Shadow (Ying)


Here comes the rain again.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Chao Deng, Li Sun, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Jingchun Wang, Jun Hu, Xiaotong Guan, Lei Wu, Bai Feng. Directed by Yimou Zhang

Perhaps the most acclaimed film director to come out of China is Yimou Zhang, whose wuxia classics Hero and The House of Flying Daggers have thrilled art house moviegoers for more than a decade. However more recently, missteps like his anglicized The Great Wall failed to connect with mass audiences. However, his latest is a return to form. Garnering massive critical acclaim from its debut at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the movie is once again familiar territory for the great action director, set during the Three Kingdoms period in China.

Commander Yu (Deng) is the beloved general of the Pei Kingdom’s armies who was gravely wounded in battle with the nearly invulnerable General Yang (Hu). However, he appears to be well on the mend and his somewhat prevaricating King (Zheng) is surprised to discover that his impetuous Commander has picked a fight with the man who recently wounded him with the city of Jing, which had been lost to the invaders of Yang Kingdom, going to the winner.

However, the King doesn’t want these events to lead to war so he instead offers his sister (Guan) as concubine to Yang’s son (Wu). What the King doesn’t know is that the Commander isn’t who he appears to be; he is a commoner named Jing (also Deng) who is serving as the real Yu’s shadow, or impostor. Yu has schemed to use the fake Yu as a diversion while a handpicked army of renegades retakes the city. Knowing that this will not only embarrass the king but also lose him what political capital he might have with the nobles, Yu expects to take the throne for himself. Complicit in the dealings is Madame (Sun), Yu’s devious wife. The machinations are almost Machiavellian – some would say Shakespearean.

Zhang as a director is known for his extravagant use of color but he goes in entirely the opposite direction here. Greys and whites and blacks make up the majority of his palate, giving the film an almost black and white look to the point that at times I wondered if he hadn’t shot the film in black and white. Extraordinarily, he did not – everything here is about production design and costuming. In itself it’s an incredible achievement. However, it does get distracting at times. There is also an awful lot of dialogue which isn’t of itself a bad thing but it forces us to be reading the subtitles rather than taking in the marvelous visuals. I’m not often an advocate for dubbing but here is an example where it might have gone better had they gone in that direction.

There is a good deal of gore here but the martial arts sequences are elegantly staged, often using the ubiquitous rainfall as an ally – Yimou even posits umbrellas being used as a weapon, giving the battles an almost feminine grace and a touch of whimsy – a group of battle-hardened warriors slide down a city street in overturned umbrellas in a kind of martial arts waterslide effect. In all, this is a return to form for Yimou and a must-see for any fan of Asian cinema, particularly of the wuxia variety. While it is for the moment on the Festival circuit, it is expected to be in limited theatrical release in May and through the summer. Start bugging your local art house programmer to book this one now.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is epic in scope. The ending is full of twists and turns and has a fair amount of gore for those who love that. The zither duel is absolutely spellbinding.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie lacks color particularly in the palace scenes, a bit of a switch for Yimou.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts and war violence and some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The black and white tones that most of the film is shot in is meant not only to emphasize the relationship between light and shadow but to also follow in the style of Chinese ink wash paintings.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The House of Flying Daggers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Bring Me an Avocado

Tea With the Dames (Nothing Like a Dame)


What could be more English than old friends having tea on the lawn on an overcast day.

(2018) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins. Directed by Roger Michell

 

Four mature English ladies get together for tea and gossip – four ladies who happen to be some of the most beloved and respected actresses in the history of the British theater. Two of them = Dench and Smith – are fairly well-known in the States due largely to their movie work which the ladies in question are almost dismissive of. Clearly, the theater is the first love for all these ladies, three of them who were born in 1934 whereas Plowright, the eldest of the quartet was born in 1930.

Apparently they gather annually at the country cottage of Plowright which she shared with her late husband Laurence Olivier. There, the four gather at the kitchen table and in the living room with tea and champagne to gossip and take a stroll down memory lane, augmented by a fair amount of archival footage and stills of the girls in their youth.

Michell, a veteran narrative feature director with such films as Notting Hill and Venus to his credit, is often heard directing questions at the ladies although he is not seen onscreen. That isn’t to say that we don’t have meta moments here; often the crew is seen setting up shots, while one taking still pictures off-camera clearly distracts Smith who chuckles “We would never actually sit like this, you know.” In fact, it is Smith who comes off as the most down-to-earth and delightfully droll as she discusses an occasion when she was acting onstage with Olivier and he actually delivered a real slap to her face. Not to be put off, she delivers the best line of the show “It’s the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre.”

While the movie doesn’t have many bon mots quite as clear as that one, it does have plenty of laugh out loud moments as the girls discuss their careers, their own foibles (Dench comes under much jovial fire as the others complain that they can’t get movie roles because Dench has nabbed them all) and quite a bit of gossip. Talking about her time in the Harry Potter films, Smith says that she and the late Alan Rickman had a great deal of difficulty coming up with original facial expressions for the innumerable reaction shots both of these decorated actors were forced to give at the antics of the children, which Smith is quick to point out “as was proper.”

Although the ladies rib the director for artificially setting up what is supposed to come off as an informal and natural conversation, in fact at the end of the day it feels exactly like that – as if we as viewers were sitting at the kitchen table with these extraordinary ladies and getting the benefit of their recollections, their humor and their honesty. As old friends are, the four are completely comfortable with one another.

Although all the actresses here are in their 80s, mortality isn’t discussed much other than Dench dismissing an inquiry from Miriam Margolyes about whether she had her funeral arrangements made with a curt but affectionate “I’m not going to die.” Plowright, who is retired now, has severe vision issues and is nearly blind but is still as regal as she ever was. In fact, the vitality of these ladies in their sunset years is impressive in itself; I hope that I’m as vital in my 80s as these marvelous ladies are now.

The thing about a movie like this is that it rises and falls on how the conversation goes. Not to worry on that account; clearly most viewers who see this will be wishing for more when the credits unspool. The thing is though, not everyone is going to be impressed with a film of this nature and that’s okay. It will appeal to cinemaphiles, theater lovers and particularly those of a certain age. It’s impossible not to like these ladies after spending a too-short hour and a half with them however. I’d be absolutely over the moon to share a cuppa with any of these magnificent women. To be in on a conversation between all four is something like manna from heaven.

REASONS TO GO: The conversation is fascinating throughout. This is very much like sitting around the kitchen with a bunch of old friends.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the wealth of archival footage feels a bit busy.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the film title, none of the four actresses are ever seen in the film actually drinking their tea.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Optimum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Dinner with Andre
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Mandy

Columbus (2017)


Art and architecture don’t always mix necessarily.

(2017) Drama (Superlative) John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes, Rosalyn R. Ross, Erin Allegretti, Jim Dougherty, Lindsey Shope, Shani Salyers Stiles, William Willet, Reen Vogel, Wynn Reichert, Alphaeus Green Jr., Caitlin Ewald. Directed by Kogonada

 

There are times in our lives when we are in a place that we don’t want to be; we are there because we are obligated to be there. Upon reflection however it generally turns out that where we are is exactly where we are supposed to be. Realizing it at the time is pretty much always another matter.

Jin (Cho) finds himself in Columbus, Indiana. Not because he has any great desire to be there but because his father, a scholar on architecture, was to deliver a lecture there but collapsed and went into a coma. Jin and his father have barely spoken for a long time but Jin is the only blood relative his father has, so he goes at the behest of his dad’s protégé Eleanor (Posey) whom not uncoincidentally he had a crush on as a teen.

Casey (Richardson) has lived in Columbus all her life. She’s whip-smart and has a passion for architecture, so living in Columbus is a great thing for her – the town is known for its striking modernist architecture designed by some of the greatest architects in history – I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen and John Carl Warnecke among them – and while volunteering at the local library also gives tours of the city’s landmarks. She has had offers to go to college (she just graduated high school) but has quietly turned them down, preferring to stay at home and take care of her recovering drug addict mother (Forbes) who is in a fragile emotional state and probably wouldn’t be able to care for herself without Casey.

Jin and Casey meet and one would think initially that they wouldn’t hit it off much; Jin doesn’t care much for architecture, a field which essentially took his workaholic father away from him and Casey is nuts about it but hit it off they do. At first Casey seems content to give her tour guide opinions of the buildings that catch Jin’s eye but as Jin gently digs she begins to open up to him. Pretty sure, he’s opening up to her right back.

That’s really all the plot there is to this movie. Normally I don’t mind a movie that is all middle without a beginning or an end; I love movies that grasp the ebb and flow of life. That’s not really the case here. First time director Kogonada has a brilliant visual sense and a real eye for shot composition, but utilizes it to excess here. I do appreciate his use of water and rain as a motif and his use of geometric shapes amid natural environments but after awhile one becomes dulled to the images. We are made aware at nearly every moment that each scene is an artificial setting, not an organic function of the scene. For example, there’s a scene in a hotel room where Jin and Eleanor are talking about his feelings for her growing up; the entire scene is shot viewing the reflection of two mirrors which act almost as television screens. Don’t get me wrong – It’s a clever shot – but in a highly charged emotional scene we don’t get to see the emotions of the actors. This is the very epitome of a director’s creativity undermining his own film.

And that really is one of the major faults of the film – we never get connected to the characters because we’re constantly aware of the director behind them. He frames them in corridors in which, we can’t fail to notice, the columns on one side are square and on the other side round. We see oblique shots in which forced perspective puts two characters sitting on the steps close together but we also notice that the dialogue is done with one character’s back to the other the entire time. That’s not a natural conversation; people tend to want to turn and face their partner when they are conversing.

One of the other fundamental flaws is that we never really care about any of the characters. Kogonada seems to keep them at arm’s length and even though they are talking about some fairly in depth background, it is all couched in self-absorbed and pretentious terms and after awhile we begin to tune out.

Maybe if the dialogue were scintillating enough I might forgive the film a bit more but it’s comparable to a couple of self-absorbed college students who are a lot less insightful than they think they are having a conversation about something esoteric without really understanding the subject completely. I get that Casey is a college-age character who fits that description (as is the Rory Culkin character whom I’ll get to in a moment) but there are also older characters who have more maturity at least but they still sound like 19-year-olds. Not that there’s anything wrong with 19-year-olds nor is it impossible for a college student to show insight but it is also possible for college students to be arrogant and condescending as well, and one feels talked down to throughout.

There is also a lot of material here that is unnecessary, brief throwaway moments that add nothing to the story or to your understanding of the characters – Casey has a conversation with her mother about not having eggs and needing to go to the grocery store to get some, for example. A good storyteller will use that as a springboard to get Casey to the grocery store so that something germane could occur but she never goes to the store nor is the egg shortage anything more than throwaway conversation – and the movie is full of these sorts of moments. I mentioned Rory Culkin’s character a moment ago and you might notice that he doesn’t appear in the plot synopsis. That’s because he doesn’t need to. His character is completely unnecessary and were his scenes to end up on the cutting room floor it wouldn’t affect the movie in any significant way. Much of this movie appears to be about how much our lives are consumed with things that don’t matter in the long run.

That isn’t to say that the movie is completely devoid of merit – although Da Queen might argue that point. Afterwards she told me she would rather have sucked her own eyeballs out with a straw than watch this movie again. I can understand that – the movie commits the cardinal sin of being boring, although those who love shot composition will look at this movie and be fascinated, but a movie is more than a series of shots or at least it should be. A movie needs momentum, a sense of movement from one place or tone to another and this movie has all the inertia of Mount Rushmore. Columbus requires a great deal of patience to appreciate and these days that’s in very short supply. It’s a movie that I would actually encourage viewers to text and talk during which is completely anathema to the movie experience I expect but then again this isn’t a movie that maybe a traditional environment isn’t suitable for.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the shots here are clever.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a movie that is self-absorbed and pretentious. None of the characters are worth caring about. There’s too much extraneous business and too many unnecessary characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual situations and drug references here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vice-President Mike Pence grew up in Columbus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Literally, Right Before Aaron

True Story


Jonah Hill takes James Franco's order in the studio commissary.

Jonah Hill takes James Franco’s order in the studio commissary.

(2015) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Maria Dizzia, Ethan Suplee, Conor Kikot, Charlotte Driscoll, Stella Rae Payne, Robert John Burke, Byron Jennings, Gretchen Mol, Betty Gilpin, Seth Barrish, Robert Stanton, Michael Countryman, Steve Routman, Genevieve Angelson, Adam Mucci, Auden Thornton. Directed by Rupert Goold

It is the journalist’s calling – or at least their job – to seek the truth, or at least the truth that can be proved by facts. It isn’t always easy to do, particularly when you’re dealing with clever liars and master manipulators.

Mike Finkel (Hill) was a respected reporter for the New York Times – he’d written eight cover stories for the coveted Sunday magazine. It was the eighth that got him into trouble; feeling the pressure to make the story readable, he’d consolidated events and characters into a single kid while doing a piece on abuses at a West African cocoa plantation (in reality, the real Finkel got in trouble for a piece on the continued slave trade coming out of Africa). His career in tatters, he runs home to his wife Jill (Jones) in Montana. It appears that he will have to find something else to do with his life.

Then he gets a call from Pat Frato (Suplee), a journalist at the Portland Oregonian who delivers some startling news. Apparently Christian Longo (Franco), a man accused of brutally murdering his entire family, had been apprehended and apparently had been masquerading as a former reporter for the Times  – three guesses which one and the first two don’t count.

Curious as to why Longo would choose his identity to steal, Finkel arranges to get some interview time with Longo. Finkel becomes fascinated – Jill might say obsessed – with the charismatic and handsome Longo, who seems to have everyone around him wrapped around his little finger. He seems to be genuinely and deeply grieving for his murdered family. He also is taking an interest in learning how to write, the more to be like Mike.

The more time Finkel spends with Longo, the less certain he is of his guilt. Finkel begins to dig into things and discovers eventually that not everything – nor everyone – is as it seems around these parts. Soon Mike must make the choice as to whether he thinks that Longo is a master manipulator who is playing the tune that everyone around him dances to, or if he is truly innocent and bereaved.

This is based on the real Mike Finkel’s memoirs about the case and his experiences with Christian Longo. In all honesty, there are a lot of fact fudges in here which is a bit ironic because the whole theme of the movie is trust and lies. First time filmmaker Goold has extensive experience directing stage plays and in most of the interior pieces it shows with literally just a succession of one and two shots that shows little understanding of the depth of the big screen compared to the stage.

What is more disturbing is the lack of energy displayed here. Yes, the setting is the Pacific Northwest and there is a constant shroud of rain and fog on the exteriors, and we don’t see the sun in virtually any of this film other than flashbacks or New York City. But it seems like the cast is in the fog as well; not quite zombies but like everyone pulled an all-nighter and is falling asleep where they’re standing.

Hill and Franco are more or less the exceptions, and the chemistry they have together is undeniable but long story short it isn’t enough to elevate this film which is actually adequate enough in terms of entertainment value mainly because of the two leads and the compelling story. Unfortunately the attempts to make it a morality play kind of fall a bit flat.

REASONS TO GO: Hill and Franco make a good team. Nice Pacific Northwest vistas.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks energy and inertia. Doesn’t really inspire passion in the audience.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some disturbing images and unsettling thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fingerprint pattern on the movie’s poster is actually made up of the word “LIES” printed over and over again.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder in the First
FINAL RATING:
6/10
NEXT:
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

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

Speed Racer


Speed Racer

Apparently Speed Racer is out-running the Aurora Borealis.

(2008) Science Fiction Action (Warner Brothers) Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox, Hiroyuki Sanada, Richard Roundtree, Ji Hoon Jung, Benno Furmann, Roger Allam, Kick Gurry, Paulie Litt, Christian Oliver, Art La Fleur. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

 

When I was growing up (a preface my father used to make to what would turn out to be a long-winded lecture about why his generation was superior to my generation which sucked rocks), part of my afternoon routine after getting home from school involved turning on the television and watching an anime double feature (although I didn’t know they were called anime at the time) of “Kimba, the White Lion” and “Speed Racer.” I had no conception that what they were doing were anything like groundbreaking – having seen some of those episodes again recently I can tell you with great confidence that they were anything but from an animation standpoint – but I knew they were in color, they were fun and even if they weren’t animated as well as my favorite shows like “Scooby Doo” and “Wacky Racers,” they at least had storylines that I found to be a little bit better than the very light stuff that were common for the time.

The Wachowskis (then still known as brothers) were evidently of the same mindset as I growing up. Fresh off of their world-beating success that was the Matrix trilogy, they basically could do whatever they chose and a live-action remake of the beloved Japanese cartoon series was what they chose. In hindsight it may seem a trifle…ill-advised.

Speed Racer (Hirsch) is a talented young racer in the World Racing League. He is haunted by demons – the death of his brother Rex in a gruesome crash during an unsanctioned race – and yearns to break the records his brother set. Unlike most of the racers in the League, Speed is an independent without corporate sponsorship; his father Pops (Goodman) builds the cars, Sparky (Gurry) maintains them, Mom (Sarandon) makes pancakes and his little brother Spritle (Litt) gets into mischief. Usually around is Speed’s girlfriend Trixie (Ricci) who spends so much time with Speed’s family you wonder if she has a family of her own.

Into their lives blows Arnold Royalton (Allam), chairman of Royalton Industries, one of the leaders in WRL sponsorship. He is impressed by Speed’s record-breaking pace and wants to take him to the next level – the championship of the WRL. He is urbane and charming and loves pancakes. However, Spritle snoops around and discovers that there is a dark side to Royalton and eventually Speed declines the offer. Royalton turns petty and vindictive and vows to destroy the Racer family and does everything within his power to do just that.

Then there’s the mysterious Racer X (Fox) who turns out to be working undercover for Inspector Detector (Furmann) of Interpol who enlists Speed to help find out who’s responsible for the illegal race fixing that has plagued the WRL and caused economic chaos. In order to do that he’s going to have to conquer the unsanctioned race that was responsible for his brother’s death and is the most grueling, dangerous race on the planet – the Crucible.

The Wachowskis have an amazing visual sense and this might be their most brilliant movie from a visual sense ever. The movie uses a palette of bright neon-infused colors, like someone had thrown Slurpees across the screen and then black lighted them. The world of Speed Racer is more brilliant than the cartoon it sprang from, with supercharged cars hurling at you at breathtaking speeds. Much of the movie was filmed against a green screen (a la Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) and much of the world of the WRL is computer generated.

However, as good looking as the movie is it lacks a few things. Like, for instance, a plot that doesn’t disintegrate upon any sort of inspection. I can forgive that to a certain degree – all that technology is fine and dandy but it would have made for a better movie with a bit more attention to detail when it came to the writing. However, there are a few things that just dropped the movie from being a game changer.

The length, for one. Two hours of visual assault begins to numb the senses; there were too many car races and not enough plot development for this type of time commitment. You can only see so many cars racing around a highly stylized track before you begin to yawn unless you’re a dedicated Formula 1 or NASCAR maniac.

And for another, the presence of Spritle and Chim-Chim. Yes, I know they were integral parts of the original cartoon and they were meant to be the avatars for the kids the cartoon was aimed at but I think they outstayed their welcome. They were too much at the forefront of the film and quite frankly, the characters are annoying and they dumb down the movie way too much to be comfortable. Nothing against Litt, the young actor who plays Spritle – he didn’t write the part after all – but I’m to the point that when I see his character onscreen while watching the DVD I hit the Fast Forward button.

Hirsch was cast in this movie after an acclaimed Oscar-nominated turn in Into the Wild and it seemed his career was on the rise. Unfortunately I never got a sense that Hirsch was motivated to do much more than read his lines. This is an unfortunately flat and lifeless performance that harkens back to the emotionless voice acting that characterized the original cartoon and to be fair that might well be a deliberate decision on either the filmmakers or Hirsch’s part; it’s just a bad decision and if it is the case, is another reason why remakes should never try to import things that don’t work from the original just for nostalgia’s sake.

Allam makes for a fine villain and for some quirky reason channels Tim Curry who is also one of the fine villains of recent years. Here he’s both venomous and urbane; always  a lethal but delicious combination when it comes to movie villains. Fox, who was heavily in the public eye for his work in the cultish TV show “Lost,” shows off a different kind of heroism and is one of the best things about the movie. Certainly my attention perks up whenever he’s on the screen.

This is definitely the case of a movie that is innovative and lovely to look at, but falls apart upon too close an inspection. The cure for that? Don’t inspect too closely. Look at it for what it is – an eye candy sugar rush that is going to put you in a happy coma after two hours of non-stop bliss. This is entertainment, pure and simple – imperfect to be sure but entertainment nonetheless.

WHY RENT THIS: Brilliant visuals. Allam is an over-the-top villain and Fox shows off his heroic chops as Racer X.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: About a good half-hour too long. Spritle and Chim-Chim are far, far too annoying.  Hirsch a little bit flat as Speed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a little bit of violence. Some of the car crash scenes are a little bit gruesome. There are a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr, the English voices of Speed and Trixie in the original cartoon series, voice race announcers in the feature film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a game and a couple of extra features not found on the DVD edition which itself is nothing to write home about.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $94.0M on a $120M production budget; the movie was a major box office disappointment.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grand Prix

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Amazing Spider-Man

The Adjustment Bureau


The Adjustment Bureau

Matt Damon tries to explain that the Sarah Silverman music video was a joke.

(2011) Science Fiction (Universal) Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp, John Slattery, Michael Kelly, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Anthony Ruvivar, Lauren Hodges, Jennifer Ehle. Directed by George Nolfi

There are a couple of schools of thought about how the universe works – one in which things are pre-determined, planned in advance and that we are helpless to escape our destiny. The other says things are random chance and our own free will determines our choices.

David Norris (Damon) is an ambitious politician who was the youngest man ever elected to Congress. He’s running for Senate and has a big lead in the polls until a photo from his college days sinks him. He is in a hotel bathroom, running over his concession speech when he meets Elise Sellas (Blunt) who was hiding from hotel security in a stall when he walked in. They meet, flirt, kiss…and Norris is inspired to deliver a speech that makes him an immediate frontrunner for the next election.

David goes to work for his friend and former campaign manager Charlie Traynor (Kelly), a venture capitalist. David is on his way to work when he meets, quite by chance, Elise on a bus. A man in an old-fashioned suit wearing a fedora who we later found out is named Harry Mitchell (Mackie), chases the bus, trying desperately to spill coffee on the former Congressman. He is unsuccessful and David not only gets Elise’s phone number, he gets to work on time.

There he finds things a little strange. Nobody is moving…the people are frozen in position. Strangely dressed men are holding up strange instruments to Charlie’s forehead. David takes off in a dead run to try and escape but he’s captured. He is brought to a large warehouse-like space where another man – dressed similarly to Harry in a grey suit and a fedora – named Richardson (Slattery) tells him that he’s seen behind a curtain he wasn’t supposed to know existed.

You see, life is supposed to go according to plan – a specific plan – and they’re the guys who make sure it does. David and Elise were not supposed to meet again, as it turns out – they’re not meant to be together. Richardson burns the number Elise gave him and sends him on his way with a warning never to tell anybody about the Adjustment Bureau – or else he’ll be lobotomized.

Thus begins a cat and mouse game between David and the Adjustment Bureau. David trying to get back together again with Elise…the Bureau trying to keep them apart. Eventually, a higher-up named Thompson (Stamp) is drawn into the case but how can David find the love of his life when men who can alter reality itself are arrayed against him?

George Nolfi is directing for the first time; he’s better known as a writer for such movies as Oceans 12. He shows a surprisingly deft hand at the helm – he’s got a solid future in directing if he continues to direct.

He also scripted, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, whose works have been turned into such films as Minority Report, Total Recall and Blade Runner. Movies based on Dick’s work have varied in execution; this one, I’m happy to say, is one of the better ones. It brings up an age-old argument in a sci-fi setting and while Dick was firmly on the free will side of the discussion (as is Nolfi), he does make a credible argument for the other side as well.

Damon is one of the more appealing A-list actors; he has become a terrific everyman in the vein of Jimmy Stewart, and he continues to improve with every performance. This is another one, and he is certainly solid again, dependable and likable. He also has good chemistry with Blunt; while her character is a little bit bland, she does an admirable job filling it. Their back and forth reminds me a bit of the romantic comedies of the 50s.

There aren’t a lot of special effects; mostly the effects are optical, particularly in sequences involving doorways that transport the bureau men from one place to places far away. There’s a chase sequence involving David and the Bureau men late in the film that’s dazzling but also dizzying…it’s a little disorienting even as David goes by a variety of New York landmarks, including Yankee Stadium and the Statue of Liberty. It’s on the breathtaking side.

Mackie is emerging as a tremendous actor. An Oscar nominee for The Hurt Locker, he is very solid here as a Bureau man with a conscience. Slattery, who is one of those “you’ve seen his face but don’t know his name” kind of guys, also does real well as the bureaucrat (pun intended). Terence Stamp is, well, Terence Stamp.

While the movie is being marketed in Bourne-like fashion (Universal has worked with Damon on those films) this really isn’t. It’s a bit of a pastiche – part romantic comedy, part morality play, part sci-fi action thriller. It’s unusual and while not innovative, it fits the bill for a springtime action movie that probably would have drowned in the summer with all the more spectacular blockbusters. Still, it’s a solid and surprisingly thoughtful movie that even has a few religious overtones – you draw your own conclusions as to who the chairman is. This is the kind of movie that has good juju – it’s entertaining and smart. You can’t ask for more than that.

REASONS TO GO: An interesting concept nicely accomplished. Damon is becoming a 21st century Jimmy Stewart.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot ideas are a little hard to follow and the final chase scene is disorienting.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sex, a little bit of violence and a little bit of strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the short story which the movie is based on, the lead character is an insurance salesman rather than a politician.  

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the overhead city shots benefit from the big screen, most of the rest of the movie works on the small screen just as nicely.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: What Goes Up

Ninja Assassin


Ninja Assassin

Oh, I've seen Fire and I've seen Rain...

(2009) Martial Arts Action (Warner Brothers) Rain, Naomie Harris, Ben Miles, Sho Kosugi, Rick Yune, Randall Duk Kim, Sung Kang, Kylie Goldstein. Directed by James McTeigue

There are certain movies that you really can’t complain about. For example, this one; the title tells you exactly what kind of movie you’re going to get. You can’t watch it and then bitch about the plot and the acting. The whole point of the movie is to have guys in black pajamas slice and dice each other and fly through the air like moths. Really, that’s the only standard a movie should be held to in reality. Still, one can dream of a little more to a movie than that, right?

Raizo (Rain) is a lethal assassin, trained from childhood (some would say abused) in the art of killing people silently and unseen by the Ozunu clan, the deadliest assassins in Japan. Their compound, high in the mountains of Japan, has never been seen by an outsider and the mere knowledge of their existence can mean death in a most painful and bloody way. Laughing at their rumored existence, well, that’s just plain stupid as a few yakuza toughs find out in the opening sequence.

However, Raizo has a bone to pick with his clan; they executed his girlfriend (Goldstein) in a most gruesome manner (which would tend to piss anybody off) and now they’re all after his ass. Raizo, the deadliest and nastiest of them, is out to topple their empire, aided by a couple of thumb-twiddling Interpol cops, Mika (Harris) and Ryan (Miles). However, Raizo has violated a cardinal rule of the ninja – something akin to rule #1, don’t talk about Fight Club. Now the clan’s leader, Ozunu (Kosugi) and his number two son Takeshi (Yune) have a real need to dismember Raizo and you just know it’s going to end badly for somebody.

This was produced by the Washowski Brothers (the Matrix trilogy) and directed by McTeigue, who previously helmed V for Vendetta which I think is a much better film than this. Part of the problem of a movie about ninja assassins is the whole conceit that they melt in and out of the shadows; by necessity the movie must be then underlit to provide said shadows, which makes seeing the fight sequences difficult at times. That’s a shame because some of the choreography is pretty damn good.

Yes, I know that you’re not supposed to talk about the acting in a movie like this (I did mention it earlier) but I do have to at least point out that I found Harris unbelievable as an Interpol agent (do Interpol agents scream like little girls whenever an assassin shows up?) and that the acting is a bit stiff in general. Rain, the Korean pop star, is more adept at dancing and singing than he is at slicing and dicing, but he performs solidly enough in his fight sequences. He showed immense potential in Speed Racer as a double-dealing race car driver which isn’t delivered on here. Harris was in the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies and was far more effective in those, so I know both of them are capable of better than they delivered here.

Sho Kosugi is one of the most revered and beloved figures in Japanese action films (particularly of the samurai variety) of the last 30 years. While known mostly to Asian cinema aficionados in the States, he brings a certain gravitas here that is quite frankly wasted. He’s well into his 60s but he can still kick patootey without breaking much of a sweat. Personally, I think he’s worth seeing even in a movie that isn’t.

Something tells me that this movie was a victim of studio over-involvement. A last minute re-write was called for and delivered in a two and a half day turn-around which allowed the movie to make its tight delivery date after which brilliant studio executives promptly delayed its release for almost a year. Really, when dealing with ninja movies it would be a wise studio executive that doesn’t get too involved with the nuts and bolts; the simpler, the better in terms of plot for these kinds of things and its best just to let your fight choreographer and director just go to town; this movie is at its best when they do just that.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some very fine martial arts sequences here. It’s always a pleasure to see Kosugi, one of the underrated stars of Asian cinema.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is as wooden as it gets. There are times that the story drags, particularly in the middle. Penalty for overuse of flashbacks. Too many fight scenes lose their effectiveness because they’re badly lit.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect from a movie of this nature, there’s a boatload of violence and a smattering of foul language. Definitely for older teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Babylon 5” creator J. Michael Straczynski did the re-write of the original script which was, in an unusual move, approved by Warner Brothers without notes and shipped into the actor’s hands within a week.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray has a nice feature on ninjas and the mythology behind them.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $61.6M on a production budget of $40M; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Intermission

Taking Woodstock


Demitri Martin, Eugene Levy has only three words for ya: Second City Television.

(Focus) Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Imelda Staunton, Liev Schreiber, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Groff, Mamie Gummer, Paul Dano, Kelli Garner, Adam Pally. Directed by Ang Lee

From August 15 through August 18, 1969 a festival billed as “three days of peace and music” took center stage in the universe of the counterculture. It remains the granddaddy of all rock festivals, the touchstone to which all other large-scale festivals are inevitably compared. My brother-in-law Jim Ivey was one of the half million in attendance and has the ticket stubs to prove it; if you went by the number of people who claimed they were there, millions of people were at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm that day. The festival is known simply as Woodstock.

Elliott Teichberg (Martin) is an interior designer in Greenwich Village whose parents Jake (Goodman) and Sonia (Staunton) own a dilapidated hotel in White Lake, New York near the bucolic town of Bethel. The hotel is gradually going broke, run to ground by his parents’ inability to run even basic maintenance and his mother’s abrasive personality and unbridled greed.

He doubles as the head of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, authorizing permits for the city. He has a counterculture theatrical company, the Earthlight Players, taking up residency in his barn and is planning a music festival where he’ll essentially spin records to inert townspeople on the lawn of the hotel.

None of this is doing any good. The bank is about to foreclose; they have managed to finagle enough time to last the summer, but that’s it. His parents, Holocaust survivors, they’ve gone through quite a bit and as unpleasant as Sonia is, Elliott still worries.

When he hears that the organizers of a large-scale music festival have been denied permits in Walkill, New York, he recognizes the golden opportunity to save the hotel. A festival with big name performers will draw people who will fill the hotel for the weekend but also serve as a headquarters for the festival. The festival’s organizers, Michael Lang (Groff) and Artie Kornfeld (Pally), come in with a bit of a flourish and the laid-back Lang instantly takes to Elliott. When the hotel property proves to be inadequate for the size of the crowds the organizers are expected, Elliott introduces Lang and Kornfeld to Max Yasgur (Levy), a dairy farmer who is sympathetic to the idea of a rock festival.

The rest of the town, not so much. The most vocal of these is Dan (Morgan), a man whose son Billy (Hirsch) came back from Vietnam shell-shocked and broken. He feels the hippies are disrespectful to the country that his son gave so much for. The tension between the townies and the hippies (including Max and Elliott in the eyes of the town) is palpable.

Against all odds, the festival comes together; even the weather conspired against them. In the process, Elliott comes to terms with his parents and makes the decision to follow his own heart.

Ang Lee is one of the most gifted directors in the world. One of my all-time favorite movies is the Taiwanese director’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His other films – The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Eat Drink Man Woman among others – are always compelling, even the ones that are less successful. Here, he captures the essence of the festival nicely. He made the decision to put almost no emphasis on the music; the actual concert takes place off-screen and the only time music from the festival. Instead, he concentrates on the backstage elements behind the festival; after all, the music and the concert were already well-documented in Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock which is paid homage to in several places during the course of the movie.

Martin is best-known as a stand-up comedian and he’s a very good one. Strangely, even though this is a comedy, his role is more or less as a straight man. His deadpan stand-up delivery is mirrored here; the role is very low-key but is nonetheless still compelling. Staunton and Goodman give high-powered performances and Levy is surprisingly solid in a straight dramatic role. Schreiber shows up about halfway through the film and nearly steals the movie as the transgendered security guard Vilma. He is working on a level most of the other actors don’t attain, at least in this movie.

Sadly, the movie is a bit of a jumble. The performances are fine but they seem to be all coming from different movies. There’s no cohesion, no sense of unity; there are times you feel like you’re channel surfing while watching a single movie. That’s not a good feeling.

The movie is based on the memoirs of Elliott Tiber (renamed Teichberg here for some reason) whose version of events has been disputed by the real Michael Lang. The movie is not meant to be a documentary-like representation of what really happened; I get the feeling that Lee was attempting to replicate the spirit of Woodstock and illustrate just what a miracle it was that it got staged at all.

Woodstock remains a cultural touchstone for us even now, more than forty years after the fact. It is not only a symbol of a time, place and a movement; it remains a beacon of hope that the ideals of a generation may someday be adopted by a nation. Woodstock means different things for different people but regardless of how it makes you feel, nearly every person in the Western world is aware of its significance. This isn’t the movie that properly honors the event and I couldn’t tell you (having not been at the real one) if this gives you a sense of being there yourself. Still, it was insightful enough – and visually compelling enough – to make it worth a mild recommendation.

WHY RENT THIS: Even in his worst movies, Lee has a marvelous visual sense that borders on the poetic. Martin makes for an intriguing lead.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is a bit of a jumble; the performances, while well-acted aren’t really cohesive and feels like the movie is made up of a series of unrelated vignettes.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of drug use and nudity (hey, it was the Sixties after all) and some rough language; may be a little too much for younger folk to handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: No actual footage from Woodstock was used; while many of the events depicted here actually happened, they were all re-enacted for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A featurette entitled “Peace, Love and Cinema” not only does the usual happy-handed behind-the-scenes lovefest there are also interviews with the real people being portrayed in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Rudo y Cursi

Spiral


Spiral

Joel David Moore is getting tired of all the wedgies.

(Anchor Bay) Joel David Moore, Amber Tamblyn, Zachary Levi, Tricia Helfer, David Muller, Annie Neal, Amber Dahl, Kristin Luman, Ryan Chase. Directed by Adam Green and Joel David Moore

We are, all of us, victims of our past. The demons that are a result of past traumas often drive our present behavior. Some of us have demons that are more insistent and more deadly than others.

Mason (Moore) is a socially awkward cubicle dweller living in Portland, Oregon. Most of his fellow co-workers ignore him; Mason’s neuroses are many and notorious at work. That suits Mason just fine; he tends to be on the reclusive side in any case and prefers to spend most of his time listening to jazz records (we’re talking LPs here; Mason prefers the warmth of vinyl to the cold soullessness of CDs) and painting, and Mason is surprisingly talented at both.

At work his only friend (and we use the term loosely here) is Berkeley (Levi), who also happens to be his boss. Berkeley is not particularly a nice guy, but he seems to have a soft spot for Mason and kind of adopts him, which Mason seems to accept albeit not with great enthusiasm. Mason exists in the curious shadowland that is Portland in the fall, when the nights get darker and the rain falls incessantly in a cold curtain of camouflage.

His life turns around when he meets Amber (Tamblyn), a new co-worker who is as gregarious as Mason is shy. She is drawn to the shy young man, her curiosity piqued and for his part Mason is moved by her kindness and starts to come out of his shell. When Amber discovers Mason’s talent as an artist, she insists that he paint a portrait of her.

What Amber doesn’t know is that Mason is not at all well; he has been scarred by the murder of his mother by his father and is tormented by awful nightmares, nightmares that Mason thinks might possibly be real and if they are, Mason could very well be a mass murderer. Only Berkeley knows about the dreams and has dismissed them as just that, dreams. If he’s wrong, however, Amber is in mortal danger.

Moore’s name shows up all over this film as a co-writer, co-director and co-producer, as well as the lead actor so much of the blame or credit, depending on your opinion of the movie, will be directed his way. He certainly surrounded himself with able support; co-director Green went on to direct the much-acclaimed thriller Frozen, while Levi is best known for his work in “Chuck” (and he’s quite good here in a very different role). Tamblyn is one of the more underrated actresses working these days and she turns in a terrific performance as the lonely and insecure Amber who masks her insecurities with a kind of false sense of bonhomie.

Moore himself is best-known as being the gangly geek in Dodgeball and the scientific nebbish in Avatar. His own performance is not too shabby; he seems to be on the verge of tears often but there is a rage and tension just below the surface that makes you wonder if instead of tears we might not see homicidal mayhem instead. That’s the centerpiece of Spiral and the movie doesn’t work if you don’t believe it. Fortunately, I did.

I liked the sense of place and time in the movie; the environment of Portland becomes a big part of the mood and it is shot exceedingly well. There is almost the feel of an indie romantic drama here, and that also serves the movie well, making the jolts more effective when they come.

Like most movies, there is a twist to it and it’s not a bad one. One of the problems with psychological thrillers in general is that you’re expecting a twist so you spend most of the movie looking for one, and most veteran observers of the genre can usually spot them early on, but I didn’t so kudos on that account.

On the negative side, this feels a bit long and some of the scenes felt more like padding. It could have used a little more judicious editing to cut out some of the material that seemed to me to be extraneous, with certain scenes merely confirming what has already been established elsewhere in the movie. Still, this is a satisfying movie for its genre, a sandwich that could have used a bit more meat and a little less bread, but delicious even so.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie works because of its indie romantic drama feel that helps make the jolts more effective. Fine performances, particularly from Tamblyn and Levi, as well as Moore, characterize the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes were unnecessary in terms of plot development and action and could easily have been snipped out.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly disturbing imagery here as well as partial nudity and a bit of violence. The language is a bit blue in places. Probably okay for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amber Tamblyn’s dad Russ, he of West Side Story fame, shows up here as an extra.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: TiMER