Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rough Night

1.5/4

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Zoe Kravitz, Illana Glazer, Kate McKinnon, Paul W. Downs

Rated R for Crude Sexual Content, Language Throughout, Drug Use and Brief Bloody Images

My brother's bachelor party last year went off without a hitch, thank you very much.  We and a few of his friends went to Nashville for some partying, go karts and good food.  I suppose I should be grateful for that.  I could have been as unfortunate as Scarlett Johansson: trapped in a bad SNL skit that won't end with four irritating shrews and a dead body.

Jess (Johansson) is stressed out.  She's running behind in the polls for a Senate seat (despite the fact that her competitor has taken the Anthony Wiener method of getting himself on the front page) and her bachelorette party is this weekend.  Nevertheless, she decides to go to Miami with her college friends: the awkward and in-your-face Alice (Bell), the rich bitch Blair (Kravitz), the lesbo activist Frankie (Glazer) and the blonde from down under Pippa (McKinnon).  The wedding party goes off without much fanfare except when Frankie decides to get a stripper.  When he shows up, he gets too frisky with Jess.  Alice is okay with getting laid by a stripper from Craigslist and hops on his lap.  But the big girl accidentally knocks him over and he hits his head on a counter.  Now the group has a dead body on their hands and has to figure out what to do about it.

"Rough Night" makes the common mistake of many comedies these days: it thinks that crude and/or awkward equal hilarious.  Well, they can.  Just look at "Liar Liar."  But that movie had scenes that were set up, it had a point of view, and it had characters that acted in outrageous ways only because the situations they found themselves in were illogical.  It also had good comic timing and Jim Carrey's manic energy.

It wouldn't surprise me if this movie didn't have a script.  It sounds improvised which is not a good idea for a movie.  It's fine for a line or two, but movies are not stand-up acts (something that Seth Rogen has yet to grasp).  Movies require storylines and characters.  They have to have comic tension.  There has to be a set-up before a joke.  Merely saying something weird isn't funny.  That's why "Rough Night" is unbearably lame while "Ted" was hilarious.  I wish Hollywood would stop being so lazy and actually write comic screenplays.  Fully improvised movies are never any good, and are usually downright awful (remember "Fist Fight?").

Scarlett Johansson is too talented for this material.  Easily one of the smartest and most alluring actresses working today, ScarJo probably saw the chance to let loose and have some fun.  But she's the highest paid actress in Hollywood.  This movie's production marched to her beat.  Why didn't she insist on some rewrites?  Why did she choose a screenplay that is this bland and tired?  She does what she can, and understands the concept of comic timing, but she is buried alive in all the failed humor and sitcom-like plot developments.

She is not helped by her supporting cast.  Her movie BFFs are either boring, irritating, or both.  Jillian Bell appears to be trying to ape Melissa McCarthy's "Bridesmaids" persona, but lacks McCarthy's comic energy and jolliness.  There's no zany edge to her performance.  Zoe Kravitz and Illana Glazer do their best to blend into the background, probably because they realize that appearing in this movie is a bad career move.  The best I can say about Kate McKinnon is that she sports a flawless Aussie accent.  Ty Burrell and Demi Moore show up for two scenes as uninhibited neighbors, but they come across as creepy rather than funny.  Their scenes fall uncomfortably flat.  The comic potential in contrasting the wildness of the bachelorette party with Jess's fiancé Peter (Downs) and his gay (?) bachelors subdued night out is wasted.  Or his adventures trying to get to Miami, which is because of a misunderstanding that's so dumb it surpasses the bar set by even bottom of the barrel comedies like this.

In addition to having bad material, co-writer/director Lucia Aniello fails at even the basic mechanics of comedy.  She has little concept of comic timing. there's no comic tension in most of the set pieces, and it runs on for far too long.  She can boast an amusing moment or two here and there, but for the most part the film never does anything edgy or unexpected enough to be funny.  Only the climax, which involves the bachelorette party, a second stripper and two cops, has any momentum, but barely enough for a Friday morning sitcom.

Trust me.  Avoid "Rough Night."

Mrs. Miniver

3.5/4

Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, Richard Ney, Dame Mae Whitty, Henry Travers

Not Rated (probable PG for War Scenes)

War movies are usually about the battles.  Movies like "Saving Private Ryan," "Black Hawk Down," "Fury" and others dominate the genre.  There are others, such "Schindler's List," which studied two men on opposite sides of the morality spectrum, or "Black Book," which used war as a setting for a psychological thriller.  But these movies are rare.  "Mrs. Miniver" is different in the sense that it looks at war from the perspective of average citizens.  It views war as a reality; something that didn't have a beginning, middle or end.  Air raids, destruction and death had become common place.  There really isn't anything quite like it.  The closest film I can think of is "Grave of the Fireflies," although that's a bit of a stretch.

The film opens shortly before the outbreak of World War II.  The Minivers are an upper class family with a penchant for living beyond their means.  Kay (Garson) has indulged herself by buying a fancy new hat while Clem (Pigeon) has splurged on a new car.  Life in their quaint little English town is simple; Lady Beldon (Whitty) is preparing to be awarded for her roses, Vin Miniver (Ney) is returning home from college and begins romancing Lady Beldon's granddaughter Carol (Wright).  Life changes for all when war breaks out.  Vin joins the Air Force, Clem has to save soldiers at Dunkirk, while Kay finds herself facing off against a downed German pilot in her kitchen.

What separates "Mrs. Miniver" from the rest is that it's not a narrative driven film.  Oh sure, the characters have motivations and perspectives on their situations.  They're not puppets wandering around to suit the needs of the plot like in a "Transformers" movie.  It's just that director William Wyler is more interested in illustrating the reality that these people find themselves in.  Life changes significantly if war is in your backyard.  Movies like "The Patriot" have touched on this theme, but only as a minor detail.  In "Mrs. Miniver," it's the soul focus.

The acting is exceptional.  Not surprising, since it racked up Oscar nods for five of its members (Garson, Pidgeon, Wright, Whitty and Travers).  Of those, Garson and Wright won (Garson made history on Oscar night when she gave a five-and-a-half minute long acceptance speech.  And you thought the modern Oscars were overlong...).  In the title role, Garson is exceptional.  She has a difficult job; creating a woman for whom war has become a fact of life, where worry and fear have become so commonplace that they are the norm.  And yet there is a strength and kindness to her that's infectious and irresistible.  She has good chemistry with her on-screen husband Walter Pidgeon (not surprising, since she had done so once before, and would do so again another six times, including the sequel).  Their relationship with each other rings true of a couple who have been together for many years.  The supporting cast is just as strong.  Teresa Wright is adorable as the lovely Carol, bringing life and a bit of spunk to what could have easily been a cliché.   Richard Ney turns on the charm as the handsome Vin, though ironically he would end up marrying his on-screen mother after filming completed...a union that lasted less than five years and killed his career.  Dame Mae Whitty appears as the brittle and difficult Lady Beldon while Henry Travers (aka Clarence from "It's a Wonderful Life") appears in a small but important role as the simple Mr. Ballard.

Although not a traditional war film, it's never boring.  The characters are compelling, the romance is winning, and there are some scenes of high tension.  I counted at least three, including a bunker scene that is most revealing about the coping mechanisms a person must have had to build to survive such a situation and very suspenseful.

"Mrs. Miniver" was inspired by a series of columns by Jan Struther about life in England, which understandably reflected the change in England's psyche as war began brewing.  Anyone can see that this is a propaganda film, albeit one that's more about ideas and painting a reality than championing an ideal.  Though German, William Wyler was a fierce opponent of the Nazi regime and made this film to stir up opposition to the Third Reich.  Indeed, after filming was completed, he joined the war effort, serving as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps making propaganda films.  This isn't a flawless film, with some curious editing and shot choices, but its themes and characters are presented with clarity and potency.

"Mrs. Miniver" remains a cultural touchstone, a war film with a specific time and place that finds a new angle on WWII.  The conflict that took place between 1939 and 1945 has been, and will probably always be, fertile territory for film.  "Mrs. Miniver" is one of many that has taken the challenge of doing it justice and succeeded.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Monster Calls

3/4

Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, and the voice of Liam Neeson

Rated PG-13 for Thematic Content and Some Scary Images

One can make many claims about "A Monster Calls."  Weird, bizarre, depressing, hard to understand.  All true.  One cannot claim that this movie plays is safe.  "A Monster Calls" is not an easy film to experience or even conceive of.  It relies heavily on metaphor, intuition and subtext.  The elements don't always gel, but the end result is worth experiencing.  Perhaps more than once.

Conor (MacDougall) is not a happy child.  His mother Lizzie (Jones) is dying, his father (Kebbell) is lives halfway around the world, and the prospect of living with his grandmother (Weaver) is not a pleasant one.  One night at 12:07 a.m., the yew tree in the nearby graveyard comes to life as a monster.  The Monster (Neeson) tells Conor that he will return to tell him three stories and then Conor must then tell him one in return.

It goes without saying that this is about Conor coming to terms with his mother's impending death.  Death of a loved one is not an easy thing to experience, especially at such a young age, but it's a path we must all take before we take it ourselves.  Director J.A. Bayona shows this process through it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Putting together "child hero" and "fantasy" gives off the impression that this is a kid-friendly film.  Sort of a Harry Potter meets Willy Wonka kind of thing.  That's not the case here.  This is a dark film that deals with heavy themes like grief, loss, murder and moral ambiguity.  Plus there are some sequences that will get the nape hairs on end for even the most stalwart of viewers.  Tread carefully when considering showing this to children.

The acting is effective.  Lewis MacDougall, coming off a small role in the bomb of a Peter Pan prequel, is sold in the lead but lacks screen presence.  It's a good acting job but he has trouble holding the camera's attention.  Felicity Jones sparkles as Lizzie, who is filled with life and love even as she approaches death.  Sigourney Weaver is miscast; although she ably handles the heavy drama (not one of the actress's strong suits) and sports a consistent British accent, she seems wrong for the role of the brittle, aloof grandmother.  Weaver projects a natural warmth that's at odds with the character she plays.  Liam Neeson gives us a monster who is far more complicated than he initially appears to be.

This is a visually dazzling movie that, unlike the "Transformers" movies, uses CGI and special effects intelligently.  The blending of live action and CGI isn't seamless, but it gets the job done.  And the stories that The Monster tells are illustrated in an abstract, water color style that is oh so appealing.

And yet the film never really quite clicks.  The heavy emphasis on subtext and audience intuition would be fine if it had a stronger foundation.  And the film gets off to a slow start.  Once The Monster starts telling his first story, the movie finds its groove.

"A Monster Calls" isn't for everyone.  It's a challenging and emotionally draining movie that demands thought.  This isn't a dumb popcorn movie.  It's much more ambitious.  And while it doesn't always work, there's enough good stuff to warrant a rental,.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Cars 3

2/4

Starring (voices): Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Larry the Cable Guy, Nathan Fillon, Chris Cooper, Armie Hammer

Rated G

My relationship with Pixar's "Cars" franchise is not strong.  I started watching the original on pay-per-view but fell asleep (and was unimpressed with what I saw).  I never saw "Cars 2."  I was wary of approaching this movie with so little familiarity with it's respective franchise.  But then I remembered that Pixar's target audience is little kids, and therefore unlikely that their films demand fanboy obsessiveness like the Marvel Cinematic Universe does.

That said, "Cars 3" is a pretty lame movie.  It follows the Pixar formula of telling a story to convey a certain theme (in this case, it's that time never stops), peppering it with humor, action and heart.  The thing is, it doesn't do any of that well.  The humor is hit-and-miss with the misses being the most prominent (although there is a hilarious sequence in which Lightning McQueen has trouble with a racing simulator), the heart-tugging moments are muted because they're so cliché, and the action is routine.  Pixar made its name on taking bold risks and great storytelling.  It's not like them to put out a product just to make money (although it's been done before...remember "Monsters University?").

Lightning McQueen (Wilson) is once again on the top of the racing world.  He's a winner and the public loves him for it.  However, his perch is threatened by a new upstart named Jackson Storm (Hammer), a hotshot with a lot of techno bells and whistles.  Soon, everyone starts copying him, and Lightning's old frenemies either retire or get fired by their sponsors.  To give him the best edge, his old sponsors sold their business to one of his longtime fans, a car named Sterling (Fillon).  Sterling promises to give Lightning everything he needs, but after said disaster with the simulator, Sterling thinks that it's time for Lightning to retire.  Lightning wants to retire on his own terms, so he makes Sterling a deal: if he wins the next race, he can keep racing.  If not, it's a lifetime of endorsements and publicity deals.  So he sets out to train harder than ever, and tagging along is his mantra-obsessed trainer, Cruz Ramierz (Alonzo).

"Cars 3" reeks of marketing-driven filmmaking.  Every element of this film seems to be there simply to target a certain market.  True, this is something that happens with just about every movie, but the best movies like the Pixar canon hide it with good screenwriting and smart filmmaking.  "Cars 3" is so unsubtle about it that it's almost offensive.  The gay stereotyping is just as appalling.

The voice acting is effective.  Owen Wilson, Crestela Alonzo, and the rest of the cast doe their jobs well.  The problem is that they aren't given anything to work with.  Pixar has been known for putting a lot of TLC into its writing and filmmaking.  Who can forget the dynamic relationship between Woody and Buzz in the first "Toy Story" movie?  Or the sheer brilliance of Dory's dialogue in "Finding Nemo?"  This is pedestrian filmmaking at its most obvious.

Pixar has become so beloved that even non-film fans know the studio name and will flock to their films because Pixar is synonymous with quality.  But they're becoming less reliable.  "Inside Out" was their last big movie, (although others loved it more than I did).  The last great movie was "Brave," and that was five years ago.  If Pixar wants to keep its reputation, they gotta stop the cash grabs like this and "Monsters University."  Unless they feel that they've got a story worth telling, they should move on to a new story.  Come to think of it, every studio should operate by this ideal.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Video Games: The Movie

1.5/4

Not Rated (Probable PG for Some Animated Violent and Sexual Images)

Roger Ebert once said that he thought the spoof genre was the hardest to review.  Which makes sense, since acting, storytelling and so on are beside the point.  I disagree.  My review of "Scary Movie" was fairly easy to write, if memory serves.  True, it's a futile endeavor to discuss the performances of Anna Faris or Jon Abrahams in a pure parody, but there is fertile ground for a film critic to discuss.

No, I find that documentaries are the hardest to review because none of the traditional talking points apply.  They don't have actors, dialogue or directorial style.  Reviewing a documentary is like reviewing a college lecture or a newspaper article.  The only thing worth noting is what the film contains.  And unless they're unbelievable good or horrifically bad, there isn't a lot to say more than that.

Which brings us to "Video Games: The Movie."  A terribly uncreative title, to be sure.  But this isn't a movie designed to win Oscars or to make a lot of money.  This is a movie that was made by and for people with a huge passion for video games (an audience that I consider myself a member of).  It is also far and away the blandest, most self-congratulatory documentary I've ever seen.  On a technical level, it looks great (if a little self-indulgent).  But when it comes to educating the audience about its subject, it's less reporting than a 90 minute advertisement for the video game industry.  Which begs the question who this movie was made for, since almost no one who watches this movie will learn anything they don't already know.

"Video Games: The Movie" is unusually structured.  Rather than narrate the history of the industry, it's divided by topic: history, innovation, what video games actually are (something no one seems to be able to define with certainty), inspiration, and so forth.  None of it is attacked with any specificity whatsoever.  In fact, while innovation is trumpeted almost incessantly, none of the trailblazers are mentioned by name, or at least in any detail.  For example, "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time," widely considered to be the best video game ever made (an opinion I do not share, by the way), had a laundry list of new mechanics that forever altered the industry.  "Resident Evil 4" completely revamped a franchise and set the standard for horror in video games.  And so on.  To ignore such important parts of the video game industry and history is totally unacceptable.

Director Jeremy Snead refuses to deal with anything controversial or that casts the industry in a poor light (this might explain why so many video game executives are willing to appear on camera).  Judging by this documentary, the entire industry is filled with cool guys and girls who wear their nerdiness with a badge of honor and where every day is filled with passion and creativity.  Anyone who knows anything about the industry is well aware that such a statement is so disingenuous that it's practically offensive.  Not once are the miserable working conditions, microtransactions, the competition from mobile gaming or the disconnect between R&D and marketing mentioned.  On the rare occasions when something negative is mentioned, such as the "E.T." fiasco which almost collapsed the entire industry, it's soft-pedaled.  Or it's unfair.  When Joe Liberman is decrying the violence in video games, he's presented as an out-of-touch fuddy duddy.  Anyone who has seen a "Mortal Kombat" game is well aware of the validity of such criticisms.

I give the film points for being about something I'm interested in and celebrating video games as something other than a time waster, but this goes way too far.  Even a gamer like me will go into sugar shock while watching this movie.  If they haven't fallen asleep.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Waist Deep

1.5/4

Starring: Tyrese Gibson, Meagan Good, Game, Larenz Tate, Henry Hunter Hall

Rated R for Strong Violence and Pervasive Language

When did action movies stop being fun?  When I was growing up,  I would watch movies like "Speed," "True Lies," and "The Rock."  They were just as violent as "Waist Deep," if not more so, but they were fun.  There was joy in their construction.  They were entertaining.  "Waist Deep" wants to be an action movie with a social ax to grind, which is fine by me.  It's difficult, but it can be done (see "Set it Off" for an example).  But this movie has a flat screenplay, lousy performances and a director that tries in vain to salvage what cannot be saved.  This movie is a waste of time and money.

O2 (Gibson) is an ex-con trying to get his life back on track.  He's been out on parole for a month, and is determined to make a better life for himself and his son Junior (Hall).  However, after his drug-addled brother Lucky (Tate) chooses to get high rather than pick up Junior from school, O2 has to take off work to take his son home.  That's when he's carjacked with Junior inside.  Now, O2, Lucky and a street hustler named Coco (Good) have to band together to set two drug lords against each other and rescue Junior.

I mentioned "Speed" earlier, and in a strange way it's an apt comparison.  Both are simple stories that succeed or fail based whether or not the director can keep the adrenaline high enough for the audience to not realize how silly everything is.  That's the difference between "Speed" and "Waist Deep."  The 1994 sleeper hit is just as dumb, but a hundred times more fun because Jan de Bont kept things movie with breathless energy.  Vondie Curtis-Hall is without a clue.  He resorts to the old standbys of directors who haven't the slightest idea of how to make an action movie: shaking the camera, frantic cutting, and ostentatious camera tricks.  Instead of creating the desired adrenaline, he's only highlighting how lame the movie is.

The performances leave a lot to be desired.  Tyrese Gibson, never an actor with a lot of range, has one mode for his performance: dead serious.  He plays the role like he's Hamlet, which would be unintentionally hilarious if it wasn't so boring.  His co-star Meagan Good is awful.  Rarely is she able to speak her lines convincingly.  Larenz Tate isn't as irritating as usual, which is something of an improvement, I guess.  Henry Hunter Hall (son of the director) borders on being too cute.  Only rap star Game impresses.  As the drug lord known as Meat, he's vicious enough to be frightening.  The movie would have been better served had it abandoned the silly and banal search for the kid and concentrated on him.

This movie is a stinker.  A bomb.  A dead zone.  Whatever you want to call it, it's a piece of crap.  Avoid it like the plague.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Craft

2/4

Starring: Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True, Skeet Ulrich, Assumpta Serna

Rated R for Some Violence and Terror, and for Brief Language

"The Craft" is your standard order 90's girl power movie.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Even with those unambitious goals, it's still not a very good movie.  With pedestrian direction, a bland screenplay and an hour of no real conflict, it's hard to imagine that this became a cult hit.

Sarah Bailey (Tunney) is a high school student moving from Los Angeles to San Francisco with her parents.  After being humiliated by Chris Hooker (Ulrich), the school stud, she falls in with Nancy (Balk), Bonnie (Campbell) and Rochelle (True), the school outcasts.  Actually, it's the other way around.  You see, the three girls are witches.  Like, real ones.  They sense that Sarah is a witch too and conspire for her to join them so they can be a quartet and become more powerful.  Initially, the lonely Sarah enjoys the friendship and the power (such as getting Chris to like her).  But when things go too far and people start dying, Sarah wants out.  Of course, that's definitely not okay with the others.

This isn't an inherently bad idea for a movie.  I doubt a good one could have been made from it, but solid b-movie entertainment isn't out of the question.  But the movie takes itself too seriously for it to have much value in that department.  It makes passes at drama and horror, but doesn't succeed as either.  The screenplay is too weak and Andrew Fleming, whose resume does not inspire confidence (he directed "Hamlet 2" and "Dick," two would-be black comedies with teeth as sharp as the latest "Barbie" movie).

At least the performances are nice.  Robin Tunney, an adorable and talented actress whose career never took off like it should have, is as lovely as ever, showing vulnerability and spunk.  Fairuza Balk is perfectly cast as the goth witch Nancy.  Actually, Balk is a Wiccan in real life, and was able to give the filmmakers advice for authenticity or direct them to those who could when she was unable.  Balk is an exotic looking beauty, and her looks really enhance the impact of her character.  At least until the screenplay has her go into full-on psycho bitch mode, at which point even she can't save the film from descending into self-parody.  A pre-famous Neve Campbell and Rachel True are in fine form in the underwritten roles of the other girls.

The problem with this film is that it has virtually no plot until the very end, when it goes into slasher movie territory (only without the slashing).  Watching the girls develop their talents and experiment with their powers has a certain entertainment value, but that stuff should have been covered within the first 20 minutes.  The film kinda floats along waiting to get kicked into high gear, and when it does it does so with such suddenness and stupidity that it's impossible to take seriously.  Characters undergo brain cramps and personality transplants, and the film's "rules" of how witchcraft works in this film are repeatedly broken.  And they were never well-established to begin with.

The MPAA gave this film an R rating for "Some Violence and Terror, and for Brief Language."  The filmmakers wanted a PG-13 rating, but the ratings board wasn't comfortable with "teenage witches."  I guess a scene of attempted rape is fine but witchcraft isn't.  But that's what I expect from the MPAA: hypocrisy and stupidity.

All Eyez on Me

2.5/4

Starring: Demetrius Shipp Jr., Danai Guirira, Hill Harper, Dominic L. Santana, Annie Illonzeh, Keith Robinson, Kat Graham

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

Tupac Shakur is too fascinating a man and too important a figure not to be the subject of a biopic.  Few can deny the impact he had on American culture, almost singlehandedly inventing the gangsta rap genre and giving voice to an entire community.  This should have been made with A-list talent and be an awards contender.  But for whatever reason, the powers that be decided to use a pedestrian screenplay and a director-for-hire.  This would have been a perfect vehicle for The Hughes Brothers, who directed "Menace II Society" (a film in which, ironically, Shakur was given a role but left after getting into a physical altercation with one of the directors).

The difference between a good biopic like "Schindler's List" and a mediocre one like this is that the good ones are character studies.  What happens to them is important, sure, but the narrative events should only be allowed to happen because they must, considering the characters personalities or because they challenge them in some way.  Anyone interested in a certain person's life story can go to Wikipedia.  Audiences go to their biographies to see who they were as a person.

The biggest of many problems with this film is that it's too ambitious.  Director Benny Boon tries to incorporate everything that happened in Tupac's life rather than the forces that drove him.  Tupac's (Shipp Jr.) relationships with his mother Afeni (Guirira), friend and agent Atron (Robinson), and rap mogul Suge Knight (Santana) are left half-baked.  The result makes "All Eyez on Me" feel less like a real film than a trailer for one.

Ironically, the one that fares the worst from this approach is Tupac himself.  All the forces swirling around him are external.  He's a pawn in his own life.  Considering how strong-willed, intelligent and articulate the man was, such a decision is disingenuous.  It's a shame, really, since newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr does a solid job playing the magnetic artist.  the precious few moments when the movie slows down enough to allow his personality to shine through are his best.  We can see Tupac's tenderness, humor, integrity and intelligence.  He freely quotes poetry and has a deep love for Shakespeare, for example.

Both his mother Afini and Death Row Records owner Suge Knight played tremendous roles in his life (the latter of which being implicated in Shakur's murder).  But their relationships with the late rapper are poorly explained, limiting their power.  Dominic L. Santana is quite effective as Knight, the imposing man who runs his record label like a mafia.  He's truly menacing.

Perhaps the large number of screenwriters is to blame, since the script and the direction are all over the place and much of it makes little sense, like Tupac's infamous rape case (the film clearly takes his version of the story) and his decision to sign with Death Row Records despite Knight's notoriety.

There's some good stuff in "All Eyez on Me," there's no denying that.  The performances are effective and Tupac, for all the shortcomings in how he is presented on screen, remains a fascinating individual.  But in the end, there are just too many problems for me to recommend it outright.  Tupac deserved better.

The Frighteners: Director's Cut

3/4

Starring: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace Stone, Troy Evans, Chi McBride, Jim Fyle, John Astin, Jake Busey

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

Peter Jackson's ghost story "The Frighteners" is so full of ideas, genre twists and weirdo characters that I stand back in awe.  Let's see.  You've got: a paranormal con man, a trio of ghosts (each with their own personality), the Grim Reaper, a serial killer, a sniveling reporter, a creepy FBI agent, a grieving widow, a woman with a secret, and a hero with a personal tragedy.  And that's just the start.  While Jackson doesn't exactly know what to do with all of these characters, trying to do too much is always preferable to the alternative.

Frank Bannister (Fox) is a paranormal con man.  Oh, he can see ghosts (a side effect of the car accident that killed his wife), it's just that the ghosts he catches for a hefty fee are his three ghost buddies that he hires to do the job.  They're a diverse lot: Stuart (Fyle) is Frank's assistant that bears a striking similarity to Andy Dick, Cyrus (McBride) is a ghost straight out of a 70's Blaxploitation movie, and The Judge (Astin) is a gunslinger from the Old West who is literally falling apart.  When Frank cons Ray (Dobson) and Lucy (Alvarado) Lynskey, things start getting strange.  People have been suddenly dying of heart attacks lately, and Ray is the latest victim.  The Grim Reaper himself is in town, and only Frank and his buddies can stop him...if the skeptical townsfolk don't arrest him first.

This is only scratching the surface of the movie.  I've neglected to mention the town's darkest secret, a mass murder at a hospital carried out by Johnny Bartlett (Busey), who was later executed, and Patricia Bradley (Stone), his brainwashed accomplice.  Or the snooty reporter (Elizabeth Hawthorne) intent on exposing Frank as a funeral-chasing fraud.  Or the ghost of a marine played, of course, by R. Lee Ermey.  Like I said, there's a lot going on here.  Jackson has trouble juggling it all into a cohesive whole, but it's interesting enough to be worth it.

For the most part, only the two leads impress.  Michael J. Fox has little trouble playing a nice guy who does some unsavory things.  He drives an old beater really fast, runs around and lets out a few words you couldn't hear him say in the "Back to the Future" movies.  Trini Alvarado is cute as the love interest and has the acting chops to back it up.  There's a scene between Frank, Lucy, and Ray's ghost that's both touching and hilarious.  Jake Busey shows up for a few scenes as a creepy mass murderer that probably spends most of his time in hell with Mickey and Mallory Knox.  Everyone else is okay at best, boring at worst.  The only other performance worth mentioning is the FBI agent played by character actor Jeffrey Combs.  Combs takes a lot of daring risks with his performance, and boy, do they not work.  This is a role for Christopher Walken or Crispin Glover.  As played by Combs, Agent Milton Dammers comes across less like an entertaining weirdo like Jack Sparrow and more like Fearless Leader from "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show."  Annoying doesn't do the character justice.  Worse, he has far too much screen time.

While dated, the special effects are inventive enough to still have the "cool" factor.  Especially the Grim Reaper, who is actually chilling.  Think the Nazgul from Jackson's claim to fame, "The Lord of the Rings."  Actually, it was during post-production of this film that he decided to make the epic saga.  In his words, he was going to be stuck with more than a dozen computers after the film was completed, so he looked for a new project to use them on.  The rest, as they say, is history.

"The Frighteners" isn't any kind of a masterpiece.  It's too busy and too goofy to ever be scary; the only thing keeping it from a PG-13 is where a character gets his head blown off by a shotgun, but like everything else in this movie, it's too intentionally silly to be taken seriously.  This is the kind of movie you watch with your friends late at night.  Grab some beer and have a great time.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

It Comes At Night

2/4

Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, Griffin Robert Faulkner

Rated R for Violence, Disturbing Images and Language

"It Comes At Night" is a psychological horror film, and it has all the qualities of an A-list entry.  It's drenched in atmosphere, the performances are strong, and writer/director Trey Edward Shults knows how to generate a palpable sense of dread (dissonant musical score, long takes, careful lighting, etc.).  The problem is that the movie has no plot.  The set-up is strong, aside from a fuzzy foundation, but it doesn't take long to realize that the story is going nowhere.  Shults plays all his cards by the end of the first reel, and he struggles to keep things going before the violent and nonsensical conclusion.

A plague has ravaged the area.  Whether it is local or worldwide is not made clear, but it's dangerous enough that Paul (Edgerton) has gathered up his wife Sarah (Ejogo) and son Travis (Harrison Jr.) and moved to a remote cabin in the woods.  The film opens with them putting Sarah's plague-stricken father (David Pendleton) out of his misery.  One night the three survivors hear a loud ruckus behind the sealed front door.  It turns out that a man, believing the house to be uninhabited, has broken in to look for supplies.  After exhaustingly interrogating the man, a father named Will (Abbott), he retrieves Will's wife Kim (Keough) and son Andrew (Faulkner) and invites them to live in his cabin.

As far as plot goes, that's about it.  I'm not being oblique to avoid spoilers.  Until the climax, there isn't a lot to spoil.  It's effective on a technical level; there's a constant sense of tension and dread, and a few legitimate shocks.  But not much happens in this movie.  As it began, I sat back in my seat, preparing myself for something like "The Innkeepers," and despite the early promise, it doesn't happen.  Shults is spinning his wheels, and the longer the film goes on, the more I realized that this movie was the emperor with no clothes.

The most immediate problem is that the film lacks a firm foundation upon which to build the plot.  Like many a pandemic movie ("Carriers," "The Road," "Dawn of the Dead"), the specifics of the illness are irrelevant.  The plague is a plot device and is best treated as such.  But we have to have more information than this.  We have to know a little about it in order to get into the mindset of the characters.  We need to know what to look for and how it works.  In broad strokes at least.  But Shults is too oblique, too esoteric for this to work.  Instead of being able to accept the plague for what it is, we spend the entire time wondering what exactly these characters are afraid of.  Abstract villains, particularly in the horror genre, are fine.  "Event Horizon," which I just watched again recently, is a good example.  But it has to be set up well.  That doesn't happen here.

The performances are strong, which helps matters.  Joel Edgerton is his usual reliable self, mixing strength and vulnerability.  In a welcome change, his Paul isn't another one of those emotionally retarded macho men.  Paul has no qualms about doing what needs to be done or saying what needs to be said.  Carmen Ejogo is wasted in an underwritten role.  Kelvin Harrison Jr. is a solid vessel for the audience; it is through his eyes that the story is told, and he is up to the task.  The best performance is given by newcomer Christopher Abbot, whose performance as a desperate father tugs at the heart.

The film's climax is a bust.  It might have been tense and shocking had it not been so contrived.  It comes about not because the characters bring it about, but because forces them to act in ways that bring it about, regardless of whether or not it makes any sense.  It's only allowed to happen because the characters suddenly get brain cramps and become possessed by the Spirit of Bad Horror Movie Clichés.  The valiant efforts of the cast can't camouflage the fact that it's nothing short of idiotic.

Maybe another run through the computer could have smoothed out the film's rough edges.  The pieces are there.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

3/4

Starring (voices): Kevin Hart, Thomas Middleditch, Ed Helms, Nick Kroll, Jordan Peele, Kristen Schaal

Rated PG for Mild Rude Humor Throughout

I read the first few books of the "Captain Underpants" franchise.  They were silly, lighthearted and fun.  The movie has those same qualities.  It's not deep or sophisticated, nor is it intended to be.  I mean, come on, with a title like "Captain Underpants," were you really expecting a movie by Lars Von Trier?

George Beard (Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Middleditch) are two best friends who have bonded over pranks and comics.  Their greatest creation is an incredibly dim-witted superhero named Captain Underpants, who, not coincidentally, looks like their nemesis, Mr. Krupp (Helms).  He's the school principal, who rules the school with an iron fist and cracks down on anything resembling fun or joy in school.  When he finally catches the two performing a prank on Melvin (Peele), the school's obnoxious dork, Krupp plans to put the two boys in different classes.  In an act of desperation, George tries to hypnotize Mr. Krupp, which to their surprise, totally works.  With the snap of their fingers, he becomes Captain Underpants, but when splashed with water, he returns to his usual grumpy self.  Having a superhero comes in handy when the new science teacher, Professor Pippy P. Poopypants (Peele) arrives with the goal of eliminating laughter from the face of the Earth.

"Captain Underpants" breaks just about every rule of conventional filmmaking.  George and Harold frequently break the fourth wall, they narrate action scenes, and occasionally offer commentary on what's going on.  It's not as inventive as "The Lego Movie," but it comes close.  The best movies make us wonder where the story will go.  "Captain Underpants" does that too, but it also makes us wonder how it will get there.

What truly makes the film work, however, is it appeals to the little kid in us.  It knows that its silly and immature.  In fact, it celebrates it.  Often times, it's the most innocent and easy going comedies that are the best; comedy never works when the people behind it try too hard.  That this movie was written by Nicholas Stoller, the man-child behind two of last year's worst comedies, the brain-dead animated flick "Storks" and "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising" (an atrocity so bad I literally risked my sanity to review it), is shocking.  It may be a little long, but it's consistently amusing and contains two scenes that are explosively funny.

The voices are on-target, mainly because they're in on the joke.  Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch are instantly likable as George and Harold.  They have great chemistry and their comic energy is infectious.  Ed Helms is unrecognizable as both the grumpy Mr. Krupp and the idealistic but idiotic Captain Underpants.  He's having a ball.  And Nick Kroll has a lot of fun sending up the mad scientist role.

This movie is meant for little kids, but there's enough stuff that will appeal to adults as well.  The themes of failures in our education system are well-presented (surprisingly) and there are a few clever asides that the kids won't get.  It will probably play best on Blu Ray, but I'm giving it a solid recommendation because of how daring it is.  And that it's actually funny.

On some level, I think that I, a 29 year old college educated film critic, should feel guilty about enjoying something so silly and immature.  It's like the Farrelly Brothers for kids: stupid but clever and unapologetically in bad taste.  But when you have the principal conducting a group of kids performing the "1812 Overture" with whoopee cushions, well, you can't say no to that.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Mike's Musings: Five Films Everyone Must See

The term "must-see" is thrown out left and right in the film world, usually by quote whores paid by Hollywood publicists to promote crappy movies.  Critics such as myself use the term to try and persuade viewers to see the distressingly few good movies that come out every year.  This list is different.  This list is for five movies that I think everyone should see at least once.  Either because they're good filmmaking, shine a new light on the human condition, or are an experience that I don't think anyone should miss, these films are movies that I recommend with the highest compliments.

A word to the wise.  Some, although not all, of these films are very hard to watch.  They are meant to be.  I'm not a sadist or anything, nor do I recommend them simply because they are powerful.  For example, while "We Need to Talk about Kevin" and "Frailty" are very tough but very powerful films (that I enthusiastically encourage anyone who is interested to watch), I don't think they rise to this level.  I recommend them because they are superb films and because I believe that a person who ventures in will come out at the end a better person for it.  I know more than a few people who view films as escapist entertainment and avoid anything that makes them uncomfortable no matter how many people laud it.  I get that.  However, I know those same people watch movies like "Saving Private Ryan" and "American Sniper," which are just as difficult.  What's the difference between that and something like "The War Zone?"  Well, what's your answer?

These films are not presented in any order, by the way.  Just saying.

"Boys Don't Cry:" Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were fond of saying that they valued films because they allowed audiences to be taken into another person's life and allowed them to see the world through someone else's eyes.  There are many things to admire about "Boys Don't Cry," not least of which the performance to end all performances by Hilary Swank.  I'm putting it on this list for another reason: it humanizes a transperson.  Transgender rights are hugely controversial these days, and I think that with all the jargon, memes and firebrand commentary what gets lost is that these are real people.  Different from you and I, yes, but still human beings.  By refusing to categorize Brandon Teena in media terms, director Kimberly Pierce forces us to see him not as a freak or an anomaly, but as a human being.  This is a difficult film to watch, to be sure, with his brutal rape being one of the most savage ever filmed, but it's worth it because it humanizes someone we don't understand.

"Once Were Warriors:"  Alcoholism and domestic violence are not new topics for movies.  However, never have they been dealt with in such an uncompromising way than in this highly acclaimed but overlooked New Zealand drama.  Most films about addition show how it rips a person apart.  Admirable and true as that may be, "Once Were Warriors" takes it a step further by showing how it affects not just the addict, but the family members as well.  Although the wife is the only one physically affected by the alcoholic husband, there's no denying that the children are deeply affected too.  That the two leads give some of the best performances I've ever seen is just another reason to see this film.

"Boyhood:" On paper, this sounds like a gimmick and a recipe for boredom.  I mean, who wants to spend nearly three hours watching an ordinary kid grow up?  The key is in how it's presented.  By filming it over 12 years we see the characters grow up in a way that no other film has done.  The minutiae is rendered fascinating (normal as it may be), because the film reflects reality rather than mimics it.  Writer/director Richard Linklater could have easily fallen into the trap of making the film so realistic that he leaches all the drama out of the situation, something that has rendered many an indie film legitimately unwatchable ("Greetings from Tim Buckley" and "The Snowtown Murders" are two unfortunate examples).  But by seeing these people as characters rather than just ordinary people, Linklater turns what could have been dull into great drama.  Mark my words, this is a movie that will be remembered for as long as there are movies.

"The War Zone:" Who would want to watch this movie?  Considering its subject matter, it's a legitimate question.  Normally, I avoid revealing what this movie is actually about because it would turn away 99% of potential audience members.  However, seeing as it's my most widely read review by a considerable amount, I feel comfortable discussing it in detail (not that doing so will spoil the movie in any real sense).  The subject of incest is something that all but the most adventurous films avoid, and for good reason.  It's too raw, too painful for many viewers to endure even tangentially.  Tim Roth, in his directorial debut, throws caution to the wind and tackles it head on.  The results are devastating.  Of course it's difficult to watch.  Very difficult.  The bunker scene in particular is one of the most painful scenes ever filmed.  However, I recommend seeing this film for the same reason that a person would watch "Saving Private Ryan:" it is filmmaking of the highest order.  The acting is exceptional (not least because the two leads were non-actors) and the film demands mental engagement.  Every scene, every line, is open to infinite interpretations, and just when you think you've understood everyone's motives, something happens that offers a new interpretation on everything that comes before it.  That it's still easy to follow is something of a miracle.  More than anything, this is a movie that forces us to confront a very real evil that is unfortunately, but understandably, considered taboo.  But "The War Zone" refuses to be ignored.  It demands that we confront this horrible reality.  Maybe then we can actually do something about it.

"Spirited Away:" Of the five films on this list, this is the only one that can be described as "entertainment" in the truest sense of the word.  That doesn't make it any less essential to watch, just that it won't hit you in the gut while you watch it.  I encourage everyone to see this film, but no matter how hard I try, my words usually fall on deaf ears.  And how can I blame them?  Anime is a cult genre, associated with geekdom and some of the worst TV shows ever conceived.  "Spirited Away" is different.  I will loudly proclaim that this is the definitive animated film.  I'll go further and claim that its director, Hayao Miyazaki, should be listed along with Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick and all the other filmmakers considered the best.  I'll go even further than that and claim that this is one of the ten best films ever made.  In as much as the other films I've listed, "Spirited Away" is an experience.  However, the feelings you'll get while watching this film are not pain and suffering, but magic and joy.  I defy anyone to look at some of the images that Miyazaki has created and not stare.  Studio Ghibli, despite releasing one captivating film after another, is still a cult phenomenon.  That's a shame, because everyone I know who has seen this movie has been just as rapturous as I am.  With any film, you can find someone who doesn't like it.  Yes, I've met someone who thinks that "Saving Private Ryan" is an overrated bore.  I have yet to meet someone who has made the same claim about "Spirited Away."

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Mummy (2017)

2/4

Starring: Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe, Jake Johnson

Rated PG-13 for Violence, Action and Scary Images, and for Some Suggestive Material and Partial Nudity

With the success of the Marvel and DC superhero "universes," Universal is hoping to duplicate its success.  But instead of men and women dressed in leotards and motion capture outfits, Universal has decided to create a movie universe of classic monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Werewolf, and so on.  With this new iteration of "The Mummy," their so-called "Dark Universe" doesn't get off to a good start.

Nick Morton (Cruise) and Chris Vail (Johnson) are two American soldiers who have a nice scam going: they draw out ISIS terrorists to ancient archaeological sites and then loot the area and sell artifacts on the black market.  When the latest site puts up more resistance than usual, a drone strike opens a hole into the ground that appears to hide an ancient Egyptian tomb.  Hired treasure protector Jenny Halsey (Wallis) arrives to take control of the site, barking orders to everyone.  Nick inadvertently causes a scary looking sarcophagus to arise out of the ground.  Little does he know that that puts a curse on him from Ahmanet (Boutella), the Egyptian priestess buried there, and she has special plans for him.

Calling this a remake/reboot/reimagining/re-whatever of the "Mummy" franchise that started in 1999 is a mistake.  Apart from one blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference, this movie carves out its own identity and seeks to stand on its own.  Gone are the pulpy adventure and quirky humor of the movies starring Brendan Fraser.  This is a much darker film that leans more towards horror.  Or at least it would if Tom Cruise didn't mug the camera acting like he's in an SNL skit.

Tom Cruise can be a charming and versatile actor, but either he's miscast, trying to salvage a badly written role, or simply not trying.  It's as if he's wandered in from a sequel to the aforementioned adventure series.  Even taking that into account, there's no calling his performance anything less than embarrassing.  And in his mid-50's, isn't he a little old for this sort of thing?  Cruise is beginning to look his age, and methinks he should leave the stunts to someone younger and concentrate on his skills as an actor.  His co-star Annabelle Wallis isn't much better.  Her acting has not improved since her one-dimensional turn in "Annabelle," and as a result she blends into the background.  Her chemistry with Cruise is so non-existent that I was unaware that they were supposed to have any feelings for each other until the very end.  Sofia Boutella doesn't have much to do other than look creepy, something that she accomplishes (make-up and CGI help).  Russell Crowe appears to be slumming for a hefty paycheck.  Only Jake Johnson is entertaining to watch (as usual), but he's just a minor character.

I really wish that studios would stop giving big budget movies to untried directors.  Occasionally, that works, such as with Patty Jenkins and the much more entertaining "Wonder Woman" movie.  Those are rare exceptions, and most such movies end up being bombs like "47 Ronin."  To be fair to Alex Kurtzman (who did direct the low-budget drama "People Like Us" five years ago), this isn't an awful movie, but if Universal wants to get Dark Universe off to a good start, why not invest in a real script with a real filmmaker.  This is a movie for someone like James Wan, who has proven that he can handle both action ("Furious 7") and horror (everything else).  Kurtzman doesn't know what this movie should be (the half dozen credited screenwriters could be to blame), and as a result the film doesn't work.  It's not scary, it's not thrilling and it's not fun.

Universal has made a huge investment and is desperate to get a piece of the "universe" pie, so unless this turns out to be a bomb of epic proportions (doubtful), it's a safe bet that we will be seeing more of the Dark Universe.  I just hope the movies will improve in quality.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Duelist

1/4

Starring: Pyotor Fyodorov, Vladimir Mashkov, Martin Wuttke, Yuliya Khlynina, Pavel Tabakov

Rated R for Strong Violence and Some Sexuality/Nudity

Dueling seems like a total waste of time and life.  Even from the point of view of a Southern gentleman before the Civil War, the idea of having a gunfight to the death over the concept of honor reeks of stupidity and hypocrisy.  I mean, what's the point of risking your life, or killing someone, for the sake of your ego?  That's not honor.  That's narcissism.

Apparently, the Confederates weren't the only ones who were fond of these sorts of duels.  The Russians loved them too.  Of course, if you were too cowardly, you could have someone go in your place for a hefty fee.  One such person is Yakovlev (Fyodorov), a man with a bad past.  Although he always wins, his behavior is akin to that of someone with a death wish.  What he doesn't know is that someone is using him to ice his enemies, and he is going to have to play his cards right to stay alive and restore his family's name.

The problem with this film (apart from being unbearably boring) is that it likes its characters and expects us to like them too.  But that's impossible.  In addition to being one-dimensional, dull, and filled with more angst than all the "Twilight" movies combined, they're also high-strung lunatics who will risk their lives over the mildest insult.  Seriously, I've heard middle schoolers make more cutting remarks with less fuss.  Any filmmaker with half a brain would have realized that the only way to make this movie work would be to view the characters with contempt.  Asking the audience to sympathize with a bunch of bored, overly sensitive and self-centered aristocrats with a serious case of bloodlust is a recipe for failure.  And while I didn't exactly like "American Psycho" or "Very Bad Things," the respective filmmakers at least had the good sense to treat the characters right: introduce them as vile pigs and have the audience watch them get their just rewards.

The less said about the acting, the better.  Everyone in this movie takes this story deadly seriously (no pun intended).  While this is totally wrong for the film, it does end with the result of some scenes being unintentionally funny.  Especially the sex scene between the drunk, bitter hero and the wimpy idiot of a princess.  This has to be the most balls-out awkward sex scene in many a year.  In addition to being not in the least bit erotic or passionate, it's so clumsily done that I was left wondering if either Yakovlev was having second thoughts or had just lost his virginity.  Mention must be made of the fact that some of the actors bear a strikingly similar appearance to Hollywood stars.  For example, Pyotor Fyodorov looks like the son of Colin Farrell and Robert Sean Leonard, Vladimir Mashkov looks like James Purefoy after being hit by a cement truck, and Yulia Khlynina looks like a very fraile Christina Ricci.

The real question is why Columbia would pony up the dough to distribute this movie.  What moron thought they could actually make any money off of this disaster?  It's in Russian with no big stars, which eliminates the multiplex crowd and it's too violent and badly made for the art-house crowd, and it's a total bore, which is a sign to "stay away" for everyone else.  Boggles the mind.

It's a pity that this takes place in 1860's Russia.  Lisa Lampanelli would have had a field day with this crowd.  As ill-fitting as it would be, an appearance from her could only have helped this misbegotten "Gladiator"-lite wannabe.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Quiet American

3/4

Starring: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Tzi Ma, Rade Serbedzija

Rated R for Images of Violence and Some Language

"The Quiet American" is really two movies in one, and all the better for it.  The love triangle and the film noir mystery are inextricably linked; they feed off each other and the synergy between them gives the film its power.  This isn't a groundbreaking or "important" film by any means, but it's quite well done.

Thomas Fowler (Caine) is a journalist for a London newspaper working in Vietnam.  It is 1952 and the French are battling the communists for control of the country.  Although he is married, he has a lover named Phuong (Yen) who lives with him.  He would very much like to marry her, but his Catholic wife back home refuses to divorce him because she is Catholic.  One day he meets a charming American named Alden Pyle (Fraser) who has just come to Vietnam bringing medical aid.  He and Thomas become fast friends, but when he meets Phuong, Thomas is instantly smitten.  Thomas correctly sees Alden as a threat since the American can offer her something he can't: a future.  Meanwhile, Thomas is sniffing out a story involving an army general, which leads him to believe that Alden may not be who he says he is.

"The Quiet American" is what "Shanghai," the 2010 bomb that no one saw (for good reason), should have been.  This is not an ambitious picture; in fact, apart from a few shocking instances of violence, it's a subtle motion picture.  This isn't so much a criticism as it is a descriptor.  There will always be a place for cerebral dramas for adults, provided they are done will.

The performances are strong, which helps the film considerably.  Had the two leads been boring, this would have been almost unwatchable.  Fortunately, we have acting titan Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser (who is capable of far more than fighting mummies all day long) in the lead roles.  As Thomas, Caine is playing a romantic lead, something that he rarely gets these days.  Although far too old to start a family with Phuong, he does love her with perhaps a bit of possessiveness.  Brendan Fraser has little trouble playing the WASPy nerd with a secret.  Caine overpowers him in terms of range and presence, but considering that this is Michael Caine we're talking about, the fact that Fraser holds his own is impressive in and of itself.  Their relationship is interesting.  Both of them want Phuong and while they are not above playing slightly dirty to get her, they're far too mature to be petty about it.  They can still be friends.

The problem with the film is that emotionally, this is as romantic as a dead fish.  Much of that has to do with the fact that Phuong never becomes a character.  She's presented as a prize for Thomas and Alden.  Her character is less important than the ideal that she is in the eyes of the two men.  She's a fantasy; a living, breathing fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless.  By portraying her this way. director Phillip Noyce robs the film of a significant emotional charge.

Still, that was probably a conscious creative decision since the film isn't a love story.  It's more about the relationship between Thomas and Alden, and the two of them revealing themselves to the other.  On that level, I recommend "The Quiet American."

Friday, June 2, 2017

Wonder Woman

3.5/4

Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, Connie Nielson, Robin Wright, Saiid Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, David Thewlis, Elena Anaya

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

It's long past time that we got a big budget action movie with a female in the lead role.  Audiences are craving for more diversity in their movies, and Hollywood is finally answering the call.  So what took so long for a super heroine movie?  Audiences have demanded it, actors want to act in them and filmmakers want to make them.  It's the risk averse studio executives who are terrified of rocking the boat.  But the superhero frenzy in full swing and the need to set up the Justice League movie, there's never been a better time to take the plunge.  And I can scarcely imagine a better movie to kick things off with than Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman."  This is the best superhero movie since "The Dark Knight."

The film opens with Diana retrieving a photo that was delivered to her by Wayne Industries.  It's a photo of her and four friends during World War I, and that's our entry into the story.  You see, Diana is a princess of the Amazons, a group of warrior women who were created by Zeus to defend humanity against Ares, who believes them to be rotten and corrupt.  When a fighter pilot named Steve Trevor (Pine) crash lands near her home, he tells of a great war where millions are suffering and dying.  Diana believes this is Ares making a play to destroy humanity, and she sets out to help Steve end it.  But things aren't that simple and Diana begins to realize that peace may not be solved by killing one man.

"Wonder Woman" succeeds because it understands that creating a good superhero movie is about more than in-jokes, Easter Eggs, and cameos by other superheroes.  It's about good storytelling, smart scripting, and action scenes that raise the adrenaline.  The former is easy to do, which is what most settle for.  Director Patty Jenkins aims for the latter, and succeeds.  This isn't a movie that will only work for the people who hang out at comic book shops and dress up for Comic Con.  This is a movie that succeeds because it's a damn good movie.

The acting is good for a summer action movie.  Like Christopher Nolan, Patty Jenkins views her actors as more than props for the dialogue and special effects.  Gal Gadot may not be the best actress, but boy is she gorgeous!  And she knows how to handle herself with the best of them in the action scenes (not surprising, since she's a vet of the "Fast and the Furious" franchise and did her service in the Israeli Defense Force).  Chris Pine is his usual reliable self, although his performance sometimes veers too close to his role as Captain Kirk (not that that's a problem).  He even gets a sort-of nude scene where he can show off his impressive physique.  He and Gadot have a nice chemistry together.  The supporting cast of character actors does a fine job, but worth mentioning are Connie Nielson as Diana's mother, Robin Wright as Diana's aunt, and Ewen Bremner and Saiid Taghmaoui as two of Steve's companions.

The trap that a lot of films with strong female characters run into is to have them be badasses but then cede the spotlight to the lead male star.  Not here.  Wonder Woman is front and center for all the action, and Steve is usually running to catch up.  This is not a damsel in distress.  Diana may be a naïve fish-out-of-water, but she's smart and learns quickly, and has the brains and brawn to take on any challenger.  This is a perfect movie for girls because it shows how Diana becomes a capable, self-determined woman who can rise to the occasion and save the day.  Bella Swan, eat your heart out.

When it comes to summer action movies, "Wonder Woman" has got it all.  The action scenes are sometimes too quickly edited and there are times when Diana seems to move weightlessly and as a consequence there isn't as much adrenaline as there could be.  But Jenkins has a visual flair that's capable of getting oohs and ahhs from the audience without being ostentatious, a gift for comedy (there's a hilarious innuendo-laden scene on a boat between Diana and Steve) and pays attention to her actors.  Superhero fan or not, you're going to love this movie!