sit through that crapfest, you'll know how much those words are meant to sting.

The two leads, Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke, are talented actors, but they're clearly slumming for a paycheck here.  Neither of them gives a bad performance (except when the script fails them), but they're clearly slumming for paychecks.  They pocket a few million a piece so they can get back to things that they really care about, which for Hawke is his stuff with Richard Linklater and Jolie's charity work.  And while the two actors generate some heat together, it feels shoehorned in by nervous (and clueless) studio executives.  Adding insult to injury it features a sex scene that's so badly choreographed that it becomes unintentionally funny.

Their co-stars can't even manage that faint of praise.  It's hard to waste the talent of the great Tcheky Karyo, but he's flat here.  Karyo looks bored.  Olivier Martinez, who was solid in "Unfaithful," is just awful here.  I'm surprised he wasn't singled out for a Razzie.  Gena Rowlands and Kiefer Sutherland appear, but despite their high billing, they're only on screen for five to ten minutes a piece, if that.

This was the feature film debut of D.J. Caruso after the independent film "The Salton Sea" (starring Val Kilmer) and about a dozen things on TV (none of which, I might add, have gone anywhere).  He must have had damaging pictures.  Regardless, it's a prime example of how painful a bad mystery can be.  Foreshadowing is crucial in thrillers, but he highlights important clues with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.  And that's just the start of the film's problems.

As bad as the first hour is, it's at least marginally watchable.  The same cannot be said about the film's final act, which is just awful.  In addition to following a (obligatory) twist that's insulting stupid, it never wants to end.  The film goes on for 20 minutes longer than it needs to.   Apparently not content with plunging his film into Bad Serial Killer Movie 101, Caruso adds some overacted, badly realized melodrama to the mix.

Movies like "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Seven" can make you realize how good a serial killer movie can be when made with intelligence and skill.  Movies like "Taking Lives" make you realize how awful they can be when they're made by a hack.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Love & Mercy

3/4

Starring: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Drug Content and Language

For "Love & Mercy," the biopic of The Beach Boys member Brian Wilson, its biggest hurdle isn't its lack of quality, but avoiding getting lost in the summer blitz.  "Love & Mercy" has its problems, such as performances that are solid but not standout and a lack of innovative direction, but all in all its a pretty good movie.  I don't doubt that this movie was originally designed with the word "Oscar" in mind (biopic of a disturbed genius + mental illness = Oscar gold), but the film doesn't quite make it to a level where it could be a serious contender.  Still, for those who are interested, it's worth seeking out.

Like many biopics, "Love & Mercy" divides its focus into two time frames simultaneously: the past and the 1980's.  The past, where Brian Wilson is played by Paul Dano, features Brian on the cusp of revolutionary music construction while experiencing the first signs of his mental instability that would lead to numerous breakdowns and a period of seclusion.  In terms of quality, they're both on an equal playing field (something often desired but rarely achieved).

The early storyline is set when The Beach Boys are at the top of their game.  After having a panic attack on an airplane, Brian (Dano) wants to go home and work on a new album.  They are surprised, but they still agree.  Brian goes to work on what he hopes to be "the greatest album ever recorded," a far-out album with strange instruments and noises, which is titled "Pet Sounds."  When his brothers return, they are alarmed at this, and his growing instability.

The latter storyline shows Brian (Cusack) as a very sick man under the extreme control of his psychiatrist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Giamatti).  When buying a Cadillac, he meets (and later dates), the saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Banks).  They eventually fall for each other, but Landy exercises extreme control over Brian, and while it's early to say that they love each other, Melinda cares for him enough that she won't stand idly by while Landy makes him sicker and sicker.

About 90% of what is on screen is compelling stuff.  It can get a little artsy, but those moments are few (and it's nowhere near as painful as something like "November," "Shame," or anything by Wes Anderson).  It's what isn't there that gives the film a negative vibe; in the moment it's great stuff, but looking back I got the sense that there were scenes left on the cutting room floor.

The performances are adequate.  Neither John Cusack nor Elizabeth Banks has great range, but they are solid enough for a low-budget biopic like this.  They do not, however, have the strength to stand-up to the heavy hitters at Oscartime, if the past is anything to go by.  Paul Dano can be a terrific actor when he's not appearing in weirdo, offbeat movies like "Gigantic" (if the trailer and the reviews are anything to go by) and "Ruby Sparks" (for all its problems, Dano managed to hold his own against a force of nature like Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood").  His performance as Brian Past represents him as an actor, not his generic Michael Cera clone that shows up on the indie film circuit.  He gives a terrific performance that elevates his scenes, capturing Brian's genius, madness and humanity.  Paul Giamatti is the scene-stealer as he is want to do, but there is one scene where he goes over-the-top.  Special mention has to go to Jake Abel, who plays Mike, Brian's serious and conservative-minded older brother.  He doesn't have a lot of scenes, but he stuck out in my mind long enough to be worth mentioning.

I watched "Schindler's List" again last night, and among many things, I was struck by the skill in which Steven Spielberg told his story.  He captured the subtle nuances of his story in such an artful, beautiful way without losing sight of the characters or the story.  It was artistic without being ostentatious (note to Steve McQueen: that's how to make an art film).  Director Bill Pohlad, making his first film in 24 years, was one of the producers of McQueen's "12 Years a Slave," and has attempted to do the same thing.  But he's not as talented as Spielberg, and while there are some arresting sequences, they tread close to showing off.  I get that he needs to get us inside Brian's mental state, but there has to be a purpose for everything that he's doing.

I can't imagine a more difficult mental illness to capture on film than schizophrenia.  The mental trauma and scattered nature of the disease demand an innovative vision to bring it to the screen.  Pohlad lacks the vision of Ron Howard and the script of Akiva Goldsman (the director and writer of "A Beautiful Mind"), but it's still a solid movie.  The real question is can it find a leg to stand on as counter-programming to big-budget action movies?

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Spy

2.5/4

Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Allison Janney, Jude Law, Jason Statham, Bobby Cannevale

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

Jay Leno was fond of saying that the worst thing you could do to a comedy is to throw money at it.  I thought about that a lot as I was watching this movie.  There are definitely some funny bits in this movie, but Paul Feig, the wearer of many hats behind the film, ends up making a legitimate entry of the genre he seeks to parody.  While it's certainly possible to create a spy movie that's fresh, original and never stops poking fun at itself ("True Lies" is a tremendous example), Feig lacks James Cameron's talent in both writing and directing.

Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is a CIA agent, although she stays behind a desk offering help to the suave, debonair Bradley Fine (Law).  She holds a torch for him, although he's far too self-absorbed to realize it.  Tragedy strikes when Bradley is killed, and the villainous Rayna Boyanov has stolen all the identities of all of the CIA's active agents.  Rayna intends to sell a nuclear weapon that her father acquired, and Susan volunteers to stop her.  Of course, nothing goes according to plan.

The plot of the movie is Spy Movie 101 (this idea was used as recently as two years ago when "Skyfall" came out).  Using such an exhausted idea would be fine if the film was at least consistently funny, but aside from a few funny moments every now and then, it's just a generic spy comedy that would be at home in the dregs of August.

Given a good script, Melissa McCarthy can be hilarious.  She stole scenes and walked off with an Oscar nomination for "Bridesmaids," and was just as funny in "The Heat," which came out last year.  Here, she gives it a game try, but the material is so weak that she sometimes flounders.  McCarthy needs someone to play off of, and "Spy" doesn't really give her that.  Her biggest co-star, Miranda Hart, fails to make much of an impression, despite the role being written specifically for her.

McCarthy's higher-wattage co-stars are a bit disappointing.  Rose Byrne chews the scenery in a similar way to Sarah Michelle Gellar in "Cruel Intentions," but the script lets her down.  Still, there's no denying there's some amusement from watching her perform.  Jude Law attempts to parody his pretty boy image, but his performance is flat.  I don't know if it's the American accent (which he can do...see "The Talented Mr. Ripley" if you don't believe me) or what, but this is worst performance he's ever given.  Jason Statham is more successful at skewering his British tough guy image, but many of his scenes run on too long.  After hearing one or two of his outrageous exploits, the humor dies off.  I was wondering if Seth Rogen rewrote some of his lines.

Paul Feig does better with smaller, tighter comedies.  In an attempt to parody the parody (and often parodied), Feig loses control of the film.  It's also far too long; shave some of the bits that prop up the thin plot, and you'd have a better movie.

At best, "Spy" is best left for home viewing.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Sacrament (Contains HEAVY Spoilers)

2.5/4

Starring: Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, Gene Jones, Amy Seimetz

Rated R for Disturbing Violent Content including Bloody Images, Language and Brief Drug Use

By the third act of "The Sacrament," the most recent film from Ti West, I began to feel uneasy.  Under most circumstances, that would be praise-worthy for a horror movie.  Not here.  I felt uneasy because it uses a real life tragedy as a setting for a horror movie, and by sticking so close to it while using many familiar horror clichés, it renders the film exploitative.

Sam (Bowen), Jake (Swanberg) and Patrick (Audley) are journalists working for a media company called VICE, which reports the news by having the reporters immerse themselves in the story and report from within.  Patrick has just received a mysterious letter from his sister, Caroline (Seimetz), who after a trip to rehab for drug addiction, has found a new life on a commune and invited him to visit.  Patrick, Sam and Jake go, and it seems to be as happy and peaceful as it sounds.  It is presided over a man everyone calls Father (Jones), who built the commune from the ground up.  But when they receive a letter from a little girl asking for help, they realize that things aren't what they seem.

"The Sacrament" is little more than a modern-day retelling of the final days of the People's Temple.  In fact, the final half hour or so is almost lifted off the pages of history.  That's not so much a problem in and of itself; a first person report on a cult could have made for riveting, if disturbing, viewing.  But West sticks so close to the facts while calling it something else that it feels disrespectful.  He should have either fictionalized it more, or made a docudrama.

What really made me squirm is the fact that West chooses to present this as a horror movie.  In a movie about a cult that ends in mass suicide, do we really need familiar clichés like the hero hiding under the bed from the killer, the suspenseful music, finding the missing friend, and so on?  I don't think so.

And yet Ti West knows what he's doing.  At age 35, he shows more skill than many other more famous horror directors (let's face it, the only horror filmmaker these days who is as reliable for a good scarefest is James Wan, who made "Saw" and "The Conjuring," among others).  The film is well-acted (both Gene Jones as the stand-in for Jim Jones and Amy Seimetz as the sunny Caroline are worth mentioning).  It is also consistently suspenseful and intense, particularly during the build-up.

But the film's final act really hurts the film.  The film is pigeonholed into a genre in which it most definitely does not fit, and West, whose previous films "The Innkeepers" and "The House of the Devil" were known for their restraint, overdoes the violence.  For example, we see a mother slitting her daughter's throat to avoid her being forced to take the poison, which is insulting and ridiculous rather than tragic, and we see Caroline light herself on fire after she graphically poisons her brother (the film doesn't cut away from either; West forces us to watch both, treading quite close to sadism).

I give West credit for the attempt, but ultimately he has only himself to blame.  There's no reason this couldn't have worked with a more sensitive touch.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

High Noon

3.5/4

Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado

Rated PG for Some Western Violence and Smoking

"High Noon" was unlike any Western that audiences at the time had ever seen.  There are no over-the-top stunts, tumbleweeds, or Mexican standoffs.  Instead, the violence is quick, violent and brutal (relatively speaking, of course).  "High Noon" is to Westerns for the 50s as what "Saving Private Ryan" is to war movies.

Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) is getting married to Amy Fowler (Kelly).  Since she is a Quaker, that means hanging up the gun and the shield for a life as a shopkeeper.  That all changes when Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) is released from prison.  Miller and his gang used to run the town, but Will cleaned it up and sent him to prison.  Now released, Miller is intent on revenge.  His friends urge him to flee, which Will would love to do, except for the fact that the new Marshal doesn't arrive until tomorrow and he knows that Miller would pursue him.  Will reluctantly takes up the badge and looks for volunteers to defend the town, but his friends refuse.

This film belongs to Gary Cooper, who is present in almost every scene.  It's not a great performance, but it gets the job done.  We feel his anger and his desperation, but there are times when he feels more like an angst-ridden teenager on something like "Twilight" rather than a reluctant man going into a gunfight he knows he will probably lose.  The script is mostly at fault here, since it plays up this angle too much.

His co-stars are just as important, particularly his wife, Amy.  Played by the luminous Grace Kelly (one of Hitchcock's favorites), she is devoted to non-violence and begs him to leave, but eventually she will have to make a choice: her philosophy or her man.  Lloyd Bridges plays Harvey Pell, Frank's deputy.  With Will gone, it would have made him Marshal, if only for a day, and that causes enough resentment to make him abandon Will completely (which causes him great regret).  Also present is Helen Ramirez (Jurado), who is and old flame of both Will and Frank.  She's getting out of town, but not before calling out the others on their choices.

The most successful aspect of this film is its pacing.  Shot essentially in real time (the constantly moving clock inches closer towards Frank's arrival), director Frank Zinneman and his editors Elmo Williams and Harry W. Gerstad have created a film that can only be described as relentless.  You can feel the impending violence from early on and the suspense only grows.  In fact, there are periodic shots of the train tracks that remind us of what's coming.  Numerous movies such as "Nick of Time,"  "88 Minutes" (partially) and "16 Blocks" have taken this "real time" approach, but none has done it better.

It is impossible to discuss "High Noon" without mentioning the era in which it was released.  In 1952, the witch hunts by the House of Un-American Activities was in its full swing, leading many actors, writers and filmmakers blacklisted from Hollywood.  It's impossible not to see a parallel between Will's betrayal and the Blacklist, which caused it to be controversial (John Wayne called the film "un-American").

Aside from that, "High Noon" is best enjoyed for what it is: an expertly crafted thriller.  I often point out that many old movies have not aged well, but like "Casablanca" and "Psycho," "High Noon" is just as suspenseful as it was when it was released.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Entourage

3.5/4

Starring: Jeremy Piven, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Connelly, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Hayley Joel Osment

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

"Entourage" will only appeal to its core audience: guys, and maybe a few girls, who are in their 20's and 30's.  This is, like "Swingers" and any given "Frat Pack" movie...in other words, it's a "bro" comedy.  Older viewers and certain politically correct people will find this movie dull or even offensive.  After all, it's about a quartet of friends (plus the foul-mouthed agent) with more money than they know what to do with trying to score and party as much as possible.  It's "Sex and the City" for guys.

Much as the series did, "Entourage" follows Vincent Chase (Grenier), now one of the biggest guys in Hollywood, and his three best friends: his manager Eric, or "E" for short (Connelly), his half-brother Johnny aka "Drama" (Dillon), and Turtle (Ferrara), his driver.  Vinnie's agent, Ari Gold (Piven), is now the head of a studio and wants his biggest client to star in it for him.  But Vinnie has a catch: he wants to direct it.

"Entourage" has always been about being a wish-fulfillment fantasy: having insane amounts of money, fame, and being able to have sex with just about any hot guy/girl you come across...and enjoying it with your best buddies.  Writer/director Doug Ellin, who created the series, remembers this, and that's what makes this movie so much fun.  We are there in the thick of Hollywood, amid the pressure, politics and creativity.  And yet, in a way, this stuff is second place compared to the "buddy movie" aspect of it.  It's not what the story is about, but that's where the film's heart is at...if that makes any sense.

The acting is great, although that's to be expected.  The actors are simply resurrecting the characters they played for 8 years.  The scene stealer is, of course, Jeremy Piven.  As the fast-talking, short tempred Ari, Piven exhibits the same appeal that makes all fast-talking, short tempered characters so much fun.  Piven has some of the best lines and funniest moments.  Billy Bob Thornton and Hayley Joel Osment play two financiers who are holding up the extra funding that Vinnie needs to finish editing his movie.  Thornton is only on screen for a few scenes, but Osment has a substantial supporting role, and he's quite good.  That said, since there are many famous actors who play themselves, shouldn't these two characters be played by unknowns?  It's not a big deal (the show did this sort of thing too), but it creates a bit of a disconnect.  If nothing else, it would have helped some actors get their big break.

The film is littered with celebrity cameos, as you can imagine.  Everyone from Liam Neeson (whose appearance is hilarious) to Warren Buffett.  Few have much more to do than say a few lines, if that, but MMA fighter Ronda Rousey has a large role as a girl Turtle is pursuing.  She has a natural talent and feels totally comfortable in front of the camera.  And she understands the concept of comic timing.

I saw a few episodes of the TV show a while back (it was right around the time that Vinnie came out with the "Aquaman" movie) and liked what I saw.  I don't know why I fell out of watching it, since I still replay some of the scenes I saw in my head, but as soon as I can find a hundred bucks from underneath the couch, I'm going to pick up the entire series on Blu Ray.

Entrapment

3.5/4

Starring: Sean Connery, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Will Patton, Ving Rhames, Maury Chaykin

Rated PG-13 for Some Language, Sensuality, Violence and Drug Content

"Entrapment" is just plain good.  Mass entertainment, yes (as if that were automatically a bad thing), but for white-knuckle tension and a great story, few are better.

A valuable Rembrandt painting has just been stolen.  Insurance agent Virginia Baker (Zeta-Jones) is convinced that it was notorious thief Robert "Mac" Macdougal (Connery) who did the deed.  Her boss, Hector Cruz (Patton), reluctantly sends her to trap him, but Gin has her own agenda.  She needs Mac's help to pull off the heist of a lifetime.  Or is that just her cover?  And what exactly is Mac's role in this?

While no one would call this story anything but straightforward, director Jon Amiel (who is as underrated as they come) plays up the ambiguities enough to make this more than a standard order heist movie.  There are, in fact, three heists: the Rembrant, the mask, and the bank job at the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lampur.  All three are high-tech and terrifically exciting.  The mask heist plays dumb, but we get to see Zeta-Jones slink around in tight pants.  It's an acceptable trade-off.

It goes without saying that the performances help the film considerably.  Sean Connery is as reliable as ever, playing the "tough love" thief.  He's also a romantic, and while the chemistry between him and his co-star sizzles, their love scene is awkward because at his age, he's a little old to be playing Richard Gere.  Catherine Zeta-Jones has never been sexier, and plays her role with intelligence and a kittenish sense of mischief.  She's terrific.

Jon Amiel doesn't get the love that he deserves, and I'm not sure why that is.  He's not as flashy as David Fincher and not as grand as Steven Spielberg, but there's no denying that he has what it takes.  In addition to this, he directed "Copycat," a terrific serial killer movie that no one saw, and "Creation," the uneven but compelling biopic of Charles Darwin.  Maybe it's his lack of visual or storytelling style that makes him so easy to forget when it comes to praising a movie, but his craftsmanship is obvious.  He constructs his set-pieces, some of which are truly spectacular, with care, and knows a thing or two about pacing.  More importantly, he knows how to direct his actors to create compelling characters.

The bottom line is that this is big time fun.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Ararat

3/4

Starring: David Alpay, Charles Aznavour, Eric Bogosian, Christopher Plummer, Arsinee Khanjian, Marie-Josee Croze, Elias Koteas, Bruce Greenwood

Rated R for Violence, Sexuality/Nudity, and Language

Atom Egoyan's films have always been intellectually demanding.  Dense in both narrative and character, he doesn't allow the audience to turn off their brains.  Like "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Adoration," his two other movies that I've seen, "Ararat" is jam-packed.  Egoyan has a lot to say, but the constraints of the film and his limited vision work against it.

As is his style, "Ararat" is less about story than about a diverse group of characters surrounding a central focus.  In "The Sweet Hereafter," it was a bus accident, while in "Adoration" it was an act of terrorism.  Here, it's the Armenian Genocide.  Two filmmakers, director Edward Saroyan (Aznavour) and screenwriter Rouben (Bogosian), are making a movie about the genocide, and have hired Ani (Khanjian, Egoyan's wife) as a consultant, and have used an Armenian artist named Arshile Gorsky (Simon Abkarian as an adult, Garen Boyajian as a child) as a window into the story.  Ani's son, Raffi (Alpay) a production assistant, but his relationship with his mother is fractured.  He is in love with his stepsister, Celia (Croze), who blames Ani for her father's death.  All this comes out to a customs agent named David (Plummer), who is approaching retirement and having a tough time dealing with his son Philip (Brent Carver) being in a relationship with a man, Ali (Koteas), who in turn is playing the villain in the movie about the genocide.

All of this seems contrived, but it really isn't.  Crisscrossed relationships are a trademark of Egoyan, and this is no different.  However, I will argue that Egoyan is too ambitious.  He's trying to tell a half dozen stories with twice as many characters while simultaneously giving the audience a history lesson about the genocide.  It might be too much for even the most skilled director to handle, especially with a running time of under two hours.  "Schindler's List," the film's closest cousin, was well over an hour longer.

On the acting front, there isn't a weak performance to be found.  Everyone buries themselves deep into their characters, but no one does any showboating.  This is an ensemble piece, and they have a deep respect for the material.  Even a newbie actor like David Alpay (this was his debut performance) can hold his own against the likes of Christopher Plummer and Elias Koteas.  Egoyan regular Bruce Greenwood also makes a brief appearance as the lead actor.

Still, due to its scope and the nature of its construction, it's hard to care about the characters as people.  I felt more of an impact from the film as a whole than I did from any of the specific storylines.  This is one case where the film is more than the sum of its parts.  The ending doesn't really work because the parallelism, another common theme in Egoyan's work, isn't set up well.

I do think that "Ararat" is worth seeing for those who are up to the challenge.  This isn't a "sit back and relax" kind of movie, and even on that level, it still has its problems, such as a jumpy and occasionally confusing narrative.  But for those who take the chance, it's not going to be one they forget easily.

Post Grad

3/4

Starring: Alexis Bledel, Zach Gilford, Michael Keaton, Jane Lynch, Rodrigo Santoro, Carol Burnett, Bobby Coleman, Catherine Reitman

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Situations and Brief Strong Language

One of the great pleasures of going to the movies is being able to watch something on screen and know exactly how the characters are feeling.  I had plenty of those moments while watching "Post Grad," a comedy about a college graduate who is unable to find a job while everyone else around her has one (and isn't letting her forget it).

Ryden Malby (Bledel) has it all figured out: get good grades, get a scholarship to college, get good grades, and get a job at the hottest publishing company in LA.  Of course when she graduates, she realizes that it's not that simple: an impressive resume and references mean little compared to someone who is already in the know, as her self-absorbed friend Jessica (Reitman) tells her.  Of course, she has her kooky family and her best friend Adam (Gilford) to fall back on.  But that's little consolation when you're stuck at home with no job and no prospects.

There are two elements in this film that work: Ryden's search for a job and her friendship-turned-romance with Adam.  The former has a ring of truth that anyone who didn't get a job right out of college will understand intimately (I could almost feel the sting of rejection).  The latter works because Bledel and Gilford have plenty of chemistry, and both are impossible not to like.

Unfortunately, those are paired with the stuff with Ryden's family.  It's meant to make them seem colorful and likable, but it doesn't work.  In fact, the film comes to a dead halt whenever they take center stage.  The material isn't inherently bad, but it's played too broadly.  It's straight out of a bad sitcom.

Alexis Bledel does not have great range, but she does a solid job as the Millenial who is trying to make her way into the adult working world.  I had many of the same experiences as her and she reacts in a similar way that I did, so it was easy for me to identify with her.  The bitterness of watching your friends land posh jobs when no employer will give you the time of day, the feeling that no one will ever give you a job, and the unintentional sense of entitlement and ego that everyone seems to have gotten with their job offer.  It's all here, and Bledel is an effective stand-in for us.

Likewise, Zach Gilford doesn't have a lot of range.  But he is impossible not to like and totally adorable.  He finds the perfect note to play the post-college guy, lending him charisma and, well, likability.  I know guys like Adam, and much of the reason his character is relatable is that Gilford gets the small details right.  Bledel may be our anchor, but it's Gilford that steals all of his scenes.

Despite being talented and having a number of hilarious performances on their resumes, few of the scenes with Michael Keaton, Jane Lynch and Carol Burnett work.  Keaton in particular is disappointing; he plays his scenes, which aren't especially funny to begin with, far too broadly.  Lynch is more or less invisible, while Burnett struggles with the meager material that she's given.  Bobby Coleman is obnoxious as Ryden's little brother (and not in a good way) while Rodrigo Santoro is as wooden as he's ever been (adding insult to injury, his character is a creep that Ryden falls for only because the plot requires her to).  Special mention has to go to Catherine Reitman, who is perfectly detestable as Ryden's egotistical friend Jessica.  She's got everything Ryden wishes she had, and acts as if its nothing.

Ultimately, it's not the lack of focus that hurts the film, but director Vicki Jenson's inept handling of the film's humor.  Little of it works, which is surprising since she co-directed "Shrek," one of the most hilarious and wicked comedies in a long time.  Here, little of it lands, and it reeks of being written by a committee of clueless studio executives.

Is it worth seeing?  It's a tough call, but I think so.  There are some really effective elements here, including some hard truths about being freshly out of college in today's world.  The stuff with Ryden's family is garbage, but at least it's above painful.

Monday, June 1, 2015

San Andreas

3.5/4

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Paul Giamatti, Archie Panjabi, Ioan Gruffudd

Rated PG-13 for Intense Disaster Action and Mayhem Throughout, and for Brief Strong Language

Putting it bluntly, "San Andreas" kicks ass.  It may be on the limited side when it comes to story, character and acting, but for pure, awe-inspiring, visceral pleasure, there's nothing else like it.  It certainly beats "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" hands down.

Watching this movie, I feel like I was back in the 90's, where not every action movie featured a guy in a cheesy costume with an even cheesier nickname, where the hero, if he's not named James Bond, isn't trying to save the city or the world but instead trying to save the girl or his daughter.  And where the words "sequel," "remake," "reboot" do not apply, and neither Joss Whedon nor Marvel or DC are to be found.  It was an era where you could find movies like "Speed," "Twister," or "Dante's Peak."  And there's, gasp!, sunshine! 

Before all hell breaks loose, we meet the characters.  Ray (Johnson) is a helicopter rescue pilot (the opening scene is strongly reminiscent of "Cliffhanger's" opening).  He's got a daughter named Blake (Daddario) whom he has promised to drive up to school so he can see her volleyball game and have some father-daughter bonding time.  He is in the process of divorcing his wife, Emma (Gugino), but that may have had something to do with a family tragedy in the past.  Emma has, to Ray's shock, moved in with Daniel Riddick (Gruffudd), a fantastically wealthy architect.  There's also Lawrence (Giamatti), a researcher at Caltech who is trying to test his theory that will allow him to predict earthquakes.  Naturally, all of these little dramas will be solved through trying to stay alive through an epic earthquake.

In many ways, director Brad Peyton seems to be directing this movie the same way Michael Bay does: paying only lip service to story and character development while devoting his time to the orgy of special effects and destruction.  That's not such a bad thing, because "San Andreas" is about 20 times more entertaining than anything Bay has done since, well "The Rock" (which is the only reason why I keep defending him...).  There's plenty of "oohs" and "ahhs" to go along with the destruction, something that Bay hasn't been able to generate since his 1996 masterpiece.  In fact, the film as a whole is so exhilarating that the climax can't top what came before it.

Dwayne Johnson has long since left his wrestling days behind him (although he still makes occasional appearances on the WWF, but since I don't watch it, I don't know what that entails), and has become the successor to muscle-bound heroes like Arnold and Stallone.  He has also grown into being an adequate, although not spectacular, actor.  His range is limited, but with the right script and director, he can do very good work ("Faster" is an example).  Sadly, this isn't the best example of his talents.  In fact, he's miscast; someone who looks more like an "average guy" would have been better.  Carla Gugino is a talented character actress, but she's rather flat here.  Alexandra Daddario is delightful, but doesn't get much to do in the way of acting.  She's better than Aussie soap star Hugo Johnstone-Burt, who probably would have been more at home in a Merchant-Ivory movie.  He's hunky, but lacks the testosterone needed for this sort of movie.  More appealing is Art Parkinson, who plays his kid brother.

It goes without saying that a movie where buildings are leveled left and right and people are violently dying everywhere that 9/11 and the recent earthquake in Nepal would be brought to the forefront of one's memory.  It is perhaps unavoidable, but the film avoids using those memories for its own gain.  The movie stands on its own, and for that I was thankful.

In a statement that I don't quite believe I'm making, I have to say that this movie must be seen in IMAX 3D.  The images are bright and colorful, there's no drag, and no eye-strain.  THIS is how to do 3D.

For everyone who is like me and is sick and tired of superheroes, "San Andreas" is a most welcome antidote.