Saturday, July 29, 2017

Mike's Musings: The MPAA's Biggest Blunders

Anyone who knows me is well aware of my utter disdain for the MPAA, especially when it comes to their Ratings Board.  It's riddled with hypocrisy, corruption and has far too much influence on our culture for an organization that is so obviously broken.  So in "dis"-honor of their unbelievable decision to give "Dunkirk" a PG-13, I've decided to compile a list of their most egregious offenses.

This isn't meant to be a comprehensive list.  The MPAA has made far too many blunders for such a list to exist.  But here are a few examples of their most outrageous decisions.  I'll also explain what I think it should be rated and why.

"Sin City." Rated R, should be NC-17.

"Sin City" is totally bad ass and a great movie, but it's also hyper-violent.  The violence is as plentiful as it is brutal, with blood and gore flowing everywhere.  The fact that almost every character is a criminal, misanthrope or brooding antihero adds to the film's intensity.  But when you have a cannibalistic serial killer and a scene where a man's genitals get ripped off by someone's bare hands, that's not something a kid should see.  No matter how many parents/guardians they have.

"Ravenous" Rated R, should be NC-17

There are few horror movies set long ago.  Which is strange, considering how a lack of technology could be utilized to increase the terror.  "Ravenous" is one of those few movies, and it's awash in blood and gore.  Not surprising, since the central idea uses themes of vampirism and cannibalism.  The film's black comedy offsets the tension, but it's still totally inappropriate for anyone under seventeen.

"Boyhood." Rated R, should be PG-13.

"Boyhood" is an American classic.  There is nothing else like it, and there likely won't ever be again.  It's a time capsule for the ages; years, centuries from now, historians will be able to view this excellent movie about a boy growing up and understand how people lived around the turn of the millennium.  For a movie about a boy growing up, it's befuddling that it's rated R.  Especially considering how tame it is.  It's rated R for some profanity and a scene with underage drinking and some pot use.  Yawn.  The benefits of exposing teens to good filmmaking and a film that allows them to identify with their common fears and insecurities more than outweighs the little objectionable material there actually is in "Boyhood."

"Mrs. Henderson Presents."  Rated R, should be PG-13

Why was this movie rated R?  A delightful and charming story about an old widow who keeps up the spirits of Britain during wartime?  A film that encourages girls to be proud of their bodies and celebrate the differences that make them unique?  Because it features nudity.  Never mind that it's never in a sexual context.  Never mind that it's portrayed as something to be proud of.  Never mind that there's literally nothing else offensive about it.  Never mind that girls are constantly hounded by the media telling them that they aren't worth anything unless they look like BeyoncĂ©.  This is inexplicable.

"The Kite Runner."  Rated PG-13, should be R

This is a great movie, but it is not for kids.  I have two issues with the scene that should have earned it a hard R instead of a PG-13, but only one of them is actually the MPAA's fault.  Or, considering their habit of helping the big studio movies (which they claim not to do), maybe it is.  The scene is where a child is raped by another.  No kid needs to or should see that.  The MPAA's decision is indefensible.  What makes it doubly outrageous is that the scene is chaotically edited to obscure what is going on.  Such a decision is ugly on a filmmaking level and incredibly dishonest.  This sort of thing, unfortunately, happens, and by not actually dealing with it is offensive to those who have endured such pain.

There are others, to be sure, like the fact that "A Few Good Men" was rated R for non-existent profanity (actually, no movie should be rated R strictly for profanity).  But these are some of the most egregious.  If you have any movies where you think the MPAA got it wrong, post them in the comments.

Sunday, July 23, 2017



Starring: Bryan Madorsky, Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Sandy Dennis, Juno Mills-Cocknell

Rated R (probably for Pervasive Aberrant Violent Content involving Cannibalism and Related Gore and for Scenes of a Child in Peril)

Has anyone noticed that the selection of movies is highly democratized?  The biggest hits are widely available (although so is low-budget crap, upon whose reliance partially led to the bankruptcy of Blockbuster) and the not so beloved stuff isn't.  This is a generalization, of course.  There will always be a steady supply of "Neighbors 2" DVDs and Blu Rays, much as I would like Hollywood to follow the lead of Atari and dump them in a landfill.  And there are good movies that are hard to find, like "Fun" or "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl."  Still, if a movie is hard to find, you can be sure there's probably a reason for it.

"Parents" is such a movie.  This movie is so bad, so confused yet so banal, so bizarre that it makes you wonder what director Bob Balaban was thinking when he made this movie.  This movie wasn't made with creative drive.  Or even financial, since the premise is DOA.  No, this movie was made because the people behind it were threatened with injury and death if they didn't.  There is no other possible reason why a movie so batshit insane was committed to film.

The movie's premise, that a boy in the 1950's, begins to realize that his parents are cannibals, is twisted and limiting.  It would need a special kind of weird writer and filmmaker to make it.  Like David Lynch.  Unfortunately, we have nebbish character actor Bob Balaban making his feature film debut behind the camera.  Based on the evidence, he should never be allowed to do so again.  Even if he's poking around on a film set.  The risks are too great.

In order to work, this movie would need a delicate touch.  That statement would imply that this movie could work at all, which I'm not sure is possible.  The things that Michael (Madorsky) sees and does are deeply disturbing, to the point where I'm wondering if anyone showed concern for the young actor's mental health.  I'm guessing no, since no one bothered to make sure he gave a good performance.  Veteran character actors Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt are effective as the weirdly creepy parents.  But effective at what exactly?  They're performing perfectly in a movie that no one else was aware of.  Least of all Balaban.

Aside from the creepy (in a bad way) things that happen by and to a child, the movie sucks on its own level.  There's no actual plot; it's just this one idea repeated over and over again.  The film's pace makes "A Separation" look like "Speed."  And on the rare occasions the plot makes any sense, I wish it didn't so my brain didn't want to implode at the sheer idiocy of the proceedings.

It goes without saying that "Parents" doesn't work.  At all.  It misses the mark so badly that it's impossible to tell what they are trying to do.  If Andy Warhol satirized "Father Knows Best," it might turn out to be like "Parents."  Only with more quality even if you don't like modern art.

Saturday, July 22, 2017



Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, Kenneth Branagh, James D'Arcy

Rated PG-13 for Intense War Experience and Some Language

"Dunkirk" is an experience.

No other descriptor does it justice.  Like other classics, such as "Saving Private Ryan," "Schindler's List," or even "Boyhood," Christopher Nolan's newest project transcends its form and becomes something else entirely.  You don't watch "Dunkirk," you live it.

"Dunkirk" lacks any true narrative, and that's by design.  This movie isn't about plot or characters.  It's about the event.  The men the camera follows are simply a way to navigate it.  In order to paint a full picture of the evacuation of Dunkirk, Nolan divides the film into three intertwining parts.  One follows, Tommy (Whitehead), Gibson (Barnard) and Alex (Styles) as they try to find a way off the beach any way they can.  Another follows a couple of fighter pilots played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as they struggle to defend the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers from attack by German aircraft.  The third follows a civilian (Rylance) and two teenagers (Glynn-Carney and Keoghan) as they take their boat to rescue as many soldiers as they can.

This isn't an actors show.  No one goes for effect or tries to stand out.  All are effective, and while it will certainly be up for numerous Oscars come January, acting won't be a category for which it will be seriously considered.  Even big stars like Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh underplay their roles.  They are just a piece of the overall pie and tailor their performances accordingly.

Considering how little dialogue there is, it's understandable.  Normally, I find such movies pretentious (examples: "Shame" and "Hunger"), but Nolan wisely focuses on action.  This is a film about what these men do, not who they are or what they say.  Almost all of the dialogue is unintelligible, but it hardly matters since it's so unimportant that it's almost superfluous.  Nolan knows that when concentrating on an event in this fashion, dialogue will only dilute the film's strengths.  Take away the dialogue entirely and almost nothing will change.  That's how strong this film is.

Nolan eschews any sort of storytelling structure.  There are some highs and lows, sure, but he doesn't play by any narrative rules.  From the first frame to the last, the film is at high intensity.  Such a decision is certainly bold, but also incredibly daring.  But Nolan has never played by the rules or backed down from taking chances.  It is only his talent (and bankability) that made Warner Bros. allow him to tell this story in this way.

"Dunkirk" is not your typical summer entertainment.  Then again, neither was another war film, the aforementioned "Saving Private Ryan," which was also released in the summer (to its detriment at Oscar time).  Comparisons to Steven Spielberg's WWII epic are entirely appropriate.  While not as gory, it's just as intense as the infamous Omaha Beach scene.  It feels more violent than it actually is, mainly because Nolan wisely suggests much of the violence than shows it.  Yet there are scenes of stark intensity.  Screaming men drowning, men being burned alive in the water, terrified men trapped in sinking ships.  Hans Zimmer's aggressive score (one of his best, by the way) adds to the drama and terror.  That this MPAA gave this a PG-13 instead of the hard R it deserves is beyond words.  This movie is unequivocally not for children.  Trust me on this.

Christopher Nolan has never settled for the easy road.  He challenges himself and the audience.  He dares to be different and to risk it all with every film he creates.  But he is such a meticulous craftsman that his success is all but assured.  His skill has earned him the respect of critics, audiences, and his fellow filmmakers from Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese to Werner Herzog and Michael Mann.  The release dates of a new film of his is something to be celebrated and anticipated by everyone who loves film.

Is "Dunkirk" his best film?  Tough to say, since his filmography reads like a list of the most celebrated and groundbreaking films of the past 20 years.  One thing is clear: "Dunkirk" will be on my Top 10 list at the end of the year, and if another film surpasses it, I will be shocked beyond all words.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevigne, Clive Owen, Elizabeth Debicki, Sam Spruell, Rihanna

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence and Action, Suggestive Material and Brief Language

The decision to release Luc Besson's new space opera, based on a comic not widely known in the US, next to the juggernaut that is Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is one of two things: balls of steel or a vote of no confidence.  Realistically speaking, it's probably the latter, but my hope is the former, since this is easily the best movie of the summer (no, I haven't seen "Dunkirk" yet).  Not only is it the most brilliantly inventive piece of eye candy since "Speed Racer," it's also a lot of fun.

500 years in the future, the ISS has gotten so large that it has long since been sent out into the far reaches of space for fear of being pulled in by Earth's gravity.  Now, it serves as a hub for thousands of different alien races.  Two cops for Alpha, as this hub is known, are tasked with retrieving a creature that may be the last one in existence.  After Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevigne) retrieve the creature, they are tasked by Commander Arun Fillitt to investigate a radioactive zone at the center of Alpha.  It's growing astronomically, and as a result it will consume the entire hub in two weeks time.  Valerian and Laureline are about to discover that things aren't what they seem.

The plot is standard order adventure yarn, but that's okay.  Whatever deficiencies in the plot and director Luc Besson's storytelling (and there aren't many), they do little to harm the film's real selling points: the visuals and the world.  This is a movie that is so visually dazzling and inventive that you'll have to see it multiple times to catch it all.  There are so many creatures and worlds that I was reminded of the "Star Wars" prequels.  Better yet, it's bright and full of color and energy.  Credit must go to the camerawork by Thierry Arbogast, for allowing us to see it all in all of its glory.  This is spectacle done right.

One of the things I appreciated is its freshness.  Being free of a vocal fan base and ties to existing franchises means that it doesn't have to slow down for fan demanded appearances simply because the comic nerds will be in an uproar if their favorite minor character doesn't make an appearance.  One of the things that bogs down most superhero movies is their obsessive desire for as many superhero cameos and Easter eggs as possible.  Defenders call it "world building," but boy, does it ever drag down the pacing.  And since it has absolutely zero connection to Marvel, we are thankfully spared another irritating Stan Lee cameo.

Sadly, the acting doesn't exactly impress.  Dane DeHaan is miscast as the lead.  I like the actor, but as the obligatory cocky hunk?  It's a tough sell.  Cara Delevigne is better as the spunky girl with a mean right hook, but she lacks presence.  The two grow into their characters, but it takes longer than it should.  By the time the chemistry between them shows signs of getting warm, the movie is over.  It's always great to see Clive Owen, who has been in far too few movies lately, but he's coasting through on his charisma.  Worth mentioning is Sam Spruell, who is quite good as a second-in-command who slowly uncovers the truth.  Ethan Hawke has a weird cameo as a pimp and Rihanna shows comic but not dramatic chops as an exotic dancer.  Her dance number lasts too long, but she gets to shape shift into a variety of costumes and outfits, so it's a fair trade.

"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" isn't the second coming of "Star Wars," but it's the best space opera we've had in a long time.  Don't miss it!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017



Starring: Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm

Rated R for Nudity, Violence and Intense Scenes

When I dream, it's surreal.  It makes total sense while I'm in the dream, but when I wake up, I realize how surreal and incoherent it all is.  Perhaps this effect is what writer/director Don Coscarelli was going for.  The plot rarely makes sense, characters are added and dropped with no explanation, important scenes are left on the cutting room floor while meaningless ones drag on long after they've made their point, and so on.  That this was made during the hippie era should surprise no one.

Mike (Baldwin) has just lost his parents.  Now his older brother Jody (Thornbury) has lost one of his friends to suicide.  Actually, he was murdered by a one-night stand post-coitus in a cemetery, but no one knows this.  Mike, who follows his brother around nonstop fearing abandonment, sees the undertaker (Scrimm) take the coffin for himself.  Things get weirder and eventually Mike, Jody and Reggie have to summon all their courage to take down a mysterious figure who is certainly not human.

"Phantasm" is a bad movie, there's no doubt about that.  But the one positive quality about it is its strangeness.  The totally bizarre nature of the story is weirdly compelling in a way that cannot possibly be intentional.  Well, I mean, I suppose its possible; some scenes bear similarity to, I'm not kidding, "2001: A Space Odyssey," which isn't surprising considering that that is Coscarelli's favorite movie.  But he's no Kubrick, that's for sure.

The acting befits a movie of this quality.  Which is to say, it's not very good.  It's like amateur hour at the community theater.  At best, the actors seem like they're reading off cue cards.  At worst, they seem straight out of a bad soap opera.  None of them have gone on to be known names, which doesn't surprise me in the least.

"Phantasm" isn't devoid of tension.  The first appearance of the metallic spheres, which like the villainous Tall Man, have become hallmarks of this cult franchise, is chilling, but it ends with some laughable gore.  The special effects are sometimes convincing, but only the basic stuff, like car crashes or gunshots.  The dwarvish monsters and the gore are laughably absurd.  Roger Corman would love this stuff.

The more movies I see and the more of a life outside of them I have, the less patience I have for movies like this.  It's not that it's bad, although it is that.  It's that it's so boring.  It can't be valued as a scarefest or camp.  Only as a way to go on an acid trip without taking any LSD.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes


Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller

Rated PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, Thematic Elements and Some Disturbing Images

"War for the Planet of the Apes" is the grimmest movie of the 2017 summer season.  It's tough, bleak and relentless.  For those of you who are PlayStation owners, I was reminded of "The Last of Us."  It's that dark.

After the events in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," relations between the apes and humans are hostile.  Despite offering peace, Caesar (Serkis) is hunted as a war criminal.  But when one of the human leaders, a man only known as the Colonel (Harrelson) murders Caesar's wife and oldest son, he vows revenge.

This isn't a straightforward revenge tale.  It's introspective and complex.  Caesar is continually haunted by Koba (Toby Kebbell), whose hatred caused him to bring things to ruin, in his nightmares.  He knows that by walking down this path he may become just the same ape.  But this isn't as compelling as it could be.  There's so little dialogue that it feels limp as opposed to powerful.  The motion capture work by Serkis and the animators is nothing short of astonishing, but merely having him furrow his brow or stare into the camera doesn't cut it.  More depth is needed for this inner conflict to truly sell.

Every action movie needs a villain, and boy does this movie have one.  Even better, he doesn't have too much screen time.  Woody Harrelson is no stranger to playing twisted characters, but the Colonel may be the most deranged man he's played since "Natural Born Killers."  His actions have a certain logic to them, but his methods are unconscionable; the Colonel has clearly lost his mind, but what's scary about him is that he believes himself to be rational and that his actions are justified.

This movie is very violent.  Had I known less about the corruption in the MPAA, I would have asked how it managed to squeak by with a PG-13 instead of a deserving R.  The war scenes are intense, and there are some scenes of torture that made me wince.  This is not a film for children.

The plot isn't exactly airtight and there are a few glaring instances of stupidity, but my biggest concern is the camerawork by Michael Seresin.  He does his job by creating a cold, grim and oppressive atmosphere, to be sure.  But there are scenes where it is hard to tell what is going on because the lighting makes everything blend together.  There are ways to accomplish both, but Seresin misses the mark.

So, is this final closing chapter worth undertaking?  Without question.  Just keep your eyes peeled and leave the kids at home.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Flowers of War


Starring: Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Xinyi Zhang, Tianyuan Huang, Dawei Tong, Atsuro Watabe

Rated R for Strong Violence including a Sexual Assault, Disturbing Images and Brief Strong Language

"The Flowers of War" is by turns thrilling, plodding, heartwrenching, ridiculous, moving, contrived and beautiful.  Most movies are either good or bad.  Rarely do they veer into both territories with such consistency as they do here.

In 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Japan overruns the Chinese city of Nanking, where they proceeded to rape and slaughter 200,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians.  "The Flowers of War," based on the novella by Genling Yan (which was in turn inspired by the diaries of Minnie Vautrin, who witnessed the atrocities), tells the story of John Miller (Bale), a mortician sent into Nanking to bury a priest.  But the drunken boor of man has the bad luck of getting there when things have turned to hell.  He takes refuge in a church with a bunch of schoolgirls, and later, a group of courtesans.  Now, he has to decide whether to be selfish and flee the first chance he gets, or risk his life to save two groups of women (and one boy) who, without him, could only hope for a quick death.

Let's start with the good.  The action scenes are well done.  It's not at the level of "Enemy at the Gates," a film which this bears a few similarities (albeit superficial ones), but they get the job done.  Acclaimed director Zhang Yimou chooses a more cinematic approach rather than a documentary one.  Which is fine, considering that had he gone the latter route and held nothing back, the film would have been in danger of getting an NC-17.  As it is, it goes without saying that this is not a film for children, no matter how much they love Batman.  One of the many plus sides of this approach is that it allows the audience to appreciate the cleverness of a certain Chinese soldier who takes it upon himself to protect those in the church.  His plan is inventive and truly badass, but stops just short of Rube Goldberg.  There are also some moments, particularly in the first and third acts that have real power.

Now, let's get to the bed.  This is the most obvious instance of a "white savior" narrative in quite some time.  This clichĂ©, where a white man has to go into a conflict and/or takes it upon himself to rescue someone of a different race, can be justified with strong writing or plot (see "Blood Diamond" or "Amistad" for an example of how to do this right).  That doesn't apply here.  John's entrance into the story is contrived, and so is his character arc.  The writing isn't there, and surprisingly, neither is Bale.  He's adequate, but there are times at the beginning where he is more obnoxious than endearing.  The plot is also weak, at times relying on poorly motivated action or characters behaving with such stupidity that in a movie like this it becomes despicable.

Aside from Bale, who is uneven, there are some nice performances.  Chief among them is Ni Ni, a Chinese actress who plays Yu Mo, the leader of the courtesans.  While not as captivating as Zhang Yimou's other muses, Gong Li and Ziyi Zhang (which begs the question why neither one appears in this film), she has her own alluring talent and charisma that makes her the most memorable member of the cast.  Xinyi Zhang is fine as the underdeveloped Shu, who's narration indicates that this is told in flashback.  It's largely unnecessary, but it does add a bit of emotional weight to the proceedings.  Dawei Tong and Atsuro Watabe are also very good as the aforementioned soldier and a Japanese commander.

This is a much better film from Zhang Yimou than "The Great Wall," his most recent attempt to reach a world audience.  Considering how awful that monstrosity was, that's not much of a compliment.  It's too long with a screenplay that could have used another rewrite, particularly in the case of Bale's character.  Yet there are some scenes that do land, such as a harrowing attack on the church were the schoolgirls are chased after by soldiers with rape on their minds.  A particularly vicious rape scene also be worth mentioning had the circumstances leading up to it had not been so preposterous and stupid.  But the end contains some real heart and is genuinely moving.

"The Flowers of War" is like that.  Some of it is good, some of it is awful.  It's a tough call, but if I had to choose, my thumb would be up.  Especially considering that you can watch it on Netflix.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

An Unfinished Life


Starring: Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman, Becca Gardner, Josh Lucas, Damian Lewis, Bart the Bear

Rated PG-13 for Some Violence including Domestic Abuse, and Language

We all have skeletons in the closet.  In a strange way, we cling to whatever makes us hurt and grieve, as if by letting go we will forget.  This is of course a falsehood, and anyone who doesn't share your pain will think you're crazy or ruminating on it.  But for those who understand, it makes a twisted sort of sense.

That's the conundrum that Einar Gilkyson (Redford) finds himself in.  Years ago, his daughter-in-law was driving the car when she fell asleep at the wheel and crashed.  She survived, but his son did not, and he has never forgiven her.  Eleven years later, he has resigned himself to a life of solitude, looking after his friend Mitch (Freeman) who was the victim of a bear mauling and needs constant care.  Then one day, Jean (Lopez), his much-hated daughter-in-law arrives on his doorstep with Griff (Gardner), the granddaughter he never knew he had.  She's looking for refuge from her abusive boyfriend, Gary (Lewis), and needs about a month to get on her feet.  Some painful wounds are about to be reopened...

This is the story of two people finally getting the chance to heal.  Clearly, Einar has some unresolved issues surrounding his son's death.  But in his grief, he's pushed everyone away and cast blame on the person who is perhaps hurting the most.  He's become blinded to the fact that Jean is hurting too, even when Mitch points out the obvious.  Jean knows full well why Einar hates her, but she doesn't have anywhere else to go.  She needs to get as far away from Gary as possible, and remote Wyoming seems idyllic for that.  Griff did not know her father, and as such looks at the situation from an objective point-of-view.  She's keenly aware of the tension, but learns the reasons for it as we do.  However, after a strong start, director Lasse Hallstrom begins to lose control over the material.  He resorts to contrivances and leaving half-developed changes in relationships in order to keep the running time low.  For such a character-oriented drama with this much depth, 108 minutes is too skinny a running time.  "An Unfinished Life" could have easily benefitted from another 10 to 20 minutes of screen time to smooth out the kinks in the story.

The acting is exceptional, which makes it doubly shameful that the cast wasn't given the time they deserved to bring their characters to life.  Although I have repeatedly stated my irritation of the "too macho to express himself" character trope, Einar Gilkyson isn't one of them.  Einar is a reserved man by nature, but he is not above doling out passive-aggressive (or blunt) punishment to the woman he believes to be responsible for his son's early death.  This is a departure for Redford, who is known for his charming, easy-going characters.  It's also one of his best performances.  Jennifer Lopez was known as a serious actress at one time, with well-received performances in movies like "Selena," "Out of Sight," and "The Cell."  Then lazy performances, cash grabs and pop albums turned her into a tabloid queen.  This is a return to serious acting, and it shows why we fell in love with her in the first place.  Lopez brings strength and vulnerability to the role, making Jean easy to sympathize with.  She's hurting too, but understands why Einar hates her.  Morgan Freeman doesn't have a lot to do other than be almost bed-ridden and cajole Einar into forgiveness, and while it's a little bit of a waste to see him in such a limited role, Freeman is Freeman, and you really don't need much more than that.  As Griff, Becca Gardner is solid, but lacks the range necessary for big emotions.  Josh Lucas is positively charming playing a local cop (for once, he's not playing a creep).  Damian Lewis is the weak link; Lewis is a fine actor and does the best he can, but he's miscast as a psychopath.

While there are other flaws, such as the cheesy end to Mitch's story arc or the poorly handled climax, the film's main flaw is its length.  There's enough good stuff here to recommend it, including some impressive camerawork by Oliver Stapleton, but with a bit more breathing room, it could have been a deeply moving experience.  As it is, it's still a solid drama and worth your time if you're interested.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Beatriz at Dinner


Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, David Warshofsky

Rated R for Language and a Scene of Violence

With a title as intentionally minimalist and nondescrepit as "Beatriz at Dinner," you'd be forgiven for mistaking it for one of those pretentious European films that critics adore because they espouse their philosophies and are as anti-Michael Bay as you can get.  In this case, it wouldn't be a mistake.  This is one of those self-indulgent bores you were thinking of, only it isn't European and it isn't Dogma 95.

Beatriz (Hayek) is a holistic healer living in ritzy Southern California.  She's having a bad week.  She's got a teenage patient who's going to die despite her best efforts, she's overworked and exhausted, and her alcoholic neighbor strangled her pet goat.  She says all this to one of her clients, Cathy (Britton), a well-to-do socialite who has more money than Beatriz could ever hope to get.  Beatriz helped Cathy's daughter overcome her cancer and brags to her friends that she's "one of the family."  Poor Beatriz's car breaks down after she gives Cathy a massage, and is invited to stay for a work dinner that Cathy's husband Grant (Warshofsky) is having.  There, she meets Cathy's friends, one of whom is a Koch clone named Doug Strutt (Lithgow).  Beatriz thinks she knows Strutt, who may be the man ran everyone out of her childhood town so he could build a resort.  Rest assured, this is going to be a very awkward dinner.

Ostensibly, this is about life at the top as seen from the bottom.  Beatriz is the working class while Cathy, Strupp and the others are the one percenters that Trump fans consider the root of all their ills.  Subtle, this movie is not.  While Mike White's screenplay asks a few pointed questions and exposes the 1% for all their hypocrisy, snobbery and greed, it doesn't do a lot more.  Instead of really attacking the problem of wealth inequality and corporate malfeasance, director Miguel Arteta is more concerned with establishing mood and self-importance.  There are far too many shots of Salma Hayek staring hurtfully at or near the camera.  SOB!

The problem here is that the message gets drowned out by the director's self-importance.  All these close-ups and moody long-shots set the atmosphere, but a little of that goes a long way.  Apparently Arteta thinks this film is a lot more important and informative than it actually is.  Like any Seth Rogen comedy, it has some ideas and thinks that's enough.  For a full movie that is supposedly heavy on ideas (it sure doesn't have much else), it has to offer a hell of a lot more than this.

At least the performances are fine.  Salma Hayek is quite brave doing all of these close-ups looking vulnerable and wounded sans makeup.  But this screenplay is far below her talents.  Ditto for John Lithgow, once again playing a stand-in for Charles or David Koch (he did the same thing opposite Dan Aykroyd in "The Campaign" a few years back).  Connie Britton is in top form of as a woman who is so superficial and self-absorbed that she thinks she knows where Beatriz is coming from.  A key exchange occurs after Beatriz asks Strutt some uncomfortable questions and embarrasses everyone: "It's like I don't know you anymore," Cathy says. "You don't know me," the middle class Beatriz replies.  At least she has the good sense to leave it at that.

"Beatriz at Dinner" will likely find rapturous applause, both by those who agree with its point-of-view and the "evil libtard elites" who pay lip service to people they profess to support but could care less about.  Or a Trump disciple who thinks that every white collar Democrat looks down on the everyman.  Everyone will find their personal bias validated here.  I agree with what it's saying, but it's so one-note and so self-indulgent that I could only shake my head.  Except for the end, which contains two cheats and an open ending that it doesn't earn.  Then I rolled my eyes and laughed at it's self-importance.

Surely not the response that White and Arteta were going for.  But I have my ethics.

The Natural


Starring: Robert Redford, Wilford Brimley, Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger, Richard Farnsworth, Darren McGavin, Glenn Close, Robert Prosky, Michael Madsen, Barbara Hershey

Rated PG (probably for Brief Violence and a Scene of Mild Sexuality)

It would be interesting to know why movies about baseball seem to be all about the nostalgia.  Take "The Sandlot," for example.  Or "Field of Dreams."  I'm not sure why that is.  Maybe it's because it's known as "America's Game."  Who knows.

Roy Hobbs (Redford) is a savant when it comes to baseball.  Able to hit, pitch or catch any ball without fail, he's a natural for the sport.  Nurtured by his father, Roy becomes a prodigy and is well on his way to the majors as he leaves his small town life behind him.  But a run-in with a hotshot known as "The Slammer" (Joe Don Baker in a cameo) and treacherous fan derails his plans.  Sixteen years later, he's back and has put his past behind him.  He's playing for the Knights, a team so bad that they have become a national joke.  When Pop (Brimley), the team manager, finally starts playing him, their fortunes turn around.  That's a problem for The Judge (Prosky), who co-owns the team, since he signed a contract with Pop that could cause him to lose all his shares in the Knights.  Which begs the question why he'd bother since they're so awful, but that's a question you don't ask in a movie like this.

Nostalgia-fueled movies like "The Natural" are all about the manipulation.  I like manipulative movies that take my emotions and cause them to soar or sink as the film depends on it, provided it's done well.  Sadly, despite the somewhat reliable name of Barry Levinson on the marquee, that's not what happens.  Odd directing choices, a script in need of rewrites, and a miscast lead limit the film's effect.

Robert Redford's appeal has always been his intelligence and effortless charm.  So to have him play an emotionally withdrawn simpleton is odd.  Redford is an appealing actor and filmmaker, but he never becomes Roy Hobbs.  It's a hurdle that the film never overcomes.  He's surrounded by a cast of big name talent, but they're only adequate at best.  Kim Basinger is flat as the "bad luck" girl that Roy falls for; she looks the part, but she rarely convinces.  Robert Duvall is stuck playing a character that Levinson doesn't know what to do with.  He plays Max Mercy, a sports journalist who pops up every now and then to ask questions, but his character doesn't really contribute to the plot in any real way.  Either more or less of him was needed.  The one actor who does bear mentioning is Robert Prosky.  Known for playing kindly old men, he plays a villain who's malice gives Mr. Potter from "It's a Wonderful Life" a run for his money.

Storywise, the film is oddly constructed.  There's too much going on, and while pulling out all the stops in the melodrama department is more or less a necessity for a movie like this, for the most part Levinson wants the film to be more realistic.  Achieving the nostalgia factor is difficult, and Levinson doesn't hit the sweet spot.

Ultimately, I'm not recommending "The Natural" because the film is a bore.  It's just not compelling to watch Roy Hobbs try to lead his team to victory.  I never bought his character, and as a result I didn't buy into his story.  It's a shame because I wanted to like it.  Nostalgia always holds a special place in my movie-loving heart.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The House


Starring: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Ryan Simpkins, Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel, Allison Tolman

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

"The House," a title as boring as the film itself, is an example of a modern Hollywood comedy: a threadbare plot, dumb gags, and a bunch of actors/stand-up comedians being awkward and constantly riffing on things that are supposed to be funny.  Thank you, Seth Rogen.

Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) have a problem: their daughter Alex (Simpkins) just got accepted to Bucknell University and the town scholarship they were relying on to send her there has been taken away to pay for a new pool.  Out of options and out of luck, Scott and Kate go on a trip to Vegas with their deadbeat, soon-to-be-divorced, gambling-and-porn addicted friend Frank (Mantzoukas) for a reason that, considering their financial trouble, makes you realize why they got themselves in this situation in the first place.  After losing a bet that would have made their troubles go away (which would mean no movie, something that would be too much to hope for), Frank tells them that "the House always wins."  Then Scott wonders why they can't be the house.  So Frank cooks up an idea that will earn them enough money to pay for Alex's tuition and save Frank from foreclosure: running a downstairs illegal casino.

I try not to judge a movie's quality based on its premise.  I mean, look at "Star Wars" or "The Lord of the Rings."  But you have to admit, this is a pretty limiting idea for a comedy.  Worse, it plays dumb at every turn.  Details on how this all works are scarce, and fewer jokes are made about it.  There are no jokes regarding the need to keep it a secret.  There's definitely material to play around in here had the filmmakers bothered to write a real script instead of relying on the actors' improvisational abilities.  It's always painfully obvious when this happens, since it results in the actors saying their lines "funny" or running their mouths with no point to what their saying.  At best, it's weird, and at worst it's painful.  "The House" contains examples of both.

Regarding Will Ferrell, James Berardinelli put it best in his review of "Semi-Pro:"  When it comes to comedy, Will Ferrell is a Jekyll & Hyde.  When he's 'on,' he's hilarious, but when he's off, he's like a drunk at a bar yelling loud, unfunny jokes at his equally inebriated buddies.  And while those guys may laugh at him, they're the only ones...As a comedian, Will Ferrell is at his best when working with a funny screenplay.  His seat-of-the-pants improvisation comes across more as weird than hilarious (he has a tendency to drag out effective comedic material too long)."  Substitute "weird" with "painful," and you'd have my thoughts on Will Ferrell work for word.  Actually, that's my problem with Seth Rogen and all the other Frat Packers.  Unfortunately, directors use him as a crutch, believing that anything he says or does will save them from actually having to work.  No one more so than his good buddy from SNL, Andy McKay, who was responsible for Ferrell's most painful movies, "Anchorman" and its sequel, "The Other Guys," and a few others I won't bother to mention.  And what do you know, both McKay and Ferrell are listed as producers of the movie.

His cast mates are given even less to work with.  Poehler is similarly lost, relying strange voices and funny faces to save what has gone on for far too long.  Jason Mantzoukas looks and acts like a cross between a stoner and a pedophile.  He constantly comes across as tweaked out.  Ryan Simpkins does her best to create a character worth caring about as the only one in the film displaying actual human behavior, but she's drowned out by the desperate antics of the rest of the cast.  Nick Kroll plays the obligatory sniveling jerk perhaps too well; he's like a bug I wanted to squash.  The rest of the cast isn't worth being listed by name since they're so forgettable.

Movies work best when they keep it specific and detailed.  "The House" is just a lazy cash grab banking on the names of Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming


Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Jacob Batalon, Zendaya, Jon Favreau

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence, Some Language and Brief Suggestive Comments

Those who know me know how utterly sick I am of superhero movies.  That's mainly because I find them so boring.  Not all (I liked the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies and "Wonder Woman" is easily the best movie of the summer...not like there's much competition), but most.  The wide majority of them are fan-only movies.  They're meant for the proud nerds who hang out in coffee shops, internet forums, and are as equally obsessed as Joss Whedon.  Movies like "Logan," "The Avengers" and "Thor: The Dark World" bank on Easter Eggs and comic book references for good writing and fan loyalty instead of good filmmaking.  That's all well and good for the die-hards, but it means boredom for people like me who aren't intimately familiar with superheroes (despite my best attempts).

This movie takes place shortly after the events of "Captain America: Civil War."  Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Holland) has tasted his first morsel of being an Avenger and is hungry for more.  But Tony Stark (Downey Jr). advises him to wait and cut his teeth more.  To satiate his appetite, Stark gives Peter a new high tech suit complete with a computer assistant (an uncredited Jennifer Connelly).  While foiling an ATM robbery, Peter finds himself up against some supernatural weapons.  He tries to get Stark's attention but he is rebuffed.  Now he's on his own to find Adrian Toomes (Keaton), who flies around in a winged suit.  All while trying to avoid Stark or his assistant, Happy Hogan (Favreau) from finding out.

In many ways, this is the best movie Marvel has had in a while.  It's bright, it's fun, it doesn't get bogged down in existential darkness (apologies to Christopher Nolan) and it doesn't overdo the fan service.  There is some, but it's well integrated (such as cameos at the end and a hilarious series of cheesy PSAs from Captain America).  While it's a little too long, it does contain something rare: action scenes that are actually exciting.  There are also times when the dialogue is too knowing or too ironic to be funny, but at the same time there are some amusing bits.

The performances are top-notch.  Tom Holland is a charming Peter Parker, easily better than Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield.  He's got the perfect mix of awkwardness, enthusiasm and drive to make him endearing.  He's instantly likable.  Robert Downey Jr. tones down the arrogance to make Stark a good mentor.  Michael Keaton, continuing his resurgence brought on by his Oscar nod for "Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance" a few years ago, makes for a good villain, successfully navigating the campiness of Willem Dafoe in the original and the viciousness of any good movie baddie.  And Zendaya is an adorable everygirl.  She and Holland have good chemistry because the movie doesn't try to make either of them impossibly perfect.

And yet, I hesitate to recommend it outright.  Why, even after I gave it a positive, if not glowing, review despite my boredom with superhero oversaturation?  Because Jacob Batalon, who plays Peter's obligatory best friend Ned, is so annoying that he nearly tanks the film.  Overeager to the point of overbearing, obnoxious to the point of irritation and, worst, he has far too much screen time.  It's hard to imagine why Peter actually hangs around this walking zit.  Or why anyone had the utter stupidity to cast him in the role.  Even though he gets less irritating as the film goes on (primarily because he doesn't have a lot of screen time), his mere appearance is enough to cast a pall on the proceedings.  He approaches the level of Seth Rogen or Enid, and that's saying something.  And yes, Stan Lee continues to whore himself and his creations out to Hollywood and makes another irritating cameo, but that's to be expected in every Marvel movie.

Aside from the major fail of the year's most irritating character, "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is a lot of fun.  Enough to stomach through the scenes with Ned.  Barely, but enough.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Despicable Me 3


Starring (voices): Steve Carrell, Kristen Wiig, Pierre Coffin, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Nev Scharrel, Trey Parker

Rated PG for Action and Rude Humor

"Despicable Me 3" exists solely because the previous films made money.  There is no other reason for its existence.  True, most (if not all), films are made with the desire to make a profit, but with a movie like "Baby Driver" or "Spirited Away" there is a creative impulse.  Not here.  This movie was made so they could slap the words "Despicable Me" on the poster and rake in money.

The third adventure with Gru (Carrell) and his Minions (Coffin) has no plot.  Instead, it's a half dozen little subplots competing for attention, indicating how creatively bankrupt this movie actually is.  Gru (Carrell) is playing the nice guy with his new wife Lucy (Wiig) for the Anti-Villain League.  His new nemesis is Balthazar Bratt (Parker), who wants to steal a giant pinky diamond.  When Bratt escapes with the diamond again, the new head of the AVL, Valerie da Vinci (Jenny Slate) fires him.  Then, he finds out that he has a brother named Dru (Carrell), who is fabulously wealthy and wants to get in on the thieving game.  Meanwhile, the Minions are bored playing the good guy and, save for two, have abandoned their master.  They get arrested and quickly own the prison.  At the same time, Lucy is trying to get a handle on this "Mom" thing, Margo (Cosgrove) mistakenly gets engaged, and Agnes (Scharrel) becomes obsessed with finding a real live unicorn and drags a reluctant Edith (Gaier) along for the ride.

As busy as the film is, very little of it managed to hold my interest.  I realize that I'm about a quarter century above the film's target audience, but there's no reason the filmmakers couldn't have told a story that would engage adults and children.  They were just too lazy to do it.

Steve Carrell has said that this might be his last outing as Gru, barring cameo appearances in the inevitable "Minions" sequel.  Illumination Entertainment should take the hint and allow the character to retire.  Carrell is obviously bored with the role, and as a result Gru and Dru are often irritating.  Even the Minions have lost much of their humor.  The only thing truly inspired that the film has to offer is Bratt's backstory.  He's a child actor who became famous playing a bad guy on a TV show, but got fired when he hit puberty.  As a result, he lost his mind and fused with the character he portrayed.  This allows the filmmakers to get a few well-earned jabs at Hollywood and merchandising, but the whole thing is not nearly as clever or funny as it sounds.

This movie is making big money because it's a reliable brand name and there isn't anything to offer for the little ones.  They might like it, but I feel for every parent forced to accompany them to this sucker.  It's a colossal waste of time.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Leaving Las Vegas


Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong Sexuality and Language, Violence and Pervasive Alcohol Abuse

"Leaving Las Vegas" is one of those movies that is either a tremendous success or a colossal failure.  There is no safety net with a story like this.  Considering the risk-averse nature of Hollywood, it's a wonder why films like this ever get made, but thank God they do.  We need movies like "Leaving Las Vegas" as much as we need movies like "The Avengers."  More so, in fact.

Despite the dreaminess of its title and premise, and the rather optimistic trailer, "Leaving Las Vegas" is anything but glamorous or easy viewing.  This is a motel that takes place in sleazy motels and even sleazier bars.  The only time it gets close to the glamor is when a night on the town turns into a complete disaster.  Cheap cigarettes and cheap liquor, not glitz and fantasy, are the reality for the characters in this movie.  It's a far different view of Las Vegas than we usually get.

Ben Sanderson (Cage) is a Hollywood executive and an alcoholic.  He's lost everything: his job, his family, his self-respect.  "I don't know if I started drinking 'cause my wife left me or my wife left me 'cause I started drinking, but fuck it anyway," he muses to a hooker giving him a blow job (before stealing his wedding ring).  That alone should tell you that this is not a traditional love story.

Sera (Shue) is a prostitute working in Las Vegas for a shady character named Yuri (Julian Sands).  She has accepted her lot in life and does the best she can with the card she's been dealt.  But she is profoundly lonely.  As she tells an unseen therapist, she can size up a man in a second and know exactly what he wants.  Thus, she spends half her life being someone else's fantasy.

When the two of them meet, it's not love at first sight, but there is a spark of something powerful between them.  It isn't long before they're living together, although their relationship is built on non-judgement: he won't judge her for her career and she won't ask him to stop drinking.

Making a movie like this takes an extraordinary amount of daring.  The roles of Ben and Sera (there are other characters who float in and out, but none last long) are so raw, so real, so challenging that all but the most dedicated would flee.  Fortunately, director Mike Figgis found two actors who not only would do the roles, but could do them justice.

Nicolas Cage has become as much a whipping boy in pop culture as the man who directed him in "The Rock."  So much so that people hate him without being able to explain why.  Perhaps it is because he has been appearing in bottom of the barrel movies of late.  Readers would do well to know that Cage lost a fortune in the Great Recession.  I've never gotten on that gravy train.  I've always liked Cage, and here he lays it bare.  It would have been too easy for him to just play a drunk.  But Cage gives us a man who is more complicated.  Ben is a good soul, but he has been so hurt by life and so crippled by addiction that he has given up and accepted the inevitable.  It's a stunning performance in a difficult role.

Elisabeth Shue shed her "girl next door" image from movies like "The Karate Kid" and the "Back to the Future" franchise and took her first adult role.  Her role is also tricky.  She is playing a character who accepts a man on his own terms, so much so that she is willing to watch him die a slow and agonizing death.  Anyone watching this movie will see her success.

This is not a story of redemption; Ben doesn't have a shining moment of truth and there are no happy endings.  In a way, it's like great opera.  The story isn't overwrought but just as tragic.  After all, what could be more sad than watching two good people go down an unhappy road to a destination of death and pain?

Putting this story to film was no easy task.  The writer of the novel it was based on, John O'Brien, shot himself two weeks after the film went into production, nearly causing Mike Figgis to abandon it.  Filming permits were denied for some scenes forcing the cast and crew to shoot them in one take.  What's all the more astonishing about this movie (other than it managed to get made at all and be a terrific film) is the number of high profile cameos in the film.  A few were pre-fame, but many were at the height of their stardom.  And what names they are: Julian Sands as Yuri, Richard Lewis and Steven Weber as studio executives, Emily Procter as an actress, Danny Huston as a bartender, Valeria Golino as a woman subjected to Ben's advances, Carey Lowell as a bank teller, Lucinda Jenny as a weirdo barfly, French Steward and Ed Lauter as mobsters, R. Lee Ermey as a conventioneer, Mariska Hargitay as a hooker, Laurie Metcalf as a landlady, Shawnee Smith as a biker chick, director Bob Rafelson as a guy at the mall, Xander Berkley as a cabbie and Michael Goorjian as a college aged rapist.  Supermodel Naomi Campbell had a cameo but her scenes were deleted.  What a cast that is!

"Leaving Las Vegas" isn't your typical Friday night movie and it's not a journey many people will want to take.  But for those who venture in, it's not an experience that will soon be forgotten.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Baby Driver


Starring: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, CJ Jones, Elza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal

Rated R for Violence and Language Throughout

"Baby Driver" is a strange mishmash of action, music and comedy.  Although the closest anyone comes to singing in this thrill ride is lip-syncing, calling this movie an "action/comedy/musical" wouldn't be that far off base.  And yet it totally works.  It's thrilling without being too serious, cheeky without being too cute, and romantic without being sappy.  It hits the sweet spot.

Baby (Elgort) is a getaway driver for criminal mastermind Doc (Spacey).  Years ago, Baby boosted one of Doc's cars filled with a considerable amount of merchandise, and he's been working off the debt ever since.  But Baby is an artist behind the wheel, making Ryan Gosling in "Drive" look like a four-year-old playing "Grand Theft Auto V."  Unfortunately for Doc, Baby has one more heist to take care of and then he's out.  Of course, once that's done, he finds out that Doc won't let him just walk away.

This is a movie formula that's been used as long as there have been heist movies.  Or crime movies, for that matter.  But Edgar Wright, never one to play any genre conventions straight, has a ball for setting up familiar beats in the story and flouting them.  Characters rarely operate in ways that we expect and just when things look like they're going down a traditional road, Wright takes a sharp right turn. Wright knows our expectations and plays them against us.  And he does so without being gimmicky or trying too hard.  Although not as fresh or warped as "Kick-Ass," it has some of the same vibe.

The performances are on target.  Ansel Elgort doesn't have the screwy energy to pull off the more quirky aspects of his character, but he's good enough that it hardly matters.  He forges a bond between his character and the audience (with very little dialogue too...natch) and that's enough.  We care about him and want to see him survive until the end credits.  Lily James has improved her acting abilities considerably from her awful turns in the campy "Mirror Mirror" and the utterly awful "Abduction" (to be fair, she was forced to play off of Taylor Lautner, which is really all that needs to be said) and is an adorable love interest with a few surprises up her sleeve.  Their romance is simultaneously overlong and undercooked, but that's a tiny quibble.  Kevin Spacey, no stranger to playing bad guys, is in familiar territory and is able to navigate the twists in his story arc.  Jon Hamm is enjoying himself immensely as a robber.  Jamie Foxx Elza Gonzalez and Jon Bernthal are all effective as robbers.

I didn't like Edgar Wright's so-called "Cornetto Trilogy," which consisted of "Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz" and "The World's End."  I didn't like them for the same reason that I didn't like "Monty Python and the Holy Grail:" they were too dry and understated.  Too British, I guess.  But I like this one.  Wright fills the movie with stylistic flourishes that punctuate the film's plot with energy and verve.  Unlike some of his British contemporaries like Guy Ritchie or Paul McGuigan, he doesn't try too hard.  In addition to having the story go in unexpected directions, he does some interesting things with the musical tracks.  For example, he has specific beats in the songs match up with the action of the characters, he uses music to compliment the action on screen and for comic effect (there's a hilarious scene where Baby proves that while he's listening to music, he can read lips), and does some interesting things with subtitles (his foster father is no longer able to speak).

Movies, especially in the action genre, have become all about overseas box office receipts, merchandising, and fan service.  Yes, I'm talking to you, Michael Bay and Marvel.  For those who crave actual thrills without turning off their brains, the choices are distressingly few, and there aren't many reasons to go to a theater.  Here's one.