Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Elf (2003) **½



I suppose this has become a Christmas classic, and I would be embarrassed at having waited so long to see it, but it’s also one of  those movies that isn’t really as good as people tell you it is.  It’s funny, but it’s also goofy, predictable, and rather trite.
“Elf” is the story of Buddy, an orphanage baby who accidentally stows away in Santa’s bag one Christmas.  Raised by elves, grown-up Buddy is oblivious to his human origins, despite being 6’3” and terrible at making toys.  When he learns the truth, he sets off from the North Pole for New York, to find his birth father.  There he walks around in an elf suit doing the kinds of goofy things Will Ferrell would do in a movie like this.  His long-lost father is a publisher and kind of a jerk, but of course, like the Grinch, his heart grows three sizes, and in the end Buddy saves the day with his Christmas cheer.
One gets the sense that this story might once have had  something of an edge to it, but by the shopworn, heartwarming ending, that edge is completely blunted by a swelling score, and everyone learns an Important Lesson about Christmas.  It's as treacly-sweet as the maple syrup that elves apparently eat on everything.
        Surprisingly, Will Ferrell is the best thing in “Elf.”  I’m normally not a fan, but his stupid, earnest schtick actually works well in this story.  Zooey Deschanel plays a charming love interest, but she is pretty much the same surly, big-eyed character she plays in every movie.  Peter Dinklage does put in a memorable cameo as a children’s author who, as an achondroplastic dwarf, gets a bit prickly about being called an elf.
If I am overly Scrooge-like about “Elf,” it is probably because I came to it too late.  This is really a movie for kids, and as such, it isn’t bad.  It isn’t nearly as good as the animated “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” but it is way more watchable than the live action Grinch movie.  If you are looking for a Christmas movie, watch “Die Hard” or “Bad Santa,” but if you are looking for one to watch with your kids, this will do.

2.5 stars out of 5

Friday, December 14, 2012

21 Jump Street (2012) ****



The thing about filmmaking is that in the right hands, a truly dumb concept can turn into a great movie, just as a good story can get turned into a bomb in the wrong hands.  When I heard about “21 Jump Street,” I thought, “Do we really need another movie about adults going back to high school?”  To make matters worse, this one is based on an old TV show, usually a sign that a movie will suck.  To my surprise, the movie is a complete hoot!  They almost take the lack of originality and make it an advantage.  Instead of worrying too much about plot, the film focuses on good acting, physical comedy, and action, and they come up with a winner!
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play Schmidt and Jenko, a couple of rookie cops.  The two were high school classmates, where Jenko (Tatum) was a popular jock and Schmidt (Hill) was a nerd.  They wind up becoming friends in the police academy, and after screwing up as bicycle cops, they are sent to 21 Jump Street, an undercover project that sends young-looking cops into high schools to infiltrate drug rings.  Jenko promises to take Schmidt under his wing and show him how to be cool in high school, but it turns out that styles and attitudes have changed just enough that Jenko’s efforts to seem cool fall flat.  It turns out, however, that a funny, smart, fat kid who secretly has nothing to lose can fit right in, so Schmidt winds up hanging out with the cool kids, including the main drug dealer (Dave Franco, James Franco’s brother).  Meanwhile, Jenko sulks his way into the science lab, where the nerds wind up lending him their technical expertise to help bust the drug gang.
I can’t even believe I just typed all that.  The plot is so silly and predictable it actually hurts to describe it, but directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller manage to make it work.  The screenplay, co-written by Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall, lets the actors stretch out and have fun, while letting the movie poke fun at its own hackneyed plot and lack of originality.  Unburdened by an earnest plot or some misguided message, Hill and Tatum deliver excellent comedy.  The supporting cast delivers as well, including Dave Franco (“You know what they do in prison to handsome guys like me?  It rhymes with GRAPE!”) and Ice Cube as the “angry, black Captain.” “21 Jump Street” may not win the Oscar for Best Comedy, but it would win Best Comedy Based on a Short-Lived ‘80s TV Show, with room to spare.

4 stars out of 5

Thursday, November 22, 2012

El Violin (2005) **½



In an unnamed Latin-American country, a loosely organized peasant rebellion struggles against an oppressive government army.  The Mexican film “El Violin” doesn’t really get more specific than that in terms of where or when the story takes place.  When government forces invade a rebel village, they force the villagers to leave behind a secret ammo stash.  While soldiers camp out in the captured village, Genaro (Gerardo Taracena) and his desperate rebels try to figure out a way to get to their munitions.  Genaro’s elderly father, a one-handed violinist and farmer, takes it upon himself to solve the problem.
If I thought the violin might be a fun, lighthearted story, I was completely wrong.  The movie opens with a brutal scene of torture, and while the mood occasionally lightens a bit, it generally remains grim.  The film never makes it clear what the rebels are fighting against; I guess “oppression” in general.  It doesn’t really matter.  The theme is how the spirit of freedom and rebellion lives on, passed from generation to generation.  There is also an exploration of how people might be different given different circumstances.  The army captain is a brutal man of war, but he discovers a belated interest in music under the tutelage of the old violinist.
I watched “El Violin” largely as part of my Spanish-language study.  On its merits as a film, I would say it is a bit too naturalistic for me.  It is a well-told story, however, with excellent performances and some beautiful footage of the Mexican countryside.  For a viewer who won’t mind the pervasive grimness of the tale, it is worth checking out.

2.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Argo (2012) ***



Eight bucks gets you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!  The crowd-pleasing Oscar-bait that is “Argo” is a thrill to watch, and it cements Ben Affleck’s reputation as a filmmaker.
In case you haven’t heard, “Argo” is based on the events of 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries stormed the American embassy in Tehran, starting the Iran Hostage Crisis.  A few Americans slipped out while the takeover was occurring, and they hid out for over a month in the home of the Canadian ambassador.  They lived in constant fear of being discovered until CIA agent Tony Mendez, with considerable help from the Canadians, appeared to sneak them out of the country using an elaborate cover story about being a Canadian film crew.
At the time, the return of the six Americans was celebrated with many thanks to our friends in Canada, but the details of the operation, including the involvement of the CIA, were classified for over two decades.  Once it was finally declassified, under Bill Clinton, the made-for-Hollywood saga was detailed in a book by Tony Mendez, Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.
That’s the mythology, anyway.  I was interested to learn that the escapade was first portrayed in a 1981 TV movie, “Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper.”  Just from the titles you can see the difference in emphasis between the two versions of the story.  Presumably, the TV movie didn’t include the involvement of the CIA, which would still have been classified at that time.  Many critics today feel that “Argo” overstates the role of the CIA at the expense of the Canadians, making Canada look like a passive partner.  Britain and New Zealand also receive short shrift, with “Argo” portraying their embassies as refusing to shelter the six Americans, when in fact both countries did what they could to help.  As long as we are on the subject of inaccuracies, the film presents a decidedly one-sided version of Iranian history.  I’m no expert on Iran, but I detect a strong leftist slant in the depiction of the Shah of Iran and America’s support of him.  
This is one of the problems with movies based on historical events.  The filmmakers inevitably take dramatic license, and that dramatized version of the story inevitably enters the public consciousness as a part of history.  The farther out I get from “Argo,” the more those inaccuracies bother me.
I didn’t know any of that while watching it, however, I was just 100% entertained.  It’s amazing how much tension Affleck is able to maintain, considering that the outcome of the story is already a matter of public record.  Affleck also has a commanding screen presence.  Technically, the film is perfect.  The actors playing the hiding Americans are excellent, and the pacing of the story is right on.   I just think maybe Affleck, and maybe Hollywood in general, should stick to making stories up, rather than twisting historical events.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) ****




Almost from the  beginning, Universal Studios planned a “Frankenstein” sequel.  Based on test-screenings, they changed the ending of the first film to allow Dr. Frankenstein to survive his confrontation with the monster.  It took several years, however, to get an appropriate script and get “Bride of Frankenstein” to come to life.
The story picks up near where the first film left off, with villagers watching an old windmill burn with the monster inside, and the injured Henry Frankenstein being carried back home.  Both are presumed dead, but of course both survive, and thus we have our sequel.  The convalescing Henry is approached by the eerie Dr. Pretorius, who shares Henry’s interest in creating life in the lab.  He pressures Henry to join him in his work and create a new race of beings.  “To a world of gods and monsters!” he toasts, but Henry is torn between repulsion and fascination.
Meanwhile, the monster, once again played by Boris Karloff, gets back to the serious business of terrorizing the countryside.  He looks a bit buffer than in the first movie, partly because Karloff had to keep his dental plates in to be able to talk, so he doesn’t have the sunken-faced appearance he had in “Frankenstein.”  A blind hermit takes the creature in and teaches him some speech, but the refuge lasts only until some villagers come by hunting the monster.  Ultimately, the monster meets up with Dr. Pretorius, and together they force Henry Frankenstein to help create a female creature, a bride for the original.
Some modern critics have described “Bride of Frankenstein” as “one of the best movie sequels of all time,” and “vastly superior to the original.”  I think this is overstating the case.  First of all, the original was pretty good.  Secondly, the sequel may be more polished and generally tighter than the original, but it has its own issues.  I think it was a mistake to give the creature speech.  Lines like “Friend good, alone bad,” lend the movie a campy air.  Karloff agreed, saying “Speech! Stupid!  My argument was that if the monster had any impact or charm, it was because he was inarticulate.”
On the other hand, Colin Clive puts in an even better performance this time around as the now-reluctant Dr. Frankenstein, and Ernest Thesiger is delightfully evil as Dr. Pretorius.  Some have suggested that he was meant to be a coded homosexual.  If so, the code is too subtle for me.  All I know is that he plays the villain with relish, at one point enjoying a nice picnic and bottle of wine in a crypt, discussing his plans with a pile of bones.  Karloff, despite being saddled with those lame lines, still plays the creature with gusto, lending it more menace than in the first film.  Overall, I can’t go along with those who say “Bride of Frankenstein” is vastly better than “Frankenstein,” but judged on its own merits, it is equally enjoyable.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Frankenstein (1931) ****



Truly a masterpiece of horror, “Frankenstein” deserves its place among the classics.  Other films of the time may have played upon man’s darkest fears, but “Frankenstein” held up a dark mirror to man himself.
Colin Clive played the title role of young Henry Frankenstein, a medical student obsessed with the basic forces behind life and death.  As the well-known story goes, he assembles a creature from the parts of dead bodies, then animates it using the  power of electricity.  The creature lives, but it lacks speech or understanding, and as it gains strength it becomes increasingly uncontrollable.  Henry finally collapses from the strain of his experiments and is taken back to the Frankenstein family estate to recover.  The creature is left in the hands of Henry’s mentor, Dr. Waldman, who promises to humanely destroy it.  The doctor cannot help doing his own experiments on the creature, which ultimately escapes to terrorize the countryside in search of its creator.
“Frankenstein” is introduced as “The tale of Frankenstein, a man of science, who sought to create a man after his own image, without reckoning upon God,” but despite these pious window trappings, this is an Existentialist tale.  Frankenstein’s creature is the dark image of mankind, abandoned by his creator and left to wander a harsh world, trying to understand how to behave, but making horrible blunders.  In the end, the creature looks into the eyes of his maker and sees not understanding and compassion, but contempt and fear.
There are aspects of “Frankenstein” that are annoying.  Some parts of the story seem too perfunctory, while at other times the film loses its tone, detouring into comic relief in the form of Henry’s father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr).  I found the  ending particularly silly.  I was also annoyed by young Henry’s tendency to faint, a characteristic carried over from the source material, Mary Shelley’s novel.
Boris Karloff, however, is perfection in his portrayal of the monster.  His lumbering performance lends the creature both menace and pathos.  His character has no lines, but his use of facial expression and body language is reminiscent of silent film, which of course is where he got his start.
In the movie’s faults, one can see the hand of Hollywood trying to make a crowd-pleaser, which, in fact, they did.  The movie was a smashing success.  One can perhaps imagine a more satisfying movie that could be assembled from pieces of this one, but then again, have we learned nothing?  Kenneth Branagh attempted in his 1994 remake to more explicitly visit aspects of the story like the creature’s creation and his re-learning process, but as I recall, that film wound up being full of spectacle and empty chit-chat.  I prefer Boris Karloff’s speechless, heartbreaking performance.  Your imagination can fill in the rest.

4 stars

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Mummy (1932) ***



Universal Studios took a big step up in production quality between 1931’s “Dracula” and 1932’s “The Mummy.”  The story of Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian whose punishment for sacrilege was to be buried alive and denied passage to the afterlife may be familiar from the special-effects heavy, 1999 version with Brendan Frasier.  As I recall, that version was not bad, but the original is worth checking out as well.
The tale begins with a couple of archaeologists examining a mummy and an old scroll.  They accidentally animate the mummy, Imhotep (Boris Karloff), and invoke an ancient curse.  Ten years later, Imhotep returns disguised as an intense, wrinkly, modern Egyptian.  He leads a new archaeological team to dig up the tomb of his dead lover.  When he tries to re-animate her mummy, his spells instead awaken her spirit in a young, part-Egyptian westerner, Helen Grosvenor.  Imhotep sets about trying to make Helen into his lost love, and the archaeologists face the ancient curse to save her.
Truth be told, “The Mummy” is thematically quite similar to “Dracula.”  Both involve an ancient, undead being with intense eyes who casts his spell over a young woman.  “The Mummy” feels much  more modern, however, partly because the production quality is so much higher and partly because instead of being a typical damsel in distress, Helen rises up to defend herself in the end.

3 stars

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Dracula (1931) ***



In honor of Halloween, I decided to watch some of the old, original horror movies, starting with the one that started it all, 1931’s “Dracula.”  Based on the Broadway play adapted from Bram Stoker’s novel, “Dracula” kicked off a highly successful run for Universal Studios as THE horror movie studio of the 1930’s.  The movie was followed by such iconic films as “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” and “The Wolf Man,” as well as numerous sequels and monster-mashup films.
“Dracula” begins in Transylvania (part of Romania), home of the eccentric Count Dracula, who lives in a ruined castle, and about whom much is whispered by the locals.  Everyone knows the basics of the legend.  The undead Count sleeps in a coffin by day, emerging by night to suck the blood of mortals.  He can turn into a bat or a wolf.  He can be repelled by a crucifix or wolfsbane (no mention of garlic), but only killed by a wooden stake through the heart.
A lawyer named Renfield has been dispatched from London to assist the count in leasing an old abbey in England.  The film never explains why Dracula wants to move, but one imagines that since everyone in Transylvania knows he is a vampire, he is moving for his own safety, as well as for a fresh source of victims.  In any event, Dracula avails himself not only of Renfield’s legal assistance, but of some of his blood, which turns Renfield into Dracula’s slave.  By the time they arrive in England, Dracula has killed off the ship’s crew.  The hysterical Renfield is sent to an asylum, while the count feasts in the back alleys of London.
Dracula wastes no time in meeting the neighbors, who include Dr. Seward, his daughter Mina, and their family friend, Lucy.  The Count first feeds on Lucy, killing her and turning her into a vampire, then he begins to feed sparingly on Mina, slowly bringing her under his control.  The family turns to Professor Van Helsing, a student of the supernatural, to try to save Mina and free them from the curse of the vampire.
You have to cut “Dracula” some slack, considering that it was made in 1931.  Hollywood was barely out of the silent film era, and in fact some of “Dracula” plays like a silent film.  The sound quality is not perfect.  Neither is the story, which has some sizable holes.  The rubber bats are downright laughable, although a 1931 audience may have been more forgiving of bad special effects.  Nonetheless, as a starting point for a genre, it’s not bad.  Most of the acting is decent for it’s time, and Bela Lugosi set the bar high for smooth, accented, well-dressed vampires.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Friends With Kids (2011) ***



Having kids changes your life.  This well-known fact is fertile ground for comedy, and well-trodden.  “Friends With Kids” doesn’t manage to cover any new ground but it combines “She’s Having a Baby” with “Friends With Benefits” pretty successfully.
Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) are truly Platonic, best friends, both still single.  As they watch their circle of friends having kids, they worry that when they do manage to find a good mate, everything will be ruined by having children.  Yet, they both want to have a child someday, so what are a couple of hip New Yorkers to do?  They decide to have a kid together and raise it within their Platonic relationship, leaving them each free to pursue true love and romance free of that pressure.
“Friends With Kids” indulges in some of the standard punch-lines of this genre, but the movie manages to work due to the strength of the cast.  Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd, Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm, and Ed Burns are all as good as you would hope.  Meanwhile, Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt portray their friendship with genuine humanity and sweetness.  I fell for Jenifer Westfeldt in “Kissing Jessica Stein.  She plays pretty much the same character here, and it’s a charming performance.
My only complaint about the film is that it is about thirty minutes too long, and that half-hour almost looks like it is from a different film.  Somewhere towards the end of the movie, the camera work starts to look worse, the musical score gets cheesy, and the story seems to lose track of itself.  It’s as if they either ran out of money or just couldn’t decide how to wind things up.  I suppose this is inexperience showing, as “Friends With Kids” is Jennifer Westfeldt’s directorial debut.  I still recommend the movie, just with moderated expectations.

3 stars.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Matando Cabos (Killing Cabos, 2004) **½



It would be an exaggeration to call this Mexican action-comedy “good.”  It is disjointed, full of stupid actions on the part of the principles, and the comedic tone is often thrown off by gratuitous violence.  “Matando Cabos” is, however, a certain amount of fun.
The titular Sr. Cabos is a psychopathic businessman known for fits of rage and brutality.  In the process of attacking one of his employees, he trips and knocks himself unconscious.  This puts the employee, who happens to be engaged to Sr. Cabos’s daughter, in an awkward situation, especially when he goes for help, returns with his co-worker, and finds his still-unconscious boss inexplicably stripped to his underwear.  There follows a wacky night of capers involving kidnappers, mistaken identities, two unconscious men, and professional wrestlers.   If “Weekend at Bernie’s” had been in Spanish, had two bodies instead of one, and periodically degenerated into graphic violence, it would have been “Matando Cabos.”
Tony Dalton and Kristoff, who play the two leads, play their characters as a couple of goofballs, and are nothing special.  Nor do Ana Claudia Talancon and Rocio Verdejo, the two main actresses, do anything to distinguish themselves other than look good.  It is Joaquin Cosio and Silverio Palacios, who play the wrestlers Mascarita and Tony the Cannibal, who make the movie.  These guys carry themselves with a cool and confidence that makes them the center of every scene.  It actually makes no sense that these two would be willing to spend a night risking their lives for a guy they haven’t talked to in years, but that’s part of what I liked about the characters.  They are the kind of guys that if a friend calls, they will show up, ready for anything.  

2.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Chronicle (2012) ***½



“Chronicle” was sort of billed as a super-hero movie, but the characters don’t really go out and fight crime.  It’s more a movie about super-POWERS, specifically telekinesis, which it turns out can be pretty versatile in the right hands.  Three high school guys discover a sinkhole with some kind of glowing asteroid at the bottom.  The film never explains what this is, but after the exposure, the guys start to develop telekinesis, the ability to move objects with thoughts.  There’s no one around to explain what is happening to them or why, but they do a pretty good job teaching themselves to move objects and eventually themselves, allowing them to fly.  Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), both popular, well-adjusted teens, realize that they need to establish for themselves some rules about when and where they will use their new skills.  Andrew (Dane Dehaan), Matt’s nerdy cousin, whose life alternates between being abused by his father and being abused by bullies at school, is quicker to master his powers and less interested in limiting his use of them.  The story from there is predictable, but action-packed.
Creators Josh Trank and Max Landis use an interesting conceit to tell this story.  The film starts out like a standard, “BlairWitch”-type found footage movie, with Andrew filming himself and his friends with a camcorder.  As the story progresses, however, it includes footage captured on other cameras from within the story, often cell phones or security cameras.  This allows for a more traditional narrative flow, and it invites one to consider just how much time we spend now under the camera eye.
“Chronicle” also has something to say about abuse and bullying.  Given how much Andrew has suffered at the hands of those stronger than he, it’s no shock that he abuses his power when he is finally given the means to fight back.  One could easily re-imagine this story with Andrew getting his hands on a gun, with the same results.  In either case, the problem isn’t that he gets the means to fight back.  The problem is that he was allowed to suffer so much humiliation, and no one around him thought that they should step up and help him.
As mentioned, once the setup is established, “Chronicle” descends into stock storylines (Think “Carrie“).  Fortunately, the action and performances were good enough to keep me glued to my seat anyway.  It’s easy to see why the film was able to amass a worldwide gross of $123 million on a budget of only $12 million.  Despite rehashing old storylines and concepts, the script and dialogue are smart, and the actors are pretty convincing as high school students.  Once things get rocking, the action is really bad-ass, especially for a pretty low-budget film.

3.5 stars

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Cold Comfort Farm (1995) ***



Period comedies about a bunch of English people marrying each other aren’t necessarily my favorite genre, but they do have a certain style.  “Cold Comfort Farm” is no exception.  Kate Beckinsale, in one of her early roles, plays Flora Poste, an over-educated, over-cultured Londoner with tons of looks and intelligence, but little money.  With a good family name, but no estate, she is forced to cast about for relatives to live with.  She decides to seek adventure by accepting an invitation to live with her relatives the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm, where everyone refers to her as Robert Poste’s child.  Frequent references are made to some great wrong done to Robert Poste, and that perhaps Flora has some claim on the  farm.
Flora has no interest, however, in fighting over a dreary farm.  The Starkadders are grist for her literary ambitions, and she soaks up the oddities of these wacky, rural characters in hopes of someday being the next Jane Austin.  Along the way, she neatly tidies up everyone’s lives, stoking the dreams of some and playing matchmaker for others.
The characters and jokes are, to be sure, ones we have seen before, but “Cold Comfort Farm” is a capably done little comedy.  Besides Kate Beckinsale’s charming self, the film features nice performances by Eileen Atkins, Ian McKellen, and Stephen Fry as a pompous ass.  “Cold Comfort Farm” is the lightest of comedies.  It doesn’t make for much of a narrative meal, but it’s a nice snack.

3 stars out of 5

Friday, October 05, 2012

Barbarella (1968) ***



It’s hard to know what to say about “Barbarella.”  The movie is at once silly, amateurish, campy, and hot.  With sets and special effects from a Dr. Who episode and a plot straight out of a porno film, one has to wonder what the filmmakers thought they were making.  Nonetheless, they got one thing right: They showed as much of Jane Fonda’s body as possible as often as possible.  It turns out if you get that right, you don’t have to worry about the rest.
Fonda plays Barbarella, a space-traveling government agent who gets dispatched to find a missing scientist named Durand Durand (This is where the band got its name.)  Durand had invented a powerful weapon called the positronic ray, and Barbarella is supposed to find him before the weapon falls into the warlike hands of the inhabitants of Tau Ceti.  All of this is explained to Barbarella while she is buck-naked, proving that this movie knows how to get things started!  Barbarella goes to Tau Ceti, meets a lot of people and has sex with some of them.  In the evil city of Sogo, she meets a gorgeous, evil brunette (Anita Pallenberg, who dated three of the Rolling Stones) and gets thrown into a torture device that kills by inducing orgasms, but fear not, Barbarella is up to the challenge!
Fonda doesn’t so much act in “Barbarella” as she wanders from scene to scene and costume to costume with a look of amused tolerance.   Let’s face it, this is the silliest movie ever made, but it sure is easy to look at.  I usually just include one photo per movie here, but I had to go with multiple pics of Jane Fonda in “Barbarella,” because basically that’s what the movie is about: Fonda in various bizarre, skimpy outfits.  “Barbarella” is basically the best porno ever made; they just cut out the actual porno parts.  Everything else is classic porn, from the props to the music to the silly plot setups that lead Barbarella (Fonda) to have sex with one alien guy after another.  I’m convinced that in director Roger Vadim’s basement there are some film cut-outs of seriously hot, full penetration scenes.  They could probably only show the complete version of the movie in Scandinavian countries.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sin Nombre (2009) ****½



Whatever you may think about illegal immigration, you have to admit that many of the people who manage to sneak into the U.S. to live and work do so against great odds.  “Sin Nombre” (Without Name) is a thoughtful, heartbreaking tale of those challenges.  It’s also a story of the violence wrought by drug gangs in Mexico.  This is not light-hearted fare.
The movie follows the stories of two young people.  Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) lives in a Honduran slum with her grandmother.  Her father long ago emigrated to the U.S., but when he is deported back to Honduras, Sayra is reunited with a father she doesn’t really even know, who wants her to sneak back into the U.S. with him.  Meanwhile, in southern Mexico, we are introduced to Willy (Edgar Flores), known to his fellow gang members as El Casper.  He is part of the Mara Salvatrucha-13 gang, one of the most violent and widespread gangs in the Americas.  Willy’s story for us begins with him helping to recruit a young boy into the gang, a process that involves being beaten by other gang members, then having to help murder a member of a rival gang.  Willy is no hero; he is basically comfortable with these brutal aspects of gang life.  He has a secret, however, a girlfriend from a middle-class neighborhood.  Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia) is aware of Willy’s gang affiliation, but has no idea what that really entails, and Willy works to keep her separate from that part of his life.  For a member of the Maras, however, there is no life outside the gang, and Willy’s gang-brethren brutally remind him of that reality.  Willy leaves the gang and gives them plenty of reason to want him dead, making his flight across Mexico a journey through a minefield of local Mara groups who are all on the lookout for him.
Sayra, meanwhile, hikes across Honduras, Guatemala, and into Mexico with her father and uncle.  There they hop a northbound train, which speeds up the travel but exposes them to abuse from Mexican locals and extreme victimization from gang members.  Ultimately, Sayra and Willy’s paths cross, and they wind up trying to help each other reach the U.S. border.
In theme and in tone, “Sin Nombre” reminds me of another award-winning Spanish-language film from 2004 called “Maria Full of Grace.”  This movie has that same heartbreaking motif of an innocent (Sayra) being completely surrounded by evil, but managing to maintain some hope.  Yet it is the story of Willy that is most gutting.  His character is completely without hope.  He grew up knowing only the brutal world of the Maras, and now he knows only that he doesn’t want that world anymore.  He does his best to help Sayra while he waits for death to find him.  We get a feel for how Willy became what he is through the tragic story of Smiley, the kid Willy recruits into the Maras.
If “Sin Nombre” sounds like dark material, it is.  This is not a movie for those who don’t like to see violence in films, and in truth, the violence in this film is of a kind that no one will want to see.  This is not action-movie violence; it is real, sickening brutality.  For viewers who can handle that, however, “Sin Nombre” is an exceptionally well-told, thought-provoking story.

4.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Seres Queridos (Only Human, 2004) ***½


     Leni (Marian Aguilera) and Rafi (Guillermo Toledo) are freshly in love, and since both live in Spain they are unconcerned with the fact that Leni is Jewish and Rafi is Palestinian.  Hell still breaks loose, though, when they visit Leni’s family for the first time.  Things are uncomfortable enough with Leni’s Israeli-army veteran grandfather, her controlling mother, her horny sister, and her newly religious brother, but when an accident occurs, things really get out of control.
A Spanish, screwball comedy about the Arab-Israeli conflict sounds like a long shot, but “Only Human” makes it work.  The comedic cast keeps the outrageous story crackling along.  Guillermo Toledo is especially good in his straight-man role, and it is with him that we identify as we bump along from one crazy situation to the next.  He reminds me of Ben Stiller in “Meet the Parents.”  The message of the movie, “Love conquers all,” isn’t exactly groundbreaking, and I don’t think any light is ultimately shed on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it’s a fun time.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Thor (2011) ***


Of all the superhero movies to watch, you would have to figure this would be, hands down, the dumbest one; and you would be right.  It really is a story about Thor, Norse thunder god and son of Odin, coming down to earth to meet some girls, have a little R&R, and save the planet.  And yet, the film actually kind of works.
At least half the movie takes place on other planets or dimensions, in Asgard, the home of the Norse gods, and Jotunheim, home of the frost giants.  You have to hand it to the filmmakers; they really don’t skimp on the Norse mythology.  They detail the epic war between the gods and the giants, and the uneasy peace that follows.  Then Thor (Chris Hemsworth), foolishly breaks that peace, setting the stage for another war.  Odin is so angry at the vain, impulsive Thor’s folly that he casts him down to earth and wedges his hammer in a rock, with an incantation that Thor won’t be able to retrieve it until he becomes worthy.
Now you might think Thor would speak Swedish or Norwegian, but conveniently he is fluent in English, which works out well when he makes landfall in the western U.S. and gets picked up by cute girls.  Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings are the least convincing scientific researchers ever.  They are both good actresses, but they make no sense in this movie.
Fortunately, none of that matters, because the movie is all about Thor, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Thor’s Asgardian entourage, and they all kick ass.  In fact, “Thor” is actually two movies squished together.  The longer, dominate one is full of gods and ice monsters who all take themselves way too seriously, but are still kind of awesome.  The second movie, where some earthlings are in peril, is smaller, lamer, and really kind of insignificant.  The only notable aspect of this second movie is that it introduces a government agency called S.H.I.E.L.D., which presumably will play a role in later comic-book movies, including “The Avengers,” which I haven’t seen yet.  (They even give us a peek at Jeremy Renner as the bow-and-arrow toting Hawkeye.)
Make no mistake, “Thor” is as dumb as they come.  The movie has no deeper subtext, and this is not a cult classic.  Still, all the major players give the impression of having a splendid time, and despite my doubts, I had a pretty good time, too.

3 stars out of 5

Monday, September 03, 2012

Bullitt (1968) ****½



If you want to know why Steve McQueen is STEVE MCQUEEN, this cop thriller  is a good place to start.  As Detective Frank Bullitt, McQueen is as cool as they come.  Men want to be him; women want to have him; and no one wants to get on his bad side.
Bullitt is a San Francisco cop who is tasked with protecting a Mob witness so the  guy can testify.  Despite the protection, Mob hit-men manage to get to the guy.  With egg on his face, Bullitt sets out to catch the hit-men.  The search culminates in an iconic movie car chase through the hilly streets of San Francisco, with Bullitt in his Ford Mustang pursuing the hit-men in their Dodge Charger.  The famous scene is long, heart-pounding, and thrilling, with the cars reportedly topping 100 mph at times.  It has become a piece of muscle-car history.
The only weak point in the film is Jacqueline Bisset, as Bullitt’s wife.  If she just walked around wearing nothing but a button-down shirt, it would have been fine, but the problems start when she opens her mouth.  Her beauty doesn’t compensate for her poor acting, and the film tends to grind to a halt during her scenes.  Fortunately, the rest of the film is captivating, an engrossing piece of action-noir.  Besides that car chase, there is a great foot chase through the airport tarmac.  “Bullitt” also works well as a police procedural, as Bullitt methodically retraces his murdered witness’s tracks to solve the case.
“Bullitt” tries, in a clumsy way, to get philosophical.  The film’s noir edge comes from the fact that Bullitt is completely surrounded by evil in various forms.  From the Mob hit-men to the low-life witness to a sleazy politician, there is no one to root for but Frank Bullitt.  In one scene, Bullitt’s wife berates him for becoming as cold and callous as the world in which he works, but the scene is clunky due to Jacqueline Bisset’s acting.  The theme is better handled obliquely in the rest of the movie, as at the end, when Bullitt washes his face and looks in the mirror, probably wondering if he can ever feel clean again.

4.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, September 02, 2012

First Blood (1982) **



As hard as it may be to believe, I had never seen any of the Rambo movies until just now.  I think these are the  kind of movies that if you don’t see them as a kid, they just slip by you.  I had heard, however, that the first film, “First Blood,” was halfway decent, so I decided it was time to catch up.  I would agree that there is a decent film here, but it is hidden inside some serious ‘80s schlock.
Sylvester Stallone, of course, plays John Rambo, an emotionally scarred Vietnam vet and Green Beret, wandering the country trying to find his old army buddies.  When small-town Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) spots the shaggy-looking drifter wandering  into town, he politely warns him to keep moving.  Rambo isn’t one to be pushed, however, so he heads right back into town, where Teasle arrests him for vagrancy and for carrying one big-ass knife.  The abusive, redneck deputies make Rambo flashback to his torture as a prisoner of the Vietcong, and next thing you know he is kicking ass and taking names, then escaping in a pretty thrilling chase sequence into the Cascade Mountains.  There his Special Forces training kicks in, and when the Sheriff and his crew give chase, the hunters become the hunted.
I recommend watching “First Blood” with the TV muted.  The movie is a ton of fun when the characters aren’t talking.  It’s a blast watching Rambo unleash his goody bag of commando tricks.  Stallone can’t act, of course, and he has only one facial expression, but it happens to be the perfect facial expression for this character.  Brian Dennehy brings some class to the cast and manages to lend a human side to the flawed Sheriff Teasle.
Unfortunately, every time a character recites a line, it takes the film down a notch.  The dialogue is so cringe-worthy it is below even Stallone’s level.   The musical score is also pretty bad, although not as bad as the soft-rock song they play at the end.  (“It‘s a Long Road“)  Also, while Stallone and Dennehy carry the movie off pretty well, the rest of the actors are mediocre at best, including the sneering Richard Crenna as Rambo’s former Special Forces commander.
It’s a shame that “First Blood” was not better done, because the story of a damaged war veteran is one that needed to be told.  America’s sometimes shabby treatment of our Vietnam vets was not one of our finest moments.  Movies like “First Blood” helped shed a light on that situation and maybe fostered some compassion for those vets.  Also, the film sold about a bazillion of those survival knives with the compass in the handle.

2.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Delhi Belly (2011) ***



The thing about this movie is that, as dumb as it is, it represents Indian Cinema becoming more westernized.  Just the fact that the characters don’t break into song every five minutes is a departure (There are only a couple of musical numbers in the film.)  The film also pushes conservative, Indian, entertainment mores with some fairly explicit sexual content, although I don’t recall any actual nudity.  Beyond that, “Delhi Belly” is a pretty silly, predictable, action, gross-out comedy - basically an Indian “The Hangover.”
Tashi, Arup, and Nitin are underemployed, immature, twenty-something guys living like complete slobs in a shared apartment.   Tashi is engaged to Sonia, a sexy, Indian flight attendant who isn’t very bright.  When she helps out a friend by picking up a package from a nervous Russian at the airport, everybody’s lives start to get interesting.
Watching a movie like “Delhi Belly” is like watching a rabbit run from a hound.  Despite all the twists and turns, you know it is headed for that briar patch.  In “Delhi Belly,” all the major plot points are broadcast in advance, because we have seen them in American movies before.  Still, you have to give the directors credit for making a pretty capable movie within a genre that is not standard Indian fare, that genre being foul-mouthed, risqué, action farces.  There are any number of silly, American comedies that are better done than this, but if you are in the mood for something bizarrely exotic, I would say give “Delhi Belly” a chance.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Wanderlust (2012) ****½


      What a laugh riot!  I can’t believe this movie slipped by me in theaters, but I’m glad we put it on our Netflix queue.  “Wanderlust” brings together some of my favorite people in comedy.  Written and directed by alums of the MTV comedy show “The State” (David Wain and Ken Marino), the movie features several of the old “The State” actors as well as Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston.  On top of all that, Judd Apatow produces.  With a pedigree like that, you may expect something hilarious, and you would be right!
Rudd and Aniston play George and Linda, an attractive pair of New Yorkers who have just purchased a tiny, expensive West Village apartment when their economic world collapses.  Unemployed and facing homelessness, they head to Georgia so George can work for his hilariously boorish brother (Ken Marino).  Along the way they accidentally spend the night at a hippie commune and find the experience surprisingly liberating.  Working and living with George’s brother turns out to be so unbearable that the pair flee back to the commune to give “intentional community” a try.
Someone needs to come up with some kind of facial yoga I can do before watching a movie like this, because “Wanderlust” made me smile and laugh until my face hurt.  From the very first scene, Rudd and Aniston knock the ball right out of the park, and every new character who walks across the screen lights it up.  Everyone is so good that I really can’t mention all the great comedic performances, although Justin Theroux does deserve mention for his over-the-top portrayal of hippie alpha-male Seth.  They also brought in Alan Alda to play the senile commune founder and add a touch of class.  I suppose if I had any criticism it would be that most of the hippie jokes are pretty well-worn.  The movie is fairly predictable, but big deal, they are all predictable once you’ve seen enough of them.  When the story is this funny and told this joyously, it doesn’t matter.
Just. Watch. It!

4.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Me Without You (2001) ****



If you want to understand why Michelle Williams is a big deal, you need look no further than this, one of her earliest films.  Her portrayal of Holly, the longsuffering best friend of beautiful, capricious mess Marina, is heartbreaking.
“Me Without You” is a story about the good, the  bad, and the ugly sides of friendship.  We see the inseparable Holly and Marina (Anna Friel) grow up together from little girls playing in the yard, to teens experimenting with drugs and sex, to college students, and finally adults.  From the time they are girls, it’s clear that Holly is the smart one and Marina is the pretty one, and the adults in their lives, particularly their mothers, constantly remind them of those roles, lest they should ever try to change.
We’ve all had a friend like Marina, someone who keeps us close, but frequently undermines us and tries to prevent us from growing.  Like most of these clinging, suffocating friends, Marina is driven by abandonment issues and lives in fear of Holly growing into a person who won’t need or want her anymore.  Of course, her fear is well-founded; we do outgrow our childhood friends for the most part.  Even if we always remain friends on some level, we move apart, find spouses, and end up not spending every day together anymore.  Over the years, Holly chafes more and more against the constricting bonds of Marina’s friendship, trying to find her own identity.
This may sound like grim stuff, but it isn’t.  “Me Without You” has plenty of humor, and the performances of the two actresses, not to mention Oliver Milburn as Marina’s brother, make it impossible to stop watching.  A warning though: The movie may make you look at your own best friend in a new light.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The Women on the 6th Floor (2010) ***




This little international dramedy, in French and Spanish (with subtitles of course), tells the story of a bourgeois French banker.  His family owns a floor in a fine, Parisian building in which all the maids are housed in dormitory-like quarters on the top floor.  Mr. Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) has spent his entire life in that very building, yet he has never paid any attention to all those women on the 6th floor.  This changes when his family hires a new, Spanish maid.  Maria (Natalia Verbeke) is beautiful and confident, and she knows how to boil an egg.  Mr. Joubert is so intrigued by her that he gets drawn into her life and the lives of the other maids.  All Spanish, they turn out to be a fun, lively group, and their friendship makes Mr. Joubert reappraise his way of life even as his attraction to Maria threatens his marriage.  Meanwhile, his friendship with the maids triggers something of an awakening in his wife, as well.
In a sense, the story is perhaps a bit sentimental, celebrating as it does the simple, life-affirming ethos of these working-class women over the bourgeois lifestyles of their employers.  Fortunately, the actors are charming enough to get away with such a cliché.  I had never heard of Fabrice Luchini before, but I get the feeling he is somebody special in France.  His looks are very ordinary, but he radiates a humanity and charisma that make him imminently watchable.  He reminds me a bit of Paul Giamatti or Argentinean actor Ricardo Darin.  Natalia Verbeke holds her own well opposite Luchini, and Sandrine Kiberlain manages to make Mrs. Joubert rather sympathetic.  “The Women on the 6th Floor” is not groundbreaking, but it is funny and quite enjoyable.

3 stars

Monday, July 30, 2012

Torremolinos 73 (2003) ****



         In this outrageously funny and sexy Spanish film by director Pablo Berger, a man and his wife receive an offer they can’t refuse.  Struggling encyclopedia salesman Alfredo Lopez (Javier Camara) and his wife Carmen (Candela Pena) are offered the opportunity to make “educational films” about Spanish sexual practices, to be sold in Scandinavian countries.  On the verge of bankruptcy, they agree, and take to it surprisingly well.  Alfredo discovers a hidden talent for filmmaking, and the formerly demur Carmen becomes quite the wanton under the gaze of the camera.  Their films are a smash, but eventually they are forced to reconcile their new profession with Carmen’s desire to have a child and Alfredo’s desire to make a legitimate film.

Despite this being a foreign film, I’m a bit surprised never to have heard of it.  It is incredibly entertaining.  The balance of humor and graphic sex is perfect, lending an innocence to this very carnal story.  With the 1970’s Franco-era setting, this black and white film is full of bleak grays, but the humor of the movie uplifts it and makes it lighthearted and fun.  Interestingly, the film is apparently loosely based on a true story.  According to writer and director Pablo Berger, the story was inspired by the life of porn/horror director Jesus Franco.   Whatever the truth behind the film, I highly recommend it for those who are into subtitles and nudity.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Medianeras (“Sidewalls” 2011 ) ****


In an effort to learn Spanish, I’ve been watching a lot of Spanish-language movies, and not worrying too much about the quality.  It was nice, finally, to watch one that is quite well done.  This little Argentinean, romantic comedy is philosophical, charming, and visually beautiful.
Martin (Javier Drolas), an agoraphobic website designer and Mariana (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), an underemployed architect, live on the same street in Buenos Aires.  Both are depressed and lonely.  As both go through a series of futile dates, we come to see that they would be perfect for each other, but of course, the odds of the two of them meeting in such a huge city are not good.  The city has ways of putting up barriers between people, and the theme of the film is that successfully making a life in such a place requires physically and mentally breaking through those barriers.
Meanwhile, the camera lingers on the skyline and the individual buildings of Buenos Aires, gray and inhuman.  The variety of buildings is endless, and many have blank, windowless sidewalls, called medianeras.  These blank spaces are used for billboards, an ugly alternative to what could have been light-bringing windows, and many apartment- dwellers rebel by chipping through the concrete to place unauthorized windows.
Despite the urban philosophizing and beautiful cinematography, “Medianeras” does not demand to be taken too seriously.  It’s a fun, optimistic, romantic comedy which declares that, as one of the songs in the film puts it, “true love will find you in the end.”  Amen to that.

4 stars out of 5

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) ***



The thing is, I like Wes Anderson, but I’m beginning to suspect that once you’ve seen a couple of his movies, you’ve seen them all.  The goofy shtick that makes up his adult fairy tales is so distinctive and repetitive that, like AC/DC albums, his films start to run together.  I think that you could watch “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore,” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” and call yourself an expert on Wes Anderson.  Nothing I have seen by him since those films has moved his vision forward or offered anything really new.
That’s not to say that Anderson’s latest, “Moonrise Kingdom,” isn’t pleasant enough.  It’s a story of young love, a commentary on being different, and a tale of how the daily grind of adult life can gradually lead to disappointment.  Hollywood newcomer Jared Gilman plays Sam, a 12-year-old “Khaki Scout” and social misfit who sneaks away from camp to meet up with Suzy (fellow newcomer Kara Hayward).  Suzy has her own problems fitting in, and the two share a tragic bond of awkwardness, made less tragic because it is shared.  The odyssey of their trek across a small, New England island draws in Suzy’s parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), the island’s lone policeman (Bruce Willis), and Sam’s scout troop, including his sympathetic, bumbling scoutmaster (Edward Norton).  Meanwhile, we learn that Suzy’s mom knows a little bit about forbidden love herself.  The tale is set in the 1960’s, and culminates with surrealist abandon during an historic New England hurricane.
I find myself wavering between liking “Moonrise Kingdom” and criticizing it for being the same old, Wes Anderson song-and-dance.  I think it’s fair to say the film deserves both.  On display are Anderson’s signature oddballs, with their stiff way of talking and their emotional wounds.  His recurring them is that families of all varieties are full of dysfunctional people and relationships, but they are all we’ve got.  I think he said it better in “The Royal Tenenbaums.”  Likewise his commentary about how difficult it is to grow up as a slightly odd kid is welcome, but it sparkled more in “Rushmore.”
Viewed on it’s own merits, “Moonrise Kingdom” deserves kudos for its child stars.  Gilman and Hayward adeptly lend their creepy, wounded characters the right balance of precociousness and innocence.  Their love story is sweet, and it provides a good backdrop for Suzy’s mom’s tragic love-life.  I liked the poignant juxtaposition of Suzy, who is free to pursue true, passionate love, but isn’t old enough, and her Mom, whose freedom to pursue that kind of love is shackled by the responsibilities that age brings.  I also enjoyed the sheer outdoorsiness of Sam and Suzy’s trek through nature.  For a weird kid, Sam is quite an expert on hiking, fishing, and camping.
Overall, I recommend “Moonrise Kingdom.”  It’s a fun, sweet story.  For Wes Anderson fans, this is more of what you love from him.  For those who don’t know Anderson’s work, I would strongly suggest watching “Rushmore” and the other films mentioned above.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Good, Old-Fashioned Orgy (2011) **½


 Everyone knows that folks in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s did some serious swinging, and from what you hear about young people today, you get the impression that they only stop slurping each other’s privates when they take a break to send each other naked pictures on their cell phones. So what happened to people like me, who came of age in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s? AIDS, that’s what. We grew up hearing that sex was a scary, dangerous thing that could kill you. It didn’t completely stop us from having sex, but it probably did cut down on the debauchery. “A Good, Old-Fashioned Orgy” is the story of a group of 30-somethings who set out to remedy that.

 Eric (Jason Sudeikis) and his group of high-school friends, which consists of several cute chicks and an assortment of dorky guys, have grown up partying at Eric’s dad’s beach house. When his dad puts the house up for sale, the friends see the end of not only their epic parties, but of the free, irresponsible chapter of their lives. (Which, given that they are about 30, they have stretched out pretty far, anyway.) Eric convinces the group to see the beach house off with one, last epic soire, a good, old-fashioned orgy between friends.

 You see the title of this film, and you figure it will be a fun sex-romp, and eventually it is, but they do take their time getting there. This is a story about 30-year-olds belatedly coming of age, so first they have to set up the many characters and their first-world issues. This is less a story about an orgy, and more a story about people realizing that they can only stretch their adolescence out so far, and I wish the film had either done a better job exploring that theme or just focused on the sex. In any event, it’s a moderate amount of fun. Sudeikis plays a funny, charming ladies’ man, and Tyler Labine is pretty good as his fat, crude sidekick. There’s one really funny scene that makes the whole film, where the guys do some research in an underground sex club. Basically, much of the movie is a less good-looking, less funny version of “The Hangover.” Also, in keeping with the modern trend, there are more naked, male buttocks on screen than naked, female breasts, and my wife points out that the male buttocks aren’t all that great. “A Good, Old-Fashioned Orgy” is fairly fun and funny, but if you are looking for soft-porn you will do better with “A Game of Thrones.”

 2.5 stars out of 5

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Descendants (2011) **

“Friends on the mainland think that living in Hawaii must be like living in Paradise….Well Paradise can go fuck itself.”  These are the words of a guy who is having a really bad time in a really beautiful place.  Matt King (George Clooney) is a well-to-do lawyer whose wife is in a terminal coma after a boating accident.  Their daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) are both acting out, and then Matt receives the bombshell that prior to the accident his wife had been having an affair and had planned to ask for a divorce.  Meanwhile, Matt is the hereditary, legal trustee of a large, extremely valuable hunk of  Hawaiian beachfront.  He and his cousins are all heirs, but he has legal control of the property, and changes to the law have made it necessary for them to sell the place.

Watching Matt sort through all this should be more interesting than it is.  The setup of a failing marriage being interrupted by a coma provides rich emotional grist, and Clooney does an okay job portraying the complex emotions, but the script makes a mockery of the situation.  Matt winds up stalking the real-estate agent with whom his wife was cheating, even following the guy to a different island.  I’m not saying that no one would ever do that, but I don’t think that an intelligent, contained lawyer like Matt King would do something so stupid and useless.  Then the way they have Matt handle the land sale feels very perfunctory and arbitrary.  Finally, the goodbye scene between Matt and his comatose wife is pure dreck, mostly ruining the rest of the movie for me.

There are a couple of bright spots.  Shailene Woodley has gotten a lot of hype, and deservedly so.  She is a beautiful and talented actress and holds her own quite well against George Clooney.  Robert Forster is quite convincing as Matt’s asshole father-in-law.  His character is not really likeable, but the way he handles his grief is convincing.

“The Descendants” also has an important social message in its discussion of advanced medical directives.  These are legal papers that someone prepares detailing what their wishes would be should they ever be severely ill or in a coma, including the conditions under which they would want to be removed from life support.  The decision to withdraw care from Matt’s wife is made much easier for the family because she had an advanced directive.  This is a good message for people to hear.  I wish it could be presented in a better movie.

2 stars out of 5

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (2010) ****


I knew nothing about French musician Serge Gainsbourg before watching this biopic, and it’s possible I still may not really know much, since this is a highly stylized, fictionalized version of his life.  Still, the movie is a delightful and sexy ode to the man and his art.

The film starts with Gainsbourg’s childhood in Nazi-occupied France.  Despite being Jewish, Gainsbourg managed to get a good art education in painting and music.  He was also rather precocious with the ladies.  He eventually focused on the music and the women, and it’s hard to say which he is more famous for.  For him, the music and the seductions were practically inseparable.  He bedded and wrote songs for such famous beauties as Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin.  He eventually became an infamous drunkard and died at 62, leaving behind a rich, influential body of French pop music.

“Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” focuses on Gainsbourg’s inner life, particularly through the use of an imaginary friend who follows him around his whole life.  The character, whom Gainsbourg refers to as “my ugly mug,” has a gigantic nose and represents Gainsbourg’s strongly Jewish features, which he must have been made very aware of growing up under Nazi occupation.  In the film, this “mug” represents the voice in Serge’s head driving him to be a better musician, but also tempting him to leave whomever his current woman is to seek freedom and new conquests.  There are periods when Gainsbourg is able to deny his worst tendencies for a while, but in the end his Mug always gets his way.

There are some books and movies that just perfectly capture what it is to be an artist, both the good and the bad.  “The Doors” does this for Jim Morrison, and Patti Smith’s book “Just Kids” does it for her and Robert Maplethorpe.  “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” is one of these.  The film eloquently depicts the man’s triumphs and failures not just as formative events that made him a great artist, but as the natural consequence of his being an artist to the core.  For anyone who enjoys artsy films and experimental music and doesn’t mind reading subtitles (The movie is in French.), I highly recommend this one.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, June 03, 2012

X-Men: First Class (2011) ***½

I really want superhero movies to be good. I don’t know why, but the geek in me gets off on these stories about battles between superpowers. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t worth watching, which is why I am always so happy when a new X-men movie comes out. They always manage not to suck.

 The most recent installment, “X-Men: First Class” is no exception. This one is a prequel, telling the origin stories of Charles Xavier, Magneto, Mystique, and some other mutants. It turns out that Xavier (James McAvoy) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) grew up together as childhood friends. As they grow into young adults, Xavier becomes a professor of genetics, while Mystique becomes increasingly bummed out over having to hide her natural, blue-skinned form from the world, using her shape-shifting abilities to make her look just like Jennifer Lawrence. Most girls would love to be able to look like Jennifer Lawrence, but Mystique understandably wishes that somebody, perhaps Charles Xavier, would find her beautiful as she really is. Anyway, the two get recruited by the CIA to combat the cold-war shenanigans of Dr. Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who turns out not only to be the Nazi doctor who experimented on the boy who would become Magneto, but also to be a mutant himself. Xavier uses his telepathic abilities to find other mutants, and they form a team, along with Magneto, to battle Shaw and his mutant posse. Great fun ensues.

 “X-Men: First Class” is chock-full of quality actors, including Michael Fassbender as the adult Magneto, Rose Byrne, Oliver Platt, and January Jones in her underwear. Jennifer Lawrence is particularly good, as her character Mystique explores the schism between mutants who look outwardly normal and those who have obvious physical differences. Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon steal the show from the younger actors, however, lending a gleeful darkness to their characters. They don’t quite have the gravitas of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, but then again, who does?

 Besides consistently being a lot of fun, the X-men movies are, in my opinion, superior to the other current superhero movie franchises. I’ve been thinking about why that is, and it may come down to the central themes of these series. The Spiderman movies are based on the premise that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Peter Parker is constantly learning the lesson that he can’t have any personal hopes and dreams, because the world needs him out there slinging webs and kicking villain ass. Batman’s underlying theme is that this man with a dark past has to draw on his rage to help drive him, but he has to constantly be on guard against letting it overcome him, lest he go on a murderous rampage. Both of these franchises can be fun at times, but neither series of movies has bothered to develop these themes or the main characters enough to make me care that much. The X-men movies, on the other hand, take the time to develop their characters and their motivations. Particularly resonant is their central theme about mutants being feared and hated by regular humans, and the various responses these mutants have to this, ranging from self-loathing, to a desire for reconciliation, to a desire to dominate humans. The mutants are often seen as a metaphor for gays in our society, but they could represent any minority group, and the series tells their stories ably enough to make the whole thing work. “X-Men: First Class” continues the tradition, and I’m looking forward to sequels featuring this group of actors.

 3.5 stars out of 5

Monday, May 28, 2012

Labios Rojos (Red Lips, 2009) **

I haven’t seen any of the Tyler Perry movies, but there are a couple of them called “Why Did I Get Married?” and “I Think I Love My Wife,” and from the trailers I have seen, these seem to be formulaic little morality plays about a guy who maybe used to be a real ladies’ man, now trying to navigate the world of monogamy and family. Some new hottie shows up to tempt the guy, and he goes through a light existential crisis before deciding to be faithful to his wife. With these movies, Perry keeps the humor broad, and the acting is no better than it needs to be to present jokes that you can see coming a mile away. I think that “Labios Rojos” is the Mexican version of one of these movies. Jorge Salinas plays Ricardo, a handsome guy turning 40 who is starting to feel the weight of the years and his hectic life. A new job offers new opportunities but an unexpected level of stress. With the increased work hours and worry he finds one night that he can’t get it up for his wife, and instead of just talking to her about how he is feeling really stressed out as well as feeling old, he lets things fester so that their relationship starts falling apart. Meanwhile, a ridiculously sexy new co-worker provides a distraction , and blah blah blah. Like I said, you know how the story goes, and the jokes are broadcast so far in advance that they cease to be funny by the time the punch line hits. “Labios Rojos” has two things going for it. One is gorgeous actresses who display some brief nudity. The other is surprisingly good enunciation of the lines, which was key for me, because my motivation for making this seemingly random movie selection was to help me with my Spanish. I understood the language in this one better than just about any film I’ve seen, so for that reason I would recommend it to anyone who is trying to learn Spanish. One star for the lame story, and one bonus star for the Spanish-lab value. 2 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Warrior (2011) ***½

“Warrior” simply should not be this good. This story of brothers separated as teens, who both return to MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting and wind up competing in a big-money tournament should be just as trite and unlikely as the concept sounds. Somehow, though, co-writer/director Gavin O’Connor manages to pull the story together into something pretty gripping. Both brothers are estranged from their abusive, alcoholic father (Nick Nolte). When the younger brother, Tommy (Tom Hardy), returns from the Iraq War, he is full of pills, bitterness, and endless rage. Somehow he finds his way back into the boxing gym, where that rage makes him an unstoppable fighting machine and an internet sensation. Meanwhile, his brother Brandon (Joel Edgerton) has his life mostly together, but finds himself in danger of bankruptcy. His job as a high-school physics teacher isn’t enough to make the house payment, so he drifts back into MMA fighting as well. Ultimately the two wind up competing in the same $5 million tournament. Believe it or not, it isn’t the fight scenes that made me like “Warrior.“ I like that from the opening scene on, the characters are fully realized human beings, with great performances by all the lead actors. Nick Nolte wound up being nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. As for the fight scenes, they are fun and exciting, but somewhat staged. If you are a fan of actual MMA fighting, you may not find the fights very realistic. Sadly, this film managed to fly below the radar, earning less than its $25 million budget despite positive reviews. This is a damn shame, because the film is a real crowd-pleaser. It feels like sacrilege to call “Warrior” a modern-day “Rocky,” but it comes close. 3.5 stars out of 5

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Naked City (1948) ****

“There are 8 million stories in the naked city.” I had always heard this line and assumed it was from one of the Sam Spade-esque movies set in Las Angeles. Turns out it comes from this police procedural set in New York. The first thing you have to get used to in “The Naked City” is the almost constant narration. I found it grating at first, but got used to it. The reason for it is that the filmmakers used hidden cameras to secretly film thousands of New Yorkers going about their daily lives. This footage lacked sound, so narration and voice-overs were used with these scenes, which lend the story its background. The actors are filmed on location in New York as well, lending the movie a very real feel that quickly distracts from the newsreel-style narration. Rather than a noir story, this is really a police procedural, not unlike one of the “CSI” shows. A young model is murdered, and police detectives Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and Halloran (Don Taylor) hit the streets of New York to catch a killer. Interestingly, the film focuses on the tedious, meticulous nature of their craft. We get to watch as they follow dead ends, deal with crazy, false confessions, and ask the same question hundreds of times until they finally get a lead. I was fascinated, because I didn’t think they made such realistic police movies back in 1948. Besides being an excellent whodunit, “The Naked City” is a fascinating snapshot of a specific place and time. All the shots of 1948 New York and its people are enthralling, especially the climactic manhunt and chase scene on the Brooklyn Bridge. For fans of old movies, this is a must-see. 4 stars out of 5

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Thing (1982) *****

Best! Movie! Ever! I can’t believe I went all these years without seeing John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” I’m just glad that I rectified the situation before wasting any more of my life!

 Based on a short story called “Who Goes There?” and an earlier movie called “The Thing From Another World,” “The Thing” is, like “Alien,” a satisfying blend of horror and sci-fi. The film starts with a couple of Norwegians in a helicopter pursuing and trying to kill a dog as it runs across the ice fields of Antarctica. The Norwegians wind up dead, and the dog finds refuge with a group of American scientists in a remote outpost. Curious as to what those crazy Norwegians were up to, the Americans, including helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell), go investigate their camp. There they find that the Norwegians discovered something in the ice. Something that left them all dead. Meanwhile, the guys learn to their horror that the refugee dog is not a dog at all, but an alien mutant that infects other life forms with a virus-like vector that takes over all their cells and allows the alien to imitate them. This is horrible enough, but the real terror begins when paranoia takes hold, as the men realize that at least one of them may have been taken over by the Thing.

 Like the best horror films, “The Thing” uses a grotesque monster to explore the horrors that we all carry inside us. First, the gore and slime remind us that we and those we love are full of blood and guts on the inside: a disturbing concept. Then the film plays on the more subtle fear that those we know may not be who we think they are, that they may carry some terrible secret. As shocking as the Thing is when it is spewing slime everywhere, it is the growing distrust between the men that creates the real horror in “The Thing.” There is another element of horror in “The Thing,” perhaps unintentional. The movie is about a virus-like life form that fatally takes over someone’s body and can be passed to others, yet you can’t tell by looking who has it. Given that this came out in 1982, one can’t help but draw parallels to a real-life horror, the AIDS epidemic.

 Many movies from the ‘80’s haven’t aged well, but “The Thing” seems timeless. It helps that the clothing is cold-weather gear rather than day-glow sweaters and polos. It helps that the cast is all men, so the plot isn’t weighed down by an obligatory love story. It helps that rather than a soundtrack of ‘80’s pop, the film has a beautiful, ominous score by Ennio Morricone. It helps that the characters in this horrifying situation mostly make decisions that make sense, separating this film from about 90% of horror movies. Finally, it helps that Carpenter played the story straight and didn’t try to cutesy it up with the catchy one-liners that were de rigueur in ‘80’s horror and action flicks. Carpenter had some help, of course, from a stellar cast, including Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, a whole crew of outstanding character actors, and one outrageous hat.

 Some might disagree, but I even found the special effects to be good. I don’t think the creature would have been any more convincing or terrifying if it had been done with modern CGI. I think one reason I never saw the movie before was that I somehow got the impression it was a schlocky, low budget flick. It is neither. This was apparently Carpenter’s first studio film, and very professionally done. It’s ironic that the movie did not do well at the box office, possibly because it was released right after “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial,” and audiences weren’t up for a second, diametrically opposed, alien movie.

 Fortunately, the film has been vindicated by history, and we can watch it now and feel smug about being smarter than those 1982 audiences that missed it. I suggest watching it on a cold night. I also recommend the commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell.

 5 stars out of 5

 Addendum: I tried to watch the 1951 movie "The Thing from Another World," which is also based on John W. Campbell Jr's story "Who Goes There?", but I gave up after 20 minutes or so. It just isn't up to the standards of John Carpenter's "The Thing."

Friday, April 20, 2012

Real Steel (2011) **


This movie is a good example of how looking at movie reviews can get you in trouble. My instincts told me that a movie about boxing robots is just obviously going to be ridiculous and not worth my time. At some point, however, I read a couple of reviews that acknowledged the seemingly silly premise of the film, but said it was really worth seeing. That’s how it wound up on my Netflix queue and how I wasted an hour watching half of it.

The premise is that in the near future, human boxing is replaced by robot boxing, which is able to be much more violent and destructive. Referees in human bouts have a nasty habit of stopping a fight before someone has, say, their arm ripped off, but that’s not a problem in robot boxing. Hugh Jackman plays Charlie, one of the human handlers who control the fighting ‘bots. Charlie was once a promising boxer himself, and somewhere along the way his unfulfilled potential has made him a bitter ne’er-do-well. He finds a way to blow every opportunity that comes his way, including the grudging affection of the gorgeous robot mechanic he grew up with (Evangeline Lily). What would be the perfect narrative device to throw into this shop-worn story? A kid, of course, and that’s exactly what the filmmakers introduce, in the form of one of Charlie’s blow-bys from an old girlfriend. Charlie and the kid go through the standard Hollywood playbook for this sort of situation, first being standoffish, then gaining a grudging respect for each other, and yada yada yada. This is the point where we paused the movie, and then found that we just really didn’t care to start it up again. It’s possible that something exciting and unexpected was going to happen later in the film, but I doubt it.

The problem is not that “Real Steel” is a bad movie, it‘s that it isn’t a movie for adults. What I have seen of it is done competently enough that this should be good entertainment for teenage boys. The acting is adequate, the robot action is reasonably fun, and Evangeline Lily is cute as a button. I’ve just seen this story before, and putting it in the context of boxing robots doesn’t really add anything. If a sentimental, predictable movie about a man, a boy, and a boxing robot appeals to you, then give it a go. Otherwise, trust your instincts on this one.

2 stars out of 5