Sunday, October 30, 2016

Deepwater Horizon

3.5/4

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Gina Rodriguez, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson, Dylan O'Brien

Rated PG-13 for Prolonged Intense Disaster Sequences and Related Disturbing Images

"Deepwater Horizon" is a disaster movie, plain and simple.  It follows the established formula down to the T.  This isn't a criticism, simply a fact.  What makes it work is that Peter Berg is a gifted filmmaker and has generated strong performances from his cast.  Simply put, this movie works because it does exactly what it sets out to do.

Mike Williams (Walhberg) is saying goodbye to his wife Felicia (Hudson) and daughter before he goes on his regular trip to work on the oil rig Deepwater Horizon.  Things are suspicious when he arrives; the team assigned to test the concrete on the drill site has left without doing anything, almost nothing works or is in need or repair, and there are two executives from BP trying to hurry progress.  The most trusted man on board, Mr. Jimmy (Russell), puts his foot down and insists on another test.  The results set off alarm bells, but one of the executives, a man named Vidrine (Malkovich), finds another possibility (probably not because he believes it, but because he doesn't care).  Of course, we all know that he was wrong.  The Deepwater Horizon had far too much pressure in an unstable cap and it exploded, killing 11 people and costing billions in clean-up.

As you can imagine, this isn't an actors' show.  This is all about tension build-up and disaster spectacle.  But there are a few good performances to be found here.  Mark Wahlberg is his usual reliable self.  Kurt Russell hasn't been this good in years.  Ditto for Kate Hudson, although her role is essentially superfluous.  And no one plays a sleazeball like John Malkovich.  The actor delights in playing deranged, villainous characters, and this is one of the dirtiest he's ever put to film.  Special mention has to go to Dylan O'Brien, who does a lot with a tiny role.

The problem with the film is its length.  It's too short.  In a movie like this pacing is key, but it feels rushed.  The set-up needs to be drawn out to increase the tension.  Also, this time would be well spent introducing us to the minor characters, further involving us.  An hour and forty-seven minutes simply isn't enough time for a film like this to work.

Make no mistake, what is on screen is tremendous.  The special effects are outstanding (a new oil rig was built specifically for this movie).  The action is exciting and scary and tragic.  I just wish there was more.

This is a movie that deserves to be seen on as big a screen as possible, which is why I was disappointed that I didn't get the chance to see it in IMAX (I tried but was late to a showing).  It's that kind of a movie.  But, like the best epics such as "In the Heart of the Sea" or "Titanic," it's strong enough that I think it will play just as well on your hi-def TV.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Last House on the Left (1972)

2/4

Starring: Sandra Cassell, Lucy Grantham, David A. Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler, Gaylord St. James, Cynthia Carr, Marshall Anker, Martin Kove

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R (probably for Brutal Violence including Rape and Torture, Grisly Images, Drug Content and Language)

"The Last House on the Left" is a brutal horror film that is a reimagining of a film by Ingmar Bergman.  I'm not kidding.  This is a new version of a movie from the guy who made "The Seventh Seal" (that movie where Max von Sydow plays a game of chess with Death himself...you'll know the famous image if you see it).  I haven't seen "The Virgin Spring" (or "The Seventh Seal"...actually, I haven't seen any of Bergman's films), but I'm willing to go out on a limb and call this a totally different movie.  It's hard to imagine anything in this movie getting past the Hays Code.  This is an extremely violent and often graphic horror film that will turn off a sizable portion of the audience.  Unfortunately, its violence is really the only thing the film has going for it.

Mari (Cassell) and her friend Phyllis (Grantham) are going to a rock concert in rural New York.  While looking for some weed to smoke beforehand, they run into a shifty guy named Junior Stillo (Sheffler).  He invites them into his apartment to sell them some.  What Mari and Phyllis don't know is that also in the apartment is his psychopathic father Krug (Hess), an escaped con who was serving a life sentence for three murders, Krug's equally evil girlfriend Sadie (Rain) and his vile uncle Weasel (Lincoln).  Now they're trapped, and at the hands of these four lunatics, they undergo gruesome pain and suffering.  Mari's parents are worried sick, and when the four psychos turn up on their doorstep seeking help from a broken down car, it doesn't take long for the couple to put two and two together...and to plan a nasty act of revenge.

It's not the premise that's the problem.  It's a little contrived, but for the purposes of a horror movie it's easy to accept.  It's the tone.  Writer/director Wes Craven, in his first film, doesn't know if he's making a sleazy exploitation flick or genuinely trying to scare his audience.  There's nothing wrong with either, but mixing the two creates a disconnect.  The torture of Mari and Phyllis is so violent, so vicious, that it's a little uncomfortable to see it in a movie with comic relief supplied by cops dumb enough to rival Barney Fife or a set-up that (I think) satirizes 1950's values.

The performances are adequate, but not stand-out.  The girls are fresh and lively, the parents are even-handed, and the villains are vile enough that the term "creature" is a better descriptor than person.  Especially Krug, who is established at the beginning as having gotten his son hooked on heroin just so he could control him.  And believe me, that's the tasteful stuff.

Except for rare cases, I don't object to a film's content on moral grounds.  While the rape scene is vile and hard to watch, it's not exploitative (although it comes close) and it serves its purpose.  But the pacing is so erratic and the film's goals are so confused that it just doesn't work.

Maybe the remake will be better.

Monday, October 24, 2016

I'm Not Ashamed

3.5/4

Starring: Masey McLain, Ben Davies, Cameron McKendry, Victoria Staley, David Errigo Jr., Cory Chapman

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Material, Teen Drinking and Smoking, Disturbing Violent Content and Some Suggestive Situations

When I first heard that they were making this movie, I was appalled.  Who could have the gall to turn one of this nation's darkest moments into a Christian film?  Thoughts of the Columbine massacre getting the "God's Not Dead" treatment floated through my head.  I saw this movie to see if it was as bad as I thought it would be.  Perhaps even hoping, to get back at that wretched movie and its slightly less awful sequel.  So I ventured into the theater primed for a train wreck and expecting to be offended and preached to.  Fortunately, that was not the case.

"I'm Not Ashamed" is actually a very good film, at times even great.  The acting is strong, the writing is realistic and the filmmakers are unafraid of venturing into dark material.  One of the things that tanked the "God's Not Dead" movies is that they compartmentalized everything.  Christians are good people who are put upon and discriminated against by the evil secular society and everyone else hates Christianity to the point of foaming at the mouth.  That's not what happens in "I'm Not Ashamed."  Based on the evidence, Rachel Scott would have found such a treatment insulting.

Rachel Scott (McLain) is your average teenager.  She's a little gawky, shy around guys she likes, and is into drama.  One guy she likes is Alex Dickerson (McKendry), who writes the plays for the drama class.  Her friend Madison (Staley) knows him and offers her an in.  They hit it off, but because she snuck out at night to be with her friends, her mother sends her to spend her summer in Louisiana.  There, she finds a stronger relationship with Jesus, but that doesn't really solve anything for her.  At her youth group, she finds a young man stealing pizza.  Curious, she follows him and learns that he is homeless.  She all but orders him back and they become fast friends.  In fact, Nate (Davies), as he is named, eventually considers her to be a kid sister.  Of course, we all know that Rachel's life was cut short on April 20, 1999, when she was murdered by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

One thing that the film does right is that it doesn't turn Rachel into a mouthpiece for Christianity or worse, some sort of martyr.  In telling her story, the filmmakers have kept the focus on her personality rather than her beliefs.  To her, her faith was personal and rather private.  She would talk about it if asked, but she wasn't one to try to covert people to her faith (she said as much).  Rather, they explore who she was: an energetic girl with a sense of humor, a strong faith and a non-judgmental attitude.  She's also not a perfect individual.  She feels jealousy, she falls for the wrong guy, and at one point nearly commits suicide.  But she does the best she can and when she falls by the wayside, she rights herself.

Clearly, much of the film's success lies with the sparkling performance of Masey McLain.  Present in virtually every scene, the film essentially rests on her shoulders.  It's a fantastic performance that if anyone outside its target audience sees it, will lead to more work and exposure.  All facets of Rachel are explored, requiring McLain to express a wide range of emotions (after all, she is playing a teenager).  The young actress doesn't miss a beat or hit a single false note.  More importantly, she creates a warm presence that makes her instantly sympathetic.  She has the same quality that Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts have.  Her co-stars are merely inhabiting her orbit, but they're solid if unspectacular.

One misstep the film makes is with the scenes involving Harris and Klebold.  Obviously for the film to generate much dramatic tension, the audience must be occasionally reminded of the impending tragedy.  But the scenes are awkwardly handled.  The writing is stiff and so is the acting.  And while I don't have any problems with a film trying to explain their motivations, it feels shortchanged here.  Either more time should have been spent with it or it should have been excised.  The scenes in which Rachel unwittingly foretells her own death feel forced and artificial.  She occasionally says that she can't see her future, and while that may have been the case, these scenes fall flat.  The end titles which state the impact of Rachel's life are also a thorn in the film's side.  They're not necessary and feel exploitative.

A filmgoer might be wary of watching a film about the Columbine massacre.  It makes sense; after all, who would voluntarily want to revisit that horrible day?  But the way the film is made makes it less about the slaughter of 13 people than an exploration of one unique and lovable individual.  Rachel is special because of who she is, not how many Bible verses she knows.  Her faith is expressed in lending an ear to the new kid, asking out a lonely student with a birth defect, and forgiving her friend that betrayed her in the worst possible way.  That the film remembers this is what makes the film work, and it's Masey McLain that takes it to the next level.  If we could be half the person Rachel was, then we'd be in good shape.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Ghosts of Mars

2.5/4

Starring: Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, Pam Grier, Joanna Cassidy, Richard Cetrone, Rosemary Forsyth, Liam Waite

Rated R for Strong Violence/Gore, Language and Some Drug Content

I could essentially say the same thing about "Ghosts of Mars" that I said about "Vampires: Los Muertos" a few days ago: not awful, but not very good either.  Interestingly, John Carpenter is involved in both films.  He directed the predecessor of that vampire flick (and served as executive producer on it) and directed this flick.  Carpenter will forever be known for "Halloween," "The Thing" and nothing else.  Efforts like these explain why he's really more of a one-trick pony than a truly gifted filmmaker.

In 2176, Mars is in the process of being terraformed by mankind.  Five cops, tough-as-nails Melanie Ballard (Henstridge), equally tough lesbian commander Helena Braddock, pervy transfer Jericho Butler (Statham) and rookies Bashira Kincaid (Duvall) and Michael Descanso (Waite) have been sent to a remote mining encampment to bring notorious criminal James "Desolation" Williams back for trial on murder charges.  Desolation claims innocence, and of course, he's right.  The entire town has been possessed by a red mist that makes them go mad and bloodthirsty.  Now the cops, the criminals and a few stragglers must team up if any of them want to stay alive.

Believe it or not, this isn't the first time I've seen this movie.  I saw it during college, and looking back on it, I apparently hated it a lot more than I remember.  Either I've grown to appreciate a decent B-movie every now and then or I simply had lower expectations, I found "Ghosts of Mars" nowhere near as bad as I remember.  I don't recommend the film, but it's far from painful.

Based on the evidence, no one here can act.  Natasha Henstridge is certainly stunning to look at, but her acting talents are on the limited side, and she's miscast as the Ellen Ripley clone.  She's rarely convincing.  Ice Cube looks bored (he said as much in a 2006 interview, calling it the worst movie he's ever done).  Still, his charisma shines through all the cheese.  Jason Statham's English accent is so thick that it's hard to understand anything he says.  Clea Duvall is annoying and Pam Grier shows little of the talent that she supposedly showed in "Jackie Brown."

John Carpenter has a movie that's loud, dumb and violent.  There's nothing wrong with that.  Movies like that have their places, and I've enjoyed more than a few of them ("Dawn of the Dead" and "Shoot 'Em Up" are two examples that come to mind).  The difference is that those movies were better constructed than this one.  The scripts were stronger, the special effects and fight sequences were more convincing, and the cast actors that had passed drama school.

This is strictly late-night cable fare.  It has that almost hypnotic quality that you find when watching a dumb movie at 3 am.  Any other time of day you'd give it a pass.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Boo! A Madea Halloween

1.5/4

Starring: Tyler Perry, Cassi Davis, Diamond White, Liza Koshy, Yousef Erakat

Rated PG-13 for Drug Use and References, Suggestive Content, Language, Some Horror Images and Thematic Material

I don't get Madea.  The concept of a politically-incorrect, trash talking granny is funny, but the reality is more annoying than amusing.  Yet, her movies continue to bring in big bucks, which has made Tyler Perry a wealthy man.  Clearly his movies strike a chord with his target audience, which I guess doesn't include me.

Brian (Perry) has a problem.  His daughter Tiffany (White) has been invited to a Halloween party hosted by a local fraternity.  Naturally, being that she's 17, Brian doesn't want her to go, but try telling any 17 year old to do anything.  Making matters worse is that he has to leave for the weekend on business, and isn't buying the innocent act from Tiffany and her friend Aday (Koshy).  So he asks his aunt Madea (Perry) to come over to keep an eye on her.  Hilarity ensues.  At least in theory.

The problem with the movie is two-fold: it's not funny and it's not interesting.  The humor has no edge.  Are elderly women stoned on (legal) pot funny?  What about old people swearing?  Didn't thing so.  Those things can be funny, but Tyler Perry has little understanding of comic timing or writing.  The jokes are by and large lame and many that could be funny flop because of bad execution.  Some, such as the bits with the frat boys questioning Madea's boobs are so tasteless that I was wondering what Perry was thinking.

As is often the case with far too many comedies these days, scenes and situations are stretched far beyond the limit where they could be conceivably be laugh-inducing.  It's not as bad as anything coming from Seth Rogen or Nicholas Stoller, but that "Neighbors 2" came to mind is enough of an insult anyway.

The acting is, for the most part, flat.  Only the girls and Cassi Davis make a positive impression.  They'd have been better served by a better written screenplay.  Cassi Davis, as the elderly bitty who proudly shows off her pot prescription, is funny enough to be a scene-stealer, but she's given so little to work with.

Perry saves the best for last.  Brian and Madea decide to teach Tiffany a lesson for her behavior.  Two, actually.  But they're more cruel than funny.  What they do to her is downright sadistic.  Manipulating someone's emotions like that isn't "tough love."  It's sick.  Playing this for laughs is just demented.

I won't deny that I laughed from time to time.  There's one scene where a clown is punched that's very funny and the sight of Madea running from zombies while repeating "Save me, Jesus" is as amusing as it sounds.  But there are some very wide gaps between the moments that work (none of which are all that special) that are painful to endure.  Perry, who is famous for being a quick worker, shot this film in six days.  I believe that.  It feels like it was rushed through production.  More time and thought would have helped.  A lot.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Vampires: Los Muertos

2.5/4

Starring: Jon Bon Jovi, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Cristian de la Fuente, Diego Luna, Arly Jover, Darius McCrary

Rated R for Vampire Violence, Language and Brief Sexuality

I wasn't the biggest fan of "John Carpenter's Vampires."  I found it dull and trite rather than hip, scary or funny.  Not even the scenery-chewing and a considerable amount of gore could save it from being an unending bore.  A tongue-in-cheek review soothed the pain, but it was still a waste of time.  I watched the sequel simply because the poster was cool and the film was cheap on Amazon.  Although it's a better movie, the bar is low enough that that's not much of a compliment.

Professional vampire slayer Derek Bliss (Bon Jovi) has just been tasked with assembling a group of slayers to take down a master vampire.  But every possible slayer that he can find is turning up dead, so he has to find other possibilities.  Eventually, the hard-bitten assassin links up with an eager teenager named Sancho (Luna), a girl named Zoey (Wagner) who has been bitten but is taking experimental medication to keep her from becoming a bloodsucker, a hunky priest (de la Fuente) and a Memphis-born tough guy named Ray (McCrary).  Their enemy is Una (Jover), a master vampire who is as beautiful as she is deadly.  She wants a black cross that will enable her to walk in the daylight.  Together, these misfits must journey deep into Mexico and take her down.

"Vampires: Los Muertos" is one of those movies that exists between good and bad.  They're not painful to watch and on some level enjoyable, but they're not good enough to recommend to anyone else.  So on that level, movies like this are a pain in the ass to a film critic, who has to decide what rating to give it.

The acting is...okay?  Honestly, no one is good or bad enough to be worth mentioning.  Jon Bon Jovi is stiff as the badass vampire killer.  In a duel between him and Bela Lugosi, he'd lose.  In fact, he'd probably lose against Edward Cullen from "Twilight."  Natasha Gregson Wagner is never convincing as Zoey, but not bad enough to irritate.  Cristian de la Fuente is likewise impaired.  He's so wooden that if he punched a hole through a vampire, the vampire would die.  Diego Luna is clearly not trying, but he acts circles over everyone in the cast.  Darius McCrary is utterly forgettable as the stereotypical black scenery chewer.  The only one worth mentioning is Arly Jover, whose alluring beauty make her into a compelling villain.  She doesn't say much (for good reason), but here eyes are definitely bewitching (the purple irises are a nice touch).

The film was written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, and I gotta say, it's a significant comedown from "IT," one of the more entertaining and chilling Stephen King movies.  It was probably made for next to nothing and looks it.  The film as a whole feels empty.  Shots are dull and unsophisticated and there's too much padding between the action scenes.  What happened to the heart from "IT?"  More gore could only have helped, so there's that too.

This is the kind of movie that was made for the discount-DVD bin.  It's not terrible, but it's not good enough to belong anywhere else.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Accountant

1.5/4

Starring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, John Lithgow, Jeffrey Tambor

Rated R for Strong Violence and Language Throughout

Is it too much to ask that an action movie quicken the pulse rather than threaten me with catatonia?  I realize that dark, introspective action movies are all in vogue these days, but really.  This movie is the pits.  When it's not incoherent, you'll wish it was because of how ludicrous it actually is.  There are very few moments in the way too long 2 hour running time that I could believe.

The premise, a high-functioning autistic man being a hired killer and accountant for the low lifes of the world, has promise.  But director Gavin O'Connor squanders any potential with this idea and plays it safe at every turn.  He has also cast an actor in the lead role who doesn't fit the part.

Christian Wolff (Affleck) is one of the best accountants in the business.  His autism gives him an incredible ability to focus and a dislike of leaving tasks unfinished.  But he also cooks the books for "the most dangerous people on the planet" and thus is skilled in defending himself.  One day his unnamed handler contacts him about a biotech CEO named Lamar Black (Lithgow).  He thinks that his CFO has been stealing money from the company and has hired Christian to find the truth.  Together with Dana Cummings (Kendrick), who discovered the suspicious discrepancies, he goes to work.  But things are not what they seem.  Meanwhile a Treasury agent named Marybeth Medina (Addai-Robinson) has been tasked to find out who Christian is.

The most important character in the film is Christian, and it's also the film's biggest problem.  The screenplay doesn't know what to do with him or how to portray him.  As a result, his autism is less a character trait than a plot device that's abandoned when it's not convenient for the plot (or when the screenplay is just lazy).  Ben Affleck gives it a game try, but there's no denying that he is simply not right for the part.  Off the top of my head, Ryan Gosling would have been a better choice.  Affleck has a good supporting cast, but none are given much to do.

The plot rarely makes any sense.  And when it does, it's impossible to take seriously.  Action movies generally require a suspension of disbelief to work, which is fine.  But O'Connor takes it very seriously, and that highlights the film's holes and stretches incredulity beyond the limit for something as silly as "True Lies" (a much better movie).  And the film saves the worst for last, and I mean the worst.  Not only is the big "twist" dumb, I predicted it about halfway through the movie.

It's a surprise to see that this was directed by the talented Gavin O'Connor, whose credits include the indie hit "Tumbleweeds" and "Warrior," which made my Top 10 list a few years ago.  Then again, he did direct "Pride & Glory," so I guess it isn't.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Prey

3/4

Starring: Bridget Moynihan, Carly Schroeder, Connor Dowds, Peter Weller

Not Rated (probably R for Grisly Animal Attacks and Language)

"Prey" is about being trapped in a small space with animals trying to break in and turn you into a meal.  That's essentially the plot.  Sure, there are other elements, such as the family member trying to find the hostages or the daughter who hates her new stepmom, but that's only to make the characters sympathetic.  One would think that would be limiting for a movie, but remember that this is a horror flick.  Anyone expecting something like a Merchant/Ivory movie should probably see an optometrist instead of this movie.

Tom Newman (Weller) is the manager of a new hydroelectric plant (or something) in the middle of Africa.  He's brought his new bride, Amy (Moynihan) and his two children Jessica (Schroeder) and David (Dowds) along for the ride.  While he's at work, Amy and the kids take an African safari to look at wildlife.  But when David stops to take a dump, their guide is eaten by lions and the three of them are trapped in the jeep while a trio of lions stalk them outside.

This is one of those movies where the success of the movie depends on the writer's ability to throw unique challenges at the characters and the director's ability to keep the tension high.  This is not an actor's show (most horror movies aren't).  On that level, the film does a respectable job.  There's a lot of tension and excitement, some nasty scenes of lions turning unlucky humans into a snack.  On the other hand, it's a little sluggish at times, especially when it goes away from the trio in the car.

The acting isn't anything special per se, but it's good enough to elevate the relatively weak script.  They feel like real people, and that's what's key.  Bridget Moynihan is in fine form playing a woman who tries to remain in control in the face of horror.  Carly Schroeder, a young actress who doesn't get enough roles, is a scene stealer as the petulant teen, although I don't see the title of "Scream Queen" in her future.  Peter Weller is his usual reliable self.  The only mistake is Connor Dowds, who rarely convinces as the kid brother.  Partly due to the writing, partly due to the directing, partly due to the acting, but any time when he isn't speaking is a good time.

Pacing is key for a movie like this, and that's where it comes up short.  The tension must slowly build with bursts of high intensity until the climax.  But while there is more than enough tension and excitement to earn a recommendation, there are times when the film feels padded.

This isn't a great horror movie, but if you see it available, you're not going to be disappointed.

Christine

3/4

Starring: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Robert Prosky, Harry Dean Stanton, Christine Belford, Robert Darnell, William Ostrander

Rated R (probably for Horror Violence and Language including Sexual Dialogue)

One of the most important days for a teenager is when he gets his first car.  It's a sign of maturity, freedom and status.  I remember when I got my driver's license.  I was really happy because I could be like all the cool kids who had his own car (I had to share mine, for a time, with my brother, but never mind).  "Christine" takes this understanding and twists it into something genuinely horrifying.

Arnie Cunningham (Gordon) is the school's dork.  He's shy, awkward, has no success with girls (probably because his parents are doing their best to keep him from growing up).  He has only one friend, the hunky football hero Dennis Guilder (Stockwell).  One day after getting humiliated by Buddy Repperton (Ostrander) and his cronies, Arnie spies something that catches his eye.  A 1957 Plymouth Fury is sitting in the backyard of an old geezer with a "For Sale" sign in the window.  Dennis rightly sees it as a piece of junk, but Arnie is instantly smitten and buys it.  Through painstaking work, he restores it to pristine condition.  That's when his personality starts to change.  At first Dennis is impressed: he loses his glasses, he dresses better, and is dating the school hottie Leigh Cabot (Paul).  Soon, however, it becomes apparent that this isn't a case of having a car giving a kid no one took seriously a confidence boost, but that the car is alive.  And woe betide anyone who gets between her and Arnie.

Let's get the obvious out of the way: even for a horror movie, this is a ludicrous idea for a story.  It's "The Love Bug" from hell.  What moron thought that this could actually work?  And yet, it does work.  It works because director John Carpenter plays it absolutely straight.  He takes a "take it or leave it" approach to the subject.  If you take the leap of faith and accept this silly premise, then it works.  If you don't, well, you probably wouldn't watch the movie in the first place.

The performances are strong, which goes a long way into selling the film's premise.  Leading the pack is Keith Gordon, whose character demands a wide range of ability.  From geeky doormat to cocky stud to obsessed maniac, Gordon doesn't miss a beat.  Nor does he lose sight of the character we grew to care about.  John Stockwell is excellent as the golden boy with a heart.  He's adorable and charismatic, but we also understand why a heartthrob like that would be friends with a loser like Arnie.  Strangely, both actors have gone behind the camera in their later years.  Gordon would direct films such as "The Chocolate War" (his first film) and the film version of "The Singing Detective."  Stockwell went on to direct summer movies such as "Blue Crush" and the underrated "Into the Blue."  Their co-star Alexandra Paul, doesn't impress.  She's cute, but displays little range as an actress.

Like I said, this movie is what it is.  If you accept the premise, it's a good little thriller.  If not, try and find something more realistic.  Like "Alien."

Critters

1.5/4

Starring: Scott Grimes, Billy Green Bush, Dee Wallace, M. Emmett Walsh, Nadine Van Der Velde, Don Opper, Terrence Mann, Billy Zane

Rated PG-13 (probably for Violence/Gore, Some Sexuality and Language)

For a horror/comedy, "Critters" is neither scary nor funny.  It makes attempts at both, but apart from a few mild chuckles, it fails in both categories.  The acting is almost uniformly awful, the plot resorts to clichés regardless of how inappropriately they fit in, and the special effects get cheesier the more we see them.  So for all that, is the movie worth seeing?  That would be a no.

A group of aliens, known as Crites, have escaped a prison asteroid and are headed to Earth.  Sent to destroy them are a pair of shape-shifting aliens.  They land in the yard of the Brown family, who are simple farmers.  Dad Jay (Bush) acts about four decades behind the times, but this makes him seem less like "The Waltons" and more like "Moral Orel."  Mom Helen (Wallace) is a homemaker and similarly out of touch.  Son Brad (Grimes) has a penchant for cleverness and fireworks and daughter April (Van Der Velde) trades boyfriends like clothing.  They, and the town they live in, are about to come under siege by critters who look and act like Furbys from hell.

"Critters" is one of those bad movies that tries to run on autopilot and can't even manage that.  The script is awful.  The dialogue is bland and misses plenty of opportunities for zingers and parody.  It plays so safe that it shoehorns in clichés that, considering the context, don't fit.  Like, at one point Brad barely escapes with his life and then realizes that the cat is still in the house.  Braving certain death by the Crites, he goes back in to find the beloved feline and then goes into the "there you are!" cliché.  Right.  There was another obvious one but it's 3 am and I already forgot it (just goes to show you the utter inanity of the film).

When we first see the Crites, they look convincing,  They're cool and kind of menacing.  Unfortunately, director Stephen Herek makes the mistake of showing them too much, and by the end of the movie we see them for what they really are: puppets.  The effects are so obvious that I was looking for the hands under the table.

Clearly, Herek was going for a "Gremlins" vibe for this movie.  I wasn't the biggest fan of that movie, but even I will admit that it's a much better movie than this piece of junk.  Actually, a better comparison would be "The Birds," and while such a comparison is unfair, it does give you an idea of how shitty this movie actually is.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

3.5/4

Starring: Griffin Gluck, Andy Daly, Thomas Barbusca, Alexa Nisenson, Lauren Graham, Rob Riggle, Retta, Adam Pally

Rated PG for Rude Humor Throughout, Language and Thematic Elements

Ugh.  Middle school.  The time when bodies change, hormones kick in, school becomes more competitive, parents begin to think they can walk over everyone to get their kid into an Ivy League school and so on.  It's one thing that pretty much everyone can agree on: middle school sucks.  You're too old to be a kid yet too young to be an adult, and never ways that benefit you.

"Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life" manages the tricky task of showing how horrible an experience it is while still making it into a feel-good comedy.  It tells the story of Rafe (Gluck), a kid with an appetite for pranks and mischief and an aptitude for drawing and imagination.  He's been kicked out of two middle schools and on the last one in the district.  He tries to make it work but when a caricature of the rule-obsessed Principal Dwight (Daly) ends up with him dissolving it in a bucket of acid, it's all out war.  Together with his best pal Leo (Barbusca) they set out to take down Dwight and take back the school.  Meanwhile, he and his sister Georgia (Nisenson) try and deal with the fact that their mom (Graham) is head over heels in love with Carl (Riggle), who is a jerk except when she's around.

This is a funny movie that touches the heart.  There are few belly laughs, but plenty of smiles and good cheer.  One reason is that Rafe is so likable.  Griffin Gluck is a great movie hero.  He's shy and awkward around girls and authority figures, but he's a good soul who simply likes to cause mischief.  And it's so nice to see a kid with an active imagination.  In a very clever touch, he imagines his drawings come to life to help him deal with his problems.  The device is awkwardly employed, but it's so creative and fun that I didn't care.

He's surrounded by a great cast, most of whom are unknowns.  Andy Daly plays a truly annoying twit that's easy to hate, Lauren Graham makes a great mom, Rob Riggle is an unbelievably self-centered jerk, and Adam Pally is terrific as the cool teacher we all wish we had.  The stand-outs are the kids.  Gluck is delightful and so are his frequent on-screen companions, Alexa Nisenson and especially Thomas Barbusca.  Nisenson plays Georgia, his younger sister who isn't nearly as bratty and precocious as she initially appears to be.  And Thomas Barbusca plays Leo, Rafe's best friend and partner in crime.  The scenes between the two of them are the highlights.  They don't have the same chemistry as Ben, Carter and Augie in last year's criminally underrated "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse," but it comes close.

A movie like this is rare.  I actually wanted more from the film.  More time spent with the characters and more shenanigans (which would have been more effective had the film told us the specific rules Rafe was breaking with each prank, but whatever).  I understand that the book was popular enough to spawn some sequels (no doubt this made it much more popular in the eyes of CBS Films).  I hope they get made.  A movie that casts this beautiful of a spell and is this much fun deserves to be nurtured.  You don't get the magic that you get with this in many films.  And considering the crap that is getting franchises, it would be nice to see a sequel to a movie that really deserves it.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Storks

1/4

Starring (voices): Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammar, Anton Starkman, Ty Burrell, Jennifer Aniston

Rated PG for Mild Action and Some Thematic Elements

Off the top of my head, I don't know where the legend of storks bringing families babies got started.  Wikipedia wasn't much help, and it doesn't have anything to do with the review so I'll just assume that the idea is a commonly known fantasy.  It is, however, the set-up for the most inane animated film in a recent while, bringing to mind "Norm of the North."  I grudgingly admit that this is a marginally better movie.

Storks, as our hero Junior (Samberg) tells us, have stopped delivering babies.  Now they deliver packages for a dotcom conglomerate led by Hunter (Grammar).  Apparently, one bird fell in love with a baby and wanted to keep her for himself, something went wrong and now no one knows where she belongs.  She's 18 now and since Tulip (Crown) is a liability to everyone in the building simply by standing there, Hunter wants Junior to fire her.  He does that, and he's the new boss.  But Junior has a heart and gives her a worthless job where she can't do any harm.  True to form, she does, and accidentally creates a baby for a boy named Nate (Starkman) who wants a baby brother (with ninja skills) because his workaholic parents don't pay attention to him.  Now they have to deliver the boy before Hunter finds out.

With a late September release and almost no marketing, Warner Bros. is making it clear that they had no hopes for this movie.  And rightly so.  This is a brain-dead movie with a flat plot and characters so annoying that halfway through I was wishing for them to die.

Who in the right mind would hire Nicholas Stoller, the moron behind "Neighbors" and "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising" to make a kids movie?  Yes, he co-wrote "The Muppets," but that wasn't very good either.  The guy has no idea about what's funny and what isn't.  For example, he has Junior and Tulip argue about the most inane things and stretches out the joke long after anyone could conceivably think it's funny.  It sounds improvised, which is okay if you do it right.  But Stoller simply tells his actors to "make shit up" I guess and is more satisfied with the first take than Ed Wood.

I know there is a dearth of family entertainment out now (come to think of it, there's hardly anything decent for anyone, let alone kids).  It sucks, but please, don't waste your time and money on this.  Show your children what cinema can really do for their minds and hearts.  Rent something truly special, like "Spirited Away," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King," or "Only Yesterday."  Don't spoil their love of movies by showing them this trash.

Fifty Dead Men Walking

3/4

Starring: Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, Natalie Press, Kevin Zegers, Rose McGowan, Tom Collins

Rated R for Strong Brutal Violence and Torture, Language and Some Sexuality

There's something that has always fascinated me about The Troubles, the decades-long conflict between England and Ireland (that was the culmination of centuries of strife).  Perhaps it's because of my partly Irish heritage.  Or maybe it's because I have a fondness for bittersweet nostalgia that for some reason Ireland represents in my mind.  Or maybe it's because I appreciate movies with a strong cultural background.

There have been plenty of movies that have used this conflict as the stage ("The Devil's Own" and "'71" are two such examples, although 'The Crying Game" is probably the best known), but there has yet to be a "definitive" movie about The Troubles.  Perhaps one can't be made.  It was a war that was the culmination of nearly a millennium of fighting that no film could possibly cover.  "Fifty Dead Men Walking," based on the true story of Martin McGartland (who claimed that almost none of what happens in the film actually happened in real life), isn't it.  But it's worth seeing for those who have an interest in the subject.

Martin McGartland (Sturgess) is a young Irish lad in the late eighties.  He's a Catholic, and as such his job prospects are next to nil and he is under constant oppression from the occupying British forces.  To make ends meet, he steals clothes and fences them.  Because of his ties to the community, the British want him to act as a double agent with the IRA.  He agrees and rises through the ranks, giving his handler, Fergus (Kingsley), loads of information while keeping his activities secret from everyone, including his friend Sean (Zegers) and girlfriend Lara (Press).

Director Kari Skogland gives the film an effective, if clichéd, look and feel.  This isn't the simple, old-fashioned Ireland where everyone wears a flat cap and meets the lads at the pub after a hard day's work.  This is a gritty, grungy and violent Ireland where one wrong move can end up with "you lying in a ditch with a bullet in the back of your head."  Skogland gives this film a ferocious energy that creates a sense of danger that is sometimes palpable, but using handheld cameras and color desaturation is a little tired and has lost its effectiveness over the years.  Couldn't she have gotten the same effect with different methods?

The performances are terrific, but none are flashy, which is by design.  Jim Sturgess, a highly talented British actor who went from bit player to leading man in the span of about seven years, is terrific as Martin.  He's more than capable of carrying a movie on his own, even if a huge part of it is playing against Ben Kingsley.  In the beginning, he's a cocky Irish kid who has fun goading British soldiers, but he essentially falls into being a spy (how this actually happens is never made clear).  He's very good at what he does, but he probably doesn't know how precarious his situation actually is.  His relationship with Ben Kingsley, always a fine actor, goes from distrust to an almost father-son bond.  Fergus knows full well that Martin is playing a dangerous game, but as a superior reminds him, the big picture matters more than one guy.  This gives us the sense that Fergus may leave his pawn out to dry when the chips are down,  Able support is provided by Natalie Press as the worried girlfriend, Kevin Zegers and Rose McGowan.  All sport flawless Irish accents (save for Kingsley, who is British).  That last aspect of the film is really almost a flaw.  The accents are so thick that subtitles are mandatory; I saw this movie a few years ago and couldn't understand a word of it.

The film tries to do too much.  There are more than a few instances where a scene has been left on the cutting room floor, and some of the characters feel underdeveloped.  Take Grace (McGowan) for instance.  The redheaded beauty is a powerful figure in the IRA, but little is done with her.  McGowan is so good that I wished she was in more scenes.

Still, the film is worth seeing for what it is.  It's always interesting and the ending crackles with tension, even if we know the end (the film is bookended by a clip of Martin in exile).

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

1.5/4

Starring: Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Terence Stamp, Chris O'Dowd

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Fantasy Action/Violence and Peril

I saw this movie at my favorite theater, which is about twenty minutes away from my house.  On the way home, this movie kept slipping from my mind so fast that I was debating whether or not to write a review.  It's so empty of anything worth remembering that I can barely even describe the plot.  Oh, it's competently made (Tim Burton is incapable of making anything unwatchable), but who cares about the plot or anyone in it?  I didn't.

Jake (Butterfield) has always been entertained by stories from his grandfather Abe (Stamp) about a home for children with strange powers.  His father (O'Dowd) is an unbeliever, but when Abe is murdered by a strange monster, he decides to find out for himself.  It turns out that the stories were true, and the children, led by Miss Peregrine (Green), are living peacefully in a "time loop."  But they're in danger from Abe's killer, a man named Barron, who wants them so he can live outside the time loop and become immortal, and...whatever.

I won't call "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" a bad movie.  It's just that it seems to have been made on autopilot.  There's no charm or personality in the film.  When a fantasy movie like this really works, it stirs the mind and heart.  Here, I was almost completely unmoved.  This is especially strange coming from Tim Burton, who has made a career out of strange yet lovable characters and worlds.

The acting is okay, but no one has much charisma.  Asa Butterfield is flat as Jake; the actor does what he can in an underwritten role.  He has no chemistry with his co-star Ella Purnell, who plays Emma, a girl who has to wear lead shoes lest she float away.  Eva Green adds some spark to the proceedings, but her character is strictly supporting.  Samuel L. Jackson appears to be having fun playing an out and out villain, but like Green, his screen time is limited.

What's missing from this movie, apart from the obvious (interesting characters, a compelling story, and so on) is that Burton-esque whimsy.  His heart isn't in this movie and it shows.  This is yet another movie where everything gets drowned out by the special effects and everything gets broadened in an attempt to appeal to everyone around the world.

There is one worthwhile scene, though.  It comes near the very end, sadly, and it's a fight between a bunch of skeletons straight out of a Ray Harryhausen movie and the Hollows, which look like Slenderman on overdrive.  It's fun in a quirky and warped sort of way.  Had this movie had more moments like that, I might have cared.  Alas, it doesn't, and I didn't.