Mood Indigo


Audrey Tautou doesn't mind Roman Duris' extreme case of dandruff.

Audrey Tautou doesn’t mind Roman Duris’ extreme case of dandruff.

(2014) Romantic Fantasy (Drafthouse) Audrey Tautou, Roman Duris, Omar Sy, Gad Elmaleh, Aissa Maiga, Charlotte Le Bon, Sacha Bourdo, Vincent Rottiers, Philippe Torreton, Laurent Lafitte, Alain Chabat, Zinedine Soualem, Natacha Regnier, Marina Rozenman, Mathieu Paulus, Frederic Saurel, August Darnell, Wilfred Benaiche, Francis Van Litsenborgh. Directed by Michel Gondry

There are those film directors whose imaginations are so manic and so inventive that most of the rest of us can’t keep up. French visionary Michel Gondry, auteur of such films as The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is one of those guys. Something like Terry Gilliam on an LSD trip, Gondry has employed a good deal of stop motion animation in his films and a kind of frenetic sense of humor that is sweet and avant garde all at once. Words don’t do his work justice; he speaks a language all his own and the only way to really understand what I’m talking about is to see one of his films, like his latest f’rinstance.

Colin (Duris) is a wealthy man who lives in a Parisian apartment that looks from the inside anyway as something of a railway car. His private chef Nicolas (Sy) is also his lawyer, a brilliant man who makes wonderful dishes that he sweeps into the garbage before Colin can finish eating them. Colin has created the “pianocktail,” a musical instrument in which the notes you play on the piano keyboard determine which liqueurs and mixers are being added into your cocktail.

With his best friend Chick (Elmaleh) having fallen in love with Alise (Maiga), who also turns out to be Nicolas’ niece, Colin realizes how alone he is and demands to fall in love. Nicolas suggests that he attend the party being thrown by Isis (Le Bon) which would necessitate that he learn a bizarre dance to a Duke Ellington song which has the odd effect of turning the legs of the dancer into elongated rubber limbs that allow the dancer to walk about like an art deco-era cartoon.

At the party Colin meets Chloe (Tautou), a waif-like girl who takes an instant liking to the tongue-tied and socially awkward Colin. The two go on several dates, most of which Colin is convinced that he’s messed up. Finally the two take a ride on a swan boat that is lifted by crane over the city and finally into a train tunnel where the two kiss. Six months later they are ready to be married.

It looks like life is going to be golden for Colin but in truth that is not the case. Chick is in desperate need of money so he can afford to marry Alise, and Colin is happy to lend it to him but instead Chick blows the not insubstantial gift on memorabilia related to his favorite writer, Jean-Sol Partre. Chloe gets a rare malady – a water lily is growing inside one of her lungs – and only being surrounded by fresh flowers can save her.

Based on a novel by beloved French novelist Boris Vian, this comes across as a cross between a romantic comedy, grand opera, French farce and a cartoon from the 1930s. Although the synopsis gives you an idea of the story, it can’t possibly prepare you for the visuals you’ll encounter, including an anthropomorphic mouse that lives with Colin and Nicolas, a doorbell that grows legs and skitters about the apartment until either Nicolas or Colin “kill” it and it returns to a docile state on the wall, an office full of writers who are writing the story as we go along on a conveyer belt full of typewriters like an assembly-line script (possibly a dig at what the movie writing process has become), a transparent limousine and a honeymoon in which it is always raining on Colin and the sun is shining on Chloe.

The imagery in fact can wear you down after awhile and given the fact that the American version is 30 minutes shorter than the French, one can only imagine how Americans would be unable to cope with those extra scenes. The humor is distinctly Gallic and can be deceptively subtle or unabashedly over-the-top.

Tautou, who is now and forever Amelie, is lovely here as the gamine Chloe. She is delightfully puckish and were she an American actress she’d be Greta Gerwig. However Gerwig doesn’t quite accomplish the innocent sheen that Tautou conveys so Tautou often comes off as child-like rather than childish. Duris, one of France’s biggest male stars, has an engaging grin and a gung ho “let the director throw whatever he wants at me, I’ll still be incredibly handsome” attitude.

Be warned that this is a bit darker in several senses as a film than Gondry’s other films have been. As Chloe gets sick, the colors begin to fade from the screen and the apartment is overrun with cobwebs, dust bunnies and decay. As the film reaches its end, the apartment gets almost no sunlight whatsoever. The sometimes silly humor is still in full force but it has a grim, gallows element to it that might be off-putting to those who have just managed to get used to the sunny, optimistic fun tone of the movie’s first half.

The imagery gets almost cloyingly cute at times and your capacity to absorb cuteness may well determine the level of enjoyment you have for the movie. Also I think that seeing the movie when you are able to give it your complete concentration is a plus, although here in Orlando it is playing only at the 10pm hour during its run here which may hurt the ability of older audience members (like myself) to enjoy it as fully as I might have.

REASONS TO GO: Some truly delightful images. Very inventive.
REASONS TO STAY: Overly cutesy. Sometimes uses out there images for their own sake.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and partial nudity, mildly disturbing images and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writer whom Chick is obsessed with, Jean-Sol Partre, is a spoonerism for the name of one of France’s most decorated philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Science of Sleep
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle commences!

As Above, So Below


Perdita Weeks wonders if there isn't an easier way to make it into Hollywood.

Perdita Weeks wonders if there isn’t an easier way to make it into Hollywood.

(2014) Horror (Universal/Legendary) Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar, Cosme Castro, Hamid Djavadan, Theo Cholbi, Emy Levy, Roger Van Hool, Olivia Csiky Trnka, Hellyette Bess, Aryan Rahimian, Samuel Aouizerate, Kaya Blocksage. Directed by John Erick Dowdle

Below the streets of Paris there is another city, a city of the dead. The legendary catacombs are where the remains of some say as many as eight million Parisians rest. Bones stacked neatly in ghoulish patterns – this is a real place, an actual tourist attraction in the City of Light. How perfect a setting it would be for a horror movie.

Scarlett (Weeks) is going to oblige us on that score. She believes that the legendary Philosopher’s Stone which European alchemists of the 15th century famously believed could change base metals into gold and allow the possessor to live forever, also rests in a secret chamber off the catacombs. She is a bit nutty on the subject – her dad (Van Hool) searched his entire life for the Stone and was ridiculed by the scientific community for it. His suicide only drove her into further obsession to find the artifact.

After nearly getting buried alive in Iran to photograph an elaborate Rosetta’s stone-like thing that would allow her to translate a map that she believes will lead her to the stone, the determined young scientist – who has several PhDs to her credit despite her youth – heads to Paris to find George (Feldman) who can translate the Aramaic and allow the symbols to be properly read.

George, once abandoned in Turkey by Scarlett so that she could continue her quest, is less than enthusiastic about helping her and her omnipresent cameraman Benji (Hodge) who is documenting the search. However, he agrees to put her in contact with urban spelunkers Papillon (Civil), Souxie (Lambert) and Zed (Marhyar) who agree to lead her to the place on her map even though it appears on no credible maps of the catacombs.

Once they get down there beyond the paths where tourists tread, strange things begin to happen. George, who is forced to join them by circumstances beyond his control, is definitely uneasy and Benji who is a bit claustrophobic is downright ready to turn on his heels and head back to the world above, sense that there is something not quite right and Papillon, who knows the area better than anyone except for La Taupe (Castro), a mole-like spelunker who went down into a forbidden tunnel and never was seen again. Of course, you know which tunnel they’re going to head down into – and where it leads may be the last place anyone rational wants to go.

Right now is a really good time to be a horror film, with an abundance of talented young up-and-coming directors showing immense promise and delivering in some cases some extraordinary horror films. While Dowdle qualifies as the former, his latest effort doesn’t qualify as the latter but don’t be put off – this is a very solid and entertaining horror movie that takes full advantage of its setting.

The cast is largely unknown although Mad Men fans might recognize Feldman but do solid jobs in roles that are fairly rote horror characters. I have to say Marhyar has one of the best “oh, crap!” expressions I’ve seen ever. It does make for occasional comedy relief.

The film is presented in a found footage format, which to my mind was totally unnecessary. We spend large chunks of time wandering down tunnels lit by headlamps and flashlights. Sure, this can be creepy but over the course of an hour and a half it gets old, plus because much of the movie is shot with GoPro devices the image quality is murky in places.

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an off-the-charts creepiness factor going on here and Dowdle knows what he’s doing when it comes to ratcheting up the tension to high levels. While there is a lot here that’s unremarkable, overall this is a much better than average movie when it comes to horror and in a year where the bar has been set fairly high for big studio horror pictures this one comes in right in the middle of the pack.

REASONS TO GO: Genuinely creepy setting. Some terrific scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Found footage is definitely passé and in this case, unnecessary. Could have shaved about ten minutes off.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of terror and violence, some of it bloody. There’s also pretty much non-stop cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first movie to be released in Legendary’s new deal with Universal after years at Warner Brothers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Intermedio
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Mood Indigo

When the Game Stands Tall


Success breeds cool sunglasses.

Success breeds cool sunglasses.

(2014) True Sports Drama (Tri-Star) Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern, Alexander Ludwig, Clancy Brown, Ser’Darius Blain, Stephan James, Matthew Daddario, Joe Massingill, Jessie Usher, Matthew Frias, LaJessie Smith, Richard Kohnke, Chase Boltin, Gavin Cassalegno, Adella Gautier, Terence Rosemore, Deneen Tyler, Anna Margaret.. Directed by Thomas Carter

Football is truly a metaphor for America, or at least America’s ideal image of itself. Individual achievement is admired and encouraged, but it is teamwork that eventually wins games.

De La Salle High School in Concord, California, is the most dominant high school football program in the nation in 2003. They have won 151 straight games – a decade without a loss – the longest streak in any sport at any level in history.  Coach Bob Ladouceur (Caviezel) has just won yet another state title. Offers to coach for NCAA Division 1 college teams are coming in by the bucket load but he has no interest in moving up to the next level. He tells his wife Bev (Dern) that he can do more good for the young men at this age than he can for college-age kids.

The stress though is getting to Ladouceur although only his wife and his best friend and assistant coach Terry Eidson (Chiklis) seem to notice. Pretty soon though Coach Ladouceur notices big time – a major heart attack lands him in the hospital where his no-nonsense cardiologist tells him in no uncertain terms that he has to take it easy for awhile – no spring football.

The senior class is already looking ahead, with star running back Terrance “T.K.” Kelly (James) urging his best friend Cam Colvin (Blain) to come up with him to the University of Oregon like they always had planned, although Colvin is devastated by his mom’s illness and death. The junior class is getting ready to take the reins of the next De La Salle team, with tailback Chris Ryan (Ludwig) gunning for a state scoring record and the coach’s son Danny (Daddario) finally getting a chance to shine as a starter at wide receiver, although the talented and arrogant Tayshon Lanear (Usher) derides him as getting an opportunity only because of who his father is.

A body blow is dealt to the team when Kelly is senseless murdered the day before he is to drive up to Oregon to start summer practice. Ladouceur, speaking at the young man’s funeral, admits to being lost.

He’s not the only one. The team isn’t practicing with the same purpose that they did, and that had been going on even before Kelly’s murder. The program is being accused of cherry-picking players (an accusation that has dogged De La Salle even before the film takes place) and some schools refuse to play De La Salle, so for their first game of the 2004 season they travel to Bellevue, Washington to take on Bellevue High School, the Washington State champions the previous seasons. The team loses and the streak, a big part of De La Salle’s identity, is over.

The devastation of their coach’s illness, the death of a teammate and the loss of the streak threatens to overwhelm the team. Ryan, who is playing well, is driven by his overbearing dad (Brown) to achieve the scoring record no matter how it affects the team. There is bickering and doubt. Suddenly, Ladouceur understands that this isn’t about a game anymore.

One of the most cliche-ridden genres in the movies, perhaps second only to romantic comedies, is the true sports drama. When the Game Stands Tall is not immune to those cliches and that hurts the movie overall. Certainly it has led to critics to savage the movie (see the Rotten Tomatoes rating below) and the criticism hasn’t been entirely undeserved.

Caviezel is a soft-spoken actor who rarely seems to raise his voice in any film or TV show he’s ever done. He plays Ladouceur as an even-keel sort who rather than chew out his players a la Herb Brooks in Miracle and Tony D’Amato in Any Given Sunday instead gives them disappointed looks which seem to affect them more deeply than physical blows. Chiklis is delightful as Eidson, more of a rah-rah sort and a great yang to Caviezel’s yin.

One of the things I object to most in this movie is the addition of the Chris Ryan character who is a complete fabrication. He is there essentially to add a subplot with a sideline dad who is borderline abusive, pushing his son to break a state record not for his son’s benefit but so he can play out his own vicarious fantasies through his son. The real Ladouceur would have never tolerated that sort of behavior and the characters are overbearing cliches that add a jarring note to the film, which could have done better without them, even though Brown and Ludwig do fine jobs in their respective roles.

The football sequences are pretty nicely done, although there are a couple of individual moves that look patently phony. There is also a really good sequence set at the Veterans Hospital where the athletes are introduced to wounded warriors back from the Middle East who are trying to overcome lost limbs and other devastating injuries. That sequence is maybe the most inspiring in the film.

I do applaud the filmmakers for taking a decidedly not underdog team and making them sympathetic. It’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy for a team that had known that much success, but sometimes it’s how adversity is dealt with rather than success that is the true measure of a person – or a team. I liked the concept, but perhaps I’ve just seen too many true sports stories in the last several years. In any case, it’s a likable enough film but certainly one that doesn’t need to be on the top of your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: Restrained work from Caviezel and Chiklis.
REASONS TO STAY: Ryan invented from whole cloth and exists only to add false dramatic tension. A few too many sports film cliches.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a scene of violence plus the violence that is inherent in football, a little bit of mild swearing and – horrors! – smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De La Salle is a private high school and costs as of this year $16,000 per year to attend although it was considerably less when this film took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Are Marshall
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: As Above, So Below

If I Stay


A dream that is a waking nightmare.

A dream that is a waking nightmare.

(2014) Romantic Fantasy (New Line/MGM) Chloe Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley, Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard, Aisha Hinds, Stacy Keach, Liana Liberato, Gabrielle Rose, Jakob Davies, Ali Milner, Gabrielle Cerys Haslett, Lauren Lee Smith, Adam Solomonian, John Emmet Tracy, Chelah Horsdahl, Christine Wiles, Arielle Tuliao, Sarah Grey, Aliyah O’Brien. Directed by R.J. Cutler

There is a fine line between cathartic and manipulative. We can generally use the former, but we usually get the latter instead. One doesn’t necessarily mind being manipulated though, as long as it’s done for a good cause.

Mia Hall (Moretz) – no relation to Monty – has a great life. She lives in Portland, Oregon with exceptionally cool parents. Dad (Leonard) was a member of a seminal alt-rock band from the 90s and Mom (Enos) was and is an artist. She has a little brother (Davies) she adores and has discovered a talent for playing the cello that might just get her into Julliard if she isn’t careful.

Even better, she has a boyfriend named Adam (Blackley) who fronts his own indie rock band that looks like it might be getting signed to one of those hip indie labels – not those un-cool dinosaur major labels that haven’t been relevant since the iPod came out, mind you. Because everything connected with Mia’s life is unmentionably hip.

It all changes in an instant. A car crash on a snowy road leaves Mia hovering between life and death. Her body is in a coma, tubes sticking out of every which way (and she manages to look angelic in her coma, rather than like the gaunt entity most coma patients tend to look like. Of course, most coma patients don’t have a Hollywood make-up man to help them look their best while they’re fighting for their lives.

However, Mia’s spirit is running around, flashbacking like crazy and going through a period of terrible angst. You see, Adam and Mia had just split up when the crash occurred. She might be waking up with nobody in her life except her heartbroken grandpa (Keach) to take care of her. Does Mia want to stay in a life that would be intolerably painful, or does she want to slip into oblivion?

Based on a young adult novel, the movie neatly sidesteps any spiritual discussions although we are at times treated to bright lights which indicate some sort of afterlife I suppose, although Mia doesn’t see any dead people which is proof positive that M. Night Shyamalan didn’t make this movie. She doesn’t have any encounters with anyone in fact – she is all alone even though she is surrounded by everybody including a sympathetic nurse (Hinds) who implores her to fight.

Moretz has emerged into a bright young talent with all sorts of cinematic presence. She needs to expand her emotional repertoire a little bit but otherwise she is fully capable of being an A list star for the next 30 years if she chooses the right roles. She has the most impressive doe eyes in Hollywood at the moment and the camera loves that but she has a tendency to be a better actress when she lets loose a little bit more than she does here. Mia is fairly closed-off and that kind of role doesn’t suit Moretz as well.

I did like Leonard and Enos very much as Mia’s folks. They are down-to-earth and still clearly in love with each other. They are perhaps a little too cool to be true – I can’t imagine there’s a teen who sees this film that wouldn’t want them as their own parents. While I loved the characters a lot, I ended up wondering if it would have served the movie better if they had been a little less perfect.

I did like the irony that while Mom and Dad love the hip rock that the kids love, Mia rebels against them by going full-on classical. Alex from A Clockwork Orange would have made a fine Droog out of her no doubt although I’m not sure Mia would have loved the ultra-violence as much as she loves good ol’ Ludwig van.

There was a really good, insightful movie to be had here but having not read the book this is based on, I’m not sure if it is the fault of the source material or the screenwriter that interpreted it. The basic question is whether or not life is worth living in the face of intolerable pain and rather than talk to the target audience as if they had brains and ideas in their head, the filmmakers opt for the easy way out and go with the slam dunks instead of the three point shots that would have made this truly memorable. One of the big mistakes that I think the movie makes is at the very end it tells you how she chooses. I think had they left her final choice ambiguous – did she stay or did she leave – the movie would have been far more powerful.

Cheap tears can make the viewer feel good but when all is said and done, the viewer is more than an emotional marionette. Give them credit for being thinking people who can handle tough questions and complicated concepts. While I realize that most people are lazy and will choose spoon-fed nearly every time out, maybe if they had the option to go to movies that engaged not just their hearts but their heads we might all end up surprised.

REASONS TO GO: Moretz is rapidly becoming a strong leading lady. Enos and Leonard as the indie rocker parents are wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing ending. A little bit too manipulative for my taste. Needed a dose of reality particularly in the characters who were largely caricatures.
FAMILY VALUES:  A little teen sexuality, some fairly adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moretz had a very difficult time learning the cello. At last a cello-playing body double was enlisted and Moretz’ head inserted into the frame digitally.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heaven Can Wait
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: When the Game Stands Tall

Coherence


On the outside looking in.

On the outside looking in.

(2014) Science Fiction (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Emily Foxler, Nicholas Brendon, Maury Sterling, Elizabeth Gracen, Alex Manugian, Lauren Maher, Hugo Armstrong, Lorene Scafaria. Directed by James Ward Byrkit

Some movies are better the less you know about them beforehand and this is one of them. If you’re planning to see this anytime soon, read no further. If you have seen it and want a different opinion to bounce off of, read on.

On the night a comet is due to pass close by the Earth, Lee (Scafaria) and Mike (Brendon) are throwing a dinner party. Attending are married couple Hugh (Armstrong) and Beth (Gracen), dating couple Em (Foxler) and Kevin (Sterling) and newly dating Amir (Manugian) and Laurie (Maher) who is Kevin’s slutty ex.

The comet’s proximity messes up cell service and actually causes some of the phones to crack their screens spontaneously – why? Someone with a better grasp of physics might explain this one because I can’t. Anyway, soon the power is disrupted and the partiers begin to grow concerned. There is only one house in the neighborhood with lights on and Hugh and Amir volunteer to venture forth and see if  they can use the land line to contact Hugh’s brother, a scientist who specializes in…um, comet phenomena.

Anyway that’s when things begin to get weird. I don’t want to go into it too much because frankly I don’t think I have the brain capacity to explain this properly without  A), messing up the synopsis and B), having my brain explode. Suffice to say that we’re talking some theoretical quantum physics here that the writers seem to have a better grasp of than I ever could.

So what’s to love? Plenty. This is a smart concept, utilizing Schrodinger’s Cat and quantum physics in ways I’ve never seen done in a movie before that didn’t have “Property of Cal Tech” stamped on the disc cover. The writers do manage to explain things fairly clearly so even those of us who didn’t take quantum mechanics back in the day should be able to follow along pretty easily. Clearly the writers have at least a familiarity with the science and that’s kind of refreshing in an era when “dumb (and dumber) is better.”

The acting is pretty sharp with Buffy, the Vampire Slayer‘s Brendon showing some pretty nice chops in a most un-Xander-like role. Foxler, the female lead, reminds me a lot of Elizabeth Olsen and has the potential to become a big star somewhere down the line.

This isn’t a big budget production by any stretch of the imagination. Nearly all the action takes place in a single room and when they do go outside to view the comet it looks realistic enough. This is an example of how you can make a good science fiction film without a big Hollywood budget.

What’s not to love? Well, these are some of the most shallow characters you’re ever going to run into in a film. A friend of mine claims that grounds the film but if I wouldn’t want to spend a moment with any of these characters if they were real, why would I want to spend an hour and a half of my time watching a movie about them? They represent all the things the rest of the country hates about L.A. with wanna-be actors and ballerinas mixing with herbal Earth mamas and talking about Feng Shui and juice cleanses. It’s enough to make you crave an enema after the movie’s over.

I also wasn’t fond of the jump cutting and blackouts that make the film feel choppy. I get that the director is trying to make the viewer feel that something is out of kilter, but it gets old after only a few times it happens and he does it throughout the movie. There’s nothing wrong with trying to do things differently but this was something he should have utilized a little more sparingly. Trust your actor and your story to set the mood.

I wasn’t a big fan of the ending either but to go into it in any length would be to give away too much. Let’s just say that Em doesn’t seem the type to do what she does and I don’t think having a comet pass hundreds of miles away from the Earth is liable to make people behave the way they do here. Nor do I think it would cause an event of this dimension and scope. If you’re going to use physics, at least have the decency to use real world physics consistently. Neil deGrasse Tyson would have a field day with this.

 

It’s definitely fascinating and hopefully if you’ve read this far you’ve already checked it out. I would recommend it to anyone seeking smart science fiction with the caveat that the characters might just drive you to ask for a Joss Whedon rewrite.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating and smart concept. Taut and paranoia-infused.
REASONS TO STAY: Often confusing. Characters so shallow you want to scream.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a smattering of foul language and a scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elizabeth Gracen won the 1982 Miss America title. Lorene Scafaria directed the apocalyptic comedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Plus One
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Weather Girl

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For


Born to be wild.

Born to be wild.

(2014) Action (Dimension) Mickey Rourke, Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Powers Boothe, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Chung, Jessica Alba, Dennis Haysbert, Christopher Meloni, Jamie King, Bruce Willis, Alexa Vega, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Lloyd, Stacey Keach, Martin Csokas, Ray Liotta, Juno Temple, Jude Ciccolella, Julia Garner, Kimberly Cox. Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

The world is a rough place and nowhere is it rougher than Sin City. A place where the corrupt wield absolute power with ruthless brutality, where tough guys hook up with even tougher dames, where anything can be had – for a price. That price might just be your soul.

Like the original Sin City, the story here is told in vignettes. In one, the ultra-lucky Johnny (Gordon-Levitt) finds a poker game which is run by Senator Roark (Boothe), the spider at the center of all the corruption of Sin City – and he doesn’t like to lose. It’s bad for business.

In the next, Dwight (Brolin), a former newspaper photographer turned private eye is looked up by his ex-girlfriend Ava (Green) who dumped him for a rich man (Csokas). He never could turn down a damsel in distress, and the brutish Manute (Haysbert) who watches Ava for her husband, isn’t about to let Dwight get in the way of the plan.

 

Nancy (Alba) still mourns the death of her love, Detective John Hartigan (Willis) who watches over Nancy from the other side. Nancy longs to take her revenge on Senator Roark who was responsible for Hartigan’s early exit, but she doesn’t have the nerve to pull the trigger. However, when Roark comes after her she knows that she has no choice but to take on the powerful senator. She can’t do it alone and so she enlists the aid of Marv (Rourke), the iron mountain of a man who protects her as best he can in a city that has no mercy.

It has been nine years since the first Sin City has been released and times as well as movie-going audiences have changed. However, the look of the sequel/prequel is pretty much the same as the first, shot in black and white with bursts of color – a headful of red hair, a bright blue coat, burning green eyes – with highly stylized backgrounds. I would imagine nearly the entire film was shot on green screen.

Still, if you like your noir hard-bitten with sexy dames more dangerous than the big guns of the guys, you’re in for a treat. The all-star cast all are down with the vision of Rodriguez and Miller, the latter of whom penned the graphic novels that the movie is based on; for the record, two of the vignettes are from the graphic novels, two were written by Miller especially for the movie.

 

Rourke, as Marv, is a force of nature. He’s grim, not too bright and damn near unstoppable, the kind of jamoke you’d want to have your back in a fight. Rourke gives him dignity and a love of violence in equal measures. He don’t remember things too good but he can be counted on when the chips are down.

Brolin takes over for Clive Owen who played Dwight in the first movie – his work on The Knick precluded his involvement here. Brolin is less suave than Owen but captures the inner demons of Dwight far more viscerally than Owen did. They do explain why Dwight’s face changed (and near the end Brolin is wearing prosthetics to look more like Owen) but they can’t explain away the English accent that Dwight affects in the first movie. Oops.

In fact, several roles have been recast. Michael Clarke Duncan passed away between films and Haysbert takes over the role of Manute nicely. Brittany Murphy, who also passed away between movies, had played Shellie in the first movie. Rather than recast her, Miller and Rodriguez instead wrote a new character to take over her part. Finally, Devon Aoki who played Miho in the first film was pregnant at the time of shooting, so Jamie Chung took over. Miho in either actress’ hands is one of my favorite roles in the series.

What is also missing from the first movie is attitude. There’s some of it here but the movie is a little more grim than the first, takes itself a little more seriously than the first one did. Whereas there is a ton of violence and gore here, it is missing the same kind of energy that the first film had. It feels more cynical and less fun.

There is enough going on here to make it worth your while and fans of Mickey Rourke are going to enjoy him cutting loose here as he does – he’s in nearly all of the vignettes. There are also some fun cameos, like Christopher Meloni as a besotted cop, Christopher Lloyd as a medico who doesn’t ask too many questions and Ray Liotta as an amoral husband having an affair who plans to end it the hard way.

I did enjoy parts of it enough to give it a very mild recommendation, but it simply doesn’t hold up next to the first film which was over the top, and balls to the wall. This one tries to be but ends up trying too hard.

REASONS TO GO: Still a visual treat. Some hard-bitten performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks panache. Grimmer than the first.

FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence, bloodshed and foul language as well as a surfeit of sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film Eva Green and Martin Csokas play a married couple. In real life, they had a romantic relationship for four years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold in July

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Carriers

The Giver


A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

(2014) Science Fiction (Weinstein) Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Taylor Swift, Cameron Monaghan, Emma Tremblay, Renate Stuurman, Vanessa Cooke, John Whiteley, Kira Wilkinson, Jefferson Mays (voice), Jaime Coue, Thabo Rametsi, Vaughn Lucas, Meganne Young, Katharina Damm. Directed by Phillip Noyce

Utopias aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be. In fact, there are those who believe that the human animal is incapable of living in a Utopian society for very long; we’re apt to mess it up entirely because we can’t be trusted.

In a Utopian future, war, poverty and hunger have been abolished. People live a peaceful existence in the Community. They take their medication every day, are admonished to speak with a precision of language, apologize for every possible perceived mistake and accept the apologies of others, and live in a world free of color and powerful emotions.

It is a world in which wise elders make the decisions that determine the shape of your life. After a period of nurturing (kind of like schooling) they are given their jobs – mostly tasks like gardening, drone piloting and for certain women, birth giving. There is no Big Brother but a Chief Elder (Streep) smiling benevolently on her flock.

Three friends – Jonas (Thwaites), Fiona (Rush) and Asher (Monaghan) – are eagerly awaiting the ceremony that will elevate them from childhood into productive adult lives. They are all smiling, happy sorts who are satisfied that their lives are going the way they should be.

At the ceremony, Fiona is given nurturer (basically the care giver for babies until they are assigned to a family) as expected and Asher – the class clown – is given drone pilot, monitoring both the Community and the territory beyond the boundary which is barren and uninhabited. However, oddly, Jonas is skipped over. Jonas’ mom (Holmes) – the security chief of the Community and one of the Elders – and Dad (Skarsgard), essentially the community’s doctor, exchange puzzled, troubled looks but at last Jonas is given a tremendous position at the end of the ceremony. He is to become the new Receiver of Memories.

Since the world basically fell apart and the Community sprung out of it, all memories of what preceded the Community have been deliberately removed from the population. Only one man, the Receiver, is allowed to possess those memories and from time to time, use them to advise the Elders on matters that fall outside the normal range of happenings.

The current Receiver doesn’t just tell the new one the tales of the distant past like some sort of Homer. Instead, he clasps hands with the new Receiver and the memories are transferred to him, in this case Jonas. That makes the old Receiver, Jonas tells him wryly, the Giver (Bridges).

The memories change Jonas. They begin to revive color as he sees colors that the memories identify as Red, then Blue, then Yellow. The primaries begin to combine and a whole palette is revealed to a wonder-filled Jonas. That’s not all Jonas receives though; he begins to experience emotions and stops taking his medication which further allow him to experience everything that’s new. His training allows him to lie because the Receiver must conceal these things from the members of the Community.

He discovers things like snow, which doesn’t exist in the climate-controlled Community, and sledding. He also discovers love, which doesn’t exist in the Community and whose concept is confusing to those he tries to explain it to. He soon realizes one thing – he’s falling in love with Fiona, and she might be falling in love with him.

But that’s not all that Jonas discovers. Conformity is everything in the Community and not everybody conforms easily. The Giver who is certainly a non-conformist has been tolerated because of his position but there have been tragedies. Things happen to the babies who don’t meet the minimum weight and length and a baby named Gabriel that Jonas has begun to develop a great deal of affection for may be targeted for those things.

Jonas realizes that the people have had too much removed from them, including their freedom but more importantly the essence of who they are. He will try to save Gabriel from being removed from the community – and at the same time removing himself to pass the barriers of memory. Once he does, the Giver believes that all those memories, emotions and colors will be restored to the Community members. And the Chief Elder will do anything to keep that from happening.

Based on the beloved young adult novel by Lois Lowry, Australian director Noyce takes on a book that is fairly complex and full of metaphors. He’s not always successful here. The look of the film is pretty exciting. The film switches from black and white at the beginning, slowly adding colors as Jonas’ perception begins to expand. The effect isn’t unlike the dining rooms on the Disney cruise ships that change from black and white to color over the course of the meal.

Bridges, resembling the late James Coburn in looks here, has been a huge admirer of the book and has been trying to get the movie made since the 90s, at the time with his father Lloyd in the title role that he plays in the final version. You can see him channeling his Dad, down to the way he clips the dialogue into groups of phrases the way his Dad did. It’s actually kind of sweet.

Streep, allowing herself to look older with little make-up and long silvering hair, doesn’t get a lot of screen time but she has that polite menace that have made certain villains memorable. Like all of the citizens of the Community, she stays on a fairly even keel most of the time.

Therein lies the challenge of the movie. The very essence of the community is emotionlessness. It’s the whole point for its existence. That’s great on the printed page but in a movie, it turns into a bunch of Stepford teens. The overwhelming politeness makes you want to do something unbelievably rude just to get these people to react. I don’t doubt that’s the effect the filmmakers were going for but it can be distracting when you’re trying to follow a story that’s plenty deep as it is.

I haven’t read the book although I’m told it’s amazing so I’m not sure how closely this sticks to the narrative – again, I’m told that it is fairly close but there is some material that is new to the movie. There are some issues that I have with the logic of the overall concept. For example, what’s the need to eliminate the perception of color from the citizens of the Community? I understand the metaphorical reason, but it seems a bit unnecessary. Perhaps I’m just being dense.

Also near the end, after seeing bicycles as the only means of transportation for the whole movie, motorcycles suddenly show up. And not only does Jonas ride the motorcycle (apparently he has the memory for it), he’s able to make a nearly impossible jump from the Community down to the badlands outside the barrier – all with a baby mounted on the front of the bike. Jonas may have the memory of how to ride a motorcycle and even how to jump a motorcycle but he doesn’t have the memory of how to defy physics. The baby should have gone flying like a football through the uprights. Three points!

I like the look of the movie; the Community is clean and futuristic and park-like, while the Giver lives on the outskirts in a mansion that looks not unlike a Romanesque temple that overlooks the clouds and a single tree visible beyond the barrier. It’s visually striking.

Still, despite that I left the movie feeling somewhat unfulfilled. Not that it isn’t entertaining nor can I say with absolute certainty that this is a movie you should avoid seeing. It has its merits. However, I can’t say with absolute certainty that most viewers are going to appreciate and enjoy the movie either. Most folks, I think, are going to react much the same as I did – neither liking nor disliking the film, but not remembering much of it after the final credits are over. For a movie about memories, there’s a certain irony in that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Bridges are terrific as always. Some interesting visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild violence and some mature thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep shot some of her scenes in England (the rest of the film was shot in South Africa while she was shooting Into the Woods.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Never Let Me Go