Thursday, June 30, 2016

Enigma

2/4

Starring: Dougray Scott, Kate Winslet, Jeremy Northam, Saffron Burrows, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Tom Hollander, Matthew MacFayden

Rated R for A Sex Scene and Language

There is something intrinsically exciting about a World War II movie.  The deadliest and most complex conflict in human history, the number of stories that can be told about that conflict (real and fictitious) are limitless.  "Enigma," based on the novel by Robert Harris, is one such story, but after watching it I would have rather spent my time and money watching something else.

With a pedigree like this, it's rare that a movie turns out to be this bad.  It was directed by Michael Apted, acclaimed for his documentary franchise "The Up Series" and the James Bond flick "The World is Not Enough."  The screenplay was written by playwright Tom Stoppard, who wrote the grossly overrated "Shakespeare in Love" and Terry Gilliam's cult classic "Brazil."  It was produced by Lorne Michaels (yes, the guy behind "Saturday Night Live") and Mick Jagger (of The Rolling Stones).  And it stars four of the most versatile performers from across the Atlantic: Dougray Scott, Kate Winslet, Jeremy Northam and Saffron Burrows.  How could this be bad?

Let's start with the screenplay, which is hopelessly convoluted for a story this simple.  Most of the time, it doesn't make a lot of sense.  When it doesn't, you realize how little substance there is beneath the double talk and codebreaking mumbo-jumbo.  Apted can't be forgotten either.  He tries, with little success, to make things clearer by inserting flashbacks, but they don't work.  He also fails to create an acceptable atmosphere.  Rather than a life-and-death game of solving a murder with global implications, it feels like the characters are playing Nancy Drew at a posh summer camp.  And when everything is finally revealed, I was left thinking...that's it?

Tom Jericho (Scott) is returning to Bletchley Park after a month away recuperating from a nervous breakdown.  His old flame, Claire (Burrows), is missing, and despite the presence of a sinister agent named Wigram (Northam), he and her roommate Hester Wallace (Winslet) set out to find her.  Meanwhile, the Germans have figured out that their Enigma code machine has been broken and have shut out the Brits.  On top of that, there may be a traitor in their midst.

The performances are fine, which is as close to a saving grace as the film can manage; had they been flat or worse, the film would have been unwatchable.  Dougray Scott is good as the passionate yet awkward Jericho, is an effective anchor for the film.  His relationship with Claire is so rushed that it's only because of him that it has any sort of resonance.  There isn't anything that Kate Winslet can't do, so her appearance in a movie as troubled as this is a blessing.  Jeremy Northam acts sinister; something that he is uncannily good at.  The weak link is Saffron Burrows.  Burrows is a good actress and looks great in '40s garb and soft lighting, but lacks the magnetism to really pull this kind of role off.

By happy coincidence, there is another movie about the Enigma code machine that is more suspenseful and compelling: "The Imitation Game" with Benedict Cumberbatch.  I could also add "U-571" to that list, but there the Enigma machine is more of a McGuffin.  Still, they're both excellent movies.  My advice is to watch those and leave this one for the dust shelves at Netflix.


Duel

3.5/4

Starring: Dennis Weaver, Carey Loftin

Rated PG (probably for Terror/Violence)

Everyone has those times where there's some driver who seems to be actively trying to make their lives miserable.  I recall one terrifying experience where I had to play a game of chicken on the highway with a meathead in a Hummer.  Of course, stories like that are the exception rather than the rule.  Most times, the driver who becomes your mortal enemy for two minutes straight is simply distracted or not very skilled.  Unfortunately for David Mann (Weaver), he's going to run into an exception of the worst kind.

David Mann is a salesman driving from one unspecified destination to another.  His wife (Jacqueline Scott) wants him home on time, and David assures her he will be.  On the way to meet with a client, he gets stuck behind a gas truck so rusted that you could get tetanus just by looking at it.  It's belches out oily smoke that makes him cough, so naturally David passes the guy and continues on his way.  Then the truck passes him again.  When David tries again, the truck blocks him (gee, this sounds familiar).  And blocks him again.  Soon David is going to enter into the fight of his life against a remorseless and seemingly unstoppable killer.

"Duel" is one of those high-concept thrillers like "Speed" where the story is what wrenches the filmmakers will throw at the hero next.  Much of the success for a film like this depends on the skill of the filmmaker.  It is here that I should mention that it was directed by a fresh young talent by the name of Steven Spielberg.

Yes, that Steven Spielberg.  The one who went on to direct classics such as "Schindler's List," "Jurassic Park" and "Saving Private Ryan."  Truth be told, this far from his best work, but as a first effort from a eager kid, it's a great thrill ride and shows that even at that young age, he knew what he was doing.  He knows that editing is the heart and soul of a movie like this, and he knows how to use camera angles and lens lengths to get his effect.  The camera shots are tight and manipulative, and the pacing is relentless.

There's only one actor who has more than token screen time, and that's Dennis Weaver, who was famous for playing Chester in "Gunsmoke."  It's not a demanding part, since he's simply trying to outsmart a killer and live to tell about it.  But he does get us on his side.

His co-star is a Peterbilt semi-truck.  Spielberg chose this model because it had a face.  And it does.  Like Michael Myers in "Halloween" (made 7 years later), it's an expressionless face, but this time it's trapped in a robotic scream as it hurtles down the highway toward its target.

This was originally envisioned as a Movie of the Week until Universal realized what they had on their hands.  Its success overseas (where it was released in theaters) prompted the studio to have the young Spielberg shoot more scenes to stretch it out to feature length.  Surprisingly, or considering that it's Spielberg, perhaps not, there are few places where it lags (the diner scene is one such instance).

Roger Ebert coined the phrase "bruised forearm" movie for movies like this.  If you watch it with someone, I guarantee that you're going to have big purple splotches on your arms for the next few days.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Throw Momma from the Train

1.5/4

Starring: Billy Crystal, Danny DeVito, Anne Ramsey, Kim Greist, Kate Mulgrew

Rated PG-13 (probably for Violence and Some Language)

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a dark sense of humor.  The blacker and more twisted, the better.  Witness my glowing admiration for "Burke and Hare," for example.  Or "Santa's Slay."  So with Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito in the film, and DeVito (who is a master at this sort of thing) directing, I thought I would love this.  A twisted take on "Strangers on a Train?"  Sign me up.  The difference between the two comedies I mentioned is that they were actually funny.  This isn't.

Larry Donner (Crystal) is steaming mad.  His ex-wife Margaret (Mulgrew) took credit for his book, which became a bestseller.  While she's living it up in Maui, he's stuck teaching creative writing at a local community college to a bunch of freaks and weirdos.  One of those is a pudgy man named Owen (DeVito), who is passionate writer despite not knowing the first thing about storytelling.  Like Larry, he's in a relationship that he would love to get out of.  He lives with his ailing mother (Ramsey) who is so wretched and vile that killing her would be community service.  When Larry makes the mistake of telling Owen about his problems and mentioning Hitchcock's classic, Owen thinks that it's code for committing a similar crime.  When he calls Larry from Hawaii having done the deed, Larry's life is going to get really screwy.

There's no reason this movie couldn't have worked.  What it lacks is meanness.  A black comedy of the kind that "Throw Momma from the Train" aspires to be must be fearless and savage.  There can't be any sacred cows and "going too far" cannot be in the director's vocabulary.  But for some reason, DeVito holds back.  The situations aren't clever, the stakes aren't high, and very little of it is funny.  More odd is the fact that DeVito seems more interested in replicating every twist in "Strangers on a Train" than lampooning it.

The performances don't help.  Few actors are more reliable for laughs than Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito.  But they're not funny here.  As Larry, Crystal is an annoying whiner and a moron.  Those are great qualities for a black comedy, where the goal is to wish everyone in the movie would run into Jigsaw from the "Saw" movies.  But for reasons probably known only to DeVito, he wants us to like Larry, which is a fatal mistake.  Similarly, DeVito is also lacking.  Owen isn't crazy enough.  The character is supposed to be an innocent, but he's complicit in everything that happens.  Wouldn't it have been funnier if he tried to do the right thing but ended up making Larry's life hell?  Or been so impossibly naïve that he honestly didn't know any better?  There are times when DeVito seems to be taking things into a darker direction, but he either doesn't push it far enough or chickens out entirely.

The three women in the cast are all underused.  Anne Ramsey, best known for playing Mama Fratelli in the 80's classic "The Goonies," scored an Oscar nomination for her performance as the mother from hell.  She's certainly a bitch with wrinkled skin and a bathrobe, but that's it.  With better writing, I'm sure she could have done something special.  As it is, she was more vicious and memorable in "The Goonies."  Kate Mulgrew doesn't go far enough over-the-top as the target of Larry's jealousy.  She must be so arrogant and in love with herself that we despise her, but Mulgrew plays her realistically.  And Kim Greist is wasted.  Cut her role of the obligatory love interest out and almost nothing would change.

Of course, I could be misinterpreting the film.  DeVito could have been trying to make a wacky screwball comedy.  But the film's biggest problem remains: it's still not funny.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Sweet Hereafter

3.5/4

Starring: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Gabrielle Rose, Alberta Watson

Rated R for Sexuality and Some Language

The word "sweet" in this film's title, "The Sweet Hereafter," is tragically ironic.  There is nothing sweet about this film, or at least nothing that doesn't have a cloud of tragedy hanging over it because we know what the future holds.  This is a sad story.  The characters are sad, the plot is sad, even the weather seems to project an air of sadness.

"The Sweet Hereafter" is ostensibly about a bus accident that took the lives of many schoolchildren, although the crash itself is but a minor detail.  Rather, the film examines how the tragedy has fundamentally altered the small, close-knit town in which it had occurred.  Atom Egoyan's approach to the story, where he shows a scene and comes back later to show how that scene came to be, ensures that the aftermath is the focus of the film as opposed to the accident itself.  It sounds more like "Memento" or a Tarantino flick than it actually is.  Egoyan is stirring our emotions rather than our heads.

Strangely, the film bears a similarity to "Fargo."  The cinematography by Paul Sarossy and score by Mychal Danna bring the 1996 Coen Brothers film to mind.  Despite the fact that they are nothing alike, this actually enhances the film's success.  Although "Fargo" was twisted, funny and suspenseful, it had a mournful and tragic undercurrent.  Seeing and hearing "The Sweet Hereafter" brings that feeling to mind, which strengthens its power.

The acting is exceptional.  Leading the pack is Ian Holm, who plays the ambulance-chasing lawyer.  He claims to be a voice for the parents' rage and hurt, but he has ulterior motives that are sad rather than sinister.  He is the father of a heroine junkie, and by "helping" these people, he seeks to heal his own wounds.  However, he is blinded to the fact that he may be doing more harm than good.  Donald Sutherland was originally cast in the role but had to back out.  You wouldn't know that Holm was a last minute replacement; he makes the role his own.  Easily equaling him is Sarah Polley, who plays Nicole Burnell, an aspiring musician who loses the use of her legs in the tragedy.  Nicole is a complex character, whose dark secret causes her to do something horrible.

Egoyan uses "The Pied Piper" to underscore the film's themes.  For the town, it's the sense of unimaginable loss that they have endured, that a town where everyone knew and loved everyone else, is now bereft of its children.  For Nicole, it is the recognition of being left behind to be the only one to feel the grief first hand.  As a paraplegic, she identifies with the one child with lameness who was left behind.  That the Pied Piper led the children away to their deaths is beside the point for her; they get to see and experience something that she does not, and her life in a wheelchair reflects the poem and her mental state.

Sometimes Egoyan's method of telling the story are too obvious and limit our involvement.  There were times when I was aware of his manipulation and artistry; the best films fully submerge it.  Still, there's no denying that it's an extremely affecting piece of cinema.  Even the author of the book the film was based upon, Russell Banks, said it was an improvement on his novel.  Not having read it, I can't comment on that, but I will say that it's well worth seeing.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

2.5/4

Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Jessie T. Usher, Maika Monroe, William Fitchner, Nicolas Wright, Charlotte Gainsbourg

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Destruction, and for Some Language

"Independence Day" was a surprise hit, becoming the highest grossing movie and, for a while, the #2 all-time box office champ.  It also catapulted Will Smith into the Hollywood stratosphere, establishing that black men could headline movies (although Hollywood still doesn't get it, despite the fact that audiences want it).  The two men behind the project, Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, were paid to create sequels, but returned the money when they couldn't find a good story.  Although "Independence Day: Resurgence" is not a bad movie, I think they should have waited a bit longer to make it.

In the 20 years since the War of '96, Earth, realizing the potential if they set aside petty differences for a common goal, is at peace.  They have adapted alien technology for their own use, and are now much more sophisticated.  They've also been preparing for the unthinkable: the return of the aliens.  A huge orb has warped in by the moon. Believing it might be the aliens, the humans on the moon station shoot it down.  But just as they're celebrating, the real alien ship comes.  It's so huge that it nearly straddles the entire globe.  And it begins drilling.  Apparently, these aliens suck out planet cores for sustenance, and we're next.  The only way to stop them is to kill the harvest queen, who is heavily protected at the top of the ship.

The first mistake was not getting Will Smith to return.  Reportedly, Mr. July wanted a $50 million salary for the two films, but the studio refused.  They should have paid him.  Smith's charisma and star power fill a void that teen idols Liam Hemsworth, Jessie T. Usher, Maika Monroe and others can't fill.  Speaking of teen idols, concentrating on them was the second mistake.  I realize that Emmerich is going for the teen audience, but come on.  They're not interesting and not good actors.  Liam Hemsworth is stiff as a board; at times he appears to be trying to ape Smith's humor and charisma, but fails spectacularly.  Newcomer Jessie T. Usher fades into the background.  Maika Monroe is nice, especially since she drops the disaffected teen schtick that she brought to "The Guest" and "It Follows."  Many of the cast members from the first film return, and all do their jobs.

What's missing from "Independence Day: Resurgence" is a well thought out story.  The first hour is so rushed that the plot contrivances, of which there are a few, stick out.  And that's when it makes sense.  The dialogue is occasionally drowned out by the special effects (a huge pet peeve of mine).  The plot jumps around, following more than a dozen characters who end up meaning nothing to us because they're so sketchily developed.  The original had a large cast, yes, but it took its time to give them personality and back story.  More importantly, it used the time to ratchet up the suspense to unbearable levels before opening the floodgates.  Here, it's so rushed and scattershot that it was hard to care.  Even the payoff is lacking; the initial invasion is so fast that I wasn't sure what had actually happened.  I got the distinct impression that Emmerich had started out with a longer movie but studio executives wanted him to hack off a sizable portion of the running time to squeeze in more screenings.  Then again, bloated summer action movies are all the rage these days, so I dunno.

Regardless, people are going to flock to this movie regardless of what I say.  And how can I blame them?  It's loud, flashy and epic (few people have as big of a scope as Roland Emmerich), and contains some genuine suspense and excitement.  The 3-D is mixed, the images pop but when it's dark it's hard to see anything.

If you want to see it, you won't see me trying to stop you.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Angel Heart

3/4

Starring: Mickey Rourke, Lisa Bonet, Robert DeNiro, Charlotte Rampling

Rated R (probably for Disturbing Violent and Sexual Content including Graphic Bloody Images, Language and a Drug Reference)

"Angel Heart" is a fusion of film-noir and gothic horror.  It makes sense; both genres deal with the darker side of human nature and tend to be violent and scary.  "Angel Heart" combines the sensibilities and style of a Humphrey Bogart movie and mixes it with Christianity and voodoo, explicit sex and bloody violence, and a fear of chickens.  Surprisingly, it works.

New York City, 1955.  Harry Angel (Rourke) is a small-time private dick who has received a new case.  A mysterious man named Louis Cyphre (DeNiro) wants him to track down a crooner by the name of Johnny Favorite.  Apparently, Favorite has a debt to Cyphre, and the man wants to collect.  The case takes Harry from Harlem to Louisiana, with bodies piling up, he soon realizes that he got more than he bargained for.

Mixing genres doesn't always lead to success, even when they seem like a natural fit.  Just look at "Leprechaun," which attempted (and failed) to mix fairy tales with gory horror.  Fortunately, director Alan Parker has isolated the strengths of both film-noir and horror and fits them together.  He has the characters and story structure for a film-noir with the atmosphere and manipulative camera angles of horror.  In this way, the trademarks of the genre have gained new life.

As the hard-bitten private investigator, Mickey Rourke is a natural for the genre.  With his gravelly (but still intelligible...unlike today) voice and intense physical presence, Rourke was born for the genre.  He has a softer side and a biting wit that ensures that we get on his side.  Lisa Bonet brings her soft voice and worldly personality to the role of Epiphany Proudfoot, a 17 year old voodoo priestess.  Her journey from the squeaky-clean girl on "The Cosby Show" to a participant in one of the most graphic and disturbing sex scenes in a long time (10 seconds had to be shaved off to avoid an X rating, which was the predecessor for the NC-17) caused a significant amount of controversy, although Bill Cosby encouraged her to take the role anyway.  The always good Charlotte Rampling shows up as a fortune teller with a secret.  The weak link is, surprisingly, Robert DeNiro.  He's not bad, it's just that horror isn't a genre that he fits into.  Aside from a few chilling moments, he's still Robert DeNiro with long hair and fingernails.

Famed British director Alan Parker knows what he is doing.  He understands the rules of each genre and how to make them work in tandem.  The effect is a creepy and atmospheric experience.  There are no cheap shocks or jump scenes, which is nice.  Parker takes his time and trusts his instincts to get us on edge.  Unfortunately his sense of pacing is off.  By its nature, this is a slow-burn horror movie.  That's okay, a pace similar to, say, "The Descent," would have killed it.  But when each encounter ends the same way, we get the sense that the film is spinning its wheels rather than building tension.  While Parker may have been constrained by the source material, it's his job to make sure that it doesn't feel drawn out.

The film's final scenes are a considerable drop-off in quality.  They don't sink the picture (in fact, they contain two of the best scares), but they are sloppily written and confusing.  And what was with those quasi-dream sequences?

The ending and pacing aside, this is a most unsettling horror movie.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Waco: The Rules of Engagement

3.5/4

Not Rated (probable PG-13 for Violent and Disturbing Images)

I was born in 1988, so my memory of the disaster in Waco, Texas is next to nil.  My knowledge of what happened to the Branch Davidians was that it was a similar incident to Jim Jones and the People's Temple: a charismatic fruitcake brainwashed many people into worshiping him as a prophet and when they became violent, the government intervened and they committed mass suicide.  According to the documentary "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," nothing from that statement is true in any way, shape or form.

The Branch Davidians were classified as a cult, but as the documentary informs us, this movement, an off-shoot of the widely recognized Seventh Day Adventist part of Christianity, actually started in the 1930's.  And while David Koresh did consider himself a prophet, he wasn't the only one to do so.  Nor did any of the surviving Branch Davidians act in ways that are consistent with cult behavior.

More common misconceptions are challenged.  Yes, Koresh had sex with underage women.  But a local law enforcement official says that under Texas law, a girl can marry as a tween with parental consent.  Further, such actions were less Warren Jeffs than a part of their belief system, in which they believed that the prophet needed a certain amount of children to rule as council members in Eden.  Yes, they had weapons at Mount Carmel.  But a gun expert claims that Koresh and his followers frequented gun shows, and the weapons that they purchased are commonly seen as investments rather than instruments of war.  And as someone else puts it, it's Texas; everyone and their mother has an arsenal of weaponry.  The filmshows agrees that the Branch Davidians had strange beliefs, but shows that they were normal people nonetheless.  It reminds us of something that so many people tend to forget: even if we don't agree with them or think they are weird, they have the right to believe whatever they want as long as they obey the law.

The filmmakers argue that the Waco incident was a perfect storm: religious outsiders that were easy to spin wild accusations about and law enforcement organizations with their own agendas.  The ATF, we are informed, was looking for a publicity coup after a series of bungled incidents.  They saw this as an opportunity to get back on the public's good side and show that they're tough.  After they completely blew their handling of the incident, the FBI comes in and makes matters even worse.  With jumpy and excited agents (the outskirts were turned into a carnival of sorts and agents would test out their cool new toys, scaring the living hell out of the Branch Davidians, who were trying to find a peaceful way out), a desire for revenge after four agents were killed, and an utter disregard for tactics or common sense, what happened can only be described as a massacre.

I realize that since the Branch Davidians are commonly referred to as a cult that held strange beliefs (which, in a tragically ironic twist, had beliefs about the apocalypse that were completely in line with the actions of the ATF and the FBI), such views are challenging to believe.  Even while watching this, there was a part of me that was incredulous.  But the filmmakers use independent sources, from doctors, photographic evidence and some chilling 911 phone calls, to the inventors of the technology used in the incident, to illustrate their points.  Further, they cut this in with testimony from survivors, members of the ATF and FBI, and members of the Clinton administration, to show who lied (pretty much every governmental employee) and how.

"Waco: The Rules of Engagement" isn't the most professional looking documentary nor is it especially well put together.  The filmmakers do a poor job of setting the stage, and while the activities of the press sensationalizing the incident with words like "cult," "compound," and references to Jim Jones, little follow through is made.  The film would have been more effective had the filmmakers gone after them with the same vigor that they showed the law enforcement officials.

Documentaries get a bad rap.  I get that.  Because they are without character or story or scripts and special effects, people think that they're less of a movie than a classroom lecture.  With poor documentaries, that's sometimes the case.  Not here.  This riveting viewing about an incident where systemic government failure from top to bottom led to so much death and horror that could so easily have been avoided.  If nothing else, it shows that what happened in Waco was not a cult suicide but a crime.

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth

2.5/4

Starring: Terry Farrell, Doug Bradley, Paula Marshall, Kevin Bernhardt, Ken Carpenter

Rated R for Strong Violence and Sexuality, and for Language

Horror movie sequels, especially ones that are content to never venture beyond the boundaries set by their predecessors, are hard to review.  What else can I say about the third installment in the "Hellraiser" franchise that I didn't say about the first two?  They're all essentially the same: some moron with evil intentions finds the puzzle box (or Lament Configuration Box, as it's called on the back cover), opens it, Pinhead gets released and wreaks bloody hell.  The pun is intended this time.

News reporter Joey Sommerskill (Farrell) is sitting at the quiet emergency room hoping for a story and stewing because there is none.  Doc (Carpenter), is sympathetic, but is called away to film another story.  After he leaves, paramedics rush in with a man who has chains attached to his body.  During surgery, they rise into the air by themselves and pull him apart (I liked the fact that after he explodes, the camera goes to the heart monitor to show him flatlining...I thought that humans could survive spontaneous combustion).  Smelling a story, Joey goes hunting for the witness, a girl named Terrie (Marshall).  It turns out that her boyfriend, a sleazy club owner named J.P. Monroe (Bernhardt), bought a statue with the box in it, and Pinhead (Bradley) has special plans for him.

"Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth" fits into the franchise nicely.  It has an acceptable amount of tension, Pinhead offering ecstasy through pain, and a considerable amount of blood and gore.  The best kill is when a woman's skin gets ripped off (in one clean swoop, no less) and is swallowed by the statue.  Gruesome, yes, but the "Hellraiser" movies are never coy.

The acting is adequate, but acceptable for a horror movie.  Terry Farrell, who would later go on to play Lt. Commander Jadzia Daz on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and Reggie Kostas on "Becker," is effective but don't expect her to get an Oscar anytime soon.  Paula Marshall is better as the streetwise but vulnerable Terri; in a strange way, she reminded me of Juliette Lewis in "Kalifornia."  Kevin Bernhardt has no trouble playing a chauvinistic meathead.  Doug Bradley once again plays Pinhead, but he also has a dual role as Pinhead's unintentional creator, a Captain in the British Army during WWI.  He's quite good in both roles, and I was surprised that it was him in the latter.

The film was directed by Anthony Hickox, who is famous for directing the "Waxwork" movies (unseen by me).  His work is pedestrian, but not bad.  The script needed a few more rewrites, and the editing could have been less choppy, but it's far from awful.  The war scenes are, for a movie with a measly $5 million price tag, well-executed and effective.  The obligatory bloody climax at the nightclub would have been sadistic fun had it not been for the recent massacre in Orlando.  Still, I can't blame a film made nearly a quarter century ago.

"Hellraiser: Hell on Earth" is what it is.  No more, no less.  Expecting anything more is akin to microwaving a hot dog and hoping to get a Thanksgiving turkey.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Central Intelligence

1.5/4

Starring: Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Amy Ryan, Danielle Nicolet, Aaron Paul, Ryan Hansen

Rated PG-13 for Crude and Suggestive Humor, Some Nudity, Action Violence and Brief Strong Language

I could see how "Central Intelligence" could be a good thriller.  Take the wrongfully accused trope that Hitchcock loved and the audience wonder if the sidekick is friend or foe.  It's a good idea, and I'm surprised no one has done it yet.  Ironically, this is the only thing that works.  For an action comedy, the film doesn't thrill and only manages one or two laughs (which are weak at best).

In high school, Calvin "The Jet" Joyner (Hart) was on top of the world.  Everyone adored him, he was destined for great things, and so on.  You know the type.  Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson) was not.  Hugely overweight with limited social skills, Robbie is the butt of a merciless joke when he is literally thrown on the gym floor while nude (he was previously in the shower).  Calvin, since he's such a stand-up (ho ho) guy, gives him his jacket to cover himself.

Cut to 20 years later.  Calvin is now a mild-mannered accountant and having a mid-life crisis.  He was just passed over for a promotion which went to his ex-assistant.  Then he gets a friend request from Robbie, who now goes by Bob Stone, and is invited out for a beer.  Calvin is shocked to find that the chubby loner is now a towering Adonis.  One who happens to work for the CIA, and may be a traitor.  Through sheer bad luck, Calvin gets roped into helping Bob clear his name.  Or commit treason.

The majority of the film's humor is centered around Dwayne Johnson being socially awkward.  It's not an especially funny idea and it's even less so in execution.  I like Johnson as an actor.  His dramatic range is limited, but like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he has appeal and doesn't take himself too seriously.  He tries his best, but the script is so feeble that there's nothing he can do.

Likewise, Kevin Hart is similarly stunted.  Although I hated just about everything in "Soul Plane," Hart is growing on me.  I'm wondering what a comedian like him saw in a script like this.  The jokes have so little edge that they make "Leave it to Beaver" seem like "Borat."

Moments that are effective or funny are few.  Trust me, there are other, better ways to spend your time and money than sitting through "Central Intelligence."

Mike's Musings: My Favorite Villains

Every movie, or rather, every story needs a good villain (there are exceptions, but those are few).  A hero is the one we can all get behind, but it's the villain who provides the color and the motivation for sticking it out just so we can experience his utter destruction.  Some villains are good (in the sense that they're interesting and dislikable) and some are bad.  There are a few, however, that are so despicably evil that they deserve a special shout-out.

Since this is a matter of personal opinion, I won't claim that they are the greatest villains of all time.  I should also explain my personal tastes, as far as villains are concerned.  I admire ruthlessness and intelligence in a villain.  Any mad slasher can kill someone, but it takes a special kind of nasty to push the main character to the brink mentally and emotionally.

There are going to be some surprises on this list.  While Norman Bates, Michael Myers, and others are great villains, they're not among my favorites.  Hannibal Lecter will also not appear.  While Hopkins' performance as the infamous character is certainly morbid and creepy, calling him a villain is a cruel simplification of his character.

5.  Joker from "The Dark Knight."  It's been 8 years since Christopher Nolan unleashed "The Dark Knight" upon the world, and people are still raving about Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker.  As well they should.  Ledger's interpretation of the character was riveting, complex and downright monstrous.  Using human nature to hold an entire city hostage is smart, sophisticated and terrifying.  Nolan's screenplay and direction had a hand in creating him, but it's Ledger who should be commended.

4.  Dr. Jake Gallo from "Pathology."  Few people saw this movie and that's a shame.  It's not a great film, but it is an entertaining one (provided you can stomach the gore and depravity).  But it's Michael Weston's chilling performance as the narcissistic Jake Gallo that takes the film to the next level.  Using many methods, including murder and blackmail, he ensnares the mild mannered Dr. Ted Grey into a web of evil that he wouldn't otherwise commit.  His slide from arrogant jerk to insane lunatic is scary to watch.

3.  Xenomorph from the "Alien" franchise and Bughuul from "Sinister."  I'm lumping these two together for two reasons.  One, they're equally frightening, and two, from a storytelling perspective, they fill the exact same function.  There have been movie monsters for as long as there have been movies.  Few of them are scary just on sight.  But the Xenomorph, with its reptilian appearance, rows of sharp teeth, and two mouths, and Bughuul with its unseen eyes, imposing size and its seeming ability to stare right into you are enough to chill any viewer.

2.  "David" from "The Guest."  I've raved about this movie more than I should have had to.  The movie was poorly marketed and few saw it.  Fortunately, it's become something of a cult film, and my hope is that more people find this great thriller.  The screenplay is deliciously off-kilter but it is Dan Stevens who makes "David" into who he is.  It's a brilliant performance and genuinely terrifying.  Stevens' cold eyes are used to great effect, adding further horror to an already scary individual.

1.  Naraku from "Inuyasha."  Technically this is a comment on the character from the TV show, but I'm including him because a, he did appear in some of the movie spinoffs, and b, no list of great villains could ever be complete without him.  There are no words that do justice to Naraku's evil.  A shape shifting half demon born from the soul of a sadistic bandit who was gravely injured in a fire and offered himself to a host of demons so he could steal a powerful jewel, Naraku defines the term "villain."  It's not that he has no compunction about annihilating an entire town for reasons that are rather arbitrary.  It's that he's such a diabolical schemer who manipulates everyone into his deadly traps (including his own pawns).  For example, the story started when Naraku, posing as both, tricked Inuyasha and Kikyo, the guardian of the sacred jewel into killing each other.  Or how he protects himself by using Sango the demon slayer's younger brother Kohaku as a robotic puppet.  Or how he resurrected a group of mercenaries who slaughtered thousands for sport in order to divert attention away from himself.  It helps that voice actor Paul Dobson makes every line drip with malice and savagery.  If that's not the mark of a true villain, I don't know what is.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Finding Dory

3/4

Starring (voices): Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O'Neill, Kaitlin Olsen, Ty Burrell, Hayden Rolence

Rated PG for Mild Thematic Elements

I think what makes Dory so appealing is that despite her short-term memory loss, she's almost constantly in good spirits.  I guess it's hard to remain depressed if you keep forgetting why you're depressed.  And also why you should be careful and decide whether your idea is good or balls out insane.

A year after the events in "Finding Nemo," Dory (DeGeneres) is living comfortably in the reef with Marlin (Brooks) and Nemo (Rolence).  Strange things are happening to Dory, though: she's remembering things from her childhood.  Specifically, that she had parents.  So with the resigned Marlin and eager Nemo in tow, she sets off to find them.  After getting a ride from Crush (Andrew Stanton), the trio ends up at an aquarium.  Trouble happens when Dory gets scooped up from the water and is tagged to be shipped off to Cleveland.

Unlike "Finding Nemo," which was essentially a road movie (or is that a swimming movie), "Finding Dory" spends the majority of the running time at the aquarium.  That doesn't mean that it stays in one place; quite the contrary, since we see just about every part of the aquarium.  And no sequel to "Finding Nemo" could call itself as such without a cast of zany supporting characters.  This one has a seeing-impaired whale shark named Destiny (Olsen), a brain-damaged beluga whale named Bailey (Burrell, sounding very much like Bill Hader, who has a cameo here), and a grouchy octopus named Hank (O'Neill) whose only desire is to be shipped to Cleveland.

The voice acting is great.  Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres reprise their roles with ease.  Hayden Rolence is an excellent replacement for Alexander Gould (who couldn't play the role again since he grew up, although he does have a cameo), although his character is essentially superfluous.  Ed O'Neill plays a cranky geezer like no one else.  Kaitlin Olsen and Ty Burrell provide some great comic relief.  Sigourney Weaver plays the aquarium's announcer (echoes of another Pixar movie, "Wall-E").

What it's missing is a heart.  "Finding Nemo," in addition to being cute and hilarious, was an intelligent look at how fathers and sons related to each other.  "Finding Nemo" has a message about the importance of family and perseverance, but these aren't exactly new to the movies, and Stanton doesn't find a way to make them seem fresh.  Or particularly heart-rending.

The film looks fantastic, and that's kind of the problem.  There are times when Stanton seems to want to show everything and (possibly fears the notoriously short attention spans of kids).  It hampers our ability to get involved in the story.  And the 3-D is on the low side of good.  Not noticeable except  for an instance in the beginning when the image seems dark and blurry.

Even if I don't recommend the film (which I do), people would flock to see it.  And how could I blame them?  It's fun, exciting and occasionally hilarious.  What more can you ask for?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Bad Lieutenant

0.5/4

Starring: Harvey Keitel

Rated NC-17 for Sexual Violence, Strong Sexual Situations & Dialogue, Graphic Drug Use

"Bad Lieutenant" is a godawful movie.  It's pretentious, self-indulgent and without any apparent purpose.  The acting is terrible, the cinematography bland, and the screenplay is worthless trash.

An unnamed lieutenant in New York City is investigating the brutal gang rape of a nun.  He is, however, totally unqualified to do the job.  He's a boozer, a gambler, and a junkie for anything that will get him high.  The film details his investigation on occasion, but mostly it's watching him indulge himself in his vices.

This is what happens when you make a character study of someone whose entire existence can be defined by a single characteristic.  The Lieutenant is addicted to just about everything.  That's it in terms of character development.  That's barely enough for a character that's on screen for a single scene, let alone to focus an entire film around.  Even worse, co-writer/director Abel Ferrara does nothing with him until the final ten minutes, which are overblown and ridiculous.

The only performance that matters in this film is Harvey Keitel, since he's present in every scene and no one else has more than token screen time.  You'd think that with an actor as talented and reliable as Keitel in the lead, it can't be all that bad, but that would imply that he's actually trying.  Keitel is simply awful here.  Not that he has much to do other than shoot up and try to win a bit with his bookie.  He's never worse than when he's trying to cry.  Taylor Lautner was more convincing when he did it in "Abduction."

Abel Ferrara makes the same mistake that Luc Besson did with "La Femme Nikita:" he thinks that the idea is enough to sustain the film.  The idea of a drugged out cop working a case has promise, but it's only a jumping off point.  Sadly, all we get is a 90 minutes of Harvey Keitel driving around, doing drugs and occasionally shouting at someone.

I don't know about you, but I can think of better things to do with my time.  Like doing my laundry with a toothbrush.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Independence Day

4/4

Starring: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Margaret Colin, Vivica A. Fox, Judd Hirsch, Randy Quaid, Mary McDonnell, James Rebhorn, Brent Spiner, Harry Connick Jr.

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Destruction and Violence

For me, my first movie love was "Independence Day."  Not "Star Wars," which I enjoyed but not as much.  Perhaps it's because I saw this in the theater first.  Regardless, it became quite an obsession for me at the time...I even dragged my family to see it on vacation at one point.  It's been 20 years (!)since it came out, and my love for it has not diminished.

It's not hard to see why it would appeal to an 8 year old boy.  Or anyone for that matter (for a time, it was the second biggest moneymaker ever, right behind "Jurassic Park").  The action is spectacular.  The characters are fun.  The script is smart (as far as big budget spectaculars go) with a number of insanely quotable lines.  And some big laughs, as in explosively funny lines and gags.  There are thrills and chills, triumph and tragedy, and a true sense of awe and adventure.

SETI has received a mysterious signal.  It can only mean that it is evidence of extraterrestrial life, but that's when things get stranger and stranger.  As the news travels higher up the political food chain to President James Whitmore (Pullman), spaceships that are 15 miles wide begin to hover over the largest cities in the world.  At the same time, a cable TV guy named David Levinson (Goldblum) has found a signal that the alien ships are using to communicate with each other, and what he finds is a countdown to destruction.  Now after the major cities of the world have been destroyed, the remaining humans have to find a way to fight back...or face extinction.

One reason why the film works is that the characters, from top to bottom, have life and personality.  That's different from being three-dimensional, which they aren't (there isn't time).  But they are likable and interesting enough to get us invested in their fates.  We care about them.  In a movie like this, we don't go for characters that Daniel Day-Lewis would play.  We go to find people like these that we like from the beginning and want to see through to the end.

Will Smith got his big break as the cocky yet superstitious fighter pilot Steve Hiller.  It wasn't his first action movie (that would be "Bad Boys" the year before), but it did put him alongside the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and the other big action stars.  Ironically, he nearly wasn't cast.  Director Roland Emmerich had to fight hard to get to cast Smith in the lead role.  The studio wanted a white guy.  His co-star, Jeff Goldblum, is also very good.  As the nerdy but lovelorn David, Goldblum underplays his character while at the same time not getting lost amid all the special effects. Bill Pullman nicely plays the President in his reliable low-key way, although he lets loose fire and brimstone in his great speech right before the climax.  Everyone else does their jobs well, but the scene-stealer is Randy Quaid.  Playing the unhinged, alcoholic cropduster Russell Case, Quaid has some of the film's funniest and kookiest, moments.

But the film's undisputed star is Roland Emmerich.  No one does action movies like Emmerich.  While it could be argued that Michael Bay has overtaken him in the explosions and destruction department, that would imply that we actually cared about the characters in the "Transformers" movies.  Plus, Bay works with budgets that are nearly 3 times what Emmerich got from Fox, and if I do say so myself, "Independence Day" looks better.  It's not as metallic, the color contrast isn't as jarring, and he uses more than orange and blue.

Is "Independence Day" great art?  Certainly not.  But it doesn't try to be.  Nor should it.  Leave that for people like Alejandro Innaritu.  A movie like "Independence Day" can only be expected to entertain, and on that level, it is a tremendous success.

Hush

3.5/4

Starring: Kate Siegel, John Gallagher Jr.

Rated R for Strong Violence/Terror and Some Language

Not to be confused with the 1998 thriller with Gwyneth Paltrow

"Hush" is something I never though possible: a smart horror movie.  Films in this genre rely on contrivance and their characters' stupidity to move the plot along.  Even classics like "Halloween" or "The Descent."  The best ones ramp up the terror so we don't notice the mistakes the characters make.

Maddie (Siegel) is a reclusive writer living in an out of the way cabin.  Deaf and mute due to a bout of meningitis as a teenager, she has adapted to the point where she can live comfortably as a single woman on her own.  While up late working on her second novel, her neighbor appears at the door, begging to be let in.  But of course Maddie can't hear her, and it's goodbye neighbor.  However, Maddie soon comes face to face with the killer herself.  Thus begins a deadly game of cat and mouse.

The film's story, which was conceived by Siegel and director Mike Flanagan while on a date (the two later married), isn't especially original.  Many films, from "The Strangers" to "Splinter," have dealt with being trapped inside a small space with a killer trying to get in.  However, none have done this with a character who can't speak or hear.  It's a brilliant idea, since not being able to hear the killer or call for help (except through FaceTime, which requires Wi-Fi) puts her at a tremendous disadvantage.  Flanagan puts us in her head by occasionally lowering the volume to the point where sound is almost non-existent.  It could be argued that Flanagan doesn't enough with the idea, but perhaps he was trying to avoid turning it into a cheap gimmick.  Regardless, it leads to some very tense moments.

Both Maddie and the killer are on an even playing field.  She may be trapped inside her own house with him outside, he can't get in.  By the same token, she can't escape because he's armed with a crossbow and a knife that would make Crocodile Dundee jealous.  Still, despite being held hostage in her own home, it's still a sanctuary (for now).

The two performers are well-cast and well matched.  Kate Siegel has a natural, unforced beauty and charm that makes her instantly likable.  She's also smart and resourceful; when one plan fails, she's already thinking up a new one.  John Gallagher Jr.'s performance isn't as flashy as Heath Ledger's Joker or Dan Stevens' "David," but he's still a formidable foe, pushing Maddie to the limit both physically and mentally.  He doesn't just want to kill her.  He wants her to suffer.

"Hush" is unpredictable.  A lot of what happens, we don't expect, and even then, things don't always turn out the way we anticipate.  Flanagan can't resist using this quality to have some fun at our expense, and while I occasionally felt slightly jerked around, overall the payoff is worth it.

It amazes me that no studio picked this up for distribution.  Sure, neither of the cast members are known names, but that rarely matters in the horror genre.  It's smart, it's scary and it's well worth seeking out.  No fan of the genre would dare miss it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Ride with the Devil

2.5/4

Starring: Tobey Maguire, Jeffrey Wright, Jewel, Skeet Ulrich, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Simon Baker, Jonathan Brandis

Rated R for Graphic War Violence

The thing about war is that, no matter how high your ideals were when you started, eventually disillusionment sets in.  You begin to understand that reason has no place in battle.  It all boils down to killing your enemy before he kills you.  Death quickly loses its meaning.

What sets "Ride with the Devil" apart from most other war movies is that it stays away from traditional battles and concentrates on guerilla warfare.  Without any sort of structure or strategy, feuds and pointless murder quickly replace any attempt at furthering an agenda.  It's this realization that forms the heart of the film.

Jake Roedel (Maguire) is a German immigrant who, unlike most of his people, is a Confederate sympathizer.  With his best friend Jack Bull Chiles (Ulrich), he joins the Missouri militia with the hopes of protecting the Southern way of life.  But eventually they realize that what they are doing is having no effect but causing the deaths of just about everyone they know.

"Ride with the Devil" has its bright spots, but on the whole it's a rare misfire from the immensely talented Ang Lee.  The battle scenes are well-crafted and have an air of verisimilitude rarely seen on film.  They feel improvised (which they weren't).  It gives them a different and more realistic feel than many other war movies.  The film always looks great, although that's no surprise.  And the score by Mychael Danna is beautiful to listen to.

Unfortunately, the script by Lee's collaborator James Schamus is in desperate need of rewrites.  Character development is spotty and key relationships are only partially formed.  The film's themes are inadequately presented.  And the characters speak in a bizarrely archaic way that makes the film feel stiff, pretentious, and at times incomprehensible.  Most of the actors have little trouble with it, but there are some, such as the lead, who do.

It's hard to imagine a worse casting choice for the lead character than Tobey Maguire.  At best, he's adequate, but he's usually awful.  Maguire does not have great range, and the role of a soldier who loses his taste for war is way outside it.  His few good moments are when he doesn't speak.  Skeet Ulrich is a little better, but not much.  Jeffrey Wright is quite good as the black ex-slave who fights alongside them, but his role is underwritten.  Rock star Jewel is also very good as the obligatory love interest; the camera loves her and she has a natural screen presence.  Watching her on screen, I thought of Renee Zellwegger.  The supporting cast is rich and bursting with talent: Simon Baker, the late great Jonathan Brandis (who is quite good and virtually unrecognizable), Jim Caviezel, Tom Guiry, Celia Weston, Mark Ruffalo, Zach Grenier, Margo Martindale and Tom Wilkinson.  Special mention has to go to Jonathan Rhys Meyers, whose performance as the psychotic Pitt Mackeson is truly chilling.

Ang Lee has never been afraid to take a chance.  Having worked in virtually every genre, Lee is famous for his understated, emotionally focused storytelling.  But here, he's working with the wrong materials.  I like Lee's work; "Brokeback Mountain" is a beautiful love story and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is probably one of the best films ever made.  But I can't recommend this film, and I'm really sad to say it, because it could and should have been a great movie.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Cape Fear (1962)

2/4

Starring: Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen, Lori Martin, Martin Balsam

Not Rated (probable PG-13 for Violence)

The best scene in "Cape Fear" comes at around the halfway mark.  A lawyer named Sam Bowden (Peck) is having a drink with Max Cady (Mitchum), a recently released ex-con who is stalking Bowden and his family.  Bowden is trying to ascertain the amount of money it will take for Cady to stop harassing his family, but Mas has something far more sinister in mind than revenge.  He has the gall and arrogance to explain his plan, which is as disturbing as it is legal, to his victim.  Cady believes that it was Bowden whose testimony put him behind bars for 8 years, and he wants to make sure that Bowden suffers for it.  8 years is a long time to nurse thoughts of revenge.

It's a gripping scene because Mitchum and Peck are so good.  Unfortunately, it's one of the few elements in this movie that works.  Everything else is either half-baked or not pushed far enough for fear of running afoul of the censors.

Character development, with rare exceptions (such as "Black Hawk Down" or "Bloody Sunday"), is a must have.  Understanding the characters' personalities is how the audience knows how to feel about them, whether they be a hero or a villain.  But the characters here are so thinly written that, despite the valiant efforts of its cast, it's impossible to feel anything for them.  Directorial prowess and strong acting can help, but you can't make a good movie without a good script.  Especially in a psychological thriller.

However, arguably the most important part of a thriller is pacing.  Essential, essential, essential.  A thriller must start slow and slowly build to the gripping climax.  This is set in stone and absolutely non-negotiable.  Even slow-burning thrillers like "Michael Clayton" do this.  But in "Cape Fear" the set up is rushed through so quickly that the contrivances that are inevitable in every thriller are magnified.  Sam Bowden gets pushed to the limit too quickly.  And right from the start, just about everyone in town is on his side.  I know that Bowden is portrayed by Gregory Peck, who was the go-to guy to play the unshakably moral hero (he did win an Oscar for playing Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird"), but come on.  It's a little too hard to swallow, especially so early in the film.

"Cape Fear" is not a terrible movie.  It's never uninteresting and director J. Lee Thompson manages to generate some suspense on occasion, including a creepy stalking sequence that reminded me of "Halloween," although John Carpenter did this sort of thing better.  The performances are strong, and for once in an older movie, the mother and daughter are written and acted believably.  Nancy (Martin) is smart and tough rather than precocious and stupid, and Peggy (Bergen) has quite a big backbone, as opposed to playing the typical June Cleaver clone.

But it all feels so restricted.  For a thriller like this to work, the film has to spare the audience nothing.  The villain must be insidiously evil and the hero must be pushed to the absolute limit.  But the stakes never feel high enough.  Max Cady, with a constant smirk or sneer, is certainly worth of our hate and Sam Bowden is easy to sympathize with, but the things that Max Cady does feel kind of downplayed.  Max Cady has to be absolutely merciless and ruthless, but he's really not.  Perhaps the filmmakers were afraid of running afoul of the Hays Code, which was even more restrictive than the MPAA (if you can believe that).  Not only did it censor what could or could not be shown, it limited the way stories could be told.  Such an inability for "Cape Fear" to breathe stifles much of its possible suspense.

"Cape Fear" was remade in 1991 by Martin Scorcese.  It was originally going to be directed by Steven Spielberg, but he switched projects with Scorcese because Scorcese thought that "Schindler's List," which is the film that Spielberg attempted to get his good friend to direct, should be made by a Jewish filmmaker and because Spielberg told him that if he made an easy hit, he could get bigger projects and more creative control.  After seeing the original, I'm excited to see the remake.  It seems to me that Scorcese would be the ideal person to take this project.  Especially if he has Robert DeNiro playing the role of Max Cady.  The review of that will be coming soon.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Conjuring 2

3/4

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Wolfe, Frances O'Connor, Simon McBurney, Franka Potente

Rated R for Terror and Horror Violence

There's nothing like being in the hands of a strong, confident director.  Especially in the horror genre, where usually, at best, nervous or slacking directors throw special effects, cheap shocks or gore at the screen, or worse, fail to tell a coherent story.  Not so with James Wan.  Ever since his film "Saw" was unleashed on the public in 2003, the young Australian (but born in Malaysia) director has had a remarkable success behind the camera in a genre where effective entries are few.  "Saw" was a tense and grisly low-budget chiller while "Insidious" remains one of the most terrifying movies I've ever seen.  "The Conjuring" wasn't as scary per se, but it showed real technique and skill.  "The Conjuring 2" continues in this tradition, albeit with different strengths and weaknesses.

After the events in the first film, Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Farmiga) are still casting out demons from people in need.  After she receives a disturbing vision when dealing with the Amityville case, Lorraine insists that they take a break.  Meanwhile in England, Peggy Hodgson (O'Connor) is dealing with a supernatural crisis.  Her family, especially her daughter Janet (Wolfe), is being harassed by the spirit of a very pissed off old man.  Despite reservations, Ed and Lorraine head across the Atlantic to investigate.

The good news is that "The Conjuring 2" works.  It's intense, it's visceral, it's scary.  In some ways, it's scarier than the first one (it certainly has a creepier-looking specter.  Two, actually).  You want scares?  You got 'em.  You want jump scenes?  They're here.  You want some gratuitous nudity and gore?  Sorry, Wan (despite being a member of the Splat Pack) doesn't include these because he's smart enough to know that they'll cheapen the film.  If you want those, I suggest you see "Hatchet" instead.

Like Scott Derrickson ("Sinister") and Ti West ("The Innkeepers"), James Wan understands the mechanics of creating scares.  The performances are strong and the atmosphere is dark and gloomy without being incomprehensible.  He also understands that long takes increase the tension far more than quick cuts or shaking the camera.  Done well in different movies, those techniques can work, but not in a ghost story, where escalating tension needs to stir in its own juices.  And everyone knows how crucial sudden silence is in a horror film.  There's nothing scarier than a director building up to something scary only to have the sound cut out.  Most importantly, Wan knows that less is more.  He resists the common trap of throwing gobs of special effects at the screen.  He uses some, but seldomly and always for a reason.  Atmosphere is scary; CGI is not (or at leaste not often).

Unfortunately, the script is on the weak side.  Wan has bitten off more than he can chew.  In addition to the family of five, he has a skeptic (Potente) and a grieving father who needs to believe in the supernatural (McBurney).  Both give good performances, but they're wasted.  The film has four credited screenwriters, three of whom receive a "story by" credit.  Such news is rarely a good sign.  The decision to open with the Amityville incident is also a mistake, since it's universally known to be a hoax (Wan tries to explain this away, but the truth is so well known that it doesn't work).

Fortunately, both the leads from the original have returned.  Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson easily slide back into their characters and have no trouble replicating the chemistry that gave the original a lot of its punch.  What's more, they work hard to create real characters.  They play their characters seriously, enhancing the film's credibility.  For example, Vera Farmiga plays Lorraine as someone who knows what's going on.  Demons and poltergeists still scare the hell out of her, but she knows what she's dealing with, which makes her different than your average scream queen (although she possesses a great set of lungs...is there anything that she can't do?).  Likewise, Wilson's low-key charm adds a beacon of light to the proceedings, allowing us a small measure of comfort during the scares.  Not to mention a chance to breathe.  And Madison Wolfe has no problem playing the role of a scared little girl who is the victim of supernatural torture.

With "The Conjuring 2," you get what you paid for.  It's smart, visceral and unsettling.  It's not up to the level of "Insidious," nor is it as genuinely terrifying as "Sinister," but you definitely get more than enough scares for your buck to get a recommendation from me.  Unless you don't like scary movies, in which case you should probably be watching something else.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Eyes Wide Shut

3.5/4

Starring: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Todd Field

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong Sexual Content, Nudity, Language and Some Drug-Related Material

Aside from "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace," there was no movie more anticipated than Stanley Kubrick's final film, "Eyes Wide Shut."  Due to its provocative marketing campaign, Kubrick's insistence on secrecy (which led to all kinds of wild rumors), its legendarily long shoot, and the combined star power of then-Hollywood super-couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, the fervor and anticipation was felt even by nine-year-old me, who had no idea who any of these people were.

As moved as I am at the thought of the general public being excited about a film by a world class filmmaker rather than a cheap marketing ploy like "Twilight," "Eyes Wide Shut" is not a mainstream film.  This is an art film through and through, demanding deep concentration and thought.  The public reacted predictably, with the box office numbers plummeting after opening weekend.  Still, it remains Kubrick's most profitable film.

"Eyes Wide Shut" defies easy description.  It contains elements of drama, suspense, horror, romance and eroticism.  The best attempt I can make is to call it a psychosexual thriller about marriage, fidelity and the conflicts between them.  Still, that's only scratching the surface.

Bill (Cruise) and Alice (Kidman) are an upper-class couple living in New York City.  He is a successful doctor and she is raising their child while she looks for a new job (her art gallery went belly up).  They go to a Christmas party hosted by a friend of Bill's, Victor Ziegler (Pollack).  Although the arrive together like all respectable couples, they eventually separate.  Bill goes to do a little flirting with pretty women and is called away to help Victor with a woman who has overdosed in his bedroom.  Alice succumbs to the charms of a Hungarian lothario (Sky Dumont).  The next night, while high on pot, they get into an argument about each other's behavior at the party.  Bill claims that what he did was defensible because he didn't have sex with anyone and flirting is a "guy" thing.  Alice counters that she is a sexual being too, and that a year ago she became so enamored with a sailor at a hotel who glanced at her that she was willing to give up everything to be with him.  This of course throws Bill's carefully built life into question, and he goes off on a journey of sexual discovery.

For a movie that's about sex, there's actually very little in it.  This is not pornography.  Kubrick seeks to explore the sexual behaviors, feelings and insecurities that people have.  As such, more is revealed through character interaction and dialogue than sex.  There is some sex for those who are wondering, but considering the context, it's not going to do much for the libido.

The performances are top notch.  Despite being in every scene, Tom Cruise is the weak link.  He's effective, but fails to submerge his stardom into his character.  It's a good performance, but I was always aware that I was watching Tom Cruise.  Nicole Kidman is excellent, giving one of her best performances as a mature woman with healthy sexual appetites.  Kidman spends a substantial amount of her screen time nude (and it's really her...the actress has never used a body double for her nude scenes).  The late Sydney Pollack, taking over for Harvey Keitel (who shot his scenes, but was unavailable for reshoots, necessitating recasting) is great as Bill's somewhat sleazy friend.  Todd Field, Rade Serbedzija, Leelee Sobieski, Vinessa Shaw and Marie Richardson also appear.

The film looks and sounds great.  Kubrick, a notorious perfectionist (in one instance, an actor tapped on a window.  Kubrick liked the scene but not the recorded sound, so he flew the actor back to the set to reshoot it), has meticulously crafted every shot.  Nothing is left to chance or coincidence.  Every image, movement and sound has been deliberately chosen.  The score by Jocelyn Pook and cinematography by Larry Smith are exceptional.  Kubrick's persistence has paid off.  This is a film that hits all the right notes and is a joy to get lost in.  Ironically, while the film is set in New York City, it was filmed in London due to Kubrick's fear of travel.  The methods used to create New York City are absolutely convincing.

It is impossible to talk about the film without mentioning the MPAA's disgusting decision to give the initial cut of the film an NC-17.  CGI figures were added to the infamous orgy scene to avoid the "kiss of death" rating.  While Kubrick proposed this idea had the film gotten the NC-17, a perfectionist like him would have been horrified at how it turned out.  Having seen the theatrical cut, let me tell you that it was an embarrassment.  It jerked you out of the spell that Kubrick so carefully weaved, and looked painfully obvious.

What's especially irritating is that there was no reason for the MPAA to do it.  This is a movie for adults.  Teenagers by and large would have no interest in seeing it.  And if they did because they were cinephiles, chances are they were mature enough to see the sex in this scene.  Especially considering that under the circumstances, it's terrifying rather than erotic.  Ditto for the imagined sex scene between Alice and the unnamed sailor.  Altering it, particularly in such a galling way, was a travesty.

Fortunately, the unrated version is available and you don't have to watch the MPAA-mandated bastardization.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

0/4

Starring: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Chloe Grace Moretz

Rated R for Crude Sexual Content including Brief Graphic Nudity, Language Throughout, Drug Use and Teen Partying

Seth Rogen should be arrested.

"Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising" is a crime.  It is a crime against comedy.  It is a crime against all the joys and wonders of film that I hold dear.  It is a crime against humanity in general.

"Neighbors," released two years ago, was a funny concept that was ruined by Seth Rogen's ego and complete ineptitude at screenwriting, producing and improvisation.  Although I laughed a few times, my overall impression was one of disgust and bitter hatred.  When they came out with a sequel, I groaned, but held fast to the hope  that it couldn't possibly be worse than the original.  Boy was I in for a surprise.  One that would be about as pleasant as being dragged through raw sewage.

Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Byrne) Radner are moving up in the world.  They're selling their house that they fought over with Teddy (Efron) and his frat because they've realized that having a job and a kid means growing up.  There's trouble on two fronts: Kelly is pregnant again (which she discovers when puking on Mac during sex...believe me, that he is still excited while covered in vomit is only a taste of how unpleasant the rest of the film is) and their house is in escrow.  Meaning, if the new buyers get one bad feeling about it, they can pull out of the deal, leaving the cash-strapped couple completely screwed.  Still, it's only for 30 days.  That's when a group of girls, led by the pot head rebel Shelby (Moretz), moves in to the house next door...with Teddy advising them on how to start a sorority.  An attempt to hold off on the partying for 30 days falls on deaf ears, and eventually it leads to all out war.  That is, until Shelby kicks Teddy out, at which point he switches sides.

I'm not bashing the movie for its concept, since it could have been a brilliant black comedy.  Nor am I bashing it for being rude, crude and gross, since a movie like this those qualities are mandatory.  What I will criticize it for is being dull, cataclysmically unfunny and thoroughly hateful to the human race.  If, by some reason, this film is beamed out in space and aliens caught wind of it, they'd destroy the planet not out of malice but an attempt at decency.  And considering how wretched the people populating this film are, it would be hard to blame them.

I feel bad for Rose Byrne, Zac Efron and Chloe Grace Moretz.  Three talented actors are stuck in a cesspool that no one, no matter how desperate, should be stuck in.  Either they were contractually obligated to appear in this, or Seth Rogen and Nicholas Stoller have some very damaging picutres of them.  If it's the latter, they would have to implicate the actors in activities that would warrant the death penalty.  Nothing less would excuse them from appearing in this piece of shit.

It's a common cliché that actors have big heads.  There have been many instances where movie stars have made unreasonable demands behind the scenes, such as telling the director how to shoot the scene, locking him out of the editing room, or completely taking control of the project entirely.  An example of this would be Edward Norton's infamous meddling of "American History X."  While few would argue that Norton's ego damaged the film very much, the same cannot be said of Rogen.  Rogen thinks that simply shooting his mouth off is in itself hilarious.  At one point, he spends the better part of two minutes congratulating Teddy for helping them steal a whole bunch of weed from the sorority (don't ask....please?).  Then, in an example of the so-called "awkward humor" that has become all the rage these days, asks Teddy what he wants to do with the rest of his life.  Then they spend another minute awkwardly dancing around what has long since been made obvious from the events in the first film: Teddy is in a state of arrested development and doesn't know what he wants to do with himself.  To say that this is humorous is just plain demented.

Seth Rogen's appeal lies in three areas: one, his everyman appearance.  He's not much to look at, which makes him easy to relate to for guys not named Brad Pitt circa 1995.  The second is that he demonstrates that it's okay to be a pot-smoking 30-something with no goals or dreams other than partying and sleeping around.  I get that too.  Growing up is scary and being a self-controlled adult seems scary and dull.  The last part is his figuring out how to make male bonding seem cool.  This part disgusts me.  First, every time this happens, it's so immature and stupid that it becomes repulsive (straight guys, is it really that awkward to give your best bro a hug?) and he dances around it forever.  Not only is the joke tired, homophobic and not the least bit funny to anyone born after 1950, it goes on for far too long.

On top of that, the film is completely misogynist.  Oh sure, it makes a pass for gender equality (repeatedly, I might add), but considering that the goal is to be able to act like hooligans unimpeded and smoke untold quantities of weed, that's not a strike for women's rights in my book.  Not that the guys fare any better.  They're portrayed as drunken boors who make fun of rape (at the frat party, there are stripper poles for the girls to try out and a neon sign that says "NO MEANS YES."  Yes, this is what spurns the main trio of girls to form their own sorority, but that's because the Greek Council says that only frats can throw parties.  Not exactly a good justification), police brutality and the Holocaust.  I'm not saying that these things can't be funny ("Family Guy" has made brilliant jokes out of all three. Multiple times.), but here they're just offensive.  And there isn't a single character in this film with an IQ above their shoe size.  Oh, and Rogen tries to get LGBT cred by making Teddy's right-hand man Pete (Dave Franco) gay, but that Teddy feels betrayed that he was told of this last (after being asked to move out) makes this just as offensive and repulsive as everything else.

To my horror, the film has made over $90 million against a $35 million budget.  That means that we are going to get another sequel of Rogen mugging the camera, seeming without end (this film has as many endings as "The Lord of the Rings") and getting paid for it.  The thought of that, especially considering that it comes at the cost of another potentially more interesting, insightful and entertaining film, is enough to make me never want to see another movie again.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

1.5/4

Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, Laura Linney, Stephen Amell, Tyler Perry, Brian Tee, and the voices of Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Tony Shalhoub

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence

The best I can say about "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows" is that it's better than the first one.  Considering that the 2014 reboot was a mind-numbing mess that made my Bottom Ten list that year, that is not a compliment.  So while that movie threatened to drive the viewer insane with its aggressive visuals and utter inanity, this one is simply dull.

The notorious Shredder (Tee), the leader of the villainous Foot Clan, has been caught.  On his way to prison, he has been rescued by his gang of nefarious ninjas.  While the Turtles attempt to put a stop to it, Shredder mysteriously teleports away from the scene.  This is witnessed by corrections officer Casey Jones (Amell), but Chief Vincent (Linney) doesn't believe him.  His investigation leads him to April O'Neil (Fox) and the Turtles, but also to a nerdy scientist named Baxter Stockman (Perry), who April suspects of having ties to the Foot Clan.  But that's all going to be small potatoes when a new threat arises.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are stuck in the 1980's.  I think we can all agree on this.  Their value system, charm and appeal are from the time of flat tops, Madonna and boom boxes.  Without acknowledging this in the presentation, there is no way they could hold a film together.  Unfortunately that's what happens.  There's no sense of parody or retro here.  Director Dave Green, a self-confessed fan of the Turtles, plays things straight.  It makes them seem goofy and backward rather than interesting or appealing.

In a movie like this, acting is not generally a primary concern of anyone involved.  Megan Fox is certainly sexy, but her range is limited.  Will Arnett is just irritating; I kept waiting for the Foot Clan to stick a sword in his gut to shut him up and keep him from mugging the camera any further.  Stephen Amell looks cute and hunky, but is a little on the wooden side.  Tyler Perry, who's producing prowess and targeted appeal are far greater than his acting or filmmaking capabilities, is awful as the nerdy scientist; he is never convincing.  The only one in the cast who escapes with a shred of dignity is Laura Linney, and that's because it's impossible for her to act badly.  As for the Turtles, they're fine, but their voices are so mechanized and completed with green screen and stuntwork that anyone could have played them.

Unlike the first film, there are some good scenes here.  The first is an escape from a crippled airplane.  Taking the bad dialogue and worse jokes and the fact that "Eraser" did it first (and better) 20 years ago, the scene is well executed and even a little exciting.  And the climax is visually impressive.

Don't get me wrong.  I don't recommend this film.  Even if you're a die-hard Turtles fan.  But compared to the next movie I saw in the multiplex, it's a pleasure cruise.

Tea with Mussolini

2.5/4

Starring: Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Cher, Judi Dench, Lily Tomlin, Baird Wallace

Rated PG for Thematic Elements, Language, Brief Nudity and Some Mild Violence

"Tea with Mussolini" doesn't start out strong, but at least it finishes well.  Director Franco Zeffirelli has trouble introducing all the characters and setting up the plot, but once things kick into high gear around the 30-45 minute mark, the film takes off.  The question is, can the rest of the film "save" the film?  I'm not sure, but it comes close.

In the era between the wars, there was no better place to be for art-loving retirees than Florence, Italy.  Filled with pieces from just about every period dating back to Ancient Rome, it was the perfect place for those with a lot of money and nothing to do.  The film follows five of these ladies: prim and arrogant Lady Hestor Random (Smith), motherly Mary Wallace (Plowright) is raising a child Luca (Charlie Lucas) whose father and stepmother want nothing to do with him, Georgie (Tomlin) is a lesbian archaeologist and Arabella (Dench) loves her dog as much as she does art.  But war is coming, and these ladies will have to rely on the help of a brash American jetsetter named Elsa (Cher) to help them.

Zeffirelli tries to keep the tone light amid the trials and tribulations of living through a war.  Making a cheery war story requires a deft touch and he gets it right about, say, 60% of the time.  The other times it feels either forced or lacking in substance.  The script is too weak to support such a complex tone, and as a result it sometimes feels like a TV movie.  It's never unwatchable, but a more skilled director would have been able to make a stronger film.

At least the film attracted some star actresses to fill the ranks.  With names like these, it's almost impossible for it to be boring.  None of them walk through their parts, which is fortunate.  Had they done so or the filmmakers cast lesser thespians, the film would have been unwatchable.  Special mention has to go to Cher, who steals her scenes through sheer force of personality, and has zero trouble with the more emotionally taxing scenes.  Judi Dench goes over-the-top on at least one occasion, but I fault the script since she's so talented.  Baird Wallace is effective as the older Luca and is capable of holding his own against his other, more experienced co-stars.

The beginning of the film is problematic.  The script is clunky and the editing is haphazard.  At least the set design is great, but Zeffirelli fails to establish a constant narrative flow.  However, once the adult Luca shows up, the film finds a solid foundation and takes off.  The plot flows more smoothly and there is some dramatic tension and suspense.

But is it enough to earn the film a recommendation?  "Tea with Mussolini" was never going to have a wide audience.  It's not that kind of movie.  But that's no reason why it couldn't have been more effective and affecting.  A movie like this can be hard to pull off, but it can be done.  "Mrs. Henderson Presents" comes to mind, although that's probably because both star Judi Dench.  And in a strange way, "Pan's Labyrinth."  But unless this kind of small budget drama appeals to you, especially if it's only of adequate quality, I suggest you try something else.


Sunday, June 5, 2016

Inuyasha the Movie 3: Swords of an Honorable Ruler

3/4

Starring (voices): Richard Ian Cox, Moneca Stori, David Kaye, Kirby Morrow, Kelly Sheridan, Jillian Michaels, Jonathan Holmes, Michael Dobson, Richard Newman

Not Rated (probable PG-13 for Graphic Violence and Some Language)

"Inuyasha" is not great art, but it is good storytelling.  It understands that characters we like, a fun atmosphere and attention to the rhythms of story development are more important than good dialogue or flashy special effects.  The first "Inuyasha" film was fun but the second one lacked a coherent story.  The third, like the others, has its pluses and minuses.

250 years before the events in the story, The Great Dog Demon (Don Brown) raced towards certain death.  A mortal woman named Izayoi (Alaina Burnett) is giving birth to his child, and the humans guarding her will not let him near.  They are led by Takemaru (Holmes), who has loved Izayoi, and who would rather kill her than see her give birth to the child of a demon.  Takemaru and the demon fight in a burning mansion, but Izayoi escapes with her newborn child in tow, who is named Inuyasha.

Cut to the present.  Inuyasha (Cox) has come to Kagome's time unexpectedly.  He surprises her by attacking the volleyball she and her friends are playing with, presumably under the impression that it's a demon trying to attack her (Inuyasha fails to understand even the most basic concepts of our era, but to his credit, the ball was flying towards her).  In any event, Kagome's family is "airing" out a treasured sword when it mysteriously awakens.  Sensing danger, Inuyasha tries to contain it, but it is too powerful for him and fuses to his arm.  Fearing his potential to hurt Kagome, he takes it back to his own time to dispose of it.  It turns out that the sword belonged to Inuyasha's father, one of three that he owned (the other two were bequeathed to his sons).  But the sword has a mind of its own, and it reawakens Takemaru to destroy the only people who are a threat to its existence: Inuyasha and his half-brother, Sesshomaru (Kaye).  The only way to stop him is for Inuyasha and Sesshomaru to join forces.  Considering that the two can't be in the same place without trying to kill each other (literally), this presents a big problem.

The good thing about this film is that it gives Sesshomaru his time in the spotlight.  Of all the supporting characters in the anime, Sesshomaru is definitely the most complex.  There are complexities beneath his cold exterior that make him an engaging, and intimidating, character.  He despises humans yet has one accompany him.  He hates his half-brother to the point where he would like nothing better than to kill him, yet warns him of danger.  Sesshomaru has always straddled the line between villain and hero (but not an anti-hero), and that makes him very compelling.  Sadly, little of his complexity is revealed in the film, but it gives a taste at least.

The rest of the cast members do their jobs well, which is all that a fan can ask for.  And it's nice to see that David Kaye and Moneca Stori are voicing their characters after they were recast for "Inuyasha: The Final Act" (Stori because she retired and Kaye because he moved to Los Angeles).  While Kira Tozer and Michael Daingerfield did respectable jobs, they felt like posers after spending time with different actors for 7 seasons.

"Inuyasha the Movie 3: Swords of an Honorable Ruler" takes the film into some pretty dark places.  While the TV series did the same thing (especially in the later seasons), it comes at the cost of the fun-loving charm that made the series so much fun.  There's very little humor in this film, which is a shame because it was something the series is known for.  Just the aforementioned volleyball scene and the obligatory "sit" after the end credits.  There's no sense of fun and adventure here.  Still, when you have just about every character in one battle, there's fun to be had.