Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Directed by Lorene Scafaria.
2012. Rated PG-13, 101 minutes.
Connie Britton
T.J. Miller
Mark Moses
Nancy Carell

What would you do if you knew for certain the world were going to end in three weeks? That’s the question facing us all in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World as a seventy mile wide asteroid is on a collision course with Earth and all attempts to stop it have failed. More specifically, it’s the question facing Dodge (Carrell). It’s also become exponentially more difficult to answer now that his wife has decided this would be the perfect time to leave him. Everyone around him is truly living each day like it’s the last, engaging in whatever activity their hearts desire while Dodge sits around and mopes. He finds someone to commiserate with in the flighty Penny (Knightley). She’s similarly distraught, having broken up with her boyfriend. Eventually, the two decide to help each other do the one thing they each must before it’s too late. An apocalyptic adventure ensues.

Early on, the movie focuses as much on our decaying societal mores as it does on the lives of our protagonists. Here is where most of its humor lies. The jokes are largely to be expected, generally revolving around people getting all the sex and drugs they could possibly want, but still fun to see play out. There are only two other jokes: the occasional ominous yet loony newscast and the situations Dodge and Penny find themselves in because of the outbreak of riots. The violence, and any humor derived from it, ends when a very odd man takes a bullet to the throat. You’ll have to see for yourself to understand how and why this could possibly be funny. A short while later, the sex and drugs part of the movie climaxes with a trip to a chain restaurant. Unfortunately, we still have half the movie to go.

Immediately upon finishing the very strange dining experience of our heroes, the movie settles into a string of predictable events in an effort to create a romance. Problem number one, again, is that the comedy disappears almost entirely. Instead, we’re stuck in this drama which never surprises us and will have to either deliver the depressing finale we've been trudging toward or, concoct some ridiculous BS for the sake of giving us a happy ending. Problem number two is that we never feel strongly enough about the couple in question to overcome problem number one. Dodge and Penny aren't two people we can see together under any circumstances. Making an exception because people are bound to do things and be with people they normally would not even consider. However, this just makes things seem even more preordained. This, combined with the fact that everything happens so perfectly on schedule, our pulse rate never increases. Our performers give it their all, but their interactions lack the magic needed to make us ignore these blemishes.

All is not terrible for the second half of the film. First, there is a wonderful scene, albeit a bit of a painful one, between Dodge and his dad played by Martin Sheen. It’s the one time we truly sense the emotion of the two people speaking. Second, the final scene is one of endless tenderness. It is by far the most enjoyable exchange between Dodge and Penny. If somehow, you find yourself caring by this point, you might even have to wipe away a tear or two. Odds are, you won’t.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Rust and Bone

Directed by Jacques Audiard.
2012. Rated R, 120 minutes.
Matthias Schoenaerts
Armand Verdure
Corinne Masiero
Bouli Lanners
Jean-Michel Correia
Mourad Frarema
Yannick Choirat

We first meet Ali (Schoenaerts) while he’s traveling to his sister’s house with his five year old son Sam (Verdure) in tow. We quickly realize he’s a hard luck case. Sis is none too pleased to see him, but takes the pair in for Sam’s sake. Soon, he gets a job as a bouncer at a nightclub. While working one night, he meets Stephanie (Cotillard) when he comes to her rescue, even drives her home, after she has a run-in with some jerk. Nothing more happens as she has a boyfriend. The two go their separate ways: Ali back to bouncing, Stephanie back to her job training killer whales at Marine Land. Unfortunately, an out-of-control whale causes all sorts of damage. Stephanie wakes up in the hospital only to discover that both of her legs have been amputated just above the knee. A few months pass, and feeling lonely because her boyfriend has disappeared, she gives Ali a call. From there, the two begin sort of a one-sided romance. It’s not because she’s lost her legs. It’s that Ali is a tough one to pin down.

As with many other movies of its ilk, Rust and Bone is only as good as the chemistry between, and performances by, its two leads. Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard make a believable pair. As simple and off-handed as it sounds, that’s a compliment of the highest order. Schoenaerts’ Ali displays a perfectly cavalier attitude about everything, including his son. This would seem an impediment to true romance because the other person probably wants to be taken seriously. In fact, it is. However, it also enables him look past her condition and treat it as a mere fact of life and not something he has to talk about while obsessing over the difficulties it may cause. Sure, it’s a topic of conversation, but not the deciding factor in how much, or little, he values her as a person.

Early on, Stephanie is simply grateful for Ali’s kindness. As the movie persists, she begins to feel like a real woman again. She remembers how to assert herself, perhaps even better than she did before. She learns to enjoy life, escaping the bottomless abyss of self-pity with a helping hand from Ali. Through her initial leaning on him, she learns independence. Each actor portrays their half of the relationship as genuinely as possible. We fully get why things develop as they do.

Subplots are handled solidly, for the most part. Ali’s ever-changing job status informs whatever it is he has with Stephanie. Chief among his string of occupations is the most illegal one. He soon starts fighting on the streets for money. Strangely, this is the setting in which the two grow closest. As far as his son is concerned we see time and again how much of a struggle it is for him to take care of Sam. Though Sam is clearly a plot device more than anything, a cog in the machine of a love story, he’s still an intriguing part of our tale.

The one thing I take umbridge with is Stephanie’s rehab. Essentially, this is a movie about a woman overcoming serious obstacles to reclaim her sense of self-worth. Dealing with her new physicality is part of this. We see the shame she feels when out in public, or even in private when doing things supposedly “normal” people don’t have to do. Eventually, we see her gain some sort of confidence thanks, in no small part, to a set of prosthetic legs. What we don’t see is any part of the process that doesn’t deal with Ali. It’s understandable that the filmmakers didn’t want to take too much time away from the couple in question, but it feels too easy. One moment, she’s being shown the prosthetics for the very first time. The next, she’s walking around on them amidst a throng of strangers with no qualms about jostling her as if she’s been doing it for years.

Perhaps, I’m being lazy, asking for too many things to be spelled out for me. With that in mind, I have to say that Rust and Bone is still a very enjoyable, if clichéd love story. Aside from our heroine losing her legs, there’s not much here that marks this as a unique movie experience. However, our two stars turn in excellent work. We believe in their relationship and ride the roller coaster with them.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Black Mama, White Mama

Directed by Eddie Romero.
1973. Rated R, 87 minutes.
Margaret Markov
Sid Haig
Lynn Borden
Zaldy Zshornack
Laurie Burton
Eddie Garcia
Alona Alegre
Dindo Fernando
Vic Diaz
Wendy Green
Lotis Key
Alfonso Carvajal

Black Mama, not actually called this in the movie, is played by the incomparable Pam Grier. That’s really all you need to know. Okay, maybe that’s all I need to know. After all, she’s Pam Grier. Any further description is unnecessary. For me. Since you’re not me, and probably not Pam Grier, I’ll indulge you with some of the particulars of this cinematic experience.

We meet Black Mama, and White Mama, on the bus on their way to an all-female prison camp where the two will be inmates. Black Mama is serving time on a possession charge. White Mama, not actually called this and played by a not so bad herself, Margaret Markov, is something of a political prisoner. We’re told she’s a revolutionary. Exactly what kind of revolutionary and what she’s fighting for, I’m not sure. Just suffice it to say it’s the 1970s and revolution is in the air.

The first third of the movie is pure testosterone driven Women-in-Prison fantasy. Mass shower scene? Check. Horseplay between the ladies during said shower scene? Check. All female and horny lesbian prison guards? Check. Horny lesbian guards getting rough with anyone that steps out of line? Check. All of these checks lead to our heroines being locked in “The Oven,” a form of (not exactly) solitary confinement. It’s basically a box barely big enough for the two ladies to stand inside back-to-back. There’s not even enough room for them to wear tops! Why no, nothing so far at all qualifies as gratuitous nudity. I mean, it’s all germane to the plot. Okay, I’m lying. Don’t judge me.

Right after getting out of “The Oven,” the ladies are informed they’re being taken elsewhere because some higher ups want to ask both of them some questions. This means another bus ride, only now, the two are shackled together. White Mama’s revolutionary buddies attack the bus and engage the cops in a shootout, during which the Mamas escape into the woods. From here, we get a rehash of The Defiant Ones, only with more guns, Sid Haig and random boobies all over the place. This. Is. Heaven.

Wait..what? Did I say that out loud? I’ll admit I can occasionally get in a really shallow mood and this movie perfectly fits those times. Then again, I’m not sure if my love for it speaks to my shallowness or my depth. What I mean is Pam Grier touches me in a deep…too much? Sorry. Give me a moment. I’m putting my ‘objective reviewer’ cap back on and adjusting it so that it fits…just…so. There.

Horrible, cringe-inducing dialogue? Check. Both intentional AND unintentional humor? Check. Wooden acting? Check. Excessive cheese, sleaze, and shameless exploitation? Check. Check. Double check.

And it stars Pam Grier. Drool. To hell with that objective nonsense. All of this movie’s sins are hereby forgiven. Henceforth, Black Mama, White Mama shall forever be described by the best, greatest, loveliest, most wonderful, terrific, terrible, worst, most horrible, crappiest, yet still endearing term in the history of moviedom: so bad it’s awesome!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Killer Joe

Directed by William Friedkin.
2012. Rated R, 101 minutes.
Juno Temple
Gina Gershon
Marc Macaulay

Chris (Hirsch) is in trouble. The cocaine he’s supposed to sell has been stolen and he doesn't have the money to pay off his supplier. He suspects his mother, since she’s the only one who knew where it was and her long broken down Cadillac is suddenly running very well. Chris needs the money pretty quickly and he’s just heard about his mom’s fifty thousand dollar life insurance policy of which his little sister Dottie (Temple) is the beneficiary. He fills his dad Ansel (Church), now remarried to Charla (Gershon), and Dottie in on his idea and all are in agreement that it’s a good one. Not wanting to do the deed themselves, they hire Joe Cooper (McConaughey), a Dallas detective who provides such services on the side.

From there, the movie gets into some even more uncomfortable territory. Much of this surrounds Dottie. We’re not quite sure how old she is. She’s not as slow on the uptake as everyone around her thinks, but she’s plenty naïve and easily taken advantage of. When Chris and Ansel can’t pay Joe’s advance, he offers to take Dottie as a retainer. Let’s just say their “dinner date” can be tough to watch. However, that’s the twisted charm of this movie. It delights in parading an entire roster of unlikable people before us and mining the depths to which their souls have sank, if they ever had any in the first place. Dottie stands apart from the crowd, maintaining innocence despite doing things that would normally disqualify a person from being innocent. This is key to the movie’s success because even though we might not readily identify with this woman-child, we sympathize for her and find it difficult to lay blame at her feet. Juno Temple plays the role wonderfully. She fully personifies Dottie in the way this movie needs her to.

Joe is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He’s cold, calculating, and ruthless. The one trait that facilitates all those others is his complete lack of conscience. McConaughey plays it with a scary coolness. He’s always in control of the situation and is more than willing to make sure it plays out in his favor. He might be my favorite villain of 2012. Of course, he doesn't see himself as a villain, but a businessman following through on a transaction, regardless of what actions that calls for.

Besides Temple and McConaughey, the rest of the cast is also great. Thomas Haden Church is perfectly dumb, Gina Gershon is thoroughly skanky (we literally meet her crotch first), and Emile Hirsch nails it as the brightest of a not very smart bunch.

The twists and turns of our plot develop because of people we don’t, or rarely, see. This works because it fosters the notion that these people are not only in this together, but completely alone with one another. Any problems they may face will have to be dealt with on their own. To paraphrase Ansel, and a very old saying, they must lie in the beds they've made. They, and we, know that the cavalry isn't riding in to save the day and ‘happily ever after’ will be an elusive destination. Whatever happens is going to be determined by these few people we've spent all of our time with.

Eventually, things can get to be a bit on the outrageous side. I've already mentioned Joe's “date” with Dottie. Later, the way he utilizes a chicken leg is something I’m fairly certain the Colonel never envisioned. Then we get to that ending. It’s purposely ambiguous and will flat piss some people off. The standard question that lingers is did she, or didn't she? We can argue which for eternity, with evidence to support both sides. For some, this will leave way too much wiggle room. I suspect this makes Killer Joe a love-it or hate-it type of affair. Count me in the love-it camp.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

Directed by Bill Condon.
2012. Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.
Robert Pattinson
Taylor Lautner
Mackenzie Foy
Peter Facinelli
Elizabeth Reaser
Billy Burke
Nikki Reed
Wendell Pierce

When last we saw our favorite co-dependently miserable couple, Bella (Stewart) was giving birth to their half-vampire, half-human, all-emo baby girl, Renesmee (played mostly by Mackenzie Foy). It was such a difficult delivery, mom almost died. To save her, Edward (Pattinson) finally turns his bride into one of the undead. Continuing the franchise’s standard practice of completely ignoring traditional vampire lore whenever it’s not actively defecating all over it, Breaking Dawn – Part 2 opens with Bella getting a good look at her new, and somehow, less pale self as she and Edward share a loving embrace in front of the mirror. Sigh. Face palm. Okay. I can. I can get through this.

To catch Bella up on the plot, and remind us, it comes to light that Jacob “imprinted” upon Renesmee, or claimed her for lack of a better, more spoiler friendly word. Soon through a sighting by Irina (Grace), those head vampires known as the Volturi hear about the Cullen’s bundle of joy and want the whole clan dead. Slowly, very very slowly, they make their way to Forks. This means we spend the better part of our two hours watching the Cullens gathering help from vampires far and near for their potential showdown.

There is very good reason the movie plays out the way it does. There is no more to the plot. Everything the franchise is built on ended with Breaking Dawn – Part 1, or presumably, about halfway through the actual book. What we have here is two hours of the filmmakers trying to figure out how to end their tale. With the whole metaphor for abstinence thing being neatly wrapped up, it would've been way too merciful on me to end it right after Bella’s transformation with a ‘happily ever after’ moment. I suppose it could be argued that we’re on to an anti-abortion rant, but I really don’t feel like going down that road. Instead, I’ll give some credit to the powers that be for wringing every last cent they possibly could out of this franchise…I mean not taking the easy way out and going an extra step. Disastrous it may be, but it’s a step.

Why is it disastrous? For starters, I've told you practically everything that happens, really nothing at all. To keep us occupied there are the occasional cuts to the bad guys getting news on our heroes, vowing to kill them, and a welcome demonstration of how evil they are. These demonstrations are generally put on by Dakota Fanning who I’m pretty sure performs more decapitations than she has lines. Cool. As far as the good guys, Carlisle (Facinelli) is even more closely impersonating Professor Xavier as those who answer his call for help are much more like X-Men than anything in any vampire flick I've ever seen. They come complete with unique powers and the standard gallery of attitudes and personalities. And the answer is no. Sunlight doesn't seem to affect anyone. Nobody even sparkles anymore. Not cool.

This gathering of mutants, including Bella trying to figure out how to use her special power, is almost excusable because we know we’ll get to see this stuff put to use in a big climactic battle scene. What’s not excusable under any circumstances is the absolute incompetence on display, even for this series, whenever the plot turns to Charlie (Burke), Bella’s dad. I’ll sum it all up by relaying one instance for you. We’re never told exactly how much time passes between the beginning and end of the movie, but it doesn't seem like it’s more than a few weeks, a few months at the most. Jeez, the Volturi are slow. Let’s suppose it’s even as much as a year. By this time, the “baby” Renesmee looks like she’s at least seven or eight years old. Charlie first sees her looking like a true newborn. The next time we witness the two of them together, which is near the end and the oldest we see her look, all he can say is how she’s grown at least half a foot since the last time he’s seen her. Huh? That’s it? I get that he’s not the most perceptive guy in the world, after all he still knows nothing of his daughter’s “condition,” but c’mon!

Sigh. Let’s move on to something I said I wasn't going to mention, but since we’re on the subject of the baby, here it goes. Human beings age while vampires do not, even in the “Twilight” zone. Scratch that reference, this franchise has no business being mentioned in the same book, let alone the same sentence as Rod Serling’s iconic series. Anyhoo, doesn't it stand to reason that Renesmee would age slower than the rest of us, not faster? Of course, that’s assuming such a birth could be possible going by what literary and cinematic history tells us about vampires and my limited recall of seventh grade biology. Oh wait, I forgot which movie I was watching and mistakenly thought it cared about something other than teenagers professing their love for each other through the seemingly constipation inspired grimaces on their faces. My bad.

In the end, we get that big battle we spend so much time building toward. Sorta. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll either have to watch it, or take a guess what that means. I’ll give you a hint, though. It’s akin to the police telling an anxious crowd “Move along, folks. There’s nothing to see here.” Regardless, at least this part of the movie is fun. So many heads get severed it’s like a deleted scene from 300, sans blood, rippling abs and red capes, of course. Predictably, this only serves to make sure everyone, and I do mean everyone, gets that ‘happily ever after moment.’ Oh, sorry – spoiler alert. Hmph. As if you didn't know.

MY SCORE: 4/10

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Master

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
2012. Rated R, 143 minutes.
Joaquin Phoenix
Ambyr Childers
Jesse Plemons
Rami Malek
Madisen Beaty
Lena Endre
Kevin J. O’Connor
Amy Ferguson
Joshua Close
Patty McCormack

Right away we come to understand that Freddie Quell  (Phoenix) is a tad off. After serving in World War II, reintegrating into normal society has been an issue for him. Our natural inclination to sympathize with veterans is tested because we get the sense he wasn't wrapped too tight even before the war. And he’s overly obsessed with two things: getting drunk and getting laid. He manages the former practically every night; the latter, not at all.

One drunken night, Freddie wanders into the circle of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), AKA The Master to his followers. He’s written a book, teaches cryptic lessons and performs strange rituals to enlighten us all. In effect, he’s started his own religion which many would call a cult. From everything I've read, the guy is based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Makes sense. Anyhoo, he takes a shine to Freddie and begins “processing,” or indoctrinating him into “The Cause.” We spend the rest of the movie watching The Master try to tame this particularly wild beast.

Charges of fraud and other improprieties against Dodd happen from time to time. We also wonder how much control over The Master his wife Peggy (Adams) has. These things are interesting, but neither holds our attention like the battle of wills waged by The Master and Freddie. Therefore, our enjoyment of this film is derived almost entirely from the dynamics between the two men. The only other thing that really perks us up is the same battle of wills Freddie is fighting with himself. If he simply can’t control himself, how does Dodd ever hope to?

Facilitating our intrigue, we get a pair of wonderful performances from Hoffman and Phoenix. Hoffman is perfectly charismatic as the leader of a budding way of thought, no matter how out there it may be. In an exemplary manner, he pulls off his character’s ability to instantly adapt his explanations to most lines of questioning and knack for shouting down anyone not persuaded by his answers. The work Phoenix turns in is flat amazing. From the start, he fully embodies this raging man-child who is understanding of little more than pleasure and pain. In any year in which Daniel Day-Lewis hadn't convinced people he was actually Abraham Lincoln, Phoenix may very well have walked off with the Oscar that he was nominated for.

Unfortunately, deciphering what we’re supposed to take from this movie is no easy task. As it rolls along, it seems to be peeling back Dodd’s many fraudulent layers, but it never follows through in any tangible way. Most notably, Dodd’s own son is presented as a non-believer, but nothing is ever done with this once we learn it. The young man just keeps going along with the program while wearing a pissed off look on his face. It might also be an examination of Freddie’s sanity, or lack thereof. Much of the film at least hints at that idea, while two scenes in particular intently focus on it. Well, maybe. The first includes a party where many of the followers are happily playing music, clapping and dancing while the very drunk Dodd sings a tune. It so happens that all the women are standing around naked. It’s shown as if this may only be Freddie’s perspective on things. However, it’s also followed by a rather strange moment between Dodd and Peggy that suggests otherwise. Later, the rather lengthy “window to the wall” scene shows that poor sap Freddie cracking up while made to walk repeatedly from one end of a room to the other. Then again, it’s more likely this is just to showcase Dodd trying to break him as he attempts on numerous occasions. It’s also entirely possible that, as the ending suggests, this is all about Freddie’s quest to get a woman into bed and just how intricately tied to his happiness the success of this mission is. Therefore, when The Master ends we may be hit by a wave of confusion as we wonder what we just watched. In this case, that’s a good thing. We have much to talk about.

Whatever it is, Paul Thomas Anderson directs it in a manner that makes it difficult to look away from. The shots are beautiful and, as stated, Hoffman and Phoenix command the screen. Many of their scenes together are scintillating. The director brings this out with excellent story-telling skills. Some people will take issue with the story he’s telling, or more specifically, they’ll wonder what the story is about.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Favorite Fourth Films

Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of part fours. Haven’t we all? As a general rule, the fourth movie of a franchise is crap. But they can’t all be terrible, can they? With that question in mind, I decided I was going to make a list of my favorite fourth installments.

Just for the purpose of clarification, read that sentence again. It says fourth installments, meaning the fourth movie to be released. Therefore, even though comments and your ideas on the matter are always welcome, don’t get cute and tell me that the original Star Wars was a part four. I know this. However, it was not the fourth movie released. While filming “A New Hope”, George Lucas and company had no way of knowing that they would even be able to make a second Star Wars movie, let alone enough of them to make that Part IV he slapped on the movie’s opening scroll make sense all these years later.

And the answer to the question you’ll have once you’ve looked over this list is no. I have not seen the fourth Harry Potter movie, or for that matter, any of them at all. I keep telling myself I’m going to take a week or two and go through the whole franchise. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

I probably haven’t seen that one, either.

So with a little bit of research to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything, I decided that these were my favorite fourth movies in the various franchises I’ve had the pleasure, or pain, of sitting through:

10. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
After the abysmal third entry, At World’s End, this follow-up pared down that flicks roughly a thousand story lines, to a much more manageable number. With a lot less traffic to maneuver, we got a return to the fun we had with the first two installments. Of course, this isn't as good as either, but it’s a good time nonetheless. (Click here for the full review)

9. Live Free or Die Hard
I can say with a straight face that this is my most reluctant choice for the entire list. For one thing, I've never considered it a true Die Hard. It looks like DH, has the same protagonist, and a similar plot, but it’s not quite DH. This is Barry Bonds from 2000 to 2003. For non-baseball fans, I’ll explain. Prior to 2000, Barry Bonds was already one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He would've been honored as such whenever he decided to retire. Then in 2000, he started to do things scarcely believable as humanly possible. Of course, this is precisely the period when many believe his use of anabolic steroids bore fruit. While it was happening many people, myself included, cast a skeptical eye on his most recent achievements. Still, there was no denying it was incredibly fun watching him hit ridiculously long home runs, and a ridiculous amount of them. That, my friends, is precisely how I feel about Live Free or Die Hard.

8. Saw IV
By the time most horror franchises get around to a fourth movie, the series barely resembles what started all the fuss in the first place. Our killer, who somehow manages to survive being killed at the end of every movie is usually transformed from a menacing figure giving life to our darkest fears to a stand-up comedian. The kill scenes seem to be Vaudeville inspired blood-baths. Good times are had by all and it’s on to the next sequel. Whatever you think of the Saw movies, the franchise avoided that particular fate. In fact, this installment succeeded in breathing new life into the saga without sacrificing the elements that drew people to it in the first place. If ranking all of the Saw flicks this one should come in nearer to the top than the bottom.

7. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
What? Don’t look at me that way. I told you the rules on this one right up front. True, I was disappointed with a movie I’d waited quite a few years to see. True, Jar Jar Binks tempted me to track down some pimply-faced theater manager and demand my money back. But, you know what? When it was all said and done I didn't find it to be nearly as terrible as everyone seems to. And I’ll admit that I just love the pod racing scene. If I were simply ranking the Star Wars movies, I’d rank it fifth. However, it’s an incredibly secure fifth because I think Attack of the Clones is one of the worst films ever made.

6. Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter
Hindsight being 20/20, and with the help of another eight movies or so, why any of us Jason fans ever thought this was really “The Final Chapter” is beyond me. Hey, I was a young teen who didn't know any better. When the big movie studios told me it was going to be the last one, I believed them. Then I saw it. And yeah, Jason’s death did seem to be rather definite, at the hands of a young Corey Feldman, no less. Of course, the only thing definite was that this wasn't the last one. Is it a masterpiece? No. It is one of the better movies in the canon, though. Not that that’s saying much. However, as a guy that grew up on Jason flicks, I even own every Friday the 13th movie ever made, I had to find a spot for this one. Either that, or never be allowed to go to Camp Crystal Lake ever again.

5. Rocky IV
AKA Rocky defeats Communism. While certainly nowhere near the best the franchise has to offer, it’s probably the most fun. What could possibly be more fun than Apollo Creed entering the ring while James Brown serenades us all with “Living in America?” Okay, maybe Mr. T pitying the fool who dares step in the ring with him as he predicts “Paaaiiiinnn.” But that’s part 3. In part 4 it’s Apollo, JB and Ivan Drago, who punches with 1850 pounds of pressure per square inch, or something outrageous like that. Unfortunately, it doesn't end so well for Apollo. For the rest of us, though, you’re damn right it does.

4. Rambo
Yes, two in a row for Sly. Truthfully, this probably isn't a “better” movie than some of the ones I've ranked behind it. However, it is unmatched in terms of an unbridled balls to the wall experience. The main character transformed from an actual man to a superhero two movies and twenty-some odd years prior, so we held no preconceived notions that this was going to be the continuation of a great character study. If ever there truly was a “turn your brain off” movie, this is it. It’s bloody, gory, non-stop action literally starting about two minutes in, and it gets out of our hair in not much over an hour.

3. Scream 4
Some of you will applaud this selection. Some of you will wonder what the hell is wrong with me. I think this is a severely underrated movie. While I wouldn't call it great, I found it to be a very good movie, self-aware of it’s own self-awareness, and the changing of tides in the horror genre. Then again, it’s probably sufficient for me to say I’m a sucker for all things Scream, so I’ll leave it at that. (Click here for the full review)

2. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
After seeing M:I-GP, I informed my brother that I've finally seen a Mission: Impossible I liked. Being a fan of the series, he scoffed. I’ll explain. I thought the first movie was unnecessarily convoluted and complicated. I like to think I’m fairly intelligent, but that movie left me completely baffled without entertaining me one bit. Both the second and third movies were the exact opposite, just plain dumb. This movie had the perfect balance of intelligent spy stuff and silly action. For me, it’s clearly the best of the franchise. (Click here for the full review)

1. Lethal Weapon 4
Like M:I-GP, this is the rare fourth installment that it can be argued is the best of its franchise. Unlike Ghost Protocol, or anything else on this list, I'd actually listen to people proclaiming it a legitimately great movie. It maintains the humor and camaraderie from the prior three movies and gives us plenty of action. Much of the action is due to Jet Li, who makes his American debut in spectacular fashion. Here’s how good LW4 is: there are lots of people who are still clamoring for a Part 5.

A quick note on a trio of movies I’ve seen on a number of similar lists that I’ve not included. I know I thought I said everything on this subject in the opening, too. Anyhoo, I feel obligated to mention Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Sudden Impact, and Thunderball by name to clarify why they’re not here. I actually have seen all of them. Unfortunately, I’ve not done so in two decades for any of them. Simply put, I don’t really remember enough about them. Sorry, but such is life. Maybe I’ll get back around to those and re-do this list one day.

Other Part Fours reviewed on this site:

Friday, July 19, 2013

American Reunion

Directed by Jon Hurwitz.
2012. Unrated Version, 114 minutes.
Jason Biggs
Alyson Hannigan
Eugene Levy
Chris Klein
Thomas Ian Nicholas
Eddie Kaye Thomas
Ali Cobrin
Mena Suvari
Tara Reid
Jennifer Coolidge
Natasha Lyonne
Katrina Bowden
Shannon Elizabeth

After two less successful sequels, and way too many straight-to-DVD spin-offs, the gang from the original American Pie is back. Steeped in raunch, fueled by a handful of classic scenes, and coining a term that’s spawned thousands of websites I don’t want my kids knowing about, that film instantly took its place in the pantheon of teen sex romps. This time, it seems the entire school missed their ten-year high school reunion and are getting together for their thirteenth.

Jim (Biggs) and Michelle (Hannigan) are still married and have a little baby boy, but no sex life. Oz (Klein) is a TV host on a sports show and has a free spirited model for a girlfriend. Kevin (Nicholas) is married to someone we don’t know and the movie doesn’t really care about except for the fact that she doesn’t make the trip. Finch (Thomas) is a globe-trotting adventurer who makes his way back to town for the special event. Stifler (Scott) is still Stifler and still living with his mom (Coolidge).

Among the various subplots that spring up, the most prominent involves Jim’s former next door neighbor Kara (Cobrin), whom he used to babysit. She’s turning eighteen this weekend and has the hots for him. You can decide for yourself whether she’s important to the movie because she actually poses a real threat to Jim’s marriage or because she spends a considerable amount of screen-time topless. That’s followed closely by Jim’s dad (Levy) trying to get back into the dating game now that his wife has passed. As for the other guys, old flames show up: Heather (Suvari) for Oz and Vicky (Reid) for Kevin. In all cases, things play out just as expected.

In a nutshell, that things proceed with so little in the way of surprises is this movie’s biggest problem. There’s nothing we don’t see coming, including ninety percent of the gags. A good portion of them are rehashes from the original, or recaps to make sure we remember what happened in that first movie. For instance, we’re shown Jim’s famous video taping scene several times. With so many telegraphed blows thrown, it’s no wonder our funny bone manages to dodge a high volume of them.

Occasionally, there are laughs. Most of them are due to Eugene Levy and that lovable awkwardness he always brings. For me, he is by far the funniest person in the whole series. It seems the movie itself, and really the entire franchise, wants it to be Stifler. I usually put him behind Jim, but I’ll give him second this time. He does give us the one truly unpredictable scene we have. It involves revenge on some young punks and not even his buddies know what he’s up to. Throughout the movie, he behaves so outlandishly as to scarcely seem human, but this forces to laugh on a couple of occasions.

The final act plays out somewhat strangely. I feel I have to reiterate that this has nothing to do with where all the narrative strands end up which is precisely where we thought they would. Nor does it have anything to do with the film using this time to give a cameo to seemingly every person who had a part in the original. That’s also to be expected. In fact, we wonder why they’re all back-logged like they are. What’s odd is it’s handling of these people. A number of them walk onto the screen and immediately announce their sexuality. They stroll over to one of our main characters who recognizes them and asks how they’ve been. They then respond with something like “I’ve been good and, oh, I’m gay now.” Who does this? Let’s forget about the fact that none of these people were gay before and concentrate on how they present themselves. Is the movie trying to be politically correct, or is it making some grand statement in support of gay right? Or, is it making fun of homosexuals? Either of the first two would be preferable to what it feels like which is the latter. If that’s the case, the movie even does a poor job of this. It seems to point a finger at them and laugh simply because they are gay and without having them do anything that could possibly make us laugh. The one possible exception being how uncomfortable Stifler’s Lacrosse buddies make him. Other times it comes across as if it’s a punch-line, but without the rest of the joke. As evidence, whenever a character makes their declaration there’s a pause in the dialogue like a public speaker might employ when they expect applause or laughter. This inspires neither.

Then there’s the even more bizarre reunion of John Cho’s character and his buddy from the first movie. It is their exchange from that original that gave us the term MILF. Here, when the two see each other, they repeat only that word to one another what feels like dozens of times during a tearful embrace. Again, what’s the joke? Are we merely supposed to crack up because they say this word? Or, is it because, as is heavily implied, they’re getting back together after breaking up their homosexual relationship? Or, is it simply the franchise patting itself on the back for birthing, or at least naming a subgenre of porn. Maybe it’s all of those things. I dunno. In any event, it isn’t funny.

The bottom line is that American Reunion is a middling comedy, at best, that doesn’t always let us in on the jokes. The ones they do aren't always funny. Occasionally, they are but not nearly enough to call this a good movie. Much like Stifler, it’s desperately clinging to its glorious past and fails to really recognize the changing of times, therefore stunting its own growth.

MY SCORE: 5/10

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Intouchables

Directed by Olivier Nakache.
2011. Rated R, 113 minutes.
François Cluzet
Omar Sy
Audrey Fleurot
Clotilde Mollet
Anne Le Ny
Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi
Cyril Mendy
Christian Ameri
Marie-Laure Descoureaux
Absa Dialou Toure
Salimata Kamate

We follow the adventures of Philippe (Cluzet) and Driss (Sy). Philippe is a wealthy quadriplegic with a rebellious teenage daughter and an attentive and devoted staff. Driss, has applied for the job of being his live-in healthcare assistant despite not having any experience in the field whatsoever. Fresh out of jail, he just wants to get proof he’s actually searching for a job so he can receive unemployment benefits. When the two men meet they have a conversation that intrigues Philippe who decides to hire Driss despite his obvious shortcomings and a plethora of more qualified applicants. They become bestest buds through some trials and tribulations, mostly due to differences in social class. Based on a true story.

For the most part, The Intouchables is a charming movie. We enjoy watching this relationship develop between two guys from opposite ends of the universe. Their influence on one another is interesting and there is humor all along the way. There is also no denying that Sy has serious presence and dominates the screen as Driss. His smile lights it up and it doesn't feel false when his character switches into angry mode. He never seems to have an unsure moment. It’s truly an infectious performance. As Philippe, Cluzet’s work is no less commendable. He emotes perfectly with just his face and endows the character with a perfect vulnerability. Quite the opposite of Driss, Philippe is a man filled with insecurities and one who has not had a friend in quite some time.

While the bromance aspect of our story works wonderfully, the movie struggles with Elisa (Bellugi), Philippe’s daughter. There is much fuss made about her, but the little bit of screen-time she gets doesn't justify it. For example, there is a scene where Driss goes on a rant to Philippe about how she must be disciplined. Of course, this happens after he has a bit of run-in with her. He makes it seem, and others agree, as if she has chronic behavior problems. Nothing to this point establishes this so it doesn't hold as much weight as seems to be intended. She’s barely seen, before or after this event and feels very much on the fringes of her father’s life. Members of the staff fare much better as Driss makes numerous sexual advances on Magalie (Fleurot), to no avail, and develops a kinship with Yvonne (Le Ny).

Similarly to Elisa, Driss’ own family exists only on the very edges of the plot. They’re only a device to show growth in him, but only does so in regards to his allegiance to Philippe. The one situation where he helps them out is something he probably would've done regardless of his own circumstances. This is merely a symptom of the the bigger problem. If you've been following me, you may know that I’m sensitive (overly?) to the use of the Magical Negro. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll explain. A Magical Negro is a black character with special powers who is only present in a story to use these abilities to benefit the white protagonist. Often, but not always, this involves sacrificing oneself for the well-being of his white friend. If you’re still not sure, think about the main (only?) black characters in The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Green Mile, or any one of a number of movies starring Morgan Freeman - The Shawshank Redemption, Driving Miss Daisy, The Bucket List, etc. Even in the most well-meaning of pictures this reeks of tokenism and, worse, a longing for the good old days of servitude. The Magical Negro is generally an American phenomenon, but is certainly present in this French production. Driss fits the definition to a tee. His special ability is getting Philippe to enjoy life. No matter how much anyone else cares for Philippe, they simply cannot get him to be anything other than the rich invalid they cater to.

That this is based on a true story makes it easier to swallow. That is, until the end when we see the actual people who inspired the movie. The caregiver does not appear to be black. I’m not against a person of one race playing a person traditionally thought to be of another so long as we’re talking works of pure fiction and race is not intrinsic to the character’s story. To use an extreme example to illustrate my point, Jamie Foxx will play a traditionally white villain in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I've no problem with this because the person he plays is only white because he was drawn that way many moons ago. Nothing about him suggests he has to be white. However, that same actor could not switch his role in Django Unchained with that of the slave-owner portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. In other words, a person who more resembles the real life person may have provided us with the same cinematic experience without the racial undertones.

Then again, maybe not. Sy’s performance is so wonderful, I’m not sure another actor could replicate his magnetism and wring the same joy out of us. This is my dilemma. Emphasis on the word ‘my’. It’s possible I’m reading too much into it, looking at it from too American a viewpoint. Besides, there have been a number of good movies guilty of the same offense, a few of them great. Again, Shawshank immediately leaps to mind. That said, punctuated by my lengthy and overdue exhalation, The Intouchables is warm, funny, and despite its title, touching.

MY SCORE: 7.5/10

Monday, July 15, 2013

Rise of the Guardians

Directed by Peter Ramsey.
Rated PG, 97 minutes.
Khamani Griffin
Jacob Bertrand
Kamil McFadden
Olivia Mattingly
Dominique Grund

Turns out there really is a slew of mythological beings collectively known as the Guardians watching over our children. As we learn very early on, in this movie if not in real life, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman are all indeed real. They've all been on their jobs since the end of the Dark Ages when they brought hope to the world, overthrowing the rule of the Pitch Back, AKA The Boogeyman (Law). Now, the bad guy is back to reclaim the world. On the advice of The Man in the Moon, The Guardians go outside of their ranks and turn to the reckless and mischievous Jack Frost (Pine) to help them stave off Pitch.

We immediately notice that the design of each character, with the possible exception of the Tooth Fairy, is a bit off from what we’re expecting. This is actually a stroke of genius that adds depth and personality to iconically mysterious figures. It brings them a bit closer to us, enough for us to identify with, as much as that’s possible. As intended, the one we relate to most is Jack. Far more than any of the others, he’s one of us. He’s unsure of himself and longs for attention and approval. That said, the Easter Bunny might be the most fun. He’s wary of Jack, downright dislikes him and lets it be known. Hugh Jackman has a great time voicing the character and it shows.

Character designs not withstanding, the movie has an interesting overall look. It seems to sit somewhere between full-blown CGI and traditional animation. This works nicely. Even better is the contrast between the bright, cheery colors surrounding our heroes and the gray pallet that adorns the villain. It reinforces the notion of good against evil.

Speaking of evil, it’s the bad guy that really makes the movie work. Jude Law is simply amazing. His methodical cadence is symbolic of Pitch’s carefully measured actions. Most of the time he’s also unsettlingly calm. To boot, he exudes confidence that he will be victorious, making him a very formidable foe.

On the surface, things boil down to that good guys/bad guy stuff. That aspect alone is fun, but there’s more to it than that. It plays on our childhood hopes and fears to create both excitement and dread. On an even deeper level, it’s possible to see the entire plot as a test of faith and what happens if we don’t have it. No, this doesn't get preachy and it’s not an advertisement for any religion. However, the theme is present. More than any of this, it’s just plain fun to watch.

MY SCORE: 8/10

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Man of Steel

Directed by Zack Snyder.
2013. Rated PG-13, 143 minutes.
Harry Lennix
Richard Schiff
Antje Traue
Ayelet Zurer

As if there were any doubt this was going to be an origin story, Man of Steel begins with the birth of our hero during the last days of existence for the planet Krypton. A bunch of stuff happens, including the banishment of General Zod (Shannon) and his troops for attempting a coup in order to do what he deems necessary to save his world. Instead, Krypton goes boom and Jor-El’s (Crowe) bouncing baby boy crash lands in Smallville. A little over three decades later, the boy’s past catches up with him in the form of a very angry Gen. Zod and crew. The total annihilation of the Smallville IHOP, the Smallville Sears, and pretty much all of Metropolis ensues.

Despite us being told otherwise for a couple years, MoS does indeed try to do for Superman (Cavill) what Christopher Nolan (here, a producer) does for Batman. It attempts to dive deeper into his psyche than ever before while dropping him into as real a world as possible. It even apes that franchise’s dead serious tone. In fact, it’s almost completely devoid of humor. The Clark Kent we’re given, before becoming Superman, is a morose lost soul quite literally drifting through life. It just so happens that incredibly tragic events tend to unfold in his presence. He, of course, is compelled to save lives.

This all sounds fine and plays out in an interesting manner. The problem is it subverts three quarters of a century’s worth of Superman lore with something that doesn't always seem as if it has been thoroughly thought through. The most egregious of these is the relationship between our hero and Lois Lane (Adams). Within fifteen minutes of Clark, and us, meeting her for the first time all of the charm and mystery of one of the most iconic love affairs in American pop culture history is flushed down the drain. In short, she knows everything we know. This robs us of them meeting and building the dynamics of their complicated romance. Mostly, that means we don’t get to see her being enthralled by Superman, but not Clark, while our hero struggles with whether or not to reveal his secret to her. Within the context of this movie, what they have works okay, but doesn't seem to bode well for the future installments that are almost sure to come. To be fair, Lois herself is well-presented as a relentless investigative reporter and Amy Adams plays the role quite nicely. For me, her best work since The Fighter, a couple years ago.

There are some problems with Superman himself. More specifically, his relationship with his Earthly father Jonathan Kent (Costner) doesn't always make sense. Jonathan is presented as the great philosophical force in Clark’s life. Unfortunately, his advice is generally for Clark to not do anything, ever, regardless of the situation. Just don’t. Costner gives us his best wise old sage performance, but circumstances render everything that flies out of his mouth pure rubbish. None of his “advice” works out too well for either as what eventually happens comes across as wholly preventable, stupid and failing to teach the great lesson it seems the filmmakers intended.

There’s also the nagging issue of human beings reaction to our hero. Almost no one is ever in awe of him despite him doing things they know to be impossible. For instance, there is a scene where a bunch of military personnel are sent to retrieve Superman for a meeting with Zod. None of them had ever seen him before and had no idea what he’s capable of. Still, when they first lay eyes on him and he’s suspended in mid-air they react much like he’s a waiter at that Smallville IHOP refilling their drinks. Why should we, the viewers, be amazed by him when it's clear that no one on the screen is. The exception to this are a Smallville classmate and his mom. The boy witnessed a young Clark push a school bus out a lake, saving dozens of lives including his. The mom is convinced that this was an act of God.

Ah yes, God. It’s long been known, and I've even written as much, that the story of Superman mirrors that of Jesus Christ. Here, that aspect is played up quite a bit, in ways that are sometimes subtle, others times not. His conception is different from anyone else’s on his planet, he is sent to our world by his father, receives guidance from his father’s ghost, and is thirty-three years old when he comes into his own. Not so subtly, we’re told, more than once, his abilities make him a God to us and he is rather fond of striking a pose similar that of Christ on the cross. Then there’s all that mumbo jumbo about where the genetic code of every future Kryptonian is hidden. Surely, a way to remake a world in his image. That said, the religious subtext doesn't overwhelm the movie like it does Superman Returns.

Never fear, good citizen. I know I've spent a lot of time pointing out the negatives, but there really are some good things about MoS. For starters, not all changes to our hero’s accepted history are bad. How Clark discovers the truth about himself and gets his costume are both nice additions to the canon. The latter works particularly well. It makes much more sense than having him, or Martha Kent (Lane) design it and lends it some much needed practicality. After all, can anything created from Earth’s fabrics be able to withstand all he goes through without being bulky and immobilizing? Maybe, but cost would be prohibitive. After all, he’s not some billionaire from Gotham City.

Something else that works is the one thing that clearly marks this as a Zack Snyder movie. That’s the visuals. It simply looks great. Our hero flying around is fantastically rendered as are his many feats of strength. The same goes for Zod and the other Kyrptonians. Additionally, no matter how massive the destruction they cause, it all looks pretty real. This includes falling skyscrapers and vehicles haphazardly thrown about.

Making use of all that technology, we get an action-packed final act. By the way, it’s an act that completely consumes the last third of the film giving us plenty of bang for our buck. As mentioned, Metropolis gets torn up pretty good. By that point, the plot just about disappears. Since it is a bit wobbly it’s a welcome change. We’re left with only the simplest part of the story: the hero fighting the villain.

This villain is also a plus for the movie. In Superman II, Gen. Zod wants to take over everything merely for the sake of it. He wants nothing more than fame and glory. Here, he as a much bigger purpose and an unlimited reservoir of conviction. Thus, it is not really his goal that makes him the bad guy, but the means he’s willing to use in achieving it. Shannon aptly conveys this, helping to save the movie from falling prey to its own shortcomings. What I say next may seem blasphemous to some of you, but I like this version of the character better than Terence Stamp’s legendary portrayal. True, I don’t think he exactly says “Kneel before Zod,” but I guess you can’t have everything.

MoS is a movie that has to deal with expectations more than any superhero movie since, ironically, Superman Returns, with the possible exception of The Avengers. After all, the mythos of Superman is fairly common knowledge and as close to American history as a fictional character can get. Therefore, even the least critical viewer might be upset when you start dicking around with the story, let alone what the die-hard fanboys might think. For that reason, I think it might be a tad too ambitious for many. At least with Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan had a little known area of his protagonist’s life to explore. No such dark corridor exists for Superman, in terms of his origin. People just want the story mostly how they know it and a good villain for our hero to square off against. We get a very good villain, but not always a good story. I don’t think this is a great film, but I certainly don’t think it’s bad, either. I’d say it’s slightly better than Superman Returns, but not up to the level of the first Christopher Reeve flick.

MY SCORE: 7/10