Friday, December 30, 2016

Mike's Musings: Bottom 10 of 2016

2016 sucked.  We can all agree on this.  From beloved celebrities dying to a particularly ugly presidential election, 2016 was an eye sore that we are all too excited to put behind us.

From a Hollywood perspective, things weren't much better.  Ticket sales were the lowest they'd been in a hundred years.  Tentpole movies underperformed or in the case of the "Ben-Hur" remake, utterly bombed.  While there were some unexpected surprises, all in all my view of this year (in more ways than one) is the same as yours: it was horrible.

Seeing as the new year starts on Sunday, I'm going to assume that I'm not going to see a movie made this year that's worse than any on this list.  I won't claim that it isn't possible, but just remember that these are really, really bad movies.  I hope none of you saw them.

10: Boo! A Madea Halloween.  Comedy is subjective.  When one person is laughing, the person next to him might be bored to tears.  It comes down to personal taste, personality, mood, expectations, and so on.  Madea is one of those things that works better as an idea than in execution.  The concept is funny, but Tyler Perry is not a good writer or filmmaker.  He displays little comic timing or writing ability, although he has been praised for both.  Again, personal taste.  However, I have a hard time believing that anyone with an ounce of common sense or heart could have taken the film's ending at face value.  The lesson may have been a good one, but the way it was "taught" was reprehensible.  I was shocked that anyone thought it was a good idea.  Mind-boggling.

9. Sausage Party.  I used to like Seth Rogen.  His everyman, man child persona was amusing.  That was ten years ago.  And when he was working with a director who knew what he was doing.  Now, with money raking in and name recognition, he can make his own movies and call the shots.  In his case, that's getting all of his buddies and improvising the entire screenplay.  He comes up with mildly amusing ideas and calls it a day.  An idea is only funny when you use it as a starting point.  Someone needs to tell Seth that.  That he and his team royally screwed a number of people in the animation department makes the film all the more worthy of dislike.

8. Ghostbusters.  Another riff fest.  Like anything Seth Rogen has done in the past few years, this movie didn't really have a script.  It was just a bunch of comediennes doing different versions of the same joke and adding in the special effects.  The problem was the riffs weren't funny and they went on too long.  A good director knows when to tell his cast members, funny as they may be (in this case, not very), when to shut up.  That didn't happen here.  Some of the special effects were cool though.

7.  God's Not Dead 2.  The first one was shocking, and not in a good way.  I gave it a rare 0/4, finding it appalling and reprehensible (in addition to all the usual negative descriptors).  This next installment was more boring than shameful.  Truth be told, I occasionally had to remind myself that it actually existed.  Don't get me wrong, it's still really bad.

6.  Southside With You.  I had high hopes for this movie.  It got a lot of good buzz earlier in the year and I was intrigued by the premise and the trailer.  Sadly, it was not to be.  Class A doppelgangers don't mean much when they can't act and are working with a script that is trite and pretentious.  Worse still, I wasted some of my Christmas gift card money on it (at full price...natch).  I wonder if I still have the receipt somewhere...

5.  Demolition.  When art house movies fail, they really fail.  If asked why they don't make better films, studio executives will probably point to this movie as an example.  A movie like this is an ego trip for the director.  The script was virtually unfilmable, but Jean-Marc Valle soldiered on, risking the careers of some A-list talent and showing true contempt for the audience.  Luckily Seth Rogen was nowhere to be found, which is more than I can say for other movies on this list.

4.  Storks.  Even for a Pixar wannabe with a brain-dead premise, I didn't expect "Storks" to be this atrocious.  Enter in Nicholas Stoller, who in addition to being an inept filmmaker, apparently thinks that any dialogue is funny.  I'm guessing that if someone told him the notorious "Why did the chicken cross the road" joke, he'd be on the floor in stitches.  Worse, he stretches what seems to be every joke (none of which are all that funny to begin with) long past the point where anyone could conceivably think they're funny.  No matter how desperate you are to entertain your kids, avoid this turkey.

3.  Norm of the North.  I guess this was fate's revenge for allowing me to see so many great movies in 2015.  There were plenty of great movies released last year, particularly at the end.  So I guess it makes sense that fate would plop me in the theater to watch this piece of trash.  Simultaneously confusing and trite, boring and obnoxious, bland and overly busy.  This movie was originally slated for direct-to-DVD.  Will someone please tell me the name of that moron who thought it was a good idea to unleash it into theaters?  I want revenge.

2.  Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.  Comedies need scripts.  They also need actual actors, not just stand up comedians improvising non-sequiturs and making funny faces.  Want to know how bad this movie is?  Imagine a pretty lame joke.  Take Zac Efron (who looks like he'd rather be anywhere else) and make him do three different riffs on it.  Then add Adam Devine (who has never been more irritating) and make him do another three riffs on it.  Essentially, what should have been a one-liner has been stretched out to over a minute.  That's bad enough, but the fact that all of the riffs fall painfully flat makes it pure torture.  Now, multiply that by about 100 and you'll understand why this movie should be outlawed by the Geneva convention.  That this isn't the worst movie of the year is absolutely frightening.

1.  Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.  In my original review, I said that Seth Rogen should be arrested.  I stand by that statement, Free Speech be damned.  This movie is a crime.  It's so bad, so misogynist and homophobic, so cataclysmically awful that I cannot find the words to describe it.  Even just sitting here thinking about it makes my blood boil.  It takes "belaboring the joke" (that wasn't funny to begin with) to a whole new level.  No one can drag out an unfunny joke like Seth Rogen and no one in Hollywood has a bigger ego than the fat ginger with glasses.  And yet it was a box office success!  How can a movie this wretched actually make money?  I'm serious, the only movie I can think of that was more painful to endure was "Ben & Arthur."  Perhaps it was in the states where marijuana is legal.  God knows that anyone in a sober state of mind would walk out after the first five minutes.  Unfortunately, I was a film critic, so I had to sit through the whole damn thing.  My date said that he got more enjoyment watching me writhe in severe agony than anything on screen.  I'm glad he enjoyed himself because I sure as hell didn't. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

La La Land

3/4

Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling

Rated PG-13 for Some Language

With "La La Land," writer/director Damien Chazelle seeks to fuse the stylings of a musical that Gene Kelly would make to the modern age.  While the marriage isn't perfect, it's intriguing enough to be worth a look.

Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress.  Sebastian is an old soul who wants to open his own jazz club that plays "real" jazz, not the new pop hybrids.  Although their first encounters are anything but cordial, they form a bond and fall in love.  But each has their own dreams and desires, and they may not be compatible with each other.  Can their love for each other survive where their lives take them?

For a musical, it is ironic that the weakest element of the film is the music.  Not only are the songs not especially memorable, many of them don't fit and should have been excised.  The film would have stood well enough on its own.

Perhaps more importantly, is that tonally it doesn't work.  Based on the evidence, which is this film and "Whiplash," the indie hit that put him on the map, Chazelle does his best work when the material is dark.  "Whiplash" was a riveting and psychologically violent motion picture.  "La La Land" is lighter, especially in the first half.  That's when the film has trouble.  Chazelle tries to convey the levity of the old fashioned musical, but it doesn't work.  The film only hits its stride when it becomes more grounded.

Fortunately, Chazelle got the right actors for the parts.  Ryan Gosling is one of our best young actors, and while his singing skills are open to question, his dramatic skills are not.  In a not so strange way, I thought of "The Notebook" more than once during this movie.  True, Sebastian is a lot more complicated than Noah Calhoun, but there are similarities.  Emma Stone continues to mature as an actress.  Originating from comedy, she showed aptitude for drama with "Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance," for which she was awarded an (undeserved) Oscar nomination.  She'll likely get another here, and as of now she's the front runner.  She deserves all the accolades she's been getting.  Stone has never been better.  J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence and Rosemarie DeWitt have cameos.

"La La Land" is a tough call.  There's some good stuff here, but there's also plenty of material that doesn't land.  I have few misgivings about the second act, but I'll admit to checking my watch a few times during the opening hour.  Then there's the ending, which is, shall we say, open to interpretation.  It's the kind of thing that you want to talk about with someone after words.  It's not handled particularly well, but I applaud Chazelle's attempt.

It is clear that Damien Chazelle has no qualms about taking chances.  His skills as a filmmaker need fine-tuning, but I'm curious to see where his career will lead him next.

The Mighty Quinn

0.5/4

Starring: Denzel Washington, James Fox, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Mimi Rogers, Esther Rolle, Robert Townsend

Rated R (probably for Violence, Some Language and Brief Drug Content)

Sometimes, it's hard to understand why a movie didn't become a cultural milestone.  Take for example "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse."  That was one of the funniest, most outrageous movies I've seen in a long time.  It bombed at the box office.  Other times, such as with "The Mighty Quinn," it's painfully obvious.

"The Mighty Quinn" can be summed up in one common term: jack of all trades, master of none.  Like last year's overlooked gorefest, there's nothing that isn't in the movie.  But while the zombie movie was assembled with skill and wit, here, it's a mess.  And I mean, a complete mess.

The plot?  I couldn't make heads or tails of it.  As far as I could tell, Washington plays Xavier Quinn, a Jamaican police detective sent to investigate a homicide.  It looks to be an open and shut case, but when the owner of the hotel, Thomas Egan (Fox) and his wife Hadley (Rogers), want it to go away, Quinn gets suspicious.  The prime suspect is his old friend Maubee (Townsend), but finding him is proving difficult.

When I say that there's nothing that isn't in this movie, I mean it.  The plot, which is paper thin and is trite when it actually makes sense, is often put aside for numerous subplots, such as Quinn trying to make nice with his wife (Ralph) and son (David McFarlane) or a scene where Quinn randomly gets drunk and starts crooning tunes at a bar (badly, I might add).  Consistency and focus are in short supply here.

I get the sense that director Carl Schenkel had no idea what he was doing and tried to do everything.  He wants it to be: a buddy comedy, a thriller, a tour through Jamaican society, and a romance.  I'm not saying that a truly visionary director can't wed all those things together, but Schenkel isn't it.

Denzel Washington is one of the most powerful and charismatic actors working today, but he isn't the most discerning of projects when the price is right ("Virtuosity," another 0.5/4 movie he starred in, is a prime example).  But what is he doing in this mess?  Could he not see that this was a disaster waiting to happen?  To be fair, Washington is the consummate professional and sports a flawless accent and enough feckless charm to make you wonder why he doesn't do more lighthearted material.  But this is a piece of shit.  No ifs, ands. or buts.

There is one note of praise for this movie: the cinematography by Jacques Steyn is gorgeous.  Truly evocative and colorful without being overbearing.  Don't want to overlook his hard work, even if it's in a terrible movie (that got surprisingly good reviews).

Monday, December 26, 2016

Southside With You

1/4

Starring: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers

Rated PG-13 for Brief Strong Language, Smoking, a Violent Image, and a Drug Reference

There's a reason why I wait until December 31 to compile my Top and Bottom 10 lists.  It's when all the Oscar bait comes out, so it becomes a scramble to see it all before the deadline.  For example, I have yet to see "La La Land" (my family saw it yesterday, but I got no sleep on Christmas Eve), "Manchester By the Sea," "Fences," and "Moonlight."  I haven't seen "Assassin's Creed," "Moonlight," or "Why Him?" either, but I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that they won't be on the former list.  The latter, I'm not so sure.

It's not often that I see a movie expecting it's going to end up on my Top 10 list only to find out it will be associated with crap like "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising."  That isn't as big of an insult as you might think.  There's no way to put it nicely: this movie sucks.  It's badly written, flatly acted, and almost never interesting.

"Southside with You" is the second movie made about a sitting U.S. President.  Unlike the first, "W.," which covered about 30 to 40 years, writer/director Richard Tanne goes with the recent trend set by "Lincoln" and others and keeps things very specific.  The movie details what happened when Barack Obama went on his first date with Michelle Robinson, who would later become his wife and First Lady.  It wouldn't be a bad idea had anything interesting happened on that date or had the future First Couple been more effectively realized.  But in veering away from any melodrama and concentrating on the minutiae, "Southside with You" becomes less like "Before Sunrise" and more like "Greetings from Tim Buckley."  I could end this review right there.

I'll give Tanne credit for his casting.  Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers look uncannily like younger versions of Barack and Michelle.  However that's as far as the casting success goes.  While they may look the part, they don't act the part.  Neither actor gives a performance that's ever more than acceptable.  Frankly, they're so dull that it's impossible to understand why anyone thought an audience could be interested in watching a movie about them?  Few people are more intriguing than the Obamas, but these two are boring that looking at internet memes was a better use of my time.  Who cares what happens to these two?

Roger Ebert, a far better film critic than I'll ever be, frequently said that the more precisely defined a character is, the more interesting he or she will be.  It's true.  For all its faults, "Crumb" was at least interesting because I knew exactly who Crumb was.  That he turned out to be a person I would never want to meet is beside the point.  Terry Zwigoff presented him with enough clarity that I understood him and how he saw the world.  With this movie, the two lead characters have the depth and specificity of the Atlantic Ocean.  Change their names to John and Betsy Dinkbulb and nothing would change.

Anyone who has seen the Obamas on TV knows of their innate charisma.  Both of them are smart people who can command the room simply by walking in.  Neither actor has that quality.  Michelle Obama is one of the most well-liked First Ladies, but you wouldn't know that watching Tika Sumpter (who co-produced the film) play her.  Michelle Robinson is a strong woman with a steel reserve, which is fine.  But in the film she comes across as a heartless bitch.  Worst of all, the film is told from her point of view.  Parker Sawyers is better, displaying a little charm and humor but not much else.

What's really shocking is how little of a point there is to this movie.  I didn't learn a thing about either person when they were my age, nor did I see anything that could convince me that they would move into the White House less than 20 years later.  Frankly, it never convinced me these two had any feelings for each other.  Any picture of the Obamas displays true love and affection for each other.  The chemistry between Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers is frozen solid. 

Worthwhile moments in this movie are few.  There's a conversation where Michelle explains what it's like to be a black woman in a white man's world that rings true and their family backstories are well written.  But that takes up about five minutes of screen time.  The rest of the movie is scenes that fall flat (and never end) and characters we don't care about.

Liberal or conservative, skip this movie.

Mars Attacks!

2/4

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Rod Steiger, Annette Benning, Martin Short, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Lucas Haas, Sylvia Sydney, Danny DeVito, Tom Jones, Christina Applegate, Jack Black

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Fantasy Violence and Brief Sexuality

The cleverest moments in "Mars Attacks!" come in the montages.  That is not a good thing.  When it's a 106 minute movie and the best bits are straight out of "America's Funniest Home Videos" (with Martians), the movie is in trouble.

"Mars Attacks!" is one long rip into 1950's sci-fi movies.  The kind that schlockmeisters like William Castle or Ed Wood would have made.  That those movies went well beyond self-parody is of no matter to the filmmakers, apparently.  But it's not just the cheesy b-movies that get skewered.  The US Government, the Army, scientists, new age philosophies, sleazy club promoters and rednecks all get theirs.  The problem is that it's not especially funny.

President James Dale (Nicholson) has just received intelligence that flying saucers from Mars are on their way to Earth.  General Decker (Steiger) advocates nuclear action while Professor Donald Kessler (Brosnan) advises a more peaceful greeting.  It turns out that Decker was right since the Martians are not friendly and intend on wrecking havoc worldwide.

This has all the earmarks of a wickedly funny black comedy.  With a few exceptions, the characters are universally dislikable, the plot takes no prisoners and it has an all-star cast.  So why is it such a dud?  The screenplay is a good place to start.  Although it has balls, it lacks real wit.  And director Tim Burton spends far too much time on a plot that no one will care about.  Nor are they intended to in a movie like this.

As good as this cast is, nearly everyone famous in this movie is either over-the-top or phoning it in.  Jack Nicholson is slumming for a paycheck.  He's ideally cast, but Jack isn't trying.  Glenn Close is annoying as a superficial, shrewish Nancy Regan clone.  Rod Steiger is consistently off his game.  Martin Short gets far too many scenes and far too few jokes for such a superfluous character.  Michael J. Fox is wasted.  And Danny DeVito is awful.  The only ones who stick out are Pierce Brosnan and Jim Brown.  Brosnan is clearly having fun as the self-absorbed boob of a scientist.  He even has a pipe and a lab coat.  Ex-football star Jim Brown is surprisingly effective as the ex-boxer trying to make amends with his family.

I'm not surprised that Tim Burton, who has a soft spot for misunderstood outsiders, was attracted to this material.  What does surprise me is that Burton, who is a talented filmmaker, could make something so feeble and lifeless.  This has a lot of affection, but it's not effectively channeled.  Plus on a technical level the film is lacking.  Plot holes and jumpy editing abound, the latter of which costing the film some desperately needed laughs.  When you spend a whole minute setting up a one-liner, you've got problems.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Passengers

3.5/4

Starring: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne

Rated PG-13 for Sexuality, Nudity and Action/Peril

Romantic on-screen chemistry requires two things: one, we like the characters, and two, we like them more when they're together.  It's not an easy thing to achieve, but when it happens, it all comes together.  Unlike this year's romantic dud "Allied," there is chemistry between the two lovers (not the least of which is because we see them smile and laugh, something that almost never happened in the WWII drama that no one saw).

The spaceship Avalon is making a 120-year voyage to Homestead II, where 5,000 people, plus the 200-odd crew will make their new home.  Jim Preston (Pratt) wakes up and gets acclimated to spend the next four months on the ship before getting off on his new planet.  He quickly realizes there is something very wrong: he's the only one there.  He woke up early.  90 years too early.  With only a robotic bartender named Arthur (Sheen) to talk to, Jim tries to find a way to get back to hibernation.  It's a futile cause.  While drowning his sorrows in boredom and whiskey, he sees a girl in her pod named Aurora Lane (Lawrence), with whom he becomes infatuated.  Reading her file and work (she's an author), he becomes obsessed with her.  He makes the sleazy decision to wake her up (and subsequently lie about it).  The more they spend time together, the deeper the bond between them grows.  But things are going wrong all over the ship.  Little things, then bigger and bigger...

In essence, this is a romance.  Sci-fi romance, but romance nonetheless.  As such, its success relies entirely on the chemistry between A-listers Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence.  Unlike many romances starring A-list talent (such as the aforementioned "Allied," they weren't cast solely for their ability to sell tickets (although that probably helped).  Pratt and Lawrence play well off each other.  They "click."  It's not a romance for the ages, like "Titanic" or "Casablanca," but it's effective enough in its own right.  I was surprised how caught up in it I got.  I always found Chris Pratt to be more appropriate for a character actor than a leading man, but he's more than capable of holding his own against the sparkplug named Jennifer Lawrence.

Director Morten Tyldum, who made "Headhunters," which I didn't like, and "The Imitation Game," which I did, has a firm grasp on the material.  He allows the characters to breathe, which is essential for any romance.  Nervous or unskilled directors often skirt any heavy dialogue or slow parts, fearing boredom on part of the audience.  Tyldum is smart enough to know that that is what builds the romance.  The tone is perhaps a little too somber to really make the heart sing, but it is a more introspective and existential movie than, say, "Titanic."  It's not as light as "Star Wars" but not nearly as gritty as "Interstellar" or "Pandorum," two movies with similar concepts.

"Passengers" works because it shoots for the stars (no pun intended), and while there are some pacing issues and lapses in logic to move the plot along, it gets pretty damn close.

Dinosaur

3/4

Starring (voices): D.B. Sweeny, Alfre Woodard, Ossie Davis, Della Reese, Joan Plowright, Julianna Margulies, Max Casella, Hayden Panettiere, Samuel E. Wright

Rated PG for Intense Images

The main selling point of "Dinosaur," other than its subject, is spectacle.  While there is a plot, characters who talk and some action sequences, that's of secondary importance to the images that are on the screen.  The question is whether after sixteen years the visuals can still hold up against the likes of "Avatar" and "Jurassic World."  The answer is not really, but it's good enough to warrant a watch if you're in the mood for some nostalgia.  Or want to keep the kids occupied for a while.

Aladar (Sweeny) is an iguanodon who has been raised by lemurs.  While he was still in his egg, he got separated from his parents and ended up on an island and grew up under the care of Plio (Woodard) and Yar (Davis) and their two children, Zini (Casella) and Suri (Panettiere).  Suddenly, a meteor strike forces the unconventional family to abandon the island and head for the continent.  There, they meet a herd of various dinosaurs who are going to the herding grounds.  They are led by Kron (Wright), an iguanodon with stubbornness issues.  Kron's mentality is the survival of the fittest at all costs, and if you can't keep up, you might as well wait for death.  That leaves others like the elderly Baylene (Plowright), a brachiosaurus, Eema (Reese), a styracosaurus, and Url the ankylosaur at the mercy of predators.  Specifically, a pair of vicious carnotauruses.

It's not especially original, or even that interesting.  But it fills the requirements of a successful kids movie: it looks great, has humor and action, has characters we can identify with and is short enough not to overstay its welcome.  With a movie that was made for (unofficially) $200 million, that's all you can ask for.

The voice actors are familiar, but not "name" actors.  That suits animated films well because it helps the audience to see only the characters and not the actors who portray them.  For better or for worse, Hollywood has stepped away from this, and that's a mistake.  Fortunately, that's not the case here.  D.B. Sweeny, always a likable actor, voices Aladar with spunk and heart.  Alfre Woodard and Ossie Davis make effective parents, Della Reese and Joan Plowright are sympathetic old ladies, Julianna Margulies is a good love interest, and Hayden Panettiere and Max Casella are on hand to look cute and add comic relief.  Samuel E. Wright makes for a suitable antagonist, whose flaw is being bullish and uncaring.

So, does the animation hold up?  For the most part, yes.  It's mostly effective, although there are times when it is clunky.  It sometimes looks like a video game cutscene rather than an animated movie.  There is a bit of a disconnect between the actors' voices and the characters' expressions, which is subtly odd.  It's not as bad as if the audio and visual did not sync up, but it's a little distancing.  And the dinosaurs and the backgrounds don't always mesh convincingly.  I sometimes wondered if it was a cut and paste job.  That said, there are some truly gorgeous moments, particularly at the beginning.  The opening sequence, which was used in the teaser for the film and details how Aladar ended up with the lemurs, is reminiscent of the "Circle of Life" sequence in "The Lion King," and some of the visuals on the island are just as gorgeous to look at.

This isn't great art or even a great film.  It never was.  But it is entertaining enough for me to recommend it.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

3/4

Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelson, Forrest Whittaker, and the voices of Alan Tudyk and James Earl Jones

Rated PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action

When George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney, they announced that they would release a new "Star Wars" film each year, alternating between the main storyline and stand-alone features.  The first installment was last year's "Episode VII," which I liked better than many critics and audiences.  The newest one is a mid-qual named "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," taking place immediately before the one that started it all.

Galen Erso (Mikkelson) is preparing for the inevitable.  When it happens, his wife is murdered and he sends his daughter Jyn to be with a friend named Saw Gererra (Whitaker).  The reason for the violence is that the Empire desperately needs his help.  You see, Galen was tasked with creating the Death Star, but fled before it was completed.

Twenty years later, Jyn (Jones) has now grown up and is fending for herself.  She doesn't support the Empire or the Rebellion, but the latter has captured her and they force her to complete a mission from them.  A pilot for the Empire, Cassian Endor (Ahmed) has, under orders from Galen, defected with news of the Death Star's creation.  The Rebellion needs her to find her father and verify that Cassian's words are true.  If she accomplishes this task, then she can have her freedom.

The film's biggest problems are arguably the most important part of the story: the plot and the characters.  The story is thin and not very interesting.  In all honesty, it feels more appropriate for a TV miniseries than a $200 million dollar film.  It's not the concept but the presentation.  The story feels too constrained, lacking the breadth and detail of Lucas's work.  This problem affected "Episode VII" to a lesser extent.  The characters are no better, achieving little more than one dimension.  They've attempted to plug the holes with good actors, but they're all miscast, which doesn't help the situation.

Felicity Jones is solid as Jyn, demonstrating fire and talent but not the charisma.  She can't command the screen like a movie star.  It's not a knock against her, it's just how it is (for all his faults, Hayden Christensen had the "it" factor).  Diego Luna is an even more bizarre casting choice.  Luna is a fine actor (see "Y tu Mama Tambien" or "Milk" for examples of his talents), but he fits into the "Star Wars" universe like a square peg in a round hole.  Ditto for Ben Mendelsohn; fine actor but doesn't fit.  The only characters that work are martial arts star Donnie Yen as a blind man with serious fighting skills and Alan Tudyk as the obligatory droid (dubbed K-2SO).  They're supporting characters, but they're more interesting than the main cast.

What saves the film are the action scenes.  They work wonderfully; the final battle particularly so.  Director Gareth Edwards can't match Lucas's artistry, but he comes close.  Like Abrams, he seems afraid to push the "opera" in "space opera."  He holds back, and makes things too gritty.  The cost is the hope and cheer that, even in its darkest moments, the original series had.

Mention must be made about the special effects.  Oh sure, the space battles, cities and aliens are absolutely sensational, but that's not what I'm talking about.  I'm talking about the special effects needed to bring Peter Cushing back to life and de-age a certain thespian.  I won't say who it is, but anyone who knows where this fits into the timeline of the series will be able to guess it (and no it's not Darth Vader.  He shows up for quite a few scenes, voiced once again by James Earl Jones).  Cushing died in 1994, but he shows up in the flesh for a significant role.  It was actually British actor Guy Henry and some CGI, but I thought it was the same technique they used to bring Laurence Olivier back to life for "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow."  Kudos to the special effects department; they had me fooled.  If only the same thing could be said about the 3D...

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is closer to a misfire than a complete winner, but I'm giving it a solid 3/4 for the action scenes.  And besides, it's "Star Wars."  Everyone and their aunt is going to see it regardless of what I say.  And how can I blame them?  Who can turn down "Star Wars," even if it is subpar?

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Philadelphia Experiment

2.5/4

Starring: Michael Pare, Nancy Allen, Bobby Di Cicco, Eric Christmas

Rated PG (probably for Action/Violence)

"The Philadelphia Experiment" is a genre movie, and that's fine.  It's an adventure/romance with everything you'd expect and not much more.  It's effective, but it doesn't have anything to make it stand out.  There's nothing here that hasn't been done before in other, better movies.  Man, have I been writing a lot recently.

According to conspiracy theorists, the Philadelphia Experiment was a top secret project done by the US Navy to try and render a ship, the USS Eldridge, invisible.  The whole thing was classified, and according to some accounts, it was abandoned after horrible side effects on the sailors, such as mental disorders and being fused to bulkheads.  Or turned inside out.  Naturally, the whole thing is considered a hoax, but that hasn't stopped Hollywood from turning it into a movie.

David Herdeg (Pare) is a sailor on the USS Eldridge with his best friend, Jim Parker (di Cicco).  The Navy is conducting said experiment, and the two are tasked with making sure the machine is running smoothly.  But something goes wrong and soon everything is going crazy.  The two jump ship to escape the fallout and end up stranded in the desert.  Little do they realize that it's 1984.  The only one who is willing to help them is a girl named Allison (Allen).

The story is pure formula.  I wouldn't mind that it's pure formula if it were good formula.  But it's not.  The script is half-baked, the direction pedestrian, and the special effects downright cheesy.  Granted, it was made in 1984, but so was "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (with only an additional $4 million in its budget.

"The Philadelphia Experiment" is less "Twilight Zone" and more fish-out-of-water romance.  I got the sense that after the premise, the filmmakers were too callous or too cowardly to do anything of interest with it.  If it's any consolation, it's that Michael Pare and Nancy Allen "click."  It's nothing like Rick and Ilsa or Jack and Rose, but the embers of romance are there.  Both give adequate, but not standout performances, and since they're essentially the only ones on screen for more than a few minutes at a time, that's a good thing.

This isn't a good or bad movie.  It is what it is, and while the chase sequences are brainless, at least one of them is well-executed.  Such are the joys of this movie, I guess.  Better leave it to Saturday morning TV.

All About the Benjamins

1/4

Starring: Ice Cube, Mike Epps, Tommy Flanagan, Eva Mendes, Carmen Chaplin, Valarie Rae Miller, Roger Guenveur Smith

Rated R for Strong Violence, Pervasive Language and Brief Sexuality

On some level, I've begun to appreciate movies like "All About the Benjamins."  In an era of endless reboots, sequels and superhero obsessions, a movie with a clear beginning, middle and end, no in-jokes or Easter Eggs, or Stan Lee cameos is something like a breath of fresh air.  That doesn't make this movie any better, but it at least has that going for it.

Beleaguered bounty hunter Bucum (Cube) has been assigned to nab a frequent target: fast-talking hustler Reggie (Epps).  While trying to escape from Bucum's clutches, he hides out in a van.  That van belongs to Ursula (Chaplin) and Julian (Smith), who just absconded with $20 million worth of diamonds.  While Bucum wants to follow the diamonds, Reggie only wants the wallet he lost in his escape, which has a winning lottery ticket worth $60 million.

Frankly, "All About the Benjamins" is so tired and boring that it's almost not worth reviewing.  I mean, what can I say about it?  It's boring, cliché, badly acted, poorly made and not the least bit funny.  Do I really need to say more?

I have come to the realization that riff comedy isn't planned.  It's only used when the filmmakers and actors realize that their material is so bad to begin with.  The story is lame.  The situations aren't funny.  The actors are bored.  And so are we.

What was Ice Cube thinking when he co-wrote and co-produced this movie?  It's not that he has no sense of humor.  See him in "Anaconda" or "21 Jump Street" and you'll know that he can get laughs with ease.  Maybe he was under the impression that if he laid out the basics for a film, he and the other actors could create magic on the set.  If that was the case, he was wrong.

Neither Ice Cube nor Mike Epps is compelling or interesting in any way.  As the straight man, Ice Cube looks bored.  As the colorful comic sidekick, Mike Epps is irritating.  He's obnoxious and constantly mugging for the camera.  Eva Mendes apparently forgot how to act.  The only ones who are interesting are Tommy Flanagan as the obligatory villain with an accent and Valarie Rae Miller as Bucum's right hand lady.  The movie might have been better had they been center focus, but alas their screen time is minimal.

This was Kevin Bray's first feature film after a career that started in, you guessed it, music videos.  Why don't studios hire independent filmmakers to make their movies?  They know how to tell stories and direct actors?  Anyway, it's plainly obvious.  Bray does some "cool" things with filters and editing tricks, which brings up the energy but makes it look ostentatious rather than interesting.  It's not as bad as "Belly," but it comes close at times.  And that's saying something.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Road

3.5/4

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron

Rated R for Some Violence, Disturbing Images and Language

"The Road" has to be the most downbeat, depressing and cynical movie I've ever seen.  That's not meant as a criticism, but a fact.  This is a tough movie to get through, but not a chore.  Those who venture in will find their time well spent, albeit not in a necessarily pleasant way.  Then again, if a movie is based off a novel by Cormac McCarthy, "pleasant" isn't a word one would hope to be used to describe it.

The film takes place after the world has ended.  How it happened is not explained because it doesn't matter.  But any hope of the Earth recovering from what happened has long since gone.  A man (Mortensen) and his son (Smit-McPhee) are travelling together, trying to "get to the coast."  There are few people left, although considering what many are doing with the goal of survival, that's a good thing.  It soon becomes clear to the man, and his son, that the goal of reaching the coast is simply a motivation.  Survival is a human instinct, but in this case, it may just be prolonging the inevitable.

I started reading "The Road," actually.  I didn't finish it, mainly because it didn't seem to be going anywhere.  That problem has been rectified here.  Not much happens in this movie, but director John Hillcoat, who I've never been a fan of, lets it play out with the rhythms of a traditional narrative.  There are variations in pacing, plot and so on.  There isn't a lot that goes on in this movie, but at the same time it's never boring.

Really, there are only two performances that matter, and they are Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee.  The role of the man is within Mortenson's limited range.  His sole focus is keeping his son alive.  His life, and anyone else's, are irrelevant.  For his part, young Aussie actor Kodi Smit-McPhee also impresses.  The boy was born shortly after the apocalypse happened, so he doesn't know anything else.  He craves human interaction and doesn't understand how petty and treacherous humankind can be.

I mentioned before that this movie is bleak.  That is an understatement.  How can I describe how bleak this movie is?  After days (I had to split the viewing of this movie into chunks because it was so savage) of searching, I realize that I cannot.  Like "Boyhood" or "Captain Phillips," "The Road" cannot be described.  I could mention the camerawork of Javier Aguirresarobe, who leeches out almost all of the color and emphasizes the sparse, dead landscape.  I could mention the uncompromising frankness of the direction by John Hillcoat, who spares us nothing (well almost, an infamous element in the book was filmed but deleted because it would have pushed the film over the edge).  But it wouldn't do any good.

One reason is that, even with the most violent ("Dawn of the Dead") or sad ("Carriers") movies that take place after the world ends, there is always an element of hope.  A possibility that, no matter how hard or how long it will take, it is possible to start over.  Not here.  This is a grim, hopeless environment where it seems that avoiding death is simply prolonging the inevitable for reasons that, when seriously considered, are rather dubious.

The last scene betrays the film's convictions.  After suffering through so much with the characters, adding that element of hope, while appreciated on a certain level, feels like a cheat.  Wouldn't it have been better, or at least more appropriate, had the film stuck to its own course?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Once Upon a Time in America: The Director's Cut

3.5/4

Starring: Robert DeNiro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Tuesday Weld, James Hayden, William Forsythe

Rated R for Strong Violence including a Rape, Sexual Content, Language and Some Drug Use

What is it about the mafia that Hollywood finds so compelling?  Many of cinema's finest films revolve around the mob.  "Goodfellas," TV's "The Sopranos," "The Departed."  And of course, "The Godfather" trilogy.  Perhaps it's because, despite the violence and crime, these people still abide by understandable human values: honor, integrity, respect, and family.

"Once Upon a Time in America," the last film by legendary Italian director Sergio Leone, is a different sort of mafia movie.  There's no "Don" whoever, there are no enforcers, and family, literally or figuratively, is hardly mentioned.  While no one will deny that the realities of a life of crime are romanticized, there's little adrenaline to be found.  In its place, we have loss and regret.

David "Noodles" Aaronson (DeNiro) has just received an invitation (of sorts) to come back to New York City, where he and three of his friends ran their own criminal outfit during Prohibition.  There, he reflects on his past deeds, realizing that there is a price to pay for everything we do.  And even if Noodles survived his past, that doesn't mean he didn't suffer the consequences.  Coming home after thirty years in exile drives that point home very quickly.

The performances are top-notch.  Robert DeNiro ably portrays a man who is aloof to reality but is still subject to human impulses, however dark they may be.  James Woods has never been better, switching from funny to intense to lovable in a flash.  There's little of his trademark motormouth wisecracks.  He's calm and in control.  Elizabeth McGovern is flat as Deborah, the longtime crush of Noodles.  She looks the part, but her performance is lacking.  James Hayden and William Forsythe play the other two members of the quartet.

"Once Upon a Time in America" had a sad production history.  Originally, Sergio Leone and his editor Nino Baragli cut the film down from eight to ten hours into six, intending to release it as two three-hour films.  The producers refused, so it was cut down to three hours and forty nine minutes.  However, Leone was contractually obligated to deliver a film that was two hours and forty five minutes long.  The film bombed at the box office and was critically reviled, thus ruining its chances at garnering any awards attention.  Adding insult to injury, a bureaucratic snafu on the part of the distributor prevented legendary composer Ennio Morricone from receiving an Oscar nomination for his score, which many consider to be his best work.  When the full cut was released, as it had been in Europe, it was hailed as a masterpiece.

I won't go that far.  For one thing, the film drags at the beginning and the end.  The film opens with a murder, and then jumps forward to when Noodles arrives back in New York City.  Too much time is spent with him visiting his old stomping grounds.  We see the emotional toll it takes on him, but without an explanation, all we can really do is appreciate the film's look (the camerawork by Tonino Delli Colli is truly gorgeous) and Morricone's score (which is as beautiful as its reputation suggests).  When the film goes back in time to when Noodles and his friends are kids, that's when the film takes off.  During the final act, things become muddled, plotholes become apparent (many of which are never resolved) and the story takes too long to wrap up.  Cut ten minutes or so off each end of the film and it would probably be a better film.

Flaws aside, "Once Upon a Time in America" is a very good film, at times great.  It makes you think about the past and the decisions you've made.  And the friends you've gotten to know and love along the way.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Slumber Party Massacre

2.5/4

Starring: Michelle Michaels, Robin Stille, Michael Villella, Jennifer Meyers

Rated R (probably for Strong Violence/Gore, Nudity, Language and Some Drug and Alcohol Content)

When a movie is called "The Slumber Party Massacre" and produced by schlockmeister Roger Corman, it's a pretty safe bet that you won't find it being offered from the Criterion Collection.  Unless they market it as an example of existential abstract neo-surrealism.  Whatever that means.  Probably some pseudo-intellectual trying to explain how he found merit in a b-movie filled with nudity and gore that has no artistic value.

Never mind, I'm dawdling.  There are two ways to look at "The Slumber Party Massacre."  One is as a straight horror movie.  On that level, it's an utter failure.  It's too dumb and too poorly made to scare anyone past the age of six.  On the other, the level which I'm sure it is intended to work on, is what I described it as: a sleazy, sex-and-gore romp that is wall to wall with all the reasons anyone would actually want to see a movie called "The Slumber Party Massacre:" gobs of gore and lots of nudity.  It would be interesting to note that the film was written and directed by women.  Although anyone looking for a feminist bent will be disappointed.  Using a super long drill as a murder weapon is as far as it goes in that department (the phallic imagery is far from subtle).

The plot, if you can even call it that, is simple.  Trish's (Michaels) parents are away for the weekend, so she invites her girlfriends over for a slumber party.  She invites the new girl, Valerie (Stille), who declines when she overhears one of Trish's friends saying mean things about her.  Little do they know that Russ Thorn (Villella), a homicidal nutcase, has escaped from the insane asylum, and has chosen their house for his next killing spree.

"The Slumber Party Massacre," as you can imagine, was written as a slasher movie satire.  A lofty goal, considering how close to self-parody many of the genre have gotten, but there you have it.  However, it was filmed as straight horror, which makes some of the humor "unintentional."  It's still a hoot to watch, although it might be more so if you view it while drunk.

The acting is uniformly awful.  Only Robin Stille stands out because she reminded me of Jamie Lee Curtis in "Halloween," a much better horror movie than this one.  That's okay though.  It helps the film's campy charm.  As does the screenplay, which features characters so dumb it boggles the mind, and some truly hilarious dialogue.  Example: when one of the girls is stealing a phone call to her boyfriend (whom she calls "Booboo"), she realizes that her girlfriends are listening in.  Her response?  "I think our First Amendment rights have been violated."

As silly as it is, and it is very silly, it gets tired after a while.  Director Amy Holden Jones spends far too much time trying to develop characters that we don't care about (nor are we intended to).  Even at a very skinny 77 minutes, it feels padded.  As an hour long short, it could have been a real winner in a campy sort of way.  As it is, it's rather forgettable.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Miss Sloane

4/4

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mark Strong, Jake Lacey, Allison Pill, Sam Waterston, John Lithgow, Michael Stuhlbarg

Rated R for Language and Some Sexuality

There is something I find absolutely fascinating about a character who is simultaneously ruthless and Machiavellian.  "Miss Sloane" is about such a character.  Liz Sloane (Chastain), the most powerful lobbyist in Washington, she knows that in order to win, she must anticipate her opponent's moves and get there first.  But in such a high-stakes world where everything can be spun, distorted or manipulated, how can she do so without hurting her own cause?

If anyone needs to get legislation passed, they need Liz on their side.  She has all the connections, she knows all the loopholes, she could persuade Rick Perry to make a sequel to "An Inconvenient Truth."  She is the one to know.  Most importantly, she knows what it takes to win in this game, and will do whatever it takes to do so.  One day, Bob Sanford (Chuck Shamata) comes to her and asks for her and her team to help them defeat a new gun bill.  In no uncertain terms, she tells him to get lost, but her boss, George Dupont (Waterston), tells her that they're going to take him as a client.  So when Rodolfo Schmidt (Strong), the head of the non-profit who is going against the bill, asks her to switch sides, she accepts.  But her methods are unorthodox and far more extreme than Schmidt anticipated.  Interwoven are excerpts from the Senate hearing that she's hauled in front of to explain her as-yet-unknown activities.

This movie rests entirely on the shoulders of Jessica Chastain, and she nails it.  This is a powerhouse performance from one of our best young actresses.  Jessica Chastain, who often plays strong women (she was nominated for an Oscar for playing Maya in "Zero Dark Thirty," and will no doubt get another nod for her work here).  This is fearless, ferocious acting playing a character who has an insatiable desire to win.  This is her show, but like the best actors, she is very giving, allowing her co-stars to shine as well.

She's surrounded by an able supporting cast, including up-and-coming British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw as her new right hand, the always reliable Mark Strong as her new boss, Jake Lacey as an escort who gets under her skin, and John Lithgow as the senator in charge of the hearing.  Sam Waterston plays his character as Jack McCoy's evil twin.

What's interesting about the film is that we are always left wondering Liz's ulterior motives.  She's smart, make that brilliant.  But things don't always turn out the way she anticipates.  Or do they?  Does what happens in the film happen randomly, or because she was counting on it?  And what about the collateral damage?  She is clever, but her actions have a cost.  Is she really sorry for her actions, or is she just playing the part to get people to do what she wants?  While the film's plot twists and turns are riveting, it's all the more fascinating because the audience is left wondering what she's really thinking and her ultimate plan is.  This of course leads to one hell of a plot twist that's as shocking as the one in "Seven" or "Rounding First."

So far the film hasn't done well at the box office, and that's a shame.  We need more movies like "Miss Sloane" to be made.  Smart, creative movies for adults.  Not every movie has to be geared towards the tweens.  A movie this intelligent, this propulsive, this timely, should not be ignored.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Nocturnal Animals

3.5/4

Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney

Rated R for Violence, Menace, Graphic Nudity and Language

It isn't until the final frame of "Nocturnal Animals" that everything becomes clear.  The film tells three stories simultaneously, but what they are building to doesn't become clear until the last shot.  It's a close up that tells all.

Susan Morrow (Adams) is an art gallery owner living in an unnamed big city.  Although extraordinarily wealthy with a stunner of a husband (Hammer), she is far from happy.  One day she gets a manuscript in the mail.  Her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal), has gotten it published and has offered her the first peek.

The novel, titled "Nocturnal Animals," is about a man named Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal), who is on a road trip with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber).  On a dark stretch of road with no phone signal, the trio gets stuck behind two cars who are blocking them from passing.  Tony honks the horn to let them know he wants to pass, but that starts a game of chicken that ends up with them being forced off the road.  The leader of the group of rednecks, a nasty piece of work named Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson), switches from being nice to hostile and back again.  He savors their fear and confusion.  Eventually, Laura and India are kidnapped and later found raped and murdered.  Tony's only hope for justice is a lawman with a secret named Bobby Andes (Shannon).

Although the novel's plotline is compelling and plenty of time is spent with it, the film's real focus is Susan.  Through her, we learn what the novel really means, and the focus of the film: the choices we make have a price.

I have nothing but good things to say about the performances of Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal.  Both are excellent thespians, and give strong performances.  Oscar nominations are deserved, but my guess is that the movie is a little too abstract for the Academy to take strong notice of.  They deserve them.  My only complaint is their age.  They are simply too young for their roles.  42-year-old Amy Adams as a woman on her second marriage from a man who she married nineteen years ago after grad school?  Or what about 35-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal as a man with a full-grown daughter?  It's a small, but consistently nagging, problem.  That said, the strength of their work is more than enough to overcome the hurdle.

They are surrounded by a stellar supporting cast, with known actors like Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, Jena Malone and Laura Linney (in a strong one scene appearance as Susan's mother, a Southern belle who isn't as superficial as she seems) taking small and insignificant parts.  The most colorful characters are portrayed by Michael Shannon as a tough and loyal cop and especially Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a killer with no conscience.  They're excellent.

The film was adapted from the novel by Austin Wright and directed by fashion designer Tom Ford.  That doesn't surprise me.  This is a visually inventive and thrilling film.  The film's look, which is at times ostentatious and gritty, is used well.  Like the best filmmakers, Ford uses visuals and sound (the score by Abel Korzeniowski is wonderful) for a purpose: it helps anchor the character's emotions and ground the story.  They make a point.

The film's ending is, by design, open to interpretation.  I imagine people will want to talk about it over a cup of coffee.  It's a little too artsy for true mainstream consumption and to be a heavy hitter at Oscar time (then again, "Birdman" won Best Picture two years ago), but those who see it will not forget it.

Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Aaron Paul, Lena Headey, Sean Bean, Liam Mulvey, Adrian Bouchet, Alexa Kahn, Darin De Paul, David Gant

Rated PG-13 for Fantasy Violence and Action Throughout

Anyone well versed in video games knows that "Final Fantasy 15" was one of the most anticipated games in recent memory.  Ten years development is a long time to wait, and so far it's been a little disappointing, although I've heard that it gets better the more you get into it.  Still, this isn't a review of the game, but "Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV," which set's up the game's story.  Not to put too fine a point on it, it's a lot of fun, and well worth watching even if you have no interest in playing the game.

The rival kingdoms of Lucius and Nifelheim have been locked in a bitter war for years.  The mechanically inclined Nifelheim seeks to control all of the magic-disposed Lucius.  But after a particularly bloody battle, an emissary from Nifelheim arrives at the steps of Luicus's king, Regis (Bean).  The emissary, a weird man named Adryn Izunia (De Paul), offers a truce: Lucius will retain control of its capital, Insomnia, while all the other cities will fall under Nifelheim's control.  And Regis's son, Prince Noctis, has to marry Princess Lunafreya (Headey), who has been held captive by Nifelheim.  It's a painful compromise, but the aging Regis doesn't have the strength to keep up the fighting and thus reluctantly agrees.  But not everyone is happy with the treaty, particularly members of the Kingsglaive, Lucius's army created to fend off Nifelheim aggression.  What no one knows is that the treaty is a trap set by Nifelheim's emperor, Iedolas Aldercapt (Gant).  When it's sprung, the resulting devastation is catastrophic.  Only a disgraced member of the Kingsglaive, Nyx Ulric (Paul), can ensure even a small measure of hope for Luna, Regis, Noctis, and Insomnia.

The plot is pure space opera.  Or fantasy opera, in this case.  It's about all those grand emotions that make stories such as these so great.  Ambition, power, betrayal, violence and tragedy.  It's not quite Shakespeare, but for a video game tie-in, it's a lot better than it has a right to be.

The voice acting is impressive.  Aaron Paul pulls off the rugged hero with ease, making us forget that he looks nothing like his character.  Lena Headey isn't quite as successful, but if she's in the movie, I don't need much more than that.  And Sean Bean is Sean Bean.  He's as reliable as an old hat.  The supporting cast isn't as strong, but they do their jobs okay.

The film's primary selling point, other than it setting up the game, is its visuals.  This is one gorgeous looking movie.  The CGI is sensational; richly detailed and vividly imagined.  Even if the movie were lousy, the film's look is strong enough to make it worth seeing anyway.  The audio and visual don't always match up, but it's only noticeable if you're really looking for it.  It's a shame that more movies don't go this route.  Not all animated movies have to be cute and cuddly.

This isn't a great movie (I can tell you right now that it won't end up on my Top 10 list at the end of the year) and there are times when the story doesn't make a lot of sense, but when you find yourself checking the clock and praying that there's more to go, that's at least a 3.5/4 in my book.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Moana

3/4

Starring (voices): Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Sherzinger

Rated PG for Peril, Some Scary Images and Brief Thematic Elements

In general, Disney animated movies don't take many risks.  Their target audiences (kids) don't demand sophisticated plots and character depth.  Nor is unconventional storytelling sought (or desired).  The House of Mouse has essentially diluted the art of making a family movie down to a science.  If it has colorful images, broad comedy, a strong lead, cute supporting characters and an easy to follow story, it'll be a success.  So within those boundaries, and "Moana" never treads close to the edges, their newest entry works.

Years ago, the demigod Maui stole the heart of the island goddess, Te Fiti, intending to give humans the power over life.  But that let the lava demon Te Ka loose, causing destruction (and the loss of Maui's mighty fish hook).

A thousand years later, the island of Matanui and its inhabitants are safe because they don't venture beyond the reef that encloses the island.  But Moana (Cravalho), the daughter of the chieftan (Morrison), hungers to explore.  Her father is resolutely against it, but her grandmother Tala (House), encourages her to follow her heart.  When the idyllic life on their island is threatened, Moana must take the voyage herself to find Maui, reclaim his hook, and replace Te Fiti's heart.

There's very little in "Moana" that feels fresh, and that's both a strength and a weakness.  It makes the film safe and easy to digest, but it also makes it rather generic.  Make that very generic.  The seasoning is different, but it's the same dish nonetheless.

At least the voice acting is on the money.  Newcomer Auli'i Cravalho, found after an international search, is delightful, filling the title character with energy and spirit.  Or, referencing a film set in the same culture starring another member of the cast, "mana."  Dwayne Johnson, originally not a fan of Hollywood actors doing voice actors, is also in fine form.  The ex-wrestler continues to mature as an actor and expand his range.  And, to my surprise, he has a nice singing voice.  Temuera Morrison adds heart and understanding to a generic role.  My hope is that he will get more roles in the future.  God knows that if you can give a performance like he did in "Once Were Warriors," you should come first over posers like Bryan Cranston.

The film was co-directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, who were responsible for some of the entries in the New Golden Age of Disney, such as "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," and the 2009 throwback "The Princess and the Frog."  It's not as good as any of those, but it's still fun.

If there's anything that "Moana" lacks, it's risk.  Everything in here is too safe, too controlled, too...expected.  There are little moments here and there that are great (such as an attack by pirates of magical coconuts), but it doesn't do much to distinguish itself.  A little something extra to set it apart from the rest, such as a stronger screenplay or catchier songs (they're effective, but not likely to last long in the memory), would have gotten this a higher rating.

As it is, it's still worth seeing for those who love Disney movies.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Allied

2/4

Starring: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris

Rated R for Violence, Some Sexuality/Nudity, Language and Brief Drug Use

Chemistry.

When it comes to chemistry between actors, or sometimes between actors and filmmakers (like DeNiro and Scorcese, for instance), it's essential.  It's when the two feed off each other in an interesting way.  But it is so hard to get right, since it can't be bought, written, or directed.  It has to do with the right actors in the right roles.  Talent doesn't mean anything either.  For every Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, there are dozens of couples like Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard.  Both are fine actors, but they don't "click".

Max Vatan (Pitt) is a Canadian fighter pilot sent behind enemy lines.  His task: pose as the husband of Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard) and assassinate a German diplomat.  Although they try to remain strictly professional, the two fall for each other, and after the mission is over, he brings her back to London.

Cut to a year later.  Marianne has given him a daughter and he has a desk job.  Despite the death and air raids, life couldn't be happier.  Then his superior, Frank Heslop (Harris) and a shady government operative (Simon McBurney in a cameo), bring him some grave news: an interrogation in Europe uncovers some information about a German female spy, and all signs point to Marianne.  Max doesn't believe it and sets out to prove them otherwise.  Because if he's wrong, he himself has to execute her, or else be hung for treason.

Someone should have figured out that there was no chemistry between Pitt and Cotillard.  None.  I mean, zero.  Not even a sex scene in a swirling sandstorm (which is wonderfully staged, by the way) can generate any heat.  Did they just take the script, or even the concept, and cast the actors based on their ability to fit the part?  Like, did one studio executive say, "We need an American star and a French star.  Let's get Brad Pitt, because he's in the news lately, and Marion Cotillard, because she's the only French actress anyone knows."  With an $85 million price tag, I hope not, but sometimes I wonder...

Marion Cotillard is always interesting to watch.  She gives it her all and gives a solid performance.  But she lacks the raw sexuality and mystery that would serve the character well.  Sophie Marceau, Elektra King from the Bond movie "The World is Not Enough," would have been a more spirited choice.

Am I the only one who thinks that Brad Pitt has gotten lazy over the years?  I mean, when was the last time he gave a truly great performance?  "Inglorious Basterds," maybe, but that was far from his best work.  "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?"  That was 8 years ago.  Lately he's been coasting by on his charisma (see "Kalifornia" for a taste of his true talent).  Or maybe it's because of his split from Angelina Jolie (who seems to attract drama on a regular basis).  Whatever the reason, he's either miscast or not trying.  And at age 52 (!), he's too old for this sort of role.

Behind the scenes, the utter blandness of this movie is just as surprising.  It was written by Steven Knight, who has written some great screenplays, like "Locke," "Burnt," "Closed Circuit" and "Redemption."  And for the director, they got Robert Zemeckis, who directed "Contact," the "Back to the Future" trilogy, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and won an Oscar for "Forrest Gump."  Yet the story is repetitive, the dialogue bland, and the direction (save for a few special effects shots and the aforementioned love scene) flat.  Perhaps studio meddling was to blame.  At least, it's the only explanation I can come up with to explain how so much talent produced such a dull motion picture.

While I'm pondering that, I do have suggestions for those who are looking for what "Allied" promises to offer but fails to deliver.  If you're looking for a WWII espionage thriller, check out Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book."  If you're in the romantic mood, see "Atonement."  This movie isn't worth your time or money.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Close Your Eyes

2.5/4

Starring: Goran Visnjic, Shirley Henderson, Miranda Otto, Paddy Considine, Fiona Shaw, Sophie Stuckey

Rated R for Violence and Language

"Close Your Eyes" has an intriguing concept: a hypnotist who can see into a person's subconscious and influence their mind helps a cop track down a serial killer.  It's a great idea and the movie contains some nice performances.  But the film is lacking in other areas that makes it tough to recommend.

Michael Strother (Visnjic) is a hypnotherapist who specializes in helping people quit smoking.  Unlike most hypnotists or psychics, he can actually practice what he preaches.  He can peer into a person's deepest part of the mind and get them to change their behavior.  One day he is helping Janet Losey (Henderson), when he in her mind he sees a little girl floating underwater.  On her way out the door, he mentions this to her in an off hand way.  It turns out that she is investigating the Tattoo murders, where a number of children have been found murdered with mysterious tattoos found on their bodies.  The latest victim, a girl named Heather (Stuckey), escaped the killer's clutches, but she isn't able to speak.  Janet thinks that Michael can help, but he wants no part of it (his tax avoidance practices convince him otherwise).  Now they're trying to stop a killer who worships a heretical priest before he strikes again.  Or worse.

The film uses a lot of pseudoscience, but since director and co-writer Nick Willing doesn't waste a lot of time explaining it and instead trusts that we'll accept it at face value, it's hardly a hurdle.  The plot is more formula than anything, but at least the flavor is different.

The performances are right on the money.  Goran Visnjic is an ideal choice for the hypnotist.  His voice is hypnotic, so it's easy to accept him in the role.  But Visnjic, an alumni of the hit TV show "ER," is a fine actor, more than compensating for the weaknesses in the writing.  In his hands, Michael Strother becomes real.  Shirley Henderson, a quirky British character actress who can do just about anything, is also in fine form.  Unusual for her, there's nothing really weird or offbeat about Janet Losey; the part was written straight, and she plays it as such (and absolutely nails it).  Miranda Otto, sporting an uncannily flawless American accent, plays Michael's beleaguered (and heavily pregnant) wife.

Unfortunately, the film suffers behind the camera.  Whether due to budget constraints or something else, the film looks bad.  It's not Dogma 95 (camera movements and unnatural lighting disqualify it), but there are times when it looks close.  With an almost complete lack of a musical score and atmosphere, Willing appears to be avoiding any sort of manipulation.  But this is the kind of story that needs a confident director who can find the right note for this material.  Maybe Roman Polanski.

To be sure, "Close Your Eyes" has its moments.  The performances are nice, the scenes in the subconscious are suitably surreal, and there is some suspense towards the end.  But it's just not strong enough for me to recommend outright.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Switchback

1.5/4

Starring: Danny Glover, Dennis Quaid, Jared Leto, R. Lee Ermey, Ted Levine, William Fitchner

Rated R for Strong Violence and Several Views of Nude Pin-Ups

Who cares?

That's the thought that quickly came to mind while watching this movie.  Who cares?

F.B.I. Agent Frank Lacrosse (Quaid) is tracking a killer.  A serial killer who slashes people's femoral arteries as his M.O.  His pursuit leads him to Amarillo, Texas, where two more victims that appear to have been done by his quarry have been slashed to death.  There, he finds himself the middle of a pissing contest between the local sheriff Buck Olmstead (Ermey) and the competition for his job, an incompetent weasel by the name of Jack McGinnis (Fitchner).

Meanwhile in Colorado, friendly Bob Goodall (Glover) has picked up a hitchhiker named Lane Dixon (Leto).  They're driving through a heavy storm, and it soon becomes clear to everyone that a killer is on the loose.  But who is it?

The biggest problem with "Switchback" is its length.  At just a hair under two hours, it's way too long.  There's really only enough material here for an hour long film, so half the movie is filler.  And it's bad filler.  Writer/director Jeb Stuart, in his directing debut, clearly loves his characters enough to have them talk and talk and interact with each other.  The problem is that the audience doesn't and he is definitely no Quentin Tarantino.

The acting is fine, I guess.  Dennis Quaid trades his everyman persona from something more intense.  Danny Glover has no problem playing the nice guy.  Jared Leto fades into the background as the mysterious drifter.  Frankly, the only one who bears mentioning is R. Lee Ermey, who steals every scene he's in.  There's nothing special about Buck on paper, but Ermey is so fun to watch that I had more interest in his subplot about the election than the stuff about a serial killer.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: pacing is absolutely crucial for a thriller.  That's not negotiable.  Even in a slow-burn thriller, which is what I think Stuart was going for, the pace and rhythm of the film has to be just right.  But this movie crawls.  The characters aren't interesting and the story is a bore.

So I ask again.  Who cares?  I certainly didn't.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

3.5/4

Not Rated (probable R for Language, Nudity, Brief Violent Images and a Drug Reference)

With Enron, it's a case of the Emperor with no Clothes.  It wasn't a good company, by any stretch of the word, that went bad.  It was rotten to the core since its inception.  The people at Enron weren't good businessmen with a great product that suddenly vanished.  They were terrible businesspeople whose only skills were exploiting the loopholes to make people believe that they were good salesmen.  And if their magic show failed, they had the power to crush their enemies.

Alex Gibney, who made this documentary, sees this not so much as a crime story or even a peek behind the corporate world.  Instead, he views it as a story of human nature.  It's a story about greed, vanity, and hubris.  But it's also a story of how dangerous someone with a tremendous amount of drive can be.  We love to see stories of people fighting the odds and coming out the better man.  But what happens if that person's drive is going towards something insidious and corrupt?  Perhaps most importantly, it's a cautionary tale about taking things at face value.  If nothing else, Enron was great at making themselves look good.

This documentary works because Gibney lets the information speak for itself.  He never loses focus or gets distracted.  And he finds the sweet spot between too technical and too dumb.  No one is likely to get lost in this movie, provided you don't turn your brain off.  But because of the wealth of information and the clarity with which Gibney presents it, that's unlikely to happen.

One thing I like is how Gibney lets us draw our own conclusions about some of the material.  For example, while it's never explicitly stated, enough evidence is shown that Ken Lay's ties to the Bush family undoubtedly worked to Enron's benefit with energy deregulation.  And it's not Michael Moore-ish slander, since both Dubya and Bush senior make a video send off to a departing Bush executive in the early 80's.

In a way, the Enron scandal was a wake-up call to the world.  The problem with Enron is that for Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, the goal was to make as much money as possible with no regards to ethics or common sense.  Both men had backgrounds that set them on course for destruction.  Ken Lay grew up in poverty and wanted to become rich by any means necessary, he would hire anyone, no matter how sleazy they were, who would help him achieve that goal.  Jeff Skilling was an ex-nerd, who, as Americans love to call it, "pulled himself up by his bootstraps."

Neither man was who they seemed.  Ken Lay was a businessman who presented himself as grandfatherly, wise and heaps of Southern charm and civility.  Underneath the façade he was as corrupt as any corporate bigwig cliché you can think of.  Jeff Skilling presented himself as a sort-of Steve Jobs for the business world, when in reality, he was a gambling junkie (business wise) fraught by insecurity.

The problem is that we haven't woken up.  Synergistic corruption, or criminal acts on part of many companies, is what allowed Enron to last as long as it did.  The presence of so much wrongdoing led to a diffusion of responsibility, where it seemed like no one was responsible when in fact everyone was responsible.  It doesn't take a genius to take their behavior and carry it over to the behavior of Wall Street that led to the Great Recession.  Or the source of dark money in politics.

The sad thing is, only these guys got punished, and not nearly hard enough.

Friday, December 2, 2016

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge

2.5/4

Starring: Mark Patton, Kim Myers, Robert Rusler, Robert Englund, Clu Gulager, Hope Lange

Rated R (probably for Horror Violence/Gore, Language and Some Sexuality)

Of all the "classic" slasher movies, Wes Craven's "A Nightmare on Elm Street" boasted the most clever premise: a serial killer with knives for fingers stalked his victims in their dreams, and if they died in their dreams, they died in real life.  It was an original gimmick, not to mention a chilling one, and Craven, who did not have a spotless record, managed to milk it enough that it became a staple of the genre.  It wasn't a great horror movie, but it was effective.  The sequel, subtitled "Freddy's Revenge," seeks to invert the premise in a way: this time, Freddy seeks to possess a victim and, through him, kill people.  It's an intriguing twist on the formula, and while it doesn't quite work, there's enough good stuff here that you might actually want to check it out.

Jesse Walsh (Patton) has just moved into a new house on Elm Street.  He is not happy.  His father Ken (Gulager) is constantly on his back about unpacking his things, his room is like a sauna, and he is having some very violent nightmares about a man with knives for fingers.  But when his much hated gym teacher turns up dead after he had a dream that, through him, slashed the man to death, Jesse begins to fear that he's the one committing the murders.  Or that he's going insane.  Only his would-be girlfriend Lisa Webber (Myers) believes him, and together they try to stop Freddy.

What is on screen is good stuff.  The actors have a certain appeal, and it's enough that they can hold the audience's attention without the horror elements.  Take away Freddy and you've still got a decent little movie.  That's a huge plus for any movie, especially in this genre, where most characters are too dumb to function and so annoying that the audience starts rooting for the killer.

As glad as I am that the filmmakers didn't take the easy road and simply rehash the original, I have to admit that the plot stumbles.  This is a common complaint of mine, but that's because it's 100% true and 100% essential: you have to establish a set of rules for what can and cannot happen.  The original did that, but this one doesn't.  The relationship between Freddy and Jesse isn't well explained, which causes us to scratch our heads when we should be scared out of our wits.

If I had to pick, I'd give it a negative review.  There are some things that are good in this movie, even worthy of praise.  The characters are interesting and sympathetic, the plot takes chances, and the film has some great, if gruesome, special effects work.  But the relationships aren't given enough time to breathe and the plot isn't well thought out.  Another run through the typewriter and some more time with the characters before the slicing and dicing probably would have upped this to a solid 3/4.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Hard Target

2/4

Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Yancy Butler, Lance Henrickson, Arnold Vosloo, Wilford Brimley, Kasi Lemmons

Rated R for A Great Amount of Strong Violence, and for Language

"Hard Target" opens with a man being relentlessly pursued by a group of men.  They're heavily armed, he is defenseless.  Slowly but surely, they run him down.  They savor every shot, every look of terror and desperation on his face, before they finally put him out of his misery.  As sick as this scene is, it's a solid way to start the movie.  If only the film had stayed on that level.

Nat Binder (Butler) has just arrived in New Orleans looking for her father.  She hasn't seen him in years, but they kept in touch.  When the letters stopped coming, she came looking.  The police are no help, so she enlists the help of Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme), the man with the ugly mullet who came to her rescue when she was mugged.  The body of Nat's father is found soon after, and while the police claim it was a fire, Chance isn't convinced.  When he goes sniffing around the crime scene, he finds evidence of murder.  Meanwhile, the killers, Emil Fouchon (Henrikson) and Pik Van Cleef (Vosloo), learn that Chance is on their trail, they take steps to stop him for good.  Soon, Chance and Nat become embroiled in a deadly game of cat and mouse with a group of killers wielding impressive firepower and are eager to use it.

In essence, this is a hyperviolent, dumbed down version of "The Most Dangerous Game," where a man who is bored and has too much money decides to hunt human prey.  There's no reason this couldn't have been made into a great action movie.  The plot essentially writes itself.  Unfortunately, they used the first draft and hired Jean-Claude Van Damme and Yancy Butler, neither of whom are known for their thespian abilities, to star.

Action star Jean-Claude Van Damme is known for two things: his kicks, which are high enough for him to join the Rockettes, and his thick Belgian accent.  If you look on his iMDb page, you'll notice that he has zero Oscar nominations.  He also has two Razzie nominations (they're the opposite of the Academy Awards), including a win.  There's a reason for that: the guy can't act to save his life.  Frankly, with all the sparks, explosions and other assorted pyrotechnics, I was afraid he was going to catch fire.  His co-star, Yancy Butler, is a little better, but not by much.  She was obviously hired more for her looks than her acting ability.  In all honesty, her performance is more flat than bad.

Fortunately, the villains are entertaining.  Veteran character actor Lance Henrikson is clearly enjoying himself as an out and out villain, going so far over-the-top that watching him is campy fun.  He rightly understands that no one could take this plot seriously, so I guess he thought he'd have some fun along the way to earning his paycheck.    Arnold Vosloo, no stranger to playing villains, is also having some fun playing the mustache-twirling villain (albeit without the mustache).  The two actors got along so well that one studio executive quipped that he wished he could have gotten them their own film together.

Although John Woo was brought on board due to the encouragement of Jean Claude Van Damme, the two did not get along well together.  Woo's original cut ran for more than two hours and focused more on Henrickson's character.  Van Damme didn't like this idea, and he and his editor locked themselves in the editing room to reedit it.  What a pity; it might have been a better movie.  As one might expect, the action scenes aren't the problem.  Every time someone pulls out a gun, the film takes off.  Woo's specialty is action and violence, and as you can imagine, these scenes are exhilarating.  The problem is the stuff between it, which is deadly dull.

You do the math.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Frailty

3.5/4

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Matt O'Leary, Jeremy Sumpter, Powers Boothe

Rated R for Violence and Some Language

One of my hobbies is to go on the American Family Association's Facebook page and get into spirited debates about certain issues.  Usually regarding Target's policy of allowing transpeople use the bathroom that they identify with, although they support any right-wing cause.  As hilarious as the banter sometimes gets, it's sometimes very scary.  The blind faith of some of these individuals in the face of logic or the realities of our legal system, or even the hypocrisy that they are unable to see.  Traits like that from religion can take people down a very dark path.  "Frailty" is about one such individual.

A man named Fenton Meiks (McConaughey) has arrived at the office of FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Boothe).  Doyle is heading the investigation into the notorious God's Hand serial killer, and Fenton claims that the killer is his brother Adam.  To explain how he knows this, Fenton tells a disturbing story.

In the summer of 1979, Fenton (O'Leary) grew up in small town Texas with his father (Paxton) and younger brother Adam (Sumpter).  Their mother died giving birth to Adam and they have no other surviving relatives, but they get by.  Dad loves his sons more than anything and they love and respect him in turn.  One night, Dad wakes them up, claiming that he was visited by an angel who tasked them with destroying demons who take human form.  Adam is enthusiastic but Fenton is incredulous.  It's too difficult to swallow.  Fenton believes that this is all a nightmare that will pass, but then Dad brings home the first body.  More will follow, and Fenton has to find a way to stop the bloodshed.  But that means convincing Adam, and worse, confronting his father.

"Frailty" was marketed as some sort of supernatural slasher movie.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Physically, this isn't a violent movie.  Most of the violence occurs off screen, and there's very little gore.  Psychologically, well, that's a different story.  Watching a young boy face the reality that his father is a delusional killer is a brutal blow to the psyche.  Even worse, he has a younger brother who is too easily manipulated.

Paxton's character is not a traditional villain, and that is what makes this film so disturbing.  He's kind, loving and affectionate towards his children.  In all other respects, he's a good man.  But his delusions, if they are that, have turned this gentle soul into a murderous zealot.  It would be difficult for anyone to accept, much less live through.  To ask that of a pre-teen is heartbreaking.  How would you react?  It would be hard enough if it was your neighbor or a psychopath down the street, but that it is his father, whom he loves dearly, makes things much more complicated.  It would have been too easy for Paxton to take the easy road and make a slasher film, but he goes the extra mile.  He makes this about the situation, and the toll it takes on his children.

The performances are strong across the board.  Matthew McConaughey lends his low-key personality to the story, ably portraying a man who is dealing with a lifetime of guilt.  Powers Boothe appears in what is essentially a plot device, but his character is meant to be a voice for the audience and nothing more.  He fulfills the need and that's all that's required of him.

As you might expect, the majority of the film is spent in 1979, with Paxton, O'Leary, and Sumpter taking up the majority of the screen time.  All are effective, but special mention has to go to Matt O'Leary, who is excellent as the morally conflicted, emotionally traumatized Fenton.  He carries a weight that no one should have to carry and ably handles the complexities of the role.

The opening scenes with Fenton and Doyle are a little rough, since they know things that we don't, or rely on assumptions that we can't make.  But they're not bad.  The problem is with the ending.  Paxton overplays his hand when it comes to the ambiguity of whether or not any of this is real, but never more so than in the end, which spells out exactly what happens.  This is necessary for the twist ending to work, but it feels like a cheat.  A more honest approach would have been better.  The writing during these scenes is a little sloppy too, so it's got that going against it as well.

"Frailty" is not for everyone.  It's very disturbing and not for younger viewers.  I imagine a few people will be turned off by the trauma that these young boys have to go through.  I can understand their sentiments, but Paxton is unrepentant.  He takes no prisoners and makes no concessions.  I applaud him for that.  Had he done so, the film wouldn't have been as effective as it is.

Regardless, if you do see it, you will not forget it.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Da Vinci Code

3/4

Starring: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tatou, Ian McKellan, Paul Bettany, Alfred Molina, Jean Reno, Jurgen Prochnow

Rated PG-13 for Disturbing Images, Violence, Some Nudity, Thematic Material, Brief Drug References and Sexual Content

I recall reading "The Da Vinci Code" in my room during the time when its popularity, and its ensuing controversy, was at its heyday.  It was a breathless thriller; smartly written, frantically paced and fascinating to ponder.  I saw the film with my dad, who was also a fan of the book.  There was no possible way for the film to replicate the breakneck speed with which I flipped those pages.  It wasn't until after I saw it a second time that I appreciated it more.  I guess this is an example of the situation that many critics talk about when they claim that some books or stories aren't inherently cinematic and either can't be filmed or must be substantially altered to do so.  Still, Ron Howard's interpretation of the novel, which couldn't be any less risk-averse, is as good of an interpretation as a $125 million price tag will allow.

A man has just been murdered in the Louvre.  Due to the strange markings on and around the body, the police have contacted Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) to assist them in solving the case.  Together with a pretty cryptologist named Sophie Neveu (Tatou), they piece together the clues that may rip the Catholic Church in two.  Needless to say, they are not without enemies, like a Catholic fanatic named Silas (Bettany), an overzealous Bishop (Molina) and a dogged cop (Reno).

If you've read the book, there's no real reason to see the movie.  Howard, perhaps aware of the hype and popularity of the novel, is unwilling to cut out or alter anything in the book.  That is its biggest flaw.  Movies are not books, and should not be treated as such.  What works on the written page doesn't necessarily translate onto the screen.  The only thing worth mentioning about the film is the score by the always great Hans Zimmer.  It suits the material perfectly.

For his cast, Howard has assembled some of the biggest stars on both sides of the Atlantic: Tom Hanks, "Amelie" starlet Audrey Tatou, Ian McKellan, Jean Reno and Jurgen Prochnow.  He also snagged Paul Bettany and Alfred Molina before they were famous.  Surprisingly, only Bettany manages to be memorable, probably because he has the most interesting part.  The two leads, Hanks and Tatou, are walking through their roles (Hanks especially so).  Ian McKellan is always interesting (even in crap like "Apt Pupil") and it's always nice to see Jurgen Prochnow.  Alfred Molina is adequate, but he doesn't have the script or screen time to do anything interesting.

"The Da Vinci Code" is what it is.  It's exactly what you would expect and nothing more.  On that basis, I recommend the film.  That is if you haven't already seen it.

Note:  For all its controversy, I find this movie to be much more spiritual than so-called "Christian" films like "War Room" and "God's Not Dead."  I think it's because it presents the belief in a higher power as an idea and a ray of hope, not a marketing tool the fringe right or a competition of who knows the most Bible verses.  Just sayin'.