Wednesday, August 31, 2016

War Dogs

3.5/4

Starring: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollack, Jonah Hill

Rated R for Language Throughout, Drug Use and Sexual References

"War Dogs" is about two guys who stumbled into the American dream: luxury, drugs, and lots of money.  That there business is arms dealing makes no difference to them.  They see a business opportunity and milk it for all its worth.  But for every rise, there is certain to be a fall.

David Packouz (Teller) is, in his own words, "lost."  He dropped out of college after one semester, doesn't speak to his parents, and is working as a massage therapist.  His girlfriend Iz (de Armas) is supporting him in his new endeavor, selling Egyptian cotton sheets to retirement homes, but it's not going well.  Then at a funeral for a friend, he sees his best friend growing up, Ephraim Diveroli (Hill).  Ephraim is selling weapons and ammo to the U.S. military, and offers David a position to help.  With reservations, he agrees (especially since Iz is pregnant and he can't make ends meet as a massage therapist).  By going after small, relatively inexpensive deals rather than big moneymakers, the two rack up a lot of dough.  Then David finds the score of a lifetime: a deal that will net them millions.  The question is, can two enterprising kids pull it off?

Despite being directed by Todd Phillips, best known for making "The Hangover" trilogy, this isn't a comedy.  To be sure, there are amusing moments here and there and even a laugh or two, but those going in expecting a laugh riot will be a bit confused.  This is primarily a drama, but it's at least a fascinating one.  Phillips leads us every step of the way, from small beginnings to how they pull off what is to be known as "The Afghan Deal," which brought their high life falling to the ground.  The technical bits, such as how they got started, are a little shortchanged, but for the most part it's well-told.

Although Miles Teller and Jonah Hill are known primarily for their comic work, both do excellent jobs in dramatic roles.  Both are underrated talents, and have little trouble playing the old adage: average guys lured by big money but defeated by greed, hubris and betrayal.  What makes them different than your usual protagonists in this type of movie is that they remain average guys.  Sure, they're good at what they do and spend the money they make, but they never really change.  They're still suburban kids from Miami, only they're playing for big scores.

"War Dogs" isn't any kind of a masterpiece.  Nor is it an "important" film.  At some point it could have been made in the hopes of scoring an Oscar nomination or two, but it's not going to happen.  That doesn't change the fact that this is a fascinating, if imperfect, little movie.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Machine Gun Preacher

2/4

Starring: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Souleymane Sy Savane, Michael Shannon, Madeline Carroll, Kathy Baker

Rated R for Violent Content including Disturbing Images, Language, Some Drug Use and a Scene of Sexuality

I was working at a local art house movie theater when this movie was released.  I saw it once with a date but I didn't review it because I had missed the opening few minutes, and as a personal rule, I never review a movie unless I've seen it from beginning to end.  My thoughts on the film haven't changed much now that I've seen all 129 minutes of it: good ideas, poor focus.

Sam Childers (Butler) has just been released from prison.  He expects to return to his stripper wife Lynn (Monaghan) and daughter and resume his old life of drugs and motorcycles.  But Lynn found Jesus and quit stripping.  Despite her urging, Sam falls back into the same life that got him in trouble in the first place.  After a run-in with a nasty drifter than ends up with him stabbing the guy repeatedly and leaving him on the side of the road, Sam realizes that he has reached rock bottom.  He accepts Jesus and turns his life around.  One day at church they get a fellow pastor working in Uganda.  Sam is inspired by his speech and goes there to "take a look around."  He sees that his fellow Christians are being targeted by the Lord's Resistance Army and decides to help.  But his desire to help makes him an enemy of Joseph Kony, the leader of the LDR, and as one service worker points out, he may be doing more harm than good.  It's certainly taking a toll on his family life.

What's good about this movie is that for a story about a born-again Christian, it doesn't seek to evangelize the audience.  There's no greater feeling of being swindled and insulted than by seeing a movie waste an intriguing premise by using it as an excuse for a Sunday sermon (witness my bitter hatred of "God's Not Dead" and its almost equally unfortunate sequel).  Sam is religious and the film makes sure we understand his mindset, but the movie acts as an impartial observer.  For those interested in making Christian films, this is how to do it right.

Gerard Butler may seem like an effective choice for Sam Childers, but this isn't his best performance.  I get him as a biker, I get him as a desperate savior, and I certainly get him as an action hero (he did, after all, become famous for "300").  But as a preacher?  Not really.  Butler underplays the role, which, in an action movie like this, is the wrong decision.  We need someone we can rally behind rather than someone who internalizes their emotions.  It's a decent performance for another film.

At least he's given good support.  Michelle Monaghan is like Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep.  If you get her in the movie, you can at least say you did one thing right.  Even in bad movies, Monaghan is a pillar of strength and compassion.  Watching her is always a pleasure, even in lame movies like "Pixels."  Unfortunately, she's given little to do other than be the supporting wife or voice of conscience.  I can't wait to see her get a truly meaty role and win a much deserved Oscar.

The film was directed by Marc Foster, who directed such films as "The Kite Runner" and "Finding Neverland."  While his skills in directing action scenes haven't improved from his disastrous Bond adventure "Quantum of Solace," he's a good storyteller.  Unfortunately, the screenplay first-timer (apart from a teleplay nine years earlier) Jason Keller is all over the map.  It tries to do so much and none of it ends up developed enough to be of any interest.  A better focused story with a clear narrative arc would have made the film so much stronger.

"Machine Gun Preacher" doesn't really end.  It kind of just stops and adds some end titles to say where the characters are now.  It makes sense since this is a true story and Sam is still out there in Sudan.  But it feels awkward and unsatisfying.

This isn't a bad movie, but it should have been a lot better.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Don't Breathe

3.5/4

Starring: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Stephen Lang, Daniel Zovatto

Rated R for Terror, Violence, Disturbing Content, and Language including Sexual References

"Don't Breathe" works.  Let's just get that out of the way.  It's tense and scary, and contains more than a few surprises (at least one of which approaches the level of shock in "Seven").  The performances are uniformly strong and it avoids common traps of the genre.  It's easy to believe that these events could plausibly happen.

Rocky (Levy), Alex (Minnette), and Money (Zovatto) are three friends who commit petty crime to make ends meet.  Unlike most thieves in horror movies, these guys are smart.  "No money and a ten thousand dollar limit," Alex warns them.  They know that going over that limit is grand larceny with a ten year sentence.  They only rob houses that have the security system from a company that Alex's dad works at, since they know the ins and outs of it.  But small scores aren't getting them very far, and all three are desperate to get out of Detroit.  Money hears of a man who won a $300,000 dollar settlement after his daughter was killed in a car wreck.  Alex is hesitant since the repercussions would be huge if they got caught, but they would all be able to go to California instantly if they pull it off, so he eventually relents.  When they case the house, they discover that the owner (Lang) is a blind, virtual shut-in with a big Rottweiler at his beck and call.  They go at night and drug the man and the dog, but then the man wakes up...

The movie gets a lot of tension from claustrophobia.  The three thieves, who despite their intentions remain sympathetic, are trapped in a house with a man who is far more dangerous than they anticipated.  Like Daredevil, his other senses have increased to compensate for his lack of sight.  And he's no scared pushover; he has no qualms about killing his intruders (which, Alex points out, he is legally able to do since Money brought a gun).  Director Fede Alvarez gets a lot of mileage and tension out of closed spaces, hiding from a pursuer, and being pursued by a smart, intelligent adversary who wants to kill you.

What makes this film work is that the characters are smart.  Sure, they're doing something with questionable motives and taking advantage of someone who initially appears to be at a disadvantage, but they know what they're doing and are quite resourceful.  But so is their opponent.  They have the ability of sight, but he knows the house and has a gun (and isn't afraid to use it).

I'll be honest.  I wasn't looking forward to this movie when I realized that the director and female lead were both responsible from that utterly worthless "Evil Dead" remake.  That movie was flat out stupid.  But freed from the need to make a cheap, bloody cash cow and make a movie that he wanted to make, Alvarez gets to stretch his talents and show us what he's capable of.  The results are night and day.  Likewise, his star Jane Levy is also better.  She was awful in the previous movie, but creates a likable heroine here.  Veteran actor Stephen Lang is terrific except when he talks; I've always thought his voice was hammy, but here he talks in a low croak that sounds like fingernails on the blackboard.  Fortunately, he doesn't have a lot of dialogue.  Their co-stars, Dylan Minnette (looking uncannily similar to Dylan O'Brien) as the helpful Alex and Daniel Zovatto as the loose cannon Money are also very good.

One criticism I have is the opening scene.  Yes, this is one of those movies that starts out in the middle and goes back to the beginning.  It's a stylish move that works in certain cases, like in film noir, but not in a straightforward horror/thriller.  It defuses some of the tension, but the film is well-crafted enough that we often forget it.  Still, here it does nothing but waste time.

There aren't many reasons to go to the movies these days, with remakes, reboots, fan-only superhero movies and Seth Rogen's ego dominated the multiplex.  But occasionally Hollywood takes a risk and ends up making a really good movie.  This is one of those times.

The Hitcher

2.5/4

Starring: C. Thomas Howell, Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Rated R (probably for Strong Violence/Gore and Language)

"The Hitcher" should be a great little horror movie.  The lead is likable, the villain is the definition of malevolence, the editing is crisp and the director has the ability to generate tension with ease.  The problem?  It's stupid.  The script by Eric Red is written at such a brainless level that the hard efforts of the cast and director become futile.

Jim Halsey (Howell) is driving from Chicago to San Diego.  But it's late at night and he's on the verge of falling asleep at the wheel.  Coffee and cigarettes aren't cutting it anymore.  So when he spots a man on the side of the road looking for a ride, he picks him up with the hopes that at the very least, the guy will keep him awake.  Big mistake.  Jim gets a bad feeling about this guy, who calls himself John Ryder (Hauer), almost immediately, and it isn't long before Ryder pulls a knife on him.  Naturally, Jim asks him to stop, and Ryder says that he wants Jim to say four words: "I want to die."  Given the first opportunity, Jim seizes his chance for freedom and throws his passenger out of the car.  But Jim hasn't seen the last of John Ryder; the guy slaughters everyone in his path and pins the blame on poor Jim.  The only one who believes him is a pretty waitress named Nash (Leigh).  Together, they have to figure out how to stop the rampaging psychopath and clear Jim's name.

In most horror movies, the killer's face is unseen until the big reveal (one, but not the only, exception is "A Nightmare on Elm Street," but Freddy Krueger's face was disfigured beyond the point of recognition, so it doesn't really count).  Michael Myers had the altered Captain Kirk mask, Jason has the hockey mask, the killer in "Scream" has the Ghostface costume, and so on.  The idea is that it keeps the killer's identity hidden and am unmoving face is creepy in and of itself.  "The Hitcher" throws that idea away.  From the minute John Ryder is in the car, we see his face.  Rutger Hauer is shows that this is a man who thinks nothing of killing someone.  It's a shake-up of the genre that works.

His co-star is 80's heartthrob C. Thomas Howell, and it's a good performance in a relatively tricky role.  Jim is the all-American kid, and the handsome and friendly Howell has no problem essaying that.  It's impossible not to like him, and that's what gives the film its edge.  We care about him and want him to survive.  His co-star, Jennifer Jason Leigh, is also good, doing quite a bit with a relatively thankless role.

Unfortunately, all these efforts go to waste, since the script is so fatally dumb.  It seeks to be more than your average slasher movie, but the characters are so stupid all around that the movie's credibility is shattered around the halfway mark.  Horror movies have to be given a little leeway on the intelligence level to provide the scares; if every character did the smart thing when being attacked by a killer/monster/demon/whatever, the movie would be over in two seconds.  But when you have the hero take cops hostage to prove his innocence, or have cops lock him up even though they know he can't be the killer, or how a bunch of armed cops send the hero to negotiate with the killer who has a girl tied up between two trucks, it crosses the line.

I wanted to like this movie.  The acting and the direction are so strong that I gave it all the leeway I could.  But in the end, it fell apart.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Birds

3.5/4

Starring: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright

Rated PG-13 (probably for Terror/Violence)

Birds.

Not exactly a particularly frightening creature.  Lions ("The Ghost and the Darkness"), I get.  Snakes ("Anaconda"), definitely.  But birds?  Not really.  I mean, I did have one or two creepy experiences (a blackbird would attack little kids who walked by its tree at summer camp and during college a particularly aggressive goose would go into an aggressive stance as I walked by), but that's it.  Leave it to Alfred Hitchcock to find a way to make seagulls and pigeons scary.

Melanie Daniels (Hedren) is waiting to purchase a bird for her tightly wound aunt (she plans to teach it some "four letter words" before her aunt returns from Europe).  While there, she runs into a lawyer named Mitch Brenner (Taylor) who remembers her from some newspaper headlines.  There's a spark, and she goes to his weekend home in Bodega Bay to bring his sister the lovebirds he's looking for.  The two hit it off, despite the reservations of his brittle mother Lydia (Tandy).  Then strange things start happening.  A seagull takes a dive at her.  Another crashes headfirst into the door of the home she's staying at for the weekend.  When a swarm of birds invades Mitch's living room, they know that something really strange is going on.  And it's just getting started...

More than a premise or special effects, a horror movie needs characters we can relate to.  No one understood that better than Alfred Hitchcock.  Hitch was never one to be impatient.  He started his movies slowly and allowed them to build.  More importantly, he took that time to establish his characters and allow the audience to get involved in their situation.  Scares and suspense are important yes, but they're not going to work if they don't have a good foundation.  Take a look at the most terrifying horror film in recent years, "Sinister."  Bughuul was a horrifying creature, to be sure; evil enough to frighten someone just by looking at him.  But he was a minor detail.  The bulk of the movie was watching Ethan Hawke try to solve a mystery.  It was morbidly fascinating and completely absorbing.  By the time Bughuul showed up, we were already hooked.

"The Birds" works in the same way.  Watching Melanie and Mitch trade barbs and one-liners is immensely entertaining and the two have a lot of chemistry together.  The supporting characters of Lydia, who is unwilling to cut the apron strings, and Annie (Pleshette), the schoolteacher who still holds a torch for Mitch, are also compelling.  These characters are well-drawn and interesting enough to carry a movie all on their own.  That Hitchcock inserts them into a horror movie makes it that much more intense.

Admittedly, the idea of birds attacking a town is absurd.  But so is an escaped psychopath putting on a mask and stabbing teenagers to death ("Halloween").  Or an alien picking off the crew members of a spaceship one by one ("Alien").  It's all in the execution, and that's where Hitch is a master.  True, he's working with a well-written screenplay and a talented cast of actors, but even with that, a hack filmmaker could have blown it.  Not Hitch.  No one does suspense like him, and beneath the scares and special effects (some of which are admittedly rather cheesy), you get the sense that he's wearing a big grin on his face.  That sense of glee is there, even if you're too scared to notice it.

"The Birds" isn't any kind of a masterpiece.  You're not going to miss out on a life-altering experience if you don't see it.  It's not "The Godfather" or "Boyhood."  It's not an "essential" film.  It is, however, extremely entertaining.  This is the kind of movie that you pop in with your friends on a warm summer night at a sleepover.  You got your popcorn and your soda, and you lie in your sleeping bags as you scream at the scares and giggle with each other once they're over.  The climax is on the weaki side because Hitch doesn't push it far enough, but other than that this movie is a flat-out winner.

8mm

2.5/4

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini, Peter Stormare, Anthony Heald, Myra Carter, Catherine Keener, Amy Morton

Rated R for Strong Perverse Sexuality and Violence, and for Strong Language

When it was released, "8mm" was notorious for its violence and depravity.  Seventeen years later, it's still dark and perverted, but when movies like "Fifty Shades of Grey" make millions, it's not nearly as shocking.  This is a film noir murder mystery (as film noirs tend to be) that lacks only in atmosphere and a satisfying conclusion.

Tom Welles (Cage) is a private investigator known for his thoroughness and especially his discretion.  One day he gets a call from a wealthy widow.  Sensing connections to wealthier clientele and financial security, Welles leaps at the chance.  The woman, who goes by the name Mrs. Christian (Carter), has looked into the safe of her recently deceased husband and found a disturbing item: a short 8mm film that appears to show a young woman being murdered.  Welles assures Mrs. Christian that it's probably fake, but agrees to look into it to set her fears to rest.  What he finds shakes him to the very core.

"8mm" did not have a happy production history.  This was writer Andrew Kevin Walker's first screenplay after his surprise hit "Seven" four years earlier.  The studio wanted a lighter tone for the script, but after Joel Schumacher was hired to direct it, he thought that he wouldn't have to change it.  But Schumacher supported the studio and even rewrote the script himself.  Walker was angry enough to walk off the set and still hasn't seen the film.  Such behind the scenes drama is indicative of poor quality (see "Gigli" or "Black Sheep" for some examples).  Fortunately, while on the whole the film isn't completely satisfying, there are many elements that can be counted as strengths.

First and foremost is the lead performance of Nicolas Cage.  Cage has become a popular whipping boy in recent years, for reasons I can't understand.  I think with overexposure (to be fair, he did lose a fortune in the Great Recession) and bad movie choices, hating on Cage has become the "in" thing to do.  But he's a good anchor for the material, in fact, he's better than the script deserves.  Tom Welles is smart and dedicated to the job; there's no doubt that he will get to the bottom of the mystery.  Joaquin Phoenix adds some color as his sidekick, porn star clerk Max California.  James Gandolfini lends his tough guy persona to the proceedings as a sleazy agent.  Anthony Heald, the sniveling Dr. Chilton from "The Silence of the Lambs" plays Mrs. Christian's lawyer.  And Peter Stormare, the creep du jour, turns up as Dino Velvet, "the Jim Jarmusch of S&M."

"8mm" plays like a solidly entertaining thriller for the majority of its running time.  Not in league with "Seven" to be sure, but effective enough.  Then at around the 90 minute mark, the film experiences a staggering drop in quality.  People start acting out of character, the plot becomes a routine revenge story, and everyone appears to have undergone a severe brain cramp.  And forgotten how to act.  Cage's performance can't save the film, but it at least keeps it from falling apart completely.

"8mm" should really be NC-17.  This is a violent and graphic film that is totally inappropriate for kids.  There isn't a lot of sex, but there are images here that are not for the squeamish and very little is left up to the imagination.  Compare this to something like "Eyes Wide Shut" which was at least in good taste.  I also object to the film's message that sex, kinky or not, is depraved and evil.  But that kind of hypocrisy is indicative of the MPAA, which apparently only endorses sex if it's portrayed in clear, negative images.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Sausage Party

1.5/4

Starring (voices): Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera, Nick Kroll, David Krumholz, Edward Norton

Rated R for Strong Crude Sexual Content, Pervasive Language, and Drug Use

I don't think it is against the ethical code of a film critic to admit, or even feel, that was not excited to see this movie.  I posted on Facebook that I felt like I was walking down death row to my execution.  Having still not quite recovered from the trauma of witnessing "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising," I think that feeling this way, especially if I admit it, is fair.

The good news is that "Sausage Party" isn't as bad as "Neighbors 2."  The bad news is that I'm comparing it to one of the worst, most self-indulgent "movies" (I won't devalue the form by calling it as such) ever made, that's not necessarily a compliment.  "Sausage Party" is more dull and pointless than "bad."  It's too lazy to be as unwatchable as this year's sole 0/4 movie.

Frank (Rogen) is a hot dog waiting for the day when he and the fellow hot dogs are chosen by human shoppers to be taken to the Great Beyond.  There, he can be with his girlfriend, hot dog bun Brenda (Wiig) without cellophane coming between them.  However, the day they get selected a jar of honey mustard (Danny McBride) who has seen the Great Beyond, but was returned when the customer decided he bought the wrong kind of mustard.  He claims it's all a lie and that the humans are going to eat them.  Rather than go back to the humans, he commits suicide, which causes a pile up, and Frank, Brenda, and a few others are left to wander around the store.

What makes this movie fail is the laziness of the humor.  Seth Rogen and his screenwriters think that the idea of a bunch of foods that swear excessively and trade immature sex jokes is funny.  They think that they can get away with R-rated sitcom jokes that would amuse pre-pubescent boys if they're said by a tomato.  Or that the idea of a lesbian taco shell voiced by Salma Hayek is funny enough in its own right that she doesn't need anything funny to say.  Or talking used condom.  These are moderately clever ideas, but nothing is done with them.  There's no turn or wit to any of the jokes.

The acting?  What can I say about the acting?  It's just another movie where Seth Rogen gathers a bunch of his friends and they try to fit in as many sex jokes and foul words as a 90 minute time frame will allow.  I don't know about you, but that's not my idea of entertainment.  The one consolation about this is that, either due to the effort needed in creating an animated movie or directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon have the good sense to tell Rogen to shut his trap after each line, there's no sense that he's shooting his mouth off and riffing excessively on the same joke.  Such are the small joys of watching this brain-dead movie.

I have the distinct impression that I come across as one of those snooty, elitist critics that only likes those dense, abstract and artistic movies and don't like "stupid humor."  That is not the case.  I like stupid humor, when it's well written and clever.  Stupid characters and immature sex jokes are fine, even enjoyable.  But they must be written and acted with cleverness.  If you understand why a fantasy sequence about Kumar living with a giant bag of weed as his wife (like in "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle") is funny but a bottle of whiskey smoking pot out of a kazoo is lame after the first time, you know what I'm talking about.

Note:  This animated movie is rated R.  It's not the first, since "Fritz the Cat" got an X rating and its sequel got an R, as did Rob Zombie's direct-to-DVD animated film "The Haunted World of El Superbeasto."  I wouldn't say I'm complaining, but you have in this film food items doing things like lesbian fellatio, S&M, and other sorts of graphic sex acts that, if were done with human actors, would get an NC-17 for sure.  Apparently, the MPAA was totally at a loss for what to do with this film.  At the same time, they gave "Team America World Police" an NC-17 for going a little farther.  Just saying.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

3/4

Starring (voices): Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes

Rated PG for Thematic Elements, Scary Images, Action and Peril

I went into this movie fresh.  I didn't know what it was about, but more importantly, it came without any baggage.  It's not based on a book, a comic, or an old TV show.  It's not a remake/reboot/reimagining/whatever Hollywood is calling it now.  It's free of any internet hype from  internet fans pre-disposed to loving it or hating it because it has/doesn't have their favorite characters.  Or that it exists at all.  In other words, it's allowed to do what it should be able to do: fail or succeed on its own terms.

"Kubo and the Two Strings" is a good, but not great, stop-motion animated fantasy.  It consistently looks great and has some humorous moments, but the film lacks a strong set-up, a clean script and a confident director.  All in all though the film contains more pluses than minuses.

Kubo (Parkinson) is a little boy who charms the villagers with his story about a legendary samurai and the evil Moon King.  With the help of his little guitar, he can make origami paper act out his story to the delight of the townspeople.  However, just as he manages to get to the end, it grows dark, and he goes home.  That's because his mother tells him, in one of her rare moments of lucidity, that she cannot protect him after dark.  One day, a friend in the village laments his predicament because lots of interesting things happen at the upcoming festival after dark.  So Kubo decides to break the rules and stays out after the sun goes down.  That's when he finds out that the myth he tells his fans is true, and he meets his mother's creepy sisters (Mara) and ends up in the middle of a sudden snowstorm with a monkey (Theron), an origami soldier that can move but not speak, and a man cursed to be the form of a beetle (McConaughey).  To survive the threat of his evil aunts and worse grandfather (Fiennes), he needs to find three sacred pieces of armor.

It sounds very complicated and it sometimes is.  More than it should, I think.  The film doesn't effectively establish the rules of its world, which means there are times when it feels contrived or that we are playing catch-up with the plot (three different people credited to the script could be a reason).  Another run-through with the screenplay that smoothed out some of its rough edges would have given it more strength.

The voice acting is effective, but not stand out.  It can't hold a candle to something like Pixar, mostly because the writing isn't there.  Art Parkinson, who plays Rickon on "Game of Thrones," is quite good as Kubo, imbuing him with the necessary strength and vulnerability necessary for a part like this.  Charlize Theron is uneven.  She's good as the stern but affectionate Monkey, but lacks the timing and the snark to make her relationship with the dim-witted but enthusiastic Beetle.  Matthew McConaughey is hilarious as the third member of the quartet, getting all the mileage he can from playing what is essentially a male ditz.  Rooney Mara is unrecognizable as the sisters (since they're identical twins, it makes sense that she voices both), creating the second most unsettling villain(s) of the year (after, of course, the horrifying nun in "The Conjuring 2").  Ralph Fiennes is his usual reliable self as The Moon King, although I wonder if a less recognizable actor would have worked better.

Mention must be made of the ending, which is unsatisfying.  Director Travis Knight appears to be want to have his cake and eat it too.  The whole plot has us gearing up for an epic showdown between the four main characters and the Moon King, but it quickly shifts into something else that wants to be simultaneously sad and forgiving.  It doesn't really work.

Still, I liked the fact that it ventured away from "safe" formulas and tried to do something different.  Readers of my reviews will know that I am more forgiving of films that try to do something different even if they don't quite make it work.  While "Kubo and the Two Strings" is good enough in its own right, I still give it credit for taking chances.

Florence Foster Jenkins

2.5/4

Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg

Rated PG-13 for Brief Suggestive Material

People may say I couldn't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing. -Florence Foster Jenkins
That mentality is what made Florence Foster Jenkins so interesting.  She's an eccentric old bat who loves to sing, despite the fact that syphilis caused so much damage to her body that she can't hit a single note on key.  The result is like fingernails on a chalkboard, which made her an infamous joke.  She was the Jerry Springer of opera.

Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a wealthy socialite living in New York City.  Her husband is St Clair Bayfield (Grant), who loves her but has a girlfriend (or girlfriends) on the side.  Since Madame Florence has syphilis, she is okay with this (or at least letting herself be blind to it).  She lives for music, and loves to sing.  Slight problem...when she opens her mouth to belt out an aria, it's enough to make the walls peel.  While St Clair and her society friends are willing to lie to allow Florence to keep her fantasy, Florence really believes it, and when she makes a record that goes public, the cat's out of the bag.

Finding the right tone for the film must have been difficult for Stephen Frears.  He wants us to like Florence even though we are laughing at her.  She's the butt of a joke only she doesn't know it.  It's kind of mean, so the decision to humanize her is a mistake.  We feel bad for her.  It's hard not to have a few grins when she "sings," but I felt rotten when I did.  Seeing this alone might have made me feel like a complete jerk.

It's not Meryl Streep's fault.  Streep is wonderful (as always), especially because she does her own singing.  It must have been challenging for her since she can sing beautifully (as anyone who has seen "Mamma Mia" can attest).  Dramatically, this isn't a particularly challenging role for Streep, but what's special about it is that she appears to have studied the real singer's voice.  Kudos for her not only being able to accomplish this, but being able to listen to it for so long.  Hugh Grant came out of semi-retirement to act along side Meryl Streep, and it makes you realize how much you missed him.  There's none of the charmingly befuddled schtick that made him popular in romantic comedies, and that's a good thing.  He plays St Clair as a man who loves his wife and wants to make her happy by any means possible.  Their relationship isn't normal, but he is completely devoted to her.  Streep will probably get the Oscar nomination, but it's Grant who steals the movie.  The weak link is Simon Helberg.  As the mild-mannered, tiny voiced pianist who has found himself in a very unusual position, Helberg is flat.  The character is flatly written, Helberg is uncharismatic, and the character is so nebbish that it's off-putting.

I like Stephen Frears.  He's very good at mixing comic and dramatic elements and making feel-good movies (see "Mrs. Henderson Presents").  But here, he's working with a script that is unfinished, and he doesn't find a successful way to present his central character.  This movie has its moments, but ultimately, it misses the mark.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Hell or High Water

1.5/4

Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham

Rated R for Some Strong Violence, Language Throughout, and Brief Sexuality

"Hell or High Water" is so laid back that it's comatose.  There's nothing wrong with low-key thrillers (I've liked more than a few of them), but those movies had real screenplays, strong direction and most importantly, a deliberate pace.  "Hell or High Water" makes a pass at all three requirements, but achieves none of them.

Toby Howard (Pine) robs banks with his wild card, ex-con brother Tanner (Foster).  The two of them have a foolproof plan to get away with it, which impresses the lawman on their tale, a laid-back Texan named Marcus Hamilton (Bridges).  Still, it's only a matter of time before Marcus catches up with them.

I recently watched "Heat" again, and it's obvious that director David Mackenzie has used that for inspiration (that and the underrated "Set it Off").  But while the inspiration is obvious, none of the beauty, intelligence or energy from those earlier pictures has made it into his film.  This is as dull as they come.  While I was watching it (and doing my best not to fall asleep), I thought of "The Rover," that wretched Australian thriller from a few years back.  It's not as pretentious as that film, but that I was reminded of it is reason enough to stay away.

The only thing that keeps this movie even remotely watchable is that Mackenzie hired three of  the best actors working today to star in it.  Jeff Bridges is a living legend (even if he speaks like he just got a tongue stud and his tongue is severely swollen), and Chris Pine and Ben Foster are consistently underrated (Pine was brilliant in "Carriers" and "Confession" while Foster is a chameleon who was denied an Oscar nomination for "The Messenger," an award he should have won).  They do the best they can, but the script is so empty of material that there's little that any of them can do.

To be fair to the film, there is some low-key humor that works.  The barbs that Marcus throws at his half-Indian and half-Mexican (and fully Catholic) partner Alberto (Birmingham) are amusing, as are some of his one-liners about evangelists.  And the climax is, if nothing else, one long rip into the open carry laws.  The NRA will never live this one down.

If this sounds like I'm in any way endorsing this movie, I assure you, I am not.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Anthropoid

2/4

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, Anna Geislerova, Toby Jones

Rated R for Violence and Some Disturbing Images

The central question one must ask when reviewing "Anthropoid" is whether or not three great scenes can redeem an additional 90 minutes of crap.  Gene Siskel was fond of saying that a good movie must contain three great scenes and no bad ones.  Well, "Anthropoid" has three great ones, but plenty of scenes that are lame or don't work at all.

After Czechoslovakia fell to the Third Reich shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Hitler sent in Reinhard Heydrich to quell the resistance.  His ruthlessness earned him the nickname "The Butcher of Prague."  The Czech government in exile, which had fled to England, sends in a number of soldiers with a single mission: eliminate Heydrich, regardless of the cost.  The film follows two of the parachutists, Josef Gabcik (Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Dornan), as they develop a plan and execute it.  Of course, when your mission is to take out a high ranking general of the Nazi regime, you can be sure of brutal reprisals.

This sounds like it could be a great movie.  But it's not.  Why?  Let's start with the screenplay, which is all over the place and in desperate need of tightening up.  The planning of a guerilla attack on a villain is something one would think would be cinematic, but director Sean Ellis fails to do so effectively.

Much of the rest of the film similarly misfires.  In a bizarre, and ultimately pretentious, attempt to generate claustrophobia and suspense, Ellis has his actors mumble their lines.  Used effectively, this can work, but when it's clear that none of the characters are in any danger (such as at a birthday party), it begins to annoy.  He also resorts to the fallback of inexperienced directors: shaking the camera during the action scenes.  Doesn't anyone realize that staging and editing make an action scene, not a frenzied camera?

The acting is fine, although Ellis keeps them so muzzled that one wonders if it's even appropriate to call what Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Toby Jones and the rest of the cast are doing in front of the camera "acting."  Similarly, the romance between the guys and the girls they enlist to provide a cover is so shortchanged that it causes more problems than it's worth.  Ellis should have had the good sense to get rid of them entirely.  It may not have been factually accurate, but it would have made the movie better (narrative films are not documentaries anyway, and as such should not be afraid of fudging or changing facts to tell a better story).

Just when things get to be a terminal slog, the film kicks into high gear with an action scene.  There are three of them: the assassination attempt, the arrest of some minor characters, and the climax in a church.  These scenes, particularly the climax, are handled with skill and are tremendously exciting.  It's a pity then that the characters are so flat and the direction so pedestrian that not only do we not care very much about the protagonists (most of them aren't even given names), there's no sense of build to the conclusion.

World War II was the most widespread and complex conflict in human history, and as such will always continue to fascinate.  The amount of stories to be told, fact and fiction, are limitless.  The conflict has set the stage for films in every genre, some of which are among the best films ever made.  So if you are craving a good espionage thriller set during World War II, skip this one and check out Paul Verhoeven's 2006 thriller "Black Book."  In some ways its very similar to this one, only the quality is higher in every area.  If you crave more action, wait for Blu Ray where you can skip ahead to the action scenes.  Trust me, you wouldn't be missing much.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Fan

2.5/4

Starring: Robert DeNiro, Wesley Snipes, Ellen Barkin, John Leguizamo, Benicio del Toro

Rated R for Strong Language and Some Intense Violence

I remember seeing a storyline in one of my favorite comic strips, "FoxTrot," where the nerdy Jason and his equally nerdy friend Marcus are given the task of handling to audio-visual detail for in class movies.  The first movie shown is called "The History of Grain," and during the film, the class looks in all directions since sound is coming from every which where.  His teacher, Miss O'Malley, admonishes them for it, claiming that their set-up would have been appropriate for a multiplex but not an in-class film.

I thought of that little storyline while watching "The Fan" because it's a psychological thriller directed with enough flair and verve to fill two action movies.  By their nature, these films are rather low-key and cerebral, relying on character development and acting to generate tension.  However, the film was directed by Tony Scott, who never understood the meaning of the word "subtlety."  Watching it is like watching a remake of "Fatal Attraction" directed by Michael Bay.  On cocaine.

Gil Renard (DeNiro) is an unbalanced knife salesman with an unhealthy obsession for the San Francisco Giants baseball team.  Specifically, the hometown hero Bobby Rayburn (Snipes), who has just signed a $40 million contract with them.  However, Bobby's not doing so hot, perhaps because his lucky number 11 has been taken by hotshot hitter Juan Primo (del Toro).  While the media and the public turn on him, Gil sticks by him, and he'll do anything to help his hero get back on top.

The film's first 45 minutes are the best.  While Scott's overly visual style is intrusive, we get to know and understand both of the main characters.  Gil is divorced from a wife who is terrified of him, but loves his son.  He's the son of the owner of the company he works for but he's a poor salesman.  Bobby is scared that he won't live up to his hype and his superstition about his jersey number drives him nuts.  I also appreciated the film's smart cynicism about the love-hate relationship between sports stars and their fans.  They love you as long as you keep winning, but screw up once and they'll turn on you faster than you can figure out what actually happened.

Unfortunately, the film slowly descends into action-thriller territory, which is a genre that the film clearly had no business to be in.  It's all kinetic and busy, but it's overkill.

The performances soothe the wound.  Not enough to save it, but enough to keep it afloat a little longer.  Robert DeNiro digs into his bag of tricks to create a psycho who is at times oddly sympathetic.  Gil wants to do well, but his brain is too scrambled to know how to do it well.  Wesley Snipes is effective as a man trying to be Mr. Perfect 100% of the time.  It's a feat everyone expects but no one can deliver.  Solid supporting roles are provided by Ellen Barkin as a female sportscaster, John Leguizamo as Bobby's fast-talking agent and a very good Benicio del Toro as the "player of the month."

Should you see it?  It's a tough call.  There are some effective scenes, nice performances and legitimate suspense.  But there's also visual overkill, odd editing over-the-top plotting.

With that in mind, I'll leave the choice up to you.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

One True Thing

2.5/4

Starring: Renee Zellwegger, Meryl Streep, William Hurt, Tom Everett Scott

Rated R for Language

We have a peculiar ability to go after those who deny us affection with single-minded zeal that borders on obsessive.  When someone says "not good enough," we try harder.  And harder.  Even when doing so causes us to alienate those who truly love us.  I don't know why, but we all do it in one way or another.  Maybe it's some sort of "survival of the fittest" mechanism that was left over from when such things actually mattered.

The Gulden family lives in that part of New England that you see in the pages of Better Homes and Gardens and the dusty libraries of out of the way bookshops.  There's a chill in the air that makes you wear a turtleneck but at the same time makes you feel nostalgic.  In other words, it's Norman Rockwell's playground updated for 1987.  Ellen (Zellwegger) can't stand either of her parents.  Her mother Kate (Streep) is an endlessly cheerful busybody who makes June Cleaver look like Phyllis Dickerson from "Double Indemnity."  Her father George (Hurt) is a talented but arrogant writer who, despite her attempts to impress him with her own writing, withholds praise ("Writer to writer...less is more," he says).  When Kate gets cancer, he forces her to risk losing her job and come home to care for her mother, since her brother Brian (Scott) is at school, he's busy teaching and Kate "doesn't like people invading her house."  Ellen soon realizes that her parents aren't as simply defined as she thought, and she may be doing the same thing to Kate that George is doing to her.

To director Carl Franklin's credit, "One True Thing" seeks to be more than your average tearjerker.  He's more interested in exploring the relationships between Ellen and her parents and how they change rather than detailing Kate's illness.  I appreciate that; after all, there are far too many movies that settle for that.  Unfortunately, the script just isn't there.  These relationships feel half-explored, which dilutes the film's strengths.

The acting is top form, but with a cast like this, could we really expect anything less?  No one does any cartwheels or showboating, but they don't sleepwalk through their parts.  Renee Zellwegger has the same kind of single-minded determination that will blind anyone to what they're missing.  William Hurt has little trouble playing a loving husband whose main faults are selfishness and ego.  And Meryl Streep is...well, if you can get her in a movie, you don't need much more.

Most tearjerkers are shamelessly manipulative, piling on the melodrama with little subtlety to get the tear ducts flowing.  "One True Thing" is the opposite.  Perhaps aware of this common pitfall or maybe because he overestimated the strength of the script, Franklin holds back.  It's affecting, but a little distant.

I can't recommend this film, but if you do see it, you're time won't feel wasted.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Wild Card

3/4

Starring: Jason Statham, Michael Angarano, Milo Ventimiglia, Hope Davis, Dominic Garcia-Laredo, Stanley Tucci

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

One of the most interesting people in Hollywood is Jason Statham.  Or at least I think so.  A professional diver turned black market salesman turned model turned actor, he certainly has the pedigree to back that statement up.  In addition to having the presence and physique to pull off an action hero role, he has quite a bit of acting talent.  Not in the way of say, Daniel Day-Lewis, but in his own way he has demonstrated a surprising amount of versatility.  Statham knows himself so well that he can use his screen image in a number of ways: he can play it straight ("The Bank Job"), parody it ("Crank") or comment on it ("Redemption").  Few people go to a Jason Statham movie to see him do anything else but kick ass and toss out one liners, which is a shame because movies like "Redemption" or "Wild Card" contain some of his best work.  They're just as violent, but they do so with a purpose.  In these movies, his fighting skills are more than a curse than anything.

Nick Wild (Statham) calls himself a "security consultant," but in reality he's an enforcer/bodyguard.  Basically, when you're in danger or wanting revenge, Nick's who you call.  He hates his life in Las Vegas and dreams of making enough money to leave town and sail on the Mediterranean.  But when he makes enough money to do so, he always tries for that one "risk it all" bet that would set him for life and he loses.  However, his two newest clients, a rich kid from out of town named Cyrus Kinnick (Michael Angarano), and an old friend named Holly (Garcia-Laredo) who was viciously raped by a mobster, could jerk him out of his monotony.  Or get him killed.

Statham plays Nick as someone who, despite having people who love him, hates himself.  There are people around him that offer love and support, such as Cassandra (Davis), the card dealer at the Golden Nugget.  But perhaps because he views himself as a failure that he won't accept it.  Statham has the rare ability to use his eyes and body language to get the maximum effect.  He never pushes his performance, and that's what makes us care about him.

Statham is surrounded by a gifted supporting cast of underappreciated character actors.  The second most important role is given by Michael Angarano, a young actor who has been shamefully overlooked by Hollywood.  His adorable "boy next door" appeal makes him ideal for the "best friend" role in a romantic comedy, but his talents show that he is capable of much more.  As the wealthy client who isn't as honest or secure as he seems, Angarano shines, and is more than capable of holding his own against the star power of Statham.  Heartthrob Milo Ventimiglia is surprisingly effective as a frothing at the mouth monster.  His viciousness is rather startling coming from such a low-key actor.  Dominic Garcia-Laredo, Hope Davis, Anne Heche, Sofia Vergara and especially Stanley Tucci are great in small roles.  They may be underused, but they're all such good actors that merely seeing them on screen is a cause for delight.

Simon West does not have a great track record.  Some of his credits include the lame "Con Air" and the murder mystery misfire "The General's Daughter."  I'll give him credit for the cheesy fun of "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," but I'm not sure how much of that was intentionally campy.  Here, he has a bonafide winner on his hands, although, like the aforementioned Indiana Jones knockoff, I'm thinking that the film's success has less to do with him than his actors or the screenplay.  He overdoes the slo-mo and the film has kind of an unfocused feel.  But I liked that aspect.  It makes it seem less formulaic so the characters stand out.

"Wild Card" isn't a traditional action film and will probably bore those who are looking for an adrenaline cocktail.  But it contains more than enough pleasures to make me encourage you to give it a chance.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Bad Moms

4/4

Starring: Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christina Applegate, Jay Hernandez, David Walton, Jada Pinkett Smith, Oona Laurence, Emjay Anthony, Annie Mumolo

Rated R for Sexual Material, Full-Frontal Nudity, Language Throughout, and Drug and Alcohol Content

It is ironic that in this day and age, the more connected we get, the more stressed out we are.  We see what everyone else is doing and we feel that if we don't keep up, we're not good enough.  To gain the extra edge, we have to do more and more and get better and better at it.  It's an understandable, if ridiculous, feeling.  I suppose no one understands that more than your average working mom.  They're expected to do everything and be everywhere while still working enough to put food on the table.  Sounds impossible?  Imagine how hard it is to live it.  Two of my best girlfriends have children of their own, and it's hard to imagine doing it at all (and I have nothing but the utmost respect for them).

Despite asking me many times for reassurance, my mom did a great job raising me.  Unlike the majority of parents in this film (and in real life), my parents haven't split up, so I have to give my dad credit too.  They spent time with me and my brother; driving us to activities or friends' houses, coming to our sporting events or field trips whenever possible.  Hell, they'd give us a "Mike Day" or a "Martin Day" where they would spend the whole day doing whatever me or my brother wanted to do.  Until school became too important, my dad would take us out of school one day each summer to go to Six Flags.  Did they do it all?  Of course not.  Did they make mistakes?  Yes, such as showing me movies I wasn't ready for ("The Jackal" comes to mind).  They also were willing to put their foot down when they needed to (bullying and ridiculous amounts of homework were their pet peeves, not to mention my own).  Most of the other parents that I knew were the same way, but there were those few...

Amy (Kunis) is stressed out to the max.  She's had her kids since age 20 and has essentially been raising them herself since her husband is a slobby layabout.  After she catches him having some private time with an internet skin queen, she throws him out of the house.  But that makes her even more stressed.  School, work, Mandarin lessons, soccer practice, and of course, the PTA meetings led by Gwendolyn (Applegate), the Type-A soccer mom from hell.  And she does it all without any thanks or recognition.  In her words, the only thing she's good at is running late.  After she is volunteered by Gwendolyn to police the items for the bake sale because she was five minutes late to the PTA meeting, something inside Amy snaps.  She refuses and simply quits the PTA, much to everyone's horror.  At a bar getting a drink to unwind or wallow in her sorrows (probably both), she meets Carla (Hahn) and Kiki (Bell), other moms who are similarly stressed.  They end up getting drunk and having a little fun for themselves.  They realize that what they need more than anything is release: release from the stress, release from the desire for perfection, release from the expectations to be perfect.  Their embrace of their flaws and picking and choosing what and what not to care about wins them many followers, and eventually gets Amy to run against Gwendolyn for president of the PTA.  Gwendolyn, the "Miss Perfect" that she is, takes this personally, and won't let some hard-partying upstart take away her power.

Going into this movie, I didn't have high hopes.  I was hoping for, at best, some crude gags and cheap laughs.  But I was preparing myself for another riff-fest, like the horrid "Ghostbusters" reboot, the unwatchable "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates" or, God forbid, "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising."  I was pleasantly surprised.  This is an excellent movie, and guaranteed to end up on my Top 10 list this year.  The film contains one big laugh after another.  And not those subconscious, internal laughs like in indie flicks or "classic" comedies.  No, these laughs are explosive belly laughs.  The term "laugh til it hurts" applies.

One reason is that it contains a real script.  Improvising, if there is any, is kept to a minimum.  There are one or two times where the jokes go on a little too long, but were talking like 5 seconds that are still funny.  This movie makes its point (most of which are insightful and on-target) and moves on.  Another is that the film was cast with actresses, not stand-up comics.  While none of these actresses has great range (the exception being Jada Pinkett Smith who is underused, but is in so few movies that even seeing her on screen is cause for joy), they understand how to create a character worth caring about.  There's more to playing a comic character than timing or one-liners, and the women populating this film know that.  There were times when the audience I was with, myself included, started cheering wildly for the characters.  I haven't done that in a long time.  Finally, it has insight.  Sure, it may be crude, rude and bawdy, but it has a point of view and the humor comes from the situations and the feelings that develop from the characters.  Amy, Carla, Kiki and even Gwendolyn feel like real people.  The script and the actresses do a good job of making us understand where they are coming from and why they feel that way.

None of the performances are crying out for Oscar attention, but that doesn't mean they aren't effective.  Mila Kunis has little range as an actress, but she understands how to get a laugh and pull off a haggard character, and that's what this role requires.  Kunis rarely gets a role she can excel in, but that's what happens here.  Kathryn Hahn and Kristen Bell (taking a rare supporting part) are mostly on hand for comic relief, but they don't slum for cheap, easy laughs.  They create characters that are more than spouts for punchlines.  Christina Applegate, friendly in real life, has no problem playing the bitch.  It would have been too easy for her and the filmmakers to make her another Momzilla, but like the rest of the film, Gwendolyn isn't played too broadly.  Also worth mentioning is Jay Hernandez, playing Jessie, the hunky widower with the hots for Amy.  He doesn't have a lot of scenes, but he's good enough to get us invested in their relationship.  And boy, does he ever look the part!

The film was directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who wrote the "Hangover" movies.  These two guys are really funny!  Anyone can do a raunchy comedy with loads of sex, nudity and bodily fluids, but these two understand that you have to do it with wit, timing and finesse.  That's what separates them from Seth Rogen.  They know that comedy always comes from an area of truth.

Is it a perfect movie?  Like the people it depicts, no.  Some of the stuff is a little absurd and one speech gets a little preachy, but that's okay.  I didn't care.  And while the interviews with the cast and their moms seem a little like a PSA, they're funny and sweet enough to be worth it.

"Bad Moms" may seem like a chick flick or "Moms' Night Out" with no religious bent and an R rating.  Let me reassure you, dear reader, it is not.  In fact, this is a movie for everyone because it calls out our culture for what it has become: neurotic and stressed to the point where we can't just...live!  In that way, it's an important and extremely entertaining movie.  This is one of the best films of the year.


Taxi Driver

3.5/4

Starring: Robert DeNiro, Cybil Shepard, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle

Rated R (probably for Disturbing Content including Graphic Violence and Aberrant Sexuality, and for Language)

How frustrating it is to want to be accepted into society but unable to do so.  We've all felt lonely or alienated in some fashion (such as adolescence), which is why we relate to Travis Bickle, a disillusioned and psychotic man who sees society as diseased and corrupt.

Travis (DeNiro) is an ex-Marine suffering from insomnia.  To combat this, he takes the night shift as a cabbie, where he sees the decadence and sleaze up close (after every shift, he has to clean the semen out of the back seat).  One day he spies a beautiful campaign worker named Betsy (Shepard).  He asks her out.  The way he does so should raise alarm bells in anyone, but Betsy is intrigued.  However, he makes the mistake of taking her to a porn flick on their first date, and that pretty much ends things right then and there.  He then meets a twelve-and-a-half year old prostitute named Iris (Foster), whom he is determined to save.

This is a character study of a severly disturbed individual.  Whether it's PTSD (Travis is an ex-Marine) or some underlying pathology is never made clear, which is fine, since a definitive diagnosis would ruin his mystique.  For the most part, Scorcese's attempts to get inside Travis's head are brilliant, but the screenplay by Paul Schrader is a little underwritten.  Loosely inspired by Schrader's own feelings for a time, he should have known that the script was in need of another run through the typewriter.

One thing the film gets absolutely right is the performance by Robert DeNiro.  For the last few years, DeNiro has been slumming in mediocre projects for fat paychecks, but one must only view a movie like "Taxi Driver" to see how talented he really is.  He's quiet and intelligent, but his mind is a little off course, if you get my drift.  This is the work of a lifetime.  As Betsy, Cybil Shepard looks like the girl next door, but plays her with a mix of sultriness and predation.  When she agrees to go on a date with him, we get the sense that it's with the fascination of someone obsessed with "The Real World" on MTV.  Or Jerry Springer.  Jodie Foster, in her first truly adult role, is also very good as the street smart hooker.  She's wise beyond her years, but not in a good way.  She's been taken advantage of in ways she doesn't understand.

Martin Scorcese has always been drawn to misfits and psychotics who want to be "normal," as it were.  That quality can be seen in "Goodfellas," "The Departed," and even "The Aviator."  But his characters are always hamstrung by their own personalities.  Using sight and sound, Scorcese creates an atmosphere of degredation that is static yet always moving.  We feel his mounting anger and madness.

"Taxi Driver" isn't an easy film to watch.  But the experience is well worth it.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Shallow Grave

2/4

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccelston

Rated R for Scenes of Strong Grisly Violence, and for Some Language and Nudity

It's odd how sometimes in Hollywood that there are two versions of the same story with one being awful and the other being great.  An example would be "Thelma and Louise," which was lame, and "Set it Off," which was wonderful.  I'm not talking about remakes, which are a different breed of animal.  I'm talking about stories in general.  Given Hollywood's obsession with safe formulas, it's only natural that certain films bear certain similarities with each other, but "Shallow Grave," a 1994 British import, is startlingly similar to the criminally underrated "A Simple Plan," released four years later.  While "Shallow Grave" gets all the buzz, anyone who has seen Sam Raimi's thriller will recognize it as a far superior film.

The set-up is simple: three roommates named Alex (McGregor), Juliet (Fox), and David (Eccelston) are looking to fill the fourth room in their flat.  This is proving difficult since, to varying degrees, they're all self-centered jerks who ridicule and abuse every applicant.  One they like is Hugo (Keith Allen).  They invite him to move in, but within days, he's dead of a drug overdose.  Much to their delight, he has a sizable amount of cash just sitting there with him.  The three decide to keep it for themselves.  To do that, they cut up and mutilate his body (to prevent any sort of identification) and bury it.  Of course, there's no such thing as the perfect crime.  Suspicion, paranoia and good old-fashioned greed rot the characters and their friendship to the point where they turn on each other.

This isn't a new idea, but it is compelling because it appeals to two of our basest human instincts: greed and vanity.  Faced with this situation, who wouldn't be tempted to take the money?  By watching a movie like this, we can vicariously live through their scheme without any consequences save for watching the trainwreck that happens when the house of cards inevitably collapses.

Of course, that would only be the case if we liked the protagonists.  That doesn't happen here.  Alex, Juliet and David are impossible to like.  They're arrogant and entitled twenty-somethings who are such bastards that we spend the whole movie waiting for their comeuppance.  It would try the talents of any actor and director to make this film succeed with characters this despicable.  But in addition to being impossible to like, they're boring.  A fatal flaw.  Unlikable characters are okay as long as they're interesting.  These three don't come close.

The performances are weak, considering the talent (not to mention it was a breakout hit for all three).  It's impossible to completely write off Ewan McGregor's charm, even in bad movies, but his Alex is a true bastard.  Selfish and conniving, he convinces his two friends to give into temptation.  Christopher Eccelston plays the obligatory quiet weirdo, but his performance is better than the script deserves.  Kerry Fox became a character actress after this, which makes sense considering how boring her character is.

This was the Danny Boyle's first film after coming from a background on TV.  It's a little too self-consciously hip and artsy to be effective film-noir or comedy (although he makes attempts at both).  It looks good, certainly, but only in a way that further distances us from the characters and the story.

If you're looking for a movie to prove to someone (or to yourself) that crime doesn't pay, watch "A Simple Plan."  It's a masterpiece.  This is forgettable.

Nerve


3.5/4

Starring: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Miles Heizer, Emily Meade, Juliette Lewis

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Material involving Dangerous and Risky Behavior, Some Sexual Content, Language, Drug Content, Drinking and Nudity-All Involving Teens

Finally, there’s a movie worth going to the theaters for!  Hollywood has been suffering from a brutal year, with less tickets being bought than ever in the past 100 years.  With crap like “Neighbors 2” or even “Captain America: Civil War” dominating the market, it’s no secret why.  “Nerve” puts an end to that drought.

Vee (Roberts) is a high school student in New York City.  She’s too shy to tell her mother that she wants to go to an art school on the other side of the country and even her friends kid her about it.  After she’s turned down by a boy she likes (adding insult to injury, it’s through a third party), she decides to do something about it.  Everyone is playing a game called “Nerve,” where “watchers” bet big money for “players” to do risky (and often illegal) stunts.  Vee takes a deep breath and decides to become a player.  Her first dare is to kiss a random stranger.  Then, because viewers like them, the next one is a dare to take a ride into the city with said stranger, whose name is Ian (Franco).  She starts to like the guy, but then the dares get more and more extreme.  Soon, they’re in way over their heads, and the only way out is to finish the game.

“Nerve” is one of those movies that starts out in one genre and ends up in another.  Such a transition is difficult to pull off, but directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (the guys behind the intriguing but mis-marketed documentary “Catfish” six years ago) handle the transition well.  They satisfy the needs of both genres: romance and suspense.  We like Vee and Ian and like them even more when they’re together.  But the movie doesn’t fall apart once the suspense kicks in; they turn the screws on the characters (and the audience) in ways that would impress Hitchcock.  One particularly insane stunt is scarier than anything in most horror movies.

The two leads are great.  Emma Roberts is terrific as Vee.  It’s easy to buy her as a shy teenager because she doesn’t go over-the-top; she’s normal except that she displays the insecurities that we all have at her age.  Dave Franco, who is quickly establishing himself as being much more talented than his older and more famous brother, is also good.  He has the swagger to pull off a romantic lead, but also the vulnerability to play the victim of a sadistic trap.  There are other characters in the film, such as Tommy (Heizer), the boy who has loved Vee from afar, and Sydney (Meade), Vee’s more extroverted (and competitive) BFF, but the directors resist the temptation to overuse them.  They’re in the film just enough to serve their purpose, and they’re written and acted well enough that they need only minimal development.  Joost and Schulman keep the focus on Vee and Ian.  Just as it should be.

There are a few contrivances in the film’s final act that prevent the film from getting a perfect 4/4, but make no mistake: this is a great movie.