Saturday, August 29, 2015

Raising Victor Vargas

3.5/4

Starring: Victor Rasuk, Judy Marte, Altagracia Guzman, Krystal Rodriguez, Silvestre Rasuk, Melonie Diaz, Kevin Rivera

Rated R for Strong Language

It's interesting, isn't it, how hokey and corny romances like "Twilight" or any other of the recent crop of romances aimed at tween girls make tons of money while movies like "Before Sunrise" are overlooked and ignored.  It's not as if teenagers can't connect with them (when I was in high school, people would always talk about movies like "Requiem for a Dream" or "American History X," not the latest Michael Bay extravaganza).  Hollywood has a distressing habit of underestimating the intelligence of moviegoers, and as a result thoughtful and honest films fall by the wayside...if they're made at all.

Victor Vargas (Rasuk) is the ultimate player of the Lower East Side; he's as sexy as he is charming, and can woo any woman to bed with a single pick-up line.  At least that's what he'd like to believe, but that's not the reality.  The best he can do is Fat Donna (Donna Maldonaldo), much to the delight of his sister Vicki (Rodriguez) and his best friend Harold (Rivera).  Word gets around, and in an attempt to save face (not to mention the arousal of his hormones), he attempts to score a date with "Juicy" Judy (Marte), the local unattainable hottie.  Judy isn't falling for Victor's charms, but he doesn't take no for an answer.  Eventually she does go out with him, but makes it clear that she's a real woman with her own feelings and desires, not some bimbo who will fall for any stud with a good pick-up line.  Eventually Victor has to grow up and learn that in order to get with Judy, he must first respect her.

In many ways, "Raising Victor Vargas" is the antithesis of your typical Hollywood romantic comedy.  It shows guys that women won't automatically sleep with them as long as they're good looking and have clever pick-up lines (any sex comedy) and that women don't need to be "protected" by a man ("Twilight," anyone?).  These characters are human beings with flaws, foibles and feelings.  Romance is messy and complicated, but the search for honesty leads to some great rewards.  Don't get the idea that this is a preach-fest.  No, "Raising Victor Vargas" gets its message across almost incidentally; it's real goal is character interaction, and it succeeds.

For the most part, the film is strongly acted.  The leads, Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte, are fantastic, which makes sense since they're simply replaying the characters they played in the short film that this was based on (also made by Peter Sollett, although Eva Vives helped with the screenplay for the film).  Initially, Victor seems like your average horny teenager: cocky and full of bluster.  But he has his own feelings and insecurities, particularly how his grandmother (Guzman) fears him and his influence over his younger siblings Nino (Rasuk) and Vicki.  Judy is also not what she seems at the beginning.  At first she seems to be your typical prickly man-hater who's playing hard to get.  But she doesn't hate men, she just hates all the piggish morons that just want to score with her.  She has feelings after all.  Also worth mentioning is Altagracia Guzman, who plays Grandma.  It would have been too easy for Sollett to turn her into a comic caricature.  He resists the temptation, and instead presents her as a devout Catholic who loves her grandchildren but doesn't like the fact that they are growing up too fast for her liking.  The weak link is Kevin Rivera.  As the cocky, ebonic-speaking Harold, he's annoying and rather slimy.  Fortunately, his screen time is minimal.

Director Peter Sollett takes great care in nurturing the development of his characters and their relationships.  He takes his time and lets them breathe.  That's a good thing because they're fascinating and refreshingly real.  There are no caricatures here, and Sollett doesn't go for cheap laughs.  The film's funniest scene, even though it's a sex joke, is hilarious because it has been set up so well.  Probably due to the low budget, the film was shot on digital video with a handheld camera.  That gives the film a documentary, naturalistic feel (without going too far...unlike some movies).

In a totally boneheaded move, the MPAA gave the film an R rating for the use of profanity.  Yes, there's quite a bit of swearing.  I would even argue that there's a little more swearing than necessary.  But you know what?  Teenagers swear more than necessary in real life too.  Wouldn't it make more sense to allow teenagers to see movies about them where they can relate to the characters?  God help them if they actually learn something from it.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Beyond the Reach

3/4

Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Michael Douglas, Ronny Cox, Hanna Mangan Lawrence

Rated R for Some Violence

A movie like "Beyond the Reach" depends on the viewer.  Either you buy into it or you don't.  If you allow yourself to get sucked into it, it's an enjoyable (if far from perfect) ride.  If you want it to do the work for you, it's going to be a trial.  I liked it, but I expect those who try to think too much will not.

Ben (Irvine) is saying good-bye to his girlfriend Laina (Lawrence), who is leaving for college on a scholarship.  He's staying behind to be a hunting guide.  That's when he gets a call from the sheriff (Cox).  A corporate hotshot named John Madec (Douglas) is in town to hunt big game.  When Madec and the sheriff gloss over the necessary paperwork, Ben has some misgivings, but the $1000 a day fee that Madec is offering sweetens the deal enough that he accepts.  Packed full of the latest European gadgetry, the two head off into the desert.  However, it isn't long before something goes wrong: Madec sees something move and impulsively takes a shot even though he's blinded by sunlight.  To their horror, he has killed not an animal, but a man.  Unwilling to throw his future away, Madec attempts to bribe Ben to help him cover it up.  But Ben won't play ball, and he soon learns that Madec has a mean streak.

This sort of psychological cat-and-mouse thriller depends on the skill of the director, and that's where it comes up short.  Director Jean-Baptiste Leonetti doesn't have a good sense of rhythm or pacing, which is essential for any thriller, especially one of this kind, to work.  The film never varies in its pace, and as a result, isn't that exciting.  Leonetti takes the film too seriously, electing for an understated, realistic tone.  That's all well and good, but a little more energy could have made this a lot more fun.

The acting is effective, but not standout.  Hollywood has been claiming that Jeremy Irvine is the next big thing, but while I'm warming up to him, I'm not that convinced.  There's no denying that he's got talent (especially compared to the likes of Robert Pattinson, and the other teen heartthrobs), but he has a tendency to underplay his roles.  That's the case here, and the result is a sort of flat and uncharismatic performance.  Michael Douglas does what he can, but the writing isn't there.  At first Madec is a guy caught in a terrible situation, but it isn't long before he goes full-on psycho.  It's not Douglas's fault; the writing isn't there.

I liked how both characters are smart.  True, the meat of the story is only allowed to happen when Ben does something extraordinarily stupid, but for the most part Ben and Madec are evenly matched.  Ben is smart and resourceful, but so is Madec.  Ben's sunburn deserves mention; the make-up is done well enough that I felt the pain just looking at it, but Ben doesn't seem to be feeling it.  How odd...

"Beyond the Reach" is a serviceable thriller up until the ending, which is as boneheaded as they come.  It reeks of studio interference; not only does it make no sense for one of the characters to behave this way, it comes after a dream sequence of the exact same thing!  It's also badly done.  Put it together and you've got a solid movie topped off with an ending so bad that it's unintentionally funny.

Even so, I enjoyed myself enough to recommend it.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

No Escape

3.5/4

Starring: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Sterling Jerins, Claire Geare, Pierce Brosnan

Rated R for Strong Violence including a Sexual Assault, and for Language

When thinking of "No Escape," the word "intense" comes to mind.  Not adrenaline, at least certainly not in the way a movie like "San Andreas" or "Furious 7" brings it to the table.  This is a no-holds barred fight for survival.  There are no superheroes and none of the protagonists suddenly turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger.  It's a kill or be killed situation, and the only mantra that holds them together is "10 steps ahead."

After his invention failed to take off like he'd hoped, Jack Dwyer (Wilson) has accepted a position at a water conglomerate.  That takes him and his family, which includes his wife Annie (Bell) and daughters, Lucy (Jerins) and Beeze (Geare), to an unnamed East Asian country.  However, when they arrive, things appear to be amiss.  There's no car waiting for them at the airport, and the phone and internet are down at the hotel.  Then the Prime Minister (Vuthichard Photphurin) is assassinated, and all hell breaks loose.  Revolutionaries are killing at will, but there real targets are Americans.

"No Escape" is hyper-violent and will shock even the most hardened viewer on more than one occasion.  I often blast the MPAA for their hypocrisy and inconsistency, but take my word for it: this is not for younger viewers.  Director John Eric Dowdle (whose previous feature was "As Above, So Below") wrings an amazing amount of tension and brutality from the script that he co-wrote with his brother.  He spares the audience nothing, and that gives the film its punch.

That's not to say that the film is flawless.  He overdoes the slow-motion in the early scenes.  A little of this goes a long way, but Dowdle doesn't know when and when not to use it.  As such, it quickly grows tiresome and dilutes the tension.  His casting of Owen Wilson is also curious.  Normally known for his comedic work (particularly Wes Anderson, who has cast him in every one of his movies and co-written some of them with him), Wilson has done some dramatic work in the past.  But his range is limited, and there are times when he can't quite deliver the dialogue correctly.  Overall, though, it's a solid performance.  More successful is Lake Bell.  The kids are okay, although in a few instances they become too cute (I fault the writing).

Much more troubling is Pierce Brosnan's character.  I saw nothing wrong with his performance (Brosnan is always the consummate professional), but his character is a cheat.  The movie's greatest success is focusing on a normal family who is completely out of their element; adding someone who knows what to do dilutes the film's greatest strength.

The dialogue is also on the pedestrian side.  Dowdle doesn't waste time developing characters, which is a good thing for a movie like this, but the dialogue is bland, which makes the characters a little flat rather than convincing us that they are stand-ins for ourselves.

Nevertheless, this is as intense of an experience as I've had at the movies in a long time, and its impact is difficult to shake.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

American Ultra

1.5/4

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo

Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence, Language Throughout, Drug Use and Some Sexual Content

"American Ultra" wants to be a stoner action-comedy parody; a movie that combines the mentality of a Seth Rogen movie with something like "The Long Kiss Goodnight," playing up both with its tongue-in-cheek.  If that sounds complicated, it is.  But it can be done; the "Kick-Ass" movies did the same thing for the superhero genre.  Sadly, the results are much less satisfactory here.

Mike (Eisenberg) is a stoner living in Liman, South Carolina with his girlfriend/landlord Phoebe (Stewart).  Mike wants to propose to Phoebe, and has a whole romantic getaway to Hawaii planned out.  Unfortunately, his neuroses get the better of him and they have to cancel the trip.  But Mike isn't the ordinary pothead grocery store clerk that he thinks he is.  He's a covert CIA operative, albeit an inactive one.  But his aborted attempt to leave the state has convinced a CIA suit named Yates (Grace) that he's a liability, so Yates orders him to be taken out.  But Lasseter (Britton), the creator of the program he was turned under, wants to save him, she she goes to Liman and activates him.  Now the sleepy little town in the middle of nowhere is going to join St. Louis as one of the most dangerous cities in America.

Stoners are funny because they're stupid and slow.  A guy, or girl, who is too baked to react to normal life is funny.  However, that contrasts with the action genre which is ideally fast-moving and energetic.  It would take a talented and visionary director to meld the two, but unfortunately Nima Nourizadeh isn't it.  The action aspects are fine, if derivative, but the comedy is DOA.  It's not that the don't work (although they don't), it's that they aren't there.

Part of the problem is making Mike neurotic, something that Eisenberg is famous for.  In general, people aren't worrywarts when they are high on pot.  They're the opposite.  It creates a disconnect.  Wouldn't it have been funnier if Mike had accepted the fact that he's a secret agent with skills rivaling James Bond, or thought it was wicked cool?  Unfortunately, the filmmakers decided to take the safe road, which not only robs the film of any sort of edge, but makes the narrative entirely predictable.  The film also doesn't successfully meld the two aspects of Mike's character: he's a neurotic stoner unless he's in danger, at which time he turns into super spy.

At least the acting is effective.  Jesse Eisenberg gives it a game try, and while there are times when he's effective, someone else could have done it better.  Kristen Stewart, free from the cheesiness that defined the "Twilight" movies, is quite good.  They're credible stoners, but they're not given anything interesting to say.  Baked people usually have crazy and nonsensical ideas, which are often funny, but here, there's no edge to it.  It's just bland.  Topher Grace makes for a good borderline psycho.  Yates is an arrogant douchebag, who thinks the end justifies the means, even if the end is relatively harmless and the means are over-the-top.  Connie Britton does her best not to get lost among the special effects and her higher-wattage co-stars, but it's a losing battle.  Veteran nutcase Walton Goggins and John Leguizamo provide support as a lunatic assassin and Mike's dealer.  Bill Pullman's appearance only amounts to a cameo (not including a pointless wrap-around).

"American Ultra" is not only a movie that makes every mistake possible (bad pacing, lame jokes, tired plotting, etc.), but highlights all of the interesting things it could have done.  Bad move, bro.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Sinister 2

2.5/4

Starring: James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco, Lucas Jade Zumann

Rated R for Strong Violence, Bloody and Disturbing Images, and Language

It would be too much to ask for a sequel to equal the amount of terror generated by the original film.  "Sinister" was perfectly constructed.  Each piece of the story perfectly placed, each shot perfectly composed, and each tidbit of information given with the perfect amount of menace and obliqueness.  Like the best horror movies, it relied on the power of suggestion, leaving our imaginations to fill in the blanks.  The result was a movie so terrifying that at the end of it, I ran out of the theater in a full sprint (something I feel no shame in admitting).

Sadly, despite being written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, who wrote the original, "Sinister 2" feels like a let down.  Director Ciaran Foy doesn't understand that in a movie like this, less is more, and as a result, the film feels muted.  He also changes some of the rules established in the original, and not for the better.  There are still some scenes of tension and successful shocks, but that's really all that can be said for the film's successes.

Deputy So-and-So (Ransone) has left the police department and has gone in search of Bughuul, the monster that slayed the Oswalt family (minus the daughter) in the first one.  The trail puts him in the sights of Caroline Collins (Sossamon) and her two sons Dylan (Sloan) and Zack (Sloan).  They're living in the middle of nowhere, having fled from Caroline's violent husband Clint (Coco).  What no one knows is that the children stolen by Bughuul are in contact with Dylan and Zack.

"Sinister" was effective because it was about the search for what happened to the previous families.  Bughuul was an enigma, an omnipotent figure relegated to the shadows.  What we learned of him came from second-hand knowledge and theories.  In the sequel, we don't necessarily learn more about him, but we do see the brothers interacting with the children he manipulated into his realm.  It's a pretty big mistake.  True, Ellison Oswalt's daughter talked to an invisible friend, but it was always off camera.  Only at the end did we know that she was being controlled by Bughuul.  Worse still, Milo (Zumann), the leader of the children, isn't the least bit menacing.

That aside, the film is too cluttered, and as a result, the film's focus is scattershot.  "Sinister" zeroed in on Ellison's search, with everything else directly linked to it.  The subplot about Caroline and her abusive ex, while effectively wedded into the story, is also a mistake.  I have no complaints about the performance of Lea Coco, who is quite good as a complete douchebag, but it takes up far too much time.

The ending is also problematic.  It's a unique take on a traditional slasher movie ending, but it's not particularly scary (that's more because of what came before).  However, the resolution doesn't work.  "Sinister" had the balls to go to its logical, and bleak, conclusion, but here, it goes halfway (presumably to leave room for a sequel).  It feels like a copout.

The acting is adequate, to say the least.  James Ransone returns as Deputy So-and-So, but the writing just isn't there.  In the first film, he was adorable; star-struck and bashful.  But in an attempt to give him a backbone, the filmmakers have robbed him of his personality.  Shannyn Sossamon plays a good battered wife, but that's all the film allows her to do.  Twins (actually triplets, although their sister doesn't appear in the film) Robert Daniel Sloan and Dartanian Sloan are uneven; decent, but lacking in polish.  They're also interchangeable, which makes some elements of the film confusing.

"Sinister 2" is not a disaster, but there's no denying that it's a let down.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Red Sonja

3/4

Starring: Brigette Nielsen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, Ernie Reyes Jr., Paul L. Smith

Rated PG-13 (for Action Violence/Gore and a Brief Rape Scene)

Chances are that I wouldn't have seen this movie had it not been for "Siskel & Ebert."  Normally absolute professionals, the two of them could barely contain their laughter when talking about this movie.  Not a good sign...

Taking it at face value, "Red Sonja" is a very bad movie.  The story is trite, the dialogue is embarrassingly bad, none of the actors are able to speak their dialogue convincingly on a regular basis, and the action scenes appear to have been done in one take.  Even Arnold Schwarzenegger knows it's bad; he successfully kept his kids in line by threatening to make them watch it 10 times back to back for any transgression, and his then-wife Maria Shriver told him, "If this doesn't kill your career, nothing will!"

However, viewed in the right frame of mind, "Red Sonja" is a lot of fun.  While everything I said is absolutely true, it adds to the film's campy charm.  Plus, the film looks great; the camerawork by Giuseppe Rotunno is gorgeous (at times jaw-droppingly so), and so is the art and set design by Gianni Giovagnoni and Danilo Donati.  Then there's the score by the always superb Ennio Morricone.  It's not great art, but I'll be damned if I didn't enjoy myself.

"Red Sonja" is based on the pulp character created by Robert E. Howard, famous for creating Conan the Barbarian, which made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star (Schwarzenegger appears here essentially playing the same character, but the studio couldn't get the rights to his name, so he was rechristened Kalidor).  The story, such as it is, details the adventures of Sonja (Nielsen).  Her family was brutally murdered by Queen Gedren (Bergman), a megalomaniac (complete with a cackling laugh).  She wants a glowing green orb, or "talisman," as it's called in the film (I always thought those were small and wearable) so she can take over the world.  Unfortunately, the more power it gets the less stable it becomes, and in a few days time it will destroy the world entirely.  So Sonja, her rescuer Kalidor, and two companions, Prince Tarn (Reyes), the prince of a city destroyed by Gedren, and his servant Falkon (Smith), journey to take down Gedren.

Like I said, the story is Fantasy 101.  But the film looks so good that it's impossible to truly dislike.  Plus, the actors give it a game try, perhaps unaware of their limitations and the wonderfully corny lines they're given.  It's hard to dislike a movie that is this earnest.

The less said about the acting, the better.  To be fair, no one is cringe-inducingly bad, but based on the evidence, none of them will ever be Oscar contenders.  Brigette Nielsen is certainly beautiful and looks great in her fight scenes, but she has trouble with her dialogue; I challenge anyone to take anything she says seriously.  Still, she projects warmth and an inherent likability that's hard to deny.  Despite everything, Sonja is easy to root for.  She's beaten out in terms of glorious badness by Sandahl Bergman.  "Hammy" doesn't do her performance justice, and in that sense she's fun to watch.  It borders on insulting to the acting profession, but I'm certain she was having a grand time chewing the scenery.

Their co-stars are in similar positions.  Arnold Schwarzenegger is fine, and considering that he was in the film for far longer than he signed up for (he agreed to appear as a favor to producer Dino De Laurentiis but the role was expanded without his knowledge, a fact that led him to try and end his contract with De Laurentiis), he's not just a plot device.  As the arrogant, dethroned prince, Ernie Reyes Jr. is at times too bratty, but not bad.  Paul L. Smith provides some low-key comic relief.

"Red Sonja" cannot be watched in a normal frame of mind.  You have to sit back and enjoy it for what it is.  It doesn't work the way it was probably intended (or maybe it was...maybe director Richard Fleischer played up the camp value in an attempt to salvage something).  It's a silly, cheesy, fantasy that is the very thing that "The Princess Bride" parodied.  But if you accept it for being a cheesefest, it's a lot of fun.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Legion

3/4

Starring: Paul Bettany, Adrianne Palicki, Lucas Black, Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson

Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence, and Language

I love a good action movie.  As long as it's violent and bloody enough, and the action scenes are constructed with an acceptable level of skill, I'll probably like it (note: something like "Speed" or "The Rock" is the good exception...if those were my standards, I'd probably do best to find another hobby).  "Legion" fits that descriptor.  It's light on plot, and it's a stretch calling any of the characters one-dimensional, but that's because there isn't time for any of that.  It's essentially action, action, and more action.

The film starts out like either an art film or a noir movie.  You choose.  A group of people meet at a diner in the middle of nowhere.  Owner/cook Bob (Quaid) and his mechanic son Jeep (Black) run the place for the few people who drift in and out.  Also there is the heavily pregnant Charlie (Palicki), who is living there until she figures out what she wants to do with herself.  The dynamic changes when a little old lady comes in and starts acting like a demon (she even climbs on the ceiling).  That's when Michael (Bettany) shows up.  Apparently, God got tired of the pettiness of humans, and decided to kill them off.  It turns out that Charlie's little dividend is mankind's salvation, and Michael is there to protect it.  Of course that begs the question why God would destroy humanity if he knew that the bringer of peace was on the way, but this isn't a movie where we're supposed to care about stuff like that.

That's essentially it: a group of people stuck in one place while evil people/demons/whatever try to get in and kill them.  It's a tried and true formula, and director Scott Stewart, making his directorial debut, doesn't stray far from it.  Unfortunately, what is there is acceptable (although not spectacular), but I wished for more.  More action, more explosions, more gore, what have you.

The acting is surprisingly effective.  Few people would think of Paul Bettany for this role.  While he's certainly angelic-looking, the actor is too soft-spoken to think of him as an action hero (then again, his break-out role was playing a vicious gangster in "Gangster No. 1").  Still, he works as the gun-toting badass.  Adrianne Palicki is lovely as Charlie; she's sympathetic from moment one.  Lucas Black is a little too low-key as Jeep, the boy who loves her even though she may not reciprocate his feelings.  And few actors are as reliable as Dennis Quaid.

"Legion" is a violent and bloody adrenaline cocktail that could have used a bit more of all three.  It's not anything special, but for what it is, it's not a disappointment.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

2.5/4

Starring: O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, R. Marcos Taylor, Tate Ellington, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge

Rated R for Language Throughout, Strong Sexual Content/Nudity, Violence and Drug Use

It is ironic that the biopic of the innovative, revolutionary and controversial rap group "N.W.A." is so ordinary.  Particularly when there are plenty of fascinating avenues for it to explore.  It pays lip service to them but seems to be satisfied with merely mentioning them.  Still, the group's story is engaging and the performances work, but a muddled screenplay that tries to do too much hurts the film.

The film details the rise and break-up of the group, whose members include Ice Cube (Jackson), Dr. Dre (Hawkins), Eazy-E (Mitchell) DJ Yella (Brown) and MC Ren (Hodge).  Looking for away to express their rage at the injustices they feel are put upon them (mainly by the police), they form a rap group whose lyrics are not the sex-obsessed stuff that's par for the genre.  Initially, they are met with stiff resistance by those who have the means, thinking that no one would listen to such angry music, but their audience grows.  Soon, a man named Jerry Heller (Giamatti) offers to manage them, and the band takes off.  But it's not without controversy, and a rift over money eventually breaks them up.

There are many compelling issues that "Straight Outta Compton" approaches, but director F. Gary Gray doesn't dive into them with much vigor.  For example, at one point they say that "our music reflects our reality," but Gray pretty much leaves it at that.  A look at how their lives influence their music could have been truly enlightening, but merely showing that getting harassed by the police leads them to write their notorious song "Fuck the Police" doesn't really cut it.  Nor does merely showing larger and larger crowds convey how they gave voice to a huge amount of people.  This could have, and should have, been explored with more depth and insight.

The four main characters, Ice Cube (who is portrayed by his son), Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and Jerry Heller are well-portrayed but sketchily developed.  They're personality deprived, which robs the film of a lot of its power.  Furthermore, Gray struggles to give all of the characters their own plotlines, but there's simply too much material.  It's not that Gray can't develop a story with multiple characters ("Set it Off," a film that covered similar ground to much better effect, is a fine example), but he fails to do so here.

I won't say that "Straight Outta Compton" is a bad movie because it isn't.  It's consistently compelling, and, coming from a guy who doesn't like rap music, it contains great songs.

In the Bedroom

3.5/4

Starring: Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tomei, Nick Stahl, William Wise, William Mapother, Celia Weston

Rated R for Some Violence and Language

Note: This review contains spoilers.  However, I don't think that knowing a key event that happens part way through the film will fundamentally alter the viewing experience.  In fact, it could be argued that it would be enhanced.

How often have we seen this story?  Not in specifics, but certainly in general thrusts.  Or at least we would have, if we had bothered to look.  No, stories like this are born with the byline and die with the final sentence.  At least they do for us.  For the people more intimately involved, it's a different story.

Matt Fowler (Wilkinson) is a doctor in a Maine fishing village.  His wife Ruth (Spacek) is a music teacher at the local high school.  Their son Frank (Stahl) is applying to graduate school.  Frank has what he calls a "summer thing" with local beauty Natalie Strout (Tomei), although it may be more than that.  Ruth would prefer him to continue with his education while Matt is encouraging, and may in fact be living through it vicariously.  Enter Natalie's soon-to-be ex, rich jerk and wife abuser Richard Strout (Mapother).  This cannot end well.

Although the film's main plot is touched off by Frank's murder by Richard, "In the Bedroom" is not a crime story.  Instead, it's about grief.  Actor turned writer/director Todd Field (he was Beltzer in "Twister" and Tom Cruise's friend Nick in "Eyes Wide Shut") casts a light on how people behave when they are grieving and how others behave around them.  This is not a narrative-oriented film; it's a study of human behavior.

The performances in this film are stunning.  Tom Wilkinson can almost singlehandedly make a movie worth seeing (exception: "Unfinished Business"), and "In the Bedroom" is just one of many examples why.  After his son's death, he's at a loss for what to do with himself.  He has no passion for his work, his friends act like he has some sort of contagious disease, and worse, he's filled with constant reminders of his son (I'd argue that Field overplays this element, but not by much).  It's a tightly controlled performance, and Wilkinson is wonderful.  Opposite him is Sissy Spacek, who plays Ruth.  Ruth is not an easy person to like.  She's arrogant, curt, and controlling.  However, Spacek makes pains to make the audience sympathize with her.  After all, she did just lose her son to a relationship with a woman that, in her view, he shouldn't have been involved with.

What is interesting is how Matt and Ruth avoid talking about Frank's death.  They try to carry on like normal, but obviously they cannot.  Sometime the monster is going to have to come out in the open, and when it does, it's brutal.

The other two important members of the cast are Marisa Tomei and Nick Stahl.  Marisa Tomei plays Natalie as a woman who views Frank with two forms of love: maternal and romantic.  This isn't as twisted as it sounds, trust me.  What I mean is that because he is considerably younger than her, she harbors a protective instinct towards him.  And yet, when it comes to Richard, she is vulnerable and relies on him for support.  By the same token, she has those same blissful, manic, hypersexual feelings that happen with young love.  Nick Stahl has what is arguably the most difficult role: he must create a strong, positive presence with limited screen time (Frank dies by the end of the first half hour).  Stahl plays it beautifully, capturing the essence of youth, the promise of a future, and enough understanding for his death to leave its effect until the end credits roll.  Wilkinson, Spacek and Tomei were accorded with Oscar nominations; it's arguable that Stahl deserved one as well.

A movie like this is an actor's dream.  The script allows them to convey a wide spread of human emotion, expressing both passion and subtlety.  In many ways, what goes on behind the words is as important, if not more, than what is said.  Director Todd Field captures the awkwardness that the Fowlers feel around other people, not knowing how to react, or even how they're supposed to react.  The other characters are similarly confused.

The film is a little long and repetitive, and the fracture between Matt and Ruth is wrapped up too neatly.  But those are minor blemishes and easily ignored (in fact, they're easily missed considering how effective the film is).  But where the film goes wrong is in the final act.  The actions of the characters are understandable, but it offers closure to a story that shouldn't have it.  Many stories do best with open endings.  This is one of them.

It is said that the worst thing that can happen to someone is to lose a child.  "In the Bedroom" shows why.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Ricki and the Flash

3/4

Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Nick Westrate

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Material, Brief Drug Content, Sexuality and Language

Few actresses can almost single-handedly save a movie better than Meryl Streep.  Easily one of the hardest working and most talented actresses who ever lived, Streep's gifts are on display in "Ricki and the Flash," a dramedy that ventures into darker territory than one might think.  The movie doesn't know what to do with Ricki in the final third, but it's Streep's talent that carries us through.

Riki (Streep) is the lead singer and guitarist for "Ricki and the Flash," a cover band that plays nightly at a bar in the San Fernando Valley.  She was once married to Pete (Kline), but she left him when he chose a cushy life in suburbia rather than allowing her to follow her dreams as a musician (it took an affair on Pete's part to fully end their marriage).  Between them, they have three children: Julie (Gummer), Josh (Stan) and Adam (Westrate).  Ricki's decision to live out her dream has almost completely alienated her from her family.  But then Pete calls and says that Julie's husband dumped her.  Ricki then returns home, which causes plenty of friction.

Those who venture into this film based on the trailer are in for a surprise.  "Ricki and the Flash" was marketed as a traditional "feel-good" dramedy where the tightly-wound family is shaken up by a wallflower.  While Jonathan Demme does insert a few laughs into this film, it also ventures into some dark territory (not beginning with the fact that Pete only called Ricki because Julie tried to kill herself and is unable to manage the crisis without his new wife).  The majority of these laughs are of the dark variety; as funny as they are, they illustrate a dark and rather painful truth and come in an awkward situation (the dinner scene being a prime example).  The exception would be Demme's skewering of suburbia; he lets the vanilla outlook of today's picket fence lifestyle have it with both barrels blazing.  Perhaps ironically, this reminded me of Zwigoff's take of modern art in "Ghost World," which was similarly savaged.

Unfortunately, once Ricki's visit is complete, the film stalls.  Screenwriter Diablo Cody (who won an Oscar for writing the vastly overrated "Juno") doesn't know what to do with Ricki, and Demme tries vainly to turn it into a character study of Ricki.  It doesn't really work because the writing isn't there.  He drags things out to an acceptable running time with Ricki performing with her band (Streep is a wonderful singer, but everyone who has seen any of the musicals she's done knows that), but her development is quite contrived.  It's rather odd, really, since there are plenty of ways for this to happen (it's rather obligatory for the genre).

Streep is supported by a fine supporting cast, including Streep's eldest daughter Mamie, who in a very recursive way, plays Julie (in a good performance, no less).  Special mention has to go to Audra McDonald, who plays Pete's new wife, Maureen.  The TV actress best known for playing Dr. Naomi Bennett on "Private Practice" shines in the role, and more than holds her own in a heavy duty scene with Streep (in fact, it could be argued that she walks away with it).

Problems aside, I liked this movie.  It gets a mild recommendation from me, although those who don't go to the movies very often would probably do best to wait for it to stream online.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

In the Heat of the Night

3/4

Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates

Not Rated (contains Brief Violence)

Typically, when the plot of the movie fails, it takes the movie down with it.  After all, that's why we go to see movies, right?  Occasionally though, you come across movies like "In the Heat of the Night," where everything else is strong enough to compensate for the plot, which is trite and not particularly interesting.

The film takes place in the small Mississippi town of Sparta, where civil rights are practiced in name only (if that).  Officer Sam Wood (Oates) is on patrol when he comes across a dead body lying in the middle of the road.  His chief, a tough old salt named Gillespie (Steiger), tells him to head to the depot to prevent the killer from getting away.  There, he finds a well-dressed black man patiently waiting for the train.  His name is Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), and after roughing him up to put him through the paces, Wood makes the arrest.  It is only when he gets back to the station that Gillespie learns that Tibbs is a homicide detective from Philadelphia visiting his mother.  Tibbs' superior wants him to stay in town and solve the case, a fact that irritates both Tibbs and Gillespie.  But they have no choice when the murder victim's wife (Lee Grant) says that if Tibbs leaves, she takes her husband's planned factory and leaves.  Now these two men will have to work together to catch the killer.

It's a movie formula as old as time itself.  But with strong acting and character development, it rises above the clichés.

The film is all about Poitier and Steiger.  Other characters drift in and out of the screen, but the focus is squarely on them.  Both give excellent performances (to be quite frank, they save the script).  Tibbs doesn't want the case and doesn't need to put up with the racism of those around him.  But tracking down the clues energizes him, and the though of fighting back against the injustices he faces gives him motivation.  Gillespie is his total opposite.  Whereas Tibbs is careful and methodical, Gillespie is impulsive and stubborn.  To him, the first answer is the right one, and he won't budge from it easily.

One thing that is worth noting is how Norman Jewison handles racism.  He doesn't step on eggshells but he doesn't shove it in your face.  It's very matter-of-fact, and that realism gives the film its punch.  There aren't any caricatures here.  Gillespie's change of opinion regarding Tibbs is also well played.  Gillespie isn't very bright, and he knows this.  Although it aggravates him, Tibbs' intelligence impresses him enough to earn his respect.  The chemistry between these two characters was strong enough to form a TV show starring Carroll O'Connor and Howard E. Rollins, Jr., running for 7 seasons.

It's a shame, really, about the story.  It's got all the materials for a great movie except the main ingredient.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

1.5/4

Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debecki, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant

Rated PG-13 for Action Violence, Some Suggestive Content, and Partial Nudity

Was there any real demand for this movie?  I mean, of all the classic TV shows that Warner Bros. could hope to turn into a franchise, they picked this?  Half the people haven't even heard of the show (myself included), and it only ran for four years.  And the Cold War isn't exactly a relevant topic in movies these days.  To be fair, it could have been some breezy summer fun, except for the laughable script and the self-indulgence by Guy Ritchie.

Debonair American black marketer-turned-spy Napoleon Solo (Cavill) is tasked with getting a mechanic named Gaby (Vikander) out of East Germany.  Trying to stop them is KGB agent Ilya Kurakin (Hammer), a giant of a man with a bad past and anger problems.  The super suave Napoleon succeeds in his mission (while humiliating Ilya in the process), only to find that his mission isn't done.  Gaby's father has developed a technique that makes enriching uranium for nuclear weapons much easier.  The bad news is that he's been kidnapped by the inheritors of a shipping company, who are using it as a cover for nefarious means.  Napoleon is assigned to use Gaby to get him out.  Also helping him is...you guessed it: Ilya.

I feel bad for the actors.  All of them are underrated, but they are ill-served by a worthless script.  The script's few amusing moments are successful mainly because of the actors (the look on Ilya's face when he finds out he's working with Napoleon is priceless).  Henry Cavill is solid as the low-rent James Bond (a part that, ironically, he auditioned for), but he lacks the charisma necessary to pull this off.  Ditto for Armie Hammer, who is kept too low-key.  Alicia Vikander, who has had a coming out this year, does what she can, but she's mainly a plot device.  The only one who is worth mentioning is Elizabeth Debecki, who plays Victoria, the lead villain.  She uses her eyes and thin frame to great effect; Victoria is seductive, serpentine, and dangerous.

Guy Ritchie is a pretty well-known name (due in no small part to his marriage to Madonna and his directing of the "Sherlock Holmes" movies), but his fame is generally undeserved.  He's not Uwe Boll, but his style is too hip for it's own good.  He does too many edits and cheesy camera tricks.  It's meant to make the film more energetic, which I suppose it does.  The downside is that there's so much of it that it's hard to focus on the story or the characters.  A good filmmaker knows when to use restraint, and sadly, Guy Ritchie doesn't.

The more I think about this movie, the less I like it.  Action movie junkies would do best to wait for something else.  Considering Hollywood's obsession for "event movies," it's not going to be long before another one comes out.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Dragonball Z: Resurrection "F"

1/4

Starring (voices): Chris Ayres, Sean Schemmel, Kyle Hebert, Monica Rial, Jeremy Schwartz, Ian Sinclair, Jason Douglas

Not Rated (Probable PG for Action Violence)

I remember seeing a few bits of "Dragonball Z" on TV growing up and thinking that it was extremely stupid.  So why did I spend more money than usual to see a movie spin-off of the show in a theater?  I'm not sure, really.  A chance to dish out some bile?  Or perhaps to see if, now that I've seen good anime like "Inuyasha" or anything by Hayao Miyazaki, it wasn't as bad as I remember (that is the reason why I subjected myself to seeing "The Royal Tenenbaums" for a second time).  If nothing else, it could have given me another entry for my Bottom 10 list this year.

So what's the verdict?  Look at the rating and take a guess.

"Dragonball Z: Resurrection 'F'" is for fans only.  Anyone who hasn't grown to love the characters while watching the show will find little of any interest here.  Granted, "Inuyasha: Affections Touching Across Time" wasn't the most friendly to non-fans of the show, but it at least gave a perfunctory set-up.  That doesn't happen here, where there is no set-up or character development.

Megalomaniac Frieza (Ayres) has just been resurrected by his second-in-command, Sorbet (Schwartz).  Item number one on his agenda is getting revenge on Goku (Schemmel), the Earthling-warrior who destroyed him.  Despite Sorbet's attempts to convince him that there are far more opportunities for expanding his empire if he leaves him alone, Frieza won't be dissuaded.  So after he trains himself (for the first time, I might add), he heads to the planet of the humans.  Unfortunately, his nemesis is off planet in a training session.  So he amuses himself by destroying a city and having his minions attack Goku's friends.  Then Goku and his brother/partner/rival/something Gohan (Hebert) shows up, and then the real fight begins.

That's essentially it for the plot.  I assume the appeal for fans is the same for "The Avengers:" seeing all your favorite heroes team up in one movie for a massive smackdown.  Unfortunately, the action scenes are so basic (in choreography and method) that there's almost zero tension.  Flying through the trees and shooting balls of light at each other would be tough for even James Cameron to make exciting, and director Tadayoshi Yamamuro is definitely no James Cameron.

The fight between Goku and Frieza, which takes up the latter half of the film, is equally lifeless.  One of the reasons why the show sucked is that their moves were so repetitive and so basic.  I don't know about you, but watching two guys with obvious steroid problems become living fireworks and shooting balls of light at each other isn't especially cinematic.  Especially if the scream like they're heavily constipated and trying to take a shit.  Even worse, shots are poorly framed and the choreography is painfully basic.

As for the voice acting...well, it's no better.  Every voice actor is terrible; they sound obnoxious and annoying and speak dialogue that is trite and stupid.  I'll freely admit that good dialogue in "Inuyasha" is pretty rare, but at least the actors are talented enough to speak them with conviction and appeal.

"Dragonball Z: Resurrection 'F'" is just as lame as the TV show.  But what is really sad is that it was well-marketed and got a lot of fans.  Everyone else saw it for what it was: a piece of crap.  Unlike the best anime, it doesn't stimulate the mind or touch the heart.  It's just senseless, mind-rotting noise that cost the genre a lot of fans.  The best the film can come up with is a few mildly amusing jokes, most of which would be considered lame for an afternoon sitcom.

If you were like me and had a bias from anime from this show, please, don't give up on it.  Movies like "Grave of the Fireflies" and "Spirited Away" entertain in ways no traditional film, animated or otherwise, ever could.  And if you're a "Dragonball Z" fan, see the movies I listed too to see how low you've set the bar.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Fantastic Four

2.5/4

Starring: Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Reg E. Cathey, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence, and Language

To put it mildly, the advance word for the third (!) would-be franchise starter of the "Fantastic Four" comic book was not good.  It hasn't approached the levels of "Gigli," but the supposed lack of quality in this movie has been making the news.  Reports of studio meddling and a trouble-raising director have dogged the production, and director Josh Trank has come out and claimed that the studio took the film away from him.  Armed with this foreknowledge, I primed myself for an epic disaster, a movie that I will regret having seen and will make me want to spew even more bile at Marvel.  Then I saw the movie...

"Fantastic Four" actually isn't that bad.  That's different from good, which it isn't; the screenplay is bland and the showdown with the villain is extremely underwhelming.  It's certainly watchable and entertaining to a degree (compared to a shitstorm like "Child 44," which was released and subsequently disappeared without a fraction of the fanfare).  It's certainly not going to come anywhere near my Bottom 10 list this year.

Reed Richards (Owen Judge as a kid, Teller as an adult) has been building a teleporter in his garage since he was a kid, with the support of his friend Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann as a kid, Bell as an adult).  Although he is scoffed at by the likes of his teacher ("The Simpsons" voice actor Dan Castellaneta), his genius is accepted by Dr, Franklin Storm (Cathey), who offers him a free ride to the school he teaches at.  Together with Storm's adopted daughter Sue (Mara), biological son Johnny (Jordan), and the school's resident anti-social genius Victor von Doom (Kebbell), they work to create a transporter than humans can use.  After it is built, they find out that it's going to be taken away by the government.  Unwilling to let some photogenic nimrod be the first one to enter a new dimension, Reed, Johnny, Ben and Victor secretly go first.  Something goes wrong and Victor is left behind.  The others, plus Sue (who brought them back), have developed supernatural abilities, which the government wants to use for its own ends.

When a studio interferes with the production of a film, it's usually a bad sign (the aforementioned "Gigli" was reported to be a black comedy until the whole Bennifer thing exploded in the tabloids, and the studio tried to capitalize on it by forcing director Martin Brest to turn it into a light romantic comedy, with disastrous results).  While watching the film, it's at least competently made and coherent.  Looking back, is a different story.  Characters are thinly written (a common problem for Marvel movies), subplots are not fully explored, and the film's main storyline spends a lot of time going over what most movies cover in the first half hour.  Of greater concern is the ending, which gives the term "letdown" a whole new meaning.

The performances are fine, but to be quite frank, there's not a lot for them to work with,  All the actors have done good work before, but here, all they're required to do is stand around, look photogenic in the costumes, and not embarrass themselves.  It's a shame, really, since all are quite capable of doing excellent acting; Miles Teller was superb in "Whiplash," Kate Mara is a great character actor, Michael B. Jordan got Oscar buzz for "Fruitvale Station," and Jamie Bell is great in everything he's in.  Shame Marvel has a way of watering everything down...

This new "Fantastic Four" has been criticized for its dark tone, which I don't understand.  Compared to Nolan's "Batman" trilogy," it's pretty pleasant.  But that had Christopher Nolan as a writer/director, and Marvel's mantra is apparently "Copy, cross-reference, and Easter eggs."

I guess they wanted it to be "Batman Begins" and a standard Marvel movie at the same time.  Naturally, it just didn't work.

For the Boys

3/4

Starring: Bette Midler, James Caan, Ayre Goss

Rated R for Language

Normally, it's a bad thing for a movie to offer nothing we haven't seen before.  But "For the Boys" is all about bittersweet nostalgia, so in that sense, that sameness is to be desired.  It's cliché and manipulative, but of course it is.  Movies like "For the Boys" are.  In fact, that's why we go see them.

Famous entertainer Dixie Leonard (Midler) is being awarded for her successful career with showman/comedian Eddie Sparks (Caan).  For forty years, they've performed together and entertained the nation.  And during war time, they've gone to the battlefields to put on a show for the troops.  A young assistant, Jeff Brooks (Goss), is sent to fetch Dixie and bring her to the stage where she will receive her reward.  However, she refuses to go because there's been bad blood between her and Eddie for the past two decades.  As Jeff tries to convince her to go (if only to save his job), she tells him the story of Dixie Leonard and Eddie Sparks.

"For the Boys" is one of those few movies where knowing the formula enhances the film's effect.  It never pretends to be anything other than what it is, a rose-colored look at the highs and lows of a showbiz career.  We know the big moments and when they come; it's just a matter of watching how Dixie and Eddie's love-hate relationship plays out.  In some ways, "For the Boys" resembles "The Notebook," both in tone and how its predictability deepens the film's pleasures.  This is as far away from "Sunset Blvd." as one can get.

The performances are effective, but no more.  Bette Midler is known for her acting and singing, but while she can carry a tune with the best of them and can fire off a one-liner with ease, her dramatic range is limited.  In moments of heavy drama, she goes over-the-top, which causes a few scenes to strike the wrong note.  James Caan is more controlled, but at times too low-key.  While he has chemistry with Midler (which is essential for this sort of movie), he can't match her for screen presence, and that creates a charisma mismatch.  And Ayre Goss, a character actor who is probably most famous for is portrayal of the cuckolded husband in the opening scene of "Minority Report," is wonderful in the limited role of Jeff.  He's a stand-in for the audience, and nothing more.

By its nature, a movie like "For the Boys" must go full blast on the melodrama and the manipulation.  There's no place for subtlety here.  Director Bob Rydell certainly doesn't underplay any of the material, but I would argue that he doesn't go far enough.  A movie like this demands manipulation on par with "Titanic" or "Gone with the Wind."  Rydell appears to be afraid to pull out all the stops, which keeps the film from being the grand "smiles and tears" movie that it could be.

Part of the reason is that it appears to be underfunded.  Either that or Rydell lacks the grand vision to pull something like this off.  The film constantly feels too small, too low budget.  Imagine if James Cameron made "Titanic" for half the budget he was given, and you'll understand how constrained it feels.  The dialogue is occasionally pedestrian when ripe clichés are to be encouraged, and the crucial dynamic between Dixie, Eddie, and Dixie's son Danny feels incomplete.  And two characters, one of whom is pretty important, disappear without a trace.  The story occasionally gets repetitive as well.  Special mention has to go to the make-up jobs that add on the years to Midler and Caan.  Putting it bluntly, it's awful.  The make-up is the most unconvincing I have ever seen in a film.

Do I still recommend the film?  Without a moment's hesitation.  While there are some problematic scenes, the vast majority of them work.  There are moments of real power and humor to be found here.  Just don't expect anything surprising.  It's not that kind of movie.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Carried Away

1/4

Starring: Dennis Hopper, Amy Locaine, Amy Irving, Hal Holbrook, Gary Busey, Julie Harris

Rated R for Nudity, Strong Sexuality, and Language

Am I the only one who is aware of how twisted this movie is? There's no rule that a movie about pedophilia can't work, but that's only the case if it's not ignored ("The War Zone" comes to mind). But by treating it as a tender story of forbidden love, it turns into something truly unseemly. If the filmmakers thought they were actually making a love story (which they clearly were), I don't want to know any of them personally.

Joseph Svenden (Hopper) is a 47-year-old teacher in a tiny farming community. Although he lacks a college education, he's been teaching for the past 20-odd years, but recent redistricting is causing his school to close down, leaving him out of a job and without a clue as to what to do with himself. Making matters worse is that his mother (Harris) is dying. The only positive thing in his life is Rosalee (Irving), a neighbor and a teacher. She loves him and would happily marry him, but while he loves her too, Joseph is reluctant to pop the question (possibly because his best friend Orin, who died in Korea, got first dibs). In walks Catherine Wheeler (Locane), a young blonde bombshell. Her father Nathan (Busey) is paying Joseph to board her horse. Catherine, it seems, is eager to seduce Joseph, and while he knows its wrong, he allows himself to sleep with her.

The idea that this could possibly be a love story is repulsive. Apart from the subject matter by itself, the film doesn't even work on its own merits. Neither Joseph nor Catherine is written in a way that makes them seem like real people. Joseph occasionally babbles about nothing, and as soon as Catherine takes her shirt off, he agrees to sleep with her. Hopper does what he can to make Joseph real, but there's only so much that he can do. And Catherine simply doesn't work at all. Rather than being the teenage Lolita that the filmmakers intend, she comes across as psychotic; an adolescent Alex Forrest from "Fatal Attraction" mixed with Catherine Trammell from "Basic Instinct." She's the kind of girl who appears suddenly out of nowhere, usually naked, poisons his relationships and blackmails him. Take for example one scene where she flip-flops more than John Kerry about being pregnant in order to manipulate Joseph, they when he gets out of the car in a fit of terror, she laughs and strips (she strips in just about every scene). This is so Romeo & Juliet.

Dennis Hopper gives it his all, but he's saddled with a one-note character who is occasionally inconsistent. Joseph is supposed to be a sad sack who has been rendered impotent by life, but his character is ineptly written. Catherine is just bizarre. At no point does she ever feel like a real person. Amy Irving fares the best, but her character is undermined by the end, which falls into a cliché that under the circumstances will make anyone feel squirmy.

"Carried Away" is one of those literary movies designed to impress the crowd that wears tweed jackets everywhere and smoke cheap pipes they got at a shitty antique store. Which is to say, older versions of Wes Anderson fans. It's meant to be bold and daring by making a romance about a taboo subject, which is fine, except for the fact that the two leads have zero chemistry and whitewashing the moral and ethical implications of its plot and the younger woman's obvious mental instability (a fact that makes the story even more distasteful). Add pretension to an already unpleasant dish, it adds cheesy symbolism that instead of having any sort of meaning, is totally obvious.

There are two bright spots. The score by Bruce Broughton and the cinematography by Declan Quinn are both lovely. Don't want to ignore their valiant efforts to save this film. Pity it was an exercise in futility.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Gift

3.5/4

Starring: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton

Rated R for Language

Not to be confused with the 2000 film starring Cate Blanchett

"You may be done with the past, but the past ain't done with you." - Gordo
The best thrillers are set in the real.  Movies like "Fatal Attraction," a spiritual cousin to "The Gift," scare us because they create suspense out of characters like us who do things we would do.  Joel Edgerton's directorial debut is built upon awkward situations that the majority of people have found themselves in (one way or another).

Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall) have just moved to California.  They were living in Chicago, but have relocated for "a new start."  They have just bought a cushy new house to go along with Simon's fancy (and high-paying) new job, and while out shopping for things to fill it with, a man goes up to Simon and says hello.  His name is Gordo (Edgerton), who went to school with Simon "like, 80 years ago."  Simon doesn't remember him, but he seems pleasant enough.  When they get home, they find a bottle of wine on their doorstep from Gordo, welcoming them to their new home.  Soon, Gordo has inserted themselves into their lives.  While Robyn admits that Gordo is odd, she thinks he's nice enough and doesn't mind him.  Simon, however, is unsettled, and wants him to go away.  But when Simon tells Gordo not to contact them, things take a dark turn.

Joel Edgerton is one of the great Australian imports.  Although not as famous, he is easily as talented as Mel Gibson or Nicole Kidman (his 2011 film, "Warrior," shows that he can be just as powerful and magnetic as Tom Hardy, his co-star for that film).  His efforts behind the camera, however, are not as strong.  He wrote the short story that was turned into last year's "artistic" garbage, "The Rover," but to be fair, he didn't contribute to the screenplay.  He did co-write "The Square" with his brother Nash, and that movie was even worse.  But here he proves that he is a gifted filmmaker, able to create tension out of everyday occurrences.  For example, at one point, Gordo shows up at the house, looking for Simon during the middle of the day.  Robyn tells him that Simon is at work.  Gordo apologizes and compliments the house.  He doesn't go away, which signals to us that he wants to be invited in, which Robyn eventually does.  What's worth noting about this sequence is how Edgerton handles it.  The moment of awkwardness is held long enough to raise awareness to the audience, but not enough to show that Robyn is, or should be, concerned.  After all, her husband knows him, and she's proud of her new house.

"The Gift" is built upon moments like that: everyday behavior that is tweaked and massaged to make it unsettling.  Edgerton is keen on not sensationalizing the material or highlighting the scares.  Both Simon and Robyn, and to a lesser extent Gordo, behave like real people.  While there is certainly pleasure to be had in treating something like this in a more expressive fashion ("The Gift" is not as scary as "Fatal Attraction" or "Fear"), Edgerton proves that a skilled director can wring out suspense by reflecting reality more closely.

It sure helps that the acting is strong.  Jason Bateman mined his "Arrested Development" persona long enough for it to become incredibly irritating, but these days, he's taken his career in a different direction.  He's taken more dramatic roles with "Disconnect" and "This is Where I Leave You," neither of which I saw, sadly.  Simon plays the ideal everyman, but plays him in such a way that when we find out the secrets of his past (and present), we still believe it.  Rebecca Hall, a British actress who has "Future Oscar Winner" written all over her, is very good as Robyn.  Sporting a flawless American accent, Robyn is also the ideal everywoman.  She loves Simon, but his odd behavior regarding Gordo and a mysterious phrase of one of Gordo's letters ("letting bygones be bygones") makes her suspicious enough to do some investigating.  And Joel Edgerton balances the line between benevolent but odd and creepy.  Because we know what kind of movie this is, we know that he's up to no good, but the tension comes from how he keeps us guessing as to how the characters will react.  He's creepy enough to raise suspicion but not enough to be genuinely scared.  According to an interview, this is what Edgerton was aiming for, and he nails it.

That it doesn't reach a 4/4 is probably because of the movie it's trying to be.  Edgerton wants to create a thriller about average people in identifiable situations, but there's really only so much tension that can be generated from that.  A little sensationalism is necessary to up the ante to its peak.  That said, I liked how Edgerton took the chance and didn't go down the road to a bloody, violent climax.  This is much more honest and still suspenseful.  The revelation of Gordo's motives is a slight letdown, but the ending hints at something far more terrible.

We don't see many thrillers these days.  Just superhero movies, tween romances, and reboots.  "The Gift" may not be the next "Fatal Attraction," but is gripping and makes you guess.  It makes you wish that Hollywood still made movies like this.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ghost in the Machine

1/4

Starring: Karen Allen, Chris Mulkey, Will Horneff, Ted Marcoux

Rated R for High-Tech Horror Violence

Just like "The Mangler" and "Bad Moon," I watched "Ghost in the Machine" for one reason only: James Berardinelli's review of it was so hilarious I had to see it.  If only for some masochistic enjoyment.  One could argue that "The Mangler" was stupid fun (it's definitely a movie that was made to be watched with your friends and a lot of booze), but "Bad Moon" was tedious.  And as bad as the latter was, this one is worse.

When it comes to a movie's premise, I'll accept anything, even if I have to suspend logic.  You'd be surprised at how many movies work once you accept them on their own terms ("Anaconda" and "Speed" are two examples...both are extremely silly, but if you accept them for what they are, they're a lot of fun).  Like those two movies, "Ghost in the Machine" boasts a totally ridiculous premise: a serial killer has died in the MRI machine during a power surge and has become a computer virus that can travel through any electrical cord and take control over anything with a computer chip.  As Mr. Berardinelli pointed out in his review, technology doesn't work like that (although one could argue that we're getting closer to that point by the day, but this movie was made in 1993), I was willing to overlook that rather large detail if it meant an entertaining ride.  Sadly, my generosity was not reciprocated.  Even on its own terms, the movie still sucks.

The serial killer of this movie, a Norman Bates wannabe named Karl Hopkins (Marcoux), is known as the "Address Book Killer."  His modus operandi is to steal someone's address book and slaughter everyone in it.  Gruesome and rather odd, but hey, was Ghostface any less so?  Anyway, one day after lifting the address book of a woman named Terry Munroe (Allen), Karl drives to her house to kill her and her son Josh (Horneff).  What person puts her name in the listings of her own address book, I don't know, but I guess if you're going to kill all of someone's friends, you might as well let her join the club.  But on the way, he ends up wrecking his car, which is how he ends up in the MRI, and you know the rest.  Now free of his physical form, Karl can stalk Terry and kill everyone in her address book uninhibited by evidence or a normal person's range of believability.  The only one who does believe her is hacker-turned-security expert Bram Walker (Mulkey).  Together, the three of them have to stop Karl before he kills them.

Okay, it's not Shakespeare, but there's certainly nothing preventing it from becoming a serviceable thriller.  Except for the fact that it lacks everything necessary to raise the adrenaline: a coherent script, a sense of atmosphere, and pacing.  Most importantly, it doesn't have a set of rule of what can and cannot happen, which separates this from other equally implausible but more effective thrillers.

The actors do what they can, but considering what they have to work with and how they're used, it's not much.  Karen Allen, best known for playing Marion Ravenwood in the "Indiana Jones" movies, is a totally underused actress.  She's always good, like in "The Sandlot" or her small role in "In the Bedroom."  Allen does what she can, but there's little that she can do with such a thinly written role.  Chris Mulkey and Will Horneff aren't bad either, but they're not good (I fault mainly the script and the direction).  Since Karl is an omnipotent force for most of the film, he doesn't have a lot of screen time.  I think he could have been acceptable had the film afforded him the latitude, but that's only judging by the film's standards, and the bar is set pretty low.

While admittedly the script is in desperate need of some rewrites, the majority of the film's problems lay at the feet of its director, Rachel Talalay, who went on to direct the much-maligned comic-book movie "Tank Girl" (to be fair, the film was taken out of her control by MGM, but if this is the best she can do by herself...).  There are three huge flaws with her work on this film.  First, is the poor staging of the action scenes.  They are so lifeless that I honestly believed that they were done in one take.  Take the car accident in the beginning: when it ends up upside down and goes through a graveyard, it moves so slowly that it's impossible to believe that it anyone in it could come away with more than cuts and bruises, much die (this includes the people it runs into...seriously, it's going at like 10 miles an hour off a freeway); the fact that it knocks over a dozen headstones doesn't help since they appear to be made of paper mache or something).  And that's just one example.  The film's editing is occasionally quite choppy; we never convincingly understand how Terry figures out that it's Karl who's after her and why.  Most egregiously, the film moves so slowly.  Like at a snail's pace.  I mean, it almost brings to mind Ozu's "Tokyo Story" or one of those pretentious art-house movies that only the counter-culture crowd loves.  Thrillers are supposed to quicken the pulse, not put you to sleep.  Maybe Talalay misread the script...

I'll admit there are a few cheap laughs (at least one of which appears to be intentional), such as when Karl the Virus tries to get into a house, but the appliances have been plugged up and words appear saying something like "No Entry." It's definitely nowhere near the worst movie I've ever seen.  But it's still really bad.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Inuyasha: Affections Touching Across Time

3/4

Starring (voices): Richard Ian Cox, Moneca Stori, Kelly Sheridan, Kirby Morrow, Jillian Michaels, Vincent Gale

Not Rated (probable PG for Violence and Brief Language)

Let me tell you a story.  For the longest time as a teenager, I hated anime.  I loathed it.  The crappy animation, the embarrassing dialogue, the generic action sequences...I derided it with the same vitriol that I would later regard Wes Anderson (it is here that I should mention that my experiences with anime was from the stuff on Cartoon Network like "Pokémon," "Digimon," and the utterly worthless "Dragonball Z," shows that most anime fans regard as the ugly stepchild of anime).  A friend of mine at the time was a huge anime fan.  Fed up with my bitching, he dragged me to the school's Japanese pop culture club, where they were showing an episode of "Inuyasha" ("The Mystery of the New Moon and the Black-haired Inuyasha," for any fans of the show who are wondering).  After watching it, I was instantly hooked.  I watched as many episodes as I could, although it has been only until now that I have gotten the chance to see the whole show from start to finish.

"Inuyasha: Affections Touching Across Time," the first of four films based on the TV show, is not great art.  But neither is the TV show.  The dialogue is pedestrian and the animation is obviously cheap (especially when it's compared to Hayao Miyazaki).  It is, however, great entertainment.  It's a good story with plenty of action, likable characters, some quirky humor (never have the words "Sit Boy" been so explosively funny...a term I use sort of literally) and a few chills.  That's all you can ask for.

A little background is necessary for a synopsis to make any sense.  The TV series is about Kagome Higurashi (Stori), a 14-year-old Japanese girl.  She's a relatively normal young woman except for the fact that she has the ability to travel, via a well in the family shrine, back to the feudal era of Japan.  There, she teams up with Inuyasha (Cox), a half-demon, to track down shards of the Sacred Shikon Jewel, which, when complete offers its bearer extraordinary power.  Also with them are Miroku (Morrow), a monk who will scam anyone and has a habit of asking any woman he comes across if they will bear his children, Sango (Sheridan), a demon slayer with a tragic past, and Shippo (Michaels), a little fox demon who tags along after his father was slain.  Their sworn enemy is a half-demon named Naraku (Paul Dobson), who wants the jewel for himself and will manipulate and betray anyone to get it.

The film takes place between seasons 2 and 3, although it's a self-contained story.  After Inuyasha inadvertently insults her cooking, Kagome storms off.  The others go looking for her, and they all run into bad ends of Menomaru (Gale), a moth demon with two minions, Ruri (Venus Terzo) and Hari Lalainia Lindbjerg).  Menomaru has a beef with Inuyasha's father, and since he died centuries ago, he intends to exact revenge on Inuyasha himself.  However, with his friends held up in various ways coupled with his arrogant nature, Inuyasha ends up making matters infinitely worse, allowing Menomaru to resurrect his father's power, a feat that will lead not only to world domination of their era, but Kagome's as well.

The movie is essentially a 90 minute long TV episode, which has its good and bad qualities.  Thankfully, the story is strong enough to last that long, and is constructed in a way that doesn't make it seem like 3 episodes strung together (which is what happened with "Family Guy's" movie, "Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story").  The stakes are high enough, and the plot fits into the series like a glove.  Director Toshiya Shinohara understands "Inuyasha's" appeal and what makes the series so much fun. On the other hand, it lacks breadth.  Surely with 90 minutes to play around with, Shinohara could have found ways to flesh out the story more.  He also has difficulty keeping track of all the characters, which can lead to momentary confusion.

Also curious is the fact that Naraku is missing from the film entirely.  While Naraku doesn't always appear in the TV series, his presence is always felt, and the series never forgets that his defeat is the ultimate goal (something that the film doesn't bother to mention).  More importantly, while Menomaru is certainly an imposing villain and often makes us question how our heroes will get out of their situation (even if in the back of our minds we already know), he's got nothing on Naraku, who is essentially evil personified.  Naraku lends an air of menace to the series that Menomaru can't make up for.

"Inuyasha: Affections Touching Across Time" is a must for fans of the series.  If nothing else, it's a chance to spend more time with some old friends.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Southpaw

1.5/4

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forrest Whittaker, Oona Laurence, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Rachel McAdams, Miguel Gomez, Naomie Harris

Rated R for Language Throughout, and Some Violence

I like Jake Gyllenhaal.  A whole lot.  He's such a powerful and versatile young actor, and he's more than willing to take chances with his career ("Donnie Darko," his breakout role, is a prime example).  He has worked so hard to bring Billy Hope, the character that he plays in this movie, to life that it pains me to say that it's all for naught.  He's caught in a tired screenplay and a director who takes things far too seriously.

Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) is the lightweight champion of the world.  He's fabulously wealthy, famous, and has a loving wife Maureen (McAdams) and daughter Leila (Laurence).  However, when a challenge from a rival, Miguel "Magic" Escobar (Gomez) ends in a blow to his ego, Billy gets into a brutal fistfight.  Guns are pulled and Maureen is shot by accident.  She dies in his arms.  Billy sinks into a deep depression and agrees to go back into the ring for the money, but his heart isn't in it.  Not only does he lose his title, he loses everything else, including the custody of Leila.  Now back on the streets, he goes to the coach of the one man who beat him as a young fighter (this may have been due to corruption, but the movie isn't clear on this): Tick Wills (Whittaker).  But redemption is hard to come by.

The screenplay by Kurt Sutter is Depressing Sports Movie 101.  Tragedy, fall from grace, struggle for redemption...you know the drill.  There's nothing inherently wrong with it in and of itself.  But the characters are shallow types (despite the valiant efforts of the cast), the tone is relentlessly downbeat, and the pacing is sluggish.

Jake Gyllenhaal certainly gives it his all here, and that's commendable.  Billy has anger issues and is not the brightest bulb in the bunch.  But he loves his wife and daughter.  Oona Laurence is credible as his daughter, not being too cute and for the most part avoiding overacting that comes with young actors.  Forrest Whittaker is his reliable self, and 50 Cent, while convincing as a man whose friendships are based on who he can profit from, suffers from stiff (and occasionally inaudible) dialogue delivery.  The scene-stealer is Rachel McAdams.  Now that she has grown out of her matinee idol phase, she can continue to hone in and develop her talents.  This is quite possibly her best performance, but unfortunately she's gone after the first half hour.  Naomie Harris appears as Leila's case worker, but she has nothing to do (see "The First Grader" for an example of her talents).

Antoine Fuqua's talents as a director are limited.  Of his films, only "Training Day" and "Shooter" are worth seeing, and even they aren't anything to rave about.  He's a notch above a director-for-hire, albeit only a slight notch.  He adds some nice stylistic touches here and there, and the fight scenes are well-presented.  But the movie is so grim that it becomes a joyless affair.  One in which there are no characters to care about and where we know exactly what is going to happen.

If you are hungering for a boxing movie, watch "Girlfight" instead.

Bloody Sunday

3.5/4

Starring: James Nesbitt, Nicholas Farrell, Tim Pigott-Smith, Christopher Villers, Simon Mann, Declan Duddy

Rated R for Violence and Language

The "Bloody Sunday" march, a would-be peaceful protest that turned into a bloodbath, was a major incident during the tumultuous times in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles.  Director Paul Greengrass has brought this tragedy vividly to life.

On January 30, 1972, many of the residents of Derry, Ireland, led by Parliament member Ivan Cooper (Nesbitt) are going on a protest march.  The fact that Derry is predominantly Catholic and he is Protestant does little to diminish his opposition of the British occupation of Northern Ireland.  Nor does it have any effect on the people, who view him with respect and admiration.  He is organizing a march in protest, undaunted by the fact that the British government has made such marches illegal.  It was supposed to be a peaceful march, but it turned out to be a day of horror and carnage that left 13 people dead and 14 more injured.

"Bloody Sunday" is less a narrative piece than a play-by-play telling of what exactly happened, and to the extent that anyone knows, why.  Character development is almost non-existent and melodrama is minimal.  That's to the film's benefit.  It enhances the feeling that Greengrass is taking us right into the middle of the chaos and leaving us there.  And yet, because we are watching as outsiders, we are able to see all sides of what is happening, something that none of the characters are able.

Greengrass allows us to understand that while the march may have started with the most innocent of intentions, it was really a perfect storm.  The British military command is made up of men who are either gutless or incompetent, and they're being led by Major General Ford (Pigott-Smith), a sleazy sort who is hoping to score political points by capturing some key people.  Add in a squad of trigger-happy paramilitary grunts who are eager to teach the Irish a lesson, and you've got a recipe for disaster.

Just because making a traditional movie isn't on Greengrass's agenda doesn't mean that there aren't some strong performances.  In fact, there are many, but by design, they aren't showy.  Leading the pack is James Nesbitt, an Irish character actor who deserves far more attention than he gets.  Ivan is polite, friendly and personable.  He's the consummate politician without a hint of falseness.  The scene where he finally begins to process the day's events is heartbreaking, but his early scenes are among his best.  Tim Pigott-Smith is also perfectly slimy as Ford, whose hardliner approach to the situation makes him bear some, but not all, of the responsibility for what happened.  Everyone else avoids any semblance of gravitas or showboating, leaving only their characters; some are better than others, but overall it works.

Paul Greengrass has been criticized for his emphasis on shaky camerawork, and in some instances, like the "Bourne" movies, this is ill-advised.  Despite what Hollywood (and himself) thinks, Greengrass isn't an action movie director.  He's a filmmaker who makes docudramas, and in that way, the handheld camerawork enhances the effect.  This can be seen in "United 93" and his criminally underrated "Captain Philips."  The editing is choppy with moments of black screen in-between the cuts, but for the most part I liked that (the only time it doesn't work is in the moments before all hell breaks loose).  It makes it seem less professional and more "in your face."  Greengrass shies away from overt manipulation (a foreboding score, flashy choreography, etc.).  Only the editing, which doesn't call attention to itself, adds to the sense of impending doom.

I won't deny that parts of "Bloody Sunday" are confusing.  For the most part, that's by intent, since up until the very end it takes place only in the here and now, without the gift of hindsight (something else that enhances the film's effect).  However, I won't deny that I had to rewind parts of the film to figure out what was going on.  Intentional confusion only works when we know we aren't supposed to know what is going on; if a character knows or says something and we don't know what he's talking about, it becomes a problem.

As you can imagine, "Bloody Sunday" is not easy viewing.  It's violent, raw and quite bloody.  The violence is so matter-of-fact that it packs a bigger punch than if it were stylized.  That said, it is riveting viewing.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Mr. Holmes

2/4

Starring: Ian McKellan, Milo Parker, Laura Linney, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Hiroyuki Sanada

Rated PG for Thematic Elements, Some Disturbing Images and Incidental Smoking

"Mr. Holmes" is an attempt to appeal to the crowd that made Miramax so popular in its heyday: older viewers who value acting and storytelling over special effects and superheroes.  That would be all well and good if the movie was worth seeing, which it isn't.

The bulk of the film takes place in 1947.  Sherlock Holmes is 93, and while not necessarily sick, he's well aware that his time on Earth is limited.  His memory is beginning to fail him, and he wants to solve one last final case before he dies.  The son of his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Linney), a young lad named Roger (Parker) is eager to help him with his case and his beekeeping.  In an attempt to keep his memory intact, he travels to Japan in search of an herb that will help stave of senility.

There are three plot threads in this movie, and sadly, none of them is of any real interest.  The one in Japan is the least successful.  Apart from being trite, it's completely redundant.  Cutting it out could have only helped the film.  And this is in a film that is in badly need of focus to begin with.  It takes forever to get going, and when it does move along, it's usually in a contrived fashion.

The high level of acting keeps things from becoming too tedious.  Then again, could we expect anything less from the likes of Ian McKellan, Laura Linney and Hiroyuki Sanada?  Didn't think so.  Young Milo Parker also impresses; he's more than capable of holding his own with his higher-wattage co-stars.  He's intelligent and shrewd but still innocent, which makes him quite likable.

Sadly, they're all in a story without direction (and one in which seemingly half the dialogue is unintelligible).  Once the film narrows its focus in the final third, it gains some narrative momentum, but the plot is contrived and is always on the verge of going over-the-top.

The film's theme, about how sometimes fiction is preferable to logic, is presented with some skill, but I just wish that it was presented in a cleaner, less messy production.

There is some good news, however.  Ian McKellan did not like filming this movie because of the discomfort his costumes caused him.  Considering the film's low quality and the fact that it has arrived with barely any marketing, I highly doubt that the actor will have to don these costumes again.  For everyone else who is eager to get their Sherlock Holmes fix, there's always the specials with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.