Sunday, January 31, 2016

Review: The Finest Hours

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
"The Finest Hours" tells a pretty incredible story and, sure enough, during the scenes on the water, the picture delivers in its promise of an intense rescue mission. Unfortunately, the scenes on land mostly involve story lines from the old Hollywood playbook, including the not-quite-married couple tested while the fiance risks his life at sea and a hero with a history of failing to save someone in the past.

Directed by Craig Gillespie ("Lars and the Real Girl"), the film boasts some terrific special effects during the scenes in which Coast Guard Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) and his crew - which includes Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner and John Magaro - set out to save a group of 20-some men, led by Casey Affleck's captain, whose tanker has flooded and broken apart during a massive storm in Massachusetts circa 1952.

Prior to these intense scenes of digital wizardry and human valiance, there are some slightly waterlogged scenes involving Pine's courtship of Miriam (Holliday Grainger), whose won't-take-no-for-an-answer attitude gives her character some personality, which is otherwise not utilized to its maximum potential.

In other words, most of the characters here serve only their specific purposes, such as: Bernie (brave Coast Guard who failed to save a man during a rescue a year prior and likes to play by the rules), Eric Bana's Cluff (Coast Guard commander who's an outsider and unsympathetic to pleas that the attempted rescue would be a suicide mission), Miriam (strong-willed romantic interest, whose job during the second half of the picture is to wring her hands), Affleck's Sybert (soft spoken captain of the tanker who is second-guessed by everyone, only to be proven right). You get the gist.

However, once Pine and company are on the water, the film gets fairly intense. It's difficult to watch a scene involving four men on a tiny boat smacking against gargantuan waves and not get at least a little involved in their plight. And the picture does a pretty solid job of emphasizing just how miraculous this rescue mission was, considering that Webber's boat - which was meant to carry 12 persons - ended up hauling just under 30 men back to shore.

So, "The Finest Hours" is the type of film I could almost recommend. It's not as well-made as Wolfgang Petersen's "The Perfect Storm" - another movie about a capsized boat that had a little more of an emotional pull and sense of place than this one - but it's not half bad. The cast, Pine especially, is solid, although a few of those Bah-ston accents are of the type that might induce eye-rolling.

Gillespie's film certainly has its moments and you could do far worse, especially considering the other films in wide release this January. Should you decide to see it, I'd recommend the non-3D option. I saw the picture in 2D and have read elsewhere that the 3D conversion has resulted in making the numerous sequences of gigantic waves crashing on boats a bit murky.

Review: Jane Got a Gun

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Gavin O'Connor's "Jane Got a Gun" is sort of a feminist western, until it suddenly isn't, although the picture is not nearly as bad you might think it to be. The film was originally supposed to be shot by Lynne Ramsay and the cast was to include everyone from Jude Law and Bradley Cooper to Michael Fassbender, while its production was moved back and, then, its release delayed.

That's typically a sign of a catastrophe but, in this case, "Jane" is too by-the-book to be a colossal dud. It's not a bad movie, but it's also far from a good one.

At the beginning of the movie, Jane (Natalie Portman) is alarmed to learn that her husband, Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich), returning home and falling off his horse in a scene that's been in more westerns than I care to count, has been shot and that they are both being hunted by the Bishop gang, whom they fled years before.

Jane had previously been involved with a man named Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), who was sent off to fight in the Civil War and when Jane's safety was threatened by the Bishop gang - led by a nasty Ewan McGregor - Hammond stepped in, saved her and married her.

So, those expecting "Jane" to be a western featuring a tough female lead might be disappointed to find that the film's heroine is saved not once, but twice, by men upon whom she relies for safety. As she and Hammond hole up in their house and wait for the gang to arrive, Jane enlists the help of Frost, who is still bitter that they never ended up together. He also happens to have some talent with a firearm.

Although the picture includes some gorgeous cinematography in its New Mexico setting, the script has never seen a cliche it didn't like. So, we have the characters waiting as the sun goes down in a home that has "one way in and one way out," while the villains take their time arriving. And there's the love triangle that only adds a slight bit of tension to the story. The film's final shoot-out takes place in the dark and its often difficult to figure out who is shooting at whom and who has been shot, although the picture's coda includes a nice twist involving some bounty money.

"Jane Got a Gun" is a western that plays to the rules of its genre to a tee. Considering how long this film was in production and the talent originally involved, it's a wonder that it's so formulaic. For example, Sam Raimi's "The Quick and the Dead," which also featured a female gunslinger, was far from perfect, but it had style and personality.

"Jane," although not the disaster portended by its myriad of delays, is just a standard western with not a whole lot to distinguish it from other films in its genre.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review: Dirty Grandpa

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Most great actors end up doing a few films they regret over the course of their careers - hell, Meryl Streep had "Still of the Night" and Marlon Brando, well, he had a few too. There have been some who have chastised the great Robert De Niro over the past decade when he began taking on more lightweight roles, after having been involved in heavyweight classics - including "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "The Godfather Part II" - for several decades.

De Niro has been doing some great work in David O. Russell's films during the past few years to offset the paycheck films, but "Dirty Grandpa" is the type of picture that would be a low in anyone's career. It's not that De Niro - or Zac Efron, for that matter - are particularly bad in the film. It's that they've been saddled with some of the worst material I've seen in some time.

In the film, Efron's uptight Jason is a lawyer in his father's (Dermot Mulroney) firm and is about to marry a young woman named Meredith (Julianne Hough), who is played as the type of castrating woman who, according to this movie, gives guys a free pass to act as awful as they want.

Jason's completely perverted grandfather Dick (De Niro), whose wife has just died, enlists Jason to take him on a road trip to Daytona Beach where, as it turns out, he is hoping to get laid. That's pretty much the premise for "Dirty Grandpa," which includes jokes that are misogynistic, racist and homophobic - that is, until the picture decides that its characters should stand up for minorities. So, essentially, the film gives its characters a pass to crack jokes at the expense of minorities because, hey, later they become pals with them. There's also an extended joke involving child molestation, but I'm not even going to go there.

I'm not sure if this film is meant to draw the throngs of people infatuated with Donald Trump because, much like the presumed GOP frontrunner, it's about as un-P.C. as it gets and De Niro's grandfather Dick is undoubtedly someone without a filter. The film is extremely raunchy - there's a close-up of an old man's junk and Aubrey Plaza's Daytona Beach partier appears to exist only to say the most sexually graphic dialogue imaginable - but it's not funny. As in, not even remotely.

De Niro and Efron are good sports to bring a certain level of professionalism to the proceedings, but the question remains: Why would they want to? "Dirty Grandpa" is really bad. In fact, it's an early contender as the year's worst. And keep in mind, I've seen both "The Forest" and the Michael Bay Benghazi movie.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Just because Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's names are never mentioned during Michael Bay's punishingly long "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" and most of the filmmaker's vitriol is aimed at the CIA - or, at least, at the cartoonishly villainous CIA chief of base in Libya - doesn't mean that the film is apolitical.

In fact, if anything, Bay's latest picture is a near two-and-a-half hour advertisement of his worldview that can be spotted if you look carefully enough. And similar to his "Pearl Harbor" film, which is more watchable than this one, Bay has taken a tragic incident out of our past and used it as an excuse for him to fixate on weaponry and lots of explosions.

For those unaware of Mitchell Zuckoff's book of the same name, it relays the account of the attack on the CIA outpost in Benghazi during a visit by U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed along with several other men. The film is from the perspective of six men who were hired to work security detail and, by all accounts, held off the attacking insurgents. I'd imagine that we can take both the book and movie's account of their bravery without question.

However, those familiar with Bay's work - especially the execrable "Transformers" movies, one of which included a urinating robot, which was actually a step up from the vaguely racist droids featured in the second of the series - know that the director's worldview is fairly anti-government and pro-blowing-shit-up.

This is best exemplified during an early scene when one of the security detail - a guy, played by Pablo Schreiber, whose character exemplifies a certain brand of paranoia - dozes off during a speech Stevens gives on diplomacy.

A scene earlier than that one finds James Badge Dale's character, who has just picked up John Krasinski's Jack Silva - who is the closest thing to a lead character here - from the airport and is bringing him to the base. When stopped on the road by some armed Libyans, Dale's character goes full Trump and threatens not only to kill the men, but their families as well. Keep in mind that these are the men with whom we are supposed to be identifying.

When we finally meet David Costabile's sniveling CIA agent, who is sneered at for his antipathy towards blowing shit up, he's obviously set up as the villain, not because he'll later make questionable calls - at least, based on this film's screenplay - when the CIA outpost is under attack, but because he represents what Bay sees as the bureaucratic government official who refuses to step out of the way and allow the film's heroes to start blowing shit up. He also gets to mutter the widely debunked "stand down" order halfway through the picture.

A female CIA officer working at the outpost is also put in her place after she fails to fall in line during a particular operation. And near the film's conclusion, one of the few sympathetic Libyan characters - an interpreter who stays behind to help the security detail - is barked at by Schreiber that his country needs to figure out its own problems, which not only calls for isolationism but also implies that other nations cannot clean up their own messes without the help of the U.S.

Once the outpost is under attack, Bay does a decent enough job staging an intense series of shootouts between the mostly faceless insurgents, who lurk around every corner of the dark, and the security detail. However, more than one half of the film involves explosions and scenes of chaos, making it often difficult to discern what's going on.

And since this is a Michael Bay production, you'll find the obligatory sequences during which tough guys sit around between battles contemplating heroism as well as plenty of shots of the American flag, in this case tattered after being shot up by insurgents. The peak of absurdity - which almost rivals that animal crackers sequence in "Armageddon" - is a scene during which Krasinski's character finds out that his wife is in the family way during a conversation that takes place at a McDonald's drive-through. There's also a shot from a bomb's perspective, reminding us of the one from "Pearl Harbor" and further emphasizing Bay's interest in weapons over people.

None of this should surprise anyone. Bay rarely does subtlety and that is exactly what a film about the tragedy at Benghazi likely required. An intriguing film about the incident could be made that might interest persons from both sides of the aisle - a film, say, like Ridley Scott's powerful and intense "Black Hawk Down," which was set in Mogadishu, but features a similar scenario. But this is not that movie.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Review: In the Shadow of Women

Image courtesy of Distrib Films.
With his latest, "In the Shadow of Women," director Philippe Garrel aims to keep the spirit of the French New Wave alive. The picture, which is a brief 73 minutes, is the type of amour fou story that you might have expected to see in early works by Eric Rohmer or Francois Truffaut.

And while the movie is a little slight, possibly due to its uncomplicated story and short running time, it contains some solid performances and lovely black and white photography. But it's more of a minor film in Garrel's oeuvre, his best film to date being 2005's "Regular Lovers," a hypnotic tale set against a Paris '68 backdrop.

In "Shadow," a married couple - Manon and Pierre (Clotilde Courau and Stanislas Merhar) - struggles to keep their relationship alive after both of them take part in affairs, she with a doting man and he with a slightly obsessive younger woman named Elisabeth (Lena Paugam) who wants to know all about his wife.

Manon wants attention from her husband, who is a documentary filmmaker shooting a picture about a French Resistance fighter who is alleged to have gone up against the Nazis, and when he doesn't give it to her, she takes up her affair with her nameless suitor.

And Pierre is a chauvinist who not only cheats on his wife, but doesn't believe Elisabeth when she tells him that his wife is also cheating on him after having spotted Manon and her lover at a cafe. Pierre believes that his wife is too in love with him to ever consider another man and he begins to take out his anguish at the thought on Elisabeth.

While "Regular Lovers" and some of Garrel's other films have a substantial amount going on at any time, "In the Shadow of Women" is narratively simplistic. It's short on story, but does a decent amount of character building. Its style would give you the impression of watching a movie made 50 years ago if it weren't for the modern technology and clothing.

So, while the picture is not among Garrel's best, the film is a decent enough throwback to the New Wave movies of the 1960s. I'm not sure it offers up any new ideas on marriage, infidelity or love, but it handles its material well enough.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Review: The Treasure

Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.
Corneliu Porumboiu's "The Treasure" is a modestly scaled comedy that, while often likable, is a little too slight to recommend. For those unaware of the director's work, the filmmaker - who, along with Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu, is one of the most widely recognized of the Romanian New Wave - is known for his laconic style, scarce plots and long scenes of not much taking place, well, at least narratively.

His latest picture is a comedy and employs the same droll tone as his previous works - "Police, Adjective" and "12:08 East of Bucharest" - while also mixing in some commentary on modern Romania.

In the film, a man named Costi (Toma Cuzin) is approached by his neighbor Adrian (Adrian Parcarescu) with a plea for a loan to take care of some house payments. Costi, who is cash-strapped himself, apologizes and tells his neighbor that he can't afford to help him out. Although I didn't make much of it at the time, I now realize that, upon being interrupted by Adrian, Costi had been reading "Robin Hood" to his young son.

Adrian later returns with a deal for Costi. He believes his great-grandfather buried some sort of treasure in the yard of his home and he tells Costi that if he pays for a metal detector expert (Corneliu Cozmei), he can split the treasure, should they actually find anything. However, they are told that anything found that could be considered of interest to the Romanian state - in other words, historic artifacts, such as coins - must be turned over to the state or the men could risk imprisonment.

Costi agrees to Adrian's terms and the three men make their way to the home, which, unfortunately, has a massive yard and, on top of that, Cornel's (Cozmei) detector beeps over much of the yard, meaning that the treasure may or may not be under any plot of dirt in the vicinity.

Soon, Adrian's frustration with finding nothing leads to his squabbling with Cornel and much of the film's final third is sequences of the three men digging up a massive hole in the backyard of the house. These sequences are occasionally funny and even a little monotonous.

Although I wouldn't quite call it a twist, the film's finale - which occurs after Adrian and Costi find something in the backyard - involves an act that could be viewed as both foolhardy and done out of love, but it certainly highlights the absurd tone running throughout the picture.

I still prefer Porumboiu's "12:08 East of Bucharest" over "The Treasure" and, for that matter, "Police, Adjective," which is the filmmaker's most acclaimed movie, although it didn't always work for me. His latest is occasionally funny in a deadpan sort of way, but also a little slight. It feels like the subject of a short film, rather than a feature. Even if it didn't always work for me, it certainly feels of-a-piece with the rest of Porumboiu's oeuvre.

Review: The Forest

Image courtesy of Gramercy Pictures.
"The Forest" starts out by doing what many successful horror movies do before inevitably falling back on tropes exhibited by the laziest that the genre has to offer.

At first, the picture does a pretty decent job of setting an eerie mood and tone and has Japan's famed suicide forest Aokigahara as a suitably creepy background. The movie doesn't waste much time with exposition or character as it jumps straight into its story.

As the film opens, a woman named Sara (Natalie Dormer, of "Game of Thrones") has a distressing dream about her troubled sister Jess (also played by Dormer) running through a secluded wooded area. Sara is the well-to-do sister, while Jess is the independent one, which is driven home in a sort-of unintentionally funny way by the fact that she has dark hair and mostly dresses in black.

Sara attempts to locate her sister, who is teaching in Tokyo, and finds out that she has headed to the notorious forest at the base of Mt. Fuji, which is ranked as one of the world's top spots for suicide. However, in "The Forest," we are told that these suicides are often prompted by the spirits of the dead who lurk in the woods and get a little backstory on how the infirm and elderly of centuries past were taken to die in Aokigahara.

So far, the film has done a decent enough job of creating a spooky atmosphere, but once we arrive in Japan, it's all downhill. First off, virtually every Japanese person who appears onscreen gives off a creepy vibe and nearly everyone Sara talks to appears to be well-versed in the undead - as if Japan were some backwoods, superstitious country as opposed to the technologically advanced, modern nation that it actually is.

Sara meets an American named Rob (Eoin Macken), a reporter who's interested in telling the story of her search for her sister. Neither his motivation for accompanying her to the forest, nor her willingness to let him report on her troubled family situation is particularly convincing. Worse, once we get to Aokigahara, Sara makes more poor decisions than any other horror movie character of recent memory and the filmmakers attempt to explain this away by the fact that the forest messes with your mind.

And even worse than that, "The Forest," which starts out by emphasizing atmosphere, devolves into one cheesy jump scare after another. There's one early in the film that genuinely caused people to jump out of their seats at the screening I attended, but that doesn't make it any less cheap. The jump scares, which are among the worst of horror's bag of tricks, get more egregious as the film goes on.

This is a pretty silly movie and not a particularly frightening one. It's easy to make people scream by throwing things at the camera, but it's more difficult to create tension through atmosphere, tone and location. Sadly, "The Forest" starts out by doing the latter before inexplicably reverting to the former.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review: Anomalisa

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Screenwriter and occasional director Charlie Kaufman has one of the most unique voices in the current cinema. His screenplays for "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" are among the best of the past 20 years. His directorial work has been a little more hit-or-miss for me. I admired, but never quite warmed to, his acclaimed 2008 film "Synecdoche, NY" and his latest "Anomalisa," which I think is the better of his two directorial efforts, is certainly good, if not great.

To reiterate, it has been said that there are basically seven original movie plots - and then there are Kaufman's works, which defy what we believe a movie can be about. His latest, which happens to be an animated movie co-directed by Duke Johnson that utilizes puppets, is a brief dramedy about a lonely and depressed writer named Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who spends a soul crushing weekend in Cincinnati, where he is to give the keynote speech at a conference on workplace constructiveness.

Stone, who is British but lives in California with a wife and children who are not seen until the film's culmination, is sad and apparently missing something in his life, so no sooner does he check into his hotel than he is on the phone with an old flame who happens to live in Cincinnati, whom he meets for an extremely awkward drink that lasts a mere matter of minutes.

Shortly thereafter, he weasels his way into the immediate orbit of two women who happen to be attending the conference and, having read his book, are slightly awed by his minor celebrity. One of the women is Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a painfully shy person whose last romance was many years in the rear view mirror.

Michael not-so-subtly gets Lisa to agree to accompany him to his room, where they talk before engaging in a sex scene - with puppets, mind you - on which much has already been written. If you're thinking the sequence is along the lines of those in "Team America: World Police," you'd be incorrect. Rather than play it for laughs, the coupling of Michael and Lisa is handled with great tenderness and even a touch of melancholy, for both characters are people who feel they do not belong.

Some slight surrealism follows as Michael has a bizarre dream involving the hotel's manager and, after leaving Lisa behind for the moment, he fumbles his way through an awkward speech at his conference. The film, which I've mentioned is a very brief 90 minutes, then comes to a rather brisk end.

If I appreciated the obvious thought and effort that went into "Synecdoche, NY" while not exactly endorsing the picture as a whole, I felt that "Anomalisa" finds Kaufman in a position of slightly increased directorial control, even if the film is narratively more simple. It's a good movie and one that, I believe, does a nice job of capturing the depressive state. The film is thoughtful, funny and occasionally moving.

I still believe that Kaufman's collaborations with other filmmakers - Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, for example - are stronger than his own directorial work, but with "Anomalisa," it strikes me that he is taking a step in the right direction. Kaufman is a singular artist and his sophomore film is certainly of a piece with his overall body of work.

Review: Concussion

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Peter Landesman's "Concussion," based on a 2009 magazine article, is a fairly straightforward whistle blower drama that features a solid performance that could revive Will Smith's career, which had become bogged down in big budget star vehicles.

Here, he plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a good-hearted forensic pathologist who, while working in Pittsburgh for the coroner's office, discovered CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), an injury that he noticed in deceased professional football players that had been caused by years of blunt force against the players' heads.

Omalu is a man who truly believes in the American Dream and, as he tells Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the young African woman whom he agrees to sponsor, he is surprised when men in power take exception to his discovery and attempt to silence him. Those men would, naturally, be representatives for the NFL, whom this film suggests attempted to cover up CTE, which they feared would get in the way of their bottom line.

Similar to other films of this sort, the corporation does all it can to bring down the little guy who is waging a righteous war against it. They stalk his wife, attempt to discredit his work, scare him with immigration issues and, in one of the more extreme moves, try to bring up federal charges against his employer, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks).

But Omalu has several on his team, including Mbatha-Raw, who becomes a romantic interest, Brooks' Wecht and Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), who had previously treated NFL players and understands not only why Omalu must push forward with his research, but also how the football league will react to the findings.

So, while "Concussion" doesn't exactly tell us anything we don't already know, it's a good star vehicle for Smith, who gives a very good and subtle performance as Omalu. Although Smith's biggest successes have been blockbusters such as the "Men in Black" pictures and "Independence Day," he frequently shines when given meatier roles, including his work as Muhammad Ali and in "Six Degrees of Separation."

And considering that much of the film involves Omalu and company looking at slides through microscopes, while actual football action is few and far between, "Concussion" is fairly suspenseful and engaging. Although it uses a familiar formula to tell its story, the professionalism on display and Smith's strong work carry it across the finish line.