Friday, July 31, 2015

Vacation

3/4

Starring: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth

Rated R for Crude and Sexual Content and Language Throughout, and for Brief Graphic Nudity

"National Lampoon's Vacation" has not aged well.  Even as a preteen, I found it dated and rather toothless.  To be quite frank, the only one in the franchise that's worth seeing is "Christmas Vacation," a common holiday staple (and for good reason).  So it makes more sense to reboot it than in other cases where the franchise probably should have been left to rest.

Rusty Griswold (Helms) is a pilot at a minor airline who feels bad that he can't afford to take his family on the big lavish vacations that they deserve.  So while his wife Debbie (Applegate) is gushing over the pictures of his neighbors' trip to Paris (one of which is the incredibly irritating Keegan-Michael Key, sadly...it would have been funnier if they had gotten Denzel Washington or even Idris Elba), he decides to go all out and take a family road trip to Wally World, just as his father did when he was a boy.  Needless to say, Murphy's Law is in full force: anything that can go wrong, does.

"Vacation" is funny.  There's no denying that.  At times, explosively so.  It's also extremely stupid.  It appeals to our baser instincts only.  In fact, the humor is so bottom of the barrel that I sometimes felt ashamed for laughing at it.  "Ted 2," despite being just as rude, crude, and sophomoric, at least didn't feel like it was insulting my intelligence.  Boy, does this one ever!

For the most part, Ed Helms is a worthy successor to Chevy Chase.  He has the comic timing and manic energy needed for the part, but lacks the earnestness that made Clark Griswold so endearing.  You can't watch "Christmas Vacation" without feeling sorry for Clark because he so unselfishly wants a perfect family Christmas.  It gave the film an emotional edge that this one lacks.  Did I care about anyone in this movie?  Not really.

Helms is surrounded by a supporting cast, but they're almost completely forgettable.  The only one worth mentioning is Chris Hemsworth, who plays Rusty's ultra-Texan conservative brother-in-law.  Hemsworth gives it a game try and is clearly having fun (not to mention the fact that he has no shame), but there's no denying that he's miscast.

Look.  If you want to laugh, see this movie.  It's at times very funny, and unlike many comedies these days, it doesn't belabor the jokes or overstay its welcome.  It's the movie that the original should have been.  But just know that there are other, better comedies out there that do a lot more for the mind and the emotions...while still making you laugh just as hard.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

3/4

Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Action and Violence, and for Brief Partial Nudity

The "Mission: Impossible" franchise, based on the TV series from the has always been reliable for dumb, but fun, entertainment.  But the question is, has the franchise run out of gas?

This newest entry into the long-running series boasts a great premise: a secret organization called The Syndicate dedicated to carrying out acts of terror around the globe.  They're highly trained and very successful.  Naturally, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is on their trail, but he's gone rogue.  At the insistence of CIA director Alan Hunley (Baldwin), the IMF has been disavowed (despite their success, they have been responsible for a substantial amount of death and destruction).  Because Ethan refuses to come in, he has been labeled a traitor.  Now he and Benji (Pegg), the one guy who has stuck by his side completely (Brandt (Renner), is playing both sides to stall for time), are after a pretty woman named Ilsa Faust (Ferguson), who is the right-hand lady of Solomon Lane (Harris), the leader of the Syndicate.  But is she really a double agent, or is she merely playing the part.

To its credit, co-writer/director Christopher McQuarrie remembers that the "Mission: Impossible" franchise is not James Bond.  The film's plot relies mainly on espionage and double, or even triple, plays.  It's mostly coherent, but there are times when Ethan Hunt feels more like 007 than a spy (who is a spy, but you know what I mean).

The action sequences, and there are a number of them, are sensational.  There's no denying that.  They're well-constructed and exciting.  Not groundbreaking, but they get the job done.  However, there are so many of them and they are so over-the-top that they cause the film to lose its identity.  Action movies are increasingly having to up the ante to bring in the big bucks, but as a result, this movie feels generic.  You wouldn't have to change much to plug this story into a different franchise.

It's also lacking a decent villain.  Few things are more threatening than a secret organization that is pulling the strings behind the scenes.  "The Game," an underrated thriller, proves that.  McQuarrie tries to make The Syndicate like that, but it doesn't really work.  They're on screen too much, and as a result, they seem like every other villainous entity.  It also doesn't help that Sean Harris is about as threatening as a housecat.

Still, I admit that I was entertained.  I wasn't bored and it raised my adrenaline at the appropriate places.  Still, I couldn't help feeling like this feels exactly like every other action movie out there these days.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Tape

2.5/4

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Uma Thurman

Rated R for Language and Drug Content

There is potential in "Tape," but it is mostly unrealized.  I have nothing against talky scripts, but that would imply that the characters have something interesting to say.  "Tape" is occasionally compelling but just as often dull.

Vince (Hawke) and John (Leonard) are old friends from high school.  While John has grown up to become a small-time filmmaker, Vince is stuck in a state of arrested development and working as a volunteer firefighter while supplementing his income by selling drugs.  They're both in Michigan to see John's new film at the Lansing Film Festival.  Initially, their meeting is jovial, but Vince, who is drunk and high, soon steers the conversation to a girl from their past: Amy (Thurman).  Vince and Amy dated throughout high school, but she dumped him her senior year.  Shortly thereafter, John slept with her.  The question is, was it rape?  As they argue, Amy shows up.

The film is on solid ground when the characters are discussing what happened.  Unfortunately, that takes up about 75% of the running time.  The rest of the film is devoted to unsuccessful character building and rat-a-tat dialogue that films lifted directly from plays often have.  I think the intent is to imitate David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin's "A Few Good Men," but the dialogue is dull and repetitive rather than brilliant.  I don't know about you, but if a character says they don't know what someone is talking about, I don't need to hear it another three or four times before I get it.

Of course, it helps that the film stars Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman.  All three are underrated actors, and are more than willing to work hard for table scraps (the film was shot for a mere $100,000).  Ethan Hawke frequently plays low-key everymen, but here he plays a drugged up, almost manic, jerk nursing some old grudges.  Robert Sean Leonard, best known for playing Dr. James Wilson on "House" (an overrated show if you ask me), is also strong as John.  John would rather let the past be the past, but when faced with the truth (or what could be the truth), he owns up to it.  Then Uma Thurman shows up, and repeatedly surprises everyone with her recollection of the events in question, and what she does after.

Ultimately "Tape" suffers from a rather common problem: too little material to sustain its running length.  And for a 90 minute movie, that's really all that needs to be said.

Terminator Genisys

2.5/4

Starring: Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Gunplay Throughout, Partial Nudity and Brief Strong Language

Another summer, another year of Hollywood studios desperate to keep long-running franchises going.  To be fair, "Terminator Genisys" isn't a bad film.  It has its flaws, mainly with the fact that it doesn't take enough chances, but it's not terrible.

As we all know, when Skynet came online, they destroyed the world and went to war with the survivors.  The human leader, John Connor (Clarke), is the biggest threat to Skynet, so they sent back a Terminator to 1984 to kill his mother, Sarah, and...well, unless you've never seen any of the movies, you know the story.

In this new "Terminator" film, the humans are launching one final offensive against the machines that could finally bring down Skynet for good.  They succeed, but not before Skynet sends someone back in time to kill Sarah (Clarke).  Thus, John Connor (Clarke) sends Kyle Reese (Courtney) to protect her.  When he gets there, he finds that Sarah already knows everything and has been working with a Terminator (Schwarzenegger) to prevent the activation of Skynet.  Sarah and Kyle go into the future to prevent the activation of Skynet's new operating system, called Genisys, which will cause it to become self-aware, and start the apocalypse. And that's when they meet a real threat...

"Terminator Genisys" is like "The Avengers:" it's all earmarks and winks to fans.  In fact, the first half hour is a retread of the first two movies, resulting in irritation and boredom.  No movie I've seen has been this dismissive to viewers.

The film's plot is also problematic, since the details are unexplained and what is there makes it present more problems than its worth.  Then there's the big twist, which those who have seen it or been on the internet will know but I won't reveal.  I'll admit that it took me by surprise, but it flies so far in the face of everything in the films leading up to it that it feels wrong.

The acting is...okay?  Honestly, neither of the heroes leaves much of an impression.  Of the two, Jai Courtney is the most successful, but they made me wish for Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton.  Ah-nuld just looks bored.  And old (there are a few jokes at the expense of his age, but that doesn't solve the problem).  Jason Clarke is very effective in his role, but I won't say more than that.

Ultimately, I can't recommend the film because it brings so little to the table that its new that it doesn't justify seeing it.  The action scenes are pedestrian and so is the script, which makes it even worse.  Say what you want about James Cameron (he has a reputation for being a particularly demanding director), but the man possesses a gift for storytelling that screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier and director Alan Taylor lack.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Trainwreck

3.5/4

Starring: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, LeBron James, Tilda Swinton, Colin Quinn

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

Judd Apatow has made a career out of mixing hilarious and raunchy humor with touching romance and emotional honesty.  While I enjoyed "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up," this is a much more successful film.  The comedy is less hit-and-miss, and the romance is not only highly attuned, but more effective.  The chemistry between the two leads burns.

Shortly after telling his daughters that he and his wife are splitting up, Gordon (Quinn) tells them that fidelity is a sham and that sleeping with different people is entirely normal.  It's a lesson that Amy (Schumer) takes to heart.  She sleeps with any man possessing the correct body parts.  And I mean any.  So one day she is sent to do an article on a new hotshot sports surgeon (Hader) and much to her surprise, she starts to like the guy.  Aaron is kind and sensitive, a little dorky, but a sweetie.  That throws Amy's perfectly disorganized life into a tailspin, and she has to decide if she wants to grow up or lose the one guy who means something to her.

Typically, romantic comedies are fantasies: they sell a happy ever after with the two lovebirds either getting hitched or going off into the sunset (usually metaphorically speaking).  "Trainwreck," like the best entries in the genre, uses this formula but adds more honesty.  It knows that love isn't easy, especially when you've spent your whole life avoiding it.  It also knows that love is complicated and messy.  Amy Schumer's script pays attention to how romance can mess with your head and your life, and how and why a person could push away the people she loves.  This is a far more realistic, but no less funny, look at love than in other romantic comedies (including the aforementioned Judd Apatow pictures).

For months, people have been proclaiming Amy Schumer as the "next big thing" in Hollywood.  While she doesn't have the "it" factor, or at least not as much as some other starlets, there's no denying that she's got talent.  She can be in the middle of a heavy dramatic scene and insert a one-liner like it was nothing.  Clearly, Schumer isn't going away, and that's good news.

Her co-star, Bill Hader, is also very good.  As the slightly nerdy doctor, Aaron is virtually impossible not to like.  He's book smart, but a little clumsy with women, which gives him a dose of vulnerability.  He's likable, but not a saint.  Most importantly, he has excellent chemistry with Schumer.  These two light up the screen in a way that few couples do.

They're surrounded by a fine supporting cast.  Brie Larson is very good as Amy's younger sister Kim.  Kim is married, which is something Amy makes fun of her for.  Their relationship feels real because Schumer's script refuses to deal in caricatures.  Both Amy and Kim are well-developed and feel like sisters; they may be at each other's throats from time to time, but they still love each other.  Tilda Swinton is totally unrecognizable as Amy's self-absorbed boss Dianna.  Swinton rarely gets comic roles, and she appears to be enjoying herself immensely in one.  Special mention has to go to John Cena, whose performance as Steven, Amy's sort-of boyfriend of questionable sexuality, earns both laughs and pathos.  I wouldn't have minded spending more time with him.  LeBron James is less comfortable on screen, however.

Like all of Apatow's films, "Trainwreck" runs too long.  Some scenes, particularly at the beginning, run for far longer than they need to.  Improvisation is fine, but only when it's kept in check.  Once Amy and Aaron get together, the film takes off.  It gets better and better that by the time the end credits roll, you'll be wishing you could spend more time with these characters.

The Vatican Tapes

1.5/4

Starring: Olivia Dudley, Dougary Scott, John Patrick Amedori, Michael Pena. Djimon Hounsou, Peter Andersson

Rated PG-13 for Disturbing Violent Content, and Some Sexual References

Ever since "The Exorcist" terrified audiences in 1973, the subject has come up in horror movies at regular intervals.  Few of them have been any good (the only one that leaps to mind is "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," which I have realized that I underrated it in my original review).  "The Exorcist" has not aged well.  I've seen it twice, and both times found it silly and dull rather than spooky.  But it was at least better than "The Vatican Tapes," which is a shoo-in for my Bottom 10 list this year.

After receiving a cut on her hand, Angela (Dudley) is starting to behave strangely.  Her sunny personality is turning sour, and she's looking more and more worn out.  It isn't long before she starts hearing things and speaking in tongues.  Her hipster boyfriend Pete (Amedori) and father Roger (Scott) are worried, but unfortunately for them, the helpful priest nearby (they're everywhere in movies like this), Father Lozano (Pena), is a complete boob.  It's months before two guys from the Vatican, Vicar Imani (Hounsou) and Cardinal Bruun (Andersson) tell him that poor Angela has been possessed by the Antichrist.

In a rarity for a horror movie, particularly one with such a low budget, the acting is effective.  Olivia Dudley has genuine appeal even among all the cheese, and Dougary Scott, who lost out on the star-making role of Wolverine in the first "X-Men" movie (shooting for "Mission Impossible 2" ran longer than anticipated and he was forced to decline the role), is solid as the anxious father.  John Patrick Amedori, who was good in the thoughtful romantic comedy "TiMER," blends into the background, but he's not too bad.  The three of them have a nice rapport and believable chemistry.  The other actors aren't so lucky.  Michael Pena, an actor with significant range, is saddled with the unenviable task of playing the dumbest priest in cinema history, and Djimon Hounsou has little more than a totally pointless role.  But hey, a paycheck is a paycheck.

Unfortunately they're all caught in a screenplay that appears to have been written using a "Dial-an-Exorcism-Movie-Cliché" program.  Everything that happens in this movie has been done before, often in a better movie.  Angela looks more disheveled with each passing minute, she speaks in tongues, and spews bodily fluids at people.  And there's a lovely scene where she hypnotizes a group of people into attack themselves and each other.  Yawn...

I'm surprised that this was directed by Mark Neveldine of the writing/directing duo Neveldine/Taylor (they were responsible for the "Crank" movies and "Gamer").  They may not be known names, but they have style (even if it's totally kinetic and off-the-wall...not very appropriate for a horror movie).  But this is pedestrian filmmaking, pure and simple.

Forget Angela.  It's the movie that should have been exorcised.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Pixels

2.5/4

Starring: Adam Sandler, Michelle Monaghan, Josh Gad, Kevin James, Peter Dinklage, Matt Lintz

Rated PG-13 for Some Language and Suggestive Comments

"Pixels" has a fantastic concept: having old-school video game characters run amok and try to destroy the world while a group of old gamers try to stop them.  The action and comedic possibilities are limitless.  Unfortunately, in this Sander-ized script, they're mostly unrealized.

In 1982, friends Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) and Cooper (Jared Riley) attend a video game competition.  There, they meet a paranoid gamer named Ludlow (Jacob Shinder), whom they befriend, and Eddie (Andrew Bambridge), whom they do not.  Eventually, it all comes down to hopeful Brenner and the egotistical Eddie, with the latter winning.  A recording of the video game competition is sent, among other things, into deep space in the hopes of contacting an alien civilization.

Cut to today.  Brenner (Sandler) is a tech installer and Cooper (James) is the President.  A military base in Guam has just been attacked, and the alien challenger tells the world that they have been enlisted into a competition of playing 1980's video games (Pac-Man, Centipede, Defender, etc) for real, with the fate of the world as the prize.  The impotent and dim-witted Cooper enlists Brenner, Ludlow (Gad) and issues a pardon to Eddie (Dinklage), who has been in prison for tech-related crimes, to save the world.

"Pixels" could have been great summer entertainment.  It boasts a great high concept with lots of potential for action, comedy and a plethora of special effects.  And it should have been, but then Sandler got his hands on it.  That means in addition to Sandler (who despite growing up, hasn't become funnier or a better actor), we get all of his buddies on screen: Kevin James, Nick Swardson, Allen Covert, and his wife and kids.  We also get ex-SNL writers Tim Herlihy (who writes but doesn't appear on screen) and Robert Smiegel (who appears on screen but didn't contribute to the script, or at least he wasn't credited).

I'm not a Sandler-hater.  I've liked a lot of his stuff, including his early movies like "Billy Madison" and "Happy Gilmore" that most critics dislike.  But when a movie is heavily re-written and altered from its original form by the star (or someone else), it's usually obvious.  And boy does this ever reek of it.  From the casting (Kevin James as the President?  Come on!  According to director Chris Columbus, James' casting was inspired by Chris Christie, but I'm sure Sandler had a hand in it based on his history with the actor and of meddling) to the lines (one-liners versus concepts), Sandler's meddling is obvious.  Just look at poor Jane Krakowski.  A hard-working actress since the early 80's plus a star spot on the hit show "30 Rock," and she's only given token screen time and lines?  What?

That said, there is a lot to like about "Pixels."  For one thing, it's occasionally funny.  The funniest bit, which involves Pac-Man's creator, played by Denis Akiyama, was given away in the trailer (and lacks the timing present in the advertising), but there's plenty of other stuff that's worth some yuks, including a bit with veteran tough guys Brian Cox and Sean Bean that I won't give away.  Plus Michelle Monaghan is in it, and if you can get her to appear, you've done at least one thing right.  Peter Dinklage, however, is a disappointment.  Either his lines are badly written or he's not as funny as Sandler and Columbus think he is.  Probably both.

With "Pixels," it's a case of it having some good stuff, but just not enough to justify the ticket price.  It's a perfect Netlix movie, however.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Ted 2

3.5/4

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi, John Carroll Lynch, John Slattery, and the voice of Seth MacFarlane

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

As much as I loved "Ted" (it made my Top 10 list that year), I didn't think it would be well-served with a sequel.  It told a complete story, and more importantly, the source of humor appeared to be fully exploited by the end of the film.  But because it became the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time, it was only a matter of time before we saw the foul-mouthed, pot-obsessed teddy bear again on the big screen.  My excitement died down when I saw the first trailer, but rest easy.  Ted's as hilarious as ever.

Ted (MacFarlane) has just married the love of his life, Tami-Lynn (Barth).  But their wedded bliss is short-lived; a year later, they're on the verge of splitting up.  A co-worker suggests that their problems would be solved by having a baby.  Both Ted and Tami-Lynn think this is a great idea, but the state rules that he is not a person (adding insult to injury, this causes him to lose everything from his job to his membership to a local restaurant).  Unwilling to take this lying down, Ted and his best buddy, the recently single John (Wahlberg), take his case to court.  That gets him in touch with Samantha Jackson (Seyfried), a young lawyer recently out of law school.

The bad thing about this movie is that it has a plot.  Seth MacFarlane's best bits have always been the little jokes and asides added for flavor, and that hasn't changed here.  The original "Ted" had the virtue of being connected to nostalgia, but here the story is a metaphor for gay rights.  Although I respect MacFarlane's politics (he is a staunch supporter of gay rights) and will grant him the fact that he had no way of knowing that gay marriage would become legal in all 50 states a few weeks before the film was released, that doesn't make up for the fact that the story just isn't interesting.

Judging by the film, MacFarlane doesn't appear to be too interested in it either.  It's just something he uses to hang the jokes and skits, which range from crude and vulgar to the downright sick (duh).  MacFarlane gets a lot of mileage by taking our expectations and twisting them for comic effect.  For example, Amanda Seyfried, the lovely and talented actress that she is, is known for playing sweet and demure characters.  Here, she lets loose a few f-bombs and rivals Ted's affection for marijuana.  Considering the lines she says and the antics going on around her, it's amazing that Seyfried is able to keep a straight face.  Morgan Freeman also spouts some profanity, but to be fair, "Wanted" beat MacFarlane to the punch.  That said, Freeman is able to make the word "fuck" sound so dramatic and deep.  Very impressive.

Seth MacFarlane has to be one of the nicest guys in Hollywood.  The only other reason I can think of that allows him to get so many celebrity cameos into his movies is that he has a lot of truly damaging pictures of people, but I doubt it.  They would have to be very damaging and he knows a lot of people.  People from Jay Leno (proving that he is a very good sport) to Liam Neeson (whose appearance is oh so weirdly hilarious) makes appearances.  Character actor Bill Smitrovich, whose scenes as Ted's strange boss earned the biggest laughs in the original, only shows up for one semi-serious scene, but there are plenty of howlingly funny moments that make up for it.  Less impressive is Donny, the character once again played by Giovanni Ribisi.  I like the actor, but the character didn't fit in the first one and isn't much better here (and the fate of his cohort, the Hasbro CEO played by John Carroll Lynch, is a loophole that isn't tied up).  MacFarlane should have gotten another character or written him out completely since Lynch provides enough sleaziness.  One bit I liked was the opening credits, which occur over a dance number straight out of a '40's musical number.  It puts the opening from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" to shame and is worth the price of admission in and of itself.

The film's weakest portion is the ending.  While it does involve an over-the-top fight at Comic-Con that's enjoyable and ends with a very funny joke at our expense, that doesn't prevent it from feeling like a retread of the original.

Still, if you want to laugh and laugh hard, see "Ted 2."

Monday, July 20, 2015

Ant-Man

3/4

Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena, Bobby Cannevale, Abby Ryder Fortson, Judy Greer

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence

Long have I bemoaned the superhero movie.  Not just their generic formulas, but that they seem to come out every week without end.  And it's not going to stop (Marvel Studios, with the backing of Disney who now owns them, made sure of that with "The Avengers") any time soon...they've got new entrants planned til 2020.  And when the budget gets too big or the actors get too tired of their characters (and the time demands associated with them), they'll just reboot the franchise.  Sigh...

I can at least breathe easier when I say that "Ant-Man" is at least entertaining.  It lacks the angst and cornball dialogue of most Marvel movies and isn't bogged down by an endless supply of in-jokes, references and set-ups for future installments (two things that kept both "Avengers" movies from being better than they are).  Director Peyton Reed keeps things moving at a decent clip, and keeps things from becoming too serious (another thing that held the "Avengers" movies back).  The humor isn't laugh-aloud funny (more of a wit variety a la "Kick-Ass" lite), but unfortunately the best joke was given away in every single trailer.  And for a comedy director with little experience directing action movies, the action scenes are nicely staged (no shaking of the camera and very little rapid-fire editing).

Scott Lang (Rudd) is a former cat burglar (not a robber, since he isn't violent) with a master's degree who has just gotten out of prison.  Unfortunately for him, no one, not even Baskin-Robbins, is willing to keep an ex-con on their payroll.  That puts his relationship with his daughter Cassie (Fortson) in jeopardy, since his ex Maggie (Greer) won't let him see her until he gets his life in order.  All out of options, he's quickly seduced back into a performing a quick and easy job.  It's a set-up, however.  A technical mastermind named Hank Pym (Douglas) thinks he's good and wants to see if his hunch is correct.  You see, twenty years ago, Hank created a serum that can "decrease the space between atoms," aka shrink things.  Realizing that this could produce chaos in the wrong hands, Hank buried it.  His former protégé, Darren Cross (Stoll), is desperate to find it to he can sell it to others for big bucks.  So Hank and his daughter Hope (Lilly), who is Cross's right-hand lady, train Scott to become Ant-Man so he can steal Cross's new replication of Hank's research.

The performances are fine.  Paul Rudd makes a likable, if curious, choice for a superhero.  Known for his comic performances, Rudd has proved aptitude with drama (usually in semi-serious moments in comedies).  But the guy does a solid job here.  It's always nice to see Michael Douglas on screen, even if he's not given much to chew on (his character is a cliché, and certainly nowhere near as interesting as, say, Gordon Gekko).  Evangeline Lilly is cute, but like Douglas, the role is essentially thankless.  Up and coming actor Corey Stoll has a lot of fun chewing the scenery; he's quite threatening.  Michael Pena is meant to be comic relief, but he's not all that funny.  Bobby Cannevale is wasted.  Cannevale gives a good performance as Maggie's new squeeze who is also a cop on Scott's trail, but his character is annoying and pointless.  The performances by Judy Greer and Abby Ryder Fortson are strong enough by themselves.

The problem with this movie is that it's essentially a carbon copy of every single other Marvel movie.  Right down to the Stan Lee cameo.  Producer Kevin Feige has refined the Marvel formula to a point where he can change only the names and costumes, and come up with a hit.  It's entertaining, but it's also painfully generic.  There are also some glaring errors, such as a bullet wound that doesn't show until the conflict is resolved and background characters who appear and disappear.  That sort of sloppiness is inexcusable.

This isn't a great movie, and I don't imagine anyone who is not a superhero obsessive missing much by skipping this one.  But it's not painful to sit through.

Black Rock

3/4

Starring: Kate Bosworth, Lake Bell, Katie Aselton, Jay Paulson, Will Bouvier, Anslem Richardson

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

"Black Rock" works because it knows exactly what it wants to be.  This is a visceral cat-and-mouse thriller on a deserted island.  There's no flashy camera tricks (although the cinematography by Hillary Spera is certainly evocative) and no needless philosophical musings.  It's a fight to the death, plain and simple.

Sarah (Bosworth) and Lou (Bell) are going camping on an island they used to go to when they were girls.  What Sarah doesn't tell her is that their old friend Abby (Aselton) is joining them.  That's because there's some bad blood between the two (Lou slept with Abby's boyfriend six years ago).  Nevertheless, they go to the island, where they run into the brother of an old school chum.  His name is Derek (Paulson), and he's out hunting with his war buddies Henry (Bouvier) and Alex (Richardson).  However, a night of drinking around the campfire ends up with Abby enticing Henry for some fun in the woods.  She changes her mind, however (she's married, albeit to another guy than Lou slept with), but Derek won't take no for an answer.  Soon, he's dead, and Henry and Alex intend on settling the score.

This isn't a very original idea for a movie.  In fact, it's been done numerous times in the past.  But there's enough good stuff here to make it worth seeing.  The performances by the three leads are uniformly strong, and they establish a good rapport with each other.  That allows the suspense to supersede some of the story's rather dumb moments.  And there are a few of those.

Kate Bosworth, Lake Bell and Katie Aselton are quite good here.  I bought their relationship and they breathe life into underwritten characters.  Their dialogue and interactions with each other have a ring of truth to them.  Since this is a story-oriented film, not much else matters other than getting us to sympathize with them, and they succeed.  The guys aren't as impressive.  Jay Paulson is good in a low-key sort of way, but he doesn't have a lot of screen time.  Will Bouvier and Anslem Richardson are too hammy to be truly threatening, but that's not much of a concern since the three girls are trying to avoid them rather than engaging in deep, emotionally-taxing conversations with them.

Unfortunately, the film suffers from some common maladies of the genre: characters do some amazingly stupid things and pay the price for them, and some scenes (such as the nude scene) are almost comical, albeit in an entirely unintentional way.  Aselton, who co-wrote the script with her husband, mumblecore king Mark Duplass, might have been trying to convey that these women are normal people in an extreme situation, but it doesn't come across.  It feels like sloppy storytelling.  On the plus side, I did like the fact that the fight scenes are realistic and brutal.  They're not stylized at all (it at times looks unrehearsed, but overall I think it works).  I also appreciated how it took the act of killing someone seriously, even if that person is trying to kill you.

The story brings to mind "The Descent," but it's really closer in spirit to "A Lonely Way to Die."  It's the weakest of the three, but it's still a good white-knuckler.  Not bad for a crowdfunded movie.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Separation

3.5/4

Starring: Peyman Moaadi, Leila Hatami, Sarina Farhadi, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Ali-Asghar Shabazi

Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Material

"A Separation," the 2011 art house smash, is a film of paradoxes.  Deceptively simple yet endlessly complex, foreign yet universal, civil yet criminal, understated yet arresting.  It defies easy description and it's not relaxing entertainment.  But it is gripping and heartfelt.

Nader (Moaadi) and Simin (Hatami) have been married for fourteen years, and have an 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Farhadi).  They are trying to obtain a divorce, but not because they are unhappy with each other.  In point of fact, they love each other deeply but are at an impasse in which neither is able to budge.  Simin wants to leave Iran, believing that Termeh would have a better future elsewhere.  Nader would go with them were it not for his ailing father (Shabazi), who is the final stages of Alzheimer's.  Because neither party is guilty of any crime, the judge refuses a divorce.  As a result, Simin moves back in with her family.

Unable to care for him during the day, Nader hires Razieh (Bayat) to play nurse and housekeeper.  She agrees because she needs the money, although her husband does not know what she is doing.  One day Nader comes home to find his father on the ground, near dead and with one of his hands bound to the bedpost.  Both Razieh and her daughter are gone, as is some of Nader's money.  Nader is understandably furious, and a scuffle ensues between him and Razieh.  The next thing he knows Razieh has fallen on the stairs.  Simin later finds out that Razieh is in the hospital and has lost her unborn child.  Razieh's short-tempered husband Hojjat (Hosseini) charges Nader with murder, a sentence that would earn him a prison time of 1.5-3 years.

That's the story anyway, but the beauty of the film is that it is about so much more than that.  Watching this film, we get an insider's look at Iranian society and especially its judicial system.  There are no lawyers or witness stands; just a judge and witnesses.  It functions more like mediation than anything one would find in the U.S. legal system.  And the relationship between Nader, Simin and Termeh feels entirely credible.  The break-up of a marriage is hard on everyone, especially the kids, and writer/director Asghar Farhadi doesn't pretend that it isn't.  He includes little moments that enhance the credibility of their relationships with each other.  It may take place in a culture that is very foreign, but the way they communicate and interact is universal.

The acting is exceptional.  From top to bottom, there isn't a weak performance.  Peyman Moaadi plays a man who claims innocence, but may not believe it.  Leila Hatami is wonderful as his would-be ex, who still loves him despite their disagreements.  Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter, does an excellent job of playing a pre-teen who is caught in the middle of a complex conflict, one that shows the good, the bad, and the ugly of everyone involved.  Sareh Bayat is also very good as the naiive Razieh; given the storyline, one would think that she would be a villain, but that's not the case.  She's a deeply religious woman who has been struck by tragedy and wants justice.  As her out-of-control husband, Shahab Hosseini adds a level of tension whether he is on or off screen.  And Ali-Asghar Shabazi is entirely convincing as a man who has little of his mental faculties left.

"A Separation" is narratively dense; it demands that the viewer pay strict attention (considering the quality of the production, that's not too much to ask).  It's also almost entirely dialogue driven, almost to the point where it could have been adapted from a play (it wasn't).  Unfortunately, it's also very understated, which is a double-edged sword.  On one hand, it enhances the verisimilitude in a way that a more expressive style could not.  On the other, it feels dry and slow-moving.

The editing is occasionally odd and things can get a bit confusing here and there, but nevertheless, this is filmmaking of the highest order.

Monday, July 13, 2015

In the Land of Blood and Honey

2/4

Starring: Zana Marjanovic, Goran Kostic, Rade Serbedzija

Rated R for War Violence and Atrocities including Rape, Sexuality, Nudity and Language

I was in elementary school when the Bosnian War occurred, so my memories of hearing about it on the news are slim.  The only thing I can recall is a poem I wrote decrying the violence and in which I compared Slobodan Milosevic to Saddam Hussein and Adolph Hitler (an apt comparison, as it turns out).

For all of its dramatic possibilities, the Bosnian War is something that Hollywood shies away from.  It's not surprising, considering the hopelessly complex factors that brought about the worst European conflict since World War II.  While no one can call any war simple, the Bosnian War erupted after centuries of conflict.  In that sense, I've got to hand it to Angelina Jolie for tackling it head on, especially since it was her first time writing and directing a film.  Unfortunately, it's not a very good film.

Alja (Marjanovic) is going out on a date with Danijel (Kostic).  Despite being different ethnicities (she is Bosnian while he is Serbian), they hit it off very well until a deadly bombing puts a sudden stop to things.  Six months later, Danijel is working for his father Nebojsa (Serbedzija) in the Serbian Army.  Alja is taken captive and ends up at a camp where Danijel works.  After he saves her from being raped, their romance is rekindled.

Surprisingly, the film's problems don't lie with the handling of the conflict's complexities.  It's actually one of the film's strengths; it's perfunctory (no film, even a documentary, could ever hope to fully explain it), but it gets the job done) but effective.  It's flaws are more conventional: a sloppy screenplay, uneven pacing, and an almost complete lack of chemistry between the leads.

Jolie's approach is a gritty, no-nonsense take on war.  It's graphic, cruel and uncompromising.  She drains the violence of all its dramatics (without losing its energy).  This has its pluses and minuses.  On one hand, it takes right into the heart of suburbia-turned-war zone in a way that is chillingly realistic.  On the other, it robs the characters of their energy.  By emphasizing the "every-person," they become personality-deprived and impossible to care about.  And that's aside from the feeble script.

The actors do what they can, and under different circumstances, they'd probably be effective in front of the camera.  But Jolie drains them of their charisma and energy, so I really didn't care what happened to them.  Zana Marjanovic shows no fear about putting herself in compromising positions (being in the nude or being raped) and does her best to provide an anchor for the film.  Goran Kostic, who looks like the offspring of Daniel Craig and Denis Leary, is surprisingly successful considering how awkwardly his character is written.  Sometimes he's a tender romantic while at other times he's a sadistic jailer.  Whatever point Jolie was trying to make with his character (if she was trying to make one at all) doesn't come across, but Kostic does as good a job as any actor could bridging the two wildly different aspects of his character's written personality.  Rade Serbedzija appears as Danijel's father, who is his superior officer, but his role is strictly supporting.  Still, he gives the best performance in the film (no surprises there).

The film's opening half hour is the strongest.  That's when Jolie is setting the stage and showing us how sudden death can be in war.  The film is at times shocking and difficult to watch, but such a visceral quality loses its luster.  Unfortunately, the struggle for survival gives way to an awkwardly handled romance; not only do the actors have no chemistry together, or at least aren't given the chance to show it, but they're kept apart for the better part of a half hour.  And for something that is obviously the primary focus of the film, it's ineptly handled (at least "50 Shades of Grey" was consistent).

Someday someone is going to make a truly innovative and wonderful film about the Bosnian War, if they haven't already (according to James Berardinelli, there are a number of brilliant films about the subject).  It's a shame that "In the Land of Blood and Honey" isn't one of them.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Minions

3/4

Starring (voices): Pierre Coffin, Sandra Bullock, John Hamm, Jennifer Saunders, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Geoffrey Rush

Rated PG for Action and Rude Humor

The Minions are funny.  Steve Carrell may have been the star of "Despicable Me" and its sequel, but it was the Minions who stole the show.  They're funny because they are so silly and happy-go-lucky in the midst of the most dire situations, and they pursue the ridiculous goal of assisting a supervillain with the zeal of a fanatic, despite the fact that they are totally incompetent to do so.  It also helps that they are irresistibly cute.

I was wary approaching this movie.  As big of scene-stealers as they are, I didn't think that they lent themselves to a full-length feature.  They're better in small bites, and directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin know this.  The story, such as it is, is paper thin, and is just a clothesline to build up the Minions' antics.  It's just strong enough to give them a solid foundation to do their stuff without allowing them to become overbearing.  The directors accomplish this balancing act and thus ensure that the Minions don't overstay their welcome.

The Minions, as it turns out, have been around since the dawn of time.  Their sole existence is to serve the biggest, baddest bad guy they can find (the sight of them rushing up to a T-Rex to give him a hug is most definitely amusing).  But while they're definitely enthusiastic, they're also a completely liability to their masters.  Eventually, they're sent away and go live in a cave.  Desperate, a Minion named Kevin (Coffin) announces that he will go and find a supervillain for them to serve.  He is assisted by Stuart (Coffin), who doesn't know what he's volunteering for but soaks up the praise anyway, and Bob (Coffin), who is the only one who volunteers.  They're initial efforts are met with dismal failure until they stumble upon a hidden channel advertising Villain-Con (Comic-Con for villains), which advertises a special appearance by the most famous supervillain, Scarlett Overkill (Bullock).  They head there and almost completely by accident win a spot as Scarlett's henchmen.  Her task for them is to steal the Queen of England's (Saunders) crown...or else.

"Minions" is all about the moments.  There are a few belly laughs, but plenty of grins and smiles.  "Minions" is about moments like when the Queen body slams one of the Minions or when three of the Queen's bodyguards are hypnotized and turned into deadheads.  One of the reasons why the film works is because it moves on after the punchline.  It never drags on a joke for longer than is necessary.

The voice acting is surprisingly effective.  Pierre Coffin has voiced the Minions in every one of their appearances, and he returns to do so here.  And we wouldn't have it any other way.  Sandra Bullock is surprisingly effective as a villain, although I suppose it helps that the role is almost completely tongue-in-cheek.  The rest of the actors are unrecognizable but solid.

There's really not a lot I can say about "Minions."  It is what it is.  If you want Minions, you got 'em.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Homesman

0.5/4

Starring: Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones

Rated R for Violence, Sexual Content, Some Disturbing Behavior and Nudity

Movies as bad as "The Homesman" don't come along very often, for which I am eternally grateful.  They're so awful that they will make a person never want to watch another movie.  They're rare enough among the direct-to-DVD pickings, but when they have three Oscar-winners and two nominees in their cast, it's astonishing.  "88 Minutes" has got nothing on the sheer tedium of "The Homesman."

Of course, I shouldn't be too surprised.  It was directed by Tommy Lee Jones himself.  Despite working with some of the best talent in the movie business (Oliver Stone, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, among others), he absorbed none of their talents for storytelling.  Another film that he co-wrote and directed, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," was so bad I turned it off after about 20 minutes.  After watching the entirety of "The Homesman," I wish I had done the same in this instance.

"The Homesman" is one of those dry, super-pretentious movies where the characters say and do nonsensical things for next to no reason.  It's a movie where Hilary Swank says "I love trees," where Miranda Otto takes her nursing baby to the outhouse and chucks it in the toilet, and where Tommy Lee Jones sings and dances (badly) for reasons the film never makes clear.  Yep, it's that kind of movie.  Steve McQueen (the director) would be proud.

In a small Nebraska county, three women have gone insane and their husbands are no longer able to care for them.  A woman named Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) volunteers to take them to Iowa where a churchwoman will send them to New York to get well.  Along the way, she saves a drifter named George Briggs (Jones) from the noose under the condition that he help her.

That's pretty much the entire movie.  It's almost two hours of watching Cuddy and Briggs slowly travel in a wagon and trade senseless profundities that sound deep and meaningful but are really just verbal diarrhea.  Making matters worse, they never shut up.  Conversations are far from economical, and are dragged out far longer than they need to be.  Talkative characters aren't necessarily bad (as anyone who has seen a Quentin Tarantino movie can attest), but that implies they are saying something interesting.  That's not the case here.  It's all trash.

The actors do what they can, which isn't much.  None of them have a consistent character to play, or if they do, they have so little to say and do that they're almost irrelevant.  Hilary Swank, whose career has been in a bit of a rut lately, is good, but she is saddled with a terrible script and a director without a clue.  Tommy Lee Jones is flat.  He tries to be more emotional than his trademark crusty personality, but he ends up just moping about.  The actresses playing the insane women, Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter, have nothing to do but sit around with blank stares once they are introduced.  And yes, Meryl Streep does appear in this movie, but it's at the tail end and she's only on screen for 5 minutes in a completely thankless role.

The cast of this movie is impeccable.  But please, for all that is holy and good in this world, don't watch "The Homesman."

When a Stranger Calls (1979)

3/4

Starring: Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Tony Beckley, Colleen Dewhurst

Rated R (probably PG-13 for Some Language, and Terror/Violence and Gore)

"When A Stranger Calls" began its life as a short called, of all things, "The Sitter" (a name that would be used decades later for a Jonah Hill comedy).  But after the massive and entirely unexpected success of "Halloween," co-writer/director Fred Walton thought that it could be expanded into a feature film.  He was partly right.  The opening twenty minutes are splendidly creepy with the climax coming in close second.  But the middle portion is rubbish.

Jill Johnson (Kane) is babysitting for the Mandrakis family.  Soon she begins to receive strange phone calls.  At first they annoy her, but then they start to scare her.  With the Mandrakis couple at a movie and the police rendered impotent by red tape, Jill is scared out of her wits.  Then she finds the truth about the caller...

Cut to seven years later.  Curt Duncan (Beckley), the caller, has escaped from the insane asylum and is loose in Los Angeles.  A detective turned private eye, John Clifford (Durning), is on his trail.  He was there for the aftermath of Duncan's run-in with Jill, and he intends to exact retribution in blood.

Comparisons to "Halloween" are entirely appropriate.  Both films rely on suspense, not gore, and have similar settings, characters and atmosphere.  It would be wrong to say that this film was influenced by John Carpenter's classic (the opening scene is a shot-by-shot remake of the short, which was made in 1977, a year before "Halloween"), but they both have similar feels.

Sadly, it's the middle section that prevents "When A Stranger Calls" from achieving "Halloween's" status as a horror classic.  Clifford's pursuit of Duncan, which involves a barfly played by legendary Off-Broadway actress Colleen Dewhurst, isn't very interesting.  It's weakly written, sluggishly paced, and occasionally quite dumb.  There's nothing wrong with the performances; Durning, Beckley (who had terminal cancer at the time...this was his final performance) and Dewhurst are fine.

The mistake, I think, is showing Duncan.  Generally speaking, the more you know about a horror movie villain, the less frightening they are.  That's why Michael Meyers is so terrifying; he doesn't speak and his movements are so robotic.  He's unreadable.  "When A Stranger Calls" is at its best when Duncan is off screen and an anonymous presence.

Lovers of suspense and horror (a dubious genre to put the film into...there's very little overt violence and almost no gore) should check it out.  But my advice is that once the opening act is over, skip ahead until Carol Kane shows up again.  You're not missing much.  Trust me.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Before I Go to Sleep

2/4

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong

Rated R for Some Brutal Violence and Language

"Before I Go to Sleep" is another example of the phrase we critics toss around every now and then: good premise, bad execution.  The idea behind the film, an amnesiac who doesn't know whether to trust her husband or her doctor (or either), is a great concept.  Unfortunately, the film suffers from very little narrative momentum, flat characterizations, and a sorely miscast Colin Firth.

Christine (Kidman) can't make new memories.  When she goes to sleep, she forgets everything that happened during the day.  Her husband, Ben (Firth), assists her in every way he can, although there are times when it gets to be too much for him.  Christine is also in contact with Dr. Nasch (Strong), who says he's her doctor.  Ben doesn't know this, and Dr. Nasch tells her that it's better this way.  He also tells her to use a camera as a confessional to help her jog her memory.

More than that I won't say, since this is a movie that depends on surprises.  The problem is that director Rowan Joffe keeps everything low-key, and this is a movie that demands melodrama.  In a way, it's like "Gone Girl," a thriller that takes itself far too seriously.

There are three main performances in this movie, and of them, two are credible.  Nicole Kidman can always be counted on to give a good performance, and while her acting here is more than acceptable, she appears to be coasting through it.  It's still easy to get behind her, though, which helps a lot.  Mark Strong, the versatile character actor that he is, is also very good, treading the line between sympathy and suspicion like a pro.  Colin Firth, on the other hand, is sorely miscast.  In the right role, such as the stiff Brit that he is famous for, he can be a wonderful actor, but his range is limited to just that.  As an average guy he's okay, but when the role expands beyond that, it's like watching fingernails on a blackboard.

Director Rowan Joffe appears to have misunderstood the source material.  He thinks its a lot more original than it is.  Imagine if Paul Verhoeven had taken "Basic Instinct" seriously instead of embracing the cheesiness and over-the-top melodrama that was Joe Eszterhas's script, and you'll have some idea of the disconnect present here.  Granted, "Basic Instinct" isn't a particularly good comparison (a better one, including the flaws, would be "Side Effects"), but you get the idea.

"Before I Go to Sleep" isn't a total loss; Kidman and Strong are always good, and there are a couple of neat twists in the second half.  But it would have been better had I actually cared.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Collector

2/4

Starring: Josh Stewart, Karley Scott Collins, Andrea Roth, Michael Reilly Burke, Madeline Zima

Rated R for Pervasive Sadistic Bloody Violence, Language and Some Sexuality/Nudity

During my junior year of college, I took an "Intro to Philosophy" course.  It seemed interesting, and plus it seems as though everyone has to take some sort of philosophy course in college.  One of the "thought experiments" was the ethics regarding a sadist.  Like, if you put a sadistic serial killer on a deserted planet, would you feel comfortable letting him loose?  Or something like that.

I thought about that experiment a lot while watching "The Collector."  While we unfortunately have not acquired the ability to travel through space, the mask-wearing psychopath from this movie would be a perfect candidate for this experiment.  The Collector relishes pain and violence to the point where by comparison Jigsaw, the villain from the "Saw" franchise that gave birth to the "torture porn" genre, look like Mother Theresa.  The movie has the villain, but sadly, not much else.

Arkin (Stewart) is a blue-collar fellow working on the house for the Chase family.  Of course, he has ulterior motives.  When the Chases go on vacation, he intends to break into their safe and relieve them of one very large, shiny, red rock.  To be fair, he needs it to pay child support for his daughter and ex-wife (who has her own trouble with a loan shark).  But when he gets there, he finds that someone else has already broken into the house and rigged it with grotesque and deadly booby traps while he takes his time torturing the family members in the most sadistic way possible.

Watching this movie, I got the sense that writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan started with the torture scenes and used the plot to fill in the blanks.  It's certainly what they concentrate on.  The camera spends more time looking at large cutlery/booby traps than telling a story.  Okay, fine, they also look at bloody, screaming people.  Sharp and shiny things first, terrified people second, plot third.  That's not a good sign, and it signals to me that Melton and Dunstan are people I'd probably rather not know.  Granted, horror movies never have plots worthy of Shakespeare, but a compelling story, even a formulaic one, can only help things.

On the acting front, only Josh Stewart actually does anything that can be called acting.  Everyone else screams and acts terrified.  Stewart is uneven.  When he's playing a low-key everyman, he's unconvincing.  With those half-lidded eyes, he looks like a heroin addict.  But when things get going, he becomes more credible.  Former kid TV star from "The Nanny" Madeline Zima has a small role as the Chase's teenage daughter Jill.

"The Collector" looks very unprofessional.  The shot selection is very stale, the acting is stiff, and the editing is haphazard.  The shots are constantly framed so tightly that we never get a sense of where anything or anyone is, and that leads to disorientation (that's not a compliment, by the way).

Still, some of the kills are creative and there is some suspense towards the end.  But it's only worth seeking out if it's on TV or streaming on Netflix and you have no other horror movies that you haven't seen a zillion times.  But at that point you might want to seek professional help instead.

Dracula (1931)

3/4

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Herbert Bunston

Not Rated (Probably PG for Horror)

Before Anne Rice created the tormented, soulful vampire that gave birth to everything from "Blade" to "Twilight," vampires were the ultimate evil.  Spawns of Satan whose signature action of drinking their victim's blood was a metaphor for rape as oppose to romantic ecstasy.  Tod Browning's "Dracula" wasn't the first time the world's most famous vampire reached the silver screen (F.W. Murnau's highly regarded silent film "Nosferatu" came out 9 years earlier, although due to a legal dispute with Bram Stoker's widow, it couldn't use the Count's name and many details had to be changed...it ended up being all for naught because Ms. Stoker sued the filmmakers, and won), but it was the first to use the name "Dracula."  It's not a great movie, but it contains enough spooky chills and a bit of campy charm to warrant a recommendation for film buffs.

Everyone knows the story of Dracula, although the film changes a lot from the source material.  A man named Renfield (Frye) has been sent to Transylvania to close up a real estate deal with the mysterious Count Dracula (Lugosi).  The locals warn him not to go, but he does anyway.  It's a decision he will come to regret as he becomes the Count's ghoulish assistant for his move to London.

When the ship that Dracula and Renfield are on arrives, the only survivor is Renfield, and he's come down with a serious case of Peter Lorre syndrome.  The doctors who are looking after him are Seward (Bunston) and Van Helsing (Van Sloan).  A number of mysterious deaths have occurred in London, and evidence suggests that a vampire may be to blame.  Van Helsing will have to act quickly in order to prevent Dracula from turning Seward's daughter Mina (Chandler) into one of his brides.

Of the performances, the only one worth mentioning is Lugosi.  The Austria-Hungarian actor made a splash playing the character on Broadway and returned to play him on screen (Lugosi was so desperate to do so that he agreed to a $500 a week salary, which even for the Great Depression was obscenely low).  He puts his accent to good use, causing his delivery to drip with malice and false niceties.  Lugosi was acclaimed in his native country for his acting, but his indiscriminate choosing of roles led his star to fall to the point where he was working for Ed Wood.  He died a penniless drug addict, giving birth to the rumor that Frank Sinatra quietly paid for his funeral.

The first half of "Dracula" is the strongest.  It has a strong sense of atmosphere and there are some truly spooky moments (Browning had an eye for the dramatic).  Unfortunately, the spookiness gives way to a clunky and underdeveloped plot and some curious (not to mention unsuccessful) attempts at humor.  Although initially a creepy cohort of Dracula's, Renfield ends up playing both sides.  At least I think that's how it goes; Browning doesn't seem to know what to do with him, and as a result he devolves into self-parody.  Martin, the simple-minded orderly played by Charles Gerard, is more openly comedic, but his character is more irritating than funny.

If I seem reserved or half-hearted in my review of "Dracula," I'm not.  I enjoyed myself, even despite the flaws of the film's second half.  The film is pretty short (one hour and 15 minutes), which could have something to do with the choppiness of the narrative, so it doesn't become so bad that it's painful.  I don't think I'd recommend it to anyone but cinephiles and film historians (if you're looking for a truly creepy vampire movie, Werner Herzog's "Nosferatu the Vampyre" is the way to go), but it's definitely entertaining.