Thursday, March 30, 2017

Our Kind of Traitor

3/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Need I say more?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

2/4

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

Rated PG for Some Action Violence, Peril and Frightening Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

3/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Life (2017)

3/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Straw Dogs (2011)

2.5/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Mulan

3.5/4

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

Rated G

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even if you don't have kids.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Night Moves

0.5/4

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard

Rated R for Some Language and Nudity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Belko Experiement

2.5/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Pinocchio (1940)

4/4

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

Rated G

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

The "Disaffected, Existential Yuppie:"

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

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

The "Too Macho to Express Himself" Guy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love

1/4

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

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

No, I haven't started reviewing dirty movies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Chariots of Fire

3.5/4

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

Rated PG (probably for Brief Language and Thematic Material)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 6, 2017

Fist Fight

1/4

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

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

Things to do instead of watching "Fist Fight:"

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

2. Watch your neighbor's colonoscopy.

3. Don't bother in the first place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Logan

2/4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Table 19

3/4

Starring: Anna Kendrick, June Squibb, Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson, Wyatt Russell, Stephen Merchant, Tony Revolori

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Sexual Content, Drug Use, Language and Some Brief Nudity

I went to my brother's wedding last August.  I was in the wedding party, so I didn't get a chance to see the people who were invited by obligation rather than a genuine desire on the part of the bride and groom for them to be there on their special day.  But I know the feeling of being trapped with people you don't know in a place you're not sure you really want to be.  Who hasn't felt like the odd man out?

Two months ago, Eloise (Kendrick) has was dumped by her boyfriend, Teddy (Russell).  By text, no less, followed by "Best of luck in your future endeavors."  Since the bride is her oldest friend, she decides to go to the wedding, despite the fact that Teddy will certainly be there (he is the best man).  She was going to be the maid of honor, but dropped out after her relationship fizzled out.  Now she's stuck at Table 19, with a group of apparent weirdos whose relationship to the bride or groom are tenuous.  They are: Jo (Flanagan), the bride's ex-nanny, Bina (Kudrow) and Jerry Kepp (Robinson), a couple whose diner is related to the father of the bride's business, Walter (Merchant), the father of the bride's disgraced nephew who is freshly free from prison, and Renzo (Revolori), a high school kid whose reasons for being invited are never made clear, but is sent there by his mother (Margo Martindale, who never appears on camera) in an attempt to get laid.  That hijinks ensue and problems are solved is, I suppose, a foregone conclusion.

As far as tragicomedies go, "Table 19" is a good one.  While the shifts in tone are jarring enough to cause whiplash, the characters are appealing and it's actually funny and heartfelt.  Since those two qualities are its goals, I have to label the movie as a success.  If only a minor one.

The cast is made up of some of the most reliable character actors in the business.  Anna Kendrick plays her usual self: a tightly wound but insecure yuppie who is unlucky in love.  It's not all that different from a lot of characters she plays, but Kendrick is so appealing that it hardly matters.  As the mother hen (with pot), June Squibb is warm and funny, able to see through people's problems and freely dispensing advice.  Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson are in fine form in the underwritten roles of a couple whose marriage is imploding.  Known for comedy, the two demonstrate a clear capacity for drama.  Stephen Merchant does his weirdo dork schtick, something he is well suited for.  And Tony Revolori is also good as the weird kid who isn't sure why he's there but gets the most bizarre encouragement from his mom.

"Table 19" is the kind of movie that Miramax would distribute in its heyday.  Free from megastars and special effects, bloated budgets and running times, obsessive marketing and fanboy frenzy.  It's a little movie that trusts its characters to bring in audiences and keep them in the theater.  The problem is that the marketing has been so non-existent that it may not find its audience.  Going up against "Logan" and it threatens to disappear completely.  As a film critic, it's my job to make sure that good movies like this reach as many people as possible.  In this case, I'm happy to do so.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Get Out

3/4

Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Lil Rel Howery, Caleb Landry Jones

Rated R for Violence, Bloody Images, and Language including Sexual References

"Get Out" is a surprisingly effective little chiller because it targets our own vulnerabilities and uses them against us.  We've all been in many of the same situations that Chris Washington finds himself in.  But never has an awkward conversation seemed so sinister.

Chris (Kaluuya) has been dating Rose Armitage (Williams) for four months, and she's bringing him home to meet her parents.  He's nervous because she is white and he is black, a fact that she has neglected to tell them.  That her parents are so liberal that her father Dean (Whitford) is likely to talk his ear off about how he would have voted for Barack Obama a third time if he could does little to ease his anxiety.  Nevertheless, he soldiers on.  When he gets there, everything is cordial, if a little strange, until Rose's mother Missy (Keener) realizes that Chris is a smoker.  He later (unwittingly) goes under Missy's hypnosis to cure it.  That's when things get really strange.

Writer/director Jordan Peele gets us on edge in subtle, but effective, ways.  Rather than violent special effects or threatening music, he uses our own knowledge of racial interaction against us.  Let me explain.  The people Chris meets seem nice, but they put him on his guard by asking him questions that sound innocent but are really inappropriate.  Questions like, "Do you think being black puts you at an advantage or disadvantage in life?"  Or how a woman he doesn't know immediately starts feeling his biceps.  And that's apart from the fact that everyone seems to be talking down to him in a way that suggests they don't think he will realize it.  Or that Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), the Armitages' hired help (who are black), act suspiciously like robots.

Daniel Kaluuya's performance is essential to the film's success.  If we don't identify with him and his sensitivities about his race (God, that sounds much more politically correct than I meant it, although such is the film that I think Peele would get a kick out of it), the movie is sunk.  Fortunately, the English actor (sporting a flawless American accent), is excellent.  He's the everyman.  It's a difficult role (in ways that I can't elaborate on), and he nails it.  His co-star, Allison Williams, is also very good.  She's loving and intelligent and has a nice, realistic chemistry with Kaluuya.  It's easy to believe that they are a successful Millennial couple.  As for the more famous stars, Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, well, if you get them in a film you've done at least two things right.

As unsettling as the film is, it's also funny.  Peele is one half of the comic duo Key and Peele, whose work I have not seen (after seeing him host "American's Funniest Animals" a few times, I've gotten more than my fair share of his "humor").  Much of it is of the "don't know whether I should laugh or be creeped out" variety (think "Tusk"), but some, such as the scenes with Chris's TSA agent friend Rod (Howery), who's appearances supply some amusing moments.

It's not perfect; the set-up goes on too long, the balance between funny and creepy isn't always successful and the ending isn't as visceral as Peele probably intends.  But it's well worth seeking out, especially on Blu Ray.

The Caveman's Valentine

2.5/4

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Colm Feore, Ann Magnuson, Aunjanue Ellis, Tamara Tunie. Anthony Michael Hall

Rated R for Language, Some Violence and Sexuality

The challenge of turning "The Caveman's Valentine" into a film must have been irresistible for Kasi Lemmons.  Think of the creative and psychological possibilities offered in getting inside the head of a paranoid schizophrenic via the film medium.  While I admire Lemmons's guts, her talents just aren't enough to make this any more than a gimmick.

Romulus Ledbetter (Jackson), or "Rom," for short, was once a brilliant pianist at Julliard.  But his mental health deteriorated and now he's living in a cave in a New York City park.  He believes that a man named Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant lives at the top of the Empire State Building and is trying to control him through X, Y, and Z rays.  When a homeless man is found frozen to death in a tree outside his cave, Rom thinks that it's Stuyvesant.  But when a junkie claims it was renowned photographer (and all around creep) by the name of Leppenraub (Feore), Rom starts to investigate, much to the irritation of his cop daughter, Lulu (Ellis).  The question is, was it really murder or just another delusion?  And if it is true, can Rom get anyone to believe him?

Obviously, the film rests on Lemmons' ability to get the audience inside Rom's head.  She gives it a game try, but flashing lights, a voiceover, or surreal images don't do the trick.  They seem what they are: cheap gimmicks.  More successful are Rom's delusions of speaking with a younger version of Sheila (Tunie), his ex, but the rules of how her character interacts with Rom aren't clearly stated.  Ron Howard found a better way to do this in "A Beautiful Mind."  Compare that film to this and you'll see what I mean.  More obvious is the trap that Rom's psychotic episodes seem to happen when it is the most convenient for the plot.  Anyone who watches it will instantly realize that he's never going to go crazy while he's getting important information.

Samuel L. Jackson is one of our most brilliant, volcanic and versatile actors now working.  But here, he's obviously struggling at times, particularly at the beginning.  It takes a while for us to accept his character, but once we do, it becomes a lot smoother ride.  He's surrounded by a group of solid character actors, none of whom are known names but all have talent.  Colm Feore is at his oily best as the arrogant Leppenraub, whose tastes run in the direction of the, shall we say, exotic.  Few actors can play an arrogant bastard well enough to make you want to hit them as soon as you see them on screen, but he can.  Ann Magnuson adds some sex appeal as Moira, Leppenraub's sister who knows the down and dirty about her brother, except the truth.  And Aunjanue Ellis is adorable as the daughter who loves and is hurt by her father.

Although the film's central mystery is compelling in a B-grade indie movie sort of way, it is filled with more than a few obvious contrivances.  Especially how others in the elite social circles react to him.  People like a yuppie banker named Bob (Hall), Moira, and Leppenraub view Rom as either a charity case or a sideshow attraction.  It's both unbelievable and insulting.

I was tempted to say "see it if you must," but upon further reflection, I have to suggest giving this one a pass.