Thursday, May 31, 2012

Movie Review: Men in Black III

Men in Black III ***
Directed by: Barry Sonnefeld.
Written by: Etan Cohen based on the comic by Lowell Cunningham.
Starring: Will Smith (Agent J), Tommy Lee Jones (Agent K), Josh Brolin (Young Agent K), Jemaine Clement (Boris The Animal), Emma Thompson (Agent O), Michael Stuhlbarg (Griffin), Mike Colter (Colonel), Nicole Scherzinger (Boris' Girlfriend), Michael Chernus (Jeffrey Price), Alice Eve (Young Agent O), David Rasche (Agent X), Keone Young (Mr. Wu), Bill Hader (Andy Warhol).

I wasn’t much of a fan of the first Men in Black, and I down right hated Men in Black II – but given that’s it’s been 15 years since the first film, and 10 since the second, I’m not sure I could really tell you why. Before catching Men in Black III, I watched a few minutes of both films when they played on TV in the week leading up to release, and nothing I saw made me want to watch any more. Perhaps it was because of my low expectations, but I actually found myself enjoying Men in Black III from beginning to end. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it got a nice, light, comedic tone, it moves rapidly, and it genuinely fun.

The movie opens with a prison break from a maximum security institution on the moon. Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement) escapes, and comes back to earth – looking to set the mistakes he made in the past right. The biggest one is allowing his arm to be blown off and being arrested by Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) way back in 1969. He knows someone who knows how to time travel – and he wants to go back and kill Agent K before he can arrest him. When K finds out, he becomes even more closed off and secretive than usual, and he refuses to talk to J (Will Smith) about it. The next day, when J wakes up, he finds himself in a slightly different world – one where no one remembers K after 1969 because that is when Boris the Animal killed him. For some reason though, J can remember K. And so, he also travels back in time to 1969 – and teams up with a young K (Josh Brolin) to bring down two different Boris’.

The time travel story line is a nice touch – and allows some freshness to sneak into the movie. The best thing about the film is Josh Brolin’s performance as a young Tommy Lee Jones. He nails the Southern drawl, the mannerisms, and the matter of factness about Jones – and you never for a minute doubt that Brolin could eventually become Jones. Yes, the performance is an extended, feature length impression, but it’s such a great one you don’t really care. I do wish that the talented Clement, who still has not found a film role that matches his talent level, had been given a little more to do. Yes, his smile is a creepy, psychopathic grin, but that is about all. Better is Michael Stuhlberg as an alien with the curse of being able to see multiple futures at the same time, who creates, a brilliant, funny, one of a kind character. And Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader is a blast in his one scene as Andy Warhol. Carrying the movie is Will Smith, who is in full Will Smith movie star mode, which is still fun, if not exactly ground-breaking.

Directed by Barry Sonnefeld, who also helmed the first two films, does a fine job here. The special effects are effective, but not overpowering like many we see in summer blockbusters. The pace moves along quickly and never really lags in any points. No, this is not great directing – it’s a little by the numbers – but then again, so is the movie.

Men in Black III is not a great summer entertainment – but it is a fun ride. It is forgettable entertainment, but it is fun while it lasts – mainly because of Brolin, but there is enough around the edges to make this enjoyable fare.

Movie Review: Chernobyl Diaries

Chernobyl Diaries ** ½
Directed by: Bradley Parker.
Written by: Oren Peli & Carey Van Dyke & Shane Van Dyke.
Starring: Ingrid Bolsø Berdal (Zoe), Dimitri Diatchenko (Uri), Olivia Taylor Dudley (Natalie), Devin Kelley (Amanda), Jesse McCartney (Chris), Nathan Phillips (Michael), Jonathan Sadowski (Paul).

Horror filmmakers never seem to have a problem coming up with good premises for their movies – they just have trouble following through on their promising ideas. The latest example is Chernobyl Diaries, which has a great location, and a great setup, before devolving in the last act to yet another pretty, young Americans being chased and slaughtered movie. There is much to like about the film – I just wish the filmmakers had found a more interesting way to resolve the film.

The setup for the movie is that three Americans – lovebirds Chris and Natalie (Jesse McCartney and Oliver Taylor Dudley) and their friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) go on a trip to Europe – and end up in Kiev, visiting Chris’ brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), who lives there. Paul wants to take the three young tourists on an adventure – and finds just the man to take them. Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) runs an “adventure tourist” agency – and says he can take them to the city right next to Chernobyl – where 25 years ago the nuclear disaster there forced the residents to flee in minutes. The entire town is still there, but completely abandoned. Joining them on the tour is a honeymooning couple, Michael and Zoe (Nathan Phillips and Ingrid Bolso Berdal). The city is as advertised – abandoned and creepy in the extreme. They go, they take some pictures and generally have a good time. But when it’s time to leave the van, of course, won’t start. And obviously there is no cell phone reception. So they are trapped in the city overnight – and at night, they find they are not alone.

The setup for the movie is good – we spend enough time with the characters so that they are not just meat for the grinder when they start dying, which we all know they will. And the location is a stroke of genius. In horror movies, if you get the right location, you are half way there to making a good movie – and an abandoned, dilapidated, overgrown city, next to a nuclear power plant, with some strange looking animals lurking around is a great location. The idea is so simple, yet so great, you have to wonder why no one ever thought of it before. When strange things do start happening, they are effectively handled. Although co-written and produced by Oren Peli, who is behind the Paranormal Activity movies, this is not a found footage horror film – but the handheld camera work, that doesn’t quite let you see everything you want just ratchets up the tension.

The first two-thirds of Chernobyl Diaries, therefore, is an effective horror film. The setup works, the location works, and there are some genuinely scary, creepy moments. Like all good horror movies, it keeps you on edge, waiting to see what is going to happen next. The problems all come in the last third of the movie – when the secrets are finally revealed. The truth is, after that setup, the finale is more than a little bit of a letdown. The secrets to the movie are fairly obvious – the least original idea that you could actually have given the setup. What’s worse though, is that the finale is not even all that well handled. We get the same sort of chase sequences, and death scenes, that we have seen in hundreds of other horror movies – and seen it done better almost as often. The last shot of the movie is supposed to be shocking – but it’s all too obvious.

So in the end, Chernobyl Diaries is two thirds of a good horror movie. That’s better than many horror movies that don’t even get that far. That still doesn’t mean it’s a good movie though.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Movie Review: Battleship

Battleship ** ½
Directed by: Peter Berg.
Written by: Erich Hoeber & Jon Hoeber.
Starring: Taylor Kitsch (Lieutenant Alex Hopper), Alexander Skarsgård (Commander Stone Hopper), Rihanna (Petty Officer Cora 'Weps' Raikes), Brooklyn Decker (Samantha Shane), Tadanobu Asano (Captain Yugi Nagata), Hamish Linklater (Cal Zapata), Liam Neeson (Admiral Shane), Peter MacNicol (Secretary of Defense), John Tui (Chief Petty Officer Walter 'The Beast' Lynch), Jesse Plemons (Boatswain Mate Seaman Jimmy 'Ordy' Ord), Gregory D. Gadson (Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales).

It would be hard to find a bigger, dumber, louder movie than Battleship, the latest movie from the toy company who brought us the Transformers movies (and will continue to do so as long as each of them makes about $1 billion worldwide). I think it was a mistake to take the name of the old board game for this movie – really there is only one sequence that even references the game (and it does so kind of ingeniously). I have to admit as loud and stupid as Battleship is, how cheap and crass the company is to try to exploit a nearly forgotten board game, how paper thin the characters are, and predictable as the story is (which, amazingly, still apparently needs so much exposition than the movie runs nearly two and half hours), I cannot say I was ever bored by Battleship – in fact, I was rather entertained by much of Battleship. Perhaps it’s because I know the 10 year old me would have LOVED Battleship, and no matter how much my movie tastes has evolved in the 20 years it has been since I was 10, I never really want to forget that kid who would have loved this movie.

The story setup is standard issue blockbuster fare – two brothers, focused, driven Stone (Alexander Skarsgard) and younger, screw-up Alex (Taylor Kitsch) are both in the Navy, in Hawaii for War Games. Alex is smart enough to have risen in the ranks, but dumb enough to be on the verge of throwing it all away. He wants to ask his girlfriend Samantha (Brooklyn Decker) to marry him, but needs her dad’s permission – and wouldn’t you know it, her dad is an Admiral (Liam Neeson), who is not very happy with his underling at the moment. But things quickly change when during the course of the International War Games, four alien ships crash into the water around Hawaii (a fifth hit something, and blew up over Hong Kong, killing thousands). The alien ships quickly sets up a force field – keeping everyone outside, out, and trapping those on the inside in. Pretty soon, all the ships are done except, of course, Alex’s – and since his commanding officers have been killed, it’s up to him to save the world from the invading forces.

Talking about the performances in a movie like Battleship really is a fool’s errand. The characters are completely defined by their roles, and never do anything to surprise us along the way. The actors, uniformly, are pretty much as good as they can be under the circumstances – some more so (like Tadanobu Asano as a Japanese Captain who ends up teaming up with Alex), some less (like Decker, who is great to look at, and is probably the reason why she was cast). The bigger names in the cast are all fine, I guess. Neeson’s role is essentially a humorless cameo, and he seems a little bored in the role, but it hardly matters. Taylor Kitsch has the same charm he displayed in John Carter, and this time is at least not woefully miscast. And fans of singer Rihanna will be happy to know she doesn’t embarrass herself in the movie – but doesn’t really distinguish herself either – she is about as good as it is possible to be in the role of the token woman on board a Navy ship.

Battleship was directed by Peter Berg, who at one point I thought had the potential. His first film was the extremely dark comedy Very Bad Things, hated by many, but not by me, about a bachelor party gone horribly wrong. His second film was the very entertaining action comedy The Rundown. His third film, Friday Night Lights, remains his best – and one of the best high school sports movies ever made. But since then, I am starting to get the feeling that Berg is just a gifted imitator – adopting the style of whatever director the material seems to suit. In The Kingdom, he was clearly trying to channel Michael Mann. In Battleship, he quite clearly trying to imitate Michael Bay, who made those Transformers movie into such hits, but also into incomprehensible visual messes. Yet even in Battleship, Berg doesn’t go as far as Bay does in the rapid fire editing department. While Berg copies Bay’s style, he is still the better director, so he actually improves on it – capturing the kinetic energy the best moments in Bay’s films have, without making the whole thing one big, loud, head inducing slog.

Reading over what I’ve written about the movie so far, I realize that it sounds like I hated Battleship. Far from it. It was entertaining in its best moments, and never really boring at any time. The movie really is exactly what the ads made it look like – Independence Day meets Transformers with boats. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, than you’ll probably like Battleship.

Movie Review: The Dictator

The Dictator ***
Directed by: Larry Charles.
Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen & Alec Berg & David Mandel & Jeff Schaffer.
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen (Aladeen / Efawadh), Anna Faris (Zoey), Ben Kingsley (Tamir), Jason Mantzoukas (Nadal), Megan Fox (Herself), Chris Parnell (News Anchor), Jessica St. Clair (Denise), Bobby Lee (Mr. Lao), Fred Armisen (Waiter / Minister).

Sacha Baron Cohen is a master at smart-stupid comedy. His comedies always center around an obnoxious central character who says unbelievably offensive things that you find yourself laughing at in spite of yourself, sometimes simply because you cannot believe that he would actually say what he does. His last two films – Borat and Bruno – had Baron Cohen in character interacting with unsuspecting people, making them, and the audience, confront their own prejudices, and seeing how far he can push them before they snap. Because Baron Cohen has become famous, he really cannot do that anymore, so his latest is more of a traditional, scripted movie, with a plot and supporting characters – played by actual actors. The result is still one of the funniest movies you will see this year – and continues to show Baron Cohen’s brilliance as a comedic performer – but doesn’t quite have the same verve and audacity of his previous two films.

In The Dictator, Baron Cohen plays General Aladeen, supreme leader of the fictional, North African nation of Wadiya. He is rich beyond all measure, because of the all the oil reserves his country has, and yet he is angering the UN by not letting weapons inspectors in – with good reason, since he is trying to develop nuclear weapons. They tell him unless he addresses the UN General Assembly in New York, they will impose sanctions on his nation. So he heads off to New York with his trusty aid Tamir (Ben Kingsley) – who of course, isn’t so trusty after all, and is planning to get rid of Aladeen, replace him with his idiot double Efawadh (Baron Cohen again, hilarious again) and turn Wadiya into a democracy – so he can sell the oil rights and make billions. The assassination plan goes awry, and Aladeen finds himself, beardless, in New York City trying to regain power – and having to hang out with an enlightened, feminist, organic grocer Zoey (Anna Faris).

Aladeen is not a million miles away from Baron Cohen`s breakthrough role of Borat. Both are gleefully ignorant, misogynistic, anti-Semitic and racist. And yet, there is an undeniable sweetness and innocence beneath all the bluster. His characters are cluelessly offensive, not understanding why what they do seems so outrageous to others. The pleasure of Borat, and Bruno for that matter, was rubbing the people he talks to – and the audiences – own prejudices in their faces. In The Dictator, Baron Cohen has to script these reactions, and the result, while not as good, is still hilarious at times. It helps that many of Aladeen`s most offensive statements are made to Zoey`s Anna Faris. Faris is the best ditz in the business right now – with those wide eyes, and a face that is so open, yet so clueless, Faris is a talented comic actor on Baron Cohen`s level, and plays off him brilliantly (too bad she so rarely gets material that measure up to her talent).

Many critics have, rightly, pointed out that The Dictator is inspired by two comedic masterpieces – The Marx Brothers gleefully zany Duck Soup (1933), with Groucho as the leader of the country of Freedonia, and Charlie Chaplin`s The Great Dictator (1940), Chaplin`s shot across the bow at Hitler. What The Dictator has in common with these films is the same goofy spirit – a willingness to go completely over the top – and yet have a serious point beneath it all. The best moment in the movie is when Aladeen finally gives his speech to the UN, exposing the benefits of a dictatorship to Americans, which essentially ends up mocking the entire American political system. Yes, Baron Cohen is a goofball, and a comedic genius, who isn’t afraid of gross out humor but his films have a point beneath them.

While The Dictator is the funniest movie I have seen in months, it just can`t come close to the genius of Borat, or even Bruno. I would suggest that while Baron Cohen`s movies pretty much have to more conventional than those two films (because he will find it hard to find people who don’t know who he is anymore), that perhaps he needs to team with a better director next time. Larry Charles was a good choice for the anarchy of the first two films, but Baron Cohen needs someone with a little more focus and vision going forward. The Dictator is still a great comedy – but it could have been even better.

DVD Review: Red Tails

Red Tails ** ½ Directed by: Anthony Hemingway.
Written by: John Ridley and Aaron McGruder based on the book by John B. Holway.
Starring: Terrence Howard (Colonel A.J. Bullard), Nate Parker (Marty 'Easy' Julian), Tristan Wilds (Ray 'Junior' Gannon), Elijah Kelley (Samuel 'Joker' George), Leslie Odom Jr. (Declan 'Winky' Hall), Kevin Phillips (Leon 'Neon' Edwards), Method Man (Sticks), Lee Tergesen (Colonel Jack Tomilson), Daniela Ruah (Sofia), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Major Emanuelle Stance), David Oyelowo (Joe 'Lightning' Little), Ne-Yo (Andrew 'Smoky' Salem), Marcus T. Paulk (David 'Deke' Watkins), Michael B. Jordan (Maurice Wilson), Andre Royo (Antwan 'Coffee' Coleman), Bryan Cranston (Colonel William Mortamus), Gerald McRaney (Lieutenant General Luntz).

The Tuskegee Airmen have deserved a big budget tribute that Red Tails aspires to be since the end of WWII. They were an all-black air unit of pilots who were heroes – took on all the jobs that no one else wanted, and performed them better than anyone else. They faced racism both at home and abroad – even the military brass didn’t believe in them, and set them up for failure. George Lucas has apparently been developing this movie for more than 20 years, and was turned down by every studio he went to, who didn’t want to spend all the money on an all-black cast in a war movie. Finally, the movie makes it way to the big screen – in what Lucas calls the middle movie of a planned trilogy. And when the movie is in the air, it is an exciting, brilliantly choreographed aerial action movie, helmed by Anthony Hemingway. The problem is when the movie is one the ground.
Red Tails opens with the airmen already over in Italy. They are put on the least glamorous jobs – hundreds of miles from the frontline, basically running patrols and taking out single targets and essentially doing boring work. They have old, beat up planes, and get no respect. The military brass does not want to give them any high profile jobs – it makes it much easier to insult their lack of aerial takedowns when they never come close to any enemy aircraft. Eventually though, they will get their chance – and make it undeniable how skilled they are.

You could use a checklist in running down the assembled pilots that make up this unit. The leader with some personal demons (in this case, alcoholism), the hot shot who doesn’t follow orders, but is too good to take out of the air, the young kid trying to prove himself, the joker (whose nickname is conveniently Joker) and so on. Their commanding officers include the biggest stars – Cuba Gooding Jr., who gives them their orders while chomping on a pipe, and Terrence Howard, who fights the military brass to give the airmen better jobs. There is even a romance between one of the pilots an Italian girl that as clichéd as it is, is also undeniably sweet.

The highlight of the movie is the aerial fight sequences. George Lucas have director Anthony Hemingway the keys to the CGI kingdom for these sequences, and the result is some of the best, aerial fight sequences I have ever seen in a movie. They are fast paced and exciting, but they never fall into the trap of going over the top, or being so rapidly edited that you do not know what is going on. When he was on The Daily Show, Lucas mentioned that this is the closest you’ll ever get to Episode VII, and he meant in the aerial fight sequences that rival those in the Star Wars movies.
But the scenes are the ground are too clichéd to be effective – the characters are too cookie cutter for you to truly care about them, or connect with them on a persona level. Even the racism they face seems benign in comparison to how it probably really was – and seems to be solved far more easily. I have a feeling that the first and third movies in this apparent trilogy are meant to delve into those issues a little deeper – and that Lucas decided to make the action packed middle segment first because it was the easier sell. But that means the movie lacks context. For all the problems in Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, which was also a black military unit in Italy in WWII, it had something that is lacking in Red Tails – anger and passion. For Red Tails to be a good movie, it needed more of both.

DVD Review: Cleanflix

Cleanflix ***
Directed By: Andrew James & Joshua Ligairi
Written By: Andrew James, Joshua Ligairi

Note: I saw this film at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, and just noticed it was released on DVD recently, so I thought I would post my review from that time.

A few years ago you undoubtedly heard about the lawsuits that Hollywood was filing against certain companies for editing and selling their movies to consumers. Hollywood claimed that these companies had no right to edit copyrighted material and then sell it and make a profit from it. The companies claimed that once they bought a DVD they had to right to do whatever they wanted with it. They claimed because they used a 1 for 1 system (meaning for every “clean” version of the movie they sold, they bought an original DVD) meaning that the studios were not losing any money. In fact, they were probably making more money, because now consumers who would normally never watch this R rated movie were watching them.

The companies lost the lawsuit. Their argument did not carry weight with the courts. For one thing, it is impossible to guarantee that all the companies were using the 1 for 1 system, and for another there is a bigger issue at play here that many directors did not like. These companies were altering their movies, and leaving their names on it without their permission. Viewers who watched these versions were not getting what the director intended them to get, and because some of the editing was so sloppy, it made the directors look like amateurs.

The fascinating new documentary Cleanflix looks at the rise and fall in this industry. Not surprising, the industry started in Utah – the most conservative State in America that also happens to be home to a large Mormon population. In the late 1980s, the Prophet of the Mormon Church decreed that members of the Mormon faith were not allowed to watch R rated movies. The theory being that exposure to “dirty” material such as violence, language and sex, dirtied the watchers soul. They were committing a sin just by watching the movie.

Cleanflix tries hard to present a fair and balanced view of the industry – at least in the films first two thirds (more on the last third in a minute). It interviews the people who founded these companies, and lets them tell their side of the story. Far from being the religious nut jobs you might envision, most of these people were smart business men. They saw a need that was going unfulfilled in the market, and decided to fill it themselves. The theory being that because movies were edited all the time for the airlines and for television, then they could just provide the same service on DVDs. The problem, of course, is that the studios gives permission to the airlines and TV, and even supervises the editing of the movies.

But as hard as the makers of Cleanflix tries, you can tell what side of the issue they come down on. One of the most amusing things they do in the movie is show the difference between a “clean” and the “uncut” version of the movies. Sometimes – as with a cut from The Matrix – the difference is almost non-existent – you still do get the point, even if you do not see the violence. Other times, like in a scene with a lot of swearing in Saving Private Ryan, the editing is so poorly done that the scene becomes almost incomprehensible. I didn’t really mind that the courts came down on the side of the filmmakers, and against the companies doing the editing, because that is the side I was also on. In my mind, if you do not want to see the violence, swearing and sex in a given movie, then you simply do not watch the movie. There are literally thousands of classic movies out there for you to watch that adhere to the codes that they are comfortable with, so they should simply watch them if they don’t want to see this “evil” trash. If you miss out on the conversation about a movie that everyone else saw, when then, that’s your decision. You do not have the right to alter someone else’s work. That’s just wrong.

For nearly an hour of the film, the movie looks at the industry as a whole, and it’s this part of the movie that I found fascinating. It’s when the filmmakers veer off track from that in the last third of the film that I did not like as much. In that part of the film, the filmmakers concentrate on Daniel Thompson, one of the biggest “names” in the clean films industry. He runs a few stores in Utah, and the reason why everyone knows who he is, is because he always puts himself front and center. Every time there is a story on the news about the industry, you can be sure that Thompson has wedged his way in somehow. Even after the ruling, companies were still trying to get away with producing clean versions of movies, and fly under the radar, but Thompson could never shut up long enough for them to notice. He continually brings attention to himself. When Thompson ends up being charged with soliciting sex from a 14 year old girl, the media has a field day. That this supposedly upright and moral guy is involved in child prostitution is the type of irony they feed on.

But for me, I didn’t find Thompson that interesting of a character, and certainly not deserving of having the last third of the movie revolve around him. Like the rest of the clean movie industry, he never really claims to be a moralist – he even says at one point in the movie that he doesn’t necessarily agree with how he makes his money, but since there’s money to be made doing what he does, then he’s going to make sure he’s the one making it. I think the rise and fall of this industry is fascinating enough with devoting a half of hour of the movie to this egomaniac.

But despite my problems with the film (which also include that fact that at times, it is rather clumsily put together) I was still fascinated by this movie. It is not one of the great documentaries of the year, but it is certainly one of the more fascinating ones – and a must see for movies fans.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Movie Review: The Samaritan

The Samaritan * ½
Directed by: David Weaver.
Written by: Elan Mastai and David Weaver.
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson (Foley), Luke Kirby (Ethan), Ruth Negga (Iris), Tom Wilkinson (Xavier), Gil Bellows (Bartender Bill), Aaron Poole (Jake), Tom McCamus (Deacon), Martha Burns (Gretchen), Stephen Eric McIntyre (Landlord), Alan C. Peterson (Miro), Deborah Kara Unger (Helena), Rob Archer (Vernon Hicks), Diana Leblanc (Celia).

The key to a good con movie is that it has to work on two levels – the con within the movie has to be smart and realistic, and that the movie itself has to con the audience into believing one thing, and then pull the rug out from under you later on. David Mamet is a master at this – in films like House of Games. The reason why The Samaritan fails as a movie is because it fails on both of those levels. The con in the movie itself is almost an afterthought, ill-conceived and rushed through. And as for conning the audience, The Samaritan doesn’t even really try. It proceeds on its well-worn path to its inevitable conclusion. In short, it’s quite simply dull.

Samuel L. Jackson plays Foley, who has just been released from prison after serving 25 years for murdering his one-time grifting partner. The son of the man he killed, Ethan (Luke Kirby) quickly tracks him down – but not out of anger or wanting to revenge, but to find out what happened and why. Oh, and he has a grift he wants to pull off, and knows Foley could help him out. He tries to entice Foley by setting him up with a pretty, younger woman named Iris (Ruth Negga). But things get more serious between Foley and Iris than anyone really thought – they fall in love. But dark secrets from the past keep coming up.

The first half of The Samaritan is a slow slog. The film spends too much time trying to set up the different characters and their relationships to each other. What should take 20 minutes, takes 45, as the film beats a dead horse for fall too long. Also, it’s clear from the beginning that the movie is holding back information, and personally, I grew frustrated that the movie was playing games – and even more frustrated that those games never really paid off.

Samuel L. Jackson is a good actor – and he could play a character like Foley in his sleep, and in many ways he does. He keeps the same beaten down, tired expression on his face throughout the movie. There`s none of the usual anger or passion that Jackson normally brings to his roles. Luke Kirby is telegraphs his untrustworthiness from the outset – there is nothing subtle or particularly involving about his performance. As Iris, Ruth Negga is a blank slate – bring zero emotion to her performance, despite the journey her character is supposed to go through. Tom Wilkinson, who plays the mark little more than a cameo is doing some sort of weird accent that makes no sense.

The bottom line about The Samaritan is that it just isn’t very involving. The screenplay and direction is too by the numbers and the performances lack any real interest. The movie never really goes anywhere – it takes far too long to get there.

Movie Review: Virginia

Virginia ** ½
Directed by: Dustin Lance Black.   
Written By: Dustin Lance Black.
Starring: Jennifer Connelly (Virginia), Ed Harris (Sheriff Dick Tipton), Harrison Gilbertson (Emmett), Emma Roberts (Jessie Tipton), Amy Madigan (Mrs. Tipton), Toby Jones (Max), Carrie Preston (Betty), Yeardley Smith (Mrs. Whitaker), Dan Schippers (Mormon Boy).

Note: I saw this film at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival (When it was called Whats Wrong with Virginia), where the reviews were quite bad. I do know that director Dustin Lance Black went back and did a re-edit of this film after that premiere, that he says is much stronger than the version I saw – although the reviews I have read this week upon the films release do not really back that up – as they still describe much of what I saw. However, in the interest of fairness, I felt I had to say that this is a review of the previous cut. Because of my mixed feelings on the movie, and the contention Black makes that he understands the criticisms the film received at TIFF, and improved them in the re-edit, I may well check the film out again on video – I do not have time to see it in theaters however.

I seem to be the only person in the world who didn’t hate Dustin Lance Black’s Virginia. Yes, the film is a mess, and yes it bites off more than it can chew – especially considering that Black is a first time director here – but it’s at times such a gloriously entertaining mess, that I couldn’t help liking it on some level. It is an overly ambitious film – but I would rather see one of those than a boring film that plays it safe and delivers. The film contains echoes of Douglas Sirk, David Lynch and Todd Haynes in its depiction of small town life, and the sexual currents under the surface. While I admit that it is a mess of a film, I also have to say that I enjoyed much of it – and that I look forward to seeing what Black comes up with next.

The film stars Jennifer Connelly is a wondrously loopy performance as Virginia. She is perhaps schizophrenic, and there is certainly something wrong with her, but she is also rather sweet and endearing. She has been raising her son Emmett (Harrison Gilbertson) by herself for years – no one knows who the father is. Or do they? She has been having an affair with Sheriff Dick Tipton (Ed Harris) since before Emmett was born. Tipton likes his sex kinky, and can’t get that from his straight laced wife (Amy Madigan) – but Virginia seems to have no inhibitions at all. But now that Tipton is running for State Senate, it appears like it`s time for the affair to end. Virginia, not willing to accept this, pretends she’s pregnant and starts telling the whole town that it’s Tipton’s baby.

Meanwhile Emmett goes about trying to take care of himself, and his mother, just like he always has. He falls for Tipton’s daughter Jessie (Emma Roberts), and allows himself to because he thinks he can prove that they are not actually half siblings. He has no delusions of who his mother is, but loves her anyway. All he really wants to do is get out of this small, Christian, Southern town.

Virginia features a story that veers off course, and tries to do too much. Black feels the need to expose all the towns’ sexual secrets – and it starts to appear at times that everyone is kinky in one way or another – no matter how straight laced their outward appearance. He introduces us to too many characters that he doesn’t develop – I never could figure out why Emmett and Jessie were so in love with each other, unless it was just futile teenage rebellion a la Romero and Juliet. And the character played by Toby Jones – a respectable Republican booster who is also a cross dresser – is unnecessary no matter how enjoyable Jones is playing him. The story takes too many side journeys into the unbelievable, and features some unnecessary crime scenes and violence.

So yes, the film is flawed. Whatever the other critics have said about the film is undeniably true – it is a complete mess of a film. But it’s also a film that keep me consistently engaged with it. Connelly goes for broke in her performance as Virginia – and for once I was glad to see a portrait of mental illness that wasn’t completely bleak and depressing. Harris has perhaps a harder role – he has to kind of juggle the different genres the film tries to straddle – but he does it well. I loved the candy colored look of the film and the film was consistently funny. No, Virginia is not a great movie – perhaps it isn’t even a very good one. But it is a film that kept me engaged throughout.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Movie Review: Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows *** Directed by: Tim Burton.
Written by: Seth Grahame-Smith and John August based on the television series by Dan Curtis.
Starring: Johnny Depp (Barnabas Collins), Michelle Pfeiffer (Elizabeth Collins Stoddard), Helena Bonham Carter (Dr. Julia Hoffman), Eva Green (Angelique Bouchard), Jackie Earle Haley (Willie Loomis), Jonny Lee Miller (Roger Collins), Bella Heathcote (Victoria Winters / Josette DuPres), Chloë Grace Moretz (Carolyn Stoddard), Gulliver McGrath (David Collins), Ray Shirley (Mrs. Johnson), Christopher Lee (Clarney), Alice Cooper (Alice Cooper).

Dark Shadows is a prototypical Tim Burton film – which is both good and bad. It has everything you have come to expect from Burton – the dark, meticulously designed art direction, costumes and ,cinematography, his quirky, outsider of a hero played by Johnny Depp, sexy, big eyed, slender statuesque, pale women, and his mixture of comedy and the macabre. But like many of his films, Burton is more concerned with the design and look of his film, than the story itself. For much of its running time, Dark Shadows is an amusing fish out of water comedy, with a very slight story. The result is that the last half hour or so of Dark Shadows is an absolute mess – as Burton tries to wrap up all the loose story threads he barely focused on for the first three quarters of the movie. It is an unsatisfying way to end an otherwise enjoyable little Burton film.

Baranbas Collins (Depp) was the son of wealthy parents in the 1700s in America. The Collins make their money in the fishing business – but Baranbas makes a crucial mistake by having an affair with a servant named Angelique (Eva Green) – and then jilting her for another woman he intends to marry. What Baranbas doesn’t know is that Angelique is a witch – and when she cannot have him, she intends to not let anyone else have him either – killing his fiancé and turning him into a vampire, before burying him deep in a coffin to let him suffer. Two centuries later, in 1972, workmen uncover the coffin, and Baranbas escapes – determined to rejoin the once proud Collins family, no fallen on hard times, and remake their business. What he doesn’t know is that Angelique is still around, and is now a captain of industry in their small town.

Burton and Depp have a great deal of fun with Baranbas waking up after 200 years in the ground, and not being familiar with all that has gone in the preceding years – from thinking the McDonalds sign is representative of the Satan, to his confusion about the TV and the lack of horses that have been replaced by cars, and confusing his free spirited teenage ancestor Carolyn (Chloe Grace Mortez) for a prostitute. Depp, who enjoys going over the top in his performances for Burton, is clearly having a blast playing Baranbas – and that seeps into the other performances as well – Michelle Pfeiffer as the slightly sinister Collins matriarch, Helena Bonham Carter as a drunken psychologist, Mortez as the teenage girl with a secret and of course Green as the witch. Everyone is having a blast in the movie, which is usually a good sign that the audience will have fun as well.

The film looks great – of course it does, since it is a Burton film. He loves large, sinister houses and in Collinswood, the dilapidated family mansion, he has created one of the better ones of his career. He also has a blast recreating the style of the 1700s in the early scenes, and throughout with Barnabas’ clothing, but also the look of the 1970s – as he pumps through a lot of period music throughout, which sets the tone well.

The problem with Dark Shadows is that Burton and his writers (Seth Grahme-Smith and John August) have so much fun setting up comedic set pieces, and fish out of water moments, that the story itself is paper thin. The film has so many little subplots that are barely developed, and then when it comes to the climax of the movie, they have to wrap them all up. The fight sequences that end the film, as well as the monster movie like villagers, doesn’t really fit in. What fans of the soap opera that is the basis of this film will make of the film I have no idea – I have never seen an episode. But Burton really does go melodramatic in his tone for the film, but then pushes it into comedic territory. I think that was the right choice. While I do think that the last half hour of Dark Shadows is an absolute mess, I enjoyed so much of what came before, I cannot dislike the movie as a whole. At this point in Burton’s career, we know what to expect of him – and Burton delivers exactly what you would expect in this film. So you probably already know whether this film is for you or not.

Movie Review: The Hunter

The Hunter *** ½ Directed by: Daniel Nettheim.
Written by: Alice Addison & Wain Fimeri based on the novel by Julia Leigh.
Starring: Willem Dafoe (Martin David), Sam Neill (Jack Mindy), Frances O'Connor (Lucy Armstrong), Sullivan Stapleton (Doug), Callan Mulvey (Rival Hunter), Morgana Davies (Sass Armstrong), Dan Spielman (Simon), Finn Woodlock (Bike Armstrong).

The Hunter of the title is Martin (Willem Dafoe), a mercenary who is hired by a shadowy corporation to head to the forest of Tasmania and find the Tasmanian Tiger – an animal thought to be extinct ever since the 1930s. There are still reported sightings of the animal – which despite his name is not a cat, and despite its appearance is not a dog – for years, and even more recently. His job is to find and kill this animal, collecting samples of its fur, tissue, blood and organs, and make sure no one else can find the remains. He arrives, and finds the living arrangements that have been set up for him are not ideal – he is to stay with Lucy (Frances O’Connor) and her two kids – daughter Sass, who never shuts up, and son Bike, who never says a word. The house is a mess, and has no electricity. Lucy’s husband has been missing for a year – and he wasn’t too popular when he was around. The only business here is logging, and he was a tree hugger. Martin’s cover story – of a university professor studying Tasmanian devils – doesn’t hold much water. The locals are weary of him – they think he’s either there to be a thorn in their side about logging, or is the latest in a long line of people hunting the tiger. Either way, they don’t want anything to do with him. If local Jack Mindy (Sam Neill) didn’t keep them off of him, there seems like a great possibility that Martin would be killed.

The Hunter really tells two stories – one more interesting than the other, but both effective. The better of the two is of Dafoe’s Martin by himself in the wilderness stalking his prey. These scenes are quiet and fascinating, as we watch Dafoe, surrounded by nothingness, going about his work like an expert. The other story line is about Martin slowly bonding with Lucy and her kids. Lucy has been depressed ever since her husband disappeared and has been on drugs ever since. The kids have essentially been left to fend for themselves – their friend Jack helps out, but there is something in Sam Neill that makes him instantly untrustworthy. As he spends more time with this broken family, they start to heal – Lucy comes out of her depression, and they become a sort of makeshift family, and Martin begins to rediscover his humanity. He doesn’t become a good guy per se, but he’s better than he was.

What I admired about the film is how ambiguous it is. This is not a black and white film, where the lines between good and evil are clear, but is instead blurred. The film does not spell everything out for the audience – what really happened to the husband is clear, but how it happened is, and the same is true about a tragic incident late in the film. While Neill’s Jack is certainly not as trustworthy as he appears to be, he isn’t really a villain either – he does what he thinks is right and feels guilt when things go wrong. Lucy is certainly not a good mother, loading herself up with drugs, and leaving her kids to fend themselves when they need her most – and yet, you feel for her too. She doesn’t know how to go on. Even the local loggers, so surly and mean, are just men worried about their jobs and families – even if they have perhaps gone too far to protect them both.

And nowhere is this ambiguity more apparent than in Martin’s character – and Dafoe’s excellent performance. Dafoe has often been called on to play villains – he has a face that can easily contort into a sort of evil madness. But remember, he also once played Jesus Christ, and he often has a Christ-like serenity to his work. This is apparent in his scenes out in the wilderness. His character is forced to confront his life, and the choices he has made to this point. When he finally is confronted by the choice the whole movie has been leading to, he makes one that some will likely to hate, and some applaud. The movie leaves that choice up to you to decide.

The Hunter is a quiet movie, and one that lets the audience do most of the work. It is anchored by Dafoe’s performance, but credit must also go to director Daniel Nettheim, who walks the fine line between slow and boring wonderfully, and Alice Addison’s screenplay, based on Julia Leigh’s novel. Some will hate The Hunter, some will love it. But no matter what, it is a film that sticks in your head.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ranking Tim Burton

Tim Burton is one of the most distinctive directors working today – even if you hate his films and many do, you have to admit, you know a Burton film when you see one. It seems to be pretty evenly split as to people who love his stuff, and people who think they are empty vessels with nothing but the same visual look every time out. I am more mixed then most – I enjoy most of his films, but do not love very many – many are enjoyable the first time through, but find don’t find much reason to revisit them after that first time. It has been 27 years since he made film debut, and this week, we’ll see his 15th feature in Dark Shadows. So let’s look back and what has come before that. (By the way, Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my favorites that Burton has been involved with – but he didn’t direct it, so it’s not on this list).

14. Planet of the Apes (2001)
Perhaps the harshest thing I can say about Burton’s Planet of the Apes is that it doesn’t for a second feel like a Tim Burton film. If Burton is going to make a movie, he damn well better put his own spin on it, but this Planet of the Apes doesn’t feel like his – it doesn’t feel like anyone’s for that matter, just another anonymous would be blockbuster. Mark Wahlberg is a bland hero, Helena Bonham Carter not a very convincing ape love interest. I did love Tim Roth’s over the top villain, and the twist ending works, because while it’s similar to the twist of the original film, it isn’t the same. Still, when I see a Tim Burton film, I want to see a Tim Burton film – and this is the one film that doesn’t feel like his own.

13. Peewee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Burton’s film debut is scattershot, but at times, absolutely hilarious. Overgrown man child Pee-Wee Herman has his beloved red bike stolen, and goes on a cross country journey to try and track it down – and meets some strange people along the way, and ends up in pretty strange places (like the Alamo). The movie is almost more like a series of comic vignettes than a complete film. Yes, at times it is hilarious, and remains a must for a certain type of film fan, but for me it perhaps Burton’s least complete film. Enjoyable yes, but a great film, no.

12. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
There is probably not another director working today who I would rather see direct a live action version of Alice in Wonderland. Burton puts a kind of unique spin on the material – a quasi-sequel to Lewis Carroll’s classic if you will, because now Alice is older, and returning to a Wonderland she doesn’t remember – but certainly remembers her. But for whatever reason, this Alice is not wholly satisfying – perhaps it’s because Johnny Depp seems to be trying too hard to be too crazy as the Mad Hatter. The last act, which for whatever reason decides to pile on the action instead of keeping its demented fairy tale tone, certainly does not help. Alice in Wonderland is still a good film – enjoyable to see once, especially to see Helena Bonham Carter’s performance as The Red Queen, but still I have to say, I was a little let down by this one.

11. Beetle Juice (1988)
Michael Keaton is brilliant as Beetlegeuse, a demon who specializes in “exorcising the living”, which a newly dead couple desperately need when a new family moves into their house, and they want rid of him. He goes brilliantly over the top as the demented ghoul, in the first film that truly showed what a Tim Burton film would look like – and it does look great from start to finish. The problem is, Keaton is a supporting character, and no one else is as interesting as he is – when he’s off screen, you wait for him to get back. Yes, it’s enjoyable, but if I run across it on TV now, and it’s a scene not involving Keaton, I breeze right on by.

10. Batman (1989)
When I revisited Burton’s original Batman film a few years ago – on the eve of the release of Batman Begins – I was somewhat disappointed. I hadn’t seen the film is years, but it certainly had an effect on me as a kid. And Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker is still a thing twisted comic genius. And the Gotham City Burton invents is as distinct a visual environment as he has ever created. And yet, everything around The Joker was somewhat disappointing, not as good or as magical as I remembered as a child. Perhaps it’s just nostalgia playing tricks on me, but while I can continue to watch Batman Returns again and again and again, I won’t be revisiting the original any time soon.

9. Big Fish (2003)
Big Fish was Burton’s attempt to be taken a little more seriously as an artist – and yet, it is still undeniably his film. It is about a dying old man (Albert Finney), who has been telling tall tales about his life to his son (Billy Crudup) for his whole life – and now, as he lies dying, his son finally wants to hear the truth – but Finney, of course, cannot help but embellish his life, and the romance between him and his wife. Seen in flashback, Ewan McGregor is a young Finney, who goes from one outlandish experience to the next. It is an enjoyable journey, and visually exciting just like all of Burton’s films. And yet, despite the fact that Burton is trying to be more serious here than in the past, the film feels even emptier than much of his work. Yes, Big Fish is fun, but it doesn’t really add up to as much as Burton thinks it does.

8. Mars Attacks! (1996)
Tim Burton followed up his tribute to the “worst director in history”, Ed Wood, with a film that feels like Wood could have directed it. It is a purposefully cheesy homage to the not purposefully cheesy 1950s sci-fi movies that Wood, and other made, and which Burton loved so much as a child. And taken as a purposefully cheesy comedy, Mars Attacks is utterly hilarious – with its aliens with their oversized heads, who vaporize humanity, to Jack Nicholson’s delirious triple performance, to the over acting by the entire cast, and of course, the brilliantly nonsensical way the human defeat the Martian invaders. I know many hate Mars Attacks, and I cannot really argue with those who do, but I find it hilarious if I’m in the right mood.

7. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005)
Burton may not have had a directing credit on The Nightmare Before Christmas, but he certainly took the lessons he learned from it (not to mention his early short films, like the brilliant Vincent) to direct so far his only animated feature. His films are so stylized; they often resemble live action animated films anyway. His distinctive look makes this animated film – about a shy young man (voiced by Johnny Depp, of course) who is set to marry the woman he loves, but accidentally ends up marrying a corpse instead. This film does not have quite the same magic of Nightmare Before Christmas, but it is still one of the most entertaining films Burton has made – uniquely his own, funny, stunningly animated, and a couple of nice songs to go along with it.

6. Sweeny Todd (2007)
As someone who loves the stage version of Sweeny Todd – a brilliant musical by Stephen Sondheim, it took me a little while – and more than one viewing – to truly fall in love with Burton's film version. The musical is a very demanding, difficult one for singers – that requires big, versatile singing voices, and I have to be honest, and say that Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter do not have those voices. And yet, on a second viewing, knowing that these two weren’t going to go big with their voices, the creepiness of their underlying performances came through – Depp as the demented barber hell-bent on revenge, and Bonham Carter as the pathetic woman who loves him. I’m still not sold on the two young lovers – which Burton never makes as crazy as they should be (they are, in a different way, as insane as the central characters), and yet I did love the visual look of the film, and I eventually fell in love with the lead performances. I have seen this a few times in the last five years, and its perhaps the only Burton film I feel gets better each time I see it.

5. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
I know what I am about to say will be seen by somewhat blasphemy, but yes, I prefer the Burton/Depp version of Roald Dahl’s classic more than the Mel Stuart/Gene Wilder version – and it’s mainly because of Depp’s wildly eccentric, daring performance as Willy Wonka. Unlike Wilder’s performance, where he is somewhat lovably eccentric, Depp turns Willy Wonka into a creepy, sad little man. He is essentially an overgrown man child, prone to cruel, sadistic, childish outbursts. Depp is said to have been inspired by Michael Jackson, and it shows in his performance – his Willy Wonka is as creepy as I always though Jackson was. Of course, the Chocolate Factory allows Burton to indulge in his usual over the top, yet brilliant, art direction, costume design and cinematography – and Freddie Highmore is appropriately lovable as young Charlie, but to me, Depp elevates the movie with his brilliant performance. I know many hate his performance, but I could not help but love it.

4. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Sleepy Hollow is absolutely wonderful comic horror film – a masterpiece of art direction, costume design and cinematography that make it perhaps the most visually distinctive of all of Burton’s films. Johnny Depp makes a wonderful Ichabod Crane, ahead of his time in terms of forensic science, who uses devices of his own design (the creepiest looking fictional tools this side of Dead Ringers) to investigate a series of deaths that the locals of Sleepy Hollow insist were committed by the Headless Horseman – which of course Crane does not believe. When he finally does see it with his own eyes – he does the only logical thing – hide under his covers. The ending of the movie is too conventional, and yet, you have to admit that any explanation for how and why a headless horseman is committing murders would be somewhat unsatisfying. Still, Sleepy Hollow is a visual masterwork – and contains one of Depp’s best performances.

3. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Edward Scissorhands is the saddest of all Tim Burton films – and Tim Burton characters. Played by Johnny Depp, the title character is the creation of a mad scientist (Vincent Price, of course), who finds himself abandoned and alone, not knowing what to do with his life after the death of his father – and finding himself trapped in suburbia, with a strange, but loving family – but a world that does not want him. This is Burton’s take on the monster movies he loved in his youth – when the monsters were objects of sympathy, who simply did not understand why the world hated them so much. It is also a visual wonder of a film. This was Johnny Depp’s first appearance in a Burton film – and remains one of his best. His performance is silent, but heartbreaking, in one of the only Burton films I can watch again and again and not get bored.

2. Batman Returns (1992)
This will likely be the most controversial placement on this list for many people – but for me, Batman Returns remains one of Burton’s very best films, miles  beyond the original film, and so creepy that every time I see it, it brings me back to my 11 year old self who was freaked out by the film. Michael Keaton is fine as Batman, but the Burton Batman films were always about the villains. Danny DeVito’s demented penguin is an absolute treat – even if he bears no resemblance the comic book villain. But for me, this film will always be defined by my favorite performance by Michelle Pfeiffer ever, as Catwoman. That cat suit remains transfixed in my mind, as does the sexy purr of her voice. The film is exciting from beginning to end, dark violent, creepy – another visual masterwork by Burton – but it is elevated by Pfeiffer well beyond most superhero movies. I do not envy Anne Hathaway, who has big shoes to fill this summer in The Dark Knight Returns.

1. Ed Wood (1994)
I don’t think Burton is ever going to top his 1994 film Ed Wood – it is his most personal film, and the one that perfectly marries his visual style with its subject matter. Ed Wood is commonly called the worst director in film history – he had no idea how to make a movie, and was so in love with every shot, no matter how many mistakes there were, he never sees the flaws in his own work. And yes, Burton’s film mocks Wood – but it does so in a good natured way. It also has a fair amount of respect for the man – Wood had the passion to be a filmmaker, if not the skill. For me, this will always be Johnny Depp’s best performance – he dives headlong into the role and goes for broke. Martin Landau won an Oscar for his performance as the legendary Bela Lugosi, who late in his life, addicted to morphine, found himself working with Wood. The black and white photography is brilliant - and–perfect for Burton’s sensibility (I have a feeling he’d shoot more in black and white if they let him). The film is a hilarious comedy, and a heartfelt tribute to the passion that goes into filmmaking. Burton has never made a better film – in fact, he’s never even come close. This is his masterpiece.