Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Interpreter

3/4

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, Jesper Christensen, Yvan Attal

Rated PG-13 for Violence, Some Sexual Content and Language

"The Interpreter" is rare in the sense that it not only has a brain, it demands that the audience use theirs.  Those expecting action, gunfights and explosions are going to be disappointed.  Don't get me wrong, there is some of that, but it's kept low-key and never dwelled upon for very long.  The term "slow-burn thriller" was coined for movies like this.  The movie is exciting, but in a cerebral sort of way.  In a way, it's a little like "The Siege," only not as grim.

The President of Matobo, Edmund Zuwanie (Earl Cameron) is scheduled to appear before the UN in a few days time to defend himself against charges of genocide.  While going back to retrieve her things after an evacuation, UN interpreter and Matoban national Sylvia Broome (Kidman) overhears some hushed voices planning to assassinate Zuwanie in a rare dialect that she happens to be fluent in.  The Secret Service agent investigating her claims, Tobin Keller (Penn), doesn't believe her, but he'd rather err on the side of caution.  Soon events make it clear that someone doesn't want Zuwanie to leave the UN alive, and if they're not careful, Sylvia may end up the same way.

This movie has two plotlines.  One is, obviously, who is trying to assassinate Zuwanie.  The other is the emotional connection that develops between Sylvia and Tobin.  It's strictly platonic, which is a nice change of pace, but no less deep.  Rather, it's finding emotional solace in times of grief.  Both of them have sad pasts and find a sense of relief, if temporary and rather unprofessional (on Tobin's part) sort.  This rings true because Kidman and Penn play it just right.  They underplay the emotions and regard each other with understanding.  This makes their relationship feel fresher and more real.

While neither Kidman nor Penn has an especially flashy role, they give terrific performances.  Kidman, who was given the part after her good friend Naomi Watts turned it down (because she knew that Kidman wanted it), has little trouble playing a woman who is both fearing for her life and haunted by her past.  It's a tricky role because she keeps so many secrets; perhaps even from herself.  Sean Penn is probably one of the few actors who can keep up with her, and he does.  His is a low-key, but no less effective, performance, playing a man exhausted by the ghosts that haunt him.  Able support is provided from the rest of the cast, including Catherine Keener who takes a role so small that it could have been filled by a no-name actress.

This was the first film that was actually filmed inside the UN, and director Sydney Pollack makes the most of it.  In addition to making the most out of the setting, he makes it feel alive.  It isn't so much the cinematography (which is adequate but nothing special), but the energy.  This place feels alive, and as a result the stakes feel higher.

It isn't a perfect movie.  The pacing is at times slow, and there are a few kinks in the screenplay that Pollack should have known were needed to be ironed out.  A deeper backstory into the history of the fictional country of Matobo and the genocide that Zuwanie had wrought would have given the film more bite.  As it is, it's a solid offering for those who like a thriller that makes them use their brains.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Promise (2016)

3/4

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Marwin Kenzari, Igal Naor, Angela Sarafyan, Milene Mayer, Stuart Scudamore

Not to be confused with the 2005 Japanese film

"The Promise" is a daring effort with noble intentions.  It dramatizes a shamefully not well known event in world history for a mass audience.  It's $90 million budget fully funded by Armenian billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, who had family that lived through these events, it refuses to allow these atrocities to be ignored no longer.  While a lot of its potential is unrealized (much of which has to do with the love story), there are just as many scenes of real power.

Mikael Boghosian (Isaac) is an Armenian apothecary in a small Turkish town.  It's been a family tradition for 200 years, but he desires to do more.  He wants to go to medical school, but lacks money.  So he marries Miral (Sarafyan), a local girl, and uses the dowry to pay for his education.  There, he meets some new friends: a Turkish Muslim named Emre (Kenzari) who is attending medical school on his father's orders, his nieces' tutor, Ana Khezarian (Le Bon), and a drunken American reporter named Chris Myers (Bale).  While Ana and Chris are in a relationship, there is an undeniable attraction growing between Mikael and Ana.  But when war breaks out, the two are separated and the diseased Ottoman Emprie is intent on wiping out the entire Armenian population.

"The Promise" works better as a historical epic than a love story.  While there is chemistry between the three principals, neither couple would be remembered next to Jack and Rose.  However, as an epic tragedy, it's on surer ground.  The atrocities and the desperation to survive are all well presented, although with only a title card to set up the historical context, it's hard to register the scope or the motivations of the genocide.

The performances are all fine.  Oscar Isaac continues to demonstrate why he is one of the fastest rising stars in Hollywood.  Charlotte Le Bon is just as delightful and fetching as she was in "The Hundred Foot Journey."  Christian Bale is his usual reliable self as the third man (and avoids all the clichés of such a character...thankfully).  Shohreh Aghdashloo steals scenes as Mikael's mother Marta, something she is able to do seemingly without effort.  Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari is affable but a little flat as Emre, who must choose between friendship and duty to his powerful father, Ismet (Scudamore).  James Cromwell, Jean Reno, Rade Szerbezija and in a blink and you'll miss it performance, Michael Stahl-David, all have small appearances.

The problem is that screenplay doesn't allow the characters or the plot to breathe.  This isn't a particularly well written movie.  The plot isn't always smooth and the love story veers close to soap opera (Ana is always made to believe that Mikael or Chris is dead).  Despite the valiant efforts of its cast, the people they portray remain two dimensional.  Director Terry George doesn't have a good feel for epics; the characters are kept at a distance and the film is awkwardly structured and paced.

And yet, there are moments that really do land.  There's plenty of horror to be found when viewing people be led down a road in a line as far as the eye can see, and how a girl runs to join the back of the line after her mother is shot for falling by the wayside.  Or seeing the results of a town annihilated by Turkish soldiers.  And the final twenty minutes are quite suspenseful.

So it's not perfect.  The script needed rewrites and the plot is clunky.  But you know what?  I'm disappointed that I missed it in theaters.  This may have worked better there.  Still, it's worth seeing on Blu Ray (the cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobeis excellent).  If only so you will be made aware of a shameful event in our past.

Monday, September 18, 2017

mother!

2.5/4

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris

Rated R Strong Disturbing Violent Content, Some Sexuality, Nudity and Language

You know, I've seen more than a few thousand movies in my time.  On this site alone, the number stands at 1,505 reviews (including this one).  Plus 361 on iMDb (there is some overlap).  That's 1,866 movies.  And that's just after I started reviewing.

The reason I list my credentials is not out of narcissism.  It's because of all these movies, I don't recall any that left me so dumbfounded.  It's not that it's shocking or a mindfuck, although it is both of those things.  It's that it's so bizarre and surreal that it left me unsure of how to react.  Hell, I didn't know what it actually was!

Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence play a loving couple living in the middle of the wilderness in a home that she is remodeling while he writes.  Their careful idyll is rocked when a man played by Ed Harris shows up at their door under the mistaken belief that it's a bed & breakfast.  Bardem invites him to stay the night without Lawrence's consent, and is oblivious to her discontent.  The next morning, his wife Michelle Pfeiffer shows up.  Soon after that, Bardem invites them to "stay as long as they life."  Such an offer would, under the circumstances, unnerve anyone.  Least of all because Pfeiffer starts asking Lawrence some personal and inappropriate questions.  That's when things get really strange.

How strange do they get?  Let's start by going into what material this movie contains.  During this movie, you will see such things as: a family feud, a funeral with unexpected guests, a riot, a war battle, a dance club in the dining room, child sacrifices, cannibalism, and writer's block.  These aren't necessarily spoilers, however.  It's not that kind of movie.

Perhaps Darren Aronofsky was trying to create a deliberately ambiguous movie like "The War Zone" (a movie that bears no similarity to this one).  I remember reading a short story about woman and a bear that was written in such a way.  The possible allusions that this film refers to are endless.  The paparazzi, our current occupant in the White House (I will not defame the title by referring to him by name), writer's block, pregnancy.  The list goes on.  I think Aronofsky has something in mind, but he fails to convey it.

I applaud the valiant efforts of the cast for their talents.  And their guts.  With such a script like this, many less courageous actors would have run the other way.  But Bardem, Lawrence, Harris and Pfeiffer (plus Kristen Wiig in a small role) have a lot of courage, and they give it their all.  For playing characters that are impossible to get a hold of, they seem to be on the same page as Aronofsky.  Now that's talent!

Reviewing movies like this is hard.  On the one hand, this is a movie that is confusing, at times maddeningly so.  On the other hand, it's rarely boring and makes you wonder where it will go next.  It's violent and scary and weird and has more appropriate descriptors than you or I can imagine.  I can't in good conscience recommend it, but I'm glad I saw it.

eXistenZ

2/4

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Callum Keith Rennie, Christopher Eccelston

Rated R for Strong Sci-Fi Violence and Gore, and for Language

Science fiction has long pondered the line that separates fantasy from reality, and in that sense, "eXistenZ" doesn't do anything new.  But the presentation is different because it uses video games as a platform for this question.  That the movie was written and directed by David Cronenberg should tell you that this will be a highly strange and unusual tale.

Allegra Geller (Leigh) is a brilliant game designer showing her new game called "eXistenZ" to a focus group.  However. this anticipated event (which, considering Allegra's status as the premiere game designer, is surprisingly small) goes awry when an assassin attempts to kill Allegra.  Now she and a dorky marketing trainee named Ted Pikul (Law) go on the run.  The question is not only who is trying to kill Allegra, but was the game destroyed in the shooting?  To answer that question, she and Ted will have to play the game.

"eXistenZ" feels like it was rushed through production.  The acting is unpolished, shot selection is stale, and so on.  At least the special effects are good, if on the gruesome side.  Those with weak stomachs will want to give this one a pass.  But it's obvious that this movie didn't get the TLC it needed to really work.

Of the cast, only Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law have more than token screen time.  Leigh, who is never afraid to back down from a challenge or controversy, is in fine form, bringing life to an underwritten role.  Jude Law, on the other hand, is awful.  The British actor is so wooden that it's hard to believe that this is the same guy who would become a household name after his breakthrough performance in "The Talented Mr. Ripley."  A movie that was released just nine months after this one.  The supporting cast is as talented as it is diverse, but no one appears for more than a handful of scenes.

David Cronenberg clearly has a lot of ideas in this movie.  I also liked his eye and ear for details regarding how surreal it would be to be stuck in a video game.  But as they come across in the film, they're half formed or Cronenberg just doesn't know what to do with them.  For example, players plug in an umbilical cord-like thing into a hole in their back and massage a wriggling pile of flesh to play the game.  The sexual metaphor is hardly subtle, but it's a metaphor for what exactly?  Either Cronenberg isn't able to communicate this to the audience or he just doesn't know, but the result is the same.

The problem with the film is that it's just not entertaining.  The story is too thin and slow-moving to engage and there's no one and nothing to care about here.  It's another case of having a cool idea, but botching it in the execution.

Friday, September 15, 2017

American Assassin

3/4

Starring: Dylan O'Brien, Michael Keaton, Shiva Negar, Sanaa Lathan, Taylor Kitsch, David Suchet, Navid Negahban, Charlotte Vega, Joseph Long

Rated R for Strong Violence Throughout, Some Torture, Language and Brief Nudity

"American Assassin" does exactly what it needs to.  No more, no less.  That it does the absolute bare minimum to get a passing grade does little to sway me from recommending it simply because the pickings are so slim.  It may not be ambitious or end up on my Top 10 list at the end of the year, but it has some great action and suspense.  You get what you pay for.

Mitch Rapp (O'Brien) is a grad student on vacation with his girlfriend Katrina (Vega).  Just moments after she accepts his marriage proposal, terrorists attack the resort they are staying at and she is brutally murdered by a terrorist named Adnan al-Mansur (Shahid Ahmed).  Intending on exacting revenge in blood, Mitch poses as a recruit to get to his target, but before he can kill al-Mansur, a military squad does the job for him.  What he doesn't know is that the CIA has been tracking him.  Director Stansfield (Suchet) thinks Rapp is too unbalanced to work for them, but another agent named Irene Kennedy (Lathan) sees something special in him.  So she sends him to train with Stan Hurley (Keaton), who trains the best and the brightest in covert ops.  Soon he's tracking down some missing plutonium, and an assassin who may have ties to Hurley.

"American Assassin" moves so fast that few of the characters or their motivations can really gain any momentum.  The story is gripping, yes, but it's hard to care about anyone in this movie because we don't get enough time to get to know them as people.  They're props for the story.  The only one we care about to any degree is Mitch, and that's because we know his backstory.

CBS Films took a big risk putting this movie on the shoulders of a teen star.  This is not a teen-friendly movie; the R rating is deserved (for once).  It's violent and it's brutal.  But Dylan O'Brien, star of "Teen Wolf" and "The Maze Runner" movies, is solid in the lead role.  He lacks the gravitas of a more established star with a bigger presence, but O'Brien makes that work to his advantage.  By looking so young and small, he feels more vulnerable but at the same time his intensity makes him seem more lethal.  It's a strong performance.  Sadly, his co-star, Michael Keaton, is not as impressive.  Keaton, a star from the 80's and 90's who saw a career resurgence with movies like "Birdman" and "Spotlight" (a performance for which he should have, but did not get, an Oscar), is coasting on his charisma.  The women fare worse: Shiva Negar is little more than a pretty face and Sanaa Lathan is miscast.  Taylor Kitsch is solid in a cliché role.  Veteran Iranian creep Navid Negahban turns up the nasty, but he's only on screen for a few scenes.

The problem with the film is that it takes no chances.  Just about every plot point and reveal is easily predicted, and while a few interesting ideas are breached (such as the cost of being Dirty Harry and making things personal), there's little follow through.  A stronger script that really dealt with these issues could have turned a solid thriller into a great one.  Perhaps on the level of "The Peacemaker," a film that this bears some similarity to.

Still, for those who are in the mood for some R-rated action and adrenaline, you could do worse.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Inuyasha

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Moneca Stori, Richard Ian Cox, Kirby Morrow, Kelly Sheridan, Jillian Michaels, Paul Dobson, David Kaye, Michael Dangerfield, Scott McNeil, Willow Johnson, Janyse Jaud

Why am I writing a review of an entire TV series?  Why not?  It's my site.  Besides, I've reviewed a few miniseries too.  So why can't I review this too?  Besides, it can be argued that the TV show tells a complete story.  Just one that takes 180 hours to tell (that's 7.5 days, for anyone who is counting).

But the real reason I'm reviewing it is because I feel like I should.  It's a great show, and one that means a lot to me personally.  It was what got me to see the anime genre in a positive light.  It's safe to say that I wouldn't have seen "Spirited Away" or "Grave of the Fireflies," two incredible films, had it not been for this TV show.

On its whole, "Inuyasha" is fantasy, but pigeonholing it into one genre is a mistake because it contains a lot of everything.  It's at times exciting, scary, tragic, mysterious, funny and thrilling.  If there's a genre that it misses, I don't know what it is.  But what really sets it apart is its sense of adventure.  It's an epic saga with emotional highs and lows with a group of a characters who are a blast to spend time with.  More importantly is that it's just great storytelling.

The story is set in feudal Japan, where man and demon live together, and not always peacefully.  There exists the Jewel of Four Souls, a powerful jewel that will grant the one who has it extraordinary power.  Guarding it is a priestess named Kikyo (Johnson), who defends it from all manner of demon and man alike.  But she falls for a half-demon (demon father, human mother) named Inuyasha (Cox), and he with her.  They plan to use it so he can become fully human, but he betrays her to her death.  Before she dies, she seals him to a tree and orders that the jewel be burned with her body.

In the modern age, a girl named Kagome (Stori) is a normal girl whose family is the guardian of an ancient shrine.  On her fourteenth birthday, she is pulled into the shrine and into the feudal era, fifty years after Kikyo's death.  Inuyasha awakens from his sleep and saves her from a demon who has gotten the jewel.  However, Kagome inadvertently shatters the jewel into many pieces that fly all over ancient Japan.  Now, the two of them have to band together to find them.  Along their journey, they team up with a few new friends, including an orphaned demon named Shippo (Michaels), a lecherous monk named Miroku (Morrow) and a demon slayer with a tragic past named Sango (Sheridan).

Every good story needs a good villain, and boy, does "Inuyasha" deliver.  The antagonist of this story is a half-demon named Naraku (Dobson).  I once listed him as my favorite villain, and for good reason.  Naraku is pure malice.  He's both clever and ruthless.  Most villains have a weakness or some sort of moral boundary.  That's not the case with Naraku.  He's pure evil, holding a trump card to manipulate his opponents and his subordinates to his own ends.  Not only does he absorb other demons to gain their power, he torments his opponents psychologically with a degree of malevolence that makes Darth Vader look like a pussy.  Every line uttered by his voice actor, Paul Dobson, drips with malice.

The other actors are just as good.  Richard Ian Cox is terrific as the reserved and blunt Inuyasha.  It's at times brash, but his journey towards becoming a more trusting and mature person is captivating to watch.  Cox has a little trouble with some of the heavier drama (he's never convincing when he cries), but such moments are rare.  And he has no trouble with any of the show's humorous moments.  As Kagome, Moneca Stori imbues the character with energy and spunk.  She's caring and tough, and won't let anyone, be it Inuyasha or Naraku, stop her from doing what needs to be done.  She's so good that when she retired between the original show and "The Final Act," her replacement Kira Tozer seemed like an imposter.  Kirby Morrow is also very good as a thoughtful monk with a hand that can suck in anything and a weakness for women.  He balances humor and intensity perfectly.  Kelly Sheridan plays his foil and love interest Sango, a girl with a tragic past and whose brother is being held as a slave by Naraku.  She's strong and handy in a fight, and brings with her a cat demon who can grow to massive size and carry people on her back.  Jillian Michaels is hilarious as Shippo, a young orphan who tags along simply because he has nowhere else to go.  Too young and weak to do any real fighting, he's mainly on hand for comic relief, something Michaels accomplishes with style.

The main crew meets some other characters in their travels, some of whom are friendly, villainous or a mix.  Take Sesshomaru (Kaye/Dangerfield), for example.  He's Inuyasha's older stepbrother, who believes that Inuyasha's powerful sword should have been left to him, and is willing to kill to get it for himself.  He despises humans, but he nonetheless takes an orphaned human girl with him after he revives her with his sword.  Or Koga (McNeil), a wolf demon who impulsively claims Kagome to be his bride (which sets up a hilarious love triangle) and who hunts Naraku after members of his tribe are slaughtered by Kagra (Jaud), the deadly Wind Sorceress, one of his subordinates.  Or Lady Kaede (Pam Hyatt/Linda Darlow), Kikyo's younger sister who acts as a mentor to everyone.  Special mention has to go to Willow Johnson, who plays the revived Kikyo.  Without going into spoiler territory, her story is tragic.  More so than it initially appears, in fact.  This sets up a love triangle that forms a key role in the story.

Also important is Kagome's home life.  While she does primarily adventure in the feudal era, she is still a student, and her attempts to balance her home life with her quest to reclaim the jewel lead to some hilarious episodes.  Such as her grandfather who is always making up ridiculous excuses for why she is missing so much school, or Inuyasha's mistaken belief that exams are a literal demon.  But they offer a sense of respite and relaxation.  When Kagome goes home, we get a chance to take a breath.

If this confuses you, well, I don't blame you.  Shape-shifting is important in Japanese myth, and it is a huge part of the world in which "Inuyasha" takes place.  Characters are often different from who they seem to be, both literally and figuratively.  They evolve and their personalities change.  Alliances shift and motivations are altered.  This is an epic saga of power, revenge, and romance.

As serious as this story sometimes is (that's by design...creator Rumiko Takahashi said she wanted to create something darker than her earlier works), it's also hilarious.  There's plenty of comedy to be found here, some of which is laugh out loud funny.  The humor is occasionally bawdy, such as Miroku's habit of asking every woman to bear him children (or groping them).  Or the rivalry between Inuyasha and Koga, which is never played straight.  There's a lot of slapstick, too, like how Inuyasha is slammed to the ground by the necklace he is forced to wear when Kagome says "Sit" whenever he's particularly thoughtless or crude.  It's a bit that never fails to get a laugh.

Things change during season 5, when the notorious Band of Seven is resurrected (in the world of "Inuyasha," death isn't always final).  A group of marauding mass murderers, it veers the show into pretty dark territory, from which the show doesn't really rise above.  It doesn't sink the show by any means, but it does lose a little of the adventurous spirit that made it so infectious.  The seasons after that have their fair share of lighter moments and fun, but when it begins to tie up everything, it gets pretty dark.

The quest to reclaim the jewel before Naraku and the love story between Inuyasha and Kagome are the main thrusts of the story, some of the stand alone episodes and arcs are just as memorable.  The battle with the Panther demons, a village of possessed widows, a demonic painting, and a sea serpent that demands human sacrifice are all ones that stick out over the many adventures that Inuyasha and his friends have.

Every TV show has its share of episodes that fall flat, and "Inuyasha" is no different.  Essentially, whenever the show deviates from the main characters, it falls flat.  Shippo, Kagome's brother Sota (Saffron Henderson) are just not strong enough characters to hold their own episodes.  The episodes that put them at center stage are duds, and a slog to get through.  Also falling flat are episodes that put the relationship between Inuyasha and Kagome at the forefront.  While the film is as much a romantic comedy as an adventure, it's best when it's in the background.

Still, this is an awesome adventure that everyone should take.  Sure, there are a few dud episodes and some truly awful dialogue.  But there are so many wonderful moments, thrilling battles and engaging characters that even after 10 seasons, you won't want to let the characters go.

Few shows can make that claim.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

IT (2017)

2.5/4

Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgaard

Rated R for Violence/Horror, Bloody Images, and for Language

With the help of clever marketing, brand recognition, and beloved source material (two, actually), Andy Muschietti's newest iteration of Stephen King's "IT" has finally found its way into theaters.  It's been a long time coming; while the beloved miniseries was released in 1990, the film adaptation has been in preproduction for five years.  So how is it?  The truth is that it's a mixed bag.

The setting has been updated to 1989, although little else has changed.  The core characters and themes still appear.  In the quaint town of Derry, Maine, little children have gone missing.  One unlucky victim is Georgie Denbrogh (Jackson Robert Scott), who went missing while sailing a paper boat down the street.  Now Georgie's older brother Bill (Lieberher) and six other friends, who dub themselves as "The Loser's Club," realize that not only are all these disappearances connected, they're being done by a monster who takes the form of Pennywise, the Dancing Clown (Skarsgaard).  And the only way to defeat him is by sticking together.

What holds the film back is its pacing.  This new iteration of the Stephen King classic moves with lightning fast speed, taking little time to establish the characters or more importantly, the bond between them.  Despite being only an hour shorter than the two-part miniseries, it feels frantic.  But "IT" is not "Aliens" or "The Descent."  It's as much a coming of age story as a horror flick.

Interestingly enough, I was having a discussion with my personal trainer about the movie "Sinister," a truly terrifying movie.  What set that movie apart is that the monster was almost an afterthought.  The real meat of the story was solving a mystery and an author's last desperate attempt for a hit.  Bughuul came later; he was slowly revealed, an omnipresent threat that lurked just off screen yet never strayed far from our minds.  If you think about it, the same was true for the original miniseries.  Everyone remembers Tim Curry's Pennywise, but it's the heroes and the bond between them that gave the film its power.  That doesn't happen here.  It uses each kid's interaction with Pennywise as an introduction to the audience.  Such a mistake costs the film a lot of involvement.

The performances, mostly by unknowns and first-timers, doesn't impress.  Few of them leave much of an impression, and only Sophia Lillis, who plays Beverly Marsh, has any screen presence.  Bill Skarsgaard manages the difficult task of bringing Pennywise to the screen without coming across as a poser.  Tim Curry's performance was a creepy/funny clown.  Skarsgaard's is a bad to the bone monster.  It takes a few seconds to see accept the character that Curry seemingly made definitive, but it happens fairly quickly.

It could be argued that the 1990 miniseries is a great horror movie for kids; it's neither too scary or violent, and the themes of friendship and adolescence ring true.  It's a great sleepover movie.  The same cannot be said of this iteration, which takes full advantage of the R rating.  This is quite intense and at times very bloody.  Don't bring the kids.

So this new "IT" doesn't match up to the miniseries.  Nor is it an example of especially good filmmaking.  In fact, it resembles a lot of remakes in the sense that it knows the beats and the obligatory scenes, but the heart and soul of the movie has been lost.  I cant recommend seeing it, but at the same time, why would I?  It's far from a train wreck, has some legitimate scares and cool special effects.  In the end of summer dump month, you can't ask for much more.

My Life as a Zucchini

3/4

Starring (voices): Erick Abbate, Ness Krell, Nick Offerman, Romy Beckman

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements and Suggestive Material

"My Life as a Zucchini" is a slight but charming stop-motion animation film from France.  It has a lot of heart and love for its characters, but a lack of narrative drive and a far too short running time keep it from being something special.

Icare, or Zucchini, as he prefers to be called, has a sad life.  His father has long since been out of the picture and his mother spends all of her time drinking beer and throwing empty cans at the TV.  When an attempt to avoid a spanking ends up with his mother dying, Zucchini is sent to live in an orphanage.  There, he discovers the true meaning of friends and family.

This movie isn't strong on plot.  Not that there's much time for one, considering that the film is barely over an hour long.  Apart from that, it lacks focus.  It wants to give everyone their due, but with seven kids at the orphanage, plus a few other characters, including a cop voiced by Nick Offerman who grows to care about Zucchini, makes it a little too much.  Stretch it out to 85 or 90 minutes and you'd have a great little movie.

The voice acting is effective, which is to say, it's low key and doesn't draw attention to itself.  None of the child actors has any trouble convincing us to accepting the emotions they are trying to covey, although they are all far too well-adjusted to be believable in that regard, considering their backstories.  But since director Claude Barrass is aiming for a Dickensian vibe rather than Ken Loach, I'll let it slide.

The animation is top-notch.  "My Life as a Zucchini" is gorgeous; it's like a picture book come to life.  The score by Sophie Hunger sets the mood perfectly, reminding me of the video game "Life is Strange," believe it or not.  For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, I strongly suggest that you go find an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 and play it, since it's a definite 4/4.

Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked.  The point is, that for however slight and too short this movie is, it has a likability to it that's impossible to deny.  I cared about Zucchini, his friend Camille (Krell), and their friends.  So I think it's worth checking out.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Brimstone

3/4

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Emilia Jones, Carice Van Houten, Kit Harrington, William Houston, Ivy Jones, Jack Hollington

Rated R for Brutal Bloody Violence, Strong Sexual Content including Disturbing Behavior, Graphic Nudity, and Language

Not since "The Guest" has the presence of true evil slithered off the screen.  While Guy Pearce's Reverend isn't the central character in the film, he is by far the most memorable (next to some strong competition).  To see the Australian actor in the role of such a monstrous villain is frightening.

Liz (Fanning) is a mute woman living in the Old West.  Having married a widower named Eli (Houston) and becoming a mother to his son Matthew (Hollington) and bore him a daughter Sam (Jones), she appears to have made peace with her unrevealed past.  When a new pastor (Pearce) comes into town, it's welcome news to Eli.  Liz, however, is uneasy.  Soon enough, tragedy strikes and she and her family must go on the run.  Only then is her past told.

Fair warning: this movie is not for everyone.  This is a bloody and disturbing tale that will turn off or alienate a sizable amount of its potential audience.  The R rating is richly deserved.  That said, what "Brimstone" does, it does well.  The performances are strong across the board.  The plot is gripping.  The film looks stunning and the musical score is beautiful.  But this movie is not for the squeamish or for the conservative minded filmgoer.  As for me, I like this sort of daring, filming without a safety net.  Sure it could end up being crap, but when it works, it's exhilarating.

Neatly divided into four chapters, writer/director Martin Koolhoven elects to present the film in a non-chronological fashion.  The first chapter sets up the film in the present, while the second and third are in the past.  The fourth goes back to the present to tie everything up.  While there is no denying that this style has been overused since Christopher Nolan popularized it with his landmark 2000 thriller "Memento" (which, ironically, also starred Guy Pearce) Koolhoven uses it well.  Telling the story in this fashion gives the story a dramatic underpinning that it wouldn't get had he told it in a conventional way.

The performances are strong across the board.  Dakota Fanning is in top form, playing a young mother fighting for survival.  What's especially impressive is that for a majority of the film, she has no dialogue.  Fortunately, she has a very expressive face.  Emilia Jones is also excellent as the younger version of Liz; in fact, she's so good and looks so similar to Fanning that I thought they were the same person.  Carice Van Houten, Kit Harrington and William Houston are all effective, and the child actors Ivy Jones and Jack Hollington show just as much skill as their more experienced co-stars.

The real star of the show is Guy Pearce.  The versatile Aussie star has played some villainous characters before ("Lawless" was loaded with problems, but his performance was not one of them), but never has he played someone this depraved.  A religious zealot who uses gospel as an excuse to perpetrate his most sadistic desires is bad enough, but add in the fact that he knows he is beyond redemption and cares nothing for morality as a result and you have a man who could give Hannibal Lecter a run for his money in the creepy department.  But The Reverend isn't necessarily creepy in the heebie-jeebies kind of way.  He's just flat out disturbing.

Unfortunately, "Brimstone" has an Achille's Heel, and that's its length.  At two and a half hours, the film is far too long.  So much so that it loses a lot of its dramatic momentum.  Each new revelation los3es its luster the longer the film goes on without going anywhere.  I won't call this self-indulgent; the film is too well made and well-acted to be labled as such.  But there's no denying that this would have been a much stronger film had it been leaner and meaner.  So to speak.

"Brimstone" was not easy for Koolhoven to get off the ground.  Not wanting to compromise his vision with studio interference, he got financing from sources in eight different countries.  Casting changes (Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson were among the original cast) caused so much disruption that the director thought he was having a heart attack (it was really just a panic attack from all the stress).  While the film is not perfect by any means, it's worth seeking out for those who have a taste for movies that veer off the beaten path.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Hitman's Bodyguard

2/4

Starring: Ryan Reynolds. Samuel L. Jackson, Elodie Young, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Joaquim de Almeida

Rated R for Strong Violence and Language Throughout

"The Hitman's Bodyguard" is a throwback to the days of "Lethal Weapon," where the charisma of mismatched buddies and ridiculous, over-the-top action sequences drove in audiences by the millions.  Explosions, shoot outs, and of course, the one-liners, all that stuff.  Essentially, the action movies before the superhero frenzy took hold and began clogging up the entire genre.  Given how much I bemoan the genre (oversaturation doesn't do it justice), you'd think I'd celebrate a retro movie like "The Hitman's Bodyguard."  I'd like to, but the movie just isn't that good.

Belarusian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Oldman) is on trial for his crimes, which include murder and genocide.  Despite damning and emotional testimony, there's little hard evidence that proves he was behind it all.  The one witness to his atrocities is a notorious hitman named Darius Kincaid (Jackson).  In exchange for his testimony, his illegally imprisoned wife Sonia (Hayek) will go free and he will be given "leniency" in his sentencing.  The problem is getting him to the Hague, since Dukhovich has plenty of goons who will go to any means to prevent him from getting to Amsterdam.  After his caravan is attacked, a sexy Interpol agent, Amelia Roussel (Young), realizes that there's a mole in the investigation, and that to make sure Kincaid arrives in one piece, a new plan is needed.  She calls her ex, a disgraced bodyguard named Michael Bryce (Reynolds) to do the job.  He doesn't want it, since he blames Amelia for his fall from grace, and Kincaid has tried to kill him previously.  On numerous occasions.

Watching this movie, I got the sense that director Patrick Hughes is throwing everything he can think of at the screen and hoping something works.  The problem is that too little of it does.  It's a mishmash of conflicting ideas, flat action and tepid humor.  For example, when you have a movie about a genocidal dictator and you add one-liners and jokes, it's enough to make someone squirmy.  Even aside from a PC-interpretation of the film's plot, the movie still doesn't work.  The action scenes aren't exciting and the jokes only occasionally elicit a chuckle, and rarely a full-bellied laugh.  Compare this to something like "The Rock" or "True Lies," and it really comes up short.

The two leads are fine, although there is no denying that Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson are far too good for this B-list script.  Ever the professionals, they at least have the good sense to give it their all (had they walked through it, it would have been painful...just look at Gary Oldman, who has never been this bad in his entire career).  Reynolds is perfectly fine playing the straight man to Jackson, who is thoroughly enjoying himself.  Elodie Young is certainly cute, but that's really all her role requires other than wonder frantically where Michael and Kincaid are.  Salma Hayek has a lot of fun playing a foul mouthed former cocktail waitress with some mean fighting skills.  Joaquim de Almeida has nothing to do but act sleazy (which is something he can do in his sleep, and apparently is).

The weak link, as I mentioned, is Gary Oldman.  Oldman is a powerful and versatile actor, but here he's so bad that he seems to be actively trying to sabotage the movie.  While he played a truly vicious Russian terrorist in "Air Force One," he's so obviously miscast that I was wondering what idiot actually thought he could do the part (least of all Oldman, since he signed the dotted line and collected the paycheck).  Fortunately his screen time is limited.  Which brings me to my next criticism, which is why cast Oldman when there are plenty of Russian actors who could do the job?  This isn't me being politically correct.  This is me wondering why they chose Oldman only to use him so badly and so briefly.  I can think of three Russian actors who would be more than capable of doing the job, seeing as they've done it before.  Rade Serbedzija has essentially monopolized the Russian gangster character, but Aleksandr Baluyev (the psychopathic Russian general from "The Peacemaker") or Marcel Iures (the other villain in that movie) would have been perfectly capable of doing the role.  And better.

The action movie, particularly the action-comedy, demands precise construction.  It must have breathless energy and perfect comic timing.  "The Hitman's Bodyguard" has neither.  It has a loose, unorganized feel to it like it was made in a slapdash manner.  It's also terribly filmed, with a sterile, clinical feel to it and some scenes that are so badly filmed that they seem fuzzy and indistinct.  I thought that the theater's lens was foggy.

Although I didn't like it, I'm kind of glad that this movie is doing good business.  Maybe then Hollywood will get back to making movies that don't center on a guy (or girl) fighting crime in spandex.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Pet Sematary

1.5/4

Starring: Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, Denise Crosby, Blaze Berdahl, Miko Hughes, Brad Greenquist

Rated R (probably for Horror Violence and Gore, and for Brief Language)

Don't mess with Indian burial grounds.

Anyone who knows horror movies knows that sites where ancient Indians buried their dead are best avoided.  In "Poltergeist" (I'm going to pretend that its dreadful remake doesn't exist), a family was on the wrong end of some very pissed off spirits.  In "Pet Sematary," the dead come back to life, and it ain't a pretty sight.

The Creeds, Dr. Louis (Midkiff), his wife Rachel (Crosby), and their two children, Ellie (Berdahl) and Gage (Hughes), have moved to a new home in Massachusetts.  Their neighbor across the busy highway is the old man, Jud Crandall (Gwynne), who knows all about the pet cemetery just a stone's throw away from the house.  When Ellie's beloved cat Church (named after Winston Churchill, of all things), is run over by a semi, he tells Louis how to temporarily resurrect him so Ellie can come to terms with it.  But when a worse tragedy strikes, Louis does the same thing, only with much worse results.

As a horror movie, "Pet Sematary" is an abject failure.  Apart from a few mildly spooky moments, this is devoid of anything resembling tension.  But as a piece of camp, it's on more solid ground.  I won't say it's good in any sense of the word, but the movie has its share of laugh out loud moments.  None of which are intentional.  Some of it comes from overacting.  Other times its because of the utter idiocy displayed by the characters, who are so dumb I began wishing for them all to die for the sole purpose of protecting the human gene pool.  Or it's because the characters act based on information they couldn't possibly have.

The acting is uniformly awful.  In a way, that adds to some of the film's campy charm (just about any scene that's intended to be serious is uproariously funny), but a little of that goes a long way.  In this case, really long.  Dale Midkiff is the worst of the lot, bringing to mind Eric Freeman from "Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2" (which is saying a lot).  "Star Trek: The Next Generation" mainstay Denise Crosby appears as his wife, although based on the evidence, it's hard to imagine why she got a role on "TNG" since she's so awful.  Like her on-screen husband, her performance is worse than a daytime TV soap opera.  The only one worth mentioning is Fred Gwynne, who is a long way from "The Munsters."  Although his part is horribly written, he's the best thing in it.

I would say that this movie is "so bad it's good," but that would be a lie.  This movie is "so bad it's bad, although not quite an unwatchable train wreck, at least compared to some other would-be horror flicks."  It's a mouthful, but that's the best way to describe it.  Director Mary Lambert is in over her head, with tight TV shots and very little atmosphere.  It's also incoherent at times and fatally dumb.

I suppose this could be a movie for "bad movie night," provided you're with some quick-witted friends and have plenty of alcohol.  As in a lot.  Other than that, don't bother.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Mike's Musings: The Battle over Political Correctness

I've always thought that "political correctness" was a bad term.  I don't think the problem is that there are some subjects that shouldn't be talked about, but that few are doing it the right way.  And no one is listening to the other side.

The battle over political correctness, or how to address difficult topics without offending anyone (or in many cases, as few people as possible), is not new.  To one extent or another, it's been the subject of debate every since we've learned to communicate.  People have different experiences and people have different points of view.  This is nothing new, and quite frankly, it should be celebrated.

I've always found that there's always a right way to say something, no matter how ugly or controversial it is.  This only goes so far; if you're a racist, people are going to think you're racist no matter what you say.  But there's at least a way to put your words that encourages dialogue and expressing points of view rather than hurling out racial epithets like candy.

Social media has played a big part in the rapid increase in controversy over the subject.  We get our information faster than ever, and anyone can voice their opinion or massage the facts to suit their point of view.  Getting the news from tweets, blogs or memes is faster and easier than reading a fully researched news article from The New York Times.  Traditional media is struggling to keep up, and with corporate owned news comes ideological spins and omissions, and both sides are accusing each other of being "fake news."

The problem is that there are plenty of people who say and do horrible things, and then hide behind the Bill of Rights.  But before I get going on the examples, let's make one thing clear: Free Speech, et al, prevent the government from saying/believing/protesting your views.  Neo-Nazis and the Alt Right had every right to protest the removal of government statues.  They filled out the paperwork and got the permits.  However, this does not apply to social media or employers.  If you do something that can embarrass your employer or goes against company values, they have every right to toss your ass out on the street.  The Alt Right boys who were fired after they were identified by internet users and then fired by their employers deserved what they got.

But it's not just the followers of Richard Spencer and Alex Jones.  We have public figures doing the same thing.  Look at Missouri Representative Warren Love, who said that the people who were caught vandalizing a Confederate statue should be lynched.  Or when a white Georgia politician all but threatened a black colleague with being lynched if she didn't quite trying to take down Confederate statues.  Or Kathy Griffin's infamous meme holding a cutout of Chump Trump's severed head.  Or the University of Tampa professor who said that Hurricane Harvey was revenge for voting for the GOP.  Whatever side of the ideological line you fall, this behavior is unacceptable.  It may be free speech (although one could argue that Love's tweet crossed the line), but it's not acceptable, certainly not by politicians.  It doesn't take a genius to figure out why people would get pissed when they see stuff like this.

Making matters worse is that these incidents go unpunished or are rationalized.  It's too early to tell whether either of the politicians will face punishment for their actions (Griffin lost sponsors and the Tampa professor was fired), but that isn't the point.  People on both sides of the political spectrum rationalize those who share their views, no matter how horrid their words are.  They're applauded for "getting tough" or "speaking their mind" or "telling it like it is."  And no one loves a scandal more than us.  The bar of acceptable decorum has been significantly lowered by Chump Trump, whose boorish behavior makes one doubt his sanity, much less his competency for the job.

Bullshit.  This is not how democracy works, and this is certainly not a free speech issue.   This is a bunch of assholes who crossed the line.  Plain and simple.

What to do?  We have to set boundaries for these things.  Not necessarily legal ones, but if you say shit like that, whether its a clearly thought out remark or, as Chump Trump boosters label it, "off the cuff," you have to pay the fucking consequences.

Has political correctness gone too far?  Undoubtedly.  But the genius of our system of government is that it allows us to find common ground.  It may not be perfect for either side, but it's an acceptable compromise.  For example, there's been talk of putting Confederate statues in museums.  I think that's a great idea.  It no longer glorifies their racist ideals yet preserves their historical context.

The problem is that lately, the end game is all about winning.  It's about getting your way and rubbing your opponents' faces in it.  That's what's scary.  The "my way or the highway" mentality is not contingent with our system of government.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Logan Lucky

1.5/4

Starring: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Farrah McKenzie, Katie Holmes, Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid, Katherine Waterston, Hilary Swank

Rated PG-13 for Language and Some Crude Comments

"Logan Lucky" might have been more successful had it had a more consistent vision.  If a movie can't decide how it wants to view its story and characters, how can the audience?  I realize that I get obtuse and abstract when talking about movies in this way, and for that, dear reader, I apologize.  But this movie made me ask questions that should have been answered within the first five minutes.  Like, is this movie a heist film, or a parody of one?  Are we supposed to laugh at the characters' stupidity, or be impressed by their cleverness?  Surely a filmmaker as talented as Steven Soderbergh would know that a movie has to answer those questions as soon as possible or risk falling on its face.  Unfortunately, that's exactly what happens.

The plot, so far as I could tell, goes like this.  Jimmy Logan (Tatum) just lost his job as a miner for a technicality.  Out of options, he plots with his brother Clyde (Driver) and his sister Mellie (Keough) to rob a major car race.  To do this, he needs the help of the idiotic Bang brothers, Fish (Quaid) and Sam (Gleeson).  And their father, Joe Bang (Craig).  This heist will not go down without detours.  Least of all because Joe is still in prison.

What is this movie trying to be?  Is it an action movie, a comedy, or a parody?  It's certainly not action, since there's so little of it.  I suppose it could be trying to be a comedy, but precious little of the jokes actually work.  And if it's trying to be a parody, then shouldn't the robbery be the poster child of ineptitude?

This is the second major collaboration between Channing Tatum and Steven Soderbergh.  Well, technically it's the third, since Tatum did have a small but important role in "Side Effects" (which was allegedly Soderbergh's final film...I guess Hayao Miyazaki isn't the only one who keeps postponing retirement).  To compare this to the criminally underrated "Magic Mike" is quite frankly insulting to the 2012 film, which I voted as being the best film of that year.  This is a train wreck of conflicting ideas, a half-baked plot, and characters so badly developed that calling them "one-dimensional" would be hyperbole.

The acting does not impress.  Channing Tatum, who has long since shed his pretty boy image, looks lost.  He does what he can, but the dialogue defeats him and there are times when he looks like a dear caught in the headlights.  His co-star Adam Driver is even worse.  He was terrific in "Silence," the Martin Scorcese movie from earlier this year that absolutely no one saw, but not here.  He's awful.  No one else bears mentioning except Daniel Craig.  Craig is certainly looney and about as far away as he can get from James Bond (he's even given an "introducing" credit), but he's not given much to work with.  No one else bears mention except for Hilary Swank, who shows up at the end as an FBI agent.  Swank is a talented actress, but she's given her share of lifeless performances ("P.S. I Love You" and "The Black Dahlia" come to mind), but never has she been this bad.  Her career is in freefall at the moment, and if she ever wants to reverse that trend, she'd better be able to convince everyone that it was her doppleganger who appeared in this mess and was actively trying to sabotage her career.

"Logan Lucky" goes wrong in so many ways.  The actors all underplay their roles, which is a mistake in something that's (apparently) so fatuous.  Characters and their relationships are poorly developed; some of which aren't explained at all.  And for all the jokes at the expense of rednecks, the robbery is surprisingly clever.

Avoid.

The Company You Keep

2/4

Starring: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard

Rated R for Language

No matter how long it takes or how well you cover your tracks, eventually the truth comes out.  Everyone pays the piper.

Sharon Solarz (Sarandon) has just been arrested for a bank robbery she took part in decades ago.  It resulted in the death of a guard, and the guilt got to be too much for her.  But before she could turn herself in, she is arrested by the FBI.  A reporter for a struggling newspaper by the name of Ben Shepard (LaBeouf) smells a story beyond the surface details.  He eventually realizes that a local lawyer named Jim Grant (Redford) is actually one of the robbers, forcing Grant to go on the run.  Tailing after him are Shepard and a dogged FBI agent named Cornelius (Howard).

"The Company You Keep" has a lot going for it.  A brilliant cast, a good premise and a gifted director behind the camera.  So what went wrong?  Perhaps it's the fact that the screenplay is riddled with holes and keeps too many of its cards hidden from the audience.  Maybe it's the fact that so few of the performers are willing, or able, to do much with their characters.  Or maybe its because it is a thriller, something that Robert Redford is clearly not comfortable handling.

Shepard frequently tells everyone he comes across that he's got some of what's going on figured out, but he's confused about...something else.  I felt the exact same way.  The film never gives enough information to allow the audience an entry into the story.  It's all just a lot of smoke and mirrors.  The line between revealing too much and too little is a thin one, and Redford misses the mark.  Instead of being intrigued, I felt jerked around until the anticlimactic ending with a twist I could spot twenty minutes before it was revealed.  Ouch.

So instead of a good political thriller, watching "The Company You Keep" becomes a game of "spot the star."  At least on that level, the film delivers.  The cast is to die for: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf (before he completely lost his mind and was still considered an up and coming star), the ever choosy Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Chris Cooper, Anna Kendrick, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliot, and Stephen Root.  There's some really big talent here, but few are memorable.  The writing is flat and almost no one is given enough time or material to work with.  So instead of being an asset, such an overload of stars becomes a hindrance.

Robert Redford is most at home directing low-key emotional dramas.  Suspense is not his forte.  To be fair, "The Company You Keep" was never intended to work in the same way that, say, "The Peacemaker" does.  This is an understated and cerebral thriller, which is fine.  There's always a place for movies that place plot and character over special effects and violence.  The problem is that it's not done well.  The film is confusing rather than engaging, and lacks the pacing for any sort of suspense to take hold.  The glaring plot holes that are necessary for the plot to function do not help matters.

About the best I can say about this movie is that it's better than Redford's previous journey behind the camera.  Since that movie was the wretched historical drama "The Conspirator," such a statement is a backhanded compliment if there ever was one.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Win Win

3.5/4

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer. Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young

Rated R for Language

It's amazing, isn't it, how good writing and acting can turn something that would otherwise be ordinary into something truly special.  At its heart, "Win Win" is a sitcom.  But with such a strong cast and a screenplay that cares about its characters, it becomes a real winner.  I was surprised at how hard I laughed during this movie.  And how much I cared about the people in it.

Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) is in a rut.  His law practice is barely making ends meet, the wrestling team he coaches is so bad that watching them is physically painful, the boiler at his office needs to be replaced and a dead tree in his front yard threatens to wreck his house.  He sees an opportunity for some relief with his client Leo Poplar (Young), a wealthy client who is losing his mental faculties.  By being his guardian and putting him in a nursing home, he gets to pocket $1600 a month.  Almost immediately thereafter, Leo's grandson, Kyle (Shaffer), shows up on Leo's doorstep.  With nowhere else to go, Kyle moves in.  It goes without saying that Kyle is one hell of a wrestler and causes the team to get good.

There are really two movies that this could be: a by-the-numbers sports movie or a cheap sitcom.  Or so you'd think.  "Win Win" is neither.  In actuality, it's more like a slice-of-life dramedy.  It starts with the characters and the situation and allows them to play out.  It has conflict (plenty, actually), but no real narrative drive or traditional story structure.  In that sense, it's a lot like "Boyhood."  It sounds like a strange comparison, and it probably is, but there you have it.

The role of Mike Flaherty is tailor made for Paul Giamatti.  No one plays a perpetual sad sack like him, and what's good about this screenplay is that he's not used as a punchline.  Mike feels real; his relationships with his wife Jackie (Ryan) and his friends feel real.  Credit must be given to the screenplay, but Giamatti is wonderful.  Amy Ryan, who took the role to contrast with her Oscar-nominated performance in "Gone Baby Gone," is wonderful as Mike's wife, who is loving and supportive despite everything.  Initially, she fears Kyle (who wouldn't be afraid of some random kid staying at their house, especially with two small children?), but she grows to love him as only a mother can.  Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor are on hand primarily for comic relief, but Cannavale escapes the traditional clichés of such a character (Tambor doesn't because he doesn't have enough screen time).

The real star of the movie is Alex Shaffer.  Cast for his wrestling abilities (he was the New Jersey state champion in 2010 at age 17), he impressed director Tom McCarthy with his upfront, tell it like it is sense of humor.  Indeed, one of the things that makes Kyle such a firecracker is his unpredictability.  You're never sure what he's going to say or do next.  He also has the driest sense of humor of any movie character I've seen in a long time.  Yet there's a core of vulnerability and heart to Kyle that makes him absolutely adorable.  Shaffer has a little trouble with some of the heavier emotional scenes, but that's more of a lack of polish than talent.  While Giamatti might take center stage in the movie, it's Shaffer who steals the show.

"Win Win" is one of those rare movies that never has to manipulate the audience into getting them invested.  This isn't a high concept comedy with big stars or a laugh track.  It's a movie about people.  Likable, flawed people, but people nonetheless.  It's one of those movies you don't want to see end simply because they're so compelling.  I certainly wouldn't mind spending more time with the Flahertys or Kyle.  Especially Kyle.

Neither will you.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Wind River

3/4

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham

Rated R for Strong Violence, A Rape, Disturbing Images, and Language

With "Wind River," it isn't a case of the Emperor having no clothes.  The movie is too good for that.  But there's no denying that while what is presented is well done, it never expands upon what is really just routine.  Apart from the setting and a few details, there is little that hasn't been done before in other, better movies.  This is not what you'd call a daring motion picture.

Cory Lambert (Renner) works for US Fish and Wildlife, which is really just a fancy way of saying that he hunts animals that threaten the local livestock.  While tracking a mountain lion and her cubs that have killed a cattle, he finds the location of a dead body.  For legal reasons, that falls into the jurisdiction of the FBI, who send a passionate and energetic young agent named Jane Banner (Olsen) to find the killer.  With the help of a local cop named Ben (Greene), the three follow the clues to find the murderer.

It isn't a terribly unique premise, nor does it do much to differentiate itself in execution.  The characters and the plot developments are all familiar.  As are the character types: the grieving father, the closed off but skilled hero, the agent out of her element, the local color.  All the usual players are here.  That they are assembled well soothes the wound, but it's still "been there, done that."

At least there are a trio of good actors taking center stage.  Jeremy Renner is in fine form as the intelligent but unfeeling Cory.  While I have previously decried this cliché of a character, Renner does enough with it that Cory doesn't become the tired "macho man who can't express himself" hero.  He has his reasons, and Renner is a good enough actor that he makes Cory sympathetic rather than just another doofus you want to hit in the face.  Likewise, Elizabeth Olsen also does a lot with the "rookie who needs the lead's help" routine.  Whether it's the strong dialogue or just her talent, Jane is easy to like and root for.  Graham Greene, sadly, is wasted.  The underrated actor is underused to the point where he just stands around setting up Cory or Jane's dialogue.

Taylor Sheridan, who wrote both "Sicario" and "Hell or High Water," is making his directorial debut here.  It shows that he has talent but is unwilling to take any chances.  It's a shame, really, because he has the skills to do something really deep and daring.  The mood is grim and oppressive, but there's nothing to back it up.  The acting is good, but there's nothing to set them apart from other similar characters.  The violence is brutal, including a rape scene that suggests more than it shows, but...well, I can't exactly defend those.  When someone is shot, they seem to move weightlessly, which lessens the impact.

And yet, I recommend the film.  I was never bored, and while it doesn't add up to much, it kept me engaged.  Plus, it will undoubtedly satiate the tastes of an audience who has gotten little love over the years: adults who love smart, if grim, mysteries.  For those reasons, I recommend "Wind River."

Monday, August 21, 2017

Blindness

1/4

Starring: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Alice Braga, Gael Garcia Bernal, Maury Chaykin, Danny Glover

Rated R for Violence including Sexual Assaults, Language and Sexuality/Nudity

"Blindness" has one idea, and it keeps hammering it home for two hours: without the conventions of modern society, we turn into animalistic monsters who will lie, cheat and kill to satisfy our own needs and desires.  Not only is this idea as old as the hills, it's a very limiting one.  Which is why "Blindness" gets really old, really fast.

A man (Yusuke Iseya) has suddenly been stricken blind.  He goes to a doctor (Ruffalo) to find out what happened and how to fix it, only for the good doctor to be afflicted too.  Soon it becomes an epidemic and those afflicted are quarantined.  That's when things go to hell.

This is a thought experiment, not a medical thriller like "Contagion."  Director Fernando Meirelles wisely doesn't bother explaining how and why this disease works.  Such things are irrelevant to the film's plot and themes.  What matters is the dehumanization of otherwise normal people.

There's a problem, however.  Since the film doesn't cover any new territory, Meirelles must find an alternative to keep the audience's interest.  Strong character development?  Nope.  He keeps them at an arm's distance to make the audience impartial observers (that none of the characters are given names further emphasizes this).  An involving narrative?  Not that either.  There isn't much of a plot.  Meirelles creates a situation and watches it play out.  It isn't a pretty picture, but neither have other pictures that covered similar ground.  "The Road" comes to mind, which had an energy and immediacy that "Blindness" could only dream of.

The strong performances from the cast help, but since Meirelles doesn't want us to become attached to anyone in this movie, it's tough to appreciate them.  Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo do what they can, but they're misused by a screenplay that doesn't require them to do any acting.  Alice Braga acts motherly and Gael Garcia Bernal makes for a decent, if not especially memorable, psychopath, but that's it.

Fernando Meirelles is the man who directed "City of God," which is unquestionably one of the finest films ever made.  To say that this is a step down is hyperbole of the highest order.  All throughout this movie I kept thinking to myself, "That was a bad decision," or "That scene fell flat."  He directs the film in such a way that the plot holes are magnified.

This is an ugly, corrupt film with very little in the way of insight, suspense or humanity.  Don't bother.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Collateral Damage

2/4

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cliff Curtis, Elias Koteas, Miguel Sandoval, Francesca Neri

Rated R for Violence and Some Language

"Collateral Damage" was one of many casualties of 9/11.  Originally scheduled to be released on October 5, 2001, Warner Bros. re-edited the film and delayed its release until February 2002, correctly believing that no one on Earth would want to see a movie about terrorism so soon after the worst terrorist attack in human history.  Even if it's a silly yarn starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.  This little factoid is the only thing worth noting about this bland action movie, since it has nothing else worth mentioning.

Gordy Brewer (Schwarzenegger) is a fireman, husband and father.  After his wife and son are murdered in a terrorist attack perpetrated by a Columbian rebel known as "The Wolf" (Curtis), Gordy sets out on a mission of revenge.  It won't be easy, since just about everyone from a sleazy CIA operative named Brandt (Koteas) and the Wolf himself want Gordy kidnapped or dead for their own purposes.

"Collateral Damage" is not a terrible movie.  It's just that its impossible to take any of it seriously.  It wants to be an intelligent thriller about terrorism, but it's constantly pandering to an audience with an IQ in the double digits.  There are so many leaps in logic that it boggles the mind.  Gordy's quest only happens because both Brandt and another agent, Phipps (Sandoval), give him information that any normal agents wouldn't tell each other, much less a civilian.  It's also hard to care about the plot since so little time is spent developing its foundation.  There's little context given to the motives of the Columbian rebels, which makes the film lack immediacy.  We're given no reason to care about anyone in this movie.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is miscast.  The action movie legend doesn't have a lot of range; he's best in roles that emphasize his screen presence and comic timing.  Playing the everyman is not something he can do.  He's too imposing a figure.  And he certainly can't handle heavy drama.  His nemesis, Cliff Curtis, isn't much better.  Curtis is a solid enough character actor, but The Wolf is written so badly that he comes across as cartoonish.  He's about as threatening as a Labrador Retriever.  The obligatory woman, Francesca Neri, is just awful.  Rarely is she ever convincing.  Elias Koteas is in full "take the money and run" mode on his way to his next project with Atom Egoyan.  Brief appearances by John Turturro. John Leguizamo, Jsu Garcia (from "A Nightmare on Elm Street"), and in a very small role, a pre-famous Jane Lynch.

This movie doesn't even succeed as stupid fun.  The action scenes, the few of them there are, are muted.  Director Andrew Davis (who made "The Fugitive" movie with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones) can't decide whether he's making a brainless action flick or something along the lines of "The Siege."  The plot is serious but dumb, and the action scenes are muted and lacking adrenaline.  And for a budget of $85 million, the special effects are unacceptably cheesy.  They're awful.

At least its watchable, which is more than can be said for a lot of bad action movies.  The scenes following the bombing are eerily credible, and the climactic twist, ludicrous as it is, works.  Ultimately though, it's just a forgettable action movie that is only worth remembering because of its unfortunate association with a terrible tragedy

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Requiem for a Dream

3.5/4

Starring: Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans, Jennifer Connelly, Ellen Burstyn, Christopher McDonald

Not Rated (MPAA rating was surrendered after it was given an NC-17, probably for Graphic Drug Use, Strong Language and Sexuality and for Disturbing Images)

Of "Requiem for a Dream," the late great Roger Ebert said that it "plays like a travelogue of hell."  I couldn't have put it better myself.

Movies about addiction are fairly common place.  However, they usually don't get this visceral.  In order to portray the mindset of a quartet of addicts, director Darren Aronofsky made his film appear to be told by an addict.  It is energetic, it is raw and it is maddening.  This is by intent.  "Requiem for a Dream" is unflinching in its depiction of four people who lose everything in the desperate need of a fix.

The film follows four people who are addicts of various substances.  Harry Goldfarb (Leto), his girlfriend Marion Silver (Connelly) and his best friend Tyrone (Wayans) are all heroin junkies.  Harry's mother Sara (Burstyn) is addicted to the TV, specifically a snake oil salesman by the name of Tappy Tibbons (McDonald).  They all have their lives together, or at least enough to where they can get by day by day.  All are dreamers with simple goals: Harry and Tyrone want to make one big score to set themselves up with enough cash to live on easy street.  Marion wants to open up a dress shop.  And Sara wants to lose weight so she can appear on TV with Tappy in her favorite red dress (to do this, she goes to a doctor to get amphetamines).  By the end of the film, all four of them will be living a nightmare, one that may not end after the end credits.

The four lead performances are superb.  All of them submerge themselves into their roles with no thought of vanity.  None of them are spared from Arnofsky's vision of despair and degradation; we se the ugly, the uglier, and the downright horrific.  Of the cast, the flashiest performance is given by Ellen Burstyn.  Sara does not have all her mental faculties intact when the film starts, so she's easy prey for false promises of appearing on TV and dieting quick-fixes.  She's the most tragic character; taken advantage of (willfully or not) by everyone around her and losing her mind as a result.  Leto, Connelly and Wayans are all excellent, but Burstyn is the one everyone remembers.  Burstyn considers her performance here her greatest accomplishment.  As well she should.  This is arresting work, and she was awarded an Oscar nomination for her efforts (losing to Julia Roberts for "Erin Brockovich").

Darren Aronofsky is clearly drawn to characters who are losing their minds.  His debut film, "Pi," was about an obsessed mathematician.  "Black Swan" was about a delusional ballerina.  Here, in his most famous film, he takes an unsparing look at four people whose entire existence becomes about acquiring a certain substance.  To show this, Aronofsky uses film and storytelling techniques to get us inside the minds of the characters.  Flash edits, cutaways, dividing the screen into sections each with their own image, and blurring the line between fantasy and reality.  I know I've used this term a lot recently and I hope not to make it a cliché, but in this case it is warranted.  "Requiem for a Dream" is an experience.  We vicariously live the trials and tribulations of the characters without physically doing it.  It is something that few people can shake.  The physical impact of watching the film is brutal, which is a good thing since it covers some (but not all) of the film's plot holes.

The MPAA, in its infinite wisdom, gave the film an NC-17.  Aronofsky appealed but lost.  Fortunately, the distributor refused to cut it, believing (correctly) that the film's message and impact would be diluted by doing so.  At first glance, their stance makes sense.  There is a lot of strong stuff here, with many scenes causing even me, who has a strong stomach for this stuff, to flinch.  But considering the context (this is just about as anti-drug as you can get), should there be a line in the sand for a movie that is certain to prevent a lot of people from trying drugs?

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Annabelle: Creation

0.5/4

Starring: Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Stephanie Sigman, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto

Rated R for Horror Violence and Terror

"Annabelle: Creation" is shit.  I realize that that's not the most polite or professional way to say how awful it is, but sometimes being polite and professional just won't do.  This movie is so bad that it makes me rethink my review of "Split" earlier this year.  It's not as aggravating as the M. Night Shyamalan disaster (which somehow made enough money to warrant a sequel...don't ask me how), but its almost as bad.

Twelve years ago, Bee (Samara Lee), the daughter of Samuel (LaPaglia) and Esther Mullins (Otto) was tragically cut short when she was hit by a car.  Now, they've turned their house into an orphanage for six other girls and a nun.  Things seem okay until Janice (Bateman) finds that Bee's room is unlocked (which she was expressly forbidden to go into) and finds a creepy doll hidden behind a locked door.  Now she's acting strange and mysterious things are going on.

This movie is bad on so many levels it's impossible to count them all.  It's boring, moves at a sloth's pace, and is about as scary as Winnie the Pooh.  The one scene of tension, which involves an unbelievably big well, is less scary than "Monsters Inc."  Even worse, it takes forever to get going.  I think the idea was to build the characters, but while the acting by the three leads is solid, none of them are given anything to work with.  They're props.  The two name actors, Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto, are even worse.  LaPaglia looks as if he was forced to appear in this movie under threat of death while Otto has almost no screen time.  One would hope that they were well paid, and considering that someone spent $15 million on this shit fest, they should have been.  It certainly didn't go into anything behind the camera.

In addition to being boring as hell and seemingly never wanting to end, the film is sadistic as well.  Apart from the reasons I listed.  The things done to and by pre-teen girls are violent, and considering their age, reprehensible.  If writer Gary Dauberman and director Daniel F. Sandberg could have actually made me care, I might have been angry.  But they're so inept that I was merely bored.  The film has such charming things as girls being attacked by a very angry demon/poltergeist/something and scared out o their minds, and the ending is essentially a slasher movie between two pre-teen girls.  And this isn't the case of people in their twenties playing dress up.  They are that young.  Which makes it, in addition to being terrible, reprehensible.

I know people are going to flock to see this because they liked "The Conjuring" and its sequel.  And judging by the box office numbers of "Annabelle," they liked that too (I didn't).  But please, please, PLEASE, don't see this crapfest.  If you do, you have no right to complain about how Hollywood only makes sequels.  Because you are then part of the problem.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Detroit

4/4

Starring: Algee Smith, Jacob Lattimore, Will Poulter, John Boyega, Jack Reynor, Hannah Murray, Ben O'Toole, Anthony Mackie

Rated R for Strong Violence and Pervasive Language

"Detroit" is absolutely riveting.  Like "Dunkirk" earlier this year, this movie pulls no punches.  It is violent.  It is intense.  It is utterly ferocious.  This movie grabs you and won't let go.  Its impact is difficult to shake.

July, 1967.  The racial demographics of the U.S. have been changing since World War I, and now are just as divided.  White people have moved out to the suburbs while black people stay in the cities.  Racial tensions are on the rise, particularly in Detroit.  Not least of which is because of a mostly white police force.  It's a tinderbox waiting to explode, and the spark is lit when the police bust a party for a Vietnam vet.  The city erupts into riots and the National Guard is called in.  Meanwhile, five friends, hoping to make it big as Motown stars, find their shot at stardom ruined after the show is cancelled due to the riots (adding insult to injury, it's right as they're about to perform...ouch).  They take refuge at a hotel called the Algiers.  It looks to be a fun way to ride out the mayhem; drinking at the pool and hoping to score with a couple of girls.  One of the men staying there decides to stick it to the cops by firing a starting gun (that can't hurt anyone even at close range) at the National Guard.  That's when things descend into violence, where everyone staying at the hotel is brutalized by a trio of trigger happy cops on a power trip, led by the sadistic Krauss (Poulter).  By the end of the night, a group of men and women will be traumatized and three innocent men will be dead.

Director Kathryn Bigalow does two things: one, she brings to light a shameful event in our past that few people know about but should, and she presents it as an allusion to current events.  It isn't hard to connect the actions of the characters here (especially the police) and the motivations behind the Black Lives Matter movement.  This is a wake-up call to people, especially those who seek to undermine the reality by counterclaim that "All Lives Matter."  Which is true, but still a way to stick your head in the sand and ignore the real problem.  "Detroit" refuses to let that happen.

The film's central event is the hostage situation in the Algiers annex.  No matter how you look at it, this is an abuse of power.  It's the blustery, "don't fuck with me" mentality taken to murderous extremes.  While all three of the officers are complicit in what happened at the hotel, it's Krauss who is the leader.  For him, it's a power trip.  He wants to put them in line and show how much power he has over them.  Yet, he knows all the lingo and how to cover his ass; he knows what he did is wrong but he's unrepentant.  Ostensibly, it's about to find the gun that was shooting at officers.  But listen to his words and observe his actions.  This is a power play.  This is the kind of behavior that gives all the good cops a bad reputation.  Those who think that this kind of thing doesn't happen anymore are deluding themselves.  Don't believe me?  Look at Joe Arpaio, the man who boasted about being "America's Toughest Sheriff" and defied a court order to stop racial profiling (in a turn that the filmmakers probably found bitterly ironic, no mention was made of the fact that he forced "inmates" to live in shabby tents in the desert and wear pink underwear).

"Detroit's" weakest portion is the set-up.  Bigelow has trouble setting all the pieces up and the film's foundation is shortchanged.  Character development is minimal, but that's okay since, like "Dunkirk," this is about the event rather than the people, so such problems that result from this are minimal.

Weaknesses aside, this is filmmaking at its most visceral and brutal.  This is one of the year's best and most important films.

The Little Hours

1/4

Starring: Allison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, Dave Franco, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon

Rated R for Graphic Nudity, Sexual Content and Language

I'm about to write off every movie that is mostly or entirely improvised.  They're all awful.  True, there are some actors and filmmakers who do well with improvisation, like Bill Murray, Christopher Guest and Mike Leigh.  But they had a method to their madness.  Bill Murray rewrites existing material.  Christopher Guests starts with a concept and shoots hours and hours of footage and edits it all together in the end.  Mike Leigh does the same thing, only he has his cast go through extensive preparation including actors' workshops and intense rehearsals.  But I guess no one wants to take that amount of time and effort these days.  They just pitch a concept, the studios cast bankable stars, and everyone jumps in front of the camera and shoots their mouth off.  To expect this will result in something that works in any way, shape or form is just plain demented.

This movie has zero plot.  It has a set-up, I guess, albeit one that would have trouble sustaining a five-minute long SNL skit.  It involves a serf named Massetto (Franco) who needs to get out of dodge after he's caught diddling his lord's wife.  He meets up with a drunken priest named Father Tommasso (Reilly) who promises him safekeeping in a nearby convent as long as he promises to pose as a deaf mute, since the sisters have a habit of driving the male workers away.  Hilarity ensues.  Allegedly.

This movie is like Seth Rogen doing "Masterpiece Theater."  As bad a concept as that sounds, it's worse in execution.  It's not the central idea that sucks, since the idea of a man pretending he can't hear or speak entering into a convent filled with some randy nuns has comic potential written all over it.  But as is par for so-called "comedies" these days, this movie did not have a script.  Even worse, writer/director Jeff Baena apparently used the first take of each shot.  The performances and shot selection have such an amateurish feel that its evident that no one has the slightest clue as to what they're supposed to be doing.  They're all trying to fill up dead air, and when there's a 30 second long debate over quiches, you know you're in trouble.  Unless you're Quentin Tarantino.

The acting is awful.  No one here is a newbie, which begs the question why they all look like deer caught in the headlights.  Even able comedians like Aubrey Plaza (who is one of the producers), John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon are struggling.  This is a movie that I suspect none of them will want to admit was on their resumes.

Naturally, the Catholic League is putting up a fit about this movie.  But they whine whenever there is a religious official who isn't 100% perfect.  Or even has the appearance of being flawed based on the concept (anyone remember "Dogma?").  While it's certainly not bawdy enough to provoke such a fuss to anyone who isn't a total snowflake, I can hardly blame them in this case.

If I saw a movie about gay men that was this bad, I'd complain too.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Dead Again

3.5/4

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Andy Garcia, Robin Williams, Wayne Knight

Rated R for Language and Violence

Sleight-of-hand is essential for a thriller to work.  What I mean is that the director must show us something important, but in such a way that we don't recognize it until it becomes important later.  Or that we don't see the twists coming.  It's tough to pull off, but when it happens, it's worth mentioning.  "Dead Again" contains two twists that blindsided me.  Although I freely admit that I'm bad at guessing whodunits in movies, this isn't what I'm talking about.

In 1949, classical pianist Margaret Strauss (Thompson) was murdered by her husband Roman (Branagh), a composer and conductor from Germany.  Six months later, he was executed for his crimes.  This information is splashed on the screen in newspaper headlines during the opening credits, so this isn't a spoiler.

Cut to present day.  Private dick Mike Church (Branagh) has been assigned what appears to be an open and shut case.  A woman (Thompson) had clambered into an orphanage where he grew up with no memory of who she is.  She doesn't speak and suffers from violent nightmares.  His task is to find out who she is and return her to her husband or family, whichever that may be.  It appears to be an open-and-shut case, but when an antiques dealer named Franklyn Madson (Jacobi) shows up and starts talking about past lives and such, things get weird.  Mike thinks the guy is a swindler, but through him, the woman (whom Mike dubs Grace) reveals some startling details about the old murder.

The good thing about this film is that it's smart.  It takes our obvious observations and accepts them.  For example, it is not a spoiler to say that Mike and Grace are reincarnations of Roman and Margaret Strauss.  Anyone looking at the poster could see that.  We know it, Branagh knows it, and Branagh knows that we know it.  He doesn't waste our time trying to fool us on something that we have accepted as a given before we have pressed play.  He uses this as a jumping off point.  If only other directors could have as much respect for the audience as he does.

The performances are solid, if unspectacular.  Kenneth Branagh is a little difficult to accept as a motormouth private eye, but he's solid.  No one is going to mistake him for Bogie, though.  Emma Thompson is always a delight, and here is no different.  Derek Jacobi, Branagh's inspiration and frequent collaborator, is quite good as the hypnotist; I wouldn't be surprised if anyone got hypnotized when he talks.  Andy Garcia doesn't embarrass himself as a bored journalist, which is nice, although another actor could have done it better.  Wayne Knight and a truly creepy Robin Williams provide solid support.

Critics have likened this film to Hitchcock, and its an apt comparison.  While not an imitation or even a love letter, it has some of the same feel.  No one will mistake this for a ripoff, but I have no doubt that if Hitch had been alive to see it, he would have been pleased.

"Dead Again" is a little too disjointed to be labeled as a masterpiece, and not everything holds up once the end credits roll, but that's to be expected.  This is, as Hitch called it, a "refrigerator movie."  And a damn good one at that.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Abyss: Special Edition

2.5/4

Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn, Kimberly Scott, Leo Burmester, Todd Graff

Rated PG-13 for Language and Some Scenes of Action

"The Abyss" is a departure for James Cameron.  While he is famous for romance ("Titanic") and science fiction (everything else...save for "True Lies"), "The Abyss" is more philosophical and low-key than his other pictures.  All of his films have included a lot of action, to some degree, and while there is some here, it's more restrained.  Cameron is really telling a love story here, albeit one with mixed success.

A U.S. nuclear submarine has gone down in the middle of the ocean after reporting an impossibly fast moving ship.  The US thinks that it's the Soviet Union playing hardball, so they increase their defenses.  They hire an oil rig led by Bud Brigman (Harris) to find out what happened and if there are any survivors.  To aid them, a team of Navy SEALS led by a no nonsense man named Coffey (Biehn), boards their rig.  Also along is the designer of the rig, Lindsey Brigman (Mastrantonio), Bud's soon-to-be ex.  As international tensions rise, it becomes clear to those on the rig that they are not alone.

James Cameron doesn't know what he wants his film to be, and as a result isn't much of anything.  It makes plays for romance, science fiction and action, but Cameron has not assembled them in a way that works.  Considering his immense talent and obsessive drive for perfection, this is surprising.

At its heart, this is a love story.  As such, Bud and Lindsey are at center focus.  Harris and Mastrantonio have some chemistry, but it takes nearly the entire film to catch fire.  These two are no Jack and Rose.  Further, the development of their relationship is fitfully developed, so our investment in their romance is weak.  Michael Biehn is adequate as the increasingly deranged villain, but he's almost a non-entity.  Or at least he feels like it.

If nothing else, "The Abyss" has become infamous for its brutal shoot.  James Cameron is a notoriously difficult director, with a fiery temper and a demanding personality.  Working conditions were also miserable, with much of it being filmed underwater.  Ed Harris nearly drowned while filming one scene, which lead him to punch Cameron for continuing to film.  Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had a physical and emotional breakdown and Ed Harris had to pull over his car because he spontaneously burst into tears on his way home.  Cast and crew called it nicknames like "Son of the Abyss" and "The Abuse," and many of the cast and crew refused to work with Cameron ever again.  Ed Harris still refuses to talk about it entirely.

Two versions of the film exist.  The theatrical cut runs at two hours and twenty minutes, and was tepidly received.  The special edition, which is the one I saw, has an additional thirty minutes of running time.  That may have been too long, since the middle portion of the movie sags interminably as the characters sit in the dead rig pondering what to do next.  Ten or fifteen minutes could have been cut with little lost.

There are some good moments, to be sure, like when the rig is flooding or the final 15 minutes.  But as it is, "The Abyss" is more a curiosity than a title worthy of James Cameron's otherwise impeccable name.  Pity that all the suffering the cast and crew went through didn't add up to more.