Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Circle

3.5/4

Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, John Boyega, Glenne Headley, Bill Paxton, Patton Oswalt

Rated PG-13 for a Sexual Situation, Brief Strong Language and Some Thematic Elements involving Drug Use

It is rare that a single performance can elevate a mediocre film into a great one.  Oh sure, there have been movies where the lead performance has dominated the film: Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth," Sean Penn in "Milk," or Charlize Theron in "Monster."  But those films were already great; the tremendous lead performances simply made it better.  Not so with "The Circle."  Without Emma Watson, this would be a mediocre movie.  But with her, it's a great one.

Millenial Mae (Watson) is working as a customer service temp when her friend Annie (Gillan) calls her and says that she arranged for her to get an interview at the social media giant The Circle.  Mae nails the interview and is thrilled when she gets the job offer.  The Circle is everyone's dream job; it's a cross between a college campus and a city, with a six digit salary.  However, when some of her co-workers start prying into her privacy, she gets unnerved.  She grows increasingly uncomfortable (and isolated) when an accident gets her thrust into the international spotlight.  Now, she has to find a way to stay sane amid the increasingly threatening lack of privacy, and if possible, stop the madness.

Probably the best thing about this movie is finding a new angle on the "privacy vs. security" debate.  Films have been covering this debate since the Cold War, but it's never been more relevant than in films made after 9/11.  This debate has turned into a cliché of modern war movies and political thrillers.  But by using the world of social media, it breathes life into the debate, and director James Ponsoldt creates a credible scenario where the actions of The Circle and the behavior of the characters are chillingly credible.  I defy anyone to sit through this movie and not feel increasingly uncomfortable.

However, this film wouldn't be anywhere near as effective as it is without the performance of Emma Watson.  Her character is not well written, but because of some of the choices she makes, she saves her and the film.  On paper, she's a sucker blinded by fame and idealism who gets a serious reality check.  But Watson doesn't play the role straight.  She's too smart for that.  Instead, she adds an ironic undercurrent that no one around her gets.  Watch Watson's eyes and how she hesitates before speaking.  Mae is well-aware of what's going on, and she hopes that her ridiculous ideas and actions will wake people up.  But things don't work out the way she anticipates and often with tragic results.

Her co-stars are either underwritten, boring, or more likely, both.  Tom Hanks is too genial for this role.  He should have made the character too friendly, thus making him much more sinister.  Karen Gillan is great, but she's in too little of the film to make much of an impact.  I suspect that the scenes addressing her drug use were cut to avoid a teen-unfriendly R rating.  Ellar Coltrane is uneven; the "Boyhood" star has some nice moments, but usually he blends into the furniture.  Patton Oswalt and John Boyega have nothing to do.  This film will be forever known as the final film of Bill Paxton, who plays Mae's MS-stricken father.  It's a good performance, but that's it.

The negative reception of the film surprises me.  Did no one pick up on Watson's subtle choices in her performance?  I guess not, but I did.  She anchors the film, and makes it much more disturbing.  Perhaps if the screenplay was written in a like-minded, ironic way.  Then maybe people would have gotten the message.  I also don't think the ending works.  It wants to add a catharsis to a situation that doesn't have one, and thus feels half-baked.

Still, I highly recommend this dramatic thriller.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Unforgettable

1/4

Starring: Rosario Dawson, Katherine Heigl, Geoff Stults, Isabella Kai Rice, Cheryl Ladd

Rated R for Sexual Content, Violence, Some Language and Brief Partial Nudity

The "stranger within" genre, also known as the "(blank) from hell" genre, is among my favorites because, no matter how similar one film is to the next, they usually work.  This is because movies like "Fatal Attraction" and "Fear" understand that good writing and acting are at the heart of every movie.  To be sure, the gifts of Adrian Lyne and James Foley (and their contemporaries in the genre) aren't to be overlooked, but directorial showmanship is not usually a necessity of the genre.  However, the opposite is true.  With bad writing and acting, these movies can sink like a dead rock.  Just look at "The Resident" (or rather, just take my word for it).  At least "The Boy Next Door" was stupid fun.  The same cannot be said about "Unforgettable," which is simply dull.

Julia Banks (Dawson) is moving upstate to be with her fiancée, David Connover (Stults).  She'll work from home while he gets to be with his brewery and his daughter Lily (Rice).  Of course, that comes with the price of living in the same town as his ex, Tessa (Heigl).  Tessa feels like Julia is intruding on her turf, and she views her with hostility.  Her passive-aggressiveness turns violent when she finds out that Julia and David intend on walking down the aisle.

There are so many problems with this movie that it's impossible to list them all.  It's dumb, it's not well-acted, it's not sexy and it's not interesting.  It's even a little sick.  Above all, it's boring.  Even the lamest variations on this story ("The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" and "Bad Influence," for example, can at least manage a few cheap shocks.  There are some here, but they're more of a whimper.  This movie is not fun.

The acting doesn't impress.  Rosario Dawson doesn't get half the attention she deserves, but even someone who deserves to be on the B-list shouldn't have to appear in something this bland.  She is, however, the saving grace.  Without her charisma and ability to make Julia's stupidity seem credible, this movie would be truly awful.  I'm not a fan of Katherine Heigl.  Sure, she's cute and has a killer smile, but she can't act.  Add in her notorious behavior on set and the fact that her time on "Grey's Anatomy" is over and it's no wonder she rarely gets roles these days.  To be fair, there are moments when she's credible.  When we see her obsessively strive for perfection or set up her traps for Julia, we get a sense of Tessa's pathological mindset.  Speaking, however, usually ruins the effect.  Geoff Stults is an underrated character actor (acting circles around Matt Czuchry in "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell," for example.  Not that that was much of a challenge), and he and Dawson have good chemistry.  But not even he can survive the utterly brainless things his character has to do.  It's as if he underwent a frontal lobotomy when the final act rolls around.  Ex-"Charlie's Angels" star Cheryl Ladd appears as Tessa's domineering mother, and under the circumstances, she's quite good.

"Unforgettable" is the directorial debut of longtime producer Denise De Novi.  Based on the evidence, she should stick to her day job.  She has no grasp for directing actors or creating escalating tension.  True, even the best thrillers don't hold up upon close examination, but it's the job of the filmmaker to scare us enough that we don't notice until long after the end credits roll.  She doesn't succeed.  Actually, for most of the movie it seems like she's trying to make a different movie.  Maybe she thought the script was a drama about the stresses of a woman entering into a relationship with a divorced couple with one party clearly having mental issues.  I don't think so, however, since it's clear that this is simply a thriller.

Call it what you want, but the end result is still the same: this movie sucks.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Monster's Ball

1.5/4

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Coronji Calhoun, Sean Combs

Rated R for Strong Sexual Content, Language and Violence

If there's anything worse than a bad movie, it's a bad movie that thinks it's a good movie.  At least "The Great Wall" or "Fist Fight" didn't have any illusions about what they were.  They were crap movies made to make a quick buck from the most undemanding audience members.  "Monster's Ball" is too well-acted, or rather has two actors that are too good, for it to be as bad as either of those movies.  At the same time, it's convinced it's an "important" movie.  Gag.

In a nutshell, "Monster's Ball" is about sad people finding a way to bond in their sadness.  Leticia Musgrove (Berry) is the mother of a grossly overweight child named Tyrell (Calhoun), is barely able to make ends meet, and her husband (Combs) is about to be executed for murdering a police officer.  One of his executioners, Hank Grotowski (Thornton), is also hurting.  His father Buck (Boyle) is a dying old man who hurls painful insults at every turn, and his boy Sonny(Ledger) is a complete wimp.  But when Leticia and Hank each suffer a personal tragedy, they find solace in the last place they would expect: each other.

D'aww...I think I'm tearing up!

Truth be told, it's not the central material that I have a problem with.  This could have been a riveting, emotional powerhouse.  But the characters are one-dimensional at best, and director Marc Foster plays it safe at every turn.  Other than their recent backstories, we know nothing about Hank or Leticia, and even less about Buck, Sonny or Tyrell.  In order for a movie like this to work, the two central characters have to be fully realized individuals who act according to their natures.  That doesn't happen here.  Hank and Leticia are dull clichés.

Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry are way too good for this material.  They do what they can, but the screenplay is so thin and the direction so self-indulgent that there's little that they can do.  In an attempt to save it, they underplay their roles (except for the obligatory scenes of high tragedy and passion), but it doesn't work.  The late Heath Ledger shows flashes of who would eventually become Ennis del Mar in "Brokeback Mountain," but he's only on screen for ten minutes.  Only Peter Boyle merits mention, playing a cruel racist.  He leaves an impression.

I guess Marc Foster thought he was making a movie that shed new light on the human condition or was being daring by showing an interracial romance.  If that was the case, he was mistaken.  There's nothing here that hasn't been seen in other, better movies about grief ("In the Bedroom") or "opposites attract" romance (any romantic comedy).  The film is so empty of ideas that there are times when it becomes a parody of art house movies where the characters speak in monotones and talk a lot without actually saying anything.  There's also a bit involving a gas station that is meant to be moving but is actually unintentionally funny.

If nothing else, "Monster's Ball" shows you that even with a top flight cast and a good director, you can still end up with a piece of crap.  Especially if the screenplay sucks.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

2.5/4

Starring (voices): Chloe Grace Moretz, Mary Steenburgen, James Caan, Darren Criss

Rated PG for Thematic Elements, Some Violent Action and Partial Nudity

I've long praised Studio Ghibli for its daring filmmaking, artistic brilliance and rich storytelling.  Such bold risk-taking has led to some truly amazing films, such as "Grave of the Fireflies," "Princess Mononoke" and "The Wind Rises."  It has also led to the creation of "Spirited Away," which is not only the best animated film ever made, but one of the best films ever made period.  But this comes at a cost; eventually you're going to make a movie that doesn't work.

"The Tale of Princess Kaguya" is not a bad film, but it is a disappointment.  It is perhaps the weakest film released under the Studio Ghibli name.  Although the animation is eye-popping, the story is weak and the film is overlong.  And the ending just lost me.  I'm not mad at having wasted my time, but I feel let down.

The Bamboo Cutter (Caan) is a simple man living a simple life with his wife (Steenburgen).  One day while out cutting bamboo, he sees a glowing bamboo tree.  In front of it is a tiny sprout that grows before his eyes.  Inside the blossom is a tiny little girl that fits in the palm of his hand.  He takes her back to his wife and, to their surprise, she suddenly turns into a normal sized baby.  Dubbed "Little Bamboo" by the local children, she grows rapidly and forms a tentative bond with a boy named Sutemaru (Criss).  Their fortunes change when The Bamboo Cutter finds another glowing bamboo tree, only this time it's filled with gold.  Believing that Little Bamboo is destined to become a princess, he uproots their family and heads for the capital.  There, the Bamboo Cutter becomes obsessed with the trappings and status of wealth, including marrying his daughter, now named Princess Kaguya (Moretz) to the wealthiest person he can.  But Princess Kaguya has a secret that could compromise everything.

The two leading forces behind Studio Ghibli are Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.  It would be an overstatement that they brought anime to the mainstream (it was popular long before Studio Ghibli was formed and is still a cult thing), but they have done more than any other filmmaker in the medium.  Though not as talented as Miyazaki, Takahata is a capable filmmaker.  Too often, however, his vision exceeds his grasp.  He sometimes attempts to do too much, which was the case with "Pom Poko."  "Grave of the Fireflies" and "Only Yesterday" worked because he kept things simple.  With this, there is a sense that it is overstuffed with material.  So much so that there is little plot consistency.  It is always continuously evolving and I was struggling to keep up.

The voice acting in the American version is adequate, but like all Studio Ghibli movies, it's kept low-key.  Chole Grace Moretz is inconsistent; usually she's okay, but there are times when she can't reach the correct emotion or is too modern for a fable.  James Caan and Mary Steenburgen are unrecognizable in their roles as the parents.  Darren Criss, Lucy Liu, James Marsden, Oliver Platt, Beau Bridges, George Segal, John Cho, Dean Cain and Daniel Dae Kim lend their talents in small roles.

Studio Ghibli is famous for its vivid, colorful artwork.  Who can forget the bathhouse in "Spirited Away" or the walking castle in "Howl's Moving Castle?"  In a complete 180, Takahata opts for a more minimalist approach.  He uses a simple, watercolor aesthetic with limited, muted colors.  It adds to the cerebral quality indicative of his work, as opposed to Miyazaki, whose complex and detailed works are more emotional.  Also gone are the huge eyes and traditional anime characters.  In fact, the drawing style reflects the tone of the story.  Usually it's simple and dream-like, but there are moments of high tension where the drawing is more rough and aggressive.  Rarely does the art form reflect the material in this way.

So it doesn't work.  But with Studio Ghibli on the title, you at least know that it's not going to be a total waste of time.  There are many elements of the film that do work.  Some are even praise worthy.  But I really can't encourage you to sit down and watch it.  Especially when the studio has released other, better films.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Traffic

3.5/4

Starring: Michael Douglas, Benicio del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Erika Christensen, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman, Topher Grace, Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid, Clifton Collins Jr., Miguel Ferrer

Rated R for Pervasive Drug Content. Strong Language, Violence and Some Sexuality

We all like to believe that the "War on Drugs" occurs far away from us.  In another world or something.  It's just some oblique story that runs daily on the news; close enough to relate to but far enough away that there's no fear of being touched by it.  It helps us sleep at night.  Of course, it's a total lie, and that realization is at the heart of "Traffic."

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of "Traffic" is that, for all the evil and destruction that drugs represent, and how well we know the carnage they cause, they are omnipresent in every part of society.  Whether you're the daughter of the nation's drug czar or a cop in Tijuana, drugs are oh so easy to get if you have the desire.  Or simply the curiosity.  And everyone knows the story about curiosity and the cat...

The film, based on a British miniseries, tells three stories simultaneously, with another one or two thrown in for seasoning  First is that of Robert Wakefield (Douglas), the nation's new drug czar.  He wants to get into the trenches, so to speak, of the war on drugs and find a new avenue of attack.  However, this blinds him to his daughter Caroline's (Christensen) growing dependence on heroin.  The second story is that of Helena Ayala (Zeta-Jones), the pampered wife of Carlos (Steven Bauer), a wealthy, upstanding businessman.  But when he's hauled off to jail, she has to find a way to stay alive amid the threats and debts swirling around her.  Finally, there's Javier Rodriguez (del Toro), who may be the only honest cop in Tijuana.  But in this world, honesty and idealism are liabilities.

What's especially stunning about this movie is how much material is covered.  There are at least five central characters (depending on how you define the term), each being surrounded by their own supporting characters.  This is a true ensemble effort; plenty of big names and important roles, but no one steals the movie.  There simply isn't time.  Credit must go to the strong writing by Stephen Gaghan, directing by Steven Sodebergh, and editing by Stephen Mirrione.  All three won Oscars for their work, and they deserve them.  They have managed to do the impossible: tell an ensemble story with a sense of balance and no loss in character development or pacing.  This is one movie that earns every minute of its running time.

It also helps to have a cast with this depth of talent.  All recognize the timeliness and relevance of the subject matter and no one phones it in.  The cast reads like a movie lover's dream: Michael Douglas, Benicio del Toro (in an Oscar-winning performance), Catherine Zeta-Jones, Erika Christensen, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman (providing the slim comic relief), Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid, Clifton Collins Jr, Miguel Ferrer and Topher Grace.  And that's not all.  In smaller roles you have the likes of James Brolin, Albert Finney, John Slattery, Viola Davis, and Salma Hayek.  Casts don't get much better than that.  Of them, Michael Douglas and Erika Christensen stick out in my mind the most.  Douglas plays the everyman here, and while it's not as flashy as Gordon Gekko, it's one of his best performances.  Douglas plays the role straight without flash or pizzazz, and therein lies its power.  He may be the drug czar, but above all he's a father who is losing his daughter to drugs.  Erika Christensen is excellent as his daughter; a curious teen whose curiosity sends her down a dark road into addiction.  From shy bookworm to drug-addicted whore, she doesn't miss a beat.  Why the Academy overlooked her, I'll never know.

One thing I liked about the movie is how well it buries the background information in the dialogue.  For example, when Wakefield is making the office trips to formulate his plan, he asks the people on the ground about the situation.  Not only does this develop his character, but it tells us the reality of the drug world and the situation that the characters live in.  There's no sense that the characters are setting the stage or spouting what should be narration.  These conversations feel authentic.

The MPAA gave this film an R rating for, and I quote, "Pervasive Drug Content, Strong Language, Violence and Some Sexuality."  In fact, USA Films feared that Sodebergh's second cut would receive the dreaded NC-17 rating (in an uncharacteristically smart move for the MPAA, it didn't demand any cuts).  At first glance, it makes sense.  There's a lot of rough stuff in this movie, but it serves a purpose.  It's about as anti-drug as you can get.  It's a smart movie; it understand why drugs are so seductive to the curious and the dangers that they come with.  If that's not appropriate for a teenager, I don't know what is.

While not as brutal to watch as "Once Were Warriors," another film about substance abuse and its related horrors, it's still a very strong film.  Besides, it's a different kind of film.  There are some weaknesses in the scenes set in Tijuana, but all in all I highly encourage you to see this film.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Gifted

3.5/4

Starring: Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Language, and Some Suggestive Material

"Gifted" is something that has become all too rare: a small, character-driven drama that's actually about something.  It's not going to break box office records, nor is it likely to get any Oscar attention (its release date is far too early for the notoriously ADD Academy) despite some strong performances.  But it is absolutely compelling from frame one and enriching for the mind.  Compare that to crap like "The Great Wall," which is just an embarrassment for all involved.

Mary (Grace) lives in rural Florida with her uncle, Frank (Evans), who is a local handyman.  Frank has raised her since her mother's death shortly after she was born, and until now she has been homeschooled.  Frank is determined to give Mary a shot at a normal life, so he sends her to school.  His neighbor Roberta (Spencer) opposes this, as they both know what's likely to happen when she gets there.  You see, Mary is a genius with the intellectual capacity of an Ivy Leaguer, which makes everyone want to send her to a school for gifted children.  But Frank knows the price a child has to pay for such brilliance, and he is determined to honor his sister's wish that she be given a normal life.  This puts him at odds with his estranged and domineering mother Evelyn (Duncan), who sues for custody so she can put Mary in gifted school in Boston.

The key to the success of this movie is that we have to believe that everyone has Mary's best interests at heart, and we do.  Both Frank and Evelyn have valid points of view; they just differ on what is best for Mary.  Frank thinks that Mary should be an average kid while Evelyn believes that a mind like hers should not be wasted.  Both sides are given their due, and in a refreshing turn, Frank and Evelyn don't hate each other.  Their relationship is frosty, but that's less because of the present situation and more because of what got them there years ago.  They still have time to chat and joke around with each other.  It's actually the lawyers who are the vicious ones.

Range isn't something I would associate with Captain America.  Chris Evans has never impressed me with his acting ability, having generally relied on his everyman charm and good looks.  But he's effective as the ill-equipped surrogate dad doing the best he can.  He's not perfect; his issues with Evelyn make him a liability for Mary in some ways, but he manages.  Lindsay Duncan excels at playing ice queens (just look at her in "Rome" or, for all it's faults, "Birdman"), while Evelyn certainly is not all warm and fuzzy (those honors go to Roberta), she's not as big of a harridan as you might think.  Ex-"SNL" starlet Jenny Slate is appealing in a largely non-comic role of Bonnie, Frank's potential love interest.  That she is Mary's teacher puts their actions on the wrong side of questionable, but it does lead to the biggest laugh so far this year (not that there's much competition).  The sequence isn't impeccably timed, but it's good enough to get me to let out a truly explosive laugh.  Finally, there's Octavia Spencer, who is a welcome presence in any movie.  Her character is largely unnecessary, but few actresses do the warm/sass like her.

The real find is McKenna Grace.  The young actress has been pretty busy playing parts on TV and movies, but here, she walks away with the entire movie.  She easily avoids the pitfalls of playing a part like this: she's not so cute you want to strangle her (she has a temper and a foul mouth), she's not so precocious she becomes annoying (she's a smart kid, but still a kid), and she clearly understands everything she says.  I'm not sure if I can safely say it's Oscar material, but it's close.

The film was directed by Marc Webb, who made "(500) Days of Summer" (unseen by me) and "The Amazing Spider-Man" and its sequel (both of which I did see...unfortunately).  The film works because he allows the material to speak for itself.  He doesn't try to be flashy (except for inappropriate uses of a handheld camera) or dumb down the material.  This is a situation with no easy answers, or even correct ones.  Webb is smart enough to know this, and as a result, it is so much more compelling and emotionally involving.  I was surprised at how caught up in the film I got.  The ending is awkwardly written but other than that he hits it right out of the park.

This is one of the year's best films.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Waltz with Bashir

2.5/4

Rated R for Some Disturbing Images of Atrocities, Strong Violence, Brief Nudity and a Scene of Graphic Sexual Content

What is "Waltz with Bashir?"  That's the million dollar question.  Part documentary, part psychological exploration, part mosaic memoir of the First Lebanon War, and part surrealistic fantasy.  Director Ari Folman tries to do a lot, but success is just outside his grasp.

An old friend tells director Ari Folman about a dream he keeps having, where 26 vicious dogs chase him and demand that he surrender himself so they can eat him.  The friend has tried everything to make the dreams stop, but nothing is working.  So he asks Folman, who is a filmmaker, if he can shed light on his problem.  Folman doesn't remember his time serving in the war, and believes that this is because he has disassociated himself from the trauma.  Through interviewing those who were with him, he seeks to unlock the mysteries of the past.

"Waltz with Bashir" seeks to present old themes and ideas in a new light.  The idea that is the core of the film, which is that war is hell and leaves scars that time cannot mend, is not new.  We know that.  However, by animating it as stream of consciousness documentary where the figurative occasionally becomes literal and timelines can blend together, Folman wants us to think about it in a new way.  This isn't a movie of traditional battles or war clichés, but of the psychological toll war has on a person.  By animating it and illustrating the psychological trauma, Forman gets us inside the minds of these characters in a way that a traditionally made film cannot.  Or at least can't without coming across as excessively gimmicky.

Still, as innovative and daring as the presentation is, it still doesn't really present anything we haven't seen before.  I'm always lenient on movies that take chances or push the boundaries of filmmaking, but even with its unique approach, I can't recommend it.  It is difficult to form any sort of bond with the characters, partly because of how they are animated and partly because no one has a lot of screen time.  Nor does anyone present ideas that we haven't heard before in other, stronger films ("The Deer Hunter" comes to mind).

Then there's the ending.  It's hard to imagine anyone finding it successful.  It just...stops.  There's no sense of closure or that the film has said all wanted to say.  I have nothing wrong with open endings, provided they are earned and utilized effectively.  Here, it's as if someone has sliced off the final act of the film and started the end credits.  That's how jarring it is.

So no, I can't recommend "Waltz with Bashir," despite my highest compliments to Ari Folman for his vision and ambition.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

1.5/4

Starring: Scarlett Johannsen, Pilou Asbaek, Peter Ferdinando, Juliette Binoche, "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, Michael Carmen Pitt

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence, Suggestive Images and Some Disturbing Images

There are special effects movies ("The Rock").  There are special effects movies (any "Star Wars" movie).  And then there's this new iteration of "Ghost in the Shell."  I have nothing against special effects in movies, even if they are all encompassing.  Take "The Lord of the Rings" or "Star Wars" (especially the prequels) for example.  Green screens, miniatures, manipulative camera angles, and of course, computers, were utilized to give these films the maximum visual flair.  However, in those cases, they were used judiciously and with a certain amount of restraint.  Rupert Sanders didn't take that lesson.  His remake of the 1995 anime is so overblown with special effects and color that he makes Michael Bay look like a Merchant/Ivory pupil.

In the future, the line between human and machine is being blurred.  Humans still exist, and while the film doesn't go into detail it's probable that they're born the natural way.  Not answering this question was a poor decision on the part of Rupert Sanders, since a sex scene would have livened things up.  But they do have the ability to augment themselves with machines, such as eyes that allow them to see in heat vision or through objects.  Now, the line is being muddled even further; a biotech company has just inserted a human brain into a machine, giving her the abilities of both.  She is known as the Major (Johannsen).  She was once a human refugee, but her boat was attacked by terrorists.  Her brain was saved by Dr. Oulet (Binoche) and now she is a secret agent for the government.  Her task is to track down a potentially violent hacker by the name of Kuze (Pitt), who can infiltrate robots.  But Kuze may not be all he seems to be, which throws everything the Major thinks she knows into question.

The difference between a good special effects picture and a bad one is knowing how to use them well.  Good special effects movies, such as any of the movies I mentioned above or, say, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is that they used them in service to the story.  In addition to providing the thrills and oohs and ahhs, they created worlds for the characters and the stories to exist in and explore.  That doesn't happen here.  Sanders simply throws everything he can think of, regardless of whether they fit in with the scenario or make sense.  Presumably this is to camouflage the fact that he doesn't have much of a story.  Or at least a screenplay that makes it possible to care about anyone or anything in it.

What is Scarlett Johannsen doing here?  One of the most talented, respected and well-paid stars in Hollywood, she can do anything she wants.  Her name on a marquee makes cash registers sing, regardless of what it is or if it's any good.  So why would she choose a film that's so bad and in a role in which she's so obviously miscast.  She's too talented to be bad, but the character is so obviously written for an Asian actress.  It's not like there aren't any to choose from.  Wasn't Ziyi Zhang available?

She's surrounded by a solid supporting cast, few of whom should be anywhere near this movie.  Pilou Asbaek looks straight out of an anime, Michael Pitt (using his middle name now, apparently) plays a villain who is both creepy and sympathetic.  Japanese legend "Beat" Takeshi appears, and the film finds a moderately clever way to deal with the fact that he never speaks English.  And if you thought it was odd that ScarJo was in something this insipid, imagine how hard it is to believe that the highly respected French actress Juliette Binoche here.  Binoche is a notoriously choosy actress, having turned down Hollywood many times (including the role of Ellie Sattler in "Jurassic Park").  I guess she's had a change of heart, since she appeared in the latest "Godzilla" movie (albeit briefly).

The bottom line is that this movie just isn't worth your time.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam

3.5/4

Rated PG-13 (probably for War Violence, Disturbing Images and for Language)

The best war movies work because they present their material with stark, unfiltered clarity.  They don't shy away from bloodshed nor do they overhype the adrenaline.  There's a reason why movies like "Platoon," "Saving Private Ryan" or "American Sniper" linger in our minds long after the end credits roll.  It's because they portray war with unflinching realism, sparing the audience nothing.

"Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam" is a documentary, so its images of war and death (of which there are a few) consist mainly of news footage.  That's actually what makes this film such a powerful experience.  This is not the vision of war from a truly gifted filmmaker.  This is reality.

The film uses letters from real soldiers to provide insight into the minds of the actual grunts on the field.  They are read by famous actors, but most are unrecognizable.  This has its pluses and minuses, but the former outweigh the latter.  The letters, which are filled with insight and perspective, ground this material to reality in ways that not even the best screenwriter could.  On the other hand, the letters are so varied and cover such ground that it feels very scattershot.  We're meant to identify with the war, not the people.  As a result, it starts to feel like a gimmick before the film is over.

Truly, it helps that the letters are narrated by a set of gifted actors.  None of them walk through their performances, small as they may be and for far less money than they're usually offered.  And what a cast it is!  Lending their talents are: Tom Berenger, Ellen Burstyn, Robert DeNiro, John Savage, Mark Harmon, Matt and Kevin Dillon, Willem Dafoe, Martin Sheen, Brian Dennehy, Robert Downey Jr., Michael J. Fox, Elizabeth McGovern, Judd Nelson, Sean Penn, Randy Quaid, Eric Roberts, Howard E. Rollins, Kathleen Turner and Robin Williams.  Now that's a cast!  Special mention has to go to Ellen Burstyn, whose recitation of a letter from a mother to her fallen son is heartbreaking.

One interesting thing the film does is that the letters correspond to the timeline of the Vietnam war (broadcasts listing the mounting casualties strengthen the association).  But the execution has mixed results.  There's a lack of depth in the history lesson that the film presents, with the events it mentions specifically occurring with little to no context.  I get the idea to narrate the film entirely of letters from ordinary people, but if they wanted to go this route, a narrator or letters with more specificity would have helped.

I realize that this review seems quite harsh, as if I didn't actually like it.  Well, I didn't "enjoy" it in the traditional sense of the word, but like "The War Zone" or the other movies mentioned above, I do think it's worth seeing as a historical record.  If nothing else, its existence means that the horrors of the Vietnam war will never die.  For that, we should all be grateful.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Power Rangers

3/4

Starring: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G, Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, and the voice of Bill Hader

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence, Action and Destruction, Language, and for Some Crude Humor

Nostalgia is certainly big money these days.  Every non-superhero movie is based on a childhood favorite of some kind, from "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (the less said about those movies, the better) to live action updates of Disney animated classics.  "Power Rangers," based on the hit kids show from the early 90's, is the latest to get an update.

Truth be told, I was never a fan of the Power Rangers.  I was never all that in to TV as a kid (I'm still not, actually).  So forgive me if I don't geek out and instead review the movie on its own terms.  I don't know how fans of the TV show will react, but I liked it.

Fallen sports stud Jason (Montgomery), ex-Queen Bee Kimberly (Scott), nerdy Billy (Cyler), truant Zack (Lin) and new girl Trini (Becky G) go to the same school, but they don't know each other.  That is, until one night when they all end up at an abandoned quarry and make a shocking discovery.  A mysterious rock is embedded in the stone, and inside it are five different colored orbs.  The quintet soon finds out that they are now Power Rangers, extraterrestrial heroes who must team up to defend the planet.  There's a very real threat, in the form of Rita Repulsa (Banks), an ex-Ranger who turned to the dark side.  If she gets enough gold to awaken her henchman, it's game over for humanity.  Only the Rangers stand in her way.

Okay, it's not Shakespeare.  But I'm going to be lenient because it does a lot of things right.  Things that a lot of modern day blockbusters skip over.  For one thing, director Dean Israelite allows the characters to breathe.  I'm not talking about deep characterizations here, but they all have more personality than your usual summer action movie protagonists, who are usually just props for the plot.  That they are brought to life with solid performances is all the better.  Again, not Oscar material, but better than, say, "Twilight."

A reboot has to find the correct balance between fan service and originality, and while Israelite doesn't find it, it does a better job than other movies these days.  Actually, any attempt to honor the source material falls flat.  The "Power Rangers" theme song as a battle cry?  A villain named Rita Repulsa (played with far too much scenery-chewing by Elizabeth Banks)?  In a movie that's played straight, such campiness sticks out like a sore thumb.

There are other problems too, such as a constantly moving camera and frantic cutting, and far too much shaky cam.  But all in all, I rather enjoyed myself.  Believe me, I'm as surprised as you are.