Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Everest

2.5/4

Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Emily Watson, Keira Knightly, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Sam Worthington, Michael Kelly

Rated PG-13 for Intense Peril and Disturbing Images

"Everest" is an intense film that will leave you reeling.  It is also insanely maddening because it could have been so much better.  I don't know what it is about big budget movies these days, but I prefer to be able to hear the dialogue over the special effects.  This is one of my biggest pet peeves, and boy, does "Everest" ever break it!

Yes, I get it.  The majority of the film takes place on Mount Everest in the middle of a fierce storm, so naturally the dialogue would be set against a bunch of noise.  Well, so was "Vertical Limit," and at least director Martin Campbell made sure that we were able to pick out the dialogue over the screaming winds.  The same cannot be said about Baltasar Kormakur, who thinks that this movie will work if we can't figure out who is who and what they're doing.  Sadly that's not the case.

Yet on a visceral level, the film succeeds.  This is an intense and suspenseful film, mainly because  Kormakur puts us right in the middle of it and never lets the tension flag.  Also, when we are able to hear the characters speak, they give fine performances (Jason Clarke and Keira Knightly especially).  It's not as draining as "The Perfect Storm," another film where ego and bad luck led to tragedy, but there are times when it comes close.

"Everest" is a film version of the May 10, 1996 climbing disaster on Mount Everest in which three teams of climbers made an ascent attempt and eight people died.  While Komarkur spends some time with all the teams, his main focus is on Adventure Consultants, led by expert climber Rob Hall (Clarke).  With him are Beck Weathers (Brolin), Doug Hansen (Hawkes), Andy "Harold" Harris (Martin Henderson), Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), and author Jon Krakauer (Kelly).  Also on the mountain are Rob's friend/business rival Scott Fischer (Gyllenhaal), the base camp leader Helen Wilton (Watson) and doctor Caroline Mackenzie (Elizabeth Debecki).  And time is also spent with Rob's wife Jan (Knightly) and Beck's wife Peach (Wright).

If this seems like a large cast, remember that there are other characters I didn't name because I didn't know who the hell they were.  Like "Black Mass," "Everest's" scope is too big, and the movie suffers for it.  True, "Vertical Limit" had a large cast, but not this big, and Martin Campbell did a better job of establishing who was who and where they were (he divided it into four simple stories running simultaneously).  Plus he didn't have about a dozen movie stars fighting for screen time.

The acting is strong across the board.  Quite frankly, it nearly saves the movie.  Most have what amount to bit parts (my guess is that this film struggled in the editing room...Jake Gyllenhaal's appearance is little more than a cameo, for example).  The best performance goes to Jason Clarke.  A character actor on the rise, Clarke has never convinced me that he can succeed as a leading man.  Until now.  His interpretation of Rob Hall is quite compelling, and the actor not only masters the accent but the range of emotion demanded by the screenplay.  Equally good is Keira Knightly, who despite being saddled with the cliched role of the worried wife back home, manages to stand out.  We feel her pain and fear.  While long shots, if there are any acting nominations, it will be these two.

Should you see it in theaters?  It's a tough call.  Movies like this generally work better on the big screen, but I don't imagine much will be lost with a hi-def TV and Blu Ray.  Plus there you'll have the virtue of subtitles.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Captive

1.5/4

Starring: Kate Mara, David Oyelowo, Michael K. Williams, Lenor Varela, Mimi Rogers, Elle Graham

Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Elements involving Substance Abuse

The good news is that the new Christian film "Captive" doesn't pile on the preachiness like "War Room" and no one utters a single Bible verse, unlike last year's monstrosity, "God's Not Dead."  The bad news?  It's dull beyond words.

Ashley Smith (Mara) is a meth addict struggling to stay sober.  Her young daughter Paige (Graham) is living with her Aunt Kim (Rogers) until she can stay clean, but it's a losing battle.  Brian Nichols (Oyelowo) is on his way to a lengthy prison term when he escapes and goes on a killing and carjacking spree that reminded me of "Grand Theft Auto."  He eventually takes Ashley hostage and hides out in her apartment while planning his next move.  Meanwhile, two cops, John Chestnut (Williams) and Carmen Sandoval (Varela) are hot on his trail.

It's a good concept (and, like almost every movie that doesn't involve superheroes or is based on a teen book franchise, it's based on a true story), but there are some big problems.  A bland script, pedestrian direction, and some questionable performances turn what could have been an intense thriller into a snoozefest.

While watching "Captive," I thought of the movie "Turbulence."  Both have similar concepts and suffer from the same basic problem (apart from the obvious one): they don't find a way to capitalize on the psychological tete-a-tete between two people.  But whereas "Turbulence" had the virtue of being so dumb it was funny, "Captive" is simply dull.  It's bad storytelling no matter which way you slice it.

Kate Mara is a good actress and does what she can with a rare leading role.  Ultimately, the script and the direction let her down.  She is, however, the best thing in this movie.  Her co-star, David Oyelowo (who also serves as one of the film's producers), isn't as impressive.  He got Oscar buzz for the grossly overrated "Selma," none of which was deserved.  He's actually better here, although that's not saying much considering how awful he was as MLK Jr.

Their co-stars don't fare much better.  "Stiff" is too kind a word for Michael K. Williams.  He's a decent character actor, but he's so wooden I was afraid he was going to catch fire.  Leonor Varela fares better, but unfortunately Williams has more screen time.

I can't finish the review without mentioning the intelligence, or lack thereof, of the characters in this film.  Just about everyone makes a bunch of stupid mistakes straight out of a horror movie.  Granted, this may have been what happened in real life, but it's the director's job to make it believable.  Or change it to make it more convincing.  Needless to say, neither one of those things happens.

The problem with the film is that director Jerry Jameson fails to make the film feel real.  It's not that the film is afraid of going into dark places (the violence is surprisingly brutal and it doesn't shy away from drug use), but that he can't get us to care.  "Captive" is a shallow, uninvolving experience.

Black Mass

2.5/4

Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, David Harbour, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson

Rated R for Brutal Violence, Language Throughout, Some Sexual References and Brief Drug Use

I gotta hand it to Scott Cooper, the director of "Black Mass:" he's ambitious.  With this film, he seeks to profile the rise and fall of notorious gangster James "Whitey" Bulger (Depp) through his dealings with John Connelly (Edgerton).  Unfortunately, it's too ambitious of a scope for Coopers limited talents (his previous film, "Out of the Furnace," had a similar problem).

By the 1970's, James "Whitey" Bulger was already a hardened criminal.  However, while he had served time in the slammer, he's not the FBI's most pressing concern.  That would be the Italian mafia.  An eager beaver of the FBI named John Connelly, who knows Whitey from the neighborhood, thinks that they can use him to get to the mafia.  His superiors reluctantly agree, but Whitey won't play by the rules.  Nor does he really help them.

The problem with this film is that it lacks focus.  Cooper tries to throw in everything, and I mean everything.  His powerful senator brother Billy (Cumberbatch), his wife (Johnson), and a strung out hitman (Peter Sarsgaard).  And that's just to start.  It's all very interesting, but subplots and characters appear and disappear almost at random.  For example, while Billy Bulger is obviously very important to how Whitey was able to stay free for so long, in the film he's almost superfluous.  His girlfriend/wife (the movie never says which) played by Dakota Johnson shows up only for a scene or two then disappears without a word (all things considered, it's for the best, since Johnson is sorely miscast).

The film's star is obviously Depp, and will undoubtedly be the reason why many people see this movie.  How can I blame them?  Even in lame movies like "Secret Window" or "Don Juan DeMarco," Depp is always good.  Depp has been getting Oscar buzz for his portrayal, but it's doubtful he'll get a nomination; the film was released before the Oscar window and the film is too weak to stand against the heavy hitters when they come out.  Nevertheless, Depp is effective, but no more.  The make-up is superlative and he's not sleepwalking through the role, but we always know that it's Depp "playing" Whitey Bulger.

His co-star, Joel Edgerton, is more impressive, mainly because Edgerton has only recently gotten the chance to show his stuff (as good as it was, I don't think anyone actually saw "Warrior" four years ago).  John is a squirrely sort who will do anything to get ahead, including look the other way at Whitey's most brutal activities.

There's no reason why this movie couldn't have worked.  "Goodfellas" proves that.  But while Scorcese's film details just about every inch of the mob, the focus is solely on Henry Hill.  A movie that has two central characters can work, but it takes a far defter touch than Cooper possesses.  Apparently, the film's running time was almost an hour longer, but Cooper cut it down for "pacing reasons."  Judging by the result, he probably should have quit while he was ahead.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Green Inferno

3/4

Starring: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Nicolas Martinez, Daryl Sabara, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Magda Apanowicz, Richard Burgi

Rated R for Aberrent Violence and Torture, Grisly Disturbing Images, Brief Graphic Nudity, Sexual Content, Language and Some Drug Use

The road to hell is paved with good intentions...

"The Green Inferno" is probably the most violent horror movie I have ever seen in a movie theater.  Check that, it's the most violent movie period that I have ever seen in a movie theater.  It is bloody.  It is shocking.  And it will turn off many people who watch it.  However, it is intense and scary, and since that is what horror movies are supposed to do, I'm giving the film a recommendation.

Justine (Izzo) is an aimless college student at an unnamed university (judging by the setting, I'm guessing NYU or Columbia).  She blithely scoffs at the activist students protesting for the janitors on campus (director Eli Roth has some fun at the expense of these types of people) until she hears about female genital mutilation in one of her classes.  That spurs her into telling her father (Burgi), who works at the UN, to do something about it, but he tells her that things aren't that simple.  She joins a local activist group led by the sexy foreigner, Alejandro (Levy), who has a plan to save a tribe in the Amazon from deforestation.  Justine tags along with the others, and while their initial protest is a success, it's there that their trip takes an ugly turn.

For a horror movie, "The Green Inferno" boasts some nice performances.  Nothing extraordinary, but the actors get us on their side (or against them, in some cases), which is all that is necessary.  Lorenza Izzo has both hallmarks of an effective horror movie heroine: she's attractive and has a great scream.  She's also a capable performer, easily getting us to sympathize with her even when she's forced to utter cheesy dialogue.  Ariel Levy gets us to despise his character to no end.  Motivated almost entirely by self-interest, he is willing to play chicken with people's lives to suit his own ends...and that's just start.  The rest of the cast, including post-"Spy Kids" Daryl Sabara (as the obligatory stoner), acquit themselves well.

When I say that "The Green Inferno" is the most violent movie I've seen in a movie theater, I'm not exaggerating.  This is a bloody, brutal film that will floor even the most hardened viewer.  Take my word for it: do not, under any circumstances, take the kids to see this movie.  You will have to spend much of your salary on shrinks if you do.

How violent is it?  Read no further if you have a weak stomach.  People are drawn and quartered while still alive, there's plenty of cannibalism, and we see female genital mutilation in the flesh.  It's all very explicit, but the latter shows everything but inside the "midlands," as another movie called it.  That the MPPA did not require any cuts to avoid the NC-17 rating is nothing short of astonishing.  By comparison "Frontier(s)," another ultra-violent horror movie that did receive the adults-only rating, is in preschool.

It's not a perfect movie by any means.  The opening act is too long (it takes about 45 minutes to arrive at the village) and has plenty of clunky dialogue.  The humor, what little of which there is, appears to be unintentional (then again, it's hard to believe that Roth could have intended the diarrhea scene to be taken seriously).  Nevertheless, the film is effective.

I want to reiterate: this is for hard-core horror fans only.  Those with weak stomachs will find themselves fleeing for the exit by the halfway mark.  I don't want any angry complaints for those who do not take heed.

Hammer of the Gods

3/4

Starring: Charlie Bewley, Clive Standen, Ivan Kaye, Guy Flanagan, Michael Jibson, Theo Barklem-Biggs, Alexandra Dowling, Finlay Robertson, James Cosmo, Elliot Cowan

Rated R for Bloody Violence, Language including Sexual References, and Some Nudity

"Hammer of the Gods" seeks to be more than a "300" clone.  While it's got more than enough brutal bloodshed to satisfy gorehounds and adrenaline junkies, the plot is deeper and the characters are better developed.  Director Farren Blackburn has fashioned a more realistic action movie set in the ancient world.

The Vikings have long since settled in Northern Britain, although their hold on it is weakening.  The Saxons are invading, and they don't have the strength to repel them.  King Bagsecg (Cosmo) has sent for his son Steinar (Bewley) to lead the reinforcements, but when the prince arrives, his father has been gravely wounded and has only about a week to live.  His half-brother Harald (Standen) is next in line to the throne, but Bagsecg sends Steinar to find Hakan (Cowan), Steinar's long-banished older brother.  If he's alive, he's deep within enemy territory.  Steinar mounts up with his friends, Hagen (Standen), his right hand man, the paranoid and omen-obsessed Jokul (Flanagan), and the bawdy Grim (Jibson) to fine Ivar (Kaye), the one man who might know where Hakan is.

As with all quest movies, the journey matters more than the destination.  While the goal is to find Hakan, the real meat of the story is watching Steinar learn what it takes to be a king.  Being a skilled warrior isn't enough.  It takes a shrewd mind that isn't afraid of severing ties when they become dangerous.  This isn't exactly a revolutionary idea, but Blackburn, working with a script by Matthew Read, gives it its due to the point where it is consistently engaging and adds weight to what would otherwise be a lightweight gorefest.

The performances help a lot.  Even though he looks more like a playboy than a wrestler from the WWE (the latter of which being the usual candidates for this type of role), Charlie Bewley summons up the presence and gravitas to pull this role off.  It took me less than a minute to accept him as the rising king.  Clive Standen is also effective as his right-hand man.  Ivan Kaye plays Ivar as a larger-than-life but still sympathetic individual.  And Elliot Cowan is perfectly demented as Hakan.

Zack Snyder's 2006 film is an obvious influence for Blackburn, from the burly, muscle-bound heroes to the ramping in the action scenes.  "Hammer of the Gods" doesn't squeeze out as much adrenaline as the more famous film, but it's enough to satisfy.  The film also looks great, bringing to mind the more eye-popping moments of "Red Sonja."  It's significantly less cheesy than the latter, too.

"Hammer of the Gods" is not a perfect movie, but it's a hell of a lot better than that other Viking-oriented action movie, "Pathfinder."

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

1.5/4

Starring: Dylan O'Brien, Ki Hong Lee, Rosa Salazar, Jacob Lofland, Kaya Scolodero, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Aiden Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Giancarlo Espisito

Rated PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Violence and Action, Some Thematic Elements, Substance Use, and Language

Typically if it's longer than a day or two between when I see the movie and when I can get to a computer, I skip the review.  But I decided to review this movie despite the fact that it's been a week since I've seen it for two reasons: one, I remember full well exactly what I was going to write, and two, I need a review for when I compile my Bottom Ten list this year, as this stinker will surely be on it.

"The Maze Runner" is yet another sci-fi/fantasy (both genres are okay for Hollywood these days) book series that's being turned into a movie franchise.  While not as financially successful as "Twilight" or "The Hunger Games," last year's starter was a respectable effort (for my money, it was more entertaining than either, although I prefer the "Divergent" series).  This sequel reminds us of a time when the word sequel was synonymous with the term "cashing in."  Granted, it still is, but presently franchises are planned out before there's even an underlying idea.

Thomas (O'Brien) and his friends have escaped the maze that was the setting for the first film.  Now free, they are being cared for by Janson (Gillen), who claims to have their best interests at heart.  Of course, Thomas quickly realizes that this is not the case, and with the help of Aris (Lofland), they escape into The Scorch, a desolate landscape straight out of "Mad Max Fury Road," although instead of religious fanatics they find Cranks (read: zombies). There, they team up with Brenda (Salazar) and Jorge (Espisito), who agrees to take them to the Right Arm, a group of underdogs who are resisting WCKD, which is led by Dr. Paige (Clarkson).

The first hour of this movie is representative of everything that is bad about movies these days: lots of special effects (some of which are admittedly impressive), photogeneic but untalented actors, and where plot and dialogue are reduced to grunts and one word shouts.  Michael Bay, eat your heart out.  The rest of it contains flat acting and bad storytelling.

The performances leave something to be desired.  Dylan O'Brien, who was effective in the first one, seems flat here (I blame the script).  Unfortunately, he's the best of those who have more than token screen time.  No one has much to do, and those that do, like Salazar and Scolodero (no young adult franchise can be devoid of romance, apparently), are awful.  Legitimate actors like Patricia Clarkson, Aiden Gillen, Alan Tudyk, Lili Taylor and Barry Pepper appear occasionally, but none have much screen time...they're here to pick up a hopefully healthy paycheck so they can go back to making movies they actually want to be in.

"Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials" picks up in its final act.  There's some dramatic tension as WCKD closes in and the final battle is nicely staged.  Unfortunately, its almost completely arbitrary and contrived.  It also has some obvious lapses in logic, such as how stun rounds can suddenly turn lethal (I'll concede that they can in real life, but this is a teen movie, so such details are usually overlooked).

It's not totally unwatchable.  There are some nice visuals, a decent shock or two, and Alan Tudyk is always fun to watch (here, he's playing a sleazy, campy drug lord or sorts).  Still, unless you're a die-hard fan of the franchise and have very low expectations, skip it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Perfect Guy

3/4

Starring: Sanaa Lathan, Michael Ealy, Morris Chestnut, Holt McCallany

Rated PG-13 for Violence, Menace, Sexuality and Brief Strong Language

"The Perfect Guy" is closer to a misfire than a "perfect" movie, but that doesn't mean it's a waste of time.  The performances are effective and it packs enough thrills to satisfy despite editing mishaps and an overlong running time.

This movie has been mismarketed, perhaps to make it seem different than the genre movie it actually is.  It's been marketed as a film where a woman has to decide which over her lovers is genuine and which is a closeted psycho, but that's not the case.  This is really a "stranger within" movie like "Single White Female" or "Fatal Attraction."  It's closest cousin is "Fear," and while it isn't in the same league, one must remember how high that movie set the bar.

Lobbyist Leah (Lathan) is at a crossroads with her boyfriend Dave (Chestnut): she wants to get married and start a family while he isn't ready to make that kind of commitment.  She dumps him and two months later she meets Carter (Ealy).  Actually they met before when they ordered the same iced latte but he let her get his because she was in a hurry.  Carter is handsome, sweet, polite and devoted...Leah is head over heels in love.  Fans of the genre know better.

This movie isn't about surprises.  It's about psychological tension and sudden shocks.  We know what's going to happen, but the question is how Carter will push Leah to the limit.  In that sense, "The Perfect Guy" is serviceable.  There is some genuine suspense to be found here, which is more than can be said of some of the genre entries ("The Resident," "Unlawful Entry," etc).

The film's lead is Sanaa Lathan, who isn't the best actress in the world but nevertheless gets far fewer roles than she deserves.  The role of Leah isn't what you'd call "demanding," and Lathan's hard work elevates the generic (and at times dumb) script.  Likewise, Michael Ealy has a limited range but is nonetheless effective as a "good guy gone psycho."  Although he gets third billing, Morris Chestnut's role is small; he only shows up for the first three scenes and for another few around the one hour mark.  This is Lathan and Ealy's show.  The weakest member of the cast is Holt McCallany.  Normally an effective character actor, his performance as the sympathetic but impotent cop is hammy.

Editing is said to be the heart and soul of a movie, but it's this movie's biggest problem.  It's about 10 minutes too long, but at the same time the narrative can be at bit choppy.  Scenes can start and end abruptly, and in one instance, Carter says he has to leave soon but a moment later he is having lunch with Leah and her girlfriends.  Director David M. Rosenthal also overuses the most common trope of the genre: the villain is in the room but the hero (or heroine, in this case) doesn't know it.  At one point this happens multiple times in the same scene, and at another, Carter is hiding in Leah's house for at least an hour...and she's totally unaware.  Such sloppiness undermines the film's intelligence.

Another problem is the film's PG-13 rating.  While intense violence, gore and nudity aren't essential for a film like this to work, mental violence is.  There is a sense that this movie is being timid, which is something that really hurts a film like this.

This isn't a perfect movie, but it does what it sets out to do.  I wasn't bored and was appreciated that I hadn't seen this exact movie before.  And that Joss Whedon's name isn't anywhere near this movie.

The Funhouse

1/4

Starring: Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff, Miles Chapin, Wayne Doba, Herb Robins, Shawn Carson

Rated R (for Horror Violence, Language, Sexuality and Drug Use...I guess)

In general, horror movie characters come in three flavors: smart ("The Descent," "Scream"), stupid ("The Vatican Tapes," "Valentine") and "too dumb for reproduction" ("Terror Train," "The Ice Cream Man").  Then there are these doofuses, who are just asking for it.

I'm serious.  The four protagonists are so dumb that I was actively wishing for them to die.  Hell, the only reason I wouldn't give the killer the Nobel Peace Prize is because he's equally stupid.

How dumb are they?  Let's see...well, they make the usual stupid mistakes, like needlessly putting themselves in danger (par for the course), not checking their aim, and so on.  That will hurt a horror movie, but it's excusable.  They also never shut up, even when a killer is stalking them, they carelessly drop things in front of a killer, and they also rob him.  You see what I mean about not wanting people this dense to pass their poor genes on.  Oh, and one stands around after she has incapacitated a villain.

The set-up is good, although director Tobe Hooper fails to truly capitalize on it.  It's not hard to twist nostalgia and kitsch into something sinister; "IT" and "Dead Silence" did something similar to much better effect.  Despite the "impossible to mess up" setting, there isn't a lot of atmosphere or general creepiness.  A few mild shocks, a cheap laugh or two (okay, the scene with the palm reader is laugh-aloud funny, although I'm not sure it was intended to be so).

The acting?  Is it even worth mentioning?  Horror movies rarely attract talent, and "The Funhouse" is no exception.  No one here can act, although Elizabeth Berridge, who plays the lead, went on to play Mozart's wife in the 1984 Best Picture winner, "Amadeus."  You wouldn't know that she had any acting talent whatsoever based on her performance in this film.  She's awful, and so are her co-stars.  The villain, when unmasked, is unintentionally hilarious because his make-up is so fake.

Even on its own level the film is stupid.  It's filled to the brim with anachronisms and a completely pointless character.  For example, there is one scene where the characters are shown with a backlight even though it's supposed to be a darkened room.  And what travelling circus has the means or the desire to build and transport a haunted ride with a basement and a sublevel underground?  And for all the time spent watching the lead character's annoying little brother (Carson) sneak around the fair, his character serves no purpose whatsoever (Hooper tries to cover this with a flashback voiceover but it doesn't work).

The opening shot is also worth mentioning.  It's intended to be a homage to the infamous first scene in "Halloween," but Hooper botches it by cutting the shot numerous times and because it's badly done.  In fact, it misses the mark so far that it becomes unsettling (in a bad way) rather than scary.

Trust me.  Don't see this movie.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Carandiru

2/4

Starring: Luis Carlos Vasconcelos, Ivan de Almeida

Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence/Carnage, Language, Sexuality and Drug Use

About a month ago, I saw "Bloody Sunday," a documentary-like look at the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, Ireland.  That film rejected traditional filmmaking tropes, such as well-developed characters (complete with arcs) and a clear narrative.  Its power came from its sole focus on showing what happened and why (to the extent that anyone knows).

"Carandiru" opts for a more traditional approach, although not necessarily for the better.  The film takes an inordinate amount of time to develop more than a dozen characters, but it's all for naught since most of them have only a few moments of screen time, if that, in the climactic massacre.  Not only that, the dialogue is bland and the characters exhibit little in the way of personality or sympathy.  "Carandiru" represents a very long 2.5 hours.

The Carandiru prison was the largest penitentiary in Central America.  Built to house 4000 inmates, it held nearly twice that at the time of the massacre.  The film uses Dr. Drauzio Varella (Vasconcelos) as our window into the story, which details the days and months leading up to the massacre.

Director Hector Babenco is less interested in offering a play by play of events than exploring life in the prison.  Hermetically sealed off from society with an almost completely self-governing populace, Carandiru prison is unlike any prison you could imagine.  The prisoners have created their own society within its walls; it has a warden (Antonio Grassi), but he's largely invisible, only stepping in when necessary.  The real leader appears to be Ebony (de Almeida), whose function is a combination of father figure, governor and mafia don (murder is acceptable as a last resort, but only if he gives the OK).  However, this is all a fa├žade.  The prison is a tinder box waiting to explode, and when it does, the police who storm the prison shoot and kill without mercy.

Babenco's vision of prison life gives the film some much needed freshness, but he overdoes it.  Carandiru comes across as benevolent; closer to summer camp than prison.  When the prisoners complain to the police that they want better living conditions and that many prisoners were held there for longer than they should have been, I was surprised.  Had Babenco explored these two aspects more thoroughly, the riot wouldn't have seemed so contrived.

Speaking of the riot, it's so abrupt and poorly motivated that save for one brief voiceover, it seems to come completely out of left field.  Granted, that may have been what happened, but it's the director's job to make sure we believe that that could have happened.

The riot itself is filmed in such a way that it robs it of all its drama and urgency.  What should have felt like a hammer blow to the soul instead made me give little more than a shrug.  Babenco spares nothing, but it's badly staged and edited.  While a stretch, a decent comparison may be the notorious Omaha beach segment from "Saving Private Ryan."  No matter how many times you see the film, it's still almost impossible to watch.  The same cannot be said for the end of "Carandiru."

There is stuff to like about the film.  The performances are nice, and while there are too many of them, some of the character's backstories are interesting (their faux-interviews at the end were unnecessary, though...did Babenco cut anything out in the editing room?).  But I can't recommend the film.  It's too long and too uneven to recommend choosing this film over another, better film.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Walk in the Woods

3/4

Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson

Rated R for Language and Some Sexual References

One of the reasons why Robert Redford has survived in Hollywood over the years (despite the fact that age hasn't been good to him) is his effortless charm.  He's so disarmingly charming and likable with such a warm presence that it's impossible not to like him in the movies.  That quality has permeated into many of the films he has starred in ("Sneakers," for example).  Add "A Walk in the Woods" to that list.

"A Walk in the Woods," directed by TV vet Ken Kwapis, isn't any sort of groundbreaking movie.  It's not going to show up at the Oscars (except perhaps for the cinematography, although it's a longshot).  It's not going to be on my Top 10 list when I compile it at the end of December.  It is however warm and occasionally funny.  It's a nice and relaxing time at the movies.

Travel writer Bill Bryson (Redford) is feeling a little lost at the moment.  He's growing more aware of his age, so to shake things up, he decides to hike the 2180-mile long Appalachian Trail.  His wife Catherine (Thompson) thinks he's nuts and, failing to talk him out of it, insists that he go at it with a friend.  There are no bites until an old friend of his, Stephen Katz (Nolte), calls him up and asks to join.  Despite his history of drinking and carousing, Bill agrees.  The trip is not without its setbacks (a run in with two bears) or hijinks (avoiding a painfully irritating fellow hiker played by comic Kristen Schaal).

In a buddy movie like this, chemistry is of paramount importance.  We must see that the two leads "click" in some way.  Without that, the movie is sunk.  Fortunately, grizzled screen vets Robert Redford and Nick Nolte work well together.  This isn't a career best for either of them, but they're more than good enough.  It's fun to spend time with them.  Emma Thompson and Mary Steenburgen appear, but their screen time is limited to little more than cameos.

Director Ken Kwapis doesn't have a sterling resume.  Apart from directing a host of TV episodes, his films have the reputation of being safe and cookie cutter.  This is the first film I've seen from him, and while it is effectively told, there's nothing about it that stands out.  The cinematography is bland, character development is limited and by-the-book, and the film takes few risks.  It's a little on the long side, but at the same time it ends too quickly.  I would have like to have spent a little more time with these geezers.

So it's not a perfect movie, but it's definitely a pleasant one.

War

1/4

Starring: Jason Statham, Jet Li, John Lone, Ryo Ishibashi, Sung Kang

Rated R for Sequences of Strong Bloody Violence, Sexuality/Nudity and Language

Gaston: Lefou, I'm afraid I've been thinking...
Lefou: A dangerous pastime-
Gaston: I know.
 I thought about those lyrics from "Beauty and the Beast" while I was watching this monstrosity of an action movie.  I don't expect great storytelling from an action movie, but I do ask for something that holds my attention and quickens my pules.  Is that really too much to ask?  For Phillip G. Atwell, who made his directorial debut with this film, and Lee Anthony Smith and Gregory J. Bradley, who wrote it (or at least are the only ones who are credited, the answer would be yes.

There is a war going on between the Chinese Triads and the Japanese Yakuza.  Someone betrayed someone else, or someone slaughtered the other's family.  I don't know...the movie had kind of lost me at this point.  But that's just background.  An FBI agent named Crawford (Statham) is involved because an assassin known only as Rogue (Li) is being used by one or both of the gangs, and he wants revenge because Rogue iced Crawford's partner and his family.  But Rogue isn't who he seems.  He's playing both sides against each other for his own ends.

Sounds interesting enough, but the reality is less sunny.  This is a flashy but empty-headed action movie with no interesting characters, no good performances and a half-baked plot.  It isn't as bad as "The Corruptor," but it comes close.

I'll concede that using brainpower isn't exactly a welcome requirement for an action movie.  But what else was I going to do with my time when I was watching it?  So let's examine the one of film's central characters Rogue for a second here.  He's built up to be an assassin of Keyser Soze's ruthlessness, but neither the director nor Li know how to make him menacing.  Rogue never looks menacing and Li's limitations as an actor prevent the character from being any more than a humdrum villain.  Then there's the tiny detail of how Rogue earned his name (and managed to stay alive for so long).  Supposedly he uses a plastic surgeon to change his face every six months (whom he then murders to cover his trail).  This isn't possible, but since it's a movie I'll let it slide ("Face/Off" took this concept to sensational effect).  But it got me thinking...what's the recovery time for a surgery like this?  Surely it's not an outpatient procedure, so it seems to me to be a bit of a waste of time to spend a day in surgery and a few months in recovery just so you can play assassin for another month or two.

I know, I'm not supposed to think that hard in a movie like this.  But the truth is that the limited, if perverse, enjoyment I got from that loophole is the only good thing about this movie.  The acting is stiff, even by established actors like Jason Statham and John Lone.  Part of that is due to the completely bland dialogue they've been given, but that doesn't absolve them of all the blame.

The action scenes aren't good either.  They're badly choreographed and hyper-edited...whatever happened to real filmmaking?  "Speed" didn't rely on ostentatious camerawork or rapid-fire editing, but it packed more adrenaline into it than most other movies could ever hope to.  I looked on Atwell's iMDb page and found that he is indeed a music video veteran.  Shocker.  I also found  that he has done nothing since this movie.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

War Room

2/4

Starring: Priscilla C. Shrier, Karen Abercrombie, T. C. Stallings, Alena Pitts

Rated PG for Thematic Elements Throughout

Christian films represent a huge paradox for Hollywood; despite being generally regarded with derision and spite, they make big money at the box office.  It's certainly not the first time this has happened (the "Twilight" franchise is an example), but it remains perplexing.  It's generally not all deserved ("Hardflip" and "Mom's Night Out" are actually good movies), but they have a tendency to become mouthpieces for evangelism rather than telling compelling, or even interesting stories (last year's despicable "God's Not Dead" is an example, and Kirk Cameron's "Saving Christmas" faced a severe internet backlash because of it).

A while back, I read an interesting article on why Christian films are so bad.  The author concluded that it was because the audience of evangelical Christians receives messages in ways that the mainstream audiences perceive of as preachy.  They enjoy hearing bible verses and seeing simple, easy-to-solve conflicts.  That doesn't fly with audiences who like more mainstream, non-religious entertainment.

Director Alex Kendrick seeks to bridge the gap between entertainment for the faithful crowd and the masses (no pun intended).  For the most part he succeeds, primarily because he doesn't preach.  He uses a story to spread his message, and Kendrick knows what he's doing.  There are two major slip-ups that keep it from working in the way that he probably wants to.

The Jordans are in trouble.  Outwardly a happy, well-adjusted and financially secure family, inside the house is a different story.  Tony (Stallings) is a self-absorbed drug rep who couldn't care less about his family.  His wife Elizabeth (Shrier) is a well of pent-up frustration, and although she tries to shield her daughter Danielle (Pitts) from the aftermath, the girl is well aware of what's going on between her parents.  Elizabeth is in the process of selling a house, whose owner, Miss Clara (Abercrombie) senses her malcontent.  Miss Clara says that through prayer and leaving her problems in God's hands, her life will get a whole lot better.

To be fair to the film, it tells the story in a way that will speak to those who aren't in the film's target audience.  Sure, it's hokey and at times so out of touch that it's goofy (the daughter is obsessed with double dutch...what, is this the 1980's?), but that's to be expected for such a conservative-minded film.  More important is that the film's message is that it's presented believably.  I wouldn't call it subtle, but it at least has the intelligence to know that religion and prayer isn't end all to a person's problems.

Acting has never been a hallmark of faith-based films (the exception being "The Passion of the Christ").  The budgets and subject matter can't support big stars.  However, the two leads of "War Room" are effective.  Priscilla C. Shrier is quite good as Elizabeth.  With her ability to project warmth, cry believably (something that is a challenge for many established actors), and ease with self-deprecating humor, Elizabeth is impossible not to sympathize with.  She saves many of the hokier scenes, or failing that, makes them significantly less painful.  It's not Oscar-worthy work, but I could see that with a less gifted actress the film would fall flat on its face.  Her co-star, Karen Abercrombie, is also very good, breaking out of the Southern black lady caricature that her character is written as.  Sure, she's feisty and religious, but she's also warm and occasionally quite funny.  Their co-stars are on the stiff side, but that's okay.  This is their show.

I'm willing to give this film a little leeway, considering the kind of movie it is.  After all, it is religion-focused and much of the material (including some humor that is worth a chuckle or two) works well enough.  However, when Elizabeth starts blasting Satan for trying to destroy her marriage and casts him out of her house, it goes too far.  The scene is impossible to take seriously.

The film is also far too long; Kendrick seems to be convinced that tying up every single subplot is a necessity, preferably with a moral.  I have no problems with that per se, but this needed some creative editing.  Or paring down on the scripting stage.

I was going to give this film a sort of "see it if you must" recommendation, until I saw the ending.  Kendrick falls into the trap that so many Christian films do: preaching to the converted.  It shows Miss Clara giving what is really a sermon and countless people turning to the Bible.  It's shockingly unsubtle, and the speech's content treads too close to the "Christian Warrior" mindset for comfort.  Not only is it gag-worthy, but it's "fire and brimstone" to the point where it made me squirmy.  Odd considering that it's in almost direct opposition to the film's message.

But maybe that's just me.  The audience I was with seemed to like it, but their frenzied applause seemed to be more appropriate for a rally.  Or a Christian revival.

Lust, Caution

3/4

Starring: Wei Tang, Tony Leung, Joan Chen, Leehom Wang

Rated NC-17 for Some Explicit Sexuality

Ang Lee has never been what you'd call a "conventional filmmaker."  Concentrating more on character and tone rather than plot or special effects, Lee has made a career out of flouting normal filmmaking conventions while at the same time respecting them.  To put a finer point on it, he's a filmmaker, not a hack determined to bombard the ADD-crowd with as many "cool" images as possible (although he has a keen eye for beauty) or some geek who got lucky (Joss Whedon).

"Lust, Caution" is a WWII thriller, albeit a low-key one.  Anyone expecting gunfights or a "bruised forearm movie," as the late great Roger Ebert called them, will be disappointed.  This is a "slow burn" thriller that requires patience and dedication.  You get what you put into it.  Those who want the movies to do the thinking for them will be lost and bored.

Wong Chia Chi (Tang) is a student at Hong Kong University during World War II.  She is recruited by Kuang Yu Min (Wang) to join his activist theater group.  After their play is a roaring success, Kuang decides that they need to do more.  His cousin knows a man named Mr. Yee (Leung), who, among other things, is selling out Chinese nationals to the Japanese occupiers.  Kuang decides that he is a traitor and suggests to his theater group that they take it upon themselves to assassinate him.  Every member of the group is given a new part to play, and Wong is now Mak Tai Tai, the wife of a businessman.  But as she gets close to Mr. Yee, she falls for him, and he for her.

If this sounds similar, it's because Paul Verhoeven did the same thing in "Black Book" the year before.  However, apart from the concept, they couldn't be two more different movies.  Verhoeven's film was a real white-knuckler with some sensational action.  By contrast, Lee's film is languidly paced.  Lee wants to slowly seduce us with the story and the characters, and to be enraptured by the beauty of the images he and his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto create and the score by Alexandre Desplat.  On that level it's a success.

The film is also a success on the acting front.  Just like in "Black Book," the film centers on a female spy.  Here, she's played by then-newcomer Wei Tang.  Tang was a model selected by Lee out of over 10,000 hopefuls, and it's a sparkling debut.  The role of Wong Chia Chi is both emotionally and physically demanding; not only does she have to navigate the complexities of a woman who is in over her head and in love with the man she's trying to kill, she has to participate in some very graphic sex scenes while still remaining true to her character.  Tang accomplishes this effortlessly; those who were unfortunate enough to sit through "Blackhat" this January will be surprised to see how good she is here.

Her co-star, Tony Leung, is something of an acting legend in China, although he is an unknown outside of the arthouse circuit (that's not necessarily his choice, since according to iMDb, he would love to work with Martin Scorcese).  As the stone-faced Mr. Yee, Leung plays a man whose personality is predatory yet vulnerable.  He wants to be seduced by Mak Tai Tai.  Like his co-star, he participates in graphic sex scenes with no obvious qualms.

I liked how Lee explores how youthful idealism and political zeal can cause young men and women to do things they would otherwise never do.  Without the war, these people would never do anything like this; at the most, they'd go to poetry slams or protests or something.  But together and in this kind of situation, they enter into a dangerous game in which they are woefully unequipped to handle.

Considering its rarity and the dubious methods in which the MPAA doles out NC-17 ratings, it would be an incomplete review if I didn't discuss why the film received the "kiss of death" rating.  One reason: the sex is really hardcore.  S&M, positions that are definitely not "missionary," and lots of "thrusting."  This is one of the few films that actually deserves the ultra-restrictive rating.  That's probably why Focus Features declined to appeal the rating.  As well they should have; this is a movie that's meant for adults in every element of its being.

At 2.5 hours, the film is too long, but the film looks so good and is so strongly acted that it's worth seeking out anyway.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Hard Rain

3/4

Starring: Christian Slater, Morgan Freeman, Minnie Driver, Randy Quaid, Ed Asner, Peter Murnik, Betty White, Richard Dysart

Rated R for Violence

The 90's were populated by disaster movies...usually related to weather.  Let's see, you've got volcanoes ("Dante's Peak," "Volcano"), tornadoes ("Twister") and hurricanes ("The Perfect Storm," although I'm not sure that counts).  It only makes sense to add a flood-disaster movie into the mix.

Actually, the flood only the setting.  The real story is focused on a stash of $3 million dollars and the various lowlifes who are trying to get it.  Armored truck drivers Tom (Slater) and Charlie (Asner) are transporting the cash (grand total is roughly $3 million) from local banks out of the flood zone, when they get stuck in a dip in the road.  That's when they run into Jim (Freeman), a thief looking for his "retirement fund" and his gang of misfits.  Despite only wanting the money, gunfire ensues and Charlie is killed.  Tom takes the money and runs (apologies to The Steve Miller Band) eventually ending up in the care of the local Sheriff (Quaid).  He's helpful until he finds out about the money.  Also involved is Karen (Driver), a local girl who restores stained glass windows, and an elderly couple played by Betty White and Richard Dysart who won't leave their home until they've "set the traps."

Expecting anything groundbreaking or truly sensational will lead to disappointment.  It is what it is, and for an action movie set in a flood, it's a pretty good time.  The special effects are always convincing, there's some great stuntwork, and some nice performances to top it off.

In the right role, Christian Slater can be effective.  As a colorful sidekick or a witty psycho ("Very Bad Things"), Slater does well.  As an action hero, he lacks charisma and is too big of a smart-ass to be truly likable.  But he's okay.  Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman; hand him the check and don't ask questions.  This certainly isn't his best performance, but he's always welcome on screen.  Minnie Driver, the talented British actress that she is, is lovely as ever.  And no one plays a psycho quite like Randy Quaid; it's interesting who with a few tweaks in his expressions and tone of voice, he can go from Cousin Eddie to a deranged madman.  Betty White and Richard Dysart are hilarious as the elderly couple.  White carries the scenes as the little dynamo obsessed with home security and belittling her benevolent husband, but it's Dysart who has the best line.  Special mention has to go to Peter Murnik, who plays Phil.  As the local cop who has long held a torch for Karen, he's adorable.

The film was directed by Danish cinematographer turned director Mikael Salomon; it was his second film after "A Far Off Place" starring Reece Witherspoon.  As can be expected, Salomon has a flair for atmosphere and special effects; the film consistently looks great.  The and staging of the action scenes is enough to raise the adrenaline, but not stand out.  According to iMDb, John Woo was in consideration to direct this film.  What a sight to behold that would have been!  Still, Salomon has nothing to be ashamed of.

Like I said.  "Hard Rain" isn't a classic by any stretch of the imagination.  It's not even an especially great action movie; the gunfights are generic and there's too much slo-mo (although it's at least not overly ostentatious).  But for those of you who are looking for a loud and dumb action movie, this is worth a watch.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Lantana

1/4

Starring: Anthony LaPaglia, Barbara Hershey, Kerry Armstrong, Rachael Blake, Manu Bennett, Daniela Fariacci, Geoffrey Rush, Russell Dykstra, Leah Purcell

Rated R for Language and Sexuality

Apparently teenagers aren't the only ones filled with romantic angst, as the "Twilight" movies would have you believe.  The grown ups are just as screwed up too, but strange as it is to say, the results are even less interesting to watch.  Not only are they mopey and self-absorbed, they're two-dimensional at best and totally lifeless.  Seldom outside of a Wes Anderson movie have I seen a cast of movie characters so in need of Red Bull.

"Lantana" is about nearly a dozen characters brought together by relationships and coincidence.  Leon (LaPaglia) is a cop in Australia who feels numb to life.  He's having an affair with Jane (Blake), a woman from his dance class.  His wife Sonja (Armstrong) tells her psychiatrist Valerie (Hershey) that she suspects an affair, but doesn't have the courage to bring it up, much less leave Leon.  Valerie has grown distant from her husband John (Rush) after their daughter was murdered 18 months ago.  And the lovesick Jane has her eye on Steve (Bennett), her hunky (and married) neighbor next door.

If director Ray Lawrence was attempting to shed some light on the human condition and the amount of work marriage takes (especially after years of repetition, he's failed.  "Lantana" doesn't provide anything we haven't seen before in other, better films.  Not only is its message obvious, but it's explored through characters we can't stand.  If you identify with any of these characters, you should probably seek immediate psychiatric help (preferably from one that isn't as screwed up as Valerie).  To be fair to the director, ensemble movies are notoriously difficult to get right; the list of failures far outweighs the successes.  But that doesn't change the fact that the end result is little more than a sleep aid.

At least it has some good performances, despite the director's best attempts to muzzle them.  You'd be hard-pressed to find a movie where Anthony LaPaglia, Barbara Hershey and Geoffrey Rush didn't do a good job (even in bad movies).  But they're given so little to work with that there's nothing they can do.  The dialogue is so banal and the plot is so dull that I'm wondering what attracted them to the script in the first place.

Admittedly, the film gets a dose of energy when it turns into a murder investigation, although not by much.  The tone is still downbeat, everyone is in desperate need of coffee, and it isn't significantly more interesting or engaging.  Just with a quicker pulse.  And it ends with (nearly) all of the little subplots tied up happily.

Gag.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Hitman: Agent 47

2.5/4

Starring: Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Thomas Kretschmann, Ciaran Hinds

Rated R for Sequences of Strong Violence and Some Language

The history of video games turned into movies is not good; at best, they’re cheesy fun like “Laura Croft: Tomb Raider,” but at worst, they’re monstrosities like “Doom.”  The original “Hitman” movie wasn’t as bad as that, but the only things worth noting about it were the performances by Timothy Olyphant and Olga Kurylenko.  This new version reboot is nothing special, but it’s at least entertaining.

Years ago, a scientist named Litvenko (Hinds) found away to genetically enhance the human species to become super soldiers.  Terrified of what he created, Litvenko disappeared.  Now, a young woman named Katia (Ware) is searching for her father, but she’s staying on the run from those who want to kill her, like a mysterious assassin (Friend).  Her only ally is a man who calls himself John Smith (Quinto), but can she trust him?

In addition to being rather trite and totally derivative, the story doesn’t make a lot of sense.  From moment to moment it’s easy to follow since it really boils down to “shoot the bad guys and protect the girl,” but the film doesn’t do a good job of establishing who wants what.  There’s plenty of lying and double-crossing in the film’s first half, and the writing is messy.  Ultimately it’s all arbitrary, but it can be frustrating to try and figure this all out.  In an action movie, no less.

The acting is lacking.  As the title character, Rupert Friend (taking over from Paul Walker, who was set to play the role before his tragic death) looks badass, but speaking completely ruins the effect.  Friend tries to bridge the gap between remorseless killer and a man who recognizes his own humanity, but the results are uneven; he lacks presence and intensity (certainly nothing like what Hugo Weaving did in “The Matrix” movies).   Michael C. Hall did this sort of thing a lot better in “Dexter.”  Hannah Ware is quite good as Katia, the woman in search of her father.  The film’s best scenes are when Agent 47 is showing her how to use the skills she doesn’t know she possesses.  Zachary Quinto makes for an adequate antagonist, but like Friend, he lacks intensity and true malice.  Thomas Kretschmann is limited to staying behind the scenes and giving orders until the climax.  And while it’s always nice to see Ciaran Hinds on screen, his role is beneath him.

So you have a flat screenplay and uneven performances.  What’s there to make this movie worth seeing (or close to it)?  Some nicely choreographed action scenes.  I’m not talking about anything worth raving about (first time director Alexsandr Bach is no John Woo), but they’re well-choreographed and crisply edited.  They’re fun to watch, especially watching each piece of 47’s careful planning fall into place.  And it features the coolest gunplay since the cult film “Equilibrium.”

I was going to give this movie a 3/4, but then I thought again.  Does this movie really offer enough that it’s worth seeking out in a theater?  I mean, does the theatrical experience have anything that can’t be experienced on Blu Ray or Netflix?  Not really.  This is a good “turn off your brain movie” for when you want to just sit back on the couch with a beer or two and unwind.