Reel Opinions

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cloud Atlas

As much as I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, I think my appreciation for it will grow with future viewings.  It's not that I didn't understand what was going on, it's just that I'm certain I will pick up on things I didn't notice the first time around.  So, that said, let's get a few things out of the way.  Yes, the movie is very long at almost three hours.  But, it's never a chore to sit through, and it seldom drags.  Also, yes, the movie can be a lot to take in with its constantly changing storylines, strong visuals, and a huge cast to keep track of (often played by the same group of actors).  But it's never overly daunting.  Finally, yes, this is the best movie by the filmmaking duo, The Wachowskis, since the original Matrix, and probably a hell of a lot better than that.  And yes, this is the best film of co-director Tom Tykwar since Run, Lola, Run.

picBased on the sprawling novel by David Mitchell, the movie covers six completely different stories set in different time periods, ranging from the 19th Century, to a distant future.  The stories are not told in any sort of chronological order.  In fact, they're constantly switching back and forth between the multiple plotlines.  The effect is kind of like flipping back and forth between six different movies on different channels on TV.  Sounds annoying, doesn't it?  It should be, but for some reason, it never bothered me.  The plots are not exactly complex to begin with.  The tricky part at times is remembering who all the characters are, and what their relation is to each other.  But, even then, it's not too big of a chore.  The film's somewhat unfocused tone, and how it leaps from one plot and time period to the next at a moment's notice will probably annoy some.  But, as a character states early in the film, "there's a method to the madness".

picThe first story is set on a 19th Century ship making its way across the Pacific Ocean, and centers on a relationship that builds between an upper class white man (Jim Sturgess), and an escaped black slave (David Gyasi), who is hiding below the decks of the ship, and hopes for safe passage.  Next, we're taken to 1931 Belgium, where the story of a young hopeful musician (Ben Whishaw) unfolds, and how he is taken under the wing of a brilliant, aging classical composer (Jim Broadbent), who is working on his masterpiece.  Then, we get a 1970s-style conspiracy crime thriller, where a journalist named Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) uncovers a plot by an evil oil executive (Hugh Grant) to illegally broaden his business, and finds herself on the run from mysterious assailants trying to kill her.  The fourth story lightens things up a little, and is a mostly comedic tale of a publisher (Jim Broadbent again) who finds himself on the run from thugs when his latest book becomes a runaway best seller.  His brother (Hugh Grant again) tells him of a place where he can lie low, which just so happens to be a retirement home, run by a very strict staff, including a Nurse Ratched wannabe (Hugo Weaving in drag).

picThe last two stories are set in the distant future, and hold the most fascinating visuals.  In the fifth, a genetically engineered woman created solely to serve customers in a cafe (Doona Bae) learns the truth about her kind, her purpose, and the world she lives in when a revolutionary fighting for a free society rescues her, and shows her what the world is really like.  Inspired by what she sees and learns, she begins thinking for herself for the first time, and becomes a rallying figure for the revolutionaries.  The final story is set even further in the future, where Earth has become a primitive world, and a simple goat herding tribesman (Tom Hanks) agrees to help a woman from a technologically advanced society (Halle Berry again) on her mission to uncover secrets of the past.

picThe main connecting factor in all of these stories can sometimes be something as simple as a character uncovering a letter from another time or place.  Or, since its large cast end up usually playing upwards to 5 or 6 characters in these different stories (Tom Hanks plays not only the futuristic tribesman, but also a scheming doctor on the 19th Century ship, and a violent thug in another story), sometimes it is hinted that these characters are reincarnated into different lives and time periods.  It sounds complicated, but I believe the real way to enjoy Cloud Atlas is to just follow the stories while you are watching them, and then do all your thinking and analyzing afterward.  That way, you won't miss anything, and you also won't be overthinking or looking for threads or connections that are not really there.  This is a movie that deserves to be savored for its visuals, performances, and ideas to begin with.  Thinking too much while watching the film may cause to miss some of its simpler pleasures.

picOf course, given its multi-plot structure, we get to the movie's key problem, which is that it is very inconsistent.  Not enough to harm my enjoyment of the film, mind you, but I did definitely find myself enjoying some of the tales more than others.  Of the different stories, I found the story about the publisher and the nursing home to be the most entertaining on a basic level, due to the fact that it's essentially a giant farce, and offers some well-needed comic relief, given how serious and dire some of the other stories in the film can get.  I also enjoyed the story of the genetically engineered woman in the futuristic society that owes more than a little debt to Blade Runner.  Not only is it the strongest story visually, but it's also probably the most emotional and touching.  The 70s conspiracy crime thriller with Halle Berry in the lead was also a winner, and did a good job emulating the film genre it was going after.

picLess successful is the final story, about the primitive futuristic Earth.  It never really grabbed my attention, and the dialogue is sometimes hard to understand.  I thought it might have been just me, but other audience members and critics have echoed my frustration, so I'm not sure what went wrong there.  This does lead to an overall slightly disjointed experience, but it is still thrilling, nonetheless.  There is always some idea, some visual, or some performance that you can focus on, even if something else is not working.  Does this make Cloud Atlas flawed?  Absolutely.  But that does not detract from the overall experience of the film itself, which successfully manages to not only tell these massive stories in a manner that does not feel rushed or cut short, but does so in a mature way.  The movie does not feel dumbed down, nor does it drown itself in endless exposition to explain everything.  We're often thrown into these stories head-first, and left to our own devices to figure out what they're about, and what direction they're going to take.  This leads not only to some surprises, but also an overall sense that the movie respects the intelligence of its audience.

There will no doubt be critics and viewers who will be digging deep into this film's subjects and messages for years to come.  Some will proclaim it a masterpiece, and some will call it a crashing disappointment.  I choose to see Cloud Atlas simply as a great piece of entertainment, and one that I think will be rewarding to watch again.  It's a film that I think deserves to be seen at least once, so you can create your own views and opinions.  All I know is that the filmmakers have made a huge gamble with this movie, and for me, it has mostly paid off.

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The same weekend I happened to see Fun Size, a very dumb and crass movie about teenagers, I also happened to see The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a very smart, insightful, and heartfelt film about teenagers.  The difference between them is like night and day, and the makers of the former movie (and pretty much most teen-targeted movies) could learn a lot from this one.

picThe movie present a rare case in which the author of the book the film was based on was allowed to not only write the screenplay, but direct it as well.  Stephen Chbosky, despite having only one other directing credit to his name, shows a great amount of skill of letting us into his characters, and adapting his work in such a way so that nothing major is lost, while at the same time not being slavishly faithful to his own source material.  While he probably would have been better off trimming a subplot or two that don't leave much of an impression in the film, the main plot of the titular wallflower, an introverted high school freshman named Charlie (Logan Lerman), is captivating and told with an emotional depth we seldom see in films marketed at youth audiences.

picAs Charlie enters the world of high school for the first time, he's already counting down the number of days until he graduates, and fantasizing what it will be like to be a senior, leaving the school for the last time.  Charlie becomes an immediate magnet for bullies - not just the ones he's had to face all through middle school, but also the older kids who like to pick on the newcomers.  At first it seems like his only friend is going to be Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), his English teacher who supports him, and introduces him to great works of literature during the course of the year.  But then, he also befriends step-siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson).  They're seniors, but they are different from everyone else.  They enjoy the same kind of music Charlie does, and even share his non-conformist views on student life.

picBefore long, the three are hanging out on a regular basis, and Charlie becomes accepted into Patrick and Sam's inner circle of friends.  This even leads to Charlie's first attempt at a romantic relationship,when his smart-mouthed new friend Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) starts to show signs that she wants to be more than friends.  Charlie's heart, however, mainly is for Sam, but he is too afraid to say how he really feels, especially since she is dating someone else.  We expect the film to mainly follow Charlie coming out of his shell a little for the first time and connecting with his new friends, and while that does play a part, there is a much darker aspect to the plot as well.  This concerns Charlie's troubled personal past.  It's something he's done his best to suppress, but as his new life begins to unravel, he once again becomes overpowered by his personal demons.

picThe Perks of Being a Wallflower doesn't really break any new ground in terms of a high school drama, but it does go quite a few places I didn't expect, and appreciated it for that fact.   A lot of critics have been comparing the film to the best work of John Hughes from the 80s, but I personally found it a lot better and a lot more honest than that.  The movie taps so perfectly into the world of being a high school outsider that you just know that writer-direct Chbosky has more than a few of his own tales to tell about when he was Charlie's age.  Credit also has to be given to the lead performance by Logan Lerman, who if he doesn't have a deep understanding of what his character is going through, he does a very good job acting like he does.  It never actually feels like he is acting when he's up on the screen.  It's one of the best youth performances of the year.

picBut, of course, the big news is Emma Watson, in her first major role since the Harry Potter series ended.  She shows a great amount of range as Sam, a caring girl who takes Charlie under her wing and maybe wants to be more than friends with him, but can't.  I'm not sure, but I think there were some moments where she slips out of the American accent she uses for this character, but it's not a huge deal, and it's still a wonderful performance.  Also noteworthy is Ezra Miller as Patrick, who initially comes across as someone who doesn't care what other people think of him, but as he is slowly emotionally wounded during the course of the film, turns out that he cares a lot more than maybe he even thought.  The three young stars seem to create an actual bond up there on the screen that is very believable, and carries us through the story.

I walked into The Perks of Being a Wallflower hoping for a good teen movie, and I ended up getting much more.  This is a reflective, accurate, somewhat sad, but always hopeful look back at a time that just about everyone goes through in their life.  If you were an outsider back in those days, as the main characters are, it will resonate with you even more.  This is a great film, and only improves more as I think back on it.

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

If Seven Psychopaths had come out 18 years ago, it probably would have been labeled as a Pulp Fiction knock off.  The movie shares a lot of the same qualities as the Tarantino classic, such as the ability to find offbeat humor in the midst of brutal violence, smart dialogue, and an overall sense of self-awareness.  I quickly became attracted to the film's many goofy charms, and while it loses some steam during the last half, this is still one of the funniest crime caper comedies to come along in a while.

picThe film uses a clever "movie within a movie" gimmick as it focuses on Marty (Colin Farrell), a struggling alcoholic screenwriter who is struggling to get some work done on his latest script - a pacifist crime movie about psychopaths.  He has the title for the film ("Seven Psychopaths"), but he doesn't know who his seven main characters will be, or what's going to happen to them in his movie.  His best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell) is eager to help.  He's constantly dropping hints that he would like to help write the script, and even puts an ad out in the paper for Marty calling for various psychopaths to show up at his door, and tell their story, hoping some of the stories they tell will inspire Marty to get some work done on his screenplay.

picBilly's a nice guy, but generally kind of off.  He makes his living by kidnapping dogs belonging to well-to-do people, and then returning them to the owners for a big cash reward.  His partner in the business is Hans (Christopher Walken), who needs the money for his wife's hospital bills due to a cancer treatment.  The latest dog to become part of their scheme is a little Shih Tzu named Bonny.  Little do Marty, Billy, or Hans realize, Bonny just so happens to be the sole prized possession of notorious and violent gangster, Charlie (Woody Harrelson, giving one of his funnier comic turns since Zombieland here).  When Charlie finds out that his beloved dog is missing, he starts gunning after the people responsible.  The mostly-innocent Marty (who only gets involved because he was staying at Billy's house with the little Shih Tzu) now finds himself in a real life crime story, complete with a bizarre masked serial killer who calls himself The Jack of Diamonds, named so because of the playing cards he always leaves at his crime scenes.

picSeven Psychopaths was written and directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), and I can picture him having a big, goofy grin on his face the entire time he was writing this screenplay.  There are some inspired comedic scenes, such as the opening sequence that involves two hit men having a casual conversation as they wait for their next victim, not knowing that a serial killer is sneaking up behind them the entire time.  The movie is just plain fun, and you can tell that a lot of the actors are having the time of their lives in a lot of these scenes.  Walken, in particular, delivers one of his more bizarre, yet strangely reigned in, performances of his career.  His comic deadpan timing is perfect for a lot of his scenes, which skewer the cliches of lesser gangster and crime movies.

picIndeed, part of the fun is that these characters almost seem to know they're in a crime movie.  While a self-aware movie can often be annoying or cheap, the screenplay is smart in how it uses it, such as the scene when Billy and Hans are critiquing Marty's early draft screenplay, and a lot of their complaints (such as the way the female characters are handled) are tied directly to what we have seen in the actual film itself.  It's hard to describe, but it works.  The dialogue is often so funny, and the action so fast, it's easy to get swept away in the fun of it all.  Unfortunately, the last half hour sags just a little.  Once the action hits the desert, some of that energy is lost.  It still remains entertaining, and there's still some great small moments (such as Walken's hilarious and honest stand off with a criminal).  It just doesn't live up to everything that came before it.

Even so, I laughed harder and more often at Seven Psychopaths than at any other comedy I can think of in a while.  That alone is enough for a recommendation, but the movie is also well made, and has some strong performances by the entire cast.  I'm sure this movie wasn't easy for the studio to market, but I'm glad they took a chance on it, and I hope it finds an audience.

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Fun Size

In Fun Size, we get a very busy Halloween night for pretty teenage girl, Wren (Nickelodeon TV star, Victoria Justice), and her oddball superhero-obsessed kid brother, Albert (Jackson Nicoll).  Wren initially hopes to spend the night at a party being held by the school hunk, but her mother (Chelsea Handler) has a date planned that night, so Wren gets stuck accompanying Albert as he goes trick-or-treating.  At some point during the night, Albert wanders off on his own, and now Wren has to spend the rest of the night looking for him.

picSounds like a simple enough plot, right?  Hold on, we have quite a few supporting characters.  Probably more than a movie needs, let alone one that only runs for 90 minutes.  First, we have Wren's best friend, April (Jane Levy), who accompanies her on the adventure, and is the school sexpot.  We also have Roosevelt (Thomas Mann), Wren's geeky other friend, who naturally has feelings for her, but doesn't know how to express them.  It's no surprise that by the end of the movie, Wren will realize that Roosevelt is the right guy for her, and not the popular guy she thinks she's in love with.  We also have Fuzzy (Thomas Middleditch), a lonely convenience store worker who was recently jilted by his girlfriend, and feels that pulling a Halloween prank on her is the best way to get revenge.  Let's not forget the oddly-named Keevin (Josh Pence), who is the new boyfriend of Wren's mom, and turns out to be a total flake by the end of the film.  There's also Jurgen (Johnny Knoxville), a psychotic lunatic who is currently dating Fuzzy's ex-girlfriend, and ends up kidnapping little Albert and holding him for ransom.

picAll this, and I'm still forgetting Roosevelt's lesbian parents, the party girls who pick up little Albert and take him out clubbing while Wren is searching the streets for him, Roosevelt's equally nerdy best friend (Osric Chau) who gets in a fight with some bullies at a local chicken restaurant, Keevin's parents who have a heart-to-heart talk with Wren's mom, convincing her that she should be there for her kids more often, and the subplot involving the fact that Wren and Albert's dad is dead, and Albert hasn't spoken a word since then.  How many characters and how much plot does a movie like this need?  It's almost as if screenwriter Max Werner (TV's The Colbert Report) just kept on adding to his script, and didn't know where to stop.  What's wrong with just making a silly little comedy about some kids who get in trouble on Halloween?  Why does it need the lesbians, and the psychopath who takes the kid hostage?  Come to think of it, the psycho character should have been the first to be written out of the movie.

picFun Size is a production of Nickelodeon's film division, and is being marketed heavily to kids and "tweens".  Parents should be advised that this is the studio's first PG-13 film, and it's a surprisingly hard one, containing quite a bit of strong language, numerous references to sex and nudity, alcoholism, violence, and a scene where a giant plastic chicken on the roof of a restaurant falls down on the hero's car in such a way that it looks like the chicken is humping the back end of the vehicle.  I'm left perplexed as to who the filmmakers intended this movie for.  It's far too raunchy and adult for the usual crowd that watches Nickelodeon or goes to its movies, yet at the same time it's much too juvenile for an adult audience.  This is a movie that was made for no audience that I can imagine.

picAmongst the ruins of this film, I can point out a couple fleeting bright moments.  Lead actress Victoria Justice is quite beautiful and likable, and I hope to see her in a real movie sometime soon.  I also have to admit to laughing at a reference to a "sexy Ruth Bader Ginsburg" costume.  Made me wish the movie had gone the smarter route with its humor.  But far too often, Fun Size plays it as dumb as it possibly can.  The humor is mostly made up out of forced sight gags and weak sexual innuendo.  There is stuff in this movie that could have worked (such as the teen romance between Wren and Roosevelt) if it had been set free from all the other plots that constantly bury it.  And why does this movie try for a sentimental ending if the last scene completely goes against it?

This is a very bad movie, and I can tell I'm not the only one who thinks so.  The fact that it's being released only days before Halloween is a sign that the studio hopes it will be gone from theaters in a week or two.  This could have been a fun little holiday movie for kids.  Instead, it comes across as being dumb, vulgar, and not much fun for anyone.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Silent Hill: Revelation

Early in Silent Hill: Revelation, its teenage heroine, Heather Mason (Adelaide Clemens) has an ominous nightmare, where she is warned not to go to Silent Hill.  It's good advice, and it's a shame she doesn't follow it, given how much she suffers during the course of the film.  But, even her suffering is no match for that which the audience goes through, because of her decision to ignore the warning.

picThis is a silly, incoherent, and unnecessary sequel to 2006's video game adaptation, Silent Hill.  The original film had strong atmosphere and an artistic visual style, thanks to director Christophe Gans.  It also had a pretty weak script credited to Roger Avary.  With Gans not interested in returning for the sequel, and Avary dealing with a prison sentence, the task of this film fell to relative newcomer, writer-director Michael J. Bassett, who shows a total lack of understanding of just what made the original film and the video games that inspired it a success.  The Silent Hill series has always been psychological in nature, drawing upon the fears and personal demons of the innocent people who happen to wander into the hellish ghost town.  Here, Bassett treats the movie like a haunted house spook ride, with things constantly popping up, but nothing creating any tension or suspense.  This is a movie where things keep on happening, and ghoulish creatures lurk up on the screen, but none of it has any impact whatsoever, because none of it means anything.

picThe film attempts to continue the plot of the original movie, and mix it with the plot of the Silent Hill 3 video game.  It's many years since the events of the first film, and grieving husband Chris Da Silva (Sean Bean) is still haunted by the loss of his wife, Rose (Radha Mitchell), who disappeared into some kind of strange hellish limbo along with her daughter, Sharon, at the end of Silent Hill.  Through reasons too complicated to explain, Rose somehow found a way to return Sharon to her husband, but she had to remain behind.  Ever since then, Chris and Sharon have been constantly on the run from their past, moving from town to town, and living under assumed names.  Chris is now known as "Harry Mason", and his daughter is now "Heather".  He's told her nothing about what happened in the past (she thinks she was in a car accident, lost her memories, and her mother), and as Heather's 18th birthday approaches, it seems that the past has caught up with them.

picA creepy detective (Martin Donovan) starts following Heather around everywhere, saying that he needs to talk to her about her past.  There's also Vincent (Kit Harrington), the new boy at school, who seems oddly interested in Heather, and seems to always appear out of nowhere, as if he's following her.  Then her dad gets kidnapped by some silly cult members from the town of Silent Hill.  What follows are a lot of set pieces that are supposed to be nightmare-inducing, but are instead just dull, thanks to the film's insistence on tired, sloppy jump scares.  We also get more exposition dialogue than just about any movie I can think of in recent memory.  Seriously, these characters stop the action every five minutes just so they can explain the backstory, or even what the audience is supposed to be looking at.  Even with all this explaining going on, I was still confused by the incoherent storytelling, and this is coming from someone who has not only played the game, but read multiple detailed explanations on its plot.

picThat's because the plot is the last thing on Revelation's mind.  So is entertainment, creating anything that resembles suspense, and rounding up a decent cast to tell its story.  I'm not kidding when I say that this is the worst-acted mainstream movie I have seen in 2012.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that I will bend over backwards to try to complement an actor.  After all, they're up there on the screen, giving it their all.  But here, I just can't do it.  There's not a single convincing performance in the film's entire 94 minutes.  There are, however, some memorably bad turns here.  Malcolm McDowell, in particular, has a bizarre scene-chewing cameo where he plays an inmate at an asylum.  Apparently, McDowell was told to play the part as if he were playing Hannibal Lecter in a bad community theater production of The Silence of the Lambs.  He's in the movie to rant and rave like a madman, then turn into a monster for reasons I didn't really understand.  Other actors, such as Carrie-Anne Moss and Deborah Kara Unger, exist simply to wear hobo's rags and walk around cheap looking sets.

picAnd thanks to a greatly reduced budget compared to the first movie, this sequel also screws up the one thing most people liked about the first film - the visual style.  Everything just seems smaller and less impressive here.  The CG used to bring some of the monsters to life looks about as convincing as the stuff you'd see in a SyFy Channel Original Movie.  Even the famous fog that constantly covers the streets of Silent Hill doesn't look right.  I'm trying my hardest to think of one positive element I can report on.  I'm going back through my memories of this movie, and I'm coming up empty.  It doesn't even have the decency to even try to be genuinely scary.  It doesn't thrill, it doesn't excite, and there's no reason it needed to be made, other than to bilk a couple bucks over the Halloween weekend.  There's no excuse for that, especially when you consider the video games that inspired this movie feature some of the more disturbing ideas and images to be dreamed up in its medium.  All writer-director Bassett had to do was follow their example.  The fact he did not is his own fault.

Were it not for The Apparition, Silent Hill: Revelation would easily take the crown as the worst horror film of the year.  But, it can still lay claim to being one of the worst films of the year, so that's something.  I know that there were fans of the games who were disappointed with the first movie, and how it deviated from the game's plot.  I wish I could see the looks on their faces when they witness this mess.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Alex Cross

Rob Cohen's Alex Cross wants to be a serious, edge of your seat thriller, but it's so lurid in its melodrama, it works better as unintentional comedy at times.  This is the kind of movie where the titular hero, a Detroit police detective, can walk into a crime scene, and immediately figure out everything that happened seconds after walking in.  The movie wants us to believe that Alex Cross has some kind of Sherlock Holmes-level of deduction, but given how he gets every fact right in a fraction of a second, I say he's cheating and read the script beforehand. 

picThose with good memories probably remember that there have already been two Alex Cross film mysteries, based on a series of novels by James Patterson.  Those would be 1997's Kiss the Girls, and 2001's Along Came a Spider, both of which featured Morgan Freeman in the lead role.  This film serves as a reboot, or a prequel of sorts to the earlier films.  Tyler Perry (yes, the guy known for dressing in drag and a fat suit, and playing feisty Southern granny Madea in a series of movies) takes on the role of Alex this time around, and while I always admire an actor stepping out of his comfort zone and tackling new material, I don't know if Perry was the right choice.  His performance is rather bland here, and never convinces us that he's a street-hardened police detective.  He hams up the melodrama of just about every situation, earning more laughs during his serious scenes than sympathy from the audience.  The filmmakers obviously cast him, because of the large audience he usually attracts with his films.  It feels like stunt casting, rather than a genuine performance.

picAs the film opens, we get to see Alex Cross both on the job, as he chases down a perp in the film's opening action sequence, and as a family man, where he shares a home with his lovely, pregnant wife (Carmen Ejogo), two kids, and smart-mouthed elderly mother (Cicely Tyson).  Already the film has created an uncomfortable balance of police drama, and generic comedic family drama - the two tones clashing severely.  It becomes even more odd when we meet our villain, a skinny, tattooed masochist who calls himself Picasso (Matthew Fox), because he always leaves drawings at the scene of the crime that contain clues to his next murder.  In his introductory scene, he gains the trust of a wealthy woman after winning a mixed martial arts match, goes to her home, drugs her, murders all of her personal bodyguards, and then tortures her by cutting her fingers off.  Oh, did I mention that this movie is PG-13?  Because clearly violence like this is nothing compared to a movie like Argo, which was mainly rated-R for dropping a couple "f-bombs" in its dialogue.

picAlex and his partner, comic relief Tommy Kane (Edward Burns), arrive at the murder scene to investigate.  Alex finds the charcoal drawing left behind by the killer, and figures out who his next target is, because he folds the drawing into two parts joining together, and it creates a person's name.  It's kind of like those fold in covers they would have on the back of issues of Mad Magazine, where it would look like one image, and then you folded the page together, and it would form a different image.  In this case, it turns out that Picasso's next target is a powerful and arrogant CFO of a major corporation.  When Alex and his team intercepts the killer before he can get to his next target, the madman swears revenge, and starts going after Alex's own family.  This sets about a ludicrous revenge fantasy story, where Alex Cross pretty much goes into vigilante mode to hunt down the killer.  And when the two finally confront each other in the climax, we get one of the clumsiest fight scenes in recent memory, thanks to the fact that the camera suddenly develops a spasm for the course of the entire fight, and refuses to stay still.

picThis is a very lazy, and poorly written movie.  The main characters are hardly touched on, and there are a number of characters who are introduced, and then disappear completely for the rest of the film, such as the young juvenile prisoner that Alex is seen playing chess with at a local prison early on.  There's just a very rushed tone to this, which would probably explain how Alex is able to deduce every detail of a crime just by walking through the door.  The screenplay can't be bothered to explain how Alex knows this stuff, or what led him to the conclusions he reaches.  Not even the rivalry that builds between Cross and the killer is all that engaging.  The villain is supposed to become obsessed with causing pain to Alex by harming his loved ones, but it all seems perfunctory.  To play the role of the killer, Matthew Fox went through a physical transformation, losing a tremendous amount of weight and shaving his head.  It's an impressive transformation, but the script doesn't give him an interesting role to play.

Alex Cross was directed by Rob Cohen, who previously has done some big budget action films like Fast and the Furious.  You would think that this movie would include a lot of thrilling chases and action, but the movie is curiously flat all the way through, with dull dialogue and characters that just don't hold our attention.  He might have been the wrong person to tell this particular story, or maybe they should have fitted the story to his more action-heavy specialties.  All I know is given his experience with action, there is no excuse for the horrible fight scene that closes out this movie.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

The Master

The problem is likely with me.  Whenever I see a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie, I instantly expect great things.  And while The Master does provide some greatness (particularly the lead performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the gorgeous look of the film itself), the story it tells doesn't quite reach the heights you would expect.  I'm recommending the film, but another go at the script and a touch more editing would have really pushed this one over the top.

picYou've likely heard the talk on how the film is about a religious cult led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), who was inspired by real life author, L. Ron Hubbard, the father of Scientology.  This might lead you to think that the film is an examination or critique on the religion.  And while there are some similarities between Dodd's group of followers, and the real world religion, the film is not really intended to be about Scientology in general.  Rather, it is a story about a man's need to belong somewhere in the world, when he really has nowhere else to go.  That man in this story is Freddie (Phoenix), a Navy veteran fresh from his service during World War II, with too many emotional and psychological scars to fit in anywhere.  He's a drifter for a while, moving from place to place and job to job, until in an alcohol-fueled state, he literally stumbles upon a boat where Dodd is hosting his daughter's wedding.

picRather than reject him, Dodd seems to welcome Freddie, and takes him under his wing.  Before too long, Freddie has become a faithful follower to Dodd's fledgling new religion.  He follows them from state to state, and tries to spread the word to others.  However, Freddie is constantly battling with his inner demons, namely alcoholism and his violent anger which causes him to lash out at any second.  When Dodd's experimental attempts to "cure" Freddie of his problems fail to work, many within the group, including Dodd's wife (Amy Adams) question if Freddie should be one of them.  The main dramatic focus is the relationship between Dodd and Freddie, or "Master" and "follower".  Despite some people (some within the cult itself) accusing Dodd of making his beliefs up as he goes along, Freddie follows his word completely.

picAnd yet, we never quite sense the same devotion from Dodd back to Freddie.  That's because he sees him almost as an experiment, a tortured soul that he can test his pseudo-psychological techniques on.  The character of Lancaster Dodd is more or less a charming salesman, preaching his personal beliefs to anyone who will listen.  Hoffman plays him as such, with a big smile, and a sense of showmanship to appeal himself to people.  It's a wonderful performance, and becomes truly electric when he is acting alone with Phoenix as Freddie.  Their individual sessions together, as well as their confrontation in a jail cell are easily the high points of the film.  Whenever Hoffman and Phoenix are playing off one another, the movie is completely alive.  It's the rest of the time that things stumble just a little.  Not enough to completely hinder the film, but enough to make us wish we were watching the two leads play off each other again.

picA lot of this has to do with the fact that there's just not a lot of solid material we can grab onto in The Master, outside of the main relationship.  The plot moves slowly and sometimes seems to be the last thing on Anderson's mind.  And the characters, outside of Freddie (the only character to get something resembling a backstory) are not really developed.  They're great when they're together, and in individual scenes that the screenplay gives them, but at the same time, most of them are enigmas.  One of the more curious characters is Dodd's wife, played by Amy Adams, who sometimes seems content to disappear into the background, and at other times seems oddly forceful.  I don't consider this bad writing, or Anderson not having an angle on the character.  It's just that she remains an enigma, and I would have liked a bit more depth added to her, as well as some of the other characters.

picI can certainly see this being a polarizing movie, as this is not exactly the kind of movie that tries to reach out to its audience, and helps us enter the world of these characters.  Everybody is interesting, but they are intentionally kept at arm's length.  I enjoyed this approach at times, and found myself frustrated at others.  I guess that leads to my mostly positive, but somewhat mixed response to the film.  The performances, the look, and the core idea are fascinating, but there's very little to latch onto in terms of an emotional response.  This is a cold and distant movie, and don't consider that a complaint.  It's just the kind of movie that it is.  Whether or not it works for you I believe is a personal call.

The Master has already been greeted with glowing Oscar buzz, but frankly, I don't see it being remembered too strongly outside of Hoffman and Phoenix come Award time.  I personally see something like Argo having a more lasting impact in voters' minds when winter rolls around.  Nonetheless, I must still commend Anderson for making a very unusual and distant film that is very well done and that I enjoyed, but not as much as I thought I would.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Paranormal Activity 4

Maybe Toby (the name of the malevolent invisible entity that has been terrifying hapless suburbanites through four Paranormal Activity movies now) just doesn't have his heart in his work anymore.  There's something very workmanlike and by the numbers about the scares in Paranormal Activity 4.  Of course, if the last movie is to be believed, he's been doing this kind of stuff to these people since 1988.  Maybe he needs a break.  After watching this particularly lifeless sequel, I know I could go for one from this franchise.

picIf you'll recall, the original movie introduced us to young couple, Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah, who started videotaping the ghostly happenings around their house.  The first sequel took us back in time, to further explain Katie's connections with the ghostly goings-on, as well as introduce us to her sister Kristi, whose newborn baby Hunter became a target of the demon.  In Paranormal Activity 3, we went back even further in time to when Katie and Kristi were kids, and this whole mess started.  Now, with the latest film, we have some new victims for Toby to haunt.  Unfortunately, we don't really learn anything new about the increasingly convoluted plot that the series has been building.  Maybe that's a good thing, but at the same time, it feels like the latest entry is just treading water.  We're seeing the same stuff we've seen in the previous movies, and not really learning anything new.

picThe focus this time is a perky young teenage girl named Alex, played by the talented young Kathryn Newton.  Her performance is the sole bright spot in an otherwise fairly dim movie.  Alex lives in a affluent suburb with her family, which includes her feuding parents, and a baby brother named Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp).  She also has a boyfriend (Matt Shively) who is good with hooking up computers and video equipment.  That will be important once strange and unexplained things start happening around Alex's home.  Alex's personal paranormal activity starts up when a little boy from across the street named Robbie (Brady Allen) comes to live with her family after his mom is sent to the hospital under mysterious circumstances.  Before too long, the chandeliers and doors in Alex's house are moving and opening by themselves, kitchen cutlery is disappearing, little Robbie starts wandering around the house in the middle of the night, and strikes up a bizarre secret friendship with Wyatt, painting ancient demonic symbols on the kid's back.

picNot much builds, and we don't get a lot of tension as these events unfold.  We get a lot of shots of empty rooms, and the occasional piece of furniture moving by itself, but that's about it.  The odd thing is, despite the fact that Alex is catching all this stuff on tape, she doesn't make a very big effort to show anyone this stuff.  She makes a halfhearted attempt to make her parents watch in one scene, but when they ignore her, she never brings it up again.  You would think having film footage of Alex being trapped in a garage that turns into a literal death trap would be proof enough that something is very wrong in this house.  Oddly, she doesn't even try to show this footage to anyone.  And we once again have the central question I often find myself asking during these movies - Why is Alex taping a lot of this stuff in the first place?  Yes, I know, she's trying to record the activity.  But, she makes such a limited effort to show what she captures to others, you kind of wonder what the point of it all is, and why she carries her laptop computer everywhere she goes.

pic None of this would matter if the scares were any good, but unfortunately, this turns out to be the least-tense film in the series.  This is a huge surprise, considering directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, and screenwriter Christopher Landon all worked on the much scarier third entry of the franchise.  That movie had some clever ideas, such as the inventive oscillating fan camera.  Here, everybody seems to be on autopilot.  We don't only learn anything new about the overall story of the series, but the characters are not really developed in any real way.  They just kind of hang around, until it's time for them to meet the invisible and ever-present Toby.  What slight scares the movie does aim for are of the perfunctory variety, such as something suddenly jumping in front of the camera (such as the family cat), or a shadowy figure moving just out of frame.

I doubt even fans of the series will find much to get excited about here.  It's a sluggish and anemic take on an idea that has been kind of fun up until now, but should probably be put to rest before it becomes too much of a self-parody.  Unless the filmmakers come up with some really killer ideas for next year's inevitable Paranormal Activity 5, I say it's time to give Toby the rest he deserves.

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