Sunday, April 23, 2017

Unforgettable

1/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

Monster's Ball

1.5/4

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

Rated R for Strong Sexual Content, Language and Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

2.5/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

Traffic

3.5/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Gifted

3.5/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is one of the year's best films.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Waltz with Bashir

2.5/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

1.5/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 3, 2017

Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam

3.5/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Power Rangers

3/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Our Kind of Traitor

3/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Need I say more?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

2/4

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

Rated PG for Some Action Violence, Peril and Frightening Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

3/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Life (2017)

3/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Straw Dogs (2011)

2.5/4

Starring: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Drew Powell, Dominic Purcell, Willa Holland

Rated R for Strong Brutal Violence including a Sexual Attack, Menace, Some Sexual Content and Pervasive Language

"Straw Dogs," the remake of the 1971 classic directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Dustin Hoffman (unseen by me), seeks to be two very different movies at the same time.  It wants to be an adrenaline pumping psychological thriller with lots of bloody carnage but at the same time it wants the audience to consider the consequences of such actions.  Considering how these things are diametrically opposed, it would have taken a truly visionary director to marry them.  If it can be done at all.  I give director Rod Lurie kudos for the attempt, but it just doesn't work.

David Sumner (Marsden) is a Hollywood screenwriter who has moved to small-town Mississippi, where his actress wife Amy (Bosworth) grew up, in order to write his screenplay about the Battle of Stalingrad.  The couple moves into the house where Amy grew up, and they've hired Charlie Hedden (Skarsgard), her old flame, to rebuild the barn that was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.  But Charlie still has the hots for Amy, which he makes quite clear.  But David isn't one to get jealous or angry, which causes Charlie to escalate his acts of terror.  How much can the perfectly PC David take before he's pushed over the edge?

Had the film worked, it would have been both challenging and terrifying.  We'd all like to think that we'd have the backbone to stand up to a bully, but do we really?  It takes more strength than most of us have to put our foot down to someone, especially if they're a lot bigger than you and are flanked by equally brutish flunkies.  A movie like this could challenge our thoughts on morality and our own personal strengths.  Unfortunately, poor decision-making on Lurie's part and odd scripting choices fail to milk the premise for the possibilities.

For one thing, David doesn't change that much.  In order for this character to work, we must see him struggling to be the "good guy" even when his values are challenged.  That doesn't happen; until the very end he's a doormat.  James Marsden doesn't have great range, but he'd be perfect for the role if the screenplay had allowed him the latitude to work with.  Kate Bosworth fares even worse; she's saddled with an inconsistent character who is either tough-as-nails or a wimpy yuppie.  Bosworth is a good actress, but no one could have rescued this character without some rewrites.  The only actor who survives the material is Alexander Skarsgard, who is splendidly creepy.  In many ways, guys like Charlie are the creepiest, because they know that they don't have to do much to intimidate you.  With some threatening body language and a few choice words they can make you shake from head to toe.  James Woods turns up as a foam at the mouth racist, but he would be more interesting if his character was better wedded into the story.

This screenplay needed more work.  There are too many subplots, character motivation is spotty and the film seems to have been edited with scotch tape.  A movie like this depends on escalating psychological tension.  While I would be lying if I said that this movie is devoid of suspense or adrenaline, a psychological thriller should have to resort to violence straight out of a "Saw" movie.  The increasingly tense gave of psychological warfare should have been enough.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Mulan

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, BD Wong, Miguel Ferrer, James Hong, Harvey Fierstein, Jerry Tondo, Gedde Watanabe, Soon-Tek Oh, Pat Morita, June Foray

Rated G

During the 90's, there was no one more reliable for family entertainment than Disney.  Well, sort of.  Their live action movies were horrible, but their animated movies were amazing.  The list is impressive: "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," "The Lion King," "Hercules," "Tarzan."  They had a misfire or two (like "Pocahantas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"), but even those weren't horrible.  They knew better than anyone that in order to be a success, you had to put story and character development over visuals and marketing.  While not as well-remembered as the first two movies I listed, "Mulan" is just as good.

Mulan (Wen) is a young girl who just wants to do right by her family.  However, she's more of a tomboy than anything, which turns her important meeting with the Matchmaker (Miriam Margolyes) into an epic disaster.  This is small beans compared to what's in store for her beloved father Fa Zhou (Oh).  The Huns, led by Shan Yu (Ferrer), have breached the Great Wall and are headed for the Imperial City.  The Emperor (Morita) has ordered conscription across China, and that includes Fa Zhou.  Fa Zhou honors the call to serve despite an injury that would mean certain death for him.  Mulan won't let her father die, so she cuts off most of her hair, steals his armor and goes in his place.  Of course, if her commander, a man named Shang (Wong) finds out the truth, she'll be executed.  To help her, her ancestors send the Great Stone Dragon.  Or they would have, had Mushu (Murphy), an ex-guardian, not destroyed his statue in an attempt to wake him up.  Now Mushu, with the help of a "lucky" cricket and a very sarcastic horse, must save Mulan.

All the requisites for a good Disney movie are here: the plucky misfit who finds herself, the animal sidekicks, the action scenes, the love interest, the quirky supporting characters.  And the songs.  No Disney animated movie would be complete without some catchy songs.  While not up there with the classics like "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Circle of Life," they musical numbers here get the job done.

The voice acting is excellent.  Ming-Na Wen, taking over from Lea Salonga (who was turned down because she couldn't sound masculine, although she does provide the singing voice), makes for a strong yet vulnerable heroine.  It's impossible not to get behind her.  And Wen brings impeccable comic timing, something the actress is rarely allowed to show.  Eddie Murphy, like Robin Williams in "Aladdin," is a scene stealer, throwing out hilarious one-liners left and right.  BD Wong is alternately intimidating and heroic, and the rest of the cast provides more comic relief.

No Disney movie would be complete without a good villain, and in many ways Shan Yu, voiced by the late Miguel Ferrer, is the creepiest.  He'd be up there with the most memorable ones like Scar if he had more screen time, but he's mostly off in the background.  That's not such a bad thing, since he's scary enough to be nightmare-inducing.

"Mulan" works because it hits all the right notes.  It's thrilling, inspiring and frequently hilarious.  The bits where Mulan talks like a man are cringe-humor (something I'm not particularly fond of) and the ending is a little too cute, but all in all it's a great way to spend 90 minutes.

Even if you don't have kids.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Night Moves

0.5/4

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard

Rated R for Some Language and Nudity

I knew that as soon as I picked this movie from my collection that I was going to either love it or hate it.  Slow-burn, understated thrillers are incredibly difficult to get right.  And for the Sundance crowd (no one else could possibly be the film's target audience), ego-trips on the part of the director are hailed as "style" or "quirkiness."  No guesses as to what my verdict actually is.

This movie sucks.  It's dull, it's pointless, it's devoid of any interesting characters or plot developments.  There's precious little suspense and even less good drama.  This is just an excuse for writer/director Kelly Reichardt to show her (presumably) equally self-absorbed, contrarian friends how "avant-garde" and "not Hollywood" she is.  Those may be true, but based on the evidence, she's a lousy filmmaker.

Josh (Eisenberg), Dena (Fanning) and Harmon (Sarsgaard) are three radical environmentalists who plan to blow up a hydroelectric plant.  However, mistrust is in the air, and they soon learn that terrorism pays a heavy price.  To illustrate this, there's a lot of mumbling, staring off into space, and driving around.

I hate movies like this.  It's so obviously a vehicle for the director to show off that it's actually offensive.  I mean seriously.  Who in their right mind would subject an audience to a film where not only does almost nothing happen, but all the possible energy is sucked out of the movie?  Who but an egomaniac would do something so sadistic?  Reichardt isn't the only one I blame.  What about the producers, the stars or the studio heads?  Hell, even the caterer had to have known what was going on.  When every character talks like they're in a library and there are long, pointless silences everywhere, it should be obvious to anyone present that something is terribly wrong.

None of the three cast members are known for being risk-averse when it comes to choosing roles.  After all, Dakota Fanning played a child rape victim in "Houndog," Jesse Eisenberg took on the monumental challenge of playing Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network," and Peter Sarsgaard's resume is filled with daring and diverse roles (perhaps none more so than the psychopathic John Lotter in "Boys Don't Cry").  None of their talents are served well here, forcing them to try and save a film that was set on course for self-destruction.  They deserve better.

A slow-burn thriller like this needs two things: strong character identification and an appropriate, deliberate pace.  The latter is dead on arrival, since it goes nowhere very slowly.  The first is non-existent.  All the mumbling and staring off into space doesn't tell us anything about the people in this movie.  I didn't know a damn thing about Josh, Dena, Harmon, or any of the other characters.  Logan Miller, who would later go on to steal scenes in the criminally underrated "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse," appears, but he's only on screen for two minutes and Reichardt doesn't even try to take advantage of his screwy humor.

There are a few moments here and there where the seeds of a potentially good movie are shown, but Reichardt ignores them.  For her, this is all about showing off her indie sensibilities and rebellion against the multiplex.  I guess I can admire her convictions on some level, but it's very hard since the movie is so fucking awful.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Belko Experiement

2.5/4

Starring: John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Owain Yeoman, Sean Gunn, Michael Rooker, Rusty Schwimmer, Gregg Henry

Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence Throughout, Language including Sexual References, and Some Drug Use

I have no problem with dumb action movies ("Hardcore Henry" is a good example).  Nor do I have a problem with films that deal with weighty material at the expense of plot (witness my admiration of Martin Scorcese's box office bomb, "Silence").  It's always intriguing when a film marries the two types of films, which on the surface seem incompatible.  Then a movie like "The Matrix" comes along and strikes a huge chord and proves that taking a risk is usually preferable to the alternative.  "The Belko Experiment" seeks to join this distressingly small roster of films, but it's not quite successful.

Belko Industries is a company whose chief export seems to be dressing professionally and looking busy.  Even the workers aren't sure what they actually do.  It's just another day at the office in Columbia, and even with the change in the company's already impressive security, nothing seems amiss.  Wendell Dukes (McGinley) is all but stalking Leandra (Arjona).  Leandra and her actual boyfriend, Mike Milch (Gallagher Jr), are making out in her office.  Terry Winter (Yeoman) is bragging about his latest excursion with his family.  Peggy (Schwimmer) is joking around with her co-workers.  Nothing unusual until a voice comes on the speaker and says that if two people aren't dead in the next 30 minutes, many more will die.  Everyone thinks is a prank or a sick joke, but when people start dying and the building gets put on lockdown, it becomes quite clear that someone is playing a deadly game.  But who?  And why?

"The Belko Experiement" suffers from a disconnect between what's on the page and what's on screen.  Writer James Gunn appears to have written this screenplay with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.  As is usually the case, he both embraces and mocks genre conventions.  But director Greg McLean, who made the unsettling "Wolf Creek," plays it straight.  Perhaps he was more interested in the sociological aspects of it rather than the adrenaline or gore (both of which the film has in numerous amounts).  It's not a fatal mistake, but it makes the film seem...odd.

That's not to say that this is a bad film.  It isn't.  Far from it, in fact, since I almost recommended it.  The film boasts some nice performances, mostly from unknowns.  John Gallagher Jr is easy to root for; the role was written for him after he impressed Gunn while auditioning for another role that Gunn felt he wasn't a good fit for.  Gallagher plays the altruist, who advocates calm and reason in the face of terror and bloodshed.  Tony Goldwyn, no stranger to playing scummy characters, plays what has to be the first corporate executive who is not a complete psychopath.  He's the villain of the film, but he's no Gordon Gekko.  Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz and Rusty Schwimmer (who gets far too few roles) all provide solid support.

Venturing out of the theater, I almost gave this movie a 3/4.  On some level, I am still tempted.  But I just don't think it works.  Even at a hair under 90 minutes, the pacing sags during the middle portion.  The film's presentation is at odds with the screenplay.  And while the sociological aspects of the film are dealt with, they're nothing we haven't seen in other, better movies.  Ultimately, I kept asking myself one question: what's the point of it all?

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Pinocchio (1940)

4/4

Starring (voices): Dickie Jones, Cliff Edwards, Christian Rub, Evelyn Venable, Walter Catlett

Rated G

"Pinocchio" is pure Disney magic.  It's whimsical, funny, scary, charming, and yes, magical.  From frame one I knew I was in for a truly special experience.  I was not let down.

Gepetto (Rub) is a devoted woodcarver in a small European village.  He lives with his cat Figaro and fish Cleo, but alas he is single and without a child.  He has just completed a marionette of a boy, whom he dubs Pinocchio.  When he sees a shooting star, he makes a wish that Pinocchio would become a real boy.  Because of his good deeds, the Blue Fairy (Venable) grants him his wish.  But as she tells Pinocchio (Jones), there's a catch: for now, he's a walking and talking puppet, but in order to become flesh and blood, he must prove himself.  To help him, she promotes Jiminy Cricket (Edwards), a traveling cricket who has just stopped in to warm himself for the night, to be his conscience.  But Pinocchio is incredibly naïve and thus easy prey for sleazy sorts like J. Worthington Foulfellow (Catlett), who seek to use him for their own ends.

There are so many iconic scenes in this movie that even someone who has never seen it from start to finish, such as myself, knows the entire journey.  But true pleasure comes from taking the entire journey from beginning to end.  We see Pinocchio go from a simpleton to an independent young boy, and while other films have mined this material with a stronger script and character identification, one must remember that this was made during World War II.  Budgets, filmmaking technologies and viewer tastes weren't sophisticated enough to allow for such depth (that wasn't meant to be insulting, by the way).  Plus, it hardly matters.

The voice acting is right on the money.  Leading the cast is Cliff Edwards, whose Jiminy Cricket is filled with enthusiasm and good humor.  The audience forms an instantaneous bond with him.  As the title character, Dickie Jones manages to be cute and sympathetic without being sickening.  Christian Rub makes for a gentle, if absent-minded, Gepetto.  And the rest of the cast is solid as well.  I admit to being a little turned off by Walter Catlett as the sly fox, but I got used to him very quickly.

"Pinocchio" is one of those rare movies that can enchant everyone from age 3 to 300.  It's a treasure that will never get old.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Mike's Musings: Character Tropes it's Time to Retire

Writing a screenplay is hard.  I speak from experience.  Not only do you have to write dialogue that sounds interesting (or at least realistic), you have to develop characters almost entirely through it, tell an interesting story and keep it within about 90 to 120 pages.  If that sounds challenging, it makes you respect the work of Quentin Tarantino or David Mamet more.

Naturally, Hollywood, who despises risk, relies on shortcuts to make it easier.  It's not that writing a good script can't be done ("Manchester by the Sea," "Kalifornia" and "The Man from Elysian Fields" come to mind), it's that Hollywood doesn't want to put in the extra effort to do it.  So they use stock characters and archetypes to earn audience interest.  Instead of, you know, creating actual people.

Many of these are the "everyman," which is to say, a stand-in for us.  But to provide color, many lazy or self-indulgent filmmakers will use these tropes.  They may have been quirky and interesting when we first saw them, but they have long since become annoying.

It's important to know that I'm not writing them off entirely.  With a great script and good acting, many of these can be unique and interesting individuals (in fact, some of them have been).  What I'm criticizing is using them as a crutch.  To better illustrate what I mean, I'll provide a few examples for each.

The "Disaffected, Existential Yuppie:"

Example: Any mumblecore movie, "It Follows," any indie movie with Greta Gerwig, "What If"

This character shows up in a lot of indie movies that want to be hip and cool, but really aren't either.  He/she is so emotionally distant and self-absorbed that whether they're bitten by love or pursued by a serial killer, they're too elitist and sophisticated to care.  Imagine the worst stereotypes of Millenials or Gen-Xers times a hundred, and you'll know what I mean.

The "Too Macho to Express Himself" Guy:

Example: Det. Elliot Stabler on "Law and Order: SVU," any modern dramatic role from Woody Harrelson, any male character on "The Walking Dead"

This is the go-to dramatic crutch to create depth in a male character.  This is the guy who is blunt and evasive in order to avoid talking about how he really feels.  In addition to being insufferably irritating, it draws out the cliché to long past where it's interesting and simply wastes our time.  To be fair, it has been used with good effect in movies such as "The Messenger" (starring Woody Harrelson).  But that was because he was confronting a situation that was actually difficult and had a fully developed personality.  We understood why he was the way he was, and also how this mentality nearly destroyed him.  What's really annoying is that there are people like this in real life.  And they make you want to punch them in the face all the same.

The "Deadpan, Anti-Social Misfit Defined by Random Details"

Examples: Any Wes Anderson movie (and I mean any), "Gigantic," "Juno," "The Brothers Bloom"

Woe betide any filmmaker that uses this cliché and comes across my path.  Words cannot express how much I hate these types of characters.  In addition to being cliché and unbelievably annoying, it's an example of the filmmakers simultaneously being lazy and trying too hard.  Quirky characters with interesting personalities and worldviews are fine.  But when they define logic and normal human behavior, it's insulting.  For example, in "Gigantic," Paul Dano's character is obsessed with adopting a Chinese baby girl.  It has been his lifelong passion.  Or in "The Brothers Bloom," Rachel Weisz's character "collects hobbies."  Juno's mom is allergic to "dog spit."  In what world do people like this exist?  Nowhere.  They're the constructs of a desperate writer who hasn't the slightest clue of what he's doing.  Character comes from motivation, point of view, and experience.  It does not come by mixing and matching illogical eccentricities that have zero basis in reality.  That they are usually, but not always, played in a deadpan monotone makes them all the more worthy of ending up in front of a mad slasher.

The "Pot-Smoking, Bro-Code Obsessed, 30-Year Old Man-Child"

Examples: anything with Seth Rogen, "How I Met Your Mother," any Judd Apatow or Adam Sandler comedy

You didn't think I'd write this article without taking another jab at Seth Rogen, did you?  As much as I hate the fat ginger with glasses, he's far from the only offender.  He just ruined it through overexposure and ego.  The guy (or) girl in a state of arrested development is not a new thing.  It's a feeling that we all have at one point or another.  It's part of growing up.  Filmmakers have used this for dramatic ("Manchester by the Sea") or hilarious ("Ted") purposes.  To make it work, you have to have to have actual characters (see above).  But use that as an excuse just to smoke pot, try and have sex and act like a giant boob is the equivalent of making your audience watch "2 Girls 1 Cup" live for an eternity.

Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love

1/4

Starring: Indira Varma, Sarita Choudhury, Naveen Andrews, Ramon Tikaram, Rekha

The version of the film being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong Erotic Sequences, Nudity and Some Violence

No, I haven't started reviewing dirty movies.

For those of you who come to my reviews from the links I post on Facebook (hazarding a guess, that's just about everyone), I'm sorry about the bait-and-switch.  I was trying to be clever.  In my defense, I considering warning people to stay away from this movie a public service.  Yes, it's one of those movies.

"Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love" takes place in 16th century India.  Maya (Varma) is one of the servants of Tara (Choudhury), who has just become queen to Raj Singh (Andrews).  Tired of being a servant and getting hand-me-downs from Tara, Maya allows herself to be seduced by the philandering king.  Branded a whore, she's thrown out of the palace and ends up homeless.  She finds refuge with a sexy sculptor named Jai Kumar (Tikaram), with whom she falls in love.  She's also instructed in the ways of love and sex by Rasa (Rekha).  In no short order, she's called back to the palace to enter Raj's harem.  But hell hath no fury like a woman scorned...

This isn't a bad idea for a movie.  Sexual politics have always been fertile ground for stories, and a great area to play in on film.  Take a look at "Cruel Intentions" or "Basic Instinct," just to name two titles in a very active field.  Or more recently, "50 Shades of Grey."  Add in medieval intrigue, Indian culture, exotic locales, and some extravagantly staged sex scenes, and you've got yourself a winner.

Of course, that would imply that director Mira Nair had, at the very least, a semi-competent screenplay when she started filming.  Suffice it to say, that was not the case.  Maybe it was the trouble of filming on location.  Knowing full well that Indian authorities would never let her film this movie on Indian soil, she and the cast and crew had to resort to bribes and improvising fake scenes to avoid detection.  Judging by the final result, maybe Nair should have gone with that.

The acting is uniformly awful.  Indira Varma shows a lot of daring playing the role of Maya (there is nothing that she doesn't show for the camera), but she has trouble with the dialogue.  Playing the part of a put upon woman who learns to use her sexuality as a weapon escapes her meager talents.  As the betrayed queen, Sarita Choudhury is marginally better, although like her co-star, her role is horribly written.  Naveen Andrews plays Raj as the most self-absorbed king in a long time at the movies.  In addition to being incredibly self-centered, he's a brute and a total pig.  He's also horribly acted.  The less said about Ramon Tikaram, the better.  He's the Indian Fabio; he has long hair and pecs, but the statues he carves have more personality than he does.  Only Bollywood legend Rekha impresses.  As the Kama Sutra instructor, she steals every scene that she's in.  Rasa is intelligent, worldly, clever, and encouraging, despite having little purpose other than explaining the Kama Sutra.  She is far and away the only interesting character in the film.  Nair would have been smarter to concentrate on her.

Mira Nair is not a hack director.  She broke into the art house circuit in 1988 with "Salaam Bombay," which earned an Oscar nod for Best Foreign Film.  She's been working steadily since then and was behind one of the most sensitive and emotionally rich movies about cultural assimilation, "The Namesake."  That was all the more impressive considering that the source material, a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahirir, is largely free of dialogue.

But she has misfired with "Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love."  Badly.  This is a misfire on all counts.  The plot is a disaster, the acting is horrible, the film makes no sense (it appears to have been edited with a meat cleaver) and above all it's boring.  Perhaps the worst sin is that for a movie that is about sex, it's not sexy.  And for the record, this isn't about my sexual orientation, since there are plenty of sex scene between men and women that I find erotic (the portrait scene in "Titanic" is easily one of the sexiest in film history).

As exotic as it may be, you'd be better off cruising the internet than watching this turkey.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Chariots of Fire

3.5/4

Starring: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Ian Holm, Alice Kirge, Cheryl Campbell, Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Havers

Rated PG (probably for Brief Language and Thematic Material)

Everyone knows the theme for this movie.  It's as iconic for a sports movie as "Eye of the Tiger" from "Rocky."  Not bad for a composer who can't read music.  Obviously, trying to type out the rhythm wouldn't do you any good if you don't know it, but you will when you hear it.  Thank God for YouTube.

Surprisingly, the film isn't dwarfed by its memorable music.  Like the best musical scores, it enhances the material rather than stealing the spotlight.  The characters are sympathetic and well-acted, and the themes of determination, sportsmanship and perseverance are well-conveyed.  In fact, the performances are so strong that they more than make up for some fairly serious problems.

"Chariots of Fire" is about a group of young Brits competing in the Olympics for running.  Unlike most sports movies of this sort, they aren't underdogs.  These are some of Britain's most privileged students, but they also have talent.  At the forefront are Harold Abrahams (Cross), a young Jewish man trying to overcome the stigma of anti-Semitism and Eric Liddell (Charleson), a devout Christian who runs to glorify God.  However, while they are all competitive, there are no villains or backstabbers.  They want to win, but only fair and square.

The strength of the two central characters, Harold and Eric, in writing and acting, is enough to smooth over some considerable flaws.  Ben Cross and Ian Charleson are absolutely incredible and deserved, but did not get, Oscar nominations (the only nod for acting was for Ian Holm, who plays Harold's coach, Sam Mussabini, which would be acceptable if the character were better developed).  They are competitive with themselves and each other, but neither sees the other as an villain or an enemy.  Quite the opposite in fact.  Rather, they see their competition as a way to achieve their own goals.  Neither would dare even consider something as horrible as sabotage or cheating.  They want to win because of hard work and determination.

I have a feeling that a substantial amount of the film was cut for pacing reasons.  This is because director Hugh Hudson obviously wants us to be more invested in the secondary characters than we are.  It's not that they're badly written or acted, it's that they are so sketchily developed that it's hard to remember who they are, much less care about them.  Either more time or less time should have been spent with Aubrey (Farrell) and Andrew (Havers).

So see it for the positive messages about sportsmanship and perseverance.  See it for the nostalgia trip (the whole film feels like a faded memory).  But above all, see it for Ben Cross and Ian Charles.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Fist Fight

1/4

Starring: Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Jillian Bell, Tracy Morgan, Dean Norris, Christina Hendricks, Kumail Nanjiani, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Alexa Nisenson

Rated R for Language Throughout, Sexual Content/Nudity, and Drug Material

Things to do instead of watching "Fist Fight:"

1. Listen to Keith Olbermann or Rush Limbaugh (whoever you hate more) on full blast for 90 minutes.

2. Watch your neighbor's colonoscopy.

3. Don't bother in the first place.

These days, I dread comedies.  It's not that I don't like to laugh, I do, but lately they're all about actors improvising the crudest comments they can think of.  This wouldn't be a problem if it were funny, but as "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising" (anything with Seth Rogen, really) and the "Ghostbusters" reboot proved, it usually isn't.  Comedies need scripts and actors need directors.  Someone needs to tell that to the movers and shakers in Hollywood.

It's the last day of school at Roosevelt High.  The staff is facing serious cutbacks, which is making everyone nervous.  No one is more desperate to keep their job than Andy Campbell (Day), a nebbish English teacher with a wife (Swisher) who is due to give birth at any moment.  After an attempt to help Strickland (Cube), a fellow teacher with a fearsome reputation, results in Strickland taking a fire ax to desk, Andy rats him out.  Strickland wants revenge and challenges him to a fist fight at 3 pm.  Wimpy Andy is looking for a way out, but his attempts to avoid it backfire in not-so-funny ways.

What moron thought this was a good idea for a movie?  As a YouTube short from amateur filmmakers?  Doubtful.  As a full-length film made for $20 million and starring the whiny Charlie Day?  Not a chance in hell.  The film has three credited screenwriters (two of whom are credited with writing the story and the screenplay), but judging by the result and the outtakes (none of which are funny, by the way), I doubt much of it was used.  It was just a framework for whatever purpose and abandoned in favor of the actors riffing.  It doesn't work.  This movie still sucks.

Who thought Charlie Day could handle a movie on his own?  His whiny, wimpy, neurotic persona is funny in small doses, but it doesn't take long for him to become akin to fingernails on the blackboard.  He's annoying.  Giving him a bratty kid (Nisenson) who needs him for a talent show does nothing to make him endearing; it only prolongs the already too long running time.  Ice Cube can be very funny ("Anaconda" or "21 Jump Street" are fine examples), but he's given nothing to work with here.  All he's required to do is acting like a anger-prone asshole and look intense.  For a man with such range and talent, it's shameful.  Everyone else is either annoying or boring.  They all deserve each other.  And we deserve a better film for 11 bucks.

Unlike last year's ego trip from the fat ginger with glasses (who doesn't deserve to be listed by name), "Fist Fight" manages a few laughs.  The running joke in the film is that the school is a zoo and the teachers are victims of unending pranks.  Many of these are dumb, but some are clever and one, involving Andy, some paint, and a horse, is hysterical.  Some of the one-liners are funny too.  But that's only when they're kept short.  The stretches between jokes that land are very long (usually five to ten minutes), and those are pretty painful.  There are attempts at some messages that, while honorable (standing up for yourself, the importance of teachers, the corruption that comes with top-down economics), don't have a place here.

My advice?  Wait til someone uploads a "Best Moments from 'Fist Fight'" clip onto YouTube and watch those.  Ignore the rest of it.  You'll thank me later.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Logan

2/4

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant

Rated R for Strong Brutal Violence and Language Throughout, and for Brief Nudity

"Logan" has been making waves in the entertainment world for two reasons: its R-rating and its bleak tone.  It earns a lot of the buzz in both departments, and while I applaud the filmmakers' decision to go for the R-rating and have nothing against a superhero movie with a bleak tone ("The Dark Knight" is unequivocally the best superhero movie ever made), neither means much if the film isn't very good.  And sadly, "Logan" just doesn't live up to the hype.

The year is 2029.  Mutants have essentially disappeared from this slightly dystopian world.  Logan (Jackman), the man with unbreakable bones and metal claws who once went by the name of Wolverine, has resigned himself to drinking and caring for an ailing Charles Xavier (Stewart).  Xavier, Logan's mentor and savior, is on his last breath of life; dementia is intermittently wreaking havoc in his brain, which has caused the government to label it as a "weapon of mass destruction" since his seizures are deadly for those around him.  While working as a limo driver, a woman pleas for him to help her.  Some very nasty people are after her daughter, Laura (Keen), who happens to be the first mutant born in the last quarter century.  Logan wants nothing to do with her, but when he, Xavier and the shy albino Caliban (Merchant) are attacked by a smooth-talking psychopath named Pierce (Keen), he doesn't have any choice.  Now he and Xavier must take Laura up north, where there is rumored to be a safe haven for mutants.

This is a dark, brooding film.  Its aim is to be intense and melancholy, and on that level I suppose it succeeds.  This is a cheerless affair, with the lead characters alone and dying, and their road trip punctuated by acts of astonishing brutality.  This could be a very powerful film, if there was anything behind the words.  But there isn't.  The characters talk a lot, but they don't say much of any substance.  As a result, I was simply bored.  There was just nothing to grab onto.  The characters, for all their dialogue and attempts at introspection, remain stick figures and the plot is thin.

It's a real shame, then, because stars Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have worked so hard to make the film work.  They give it their all, but neither can make up for a ponderous script that thinks its deeper than it actually is and a story that doesn't grab us.  Still, there's something to be said for seeing Patrick Stewart telling Hugh Jackman to fuck off.  Newcomer Dafne Keen is impressive, too.  As the very violent Laura, it's actually a little shocking to see how aggressive she is (however, her stunt work is clearly CGI.  Slowing it down to add a little weight would have made it more credible).  Boyd Holbrook is deliciously vile and Stephen Merchant adds some gallows humor to the film. 

One of my frequent criticisms of the superhero genre is that it requires that viewers already have an established relationship with the characters.  They're made with the die-hard fans in mind, and only them.  While "Logan" doesn't overdose on the fan service like "Deadpool" or "The Avengers," it's not going to be as interesting for someone not steeped in "X-Men" lore.  I am not, and as a result I can only review what I see on screen, and the result just didn't work for me.

The superhero genre has typically been seen as kid-friendly.  They're violent and filled with special effects, but an absence of blood and extreme profanity has given them that image.  So people are wondering if the R-rating is just for show or if it's really that violent (another example of how worthless and irrelevant the MPAA is).  People are wondering if it's appropriate for kids, and the answer is no.  This movie really deserves the R-rating.  Limbs are sliced off, Logan does things with his knives that put Freddy Kruger (who is explicitly referenced) to shame, and Laura racks up the highest body count in frenzied attacks that are pretty shocking.  It's like "Kick-Ass" without the satirical bent.  Finally, the downbeat tone and themes of death and loss are likely to go over kids' heads.  This movie is made for adults with a certain level of sophistication and maturity.

But unfortunately, "X-Men" super fandom is a prerequisite.