Monday, February 27, 2017

Citizen Koch

3/4

Not Rated (probably PG-13 for Brief Language)

Anyone wondering why Congress is seemingly caught in an impenetrable deadlock and why last year's presidential election resembled Jerry Springer need only look at the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision.  In essence, it rolled back nearly a century of campaign finance law, and allowed both corporations and unions to donated unlimited amounts of money to politicians, albeit indirectly.  Now, the Koch Brothers, for example, can spend $900 million dollars on elections, and can hide the fact that they're doing it.

If that doesn't chill you to the bone, well, watch this documentary to see the devastation it caused.  Unions are crippled, people's benefits are vanishing, and the idea of a corporatocracy is becoming a reality.

"Citizen Koch," a clever, if unsubtle, word play on "Citizen Kane" and the Koch Brothers, seeks to do two things: show how corporate money has hijacked our government and how trying to fight big business is an almost futile endeavor.  It's too long and relies too much on emotion rather than facts and documented connections between people like the Koch Brothers and the politicians, but the arguments are still made and are just as disturbing.

To make their points, directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin show a trio of self-confessed Republicans who watch in horror as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker guts the power of unions by taking away their right to collective bargaining.  He also thins the competition by instituting worthless voter ID laws.  Their stories are compelling, if thin, because they personalize what corporate money has done.  Their rights are vanishing, their pensions, everything.  Also interviewed is Buddy Roemer, a Republican presidential hopeful who wasn't even allowed to join the 2012 Presidential debate when he refused corporate money.  It's not a pretty sight and impossible not to feel their horror.

The film is not flawless.  For one thing, the connections the filmmakers make between people like the Koch Brothers (who aren't their only target, but are the most attacked) and Scott Walker (ditto) and their influence on the elections aren't as strong as they obviously could be.  A few ads from the Americans for Prosperity (which they own) doesn't cut it.  Their fingers obviously run much deeper, but Deal and Lessin don't dig deep enough.  They have only framed their argument as the Tea Party being all about the debt and patriotism.  It's far more complicated than that.

"Citizen Koch" is also so partisan that even a devoted Democrat like myself was shaking his head.  They have their thesis and they do a good job of making the Koch Brothers seem like Machiavelli's worst nightmare and Scott Walker the poster boy for political corruption (he all but hangs himself on the phone).  But to deny the obvious, that Democrats are just as guilty of this, hurts their attempts to sway undecided voters.  A line or two about Obama and the flash of the Facebook logo in a montage of greedy corporations doesn't cut it.

This is a disturbing documentary and should be seen.  A better filmmaker like Alex Gibney could have attacked the subject with more hard data and verve, but Deal and Lessin have done their job.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Mike's Musings: The 2016 Oscar Predictions

As bad as the state of movies these days is (and it's pretty bad), it's nice to know that Hollywood is still able to make good movies.  So while movies like "Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice" and whatever Marvel movie was released last year are cynical cash grabs, movies like the criminally overlooked "Eye in the Sky" or "Manchester by the Sea" are still getting made.  And that's a good thing for people like me, who view movies as something other than amusement park rides or porn for Joss Whedon.

This year's Oscar line-up is surprisingly strong.  There are some great movies nominated and some strong performers too.  There are few, if any, categories where I'm hoping against hope that a nominated movie doesn't win (I suppose it helps that Wes Anderson didn't release anything this year and that the Academy apparently sees Seth Rogen for who he is).

As usual, I'll list the nominees, then go ahead with my predictions and my own choices.

Best Picture:

"Arrival"
"Fences"
"Manchester by the Sea"
"La La Land"
"Hacksaw Ridge"
"Hell or High Water"
"Moonlight"
"Hidden Figures"

Will Win: "La La Land"

Should Win: "Manchester by the Sea"

If I'm wrong about this one, I'll be very surprised.  Receiving almost universal acclaim from audiences and critics, "La La Land" has dominated just about every awards show.  It has only increased momentum, and by now it's virtually unstoppable.  I liked it, but didn't think it was all that great.  My vote would go to the painful and honest "Manchester by the Sea."  But it's a downer, and few people actually saw it.  Plus, it's such a small, character-driven film that is usually a bigger success in the acting and writing categories.  The Academy usually hands out the top prize for spectacle.

Best Actor:

Casey Affleck, "Manchester by the Sea"
Andrew Garfield, "Hacksaw Ridge"
Viggo Mortenson, "Captain Fantastic"
Denzel Washington, "Fences"
Ryan Gosling, "La La Land"

Will Win: Affleck

Should Win: Affleck

This is one of the few times where the Academy is likely going to give the prize to the one who deserves it.  While nothing legendary, Affleck's penetrating and heartbreaking turn as a tortured man who is thrust into a situation he is unable to cope with (and knows it) is riveting stuff.  He's playing the realistic flip-side of Seth Rogen's man-child persona.  Although a past controversy provoked a hiccup in his momentum, lasting damage appears to be non-existent.  Affleck can reserve a spot on his shelf for Oscar.

Best Actress:

Emma Stone, "La La Land"
Isabelle Huppert, "Elle"
Ruth Negga, "Loving"
Meryl Streep, "Florence Foster Jenkins"
Natalie Portman, "Jackie"

Will Win: Stone

Should Win: Streep

This one was a toss up.  At least for my opinion.  Like the film itself, Emma Stone has been winning awards left and right, and I don't see that changing.  But the only other film in this category that I have seen is "Florence Foster Jenkins," which I didn't think worked, but it has Meryl Streep in it.  And she can essentially do no wrong.

Best Supporting Actor:

Dev Patel, "Lion"
Mahershala Ali, "Moonlight"
Jeff Bridges, "Hell or High Water"
Lucas Hedges, "Manchester by the Sea"
Michael Shannon, "Nocturnal Animals"

Will Win: Ali

Should Win: Patel

I haven't seen "Moonlight," but the buzz is rapturous for Mahershala Ali.  But I would give it to Dev Patel.  I was late to a screening so I didn't review it, but Patel's sensitive and deep portrayal made it impossible not to sympathize with him in his quest to find his family.  It was a difficult role, playing a man who has everything and realizes his luck, but also wanting to know where he came from.  And Patel, who gets far too few roles, nailed it.

Best Supporting Actress:

Viola Davis, "Fences"
Naomie Harris, "Moonlight"
Nicole Kidman, "Lion"
Octavia Spencer, "Hidden Figures"
Michelle Williams, "Manchester by the Sea"

Will Win: Davis

Should Win: Harris

I haven't seen either of these films.  Check that, I haven't seen either of these films in its entirety.  I went to "Fences," but left early because the audience was annoying.  In all honesty, I'm not against Davis winning an Oscar.  I love the actress and thoroughly enjoy seeing her on screen doing, well, anything.  And she has a lot of buzz and momentum, so that's why I think she'll win.  But my choice would be Naomie Harris, who is also someone I enjoy watching.  Be it in something like "Ninja Assassin" or "The First Grader," she is a huge talent that brings a fierce spunk to her roles that's so appealing.  She should have been nominated, and won, for her performance in "The First Grader," but no one saw it.  That's why my vote goes to her.

Best Director:

Damien Chazelle, "La La Land"
Mel Gibson, "Hacksaw Ridge"
Denis Villeneuve, "Arrival"
Kenneth Lonergan, "Manchester by the Sea"
Barry Jenkins, "Moonlight"

Will Win: Chazelle

Should Win: Gibson

In my opinion, the line up in this category is pretty weak.  Chazelle has trouble with the lighter moments in "La La Land," the flashbacks in "Manchester by the Sea" were awkwardly placed, "Hacksaw Ridge" had an awkward start and "Arrival" was both dull and had that self-important intensity that is unfortunately a trademark of Denis Villeneuve.  So I have to give it to Gibson because "Hacksaw Ridge" was consistently captivating and the war scenes were as thrilling as they were brutal.

Best Original Screenplay:

"Hell or High Water"
"La La Land"
"Manchester by the Sea"
"20th Century Women"
"The Lobster"

Will Win: "Manchestery by the Sea"

Should Win: "Manchester by the Sea"

"Manchester by the Sea" is the kind of movie where the dialogue makes or breaks the movie.  It's a small, character-centered piece that gave its actors a chance to shine while revealing painful truths about its characters.  "La La Land" is a fairy tale, but since Chazelle will likely take the Best Director honor and his film will take the top prize, I'm guessing that the Academy will give this one to Lonergan.  As well they should.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

"Arrival"
"Lion"
"Moonlight"
"Fences"
"Hidden Figures"

Will Win: "Hidden Figures"

Should Win: "Lion"

"Hidden Figures" was not a good movie, but it was a huge hit with audiences.  The underdog story had a limp narrative and bland performances, and honestly shouldn't have been nominated for anything.  There were plenty of other film far more deserving.  That said, I think it will win because it was such a huge success.  It will be a sort of kowtow to the multiplex audience, who doesn't always get a lot of respect from the Academy, since they prize more artistic films.  But "Lion" was more complex and daring.  It didn't always work; director Garth Davis bit off more than he could chew, but it mostly did.

Best Animated Film:

"Zootopia"
"Kubo and the Two Strings"
"My Life as a Zucchini"
"Moana"
"The Red Turtle"

Will Win: "Zootopia"

Should Win: "Zootopia"

"Zootopia" was this year's surprise hit.  Everyone expected "Finding Dory" to by the animated wonder of the year.  While "Finding Dory" was well received, it failed to match the original.  It's "Zootopia" that everyone remembers, and for good reason: the movie was awesome.

Best Cinematography:

"Arrival"
"La La Land"
"Moonlight"
"Silence"
"Lion"

Will Win: "La La Land"

Should Win: "La La Land"

Whatever dislike I had with this Hollywood musical, it has nothing to do with the film's look.  The camerawork by Linus Sandgren was gorgeous, and while "Silence" holds a special place in my heart, Rodrigo Prieto did a better job 10 years ago with "Brokeback Mountain."  If he wins, which he won't, it will be because of that.

All right!  That's it folks!  Let's see how I do tonight!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Sea of Trees

3/4

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts

Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Material, Some Disturbing Images and Brief Strong Language

Judging by the critical reception (it has a measly score of 23 on Metacritic) and the fact that even with a trio of big names and a independent film maverick at the helm, it was barely visible upon release, I was expecting a train wreck.  One on par with "Paranoid Park."  Fortunately, this was not the case.  It has its problems, but on the whole, I liked it.  In fact, I might argue that I will probably like it more when I see it again.

Arthur Brennan (McConaughey) has bought a one-way ticket to Japan.  His intention is to go to Aokigahara Forest (aka "Suicide Forest"), down a bottle of pills and leave this earthly realm.  But just as he's about to do the deed, he spies a desperate man walking through the forest.  Taking pity on him, Arthur resolves to help this man named Takumi Nakamura (Watanabe) find his way out so he doesn't end up like Arthur intends to.  However, the more he talks with Takumi, the more he reveals himself.  Now, he realizes the mistake that he almost made, and the two of them must find a way out.

Although the set-up and setting signal something depressing, "The Sea of Trees" is actually a love story.  Central to Arthur's decision to commit suicide is his wife, Joan (Watts).  How she fits into his life-ending decision is something that you will have to discover for yourself.  It's not earth-shattering, but then again, should it be?

Matthew McConaughey used to be just a hunky leading man, playing the heartthrob or the goofy stoner type.  Although he did occasionally foray into indie territory ("Frailty" comes to mind), he wasn't thought of as a classic thespian.  That all changed in 2013, when he stunned the world with his dramatic portrayal of homophobe-turned-gay-savior Ron Woodruff in "Dallas Buyers Club," even winning an Oscar for his efforts.  Personally, I didn't think that either he or the film was all that special, but if it got him roles in movies like "Interstellar" and this, well, far be it for me to complain.  However, it happened, McConaughey is able to get in touch with his deepest emotions and bring them to the forefront.  The pivotal scene is when he describes his love for Joan to Takumi.  It's heart-wrenching stuff.

McConaughey is able to play off two of the most reliable names in the business: Naomi Watts and Ken Watanabe.  Watts is magnificent.  Never one to back down from a challenge or risk her vanity or salary when choosing her roles, she gives one of her best performances as Joan.  A "functioning alcoholic," Joan is both volatile and effervescent.  Watts is able to show how special Joan is and why Arthur would take so much pain (and deal it out in equal measure) to be with her.  It's an underwritten role, but Watts is good enough to overcome this obstacle to the point where it's hardly noticeable.  Ken Watanabe is less impressive.  The Japanese leading man is uneven; usually he's good, but he has his stiff moments.  Still, he adds a lot of heart to this movie.

Gus Van Sant chooses his projects carefully, only making films that he cares about or believes will challenge him.  They don't always work and he is occasionally guilty of self-indulgence (the aforementioned "Paranoid Park" is an example), but he's made some great movies like "Good Will Hunting" (which brought him, however briefly, to the mainstream, and enough clout to get risky projects off the ground) and "Milk" (ditto).  Here, he's less about being artsy than some other "look what I can do!" indie pics.  There are some truly gorgeous shots of the forest and some haunting images of the devastation as well.

While I have few complaints about the second half, the first is rough going.  I admit to getting restless during the first hour.  Too much time is spent with Arthur and Takumi wandering through the forest.  It becomes a little redundant, and in retrospect more time should have been spent with Arthur and Joan instead.  It would have camouflaged the seams in the story and lent the resolution more power.

"The Sea of Trees" sounds a lot more depressing than it actually is.  In fact, it makes you appreciate life.  Not many movies that start off being about suicide can make that claim.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Dead Silence

2.5/4

Starring: Ryan Kwanten, Donnie Wahlberg, Michael Fairman, Amber Valetta, Joan Heney, Bob Gunton, Judith Roberts, Laura Regan

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Horror Violence and Images

"Dead Silence" has a pretty nifty idea for a horror flick: a ventriloquist as a villain.  However, it stumbles in the execution.  The acting is subpar and the screenplay could have used another run through the computer.  Perhaps the rumored studio meddling was to blame.  Still, it's far from a disaster.

Jamie Ashen (Kwanten) has just gone out to pick up some Chinese takeout.  His wife Lisa (Regan) ordered it while he was trying to fix the sink, which was a futile endeavor, apparently.  When he returns, he finds her savagely murdered.  The local detective, a macho smart-ass by the name of Lipton (Wahlberg) thinks he's the one who did the deed.  But Jamie thinks otherwise.  He and Lisa received a mysterious gift shortly before she died: a ventriloquist dummy.  Now, in order to prove his innocence, he has to go back to his old town and unravel the mystery of the town's darkest secret: the murder of ventriloquist, Mary Shaw (Roberts).

"Dead Silence" feels like it was adapted from a Stephen King novel (it wasn't...it was from an original screenplay by director James Wan and his buddy Leigh Whannel).  You've got the small town with a shady past, you've got family dysfunction, nostalgia curdled with regret and evil, and so on and so forth.  Perhaps fittingly, the association with movies like "IT" gives it a bit of a firmer foundation.  Which is necessary, since the film's plot gets shakier the longer it goes on.

When he broke out in a big way in 2004 with "Saw," James Wan redefined the horror genre.  Gone were teen screams and mad slashers.  Instead, where sadistic psychopaths who scared the audience with the threat of pain and suffering.  While Wan moved away from the new genre he more or less created (dubbed "torture porn" by critics), he did produce the sequels.  With "Dead Silence," he inserted himself into the "ghost story" genre, within which he would give us such titles as "Insidious" and "The Conjuring" movies.

Few will deny that he has had a huge impact on the genre, and is one of the more reliable names associated with it (although I would put directors like Neil Marshall ("The Descent"), Scott Derrickson ("Sinister") and Ti West ("The Innkeepers") above him, though they aren't as prolific or consistent).  His work here is solid, but lacks the raw energy of "Saw" and the confidence and meticulousness of his later films.  Wan has a keen eye for atmosphere and loves to play with sound to put us on edge, but the film moves too fast for any real terror.  He knows better than anyone that in a ghost story, a slow, deliberate pace is essential.

Sadly, the acting doesn't impress.  Ryan Kwanten is flat as Jamie.  The "True Blood" star is so stiff that he resembles one of Mary Shaw's dolls.  Ditto for Donnie Wahlberg (brother of Marky Mark).  He's supposed to by this blustering asshole, but he lacks the presence, machismo and intensity to pull it off.  Much better are Michael Fairman as the sympathetic mortician, Amber Valetta as the new stepmother, and Bob Gunton as Jamie's father (with whom his relationship is not cordial).  Broadway legend Judith Roberts plays the notorious villain, Mary Shaw.

So the movie doesn't work.  While I can't in good conscience recommend it, I refuse to condemn it.  There's good stuff here, and those merely looking for a few chills in a ghost story that won't force them to leave the lights on for the next week, it'll do the trick.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Great Wall

1/'4

Starring: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Pedro Pascal, Andy Lau, Willem Dafoe

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Fantasy Action Violence

I've been playing some of my favorite video games again lately, such as the "Uncharted" games.  This is my fourth time going through the whole story again, but I return to them fondly because I enjoy the characters and the storytelling.  I wonder why movies can't do the same thing.  They used to, but now they're just soul-sucking, noisy cash grabs.  For a while I thought that it was just them trying to appeal to foreign audiences or the filmgoer that doesn't want to use their brain, or to sell a spectacle.  Now, I realize that it's simply contempt for the audience.  They're lazy and think that the audience is so hard up for entertainment value that they'll watch anything.  Or maybe they're still bearing a grudge after that writers strike a few years ago.  I don't know, but I do know that unless Hollywood gets its priorities straight, movies are going to go the way of the dodo.

"The Great Wall" is the most brain-dead action movie I've seen in ages.  With a mammoth budget of $150 million and the desire to make a movie based on an original idea, you think they could have invested some of that effort into a screenplay.  It doesn't have a single original or interesting idea during the whole 113 minutes.  Okay, maybe one or two, but those are just moments.  This is especially disheartening considering the pedigree that it has.  Among the six people listed for writing the screenplay (never a good sign) are Tony Gilroy (whose credits include "The Cutting Edge" and the "Bourne" movies) and Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (who co-wrote "The Last Samurai").  Also listed is Max Brooks, who wrote "World War Z" (the book, not the movie)  How could such creative people come up with something this insipid?  Simple.  They're broadening everything for a global audience.  But they've broadened it to the point where it's impossible to imagine anyone giving a damn about anyone in the movie.  The story is trite and the dialogue is frequently embarrassing.  It's not as bad as the "Twilight" movies, but it's close.

William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) are going to China to steal some black powder, which is rumored to be an unstoppable weapon.  Along the way, they kill a mysterious monster.  They bring the severed arm to the Chinese army in the hopes they can explain what it is.  Apparently, the Great Wall of China is not for defense against the Mongol army, but for keeping out a group of reptilian monsters.  Now William has to decide whether to be selfish or help.

"The Great Wall" has been greeted with controversy about its "White Savior" narrative.  This is true, but believe me, this is the least of the film's problems.  The plot is so thin that it makes a Looney Tunes cartoon seem like the pinnacle of narrative.  The characters are so shabbily drawn that the term "one-dimensional" gives them far too much credit.  The little boy from "Boy and the World" had more personality than all the characters in this film combined.

Matt Damon is one of the world's most beloved movie stars.  With talent, charm and versatility, he broke into the big time with "Good Will Hunting" and has shown no signs of stopping.  However, not only is he miscast, his character is almost entirely superfluous.  Other than having a magnet (don't ask), William serves no purpose whatsoever.  Damon appears to know that this role is beneath him, since he is most definitely not trying.  This is the worst performance he's ever given.  Veteran werido Willem Dafoe does what he does best, but his talents are wasted.  Pedro Pascal is indistinguishable from the background.  The only one who shows any energy or talent is Chinese starlet Tian Jing.  While not as talented or ethereal as Ziyi Zhang or Gong Li (director Zhang Yimou's most famous muses), she's got the presence of a movie star and the acting chops to back it up.

What is Zhang Yimou doing with this crap?  He's no hack director.  Together with Gong Li, he essentially put Chinese cinema on the map in the early nineties.  So why in the world would he choose this dreck for his first foray into American cinema (well, second, since his first was "The Flowers of War" with Christian Bale, a film I'm sure not even Bale-heads are aware of).  Yimou is a gifted filmmaker with a unique visual style.  But you wouldn't know that here.  This is a surprisingly bland action movie, and while there are some cool moments, they're not numerous.  The studio should have allowed him the leeway to do what he does best.

Trust me.  Don't bother with this one.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Boy and the World

1.5/4

Rated PG for Thematic Material and Images

"Boy and the World" is a "Fantasia" short stretched out to nearly 90 minutes.  Although the art style is adventurous and it looks great, there's nowhere near enough material for a feature length film.  Even one as short as this.

The film is light on plot: a boy's father doesn't come home from work so he goes searching for him and undergoes a series of surreal adventures.  It's so light because writer/director Ale Abreu is using this as a jumping off point to illustrate the dangers of out-of-control capitalism, industry and the plight of workers.

I have no problem with a filmmaker using film to make political points or metaphors.  What I do have a problem with is the fact that the end result is so boring.  In addition to basically being a checklist of just about every left-leaning cause, the points are obvious, trite, and with no interesting characters or plot to guide us through it, it comes across less like a valid argument and more like an infomercial for Amnesty International.

That said, the film's visual style is worth praising.  Told almost entirely through images (there is dialogue, but not much and it's gibberish without subtitles), Abreu uses a variety of art techniques to make his film.  Abstract art is the medium here, with the only attempts at realism coming from magazine collages and, briefly, documentary footage.  Colored pencils, geometric shapes, buildings and vehicles in the shapes of animals, and many, many more are all included.  If nothing else, the film is almost worth seeing for that.

But the film is so boring and so preachy that I can't recommend it.  Far from it.  Instead of a surreal, trippy. animated adventure that uses symbolism and metaphor to get its point across, it's a self-indulgent, one-sided argument that will probably appeal only to the worst of the leftist stereotypes.

Pass.

Aladdin

4/4

Starring (voices): Scott Weinger, Linda Larkin, Robin Williams, Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfried, Douglas Seele

Rated G

I remember the first time I saw this movie in theaters.  It was at the AMC Galleria in 1992.  I remember going down the darkened hallway with my family, settling down in my seat.  The little man made of film flew down the screen on a film reel and introduced AMC.  Then the movie started.  It was an amazing experience, and the sound and images enveloped me.  Being able to hear the echoes in wide spaces or deep bass in close-up really made the film come alive for me.  Now, all these years later, the film still holds up surprisingly well.

Aladdin (Weinger) is a young thief living in Agrabah.  With his pet monkey, he gets by on stealing food, but when he dreams of living in the castle, where he would be wealthy and have no problems at all.  At the same time, Princess Jasmine (Larkin) is feeling the pressures of palace life.  Not only is she being forced to marry a prince by her next birthday (which is in three days), she hasn't even been outside the palace.  Feeling trapped, she runs away and meets up with Aladdin.

Meanwhile, the Royal Vizier, Jafar (Freeman), is plotting an evil plan.  Tired of being second fiddle to the doddering fool of a Sultan (Seele), he schemes to find a magic lamp, whose genie (Williams)would grant him the power of Sultan.  To do that, he needs Aladdin.

The highlight of the film is, of course, Robin Williams's Genie.  Famous for his improvisation, quick thinking and effortless humor, Williams was the perfect choice for the outrageous character.  Hilariously impersonating everyone from Ed Sullivan to Jack Nicholson, the Genie is the embodiment of what made Williams so special.  In creating the character, Williams improvised about 16 hours worth of material (much of which was far too inappropriate for a Disney movie).  Due to this, the film was denied a Best Screenplay nomination.  For my money, it's an acceptable trade-off, although I have to admit that it would have been impressive if the actual screenplay contained all the impersonations.

The supporting cast manages to not get drowned out by the Genie.  Recurring "Full House" star Scott Weinger makes Aladdin into an adorable hero.  Bitten by love, beset by insecurity and lies, and with enough integrity to give hungry children his (freshly stolen) food, Aladdin is impossible not to like.  Linda Larkin gives Jasmine a huge dose of spunk ("I am not a prize to be won!" she proclaims).  And Douglas Seele provides some comic relief as the good-natured but simple minded Sultan.

Apart from the Genie, who more or less steals the movie, my two favorite characters are Jafar and Iago.  Jonathan Freeman tears into the role of the evil villain with relish, savoring his malicious lines and wicked plotting.  He's like Alan Rickman on overdrive.  As Iago, stand-up comedian Gilbert Gottfried is having a ball, playing the self-centered parrot.  This is his favorite role and his joy shows.

This is a gorgeous looking film, filled with rich colors, exotic locales, and some truly creepy moments.  Watching it is exhilarating.  What I liked most about it is that it's smart.  It doesn't rely too much on slapstick or potty humor.  Wordplay, motivation and point-of-view make up for a huge portion of the comedy, which makes it all the funnier.  For example, Jafar's motives are simple vanity, but his flaw is the inability to think things through, which leads to some hilarious complications.  Golden Age Disney knew better than anyone that if you have a real script with real characters, you can create magic.

While not the first or even second best Disney movie (those honors go to "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King," respectively), it's still a lot of fun for everyone.  If there's a flaw, it's that the end relies on a pretty obvious deus ex machine.  Not that you'll care.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

2001 Maniacs (2005)

3/4

Starring: Jay Gillespie, Matt Carey, Dylan Edrington, Marla Malcolm, Robert Englund, Lin Shaye, Brian Gross, Gina Marie Heekin, Mushond Lee, Bianca Smith

Rated R for Strong Horror Violence and Gruesome Images, Sexuality/Nudity and Language

One of my best friends is from the South.  Whenever we get together, we're usually trying to out-insult each other (he wins every time, except for that one time...).  Occasionally, I make fun of him for being a redneck (which he's not).  Still, I think he'd get a kick out of this movie.  Or he might be insulted.  I'm not sure, but my guess is that he will laugh as hard as I did.

"2001 Maniacs," a remake of a 1964 horror movie, is hilarious.  Let's get that right out there.  It's so campy that it had to be intentional.  Of course, since the acting is either wooden or over-the-top, the shot selection unsophisticated and the special effects obviously cheesy, that would be "intentionally unintentional."  That being said, the story is a howl and there are plenty of laughs.  The majority of which come from ridiculously gruesome deaths.  At least it has the good sense to wear its cheesiness with pride.  Director Tim Sullivan knows we're going to laugh at the movie.  He wants us to.

Three friends, prankster Nelson (Edrington), stud Anderson (Gillespie) and virginal nerd Cory (Carey) are on their way to Daytona for two weeks of drinking, beaches and (hopefully) lots and lots of sex.  Along the way, they get lost and end up in Pleasant Valley (population: 2001).  Joining them are co-eds Joey (Malcolm) and Kat (Heekin) and bisexual Ricky (Gross), and interracial couple Malcolm (Lee) and Leah (Smith).  Pleasant Valley, overseen by Mayor Buckman (Englund) and Granny Boone (Shaye), is like a civil war re-enactment on overdrive.  Every Deep South stereotype is so over-the-top it becomes creepy, although the presence of some well-endowed men and women seemingly eager to get freaky makes such concerns moot.  As anyone who has seen a horror movie knows, this is not a good sign.  Unfortunately for our horny, dim-witted heroes and heroines, this is not "Scream," and by the time they realize that being the guest of honor for the Grand Jubilee means they are the menu, it's too late.

"2001 Maniacs" cannot be viewed in a serious mindset.  It's too cheesy and stupid to be taken as anything other than a piece of camp.  Any attempt to watch this movie as straight horror will result in a brain explosion.  But that's not the intent.  The movie knows its campy and sets out to please the lowest common denominator.  Make no mistake that this is bottom of the barrel stuff.

However, when seen for what it is, this movie is a lot of fun.  Of course you have to have a twisted sense of humor and be willing to laugh when studly men or comely women are ripped apart, sliced up, skewered or otherwise sent to the netherworld.  I have a twisted sense of humor, so I'm able to appreciate this stuff being played for laughs.  Then again, it's hard to imagine anyone being able to take any of this seriously.

The acting is uniformly awful, with the best of the octet being just below the level of porn acting (speaking of which, the sex scenes are kinda hot...just sayin').  At worst, it's embarrassing.  Only horror movie veterans Robert Englund and Lin Shaye (both of whom starred in the classic "A Nightmare on Elm Street") manage to convince, but that's because they're just having fun.

This is a great movie for parties.  Grab a group of your guy friends, have a lot of beer, and shout out advice at the screen.  Be willing to laugh at it.  Then you'll have a great time.  If not, well, you'll laugh anyway.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Audition

1/4

Starring: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Jun Kunimura, Tetsu Sawaki

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

For those of you who think that critics hate all the movies in the multiplex and only like those snooty, abstract neo-whatever foreign films, well, you're wrong.  There are movies in both categories that are excellent (take for example "Avatar" and "Farewell, My Concubine." Or "The Dark Knight," for those readers who are convinced that I have some sort of bias against superhero movies by nature (I don't.  Just the bad ones). By the same token, there are movies in both categories that are unmitigated crap.  "Split" and "Audition" belong in there, although I'm forced to admit that the Japanese cult horror flick is less painful to sit through.  Or should I say, slightly less painful.

After his wife died seven years ago, Shigeharu Aoyama (Ishibashi) has raised his son Shigehiko (Sawaki) by himself, growing his own business to pay the bills.  But Shigehiko senses his father's loneliness and encourages him to remarry.  Yasuhisa Yoshikawa (Kunimura), Shigeharu's friend in the movie business, suggest that he use an upcoming audition for a movie as a way to find a new wife.  While looking over the hopefuls, one catches his eye: Asami Yamazaki (Shiina).  Her resume touches him, and when she appears, she's everything he's hoped for: polite, quiet, pretty and intelligent.  If he had ever seen a movie he'd know that those are the ones you have to watch out for.  But despite the misgivings of Yasuhisa, he becomes hopelessly smitten.  They begin to date and he plans to ask her to marry him on their upcoming getaway.  But the next morning (after seducing him, no less), she has disappeared.  His friend tells him to forget her, but he is obsessed and tries to track her down.  He'll wish he hadn't.

I'm not bashing the movie for its unprofessional film quality (not that it helps), its graphic violence (which is only occasionally squirm-inducing) or its sleazy set-up (that comes with the territory).  What I am criticizing it for is being so goddamn boring!  A movie like this is supposed to put us on the edge of our seats.  This one nearly put me to sleep.

Director Takashi Miike violates all the basic rules of storytelling.  The characters are not interesting because they are not sharply drawn, the plot never gains any momentum, and the editing is done with a hatchet.  Further, Miike tries to get abstract with his final act.  In addition to being cliché, it isn't well done.  Miike obviously wants his film to end both ways, which is of course a cheat.

The actors aren't given any favors from Miike or the pedestrian script, but they do what they can.  Japanese A-lister Ryo Ishibashi does what he can, but it's a losing battle.  He's given very little to work with but somehow manages to successfully create a sympathetic everyman.  He has my sincerest congratulations.  Eihi Shiina plays the part of the subservient Japanese woman cliché, only to turn around and become a real sadist.  It's a good performance, but it's all for naught because I just didn't care.

Trust me, if you're looking for a "stranger from hell" thriller, there are much better choices.  Much better.  Leave this one to the cult movie lovers to boast that they "got" it.  There's nothing to "get" here.  Just boredom.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Don't Say A Word

3/4

Starring: Michael Douglas, Sean Bean, Brittany Murphy, Famke Janssen, Jennifer Esposito, Skye McCole Bartusiak, Oliver Platt

Rated R for Violence, Including Some Gruesome Images, and Language

It's so nice to see a thriller that trusts its story and its characters to get the job done.  Too often in thrillers we get lazy or inexperienced filmmakers who try to get the attention of the ADD crowd by overflowing the story with flash cuts or MTV-like special effects.  It's meant to keep the audience's attention when in reality it distances them.

Brilliant psychiatrist Dr. Nathan Conrad (Douglas) is on his way home to make preparations for Thanksgiving with his Aggie (Janssen), who broke her leg in a skiing accident, and adorable daughter Jessie (Bartusiak) when he gets a 911 from a colleague.  Dr. Louis Sachs (Platt) has just received a difficult patient and needs Nathan's help.  Her name is Elizabeth Burrows (Murphy), whose chart is a laundry list of the worst psychiatric disorders.  He talks with her for a few minutes and calls it a night.  The next morning, he and Aggie wake up to find Jessie missing.  Then the phone rings.  She was abducted in the middle of the night by a man who knows that Nathan saw Elizabeth.  She has a number that he desperately wants, and if Nathan wants to see Jessie again, he's going to have to find a way to get it from the psychotic patient by five o'clock.  Or else.

It's a great high concept as far as thrillers like this go.  It's not as psychologically dense as, say, "The Silence of the Lambs" or as sadistically clever as "Seven," but it doesn't have to be.  This is a simple thriller and a damn good one at that.  You get what you pay for.

The performances help a lot.  Michael Douglas is surprisingly effective as the soothing psychiatrist.  Remember, this is the guy who played Gordon Gekko.  He's compassionate and devoted, but he's also smart.  When he sees an opportunity to change the game in his favor, he takes it.  Brittany Murphy got a huge career boost playing the wacko patient.  It's the kind of role that every actor dreams for and Murphy hits it right out of the park.  Famke Janssen does a lot with the limited role of the crippled housewife, adding a bit of "Rear Window" to the proceedings.  Her character isn't exactly necessary to the plot, but then again I'm not complaining.  And no one plays a cool British villain like Sean Bean.  He's bad to the bone.  The film reunites Bean and Janssen for the first time since their Bond adventure "GoldenEye" five years prior, but they don't share any scenes together here.  Jennifer Esposito adds her charms as Detective Cassidy, who slowly puts the pieces together, while Skye McCole Bartusiak and Oliver Platt provide some color as well.

Gary Fleder directs this material as well as any one could.  Which is to say he plays it straight and doesn't try to quirk it up or make it flashy.  Like the best directors, he trusts his actors and the story enough to let them take center stage.  There are a few scenes that don't land (such as the interrogation scene with Esposito and Platt), but most do.

"Don't Say A Word" is what it is.  It's not a masterpiece nor is it an important film.  It will never be offered by the Criterion Collection.  But it moves fast and keeps the suspense in high gear from beginning to end.  You can't ask for much more than that.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Lego Batman Movie

2/4

Starring (voices): Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Zach Galifianakis

Rated PG for Rude Humor and Some Action

When "The Lego Movie" came out three years ago, I was as incredulous as the next guy.  A movie about Lego building blocks?  I mean, I know Hollywood has a phobia of risk and an obsessive love of "brand names," but this is ridiculous.  Also like everyone else, I was blown away by the result.  It was a clever, inventive and hilarious movie that was bursting with energy and creativity.  But that manic zeal of ideas and gags that tumbled all over themselves is missing in this spin-off.  Instead, we have an unending list of superhero cameos and nerd culture shout outs.  It may please the Comic Con cosplayers and Joss Whedon, but everyone else will see it for what it is: a sequel from when sequel meant a movie rushed to theaters to capitalize on its predecessor's success.

Batman (Arnett) is the most self-absorbed man in Gotham City.  Not only is constantly hogging the spotlight, he is convinced that only he can save the day.  Naturally, this alienates him from everyone else, from the new commissioner Barbara Gordon (Dawson) to his accidentally adopted son Robin (Cera).  Even Joker (Galifianakis) feels slighted; when Batman tells him that he's not his nemesis, Joker is nearly in tears.  Desperate to earn his respect, Joker plots to release all the evil from Superman's Phantom Zone and destroy Gotham.  Only by learning to accept help from his friends and let people close can he save the day.

The problem with "The Lego Batman Movie" is simple: it's just not fun.  All the energy and animation on the screen can't make up for the fact that there isn't a single character worth caring about and only one or two jokes that actually land.  And the message of the movie, while especially relevant these days, is hammered home with the subtlety of an after school special.

The voice acting isn't anything to rave about.  Will Arnett uses Christian Bale's Batman voice, which is a shame because that got irritating when Bale did it.  Rosario Dawson adds some spunk and sex appeal (as far as that can go in a movie about plastic toys), but the script lets her down.  Dawson is a beguiling actress, but not even she can rescue the bland lines she's given.  I'll give credit to Michael Cera for not resurrecting his "Arrested Development" persona for the umpteenth time if Robin wasn't so insufferably annoying.  Only Ralph Fiennes and Zach Galifianakis manage to keep their dignity.

"The Lego Batman Movie" isn't completely devoid of clever moments; the bookending meta-scenes where Batman mocks serious Hollywood movies recalls the opening of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," and there are one or to chuckles to be found here (one involves Sauron from "The Lord of the Rings").  But this isn't worth your time and money.

Salt: Director's Cut

2/4

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Live Schrieber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action

The idea behind "Salt" is better as a concept than a reality.  Is the woman we are told to sympathize with a hero or a villain?  It sounds great in theory, but there's a problem: we in the audience don't know who to sympathize with.  There's no one on screen to form a bond with, because everyone is so mysterious that we aren't sure who they really are.  Not only does this highlight the seams of the plot (of which there are a few), it makes feel resentful at the film for jerking us around.

CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is on her way out the door to celebrate her anniversary with her husband when a Russian spy walks in prepared to spill his guts.  His name is Orlov (Olbrychski).  According to Orlov, the Soviet Union raised a significant amount of children to be sleeper agents all over the world, lying in wait until Day X, when they are activated and overthrow their respective governments.  An agent he knows of is named Evelyn Salt, which Evelyn says is ridiculous because she is Evelyn Salt.  Orlov then informs her that she is a covert Soviet agent.  As her superiors Ted Winter (Schrieber) and Peabody (Ejiofor) argue over what to do, Salt goes on the run.  The question is, is she really innocent or an actual assassin?

The acting is solid, which considering that the actors have to express themselves without giving anything away, should be applauded.  Few actresses can match the charisma, talent and sex appeal of Angelina Jolie, and that's why she's a born movie star.  Truth be told, this role doesn't require much of her considerable talents, but when it comes to looking cool and kicking ass, there's no one better.  Live Schrieber and Chiwetel Ejiofor are on hand, but like Jolie, their talents are largely wasted.  Daniel Olbrychski acts creepy and mysterious, but that's as far as his character goes.

The film is wall to wall with sensational stunts and special effects, which is fitting for a movie with a $110 million budget.  One or two of them are suspenseful, I'll admit, but I didn't care because I was irritated at the film for jerking me around.  There are also some neat twists, but again, they felt less like a story that follows its own logic than a screenwriter who is desperate to keep the audience guessing.  Considering that Kurt Wimmer, who wrote "Law Abiding Citizen," another thriller with similar problems, my guess is on the latter.  You know your movie doesn't work when you get to the end and the audience realizes that if the characters didn't act like idiots, the whole plot could have been avoided.

I think the script needed another rewrite or two.  And maybe a more confident director.  It has potential, but needed people dedicated enough to see it through to the end.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Anastasia

2.5/4

Starring (voices): Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammar, Christopher Lloyd, Angela Lansbury

Rated G

The idea of turning the murder of the Romanov family into an animated movie for kids would try the talents of even Steven Spielberg.  I guess I can say that Don Bluth does about as good of a job as anyone could.  But by staying so far away from any weighty material in favor of light humor and slapstick, he robs it of much of the potential drama.

Let's get the obvious out of the way: Anastasia did not survive the attack by the Bolsheviks.  While more than a few women (most famously Anna Anderson) have claimed to be her, DNA tests proved that she died with her family.  Let me also say that I have no problem with a movie claiming otherwise.  After all, some of the best biopics have been born from fudging the truth.  Or outright making it up.  "Braveheart" is one such example, and there are many others.  But even with that leeway, Don Bluth's 1997 film just isn't very interesting.

At a ball celebrating the anniversary of the Romanov family's ascension as the ruling family, a disgruntled former advisor, Rasputin (Lloyd), interrupts.  He sells his soul and curses the family for throwing him out, proclaiming that they will all be dead within a fortnight.  Using newly acquired supernatural powers, he fans the flames of revolution and men storm the palace.  Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst as a child) and her grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie (Lansbury), escape through a secret passageway, but on the train to Paris, the girl gets left behind.

Ten years later, a woman with no past named Anya (Ryan) has just left an orphanage.  She has a key around her neck that says "Together in Paris," and decides to go there to see if she can figure out who she is.  To get there, she enlists the help of two con artists, Dmitri (Cusack) and Vlad (Grammar), who are trying to find a woman who can fool Dowager Empress Marie into believing that she is her long lost granddaughter and collect a handsome reward.  Dmitri is convinced that Anya is the perfect fake and they take her along (little do they know that she is Anastasia).  Meanwhile, Rasputin is in the netherworld and when he finds out that Anastasia has surfaced again, he plots his revenge.

The long and short of it is that this screenplay needed another run through the computer.  The story is a little clunky and the dialogue is pedestrian, but with a little beefing up it could have been more entertaining.  The story doesn't always make a lot of sense and there are a few obvious plot holes.  Nothing extreme, but they are there.

What really hurts the film is its shying away from anything dark.  I realize that familicide and political revolution are not appropriate for a kids film, but in an attempt to avoid pushing too many buttons, directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman have gone too far.  There are times when we feel the sense of loss and alienation, but those are few.  A little more edge could have given the film a firmer foundation.

At least the acting is fine.  Meg Ryan and John Cusack are great; it's a wonder why no one tried pairing them up in a live action romantic comedy.  Kelsey Grammar and Hank Azaria (as Bartok the bat) are unrecognizable as the sidekicks, while Christopher Lee turns up the nasty as the villainous Rasputin.  Angela Lansbury adds a dose of class to the film as the Dowager Empress.

"Anastasia" is the first musical from Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, and its a mixed bag.  I wouldn't mind that the actors sound nothing like the singers (which they don't) if there weren't so many musical numbers.  More importantly, none of the songs are memorable.  One or two is mildly catchy, but that's it.

Kind of like the film.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Rings

2/4

Starring: Matilda Lutz, Alex Roe, Johnny Galecki, Vincent D'Onofrio, Aimee Teegarden

Rated PG-13 for Violence/Terror, Thematic Elements, Some Sexuality and Brief Drug Material

When a movie is a sequel/reboot/something to a remake that hasn't been relevant in the last decade, was released in January with an advertising campaign that could charitably be called limited and has been withheld from critics, it's usually a bad sign.  A very bad sign.  I walked into this movie expecting a trainwreck; my silver lining was the faint hope that at least it couldn't be as bad as "Split."  Yeah, I was not excited to see this movie.  Fortunately I was pleasantly surprised.

"Rings" isn't a good movie, but it's nowhere near as bad as I expected.  There are problems (some of which are serious), and I can't recommend watching it except as a relief for boredom when it's streaming on Netflix, but it's not terrible.  For a January release with so much going against it, that's almost a compliment.

Holt (Roe) has left for college.  His girlfriend Julia (Lutz) is staying at home to care for her mother.  Holt promises to Skype every day.  But he doesn't.  She thinks he's being an asshole until she gets a strange and desperate Skype call from some girl.  Believing that he might be in danger, she drives to his campus to find out what's going on.  It turns out that he's a part of an experiment into the phenomenon of Samara Morgan.  Having watched the tape, Holt's life is in danger, so she takes the plunge to watch the infamous video.  But when she tries to duplicate it and show it to another poor sap, it doesn't work.  The head of the experiment, a shady professor by the name of Gabriel (Galecki), realizes that there are new images hidden within the code that might explain it.  Now Julia and Holt have to unravel the mystery before Julia's time is up.  And considering how she is showing symptoms of the curse long before anyone else, she may not have the traditional seven days.

The best horror movies leave the scares as after thoughts.  Well, of course, you watch a movie to get scared, but in the best horror movies, they're layered onto an already strong foundation.  With "The Ring," it was Rachel Keller's search for the truth and her quest to save her son that anchored the film.  In "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," it was the court case and the philosophical divide between faith and fact.  Here, director F. Javier Gutierrez makes the mistake of thinking that the scares come first.  The story moves too fast 'and there are too many special effects.  Gore Verbinski trusted the story and the characters enough to allow for a more minimalist approach.  This allowed the audience to get sucked into the story and for the atmosphere to envelop them.

When I say the film moves too fast, I mean in terms of editing and storytelling as well.  Gutierrez shows his cards too quickly.  There's not enough of a sense of mystery to draw us in.  Horror movie villains in this sort of horror movie ("Halloween" and "The Descent" don't count) work best when they are seen as little as possible.  Their threat must be felt, but they have to be an albatross hanging over the characters.  For example, Freddy Kruger was much scarier in "A Nightmare on Elm Street" because he was kept off screen.  He was always talked about, but he was just a background specter.  That doesn't happen here.  Samara is too much at the forefront.  Less jump scares and a slower pace would have helped the film.

The acting is adequate, even effective when taken by itself.  Matilda Lutz and Alex Roe have nothing to be ashamed of and I hope to see more of them in the future.  But when compared to Naomi Watts and David Dorfman, they come up short.  Those two were more precisely defined individuals with a certain confidence and charisma that Lutz and Roe lack.  The screenplay and the direction are partly at fault, but ultimately Julia and Holt just aren't as interesting as Rachel and Aidan.

"The Ring" wasn't a great movie, but it was effectively creepy with some truly unsettling scares.  "Rings" just isn't up to that level.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

2.5/4

Starring: Woody Allen, Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, Charlize Theron, David Ogden Stiers

Rated PG-13 for Some Sexual Content

As is the case with many a misfire, it's easy to see what "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" is trying to be.  Parodying the Bogart-esque film noir movies is a difficult task, but I could see it being a fun time at the movies.  In fact, there are times when Allen shows us flashes of what it could have been.  But the whole thing never really comes together.  It's fitfully amusing and rarely dull, but it's not a successful movie.

CW Briggs (Allen) is a hardboiled private dick for the North West insurance firm.  He's hugely successful with his lowlife contacts and ability to think like a criminal.  However, his boss Chris Magruder (Aykroyd) has brought in an efficiency expert named Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Hunt) to take the office into the modern times (the film is set in 1940).  For CW, it's hate at first sight, and the feeling is mutual.  Which makes it all the more hilarious for their co-workers when they go see a hypnotist, they confess their undying love for each other.  What none of them know is that the Voltan (Stiers) is a crook who plans to use CW and Betty to steal jewels from their clients.  Thus, they investigate their own crimes.

The movie is part homage and part parody, and finding that sweet spot is immensely difficult for a filmmaker.  Wes Craven did it with the "Scream" franchise and it was done twice with the "Kick-Ass" movies, but Allen doesn't find it.  The plot is thin enough for a farce, which would be okay if the humor and genre nods were strong enough to compensate, but they're not.  The humor is inconsistent at best, tepid at worst.

Woody Allen felt it was a mistake to cast himself in the lead role.  I can see that.  A nebbish neurotic doesn't really fit into a film noir.  But it's not as distracting as you might think.  What doesn't work is him being perceived as being attractive by the likes of Helen Hunt, Elizabeth Berkley, and Charlize Theron (looking astonishingly similar to Veronica Lake).  Even for a comic concept, that's pushing it.  His co-stars are mixed.  The best performances go to Helen Hunt (no surprise there) and David Ogden Stiers (whose voice is perfectly hypnotic).  Reliable actors Dan Akyroyd and Charlize Theron are both flat.

The screenplay should have gone through another edit.  Some of the barbs that CW and Betty Ann throw at each other are amusing, but others feel awkward.  Even in this context, calling someone a "ferret" feels tone-deaf.  Some Betty Ann's conversation-ending insults go on for far too long.  One-liners work best when they are kept short.

Pacing is key for both comedy and mystery, and that's another area where the film comes up short.  It feels padded, and that leads to boredom.  The film is 103 minutes long, and it could have been easily pared down to about 90 (roughly the ideal length for a comedy).  It would help the film's narrative momentum and maybe even save a few of the jokes.

Film noir is a genre that is ripe for parody, or at least being fused with comedy.  For those of you who are interested, there is a movie that came out the year before called "The Whole Nine Yards" that did it better.  I suggest watching that one instead.  It's funnier, more clever, and more suspenseful.  And it also contains one of cinema's greatest comic performances.  As if the sight of a menacing Bruce Willis going head to head with a panic-stricken Matthew Perry wasn't enough.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Man in the Moon

4/4

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Jason London, Emily Warfield, Sam Waterston, Tess Harper

Rated PG-13 (probably for Sensuality, Brief Nudity and Language, and for a Disturbing Image)

Relationships are complicated.  Especially when you're fourteen.  That's when hormones start running amok and you're incredibly naïve in the treacherous waters of love.  What makes "The Man in the Moon" so special is that it acknowledges this.  Even the better romances like "Titanic" or more appropriately, "The Notebook," streamline it from the "meet cute" to the "happily ever after."  Not here.  Romance is portrayed as it really is: where mixed messages, uncertainty and betrayals cause as much pain as love.

Dani (Witherspoon) is the precocious daughter of two farmers, stern Matthew (Waterston) and heavily pregnant Abigail (Harper).  She is very close to her older sister Maureen (Warfield), with whom she shares chores and taking care of their infant sibling.  One day the adventurous Dani is going for a swim at the local pond when she meets Court Foster (London), who moves in next door.  It isn't love at first sight, but it doesn't take long for a spark to emerge.  They grow very close, and while Dani falls head over heels for Court, he has mixed feelings about romancing someone so young (he's sixteen).  Then he meets Maureen.

What I liked about this movie is that the characters are able to change their minds.  Too often in film, especially in the romance genre, the characters are defined by their single minded focus to be with the one they love (even if they don't realize it at first).  That's not necessarily a criticism, since if the lovebirds are appealing and there's enough chemistry, such details hardly matter.  But it does give this film depth and feeling that few romances manage.

The performances are outstanding, and leading the way is Reese Witherspoon.  Ironically, she wasn't an actress at the time she was cast.  She had gone to audition to become an extra, and was instead cast in the lead role.  Whoever made the decision to take the risk and cast her made the right one.  Her co-stars Jason London and Emily Warfield are just as good, but it's Witherspoon who provides the spark that takes the film to the next level.  Witherspoon specializes in playing characters who are far more intelligent and precocious yet still emotionally vulnerable.  This can be seen in films such as "Cruel Intentions" and "Fear," and that quality is what makes this such a powerful experience.

A lesser movie would have turned either Maureen or Court into villains.  Or both.  But the screenplay by Jenny Wingfield is too smart for that.  Maureen loves and respects Dani too much to intrude, and does her best to avoid it.  Court is unsure of where he stands until he meets Maureen.  Both do things that are cruel to Dani, but not out of malice.  Someone was going to get hurt no matter what and director Robert Mulligan lets things play out naturally.

The film isn't perfect.  It's a few minutes too long, or rather, a few minutes could have been excised from the middle and replaced with a short scene or two between Maureen and Court.  And while Sam Waterston is effective as the stern Southern father, he still feels miscast.  Robert Patrick would have been a better choice.

Such flaws are mere quibbles.  Romances are difficult to pull off.  Just compare "Titanic" to "Twilight."  But when they succeed on that level and more, it's something to be treasured.

Cool Runnings

2/4

Starring: Leon, Doug E. Doug, John Candy, Rawle D. Lewis, Malik Yoba, Peter Outerbridge, Raymond J. Barry

Rated PG (for Mild Language and a Fight)

Critics often whine about formula pictures.  I'm not among them.  If the other aspects of the film, such as acting and directing, are up to par, knowing the beats of the film can be acceptable, and at times, even an asset.  "Blood Diamond," which I watched again a few days ago, is a prime example (although knowing the adventure movie formula didn't add anything to the film, certainly not in the way Edward Zwick's earlier film, "The Last Samurai," did).  Of course, if the screenplay and the direction are lacking, you can end up with a movie like "Cool Runnings," which in addition to being predictable at every single moment, is written and directed at the level of a TV sitcom.  That's something I will not defend.

Derice Bannock (Leon) is the fastest man in Jamaica.  Or at least that's what everyone tells him.  The son of a champion track star, he's heavily favored to earn a spot on the Olympic track team.  However, one of his competitors trips and causes a collision.  Unable to get a second attempt, he hears of his father's old friend, Irv (Candy), who was a bobsled champion.  Derice and his friend Sanka (Doug), who a pushcart legend, track down Irv, but he wants nothing to do with them.  They are persistent, and eventually they get his attention.  But bobsledding is four man sport, and the only ones who are interested are Yul Brynner (Yoba), another victim of the collision, and Junior Bevil (Lewis), the one who caused it.  The odds are stacked against them, and it's going to take a miracle to get them to the Olympics.  Especially when no one takes them seriously.

This could have been a great movie.  But the writing is so shallow that it's impossible to see anyone in this movie as a real person.  They're stick figures stuck in a plot that we can predict almost moment to moment.  The only one who gains some semblance of a personality is Irv, and that's because Candy was talented enough to save the purple dialogue he was given.  I'll give an example without spoiling anything: Irv is required to make a big long speech on behalf of his team that is horribly written.  But Candy rescues it and turns it into something that's actually moving.  The other actors are fine, but whatever talents they have are squandered by a screenplay that's so dismal they might as well have been reading off cue cards.

The film was directed by Jon Turteltaub, whose resume does not inspire confidence.  "National Treasure" was awesome, but the sequel was not.  His other movies, such as "3 Ninjas" and "While You Were Sleeping," were entertaining, if forgettable, fluff.  And he did direct "Instinct," which is the kind of movie you wish you hadn't seen.  That he wasn't nominated for a Best Director Oscar is not the crime of the century.  The humor is frequently too broad to be funny and the attempts at drama fail utterly.  The racing scenes are put together with skill and I wanted the quartet to win, but that's as far as it goes.

More than anything, what's missing is any sort of depth to bobsledding as a sport.  The film told me nothing about it.  There's a lot of strategy and skill that goes into it, but according to the film, it's just a group of guys going down a roller coaster made of ice.  Wouldn't it have been more interesting to see how it's done?

This is one of those movies that was made with next to no effort behind the camera.  The actors give it their all, but the people making it simply wanted an easy buck.  It's doubly unfortunate that this was the last film John Candy got to see released before his death the next year.  Surely as big of a talent as he should have gotten a film that he would have been proud to end his career with.  "Wagons East" and "Canadian Bacon" were released posthumously, but from what I understand, that's only adding insult to injury.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Split

0.5/4

Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Betty Buckley

Rated PG-13 for Disturbing Thematic Content and Behavior, Violence and Some Language

In 1999, M. Night Shyamalan released "The Sixth Sense," a thriller that no one saw coming (pun intended).  It was a massive hit, earning six Oscar nominations and earned nearly $700 million at the box office.  Personally, I didn't think it was all that great; apart from a few decent shocks and one hell of a twist ending, there wasn't much to distinguish it from other supernatural thrillers.  He followed it up the next year with "Unbreakable," which I didn't see, and then "Signs," another massive hit.  Soon he became a known name (rare for a director) and was called the "new Alfred Hitchcock."  Then came "The Village."  While not universally derided, it signaled a slump, but when "Lady in the Water" bombed two years later, Shyamalan's career was in free fall.  With movies like "The Happening" and "The Last Airbender" taking a brutal beating from audiences and critics, his name is now uttered in the same sentence as Michael Bay and Uwe Boll.  I've missed everything he's done since "Signs," but I feel quite confident that "Split" will not rescue his career.  If it's possible to judge the rest of his movies from this monstrosity, it should kill it.

The plot has two modes: dumb and incoherent.  They are not mutually exclusive.  Giving a set-up the plot is a futile endeavor, but let me try.  Three girls named Casey (Taylor-Joy), Claire (Richardson) and Marcia (Sula) have been kidnapped by Dennis (McAvoy).  Dennis is one of the personalities stuck inside of a single man.  His therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Buckley) believes that the separate personalities are the next evolutionary stage or distinct separate people.  The movie is so unclear about this that it could be something else entirely.  Anyway, these two storylines, which detail the girls escape attempts and Fletcher's psychobabble are interspersed with a hunting trip involving a little girl, her father and her uncle.  Despite having almost nothing to do with the film, it's more interesting than anything else on screen.  Sadly, Shyamalan gives it minimal screen time.

Often times when a movie fails, it's easy to see what a filmmaker was going for.  Not here.  This is such a misguided, nonsensical mess that I'm at a complete loss as to what Shyamalan was thinking, much less trying to do.  Is it a psychodrama or a thriller?  He doesn't know, and believe me, that's the least of the film's problems.

The one consolation is that James McAvoy is playing the lead role, and while he can't save the film (no one could), the fact that he's not walking through it makes it a little less painful.  And he earns my congratulations, not only for being able to play it straight but not choke on the dialogue he is given.  His co-stars are awful.  Still, I have to wonder why he signed his name on the dotted line.  With a tiny budget of $10 million, it surely wasn't money.  Perhaps he was looking for something, anything as a break from playing Charles Xavier for the umpteenth time.  My guess is that someone has some pretty damning pictures that he'd like to keep secret.  Last year's "it" girl Anya Taylor-Joy has the most screen time, but she's just as bad as the other two.  Betty Buckley is boring as Dr. Fletcher, who has to be the single dumbest doctor in film history.  It's long past time that the good doctor retire and enter the senior living center.  Not only for the benefit of her patients, but ours.

As nonsensical as it is, it's easy to see where Shyamalan stole his ideas.  "Borrowing," which someone like Tarantino does, implies talent and respect.  Shyamalan has neither.  The list is as eclectic as it is long: "The Silence of the Lambs," "Martyrs," "The Lawnmower Man," "Cat People," and at least one other that I'm not going to mention out of respect for it because it's a movie you would do well to see rather than this one.  Hint: I have reviewed it.

It's not often that you see movies this bad (although last year had a few of them).  But when it happens, it feels like being dragged through raw sewage.  Or being locked in a dank, smelly basement.

House of Flying Daggers

2/4

Starring: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Ziyi Zhang

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Stylized Martial Arts Violence, and Some Sexuality

The success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was unprecedented.  I was old enough to remember how massive of a hit it was.  Everyone was talking about it.  For a film to do that is rare.  Rarer still if it's an independent film not bankrolled by a major studio.  But a foreign film?  Unheard of.  It was a heavy hitter at Oscar time including Best Picture (which it should have won) and a massive financial success in the U.S.  But when a movie comes out that breaks new ground and becomes a massive hit, inferior knock-offs inevitably follow.  Such was the case here; a re-release of "Iron Monkey" (directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, who choreographed the action scenes in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" (the latter two being directed by Zhang Yimou.  Yimou's films weren't awful by any means, but they weren't very good either.

859 AD.  The Emperor of China is weak and corrupt.  A group of warriors calling themselves House of Flying Daggers, acts like Robin Hood: stealing from the rich in order to give to the poor and making bitter enemies with the government soldiers.  Their leader has just been killed, and officers Jin (Kaneshiro) and Leo (Lau) have ten days to find the replacement and take them down.  A lead takes them to a brothel, where the newest girl, a blind dancer named Mei (Zhang), may be a member of the rebel group.  Sure enough, the tip is solid and Jin catches her.  But he wants the new leader, and lies about being a traitor so she'll lead him to the hideout.  Trouble occurs when they fall for each other.

This is pure wuxia (martial arts drama set in ancient China).  The problem is that even for a genre were grand gestures are required, it's overdone.  Things get so melodramatic and so ridiculous that all credibility is shattered.  After all the betrayals, double-crosses and people returning from the dead, I could barely stifle a giggle.  Part of the reason is the screenplay, which is at times embarrassingly bad.  Whether it was an example of translation gone wrong or it was crap to begin with (my guess is the latter), the result is plenty of howlers.

The performances aren't much better.  Ziyi Zhang, normally a delight to watch, is a little flat as Mei.  She does what she can, but the dialogue defeats her.  I will say this: she has some very expressive eyes.  The other two, Chinese action stars Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau, are worse.  In addition to being interchangeable, they collapse under all the cheese.

But the film's visuals are obviously the film's selling point.  And while some of them look gorgeous, it's nothing new.  There isn't much here that we haven't seen before in other, better movies.  The shots are nicely composed for the most part, but there are times when the lighting makes it look stale,.

Oddly enough, I thought of Michael Bay when watching this movie.  Both he and director Zhang Yimou are clearly more interested in visuals than storytelling, which is excused somewhat by the fact that they are both skilled with them.  But while Bay is obsessed with coloring his films in orange and blue (two opposite sides of the color wheel to make it more dynamic), frantically cutting and shaking the camera, Yimou likes color and detail and expressive action scenes.  Both have their pluses and minuses, but at least in this case, Yimou falls into the same trap as Bay: using pretty images to camouflage a lack of plot.  Sorry, it doesn't work.