Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Lost City of Z


2.5/4

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Edward Ashley, Tom Holland, Angus MacFayden, Ian McDiarmid

Rated PG-13 for Violence, Disturbing Images, Brief Strong Language and Some Nudity

A poor choice in cinematographer casts a pall over “The Lost City of Z.”  Oh sure, there are other problems, such as flat characterizations and odd directing choices.  But the film's look, which is bleak and morose without any atmosphere, sinks the entire project.  I’ve seen many films in my time, but never one where the lighting tanked it so completely.

To history and adventure buffs, the story of adventurer Percy Fawcett (Hunnam) is well known.  An army officer turned Amazonian explorer sought to find a city hidden deep within the Amazon rainforest.  Despite three attempts, he was unable to, and on the final attempt, he and his young son Jack (Holland) were never seen again.

The film version of his story starts at the early point in his career.  Percy is an untried officer looking to rise up through the ranks and restore his family’s name.  But assignments are hard to come by, and those that do are without much merit or honor.  An opportunity comes his way when the National Geographic Society, led by Sir George Goldie (McDiarmid), asks him to determine a border.  Hoping to gain more respect and money, he agrees.  Together with his partners Henry Costin (Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Ashley), they set out to scout the land.  The journey is long, arduous and miserable.  Danger, disease and death plague them.  But when they get to their destination, Percy finds some ancient pottery that leads him to believe there is an ancient city nearby.  Finding it becomes his life’s pursuit.  And his demise.

“The Lost City of Z” is an adventure film, but an atypical one.  Instead of something like “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” or the “Uncharted” video games, director James Gray goes for a more realistic, dangerous tone.  That’s fine by me, especially since that vision is so in vogue these days.  The problem is in its execution.  Much is made of the dangers of the Amazon, but I never felt it.  It’s the job of the director and cinematographer to make the audience feel the emotions that the characters do.  Instead of a suffocating, humid place where the thrill of exploration is mixed with the fear of death, the Amazon seems like an ordinary place.  I think in the desire for realism, Gray lost touch with what makes the jungle so unique.

The performances are fine, but by design, they’re kept low-key.  Charlie Hunnam, a hugely talented British actor, is quite good here, managing to keep things afloat when everything else flounders.  He’s better than the material he is given, which is really half-formed.  Robert Pattinson is unrecognizable as Henry Costin and shows talent but little charisma.  Sienna Miller can add this film to a long list of great performances.  And Angus MacFayden plays a rich man so in over his head that he’s simultaneously infuriating (which is a compliment) and pathetic.

Either the film was edited down too much (even though it's 2.5 hours long as it is) or the screenplay needed another rewrite.  I’m not sure which.  What I am sure of is that the characters are flat and underdeveloped.  We don’t know what makes them tick or who they really are.  It’s hard to care about anyone in this film since they are so half-developed.  The exception is Percy, but that’s because he’s in every scene.  The film touches on ideas such as destiny, obsession, exploration, the drive for success, and so on but these aren’t well conveyed, and if they come across, they feel redundant.  Even aside from that, there are scenes here that just don’t work.  An example would be the scene when Percy asks the NGS to fund a return expedition.  Tonally, it’s so scattered that I’m not even sure Gray himself knew what he was trying to accomplish with it.  Other areas aren’t handled well either.  Passages of time feel random and haphazard, the character of Arthur Manley is totally undeveloped for a character we’re clearly supposed to care about and the development of the relationship between Percy and Jack is, to put it mildly, extremely clunky.

The film is never boring and rarely uninteresting.  It’s just that its problems and shortcomings are too obvious and too consistent for me to recommend it.  Perhaps it will play better on Blu Ray.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

2/4

Starring: Johnny Depp, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Javier Bardem, David Wenham, Orlando Bloom

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Adventure Violence, and Some Suggestive Content

Captain Jack Sparrow is one of cinema's legendary characters.  I would put him alongside Hannibal Lector (Hopkins, not Cox), Norman Bates, Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, and even Rick and Ilsa.  Due in no small part to Johnny Depp's performance, Captain Jack Sparrow towers over all other pirates in film history.  It's unthinkable that then-CEO Michael Eisner thought that Depp was ruining the movie with his balls-out loony interpretation of the character.  His original three appearances were first rate, but after that, the story was told.  Disney, looking to keep a cash cow running by any means possible and Depp, lured by his love of the character (although the salary of $55.5 million probably helped), returned for a fourth installment.  That was very profitable, but tepidly received by critics and fans.  So the question is, can Capt'n Jack's fifth outing breathe new life into the franchise?  As much as it pains me to say it, the answer is no.

At the end of the third film, Will Turner (Bloom) stabbed the heart of Davy Jones, thus taking his place.  His son Henry (Thwaites) is desperate to find a way to free his father from the curse of captaining the Flying Dutchman.  To do that, he needs Poseidon's Trident, which will break all curses and allow the owner to rule the seas.  Henry isn't alone.  A scientist named Caryna Smith (Scodelario) thinks that finding the trident will help her unlock her past.  A naval officer by the name of Scarfield (Wenham) wants it to ensure British supremacy over the high seas.  And most notably, Captain Salazar wants it to undo a curse that Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) put him under.  The chase, as they say, is on.

What sinks the film is that Jack Sparrow isn't like the Jack Sparrow that we adored from his previous adventures.  Although it was originally one of Depp's favorite roles, he's obviously very tired of playing it.  There's no joy in his performance; he's bored to tears and doesn't bother to hide it.  It's hard not to blame him.  The screenplay gives him a character so one-note that he had to have felt insulted.  Little of the wit, intelligence and moral ambiguity that made him such a likable scoundrel are in evidence here.  This is screenwriting on autopilot.

The two new straight men, Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario, are better than they have been in previous films of theirs.  But they still made me wish for Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann.  Geoffrey Rush returns as Captain Barbossa, but the filmmakers make the fatal mistake of trying to humanize him.  Only Javier Bardem seems intent on earning his paycheck.  His Captain Salazar is a vicious creature that creeped me out on a few occasions.

Taking over from Rob Marshall, who was in over his head with the fourth installment, are Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg.  Their resume includes the Oscar-nominated Swedish film "Kon-Tiki" and a western action-comedy called "Bandidas" starring Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz that I don't think anyone saw.  Their work is adequate, but not stand-out.  The film looks okay and the special effects are impressive, but the plot makes no sense most of the time.  More importantly, they fail to capture the good cheer of the original trilogy.  There was a sense of jolly goofiness that was felt throughout the first three films that made it impossible to go for very long without a silly grin on your face.  Marshall failed to recreate that and these two aren't any more successful.

Many people will flock to this movie simply because they love Jack Sparrow.  I do too, which is why it pains me to tell you that it's not worth your time.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Cooties

2/4

Starring: Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Pedrad, Jorge Garcia

Rated R for Horror Violence and Gore, Language including Sexual References, and Some Drug Use

Ah, cooties.  The predecessor of hormonal confusion.  All the awkwardness, none of the...well, you know.  I'd rather not mention that when referring to kids.  Not that it matters, since that has little to do with kids themselves.  Nor this movie, in fact.  This is a zombie comedy (without the zombies) where the villains become undead as a result of a very bad chicken nugget.  And you thought "Super Size Me" had it in for fast food...

Clint (Wood) is a hack writer having returned home to Fort Chicken, IL after his career as a writer never took off.  To pay the bills, he's returning to his old elementary school as a substitute English teacher.  However, things don't turn out the way he expects: he runs into an old flame, Lucy (Pill), who's dating the psychotic gym teacher Wade (Wilson), the teachers are lunatics, and the kids are monsters.  Just when it couldn't get any worse, they start eating each other.  And the teachers are next on the menu.

Naturally, the filmmakers know that this script could never be taken seriously, and they had to good sense not to even try.  However, while it's certainly not scary, it's not all that funny either.  The set-up is worthy of a few chuckles, but it quickly becomes apparent that "Cooties" doesn't really have anything to bring to the table.  That's surprising considering that the screenplay was co-written by Leigh Whannell (who, along with James Wan, has reinvigorated the horror genre) and Ian Brennan (who gave us "Glee").  About the only new twist is that these kids can plan and think.  But I suppose since they're just afflicted with cooties and not the resurrected dead (although, considering what they do to each other, they're probably that too), it's not really worth noting.

I got the sense that this was an instance where the goal of the movie was less about turning a profit than giving the actors an excuse to have fun.  No one is taking this movie seriously, and it shows.  It's impossible for Elijah Wood to give a bad performance, but the only thing worth noting is that he lets off a few of the seven words you can't say on television.  Yes, Frodo drops a few f-bombs.  Alison Pill is flat as the ever chirpy Lucy.  Rainn Wilson does his usual disaffected dweeb schtick, which has long since become annoying.  Jack McBrayer would be funnier had he been given funnier things to do.  Leigh Whannel takes social awkwardness to a level never before seen.  And Jorge Garcia is wasted as the drugged up crosswalk guard.

Just like the last movie I reviewed, "Lowriders," there's another movie that does the same thing, only better.  Two, in fact.  "Zombieland" is an obvious choice, but my personal preference is "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse," which is funnier, more subversive, and more clever than either of them.  The writing is sharper, the acting is better, the timing is perfect, and it's a whole lot funnier.  "Cooties" isn't terrible, but the underrated gem from two years ago possesses more creativity and a bigger bite.  No pun intended.

Well, maybe.


Lowriders

1.5/4

Starring: Gabriel Chavarria, Demian Bichir, Theo Rossi, Melissa Benoist, Eva Longoria, Tony Revolori

Rated PG-13 for Language, Some Violence, Sensuality, Thematic Elements and Brief Drug Use

I've often said that I go easier on films that try to do something different.  Even if they aren't perfect or don't quite work, I'll give them credit for going against the grain.  However, the reverse is true.  If a film takes no chances or settles for routine, I'm tougher on them.  If a movie plays it safe, it has to bring something new to the table (such as good storytelling, acting, etc., like in "Blood Diamond").  However, if you clearly ignore interesting possibilities in your story or waste talents of your actors in playing it safe, that's when I turn hostile.

Such is the case of "Lowriders," an urban drama that seeks to meld a dysfunctional family yarn with an underdog story.  In addition to being routine on both counts, it does both badly.  There's plenty of bad melodrama, plot holes and eye-rolling contrivances to go around, sabotaging the valiant efforts of the cast to create characters we care about.

Danny Alvarez (Chavarria) is a young street artist struggling to stay above water.  His home life is a mess; his mother has died, his father Miguel (Bichir) seeks to interest him in his obsession with lowriding (building tricked out cars), his step-mother Gloria (Longoria) is around long enough to worry about the both of them.  Now his older brother Francisco (Rossi) has been released from prison, causing further friction.  Danny meets a girl named Lorelai (Benoist) who could lead him to better things.

There's a lot going on, but it's all surprisingly coherent.  Which is a problem, since it highlights how lame and lazy it all is.  There hasn't been a narrative film about low-riding before, which is a nice change of pace, I guess, and there isn't a single drug dealer in sight (ditto), but that's just the seasoning.  The important stuff, like characters and story, is all borrowed from movie formulas so ancient that the term "grave-robbing" can apply.  There's precious little in this movie that hasn't been done before.  Many times, in fact.

The actors are better than this material.  Made up of character actors and unknowns, the cast is ripe with talent.  They do what they can, but ultimately, they're hamstrung by material that's worthy of a high school playwright.  Gabriel Chavarria is effective in an everyman sort of way.  It's a low-key performance, but he shows a natural, unforced charisma that should get him noticed.  He has wonderful chemistry with the hipster photographer played by Melissa Benoist, and as a result, their scenes are the most interesting in the movie.  Demian Bichir does what he can with the clichéd role of the alcoholic grieving father who can't express himself, and he manages to make the character interesting, rather than so emotionally retarded that I wanted to slug him.  Theo Rossi is appropriately serpentine, until the film lets him off the hook.

There is some worthwhile material.  Whenever Ricardo de Montreuil allows his characters to breathe and escape the clichés that the script forces them into, it works.  But such moments are few.  They're like finding a few dry spots in the town dump.  Only the strength of the performances save it from becoming a total nightmare.

Occasionally when you see a bad movie, there's another one that does the same thing better.  There's a movie called "Black Irish" that is very similar but eons better.  It's about an Irish Catholic family from South Boston rather than a Latino family from Southern Los Angeles, but many of its concepts are there as well.  But because it is written with more honesty and specificity, it is a much better film.  Skip this one and see that little indie gem.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Alien: Covenant

3/4

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Callie Hernandez, Demian Bichir

Rated R for Sci-Fi Violence, Bloody Images, Language and Some Sexuality/Nudity

By the time "Alien: Resurrection" was released in 1997, the story of Ellen Ripley and her unending battle with the xenomorphs had been played out.  The franchise had worn out its welcome (I'm not counting the "Alien vs. Predator" movies since no one saw them and none of the fans or creators from either franchise consider them to be part of their respective canons).  But in 2012, Ridley Scott, the director of the original "Alien," released "Prometheus," a prequel of sorts that breathed new life into the franchise, taking it into a more philosophical direction.  That film was born of questions about identity and man's place in the universe, rather than scares and gore (although it had a bit of both).  While it was well received, it left a lot of questions open for the sequel.  Those questions are answered here.

"Alien: Covenant" takes inspiration from the original, its first sequel "Aliens" and its immediate predecessor, and mixes them into a whole that works surprisingly well.  This is a more traditional horror flick than "Prometheus."  Those who felt that the 2012 film was too talky will be satisfied.  There is plenty of action, and it might be the bloodiest in the franchise.  For those who appreciated the thought-provoking material, there is some of that here, but it's not anything new or especially enriching for the mind.  The trade-off is that there is more action and scares, and for my money, it's an acceptable trade-off.

A spacecraft is heading for a distant planet with the intent on colonization.  However, a freak incident causes a considerable amount of damage to the craft, and the loss of the captain (James Franco in a thankfully brief cameo).  While deciding what to do, the crew receives a garbled transmission from a nearby planet that appears to be more habitable than the one they are going to.  The new captain, a man by the name of Oram (Crudup), opts to go investigate, but his next in command, Daniels (Waterston) disagrees.  Nevertheless, they soldier on and make horrifying discoveries.

What "Alien: Covenant" does, it does well.  Ridley Scott doesn't have the greatest track record, but this is a strong effort from him.  He knows how to get the adrenaline going and how to shock his audience.  You get what you pay for.

The acting doesn't impress.  Of the cast, the only one who sticks out is Michael Fassbender (no surprise there), mainly because he's the only one who has a part to play.  Two, actually.  He plays David, who repaired by Shaw (Noomi Rapace) shortly before she died, and the expedition's new andrioid Walter (which breaks with the series tradition of having the new android have their name start with the next letter in the alphabet).  Katherine Waterston is too much of a lightweight to handle an action role, Billy Crudup is miscast, and Danny McBride is effective in a largely dramatic role.  The rest of the cast is simply fodder for the aliens (who have never looked better, by the way).

"Alien: Covenant" doesn't take any risks or do anything unusual.  The ending twist is predictable from a mile away, but that doesn't diminish its effectiveness.  There is a flashback to the Engineers that doesn't really fit and doesn't make a lot of sense.  However, there are some great scares and shocks, and enough blood and gore to satisfy horror fans who have been starved by the PG-13 horror movies of late.  It is what it is, and that's enough to get a recommendation from me.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Wall

3.5/4

Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, and the voice of Laith Nakli

Rated R for Language Throughout and Some War Violence

And the moral of the story is...you don't need a big budget to make a good movie.

If you're thinking of "The Great Wall," don't.  That movie was awful.  This one is great.  Primarily because it understands that there is more to making a movie than throwing special effects at the screen.  This is not an ambitious picture, but it's efficiently made and well-executed.

Isaac (Taylor-Johnson) and Matthews (Cena) are two snipers trying to outfox an opponent who has just slain a number of contractors.  Believing the coast to be clear, they check out the scene but are shot at by an unseen sniper.  Both are wounded, especially Matthews, who is on the verge of bleeding out.  Isaac has found refuge behind a wall, but his attempts to call for help are thwarted by the enemy sniper (Nakli), who hears his every word.  Now it's a deadly game of cat and mouse as they both try to outthink the other.

Actually, a better analogy than the Matt Damon dud from earlier this year is "The Shallows," the forgettable movie that pitted Blake Lively against a very persistent shark.  Both have similar concepts but are on polar opposite ends of the quality spectrum.  It all comes down to the execution.  I identified with the hero and his intelligence, but also feared the villain because he was smart and in control.  By the same token, I could care less about the girl and the shark was less scary than Bruce from "Finding Nemo."

This is a two-character show: Isaac and the sniper.  Isaac is your average soldier.  Not gung-ho, not John Wayne, not Sly Stallone.  He's there to do a job and go home.  However, he knows what he is doing, which makes him more than cannon fodder for Juba, the much feared enemy sniper.  He knows how to keep a cool head and formulate a plan even when Juba messes with his head.

Juba is a nasty piece of work.  In addition to, you know, trying to kill Isaac, he psychologically tortures him.  He asks his quarry personal questions and uses Matthews as a pawn.  Even creepier, he knows that Isaac is injured and how any help will come and how to destroy it.

Director Doug Liman keeps things moving at a nice clip, and throws in new wrenches into the film's story at regular intervals.  He's also good with sleight of hand.  Some of what happens we expect (and we're meant to).  Other times we're surprised.  He keeps us on our toes, and I was never sure what was going to happen next.  More importantly, I cared.

Which brings us to the ending.  I'm not going to give anything away, but I will say that it's shocking but after it wears off you realize that it was well set up and makes perfect sense.  I'm not sure I can say I was satisfied, but I will happily give the film points for its audacity.

The film's suspense lags a little here and there and Laith Nakli isn't creepy enough to do the character justice, but there is more than enough here to get a recommendation from me.  Prepare for a lot of arm clutching and bruised forearms, though.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Snatched

1.5/4

Starring: Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Ike Barinholtz, Wanda Sykes, Joan Cusack, Tom Bateman, Christopher Meloni, Oscar Jaenada

Rated R for Crude Sexual Content, Brief Nudity and Language Throughout

"Snatched" is what this movie did to my life.  Because I decided to watch this movie, 90 precious minutes of my life were stolen by this turkey.  90 minutes doesn't seem like much in terms of a lifetime, but when you spend it watching a movie this bad instead of, say, cleaning the toilet, you get a little pissed.  As much as I wanted to, I stayed so I could review it and encourage you to stay away from this dud.  I hope you're happy.

Admittedly, the filmmakers picked the wrong plot for a comedy.  Tourists getting kidnapped by locals for nefarious purposes is a very real threat in some areas of the world.  Turning this into a comedy would require a deft touch, something that Jonathan Levine does not possess.  There is a constant sense of whiplash between a violent situation and lowbrow comedy that permeates through this movie.  In addition to being unfunny, it's inept.

Emily (Schumer) is having a very bad day.  She lost her job, her boyfriend dumped her just before their trip to Ecuador (with non-refundable tickets), and none of her friends can go with her.  Her only option is her neurotic mother Linda (Hawn), who she doesn't really like.  Reluctantly Linda agrees to go.  While there, Emily meets a sexy Australian named James (Bateman) who takes them on a day trip.  Of course, he's setting them up for a nasty criminal by the name of Morgado (Jaenada).  Now they have to figure out how to stay alive and get to the nearest consulate.  Meanwhile, Emily's brother Jeffrey (Barinholtz), who never leaves the house, attempts to get a federal official to rescue them.

Like so many comedies these days, much of the film seems improvised.  While it never reaches the level of Seth Rogen's antics, there are plenty of moments where the characters restate what they just said over and over again.  Does anyone find this funny?  Shakespeare said that "Brevity is the soul of wit," and that's true.  It is also true that acting obnoxious and crude is funny only when there is a logic behind it.  That's not the case when you're trying to get the attention of a Fed by suddenly speaking Klingon.  Humor requires logic to work.  Sadly, these days, movies follow the Seth Rogen formula where actors just mug the camera and hope they can come up with something funny.  People on set may find it hilarious, but the audience doesn't.

I am disappointed in Amy Schumer.  She soared to worldwide fame two years ago with "Trainwreck," a touching and hilarious romantic comedy that showed off her comic and dramatic skills.  That movie had real characters and real wit, which earned it a spot on my Top 10 list that year.  But here, she's being lazy, coasting by on her charisma and every-woman appeal.  How can someone who is so funny think this script was worthy of her talents.  Hollywood is littered with talented people who were one-hit wonders.  If she wants to survive in the treacherous waters of showbiz, she can't make movies like this.

Why did Goldie Hawn decide to make her comeback in this?  Apart from a voice appearance on the kids TV show "Phineas and Ferb," Hawn hasn't done any work in 15 years.  Why make a comeback with this stinker?  A Hollywood legend like herself doesn't need to stoop this low, no matter how hard up for cash or how bored she is.  This is a waste of her talent.

There are a few moments worthy of a smile or a chuckle, but really, this movie just isn't worth your time.

The Squid and the Whale

2.5/4

Starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, William Baldwin

Rated R for Strong Sexual Content, Graphic Dialogue and Language

You wouldn't believe how many people are surprised that my parents are still together.  With the divorce rate at 50%, I guess it makes sense.  Whether or not this is something that should alarm me, I have yet to figure out.

"The Squid and the Whale" isn't the first film to deal frankly with divorce, nor will it be the last.  But its no-frills, melodrama-free approach sets it apart from all the others.  This is an independent film in the truest sense of the word; shot on digital video and made for a paltry sum of $1.5 million, this was never destined to be shown in the multiplex.  That it is not entirely successful further cements this.

The Berkmans are separating.  Bernard (Daniels) and Joan (Linney) will split custody of their two sons, Walt (Eisenberg) and Frank (Kline).  Plus the cat.  It sounds simple in theory but in practice it is anything but.  Walt idolizes his father while Frank prefers his mother, but when secrets are spilled and experiences come to light, alliances shift back and forth.  Meanwhile, Bernard is shacking up with one of his students (Paquin) while Joan is romancing Frank's tennis instructor (Baldwin).

That this movie is partly autobiographical doesn't surprise me.  It is made with the kind of specificity that can really only be possible with first-hand knowledge.  However, the film comes up short in its construction.  The film moves so fast and with so little depth that it frequently feels like a film trailer rather than a feature film.  Despite the valiant efforts from the actors, the characters feel half-developed and their motivations are often hazy.

This is the kind of low-budget, character-oriented movie where Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney can shine.  Although neither has shown any problem in bigger budget movies, this is their bread and butter.  Both are writers, which brought them together and, to an extent, tore them apart.  Bernard is arrogant but hasn't been published in a long time while Joan is new to the game and experiencing success.  These two know each other too well, and they know just how to hurt each other.  But too little of this aspect of their relationship is explored.

As the kids, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline are fine, but not standout.  Walt's worship of his father is too overplayed, but that's more of the fault of the writing rather than a knock against the future Mark Zuckerberg.  Owen Kline (son of Kevin Kline) is also effective as Frank, although his character is so troubled that I genuinely feared for him.  Neither child is coping well with the split, in fact; Walt is having relationship issues with his girlfriend (Halley Feiffer) while Frank turns to alcohol and acting out sexually.  William Baldwin and Anna Paquin provide solid support.

Baumbach originally wrote the film for his good friend Wes Anderson to direct, but he turned it down and convinced Baumbach to make himself since it was so personal.  I shudder to think of what Anderson's ego would have done with this material.  As it is, it's a solid effort from a new director that signals better things to come in the future.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Race

2/4

Starring: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Shanice Banton, Jeremy Irons, Carice van Houten, Barnaby Metschurat

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Elements and Language

The title "Race" is a plainly obvious double meaning on the film's conflict: a track race and racial tension.  Bet you didn't see that one coming, did you?  And the film as a whole is written with that amount of depth: it wants to be deep and substantial, but consistently underestimates the intelligence of the audience.  This isn't a bad movie, just a hopelessly routine one.

Director Stephen Hopkins (never one to make movies of substantial quality) seems more interested in dotting every t and crossing every i than creating three-dimensional characters or telling a compelling (or coherent) story.  The list of clichés he employs reads like a list of greatest hits from Sports Movie 101.  Let's count them down, shall we?

-Period piece setting complete with sepia tone: check

-Talented but naïve champion-to-be who comes from the wrong side of the tracks: check

-Hard drinking, tough as nails coach who has a secret soft side: check

-Said champion-to-be gets seduced by fame and glory and forgets who his real friends are: check

-A hero who must prove himself in the face of enemies who will do anything to see him fail: check

-Bonding with a rival: check and double check.

-A crisis of conscience between following his dream and taking a stand.

I could go on.  And on.  There is very little here that's unique or original.  Although this is ostensibly about Olympic champion Jesse Owens (James), his character is so thinly written that he could be any generic Hollywood athletic hero.  His co-stars fare even worse.

But wait!  Didn't I give "Goal! The Dream Begins" a rave review even though it did the exact same thing?  Yes I did.  But that movie had energy and conviction.  The characters may not have been original, but they had enough personality that I formed a connection with them.  Plus that movie had the good sense to pick and choose which clichés to employ.  "Race" uses all of them.  None of them are given any room to breathe, by the way.

The performances do not help matters.  Stephan James is a bland lead. bringing little in the way of depth or life to the role.  Granted, he is working with a subpar screenplay, but there's no spark for me to connect with him.  I could care less about his character or his dreams.  Funnyman Jason Sudeikis seized the chance to achieve his goal of doing a drama, and while his performance is merely okay, he's the best thing in it.  Jeremy Irons and William Hurt lend their talents in small roles, but neither appears to be trying very hard.  Carice van Houten shows up in a totally thankless role as infamous documentarian Leni Riefenstahl, but she's uneven (I fault the screenplay).  David Kross has a small role as Jesse's rival, and he manages to save the character from being a complete saint.

"Race" enters into dangerous waters when it deals with racism and anti-Semitism, particularly from the Third Reich, and it doesn't do so successfully.  Frankly, this material is written so dumb that it's insulting.  Didn't anyone involved with the production have any respect for the intelligence of the audience?  That this was produced by Focus Features, known for creating movies for audiences who have grown up from their Marvel phase, is a little astounding.

This film is a cash grab, plain and simple.  The filmmakers were uninterested in presenting a new perspective on an interesting figure nor were they interested in paying respect to his life.  They chose a historical figure that fit into the genre they were looking to make and did the rest on autopilot.

Don't bother.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

1.5/4

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Eric Bana

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Violence and Action, Some Suggestive Content and Brief Strong Language

While one can debate which weekend signaled the exact start of the 2017 summer movie season, there's no doubt that it's in full swing now.  That means we get movies that place more emphasis on marketing and special effects rather than plot or good writing.  With "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword," Warner Bros. is hoping for a new franchise.  While making a projection on its box office success (or lack thereof) on the night before its official opening may seem a bit premature, trust me when I say this: it ain't gonna happen.  Especially when audiences realize what a dog this movie is.  Warner Bros. apparently knows too, since marketing has been minimal and the buzz is negative.

Like most franchise starters, this is an origin story (here's a novel idea: start with the pieces already in place).  Uther (Bana) is the King of England, which has lived peacefully with the magically inclined mages.  That is until Mordred (Rob Knighton) comes along and uses dark magic to seize ultimate power.  He is defeated by Uther, but Uther's brother Vortigern (Law) betrays him and takes the throne for himself.  Fortunately Uther sent his young son away before Vortigern could kill him.  Years later, the boy, named Arthur (Hunnam) has grown up, and once it's revealed that he can pull the legendary sword from the stone, the few that oppose Vortigern want Arthur to overthrow his uncle.  Saying it is one thing.  But Arthur cannot control the sword, dubbed "Excalibur."

The list of things that "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" does wrong could go on for a mile.  Chief among them is a poor choice of cinematographer.  This is a dark, ugly, brooding film that in addition to being ridiculous and incoherent (not to mention boring), is impossible to see.  There's atmosphere, and then there's this.  Not only can the feeble script not support such a brooding tone (which doesn't fit to begin with), it's poorly done.  Alone, it would be irritating.  But with the 3D glasses, it's horrible.  3D splits the image, which results in the dimming of light.  So you can guess what it's like to watch a horribly lighted movie in 3D.

The acting doesn't help matters either.  Charlie Hunnam is one note, Jude Law is in full "take the money and run" mode, Astrid Berges-Frisbey's English is so bad she can barely sound out the words (Gong Li spoke better English in "Memoirs of a Geisha"), Djimon Hounsou is wasted, and Eric Bana is in the film little enough that it probably won't harm his career.  It's hard to blame the cast, since the script is so weak.  None of the cast has any character to play; they're just props for the dumb dialogue.  The story makes little sense, and when it does, it's only because it's stealing from other, better movies.

Guy Ritchie has become a sort of cult director for film geeks, and I have yet to see why.  I suppose his hyper-kinetic style can be considered "hip" and "offbeat" by some, but not by me.  Ritchie employs so many camera tricks and storytelling techniques that "self-indulgent" is more appropriate than "style."  The frantic rat-a-tat dialogue in some scenes is like bad David Mamet and the scenes where he visualizes future events as they talk about it in the present sounds a lot cooler than it plays out.  And there are the usual offenders, like shaking the camera and frantically cutting.

I recently watch "The Lord of the Rings" yesterday, and boy, does this movie pale by comparison.  It's dark, grungy and cheerless.  What the film really lacks (apart from the plethora of necessities I wasted your time describing) is joy.  This movie is not fun.  It's meant to make enough bucks to justify a sequel or two so ten years or so down the line you can pick up a box set.  If that happens, it will be in the discount DVD bin.

Oh wait, there is one element of praise.  The score by Daniel Pemberton is appropriately badass.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Misconduct

1.5/4

Starring: Josh Duhamel, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Alice Eve, Malin Ackerman, Julia Stiles, Glen Howard, Chris Marquette

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

You'd think I'd learn.  A few years ago I watched a movie I found available at a grocery store, of all places, called "The Stone Merchant."  It starred Harvey Keitel and F. Murray Abraham and it was available for cheap, so I bought it.  And it was awful.  So here is "Misconduct," a legal thriller starring acting titans Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins, up-and-coming leading man Josh Duhamel and lady Alice Eve, and reliable character actors Malin Ackerman and Julia Stiles.  Surely it had to be a diamond in the rough, right?  That would be a no.

A pharmaceutical company is being sued after one of its drugs caused the deaths of hundreds of people.  A hotshot lawyer named Ben Cahill (Duhamel) wants to lead the case when an old flame, Emily Hynes (Ackerman), comes to him with evidence that not only did the CEO Arthur Denning (Hopkins) know that the drug was deadly, he covered it up.  His boss, Charles Abrams (Pacino), is impressed by his ambition, and gives him the go ahead.  Trouble arises when Ben nearly makes the mistake of cheating on his wife Charlotte (Eve) with Emily and Emily ends up missing.

"Misconduct" is like a bad John Grisham movie.  Grisham wasn't the best writer (for legal thrillers set in the South, the Penn Cage novels win hands down), but his stories had a certain grace to them.  Newbie director Shintaro Shimosawa tries to ape Grisham's formula, but fails spectacularly.  This is a terrible movie.

For one thing, every character has the IQ of a peanut.  The late great film critic Roger Ebert called stories like this the "Idiot Plot."  This is when the plot can only work when the characters don't state the obvious.  That would apply here if the characters were smart enough to actually figure out the obvious.  The whole plot starts because Ben tries to cover up his affair with Emily, which of course never actually happened.

With such a strong cast, you'd think that they could at least keep things watchable.  But no one is trying here.  They're all slumming for paychecks, which, considering the $11 million budget, must have been paltry considering what they're used to.  Josh Duhamel tries his best to hide the fact that his character is a complete moron.  He's so dumb that he's just asking for trouble.  Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino, neither of whom are above walking through roles for easy money (for anyone who doubts me, I submit "Instinct" and "Gigli" as evidence), are in full "take the money and run mode."  Pacino in particular is awful, acting either drunk, stoned or demented.  Possibly all three.  He hasn't been this bad since that crapfest "88 Minutes."  Reliable talents like Alice Eve, Malin Ackerman and Julia Stiles have conveniently and mysteriously forgotten how to act.  Only Glen Howard and Chris Marquette escape unscathed, but their screen time is so minimal that it's hard to judge whether or not the film would have been better had it concentrated on them instead.

In addition to being able to drain the talent out of just about everyone on screen, Shimosawa has no idea what he's doing behind the camera.  Shots are poorly framed and visual techniques are poorly executed and inappropriately used.  For example, the surprise revelation of a corpse is so badly done that I thought it was someone else.  Imagine my shock and confusion when I found the person I thought to be the dead body alive and well in the very next scene.  This sloppiness is indicative of the entire picture.

But the cardinal sin of this movie is that it's boring.  Shimosawa takes this movie deadly seriously, and the actors are so obviously bored that they can't be bothered to camp it up.  At least then it might be fun in a late-night b-movie sort of way.  Or a parody of John Grisham movies (which I have to admit would have been odd, since he hasn't been relevant in 20 years).  But alas, it's played straight, and that means boredom.  Trust me, don't waste your time or money on this movie.  Taking the Bar on a whim would be more fulfilling.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

3/4

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Kurt Russell, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Violence, Language and Brief Suggestive Content

Anyone who reads my reviews on a regular basis knows how tired I am of the superhero genre.  In fact, many of you probably think that I hate the entire genre.  This is not the case; I was excited for this movie and I can't wait to see "Thor: Ragnarok," since the thought of Cate Blanchett vamping it up and participating in some serious action scenes makes it hard to wait for November).  I just can't stand the bad ones where fan service and loyalty are used as a crutch for lazy screenwriting and pedestrian direction.  This is why I was disappointed by "The Avengers" and "Logan," for example, while I love Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy.  Although miles away from Christopher Nolan's masterful saga, "Guardians of the Galaxy" grew on me for the same reason: good writing and filmmaking trump shout-outs to Comic-Con regulars.  Oh sure, there's some of that here, but it's not all encompassing.  It's kept to the details and background, just as it should be.

The Guardians are back.  Star-Lord, aka Peter Quill (Pratt), leads a team of lovable misfits and weirdos including Gamora (Saldana), Draxx (Bautista), Rocket (Cooper) and Baby Groot (Diesel) who don't fit in with anyone except each other.  They've taken a mission to protect a set of batteries from an evil monster in exchange Gamora's sister Nebula (Gillan), whom they plan to turn over to Xandar for a huge bounty.  At this point, Rocket steals the batteries for himself.  Deeply insulted, the Guardians' former employers go on the attack but are saved by a mysterious ship.  When they crash land, their saviors follow them.  They are Mantis (Klementieff), who can sense people's feelings and Ego (Russell), who turns out to be Peter's father.

More than that I will not say.  I will say that the film's strongest sections are its beginning and its end.  The film sags in the middle, primarily because director James Gunn separates the Guardians.  The core appeal of the first one was the chemistry and interplay between these five characters.  It was a blast to hang out with them.  But by splitting them apart, Gunn robs them of their chemistry, of course, this gives Yondu (Rooker) a lot more screen time, but many of his scenes could have been left on the cutting room floor.  By the same token, the scenes with Star-Lord and Ego fall flat because of weak acting.  Russell is having a grand time, but Pratt falls flat.  His strengths are in comedy and his everyman appearance.  Heavy drama is not his strong suit.  He was effective in last year's "Passengers," but he had a strong screenplay and director.  That isn't really the case with the dramatic scenes here.

That said, the opening and especially the final act are a total blast.  Few modern filmmakers can put on the razzle dazzle like James Gunn (certainly not the lucky geek Joss Whedon), and his prowess shows.  They're exciting and a lot of fun.  The humor is appropriately warped and the tongue-in-cheek yet still legitimate tone that made the first film so much fun is achieved again but not as consistently.  Gunn takes things a little too seriously in the middle section, which robs the film of its charm.

There's a lot to like about this new adventure, and while it's not flawless, it's still a lot of fun.  The action scenes are thrilling and the humor is occasionally uproarious (the film opens with Baby Groot dancing to "Mr. Blue Sky" while everyone else fights the monster.  It's funnier than it sounds, trust me).  Summer at the box office has officially started, and the Guardians kick it off in a big way.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Sacrifice

2/4

Starring: Radha Mitchell, Joanne Crawford, Rupert Graves, Robert McElhinney

Not Rated (Probable R for Disturbing Violent Content including Grisly Images and Rituals, and for Brief Language)

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to find a movie like "Sacrifice" on Netflix.  It has a formula plot, adequate performances and pedestrian direction.  It is also plagued by plot holes that only increase in size and quantity the longer the film goes on.  The film is only 90 minutes long, which I guess I should be thankful for.  I won't say I was ever truly bored, but I will say that this is not a good movie.

Dr. Tora Hamilton (Mitchell) is an obstetrician living in New York.  When a medical emergency prevents her from having children, she and her husband Duncan (Graves) relocate to rural Scotland to be with his family.  She can resume her practice with less hustle and bustle, and with the help of her in-laws, she and Duncan can adopt a child and raise a family.  But when she uncovers a long buried body in her backyard, she begins to suspect that something very fishy is going on in this tiny island community.

Problem number one: I didn't know who was who in this story.  The leads are established okay, but the supporting characters are not.  Director Peter A. Dowling never develops the local townsfolk enough to the point when the characters are talking about them, we know who they are.  That's a fatal flaw for any movie, perhaps never more so than in an Agatha Christie wannabe.

Problem number two: The story is pure formula.  I've often defended formula movies provided they are well-constructed.  That's not the case here.  This is obviously made by a crew who had little grasp of what they were doing, and the screenplay takes no chances.  Sure, there are one or two interesting details, but the part they play in the story is so ordinary.  There are so many other movies that have done this same story to much better effect.  And to avoid spoilers for anyone who still wants to bother with this movie (not recommended), I won't list them.

Problem number three: The film looks and feels blander than tofu.  In addition to having a routine mystery plot, it's shot by an amateur.  Dowling has one other directorial credit to his name, and that was 8 years before this movie.  Not a good sign.  It's not hard to see why studios are reluctant to hand him a screenplay.  Shot selection is bland, the cinematography is as routine as possible, and there's no specificity to any of the characters or the story.  When you're making a formula movie, or any kind of movie, the details matter.  They develop the characters and make the setting come alive.  Those things are essential for a movie to work.  "Sacrifice" has none of these things.

If there's anything positive I can say about this movie, is that the performances are strong enough to prevent this from ever becoming painful.  Thank God for Radha Mitchell.  A mainstay on the indie film circuit, Mitchell is more than capable of holding her own in genre pictures like "Silent Hill."  She's too smart for the screenplay she was given and adjusts her efforts accordingly (read: she sleepwalks through it), but she's still an adequate anchor for this movie.  Rupert Graves and Joanne Crawford provide solid support, too, but this is her show.  The villains, when unmasked, are lacking.  They're not creepy enough.  They're straight out of the storeroom or writer's clichés, and it hurts the film considerably.  Especially since the film could have been so much more.