Sunday, May 21, 2017

Alien: Covenant

3/4

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Callie Hernandez, Demian Bichir

Rated R for Sci-Fi Violence, Bloody Images, Language and Some Sexuality/Nudity

By the time "Alien: Resurrection" was released in 1997, the story of Ellen Ripley and her unending battle with the xenomorphs had been played out.  The franchise had worn out its welcome (I'm not counting the "Alien vs. Predator" movies since no one saw them and none of the fans or creators from either franchise consider them to be part of their respective canons).  But in 2012, Ridley Scott, the director of the original "Alien," released "Prometheus," a prequel of sorts that breathed new life into the franchise, taking it into a more philosophical direction.  That film was born of questions about identity and man's place in the universe, rather than scares and gore (although it had a bit of both).  While it was well received, it left a lot of questions open for the sequel.  Those questions are answered here.

"Alien: Covenant" takes inspiration from the original, its first sequel "Aliens" and its immediate predecessor, and mixes them into a whole that works surprisingly well.  This is a more traditional horror flick than "Prometheus."  Those who felt that the 2012 film was too talky will be satisfied.  There is plenty of action, and it might be the bloodiest in the franchise.  For those who appreciated the thought-provoking material, there is some of that here, but it's not anything new or especially enriching for the mind.  The trade-off is that there is more action and scares, and for my money, it's an acceptable trade-off.

A spacecraft is heading for a distant planet with the intent on colonization.  However, a freak incident causes a considerable amount of damage to the craft, and the loss of the captain (James Franco in a thankfully brief cameo).  While deciding what to do, the crew receives a garbled transmission from a nearby planet that appears to be more habitable than the one they are going to.  The new captain, a man by the name of Oram (Crudup), opts to go investigate, but his next in command, Daniels (Waterston) disagrees.  Nevertheless, they soldier on and make horrifying discoveries.

What "Alien: Covenant" does, it does well.  Ridley Scott doesn't have the greatest track record, but this is a strong effort from him.  He knows how to get the adrenaline going and how to shock his audience.  You get what you pay for.

The acting doesn't impress.  Of the cast, the only one who sticks out is Michael Fassbender (no surprise there), mainly because he's the only one who has a part to play.  Two, actually.  He plays David, who repaired by Shaw (Noomi Rapace) shortly before she died, and the expedition's new andrioid Walter (which breaks with the series tradition of having the new android have their name start with the next letter in the alphabet).  Katherine Waterston is too much of a lightweight to handle an action role, Billy Crudup is miscast, and Danny McBride is effective in a largely dramatic role.  The rest of the cast is simply fodder for the aliens (who have never looked better, by the way).

"Alien: Covenant" doesn't take any risks or do anything unusual.  The ending twist is predictable from a mile away, but that doesn't diminish its effectiveness.  There is a flashback to the Engineers that doesn't really fit and doesn't make a lot of sense.  However, there are some great scares and shocks, and enough blood and gore to satisfy horror fans who have been starved by the PG-13 horror movies of late.  It is what it is, and that's enough to get a recommendation from me.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Wall

3.5/4

Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, and the voice of Laith Nakli

Rated R for Language Throughout and Some War Violence

And the moral of the story is...you don't need a big budget to make a good movie.

If you're thinking of "The Great Wall," don't.  That movie was awful.  This one is great.  Primarily because it understands that there is more to making a movie than throwing special effects at the screen.  This is not an ambitious picture, but it's efficiently made and well-executed.

Isaac (Taylor-Johnson) and Matthews (Cena) are two snipers trying to outfox an opponent who has just slain a number of contractors.  Believing the coast to be clear, they check out the scene but are shot at by an unseen sniper.  Both are wounded, especially Matthews, who is on the verge of bleeding out.  Isaac has found refuge behind a wall, but his attempts to call for help are thwarted by the enemy sniper (Nakli), who hears his every word.  Now it's a deadly game of cat and mouse as they both try to outthink the other.

Actually, a better analogy than the Matt Damon dud from earlier this year is "The Shallows," the forgettable movie that pitted Blake Lively against a very persistent shark.  Both have similar concepts but are on polar opposite ends of the quality spectrum.  It all comes down to the execution.  I identified with the hero and his intelligence, but also feared the villain because he was smart and in control.  By the same token, I could care less about the girl and the shark was less scary than Bruce from "Finding Nemo."

This is a two-character show: Isaac and the sniper.  Isaac is your average soldier.  Not gung-ho, not John Wayne, not Sly Stallone.  He's there to do a job and go home.  However, he knows what he is doing, which makes him more than cannon fodder for Juba, the much feared enemy sniper.  He knows how to keep a cool head and formulate a plan even when Juba messes with his head.

Juba is a nasty piece of work.  In addition to, you know, trying to kill Isaac, he psychologically tortures him.  He asks his quarry personal questions and uses Matthews as a pawn.  Even creepier, he knows that Isaac is injured and how any help will come and how to destroy it.

Director Doug Liman keeps things moving at a nice clip, and throws in new wrenches into the film's story at regular intervals.  He's also good with sleight of hand.  Some of what happens we expect (and we're meant to).  Other times we're surprised.  He keeps us on our toes, and I was never sure what was going to happen next.  More importantly, I cared.

Which brings us to the ending.  I'm not going to give anything away, but I will say that it's shocking but after it wears off you realize that it was well set up and makes perfect sense.  I'm not sure I can say I was satisfied, but I will happily give the film points for its audacity.

The film's suspense lags a little here and there and Laith Nakli isn't creepy enough to do the character justice, but there is more than enough here to get a recommendation from me.  Prepare for a lot of arm clutching and bruised forearms, though.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Snatched

1.5/4

Starring: Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Ike Barinholtz, Wanda Sykes, Joan Cusack, Tom Bateman, Christopher Meloni, Oscar Jaenada

Rated R for Crude Sexual Content, Brief Nudity and Language Throughout

"Snatched" is what this movie did to my life.  Because I decided to watch this movie, 90 precious minutes of my life were stolen by this turkey.  90 minutes doesn't seem like much in terms of a lifetime, but when you spend it watching a movie this bad instead of, say, cleaning the toilet, you get a little pissed.  As much as I wanted to, I stayed so I could review it and encourage you to stay away from this dud.  I hope you're happy.

Admittedly, the filmmakers picked the wrong plot for a comedy.  Tourists getting kidnapped by locals for nefarious purposes is a very real threat in some areas of the world.  Turning this into a comedy would require a deft touch, something that Jonathan Levine does not possess.  There is a constant sense of whiplash between a violent situation and lowbrow comedy that permeates through this movie.  In addition to being unfunny, it's inept.

Emily (Schumer) is having a very bad day.  She lost her job, her boyfriend dumped her just before their trip to Ecuador (with non-refundable tickets), and none of her friends can go with her.  Her only option is her neurotic mother Linda (Hawn), who she doesn't really like.  Reluctantly Linda agrees to go.  While there, Emily meets a sexy Australian named James (Bateman) who takes them on a day trip.  Of course, he's setting them up for a nasty criminal by the name of Morgado (Jaenada).  Now they have to figure out how to stay alive and get to the nearest consulate.  Meanwhile, Emily's brother Jeffrey (Barinholtz), who never leaves the house, attempts to get a federal official to rescue them.

Like so many comedies these days, much of the film seems improvised.  While it never reaches the level of Seth Rogen's antics, there are plenty of moments where the characters restate what they just said over and over again.  Does anyone find this funny?  Shakespeare said that "Brevity is the soul of wit," and that's true.  It is also true that acting obnoxious and crude is funny only when there is a logic behind it.  That's not the case when you're trying to get the attention of a Fed by suddenly speaking Klingon.  Humor requires logic to work.  Sadly, these days, movies follow the Seth Rogen formula where actors just mug the camera and hope they can come up with something funny.  People on set may find it hilarious, but the audience doesn't.

I am disappointed in Amy Schumer.  She soared to worldwide fame two years ago with "Trainwreck," a touching and hilarious romantic comedy that showed off her comic and dramatic skills.  That movie had real characters and real wit, which earned it a spot on my Top 10 list that year.  But here, she's being lazy, coasting by on her charisma and every-woman appeal.  How can someone who is so funny think this script was worthy of her talents.  Hollywood is littered with talented people who were one-hit wonders.  If she wants to survive in the treacherous waters of showbiz, she can't make movies like this.

Why did Goldie Hawn decide to make her comeback in this?  Apart from a voice appearance on the kids TV show "Phineas and Ferb," Hawn hasn't done any work in 15 years.  Why make a comeback with this stinker?  A Hollywood legend like herself doesn't need to stoop this low, no matter how hard up for cash or how bored she is.  This is a waste of her talent.

There are a few moments worthy of a smile or a chuckle, but really, this movie just isn't worth your time.

The Squid and the Whale

2.5/4

Starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, William Baldwin

Rated R for Strong Sexual Content, Graphic Dialogue and Language

You wouldn't believe how many people are surprised that my parents are still together.  With the divorce rate at 50%, I guess it makes sense.  Whether or not this is something that should alarm me, I have yet to figure out.

"The Squid and the Whale" isn't the first film to deal frankly with divorce, nor will it be the last.  But its no-frills, melodrama-free approach sets it apart from all the others.  This is an independent film in the truest sense of the word; shot on digital video and made for a paltry sum of $1.5 million, this was never destined to be shown in the multiplex.  That it is not entirely successful further cements this.

The Berkmans are separating.  Bernard (Daniels) and Joan (Linney) will split custody of their two sons, Walt (Eisenberg) and Frank (Kline).  Plus the cat.  It sounds simple in theory but in practice it is anything but.  Walt idolizes his father while Frank prefers his mother, but when secrets are spilled and experiences come to light, alliances shift back and forth.  Meanwhile, Bernard is shacking up with one of his students (Paquin) while Joan is romancing Frank's tennis instructor (Baldwin).

That this movie is partly autobiographical doesn't surprise me.  It is made with the kind of specificity that can really only be possible with first-hand knowledge.  However, the film comes up short in its construction.  The film moves so fast and with so little depth that it frequently feels like a film trailer rather than a feature film.  Despite the valiant efforts from the actors, the characters feel half-developed and their motivations are often hazy.

This is the kind of low-budget, character-oriented movie where Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney can shine.  Although neither has shown any problem in bigger budget movies, this is their bread and butter.  Both are writers, which brought them together and, to an extent, tore them apart.  Bernard is arrogant but hasn't been published in a long time while Joan is new to the game and experiencing success.  These two know each other too well, and they know just how to hurt each other.  But too little of this aspect of their relationship is explored.

As the kids, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline are fine, but not standout.  Walt's worship of his father is too overplayed, but that's more of the fault of the writing rather than a knock against the future Mark Zuckerberg.  Owen Kline (son of Kevin Kline) is also effective as Frank, although his character is so troubled that I genuinely feared for him.  Neither child is coping well with the split, in fact; Walt is having relationship issues with his girlfriend (Halley Feiffer) while Frank turns to alcohol and acting out sexually.  William Baldwin and Anna Paquin provide solid support.

Baumbach originally wrote the film for his good friend Wes Anderson to direct, but he turned it down and convinced Baumbach to make himself since it was so personal.  I shudder to think of what Anderson's ego would have done with this material.  As it is, it's a solid effort from a new director that signals better things to come in the future.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Race

2/4

Starring: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Shanice Banton, Jeremy Irons, Carice van Houten, Barnaby Metschurat

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements and Language

The title "Race" is a plainly obvious double meaning on the film's conflict: a track race and racial tension.  Bet you didn't see that one coming, did you?  And the film as a whole is written with that amount of depth: it wants to be deep and substantial, but consistently underestimates the intelligence of the audience.  This isn't a bad movie, just a hopelessly routine one.

Director Stephen Hopkins (never one to make movies of substantial quality) seems more interested in dotting every t and crossing every i than creating three-dimensional characters or telling a compelling (or coherent) story.  The list of clichés he employs reads like a list of greatest hits from Sports Movie 101.  Let's count them down, shall we?

-Period piece setting complete with sepia tone: check

-Talented but naïve champion-to-be who comes from the wrong side of the tracks: check

-Hard drinking, tough as nails coach who has a secret soft side: check

-Said champion-to-be gets seduced by fame and glory and forgets who his real friends are: check

-A hero who must prove himself in the face of enemies who will do anything to see him fail: check

-Bonding with a rival: check and double check.

-A crisis of conscience between following his dream and taking a stand.

I could go on.  And on.  There is very little here that's unique or original.  Although this is ostensibly about Olympic champion Jesse Owens (James), his character is so thinly written that he could be any generic Hollywood athletic hero.  His co-stars fare even worse.

But wait!  Didn't I give "Goal! The Dream Begins" a rave review even though it did the exact same thing?  Yes I did.  But that movie had energy and conviction.  The characters may not have been original, but they had enough personality that I formed a connection with them.  Plus that movie had the good sense to pick and choose which clichés to employ.  "Race" uses all of them.  None of them are given any room to breathe, by the way.

The performances do not help matters.  Stephan James is a bland lead. bringing little in the way of depth or life to the role.  Granted, he is working with a subpar screenplay, but there's no spark for me to connect with him.  I could care less about his character or his dreams.  Funnyman Jason Sudeikis seized the chance to achieve his goal of doing a drama, and while his performance is merely okay, he's the best thing in it.  Jeremy Irons and William Hurt lend their talents in small roles, but neither appears to be trying very hard.  Carice van Houten shows up in a totally thankless role as infamous documentarian Leni Riefenstahl, but she's uneven (I fault the screenplay).  David Kross has a small role as Jesse's rival, and he manages to save the character from being a complete saint.

"Race" enters into dangerous waters when it deals with racism and anti-Semitism, particularly from the Third Reich, and it doesn't do so successfully.  Frankly, this material is written so dumb that it's insulting.  Didn't anyone involved with the production have any respect for the intelligence of the audience?  That this was produced by Focus Features, known for creating movies for audiences who have grown up from their Marvel phase, is a little astounding.

This film is a cash grab, plain and simple.  The filmmakers were uninterested in presenting a new perspective on an interesting figure nor were they interested in paying respect to his life.  They chose a historical figure that fit into the genre they were looking to make and did the rest on autopilot.

Don't bother.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

1.5/4

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Eric Bana

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Violence and Action, Some Suggestive Content and Brief Strong Language

While one can debate which weekend signaled the exact start of the 2017 summer movie season, there's no doubt that it's in full swing now.  That means we get movies that place more emphasis on marketing and special effects rather than plot or good writing.  With "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword," Warner Bros. is hoping for a new franchise.  While making a projection on its box office success (or lack thereof) on the night before its official opening may seem a bit premature, trust me when I say this: it ain't gonna happen.  Especially when audiences realize what a dog this movie is.  Warner Bros. apparently knows too, since marketing has been minimal and the buzz is negative.

Like most franchise starters, this is an origin story (here's a novel idea: start with the pieces already in place).  Uther (Bana) is the King of England, which has lived peacefully with the magically inclined mages.  That is until Mordred (Rob Knighton) comes along and uses dark magic to seize ultimate power.  He is defeated by Uther, but Uther's brother Vortigern (Law) betrays him and takes the throne for himself.  Fortunately Uther sent his young son away before Vortigern could kill him.  Years later, the boy, named Arthur (Hunnam) has grown up, and once it's revealed that he can pull the legendary sword from the stone, the few that oppose Vortigern want Arthur to overthrow his uncle.  Saying it is one thing.  But Arthur cannot control the sword, dubbed "Excalibur."

The list of things that "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" does wrong could go on for a mile.  Chief among them is a poor choice of cinematographer.  This is a dark, ugly, brooding film that in addition to being ridiculous and incoherent (not to mention boring), is impossible to see.  There's atmosphere, and then there's this.  Not only can the feeble script not support such a brooding tone (which doesn't fit to begin with), it's poorly done.  Alone, it would be irritating.  But with the 3D glasses, it's horrible.  3D splits the image, which results in the dimming of light.  So you can guess what it's like to watch a horribly lighted movie in 3D.

The acting doesn't help matters either.  Charlie Hunnam is one note, Jude Law is in full "take the money and run" mode, Astrid Berges-Frisbey's English is so bad she can barely sound out the words (Gong Li spoke better English in "Memoirs of a Geisha"), Djimon Hounsou is wasted, and Eric Bana is in the film little enough that it probably won't harm his career.  It's hard to blame the cast, since the script is so weak.  None of the cast has any character to play; they're just props for the dumb dialogue.  The story makes little sense, and when it does, it's only because it's stealing from other, better movies.

Guy Ritchie has become a sort of cult director for film geeks, and I have yet to see why.  I suppose his hyper-kinetic style can be considered "hip" and "offbeat" by some, but not by me.  Ritchie employs so many camera tricks and storytelling techniques that "self-indulgent" is more appropriate than "style."  The frantic rat-a-tat dialogue in some scenes is like bad David Mamet and the scenes where he visualizes future events as they talk about it in the present sounds a lot cooler than it plays out.  And there are the usual offenders, like shaking the camera and frantically cutting.

I recently watch "The Lord of the Rings" yesterday, and boy, does this movie pale by comparison.  It's dark, grungy and cheerless.  What the film really lacks (apart from the plethora of necessities I wasted your time describing) is joy.  This movie is not fun.  It's meant to make enough bucks to justify a sequel or two so ten years or so down the line you can pick up a box set.  If that happens, it will be in the discount DVD bin.

Oh wait, there is one element of praise.  The score by Daniel Pemberton is appropriately badass.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Misconduct

1.5/4

Starring: Josh Duhamel, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Alice Eve, Malin Ackerman, Julia Stiles, Glen Howard, Chris Marquette

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

You'd think I'd learn.  A few years ago I watched a movie I found available at a grocery store, of all places, called "The Stone Merchant."  It starred Harvey Keitel and F. Murray Abraham and it was available for cheap, so I bought it.  And it was awful.  So here is "Misconduct," a legal thriller starring acting titans Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins, up-and-coming leading man Josh Duhamel and lady Alice Eve, and reliable character actors Malin Ackerman and Julia Stiles.  Surely it had to be a diamond in the rough, right?  That would be a no.

A pharmaceutical company is being sued after one of its drugs caused the deaths of hundreds of people.  A hotshot lawyer named Ben Cahill (Duhamel) wants to lead the case when an old flame, Emily Hynes (Ackerman), comes to him with evidence that not only did the CEO Arthur Denning (Hopkins) know that the drug was deadly, he covered it up.  His boss, Charles Abrams (Pacino), is impressed by his ambition, and gives him the go ahead.  Trouble arises when Ben nearly makes the mistake of cheating on his wife Charlotte (Eve) with Emily and Emily ends up missing.

"Misconduct" is like a bad John Grisham movie.  Grisham wasn't the best writer (for legal thrillers set in the South, the Penn Cage novels win hands down), but his stories had a certain grace to them.  Newbie director Shintaro Shimosawa tries to ape Grisham's formula, but fails spectacularly.  This is a terrible movie.

For one thing, every character has the IQ of a peanut.  The late great film critic Roger Ebert called stories like this the "Idiot Plot."  This is when the plot can only work when the characters don't state the obvious.  That would apply here if the characters were smart enough to actually figure out the obvious.  The whole plot starts because Ben tries to cover up his affair with Emily, which of course never actually happened.

With such a strong cast, you'd think that they could at least keep things watchable.  But no one is trying here.  They're all slumming for paychecks, which, considering the $11 million budget, must have been paltry considering what they're used to.  Josh Duhamel tries his best to hide the fact that his character is a complete moron.  He's so dumb that he's just asking for trouble.  Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino, neither of whom are above walking through roles for easy money (for anyone who doubts me, I submit "Instinct" and "Gigli" as evidence), are in full "take the money and run mode."  Pacino in particular is awful, acting either drunk, stoned or demented.  Possibly all three.  He hasn't been this bad since that crapfest "88 Minutes."  Reliable talents like Alice Eve, Malin Ackerman and Julia Stiles have conveniently and mysteriously forgotten how to act.  Only Glen Howard and Chris Marquette escape unscathed, but their screen time is so minimal that it's hard to judge whether or not the film would have been better had it concentrated on them instead.

In addition to being able to drain the talent out of just about everyone on screen, Shimosawa has no idea what he's doing behind the camera.  Shots are poorly framed and visual techniques are poorly executed and inappropriately used.  For example, the surprise revelation of a corpse is so badly done that I thought it was someone else.  Imagine my shock and confusion when I found the person I thought to be the dead body alive and well in the very next scene.  This sloppiness is indicative of the entire picture.

But the cardinal sin of this movie is that it's boring.  Shimosawa takes this movie deadly seriously, and the actors are so obviously bored that they can't be bothered to camp it up.  At least then it might be fun in a late-night b-movie sort of way.  Or a parody of John Grisham movies (which I have to admit would have been odd, since he hasn't been relevant in 20 years).  But alas, it's played straight, and that means boredom.  Trust me, don't waste your time or money on this movie.  Taking the Bar on a whim would be more fulfilling.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

3/4

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Kurt Russell, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Violence, Language and Brief Suggestive Content

Anyone who reads my reviews on a regular basis knows how tired I am of the superhero genre.  In fact, many of you probably think that I hate the entire genre.  This is not the case; I was excited for this movie and I can't wait to see "Thor: Ragnarok," since the thought of Cate Blanchett vamping it up and participating in some serious action scenes makes it hard to wait for November).  I just can't stand the bad ones where fan service and loyalty are used as a crutch for lazy screenwriting and pedestrian direction.  This is why I was disappointed by "The Avengers" and "Logan," for example, while I love Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy.  Although miles away from Christopher Nolan's masterful saga, "Guardians of the Galaxy" grew on me for the same reason: good writing and filmmaking trump shout-outs to Comic-Con regulars.  Oh sure, there's some of that here, but it's not all encompassing.  It's kept to the details and background, just as it should be.

The Guardians are back.  Star-Lord, aka Peter Quill (Pratt), leads a team of lovable misfits and weirdos including Gamora (Saldana), Draxx (Bautista), Rocket (Cooper) and Baby Groot (Diesel) who don't fit in with anyone except each other.  They've taken a mission to protect a set of batteries from an evil monster in exchange Gamora's sister Nebula (Gillan), whom they plan to turn over to Xandar for a huge bounty.  At this point, Rocket steals the batteries for himself.  Deeply insulted, the Guardians' former employers go on the attack but are saved by a mysterious ship.  When they crash land, their saviors follow them.  They are Mantis (Klementieff), who can sense people's feelings and Ego (Russell), who turns out to be Peter's father.

More than that I will not say.  I will say that the film's strongest sections are its beginning and its end.  The film sags in the middle, primarily because director James Gunn separates the Guardians.  The core appeal of the first one was the chemistry and interplay between these five characters.  It was a blast to hang out with them.  But by splitting them apart, Gunn robs them of their chemistry, of course, this gives Yondu (Rooker) a lot more screen time, but many of his scenes could have been left on the cutting room floor.  By the same token, the scenes with Star-Lord and Ego fall flat because of weak acting.  Russell is having a grand time, but Pratt falls flat.  His strengths are in comedy and his everyman appearance.  Heavy drama is not his strong suit.  He was effective in last year's "Passengers," but he had a strong screenplay and director.  That isn't really the case with the dramatic scenes here.

That said, the opening and especially the final act are a total blast.  Few modern filmmakers can put on the razzle dazzle like James Gunn (certainly not the lucky geek Joss Whedon), and his prowess shows.  They're exciting and a lot of fun.  The humor is appropriately warped and the tongue-in-cheek yet still legitimate tone that made the first film so much fun is achieved again but not as consistently.  Gunn takes things a little too seriously in the middle section, which robs the film of its charm.

There's a lot to like about this new adventure, and while it's not flawless, it's still a lot of fun.  The action scenes are thrilling and the humor is occasionally uproarious (the film opens with Baby Groot dancing to "Mr. Blue Sky" while everyone else fights the monster.  It's funnier than it sounds, trust me).  Summer at the box office has officially started, and the Guardians kick it off in a big way.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Sacrifice

2/4

Starring: Radha Mitchell, Joanne Crawford, Rupert Graves, Robert McElhinney

Not Rated (Probable R for Disturbing Violent Content including Grisly Images and Rituals, and for Brief Language)

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to find a movie like "Sacrifice" on Netflix.  It has a formula plot, adequate performances and pedestrian direction.  It is also plagued by plot holes that only increase in size and quantity the longer the film goes on.  The film is only 90 minutes long, which I guess I should be thankful for.  I won't say I was ever truly bored, but I will say that this is not a good movie.

Dr. Tora Hamilton (Mitchell) is an obstetrician living in New York.  When a medical emergency prevents her from having children, she and her husband Duncan (Graves) relocate to rural Scotland to be with his family.  She can resume her practice with less hustle and bustle, and with the help of her in-laws, she and Duncan can adopt a child and raise a family.  But when she uncovers a long buried body in her backyard, she begins to suspect that something very fishy is going on in this tiny island community.

Problem number one: I didn't know who was who in this story.  The leads are established okay, but the supporting characters are not.  Director Peter A. Dowling never develops the local townsfolk enough to the point when the characters are talking about them, we know who they are.  That's a fatal flaw for any movie, perhaps never more so than in an Agatha Christie wannabe.

Problem number two: The story is pure formula.  I've often defended formula movies provided they are well-constructed.  That's not the case here.  This is obviously made by a crew who had little grasp of what they were doing, and the screenplay takes no chances.  Sure, there are one or two interesting details, but the part they play in the story is so ordinary.  There are so many other movies that have done this same story to much better effect.  And to avoid spoilers for anyone who still wants to bother with this movie (not recommended), I won't list them.

Problem number three: The film looks and feels blander than tofu.  In addition to having a routine mystery plot, it's shot by an amateur.  Dowling has one other directorial credit to his name, and that was 8 years before this movie.  Not a good sign.  It's not hard to see why studios are reluctant to hand him a screenplay.  Shot selection is bland, the cinematography is as routine as possible, and there's no specificity to any of the characters or the story.  When you're making a formula movie, or any kind of movie, the details matter.  They develop the characters and make the setting come alive.  Those things are essential for a movie to work.  "Sacrifice" has none of these things.

If there's anything positive I can say about this movie, is that the performances are strong enough to prevent this from ever becoming painful.  Thank God for Radha Mitchell.  A mainstay on the indie film circuit, Mitchell is more than capable of holding her own in genre pictures like "Silent Hill."  She's too smart for the screenplay she was given and adjusts her efforts accordingly (read: she sleepwalks through it), but she's still an adequate anchor for this movie.  Rupert Graves and Joanne Crawford provide solid support, too, but this is her show.  The villains, when unmasked, are lacking.  They're not creepy enough.  They're straight out of the storeroom or writer's clichés, and it hurts the film considerably.  Especially since the film could have been so much more.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Circle

3.5/4

Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, John Boyega, Glenne Headley, Bill Paxton, Patton Oswalt

Rated PG-13 for a Sexual Situation, Brief Strong Language and Some Thematic Elements involving Drug Use

It is rare that a single performance can elevate a mediocre film into a great one.  Oh sure, there have been movies where the lead performance has dominated the film: Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth," Sean Penn in "Milk," or Charlize Theron in "Monster."  But those films were already great; the tremendous lead performances simply made it better.  Not so with "The Circle."  Without Emma Watson, this would be a mediocre movie.  But with her, it's a great one.

Millenial Mae (Watson) is working as a customer service temp when her friend Annie (Gillan) calls her and says that she arranged for her to get an interview at the social media giant The Circle.  Mae nails the interview and is thrilled when she gets the job offer.  The Circle is everyone's dream job; it's a cross between a college campus and a city, with a six digit salary.  However, when some of her co-workers start prying into her privacy, she gets unnerved.  She grows increasingly uncomfortable (and isolated) when an accident gets her thrust into the international spotlight.  Now, she has to find a way to stay sane amid the increasingly threatening lack of privacy, and if possible, stop the madness.

Probably the best thing about this movie is finding a new angle on the "privacy vs. security" debate.  Films have been covering this debate since the Cold War, but it's never been more relevant than in films made after 9/11.  This debate has turned into a cliché of modern war movies and political thrillers.  But by using the world of social media, it breathes life into the debate, and director James Ponsoldt creates a credible scenario where the actions of The Circle and the behavior of the characters are chillingly credible.  I defy anyone to sit through this movie and not feel increasingly uncomfortable.

However, this film wouldn't be anywhere near as effective as it is without the performance of Emma Watson.  Her character is not well written, but because of some of the choices she makes, she saves her and the film.  On paper, she's a sucker blinded by fame and idealism who gets a serious reality check.  But Watson doesn't play the role straight.  She's too smart for that.  Instead, she adds an ironic undercurrent that no one around her gets.  Watch Watson's eyes and how she hesitates before speaking.  Mae is well-aware of what's going on, and she hopes that her ridiculous ideas and actions will wake people up.  But things don't work out the way she anticipates and often with tragic results.

Her co-stars are either underwritten, boring, or more likely, both.  Tom Hanks is too genial for this role.  He should have made the character too friendly, thus making him much more sinister.  Karen Gillan is great, but she's in too little of the film to make much of an impact.  I suspect that the scenes addressing her drug use were cut to avoid a teen-unfriendly R rating.  Ellar Coltrane is uneven; the "Boyhood" star has some nice moments, but usually he blends into the furniture.  Patton Oswalt and John Boyega have nothing to do.  This film will be forever known as the final film of Bill Paxton, who plays Mae's MS-stricken father.  It's a good performance, but that's it.

The negative reception of the film surprises me.  Did no one pick up on Watson's subtle choices in her performance?  I guess not, but I did.  She anchors the film, and makes it much more disturbing.  Perhaps if the screenplay was written in a like-minded, ironic way.  Then maybe people would have gotten the message.  I also don't think the ending works.  It wants to add a catharsis to a situation that doesn't have one, and thus feels half-baked.

Still, I highly recommend this dramatic thriller.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Unforgettable

1/4

Starring: Rosario Dawson, Katherine Heigl, Geoff Stults, Isabella Kai Rice, Cheryl Ladd

Rated R for Sexual Content, Violence, Some Language and Brief Partial Nudity

The "stranger within" genre, also known as the "(blank) from hell" genre, is among my favorites because, no matter how similar one film is to the next, they usually work.  This is because movies like "Fatal Attraction" and "Fear" understand that good writing and acting are at the heart of every movie.  To be sure, the gifts of Adrian Lyne and James Foley (and their contemporaries in the genre) aren't to be overlooked, but directorial showmanship is not usually a necessity of the genre.  However, the opposite is true.  With bad writing and acting, these movies can sink like a dead rock.  Just look at "The Resident" (or rather, just take my word for it).  At least "The Boy Next Door" was stupid fun.  The same cannot be said about "Unforgettable," which is simply dull.

Julia Banks (Dawson) is moving upstate to be with her fiancée, David Connover (Stults).  She'll work from home while he gets to be with his brewery and his daughter Lily (Rice).  Of course, that comes with the price of living in the same town as his ex, Tessa (Heigl).  Tessa feels like Julia is intruding on her turf, and she views her with hostility.  Her passive-aggressiveness turns violent when she finds out that Julia and David intend on walking down the aisle.

There are so many problems with this movie that it's impossible to list them all.  It's dumb, it's not well-acted, it's not sexy and it's not interesting.  It's even a little sick.  Above all, it's boring.  Even the lamest variations on this story ("The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" and "Bad Influence," for example, can at least manage a few cheap shocks.  There are some here, but they're more of a whimper.  This movie is not fun.

The acting doesn't impress.  Rosario Dawson doesn't get half the attention she deserves, but even someone who deserves to be on the B-list shouldn't have to appear in something this bland.  She is, however, the saving grace.  Without her charisma and ability to make Julia's stupidity seem credible, this movie would be truly awful.  I'm not a fan of Katherine Heigl.  Sure, she's cute and has a killer smile, but she can't act.  Add in her notorious behavior on set and the fact that her time on "Grey's Anatomy" is over and it's no wonder she rarely gets roles these days.  To be fair, there are moments when she's credible.  When we see her obsessively strive for perfection or set up her traps for Julia, we get a sense of Tessa's pathological mindset.  Speaking, however, usually ruins the effect.  Geoff Stults is an underrated character actor (acting circles around Matt Czuchry in "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell," for example.  Not that that was much of a challenge), and he and Dawson have good chemistry.  But not even he can survive the utterly brainless things his character has to do.  It's as if he underwent a frontal lobotomy when the final act rolls around.  Ex-"Charlie's Angels" star Cheryl Ladd appears as Tessa's domineering mother, and under the circumstances, she's quite good.

"Unforgettable" is the directorial debut of longtime producer Denise De Novi.  Based on the evidence, she should stick to her day job.  She has no grasp for directing actors or creating escalating tension.  True, even the best thrillers don't hold up upon close examination, but it's the job of the filmmaker to scare us enough that we don't notice until long after the end credits roll.  She doesn't succeed.  Actually, for most of the movie it seems like she's trying to make a different movie.  Maybe she thought the script was a drama about the stresses of a woman entering into a relationship with a divorced couple with one party clearly having mental issues.  I don't think so, however, since it's clear that this is simply a thriller.

Call it what you want, but the end result is still the same: this movie sucks.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Monster's Ball

1.5/4

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Coronji Calhoun, Sean Combs

Rated R for Strong Sexual Content, Language and Violence

If there's anything worse than a bad movie, it's a bad movie that thinks it's a good movie.  At least "The Great Wall" or "Fist Fight" didn't have any illusions about what they were.  They were crap movies made to make a quick buck from the most undemanding audience members.  "Monster's Ball" is too well-acted, or rather has two actors that are too good, for it to be as bad as either of those movies.  At the same time, it's convinced it's an "important" movie.  Gag.

In a nutshell, "Monster's Ball" is about sad people finding a way to bond in their sadness.  Leticia Musgrove (Berry) is the mother of a grossly overweight child named Tyrell (Calhoun), is barely able to make ends meet, and her husband (Combs) is about to be executed for murdering a police officer.  One of his executioners, Hank Grotowski (Thornton), is also hurting.  His father Buck (Boyle) is a dying old man who hurls painful insults at every turn, and his boy Sonny(Ledger) is a complete wimp.  But when Leticia and Hank each suffer a personal tragedy, they find solace in the last place they would expect: each other.

D'aww...I think I'm tearing up!

Truth be told, it's not the central material that I have a problem with.  This could have been a riveting, emotional powerhouse.  But the characters are one-dimensional at best, and director Marc Foster plays it safe at every turn.  Other than their recent backstories, we know nothing about Hank or Leticia, and even less about Buck, Sonny or Tyrell.  In order for a movie like this to work, the two central characters have to be fully realized individuals who act according to their natures.  That doesn't happen here.  Hank and Leticia are dull clichés.

Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry are way too good for this material.  They do what they can, but the screenplay is so thin and the direction so self-indulgent that there's little that they can do.  In an attempt to save it, they underplay their roles (except for the obligatory scenes of high tragedy and passion), but it doesn't work.  The late Heath Ledger shows flashes of who would eventually become Ennis del Mar in "Brokeback Mountain," but he's only on screen for ten minutes.  Only Peter Boyle merits mention, playing a cruel racist.  He leaves an impression.

I guess Marc Foster thought he was making a movie that shed new light on the human condition or was being daring by showing an interracial romance.  If that was the case, he was mistaken.  There's nothing here that hasn't been seen in other, better movies about grief ("In the Bedroom") or "opposites attract" romance (any romantic comedy).  The film is so empty of ideas that there are times when it becomes a parody of art house movies where the characters speak in monotones and talk a lot without actually saying anything.  There's also a bit involving a gas station that is meant to be moving but is actually unintentionally funny.

If nothing else, "Monster's Ball" shows you that even with a top flight cast and a good director, you can still end up with a piece of crap.  Especially if the screenplay sucks.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

2.5/4

Starring (voices): Chloe Grace Moretz, Mary Steenburgen, James Caan, Darren Criss

Rated PG for Thematic Elements, Some Violent Action and Partial Nudity

I've long praised Studio Ghibli for its daring filmmaking, artistic brilliance and rich storytelling.  Such bold risk-taking has led to some truly amazing films, such as "Grave of the Fireflies," "Princess Mononoke" and "The Wind Rises."  It has also led to the creation of "Spirited Away," which is not only the best animated film ever made, but one of the best films ever made period.  But this comes at a cost; eventually you're going to make a movie that doesn't work.

"The Tale of Princess Kaguya" is not a bad film, but it is a disappointment.  It is perhaps the weakest film released under the Studio Ghibli name.  Although the animation is eye-popping, the story is weak and the film is overlong.  And the ending just lost me.  I'm not mad at having wasted my time, but I feel let down.

The Bamboo Cutter (Caan) is a simple man living a simple life with his wife (Steenburgen).  One day while out cutting bamboo, he sees a glowing bamboo tree.  In front of it is a tiny sprout that grows before his eyes.  Inside the blossom is a tiny little girl that fits in the palm of his hand.  He takes her back to his wife and, to their surprise, she suddenly turns into a normal sized baby.  Dubbed "Little Bamboo" by the local children, she grows rapidly and forms a tentative bond with a boy named Sutemaru (Criss).  Their fortunes change when The Bamboo Cutter finds another glowing bamboo tree, only this time it's filled with gold.  Believing that Little Bamboo is destined to become a princess, he uproots their family and heads for the capital.  There, the Bamboo Cutter becomes obsessed with the trappings and status of wealth, including marrying his daughter, now named Princess Kaguya (Moretz) to the wealthiest person he can.  But Princess Kaguya has a secret that could compromise everything.

The two leading forces behind Studio Ghibli are Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.  It would be an overstatement that they brought anime to the mainstream (it was popular long before Studio Ghibli was formed and is still a cult thing), but they have done more than any other filmmaker in the medium.  Though not as talented as Miyazaki, Takahata is a capable filmmaker.  Too often, however, his vision exceeds his grasp.  He sometimes attempts to do too much, which was the case with "Pom Poko."  "Grave of the Fireflies" and "Only Yesterday" worked because he kept things simple.  With this, there is a sense that it is overstuffed with material.  So much so that there is little plot consistency.  It is always continuously evolving and I was struggling to keep up.

The voice acting in the American version is adequate, but like all Studio Ghibli movies, it's kept low-key.  Chole Grace Moretz is inconsistent; usually she's okay, but there are times when she can't reach the correct emotion or is too modern for a fable.  James Caan and Mary Steenburgen are unrecognizable in their roles as the parents.  Darren Criss, Lucy Liu, James Marsden, Oliver Platt, Beau Bridges, George Segal, John Cho, Dean Cain and Daniel Dae Kim lend their talents in small roles.

Studio Ghibli is famous for its vivid, colorful artwork.  Who can forget the bathhouse in "Spirited Away" or the walking castle in "Howl's Moving Castle?"  In a complete 180, Takahata opts for a more minimalist approach.  He uses a simple, watercolor aesthetic with limited, muted colors.  It adds to the cerebral quality indicative of his work, as opposed to Miyazaki, whose complex and detailed works are more emotional.  Also gone are the huge eyes and traditional anime characters.  In fact, the drawing style reflects the tone of the story.  Usually it's simple and dream-like, but there are moments of high tension where the drawing is more rough and aggressive.  Rarely does the art form reflect the material in this way.

So it doesn't work.  But with Studio Ghibli on the title, you at least know that it's not going to be a total waste of time.  There are many elements of the film that do work.  Some are even praise worthy.  But I really can't encourage you to sit down and watch it.  Especially when the studio has released other, better films.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Traffic

3.5/4

Starring: Michael Douglas, Benicio del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Erika Christensen, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman, Topher Grace, Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid, Clifton Collins Jr., Miguel Ferrer

Rated R for Pervasive Drug Content. Strong Language, Violence and Some Sexuality

We all like to believe that the "War on Drugs" occurs far away from us.  In another world or something.  It's just some oblique story that runs daily on the news; close enough to relate to but far enough away that there's no fear of being touched by it.  It helps us sleep at night.  Of course, it's a total lie, and that realization is at the heart of "Traffic."

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of "Traffic" is that, for all the evil and destruction that drugs represent, and how well we know the carnage they cause, they are omnipresent in every part of society.  Whether you're the daughter of the nation's drug czar or a cop in Tijuana, drugs are oh so easy to get if you have the desire.  Or simply the curiosity.  And everyone knows the story about curiosity and the cat...

The film, based on a British miniseries, tells three stories simultaneously, with another one or two thrown in for seasoning  First is that of Robert Wakefield (Douglas), the nation's new drug czar.  He wants to get into the trenches, so to speak, of the war on drugs and find a new avenue of attack.  However, this blinds him to his daughter Caroline's (Christensen) growing dependence on heroin.  The second story is that of Helena Ayala (Zeta-Jones), the pampered wife of Carlos (Steven Bauer), a wealthy, upstanding businessman.  But when he's hauled off to jail, she has to find a way to stay alive amid the threats and debts swirling around her.  Finally, there's Javier Rodriguez (del Toro), who may be the only honest cop in Tijuana.  But in this world, honesty and idealism are liabilities.

What's especially stunning about this movie is how much material is covered.  There are at least five central characters (depending on how you define the term), each being surrounded by their own supporting characters.  This is a true ensemble effort; plenty of big names and important roles, but no one steals the movie.  There simply isn't time.  Credit must go to the strong writing by Stephen Gaghan, directing by Steven Sodebergh, and editing by Stephen Mirrione.  All three won Oscars for their work, and they deserve them.  They have managed to do the impossible: tell an ensemble story with a sense of balance and no loss in character development or pacing.  This is one movie that earns every minute of its running time.

It also helps to have a cast with this depth of talent.  All recognize the timeliness and relevance of the subject matter and no one phones it in.  The cast reads like a movie lover's dream: Michael Douglas, Benicio del Toro (in an Oscar-winning performance), Catherine Zeta-Jones, Erika Christensen, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman (providing the slim comic relief), Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid, Clifton Collins Jr, Miguel Ferrer and Topher Grace.  And that's not all.  In smaller roles you have the likes of James Brolin, Albert Finney, John Slattery, Viola Davis, and Salma Hayek.  Casts don't get much better than that.  Of them, Michael Douglas and Erika Christensen stick out in my mind the most.  Douglas plays the everyman here, and while it's not as flashy as Gordon Gekko, it's one of his best performances.  Douglas plays the role straight without flash or pizzazz, and therein lies its power.  He may be the drug czar, but above all he's a father who is losing his daughter to drugs.  Erika Christensen is excellent as his daughter; a curious teen whose curiosity sends her down a dark road into addiction.  From shy bookworm to drug-addicted whore, she doesn't miss a beat.  Why the Academy overlooked her, I'll never know.

One thing I liked about the movie is how well it buries the background information in the dialogue.  For example, when Wakefield is making the office trips to formulate his plan, he asks the people on the ground about the situation.  Not only does this develop his character, but it tells us the reality of the drug world and the situation that the characters live in.  There's no sense that the characters are setting the stage or spouting what should be narration.  These conversations feel authentic.

The MPAA gave this film an R rating for, and I quote, "Pervasive Drug Content, Strong Language, Violence and Some Sexuality."  In fact, USA Films feared that Sodebergh's second cut would receive the dreaded NC-17 rating (in an uncharacteristically smart move for the MPAA, it didn't demand any cuts).  At first glance, it makes sense.  There's a lot of rough stuff in this movie, but it serves a purpose.  It's about as anti-drug as you can get.  It's a smart movie; it understand why drugs are so seductive to the curious and the dangers that they come with.  If that's not appropriate for a teenager, I don't know what is.

While not as brutal to watch as "Once Were Warriors," another film about substance abuse and its related horrors, it's still a very strong film.  Besides, it's a different kind of film.  There are some weaknesses in the scenes set in Tijuana, but all in all I highly encourage you to see this film.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Gifted

3.5/4

Starring: Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Language, and Some Suggestive Material

"Gifted" is something that has become all too rare: a small, character-driven drama that's actually about something.  It's not going to break box office records, nor is it likely to get any Oscar attention (its release date is far too early for the notoriously ADD Academy) despite some strong performances.  But it is absolutely compelling from frame one and enriching for the mind.  Compare that to crap like "The Great Wall," which is just an embarrassment for all involved.

Mary (Grace) lives in rural Florida with her uncle, Frank (Evans), who is a local handyman.  Frank has raised her since her mother's death shortly after she was born, and until now she has been homeschooled.  Frank is determined to give Mary a shot at a normal life, so he sends her to school.  His neighbor Roberta (Spencer) opposes this, as they both know what's likely to happen when she gets there.  You see, Mary is a genius with the intellectual capacity of an Ivy Leaguer, which makes everyone want to send her to a school for gifted children.  But Frank knows the price a child has to pay for such brilliance, and he is determined to honor his sister's wish that she be given a normal life.  This puts him at odds with his estranged and domineering mother Evelyn (Duncan), who sues for custody so she can put Mary in gifted school in Boston.

The key to the success of this movie is that we have to believe that everyone has Mary's best interests at heart, and we do.  Both Frank and Evelyn have valid points of view; they just differ on what is best for Mary.  Frank thinks that Mary should be an average kid while Evelyn believes that a mind like hers should not be wasted.  Both sides are given their due, and in a refreshing turn, Frank and Evelyn don't hate each other.  Their relationship is frosty, but that's less because of the present situation and more because of what got them there years ago.  They still have time to chat and joke around with each other.  It's actually the lawyers who are the vicious ones.

Range isn't something I would associate with Captain America.  Chris Evans has never impressed me with his acting ability, having generally relied on his everyman charm and good looks.  But he's effective as the ill-equipped surrogate dad doing the best he can.  He's not perfect; his issues with Evelyn make him a liability for Mary in some ways, but he manages.  Lindsay Duncan excels at playing ice queens (just look at her in "Rome" or, for all it's faults, "Birdman"), while Evelyn certainly is not all warm and fuzzy (those honors go to Roberta), she's not as big of a harridan as you might think.  Ex-"SNL" starlet Jenny Slate is appealing in a largely non-comic role of Bonnie, Frank's potential love interest.  That she is Mary's teacher puts their actions on the wrong side of questionable, but it does lead to the biggest laugh so far this year (not that there's much competition).  The sequence isn't impeccably timed, but it's good enough to get me to let out a truly explosive laugh.  Finally, there's Octavia Spencer, who is a welcome presence in any movie.  Her character is largely unnecessary, but few actresses do the warm/sass like her.

The real find is McKenna Grace.  The young actress has been pretty busy playing parts on TV and movies, but here, she walks away with the entire movie.  She easily avoids the pitfalls of playing a part like this: she's not so cute you want to strangle her (she has a temper and a foul mouth), she's not so precocious she becomes annoying (she's a smart kid, but still a kid), and she clearly understands everything she says.  I'm not sure if I can safely say it's Oscar material, but it's close.

The film was directed by Marc Webb, who made "(500) Days of Summer" (unseen by me) and "The Amazing Spider-Man" and its sequel (both of which I did see...unfortunately).  The film works because he allows the material to speak for itself.  He doesn't try to be flashy (except for inappropriate uses of a handheld camera) or dumb down the material.  This is a situation with no easy answers, or even correct ones.  Webb is smart enough to know this, and as a result, it is so much more compelling and emotionally involving.  I was surprised at how caught up in the film I got.  The ending is awkwardly written but other than that he hits it right out of the park.

This is one of the year's best films.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Waltz with Bashir

2.5/4

Rated R for Some Disturbing Images of Atrocities, Strong Violence, Brief Nudity and a Scene of Graphic Sexual Content

What is "Waltz with Bashir?"  That's the million dollar question.  Part documentary, part psychological exploration, part mosaic memoir of the First Lebanon War, and part surrealistic fantasy.  Director Ari Folman tries to do a lot, but success is just outside his grasp.

An old friend tells director Ari Folman about a dream he keeps having, where 26 vicious dogs chase him and demand that he surrender himself so they can eat him.  The friend has tried everything to make the dreams stop, but nothing is working.  So he asks Folman, who is a filmmaker, if he can shed light on his problem.  Folman doesn't remember his time serving in the war, and believes that this is because he has disassociated himself from the trauma.  Through interviewing those who were with him, he seeks to unlock the mysteries of the past.

"Waltz with Bashir" seeks to present old themes and ideas in a new light.  The idea that is the core of the film, which is that war is hell and leaves scars that time cannot mend, is not new.  We know that.  However, by animating it as stream of consciousness documentary where the figurative occasionally becomes literal and timelines can blend together, Folman wants us to think about it in a new way.  This isn't a movie of traditional battles or war clichés, but of the psychological toll war has on a person.  By animating it and illustrating the psychological trauma, Forman gets us inside the minds of these characters in a way that a traditionally made film cannot.  Or at least can't without coming across as excessively gimmicky.

Still, as innovative and daring as the presentation is, it still doesn't really present anything we haven't seen before.  I'm always lenient on movies that take chances or push the boundaries of filmmaking, but even with its unique approach, I can't recommend it.  It is difficult to form any sort of bond with the characters, partly because of how they are animated and partly because no one has a lot of screen time.  Nor does anyone present ideas that we haven't heard before in other, stronger films ("The Deer Hunter" comes to mind).

Then there's the ending.  It's hard to imagine anyone finding it successful.  It just...stops.  There's no sense of closure or that the film has said all wanted to say.  I have nothing wrong with open endings, provided they are earned and utilized effectively.  Here, it's as if someone has sliced off the final act of the film and started the end credits.  That's how jarring it is.

So no, I can't recommend "Waltz with Bashir," despite my highest compliments to Ari Folman for his vision and ambition.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

1.5/4

Starring: Scarlett Johannsen, Pilou Asbaek, Peter Ferdinando, Juliette Binoche, "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, Michael Carmen Pitt

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence, Suggestive Images and Some Disturbing Images

There are special effects movies ("The Rock").  There are special effects movies (any "Star Wars" movie).  And then there's this new iteration of "Ghost in the Shell."  I have nothing against special effects in movies, even if they are all encompassing.  Take "The Lord of the Rings" or "Star Wars" (especially the prequels) for example.  Green screens, miniatures, manipulative camera angles, and of course, computers, were utilized to give these films the maximum visual flair.  However, in those cases, they were used judiciously and with a certain amount of restraint.  Rupert Sanders didn't take that lesson.  His remake of the 1995 anime is so overblown with special effects and color that he makes Michael Bay look like a Merchant/Ivory pupil.

In the future, the line between human and machine is being blurred.  Humans still exist, and while the film doesn't go into detail it's probable that they're born the natural way.  Not answering this question was a poor decision on the part of Rupert Sanders, since a sex scene would have livened things up.  But they do have the ability to augment themselves with machines, such as eyes that allow them to see in heat vision or through objects.  Now, the line is being muddled even further; a biotech company has just inserted a human brain into a machine, giving her the abilities of both.  She is known as the Major (Johannsen).  She was once a human refugee, but her boat was attacked by terrorists.  Her brain was saved by Dr. Oulet (Binoche) and now she is a secret agent for the government.  Her task is to track down a potentially violent hacker by the name of Kuze (Pitt), who can infiltrate robots.  But Kuze may not be all he seems to be, which throws everything the Major thinks she knows into question.

The difference between a good special effects picture and a bad one is knowing how to use them well.  Good special effects movies, such as any of the movies I mentioned above or, say, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is that they used them in service to the story.  In addition to providing the thrills and oohs and ahhs, they created worlds for the characters and the stories to exist in and explore.  That doesn't happen here.  Sanders simply throws everything he can think of, regardless of whether they fit in with the scenario or make sense.  Presumably this is to camouflage the fact that he doesn't have much of a story.  Or at least a screenplay that makes it possible to care about anyone or anything in it.

What is Scarlett Johannsen doing here?  One of the most talented, respected and well-paid stars in Hollywood, she can do anything she wants.  Her name on a marquee makes cash registers sing, regardless of what it is or if it's any good.  So why would she choose a film that's so bad and in a role in which she's so obviously miscast.  She's too talented to be bad, but the character is so obviously written for an Asian actress.  It's not like there aren't any to choose from.  Wasn't Ziyi Zhang available?

She's surrounded by a solid supporting cast, few of whom should be anywhere near this movie.  Pilou Asbaek looks straight out of an anime, Michael Pitt (using his middle name now, apparently) plays a villain who is both creepy and sympathetic.  Japanese legend "Beat" Takeshi appears, and the film finds a moderately clever way to deal with the fact that he never speaks English.  And if you thought it was odd that ScarJo was in something this insipid, imagine how hard it is to believe that the highly respected French actress Juliette Binoche here.  Binoche is a notoriously choosy actress, having turned down Hollywood many times (including the role of Ellie Sattler in "Jurassic Park").  I guess she's had a change of heart, since she appeared in the latest "Godzilla" movie (albeit briefly).

The bottom line is that this movie just isn't worth your time.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam

3.5/4

Rated PG-13 (probably for War Violence, Disturbing Images and for Language)

The best war movies work because they present their material with stark, unfiltered clarity.  They don't shy away from bloodshed nor do they overhype the adrenaline.  There's a reason why movies like "Platoon," "Saving Private Ryan" or "American Sniper" linger in our minds long after the end credits roll.  It's because they portray war with unflinching realism, sparing the audience nothing.

"Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam" is a documentary, so its images of war and death (of which there are a few) consist mainly of news footage.  That's actually what makes this film such a powerful experience.  This is not the vision of war from a truly gifted filmmaker.  This is reality.

The film uses letters from real soldiers to provide insight into the minds of the actual grunts on the field.  They are read by famous actors, but most are unrecognizable.  This has its pluses and minuses, but the former outweigh the latter.  The letters, which are filled with insight and perspective, ground this material to reality in ways that not even the best screenwriter could.  On the other hand, the letters are so varied and cover such ground that it feels very scattershot.  We're meant to identify with the war, not the people.  As a result, it starts to feel like a gimmick before the film is over.

Truly, it helps that the letters are narrated by a set of gifted actors.  None of them walk through their performances, small as they may be and for far less money than they're usually offered.  And what a cast it is!  Lending their talents are: Tom Berenger, Ellen Burstyn, Robert DeNiro, John Savage, Mark Harmon, Matt and Kevin Dillon, Willem Dafoe, Martin Sheen, Brian Dennehy, Robert Downey Jr., Michael J. Fox, Elizabeth McGovern, Judd Nelson, Sean Penn, Randy Quaid, Eric Roberts, Howard E. Rollins, Kathleen Turner and Robin Williams.  Now that's a cast!  Special mention has to go to Ellen Burstyn, whose recitation of a letter from a mother to her fallen son is heartbreaking.

One interesting thing the film does is that the letters correspond to the timeline of the Vietnam war (broadcasts listing the mounting casualties strengthen the association).  But the execution has mixed results.  There's a lack of depth in the history lesson that the film presents, with the events it mentions specifically occurring with little to no context.  I get the idea to narrate the film entirely of letters from ordinary people, but if they wanted to go this route, a narrator or letters with more specificity would have helped.

I realize that this review seems quite harsh, as if I didn't actually like it.  Well, I didn't "enjoy" it in the traditional sense of the word, but like "The War Zone" or the other movies mentioned above, I do think it's worth seeing as a historical record.  If nothing else, its existence means that the horrors of the Vietnam war will never die.  For that, we should all be grateful.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Power Rangers

3/4

Starring: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G, Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, and the voice of Bill Hader

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

Nostalgia is certainly big money these days.  Every non-superhero movie is based on a childhood favorite of some kind, from "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (the less said about those movies, the better) to live action updates of Disney animated classics.  "Power Rangers," based on the hit kids show from the early 90's, is the latest to get an update.

Truth be told, I was never a fan of the Power Rangers.  I was never all that in to TV as a kid (I'm still not, actually).  So forgive me if I don't geek out and instead review the movie on its own terms.  I don't know how fans of the TV show will react, but I liked it.

Fallen sports stud Jason (Montgomery), ex-Queen Bee Kimberly (Scott), nerdy Billy (Cyler), truant Zack (Lin) and new girl Trini (Becky G) go to the same school, but they don't know each other.  That is, until one night when they all end up at an abandoned quarry and make a shocking discovery.  A mysterious rock is embedded in the stone, and inside it are five different colored orbs.  The quintet soon finds out that they are now Power Rangers, extraterrestrial heroes who must team up to defend the planet.  There's a very real threat, in the form of Rita Repulsa (Banks), an ex-Ranger who turned to the dark side.  If she gets enough gold to awaken her henchman, it's game over for humanity.  Only the Rangers stand in her way.

Okay, it's not Shakespeare.  But I'm going to be lenient because it does a lot of things right.  Things that a lot of modern day blockbusters skip over.  For one thing, director Dean Israelite allows the characters to breathe.  I'm not talking about deep characterizations here, but they all have more personality than your usual summer action movie protagonists, who are usually just props for the plot.  That they are brought to life with solid performances is all the better.  Again, not Oscar material, but better than, say, "Twilight."

A reboot has to find the correct balance between fan service and originality, and while Israelite doesn't find it, it does a better job than other movies these days.  Actually, any attempt to honor the source material falls flat.  The "Power Rangers" theme song as a battle cry?  A villain named Rita Repulsa (played with far too much scenery-chewing by Elizabeth Banks)?  In a movie that's played straight, such campiness sticks out like a sore thumb.

There are other problems too, such as a constantly moving camera and frantic cutting, and far too much shaky cam.  But all in all, I rather enjoyed myself.  Believe me, I'm as surprised as you are.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Our Kind of Traitor

3/4

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris, Stellan Skarsgaard, Damian Lewis, Khalid Abdalla, Jeremy Northam

Rated R for Violence, Language Throughout, Some Sexuality, Nudity and Brief Drug Use

I'm not married, but I imagine there are far better ways to spice up a stale relationship than espionage between the British government and Russian gangsters.  Not to mention safer.  I mean, isn't that what propelled "50 Shades of Grey" to the bestseller list?  Never mind.  It doesn't really matter because neither of the two protagonists had any interests in being the middle man between MI-6 and the Russian mafia.  Like in virtually every Hitchcock movie, it just happened.

Things are not going well between Perry (McGregor) and Gail (Harris).  They are in a committed relationship, but the passion between them is icy.  In an attempt to salvage what they have, they took a vacation to Marrakesh.  So far it's not working; at best, they talk to each other in empty conversation and at worst their attempts at intimacy end in disaster.  Shortly before they leave, Gail takes a work-related phone call and Perry is invited to party with a charismatic man named Dima (Skarsgaard).  He's obviously wealthy and loves to spend money, and the meek Perry goes along with the flow.  It turns out that Dima is a money launderer for the Russian mafia, and begs Perry to take a memory stick to MI-6.  Perry reluctantly agrees since refusing to do so would mean death for Dima and his family.  He turns it over to the authorities, thinking that will be the end of it.  Of course, things are never that simple.

"Our Kind of Traitor" is a good movie.  It's generally well-acted and contains a lot of suspense.  But while watching this movie, I had the feeling that it could have, and should have, been better.  The screenplay is underwritten, leaving drastic decisions feel motivated not by the characters but the needs of the plot.  A good thriller will allow you to understand not only what is happening but why.  "Our Kind of Traitor" doesn't rise to that level.

The cast includes some big names, especially for a film with a budget of a measly $4 million.  Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris, Stellan Skarsgaard, Damian Lewis.  Big talent for such a small film.  Unfortunately, the two biggest names aren't up to their usual standards.  Ewan McGregor, always an interesting actor to watch, is flat.  Granted, Perry is supposed to be in over his head, but McGregor seems like a deer caught in the headlights.  There's a difference between playing a character who is out of his element and just not trying, and unfortunately its the latter for McGregor.  Swiss legend Stellan Skarsgaard is better, but he's coasting by on his charisma.  He's been better in other movies.  Naomie Harris on the other hand is in top form, continuing to mature as an actress with every role that she gets.  Harris has that ethereal quality that the best and most glamorous actresses (such as Gong Li) have: an almost ethereal presence that allows them to dominate the screen simply by appearing on it.  And she has the acting chops to back it up.  Damian Lewis is given the quirkiest character, the sniveling investigator who may not be as big of a weasel as he seems.

What holds this movie back is noticeably felt, but hard to identify.  The character arcs for Perry and Gail, where they turn from unwilling participants to fierce protectors, is sloppily written.  Something so gradual appears to happen in one day.  And off screen, no less.  And the stakes never feel that high.  Director Susanna White keeps things understated, which has its positives and negatives.  While this allows the characters to stand out, it only allows the suspense to rise to a certain level.  It also has the unintended effect of allowing the seams in the plot to show.

Still, I enjoyed myself.  There is a consistent level of tension from beginning to end, and Naomie Harris is one of those actresses that is worth watching in any capacity.  And it's made for adults.  No quick cuts or garish special effects, no dumbing down of the plot, and no attractive but untalented tween stars and starlets.  And best of all, no superheroes.

Need I say more?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

2/4

Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, Ewan McGregor

Rated PG for Some Action Violence, Peril and Frightening Images

Ordinarily I'd ask why, but it has long since become clear that Hollywood has stopped taking any sort of pride in its work.  Instead, they pour excessive amounts of money into brand names and make money overseas.  Still, would it have been too much to ask to not revamp something that's already become definitive?

From Disney's perspective, it makes sense.  They own the rights to the story, the songs and the characters, the original "Beauty and the Beast" was a hit with audiences and critics, and was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (an award it should have won, by the way).  Live-action adaptations of Disney animated classics are big successes nowadays.  Add in one of the most popular starlets out there and you've got a recipe for a sure fire hit.  But just because it's well marketed and a new version of a classic story doesn't mean it's worth your time.  Occasionally, remakes improve upon the original.  This is not one of those times.

The story, for those of you who don't know (are there such people?) is simple.  Belle (Watson) is a young girl living in a small French town, where she spends her days inventing things and turning down a marriage proposal from the town's hunk, Gaston (Evans).  Gaston wants her for her beauty, but she can barely stand to look at him, much less marrying the cretin.  One day her father goes to the market, but a downed tree causes him to take a detour, where he ends up at a cursed castle.  There, a Beast (Stevens) thinks him a thief and locks him away for the rest of his life.  Belle goes after him and agrees to become the Beast's prisoner in exchange for her father's freedom.  Of course, they fall in love, which is a good thing for the Beast and his servants (who have become objects around the castle), since the Beast finding mutual love is what will lift the curse.  But Gaston won't go away and intends to have Belle as his bride...or else.

The key to a successful remake is to find the sweet spot between honoring the original and carving out a new identity that justifies its existence.  Bill Condon, who is a good filmmaker, can't manage this admittedly difficult task.  As a result, 99% of the film feels redundant and a pale echo of the original.  The only thing you can really do while watching this movie is wait for the scene you know from the original until the end credits roll.

The cast ranges from effective to adequate, with one exception.  Emma Watson is a good actress and continues to grow with each new role she takes, but despite the support of Paige O'Hara (who voiced Belle in the original film) and Susan Egan (who originated the role on Broadway), she can't fill the shoes left by her predecessors.  Part of it is due to the script, which is filled from top to bottom with odd choices and awkward moments, but she lacks the presence and the singing ability to pull it off.  Dan Stevens, an underrated actor if there ever was one, is surprisingly good as the Beast, playing him with pathos and passion.  His Beast isn't as good as the original, but it's more of a new interpretation, and he manages to save as much of his butchered character as he can.  Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellan are amusing as Lumiere and Cogsworth, capturing much of the quirky interplay from the original characters.  Emma Thompson does what she can, but like everyone else, she seems like an imposter.  The exception is Luke Evans, who is just awful.  Never an actor of great range, Evans is a woeful choice for Gaston.  He's not fatuous or arrogant enough, and certainly not at all menacing.  The film turns into a bad "SNL" skit whenever he shows up.  He does have a nice set of pipes though, much to my surprise.

Condon was adamant that they bring back the songs from the original.  He even brought back Alan Menken to rearrange the songs, and brought in Tim Rice (who co-wrote the songs from "The Lion King") to write three new ones (the original lyricist, Howard Ashman, died a few months before the release of the original).  But to distance them from the original, adds little idiosyncrasies, which has the unfortunate result of sounding like someone sat on a cat.  All the songs from the original are definitive, so why would you want to ruin them by making the audience think of their 7 year old sister trying to imitate Celine Dion?

Perhaps the biggest mistake is to make it live action.  There is a certain freedom in animation that is not possible when filming with real actors and sets.  The lighting and the camera are not bound by the laws of physics.  It is possible to show darkness and menace while still making everything clear to the viewer.  Cameras can swoop and swish all around the characters in ways that not even the most innovative cinematographer can imagine.  This applies to the characters as well.  Expressions and physical characteristics can be exaggerated to convey the correct emotion.  Take for example the scene where Belle first sees the Beast.  As gorgeous as Emma Watson's peepers are, they can't hold a candle to the ever-widening eyes of the animated Belle as she first gazes upon the monster.  Speaking of the Beast, in the animated film he was shot in darkness and menace, but we still saw the color of his fur.  That's not the case here, where he blends into the background.  If you're going to turn an animated film into a live action film, you must find a substitute for this, and Bill Condon doesn't (let's hope no one has the gall to turn "Spirited Away" into a live-action film).

The good news is that there is some new stuff as well.  The backstories of Belle and the Beast are fleshed out with material that, while not original, interrupts the monotony.  Then there's the homosexuality of Lefou (Gad), Gaston's sycophant.  His sexual orientation caused a lot of controversy, including alterations for foreign nations and a ban from a drive-in theater in Alabama.  As Josh Gad put it, it was way overblown.  Frankly, I wouldn't have recognized it had it not been released to the media.  The only possible gay moments are found in any guy comedy or a square dance.  Shocking.

Look, this movie is a beloved story and making big money at the box office.  But please, don't waste your time.  Those of you who see this have no right to complain about there not being any original movies these days.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

3/4

Starring: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightly, Kevin McNally, Stellan Skarsgaard, Tom Hollander, Jonathan Pryce, Bill Nighy

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Adventure Violence, including Frightening Images

Like all movies that make a buck at the box office, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" got a sequel.  Two, actually.  Released a year apart, this and "At World's End" continued the adventures of lovebirds Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, and everyone's favorite pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow.

It's raining on the day when Will (Bloom) and Elizabeth (Knightly) are to be married.  Worse still, he stood her up at the altar.  But not all is as it seems.  Will didn't get cold feet, he has been arrested by Lord Cutler Beckett (Hollander), who has seized control over Port Royal.  He has sentenced Will and Elizabeth to the gallows for helping Jack escape execution.  In exchange for their lives, Beckett wants Will to bring Jack back with his compass.  Apparently, said compass (which doesn't work) will lead Beckett to Davy Jones's (Nighy) heart, which will grant him a monopoly on the sea.  Thus, ending piracy.

The real star of the show, as was true of the rest of the movies in the franchise, is Johnny Depp.  His loopy, totally off-the-wall portrayal of the pirate is insanely entertaining.  It's one of those performances where his mere presence on screen brings a goofy grin.  It's unthinkable that Michael Eisner was against Depp's portrayal, believing that it would tank the film.  No one can deny that it has more or less carried the franchise.  Sure, the action scenes are fun and the special effects are cool, but the real draw has been, and always will be, Johnny Depp.

Depp is in top form; Jack Sparrow is one of his favorite characters, and his joy is evident in every frame.  But like the best actors, he doesn't take up all the oxygen on screen.  The other actors get their chance to shine, including Orlando Bloom (who will forever by identified by this role and Legolas from "The Lord of the Rings") and Keira Knightly, Stellan Skarsgaard and a truly nasty Tom Hollander.  Hollander's villain is so arrogant and malicious that you want to stick him in front of a cannon as soon as he opens his mouth.

Gore Verbinski returns to direct the sequel, and as is the case for all his movies, the film is drenched in atmosphere.  That's actually part of the problem.  There are times when the film gets so dark and gloomy that it breaks the goofy spell the story casts.  The original did a good job of balancing horror, comedy and good old fashioned adventure, but there are times, such as the scenes on The Flying Dutchman, that are almost overkill in the scare department.  They really are unsettling.

Still, this movie is a lot of fun.  It's at least 15 minutes too long, but there are some truly sensational action sequences, including a half-hour segment that simply must be seen to be believed.  That parts of it resemble the Three Stooges is only the beginning.  Ditto for the three-way swordfight, where the object of everyone's desire is almost beside the point.

It's too long, too gloomy and some of the green screen work is clunky (watch for Jack and the Kraken at the end), but you've got lots of swordfights, skeletons and Captain Jack Sparrow.  You really don't need a lot more.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Life (2017)

3/4

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ryan Reynolds, Olga Dihovichnaya, Arlyon Bakare

Rated R for Language Throughout, and Some Sci-Fi Violence and Terror

Not to be confused with the 1999 dramedy with Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence

In some ways, the new horror/thriller "Life" is some kind of miracle.  It's not a sequel/remake/reboot/whatever, no one has any superpowers (therefore sparing us from another Stan Lee cameo), and it's not based on a book or TV show.  The only thing the director and actors had to go on was the screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.  That adds an element of freshness to it, since it's not bound by crossing every t and dotting every i from the source material and is free from fan mania.  That it's actually good only makes it all the sweeter.

"Life" is a good, but not great, sci-fi horror film.  It's too long and lacks the sheer terror of its closest cousin (and probable inspiration), "Alien."  Critics have been calling this a "rip-off" of the 1979 classic, but it's an unfair accusation.  On paper they're similar, but director Daniel Espinoza does enough to distinguish his film that it can stand on its own.  Still, lovers of Ridley Scott's shocker will find a lot to appreciate here.

A shuttle bringing back samples from Mars has just arrived at the ISS.  While researching, the international team of astronauts/scientists discovers a single celled organism.  With a little experimentation, they bring it out of hibernation.  Dubbed "Calvin" by the public, the organism evolves rapidly.  Soon it becomes very aware to the six scientists that our first encounter is not a peaceful one, as Calvin shows surprising strength and aggression.  Now, in order to stay alive, Dr. David (Gyllenhaal), Miranda (Ferguson), Sho (Sanada), Kat (Dihovichnaya), Rory (Reynolds) and Hugh (Bakare) must find a way to kill Calvin before he kills them.  Or worse, makes it to Earth.

The cast, made up of two big stars, two character actors and two unknowns, is surprisingly strong for a horror movie.  No one is better or worse than the others, and that's how it should be.  Jake Gyllenhaal is suitably heroic, Rebecca Ferguson is smart and a quick thinker, Hiroyuki Sanada (who gets far too few roles on this side of the Pacific) is the most relaxed I've seen him (ironically), Ryan Reynolds dials down his smart-ass persona to be more grounded and real, Olga Dihovichnaya is a good leader, and Arlyon Bakare is bookish without being too nerdy.  For about 99% of the running time, it's just the six of them on screen.  Plus Calvin.

Speaking of Calvin, he's one of the film's drawbacks.  He's just not that scary to look at.  Especially when compared to the Xenomorph.  Calvin, who looks like a cross between a headless squid and a cheerleader's pom pom, is acceptably villainous, but that's mostly because of his actions.  Calvin is as smart as he is aggressive.

Daniel Espinoza, famous for his gritty, violent thrillers like "Safe House" (he also directed "Child 44," but the less said about that movie, the better), might seem like an odd choice to direct this sci-fi horror flick.  But he does a solid job, ratcheting up the tension to acceptable levels and pulling off a few decent shocks.  My biggest complaint is the ending.  Without going into detail, I will say that it's a twist ending that's cliché and unnecessary.  That it's set up well soothes the wound, but it's been done so many times that it feels more obligatory than shocking.

It's not a perfect movie, but for those who are hungering for some terror in the depths of space (or orbit), this will do the trick.