Friday, April 29, 2016

Kalifornia

3.5/4

Starring David Duchovny, Brad Pitt, Michelle Forbes, Juliette Lewis

Rated R for Strong Violence, and for Sexuality and Language

Be careful what you wish for.  You just might get it.

It's an old adage, but one with a lot of truth in it.  We all have our dreams, our visions for a life, that while not necessarily perfect, is at least idyllic.  We, as human beings, are also pulled to the darker side of our natures.  It is a part of being human to be drawn to the things that scare or disgust us.  We watch horror movies, we slow down to look at a car accident, we get a thrill out of seeing the hero triumph over the villain.  It's human nature.

One of the things that makes "Kalifornia" so effective is that it remembers this.  Not only that, this reality drives the characters, in their own way, and thus the plot.  Although one could classify this as a serial killer movie, it's an atypical one.  There is a tremendous amount of tension in this film, particularly at the end, but "Seven," it is not.  This is more of a road movie/character study than your traditional serial killer movie.

Brian Kessler (Duchovny) is a writer who is fascinated by serial killers.  He wrote an article that was good enough to get him an advance on a book deal, but he is stuck with writer's block.  His girlfriend, Carrie Laughlin (Forbes), is in a similar situation.  She's a photographer who also has a fascination with the lurid, but she can't catch a break.  Brian decides to leave their life in New York behind and head out to California, stopping by the sites of the most infamous murders along the way.  By placing himself in the scenes of the crimes, Brian will be able to write about them and Carrie will be able to photograph them.  To help with the expenses, they post an ad on a college bulletin board.  They're answered by Early Grayce (Pitt) and his girlfriend Adele Corners (Lewis).  Although Carrie is initially horrified when they turn out to be "white trash," the idealistic Brian points out that they don't have much of a choice but to allow them to join them.  It's a decision he's going to regret when he comes face to face with the very thing he is pursuing.

Do people become serial killers because of their experiences, or are they just born that way?  Brian thinks its the latter, and therefore thinks that serial killers should be treated and studied, not locked up and executed.  But as with many things, it's easier to make judgements from a distance.  It's another thing entirely when you're locked in the car with one.  Early and Adele rub Carrie the wrong way right from the get-go, but due to her polite, liberal nature, she doesn't put up much of a fuss.  Their values about themselves and their companions will be pushed to the brink by the end of this trip.

The performances are, with one exception, excellent.  David Duchovny is perfectly cast as Brian.  Duchovny is best known for playing Fox Mulder on "The X-Files," and his low-key acting style meshes well with the yuppie character he plays.  He views Early with a mixture of fear and fascination, and that clouds his judgement about a man who he should clearly stay away from.  Michelle Forbes usually plays strong women, and while Carrie is kind of a "go-with-the-flow" type of person, she knows who she is and isn't afraid to speak her mind.  The two actors have a lot of natural chemistry with each other, and their relationship between Brian and Carrie feels very real.

Their co-star, Brad Pitt, is very good.  As the unhinged hick, it takes a few minutes to buy megastar as a southern redneck, but I quickly forgot I was seeing the actor who routinely gets $20 million+ per movie.  Early is the classic psychopath.  He freely crosses the line between normal citizen and murderous lunatic with nary a thought.  Pitt is genuinely frightening in the role.  His co-star, Juliette Lewis, isn't as successful.  She does a good job, I suppose, but there's something about her performance that didn't work for me but I can't put my finger on it.  Adele is very innocent and child-like, and in denial about Early's violence.  She sees him as a protector and her devotion to him is unwavering.  She's meant to be a tragic figure, but I dunno.  I didn't feel much for her emotionally.

This is a smart and perceptive thriller that understands its characters through and through.  Unfortunately a few minor flaws keep it from a 4/4.  It's a few minutes too long for one thing.  The middle portion sags a bit here and there, and some tightening up on the editing stage would have helped (Early's speeches about a metaphysical door, while brief, don't work).  And the ending falls into the common trap of movies like this: rescuing the hostage, the final showdown, not hitting the bad guy when he's down, and so on.  That it's still done well soothes the wound, but a movie this intelligent and honest doesn't need to resort to that kind of thing.

"Kalifornia" isn't for the weak of heart.  This is a psychologically dark thriller that made me feel uneasy.  I mean that as a compliment, but I'm trying to illustrate that this is not for those who like fast paced thrillers or those with easy answers.  Ultimately Brian doesn't answer his questions (nor can he), but this is still a most excellent movie.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Road to El Dorado

2.5/4

Starring (voices): Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Rosie Perez, Armand Assante, Edward James Olmos, Jim Cummings

Rated PG for Mild Thematic Material and Language

Disney cornered the animation market since the release of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves."  But about 20 years ago (give or take), other studios wanted a piece of the pie.  Few of them were any good, and none of them could capture that Disney magic.  Although with franchises like "Despicable Me," DreamWorks Animation is on solid footing (this is the only animated film of theirs that failed to turn a profit), "The Road to El Dorado" has been all but for forgotten because it's a forgettable movie.

Tulio (Kline) and Miguel (Branagh) are two con men living in Spain in the mid-1500's.  In an attempt to escape the authorities, they end up on the voyage to the New World.  There, Captain Cortes (Cummings) throws them into the brig and plans to sell them to a plantation in Cuba.  With the help of Cortes's horse, they escape and end up on land.  There, with the map they conned off their opponents in the film's opening scene, they set off to find the city of El Dorado.  But they're not prepared for what lies in store for them when they get there.  The people there, led by the local chieftain (Olmos) and religious leader Tzekel-Kan (Assante), believe them to be gods.  Tulio and Miguel must keep up the con if they want to get away with the gold.  And their heads.

The problem with this movie is as easy to identify as it is common: it spends so much time trying to look good and appeal to every demographic that it forgets to tell an interesting story.  Disney movies, which director Bibo Bergeron, Don Paul and an uncredited Jeffrey Katzenberg are trying to imitate so desperately they're not even bothering to hide it, understood that while visuals are important, it's the characters and the stories that are the real draw.  The filmmakers, like so many other films, have completely underestimated both their own resources and the intelligence of their audience.  They have the cast, the story and the music (Elton John and Tim Rice are brought back after their work from "The Lion King"...another tie to Disney).  Why not let them do what they're good at?

Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh seem like a match made in heaven, and they are.  But the material they are given moves so fast that they can't show their stuff.  It's a shame, really.  Rosie Perez adds some spunk as the obligatory love interest.  She sizes them up almost immediately...and wants in on the con.  Armand Assante is vicious enough, making his character less a conspirator and more of a zealot.  Edward James Olmos and veteran Disney voice actor Jim Cummings appear in small roles.

In short, the film is fun if you're bored and need something to entertain the kids.  Without the necessary rewrites that allow the story and characters to breathe, it ranks no higher than "meh."

Karla

2.5/4

Starring: Laura Prepon, Misha Collins, Patrick Bauchau

Rated R for Brutal Psychotic Violence including Murder, Rape and Spousal Abuse, Disturbing Sexual Content and Strong Language

It is important to understand that the events in "Karla" cannot be accepted as 100% factual without reasonable doubt.  While there is no question that Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo were responsible in some way for the murders of three young women (including Karla's sister Tammy), the truth about who was behind it all is closer to a "he said, she said" case.  That's one thing that the film forgets, or chooses to ignore, and it's not to the film's benefit.

Karla Homolka (Prepon) knew from the second she saw him that she was going to marry Paul Bernardo (Collins).  Finding out that he was the Scarsboro rapist did little to dissuade her.  She loved him unconditionally, and that was enough.  She would do anything to please him, including letting him drug and rape her younger sister Tammy.  That ends with Tammy's death, but she still stands by her man.  It would take more years, more rapes and two more murders before she would have the courage to leave him.

At least that's her story, and the one that director Joel Bender tells.  Whether he actually believes Karla (she was diagnosed by psychiatrists as a borderline psychopath and showed no remorse for her actions) or is simply presenting the film from her point of view, I'm not sure.  Either way, it does the film a disservice.  Looking at the film objectively would have created a lot of ambiguity in the story, and made it much more interesting.  It would also have helped the film's credibility and pacing (the film gets repetitive after a while).

The acting is solid.  As Karla, Laura Prepon is adequate when she's low-key but she doesn't convince when she has to show much emotion.  She's too detached for her story to be believable, and that prevents the audience from having much sympathy for her.  Even when Paul repeatedly beats the hell out of her, she rarely seems to feel much.  This is partly due to the script with fails to give her the necessary psychological depth, but Prepon's limitations as an actress are on display.  More effective is Misha Collins, who regretted appearing in the film after the uproar it caused (the case is one of the most notorious crimes in Canada's history).  He's handsome and charismatic, but there is a viciousness to his personality that he does little to hide.  He's quite good.  As the doctor who is interviewing Karla (the majority of the film is presented in flashback), Patrick Bauchau has little to do.  But he is quite good nonetheless.  The best performances are given by Kristen Honey and Sarah Foret, who play the final two victims.  They're quite good, and lend heart and tragedy to their scenes.

In addition to neglecting the most interesting aspect of the story (and thus opening himself up to controversy), Joel Bender does a lackluster job of presenting the material.  The cinematography is bland (unvaried lighting, dull shot selection, etc), the pacing is erratic, and the violence, while brutal, feels held back.  A director who takes on a project like this must be fearless.  Bender seems afraid of pushing too many buttons.

"Karla" is many things, but one thing I can say for certain is that it is definitely not for everyone.  But for those who are curious, it's better than "Dahmer."  Not that that means much.

Hatchet II

3/4

Starring: Danielle Harris, Tony Todd, Kane Hodder, Parry Shen, Tom Holland

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong Bloody Horror Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity and Language

A movie like "Hatchet II" cannot be reviewed as a normal movie.  It's goals are different from a movie like "Halloween."  Or "Scream," for that matter.  None of it is intended to be taken seriously.  Well, not too seriously.  Like the first film, writer/director Adam Green finds the sweet spot between scares and laughs.  Also like the first one, he does so with gusto.

And does he ever!  While no one could argue that the original shied away from the red stuff (quite the opposite in fact), Green has upped the ante.  The ways the characters in this movie meet their grisly ends is over-the-top for even a horror movie.  Blood and body parts fly everywhere in quantities that exceed normal units of measure.  It becomes giggle inducing.  When a character gets strangled (with his own intestines...natch!) so tightly that his head pops off, it's impossible to take seriously.  And that's just how Green wants it to be.

Despite the fact that it was made four years later, the time elapsed between "Hatchet" and "Hatchet II" is about a second.  Marybeth Dunstan (Harris), the lone survivor of the ill-fated expedition in the previous film, has been rescued by a local (John Carl Buechler).  He cares for her until she tells him who she is.  Then he freaks and throws her out of his house.  He tells her to go see Reverend Zombie (Todd), who knows all about her past.  When she insists on going back for the bodies of her dearly departed father and brother (or what's left of them), Reverend Zombie agrees, although he has some ulterior motives that he neglects to tell her or her Uncle Bob (Holland).  So with a ragtag group of hunters that display just about every redneck stereotype you can think of, the set off to kill Victor Crowley.

Like most sequels, this isn't as good as the original.  Don't get me wrong, it's still a lot of fun.  Those who liked the 2006 film will like this one.  But the spark of inspiration is gone.  It's not as fresh or funny, and there are times when it seems like it was made to cash in on a "brand name."

The acting is solid.  Danielle Harris, best known for playing Jamie Lloyd in "Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Meyers" and "Halloween 5" takes over the role from Tamara Feldman, although she's clearly not the greatest actress.  Tony Todd is at his creepy best as Reverend Zombie.  Parry Shen returns, albeit not as the same character (he plays Shawn's brother Justin).  The role of Victor Crowley is once again played by Kane Hodder.

"Hatchet II" is pretty much what you expect it to be.  If you liked the first one, you'll have a great time.  If you didn't, skip it.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Adrenalin: Fear the Rush

0.5/4

Starring: Natasha Henstridge, Christopher Lambert, Andrew Divoff

Rated R for Gruesome Violence and Gore, and for Strong Language

Watching "Adrenalin: Fear the Rush," I wondered what writer/director Albert Pyun was trying to do with this film.  Was he trying to create a surrealistic nightmare?  Or was he trying to make Ed Wood look like Steven Spielberg?  Either way, I felt my IQ drop with every passing minute.  Fortunately the movie is 77 minutes long, so I can still eviscerate it in a review.

This movie is bad in a way that few movies are.  It's so bad that you watch it with some kind of mental distance.  I guess it's the brain's way of protecting itself from spontaneous combustion.  Dario Argento's "Opera" looks better with each passing minute.  At least that movie didn't repeat itself incessantly.

There's not much of a plot.  It's a post-apocalyptic chase movie, although based on the evidence, I'm guessing that is so Pyun didn't have to bother changing anything when he got on location (the film was shot in the former Soviet Union).  The cars say "Policia" and everyone drives a Yugo, despite the fact that it takes place in 2007.  And in the United States.

As the two cops who are hunting down a cannibalistic serial killer/monster/something, Natasha Henstridge and Christopher Lambert do what they can: try not to choke on their dialogue and pick up a paycheck.  And if the most interesting character in the film is played by Andrew Divoff (the guy who played the Djinn in the "Wishmaster" movies), one thing should be completely obvious: your movie is screwed!

Not that any of them are helped by the director.  Shot selection is static and unsophisticated.  The choreography of the numerous action scenes is incoherent.  The gore is fake and the violence is laughable.  For instance, in one scene, the killer shoots two people repeatedly.  Apparently in the same place and causing them to wretch in the exact same way.  In a nutshell, Albert Pyun is the poster child of ineptitude.

Apparently, Miramax saw something in this that I didn't.  Using their Dimension Films label (which releases genre films), they actually picked this up for distribution on video.  What were they thinking?  The moron who made that blunder must have been on some heavy drugs.  That's the only answer I can come up with.  Fortunately, Bob Weinstein heavily re-edited and re-shot the film.  It's just a pity he didn't cut out the final 77 minutes and spare humanity from the sad fate of watching this piece of crap.

TMNT

1.5/4

Starring (voices): James Arnold Taylor, Nolan North, Mikey Kelley, Mitchell Whitfield, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Patrick Stewart, Chris Evans, Mako, Ziyi Zhang

Rated PG for Animated Action Violence, Some Scary Cartoon Images and Mild Language

Watching "TMNT," I thought to myself, "At least it's not as bad as the last iteration that, despite earning universal derision, made enough money to warrant a sequel.  I also thought to myself, that's a totally backhanded compliment.

Unlike the disaster that made my Bottom 10 list two years ago, "TMNT" didn't threaten to drive me insane.  It's just deadly dull.  The story doesn't make a lot of sense, the action scenes are boring, and the jokes are lame.  For a movie that never had a hope of being taken seriously, that's a strike out.

After defeating the Foot Clan, their bitter rivals, the Turtles are bored.  Leonardo (Taylor) has gone to Central America for training, which builds a lot of resentment in his brother Raphael (North), who strikes out on his own as a lone superhero, dubbing himself "Nightwatcher."  Michelangelo (Kelley) is an entertainer at birthday parties for kids while Donatello is an IT guy.  Their friend April O'Neil (Gellar) is has a business finding and delivering ancient artifacts.  Her employer, Mr. Winters (Stewart), isn't who he says he is, however, and the Turtles will need to get their acts together to stop the apocalypse.

At bare minimum, the screenplay needed at least one more rewrite.  Preferably two to punch up the dialogue and the jokes.  Characterization is also weak; I could only tell the Turtles apart by what color bandana they had and what they were doing.  Aside from Raphael and to a lesser extent Leonardo, their personalities are virtually interchangeable.  Michelangelo and Donatello have essentially nothing to do.

The voice acting is also lacking.  The actors who voice the Turtles all sound alike.  Patrick Stewart is nice to hear, if only because there's no mistaking his pipes (and his talent).  Sarah Michelle Gellar has a lot of energy, but the limitations of her range are frequently on display.  Chris Evans is mostly unrecognizable.  Ziyi Zhang is a disappointment.  The enormously talented Chinese beauty is flat and uncharismatic here, leading me to believe that she had zero interest in the role and did the bare minimum to collect her (hopefully hefty) paycheck.

A word must be said about the animation.  I will say that it is done well.  Too well, in fact.  It's so realistic that it is at odds with the story.  It's too finished, too smooth.  A little more cartoon in this cartoon could have helped things.  And a better screenplay.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Rounding First

4/4

Starring: Soren Fulton, Matt Borish, Sam Semenza, Michael Dean, John Michael Bolger

Not Rated (Probable PG for Thematic Material, Rude Behavior including Drinking, all involving Young Teens)

With a movie like "Rounding First," you have to be a little forgiving.  The film was clearly shot with no budget, which means that it had to have been made very quickly with a minimal crew.  "Rounding First" has some problems, like stilted dialogue and some raw acting ("Confession," another fantastic no-budget movie, had some of the same problems), you'll find something much rarer and more valuable: good storytelling.  I don't know about you, but I'd rather watch an unpolished movie like this that manages to really involve me than a professional one that doesn't.

The year is 1980.  Joe Koerner (Fulton) is a 12-year-old who lives with his parents.  He idolizes his older brother Tommy (Aaron Fiore), who is a scholar living in Europe, even though they have never met (they communicate by telephone and letter).  However, his parents are constantly fighting.  Things are worse for his best friend Tiger (Borish), whose brother is dead, his mother gone and his dad is an alcoholic cop (Bolger).  To his surprise, Joe's parents have sent him to summer camp with Tiger (even though they think that he is a bad influence) and his other friend Chris (Semenza).  Believing that his parents are getting divorced, Joe and his friends ditch camp and head to Philadelphia to stop them.  Nothing will prepare them for the truth, however.

Beneath its rough exterior, "Rounding First" shows a surprising amount of depth and sophistication.  It can rightfully be claimed a "coming of age story/road picture," but there is a complexity to the characters and the plot that really involved me.  Writer/director Jim Fleigner (who appeared at the screening when I first saw this movie) doesn't force his characters to be dumb to move the plot along.  Far from it in fact.  These three are much smarter than anyone gives them credit for, although their knowledge of the world and their parents (or what they think they know of them) is limited.  Fleigner finds a way to convey this in a refreshingly honest way.

There's also a considerable amount of buried pain in many of the characters.  The reality of his parents splitting up terrifies Joe, particularly because of what happened to Tiger and his family.  Tiger is the walking definition of a problem child, but considering his family situation, it's understandable, and he uses wisecracks and ferocity to mask the pain.  For his part, Tiger's father Gene isn't as bad as he seems.  He's a drunk who loves his son more than anything, even if he has trouble showing it.  Only at the end do we fully understand him.

Also important is the guy who gives them a ride (Dean).  Despite being an incompetent thief (at one point, he robs a gas station but forgets the cash), he's the only one who understands these kids and that they have brains and feelings too.

"Rounding First" contains some clunky lines and off acting, but that's counterbalanced by more than a few scenes that are truly wonderful.  The interplay between the three friends is well-written and acted; I believed that they were friends and that they talked to each other this way.  Gene also has some nice scenes as the cop who, despite everything, is still looking out for his son.  And the relationship between Joe and Tommy feels honest and affecting.

Mention must be made about the film's climax.  To call it perfect would understate matters.  It's as shocking as the one in "Seven" with the emotional weight of the one in "Atonement."  However, Fleigner doesn't try to blindside us.  Looking back we can see that the pieces were there, but Fleigner has constructed the story in such a way that not only does the twist hold up in retrospect, we weren't expecting one.  That kind of sleight-of-hand is something that eclipses even the most seasoned filmmakers.

Lest I make this seem like this is too mature or painful for the young ones, rest assured it is not.  This is great family entertainment.  And while the ending may be a gut punch that totally blindsides the viewer, the lasting impression is of a wonderful story about growing up that ends with a message of hope.  A film that can do that deserves to be treasured.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Barbershop: The Next Cut

2.5/4

Starring: Ice Cube, Regina King, Common, Eve, Nicki Minaj, Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Rainey Jr.

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Material and Language

I haven't seen the first three installments of the popular "Barbershop" franchise, nor "Beauty Shop," the spin-off with Queen Latifah.  However, this is more or less a stand-alone movie.  I expect those who are well acquainted with Calvin (Cube) and his crew of hairstylists on the South Side of Chicago will get more out of it, but I never got too lost myself.

Calvin is still running the barbershop with his group of a half dozen or so barbers.  They trade trash talk and quips about this and that, particularly about their lives and the men and women living in it.  However, the violence is getting to Calvin.  His son Jalen (Rainey Jr) is getting into fights and toeing ever closer to moving his shop to the North Side.  But after ex-barber turned politician Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas) proposes building a gate to contain the bloodshed (which will dramatically cut down on the shop's business), Calvin and Co. decide to take it upon themselves to fix the neighborhood.  They get the rival gang leaders together to declare a cease-fire for a weekend and offer a weekend of free haircuts.

For a comedy, the humor is the least successful aspect of it.  In addition to being neither funny nor particularly insightful, it's not there.  The running plotline about the free weekend of haircuts takes up most of the running time, but it doesn't make a lot of sense.  The most successful part of the film is Calvin's attempts to keep his son away from gang life.  It works because director Malcom D. Lee has a better feel for dramatic material and the relationship between father and son works.

"Barbershop: The Next Cut" has something to say.  It knows that gang violence is a huge problem, but it also understands that the problem is too complex for simple fixes.  The anger in this aspect of the story is felt, but not over-played.  The film is not a rant.  Instead, it's about finding a solution.  While the one proposed here is too simple to be applicable in the real world, the ideal rings true and is illustrated with enough realism that any potential preachiness is minimal.

The acting is solid, but the writing is too weak and the tone too simple for anyone to do anything special.  Ice Cube is fine in the highly charged moments, but has trouble in the quieter scenes.  Cedric the Entertainer, the franchise's breakout actor, is supposed to be funny, I guess, but I couldn't understand a damn thing he was saying.  Of the supporting characters, the only ones who get any screen time are Rashad (Common), Terri (Eve) and Draya (Minaj).  Their subplot about communication in a relationship rings true, even if it could use a little more subtlety.

"Barbershop: The Next Cut" is like that.  It's not great, but it's at least not a trial.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Mike's Musings: All About the Fans

Where would we be without our fans?  Cards fans at Busch Stadium on Opening Day (I was there, despite not being a particularly big baseball fan), comics fans at Comic Con.  And so it goes.  I have nothing against fandom itself.  I'm a huge "Halo" nerd and love the universe that the people behind the games have created.  But when does it go too far?

With the rise of the internet, fans have found places to share their love of whatever brings them together.  Be it comics or "Star Wars," what have you.  Studios have found a way to target this and make boatloads of money off it.  Hats off to them for figuring out how to make geekdom cool.  But we have come to a point where pleasing the fans has overtaken everything else.

Easter eggs and references to other works are not new.  In one way or another, they've been around forever in storytelling.  I'm reading "Paradise Lost" in one of my classes, and it's filled to the brim with nods to other stories.  That's all well and good as long as they're not the focus of the film or story.  These days, that's what we get.

It all started proper with "The Avengers," a film directed by hack writer and filmmaker named Joss Whedon.  He's not a very good writer and an even worse filmmaker.  But "The Avengers" worked because he understood the fan mentality.  A huge comic nerd himself, he knew all of the in-jokes and ways to reference the comics (and managed to get the ball rolling on putting a Stan Lee cameo in every subsequent Marvel movie).  But to someone who isn't a die-hard superhero fan steeped in superhero lore (such as myself), I saw it for what it really was: a mediocre film that ripped off of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" almost plot point for plot point.  And as I said then, say what you want about Michael Bay (the man is hard to defend these days), but he knows how to appeal to the eye and is a better storyteller than Whedon.

I get it.  Easter eggs allow us to revisit old memories and raise our endorphins, even if for a moment.  They're a love letter from the filmmakers to those who have followed the franchise for ages.  They make us feel special, as if the director is speaking to them.  I watched "Speed 2: Cruise Control" again last night and had a chuckle when Sandra Bullock made a comment about a bus going too fast at the end of the film.  However, what started as a kind gesture from the filmmakers has become the sole focus of the film.

One of the reasons I didn't like "Deadpool" (I've seen it twice, but I was late the first time and by the time I saw it again it was too late for a review to be relevant) is that the need to appease the fans took precedence over everything else.  There were nods to "X-Men," "Star Wars," and geekdom as a whole.  The filmmakers were targeting the fans, and only the fans.  The plot was trite.  The villain was undeveloped.  And while Ryan Reynolds was fine in the role, it was again all about the in-jokes.  The only thing worthwhile was the lovely performance by Morena Baccarin as the romantic interest.  That said, a far greater problem was T.J. Miller's attempts to mimic Seth Rogen; his "hangry" riff and his multiple descriptions of Wade Wilson's new appearance were enough to make me wish Deadpool would have killed him after the first five minutes (preferably as brutally as possible).

It's gotten to the point where Easter eggs have become walking advertisements for future installments.  "Batman vs. Superman," "The Avengers: Age of Ultron," "Guardians of the Galaxy."  They're filled with little hooks to not just to appeal to fans, but to make them see the next movie.  It's like an addiction.  Is it wrong to want a see a movie that has a beginning, middle and end?  Don't get me wrong, I'd love to see a sequel to "Brotherhood of the Wolf" (considering that it's been a decade and a half since it was released, such a film is unlikely unless it's remade in the U.S.), but it tells a complete story.  It doesn't make me feel like I need the next chapter.

Movies these days are not about telling stories anymore.  They're about satiating a need and raising fan demand for the next installment.  At this point, it feels like the superhero/sequel/remake obsession will never end, and for someone who would give anything to see another big budget movie where no one wears a cape or skintight suit, that means I'm going to cry myself to sleep and find appreciation in lame movies like "Turbulence" for the sole reason that they're not associated with Marvel or DC.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Eye in the Sky

4/4

Starring: Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Phoebe Fox

Rated R for Some Violent Images and Language

Roger Ebert had a term for movies like "Eye in the Sky:" the "bruised forearm" movie.  It refers to the arm bruises of the person next to you from grabbing them during the most intense scenes.  "Eye in the Sky" is definitely a "bruised forearm" movie.

A British army officer named Katherine Powell (Mirren) is tasked with capturing a British national turned terrorist for al-Shabaab.  Assisting her are a pair of drone pilots, Steve Watts (Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Fox).  She is being watched by a group of politicians and Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Rickman).  Katherine's mission is to capture her alive, but circumstances dictate more drastic measures.  Political infighting puts the brakes on her plan, but just as she gets the green light for a strike, there's a new and terrifying wrinkle in play: a young girl has started selling bread right in the kill zone.

It's a great concept, and director Gavin Hood (who appears on screen in a minor role as Steve and Carrie's superior) keeps piling on the complications.  Just when you think that things couldn't get more intense, they do.  "Eye in the Sky" is one of the best kinds of thrillers: not only is it tremendously effective at raising the adrenaline, it succeeds at getting the audience to have an emotional investment in the outcome.

Hood understands the importance of claustrophobia (literal and figurative) in thrillers.  The majority of the film takes place in small, cramped rooms.  Even when it does venture outside, the shots are tight and we only have a limited view of what's going on.

Coming from an independent film background, it's no surprise that he also knows how important strong performances are.  He directed the surprisingly sensitive "Tsotsi," which one the Best Foreign Film Oscar nearly a decade ago.  As much as I liked that movie, this one is better.  The story is stronger, and the tension is more real.  Hood inserts some low-key gallows humor at the expense of the bickering bureaucrats who keep passing the buck, but Hood is smart enough to use that to enhance the story.  As amusing as it can be, it raises the stakes as well.

The performances work, but no one does any showboating.  The actors understand that the story is strong enough to stand on its own without any showing off.  Helen Mirren is wonderful as always, and has little trouble convincing us that she's a military career woman.  Alan Rickman, in his final live-action role, is also very good as the general negotiating with the diplomats.  The real star is Barkhad Abdi.  Although he had no interest in acting before being selected for "Captain Phillips" (and getting an Oscar nod in the process), he's a natural talent.  He gives the best performance in the film as the man on the ground caught in a precarious situation.

"Eye in the Sky" is a smart and highly attuned thriller that will leave you completely drained, and that's a compliment.  This is one of the year's best films.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Hide and Seek

1/4

Starring: Robert DeNiro, Dakota Fanning, Famke Janssen, Elisabeth Shue, Dylan Baker, Melissa Leo, Amy Irving

Rated R for Frightening Sequences and Violence

"Hide and Seek" is as familiar as an old shoe and done worse than any of its other incarnations.  I'm not going to mention any titles, but suffice it to say, I'd be willing to bet you've seen this movie before.

David Callaway (DeNiro) awakes in the middle of the night to a horrifying scenario: his wife Alison (Irving) has just died, having slashed her wrists in the bathtub.  Worse still, his daughter Emily (Fanning) has seen the bloody aftermath.  Despite his friend Katherine's (Janssen) advice (she's also his colleague), he decides to move upstate to get away from it all and let Emily heal.  They move to a quiet town in upstate New York where everyone is friendly but suspicious.  David hits it off with a young aunt named Elizabeth (Shue) who has a daughter Emily's age.  But Emily has already made a new friend whom she calls "Charlie."  Charlie is imaginary, which Katherine reassures David is okay, but then disturbing things start happening around Emily, making him wonder what is really going on.

This is what happens when you take a Z-list script and make mistakes all the way through.  The story is lame and the execution is awful.  I think the idea here is that with an all-star cast it would be salvageable, but that goes with the understanding that the actors are trying.  That's definitely not the case here.

Robert DeNiro is rightfully considered to be one of the greatest actors who's ever lived.  The list of stupendous performances to his name is astonishing.  Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver."  Neil McCauley in "Heat."  Dwight in "This Boy's Life."  This, however, is not one of his finest moments.  Whether he is miscast or simply not trying, DeNiro does not impress.  His younger co-star, Dakota Fanning (who took a pay cut to have her name on the marquee next to DeNiro's), does what she can, but she's given so little to work with that even with her considerable talents, there's little that she can accomplish.  Famke Janssen steals her scenes, but she's strictly supporting.  The best performance goes to the always good Melissa Leo as a grieving mother, but her character is superfluous.  Still, the film would have been better served had director John Polson concentrated on her.

Making movies is hard.  Even if you've never tried, one can imagine the logistics needed to complete a feature film, much less make it a good one.  Which is why I would tell John Paulson if I could that he should probably leave it to the professionals.  This is Inept Filmmaking 101.  This is a slow-burn mystery, but because he doesn't get the pacing right, it comes across as dull.  Every thriller contains red herrings and twists, but the best ones only raise our suspicions and make us question what we think we know about where the film is going.  Paulson highlights them with floodlights.  And the climax, which should have been shocking, is catatonic (if the audience isn't asleep already).

With movies this bad, you gotta wonder why anyone thought this would be a good to film in the first place.  I can't answer that.

Hardcore Henry

3/4

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Hayley Bennett, Tim Roth

Rated R for Non-Stop Brutal Bloody Violence and Mayhem, Language Throughout, Sexual Content/Nudity and Some Drug Use

"Hardcore Henry" lives up to its name.  And then some.  Many action movies, such as "Sin City" or the Paul Walker thriller "Running Scared" have gone "over-the-top."  "Hardcore Henry" leaves them in the dust.  Not only is it told almost entirely in the first person, it contains a number of sensational action sequences that even in a normal movie would be impressive.

"Hardcore Henry" has a plot, although a thin one that makes no sense.  Twenty minutes into this picture I gave up trying to follow it.  All you need to know is that Henry wakes up and is suddenly a superhuman cyborg with no memory and a megalomaniac named Akan (Kozlovsky) wants him for his own ends.  His only ally is Jimmy (Copley), a guy who appears to know everything but keeps getting killed only to reappear alive again...sometimes moments later in different costumes (and personalities).

Most action movies have some sort of gimmick; a hook to bring in audiences.  These days it's raising the bar on superheroes or brand-name franchises, but before "Spider-Man" started the ball rolling summers at the multiplex were filled with movies like "Hardcore Harry:" energetic roller coaster rides where adrenaline replaces intelligence.  True, none of them were the equivalent of a live action first-person-shooter video game, but that's what technology gets you.

Is it possible to discuss the performances?  Not really.  The film doesn't slow down enough for anyone to act, much less create a character.  Sharlto Copley is having a ball creating various weirdos, ranging from a paraplegic to an 80's punk rocker with a penchant for bloodshed.  Danila Kozlovsky is more campy than threatening as a telekinetic villain, although in something this silly, that's an asset.  Hayley Bennett's job requires little more than being able to look attractive and scream.  And Tim Roth shows up for about 60 seconds total in two flashbacks.

"Hardcore Henry" is a bloody, brutal action movie, and after all the superhero pretenders that have dominated the market for the past decade and a half, it's refreshing.  This isn't just an R-rated movie but a very hard R rated movie.  Blood splatter is everywhere, body parts get severed, stabbings, throat slitting...hell, it's more violent than your average slasher movie.  But it has a morbid sense of humor that keeps things from becoming too grim.  It's like "Shoot 'Em Up" mixed with "Run Lola Run" and taken to the next level; when the lead character is standing on a truck and drops a grenade and you land on a motorcycle during the explosion, it's impossible to take any of it seriously.

This is heaven for action movie lovers.  Do yourself a favor and ignore the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader, and take this wild ride.

Kiss the Girls

2/4

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Bill Nunn, Richard T. Jones, Jay O. Sanders, Cary Elwes, Gina Rivera

Rated R for Terror, Violence and Language

"Kiss the Girls" starts out strong, but when the second half comes around, it all falls apart.  An initially smart script dumbs down, editing problems abound, and the dreaded "talking killer" syndrome rears its ugly head not once, but twice.

Forensic psychologist and best-selling author Alex Cross (Freeman) has just received some bad news: His niece Naomi (Rivera) has been missing for four days with no leads.  When he gets down to Durham NC to investigate, he learns that she's just the latest in a string of kidnapping victims, and her life is in extreme danger.  His only lead is Dr. Kate McTiernan (Judd), a brilliant young doctor who managed to escape the man's clutches.

Okay, it's not Shakespeare, but as far as gimmicks for serial killer movies go, it's decent enough.  The problem lies in the execution.  Not having read the book, I can't comment on whether or not the film's shortcomings have anything to do with the source material, but I will say that the film is based on a book by James Patterson, one of those authors who seems to have three new books available every time you walk into Barnes & Noble.

At least the filmmakers assembled a strong cast.  Morgan Freeman adds a huge dose of class to the film, managing to make his role seem deeper than it actually is.  Ashley Judd brings an inner fire to a badly written part, but she's like Cate Blanchett or Nicole Kidman: if she's in the movie, it's hard to complain too much.

Director Gary Fleder knows how to make a good thriller (he directed the underrated chiller "Don't Say a Word"), but here his work is hat of a director-for-hire.  It's a by the numbers mystery with no style or panache.  The script is pedestrian.  There's little atmosphere to speak of.  The villain has a creepy voice, but that's as far as he goes.

It isn't a disaster, but it should have been a lot better.  Stick with Morgan Freeman's earlier serial killer movie "Seven."  This is strictly late night cable fare.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Demolition

1/4

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, Heather Lind

Rated R for Language, Some Sexual References, Drug Use and Disturbing Behavior

I hate it when characters babble nonsense in an attempt to sound deep and interesting.  I also hate it when the director shows off visually to convey some abstract concept when he doesn't have a clue how to do it.  Despite the presence of the supremely talented Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper, "Demolition" is a real trial because it does both of those things.

Davis (Gyllenhaal) has just lost his wife Julia (Lind) in a car accident.  Most people would be reduced to tears, rage against fate and the world, and finally accept reality and move on with their lives.  Not Davis.  Davis is numb to the world, and by his own admission has been for some time.  However, this newfound freedom has opened his eyes to his pointless existence.  Davis has what one might call an "existential crisis:" he has an affair with Karen (Watts), the customer service rep who was moved to tears when he told his story in a complaint letter to the company whose vending machine ate his money, skips out on his cushy job led by his (ex) father-in-law Phil (Cooper) in favor of destroying everything he can get his hands on.

Grief does strange things to people.  We all know that.  Some cry, some laugh, some don't know how to react.  Many movies have shown this.  "In the Bedroom" is one such example, but "Demolition" isn't about grief.  It isn't even about the superficiality of "yuppie-dom."  Hell, I don't even know what the film was about.  The filmmakers certainly don't.  The closest similarity is "American Beauty," although comparing the two is an insult to the film that took home the top award in 2000.  That movie had wit, intelligence and insight.  This movie is a void.

Director Jean-Marc Valle adopts the same low-key, minimalist tone that he used in his previous features, "Wild" and "Dallas Buyers Club."  His intent, to show that Davis is no longer affected by anything or anyone around him, is obvious.  Valle also plays with the timeline and adds abstract dream sequences that don't appear to be dream sequences.  His intent is obvious there too: to show Davis' scrambled mental state.  But there's a way to do this without threatening catatonia on the viewer, and Valle is without a clue as to how.  This is a sterile motion picture about people who are as boring as the film.  There's no reason to care about any of them except for that they're played by talented actors.

In addition to being boring, they're also unlikable.  Davis acts like a self-centered boor to just about everyone, especially to his grieving in-laws.  He's the "me-first" mentality at its second-worst (after Patrick Bateman).  Karen stalks a grieving widower and has the nerve to have a fling with him while caring for a pre-teen who is in desperate need of counseling.  In addition to having issues with his sexuality, he's prone to violence.  At one point, he paints a target on the bathroom mirror and aims a gun at it.  Karen doesn't know this, but Davis spots him, and what does he do?  Takes him target-shooting in the woods and even invites the kid to shoot him while he's wearing a bulletproof vest.  I don't know about you, but spending time with these people is an idea that gets worse with every passing minute.

I think I've made my point clear enough.  "Demolition" was a bad idea right from the star, and they made mistakes all the way through.  Even Gyllenhaalics should avoid this one.

The Boss

2/4

Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Ella Anderson, Peter Dinklage, Tyler Labine, Kathy Bates

Rated R for Sexual Content, Language and Brief Drug Use

Watching "The Boss," you get the sense that it was heavily improvised.  That's fine.  After all, some of cinema's best scenes and lines were improvised.  But there's good improv, and bad improv.  Good improv is where actors and filmmakers make up lines and scenes that fit in with their characters and story.  Bad improv is when actors say whatever is on their mind without knowing what they are doing (i.e. repeating yourself over and over again).  Some of the best improvisers are Bill Murray, the late Robin Williams, and the late Chris Farley.  Some of the bad ones are Seth Rogen, James Franco, and the like.  Comedy, like all drama, has to move forward, evolve, whatever you want to call it.  Merely saying the same thing over and over again may be improv, but it's not funny.  Unfortunately, that's the rage these days in comedy, and it's a mistake that the people who made "The Boss" make.  Repeatedly.

Michelle Darnell (McCarthy) is the most powerful businesswoman in the world.  The's the CEO of three Fortune 500 companies and more money than God, apparently.  Her seminars have more pizzazz than a BeyoncĂ© concert.  However, her lover-turned-rival Renault (Dinklage) catches her doing a little insider trading and after he tips off the cops, she's arrested.  While in Club Fed, her assets are frozen and her possessions are sold off.  Essentially, she's in the poorhouse.  And the only one she can count on is her old assistant, Claire (Bell).  Out of options, she is forced to share the apartment with Claire and her daughter Rachel (Anderson).  However, she sees a way to get back on top when she tastes one of Claire's brownies, and enlists Rachel's friends to help her.

When the bits are short, they work.  However, Ben Falcone (McCarthy's husband) doesn't cut off his actors when they're grasping at straws.  I guess it's meant to lead to "awkward humor," but it doesn't work.  It's just irritating, and brings up to mind Seth Rogen and his crew of stoners when they are left to their own devices.

The biggest laughs come during the parts where Michelle is rebuilding her empire.  There's some inspired comedy here, especially her rivalry with Helen (Annie Mumolo, co-writer of McCarthy's breakout hit, "Bridesmaids").  Seeing the foul-mouthed Michelle stick it to a helicopter mom from hell is hilarious.  How this ends up in a full-on brawl on the streets of Chicago is something best left unspoiled.

McCarthy is the central character, but she's supported by an able cast.  Few actresses are more adorable than Kristen Bell, and while Bell doesn't have a better feel for improv than anyone else in the cast or the director, she does understand the concept of comic timing and light drama.  Ella Anderson manages to be endearing without being so cute you want to strangle her.  And Peter Dinklage appears to be enjoying himself as an effeminate, samurai-obsessed villain, but he's not that funny.  Since he's so talented, I fault the script.

"The Boss" is by no means a terrible movie, and it's not going to come anywhere near my Bottom 10 list.  But it frequently loses focus (that there are three credited screenwriters may be to blame) and Falcone doesn't know what works and what doesn't.  If you want to see it, better wait til Netflix.

Friday, April 8, 2016

A Little Princess

3/4

Starring: Liesel Matthews, Eleanor Bron, Liam Cunningham, Vanessa Lee Chester, Rusty Schwimmer, Arthur Malet

Rated PG (for Cruelty...I guess)

I heard, or possibly read, somewhere that kids movies are at their best when they give kids the impression that they can have an impact on the world.  I can't remember for the life of me who said it, but it's so true.  These days, with all the marketing blitzes and brand names and cute little supporting characters, kids, even if they're lucky enough to be at the forefront of a movie, rely on others for help.  That's not the case here.  The lead character is a little girl named Sara, and she matches wits with war, chance and the meanest matron ever to run a boarding school.  And comes out on top.

Sara Crewe (Matthews) lives with her father (Cunningham) in India, where he impresses upon her that, despite not being "royalty," is a princess.  But war is coming, and he must leave Sara in the care of Miss Minchin (Bron), who runs a boarding school in New York City.  With her imagination and gift for storytelling, Sara quickly becomes the most popular girl there, but also the bane of Miss Minchin, whose love of rules borders on sadism.  Miss Minchin sees her chance to break her new ward when she gets disturbing news about Sara's father.  Now broke and alone, Sara must stay at the school not as a student, but a servant.  What Miss Minchin doesn't count on is the strength of Sara's spirit.

In his American debut, Alfonso Cuaron seeks to replicate that rare movie magic which made us fall in love with movies in the first place.  "A Little Princess" doesn't rely on stars, special effects, or brand names for its success.  Rather, it achieves it through something much more rare and much more powerful: good old fashioned storytelling.  It's rare that a movie finds that "sweet spot," especially in a kids' movie, but Cuaron gets it mostly right.

The acting has its rough spots here and there, but on the whole it impresses.  Making her screen debut is Liesel Matthews.  One of the heirs to the Hilton hotel chain, Matthews shines with warmth and goodness, exactly the qualities needed to play the title character.  Matthews (who chose the surname after her brother as opposed to her real one, Pritzker, after a herculean fight between her family) gets us to believe in magic, and is more than capable of holding her own against her co-stars.  Eleanor Bron makes for a mean old witch, but she has her reasons for hating Sara as much as she does...reasons that we understand but don't sympathize with.  Liam Cunningham, looking very much like Jason Isaacs, is a real surprise.  Known mainly for playing tough, intense characters in "Game of Thrones," "Centurion" and in particular "Dog Soldiers," Cunningham is filled with warmth and love.  He and Matthews have a lot of chemistry together, and I was able to feel their bond from their first scene.

There are so few movies out there for young girls, and most of them are horrible.  They send the worst kind of messages and are of the lowest quality of filmmaking.  Fortunately, here is an exception.  If only Hollywood would make more movies like this...


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Welcome to Sarajevo

2.5/4

Starring: Stephen Dillane, Marisa Tomei, Goran Visnjic, Emira Nusevic, Woody Harrelson, Kerry Fox

Rated R for Brutal Images/War Atrocities and Language

After viewing Angelina Jolie's directorial debut, "In the Land of Blood and Honey," another movie about the Bosnian War, I wrote, "Someday, someone is going to make a brilliant and innovative film about the Bosnian War, if they haven't already."  While "Welcome to Sarajevo" shows flashes of greatness, they are in the midst of a meandering story without much focus or characters we can truly latch onto.

Michael Henderson (Dillane) is a reporter covering the Balkan conflict, along with his colleagues Jane Carson (Fox), Annie McGee (Emily Lloyd) and hotshot American reporter Flynn (Harrelson).  Violence and death are a daily reality here, and they cope with it the best they can.  But the constant danger and death and the "all talk" bureaucracy wear down on Michael, and he makes the mistake of becoming emotionally invested in the fates of those at an orphanage that's directly in the face of danger.  Specifically, a young girl named Emira (Nusevic).  So when an aid worker (Tomei) has a way for the babies to get out, he cons his way into rescuing Emira.  That's just the start of his ordeal, however.

The first 45 minutes are the most problematic.  The narrative lacks focus and just kind of spins its wheels.  Director Michael Winterbottom's intent is obviously to give a slice of life look at war reporters, but the screenplay is too weak and his direction is too distant to support such an endeavor.  There are moments of carnage that are difficult to watch, but they would have had a greater impact with stronger characters and better direction.

Once Marisa Tomei enters the picture, the film finds its groove, at least for a while.  The story becomes better realized and the film gets out of neutral.  However, it descends into a family melodrama that while not necessarily bad, isn't nearly as interesting.

The performances work.  Stephen Dillane, an English character actor who probably deserves more roles than he gets, is an effective anchor.  He's an everyman, but Dillane doesn't get drowned out by the chaos around him.  Marisa Tomei is always welcome on screen, although this isn't the best example of her talents.  Woody Harrelson is on hand for some gallows humor, but his character is superfluous; take him out, and the film wouldn't change at all.  Emira Nusevic manages to give a natural, although not spectacular performance.  She's effective, but due to Winterbottom's style, she doesn't stand out.  At least she's not too cute or precocious.  The best performance is given by then-unknown Goran Visnjic, who plays Risto the driver.  Visnjic demonstrates the talent that got him a lead role on "E.R."

Sometimes compelling and occasionally tough to watch, "Welcome to Sarajevo" is nonetheless too problematic for me to recommend.

Monday, April 4, 2016

God's Not Dead 2

1/4

Starring: Melissa Joan Hart, Jesse Metcalfe, Hayley Orrantia, Ray Wise, Trisha LaFache, David A.R. White, Ernie Hudson

Rated PG for Some Thematic Material

Two years ago, "God's Not Dead" was unleashed into theaters.  Despite being a preachy, misogynist and hypocritical piece of crap that was so bad that even those in its target audience hated it, it made a killing at the box office (it made a handsome $60 million in profit).  It was one of the few movies I gave a zero-star rating to.  So when I learned they were coming out with a sequel, I dreaded it, realizing that the only pleasure I could possibly get from it was eviscerating it in a review.

So why the 1/4 instead of the 0/4 that I was preparing to give it (and in some ways, hoping to give it).  A few reasons.  One, the acting has improved.  While Melissa Joan Hart, Jesse Metcalfe, and Ernie Hudson aren't name actors, they have starred in some legitimate productions and do solid jobs here, which considering the pabulum they are given, is worth congratulating them for.  I neglected to mention "Twin Peaks" star Ray Wise because, as the snarling villain who "hates everything [Christians] stand for," he's awful.

Don't get me wrong.  This is still a really bad movie, containing many of the same problems as the first one: endless preaching, commercialization and politicization of religion, obviously flawed arguments, caricatures instead of characters, and general hypocrisy and stupidity.  It's just that upon seeing the end credits (which, again, cite examples of cases against Christians who are persecuted for their faith), I didn't feel like doing things to the filmmakers that would get me arrested.

After the death of her brother six months ago, Brooke (Orrantia) is having a hard time coping.  Her teacher Grace Wesley (Hart) says that her eternal optimism comes from Jesus.  When talking about non-violent protest in one of her lectures, Brooke asks if Jesus was an example.  Grace answers yes, and cites a Bible passage to prove her point.  However, word gets around and she is suspended.  Refusing to apologize for a crime she did not commit, she retains a young lawyer named Tom Endler (Metcalfe) to represent her.  The case becomes infamous with inflamed passions on both sides.

The film's premise is on solid ground, but like in the first film, is botched in the telling.  Although public schools, rightly or wrongly, are hyper-sensitive to religion in schools, there's no reasonable person for what Grace said.  Considering the context, her words were appropriate.  And in the event that a school did raise a fuss, there's no question that they would lose.  Stacking the deck so fully in Grace's favor kills a lot of the dramatic tension and makes the same mistake that the first film did: every non-believer not only doesn't believe in God, but hates anyone who does.

The acting is better, mainly because the weakest performers are given limited screen time.  An example would be the characters of Pastor Dave (White) and his buddy, Reverend Jude (Benjamin A. Oyango).  They were meant to be hip comic relief, but they were really just dumb (it's hard to make any characters interesting when all they do is spend time at a broken down car trading bible verses like movie trivia and repeating a cheesy catchphrase).  They actually have a purpose other than to eat screen time.

The court proceedings generate some level of interest, mainly because the actors have more talent than the stiff nobody Shane Harper and the ever-snarling villain Kevin Sorbo from the first one.  One of the witnesses is seems straight out of an infomercial for Pat Robertson's "The 700 Club" but another who used forensic science to prove the existence of Jesus is compelling.

In the end, however, the film is sunk not by its construction, plot or acting, but its single-minded desire to preach.  It's so one-sided and so obvious in its intentions that they overtake any desire to tell a compelling story or create discussion.  It's sanctimonious victimhood irritates because it's so false.  Screaming hate about gay marriage and abortion and then turning around and whining that there is a "War on Christianity" when they get criticized for it is a little hypocritical.  In fact, there is a scene where the film defends Muslims in the same sentence as Christians, but neglects Judaism, which is in the same spiritual family.  Such mistakes are indicative of the calculating, commercialization of religion that this "franchise" espouses.

If anything, it's movies like "God's Not Dead" and its sequel that are the Christian Right's own worst enemy.  Blatantly attacking anyone who disagrees with them isn't going to endear them to those they seek to inspire.  Only annoy them.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Coming Home

3/4

Starring: Daoming Chen, Gong Li, Huiwen Zhang

Rated PG-13 for Some Thematic Material

Gong Li is one of the most beguiling actresses working today.  Even when she's in something awful like "2046," her presence and appeal (not to mention her talent) cannot be denied.  What's remarkable about her is that she's an incredibly physical actress.  Not in the sense of Bruce Willis or any other action star, but Li has the uncanny ability to use her body to get the perfect effect.  With a simple movement, she can turn something as mundane as walking into something truly expressive.

Li plays Yu, a woman living in China at the time of the Great Leap Forward.  She has a daughter named Dandan (Zhang), who is training to be a dancer.  Her husband Lu (Chen) is a political prisoner and away to become a "comrade."  However, he escapes, but Dandan, fearing the loss of a key role, turns him in.  Three years later, he is released, but Yu has developed amnesia and no longer recognizes him.

This is standard order tearjerker material, and that's okay.  Done well, it could have been tremendously affecting.  Unfortunately director Zhang Yimou's approach is too gritty, too serious.  He desaturates the color from the screen and eschews most signs of melodrama.  What he misses is that that stuff is what makes a movie like this work.  It needs the manipulation, the warmth, the grand gestures.

His two stars, Gong Li and Daoming Chen, understand this perfectly.  They are in perfect sync with the material, and as such, save it from becoming a misfire.  Both give strong performances; in a perfect world, they would have been afforded Oscar nominations, but the film received little attention on this side of the Pacific (it was at my local arthouse theater for only a week, which is why I missed it).  As the devoted Lu, Daoming Chen is wonderful.  He wants his family back, but he knows its broken and feels responsible for it.  However, he does what he can for his wife in the hopes that her condition will improve.  His co-star Gong Li is exceptional, doing her best work in a decade, perhaps longer.  Although weathered by time (credit goes to the make-up department for convincingly aging the eternally beautiful actress by a few decades), she retains her warmth and spirit.  It's as if Yimou had gone forward in time and given his lead actress arthritis and dementia.  The third member of the cast, Huiwen Zhang, holds her own, but there's not mistaking the stars ofthis movie.

At a little over 100 minutes, "Coming Home" is too short.  Perhaps because the gap between the last two scenes is so abrupt, but the film ends just when things are starting to get interesting.  The film also starts off on unsure footing.  A movie like this demands a director who has absolute control of the story and Yimou isn't quite there.

Still, if you're looking for an introduction to the talents of Gong Li, there are few better options.