Saturday, February 27, 2016

Cropsey

3/4

Not Rated (Probable R for Disturbing Violent Content and Some Language)

Are monsters real, or do we create them ourselves when the truth is too terrible to admit?

That's the question that documentary filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman seek to answer.  The crime, if there even is one, is horrific.  During the 70's and 80's, a slew of children went missing.  Only one of them was ever found again, but she had long since been dead and buried in the woods.  Many of them were patients at the notorious Willowbrook State School on Staten Island (it was the one famously exposed by Geraldo Rivera), and the one thing connecting them was a former orderly named Andre Rand.  But the evidence against him was circumstantial at best.

Brancaccio and Zeman ask whether the need for answers and closure can allow us to find answers where there are none.  I was reminded of the Joker's rationalization for his crimes in "The Dark Knight:" "You know what I've noticed?  Nobody panics when things go 'according to plan.'  Even if the plan is horrifying!  If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics because it's all 'part of the plan.'  But when I say that one little old mayor will die, then everyone loses their minds!"  That sentiment is at the heart of this film.  The crime of a serial killer preying on mentally disabled children is horrifying enough, but when there's no obvious culprit, it's terrifying.

Did Andre Rand kill any or all of these kids?  It's impossible to say.  Rand was a shifty character to be sure (his bizarre behavior did him no favors), but the evidence against him was, at best, flimsy, and at worst, absurd.  But the people of Staten Island needed a scapegoat, and he was a prime candidate.

However, such a question is beside the point.  "Cropsey" examines how a need for answers can pervert our justice system and our own values.  The horrifying nature of the crimes, Rand's history with Willowbrook, and other "evidence" led the populace to believe in wild conspiracy theories about Rand and the crimes he allegedly committed that involved everything from cults to devil worship.  Everyone had a different opinion on his guilt or innocence, and his motives.

It's a fascinating question that the filmmakers thoroughly examine. It would be stronger if the film were more focused.  The film feels like a stream of consciousness narrative, which can be effective if the ending isn't known.  And while the film deals with Rand's second trial for kidnapping, it's a minor aspect of the film.  A tighter focus and better organization would have helped immeasurably.

Still, this is provocative material, and it wisely leaves the answers up to the viewer to decide.  It's food for the mind with some chills sprinkled in.  There's also footage from Rivera's expose on Willobrook, which is stomach-churning).

"Cropsey" isn't for everyone, but for those who are willing to give it a chance, their time will be rewarded.  Especially if you have people to discuss it with afterwards.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Mike's Musings: 2016 Oscar Predictions

Here we are again...this time, I'm not waiting til the day of the event before making my predictions.  The Oscars, as we all know, are less of a celebration of quality than a night of brown-nosing and egos.  And strange looks on the red carpet.  However, that doesn't mean that I, being a critic, should weigh in on who should and who will win the gold statue.  After all, what else am I going to do on this 2 hour flight?

Best Picture:

"The Big Short"
"Brooklyn"
"Bridge of Spies"
"Mad Max: Fury Road"
"The Martian"
"The Revenant"
"Room"
"Spotlight"

Ultimately, the top honor is going to come down between two movies (as usual).  Last year it was "Boyhood" and "Birdman."  This year, it's "Spotlight" and "The Revenant."  Both of the latter films were directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu.  And it looks like he's going to win again.  "The Revenant" has been winning a lot lately, and while it's not deserving of the award (or even a nomination), it's at least less pretentious than "Birdman."  Still, there's always the hope that "Spotlight" will take the top honor.  Actually, my vote would go to "Brooklyn," since it's the best film of the nominees, but it ain't gonna happen.

What should win: "Brooklyn"
What will win: "The Revenant"

Best Actor:

Bryan Cranston, "Trumbo"
Matt Damon, "The Martian"
Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Revenant"
Michael Fassbender, "Steve Jobs"
Eddie Redmayne, "The Danish Girl"

This category is easy to pick.  Leonardo DiCaprio.  A big star since "Titanic," DiCaprio has been nominated five times for an acting Oscar (plus one for Best Picture for "The Wolf of Wall Street"  Despite some great performances, he's never taken one home, and his momentum has been unstoppable.  Hell, they have an internet game about it.  The only other nominated performance I've seen this year is Matt Damon in "The Martian," but DiCaprio has been unstoppable.  Both performances are nomination worthy, but in my opinion, neither are strong enough to be a clear "winner."  My vote would have gone to Michael Keaton for "Spotlight," but he wasn't nominated.  But in DiCaprio's case, that's due to the nature of the part.  For my money, though, he should have won for "Titanic" (which he wasn't nominated, surprisingly) and "Blood Diamond."

Who should win: DiCaprio
Who will win: DiCaprio

Best Actress:

Cate Blanchett, "Carol"
Brie Larson, "Room"
Jennifer Lawrence, "Joy"
Charlotte Ramplling, "45 Years"
Saoirse Ronan, "Brooklyn"

Like DiCaprio, Brie Larson has been winning awards left and right for "Room."  She was good, but not great.  It's more the type of role, which is one of those parts that is designed specifically to appeal to awards audiences.  If she wins, and she will, it won't be a travesty on par with Gwyneth Paltrow beating Cate Blanchett.  Ironically, it was Blanchett who had the last laugh, since she's getting all the good roles (not to mention 2 trophies herself versus Paltrow's lone Oscar) and the best that Paltrow can do is Pepper Potts in the Marvel movies.  But my vote would go to Saoirse Ronan, whos portrayal of a woman alone in a new country and torn between two men and two worlds was touching and beautiful.  She'll have to be satisfied with a second nomination for now, but I'm confident that she will win one down the road.  She's too talented not to.

Who should win: Ronan
Who will win: Larson

Best Supporting Actor:

Mark Rylance, "Bridge of Spies"
Christian Bale, "The Big Short"
Tom Hardy, "The Revenant"
Mark Ruffalo, "Spotlight
Sylvester Stallone, "Creed"

I haven't seen "Creed" or "The Big Short," so I can't comment on Stallone and Bale.  The choice for me is between Tom Hardy and Mark Ruffalo.  On one hand, Tom Hardy did a very good job playing a total asshole.  I hated the character, which was the goal, so I suppose I have to give him credit for that.  But Fitzgerald was so despicable that I'm not sure I want to give him my vote.  A lot of villainous characters are Oscar-worthy (Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs" is a classic example), but there's something about him that makes me want to give the award to someone else.  I'd choose Mark Ruffalo, whose turn as a passionate reporter is excellent.  It's tough to say whether this is his best performance since there are plenty of options for that honor, but it's up there.  His angry plea to publish the story as soon as they have the story (the "It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us" speech for those of you who have seen the film) is enough to win him the Oscar.  But the award will go to Sylvester Stallone for playing his breakout role of Rocky Balboa.  I wasn't a fan of the original "Rocky," which is why I didn't see "Creed," but he's been winning everything, so it doesn't look like that's going to change on Sunday night.

Who should win: Ruffalo
Who will win: Stallone

Best Supporting Actress

Jennifer Jason Leigh, "The Hateful Eight"
Rooney Mara, "Carol"
Rachel McAdams, "Spotlight"
Alicia Vikander, "The Danish Girl"
Kate Winslet, "Steve Jobs"

Who should win?  Who will win?  I haven't the foggiest idea.  This category has always been a wild card, which further complicates things.  There were some good performances here, to be sure.  I saw "The Hateful Eight" (the uncut, 70mm version), but I didn't review it because I was late.  Frankly, I wasn't impressed.  It was the kind of thing that might have worked better on stage.  Jennifer Jason Leigh did a great job playing a psycho, but I thought she was much more compelling and frightening in "Single White Female" than she was in "The Hateful Eight."  2015's "It-girl" Alicia Vikander has been making waves all year, starting with "Ex Machina."  I didn't see "The Danish Girl," but buzz is always key when it comes to determining a winner.  When I first saw "Spotlight," I thought that Rachel McAdams was a longshot for a nomination as the sensitive reporter.  But here we are.  And given the nominees, she's the one I'd give it to.

Who should win: McAdams
Who will win: Vikander

Best Director

Adam McKay, "The Big Short"
George Miller, "Mad Max: Fury Road"
Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, "The Revenant"
Tom McCarthy, "Spotlight"
Lenny Abrahamson, "Room"

It looks to be Innaritu's year all over again.  No one else has been getting any buzz.  George Miller is a dark horse, being a legacy filmmaker and the fact that "Mad Max: Fury Road" was a surprise hit.  But he can't match Innaritu.  I was initially going to give my vote to Tom McCarthy, but then I remembered that "Spotlight" was a little disorganized.  I didn't see "The Big Short" given how much I hated Adam McKay's other movies.  I'm sure I'll see it eventually, but after the "Anchorman" films, it'll  have to be on par with "Borat" for me to consider giving it a serious vote.  Since the options aren't very good, I'm going to give it to George Miller because he created action scenes that were a, visually pleasing to the eye, and b, actually raised the pulse.

Who should win: Miller
Who will win, Innaritu

Best Original Screenplay

"Bridge of Spies"
"Ex Machina"
"Inside Out"
"Spotlight"
"Straight Outta Compton"

The Academy likes to recognize surprise hits, especially in this category ("Borat" is an example).  That's why I think that "Straight Outta Compton" will win the award.  No one expected it to be as big of a hit as it was.  It wasn't that great in my opinion, but I could see its appeal.  It understood the material and its audience.  My vote would go to "Ex Machina," because explored the line between humanity and artificial intelligence in such a thoughtful and thorough way.

What should win: "Ex Machina"
What will win: "Straight Outta Compton"

Best Adapted Screenplay

"The Big Short"
"Brooklyn"
"Carol"
"The Martian"
"Room"

I have absolutely no idea what will win here.  They could get a shout out to "The Martian," seeing as it was a big hit but likely won't win any other serious Oscars.  Or they could go the arthouse route and give it to "Room" or "Carol."  It's a tough call.  I do know who I would give it to.  Nick Hornby for "Brooklyn."  Every line is rich and deep, character development is exceptional and it provides a sense of balance for both New York and Ireland.  It enables the story to be both deceptively simple and emotionally complex.  It's one gorgeous script.  Knock on wood that it wins.

What should win: "Brooklyn"
What will win: "Brooklyn"

Best Animated Film

"Inside Out"
"Anomalisa"
"Boy and the World"
"Shaun the Sheep Movie"
"When there was Marnie"

This should be totally obvious.

What should win: "Inside Out"
What will win: "Inside Out"

Best Foreign Film

"Son of Saul"
"A War"
"Embrace of the Serpent"
"Theeb"
"Mustang"

There's only one movie in this category that's been getting any sort of buzz.

What should win: No idea
What will win: "Son of Saul"

Best Cinematography

"Carol"
"The Hateful Eight"
"Mad Max: Fury Road"
"The Revenant"
"Sicario"

Another tough call.  It's not going to be "The Revenant."  Emmanuel Lubezki won the past two years in a row, and I strongly doubt he'll go three for three.  Legendary cameraman Roger Deakins got his 13th nomination for "Sicario," although if he wins, it will be because he's long overdue.

What should win: "Carol"
What will win: "Sicario"

That's it, everyone!  Let's see how I do Sunday night!


The Lost City

2.5/4

Starring: Andy Garcia, Ines Sastre, Bill Murray, Tomas Milian, Enrique Murciano, Nestor Carbonell, Richard Bradford, Jsu Garcia, Millie Perkins

Rated R for Violence

I admit that I'm a sucker for movies that follow a group of characters through time, and at the end they look back nostalgically over what has been lost to time.  In many ways, Andy Garcia's directorial debut, "The Lost City," is one of those movies, although it's nowhere near the level of the best ones, like "Memoirs of a Geisha" or "For the Boys."  Come to think of it, a better comparison would be "Farewell, My Concubine."

Fico Fellove (Garcia) is the owner of "El Tropico," the hottest nightclub in Havana.  His family is as wealthy as it is diverse.  His brothers Luis (Carbonell) and Ricardo (Murciano) are revolutionaries trying to overthrow the brutal regime of President Fulgencio Batista (Juan Fernandez) while he concentrates on running the club.  But as his father puts it, they always put family first.  Unfortunately for Fico, change is coming, and he can no longer ignore it.

This is a powerful story of love and loss, family and violence, death and tragedy.  All the good stuff we go to movies like this for.  However, merely having the right ingredients isn't enough.  You have to have the person behind the camera stir them all together with skill, and that's where the film comes up short.  I do not doubt that Andy Garcia, a Cuban native who fled to the US at age 5, wanted to tell this story.  The film beats with the heart of a man mourning the loss of his homeland.  But Garcia just doesn't have the directorial skill to pull this complex of a project off.  It needs a true master, like Francis Ford Coppola.  To his credit, Garcia is smart enough to know this, and borrows from the man who directed him to an Oscar nomination in "The Godfather: Part III."

The acting varies.  Garcia, never an actor of significant range, is uneven as Fico.  Usually he's pretty good, but there are times when he goes over the top or is too muted.  Ines Sastre is certainly beautiful as the woman who would eventually become his wife, but she doesn't display a lot of range.  Tomas Milian brings a huge dose of pathos to the weary but loyal Don Federico.  Bill Murray's contribution is curious.  It's a good performance (it's the sort of thing that only Murray could pull off), but I was left wondering what he contributed to the story.  There seems to be a lot of potential in his character, but Garcia only has him hang around and toss out one-liners.  Special mention has to go to Jsu Garcia, who is quite effective as Che Guevarra.  Horror fans might be interested to know that he once played the ill-fated Rod in the classic "A Nightmare on Elm Street."

"The Lost City" is certainly not a waste of time.  It's a story that needs to be told.  And while there are many flat moments and times when the film drags, there are just as many that do work.  For example, an assassination attempt of Batista is effectively (but not masterfully) handled and crackled with suspense.  The ending, while protracted, rings true with longing and sadness.  That, even after 16 years, there were people who were still determined to get it made speaks to the power of the subject.

But the film is so uneven.  Garcia is fond of cross-cutting between events that go on simultaneously or at different points in time, but the editing is often clumsy.  The acting and writing are occasionally lacking as well.  As such, I can't in good conscience recommend the film.  By the same token, if I came across a person who had even the smallest intent or interest in seeing this film, I wouldn't stop them.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Resident Evil: Apocalypse

3/4

Starring: Milla Jovovich, Sienna Guillory, Oded Fehr, Sophie Vavasseur, Thomas Kretschmann, Jared Harris, Mike Epps

Rated R for Non-Stop Violence, Language and Some Nudity

It's funny how expectations can change your perception of a movie.  The first time I saw "Resident Evil," I was disappointed, feeling that it was a one-ply script with characters who weren't strong enough to be called "one-dimensional."  But today I had a snow day, and after I had watched the searing "Spotlight," I was in the mood for something loud, violent and stupid.  And you know what?  I liked "Resident Evil" more this time around.  So, having bought the "Resident Evil" collection (give me a break...it was on sale!), I decided to try the much-despised sequel, "Resident Evil: Apocalypse."  And surprise, surprise, I liked it.  Not only that, I liked it better than the original.

The film takes place shortly after the events of the first film.  The T-virus created by the Umbrella Corporation has just wreaked havoc on Raccoon City.  If only they had watched "Jurassic Park," they would have learned the easy way that when you play god, you lose in the most horrible way possible.  Unfortunately for the denizens of Raccoon City, the leaders of the Umbrella Corporation are less like John Hammond and more like the unholy offspring of Dick Cheney and Martin Shkreli.  Fortunately, there is at least one member of the evil conglomerate who has a heart and a conscience.  His name is Dr. Ashford (Harris), the scientist who created the T-virus (and like Hammond, his intentions were benevolent).  He agrees to help a ragtag group of survivors including cop Jill Valentine (Guillory) and Umbrella grunt Carlos Oliviera (Fehr) escape the quarantine.  The caveat is that they have to rescue his daughter Angela (Vavasseur), whose escape attempt was cut short by a car wreck.

Anyone looking for a sophisticated plot or strong characterizations is setting themselves up for failure.  This isn't that kind of movie, nor should it be.  This is all about kicking ass in the most awesome way possible, and on that level it succeeds.  Noted cinematographer Alexander Witt isn't John Woo, but he shows a respectable talent in crafting action scenes, and that's all that matters.

Acting isn't a strong suit either.  Milla Jovovich gets to let out her inner bad-girl after playing a mousy amnesiac for the majority of the first film, and she appears to be enjoying herself.  No one matches her, except Sophie Vavasseur, who is adorable and not a walking liability without the genetic instinct for self-preservation like little girl characters so frequently are in these types of movies.  She's mature and encouraging, and Vavasseur displays the effortless charm that she had in "Evelyn."  Thomas Kretschmann digs into his bag of tricks and creates a villain that, while not particularly original, is suitably vicious.  Sienna Guillory is okay as fan favorite Jill Valentine, but she lacks the Ripley factor that would have made her more effective.

Look, "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" is one of those movies that's satisfied to give you what you paid for.  Take it or leave it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

This is England

3/4

Starring: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Joseph Gilgun, Jo Hartley, Andrew Shim, Rosamund Hanson

Rated R for Strong Racist Violence and Language

There is an autobiographical element to this story.  British director Shane Meadows drew upon events from his own childhood to tell this story.  That's probably why it feels so authentic.  The film's strongest aspect is getting inside the head of a lonely, picked on adolescent.  Understanding him is crucial for this movie to work.

England, 1983.  12-year-old Shaun (Turgoose) is an unhappy child.  His father was killed in the Falklands War, his mother (Hartley) doesn't understand him, and he is bullied at school.  Luck comes his way when he encounters a group of skinheads hanging out under a bridge.  Although he is initially suspicious of their motives, he eventually warms up to them, especially Woody (Gilgun), and they unofficially adopt him.  Finally, Shaun has what he always wanted: friends.  At least for a while.  Then an old chum of theirs returns from prison.  His name is Combo (Graham), and he's gotten out of the joint filled with rage and racism.  Most of the others are strong enough to leave, but after Combo mentions Shaun's father, he has a way into the kid's psyche.

Typically, when one says the term "skinhead," they think of Derek Vinyard from "American History X:" muscle-bound lunatics tattooed with swastikas and screaming racist epithets.  While that's generally the case now, it wasn't always so.  Around the time that this film took place, they were closer to hipsters than racists.  In fact, the first half of the film has a distinct vibe that reminded me of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."  However, once Combo enters the picture, the fantasy comes into contact with a hard dose of reality.

Part of the reason the film works is because it contains several strong performances.  Leading the pack is screen neophyte Thomas Turgoose.  Turgoose is exceptional, playing the character with bluster and vulnerability.  He's a hothead, but that's partly because he's in so much pain.  How would you feel if you lost your father and people had the audacity to bully you about it?  But he has a heart, even after he unwisely decides to follow Combo.  Speaking of, Stephen Graham is very good as Combo.  Combo is an animal, filled to the brim with rage and pent-up frustration.  In Shaun, he finds validation, both for his racism and for his own insecurities.  The true scene-stealer, however, is Joseph Gilgun, who plays the friendly Woody.  Woody is the kind of older friend/brother we all wish we had.  His nature, which despite the pranks and mischief, is essentially good, becomes a presence in and of itself.  Ironically, Gilgun played the most interesting villain in "Lockout" six years later.

Unfortunately, the film missteps during the most crucial scene in the film: the seduction of the innocent.  When Combo convinces Shaun to follow him instead of Woody, it happens too quickly (in terms of the running time and within the film's timeline).  I understood why Shaun would follow him intellectually, but I didn't believe it.  It happens too fast and too easily.  Shaun is a smart kid with a big heart.  Surely it would take more than one comment about his dad to convince him to follow the psychotic Combo rather than the one boy who has shown him kindness.  This transition is so weak that it limits the effectiveness of the rest of the film.

Nevertheless, the film contains many moments of power, and is riveting (if tough) viewing.  The English accents are very thick and there are no optional subtitles, but you get the gist of what they're saying, at least.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Risen

2/4

Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis

Rated PG-13 for Biblical Violence including Some Disturbing Images

As far as Christian films go, "Risen" has the virtue of at least being watchable.  It's not as affecting as "Hardflip" or as entertaining as "Mom's Night Out."  But on the flip side, it's not as preachy as "War Room" or as offensive as "God's Not Dead."  That's probably because it's directed by an established filmmaker and has a cast of professional actors.

Clavius (Fiennes) is a Roman centurion living at the time of Christ.  Pontius Pilate (Firth) has, at the behest of Jewish leaders like Caiaphas (Stephen Greif), arrested Yeshua (Curtis), a man who has proclaimed himself the Messiah, and put him down for crucifixion.  Of course, after he's crucified, the body disappears.  With claims that Yeshua has fulfilled his prophecy and risen again, Pontius is nervous, especially because the Emperor will pay him a visit shortly.  He sends Clavius and his right hand man, Lucius (Felton), to find the body as soon as possible.  Or else.

The use of a fictional character to explore the story isn't a bad idea because it prevents the film from being a play by play of Jesus's death and ascent into heaven.  Clavius doesn't boast an especially interesting character arc, but it gets the job done.  The problem is that they cast Joseph Fiennes in the role.  To his credit, Fiennes underplays the role, which makes him seem like something other than a piece of wood.  Unfortunately, that leaves him without much of a personality, and I'm not sure that's necessarily an acceptable trade-off.  Peter Firth is much more interesting as the diplomatic but dogged Pontius Pilate.  As a man whose interest in Yeshua is less of religious zeal and more a desire for self-preservation, it's an interesting take on the character.  Tom Felton is effective, but he has little to do.  The casting of Cliff Curtis as Yeshua is a mistake.  Not only does the actor not have the inherent goodness that one might imagine Jesus would have, he comes across as creepy.  When he stares into the camera and appears to look right at the viewer, the effect is unsettling.  Plus, Reynolds plays the "there one minute, gone the next" trick, which is straight out of a horror movie.

There are some affecting scenes here and there, and it doesn't preach or evangelize (although someone in the theater came up to me after the show and asked me if I believed if Jesus had risen from the dead...that was an awkward moment).  It also has the virtue of looking nice; the cinematography by Lorenzo Senatore is quite lovely.  But it's too long and headlined by an actor of limited talent.  Cast someone else in the lead role (and in the role of Yeshua) and shave off around ten minutes and you'd have yourself a nice little movie.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Witch

3.5/4

Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson

Rated R for Disturbing Violent Content and Graphic Nudity

"The Witch" is an indie horror film that has been gathering steam for the past few months.  A24, a distribution company known primarily for independent and art-house fare, believes that it has enough appeal to turn a tidy profit in a wide release.  It will be interesting to see how it fares, since it is definitely not mainstream.

The film is rightly classified as a horror film, although it's a non-traditional one.  Anyone looking for copious amounts of violence, gore and sex is going to be disappointed.  There is nudity, although considering the context, it's not going to do much for the libido.  Writer/director Robert Eggers places more emphasis on atmosphere and growing dread rather than cheap shocks and bloody viscera.

New England, 1630.  A family of seven leaves a populous plantation due to a religious dispute.  They are William (Ineson), the patriarch, his wife Katherine (Dickie), and their children, Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Scrimshaw), Mercy (Grainger), Jonas (Dawson) and infant Samuel.  They set up a farm a days ride from the plantation, but it is not going well since William has little skill as a farmer.  Then one day Samuel disappears while playing with Thomasin.  Stress, fear and ominous omens turns a happy family against one another, and that's just the start of it.

The performances are exceptional.  The film is presented from the point-of-view of Thomasin, and Anya Taylor-Joy, a relative newcomer, is up to the challenge.  She's a natural in front of the camera and has no trouble with the antiquated English that makes up her dialogue.  Ralph Ineson is also very good as the even-tempered William, bringing guilt and fear to the character.  Kate Dickie is excellent as a woman who, in her grief, turns to religious fanaticism.  Harvey Scrimshaw isn't up to their level, but he's not too bad.  Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson are effective as the little tykes.

Don't expect lots of cheap shocks and twists from "The Witch."  It's not that kind of movie.  Eggers is smart enough to know that taking the easy road would only cheapen his film.  Instead, he finds the horror in the mundane in a similar way to "The Blair Witch Project" (never have goats or rabbits been so scary).  In fact, this film has a similar feel to the 1999 smash hit, although without the shaky cam.

With a movie this unusual, it's tough to tell whether the risk will pay off.  The response to niche movies like this is always hard to predict.  If it becomes a hit, it's going to be massive, but I doubt it.  It's a little too obtuse for true mainstream acceptance (the dialogue is taken from documents written around the time in which the film takes place, and most horror fans don't want to work their brains while watching a horror flick.  My hunch is that the majority of its success will come when it arrives on Blu Ray.  It's that kind of movie.  One thing is for sure, though: it's going to have a loud, passionate fan base.  How big that is remains to be seen.

For those who take the chance, they're in for a most unnerving experience.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

2/4

Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill

Rated PG-13 for Some Suggestive Content and Smoking

Imagine, if you will, "Entourage," set in the 1950's and directed by the notoriously offbeat Coen Brothers, and you'll have some idea of what "Hail, Caesar!" offers.  Sadly, the film comes nowhere near achieving its potential.  It's not funny, and more often than not, dull.

Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is a fixer for Capitol Pictures.  Whenever there's a scandal or a problem on the set, he's there to "fix it" (ironically, his co-star George Clooney played a similar role in the overrated "Michael Clayton").  Today is not going well for Eddie.  The star of the studio's biggest picture, "Hail, Caesar!", Baird Whitlock (Clooney), has just been kidnapped.  The studio's sweetheart, DeeAnna Moran (Johansson), is unmarried and knocked up.  And his newest matinee idol, Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich) is starring in a dramatic role for auteur Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes), but has zero talent.  And where there's Hollywood, there's news and gossip, and that leads to the Thacker sisters (Swinton in a dual role) sniveling about.  As if that weren't enough, Eddie has an offer to run Lockheed Martin.

The Coens have always been risk-taking directors, refusing to be pegged in a singular style or genre.  "Fargo," "No Country for Old Men," "O Brother Where Art Thou?," "True Grit," and "Raising Arizona" are some of their most famous movies.  Actually, it's about half their resume.  There's no denying they have talent, but this is a serious letdown for them.  The plot is aimless and the film as a whole feels too long.

The Coens are in demand in Hollywood by just about everyone.  They're talented and they can lead to Oscar gold.  As usual, they've selected an eclectic cast, but of them, the only one with a substantial amount of screen time is Josh Brolin.  There's not much to his character, but he does an excellent job of mimicking the New York/Hollywood accent that so many of the Golden Age men used.

There are essentially five subplots that compromise one 24 hour period.  The funniest one is with Alden Ehrenreich as the stud without a clue.  What's funny is that Hobie wants to do well, he just can't.  It doesn't lessen the director's irritation at him, however.  The most energetic one is a song-and-dance routine with Channing Tatum aping Gene Kelly.  Who knew the guy could sing?  Unfortunately this sequence lasts little more than a minute or two, so it's probably best seen on YouTube.  The lamest bits are when Baird becomes unwittingly hooked up with communists.  It's really a one-joke concept and not an especially funny one.  Clooney gives it his all, but ultimately there's no saving it.  The rest of the cast, including a brassy Scarlett Johansson, appear in what barely amount to cameos.

I like the Coen Brothers very much.  But there's no denying that this is one trip worth skipping.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Australia

2.5/4

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil

Rated PG-13 for Some Violence, A Scene of Sensuality and Brief Strong Language

As is the case with many a flawed film, "Australia" tries to be something but misses the mark.  Director Baz Luhrmann wants his love letter to his home country to be a grand romantic epic in the tradition of "Gone with the Wind" (a film from which it occasionally steals) and "Titanic."  However, while it's far from unwatchable, there's no denying that it rarely hits the sweet spot.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) is a stuffy woman living in England going to Australia to wrap up a business deal.  Her husband ran off to Down Under years ago and ran a successful cattle droving business, but lately that well has been running dry.  Fed up, she travels there to sell the business to the local cattle baron, King Carney (Brown).  Australia brings a series of shocks to her system: it's way rougher than a prim and proper English lady like her is expecting, and her husband has been murdered by a local Aborigine known as King George (Gulpilil).  Lady Sarah quickly realizes that things aren't on the up and up when Carney's right hand man, a nasty brute named Fletcher (Wenham) is accuses him of committing the murder (and raping his mother), she refuses to sell and hires Drover (Jackman) to help her.  Meanwhile, war is on the horizon.

Movies like this are hard to make well.  The line between too subtle and overblown bore is a thin one, and Luhrmann doesn't really know what makes this sort of movie work.  The Aussie director doesn't know the meaning of the word "subtlety" (he did, after all, direct "Moulin Rouge" and the version of "Romeo and Juliet" with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes), and while subtlety isn't a necessary requirement of the genre, proper handling is.  Luhrmann doesn't know what to do with the material (that may have something to do with the four credited screenwriters and rumored studio meddling).  His talents, which are considerable, are an ill-fit for the material.

At least the acting is good, although considering the talent, that's nothing to be surprised about.  Luhrmann brought back his leading lady from "Moulin Rouge," Nicole Kidman, to play the lead.  Kidman does what she can, but she's unable to save a screenplay that is so disjointed.  Her co-star (who, along with the director, is a personal friend of hers), Hugh Jackman, is also good.  However, he lacks the swagger and raw sexuality to pull this role off.  But that could be the writing too.  Brandon Walters (in his only film credit) is also effective as their surrogate child Nullah.  If there are times when he gets too cute, it's because of the writing.  Bryan Brown and David Wenham have no problem convincing us to hate their guts.

There's a lot going on in "Australia," but little of it actually works.  Either due to the writing, Luhrmann's poor handling, or some combination of the two, the film is a jumbled mess of half-baked ideas and two-dimensional characters.  The least successful elements are the Aboriginal magic, which is poorly explained and contrived.  The droving plot, which takes up the majority of the film, isn't much better, mainly because Luhrmann fails to make it particularly engaging.  The family-like relationship between Sarah, Drover and Nullah is the most affecting because it's well developed.  Luhrmann's disdain for the treatment of the "Stolen Generation" (half-Aboriginal children who were taken from their parents to live among the whites) is evident but not hammered home.  The film's three action scenes are nicely handled as well.

So it doesn't work.  It's a shame, because when they do, movies like this are awe-inspiring.  What a pity.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Dirty Grandpa

3/4

Starring: Zac Efron, Robert DeNiro, Zoey Deutch, Aubrey Plaza, Jason Mantzoukas, Julianne Hough, Dermot Mulroney

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

The opening scene is key to the film.  A young lawyer is telling an anecdote (at his grandmother's funeral, no less) so wrapped up in legal jargon that only lawyers would get it.  He and the other men laugh the kind of arrogant laugh that shows they know how sophisticated they are.  If the storyteller were any man, we'd see him as a self-absorbed jerk.  But because he's played by Zac Efron, we know what this really is: he's putting himself on airs to show how adult he is.  He wants to show everyone that he's a perfect young professional, way above partying and crude sex jokes.  We all know one or two of them (when you're my age, they're everywhere).

His name is Jason, and he's a corporate lawyer working for his dad's (Mulroney) firm.  He's getting married to the gorgeous yet equally superficial Meredith (Hough).  His grandfather Dick (DeNiro) wants to continue his wife's legacy of going to Florida, but because he doesn't have a license, he wants Jason to drive him.  Reluctant due to a "busy" schedule, Jason agrees.  That he finds Dick doing "number three" when he arrives to take him should tell you that this trip will not be a simple stroll down memory lane.

"Dirty Grandpa's" screenplay is funny enough in its own right, but the masterstroke was casting Efron and DeNiro.  The lines and antics are funnier being performed by them.  It would amusing if the filmmakers had played it safe and cast, say, Jonah Hill and Danny DeVito.  But we expect them to be rude and crude.  We don't expect the lead characters to be trading four-letter words and participating in sex gags if they're played by an ex-Disney kid and an acting legend.

The movie works because neither actor is phoning it in.  Efron, who has long since left the House of Mouse behind him, is so obsessed with pleasing his dad that he hasn't thought of what he wants for himself.  DeNiro, who has proved many times that he knows how to get a laugh (who can forget his reaction shot in the "milking the cat" scene in "Meet the Parents?"), is great as a man who is determined to take advantage of his freedom in the way that his wife would have wanted him to.  Movies have given us sex-obsessed senior citizens, but never to the extent of Dick Kelly.  Also effective is Julianne Hough, who is very good as the bridezilla.  She's cute, but no sane man would want to marry this harridan.  It also helps that no actor in this movie has any shame whatsoever.  And I mean none.

"Dirty Grandpa" isn't a perfect movie, and will not go down in history as one of the great comedies like "The Hangover."  The plot, while played earnestly, is too formulaic, and the romance between Jason and a pretty activist named Shadia (Deutch) is more obligatory than earned.  Plus some of the supporting characters, like Pam the drug dealer (Mantzoukas) and the two bumbling cops are more irritating than funny.  But if you're looking for some hearty laughs, this will fit the bill.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Kung Fu Panda 3

3/4

Starring (voices): Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, J.K. Simmons, James Hong

Rated PG for Martial Arts Action and Some Mild Rude Humor

"Kung Fu Panda" is what it is.  You want more Po?  You got it.  More kung fu?  It's here.  You want a surprise cameo by Humphrey Bogart back from the dead?  That's one thing that's not in here.  For those of you who view that as a spoiler, I offer my deepest apologies.

Like most franchise entries not based on books, "Kung Fu Panda 3" exists for one simple reason: the first two made money.  If you choose to see it, your money won't be wasted.  If you don't, you're not missing much.

Po (Black) is settled into his role as the dragon warrior.  Master Shifu (Hoffman) has decided to retire from teaching and has handed over the reigns to Po.  His first attempt at teaching is an unmitigated disaster.  But more trouble arises when Kai (Simmons), a spiritual warrior, returns to the Valley of Peace intending to destroy the Jade Palace.  To defeat him, Po must learn to control his chi.  To do that, he must journey back to the land of the pandas with his long lost father, Li (Cranston).

"Kung Fu Panda 3" has everything that made the other two movies fun.  Action, humor, a heart...all the good stuff.  Actually, it has too much of it.  The middle section sags a little bit.  The need to make it bigger, badder, and, forgive me for the pun, "more awesome," dilutes the film's strengths.  It's too busy.

All the cast members return, and all do their part.  Jack Black easily slides back into the self-doubting fanboy routine while Dustin Hoffman is also good as the exasperated Shifu.  The newcomers to the cast are also strong.  Bryan Cranston gives what is his best performance that I've seen as Li, mainly because he's shows energy.  And J.K. Simmons is almost totally unrecognizable as Kai.  With his slow, deep voice, you'd never realize it was the same guy who played J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" movies or the monstrous Fletcher in "Whiplash."

If I don't sound particularly enthused about "Kung Fu Panda 3," well, it's because I'm not.  I was entertained while I was there, and I might buy it when it becomes available at a discount, but this franchise needs to change things up the next time around or, preferably, retire.

Mike's Musings: Political Correctness, Oh My!

I was browsing the internet today and I came across an article about how John Cleese said political correctness is killing comedy.  Hollywood argues differently, with comedies getting raunchier by the day (and more profitable).

However, it got me thinking.  I had a discussion in one of my classes last semester about the possible need for labeling classes that dealt with "sensitive material."  I thought, what the hell?  Really?  Grow up!  Safe places on college campuses?  Give me a break.

Is free speech under attack?  Doubtful, but the ones who claim it is have only themselves to blame.  I think that it's not free speech that's under attack but a defense measure by people who hold unpopular opinions and are unhappy when they get criticized for them.

Social media is everywhere, and that's a bad thing if your a celebrity who doesn't watch what he says (just as Donald Sterling...who, by the way, deserved what he got).  So if your famous, and even if you aren't (like those girls in Phoenix who spelled out the "n" word in a picture), you have to be careful because it can explode in your face.

But I don't think it's necessarily political correctness that's gone haywire.  It's that people are sick and tired of internet trolls insulting them or reality TV stars/celebrities who say offensive things.  Like when Phil Robertson gave his charming little anecdote about a family of atheists who get attacked and raped by home invaders.  Not only is the story needlessly graphic, but it insinuates that anyone who doesn't believe in God is an amoral psychopath and has no concept of basic morality.  Even as someone who does believe in God, that's repulsive.  Or last year after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, where William Donahue of the Catholic League said that Charb was asking for it.

The idea of free speech being threatened on college campuses is scary.  College is about personal growth, and that's not going to happen if you don't challenge yourself and look at things in a new way.  If you go through college without dealing with provocative material, you didn't do it right.  I think that argument is less about controversial material and more about my generation being raised by helicopter parents and being surrounded by immature morons who accept Seth Rogen's riffs as truth to cover their own insecurities.

Bullying kind of ties into this as well.  I saw an internet meme where it suggested that instead of creating anti-bullying legislation, we should accept it as a way to arrange a school pecking order and instead teach kids how to stick up for themselves.  Not only is that contradictory, it won't work.  Speaking from experience, it doesn't work and teachers are held hostage by the "If I didn't see it, I can't do anything about it" rule.

I'm not saying that people shouldn't be able to say what they want to.  I'm just saying that you should have some common sense.  You can always say what you mean in a polite and diplomatic manner.  It's being an asshole that pisses people off.

And as for Cleese, well, anything goes in comedy.  And audiences love it.  You just have to make a joke out of it.  A joke will be funny if there's a reason why it's funny.  It won't be funny if you just point your finger and laugh.

Mike's Musings: Hashtag Oscars So White?

Admittedly, I'm a little late to the party for writing this review, but, as they say, better late than never.

There's been a lot of controversy this year over the fact that all the acting nominees this year are white.  Boycotts were made.  Questions where raised about whether Chris Rock would still host the event (he is, but he will mention the backlash in one of his monologues).

Many are blaming the Academy for not recognizing actors and filmmakers of color this year.  For example, Will Smith was considered a lock for his performance in "Concussion," which he should have gotten instead of Bryan Cranston.  Cranston has never impressed me with his acting abilities, but he's still riding the "Breaking Bad" waves and he portrayed a Hollywood legend that got screwed over by McCarthyism.  That it received mediocre reviews and essentially vanished from screens without anyone seeing it only adds salt to the wound).

The Academy, which has a history of boneheaded decisions and controversies, isn't blameless, but pegging them as a hoitey-toitey villain is a shallow simplification of reality.  If Hollywood wants to know who to blame, they've got to look at themselves.

A big part of the reason there were no black nominees is because there weren't a lot of options.  Most roles are played by white actors because studio executives won't cast them.  White leads have worked in the past, and no one wants to take any chances, especially now that all movies have seemingly become monster budgeted behemoths.  Will Smith's breakout role in "Independence Day" was written for a white actor, but Roland Emmerich fought hard to cast him.  It was a risk that paid off tremendously and led Smith to earn the nickname "Mr. July."

It is ironic that studios are so fearful of casting non-white actors in lead roles, especially in today's globalization of the film industry.  World audiences are big now (China especially), which should present more opportunities for minority actors and filmmakers.  "Furious 7" had a diverse cast and it passed $1.5 billion at the box office.  Many considered its diversity to be a factor in its success.  And who can forget about Tyler Perry, who has essentially opened the floodgates for the African-American market.

So minority actors want to act and audiences want to see them.  All that's left is for the studios to stop being so risk averse and open up some doors.