Sunday, June 29, 2014

Review: Snowpiercer

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Now, here's an action movie to put all of this summer's blockbusters purporting to represent the aforementioned genre to shame. Bong Joon Ho's "Snowpiercer" is not only the Korean director's best film since his vastly underrated 2003 serial killer drama "Memories of Murder," but it's also one of the best pictures of the year so far.

Its premise is pure pulp, but its execution is not. The film, which marks Joon Ho's first foray into the English language, is set shortly in the future following a failed attempt to correct global warming that has left the planet frozen and uninhabitable. A massive train that carries the humans that have survived this global disaster runs around in circles.

The poorer denizens are forced to live in the back of the train and eat grotesque protein squares for food. They reside in squalor and are oppressed by the train's guards, who either kill them or do horrendous things to their limbs when they act out. Occasionally - and quite unexplainably - these guards, accompanied by a demented factotum (Tilda Swinton), drop by to steal away the children of the poor.

At the top of the train, which is run by a mysterious man named Wilford, are the one percenters, whom - as we come to find out - live lavishly amidst gigantic fish tanks, herbal gardens, saunas and a nightclub.

A back-of-the-train man named Curtis (Chris Evans) has devised a plan for the poor to overtake the guards and make their way up the train to find a guy named Nam (Joon Ho regular Kang-ho Song), who once helped design the train, but is now in the equivalent of a solitary prison cell. Curtis' pals in this revolution include an older mentor (John Hurt), a woman (Octavia Spencer) whose child has been stolen by the guards and a protege (Jaime Bell), of sorts.

This travel and series of battles to the top of the train are occasionally hilarious - for instance, Swinton's completely bonkers performance as the villainess Mason - but more often violent, brutal and unrelentingly exciting. The film is set in a confined space, but Joon Ho makes better use of that claustrophobic locale than most other action filmmakers out there do with the earth, heavens and cosmos.

There is, of course, more to the story than meets the eye. Curtis's getting to the man behind the curtain - who is closer to the Wicked Witch than the Wizard of Oz - leads to some heavy thematic ramblings, although Curtis's discussion with Nam on the train's history of cuisine that occurs just a short scene before is even more horrifying. The film jumps the shark just a little bit in its finale, but it's been so damn good in the two hours leading up to it that some small missteps at the end can easily be forgiven.

"Snowpiercer" is quite unlike anything else you'll see in our current cinematic landscape. Joon Ho has dug into the Hollywood tool box and crafted a dystopian sci-fi action movie that is better thought out, shot and acted than virtually anything within the same genre in the U.S. this year or, most likely, during the past few. For those who have been long seeking a thrill ride with brains to match the brawn, this is the one for which you've been waiting.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Review: Coherence

Image courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories 
James Ward Byrkit's "Coherence" is one of the best times I've had being befuddled in recent memory. This is one of those type of low budget sci-fi thrillers for which the word mindbender was invented. It will draw some obvious comparisons to Shane Caruth's acclaimed "Primer," although I personally think Byrkit's movie is better, as well as "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," for those of you familiar with classic "Twilight Zone" episodes.

If there is one slight distracting element to the picture, it's the frequently shaky and slightly low rent hand-held visual style, which occasionally gives a claustrophobic feeling and, at other times, makes for a minor annoyance.

At the film's beginning, a group of friends - four couples to be exact - are having a dinner party at the homes of Mike (Nicholas Brendon, of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fame) and Lee (Lorene Scafaria). This party happens to be taking place on the night that a low-flying comet will pass overhead. Several of the characters find large cracks on their smart phones as the comet approaches, leading to a discussion of several reported incidents of strange behavior (memory loss, etc.) during visits by comets throughout history.

Of course, there is already the potential for drama at this party. The film's sort-of heroine Em (Emily Baldoni) is attending the dinner with her beau, Kevin (Maury Sterling), who once dated Laurie (Lauren Maher), who is now attending the party with Amir (Alex Manugian). Also, Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), who is with her husband, Hugh (Hugo Armstrong), brings along a drug similar to a horse tranquilizer that she proposes dropping into their drinks to help everyone relax. Some job woes - Mike's failed acting career and Em's disappointments resulting from a dance career gone to seed - are also at play.

Suddenly, the lights go out. The dinner party lights candles and Hugh and Amir decide to leave the house to find out whether any other homes have internet connection or phone service. They return to report that only one home on their block has the lights on. Things then begin to get very strange.

As it turns out, that well-lit home down the street contains doubles of the exact same characters and the theory of Schrodinger's cat is discussed - that is, if a cat is placed within a box with poison, there are two possible scenarios (the cat is exposed to the poison and dies, the cat is not exposed to the poison and lives) and that both possible outcomes exist at the same time until the box is actually opened.

I could try to explain what happens next, but it would be futile as I'm not sure I actually can. Part of the fun of "Coherence" is trying to piece together what is going on. Are all of the people in the original house the same people who were there to begin with? Are the people who have gone out to explore and returned the same as those who left? Are there more than two houses with the same scenario playing out? And if these characters come into contact with their doppelgangers, what will be the consequences?

This may all sound convoluted, but the filmmakers handle the material well, giving it the necessary amount of gravitas and tension. And it's the human element of the story that makes it more convincing, in my opinion, than the films of Shane Carruth, which I believe feel smart, but are missing an emotional resonance.

I doubt most people will be able to fully explain "Coherence," but I'd be willing to bet they'll have a great time trying.

Review: Venus in Fur

Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.
David Ives's play "Venus in Fur" would seem to be an ideal vehicle for director Roman Polanski, but the director's latest is one of his weakest in recent years. It's far from being a bad movie and, in fact, draws you in during its first half, but eventually falls apart during the second.

This is Polanski's second stage-to-screen adaptation in a row following "Carnage," which was often funny but also a little slight for the director, whose impressive body of works includes "Chinatown," "Rosemary's Baby," "The Pianist," "Repulsion" and the underrated "The Ghost Writer."

Ives's play is based upon the controversial 1870 novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch that gave rise to the term "masochism." In the play and Polanski's movie, a neurotic playwright named Thomas (Mathieu Amalric, perfectly cast) is holding casting sessions for his own play based on that novel.

The underlying theme of Thomas's inherently sexist play is that women only trump men in their capability to transfix and cause anguish. As he is packing up for an evening, a seemingly ditzy and provocatively clad woman named Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski's wife), who shares the name of the play's lead character, comes in out of the rain and begs for a tryout.

Without actually rolling his eyes, it is clear that Thomas finds Vanda to be vulgar, due to her believing the play is merely an S&M role play and what he perceives to be an apparent lack of intellect. But eventually he is convinced and as the two begin to rehearse the play, he is shocked to find that she is perfect for the role and appears to understand the character better than he could have ever imagined.

As the rehearsal continues, the lines begin to blur between who the characters really are and whom they are portraying in the play. And a power struggle begins as Vanda begins calling Thomas out on his views on women and punishing him for it.

It's when these lines begin to blur that "Venus in Fur" starts to lose its way. What begins as a compelling two-person story in a minimalist setting eventually gives way to hysterics and slightly over-the-top symbolic gestures. The result is a stagey vibe too often present in movies that attempt to recreate the feeling of watching a filmed play.

Polanski is a great filmmaker, but while "Venus" is not a bad film, it's certainly a minor entry in his oeuvre. The director has perfectly captured the claustrophobia of confined spaces before - "Rosemary's Baby," "Repulsion" and "The Tenant" were all primarily set in apartments - but I'm hoping that Polanski's next movie is not based on a play, especially one so confined to a single setting as "Carnage" and "Venus in Fur" are. His is an imagination that needs a little room to breathe.

Review: Jersey Boys

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Here's the thing: "Jersey Boys" is neither one of Clint Eastwood's better films from the past decade nor is it among the most compelling music bio pics - and yet, the picture is still pretty fun.

Eastwood had been on a role, beginning in 2003 with his remarkable "Mystic River," which he followed up with one great movie after another - "Million Dollar Baby," "Flags Of Our Fathers," "Letters from Iwo Jima," "Changeling" and "Gran Torino." These were then followed by "Hereafter," "Invictus," "J. Hoover" and, now, "Jersey Boys," which is probably the least of the entire bunch.

Based on the popular Broadway musical, the film tells the tale of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, who grew up in New Jersey, nearly became mobbed up and eventually broke through to fame and stardom.

"Jersey Boys" tells your standard music bio movie - humble beginnings, first signs of success, a break through, infighting between band members, major stardom and then a descent typically due to drugs, but in this case as a result of one of the band's members, Tommy (Vincent Piazza), finding himself in debt to some mob types and Valli's familial issues.

Although the material has been seen time and time again, the actors here mostly make it work. John Lloyd Young gives Valli some heart and soul, while Piazza - the most interesting character on display here - delivers as the troubled Tommy DeVito. And Christopher Walken gives it his typical best as a surprisingly good natured gangster who takes Valli under his wing.

Similar to many other films of its type, "Jersey Boys" plays like a jukebox of familiar tunes - "Sherry," "Walk Like a Man," "Big Girls Don't Cry," etc., and the story gives each one a slight back story.

The funny thing about the film is that it is at its most interesting when the boys are dealing with their real life problems - namely, their early days running around with criminals and Valli's troubled daughter, rather than when they become superstars. And in most Eastwood films, you can recognize the director's touch, but here it is a little less present.

Regardless, "Jersey Boys" is amusing enough, funny when it needs to be and energetic. It may not be as great as some of Eastwood's best of recent years and it does nothing in the way of reinventing its genre, but it's a likable movie and one of the few currently in mainstream theaters that is aimed at adults.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Review: The Rover

Image courtesy of A24.
"The Rover" is the latest in a long line of movies about sullen, taciturn men whose primary mode of communication is violence. The picture is the sophomore feature from David Michod, whose debut - "Animal Kingdom" - was a gripping portrayal of an Australian crime family's undoing. His second feature ups the ante on grim violence, but is a step backward narratively.

Much like last year's "Only God Forgives," the two leads of "The Rover" are mysterious to a fault - that is, they hardly say a word about themselves or their motivations. This is a case of less not exactly being more. And similar to the case of Nicolas Winding Refn's recent movie, Michod follows a truly original breakout hit (Refn's was 2011's brilliant "Drive") with a more stripped down one that feels as if the filmmaker rushed into his next movie, rather than waiting it out until he came up with something better.

I'm probably making "The Rover" sound worse than it is. In fact, while not exactly a good movie, it's far from a bad one. Guy Pearce gives the type of committed performance you'd expect and Robert Pattinson's work here is obviously aimed as a means of breaking out of the heartthrob roles for which he had been pigeonholed following the "Twilight" series. Also, the film's cinematography and settings do a good job of creating a sense of time and place.

That time and place happen to be in Australia some 10 years after a global economic collapse. Dirty looking people live in hovels and ration gas and food or sell weapons for money that no longer has any real value. And the wild west style of justice in the land enables murder in plain daylight without fear of arrest.

Pearce's character is a bundle of secrets. We hardly know a thing about him - that is, until he first tells a soldier late in the film how his own life was affected by the world's collapse 10 years ago and, finally, at the picture's finale, we find out what his strange mission has been all along. At the beginning of the movie, his car is stolen by a gang of criminals, who knock him out and leave him on the side of the road.

Through various circumstances, he happens upon the brother (Pattinson) of one of the men who has been left for dead after some sort of shootout. He takes Pattinson's character, who has some sort of mental disability, prisoner and the two made a trek across the dusty Australian desert to find the men who stole Pearce's car.

Because we know so little about either of these men, it's difficult to become too invested. Pearce is mostly surly and violent, while Pattinson's character just comes off as befuddled. Although the actors give it their best, they are given little to do. This is one of those films where the director and writer thought that scowling faces and staring off into the distance are meant to fill in the blanks, but this method only rarely pays off here. There's also an extremely odd choice of music during one point in the picture.

"The Rover" is a risky movie for a second feature and I'll give credit to Michod for following up his critically acclaimed debut with something a little less flashy. But the film's jumping back and forth between being too muted and relentlessly grim makes it feel disjointed and, ultimately, I'm not sure what the picture means to convey. I'm hoping that Michod's next film will give him a better forum for his obvious talents.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Review: 22 Jump Street

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
"22 Jump Street" is a movie that gets to have its cake and eat it too. It is, at once, a pretty decent sequel to 2012's adaptation of the popular 1980s TV show as well as a satire of sequels in general and Hollywood formula. There's also a long-running joke that the film's two lead cops, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, treat their work relationship as a romantic one that's mostly funny, even when it has been played out to maximum effect.

In the first film, Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) infiltrated a high school narcotics ring by posing as high school students. At the beginning of this film, they are called to their new headquarters - 22 Jump Street, located next to the old HQ that has now been repurposed as a Korean church - to, essentially, "do the same thing" again - but, this time, go undercover in college to break up a drug ring.

The joke that the sequel will essentially be entirely reworking the same formula over and over again is made clear pretty early and continuous references to unwarranted sequels are slyly worked in, especially during the first 30 minutes. The actors also take some digs at their own careers - Tatum, for example, suggests he be put on White House detail.

This is a pretty fun movie, especially for a summer tent pole picture. For starters, it's a comedy that actually produces some laughs. Hill's misbegotten participation in a slam poetry contest left me snickering for a good 10 minutes after the fact, while Tatum's misuse of the expression "carte blanche" is pretty classic.

The filmmakers - Phil Lord and Christopher Miller - play out an ongoing joke that Schmidt and Jenko's team work is similar to a relationship, complete with moping when one of them finds a new BFF at college, leading to the inevitable "should we be working with other people" question. But the film's poking fun at bromances is handled in a manner much gentler than other buddy movies - such as the gay panic of Michael Bay's "Bad Boys" movies - and, during a scene in which Schmidt and Jenko tangle with some drug dealers, Tatum's likable doofus, who has been taking human sexuality college courses in the film, chastises one of the villains for using a homophobic slur.

And be sure to stick around for the credit sequence, during which the futility of endless sequels is lampooned to great effect. "22 Jump Street" is a cut above the rest of this year's onslaught of summer movies. It's a lot more fun than your typical sequel, much to the credit of Hill and Tatum's repartee. It proves that overly recycled material can be given a fresh spin with the right talent involved.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Review: Edge of Tomorrow

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
"Edge of Tomorrow" does not get off to the most promising start. Utilizing the tired cliche of news reports, we learn that Earth has been attacked by aliens known as Mimics and that humans are in the midst of waging a war against the invaders, which look like a combination of gigantic electrified eels and spiders. Tom Cruise first appears during one of these news segments as some sort of propaganda type who is attempting to rally his fellow man to enlist and fight these creatures.

Cage (Cruise), who has never actually seen combat, is called into a meeting with a top ranking general (Brendan Gleeson) and makes a failed attempt at a bribe, of sorts, to keep him away from the front line, which then results in his being thrown in with the grunts. He is forced to join a D-Day type of attack against the Mimics and is quickly killed.

But in pure "Groundhog Day" fashion, Cage awakens to find that he is reliving the same day over and over again - and this is where "Edge of Tomorrow" begins to get fun. It's difficult to describe the film without revealing why Cage is repeating the same day, but suffice it to say it's well-enough explained and that the repetitive scenario is frequently humorous and exciting.

Cage, of course, is the only person who can remember details from day-to-relived-day, which gives him a one-up on the other characters, which include a surly master sergeant (Bill Paxton) and a tough war hero named Rita (Emily Blunt), with whom Cage will eventually collaborate to fight the Mimics.

"Edge of Tomorrow" is refreshing not only because of the clever way director Doug Liman ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith") utilizes the time travel component as well as the film's impressive special effects, but it's also a plus that the picture is a reminder of why Cruise was, for so long, one of Hollywood's top leading men.

During the past few years, the actor has been stuck in mostly forgettable roles that played it too safe - "Rock of Ages," "Oblivion" and "Knight and Day," for example. Prior to that, Cruise was more of a risk taker than most of the other actors of his generation, especially considering how big of a star he was. Read this resume and tell me you don't agree: "Born on the Fourth of July," "Eyes Wide Shut," "Magnolia," "Minority Report" and "Vanilla Sky."

"Edge of Tomorrow" may be just another routine action movie - but with a clever gimmick driving its story - in comparison with the more challenging films in which Cruise was previously seen, but it's the first time in a while that the actor has taken on a role that feels a little less safe. Sure, there are the scenes you'd expect of Cruise running from explosions, but his character is a little more flawed and less heroic than you'd expect from a leading man in an action movie.

The picture certainly does not belong on a list of Cruise's best movies, but his work here gives the impression that, should this film do well, he may be a little less risk averse in future endeavors. "Edge of Tomorrow" is a little more clever than your average summer blockbuster and nice return to form, of sorts, for an actor who, at the top of his game, rarely shied away from challenging work.

Review: The Fault in Our Stars

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
You might think that "The Fault in Our Stars," based on the best selling YA novel of the same name by John Green, will be the tearjerker of the week - and you'd be correct, but not in a negative connotation. Yes, it uses a disease to milk tears from the audience much like "The Notebook," but it's significantly better than that vastly overrated movie due to the effective performances by its two leads.

"Fault" does not get off to the greatest start. The film seems to overcompensate in trying to sell us on the idea that it is not a three hanky weeper by adding a certain level of goofiness that begins with the meet-cute between its cancer patient protagonists - Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Hansel Elgort) - at a support group and reaches its crescendo during a sequence in which Gus's near-blind pal Isaac (Nat Wolff) smashes some trophies for comedic effect.

Despite needing a bit of humor to add to the increasingly sad proceedings that are to come, "Fault" gets better as it becomes more serious. Woodley gives one of her best performances to date as Hazel, a girl who has lived longer than she has been told she would and has a certain realistic approach to life. Elgort compliments her nicely as Gus, a handsome, eager young man who lost a leg to cancer, but remains positive about living a full life. Laura Dern provides some nice supporting work as Hazel's mother.

The film's plot takes a turn that would feel contrived in another movie, but works well enough here. Hazel and Gus take a trip to Amsterdam to meet with an author Hazel admires who wrote a book she feels truly captures the experience of terminal illness. The author is played by Willem Dafoe, a wonderful actor giving a slightly strange portrayal of an embittered man who answers questions with mathematical equations and references to Swedish hip hop. However, the other sequences involving the trip - including a trip to the Anne Frank House and an expensive dinner - play more smoothly.

Although "Fault" is not always completely successful balancing comedy and drama, the strong performances and fleshed-out characters give it balance. And when the three-hanky scenes finally arrive, they're well enough earned. There have been numerous films about people suffering from cancer, but "Fault" manages to give the slightly worn out genre a fresh spin. And as for films based on YA novels, it's certainly a nice reprieve from stories about mopey vampires. Hazel and Gus feel like real people with joys and sorrows, rather than just tragic figures, which is ultimately what makes this film work.

Review: Borgman

Image courtesy of Drafthouse Films.
Alex van Warmerdam's extremely peculiar "Borgman," which debuted at last year's Cannes Film Festival to a decent amount of acclaim, is a strange mixture of several sources, including Luis Bunuel's anti-bourgeois films of the 1960s and 1970s, Giorgos Lanthimos' delirious "Dogtooth" and Michael Haneke's grim "Funny Games."

"Borgman" is a compellingly strange movie that can't quite be called a home invasion thriller due to the fact that the titular creep has actually been invited into the home of the family where he ends up wreaking all manner of havoc. And, for a while, it drew me in. It's not one of those films where I expected some answer as to what it all meant or to understand Borgman's ultimate plans, but rather I was intrigued to see where this unusual film was taking me - that is, until it began to meander up to an inevitable conclusion rife with heavy-handed fairy tale symbolism.

So, it's fair to say that "Borgman" is partially a movie of interest. The picture opens with the titular character awakening in an underground hovel in the woods and fleeing from a gun-toting priest, a lawman and some other fella with a large, mean looking dog. We never find out exactly why Borgman is on the run, but we gather he's in deep.

He approaches the home of a well-to-do family, rings the doorbell and asks if he can take a shower. He eventually angers the temperamental husband who answers the door and receives a violent beating. Later, the man's wife feels guilty for her husband's actions and allows Borgman to hide out in a shack in the family's backyard.

Through a series of odd circumstances, Borgman kills the family's gardener, shaves off his unruly hair and beard and appears at the door once again, this time answering the family's ad for a new gardener, a process which proves the husband to not only be a violent man, but also a racist. Slowly, Borgman begins to manipulate the female members of the family - the wife, two daughters and the young nanny - and things quickly get very strange. Four other members of Borgman's entourage show up and assist with the proceedings, which devolve into madness and murder.

The film has a stark visual style that recalls Haneke's "Funny Games," a controversial picture about a home invasion that has its followers, but which is among my least favorite of the brilliant Austrian director's oeuvre. Due to its somewhat absurd content, "Borgman" is occasionally mordantly funny.

But while there is a fair amount to admire here, van Warmerdam's picture ultimately falls apart toward the end. As I mentioned before, I don't require closure or explanation in movies, but it's nice to have some clue as to where a filmmaker is aiming. "Borgman" could be another in a long line of European films that attack bourgeois values, but I don't think that's exactly what is going on here. As a horror film of sorts, it's clearly going for more than just thrills.

Although equally strange, "Dogtooth," by comparison, is a bit more inventive narratively and visually and gives the viewer more to chew on. "Borgman" is effective enough - it's performances are good, it's often creepy and it's frequently unsettling. But, ultimately, that's not quite enough.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Review: Night Moves

Image courtesy of Cinedigm.
Kelly Reichardt's films take a stripped down approach, following characters who only slowly - or, in the case of her latest, "Night Moves," hardly at all - reveal themselves to others. Her pictures only make use of dialogue when completely necessary and are typically set in Oregon: 2006's "Old Joy" chronicled the reunion of two old pals in the Cascade mountains, 2008's "Wendy and Lucy" followed the story of a young woman who lost her dog and 2010's "Meek's Cutoff" was a western set along the Oregon Trail.

"Night Moves" is, in many ways, her most barebones film to date - spare in its storytelling, visuals and performances. Three radical environmentalists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) have hatched out a plan to bomb a hydroelectric dam for reasons mostly unknown. We know very little about their characters, other than than Eisenberg works at organic farm, Fanning is employed by some sort of New Age-type of spa and Sarsgaard is secluded somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

Eisenberg's character is quiet, reserved and, increasingly, paranoid, while Fanning attempts to hide her concerns behind a facade of jokiness and Sarsgaard is all business, but in a pleasant enough way. We know little of these characters' backgrounds or motivations.

One of the most fascinating - and, honestly, most daring - elements of the picture is suspenseful the way that Reichardt films these actions, setting up the viewer to root for these characters. In other words, despite knowing that their actions could be dangerous to others, we feel tense as they go about the business of hatching their plan, making us worried that they may be caught.

I won't go into plot details, but suffice it to say the bombing of the dam does not go off without a hitch, leaving all three characters in a state of fear, guilt and increasing distrust of one another. And as they say, one thing leads to another - but, in this case, with grave consequences.

With this role, Eisenberg is seemingly aiming to brush off the nice guy persona of some of his previous films - although, come to think of it, his Mark Zuckerberg wasn't exactly the most lovable guy on his resume. His character says little, but Eisenberg still gives a pretty impressive performance as Josh, who is an interesting choice for a protagonist, considering the direction in which "Night Moves" eventually goes.

As usual, Reichardt does a good job of creating a sense of place here, just as she did with the economically scaled back Oregon town in "Wendy and Lucy" and the wagon trail in "Meek's Cutoff" but, while although completely different in tone, her latest is most similar stylistically to "Old Joy," which set up the culture clash between two old friends - one a working stiff and the other a semi-burnout hippie type.

Yet I felt the same way toward "Night Moves" that I did toward Reichardt's previous films - I admired it and appreciated the talent behind the camera, without quite being completely engrossed in it. I've liked most of her work - with "Wendy and Lucy" and "Meek's Cutoff" being, in my opinion, her best works - but have yet to love one of her pictures. Regardless, "Night Moves" has much to appreciate and I'd recommend it to those who favor moody thrillers - as well as ones that allow you to come to your own conclusions.

Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
The biggest laugh, for me, in Seth MacFarlane's "A Million Ways to Die in the West" came early. Upon arriving home from a seemingly aimless day, sheep farmer Albert (MacFarlane) is questioned by his old codger father as to why he is getting back so late. I doubt their exchange won't get a good chortle from you.

There are a handful of truly good laughs - including an ongoing one involving photographs - during MacFarlane's latest picture, which satirizes the western genre a few decades too late. That being said, the writer/director throws jokes at the audience a mile a minute, hoping that some will stick - and only some of them do.

For a comedy, "Million Ways" is entirely too long. This is not an argument I use with virtually any other genre, but - let's be honest - most of the best comedies thrive on both their wit and brevity. Judd Apatow, in recent years, has introduced the epic comedy, of sorts, with running times over two hours and they occasionally pay off. In the case of MacFarlane's film, however, you begin to notice its length as it drags on. For instance, Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles," which covers the same ground, but much better, clocks in at just over 90 minutes.

MacFarlane's picture is another in a long line of stories about a coward of the county who comes to find courage. At the beginning of the movie, he and his wife (Amanda Seyfried) are on the splits. She takes up with Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the owner of a mustache grooming shop, while he takes to moping around with his virginal friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his pal's brothel-working girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman).

Albert's life is semi-revived upon meeting and befriending a tomboy named Anna (Charlize Theron), who helps restore his self confidence and has a suspiciously fine aim with a pistol. As it turns out - and unbeknownst to Albert - Anna is married to - but much against her will - a mean old nasty gunfighter named Clinch (Liam Neeson). During one of the film's funniest sequences, Anna gets a small bit of revenge on Clinch via a flower.

The thing is, "A Million Ways to Die in the West" is amiable enough, just funny enough and just easygoing enough to assure that, at least, some of you will have a good time. It plays as a satire, but of movie cliches that were more prevalent at least 40 years ago. In other words, it's a little - or, perhaps even, a lot - too late. But it's not bad. I'd say - in terms of recent comedies - it's no better or worse than the slightly overrated "Neighbors." However, just because MacFarlane aimed to send up classic westerns, such as those by Sergio Leone, he didn't have to mimic those films' running times.

Review: The Dance of Reality

Image courtesy of ABKCO Films.
It's great to see cult filmmaking legend Alejandro Jodorowsky once again behind the camera. It's been 24 years since his previous film, "The Rainbow Thief," and it's plain to see that the director has not lost his touch in conjuring up memorably delirious images.

For those not familiar with his work, Jodorowsky was one of the progenitors of the midnight movie phenomenon with his brilliant and truly insane 1970 landmark "El Topo," which caught the attention of no less than John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He followed that film with the even weirder "The Holy Mountain" and the visually sumptuous and frequently horrific "Santa Sangre." His latest, the autobiographical "The Dance of Reality," is similar in style to his previous works, but with more of a political edge to it.

So, on the one hand, it's great to see this truly original artist back at work and "The Dance of Reality" has a certain power to it. On the other hand, it's not without fault.

In the film, a young boy (Jeremiah Herskovits) stands in for Jodorowsky's childhood, growing up in the small Chilean town of Tocopilla with his father Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky, the filmmaker's son), a violent, Stalin-obsessed man who tells his son that the slaps and beatings he doles out will help make him a man, and mother Sara (Pamela Flores), who sings every one of her lines as if in an opera.

The film's first two-thirds follow this story and contain exactly the type of stunning - and shocking - visuals you'd expect in a Jodorowsky film: limbless men cavorting in the street, a colorfully-garbed midget, a shaman-like character covered in some sort of dust and clad only in underwear and parades during which spectators wear skull masks. Although strange, these scenes blend naturally with Alejandro's coming of age tale. The director himself even makes appearances to comment on the action.

The film's final third involves Jaime running away from his family to assassinate a cruel dictator and his eventual turn to communism and, then, near sainthood. It's during these sequences - which involve the training of a horse, a run-in with Chilean Nazis (don't ask) and torture scenes - that the picture begins to lose some of its power. It all feels like a little too much and the final 30 minutes or so drag a bit more than they should.

There is no doubt that Jodorowsky can still find images that sear onto the brain and, at age 85, has more to say as an artist. It's a shame that it's been so long since he released a film, but with this movie - and the recently released documentary of his trials and tribulations trying to direct Frank Herbert's "Dune" - it appears he's back. Here's to hoping he makes another one.

Review: Maleficent

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
As far as reboots of beloved children's stories go, "Maleficent" is a little better than some of the more recent examples, such as "Snow White and the Huntsmen," Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Oz: The Great and Powerful." In fact, if it's closest to anything, the picture feels like a retread of Broadway's "Wicked," which re-imagined "The Wizard of Oz" through the eyes of the Wicked Witch.

The film, which retells the story of "Sleeping Beauty," does not get off to the greatest start. We are told that Maleficent, a young, good natured fairy girl, helps watch over the forest. One day, she meets a young urchin boy named Stefan who is lost there and she helps him find his way out. The two promise to remain friends and they do - for a while.

Some years later, Maleficent has grown up to look like Angelina Jolie and Stefan (now played by Sharlto Copley) is nowhere in sight. The king of the nearby kingdom wants to take over and develop the forest, so he and his army attempt an attack that is thwarted by Maleficent. We are then bombarded with the inevitable battle scene of CGI woodland creatures and men in armor clashing and flying through the air, a low point for the movie.

Stefan now plays a servant to the king and, out of greed and ambition, vows to kill his former friend in order to rise in the ranks. After slipping Maleficent the fairy tale equivalent of a mickey, he finds he cannot murder her, so instead he snips off her wings and, upon his return, shows them to the king, lying and saying that he killed the ruler of the forest.

Of course, King Stefan gives birth to a beautiful daughter named Aurora some years later and, at her christening, Maleficent puts a curse on her to fall into a death-like sleep at age 16. But when the girl (now played by Elle Fanning) grows up and finds her way to the forest, she and Maleficent end up becoming friends.

So, a fairy tale once about an evil woman putting a curse on a pure and helpless one has been retold as a story of mother and surrogate daughter bonding and it's the men who are (mostly) the real villains. It's a nice touch. And "Maleficent" works best when it's focusing on this element of the story as opposed to the numerous CGI effects in the fight sequences that open and close the movie.

The heart and soul of the movie lies with Angelina Jolie, who rises above a summer blockbuster type of role and gives Maleficent a personality, occasionally through words, but more often with her face. In the end, I'm not sure "Sleeping Beauty" needed a retelling that included large CGI walking trees or battle scenes straight out of "Lord of the Rings," but Jolie and Fanning bring enough depth to the relationship between the titular character and Aurora to make this one worth a sit.