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Weird but Watchable
Aging writer Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) visits the small New England town of while on an unpopulated book tour. The local Sheriff (Bruce Dern) informs Baltimore of a possible serial murder in town, trapping Baltimore in a dream-state where he digs up the town's past and its connection to a haunted hotel and Edgar Allen Poe.
Some scenes in "Twixt" are imaginative and enthralling, while others are uninspired and bland. Half of the movie has the audience on the edge of their seats, and the rest has them checking their watches.
Val Kilmer's performance is bizarre. When he's in the film's reality, he's mailing it in. But when he's in the film's dream-state, he's captivating. Perhaps that is the point. A particularly cooky performance from Bruce Dern kept me watching. But Elle Fanning does the best acting in the film, even though she's not in it much.
Probably the weirdest part of the film is the soundtrack. It goes from sad piano solo to Blue Man group in the same scene, and as a result much of the tone trying to be established is either done badly or just gone.
Overall, a pretty uninteresting but watchable movie for its weirdness. It's worth trying out, but if your attention isn't grabbed in the first half hour, it's worth seeing what else is on.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
A Surprisingly Bland Display of Debauchery
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an ambitious young Wall Street numbers-cruncher, working under an equally ambitious (though decidedly more corrupted) stock broker named Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). Things are going well until Hanna's firm goes under, leaving Belfort to create his firm. Belfort throws together some sleazy characters (Jonah Hill, Jean Dujardin, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal) to create a large securities fraud investigation-in-waiting, finally forcing him to use his conscience to decide between an extravagant life or a way out for himself.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" is a nightmare, for both the characters and the viewer. A script that can't fit itself into coherence drones on and on about corruption, while never seeing fit to inform the viewer of exactly how Belfort became what he is. He just, is. We never learn much of anything about him. Nudity, drugs, and violence corrupt his despicable life. And that's what the movie is. In many ways, I would have learned more from watching a documentary about Belfort than watching this movie.
For a Martin Scorcese picture, especially one written by Boardwalk Empire scribe Terrence Winter, I was shocked at the utter one- dimensionality of these characters. Belfort is a scumbag. Each and every one of his cronies are equally scummy. The only characters who seem to have any benevolence are Belfort's first wife (despite her many scenes, we never learn her name) and the FBI Agent pursuing the fraud, Kyle Chandler. Chandler might have had a name. If I saw the word "Cop" across from his name at the cast and credits, I wouldn't be surprised.
By far the worst part of "The Wolf of Wall Street" is the structure. The end result looks like someone took scissors to the reel and haphazardly pasted the final third together. It's a complete mess, trying to force all the character development we didn't get for the first TWO HOURS into the final chapter.
The only character who was at all interesting was McConaughey's, who as a powerful broker who loses it all perhaps served as the heaviest foreshadowing the film could offer. Yet we lose track of him after the first twenty minutes, and by the time you're numb from the waist down and your brain is turning into mush, you've completely forgotten McConaughey was ever there.
Scorcese and DiCaprio should be ashamed. "The Wolf of Wall Street" is a disaster that engages its audience through the type of stuff I'd expect in a Uwe Boll film.
The Purge (2013)
Brilliant Concept Bogged Down Under It's Own Weight
In 2022, the United States has been overtaken by a new legion of Founding Fathers who implement a twelve hour period of near-complete lawlessness aimed at allowing citizens to properly vent frustration built up over the year. The Sandin family, led by patriarch James (Ethan Hawke) has a fancy security system designed to keep the violence out and the family safe inside, but that all changes when son Charlie allows sanctuary to a homeless man fleeing a band of murderous freaks.
"The Purge" is an absolutely brilliant movie concept that gets so bogged down in the weight of its own message that it reverts to an average-at- best action-horror flick. The script sees fit to introduce a fascinating idea, that of a night of pure terror sanctioned by the government, and the ramifications that bad decisions can bring. It tries to prove violence as an answer to pent up emotion, but gives little payoff for the few humane enough to say 'no' to the destruction.
The biggest problem here is simple explanation. Just throw in a sentence here and there to explain the following; Is it really beneficial to the economy to allow people to use extreme measures to do whatever they want? If buildings collapse or manual workers are killed, what happens to profits? Are taxes at sky-high rates to pay for all the wounded receiving treatment afterwards? Little things so unexplained. Why is the rebellious boyfriend even in the script, what did he do to advance the plot? He is forgotten by the end.
Acting wise, Ethan Hawke does a good job as the father trying to protect his wife and family. Yet you'd think, for a security salesman, he would implement a fail safe or two preventing young kids from opening intricate home defense systems with the touch of a button. Lena Headey is breathtaking and makes a great heroine, but she seems to have the bare minimum interest in her children's well being, not even knowing where either of them are for most of the film. Rhys Wakefield makes for a creepy but unmemorable villain.
This is a decent movie and worth a rental. It will make you think, but not of the morality or immorality behind the Purge. Instead you'll be scratching your head as to the incompetency of the Sandins. Perhaps diverting your attention from the inhumanity of the Purge is the point.
The Counselor (2013)
A Layered and Complex Mess
A nameless attorney, called The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) has everything going for him: a good job, powerful friends, and an engagement to his beautiful girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz). But greed trumps comfort as the Counselor's friend Reiner (Javier Bardem) involves him in drug trade along the U.S.-Mexico border. As the deal goes bad, the nameless attorney has to pick up the pieces and try to either put his life back in place or flee the vanity that he has slowly become accustomed to.
The second the screen went black, I knew I hadn't seen a great film. But I also knew I hadn't seen a bad film. The Counselor has brief moments of genius that flash as bright as any classic, but also shares pedantic, drawn-out scenes that seem like filler. It boasts an A-list cast turning in terrific performances, but none seem to know exactly what they are doing, or what their purpose is to the story. There is no doubt that The Counselor has a profound message, but the message gets bogged down in the confusion of important questions the script has no answers to.
Written by the incredible author Cormac McCarthy, who wrote a similarly simple and violent book-turned movie called No Country For Old Men, the script follows five characters; the aforementioned, Reiner's oversexed girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), and the mysterious cowboy middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). Reiner and Malkina's flamboyant and malicious relationship is a perfect counter to the comfortable, unexciting romance between the title character and his fiancé. The Counselor and Laura's unexceptional wardrobe is no comparison to Reiner's expensive suits and cropped-up hair, or Malkina's leave-nothing-to-the-imagination dresses.
Michael Fassbender is on a career roll, almost guaranteed an Oscar for Twelve Years A Slave, later this year. Yet his performance is surprisingly bland, more a reactionary character than one deciding his own fate. Brad Pitt does particularly fine work here as Westray. Clad in garb (cowboy hat, boots, cream or watermelon-colored jacket) you would see in every El Paso street corner, Westray is an unassuming and cautionary man who, in the film's first half anyway, seems to be guiding the story more than being part of it. Westray's fate at the end is certainly surprising to any viewer thinking Pitt was cast as simply another name to round out the cast. Pitt is likely the best performance in the film.
The problems with the film do not lie in performances or direction. The photography is stunning, with beautifully shot locations in El Paso and Mexico. Reiner's glamorous home is taken right out of GQ Magazine, with its lavish pools and party atmosphere. The scenes in Mexico show a gritty, violent place where money rules, but so it also does across the border. What McCarthy is trying to convey from his work is present in the film, but a few lines on certain aspects of the plot would be helpful. For instance, how exactly was Fassbender involved? How was Reiner? The Wire Man was an imposing and violent force, but who was he? Who did he work for? And who was Malkina, really? As you watch the film, you will see such unanswered questions.
If you are a fan of Cormac McCarthy, as I am, you will probably leave the theater with the same emotion I did; one of confusion. The Counselor is not a bad film, but it is far from great. At the same token, the finished product could be great to another viewer, and I would understand why. It may require a second viewing and a more in-depth analysis of the complexity of the film to understand exactly what was going on. A rating of "five" is the best rating I can give. It seems as if half of the The Counselor was there, and half of him was not.
In a futuristic society, the poor live in squalor on a destroyed earth while the rich live on a beautiful space station called Elysium (hey, that's the title of the movie!). Max, a tough-as- nails but soft-at-heart felon turned worker, is exposed to radiation one day at the plant where he works and requires the treatment of a "Med-Bed" - the rich way to heal yourself and relax at the same time. So Max sets out to get healed with the help of a scruffy hacker named Spider and a childhood friend who has recently returned (from where?), but only if he can get past the nameless ruthless mercenary hired by evil bad Secretary of Defense Jodie Foster.
The one percent living on their own planet, and the poor banding together to exact revenge? Coming off the heels of Occupy Wall Street, this is just the movie the nation needs to heal itself and unite against the rich bad guys. But before the revolution begins, there are some questions we need to ask. How many rich people live on Elysium? The least someone can make annually to be part of the one percent is 300 grand. Lets round that up to 500 for the future...heck, let's round it up to a million. Say you have a couple hundred guys making a million, is that enough to build a giant spaceship capable of sustaining life for a hundred families? More so, how do you keep up with the costs up there? Surely it costs some hefty dough to keep those coal fires burning. Where does the money come from?
Jodie hates the bureaucracy of Elysium and aspires to be President, so she hires a sleazy businessman (William Fichtner) to rewrite the space ships code to install her as President. I'm sorry, what? By that logic, anyone could scrawl their name on the US Constitution and claim it to be divine proof they need to be President. Was she planning on all the bureaucrats of Elysium to just blindly accept her? Fichtner is so successful at rewriting this code (it's never explained in any future detail) that he installs it into his brain, only to - you guessed it! - get hijacked by a bionic Matt Damon, who steals said code. I know the movie hates rich people, but come on. Implanting stuff into your brain to safeguard information when someone can easily steal said information?
Max gets radiation poisoning. How? He works at "the plant". What does the plant create that radiates...radiation? It's never explained. He is told he has five days to live after he is infected. This plot line mysteriously disappears after he is turned bionic - did I forget to mention that? - by Spider. Does turning half your body into the Energizer Bunny save you from radiation poisoning?
Damon understandably jumped at the chance to make the evil rich look bad. Never mind the fact that a large part of this movie's $116,000,000 budget went to his bank account. But he gives up not even halfway through this movie. You can see it in his face, that slow realization an actor has that he is in a turkey of a movie. Apparently he was the director's second choice. His first? Rapper Eminem. Maybe it's understandable why he is so demoralized. But the worst part of the film is Jodie Foster. It's as if the audio designer forgot to record whenever she spoke, and decided the best fix would be to use a dubbed voice that sounded as far away from Foster as possible. She starts with a British accent, which turns somewhat French, and ends somewhere in Eastern Asia.
Some movies have a character or two that are unnecessary but there for an audience draw. They aren't needed to make the plot line progress. Here, it's as if every character matches that description. The only bright spot is Sharlto Copley, who seems to be the only one who cares about what's going on.
This isn't just a lousy movie. It's downright bad. This isn't even worth the price of a Redbox rental. Maybe if Elysium finds its way on to HBO, and you're tired of looking out the window, or you've run out of sleep aids, it'll be worth the drawn out hour and a half.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
An Unforgettable Experience
We have all heard that our actions in the present will impact the actions others will make hundreds, thousands of years in the future. "Cloud Atlas" defies that idea by replacing "others" with "we". Over six story lines spreading from the historical African slave trade all the way to a post-apocalyptic future, people cut from the same mold make decisions in their present that effect who they are to be in the future. The Wachowskis and Tom Twyker have engineered a thrilling, romantic, truly unforgettable epic.
Screen writing is without a doubt the most difficult aspect of making a film. Everything hinges on how well the plot hangs together, how the lines create conflict and chemistry and make these essentials go together seamlessly. The authors of "Cloud Atlas", who also directed the piece, had a blueprint in David Mitchell's book, but still had to adapt a Star Wars-like future and an early 1900's English countryside into the same film without the plot falling apart. The Wachowski's and Tom Twyker have done exactly so, which is reason enough for this film to succeed.
The actors, including Oscar winners Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Susan Sarandon along with Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw and the underrated Keith David, all perform with downright majesty considering the complexity of the as many as six characters each play. It takes true talent not just to eloquently read lines but also to understand the director's vision, and each performance fits like a glove into the world each of the six stories has created. "Cloud Atlas" is the top of the list of ensemble films.
The best line of the film comes near the end; "From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth out future." We would all be well to remember this.
World War Z (2013)
Which Ones Were the Zombies?
Gerry Lane (that's pronounced Jerry, played by Brad Pitt) is a former UN worker of some sort who finds himself and his family right in the middle of the zombie apocalypse while living in Philadelphia. After being saved by another UN worker who just so happens to be a Deputy Secretary General, Lane and family are put on a UN ship that has also collected far too many other refugees, and Lane is presented with a mission: re- enlist and find out the cause of the virus, or your family is going to be placed in the significantly more dangerous refugee safe zones. Brad chooses the former, and off we go.
It has the feel of a really good zombie blockbuster. It has the star, the known and respected director, and the source material. I kept thinking, "can they go wrong?" Yes, they can. For one, they can deviate almost completely from the source material. Max Brooks's eponymous novel traced a surprisingly realistic account of what would happen should a violent global virus erupt and become a worldwide predicament. But the novel never mentioned the name of the mysterious UN negotiator conducting his investigation. It never introduced a character named "Gerry Lane", let alone his family. It never introduced the question; "why did Gerry leave the UN in the first place?" only for it to never be answered. It was much, much better that way.
The problems with the film are in the script. The cast does a hit-and- miss job playing their roles but never seem to understand their lines better than the audience does. Just as Lane looks for the stem of the virus, the stem of scripted uncertainty is not in the world of World War Z but in the world of the four people who wrote it. Having more than one or two authors usually means that after the first draft, the script was circulated around and around until only faint hints of the source material are still recognizable when the movie starts filming. Lane flies all over the world, and the audience flies with him, only to find him no longer investigating but solving, shooting, and exploding.
As Lane, Brad Pitt plays the role he usually plays of an only slightly less confident Brad Pitt. I kept thinking that the ending would bring about a shocking twist; he was already a zombie! Pitt shuffles through this script with all the interest of watching paint dry, and once an hour passes his ploddy performance grows weary. However forgettable his performance, I always see some of the audience uninterested in plot and only in Tyler Durden's face, so if that's why you buy your ticket, no shame. Just don't think you'll really remember who the main character is or what his mission is. As for his wife, Mirielle Enos turns in equally uninspired work as the only woman in the known world who doesn't seem to be able to create any romantic chemistry with People's Sexiest Man Alive.
Following the conclusion of ABC's "Lost", lead star Matthew Fox could have taken any role he wanted. By now he could even have taken Pitt's role at the helm of this film. But Fox decided to take a break for a few years, and now he is reduced to playing some guy who works on a UN helicopter. He might have even had a line. David Morse, the only other American actor I recognized, plays a toothless CIA spook imprisoned in a US military base in South Korea. Morse's performance was undoubtedly the film's best. Hearing the little whistle as he spoke through his gums was chilling as you read about Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and the like. His too-brief role emphasizes the possibilities that present themselves when you turncoat the United States. Morse alone deserves a star for his work.
Effects-wise, the infected weren't anything special, but how would I know that? What does a zombie truly look like? We never found out if the infection led to death of the host and reanimation. It didn't appear that anything external was actively rotting. Some of the undead appear a bit comical, and their gangly movements were just different enough to inspire scattered laughter in the theater.
Some of the best scenes of the film involved Lane traveling to Israel and Wales, the only two countries he actually manages to visit. In Jerusalem, Lane discovers that Israel has built a wall to keep the zombies out. We never get an answer to the facts behind the wall; how big is it? Is it just around Jerusalem, or the entire country of Israel? Regardless, a band of street musicians somehow manage to provoke enough ire for thousands of the undead to scale the wall and attack the city. That band must have been terrible.
As a zombie is appetized by the possibility of prey, the audience is intrigued by the possibility of entertainment. The undead eat the zombie for sustenance, but quickly want to move on for more. As part of the ravenous audience, I felt the same way.
Masters of Horror: Jenifer (2005)
A Unique and Absorbing Psychological Thriller
Detective Spivey (Steven Weber) happens upon a deranged man preparing to hack a woman to death with a butcher's cleaver. Spivey shoots the would- be-attacker, to find his potential victim is a hideously disfigured woman named Jenifer. Jenifer has no background he can find, but his interest in her grows to the point of bringing her into his home and subjecting himself - and his family - to a madness inside him that only Jenifer can bring out.
Steven Weber got his start on the lighthearted television comedy "Wings", and to see his range as an actor go from bumbling playboy to layered, disturbed protector is simply stunning. His performance here is the best I have seen out of his career, possibly because he also wrote the script this film was based on. No one knows the source material better than the author, and Weber shows tremendous talent both in front of and behind the camera.
Critics rarely use the term "jaw-dropping" to describe what they are critiquing. "Jenifer" is jaw-dropping, both in terms of the film and the character herself. Actress Carrie Fleming plays Jenifer under very effective facial makeup and still manages to turn in an unforgettable performance. She may not speak, but she mumbles and trembles and tucks into Weber's arms with the insecurity of a child, throwing the viewer off as to what to expect she is capable of.
As Weber's and Jenifer's barbarously symbiotic relationship turns from nurturing to sexual to downright predatorial, Dario Argento's direction kicks in. The classic 'master of horror' specializes in the sadistic, and his television work is no exception. This is less gory than most of Argento's work, but certainly no less gruesome, especially the psychological aspects.
The title character preys on the weak of heart. She attacks those close to Weber's character while also growing like a parasite inside him. As the screen goes black, you must ask yourself; who is the monster?
This is not a film for the weak of heart. If you have a weak stomach, Gregory Nicotero's unparalleled visual effects may make your insides churn, and the script may do much the same. However, if you are interested in a psychological thriller that will make you think and entertain your inner barbarian, this is the film for you.
A Film That Will Make You Think
Paul and Diane Stanton (Dermot Mulroney and Diane Kruger) are living a comfortable life in Santa Fe, New Mexico but conflicted with their daughter's stage four lung disease. After months of waiting on the national waiting list so their daughter could get a replacement, Paul discovers a friend, gubernatorial candidate James Harrison (Sam Shepard) has had an illegal heart transplant. Harrison agrees to tell Paul all he knows, which sends Paul to Tijuana to find a mysterious Dr. Navarro, the man behind the curtain of illegal organ transplants.
Organ transplants are just as dangerous and just as illegal as human trafficking, and can cause as much and more heartache. "Inhale" takes a regular family man and places him in war-torn Tijuana to try to save the life if his little girl using any means necessary, which makes you question his moral authority. Good films do just that, they make you think. Great films, however, leave you thinking.
Dermot Mulroney doesn't usually play the leading character but gives a tour-de-force performance here. He is beaten and bruised on his journey but does not give up and held my attention throughout. The beautiful Diane Kruger is equally as good but underused as his frantic wife, tending to be a sidelines character who never gets her due. Sam Shepard successfully plays a slick politician, and the entire Hispanic cast, including the equally slick Jordi Molla, hold their own.
The script has a few problems, mostly with explanation. Shepard's character's relationship to Mulroney's character is never quite explained. It appears they work together and are close, then suggests the opposite when Shepard is running for Governor. Kruger is underused, which takes away from much of "Inhale"'s potential. She is a fantastic actress but seeing her cry isn't enough. She's too good to be so one - dimensional, which suggests some of the film never made it off the cutting room floor.
James Newton Howard's soundtrack blends seamlessly into the background, becoming a character in itself as it differentiates New Mexico and Mexico. The ending is perhaps the biggest fault of the film. The choices Paul makes throughout takes him to a surgical room where he is faced with an incredibly difficult choice. When we discover which choice he made, we are made to think if it was right. If we never knew, that would have left us thinking long after the screen went black.
"Inhale" takes the organ trafficking debate head on, which is admirable. Yet the film isn't as good as the message it gets across.
The Hangover Part III (2013)
Better Than You Expect, Not Better Than You Hope
Some time after the events in Bangkok, Stu (Ed Helms) and Phil (Bradley Cooper) have turned thankfully towards mundane lives with family, but Alan (Zachary Galifianakis) remains unsettled. The ramifications of a giraffe purchase send Alan's father (Jeffrey Tambor) into cardiac arrest, reuniting the Wolfpack with the intention of sending Alan to a mental rehabilitation facility. On the way, the four are attacked by a gangster named Marshall (John Goodman) who wants several million dollars worth of gold returned to him after being stolen by Chow.
The first film in this series was a breath of fresh comic air - timely, hilarious, a real "guy movie" that the ladies wouldn't have any part of. The sequel was a summer blockbuster; not as funny, considerably darker, but still a worthy addition to the Hangover brand. The finale drops the premise of its prequels to focus on three action packed days with nary a mention of the drugs and alcohol that sent our heroes into a memory loss stupor. The third is different entirely from the first two, and therefore can't be compared as the third in a trilogy, but as the sequel to the first two.
One of the most fascinating characters is Stu, the dentist with a dark side who does things that I'm not sure I am able to write about here without being reported. The most tame act he commits is a sham marriage to a baby-wielding prostitute, yet in the third film he manages to drive a limo around. Crazily. Phil, the level-headed macho man, makes the obligatory call to tell the others the trio has give up. Here, he helplessly looks around as Chow plays them for fools. Even Alan, played by the expert comic Galifianakis, only gets chuckles as he hits on the fat girl from Bridesmaids who expertly plays the fat girl from Bridesmaids.
The characters are less developed and do less, which should be expected in the trifecta, but perhaps we expected more out of Todd Phillips and his crazy, drug-addled world. The formula is gone but the characters are there, the hilarity is gone but the situations are there. It's difficult to judge The Hangover 3. It plays out like it has been filmed but not finished; as if this is the bow hastily tied on to the series before the temptation to make more could be unwrapped.
Impressive Historical Drama
Following the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American forces lead by General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) and General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) are tasked with finding out if the Emperor of Japan is guilty of war crimes. Fellers particularly knows the culture of Japan, having fallen in love with a Japanese woman in college. While he tries to speak with the Emperor, surely an impossible task, he searches for the woman he loves.
"Emperor" is an impressive historical drama and unexpectedly poignant love story. General Fellers' story is one of the least known but most compelling stories of World War Two, and while the film takes several steps away from the truth, it brings to light both what the American military power and the Japanese culture had to go through at the end of one of the most internationally volatile periods in history.
Matthew Fox gives the best performance of his film career as Fellers. He conveys the sadness of a man who is searching for what may as well be a forbidden love and also faces the difficult task of speaking with the Emperor of Japan, who is viewed as a God by his people. Jones doesn't look anything like Douglas MacArthur but shows the confidence and power of a man in charge of the largest military force in the world. It wouldn't have been a surprise if Jones had been nominated for an Oscar for this film instead of Lincoln last year.
The biggest question once the credits roll is this: who is the "Emperor" to which the title alludes to? Is it the Emperor of Japan, or MacArthur himself? Power may corrupt, but can it be beneficial? Historical dramas should make the viewer as such questions.
Side Effects (2013)
Hypnotic Like A Drug
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) finally sees her husband (Channing Tatum) released from prison for an insider trading conviction. While at first excited and eager to get their life back to normal, Emily's recurring bouts of depression bring her to a suicide attempt. Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) prescribes an experimental new drug which has disastrous, and murderous, side effects.
The eponymous film draws you in and doesn't let you go. Through the bizarre, hypnotic soundtrack and the par-none performances, "Side Effects" is a surprising, twisty mystery.
The best part of this film is Rooney Mara, known to audiences as the American Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Mara's cold stare, her slow, laborious movements, and soft voice all convince you that while the depression may be real, there is more to know. It is mainly this role that keeps the audience interested.
Jude Law, as the possibly framed Doctor, shines as the film's second act begins and, alone, he unravels the mystery behind the medication. Channing Tatum does an able job as the crooked businessman who obviously loves his troubled wife. Catherine Zeta-Jones is as beautiful and compelling as ever, but she is sadly underused.
Side Effects is an interesting film with real-world implications. It's well worth the price of admission.
The Divide (2011)
A Poerful, Important Film
Following a sudden explosion, a group of apartment-building tenants force themselves into an underground bunker created by their super, Mickey (Michael Biehn). Soon it appears they are all at the mercy of their landlord and the mysterious people dressed in hazmat suits that track them down. But as supplies dwindle and morale runs low, and the radiation from the outside seeps in, it becomes apparent to all that no one can be trusted.
Xavier Jens offers the audience an absolutely stunning, awe-inspiring film that will leave you speechless. The "end-of-the-world survivors" storyline was running on empty until The Divide came along. But it is not just the inner survivalists that will feel the power of The Divide. It is a film where every character actor shines and changes, some to the point of being a completely different person once the credits roll.
The criminally underrated Michael Beihn leads the cast as Mickey, the foul-mouthed, cigar chomping landlord who begrudgingly allows his tenants into his private bunker. You can hardly blame him for being angry at the unexpected mouths to feed. But as his backstory is revealed, you understand his world, and how vicious the world around him has been and will continue to be. His work here is the finest he has ever put to the screen.
But it is the rest of the cast that makes The Divide so stunning, rounded out by little-known method actors who walk into that bunker as everyday people and transform into animalistic creatures before their very eyes. Michael Eklund and Milo Ventamiglia make the audience shudder as the two turn from normal, healthy young men to sadistic cretins that use their power over food for bartered favors, both sexual and mental favors that cause the other occupants of the bunker to change with them.it is this kind of despicableness that makes those wishing survivalists want to change their minds.
I have been thinking as to what the title could refer to. I think it is the divide of the human psyche under times of unprecedented stress, or perhaps the divide of those survivors in the bunker desperately trying to cling to their humanity. Whatever the divide truly is, I hope never to encounter it outside of a film like this.
This is an important film. The Divide will make you question not only the ethics of the assembled characters but the ethics of yourself and your family and friends if such circumstances were to occur. Buy this film, because if you can stomach it, you will need to see it again the second it is over.
Middling Shakespeare Adaptation
Following the death of his businessman father, Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) is deeply offended by his mother's (Diane Venora) swift marriage to her brother-in-law Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), who in turn takes over the business. Hamlet faces the challenges of his family while struggling with his own personal demons.
The only other big budget modern day adaptation of Shakespeare's work that I have seen " Baz Lurmann's "Romeo+Juliet", which was a visceral, complex film with the same script as the play and the same violence we see today. There are few comparisons to make between these two similar films, however. "Hamlet" here is a much more middling, even unimpressive film with barely half the energy of it's predecessor.
Ethan Hawke muddles along in a role that starts uninspired and manages to pick up later in the film, but by then it's too late. Perhaps he thought the film would be a good idea until he started filming it. He's a far better actor than this film would suggest, to which I would suggest Hawke fans turn a blind eye.
Shakespearian language is a constant blend of rhyme and reason, and sometimes the lines he wrote hundreds of years ago don't translate well to our modern setting. It manages to work, but not without an all too often pausing and looking up the script, especially with the lack of energy from so many cast members.
Julia Stiles can't seem to leave her scenes fast enough. She runs through her lines as if they were held up behind the camera, and is vastly inferior to someone like Liev Schreiber, who probably turns in the best performance here. Sam Shepard, as the ghost of Hamlet's father, is as powerful as he always is, but not enough to save the rest of the cast.
The scenes of New York City and the power that is related with it are barely made into what it should be: a character in and of itself. That theme, if it had been so, would likely have kept me watching with more than a passive interest.
All in all, Shakespeare would be better to watch the Lurmann film instead of this take on his work.
To the Wonder (2012)
Ben Affleck plays a disenchanted American visiting Paris. He falls in love with Olga Kurlyenko, and asks her and her daughter to join him in the midwest part of the United States, until an old flame (Rachel McAdams) complicates his new relationship. Meanwhile, the pastor of all three's church, Javier Bardem, faces his own demons.
There is no other rating to give this film besides "five". "Five" suggests that half of people will love it, half will hate it. The audience I saw the film with confirms this; half boos and half standing ovation. Perhaps "half" is the best word to use to describe what I viewed. It seems that half of Terrence Malick's most recent offering ended up on the cutting room floor.
It is difficult to gauge a performance from a Terrence Malick art film, as acting doesn't seem to be a big part. Instead, the actors are mixed with the cinematography (which is unquestionably stunning here) and drawn-out music. It leaves a less experienced or adaptable actor in the dark as to what they should be doing with their roles.
Bardem's role here is the most unconnected, and the least interesting, though his is probably the best performance. The script here seemed to just be gaining track when it introduced his character, and other involved with him. It didn't click with this viewer.
Actors like Rachel Weisz, Martin Sheen, and Jessica Chastain were cast in this film and their scenes were shot before whatever their part of the story was cut entirely from the end result. If there were more diversity here, perhaps it would be that more enjoyable.
Overall, "To the Wonder" is a wondrous, mysterious film brimming with a brooding drama unique to this director's sort of film. If you enjoyed "The Tree of Life", there would be little else or more for you to enjoy here.
One of the Funniest Movies Ever Made
Bowling legend Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson) loses a hand to a group of drunks after trying to con them with fellow bowler Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray). Now a drunk promoter with a fake rubber hand, Munson is a shadow of his former self until he hears the fateful sound of a strike. Amish prodigy Ishmael (Randy Quaid) stands to be Munson's shot at winning the largest tournament in the country, but the road there is paved with consequence.
This is one of the funniest movies ever made. The Farrelly brothers have given us countless laughs, but this is their best. It brings together some of the most unexpected actors, many out of their element in a comedy, to flawlessly turn a script into a comedic work of art. The laughs are typical Farrelly gross out while remaining truly, deeply funny.
Woody Harrelson turns in one of his best performances as the down-but-not-out Munson, wearing a ridiculous wig, outdated clothing, and always his fake rubber hand. Each scene he's in is a lesson in how to lead a comedy, and reminds one of his early days on "Cheers" as the bartender Woody Boyd. His co-star in Quaid is the same; whether it be the murderous, greedy Sheriff is "Hard Rain", or here as the hilariously simple sure relative of the "Vacation" movies Cousin Eddie, Randy Quaid proves his ever surprising versatility as an actor.
Bill Murray also fires on all cylinders as the over the top McCracken, Harrelson's arch-nemesis. Murray's last scene is one of the best in the movie; with his hair tossed every which way and his eyes flooding with tears he makes you shocked that he's only been nominated for one Oscar. Vanessa Angel is mostly eye candy but she doesn't have to make up for any acting downfalls.
"Kingpin" is well-casted, well-written, consistently engaging and always funny. It brings together a diverse cast and a great script to make one of the funniest movies of our time. Strike it off your bucket list.
Taken 2 (2012)
Clumsy, Ploddy Summer Sequel
Following the events of the first film, Brian Mills (Liam Neeson) is in Istanbul, Turkey with his ex-wife (Famke Jansenn) and daughter (Maggie Grace) when the vengeful father (Rade Sherbedjia) of one of Mills' victims from the first film arrives with a group of armed men to "take" them all. Hilarity ensues.
Pass the popcorn and drink your soda, "Taken 2" is as clumsy and ploddy as the first was intelligent and fresh. This summer sequel was made to give people an excuse to sit in an air-conditioned room to get their bodies and minds out of the heat. Friends of mine that enjoyed it saw it when they were wearing shorts. Perhaps the fact that I watched it in the winter made me enjoy it less.
Neeson is as good as he always is, returning to his mystical role as a fatherly badass perpetually ready to dole out some deserved punishment to whoever is unlucky enough to want to do him harm. But his eyes are a little more dim, his movements a little less tense. It's the little things that convey to the audience that his heart just isn't in this one.
Famke Jansenn and Maggie Grace, both stunningly beautiful women, hold this guy viewer's attention about as much as Neeson. They play the women in this man's lives with as much bravado as they can manage in their mostly listless lines. Rade Sherbedjia, the usual stock Eastern-European baddie, definitely chews the most scenery in a very good performance.
Having been to Turkey and Istanbul a couple of times, I can say without any doubt that the nation seen in this movie is markedly different than the real one. The Turkish people are wonderfully kind and the country is as beautiful as anything in Europe. If you're seeing this film because you've seen the real thing, be ready for as much disappointment as bummer.
I didn't have too much fun writing this. I would have had more fun watching "Taken 2" again. Perhaps that is as good as an analogy as I can think of to both end this review and offer my warning.
Broken City (2013)
Smarter than You Think, Not as Clever as You Hope
Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) is a New York city cop who got off on a technicality following his execution of a supposed rapist/murder. Discharged from the force by his Captain (Jeffrey Wright), Taggart is viewed highly by Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) for taking out the trash with a common thug. Seven years later, Hostetler, amidst a re- election battle against golden boy city councilman Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), hires Taggart to find out who is sleeping with his gorgeous wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). As Taggart follows, he uncovers a much larger conspiracy.
In his first solo outing, Allen Hughes (one half of the Hughes brothers that brought us "The Book of Eli") now offers a stylish, dark vision of corruption in New York. The ladies are beautiful and all have something to hide, the men are violent and vicious and the story is ripped out of countless true-to-life headlines. "Broken City" lives up to its name and fires a slug packed with intrigue and intelligence. That doesn't necessarily translate to mean "clever".
The story sold in the trailer is a bit misleading, but perhaps that's the point. Mayor Hostetler's hiring of the true-blue cop Taggart is only a minor segment of a much larger puzzle. It involves cops, businessmen, and politicians in bribery and exploitation with a prize that all but Billy seem to seek: power. Overall that is the film's theme and it more than adequately conveys it. If you understand that and aren't looking for much else, "Broken City" is your ticket.
As I was watching the film I kept thinking that there must have been some significant cutting and re-editing. Perhaps the original cut was too dry so they added in some scenes and cut some to make the film seem more edgy. But it doesn't seem as edgy as it could have been. A number of subplots (for instance Billy's actress girlfriend, or the undeveloped father-son relationship between two of the villains) go nowhere and remain unresolved when the screen goes black. I felt much the same way.
Mark Wahlberg does an excellent job playing Mark Wahlberg, a role he was born to play. Catherine Zeta-Jones is as beautiful and commanding as ever in a role that is too short for the movie. But it is Russell Crowe who devours his scenes with the political intensity I would suppose is necessary for any real Mayor of New York. Even as the script built around Billy lags, Crowe tears apart his role. He shows why he is truly one of the best actors in the business.
The supporting cast of this film are as much a draw as the leads. Jeffrey Wright, the usual supporting character with more power than he lets on, plays the secretive Police Commissioner. His character is introduced as a stock role but ends up being much more. Kyle Chandler has a small role that deserved to be expanded. Barry Pepper, who wasn't even featured in the trailer, is the only actor in the film with the same bravado as Crowe. His scenes, particularly one with Wright and Wahlberg, are indicative of why he should be the one on the poster, now buried in the bottom credits.
Overall "Broken City" kept my attention but left me hungry for more. I suppose that is all you can ask for at the movies. I would take this ride again.
Jack Reacher (2012)
Intelligent and Engaging Action Blockbuster
Following the massacre of five seemingly random people, a former military sniper named Barr demands to speak to "Jack Reacher". The District Attorney (Richard Jenkins) and the lead Detective (David Oyelowo) meet the mysterious Reacher, a former Military Policeman who has dropped off the grid for the past few years but reappeared on the behest of Barr. Reacher works with private attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) to find out the real question: is Barr actually guilty, or the pawn in a much larger game?
"Jack Reacher" is based on an excellent book series by Lee Child. "One Shot", this film's premise, is actually the ninth book in the series, but had one of the most intriguing premises to make a movie on. Tom Cruise produced the film, and under the direction Christopher McQuarrie we have an action blockbuster that doesn't dumb itself down and keeps the audience asking questions as the intelligently-laden suspense slowly provides answers.
Tom Cruise tends to play effectively the same role whenever you see him in a movie, and here he does a great job playing Ethan Hunt's stunt double. Reacher is very smart and uses his military experience to put together realizations no one else would be able to. Cruise is funny and relatable here. It may be one of his best performances yet, especially in an action film.
Rosamund Pike is as gorgeous as she is a good actress. Here she is tasked with making conclusions at the pace of the audience, and looking great opposite Reacher (no question as to either of those abilities). The only problem with her character is the lack of much character development. She is the leading lady and that's sadly the extent of her role.
The supporting cast is a truly eclectic mix of actors you wouldn't expect to see together. The director Werner Herzog plays a murderous mobster Siberian who spent time in the infamous gulags and was forced to earn his name of "the Prisoner". Robert Duvall plays a former Gunnie who befriends Reacher and helps with the investigation. Jenkins isn't in the film much but is as good as he always is.
Problems come through where they typically do in an action movie: the script. The Prisoner's connection with the mystery is never laid out in a clear way; we are forced to make a lot of our own conclusions, none of them it would seem are correct. Barr's connections and the reveal of who is "in on it" don't hang together as well as they should. But none of that really matters.
"Jack Reacher" is an intelligent, comedic, always interesting action movie that kept my attention, and for that I am grateful.
The Courier (2012)
Yeah, I Watched This Movie
A Courier (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is tasked with delivering a package to a crime boss (Mickey Rourke) thought to be dead. Hilarity ensues.
"Yeah, I Watched This Movie". That's the attitude I had when "The Courier" reached its conclusion. We have seen this type of movie before, often, and we have had more fun at the expense of a larger budget. But like so many other movies nowadays, we feel a bit let-down when the screen goes black.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan, an exceptional actor who never seems to be the right fit for his character, does the best he can with what he has. His character wakes up in a crummy apartment infested with mice. He uses superglue to fix a nasty cut. Yet despite all this self-loathing, he has good friends and family that he cares about. What's with that?
The female lead is bizarre. Her hairstyle makes it appear as if her follicles are desperate to escape from her scalp, and considering how bad it is, I can't blame it for trying. She also has an unnecessary dubbing-over occasionally when she speaks. Perhaps they shot the film and forgot to record her at places.
Mickey Rourke and Til Schweiger, the other draws on the cover, are under and wrongly used. Rourke's head is only visible for the first half of his scenes, the latter's introduction is corny. Schweiger's bodyguard hasn't ever seemed to have used a fire arm before, let alone in a movie.
An odd assortment of has-beens and ne'er-do-wells fill out the rest of the cast. Lily Taylor and Miguel Ferrer play a Team Rocket type pair of villains who never say much besides grunts and gunshots. Mark Margolis, the definitive "that guy!" of actors plays Morgan's dad, or something. I'll give you one guess as to his fate.
"Yeah, I Watched That Movie." That is what I will say to people when they ask if I have seen "The Courier". And it might take me a minute to remember exactly what they are talking about.
Rites of Spring (2011)
Two girls are kidnapped in the parking lot of a bar by unknown assailants. They are taken to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and strung up as sacrifice to a local deity that comes out in the spring. One escapes, stumbling onto a group of kidnappers right in the middle of a ransom plot gone wrong, and about to be made worse when a large, ugly beast out of a Party City costume log comes after them.
"Rites of Spring" is your definitive mediocre, boring slasher trying to be an homage to classic seventies horror. It's not bad, and those that say it is bad clearly haven't ever seen the films this is trying to remake. No horror slasher is good. Some are simply more exciting than others. This is not one of those films.
Our heroes are nonplussed actors who are not very good at what they do. But they represent the film in that they are not bad. Perhaps it is because the script has about as much life as a decorative plastic rock made to cover up blemishes in one's lawn. It's not ever particularly interesting. But it's not bad.
"Rites of Spring" is not a bad film. But it's not a good one.
Killing Them Softly (2012)
Unimpressive and Completely Uninteresting
After a card game is held up by a pair of small-time crooks, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in to find the robbers and their boss. Along the way, he has a few fun conversations that seem to last for eons of time.
I was excited to see "Killing Them Softly", based on an excellent book called "Cogan's Trade". It was set in a time (post-bailout America) and place (New Orleans) that dripped with emotion and story possibility. The end result is a dry, listless film that never happens upon any point whatsoever.
Brad Pitt is given top billing for a performance that lasts perhaps half the movie. He doesn't appear for at least the first half hour, then pops up in a brief, meaningless conversation with Richard Jenkins. The two men talk about other characters in detail. It would be nice to know exactly who was their subject. We never really find out.
A series of your usual mob character actors are sprinkled throughout, all adding conversation that pertains to none of the story and leading to no result. Ray Liotta seems to be the only exception, but his actions are what sets the rest of the events in motion, so it doesn't really count. James Gandolfini appears for a two-scene long meaningless performance. I remember seeing Sam Shepard in the trailer, but I can't recall him being in the movie.
I once heard Brad Pitt called "the greatest actor of his generation". Is Brad Pitt a good actor? I can never tell. He does not have the charisma of Leonardo DiCaprio or the unsettling ability to become a character that would embody the talent of someone like Joaquin Phoenix. Here he plays the same role he would play in just about any other movie; a confident, if not arrogant man of power. He doesn't do much. Any other actor could have played his role and they would not get the same billing.
To be fair, the real stars of the film are Ben Mendehlson, the Australian star of the 2010 crime drama "Animal Kingdom", and Scoot McNairy, who starred in a great sci-fi film called "Monsters". These two play the robbers of the poker game that starts it all off, and make more than able leads. McNairy captures the nervousness that one would naturally expect, and Mendehlson's junky appearance in the film is indicative of his character.
"Killing Them Softly" would be helped by better editing. For one, a dialogue-driven film should perhaps be marketed as such. Two, make these dialogue-heavy scenes have a purpose that pertains to what has or will happen in the story, instead of filled with references to characters the audience does not know and will never meet. Finally, the unusual cinematography got to be less artistic and more tedious as I checked my watch for the hundredth time. The camera work needs work.
This is not a good film. It has dropped three stars as I wrote this review and contemplated just how not good it is. But it could be great. And for that, I will knock it down one star more.
The Collection (2012)
Slick, Terrifying Thriller
Following the events of the first film, Arkin (Josh Stewart) breaks out of the insane maze devised by the Collector just as a rave is being slaughtered on the level below him. Before he escapes, he sees Elana (Emma Fitzpatrick) the daughter of a wealthy, vengeful father (Christopher McDonald) who has created a team led by Lucello (Lee Tergeson) to find his daughter. Arkin forces himself back into The Collector's private hell to find the girl.
It is really required viewing to see the predecessor to understand the successor. Just as you can't understand a current Presidency without being told of what built up to it, history is important to understand the present. Before I saw the sequel, I took in 2010's "The Collector". It is an intense, harrowing nail-biter that I can't recommend more. The sequel is just as intense but lacks the finesse that the first had in spades.
We have our main character, Arkin, who is expertly played by Josh Stewart. In the first film, you understood more about what drove him and how he might have been clever enough to survive the devastating maze. In the sequel, he is less clever and less developed. With two films already made, perhaps another film is already in the works. I hope this one furthers the back story of our hero and paints him in starker contrast to the villain.
The story is really put into the relationship between the kidnapped girl, played by Emma Fitzpatrick, and Lee Tergeson's Lucello, the leader of the team trying to find her. Through flashbacks we see that Lucello saved the girl from a car accident long ago that left her father badly injured. But we never learn anything else about him. Who was he? What relationship did he have to the family? Why would he risk his life for this girl?
Finally we have The Collector, the demented freak who somehow has the means to construct the unholy traps that await anyone who is fool enough to feel his wrath. If you saw any of the "Saw" films only to see how twisted some minds can be, you'll be shocked at what the people who made this movie (repeat: it is only a movie) can come up with. The actor who wears that bizarre leather mask does a good job seeming scary and mysterious but doesn't do much else. He is obviously smarter than the average film butcher, why doesn't he act like it?
Besides some design flaws, the interior of the film remains relatively intact. It keeps your attention with a brisk pace and an energetic soundtrack that matched the feel of the scene Had the script been a bit more supportive on some biographies, you would feel for the characters as more than just expendable fodder for the Collector.
All in all, "The Collector" is a creepy, terrifying thrill that stands above any of the other horror we will see until "The Collected".
Driven to Kill (2009)
Cheesy Mediocre Action
Former Russian diplomat and assassin Ruslan (Steven Seagal) is forced to reimmerse himself in the gang culture he thought he left behind when his family is attacked by his old cohorts at his daughter's wedding.
One of the first scenes of the film finds Steven Seagal seated across a table from a gorgeous babe (of course). Babe asks Steven to close his eyes. It's not as if you'd be able to tell, Seagal's face is constantly in a contorted squint. He doesn't seem to ever actually pronounce a line, just whisper his way through the film. Perhaps he thinks a Russian accent is a whisper?
"Driven to Kill" is not a driven film. For instance, why that title? Is Ruslan driven? It doesn't seem so. No one in the film seems to know exactly what it going on, not excepting the star. It is an uninspired, lackadaisical, but certainly not lazy film that makes an bizarre addition to the revenge genre.
All of the characters confuse themselves for each other until the film starts to resemble particularly runny porridge. Seagal's ex-wife and his daughter look the exact same age. The villains are all similar and none too smart but at least aren't all named "Ivan". The detectives are excruciatingly bad actors that make Steven Seagal look like Marlon Brando.
The cinematography is surprisingly decent. Overall the film doesn't outwardly look like a low-budget flick. It was surely filmed on the cheap in Canada and made to look like the United States. The action and fighting isn't terrible and kept me interested to see how our aging hero would take down the next baddie.
"Driven to Kill" is the epitome of a low-budget, fairly intriguing action movie ideal for late night viewing and late night reviewing. If you're a fan of Seagal or a fan of cheese, add it to your queue.
Nothing Short of Breathtaking
Following the discovery of a series of cave paintings all depicting the same other-worldly beings cradling a series of galaxies, a multi-billion dollar mission is funded by the enigmatic entrepreneur Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) for a group of scientists headed by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) to visit a moon on a planet trillions of miles away investigating the ultimate question: can we meet the Gods that created us?
Ridley Scott's finest science (fiction?) epic ever poses a million questions and does something rare in having the audience try to find the answers themselves. Damon Lindelof returns to the same thrills that drew similar viewers to "Lost" by penning a script with Jon Spaihts that stuns and thrills while never trying to oversimplify its message.
Charlize Theron and Noomi Rapace head the cast as strong, independent, willful women who travel light-years away to prove their power. Both turn in strong, Oscar-worthy performances aside a supporting cast including actors such as Idris Elba as the tough captain of the "Prometheus" vessel and Logan-Marshall Green as a scientist desperate to find the meaning of his life.
Michael Fassbender here plays an android, David, created by Weyland to keep maintenance of the people involved and the mission itself. As the humans around him try to find out who created them, he lives his life knowing why he was created, and it torments him. Fassbender's performance alone wins the film ten stars. An Oscar is not enough for his work here.
The worlds we may never know in our lifetime are brought stunningly to the screen using breathtaking cinematic effects that are not used strictly as a budget expense, but as a character in themselves. The score written is profound and beautiful, using the entire orchestra to emphasize the profundity of what these characters discover. The combination is pure movie-going magic.
There will naturally be a sequel and it will naturally not be as good as its predecessor. Perhaps that will be because it answers the incredible questions asked by the first film. But is that not the question "Prometheus" asks us to ask ourselves in the first place?