Friday, January 29, 2016

The Mask

3/4

Starring: Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz, Peter Greene, Peter Riegert, Richard Jeni, Amy Yasbeck

Rated PG-13 for Some Stylized Violence

Sometimes, there's only one actor who could possibly play a certain role.  While James Bond or Batman can change actors with no problem, there's only one man who could play The Mask: Jim Carrey.  With his rubber face and flexible body, Carrey was born (or is that made?) to play this role.  Indeed, director Chuck Russell said that the actor's physical abilities saved the production a lot of money because he was so agile that they didn't need to digitally enhance his movements.

Stanley Ipkiss (Carrey) is the biggest doormat in Edge City.  His life is one attack on his dignity after another.  His landlord (Nancy Fish) is a shrieking harridan who gives him no end of grief.  The bozos at the garage defraud him.  Even his best friend Charlie (Jeni) doesn't take him seriously.  After what was supposed to be a night to remember at the Coco Bongo, the hottest club in town, turns into yet another blow to his self-respect, his "loaner" car breaks down on the middle of a bridge.  There, he sees a man struggling in the water.  Stanley, who is the nicest guy in town, goes to rescue him, only to find that the guy is a heap of junk topped off with a mysterious mask.  But when he puts on the mask, the mild-mannered bank clerk turns into the wild and out of control The Mask.  The Mask, who has no qualms about robbing a bank (Stanley's, in fact) so he can make an entrance to remember, is soon in the sights of Dorian Tyrell (Greene), a vicious mobster who runs the joint, a sarcastic detective named Kellaway (Riegert) and Tina Carlyle (Diaz), the star of the Coco Bongo.

"The Mask" is a comic book come to life.  Not in the sense of "Sin City" or "300" (neither the budget nor the technology could support such an endeavor), but much like the original "Batman" quadrilogy.  Enhanced sets, exaggerated atmosphere, and so on.  It's all very retro.  A lot of this stuff is cliché, but "The Mask" wears it with a badge of honor.  It's meant to be retro and kitschy.  There's something delightfully old fashioned about this movie.  It knows that, in their heart, comics are about larger than life heroes and villains, not internalized, broken individuals with a lot of angst.

When I said that only Jim Carrey could play this role, I meant it.  No one does the wacky outrageousness like Jim Carrey.  His energy and mobility are his most notable qualities, so having him play a real-life cartoon is simply a natural extension of his character.  However, he's also good as the meek Stanley, creating a likable guy for the audience to root for.  Cameron Diaz made her debut here as Tina and it's a good one.  Diaz is a better actress than she gives herself credit for, and not only does she look the part, but she is sweet and understands the concept of comic timing.  Peter Greene turns up the sleaze as the villain; all that's missing is a cheesy nickname.  And Peter Riegert is hilarious as the cynical party-pooper who is on Stanley's tail.  He has some of the best lines and reaction shots.

Russell presents this film as a series of set-pieces to show off Carrey's talents.  It makes sense, since that's the hook of the film and Carrey is so perfect for the role.  It also helps that the connecting material is strong enough that the audience won't get bored by the story.  There are more than a few stand-out moments, such as when The Mask matches wits with some lowlifes as a guy who makes balloon animals.  It's a great intro to the character.  But the best are the dance numbers: The Mask and Tina dancing to "Hey, Pachuco!" and The Mask leading the entire police force into a conga with "Cuban Pete."  They're energetic and a lot of fun.

"The Mask" may not be great art, but it's delightfully old-school and shows Carrey in top form.

Layer Cake

2/4

Starring: Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney, George Harris, Tamer Hassan, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Cranham, Michael Gambon, Jamie Forman, Sally Hawkins, Marcel Iures, Sienna Miller, Ben Whishaw

Rated R for Strong Brutal Violence, Sexuality, Nudity, Pervasive Language and Drug Use

The problem with "Layer Cake" is easy to identify: there's too much plot for a 105-minute movie. There were as many twists and turns in "Black Book," and that took 2.5 hours to tell.  There's even less character development, and the actors, while charismatic and giving strong performances across the board, are forced to rely on their screen presence and ability to utter dialogue without stumbling over it.  Everyone gives it a game try, but it's all for naught.  The story makes less and less sense as it goes on and I didn't care one way or the other about any of the characters.

"Layer Cake's" unnamed protagonist (Craig) is a cocaine dealer living in London.  He lives by a few simple rules to stay out of trouble, and while he's a big success, he wants to get out while he's still ahead.  With three of his mates, he gets roped into two final jobs by his boss, Jimmy Price (Cranham): find the coked up daughter of his old friend Eddie Temple (Gambon) and arrange a sale of one million tablets of ecstasy.  Needless to say, this is not as easy as it sounds.

After nearly a decade of producing movies, such as Guy Ritchie's one-two punch of "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch," Matthew Vaughn tried his hand at directing.  Judging from its pedigree (the cast is essentially a who's who of British character actors) and some of Vaughn's future works "Stardust" and "Kick-Ass," this should have been great fun.  Alas, it's not.  It's a bit of a mess, and the tone feels too stuffy and dry for something this pulpy.

Daniel Craig is in fine form as the unnamed dealer.  He plays the character with the same confidence and dry wit that makes him such an appealing James Bond.  Actually, it was this role that put him on producer Barbara Broccoli's radar to take over the legendary role from Pierce Brosnan.  He is surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast.  All do their jobs well, but so few of them are given anything to work with.  Only Jamie Forman, Michael Gambon and Marcel Iures stick out because Foreman plays a nutcase and it's impossible for Gambon or Iures to fade into the background.  But while Gambon has a sizable role and relishes every minute of it, Iures is on screen for all of 60 seconds in a thankless role (again).

"Stardust" and especially "Kick-Ass" boasted an irreverent sense of humor and a comically warped tone.  Sadly, that's missing here.  Aside from a few pithy comments by Craig's character and a few grisly twists, the film is played mostly straight.  That's a shame, because crime thrillers like this have been done to death, and Vaughn's "wink-wink-nudge-nudge" direction of his future films is what set them apart.

Unless you're hard up for British crime thrillers, I'd give this one a pass.  If you are, I recommend watching "Sexy Beast" with Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone instead.  It's a much better way to spend 90 minutes.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Boy

3/4

Starring: Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans

Rated PG-13 for Violence and Terror, and for Some Thematic Material

Like "The Forest," another January horror movie that, for being a January horror movie, was better than it had a right to be, "The Boy" is what it is.  No more, no less.  It's by no means a classic, but if all you're looking for is a few cheap shocks and chills, it will fit the bill.

Greta (Cohan) has just been hired as a nanny for a young boy in England.  They live in a creepy manor in the middle of nowhere but that suits Greta just fine.  So it is to her surprise that her charge is not a boy at all, but a porcelain doll.  At first, she thinks this is a joke, but the boy's parents are quite serious, and have a strict set of rules that she must follow.  Naturally, since they're not there and the "boy" is an inanimate object, she doesn't follow them.  But creepy things start happening, and Greta begins to wonder if this doll is actually alive.

Is this movie formulaic?  Yes.  Is it derivative and cobbled together from dozens of other horror movies?  You bet.  Is it effective?  Surprisingly yes.  I was intrigued by the story and its characters.  It also contains a few cheap shocks and scares.  You realize that there are more than a few holes and it often includes traditional ghost story tropes without considering whether or not they fit.  Fortunately, it's little more than a minor irritant.

It certainly helps that the acting is good.  Lauren Cohan, best known for playing Maggie Greene on "The Walking Dead," is quite good as the girl with a bad past.  On paper, there's nothing special about her, but Cohan is immensely appealing and brings more talent to the role than it deserves.  Rupert Evans is adorable as Malcolm, the hunky delivery boy.  The two also have good chemistry with each other.  It's not a burning romance (this is, after all, a horror movie), but it's enough to give the film an extra edge.

The pacing can be at times sluggish.  A few minutes here and there could have been snipped off without losing anything important, and a horror movie must have momentum.  Still, like the horror movie tropes that appear to have been thrown in at the last minute, it's a relatively minor irritant.

A word or two must be said about the PG-13 rating.  It's not that it deserves an R rating (it doesn't), it's that the attempts to get it make it feel dishonest.  For example, there's a scene where Greta takes a shower.  It's meant to be titillating, but since the MPAA is so skittish about boobs unless you're James Cameron, director William Brent Bell is forced to concentrate on Cohan's thighs, calves, and face.  It looks goofy rather than sexy.  And the lack of blood, gore and brutality in the ending (which is a slasher movie) makes it feel weak.  I'm guessing that there's going to be an unrated version of the film.  Even with the obviously cut stuff put back in, it's not going to make the film much better.

Still, if you're looking for a few cheap thrills, you could do a lot worse.

Indecent Proposal

3/4

Starring: Demi Moore, Woody Harrelson, Robert Redford, Seymour Cassel, Oliver Platt

Rated R for Sexuality and Language

One million dollars for a night with your spouse.  Would you do it?  The obvious answer would be no, but if you're broke and a handsome billionaire makes this offer to you, it looks mighty tempting.

I love morality plays that examine all sides of an issue.  Presented effectively, they can make for riveting viewing.  In a not so strange way, I was reminded of "Into the Blue," where a quartet of beach bums were presented with the chance to make billions if they were willing to commit some illegal (and potentially deadly) activities.  "Indecent Proposal" is a more adult film and a more low-key affair, but it is nonetheless compelling.

Diana (Moore) and David (Harrelson) were high school sweethearts who eloped shortly after high school.  He's an architect and she's a realtor, and they take the chance in investing in their dream home that David designed.  But then the economy went belly up; David lost his job and Diana hasn't sold a house in six months.  The bank is calling in their loan and they're without a way to pay it.  Desperate, they head to Vegas to try their luck.  That's were they meet a charming billionaire named John Gage (Redford).  He believes that anything can be bought and sold, including human emotions.  To prove his point, he offers them a cool million for a night with Diana.  After initially rejecting it, they agree, believing that they can just get past it if they pretend that it never happened.  But things aren't that simple, especially since Gage won't stay away from Diana.

What I like about this movie is that the characters are smart about how they talk about their feelings and emotions.  One of my biggest pet peeves is for characters who are too macho or repressed to express themselves (Harrelson has gone on to play a number of these characters, such as in "The Messenger," probably the only time in cinema history where it worked).  Fortunately, that's not the case here.  All three characters are intelligent enough to know what this really is.  This is an emotional con game.  Gage knows it.  Diana and David know it.  The latter two simply think that they can ignore it.  But human emotions, particularly when it comes to love, are volatile and complicated.  Neither of them are aware of the price they're really going to have to pay for an agreed upon infidelity.

The performances are key to the film, and fortunately, they work.  Demi Moore has the meatiest part as a strong woman who has basically turned herself into a whore for a million dollars.  Moore plays strong women, and that put her in conflict with the film's director, Adrian Lyne, who wanted her to be more vulnerable.  Tensions between them got so heated that Harrelson frequently had to intervene in their arguments.  It was only in editing that Lyne realized that Moore's performance was exactly what he wanted, and he dutifully apologized to her.  That strength makes Diana into someone who is complicit in her own actions, which is much more interesting than a naïve doormat.  Woody Harrelson is his usual affable self, but while he agreed to the deal, he still suffers from a lot of pain and trust issues.  Robert Redford is also very good, using his effortless charm as a cover for his being a world class bastard.  His motives aren't just sex, but proving that he can seduce Diana with money.  So even after the deed is complete, he manipulates their lives to prove his point.

Normally, a film's visuals aren't something bother to criticize a film for.  It's rare that set and costume design can hurt a film, but in this case they do.  The film was made in 1993, and fashions have changed since then.  What was chic then is tacky now, and that diminishes the film's credibility a little bit.  Gage doesn't seem as seductive as he probably did 23 years ago.  One thing that hasn't dated is the score by John Barry.  It's wonderful, bringing to mind his Oscar-winning work in "Out of Africa."

"Indecent Proposal" has a fantastic first 90 minutes.  Then it falls into the trap that I was hoping it would avoid.  It doesn't sink the film because the performances ensure that it works as intended, but the ending presents a disconnect from the majority of the film.  I liked the film on the whole, but I wish it had the conviction to follow the story to its natural conclusion.  Whether it was the source material or studio interference, I don't know, but it doesn't fit.  As much as we want a happy ending, sometimes a bleak one is more appropriate.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Whisper of the Heart

3/4

Starring (voices):  Brittany Snow, David Gallagher, Harold Gould, Jean Smart, James Sikking, Courtney Thorne-Smith

Rated G

Now that I think about it, I'm wondering why animation is only used to tell fantasy stories (or in rare cases, science fiction).  It's not that it can't work with a "normal" story.  After all, that's what comics are.  But even with story that doesn't include magical creatures and places or song-and-dance numbers, animation gives it a certain life and energy that filming with cameras and actors could not give it.  It would have been entirely possible (and much easier) to film this story using conventional means.  But it would not have the same effect.

Shizuku Tsukishima (Snow) is a normal 8th-grader.  She's starting to notice boys like Sugimura (Martin Spanjers), although neither she nor her friend Yuko (Ashley Tisdale) have a clue what to do about it, and is preparing to take her high school entrance exams (think SATs/ACTs).  Shizuku is a bookworm and reads just about everything she can get her hands on.  One day, she realizes that the person who checked out all the books before her is the same person.  Refusing to believe that this is a coincidence, she sets out to find him.

At its heart, the film is a coming of age story.  Growing up is never easy because adolescence brings many pressures.  Some are put on us while others we put on ourselves.  Although Hayao Miyazaki did not direct this film, he wrote the screenplay (based on the comic by Aoi Hiiragi), which accounts for much of the emotional honesty that is to be found here.  It's not as strong as Miyazaki's works, but, in its own way, it's very effective.

The voice acting is solid but not standout.  Brittany Snow is good as a girl who simply doesn't know what she wants from life.  Asking that question would render many adults unable to answer, so imagine how hard it is for a preteen girl.  Shizuku is becoming aware of her own individuality, but without a sense of direction the urge to rebel is tempting.  In this way, I was reminded of the movie "An Education," which is about a girl in a similar position.  However, that's where the similarities end.  David Gallagher, who will forever be known as Simon Camden from "7th Heaven," is very good as Seiji, Shizuku's love interest.  He has the courage to go after his dreams, something that she does not.  It's a small difference, but it's enough that it might destroy her.  Harold Gould steals his scenes as Seiji's kindly grandfather Shiro (Gould), who doles out some wisdom.

This was the first, and thus far only, film by Yoshifumi Kondo.  The pacing is a little sluggish here and there and the film is a little too subtle to be very affecting on an emotional level, but all in all it works.  The screenplay could have used another rewrite or two, but even as is, it's worth viewing.

Especially if you're a tween girl.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

3/4

Starring: John Krasinski, James Bage Dale, David Costabile, Pablo Schreiber, Dominic Fumusa, Matt Letscher, Alexa Barlier

Rated R for Strong Combat Violence Throughout, Bloody Images and Language

Michael Bay has become a popular whipping boy these days.  Considering the bloated behemoths ("Transformers" movies) he has directed and the trash he has produced ("Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "Ouija" and the first installment of "The Purge" franchise, although the sequel kicked ass), it's warranted.  But remember that he also directed "The Rock," and for the most part the "Transformers" movies were stupid fun.  But let loose with a teen-unfriendly R-rating and allowed to flex his visual flair, there's no one who can top him.  This isn't a perfect film, but it is very good (at times bordering on excellent), and it should allow him to regain much of the cred that he lost with the "Transformers" franchise.

Benghazi, Libya.  After the ousting of Muammar al-Gaddafi, Libya has become a war zone.  The city of Benghazi has become the most dangerous city in the world.  The CIA has a secret base there, and Ambassador Chris Stevens (Letscher) is coming on a diplomatic mission.  They receive a report that the building is going to come under attack, but they consider themselves ready.  But when it comes, betrayals, bad luck and bureaucracy turn what should have been at best a minor incident into a bloodbath.

Like last year's (technically, it was release two years ago) "American Sniper" and the searing "United 93," "13 Hours" succeeds because it sidesteps politics entirely.  Neither Hilary Clinton nor Barack Obama are mentioned at all (not even in newsreels).  The aftermath that details the fates of the characters focuses solely on the people involved.  Bay wants this film to unite his audience, not get bogged down into political bickering.  The closest that the film comes to in terms of a villainous character is a bureaucrat named Bob (Costabile), although he's more gutless than anything else.  Bay places the blame for the Benghazi tragedy on red tape, not a single person.

Bay has never given much time and energy to acting ("The Rock" is an exception because it had a first-rate script and a trio of actors who didn't sleepwalk through their roles), and this is no different.  Apart from Jack (Krasinski) and Rone (Dale), who have the most screen time, Bob (ditto), and the lone female Sona (Barlier), everyone is interchangeable.  That and due to the chaotic action and the fact that the majority of the film takes place at night makes it difficult to care about them individually.  That said, the acting is solid.  John Krasinski deserves special mention.  Most famous for playing Jim Halpert in the overrated sitcom "The Office," Krasinski has branched out into dramatic roles of late.  Krasinski has no trouble pulling off an action hero role, due in part because he's impossible not to like.

Sadly, the script is a bit of a mess.  It doesn't do a good job of establishing who is who and how they fit into this mess.  Without a doubt, the incident was chaos, but so was the sinking of the "Titanic."  James Cameron clearly established the characters, and gave us a primer on how the ship sank so we knew what to look for when the carnage began.  Bay doesn't do that.  It's all dialogue, which is a mistake for something as complex as this.  Worse, the dialogue is muddled and difficult to make out.  Confusion is unavoidable.

While the set-up and initial attack are confusing (but still packed with adrenaline), the attack on the secret base is awesome.  It's expertly crafted by a man who knows what he's doing.  This part of the film is the payoff, and it takes up the majority of the final third.  The action is intense, the editing crisp and the choreography clear.  This sequence alone is worth the price of admission and sitting through the confusion.

This is Bay's best film in 20 years, and when I watch it again with subtitles, I'll probably up the rating.

The Midnight Meat Train

2.5/4

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Vinnie Jones, Leslie Bibb, Roger Bart, Brooke Shields

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Sequences of Strong Bloody Gruesome Violence, Grisly Images involving Nudity, Sexual Content and Language

"The Midnight Meat Train" starts out strong, but begins to lose its way around the halfway mark and continues to fall.  The film is by no means a waste of time, but I can't help but wish that director Ryuhei Kitamura could have sustained the tension that he constructs early on in the film.

Leon (Cooper) is an amateur photographer looking for his big break.  His goal is to capture the heart of the city, but as an art dealer (Shields) tells him, he's only scratching the surface.  She tells him that when he finds something that makes him tense, he should keep shooting.  He takes that to heart that night.  A girl on the subway is being harassed by a group of thugs, and while he initially takes pictures of it, he saves her.  The next day, she's found brutally murdered.  When a cop that he takes the story to (Barbara Eve Harris) doesn't seem to care, he does some investigating on his own.  It turns out that people who take the 2 am train end up being on the wrong end of a brutal serial killer (Jones).  Leon realizes that he's the only one who can take down the madman.

The theatrical trailer proclaims that "The Midnight Meat Train" is from "visionary director Ryuhei Kitamura."  Usually such proclamations are little more than a marketing tool.  Not so here.  Kitamura creates some truly awesome visual effects and camera tricks.  More importantly, they get the effect that he desires.  If they tread a little too close to showing off, well, it's worth it anyway.

Bradley Cooper is solid as the everyman.  The writing doesn't allow him the opportunity to show what he can do, but he's an effective anchor for the audience.  The best I can say about Vinnie Jones is that he has screen presence, although he lacks true menace.  If you want to see someone who can chill you simply by being onscreen, look no further than Greg Dunham as Bone in "The Lookout."  He was creepy without saying a word.  Jones doesn't reach that level.  Leslie Bibb is cute as Leon's girlfriend Maya, but doesn't show much in the way of ability.

One interesting issue that is raised is the line between art and morality.  At what point does the responsibility to help a victim surpass the needs of his art?  It's an interesting question and while too little is down with it, it did get me thinking.

If Kitamura had been able to sustain the interest and tension of the first half, I'd be giving it a solid recommendation.  Sadly, the screenplay is in desperate need of some rewrites.  Editing problems don't help matters, but the plot is full of wholes that it seems less interested in plugging as the film goes on.

Still, gorehounds and undemanding horror aficionados will find something of value here.  Everyone else might want to give this one a pass.

The Forest

3/4

Starring: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Eoin Macken

Rated PG-13 for Disturbing Thematic Content and Images

Aokigahara is a densely populated forest at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan.  It is also one of the top three places for suicides.  Although it became popular as a suicide destination after the release of the novel "Black Sea of Trees" in 1960, it has a long history of death, and has long since thought to be haunted by evil spirits.  To this day, bodies are still found within it.  No wonder Cracked.com proclaimed it to be one of the creepiest places on Earth.  It's an ideal setting for a horror movie.

Sarah (Dormer) has always been closer to her twin sister Jess (Dormer).  When one of them is in trouble (usually Jess), the other can sense it.  So when Sarah gets a call saying that Jess has gone missing in Aokigahara, Sarah hops on a plane to Japan.  With the help of a guide named Michi (Ozawa) and a hunky writer named Aiden (Kinney), Sarah sets off to find her sister.  But she soon realizes that the myths about it being haunted and having the ability to mess with your head are true.

"The Forest" seeks to be more just an ordinary teen scream.  While it has the obligatory shocks and ghostly images, it explores the nature of guilt and the connection between siblings (as established by the film).  The script is too weak in this regard to make it truly provocative, but for the purposes of a low-budget horror flick, it gets the job done.

The acting leaves a lot to be desired.  No one gives a performance that's worth mentioning.  Natalie Dormer is flat; she's coasting by on her charisma.  Taylor Kinney is better, but it's not an especially good performance.

One thing a good horror movie needs is atmosphere, and that's where this film comes up short.  Jason Zada, directing his first feature film, doesn't know how to utilize editing to increase the apprehension level.  There were times when I thought of "The Descent," a film that did the atmosphere thing so much better.

"The Forest" is what it is.  I saw it, liked it, and wasn't pissed that I wasted my time.  The ending doesn't hold up and I doubt that I'll remember it for very long, but considering that this is a January release, that should be taken as a compliment.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Room

2.5/4

Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Tom McCamus, Sean Bridgers

Rated R for Language

"Room," not to be confused with Tommy Wiseau's camp classic "The Room," is film about a fascinating, if disturbing, situation: what would it be like for a five year old to experience the outside world after having lived his entire life in a small room?  Although this idea has baffled many a philosopher over the years, "Room" opts for a more sensible, down to earth approach.  In this case, the child is offspring of a kidnapped woman and her captor.

Jack (Tremblay) has just celebrated his fifth birthday.  His mother, Joy (Larson), is completely devoted to him and gives him all the love she can.  What is strange about their existence is that Joy was abducted by a man she dubs "Old Nick" (Bridgers) seven years ago and hasn't seen the outside world since.  Jack hasn't seen it at all.  What little he knows about the outside world is from the stories his ma tells him and the TV.  But after they are freed, they both realize that the world is a big scary place.

This is a compelling idea for a film.  The problem lies in the execution.  Director Lenny Abrahamson asks the right questions and doesn't shortchange the psychological impact that such a trauma would have on its characters, but the film is a bit of a mess.  Subplots are left hanging or not tied up in a satisfactory way, the plot is not free from contrivance, and there are times when many of Abrahamson's creative decisions are in the film just so he can appear "indie."  I hate it when directors do that.  It makes me want to scream, "Just tell the damn story!"  While not as obvious as some other filmmakers, there are times when it's obvious he's trying to be an auteur.

Brie Larson had a great year last year.  She's been on the rise since 2012 when she had a sizeable role in "21 Jump Street," but she stole scenes in "Trainwreck" and was tapped for an Oscar nomination (and as of right now, is the front runner for the win) for "Room."  It's no surprise; this is the deep, conflicted, "let it all hang out" kind of role that the Oscars love.  It helps that she gives a great performance (although for my money, I thought she was better in the Judd Apatow picture).  Her co-star is, like the film, uneven.  He's usually effective, but at times annoying.  He proves that it takes a strong director to successfully nurture a performance from a child actor.  Joan Allen is also very good as Joy's mother, filling the screen with some much needed love and warmth.

There is some good stuff here.  There's some suspense, surprise and pathos, and I was never bored.  But the film is so awkwardly constructed and the attempts at being "indie" further dampen the filmi's appeal.  I can't in good conscience recommend it, but if you have your heart set on seeing it, I'm not going to stop you.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Revenant

3/4

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domnhall Gleeson, Forrest Goodluck

Rated R for Strong Frontier Combat and Violence including Gory Images, A Sexual Assault, Language and Brief Nudity

I was one of the few critics who did not like last year's "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)."  I found it to be pretentious and dull, and its arrogance towards mainstream movies was irritating and a little offensive.  I must have been the only one, since the critical consensus was hugely positive and it won the Best Picture Oscar last year (not that that means much).  So while my anticipation for "The Revenant" was measured: it looked good, so I hoped for the best, but after "Birdman" I braced myself for the worst.

As far as gritty adventure epics go, "The Revenant" is a solid entry.  It's by no means a classic, but it does do what it sets out to do: present an engaging 2.5 hour thrill ride.  The film takes itself a little too seriously, and the decision to have the lead character rarely speak dilutes the film's impact.  But the action scenes are well-crafted, including a bear attack that is as intense as it is brutal (FYI: get a babysitter.  This movie is not for kids).

Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is a tracker on a team of hunters seeking pelts.  Their trip is a success when they are attacked by a group of Native Americans.  Dozens of their party are killed, and while alone, Glass accidentally comes between a mother bear and her cubs.  The subsequent mauling leaves him near death, and while the remaining members attempt to carry him back to the fort, Captain Andrew Henry (Gleeson) realizes that doing so is impossible.  So, for a substantial monetary reward, two members of the crew named Bridger (Poulter) and John Fitzgerald (Hardy) stay behind with Glass's son Hawk (Goodluck) until Glass dies.  However, Fitzgerald gets impatient and attempts to put Glass out of his misery, but is stopped by Hawk.  Fitzgerald kills Hawk and lies to Bridger about an imminent attack by the Native Americans who attacked them previously.  They give the still-alive Glass a perfunctory burial and flee.  Miraculously, though, Glass survives and despite his injuries, sets out on a course for revenge.

The impact of "The Revenant" is almost entirely visceral.  We experience Glass's hardships along with him.  This is due in no small part to Leonardo DiCaprio's performance and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's camerawork.  This is a tough world, and Lubezki's camerawork, which except for one instance, uses all natural lighting, and captures its beauty and its lack of forgiveness.  The term "man versus nature" is taken to a whole new level.  It is this reason (plus Innaritu's tyrannical nature) that making this movie was so difficult that several crew members left the film.

Emotionally, however, the film is as cold as the climate in which the film takes place.  The role of Hugh Glass is about 95% physical, and while there is a certain appeal in watching a gravely injured man try to survive on his own in the wilderness, it's tough to create a fully-realized individual with little dialogue or character interaction.  For the most part, Hugh Glass could be Joe Blow in a bear pelt.  We don't know what makes him tick.  This isn't a knock against DiCaprio, who is quite good here, but rather an explanation of the limitations of this kind of story.

The other main character, John Fitzgerald, is more interesting, mainly because he has more to work with.  Tom Hardy does an excellent job of playing a world-class jerk.  Fitzgerald is blunt, unapologetic and only out for himself.  It's a wonder no one shoots the bastard within the first five minutes.  That's meant as a compliment, by the way.

What "The Revenant" does, it does well.  It's too long (cutting out the useless dream sequences would have helped), and lacks a connection between the lead character and the audience, but it is effective filmmaking.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Norm of the North

0.5/4

Starring (voices): Rob Schneider, Heather Graham, Ken Jeong, Maya Kay, Colm Meaney, Bill Nighy

Rated PG for Mild Rude Humor and Action

I'm not a believer in karma, but I've been seeing so many excellent movies one right after the other that I knew I was "due" for a really bad movie.  "Norm of the North" is that movie, and boy oh boy, is it bad!  There's next to no humor that's actually funny, the characters range from boring to obnoxious, the plot is occasionally incoherent, and filled with plot developments that are nonsensical and stupid.  This is one of those movies where you can imagine clueless studio executives spending all their time on market research and assembling this movie from bits and pieces of other hit movies without bothering to think about whether or not they're telling a compelling story.

Norm (Schneider) is a polar bear who can talk.  He's next in line for being king, but he's got the heart of a poet rather than a hunter.  When humans come to visit, he and the other animals put on song and dance shows for their entertainment.  He is close to his grandfather (Meaney), but he is missing.  One day a woman named Vera (Graham) comes to shoot a commercial in order to sell real estate (!).  Not liking his land to be intruded upon, Norm decides to be their mascot in order to convince people not to buy homes there.  Of course, the developer, a nasty individual by the name of Mr. Greene (Jeong), won't be dissuaded.

What moron thought this was a good idea for a movie?  Selling houses in the North Pole?  A talking polar bear that only a little girl recognizes is real?  Who thinks this stuff up?  I believe that no movie is inherently bad, but this is crosses a line.  It's too ridiculous to be believable, and there's not a hint of satire.

It's no wonder that the film is a mess, since there are three credited screenwriters.  What's especially said is that it appears that none of them can write a realistic line of dialogue.  The words exist purely to move the plot along, and they do so in a totally bland way.  It's embarrassing.

The voice acting is no better.  I'm not a Rob Schneider hater, but the best I can say is that he's unrecognizable.  Heather Graham, appearing in a nother 0.5/4 movie ("Judy Moody and the Not So Bummer Summer" was the other one), also makes it impossible to tell that it's the same actress who played Felicity Shagwell in "Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me."  Ken Jeong, who can always be counted on to get a laugh in even the most lame moves, is irritating.

The movie even looks bad.  The animation is clunky, like it was made for an Xbox 360 video game, and characters' movements look mechanical.  The cityscapes have a moment or two of nice atmosphere, but that's it.

The filmmakers crammed everything they could in this movie to appeal to as many people as possible.  It's a pity that they didn't make sure that they fit.  Musical numbers, fart jokes, and even a gay joke.  Admittedly, a few of the jokes are mildly amusing, but usually they fall painfully flat, and I was staring at the screen with my mouth agape at the sheer ineptitude of this movie.

As I was leaving, someone was handing out scorecards to audience members and asking their opinions.  I gave it a D, and I was being generous.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Michael Collins

2.5/4

Starring: Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Julia Roberts, Alan Rickman, Stephen Rea, Jer O'Leary

Rated R for Violence and Language

I will never make a more important film.  -writer/director Neil Jordan
I believe it.  This is a story that acclaimed Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan wanted to tell.  And while passion is essential for a film to work (witness the power of "Schindler's List," for example), it has to be effectively channeled.  Sadly, that doesn't happen here.

The relationship between Ireland and England is long, complex and bitter.  700 years of oppression from the British government had built up a lot of resentment in the Irish people, but repeated attempts at independence had been met with failure.  It took Michael Collins (Neeson), a man who used guile, guts and violent guerilla tactics, to earn its independence.  However, he was no diplomat, and when tasked with negotiating a truce, he only managed to foster a deal that left many feeling dissatisfied.  What was supposed to end war ended up with his assassination and leaving Ireland in a conflict that is till not completely resolved.

It may be that Jordan had bitten off more than he could chew.  "Michael Collins" is a busy motion picture, with many characters and plotlines.  Far too much, as it turns out, for a picture that's a hair over two hours.  Character development is sketchy at best and the editing is so haphazard that the story is at times completely incoherent.  For example, at one point, Irish president Eamon de Valera (Rickman) is imprisoned, and he uses a candle to create a mold of the jail key.  The film cuts away to another aspect of the plot, but when the film is picked up again, Collins and de Valera are already trying to get out of the prison.  Not showing how it all went down, despite the audience being able to sort of figure it out (in broad strokes if not the details) is just bad storytelling.

The acting, even by established actors, is not the film's strong suit.  Liam Neeson does what he can, but the screenplay lets him down.  Aidan Quinn and Stephen Rea blend into the background as Michael's friend Harry Boland and British double agent Ned Broy.  Alan Rickman, always an impeccable actor, is sorely miscast.  He's never credible.  Julia Roberts is good, and at times excellent, but wasted in a thankless role.  Ian Hart, Brendan Gleeson, Charles Dance, Gerard McSorley and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers appear in small roles.

The film's biggest problem is that there's rarely a scene in this film that is properly set up.  Any good storyteller knows that every scene is built upon the one that comes before it.  It would be bad enough to show only the important parts of the lead character's life, but Jordan only shows the important parts of the film.  There's little flow in this film and as a result the plot's trajectory is, at best, clunky and without rhythm.

I am usually bored with remakes, since like last year's forgettable "Poltergeist" remake, they're mechanical and thus a waste of time.  But Collins is such an important figure that there should be a film that does him justice.  Pity that this isn't it.

Carol

3.5/4

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson

Rated R for A Scene of Sexuality/Nudity and Brief Language

"Carol" is a haunting motion picture.  It draws you in and places you under its spell for the better part of two hours, and only slowly lets you go.  The performances are powerful, the writing is strong, but what really sets the film apart is the dream-like quality that the film has.  Watching it is an experience.

Therese (Mara) is a young woman working at a department store.  She's aimless and doesn't really know what she wants to do with her life.  Her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) wants to marry her, but she can hardly decide what to order for lunch, much less who to marry.  While working, she meets Carol Aird (Blanchett), whom she sells an expensive train set to.  After Carol accidentally leaves her gloves at the store, Therese has them returned.  As a thank you, Carol invites Therese to lunch.  The two grow close, eventually going on a road trip together.  However, this is the 1950's so such a thing could have a hugely negative impact on Carol's divorce from her husband Harge (Chandler).

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are getting Oscar buzz for their roles in "Carol," as well they should.  Blanchett, who is always looking for a challenge, is very good as the liberated woman who knows who she is but was unfortunate to have been born in the wrong time.  I found myself thinking, "If only she was living in today's world..."  It's not as strong of work as in "Truth," which came out earlier last year (and subsequently disappeared without a trace), since there is one moment where she strikes a false note (I'll chalk that up to bad editing), but she's very good nonetheless.  There's a moment where her best friend/ex-girlfriend Abby (Paulson, who is a lesbian in real life), asks her if she knows what she's doing.  "I never did," she replies with a smile.  Only Blanchett could say it the way she does, with a mixture of mischief, melancholy and wistfulness.  Rooney Mara has the less showy role, since by her nature Therese is quiet and shy, but she's just as good.  Mara has expressive eyes, which Field takes care to capture.  Therese is out of her element, but she can't, and won't, deny the fascination that Carol holds for her.  The supporting cast is strong as well, but this is really a two character piece.  Kyle Chandler is worth mentioning as Carol's husband, who is forced into a situation in which he doesn't understand.  Although initially feeling like a villain, Harge is portrayed as a man in a lot of pain rather than a sadist.  The only false performance comes from Jake Lacy, who rarely strikes the right note as Richard.  He doesn't have the acting skills to capture the subtlety needed for this film.  Fortunately, his screen time is minimal.

"Carol" is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith.  Highsmith dealt with homosexual relationships (both oblique and frank) in her novels, having written "Strangers on a Train" and the novels about Thomas Ripley (the first of which was adapted twice in "Purple Noon" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley").  Highsmith herself had numerous relationships with women and struggled with her sexual identity, even going so far as to seek help for her attraction to women.  Perhaps that is why the film understands its characters so well (it probably also helps that screenwriter Phylis Nagy knew Highsmith).

Todd Field concentrates more on mood and feeling rather than sex.  There is a sex scene, and while both actresses are topless, it's not graphic or even erotic.  "Basic Instinct," this is not.  Like the rest of the film, it's beautiful rather than titillating.  Blanchett and Mara got along very well on set, which made it easier to do.  Like the best filmmakers, Field doesn't dwell on it for more than is necessary.

"Carol" takes a little while to work its magic, and even then, there are moments where it drags.  But for those who take the journey, it's one they won't forget.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Opera

1.5/4

Starring: Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, Urbano Barberini

Rated R for Strong Terror and Violence, and for a Scene of Sexuality

Classifying "Opera" as a horror flick is a falsehood since it's rarely scary.  A better genre to peg it under would be comedy, since it's occasionally funny.  The problem is that it's not supposed to be.  Awkward...

After an opera star's diva-like behavior ends up with her getting hit by a truck, Betty (Marsillach), her understudy, takes over as the lead.  However, Betty is nervous about making her debut in this particular opera, Verdi's "Macbeth," since it's rumored to be cursed.  Nevertheless, the show must go on and Betty makes a stunning debut.  Her newfound fame might be short-lived though, since someone is picking off members of the cast and crew.

Betty would be the ideal horror movie heroine: she's adorable, has a decent set of lungs, and is capable of speaking her lines without it sounding like fingernails on the chalkboard.  There's just one problem: she's stupid.  Betty is so dim-witted that it's a wonder she survives so long in the first place.  After seeing numerous people get butchered (in a sadistic twist, the killer ties her up and tapes nails to her eyes to force her to watch his "handiwork"), she doesn't leave her apartment when the killer might be in there for a very long time.  I don't know about you, but if a serial killer was stalking me and was in my apartment, I'd grab something to defend myself with (which, to be fair, she does) and high-tail it out of there.

It's not just Betty.  Everyone in this movie has a brain that can fit inside a matchbox.  At one point, someone knocks the killer down and unmasks him but doesn't say his name (from shock, I assume) before he fillets her.  Or another time, when Betty is outside and the killer is in the house with one of her friends, the friend goes to the window and screams at her to run.  I'm thinking, dude, you're on the second floor of a small house on a grassy knoll: jump and run!  Tell her when you get to her.  Don't advertise where you are!

Now, horror movie characters have to be stupid.  Otherwise there wouldn't be a horror movie.  But throwing the knife away after stabbing the killer or running up the stairs when the killer is after you (both of which happened in "Halloween") is reasonable for horror movie standards, especially if the tension level is high enough.  But the level of idiocy in "Opera" makes it impossible to identify with anyone but the killer, if only so he will prevent them from passing on their genes.

The direction by Dario Argento doesn't help.  The Italian filmmaker has made a name for himself in the horror genre, but, suffice it to say, subtlety isn't among his strengths.  That's not a bad thing in and of itself, but his shot selection and "flair" are so extreme that he brings Tsui Hark to mind, and that's not a good thing (Hark, if you recall, co-wrote and directed "Time and Tide").

I should also mention his direction of the kill scenes.  For a grade-Z slasher movie, which is what this is since the script is almost embarrassingly bad, the gory murders are the most important part of the movie.  Flair and creativity with which the characters are maimed, killed or otherwise sent to the netherworld by the killer, is essential.  However, Argento directs them with such a fetishistic touch that it becomes overkill.  It's not that it's too gory (not enough, really), but that if you think it's clever to show murders from the eyes of an unwilling witness and the killer, you should probably seek professional help.

Joking aside, this is a pretty lame movie.  There's no real tension, mainly because Argento has no touch for atmosphere and he thinks that metal music is appropriate for slasher scenes.  What was he smoking?  While I won't be arrogant enough to say that a gifted filmmaker can't effectively use music that contrasts with what's going on on-screen, I haven't seen it.

And I wish I hadn't seen this movie.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The English Patient

2.5/4

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Kristen Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth

Rated R for Sexuality, Some Violence and Language

Call me a romantic.  Call me a lover for nostalgia.  Call me whatever you like, but movies that look back through rose-colored glasses, especially if they're romances, strike a chord within me.  I love those huge, sprawling epics that make the heart soar.  By all accounts, I should have loved "The English Patient."  The performances are strong, the film looks fantastic, and the story is the kind of romantic saga that could only be told against the backdrop of war.  So why am I not recommending it?

The lack of chemistry between the leads is a good place to start.  Although both Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas are excellent actors, they generate no heat together.  I didn't care about their romance at all, mainly because they spend so much time avoiding saying what they should say.  Their characters are so repressed it's hard to imagine them feeling anything for anyone.  Whatever romantic feelings they have are underplayed.  In a more intimate movie, that can work, but in an epic like this, it's a fatal mistake.  There are also too many things going on, too many characters.  Even a filmmaker with Anthony Minghella's skill can't keep it all straight, much less give it an emotional punch.

It is the tail end of WWII.  A nurse named Hana (Binoche) is caring for a gravely injured man (Fiennes).  He doesn't remember his name, but he carries with him a copy of Herodotus's histories, and slowly but surely his memories begin to return.  Recognizing that the man has little time left and moving him all across Italy with the rest of the convoy brings him considerable pain, Hana elects to allow him to live out the last of his days in a remote monastery.  They are soon joined by a professional thief named Caravaggio (Dafoe), who knows the man all too well, and a bomb disposal expert named Kip (Andrews).  Through his interactions with Hana and Caravaggio, the man, whose name is Almasy, begins to relate the story of his tragic love, Katherine Clifton (Thomas).

Ralph Fiennes is one of those British actors who can, and will, do just about anything.  It must have taken him an extraordinary amount of courage to play the psychopathic Nazi guard Amon Goeth in "Schindler's List."  While Fiennes was accorded his second Oscar nomination for his work here, it's not anywhere near his best work.  To be sure, he's solid, but not standout.  His co-star, Kristen Scott Thomas, rarely gets lead roles in big budget movies, and like Fiennes, she's good, but is better elsewhere.  The best performance is given by French legend Juliette Binoche.  She's a delight as the empathetic Hana, stealing her scenes away from her higher-profile co-stars.  I think the film would have been better served if it had concentrated more on her.  Willem Dafoe shows up in what has to be the least twisted role of his career.  Naveen Andrews and Colin Firth are good in supporting roles as well.

The late Anthony Minghella was known for making movies that were strong on a psychological and emotional level.  His next film after this one, the far superior "The Talented Mr. Ripley," is a fine example.  But here, he's juggling too many hats, and while I give him credit for the attempt, I can't justify the lackluster final result.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Pather Panchali

2/4

Starring: Kanu Bannerjee, Karuna Bannerjee, Uma Das Gupta, Subir Banerjee, Chunibala Devi

Not Rated

For cinephiles, "The Apu Trilogy" by Satyajit Ray is something of a legend.  The most famous films from an under-recognized legend (many put Ray among the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa) were for a long time difficult to find in the US.  The original negatives were burned in a fire, and it was only due to the combined efforts of a number of film organizations including Criterion and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (for those of you who don't know, they hand out the Oscars) that the films were restored and able to be released.  Naturally, having heard about them through James Berardinelli's reviews, I snapped up a copy as soon as I could.  I have to say, though, I was disappointed with the first installment.

There's not much of a plot to "Pather Panchali."  It's more of a slice-of-life drama about a family in India circa the 1950's.  Money is hard to come by and debts are high.  Father Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee) leaves to find work while mother Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee) stays home to look after her children Durga (Gupta) and Apu (Banerjee), and care for her ailing aunt (Devi).

It would be a misnomer to call "Pather Panchali" pretentious.  There are many scenes that work, and the film always looks great.  No one talks in a monotone, and there aren't unending pauses between each line of dialogue.  It's certainly not as proudly high-brow as something like "Tokyo Story."  But getting from beginning to end takes effort.

Legend has it that the director had never directed a scene, the cinematographer had never photographed one and none of the child actors had ever been screen tested.  If that is the case, than it doesn't show.  This is a well-made film by someone who knows what he is doing.  The performances are all natural and many of their interactions (such as when Harihar and Sarbojaya discuss their financial distress or when Durga and Apu fight over some tin foil) that ring true.

"Pather Panchali" isn't for everyone.  It remains hard to find (Netflix only has the second film, "Aparajito," available for rent, although I suspect that will soon change), and it's only available to buy as a trilogy from Criterion (with its usual high price).  So for cinephiles who are interested, I say it's worth it.  But for those of you who are looking for a Friday night movie, this isn't a good choice.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Legends of the Fall

3/4

Starring: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Julia Ormond, Aidan Quinn, Henry Thomas, Gordon Tootoosis, Paul Desmond

Rated R for Violence, and for Some Sexuality and Language

By all accounts, "Legends of the Fall" should be a grand, glorious epic on par with "Gone with the Wind."  It has the period piece setting, the larger than life characters, the action, the adventure, the romance, the tragedy...all the good stuff.  And yet, there's something missing.  The pieces are there, but they don't quite mesh perfectly.

The story, as they do in movies like this, follows the Ludlow family: William (Hopkins), the patriarch, Tristan (Pitt), the eldest child with a wild heart that cannot be tamed, Alfred (Quinn), the sensible middle child, and Samuel (Thomas), the baby of the family.  Of course, there's a woman, too.  Her name is Susannah (Ormond), Samuel's fiancée.  All three brothers fall in love with her and she for them.

It is not enough to have all the pieces for a movie like this and to simply put them together.  The best movies of this ilk do all that, but add something more.  It's a synergistic magic that fuses them all together.  Movies like "Braveheart" have that, but sadly, that one crucial element is missing here.

Perhaps its because Edward Zwick, while an enormously talented filmmaker in his own right, isn't the best choice.  A movie like this depends on manipulation and melodrama.  It's why we go see them.  But Zwick has trouble choreographing the "big moments" that should make our hearts soar or bring tears to the eyes.  They're usually effective, but rarely hit the sweet spot.  I kept thinking that someone like Steven Spielberg or Robert Redford could have taken this story and made a true masterpiece out of it.

The acting is strong.  Anthony Hopkins is in fine form, and while it's a role he could do in his sleep, it's to his credit that he doesn't.  Aidan Quinn is very good.  The Irish character actor is rarely given leading roles in big budget movies, and he seizes the opportunity.  This is his best performance, but he doesn't try to steal the spotlight from his co-stars.  Julia Ormond is lovely as Savannah, and while she's solid in the acting department, she's not spectacular.  The weak link is Brad Pitt.  Usually he's effective, but there are definitely times when his fame works against him.  There are also times when he internalizes his character's emotions too much, making it seem like he's reaching for an emotion.  It takes you out of the moment.

The pacing is at times awkward, which is to be expected considering that the film takes place over the course of 15-20 years.  Zwick comes up with an interesting solution: having the characters communicate to each other through the letters they write.  In doing this, he switches narrators and perspectives.  Admittedly, this sort of thing has been done before, but not like this.  However, in some ways he relies on it too much.  When the characters talk in person, someone seems to be coming or going.

That the film misses the mark shouldn't be construed as meaning that I don't think it's worth seeing.  It is.  The story is good, the film looks fantastic, and the score by the late James Horner is excellent (no duh).  If that's not reason enough to give this movie a solid recommendation, well, tough.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Drive

3/4

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac

Rated R for Strong Brutal Bloody Violence, Language, and Some Nudity

Style.

It's a word that critics throw around whenever a movie looks cool or emulates the "style" of a certain genre.  For example, "Sin City" and its sequel are stylish in the sense that they are comic-book film noir in overdrive.  But in the case of "Drive," the term isn't just an adjective.  It's the focus.

Everything about this movie, from scripting to acting, action to music, direction to flair, and yes, style, is carefully constructed to enhance the film's presentation.  The film values mood and tone over everything else, giving it sort of a stream-of-consciousness, dream-like quality.  That's what sets it apart from other crime films.

There is a man  (Gosling) in Los Angeles who, when behind a wheel, is capable of anything.  For the right price, he'll be a getaway driver, but only if you play by his rules.  "You give me a time and a place," he says.  "I give you a five minute window.  Anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours.  No matter what.  Anything happens a minute on either side of that, you're on your own.  I don't sit in while you're running it down.  I don't carry a gun.  I drive."  For the most part, though, he's a mechanic who keeps to himself and occasionally does a stunt driving job for a movie.  He grows close to his neighbor down the hall, Irene (Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos).  But when her husband Standard (Isaac) gets out of prison, he backs off, at least until he finds Benicio having been a witness to his father getting beat up by gangsters over a bad debt.  He volunteers to help Standard rob a pawn shop to pay it off, but they are set up.  Now he has to do all he can to protect his new friends.

The actors play their parts at just the right note for this picture.  Ryan Gosling, never one to play it safe or back down from a challenge (he did, after all, play a Jewish neo-Nazi in "The Believer" early on in his career after starting out on "The Mickey Mouse Club").  His character doesn't say much, but Gosling uses his eyes and body language to create a character who while standoffish, has a rigid set of morals and loyalties.  It's riveting work from one of our best actors.  Carey Mulligan, also an excellent actress, is very good as a woman who both loves and fears her husband but won't allow herself to fall in love with another man.  Yet we understand why the third cog in this strange love triangle would go to such lengths to protect her.  Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman shine in their roles as a dim-witted friend of Gosling's character and a dim-witted gangster.  The true scene-stealer is Albert Brooks.  Known mainly for his neurotic humor (especially in "Finding Nemo"), Brooks plays a truly compelling villain.  Bernie Rose is a pragmatic gangster.  He likes this whiz kid driver, but he's also looking out for himself.

The line between succeeding at what "Drive" is trying to do and becoming pretentious arthouse trash is a very fine one.  Nicholas Winding Refn never crosses it, although once the plot kicks into gear, he proves unable to consistently weave the film's spell.  It's not that it misfires, it's just that the dream-like tone dissipates.

"Drive" isn't for everyone, but I think I can safely say that it's at least easy to appreciate.

The Day of the Jackal

2/4

Starring: Edward Fox, Michael Lonsdale, Derek Jacobi

Rated PG (probably for Violence, Language and Nudity)

The idea behind "The Day of the Jackal," and its loose American remake "The Jackal," is solid.  There is much suspense to be found watching a professional killer plot to assassinate a powerful man while the authorities race against time to find him.  However, neither film gets the recipe right.  Whereas the 1997 film (which Fred Zinnemann, who directed this one, begged the studio to change the title), substituted brutality and violence for suspense, the original opts for a more low-key, slow-burn approach.  As is usually the case, the original is better, but alas, not by much.

After French president Charles de Gaulle grants Algeria its independence, a faction that resents the decision forms.  Calling themselves the OAS, they plot to murder de Gaulle. The first attempt fails, so they decide to hire a professional.  He doesn't have a name, but for the purposes of this assignment he elects to call himself The Jackal (Fox).  Demanding a fee of half a million pounds, the OAS resorts to a string of bank robberies to pay it, which tips off the authorities that the organization is planning something big.  Soon, it becomes The Jackal versus two cops named Lebel (Lonsdale) and Caron (Jacobi) who are on his trail.

The film boasts a solid opening and finish, but the middle is overlong and sluggish.  Watching The Jackal prepare for the assassination has a certain voyeuristic pleasure, and the race to find him as he edges closer to his target generates some suspense.  But the middle hour is so slow-going that even the most understanding viewer will lose interest.  That the film falls into the trap of contrivance and general stupidity to move the plot along (and in one case, drag it out) only deepens the wound.

Due to The Jackal's skill with stealth and false identities, Zinnemann elected to cast a fresh face in the title role.  In his view, this caused the less than stellar box office returns, but it led to an increased demand for Edward Fox.  It's a strong performance; Fox is at different times charming, seductive, cunning and ruthless.  The always reliable Michael Lonsdale and Derek Jacobi are equally good as his opponents.

The film also strikes the wrong note tonally.  There's something too rigid, too formal, about how the film feels.  It feels like it doesn't want to stoop to being a visceral movie so it keeps it all the emotions repressed.  In a strange way, I was reminded of "A Fish Called Wanda."

There's a wealth of possibilities that are open with this premise, but it doesn't feel like Zinnemann takes advantage of them.  For someone who is supposed to be this legendary assassin, The Jackal's methods are surprisingly ordinary.  I mean, yeah, the gun is cool, but forging documents and identities feels routine.  It's not so much what happens as how it's presented.  It feels humdrum as opposed to sophisticated.  Only in the final stretch do we see his true capabilities.

Someday someone is going to make a truly brilliant movie out of this premise.  Sadly, it hasn't happened yet.


Monday, January 4, 2016

Meru

4/4

Starring: Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk

Rated R for Language

I suppose it takes a certain kind of person to climb mountains.  Being physically fit is a given.  But mentally, you gotta be a little obsessed.  And quite possibly deranged.  At least, that's my impression from movies like "Meru" and "Touching the Void."

I was recommended this movie by my best friend.  It was a kind of "quid pro quo" thing: I told him to go see "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse" and he loved it, and then he told me to see "Meru" and I loved it.  I always meant to watch it before the new year to see if it would be a Top 10 contender, but I kept procrastinating.  I dunno.  Never got around to it, I guess.  I sincerely regret it now, since it would have been on the list at number 5.

The film details the trials and ordeals of three climbers: seasoned pro Conrad Anker, his climbing partner for the past decade, Jimmy Chin, and Conrad's protégé, Renan Ozturk.  Their goal is to climb Mount Meru, a peak in the Himalayas that's thought to be impossible because it encompasses all types of climbing, thus requiring climbers to bring 200+ pounds of gear with them.  Sleeping in a little tent hanging from the rock face is just the start of its punishment.  Their first attempt is met with failure very close to the top.  Months later, they try again.

What makes "Meru" so interesting is that climbing is a mere aspect of the story.  Directors Jimmy Chin (one of the climbers in the film) and Elizabeth Char Vasarheylyl (Jimmy's wife) are more interested in what drives them to conquer Meru.  It makes sense.  Many movies that deal with climbing concentrate of the physical aspects of it.  And considering what these three men go through, understanding their mindset goes a long way into sympathizing with their need to tackle the mountain again.  Through this aspect of the film, it sheds light on the entire climbing community.

The film, which is compiled from footage shot by Chin and Ozturk themselves. looks fantastic.  I mean, it's awe-inspiring.  Like "National Geographic" type good.  Looking online, I found that Chin has actually done some photography work for National Geographic.  "Meru" is shortlisted for Best Documentary at the 2016 Oscars, but it deserves a slot on the Best Cinematography competition as well.  Even if the film weren't absolutely riveting from beginning to end, which it most definitely is, it would be worth seeing just to look at how awesome it looks.  They take us right into the middle of their climb, and in some circumstances, before, during and after tragedy.

Documentaries get a bad rap because either they're by Michael Moore or they're done so blandly that they come across more like high school lectures rather than filmmaking.  But believe me when I tell you that this is the kind of movie that will pin you to your seat from frame one and won't let go until the end credits roll