Reel Opinions

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Project Almanac

For a Sci-Fi thriller, Project Almanac is disappointingly low key.  This is a "found footage" movie about a group of teens who discover the secret of time travel.  And what do they do when they've discovered its secret?  They use it to get better grades on tests, get back at the mean girls who pick on them, and go to a rock concert that they missed out on the first time around.

Let me repeat: they discover the secret of time travel!  Do you have any idea how amazing that sounds?  Just think of the things you could do, and the mind literally spins with the possibilities.  The movie finds a way to explain away its own lack of inspiration.  It turns out the kids can only travel back a few weeks or days.  They can't travel back to 1939, and "kill Hitler", as one of the kids suggests initially.  As the kids work on improving the time traveling technology, they figure out how to travel back a little bit further, to the point that one of the heroes can visit his own birthday party from 10 years ago.  But that's still really no excuse for the film's overall lack of imagination.  Watching Project Almanac, I was reminded of the last "found footage" Sci-Fi movie we got, Earth to Echo.  That was the movie about a group of kids who discover a little alien, and then spend the rest of the movie carrying it in their backpack.  Both suffer from a lack of imagination, and both suffer from a pointless handheld camera gimmick that never works in the film's favor.

Like a lot of films of its type, we find ourselves asking why is someone constantly filming all of this with a camera, and how do they get some of these spectacularly complex shots that look too professional to be filmed by a teenager who's just goofing around with their friends?  This is a story that probably would have been better served with a traditional narrative, anyway.  It's the story of David (Jonny Weston), a high school science wiz who is trying to follow in the footsteps of his genius inventor father, who died in a car accident on David's 7th birthday.  While exploring his dad's old workshop in the basement, he discovers a secret compartment in the floor.  Turns out dad was working on a top secret military experiment involving time travel, and he conveniently left all the blueprints and information on how to build one behind.  Along with his sister, Christina (Ginny Gardner), who feels the need to film every instant of every day for some reason, and his two nerdy best friends Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Adam (Allen Evangelista), they decide to finish dad's work and build the time machine.

When David and his friends realize what they have, they decide to have fun, like winning the lottery and using the money to buy cool cars or throw massive parties.  But then, things start to slowly go wrong.  When David tries to go back by himself to fix an event with a girl he likes (Sofia Black-D'Ella) so that it goes in his favor, he somehow winds up screwing up the present.  And the more he travels back in time to fix the new mistakes he makes, the worse things get in the present.  It gets to the point that it is hard to sympathize with David, especially when he becomes reluctant to change events that will end in tragedy for his friends, because he's afraid of losing his new girlfriend.  Sure, it's probably realistic that a teenager with this kind of power would become very self-centered, and may not care about how his actions are effecting those around him.  But it gets harder to get behind him as the film goes on.

When I say that Project Almanac would have worked better as a traditional movie, I really mean it.  The shaky, unsteady and constantly moving camera style employed here actually made me feel physically ill at times, to the point that I had to shut my eyes for a minute or two until I felt better.  The "found footage" style adds nothing, and is not even all that interesting to look at.  It's simply a gimmick that distracts from the movie so much, it works against it.  There are some good qualities to the script, such as some genuinely sweet moments between David and the girl of his dreams, and also a couple funny one liners.  But it's so hard to focus on anything when the camera won't stop shaking.  This movie not only needs more imagination, but it needs to be filmed a completely different way.

This is simply a movie that should have been more fun than it is.  The kids needed to be smarter, and the stuff that they do with the ability to travel back in time should have been a lot more creative.  This really isn't that bad of a movie, but when its filmmaking style is making you feel nauseous, it's hard to concentrate on anything else.

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The Loft

One of the first images we see in The Loft is the figure of a body falling from a great height, and then smashing onto the roof of a car down below.  The movie then flashes to a different point in time, where a man walks into a loft apartment, and finds a dead woman lying on a bloodstained bed, her hand handcuffed to the headboard of the bed.  Both of these are great, attention-grabbing images.  Then we're in another time and place, this time a police station, where another man is being grilled by police officers about the dead woman.  Then we're back in the room with the dead woman, where another man walks in on the scene.  The movie is only 10 minutes old, and it's already trying to throw us off course.

That's because The Loft is a movie that wants us to think its smart.  It throws every trick in the book at us.  It misdirects us, it tells its story out of sequence, it flashes backwards, it flashes forwards, and it leads us all over the map.  The only thing it doesn't do is allow us to figure out its own mystery.  That's because this is one of those movies where there are no right answers.  The movie deliberately hides important information from us, so in a later scene, it can go back and show us what we didn't see before, because it happened off camera.  We're supposed to smack our heads, and be amazed at how smart the movie is and how it fooled us again, I suppose.  It's not that the film is all that hard to follow, really.  It's just with how much the narrative jumps around, you catch on quick that the movie is intentionally trying to hide something from you, and you realize that it exists simply to jerk the audience around until it decides to give us the answers.  We're not supposed to play along and solve the mystery, we're just supposed to feel dumb.

Of course, some people in the audience may already know the answers as to how this all turns out, as this is the third time the story has been told.  The film was originally made in Belgium back in 2008, and was made again in the Netherlands in 2010.  Now it's Hollywood's turn, and they've brought along the same director who worked on the previous two versions, Erik Van Looy.  He must be getting tired of telling the same story again and again, and that might explain why for all of its countless plot twists and red herrings, the movie never quite seems alive.  Or maybe that's because the adapted screenplay by Wesley Strick (2010's A Nightmare on Elm Street) is more concerned with fooling us, than it is in making us care about the characters and the situation they're in.  All of the ingredients are here to create a compelling Hitchcock-style mystery, but it doesn't gel.  Whether something got lost in the adaptation, or whether this is something that carried over from the earlier versions I cannot say, as I have not seen the previous films.

The film centers on five best friends.  They include the cool and smarmy architect Vincent (Karl Urban), all around nice guy Chris (James Marsden), Chris' frequently angry and violent half-brother Philip (Matthias Schoenaerts, who starred in the original Belgium version), the overweight and sex-driven Marty (Eric Stonestreet), and the quiet and reserved Luke (Wentworth Miller).  All of the five men are married, but all find themselves having their eyes on other women.  That's when Vincent hits upon what he thinks is a brilliant idea.  He builds a private loft in his new apartment building that all five of them will share.  He gives each of them a key, and tells them that they can all use the loft for their own private sexual escapades.  There will be no hotel bills that they will have to hide from their wives, and they can use it whenever they want.  The movie never answers the obvious question as to what happens if one of the guys wants to use the room, and someone else is using it at the same time. 

The five guys agree to the arrangement, and start bringing a variety of young women up to the room on their own.  Then we get the scene that opened the film, with Luke being the one who walks into the room and finds the murdered woman on the bed.  All five men are brought into the room, and they immediately start turning against each other as they try to figure out who the murderer is.  There is no sign of forced entry, so the killer obviously had a key to the loft, so that makes any one of them a suspect.  As the guys try to sort out who was where and when, we get more and more flashbacks to their individual private lives, their past meetings, and even some flash forwards to when the men are being questioned by the police.  Of course, nothing is what it seems.  That is something that Strick's screenplay takes to heart with a vengeance.  It's constantly doubling back and replaying earlier flashbacks, showing us information it neglected to show us before.  As the red herrings and misdirections pile up, we find ourselves just sitting and waiting for the truth to be revealed, because we know that any information the movie gives us is probably going to be proven wrong in another scene about 15 minutes later.

The Loft is a movie filled with miserable people.  The five main guys are sleazy, obsessed with sex, and have so many secrets it sort of becomes laughable by the end.  The women in the film basically fall into two categories - bored wives who suspect their husbands are unfaithful, or prostitutes that the men bring up to the room.  Of course, the wives end up having secrets of their own, because that's the kind of movie this is.  Nobody is allowed to be who they are on the surface.  Everybody has to have some kind of dark, sexual secret that is scored with dramatic music on the soundtrack, and one of the other characters flying into some sort of rage.  Everybody seems to be out to get everybody, and when the final answers finally come, it ends up being...none of the above.  This is a movie so obsessed with pulling the rug out from under us that it sacrifices crucial elements like character development or interesting dialogue.  I guess we're supposed to be thrilled with each twist of the plot, but I got a little frustrated when some of those twists started to have twists of their own.

The thing is, I think The Loft could have been an interesting little mystery if it wasn't so obsessed with tricking us, and actually dug into its own psychology.  For all of its multiple twists and turns, this really doesn't add up to a whole lot.  It's not even all that sexy of an erotic thriller.  But hey, at least it's better than The Boy Next Door!

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Friday, January 30, 2015

Black or White

Writer-director Mike Binder has made some movies that I've liked.  Now he has made Black or White, a movie I didn't care much for.  Oh, it's well intentioned, and the cast is fine.  But the characters are simplistic, and the movie veers a bit too heavily on melodrama.  It never once for a second feels real.  While the actors fill the roles well enough, the words they speak sound like scripted dialogue instead of conversations.

The film's central conflict revolves around Eloise (Jillian Estell), a cute as a button 7-year-old black girl who has been living with her upper class white grandparents her whole life.  We learn her story as the film unfolds.  Her mother (who was only 17 when she was pregnant) died in childbirth, and her father is a lowlife and a drug addict who has never been there for her.  The parents of her mother have since looked after her, and given her a good life, including sending her to a well-regarded prep school.  Her grandfather, Elliot (Kevin Costner), is a successful lawyer with a heavy drinking problem.  His drinking becomes even worse when his wife and Eloise's grandmother is killed in a car accident as the film opens, and he must now raise her on his own.

The early scenes of the movie are focused mainly on the relationship between Elliot and Eloise, and right away, there is a troubling note that something is wrong.  Instead of exploring the relationship between the grandfather and this little girl he must now look after on his own, the screenplay instead is locked entirely in Sitcom Land.  The kid is cute and all, but a bit too quick with the one liners when Elliot can't brush her hair right, or gets lost when he has to drive her to school.  Even the scene where Elliot must tell her that her grandmother is gone rings false, because the dialogue between them sounds so scripted.  Instead of genuine emotion, we get a cute little scene where the characters have a dialogue back and forth that sounds overly rehearsed and not at all genuine.  It feels like they're crying on cue, and giving funny little line readings to make sure the audience doesn't get too sad.

Binder's last film, Reign Over Me, covered the issue of loss much more honestly.  That was an effective drama about a man played by Adam Sandler who had lost his entire family on 9/11, and he had no idea how to move on, so he shut himself away in a private world of video games, movies and fantasy.  In that movie, it felt like the pain and loss of the character was coming from a natural place we could identify with.  Here, the death of Costner's wife is essentially treated as a plot device, which is only brought up when it is dramatically convenient.  It exists simply to bring in Eloise's other grandmother,  Rowena (Octavia Spencer).  She's the mother of Eloise's father, and wants the girl to come and live in her bustling home filled with various family members who look and behave like extras in an urban sitcom.  She knows of Elliot's drinking, and doesn't think he can raise the child on his own.

Fair enough.  But the movie forgets to make Rowena into a real character.  She's sassy, she's smart-mouthed, and she often speaks when she shouldn't, but we never really get to see what kind of a relationship she has with her granddaughter, because the movie forgets to give them a real scene together.  Every time they are on the screen together, they barely interact.  What does Eloise think of Rowena, or her side of the family?  She tells Elliot that she would prefer to live with him, but we never get a sense of their relationship either, because all of their scenes together are more concerned with being cute than creating characters.  The rift between Elliot and Rowena threatens to create a rift in the family, and it eventually heads to court.  This in turn leads to even more overwrought melodrama that is hollow and unconvincing.

Black or White takes a simplified and heavily dramatized look at a situation that should be relatable and heartfelt.  Everything feels like its been designed to make an audience feel good, so it just doesn't seem real.  The conflict isn't strong enough, the drama isn't stirring, the characters are shallow and underwritten, the courtroom scenes are heavy on the intense dramatics, and the climactic moments feel forced.  There's just a very neat and tidy feel to everything that betrays the very concept of the story it is trying to tell.  This should be messy, it should be painful and maybe even brutal.  Instead, it feels like we're watching one of those TV shows where the problems are solved in under a half hour, and everybody hugs it out at the end.  Only, instead of a half hour, this movie is dragged out to a very long two hours.

This is a movie that is not afraid to ask some interesting questions.  Should a biracial girl be exposed to both worlds of her family?  Is a man wrong if he feels someone cannot change?  Black or White is not afraid to ask these questions.  It's just afraid to give the answers in a way that doesn't feel like it's been presented in as safe and non-offensive a manner as possible.

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Sunday, January 25, 2015


David Koepp's Mortdecai makes a big mistake early on, and then it just keeps on making that mistake over and over.  It thinks that a comedy can get laughs just by having people acting funny, instead of actually being funny.  This is a stunningly tone deaf farce that seems like it was made by amateurs, which is why it's shocking to see pros like Koepp, Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Betany and Ewan McGregor involved.

The main culprit behind the film's failure is Depp, who plays Charlie Mortdecai, an art dealer and part-time con artist.  His portrayal of Charlie is that of a cartoonish British aristocratic buffoon.  He speaks with a silly accent, has a paper-thin handlebar mustache above his lip, and behaves kind of like a cross between Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow and Austin Powers.  Depp is constantly up on the screen, expelling energy and throwing himself completely into the bizarre performance, but we do not laugh, because he never actually does or says anything that is funny.  We smile from time to time, but that's it.  It's not enough just to give an actor a goofy mustache and have him talk with a funny accent.  And yet, the movie keeps on throwing him up on the screen, and expects us to laugh at the mere sight of him over and over.

Why not really dig into the character, and give him a personality?  The most we learn is that he is a coward who is always getting himself into dangerous situations, and then being the first to run away, letting his manservant, Jock (Paul Bettany), handle the mess.  Bettany comes the closest to getting laughs in the film, as he underplays the character, unlike Depp.  The relationship between Mortdecai and Jock has the potential for laughs.  I kind of smiled the first time Mortdecai accidentally shot him while trying to help him.  But then, the movie repeats the gag.  It repeats a lot of gags, actually.  Most of the running gags revolve around Mortdecai's mustache, as if the movie is under the mistaken impression that it's the funniest thing in the world.  The most repeated gag in the film?  Whenever Mortdecai's wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) leans forward to kiss him, she has to back away and gag at the sight of the awful thing above his lip.  I forgot to keep track, but I wouldn't be surprised if this joke was repeated a good five or six times.

The movie has a large cast of supporting characters, played by recognizable actors like Jeff Goldblum and Olivia Munn.  But again, the screenplay gives them nothing to do, so they often come across as actors who just happened to be passing by the set on the day they were shooting, instead of characters involved in the plot.  What is the plot, you may ask?  A painting that is believed to have hidden information that could lead to a great fortune has gone missing, and a police inspector (Ewan McGregor) must turn to Charlie Mortdecai for help on the case.  The inspector is an old rival of Charlie's, as back in college, they were both in love with Paltrow's character.  The movie sets this idea up early on, and then does nothing with it.  It does this a lot, actually.  It keeps on introducing us to characters who supposedly have a connection to Mortdecai, and then it does so little with them that we wonder why they were introduced in the first place.

Maybe you need to have read the series of books by Kyril Bonfiglioli in order to know how these characters fit into the story and who they are.  All I know is that everybody in Mortdecai is either personality deprived, or built around a single visual gag that the movie repeats every time the character is on screen.  Just like Depp, everyone is forced to speak in silly accents, projectile vomit and get slapped around in broad slapstick fights that don't generate laughs, because there is nothing behind the joke.  These are characters we have no investment in, so why should we laugh when a box falls on their head?  This movie often plays like a Three Stooges film if we had no idea who Moe, Larry and Curly were, or their relationship to each other.  It would be just three guys poking each other in the eyes for no reason, and we would lose interest immediately.

The filmmakers were obviously going for a Pink Panther tone with its comedy, as the slapstick farce mixed with the detective story often brings to mind the films that featured Peter Sellers as the bungling Clouseau.  But the movie misses the point completely in just about every way.  To be fair, the actors up on the screen do look like they're having fun.  Too bad the audience isn't.

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Strange Magic

An animated fantasy dreamed up by George Lucas, Strange Magic is indeed very strange.  It's a confused and convoluted mash up of a fractured fairy tale, William Shakespeare (the filmmakers claim it was loosely based on A Midsummer Night's Dream), a swashbuckling adventure story and a Broadway musical.  I have no doubt that these elements could be combined to create an entertaining film, but it would require a better screenplay than what we're given.

The film opens in a fairy kingdom located in an enchanted forest, where the fairy princess Marianne (voice by Evan Rachel Wood) is set to marry the handsome yet oafish Prince Roland (Sam Palladio).  When it's revealed that Roland is unfaithful, Marianne turns her back on love, and decides to devote her life to being a warrior princess who is skilled in combat.  Her sister, Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull), meanwhile continues to flirt with every fairy and elf in the kingdom, not realizing that an elf by the name of Sunny (Elijah Kelly) longs for her.  Sunny has heard of a love potion that can be made from the petals of a certain flower, and plots to track the flower down so he can make it, and have Dawn fall in love with him.  There are two problems with this plan.  The first is that the flower only grows around the forbidden dark area of the forest, which is ruled by the cockroach-like Bog King (Alan Cumming) and his army of goblins.  Second of all, the only one who can create the potion is the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristen Chenoweth, who after The Boy Next Door and now this, is not having a good weekend), and she is being held captive in the Bog King's castle.

Sunny ventures into the dark part of the forest to get the flower, and track down the Sugar Plum Fairy in order to get a love potion.  Though plot circumstances far too complicated to recap here, Dawn ends up a prisoner of the Bog King, but falls madly in love with him because she is sprinkled with some of the love potion.  Sunny must track down what remains of the potion that has been stolen by a strange white rat-like creature called an Imp.  Marianne goes into the dark forest in order to save her sister, meets up with the Bog King, and finds out that he's not really evil, he's just misunderstood, and like her had his heart broken once long ago.  The oafish Prince Roland is leading an army of fairies to raid the Bog King's castle.  Oh, and even though the Bog King is an insect-like creature, he has a frog-like creature for a mother, who is voiced by Maya Rudolph, and is portrayed as a stereotypical Jewish Mother type.  Are you following this?

Maybe Strange Magic's plot would make more sense if it didn't feel like it was being constantly stopped every two minutes for the characters to break into a recognizable pop song that kinda/sorta fits what's currently happening in the scene, but really just slows the movie to a halt every time the music starts up.  There are over 20 songs in the film, ranging mostly from the 60s to the 80s.  The idea of putting classic pop songs in the context of a comedic fantasy has worked in the past (most notably the original Shrek), but here the songs exist simply to drag things out.  When Dawn dreams of finding love at a festival dance, she suddenly breaks into "I Wanna Dance With Somebody Who Loves Me".  When Marianne is initially dreaming of wedded bliss with Roland, she croons "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You".  When the fairy army is marching off to the Bog King's castle, they march to the beat of "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga, for some inexplicable reason.

As if the movie stopping every few minutes to squeeze another song in on the soundtrack wasn't bad enough, the look of the film is garish.  Some of the backgrounds have really nice details, but the characters veer on the side of the uncanny valley, especially the faces, which just don't look right.  Just as garish as the visuals is the screenplay, which is credited to three different writers. (George Lucas came up with the idea for the film.) The script is one of those movies that believes that something needs to be happening at every single moment.  There are no quiet moments, or time for reflection.  If the movie gives us something to think about on our own, it has somehow failed us.  Every feeling, every emotion must be spelled out, or matched up with a pop song.  The jokes aren't that funny, the characters are not memorable, and while the songs are sung well by the cast, they end up adding nothing.

When it comes to recent animated misfires, Strange Magic is nowhere near as bad as Walking With Dinosaurs.  It's mediocre, kind of mindless, but also pretty harmless and forgettable.  Really little kids who haven't seen very many movies might enjoy it for its bright colors and bouncy songs.  However, to the parents of those children, I guarantee that there are better options than this for them to watch out there.

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Jennifer Aniston looks deflated in Cake.  She's worn, scarred, speaks with a low croak in her voice and moves as if her entire body has been shattered.  Of course, that's the way her character, Claire, is supposed to be.  She's playing a woman who is at a point where she's struggling to recover, while at the same time wondering what the point of recovering is.  This is not the first time Aniston has ditched her cheerful comedic image for a film, but it is one of her better attempts.

When we first meet Claire, she's at a female support group for chronic pain sufferers where it looks like she can hardly hold in her contempt for the group leader.  One of the ladies in the group has recently committed suicide, and rather than be disturbed, Claire is oddly fascinated by it.  She wants to know how long she hesitated (or if she hesitated at all) before she threw herself off a highway overpass.  This morbid curiosity turns off the women in the group, and she is kicked out.  As we will see throughout the film, Claire has a knack for burning bridges with her sharp tongue and acidic sarcasm.   She's separated from her husband (due to the turmoil she has endured the past year from her broken body and spirit), and has become addicted to pain killers.  The only person who seems to be able to tolerate her is her Mexican housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), who drives Claire around, keeps up the house and takes the blunt of her verbal abuse.

One of the joys of the screenplay is that we don't immediately know what happened to Claire.  The movie clues us in little by little, and when the answer is given, it's truly heartbreaking.  All we do know for most of the film is that Claire is completely shattered, body and soul, and that she too is contemplating taking her own life, and frequently attempts to when no one is around.  She is egged on in her efforts by the spirit of the woman from the support group who died (Anna Kendrick), who always seems to appear whenever Claire is thinking of ending it all.  This fascination with the woman who haunts her mind leads her to track down the woman's husband (Sam Worthington), who is struggling to move on in his own way, and puts on a brave face for his five-year-old son (Evan O'Toole).  The relationship they build is a quiet and guarded one, but one that at least hints at a future for both of them.

Cake can be a very grim and somber film, but it is never so much so that we're turned off by it.  Claire is sharp witted and has an angry sense of humor about her situation that seems natural.  It's how she deals with her situation.  The movie has a quiet honesty to it that I quite enjoyed.  It doesn't play up the situations of the characters who are in pain (either emotionally or physically, or sometimes both) with forced melodrama.  There are no big, sappy speeches, and when one of the characters does have a break down and cries, it is played softly and doesn't feel overplayed for dramatic effect.  There is a subtlety to the way this movie handles depression.  I got a little worried when the movie started to use a "ghost" to represent Claire's state of mind when she is close to the edge emotionally, but the movie handles it well, and it never comes across as being forced or cheesy.

I have heard other critics complain that the pace of the film is sluggish, or that the film is unbalanced when it comes to its sarcastic humor and drama.  I, for one, never found the film boring.  Yes, it is paced somewhat slow, and it lingers on a couple shots a little too long, but I never felt like the energy or emotion of the film was lacking.  As for the second issue, I think it reaches a good balance juggling the two tones.  The only thing I did not like was the character of Silvana, who I don't think is developed enough.  We never really learn why she puts up with the abuse Claire so frequently gives her.  Yes, I get that she is a good person, and yes, I get that she sees good in Claire that many do not.  I just wanted the movie to go deeper into her, and the relationship between the two women.  It would have added another interesting dramatic layer to the film.

Cake never quite reaches greatness, but it is enjoyable all the way through and it has a strong performance by Aniston at the center.  I've heard that the original script is much better than what wound up on the screen, but I have not read it, so I can't judge.  All I can say is I found the movie effective.  It moved me on occasion, and it has a great final shot that I wouldn't dream of spoiling.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

The Boy Next Door

"Is Jennifer Lopez naked in this?" - The title of a thread on this film's message board on the IMDB.

I have a hunch that the main reason people will be going to see The Boy Next Door is for the answer to this very question.  The answer is kind of, but you don't get to see very much, because the camera is either at an angle where you can't see much, or there is something in the way.  For those who come to see the movie because of that sequence, it's going to feel like a tease.  Not only that, but they'll be getting one of the dumbest erotic thrillers in many a moon.

This film is a nasty piece of work with nothing to recommend.  It's not sexy, thrilling or exciting in any way.  It's actually kind of laughable for all the wrong reasons.  The movie is essentially one of those trashy "woman in peril" movies you see on TV sometimes, only with some nudity and four letter words thrown in.  It's the kind of movie where a woman gets involved with a guy she shouldn't get involved with, realizes her mistake too late, and then the previously nice and sexy guy suddenly turns into a mad slasher from a horror movie who can appear anywhere at anytime to menace the heroine or her family.  It exists for no reason other than to get a couple lingering nude shots of its attractive cast, before it turns into a low rent thriller, where people lurk around in the dark and are assaulted by cats who come flying at them from off camera.

The plot: Jennifer Lopez is Claire Peterson, a high school teacher who is going through a very bad time with her husband (John Corbett) after she caught him cheating on her with a co-worker.  They're separated, and her best friend (Kristin Chenoweth) is pushing her to move on, but Claire isn't quite sure she wants to break up the family for the sake of her timid and meek teenage son, Kevin (Ian Nelson), who comes across as the wimpiest and blandest teenager ever captured on film.  Into Claire's life comes Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman), the titular boy next door.  He's a hunky teen who is "almost twenty" (as the movie tells us), likes to pose nude in front of his window where Claire can see him from her bedroom and is handy around the house, as he helps Claire fix her broken garage door and even does some work on her car.

Noah has come to live next door to look after an aging relative, who needs to go to the hospital soon, just so he can be written out of the rest of the movie with no consequence.  With the relative gone, Noah is alone in the house, and starts to take an unhealthy interest in watching Claire from his own window.  One night, when they are both alone, he invites her over to his house, and after a while, she makes the mistake of having sex with him.  She regrets it immediately the next morning, but the damage has been done, and Noah is now obsessed with her.  He quickly adapts to the nature of a slasher villain, screaming his lines, giving lingering evil glares, and always hanging around her son in a way that seems unwholesome.  Before long, he's blackmailing her by breaking into her classroom, and hanging nude photos of her from the night they made love all over the walls.  Naturally, it turns out that Noah has a history of violence (his dad was killed in a suspicious "car accident"), and it probably won't be long until the people around Claire start turning up dead.

The Boy Next Door is the kind of movie where you can walk in late, and already know everything that's happened, as well as everything that's going to happen.  There's not an instant of originality or inspiration, and there's no reason it needed to be made.  Everybody on screen knows what kind of movie they're in, and gives the minimal effort, nothing more.  Director Rob Cohen (Alex Cross) shoots the film as blandly and with as little enthusiasm as possible.  There is nothing here that is not routine.  The only entertainment comes from some lines of dialogue that earn some bad laughs.  There are quite a few that I think are intended to be serious, but had me covering my face, trying to hold back the laughs that desperately wanted to come out.  This movie almost invites you to talk back to the screen at times.

Unintended comedy aside, this is an uncharismatic and low rent thriller that exists simply to earn a few bucks from people who are asking the same question I quoted back at the start of this review.  Whatever your local theater may be charging, it's not worth the price to find out.  Don't let the sexy ad campaign allow this dim movie to steal your money and your time.

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Monday, January 19, 2015


Given its timely themes of computer hacking and strained U.S./Chinese relations, and the fact that it has Michael Mann, one of the best action film directors working today, at the helm, you would think that Blackhat would have all the makings of a kinetic thrill ride.  Then you remember that the movie is being dumped in the dead of January, and there's probably a good reason for that.  Turns out, this is an overlong and dull "thriller" that has little of Mann's trademark style.  It's not going to kill the guy's career, but it's a pretty big stumbling block.

I can't talk about this movie without talking about the problem that it literally forces in our faces - The casting of Chris Hemsworth in the lead role as an expert computer hacker named Nick Hathaway.  Think for a minute about the computer experts you know in real life, or the guys who spend all their time sitting in front of a monitor, clicking away on a keyboard.  Do they look anything like Hemsworth?  Do they take their shirt off as frequently as he does in this movie?  Are they experts in kicking ass and taking names as Hemsworth is sometimes required to?  Not only does he not look remotely like someone who would devote his life to computers, but his performance is comprised solely of the same blank stare and monotone voice, no matter what may be happening to him.  Now, I'm not saying Hemsworth is a bad actor, or can't do range.  I think he can have a strong career outside of playing Thor in the Marvel Universe.  If you don't believe me, just check him out in Ron Howard's Rush.  But he's been so awkwardly cast here that even he seems surprised that he's in the movie at times.

Outside of its miscast lead, Blackhat just never raises much tension, despite a promising start.  A shadowy hacker causes a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong to explode in the film's opening scene.  We actually go inside the circuits of the plant's control system, and see the wires light up as the hacker takes control over the system, and causes the core to overheat.  This is a cool effect to see, and sets us up for an exciting time - a promise that the remainder of the film betrays.  After the cyber attack on the power plant, the same hacker makes his way into the stock exchange, and sends soy prices skyrocketing.  These incidents create an uneasy alliance between the U.S. and Chinese governments in the hopes of tracking down who is behind the cyber crimes.  This is where Hemsworth's Nick comes in.  He's a hacker himself, serving a prison sentence, and the government needs his expertise, because he helped create the program that the current mystery hacker is using.

Nick's team is comprised of an FBI agent who acts as his superior (Viola Davis, criminally underused and given little to do here), and a Chinese investigator named Chen (Wang Leehorn), who chose Nick for the job, because they were roommates back in college.  Also along for the ride is Chen's sister (Tang Wei), though for the life of me, I can't imagine why she's part of the group other than to give the movie some eye candy, and to provide Nick with a love interest.  Turns out Wei is beautiful enough to fill the first requirement, but struggles with the second, as Hemsworth and her share such low chemistry that it barely registers on the screen.  They get a couple scenes where they get romantic, but the camera always cuts away, or they are interrupted.  It's like the screenplay cares even less about their relationship than we do.

The team goes on a globetrotting adventure to track down the mystery hacker, as they chase the villain across China, Indonesia and Malaysia.  You would think that this would lead to some interesting or even beautiful scenery, but you would be sadly mistaken.  The movie spends so much time in cramped rooms with the main characters hunched over keyboards and talking in monotone voices, we may as well have never left the U.S., since we get to see so little of the exotic locales.  This being a Michael Mann film, you would at least expect some amazing action scenes and stunts, and while they're handled competently, they just don't excite.  Most surprising, they're very rare in this film.  The movie seems to think we're more interested in Chris Hemsworth spewing tech talk, and trying to act like he knows what he's talking about.  The only thing in this movie that lets you know you're watching a Mann film is when it gives us some of his trademark beautifully shot nighttime city scenes, usually cast in cool blue colors.  It's something he's been doing since Miami Vice hit TV around 30 years ago, and while it's still effective, it's losing its edge just a little.

Blackhat has none of the energy, suspense or thrills we expect from the director.  At times, it almost feels like the work of a first-time filmmaker trying to imitate the style of a master.  I'm certain he will recover from this, and make a great movie again someday.  The sooner the better, I say.

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