Sunday, January 29, 2017

Hidden Figures

2/4

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali, Glen Powell

Rated PG for Thematic Elements and Some Language

Biopics have become a genre, and their subjects have become brands.  Some have been amazing (I count "Schindler's List" as one of the greatest films ever made), while others aren't.  But like sequels, they're considered cash cows to bring in an easy buck.  "Hidden Figures" at least has its heart in the right place, but this is by-the-numbers filmmaking.

Katherine Johnson (Henson) is a brilliant mathematician.  Growing up a child prodigy, she ended up working for NASA.  With her co-workers Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monae), we see them persevere through racism and sexism to become some of the most brilliant minds that NASA has ever seen.

The problem isn't with the story.  It's the manner in which it is assembled.  Every character has their own neat little arc, each scene fits in because it needs to for the plot to move forward in precisely the right fashion, and each character is given one thing they must accomplish by the end of the movie.  In other words, the film is hopelessly predictable and manufactured.  There's no sense of life or energy to it.  It's as bland as tofu.

The acting befits the way it has been made.  Lead actress Taraji P. Henson does what she can, but the pedestrian nature of the dialogue and the direction limit her hard work.  Octavia Spencer, who can pretty much write "scene stealer" as her job description, is similarly undermined.  She's simply there to add color and sass.  Ditto for Janelle Monae.  Their co-stars fare worse.  Kevin Costner exists only to set up the big emotional moments by recognizing Katherine's gifts and sticking up for her when racism gets in the way.  Kirsten Dunst is completely wasted as the bitch who grows a heart.  And Jim Parsons makes for a truly annoying (in a good way, I guess) racist.

I'm surprised at the reception that "Hidden Figures" has been getting.  It's a perfect January release; high hopes but a big miss.  That it was awarded several Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) is surprising.  Not that the Academy hasn't made some boneheaded decisions in the past, but really?  This a textbook case of an underdog drama misfiring.  It fails at being inspirational or even manipulative.  I didn't care about anyone in this movie.  Except for perhaps John Glenn (Powell), because he's played with a likability that's missing from the rest of the movie.

If you want my opinion, leave this one for the discount DVD bin and watch "The Right Stuff" again.  It is better made, better acted and is far more intelligent and honest.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Ed Wood

2/4

Starring: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, Jeffrey Jones

Rated R for Some Strong Language

Tim Burton has an obvious love affair for oddball outcasts.  "Edward Scissorhands," "Beetlejuice," "Sleepy Hollow," "Big Fish," the list goes on.  I suppose it makes sense for him to be drawn to notorious hack director Ed Wood, whose movies were awful enough to gain a cult following in the vein of MST3K or "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."  Despite never making much money and having an utter lack of talent, Wood made movies by any means possible.  And I mean any.

Edward D. Wood Jr. (Depp) would like nothing better to do than to make movies.  Unfortunately, with no connections and no experience, not even a Z-list producer like Georgie Weiss (Mike Starr) will take him seriously.  However a chance meeting with has been horror icon Bela Lugosi (Landau) nets him a job making a sleazy transvestite picture starring Lugosi.  Thus begins the career of one of Hollywood's biggest jokes.

While Burton's affection for Wood is obvious, it doesn't translate to the audience.  That's largely because he is so one note.  Depp is in fine form, but Burton only shows his boundless enthusiasm and quirky eccentricities.  There's very little that's human or sympathetic about him.  He's not a deadpan antisocial misfit that pops up in virtually every indie film that's been released since Wes Anderson hit it big (Wood is anything but cynical), but he's pure caricature.  More impactful is Martin Landau, who won an Oscar playing the drug-addled cynic Bela Lugosi.  Lugosi has accepted the fact that his time in the spotlight is over, and when Ed comes along, it's like his life has found meaning again.  The supporting cast, which consists of "the usual misfits and dope addicts," is fine, although they're floating around the sidelines.

More than anything, what "Ed Wood" lacks is heart.  I didn't care about anyone in this movie.  On some level the film is interesting because it gave me a peek at low-budget filmmaking, but except for Bela Lugosi, no one felt real.  Who cares if Ed finds funding for his next disaster?  I didn't.  And that is the film's Achilles heel.

The film looks great (Burton made the wise decision to shoot it in black and white) and there are some amusing moments here and there.  But all in all, there are better movies you can sit down and watch.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Resident Evil: Afterlife

2/4

Starring: Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter, Wentworth Miller, Shawn Roberts, Boris Kodjoe, Kim Coates

Rated R for Sequences of Strong Violence and Language

You know, for a movie franchise based on video games that essentially defined the "survival horror" genre, the "Resident Evil" movies aren't scary.  Nor, in fact, do they try to be.  At least I don't think so.  They're all about kicking zombie ass and looking totally stylish while doing so.  There's nothing wrong with that per se, it's just, well, they're not at all like the games (based on my limited experience).  I probably wouldn't even mention it if the films were any better, but alas they are at best ("Resident Evil: Apocalypse") stupid fun.  "Resident Evil: Afterlife" can't rise to that level, but at least it's better than the previous entry (the less said about that movie, the better).

After taking down the Umbrella Corporation's facility in Japan with a bunch of her clones (!), Alice (Jovovich) is stripped of all her newly evolved powers by Umbrella's resident psychopath, Albert Wesker (Roberts).  Having survived a plane crash that killed Wesker, Alice seeks out to find her friends, who she last saw four months ago heading for Alaska, where a safe haven known as Arcadia is said to reside.  But there's no sign of them or any city anywhere, and as she searches up and down the coast, she finds a group of survivors holed up in a Las Vegas jail.  Now, they have to figure out how to survive.  And to find Arcadia.

"Resident Evil: Afterlife" is one of those movies that feels like it's all set-up.  You sit there patiently waiting for the pieces to fall into place before the film takes off.  But it's only towards the end that you realize that what you thought was set-up is actually the meat of the movie.  Despite that, the film is more of a disappointment than a bad movie.  The action scenes are badass, and despite being trite and thinner than one-ply toilet paper, the story moves at a decent clip.

For whatever reason, Milla Jovovich decided to play her character on mute.  As Alice, she exhibits little of the spunk or, for lack of a better term, badassness, that made her so much fun to watch in the previous entries.  Ali Larter is in fine form as her friend Claire, Wentworth Miller acts intense (as usual) and Boris Kodjoe adds some sex appeal.  The menace is meant to be provided by Albert Wesker, but Shawn Roberts is a step down from Jason O'Mara.  He's not especially vicious.

Paul W.S. Anderson essentially divides the film into two parts: the action scenes and everything else.  The former are fun.  The latter not as much.  The action scenes are an exercise in style and adrenaline, even if they give new meaning to the term "ridiculous."  Sure, having a bunch of Milla Jovovich clones running around shooting people (sometimes from a bungee jump) looks awesome, but is it credible?  Not at all.  Whether this prevents enjoyment is something I will leave up to you.

Now let's hope the sequels are better.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Sleepless

1.5/4

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan, Dermot Mulroney, Scott McNairy, Octavius J. Johnson, David Harbour, T.I., Gabrielle Union

Rated R for Strong Violence and Language Throughout

I'm going to make a mental note and reserve a spot for "Sleepless" on my Bottom 10 of 2017.  With its pedestrian direction, flat performances, and cocaine-addled camera, there's nowhere else it could end up.  If there are 10 movies between now and December 31 that are worse, well, it's going to be a very long year.

The film opens with a duo of corrupt cops, Vincent Downs (Foxx) and Sean Cass (T.I.) stealing a considerable amount of cocaine.  What they don't know is that they've stolen it from casino mogul Stanley Rubino (Mulroney), who is moving it for the notorious Novak family.  Rubino has Vincent's son Thomas (Johnson) kidnapped, the message being the obvious one: deliver the coke or else.  But Rubino is sweating bullets too; the Novaks have sent the boss's son, the psychopathic Ron (McNairy), to make sure nothing else goes wrong.  Meanwhile, there's a cop on Vincent's trail, the tough-as-nails Jennifer Bryant (Monaghan).  She knows Vincent's dirty, and sees an opportunity to take down Vincent, Cass, Rubino and the entire Novak family in one night.  But there's something about Vincent that she doesn't know, which could change everything.

"Sleepless" is meant to be a simple adrenaline cocktail and nothing more.  It's not meant to break box office records, win Oscars, or end up on any "Best Of" lists.  Either you buy into it or you don't.  There's nothing wrong with that, provided that it does its job.  However, it doesn't.  This is as lame, boring and dumb action movie as any I've seen in a long time.  Perhaps they named this movie ironically, since most of the audience will be asleep by the end of the first reel.

Jamie Foxx can be a riveting actor when he works at it.  "Dreamgirls," "The Soloist," "Any Given Sunday," the list goes on.  He even won an Oscar for playing Ray Charles (I haven't seen the movie yet, though).  But here, he is definitely not working at it.  He's not even coasting through his role.  Foxx seems to know this movie is crap and is intent on sabotaging it in any way he can.  Maybe someone has pictures of him that he would like to keep private.  His co-star, Michelle Monaghan, is quite effective.  Although I am a huge fan of the actress, I wasn't convinced she had the presence to play an action heroine.  I was wrong.  Monaghan gathers the requisite intensity and knows how to kick ass.  If there's any reason to see this movie (and there aren't many), it's to see her fight like a mad woman.  Veteran nice guy Dermot Mulroney has no trouble playing a sleazebag, acting as the one sane voice in the asylum.  If he were the main villain, I might have liked the movie more.  But alas, the color goes to Scoot McNairy, who is just awful as the mobster's son.  McNairy was lovable in a low-key fashion in "Monsters," but he's a character actor.  His attempts to act intense are entirely unconvincing.  A Labrador is more threatening.

This is a remake of the French thriller "Sleepless Night," which I'm sure no one on this side of the Atlantic has ever heard of.  I suppose it could be fun, in a "Shoot 'Em Up" meets "The Departed" sort of way.  It has the action and plot necessary for a movie that never stands still.  However, while there's a lot going on and the film never slows down, it never draws us in.  When I saw the camera go into an epileptic seizure during the first shoot out, I groaned.  Yes, it's one of those movies.  I didn't necessarily tune out, but the film never regained my attention.

There are some moments of action that are delightfully brutal and at least the plot doesn't end at the pitch stage.  But with a cast that includes great talents like Foxx and Moynihan, surely they could have put in more effort.  This movie isn't worthy of their talents.  Or your time.

Patriot's Day

2.5/4

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Michelle Monaghan, Christopher O'Shea, Rachel Brosnahan, Jake Picking

Rated R for Violence, Realistically Graphic Injury Images, Language Throughout and Some Drug Use

I remember the Boston Marathon bombings.  I wasn't glued to my TV or phone watching it happen minute by minute like they show random people doing in movies like this, but I knew what was going on.  It was really surreal, watching the city of Boston go on lockdown.  It was almost like a real-life movie.  Of course, making a narrative feature out of an event that everyone knows inside and out is challenging for a director who wishes not to bore his audience.  Peter Berg tries his best, but the results are decidedly mixed.

The city of Boston is gearing up for the famous, annual marathon.  Disgraced cop Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) is irked at the fact that he has to do patrol for the event, especially with a bum knee.  Husband and wife Patrick Downes (O'Shea) and Jessica Kensky (Brosnahan) are going to watch the race, patrol officer Sean Collier (Picking) is asking an MIT student to a rock concert.  Of course, what should be a beautiful day turns to horror as two explosions rock the event, causing three deaths, numerous injuries and leading up to a manhunt that causes Boston to literally shut down.

Even if the audience doesn't know the details of what happened on that day, they know the gist of it.  That's not such a bad thing.  A good filmmaker can use that to build up a sense of dread before the inevitable happens.  "American Sniper," "United 93," and other films have turned an audience's knowledge of the film's subject into an asset.  Berg knows how to do this; he did it in last year's "Deepwater Horizon," another bio-disaster pic (which, coincidentally, also starred Wahlberg).  But he doesn't accomplish that here.  His decision to follow nearly a dozen characters during the opening act doesn't allow the film to build any dramatic tension.  The bombing is similarly lacking.  The first one made me jump, but it feels rushed and almost anecdotal.  The chaos and terror is muted; I remember one episode of "Nip/Tuck" which was about a plane crash that made me feel the panic and horror.  "Patriots Day" doesn't even come close.  The characters are cardboard cut-outs and the sequence is too quick to feel any drama.

The acting is fine, but not standout.  Mark Wahlberg digs into his bag of tricks to play a Bostonian who drinks too much and has a temper.  It's not a great performance, but in all honesty, it's not a great part either.  John Goodman and Kevin Bacon lend their talents, although neither has much to do.  Michelle Monaghan is utterly wasted; surely a filmmaker would respect her considerable gifts and allow her some real meat to work with, but alas, she's there more to put her name on the marquee.

Surprisingly, the best performances come from the unknowns.  Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze are arresting as the Tsarnaev brothers.  The film is always at its best when it focuses on their storyline.  Christopher O'Shea and Rachel Brosnahan are also very good as a married couple whose lives were completely altered at that event.  However, just as their story is getting interesting, they're forgotten about until the very end.  The best performance comes from Jake Picking, who plays the fallen police officer Sean Collier.  He's a charmer and has genuine screen presence and appeal.

"Patriots Day" feels like it was rushed through production.  Characters are half-baked, plot holes are at times obvious, and the whole thing feels like a missed opportunity.  It has become expected in these true-life stories to have the real people who were portrayed by the actors to come on screen and offer their perspective, but it's been done far too often and feels like a cliché.  More importantly, no one offers anything new that we haven't seen or heard before.  As a result, the last five minutes feel more like an overlong infomercial than a genuine token of respect for the real people involved.  I don't have any doubts about the filmmakers' intentions, but that's what comes across.

This certainly isn't a bad film.  It's never boring and contains some genuine suspense.  Perhaps it was made too close to the actual events.  But it is nevertheless disappointing.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Bye Bye Man

1.5/4

Starring: Douglas Smith, Lucien Laviscount, Cressida Bonas, Cleo King, Jenna Kanell

Rated PG-13 for Terror, Horror Violence, Bloody Images, Sexual Content, Thematic Elements, Partial Nudity, Some Language and Teen Drinking

Don't think of a pink elephant in a tutu!

You thought of one, didn't you?  Don't worry, I'm not holding it against you.  It's how our brains are wired.  "The Bye Bye Man" seeks to use this as the gimmick for scares, but it does so in a slapdash fashion.  The concept, where being scared of the villain gives him more power and telling someone about it spreads it like a virus, has promise.  But the screenplay is in desperate need of another run through the computer.  Or two.

Elliot (Smith) is a college student who has just signed a lease on a house with his girlfriend Sasha (Bonas) and lifelong best friend (Laviscount).  After the housewarming party, Sasha's psychic friend Kim (Kanell) performs a séance that ends badly.  Weird things start happening: Sasha gets sick, John is hallucinating, and Elliot has visions that his two housemates are sleeping together.  When Elliot discovers that someone has written "Don't Say It, Don't Think It" over and over again in his drawer, he begins to realize that he and his friends are the targets of a mysterious monster known as The Bye Bye Man.  Not only does fear increase his power, telling anyone about it makes them a target.

Done right, this concept could lend itself to some intense psychological horror.  But it isn't done well.  It's badly written, acted and constructed.  The rules of how The Bye Bye Man operates aren't clearly established.  A clearer explanation of his abilities would have given the film a firmer foundation.  Scenes appear to have been left on the cutting room floor as well, as character relationships are stronger than we realize.  This kind of sloppiness is perhaps par for a January release (although not excusable).

The best acting is done by those with small parts.  The main trio is awful.  Douglas Smith is wooden, Lucien Laviscount blends into the background, and Cressida Bonas is just horrible.  Jenna Kanell has some nice moments as the earthy psychic, but then she goes over-the-top.  The adults are the best of the bunch, with character actors like Michael Trucco, Cleo King and Carrie-Anne Moss taking supporting roles.  Faye Dunaway has an "important" cameo as the one who knows everything that's going on, but she's bad too.  Is the once legendary actress so hard up for work that she has to take roles in crap like this to pay the bills?  I mean, everyone's got to eat, but appearing in a bad teen horror flick is just embarrassing.

The bottom line with "The Bye Bye Man" is that it's a failure.  It's not scary and it's not interesting.  I could claim that attempts to get a PG-13 rating (which couldn't be more obvious) are to blame.  Sex scenes are awkwardly cut and a character suffers a direct blow from a shotgun and while their body dents a wall, it's bloodless.  Mistakes like that make the movie feel dishonest and artificial, which take the audience out of the film's grip.  However, more gore and nudity can't make up for the film's other problems.  The best thing to do with "The Bye Bye Man" is to just say "See Ya" and go watch something else.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Bringing Up Baby

3.5/4

Starring: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, May Robson, Charles Ruggles, Walter Catlett, George Irving

Not Rated (probably G)

It's a common truism that comedies tend not to age well.  Whether through changing cultural norms, a lack of relevance in topical humor, or the ever evolving nature of comedy, what made a person laugh 75 years ago will probably bore today's audiences to tears.  That's not the case with "Bringing Up Baby," which is easily one of the smartest, quickest and funniest comedies I've seen in a long time.

The set-up is simple, which befits a screwball comedy like this.  David (Grant) is a museum researcher vying for a $1 million dollar grant for his research.  The missing bone that he needs to complete the brontosaurus he's been putting together for the past four years is arriving tomorrow, which is the day he is going to get married.  While he's trying to schmooze the donor's lawyer, Mr. Peabody (Irving), he's constantly interrupted by a flighty girl named Susan (Hepburn) who inadvertently botches his pitch.  When David tries to make amends, she turns up again...and ruins everything.  While fixing a wardrobe malfunction, he explains the situation.  It turns out that not only does Susan know Mr. Peabody (she even calls him "Boopy"), her aunt is said donor.  Thus begins a hilarious comedy of errors involving a missing bone and a leopard that probably the least dangerous one in the whole movie.

In comedy, timing is everything.  This is especially true for a screwball comedy, where all the double-talk, hijinks and slapstick must be delivered with mathematical precision...or fall flat on its face.  "Bringing Up Baby" understands this and nails each joke and gag with perfection.  Content-wise, this is a completely harmless film; the most risqué moment is when Cary Grant is forced to wear a woman's bathrobe.  But the situations are so clever and the delivery is so on-target that I had to pause the film a few times to calm down from laughing so hard.

The performers, many of whom came from vaudeville, are 100% on target.  No one misses a beat.  The two central characters are David and Susan, played by screen legends Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.  Grant plays against his screen image (he usually played suave, debonair men) by being extremely intelligent but socially awkward.  In other words, he's your average nerd.  Katharine Hepburn also plays against type.  Known primarily for playing intelligent, feisty women, here she plays a ditz who's smarter than anyone gives her credit for, albeit in extremely clumsy one.  In fact, Hepburn had to be trained by director Howard Hawks and some vaudeville actors in order to get the timing and comic skills necessary to play the part.  Grant and Hepburn don't sizzle in a romantic way, but that's okay since this is more farce than anything.

The film was directed by Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood's legendary directors.  His career crossed many genres, ranging from war ("Sergeant York"), film noir ("The Big Sleep"), and western ("Red River").  Clearly, the man knew his stuff.  The film's jokes and gags are delivered with clockwork precision.  Perhaps his biggest accomplishment is how well organized it is.  There is a lot going on here, but not once was I lost.

The film is too long and doesn't gain momentum like the best screwball comedies, but something this clever and hilarious is something to be savored.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Silence

3.5/4

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata, Liam Neeson, Yosuke Kubozuka, Ciaran Hinds

Rated R for Some Disturbing Violent Content

There is a certain type of person that sees the world in black and white.  They take everything they see on either faith or fact (which for them are often the same thing).  They are certain of everything and unshakable in their convictions.  Such is the case with more than a few people who regularly post on the American Family Association's Facebook page.  "Silence" takes two people of this mindset and challenges them and their views from all fronts.  I'm surprised that this film hasn't been met with a storm of controversy.  It's certainly more provocative than "The Da Vinci Code" or "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut."

A Jesuit priest working to spread the faith in mid-1600's Japan, Father Ferreira (Neeson), has just denounced God in the public square.  His two protégés, Father Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garupe (Driver) think this is absurd, and go into Japan to discover the truth.  At the time, Japan had outlawed Christianity and uses torture and murder to suppress it.  The two young priests remain hidden by the faithful and preach to them to keep the faith even in the face of certain death.  But seeing the horrors of martyrdom makes them question their faith.

"Silence" is less about traditional narrative and character tropes than about posing philosophical and theological questions.  Although it's based on a novel, it feels more like a play.  It's very heavy on dialogue and ideas.  Those expecting something like "The Departed" or "The Last Samurai" are going to be bored.  It's a good movie, but you have to be in the right mindset.

After seeing the film, I would have expected the film to be greeted by controversy.  This challenges many tenets of Catholicism, although people of other religions could be incensed too.  It dares to ask difficult questions of faith, such as if a priest sees someone suffering to keep him hidden, is he bound to reveal himself to alleviate their suffering?  Or what about martyrdom?  Is allowing people to die because you won't step on an image of Jesus an example of faith or stubbornness?  More importantly, what is true faith?  Is it what you say, or what you do?  In other words, is the person who renounces God with his words to save someone's life (but still keeps the faith at heart) a better Christian than the one who refuses to do so?

You can see why such questions would be provocative.  The Christian faith is filled with people who have suffered greatly for their faith.  Even paying the ultimate price.  And they're seen as heroic models of faith.  But is that sacrifice really necessary?  Like, if you're facing execution and just say that you renounce God only to save your own neck and not mean it in your heart, is that a sin or common sense?  And unlike "God's Not Dead," which only pretends to ask these questions to rouse the fanatically faithful, "Silence" takes them seriously.  It makes us question our beliefs and our values.

Martin Scorsese is perhaps the perfect director for this material.  Scorsese was raised Catholic and even seriously considered becoming a priest.  But now that he's an agnostic, he can see both sides of the coin and present them in an even-handed fashion.  There are no easy answers and while Scorsese has his own conclusions, he allows room for disagreement.

The performances are strong across the board.  Andrew Garfield continues to grow as an actor and take on risky roles, and he nails the part of the idealistic priest.  Rodrigues values the ideals and actions of martyrdom from a distance, but up close it's a different story.  He begins to question the line between idealistic faith and being human, and that causes him a great deal of inner conflict.  Adam Driver is also very good as Garrupe, who is perhaps weaker and more concerned with self-preservation than martyrdom.  He can talk the talk, but when it comes to walking the walk, he cowers.  Issei Ogata is threatening as the brutal overlord who knows exactly how to cause the most pain to Christians.  More importantly, while they don't justify his methods, his ideals have merit.  And Liam Neeson shows up as a man who is either a realist or a serpent in the garden (it's up to the viewer to decide which).

Alas, the film is too long.  It is not necessary to spend nearly 3 hours mulling over these questions.  Scorsese has a lot to say, but a leaner and tighter paced film would highlight the film's strengths.  I admit to checking my watch a few times during the film.  But at least it's for good reason and not to stretch his ego.

"Silence" isn't for everyone.  Nor is it intended to be.  It's a movie to watch, think about, and talk about with friends.  It's a movie of ideas, and for that reason, I think it will be on my Top 10 list at the end of the year.  I certainly will be seeing it again.

Deadpool

2.5/4

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ed Skrein, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller, Gina Carano, Brianna Hildebrand, and the voice of Stefan Kapicic

Rated R for Strong Violence and Language Throughout, Sexual Content and Graphic Nudity

That "Deadpool" turned out to be one of the sleeper hits of last year doesn't surprise me.  Obviously, that it comes from Marvel Studios is a big plus, since almost everything they put out turns into box office gold (much to my displeasure).  It's irreverent and raunchy, which is another good sign.  And it was one of the best marketed movies of the year.  But more importantly, it knows exactly what it is.  There are no sacred cows and no rules that the film won't break.  Suffice it to say, there's nothing quite like it.

Wade Wilson (Reynolds) is an ex-soldier turned muscle for hire.  With a quick wit and a love of pop culture, he endears himself to the similarly sharp-tongued Vanessa (Baccarin).  After a year of dating (which consists of romps around the apartment for just about any occasion), they decide to get married.  But fate deals them a tragic blow: Wade has terminal metastatic cancer.  In walks a guy who says that by turning him into a superhero of sorts, he can cure Wade of his cancer.  Of course, it's not that simple, as the sadistic doctor named Ajax tells him.  The process uses adrenaline to uncover mutations in a person's DNA, and they're activated by putting the body through extreme stress.  So in addition to mercilessly torturing Wade, he disfigures him.  Believing that Vanessa will no longer want anything to do with him, Wade decides to get even, and thus is born Deadpool, the "merc with a mouth," who can regenerate body tissue.

The true masterstroke of the film (I'm not counting the fourth-wall breaking, because apparently that's from the comics) is the pitch-perfect casting.  Who else could play a likable smart-ass but Ryan Reynolds?  As the loud, rude and intentionally obnoxious Deadpool, Reynolds finds a role that he was born to play.  Reynolds doesn't have great range, but he hits this one right out of the park.  As the villain Ajax, Ed Skrein turns up the nasty all the way to 11.  One look at his smirk and you already want to deck the guy.  That he has a sadistic delight in torturing Wade makes it so much easier to root for his comeuppance.  Morena Baccarin is an odd choice for such a crazy movie, but it's the right one.  She's lovely, and the chemistry between her and Reynolds is one of the highlights.  Brianna Hildebrand and Stefan Kapicic provide some of the funniest moments when they're trying to get Wade to join the X-Men.  The only one who doesn't work is T.J. Miller.  He does his stoner-bro schtick and it's really annoying.  He doesn't fit in with the tone or the characters.  Like Seth Rogen, he's playing himself as being a socially awkward stand-up comic.

The most surprising element of the film is the fourth-wall breaking.  This is a risky move, because it can take the audience out of the film, but here it works.  It works because it is consistent and knows when and when not to do it.  Deadpool knows he's talking to a movie audience and is well aware of the other Marvel movies.  In one very amusing touch, he knows that he's being played by Ryan Reynolds, and occasionally tells us that he thinks the actor is hot.

But while the irreverent humor and the romance work, there is one element that doesn't: the plot.  The revenge story is paper thin, and first-time director Tim Miller pays too much attention to it.  There's a wealth of good material here, but it comes in regular bursts, and the stuff between them is taken too seriously for a movie this silly.

So it's a tough call, but I can't recommend "Deadpool."  Then again, everyone and their mother has seen it, so such a judgement is pointless.  And really, I can't blame anyone for liking it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Pebble and the Penguin

0.5/4

Starring (voices): Martin Short, Jim Belushi, Annie Golden, Tim Curry

Rated G

I can think of only two possible audiences for "The Pebble and the Penguin:" those who pass the time by eating paste and those who have undergone frontal lobotomies.  This is the most idiotic, brain-dead animated movie I've seen since "Norm of the North."  Granted, that was almost exactly a year ago, but I have to admit that this piece of crap isn't quite as aggressively obnoxious as last year's stinker.

The film uses real behavior of the adelie penguin.  Considering the final result, they should sue.  Male adelie penguins choose their mates by offering the female a pebble.  If she accepts, they mate for life.  Shy, stuttering penguin Hubie (Short) has the hots for Marina (Golden) and she for him, but he can't get the courage to give her a pebble.  Since Hubie and everyone else knows that Marina loves him, you would think that he would be able to figure out that Marina would accept a dog turd from him and call it a day, but no, that would prevent us from suffering through the indignity of watching the entire rancid 74 minutes.  In any event, Hubie has a rival, a muscle bound villain by the name of Drake (Curry).  Marina wants nothing to do with him since he is incapable of loving anyone except himself, but he won't take no for an answer.  When Hubie finds a lovely green emerald that falls from the sky, he knows there's no way that Marina can turn it down.  Unfortunately Drake throws him into the sea and plans to keep Marina for himself.  Now Hubie has nine days before the end of the ceremony in order to get back Marina.

I could go on for hours on what is wrong with this totally worthless motion picture.  The film never establishes a narrative flow, going from plot point to plot point like a drunk driver on a windy country road.  The animation makes after-school specials compare well to Hayao Miyazaki.  The characters lack consistent personality or motivation.  The plot is both nonsensical and trite, relying on contrivance after contrivance to move the creaky plot along.  There is a sense that criticizing a movie whose target audience hasn't even entered kindergarten for a lack of plot or character development is akin to getting mad at your cat for not finding the cure for cancer, but even by the loose standards of discount family movie fare, this crosses the line.

Surprisingly, the film is filled with talent both in front of and behind the camera.  Well, since this is an animated movie, they're all "behind" the camera, but you know what I mean.  Known funny men Martin Short, Jim Belushi, and Tim Curry provide the voices, and the film was directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, who made, among others, "The Secret of NIMH."  The songs were written by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman.  It goes without saying that none of them appear to want to have anything to do with the project other than collecting a paycheck.  The voice acting is bland and the songs are insipid and annoying.  Don Bluth hated this movie so much that he demanded that his name be removed from the credits, but that doesn't excuse him,  All his earmarks are present, such as the exaggerated body language and the ballad over the end credits. 

A movie like this is a travesty.  Not just because it's so awful, but because it was so obviously going to be awful from the start.  Bluth should have known better than anyone that this was going to be a train wreck and pulled the plug before any careers were put in jeopardy, much less cause the suffering of viewers and critics such as myself.  But he didn't, and instead of being able to falsely tout it as his "lost masterpiece" for marketing and ego purposes, he released it so we can all see it for what it really is: a genuine piece of shit.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Live By Night

2.5/4

Starring: Ben Affleck, Chris Messina, Zoe Saldana, Remo Girone, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning, Robert Glenister, Sienna Miller, Brendan Gleeson

Rated R for Strong Violence, Language Throughout, and Some Sexuality/Nudity

"Live by Night," is too ambitious for its own good.  While that's admirable and almost always preferable to the contrary, it doesn't negate the fact that the movie doesn't work.  Almost, but not quite.  The number of elements that director/screenwriter/star Ben Affleck tries to put into a movie that stretches barely over two hours is extraordinary: the mob (Irish, Italian and Cuban), the KKK, religious revivals, people coming back from the dead, romance, the rise and fall from grace, theological questions, police corruption and prohibition, among others.  It would try the talents of great directors like Martin Scorcese or Francis Ford Coppola (both of whom have tackled similar material with better results).  And while I applaud Affleck for his attempt, I can't do the same for the result.

Joe Coughlin (Affleck) has had enough following orders.  Emotionally scarred from fighting in World War I, Joe decides to live by his own rules rather than ally himself with any mob bosses.  He happens to be in love with Emma Gould (Miller), the girlfriend of Albert White (Glenister), who is the head of the Irish mob.  A betrayal ends up with him in prison and Emma dead.  Naturally, he wants revenge, and to do that, he allies himself with White's rival, Maso Pestacore (Girone).  He is sent to Florida to build up the rum racket, where he meets the lovely Graciela (Saldana), the sister of the local Cuban mob boss.  He falls in love with her, but racial tensions and changing times threaten the empire he and his friend Dion (Messina) have built up.

That, of course, is only scratching the surface.  There's simply too much material for a two hour film, and Affleck, who really only has directed one good film (his debut "Gone Baby Gone", lacks the delicate touch to weave such a complex tale.  Characters are underwritten, the plot is frequently muddled and subplots rarely have room to breathe.  Still, there's enough good stuff here that I might be able to recommend the film had it not been for his biggest flaw: Affleck himself.

Affleck could best be described as a character actor.  He lacks the range and screen presence to carry a film, and is best suited to supporting parts.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in this film, where he underplays the role.  He speaks softly and doesn't carry a big stick.  Perhaps this was an attempt to internalize the character or play a low-key individual, but it has the result of Joe possess little to no personality.  He's drowned out by everyone he comes into contact with.  I could tentatively recommend this film, but his lifeless performance is an albatross on the $65 million production.

He has selected an impressive supporting cast, but that only highlights the weaknesses in his performance.  All are effective (especially Brendan Gleeson, who has rarely been better.  How Affleck could think anyone would believe that he was Gleeson's son is something only he knows, but I'll chalk that up to artistic license and let it slide).  Zoe Saldana has the ethereal quality needed for a film like this, except that her character goes from intriguing femme fatale to generic worrying wife.  Chris Messina is bland as Dino; his attempts to appear low-key are annoying.  Sienna Miller is completely unrecognizable as the Irish lass that Joe falls for.  I had no idea that it was her.

On a technical level, the film impresses.  This is a lush, beautiful looking film; the camerawork by Robert Richardson is easily among the strongest I've seen in a while, and deserves Oscar consideration (that it won't get).  The action scenes are appropriately brutal without being overly graphic and are adequately executed.

There are good scenes here, particularly during the second half.  In the end, it's Affleck's boring lead character that tilts my recommendation to a less than positive review.

Mike's Musings: Down with the Bro Code

Human interaction is complicated.  I don't think anyone can dispute that.  What we say isn't always what we mean, and particularly when you're getting to know someone, a lot of guesswork and risk is involved.  You never know if you're going to say the wrong thing, or if they're going to misinterpret what you say.  With the rise of technology, face to face interaction has become less relevant, and with less practice, people are less likely to reach out and meet new people (yes, there are studies that show this).  This is also probably what has made political correctness such a hot topic, but that's for another argument.

The "Bro Code," or any sort of bonding between male (or female) friends, is not a new phenomenon.  Shakespeare's "Love's Labors Lost" is a bro-comedy.  Hell, you could even say that Jesus Christ and his disciples were "bros."  It's not a new thing to film either.  Movies like "Porky's" and "Animal House" are built on it.  But now it's in like never before due in no small part to the influence of Judd Apatow, and in particular, Seth Rogen.

It's not the idea of stories set around male bonding that I have a problem with.  I mean, what's wrong with hanging out with your friends celebrating immaturity and debauchery? Particularly on the movie screen, almost nothing.  But what started out as immature and decidedly anti-PC fun has evolved into something much more pathetic.  And in this critic's opinion, a little disturbing.

What makes these movies is so insidious is that they are built on fear.  Fear of growing up, I get.  Growing up sucks, and a lot of people aren't ready to settle down and be "boring" adults.  But with movies like "This is the End," "Neighbors 2," "Bridesmaids," and "The Night Before," that fear has become about anything except your best bros.

Think about it.  All these movies revolve around a group of friends who are dealing with some aspect of growing up.  Marriage is predominant, but calming down from your 20's and early 30's is also a part of it.  That's the real unspoken antagonist.  What's sick about these movies is that the characters, who are all of the same sex, rely on each other because of fear.

Have you noticed how everyone not in these little insular groups is some sort of freak or weirdo?  Or in romantic comedies, the main group reacts to them in a boorish, immature way?  Have you seen any of them be, you know, nice?  Take for instance "Bridesmaids." Because Rose Byrne's character is also close with the bride, Wiig perceives her as a threat, until the end of the movie where they recognize the error of their ways and save the day.

The ones starring males are even worse.  "The Interview," "The Night Before," "Superbad," and "This is the End" all revolve around a duo or group of guys who are so insular that anyone else is "the other."  They're some sort of colorful weirdo or aggressive, powerful female that the audience is supposed to laugh at when the "heroes" make some sort of boorish joke at her expense.  In "The Interview," the CIA agent is immediately the subject of riffs on her cleavage and who is (or is not) going to sleep with her.  LGBT characters, if they exist at all, are even worse off.  They're all stereotypes: masculine lesbians or feminine gays.  Apparently, it's considered "okay" if they're not one of these cliché, demeaning images, but even in "Neighbors 2," Zac Efron initially reacts with anger.

Don't tell me that this was a subtle accident.  No, it was intentional.  To Hollywood's target audience, LGBT people, strong women, and mature adults are perceived of as threatening.  But by catering to this attitude, they've legitimized this sort of behavior towards women, LGBT people.  Basically, everyone that isn't a part of their "bro" group.  Don't believe me?  Next time you're out with your bros, try saying hello to someone new.  Chances are that, at best, they're going to be stiff and awkward, or feel threatened and angry.

Now, don't start with how movies don't influence people.  I agree.  It's bullshit.  But saying that watching "Deadpool" is going to make people in the audience want to shoot everyone they dislike is far different than making people think that it's okay to fear everyone who isn't your "bro."  One is the mark of a psychopath, the other legitimizes immaturity and discrimination.

If you think this is another attack on Seth Rogen, well, you're half right.  Anyone familiar with my reviews will know how much I dislike that film personality (I will not degrade the words "actor" or "comedian" by calling him as such).  But it's not just him.  Those stupid "Man Law" beer ads from Miller Lite, the TV show "How I Met Your Mother" (just about any TV show marketed to 20-30 year old guys).  And as much as I like Tucker Max, I have to include him here too.  He more or less defined the term for the Millennial generation, although to be fair, he fully admits that what he does to anyone within striking distance is what not to do when it comes to human interaction.

Let me be clear.  I'm not against hanging with your best guy friends watching football or going out and trying to get lucky.  That sort of thing is essentially what it means to be a guy when you're my age.  What I'm talking about is how this sort of idea has become warped into an insular, misogynist and homophobic panic.  The Bro Code is no longer about male bonding.  It's about protecting yourself from anyone who is not a macho, hyper-sexual living embodiment of testosterone.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Dreamcatcher

2.5/4

Starring: Thomas Jane, Damien Lewis, Morgan Freeman, Timothy Olyphant, Tom Sizemore, Jason Lee, Andrew Robb, Donnie Wahlberg

Rated R for Violence, Gore and Language

"Dreamcatcher" doesn't work.  Let's get that out of the way.  While there are some effective moments and some intriguing ideas, co-writer/director Lawrence Kasdan can't make them all fit into one cohesive whole.  If a movie is like a completed jigsaw puzzle, "Dreamcatcher" would be one with a few pieces off to the side.

Henry (Jane), Beaver (Lee), Jonesy (Lewis) and Pete (Olyphant) have been best friends for twenty years.  In addition to growing up in Derry, Maine, the four share something else together: they are telepathically linked.  Through the gifts of their friend Duddits (Robb), the four can read minds and can find anything with ease.  They also have (literal) libraries of all their memories.  One night after Jonesy nearly dies after being hit by a car, the four friends make a return journey to their remote cabin in the woods for a weekend of hunting, beer and bonding.  While about to snag a deer, Jonesy comes across a man stranded in the woods.  Obviously in dire need of assistance, he takes the man back to the cabin for a little TLC.  But what he doesn't know is that the man with terrible flatulence and a strange rash isn't just sick, he's carrying an alien parasite.  Meanwhile, an independent branch of the military, led by the deranged Col. Abraham Curtis (Freeman) knows of the parasite, and is willing to use any means necessary to prevent the extinction of the human race.

"Dreamcatcher" is a hybrid of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "Stand by Me," and "E.T."  If that sounds like a strange concoction, well, it is.  There is far too much going on for one movie, even if it's stretched to a way-too-long two hours.  I suppose that's a result of trying to squeeze an 800+ page book into a single film, but I give kudos to Kasdan and William Goldman for the attempt.  It takes chances, which is more than can be said for many movies these days (especially in the horror genre).  They don't always work, but there are some that do.

The most intriguing element of the film is the link between the four friends.  Paradoxically, it's the film's biggest weakness.  It's not adequately explained, and at times, feels like a crutch for the filmmakers rather than an integral part of the story.  There are a few obvious contrivances that can only happen because of this link.  That said, it leads to some solid moments, such as when Jonesy is trapped by the alien in his mental library.  Or how the friends communicate simultaneously with the alien and Jonesy.  It sounds ridiculous in a review, but if you watch the film it makes sense.  Sort of.

The acting is a mixed bag; some performances work, others not so much.  The two best performances are by Damian Lewis (pre-"Homeland") and Timothy Olyphant.  Lewis has a difficult role; he must play a man with two very different personalities and change them in a flash without the aid of computers or tricky editing.  He nails it.  Jonesy is a good average guy while Mr. Grey (the alien) is a cultured, sardonic maniac (who sounds eerily like John Cleese).  Lewis nails it.  And Timothy Olyphant shows up playing the next best lovable scoundrel to Harrison Ford.  Olyphant is a great character actor and always fun to watch.  The rest of the cast members are forgettable or awful.  Jason Lee is okay, but has so little screen time that it's hard to remember that he's in it.  Thomas Jane is as wooden as he's ever been.  Morgan Freeman is surprisingly lacking.  The legendary actor can always be counted on to give a good performance, even in bad movies like "Chain Reaction" or the overrated Oscar bait "Million Dollar Baby."  Here, he's flat and at times awful.

Undoubtedly, the screenplay is the film's biggest weakness.  In addition to trying to do too much and in poor balance, the dialogue is occasionally stilted.  I'm not against dialogue that you wouldn't hear on the street (Quentin Tarantino's movies are a good example), but here, there are many lines that feel...off.  They're not clunkers, they just feel like they were written with someone who has somewhat of a tin ear for dialogue.  And some of the violence and gore feels gratuitous and made me feel a little squirmy.  And not in a good way.

"Dreamcatcher" is a mixed bag, but at least it's not a total loss.  There are far worse horror movies out there.  It's not as good as "IT" or "Storm of the Century," but it's better than "Thinner" or "Cujo."

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Fun

3.5/4

Starring: Renee Humphrey, Alicia Witt, William R. Moses, Leslie Hope, Ania Sull

Not Rated (Probable R for Strong Language including Explicit and Disturbing Sexual Dialogue, and for a Scene of Vicious Violence)

"Fun" is extremely disturbing, and that is perhaps the highest possible compliment that I can give it.  Rafal Zielinski's 1994 film is ironically titled; this is not a pleasant film to watch.  It's tough and unforgiving, but for those who venture in, the rewards are immense.

Hilary (Humphrey) and Bonnie (Witt) are two girls who in the space of a few hours, have become lifelong best friends.  Of course, their relationship is anything but healthy.  They meet by accident, but their personalities are such that when they meet, it's an instant connection.  They feed each other's mania, which escalates from the sharing of secrets to a brutal murder.

The film tells two stories.  One is Hilary and Bonnie meeting and the resulting events leading up to the killing.  The other, which is the meat of the film, takes place after they have been tried and convicted.  They are being interviewed by Jane (Hope), a social worker who knows their circumstances all too well, and John (Moses), a tabloid journalist who smells headlines.

That "Fun" was adapted from a play doesn't surprise me.  This movie is driven by acting and dialogue alone.  Zielinski doesn't shy away from visual flourishes or techniques, but he uses them rarely and only for good reason.  For one, they set the tone; the interviews are shown in black and white to enhance the clinical, sterile environment of prison (and the toll that being separated has on the girls) while the day of the killing is in color, which emphasizes the manic madness that led to the death of a woman guilty of nothing but misplaced trust.  I can't emphasize enough how truly disturbing the murder is.  Physically, it's not amped up at all.  But with careful editing, camerawork and acting, it's one of the most disturbing acts of violence I've ever seen on screen.  More disturbing than the opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan."

The film is about exploring the personalities of Hilary and Bonnie.  Neither one is a mentally stable individual.  Hilary is a victim of incest and as a result has a cynical and damaged personality.  Bonnie is too, or so she says, but she is anything but trustworthy.  Bonnie is in a constant state of mania; she is wall to wall energy and her thoughts and emotions come flying out of her with dizzying speed.  She's all impulse, desperately awaiting the next thrill.  Hilary, who craves emotional connection of some kind, stands no chance with this firecracker (a term I use with purpose).  Both actresses do exceptional work, but it's Witt who stands out.  I never truly bought that Hilary would get swept up in Bonnie's insanity, since she's so disaffected.  But that's actually a small quibble.  If there's any justice in Hollywood, then someone will see this movie and see that Witt is capable of far more than being a scream queen in "Urban Legend" and a walking plot device in that Al Pacino crapfest "88 Minutes."  This is Oscar worthy work.

Their co-stars, William R. Moses and Leslie Hope, are also effective, but by the nature of the production, they aren't nearly as important or memorable as Alicia Witt and Renee Humphrey.  Of the two, Hope is the better actress.  She's seen girls like Hilary and Bonnie and knows all their tricks.  She regards her quarry with cynicism and resignation.  John is not so lucky.  He's new to these kinds of people, and makes the mistake of growing to care about them.  Moses is the weakest of the cast, but he's still solid.

"Fun" has a tendency to get too talky, and while Zielinski's playing with the timeline pays off, it takes a while to get there.  It takes a while to become involved emotionally; in fact, it might work better with repeat viewings.  When or if I'll get the courage to watch it a second time, I don't know.

"Fun" never attracted a US distributor, which is a shame but not surprising.  The audience for it is small.  It is simply so disturbing that few people would ever see it, regardless of how many critics trumpet its laurels.  That it looks like it was made for pennies (and probably was) is another turn-off.  A copy of the film is going to be hard to find.  It may be available on YouTube (no promises that it's not a bait-and-switch) or you can buy a copy on Amazon for about 40 bucks.  Whichever you choose, it's well worth it.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl

3.5/4

Starring: Lu Lu, Lopsang

Rated R for Strong Sexual Content

China's Cultural Revolution, or The Great Leap Forward, is one of many eras of history that is ripe with dramatic possibilities.  True or not, there are many films waiting to be told about that era in Asian history.  Most likely due to skittishness about casting a film without a white actor in it, Hollywood has shied away from it.  Those who are interested in the period are forced to turn to China itself in telling these stories.  There are a few, such as "Farewell, My Concubine," "The Red Violin" (which is Canadian, but never mind) and "Coming Home."  Add Joan Chen's "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl" to that list.

Wen Xiu (Lu Lu), or Xiu Xiu, as she is known, is a young 15 year old girl living in the city of Chengdu.  Like many girls her age (that don't have money or connections to get out of it), she is sent away to begin work training.  She's studying raising horses with Lao Jin (Lopsang), a simple horse herder.  In six months, she will be recalled to lead a cavalry.  However, six months pass, and no one comes.  Occasionally, men do come to pass, promising a good word on her behalf if Xiu Xiu does "certain things" for them.  But is there really a chance that Xiu Xiu will get to go home, or is Lao Jin correct in his view: that she has become a whore in exchange for empty promises?

This is a two character piece, although it's narrated at the beginning and the end by Xiu Xiu's love interest from home, Li Chuanbei (Zheng Qian).  The acting by Lu Lu and Lopsang is exceptional.  Both have demanding roles: Lu Lu has to show us a girl who can be manipulative and calculating while still making sure that we understand that she's a desperate girl who doesn't realize, or is willingly blind to, the fact that she's being used.  It's an incredible performance.  Her co-star, Lopsang, has the more challenging role.  Lao Jin must watch this naïve young girl degrade herself for a hope that is really a cruel disposal of his deep love for her.  Lao Jin's feelings for her are strictly non-sexual; he was castrated in a previous war, which has rendered him sexually and physically impotent.  By his nature, Lao Jin is a quiet, solitary man, so Lopsang has to use body language (especially his eyes) to show his true pain.  It's extraordinary work.

The film was directed by Joan Chen, one of China's premiere actresses.  It was her first time behind a camera, and her passion is evident in every frame.  She co-wrote the script with Geling Yan, whose novel "Tian Yu" served as the basis for this film, and co-produced it.  It's not a movie that had many aspirations in breaking box office records, but nevertheless, her heart is visible in every frame.  This is a story that she wanted to tell, and she does so beautifully.  The character arcs for both Xiu Xiu and Lao Jin are well handled (I'd argue that she could have taken more time and pushed it farther, but never mind), and she has an eye for landscapes.  Some of the visuals of the Chinese countryside are breathtaking.

"Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl" was marketed as being banned in China for political and sexual themes.  That isn't true.  In fact, the script was approved by the Chinese government, but it was banned after the production team filmed in Tibet without permits (such things are illegal, I guess).  Still, it's an easy mistake to make, since the film does little to hide its criticism of the communist government in 1975.  It's shown to be careless and unfeeling.  Had it been better organized, what happens to Xiu Xiu and Lao Jin would never have happened.

Unfortunately, "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl" has gone out of print.  DVD copies are rare, and Netflix doesn't even offer it (it's not available to "save" for when it becomes available, so I'm guessing that there are no plans to put out more copies).  It's a shame, because this movie deserves to be seen.  It's not for everyone, but it's not a movie you'll soon forget.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Manchester by the Sea

3.5/4

Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, C.J. Wilson, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Heather Burns, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick

Rated R for Language Throughout and Some Sexual Content

Note: I didn't see the entire film.  I walked in a few moments after the opening credits had started, meaning I missed the first 30 seconds.  I normally don't review movies when I haven't seen the film in its entirety.  But I asked another viewer and he said I didn't miss anything.  Technically I shouldn't be writing this review, but the film is too good to get overlooked.  There, my confession is done.

The 30-something man child is a comedy staple.  Characters in a state of arrested development have been the heroes of comedy for generations.  In recent years, it's taken off.  From Chris Farley in "Tommy Boy" to the early Adam Sandler movies to "Ted," it's pretty much a given that in any comedy, the goals of every male character are sex, drinking and drugs.  It's in like never before, due to the inexplicable appeal of Seth Rogen and his group of "Freaks and Geeks" co-stars and fellow stand-up comedians.  "Manchester by the Sea" takes a look at the other side of this archetype.  Rather than be the focal point for immature humor and boorish behavior, it shows how it destroys life and shatters those nearby with the resulting shrapnel.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is such an individual.  An alcoholic whose refusal to grow up leaves him a janitor and with an ex-wife named Randi (Williams).  But he hides deep wounds that explain, but do not excuse, his life.  However, a chance for redemption comes when his brother Joe (Chandler) dies of a heart attack.  Since his ex-wife, Elise (Mol) is largely out of the picture (for good reason), the only one who can care for Joe's sixteen-year-old son, Patrick (Hedges), is Lee.  Lee is ill-equipped for such a responsibility (and knows it), but soldiers on, doing the best he can.  Now Lee is going to have to make a life-altering decision: uproot and raise Patrick until he turns 18, or run from it and go back to his aimless existence.

"Manchester by the Sea" takes a while to find its stride.  That's mainly due to the way writer/director Kenneth Lonergan chooses to develop his characters.  Like many directors who mix past and present, he inserts flashbacks to explain who the characters are and why they are the way they are.  But these flashbacks are awkwardly inserted into the narrative, bringing the momentum to a very awkward halt on more than one occasion.  Once all the pieces are in play, the film finds its groove.

As a playwright and stage director, it goes without saying that the acting is one of the high points.  This is an almost entirely dialogue driven film, and as a result, relies on the actors to bring life to their characters.  They succeed. Casey Affleck is getting Oscar buzz in the leading role, and while he's effective, it's not something legendary.  Lucas Hedges is also very good, ably portraying a teenager who takes advantage of the situation, or makes light of it, until reality hits.  Kyle Chandler is very good in a small but important role that gives the film the emotional foundation it requires to start.  Michelle Williams is also getting Oscar attention, but her role is so small that it's hard to single her out.  Despite the fact that this is the kind of small, indie production where she can shine, she can't match the presence of the other actors.

This is not a happy film, as you can imagine.  It takes you into dark places that we can all relate to (who hasn't had a loved one die?) and asks questions with no easy answers.  As much of a downer as it is, there is some biting, gallows humor that keeps things from becoming too depressing.  Such as Lucas's attempts to have sex with his girlfriend (well, one of them), are constantly interrupted.  And the most awkward meal since the "cat milking" scene in "Meet the Parents."  As inappropriate as they might seem, they actually fit in quite nicely.

The film is too long and the flashbacks are not handled well.  But the film has real power, and for those who are willing to take the journey, it won't be forgotten.  It makes you wonder what happens after the cameras stop rolling.

Solomon Kane

3/4

Starring: James Purefoy, Pete Postlethwaite, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Alice Kirge, Max von Sydow

Rated R for Violence Throughout

For a movie found in the discount Blu Ray bin at Best Buy, "Solomon Kane" is a better movie than it has a right to be.  It is well-acted, the special effects are splendid and it doesn't overstay its welcome.  True, it's not hard to understand why it wasn't released in theaters, but home viewing is always less demanding, so it's fitting to watch it at home.

Solomon Kane (Purefoy) is the worst sort of person.  Pirate, mercenary, murderer...all are words that can be used to describe him.  After sacking an Arabian castle, the villain finds himself face to face with the Devil's Reaper (Ian Whyte).  Apparently, if you enter into a life of crime, you make an unconscious deal to give him your soul.  And he's come to collect Solomon's.  Naturally, he refuses and flees back to London, finds God and enters into a monastery.  When that doesn't work out, he goes back to his home.  Along the way, Solomon runs into the Crowthorns, a family on their way to the New World.  When they are attacked, the father, William (Postlethwaite), tells him that there is a way to find redemption.  He tells him that if he finds his kidnapped daughter Meredith (Hurd-Wood), his soul will be saved.

The film's biggest flaw is its pace.  The first half of the film is set-up.  And yet, I'm not complaining.  The characters are interesting enough and the film moves quickly enough that I was never bored.  James Purefoy, an underrated actor, gives depth to the title character.  And everyone in the Crowthorn family is lovable.  I was surprised at how much I grew to care about the characters.

What the film lacks is joy.  Tonally, the film is dark, dark and dark.  I mean, I get that it's that kind of movie, but the film was based upon a character created by Robert E. Howard, who essentially invented pulp fiction (he created the "Conan" character).  Would it have killed the film to make it, you know, a little fun?

"Solomon Kane" isn't any kind of a masterpiece.  It takes too long to get going and has too little cheer.  And the theology that motivates Solomon is shaky at best.  For instance, if you've sworn off violence in favor of devotion to God, is it a mortal sin to commit violence to save the lives of people who were good to you?  And isn't the whole point of Christianity that no one is past redemption?

So it's not perfect.  But for what it is, I liked it.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Mike's Musings: Top 10 of 2016

As I said in my previous post, 2016 was not a good year for movies.  Low quality, low ticket sales, low excitement.  That doesn't mean there weren't good movies to be found.  There were quite a few that were a three-and-a-half or above.  You just had to know where to look.  Most were mid-to-low budget movies that put more of an emphasis on quality rather than being easy money.  Classics are made by people with passion and a willingness to take chances.

10. I'm Not Ashamed.  I did not expect to like this movie.  In fact, I was astonished at the fact that someone could have the gall to make this movie.  Evangelical Christianity playing the victim card in "God's Not Dead" and its miserable sequel was bad enough, but exploiting one of the victims of the Columbine massacre?  Unforgivable.  Fortunately, that was not the case.  The filmmakers had too much respect for Rachel and what she stood for.  They had the courage to let Rachel speak for herself.  Her message comes through by what she does, not by how many Bible verses she knows or how pious she is.  Much of that is conveyed in a stunning performance by Masey McLain.  "I'm Not Ashamed" is a good movie, but it's McLain's warmth, energy and talent that earned it a spot on this list.  She deserves all the accolades that she won't get.  I hope to see more of her in the future.

9.  Hacksaw Ridge.  War movies are a dime a dozen.  They've been around since movies were born.  While not the king ("Saving Private Ryan") or queen ("American Sniper"), it's up there.  What's especially noteworthy is how director Mel Gibson manages to get a lot of the same power as those movies while telling the story in a conventional way.  That speaks to his talent as a filmmaker.  I doubt it will be up for many Oscars (that depends on its showing at the other umpteen awards), except for a few technical ones.  Still, this is an experience you won't want to miss.

8.  Hush.  "Hush" is as effective as it is rare: a smart horror movie.  Horror movies depend on their characters having brain cramps.  It's what gets them into the sticky situations that allow them to be put in jeopardy...thus the scares.  Not here.  It's scary because both the deaf-mute heroine and the killer outside are smart.  She knows her house but he's able to anticipate her moves.  What I'm wondering is how any studio could have let this gem get away?  It's smart, effective and violent.  What more can a horror fan want?  Fortunately, Netflix acquired the rights, and now it's available to stream.  However, as far as I know, you can't buy a copy on DVD or Blu Ray anywhere.  Side note: if I'm wrong, please let me know.

7.  Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life.  Making a feel-good movie is hard.  The balance has to be just right.  Too much sweetness and it curdles.  Too little and it's a cold and unforgiving movie.  But this movie gets it right.  Unafraid of tackling some difficult issues, such as bullying, death and parental remarriage head on, this one's a real winner.  It's warm, funny and has some clever animation.  It's a perfect family movie.

6.  Don't Breathe.  With thrillers, it's all about the execution.  Pun intended.  Characters we can care about are necessary, but a thriller by someone who truly knows what he's doing, not mandatory.  This movie has both.  The acting is strong, but it's the way it's put together that makes it stand out.  Director Fede Alvarez is very careful about how he composes the shots in order to generate the maximum level of tension.  The film is surprisingly intense, and what's more, Alvarez is very good with slight of hand.  We never know what is going to happen, especially not the killer twist.  Only the poor decision to start in the middle and go back to the beginning mars it from a perfect 4/4.

5.  Only Yesterday.  The lack of success of "Only Yesterday" was due, in part, to Disney's cowardice.  They were unwilling to release a film where schoolgirls experience menstruation.  Never mind that, considering the context, it's completely appropriate for younger children.  Never mind that nothing graphic is shown, or even talked about.  Never mind that it was clean enough to earn a family friendly PG rating from the notoriously prudish MPAA (if that's not a sign that you're in the clear, nothing is).  They were afraid of backlash from conservative parents and groups who would have an apoplexy at the words "menstruation" and "kids movie" in the same sentence.  Considering our sex-phobic society, maybe they were right.  Whatever the reason, Studio Ghibli had the good sense to write it into their contract with Disney that they could not alter one of their films.  Enter GKIDS, and now the film is available to watch at home.  I strongly suggest that you do.

4.  Miss Sloane.  What a knockout!  This movie bites hard from the opening scene and never lets go.  It floors you.  A twisty drama with the relentless pace and ferocity of a top notch thriller, the exploits of master lobbyist Liz Sloane are impossible to turn away from.  Jessica Chastain is flat out riveting here, and an Oscar nomination is a certainty.  It's an award that she should, but probably won't, win.  To my utter shock, it bombed at the box office.  With a minimal advertising budget, it didn't have the muscle to stand next to the year's holiday hits like "La La Land" or "Passengers."  Let me tell you, this movie is a must-see.

3.  Meru.  Can I put it on this list?  It was released last year, which would be fine for a holdover.  But I looked online and it was released in August.  I saw it for the first time in January, right after I had created my list.  Silly me.  The Netflix envelope was sitting next to my TV, and I just put it off, despite the urgings of my best friend.  Perhaps as a way to atone for my procrastination, but I'm putting it on here, however inappropriate it may be.  The movie is a treasure and deserves all the praise I can give it.  I know that documentaries are tough sells, but trust me when I say this, it's as stunning to look at as anything I've seen in a while, and is as suspenseful as hell.

2.  Bad Moms.  Given the state of comedies these days, which is stand-up comedians improvising riffs on the same lame joke and acting like self-absorbed boors, I approached this movie like I was going to the gallows.  The horrors of the years earlier comedies still fresh in my mind.  I was completely taken aback.  I was laughing.  And laughing more.  And laughing hard.  I was even cheering.  I've never done that before in a movie (well, once in "Zootopia").  This movie is funny.  It's funny because it has a point of view.  The jokes come from areas of truth, ones that we can all relate to.  Especially if you're a mom.  I'm not, and never will be, but like "Office Space," another comedy I liked without being able to directly relate to it, it's funny not just because it understands its subject, but because it understands satire and human nature.

1.  Eye in the Sky.  Christmas came early for movie lovers this year.  This riveting thriller was released in April, and film lovers couldn't be happier.  Flawlessly paced, well-acted, and generating a starling amount of momentum from a relatively simple situation, it never talked down to the audience or showed off.  Director Gavin Hood was smart enough to trust his actors and his story to sell the film.  And sell it they did.  This movie was exhilarating, and it's my pick for the best of 2016.