Friday, June 28, 2013

Compliance

Directed by Craig Zobel.
2012. Rated R, 90 minutes.
Cast:
Dreama Walker
Ashlie Atkinson
Bill Camp
James McCaffrey
Philip Ettinger
Nikiya Mathis
Ralph Rodriguez


Sandra (Dowd) is the manager at Chickwich, a fast-food restaurant, and her day starts off on the wrong foot. One of her employees left the freezer open last night and almost fifteen hundred dollars worth of food is ruined. This includes much of the all-important bacon supply. She’s fairly certain it was the dopey Kevin (Ettinger), but doesn't have any proof. Oh well. Becky (Walker), the young blond who works one of the registers, thinks that Sandra thinks it was her. Becky professes her innocence and makes it known she can’t afford to lose her job. Smack dab in the middle of the busiest time of day, a police officer, Officer Daniels (Healy) calls the store and tells Sandra that he is with a woman who says Becky stole money from her. He instructs Sandra to bring Becky into the back so they can all get to the bottom of this matter. This begins with Sandra checking Becky’s pockets and even her purse. From there, things escalate to dizzying heights.

As events unfold, we’re simultaneously amazed and appalled by what we’re seeing. Our stomachs churn, forcing us to vocalize our displeasure. Not only are we upset with the man on the phone, but also with Sandra and others physically present for their roles in what happens to Becky. We pray in vain for one of them to grow a brain and get over their blind allegiance to authority, to simply ask themselves how any of this makes any sense. Sandra only occasionally shows the slightest reluctance while marching forward with her orders. The others only momentarily question her when she involves them at the officer’s behest, but fall in line. Only Kevin, the one we thought wasn't so smart, takes any sort of stand before it’s too late. The entire situation gets beneath our skin.

Our hearts bleed for Becky. As viewers, we share in her helplessness. Whatever belief we have in our fellow man to do what’s right, not necessarily the same as what they’re told is right, is dismantled right before our eyes. However, we wonder at what point will she stand up for herself, if at all. How complicit is she in her own victimization? To be clear, we don’t want to blame the victim. Still, even the movie itself wonders aloud if she could’ve put a stop to the whole thing herself rather early on. That said, we realize she is totally taken advantage of.


The performances of the two women in the lead roles are excellent conduits for our anger and sympathy. Dowd, as Sandra, perfectly echoes many we've all encountered in lower/middle management positions. She’s doing what she thinks is right from an organizational standpoint without actually thinking about what is really right. This is why she’s so willing to comply with a voice on the phone. We marvel at how naive she is, but don’t doubt for a second that there are plenty of real Sandras out there. As Becky, Walker pulls off a remarkable innocence that combines with the situation itself to make many portions of the movie very tough to watch.

That Compliance is so tough to watch is what makes it a compelling piece of American horror. The fact that the victims never see their boogeyman doesn't make him any less scary. In fact, it makes him more so. He does what anyone can. Behind a veil of anonymity, and with the illusion of power, it is much easier to get others to do your bidding, no matter how twisted. To make matters even more terrifying, the movie is inspired by true events from a few years ago. Many of the things that happen here really did take place. Again, there are real Sandras out there. And Beckys.

Now that I've built this movie up as a great horror film, get that idea out of your head. It is, but many will think it isn't. The problem is Compliance bypasses most of the genre’s traditional tropes and resembles nothing of the sort. There is no masked madman dismembering co-eds or ghosts trying to make us jump. If that’s what you’re looking for, look elsewhere. If you’re interested in a truly disturbing picture that deserves to be seen, this is for you.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Enchanted

Directed by Kevin Lima.
2007. Rated PG, 107 minutes.
Cast:
Patrick Dempsey
Rachel Covey
Idina Menzel


In what appears to be a stock, animated fairy-tale, a prince (Marsden) meets a fair maiden (Adams) in the woods and the two fall in love. This doesn't sit well with the prince’s evil witch of a mother (Sarandon) who banishes the bride-to-be to “the land where there are no happily ever afters.” That land would be live-action New York City.

It’s a simple premise, executed very well. Essentially, it’s a fish-out-of-water tale. In this case, the fish comes from a world we've all watched numerous times as kids and again when we ourselves have kids. To effectively tell its story it has to poke fun at itself and it does. The cast really helps in this department. Patrick Dempsey gives his normal bland performance. However, everyone around him is obviously hamming it up and having a great time doing so, including a wonderful turn by James Marsden as our prince. Not least of all in the ham department is Susan Sarandon as the evil witch. She just seems to be having a ball by running with the opportunity to overact on purpose. She and her cast-mates clearly convey the message this is a fairy-tale that knows fairy-tales are inherently preposterous. It’s not an all-out deconstruction of the genre like the original Shrek but it holds its own as a self-parody that’s smart enough to entertain adults. It’s also wacky enough, with plenty of songs to keep the kids into it.


Of course, on the flip side, it’s wacky enough, with plenty of songs to keep the kids into it. Let’s be honest, whenever Disney movies kick into Broadway show-tune mode plenty of adults would gladly murder a loved one if we knew that would make it stop. We just don’t for fear of being perceived as heartless menaces to the unrelenting joy being shoved down our throats. Anyhoo, I’m pretty sure my two daughters watched this movie 647 times in a three day span.

This one’s an easy call. If you have small kids, particularly girls, they will love this movie. All of you strange, creepy adults who are still huge Disney fans will probably enjoy this more than is healthy and should seek professional help. Just kiddin'. Sort of. Let's move on. Parents shouldn't mind this. It’s funny, smart enough for you to “get” and plenty of fun.


MY SCORE: 7.5/10

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How to Survive a Plague

Directed by David France.
2012. Not Rated, 120 minutes.
Cast:
Bob Rafsky
Larry Kramer
Jim Eigo
Iris Long
David Barr
Mark Harrington
Bill Bahlman
Gregg Bordowitz
Dr. Ellen Cooper
Franke-Ruta Garance


In the late 1970s, AIDS became a known disease and it seemed to only affect gay men. By the early 1980s it had become an epidemic and a death sentence for the stricken. Hundreds of thousands of people were dying around the world on an annual basis. The development of effective medication was slow. How to Survive a Plague is the story of a group of activists, collectively known as Act Up, who fought to expedite the process.

The people of Act Up diligently filmed seemingly everything they did. As a result we get a documentary that tells its story mostly through actual footage, relying very little on interviews and less prone to the possible misrememberings of the people involved. There is not only video documentation of their rather public protests and run-ins with public figures, but of many of the group’s private meetings. This is where the movie’s real power lies. Though it is present, this isn't another documentary built upon a bunch of seniors reminiscing on the good ol’ days.

In this case, the ol’ days were actually pretty bad. The situation was bleak and spreading as the world slowly came to realize anyone could become infected with AIDS. Act Up formed out of a mass sense of urgency. That urgency is poignantly conveyed by the use of all that footage I mentioned. We see on the faces, and hear in the voices of the people involved, real emotion, real passion for the work they’re doing. It’s hard for the viewer to not root for them. Also helping in that regard is an ominous ticker that marks the passing of each year by displaying how many people had died of the disease to that point.

During the course of the movie, we’re introduced to a number of dynamic personalities. Some of these people have succumbed to the disease and are no longer with us. Nonetheless, we can understand why these folks became leaders of a movement. We see how much their lives, and in some cases, their deaths impacted the community and their cause.



Perhaps best of all, we learn that Act Up and its leadership weren't always right and they most certainly were not always operating in harmony. We see rifts form within the organization, even to the point some very prominent members of the group break off and do their own thing. Among those that remain, we witness more in-fighting as their best efforts seem to be going for naught and they try to come up with new strategies. It eventually comes to light that the sheer panic that drove them in the early days led them to push for things that may not have been all that beneficial.

The movie ends in 1996 after a major medical breakthrough. Despite growing up in New York City, where the group was based, much of this happened on the very edges of my periphery awareness. This is particularly true of the stuff from the 80s as I was very young and had only the knowledge of AIDS that most regular junior high and high school kids of that era possessed, which isn't much. I heard about AIDS protests in the city, but not much more than that they happened. From this outsider’s point of view, it seems two topics are wholly missing from Plague. This first is how basketball legend Magic Johnson contracting HIV affected their cause, if at all. Magic’s announcement marked a tectonic shift in the way many people though about the disease. He himself, become a crusader for finding a cure and joined a presidential committee. Did any of this matter to Act Up? Did it help them, hurt them, or neither?

The other topic is the country’s, even the world’s, changing outlook on and attitude toward homosexuals and homosexuality. From the time AIDS was discovered until ’96, I’d like to think the world became a bit more enlightened and/or tolerant. Again I’m left wondering how the people of Act Up felt about this. Granted, the main point of the movie is their battle for effective medication, but those things could easily fit into the narrative.

Despite the absence of these issues, Plague is still an enthralling documentary. Its story is very well told. It is also a reminder that even though AIDS isn't the immediate nailing up of the coffin it once was, it’s still out there and plenty of people continue to die from it. That said, this showcases a remarkable group of human beings who helped make the world a better place.


MY SCORE: 9/10

Monday, June 24, 2013

Killing Them Softly

Directed by Andrew Dominik.
2012. Rated R, 97 minutes.
Cast:
Scoot McNairy
Ben Mendelsohn
Slaine
Vincent Curatola
Max Casella
Trevor Long
Linara Washington

When a mob run card game gets robbed, the local economy is severely affected. It pretty much comes to a halt and won’t get going again until the people responsible are dealt with. And I don’t mean by the police, either. This is where enforcer Jackie Cogan (Pitt) comes in. He promptly gets to work figuring out the issues. Of course, his taking any action requires permission he has to work through his unnamed liaison (Jenkins) to get. Meanwhile, we also watch the schmucks who did it assess the situation from their point of view.

Brad Pitt is excellent in the lead. He hits every note perfectly. His cold-blooded arrogance is difficult to look away from. The supporting cast, mostly of sporadic screen-time is wonderful, as well. Each one makes us feel what’s at stake for them more than just by the words they speak. Of course, two characters never fully understand the potential consequences, but we feel that too. There is one performance that stands head and shoulders above the rest, though. James Gandolfini as overly seasoned vet hit-man Mickey is absolutely fantastic. He’s a very bad guy with a bad attitude and some serious personal problems. Somehow, the actor crafts him into someone we feel sorry for in spite of who and what he is. He commands your attention whenever he’s on screen, even away from Pitt.


This is not a movie heavy on action. However, what is there is visually arresting. Unfortunately for him, Markie (Liotta) is on the receiving end of two of these scenes. One is spectacularly brutal and the other is an amazing slo-mo sequence. Other than that latter scene, all of the action has an real feel to it. I’ll admit to flinching once or twice.

As great as the performances and  the visuals are, the hardly concealed subtext has to be addressed. The movie is set during the financial crisis that marred the final days of George W. Bush’s presidency and set the table for Barack Obama’s. Just so you don’t forget this, political news is constantly used as background noise, either on television or radio. From time to time, the focus even shifts directly to it. It comes across as totally cynical and, perhaps, a way right leaning view on America. It’s possible I could be misreading the latter, but not the former. It’s fairly clear that everything happening on the screen is a metaphor for what went on in late 2008. In case somehow, after an hour and a half, you’re not so sure this movie isn't too excited about the country’s future, it’s last spoken line will confirm it for you. For some, it might decide whether or not you like the film.

For me, the last line doesn't dictate either as I figured out that was the movie’s outlook early on. Regardless of whether I agree or not, Killing Them Softly is a fascinating experience with a different take on the mafia and how it operates, presenting them more symbollically than anything else. I rather enjoyed it. Sadly, I was disappointed that despite the movie’s title, we never get to hear Roberta Flack’s nor The Fugees’, or anyone’s rendition of the classic song from which it is derived. Hmph.

(Note: I’m generally a little slow getting reviews up. Depending on what’s going on in real life, it usually takes me three or four days to write a review and get it posted, but it can be over a week. This is my hobby, not my job. Yet. I only mention this because I actually watched this and had the review hand-written a few days before the passing of one of this movie’s stars, James Gandolfini. He was an amazing talent that I’ve praised in other reviews and, of course, he IS Tony Soprano. That said, I really do think his performance in this movie is amazing and I’m not just saying nice things because he’s recently deceased.)


MY SCORE: 8/10   

Friday, June 21, 2013

Skyfall

Directed by Sam Mendes.
2012. Rated PG-13, 143 minutes.
Cast:
Bérénice Marlohe
Ben Whishaw
Ola Rapace
Bill Buckhurst


Skyfall opens with the death of James Bond (Craig), in spectacular fashion, of course. No worries, or spoiler alert necessary. His condition doesn't last long. After all, this is a 007 movie. You just can’t go killing him before the opening credits. Besides, both MI6 and M (Dench) are in great danger. Who else is gonna save the day? However, the genius of this movie is that it’s not really so simple as the hero saving the day, despite appearances.

Someone has stolen a list that reveals the identities of all of MI6’s undercover agents around the world and is fond of sending M personal, if cryptic, messages. This is a big problem, as you might imagine. The already difficult task of retrieving this list and/or tracking down the person responsible is made that much more so by the fact that our hero is suffering from fairly significant physical and emotional issues.

Beginning with Bond himself, extending to M, the entire movie is a dissertation on old vs. new. The franchise itself has long understood that its main character is a relic of the Cold War. He is even referred to as such in one of those abysmal Pierce Brosnan outings. Here, the point is driven home. MI6 is under fire from its own government for being antiquated and clinging to its old ways. We’re also reminded numerous times that Bond is not of this generation. His time seems to have past. As evidence, his edges are more frayed than ever before. Daniel Craig continues to play the role brilliantly, both as a man and a super-spy. With three 007 flicks under his belt, it’s debatable whether or not he’s the best Bond ever. It’s inarguable that his is the most human rendition of the character. And the actor is not alone on his quest to make this true. He’s been given scripts that not only allow him to bleed, but to actually feel.



No matter how much emotion our hero has to deal with, it couldn't be a great Bond movie without heart-pounding action and an eccentric villain. The action is terrifically ridiculous. All manner of vehicle is given a whirl, most notably trains. Lots of fun with trains. There’s lots of exciting hand-to-hand combat and plenty of shooting. Oh, and we have some rather large man-eating lizards. The only drawback in the action department is the best sequence opens the movie. We keep hoping something will top it, but none can. What happens with the helicopter during the last big set gets closest. Still, it’s all loads of fun.


As far as our bad guy, Silver, he’s gleefully played by Javier Bardem who brings his usual excellence to the role and has fun with it. Unfortunately, he may have a little too much fun. Silver comes off more amusing, if creepy and eventually pathetic, than menacing. True, he puts our hero into some harrowing situations. I’m just not so sure he inspires feelings of dread. That’s a bit disappointing since the same actor gave us one of this century’s most frightening film villains in No Country for Old Men.

Luckily for us, this is the rare Bond film that doesn’t sink or swim based on its bad guy. That’s because, at the end of the day, Skyfall is probably the most self-aware Bond film ever made. Of the three Daniel Craig entries into the canon, two of them are excellent. The first, Casino Royale, is a brilliant series reboot. Also self-aware, it purposely avoids the cheesiest and most over-the-top aspects of the franchise. Most noticeably, Bond’s gadgets, which the Brosnan flicks were overrun by, are nowhere to be found. In their absence we begin to delve into the psychology of the character along with the action. This is where some tenets of Bond, such as his love for scotch, are no longer seen as just things that a cool and manly super-spy does. Quantum of Solace, an incoherent mess, is the oddball. It’s somewhat enjoyable, but a far cry from its predecessor. Skyfall is a return to greatness. It continuously questions its own place in today’s world. It questions the way its hero and, by extension, the movie itself goes about its business. It even gives us a few gadgets, simultaneously paying homage to Bond’s glorious past and wondering whether they have any place in his future. Even M must face this same judgment, both explicitly by members of Parliament and within the film’s subtext. Much more than just another Bond flick, or an excuse to showcase shootouts and car chases, this is a movie that recognizes the status of its protagonist as a pop-culture icon and his battle to stay relevant.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Speed Racer

Directed by The Wachowski Brothers
2008. Rated PG, 135 minutes.
Cast:
Matthew Fox
Scott Porter
Paulie Litt
Kick Gurry

Speed Racer (Hirsch) takes on the corrupt corporations and organized crime figures who control the World Racing League.

It looks great. There are lots of bright colors, cars zipping across the screen and colorful explosions. It stays true to its anime roots by giving us a visually arresting movie. The cast all hams it up appropriately, John Goodman in particular. The opening sequence is an amazing piece of storytelling.

It looks great but that’s about it. After that opening sequence it’s straight downhill. The story after that point is strictly paint-by-numbers, most attempts at comedy fall flat and at 2 hours and 15 minutes it runs way too long for such a waifishly thin movie. Whenever your film gets to Goodman doing helicopters with bumbling ninjas you know it should’ve ended long ago. And just about anything involving Speed’s younger brother Spritle (Litt) and the monkey is just horribly unfunny. Finally, what starts off as cool action scenes degenerates into a lot of loud and bright stuff that you wish would just stop.

This is definitely one for the pre-teen set. It has the look and feel of a video game. By itself, this isn't a problem. The problem is that it feels like you’re just sitting around watch someone else play and might possibly have a seizure due to all the flashing lights.

MY SCORE: 4/10

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Seven Psychopaths

Directed by Martin McDonagh.
2012. Rated R, 110 minutes.
Cast:
Tom Waits
Linda Bright Clay
Michael Stuhlbarg
Helena Mattsson
Kevin Corrigan

Marty (Farrell) is a Hollywood screenwriter and the world is anxiously awaiting his next masterpiece. He’s titled it “Seven Psychopaths,” but that’s pretty much as far as he’s gotten. His bestest buddy Billy (Rockwell) wants to help him write the thing and offers up some inspiration in the form of a story he heard in a bar and a newspaper article about an actual nut job, still at large, called the Jack ‘O Diamonds killer who goes around murdering members of the mob. Before long, real life intervenes when Billy’s “job” brings a genuine psychopath their way. He’s part of a dog-napping scheme with Hans (Walken). The two snatch up some poor unsuspecting canine then later return it to the owner for the reward money. It just so happens that their latest acquisition belongs to local gangster Charlie (Harrelson). Let’s just say he’s not planning on paying to get his dog back.

From the outset, we realize this is going to be a hyper-violent comedy. That the scenery will be blood-soaked is a given. The question is whether or not it can maintain the humor aspect. Thankfully it does, for the most part. Writer-director Martin McDonagh, who gave us the incredible In Bruges, crafts a script that’s borderline self-parody. It echoes sentiments others may have about his own work or of these sorts of movies, in general, purposely and sarcastically reinforcing them. Most noticeably, this includes apparent misogyny. Through other characters questioning Marty on his handling of his female characters, it becomes McDonagh fielding questions from critics. Through the course of the movie, his answer seems to be a defiantly waved middle finger. This doesn't make what happens pro-feminist in any way, but makes it easier to take because we sense the movie is aware of what it’s doing and simply trying to push our buttons.


The actors themselves also help push our buttons. Pulling off the delicate balance between graphic violence and snarky humor always requires strong performances. This movie has them in spades. The constant banter between Farrell and Rockwell works wonderfully as both men turn in stellar work. To compliment them, Woody Harrelson and Chrisopher Walken absolutely steal every scene either of them are in. This keeps the movie moving along at a snappy pace. Between the action and these guys tearing up the screen, Seven Psychopaths is a hard film to take your eyes off.

The biggest drawback to SP is that, at times, it feels overly influenced by early Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. This could very easily be mistaken as part of either director’s filmography (sans the British accents for Ritchie). Honestly though, McDonagh is a skilled enough filmmaker to make this is a good thing. More than just aping the movies we love, it stands alongside them as a sharp-tongued and mercilessly violent dark comedy that is at once absurd and sublime.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Taken 2

Directed by Olivier Megaton.
2012. Rated PG-13, 92 minutes.
Cast:
Liam Neeson
Famke Janssen
Maggie Grace
Rade Sherbedgia
Leland Orser
Jon Gries
D.B. Sweeney
Luke Grimes
Kevork Malikyan


In case you've forgotten, Bryan Mills (Neeson) is a man with a very particular set of skills. He showcased them in the first Taken by killing a bunch of bad guys involved in the kidnapping of his daughter. It raked in all sorts of dough at the box office proving the world hasn't lost its penchant for Steven Seagal movies, so long as they don’t actually star Steven Seagal. This time around, the families of the deceased criminals want revenge against our hero. They descend upon Istanbul, where he is working – mostly at reconciling with his baby-mama Lenore (Janssen), herself going through a terrible break-up with her new hubby. Meanwhile, their still traumatized daughter Kim (Grace) hangs out by the hotel pool. She’s the last one to find out that mommy and daddy do indeed get taken. Of course, our hero manages to escape. Now he must work his way back to save his damsel in distress while also keeping his little girl safe.

In a continuation of the right-wing fantasies of its predecessor, itself a throwback to the 80s, Taken 2 does what it sets out to: show us Liam Neeson kicking Middle Eastern ass. Still, this aspect of the film is fun to watch regardless of your socio-political leanings because it is well executed action. Some of it is shot a little too tight for my taste, presumably to mask the star’s lack of athleticism, but it still looks good. Besides, the first thing most viewers will pick up on is that this is a guy trying to save his loved ones. Surprisingly, we take a little longer to get to the meat of the picture this time, but there’s still plenty of it.


Everything surrounding the action is generic, at best. It’s so much so, it feels like a copy and paste job from one of any number of movies. Most egregiously, it drops the ball on the easiest opportunity to build upon its predecessor and include some character development. We already understand Kim is still psychologically suffering from what happened not that long ago. However, being a teenager, she’s still upset when she finds out her old man used GPS to track her down at her boyfriend’s house, a guy he’s never met. Okay, fine. When she presses him on why he would do such a thing he sheepishly offers that he hears a lot of horror stories about things happening to young folks these days. Hears stories? Excuse me? What about the fact that I just recently had to go through hell and high water to rescue your taken ass? No mention of this? Sorry, but I would've had to lay into that ungrateful little…sigh. Let me take a deep breath.

Okay, enough about me. Suffice it to say the fact Bryan doesn't even mention the abduction both he and his daughter are still smarting from proves the people who wrote the movie have no passion for its story and view it as filler until the action starts. Why should we even pay attention when they can’t even be bother to make the hero seem like a real person. He wasn't a very deep guy the first time around, but there was something there. We felt for the guy. This time, he’s even more of a booming-voiced and unstoppable machine. Therefore, we have no reason to do anything other than doze off until we hear a loud noise.


MY SCORE: 5/10

Friday, June 14, 2013

End of Watch

Directed by David Ayer.
2012. Rated R, 109 minutes.
Cast:
Natalie Martinez
Jaime FitzSimons


Brian (Gyllenhaal) and Mike (Peña) are partners in the LAPD. Together, they patrol some of the meanest streets in Los Angeles. Having spent countless hours in a squad car discussing anything and everything, they've grown to form a brotherly bond. Brian is a bachelor who studies law and shoots video of everything. We view most of the film through his lens. Mike is married with a baby on the way. We follow the dynamic duo as they serve and protect. Eventually, some overzealous tactics find them interfering with the business of a Mexican Cartel operating in the City of Angels. Hazards of the job ensue.

The main strength of End of Watch is that we come to know these officers as well as they know one another. We’re privy to some intimate conversations that inform us how each guy thinks. We appreciate them for who they are and can understand the choices they make, even if we don’t always agree. Both Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña help the process along with completely natural performances. We really feel as if we’re riding along with two cops on their day-to-day grind, passing downtime with both profundity and profanity. When off-duty, we even get to know their significant others: Mike’s wife Gabby (Martinez) and Brian’s girlfriend Janet (Kendrick). Even the other cops fit nicely into the story. Among these supporting players, look for America Ferrera who is very effective playing a role way off-type for her. It all helps create a well-rounded portrait of the two men at the eye of this particular storm.


Of course, watching a couple cops drive around in their squad car is only half the story. The more viscerally thrilling part is what happens when they’re actively fighting crime. These guys manage to stumble upon some really wild and gruesome scenarios. Some of them are more dangerous than others, a few of them heartbreaking, all of them heart-pounding. Though it all works itself into a coherent narrative, the plot doesn't dominate every waking moment as it would in most movies. It’s something that develops on the very edges of the peripheral awareness of our heroes. What they do know they don’t even take that seriously. This gives the story a more organic feel.

Unfortunately, some well-worn Hollywood tropes figure into our finale. While it is effective at making us sad, it’s still predictable. While I don’t find it to be quite racist, I might not argue with anyone who thinks otherwise. Point being, cinematic history certainly has its favorites which this movie doesn't deviate from. That said, the film creates a dilemma for itself. A slightly darker ending would likely be too cynical, a lighter one too easy. An inversion of what happens might be the braver conclusion, but less commercially viable. None of this is to say End of Watch is ruined by its climax. We’re still emotionally taxed by the last few frames. We've still had an enjoyable, if torturous, experience.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

TNT Jackson

Directed by Cirio H. Santiago
1975. Rated R, 72 minutes.
Cast:
Jeannie Bell
Stan Shaw
Pat Anderson
Ken Metcalfe
Chiquito
Imelda Ilanan
Leo Martinez


TNT travels to the slums of Hong Kong to find out what happened to her brother. Just never you mind how she got that nickname because we’re never told. Anyhoo, this one’s just flat out Blaxploitation fun. It’s action-packed and, of course, that means “everybody was kung-fu fightin'. Those kicks were fast as lightnin'.” To ensure the latter they obviously sped up the frame rate for many of the fight scenes. One of those fight scenes features our heroine topless and includes one of the greatest film flubs ever. They were smart about one thing, most of this fight is filmed in the dark since her stunt person throughout the movie is obviously a man. Every now and again one of the baddies would turn the light on, she would jump from a corner kick somebody and turn it off again. The flub? She’s wearing a pair of skin tight brown panties as the fight starts. Towards the end of this they suddenly show her leaping off a piece of furniture in super slo-mo while giving her best battle-cry, only she’s now wearing ill-fitting and very frilly white underwear. Never fear, by the time she lands on the bad guy’s back she’s again in the form fitting brown panties. No, I'm not making this up. 

The acting isn't half-bad for the genre. Stan Shaw does particularly well as Charlie. This is during his slimmer yet more muscular days. He would eventually become much more known for playing the stuttering heavyweight champ in Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights. However, as good as he is, his wardrobe is even more impressive. Nearly every scene in which he appears raises the level of '70s pimpish-chic another notch. In the end, what elevates this to ridiculously enjoyable heights is how the bad guy gets killed. I won’t spoil it but I will say I laughed for a few hours. Yup, it's so bad it's awesome!

MY SCORE: -10/-10

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Synecdoche, New York

Directed by Charlie Kaufman.
2008. Rated R, 124 minutes.
Cast:
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Samantha Morton
Michelle Williams
Catherine Keener
Tom Noonan
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Hope Davis


Caden (Hoffman) is a theater director who’s life is quite literally falling apart. After winning a prestigious grant he sets out to create the play of all plays using what eventually becomes a life-sized model of New York. Director/writer Charlie Kaufman is also the man who wrote Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and this is similarly odd in execution. We also get treated to another great performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, I must admit I’m a big fan of his. I’d probably enjoy him reading the phone book. Michelle Williams also does an excellent job as Caden’s second wife Claire, as does Tom Noonan as Sam, who gets hired to portray Caden in the play. Oh, and kudos to Kaufman for using women in his cast that look like, well, real women.

The problem is the movie is made up of metaphor upon metaphor upon metaphor upon…you get the point. What the directors (both the real one and his fictional counterpart) are trying to do is fairly simple but the method is ridiculously convoluted. Any tangible ideas are buried beneath mounds of symbolism. It’s a classic example of why great writers shouldn't necessarily direct their own screenplays. With no one to rein him in, it seems he took every “deep” idea that he had and threw it up on the screen. To top it all off, he completely failed with all those “real” looking women. The very basic question is why on Earth would seemingly every woman he comes into contact with, except first wife Adele (Keener), be madly in love with or be sexually attracted to this guy? Not only is he coming apart at the seams, both physically and emotionally, everyone can plainly see that he is. He's rather repulsive and doesn't exactly ooze sex appeal. Finally, I’m going to need someone smarter than me to explain the constant fire in Hazel’s (Morton) house.

Fans of the aforementioned Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind should give this a look. The truth is, even though I’m a big fan of both those movies maybe I just didn't get this one. You might, and hail it a great artistic achievement. For the rest of us, not so much. It’s definitely original and quirky, but often frustrating to watch.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Bourne Legacy

Directed by Tony Gilroy.
2012. Rated PG-13, 135 minutes.
Cast:
Michael Chernus
Corey Stoll


For three movies we've watched the exploits of Jason Bourne as various secret government agencies try to get rid of him. What we didn't know was that happening concurrently with The Bourne Ultimatum, Aaron Cross (Renner) is having the same problem. Yes, he’s also one of the super soldiers created by Green Brier, Black Stone, pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, green clovers or something. By this point, I can’t keep track. The important part is that the program is shutting down which means all of the little science projects running around, including Cross, have to be terminated. This seems easy enough. They just switch the meds that made these guys and gals super with a lethal pill that kills them a short while later. Luckily for him, our hero is out in the field and through a narrow escape of cruder attempt on his life by the same people, figures out what’s going on. After getting back to civilization, he rescues Dr. Marta Shearing (Weisz). She works for the program, but the powers that be want her dead, too. He hopes she can help him “viral off,” or make it so he no longer needs the meds to keep being a bad-ass. This is Bourne flick, so you know what ensues.

Thoroughly weaving in the plot-line of the star no longer with the franchise is an interesting tactic. For the most part, it works as it fosters the idea that The Bourne Legacy takes place in the same universe as the rest of the movies. This could very well have been going on at the same time. The problem with this is that we’re reminded of Matt Damon every few minutes for much of the film. The entire series is synonymous with him and his character, Jason Bourne. The title still bears his name. So even though Jeremy Renner is good in this movie, we can’t shake the felling we’re getting the knock-off label. It’s serviceable, but not the same as that name brand product.


Nostalgia for Matt Damon aside, TBL does many of the same things well as its predecessors. Action scenes are fast and brutal, shot in the franchise’s signature style. This includes some spectacular stunts. The numerous chase scenes are, of course, interspersed with guys in suits wringing their hands and trying to figure out what to do about their headache. It’s a formula that works, and they wisely stick to it.

Formula is a key word, though. There’s hardly a second of this movie that doesn't feel like it’s part of a well-beaten path. Well, there are the very early scenes when our guy meets another agent, the first time he’s ever met one. The two men have an interesting time together where they size one another up. After this little bit of intrigue passes, we leap wholeheartedly into an attempt at duplicating the films that came before. While still a somewhat fun adventure with enough to sate the action junkies, it’s a less satisfying experience. It doesn't seem like a continuation of the saga, but something to hold us over until they figure out what to do with the titular character.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Luv

Directed by Sheldon Candis.
2012. Rated R, 94 minutes.
Cast:
Michael Rainey Jr.
Michael Kenneth Williams
Russell Hornsby
Hayward Armstrong


When all of your partners in crime know that you received a twenty year prison sentence, yet you’re home in eight, they’re going to be suspicious of you. This is just one of the issues Vincent (Common) has. As far as he’s concerned, it’s a small one. He’s much more focused on going straight. He wants to open up his own crab shack. To so, he’s trying to secure a $150,000 loan, legitimately. With his mother’s blessing he’s going to use her house as collateral. It’s Friday morning and he’s headed to the bank to get the verdict. On his way, he’s supposed to drop off his ten year old nephew Woody (Rainey Jr.) at school. After an unsatisfactory chat with the lad, he decides to take Woody with him and show him how business is handled. At the bank, he finds out mom’s house is $22,000 in arrears and about to go into foreclosure, obviously making a loan out of the question. However, with assurances he’ll be approved if he gets the money by Monday, he sets out to raise the capital the only way he knows how. Vincent, with Woody in tow, confronting the trust issues of his former colleagues ensues.

More than once on these pages I've noted I’m a fan of Common’s music, not his acting. That’s not the case, here. For the first time, he delivers a truly compelling performance. He really inhabits the role, bringing his character fully to life in a three dimensional manner. Vincent is not only the center of attention, Common helps him command that attention. Most impressively, he still shines when sharing the screen with such thespians as Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, and a super slick Dennis Haysbert, who sells something that definitely isn't car insurance. This is a leap forward in the evolution of Common as an actor. Of course, it helps that he has such a layered character to play. This is a guy who has obviously made some bad life decisions. He’s in the midst of another terrible choice, but his grand scheme includes a justifiable end. We root for him.



However, we don’t root for Vincent entirely because we want him to succeed. We just want his nephew to be okay. We hope Woody can somehow gleam the best from the often questionable lessons his uncle is giving. We fear it’s all too much for him. We pray that whatever’s next isn't. As good as Common is in his role, Michael Rainey Jr. stays with him step-for-step. Though asked to do some grown-up things we never get the sense we’re watching a small adult like in many other movies. He seems like a real kid, albeit one who grows up rapidly. His scenes with Common are endlessly fascinating as the two play quite well off one another.

Through all the harrowing situations and man-to-not-yet-man talks, a number of issues are dealt with. Still Luv, cheesy title aside, never gets preachy, weaving things into the ever-progressing plot. Just by being and feeling earnest, it provides us a welcome alternative to the type of urban movies of which we’ve become accustomed. There’s humor here, but this is no zany comedy. There’s also violence and we are dealing with a guy who received his education on the streets, but we’re not watching Menace II Society, either. It’s a well-told story that deserves to be seen.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

Directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, and Conrad Vernon.
2012. Rated PG, 93 minutes.
Cast:
David Schwimmer
Martin Short
Andy Richter
Chris Miller


The crew, once again led by Alex (Stiller), is still trying to get back to New York City. This time, sadistic French Animal Control specialist Captain Chantel DuBois (McDormand) is hot on their tail. She desperately wants Alex’s head on her already cluttered wall. In trying to escape, our heroes find themselves joining a circus traveling across Europe. As luck would have it, there is a big promoter coming to their next show. If all goes well, he’ll pick them up and, yes, send them to New York. There’s just one little hitch, well two hitches: the show sucks and Captain DuBois is relentless.

Though our core group works through the main plot, newer characters are given ample time to shine. Bryan Cranston’s grumpy Russian tiger, Vitaly, is particularly fun. He gives us a nice opposing viewpoint to Stiller’s eternally optimistic Alex. In turn, his story and the resulting character arc are the most genuinely heartfelt in the movie. This emotion is perfectly counterbalanced by him having the most preposterous ability. It all combines to make him the most intriguing of the newbies. The others are fun, and we spend lots of time with the budding romance between Alex and Gia (Chastain), another Russian tiger.


The alumni fits comfortably into their roles. More or less, they’re tasked with keeping the laughs going. At this, they do a nice job. However, they might be trumped by another newbie – Captain DuBois. Honestly, Frances McDormand could not play the role any better. This is a movie that understands it’s only as good as its villain. It’s got a good one. Right from the start, her maniacal pursuit hits all the right notes.

There are issues. Most noticeably, things sag a bit in the middle as all the different subplots play out. I know what I said, that everyone getting time to shine is a good thing, because it is, but from time to time it can be too much. This gives Madagascar 3 a bit of a cluttered feel. It has to work pretty hard to pull all the plot strands together. It manages well enough and ends up being a solid ride.


MY SCORE: 7/10

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Dragon (Wu Xia)

Directed by Peter Chan.
2011. Rated R, 115 minutes.
Cast:
Takeshi Kaneshiro
Wei Tang
Yu Wang
Kara Hui
Wu Jiang
Yu Kang
Li Jia-Min
Zheng Wei
Xiao Ran Li


As per the overwhelming norm, our story takes place in a small quite village in China. Our hero, Liu Jin-Xi (Yen), lives a nice life with his wife Ah Yu (Tang), and their two boys. He’s a prized employee at the local paper factory and couldn't be happier. One day, a couple of thugs show up to rob his place of employment. After a spectacular struggle, the bad guys end up dead. The police and the mayor show up. Detective Xu Bai-Jiu (Kaneshiro) suspects our hero is hiding something. He’s right. The rest of the next two acts play out as a police procedural, with the detective figuring out what Liu’s past discretions may have been and working on a way to bring him to justice for them. So far, so good.

To be honest, it is really good to this point. There’s very little in the way of martial arts, but the dynamic between the two men is intriguing. The inspector has some problems of his own, is exceedingly cynical and has an existentialist thing going on where he routinely has out-of-body experiences. It works much better than it sounds. Meanwhile, Liu is growing more suspicious of the cop but bravely keeps up a happy veneer despite some of the highly questionable tactics used by the detective. It’s a well-played cat-and-mouse intertwined with a cute family story. And yes, it’s working toward all the fighting. So far, so good.


Unsurprisingly, it turns out some very bad people are after our hero. With all the fuss the inspector has raised, Liu’s location has come to their attention. Of course, the leader of this group, the 72 Demons, dispatches two of their own to bring Liu to him. They show up in town, he refuses to go with them and an amazing battle sequence takes place that involves leaping across rooftops, cows and a waterfall into a raging river. After he defeats these two we’re next told what we already know: The 72 demons won’t stop until they've either gotten Liu or killed him. Whew! Now the scene is set for way more kung-fu. So far, so good.

Okay, there’s been some questionable science going on this whole time. Chiefly, it involves being able to kill someone with one blow to the vagus nerve. Since this is pretty standard martial arts stuff, no big deal. However, it sets us up for what eventually derails the movie. I won’t go into detail on what that is. I’ll just say  that our hero twice, purposely hampers his ability to fight before the battle even starts. It’s so far beyond dumb, I was taken completely out of the movie because everything before this is fairly smart.

You know how sometimes when things are going great, something ridiculous happens that ruins your whole day. Dragon is a microcosm of that experience. I sat down to watch a martial arts flick. I’m not so naive, or stuffy, to think I’d be witnessing a deeply human experience. After all, I grew up on this stuff. I wanted to see Donnie Yen kick some ass, whether or not lots of wire work is involved. He does and it is, but I was still sorely disappointed. The action that closes the movie isn't bad, but by then I didn't care anymore. And the night was going so well.


MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Directed by Lasse Hallström.
2011. Rated PG-13, 107 minutes.
Cast:
Kristin Scott Thomas
Amr Waked
Tom Mison
Rachael Stirling
Catherine Steadman
Tom Beard
Jill Baker

Yemeni Sheikh Muhammed (Waked) is an avid fisherman and called a visionary by Harriet (Blunt) who handles his affairs in Britain. She’s been tasked with helping him introduce salmon fishing to the Yemen. This is problematic because there are no salmon native to the region and the region doesn't seem conducive to salmon. For help, she contacts expert Dr. Alfred Jones (McGregor). He assesses the situation and tells her to go suck an egg, more or less. However, he’s coerced into helping her by his superiors, themselves under pressure from Patricia Maxwell (Thomas), the Prime Minister’s press secretary. She’s desperately trying to find something to show that British-Yemeni/Islamic relations are improving and this seems to be the most viable option. To make it work, Dr. Jones and Harriet will have to work closely together on repeated business trips to the Yemen where they’ll stay at the Sheikh’s palace as the only two guests. In case you weren't sure where this is going, the doctor’s marriage is on the rocks and Harriet’s boyfriend, a soldier who is sent to Afghanistan (“or somewhere”) goes missing-in-action. Cue romance.

The most striking thing about Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is its visuals. It’s no special fx extravaganza, but the area where the Sheikh does his fishing is beautiful. We get to see it from a number of angles, when it’s quiet and when water is raging through its alleys. Unfortunately, there’s an entire movie between those shots that isn't nearly as riveting. It moseys along without any real sizzle until it tries to inject some late. Before then, McGregor fawns over Blunt because his wife only cares that he keeps his job so the mortgage will continue being paid. By the way, she’s got a high-paying jet-setting job herself. Meanwhile, Blunt goes from being charming to blubbering incessantly about her presumed dead boyfriend. Both performers turn in solid work, but things never get to the point where it makes us tell ourselves that we just have to see how this is going to turn out.


Two characters break up the monotony, but only one does it in a good way. Our sheikh is burdened with giving the movie depth. Sadly, he strains to do so before ultimately failing. He plans on using the whole fishing thing as a grand metaphor. We get it. It’s nothing to spend a lifetime pondering, but it’s okay on its own. What undermines it is the steady stream of Yoda-isms he drops in conversations. He sounds like a walking talking fortune cookie. On the other hand, Kristin Scott Thomas is of greater effect as the relentless brash press secretary. She’s funny and lively. The movie instantly gets better when she’s on the screen.

Eventually, Dr. Jones and Harriet’s relationship goes through some typical rom-com contrivances we see coming from miles away and the local, unapologetically Muslim contingent provides some opposition to the sheikh. The issue with the former is predictability. To be fair, suddenly going in an unexpected direction probably wouldn't work for this movie so we can let this slide. More problematic is the latter. Despite all the lip-service paid to working on Britain’s relationship with Islamics, it comes across as hypocritical. It’s because “the other,” Muslims in this case, are painted as savages. The one who embraces our (western) ideals, the Sheikh, is automatically assumed to be better than the rest. In short, none of the other Muslims in the film are actually people, they’re just perpetually agitated agitators. They show up, grumble about what’s going on, make threats (or make good on them), and disappear.

That said, many of the movie’s problems would be forgivable, or at least less noticeable, in a better movie. As currently constructed, we’re never really enthralled with what’s going on. Worse yet, we’re often bored by it. The actors do what they can, but are hamstrung by the material. By the end, we've no choice but to nit-pick all the issues that pop up. Salmon Fishing is occasionally cute, even funny when Kristin Scott Thomas is running her mouth. However, it falls apart because we turn to scrutiny in lieu of the romantic thrills it can’t give us.