Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

4/4

Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang, Chen Chang, Cheng Pei-Pei, Sihung Lung

Rated PG-13 for Martial Arts Violence and Some Sexuality

It could be reasonably argued that "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" fits better into the romance genre than martial arts extravaganza.  Oh sure, there are plenty of truly sensational action sequences, but, at its heart, this is a love story.

Legendary warrior Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat) wishes to leave his fighting days behind him.  To bring closure to his past life, he has decided to give his legendary sword, the Green Destiny, to his benefactor, Sir Te (Lung).  Meanwhile, the woman he loves (but has never admitted it), Shu Lien (Yeoh), has developed a friendship with Jiao Long (Zhang), a governor's daughter who is set to be married into wealthy family.  When the Green Destiny is stolen, these three people will find their futures tied together as they confront their pasts.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is like a myth come to life.  It has all of the grand emotions, the epic scale, and the burning passions.  Ang Lee has built his career on understated emotions, such in "Brokeback Mountain," "The Wedding Banquet," or "Eat Drink Man Woman."  Here, he goes all out, as far Lee goes.  It's still bubbling beneath the surface and filled with longing, but Lee allows it to breathe and burst from the screen in a way that all the great epics do.

The performances are astonishing.  Action stars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh show considerable dramatic chops not often associated with the genre.  Yun-Fat is famous for his work with action director John Woo in films such as "Hardboiled" or "The Killer," but in Hong Kong he's known for romance roles.  As a man who is tired of fighting, the actor portrays Li Mu Bai as a weary man who accepts his future with grace and resignation.  That he is retiring without avenging his master from the notorious criminal Jade Fox weighs heavily on him.  But he finds redemption in the hopes of training Jiao Long, who has a tremendous amount of skill, but not much focus.  Yeoh plays a woman who deeply loves Li Mu Bai, but is forbidden from acting on it, as his master and her fiancée were the same person.  Ziyi Zhang is stunning as a young girl who is at a crossroads with her future and her past.  She has a connection to Jade Fox that neither Li Mu Bai nor Shu Lien are aware of, but she also has to choose between her arranged marriage or the thief Dark Cloud (Chang) who loved her many years ago.  All three deserved, but did not get, Oscar nominations.

Undoubtedly, the major selling points of the film are the action scenes.  They're fantastic.  Actually, while they do feature martial arts and weapons, calling them "kung fu" or something is a bit of a misnomer.  This isn't Jackie Chan.  Each movement is filled with grace, beauty and rhythm.  Truth be told, they're more like ballet dances rather than traditional fights.  In fact, Zhang isn't trained in martial arts, so she uses her dance moves instead.  The actors did their own stunts, with the help of wires that were removed in post-production.  So yes, they are flying across buildings and Yun-Fat and Zhang do have a fight in the tree tops.  If there's a flaw, and it's a minor one, it's that the action moves so fast that the camera can't track it very well.  And there were two instances where something happened and I wasn't able to tell how it happened.

On a technical level, the film is no less impressive.  The cinematography by Peter Pau is awesome.  There are some truly gorgeous images to be found.  Not just in the landscapes (which are jaw-dropping), but even in the smaller, more subtle moments, such as when Shu Lien loses track of her target and is left in the middle of the courtyard.  The soundtrack by Tan Dun is also incredible with a main theme that perfectly compliments the action, and the long tones of acclaimed cellist Yo Yo Ma highlighting the yearning of the characters.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is one of the few foreign films that got the reception it deserved.  People couldn't stop talking about it when it was released.  It was such a hit that Sony Pictures Classics released it into multiplexes, where it earned over $100 million in the US alone (its reception in the Asian markets was decidedly less impressive, where it was viewed as just another wuxia flick).  It also earned a shocking 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture (which, considering the competition, it should have won).  This was unheard of for a foreign film, let along one where not a word of English is spoken.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a bona fide masterpiece.  That is without dispute.  Every element shines and Ang Lee brings them together as only he can.  If you haven't already seen it, that's a mistake you would do well to remedy as soon as possible.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Bad Moms Christmas

3.5/4

Starring: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Christine Baranski, Cheryl Hines, Susan Sarandon, Jay Hernandez, Peter Gallagher, Justin Hartley

Rated R for Crude Sexual Content and Language Throughout, and Some Drug Use

Last year's "Bad Moms" was a breath of fresh comic air.  In an age where comedy is apparently watching a bunch of stand-up comedians riff incessantly on the same non-existent joke while trying to be as gross and offensive as possible, watching "Bad Moms" was like finding a lake of crystal clear water in the middle of the Sahara.  Unlike "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates" or the pair of Seth Rogen monstrosities, the tone-deaf "Sausage Party" and the horror that was "Neighbors 2," "Bad Moms" had an actual script.  It was about actual characters and situations, and it had a comic point of view.  It was a big hit for those reasons, but mainly because it was absolutely hilarious.  Thus, a sequel was made.  The question is, can it make magic strike twice?  Not quite, but it comes pretty damn close.

Amy (Kunis), Kiki (Bell), and Carla (Hahn) are finding solace together from the stresses of being a mom.  But it's the Christmas season, and the need for perfection in all things Christmas is leaving them frazzled.  But just when they've resolved to say "fuck it" and let the chips fall as they may, they each get a bombshell: their mothers are coming to visit.  Carla's mom Isis (Sarandon) is a gambling junkie who only drops by when she needs money.  Kiki's mom Sandy (Hines) is a borderline psycho with serious boundary issues.  But Amy fares the worst.  Her mother is Ruth (Baranski), a super critical perfectionist who pushes everything to the 11 (and then some).  It's a war between the moms for Christmas.  And their sanity.

One of the hallmarks of "Bad Moms" and this sequel is that it gave a giant middle finger to the pursuit of perfection.  Not only did it accept the fact that no one is perfect, it embraced it.  The need to be successful in any pursuit is a universal feeling, as is losing sight of why you're actually doing what you're doing.  "Bad Moms" tapped into that in a very real way, and this movie is no different.  We can vicariously live through these characters and their rebellion against societal expectations that are impossible to meet.  That's why everyone can relate to these movies, mom or not.

But more than some sort of anarchic treatise, "A Bad Moms Christmas" is a comedy, and on that level this movie hits one right out of the park.  This movie had me howling.  It's filled with great moments, like when the girls get freaky with the mall Santa or when Kiki has surprise visitor in the bedroom (while she's trying to have sex with her husband).  The most uproarious sequence is a Sexy Santa contest that gets way out of control.  That the movie opens with an exasperated Amy looking at her trashed house as a camel walks by should tell you that this movie will not be labeled as "Capra-esque."

The performances are on target.  Kunis, Bell and Hahn are just as hilarious as before, playing the decisive Amy, naive Kiki and bawdy Carla.  They're equally matched by their foils.  Christine Baranski is perfectly cast as the mother from hell.  She's such a bitch that is a wonder that Amy turned out so well-adjusted.  Type A does not do this woman justice.  Cheryl Hines mixes creepy and funny with almost surgical precision as the uber clingy mother.  And Susan Sarandon has no problem playing the politically incorrect Isis.  The supporting cast is just fine.  Jay Hernandez returns as Amy's impossibly good looking and charming boyfriend Jesse, and "This is Us" star Justin Hartley shows up as a sex bomb with the hots for Carla.

Most Christmas movies have happy endings, and this is no different.  That doesn't mean that writer/directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore aren't above having fun with it.  As earnest and schmaltzy as it gets, it's never played completely straight.  There's always a joke around the corner to prevent it from turning into a Hallmark movie.  That being said, whenever "A Bad Moms Christmas" goes for drama, it works.

The film's comedy isn't as consistent as the original (I counted two or three dead spots), hence the 3.5/4 rating.  But it misses a perfect 4/4 by a hair.  There are far too many scenes that left me roaring with laughter.  That's more than enough to ensure a very enthusiastic recommendation.  Hopefully this will turn into a franchise (idea for the sequel: the trio takes on summer vacation).  Good comedy is rare indeed.  Maybe Seth Rogen will learn a thing or two.

Don't miss it!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

City of God

4/4

Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Phellipe Haagensen, Seu Jorge, Alice Braga

Rated R for Strong Brutal Violence, Sexuality, Drug Content and Language

In what some may view as the height of arrogance or naivite, I once proclaimed "City of God" to be the best film ever made.  Now that I'm older and hopefully a bit wiser, I realize that such a claim is probably impossible to make about a single film.  That being said, Fernando Meirelles' 2002 masterpiece is definitely up there.  This is a fascinating thriller that is as disturbing as it is illuminating.

The protagonist of this story, which is based on true events, is Rocket (Rodrigues).  He is our guide through this hell on Earth, introducing us to its inhabitants and clearly informing us how they relate to each other.  Unlike many other citizens of the slum known as the City of God, Rocket isn't a hood (his attempts to rob people end up with him getting advice from a friendly man, a ride home, and even a pretty girl's phone number...John Dillinger he is not).  His passion lies in photography, which puts him in a dangerous position as he becomes caught in the middle of a vicious turf war between two crime lords: the psychopathic Lil' Ze (da Hora) and the revenge-minded Knockout Ned (Jorge).

"City of God" is less about narrative than it is a travelogue through time in one of the most dangerous places on Earth.  Here, kids don't go to school or play outside.  They smoke dope, deal drugs, and kill people.  They are society's cast-offs, and as a result the slums have turned to anarchy ruled by drug lords.  What makes it so interesting is that, while obviously a place no one wants to live in, has achieved a sort of equilibrium.  Of course, when that is shaken, the streets run red with blood.  To give you an idea, I'll add a bit of trivia.  For safety reasons, this movie couldn't have been shot in the actual City of God.  It had to be shot in a less dangerous one, although such was the risk that had Meirelles known what he was in for, he wouldn't have made the film.

The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly because at Meirelles' request, all newbies (many, including the star, actually lived in the slums).  Alexandre Rodrigues makes it easy to get on his side.  He's smart and articulate, has a crush on a local girl (Braga), and knows how to keep his head down.  What's interesting about how he narrates the film is that he explains who the major players are as they become relevant to the story.  He isn't afraid of halting the narrative to show us who these people are and how they got there.  It's a little unorganized, but that's by intent.  And the momentum never slows down.

Also worth mentioning are Leandro Firmino da Hora and Phellipe Haagensen.  da Hora is positively chilling as the narcissistic psychopath.  Lil 'Ze desires power over the entire slum above all else, and no act of savagery lies outside his moral compass if it brings him closer to what he wants.  Ironically, da Hora had no intentions of becoming an actor; he only attended the audition to keep his friend company.  As Benny, Phellippe Haagensen lives up to his character's title: "The coolest hood in the City of God."  Haagensen has a natural charisma and friendliness that even melts the heart of a monster like Lil 'Ze and becomes his right hand man.  The actor plays it perfectly.

Director Fernando Meirelles plows through the story with a furious energy that's rarely seen in movies.    This is a live wire that puts our emotions through the wringer.  It's at times thrilling, shocking, and disturbing.  Meirelles got his start in TV and commercials, which makes sense.  This is a very busy motion picture.  I do mean that as a compliment though, since all the flashy camera angles, editing tricks and playing with the timeline do serve a purpose.

Don't think that when I say "energetic," I mean light-hearted or kid friendly.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  There is constant violence and drug use, both of which are dealt with shocking frankness.  And I'd say about 75% of that involves teenagers and young children.  One especially horrifying scene involves two little kids being shot, and then another kid being forced to choose which one to kill.

"City of God" became a big hit in the US upon its release, as far as foreign films go (the marketing power of Miramax doubtlessly had something to do with that).  It earned four Oscar nominations, including Best Director, which is rare for a foreign film.  Ironically, it was shut out of the Best Foreign Film category.  Then again, the Academy is the Academy, so such stupidity is to be expected.

But for those of you who haven't seen this movie, you have absolutely no excuse.  This is a masterpiece, plain and simple.  No one, especially not lovers of good cinema, should miss this movie.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Whale Rider

2/4

Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Grant Roa, Cliff Curtis, Rachel House

Rated PG-13 for Brief Language and a Momentary Drug Reference

"Whale Rider" is a good little indie coming-of-age story provided you've never seen a little indie coming-of-age story.  Readers of my reviews are well aware that I have zero problem for formula pictures, provided that they are done well.  Unfortunately, that's not the case here.  With a poorly explained cultural foundation, a badly written lead character and a clunky story, it's a wonder why this movie became such a hit back in 2002.  I can think of a half dozen foreign and/or indie films that impressed me more.  By several orders of magnitude.

In Maori tradition, it's the first born grandson of the leader who inherits the title, back to the original whale rider who arrived from Hawaiki.  But tragedy has struck: the grandson of the current leader, Koro (Paratene) has died along with his mother, leaving his twin sister Paikea as the sole survivor.  After his son Porourangi (Curtis) flees in grief, Koro raises Paikea (Castle-Hughes) himself.  But he resents her for being female and blames her for conflict within the tribe.  Koro reluctantly tries to find his successor in the other first born boys of the tribe, but Pai feels that it is her destiny to be the leader.  Needless to say, Koro does not take this well.

"Whale Rider" could, and should, have been an excellent movie.  But it's not.  It's a muddled mess of a movie that has little narrative momentum and few dramatic moments that actually land.

One reason is that the Maori traditions are poorly explained.  It's a little unfair to blame the film for this, since it was made for a New Zealand audience, who I'm assuming would be more familiar with such traditions.  But there's no denying that a more thorough explanation would have helped the film's start considerably.  Too little is explained and what is told is not communicated effectively.

Certainly, such an oversight is problematic.  But that's hardly the only flaw of the film.  The film falls into an extremely predictable rhythm.  Not only in broad strokes (which are a given), but in the details.  Not only do we know what is going to happen, but how it's going to happen.  For example, after Koro and Porourangi have an argument where the older man viciously insults Pai, she walks outside and stares at the sea in heartbreak.  Her father joins her, they have a "deep" conversation, and thus begins the plot of the movie.  How moving!  And that's not the only case of this happening.  During the middle portion of the movie, after Koro forbids Pai from learning the roles of the tribal leader, she's taught by her uncle, who conveniently knows the ropes and will teach her because it will make Koro mad.  And of course all of his friends get in on it.  Who hasn't seen that before?

Structurally, this film is extremely repetitive.  In essence, it goes like this: Koro needs something to happen for the new leader to arise.  Pai volunteers, of course, but Koro shuns her.  No one else can do it.  Pai does it in secret.  This repeats ad nauseum.  This isn't even formula.  It's just bad storytelling.

If there's one thing that saves this from being a complete train wreck, it's the performances.  Keisha Castle-Hughes, in her debut performance, scored an Oscar nomination as Pai, but I'm at a loss to understand why.  This is less a criticism of her acting (which is excellent when she's afforded the latitude) than how her character is written.  Pai is supposed to be this great inspirational heroine, but until the final scenes, she's kind of a doormat.  Presenting her with more strength would have made her more interesting and identifiable.

The supporting roles are better.  Rawiri Paratene is perfect as Koro.  With a constant sneer and bullish attitude, there's no mistaking him for a staunch traditionalist.  However, Paratene uncovers a lot of depth and presence to make him a man who clings to the old ways rather than a generic jerk.  He's blind to the obvious and stubborn as a mule, but at least he has motives for it.  Cliff Curtis shows up for a few scenes as Pai's father, who is all too aware of Koro's rigid nature.

The film is nicely photographed by Leon Narby, although director Niki Caro's attempts to show "realistic" imagery to set the stage can get a little clumsy, and her attempts show a connection between Pai and the whales lack any semblance of subtlety.

For those who are interested in a movie about Maori culture, there is a much better movie called "Once Were Warriors."  Unlike this movie, it's definitely not for children (it ranks alongside "The War Zone" as one of the most brutal movies I've ever seen), but it's a much stronger film.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

2/4

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Tessa Thompson, Jeff Goldblum, Anthony Hopkins

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and Brief Suggestive Material

The Achilles' Heel of the MCU is what makes it so insanely popular: all the movies feel exactly the same.  It makes it easier for Marvel executives to sleep at night, since there's considerable reward with virtually no risk.  And obsessed fans will be happy since Marvel Studios takes enormous pains to fill the movies with in-jokes and Easter eggs.  Not to mention a Stan Lee cameo.  MCU fans will love this movie, since it (presumably) has everything they want in a MCU movie.  But for everyone who isn't a member of that group, you're not going to miss much.

Thor (Hemsworth) has returned to Asgard after taking the crown of a nasty demon/god/some king of monster.  There, he finds that Loki (Hiddleston) is alive and well but that his father Odin (Hopkins) is in exile.  When found, Odin reveals that he is dying, and that Thor's sister, Hela (Blanchett) is on her way to take over Asgard and control the cosmos.  She gets Thor and Loki out of her way by sending them to a planet on the edge of the universe where Thor will have to fight the Hulk (Ruffalo) in gladiator-style combat for the pleasure of the Grandmaster (Goldblum).  Now they have to figure out a way to get back to Asgard and get a Asgardian exile named Valkyrie (Thompson) to help them take down Hela (Blanchett).

Honestly, the only reason I was excited to see this movie was the hope that I would see Cate Blanchett kick some ass.  It's always fun to see a high class thespian let their hair down and have some fun, and this is no different.  Blanchett gets to participate in some high energy action sequences and toss off some delicious one-liners.  Unfortunately, she's strictly a supporting character, and the film turns into a generic Marvel movie whenever she's off screen.

MCU veterans Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo and the others slide easily back in their roles, but they're stuck in a movie that is overlong and appears to have been scribbled by a few comic book nerds on their lunch hour.  There's more humor than in other Marvel movies, but little of it is actually funny.  The audience was laughing, but I wasn't.  That would imply that I actually cared about anyone in this movie, which I didn't.

In the end, this is another Marvel Cinematic Universe movie.  It doesn't shake the boat, and it gives fans and studio executives exactly what they want.  No more, no less.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Deep End

3.5/4

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic, Jonathan Tucker, Raymond J. Barrie, Josh Lucas

Rated R for Some Violence and Language, and for a Strong Sex Scene

How far would you go to protect someone you love?

The immediate response would be "to the ends of the Earth."  Or something like that.  But how far would you really go?  And are you willing to pay the price?

That's the question Margaret Hall (Swinton) is forced to ask herself.  You see, her gay son Beau (Tucker) was in a car accident with a sleazebag named Darby Reese (Lucas).  She pays him a considerable sum to stay away from Beau, but that doesn't keep him away.  He and Beau fight and Darby ends up dead.  Margaret finds his body the next day, and makes a spur of the moment decision to cover it up.  She thinks that the whole sordid event is over and done with, until a man named Alek Spera (Visnjic) shows up with some damning evidence.  He tells her that unless she gives him $50,000 by tomorrow, he'll turn the tape over to the police.  Since her husband is away at sea, it's up to her to do the impossible.  But there's something that we (the audience) know that she doesn't.

"The Deep End," loosely based on the novel "The Blank Wall" by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, is an understated thriller.  This is not a movie with shootouts, car chases and explosions.  But that doesn't make it any less suspenseful.  The smart script, strong performances and sure-handed direction make sure of that.

Is there anything that Tilda Swinton won't do?  More to the point, is there anything she can't do?  From playing the psychologically scarred mother of a school shooter ("We Need to Talk About Kevin") to displaying her post-birth body in the nude ("The War Zone"), Swinton is as daring as she is talented.  There's nothing remotely that controversial in "The Deep End," but she's just as good here as she is, well, anywhere else.  The strength of her performance comes from her refusal to go over-the-top.  She plays Margaret as a normal woman.  She's stressed, trying to keep a household with three kids and her father-in-law running, and keep her family hidden from the mysterious man lurking about.  But she's smart, and deals with the situation the best she can.

Her co-star, Croatian actor Goran Visnjic, is just as good.  He is a scary individual, but he does things that Margaret doesn't anticipate.  Without going into spoilers, I'll say that it's a tricky role, and that Visnjic pulls it off effortlessly.  Visnjic, who became famous for playing Dr. Luka Kovac on TV's "ER," is a fine actor, but is in too few movies these days.  This is a perfect example of what he can do with a good script.

The supporting cast is very good as well.  Jonathan Tucker is in fine form as a uncommunicative teenager who is coping with his sexuality.  But like his mother, he's also smart, and it doesn't take him long to figure out that something is going on with her.  Josh Lucas is one of those actors who can creep you out simply by walking on screen, and that's what he does here.  "Snake" is an apt descriptor.  Sadly, veteran meanie Raymond J. Barry is given the short end of the stick.  His performance is fine, but his character is not well written.  Fortunately, he's only on screen for a few scenes.

The direction by Scott McGhee and David Siegel is top notch.  They get the essentials right (pacing, intelligence, good acting and writing, and so on).  But they also get the details right.  They get the atmosphere of upper middle class Lake Tahoe exactly right (I have family who once had a house there, so I speak from experience), the realities of suburban life, and so on.  Little details, like how Margaret has to use a taxi to get to Alek further enhance her isolation.  And whenever they pause to show how she's coping with keeping her family together while dealing with extortion, they always use it to enhance her feelings.  This is a great story already, and it's well told, but little moments like this enhance it.

Sadly, the end of the film is routine.  No, I won't go into any spoilers, but I will say that something this smart doesn't need to resort to the clichés that make up the climax.  That it's well done softens the blow, but the fact is that it shouldn't have been done at all.  The characters are so intelligent and realistic that something more clever and honest would have been warranted.  I also think the ending isn't earned.  More than that I will not say.  The key scene of the first act isn't capitalized very well either, but that's more of a nitpick, and upon reflection I have no complaints that the directors put it in there.

The ending aside, this is a movie that will grab your attention and keep it for the film's entirety.  There aren't many good thrillers about smart people in plausible situations.  So if that's your cup of tea, I strongly suggest you check this one out.  You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Rabbit-Proof Fence

2/4

Starring: Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, David Gulpilil, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Clarke

Rated PG for Emotional Thematic Elements

There are few doubts in anyone's mind that the Stolen Generation is a black stain on Australia's history.  This policy, which lasted from the 1910's to, unbelievably, the 1970's, allowed the government to forcibly take "mixed-caste" children (who had one parent of an indigenous race) from their families and "integrate" them to European society.  Estimates place between one in ten and one in three children were subjected to this, and the effects are still being felt to this day.

Clearly, this story needed to be told.  However shameful or painful this mark on the history of the land down under is, we must not forget it.  But as a snapshot of history, or even conventional filmmaking, "Rabbit-Proof Fence" comes up short...and by quite a bit.  What should have been a powerful and harrowing experience left me almost completely unmoved.

Molly Craig (Sampi), her younger sister Daisy (Sansbury) and their cousin Gracie (Monaghan) are "half-caste" children.  When A.O. Neville (Branagh), the sole "legal advocate" of the Aboriginal people, orders them removed and sent to Moore River Native Settlement.  There, the three promptly escape and set out on the 1800 mile trek back home.  Meanwhile, Neville is sparing no expense to find them.

This story would seem like great cinema, except that it isn't.  That's because, in truth, not much happens in it.  Half the movie is spent watching the girls walk along the fence that divides the country to get home.  The other half is watching Neville plan how he will capture them.  It's just not strong enough to sustain a feature film.

The acting is solid, which is impressive considering that calling any of the characters two-dimensional would be a stretch.  The actresses who play the young girls are all effective, showing little in the way of discomfort when being in front of the camera (although Sampi ran away from the set twice and was found both times trying to buy a train ticket home).  Kenneth Branagh does something interesting with his character.  He portrays Neville as misguided, but not evil.  Neville isn't a mustache-twirling sadist.  He really believes that he's doing the right thing for the girls.  But as they say, "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

"Rabbit-Proof Fence" was directed by Phillip Noyce, an Australian director whose track record is inconsistent.  He did directed some good movies, like "The Bone Collector," "Dead Calm," and "The Quiet American."  But he did "The Saint" with Val Kilmer, which is all that really needs to be said.  Unfortunately with this movie, his work leans more towards the latter than the former.  Usually it's on solid ground, but his POV shots and attempts at getting inside Molly's head come across as clunky and pretentious.  Actually, any time he gets artsy, it fails.

I honestly feel bad about giving this movie a negative review.  The subject matter is so important and it's a story the world needs to know.  But the film just doesn't live up to its potential.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Oxford Murders

3/4

Starring: Elijah Wood, John Hurt, Leonor Watling, Julie Cox, Jim Carter, Burn Gorman

Rated R for Language, Sexual Content/Nudity and Some Violence/Disturbing Images

After viewing "The Oxford Murders," one thing is absolutely clear: this movie is not for everyone.  Ostensibly it's a murder mystery, but however it's main thrust is the philosophical and mathematical discussions that are necessary to stop the killer.  Those who would not prefer to watch a movie that challenges them intellectually should not bother with this movie.

Martin (Wood) is a young grad student who has come to London to study with the famous mathematician and philosopher Arthur Seldom (Hurt).  But Seldom is such a pompous ass that Martin decides to go home rather than be insulted again by this loser.  That is until they find his landlady murdered in the home where he is renting a room.  Also at the murder site is a mathematical symbol that indicates they are dealing with a serial killer who is using math and logic as tantalizing clues.  If they are going to stop the killer, Martin and Arthur will have to work together to solve the riddle before the next victim is chosen.  But who is the killer?  Could it be Lorna (Watling), Martin's sexy racquetball partner?  Or is it Beth (Cox), his landlady's daughter?  Or could it be Yuri (Gorman), Martin's fellow student that, had this been made a half century ago, would have been played by Peter Lorre?

Math and logic are not my strong suit.  My brain is just not wired that way.  But I nevertheless enjoyed the mental sparring between Martin and Arthur.  It was occasionally confusing, but I could follow the music of their conversations.  Wood and Hurt are quite good here, accomplishing what I thought would be impossible: making math interesting.

Does it spend too much time posing questions about math, philosophy and logic?  Perhaps for some people, but not for me.  I found their discussions mentally stimulating, and in a way, it reminded me of "Silence," the criminally overlooked Scorcese movie from earlier this year.  Both movies used violent storylines to stimulate conversation for the mind, but "The Oxford Murders" isn't as good as "Silence" (not by a longshot), and Alex de la Iglesias is definitely not Martin Scorcese.

One thing I noted is the color desaturation in the film.  de la Iglesias leeches out almost all the color from the film's visuals, giving it a cold and oppressive feeling.  It's meant to heighten the suspense, and while the camerawork by Kiko de la Rica is solid, doing this is so overdone that it's become irritating.  Interestingly enough, I considered watching another thriller called "The Lodger," which had a noir look with deep colors and atmosphere.  Directors of thrillers need to get away from this washed out look because it's lost a lot of its effectiveness.

If you're curious about this movie based on what you've read here, go ahead and check it out.  I doubt you'll be disappointed.  On the other hand, if it doesn't sound like your cup of tea, then it probably isn't.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Victoria and Abdul

1.5/4

Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams

Rated PG-13 for Some Thematic Elements and Language

Full disclosure: I missed the first few moments of this movie.  I'm still writing the review because I came in long before the title card showed up.  And because I need it for my Bottom 10 list this year.

On a technical level, there's not much wrong with "Victoria and Abdul."  The performances are solid, the cinematography is fine (although there's one scene that obviously lacked a tripod for no apparent reason), and so on and so forth.  It's just that I didn't believe a minute of it.  I kept praying that it would get better, but moments of emotional honesty are few.  And that's what is necessary for this kind of buddy movie to work.

Queen Victoria (Dench) is in her golden years, but tired of all the ceremonies, rituals and politics.  One day two emissaries from India show up to present her with a gift.  One of them is Abdul (Fazal), who is not above bending the rules.  She takes a liking to him, and they develop a close bond to the point where he becomes a constant companion.  Of course, this is scandalous to the members of her house, and everyone tries to split them up.

The film sounds better than it actually is.  The writing is so skin deep that it's hard to imagine what drew two titans of British filmmaking, Judi Dench and Stephen Frears, to the material.  There's no depth or humanity to the story or the people involved.  Dench and Fazal have some chemistry, but the writing just isn't there.

Judi Dench is playing Queen Victoria for the second time in her career, the other being "Mrs. Brown," which critics seemed to like a lot more than I did.  She's fine in the role, but this version of the character just isn't worthy of her talents.  However, not even someone as great as she could save this material.  Her co-star, Ali Fazal, is also solid, although perhaps a little too energetic.  The movie would have been better served had their relationship been better served.

The problem with the film is that the whole business of everyone being horrified at their relationship plays out like a failed TV sitcom.  It's filled with overacting and grandstanding, even from established thespians like Eddie Izzard and Olivia Williams.  Rather than threatening or comic, it plays like a bad joke that never wants to end.  In fact, that's the way to describe the movie.

Usually, this time of year is when the good movies start coming out and I can find enriching entertainment instead of an endless array of superheroes (although "Thor: Ragnarok" comes out next week) and stupidity.  However, like every year, there's a would-be Oscar contender that falls flat on its face.  This year, it's "Victoria and Abdul."

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Saw

3/4

Starring: Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Tobin Bell

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

I don't know if they exist in other cities (my guess is they do), but there are businesses called "escape rooms."  The idea is to get a group of your friends and get "locked" in a room.  To get out, you all have to band together to solve a series of puzzles that lead to a key that unlocks the door.  I've done it once, and it's a lot of fun if you have the right people.  "Saw" reminded me of this, although as spooky as the Halloween-themed ones are, I strongly doubt they are as gruesome as this movie.

Adam (Whannell) wakes up mysteriously submerged in a bathtub in the dirtiest bathroom imaginable.  He isn't alone; also in the room is Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Elwes).  Both are chained to rusted pipes.  Tapes they find on themselves reveal that in order to get out alive, they have to kill the other.  Meanwhile, an obsessed detective named Tapp (Glover) is on the trail of the fiend who put them there.  Known as the Jigsaw Killer, Gordon points out that Jigsaw never "literally" killed anyone.  He just sets them up in deadly traps that will kill them if they don't figure a way out.

In all honesty, "Saw" isn't that great of a movie.  There are definitely moments of high tension, particularly at the end, which is devilishly clever (if contrived).  However, they're offset by flat moments, sloppy screenwriting, and awful acting.  Another run through on the screenplay could only have helped things.  Ditto for more rehearsals.

Cary Elwes is a fine character actor.  He's one of those "that guy" people you see every now and then.  The villain in "Twister," the other guy in "Liar Liar," Matthew Broderick's right hand man in "Glory."  For anyone who's counting, he's also provided voice work in two Studio Ghibli movies.  He doesn't get the lead role very often ("The Princess Bride" and "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" are two examples).  He's a light comic actor, so casting him in an intense role is a painful mistake.  He can't do it.  I like Elwes, but there's no denying that he's just awful here.  Screenwriter Leigh Whannell is better, but not by much.  Danny Glover has his moments.

This was the debut feature of James Wan, who is perhaps the first name in horror these days (I'd go with Neil Marshall or Scott Derrickson, personally).  Here, he shows promise, but suffers from some common mistakes that a lot of fresh young directors have when they don't quite know how to channel their creative energy.  There's a lot of style and atmosphere in this movie, but it does get a little self-indulgent at times.  Fortunately, he learned that less is often more in the horror genre.  Action movies, are a different story apparently, as anyone who has seen "Furious 7" can attest.

"Saw" has, not unreasonably, been considered the father of the "torture porn" genre of horror, and while it contains plenty of graphic violence and gore, it has less in common with movies like "The Collector" or "Martyrs" than one might think.  This isn't a shock-o-rama bent on forcing the audience to vicariously experience extreme pain and suffering.  Wan wants to scare his audience more than he wants to gross them out.

Originally, "Saw" was meant to go directly to DVD, but positive reception at test screenings convinced the studio to send it to theaters.  It's not a perfect movie, but I'm glad they did, because it introduced the world to one of horror's most distinctive voices.  That's a rare thing.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Friday the 13th Part III

1/4

Starring: Dana Kimmell, Paul Kratka, Tracie Savage, Jeffrey Rogers, Catherine Parks, Larry Zerner, David Katims, Rachel Howard, Nick Savage, Gloria Charles, Kevin O'Brien, Cheri Maugins, Steve Susskind, Richard Brooker

Rated R (probably for Strong Violence/Gore, Language, Sexuality/Nudity and Drug Use)

The most interesting characters show up after the recap of the first film, and they're only on screen for five minutes.  Not a good sign; even for something as low grade as a "Friday the 13th" movie.  With a title like that, I'm not expecting something like "Halloween" or "Sinister."  But I would like to be repaid with something other than unending tedium.  Sadly, that's what happens in this gimmicky and utterly worthless horror flick.  The only thing worth noting about this dud is that it's the first time Jason puts on his infamous hockey mask.

Chris Higgins (Kimmell) is going to her family's old farm on Crystal Lake.  With her are the pregnant Debbie (Savage), her boyfriend Andy (Rogers), the tubby Shelly (Zerner), his blind date Vera (Parks), and their two stoner friends, Chuck (Katims) and Chili (Howard).  Chris's boyfriend Rick (Kratka) will meet them there.  Chris is still recovering from a terrifying attack that happened two years ago, but has returned to prove to herself that she has gotten past it.  There's also a subplot involving a trio of nasty bikers (Savage, Charles, O'Brien).

But let's face it.  Anyone who puts a "Friday the 13th" movie into the DVD player does so for one reason: to see Jason Voorhees (Brooker) stab, slice, dice, fillet or otherwise murder as many stupid, horny teenagers as the running time will allow.  Despite the large cast and body count, this movie is a snooze fest.  There are a few reasons for this:

-One, the acting is awful.  Horror movies are rarely known for their great performances, but this is a new low.  The acting is so bad that not even the cast members agents could say they were proud of their son or daughter with a straight face.  I'll give the cast members a break by not listing them by name, since it would be far too tedious to say how awful each one of them is.  To be fair, they're given a screenplay that wouldn't get a passing grade in a fifth grade English class, but that doesn't cut it.  Especially since the store owner and her husband (Maugins and Susskind) are quirky enough to be interesting, but sadly they're only on screen for five minutes.  And Larry Zerner manages to be a little endearing as the pudgy prankster.

-Two, the movie is dumb beyond description.  It is rare for a horror movie character to display a lot of brainpower, which is one of the many reasons why the indie horror flick "Hush" from last year made my Top 10 list.  That said, there is a line between campy and insulting to the audience, and this movie crosses it very quickly.  I'll give you an example.  On their way to the cabin, the teens see an ambulance crew bringing out body bags.  Then, they nearly run over a hobo who shows them a human eyeball that he found.  And yet they still go to the cabin.  The word "mistake" couldn't have been made clearer had it been on a billboard.  And the stupidity doesn't stop there.  Characters are constantly splitting up, playing pranks that are a, obvious, b, dangerous and c, stupid, that not only do we feel annoyed by the repetition, we feel insulted that people so lacking in intelligence and common sense aren't butchered to prevent them from contributing to the gene pool.

-Three, there is far too much dead space between the kill scenes.  "Friday the 13th" and the sequel weren't great movies, but they understood their appeal and how the genre works.  But with this movie, director Steve Miner apparently forgot that lesson.  He spends far too much time on the romantic melodramas between characters no one could possibly care about.  In addition to being boring and hideously acted, the screenplay is so bad that it makes the "Star Wars" movies appear to have been written by David Mamet.  Pornos have more convincing dialogue.

By the time the bloodletting really gets going, it's impossible to stay invested.  Few of the kills are impressive enough to raise an eyebrow at, and there's so little blood and gore that they can't much be enjoyed at a visceral level.  Miner gives a shout out to "Fangoria" fans, and a nod to make up master Tom Savini.  And he never passes up an opportunity to show of the 3D.  But really, there's no reason to bother with this piece of garbage.  Unless you're a die hard Jason Voorhees fan, in which case you've probably already seen it a zillion times.  If that's the case, I suggest you seek immediate psychological help.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Snowman

2/4

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jonas Karlsson, Michael Yates, J.K. Simmons

Rated R for Grisly Images, Violence, Some Language, Sexuality, and Brief Nudity

People can't stop talking about how bad "The Snowman" is.  It's as if it's the second coming of "Gigli."  That move was assuredly awful, but not nearly worth the negative buzz it got (I can think of ten movies that are far more painful to sit through).  Even still, I love mysteries, which is why I was still excited to see this movie.  So how bad is it?  Well, I don't recommend it, but at the same time, it's not as bad as some would have you believe.  It certainly won't be anywhere near my Bottom 10 list.

I think what's going on is that people are shocked that something with this much potential turned out to be so hopelessly generic.  One could be forgiven for approaching this movie with high expectations.  It's directed by Tomas Alfredson, who is a rising star in Hollywood.  Actually, Alfredson took over directing duties from Martin Scorcese (who stayed on as an executive producer).  The source material was critically acclaimed.  The cast, which includes Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, the ever choosy Charlotte Gainsbourg, the always delightful J.K. Simmons, and reliable character actors Val Kilmer, Toby Jones, James D'Arcy, and Chloe Sevigny.  How can you not get excited for that?

Alcoholic cop Harry Hole (Fassbender) is in a rut.  He drinks far too much and ends up passed out in the unlikeliest of places.  His relationship with his ex, Rakel (Gainsbourg), is complicated at best.  And he's in danger of suspension from his job.  Part of the reason is that he has nothing to, since there are so few murders of late in Oslo.  Suddenly, women are starting to disappear without a trace.  The only thing that Harry and his partner Katrine Blatt (Ferguson) have to go on are the mysterious and creepy snowmen that show up at the crime scenes.  Meanwhile, his relationships with Rakel and Oleg (Yates), his "son" from another mother, are further complicated by the appearance of Rakel's new beau, a doctor named Mathias (Karlsson).  Things are further complicated still with Arve Stop (Simmons), the obligatory rich creep, who is banking heavily that Oslo will be used as the site for the next Winter Games.

"The Snowman" is really two movies in one.  One is, of course, the trail of a grisly serial killer who amputates his victims body parts or blows their heads off with a shotgun.  The other is his relationships with Rakel, Oleg and Mathias.  For this movie to work, these two stories have to fit together seamlessly.  Each must energize the other.  That doesn't happen.  They're wedded with scotch tape and the film's pace is completely erratic.  Each time it switches stories, it follows the characters in an almost documentary like fashion.  Not in the camerawork, but in the sense that it's just an impartial observer watching the characters do...well, anything really.  There's very little narrative drive.

The performances are fine, although admittedly they're not given much to work with.  Michael Fassbender plays Michael Fassbender.  Which is to say, he acts intense and internalizes his emotions.  While it's true that he's always captivating to watch, even in a shitty movie like "Shame," watching him do this is getting routine.  The guy needs to work with Judd Apatow or something.  Neither Rebecca Ferguson nor Charlotte Gainsbourg leaves much of an impression.  And J.K. Simmons is underused as the mysterious "is he or isn't he a villain."  I wish he had more screen time.

In a way, "The Snowman" feels like the emperor with no clothes.  It pretends to be something like "Seven" for the 2010s, but there's nothing there.  It's all smoke and mirrors.  At least it's watchable, for the most part.  But the final 20 minutes are a complete joke.  Alfredson loses complete control of the film.  Plot holes abound, the plot ceases to make any sense, characters undergo frontal lobotomies and yet are able to make intuitions that are impossible to make based on the information available.  And the climax is quite frankly pathetic.  Not only does it have the notorious "talking killer" syndrome, but it's so silly that it's actually funny (albeit not intentionally).

I was looking forward to this movie.  We get far too few thrillers these days, and I love a good mystery.  But in the end, it's just another generic movie that fails to live up to its promises.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Only the Brave

4/4

Starring: Miles Teller, Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Jeff Bridges, Andie MacDowell

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Content, Some Sexual References, Language and Drug Material

When the end credits started after seeing "Only the Brave," I had to take a moment to collect myself.  This movie was so overwhelming that my heart was still in pieces after what I had experienced.  Even now, a half hour or so after the film ended, I'm still thinking about it.  Not since "American Sniper" have I seen a movie like this.

I remember reading the story about the Yarnell Hill Fire.  Like all great tragedies, it took a while to really register.  It just didn't seem possible.  It was such an abstract concept that it took a while to sink in.  Then the grief started.  Even before I saw the movie, thinking about it still haunts me.

Lately, biopics of famous people or events have become cash cows for Hollywood.  Buy the rights to a "known" event, write a screenplay as fast as possible, and get it into theaters before everyone forgets about it.  Usually, those movies don't turn out well.  "Sully" and "Patriots Day" are two examples.  "Only the Brave" is different because it isn't by the numbers filmmaking.  More care has been taken with the screenplay and the actors.  Director Joseph Kosinski is avoids the trap of exploiting the event because he is interested in more than the tragedy.  He's interested in the people involved.

Eric Marsh (Brolin) is the supervisor for a group of 18 men who fight forest fires.  They desperately want to become Hotshots, which means more glory and pay, but they're being held up because they are the first municipal fire department to be considered for it.  And the city council isn't sure if it's worth the financial investment.  One day a guy named Brendan McDonaugh (Teller) walks in.  He's an ex-junkie who, after the birth of his daughter, decides to clean himself up and make something of himself.  Despite the warnings of his captain, Jesse Steed (Dale), he hires him and McDonaugh quickly becomes one of the boys.  However, tragedy struck in 2013 when everyone but Brandon was killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

It would be unfair to expect that every character involved would be three-dimensional and get their fair of screen time.  Even with a running time of two and a half hours, it would be impossible to expect something even on the level of "Twister," which has a similar camaraderie between the characters.  To combat this, Kosinski concentrates on three characters (Eric, Brendan, and Eric's wife Amanda, played by Connelly) and sees the Hotshots as a close-knit group.  By presenting them as a single unit, we feel identified with them as a whole.  Instead of 20 different guys, they have become the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

The performances are uniformly excellent.  Josh Brolin in particular is good, doing a lot with the mentor figure.  Eric is smart, but stubborn enough to alienate those around him.  This is perhaps the best performance he has ever given.  He's unlikely to get an Oscar nomination, but he should.  Miles Teller, who so frequently plays the every guy, is also terrific.  In the Hotshots, he finds the strength to grow up and get sober, and do right by his daughter.  As Amanda, Jennifer Connelly is in top form.  Amanda is both fiery and tender, and holds her own in an argument with her husband (of which there are a few).  We see their marriage as one really is: bound by love, but not free of tempers.  She hasn't been this good since "Blood Diamond."  A Best Supporting Actress nod is warranted.  Also worth mentioning are Taylor Kitsch and James Badge Dale.  Kitsch plays Chris, the obligatory jerk turned buddy, but the dialogue and chemistry between Kitsch and Teller feels real.  I've often criticized Kitsch for lack of talent in the past (remember "John Carter?"), but I'm beginning to see ability where I didn't before.  Up and coming character actor James Badge Dale makes an impression with sheer presence and ability in a small role as Eric's second in command.

"Only the Brave" is not a perfect film.  There are one or two hokey moments (such as anything involving the bear on fire) and it could have used a bit of tightening up in the pacing.  I also missed scenes that explains the techniques that Hotshots use to fight fires.  However, such criticisms are almost insignificant because the film's emotional impact is so all encompassing.  A lot of the material may be familiar, but it is played with such honesty that it gains life and energy regardless.

Be forewarned that this is not an easy film to sit through, particularly at the end.  But it's not an experience you should miss.  This is definitely one of the year's best films.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Drownsman

1.5/4

Starring: Michelle Mylett, Caroline Korycki, Gemma Bird Matheson, Sydney Kondruss, Clare Bastable, Ry Barrett

Not Rated (probable R for Horror Violence and Brief Language)

To it's credit, "The Drownsman" gets off to a solid start with a few effective shocks.  Then the plot began, and I began thinking, "Okay, this is silly, but I'm willing to laugh at myself for getting creeped out."  Then, about twenty minutes in, I started having questions about the plot.  Not good ones, such as whether or not the villain is around the corner.  But bad ones, like whether or not the villain is a supernatural entity.  You'd think that since he looks like a walking, sort of talking spinach casserole, the answer to that question would be obvious, but apparently co-writer/director Chad Archibald thinks he can fool the audience about this.

Madison (Mylett) is happy for her friend Hannah (Korycki), who has just gotten engaged.  After slipping on a beer bottle and getting knocked out on her way to falling into the nearby lake, Madison finds herself in a metal bathtub in a dark, dank place.  There, an Old Gregg wannabe is lurking about, scaring the living hell out of poor Madison.  So much so that, even after she comes to, she has developed a paralyzing fear of water.  Like, she will only take in water through an IV and she can't attend Hannah's wedding because it's raining outside.  Fed up, Hannah and her friends Kobie (Matheson) and Lauren (Kondruss) get a spiritualist named Caroline (Bastable) to hold a séance to contact whatever spirit/ghost/lame special effect is haunting Madison.  Things go wrong with Madison gets pulled under by said nasty, and now it's after all of them.

"The Drownsman" steals so much from "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "The Ring" that Wes Craven's estate and Gore Verbinski should sue.  I suppose combining those two radically different horror movies is somewhat of an achievement, although considering the final result, it's a rather dubious one.  Both of those movies were intense, creative and frightening.  This one is brain dead, comatose and mildly creepy even at its best moments.

The less said about the acting, the better.  Based on the evidence, no one in this movie should have a career in front of the camera.  Of them, only Mylett has previous full-length credits, with the rest coming from short films.  If they want to be taken seriously as actresses, they should leave out this entry on their resumes.  Of them, Caroline Korycki and Sydney Kondruss are the most polished, although that's not saying much.  Gemma Bird Matheson is just awful; the simplest line of dialogue defeats her.

The problem with this movie, other than the acting, is that everything regarding the plot is half-developed, inconsistent, or just plain not there.  It doesn't matter if a movie uses the supernatural.  But if it does, it has to be consistent with how the villain can and cannot operate.  Once the ground rules are set, the director can go wild with as many riffs and variations on the same theme as long as it plays by said rules.  That doesn't happen here.  Even aside from that, the story is a mess.  When it tries to explain the obligatory backstory or "key" character reveals, it does so in such a slapdash manner that none of it makes any sense.

There's really only one element that I can actually praise with this movie, and that's the special effects.  It never gets old seeing someone pulled into a sink or bathtub and vanish (complete with flailing feet).  My guess is that the majority of the film's time and budget went to that.  As opposed to, you know, the important stuff.  Like coherent plot or characters with personalities that engage us (that they're going to do some amazingly stupid things is a forgone conclusion in this sort of movie).

For a bargain priced Blu Ray, you could worse.  But you could also do a hell of a lot better.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Operation Condor 2: Armor of God

3/4

Starring: Jackie Chan, Alan Tam, Lola Forner, Ken Boyle, Rosamund Kwan, Bozidar Smiljanic

Rated R for Some Violence

Things you will find in a traditional Jackie Chan movie:
-Martial Arts Action
-Death Defying Stunts
-Screwball Physical Comedy

Things you will not find in a traditional Jackie Chan movie:
-Deep Philosophical Meaning
-Character Nuance
-Anything More than a Rudimentary Plot

In that sense, "Armor of God" doesn't disappoint.  You get what you pay for.  There are some truly spectacular fight sequences and some great physical comedy straight out of something like "Bringing Up Baby."  It doesn't contain a story worth its weight in tissue paper, but that's okay.  Such things that would matter to most critics like myself mean little to Jackie.  This isn't a criticism so much as it is an observation.  He knows his strengths, and he also knows that such things will only get in the way of the film's momentum.

The story, such as it is, is straightforward.  Jackie (Chan), Alan (Tam) and Lorelai (Kwan) were in a band together that ended when the latter two began a personal relationship.  Jackie got jealous and split, becoming a treasure hunter for hire.  He has just retrieved the sword piece of the legendary Armor of God and it has been sold to a wealthy buyer at auction.  The problem is that there is a creepy cult led by an Emperor Ming wannabe (Boyle) who believes that the Armor of God will give them extraordinary power.  To get the sword, they kidnap Lorelai, forcing Alan to go to Jackie begging for help.  The sword's new owner, a wealthy man named Bannon (Smiljanic) isn't moved by their plight (not least of which because they tried to steal it under false pretenses) but agrees to let them have the pieces with the promise of getting the rest upon return.  As an insurance policy, he sends his daughter May (Forner) along for the ride.

I've made the film sound more complicated than it actually is.  This movie's story is paper thin, and that both helps and hurts the film.  On the one hand, it allows the film's strengths to shine.  On the other, it has difficulty sustaining even a skinny 88 minute running time.  Even with that brief of a running time, there are times when it feels padded.

Like all of Jackie's early movies, this has been dubbed into English.  Normally, distorting a movie in such a way would amount to heresy.  I mean, what lunatic would want to watch "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" dubbed?  However, Jackie Chan movies are so proudly goofy that dubbing enhances the film's charm.  It's funny to see the actors dialogue not match up to the lip movements, and that's just how Jackie wants it.  It goes without saying, therefore, that discussing the performances would be a fool's errand.  Not that there's much to discuss in the first place...

Jackie Chan movies are like Bond movies or slasher movies.  As long as they contain the requisite elements, they work.  They may not be great art, but let no one claim they aren't fun.

Note: Although marketed as a sequel to the 1991 film "Operation Condor," this movie was actually filmed first.  Not that that means much, since they're stand alone movies.

2nd Note:  The MPAA, in their infinite wisdom, gave this movie an R rating for "Some Violence," and I'm at a total loss as to why.  There's nothing in here that isn't seen in other Jackie Chan movies, and compared to movies like "Dunkirk," it's entirely appropriate to be viewed by the entire family.  Even without that comparison, kids will love it.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Foreigner

2/4

Starring: Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan, Rory Fleck-Byrne, Ray Fearon, Charlie Murphy, Orla Brady, Dermot Crowley

Rated R for Violence, Language and Some Sexual Material

Jackie Chan became famous for mixing insane martial arts stunts (and performing them himself) with slapstick comedy.  Bruce Lee meets Buster Keaton, as it were.  His movies were as thrilling as they were hilarious.  But as fit and talented as Chan is, not even he can outrun time.  So aside from his voice work in the "Kung Fu Panda" movies and playing Mr. Han in "The Karate Kid" remake (he was also in "The Lego Ninjago Movie," but due to the respect I have for Chan, I'm going to pretend that it doesn't exist), he hasn't done much.  At least not on this side of the Atlantic.  While "The Foreigner" can be classified as an action movie and he does kick a bit of ass, this is not the traditional action comedy staple that he is famous for.  This is a dark and violent movie, and rather depressing.

Quan Ngoc Minh (Chan) is a single dad with a bad past.  The only one he cares about is his teenaged daughter Fan (Leung), who is preparing to get a dress for an upcoming dance.  Unfortunately, while buying the dress, she is killed in an IRA bombinb.  After being rebuffed by the lead investigator (Bromley), he sees a politician named Liam Hennessey (Brosnan) discuss the matter.  Quan approaches Hennessey for leads, but Hennessey has no answers.  Hennessy has a history with the IRA, so Quan won't take no for an answer.  To that end, he unleashes a series of increasingly dangerous bombing attacks against Hennessy forcing him to release names of the bombers.  Or else.

That's when things get fall apart.  There are too many characters and too many competing storylines.  The plot makes less sense by the minute, and that leads to boredom.  There are a few action scenes here and there, but without a coherent story to guide us through, there's little to do but wait for the end credits so we can go home.

The problem is that director Martin Campbell doesn't have a clear vision of what he wants this film to be.  Is it a thoughtful look at terrorism?  Is it a tale about grief and revenge?  A film about the Troubles?  By trying to being all of them, it ends up being none of them.  The film's scattershot focus dilutes all of the film's strengths.  There are isolated moments that do work, including the final fight sequence, where in a rare move for Chan, he uses a gun.  But character development is so shallow that it's impossible to figure out who everyone is and how they relate to each other.  For example, Hennessey's past plays a huge part in the story, but how is never made clear.  Key casting mistakes are also to play.  Take Hennessey's wife Mary (Brady) and his mistress Maggie (Murphy) are two very different characters with very different parts to play in the story.  Yet they look and sound so similar that it's impossible to tell them apart.

The performances are effective, but no one is getting any Oscar nominations (although that may be the studio's hope).  Jackie Chan has been making a lot of waves for his work, and while it is solid and workmanlike, it's not revolutionary.  Pierce Brosnan (making his first movie with Campbell in over 20 years...the two worked on his debut Bond feature "GoldenEye") digs into his bag of tricks to turn in a solid performance, but again, it's nothing special.  The rest of the cast does solid jobs in roles that are written with varying degrees of quality.

Watching "The Foreigner" will make you want to watch one of his old movies.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Trick 'r Treat

3/4

Starring: Tahmoh Penikett, Leslie Bibb, Dylan Baker, Connor Christopher Levins, Brett Kelly, Anna Paquin, Lauren Lee Smith, Moneca Delain, Rochelle Aytes, Britt McKillip, Isabelle Deluce, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Alberto Ghisi, Samm Todd, Brian Cox, Quinn Lord

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

"Trick 'r Treat" is a cult horror movie that looked to disappear without a trace had word of mouth not gotten around to fans of the genre.  Most horror films that fail to make an impression do so for good reason (anyone remember "The Nun?"  Or "The Ice Cream Man?"  If you don't, consider yourself lucky).  Still, every now and then one comes along that distributors ignored but fans found.  Such examples are "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon" (unseen by me) and "Creep."  "Trick 'r Treat" belongs in this category.

Five stories take place on Halloween night in the "normally sleepy town of Warren Valley, Ohio."  That alone should tell you that you'd be better off spending October 31 in Haddonfield, Illinois or in the cave from "The Descent."  One is about Emma (Bibb) and Henry (Penikett), a couple coming home from the festivities to a night of real horror.  The second details the activities of Steven Wilkins (Baker), the school principal who also happens to be a serial killer of kids.  Third is a prank by four pre-teens (McKillip, Deluce, Bilodeau, Ghisi) on the local "idiot savant" (Todd) that goes very wrong.  Fourth is about a college student named Laurie (Paquin) who is on the quest to lose her virginity.  Finally, the grumpy Mr. Kreeg (Cox) learns the price of not celebrating Halloween.

That this is written and directed by Michael Dougherty, who would later go on to make the horror-comedy "Krampus," will give you some idea that this is an unusual tale.  Like all good satirists, Dougherty knows are expectations and plays them against us.  He has a lot of fun with genre conventions and tweaking them for surprises.  He's good at sleight-of-hand and misdirection, which allows for some truly ironic payoffs.

Of the stories, the one with Laurie is the best.  It's got Anna Paquin, for starters, but the ending of the story blindsided me and the ending twist is deliciously wicked.  The opening does a solid job of setting the stage and the film's tone, which is to both embrace and mock conventional horror tropes.  The one with the kids is the most conventional, but nonetheless effective.  The weakest is last one with Brian Cox.  He plays a miserable drunk just fine, but the story lacks a sense of dramatic irony like the others.

The performances are effective, which is a rare thing for a horror movie.  And considering how low-profile it is, it attracted an impressive cast of character actors.  Anna Paquin, Leslie Bibb, Dylan Baker and Brian Cox, among others.  The lesser known actors are just as good, with special mention going to Lauren Lee Smith as Lauren's caring sister and Britt McKillip as the bitchiest prankster, Jean-Luc Bilodeau as the least dislikable prankster, and Samm Todd as the object of the prank.

"Trick 'r Treat" isn't as accomplished as Dougherty's later film.  The mix of horror and comedy isn't as strong, and the stories aren't as gripping.  But as a cult horror film, it's a solid choice.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Goodbye Christopher Robin

3.5/4

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Will Tilston, Kelly Macdonald, Margot Robbie, Stephen Campbell Moore, Alex Lawther

Rated PG for Thematic Elements, Some Bullying, War Images and Brief Language

My mother never read me "Winnie the Pooh" when I was a little tyke.  Or maybe she did.  You'll have to ask her.  And I hadn't even heard of this movie before a friend of mine invited me to a preview screening.  So I had no preconceived notions of the movie I was about to see.  Not that that matters much in terms of quality of a movie (usually), but despite my little knowledge of Winnie the Pooh and his friends, I very much enjoyed this movie.

Alan Milne (Gleeson), or "Blue," as his wife Daphne (Robbie) calls him, is a writer famous for his plays.  But the events he took part in during The Great War have never fully healed.  His PTSD is triggered by just about everything, and he decides to move him and his family to the rural countryside.  But Daphne, who isn't happy about being left out of the hustle and bustle of the Roaring Twenties, points out that he's still not writing.  She even leaves him to return to the city only when he resumes his work.  His relationship with his son, Christopher Robin (Tilston), is frosty, with Alan being emotionally unavailable to anyone.  Only Christopher's nanny, Olive (Macdonald), or "Nou" as she is called, truly seems to care for him.  But when she has to leave to be at her mother's bedside in her final moments, Alan and his son form a tentative bond over the imaginative world they create starring him and his stuffed toys.  Thus begins the adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher is thrust into the international spotlight.

"Goodbye Christopher Robin" broaches a number of intriguing ideas.  Where do a fictional character and the real person it is based off diverge?  Or, how does it feel for a child to see the common bond between him and his father bought, packaged and sold to the entire world?  Or how does the sudden influx of fame cause a child to react?  And what, if any, responsibility does Alan bear when his book becomes a worldwide frenzy?  Where do he and Daphne draw the line between his success and fame and Christopher's well being?  How does a parent navigate this territory?  These are intriguing questions, and director Simon Curtis gives them all their due.

Domhnall Gleeson (son of the great Brendan Gleeson) is flat-out brilliant as Blue.  Emotionally reserved by nature and British culture, he finds it difficult to escape the horrors of the past.  His writing suffers and his relationships with his family are crumbling.  However, through the imagination of his son, he has found a way out.  By creating such a world of innocence and joy, he has allowed himself to heal, and bond with his son.  But this success comes at the cost of his son's well-being, which takes him a long time to realize.  From "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" to "Suicide Squad" Margot Robbie continues to impress with her range of stellar performances, and this is no different.  Daphne is definitely self-centered and superficial, but shows moments of tenderness and affection towards Christopher.  Actually, it's her that germinates the idea for the story, albeit unintentionally.  However, not even someone as talented as Robbie can mask the fact that her character is underwritten.  Kelly Macdonald is delightful as Nou, who loved Christopher like her own son and looks out for him when his parents are unwilling to do so.  It's a long shot, but she and Gleeson deserve Oscar nominations.  Sadly, the actors who play Christopher do not hold up.  Will Tilston is at times so cute and precocious that you want to strangle him, and has the awkwardness in front of the camera that afflicts many child actors.  Alex Lawther, who plays a grown up Christopher, is similarly flat.  He was good as the young Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game," but he's miscast here.

The film's first act is tough going.  Director Simon Curtis has trouble laying all the pieces and setting up the story.  It's not unwatchable by any means, but it's messy and could have used another rewrite.  Once Alan and Christopher begin to bond (which doesn't happen in a convincing fashion), the film takes off.

Because of the subject matter and the kid-friendly PG rating, I imagine that many parents think that this is a movie they can watch with their children.  That's not the case here.  Content-wise, there's nothing that's inherently adult (although the PTSD-related material is intense enough that a PG-13 would probably have been the better option), but kids will be bored out of their minds by the languid pace, themes of creativity and fame that will go over their heads, or several scenes that are genuinely heartbreaking.  Leave them with the nanny.

This is not a perfect movie, but it is a tremendously effective one.  I always look forward to this time of year because that's when Hollywood starts releasing quality movies for Oscar attention.  "Goodbye Christopher Robin" is probably too low profile for the Academy to notice (and has definitely been released too early), but this is one movie that you won't want to miss.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Evil Dead II

3/4

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Kassie Wesley DePaiva, Denise Bixler

Not Rated (probably NC-17 for Pervasive Horror Violence and Gore)

I'm giving this movie a recommendation based more on its audacity than anything else.  Oh, it's a fun ride.  It's just that it doesn't add up to much and the pieces work better as isolated moments rather than a cohesive whole.  Still, there are scenes here that can't be scene in any other movie.  That alone deserves credit.

Plot is not the film's strong suit. It's just a set-up for a few people to be at this remote cabin (so remote that one wonders who in the right mind would want to live there) and be constantly attacked by special effects that are a tribute to Ray Harryhausen.  A violent, bloody tribute, but a tribute nonetheless.

Speaking of special effects, they're here in spades.  And I'd say about 99.999% involve a tremendous amount of gore.  This isn't so much a criticism (when you have a lead character cut his possessed hand off and later fix a chainsaw to it, it's not going to be family friendly) but an observation.  Although some will undoubtedly be turned off by the gallons of blood and body parts flying everywhere, those who stick it out will be impressed with some truly unique and gruesome monsters.

The acting is what is to be expected for a vomitorium like this.  Which is to say, it doesn't impress.  The only one who is really worth mentioning is Bruce Campbell.  Campbell is and forever will be associated with Ash, and has appeared in many cult horror movies throughout his varied career.  He has a very expressive face and good comic chops.  No one else is the least bit memorable, although I will say that Kassie Wesley DePaiva looks a little too modern (for the 80s at least) to be convincing as a redneck.

It's easy to see what Sam Raimi is doing here.  He's trying to embrace and parody the horror genre.  Anyone who has seen a lot of movies knows how hard it is to pull this off, so I'll give credit to Raimi for his guts.  Then again, Raimi has never been a conventional filmmaker, choosing projects that range from superhero movies to baseball flicks.  But tonally the movie is all over the place, only occasionally finding the sweet spot of the macabre.  When he does, it's great fun.  But the humor doesn't always come across.

"Evil Dead II" was never designed to be great art.  I knew that when I saw a disembodied hand give Ash the finger.  But it has enough moments to be worth a look.  Particularly in a month that celebrates the dark and scary (not to mention gory), and when there are so few decent options to choose from.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

2.5/4

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Harrison Ford

Rated R for Violence, Some Sexuality, Nudity and Language

When faced with a dilemma like this, the question a film critic has to ask himself or herself is this: do I write from popular opinion, or my own heart?  "Blade Runner 2049" is a highly anticipated movie, and the reception from critics and audiences has been rapturous.  But in all honesty, I really don't think its a good movie.  Rest assured, I'll tell you why.

Much has changed since Rick Dekard's (Ford) first outing.  After a brutal rebellion, replicants were outlawed, bankrupting the Tyrell Corporation (which gives me hope that, in the near future, our lobbying laws will be severely curtailed).  Now, a man named Niander Wallace (Leto), has completely reworked the agricultural landscape and revamped the replicant program by making them obedient.  Older models from Dekard's era are still "retired" by newer models like K (Gosling).  After one such outing, K sees something underground.  It turns out that they are the bones of a replicant, and evidence proved that she gave birth.  Such a revelation is incredibly dangerous, and as K's superior, Lt. Joshi (Wright), points out, there plenty of people who would kill to suppress it.

The problem with this movie is two-fold: a screenplay that thinks its far deeper and more sophisticated than it actually is, and the choice of director Denis Villeneuve.  This movie has one of those screenplays that has its characters talk and talk in this deep metaphysical dialogue, which, for a sci-fi film inspired by a Phillip K. Dick story, would be fine.  The problem is, they aren't saying anything of substance.  It's just an attempt to camouflage the fact that film's plot is totally routine and every twist is predictable from the 20 minute mark.  The final one is not, but instead of being a real revelation, it cheapens the proceedings.

To one degree or another, Denis Villeneuve has been guilty of pretentiousness and self-indulgence.  He directs his movies with a sense of seriousness that they don't earn.  "Sicario," "Prisoners," "Arrival," and to an extent "Incendies," all felt like conventional movies trying to be groundbreaking.  That hasn't changed here.  This is a stiff, cold and emotionless movie, and it is also far too long for its own good.  This is a movie that could have been told in two hours, give or take.  That's 45 minutes that could, and probably should, have been cut out.  I'm not against long movies in principle, but that's only when they earn it.  Villeneuve doesn't.  At least the film looks gorgeous, although considering that it was Roger Deakins behind the camera, that's not a surprise.

The acting doesn't impress much.  Ryan Gosling is one of our best and most daring actors.  He played a Jewish neo-Nazi in "The Believer" and a mostly emotionless action hero in "Drive."  He's always interesting to watch, but here he's going through the motions.  K just isn't very interesting.  Much more compelling is Joi (de Armas), his AI companion.  Of all the characters on screen, she's the one I felt for the most.  The rest of the cast, including a truly creepy Jared Leto and a menacing Sylvia Hoeks, is fine.  Harrison Ford also returns, but not until the last 45 minutes of the movie.

On a technical side, this movie has it.  The visuals are striking, with several moments almost worth the price of admission in and of themselves.  But the story is boring, the lead character is a dullard, and the film is way too long.  I like science fiction, but this one just didn't do it for me.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

1/4

Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy

Rated R for Violence and Brief Nudity

"Blade Runner" is one of those movies where its reputation and fame outstrip whatever qualities it has as a piece of cinema.  It gets its fame from its notoriously difficult shoot, innovative art and set decoration, and ambiguous storyline.  And the star power of Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott certainly help.  And ditto for the supposed "Blade Runner Curse," which spelled doom for any company with product placements in the film.  What no one seems to remember is that the movie itself is a piece of crap.  At least from this critic's perspective.

In 2019, humanoid robots, known as replicants, are used as slave labor off world.  Designed to live for only four years to inhibit emotional growth, they are banned from Earth under the penalty of death.  That leaves people like Rick Dekard (Ford), to hunt them down.  Actually, Deckard has left the business, but his boss (played by M. Emmett Walsh), calls him back to hunt down a quartet of replicants who have come back to Earth for unknown reasons.  He also gets involved with a new model, named Rachael (Young), who doesn't know she's a replicant.

The movie's only real claim to fame is its look.  This is a vivid look at a futuristic Los Angeles from hell.  It's dark, dank, and decrepit.  Trash is everywhere, people are huddled against the rain and the light, and everyone's in a perpetual bad mood.  It's stylish and eye-popping even today (who can forget the building sized ad featuring a Chinese woman?).  Its vision lent itself to numerous other science fiction movies, including "The Crow," "Dark City," and even "The Matrix."

The actors do what they can, but no one is given anything to work with.  Harrison Ford, who was by all accounts miserable during the shoot (Sean Young said, "The only time he was happy was when they told him it was over), underplays his role, which would be the right move if the script gave him the latitude.  Sean Young is robotic as the femme fatale, and yes, I mean that as a compliment.  Daryl Hannah and Rutger Hauer do great work as the creepy replicants, but like the other members of the cast, they aren't given any decent material.  What little dialogue there is is pretentious and empty.  It's meant to sound deep and sophisticated but really isn't either.

By all accounts, "Blade Runner" was extremely difficult to make.  No one got along, Ridley Scott couldn't use his own British crew nor operate the camera himself.  Scott's perfectionism and aloof personality didn't endear him to the crew either.  Crew changes were so constant that people working behind the scenes had to look on the call sheet to see if they still had a job.

So the movie looks great, but so do a ton of other movies.  Watch one of them instead

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Ruins

3/4

Starring: Jena Malone, Jonathan Tucker, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey, Joe Anderson

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

Like all good horror films, "The Ruins" works because it does exactly what its supposed to.  Identifiable characters, a gripping situation, and escalating tension.  The pacing, at least in the unrated version, isn't tight enough to elevated it to the upper echelons of the genre, and the audio quality is at times iffy, but on the whole it's an effective chiller.

Best friends Amy (Malone) and Stacy (Ramsey) have gone on vacation to Mexico with their boyfriends, Eric (Ashmore) and Jeff (Tucker).  There, they meet up with a couple of Greek party animals and a German stud named Mathias (Anderson).  Mathias is in town with his brother and his brother's girlfriend, who have just discovered a new Mayan ruin.  He's going to visit them tomorrow and invites our heroes to come along.  After a bit of discussion, they agree.  Hungover and/or still eager for sex, the group heads to the Mayan ruin, which is, of course, off the map.  Despite some repeated warning signs, they reach the ruins.  However, they are stopped by some heavily armed men shouting at them.  Things escalate into violence very quickly and the surviving members head up to the top of the ruin.  That's when they discover why the men down below were so adamant that they don't go onto the ruin.

This is a good, but not great, horror film.  Strictly speaking, it doesn't bring much that's new to the table, but what it does, it does well.  The situation grows increasingly desperate, new wrenches are thrown into the script at regular intervals, and none of the characters are annoying to the point where we're actively wishing for them to die.  In matter of fact, they're smarter than your average monster fodder.  That doesn't mean they don't do stupid things (such as going to a Mayan ruin not on the map with a guy you don't know who hasn't been in contact with his brother who's already there).  It's just that they analyze their situation, they have ideas for what to do next and how to solve their problems.  At least, until the next one comes along.  However, no one, not the tourists or the Mayans, seems to think of the one painfully obvious thing to do, which is to use fire.  But if they're sentimental about the ancient ruins, I suppose a big sign and a gate will save people a lot of trouble.  Much preferable to holding people hostage until they die.  Or worse.

The cast is compromised of mainly young character actors, and they do solid jobs.  Jonathan Tucker plays the smartest member of the bunch (a welcome change of pace from the shy nerds he usually gets to play), if not the most compassionate.  That distinction goes to Shawn Ashmore, who's a cross between a hippie and a bro.  Laura Ramsey ably portrays a girl who is losing her mind.  And Brit Joe Anderson sports a flawless German accent.  The weak link is Jena Malone.  She's a good actress, but lacks the presence and pipes needed for a horror movie.

Director Carter Smith, making his theatrical debut behind the camera, understands the mechanics of horror.  For example, characters have to go in dark places, reaching into places where the murderous plants are lurking (Audrey II would be proud).  Food and water is running out.  Help may or may not be coming.  One of the party is gravely injured.  And most important of all, the most intimate injuries are the most painful to watch.

"The Ruins" is based on a novel by Scott B. Smith, who adapted it into a screenplay (apparently, he suggested changes from his own novel for the film version, and based on the evidence, they're for the better).  I haven't read any of his novels, but based on this and the fact that wrote the novel and screenplay for "A Simple Plan," a criminally underrated masterpiece if there ever was one, maybe I should.  He's a great storyteller.  "The Ruins" isn't as good as the 1998 gem (and probably never could be), but that's okay.  This is a horror movie, after all.  It could have used a little tightening up on the editing stage (maybe the theatrical cut is the way to go...), but aside from that, this movie delivers the goods.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Lego Ninjago Movie

1.5/4

Starring (voices): Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Jackie Chan, Olivia Munn

Rated PG for Some Mild Action and Rude Humor

If a sequel/spin-off to a hit movie comes out within a year of its predecessor, it's a pretty safe bet that, regardless of how interconnected they are, they're going to be crap.  Just look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  For every "Guardians of the Galaxy," there are a few forgettable behemoths like "Captain America: Civil War" or "Fantastic Four" (pick a version).  The same goes for "The Lego Movie."  Despite being marketing at its most shameless, the 2014 animated hit was a breath of fresh air.  It was filled to the brim with animation, clever humor and ideas no one could see coming.  Eager to jump on the bandwagon while it was hot, Warner Bros. produced spin-offs as fast as they could make them.  Despite having three years to prepare, "The Lego Batman Movie" was a waste of time.  And as bad as that one was, this new spin-off is even worse.

Lloyd (Franco) is your average high schooler.  He's shy, gawky, and no one takes him seriously.  Worse, he's the town scapegoat, since he's the son of Garmadon (Theroux), who routinely tries to rain destruction on his home city of Ninjago.  What no one knows is that he is one of six ninjas who defend the city from Garmadon.  But when he seeks Master Wu's (Chan) ultimate weapon to defeat Garmadon once and for all, it backfires.  Now, he and his fellow ninjas, plus Master Wu, will have to take the long and arduous journey to find the Ultimate Ultimate weapon.  And they are sure to run into Garmadon on the way.

Like its predecessors, "The Lego Ninjao Movie" seeks to be a part homage/part parody of family action movies and kung fu schlockfests.  And like the installment that came out earlier this year, it's a dud.  It's too dim-witted and too sincere to work as either.  The story, thin as it is, takes itself too seriously.  And it's supposed to be a comedy.  The jokes are lame, and it never finds and angle to take on the genres it's simultaneously mocking and embracing.

The cast doesn't impress.  They're outacted by the superweapon (for the sake of anyone desperate enough for family entertainment, I won't spoil it).  The best I can say is that Dave Franco continues to prove that he's a much more appealing actor than his older brother, and that Justin Theroux is unrecognizable.  Which is probably for the best, since I still remember how godawful "Wanderlust" was.

"The Lego Ninjago Movie" is a shameless cash grab, and does little to hide it.  That there are three directors and seven credited screenwriters is warning enough to stay away.  I feel sorry for any family that is suckered into seeing this kinetic pile of crap.  Or that they have seen it, and their kids actually liked it enough to demand that they get it on Blu Ray and watch it over and over again.  If this is you, send me your name, and I'll reserve you a space at the funny farm.  You'll need it.