Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Hard Target

2/4

Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Yancy Butler, Lance Henrickson, Arnold Vosloo, Wilford Brimley, Kasi Lemmons

Rated R for A Great Amount of Strong Violence, and for Language

"Hard Target" opens with a man being relentlessly pursued by a group of men.  They're heavily armed, he is defenseless.  Slowly but surely, they run him down.  They savor every shot, every look of terror and desperation on his face, before they finally put him out of his misery.  As sick as this scene is, it's a solid way to start the movie.  If only the film had stayed on that level.

Nat Binder (Butler) has just arrived in New Orleans looking for her father.  She hasn't seen him in years, but they kept in touch.  When the letters stopped coming, she came looking.  The police are no help, so she enlists the help of Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme), the man with the ugly mullet who came to her rescue when she was mugged.  The body of Nat's father is found soon after, and while the police claim it was a fire, Chance isn't convinced.  When he goes sniffing around the crime scene, he finds evidence of murder.  Meanwhile, the killers, Emil Fouchon (Henrikson) and Pik Van Cleef (Vosloo), learn that Chance is on their trail, they take steps to stop him for good.  Soon, Chance and Nat become embroiled in a deadly game of cat and mouse with a group of killers wielding impressive firepower and are eager to use it.

In essence, this is a hyperviolent, dumbed down version of "The Most Dangerous Game," where a man who is bored and has too much money decides to hunt human prey.  There's no reason this couldn't have been made into a great action movie.  The plot essentially writes itself.  Unfortunately, they used the first draft and hired Jean-Claude Van Damme and Yancy Butler, neither of whom are known for their thespian abilities, to star.

Action star Jean-Claude Van Damme is known for two things: his kicks, which are high enough for him to join the Rockettes, and his thick Belgian accent.  If you look on his iMDb page, you'll notice that he has zero Oscar nominations.  He also has two Razzie nominations (they're the opposite of the Academy Awards), including a win.  There's a reason for that: the guy can't act to save his life.  Frankly, with all the sparks, explosions and other assorted pyrotechnics, I was afraid he was going to catch fire.  His co-star, Yancy Butler, is a little better, but not by much.  She was obviously hired more for her looks than her acting ability.  In all honesty, her performance is more flat than bad.

Fortunately, the villains are entertaining.  Veteran character actor Lance Henrikson is clearly enjoying himself as an out and out villain, going so far over-the-top that watching him is campy fun.  He rightly understands that no one could take this plot seriously, so I guess he thought he'd have some fun along the way to earning his paycheck.    Arnold Vosloo, no stranger to playing villains, is also having some fun playing the mustache-twirling villain (albeit without the mustache).  The two actors got along so well that one studio executive quipped that he wished he could have gotten them their own film together.

Although John Woo was brought on board due to the encouragement of Jean Claude Van Damme, the two did not get along well together.  Woo's original cut ran for more than two hours and focused more on Henrickson's character.  Van Damme didn't like this idea, and he and his editor locked themselves in the editing room to reedit it.  What a pity; it might have been a better movie.  As one might expect, the action scenes aren't the problem.  Every time someone pulls out a gun, the film takes off.  Woo's specialty is action and violence, and as you can imagine, these scenes are exhilarating.  The problem is the stuff between it, which is deadly dull.

You do the math.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Frailty

3.5/4

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Matt O'Leary, Jeremy Sumpter, Powers Boothe

Rated R for Violence and Some Language

One of my hobbies is to go on the American Family Association's Facebook page and get into spirited debates about certain issues.  Usually regarding Target's policy of allowing transpeople use the bathroom that they identify with, although they support any right-wing cause.  As hilarious as the banter sometimes gets, it's sometimes very scary.  The blind faith of some of these individuals in the face of logic or the realities of our legal system, or even the hypocrisy that they are unable to see.  Traits like that from religion can take people down a very dark path.  "Frailty" is about one such individual.

A man named Fenton Meiks (McConaughey) has arrived at the office of FBI Agent Wesley Doyle (Boothe).  Doyle is heading the investigation into the notorious God's Hand serial killer, and Fenton claims that the killer is his brother Adam.  To explain how he knows this, Fenton tells a disturbing story.

In the summer of 1979, Fenton (O'Leary) grew up in small town Texas with his father (Paxton) and younger brother Adam (Sumpter).  Their mother died giving birth to Adam and they have no other surviving relatives, but they get by.  Dad loves his sons more than anything and they love and respect him in turn.  One night, Dad wakes them up, claiming that he was visited by an angel who tasked them with destroying demons who take human form.  Adam is enthusiastic but Fenton is incredulous.  It's too difficult to swallow.  Fenton believes that this is all a nightmare that will pass, but then Dad brings home the first body.  More will follow, and Fenton has to find a way to stop the bloodshed.  But that means convincing Adam, and worse, confronting his father.

"Frailty" was marketed as some sort of supernatural slasher movie.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Physically, this isn't a violent movie.  Most of the violence occurs off screen, and there's very little gore.  Psychologically, well, that's a different story.  Watching a young boy face the reality that his father is a delusional killer is a brutal blow to the psyche.  Even worse, he has a younger brother who is too easily manipulated.

Paxton's character is not a traditional villain, and that is what makes this film so disturbing.  He's kind, loving and affectionate towards his children.  In all other respects, he's a good man.  But his delusions, if they are that, have turned this gentle soul into a murderous zealot.  It would be difficult for anyone to accept, much less live through.  To ask that of a pre-teen is heartbreaking.  How would you react?  It would be hard enough if it was your neighbor or a psychopath down the street, but that it is his father, whom he loves dearly, makes things much more complicated.  It would have been too easy for Paxton to take the easy road and make a slasher film, but he goes the extra mile.  He makes this about the situation, and the toll it takes on his children.

The performances are strong across the board.  Matthew McConaughey lends his low-key personality to the story, ably portraying a man who is dealing with a lifetime of guilt.  Powers Boothe appears in what is essentially a plot device, but his character is meant to be a voice for the audience and nothing more.  He fulfills the need and that's all that's required of him.

As you might expect, the majority of the film is spent in 1979, with Paxton, O'Leary, and Sumpter taking up the majority of the screen time.  All are effective, but special mention has to go to Matt O'Leary, who is excellent as the morally conflicted, emotionally traumatized Fenton.  He carries a weight that no one should have to carry and ably handles the complexities of the role.

The opening scenes with Fenton and Doyle are a little rough, since they know things that we don't, or rely on assumptions that we can't make.  But they're not bad.  The problem is with the ending.  Paxton overplays his hand when it comes to the ambiguity of whether or not any of this is real, but never more so than in the end, which spells out exactly what happens.  This is necessary for the twist ending to work, but it feels like a cheat.  A more honest approach would have been better.  The writing during these scenes is a little sloppy too, so it's got that going against it as well.

"Frailty" is not for everyone.  It's very disturbing and not for younger viewers.  I imagine a few people will be turned off by the trauma that these young boys have to go through.  I can understand their sentiments, but Paxton is unrepentant.  He takes no prisoners and makes no concessions.  I applaud him for that.  Had he done so, the film wouldn't have been as effective as it is.

Regardless, if you do see it, you will not forget it.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Da Vinci Code

3/4

Starring: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tatou, Ian McKellan, Paul Bettany, Alfred Molina, Jean Reno, Jurgen Prochnow

Rated PG-13 for Disturbing Images, Violence, Some Nudity, Thematic Material, Brief Drug References and Sexual Content

I recall reading "The Da Vinci Code" in my room during the time when its popularity, and its ensuing controversy, was at its heyday.  It was a breathless thriller; smartly written, frantically paced and fascinating to ponder.  I saw the film with my dad, who was also a fan of the book.  There was no possible way for the film to replicate the breakneck speed with which I flipped those pages.  It wasn't until after I saw it a second time that I appreciated it more.  I guess this is an example of the situation that many critics talk about when they claim that some books or stories aren't inherently cinematic and either can't be filmed or must be substantially altered to do so.  Still, Ron Howard's interpretation of the novel, which couldn't be any less risk-averse, is as good of an interpretation as a $125 million price tag will allow.

A man has just been murdered in the Louvre.  Due to the strange markings on and around the body, the police have contacted Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) to assist them in solving the case.  Together with a pretty cryptologist named Sophie Neveu (Tatou), they piece together the clues that may rip the Catholic Church in two.  Needless to say, they are not without enemies, like a Catholic fanatic named Silas (Bettany), an overzealous Bishop (Molina) and a dogged cop (Reno).

If you've read the book, there's no real reason to see the movie.  Howard, perhaps aware of the hype and popularity of the novel, is unwilling to cut out or alter anything in the book.  That is its biggest flaw.  Movies are not books, and should not be treated as such.  What works on the written page doesn't necessarily translate onto the screen.  The only thing worth mentioning about the film is the score by the always great Hans Zimmer.  It suits the material perfectly.

For his cast, Howard has assembled some of the biggest stars on both sides of the Atlantic: Tom Hanks, "Amelie" starlet Audrey Tatou, Ian McKellan, Jean Reno and Jurgen Prochnow.  He also snagged Paul Bettany and Alfred Molina before they were famous.  Surprisingly, only Bettany manages to be memorable, probably because he has the most interesting part.  The two leads, Hanks and Tatou, are walking through their roles (Hanks especially so).  Ian McKellan is always interesting (even in crap like "Apt Pupil") and it's always nice to see Jurgen Prochnow.  Alfred Molina is adequate, but he doesn't have the script or screen time to do anything interesting.

"The Da Vinci Code" is what it is.  It's exactly what you would expect and nothing more.  On that basis, I recommend the film.  That is if you haven't already seen it.

Note:  For all its controversy, I find this movie to be much more spiritual than so-called "Christian" films like "War Room" and "God's Not Dead."  I think it's because it presents the belief in a higher power as an idea and a ray of hope, not a marketing tool the fringe right or a competition of who knows the most Bible verses.  Just sayin'.

Resident Evil: Extinction

1.5/4

Starring: Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter, Oded Fehr, Iain Glen, Jason O'Mara, Mike Epps

Rated R for Strong Horror Violence Throughout and Some Nudity

Suspension of disbelief is a common necessity for many movies to work.  For example, when watching "The Lord of the Rings," we have to accept that Middle Earth is real.  When watching "The Peacemaker," we have to be willing to believe that two people can play a life-and-death game of bumper cars on the streets of Vienna and survive with no serious injury (or any significant coverage by the news).  For a zombie movie to work, we have to believe that it is possible for the dead to come back to life and have an insatiable desire for human flesh.  I'll accept that.  I'll even go so far as to accept that it's possible to have secret research labs the size of skyscrapers located underground.  But when you have characters who suddenly develop telekinesis in a zombie movie, it becomes too much.

It turns out that, despite the best (read: genocidal) efforts of the Umbrella Corporation, the zombie outbreak from "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" was not contained to Raccoon City.  It spread, and eventually the whole world was infected.  Claire Redfield (Larter) has been leading a group of survivors for the past few years, although she's been losing people left and right.  While they're getting attacked by a flock of zombified crows (!), they run into Alice, who saves them with her newfound telekinetic abilities.  She finds a journal that claims there is a safe haven in Alaska.  Plans are changed when they are intercepted by the nefarious Dr. Isaacs (Glen), who believes that he can harvest a cure from Alice's blood.

And it just keeps getting more and more ridiculous.  The more you think about this movie, the dumber it is, and while there are a few nicely staged action scenes, there isn't nearly enough adrenaline to compensate from the absurdity of the plot.  The script is lame and the performances range from the flat to just plain awful.

Milla Jovovich returns as the badass heroine with a pair of guns and one-liners.  She acquits herself relatively well amidst all the goofiness, although only as the "main" Alice.  The less said about her clones, the better.  Don't ask.  Seriously.  Ali Larter, who was cast on the "strength" of her performance in the "Final Destination" movies (has no one involved in this movie seen a Broadway play?) is flat as equally badass Claire Redfield.  She can't muster up any machismo.  Oded Fehr has charm, but isn't on screen long enough to save the movie.  Iain Glen foams at the mouth as the scientist with no conscience, but he's largely a one note psychopath.  Pop star Ashanti has a small role as one of the convoy, but she doesn't have a lot of screen time.  That's the one merciful act on the part of the filmmakers since her "acting" is embarrassingly bad.

The first two installments of the franchise were stupid fun.  Here's to hoping that the franchise will regain its footing, however meager that may be.

The Finest Hours

3/4

Starring: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Granger, Kyle Gallner, John Magaro, Eric Bana

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Peril

"The Finest Hours" does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to provide almost two hours of forearm gripping adrenaline and entertainment.  It's tense, exciting, well-acted and splendidly photographed.  While it doesn't achieve the terror of "The Perfect Storm" or the emotional complexity of "In the Heart of the Sea," remember that those films set the bar pretty high.  Even a film of significantly less quality is a sure bet for a night's entertainment.

Bernie Webber (Pine) is a shy young man working for the Coast Guard.  He meets a lovely young woman named Miriam (Granger), with whom he becomes engaged.  But trouble is brewing off the coast.  Two ships have split apart out at sea during a terrible gale, and with the majority of the Coast Guard at the first wreck, it's up to Bernie and three other crew members, Richard Livesey (Foster), Andy "Fitzy" Fitzgerald and land bound sailor Ervin Maske (Magaro) to save those trapped on the SS Pendleton.  But even if they get there, which is highly unlikely, how can a tiny boat rescue some 30 odd men?

Meanwhile on the Pendleton, the highest ranking officer, Ray Sybert (Affleck) is trying to keep the ship afloat long enough for rescue, if anyone is coming at all.  His only hope is to run aground and buy a few hours, but in this weather rescue is unlikely.  Worse, there is dissention in the ranks, which may condemn them all to a watery grave before help arrives.

The film is less about the rescue and more about the trials of getting there.  The question is whether Bernie and his men will make to the Pendleton, and if they can make it at all, will it still be there when they arrive?  By telling both stories, Gillespie risks the dilution of suspense by not getting the audience to care about either.  But both stories are tense enough and the characters well developed that it pays off.

The performances help a lot, with some great actors doing a lot with underwritten roles.  Chris Pine, one of the most exciting young actors working today, is great as the mild-mannered Bernie.  He's shy and bashful, but has the guts to see this thing through to the end.  He's no lady killer.  It is to Pine's credit that he doesn't turn Bernie into Bruce Willis.  He's still shy and withdrawn, but he has the courage to do what needs to be done.  Casey Affleck likewise plays a soft spoken individual who takes control, but the characters don't feel like carbon copies of each other.  Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, John Magaro and Eric Bana provide solid support.  Bana is good, but his character feels a little short-changed.  Maybe more of his scenes were left on the cutting room floor.  The only one who doesn't work is Holliday Granger.  Although she looks like the person she's portraying, she's only adequate and shares no chemistry with Pine, making the romantic subplot a dead end.

The film's flaws are few, but noticeable enough to be worth mentioning.  The film's pacing drags here and there, particularly in the opening act.  Once Bernie and his crew head out to see, it's golden for the most part.  The dialogue occasionally feels a little stilted, but it's not bad.  And while having someone speak for someone else can build tension, it's a device that Gillespie uses one time too many.

Still, the film's pluses outweigh the minuses by a considerable amount, and that's more than enough to get a hearty recommendation from me.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Matinee

2.5/4

Starring: John Goodman, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Kellie Martin, Cathy Moriarty, Lisa Jakub, Jesse Lee Soffer, Lucinda Jenny

Rated PG for Language, and for Mild Violence and Sensuality

I'll give points to Joe Dante for ambition.  He's combined a William Castle-type director premiering his new movie, two teen romances and the Cuban Missile Crisis into one movie.  I can't recommend it, but there are definitely some great things about this movie.  I'm certainly not mad that I sat through it.

Gene Loomis (Fenton) moves around a lot because his father is in the Navy.  He and his family have recently settled into Key West, Florida, where he is having difficulty making friends.  He's a monster movie fan, and, much to his delight, horror-meister Lawrence Woolsey (Goodman) is premiering his next monster opus, dubbed "Mant!", in his hometown.  Trouble is brewing, however.  His father has suddenly been called away and the Cuban Missile Crisis is soon underway.

"Matinee" suffers from the common problem of trying to do too much.  While over ambition is almost always preferable to the opposite, there are other problems that prevent me from giving it a mild recommendation.  Such as the performances.  Apart from Goodman, then-newcomer Simon Fenton, and the always interesting Cathy Moriarty, the acting is universally stiff.  No one is truly bad, per se, but it's always apparent that they're acting.  None of the supporting characters become the people they are portraying.

What is on screen is good stuff.  John Goodman is having a ball as the consummate showman.  He's a hack filmmaker who has never met a gimmick that he didn't like, but you get the sense that he really enjoys what he's doing.  The fraternal relationship between Gene and his brother Dennis (Soffer) is also nicely played, and Cathy Moriarty, who plays the actress and Woolsey's girlfriend, always has a one-liner for every occasion.

Ultimately, though, it's just too much material for a 90-odd minute movie.  It has its heart in the right place, but it can't make it all fit together.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Green Mile

3/4

Starring: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan. David Morse, Doug Hutchison, Barry Pepper, Bonnie Hunt, Sam Rockwell, Michael Jeter, James Cromwell, Patricia Clarkson

Rated R for Violence, Language, and Some Sex-Related Material

"The Green Mile" is a standard order melodrama that is built on nostalgia and faith in something greater than ourselves.  It is very manipulative and never subtle, but in this case that's a good thing.

Paul Edgecomb (Hanks) is a guard on death row at a prison in Louisiana.  E-Block, or The Green Mile, as it's known, is where he works with his fellow guards.  Most of them he likes, but then there's Percy (Hutchison), a sadistic creep that Paul can't wait to get rid of but who is staying around long enough to see a live execution.  One day he gets a new prisoner.  John Coffey (Duncan) is a mountain of a man convicted of raping and murdering two little girls.  But when Paul introduces John to the reality of life on The Green Mile, Coffey offers him a strange question: "Do you leave the lights on after bedtime?" he asks.  It soon becomes clear that Coffey has the power to heal, and Paul must figure out how, or even if, he should save Coffey's life.

"The Green Mile" is a good movie, but not a great one.  The plot is standard order stuff, but when the fantasy elements become involved, it becomes a little too hard to swallow.  Movies like this do best when they are anchored in reality, at least somewhat.  "The Notebook," for example (a movie that is surprisingly similar to "The Green Mile"), was never realistic, but it took place in our world.  It's hard to feel nostalgic for magic.

The performances are uniformly strong.  Few actors are more likable than Tom Hanks, which makes him ideal for this kind of a role.  Hanks is, as usual, playing an everyman.  There's nothing particularly special about Paul Edgecomb: he works hard, has a loving wife, a strong religious faith, and so on.  Hanks provides the character with the necessary depth to make him human while still fitting in a story that might as well have been tinted sepia tone.  Michael Clarke Duncan is neither too maudlin nor too cute as the "magical" character that's designed to manipulate the audience's emotions.  Coffey's greatest strength is his simplicity, and that's how Duncan plays him.  The rest of the cast is filled with some of the most reliable character actors, but special mention has to go to Doug Hutchison, who's Percy is simultaneously creepy, sadistic and pathetic.  Hanks and Duncan deserved all the praise they got, but it's Hutchison who sticks out.

The film was directed by Frank Darabont, who along with "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Majestic" (which I haven't seen, although it should be included if the reviews are anything to go by), has made his career on nostalgic tearjerkers like this ("The Mist" being the exception).  It takes a skilled director to find the sweet spot between too much and not enough.  While it doesn't have as big of a punch as "The Notebook," it's effective nonetheless.

If there are any flaws in the movie, they are these: the length and the ending.  At over three hours, this movie is too long.  A languid pace is essential for a movie like this to work, but three hours and 9 minutes is excessive.  Too much time is spent with the minor characters and there is a subplot about the warden's (Cromwell) cancer-stricken wife (Clarkson) that could have been deleted or at least cut down.  And the ending doesn't work.  It's too bleak when it should be bittersweet.

Still, for those who are looking for a shamelessly manipulative (and proud of it) melodrama, "The Green Mile" fits the bill.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Cat People (1982)

2/4

Starring: Nastassja Kinski, John Heard, Annette O'Toole. Malcolm McDowell, Ruby Dee, Ed Begley Jr.

Rated R (probably for Creature Violence/Gore and for Pervasive Sexual Content including Aberrant Sexuality and Graphic Nudity)

When you think of sex, what animal comes to mind?

A totally weird question, I know, but it's at the heart of the movie "Cat People," a remake of a 1942 film.  Believe it or not.  So what's your answer?  I bet it wasn't panthers.

Sure, sex kitten is a term used to describe a playfully sexy young woman, but panthers and sex don't really go together in my mind.  Still, I'm open to just about anything when it comes to movie premises.  I'll accept anything on its own level.  But "Cat People" doesn't work.  It starts out strong, but it devolves into an incoherent mess at the halfway mark and never finds its way back.

Irena Galler (Kinski) has just come to New Orleans to meet her long lost brother Paul (McDowell).  The two of them were separated since the death of their parents.  The first night of her stay it becomes clear to us that there's something strange about him when he jumps on her bedpost like a cat.  The same night, a prostitute is attacked by a panther.  It's captured and put in a zoo run by Oliver Yates (Heard).  Irena visits the zoo and feels drawn to the panther.  She meets Oliver, who gives her a job.  But it turns out that the panther is actually Paul, and he has special designs for Irena.

There are two ways to deal with such an oddball premise.  Either it becomes something the audience simply has to accept, or it's a metaphor illustrating some greater point.  Director Paul Schrader, never a conventional writer or filmmaker, seems to be leaning in the latter direction, but what is it a metaphor for?  Sexuality's animalistic impulses?  I don't know, and I'm not sure Schrader does either.

The acting is fine, although none of the actors are well-served by the screenplay.  Considering how unfinished it is, the actors should be commended for doing such a good job.  Nastassja Kinski, daughter of the legendary Klaus Kinski, is terrific as the shy Irena.  Kinski was known as a sex kitten at the time the film was made, and I believe it.  She has a body to die for and there's nothing she doesn't show to the camera.  But she's got the acting chops to prove that she's more than just a pretty face.

Able support is provided by John Heard, who is also attractive as Irena's love interest, Annette O'Toole, who radiates sweetness, and Malcolm McDowell, who is at his creepy best.  Sadly, McDowell's screen time is limited.  For such an important character, that's a problem.

"Cat People" is such a mess that I don't know what the point of it was.  Hell, I'd be hard pressed to tell you what it's actually about.  But the film has it's charms, and it's rarely boring.  That's a compliment, I guess.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

1.5/4

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Allison Sudol, Carmen Ejogo, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Jon Voight

Rated PG-13 for Some Fantasy Action Violence

The success of the "Harry Potter" film franchise took everyone by surprise.  The idea was to make a few bucks off the movies and milk it for as long as they could.  No one expected to film the entire franchise.  But that's what happened, and Warner Bros. was drowning in cash.  The problem is that There were only seven books in the franchise.  Dividing the final chapter into two parts (a wise move, all things considered) stretched things out for a bit longer, but there was no getting around the fact that the story ended.  So what's a studio to do when their cash cow runs out of gas?  Why, do a spin-off.

J.K. Rowling penned a few small "reference" books for the world she created, most notably, "Quidditch Through the Ages," "The Three Tales of Beetle the Bard," and "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them."  Of those, only "Beetle the Bard" has an actual plot, although it's an anthology of stories.  But that really doesn't matter.  Warner Bros. only cares about the brand recognition; any story cooked up by a semi-literate screenwriter will do.  Unfortunately, the brand recognition is the only thing they cared about.  The script is a disaster, and David Yates, who did fine work on the last few "Harry Potter" movies, goes into special effects overkill mode.

As anyone versed in Harry Potter lore knows, the reference book "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" was written by Newt Scamander (Redmayne).  The film follows him on his adventures to create this reference book.  He's come to the U.S. to find a rare creature for his collection, but they are inadvertently released in New York City.  Now Newt, an ex-Auror named Tina (Waterston), Tina's sister Queenie (Sudol) and a No-Maj named Jacob (Fogler) have to hunt them down.  Meanwhile, a government official named Percival Graves (Farrell) is conniving with a weak-willed boy for his own reasons.

That's as far as I got when it came to the plot.  The story rarely makes sense, and when it does, it's annoying how trite it is.  That's because the movie is all special effects.  I mean, 100% special effects.  Like, there's hardly a shot in this film that doesn't have some CGI in it.  This isn't over-the-top, it's overkill.

The actors, some of whom are quite talented, fail to distinguish themselves.  Eddie Redmayne does what he can in the central role, but it's a losing battle against the action and noise.  The best thing I have to say about Katherine Waterston is that she looks cute and can cry convincingly.  If she wants to have a long career in the movies, she'd better improve on her acting skills when she takes the lead role in "Alien: Covenant" next August.  Colin Farrell looks positively bored; when an actor appears in a movie simply for the money or for contractual obligations, it's usually obvious.  Never more so than here.  Carmen Ejogo is awful as the President of the Magical World in the US.  Highly talented actors Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller and Jon Voight appear, but none of them have much to do.

Movies like this piss me off.  It's a studio risk aversion and greed at its worst.  They have a terrific franchise with a high standard of quality, lots of fans, and a great cast.  What do they give us?  $180 million dollars worth of noise and special effects.  Would it have killed them to have written an actual screenplay?  J.K. Rowling herself is credited with writing the screenplay, but I have a hard time imagining that she would bastardize her creation with something this insipid.  Only studio meddling could be responsible for such a disaster.

This is one of those movies where you wish you could go up to everyone involved and tell them that they should be ashamed of themselves.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Proposition

2/4

Starring: Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Emily Watson, David Wenham, John Hurt, Richard Wilson

Rated R for Strong Grisly Violence, and for Language

"The Proposition" is one long exercise in revisionist Western clichés.  The hero is conflicted and morose, the violence is graphic and bloody, and everyone is in desperate need of a bath and a day at the salon.  This could have been hilarious satire, but director John Hillcoat treats the material as if it's the most important movie ever made.  Apparently he thinks that if these characters brood enough we won't notice that they're stuck in a plot that would have been old when the Western was actually relevant.

The entire Hopkins family has just been brutally murdered, including the mother Eliza who was with child at the time of her death.  The Burns gang, consisting in part of the three Burns brothers, is found to be responsible.  The two younger siblings, Charlie (Pearce) and Mike (Wilson) are caught in a shootout.  The sherriff, a man named Stanley (Winstone), offers Charlie a deal: he and the simple minded Mike can go free if he kills his eldest brother Arthur.  It's a deal he can't refuse.

If I asked him, I imagine that Hillcoat would go on and on about how "The Proposition" is about families, the reality of the "Old West," race and class struggles, violence and guilt, and other things that bind us in our lives.  I suppose that's true, but the thing is that the film doesn't offer anything new.  There's precious little in this film that we haven't seen in other, better movies, and while there's nothing wrong with an old fashioned genre picture, Hillcoat presents the material as if it's truly groundbreaking.  That this is a humorless affair that its too lofty to be seen as "entertainment" makes sitting through this movie a tough and tedious affair.

Fortunately, the cast is made up of some of the best talent in Britain and Australia.  This begs the question of what they all saw in this material (and since the film only had a budget of $2 million, they clearly saw something that was good enough to be paid next to nothing to be a part of).  But, as they say, never look a gift horse in the mouth.  It's always nice to see Guy Pearce, even though he doesn't always pick the best movies to appear in (remember "The Rover?"  Come to think of it, does anyone want to remember it?).  Ray Winstone has no trouble playing the heavy.  Danny Huston is quite good as a complete psycho.  Emily Watson is good, but sets feminism back a few decades playing a woman with the internal strength of tissue paper.  David Wenham plays a sniveling sadist (something the Australian heartthrob is quite good at).  And John Hurt shows up for two scenes as an alcoholic bounty hunter.

There's not much of a reason to sit through this movie.  The action is suitably brutal, but lovers of gore and brutality can find that in one of Tarantino's last two movies ("Django Unchained" is the way to go, just sayin').  The film looks great on a technical level, but so does any movie with a talented cinematographer.  There aren't a lot of good Westerns out there, but ultimately the best I can say about this depress-o-thon is that it's not as awful as "Shane."

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Edge of Seventeen

2.5/4

Starring: Hailee Stanfield, Woody Harrelson, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Kyra Sedgewick, Hayden Szeto

Rated R for Sexual Content, Language and Some Drinking-All Involving Teens

If country singers ever sung songs about suburbia, there could be a great one about Nadine (Stanfield).  For her, life is suffering through an unending series of indignities.  She has only one friend, Krista (Richardson), the boy she likes doesn't know she exists, her brother Darian (Jenner) is super popular and super good looking, and her mother (Sedgwick) just doesn't get her.  The only one who cares about her is her father, but he's been dead for five years.  Making matters infinitely worse is when she finds Krista in bed with Darian, who then has the gall to start dating her.

Adolescence sucks.  Despite being occasionally romanticized in TV shows like "The Wonder Years" or any generic teeny-bopper movie, we all know how miserable it is.  Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig sticks pretty close to real life, aiming for a similar tone to "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."  However, while that film certainly had its maudlin moments, it was counter balanced by scenes of levity and joy.  Craig attempts to do the same thing, but for the most part it doesn't work.  This is a bleak film, and not necessarily in a good way.  It's not as savage as "Thirteen," but it's close.

What saves the film is the high quality of the acting.  Hailee Stanfield, who scored an Oscar nomination for her performance in the "True Grit" remake (which I didn't like), is very good as Nadine.  She's not a particularly likable person; Nadine is self-absorbed, complains a lot, and doesn't even acknowledge the feelings of Erwin (Szeto), a guy who actually likes her.  But the story is told from her eyes, so this is understandable.  Stanfield is able to get us on her side.

She surrounded by an able supporting cast.  Woody Harrelson is in fine form as a teacher whose quick wit hides a deep capacity for empathy.  It's so nice to see him get away from the emotionally stunted macho men who can't express themselves.  It was moving in "The Messenger," but has been completely irritating every time he, or anyone else, has done it since.  Haley Lu Richardson ably plays Krista as someone who has found herself growing apart from her best friend, but isn't the heartless bitch that Nadine has created her to be in her mind.  Likewise, Kyra Sedgewick is also good as the mom who simply can't relate to her daughter, but loves her nonetheless.  And Hayden Szeto is adorable in a nerdy sort of way.

The best of the supporting cast is Blake Jenner.  As Darian, he's charisma personified.  He's the kind of guy who flaunts his good looks, confidence and popularity without even trying.  He's so perfect you want to strangle him.  But as we learn, he's quite the cocky jerk that we think he is.  Jenner certainly looks the part, and has that unforced swagger that can't really be learned.  But he's also able to plumb the depths of heart to pull off the dramatic scenes.  It's perfect casting.

The problem with the film is its tone.  It fails to find the sweet spot between heartbreak and hilarity that a movie like "Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life" found.  Or the aforementioned "The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  There are some funny moments that do land, including one involving a racy text that is laugh aloud funny because of the way Harrelson plays it.  Stanfield is there too, but Harrelson steals it.  But overall this isn't a pleasant experience.

I applaud what Craig has attempted.  The scenes where she portrays how it feels to be a put-upon high schooler are dead on.  But the film will have trouble finding an audience.  For one thing, it's too problematic for me to recommend, although it's a close call.  For another, it has a teen-unfriendly R rating.  This is rather befuddling, since while it's on the racier edge of being appropriate for teens, it's also about things that they experience, which makes the rating a more than a little ridiculous.

Perhaps you will be able to get more out of this than I did.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Whistleblower

2.5/4

Starring: Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn, Roxana Condurache, Vanessa Redgrave, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Monica Bellucci, Paula Schramm

Rated R for Disturbing Violent Content including a Brutal Sexual Assault, Graphic Nudity and Language

There is no doubt in my mind that this story needed to be told.  Sex trafficking is a very real threat, and it doesn't take a genius to make the connection between what went on in this film, which is based on a true story, and the horrors perpetrated by companies like Halliburton.  Unfortunately, the treatment isn't worthy of its subject.  A poor job in the cinematography department, a messy script and a director's unwillingness to cut anything take a powerful story and dilute its power considerably.  This is a tragic and disturbing story, but the impact of the film feels muted.

Kathryn Bolkovac (Weisz) is a cop in the U.S.  She's just been denied a transfer that would allow her to move closer to her daughter, who primarily lives with her (second) ex-husband.  Then her boss tells her of an opportunity she can't pass up: six months working as a peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia that will net her a cool hundred grand.  She jumps at the chance, and by actually doing her job, she nets a high-powered position working for a diplomat named Madeline Rees (Redgrave).  However, at a raid on a brothel, Kathryn comes across two young women, Raya (Condurache) and Luba (Schramm), who tell her that the villains pulling the strings are none other than the peacekeepers themselves.  The further Kathryn digs, the more she realizes that this is far bigger than she ever could have imagined.  More importantly, there are mmore people who want her to quit snooping around, and in a post-war country, it's all too easy to do so.

The performances are strong across the board.  Then again, with a cast that includes Rachel Weisz, Vanessa Redgrave, Monica Bellucci, Liam Cunningham, and in a walk-on role, Benedict Cumberbatch, what did you expect?  Rachel Weisz is a firecracker (as usual), only this time she substitutes her usual bubbly energy for intensity.  Kathryn is one tough cookie, more than able to take charge against a group of burly men.  It's not a great performance, but that's more the fault of the writing and the direction than a lack of trying on Weisz's part.  The other established actors like Strathairn, Redgrave and a truly icy Bellucci do their part, but this is Weisz's show, and as such they cede the spotlight to her.  One performance that must be mentioned is Roxana Condurache, who's work here is very good but will be overlooked mainly because she doesn't have a lot to do other than play a battered woman.  As horrible as it is to say, her best scenes are when she's in considerable terror and pain.  There's no sense of drama in her acting in these scenes, and as such, they become brutally visceral.

Unfortunately, the film's technical qualities don't measure up.  The story is a mess because co-writer/director Larysa Kondracki insists on putting as many characters and subplots in the film as she can.  For example, in addition to seeing what Raya goes through, we also see what her mother experiences.  These scenes are adequately done, I suppose, but do they add anything we didn't already know?  Not really.  Nor do the scenes with her lover Jan (Lie Kaas), which only waste time since he's just there to remind her of the danger that she's in.  A little artistic license could have been used by letting another character, say Madeline Lees, say it.  Come to think of it, Peter Ward (Straithairn) says that.

I have to mention the film's look, and I'm not going to be saying good things.  Putting it bluntly, the film looks awful.  The idea is to present the cold, dark and threatening world of post-war Bosnia, but there's a fine line between moody atmosphere and not being able to see anything.  For half the movie it seemed, I kept thinking, "Someone turn on a damn light!"

This isn't a total misfire; the acting is strong and the story, for all its faults, is compelling.  There's also some legitimate suspense to be found here and there.  But it doesn't come anywhere near its full potential.  Putting it alongside "Lilya 4-Ever," another film about human trafficking in Central Europe, and it's really lacking.  But it's decent at least.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Cape Fear (1991)

2.5/4

Starring: Nick Nolte, Robert DeNiro, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker, Illeana Douglas

Rated R for Strong Violence, and Language

If you recall, I was not a fan of the original "Cape Fear."  I found it to be half-baked and without any bite.  So you would think that a remake directed by Martin Scorcese and starring Robert DeNiro would fix the problem.  Yes and no.  It's not that Scorcese's version plays it safe and soft-pedals the violence and brutality of its central conflict.  It's that Scorcese makes a number of bad choices in doing so and that certain actors aren't able to perform up to expected levels.

Sam Bowden (Nolte) is a successful lawyer living in Florida with his wife Leigh (Lange) and troubled teenage daughter Danielle (Lewis).  One day he is stopped on the way to his car by a man who claims to know him.  His name is Max Cady (DeNiro), a nasty piece of work who has just been freed after a 14 year prison sentence.  While Sam defended him and plead him down to a lesser sentence, Max believes (correctly) that he could have been set free without having to set foot in jail.  As one can imagine, something like this would leave anyone mad, and Max begins a reign of terror that will push the Bowden family to the brink.

Martin Scorcese took this job from his good friend Steven Spielberg, who told him that directing a mainstream movie would lead to better projects.  Thankfully, this was true, but I wish that Scorcese's heart was in it.  It's sloppy and at times self-indulgent, two qualities that I've never witnessed in a movie from the meticulous and innovative Scorcese.

The performances are a mixed bag, which is unusual for a Scorcese movie since he is known for cultivating strong performances from his actors.  Nick Nolte is fine as a family man paying for his past mistakes.  Jessica Lange completely misinterprets the role of the bitter Leigh, playing her like a bipolar nutcase.  Juliette Lewis, who arguably has the next important role to Max Cady, is flat as Danielle.  Danielle is a rebellious teenager who has a twisted, sexual fascination with Cady, and Lewis isn't able to sell the character.  She wasn't the first choice; some actresses, like Alyssa Milano and Christina Applegate, were offered the role but had to turn it down due to conflicts with their co-workers on the sitcoms they were working on, while others, like Reese Witherspoon and Drew Barrymore, blew their auditions.  Lewis is a good actress, but she can't handle this complex of a role.

The film went through 24 drafts before Scorcese agreed to direct it.  The main point of contention was that the Bowden family was written as being happy while in true Scorcese fashion, he wanted them to be miserable.  But the characters are so lacking in development that I didn't care about any of them.  Danielle is never believable and Max Cady is initially creepy but descends into self-parody.  The writing just isn't there.  Maybe Scorcese was hamstrung by the needs of the genre or the meddling of the studio.

I don't think so.  Many of these decisions were obviously Scorcese's, like the sluggish pacing with some "key" scenes or the awkward handling of others.  I like Scorcese, but I can't defend his work on this film.

Given the director's track record and the premise, I was hoping that Scorcese could fully exploit the potential of this terrifying premise, but he apparently cannot.  There's no reason this couldn't have worked.  It has enough ambiguity and edge to improve on the original, but by no means is it an unqualified success.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Doctor Strange

2.5/4

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelson, Benedict Wong

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence and Action Throughout, and an Intense Crash Sequence

Readers will know full well how tired I am of superhero movies.  I am tired of their sameness, their obsession with fan service, and that their bloated budgets snuff out other, potentially better films.  But I was optimistic about "Doctor Strange," and that's for a few reasons.  First, the cast.  I love Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton.  Second, the director.  Scott Derrickson has a pretty good track record.  "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is a fascinating and at times scary film, and "Sinister" is the most terrifying film of the past 10 years.  But it was not to be.  Simply put, the film is a mess.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a New York City surgeon whose ego matches his talent.  That is until he gets into a brutal car accident and loses the ability of his hands.  Desperate not to lose the meaning in his life, he seeks out treatment in Nepal.  Apparently, there are those who can manipulate the world around them.  Strange becomes a devoted disciple and quickly becomes very powerful.  Of course, there are those who use these powers for evil, like Kacilius (Mikkelson).

When a movie doesn't take place in our world, there is one rule that the film has to follow: consistency is everything.  Otherwise the film will at best look like it's making itself up as it goes along or worse make no sense.  "Doctor Strange's" world is so complicated that it takes half the movie to explain, and even then I was still lost.  I guess that you have to be well versed in the comics to understand it.

The film's acting is a high point, although considering the cast, I suppose that isn't much of a surprise.  Benedict Cumberbatch acquits himself well amid all the special effects (and there are a lot of them), sporting a flawless American accent as well.  Without it ever seeming to be forced.  Natch.  Tilda Swinton, whose casting as a character usually regarded as Asian was controversial, fits right in as the mysterious, Morpheus-type teacher known as The Ancient One.  Swinton can do anything, so while it would have been more appropriate to cast, say, Gong Li or Michelle Yeoh, at least Swinton's talent makes it more palatable.  Rachel McAdams is cute, but doesn't have much to do.  Ditto for the rest of the cast.

"Doctor Strange" is wall-to-wall special effects.  There are very few, if any, scenes that don't have some CGI or something.  Some of them, such as those in the villain's realm (?) are sensational.  And Derrickson does some interesting things with the concept of time in this movie.  But they're in service of a plot that is a total mess.  The first half is all right, but the second half rarely makes sense, even though it's constantly explaining itself.  I tried very hard to keep up with it but eventually I just gave up.

There are plenty of movies out now that are wonderful.  There's no need to waste your time with "Doctor Strange."

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

sex, lies, and videotape

1.5/4

Starring: Andie MacDowell, James Spader, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo

Rated R (probably for Explicit Sexual Dialogue and Language)

"sex. lies, and videotape" is one of those awful independent films where the characters talk and talk and don't say much, but think they're philosophers uncovering some greater meaning about sex, life and whatever.  I don't know about you, but if I wanted that, I'd spend an hour and a half with a bunch of drunk hipsters.  This movie is pretentious, it's boring, and certainly not worth your time.

Ann (MacDowell) is the sexually frigid wife of John (Gallagher), an arrogant lawyer.  He's a real pig; not only did he make her quit her job to become a housewife, he's sleeping with her oversexed sister Cynthia (San Giacomo).  Without her permission, John has invited Graham (Spader), his old college roommate, over to stay.  Graham is impotent, but gets off on interviewing women about their sexual histories.  His arrival shits the balance of the relationships between these people.

One question came into my mind while watching this movie: who cares?  I certainly didn't.  In addition to not being likable, these people aren't interesting.  I had almost zero investment in what happened to them.  They're essentially defined by a single trait, which for a movie means boredom.  Ann is a repressed wallflower, Graham is a creep, John is a total bastard, and Cynthia is a sexpot without a conscience.  It's a good starting point for what might well have been a play (it wasn't), but the film never really does anything with the premise or its characters.  It's all set-up.

The actors are held hostage by the screenplay and the director's ego.  They do what they can, but ultimately there's no saving this movie.  Andie MacDowell shows range and depth that she rarely gets to show; known primarily as a light comic actress, MacDowell is more than capable of heavy material ("Harrison's Flowers" is a good example).  James Spader is famous for playing creeps, and this is just another one of his, although it doesn't look like it required a lot of range.  Peter Gallagher has little trouble playing a class A jerk.  Laura San Giacomo could certainly be sexy if the film weren't so pretentious.

Steven Sodebergh is capable of making great movies; he did direct "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic," and "Magic Mike," which was the best film of 2012.  But he's also been accused of "trying to be indie" with some of his more experimental films.  That's the case here.  This is a real ego trip, and that's never fun for the audience.

The movie is 27 years old, so maybe it's just dated.  That could certainly explain why it was such a hit with critics and audiences back in 1989.  It's definitely true that many movies don't age well.  Certainly, a movie as risqué as "50 Shades of Grey" has more relevance than a movie about voyeurism where the raciest thing is talking about orgasms.  But the characters don't say anything of interest.  Is it erotic to listen to four people talk about their sexual histories, or lack thereof?  Could be, if there was any sort of chemistry between them.  But the clinical nature of the direction and the bland screenplay make it impossible to form any sort of connection between the characters and the audience.

This is just another one of those overhyped critical darlings that doesn't deserve any of the praise it was given.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge

3.5/4

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths

Rated R for Intense Prolonged Realistically Graphic Sequences of War Violence Including Grisly Bloody Images

The story of Desmond Doss couldn't be filmed if it wasn't a true story.  It's too extraordinary to be believed.  Yet it is true.  One man, a Conscientious Objector who refused to even hold a weapon, saving the lives of 75 men singlehandedly.  No one would believe it.  But it is true, and for his efforts, Doss received the Medal of Honor.

Desmond Doss (Garfield) is a bashful kid living in Virginia at a time when the world had gone to hell.  He developed an interest in medicine at a young age, but with little schooling becoming a doctor was next to impossible.  However, the army presents an opportunity for him to be trained as a medic and he won't have to kill anyone.  At least that's what Desmond was told.  Nevertheless, when he arrives at basic training, he's ordered to perform weapons training.  Citing his Seventh Day Adventist beliefs, Desmond refuses.  Branded a coward and hauled before a court-martial hearing, Desmond's choices are either quit or be locked up for the remainder of the war.  Fortunately a last minute intervention gets him off the hook and he becomes a source of inspiration for his fellow soldiers.

The film's roughest parts are the first few scenes in which Andrew Garfield appears.  Garfield is a winning actor, but he overplays Desmond's "aww shucks" gawkiness.  Instead of making the character vulnerable and endearing, it makes him seem like some sort of idiot savant.  Still, in the broad spectrum of the movie, it's not a huge problem.  Just big enough to be worth pointing out.  And the romance between Desmond and a pretty nurse named Dorothy (Palmer) is effectively realized, it feels a little shortchanged.

Mel Gibson has never been afraid of violence or bloodshed in his movies.  After all, this is the guy who directed "The Passion of the Christ."  True to form, "Hacksaw Ridge" is loaded with graphic images of violence.  Bodies ripped apart, severed limbs, a bunch of intestines, and so on.  It's not as harrowing as "Saving Private Ryan," but it comes close.

The performances are strong, even from those not normally known for their range.  Apart from his few opening scenes, Andrew Garfield turns in a fine performance as the gangly but earnest Desmond.  Although a long shot, Garfield could conceivably be nominated for an Oscar (no doubt Summit Entertainment is hoping for the same thing).  Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn and especially Luke Bracey, none of whom are known to be great dramatic actors, provide excellent support.  Hugo Weaving sheds his trademark drawl to play Desmond's alcoholic father who is all too familiar with war.  And Teresa Palmer is lovely but underused as Dorothy.

"Hacksaw Ridge" gets better as it goes along.  The film gets off to a rocky start, but quickly finds its groove.  The scenes in basic training are compelling if recycled from other, better movies.  The undisputed highlight is the Battle at Okinawa.  Expertly choreographed and visually thrilling, this is high quality filmmaking.  It's real, visceral and brutal.  What makes it so exciting is that Gibson allows the film to tour other parts of the battle rather than keep the focus firmly on Desmond.  We see other faceless characters fight it out to the death in short one-on-one battles.  We see men who are alive one second and dead the next.  And we see the horrible results of flamethrowers, one of which explodes on the wearer's back.  And there's a dream sequence that literally made me scream.

One area where the film falters is in its tone.  At times it's clear that Gibson is making a genre movie but the brutality of the violence hints at a far more serious affair.  For the most part Gibson manages to navigate this balance, but when your movie recalls "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Lord of the Rings," it's a bit of a disconnect.

All that aside, this is still a great movie.  It's definitely worth a trip to the theater, and when I create my Top 10 list this year, it will be on it and certainly somewhere near the top.