Saturday, December 28, 2013

American Hustle (2013) ****

Make no mistake about it.  The two biggest stars of “American Hustle” are Amy Adams’s breasts.  They appear in almost every scene of the film, practically naked in the plunging ‘70s necklines, and there is simply no way not to notice them.  It’s a testament, therefore, to Adams’s qualities as an actress that it is possible, in the midst of all that side-boob, to notice what a tremendous performance she gives.  The same kudos apply to her co-stars, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, and even Louis CK.  It’s an all-star cast, and everyone brings their A-game, including Amy’s breasts.
Bradley Cooper plays Richie, an ambitious FBI agent who busts con-artists Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Adams).  In exchange for leniency, Irving and Sydney agree to help Richie entrap several other con-men, but the operation quickly spirals out of control.  Richie’s ambition knows no bounds, and the team winds up giving bribes to first a well-meaning mayor (Jeremy Renner), then U.S. Congressmen, then going after the Mafia.  Other reviews I have read give the impression that this is some kind of heroic operation, but the truth is, it’s all based on entrapment.  Richie practically shoves the money into these guys’ hands.  You can’t help feeling bad for Jeremy Renner’s mayor Carmine Polito, who really only accepts the bribe as an incidental part of securing what he thinks is an investor to help revitalize his community.
As Richie’s hubris casts the net wider and wider, Irving grows more and more uncomfortable with the operation, as well as with how much time his girlfriend Sydney is spending with Richie.  Meanwhile, he has to keep his unstable wife (Jennifer Lawrence) from blowing the lid off the whole scam.
American Hustle is supposedly loosely based on a real corruption investigation from the 1970’s called ABSCAM, which was a pretty fascinating operation.  As in the film, the FBI employed a con artist, Melvin Weinberg, to help them offer bribes to politicians.  The operation led to the convictions of a U.S. Senator, six members of the House of Representatives, and several other officials.  One Congressman, John Murtha, was not indicted, as the U.S. Attorney determined that his involvement with the agents had been largely aimed at enticing economic investment in his district, and I suspect that the movie character Carmine is based somewhat on him.  Another Congressman, Senator Larry Pressler, outright refused the offered bribe and reported the incident to the FBI.  When he was later referred to as a hero, his response was, “…what have we come to if turning down a bribe is ‘heroic’?”
ABSCAM was, in truth, controversial.  Those convicted claimed they had been entrapped, although those defenses were ultimately rejected by the courts.  Many in Congress, however, claimed that the operation was just revenge for an earlier Congressional investigation into FBI abuses.  That investigation was very embarrassing for the FBI, and so ABSCAM, rather than simply being an anti-corruption operation, may have been a form of political retribution against Congress.
There are no clear heroes in “American Hustle,” either.  Agent Richie is clearly a jerk and a bully.  Sydney and Irving are rather sympathetic, but they are, after all, crooks.  Even Mayor Carmine Polito, who is portrayed as a very decent guy, accepts a bribe and does business with the Mob out of necessity.  “American Hustle” makes a point about the pervasive nature of corruption; how once it exists in a system it becomes difficult for even otherwise good people to avoid it.  As Irving points out, “Some of these were okay guys just doing what they thought was business as usual.”  When “business as usual” comes to mean bribes and special favors, it can be impossible to do business otherwise.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Killing Them Softly (2012) ***½

My wife opted not to watch this one with me, and man, did she make the right call.  It’s not that “Killing Them Softly” is a bad movie; it’s that it is very much a guy’s movie.  This 70’s-style crime story is full of killing and brutality, and the only female in the entire movie is a prostitute who appears in one scene.
Brad Pitt plays Jackie, a hit-man called in to deal out some Mafia-style justice after a couple of low-lifes rob a Mob-run poker parlor.  That’s pretty much the story.  These dirt bags rip off some other dirt bags, then run their mouths about it and wind up with a killer on their tails.  It isn’t the plot of “Killing Them Softly” that makes it such a good specimen of the crime genre, it’s the way the story is told.  The movie is paced with patience, allowing for lots of funny or poignant conversations that will remind viewers of a Tarantino movie, although in truth this style of film predates him.  In fact, with its amoral viewpoint, gritty urban setting, flatly portrayed violence, and realistic conversations between un-glamorized shady characters, this film reminds me of a 1973 movie called “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”  (On further research, I learn that both films are based on 1970’s crime novels by author George V. Higgins.)
“Killing Them Softly” also tries to have something to say about America and the financial crisis of 2008.  News and political images from that time are interspersed through the film, and the motivations of the characters and even the Mob bosses are influenced by the effects of the recession.  The retro look of the film, in which the characters often wear 70’s-style clothes and drive 70’s cars is reminiscent of how the bust seemed to throw us all back into a financial stone-age, also of 1970’s vintage.
Really, the film could be viewed as a microcosm of the financial crisis. In the story, the gambling parlor, which gets robbed by a couple of unemployed guys, turns out to have previously been robbed by the guy running the parlor, a mobster named Mickey.  The fact that Mickey was allowed to get away with his betrayal (“They gave him a pass.“) and continue running the parlor is disgustingly similar to Wall Street speculators getting bonuses after their banks had to be bailed out by the government.  A major question for the hit-men in the film is whether the Mafia will order the same punishment for Mickey as for the low-lifes, and why that is necessary to restore confidence in the system.
“Killing Them Softly” is a deeply layered movie that lends itself to reflection.  The slow pace and the brutal violence mean that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, though.  This is a guy’s movie, specifically a movie for the kind of guy who likes Richard Stark, Quentin Tarantino, and Steve McQueen.

3.5 stars out of 5

Monday, December 09, 2013

I Am Legend (2007) ***

“I Am Legend” is one of those films that I liked better while watching it than I did immediately afterwards, sort of like eating a fast-food meal.  The action kept me on the edge of my seat, but once my heart rate came down it was hard not to focus on some of the holes in the story.
Will Smith plays Lt. Colonel Robert Neville, the last living human being on Manhattan Island, and possibly in the world for all he knows.  A gene therapy designed to treat cancer has mutated into a rabies-like virus that turns humans and animals into  insanely aggressive, hairless, sunlight-fearing monsters.  As a military scientist, Robert had struggled, and failed, to contain the epidemic.  Robert is part of the tiny percentage of humans who are immune to the virus.  For 3 years he has struggled to survive in New York with no human contact, working in his basement lab to find a cure, barricading himself inside his house each night to avoid the notice of the swarming Darkseekers.  He is making some progress in his experiments, but it’s a race against time, as his mind is also slowly unraveling from the pervasive social isolation.
The best part of the film is the dog, Robert’s German shepherd, Sam.  She’s a good canine actor with a lot of personality.  The bond between Sam and Robert, and the extent to which the relationship keeps Robert sane, is touching.  Will Smith’s performance is less even.  At times, his efforts to portray Robert’s complicated mental state fall prey to his glib, frantic “Will Smith” persona.  This is particularly confusing in a scene where Robert is caught in a trap similar to ones he uses to trap the Darkseekers.  His behavior is erratic either way, but it’s impossible to tell whether he is dementedly falling into one of his own traps, or if the Darkseekers have copied his trap design in order to trap him.
“I Am Legend” is based on the 1954 Richard Matheson novel of the same name, which was adapted previously into 1964’s “The Last Man On Earth” and 1971’s “The Omega Man.”  Interestingly, reviews suggest that the novel and those earlier films all portray the infected humans as much more vampire-like, while the “I Am Legend” film paints them more like fast zombies who can’t stand light.  In fact, the story it most reminds me of is the zombie-plague thriller “28 Days Later.”  “28 Days Later” has become a classic, while “I Am Legend” doesn’t quite reach that level, largely due to plot problems that become untenable in the second half of the film.  Nonetheless, it’s a decent action flick, especially for those who enjoy the zombie genre.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Midnight in Paris (2011) ****

For those of us who spend a lot of time inside our own heads, a common perception is that we would be better suited to living in an earlier era, a time when our talents and sensibilities would fit in better with the zeitgeist.  In Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Owen Wilson plays such a character.  Gil is in love with Paris, and with 1920’s Paris in particular.  On a trip to modern-day Paris with his shrew of a fiancĂ© Inez (Rachel McAdams), he muses on how today’s vulgar world has led him to ignore his dreams of writing novels in favor of making big money as a Hollywood screenwriter.  Inez is troubled by Gil’s talk of giving up his lucrative career to move to Paris and write, so she distracts herself by spending time with Paul (Michael Sheen), a pedantic, intellectual bore she knows from college.  
       On a solitary, midnight walk Gil becomes lost and is invited to party with a joyous group in an antique car.  He is taken to a party where he meets F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and slowly Gil realizes that he has stepped into 1920’s Paris.  He meets Earnest Hemingway, who offers to show Gil’s novel to Gertrude Stein if he will bring it around the next night.  Thus, Gil embarks on a series of midnight walks, visiting his dream era and meeting his artistic heroes.  In this 1920’s world he also meets a beautiful girl, Adrianna (Marion Cotillard), and the two hit it off, partly because Adrianna also dreams of living in an earlier, better era, which for her is the turn of the century.  Ultimately, Gil gets the opportunity with Adrianna to pursue HER dream and step into a turn-of-the-century bar, where they meet artists like Toulouse Latrec, some of whom express a wish that they had lived during the Renaissance.  Through all of them, Gil sees the folly of this constant wishing after a Golden Age, and they help him figure out what is important to him in his real world.
I’m sure there is room for debate on this, but I think “Midnight in Paris” is one of Woody Allen’s finest films.  His playful ability to blend fantasy and reality to explore the way our consciousness works is fully on display.  The characterizations of the Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill), Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) are delightful.  Rachel McAdams is wonderful as the cheating, materialistic fiancĂ©, reminding me of how good she can be when she’s bad (see “Mean Girls”), and Owen Wilson more than holds his own against this stellar supporting cast.
For creating a masterpiece like this is his 70’s, Woody Allen is an example of how to remain vital and productive into old age.  Allen was born in 1935, but unlike some of the characters in “Midnight in Paris,” he isn’t looking back to some Golden Age.  He is fully living in, and engaged with, the  present, which is the only time anyone ever gets to live.

4 stars out of 5

Monday, November 25, 2013

Skyfall (2012) ****

Whenever a new actor is chosen to play James Bond, there’s always a huge amount of discussion among fans about whether or not it’s a good choice.  You could fill a book just with all the online rants about the fact that Daniel Craig shouldn’t play Bond because he has BLOND HAIR!  I think that at this point Craig has laid to rest any doubts.  What this whole argument ignores, however, is that the main determinant of whether a Bond movie will be fun or forgettable is the VILLAIN.  “Quantum of Solace” is widely considered one of the less successful Bond efforts, but Craig was just fine in it.  The villain, though, was just another oily, vaguely evil businessman of the type they have been throwing into forgettable Bond films for years.
What the franchise has been needing is another villain as charismatic as Goldfinger, and they have found him in Javier Bardem’s Silva.  Silva is smart, funny, brutal, and possibly bisexual.  He is also driven not by the usual lust for power or money, but by revenge.  One thing that makes this villain memorable is the personal nature of his mission.  It turns out Silva is a former agent with a grudge against M (Judy Dench).  He lures Bond and M into an elaborate trap, and our heroes have to get creative to get ahead of the evil genius.  The chase ultimately leads to Skyfall, the country estate where Bond grew up, and we get treated to some interesting Bond background.
Daniel Craig and Judy Dench are as cool as ever in their respective roles, but it is Javier Bardem who makes the movie.  From demonstrating how to win a game of “William Tell,” to helicoptering into battle blaring John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” Silva reminds us that the greatest thing in a great Bond film is, and always will be, a great villain.

4 stars out of 5

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Parker (2013) ****

They’ve been making movies out of Richard Stark novels since the ‘60s, and mostly screwing them up.  For those not familiar with the name, Richard Stark was a pen name under which Donald Westlake wrote a number of hard-boiled crime novels, mostly about a professional heist-man named Parker.  “Point Blank,” based on the first Parker novel, “The Hunter,“ and starring Lee Marvin as the Parker character, had some noir charm.  Unfortunately, it was full of distracting flashbacks, and they changed the main character’s name to “Walker.”  Years later, Hollywood re-visited “The Hunter” with the Mel Gibson movie “Payback.”  Once again, major changes were made to the story, including changing the character’s name to “Porter” this time, and Gibson didn’t fit the Parker character as well as Lee Marvin did.  “Payback” was not actually a bad movie, but it was another disappointment for fans of the books.  Even French New Wave director Godard dipped into the Stark library with “Made in USA,” which is supposed to be loosely based on Stark’s “The Jugger.”  It is based so loosely that Stark himself wouldn’t recognize the story.
I have read that the reason they always changed the main character’s name in these movies is that Westlake himself wasn’t willing to allow use of the Parker name unless he approved of the movie and the actor was on board to do follow-up films.  In light of that, I would like to say that the latest Stark adaptation is boldly named “Parker” because they finally got it right.  Unfortunately, Donald Westlake died in 2008, so I don’t think any endorsement can be inferred.  Nonetheless, they really did finally get it right.  This may be the best Parker movie yet.
Based on the Stark novel “Flashfire,”  “Parker” finds our titular anti-hero pulling off a robbery at a county fair.  The heist is successful, but afterwards his partners “invite” him to give them his share of the take as seed money for another, even bigger, robbery, and to join them in that job.  Parker isn’t the “go along to get along“ type, and the ensuing confrontation leaves his partners with various injuries and Parker left for dead in a ditch.  Parker is the kind of guy who, if you leave him for dead, you had better make sure he’s dead.  When he gets back on his feet, he sets out to get his money and his revenge.  The quest leads him to Palm Beach, where he teams up with a struggling real estate agent to take on his ex-partners and a Mob hit-man.
It turns out Jason Statham makes a pretty good Parker.  Fans of the books may quibble over his British accent, but I say just go with it.  Parker is methodical, relentless, cool under fire, and an absolute bad-ass, and Statham portrays all that quite well.  Maybe it is essentially the same character he always plays, but who cares?  He totally nails it.  “Parker” also benefits from an excellent supporting cast.  Nick Nolte is perfect as Parker’s gravelly father-in-law and partner-in-crime.  Michael Chiklis is equally good as the double-crossing Melander.  He portrays Melander not as some sociopath or evil genius, but as a crook who isn’t all that different from Parker, except for his willingness to double-cross a partner.  The best surprise in “Parker” is how good Jennifer Lopez is as a desperate realtor, always one big commission away from financial security.  She manages to make it convincing that a pretty woman from the straight world would team up with a crook like Parker.  Lopez has mostly been famous for being famous these last few years, but her performance in “Parker” reminds me of how good she was in the 1998 film “Out of Sight.”
Now for the bad news.  “Parker” bombed at the box office.  For some reason, the movie didn’t connect with critics or audiences.  I loved the film, but it isn’t like a Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino film, where an outrageous mix of violence and humor helps the movie break out.  “Parker” is the kind of well-done, straightforward crime thriller that needs help from some star power to gain an audience.  In this case, I imagine Jason Statham fans were put off by seeing Jennifer Lopez on the poster, and Jennifer Lopez fans weren’t looking to watch an action movie.  In any case, I don’t expect to see Jason Statham reprise the Parker role, which is a shame.  At least we have “Parker,” which in my mind makes up for a lot of sketchy Richard Stark adaptations over the years.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Middle Men (2009) **½

I’m proposing a rule for movies “based on a true story.”  The movie shouldn’t be completely initiated and financed by the guy the story is about.  “Middle Men” purports to tell the story of real-life entrepreneur Chris Mallick, who, along with some partners, developed the online credit card payment sites that allow people across the world to discreetly pay for internet porn, online gambling, and so on.  Mallick ultimately had fallings-out with his partners and customers, but you won’t see their side of the story in “Middle Men.“  The film is Mallick’s brain-child, financed out of his personal fortune, and it is very much his version of things.  That’s not to say that “Middle Men” is a bad movie.  I actually found it quite enjoyable.  The problem is that once you read the history of this film, you realize it is just a dodgy businessman’s attempt to whitewash his reputation, and the whole movie starts to look like a joke.
In the film, Mallick is represented by the character Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), an honorable family man with a history of organized crime connections, but a heart full of good intentions.  His specialty is “solving problems,” because he is so astute and so good at listening to people that he is able to find solutions to seemingly hopeless situations.  He helps a friend keep an L.A. nightclub afloat, and somehow the club ends up becoming his.  Then he meets Wayne (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck (Gabriel Macht), a couple of idiots who have written the first program to allow credit-card payments over the internet.  They are using the program to run a successful porn site, but they are in trouble with their Russian-mafia partners.  Jack sorts out their problems, then helps them take the business to the next level as an international clearinghouse for porn subscriptions.  As the money comes rolling in, Jack struggles valiantly to keep himself clean and straight amid the sleazy porn industry.
Luke Wilson is pretty good in the role.  His good-guy charm is a perfect fit for the perpetually agreeable Jack Harris.  At some point, however, you have to stop and ask why this character is so squeaky-clean, so perfectly decent.  The answer, of course, is that the man on whom Jack is based is the man financing the film.  For the story behind the movie, see this link for an interview with Chris Mallick.
Standing on its own, “Middle Men” is pretty entertaining, although I did start to find the knight-in-shining-armor version of Jack to be unbelievable.  After reading up on the background of the film, I find I can’t take it seriously as anything more than the deluded revenge fantasy of an unscrupulous businessman who has sacrificed a lot of relationships to make his fortune, but can’t give up on his good-guy image of himself.

2.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, November 10, 2013

In Bruges (2008) ***

“Maybe that’s what Hell is.  You just spend Eternity in Bruges.  If so, I really don’t want to die.”  These are the words of Ray (Colin Farrell), a hit-man stuck hiding out with his partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) after a job causes the accidental death of a young boy.  Why they are lying low in Bruges, Belgium is one of the many droll highlights of the movie, as their boss apparently thinks that the medieval buildings and history of Bruges make it “like a f--ing fairy tale” and a city that everyone should see at least once.  Ken actually agrees, and enjoys seeing the sights, but Ray sulks about and tries to avoid facing his crushing guilt over killing an innocent child.
“In Bruges” manages to maintain just the right balance between farcical hilarity and dark subject matter.  Ray is charmingly dense when he hits on a girl by making well-intentioned but un-PC banter about a dwarf.  When the dwarf turns out to be a whoring druggie with racist theories about the coming race war, the joke just gets funnier.  Farrell plays Ray with the perfect mix of melancholy and cluelessness.  Ralph Fiennes is chilling, yet hilarious as their boss Harry.
There are plenty of movies cast from this mold:  wisecracking, double-crossing cockney thugs being by turns hilarious and murderous.  “In Bruges” isn’t the best of the bunch, but it’s pretty good, and of course the setting is “like a f---ing fairy tale.”

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) **

When drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) takes a job at a diner, the job comes with benefits in the person of the boss’s wife, Cora (Lana Turner).  Tired of her marriage to the older, boring Nick(Cecil Kellaway), Cora longs to be with Frank and have the diner to run herself, so the two of them hatch a murder plot.
With this classic noir setup, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” explores the difficulties of carrying off a perfect murder as well as the aftermath, including the question of whether love can survive such stresses.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t explore these themes nearly as well as the superior film “Double Indemnity” did two years earlier in 1944.  The film does have some bright spots.  Cecil Kellaway is excellent as the penny-pinching, clueless Nick, and Hume Cronyn steals every scene as a sleazy defense attorney.  I also like that the film doesn’t make the murderers completely despicable.  They do truly fall in love, and Cora winds up having more than the usual financial motive to want Nick dead. The lead actors, unfortunately, are too weak to carry the story off.  Lana Turner is just serviceable, John Garfield is completely unconvincing, and the pair lack chemistry.  Aspects of the plot are poorly developed as well.  The District Attorney is onto Cora and Frank from the beginning, but the film never explains how he comes to suspect them.
“Postman” was successful and apparently well-regarded by critics, and it was a turning point in Turner’s career, offering her a meatier role than her previous “scream-queen” and “sweater girl” work.  In the context of great noir films, however, it is a couple of tiers below movies like “Double Indemnity.”  “The Postman Always Rings Twice”?  He can just leave this one on the front porch.

2 stars out of 5

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Looper (2012) **

“Looper” is written and directed by Rian Johnson, the mind behind the excellent neo-noir film “Brick.”  Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Also from “Brick”) and Bruce Willis, the film has all the ingredients of a great thriller.  I came in with high expectations, and was unfortunately disappointed.
The story revolves around the idea that mobsters of the future have a hard time disposing of bodies, due to tracking, forensics, etc.  To solve this problem, they send one of their own back in time thirty years to set up a hit-man ring.  Then they just send potential victims back in time to be murdered and disposed of, achieving the perfect crime.  Eventually, for reasons that are never adequately explained, the Mobsters will hunt down the retired hit-men and send them back in time to be murdered by their 30-years-younger selves, which is called closing the loop.  These callow, young men mostly comply with this, because it comes with a stack of gold, and at their young age, they figure a fortune and 30 years to spend it is all they need from life.  Joe (Gordon-Levitt), however, finds that his older self isn’t so easy to kill.  When Old Joe (Willis) escapes, Joe pursues him, trying to stay one step ahead of his angry boss.
It’s a decent story setup except for the glaring question of why these future Mobsters decide to close all those loops.  Why not just let the old hit-men live out their lives in retirement?  The suggestion is that it’s because they could potentially testify against the Mobsters regarding their illegal use of time travel, but that doesn’t really explain it.  What about the henchmen who throw the victims into the time machine?  They could potentially rat their bosses out, too.
If this were the only example of poor plot development in “Loopers” I could let it go.  Unfortunately, the film is a mine-field of inexplicable actions on the part of it’s characters, not to mention very sloppy handling of the time-travel paradox.  My final complaint is that the film features the hunting down and killing of children, as Old Joe tries to prevent a future Mob boss from growing up.  A movie has to be really good to justify the melodrama of putting children or animals in danger, and “Loopers” does not meet that standard.
Having said all that, the film is very stylishly done.  Rian Johnson is an excellent filmmaker, I think he just needs some help on the writing side.  Gordon-Levitt and Willis are also excellent, both giving compelling performances that make the film somewhat watch-able despite its plot problems.  Still, if I could go back in time, I would probably tell my slightly younger self to watch something else.

2 stars out of 5

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Atlas Shrugged Part II (2012) **

So I already explained how “Atlas Shrugged Part I” is beautifully filmed and well-enough acted that those who agree with Ayn Rand’s political philosophy will enjoy it despite the ridiculous plot and often wooden dialogue.  Well, Part II has all the same liabilities, with worse acting and cinematography.
The director and cast were replaced for “Atlas Shrugged Part II,” mostly for the worse.  Patrick Fabian is actually an improvement as the smarmy James Taggart, but otherwise the casting suffers.  Jason Beghe’s Hank Rearden rasps out his lines in a deep, hoarse voice that is a parody of masculinity.  Samantha Mathis is absolutely the worst as Dagny Taggart.  She actually looks the part of an experienced engineer and business tycoon more than Taylor Schilling from Part I did, but Schilling matches the age and look of the Dagny from the novel better.  Also, Mathis is 14 years older than Schilling, so the transition between the two is jarring.  None of that would be a deal breaker if Mathis were a better actress, but she is just terrible in this.
Plotwise, the film starts with a ridiculous-looking airplane chase, with the new lead Samantha Mathis as Dagny Taggart flying one of the jets.  This scene is so badly done that I almost gave up on the film right then.  Fortunately, the sequence does represent the low point of the film.  Unfortunately, they revisit it at the end.  Otherwise, the film continues the tale, with government interference relentlessly destroying industries, and talented people continuing to disappear.  Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden continue doing their best while government looters hound them at every step.  Rearden gets brought up on charges of violating some socialist law, and his trial features a moving speech that should warm the hearts of Objectivists (followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.)  In their headlong rush to move the film along, however, the filmmakers don’t really build the trial up or give this pivotal scene the development it deserves.  This problem of pacing is a recurring issue in both Parts I and II.
“Atlas Shrugged Part III” is slated to hit a few theaters in Summer 2014, and that’s all the news I can find on it.  The good news is that if they decide to re-cast yet again, it’s bound to be an improvement this time.
These “Atlas Shrugged” movies are essentially porn for Objectivists.  With porn, you put up with the bad acting and silly plot because you know some hot porn action is on the way.  In this case, the hot action consists of people standing up for individualism and free-market ideas.  It’s not something you get to see every day.

2 stars out of 5

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pantaleon y las Visitadores (Captain Pantoja and the Special Services, 2000) ***

I chose this one simply because my Peruvian friend suggested it as a good example of Peruvian cinema.  Interestingly, it is a remake of a 1975 film based on a Peruvian novel.  It turned out to be quite good, and surprisingly deep, given the subject matter.
Army Captain Pantaleon is selected for a top-secret mission.  Soldiers in remote jungle outposts are becoming restless, so far from their wives and girlfriends.  A number of rapes in far-flung villages have been blamed on the military, and the generals decide that a solution is needed.  Pantaleon is recruited to discreetly establish a military prostitution service.  The women, called Visitors, will see to the needs of the soldiers and be well paid, but the whole operation has to be kept quiet.
Pantaleon turns out to be the perfect choice, although he accepts it reluctantly.  As a newly-wed, clean-cut, Boy Scout type, he is less susceptible than many would be to the inherently corrupting nature of his task.  He plots and executes the operation with a businesslike efficiency that makes his superiors proud.  Unfortunately, when Pantaleon stands up for his Visitors publicly, he learns an unfortunate lesson about military expediency.
Rather than simply playing the story off for laughs or melodrama, the film strikes a nice balance of humor and realism.  Most impressively, it develops the character of Pantaleon, who initially seems so squeaky-clean, but turns out to be very complex and noble.  “Pantaleon y las Visitadores” is by turns funny, sexy, and poignant, and well worth watching.

3 stars out of 5

Friday, September 20, 2013

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) ***1/2

It’s a shame this move is weighed down by such a cumbersome name.  It’s an excellent, very sexy movie about swinging married couples in the late ’60’s.
Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) attend a New Age, group therapy session that transforms their relationship and consciousness.  Suddenly they are asking everyone how they “feel” about things, and urging everyone to tell the “real truth.”  Their newfound enlightenment prompts Bob to confess immediately after having an affair, and that same enlightenment allows Carol to laugh it off without jealousy.  When Carol turns the tables, it takes Bob slightly longer to get into the groove, but ultimately they are really both very hip about the whole thing.  Their best friends, Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon) have a harder time accepting the whole grooviness of this lifestyle when they learn of it.
I should temper my praise for the movie with a warning that it is quite chatty.  “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” is hilarious at times, but it is also a serious movie about sex and relationships.  It is not paced like a romantic comedy.  The characters have long conversations, which for me is the strength of the film.  They really take time to explore these issues of love, sex, jealousy, and friendship.  The film is an excellent time capsule of what some people were thinking about these subjects back in the swinging ‘60’s.
“Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” reminds me of another movie, “Carnal Knowledge,” starring Jack Nicholson, Candace Bergen, and Art Garfunkel.  Both films were groundbreaking in their frank exploration of sexual politics.  The difference is that “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” is much easier to watch.  The characters are generally good people, which makes the film perhaps less grittily realistic than “Carnal Knowledge,” but definitely more fun.  Also, Natalie Wood is absolutely adorable and looks great in her underwear!

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Atlas Shrugged Part I (2011) ***

Next to Hillary Clinton, Ayn Rand is probably the most polarizing woman of modern times.  Her two most well-known books, “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” have helped countless twenty-something Americans figure out which side of the ideological divide we fall on.  Love her or hate her, chances are you at least know the basics of her philosophy:  Individual freedom is all-important.  The world works best when every individual looks out for his or her own rational self-interest (The virtue of selfishness).  The world moves forward because of the insights of individual creators and inventors.  Individual producers should be free to exchange their wares in the free market of laissez-faire capitalism, and government should not confiscate the fruits of their labor in order to feed people who do not produce.
These ideas are obviously a counterpoint to the views of the Left, and that was Rand’s intention.  Her books gained traction because they gave voice to a worldview held by at least half the country, but generally ignored by artists.  This is why Rand’s voice still speaks so loudly today despite the fact that she is arguably a writer of limited talents.  Even those who love her ideas have to admit that her books are ponderous and preachy, with often ludicrous plot elements.  Still, critiquing Ayn Rand’s writing at this point is as pointless as criticizing the Bible.  The ideas are the important things, and people either believe them or they don’t.
This brings us to the “Atlas Shrugged” movie.  It has been on my Netflix queue for ages, constantly overlooked.  I happen to be one who likes Rand’s ideas, but I was not optimistic about this film.  The book “Atlas Shrugged” is long and full of pages-long monologues on various themes of Rand’s political philosophy.  I figured it was un-filmable.
Imagine my surprise when the movie turned out to be watchable!  It’s beautifully filmed, the (mostly little-known) actors are competent, and the film actually manages to boil down Rand’s stilted, preachy narrative into something that mostly flows, while maintaining her message.
For those who haven’t read the book, it is the story of industrialists and inventors trying to keep their businesses going during an economic depression and in the face of socialist meddling.  Railroad executive/engineer Dagny Taggart and steel magnate/inventor Hank Rearden are capable, practical leaders who could probably turn the economy around if they weren’t constantly beset by politicians and slimy businessmen who seek to get ahead through government favors.  The bottom-dwellers cry “unfair competition” when a competitor threatens to get ahead, and rather than innovate, they get laws passed that are supposedly “for the common good,” but are really aimed at crippling their competition.
Meanwhile, skilled inventors, engineers, and executives are disappearing one-by-one after being approached by a mysterious man in a trench-coat and hat.  While Dagny and Hank struggle to keep their industries going despite all the parasites, they also try to figure out what is happening to all these capable people, and to answer the rhetorical question on everyone’s lips, “Who is John Galt?”
Sound a bit ridiculous or contrived?  It is.  Remember, in Rand’s work, plot is completely subservient to her philosophy.  With no background in science or technology, Rand just made up scientific advancements that served her story, and they are sometimes as ridiculous as her utopian fantasies.  Nonetheless, her depictions of political maneuvering and interference in business are pretty realistic. Viewers (and readers) in any decade will recognize the manipulative socialist propaganda and the mania for innovation-strangling regulations.  People like this story because it helps them put into words what instinctively repels them about Statism and Socialism.   In it’s slavish worship of laissez-faire capitalism, of course, the story ignores the historical tendency of all enterprises to eventually come under the control of people whose only talent is taking advantage of power to make money.  This type of Capitalist will use government regulation to his advantage if possible, but he can also simply manipulate markets through deception, monopoly, and bullying.  Government regulation is an imperfect counterbalance to this power, but it is all we have.  Rand’s complete blindness to this reality is a major weakness that leaves her work open to ridicule from the Left.
The bottom line is that if you like Ayn Rand’s philosophy, you will probably like the movie.  For a low-budget portrayal of a rather contrived story, it’s surprisingly well-put-together.  Now for the bad news.  The filmmakers broke the story into three parts.  This is Part I.  For Part II, they completely replaced the cast and director.  So in addition to asking “Who is John Galt,” we get to spend the first part of the sequel trying to figure out who everyone else is.

3 stars out of 5

Monday, September 09, 2013

End of Watch (2012) ***

“End of Watch” gets a lot of mileage out of the charisma of its stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena.  These two guys have so much chemistry that just watching them drive around the streets of L.A., engaging in the occasional action sequence, is enough to make this film moderately entertaining.  Just don’t expect the story to really go anywhere.
Officers Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Pena) are as close as brothers, and they patrol the L.A. streets like a couple of true heroes until the evil of the Mexican cartels catches up to them.  That’s all there is to the plot.  Taylor and Zavala aren’t corrupt, and they don’t discover corruption.  They don’t really solve any big mysteries.  They just make a series of good busts, through luck and good police work, and a drug/human trafficking cartel eventually puts out a hit on them.  My beef with the film is that there really isn’t any character arc.  These officers are really good guys who do a good job, which is nice for them, but it doesn’t make for much of a story.  They aren’t conflicted, and without conflict in a story, what do you have?
In the case of “End of Watch,” you have a reasonably good action flick.  The guys engage in several intense chases and shootouts, which are realistically filmed, partly with point-of-view cameras.  One gets the feeling that the portrayals of police work in general are pretty realistic.  The film really is pretty tautly directed by David Ayer, (who wrote the superior, in my opinion, “Training Day.”)  Combined with the excellent cast, it makes for entertaining viewing even if the story is lacking.   I’m still tempted to complain that the movie is simplistically gung-ho, and that the Gyllenhaal/Anna Kendrick sex scene is so “Top Gun” that I could practically hear the song “Take My Breath Away” in the background.  But what the hell?  If you are in the mood for something action-packed and un-complicated, you could do worse than this.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Amores Perros (2000)

I don’t bail out on a lot of movies, but after about a half hour of this one, I gave up.  It’s a shame.  The movie seems to be highly regarded, and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu went on to become a big deal after this film, directing “21 Grams” and “Babel”.  It was also Gael Garcia Bernal’s first film.
So what didn’t I like?  I can sum it up in two words: dog fighting.  I tolerated the first couple of scenes, but they just keep showing scenes of dogfights, with graphic images of wounded and killed dogs.  I don’t need that.
Roger Ebert made a comment once that I think applies here.  In his review for “Blue Velvet,” regarding the scene in which Isabella Rossellini is left naked and abused in a suburban neighborhood, he says that the movie had not done anything to justify or earn the right to show him that image.  In general, I find images of children or animals being harmed to be un-watchable.  There may be some exceptions, if the film is particularly gripping, and the scene is clearly necessary.  “Amores Perros,” however, was not nearly good enough to justify seeing so many dead or injured dogs.
I can live without seeing the rest of this one.

0 stars out of 5

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Extraterrestrial (Extraterrestre, 2011) ***

I’m going to give away a spoiler right away here: “Extraterrestrial” is not about aliens.  When Julio (Julian Villagran) wakes up in a strange apartment to a hangover and a beautiful girl, the UFO they discover hovering over the city just serves as a backdrop for all the human craziness that follows.  The girl, who is coincidentally named Julia (Michelle Jenner), turns out to be married.  She also has a creepy, not-so-secret admirer living across the hall.  When her husband, Carlos, returns, and the neighbor, Angel, starts snooping around, the four of them form quite a love-quadrangle.  They engage in humorous hijinks, misunderstandings, and lies in a city that is largely abandoned due to the UFO invasion.
Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, this Spanish film is more enjoyable than it has any right to be.  Vigalondo wrote and directed “Timecrimes (Los Cronocrimenes)”, so with “Extraterrestre” I was all set for some creepy, head-trippy, sci-fi action.  Instead I got a romantic comedy with a UFO in the background.  Fortunately, the film works well as it is.  It’s funny and sexy, and at the end they play a song by the Magnetic Fields.
Actually, I may be selling “Extraterrestre” short as a science-fiction film.  In a way, this is very subversive sci-fi.  Plenty of movies have put guys in the middle of an alien invasion, and they do all the heroic or evil stuff they are going to do while generally refusing to acknowledge that there is a drop-dead gorgeous girl standing next to them.  “Extraterrestre” puts that unavoidable fact front and center.  Julio does what he does and makes his mistakes for the most obvious reason possible: he does it for the girl!

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, August 04, 2013

To Rome With Love (2012) ***

As the title suggests, this Woody Allen film is first and foremost a love letter to the city of Rome.  The architecture and the people look absolutely stunning.  “To Rome With Love”  does for Rome what “Midnight in Paris” does for Paris:  It makes Rome look like the most romantic spot on earth.
If the stories in the movie aren’t as compelling as the city itself, that isn’t to say they aren’t entertaining.  This is just a light, fun movie and should be enjoyed as such.  Allen tells four different stories in Rome.  Allen himself plays Jerry, a classical music producer who visits Rome to meet his future in-laws and finds that one of them is an opera impresario, at least in the shower.  Soon, Jerry is putting on the oddest opera production Rome has ever seen.  In another story, Roberto Benigni plays Leopoldo, an ordinary guy who gets a taste of sudden, unmerited fame.  Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi play newlyweds freshly arrived in Rome from a small town.  In the big city they get a taste of life in the fast lane.  Finally, in the most compelling of the narratives, Alec Baldwin plays John, an architect who looks back wistfully on his college years spent living and studying in Rome.  Touring the city again, he gets a chance to see his younger self (Jesse Eisenberg).  He tries to advise young John not to pursue a disastrous love affair, but of course the young never listen to the old, and the affair plays out just as it did the first time around.
I found these stories delightful, and it’s refreshing that Allen  doesn’t try to weave them all together.  Leopoldo’s story hilariously spoofs celebrity culture.  The newlywed and opera stories are funny as well, even if they lack depth.  It’s the story of John, however, that really sticks.  Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg are both excellent.  Baldwin’s amused fatalism at his younger self’s foolishness is hilarious.  “So she’s beautiful, funny, smart, sexual, …and also neurotic?  It’s like filling an inside straight!”  “Go ahead, walk into the propeller.”  Then, after watching older John judge and laugh at younger John, it’s especially poignant when younger John turns the tables.  It’s a fascinating exploration of what might go on in the mind of a middle-aged man as he evaluates his life and decisions, past and present.
With a Rottentomatoes score of only 43%, “To Rome With Love” was clearly not a hit with the critics.  Most complained that it wasn’t funny, or at least wasn’t among Woody Allen’s better work.  I’ll agree, at least, that Woody Allen has done much better.  “Midnight in Paris,” for example, is a much tighter, more consequential fantasy.  “To Rome With Love” is rather weightless by comparison.  The acting is excellent, however, and the Alec Baldwin storyline resonated enough with me to make the movie.  I might have been disappointed at seeing this in the cinema, but as a date-movie to watch on DVD, it’s just fine.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Monsters University (2013) ****

Over the years, Pixar’s animated films have tended to fall into two categories: Wonderful tales with surprising emotional depth that entertain the entire family (“Wall-E”, “Up,” “Toy Story 3”) and shallow misfires that the kids will still watch (“Cars 1 and 2”).  Fortunately, most of their films fall into the first category, so much so that I am generally pretty disappointed when they fall short (e.g. “Brave”).  “Monsters, Inc.” was definitely one of the good ones, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.  I never thought it needed a sequel, though, let alone a prequel.
I was skeptical, then, when I heard about the prequel “Monsters University.”  I figured it was just Pixar trying to cash in.  After all, the heart of “Monsters, Inc.” is the love story between big, scary Sully and a three-year-old child.  I figured the creators of the prequel would fail by trying to make basically the same movie minus the little kid.  I was pleasantly surprised to see them take a completely different tack, telling a story about growing up, finding yourself, and making friends.
“Monsters University” tells the story of how Mike and Sully, the monsters from the first film, met in college and became a team.  The tale is told from Mike’s perspective, as he pursues his lifelong dream to become a scarer, the esteemed monsters who slip into kids’ rooms at night to spook them and collect the scream energy that powers the monster world.  Mike is an academic whiz, and he enters college ready to study his way to the top of the class.  The problem is that Mike is, at the end of the day, just a big eyeball, and not that scary.  Sully, on the other hand, strolls onto campus with the swagger of a star athlete.  Big and hairy, he is naturally scary, but he is too lazy to study.  Both get booted from the scarer program, and their only hope of getting back in is to join the nerdiest fraternity on campus and help them win the Greek Scare Games.  Did I mention that Mike and Sully can’t stand each other, or that they eventually work through their differences to become fast friends?  There aren’t a lot of surprises here.  The story will be quite familiar to anyone who has seen “Revenge of the Nerds” or any of the many other movies where a group of misfits teams up to take on a bunch of jocks.
Lacking as it is in originality, the movie is still a barrel of fun.  The movie works because, in the Pixar tradition, they take the time for real characterization and to make the characters’ actions make sense.  I still think “Monsters, Inc.” is a slightly better movie, but “Monsters University” is a welcome addition to the story.  It truly is fun for the whole family.

4 stars out of 5

Friday, July 26, 2013

Before Midnight (2013) ***1/2

It’s been a long wait for a sequel, but for most of it we didn‘t even know we were waiting.  Those who are fans of the Richard Linklater films leading up to this movie know what I am talking about.  It was in 1995 that “Before Sunrise” introduced us to Jessie and Celine, a couple of strangers who meet on a train, then spend a long night in Vienna talking and falling in love.  Then, nine years later, “Before Sunset” came along in 2004 to finally get the two together properly.  At that point, according to the Hollywood paradigm, the story was over.  Almost every movie is about people falling in love.  Once they achieve that, what else is there to tell?  They just live happily ever after, right?
In his latest film, “Before Midnight,” Linklater, along with co-writers Delpy and Hawke, explores that question of “What happens next?”  The movie finds Jesse and Celine raising girls of their own and trying to see as much as possible of Jesse’s son from his first marriage.  This is challenging, because they live in France, and Jesse’s son lives in Chicago.  Jesse is a successful writer, and Celine is considering a major career change.  Then Celine and the girls are kidnapped, and Jesse is forced to save them himself, with help from a grizzled, old assassin played by Clint Eastwood.
Did I have you going for a second there?  Probably not, because if you know Richard Linklater’s work, you know he doesn’t make violent action movies.  What he does is make action out of the everyday activity of conversation, and he does it again in “Before Midnight.”  This time around, the conversation isn’t always as benign as in the first two films.  One rule of humanity is that no matter how good we have it, none of us thinks our life is easy or simple.  Jesse and Celine are no exception.  In “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” they were flush with the thrill of falling in love, but now they are just trying to raise their kids and pursue their individual dreams together, or perhaps separately.  They enjoy a life that includes long vacations in Greece and dinner with artists and writers, but there is plenty of dissatisfaction to go around.
“Before Midnight” is very much the sort of thing you will like if you like this sort of thing.  The characters talk and talk and talk.  If you don’t know whether you would like such a talky, action-free movie, then rent “Before Sunrise” and find out.  If that hooks you, then go ahead and watch “Before Sunset” and finally, “Before Midnight.”  I suppose it would be possible to watch and enjoy “Before Midnight” without having seen the first two movies, but why would you want to?  I think this film will resonate much more if you have that history with the characters.
So, did I like “Before Midnight”?  I did like it, but I didn’t ENJOY it as much as I did the first two films.  The material is more difficult.  Instead of falling in love, they are trying to stay in love.  As Celine puts it, “Sometimes I think you are breathing helium, and I am breathing oxygen.“  Watching this film is like hanging out with that bickering couple we all know. There were times when I just wanted to yell, “Stop picking at each other!”  Still, you have to give them credit for making such a real, emotionally gritty film.

3.5 stars out of 5

Monday, June 03, 2013

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di ferragosto, 2008) and Salt of Life (Gianni e le donne, 2011) ***

They don’t make many movies for adults, and they make even fewer for middle-aged and elderly people.  This pair of Italian comedies, by writer, director, and star Gianni Di Gregorio, helps to remedy that.  The wry humor in these completely grown-up films is slow-paced, but very charming.
“Mid-August Lunch” introduces us to Gianni, an Italian man probably in his fifties, unemployed and living in Rome with his elderly mother.  With no way to keep up with their bills, they are threatened with eviction from their condo, but Gianni sips his white wine and carries himself with a resigned good humor that is at the same time depressive and somehow almost Buddhist.  Gianni is a gourmet cook who seems content to care for his mother and slouch along from one meal to the next, although he doesn’t relish the possibility of losing his home.  Salvation comes when his condo manager offers to erase their debts if Gianni will care for the manager’s elderly Mom over a holiday weekend.  Then things snowball, until Gianni finds himself caretaker for four grumpy, elderly ladies in a suddenly cramped apartment.  Gianni’s good-natured acceptance of the situation, and the women’s gradual acceptance of each others’ company is funny and heartwarming.
“Salt of Life” picks up with Gianni perhaps a year or so later. He is still this sort of sad-sack, drinking his wine and cooking fine meals.  His mom has moved to a home where she has other old women around for company, and Gianni now shares his apartment with his daughter and ex-wife (!).  His life changes when his friend pushes him to find a girlfriend.  Gianni’s sex life has been in hibernation, but finally he starts to notice all the gorgeous Italian girls in his life, and he clumsily starts flirting.  It’s a little odd to see this old, out-of-shape, penniless guy hitting on young women, but it’s a funny movie, nonetheless.  Gianni Di Gregorio may be schlubby, but he has an amazing screen presence, and the girls are pretty easy on the eyes.
If one of these movies bumped into a Michael Bay film, there would probably be a massive release of energy as the two polar opposites destroyed each other.  These movies are fairly quiet, with subtle humor.  They are fun to watch, however, if you are in the mood for a foreign, artsy film.

Both films, 3 stars out of 5

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Pitch Perfect (2012) ***

When I heard that Rebel Wilson, the blond, British girl from “Bridesmaids” who poured frozen peas on her tattoo, would be in “Pitch Perfect,” I knew I had to see it.  I was not disappointed.  “Pitch Perfect” is a lot of fun, and it turns out Rebel Wilson isn’t even the best thing in it.
The movie takes place at a college where a cappella singing groups are the big thing.  The most dominant group, the Treble-Makers, is an all-male group, and national champions.  The Bellas, a female group, were once competitive, but have seen their fortunes fall after their leader had an on-stage vomiting incident.  With their numbers decimated, the Bellas have to recruit desperately, taking on a group of misfits like Fat Amy (“I call myself that so twiggy bitches like you won’t say it behind my back.” - Rebel Wilson), a whispering Asian girl, and a grumpy alterna-hottie (Anna Kendrick).    Beca, the alternative girl, spends her time mixing music and warily flirting with one of the Treble-Makers (Skylar Astin), when she isn‘t rehearsing with the Bellas and challenging the conservative leadership of Chloe(Brittany Snow).   (No one in this movie spends their time attending college classes or studying.)
The plot isn’t nearly as important as the music.  Even more than the TV show “Glee,” “Pitch Perfect” tries to pack in as many musical numbers as possible, and fittingly, the singing is the most fun thing about the movie.  This is true even if they do trend heavily toward pop music (They even sing a Miley Cyrus song.)  As for comedy, I actually found Rebel Wilson to be a bit disappointing.  Her character in “Bridesmaids” was hilarious, but in “Pitch Perfect” the funniest thing about her is her name, Fat Amy.  Fortunately, the comedic slack is mostly taken up by Brittany Snow and Anna Camp, who play the Bella leaders, and Anna Kendrick, who is a decent straight-man in addition to being super-cute.  Did I mention these ladies can sing?  By far, however, the funniest part of the movie is the outrageous banter of John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks, who play the a cappella competition announcers.  It’s worth watching “Pitch Perfect” just for them.

3 stars out of 5

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Avengers (2012) **

You have to give Marvel Comics credit.  In a genre ruled by guys like Superman and Batman, they chose to make comics about an enraged, green monster; a hokey, patriotic bodybuilder; and figments of Norse mythology.  Even more remarkable is that a modern-day movie studio turned these characters into tent-pole franchises.  By stringing together a series of films (Iron Man I and II, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and finally The Avengers), all linked by a subplot involving a secret government agency called S.H.I.E.L.D., Paramount Pictures and Marvel have created a true economic juggernaut.
I haven’t seen all the films in the series.  I thought Iron Man was okay, and Thor was surprisingly watch-able given its goofy premise.  For me, these movies never managed to balance spectacle with intellectual heft the way the “X-Men” series did.  I had high hopes for “The Avengers,” however, when I learned that Joss Whedon was directing.  This is the Joss Whedon who created the TV show “Firefly,” the coolest and most fun sci-fi western ever to get prematurely cancelled. With Whedon teaming up with actors like Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo, the project had real potential.
I suppose that’s why I was so disappointed with “The Avengers.”  When I watched “Thor,” my expectations were low, and I was pleasantly surprised by the film.  Not so with “The Avengers.”  Like “Iron Man,” the movie takes excellent actors and refuses to give them much of anything interesting to do or say, instead dulling the senses with nonstop action and gee-whiz CGI effects.
The movie finds Loki, who was banished to another dimension for his crimes in “Thor,” making a comeback.  Aided by alien allies, he returns to Earth to claim the Tesseract, some sort of high-energy cube that the government is trying to figure out.  After he busts things up and takes the cube, SHIELD agents Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) assemble the crew of misfits who will become the Avengers: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Thor.  Action ensues.  One-liners are exchanged.  Thirteen-year-old boys are delighted.
I was particularly disappointed by Loki.  Loki is supposed to be the god of deception and mischief, but this film reduces him to the role of petty, would-be tyrant.  Other than occasionally fooling someone with a false image of himself, he doesn’t really engage in much trickery.  Tom Hiddleston is excellent in the role, but it’s just another example of unmet potential in this film.
If I seem to take these comic-book movies too seriously and judge them too harshly, it’s because I refuse to give points based purely on spectacle.  I’ve already seen men flying, things exploding, and girls in skimpy outfits, and I’ve heard all the zippy one-liners from action heroes I need to hear.  Am I up for seeing more of this stuff?  Damn straight!  But for a movie to impress me it also has to have all the other elements of a good film, like well-developed characters, good dialogue, and a compelling plot.  Apologies to Joss Whedon, but “The Avengers” falls flat in these areas, and with better films like the X-Men series and “The Watchmen” out there, there is no excuse for it.

2 stars out of 5

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Cat in Paris (Un vie de chat, 2010) ***

In the movie “Chaplan,” there’s a scene where the star discusses the advantage of silent films when it comes to the overseas market.  All one had to do was change the language on the text cards.  Animated films share this advantage to some extent.  Dubbing a cartoon is doubtless easier than a live-action film, especially if the cartoon has rather crude animation, as does “A Cat in Paris.”  Thus, I came into this family movie expecting my kid to have to read French subtitles, but we got to watch it in English, complete with gangsters with cockney accents!
The story is fairly simplistic.  A young girl discovers that her cat has been sneaking out every night to run the rooftops of Paris with a cat burglar.  Meanwhile, the girl’s mother is a police superintendent focused on capturing the ruthless gangster who killed her husband.  The characters are thinly developed, with the exception of the gangster.  With his hooked nose and cockney accent, he is quite compelling.
To call the animation in this film crude is not to say it is ugly.  The fluid, hand-drawn animation of the characters running across the Paris skyline are beautiful.  What the film lacks in plotline, it makes up in humor and visual beauty.  It’s a good, family film.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 19, 2013

En la Cama (In the Bed, 2005) ***½

In America, when you see a movie poster featuring people in their underwear, you can probably count on some partial nudity in the film.  In Chile, it apparently means full-on sex.  Like a Richard Linklater (“Before Sunrise”) soft-core porno, “En la Cama” blends graphic sex with long sessions of conversation.
This Spanish-language film by Chilean director Matias Bize is filmed entirely in a motel room, where two strangers are engaging in a 1-night-stand.  Bruno (Gonzalo Valenzuela) and Daniela (Blanca Lewin), it seems, have met at a party and wound up here, making the walls shake.  When they aren’t going at it, they talk, gingerly at first, then more intimately as the night wears on, until their talk becomes even more intimate than their sex.  In the confines of their motel bed (hence the title “In the Bed”), they in one night go through the ups and downs of a relationship that would normally take weeks or months.
They also look pretty good naked.  I wasn’t joking when I called this a soft-core porno.  It’s a thinking-man’s porno, though.  The actors are excellent, and much as in talky, American movies like “Before Sunrise,” the film makes conversation seem action-packed.  “En la Cama” won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.  Those who don’t like talky movies will be bored, as will those simply looking for a sex movie.  Of course, the film is in Spanish, and Chilean Spanish at that, which is quite hard to understand for me.  But relax, the subtitles are in regular English, and sex looks the same in every language!

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Marriage Italian Style (Matrimonio all’ italiana 1964) ****

I had always thought of Sophia Loren as this legendary beauty, but not as a serious actress.  Pardon my ignorance.  In “Marriage Italian Style,” Loren shows tremendous acting chops as she teams with the great Marcello Mastroianni to create a tour de force of a satire on sexual politics.
In Vittorio de Sicca’s masterpiece, Loren plays Filumena, a young Italian prostitute who falls for the handsome, wealthy Don Domenico (Mastroianni).  He makes her his mistress, keeping her for years, but is never willing to commit to her emotionally or legally.  We learn all this through flashbacks.  The film actually starts with Filumena apparently dying, and Domenico finally consenting to marry her on her deathbed.  With the marriage complete, Filumena makes a miraculous recovery, and Domenico realizes he has been duped.  Thus resumes the pair’s lifelong game of emotional blackmail and bribery, exemplifying the saying, “All’s fair in love and war.”
Marcello Mastroianni is as good as always here, but it was Sophia Loren who really impressed me.  She wears too much eye makeup, but still lights up the screen.  She beautifully portrays the pathos and dignity of her character.  The story itself is worthwhile, too.  At first I thought it would be an old-fashioned tale of a woman getting some rogue to marry her and then civilizing him; sort of a reverse “The Taming of the Shrew.”  If the film had been made in the U.S. in the early ‘60’s, that’s what it would have been, but the Italians apparently don’t go in for that sort of thing.  “Marriage Italian Style” casts a pragmatic eye on the character of Filumena, a female survivor of WWII and its aftermath who does what she has to.
It would be possible to take a look at this film’s title and movie poster and come into it expecting a comedy. Don’t make that mistake.  This is a serious human drama.  There is some comic relief, but it is no farce.  Still, Filumena is so inventive in getting what she needs from a world and a man intent on denying her, that rooting for her is ultimately a triumphant act.  This one is highly recommended for those who like foreign films.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Hunger Games (2012) ****

After seeing a lot of movies lately that were just “alright,” it was nice to finally see something amazing!  “The Hunger Games” is sheer delight!  Having never read the book, I came to the movie with no expectations, and I was blown away.
For the other four people in the free world who haven’t already seen the movie, read the books, and gotten the T-shirt, “The Hunger Games” tells the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a girl from a future dystopia.  In this version of the future, civil war has led to the division of the planet, or at least Katniss’s country, into districts.  The poorer, outer districts are pretty much exploited to provide energy and other resources for the lavish lifestyles of those in the rich districts.  (Not all that different from the current system, really.)  To remind the outer districts of the failure of their past rebellion, a Hunger Games is held every year.  Each district has to hand over one teenage boy and girl who will enter the game and fight to the death like gladiators, for the entertainment of a television audience.  It’s completely sick, and it feels eerily reminiscent of our own reality tv shows.
Katniss is a total badass.  With her dad dead in a mining accident, and her mom unable to deal with life, Katniss is left to raise her younger sister.  She also has to feed the family, which she does by sneaking into the restricted forest and hunting with her bow.  When her sister’s name gets drawn for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place.  She is whisked off to her fate, along with a local boy, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).  In the Capitol, Kat and Peeta are given some cursory training, mostly in how to appeal to the wealthy judges who influence the games by sponsoring care packages to help players they like.  Then the gladiators are turned into the arena, and the underage bloodbath begins.
Like all good dystopian fiction, “The Hunger Games” holds a dark mirror up to our own world.  From its critique of economic exploitation to the depiction of what reality TV could become, the film has a lot to say, even if its messages are rather uncomplicated.  Fortunately, the film works equally well as an action movie.  There’s really nothing negative to say about the movie.  Anyone who saw Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone” will not be surprised at how good she is in this role.  This actress knows how to cook a squirrel on a stick!  The rest of the cast is excellent as well.  Woody Harrelson, in particular, is riveting as Haymitch, the alcoholic coach and former Hunger Games competitor.  There’s also a surprise performance by Lenny Kravitz.
The sequel, “Catching Fire” comes out this year, and I can‘t wait.  I’m hungry for more.

4 stars out of 5

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Munich (2005) ***

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, Palestinian terrorists kidnapped members of the Israeli Olympic delegation, ultimately killing all of them.  Some of the terrorists were captured, then later released by the German government when another Palestinian group hijacked a German plane to use as a bargaining chip.  Meanwhile, several of the men thought responsible for planning and supporting the Munich attack were free, some of them living openly in various European countries.  Disgusted by this state of affairs, the Israeli government secretly enlisted Mossad agents for a protracted program of vengeance, hunting down and killing the men behind the attack.  “Munich” is the fictionalized story of those men and their fraught search for justice.
At least that’s my take.  Others would say “Munich” is a story about the futility of revenge, or about the self-destructive nature of meeting violence with violence.  Some might say it is about the duplicity of governments (one terrorist supposedly receives money and protection from the CIA.)  I suppose it is about all of those things.
The thing about “Munich” is that it is exactly what I originally thought it would be.  In 2005, I didn’t see it, because it seemed like it would be a downer.  I figured a movie that got all those award nominations could never be simplistic enough to make a satisfying revenge movie.  I figured it must be dark, slow, complex, and unsatisfying (and I was right.)  Then I saw the characters in the movie “Knocked Up” talking about how badass “Munich” made Jews look, and I figured maybe I should give it a chance.
“Munich” does NOT make these guys look like badasses.  It does make Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir look pretty tough, but agent Avner (Eric Bana) and his team are the worst assassins EVER!  After shooting their first target, they inexplicably switch to using bombs, and they are terrible at it.  I don’t know if this is actually how it happened, but in any event, I found it frustrating to watch.
If “Munich” is less-than-satisfying to watch, I suppose that is director Steven Spielberg’s intent.  He is trying to show that violence, which is a simple solution, is not ultimately effective at solving complex problems.  Fair enough.  I just feel that there is a taut thriller in there somewhere, and I’m disappointed I didn’t get to see it.

3 stars out of 5

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hysteria (2011) ***

If it seems hard to believe that a wide variety of physical and psychic complaints in women were once attributed to the uterus “migrating” around the body, then consider that that is what happens when all the knowledge of women’s bodies is generated by men.  Considering how long it took male doctors just to figure out that they should wash their hands before examining a woman in labor, one wonders if things would have moved along a bit faster if the women had been allowed to chime in.
In the 1880’s England of “Hysteria,” the women are still not encouraged to chime in, and the Old Guard is still largely in control of medicine.  Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), with his skepticism about leeching and his newfangled ideas about germs, finds it difficult to maintain employment.  Then he meets Dr. Dalrymple, who has a highly lucrative practice providing a type of intimate massage to women with “hysteria.”  Apparently the “paroxysms” brought on by the massage cause the uterus to return to its normal position.  He assures Mortimer that the procedure is purely clinical, with no pleasure involved, since it is well-known that women cannot derive sexual pleasure without penile penetration.  The female patients seem happy enough to go along with this story, and they never miss their appointments.
Mortimer bends to his new task mightily, but while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.  His patients are delighted to have a handsome, young, new doctor applying the “procedure,” but Mortimer develops a repetitive-use injury of his hand.  His promising new career in jeopardy, he, in a stroke of genius, conceives of a new use for his friend’s electric feather duster.  The new, vibrating device induces “paroxysms” in record time, while saving wear and tear on the doctor’s hands.
Meanwhile, Dr Dalrymple has two lovely daughters.  Emily (Felicity Jones) is a perfect, Victorian lady, and seems destined to marry Mortimer.  Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a liberated woman and a social reformer, spending her days running a community center for the poor and preaching about the rights of women.  You can see where all this is going.
In fact, you can pretty much create the entire film in your own mind just from what I have told you.  “Hysteria” is fun and naughty, but it really couldn’t be more predictable.  The invention of the “vibrating massager” is a titillating and interesting theme, and I wish the film had explored it in a more creative and historically expansive way.  The subject of women’s “hysterical” medical complaints, too, could have been more richly depicted.  Still, I suppose I shouldn’t judge a film based on what it could have been.  As it is, “Hysteria” is a fun, silly roast of Victorian England.  With realistic expectations, it is, much like the device that is its subject matter, a guaranteed good time.

3 stars out of 5

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

This is 40 (2012) ***

It may just be me getting older, but it seems like Hollywood used to make more movies for grown-ups.  Movies like “Semi-Tough (1977),” “Murphy‘s Romance (1985),” and “The Last Married Couple in America (1980)”  are delightfully comical, but also rather clear-eyed looks at middle age.  “This is 40” is Judd Apatow’s attempt to bring that genre back.  I applaud the effort, even if it is not his best work.
The film picks up on the lives of a couple of characters from “Knocked Up.”  Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), the bickering married couple with two kids, are both turning forty.  Debbie isn’t handling this well, of course, because as she explained to us in “Knocked Up,” getting older is harder for a woman.  (Newsflash!)  Also, she’s a bit of a shrew.  Things aren’t going that well for Pete either.  His independent record label is losing money despite having signed Graham Parker (a 1970’s rocker who we are apparently supposed to have heard of).  Pete’s dad (Albert Brooks) keeps hitting him up for money, and one of Debbie’s employees is stealing money from her boutique.
Debbie has a line in the film where she says the ages between 40 and 60 are reportedly the happiest in people’s lives.  You finally have everything you need, and you are young enough to enjoy it.  It may be true.  By forty, most of us have a partner, kids, a good job, money in the bank, and a home.  Unfortunately, we spend every waking hour worrying about those people and things, hoping we can keep all those balls in the air.  “This is 40” is uneven as a comedy and as a romance, but it does capture how, even for people with a relatively good life, life ain’t easy.
There is a school of snark that loves to criticize movies and books that are perceived as being about whiny people living privileged lives.  “This is 40” is one of those movies about what these critics like to call “1st World problems.”  I can understand the sentiment.  We who have plenty to eat should try to remember to be grateful. These are our lives, though, folks!  Our European ancestors toiled for centuries to create a society so peaceful and prosperous that men of my generation can obsess about how our assholes look.  We have so much food that we get to worry about which foods are the healthiest.  Our kids aren’t being forced to fight in civil wars or sell their bodies, so we get to worry about how much time they spend on the internet.  There is nothing wrong with telling these stories, and Judd Apatow generally does it as well as anyone.
“This is 40” never reaches the hilarious heights of “The 40-year-old Virgin” and isn’t even as good as “Knocked Up,” but it definitely has its moments.  Apatow demonstrates once again that he knows how to tell 1st World stories with just the right mix of humor and tenderness.

3 stars out of 5