Friday, July 29, 2016

Bride of Chucky

3/4

Starring: Katherine Heigl, Nick Stabile, Jennifer Tilly, Gordon Michael Woolvett, John Ritter

Rated R for Strong Horror Violence and Gore, Some Sexual Content and Brief Drug Use

The "Child's Play" franchise has always been a mix of horror and black comedy, combining scares with dark one-liners (the best of which was Chucky's famous "Fuck you" in the original.  The franchise always leaned more toward the slasher genre, but after "Scream," such a decision would be seen as behind the times.  To rectify this, creator Don Mancini and director Ronny Yu opt for the latter.  It's violent and gory as you might expect, but if there's a scene that isn't played tongue-in-cheek, I missed it.

It turns out that Charles Lee Ray, aka the Lakeshore Strangler (Dourif), had a girlfriend before he used voodoo to enter the body of a Good Guy doll.  Her name is Tiffany (Tilly), a blonde bimbo with a similar penchant for violence and murder.  She bribes a cop to get Chucky's corpse (if you can call it that) out of the evidence room and deliver it to her.  She then resurrects him, and he in turn kills her and puts her into the female version of the doll.  To regain human form, they must get an amulet that Charles was wearing at the time of his death (this goes against the previous rules of the franchise, or even this installment, but never mind).  Naturally, being a foot and a half tall and made of plastic makes travelling alone difficult, so they hitch a ride with some elopers: Jesse (Stabile) and Jade (Heigl).  Leaving a trail of bloody mayhem in their wake, Chucky and Tiffany go on the run with the two lovers (whom everyone suspects as being serial killers).

Simply put, "Bride of Chucky" is a howl.  I have a twisted sense of humor, but it's hard to imagine anyone watching this movie not having a great time.  The satire is scathing and the bickering between the two homicidal dolls is always hilarious.  You see, Tiffany wants to marry Chucky, and their views on domestic life are filtered through the fact that they're mass murdering pieces of plastic.  It's truly warped and sets the stage for some of the film's best laughs.  They have the same stresses and impulses as you or I. They just act out a little more.

The acting by Dourif and Tilly sells the movie.  Dourif is as viciously funny as ever (of all the "Chucky" movies, this is his favorite), and Tilly is a good sport playing a ditz. They're having a ball, and that always means great fun for the audience.  Katherine Heigl and Nick Stabile are forgettable playing the incredibly dense lovers on the lam, but that's okay.  Chuck and Tiff are the real stars of the show.  John Ritter has some great moments at the beginning.

"Bride of Chucky" isn't for everyone.  Anyone who doesn't like graphic violence or humor that isn't very nice probably won't like this movie.  On the other hand, if you're like me and have no problem laughing at a pair of serial killers made of plastic, then you'll have a great time.  I sure did.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Child's Play 3

3/4

Starring: Justin Whalin, Jeremy Sylvers, Perrey Reeves, Travis Fine, Dakin Matthews

Rated R for Horror Violence and Language

Ah, the slasher movie.  I admit that I smile to myself when I see all the familiar conventions: the false start before the scare, the cheap shocks, the camera that inches closer to the next unfortunate victim.  The "Chucky" franchise has always been reliable for a decent 90 minutes of cheap scares, but it's also worthy for it's black comedy.  Chucky, voiced as usual by the always deranged Brad Dourif, always has plenty of profane one-liners to throw about.  On that level, you really can't say no to this movie.

After the events in the first two massacres, the company behind the Good Guy dolls decides to put the infamous toy back on the market.  By accident, Charles Lee Ray, aka Chucky (Dourif), is resurrected and seeks to find Andy (Whalin), whom he needs to return to a human form.  Andy, having been bounced from foster home to foster home, is now enrolling at Kent, a military academy.  There, he's under the watchful eye of Colonel Cochrane (Matthews), who runs the place, and his commander, a nasty brute named Shelton (Fine) who delights in tormenting him.  To make matters worse, Chucky has found a new host: a little kid named Tyler (Sylvers).  Now Andy has to find a way to stop Chucky without getting caught.

Yes, it's Slasher 101.  But the genre has always relied on formula.  What matters are the scares and gore, and they're both here in acceptable quantities.  It's rather generic, but the black comedy (some of which is very funny), tips it over into the 3/4 area.

The acting (never a hallmark of the genre) is adequate, but no better.  Justin Whalin is on the dull side as Andy, but he's good enough to get us on his side.  Perry Reeves is likable as the rebellious girl who falls for him.  And Travis Fine is perfectly nasty as the hardcore but thick-skulled Shelton.  The weak link is Jeremy Sylvers.  Not only is the character dim-witted even by slasher standards, Sylvers isn't an appealing actor.  And Dourif slides easily back into the role of Chucky.

I had reservations about a slasher movie set in a school.  With all the school violence these days, it could have struck the wrong note.  For the most part, it doesn't cross the line, but there are times when the film gets a little uncomfortable.  Teen movies, especially slasher movies, are notorious for using actors in their 20s to play high school students.  Wouldn't the film have changed much if they did the same here?

The Red Shoes

4/4

Starring: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring

Not Rated (probable PG for Mild Sensuality and a Brief Disturbing Image)

Love or career?  It's a question that everyone, in their own way, has to decide upon.  How do you find the balance between your work and your personal life?  Everyone struggles to find the correct balance, but few (especially these days with constant connectivity and economic insecurity) ever achieve it.

Victoria Page (Shearer) is a ballerina who has just attended a ballet by the legendary Lermantov company.  She meets the head of the company, Boris Lermantov (Walbrook), who initially rebuffs her when her aunt invites him to watch her dance at the after party.  He thinks she wants to get noticed but she just likes to dance.  He's impressed by her attitude and credentials and invites her to train with his company.  She quickly rises through to ranks to become a major star.  Also a newcomer is Julian Caster (Goring), who got a job working on the music after he alerted Lermantov that his college professor (and the company composer/conductor) had ripped it off his own work.  The company's season is a rousing success, until Victoria and Julian have the gall to fall in love.  Lermantov, who demands absolute loyalty and focus to the company, views this as a betrayal.

In a way, this is like a ballet with dialogue.  There's a lot of dancing and music, the plot is simple and melodramatic but nonetheless effective, and the characters are played for dramatics.  I like over-the-top drama when it is earned, and that's the case here.  This story, which is based upon one by Hans Christian Anderson, is not meant to be told with subtlety.

The performances are uniformly excellent.  The filmmakers wanted a ballerina who could act for the lead role, and that's what they got.  Ironically, when initially approached, Shearer turned the role down, and it took a year of convincing to get her to accept it.  It's a great debut; the camera loves her and there's no sense that this is her first performance.  I certainly had no idea until I read it on iMDb.  Anton Walbrook is certainly heartless enough to be a villain, except that he's anything but a complete bastard.  He's arrogant and petty, but at least his motives are reasonable (if short-sighted).  Marius Goring is great as the lover.  From naïve kid to savvy showman, Goring doesn't miss a beat.  He has good chemistry with Shearer as well.

The film was directed by Michael Powell, a legendary British filmmaker whose career was essentially destroyed by the controversial horror film, "Peeping Tom" (also starring Shearer), released 12 years later, and Emeric Pressburger.  This is a literal feast for the eyes.  Painstakingly restored with the efforts of many, including Powell's admirer and protégé, Martin Scorcese, this is a visually sumptuous motion picture.  Every frame is rich with light, color and shadow.  And the innovative ways of shooting the dance numbers are stunning.  This is one movie where it's worth it to see it on Blu Ray.

There are some flaws, but they are either forgivable or not noticeable.  There are times in the big dance number where magic seems to occur for no reason.  It's easy to guess that this is because Powell and Pressburger are showing that Victoria is imagining that she is dancing in real places and not on a stage, but things can get a little confusing.  A line of dialogue to clarify would have helped.  And Julian doesn't get as much screen time as Boris, which upsets the balance a little.

Like I said.  Small quibbles.  Certainly nothing that would prevent me from giving this a recommendation of the highest order.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Spawn: Director's Cut

3/4

Starring: Michael Jai White, John Leguizamo, Martin Sheen, Nicol Williamson, Theresa Randle, D.B. Sweeney, Miko Hughes

Rated R for Violence and Crude Humor

"Spawn: Director's Cut" is a hit-and-miss affair, but at least it hits more often than it misses.  There are some big problems, like a ridiculous story that never finds the right tone and some cheesy special effects, but it has an intriguing premise and some nice performances.  And a villain that's a cross between Pennywise from "IT" and something from the Farrelly brothers.

Al Simmons (White) is a mercenary working for a man named Jason Wynn (Sheen).  What he doesn't know is that Wynn has, quite literally, made a deal with the devil.  You see, Heaven and Hell have been waging a war since time immemorial, and the Prince of Darkness (known as Maleboglia and voiced by veteran voice actor/special effects sound man Frank Welker) wants to launch a massive assault on the Pearly Gates.  To do that, he has his assistant, a raunchy blob of flesh named Clown (Leguizamo) get Wynn to create a virus that will wipe out the planet, thus giving the forces of Hell several billion more minions.  Good old Al figures out that Wynn makes Richard Fuld look like a Boy Scout and wants out.  Wynn betrays him and Al ends up in Hell.  Maleboglia offers him a deal: kill Wynn (Wynn has screwed him on their little pact) and he can have his wife Wanda (Randle) back.  Impulsively, he agrees.  But it's bad news if he goes through with it.

The performances are solid.  Michael Jai White brings intensity and a bit of dark humor to the role of the tragic Spawn, making him an effective anchor for the film.  Martin Sheen goes over-the-top in the scenery chewing department; he's not an especially convincing villain, although he gives it his best shot.  Theater legend Nicol Williamson, in his final film role (by choice...he died nearly fifteen years later), plays Cogliostro, the voice of conscience for Spawn.  He's walking through the role, but at least does an okay job.  The rest of the cast fills their roles nicely.

The real star of the show is John Leguizamo.  Totally unrecognizable in the fat suit and make-up, Leguizamo bites into the role of the foul-mouthed, raunchy clown.  He's rude, he's crude, he's corny, and he's proud of it.  Flatulence jokes, pop culture references, and an appearance that's simultaneously goofy and frightening, Clown is a truly warped creation.  Leguizamo succeeds because he has fun with the role while taking it seriously.  He goes over-the-top, but there's never a sense that the actor is in on the joke.  He fully disguises himself beneath the character and that's what sells it.

The special effects are inconsistent.  The more subtle ones, like the Spawn suit (the make-up for Al's hideously scarred face is superlative...whether it's CGI or make-up, I don't know, but it's very flexible and so detailed that I felt I could almost reach out and touch it) are convincing.  His red cape is especially gorgeous to look at.  The scenes in Hell are a different story.  They appear to have been made on an old Macintosh from the 90's, and look it.  It's clunky and cheap, and not in a good way.  I understand that the filmmakers got the final special effects shots two weeks before the film was released.  I believe it.  These scenes are a rush job, pure and simple.

Still, "Spawn" works for me.  If for nothing else, it's worth seeing for Leguizamo's deliriously weird performance.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Once Upon a Forest

3/4

Starring (voices): Ellen Blain, Paige Gosney, Ben Gregory, Michael Crawford, Elizabeth Moss

Rated G

I have fond memories of putting in the tape for "Once Upon a Forest" into the VCR and being enchanted by the story.  All these years later, it hasn't stood the test of time, but it remains charming and entertaining.  Those looking for a nostalgia trip would do well to revisit this film.  Or if you have kids, then they'll like it too.

Three animal children, or furlings, are going on a trip with their teacher, Cornelius (Crawford) and his niece, Michelle (Moss).  They are the tomboy mouse Abigail (Blain), the chubby hedgehog Russell (Gosney) and the timid mole Edgar (Gregory).  While on their trip, a gas truck blows a tire and overturns, leaking gas and poisoning the village.  Michelle impulsively runs into her home to check on her parents and becomes gravely ill.  Cornelius tells them that they have to find a new meadow in order get the herbs needed to heal her.  Thus the three set off on a race against time to save their friend.

No, it isn't the most original story, but unless your name is Hayao Miyazaki, that's to be expected (or even encouraged) in a movie made primarily for kids.  And this movie is for kids only; it's fast moving, cute and simple.  Adults, especially those who are cynical, will be bored.

The voice acting is effective, but they are hampered by a screenplay that is full of clunkers.  Writing for children is hard, but even kids will be able to tell that little of the dialogue sounds natural.  Another rewrite could have smoothed out some of its rough edges.  The acting by the three leads overcomes this setback for the most part, but Michael Crawford struggles.  He does have a lovely singing voice, though.

"Once Upon a Forest" isn't any kind of masterpiece.  It's not even a particularly good movie.  But it's bright, colorful, and short enough that kids won't get fidgety.  The environmentalist theme, while present, isn't hammered home.  It's the kind of movie that you watch when it's on Netflix or if you see it in the discount bin at Wal-Mart.  On that level, I recommend the film.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

3/4

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Sofia Boutella, Simon Pegg, Idris Elba

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Violence

The best action movies start with the story and build the action scenes around it.  The lame ones start with the action scenes and use the story to fill in the blanks.  The "Star Trek" reboot and its sequel, "Star Trek into Darkness" were a lot of fun because J.J. Abrams remembered that.  He left the series in the directing capacity (but stayed on as a producer) to work on "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," leaving director Justin Lin to take his place.  Lin broke out with the highly regarded indie flick "Better Luck Tomorrow," but then turned his attention to "Fast and the Furious" franchise.

"Star Trek Beyond" is a disappointment.  That doesn't mean it's a bad movie, because it's not.  It does what it sets out to do: provide a thrilling two hours with some old friends.  But compared to the first two installments, it's a bit of a letdown.  While the action is thrilling and the performances are top-notch, there's so much action that there's little room for a plot.  In fact, there are times when it seems more like a trailer than a real movie.

The U.S.S. Enterprise is about mid-way through her 5 year voyage.  They're running low on supplies and everyone is getting a bit stir-crazy, so they make a pit-stop at Yorktown, a Federation base.  There, they get a distress call from an escape pod.  Her ship was severely crippled in a violent nebula and she needs help.  The Enterprise goes to the rescue, but it's a trap.  They're attacked by a swarm of individual ships that destroy the Enterprise and leave the surviving crew stranded.  Now, with the help of fellow survivor named Jaylah (Boutella) to rescue the crew and prevent a villain named Krall from using an insidious weapon to wreak havoc in the galaxy.

The returning cast members slide easily back into their roles.  The newcomers to the cast, Sofia Boutella and Idris Elba, are fine, but underwritten.  The scene-stealer is Shoreh Aghdashloo (as she is wont to do), but she's only on screen for two scenes.

I wish that Justin Lin had more faith in the cast and the story.  Not to mention the audience.  He's going for a world audience here, which is fine.  But he fails to realize that the excitement comes not from special effects (not always) but from getting involved in the story.  Razzle-dazzle doesn't mean much if you don't care about the plot.  Lin tries every trick in the book to reach every single person on Earth, and his attempts to do so are obvious (it seems that every few minutes he rotates the camera 360 degrees for no apparent reason).

If I seem less than enthusiastic, rest assured that I enjoyed myself enough to recommend the film.  It could have been a lot better, but considering the crap that's been released so far this year, anything that is marginally enjoyable should be considered a ringing endorsement.  "Star Trek Beyond" is considerably above that level.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Fright Night (1985)

3/4

Starring: William Ragsdale, Chris Sarandon, Roddy McDowell, Amanda Bearse, Stephen Geoffreys, Jonathan Stark

Rated R (probably for Vampire Violence and Gore, Language and Some Sexuality)

"Fright Night" is like "Kick-Ass" or "Shoot 'Em Up."  It wants to be a genre movie while at the same time winking at its clichés and genre conventions.  While not as clever as "Kick-Ass" or as action-packed as "Shoot 'Em Up," "Fright Night" is still a lot of fun.  It's spooky, it's funny, and has some perfectly gruesome makeup.

Charley Brewster (Ragsdale) is your average teenager.  He isn't the best student and would rather cut class than go, has a girlfriend named Amy (Bearse) who isn't ready to sleep with him, and watches too much TV, especially "Fright Night," a "Creature Double Feature"-ish show hosted by "vampire killer" Peter Vincent (McDowell).  Charley has a new neighbor moving in next door, which he is perfectly happy about after he gets to spy on said neighbor with a hooker.  When one of the women visiting said neighbor turns up dead (and after seeing a nasty set of fangs and claws), he suspects the horrible truth: his neighbor, a studly man named Jerry Dandridge (Sarandon), is a vampire.

While William Ragsdale is totally adorable (in a boy next door sort of way), the real star of the show is Chris Sarandon.  His vampire is wickedly awesome.  With a constant smirk and total knowledge about how to push Charley's buttons, he's despicably evil yet tons of fun to watch.  It's really hard to get that creepy/funny tone right, and a lot of "Fright Night's" success in that respect is because of Sarandon's delicious performance.

His co-star, Roddy McDowell, is very good as the TV host who isn't as brave as he initially appears to be.  When confronted with a "real" vampire, the so-called "vampire killer" freaks.  It's all an act, and Charley knows it, but who else is he going to turn to when no one else believes him?

I liked what I saw in "Fright Night."  But I wanted more.  I wanted a stronger story, more cool monsters, and especially, more Jerry.  In that sense, it's like "The Lost Boys," another vampire movie that came out a few years later.  The premise is good and the set-up is strong that when the movie concludes we're left thinking, "That's it?"

Still, I enjoyed myself immensely watching this movie.  Horror buffs would do well to check this one out.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Menace II Society: Director's Cut

3.5/4

Starring: Tyrin Turner, Jada Pinkett Smith, Larenz Tate, Charles S. Dutton

Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence, Drug Use and Pervasive Language

There is a sense of pent-up unease that permeates "Menace II Society" that gives the film its edge.  It's a sense of frustration, anger, and futility that makes it easy to understand what drives the culture of violence in the inner city community, especially when it comes to young black men.

But this isn't a maudlin cry for sympathy.  The film was directed by the immensely talented Hughes Brothers, who are black and grew up in a similar environment.  They don't ask for sympathy for their characters nor do they condemn them.  The protagonist is likable but makes a number of bad decisions with his life (and has to pay for them).  Instead, they seek to explore what drives this cycle of violence.  Liberal viewers will cite a culture of racism and police brutality while conservatives will claim that they only care about drugs and lack initiative.  The truth, according to the film, is a little of both.

Caine (Turner) is 18 and has just graduated from high school.  While out celebrating, he and his best friend, O-Dog (Tate) go and buy beer.  After the convenience store clerk makes a smart comment, O-Dog shoots the man dead and after demanding that the man's wife give him the surveillance tape, he shoots her too.  Now Caine is at fault for accessory to murder and armed robbery.  It doesn't really faze him, however.  Caine, O-Dog, and everyone they know have grown up in a culture where violence, drugs and murder are a way of life.  Caine's friend Ronnie (Smith) and Mr. Butler (Dutton), the only man Caine respects, urge him to leave, but the ties that bind are strong.  When you've lived a life of desperation and violence, it's hard to be optimistic about the future, no matter how sure it seems.

Watching the film, I recognized that when I was his age, I was driven by the same impulses: instant gratification, cheap thrills and a hint of danger.  Only where I was staying out late with friends and partying, Caine and O-Dog deal in drugs and crime.  They're still human beings, but their environment has given them a warped value system.  The dangers of the inner city have given the importance to loyalty, respect and revenge rather than self-improvement.  At one point, his grandfather asks him if he wants to live or die?  His response: "I don't know."

The performances are solid, and in the case of two of the actors, excellent.  Tyrin Turner is a good anchor as Caine.  He's smart and has a heart, but had the misfortune of being born into the worst environment.  His grandparents try to keep him on the straight and narrow, but what teenager listens to his grandparents, especially when they constantly preach Bible passages to him?  As O-Dog, Larenz Tate portrays an individual so warped by drugs and violence that life simply has no meaning for him.  His focus is solely on himself: self-gratification and self-preservation.  Other people have little to no meaning for him.

The best performances come from two of the most underrated performers working today.  Jada Pinkett Smith, in her film debut, plays Ronnie, Caine's girlfriend of sorts.  She was in a relationship with Pernell (Glenn Plummer), who taught Caine how to survive on the streets and is now in prison for life.  She loves Caine and is trying to better herself for the sake of her son.  Pinkett Smith brings a cool maturity to her performances, and that gives her an inner strength that makes Ronnie into more than an angel in disguise.  The other performance worth mentioning is by Charles S. Dutton.  He's only on screen for two scenes, but Dutton, who is always captivating, makes the most of them.  He lays out Caine's reality in plain view, and without melodrama or exaggeration, gives him his two options.  But Caine's instincts for survival and world view, both of which came from growing up in the inner city, make leaving and turning over a new leaf very difficult.

If there's a flaw with the film, it's that we don't see enough of Pernell.  For someone who has so much of an impact on the central character, showing so little of him (and at the end, no less) is a mistake.  A flashback of what lessons he taught Caine would have given the film a firmer foundation.

"Menace II Society" is not an easy film to watch.  It doesn't take any prisoners or make any concessions for sensitive viewers.  This is a violent, profane and uncompromising motion picture, and all the better for it.  And it has never been more relevant than it is today.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

1.5/4

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth

Rated PG-13 for Supernatural Action and Some Crude Humor

I don't know about you, but I'm getting tired of these new "comedies" that seem almost entirely composed of endless riffs on jokes rather than a screenplay.  I watched the original 1984 classic a week ago and was surprised at how effective it is.  It's still hilarious and creepy.  But that's because its stars were working with a real script, and while there was certainly improvising, they kept their riffs to a line or two.  Here, it's like watching a group of stand-up comics shooting their mouths off without knowing when someone said the punchline.

This "Ghostbusters" is a reboot rather than a sequel or a remake.  It ignores the other films except for the obligatory callbacks and cameos (and there are plenty of both).  The story outline is pretty much the same, only there's less of a plot and structure.

After Erin Gilbert (Wiig) is denied tenure when Columbia University found out that she had written a book that had argued for the existence of ghosts, she hooks up with an old friend (that she wrote the book with and published it without her permission), Abby Yates (McCarthy) and her weird co-worker Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), to catch ghosts.  With the help of a subway ticket taker named Patty Tolan (Jones), the quartet sets out to stop a social misfit named Rowan North (Neil Casey) from unleashing the apocalypse.

The four leads, including Wiig and McCarthy, are all bland.  No one is on their game and as such the film is rarely funny.  There are a few good one-liners here and there and Chris Hemsworth, who plays the hunky but incompetent secretary, is consistently amusing (and clearly having a blast).  That's it, really.  All that's left for someone trapped in this movie is to admire the special effects and spot the cameos by the original cast members (save for Harold Ramis, who passed away a few years ago, and Rick Moranis, who retired).

It's a pity that so much time and effort were put into special effects that are in the service of four actresses with no direction and are mugging the camera.  This is a visually dazzling film, and for once, the 3D is worth the extra charge.  The lighting is corrected, the image pops and takes advantage of widescreen.  Unfortunately, cool special effects can't make up for a movie that's this tedious.

Trust me.  Save your money and watch the original.

The Purge: Election Year

3/4

Starring: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel, Edwin Hodge

Rated R for Disturbing Bloody Violence and Strong Language

It's rare that we get a horror movie that provokes thought.  Most are mindless ghost stories or brainless gorefests.  "The Purge" franchise (with the exception of the first one, which I'm going to pretend doesn't exist) does.  I'm not talking Stanley Kubrick or anything, but it does get you thinking about morality and the psychological drives of violence.  I enjoy that aspect of these two movies, although the implication that a significant portion of the U.S. population is psychopathic and will sadistically torture and kill anyone they can find (if allowed to do so) is a little scary.

Despite saving the country from economic ruin, the annual Purge, a 12 hour period where all crime (including murder) is legal, remains controversial.  Some support it with an almost religious zeal.  Others risk their lives to save its most vulnerable targets (the homeless, the poor) and those caught in the crossfire.

Ever since her family was murdered during The Purge, Senator Charlie Roan (Mitchell) has been an outspoken opponent of the annual bloodbath.  Now a presidential candidate running on the platform of ending the violence, she is Public Enemy #1 for The New Founding Fathers of America.  They view her as a threat, and to prevent her from setting foot in the White House, they institute a new rule: anyone, no matter how important or powerful, can be killed during The Purge.  Her trusty security agent, Leo Barnes (Grillo) locks her up tight, but they are betrayed and have to go on the run.  Meanwhile, a deli store owner named Joe Dixon (Williamson) is out trying to protect his deli from looters who have threatened him.  And Laney Rucker (Gabriel) is out rescuing people trapped in hell.

As much as it pains me to say it, this new installment has too much plot for its own good.  "The Purge: Anarchy" worked because it was about five people trying to get from point A to point B.  It was them against the world.  While inserting political arguments and intrigue into the mix gives it food for thought, it dilutes the film's strengths.

At least the performances are effective.  Up-and-coming character actor Frank Grillo returns to play the character he portrayed in the previous installment.  He's just as tough and focused, but writer/director James DeMonaco gives him a little bit more to work with.  Elizabeth Mitchell, another talented character actress who gets far too few roles, is terrific.  Charlie is smart and determined with an uncanny gift to connect with people.  In other words, she's a great politician.  Mykelti Williamson is his usual reliable self as Joe, providing some of the film's gallows humor (although the race jokes are more awkward than funny).

The bottom line about this movie is the same as it is with most sequels: if you liked the others, you'll like this one.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates


0.5/4
Starring: Zac Efron, Adam Devine, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza
Rated R for Crude Sexual Content, Language Throughout, Drug Use and Some Graphic Nudity

There is a scene in this movie that I want to tell you about.  As everyone who has seen the trailer knows, the four protagonists and the bride and groom go on an ATV ride where the bride gets creamed by an ATV wheel and thus half her face looks like road kill.  After spending 30 seconds listening to her and the high strung maid of honor worry about how her face looks, Adam Devine says it looks horrible.  And he says it again, this time in a different way.  And he says it again, in a different way.  Then Zac Efron comes on and spends another 30 seconds trying to make her feel better.  This whole scene, which is essentially a single joke, takes up about 2 minutes.

Does anyone actually find this schtick funny?  I like good improv, but when it’s done by someone who doesn’t know what they are doing, it’s a form of inhuman torture.  To make sure we laugh, the actors get hyper, but at the same time they act disaffected (a la “What If”) to appear like they’re not trying.  They over emphasize the stutters, the stammers, and what not, in an attempt to seem more normal, but with their voices and body language exaggerated to the degree where a clown would seem over-the-top, the joke is ruined.  And since this happens non-stop for 90 minutes, watching the film is pure agony.

“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” is another example of what I call the “Seth Rogen Influence.”  It’s where the actors riff endlessly on every single joke.  For example, when the two brothers are accused of amping each other up at family gatherings, the two deny it.  And they escalate to the point where they are just about screaming.  As a short bit, it could be funny.  But it belabors the joke until it’s no longer funny.  And since Seth Rogen is the lout who got made this shit popular, I blame it on him.  It’s not funny when he does it, and it’s not funny when anyone here does it.

Mike and Dave are two brothers whose co-dependency and tendency to act out makes them a liability at family gatherings.  So for her sister’s wedding, they are instructed to find wedding dates that will keep them in line.  By accident (or actually not), they run into two girls they find suitable.  But they’re actually not nice girls.  They’re party animals who are looking for a free vacation to Hawai’i.  Naturally things get way out of control very quickly.

This is a great concept for a comedy.  The film is based on a true story from what I gather, although I highly doubt it.  There isn’t one single character who acts like a human being in this film.  The problem is that there is no screenplay and no direction.  The director just points the camera in the right direction and says go.  But the jokes aren’t funny the first time and they certainly aren’t funny the second time.  Or the fifth time.  Sadly, the director doesn’t seem to get the concept of humor.

Even worse, the actors are trying way too hard.  Everyone knows that in order for a joke to work, you can’t reach for it.  Getting shrill and scrunching up your face isn’t funny.  Timing, reaction shots, and most importantly, witty dialogue, are.  The jokes here aren’t even jokes.  They’re just random words and phrases that are shouted out at random.  There is no wit here.  There is no truth to anything anyone says.  It’s all garbage.

I know that Zac Efron, Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza can be funny.  Adam Devine can also be funny in small doses.  But every actor, no matter how good, needs direction.  They need someone who can tell them what is and is not funny and to guide the story.  That doesn’t happen here.

As strange as it is to say, Wes Anderson is looking better and better by the minute.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Black Sheep


1.5/4
Starring: Chris Farley, David Spade, Tim Matheson, Christine Ebersole, Gary Busey, Bruce McGill
Rated PG-13 for Crude Language and Humor, Drug-Related Material and Sexual Innuendo

A movie like “Black Sheep” is what happens when no one involved in the creative process is on the same page.  To say that it had a troubled production history is to understate matters.  Paramount had totally underestimated the appeal of “Tommy Boy” and wanted a sequel of sorts (these days, Chris Farley and David Spade would have been contractually obligated for two sequels before there was an underlying premise).  Farley wanted it to be a dramedy about an aspiring governor played by Tim Matheson and his enthusiastic but bumbling brother (played by Farley, of course).  Director Penelope Spheeris didn’t think that David Spade, who played the aide assigned to keep Farley out of trouble, was funny at all.  To that end, he cut out most of his scenes and she ended up leaving her a message on her answering machine saying, “You’re cutting my comedy balls off!”  In addition to separating the two (by his own admission, Spade’s form of humor requires someone to play off of), she threw out most of Fred Wolf’s script and worked on it with her friend.  And that was aside from the interpersonal tension brewing between close friends Farley and Spade.  Farley was getting more money and attention, and he had stolen a girl from Spade (who, ironically, played the naked girl in “Tommy Boy”).  With problems like that, a movie has no chance to be a success.

“Black Sheep” is a bad movie, there’s no doubt about that.  But it’s not as bad as its reputation suggests.  Every one of Chris’s friends and managers thought it was terrible, and some, such as “Tommy Boy” co-star Rob Lowe, argued that it was a factor in his first relapse into alcoholism and addiction (one that started the ball rolling on subsequent relapses that led to his death shortly thereafter).  It’s a mess and best skipped entirely, but it’s not without its bright spots.  It’s impossible for Chris Farley to be in a movie and not get at least one laugh, and it showcases his dramatic talents, which were in evidence in “Tommy Boy,” but are a little stronger here.  He has some nice scenes with Matheson and especially with a young boy, played by Michael Patrick Carter, that are really wonderful.  It’s one of those movies that misfires, but shows flashes of what it could have been.

Clearly, director Penelope Spheeris was the wrong person for the job as a director.  According to her statements in Farley’s biography, “The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts,” she took the job for two reasons: one, they were offering her an “obscene” amount of money, and two, she had worked with Farley before (he had a cameo in her claim to fame, “Wayne’s World”) and wanted to do so again.  But based on the evidence, she doesn’t understand his appeal.  She relies too much on Farley’s talent for physical comedy, and it gets old after a while.  She wasn’t speaking to writer Fred Wolf (who had also written “Tommy Boy” without credit), and had in fact fired him three times (he was rehired by Farley twice and producer Lorne Michaels once) before banning him from the set.  Certainly, Farley’s physical gifts were on display in “Tommy Boy” (who can forget the dancing scene at the gas station?), but it primarily focused on his comic instincts and Midwestern appeal.  Most importantly, it had the chemistry between Farley and Spade.

I make this distinction because Farley is clearly struggling in the role.  His trademark “anti-slapstick” comedy feels forced and obligatory, like something out of a bad SNL skit.  The quieter, subtler moments are much funnier.  Likewise, Spade is also grasping at straws.  Watching him play off a group of hillbillies or a deranged ex-soldier just isn’t the same.  Tim Matheson, who, along with Bruce McGill, was cast at Farley's request due to his father’s love (not to mention his own) of “Animal House,” is a scene-stealer, providing some light, but adept, drama.  More time spent with him and Farley and less time pratfalling would have helped immeasurably.

“Black Sheep” would be just another bad movie even without its tortured production.  But that it was the final film with Farley and Spade and started its star’s long, painful descent to death makes it a tragic one.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Lord of Illusions

2/4

Starring: Scott Bakula, Famke Janssen, Kevin J. O'Connor, Joel Swetow, Daniel von Bargen

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong Violence and Gore, and for Language and Sexuality


I suppose that there is a dark side to everything.  Movies that cause us joy were a nightmare to make.  Artists that we love are the biggest jerks in real life.  Religion gives us hope and peace but at the same time gives birth to violent zealots who think they can dictate the life and death of innocent people.  In Clive Barker’s “Lord of Illusions,” magic has the same duality.  Illusion provides entertainment, but real magic is a nightmare to behold.  It’s an intriguing concept to be sure, but an underwritten screenplay and a miscast lead turns it into a gory mess.

“Lord of Illusions” is based on a short story that Barker wrote and features his famous character Harry D’Amour, played here by Scott Bakula.  These stories are a mix of horror and film-noir, which was a point of contention for the studio, who wanted a straight horror movie.  It’s a solid idea, but even after seeing Barker’s true vision, the film’s story doesn’t make any sense.

Harry D’Amour (Bakula) is fresh off solving an exorcism case when he’s called on to track down a slimy rat for insurance fraud.  There, he finds a man who has been savagely tortured and murdered.  This puts him into contact with Dorothea Swann (Janssen), the wife of famed illusionist, Philip Swann (O’Connor).  The murder has put Philip on edge regarding a cult he was once a part of.  He thinks that some of the other members are trying to resurrect their leader, a nasty individual by the name of Nix (von Bargen).  Now it’s up to Harry to stop them.

It’s not Shakespeare, but it could make a nice genre flick.  Unfortunately the screenplay is a mess.  Nothing makes much sense, primarily because Barker never establishes a set of rules about what can and can’t happen. As a result, the film never achieves credibility or coherence.  Another run through the word processor could only have helped things.

Scott Bakula is never credible as Harry.  The role of a hard-drinkin’, cynical private eye is an old one, played most famously by Humphrey Bogart during the Golden Age of Hollywood.  But Bakula lacks the presence and the cynicism to pull it off.  He looks more like a doctor or a suburbanite than a private dick.  Likewise, Kevin J. O’Connor is also miscast as the magician.  He’s too quirky and wimpy.  Famke Janssen is her usual reliable self as the sort of femme fatale.  And Daniel von Bargen manages to chill as Nix.

What else can I say about this movie?  It’s certainly not bad; it has some decent shocks and suspense and contains a considerable amount of blood and gore (in addition to the studio, the MPAA also demanded trims in order to secure an R rating).  But it could also have been a lot better.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets

2.5/4

Starring (voices): Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Lake Bell, Albert Brooks, Dana Carvey, Ellie Kemper

Rated PG for Action and Some Rude Humor

The life of a pet seems simultaneously perfect (who hasn't wanted to spend the entire day sleeping?) and depressing (it must be a very boring life when each day consists of eating and sleeping and a trip to the dog park if you're lucky).  The new film from Illumination Entertainment, who created the "Despicable Me" franchise, explores what pets really do when their owners are off at work or school.

The influence of "Toy Story" is hard to deny, but it's only similarity is at the basic concept level.  Unfortunately while "Toy Story" was fun and heartfelt, "The Secret Life of Pets" comes up short even on its own merits.  This is another animated movie where the concept and marketing appear to have been of more importance to the filmmakers than the writing and voice acting.  It looks great (New York City has never looked so good) and contains some moments of inspired comedy, but the lasting impression is that it's a rather mindless diversion.

Max (Louis C.K.) is the pampered pet of Katie (Kemper), a single woman living in New York City.  Like most dogs, Max worships his owner and is devastated when she leaves for work.  Fortunately, he has the other pets that live in his apartment building to socialize with, including Gidget (Slate), a little puff ball that has loved him from afar.  One day Katie brings home a big shaggy dog named Duke (Stonestreet).  Max is horrified, viewing the big lug as a usurper intruding on his turf.  Despite Duke's sincere attempts to become friends, Max tries to drive him away.  But Duke won't take the abuse lying down and while at the dog park, he tricks Max and both end up with their collars taken away by stray cats and on the run from animal control and a group of tossed away pets led by Snowball (Hart), a fluffy bunny who is as cute as he is psychotic.  It's up to Gidget and the rest of the apartment's pets to find them.

If that sounds complicated, it is.  Which brings me to my main criticism of this movie, and it's a common one these days: it's too busy.  The filmmakers spent so much time covering their marketing and merchandising bases that they didn't have time to write a compelling story with characters worth caring about.  Or perhaps they simply didn't care.  Regardless, it hurts the film.

"The Secret Life of Pets" is one of those movies where the secondary characters are more colorful and interesting than the main pair.  Max and Duke are supposed to be the everymen (or every-"dog" in this case), but they're flatly written and Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet bring little in the way of heart or humor to them.  Or chemistry.  These two don't "click."  The film would have been better served if the filmmakers had excised their scenes and those of Snowball and company (which is straight out of a bad sitcom, although I liked Hart) and concentrated on Gidget and her friends' search for Max and Duke.  The latter brings the film's energy and humor (and is responsible for the film's most explosive laugh, which involves YouTube).

Ultimately, "The Secret Life of Pets" is another animated movie that's intended to sell toys and create internet memes, make a killing at the box office and be forgotten.  As such, it's not painful, but not worth your time either.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

From Dusk Till Dawn

3/4

Starring: George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Quentin Tarantino, Juliette Lewis, Ernest Liu

Rated R for Strong Violence and Gore, Language and Nudity

Watching "From Dusk Till Dawn," I got the sense that everyone involved in the project was enjoying themselves immensely making it.  From frame one, it's played with its tongue firmly planted in cheek.  This an extremely silly horror movie.  And I mean that as a compliment.

Bank robbers Seth (Clooney) and Ritchie Gecko (Tarantino) are two brothers on the run from a bank robbery gone bad.  The "cool under pressure" Seth and psychopathic Ritchie are heading to Mexico to live in paradise.  To cross the border without getting caught, the two hijack the RV of an ex-preacher named Jacob Fuller (Keitel) and his two children Kate (Lewis) and Scott (Lir).  The crossing is a success, and they go to the meeting point where the Gecko brothers will be picked up by some friends.  The meeting place is an out of the way dive called the Titty Twister, and unfortunately for them, the people that run the place are vampires.

The combined talents of Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the screenplay and stars in the film) and Robert Rodriguez (who directed) is a match made in heaven.  It makes sense; the men are good friends off screen and are rebellious filmmakers with a love of grade-Z exploitation flicks.  Which is what this is, only with a bigger budget and stars.

The performances are effective, but this is one of those movies where acting is little real concern.  George Clooney, previously known for TV's "E.R." got his big break with this flick.  He has little trouble pulling off the Tarantinian dialogue, and while he would go on to play a loveable rascal in many of his movies ("The Peacemaker," the "Ocean's 11" movies, etc), here he's playing an asshole times ten.  Clooney makes it work.  Harvey Keitel manages to keep a straight face amid all the cheese, which is something of an accomplishment.  Ditto for Juliette Lewis.  The weak links are Tarantino and Ernest Liu.  Tarantino is a much better filmmaker than he is an actor, and while he's adequate, that's the best I can say about him.  Would that I could say the same thing about Ernest Liu, whose performance is so bad he makes soap opera acting look like Meryl Streep.

Robert Rodriguez, who came on to the stage with his $7000 hit "El Mariachi," finds the right tone for this flick.  He knows it's silly.  We know it's silly.  And he knows we know it's silly.  Rodriguez straddles the line between horror and comedy, and like his buddy Tarantino, he peppers it with loads of cameos (Kelly Preston, Robert Saxon, Tom Savini, Michael Parks) and references to other movies.

Be warned, it's very violent and there is so much blood and gore than "over-the-top" comes up short by several orders of magnitude.  But that's kind of the point.  It's so overplayed that it becomes groovy and cool rather than scary and disturbing.  Then again, that may be scary and disturbing in and of itself.  That's a discussion for another day.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Free State of Jones

2.5/4

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Bill Tangradi, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Thomas Francis Murphy, Jacob Lofland

Rated R for Brutal Battle Scenes and Disturbing Graphic Images

The problem with "Free State of Jones" isn't what's on screen, it's what isn't.  The film has all the evidence of being a workable (if unspectacular) film, but the editing appears to have been done with a meat cleaver.  Subplots are raised and dropped with alarming frequency, characters appear and disappear at random, and the film (the second half in particular) is an unfocused mess.  Still, the performances are effective and the battle scenes are assembled well.

Newt Knight (McConaughey) is a nurse in the Confederate army.  He cares enough for his patients that he will claim that they are of a higher rank than they actually are so they will see the doctor first.  When a neighbor boy (Lofland) is killed in battle, he becomes disillusioned and deserts.  He hides out in a swamp near home but finds that he has not escaped the war.  The Confederate soldiers are stealing food and supplies from simple farmers under the guise of a "10% taxation."  He, some former slaves and deserters form a successful rebellion.  Word spreads around and he draws more followers to his cause.  However, even with the surrender at Appomattox, his battle isn't over.

Writer/director Gary Ross has a lot he wants to say with this movie, but rarely finds a way to do it.  The most successful point he makes directly applies to today's economic reality.  They've realized that they're fighting and dying in a war for the super rich.  They're all too poor to own slaves and yet anyone who own certain amounts of slaves can get their kids out of the war.  Simply put, they're fighting a war for people like the rich plantation owner nearby whose only stake in the war is financial.

Less successful are his attempts to deal with racism.  The issue is hardly raised when it's the most interesting time, and when it is raised, it's hammered home with little subtlety.  It would be effective as filmed had these scenes been better set up.

Which, of course, leads me to my biggest criticism: too much in too little time.  There is a wealth of story material here.  Almost enough for a miniseries, actually.  But it's been crammed into a running time of a little more than two hours.  A more judiciously pruned screenplay, or a running time that could accommodate the material, would have served the film better.

The performances are effective, but not especially memorable.  Matthew McConaughey is uneven.  He's his usual low-key self, which is an asset in the quieter moments.  But when he's speaking to a crowd of his supporters, it's difficult to believe that this guy could have inspired him to do anything no matter what he said.  He could have used a little bit of Mel Gibson from "Braveheart."  Gugu Mbatha-Raw is quite good as Rachel, a slave (?) turned lover for Newt.  They have no chemistry, but Mbatha-Raw is the best thing in the movie.  Everyone else fills their roles appropriately, although special mention has to go to Bill Tangrandi, whose character Lt. Barbour is slimy enough to make us wish for his horrible death within a minute of appearing on screen.

There is a lot to like about this movie.  There are also a lot of things to dislike about the movie.  Unfortunately the latter outweighs the former.  Hopefully there will be a director's cut.  Now that will be something I would pay to see.

Curse of the Golden Flower

2.5/4

Starring: Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat, Jay Chou, Ye Liu, Dahong Li, Man Lie, Jin Chen, Junjie Qin

Rated R for Violence

On the basis of its visual appeal, "Curse of the Golden Flower" is a flat-out masterpiece.  It looks gorgeous.  Every costume, every set, every image busts with color and detail.  It's positively striking; a sumptuous feast for the eyes.  If only the same thing could be said for the screenplay.

Trouble is brewing in ancient China.  The Emperor (Yun-Fat) has returned to The Forbidden City to celebrate the Chrysanthemum Festival with his family.  However, the relationships between the family members are anything but cordial.  The Emperor has been treating the Empress (Li) for anemia, but that's just a smokescreen.  He really does it to control her, and has recently begun insert poison into her "medicine."  She is carrying on an affair with her stepson, Prince Wan (Liu), who in turn is in love with the doctor's daughter Chan (Lie), a relationship that is more dangerous than either of them realize.  Prince Jai (Chou), the ever faithful son, is concerned about his mother's health and obsession with sewing chrysanthemums.  And Prince Yu (Qin) is all but forgotten about.  Events are soon set in motion that could save the empire...or destroy it.

Incest.  Forbidden love.  Betrayal.  Sibling rivalry.  Political rebellion.  Is it Shakespeare or soap opera?  I'm not quite sure.  It has the elements of both.  Perhaps the line is drawn at the execution stage, and that's where this film comes up short.  The story is clunky and doesn't always make a lot of sense.  I got the sense that director Zhang Yimou was more concerned with how everything looked than whether he was telling a compelling, or coherent, story.

At least he had the good sense to cast two of China's finest in the film.  No movie can be all bad if you have Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li in it (although Wong Kar-Wai gave it a good try in "2046").  Both of them do their jobs as only they can, but this script is beneath them.  With a $45 million budget, one hopes that they were at least well paid.  Gong Li does a fine job of playing a schemer, and Chow Yun-Fat is having a grand time playing a bad to the bone villain (ironic coming from a man who claims to feel horrible if he ever says something mean to someone).  Jay Chou emenates loyalty as the dutiful son.  Everyone else is essentially forgettable.

But let's go back to the look of the film.  If you take a look at some of the images that Yimou has cooked up for this movie, you'll be astonished.  Colors are bright and bold, the designs are intricate and vividly detailed.  Credit has to go to the camerawork by Xiaoding Zhao, the production design by Tingxiao Huo, and the costume design by Chung Man Yee.  People in these jobs rarely get credit for their hard work, and in this  case, they deserve special mention.  This movie is almost worth seeing just to look at it.

Sadly, Yimou doesn't support their efforts very well.  What a shame.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Shallows

1.5/4

Starring: Blake Lively

Rated PG-13 for Bloody Images, Intense Sequences of Peril, and Brief Strong Language

You know a movie is in trouble when you are thinking more about everyone except the leading lady who is present in every scene.  You know a movie is in trouble when you get so bored you bring logic into a movie that doesn't want it.  You also know a movie is in trouble when a movie that has all the right ingredients is still a sleep aid.

By all accounts, this should have been a great thriller.  It's got a gorgeous heroine, who wears a bikini, is wet for 99% of the movie, and is smart and resourceful rather than a wimpering idiot.  The premise is gripping in a completely visceral way, and it's got a director who has done some good work in the past ("Run All Night" narrowly missed my Top 10 list last year).  But despite all that's going for it, it's actually a real trial.

Nancy (Lively) is a surfer going to a remote beach in Mexico.  Her mother went there when she was pregnant with Nancy, and after her death, Nancy wants to go there herself.  However, after a day of surfing, she decides to go out for one last wave.  That's when she gets nailed by a shark that's sniffing around a rotting whale carcass.  Bleeding from a bite and experiencing irritation from some fire coral, Nancy is trapped on a rock with an intelligent, and persistent, predator waiting for the chance to turn her into a meal.

The key to the success of a movie like this is the same as that of "Duel" or "Speed:" keeping the audience surprised and interested with the clever plot twists.  On that level, the film works.  The screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski is quite good at surprising us.  It isn't "The Descent," but for a light summer thriller, it does the trick.

Of course, that would imply that I cared about the protagonist.  In this case, I didn't.  Blake Lively doesn't give a bad performance, per se, but she's not interesting.  She doesn't have much of a personality, and the actress doesn't bring the necessary energy to the part to compensate.  I found the shark, which is at times obviously CGI, to be more interesting.  Ditto for the two surfer dudes who show up at the beginning.

Is the film silly?  Of course it is.  But with a movie like this, you have to be willing to "suspend your disbelief."  I have no "bar" for what I will or will not believe.  I'll accept any premise on it's own terms.  But the movie has to give me something back in return.  In the case of "The Shallows," all it gives is tedium.

Note:  "The Shallows" is rated PG-13, which left me flabbergasted.  After seeing the film, I'm convicned that the MPAA has reached a new low.  At times, the film seems remarkably coy; Nancy sees someone getting snacked on, but we can't see it.  On the other hand, one unlucky victim washes up on the beach in two pieces and crawls away from his legs.  I would love to hear Joan Graves' reasoning for how this is appropriate for tweens.