Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Video Games: The Movie

1.5/4

Not Rated (Probable PG for Some Animated Violent and Sexual Images)

Roger Ebert once said that he thought the spoof genre was the hardest to review.  Which makes sense, since acting, storytelling and so on are beside the point.  I disagree.  My review of "Scary Movie" was fairly easy to write, if memory serves.  True, it's a futile endeavor to discuss the performances of Anna Faris or Jon Abrahams in a pure parody, but there is fertile ground for a film critic to discuss.

No, I find that documentaries are the hardest to review because none of the traditional talking points apply.  They don't have actors, dialogue or directorial style.  Reviewing a documentary is like reviewing a college lecture or a newspaper article.  The only thing worth noting is what the film contains.  And unless they're unbelievable good or horrifically bad, there isn't a lot to say more than that.

Which brings us to "Video Games: The Movie."  A terribly uncreative title, to be sure.  But this isn't a movie designed to win Oscars or to make a lot of money.  This is a movie that was made by and for people with a huge passion for video games (an audience that I consider myself a member of).  It is also far and away the blandest, most self-congratulatory documentary I've ever seen.  On a technical level, it looks great (if a little self-indulgent).  But when it comes to educating the audience about its subject, it's less reporting than a 90 minute advertisement for the video game industry.  Which begs the question who this movie was made for, since almost no one who watches this movie will learn anything they don't already know.

"Video Games: The Movie" is unusually structured.  Rather than narrate the history of the industry, it's divided by topic: history, innovation, what video games actually are (something no one seems to be able to define with certainty), inspiration, and so forth.  None of it is attacked with any specificity whatsoever.  In fact, while innovation is trumpeted almost incessantly, none of the trailblazers are mentioned by name, or at least in any detail.  For example, "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time," widely considered to be the best video game ever made (an opinion I do not share, by the way), had a laundry list of new mechanics that forever altered the industry.  "Resident Evil 4" completely revamped a franchise and set the standard for horror in video games.  And so on.  To ignore such important parts of the video game industry and history is totally unacceptable.

Director Jeremy Snead refuses to deal with anything controversial or that casts the industry in a poor light (this might explain why so many video game executives are willing to appear on camera).  Judging by this documentary, the entire industry is filled with cool guys and girls who wear their nerdiness with a badge of honor and where every day is filled with passion and creativity.  Anyone who knows anything about the industry is well aware that such a statement is so disingenuous that it's practically offensive.  Not once are the miserable working conditions, microtransactions, the competition from mobile gaming or the disconnect between R&D and marketing mentioned.  On the rare occasions when something negative is mentioned, such as the "E.T." fiasco which almost collapsed the entire industry, it's soft-pedaled.  Or it's unfair.  When Joe Liberman is decrying the violence in video games, he's presented as an out-of-touch fuddy duddy.  Anyone who has seen a "Mortal Kombat" game is well aware of the validity of such criticisms.

I give the film points for being about something I'm interested in and celebrating video games as something other than a time waster, but this goes way too far.  Even a gamer like me will go into sugar shock while watching this movie.  If they haven't fallen asleep.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Waist Deep

1.5/4

Starring: Tyrese Gibson, Meagan Good, Game, Larenz Tate, Henry Hunter Hall

Rated R for Strong Violence and Pervasive Language

When did action movies stop being fun?  When I was growing up,  I would watch movies like "Speed," "True Lies," and "The Rock."  They were just as violent as "Waist Deep," if not more so, but they were fun.  There was joy in their construction.  They were entertaining.  "Waist Deep" wants to be an action movie with a social ax to grind, which is fine by me.  It's difficult, but it can be done (see "Set it Off" for an example).  But this movie has a flat screenplay, lousy performances and a director that tries in vain to salvage what cannot be saved.  This movie is a waste of time and money.

O2 (Gibson) is an ex-con trying to get his life back on track.  He's been out on parole for a month, and is determined to make a better life for himself and his son Junior (Hall).  However, after his drug-addled brother Lucky (Tate) chooses to get high rather than pick up Junior from school, O2 has to take off work to take his son home.  That's when he's carjacked with Junior inside.  Now, O2, Lucky and a street hustler named Coco (Good) have to band together to set two drug lords against each other and rescue Junior.

I mentioned "Speed" earlier, and in a strange way it's an apt comparison.  Both are simple stories that succeed or fail based whether or not the director can keep the adrenaline high enough for the audience to not realize how silly everything is.  That's the difference between "Speed" and "Waist Deep."  The 1994 sleeper hit is just as dumb, but a hundred times more fun because Jan de Bont kept things movie with breathless energy.  Vondie Curtis-Hall is without a clue.  He resorts to the old standbys of directors who haven't the slightest idea of how to make an action movie: shaking the camera, frantic cutting, and ostentatious camera tricks.  Instead of creating the desired adrenaline, he's only highlighting how lame the movie is.

The performances leave a lot to be desired.  Tyrese Gibson, never an actor with a lot of range, has one mode for his performance: dead serious.  He plays the role like he's Hamlet, which would be unintentionally hilarious if it wasn't so boring.  His co-star Meagan Good is awful.  Rarely is she able to speak her lines convincingly.  Larenz Tate isn't as irritating as usual, which is something of an improvement, I guess.  Henry Hunter Hall (son of the director) borders on being too cute.  Only rap star Game impresses.  As the drug lord known as Meat, he's vicious enough to be frightening.  The movie would have been better served had it abandoned the silly and banal search for the kid and concentrated on him.

This movie is a stinker.  A bomb.  A dead zone.  Whatever you want to call it, it's a piece of crap.  Avoid it like the plague.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Craft

2/4

Starring: Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True, Skeet Ulrich, Assumpta Serna

Rated R for Some Violence and Terror, and for Brief Language

"The Craft" is your standard order 90's girl power movie.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Even with those unambitious goals, it's still not a very good movie.  With pedestrian direction, a bland screenplay and an hour of no real conflict, it's hard to imagine that this became a cult hit.

Sarah Bailey (Tunney) is a high school student moving from Los Angeles to San Francisco with her parents.  After being humiliated by Chris Hooker (Ulrich), the school stud, she falls in with Nancy (Balk), Bonnie (Campbell) and Rochelle (True), the school outcasts.  Actually, it's the other way around.  You see, the three girls are witches.  Like, real ones.  They sense that Sarah is a witch too and conspire for her to join them so they can be a quartet and become more powerful.  Initially, the lonely Sarah enjoys the friendship and the power (such as getting Chris to like her).  But when things go too far and people start dying, Sarah wants out.  Of course, that's definitely not okay with the others.

This isn't an inherently bad idea for a movie.  I doubt a good one could have been made from it, but solid b-movie entertainment isn't out of the question.  But the movie takes itself too seriously for it to have much value in that department.  It makes passes at drama and horror, but doesn't succeed as either.  The screenplay is too weak and Andrew Fleming, whose resume does not inspire confidence (he directed "Hamlet 2" and "Dick," two would-be black comedies with teeth as sharp as the latest "Barbie" movie).

At least the performances are nice.  Robin Tunney, an adorable and talented actress whose career never took off like it should have, is as lovely as ever, showing vulnerability and spunk.  Fairuza Balk is perfectly cast as the goth witch Nancy.  Actually, Balk is a Wiccan in real life, and was able to give the filmmakers advice for authenticity or direct them to those who could when she was unable.  Balk is an exotic looking beauty, and her looks really enhance the impact of her character.  At least until the screenplay has her go into full-on psycho bitch mode, at which point even she can't save the film from descending into self-parody.  A pre-famous Neve Campbell and Rachel True are in fine form in the underwritten roles of the other girls.

The problem with this film is that it has virtually no plot until the very end, when it goes into slasher movie territory (only without the slashing).  Watching the girls develop their talents and experiment with their powers has a certain entertainment value, but that stuff should have been covered within the first 20 minutes.  The film kinda floats along waiting to get kicked into high gear, and when it does it does so with such suddenness and stupidity that it's impossible to take seriously.  Characters undergo brain cramps and personality transplants, and the film's "rules" of how witchcraft works in this film are repeatedly broken.  And they were never well-established to begin with.

The MPAA gave this film an R rating for "Some Violence and Terror, and for Brief Language."  The filmmakers wanted a PG-13 rating, but the ratings board wasn't comfortable with "teenage witches."  I guess a scene of attempted rape is fine but witchcraft isn't.  But that's what I expect from the MPAA: hypocrisy and stupidity.

All Eyez on Me

2.5/4

Starring: Demetrius Shipp Jr., Danai Guirira, Hill Harper, Dominic L. Santana, Annie Illonzeh, Keith Robinson, Kat Graham

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

Tupac Shakur is too fascinating a man and too important a figure not to be the subject of a biopic.  Few can deny the impact he had on American culture, almost singlehandedly inventing the gangsta rap genre and giving voice to an entire community.  This should have been made with A-list talent and be an awards contender.  But for whatever reason, the powers that be decided to use a pedestrian screenplay and a director-for-hire.  This would have been a perfect vehicle for The Hughes Brothers, who directed "Menace II Society" (a film in which, ironically, Shakur was given a role but left after getting into a physical altercation with one of the directors).

The difference between a good biopic like "Schindler's List" and a mediocre one like this is that the good ones are character studies.  What happens to them is important, sure, but the narrative events should only be allowed to happen because they must, considering the characters personalities or because they challenge them in some way.  Anyone interested in a certain person's life story can go to Wikipedia.  Audiences go to their biographies to see who they were as a person.

The biggest of many problems with this film is that it's too ambitious.  Director Benny Boon tries to incorporate everything that happened in Tupac's life rather than the forces that drove him.  Tupac's (Shipp Jr.) relationships with his mother Afeni (Guirira), friend and agent Atron (Robinson), and rap mogul Suge Knight (Santana) are left half-baked.  The result makes "All Eyez on Me" feel less like a real film than a trailer for one.

Ironically, the one that fares the worst from this approach is Tupac himself.  All the forces swirling around him are external.  He's a pawn in his own life.  Considering how strong-willed, intelligent and articulate the man was, such a decision is disingenuous.  It's a shame, really, since newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr does a solid job playing the magnetic artist.  the precious few moments when the movie slows down enough to allow his personality to shine through are his best.  We can see Tupac's tenderness, humor, integrity and intelligence.  He freely quotes poetry and has a deep love for Shakespeare, for example.

Both his mother Afini and Death Row Records owner Suge Knight played tremendous roles in his life (the latter of which being implicated in Shakur's murder).  But their relationships with the late rapper are poorly explained, limiting their power.  Dominic L. Santana is quite effective as Knight, the imposing man who runs his record label like a mafia.  He's truly menacing.

Perhaps the large number of screenwriters is to blame, since the script and the direction are all over the place and much of it makes little sense, like Tupac's infamous rape case (the film clearly takes his version of the story) and his decision to sign with Death Row Records despite Knight's notoriety.

There's some good stuff in "All Eyez on Me," there's no denying that.  The performances are effective and Tupac, for all the shortcomings in how he is presented on screen, remains a fascinating individual.  But in the end, there are just too many problems for me to recommend it outright.  Tupac deserved better.

The Frighteners: Director's Cut

3/4

Starring: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace Stone, Troy Evans, Chi McBride, Jim Fyle, John Astin, Jake Busey

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Terror/Violence

Peter Jackson's ghost story "The Frighteners" is so full of ideas, genre twists and weirdo characters that I stand back in awe.  Let's see.  You've got: a paranormal con man, a trio of ghosts (each with their own personality), the Grim Reaper, a serial killer, a sniveling reporter, a creepy FBI agent, a grieving widow, a woman with a secret, and a hero with a personal tragedy.  And that's just the start.  While Jackson doesn't exactly know what to do with all of these characters, trying to do too much is always preferable to the alternative.

Frank Bannister (Fox) is a paranormal con man.  Oh, he can see ghosts (a side effect of the car accident that killed his wife), it's just that the ghosts he catches for a hefty fee are his three ghost buddies that he hires to do the job.  They're a diverse lot: Stuart (Fyle) is Frank's assistant that bears a striking similarity to Andy Dick, Cyrus (McBride) is a ghost straight out of a 70's Blaxploitation movie, and The Judge (Astin) is a gunslinger from the Old West who is literally falling apart.  When Frank cons Ray (Dobson) and Lucy (Alvarado) Lynskey, things start getting strange.  People have been suddenly dying of heart attacks lately, and Ray is the latest victim.  The Grim Reaper himself is in town, and only Frank and his buddies can stop him...if the skeptical townsfolk don't arrest him first.

This is only scratching the surface of the movie.  I've neglected to mention the town's darkest secret, a mass murder at a hospital carried out by Johnny Bartlett (Busey), who was later executed, and Patricia Bradley (Stone), his brainwashed accomplice.  Or the snooty reporter (Elizabeth Hawthorne) intent on exposing Frank as a funeral-chasing fraud.  Or the ghost of a marine played, of course, by R. Lee Ermey.  Like I said, there's a lot going on here.  Jackson has trouble juggling it all into a cohesive whole, but it's interesting enough to be worth it.

For the most part, only the two leads impress.  Michael J. Fox has little trouble playing a nice guy who does some unsavory things.  He drives an old beater really fast, runs around and lets out a few words you couldn't hear him say in the "Back to the Future" movies.  Trini Alvarado is cute as the love interest and has the acting chops to back it up.  There's a scene between Frank, Lucy, and Ray's ghost that's both touching and hilarious.  Jake Busey shows up for a few scenes as a creepy mass murderer that probably spends most of his time in hell with Mickey and Mallory Knox.  Everyone else is okay at best, boring at worst.  The only other performance worth mentioning is the FBI agent played by character actor Jeffrey Combs.  Combs takes a lot of daring risks with his performance, and boy, do they not work.  This is a role for Christopher Walken or Crispin Glover.  As played by Combs, Agent Milton Dammers comes across less like an entertaining weirdo like Jack Sparrow and more like Fearless Leader from "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show."  Annoying doesn't do the character justice.  Worse, he has far too much screen time.

While dated, the special effects are inventive enough to still have the "cool" factor.  Especially the Grim Reaper, who is actually chilling.  Think the Nazgul from Jackson's claim to fame, "The Lord of the Rings."  Actually, it was during post-production of this film that he decided to make the epic saga.  In his words, he was going to be stuck with more than a dozen computers after the film was completed, so he looked for a new project to use them on.  The rest, as they say, is history.

"The Frighteners" isn't any kind of a masterpiece.  It's too busy and too goofy to ever be scary; the only thing keeping it from a PG-13 is where a character gets his head blown off by a shotgun, but like everything else in this movie, it's too intentionally silly to be taken seriously.  This is the kind of movie you watch with your friends late at night.  Grab some beer and have a great time.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

It Comes At Night

2/4

Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, Griffin Robert Faulkner

Rated R for Violence, Disturbing Images and Language

"It Comes At Night" is a psychological horror film, and it has all the qualities of an A-list entry.  It's drenched in atmosphere, the performances are strong, and writer/director Trey Edward Shults knows how to generate a palpable sense of dread (dissonant musical score, long takes, careful lighting, etc.).  The problem is that the movie has no plot.  The set-up is strong, aside from a fuzzy foundation, but it doesn't take long to realize that the story is going nowhere.  Shults plays all his cards by the end of the first reel, and he struggles to keep things going before the violent and nonsensical conclusion.

A plague has ravaged the area.  Whether it is local or worldwide is not made clear, but it's dangerous enough that Paul (Edgerton) has gathered up his wife Sarah (Ejogo) and son Travis (Harrison Jr.) and moved to a remote cabin in the woods.  The film opens with them putting Sarah's plague-stricken father (David Pendleton) out of his misery.  One night the three survivors hear a loud ruckus behind the sealed front door.  It turns out that a man, believing the house to be uninhabited, has broken in to look for supplies.  After exhaustingly interrogating the man, a father named Will (Abbott), he retrieves Will's wife Kim (Keough) and son Andrew (Faulkner) and invites them to live in his cabin.

As far as plot goes, that's about it.  I'm not being oblique to avoid spoilers.  Until the climax, there isn't a lot to spoil.  It's effective on a technical level; there's a constant sense of tension and dread, and a few legitimate shocks.  But not much happens in this movie.  As it began, I sat back in my seat, preparing myself for something like "The Innkeepers," and despite the early promise, it doesn't happen.  Shults is spinning his wheels, and the longer the film goes on, the more I realized that this movie was the emperor with no clothes.

The most immediate problem is that the film lacks a firm foundation upon which to build the plot.  Like many a pandemic movie ("Carriers," "The Road," "Dawn of the Dead"), the specifics of the illness are irrelevant.  The plague is a plot device and is best treated as such.  But we have to have more information than this.  We have to know a little about it in order to get into the mindset of the characters.  We need to know what to look for and how it works.  In broad strokes at least.  But Shults is too oblique, too esoteric for this to work.  Instead of being able to accept the plague for what it is, we spend the entire time wondering what exactly these characters are afraid of.  Abstract villains, particularly in the horror genre, are fine.  "Event Horizon," which I just watched again recently, is a good example.  But it has to be set up well.  That doesn't happen here.

The performances are strong, which helps matters.  Joel Edgerton is his usual reliable self, mixing strength and vulnerability.  In a welcome change, his Paul isn't another one of those emotionally retarded macho men.  Paul has no qualms about doing what needs to be done or saying what needs to be said.  Carmen Ejogo is wasted in an underwritten role.  Kelvin Harrison Jr. is a solid vessel for the audience; it is through his eyes that the story is told, and he is up to the task.  The best performance is given by newcomer Christopher Abbot, whose performance as a desperate father tugs at the heart.

The film's climax is a bust.  It might have been tense and shocking had it not been so contrived.  It comes about not because the characters bring it about, but because forces them to act in ways that bring it about, regardless of whether or not it makes any sense.  It's only allowed to happen because the characters suddenly get brain cramps and become possessed by the Spirit of Bad Horror Movie Clichés.  The valiant efforts of the cast can't camouflage the fact that it's nothing short of idiotic.

Maybe another run through the computer could have smoothed out the film's rough edges.  The pieces are there.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

3/4

Starring (voices): Kevin Hart, Thomas Middleditch, Ed Helms, Nick Kroll, Jordan Peele, Kristen Schaal

Rated PG for Mild Rude Humor Throughout

I read the first few books of the "Captain Underpants" franchise.  They were silly, lighthearted and fun.  The movie has those same qualities.  It's not deep or sophisticated, nor is it intended to be.  I mean, come on, with a title like "Captain Underpants," were you really expecting a movie by Lars Von Trier?

George Beard (Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Middleditch) are two best friends who have bonded over pranks and comics.  Their greatest creation is an incredibly dim-witted superhero named Captain Underpants, who, not coincidentally, looks like their nemesis, Mr. Krupp (Helms).  He's the school principal, who rules the school with an iron fist and cracks down on anything resembling fun or joy in school.  When he finally catches the two performing a prank on Melvin (Peele), the school's obnoxious dork, Krupp plans to put the two boys in different classes.  In an act of desperation, George tries to hypnotize Mr. Krupp, which to their surprise, totally works.  With the snap of their fingers, he becomes Captain Underpants, but when splashed with water, he returns to his usual grumpy self.  Having a superhero comes in handy when the new science teacher, Professor Pippy P. Poopypants (Peele) arrives with the goal of eliminating laughter from the face of the Earth.

"Captain Underpants" breaks just about every rule of conventional filmmaking.  George and Harold frequently break the fourth wall, they narrate action scenes, and occasionally offer commentary on what's going on.  It's not as inventive as "The Lego Movie," but it comes close.  The best movies make us wonder where the story will go.  "Captain Underpants" does that too, but it also makes us wonder how it will get there.

What truly makes the film work, however, is it appeals to the little kid in us.  It knows that its silly and immature.  In fact, it celebrates it.  Often times, it's the most innocent and easy going comedies that are the best; comedy never works when the people behind it try too hard.  That this movie was written by Nicholas Stoller, the man-child behind two of last year's worst comedies, the brain-dead animated flick "Storks" and "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising" (an atrocity so bad I literally risked my sanity to review it), is shocking.  It may be a little long, but it's consistently amusing and contains two scenes that are explosively funny.

The voices are on-target, mainly because they're in on the joke.  Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch are instantly likable as George and Harold.  They have great chemistry and their comic energy is infectious.  Ed Helms is unrecognizable as both the grumpy Mr. Krupp and the idealistic but idiotic Captain Underpants.  He's having a ball.  And Nick Kroll has a lot of fun sending up the mad scientist role.

This movie is meant for little kids, but there's enough stuff that will appeal to adults as well.  The themes of failures in our education system are well-presented (surprisingly) and there are a few clever asides that the kids won't get.  It will probably play best on Blu Ray, but I'm giving it a solid recommendation because of how daring it is.  And that it's actually funny.

On some level, I think that I, a 29 year old college educated film critic, should feel guilty about enjoying something so silly and immature.  It's like the Farrelly Brothers for kids: stupid but clever and unapologetically in bad taste.  But when you have the principal conducting a group of kids performing the "1812 Overture" with whoopee cushions, well, you can't say no to that.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Mike's Musings: Five Films Everyone Must See

The term "must-see" is thrown out left and right in the film world, usually by quote whores paid by Hollywood publicists to promote crappy movies.  Critics such as myself use the term to try and persuade viewers to see the distressingly few good movies that come out every year.  This list is different.  This list is for five movies that I think everyone should see at least once.  Either because they're good filmmaking, shine a new light on the human condition, or are an experience that I don't think anyone should miss, these films are movies that I recommend with the highest compliments.

A word to the wise.  Some, although not all, of these films are very hard to watch.  They are meant to be.  I'm not a sadist or anything, nor do I recommend them simply because they are powerful.  For example, while "We Need to Talk about Kevin" and "Frailty" are very tough but very powerful films (that I enthusiastically encourage anyone who is interested to watch), I don't think they rise to this level.  I recommend them because they are superb films and because I believe that a person who ventures in will come out at the end a better person for it.  I know more than a few people who view films as escapist entertainment and avoid anything that makes them uncomfortable no matter how many people laud it.  I get that.  However, I know those same people watch movies like "Saving Private Ryan" and "American Sniper," which are just as difficult.  What's the difference between that and something like "The War Zone?"  Well, what's your answer?

These films are not presented in any order, by the way.  Just saying.

"Boys Don't Cry:" Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were fond of saying that they valued films because they allowed audiences to be taken into another person's life and allowed them to see the world through someone else's eyes.  There are many things to admire about "Boys Don't Cry," not least of which the performance to end all performances by Hilary Swank.  I'm putting it on this list for another reason: it humanizes a transperson.  Transgender rights are hugely controversial these days, and I think that with all the jargon, memes and firebrand commentary what gets lost is that these are real people.  Different from you and I, yes, but still human beings.  By refusing to categorize Brandon Teena in media terms, director Kimberly Pierce forces us to see him not as a freak or an anomaly, but as a human being.  This is a difficult film to watch, to be sure, with his brutal rape being one of the most savage ever filmed, but it's worth it because it humanizes someone we don't understand.

"Once Were Warriors:"  Alcoholism and domestic violence are not new topics for movies.  However, never have they been dealt with in such an uncompromising way than in this highly acclaimed but overlooked New Zealand drama.  Most films about addition show how it rips a person apart.  Admirable and true as that may be, "Once Were Warriors" takes it a step further by showing how it affects not just the addict, but the family members as well.  Although the wife is the only one physically affected by the alcoholic husband, there's no denying that the children are deeply affected too.  That the two leads give some of the best performances I've ever seen is just another reason to see this film.

"Boyhood:" On paper, this sounds like a gimmick and a recipe for boredom.  I mean, who wants to spend nearly three hours watching an ordinary kid grow up?  The key is in how it's presented.  By filming it over 12 years we see the characters grow up in a way that no other film has done.  The minutiae is rendered fascinating (normal as it may be), because the film reflects reality rather than mimics it.  Writer/director Richard Linklater could have easily fallen into the trap of making the film so realistic that he leaches all the drama out of the situation, something that has rendered many an indie film legitimately unwatchable ("Greetings from Tim Buckley" and "The Snowtown Murders" are two unfortunate examples).  But by seeing these people as characters rather than just ordinary people, Linklater turns what could have been dull into great drama.  Mark my words, this is a movie that will be remembered for as long as there are movies.

"The War Zone:" Who would want to watch this movie?  Considering its subject matter, it's a legitimate question.  Normally, I avoid revealing what this movie is actually about because it would turn away 99% of potential audience members.  However, seeing as it's my most widely read review by a considerable amount, I feel comfortable discussing it in detail (not that doing so will spoil the movie in any real sense).  The subject of incest is something that all but the most adventurous films avoid, and for good reason.  It's too raw, too painful for many viewers to endure even tangentially.  Tim Roth, in his directorial debut, throws caution to the wind and tackles it head on.  The results are devastating.  Of course it's difficult to watch.  Very difficult.  The bunker scene in particular is one of the most painful scenes ever filmed.  However, I recommend seeing this film for the same reason that a person would watch "Saving Private Ryan:" it is filmmaking of the highest order.  The acting is exceptional (not least because the two leads were non-actors) and the film demands mental engagement.  Every scene, every line, is open to infinite interpretations, and just when you think you've understood everyone's motives, something happens that offers a new interpretation on everything that comes before it.  That it's still easy to follow is something of a miracle.  More than anything, this is a movie that forces us to confront a very real evil that is unfortunately, but understandably, considered taboo.  But "The War Zone" refuses to be ignored.  It demands that we confront this horrible reality.  Maybe then we can actually do something about it.

"Spirited Away:" Of the five films on this list, this is the only one that can be described as "entertainment" in the truest sense of the word.  That doesn't make it any less essential to watch, just that it won't hit you in the gut while you watch it.  I encourage everyone to see this film, but no matter how hard I try, my words usually fall on deaf ears.  And how can I blame them?  Anime is a cult genre, associated with geekdom and some of the worst TV shows ever conceived.  "Spirited Away" is different.  I will loudly proclaim that this is the definitive animated film.  I'll go further and claim that its director, Hayao Miyazaki, should be listed along with Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick and all the other filmmakers considered the best.  I'll go even further than that and claim that this is one of the ten best films ever made.  In as much as the other films I've listed, "Spirited Away" is an experience.  However, the feelings you'll get while watching this film are not pain and suffering, but magic and joy.  I defy anyone to look at some of the images that Miyazaki has created and not stare.  Studio Ghibli, despite releasing one captivating film after another, is still a cult phenomenon.  That's a shame, because everyone I know who has seen this movie has been just as rapturous as I am.  With any film, you can find someone who doesn't like it.  Yes, I've met someone who thinks that "Saving Private Ryan" is an overrated bore.  I have yet to meet someone who has made the same claim about "Spirited Away."

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Mummy (2017)

2/4

Starring: Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe, Jake Johnson

Rated PG-13 for Violence, Action and Scary Images, and for Some Suggestive Material and Partial Nudity

With the success of the Marvel and DC superhero "universes," Universal is hoping to duplicate its success.  But instead of men and women dressed in leotards and motion capture outfits, Universal has decided to create a movie universe of classic monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Werewolf, and so on.  With this new iteration of "The Mummy," their so-called "Dark Universe" doesn't get off to a good start.

Nick Morton (Cruise) and Chris Vail (Johnson) are two American soldiers who have a nice scam going: they draw out ISIS terrorists to ancient archaeological sites and then loot the area and sell artifacts on the black market.  When the latest site puts up more resistance than usual, a drone strike opens a hole into the ground that appears to hide an ancient Egyptian tomb.  Hired treasure protector Jenny Halsey (Wallis) arrives to take control of the site, barking orders to everyone.  Nick inadvertently causes a scary looking sarcophagus to arise out of the ground.  Little does he know that that puts a curse on him from Ahmanet (Boutella), the Egyptian priestess buried there, and she has special plans for him.

Calling this a remake/reboot/reimagining/re-whatever of the "Mummy" franchise that started in 1999 is a mistake.  Apart from one blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference, this movie carves out its own identity and seeks to stand on its own.  Gone are the pulpy adventure and quirky humor of the movies starring Brendan Fraser.  This is a much darker film that leans more towards horror.  Or at least it would if Tom Cruise didn't mug the camera acting like he's in an SNL skit.

Tom Cruise can be a charming and versatile actor, but either he's miscast, trying to salvage a badly written role, or simply not trying.  It's as if he's wandered in from a sequel to the aforementioned adventure series.  Even taking that into account, there's no calling his performance anything less than embarrassing.  And in his mid-50's, isn't he a little old for this sort of thing?  Cruise is beginning to look his age, and methinks he should leave the stunts to someone younger and concentrate on his skills as an actor.  His co-star Annabelle Wallis isn't much better.  Her acting has not improved since her one-dimensional turn in "Annabelle," and as a result she blends into the background.  Her chemistry with Cruise is so non-existent that I was unaware that they were supposed to have any feelings for each other until the very end.  Sofia Boutella doesn't have much to do other than look creepy, something that she accomplishes (make-up and CGI help).  Russell Crowe appears to be slumming for a hefty paycheck.  Only Jake Johnson is entertaining to watch (as usual), but he's just a minor character.

I really wish that studios would stop giving big budget movies to untried directors.  Occasionally, that works, such as with Patty Jenkins and the much more entertaining "Wonder Woman" movie.  Those are rare exceptions, and most such movies end up being bombs like "47 Ronin."  To be fair to Alex Kurtzman (who did direct the low-budget drama "People Like Us" five years ago), this isn't an awful movie, but if Universal wants to get Dark Universe off to a good start, why not invest in a real script with a real filmmaker.  This is a movie for someone like James Wan, who has proven that he can handle both action ("Furious 7") and horror (everything else).  Kurtzman doesn't know what this movie should be (the half dozen credited screenwriters could be to blame), and as a result the film doesn't work.  It's not scary, it's not thrilling and it's not fun.

Universal has made a huge investment and is desperate to get a piece of the "universe" pie, so unless this turns out to be a bomb of epic proportions (doubtful), it's a safe bet that we will be seeing more of the Dark Universe.  I just hope the movies will improve in quality.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Duelist

1/4

Starring: Pyotor Fyodorov, Vladimir Mashkov, Martin Wuttke, Yuliya Khlynina, Pavel Tabakov

Rated R for Strong Violence and Some Sexuality/Nudity

Dueling seems like a total waste of time and life.  Even from the point of view of a Southern gentleman before the Civil War, the idea of having a gunfight to the death over the concept of honor reeks of stupidity and hypocrisy.  I mean, what's the point of risking your life, or killing someone, for the sake of your ego?  That's not honor.  That's narcissism.

Apparently, the Confederates weren't the only ones who were fond of these sorts of duels.  The Russians loved them too.  Of course, if you were too cowardly, you could have someone go in your place for a hefty fee.  One such person is Yakovlev (Fyodorov), a man with a bad past.  Although he always wins, his behavior is akin to that of someone with a death wish.  What he doesn't know is that someone is using him to ice his enemies, and he is going to have to play his cards right to stay alive and restore his family's name.

The problem with this film (apart from being unbearably boring) is that it likes its characters and expects us to like them too.  But that's impossible.  In addition to being one-dimensional, dull, and filled with more angst than all the "Twilight" movies combined, they're also high-strung lunatics who will risk their lives over the mildest insult.  Seriously, I've heard middle schoolers make more cutting remarks with less fuss.  Any filmmaker with half a brain would have realized that the only way to make this movie work would be to view the characters with contempt.  Asking the audience to sympathize with a bunch of bored, overly sensitive and self-centered aristocrats with a serious case of bloodlust is a recipe for failure.  And while I didn't exactly like "American Psycho" or "Very Bad Things," the respective filmmakers at least had the good sense to treat the characters right: introduce them as vile pigs and have the audience watch them get their just rewards.

The less said about the acting, the better.  Everyone in this movie takes this story deadly seriously (no pun intended).  While this is totally wrong for the film, it does end with the result of some scenes being unintentionally funny.  Especially the sex scene between the drunk, bitter hero and the wimpy idiot of a princess.  This has to be the most balls-out awkward sex scene in many a year.  In addition to being not in the least bit erotic or passionate, it's so clumsily done that I was left wondering if either Yakovlev was having second thoughts or had just lost his virginity.  Mention must be made of the fact that some of the actors bear a strikingly similar appearance to Hollywood stars.  For example, Pyotor Fyodorov looks like the son of Colin Farrell and Robert Sean Leonard, Vladimir Mashkov looks like James Purefoy after being hit by a cement truck, and Yulia Khlynina looks like a very fraile Christina Ricci.

The real question is why Columbia would pony up the dough to distribute this movie.  What moron thought they could actually make any money off of this disaster?  It's in Russian with no big stars, which eliminates the multiplex crowd and it's too violent and badly made for the art-house crowd, and it's a total bore, which is a sign to "stay away" for everyone else.  Boggles the mind.

It's a pity that this takes place in 1860's Russia.  Lisa Lampanelli would have had a field day with this crowd.  As ill-fitting as it would be, an appearance from her could only have helped this misbegotten "Gladiator"-lite wannabe.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Quiet American

3/4

Starring: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Tzi Ma, Rade Serbedzija

Rated R for Images of Violence and Some Language

"The Quiet American" is really two movies in one, and all the better for it.  The love triangle and the film noir mystery are inextricably linked; they feed off each other and the synergy between them gives the film its power.  This isn't a groundbreaking or "important" film by any means, but it's quite well done.

Thomas Fowler (Caine) is a journalist for a London newspaper working in Vietnam.  It is 1952 and the French are battling the communists for control of the country.  Although he is married, he has a lover named Phuong (Yen) who lives with him.  He would very much like to marry her, but his Catholic wife back home refuses to divorce him because she is Catholic.  One day he meets a charming American named Alden Pyle (Fraser) who has just come to Vietnam bringing medical aid.  He and Thomas become fast friends, but when he meets Phuong, Thomas is instantly smitten.  Thomas correctly sees Alden as a threat since the American can offer her something he can't: a future.  Meanwhile, Thomas is sniffing out a story involving an army general, which leads him to believe that Alden may not be who he says he is.

"The Quiet American" is what "Shanghai," the 2010 bomb that no one saw (for good reason), should have been.  This is not an ambitious picture; in fact, apart from a few shocking instances of violence, it's a subtle motion picture.  This isn't so much a criticism as it is a descriptor.  There will always be a place for cerebral dramas for adults, provided they are done will.

The performances are strong, which helps the film considerably.  Had the two leads been boring, this would have been almost unwatchable.  Fortunately, we have acting titan Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser (who is capable of far more than fighting mummies all day long) in the lead roles.  As Thomas, Caine is playing a romantic lead, something that he rarely gets these days.  Although far too old to start a family with Phuong, he does love her with perhaps a bit of possessiveness.  Brendan Fraser has little trouble playing the WASPy nerd with a secret.  Caine overpowers him in terms of range and presence, but considering that this is Michael Caine we're talking about, the fact that Fraser holds his own is impressive in and of itself.  Their relationship is interesting.  Both of them want Phuong and while they are not above playing slightly dirty to get her, they're far too mature to be petty about it.  They can still be friends.

The problem with the film is that emotionally, this is as romantic as a dead fish.  Much of that has to do with the fact that Phuong never becomes a character.  She's presented as a prize for Thomas and Alden.  Her character is less important than the ideal that she is in the eyes of the two men.  She's a fantasy; a living, breathing fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless.  By portraying her this way. director Phillip Noyce robs the film of a significant emotional charge.

Still, that was probably a conscious creative decision since the film isn't a love story.  It's more about the relationship between Thomas and Alden, and the two of them revealing themselves to the other.  On that level, I recommend "The Quiet American."

Friday, June 2, 2017

Wonder Woman

3.5/4

Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, Connie Nielson, Robin Wright, Saiid Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, David Thewlis, Elena Anaya

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

It's long past time that we got a big budget action movie with a female in the lead role.  Audiences are craving for more diversity in their movies, and Hollywood is finally answering the call.  So what took so long for a super heroine movie?  Audiences have demanded it, actors want to act in them and filmmakers want to make them.  It's the risk averse studio executives who are terrified of rocking the boat.  But the superhero frenzy in full swing and the need to set up the Justice League movie, there's never been a better time to take the plunge.  And I can scarcely imagine a better movie to kick things off with than Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman."  This is the best superhero movie since "The Dark Knight."

The film opens with Diana retrieving a photo that was delivered to her by Wayne Industries.  It's a photo of her and four friends during World War I, and that's our entry into the story.  You see, Diana is a princess of the Amazons, a group of warrior women who were created by Zeus to defend humanity against Ares, who believes them to be rotten and corrupt.  When a fighter pilot named Steve Trevor (Pine) crash lands near her home, he tells of a great war where millions are suffering and dying.  Diana believes this is Ares making a play to destroy humanity, and she sets out to help Steve end it.  But things aren't that simple and Diana begins to realize that peace may not be solved by killing one man.

"Wonder Woman" succeeds because it understands that creating a good superhero movie is about more than in-jokes, Easter Eggs, and cameos by other superheroes.  It's about good storytelling, smart scripting, and action scenes that raise the adrenaline.  The former is easy to do, which is what most settle for.  Director Patty Jenkins aims for the latter, and succeeds.  This isn't a movie that will only work for the people who hang out at comic book shops and dress up for Comic Con.  This is a movie that succeeds because it's a damn good movie.

The acting is good for a summer action movie.  Like Christopher Nolan, Patty Jenkins views her actors as more than props for the dialogue and special effects.  Gal Gadot may not be the best actress, but boy is she gorgeous!  And she knows how to handle herself with the best of them in the action scenes (not surprising, since she's a vet of the "Fast and the Furious" franchise and did her service in the Israeli Defense Force).  Chris Pine is his usual reliable self, although his performance sometimes veers too close to his role as Captain Kirk (not that that's a problem).  He even gets a sort-of nude scene where he can show off his impressive physique.  He and Gadot have a nice chemistry together.  The supporting cast of character actors does a fine job, but worth mentioning are Connie Nielson as Diana's mother, Robin Wright as Diana's aunt, and Ewen Bremner and Saiid Taghmaoui as two of Steve's companions.

The trap that a lot of films with strong female characters run into is to have them be badasses but then cede the spotlight to the lead male star.  Not here.  Wonder Woman is front and center for all the action, and Steve is usually running to catch up.  This is not a damsel in distress.  Diana may be a naïve fish-out-of-water, but she's smart and learns quickly, and has the brains and brawn to take on any challenger.  This is a perfect movie for girls because it shows how Diana becomes a capable, self-determined woman who can rise to the occasion and save the day.  Bella Swan, eat your heart out.

When it comes to summer action movies, "Wonder Woman" has got it all.  The action scenes are sometimes too quickly edited and there are times when Diana seems to move weightlessly and as a consequence there isn't as much adrenaline as there could be.  But Jenkins has a visual flair that's capable of getting oohs and ahhs from the audience without being ostentatious, a gift for comedy (there's a hilarious innuendo-laden scene on a boat between Diana and Steve) and pays attention to her actors.  Superhero fan or not, you're going to love this movie!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Lost City of Z


2.5/4

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Edward Ashley, Tom Holland, Angus MacFayden, Ian McDiarmid

Rated PG-13 for Violence, Disturbing Images, Brief Strong Language and Some Nudity

A poor choice in cinematographer casts a pall over “The Lost City of Z.”  Oh sure, there are other problems, such as flat characterizations and odd directing choices.  But the film's look, which is bleak and morose without any atmosphere, sinks the entire project.  I’ve seen many films in my time, but never one where the lighting tanked it so completely.

To history and adventure buffs, the story of adventurer Percy Fawcett (Hunnam) is well known.  An army officer turned Amazonian explorer sought to find a city hidden deep within the Amazon rainforest.  Despite three attempts, he was unable to, and on the final attempt, he and his young son Jack (Holland) were never seen again.

The film version of his story starts at the early point in his career.  Percy is an untried officer looking to rise up through the ranks and restore his family’s name.  But assignments are hard to come by, and those that do are without much merit or honor.  An opportunity comes his way when the National Geographic Society, led by Sir George Goldie (McDiarmid), asks him to determine a border.  Hoping to gain more respect and money, he agrees.  Together with his partners Henry Costin (Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Ashley), they set out to scout the land.  The journey is long, arduous and miserable.  Danger, disease and death plague them.  But when they get to their destination, Percy finds some ancient pottery that leads him to believe there is an ancient city nearby.  Finding it becomes his life’s pursuit.  And his demise.

“The Lost City of Z” is an adventure film, but an atypical one.  Instead of something like “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” or the “Uncharted” video games, director James Gray goes for a more realistic, dangerous tone.  That’s fine by me, especially since that vision is so in vogue these days.  The problem is in its execution.  Much is made of the dangers of the Amazon, but I never felt it.  It’s the job of the director and cinematographer to make the audience feel the emotions that the characters do.  Instead of a suffocating, humid place where the thrill of exploration is mixed with the fear of death, the Amazon seems like an ordinary place.  I think in the desire for realism, Gray lost touch with what makes the jungle so unique.

The performances are fine, but by design, they’re kept low-key.  Charlie Hunnam, a hugely talented British actor, is quite good here, managing to keep things afloat when everything else flounders.  He’s better than the material he is given, which is really half-formed.  Robert Pattinson is unrecognizable as Henry Costin and shows talent but little charisma.  Sienna Miller can add this film to a long list of great performances.  And Angus MacFayden plays a rich man so in over his head that he’s simultaneously infuriating (which is a compliment) and pathetic.

Either the film was edited down too much (even though it's 2.5 hours long as it is) or the screenplay needed another rewrite.  I’m not sure which.  What I am sure of is that the characters are flat and underdeveloped.  We don’t know what makes them tick or who they really are.  It’s hard to care about anyone in this film since they are so half-developed.  The exception is Percy, but that’s because he’s in every scene.  The film touches on ideas such as destiny, obsession, exploration, the drive for success, and so on but these aren’t well conveyed, and if they come across, they feel redundant.  Even aside from that, there are scenes here that just don’t work.  An example would be the scene when Percy asks the NGS to fund a return expedition.  Tonally, it’s so scattered that I’m not even sure Gray himself knew what he was trying to accomplish with it.  Other areas aren’t handled well either.  Passages of time feel random and haphazard, the character of Arthur Manley is totally undeveloped for a character we’re clearly supposed to care about and the development of the relationship between Percy and Jack is, to put it mildly, extremely clunky.

The film is never boring and rarely uninteresting.  It’s just that its problems and shortcomings are too obvious and too consistent for me to recommend it.  Perhaps it will play better on Blu Ray.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

2/4

Starring: Johnny Depp, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Javier Bardem, David Wenham, Orlando Bloom

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Adventure Violence, and Some Suggestive Content

Captain Jack Sparrow is one of cinema's legendary characters.  I would put him alongside Hannibal Lector (Hopkins, not Cox), Norman Bates, Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, and even Rick and Ilsa.  Due in no small part to Johnny Depp's performance, Captain Jack Sparrow towers over all other pirates in film history.  It's unthinkable that then-CEO Michael Eisner thought that Depp was ruining the movie with his balls-out loony interpretation of the character.  His original three appearances were first rate, but after that, the story was told.  Disney, looking to keep a cash cow running by any means possible and Depp, lured by his love of the character (although the salary of $55.5 million probably helped), returned for a fourth installment.  That was very profitable, but tepidly received by critics and fans.  So the question is, can Capt'n Jack's fifth outing breathe new life into the franchise?  As much as it pains me to say it, the answer is no.

At the end of the third film, Will Turner (Bloom) stabbed the heart of Davy Jones, thus taking his place.  His son Henry (Thwaites) is desperate to find a way to free his father from the curse of captaining the Flying Dutchman.  To do that, he needs Poseidon's Trident, which will break all curses and allow the owner to rule the seas.  Henry isn't alone.  A scientist named Caryna Smith (Scodelario) thinks that finding the trident will help her unlock her past.  A naval officer by the name of Scarfield (Wenham) wants it to ensure British supremacy over the high seas.  And most notably, Captain Salazar wants it to undo a curse that Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) put him under.  The chase, as they say, is on.

What sinks the film is that Jack Sparrow isn't like the Jack Sparrow that we adored from his previous adventures.  Although it was originally one of Depp's favorite roles, he's obviously very tired of playing it.  There's no joy in his performance; he's bored to tears and doesn't bother to hide it.  It's hard not to blame him.  The screenplay gives him a character so one-note that he had to have felt insulted.  Little of the wit, intelligence and moral ambiguity that made him such a likable scoundrel are in evidence here.  This is screenwriting on autopilot.

The two new straight men, Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario, are better than they have been in previous films of theirs.  But they still made me wish for Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann.  Geoffrey Rush returns as Captain Barbossa, but the filmmakers make the fatal mistake of trying to humanize him.  Only Javier Bardem seems intent on earning his paycheck.  His Captain Salazar is a vicious creature that creeped me out on a few occasions.

Taking over from Rob Marshall, who was in over his head with the fourth installment, are Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg.  Their resume includes the Oscar-nominated Swedish film "Kon-Tiki" and a western action-comedy called "Bandidas" starring Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz that I don't think anyone saw.  Their work is adequate, but not stand-out.  The film looks okay and the special effects are impressive, but the plot makes no sense most of the time.  More importantly, they fail to capture the good cheer of the original trilogy.  There was a sense of jolly goofiness that was felt throughout the first three films that made it impossible to go for very long without a silly grin on your face.  Marshall failed to recreate that and these two aren't any more successful.

Many people will flock to this movie simply because they love Jack Sparrow.  I do too, which is why it pains me to tell you that it's not worth your time.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Cooties

2/4

Starring: Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Pedrad, Jorge Garcia

Rated R for Horror Violence and Gore, Language including Sexual References, and Some Drug Use

Ah, cooties.  The predecessor of hormonal confusion.  All the awkwardness, none of the...well, you know.  I'd rather not mention that when referring to kids.  Not that it matters, since that has little to do with kids themselves.  Nor this movie, in fact.  This is a zombie comedy (without the zombies) where the villains become undead as a result of a very bad chicken nugget.  And you thought "Super Size Me" had it in for fast food...

Clint (Wood) is a hack writer having returned home to Fort Chicken, IL after his career as a writer never took off.  To pay the bills, he's returning to his old elementary school as a substitute English teacher.  However, things don't turn out the way he expects: he runs into an old flame, Lucy (Pill), who's dating the psychotic gym teacher Wade (Wilson), the teachers are lunatics, and the kids are monsters.  Just when it couldn't get any worse, they start eating each other.  And the teachers are next on the menu.

Naturally, the filmmakers know that this script could never be taken seriously, and they had to good sense not to even try.  However, while it's certainly not scary, it's not all that funny either.  The set-up is worthy of a few chuckles, but it quickly becomes apparent that "Cooties" doesn't really have anything to bring to the table.  That's surprising considering that the screenplay was co-written by Leigh Whannell (who, along with James Wan, has reinvigorated the horror genre) and Ian Brennan (who gave us "Glee").  About the only new twist is that these kids can plan and think.  But I suppose since they're just afflicted with cooties and not the resurrected dead (although, considering what they do to each other, they're probably that too), it's not really worth noting.

I got the sense that this was an instance where the goal of the movie was less about turning a profit than giving the actors an excuse to have fun.  No one is taking this movie seriously, and it shows.  It's impossible for Elijah Wood to give a bad performance, but the only thing worth noting is that he lets off a few of the seven words you can't say on television.  Yes, Frodo drops a few f-bombs.  Alison Pill is flat as the ever chirpy Lucy.  Rainn Wilson does his usual disaffected dweeb schtick, which has long since become annoying.  Jack McBrayer would be funnier had he been given funnier things to do.  Leigh Whannel takes social awkwardness to a level never before seen.  And Jorge Garcia is wasted as the drugged up crosswalk guard.

Just like the last movie I reviewed, "Lowriders," there's another movie that does the same thing, only better.  Two, in fact.  "Zombieland" is an obvious choice, but my personal preference is "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse," which is funnier, more subversive, and more clever than either of them.  The writing is sharper, the acting is better, the timing is perfect, and it's a whole lot funnier.  "Cooties" isn't terrible, but the underrated gem from two years ago possesses more creativity and a bigger bite.  No pun intended.

Well, maybe.


Lowriders

1.5/4

Starring: Gabriel Chavarria, Demian Bichir, Theo Rossi, Melissa Benoist, Eva Longoria, Tony Revolori

Rated PG-13 for Language, Some Violence, Sensuality, Thematic Elements and Brief Drug Use

I've often said that I go easier on films that try to do something different.  Even if they aren't perfect or don't quite work, I'll give them credit for going against the grain.  However, the reverse is true.  If a film takes no chances or settles for routine, I'm tougher on them.  If a movie plays it safe, it has to bring something new to the table (such as good storytelling, acting, etc., like in "Blood Diamond").  However, if you clearly ignore interesting possibilities in your story or waste talents of your actors in playing it safe, that's when I turn hostile.

Such is the case of "Lowriders," an urban drama that seeks to meld a dysfunctional family yarn with an underdog story.  In addition to being routine on both counts, it does both badly.  There's plenty of bad melodrama, plot holes and eye-rolling contrivances to go around, sabotaging the valiant efforts of the cast to create characters we care about.

Danny Alvarez (Chavarria) is a young street artist struggling to stay above water.  His home life is a mess; his mother has died, his father Miguel (Bichir) seeks to interest him in his obsession with lowriding (building tricked out cars), his step-mother Gloria (Longoria) is around long enough to worry about the both of them.  Now his older brother Francisco (Rossi) has been released from prison, causing further friction.  Danny meets a girl named Lorelai (Benoist) who could lead him to better things.

There's a lot going on, but it's all surprisingly coherent.  Which is a problem, since it highlights how lame and lazy it all is.  There hasn't been a narrative film about low-riding before, which is a nice change of pace, I guess, and there isn't a single drug dealer in sight (ditto), but that's just the seasoning.  The important stuff, like characters and story, is all borrowed from movie formulas so ancient that the term "grave-robbing" can apply.  There's precious little in this movie that hasn't been done before.  Many times, in fact.

The actors are better than this material.  Made up of character actors and unknowns, the cast is ripe with talent.  They do what they can, but ultimately, they're hamstrung by material that's worthy of a high school playwright.  Gabriel Chavarria is effective in an everyman sort of way.  It's a low-key performance, but he shows a natural, unforced charisma that should get him noticed.  He has wonderful chemistry with the hipster photographer played by Melissa Benoist, and as a result, their scenes are the most interesting in the movie.  Demian Bichir does what he can with the clichéd role of the alcoholic grieving father who can't express himself, and he manages to make the character interesting, rather than so emotionally retarded that I wanted to slug him.  Theo Rossi is appropriately serpentine, until the film lets him off the hook.

There is some worthwhile material.  Whenever Ricardo de Montreuil allows his characters to breathe and escape the clichés that the script forces them into, it works.  But such moments are few.  They're like finding a few dry spots in the town dump.  Only the strength of the performances save it from becoming a total nightmare.

Occasionally when you see a bad movie, there's another one that does the same thing better.  There's a movie called "Black Irish" that is very similar but eons better.  It's about an Irish Catholic family from South Boston rather than a Latino family from Southern Los Angeles, but many of its concepts are there as well.  But because it is written with more honesty and specificity, it is a much better film.  Skip this one and see that little indie gem.

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.