Thursday, July 20, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

3.5/4

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevigne, Clive Owen, Elizabeth Debicki, Sam Spruell, Rihanna

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence and Action, Suggestive Material and Brief Language

The decision to decision to release Luc Besson's new space opera, based on a comic not widely known in the US, next to the juggernaut that is Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is one of two things: balls of steel or a vote of no confidence.  Realistically speaking, it's probably the latter, but my hope is the former, since this is easily the best movie of the summer (no, I haven't seen "Dunkirk" yet).  Not only is it the most brilliantly inventive piece of eye candy since "Speed Racer," it's also a lot of fun.

500 years in the future, the ISS has gotten so large that it has long since been sent out into the far reaches of space for fear of being pulled in by Earth's gravity.  Now, it serves as a hub for thousands of different alien races.  Two cops for Alpha, as this hub is known, are tasked with retrieving a creature that may be the last one in existence.  After Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevigne) retrieve the creature, they are tasked by Commander Arun Fillitt to investigate a radioactive zone at the center of Alpha.  It's growing astronomically, and as a result it will consume the entire hub in two weeks time.  Valerian and Laureline are about to discover that things aren't what they seem.

The plot is standard order adventure yarn, but that's okay.  Whatever deficiencies in the plot and director Luc Besson's storytelling (and there aren't many), they do little to harm the film's real selling points: the visuals and the world.  This is a movie that is so visually dazzling and inventive that you'll have to see it multiple times to catch it all.  There are so many creatures and worlds that I was reminded of the "Star Wars" prequels.  Better yet, it's bright and full of color and energy.  Credit must go to the camerawork by Thierry Arbogast, for allowing us to see it all in all of its glory.  This is spectacle done right.

One of the things I appreciated is its freshness.  Being free of a vocal fan base and ties to existing franchises means that it doesn't have to slow down for fan demanded appearances simply because the comic nerds will be in an uproar if their favorite minor character doesn't make an appearance.  One of the things that bogs down most superhero movies is their obsessive desire for as many superhero cameos and Easter eggs as possible.  Defenders call it "world building," but boy, does it ever drag down the pacing.  And since it has absolutely zero connection to Marvel, we are thankfully spared another irritating Stan Lee cameo.

Sadly, the acting doesn't exactly impress.  Dane DeHaan is miscast as the lead.  I like the actor, but as the obligatory cocky hunk?  It's a tough sell.  Cara Delevigne is better as the spunky girl with a mean right hook, but she lacks presence.  The two grow into their characters, but it takes longer than it should.  By the time the chemistry between them shows signs of getting warm, the movie is over.  It's always great to see Clive Owen, who has been in far too few movies lately, but he's coasting through on his charisma.  Worth mentioning is Sam Spruell, who is quite good as a second-in-command who slowly uncovers the truth.  Ethan Hawke has a weird cameo as a pimp and Rihanna shows comic but not dramatic chops as an exotic dancer.  Her dance number lasts too long, but she gets to shape shift into a variety of costumes and outfits, so it's a fair trade.

"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" isn't the second coming of "Star Wars," but it's the best space opera we've had in a long time.  Don't miss it!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Phantasm

1.5/4

Starring: Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm

Rated R for Nudity, Violence and Intense Scenes

When I dream, it's surreal.  It makes total sense while I'm in the dream, but when I wake up, I realize how surreal and incoherent it all is.  Perhaps this effect is what writer/director Don Coscarelli was going for.  The plot rarely makes sense, characters are added and dropped with no explanation, important scenes are left on the cutting room floor while meaningless ones drag on long after they've made their point, and so on.  That this was made during the hippie era should surprise no one.

Mike (Baldwin) has just lost his parents.  Now his older brother Jody (Thornbury) has lost one of his friends to suicide.  Actually, he was murdered by a one-night stand post-coitus in a cemetery, but no one knows this.  Mike, who follows his brother around nonstop fearing abandonment, sees the undertaker (Scrimm) take the coffin for himself.  Things get weirder and eventually Mike, Jody and Reggie have to summon all their courage to take down a mysterious figure who is certainly not human.

"Phantasm" is a bad movie, there's no doubt about that.  But the one positive quality about it is its strangeness.  The totally bizarre nature of the story is weirdly compelling in a way that cannot possibly be intentional.  Well, I mean, I suppose its possible; some scenes bear similarity to, I'm not kidding, "2001: A Space Odyssey," which isn't surprising considering that that is Coscarelli's favorite movie.  But he's no Kubrick, that's for sure.

The acting befits a movie of this quality.  Which is to say, it's not very good.  It's like amateur hour at the community theater.  At best, the actors seem like they're reading off cue cards.  At worst, they seem straight out of a bad soap opera.  None of them have gone on to be known names, which doesn't surprise me in the least.

"Phantasm" isn't devoid of tension.  The first appearance of the metallic spheres, which like the villainous Tall Man, have become hallmarks of this cult franchise, is chilling, but it ends with some laughable gore.  The special effects are sometimes convincing, but only the basic stuff, like car crashes or gunshots.  The dwarvish monsters and the gore are laughably absurd.  Roger Corman would love this stuff.

The more movies I see and the more of a life outside of them I have, the less patience I have for movies like this.  It's not that it's bad, although it is that.  It's that it's so boring.  It can't be valued as a scarefest or camp.  Only as a way to go on an acid trip without taking any LSD.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

3/4

Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, Thematic Elements and Some Disturbing Images

"War for the Planet of the Apes" is the grimmest movie of the 2017 summer season.  It's tough, bleak and relentless.  For those of you who are PlayStation owners, I was reminded of "The Last of Us."  It's that dark.

After the events in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," relations between the apes and humans are hostile.  Despite offering peace, Caesar (Serkis) is hunted as a war criminal.  But when one of the human leaders, a man only known as the Colonel (Harrelson) murders Caesar's wife and oldest son, he vows revenge.

This isn't a straightforward revenge tale.  It's introspective and complex.  Caesar is continually haunted by Koba (Toby Kebbell), whose hatred caused him to bring things to ruin, in his nightmares.  He knows that by walking down this path he may become just the same ape.  But this isn't as compelling as it could be.  There's so little dialogue that it feels limp as opposed to powerful.  The motion capture work by Serkis and the animators is nothing short of astonishing, but merely having him furrow his brow or stare into the camera doesn't cut it.  More depth is needed for this inner conflict to truly sell.

Every action movie needs a villain, and boy does this movie have one.  Even better, he doesn't have too much screen time.  Woody Harrelson is no stranger to playing twisted characters, but the Colonel may be the most deranged man he's played since "Natural Born Killers."  His actions have a certain logic to them, but his methods are unconscionable; the Colonel has clearly lost his mind, but what's scary about him is that he believes himself to be rational and that his actions are justified.

This movie is very violent.  Had I known less about the corruption in the MPAA, I would have asked how it managed to squeak by with a PG-13 instead of a deserving R.  The war scenes are intense, and there are some scenes of torture that made me wince.  This is not a film for children.

The plot isn't exactly airtight and there are a few glaring instances of stupidity, but my biggest concern is the camerawork by Michael Seresin.  He does his job by creating a cold, grim and oppressive atmosphere, to be sure.  But there are scenes where it is hard to tell what is going on because the lighting makes everything blend together.  There are ways to accomplish both, but Seresin misses the mark.

So, is this final closing chapter worth undertaking?  Without question.  Just keep your eyes peeled and leave the kids at home.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Flowers of War

3/4

Starring: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Xinyi Zhang, Tianyuan Huang, Dawei Tong, Atsuro Watabe

Rated R for Strong Violence including a Sexual Assault, Disturbing Images and Brief Strong Language

"The Flowers of War" is by turns thrilling, plodding, heartwrenching, ridiculous, moving, contrived and beautiful.  Most movies are either good or bad.  Rarely do they veer into both territories with such consistency as they do here.

In 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Japan overruns the Chinese city of Nanking, where they proceeded to rape and slaughter 200,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians.  "The Flowers of War," based on the novella by Genling Yan (which was in turn inspired by the diaries of Minnie Vautrin, who witnessed the atrocities), tells the story of John Miller (Bale), a mortician sent into Nanking to bury a priest.  But the drunken boor of man has the bad luck of getting there when things have turned to hell.  He takes refuge in a church with a bunch of schoolgirls, and later, a group of courtesans.  Now, he has to decide whether to be selfish and flee the first chance he gets, or risk his life to save two groups of women (and one boy) who, without him, could only hope for a quick death.

Let's start with the good.  The action scenes are well done.  It's not at the level of "Enemy at the Gates," a film which this bears a few similarities (albeit superficial ones), but they get the job done.  Acclaimed director Zhang Yimou chooses a more cinematic approach rather than a documentary one.  Which is fine, considering that had he gone the latter route and held nothing back, the film would have been in danger of getting an NC-17.  As it is, it goes without saying that this is not a film for children, no matter how much they love Batman.  One of the many plus sides of this approach is that it allows the audience to appreciate the cleverness of a certain Chinese soldier who takes it upon himself to protect those in the church.  His plan is inventive and truly badass, but stops just short of Rube Goldberg.  There are also some moments, particularly in the first and third acts that have real power.

Now, let's get to the bed.  This is the most obvious instance of a "white savior" narrative in quite some time.  This cliché, where a white man has to go into a conflict and/or takes it upon himself to rescue someone of a different race, can be justified with strong writing or plot (see "Blood Diamond" or "Amistad" for an example of how to do this right).  That doesn't apply here.  John's entrance into the story is contrived, and so is his character arc.  The writing isn't there, and surprisingly, neither is Bale.  He's adequate, but there are times at the beginning where he is more obnoxious than endearing.  The plot is also weak, at times relying on poorly motivated action or characters behaving with such stupidity that in a movie like this it becomes despicable.

Aside from Bale, who is uneven, there are some nice performances.  Chief among them is Ni Ni, a Chinese actress who plays Yu Mo, the leader of the courtesans.  While not as captivating as Zhang Yimou's other muses, Gong Li and Ziyi Zhang (which begs the question why neither one appears in this film), she has her own alluring talent and charisma that makes her the most memorable member of the cast.  Xinyi Zhang is fine as the underdeveloped Shu, who's narration indicates that this is told in flashback.  It's largely unnecessary, but it does add a bit of emotional weight to the proceedings.  Dawei Tong and Atsuro Watabe are also very good as the aforementioned soldier and a Japanese commander.

This is a much better film from Zhang Yimou than "The Great Wall," his most recent attempt to reach a world audience.  Considering how awful that monstrosity was, that's not much of a compliment.  It's too long with a screenplay that could have used another rewrite, particularly in the case of Bale's character.  Yet there are some scenes that do land, such as a harrowing attack on the church were the schoolgirls are chased after by soldiers with rape on their minds.  A particularly vicious rape scene also be worth mentioning had the circumstances leading up to it had not been so preposterous and stupid.  But the end contains some real heart and is genuinely moving.

"The Flowers of War" is like that.  Some of it is good, some of it is awful.  It's a tough call, but if I had to choose, my thumb would be up.  Especially considering that you can watch it on Netflix.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

An Unfinished Life

3/4

Starring: Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman, Becca Gardner, Josh Lucas, Damian Lewis, Bart the Bear

Rated PG-13 for Some Violence including Domestic Abuse, and Language

We all have skeletons in the closet.  In a strange way, we cling to whatever makes us hurt and grieve, as if by letting go we will forget.  This is of course a falsehood, and anyone who doesn't share your pain will think you're crazy or ruminating on it.  But for those who understand, it makes a twisted sort of sense.

That's the conundrum that Einar Gilkyson (Redford) finds himself in.  Years ago, his daughter-in-law was driving the car when she fell asleep at the wheel and crashed.  She survived, but his son did not, and he has never forgiven her.  Eleven years later, he has resigned himself to a life of solitude, looking after his friend Mitch (Freeman) who was the victim of a bear mauling and needs constant care.  Then one day, Jean (Lopez), his much-hated daughter-in-law arrives on his doorstep with Griff (Gardner), the granddaughter he never knew he had.  She's looking for refuge from her abusive boyfriend, Gary (Lewis), and needs about a month to get on her feet.  Some painful wounds are about to be reopened...

This is the story of two people finally getting the chance to heal.  Clearly, Einar has some unresolved issues surrounding his son's death.  But in his grief, he's pushed everyone away and cast blame on the person who is perhaps hurting the most.  He's become blinded to the fact that Jean is hurting too, even when Mitch points out the obvious.  Jean knows full well why Einar hates her, but she doesn't have anywhere else to go.  She needs to get as far away from Gary as possible, and remote Wyoming seems idyllic for that.  Griff did not know her father, and as such looks at the situation from an objective point-of-view.  She's keenly aware of the tension, but learns the reasons for it as we do.  However, after a strong start, director Lasse Hallstrom begins to lose control over the material.  He resorts to contrivances and leaving half-developed changes in relationships in order to keep the running time low.  For such a character-oriented drama with this much depth, 108 minutes is too skinny a running time.  "An Unfinished Life" could have easily benefitted from another 10 to 20 minutes of screen time to smooth out the kinks in the story.

The acting is exceptional, which makes it doubly shameful that the cast wasn't given the time they deserved to bring their characters to life.  Although I have repeatedly stated my irritation of the "too macho to express himself" character trope, Einar Gilkyson isn't one of them.  Einar is a reserved man by nature, but he is not above doling out passive-aggressive (or blunt) punishment to the woman he believes to be responsible for his son's early death.  This is a departure for Redford, who is known for his charming, easy-going characters.  It's also one of his best performances.  Jennifer Lopez was known as a serious actress at one time, with well-received performances in movies like "Selena," "Out of Sight," and "The Cell."  Then lazy performances, cash grabs and pop albums turned her into a tabloid queen.  This is a return to serious acting, and it shows why we fell in love with her in the first place.  Lopez brings strength and vulnerability to the role, making Jean easy to sympathize with.  She's hurting too, but understands why Einar hates her.  Morgan Freeman doesn't have a lot to do other than be almost bed-ridden and cajole Einar into forgiveness, and while it's a little bit of a waste to see him in such a limited role, Freeman is Freeman, and you really don't need much more than that.  As Griff, Becca Gardner is solid, but lacks the range necessary for big emotions.  Josh Lucas is positively charming playing a local cop (for once, he's not playing a creep).  Damian Lewis is the weak link; Lewis is a fine actor and does the best he can, but he's miscast as a psychopath.

While there are other flaws, such as the cheesy end to Mitch's story arc or the poorly handled climax, the film's main flaw is its length.  There's enough good stuff here to recommend it, including some impressive camerawork by Oliver Stapleton, but with a bit more breathing room, it could have been a deeply moving experience.  As it is, it's still a solid drama and worth your time if you're interested.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Beatriz at Dinner

2/4

Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, David Warshofsky

Rated R for Language and a Scene of Violence

With a title as intentionally minimalist and nondescrepit as "Beatriz at Dinner," you'd be forgiven for mistaking it for one of those pretentious European films that critics adore because they espouse their philosophies and are as anti-Michael Bay as you can get.  In this case, it wouldn't be a mistake.  This is one of those self-indulgent bores you were thinking of, only it isn't European and it isn't Dogma 95.

Beatriz (Hayek) is a holistic healer living in ritzy Southern California.  She's having a bad week.  She's got a teenage patient who's going to die despite her best efforts, she's overworked and exhausted, and her alcoholic neighbor strangled her pet goat.  She says all this to one of her clients, Cathy (Britton), a well-to-do socialite who has more money than Beatriz could ever hope to get.  Beatriz helped Cathy's daughter overcome her cancer and brags to her friends that she's "one of the family."  Poor Beatriz's car breaks down after she gives Cathy a massage, and is invited to stay for a work dinner that Cathy's husband Grant (Warshofsky) is having.  There, she meets Cathy's friends, one of whom is a Koch clone named Doug Strutt (Lithgow).  Beatriz thinks she knows Strutt, who may be the man ran everyone out of her childhood town so he could build a resort.  Rest assured, this is going to be a very awkward dinner.

Ostensibly, this is about life at the top as seen from the bottom.  Beatriz is the working class while Cathy, Strupp and the others are the one percenters that Trump fans consider the root of all their ills.  Subtle, this movie is not.  While Mike White's screenplay asks a few pointed questions and exposes the 1% for all their hypocrisy, snobbery and greed, it doesn't do a lot more.  Instead of really attacking the problem of wealth inequality and corporate malfeasance, director Miguel Arteta is more concerned with establishing mood and self-importance.  There are far too many shots of Salma Hayek staring hurtfully at or near the camera.  SOB!

The problem here is that the message gets drowned out by the director's self-importance.  All these close-ups and moody long-shots set the atmosphere, but a little of that goes a long way.  Apparently Arteta thinks this film is a lot more important and informative than it actually is.  Like any Seth Rogen comedy, it has some ideas and thinks that's enough.  For a full movie that is supposedly heavy on ideas (it sure doesn't have much else), it has to offer a hell of a lot more than this.

At least the performances are fine.  Salma Hayek is quite brave doing all of these close-ups looking vulnerable and wounded sans makeup.  But this screenplay is far below her talents.  Ditto for John Lithgow, once again playing a stand-in for Charles or David Koch (he did the same thing opposite Dan Aykroyd in "The Campaign" a few years back).  Connie Britton is in top form of as a woman who is so superficial and self-absorbed that she thinks she knows where Beatriz is coming from.  A key exchange occurs after Beatriz asks Strutt some uncomfortable questions and embarrasses everyone: "It's like I don't know you anymore," Cathy says. "You don't know me," the middle class Beatriz replies.  At least she has the good sense to leave it at that.

"Beatriz at Dinner" will likely find rapturous applause, both by those who agree with its point-of-view and the "evil libtard elites" who pay lip service to people they profess to support but could care less about.  Or a Trump disciple who thinks that every white collar Democrat looks down on the everyman.  Everyone will find their personal bias validated here.  I agree with what it's saying, but it's so one-note and so self-indulgent that I could only shake my head.  Except for the end, which contains two cheats and an open ending that it doesn't earn.  Then I rolled my eyes and laughed at it's self-importance.

Surely not the response that White and Arteta were going for.  But I have my ethics.

The Natural

2/4

Starring: Robert Redford, Wilford Brimley, Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger, Richard Farnsworth, Darren McGavin, Glenn Close, Robert Prosky, Michael Madsen, Barbara Hershey

Rated PG (probably for Brief Violence and a Scene of Mild Sexuality)

It would be interesting to know why movies about baseball seem to be all about the nostalgia.  Take "The Sandlot," for example.  Or "Field of Dreams."  I'm not sure why that is.  Maybe it's because it's known as "America's Game."  Who knows.

Roy Hobbs (Redford) is a savant when it comes to baseball.  Able to hit, pitch or catch any ball without fail, he's a natural for the sport.  Nurtured by his father, Roy becomes a prodigy and is well on his way to the majors as he leaves his small town life behind him.  But a run-in with a hotshot known as "The Slammer" (Joe Don Baker in a cameo) and treacherous fan derails his plans.  Sixteen years later, he's back and has put his past behind him.  He's playing for the Knights, a team so bad that they have become a national joke.  When Pop (Brimley), the team manager, finally starts playing him, their fortunes turn around.  That's a problem for The Judge (Prosky), who co-owns the team, since he signed a contract with Pop that could cause him to lose all his shares in the Knights.  Which begs the question why he'd bother since they're so awful, but that's a question you don't ask in a movie like this.

Nostalgia-fueled movies like "The Natural" are all about the manipulation.  I like manipulative movies that take my emotions and cause them to soar or sink as the film depends on it, provided it's done well.  Sadly, despite the somewhat reliable name of Barry Levinson on the marquee, that's not what happens.  Odd directing choices, a script in need of rewrites, and a miscast lead limit the film's effect.

Robert Redford's appeal has always been his intelligence and effortless charm.  So to have him play an emotionally withdrawn simpleton is odd.  Redford is an appealing actor and filmmaker, but he never becomes Roy Hobbs.  It's a hurdle that the film never overcomes.  He's surrounded by a cast of big name talent, but they're only adequate at best.  Kim Basinger is flat as the "bad luck" girl that Roy falls for; she looks the part, but she rarely convinces.  Robert Duvall is stuck playing a character that Levinson doesn't know what to do with.  He plays Max Mercy, a sports journalist who pops up every now and then to ask questions, but his character doesn't really contribute to the plot in any real way.  Either more or less of him was needed.  The one actor who does bear mentioning is Robert Prosky.  Known for playing kindly old men, he plays a villain who's malice gives Mr. Potter from "It's a Wonderful Life" a run for his money.

Storywise, the film is oddly constructed.  There's too much going on, and while pulling out all the stops in the melodrama department is more or less a necessity for a movie like this, for the most part Levinson wants the film to be more realistic.  Achieving the nostalgia factor is difficult, and Levinson doesn't hit the sweet spot.

Ultimately, I'm not recommending "The Natural" because the film is a bore.  It's just not compelling to watch Roy Hobbs try to lead his team to victory.  I never bought his character, and as a result I didn't buy into his story.  It's a shame because I wanted to like it.  Nostalgia always holds a special place in my movie-loving heart.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The House

1.5/4

Starring: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Ryan Simpkins, Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel, Allison Tolman

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

"The House," a title as boring as the film itself, is an example of a modern Hollywood comedy: a threadbare plot, dumb gags, and a bunch of actors/stand-up comedians being awkward and constantly riffing on things that are supposed to be funny.  Thank you, Seth Rogen.

Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) have a problem: their daughter Alex (Simpkins) just got accepted to Bucknell University and the town scholarship they were relying on to send her there has been taken away to pay for a new pool.  Out of options and out of luck, Scott and Kate go on a trip to Vegas with their deadbeat, soon-to-be-divorced, gambling-and-porn addicted friend Frank (Mantzoukas) for a reason that, considering their financial trouble, makes you realize why they got themselves in this situation in the first place.  After losing a bet that would have made their troubles go away (which would mean no movie, something that would be too much to hope for), Frank tells them that "the House always wins."  Then Scott wonders why they can't be the house.  So Frank cooks up an idea that will earn them enough money to pay for Alex's tuition and save Frank from foreclosure: running a downstairs illegal casino.

I try not to judge a movie's quality based on its premise.  I mean, look at "Star Wars" or "The Lord of the Rings."  But you have to admit, this is a pretty limiting idea for a comedy.  Worse, it plays dumb at every turn.  Details on how this all works are scarce, and fewer jokes are made about it.  There are no jokes regarding the need to keep it a secret.  There's definitely material to play around in here had the filmmakers bothered to write a real script instead of relying on the actors' improvisational abilities.  It's always painfully obvious when this happens, since it results in the actors saying their lines "funny" or running their mouths with no point to what their saying.  At best, it's weird, and at worst it's painful.  "The House" contains examples of both.

Regarding Will Ferrell, James Berardinelli put it best in his review of "Semi-Pro:"  When it comes to comedy, Will Ferrell is a Jekyll & Hyde.  When he's 'on,' he's hilarious, but when he's off, he's like a drunk at a bar yelling loud, unfunny jokes at his equally inebriated buddies.  And while those guys may laugh at him, they're the only ones...As a comedian, Will Ferrell is at his best when working with a funny screenplay.  His seat-of-the-pants improvisation comes across more as weird than hilarious (he has a tendency to drag out effective comedic material too long)."  Substitute "weird" with "painful," and you'd have my thoughts on Will Ferrell work for word.  Actually, that's my problem with Seth Rogen and all the other Frat Packers.  Unfortunately, directors use him as a crutch, believing that anything he says or does will save them from actually having to work.  No one more so than his good buddy from SNL, Andy McKay, who was responsible for Ferrell's most painful movies, "Anchorman" and its sequel, "The Other Guys," and a few others I won't bother to mention.  And what do you know, both McKay and Ferrell are listed as producers of the movie.

His cast mates are given even less to work with.  Poehler is similarly lost, relying strange voices and funny faces to save what has gone on for far too long.  Jason Mantzoukas looks and acts like a cross between a stoner and a pedophile.  He constantly comes across as tweaked out.  Ryan Simpkins does her best to create a character worth caring about as the only one in the film displaying actual human behavior, but she's drowned out by the desperate antics of the rest of the cast.  Nick Kroll plays the obligatory sniveling jerk perhaps too well; he's like a bug I wanted to squash.  The rest of the cast isn't worth being listed by name since they're so forgettable.

Movies work best when they keep it specific and detailed.  "The House" is just a lazy cash grab banking on the names of Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

3/4

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Jacob Batalon, Zendaya, Jon Favreau

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence, Some Language and Brief Suggestive Comments

Those who know me know how utterly sick I am of superhero movies.  That's mainly because I find them so boring.  Not all (I liked the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies and "Wonder Woman" is easily the best movie of the summer...not like there's much competition), but most.  The wide majority of them are fan-only movies.  They're meant for the proud nerds who hang out in coffee shops, internet forums, and are as equally obsessed as Joss Whedon.  Movies like "Logan," "The Avengers" and "Thor: The Dark World" bank on Easter Eggs and comic book references for good writing and fan loyalty instead of good filmmaking.  That's all well and good for the die-hards, but it means boredom for people like me who aren't intimately familiar with superheroes (despite my best attempts).

This movie takes place shortly after the events of "Captain America: Civil War."  Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Holland) has tasted his first morsel of being an Avenger and is hungry for more.  But Tony Stark (Downey Jr). advises him to wait and cut his teeth more.  To satiate his appetite, Stark gives Peter a new high tech suit complete with a computer assistant (an uncredited Jennifer Connelly).  While foiling an ATM robbery, Peter finds himself up against some supernatural weapons.  He tries to get Stark's attention but he is rebuffed.  Now he's on his own to find Adrian Toomes (Keaton), who flies around in a winged suit.  All while trying to avoid Stark or his assistant, Happy Hogan (Favreau) from finding out.

In many ways, this is the best movie Marvel has had in a while.  It's bright, it's fun, it doesn't get bogged down in existential darkness (apologies to Christopher Nolan) and it doesn't overdo the fan service.  There is some, but it's well integrated (such as cameos at the end and a hilarious series of cheesy PSAs from Captain America).  While it's a little too long, it does contain something rare: action scenes that are actually exciting.  There are also times when the dialogue is too knowing or too ironic to be funny, but at the same time there are some amusing bits.

The performances are top-notch.  Tom Holland is a charming Peter Parker, easily better than Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield.  He's got the perfect mix of awkwardness, enthusiasm and drive to make him endearing.  He's instantly likable.  Robert Downey Jr. tones down the arrogance to make Stark a good mentor.  Michael Keaton, continuing his resurgence brought on by his Oscar nod for "Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance" a few years ago, makes for a good villain, successfully navigating the campiness of Willem Dafoe in the original and the viciousness of any good movie baddie.  And Zendaya is an adorable everygirl.  She and Holland have good chemistry because the movie doesn't try to make either of them impossibly perfect.

And yet, I hesitate to recommend it outright.  Why, even after I gave it a positive, if not glowing, review despite my boredom with superhero oversaturation?  Because Jacob Batalon, who plays Peter's obligatory best friend Ned, is so annoying that he nearly tanks the film.  Overeager to the point of overbearing, obnoxious to the point of irritation and, worst, he has far too much screen time.  It's hard to imagine why Peter actually hangs around this walking zit.  Or why anyone had the utter stupidity to cast him in the role.  Even though he gets less irritating as the film goes on (primarily because he doesn't have a lot of screen time), his mere appearance is enough to cast a pall on the proceedings.  He approaches the level of Seth Rogen or Enid, and that's saying something.  And yes, Stan Lee continues to whore himself and his creations out to Hollywood and makes another irritating cameo, but that's to be expected in every Marvel movie.

Aside from the major fail of the year's most irritating character, "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is a lot of fun.  Enough to stomach through the scenes with Ned.  Barely, but enough.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Despicable Me 3

1.5/4

Starring (voices): Steve Carrell, Kristen Wiig, Pierre Coffin, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Nev Scharrel, Trey Parker

Rated PG for Action and Rude Humor

"Despicable Me 3" exists solely because the previous films made money.  There is no other reason for its existence.  True, most (if not all), films are made with the desire to make a profit, but with a movie like "Baby Driver" or "Spirited Away" there is a creative impulse.  Not here.  This movie was made so they could slap the words "Despicable Me" on the poster and rake in money.

The third adventure with Gru (Carrell) and his Minions (Coffin) has no plot.  Instead, it's a half dozen little subplots competing for attention, indicating how creatively bankrupt this movie actually is.  Gru (Carrell) is playing the nice guy with his new wife Lucy (Wiig) for the Anti-Villain League.  His new nemesis is Balthazar Bratt (Parker), who wants to steal a giant pinky diamond.  When Bratt escapes with the diamond again, the new head of the AVL, Valerie da Vinci (Jenny Slate) fires him.  Then, he finds out that he has a brother named Dru (Carrell), who is fabulously wealthy and wants to get in on the thieving game.  Meanwhile, the Minions are bored playing the good guy and, save for two, have abandoned their master.  They get arrested and quickly own the prison.  At the same time, Lucy is trying to get a handle on this "Mom" thing, Margo (Cosgrove) mistakenly gets engaged, and Agnes (Scharrel) becomes obsessed with finding a real live unicorn and drags a reluctant Edith (Gaier) along for the ride.

As busy as the film is, very little of it managed to hold my interest.  I realize that I'm about a quarter century above the film's target audience, but there's no reason the filmmakers couldn't have told a story that would engage adults and children.  They were just too lazy to do it.

Steve Carrell has said that this might be his last outing as Gru, barring cameo appearances in the inevitable "Minions" sequel.  Illumination Entertainment should take the hint and allow the character to retire.  Carrell is obviously bored with the role, and as a result Gru and Dru are often irritating.  Even the Minions have lost much of their humor.  The only thing truly inspired that the film has to offer is Bratt's backstory.  He's a child actor who became famous playing a bad guy on a TV show, but got fired when he hit puberty.  As a result, he lost his mind and fused with the character he portrayed.  This allows the filmmakers to get a few well-earned jabs at Hollywood and merchandising, but the whole thing is not nearly as clever or funny as it sounds.

This movie is making big money because it's a reliable brand name and there isn't anything to offer for the little ones.  They might like it, but I feel for every parent forced to accompany them to this sucker.  It's a colossal waste of time.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Leaving Las Vegas

3.5/4

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue

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

"Leaving Las Vegas" is one of those movies that is either a tremendous success or a colossal failure.  There is no safety net with a story like this.  Considering the risk-averse nature of Hollywood, it's a wonder why films like this ever get made, but thank God they do.  We need movies like "Leaving Las Vegas" as much as we need movies like "The Avengers."  More so, in fact.

Despite the dreaminess of its title and premise, and the rather optimistic trailer, "Leaving Las Vegas" is anything but glamorous or easy viewing.  This is a motel that takes place in sleazy motels and even sleazier bars.  The only time it gets close to the glamor is when a night on the town turns into a complete disaster.  Cheap cigarettes and cheap liquor, not glitz and fantasy, are the reality for the characters in this movie.  It's a far different view of Las Vegas than we usually get.

Ben Sanderson (Cage) is a Hollywood executive and an alcoholic.  He's lost everything: his job, his family, his self-respect.  "I don't know if I started drinking 'cause my wife left me or my wife left me 'cause I started drinking, but fuck it anyway," he muses to a hooker giving him a blow job (before stealing his wedding ring).  That alone should tell you that this is not a traditional love story.

Sera (Shue) is a prostitute working in Las Vegas for a shady character named Yuri (Julian Sands).  She has accepted her lot in life and does the best she can with the card she's been dealt.  But she is profoundly lonely.  As she tells an unseen therapist, she can size up a man in a second and know exactly what he wants.  Thus, she spends half her life being someone else's fantasy.

When the two of them meet, it's not love at first sight, but there is a spark of something powerful between them.  It isn't long before they're living together, although their relationship is built on non-judgement: he won't judge her for her career and she won't ask him to stop drinking.

Making a movie like this takes an extraordinary amount of daring.  The roles of Ben and Sera (there are other characters who float in and out, but none last long) are so raw, so real, so challenging that all but the most dedicated would flee.  Fortunately, director Mike Figgis found two actors who not only would do the roles, but could do them justice.

Nicolas Cage has become as much a whipping boy in pop culture as the man who directed him in "The Rock."  So much so that people hate him without being able to explain why.  Perhaps it is because he has been appearing in bottom of the barrel movies of late.  Readers would do well to know that Cage lost a fortune in the Great Recession.  I've never gotten on that gravy train.  I've always liked Cage, and here he lays it bare.  It would have been too easy for him to just play a drunk.  But Cage gives us a man who is more complicated.  Ben is a good soul, but he has been so hurt by life and so crippled by addiction that he has given up and accepted the inevitable.  It's a stunning performance in a difficult role.

Elisabeth Shue shed her "girl next door" image from movies like "The Karate Kid" and the "Back to the Future" franchise and took her first adult role.  Her role is also tricky.  She is playing a character who accepts a man on his own terms, so much so that she is willing to watch him die a slow and agonizing death.  Anyone watching this movie will see her success.

This is not a story of redemption; Ben doesn't have a shining moment of truth and there are no happy endings.  In a way, it's like great opera.  The story isn't overwrought but just as tragic.  After all, what could be more sad than watching two good people go down an unhappy road to a destination of death and pain?

Putting this story to film was no easy task.  The writer of the novel it was based on, John O'Brien, shot himself two weeks after the film went into production, nearly causing Mike Figgis to abandon it.  Filming permits were denied for some scenes forcing the cast and crew to shoot them in one take.  What's all the more astonishing about this movie (other than it managed to get made at all and be a terrific film) is the number of high profile cameos in the film.  A few were pre-fame, but many were at the height of their stardom.  And what names they are: Julian Sands as Yuri, Richard Lewis and Steven Weber as studio executives, Emily Procter as an actress, Danny Huston as a bartender, Valeria Golino as a woman subjected to Ben's advances, Carey Lowell as a bank teller, Lucinda Jenny as a weirdo barfly, French Steward and Ed Lauter as mobsters, R. Lee Ermey as a conventioneer, Mariska Hargitay as a hooker, Laurie Metcalf as a landlady, Shawnee Smith as a biker chick, director Bob Rafelson as a guy at the mall, Xander Berkley as a cabbie and Michael Goorjian as a college aged rapist.  Supermodel Naomi Campbell had a cameo but her scenes were deleted.  What a cast that is!

"Leaving Las Vegas" isn't your typical Friday night movie and it's not a journey many people will want to take.  But for those who venture in, it's not an experience that will soon be forgotten.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Baby Driver

3.5/4

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, CJ Jones, Elza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal

Rated R for Violence and Language Throughout

"Baby Driver" is a strange mishmash of action, music and comedy.  Although the closest anyone comes to singing in this thrill ride is lip-syncing, calling this movie an "action/comedy/musical" wouldn't be that far off base.  And yet it totally works.  It's thrilling without being too serious, cheeky without being too cute, and romantic without being sappy.  It hits the sweet spot.

Baby (Elgort) is a getaway driver for criminal mastermind Doc (Spacey).  Years ago, Baby boosted one of Doc's cars filled with a considerable amount of merchandise, and he's been working off the debt ever since.  But Baby is an artist behind the wheel, making Ryan Gosling in "Drive" look like a four-year-old playing "Grand Theft Auto V."  Unfortunately for Doc, Baby has one more heist to take care of and then he's out.  Of course, once that's done, he finds out that Doc won't let him just walk away.

This is a movie formula that's been used as long as there have been heist movies.  Or crime movies, for that matter.  But Edgar Wright, never one to play any genre conventions straight, has a ball for setting up familiar beats in the story and flouting them.  Characters rarely operate in ways that we expect and just when things look like they're going down a traditional road, Wright takes a sharp right turn. Wright knows our expectations and plays them against us.  And he does so without being gimmicky or trying too hard.  Although not as fresh or warped as "Kick-Ass," it has some of the same vibe.

The performances are on target.  Ansel Elgort doesn't have the screwy energy to pull off the more quirky aspects of his character, but he's good enough that it hardly matters.  He forges a bond between his character and the audience (with very little dialogue too...natch) and that's enough.  We care about him and want to see him survive until the end credits.  Lily James has improved her acting abilities considerably from her awful turns in the campy "Mirror Mirror" and the utterly awful "Abduction" (to be fair, she was forced to play off of Taylor Lautner, which is really all that needs to be said) and is an adorable love interest with a few surprises up her sleeve.  Their romance is simultaneously overlong and undercooked, but that's a tiny quibble.  Kevin Spacey, no stranger to playing bad guys, is in familiar territory and is able to navigate the twists in his story arc.  Jon Hamm is enjoying himself immensely as a robber.  Jamie Foxx Elza Gonzalez and Jon Bernthal are all effective as robbers.

I didn't like Edgar Wright's so-called "Cornetto Trilogy," which consisted of "Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz" and "The World's End."  I didn't like them for the same reason that I didn't like "Monty Python and the Holy Grail:" they were too dry and understated.  Too British, I guess.  But I like this one.  Wright fills the movie with stylistic flourishes that punctuate the film's plot with energy and verve.  Unlike some of his British contemporaries like Guy Ritchie or Paul McGuigan, he doesn't try too hard.  In addition to having the story go in unexpected directions, he does some interesting things with the musical tracks.  For example, he has specific beats in the songs match up with the action of the characters, he uses music to compliment the action on screen and for comic effect (there's a hilarious scene where Baby proves that while he's listening to music, he can read lips), and does some interesting things with subtitles (his foster father is no longer able to speak).

Movies, especially in the action genre, have become all about overseas box office receipts, merchandising, and fan service.  Yes, I'm talking to you, Michael Bay and Marvel.  For those who crave actual thrills without turning off their brains, the choices are distressingly few, and there aren't many reasons to go to a theater.  Here's one.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rough Night

1.5/4

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Zoe Kravitz, Illana Glazer, Kate McKinnon, Paul W. Downs

Rated R for Crude Sexual Content, Language Throughout, Drug Use and Brief Bloody Images

My brother's bachelor party last year went off without a hitch, thank you very much.  We and a few of his friends went to Nashville for some partying, go karts and good food.  I suppose I should be grateful for that.  I could have been as unfortunate as Scarlett Johansson: trapped in a bad SNL skit that won't end with four irritating shrews and a dead body.

Jess (Johansson) is stressed out.  She's running behind in the polls for a Senate seat (despite the fact that her competitor has taken the Anthony Wiener method of getting himself on the front page) and her bachelorette party is this weekend.  Nevertheless, she decides to go to Miami with her college friends: the awkward and in-your-face Alice (Bell), the rich bitch Blair (Kravitz), the lesbo activist Frankie (Glazer) and the blonde from down under Pippa (McKinnon).  The wedding party goes off without much fanfare except when Frankie decides to get a stripper.  When he shows up, he gets too frisky with Jess.  Alice is okay with getting laid by a stripper from Craigslist and hops on his lap.  But the big girl accidentally knocks him over and he hits his head on a counter.  Now the group has a dead body on their hands and has to figure out what to do about it.

"Rough Night" makes the common mistake of many comedies these days: it thinks that crude and/or awkward equal hilarious.  Well, they can.  Just look at "Liar Liar."  But that movie had scenes that were set up, it had a point of view, and it had characters that acted in outrageous ways only because the situations they found themselves in were illogical.  It also had good comic timing and Jim Carrey's manic energy.

It wouldn't surprise me if this movie didn't have a script.  It sounds improvised which is not a good idea for a movie.  It's fine for a line or two, but movies are not stand-up acts (something that Seth Rogen has yet to grasp).  Movies require storylines and characters.  They have to have comic tension.  There has to be a set-up before a joke.  Merely saying something weird isn't funny.  That's why "Rough Night" is unbearably lame while "Ted" was hilarious.  I wish Hollywood would stop being so lazy and actually write comic screenplays.  Fully improvised movies are never any good, and are usually downright awful (remember "Fist Fight?").

Scarlett Johansson is too talented for this material.  Easily one of the smartest and most alluring actresses working today, ScarJo probably saw the chance to let loose and have some fun.  But she's the highest paid actress in Hollywood.  This movie's production marched to her beat.  Why didn't she insist on some rewrites?  Why did she choose a screenplay that is this bland and tired?  She does what she can, and understands the concept of comic timing, but she is buried alive in all the failed humor and sitcom-like plot developments.

She is not helped by her supporting cast.  Her movie BFFs are either boring, irritating, or both.  Jillian Bell appears to be trying to ape Melissa McCarthy's "Bridesmaids" persona, but lacks McCarthy's comic energy and jolliness.  There's no zany edge to her performance.  Zoe Kravitz and Illana Glazer do their best to blend into the background, probably because they realize that appearing in this movie is a bad career move.  The best I can say about Kate McKinnon is that she sports a flawless Aussie accent.  Ty Burrell and Demi Moore show up for two scenes as uninhibited neighbors, but they come across as creepy rather than funny.  Their scenes fall uncomfortably flat.  The comic potential in contrasting the wildness of the bachelorette party with Jess's fiancé Peter (Downs) and his gay (?) bachelors subdued night out is wasted.  Or his adventures trying to get to Miami, which is because of a misunderstanding that's so dumb it surpasses the bar set by even bottom of the barrel comedies like this.

In addition to having bad material, co-writer/director Lucia Aniello fails at even the basic mechanics of comedy.  She has little concept of comic timing. there's no comic tension in most of the set pieces, and it runs on for far too long.  She can boast an amusing moment or two here and there, but for the most part the film never does anything edgy or unexpected enough to be funny.  Only the climax, which involves the bachelorette party, a second stripper and two cops, has any momentum, but barely enough for a Friday morning sitcom.

Trust me.  Avoid "Rough Night."

Mrs. Miniver

3.5/4

Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, Richard Ney, Dame Mae Whitty, Henry Travers

Not Rated (probable PG for War Scenes)

War movies are usually about the battles.  Movies like "Saving Private Ryan," "Black Hawk Down," "Fury" and others dominate the genre.  There are others, such "Schindler's List," which studied two men on opposite sides of the morality spectrum, or "Black Book," which used war as a setting for a psychological thriller.  But these movies are rare.  "Mrs. Miniver" is different in the sense that it looks at war from the perspective of average citizens.  It views war as a reality; something that didn't have a beginning, middle or end.  Air raids, destruction and death had become common place.  There really isn't anything quite like it.  The closest film I can think of is "Grave of the Fireflies," although that's a bit of a stretch.

The film opens shortly before the outbreak of World War II.  The Minivers are an upper class family with a penchant for living beyond their means.  Kay (Garson) has indulged herself by buying a fancy new hat while Clem (Pigeon) has splurged on a new car.  Life in their quaint little English town is simple; Lady Beldon (Whitty) is preparing to be awarded for her roses, Vin Miniver (Ney) is returning home from college and begins romancing Lady Beldon's granddaughter Carol (Wright).  Life changes for all when war breaks out.  Vin joins the Air Force, Clem has to save soldiers at Dunkirk, while Kay finds herself facing off against a downed German pilot in her kitchen.

What separates "Mrs. Miniver" from the rest is that it's not a narrative driven film.  Oh sure, the characters have motivations and perspectives on their situations.  They're not puppets wandering around to suit the needs of the plot like in a "Transformers" movie.  It's just that director William Wyler is more interested in illustrating the reality that these people find themselves in.  Life changes significantly if war is in your backyard.  Movies like "The Patriot" have touched on this theme, but only as a minor detail.  In "Mrs. Miniver," it's the soul focus.

The acting is exceptional.  Not surprising, since it racked up Oscar nods for five of its members (Garson, Pidgeon, Wright, Whitty and Travers).  Of those, Garson and Wright won (Garson made history on Oscar night when she gave a five-and-a-half minute long acceptance speech.  And you thought the modern Oscars were overlong...).  In the title role, Garson is exceptional.  She has a difficult job; creating a woman for whom war has become a fact of life, where worry and fear have become so commonplace that they are the norm.  And yet there is a strength and kindness to her that's infectious and irresistible.  She has good chemistry with her on-screen husband Walter Pidgeon (not surprising, since she had done so once before, and would do so again another six times, including the sequel).  Their relationship with each other rings true of a couple who have been together for many years.  The supporting cast is just as strong.  Teresa Wright is adorable as the lovely Carol, bringing life and a bit of spunk to what could have easily been a cliché.   Richard Ney turns on the charm as the handsome Vin, though ironically he would end up marrying his on-screen mother after filming completed...a union that lasted less than five years and killed his career.  Dame Mae Whitty appears as the brittle and difficult Lady Beldon while Henry Travers (aka Clarence from "It's a Wonderful Life") appears in a small but important role as the simple Mr. Ballard.

Although not a traditional war film, it's never boring.  The characters are compelling, the romance is winning, and there are some scenes of high tension.  I counted at least three, including a bunker scene that is most revealing about the coping mechanisms a person must have had to build to survive such a situation and very suspenseful.

"Mrs. Miniver" was inspired by a series of columns by Jan Struther about life in England, which understandably reflected the change in England's psyche as war began brewing.  Anyone can see that this is a propaganda film, albeit one that's more about ideas and painting a reality than championing an ideal.  Though German, William Wyler was a fierce opponent of the Nazi regime and made this film to stir up opposition to the Third Reich.  Indeed, after filming was completed, he joined the war effort, serving as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps making propaganda films.  This isn't a flawless film, with some curious editing and shot choices, but its themes and characters are presented with clarity and potency.

"Mrs. Miniver" remains a cultural touchstone, a war film with a specific time and place that finds a new angle on WWII.  The conflict that took place between 1939 and 1945 has been, and will probably always be, fertile territory for film.  "Mrs. Miniver" is one of many that has taken the challenge of doing it justice and succeeded.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Monster Calls

3/4

Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, and the voice of Liam Neeson

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Content and Some Scary Images

One can make many claims about "A Monster Calls."  Weird, bizarre, depressing, hard to understand.  All true.  One cannot claim that this movie plays is safe.  "A Monster Calls" is not an easy film to experience or even conceive of.  It relies heavily on metaphor, intuition and subtext.  The elements don't always gel, but the end result is worth experiencing.  Perhaps more than once.

Conor (MacDougall) is not a happy child.  His mother Lizzie (Jones) is dying, his father (Kebbell) is lives halfway around the world, and the prospect of living with his grandmother (Weaver) is not a pleasant one.  One night at 12:07 a.m., the yew tree in the nearby graveyard comes to life as a monster.  The Monster (Neeson) tells Conor that he will return to tell him three stories and then Conor must then tell him one in return.

It goes without saying that this is about Conor coming to terms with his mother's impending death.  Death of a loved one is not an easy thing to experience, especially at such a young age, but it's a path we must all take before we take it ourselves.  Director J.A. Bayona shows this process through it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Putting together "child hero" and "fantasy" gives off the impression that this is a kid-friendly film.  Sort of a Harry Potter meets Willy Wonka kind of thing.  That's not the case here.  This is a dark film that deals with heavy themes like grief, loss, murder and moral ambiguity.  Plus there are some sequences that will get the nape hairs on end for even the most stalwart of viewers.  Tread carefully when considering showing this to children.

The acting is effective.  Lewis MacDougall, coming off a small role in the bomb of a Peter Pan prequel, is sold in the lead but lacks screen presence.  It's a good acting job but he has trouble holding the camera's attention.  Felicity Jones sparkles as Lizzie, who is filled with life and love even as she approaches death.  Sigourney Weaver is miscast; although she ably handles the heavy drama (not one of the actress's strong suits) and sports a consistent British accent, she seems wrong for the role of the brittle, aloof grandmother.  Weaver projects a natural warmth that's at odds with the character she plays.  Liam Neeson gives us a monster who is far more complicated than he initially appears to be.

This is a visually dazzling movie that, unlike the "Transformers" movies, uses CGI and special effects intelligently.  The blending of live action and CGI isn't seamless, but it gets the job done.  And the stories that The Monster tells are illustrated in an abstract, water color style that is oh so appealing.

And yet the film never really quite clicks.  The heavy emphasis on subtext and audience intuition would be fine if it had a stronger foundation.  And the film gets off to a slow start.  Once The Monster starts telling his first story, the movie finds its groove.

"A Monster Calls" isn't for everyone.  It's a challenging and emotionally draining movie that demands thought.  This isn't a dumb popcorn movie.  It's much more ambitious.  And while it doesn't always work, there's enough good stuff to warrant a rental,.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Cars 3

2/4

Starring (voices): Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Larry the Cable Guy, Nathan Fillon, Chris Cooper, Armie Hammer

Rated G

My relationship with Pixar's "Cars" franchise is not strong.  I started watching the original on pay-per-view but fell asleep (and was unimpressed with what I saw).  I never saw "Cars 2."  I was wary of approaching this movie with so little familiarity with it's respective franchise.  But then I remembered that Pixar's target audience is little kids, and therefore unlikely that their films demand fanboy obsessiveness like the Marvel Cinematic Universe does.

That said, "Cars 3" is a pretty lame movie.  It follows the Pixar formula of telling a story to convey a certain theme (in this case, it's that time never stops), peppering it with humor, action and heart.  The thing is, it doesn't do any of that well.  The humor is hit-and-miss with the misses being the most prominent (although there is a hilarious sequence in which Lightning McQueen has trouble with a racing simulator), the heart-tugging moments are muted because they're so cliché, and the action is routine.  Pixar made its name on taking bold risks and great storytelling.  It's not like them to put out a product just to make money (although it's been done before...remember "Monsters University?").

Lightning McQueen (Wilson) is once again on the top of the racing world.  He's a winner and the public loves him for it.  However, his perch is threatened by a new upstart named Jackson Storm (Hammer), a hotshot with a lot of techno bells and whistles.  Soon, everyone starts copying him, and Lightning's old frenemies either retire or get fired by their sponsors.  To give him the best edge, his old sponsors sold their business to one of his longtime fans, a car named Sterling (Fillon).  Sterling promises to give Lightning everything he needs, but after said disaster with the simulator, Sterling thinks that it's time for Lightning to retire.  Lightning wants to retire on his own terms, so he makes Sterling a deal: if he wins the next race, he can keep racing.  If not, it's a lifetime of endorsements and publicity deals.  So he sets out to train harder than ever, and tagging along is his mantra-obsessed trainer, Cruz Ramierz (Alonzo).

"Cars 3" reeks of marketing-driven filmmaking.  Every element of this film seems to be there simply to target a certain market.  True, this is something that happens with just about every movie, but the best movies like the Pixar canon hide it with good screenwriting and smart filmmaking.  "Cars 3" is so unsubtle about it that it's almost offensive.  The gay stereotyping is just as appalling.

The voice acting is effective.  Owen Wilson, Crestela Alonzo, and the rest of the cast doe their jobs well.  The problem is that they aren't given anything to work with.  Pixar has been known for putting a lot of TLC into its writing and filmmaking.  Who can forget the dynamic relationship between Woody and Buzz in the first "Toy Story" movie?  Or the sheer brilliance of Dory's dialogue in "Finding Nemo?"  This is pedestrian filmmaking at its most obvious.

Pixar has become so beloved that even non-film fans know the studio name and will flock to their films because Pixar is synonymous with quality.  But they're becoming less reliable.  "Inside Out" was their last big movie, (although others loved it more than I did).  The last great movie was "Brave," and that was five years ago.  If Pixar wants to keep its reputation, they gotta stop the cash grabs like this and "Monsters University."  Unless they feel that they've got a story worth telling, they should move on to a new story.  Come to think of it, every studio should operate by this ideal.

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."