Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Happiness

1.5/4

Starring: Jane Adams, Lara Flynn Boyle, Dylan Baker, Cynthia Stevenson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Camryn Manheim, Ben Gazzara, Louise Lasser, Jared Harris, Elizabeth Ashley

Not Rated (Probably NC-17 for Pervasive Sexual Content including Aberrant Sexuality, Language and Some Violence)

Be aware of trailers...

Occasionally, you'll see a movie marketed as something other than it actually is.  For example, "Carriers" was marketed as a horror movie when in reality it was nothing of the kind.  Such is the case with "Happiness."  The trailers made it out to be a cheerful, if warped, comedy.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  This is a blacker-than-black dramedy that explicitly deals with subject matter such as pedophilia, sexual perversions, and where just about every character is an abhorrent misanthrope.  Needless to say, it's not for everyone (even Todd Solondz, the director, says this).

Sadly the film doesn't work on its own level.  As a tragi-comic send-up of family dramas, it comes up considerably short.  The characters are almost always unlikable, if they provoke any feeling at all.  In most cases, they don't.  They're almost all boring.  The former is a challenge to overcome, but the latter is impossible.  How can you maintain interest in a story, whatever kind it is, if you don't care about the people involved in it?

This is an ensemble movie, but at the center of it are the three Jordan sisters: shy Joy (Adams), who has terrible luck with men, professional poet Helen (Boyle), who seeks more than wealth and glamour, and perfect mom Trish (Stevenson), who is married to Bill (Baker), who is a pedophile.  Their parents Lenny (Gazzara) and Mona (Lasser) are in the process of separating, but they're not doing much about it.

Joy has a fling with one of her ESL students, a thief by the name of Vlad (Harris).  Helen seeks a relationship of some kind with Allen (Hoffman), who gave her an obscene phone call.  And Trish is totally oblivious to Bill's predilections.  Lenny attempts to have an affair with the resident maneater, Diane (Ashley) while Mona voices her insecurities.

The problem is not the amount of characters or the subject matter.  Done right, this could have been riveting viewing.  But there's something too stilted, too rehearsed about the way the characters talk.  At times it sounded like they were reading off cue cards.  It prevented me from buying into their world.  And Solondz doesn't always have a good feel for how people naturally talk.  Sometimes he forces them to mumble and stutter in an attempt at realism but comes across as obviously fake.

The actors do what they can, but they are misused by the director.  The only ones who are worth mentioning are Jane Adams, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Camryn Manheim.  They have energy, and therefore the most interesting characters.  Dylan Baker has the most interesting character on paper, and while his performance is effective and justifiably led to better things, it's not as brilliant as some are saying.

I'll give Solondz and his cast credit for their guts.  This is not a film that many people would walk into under their own volition (and stay to the end).  Indeed, according to James Berardinelli Universal Studios independent arm October films dropped all rights to the film after CEO Ron Meyer said that he didn't want to understand the mind of a pedophile and he didn't want his company to release a film that attempted to do so.  Indeed, Solondz asks us to understand Bill as much as we abhor his actions.  His reaction wasn't the only one.  Again, according to Berardinelli, John Waters (the guy behind the infamous "Pink Flamingos") praised the film while the Farrelly Brothers (who made "There's Something About Mary," also released in 1998) called it "sick."

I can see how this movie could be so divisive.  It's that kind of movie.  But from this critic's point of view, the only emotion it warrants is apathy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Good Dinosaur

2/4

Starring (voices): Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Steve Zahn, Frances McDormand, Sam Elliot, Anna Paquin, A.J. Buckley

Rated PG for Peril, Action and Thematic Elements

Apart from film buffs, I don't know if anyone can name a film company other than Disney (although considering how wide their fingers spread, I'm not sure if they still count).  But audiences know Pixar, and they know that that name means superior quality filmmaking.  They don't have a flawless record ("Monsters University" was a misfire), but even their weakest films have more merit than a considerable number of mainstream releases.  So I expected something of similar quality as I settled back into my seat with my popcorn, hot dog and Diet Pepsi.  I was unpleasantly surprised.

For the most part, Pixar has prided itself on the ability to appeal to children and adults.  Unfortunately with this film, they have missed the latter audience.  More importantly, they didn't even seem to try.  This is a kid's movie through and through, and while I can find merit in those (I like "My Neighbor Totoro" a lot), it's hard to imagine anyone beyond the third grade enjoying this movie.

Arlo (Ochoa) is an Apatosaurus who is afraid of just about everything.  His father (Wright) and mother (McDormand) are sympathetic, but despite their best attempts, Arlo's fears constantly get the better of him.  But when a chase after a little human (Bright) ends up with them both getting lost, they must rely on each other to get home.

This is pure formula.  It's "Homeward Bound" for the little tykes.  And the 1993 movie isn't the only movie "The Good Dinosaur" steals from.  "James and the Giant Peach," and most obviously, "The Lion King" are also pilfered from.  It is said that if you're going to steal, steal from the best, so I give the filmmakers credit for looking in the right place, but little of what made those movies great is in evidence here.

Pixar movies are such huge hits around the world because they understand that more than visuals, brand names, and franchises are needed to make a buck.  Remember that of the 16 movies they have released, only four are sequels (I'm not counting future releases).  Other studios have relied on marketing to bring in audiences.  Pixar has bucked the trend and made the company name the only thing it needs.  That's because they know the importance of good storytelling and strong character development.

For whatever reason, that has eluded them here.  The characters are stick figures, the voice acting is generally unappealing, and the story is paper thin.  This movie did not have an easy production history, and that's obvious.  It lacks the confidence and complexity that the majority of the other films have.  It's as if the film was undergoing constant rewrites while it was being made, and that's rarely a good sign.

"The Good Dinosaur" isn't painful, but it's close to it.  And that's an unpleasant shock coming from Pixar.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The 33

3/4

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Gabriel Byrne, Juliette Binoche, Lou Diamond Philips, Bob Gunton

Rated PG-13 for A Disaster Sequence and Some Language

I'll be honest.  I didn't really follow the events of the 2010 mining disaster in Chile.  I remember hearing about it, but that was the extent of my knowledge.  It's funny, isn't it, how things seem more important in retrospect (although there are exceptions)?

"The 33" probably isn't the ideal film version of the disaster: character development is next to nil, the plot trajectory is formulaic, and the whole film has a manufactured feel to it.  But it does do what it sets out to accomplish, which is to provide an exhilarating, emotional 2 hours.

It's August 2010.  A group of miners are preparing to go into the San Jose copper-gold mine.  The foreman, a man named Don Lucho (Philips) sees broken mirrors everywhere and tells the boss that the mine is unsafe, but his words go unheeded.  The miners go to work, but there is a collapse and 33 men become trapped in the refuge 120 meters below the surface.  The required escape shaft is missing and there are few provisions in the refuge.  The mining company has a history of not being up to standard and giving up on trapped miners after a bit of showmanship, but the families of the miners aren't having it.  Led by Maria (Binoche), the sister of one of the miners, they camp out at the mine and refuse to leave until the men are rescued.  Escaped workers (who weren't trapped in the mine) contact the news, and the story reaches the ears of the President (Gunton) and Laurence Golborne (Santoro), his Minister of Mining.  The enthusiastic Golborne suggests that the doing nothing would be a huge political coup for Chile, and he is sent in to help.  After a minor success and some major news coverage, a big mining honcho named Andre Sougarrete (Byrne) is sent in.  But due to the nature of the conditions, plus a rock that is "twice the size of the Empire State Building" that threatens the miners, Sougarrete gives the rescue attempt a 1% chance of success.

It's impossible to think of "The Martian" and not recognize that Ridley Scott did it better, but that doesn't mean that "The 33" should be overlooked.  It's not as accomplished, but it does what it does with enough skill to make it worth viewing.

Part of the reason is that despite the characters being underwritten, the performances work.  Even the always wooden Rodrigo Santoro and the even worse Lou Diamond Philips are good.  In fact, they give the best performances in the film.  Also good are Gabriel Byrne, Juliette Binoche and Bob Gunton.  The rest of the cast do their jobs admirably.

One of the challenges of telling a story with such a huge cast is character development, and that's where this film comes up short.  Granted, developing some 40-odd characters within a two hour timeframe is impossible, even without a plot.  The key, I think, would be to concentrate on a few and relegate the rest to helping the audience see the story through their eyes.  In other words, do what James Cameron did for "Titanic."  That film also had a huge cast, but the film's focus was solely on Jack and Rose.  Director Patricia Riggen is on surer footing when she stays above ground, because the only characters who have any screen time are Laurence and Andre (and to a lesser extent, Maria and the President).  Ironically, when it comes to the miners, she struggles.  Not only is it hard to see who is who, she doesn't do a good job of defining who is who.  The only ones who stick out are Mario (Banderas in a sometimes over-the-top performance) and Don Lucho (because, like Banderas, Philips is an established actor) and Dario (Juan Pablo Raba), because he's Maria's brother and is struggling with alcohol detoxification.

Still, the film has its emotional ups and downs, the cave-in is acceptably intense, and the end (despite being well known), will leave the audience cheering.  That it falls short of "The Martian" or "The Perfect Storm" is due to its scope, but it's always better to shoot for the stars than play safe.

Oldboy (2003)

2.5/4

Starring: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang

Rated R for Strong Violence including Scenes of Torture, Sexuality and Pervasive Language

In the 12 years since its release, Chan-wook Park's thriller "Oldboy" has gained a sizable following for a foreign film, enough to earn its director the job for making an American film ("Stoker") and, of course, a remake.  It certainly has the makings of a cult film: an offbeat tone, a twisted plot, and some weirdness worthy of David Lynch.

After seeing the film, it's hard to understand why it created such a buzz.  It's not as violent as its reputation suggests (although there were a few scenes that made me wince), and the tone isn't as warped as it should be to make it a real winner.  Most importantly, the screenplay is too messy for it to succeed on its own right.

Oh Dae-su (Choi) is a drunken lout who has been hauled off to jail on the night of his daughter's fourth birthday.  Bounced by his friend, he's on his way home when he is kidnapped and held in a cell for 15 years.  Suddenly, he's released.  With the help of a pretty sushi chef named Mi-do (Kang), he's on a mission to find out who kidnapped him and why, but also why they let him out.

"Oldboy" is not for everyone.  That much I'm sure.  It's definitely R-rated, and will offend animal lovers (not since "A Fish Called Wanda" has an ocean-dwelling creature suffered so much indignity) and conservative-minded film-goers.  The ending in particular packs a punch.  It features a twist that I didn't see coming (not exactly hard), but it would have been on par with "Seven" or "The Usual Suspects" had the screenplay been stronger and the direction less distancing.

The acting is strong.  There are really three principal characters, and all do solid jobs.  It's not arresting work, but they're effective.  Special mention has to go to Hye-jeong Kang, who has that rare screen appeal that only comes along every once in a while.  She's not the greatest actress, if one can judger her talents solely on this movie, but all she has to do is flash a smile and we melt.

One of my criticisms of Chan-wook Park's work in "Stoker" was that he showed off too much.  With "Oldboy," he doesn't show off enough.  The film has a warped, sort of groovy sense of atmosphere, but it's not strong enough.  The budget may have had something to do with it ("Oldboy" cost $3 million while "Stoker" cost $12 million), but money doesn't really matter when it comes to filmmaking.  An innovative vision can turn a film made on the cheap to a mega-blockbuster.

Ironically, I was thinking that a remake could have helped the film.  I meant to watch this movie a few years ago so I could see Spike Lee's version, but I guess I never got around to it.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Spotlight

3.5/4

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Schrieber, Brian D'Arcy James

Rated R for Some Language including Sexual References

I can only imagine the amount of guts it took for the Spotlight team to write this story.  By taking on the Church in the predominantly Catholic Boston, they were not only taking on the most powerful organization in the world, they were fundamentally altering the entire city's culture.  The Catholic Church was a huge part of Boston, and still is, but this shattered the Church's image.

That's one of the many things that "Spotlight" reflects on.  In telling this story, co-writer/director Tom McCarthy takes time to reflect what bringing this story to light means for the characters and the city of Boston.  The characters, each in their own way, become personally invested in the story.  With crimes that are so sinister and so obviously swept under the rug, how could they not.  Telling it becomes a mission.

Like many stories like this, it started out simply.  The new editor at The Boston Globe, Marty Baron (Schrieber) wants his team to look into a sex abuse scandal involving a priest that was raised in a recent column.  Walter Robinson (Keaton) says that they already looked into it, but agrees because he fears that Marty, who has a history of laying off reporters to cut costs, will ax the Spotlight team, which undertakes long investigations.  Of course, the team soon realizes that the column only scratched the surface.  The deeper they dig, the more they realize that not only were sex abuse cases by clergy, they were covered up by people at high levels of power.  It was a web of corruption that touched every part of Boston.

"Spotlight" covers a lot of ground.  And I mean, a lot (too much...there are so many characters that it's hard to remember who they are and how they fit in, but the movie does a good job of reminding us).  It's a investigation into the story (pursuing leads, interviews, etc.), but there's a lot of things to think about as well.  For example, it raises the possible conflict between faith and law.  The victims were threatened to keep silent by the church, certainly, but what about those involved with the legal side.  Will their faith alter how they act with the information provided?  Or what about how someone had claimed that cover-ups were going on years before the story broke.  They dismissed him as a kook, but was that really the case?  Maybe they just couldn't believe it was possible.  Or didn't want to.  The movie wisely doesn't try to answer these questions because it's smart enough to know that there aren't any.

This is an ensemble movie.  There is an array of fantastic performances, but no one does any scene-stealing.  Special mention has to go to Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams.  Ruffalo or Keaton could get Oscar nominations (or both), and while McAdams is more of a longshot, it's still a possibility.

Tom McCarthy doesn't shy away from the emotional pain that the victims go through.  Nothing is shown, but there are some descriptions of sexual abuse and watching some of the victims tell their stories is heartbreaking.  A movie doesn't have to be as graphic as "The War Zone" to get its point across.  I would advise that certain sensitive movie goers skip this one, or wait for Blu Ray.

Still, there is some gallows humor here, and the tone is closer to "Erin Brockovich" than Tim Roth's picture.  Fitting for a story about a group of people having the guts to take on those with power in defense of those who had it taken away.  It is one of the year's best and most important films.

The Night Before

3/4

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Lizzy Kaplan, Michael Shannon, Mindy Sterling

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

When I first saw the ads for this movie, I winced.  "God, another Seth Rogen 'comedy.'"  Sometimes being a film critic rules, but when I have to sit and watch him do riffs on things that aren't even jokes, it's a real trial.  So to my surprise I found that not only is "The Night Before" not 90 minutes of Rogen shooting his mouth off and smoking weed, I actually enjoyed it.

"The Night Before" is not a perfect movie by any means, but it is funny and has a sweet side.  As one might expect, it's raunchy and crude, and will have little appeal for anyone who isn't in their 20's or 30's.  It's not just because of the crassness of the humor, but it's the way in which these characters interact with each other.  Director Jonathan Levine has a keen eye for how Millenials interact with each other, and I could see myself and my friends in these types of situations.  It's far more realistic than "What If?"

Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents around Christmastime 2001.  To help him out of his funk, his two buddies Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) took him out partying, and it has become a regular tradition ever since.  But now that they've gotten older, they've decided to end the annual night of booze and drugs.  After all, Isaac is married to a heavily pregnant wife and Chris is a major NFL star.  Ethan, on the other hand, doesn't know what to do with himself, and his friends are determined to help him get his life together.  But before that can happen, they have to survive the night.  Ethan has scored some tickets to a legendary party (read: stolen) that they've been desperate to go to for years, and his ex, Diana (Caplan) is going to be there too.  The trip, as is commonly said, is not without its detours.

Rogen used to be hilarious, but then he started writing and directing his own material, and he hasn't figured out how to successfully make someone laugh on his own.  Humor is subjective, but it's hard to imagine anyone finding the rhyme-off in "Neighbors" or the unending scene where he and James Franco confess their bro-love for each other in "The Interview" to be amusing.  Rogen does a lot of improvising, but his riffs don't go anywhere and aren't about anything that's actually funny.  I mean, how can you make a couple arguing about how to talk to a bunch of frat boys funny?  Especially if you're just repeating yourself.

That said, when his humor is effectively channeled, he can be very funny.  Like many of his other movies, "The Night Before" is heavily improvised, but the humor is focused by director Jonathan Levine.  With one exception (the scene at the karaoke bar) the jokes and comic bits don't drag on endlessly, and none of the cast repeats themselves in an attempt to milk a joke for more humor than it's worth.  The film moves along at a nice pace, and none of the jokes are belabored.  What's more, they're actually funny.

On the acting front, however, Rogen kind of blends into the background.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie score more and bigger laughs because they can actually act and don't do the same thing in every movie.  They also understand the concept of comic timing, and certainly seem to be enjoying themselves.  Lizzy Caplan plays the obligatory love interest, and it's free from the sarcasm and cynicism that pervades a lot of her roles.  Caplan can actually act, and the result is a romance that feels real.  Michael Shannon appears as a weirdo drug dealer who shows up at the right time and place in every situation.

One of the reasons the film works is because the three stars have chemistry.  They're believable as friends and play off each other well...unlike some of the people Rogen has worked with.  I'm sorry, but leave your "Freaks & Geeks" buddies alone, Seth.  You and Franco together is about as appealing as being scratched by a mangy cat.

"The Night Before" is not going to become a Christmas classic, and it's nowhere near as successful as blending the sweet and the hilarious as "Christmas Vacation."  But it is sweet and funny and has an appropriate message about remembering what's really important.  Can't ask for much more.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Exotica

3.5/4

Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Mia Kirshner, Elias Koteas, Don McKellar, Arsinee Khanjian

Rated R for Some Sexuality and Language

People so rarely say what they are really feeling.  The truth hurts, and for many, the lie is simply easier to accept.  Between the lies we tell ourselves and the truth that we don't want to admit, Atom Egoyan's "Exotica" weaves its hypnotic spell.

Because I do not want to give away any of the plot (it's one of those movies that slowly reveals what it's about), I will say that it's about a strip club called "Exotica," and a group of people who are, directly or indirectly, involved with it.  There's Zoe (Khanjian), who runs the place, Eric (Koteas), the DJ, Thomas (McKellar), a shy pet store owner, Francis (Greenwood), a frequent customer, and Christina (Kirshner), "Exotica's" star.

Despite being primarily set at a strip club, "Exotica" isn't about sex.  Instead, it's about buried pain and the desperate ways people can try to overcome it.  Or failing that, find a way to manage it.  In one way or another, all of these characters are deeply hurt by something from their past or by a part of their personality and seek others to assuage it.  The results are mixed, and bring them head-on into conflict with each other.

As one can imagine from Atom Egoyan, it's not light entertainment.  But it's also not nearly as depressing as it sounds.  It's more pensive and provocative.  In a way, it's like the movie "Carriers:" we're close enough to be engaged but not enough to be depressed.  It's a tricky balance to find, but Egoyan finds the sweet spot.

This is a very literate movie (definitely not a "turn off your brain" kind of film).  Too literate, in fact, or close to it.  I could see that in lesser hands some portions of the film could seem pretentious.  Fortunately, Egoyan knows what he's doing.  There's no sheen of "this is the most important movie ever made" to be found here.

It also helps that he has assembled a talented cast of actors.  From top to bottom, there isn't a weak link.  Bruce Greenwood, famous for playing sleazy characters, hit it big with Egoyan, acting in this and his next film, "The Sweet Hereafter."  He skillfully handles the complexities of playing an everyman whose interest in a stripper is emotional rather than sexual.  Elias Koteas has little problem playing a jealous, manipulative jerk.  Don McKellar is impossible not to sympathize with as the meek man who is in way over his head.  And Arsinee Khanjian, the director's wife, is good as Zoe, who takes an observer point of view to the goings on at her club.  Interesting note: she didn't use make up to portray a pregnant character in the film; Khanjian was seven months pregnant during filming.

The real star is Mia Kirshner as Christina.  She has the most difficult role and walks away with the movie.  Christina's personality is beholden to whoever is paying her.  She can be the naughty schoolgirl, the seductive stripper, or an ice queen.  But yet underneath it all lies a young woman with her own wants and desires.  The cast is top-notch, but it's Kirshner that everyone will remember.

That it falls short of a 4/4 is due to the way in which Egoyan tells the story.  I like movies that slowly reveal themselves, but the inherent manipulation in telling a story this way, no matter how well it's done, is felt in every frame.  And the ending is too ambiguous.  This is probably a movie to watch with some friends and then talk about it after.

For those who are up to the challenge, or are simply looking for good filmmaking, "Exotica" is worth checking out.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

3/4

Rated R for Language and Sexual Humor

Joan Rivers' daughter Melissa said that comedians are innately insecure because they're essentially standing up on stage alone and saying "laugh."  "Laugh at me or with me, just laugh," she says.  When someone laughing at you is the goal, it's a strange one.

What makes "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" is its honesty.  Documentaries work best when they confront the material head on, and Joan bares it all.  Not literally, thankfully, but this is definitely not a vanity project.  She is open about her struggles, her fears, and her insecurities.  It's at times heartbreaking to watch, but always compelling.

The film follows Joan for a year in her career.  She's in a bit of a rut, with all of the places and opportunities being booked by other, more "hot" comedians like Kathy Griffin (who appears in this documentary).  But Joan understands that that is the nature of show business.  Sometimes you're hot, other times you're not.  So she keeps plugging away, working hard and waiting for that next big break to get back on top.

The insight into the life of a stand-up comic (Rivers always considered herself to be an actress, and that stand-up just paid the bills).  It's not a pretty picture, to be honest.  In fact, Rivers says that you shouldn't do it unless you can't do anything else.  Fortunately, or perhaps not, Rivers is highly driven.  She'll do anything to stay in it, and she'll never quit until she's in the grave.  Although this film was made 5 years before her death, she never stopped performing until she passed away last year.

The film is more stream of consciousness than a traditional documentary might be.  I suppose that makes sense since it is covering a whole year in her life.  Still, the film seems to lack focus at times, and the humor quotient is much lower than one might think about a stand-up comic.  This is more thoughtful and perceptive.

But Rivers was an engaging enough character, and the fact that she hides nothing from the camera makes her all the more watchable.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie

1.5/4

Not Rated (probable R for Strong Graphic Violence)

In my experience, anime movies come in two flavors: excellent ("Spirited Away," "Grave of the Fireflies," etc.) and horrid ("Tekkonkinkreet," "Dragonball Z: Resurrection: F," etc.).  The exception, of course, being Hayao Miyazaki's "lesser" efforts like "Lupin the III: The Castle of Cagliostro" or "Porco Rosso."  They may not "work" and lack a coherent plot, but they are still endlessly imaginative and remain watchable.  The same cannot be said about the newest film bearing the "Ghost in the Shell" name.  It's a disaster.

When a movie doesn't take place in our reality, be it horror, sci-fi or fantasy, the filmmakers must build its world.  They must make the setting in which the story takes place seem real, and they must explain how it functions.  If they don't, the movie won't even get off the ground.  At best, it will seem like it's making itself up as it goes along.  At worst, it will be an incoherent mess.  "Ghost in the Machine: The New Movie" is one of the latter.  Imagine, in your darkest nightmares, that when the Wachowski siblings made "The Matrix," they left out any explanation of how the Matrix worked and its relationship to reality.  The resulting movie would be ugly as sin and wouldn't make a lick of sense.  Fortunately, that wasn't the case, but that should give you some idea of what "Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie" feels like.  I spent about 20 minutes trying to figure out what was going on and the rest waiting for the end credits.

The film takes place in the year 2027, right after an unexplained war has ended.  A cyborg named Motoko is tasked with helping to rebuild society.  Her first task is to resolve a hostage situation with her team.  But that's a distraction, and at the same time the Prime Minister and a few others are assassinated in a bombing.  And Motoko and company are fingered as the culprits.

Or something like that.  I'm not sure if the last sentence is true, but the rest of it is.  Sadly, that's as far as I got before I gave up.  There's a lot going on: corporate conspiracies, a military coup, and cyborgs that can communicate telepathically (this effect is cool the first time or two, but it becomes a cheat very quickly).  Unfortunately the film doesn't bother to explain how any of it works or even who is who.  The only one we know by name is Motoko, and a later event in the story makes that moot.

iMDb doesn't list the English voice cast, which is why I didn't identify who voiced what character at the top as I usually do.  Ultimately though, it doesn't matter.  No one stands out.  They just recite badly translated dialogue in monotone.  Granted, they're robots, but it is definitely possible to give a robot personality (see "I, Robot" for an example).

The good news, to the extent that there is any, is that it's better than Funimation's other 2015 release that I saw: the aforementioned "Dragonball Z: Resurrection F."  The story is more engaging (strange as that sounds) and the characters aren't as profoundly irritating.  Plus there are a few jokes that are worth a grin.  But if that sounds like a backhanded compliment, believe me, it is.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

'71

2/4

Starring: Jack O'Connell, David Wilmot, Killian Scott, Sean Harris, Sam Reid, Richard Dormer, Charlie Murphy, Corey McKinley

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

A poor choice in director prevents "'71" from being, for lack of a better term, all it could be.  The script is pure thriller, complete with a vulnerable hero and bad to the bone villains.  However, the approach is that of "the most important movie of all time."  By leeching all of the style and excitement out of it, it's rendered almost inert.

Gary Hook (O'Connell) is a British grunt whose unit has just been called into Belfast during the troubles.  On a fairly routine mission looking for guns, he ends up getting left behind.  Now he has to find a way to stay alive when just about everyone, whose motives range from benevolent to sinister, is looking for him.

This is pure Hollywood.  Not that that's a bad thing.  There is just as much a place for movies like "Independence Day" or "The Rock" as there is for movies like "The War Zone" or "Bloody Sunday."  The problem is that the film wants to be one of the latter when it's really one of the former.  Director Yann Demange adds so much weight to a simple adventure story that it collapses into pretentiousness.

Don't blame Jack O'Connell.  The rising British actor made waves in last year's "Unbroken," and he does what he can here.  Sadly, he's ill-suited by the screenplay.  By his nature and by the needs of the plot, Gary is a quiet individual.  But that robs the audience of getting to know him, which makes it difficult to care about him.  O'Connell, probably sensing the script's deficiencies, tries to make up for it by relying on his body language and his expressive eyes, but that only goes so far.  There are other members of the cast (both Richard Dormer and Charlie Murphy are worth mentioning as the father and daughter who reluctantly help the poor guy, as is Sam Reid, playing a much less confident commander than he did in "The Railway Man"), but this is really a one-man show.

It's a pity.  With someone like Ridley Scott or perhaps Mimi Leder (she directed "The Peacemaker") at the helm, this could have been a great movie.  Sadly, it's just a self-important one.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

4/4

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Logan Miller, Joey Morgan, Sarah Dumont, Halston Sage, David Koechner, Patrick Schwarzenegger

Rated R for Zombie Violence and Gore, Sexual Material, Graphic Nudity and Language Throughout

Pardon my language, but there's no other way to put it: this movie kicks ass!  It has everything a person could want in a zombie movie and more.  "Scouts Guide to the Apocalypse" is scary, funny, subversive, gory and raunchy as hell (the film contains the mother of all dick jokes).  It also has one thing that no other zombie movie has even tried to have: a heart.  I cared about the characters, who are refreshingly real.  Paramount has been doing surprisingly little to market this movie.  It's a shame, because this is a gem of a movie.  So you can bet I'm going to do all I can to help.

The three heroes are Ben (Sheridan), a normal teenager, and his two best friends, the sex-obsessed Carter (Miller) and the chubby Augie (Morgan).  They're scouts, which means that everyone considers them to be dorks.  That means that they have no chance of getting girlfriends, so they want to drop out, but can't bear to tell Augie, since he loves it.  Luck comes their way when Carter's popular sister Kendall (Sage) invites Ben and Carter to the senior party.  Unfortunately for them, it's the night of the camp out where Augie is getting an esteemed badge from Scout Master Rogers (Koechner).  Carter suggests that after Augie and Scott Master Rogers are asleep, they go to the party and be back before they wake up.  Naturally, Augie finds out and is crushed.  Just when things couldn't get any worse, the town comes under the spell of zombie fever.

"Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse" takes a little while to get going (a little too long...a minute or two shaved off would have helped the pacing).  But there's a reason for it: director Christopher Landon wants us to care about the characters.  And we do.  It helps that they're well-written and acted.  It doesn't take long for them to escape the stereotypes that one might think they are and the trio has a lot of chemistry together.  Also worth mentioning is Sarah Dumont, who plays Denise, the school's sex bomb-turned-cocktail waitress at a strip club.  After saving them from a zombie attack, she helps them realize that they're friendship is more important than chasing popularity or getting girls.  This all feels genuine because the actors play it as such.  If this sounds like an 80's teen movie, that's because it feels like one.

That's not to say that there's no humor or action.  Quite the opposite.  There's plentiful violence and gobs of gore.  It's well staged and occasionally even scary.  The film packs in big laughs, too.  Some of the humor is so gross that it would make Judd Apatow blush, such as giving a zombie CPR (don't ask).  And that's just the beginning.  We also see zombies on trampolines, zombies on roller skates, and even a zombie on a Rascal.  What's really special is that the movie doesn't go for obvious jokes.  The filmmakers really worked hard at coming up with new material, which is nice since zombie movies have already descended into self-parody like in "Zombieland."  That hard work pays off, especially because it involves characters we like and understand.

"Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse" is the whole package: a raunchy sex comedy, zombie gorefest and coming of age movie wrapped into one 93 minute package.  Stanley Kaufman of "The New Republic" once said that it's easier to make good drama than good entertainment, and I believe it.  Just look at all the wannabes gathering dust.  But when a movie manages to combine so many elements and make you care, it's worth sitting up and taking notice.  This is definitely one of the year's best, and funniest, films.

Oliver & Company

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Joseph Lawrence, Billy Joel, Cheech Marin, Dom DeLuise, Natalie Gregory, Robert Loggia, Bette Midler

Rated G

For a long time, before the billion dollar movie obsession took hold of Hollywood and they bought Marvel and Pixar, the Walt Disney Company was known for its regular output of splendid family animated movies.  While their 1988 film, "Oliver & Company," isn't at the level of their greatest works, it's magic is hard to resist.

A little kitten (Lawrence) is waiting in a box on the streets of New York City, hoping that someone will pay the five dollars and bring him home.  Alas, even after his brothers and sisters have gone, he is left all alone.  By chance, he meets the super suave Dodger (Joel), who shows him how to get food.  However, he neglected to tell the feline that the stolen hot dogs wouldn't be split.  Feeling screwed, the kitten follows Dodger home to his pack of dogs, and his owner, Fagin (DeLuise).  Fagin, as it turns out, is in debt to a sinister man named Sykes (Loggia), and is using his pets to help pay the bills.  But an attempt to scam a limousine driver ends up with the kitten being adopted by a little girl named Jenny (Gregory).  And things are just getting started...

What really sets this film apart is the look and feel.  Due in part to the way it was written and staged, it feels like a Broadway musical come to life.  For example, during Dodger's first song, he gets all the nearby dogs to strut to the beat in the middle of the road.  The film also captures the personality of New York City surprisingly well.  Every frame feels alive, and that contributes significantly to the film's energy.  It also helps that animators took photos of the New York City streets from inches off the ground to capture the look from a dog's level.

The voice acting is uniformly strong.  Joseph Lawrence, in one of his first roles, makes for an adorable Oliver, giving the character plenty of spunk while keeping his naiveté.  Billy Joel, best known as a rock singer, is also effective as the cocky Dodger.  This is one cool dog, but as confident as he is, he has his vulnerable spots.  It's not a great performance, but it works.  Cheech Marin is hilarious as the feisty chihuahua, Tito, and his conversations with Jenny's super pampered poodle Georgette (Midler) are the comic highlights.  Even more heart is added to the film by Natalie Gregory as Jenny.  And Robert Loggia makes for a truly evil villain (never has a black car looked so intimidating).

For a movie that's barely pushing 90 minutes, "Oliver & Company" covers a lot of ground in its story.  But there's never a sense that anything was shortchanged or rushed.  In fact, I wanted more.

But I'll take what I can get, and "Oliver & Company" offers plenty.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Burnt

3/4

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Bruhl, Matthew Rhys, Emma Thompson, Uma Thurman, Matthew Rhys

Rated R for Language Throughout

I've always wondered what it would be like to cook in a restaurant.  I can't cook to save my life, so that's not a future that's open to me.  But I do wonder.  Many films, like "Ratatouille" and "Mostly Martha" (and its American remake, "No Reservations") have peeked behind the curtain.  But if this movie is anything to go by, it's better to be waiting at your table than cooking it.  Chefs are temperamental, perfectionist monsters and woe betide anyone who doesn't cook something perfectly.

There's nothing in "Burnt" that hasn't been done before (many times in fact).  But that means little since it's done well.  This isn't a great movie, but for what it is, it's entertaining.

Adam Jones (Cooper) was a kitchen legend until his vices destroyed everything (he was addicted to pretty much everything) and he burned all of his bridges spectacularly.  To atone for his sins, he got clean and shucked one million oysters.  Now he's back and determined to get a three-star rating in the Michelin restaurant guide.  But to do that he needs to work on a few things, such as letting people inside, getting over his obsessive need for perfection and his volcanic temper.

It's not hard to see what attracted Bradley Cooper to this role.  He, like his character, is an addict (Cooper quit drinking at age 29), the role requires him to speak French (Cooper speaks it fluently in real life) and it's about food (the actor is a huge foodie).

Clearly, Cooper and the Weinstein Brothers are hoping that "Burnt" will generate Oscar buzz.  It's not going to happen.  "Burnt" has bombed at the box office (unfairly) and this is far from Cooper's best work.  The actor is effective, but lacks ferocity.  I kept wondering what Robert DeNiro would have done with the character had he been 40 years younger.  The scene stealer is Sienna Miller, his co-star from last year's "American Sniper."  She's delightful as the cook on the edge of stardom who worms her way into Adam's heart.

"Burnt" is a food movie like "Big Night" or "Eat Drink Man Woman."  But while many of the dishes look delicious, it doesn't do much for the appetite.  But maybe that's because I ate right before the movie.

Truth

3.5/4

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elizabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacey Keach

Rated R for Language and a Brief Nude Photo

What makes Cate Blanchett such a force to be reckoned with as an actress is not her talent (which is astonishing), but her gutsiness.  Blanchett always throws herself into her work, be it light fluff like "How to Train Your Dragon 2" or heavy Oscar-bait movies like "Blue Jasmine" (for which she won her second Oscar...the first, and thus far only, Australian actress to do so).  "Truth" is without a doubt one of the latter, and much of its success is because of Blanchett.

Dan Rather (Redford) is the host of "60 Minutes" for CBS.  He's joined at the hip by his producer Mary Mapes (Blanchett), who has come into some information about then-President George W. Bush.  Someone has documents that show that someone pulled strings and got Bush into the Texas Air National Guard, and there was a period when he didn't show up for duty.  But after thoroughly researching the story, checking their sources and airing the piece, some conservative bloggers claim that those documents were forged.  Now Dan, Mary and their whole team have to protect themselves from disaster.

What's refreshing about this film is that it's apolitical.  It's not anti-Bush; he and his camp are almost totally out of the picture and it doesn't form any opinion of them (this is explicitly stated in the film).  By focusing not so much on what Bush did or did not do and more on whether or not the evidence is fake, it eliminates the possibility of political bias.  Rather, the conflict is from CBS, who is throwing everything they have at the team in an attempt to score brownie points with Bush.  Ironically, this isn't the first time this has happened in a movie...anyone remember "The Insider?"

Blanchett is what makes "Truth" so powerful.  Her performance, perhaps the best of her career, is absolutely riveting.  She's not the only one on screen, but this is her show.  She's so good that despite the film not being clear on what Bush did (or did not) do, the film is never anything less than enthralling.  An Oscar nod is a certainty, and if she doesn't win, she should.  I certainly haven't seen any other actresses this year that come close.

"Truth" touches on an interesting point: the dangers of corporate-run news.  James Vanderbilt, making his directorial debut, sees corporate takeovers of news organizations to be dangerous, leading to "infotainment" like celebrity news and stories that aren't told because they could embarrass their parent companies (or the politicians they have ties to).  Vanderbilt addresses the importance of impartiality without highlighting it.

This isn't a flawless film; the information about Bush's alleged activities is presented too rapidly to be easily absorbed and there's a subplot about Mary's father that feels shortchanged.  Yet "Truth" overcomes it all because of Blanchett.  No matter your political affiliation, don't miss this one!