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Weird but Watchable
Aging writer Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) visits the small New England town of while on an unpopulated book tour. The local Sheriff (Bruce Dern) informs Baltimore of a possible serial murder in town, trapping Baltimore in a dream-state where he digs up the town's past and its connection to a haunted hotel and Edgar Allen Poe.
Some scenes in "Twixt" are imaginative and enthralling, while others are uninspired and bland. Half of the movie has the audience on the edge of their seats, and the rest has them checking their watches.
Val Kilmer's performance is bizarre. When he's in the film's reality, he's mailing it in. But when he's in the film's dream-state, he's captivating. Perhaps that is the point. A particularly cooky performance from Bruce Dern kept me watching. But Elle Fanning does the best acting in the film, even though she's not in it much.
Probably the weirdest part of the film is the soundtrack. It goes from sad piano solo to Blue Man group in the same scene, and as a result much of the tone trying to be established is either done badly or just gone.
Overall, a pretty uninteresting but watchable movie for its weirdness. It's worth trying out, but if your attention isn't grabbed in the first half hour, it's worth seeing what else is on.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
A Surprisingly Bland Display of Debauchery
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an ambitious young Wall Street numbers-cruncher, working under an equally ambitious (though decidedly more corrupted) stock broker named Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). Things are going well until Hanna's firm goes under, leaving Belfort to create his firm. Belfort throws together some sleazy characters (Jonah Hill, Jean Dujardin, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal) to create a large securities fraud investigation-in-waiting, finally forcing him to use his conscience to decide between an extravagant life or a way out for himself.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" is a nightmare, for both the characters and the viewer. A script that can't fit itself into coherence drones on and on about corruption, while never seeing fit to inform the viewer of exactly how Belfort became what he is. He just, is. We never learn much of anything about him. Nudity, drugs, and violence corrupt his despicable life. And that's what the movie is. In many ways, I would have learned more from watching a documentary about Belfort than watching this movie.
For a Martin Scorcese picture, especially one written by Boardwalk Empire scribe Terrence Winter, I was shocked at the utter one- dimensionality of these characters. Belfort is a scumbag. Each and every one of his cronies are equally scummy. The only characters who seem to have any benevolence are Belfort's first wife (despite her many scenes, we never learn her name) and the FBI Agent pursuing the fraud, Kyle Chandler. Chandler might have had a name. If I saw the word "Cop" across from his name at the cast and credits, I wouldn't be surprised.
By far the worst part of "The Wolf of Wall Street" is the structure. The end result looks like someone took scissors to the reel and haphazardly pasted the final third together. It's a complete mess, trying to force all the character development we didn't get for the first TWO HOURS into the final chapter.
The only character who was at all interesting was McConaughey's, who as a powerful broker who loses it all perhaps served as the heaviest foreshadowing the film could offer. Yet we lose track of him after the first twenty minutes, and by the time you're numb from the waist down and your brain is turning into mush, you've completely forgotten McConaughey was ever there.
Scorcese and DiCaprio should be ashamed. "The Wolf of Wall Street" is a disaster that engages its audience through the type of stuff I'd expect in a Uwe Boll film.
The Purge (2013)
Brilliant Concept Bogged Down Under It's Own Weight
In 2022, the United States has been overtaken by a new legion of Founding Fathers who implement a twelve hour period of near-complete lawlessness aimed at allowing citizens to properly vent frustration built up over the year. The Sandin family, led by patriarch James (Ethan Hawke) has a fancy security system designed to keep the violence out and the family safe inside, but that all changes when son Charlie allows sanctuary to a homeless man fleeing a band of murderous freaks.
"The Purge" is an absolutely brilliant movie concept that gets so bogged down in the weight of its own message that it reverts to an average-at- best action-horror flick. The script sees fit to introduce a fascinating idea, that of a night of pure terror sanctioned by the government, and the ramifications that bad decisions can bring. It tries to prove violence as an answer to pent up emotion, but gives little payoff for the few humane enough to say 'no' to the destruction.
The biggest problem here is simple explanation. Just throw in a sentence here and there to explain the following; Is it really beneficial to the economy to allow people to use extreme measures to do whatever they want? If buildings collapse or manual workers are killed, what happens to profits? Are taxes at sky-high rates to pay for all the wounded receiving treatment afterwards? Little things so unexplained. Why is the rebellious boyfriend even in the script, what did he do to advance the plot? He is forgotten by the end.
Acting wise, Ethan Hawke does a good job as the father trying to protect his wife and family. Yet you'd think, for a security salesman, he would implement a fail safe or two preventing young kids from opening intricate home defense systems with the touch of a button. Lena Headey is breathtaking and makes a great heroine, but she seems to have the bare minimum interest in her children's well being, not even knowing where either of them are for most of the film. Rhys Wakefield makes for a creepy but unmemorable villain.
This is a decent movie and worth a rental. It will make you think, but not of the morality or immorality behind the Purge. Instead you'll be scratching your head as to the incompetency of the Sandins. Perhaps diverting your attention from the inhumanity of the Purge is the point.
The Counselor (2013)
A Layered and Complex Mess
A nameless attorney, called The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) has everything going for him: a good job, powerful friends, and an engagement to his beautiful girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz). But greed trumps comfort as the Counselor's friend Reiner (Javier Bardem) involves him in drug trade along the U.S.-Mexico border. As the deal goes bad, the nameless attorney has to pick up the pieces and try to either put his life back in place or flee the vanity that he has slowly become accustomed to.
The second the screen went black, I knew I hadn't seen a great film. But I also knew I hadn't seen a bad film. The Counselor has brief moments of genius that flash as bright as any classic, but also shares pedantic, drawn-out scenes that seem like filler. It boasts an A-list cast turning in terrific performances, but none seem to know exactly what they are doing, or what their purpose is to the story. There is no doubt that The Counselor has a profound message, but the message gets bogged down in the confusion of important questions the script has no answers to.
Written by the incredible author Cormac McCarthy, who wrote a similarly simple and violent book-turned movie called No Country For Old Men, the script follows five characters; the aforementioned, Reiner's oversexed girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), and the mysterious cowboy middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). Reiner and Malkina's flamboyant and malicious relationship is a perfect counter to the comfortable, unexciting romance between the title character and his fiancé. The Counselor and Laura's unexceptional wardrobe is no comparison to Reiner's expensive suits and cropped-up hair, or Malkina's leave-nothing-to-the-imagination dresses.
Michael Fassbender is on a career roll, almost guaranteed an Oscar for Twelve Years A Slave, later this year. Yet his performance is surprisingly bland, more a reactionary character than one deciding his own fate. Brad Pitt does particularly fine work here as Westray. Clad in garb (cowboy hat, boots, cream or watermelon-colored jacket) you would see in every El Paso street corner, Westray is an unassuming and cautionary man who, in the film's first half anyway, seems to be guiding the story more than being part of it. Westray's fate at the end is certainly surprising to any viewer thinking Pitt was cast as simply another name to round out the cast. Pitt is likely the best performance in the film.
The problems with the film do not lie in performances or direction. The photography is stunning, with beautifully shot locations in El Paso and Mexico. Reiner's glamorous home is taken right out of GQ Magazine, with its lavish pools and party atmosphere. The scenes in Mexico show a gritty, violent place where money rules, but so it also does across the border. What McCarthy is trying to convey from his work is present in the film, but a few lines on certain aspects of the plot would be helpful. For instance, how exactly was Fassbender involved? How was Reiner? The Wire Man was an imposing and violent force, but who was he? Who did he work for? And who was Malkina, really? As you watch the film, you will see such unanswered questions.
If you are a fan of Cormac McCarthy, as I am, you will probably leave the theater with the same emotion I did; one of confusion. The Counselor is not a bad film, but it is far from great. At the same token, the finished product could be great to another viewer, and I would understand why. It may require a second viewing and a more in-depth analysis of the complexity of the film to understand exactly what was going on. A rating of "five" is the best rating I can give. It seems as if half of the The Counselor was there, and half of him was not.
In a futuristic society, the poor live in squalor on a destroyed earth while the rich live on a beautiful space station called Elysium (hey, that's the title of the movie!). Max, a tough-as- nails but soft-at-heart felon turned worker, is exposed to radiation one day at the plant where he works and requires the treatment of a "Med-Bed" - the rich way to heal yourself and relax at the same time. So Max sets out to get healed with the help of a scruffy hacker named Spider and a childhood friend who has recently returned (from where?), but only if he can get past the nameless ruthless mercenary hired by evil bad Secretary of Defense Jodie Foster.
The one percent living on their own planet, and the poor banding together to exact revenge? Coming off the heels of Occupy Wall Street, this is just the movie the nation needs to heal itself and unite against the rich bad guys. But before the revolution begins, there are some questions we need to ask. How many rich people live on Elysium? The least someone can make annually to be part of the one percent is 300 grand. Lets round that up to 500 for the future...heck, let's round it up to a million. Say you have a couple hundred guys making a million, is that enough to build a giant spaceship capable of sustaining life for a hundred families? More so, how do you keep up with the costs up there? Surely it costs some hefty dough to keep those coal fires burning. Where does the money come from?
Jodie hates the bureaucracy of Elysium and aspires to be President, so she hires a sleazy businessman (William Fichtner) to rewrite the space ships code to install her as President. I'm sorry, what? By that logic, anyone could scrawl their name on the US Constitution and claim it to be divine proof they need to be President. Was she planning on all the bureaucrats of Elysium to just blindly accept her? Fichtner is so successful at rewriting this code (it's never explained in any future detail) that he installs it into his brain, only to - you guessed it! - get hijacked by a bionic Matt Damon, who steals said code. I know the movie hates rich people, but come on. Implanting stuff into your brain to safeguard information when someone can easily steal said information?
Max gets radiation poisoning. How? He works at "the plant". What does the plant create that radiates...radiation? It's never explained. He is told he has five days to live after he is infected. This plot line mysteriously disappears after he is turned bionic - did I forget to mention that? - by Spider. Does turning half your body into the Energizer Bunny save you from radiation poisoning?
Damon understandably jumped at the chance to make the evil rich look bad. Never mind the fact that a large part of this movie's $116,000,000 budget went to his bank account. But he gives up not even halfway through this movie. You can see it in his face, that slow realization an actor has that he is in a turkey of a movie. Apparently he was the director's second choice. His first? Rapper Eminem. Maybe it's understandable why he is so demoralized. But the worst part of the film is Jodie Foster. It's as if the audio designer forgot to record whenever she spoke, and decided the best fix would be to use a dubbed voice that sounded as far away from Foster as possible. She starts with a British accent, which turns somewhat French, and ends somewhere in Eastern Asia.
Some movies have a character or two that are unnecessary but there for an audience draw. They aren't needed to make the plot line progress. Here, it's as if every character matches that description. The only bright spot is Sharlto Copley, who seems to be the only one who cares about what's going on.
This isn't just a lousy movie. It's downright bad. This isn't even worth the price of a Redbox rental. Maybe if Elysium finds its way on to HBO, and you're tired of looking out the window, or you've run out of sleep aids, it'll be worth the drawn out hour and a half.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
An Unforgettable Experience
We have all heard that our actions in the present will impact the actions others will make hundreds, thousands of years in the future. "Cloud Atlas" defies that idea by replacing "others" with "we". Over six story lines spreading from the historical African slave trade all the way to a post-apocalyptic future, people cut from the same mold make decisions in their present that effect who they are to be in the future. The Wachowskis and Tom Twyker have engineered a thrilling, romantic, truly unforgettable epic.
Screen writing is without a doubt the most difficult aspect of making a film. Everything hinges on how well the plot hangs together, how the lines create conflict and chemistry and make these essentials go together seamlessly. The authors of "Cloud Atlas", who also directed the piece, had a blueprint in David Mitchell's book, but still had to adapt a Star Wars-like future and an early 1900's English countryside into the same film without the plot falling apart. The Wachowski's and Tom Twyker have done exactly so, which is reason enough for this film to succeed.
The actors, including Oscar winners Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Susan Sarandon along with Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw and the underrated Keith David, all perform with downright majesty considering the complexity of the as many as six characters each play. It takes true talent not just to eloquently read lines but also to understand the director's vision, and each performance fits like a glove into the world each of the six stories has created. "Cloud Atlas" is the top of the list of ensemble films.
The best line of the film comes near the end; "From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth out future." We would all be well to remember this.
World War Z (2013)
Which Ones Were the Zombies?
Gerry Lane (that's pronounced Jerry, played by Brad Pitt) is a former UN worker of some sort who finds himself and his family right in the middle of the zombie apocalypse while living in Philadelphia. After being saved by another UN worker who just so happens to be a Deputy Secretary General, Lane and family are put on a UN ship that has also collected far too many other refugees, and Lane is presented with a mission: re- enlist and find out the cause of the virus, or your family is going to be placed in the significantly more dangerous refugee safe zones. Brad chooses the former, and off we go.
It has the feel of a really good zombie blockbuster. It has the star, the known and respected director, and the source material. I kept thinking, "can they go wrong?" Yes, they can. For one, they can deviate almost completely from the source material. Max Brooks's eponymous novel traced a surprisingly realistic account of what would happen should a violent global virus erupt and become a worldwide predicament. But the novel never mentioned the name of the mysterious UN negotiator conducting his investigation. It never introduced a character named "Gerry Lane", let alone his family. It never introduced the question; "why did Gerry leave the UN in the first place?" only for it to never be answered. It was much, much better that way.
The problems with the film are in the script. The cast does a hit-and- miss job playing their roles but never seem to understand their lines better than the audience does. Just as Lane looks for the stem of the virus, the stem of scripted uncertainty is not in the world of World War Z but in the world of the four people who wrote it. Having more than one or two authors usually means that after the first draft, the script was circulated around and around until only faint hints of the source material are still recognizable when the movie starts filming. Lane flies all over the world, and the audience flies with him, only to find him no longer investigating but solving, shooting, and exploding.
As Lane, Brad Pitt plays the role he usually plays of an only slightly less confident Brad Pitt. I kept thinking that the ending would bring about a shocking twist; he was already a zombie! Pitt shuffles through this script with all the interest of watching paint dry, and once an hour passes his ploddy performance grows weary. However forgettable his performance, I always see some of the audience uninterested in plot and only in Tyler Durden's face, so if that's why you buy your ticket, no shame. Just don't think you'll really remember who the main character is or what his mission is. As for his wife, Mirielle Enos turns in equally uninspired work as the only woman in the known world who doesn't seem to be able to create any romantic chemistry with People's Sexiest Man Alive.
Following the conclusion of ABC's "Lost", lead star Matthew Fox could have taken any role he wanted. By now he could even have taken Pitt's role at the helm of this film. But Fox decided to take a break for a few years, and now he is reduced to playing some guy who works on a UN helicopter. He might have even had a line. David Morse, the only other American actor I recognized, plays a toothless CIA spook imprisoned in a US military base in South Korea. Morse's performance was undoubtedly the film's best. Hearing the little whistle as he spoke through his gums was chilling as you read about Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and the like. His too-brief role emphasizes the possibilities that present themselves when you turncoat the United States. Morse alone deserves a star for his work.
Effects-wise, the infected weren't anything special, but how would I know that? What does a zombie truly look like? We never found out if the infection led to death of the host and reanimation. It didn't appear that anything external was actively rotting. Some of the undead appear a bit comical, and their gangly movements were just different enough to inspire scattered laughter in the theater.
Some of the best scenes of the film involved Lane traveling to Israel and Wales, the only two countries he actually manages to visit. In Jerusalem, Lane discovers that Israel has built a wall to keep the zombies out. We never get an answer to the facts behind the wall; how big is it? Is it just around Jerusalem, or the entire country of Israel? Regardless, a band of street musicians somehow manage to provoke enough ire for thousands of the undead to scale the wall and attack the city. That band must have been terrible.
As a zombie is appetized by the possibility of prey, the audience is intrigued by the possibility of entertainment. The undead eat the zombie for sustenance, but quickly want to move on for more. As part of the ravenous audience, I felt the same way.
Masters of Horror: Jenifer (2005)
A Unique and Absorbing Psychological Thriller
Detective Spivey (Steven Weber) happens upon a deranged man preparing to hack a woman to death with a butcher's cleaver. Spivey shoots the would- be-attacker, to find his potential victim is a hideously disfigured woman named Jenifer. Jenifer has no background he can find, but his interest in her grows to the point of bringing her into his home and subjecting himself - and his family - to a madness inside him that only Jenifer can bring out.
Steven Weber got his start on the lighthearted television comedy "Wings", and to see his range as an actor go from bumbling playboy to layered, disturbed protector is simply stunning. His performance here is the best I have seen out of his career, possibly because he also wrote the script this film was based on. No one knows the source material better than the author, and Weber shows tremendous talent both in front of and behind the camera.
Critics rarely use the term "jaw-dropping" to describe what they are critiquing. "Jenifer" is jaw-dropping, both in terms of the film and the character herself. Actress Carrie Fleming plays Jenifer under very effective facial makeup and still manages to turn in an unforgettable performance. She may not speak, but she mumbles and trembles and tucks into Weber's arms with the insecurity of a child, throwing the viewer off as to what to expect she is capable of.
As Weber's and Jenifer's barbarously symbiotic relationship turns from nurturing to sexual to downright predatorial, Dario Argento's direction kicks in. The classic 'master of horror' specializes in the sadistic, and his television work is no exception. This is less gory than most of Argento's work, but certainly no less gruesome, especially the psychological aspects.
The title character preys on the weak of heart. She attacks those close to Weber's character while also growing like a parasite inside him. As the screen goes black, you must ask yourself; who is the monster?
This is not a film for the weak of heart. If you have a weak stomach, Gregory Nicotero's unparalleled visual effects may make your insides churn, and the script may do much the same. However, if you are interested in a psychological thriller that will make you think and entertain your inner barbarian, this is the film for you.
A Film That Will Make You Think
Paul and Diane Stanton (Dermot Mulroney and Diane Kruger) are living a comfortable life in Santa Fe, New Mexico but conflicted with their daughter's stage four lung disease. After months of waiting on the national waiting list so their daughter could get a replacement, Paul discovers a friend, gubernatorial candidate James Harrison (Sam Shepard) has had an illegal heart transplant. Harrison agrees to tell Paul all he knows, which sends Paul to Tijuana to find a mysterious Dr. Navarro, the man behind the curtain of illegal organ transplants.
Organ transplants are just as dangerous and just as illegal as human trafficking, and can cause as much and more heartache. "Inhale" takes a regular family man and places him in war-torn Tijuana to try to save the life if his little girl using any means necessary, which makes you question his moral authority. Good films do just that, they make you think. Great films, however, leave you thinking.
Dermot Mulroney doesn't usually play the leading character but gives a tour-de-force performance here. He is beaten and bruised on his journey but does not give up and held my attention throughout. The beautiful Diane Kruger is equally as good but underused as his frantic wife, tending to be a sidelines character who never gets her due. Sam Shepard successfully plays a slick politician, and the entire Hispanic cast, including the equally slick Jordi Molla, hold their own.
The script has a few problems, mostly with explanation. Shepard's character's relationship to Mulroney's character is never quite explained. It appears they work together and are close, then suggests the opposite when Shepard is running for Governor. Kruger is underused, which takes away from much of "Inhale"'s potential. She is a fantastic actress but seeing her cry isn't enough. She's too good to be so one - dimensional, which suggests some of the film never made it off the cutting room floor.
James Newton Howard's soundtrack blends seamlessly into the background, becoming a character in itself as it differentiates New Mexico and Mexico. The ending is perhaps the biggest fault of the film. The choices Paul makes throughout takes him to a surgical room where he is faced with an incredibly difficult choice. When we discover which choice he made, we are made to think if it was right. If we never knew, that would have left us thinking long after the screen went black.
"Inhale" takes the organ trafficking debate head on, which is admirable. Yet the film isn't as good as the message it gets across.
The Hangover Part III (2013)
Better Than You Expect, Not Better Than You Hope
Some time after the events in Bangkok, Stu (Ed Helms) and Phil (Bradley Cooper) have turned thankfully towards mundane lives with family, but Alan (Zachary Galifianakis) remains unsettled. The ramifications of a giraffe purchase send Alan's father (Jeffrey Tambor) into cardiac arrest, reuniting the Wolfpack with the intention of sending Alan to a mental rehabilitation facility. On the way, the four are attacked by a gangster named Marshall (John Goodman) who wants several million dollars worth of gold returned to him after being stolen by Chow.
The first film in this series was a breath of fresh comic air - timely, hilarious, a real "guy movie" that the ladies wouldn't have any part of. The sequel was a summer blockbuster; not as funny, considerably darker, but still a worthy addition to the Hangover brand. The finale drops the premise of its prequels to focus on three action packed days with nary a mention of the drugs and alcohol that sent our heroes into a memory loss stupor. The third is different entirely from the first two, and therefore can't be compared as the third in a trilogy, but as the sequel to the first two.
One of the most fascinating characters is Stu, the dentist with a dark side who does things that I'm not sure I am able to write about here without being reported. The most tame act he commits is a sham marriage to a baby-wielding prostitute, yet in the third film he manages to drive a limo around. Crazily. Phil, the level-headed macho man, makes the obligatory call to tell the others the trio has give up. Here, he helplessly looks around as Chow plays them for fools. Even Alan, played by the expert comic Galifianakis, only gets chuckles as he hits on the fat girl from Bridesmaids who expertly plays the fat girl from Bridesmaids.
The characters are less developed and do less, which should be expected in the trifecta, but perhaps we expected more out of Todd Phillips and his crazy, drug-addled world. The formula is gone but the characters are there, the hilarity is gone but the situations are there. It's difficult to judge The Hangover 3. It plays out like it has been filmed but not finished; as if this is the bow hastily tied on to the series before the temptation to make more could be unwrapped.