Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013...so far

If you frequent movie blogs and websites you have probably read about a hundred different lists in the last few weeks for best and worst movies of 2013. If you hang out around this particular blog from time to time then you realize I usually don't see most movies until months after they have been released theatrically. That means to this point I have not seen enough movies to comfortably give my opinion on what this year had to offer. I have seen a bit over 30 of 2013's films, but only a few I can say have any shot of being in my top 20 once I see the 70 or 80 more I plan on watching. Still, I want to weigh in on the matter.

Here are the best 2013 movies I've seen so far (alphabetically)...

Side Effects
Spring Breakers
This is the End
Warm Bodies

...and the worst (also alphabetically)

Baggage Claim
Beautiful Creatures
A Good Day to Die Hard
The Hangover Part III
Identity Thief
Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor

...and finally, three that are so bad they are awesome!!!

Fast & Furious 6
The Last Stand
Texas Chainsaw 3D

Oh, in case you're wondering, Mud, Spring Breakers, and Warm Bodies are the ones I think have a legit chance at my final top 20 whenever I get around to it.

A few of these I've yet to post reviews for. You click the titles of the others to get my full impressions on them.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Escape from Planet Earth

Directed by Cal Brunker.
2013. Rated PG, 89 minutes.
Brendan Fraser
Jonathan Morgan Heit
Paul Scheer

Scorch Supernova (Fraser) is the most famous astronaut/explorer/hero on Planet Baab. His devil-may-care attitude has gotten him into a lot of tight spots. Luckily for him, his brother Gary (Corddry) works back at Mission Control and always knows what to do to get him out of a jam. Of cours, there is no glory for running the show almost anonymously from your desk. Accolades are reserved for the star of the show. Gary is also a good judge of what missions might be too dangerous. Scorch is give one such assignment and decides to accept it against his brother’s better judgement. When Gary expresses his concern, the powers that be shout him down. Frustrated, he quits his job. However, after learning that Scorch has indeed been captured on “The Dark Planet,” Gary sneaks into a spaceship and takes off in hopes of rescuing his brother. If you couldn’t tell by the movie’s title, “The Dark Planet” is Earth.

The flip side of all those alien invasion flicks plays out. Almost. What if we were the bad guys in the close encounter? Not necessarily “we”, but definitely a human. It’s a nice turn of the tables that serves the movie well. More important, however, is the relationship between the two brothers. The big, strong, handsome hero having to be saved by his scrawny sibling is what the story hinges on. It gets lots of mileage out of their differences. The relationship between Gary and his son Kip (Heit) is also given ample time. Our focus here is on the boy’s image of his dad as compared to how he feels about his uncle. Combined with the sibling rivalry we witness, this becomes a nice little commentary on hero worship and who our idols should really be.

In addition to watching those relationships play out we are treated to some sight gags, pop culture references and other jokes that mostly lean ever-so-slightly further on the intellectual side of things than many kiddie flicks. We also get some lively visuals and solid action sequences. There are also a number of recognizable voices who all handle their roles well. One drawback is that the plot plays out without much surprise, even for the little ones. Another, and bigger one is that it doesn’t quite connect on an emotional level the way it seems to want. Therefore, this is a perfectly acceptable movie aimed at kids that is fun to watch, but doesn’t really stand out from the crowd.

MY SCORE: 6/10

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Directed by Nicholas Webster.
1964. Not Rated, 81 minutes.
John Call
Leonard Hicks
Vincent Beck
Bill McCutcheon
Victor Stiles
Donna Conforti
Chris Month
Pia Zadora
Leila Martin
Charles Renn
Carl Don
Doris Rich

Children all over Mars are having trouble sleeping. They merely want to watch “Earth programs” on “the video.” The planet’s leader, Kimar (Hicks), is understandably perplexed and searching for an answer. His wife Momar (Martin) suggests he speak with Chochem (Don), a wise old sage who has all the answers. After finding out what month it is, “Septober”, Chochem tells him that the kids are miserable because they don’t have a Santa Claus like they see on all the Earth programs this time of year. Naturally, Kimar decides that the only solution is going to Earth and kidnapping old St. Nick so he can spread Christmas spirit all over Mars. Unintentional hilarity, bad acting, worse dialogue and military stock footage ensues.

When I say bad acting, I’m really serious. We’re talking an entire roster of wooden performers in ridiculous costumes. Actually, the costumes aren’t so bad, but the makeup is terrible. Our martians all have unevenly applied green face paint that makes it look as if they haven’t washed their mugs in a while. However, two actors aren’t so bad. Bill McCutcheon is pretty good as Dropo, essentially the village idiot. McCutcheon would go on to a long career as a character actor. John Call also does well as Santa. Neither blows your doors off, but next to the others, they look like Oscar winners.

There were obviously some budgetary issues, also. The use of military stock footage when the Martians are detected in our skies is a tell-tale sign. The cheap Martian sets are another. Just in case you’re not aware this was made on the cheap, there is a sign you can’t miss. There is a polar bear lurking around The North Pole when they’re trying to grab Santa. Let me re-phrase that. There is a guy in a cheap polar bear suit lurking around what’s supposed to be The North Pole. Even for the era in which this movie was made it’s quite a ways below standard. If this doesn’t make you laugh, you have no soul. Oh, about that North Pole: we’re told it’s 91 degrees below zero up there. That’s fine and dandy except for the fact that our two human children, also kidnapped by Martians, don’t have on nearly enough clothing to avoid freezing to death. The girl has on a skirt! You know what? Never mind. Having them dressed appropriately would make sense where the rest of this flick makes none.

Okay, I’ve really nothing more to say other than one of the Martian children is a young Pia Zadora. She would have a moderately successful music career over the next few decades, along with being more famous for her “celebrity” issues. She’d also totally bomb as an actress. Most infamously she went on to star in the sleaze classic The Lonely Lady. Here, they show her face a number of times but she only has a few lines. Like just about everyone else she delivers them flatly. Ms. Zadora is just a small part of an experience that’s so bad it’s awesome!

MY SCORE: -10/10

Monday, December 23, 2013

On My Mind: Holiday Movies

Occasionally, I have thoughts about movies that are not connected to a specific one. I wanted to find a space for these among all the reviews that fill these pages. These are just things that are on my mind...

Every year, my family has several gatherings during the holiday season. Usually, there is one big one at Thanksgiving and two smaller ones within a week or so of Christmas (one on each side of the family). At all of them, the night usually ends with a movie or two. Either myself or my sister-in-law usually provides whatever it is we wind up watching. We both try to pick crowd pleasers, which means lots of popcorn flicks. The general rule of thumb is stick with action or comedy. In fact, action based comedies work best. Also, there is almost always a horror flick on hand just in case one of these get-togethers runs late and most of the squeamish folks skip out early. Things usually work out pretty good.

In thinking about what films we partake in as a group when we've gathered in a festive spirit, I realized we rarely watch any holiday themed movies. In fact, I can only remember one over the last ten years. About five years ago we watched the Will Ferrell flick Elf. That’s it. When I put it on, everyone was groaning and ready to exclude me from any further reindeer games. You see, I have been known to make a not-so-popular choice from time to time. I mean, the kind of movie I might praise in a review that most of them call boring. However, I had seen it before and felt confident it would fly. Indeed it did. Everyone laughed all the way through.

Still, the stuff we watch during the most wonderful time of year has far more explosions than yuletide cheer. For us, watching things get blowed up real good is part of the season’s traditions. So is stuffing our face with desserts while having a few laughs at some juvenile comedy. In the biggest offense to my cinephile’s sensibilities, there is often plenty of loud talking throughout. I let it slide. This is not the time for me to shush people. This is the time for us to kick back and enjoy each others company, even if most of the movie’s dialogue is drowned out by our own.

I do watch holiday movies. Every year I watch at least a couple. I almost always find time to give A Christmas Story another viewing, out of my own collection not the commercial interrupted version TBS plays on a 24 hour loop once a year. It is my absolute favorite Christmas flick of all time. Perhaps that’s because it came out during my youth when I was only a bit older than Ralphie. Though I never desired a Red Ryder BB Gun, there was always something I just had to have under the tree. Some years I got it, some years not. The point is, it is a film that spoke to me then and continues to do so. I also try to catch one or two others on TV. And if I’m confident my youngest kids are fast asleep, I sneak in Bad Santa. However, these are all watched at home either alone, or with just my immediate family. When the cousins and in-laws come over, red suits and reindeer just aren't seen.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Grown Ups 2

Directed by Dennis Dugan.
2013. Rated PG-13, 101 minutes.
Maria Bello
Colin Quinn
Tim Meadows
Jon Lovitz
Shaquille O’Neal

If you loved Grown Ups, you’re in luck. The whole gang is back for another comic adventure through their collective mid-life crisis. Well, almost the whole gang. Rob Schneider is conspicuously absent from this little reunion. The rest of the guys are present, though. This time around, big shot Lenny (Sandler) has already moved back to his hometown and spends as much time as possible goofing off with his buddies Kurt (Rock), Marcus (Spade), and Eric (James). They talk tough when their wives are not around and long to be boys again. Lenny is still having problems with an old bully from his school days. James is secretly spending every afternoon watching soaps with his mother. Spade, the only bachelor of the bunch, finds out he has a son who looks just like him but is roughly three times his size. So is the female body-builder he’s been sneaking around with. Rock just kind of shadw Sandler. As a group, they find themselves at odds with the frat jerks from the local college, led by the overly obnoxious Andy (Lautner). The guys, trying to figure out if they can still kick a little ass ensues.

As expected, each storyline is a running gag. Sometimes they work, other times they don’t. It might be better if it weren’t so repetitive. Therefore, what might be funny early grows tired. We start to anticipate, with solid accuracy, what variation of the joke is coming next. It doesn’t help that almost any character that is not part of the big four, or their wives, are walking punch-lines. I’ve already mentioned that Lautner is obnoxious. The female bodybuilder is manly, Stone Cold Steve Austin is boorish, and so on. Since this is an Adam Sandler flick, Nick Swardson is hanging around. The wives all play into the stereotype that the women we marry are really just our second mothers. So as not to upset the apple cart our story is paint-by-numbers, too.

That said, there is a certain amount of charm to the movie. For all of their flaws and immaturity, these are likable guys. Okay, that’s debatable in Spade’s case. Even though they play out in way over-the-top fashion, their problems are not terribly different than many in the target audience. Plenty of us forty-somethings have moments when we attempt to recapture our youth by trying to do “guy” stuff without our wives knowing. Plenty of us seek an innocent reprieve from them on occasion. Oddly, Sandler himself is a huge help in this regard. Despite the fact his character is wealthy and married to Salma Hayek (drool), he manages to give off a regular joe vibe. In essence, he speaks in his normal voice and gives us his subdued routine. The others make fools of themselves while he generally plays it straight.

Like with all Sandler movies, use however you feel about his other work as an aid when deciding whether to watch this or not. It would be wise to ignore the ones where he speaks with a kooky voice with a dumb accent and/or wears a wig such as That’s My Boy or You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. Instead, focus on your thoughts about those movies where he is more generic and family friendly like Bedtime Stories, Just Go With It, Click, and of course, the first Grown Ups. If he is tolerable to you in this guise then you might enjoy Grown Ups 2. Personally, I didn’t hate it and honestly found myself laughing more than I expected.

MY SCORE: 6/10

Friday, December 20, 2013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

Directed by Jon M. Chu.
2013. Rated PG-13, 110 minutes.
Byung-hun Lee
Jonathan Pryce
Elodie Yung
Ray Stevenson
D.J. Cotrona
Ray Park
Luke Bracey
Arnold Vosloo

With the first paragraph of my reviews, I try to give the reader a synopsis of the movie in question without spoiling it. Usually, this involves me recapping the first ten or fifteen minutes of said movie, but not telling much of anything about what happens the rest of the way. My line of thinking is that if you want to watch a film, regardless of how I feel about it, I don’t want to be the one that completely removes any suspense you may otherwise have found there.

Sometimes, I can’t help myself.

For certain movies, explaining why I like or dislike them has to include events from later in the proceedings. Even then, I try not to give too much away. For others, there may be a spoiler in the setup, or at least something that lets us know it is not going to be quite what people expect. This brings me to G.I. Joe: Retaliation.

Actually, before we get into this particular flick, let’s take a short trip back to the 1990s, ’96 to be exact. My soon-to-be sister-in-law and her husband were huge Steven Seagal fans. They made sure to be in a theater on opening night of all of his movies. And so they were on a Friday evening, just starting to binge on popcorn, candy, and soda as Seagal’s latest, Executive Decision gets rolling. Prior to arriving in their seats they had seen the television commercials which made it appear that their guy was teaming up with Kurt Russell to take back a plane from some hijackers in an action packed adventure and somehow Halle Berry was involved. Those of you that have seen it know this isn’t quite the case. For the rest of you…SPOILER ALERT…not only is it much more slow-paced thriller than action flick, but Seagal’s character dies about ten minutes in before he kicks any ass whatsoever. Since my in-laws feet hadn’t even had time to get stuck to the floor real good yet, they promptly got up and left. As far as I know, they’ve never bothered trying to watch the rest of it.

Now let’s bring things back to the present. As unbelievable as it seems nowadays, most people don’t actually research a movie before deciding to see it. Maybe they watch a trailer or two online, or happen to see one on TV. Perhaps they don’t even do that if it’s a sequel to something they like and/or it stars someone they are a fan of. In this case, we have the sequel to 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra based on an 80s cartoon which itself was based on a line of Hasbro toys. It raked in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box-office. The star of the show was none other than Channing Tatum. He had been around for years, but this was his first really big movie. It catapulted him to superstar status.

Well, as this one starts up we get way too chummy with Tatum’s character, Duke. We see how close he is to Roadblock, played by The Rock, as the guys talk about lots of personal stuff. He never actually says it, but we get the feeling that Duke is seriously thinking about settling down real soon and maybe starting a family like his buddy. Uh-oh. Astute viewers will notice this sounds suspiciously similar to having less than two weeks until retirement. Sure enough, the boys get sent on one of those missions that turns out to be a setup and guess who doesn’t survive. This causes the movie a two-folded problem. First, they just killed off a good portion of the reason people want to watch this in the first place. This is true not only for people who are fans of the actor, but for Joe fans to whom Duke is an iconic character. Of all the people in this universe to knock off, that’s the one they pick? I wonder how many of those who didn’t know this was coming got up and left the theater.

No matter what, the show must go on. Roadblock gathers up the remaining Joes, which eventually includes Bruce Willis, and decide they have to work off the grid for a while to solve their issue since they easily figure out they were betrayed by none other than the President of the United States. Eventually, this all leads back to Cobra Commander (Bracey) as it must in a G.I. Joe flick. Oh, don’t act like that’s a spoiler. Anyhoo, CC embarks on a plan eerily similar to Dr. Evil’s in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. If you’re unfamiliar with that one, just think about most James Bond movies or any number of films where the bad guy has a super-duper powerful weapon that can blow up everything and threatens to use it unless everyone in the world gives him money.

I know. I’m just spoiling all types of stuff for you today.

Okay. So far we have a major star playing a popular character dying in the opening moments and a generic plot. Let’s add in the fact that it is lazily written and has more than its fair share of hammy acting performances. Sounds like a total nightmare, right? Well, not so fast. This movie knows what we’re here for and gives it to us. If you like the first G.I. Joe then you probably appreciated it for being a big movie filled with action and exciting visuals. This installment gives us much more of the same. Everything goes boom real good and there is lots of martial arts goodness. My favorite sequence is a ridiculous mountainside battle.

What makes it work is that it just is. It doesn’t take itself too seriously nor too lightly. It is simply a spectacle. And unlike a Michael Bay movie, thankfully, it resists the urge to hammer us with a barrage of terrible jokes meant for 13 year-old boys or an overly goofy love story. Best of all, it doesn’t keep going for what feels like 127 hours. Therefore, it might not be exactly true to whatever you think a G.I. Joe should be, but it’s fun.

MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Call

Directed by Brad Anderson.
2013. Rated R, 94 minutes.
Michael Eklund
David Otunga
Roma Maffia
Evie Thompson
Ross Gallo

I imagine being a 911 operator is stressful. Real matters of life and death probably comprise at least several calls a day. Whether someone survives until the next sunrise may depend on your ability to keep a frantic person calm in the face of danger and/or wrestle information from someone currently incapable of thinking clearly. It’s a life Jordan Turner knows all too well. She is good at her job, but as the old saying goes, you can’t win them all. A loss in this case is fielding a call from a scared young girl because an intruder is in her home. As cell phones are wont to do, the call is dropped during this crucial situation. Jordan immediately calls the girl back which turns out to be a very bad idea. When it rings on the girl’s end it clues in the bad guy to the whereabouts of his prey. He proceeds to murder the girl before the police can get there.

Fast-forward six months. Jordan is so distraught, she’s resigned from her post on the boards, takes lots of meds, and now trains newbies. She is giving a tour of the floor when a rookie operator takes a call from another frightened girl. This one is named Casey Welson (Breslin). With the rook proving useless, Jordan has to jump back into her old role in an effort to help the poor child. The firs issue is that she is calling from a disposable, and therefore more difficult to trace, cell phone. The second makes things even tougher. She is traveling, but completely unaware of where she is or where she is going because she has just woken up in the trunk of a moving car.

For a sizable chunk of the movie, we watch and listen as Jordan tries to help Casey find ways to make her presence known to others, figure out where she is, and/or escape. Meanwhile, Jordan’s bosses try to track that call and Officer Phillips (Chestnut), the cop who happens to be Jordan’s boyfriend, chases every lead they throw his way. And just to demonstrate his ruthlessness, our bad guy (Eklund) is forced to hurt and/or kill anyone who figures out too much. This portion of our film is intriguing. At times, it is edge-of-your-seat stuff as we really feel like whatever the girl does next could decide if she lives or dies. Some of the things Jordan has her do are simply brilliant. When these things are mildly successful, civilians get involved with mixed results.

Through it all, Halle Berry gives us her best concerned and horrified look. I’ve written a number of times that I don’t feel she is not nearly as good an actress as she is good looking. However, I will give credit where it is due and say she’s pretty strong here. She manages to make us feel how much she cares about this situation, not just for the girl’s sake, but also for her own. It helps that she has a really good performance to bounce off. The work of Abigail Breslin as the victim is outstanding “scream queen” material. Yes, she screams a lot. She also whimpers, snivels, and pleads her way into our hearts.

Unfortunately, when act three gets cranking everything falls apart. It’s no surprise that our bad guy has been twisted since birth, but just how much so might be overkill, pardon the pun. Still, this isn’t as bothersome as what happens with our other two principals. For starters, our 911 operator turns super-sleuth and is, in fact, a far better detective than anyone in the police department. I won’t tell you what happens after that for fear of spoiling the movie, but suffice it to say it’s overly contrived and completely inconsistent with the characters we’ve been watching until that point. The Call becomes yet another film with a great premise that seems to be delivering on its potential for quite a while until it crumbles under its own weight.

The shame of it all is that the first two acts work so well our anticipation is peaking just as it becomes plain that the conclusion is coming. The entire thing is a situation many of us are fearful of in real life, no matter how remote the chance of it actually happening. Seeing it play out here taps into this anxiety. It does double the damage for those of us with kids who might be out and about on their own. Therefore, we want to see how it ends. Sadly, when we do we can’t help notice it took all that goodness it had going and made a mess of itself.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

On My Mind: The Good Ol' Days

Occasionally, I have thoughts about movies that are not connected to a specific one. I wanted to find a space for these among all the reviews that fill these pages. These are just things that are on my mind...

Once upon a time, part of the fun of watching a movie at home was actually going out somewhere to get one. I am a collector/pack-rat by nature. Therefore, the process of driving to the video store, slowly perusing the aisles and walls full of movies, and anguishing over what to choose was exciting to me. First, you have to look at all the latest releases at least once before grabbing anything. Of course, that rule goes out the window if you notice there is only one copy of the hottest thing out. Otherwise, you’re just getting a feel for what’s available. Your second pass is when you start to pick things up. Before you do that, you have to decide what kind of movie you’re in the mood for. After you have a couple in your hand, you may change your mind a dozen times, grabbing different flicks and putting back what you had already chosen. And since you’re a good patron, you don’t just randomly plop them on the nearest shelf. You make sure you place them back where they belong.

After coming to a final decision, it may cross your mind to pick up an older movie as well. Now you have to restart the process. But this is not tedious work. This is you at the beginning of this evening’s movie watching experience. In place of the trailers you would see in a theater, you read any number of blurbs on the back covers of DVDs, or VHS tapes if you go back as far as I. To help you along, you confer with that one clerk who has been working here for as long as you can remember and is as big a movie geek as you are. He or she has often steered you right in the past because they've learned a bit about your taste. Every once in a while they even recommend something that wasn't on your radar that turns out to be really good. By now you glance at the clock and notice the minute hand has made a complete circle and is hard at work on its second turn. Or, maybe your stomach starts growling since you neglected to feed yourself before embarking on this adventure. It is now time to check out and grab some grub on the way home. It must be something fast because the night is slipping away and you have movies to watch.

Granted, things could get testy when someone else is involved in that decision. For a cinephile, even an amateur one like me, compromise was usually easy. I was pretty much down for whatever since I was trying to watch as many films as possible, anyway. Get a couple people just looking to have a crowd pleasing “movie night” in on the decision and someone getting slammed into the “New Release” wall was always a possibility. Multiply that possibility infinitely if more than one child has to decide on a singular movie. Still, you take the good with the bad.

Since Blockbuster has almost completely vanished from the landscape and it truly is impossible to find any other video store, the joys of browsing for movies away from our desktops is already a thing of the past. I know, crawling along a wall full of movies and making sharp turns around end caps designed to get you to buy candy, soda, and posters you don’t need is an archaic ritual performed by people who just don’t do that "internet thang" as well as others who enjoy some sort of physical contact with their entertainment. You've seen us. We’re the same people who still buy CDs, searching for them in much the same manner. During our first listen after we buy them, we study the track listing, liner notes, artwork, and if we’re lucky, the printed lyrics as the songs whiz by. No, standing in front of a 'Red Box' outside the supermarket and scrolling through options while some jerk impatiently taps his feet behind you is not the same thing.

I am still adapting. I do watch movies online and download music. Still, clicking and scrolling through a never-ending list of titles does not fill the void left by being able to put my hands on a thing and get a real feel as to whether I should choose it or not. At my computer, I am also not afforded the opportunity to actually talk to someone who enjoys conversations about movies (or music). Sure, I could chat, join a podcast, start a thread on a forum, tweet about them, or any number of the ways in which we currently communicate, but it’s still not the same.

Believe it or not, I am still able hang on to that pre-movie preparation part of my film viewing life, largely thanks to my local library. Several branches are near enough to my home and have a decent enough selection that I actually get a good sized chunk of the movies I watch from them. They are not nearly as extensive a collection, as well stocked, or organized as those old video stores, but they do the trick. I have a grand time just reading the titles on the DVDs, spine by spine.

Occasionally, a conversation will strike up between myself and a fellow dinosaur. Just the other day, while I was surveying the library’s cinematic landscape, a random fellow about my age was lamenting, out loud, that the movie he was looking for was not there. He then shared that he loves westerns. I quickly asked if he saw the True Grit remake since it was right in front of me. He had. I noticed him pick up a copy of Drive, glance at the cover and put it back. I want to order him to pick it back up and check it out because I think it is a phenomenal movie. I don’t because it’s not the type of film you can recommend to everyone. All the members of my own family who have seen it, hate it and think I’m crazy for liking it. 

We talk a few more minutes while looking at DVDs. By this time, I ask if he’s seen the remake to Red Dawn. He got a puzzled look in his eye because he didn't even know there was a remake. He did know the original and actually said to me “You mean like WOLVERINES!!!!” in his best Patrick Swayze voice. I assured him that’s the one and recommend he check out this new version. If you have read my review of it, or you have seen it, you are probably wondering why I would do such a thing. I don’t think too highly of it. You see, I was once that video store clerk. During the short time we interacted, I gathered it would be right up his alley. My opinion of it matters not. What was important was that I thought he would enjoy it. 

He added the new Red Dawn to his stack of movies and declared he will definitely watch it as soon as he got home. Again, it wasn't my cup of tea, but he’ll probably love it. I may never find out if I am right, but even if he hates it we’ll have something to talk about should I run into him again. I’ll apologize and try to get a better read on him so I can try and make it up to him with another recommendation. He may suggest something for me to watch. Don’t get me wrong, clicking and scrolling while sitting at the computer in my pajamas is a convenient and great way to get a hold of more films than we ever could before. Except we can't actually get a hold of them. Because of that, this easy and speedy method of doing things lacks the beauty of two strangers trying to help each other find a good movie.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Spring Breakers

Directed by Harmony Korine.
2013. Rated R, 94 minutes.
Ashley Benson
Rachel Korine
Gucci Mane
Heather Morris
Ash Lendzion
Emma Holzer

Four gal-pals are all pumped for spring break. Unfortunately, they realize they don’t have enough money to get down to St. Petersburg. Apparently, that’s where all the action is going down. One of the girls is the heavy-handedly named Faith (Gomez), a goody two-shoes who spends lots of time in church. Unbeknownst to her, the other three come up with a plan to get the rest of the cash they need in a hurry. They don ski masks and burst into the local diner while brandishing a sledgehammer and some water guns. The heist goes well. They take money from the register, rob the patrons and gleefully flee to the dorms. Very shortly, the three of them plus the clueless Faith do indeed get down to St. Pete’s. By the way, the felonious three are Candy (Hudgens), Cotty (Korine), and Brit (Benson).

Anyhoo, our crew does what lots of other college kids do and have a little too much fun in the sun, indulging in drugs and destroying hotel rooms. For this, they find themselves in jail with no way of bailing themselves out. Riding to rescue is Alien (Franco), a local drug dealer and aspiring rapper. He happens to be in the courtroom to spring one of his buddies when he spots our bikini clad foursome being sent away for a few more days unless they can come up with the money to pay the fine they’ve incurred. Alien takes it upon himself to pay it for them, and is waiting for them as they get released. Before you know it, they find themselves immersed in a completely different world than what they bargained for.

For some, the veneer of Spring Breakers will be difficult to penetrate. It’s easy to think you’re watching an R-rated music video. There is seemingly an endless succession of naked and/or gyrating bodies. Large quantities of alcohol are not only drank, but flung about in celebratory fashion, splashing everything in sight except for the various parts of the anatomy that cocaine is snorted off. Finally, the music blares while much of this happens in slow-motion. That there is actually a story is efficiently hidden for a large chunk of the movie. On top of this, the way the plot moves forward is slightly different than what many people are used to. We expect long stretches of dialogue during which information is delineated for us to follow. Here, we get short bursts of conversation intertwined with cutaways to its results. There is also lots of echo assisted voice-over and shots of one or another of the characters alone, either smiling or deep in thought. It gives the whole movie a dreamy, Terrence Malick inspired feel and does nothing to dispel the notion of this being a music video. That is, until we notice how slyly things have progressed. It becomes a warped love story with potentially dire consequences for all involved.

Where the movie flounders is in its depiction of the individual characters. The girls are quite literally handled as Faith and “the other three.” She is the only one clearly distinguishable from the rest. Her personality, beliefs, and innocence make her stand out. The others are interchangeable, for the most part. This includes Vanessa Hudgens whom I was surprised didn’t get a meatier role, if for no other reason, she’s the most famous of the remaing trio. Alien is a bit problematic, as well. Franco does very well here, but his appearance makes us unsure how to take him for quite a while. Is he merely a stereotype, or a walking mockery of hip hop culture, particulary of whites within that culture? In other words, is he a joke, or not? Eventually, we settle on an answer, but it takes longer than it should. An even bigger issue is the film’s de facto villain Archie, played by real life rapper Gucci Mane. Yes, he is definitely a stereotype, but that’s not my biggest beef with him. More germaine to the movie than what type of character he appears to be is that it mishandles him. He tells us point blank what he must do in the scene that drives home the point that he is definitely the bad guy. However, when he gets the chance to do it, he doesn’t, which is of no benefit to him whatsoever. Even worse, he does something at that same juncture that we know will be detrimental to his cause. It’s not that he couldn’t take this course of action, but why he would is not clear. If it’s there, Gucci’s blank facial expressions don’t sell it. Whatever you think of his music, you’ll probably agree his acting is terrible.

Earlier, I mentioned Terrence Malick. I’m not at all a fan. Despite all the critical acclaim it received, I hate Malik’s The Tree of Life. Still, the best parts of it were mostly in the second act where the narrative is propelled by small pockets of interactions by the family involved and lots of quick cuts to flesh things out. As I have already noted, director Harmony Korine, who wrote Kids and Gummo (also directing the latter), employs similar tactics here, with great success. Combined with all the chaotic imagery, they give the movie a wonderfully surreal feel. He and his editor, Douglas Crise, are the real stars of Spring Breakers. They have put together a story that is twisted, manic, and disturbing with a current of very dark humor running through it. Its sights and sounds bombard our senses, but doesn’t dull them. It is part odd and Shakespearean romance, part skin flick, and part sociological satire; all with art-house aspirations.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

R. I. P. Paul Walker

On Friday, I used this space to say a few words about the passing of Nelson Mandela. A few days earlier, as you are probably aware, actor Paul Walker died in an auto accident. A tragic irony, if ever there was one. Regrettably, I didn't say anything here. Now that I have said something about Mandela, I feel bad for not doing so about Walker.

The fact that he was not a world leader does not make his death any less tragic than Mandela's. In fact, his popularity may make it just as impactful on the kids who see his movies. For them it should be a cautionary tale. They know who he is and can more readily identify with him. As important a person as Mandela is to the history of the world, many under thirty view him as something from their history books. To these people, he is important because that is what they have been told that. Walker is of this time. He became what they aspire to.

The one thing I hope does not come out of Walker's passing is what I read in one article over the weekend. It theorized that what happened to him may help romanticize street racing. Yes, I understand he was not racing at the time, but it is what has become associated with the man. We don't need a bunch of knuckleheads putting their petals to the metal. Leave that on the screen.

Speaking of the screen, I admit, the prospect of watching another Fast & Furious, or even the old ones, seems like it could be morbid entertainment. Still, I'm curious to see what the powers that be cook up for the next installment if the show does indeed go on. It's an odd series in that it actually hit its stride in the fifth movie. It can be argued that parts five and six are the best in the franchise. Click here and here to read my reviews of both of those movies.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Imposter

Directed by Bart Layton.
2012. Rated R, 99 minutes.
Frédéric Bourdin
Carey Gibson
Bryan Gibson
Beverly Dollarhide
Nancy Fisher
Phillip French
Adam O’Brian
Anna Ruben
Cathy Dresbach
Ivan Villanueva
Ken Appledorn

Every now and again we see something in life, on television, or on the internet that makes us wonder just how stupid people can be. Other things make us shudder at the thought of the human capacity for being sinister and deceptive. The Imposter is a documentary that does both. It starts with the 1994 disappearance of Nicholas Barclay, a thirteen year old Texan boy. After three years of searching, with no luck, the family has just about lost all hope when they receive a phone call informing them Nicholas has been found. In Spain. Big sis Carey immediately boards a plane to retrieve her now seventeen year old brother. However, she does not yet know what we’ve already learned. The boy she is coming to get is not Nicholas. He is, in fact, a twenty-three-year-old man named  Frédéric Bourdin posing as the lost teenager. He happened upon this identity in a desperate attempt to conceal his own. Logically, he assumes the jig will be up once Carey gets a look at him. After all, judging from a picture he obtained, he looks nothing like Nicholas.

This is where it gets really interesting. When Nicholas shows up to take her brother home, she embraces and accepts this guy as if he actually is her brother. She brings him back to Texas where the entire family, mom included, accepts him as Nicholas. Given the differences between Nicholas and the person they now have, this is beyond baffling. Nicholas was a fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired boy. The man they trust is an older version of him is blonde, but because he colors his hair. Aside from this, he has a dark complexion and, most damning, brown eyes. In fact, it appears obvious that he is of a different ethnicity than anyone in the family. If none of that rings alarms, let’s throw in the fact he speaks with a heavy French accent. Still, no one in the family seems wise to the facts. Local officials are suspicious and begin investigating. Things hit the fan when the “new” Nicholas becomes a minor celebrity as news of his harrowing ordeal and miraculous return. He tells a sensational tale of mental and sexual abuse during his time as a captive, at the hands of military men from various nations including the U.S.

The movie proceeds from there while we watch in slack-jawed amazement. The first question is how long can this charade go on before indisputable evidence is uncovered, forcing the family to realize this guy is a fake. We hear several authorities involved in piecing together this puzzle give their recollection of their interactions with and pursuit of Bourdin. There are also lots of interviews with the family and, most interestingly, with Bourdin, himself. Mixed into all of these are some dramatizations of actual events. This stroke of genius helps the movie almost feel like a fiction narrative and is a nice change of pace from all of the talking heads.

The other questions The Imposter raises is where it runs into trouble. Why would Bourdin do such a thing? What really happened to him before he was picked up by the police in Spain while pretending to be a sniveling lost child? The film never dares to approach either one. It does touch on another, but in an unsatisfactory manner. That question is did the family have something to do with Nicholas’ disappearance in the first place. This would give them a motive for going along with the façade. We hear allegations from Bourdin about what he thinks happened. However, he is not exactly trustworthy. A few members of the family refute these claims. No surprise there. There is the private eye who has been snooping around trying to find out what happened to the boy and potentially comes upon an answer. The movie even ends as if he makes some startling discovery. The issue is that what we are told next, just before the credits roll, totally undermines this. In essence, the movie finishes when it feels like it should be shifting into another gear.

What’s here is still a fascinating story. It is the kind of movie that could only be a documentary. Had this been some screenwriter’s concoction, it would be laughed off for being too ridiculous. Think about it. How do you sell a work of fiction in which a teenage boy from Texas with classic All-American looks returns home as a darkly complected Frenchman with different color eyes? I suppose it’s possible as a farce starring Adam Sandler, or Will Ferrell, but certainly not as a serious thriller. This is precisely what makes The Imposter work as well as it does. We simply cannot believe what we are seeing, yet can’t look away. We wait for someone to make sense of it all. Even though that wait is largely in vain, we still have a film that’s hard to shake loose from our heads.

Friday, December 6, 2013

R. I. P. Nelson Mandela

Initially, I had another movie review ready to roll in this spot. However, when I heard the news of the passing of a truly great man, Nelson Mandela, I had to say something, regardless of whether he is associated with the world of movies or not. The fact that I called him great should suffice. He is one of those people who truly made the world a better place to live.

His own words sum up the man better than I could write here, so I'll let him have his say. Shortly after the world heard of Mandela's passing The USA Today listed what they think are his 15 best quotes and ranked this one number one:

"Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end."

I agree with both the USA Today's sentiment and his.

If you must read a movie review then click here to read my review of Invictus, a film in which Morgan Freeman plays the South African leader.

Thank you Mr. Mandela, for all you have done.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Directed by Michael Haneke.
2012. Rated PG-13, 127 minutes.
Jean-Louis Trintignant
Emmanuelle Riva
Isabelle Huppert
Alexandre Tharaud
Rita Blanco
Ramon Agirre
William Shimell
Carol Franck
Dinara Droukarova

Georges (Trintignant) and Anne (Riva) are one of those great couples who have been together forever and still appear to be in love. They do everything together and life is good. Unfortunately, things change drastically when she has a stroke. To correct the blockage that caused it, she undergoes surgery. However, that goes wrong and leaves her paralyzed on her right side. She returns home from the hospital and the two immediately become more care-giver and patient than husband and wife. The two trying to navigate the suddenly tough waters of their lives ensues.

The entire movie depicts the sad, downward spiral of their lives. It is filled with gut-wrenching emotion and deep devotion. There is really nothing we can do but feel sorry for Georges and Anne. She grows increasingly dependent on him and he gets more and more protective of her. His frustration also grows as his wife’s lucidity fades. As viewers, we become frustrated with him because of how secretive he is about her condition. He does what he can to care for her, employing nurses to aid them and whatever else is necessary. However, he flat refuses any help or suggestions their daughter offers. Through skillful writing and acting the entirety of the pain caused by every aspect of this situation transfers to us. Effectively, it keeps us engaged.

Something else that works to set the mood is the startling quiet of it all. In her younger days, Anne was a respected music instructor. Her prized pupil is now a famous musician. On occasion, there are bursts of classical music. However, much the movie is silent in places other films, particularly American ones, would fill with sound. Rather than artificially manipulate us with a rousing or saddening score, the lack of musical accompaniment adds to both the realism and the bleakness of that reality. Within the realm of this film, the take away is simple. Where there is music, there is hope; where there is none, there is not.

As in all situations such as this, decisions must constantly be made. Ultimately, the point is reached where that decision is the hardest one possible. Once Georges makes it, we immediately have one to make, ourselves. We begin to decide if we think he’s right or wrong, selfish or selfless. Then, how do we feel about what happens next? There are deep, philosophical conversations to be had about what transpires here. This is what gives Amour a lasting effect. It elevates itself from being a typical love story to one not only worthy of our viewing, but our contemplation.