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Moving, elegant, realistic, 26 June 2015

Like most movie fans who weren't from Chicago, I was introduced to Roger Ebert through At the Movies, the television show he shared with Gene Siskel, on our local PBS station. Ebert and Siskel were by then already well ingrained in the psyche of the American movie watcher. No longer did we have to rely on the whim of a local newspaper columnist to tell us what may be worth watching. Siskel and Ebert brought life to the movies, and movies to life. Their bickering ran the gamut from the globally sociological to the to the kind of detailed minutia that even the most dedicated cinema nerd would shake his head at. That's what made the show work, and for me it was Ebert's outsized personality that was the true driving force behind it all.

Life Itself is based on Ebert's memoirs of the same name, and it's directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams). A good deal of the movie was shot while Ebert was still alive, although the narration in his voice was provided by a very good impressionist after the fact. James intersperses various biographical scenes with present-day Ebert, riddled with pain but still maintaining a two-thumbs-raised attitude. And, lest he be accused of unabashed hagiography, James makes sure that we see the warts of Ebert's life, through the eyes of people close to him - his wife Chaz, Siskel's wife Marlene, critic Richard Corliss, and producers of the TV show.

Even those of us who knew Ebert as "the fat one" on the show knew that there was quite a bit more to the man: his sharp wit, his brilliant prose, and his undeniable zest for all things movies. Truth be told, Roger Ebert was such a talented writer because he was insanely passionate about the movies - what they meant to him personally and what he felt that the average moviegoer would appreciate about them. When you read a review by Ebert, you never really got the feeling that he was issuing an edict from on high, sitting with a quill pen in hand in a small room atop an ivory tower. That was the key to his success. He was writing to you and for you. Roger Ebert was your eyes, your ears, and your voice. Roger Ebert got you.

The film journeys from Ebert's upbringing as an only child in a middle-class family to his success running the campus newspaper at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to his days reviewing countless films for the Chicago Sun-Times (as the youngest full-time movie reviewer at a major-market newspaper) to his days as Siskel's sparring partner through to his days as a progenitor of the use of social media to create original content and foster communication with like-minded movie buffs around the world.

Several scenes are of present-day Ebert, and it is these that are the most touching and unnerving. In 2002, he was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands; unfortunately, infection later set in, and after several further operations, the lower jaw was necessarily removed. James began his documentary after this last procedure, and thus the present-day shots include a jawless Ebert. There are even scenes in which the viewer can clearly see through Ebert's mouth to his sternum.

Through all of his medical travails, Ebert continued to work, nurturing a strong online presence, reviewing countless terrible (and great) films, always writing and always from the heart. James, for his part, does a wonderful job capturing not only Ebert's commanding presence (even while infirm) but also his frailities, which Ebert himself owns like a champ. "This is who I am now," he says, particularly in reference to rather unflattering cover photo for Esquire magazine, "take it or leave it." Steve James shows us a flawed Roger Ebert. Ebert is not always right, no matter how loudly he shouts at Gene Siskel. He does not always get his way. He is not always the most likable guy; indeed, in his early years his driving ego was complemented by sheer talent, and eventually the former gave way (mostly) to the latter. Ebert was also a longtime recovering alcoholic and a man who thrived on being the center of attention, a man who desperately wanted to be a part of things and could either play a fool or employ scathing wit to that end.

Life Itself is not simply a film about a critic, made for condescending movie fans to fawn over. It is a story about a brilliant, flawed man who wrote passionately about movies and other subjects. It is a movie for fans of humanity.

2 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
Underplotted Tomorrow, 26 May 2015

Loosely based on the Disney attraction of the same name, Tomorrowland is a kinetic frenzy of amazing effects. However, despite the fine pedigree of the director and star, the movie falls a little flat, with a plot that begged for more coherence and elucidation.

Teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is one of those kids who loves to learn things. Okay, maybe there aren't many of those kids, but they're probably out there somewhere. Always tinkering, this one.

Casey lives near Cape Canaveral, where a launch platform is being deconstructed. A launch platform means a job for her dad, who's a NASA guy, so our curious, proactive heroine routinely jumps a fence and sabotages the equipment used to take the whole shebang apart. This leads to Casey getting in trouble with Johnny Law, leading to a very brief stay in a holding cell, but when she emerges among her belongings is a mysterious metal pin with a "T" logo on it. That's odd enough, since she had little on her when The Man pinched her, but when she touches the pin, she finds herself somewhere that's most definitely not the police station: a large wheat field with a futuristic city on the horizon.

Casey's experience dovetails with that of one Frank Walker, a boy inventor who takes his newly cobbled jet pack to the World's Fair and Exposition in 1964 in New York. Like Casey in the present day, Frank finds himself in possession of another of the strange pins, one given to him by eternally childlike Athena.

But back to the present. It seems that the pin allows the holder (for a time) to travel to a different dimension. But poor Casey's pin has run out of juice, so she wants to find another mode of transportation. This leads her to the doorstep of one cranky Frank Walker (George Clooney), a recluse who sends out a holographic dog to scare off unwelcome visitors. They're all unwelcome.

This being a rather straightforward Disney movie, there's a bad guy, a Governor Nix, played by Hugh Laurie. Nix here represents an obstacle to creativity and imagination, traits that both Frank and Casey proudly display. But, as written, the villain is pretty lame. Not only doesn't Nix attack his perceived opponents, he's actually quite accommodating to them. Very British of him, really. What's more, Nix's reasons for opposing the dynamic duo are actually quite sound, even if the methods aren't. What kind of bad guy is that? We learn very little about the magical new place that Frank and Casey visit. I mean, we know it's futuristic, what with all the flying cars and overall clean atmosphere, but we don't know how it came to be or what its long-term purpose is. We're given some vague platitudes about gather the best minds, but we're never really told to what purpose.

Clooney and Robertson hold their own, even if their interaction does feel a little forced at times. Laurie seems miscast. Tim McGraw plays Casey's dad in a few brief but important scenes. Perhaps the best performance is turned in by young Raffey Cassidy, who plays the enigmatic Athena.

Tomorrowland is, purportedly about the importance of remaining hopeful. Casey is our optimist; Frank is our pessimist. One has the benefit of experience that the other does not. But there's also an undercurrent of environmental awareness, or the imminent mortality of man, and other lighthearted issues.

For a Disney live-action film, Tomorrowland is acceptably gregarious. It entertaining in its own right. But as a sci-fi movie, it falls short; there's too much superficial wonder and not enough honest-to-goodness science and ingenious wizardry.

Killer Joe (2011)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Killer is a thriller, 21 May 2015

Chris Smith has a problem. He owes a lot of money to some bad men, his dad can't loan him the cash, and he's sort of a lowlife. So he hatches a plan to hire a guy to kill his mom so that his younger sister Dottie can get the insurance settlement. This is never a good plan in the movies, and probably not in real life, either. As you may well deduce, things do not go as planned in this excellent crime thriller from an old hand, director William Friedkin.

Chris (Emile Hirsch) knows a guy who knows a guy. The second guy is Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a hired killer. Nice work if you can get it, as they say. The intimidating Cooper lets it be known that he wants part of his fee upfront, and it's not a small amount, as a retainer. On the one hand, it's a heck of a lot smaller than the insurance payout will be. On the other hand, neither Chris, his beaten-down dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), nor his stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) has the money - they were counting on the insurance to be able to pay off Killer Joe. These people are not adept at project planning.

So Joe, rather than simply walk away from a situation from which he can't really benefit, comes up with an alternative: the family will "loan" him Dottie (Juno Temple), a twentysomething virgin (I know, right?) who's best described as being terminally naive. Now, a normal family might reject this idea outright: What father in his right mind would let an acknowledged killer have his way with his daughter? Well, these aren't normal folks. Besides, they got a killing to attend to.

As you may logically conclude, once that little line of selling out your kinfolk has been crossed, there's no turning back. We know full well we're in for a heap of double crossing. And a lot of yelling and screaming. And, as a matter of fact, blood and deadness. So although, on the surface, the plot may look like it's from a low-rent Cinemax feature, the surprising intensity and viciousness of McConaughey and the remarkable supporting cast (particularly Gershon) drive this story a long, long way. Even the writing (by Tracy Letts, who wrote the play on which the movie is based) is crisp and plausible but not overly predictable. Killer Joe is a grimy, grisly, dusty, and foul-mouthed minor classic, presided over by an unlikely bad seed: Matthew McConaughey.

4 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
Max rocks., 17 May 2015

The latest Mad Max is a frenzied, endless race of souped-up, well-armed vehicles across a whole lot of sand. The relentless pace makes for a wildly exciting film for which the plot is superfluous and generally unnecessary. There is much mayhem and madness. It is quite good.

This is perhaps the best pure action movie you'll see this year; even The Avengers and Star Wars have a fully developed story to get in the way. This one is a shot of pure adrenaline that never lets up. Here, the titular antihero has been captured by one of those omnipresent roving biker gangs I expect we'll all see in the near future. Max is turned over to a slaver/warlord named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who controls water and food for everyone in his stronghold, called The Citadel, doling it out whenever he sees fit. He also uses women for their breast milk and maintains a concubine of several wives, so you know he's not a good guy.

Working for Joe - or, rather, idolizing him to the point where they believe he and only he can lead them into the afterlife world of Valhalla - are the War Boys, pale zealots who pilot terrifying vehicles of mass destruction and gain their strength and energy by usurping blood from generous donors - like Max. The War Boys love Max.

Anyhow, every so often ol' Joe has to send out an Imperator for supplies; the Imperator drives a huge rig called a War Rig that's exceedingly well armed and customized to the driver's tastes. The driver in this case is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who has another plan in mind - rescue dear Joe's wives and take them to her own birthplace, the Green Place. Joe quickly gets wind of this and sends out a flurry of War Boys. One of the Boys, named Nux, is weak and in need of blood, so he straps the newly captured Max - a universal donor - to a pole on the front of his machine, and the race is on. Mission for the bad guys - stop Furiosa. Mission for the good guys - get to the Green Place by any means necessary.

Really, the entire movie is a chase across a barren wasteland. It is a post-apocalyptic world, after all. There's leaping from car to car to truck! Oh, and the War Boys? They attach these long, bendy poles on the hoods of their vehicles with one of their own at the top. Then they can bend to and fro and either jump on the War Rig or maybe sneak in through the sun roof, steal a wife or two, and bounce back. Sheer genius! There's an enormous, blinding lightning sandstorm that accounts for much of the CGI in the film, but for the most part the effects are anything but computer generated. Loved the visual look of the movie, too, with washed-out landscapes and colorful foregrounds. Director George Miller's vision shows a world that appears dead on the outside but with glimmers of that most valuable of commodities - hope. And all of the little details, such as the vehicles themselves (some hybrids of 1950s cars, including an original Beetle) and Furiosa's guns and prosthetic arm, add the right touch. And how's his for strange - 3D is put to good use here, with junk (and people) flying off of cars and right between your eyeballs! For much of the first third of the movie, Max wears a face guard that sort of looks like an upside down pitchfork. One would assume Hardy is used to such gear at this point, having been through The Dark Knight Rises as Bane. Here, he's even tougher than Bane, even after he's had blood sapped from him like syrup from a maple tree. Max's name, incidentally, is mentioned only three times in the movie. Which is fine, of course - after all, we the audience know damn well who he is, and the lack of a name for his traveling companions lends itself quite nicely to his anonymity. He's like an even more badass Man with No Name. But he does have compassion, mainly because what haunts poor Max's every waking moment is the feeling that he let innocent people die (see previous three films in the series). Will that happen on Fury Road? Not on his watch! (Possibly.) Hardy is the figurative bomb as Max, a towering dynamo of nonstop energy. Theron gets "ugly" again (note: she is not ugly, even here) with a shaved head, big muscles, and an attitude that would make Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor weep with respect. She should definitely make more action movies, provided they're more like this and not like Aeon Flux. It's always great to see a strong female protagonist, and here we have several; in addition to Furiosa, Immortan Joe's wives aren't wilting flowers but rather ass kickers who can load and fire guns. Pretty refreshing to see that, you know? This latest Mad Max - and will it be the last? - had me on the edge of my seat, which meant that I had to hold on lest I was blown away. But indeed, I was metaphorically blown away anyway, with a much-welcome return to visceral violent cinema in one of the year's top films.

RoboCop (2014)
1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Dreadful, 15 May 2015

RoboCop, a remake of that genial 1987 killer-cyborg film of the same name, is a colossal disappointment, a incoherent mess that's saddled with a below-average script, lousy casting, and superficial performances. It's not as if the original movie was so awesome that no remake could ever compare; Peter Weller's RoboCop was a fun action movie with a budget on the lower end of the scale. But this 2014 redo lacks soul, wit, and a point.

Cop Alex Murphy (Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman) works the nation's most violent city - Detroit, of course. He and his partner find out about large-scale corruption in their ranks. The big bad guy who's paying off the other cops gets wind of this discovery and has one of his henchman plant a bomb under Murphy's car. Car goes explodey, but does Murphy die? No, they can rebuild him. They have the technology.

They, in this case, is OmniCorp, which is surely a kind, benevolent company that would never seek to profit off war-making machines. Anyway, when Murphy wakes up he's in the lab of one Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who has constructed a sort of indestructible exoskeleton around what remains of Murphy's body. The idea is to have Murphy rejoin the police force and solve cases, which will make OmniCorp look like geniuses, and both generals and loose women will throw themselves at the company in gratitude.

Murphy's suit (it's not really a suit) is equipped with all sorts of weaponry and the ability to access crime databases almost instantaneously. This makes it rather easy to collar the bad guys. But what about the bad guys who put Murphy in this state? That's when OmniCorp and the the Detroit police department get a little uneasy and tug their collars. Or perhaps they're just realizing how bad the movie's turned out.

Michael Keaton, who was recently Oscar nominated for his work in Birdman, plays the head of OmniCorp, and he basically phones this one in. His character's motivations are to make money, damn the consequences, so maybe the part's not exactly multilayered. One can almost picture Keaton looking over the script, shrugging, and imagining what he'll do with the extra cash on hand. I mean, the guy's name is even Sellars, so Keaton had little to work with. Trouble is, someone of Keaton's acting caliber should have added a lot to a flat line of a character. Oldman, playing his chief scientist, fares no better. Dr. Norton seems like a nice guy who wants to do the right thing, but he lies to Murphy throughout the movie and frequently shows his discontent by sighing and shaking his head. The moral implications, man! Think of the moral implications! Jackie Earle Haley is on hand as an acerbic weapons guy working for Sellars, and again the character feels like a missed opportunity. Haley has shown plenty of charisma in previous roles, but here he's just the guy who doesn't trust Murphy the Cyborg Cop and treats him like dirt. Haley's Maddox is an unfunny jerk with an uncertain axe to grind. Samuel L. Jackson is the host of a pro-robotics TV program who pops up every now and then to wonder why we don't use robot soldiers in the U.S., like other countries do. Abbie Cornish, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and Jennifer Ehle fill the female roles; if it's any consolation, those roles are just as underwritten as the male ones are. Finally, gender equality! But two actors really stand out in the movie, and certainly not for good reasons. Jay Baruchel, best known for voicing Hiccup in the How to Train Your Dragon movies, is a marketing exec here. But it's really hard to take a business guy seriously when he sounds like he's still going through puberty. Marketers in movies are typically obnoxious, but Baruchel can't even bring the expected (and necessary) level of bluster and crass abrasiveness to the role. He's just annoying. Worst of them all, though, is Kinnaman as Alex Murphy. Kinnaman, perhaps best known for not being Peter Weller, brings little presence to the lead role - no poise, no attitude, no hubris, no nothing. He plays Murphy in such a one-dimensional manner that you'll think you've slipped into an entire universe altogether. (Probably one in which casting a block of wood in a major action movie makes sense.) Kinnaman is in over his head, and essentially his cast can't pick up the slack. There's too much slack. In fact, the entire movie (written by Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier, and Michael Miner, the latter two who co-wrote the original film) is slack.

There's plenty of blame to go around for this debacle. Sure, it's a remake, and people rarely expect much out of them. But director Jose Padilha turns in a product that seems to be poorly executed from the ground up. The characters are badly realized sketches on a cocktail napkin. The effects, while updated from 1987, aren't anything to write home about. Every time I saw Kinnaman on screen, I was reminded of Mark Metcalf's character from Animal House, not Peter Weller in RoboCop or even Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak. And while the image of the original movie isn't tarnished (since comparatively few saw this remake/reboot anyway), there seems to be no need for more films in the series.

5 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
In which Iron Man and Hulk fight, 11 May 2015

The second Avengers movie is one of those that just plain makes me happy. And, judging by the box office so far, it's made a lot of other people happy as well. It's a grand continuation of the adventures of familiar characters, but it's so witty, original, and exciting that it's also a terrific stand-alone film.

The gang's still around, even though their former employer SHIELD is not. Captain America (Chris Evans) leads the team as they try to root out the last of the HYDRA cells. They do, and they recapture the scepter of Loki, who does not appear in this movie. This leads Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to decide to revive a dormant AI program, all in the name of peacekeeping, because those things never go wrong. It's clear that Stark would rather move on to do something other than save the world every couple of days, and so he figures the new AI, Ultron, can finally bring peace to the world. Whoopsie! Spoiler alert: It does no such thing.

The really awful thing about Ultron isn't that he's super-intelligent and powerful (even more so than JARVIS, Stark's AI-servant), it's that he can pop up in any machine, anywhere, because that's just what you'd expect an evil machine to do - upload himself to the Internet and wreak some havoc.

Ultron (James Spader) comes across twins who are totally not mutants at all because that would infringe on Fox's X-Men copyright - Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who's fast, and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who's good with the mind games. The bad guy plans to use the duo's loathing of Tony Stark (it's complicated) to help him rid the world of the Avengers.

Meanwhile, inner conflicts begin to brew among our heroes. Is Stark truly selfish and not a team player? Can Hulk totally Hulk out without making the civilian populace terrified of him? Is Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) able to deal with her own demons long enough to establish a relationship with Banner? And is Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) good for anything? Joss Whedon once said (reportedly) that working with the Avengers characters is much more demanding than working with, say, the X-Men characters, because the latter share common problems (i.e., they're mutants). The Avengers have different problems from one another, different personalities, and different enemies. One is a god from another realm, and another is in his eighties (technically). So it's not just a matter of getting them to work together as a team against a single enemy, as the different backgrounds sometimes run counter to each other.

Of all of the characters, though, I think Black Widow is the most layered. We know that Natasha has been through an awful lot, even compared with her teammates, and that's why she's more or less a closed book to them. I also think Johannsson provides an exciting, vulnerable, empowering performance. She's not just playing a superhero - she's a full-fledged character.

There are some familiar faces, too - Nick Fury pops up. Sidekicks (sort of?) for I-Man and Cap also make appearances. There is much joking; hilarity often ensues. There's a new layer of levity, in fact. There's an early scene in which Cap takes out a bunch of henchmen with his shield and mutters (paraphrasing here) "Well, that was fun." This is followed by, off-screen, "No, it wasn't!" Hee! Hee! With the panache of an old-time serial and the touch of the pathos of a Douglas Sirk drama, the Avengers sequel is a visionary omnibus of meshing styles and genres. I'd call it the pinnacle of comic-book movies, but we have at least two more Avengers films - plus Ant-Man, another Captain America, and on and on.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A Godzilla by any other name..., 29 April 2015

You know how it goes: if you've seen one Godzilla movie, you probably have seen all you need to see. And what that awkwardly written sentiment means is that these movies are pretty much the same each time out. Big difference? The ever-changing "other creature" that Godzilla must battle. Here, as the big guy Raids Again (!), he goes up against an unnamed angliosaur, which sort of looks like a downtrodden stegosaurus.

Godzilla is first spotted by a Japanese pilot named Tsukioka as the latter attempts the rescue of a fellow flier, Kobayashi, on a remote island in the Pacific. The two think they're all safe and sound when - suddenly! - they hear the resounding thunder of two mighty beasts fighting. Or, in this case, two well-worn plastic models, or perhaps a couple of guys in suits. It could have been either, frankly. At any rate, back in Japan, scientists explain that the original Godzilla, who was killed in the first film (don't act like you didn't know that), died as a result of an "oxygen destroyer"; sadly, the man who invented the device is also dead, and so are any plans. So that answers that. But does it? All's fine, with Godzilla still out in the ocean, minding his own beeswax, until he's rousted by the Japanese air fleet, which makes him head for the island nation. Directly for Osaka, of course, one of the few cities not affected by Godzilla #1. Godzilla wreaks havoc and kicks butt, and then the angliosaur - who they call Angilas, so I guess he wasn't unnamed after all - returns from the sea to battle Godzilla. Big fight ensues. Mass destruction. Lots of carnage.

Godzilla (who doesn't do any actual raiding)'s second movie was rushed into production, showing in theaters a scant six months after the first movie. Sometimes, it shows. The effects are comically bad, even by 1955 standards. The film's dubbed in English, so naturally the audio's a mismatch. The Godzilla suit that some poor guy has to wear is obviously a Godzilla suit - there are several shots in which the monster turns to a side but the suit doesn't. Perhaps a seamstress was needed on set. In other shots, a model was transparently used, as the monster has all of the physical range of poor Stephen Hawking. It's tough to get too excited about the action, but some of the flying scenes do hold up pretty well.

I needed so badly to see this Godzilla movie before I saw others, because of course one must see these things in order. Well, maybe not. Anyway, in this movie, the big fella is referred to as Gigantis. No, I'm not kidding. For reals, now. According to IMDb, this is either because Warner Brothers couldn't get permission to use the name (but it was okay to use in the title?) or because the producer of the American version wanted to give viewers the impression that this was an entirely new monster. Don't think he succeeded on that front.

3 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
Shallow, disappointing junk, 27 April 2015

Although interesting to look at, The Babadook is an appalling mess of a horror film, with irritating characters, a lack of genuine suspense, and a style that's more likely to evoke mild bemusement than sincere dread and terror.

The premise is a familiar one. Young Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is seemingly haunted by a spirit that no one else can see, and of course no one else believes said spirit exists, least of all his mother Amelia (Essie Davis), who's struggling with the sudden, violent death of her husband and sees Samuel's "ghost" as Samuel's way of dealing with his own grief.

Things kick into a higher gear when Samuel finds a book called The Babadook on his bookshelf. No kids' book this, The Babadook is about an out-to-get-you entity, complete with terrifying artwork and menacing words. It's so scary that Amelia can't stomach reading it all to Samuel. This ain't no ordinary book. The Babadook will come a-calling, first to the child in disguise and then to the kid's mother; then it'll just do it's haunting thing. The better to drive you insane, my dear.

Samuel begins to act out. I got the impression that he'd been having behavioral issues (likely stemming from his dad's death), but once the book arrives, those issues increase infinitely in intensity. He misbehaves in school, at the park, and at his cousin's party; at the latter, he pushes his obnoxious, teasing cousin out of a treehouse, which enrages his aunt. So much for family and understanding, right? Eventually, Amelia is able to secure some medication for Samuel to keep him calm, but soon the spectre of the Babadook is in her head, too.

A few points. First, even in recent memory there have been plenty of nobody-believes-I'm-being-haunted plots. Even with the children's book as a hook, this story is well worn indeed. But what really counts against it is that the kid is so over-the-top horrible from the beginning of the movie that it's nigh impossible to feel any real sympathy for him - until and unless the plot says it must be so. Samuel is, to put it bluntly, a real jerk. He's mean to everyone and disobeys his mom constantly.

Sure, we can explain this away by pointing to the dad's death (he died in an accident on the way to the hospital when Samuel was born) - but since he never knew his dad, it feels like the logic is twisting to suit a screenwriter's desperate needs. Samuel is so obnoxious that he spends about the first twenty minutes screaming "MOM" at the top of his lungs. I'm sure you parents out there can relate to how wonderfully appealing this sound is. It's so nice to be wanted.

When Amelia herself inevitably becomes haunted by the Babadook as well, things get progressively worse. She's angry! She's normal! She's loving! She's cruel! She's seeing things! She's experiencing reality! It's a whirlwind of lazy, lazy writing. And, true to the trope, no one believes Amelia's claims that Something is happening - not the school, which clearly doesn't care about Samuel's well being; not her sister, who doesn't stop to consider that Amelia may truly need her help; not the Child Services people, who drop in unannounced and have no idea why this person is cleaning the kitchen because of a hole in the wall that doesn't exist. No one cares. Maybe that's because everyone involved saw the first part of the film, in which neither mother nor son comes off as particularly sympathetic.

I got the impression that this movie merely needed a better director (than Jennifer Kent), writer (Kent), and actors (Davis and especially Wiseman). That's not asking too much, right? In the right hands, The Babadook would have been a stylish, Gothic psychological drama, but instead it's a run-of-the-mill plot sunk by aimless direction and a real lack of panache. There are just too many ludicrous scenes in this film to stomach. William Friedkin, of all people, claims that he's never seen a more terrifying film than this one; we can thus infer that Mr. Friedkin has never seen his own horror classic, The Exorcist.

Maleficent (2014)
1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Deep, dark, and delicious, 25 April 2015

One day a Disney exec wondered out loud about what would happen if they remade one of their classic animated films but told from the villain's point of view. His yes men thought it was a great idea, until one of them pointed out that if the villain was the main character, they'd have to find a way to make him or her more appealing, someone the kids could root for, rather than against. And that leads us to Maleficent, in which the baddie from Sleeping Beauty is not a simple conduit of pure evil but a glad fairy wronged by by a human lover who perseveres despite her negative nature.

For those of you not up on your Disney, Maleficent was the wicked fairy who placed a curse on the infant Aurora, the daughter of the king who'd once held Maleficent's heart. The curse stated that on her sixteenth birthday, Aurora would be pricked by a spindle of a spinning wheel and then fall into a deep slumber that could only be broken by true love's kiss. Much of that plot structure is intact here, but we get to witness it all through the eyes of the fairy herself, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie).

At the story's outset, Maleficent is a winged fairy at one with the land and her ethereal companions. She laughs, they laugh. She protects them from harm, they laugh. It's all very symbiotic. And then one day a young boy wanders into the moors that the fairies call home - a boy named Stefan. They laugh a lot together, too, and they become close friends over the years. Then, as a young man, Stefan hopes to be named successor to the king whose realm surrounds the moors (a king who is dying thanks to the injuries inflicted upon him by Maleficient after his army attacked); the king says that whoever can defeat Maleficient for him will be the new ruler. So, despite the many years of laughter and love, Stefan decides to betray Maleficent, and that's when stuff gets truly deliciously dark.

For kids who saw the '59 animated movie, Maleficent was indeed a forbidding character but still manageable thanks to the cartoon nature of the film. Jolie's Maleficent is a little more terrifying. I don't know if kids today are just more jaded, but I think if I were eight years old I'd find this particular evil fairy the stuff nightmares are made of. Maleficent has large horns emerging from the top of her head, deep-red lipstick, and wicked, wicked eyes. She's not one to be trifled with. She also has what your English teacher might describe as "verve." Or maybe you would, if you're British or pretentious, or both. Anyway, grown-up Maleficent not only wields very powerful magic, she's defiant, defensive, and scheming. Add to that the fact that she's been spurned, and you have a perfect storm for a whole lot of revenge being dished out.

Now, in contrast to Sleeping Beauty, in which we witnessed Aurora's adventures through the prism of three bumbling (but well-intentioned) pixies, this trip is more about character growth. Look, it's a Disney film, so good things are probably going to carry the day. But it's not as if the well-known fairy tale is being treated as gospel, either. Because of the shift in perspective, some tropes common to Disney animated films are tweaked just a tad.

Jolie is amazing in a dominating (naturally) performance. Elle Fanning, as the teenaged Aurora, is fine in an understated (and understandably underwritten) role. Sharlto Copely plays Stefan, who transforms from a kind romantic to a caricature of Howard Hughes by the time the denouement arrives. (He's still pretty good, though.) But Jolie is the only actor who matters here, and this is a tour de force for her. It's a fun, intense role for her, and she doesn't dilute her character's ferocity by vamping. The visual effects, though, help mask the fact that this is a one-woman show. All of this adds up to a really well done live-action reimagining of a Disney classic, which is not a phrase one would have expected to type even five years ago.

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Cuts like a knife, 22 April 2015

Are you looking for a trashy, earthy junky film? Switchblade Sisters promises to be a highly exploitative movie about a gritty girl gang, and it more than delivers on that promise. All of the indulgences of 1970s cinema are on florid display, from the earthy violence to the big, unkempt hair to those stereotypically bullhorn-loud outfits. This is no subtle film - it's brash trash.

The plot's as straight as Cher's hair (then, anyway): the aforementioned gang, called the Dagger Debs (they're sort of the ladies' auxiliary of an all-male gang, the Daggers), harasses an innocent waif named Maggie. Maggie, though, kicks ass, so the girls decide (after the usual you-must-prove-yourself act) to accept her as their own. At least their leader, Lace (Robbie Lee) does. Her #1 cohort, Patch (Monica Gayle) has plenty of reservations about the new meat, probably because she's jealous about how much attention Maggie (Joanne Nail) is getting from Lace. And that might be because Patch wears - go on, guess - an eyepatch. Kind of makes her look badass, but I bet she's a little self conscious about it, too. Fun fact: Quentin Tarantino was such a huge fan of this film that he modeled the character of Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) in the Kill Bill movies after Patch.

Anyway, like even the most outrageous premises, one must not only suspend disbelief but expel it for the duration. All of the kids - who are indeed in their late teens or early twenties in real life - look like they're in their forties. Or maybe it's the hair. The Debs and the Daggers attend a high school where they rule the roost. I don't mean just stuff like taking nerds' lunch money. I mean gambling, prostitution, extortion, whatever it takes to get by, man. The principal, who's not really their pal despite his title, tells the head Dagger, Dominic (Asher Brauner) that Dom's chief gangster rival, Crabs (Chase Newhart) is transferring to the high school, and would Dom mind sharing a bit of the action? Ha, ha, it is to laugh, at both the proposition and Newhart's receding hairline. The Daggers try to play it cool but are attacked anyway by Crabs' gang. The big fight scene takes place in - no kidding - a roller skating rink, where members of both gangs zoom around the floor with the greatest of ease. That's when the good violence begins and things get messy, as in bloody, as in over the top.

It's hard to call this a terrible film, because it is exactly what it pretends to be. There's nothing highbrow about this production. Even some of the acting is pretty good, although there aren't any "names" among the cast. An Afterschool Special, this ain't. But would you believe, according to writer-director Jack Hill, this is actually loosely based on Othello? You can see the resemblance if you squint hard or have a terrific imagination. Switchblade Sisters has a rough-and-ready title, hot young women, lots of guns and knives and other implements of destruction, an insane fashion sense, and a whole lot of things getting smashed up. This is the paragon of drive-in movies, and if you don't know what those are, ask your grandfather.

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