Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Wolverine

Basically I have no memory of the X:Men Origins Wolverine film. There were a couple of characters that were used in the movie that I recall but I don't know if they were good bad or indifferent. That's not to say I thought it was a bad film, everyone else has already said that. I think I enjoyed it while it was running and then it promptly went out of my head. I have not seen it since. "The Wolverine" has fewer X:Men and a simpler story. It was relatively easy to follow and there were some good action sequences. I can't say that I will ever see it again,but I enjoyed it while it was on and it seemed a more substantial film than the last one was.

Hugh Jackman can play this role without having to over do it because he was well cast to begin with and it looks like he has been in training for the part for fifteen years now. Logan is living like a real wolverine, hiding from the bad past and creating a fantasy relationship with the late Jean Grey. It is another version of the tortured soul as a character trait of a super hero. It fits fine because we know eventually he will stop moping around and start kicking some butts. When he does, he is identified and then reunited with a man whose life he saved many years earlier. The plot then proceeds from the obligation one man feels and the desire that another man develops.

As far as I could count there are only three mutants that participate in the story. That should allow things to remain relatively simple, but there are also at least three other groups involved with the family corporation run by Logan's old friend. The loyalties and animosities going on here are a little complex but mostly it comes down to yakuza versus ninjas. Sometimes the ninjas are on "The Wolverine's" side and sometimes they are not. There are however several fight scenes that combine both elements and then throw in the Wolverine to make it all more relevant to us, the audience. The idea of immortality as a curse is not new, but for this character, it seems to be important because otherwise he is invincible. Chemical biology and a mutant combine to create Wolverine Kryptonite. This makes the middle section of the picture a more dangerous place for our hero. The vulnerability subjects him not only to risks from his enemies but it allows him to consider a life that he thought could never be his. Basically he can begin to resolve his guilt issues and feeling of isolation because he is a more susceptible hero.

The vast majority of the film is set in Japan. There are gleaming Tokyo neon night spots where danger lurks. There is also a "Hidden Fortress" on a him, overlooking a smaller city which is closer to being a village. Logan spends time in the seaside town of Nagasaki as well. The history of which is part of the bigger story. The settings make the movie more distinctive than other X:Men movies. Local traditions and cultures mix up the motives of the participants in the story and the setting makes the battles look more exotic. As Logan tries to protect a young Japanese woman from the forces that seem to be after her, she contributes to the problem by acting as if she is unclear that there is a threat or that he is something different. Once these characters become more involved, she begins to act in a more consistent manner, one that is a lot more logical. At that point the movie settles down and has a much clearer plot line to follow.

I know the film is PG-13 because we get only one f-bomb, and the blood from all the fighting and evisceration that is taking place, stays mainly on the characters. Body parts don't come flying off the screen, there are no fountains of blood spraying the walls, and the violence remains mostly in the imagination. Even though we know that if those claws of the Wolverines were used the way he uses them, and the swords that all the character wield would produce galleons of crimson everywhere, it is a fairly tame visual atmosphere.  There are several battles that seem to be climatic, but of course there is always one more to go through. Stick around for a stinger that should make you anticipate the next X:Men movie as well. This is not as great a film as X:men First Class was, but it beats the heck out of "Iron Man 3".

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Conjuring

That is how you make a scary movie!

So for the second time today, I can report that the health of the creative industry in Hollywood is not as grave as everyone thinks. The financial condition I can't speak to, but when it comes to making an entertaining film, it seems they are not bankrupt yet. "The Conjuring" lives up to the hype I have been hearing about. It does not do anything really new when it comes to horror, but what it does is manage to sustain the suspense for the entitity of the movie instead of running out of gas halfway through. With a very minimum of CGI effects and a heavy dose of atmosphere, it delivers scares every time it tries to.

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of "The Exorcist", a film that defines what horror really means. That movie created a real background for the characters that the events ultimately happen to, and the foreboding atmosphere exists before we even get to the the so called haunted house. In a similar way, "The Conjuring" starts off with a seemingly unrelated prologue. The creepiness factor is turned way up and the hair on the back of your neck stands up at just a couple of images, sounds and ideas. There is no great throwdown between good and evil , the explosive histrionics are saved for the climax of the main story, but we get a good idea of what is coming.

A family moves into an old house that they have spent all of their money to get into. It doesn't take long for us to know something is wrong, because the dog wants nothing to do with the house. No big special effect, just a dog unwilling to go into a house and then barking most of the night. In the morning though, things get a lot more creepy a lot faster. The pace of the story is not rushed and although there are a few gotcha moments to go along with the tension, those moments are earned. There is a really great scene where one of the five girls living in the house experiences and sees something that no one else sees quite as clearly but all involved believe. The two sisters in that bedroom are frightened to pieces, and the film makers have the good sense to show us almost nothing. There are several other moments in the movie that work just as well and there is not an overuse of special effects. I can say that there was a very strong use of sound in one of the fright scenes and I think Sensurround could make a come back with this kind of sound design.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are the Warrens, a pair of paranormal investigators we met early on who come to the aid of the family. Unlike so many films of this ilk, where the ghostbusters show up out of no where, we actually get a parallel story of their travails as the family is being haunted. That adds a lot more credibility to the plot. This is not a group of people that have to be convinced, they already believe evil exists because they have seen it. The Perron family has stumbled into the usual bad situation and the revelation that this is what happened is not the point of the story, but rather, how it will play out. That is nicely drawn out and Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston sell the characters they are playing without becoming melodramatic. The five young actresses who play they daughters are all solid. There was never an attempt to make them more precious than the average family would be. This is another way in which the frights work so well, it is not over played for most of the movie.

As I said earlier, this film has not got anything in it that you have not really seen before. It just does all of the things that are familiar really well. The editor lets things be suspended for just the right beat, the acting is just dramatic enough, and the special effects are saved for moments when they make the most sense. Toward the end of the movie we get a possession story that is frightening and the exorcism sequence uses up most of the special effects budget. There were maybe one or two slight places where it was pushed a little further than needed, but having gone ninety percent of the way through the film without those flaws, it made them just a little more noticeable. and also forgivable. If scary movies bother you, then definitely stay away from this. If a horror film is something that you crave, here is a full meal that will leave you satisfied and with a little touch of the hair raised on the back of your neck.

The Way, Way Back

Put away your popcorn, forget robots and superheroes, and don't look for any guns or explosions, the best film of the summer is here. "The Way,Way Back" is a basic story that relies on understanding a character and developing an emotional connection to that character. That the film takes place in the summertime is a bonus that will make this a perennial must watch in the month of July for years to come. It will not replace "Jaws" as the go to July Fourth movie at our house, but a couple weeks later, when the summer season is settling in, I will be bugging everyone to sit down and watch this as a family. The film is not overly dramatic and it is not hysterical either, it is just real enough to touch you and make you remember those awkward moments in your own life. It is nostalgic without the trappings of visiting another era.

Duncan is a 14 year old kid, trapped in a family nightmare and only able to see the world as it sucks. He has every right to. His parents are divorced, his Dad is not present in his life and his Mom has found an unsuitable partner to fill the void in their lives. Trent is not the worst human being ever, but he is the worst for Duncan at this point in his life. Steve Carell plays the new boyfriend as a little self righteous and weak at the same time. Toni Collette is Duncan's uncertain and awkward Mother, a part she has grown into pretty well over the years. It is not until the end of the film that we begin to understand her at all. Yet, these are not the main characters of the story. The film focuses on Duncan and the way in which he is having to adapt to seeing the world from a different perspective.

The two different paradigm shifting relationships in the movie are the cute girl next door and an inappropriate but ultimately essential mentor figure that he attaches himself to. Liam James plays the overwhelmed young Duncan. He gets the suppressed anger and the awkward small humiliations just right. One of the reasons he works so well in the movie is that he is stingy with his smile. It does not come easily and it never seems to arrive at the moment we expect it. Part of the reason it is difficult for Duncan to relate is that he has not found a complementary force in his life yet. Mom can't provide it for the moment. Trent does not fit at all and girls are a mystery that are slightly beyond his reach at this stage of life. Lucky for him, and for us as the viewers, Owen drops into his life.

Owen is a local, at the water park near Trent's summer home, where Duncan's Mom has dragged him for the summer. Sussana, the cute, slightly older neighbor girl is potentially a friend but Duncan hasn't learned how to communicate as an adult yet. Owen seems the least likely to be able to help him with those skills, since he is in arrested development himself and speaks mostly in jokes and asides that are hip but maybe not always appropriate. But Owen is older, and wiser than he cares to admit and he has one other special gift. Owen can feel the need that Duncan has to break out of his shell. Owen instinctively responds to Duncan, despite the fact that Duncan can barely get out a coherent sentence. Maybe he recognizes a younger self, or like a lot of partnerships, simply fits in because the other person is letting them. The friendship between a grown man and a 14 year old kid works in a non-creepy way.

OK, so far I have neglected to say that Owen is played by the amazing Sam Rockwell. Over the years, Rockwell has provided more enjoyment to me in movie theaters than could be measured. He has played serious and comedy roles and is willing to inject himself into a story in ways that are not always going to draw attention but do shore up the film. This film lets him do both. He electrifies the movie every time he shows up, but he doesn't steal focus from the character of Duncan who is after all, the main point of what we are watching. Here is an easy way to describe it, Rockwell is a soda bottle full of charisma and energy and the story allows us to pop the top off and let the fizzy lifting goodness flow over us. It may seem in retrospect too contrived to work, but while watching the movie I never felt taken out of the story. The impact that Owen has on Duncan is actually subtle even if his character is not.

There are some dramatic fireworks but they do not exceed the situation that the characters are in. It never feels over the top. The story is populated with unpleasant characters, funny neighbors, thoughtless idiots and surprisingly deep and empathetic kids. It is a coming of age story for Duncan but also for his Mom and Owen as well. Younger viewers may not quite get the reference to the title because for more than twenty years now, automobiles with a third set of seats, have all had those seats facing the same direction. The old (or classic wagon as Trent sees it) station wagon that begins and ends this summer trip has a traditional rear facing seat. Kids traveling with their families in the old days often were on a completely different trip than everyone else because they look at the surroundings through a different perspective. That's what happens here. Everyone gets to see the world from a different view, and it's not all bad.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


 The overwhelming majority of reviews of this film have been negative. I try to avoid reading other people's material until I have seen a movie myself. I want my opinion to be MY opinion. Yet in the past month the stink on this film has pervaded the inter webs. The trailers make the film look like a refugee from the late 1990s, and Ryan Reynolds couldn't buy a hit if he won the powerball. Well let me tell you, there is a reason for all that chatter and smell, the movie isn't very good. I suppose it is faint praise to say I did not hate it, but it is likely to end up on my list of disappointments at the end of the year. I can't imagine that there will be many more films that waste as much potential as this.

 I'm a fan of Jeff Bridges. He is a terrific actor and he has a great body of work. This movie probably seemed like a lark, something that would be light and fun and just right for the summer. In concept it is. Or maybe I should say it was. We basically saw this movie in 1997. You know what the reference is. I am going to try and go the whole review without making any direct reference to the film that everybody knows this is basically a knock off of. Instead of having all those qualities that I am guessing Mr. Bridges hoped for, this movie is lazy, loud and not very clearly thought out. The plot is straight out of every sci-fi/action film that precedes it. A hero is plunged in over his head, learns the ropes from a mentor, discovers the nature of his betrayal is more significant than he thought, and has to stop a plan that will let in the end of the world. Check almost every comic book film of the last couple of months or years. Look it can still be done with pizazz, like "The Avengers" or "Pacific Rim", but there is no flair here. It just hits the notes and moves on to the next riff.

 Bridges should be a selling point but instead he is a reason to dislike the film. The accent he affects here is as ridiculous as Nick Cage in "Peggy Sue Got Married" and as hard to understand at times as Bane in the IMAX scene trailer for last year's "Dark Knight Rises". In addition, he never stops rambling on. The jokes might work if they were polished and delivered with some timing, but there are so many of them, they are rushed and sometimes they just repeat the same bit of business we had in an earlier scene. There are at least four spots where we are treated to a review of the story concerning Bridges characters mortal remains. The last one tries to make a joke out of the phrase "SkullF**K". Instead of a laugh, it is just a moment in the movie where we are saddened by the lack of any creative and humorous spark. At one point in the film, Ryan Reynolds character tells Roy (Bridges) to just stop talking. Everyone in our group agreed it would be good advice.

 The CGI special effects go overboard to make disgusting "Deados" gross and creative. They succeed only in the gross part of the equation. Never are any of them particularly frightening and so much of what happens is cartoony that it undermines any interest in the action. Some of the problem is that we have seen all of this before, and the second problem is that it was not well executed, and the third is that they go to it whenever they need something to pump up the energy. Instead it is energy draining. Even the name for the bad guys "Deados" feels lazy. It is supposed to be clever and the slang of the R.I.P.D, it doesn't feel organic, it feels like a compromise to make the story simple.

The concept of a "Police" force pursuing the undead in the afterlife is not a bad one. It's just treated badly by the creative team that put this together. There is a funny idea to use an avatar character in the place of the actor cast in the part, when the R.I.P.D. encounter the living. There is a good set up of the two alternate visions, and then they do nothing with it except repeat the same joke. James Hong is one of those character actors I like seeing in films, but he may have two real lines in the movie and neither of them was done in an interesting or humorous context. It was a complete waste of the potential and another example of the laziness of this screenplay. There is some nice production design, and not all of the visual effects are failures. I liked the sequences where some characters are frozen in time while others are moving rapidly, the cinematography on those shots looked good. Yet every time a "Deado" gets revealed, it just looks cheesy, and not in a fun way. I saw two Ryan Reynolds films and two Mary Louise Parker films in the same week. The good one for each of them is the one that is not this. At the end of the story, it was clearly set up for a series of films. Given the autopsy that this movie has been given, those plans can...well, you know.

Friday, July 26, 2013


Weird, but fun. I'll finish this post in the morning.

Bugs, Toys, Robots, Fish, Cars, Planes OK, why not snails? Just about every sort of critter has been used as the basis of an animated movie at some point in the past. I guess that leaves us at the bottom of the list for this movie. It's not really a put down, in fact I appreciate that someone has managed to make a subject that I previously would have thought unappealing, somewhat watchable.  As I sat watching this I kept thinking of "Ratatouille" and how awkward it was to get over the idea of rats in the kitchen. Here we have to get used to snails in the taco truck. It wasn't easy but by the time the film ends it doesn't really bother any more, at least not as far as the grossness factor. The concept is still strange but it was inventive enough that most people will be able to suspend their disbelieve sufficiently to just sit back and enjoy.

The most obvious plot string for a movie about snails to pull on is their speed. "Slowing down to a snail's pace" is a cliche phrase for a reason. The idea that a snail might dream about speed makes sense, that there could be some humor based on snails that are still slow or other characters that are not used to fast snails is perfectly legitimate. Getting a snail into the Indy 500, that's just odd. I can't quite put my finger on why but it is. It was hard enough for me to believe that someone would put together snail races, the extra step of having them race on a track with cars just stretches the concept a little more than I was comfortable with. Still there are some fun moments, and the characters are occasionally interesting. The best thing in the movie though are the visual jokes, and the race track sequences allow us to have a few of those.

I actually enjoyed the first part of the film the most. The every day drudgery of being a snail was tweaked in interesting ways. The idea that a collective of snails is responsible for harvesting food, that they anticipate the ripening of a tomato, or that they want to avoid spoiled food is funny. Crows make a few guest appearances in the story and every time they do, you get a pretty solid laugh. It was amusing to me that our hero, Theo aka "Turbo", finds it a surrender to use the one defense mechanism that a snail has. This marks him as different for sure, but also as reckless and impractical. Ryan Reynolds does fine giving our racing snail the enthusiasm the character needs. His voice is not distinctive or particularly interesting but it does have a youthful tone to it that works for a minimal shortcut to "Turbo's" personality. Paul Giamatti was born to play characters that are the equivalent of "Eeyore". As the sad sack brother "Chet", he is the personal (human interest) element that the story needs to give it some emotion. If Turbo can turn his brother around then all sorts of hope exists. We get a parallel story of brothers on the human side as well. Tito and Angelo are doppelgangers for our two snails and I guess it's needed to get us to care about a snail's ability to inspire. There are also several jokes made about the food truck so it provides a more target rich environment than just the garden.

I know it will sound silly to complain about how hackneyed an idea is in an animated movie about racing snails, but there was virtually no reason to have a human villain. Guy Gagne, "Turbo's" car racing hero did not need to be turned into a murderous cheater to make the story work dramatically. If he had stayed simply the hyper competitive rival who learns that he is not all that, it would have been sufficient. The last part of the story with him feels like dramatic overkill. There could have been more about both sets of brothers that would have worked just fine. Most of the characters don't get much more than a voice actor to give them personality. The look of some of them is fine, but other than the joke about shadows not being inherently fast, a lot of the characters just are not needed. The voices are all familiar, and I did enjoy the fact that Richard Jenkins animated character looks exactly like him. I could not tell why Snoop Dog, or Samuel Jackson were doing voice work, except maybe to give the urban song score more street cred. Bill Hader does an accent so why is his voice needed? Ken Jeong screeches out a voice that is annoying, but it is a stereotype and that seemed a bit over the top as well.

The look of the movie is very good in all regards except one. The garden is realistic and inventive, the snails with racing equipment are funny, the cars and the track and the taco truck all look  great. It is the human characters that are all a bit off. They all have these huge triangular shaped bodies and nearly blank but definitely bland faces.  It amazes me that snails can be made to have interesting faces with the antennae eyes and not much else but the human faces don't have much personality at all. Still, this is a minor quibble with the look of the movie. The weaknesses of the film are the story, the jokes are fun, the characters are well drawn and the backgrounds are excellent. I laughed several times but I did not quite get that heat warming feeling at the end that the story tellers were clearly shooting for. Maybe that's because we are being asked to identify with snails, and most of us, regardless of how slug like we behave, still think snails are icky.

Saturday, July 20, 2013


Two years ago, I had the original RED on my top ten list for the year. It was such a surprise and so much fun that it was easy to ignore whatever faults it might have. For the sequel, I'm willing to make the same deal. The tone of the movie and the glee that the actors have in playing their roles, allows me to ignore some plot holes, forgive some of the over the top action beats and not worry about the convoluted plotting that could confuse anyone who got up to go to the bathroom during the film. Locations change, loyalties shift and the goal of the protagonists shifts repeatedly. None of that matters because this is just in exercise in looking cool and saying the right thing to get a laugh from time to time.

Much like Dwayne Johnson and Mark Wahlberg, Bruce Willis seems to be starring in every movie that comes out this year. This is his third time in theaters in 2013 and his second extended visit to Moscow as part of the plot. Fortunately, this movie is a lot more successful in giving the audience some pleasure than "A Good Day To Die Hard" was. Frank, the Retired Extremely Dangerous C.I.A. asset, is called on to participate in some spy nonsense where old rivalries and revenge plots overlap and spies that make James Bond seem like he has been under trained, crawl out of every storefront and bar in the vicinity. Unlike the "Die Hard" series, where John Mclane is a serious character who manages to break the tension with a well timed quip, Willis here is playing a comedian who is occasionally called upon to perform acts of violence as a side note. The characters are really the reverse of each other, and in this movie, Willis gets the tone correct and he is in sync with the picture which was not the case earlier this year.

This story lacks two ingredients that made the first movie a little more successful. We don't get the charm of Morgan Freeman and there is no conflicted agent like Karl Urban. Instead, those characters have been replaced with three other actors who provide different strengths. Anthony Hopkins joins the shenanigans as a  scientist, long time kept out of the game by conspiracies within different spy agencies. Early on in his appearance, there is some charm to the absent minded, partially deranged character. As the movie goes on, he keeps some of the charm but the plot shifts again to something a bit bigger. I don't know if that was designed to give him a greater part in the story or if the plot just was bouncing around so much that this is where it ended up.  Also on board for this fast moving mess of a story are Neal McDonough and Catherine Zeta-Jones. McDonough plays his standard creepy bad guy, brutal in his methods and the threats he makes. He basically plays the Robert Quarles character from "Justified" only without the complicated background. It is easy to dislike the character immediately and know he is not to be trusted. Zeta-Jones plays a Russian espionage specialist, who's loyalties seem to shift on a very regular basis. She is used primarily for star power here since her part could have been done by any number of other actors.

The surprise for me this time was the work of Mary Louise Parker. As Frank's girlfriend Sarah, she was just a damsel in distress in the first movie. In this film, she gets to be an instigator and an active participant in the activities of the group. It seems that Sarah is stimulated by the dangerous missions and the romance between her and Frank needs the spark that the high adventure injects into their lives. She jumps full throttle into the activities and shows some skills that are needed from time to time. As Marvin says "She has some thing you and I Frank will never have, she's likable." That likability gets tested several times and she has to grow up a little in the part she is playing, but it never gets too heavy handed. The welcome presence of our other RED agents is also comforting. Helen Mirren plays off her deadly skills with some well placed quips. She has a great action scene that is just silly CGI baloney, but it works because she sells it. Two handed gunplay in a Lotus never looked so good. John Malkovich tones down the crazy in this movie and replaces it with slightly brilliant eccentricity. It works, and he gets to have a lot of fun being the occasional voice of irrational reason.  Byung-hun Lee shows up in a second movie with Willis this year after earlier appearing in G.I. Joe 2. There are several scenes of him being a bad ass assassin and trying to take the team out, mostly for no reason other than to fit in some action scenes and chop socky material. His is another character with conflicted loyalties. I was also happy to see the return of Brian Cox to the film, although his part is relatively limited to exposition and easy story plotting.

Some of this may sound like I had big issues with the movie. I didn't. I know that it is comic book action for people who want their super heroes to be a little less alien and a lot more funny. This movie gets the tone of the characters right and the ridiculousness of the plot is clear from the beginning. My kids are well trained and respectful of film makers, we always watch the credits to give the people who worked so hard on the film their due. When Amanda had to get up at the start of the credits, I knew she really needed to go to the restroom. She made it back before the credits were finished and she made what I'm afraid is an accurate and telling point. She said she forgot that this is an old persons movie, and she had gotten stuck behind several people who did not appear to have any place to go as they were leaving the theater and she really needed to go. It's true, this movie is focused on "retired" agents and so in addition to the cast, the audience is a bit older as well. That was one of the reasons I liked the first movie. It showed that the old dogs still had a few tricks to show. Well it is true again. there is some life in the older generation (at least among these actors) and that gives my demographic a better reason to go to the movies. The young cast featured in the trailer that played in front of this film for the "City of Bones" film coming soon left me cold. Bruce, Helen, Tony, John and Brian warmed me up just fine. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dominick and Eugene

This was a happy assignment from the Secret Santa Movie blogathon currently running on the Cinematic Katzenjammer. I have known about this movie for more than twenty five years, but I never had enough motivation to sit down and watch it until now. For some reason I have always confused it with "Echo Park" another Tom Hulce film that opened a couple of years earlier. In fact, it took me several minutes to get used to the fact that this movies setting was going to be in Pittsburgh and not L.A.. After the introduction of several characters that were clearly going to be part of the plot, I realized these two guys were not moving together to Southern California. It should have been more obvious to me since the credits roll over a loving shot of the three rivers at magic hour with a golden hue that makes Pennsylvania pretty attractive. No way was this going to shift to the the urban lake park neighborhood south of Dodger Stadium.

Dominick (Nickie) and Eugene are fraternal twin brothers. Eugene is an intern at a local Pittsburgh hospital but is looking to do his residency at Stanford in California. Nickie is a garbage man, working for a city contractor. Nickie is also brain damaged as a result of a childhood accident, and needs a lot of help in order to function in this world. The dilemma faced by Eugene is how to continue his drive to be a doctor and still care for his brother, a man who needs a pretty strong structure to function in. They are approaching their twenty sixth birthday and their lives are at a transition point. The drama in the film starts off focused on this conundrum but takes off on a tangent in the third act. While the third act dramatics are the most exciting components of the story, they seem to be the least organic. Issues that may have simmered for ages, now become the central issue in their lives and it all seems to happen very quickly.

That last phrase is a bit ironic because the truth is nothing happens very quickly in this movie. It is slow paced and deliberate in showing the struggle that both brothers have to go through on a daily basis. We got a couple of minutes on taking the dog out to relieve himself, and several scenes where Nickie works diligently along side a couple of more colorful characters on the garbage truck. This does seem a little more necessary because it turns out that Nickie is substantially paying for his brother to go through medical school. So although Nickie is dependent on his brother, the reverse is true as well. Audiences used to a more frenetic paced film will be hard pressed to wait through the first hour where very little actually happens. The brothers convey a warm relationship in several scenes. Whether they are eating, sleeping or showering, it was clear that they love each other a great deal. Ray Liotta is not really known as a warm fuzzy type, but he is game here and does a pretty good job suppressing his more natural menacing persona. He is early in his career and has not yet been type cast as the thug or cop he usually ends up playing.

The central focus is on Nickie however, and it is his story that creates the arc of the plot. Clearly good-natured, Nickie is also vulnerable to local bullies and manipulative "friends". We are repeatedly told that he is not stupid but just slow, but that slowness puts him in some awkward positions and provokes the intervention of his brother on a couple of occasions. Tom Hulce is doing a role very similar to Dustin Hoffman in "Rainman" from around the same time. His performance was clearly the selling point of the film. If you look at the trailer above, you will see that his work in "Amadeus" is highlighted and that the acting job he does is meant to bring in the audience. It is indeed a solid performance. Hulce was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an actor in a Drama the year this came out.

There is an analysis of the awards nomination process that year by Charles Champlin, who was the LA Times film critic at the time, which tries to explain why certain performances got overlooked at the Academy Awards. If you click on the picture to the left, it will take you to that article. He says it essentially comes down to timing. While I agree that timing has an influence I think there could be some other issues as well. This movie was nakedly marketed as Oscar bait from the beginning, I think there might be a little blowback on that. None of which means that Hulce isn't good. On the contrary, he is excellent and does not resort to overly dramatic vocal exercises or facial tics until the climax of the movie. Most of the time he gives us an honest portrayal of a man struggling to function in a world that is a little too fast and cynical for him to maneuver in. Anyone with sensitivity will be worried about him for the whole picture. Everywhere he goes, you think it is a chance for some disaster to happen. At first I thought it was going to be his co-worker on the garbage truck who would be the agent of disaster. The guy is too crude, earthy and belligerent for a soul like Nickie to fully comprehend. In the long run, despite his flaws, he turns out to be one of Nickie's support group (although not always a wise source of support).

 It is the other two friends that Nickie has that are the catalyst of the third act histrionics. If you like kids and dogs, this movie is going to be tough for you to watch. I understand the desire for there to be some "action" in the drama, but the events of the third act feel over the top and conveniently timed. It's not that they could not happen but they happen so quickly and with such obvious foreshadowing, that it feels overplayed a bit. It takes what was an interesting but slow character study into the realm of melodrama. I suspect a lot of people would enjoy the more active events in the movie. They lead to a somewhat satisfying resolution of the brothers emotional baggage, but it really feels like a scripted moment to me. Each of the brothers has baggage that they have to deal with. Guilt and resentment are laced throughout the story. It just seems harsh to require the events that take place to be the fulcrum for allowing those issues to get resolved.

VIDEO Greetings for the Not So Secret Santa Swap Blog-a-thon

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Pacific Rim

What criticism can you make of a movie that features giant robots battling giant monsters? Once that premise is accepted, everything else simply comes down to technical execution and storytelling. I can't imagine that there is any way that someone could get pulled into this movie by accident and not anticipate a bunch of action sequences featuring giant creatures battling each other. I know that the "Transformers" movies have gotten a lot of crap over the years, but let me put it simply, people like to watch big creatures fight each other while cities get crushed. Ever since the man in the dragon suit crawled out of the bay in Tokyo, and the big Gorilla got loose in New York, we have been interested in the wanton destruction such a scenario presents. Post 9/11 I think there may have been some hesitation on this stuff but it is clear that the audience can separate the nightmare from the movie.

"Pacific Rim" is basically "King Kong vs. Godzilla" with better special effects and a more human centered focus. This is another alien invasion movie with a premise as old as a Japanese horror film from the fifties. It works mostly because the effects are convincing and the battles are creatively presented. I don't want to take anything away from Director and Co-writer Guillermo del Toro, because he did come up with some very interesting visuals and a complex technical background for the movie, but the premise sells itself. I liked this movie when it was called "Robojox" and featured more primitive effects, so there is almost no reason for me not to like this. It features a large cast of familiar but distinctive faces, none of whom are house hold names, because what would the point of that be? There are a couple of sub plots designed to add a human element to the movie, pay no attention, they never develop and would be distracting if they did. You do need the humans to make this a story rather than just a cock fight, but don't expect any depth to those human elements. The search by the nebbish scientist for a monster brain to sync up with is designed to add some humor and humanity to the mixture, is is just enough salt to add to the flavor without changing the recipe.

The movie starts off years after the invasion has begun. The first five minutes of the movie could easily have been the movie that this is a sequel to. There were even a couple of story strands that I think might have made the movie a little more meaningful, for example the commercialization of the invaders and the warriors that fight them, or the politics and economics that come from waging this seemingly endless war. Those thoughts fo out the window in two seconds and we get the essential ingredient of the movie right away.  We get to see imaginative technology that is currently impossible be used to kick some tail of big assed monsters. The names of the invaders are Japanese, acknowledging their roots in Godzilla movies and the term used for the warriors sounds like a German liquor so no stereotyping there. The cast is multinational and the defenders of the planet are multiracial. Nothing brings people together like the end of the world. The American scientists talk so fast you can't really understand them, the Australian warriors are played by Brits and Americans, we never hear the Chinese team speak, but the Japanese co-pilot is an Oscar nominated actress and we can usually understand what she says even if we don't understand why she is saying it.

Enough of the cinema analysis, none of that matters because we get to see monsters fight each other. There are really only three major battle sequences. Two of them are staged at night in the rain, just to add atmosphere. The third takes place under water and is the climax of the picture. Unlike "Transformers" because you have monsters vs. robots, the audience can usually tell what is going on in these combat sequences. Sometimes the monsters have developed a new physical characteristic that makes the battles a surprise.  There was a spontaneous outburst of cheers and applause at one of the strategies employeed by our main team of robot operators. So it was clear the audience was motivated enough to root for the good guys. There is a lot of inventive imagination in creating the complex technology that the humans use to make the monsters work. It is fun to see the erector set be assembled by the film makers and then turned on and it does what we want it to do. For two hours we got to be entertained.

Obviously this is a giant B movie. It has no purpose other than to entertain for the time it is running. The movie stands on it's own, so if it does tank financially like many suspect it might, we will not be left hanging waiting for a sequel that will never arrive. It was very entertaining, but not because the story was new or the characters mattered, it was all the high concept premise. So I have come full circle to my original question. What criticism can you make of a movie like this? The answer is not much. Better to sit back and enjoy it while it runs. You will have fun, but it is a very safe film without the grit and dirt under the fingernails that would make it more interesting. I had a fine time and you will too, and there will be something else next week.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Lone Ranger

Last year, I went to the mattresses to defend an expensive, high concept, potential franchise film from the Disney Company that bombed. Here I am fourteen months later about to do the same. I thought "John Carter" was true to it's roots and was a lot of fun and it is a shame that we will not get to see more of Edgar Rice Burroughs hero. The new Bruckheimer Production of a Gore Verbinski film, starring Johnny Depp, takes a classic story concept, twists it ever so slightly and winds up with an entertaining film that is going to leave egg on the face of everyone who went ahead and agreed to make the movie. I don't think that box office is the determining factor of a films entertainment value. While it is true that the audience ultimately has to decide, I think there are plenty of examples of where the audience has decided poorly and everyone knew it. This will be a case where they don't know that they chose poorly and the analysts of box office doom will make it appear that they were correct.

"The Lone Ranger" has been a pet project of Johnny Depp for almost a decade. Just before the orginal start of production the plug was pulled and the studio and film makers had to negotiate changes in the story and budget to make the movie feasible. I can't explain all the financial ramifications or the economic consequences to the studio and film makers, but I can say they did a pretty good job making an entertaining summer picture that should work for the audience but doesn't for some reason. The production value is top notch, there is plenty of humor in the story, some great action pieces and the charm of Johnny Depp in an idiosyncratic interpretation of Tonto, the Lone Ranger's Indian companion.  Armie Hammer plays John Reid, the Lone Ranger, but Depp is the star of the movie and it is his shoulders that the movie must stand to reach it's potential.

The opening forty five minutes of the movie feature a well known legend, of how a posse of Texas Rangers is ambushed and only one survives. In this version, the Rangers escape from death is attributed to the intervention of supernatural forces brought together by Tonto, a vengeance seeking hunter of Wen-dingo, and a horse believed to be the connection to the spirit world. We come to know the horse as Silver, and he should have been third billed in the picture given his significance, screen time and contribution toward the enjoyment of the story. That opening segment contains a great bit of train stunt work and humor. It was very reminiscent of the water wheel duel in the second "Pirates" movie. It was easy to follow, preposterous in almost every way and executed with enough aplomb to satisfy an audience hungry for something different. I found it to be much more  involving and interesting than the convoluted multiple "Ironman" robot clones in the finale in "Iron Man 3". There is an even more complicated train sequence at the climax of the film that works almost as well although it was a bit more confusing to follow.

The middle of the picture has a great deal of exposition, and while at times clever, it takes a while to get through it all and that section feels slow. There is a pretty good shootout and the production design is fine, but it can't quite sustain itself. There are a couple of subplots that involve the two women featured in the story and that just seems to detract from the momentum of the story. Two old hands at playing villainous characters are in the film. William Fichtner is barely recognizable under the make up but plays the slimy gun-slinging cannibalistic evil front man with some gusto if lacking in panache. Tom Wilkinson is the respectable side of the treacherous plot and we only discover how deeply he is involved as the picture goes on. Once again, a story like this depends for it's success on the quality of the villain and their plot. I thought all of it worked just fine to make me want to see justice from our heroes. The twist in this movie is a take off on a similar theme from earlier films. The first of which that occurs to me is "Without a Clue". This Michael Caine/Ben Kingsley film from the late 80s, imagines that Watson is the real genius behind Sherlock Holmes. A couple of years ago we had the same plot twist with "the Green Hornet", where Kato is the real force behind the crime fighters. Here, Tonto is the driving force behind the events that take place. John Reid (the Lone Ranger and by the way the great grand Uncle of Brett Reid, the Green Hornet) is the naive bumbler who gets taken for a ride. While Hammers version of the Ranger makes him "green", he is not without fortitude and a code that become a part of the story. I saw him less as the butt of the jokes than as a part of the comic duo of the Ranger and Tonto. He is the straight man, but he has some humorous moments at other peoples expense not just his own.

The movie could stand to be tightened by twenty or thirty minutes. There are some long sections of exposition, and a flash back structure, that tend to slow the movie down. On the other hand, there is a great use of Tonto's crow headpiece that is both funny and in keeping with the supernatural theme. I also appreciated the bunnies in the movie. It reminded me of Monty Python and I laughed out loud a couple of time because of that. I really enjoy westerns and that may be in part why the movie is out of touch with today's audience.  Genres ebb and flow and I get the impression that right now, the western is at low tide. I also suspect that comic book movies are sucking the wind out of the room for big action films. Except for the "Fast and Furious 6" and "Star Trek Into Darkness", big budget movies that have succeeded this year have been of the super hero variety. Maybe this is a double edged sword. We get the comic book movies we want but are distracted from the other things that ought to draw our attention. "The Lone Ranger" did not have good word of mouth from early on because of the production cost fiasco, and then reviews have been weak. I believe that most film audiences will enjoy it and when the William Tell Overture fully kicks in toward the end of the picture, we will be shouting Hiegh-Ho-Silver ourselves. I was very happy to turn back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, and I'll tell you who that masked man was, he was a guy I'd enjoy seeing again and will miss until the next time someone finds the courage to try this franchise, twenty or thirty years from now.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Despicable Me 2

Three years ago I was thrown for a loop by how much I enjoyed and was surprised by the original Despicable Me. It made my list of ten favorite films that year and I have enjoyed it every time I have seen it since. Inevitably these days a movie that succeeds on a financial level is going to be franchised. When you invest as much money as it takes to make a major motion picture, you want to cover your bets by having a pre-sold audience. That is why so many films this year are sequels to films from other years. The results are not always satisfying. Despite the huge money windfall, "Iron Man 3" feels like a disappointment. No one expected much from "The Hangover III" and "Fast and/or Furious 6" is what it is. I worry that a sequel might undermine the original charm of a movie and spoil my enjoyment of the characters. That happened with "Cars 2" and I pretend there was only one "Matrix" film so that I can continue to admire it. I really hoped that "Despicable Me 2" would be able to extend the idea of the story and the characters instead of merely using them to grab some more cash. Well, I did not need to be concerned. The creaters of this film have as much inventiveness as they did the first time and the movie has charm to spare.

Gru, the villain turned hero from the first movie, is being recruited to aid a secret agency in fighting an unidentified new evil villain. This allows him to continue to use the wild inventions and creative plot ideas from the first movie but to do so in a reversal of roles. In addition, he is not being won over by the three girls he is now a parent too, he is doing his best to be the best dad he can be, and that makes the secret business a little more complicated. The three girls are as idiosyncratic as they were in the first story, but there are some traditional themes thrown in this time. Margo, the oldest is subject to romantic notions and the protective Father drive kicks in when Gru notices his little girl is noticing boys. There is a great set piece early on in the movie where Gru responds to a booking emergency at his youngest daughter's birthday party. It was five minutes of laughter that sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

The Minions played a substantial supporting role in the first movie and they are more prominent in this film. Personally, they entertain the heck out of me. They combine slapstick with pantomime and character humor to create some truly funny pieces of mental candy. The funny language they speak and the expressiveness they manage to have despite being blank faces with big eyes is a good indication of the animators and writers creativity. If you give people who are artistic and funny enough time, they will manage to find something to please you and the Minions almost always pay off. There are also a variety of extravagant settings and pieces of equipment that they are given a chance to play in and that helps as well. Most of the laboratory design in both Gru's lab and that of the villain, is incredibly complicated and funny and interesting at the same time. 

There is a very successful addition to the cast in the form of Lucy, the rookie partner that is assigned to work with Gru by the "Anti-Villain League". She is a complementary character for our lead and presents a lot of fun possibilities. It also helps that she is voiced by Kristen Wiig and allowed to be a little loopy despite the fact she is presented as a competent agent. There is a personal story arc that works given all the characters, and the imagination of Minion Dave gives us a minute of silly bliss that focuses on Lucy very affectionately. There were a couple of side plots that exist to flesh out the story and give both Lucy and Gru some chances to be funny outside of the main spy plot. It doesn't advance the story much but it does allow the characters top be a little more understandable in terms of their relationship.

Every minute or so there was a minute to chuckle about. I laughed out loud several times and frankly I smiled the whole way through the movie. The two minor criticisms I have of the movie should not discourage anyone from seeing it. First, there were a couple of jokes based on current references, and that is one of the failings of the "Shrek" series. I hope that the writers don't become dependent on topical humor too much. There were several more generic references that did not bother me at all, including an allusion to "Return of the Jedi" in a very subtle form. Another of those effective movie references is escaping my memory at the moment, but it was just as subtle so it should not be a problem. The second issue was the featuring of four or five poop/fart jokes. I know it's a kids film, but they did not do that the first time around. One or two would have been OK, the extras just seemed to push it a little to much in the kiddy direction. This is a great family film that entertained for the whole running time. It may not seem as fresh because it is a sequel, but the jokes were not stale and the characters continue to make us want to spend time with them. No doubt we will be doing so in the summer of 2016. For the moment, enjoy the minions that we have today.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Evil Dead: The Musical

I've been out of town and out of theaters for a little while. While we were traveling, we stopped in Vegas and made it to a presentation of "Evil Dead: The Musical". I'd heard of it but I did not know that it was still in production. It turns out that after its Off-Broadway run, it has cropped up in a number of places and it has found a pretty solid home in the V theater in the Planet Hollywood Hotel. A friend had gone to see it a few weeks ago and I could hardly wait to join the initiated.

The production values are even lower than the original film the musical is based on. This play is done on the cheap. It works pretty well because the story is trashy, the jokes are vulgar and the concept is silly. It is one step up from an elaborate Reader's Theater presentation. The recorded music and the sets are a tip off that your money is going to pay the cast not to build an empire. That's a good thing because the cast is the main reason that the play works. Everyone is enthusiastic and having a good time. The leads have pretty solid voices and if they were not sometimes betrayed by the audio system, you might be able to say they have good chops. Whatever draw backs there were in the singing, are compensated for by the over the top physical comedy the actors put into their parts. They ham it up and dance with vigor and mug for individual audience members. It feels like a lounge act but with a plot.

The songs are all very funny and play off the horror film aspects of the story pretty well. "Cabin in the Woods" is a cheerful upbeat piece that sets the characters and establishes the cheesiness of the production. It is followed by "Stupid Bitch", "What the F*** was That?" and "All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons". You can pretty much get the idea by looking at those titles. The show is not scary, or serious or much more than a series of jokes about all the "Evil Dead" movies. The highlight for me was the dance number "Do the Necronomicon". It clearly invites a comparison of this play to "Rocky Horror". That is a pretty good comparison to make, the movie is self referential silliness that plays well at mid-night. At the end, you'll be standing in the aisles doing the dance your self, although it is a little more complicated than the "Time Warp".

If I had known ahead of time what the perks were of being in the "Spatter Zone" seats, I might have thought of upgrading.  Let me just say if you spring for the upgrade, be sure to wear disposable clothes that you won't miss. At intermission, the character of Dead Scott, (I'm not sure if the pun is intended, I want to believe so) makes sure that if you did not get your monies worth of liquid crimson, that you will not go home disappointed. 

There are bits and pieces from all the films in the musical. Most of the great lines get recycled in an obvious manner by the characters. There is nothing subtle about it, and it isn't even very clever but it is satisfying for all of us deadites. While there is no nudity, it is not really for kids. The language is frequently excessively vulgar. The MC is especially free with the F-bomb and there is a running theater joke based on the play's official photographer that results in audience call outs which encourage the whole assembly to participate. If you love these movies you will have a great time. It does suffer a little loss of steam in the second act but there are a couple of highlights that make the lull less painful. Over all I would rate the whole thing "Groovy".