Friday, August 30, 2013

Les Misérables

Directed by Tom Hooper.
2012. Rated PG-13, 158 minutes.
Cast:
Samantha Barks
Aaron Tveit
Daniel Huttlestone
Cavin Cornwall


Let’s start with a little personal history. Somehow, in all my years, I've never seen any sort of production of Les Misérables, not even part of one. I've also managed to remain completely ignorant of its plot. The only two things I know about it going in are that it’s a musical and it is legendary in the theater world. Without any other point of reference, I’m free to judge this on its own merits without comparing it to what was done on the stage.

On another personal note, my family refused to watch with me. These are the same people that get excited over the mention of Mamma Mia!, High School Musical, and the remakes of Fame, and Sparkle. This doesn't even include all the dance movies they watch over and over…and over. When I mention this, my oldest daughter sums up their collective anguish at the notion of taking in Les Mis when she twists her face into a pained look and says “Yeah, but this is…like opera or something.” With that, they scatter about the house leaving me alone with my virginal perspective on this old tale. Play.

A couple decades after The French Revolution, we meet Jean Valjean (Jackman). He is among a group of chained inmates charged with manually pulling a rather large ship into port. This difficult task is made even more so by the fact that they’re singing as they work. Hey, I am watching a musical…like opera or something. So yes, 99.9% of the dialogue is sang, but I digress. Valjean has been locked up for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. Immediately following the boat scene, he’s finally granted parole.


However, he remains on probation and must report to his parole officer every so often. Pissed at the notion, he tears up his freedom papers, violates his probation by never reporting, and goes on the run. He becomes such a model citizen that when we skip ahead eight years, he is now the beloved mayor of a small town, under a different name of course. Sure enough, his old warden Javert (Crowe) is after him, forcing him to go on the run again. The difference this time is that he has also vowed to care for the daughter of Fantine (Hathaway), a young female employee at the local sweat shop who dies with no one to provide for her offspring. From this point forward, the movie is essentially a cat-and-mouse between the two men.

The first thing we notice is the look of the movie. The opening scene is flat out stunning. Even though the rest of the film doesn't quite measure up to first impressions, it’s a wonderful rendering of what France may have looked like at the time. No shots of snooty folk sipping wine at an outdoor restaurant with the Eiffel Tower in the background. This is a place that is rotting from the inside. Its core has gone bad. What we see is a perfect representation of the country’s political climate.

Next, we notice the startling first shot of Hugh Jackman. With a long scraggly beard and seven layers of dirt on seemingly every inch of him he quickly dispels our preconceived notions. The last time we see him this way, his first big solo, is an amazing moment. The rest of his performance doesn't disappoint, either. He’s just plain good. In fact, he’s better than good. I know he did a lot of theater before hitting it big on the silver screen. The experience shows. His emotions bubble to the surface, compelling us to watch. It’s not until after the movie that we realize we just saw Wolverine singing…like opera or something.  


Aside from our hero, we get a wonderful turn by Anne Hathaway, in just a few scenes. She gives us a gut-wrenching few minutes of screen time. There is also a rather fun performance by our comic relief, the duo of Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. They provide the movie with a sorely needed element of playfulness even though the tandem combines to form the movie’s secondary villain. In what’s become an overlooked portrayal, perhaps due to the sheer bigness of the other names in the cast, Samantha Barks is also very good. I’m not completely sold on the crooning Russell Crowe, but he doesn't embarrass himself.

Story-wise, the movie holds together fairly well, but strains its own credibility in a few places. First, the warring between France’s citizens and its government is built up to be of supreme importance, as it should be, but then revealed to be merely a backdrop for the romance of Cosette (Seyfried) and Marius (Redmayne). It feels like rebellion was only a trivial pursuit for him that didn't go so well. Worse, I don’t believe one second of this romance to begin with. Sure, I can make allowances for love at first sight in movies, but this feels especially under baked. The whole thing is too sudden and they’re too immediately overwhelmed by the other. It’s reminiscent of what happens when Romeo meets Juliet, but without any of the same weight. It’s clearly a subplot, but pushed out front as if it is what we should be focusing on. I've no clue whether or not this works on stage. Here, I couldn't quite be convinced.

My lack of belief in the blossoming love of the couple in question leaves the core of the last few scenes a bit hollow for me. Fortunately, Jackman pulls me back in with his final number. It’s a fitting close to the story. This man who has been through so much finally appears too tired to continue. Since he is the reason we watch, it’s only right that he sends us off with one last heartfelt song. When that song ends we have what is, in my opinion, the best musical in several years, probably since the terrifically morbid Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s certainly the best of a strangely crowded field. That said, if musicals aren't your thing, steer clear. After all, it’s…like opera or something.

MY SCORE: 8.5/10

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Parental Guidance

Directed by Andy Fickman.
2012. Rated PG, 105 minutes.
Cast:
Tom Everett Scott
Joshua Rush
Kyle Harrison Breitkopf
Jennifer Crystal Foley
Rhoda Griffis
Gedde Watanabe
Tony Hawk


Alice (Tomei) and hubby Phil (Scott) haven’t had a vacation in years. Phil has a business trip coming up that he wants her to accompany him for that very reason since his work responsibilities will be minimal. With no other choice, the pair reluctantly decide to ask her parents to watch their three kids while they’re on this little rendezvous. Having been shut out of their grand-kids’ lives, Artie (Crystal) and Diane (Midler) agree. The big deal is that Alice and Phil subscribe to a lot of new school parenting techniques while Artie and Diane are definitely old fashioned. Hijinks and shenanigans ensue.

Most of the humor revolves around the differing philosophies between the parents and grandparents as a paranoid Alice keeps hanging around out of fear that her dad will break her kids. The rest of the jokes are about the youngest child, Turner (Rush) and his imaginary kangaroo friend Carl. All of it is rather hit and miss with more misses. It’s kind of hard to hit when both the story and most of the gags are easily predictable.


What keeps Parental Guidance from being totally unwatchable is the level of cuteness it maintains throughout its run time. Sure, it can veer into just being cheesy, but there is a charm to the performances of Billy Crystal and Bette Midler. This is particularly evident whenever the movie turns to Crystal’s real life love: baseball. The twinkle in his eye is genuine and never wanes. For her part, Bette Midler is still a force of nature, still playful and infectious. Together, the two of them have a fun little song and dance number and some nice scenes with the kids.

Alas, our two stars can only do so much with the trite material. Cute is nice, but the movie seems to have no other ambitions. The big debate at its core, old school vs. new school, is waged as innocuously as possible with points made that we've all heard before. Marisa Tomei is sufficiently frantic, Tom Everett Scott blends into the scenery and the children are a collective “meh.” So while not a total waste, it never really grabs us and winds up being totally forgettable.


MY SCORE: 5/10

Monday, August 26, 2013

Undefeated

Directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin.
2011. Rated PG-13, 113 minutes.
Cast:
Bill Courtney
O.C. Brown
Montrail “Money” Brown
Chavis Daniels


Manassas High School in Memphis, TN has no football history worth speaking of unless noting how remarkably bad they've been through the years. Even though the school has been in existence since 1899, yes 1899, they've not won so much as a single playoff game. Ever. In fact, when current Coach Bill Courtney took over, they hadn't won a football game of any kind in fourteen years. Over the handful of seasons he’s been there, the team has at least shown signs of life, winning a few games each year and visibly improving. He hopes this will be the year the school finally manages to get off the playoff snide.

By itself, a school with that athletic history reaching for loftier heights than they've ever attained would be worthy of a documentary. However, that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. Coach Courtney didn't just inherit a bad football program. He’s also inherited a roster full of kids with tough situations, poverty and broken homes among the most common problems. This doesn't even take into account that he’s a white coach at an all-black school. We follow him as he tries to make school history and simultaneously mentor his players, build up their character as young men.


Other than the coach, we spend most of our time with three players. There’s O.C., a lovable giant who is a gifted athlete but struggles in the classroom. Next is "Money," another nice kid. He outperforms his size on the field. Off the field, he’s an emotional wreck, sensitive almost beyond belief. Finally, we have Chavis. He’s the type of kid your parents warned you about. The chip seems permanently affixed to his shoulder. He’s perpetually angry and occasionally violent thanks to a hair-trigger temper. In fact, we only get to meet him after he’s finished a stint in juvie.

As it turns out, Coach Courtney is married with children of his own. We get a glimpse at how his spending so much time with his team is affecting them. Unfortunately, this is the one area where the movie feels like it doesn't go far enough. We hear from his wife, but never directly from his children. I suspect this is by the coach’s choice so I can’t knock the movie too hard.

Really, it’s hard to knock the movie too much at all. Each situation grabs us by the throat and doesn't let go. As a result, it’s easy to get choked up a time or two as certain things happen and other things don’t. It’s so wonderful as what it is, I hope no one ever gets the bright idea to make a scripted movie out of it. Whatever spit shine some writer applies to it will likely rub away the beautiful rawness of it and oversimplify until we have a tired sequel to The Blindside. Undefeated deserves better. It deserves to be left alone because it is magnificent as it is.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Top 10 Arnold Schwarzenegger Movies


In the last couple of days, we've reviewed Arnie's last stand...er...movie, and his very first. There are lots and lots of them in between. As you probably know, he was the biggest movie star in the world through much of the 80s and 90s. He was still making hits in the 2000s, until he took a side job as governor of California. No, he was never confused with _______ (insert the name of any Oscar-winning actor), but he made big action flicks that people flocked to. In my very humble opinion, these are...

The Governator's Top 10 Movies

10. Commando
(1985)
This is just pure, unadulterated, over-the-top stupidity and I love every minute of it. Arnie's in rare form and wipes out so many bad guys you lose count. This time he's trying to track down the people who have kidnapped his daughter (played by a very young Alyssa Milano) in an effort to blackmail him into doing "a job." I'll be damned if they didn't mess with the wrong dude. Cheesy mayhem that's somehow both homo-erotic and homophobic ensues. Early on, after Arnie has just killed one of the bad guys (played by David Patrick Kelly) by dropping him off a cliff, Rae Dawn Chong asks him "What happened Sully?" In a movie that is unbelievably filled to the brim with them, his response is...

The Movie's Best One-Liner: I let him go.

9. Last Action Hero
(1993)
Here, Arnie plays larger than life action star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hmmm. In this world, Mr. Schwarzenegger's most famous character is super-cop Jack Slater. When little Danny wins a magic ticket, he gets transported to the chocolate factory, I mean, into the surreal world of Jack Slater. From here we get Arnie spoofing himself. Genius. As I've heard it put, those who hate this movie just don't get the joke. After Arnie/Slater fires shots into a closed closet door and a dead bad guy comes rolling out, little Danny asks "How'd you know there was someone in there?" Arnie's reply is, of course,...

The Movie's Best One-Liner: There's always someone in there. It costs me a fortune in closet doors.

(Okay, that's a two-liner. Just roll with it.)

8. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
(2003)
I know. You probably hate this movie. Truth being told, the first time I watched this, I went in dreading it. Much to my surprise, I really liked the T-800's final hurrah. I know, a reprogrammed T-850 Model 101, if you want to be technical. Here, Arnie has to fight the T-X (played by Kristanna Loken), easily the most attractive Terminator of them all. Unfortunately, she's also the most vicious. The feeling of pending doom continues to hangs over the movie and really fits the franchise well. This one's a little light on wit, but after finally killing the T-X, old Arnie drops...

The Movie's Best One-Liner: You are terminated.


7. Conan the Barbarian
(1982)
Ah, Arnie's first starring role in a major feature. That is, except for Hercules in New York, if you can call that major. At the time it came out, it was one of the best comic-book adaptations Hollywood had done. It also sparked about a five year stretch of B-grade fantasy movies hitting the big screen, including its own horrible sequel Conan the Destroyer and even worse spin-off Red Sonja. in which Arnie made a cameo. Wisely, the big guy wasn't given a ton of dialogue but he does point to his sword and give us this gem for...

The Movie's Best One-Liner: This you can trust.

6. The Running Man
(1987)
Arnie takes on the best ever host of "The Family Feud". Sorry, Steve Harvey. After being framed for killing a bunch of innocent people, Arnie and his cronies from jail are forced to compete in a to-the-death reality show with Richard Dawson as its host. I swear it looks like TV is really headed down this path. One of the "Stalkers" sent in to kill Arnie has a chainsaw. Our hero overpowers the guy, runs the saw up his groin, pretty much cutting him in half. When he returns to his crew, Amber, the lone lady, asks "What happened to Buzzsaw?" Yeah, his answer is definitely...

The Movie's Best One-Liner: He had to split.

5. Predator
(1987)
A team of Army commandos, led by Arnie go on a mission in a Central American jungle. They soon find out they are being hunted by an extra-terrestrial being who is nearly invisible. Way too many sequels and spin-offs later, you know the rest. Therefore, I'll only give one other detail. Carl Weather's severed arm lying on the ground squeezing off rounds from the M-16 it's still holding might be one of the best visuals in movie history. And I'm not even kidding. One other periphery, but mind-boggling fact: this is one of two Arnie movies released in 1987 (#6 is the other) that features two future U.S. governors, he and Jesse "The Body" Ventura. There's no way any of us could've guessed that. Anyhoo, even if you haven't seen it, you can probably guess...

The Movie's Best One-Liner: You're one ugly mother...!


4. True Lies
(1994)
Arnie and pal Tom Arnie...Arnold...are secret agents. Arnie's wife, played by a still gorgeous Jamie Lee Curtis, has no idea what he really does for a living. We get an action-packed and comedic affair. As a side-note, this is directed by the man who's helmed a few of the movies on this list, James Cameron. In true Cameron fashion, this was one of the first movies to ever cost as much $100 million to make. That's not what makes it good. Personally, I think this is Arnie's best acting job. He's really life-like. Okay, that's a bit harsh. He really is good, here, and very funny. Still, he's upstaged a bit by his leading lady. The scene of her stripping is both the sexiest and funniest scene in the film. Not to be completely outclassed, Arnie has some great moments of his own. When the bad guy is hanging off a harrier missile that Arnie fires, our hero then inspires Donald Trump when he gives us...

The Movie's Best One-Liner: You're fired.

3. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
(1991)
The T-800 is back, this time to protect John Connor, the future leader of the human resistance. At the time, it was arguably the biggest special fx spectacle ever made. Again, James Cameron is to thank. Loads of action and the continuance of a great story make it memorable. The impressive T-1000, a liquid metal shape shifting Terminator played by Robert Patrick, makes us wonder how Arnie's gonna pull this one off. It won an armful of technical Oscars and is so adored that many of you reading this probably have this as your top Arnie flick. And I haven't even mentioned that Linda Hamilton got really buff for her role, played Sarah Connor completely opposite to the way she did the first time around and is just as believable. Anyhoo, the whole movie builds up to Arnie saying one line,...

The Movie's Best One-Liner: Hasta la vista, baby.

2. Total Recall
(1990)
This is probably the most complex of all of Arnie's movies. Not that that's a difficult task, but...forget it. Let's move on. Realizing he needs a little R&R, Arnie takes a virtual vacation to the planet Mars. This isn't just any vacation. He gets to choose what type of story he wants to play out during his "time away." Of course, he chooses a secret agent theme. From there, we get loads of twists along with the special fx and action. And, of course, there is the iconic shot of the lady with three boobs. Back in the real world, we think, Arnie gets the upper-hand during a fist fight with his not-so-loving wife, played by Sharon Stone, who is actually trying to kill him. She begs him not to take her out, finishing her plea with "After all, we're married." Simultaneously, she reaches for her gun, but Arnie pumps one in her first and drops...

The Movie's Best One-Liner: Consider that a divorce.

1. The Terminator
(1984)
Arnie's greatest movie is the one where he's the bad guy. As the T-800, he is sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor, played by Linda Hamilton, before she can give birth to the leader of the human resistance, John Connor. He just causes all sorts of mayhem and doesn't say much. The way it's supposed to be. On one of those rare occasions when he does talk, he gives us something iconic,...

The Movie's Best One-Liner: I'll be back.



Arnie in Commando, suiting up. Does he have enough ammo?:





Yeah, sorry, I'm not a fan of any of his straight-forward comedies.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Hercules in New York

Directed by Arthur Seidelman.
1969. Rated G, 92 minutes.
Cast:
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Arnold Stang
Deborah Loomis
Ernest Graves
James Karen
Tony Carroll
Taina Elg
Richard Herd
Tanny McDonald
Harold Burstein

When Hercules (Schwarzenegger) becomes bored with Mt. Olympus, he decides he wants to visit Earth and have a little fun. This little revelation comes much to the chagrin of Hercules' dad Zeus (Graves). Argue, argue, fuss, fuss, and Zeus gets pissed and sends Herc to Earth anyway. Okay, fine. Our hero lands in the middle of the ocean where he's picked up by a naval ship headed to New York. In the Big Apple, he meets a pencil necked geek named Pretzie (Stang) who helps him become a big-time professional wrestler. Of course, he also meets a girl. Her name is Helen (Loomis). For all of the movie, our hero exhibits all the intelligence of a stack of bricks with the subtlety of said bricks cracking you upside the head. Even so, he's suddenly a smooth talker when she's around. No surprise there. Anyhoo, Pretzie gets mixed up with some gangsters over Herc's athletic pursuits. Meanwhile, Zeus and the rest of the gods are keeping a watchful eye and deciding how to deal with him. All things hilariously rotten ensue.

What do I mean by hilariously rotten? For starters, most things meant to be funny aren't while most things meant to be serious are funny. A number of things happen that are just too ridiculous for words and its lack of budget is noticeable throughout. On top of that, our cast is not quite Oscar quality, to put it delicately. Almost everyone sounds as if they're reading their lines. Arnie's co-star, Arnold Stang is an exception, but his character is just too annoying to build on that capital. One of the minor players who went on to a long career is James Karen. His list of credits is longer than my legs. I'm sure you've seen him in something. Arnie's leading lady, Deborah Loomis, is pretty. As for her acting, she's pretty. Of course, there's Ah-nuld himself. Yeah, I'm going to need to start a new paragraph for him.

This is The Governator's first acting role, eight years before the documentary Pumping Iron and thirteen before his next starring gig as the lead in Conan the Barbarian. It's so far back, he didn't even use his real name. He's listed in the credits as Arnold Strong. True Story. His accent was still so thick that when Hercules in New York was originally released, his voice had been dubbed over by another actor's. Thankfully, I got to hear it in all its Austrian glory as the original track has been restored on the DVD. I understand why they dubbed it in the first place. I could've used some subtitles from time to time. That he has the accent is something he couldn't help, but not something I knock him for. What I do have to point out is that even if his diction were perfect his performance would still be painful to watch. His facial expression almost never changes to the point where it makes Kristen Stewart seem overly animated. Then, he delivers every line as flatly as possible.


Even Arnie's fight scenes leave a lot to be desired. Not yet the man who would rule the box office during my youth, he just lumbers through them with all the grace of a toddler's first step. He's not helped by what I'll generously call a lack of creative choreography and the camera being entirely too close. Then again, it has to be in one scene where the filmmakers are hopelessly trying to disguise the fact that the bear Arnie is fighting is a man in a suit. Even I couldn't tell that by looking at him, the fact he walks like a monkey is a dead giveaway. I'm not joking. Well, at least he always shines when the plot calls for him to take off and flex. By the way, this happens on a number of occasions. After having seen almost all of his other movies, HNY gives me new appreciation for just how far he has come as an actor.

The bottom line is that this is campy and cheesy, both with capital Cs. Better yet, scratch those. This is just plain goofy. As noted, Arnie's is beyond awful, the cast around him isn't all that much better and the script is atrocious. But here's the thing: it's so ridiculous and there are so many unintentional laughs to be had that it's just damn fun to watch.

Normally, I don't do clips but I couldn't resist this one. This scene contains the best acting in the entire movie. for Arnie, he gets to do what he does best: get topless and flex. For Deborah Loomis, it might be the first time she's ever been that close to so much half-naked man and may have been genuinely turned on. Yes, the whole thing is just that silly.



Okay, let's wrap this up. If you've been here before, and you've been paying attention, you know where I'm going with this. It's so bad, it's awesome!

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Last Stand

Directed by Kim Jee-Woon.
2013. Rated R, 107 minutes.
Cast:
Eduardo Noriega
Jaimie Alexander
Zach Gilford
Christiana Leucas

Once upon a time, the release of an Arnold Schwarzenegger flick meant I was spending a Friday or Saturday in a crowded theater inhaling popcorn while the guy with the thick accent flexed muscles I didn't even know existed, kicked all sorts of ass, and dropped some of the corniest/funniest one-liners ever barked by a monosyllabic action hero. If you had told me that he would eventually go on hiatus from movie making to become governor of California, I would've shunned you for violating the number one commandment of First Lady Nancy Reagan and obviously not just saying no. Google it, if you must. I’m in no mood to explain the jokes, youngster.

Anyhoo, in his first starring role since leaving office, The Governator picks up right where he left off. Sorta. He plays the sheriff of an Arizona town that borders Mexico. By the way, every time I have to type the word ‘sheriff’ I have to spell check it. I can never remember if there are two Rs, or two Fs, neither, or both. This is funny, to me at least, for two reasons. The first is that I won my sixth grade school spelling bee, placed sixth in the district bee so I wasn't that many steps from horribly butchering some word of Latin origin (or Greek, or Russian, or Japanese, etc.) on national TV. Wait a sec, the national spelling bee wasn't televised back then. I don’t think. Whew, that was close (not really). The second reason I find this humorous is because I never ever have to check how to spell Schwarzenegger. Never. You could wake me from a dead sleep after a long night of binge drinking and I wouldn't miss a letter. Not one. S-C-H-W-A-R-Z-E-N-E-G-G-E-R.

Oh, where are my manners? You’re here about a movie, right?

Let’s talk about this Arizona town Ah-nuld protects. It’s one of those rinky dink places where much of the population is of retirement age and everyone is on a first name basis with everyone else. The police almost never see any action. In fact, the most exciting thing we see them do early on is take target practice with the local nut-job played by Johnny Knoxville with an overly phallic handgun. By them, I mean almost the entire force. This includes the T-800, Deputy Mike (Guzman) and Deputy Jerry (Gilford). There is also Deputy Sarah (Alexander) who is back at the office missing out on all the fun.. By the way, Deputy Jerry makes plans for the very near future which Conan the Barbarian is more than happy to help him with. Poor guy. If you don’t understand what I’m saying, imagine that he’s in his sixties and retiring in two weeks. If you still don’t get it you've obviously never seen an action movie before.


Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, the feds are transporting Cortez (Noriega), a dangerous Mexican cartel boss from one institution to another. If you guessed he would make a daring escape thanks to his private army and head right for Terminatorville in hopes of crossing the border, give yourself a cookie. Take two if you guessed he’d be driving a suped up Corvette at 200 miles per hour for most of the movie. From there? Wow. Just. Wow.

What does wow mean? It means that on top of the normal action flick ridiculousness I was totally ready for, I got an unexpected trip back to the land of low budget 70s movies. Think about those old pictures, or go watch some if you haven’t. Take note of how many times you can clearly see the stunt-person. Believe it, or not, we get that here. My apologies to anyone involved in the making of this film if I’m incorrect. However, there a few occasions when I looked at the screen and couldn't help but say aloud “That’s not Arnie!” I even had to change the noun once or twice to Luis Guzman. Hilarious.

Now we can add the action itself. I did say it’s ridiculous, didn't I? It’s actually a bit beyond that, particularly with regards to the Corvette our bad guy whips around in. This thing is apparently a supercharged mini-tank. Were the Fast & Furious folks on this dedicated team of auteurs? Even with that, our zany mixture is not complete. Stir in Forest Whitaker, as the head fed, chewing every bit of scenery he could find, a blatant but still lackluster romance between our lady cop and a deputized prisoner, Johnny Knoxville going full-on gun-happy imbecile, and Commando dropping one-liners (sometimes one-worders) and I just can’t keep from laughing giddily throughout. Once again, my immune system fails me in the face of unabashed cinematic crap. This is so bad it’s awesome!


MY SCORE: -10/10

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Lockout

Directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger.
2012. Rated PG-13, 95 minutes.
Cast:
Vincent Regan
Joseph Gilgun
Lennie James
Peter Stormare
Jacky Ido
Tim Plester
Mark Tankersley
Anne-Solenne Hatte
Peter Hudson


The year is 2079 and former CIA operative Snow (Pearce) is accused of murdering a man who was selling government secrets. You’d think they’d be happy about this, but I guess murder is murder so here we are. Not quite. What’s really going on is that Agents Scott Langral (Stormare) and Harry Shaw (James) are questioning Snow on the whereabouts of a case containing some very sensitive information. Since he doesn’t have it to give up, and because he’s a wise-ass, Snow is about to be sent to MS-One, a prison orbiting Earth in which all of the prisoners are cryogenically frozen. Of course, before he’s put to sleep something goes terribly wrong at the prison. Because of a not-so-bright Secret Service Agent, all of the ship’s five hundred inmates are woken from their slumber and take the place over. What is a Secret Service Agent doing there? He’s escorting the President’s daughter Emilie Warnock (Grace), who is on a fact-finding mission. Obviously, the only logical thing to do is entice Snow to mount a one-man rescue mission and bring the First Daughter home safely. In other words, a remake of Escape From New York ensues.

We get some decent action scenes as Snow and Emilie run into various bad guys while trying to get off MS-One. However, they’re no so spectacular they distract us from the inherent stupidity of the plan and its execution. This, combined with the prisoners being none too smart, gives us a less than compelling movie. One other thing hurts it, as well. Maggie Graces’s performance as the Prez’s daughter is lackluster, at best. She competently recites her lines, but doesn’t make us care one way or the another. We need a little more umph from our leading lady. Unfortunately, the only reason she stands out is because she’s the only woman in the cast. Well, there is one other, but she doesn’t last long. Meanwhile, the contrivances needed to push the plot forward pile up. These include bad movie scienc, forced urgency and a couple “well whaddya know” moments.


Our saving grace is Guy Pearce in the lead role. With sarcasm turned up full blast, he provides us with a number of laughs along the way. His dialogue is essentially an unending string of smart-alec comments. I can see how this might get on some people’s nerves, but I rather enjoyed him. Unfortunately, he has fewer funny lines as the movie progresses and tries to concentrate on resolving its conflicts. Still, he makes me chuckle a good deal more than I was expecting.

Lockout is a film that puts itself in a precarious situation. Most of the good things about it are merely adequate, not strong enough to elevate it to being a good movie. We’re left with a picture that flounders along doing what it does. Then it ends after a silly bit of code-busting that makes you shake your head.


MY SCORE: 5/10

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Words

Directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal.
2012. Rated PG-13,
Cast:
Michael McKean
James Babson
Lucinda Davis


The Words is essentially a film within a film depicting a book within a book. We meet author Clay Hammond (Quaid) as he goes on stage to read a few excerpts from his latest novel which shares its title with the movie we’re watching. It’s about a young struggling writer named Rory (Cooper) who is married to Dora (Saldana), the love of his life, and has dedicated himself to his craft. However, despite some positive feedback, no one is actually willing to publish his books. One day, he happens to find an amazing manuscript, anonymously written. He passes it off as his own and gets it published to rave reviews. It not only becomes a best seller, but wins him a prestigious award. Things are all hunky dory until “The Old Man” (Irons) shows up and lets him know his secret isn't so safe. Meanwhile, in the “real” world, Clay is hit on during intermissions by Daniella (Wilde), a groupie/aspiring writer half his age.

Eventually, The Old Man in Clay’s story also has a tale to tell. At this point, we’re watching a movie about a guy who wrote a book about another guy listening to a story told by yet another guy. I’m reminded of that line by Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, “I’m a dude that’s playing a dude that’s playing another dude.” Something like that. Remarkably, all the moving parts maintain their own identities while working in conjunction with one another. There is a lot going on, but it doesn't feel cluttered. Each section carves out its own niche and develops its own conflict to be resolved. Somehow, The Words still gets out of our hair in barely more than an hour and a half.


While Bradley Cooper flashes his movie starness, and Dennis Quaid is his old reliable self, and Zoe Saldana is sufficiently loving, concerned, and upset (in that order), it’s Jeremy Irons that makes us watch. His character is the linchpin holding it all together, and he still has more than enough presence to hold down the position. It is another fabulous performance in a long line of them by the actor.

Unfortunately, Irons proves to be better than the material he’s working with, making us care about it more than we would otherwise. It struggles under the weight of so many premises. I don’t think it becomes a bad movie, just not a fulfilling one. However, it does raise some interesting questions. Ironically, the most intriguing of them is in regards to the least interesting story, the one involving Quaid and Wilde. That question is whether or not his novel is auto-biographical. After all, he’s a renowned writer with a few best-sellers under his belt, but very cagey when pressed on the issue. The movie never really gives an answer, either. Therefore, when the credits roll, it’s the conversation piece left behind.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Invisible War

Directed by Kirby Dick.
2012. Not Rated, 97 minutes.
Cast:
Kori Cioca
Jessica Hinves
Robin Lynne Lafayette
Ariana Kay
Trina McDonald
Elle Helmer
Hannah Swell
Rob McDonald
Lee Le Teff
Susan L. Burke
Amy Herdy
Jerry Sewell
Amy Ziering
Kirby Dick


For decades, it’s been a not-so-secret secret that the American military has a serious problem with sexual assault. According to statistics provided by the U.S. government, over twenty percent of women who serve have suffered such a crime at the hands of a fellow serviceman. Since we know that these offenses are not reported nearly as much as they occur, it’s logical to assume that the actual percentage of women assaulted is considerably higher. However, the rapes and other heinous acts are not the biggest problem. Far more troublesome is the culture that enables the culprits by protecting them. In fact, many of the women who have reported being assaulted have suffered adverse effects to their career. These include reduction in rank and pay for various forms of insubordination and less than honorable discharges. This, of course, is in addition to the physical and emotional damage don by their assailants. In The Invisible War, we meet a handful of women, plus one man brave enough to admit he was assaulted, and hear their stories. We also hear from a number of higher-ups in both the military and political arenas.

The stories themselves are heart-breaking. In each instance, the woman was not only raped, but mocked and railroaded for it. The latter two just as hurtful, if not more so, than the rape itself. We also meet the loved ones of the victims and see the trouble these attacks and subsequent events has caused whole families. Their continued frustration is exacerbated by the lack of reasonable answers. Besides that, efforts made by the military to curtail sexual assault have proven to be weak, at best.



For the sake of full disclosure, I feel it’s important to mention that I served three years in the U.S. Army. During my time in service I’ve never heard of an attack on a female soldier. Admittedly, other than basic training I was in fully co-ed units with lots of females around, both military and civilian. Perhaps this relative abundance may have curbed some predatory urges. Of course, I have nothing to back this idea and not even saying that it’s true. I’m just a guy trying to rationalize things in my own head. Then again, I was never in a position of authority so maybe I just wasn’t privy to such things. In any case, my point really is that not all military men are slugs who prey on women. I hope that doesn’t get lost by anyone who watches this documentary, especially since it more than deserves your attention.

There is good news at the end of it all. The film itself contributed to changes in how allegations of sex crimes are handled. Like many policy changes, it’s not a solution by itself, but a step in the right direction. Kudos to the young women, and to the man, who put themselves out there by allowing the filmmakers to document their pain.


MY SCORE: 10/10

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Directed by Peter Jackson.
2012. Rated PG-13, 169 minutes.
Cast:
Ian McKellen
Ian Holm
Richard Armitage
Ken Stott
Sylvester McCoy
Benedict Cumberbatch
Graham McTavish
William Kircher
James Nesbitt

The Lord of the Rings trilogy detailed the journey of Frodo Baggins (Wood) and company to destroy that all-powerful ring. The three movies earned both critical praise and goo-gobs of money. Naturally, to the delight of franchise devotees, director Peter Jackson dips back into the Tolkien universe to give us this long-awaited prequel. This time, the adventure is that of Frodo’s favorite relative Bilbo (Holm as the older version, Freeman the younger). Actually, Bilbo is just a follower on this mission. He is coerced by the wizard Gandalf (McKellen) to join a group of dwarves in their effort to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from Smaug the dragon. Of course, this means trekking across Middle Earth en route to a remote location, ecountering various dangers along the way.

In true LotR fashion, it seems we walk every mile with our heroes. By now, four movies in, this has become a tedious undertaking. The problem is not necessarily the length of the film, though we stretch to near three hours, but that much of it is stagnant and repetitive. For far too much of the run time either nothing is happening, or some character is merely giving us an update on the plot in case we dozed off. Speaking of dozing off, doing so for chunks at a time wouldn't really mean missing much of the narrative. Besides, this is all just a setup for the next installment.


Things perk up as the movie nears its stopping point. Most fun is the scene shared by Bilbo and everyone’s favorite CGI character, Gollum, again marvelously handled by Andy Serkis. It can be argued that much of the scene is superfluous, going on for far too long. However, it’s just flat out entertaining. This third act also includes much of the action and the most harrowing situations faced by our heroes.

Visually, the film continues the franchise tradition of presenting to us an eye-popping spectacle. Like its predecessors, it’s simply beautiful to look at. Wonderful shots of whatever terrain the good guys are traversing combine with amazing special fx to keep our peepers darting around the screen.

Overall, the good stuff cancels out enough of the bad to make The Hobbit a decent watch. However, most of that good stuff is back-loaded as the first two acts are plagued by long stretches of nothing happening except some hit-or-miss humor. Even though the sequel has yet to be released as of this writing, I’d venture to say this movie could've been condensed into the first half of a three hour movie with that one as the latter. It certainly doesn't need to be one by itself.


MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Directed by Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt.
2012. Rated PG, 88 minutes.
Cast:
Hugh Grant
Martin Freeman
Jeremy Piven
Lenny Henry
Brian Blessed


The Pirate Captain (Grant) is feeling down in the dumps. All he wants is to be Pirate of the Year. Unfortunately, reality smacks him and he comes to grips with the fact that he’s not been very successful at his chosen vocation. He tightens up his crew a bit and doubles down on his effort, but even that doesn't go very well. However, he finds out that he may have had a treasure hidden right in his beard the whole time. He takes over a boat manned by the one and only Charles Darwin (Tennant), who has nothing of value. Still, Darwin realizes that the Pirate Captain’s parrot is actually not a parrot, but the only living dodo bird and informs him it is worth untold riches. The problem is to reap this benefit, the Pirate Captain and crew have to go to London which is ruled by the sworn enemy of pirates everywhere, Queen Victoria (Staunton).

Overall, this is a fun adventure filled with clever little jokes. The voice work by Hugh Grant is excellent and the story moves nicely along. Grant’s Captain is funny in a self-deprecating way, complemented well by both his dim-witted crew and the occasional appearance of other, more boisterous pirates. These include a really fun turn by Salma Hayek’s Cutlass Liz, the only woman up for Pirate of the Year. Imelda Staunton’s Queen Victoria is not to be outdone, either. Sight gags are also mixed in to great effect, especially the sudden costumes our heroes turn up in. Verbally, Pirates prefers subtly inserted punchlines to the obvious or crass. All of this comes together in a solid package.


Unfortunately, Pirates may be a victim of its own style. While there are plenty of action scenes, the whole thing comes off as a bit understated in comparison to most other kiddie flicks. The loud-mouthed sidekick is missing, as are the fart jokes and the prerequisite love story. Though not entirely original, it’s different enough to knock it down a notch in the eyes of its target audience, even as that may elevate it in the eyes of the parents. It is also at a visual disadvantage. It’s use of clay-mation gives it a bit of a dated look, especially to kids weaned on Pixar movies.

The end result seems to be a family movie more suited for the grownups than the children. That’s not to say that kids can’t or won’t enjoy it. It just feels as if us older folk will get more enjoyment out of this one. Many of the things we chuckle at may fly right over their heads. Honestly, this is perfectly fine by me. I feel I’m owed one after sitting through Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2, Journey 2, Yogi Bear, etc.


MY SCORE: 7.5/10

Monday, August 12, 2013

Life of Pi

Directed by Ang Lee.
2012. Rated PG-13, 127 minutes.
Cast:
Suraj Sharma
Irrfan Khan
Ayush Tandon
Gautam Belur
Rafe Spall
Tabu
Adil Hussain
Gérard Depardieu
James Saito


Pi, played by Irrfan Khan as an adult, has a story that will make you believe in God. At least, that’s what the (unnamed) writer (Spall) has been told. He’s sought out Pi to hear this tale for himself. It details the events of Pi’s survival of a shipwreck all alone on a lifeboat. Well, he’s all alone except for a zebra, a hyena, and most dangerously, a none too friendly tiger name Richard Parker.

The shipwreck happens when Pi is fifteen years old, then played by Suraj Sharma. Before this we get his life story up to that point. It’s a wonderful setup for what’s to follow. Relationships between he and his family, particularly his father, are established. Enveloped within this framework is the boy’s relationship with the tiger. There is both humor and pathos at work here, and very effectively at that. We feel we really know this young man and understand the thirst of his spirit.

When we get to Pi adrift on the ocean trying to figure out how to survive both the elements and his company, Sharma takes over the movie. If you’re going to be the only person on the screen for long stretches of time, you’d better be a compelling personality. He is indeed that. He’s also aided by Richard Parker. The dynamics of their circumstances is tremendously watchable and maintains a certain charm throughout.


Also charming are the visuals. Richard Parker is certainly included as he is mostly cgi. He, and the rest of what we see is splendid. There is never a moment when we doubt that our hero is face to face with this magnificent beast. The danger he represents is certainly palpable. This helps the movie turn a difficult trick. Despite our knowledge that the older version of the young man we’re watching is narrating, we still feel that his life is at risk. At least, it’s at risk enough to keep us engaged. The rest of the film is wonderful looking, as well. The storm scenes are especially spectacular as is the island scene, with ridiculously lush greens and meerkats as far as the eye can see.

Visuals alone do not make a great movie, Zack Snyder. They work best when in support of an intriguing story. Things work this way in Life of Pi. We’re often drawn to the edge of our seat. Then, at the end, our brain gets challenged a bit. Is what we've seen the truth or just a colorful metaphor? Does it really matter which? What proof does it offer of God’s existence? We can have fun with all of those questions after we've had fun watching Pi navigate difficult waters.

Including this one, I've only seen five of the twelve full-length features directed by Ang Lee. Until now, I’ve only liked one, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but I contend that it’s overrated. Even more overrated is Brokeback Mountain. It won Best Picture, but I don’t even think it was the best LGBT picture that year. Transamerica was a far superior movie and Mysterious Skin was ten times better than them both. Taking Woodstock was a ball of “meh” and don’t even get me started on that giant sleeping pill Hulk. If you shared my point of view, you’d understand why I wasn't really buying into the hype surrounding Life of Pi. However, I’ll admit that Mr. Lee has crafted a winner with this one.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Burlesque

Directed by Steve Antin.
2010. Rated PG-13, 119 minutes.
Cast:
Cher
Christina Aguilera
Alan Cumming
Glynn Turman
Chelsea Traille
Dainna Agron


Ali (Aguilera) flees her small hometown and dead-end job in search of fame and fortune in the big city. Once there, she stumbles into a burlesque bar owned by Tess (Cher) and just has to find a way to get on that stage. For you young’uns not sure what a burlesque bar is, I’ll (over) simplify. It’s a place where people go to watch women dance and get not quite naked. In this case, Cher has incorporated lip-syncing into all the routines and is pretty strict with the rule that no one sings live, but her. All of this is merely backdrop for the two real issues. The first, of course, is Ali's potential romance with barkeep turned roommate Jack (Gigandet). The other is that the club is going broke. You know how this works. They have x number of days to come up with x amount of money, or else.

It’s interesting that this movie uses lip-syncing as a focal point because it clearly imitates maybe a hundred musicals that came before it. Truth told, there is not one original bone in its body. Burlesque isn't just influenced by the movies of the past, it seems to have ingested them then jammed a finger down its own throat and regurgitated. We can predict the next event with alarming accuracy because we've seen this exact movie at least a few times before.


For the most part, the cast doesn't help. Cher brings the Cher persona and works just fine. Her less experienced co-star is not. Christina Aguilera isn't terrible, just boring. All that she really brings is that big voice to the numbers where she is eventually allowed to sing. Her love interest Cam Gigandet, as well as her fellow dancing girls (Kristen Bell and Julianne Hough among them) are all similarly vanilla, but don’t have any musical moments to elevate him. The one saving grace in this crowd is the remarkable Stanley Tucci. He continues to validate my belief that he’s one of the finest character actors of our time with another wonderful turn.

The scenes where girls are cavorting about on stage are truly the lifeblood of Burlesque. These, plus two other show-stopping moments make a valiant effort to save the film: the first time our heroine gets to sing and the powerful ballad Cher gets to belt out near the end. Unfortunately, they only prove to be brief reprieves from the movie trudging from one well-worn plot point to the next.


MY SCORE: 4.5/10

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Directed by Stephen Chbosky.
2012. Rated PG-13, 2012.
Cast:
Mae Whitman
Nina Dobrev
Johnny Simmon
Kate Walsh
Nicholas Braun

Like most kids, Charlie (Lerman) is nervous about starting high school. He might actually be more afraid than most. After all, he couldn’t make any friends in middle school. He survives the first day, invisibly as ever. His only new friend is Mr. Anderson (Rudd), his English teacher who lets him borrow books whenever he likes. Things continue along that path until our hero accidentally finds himself hanging out with The Wallflowers, a tight-knit group of kids that certainly are not part of the in-crowd. He becomes bestest buds with Patrick (Miller), who happens to be carrying on a secret relationship with the school’s most popular athlete, and instantly develops a crush on Patrick’s sister Sam (Watson). Fun with drugs and alcohol, the pursuit of love, and other issues ensue.

In the lead role, Lerman gives us a kid that believably grows in confidence as he becomes comfortable in his own skin. However, he’s never fully comfortable and what confidence he has is fragile, at best. Lerman ably conveys this, makes his character easy to empathize with. He’s someone we want to see breaking out of his shell even though that means indulging in behavior that is less than exemplary.

The cast surrounding our hero is just as good. Each brings their own brand of pain to the screen, continuously proving themselves to be perfect complements to our hero. They’re tortured souls that shelter each other. Their fierce individualism is the facade through which they operate as a group. Whatever they can’t combat with smartassness is doused with the stuff pulled from their parents’ liquor cabinets and viewed hazily through constantly refilling glasses and laughter.


Even within such an idyllic dynamic, problems between them arise. Here, more than anywhere else, us older viewers are thrust back into thedays when there was turbulence amongst our own circle of friends. Younger viewers may be going through this now. We feel bad for Charlie, especially considering the tremendous difficulties this causes for him. As his entire situation crystallizes, our heart breaks for him. The movie does a great job of pacing our awareness, letting us learn a little at a time, just enough to keep us on our toes. The two halves of our protagonist’s life work in tandem to maintain a shroud of mystery around him until he bursts, throwing open the cloak we’ve only been getting peeks beneath.

On the minus side, I’m not sure what to make of Charlie’s parents. They seem to be nice caring people, but a clueless lot even when the obvious punches them in the face. I’m not talking about the big reveal late in the movie, but of the things we see all along – the drinking and the drugs. Even after their son lands in the hospital they just shrug their shoulders at the whole thing even though they know that he’s always been troubled. Now that I think about it, that big reveal only warrants a slightly more vehement reaction. Maybe it’s just the dad in me speaking, but even after our hero’s news is out in the open, they still aren’t as present as they should be.

Regardless of how Charlie is parented. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an enthralling movie. It draws us into this young man’s life and lets us love it or loathe it as he does. Best of all, we realize that he is a work in progress. His problems aren’t solved in time for the closing credits. He has a lifetime of work ahead of him. This makes him much more real than most guys that save the day and get the girl.