Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Black Hawk Down

3.5/4

Starring: Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Jason Isaacs

Rated R for Intense, Realistic, Graphic War Violence, and for Language

At some point, everything is going to go south on you...everything is going to go south and you're going to say, this is it.  This is how I end.  Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work.  That's all it is.  You just begin.  You do the math.  You solve one problem...and you solve the next one...and then the next.  And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.  All right, questions? --Mark Watney
Watching this movie again, I thought of Matt Damon's speech at the end of "The Martian" (which was ironically also directed by Ridley Scott).  I thought about it in the sense of what it means to be a hero.  Sure, we love it when Aragorn leads his army to attack the forces of Mordor in "The Lord of the Rings," but of course, that's a fantasy.  Doing the right thing when the odds are against you and your injured or just plain scared out of your mind, that's heroism too.

I think Scott would agree with that sentiment.  His telling of the 1993 Mogadishu disaster is essentially the anti-"Lord of the Rings."  It's a no-frills, "no bs" version of what happened and why.  There's no Hollywoodization of the events.  When he uses a certain technique, it's only because he must.  Hans Zimmer, who is known for his bombastic scores, is relatively subdued here; accentuating the action but not highlighting it.  Character development is minimal, and that's by design.  Scott wants us to see these characters as normal people, not colorful "characters."  With all that melodrama and style absent there's plenty of room for adrenaline and terror.

It was a simple operation.  Or it was supposed to be.  A brutal warlord has used tribal conflicts to seize control of a sizable portion of Somalia.  He rules it with an iron fist by controlling all of the food supply.  With the death toll topping 300,000, the international community intervenes.  Pre-emptively led by the U.S. Rangers and Deltas, the goal was to trap the warlord and two of his top advisors.  However, with bad intel and worse luck, the operation turned into a bloodbath that left 18 US soldiers dead and hundreds of Somali casualties.

"Black Hawk Down" is less a traditional narrative than a play-by-play telling of how the events unfolded.  Scott doesn't go for the emotional highs and lows.  He lets what happens speak for itself, and as a result the film feels more realistic than a normal Hollywood war movie.  That realism enhances the film's impact and brings its themes to the forefront.

That there are no "standout" performances is by design.  Scott trusts his actors and his own skills to allow the audience to identify with the characters because they are normal people.  Indeed, the cast is littered with parts by famous actors, some of whom are unrecognizable.  But that doesn't mean that there aren't some effective performances.  Special mention has to go to Jason Isaacs, whose portrayal of a grizzled, humorless commander is one of his best, and Eric Bana, who plays a man that does the right thing no matter the risk.

Like "Saving Private Ryan," "Black Hawk Down" is extremely violent.  The violence is brutal: body parts get severed (in one case, a whole body), blood flies everywhere, and in one excruciating sequence, a makeshift surgery is presented in its full, graphic glory.  Scott spares us nothing to show us how war makes a cruel joke out of human life.

If there's a flaw, it's that Scott has trouble identifying who is where and why.  That's partly by intent, but it does lead to confusion.  We never get a good idea of how the operation is supposed to go, and the appearances by Sam Shepard (playing the general in charge of the operation) that tell us where everyone is come too infrequently.

It's a small quibble and does little to damage the film's impact.  "Black Hawk Down" gets a very enthusiastic recommendation from me.

X-Men: Apocalypse

2.5/4

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Violence, Action and Destruction, Brief Strong Language and Some Suggestive Images

The appeal of the X-Men is easy to figure out.  There are so many of them and their powers are so creative that you can't help but wonder what powers you'd like to have and what you'd do with them.  Action movies have always been, to an extent, a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and none more so than superhero movies.  And there's no better franchise that stirs that part of the mind than the X-Men.  Sadly, superhero fatigue has set in, and this new installment, despite some impressive special effects, can't manage to overcome it.

After the events in "X-Men: Days of Future Past," Eric Lensherr aka Magneto (Fassbender) has been in hiding.  He's married with a young daughter and doing his best to make sure that his past stays behind him.  However, a new mutant has arisen.  Or rather, a very old one.  En Sabah Nur aka Apocalypse (Isaac) was the very first mutant.  Able to adopt the mutant powers of others, he was worshipped as a god in Ancient Egypt, until he was betrayed and left in eternal sleep.  Now, he's been awakened, and he intends to restart civilization...by destroying it first.

These days, action movies are continually upping the ante.  More supers, more villains, more special effects.  But the effect has worn off.  Who cares anymore?  We know they're going to win in the end, and while the is a momentary joy in seeing new mutants, it's fleeting and not worth spending money on or sitting through the too long 2.5 hours.

I enjoy good special effects as much as the next guy, but here, they're overkill.  Lots of money was clearly thrown into this movie, but I didn't care.  There's no suspense or excitement.  I didn't care about the characters, and the CGI is so over-the-top that it quickly becomes garish.  You don't need a lot of CGI if you know how to stage the action correctly.  "Mad Max: Fury Road" proved that.  It cost less, but because of how George Miller filmed it, it was a great shot of adrenaline.  Bryan Singer, like every Marvel movie, thinks that the key to making something exciting is to throw as much money at it as possible.  As the director of "The Usual Suspects" (budgeted at $6 million), he should know better than anyone that that's not the case.

The actors are fine, and that's mainly because unlike "Civil War," they're given halfway decent dialogue and they're putting in the effort.  James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and everyone else earns their paychecks, but that's all.  Of the cast, there are two disappointments: Oscar Isaac and Tye Sheridan.  Isaac's star has been on the rise, especially becoming a fan favorite in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."  But as Apocalypse, he's not villainous enough.  Considering that he's played an effective villain before ("Robin Hood" is an example), I fault the writing.  Tye Sheridan, on the other hand, is woefully miscast.  The young actor has been good before in some indie films like "Joe" and "The Tree of Life," and he also had the lead in last year's criminally underrated "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse," but as the cocky Scott Summers aka Cyclops, it's a terrible fit.  The actor rarely convinces.  His co-star from the latter film, Logan Miller (who played the sex-crazed Carter), would have been a better choice.

Ultimately, I could say just about the same thing about "X-Men: Apocalypse" as "Captain America: Civil War:" it can't overcome superhero fatigue.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

2.5/4

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johannson, Sebastian Stan, Daniel Bruhl, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Chadwick Boseman, William Hurt

Rated PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Violence, Action and Mayhem

Will this superhero obsession ever end?  I get that geekdom is cool now and they're easy to market, but must Hollywood keep churning out one after another?  I wouldn't be so hard on them if they were any good, which admittedly some of them are (Nolan's "Batman" franchise is one such example).  But save for a few exceptions, these movies seem less interested in telling a compelling story than satisfying every fan in the world and making a quick and easy buck.

The Avengers are known around the world as saviors, but people are getting concerned with all the death and destruction.  That's when a politician named Thaddeus Ross (Hurt) tells them that the governments of the world want them to sign the Sokovia Accords, which will beholden them to the U.N.  Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Downey) and a few others reluctantly agree.  Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Evans) believes that they need to become autonomous.  When the Nigerian king is killed at the signing, Cap's old friend Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier is fingered for the blame.  Cap believes that Bucky was brainwashed, while Tony insists that Bucky be brought to justice.  The bitter conflict between the team has just escalated to all out war.

I remember seeing a photoplasty on Cracked.com showing photoshopped images of what life would be like in a Michael Bay movie.  It was very funny, especially when one realizes that few films take the time to consider the costs of saving the world.  It's an intriguing idea, even if "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice" got their first.  Sadly, the Russo brothers fail to do anything interesting with the idea (Zack Snyder was guilty of this too).  There are the obvious moral justifications for both points of view, but the writing is so bland and the performances are so lackluster that it fails to generate an emotional response.

The Marvel movies have always assembled great casts, but usually the writing is so bad that it takes a herculean effort to generate a marginally interesting character from it.  I suppose that's fine for the die-hard fans, since they already have an emotional connection to the characters, but for people like me it leads to boredom.  And "bored" is exactly how I would describe the performance in this movie.  Originally slated to have a cameo in this movie, Downey wanted more screen-time and money.  It's a shame that he didn't work harder to earn it.  Chris Evans is flat as the holier than thou Cap.  Evans's abilities as an actor are few, but in the past he's worked well as Captain America.  Like Downey, he appears to be simply taking a vacation.

The Russo brothers aren't on their game either.  With their work in "The Winter Soldier," they did something that was considered to be a lost art: create action scenes that work on a visceral level.  That doesn't happen here.  Sure, it's kinda fun to watch superheroes pound the hell out of each other and see which one is going to turn up next, but those are only a few of the pleasures in a very long movie.

Mention must be made of the 3-D.  Normally it's at best unnoticeable, but here it's godawful.  Even in bright IMAX, it's embarrassingly bad.  It's grimy, messy, and with plenty of lag.  If you want to waste your time and money on this movie, avoid the 3-D.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Angry Birds

2.5/4

Starring (voices): Jason Sudekis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Peter Dinklage, Keegan-Michael Key, Sean Penn

Rated PG for Rude Humor and Action

Hollywood loves "brand names."  Witness the popularity of the "Transformers" franchise.  Or Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Or the umpteenth installment of a horror franchise (take your pick).  They have a built-in audience, which means a big payload with little financial risk.  Although it's marketing at its most blatant and obvious, it doesn't automatically mean that it's a bad movie.  Take the "Pirates of the Carribean" franchise for example (the fourth one doesn't count).  It's based on a theme park ride (an overrated one), but the movies were a lot of fun.  Like everything, it's all in the effort.

"Angry Birds," based on the incredibly addicting mobile app, is neither really good nor epically awful.  It's undoing is that it proves unable to sustain itself for 90 minutes.  For the first 30 minutes, I was laughing loud and frequently.  The next thirty, I missed the laughs, but was curious about the plot.  For the final act, I recognized that it had completely run out of gas.

Red (Sudekis) is angry.  Unlike everyone else in an island utopia of flightless birds, Red hates just about everyone and everything.  This is probably because, for him, life is a series of insults to his dignity.  As a kid, he was made fun of for his large eyebrows.  As an adult, he's hated so much that when he moves his house by the beach and away from everyone, no one cares.  After an incident when his anger gets the best of him, the judge (Key) sentences him to anger management therapy with Matilda (Rudolph).  There, he meets Chuck (Gad), an overly energetic speed freak, Bomb (McBride), who explodes when angry or surprised, and Terence (Penn), a behemoth who is pure intensity.  One day, a ship of pigs, led by Leonard (Hader), arrives on their perfect little island.  Everyone is bewitched by them, but Red is suspicious.  However, it isn't until the pigs make off with the island's eggs that Red is called into action.  Now, in order to save the unborn kids, Red must do what he does best: get angry!

There is something inherently funny in watching the put-upon get revenge on the impossibly perfect in a way that cuts to their personal perfection.  For example, at one point, Red is awakened to a tiny little bird kicking a soccer ball against his house.  Red in turn kicks said bird into the sea.  Or Matilda, who is so positive that it would make Mr. Rogers gag, being the constant victim of Red's cynicism.  The filmmakers understand the irony in these situations and some of the film's biggest laughs come from how they exploit it.

But the concept, even when fleshed out, is too limiting for a movie.  As a short, this would have been brilliant in a "Looney Tunes" meets "Happy Tree Friends" sort of way.  The concept for "Angry Birds" is pretty thin, and taking it in this direction would have been hilarious.  Unfortunately more is needed to spread it to feature film length.  This is further undermined when the filmmakers insert some drama into the story, which in addition to being obligatory, is half-baked.

"Angry Birds" is decent enough that if you do venture out to see it, you won't feel like you wasted your time and money.  It's just that it will undoubtedly play better on DVD or Netflix.

Monday, May 23, 2016

I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life & Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal

3.5/4

Narrated by Nicole Kidman

Sometimes the things that cause us the most pain are the things that we should never forget.  No one understood that better than Simon Wiesenthal.  It would be too easy for the world to forget the deaths of between 11 and 17 million people, but a man named Simon Wiesenthal refused to let the past fade into memory.

Like many heroes, Simon Wiesenthal didn't set out to become one.  He did because he felt he had to.  Trained as an architect, Simon Wiesenthal found his calling after he was freed from the Mauthausen concentration camp.  The U.S. Army asked him to gather statements about the atrocities committed there so they could punish the guilty.  Eventually they turned their attention to the Soviet Union, but Wiesenthal wasn't done.  He wanted to track down and punish those responsible for the Holocaust.  Thus began a pursuit that lasted the rest of his life.

Watching this movie, I kept wondering why Hollywood hasn't made a movie of Simon Wiesenthal yet.  He was an intriguing individual; a great storyteller with a wonderful sense of humor, but who took two generations of grief upon himself to tell stories that the world needed to know.  With the dogged determination and pluck of a journalist, Simon Wiesenthal was instrumental in bringing some of the most heinous criminals of the Third Reich to justice, including the orchestrator of the Final Solution, Adolph Eichmann.

On a technical level, this isn't the best documentary ever made.  It's fairly straightforward and basic.  That's okay, though.  The material is strong enough that such pizzazz isn't necessary.  Getting Nicole Kidman to narrate the film was also a good idea; few actresses can promote such warmth and sensitivity as Kidman.

The film's pacing feels awkward at times.  Once Eichmann is captured and Wiesenthal becomes internationally renowned, the film moves too fast.  Other criminals that Wiesenthal helped capture, in addition to other areas of his life, are addressed, but they are not given the same depth and attention.  As a result they feel rushed.  More time should have been spent with them.  The film is only 105 minutes long as is.

Ultimately, this documentary is about the triumph of the human spirit and the endurance of an entire people.  Because it remembers that, it is a profoundly moving and inspirational experience.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

La Femme Nikita

1/4

Starring: Anne Parillaud, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Tcheky Karyo

Rated R for Graphic Violence and Profanity

Action movies should get the adrenaline up, not put the viewer to sleep.  Deep and complex plots are not mandatory (but provided they're well told, always appreciated), but ones that make use of their premise are.  Despite giving Luc Besson the reputation of being France's answer to Jerry Bruckheimer, "La Femme Nikita" fails on both counts.

Nikita (Parillaud) is a junkie who is the sole survivor of an attempt to score drugs at a convenience store robbery.  She's sentenced to life in prison for her role in the crime (in addition to her friends, three police officers were killed), but fate has something else in store for her.  The French government offers her the opportunity to live as a free woman, but at the price of being an assassin for them.  She agrees, and with the help of her handler (Karyo), she goes from out of control menace to being a sexy killer.  But is she able live with herself as a hired killer, especially when she falls in love?

Okay, so as you can see, the concept is solid.  What went wrong?  Besson makes the fatal error of believing that the premise is the movie, not the jumping off point.  He appears to think that the idea is able to sustain itself for two hours, which of course it can't.  Once he has the idea, he doesn't know where to take Nikita or her story.  Imagine, if you will, that instead of telling an actual story, "The Matrix" introduced the concept of the matrix and had Neo wander around in it for 90 minutes and occasionally get into a few fights.  That's what watching "La Femme Nikia" feels like.

The acting leaves something to be desired.  Lead actress Anne Parillaud displays a lot of fire and energy, but little range.  In a failed attempt to give the character depth, Besson has her break down in tears at the sight of violence.  It doesn't work because Parillaud isn't able to bridge the gap between "sensitive woman" and "ruthless killer."  Tcheky Karyo is always nice to see, and he doesn't play a villain (well, not really) for once.  Karyo has a lot of range as an actor, but he's usually pegged in the billain role.  But the role is beneath him, which is a shame.  The only one who gains any sympathy is Jean-Hugues Anglade, and that's because he has genuine screen presence and appeal.

I will fully admit that the action scenes are well done.  They're flashy and energetic without being ostentatious.  Unfortunately they take up about 10-15 minutes of screen time (the best one is a hit in Venice where Nikita is hiding in the bathroom and trying to keep an unwitting Marco away).  And the stuff in-between is utter garbage.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Phantoms

2.5/4

Starring: Ben Affleck, Joanna Going, Rose McGowan, Peter O'Toole, Live Schrieber

Rated R for Sci-Fi Violence/Gore and Language

The trouble with making a scary movie is that once you get started, you have to keep it up.  "Phantoms," the 1998 thriller based on the novel by Dean Koontz (arguably the most famous horror author after Stephen King), starts off great.  It's when it gets around to explaining what's going on that things fall apart.

Jennifer (Going) is taking her sister Lisa (McGowan) from LA to the small Colorado town of Snowfield to get her away from the evils of the big city ("I like pollution.  I like gunfire," Lisa whines).  When they get there, they find the town completely deserted save for a few weird looking corpses (I liked how Lisa asked if there was a nuclear power plant or a military base nearby).  Now they, the local sheriff (Affleck) and his two deputies (Schrieber and Nicky Katt) have to survive the night.  Meanwhile, an Oxford scholar turned tabloid journalist named Timothy Flyte (O'Toole) is being whisked there by the government for reasons yet unknown.

The first half of the movie is effectively creepy.  Wandering through a deserted town not knowing what you'd find is a great way to send your nerves through the shredder, and director Joe Chappelle effectively captures this.  It's not masterful or especially innovative, but it gets the job done.

Unfortunately, the film has to show its cards, and that's when the spell is broken.  It's not that things are too ridiculous (although they approach that level), but the screenplay isn't strong enough to support the conclusion.  Sure, editing seams are occasionally glaring, but the dialogue is too weak to make us accept what is going on.  Any premise is acceptable as long as it's given a good foundation (just look at "Star Wars").  That doesn't happen here.

The performances are adequate, but not especially memorable.  Ben Affleck is miscast; he's in the film mainly to sport his good looks (I never thought he was that good looking, but that's just me).  As a gun-toting sheriff complete with a cowboy hat, he's a little out of his element.  At least he gives it a game try, and the result is a performance that's much better than "Gigli."  Rose McGowan is a good wild girl and Live Schrieber makes for a truly creepy weirdo.  Both actors starred in "Scream," which was released two years earlier, but they shared no scenes together.

The standouts are Joanna Going and Peter O'Toole.  Going provides warmth and sensitivity to the proceedings, but unfortunately she's let down by the script.  The color (what little there is) is provided by the late acting legend Peter O'Toole.  O'Toole is in "take the money and run" mode, but nevertheless he adds a dose of class to the proceedings.  And you can't beat his line about the dinosaurs.

There's a lot to like about "Phantoms," especially in its first half.  But in the end it's too problematic for me to recommend.  Still, if you're bored and looking for some cheap thrills, you could do worse.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Wedding Banquet

3/4

Starring: Winston Chao, Mitchell Lichtenstein, May Chin, Ya-Lei Kuei, Sihung Lung

Rated R for Language

You are cordially invited to a wedding where everyone wants to kiss the bride...except the groom
I've been known to take notice of a good movie tagline, such as in "Hollow Man" (Think you're alone?  Think again), "Seven" (Let he who is without sin try to survive) or "A Fish Called Wanda" (A tale of murder, lust, greed, revenge, and seafood).  Not only is the tagline for "The Wedding Banquet" witty and enticing, it sets the tone for the movie.  This is a cheery dramedy that also deals with some rather weighty material.

Wai-Tung (Chao) is a young gay man living in New York City working as a landlord.  His partner is Simon (Lichtenstein), a physical therapist.  His parents (Kuei and Lung) think he's a bachelor, and since his ailing father's wish is to hold his grandson, they're on his case to get married and have a kid.  It just so happens that Wai-Tung has a tenant named Wei-Wei (Chin) who is pretty, single, and in danger of being deported.  If they marry, then Wei-Wei gets a green card and Wai-Tung can get his parents off his back.  It looks like their problems are over until his parents call and announce that they're coming to help with the wedding preparations.  Uh oh.

There are two ways this could have gone.  One is a screwball farce like "The Birdcage."  It certainly has the potential to be a screwball comedy of errors and other assorted misunderstandings.  Or it could be a tragedy from Ingmar Bergman.  While initially appealing, none of them realize the emotional cost of such a deception, least of all to Wai-Tung's loving parents.  Ang Lee opts for something in the middle.  It's humorous, but won't satisfy those in search of belly laughs.  It deals with some heavy material, but it's not a total downer.  It hits the sweet spot.  I say this because I don't want to present it as some sort of "bait-and-switch" like "The Break-Up" with Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, which promised to be a wicked comedy but ended up being a half-baked depresss-o-thon.  Nor is it an especially serious movie.

Ang Lee has always been able to get strong performances out of his cast (both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were lightweight actors before they starred for Lee in "Brokeback Mountain"), and this is a talent that he was able to display as early as his second film.  Winston Chao was not an actor but an airline steward before he was cast.  Lee's instincts and Chao's hard work (he worked 3-4 hours daily with Lee to learn how to act) paid off; Chao doesn't have a weak moment as a mild-mannered gay man with no backbone.  He and his co-star, Mitchell Lichtenstein (who went on to direct the wretched "Teeth."  I guess he learned something about working with actors working with Lee since the only thing worth remembering about that movie was the sparkling performance by Jess Weixler) have good chemistry and create a believable relationship that, for once, is free of any stereotypes (and this was made in 1993...how far we've come).  As Wei-Wei, May Chin shines.  Despite the premise, she's not a prop to be manipulated by Wai-Tung and Simon.  She has her own thoughts and feelings, and perhaps surprisingly, feels the guiltiest of all.

Chinese actors Sihung Lung and Ya-Lei Kuei are also effective.  It would have been too easy for Lee to turn them into dim-witted hicks of sorts.  But Lee presents them with care and sensitivity.  They're smart enough to realize that their son and daughter-in-law's behavior is a little odd, but they're too smart to say anything about it.  Then when the third act comes about, they act in ways that we don't expect.

"The Wedding Banquet" isn't a perfect movie.  It's a little too long and the humor is a little too understated (some scenes that had the potential to be uproarious are played too low-key).  But it is definitely entertaining and immensely charming
 

Mirrormask

2.5/4

Starring: Stephanie Leonidas, Jason Barry, Gina McKee, Rob Brydon

Rated PG for Some Mild Thematic Elements and Scary Images

"Mirrormask," from the minds of Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean, is like a cross between Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" and Tarsem's "The Cell."  It has the story and approach of the former and the surreal nightmare visions of the latter.  Unfortunately, comparing it to those two movies makes it come up short.  While it would be unfair to expect every movie to replicate the sheer mastery of "Spirited Away" or the complexity of "The Cell" (especially in a kid's movie), there's no reason that this story couldn't have worked.  Alas, the screenplay is a mess, and all we are left with is some fantastic eye candy.

And what eye candy it is!  This is like a fantasy artist's scrapbook come to life (literally...the opening credits are designed as such).  Animated cats with human faces, stairs and a city straight from the mind of M. C. Escher.  This is literally a feast for the eyes.  If only it was so for the mind as well.

Helena (Leonidas) is a 15-year-old girl who works at the circus run by her parents.  However, she is resentful of her duties, wishing on more than one occasion for a "normal life."  After making a particularly ill-advised and hurtful comment towards her mother (McKee), she storms off to perform with a plastic smile.  Her mother falls ill shortly thereafter, and when Helena falls asleep, she awakens in a surrealistic nightmare.  Her only companion is a reluctant juggler named Valentine (Barry), and together they have to find a way to save the world that she finds herself in.

Don't ask me for any more detail on the plot, because I won't be able to give it to you.  I gave up trying to follow it after about a half hour.  Fortunately, each scene makes some sort of weird sense out of context (or in a very broad one), unlike "Paprika."  So it was entirely possible to just sit back and watch where the story took me.

The acting is, for a movie with such a micro-sized budget, effective.  Stephanie Leonidas is a great anchor as the rebellious but ultimately kind-hearted girl.  She's got a lot of spunk (unlike most protagonists in this sort of situation, she doesn't freak out when she finds herself living in a dream).  Her co-star Jason Barry is also good, but a little over-bearing at times (then again, I had fond memories of the character before I watched it again...).  Gina McKee and Rob Brydon do solid jobs in supporting roles.

It's a shame that the screenplay is in such a dire need of a rewrite.  The visuals, both in terms of what we see and how we see it, are so vivid and unusual that I'm tempted to recommend the film solely on that basis.  Almost, but not quite.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Money Monster

3/4

Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O'Connell, Caitriona Balfe, Dominic West

Rated R for Language Throughout, Some Sexuality and Brief Violence

There are times when "Money Monster" seems almost like wish-fulfillment.  With Wall Street bankers and CEOs of multi-national conglomerates gambling our money away with impunity, looking for every legal loophole to take every last penny out of our paychecks that they can (while paying nothing in taxes themselves) and using the wretched Citizens United decision to keep doing it, it's hard not to feel impotent at the hands of Big Business and the 1%.  So when a guy decides to do something about it, it's hard not to feel a vicarious sense of justice.  Even if what he's doing is illegal.

Four weeks ago, finance whiz and TV host Lee Gates (Clooney) encouraged his viewers that buying stock in the recently public IBIS Global Capital was a sure thing.  Yesterday, a glitch caused the company to lose $800 million in one afternoon.  Lee and his producer Patty Fenn (Roberts) have planned to interview IBIS CEO Walt Camby (West), but he's nowhere to be found.  In his place is his public relations spokesperson Diane Lester (Balfe).  While they're figuring out what to do before the show goes live, a man by the name of Kyle Budwell (O'Connell) comes onstage brandishing a gun and puts Lee in a suicide vest.  He wants answers, and now Lee and Patty will have to find a way to keep Kyle from doing anything rash while they search for the truth.

Jodie Foster clearly has an ax to grind (doesn't everyone when it comes to the sleazy behavior of these guys?) and she has her fangs sharpened appropriately.  While most of her ammunition goes towards Walt Camby, she also opens fire at social media, police impulsiveness, and collusion between megacorporations and the "infotainments" that pass as news.  Most of the these barbs are on-target, but they feel shoe-horned in.  Had Foster wedded them into the plot better and given them a little more room to breathe, they would be more effective.

It's rare that an actor's off-screen behavior can have an effect on the audience's ability to buy a character, but that's what happens with Clooney's Lee Gates.  Clooney is well-known for his liberal beliefs (and has chosen his films accordingly), so seeing him play a P.T. Barnum-like puppet of Wall Street is never convincing.  Once Kyle enters the picture, he returns to his usual crusader persona, but this isn't one of his best performances.  It's not that he can't play a conservative (his role in "The Peacemaker" is probably his best work), but he needs the right part, and Lee Gates isn't it.  Julia Roberts is as welcome as ever, providing a calming influence in the plot while standing in for us in the investigation aspect of the story.  The standouts are the newcomers: Jack O'Connell and Caitriona Balfe.  As the desperate criminal and the spokeswoman who's beginning to realize that she's been sold out, they're excellent.

This is the fourth film directed by Jodie Foster.  I haven't seen any of the other films that she has directed ("Little Man Tate," "Home for the Holidays," and "The Beaver"), but I will soon.  She's a good storyteller and has a gift for sleight-of-hand.  There's nothing like in "Seven" or "Rounding First" to be found here, but there are times when Foster plays our expectations against us.  What we think is going to happen occasionally takes a left turn into something else.  To give a point of reference, I thought a lot of "Inside Man" while watching this movie (which, perhaps ironically, also starred Foster).

"Money Monster" isn't a great movie, but it does what it sets out to do: provide an entertaining, suspenseful 90+ minutes.

The Imposters

1/4

Starring: Stanley Tucci, Oliver Platt, Lili Taylor, Alfred Molina, Matt McGrath, Campbell Scott

Rated R for Some Language

Few things are more painful to sit through than comedies that don't work.  Especially if it's obvious that the actors and filmmakers are trying their best.  With a movie like "Anchorman 2," it was at least clear that no one cared about the movie, least of all director Adam McKay.  Here, everyone gives it their all, but it's all for naught.  "The Imposters" simply doesn't work.

For Arthur (Tucci) and Maurice (Platt), acting is a way of life.  They act to earn food and money any way they can, and watch jealously as their hated rival Jeremy Burtom (Molina) flounders his way through "Hamlet" and becomes famous nonetheless.  After insulting him while not realizing he was in the room, Burtom chases Arthur and Maurice down to the docks, where they hide in a box...and are suddenly on a cruise ship!  Now they have to try and avoid detection by the ship's deranged First Officer (Scott) and Burtom himself.  While there, they get roped into preventing two murders and someone blowing up the ship almost by default.

With "The Imposters," Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt (who came up with the characters while attending Yale) have made a love letter to those old-fashioned screwball comedies of yesteryear.  In a day and age where all comedies seem to be dominated by everything but the screenplay, it would be nice to see one about zany characters and light-hearted fun.  But sadly, Tucci fumbles the ball, and he fumbles it quite badly.  With farce, timing and momentum are essential, and Tucci doesn't have a clue.  Some scenes go on for far too long, some are too short, and there are more than a few that never seem to want to end.  At the hands of a director who knows what he is doing, many of these jokes could work in an innocent sort of way (the R rating is totally inappropriate).

When I said that the actors give it their all, I meant it.  Stanley Tucci has a surprisingly nimble face, and Oliver Platt has some great reaction shots.  Campbell Scott puts on the most ridiculous German accent ever heard on film, going well beyond caricature, but he's not given anything funny to do or say (both he and Tucci co-directed the overrated but still charming "Big Night").  Alfred Molina is having a ball playing a man whose ego is outstrips his talent by a factor of 100.  The only ones who gain any measure of sympathy are Lily (Taylor), their one ally on the ship, and Marco (McGrath), the steward who loves her.

It isn't enough to have your heart in the right place.  You have to have the talent to back it up.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Fled

2/4

Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Stephen Baldwin, Will Patton, Robert John Burke, Salma Hayek

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

"Fled" is as brainless as they come, even for an action movie.  It's so dumb that I thought of "The Stone Merchant," and that's saying something.

Dodge (Baldwin) is a computer hacker spending time on the chain gang for stealing $25 million from a sleazy corporation.  He gets into a fight with a Cro-Magnon and ends up chained up next to Parker (Fishburne), who tried to stop it.  Eventually, things devolve into the first of many shoot-outs in this film, and Parker and Dodge seize the opportunity to make a run for it.  However, things aren't what they seem, as a yokel cop named Gibson (Patton) finds out.  Apparently the company Dodge stole from is a front for the Cuban mafia, and the disk that was used to convict him has enough evidence to nail a mob boss for life.  Now the two of them have to stay alive long enough to find the disk and get it to the Attorney General, who is in the middle of a case against said mafia don.

Action movies don't need strong stories to succeed.  Take "Speed" for example.  It's just as dumb but ten times as fun.  However, that movie had superior craftsmanship and wit.  It got us to believe that the trials of the bus, which let's face it, were totally ridiculous, were actually happening.  "Fled" doesn't even come close.  This is pedestrian direction, and like "The Jackal," it substitutes gratuitous violence for suspense.

At least the actors have some charisma.  Laurence Fishburne is always interesting to watch, but this is no Morpheus.  The role is beneath him and Fishburne treats it as such.  Pre-evangelist Stephen Baldwin is also good, but he's working with such meager material that he can't do much with it.  Will Patton, usually so reliable, is more odd than compelling.  He plays his character as a cross between a redneck and a stoned-out liberal arts professor.  As a result, Gibson comes across like an idiot savant.  Robert John Burke turns up the sleaze, something that he is entirely capable of doing.

This is the kind of movie where the characters spell out exactly what they're doing before they do it.  Or take far too long to get the hint.  At one point, the treacherous U.S. Marshall played by Burke guns down someone who was surrendering.  This occurs shortly after the first action scene.  It takes Gibson, who sees this happen, three-quarters of the movie to realize that the guy is up to no good.  And believe me, that's not even the most obvious example.

Still, the movie never bored me, and the car chase sequences are well done (such scenes are notoriously difficult to pull off).  But I can't recommend the film unless you've got a lot of beer and want to give your brain a break.  A serious break.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Unsaid

3/4

Starring: Andy Garcia, Vincent Kartheiser, Linda Cardellini, Teri Polo, Trevor Blumas, Chelsea Field

Rated R for Violence, Nudity/Sexual Content, Language and Some Drug Material

"The Unsaid" defies easy description.  It somehow manages to navigate the line between thriller and psychological drama in a way that continuously surprised me.  The ambiguity of the film's most elusive character is a strong selling point, but not the only by any means.

Brilliant psychologist Michael Hunter (Garcia) has it all: a nice home, a loving wife (Field) and two children that he adores named Shelly (Cardellini) and Kyle (Blumas).  Kyle is battling depression, and on the night where his parents are away watching Shelly perform on stage, he takes his own life.

Now a virtual shut-in, Michael has all but given up on life.  His wife divorced him and Shelly moved in with her.  One of his former students, Barbara Lonigan (Polo), asks him to take a look at a curious case she's involved in at the local juvenile mental hospital where she works.  Tommy Caffey (Kartheiser) is every teacher's dream: he's handsome, polite, and articulate.  Not the kind of person you'd assume would live in a nuthouse.  He's been there ever since his father murdered his mother, and he has yet to show that he has been affected by it in any way.  Barbara is worried that he's a ticking time bomb and wants Michael to talk with him.

What's interesting about this film is that it doesn't go for easily defined relationships.  It takes time to develop the characters and what drives them.  More importantly, it allows these interactions to drive the plot.  For example, Michael's guilt over his son's death is affecting his relationship with his patient in ways that tell us that Michael is not at a place where he can help Tommy.  Tommy is biding his time for the promise of freedom, but is he the squeaky clean golden boy that he seems, or is there something else at work?  Further complicating matters is the fact that Shelly meets Tommy.  And falls for him.

It's all very complex, but director Tom McLaughlin does a good job of laying the groundwork and making sure that we are neither ahead nor behind the plot.  Simply watching everything unfold is fascinating.

The performances are effective.  Andy Garcia doesn't have great range, but he's quite good here.  As the doctor who isn't as stable as he thinks he is, Garcia does some of his best work.  Guilt and ego have clouded his judgement, but he has good intentions.  Vincent Kartheiser is excellent as Tommy.  The future "Mad Men" star doesn't allow us to get a good handle on the character until late in the film.  Tommy is at times sympathetic and at times creepy.  Kartheiser's subtle changes in personality keep the ambiguity that makes the movie so compelling.  Linda Cardellini is adequate as Shelly, but to be quite frank this isn't her best work.  Still, she's good enough for the film's purposes.  Teri Polo is a scene-stealer as the warm and loving Barbara.  She loves Michael and Tommy, and her mere presence supplies some much needed relief from the tension that develops.

Visually, this isn't a good looking film.  In a movie like this, such concerns are almost moot, but I couldn't help thinking that a movie with a $22 million budget could look better than your average late night cable movie.  That said, it's a small price to pay for a movie that's this intriguing.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Prince of Egypt

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Patrick Stewart, Jeff Goldblum, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin, Martin Short, Danny Glover

Rated PG for Intense Depiction of Thematic Material

Movies like "The Prince of Egypt" prove what dreck like "God's Not Dead" and "War Room" could not (and didn't even bother to try, it seems): it is entirely possible to make a religious-oriented film without resorting to preaching or evangelizing.  That's because it lets the story speak for itself.  While certain changes have been made to make it more cinematic, they're mostly cosmetic or filling in the blanks.  The filmmakers understand that the story of Exodus is powerful enough that preaching is unnecessary.

The film gets off to a haunting beginning.  Pharoah (Stewart) has ordered the deaths of every newborn son of the Hebrew people.  With the help of her children, a woman named Yocheved (Ofra Haza) puts her son in a basket and puts him in the Nile River, hoping that he will be spared.  The child ends up in the arms of the Queen (Mirren), who adopts him as Moses.

Cut to years later.  Moses (Kilmer) has grown up to be a pampered prince, delighting in mischief and causing no end of grief for his father.  His best friend is his brother Rameses (Fiennes), who is next in line for the throne, which Moses is perfectly happy with.  After sneaking out to spy on an escaping Hebrew woman named Tzipporah (Pfeiffer), he is confronted by his birth siblings, Miriam (Bullock) and Aaron (Goldblum).  Miriam informs him of his true heritage and purpose, and while initially he is offended at the insinuation, it doesn't take him long to realize the truth.  The turning point for him comes when he accidentally kills a man who is torturing a slave.  Horrified, he flees the city and ends up in the care of a group of free Hebrews, led by the kindly Jethro (Glover).  There he finds his place, marries Tzipporah, and is commanded by God to free the people of Egypt.  Although his reunion with Rameses is initially joyful, Moses's mission puts him at odds with the new Pharoah.

What is striking about "The Prince of Egypt" is that while it is very cinematic, it makes no concessions that could offend religious viewers.  The filmmakers consulted numerous religious experts (roughly 600, according to iMDb) to make sure they wouldn't offend anyone.  By the same token, it doesn't view the story with such reverence that it isn't afraid of having fun with the material.  The story is taken very seriously, but the filmmakers occasionally find time for comic relief.  This kind of balance is difficult to find, but it hits the sweet spot.

That they assembled such a strong cast certainly helps.  Val Kilmer may have gotten some flak over being difficult to work with, but he does a solid job as the central character.  He plays Moses as someone who is in over his head and knows it, but is determined to do what he is commanded.  Being the right hand of God may seem like a good deal (witness how Kim Davis milked it for all it was worth last year), but the weight of the things he has to do is horrible.  Not to mention the destruction of the relationship with his best friend.  For his part, Ralph Fiennes is also very good as Rameses, who has been under the thumb of his ambitious father his whole life.  The supporting roles are filled by stars, but most have minor roles.

There are also some musical numbers, which are nice and kind of catchy.  They weren't designed to sell soundtracks.  They're there because they fit and set the mood.  The late Ofra Haza lends pain and beauty to the film's opening number, and Brian Stokes Mitchell has impressive pipes in the jaunty "Through Heaven's Eyes."

Sadly, the film's look hasn't held up.  The merging of CGI and hand-drawn animation, as used here, was cutting edge then, but it hasn't held up well.  There is also some inconsistent coloring; I recall one scene where Moses's face had taken on a weird green-beige hue, and another where it seemed to change shades of super pale beige with each frame.  However, these are small blemishes and do little to detract from the film.

A word of caution: while the film was designed for family audiences, and it fills that function, it doesn't meant that it doesn't contain some disturbing themes.  There are moments in this film that may be upsetting to young viewers.  Tread carefully.

All in all, "The Prince of Egypt" is fine storytelling that works because it concentrates on that rather than preaching or merchandizing.