Sunday, March 27, 2016

Allegiant

3/4

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jeff Daniels, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer

Rated PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action, Thematic Elements and Some Partial Nudity

Of all the tween franchises to come out after "Harry Potter," the "Divergent" series at least has the virtue of being entertaining.  The first two weren't masterpieces and neither is this installment (as has become the norm these days, the final book has been split into two parts), but it's good enough that I recommend seeing it if you liked the others.  It doesn't sufficiently differ from the ground laid out in the first two films, but it really doesn't matter.

Janine (Kate Winslet) is dead.  The government leader who used science and lies to overthrow the government was killed by Evelyn (Watts), who has taken it upon herself to rule Chicago in order to establish peace.  But in her desire to do good and satiate the bloodlust of those who were wronged by Janine and her army, she has become more brutal than her predecessor.  She's consolidating her power by refusing to allow anyone leave the city.  Realizing the road that she's going down, Tris (Woodley), Four (James) and their friends escape and get picked up by soldiers of the Bureau of Genetic Welfare.  There, they find the truth about Chicago and Tris's purpose.  But the leader, a man named David (Daniels), has some secrets he's keeping, and Tris has to find out who to trust before it's too late.

There's not a lot that's original in this movie.  In fact, there are some obvious steals from the final "Hunger Games" installment and "The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials," although the less said about that movie, the better.  It is easily superior to both of those movies because it's got better storytelling.  Nothing spectacular, mind you, but it is well told.

The actors slide easily back into their parts.  Shailene Woodley provides us with another strong tween heroine who is about 10 times more interesting than Katniss Everdeen.  Theo James is uneven.  He was good in the first two films, but there are times when his heart clearly isn't in it.  Perhaps he's bored with the franchise.  Jeff Daniels, always a reliable actor, is alternately fatherly and sinister.  He hasn't been this good in a long time.  The rest of the cast does solid jobs, with some scene-stealing provided by Miles Teller and Octavia Spencer.

The problem with this movie is that all the characters seem to lack critical thinking skills.  The main group changes their minds as the plot develops, but they are all single-minded in their focus.  The rest of the cast isn't even given that much dignity.  I kept wondering if they would do what they were told if they actually stopped to think about it.

Never mind.  It's little more than a minor quibble, and does little to lessen the entertainment value of this teen flick.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

2.5/4

Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Holly Hunter, Laurence Fishburne

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action Throughout, and for Some Sensuality

Another summer, another wave of superhero movies.  Am I the only one who is tired of watching guys in leotards beat the tar out of each other while being filled with faux-angst?  To be fair, geek god Joss Whedon is nowhere to be found here, which means that the writing is better, and it's more concerned with telling a story than providing a rundown of the most comic references and cross-connections the hack filmmaker can fit into a 2.5 hour run time.

The good news is that it's not another origin story.  Marvel pumps out as many of those as it can, it seems.  "Ant-Man," the third reboot of "Fantastic Four," and so on.  They all run together.  It's also not a cut-and-paste job like so many of Marvel's movies.  The bad news is that the plot rarely makes a lot of sense.

Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Affleck) is not happy with Superman (Cavill).  His fight with General Zod in "Man of Steel" led to the destruction of one of his buildings and by default the deaths of countless people trapped inside (note: this sequence might sound like it exploits 9/11, but it doesn't because it's dealt with honestly and it serves a purpose).  He wants the Man of Steel to answer for his crimes, but support from the Daily Planet, led by Clark Kent and his plucky girlfriend Lois Lane (Adams) make that hard to come by.  But a new incident in the Middle East has raised the attention of a senator (Hunter), who calls him to a congressional hearing.  Meanwhile, eccentric scientist Lex Luthor (Eisenberg) is using both to serve his own ends.

This isn't a bad idea for a movie.  It takes where "Man of Steel" left off and takes it in a direction that we don't expect.  In other words, it does exactly what a sequel should do.  What's interesting is that it's taken this long for a sequel to acknowledge its predecessor.  Oh sure, many sequels build upon the films that came before, but they usually start at zero.  The first act made me recall a photoplasty from cracked.com where the subject was what it would be like to live in a Michael Bay movie or something.

It's too bad then that the screenplay is underwritten.  While certainly not a disaster, it could have used another rewrite or two to clean it up.  The plot is frequently confusing and things don't always hold together even in the moment.  A good movie lays out each piece of the plot cleanly and succinctly.  The script here is a bit waterlogged.  Perhaps the R-rated extended cut will clean things up a bit.

Speaking of the R-rating, it's unthinkable that the MPAA let this film slide with a PG-13.  This is a dark superhero movie and the violence is brutal.  It's like "Kick-Ass" minus the blood.  I would advise against taking the young ones to see this movie unless you've previewed it yourself.

It will be interesting to see where the "Justice League" goes from here.  Brief cameos by a few other superheroes hint at the "Justice League" movie, although Snyder doesn't overdo the fan service.  This movie is very much a stand-alone film, unlike the Marvel movies, which are essentially walking advertisements for the next installment.

There are definitely some things to like about this movie, but it's too problematic to recommend taking a trip to the theater for.  Better wait for the R-rated Blu Ray version and hope that they didn't just add in some profanity to bump up the rating.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Pagemaster

1.5/4

Starring: Macaulay Culkin, Christopher Lloyd, and the voices of Patrick Steward, Whoopi Goldberg, Frank Welker

Rated PG (for Action, I guess)

A good idea does not make a movie.  You have to have follow through.  You have to support it with good storytelling and a script that doesn't insult the intelligence or attention span of its audience, young as they may be.  "The Pagemaster" can boast a brilliant concept, but directors Maurice Hunt and Joe Johnston (surprisingly) to a terrible job of bringing it to life.

Richard Tyler (Culkin) is afraid of everything.  And I mean everything.  His parents are worried about him, and when they send him on an errand, he gets caught in a terrible storm and takes refuge in a library.  The librarian, Mr. Dewey (Lloyd) tries to get him interested in the books available to him, but Richard is dead-set on getting home.  A nasty fall knocks him out and he ends up inside the library's books.  To reach the exit, he must rely on three books: Adventure (Stewart), Fantasy (Goldberg) and Horror (Welker).

There's no reason to believe that this could have been a fantastic movie.  The pieces are there.  But it appears to have been filmed without a screenplay (or at least one with any merit).  The dialogue is banal and the characters are too thin to be called types.  As a result it comes across as an advertisement for books rather than an original story.  For a movie that is such a cheerleader about imagination and storytelling, it doesn't give much more than a cursory cheer for either.  The film moves lightning fast and doesn't do anything with the ideas it presents.  There are references to many classic stories such as "Treasure Island" and "Moby Dick," but they're more like cutaways in an episode of "Family Guy" rather than germane to the story.  Take them out and the movie wouldn't be much different.  Of course, seeing as the movie isn't even 90 minutes, that would mean that you wouldn't have a movie.  Considering the lack of quality and effort in this production, that could only be a good thing.

There's never been a bigger kid star than Macauley Culkin.  Although his career as kid star lasted only four years before his self-imposed retirement (which he ended in 2003 with "Party Monster," a film that's as far from kid-friendly as they get), there's been no child actor with more fame than Culkin.  Although his range is limited, he's a solid thespian.  Here, however, he's walking through his performance.  It's hard to blame him, since he was given such subpar material.  But a little effort would have soothed the pain of sitting through this.  Everyone's favorite looney Christopher Lloyd turns up to do his thing, but like Culkin, his talents are wasted.  As for the three voice actors, Stewart, Goldberg, and Welker are annoying.

I would be lying if I said that the film is a total loss.  The animation is nice in a Don Bluth sort of way (Bluth had nothing to do with the movie, however), and there is an effective joke or two.

Still, this is a movie that's best left to the discount bin.  If you loved it as a kid, it's best to just keep it in your memories.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

I Am Chris Farley

2.5/4

Not Rated (probable R for Some Language)

When I was in college, I was browsing the bookstore one day when I came across a copy of "The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts."  Knowing little about him outside of "Tommy Boy" and the fact that he had died years before, I picked it up and paged through it.  Done primarily through quotes from his friends and family members, it was a surprisingly quick read (that said, I at first paged through it rather than read it from cover to cover, which I eventually did).  It was a genuinely moving and affecting experience.

It would be too much to ask for a film to duplicate that in 90 minutes.  Chris was to complex an individual for a standard-order biopic.  His psychological complexities were fascinating to probe.  By the same token, he was a complicated individual and a tremendously simple one.  It's impossible not to identify with him.  After reading the book and watching "Tommy Boy" again, I saw him in a new light.  I understood what made him so special.

Anyone who has seen "Tommy Boy" or any of his sketches (especially the "Motivational Speaker" ones) can attest to his talent.  What one will understand after seeing this movie is that it was as much a curse.  He was so successful at what he did that he used it to deflect attention from anything that was painful.  And as a perfectionist who was beset by insecurity, he had his demons.  Chris was also incredibly naïve, and when you're in a field as cut-throat and savage as show business, that can be an extreme liability.

The film does a good job of giving a rundown of Chris's all-too-short 33 years on this Earth and it has the virtue of being effectively presented.  But it is obvious that much was left out.  It's not hero-worship, but much of the darkness and pain that compromised Chris's personality has been smoothed over.  Or left out.

The unforgivable sin relates to Chris's relationship with his father, which is almost completely ignored.  For someone who had such a huge impact on his life (at times positive, but ultimately negative), this is a gross oversight.  Tom Farley Sr. loved his children (Chris especially), but he was very much an old-fashioned individual.  Very black and white, very reserved in showing praise.  More importantly, both of them were alcoholics and had extreme eating disorders, and both men's problems fed each other's.  However, no matter how much Chris's addictions were destroying them, Tom refused to even acknowledge them, for doing so, as one person in the book said, would mean acknowledging his own addiction.  For example, after one particularly destructive binge, Tom told his brothers to bring Chris home to "deal" with the problem.  But at the gate, he just beamed and asked if Chris's blazer was new.  Tom's advice about the movie business also hurt Chris.  At one point, he was offered millions to do "Beverly Hills Ninja," a movie that he had originally turned down.  But once his father heard of the salary, he told him to do it, and whatever Tom said, to Chris it was law.

Probably the best way to summarize the impact that their relationship had on Chris is a quote from Chris's brother, Tom Jr.: "Even though our dad was incredibly proud of Chris's career, Chris always suspected that what Dad really wanted was for him to settle down with a wife and kids.  It's like, no matter how successful you are, until you show that you can raise a good family you haven't really proved yourself.  That was the struggle that Chris always went through, wanting to be a family guy like Dad was and yet wanting the success in his acting life, too.  But very few people can make it work on both ends successfully.  If Dad had a choice, he would have been running for Congress or making deals on Wall Street with all his Georgetown buddies.  He'd given that up.  But Chris could never be content with his professional success, because he was living by Dad's barometer and not his own."

To be fair, the filmmakers do touch upon this, but not nearly enough.  The father-son part of his life and personality was too important to leave out.  You can't talk about Chris with talking about his relationship with his father.

For those who are interested, it's not a bad way to spend 90 minutes.  But it skips over far too much for me to recommend it outright.  Read the book instead.  Only then will you get a real sense of who Chris was.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Notorious Bettie Page

2/4

Starring: Gretchen Mol, Jonathan Woodward, Lili Taylor, Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, Sarah Paulson, David Strathairn

Rated R for Nudity, Sexual Content and Some Language

Of all the people to who could possibly have been titled "The Pin-Up Queen of the Universe," Betty Page was by far the least likely.  A doe-eyed girl from a small town, Bettie Page had the naiveté of a child and an a innocence to match, Bettie Page was more likely to be a teacher (which she attempted, but hated) or a housewife than a girl who posed for bondage pictures.

Betty did not have an easy start in life.  Her first marriage didn't last long and involved abuse, she was abducted and gang raped, and while the movie doesn't go into this, she and her sisters were molested by their father.  However, this stuff takes up about the first ten minutes.  The film is mostly about her career as a model for the S&M scene, and that's where things get interesting.  The contrast between the salacious nature of what she is doing and her eternally sunny personality is fascinating.

Unfortunately, the film is a bit of a mess.  Director Mary Harron, who made "American Psycho," has a lot she wants to say about the nature of sex and pornography (in a rarity for an American film, it's a positive message), but she doesn't find a good way to say it.  There's so much going on that it's impossible for her to keep it all straight.  A better focused screenplay would have done wonders.  Maybe it was the low-budget.

One thing she does get right is the lead performance.  As Bettie, Gretchen Mol is sensational.  There's no sense that she's acting.  She and her character have fused.  Mol is probably best known for playing Matt Damon's girlfriend in the overrated "Rounders," but here she proves that she is more than capable of holding a movie on her own.  She plays Betty as someone who is complicit in her actions but doesn't necessarily understand them.  To her, it's just modeling.  If she has to dress in goofy costumes or take her top off (or more)...oh well.  It also helps that Mol bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman she's portraying.  In fact, before her death, the real Betty Page said that Mol was prettier than her.

I also liked Jonathan Woodward as Marvin, her new boyfriend who loves her and wants to protect her.  He has a natural acting ability and charisma.  He also has good chemistry with his co-star.  Lili Taylor and Chris Bauer play the photographers who jump start her career.  David Strathairn appears in a small role as a leader of a congressional hearing into pornography.

Sadly, these subplots are left drowning in a sea of interesting yet underdeveloped material, none of which are satisfactorily tied up when the end credits roll (the film doesn't have a conclusion and ends too soon in Betty's life).  That's bad enough, but Harron's greatest sin is not focusing more on Betty.  She was a fascinating person and Mol's performance hints at a wealth of substance that Harron doesn't really attempt to mine.

Apparently, at one point, Martin Scorcese was developing a project about Betty Page with Liv Tyler, but it never got off the ground.  In a perfect world, Scorcese would have kept the project and taken Mol.  Sadly, it never happened.  And it's a pity that this movie is what we're left with.  Bettie and Mol deserved more.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

2.5/4

Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Material including Frightening Sequences of Threat with Some Violence, and Brief Language

Never before have I seen a movie so thoroughly shoot itself in the foot before the audience even sets foot in the theater.  Oh sure, movies have given away their secrets in trailers; comedies give away the best jokes, thrillers give away the gimmick, action movies give away the best stunts and special effects, and so on.  "10 Cloverfield Lane" stacks the deck by its title.  And for a movie where the central appeal is its ambiguity, that pretty much takes away the point of seeing the movie.

According to J.J. Abrams, who produced this and the original "Cloverfield," "10 Cloverfield Lane" is a "blood relative" of the original.  You'd be hard pressed to convince me of that without the title.  It's not a found-footage movie, it's got name actors, and the monster from the original doesn't show up.  If you don't have the format, the style or the monster, why change it from its original title "The Cellar" and rebrand it into a sequel it does not fit?

Easy.  Money.  "Cloverfield" was a hit, and Abrams and his crew thought they could bring in more money by changing a few things and calling it a sequel.  Judging by the box office, they were right.

Michelle (Winstead) is fleeing from her boyfriend (Bradley Cooper in a voiceover cameo).  While driving, she gets into a violent car accident (this is the most successful part of the movie...it literally made me jump).  When she wakes up, she's got a broken leg and is chained up in the basement by a large man named Howard (Goodman).  He claims that there was an attack of some kind and it's not safe to go out.  But is he telling the truth, or are his motives more sinister?

It's impossible for a movie starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead or John Goodman to be legitimately unwatchable.  They're too talented and too appealing to make something completely without merit (unless they star in a movie for Wes Anderson).  Sadly, they both sleepwalk through their roles, which takes a lot of the fun out of it.  One can hardly blame them; the script isn't very good and they weren't paid very much (the film's budget was $5,000,000...probably less than either of the stars have made for a single film).  Had they put in the work, it would have been marginally better, but not enough to save it.  Goodman makes a solid "is he or isn't he a "psycho," and Winstead does her low-key thing with spine.  John Gallagher Jr. is a scene stealer as the third person in the vault; he's appealing.

The film does a decent job of providing ambiguity, but because of the title we know the end.  And getting there, despite some decent action and one or two thrills, just isn't much fun.

Cloverfield

3.5/4

Starring: Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, Odette Annable, Mike Vogel

Rated PG-13 for Violence, Terror and Disturbing Images

"Cloverfield" was the first of its kind: a found-footage monster movie.  It wasn't the first film to present itself as being a documentary shot by the actors ("The Blair Witch Project," "The Last Broadcast" and others came first) nor was it the first movie about a monster attacking a major city (that category has too many entries to count, although it's clear that the film takes a lot of inspiration from "Godzilla").  Armed with a modest budget of $25 million and a brilliant marketing campaign, "Cloverfield" attempted something radical.  That it succeeded tremendously is only icing on the cake.

Rob Hawkins (Stahl-David) is a young guy leaving for a VP job in Japan.  His friends, including Lily (Lucas) and Hud (Miller), are throwing him a surprise send-off party.  Hud is tasked with recording well-wishes from all his friends.  But just as the party is getting underway, the power goes out.  Then there is an explosion in Midtown.  Lady Liberty's head flies down the street.  It soon becomes clear that this is not a terrorist attack, but a monster who has come to shore and is intent on destroying the city.

"Cloverfield" works for many reasons, but primarily because it doesn't shoehorn its characters into types.  They're real people and their actions and dialogue feel authentic.  The opening party, which introduces us to the characters works because it doesn't have a real plot.  This could be any party with people in their 20's and 30's.  A girl passes out on the couch.  Hud tries to flirt with the sexy Marlena (Caplan), even though she doesn't remember him.  There's awkwardness when Rob's friend Beth (Annable) comes, because they slept together and now that he's leaving, she has a new boyfriend.  Hud promptly spreads this around to the whole party.  And so on.  It's not great art, nor is it particularly interesting.  But that's precisely why it works.  It's the sort of thing that can happen to anyone.  It binds us to the characters (there are flashbacks with Rob and Beth that are conveniently inserted at "random" times...the explanation for this is quite clever) in a way that traditional filmmaking cannot.

It goes without saying that this wouldn't have worked if the actors didn't sell their characters.  They do.  They're completely average, and unlike some indie movies that try the "average guy" thing, it works because they reflect reality rather than imitate it.  They are all more than capable of holding our interest, something that the teens in "It Follows" were not.  The actors, none of whom had any idea what they were auditioning for, used this as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.  T.J. Miller has the comic friend type pigeonholed (he was the friend in "Deadpool"), Lizzy Caplan appears to get the roles that Zooey Deschanel turns down, and Jessica Lucas was in the godawful "Evil Dead" remake.  Ironically, the actor who gives the strongest performance is Michael Stahl-David, who hasn't had much of a career outside of this film.  He's tremendously warm and appealing, and if I may say so, adorable.

Director Matt Reeves understands how and why a horror movie works.  The power of suggestion is essential for a horror movie, and the handheld camera is utilized so well that it lets us see the creature(s) without getting a good look at them.  We only have just enough of an idea of what is there that our mind fills in the blanks.  And our minds are in overdrive.  While the shaky-cam had its detractors (and became an overused crutch for suspense), there's no denying that it works here.

While not groundbreaking like "The Blair Witch Project," there's no denying that it's tremendously effective.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

2/4

Starring: Michael Caine, Steve Martin, Glenne Headley, Anton Rogers, Ian McDiarmid

Rated PG (for Crude Humor and Mild Language...I guess)

On the French Riviera, Lawrence Jamieson (Caine) is an ex-pat who is looking for money to fund the fight against the communists in his home country.  He's so successful that one wonders why they haven't won yet.  It's because Lawrence is a British con man whose only goal is to enrich himself.  On the train, he spies Freddy Benson (Martin), con a nice lady into a free dinner.  Lawrence doesn't like competition, so he tries to drive Freddy out.  Eventually, they decide on a bet: whoever can con $50,000 out of Janet Colgate (Headley), the American Soap Queen, gets to stay.  The other has to leave.

It's an ideal set-up for a zany screwball comedy.  It even has the right director, Frank Oz, who is a master at this sort of thing.  Surprisingly, it misses the mark, and by quite a bit.  Pacing and energy are everything in this kind of madcap mayhem, and that's where the film comes up short.  I won't claim that there aren't any laughs to be found here, because there are.  It's just that it has no momentum or ferocity.  Ironically, Oz would go on to direct "Death at a Funeral," which had the manic drive that this film so desperately needed.

It's not the actors' fault.  Caine, Martin, and then-newcomer Glenne Headley give it their all, but they're trapped in a plot that is in dire need of Red Bull.  Few people play a droll Cockney Brit like Michael Caine, and he knows just how to tweak his persona for laughter.  And Steve Martin does his usual trademark shtick.  Tiny-voiced Glenne Headley got a breakthrough with her role here, playing the doe-eyed innocent who is unwittingly being taken advantage of by these two.  She's perfect for the role, adding vulnerability to the character that makes her both endearing and funny.

I'll be the first to admit that this sort of thing is hard to pull off.  Hollywood is littered with failures.  However, there is one movie of this sort that does succeed.  It's called "Heartbreakers."  It's faster-paced, much more clever, and a lot funnier.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Lincoln

2/4

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Lee Pace

Rated PG-13 for An Intense Scene of War Violence, Some Images of Carnage, and Brief Strong Language

I will claim that Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers that ever got behind a camera.  Three of his films, "Schindler's List," "Jurassic Park," and "Saving Private Ryan," are instant classics, and others are just a notch below (or equal, depending on who you ask).  So when you put in a movie that proudly bears his name, it's not unfair to expect something brilliant.  But Spielberg has been in a bit of a rut lately.  The last great movie he made was the fourth "Indiana Jones" movie which came out in 2008.  Since not everyone agrees with me, I'll say that he hasn't made something truly special since "Munich."  That was 11 years ago.  To be fair, nothing he has made since then has been awful, but there's no calling "Lincoln" anything but a misfire.

Unlike most biopics, "Lincoln" doesn't have a huge scope.  Although it's set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, Spielberg's attention is focused on the behind-the-scenes political conflicts revolving around Abraham Lincoln's attempts to pass the 13th amendment, which would free the slaves and end the civil war.  It's not a bad idea in principle, considering that Congress at the time was made up of backstabbing liars, racists and other shady characters (and you thought ours was bad...).  The problem is in the execution.

Steven Spielberg has always understood the importance of a good screenplay and not underestimating the intelligence of the audience.  Many of the screenplays he's built films from were brilliant ("Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List" are two examples).  But in hiring Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner to pen the script, he made a colossal mistake.  Kushner co-wrote the script for "Munich" with Eric Roth, but here he's on his own, and the results make one wonder if Roth did the lion's share of the work in the 2005 film.  The script for "Lincoln" might as well have been on a really big stage.  All the characters do is talk and talk, the sort of thing that happens on a Broadway stage.  It would be okay if they said anything interesting, but a substantial amount of the dialogue is pretentious babble that makes no sense.  I can't think of a time when Spielberg has misjudged his audience so badly.

With the exception of "War Horse," Steven Spielberg has always gotten strong performances from his cast.  Daniel Day-Lewis became the first man to win three Best Actor Oscars with his performance in this film (and the first thespian that Spielberg has directed to an Oscar win).  He does a superb job of inhabiting his character to be sure (the entirely convincing make-up helps), but the screenplay limits him too much to be able to do anything truly special with the character.  Sally Field is in top form as his wife Mary Todd, or Molly, as he affectionately calls her.  She grasps the character's fierce love and loyalty to her husband but also her mental instability.  Tommy Lee Jones is excellent as the fiery Thaddeus Stevens, whose support for the amendment is a liability.  Jones doesn't have much range, but here he's excellent in a role that perhaps only he could play.  Able support is provided by the rest of the cast, the names of which are impressive: David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, Bruce McGill, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson, Joseph Cross, Jared Harris, a vicious Lee Pace, Gloria Reuben, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jeremy Strong, Walton Goggins, Lukas Haas, Julie White and S. Epatha Merkerson.  And in small roles, you've got pre-fame Dane DeHaan, David Oyelowo, and Adam Driver.

Spielberg's trademarks are also muted or unsuccessful.  The work by his regular collaborators, editor Michael Kahn, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and legendary composer John Williams, is lacking all around.  The editing is at times sloppy and the score is so minimalist that it's quite possible to watch the film and not realize it even has one.  But the film's look is the most surprising aspect, and not in a good way.  Janusz Kaminski has won two Oscars for his daring and innovative camerawork in "Schindler's List" and 'Saving Private Ryan," but his work here is, well to be blunt, awful.  I guess the intent was to give the impression of natural lighting from the time period, but it doesn't work.  There is constantly so much backlight that it's impossible to see anything but the glare.  The outdoor scenes look great, but sadly this takes place mostly indoors.

It's not the concept or the vision of the material that doesn't work.  It's that Spielberg uses a misguided screenplay to explore it.  Skip this and watch "Amistad" instead.  It has a more compelling story, a coherent script, and it's an all around better movie.  If it wasn't 4:30 a.m., I'd simply pop it in right now.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Other Side of the Door

3/4

Starring: Sarah Wayne Callies, Jeremy Sisto, Sofia Rosinsky, Suchitra Pillai-Malik

Rated R for Some Bloody Violence

If you're going to mess around with the dead or the supernatural, be sure to follow the rules.  Seriously, has anyone outside of the "Scream" franchise ever seen a horror film?

Believe it or not, "The Other Side of the Door" is actually a good movie.  The story is too formulaic for it to be a great one, but the performances are top-notch, and director Johannes Roberts understands atmosphere and tension.

Maria (Callies) is not coping well with the death of her son.  Her husband Michael (Sisto) and daughter Lucy (Rosinsky) have moved on, but she has not.  After attempting suicide to escape the pain, her maid Piki (Pillai-Malik) offers her an opportunity to temporarily bring back her son to say her goodbyes and make peace with him.  When she does, she makes the mistake of allowing him back into our world.  When this becomes apparent, she's at first delighted, but there's a serious downside to having a ghost in the house...even if he's your dead son.

What surprised me about this movie is the strength of the performances, specifically Sarah Wayne Callies.  Known for her roles on the hit TV series "The Walking Dead" and "Prison Break," Callies is very, very good as a grieving mother.  This is especially noteworthy in a genre that is infamous for bad acting ("Strangeland" is one of many torturous examples).  I felt her grief and pain, and that goes a long way in selling a screenplay set in the supernatural.  Particularly if its as tired as this one.  The ever reliable Jeremy Sisto and Suchitra Pillai-Malik are also very good, but Callies is the real star of the show.

Johannes Roberts knows what he's doing.  He understands that in a ghost story like this, cutting the camera releases the tension.  He may move the camera and whatever is in front of it too fast at some points, but he does favor long takes.  And he's also good at setting up shocks.

Unfortunately, he and his cast are trapped in an underwritten screenplay that just when things are getting interesting, plays it safe and sticks to the formula.  There are a couple of twists, one or two of which I was not expecting, but the damage is done.

Let me tell you what I wanted to happen.  I wanted the film to explore Maria's grief more and have it drive the plot.  I know that sounds pretentious for a horror movie, but let me clarify.  The film's set-up is so strong and Callies provides a great foundation for something original to be done with her character, but the screenplay doesn't allow it.  As soon as the ghost story kicks in, it turns to formula.  Callies and Roberts do the best they can with the details, but there's only so much they can do with a screenplay that is stuck on autopilot.

Nevertheless, I do recommend the film.  A person who is looking for a pure horror film may not enjoy what I liked about it, but they will still see some great acting and some decent shocks.  These days, you can't ask for more than that in a horror movie.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

3.5/4

Starring: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina

Rated R for Pervasive Language, Some Sexual Content, Drug Use and Violent War Images

With a film produced by "SNL" heavies like Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels and starring Fey herself, you'd think that "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" would be a lowest-common-denominator comedy straight out of one of the sketches on the overrated show.  You'd be wrong.  Although Fey's new starring vehicle has its share of laugh-out-loud moments, it takes things more seriously than you'd imagine.

Kim Baker (Fey) is a copy writer at a news station who gets the chance of a lifetime: covering the war in Afghanistan as a reporter.  Of course, that means leaving her boyfriend behind, but he encourages her to go.  When she arrives, she finds herself out of her element and way in over her head.  But she's smart, savvy, and a quick learner.  She knows how to get sources and get good stories.  She makes friends with a hotshot reporter and falls in love.  The problem is that by the time she gets acclimated and finds her groove, people are losing interest in what's going on in this country (Iraq and Palestine are getting all the airtime), and she has to fight to get her stories on the air.

"Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" covers a lot of ground.  The process of reporting, ethics between journalists, culture assimilation, and the responsibility of reporters to their stories and the people they interview.  And that's in addition to the plot-related stuff, which is considerable as well.  Fortunately, Fey and Michaels hired directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa to helm the picture, and they know better than anyone how to balance multiple plot threads and themes with ease.  It's not as strong as "Crazy, Stupid, Love" ("Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" occasionally loses focus), but that does little to hamper the film's effective moments, which are considerable.

Anyone who has seen Tina Fey in just about anything knows that she can be very funny.  However, here Fey is attempting to inhabit a character, rather than fire off jokes and reaction shots.  She's effective, but not stand-out.  Fey certainly isn't bad, but I got the sense that the film would have been stronger with a more accomplished dramatic actress in the lead role.  Her co-stars, including it-girl Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton outshine her, but she can at least hold her own.  Alfred Molina is quite funny as an Afghani diplomat, even though someone from the Middle East should have played the role.  Also worth mentioning is Evan Jonigkeit, who plays a soldier that has a huge impact on Kim.  I won't say more about him except to say that he's very good (good enough that I wished he had more screen time).

Like many films, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" has been poorly marketed.  Those expecting a razor-sharp black comedy are going to be confused.  I doubt they'll be disappointed.

Monday, March 7, 2016

London Has Fallen

2.5/4

Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Alon Aboutboul, Waleed Zuaiter

Rated R for Strong Violence and Language Throughout

"Olympus Has Fallen" was not a very good movie, but it was an efficient one.  It made enough money to warrant a sequel.  Then again, that's not much of an accomplishment considering Hollywood's obsession with them.  It was a genre flick straight out of the 90's: a high-concept thriller that sold adrenaline at the expense of brainpower.  The problem was not that the story was unbelievable (that's to be expected), but that it was lame.  The new installment has a story that is simultaneously more ludicrous and more entertaining.

After his adventure in the attempted White House takeover, Mike Banning (Butler) is still the favorite Secret Service agent of President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart).  However, with the incoming arrival a new baby (his wife is once again played by the enormously talented Radha Mitchell, although she's stuck saying good-bye and crying at the TV), Mike has decided to retire.  But before that can happen, tragedy strikes: the Prime Minister of the UK has suddenly died, and all the world leaders are coming for the funeral.  Of course, it all turns out to be a trap, with terrorists impersonating cops and bombs blowing up everywhere.  Hundreds are dead, and after a failed escape attempt, Mike and Asher are stuck on the ground trying to stay alive long enough for get out.

It's totally preposterous, but that's okay.  Most action films are.  The good ones, however, do their best to hide it, or failing that, provide enough adrenaline that we don't notice.  Or care.  Director Babak Najafi is counting on the latter.  But the screenplay is so weak and the story so implausible that we do notice.  I must add though, that Najafi taps into our real fear of terrorism.  Whether or not that's in good taste is debatable.

Friendly Gerard Butler does what he does best: kick ass and take names.  He doesn't have the physique of Arnold or Sly, but he makes up for that in talent and charisma.  The role doesn't tax his limited abilities too much, but sometimes he growls his lines to the point where it's hard to understand what he's saying.  Aaron Eckhart once again plays the hostage (or something like that), and he does an effective job.  He also gets to do some gunfighting, which for a president is kind of odd, but hey, Harrison Ford did the same in "Air Force One."  The villains are adequate, but forgettable once the end credits roll.

The action scenes are effectively choreographed, but Najafi is definitely no John Woo (who should direct the sequel, if there is one).  Or Michael Bay.  They quickened my pulse a little from time to time, but not to the point where I don't have reservations about recommending seeing it in the theater.  On Blu Ray or Netflix is a different matter.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Zootopia

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrance, J.K. Simmons, Don Lake, Bonnie Hunt

Rated PG for Some Thematic Elements, Rude Humor and Action

Hollywood, for whatever reason, consistently underestimates the intelligence and imagination of their audience, especially in kids' movies.  How else do you explain something as jaw-droppingly stupid and inane as "Norm of the North?"  Pixar and Hayao Miyazaki in particular have bucked the trend, releasing movies that recognize that the vast majority of kids who actually go to the movies are able to speak in full sentences.  "Zootopia" adds to that list.  The plot is sophisticated without being dense and is unafraid of eschewing formulas and easy payoffs in order to make a quick and easy buck.  The filmmakers have worked hard to come up with new material and explore the possibilities of its premise.

The premise for "Zootopia" is gold.  What kid hasn't wondered what it would be like if animals could walk, talk and were able to function like humans?  It's a brilliant idea, and the filmmakers take full advantage of it.  World-building, especially in a fantasy like this, is key in a movie like this, and the writers and directors do a splendid job setting the stage.  Of course there is a suspension of disbelief, but the idea is so cool that even the most hardened cynic will have little trouble buying into it for a little less than 2 hours.

Judy Hops (Goodwin) is a bunny from a farming town.  All she wants to be is a cop in Zootopia, where anything is possible.  Her parents (Lake and Hunt) advise her against this, believing that there is no place for a bunny in such an important job.  But Judy is undaunted and after sailing through the academy at the top of her class, she sets out to make her dream come true.  When she gets there on her first day, her commanding officer, Chief Bogo (Elba), assigns her to the important task of...meter maid.  Judy pushes herself to perfection, believing that her hard work will pay off.  It doesn't, and when she confronts Bogo about being sidelined instead of solving a series of missing persons cases, he reluctantly gives it to her.  The catch is that she has to solve it within 48 hours, or else she gets the boot.  Her only lead is a street hustling fox named Nick Wilde (Bateman), who only agrees to help him after she turns the tables on him in a scene that is so clever and funny that it garnered applause from the audience I attended it with...started by me).

While "Zootopia" is rightfully classified as a comedy, that doesn't mean that it doesn't deal with mature themes.  Most prominent is the social and emotional price of stereotypes.  Trust between friends is also an important part of the film.  These aren't revolutionary ideas, nor are they new for kid's movies.  But they are dealt with honestly, and the characters are strong enough to sell it.  Betty and Nick lend weight and pathos to the film and its themes.

Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman are in top form as Judy and Nick.  They understand the concept of comic timing and character creation.  Judy has pluck and spunk while Nick is sly and evasive, however both have their reasons for being the way they are.  More importantly, they have chemistry.  We like them both and we like them more together.  Everyone else fills in their roles admirably, but this is really a two character show.

The film deals with adult themes, but they are handled in such a way that not even the prudish MPAA minded.  There's a hilarious sequence where Judy and Nick enter into a "nude" spa and a fairly obvious reference to "Breaking Bad."  However it must be said that none of this is in any way kid-unfriendly.  It's all played for laughs.  There's also a reference to "The Godfather," which is funnier in the film than it is in the trailer.

It would have been far too easy for the filmmakers to sell the film exclusively on its premise.  It's dynamite enough that they would easily have made just as much money, but they cared enough to go the extra mile and make something truly special.  And for that I will be eternally grateful.  We still have a few months to go before "Finding Dory," but I would be very surprised if another film tops this for the best animated film of the year.

Triple 9

1.5/4

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson, Clifton Collins Jr., Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Gal Gadot, Teresa Palmer

Rated R for Strong Violence and Language Throughout, Drug Use and Some Nudity

Am I the only one who's getting tired of these "gritty" crime movies that substitute graphic violence and frenetic camerawork for good storytelling, macho posturing and angst for character development, and angry guys with a perpetual five-o'clock shadow for people worth caring about?  Don't get me wrong, I'm as happy as the next guy that Hollywood has resumed making action movies for adults, but come on guys!  Who thought that "Triple 9" was actually worth releasing into theaters?

The set-up is promising, if more than a little derivative.  A group of corrupt cops, led by Michael (Ejiofor), who isn't a cop, are in debt with Irina Vlaslov (Winslet), a Russian Jewish mob boss.  Their last job had complications, but while it got done, Irina wants more.  However, this job is going to be more time-consuming than possible, given the response time to a bank robbery.  Being cops, they know that the only thing that will give them the time they need to pull it off is a 999, or the death of a cop.  Marcus (Mackie) volunteers his new partner, Chris (Affleck), whom he doesn't like, as the victim.  Also in the mix is Chris's uncle Jeff (Harrelson), who is a member of the Major Case Squad, and is investigating the robbery pulled off by Michael and his crew.

So it isn't the most original plot, but with a little TLC and a director willing to take some risks (not to mention some semblance of talent), it could have been a good, possibly even great, film.  Alas, we have John Hillcoat directing it.  As has been established by the previous entries on his resume, like "Lawless," he's the Michael Mann-equivalent of the Time Out New York crowd: he takes everything deadly seriously in an attempt to cover the fact that he's the emperor with no clothes.

Aside from giving the film more weight than it deserves, it's simply bad on its own level.  The story is a mess and rarely makes sense.  The characters, if one can call them that, are not only unlikable, but they're boring.  For example, Woody Harrelson plays a drunk who talks like his has a mouth full of chew and its too tough to express himself.  Granted, it's the kind of thing that he does so well, but he's been playing variations on the same character for the better part of the last decade.  It's grown so old that it's become irritating rather than riveting.  The other leads aren't even given that much dignity.  All of them have talent, but here, they're all interchangeable.  At least "Takers" had the decency to make the guys look sexy.  Hillcoat has them grunt and grumble their way through the disaster of a plot.

Really, do I need to say more?  A better question would be do I want to say more.  The answer is no.  Ignore this waste of time and watch "Heat" again instead.  You'll thank me later.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Species II

1.5/4

Starring: Michael Madsen, Marg Helgenberger, Natasha Henstridge, Justin Lazard, James Cromwell, George Dzundza, Mykelti Williamson

Rated R for Strong Sexuality, Sci-Fi Violence/Gore and Language

One could make the argument that "Species" was stupid fun.  Sure, it was cheesy, derivative and predictable.  But it contained some decent shocks and special effects.  It was at least watchable and passably entertaining; the kind of thing that will absorb you when you're having trouble sleeping at 3 am.  The same cannot be said about the sequel, which, in addition to being all of those things I listed, is dull, hackneyed and misogynist.

After Sil was destroyed at the end of the first film, the U.S. Government cloned the remaining embryo, dubbing it Eve (Henstridge).  The thinking is to study it in order to prepare for a possible attack by the beings who sent them the data in the first place.  She's been genetically modified to make her more docile, although that didn't work out well in the first film.

Meanwhile, NASA has just put a man on Mars.  The captain of the mission (and first man on the planet), golden boy Patrick Ross (Lazard), is an instant celebrity, but a 7 minute gap in communication with the ship raises some eyebrows.  Guess what really happened?

I won't claim that any of the characters in the original were three-dimensional.  Or even had much of a personality.  But they showed flashes of humanity that made them at least mildly sympathetic.  That's not the case here.  In addition to being shallowly written and personality-deprived, they're self-centered jerks.  Everyone is always yelling at each other.  Director Peter Medak mistakes snark for just being a jerk.

The less said about the acting, the better.  Michael Madsen and Marg Helgenberger are sleepwalking through their roles, doing little to hide the impression that they'd rather be anywhere else.  Natasha Henstridge, never an actress of great range, simply stands around looking hot.  James Cromwell is always nice to see, but he's wasted.  And Justin Lazard is as stiff as he is studly.  He has two modes: "smoldering" and that of a deer caught in the headlights.

Like the original, this film is loaded with sex, nudity and gore.  That led to some great eye candy, but that's not the case here due to the circumstances in which it occurs.  In the original, Sil was desperately looking for a mate so she could start the ball rolling on the extinction of the human race.  This time, it's Patrick's turn.  The ever-horny Patrick supposedly rejects mates if he senses any genetic flaws (something that is only used to allow Mykelti Williamson, who plays his co-pilot, Dennis Gamble, to tag along offering lame one-liners), but Patrick is constantly on the prowl, and as good-looking as he is, it's bad news for any woman who is turned on by his charms.  They tend to impregnate and then explode within a matter of minutes.  In one truly distasteful sequence, the suspense comes from watching Press and Dennis trying to catch up with Patrick before he rapes a lovely woman in a supermarket.  Very nice.

The first film is worth seeing if you have a lot of beer.  You'd best stay away from this one.