Thursday, January 30, 2014

That Awkward Moment - 2 stars

The filmmakers behind That Awkward Moment want us to think this is a chick flick for guys.  Well, just because the main characters are guys and the movie has a lot of raunchy humor, that doesn't change the fact that it's still a chick flick.  And I don't hate all chick flicks, but most of them require their characters to behave in ways that no rational person would ever behave.

The main characters here are Jason (Zac Efron), Daniel (Miles Teller), and Mikey (Michael B. Jordan).  Mikey's wife has just left him, and his friends take him out to a club to try and get him laid.  They don't succeed, but they do get themselves laid, which seems to happen every night for them.  Jason and Daniel are players, and they each keep a roster of girls.  This way, they can rotate through their roster - a different girl every night - until a girl says "So, where is this going?" or something to that effect.  That's the point when they tell the girl it isn't working out, and a new girl is added to the roster.

For no good reason, the three friends decide to make a pact to remain single, so they can keep sleeping with different girls and have no responsibilities.  This is just stupid.  The movie doesn't set this up very well, and what's even dumber is the way the characters stick to this pact.  Each of them starts seeing a girl they want to get serious with.  Jason starts to really like a girl named Ellie (Imogen Poots), Daniel starts getting serious about his friend Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis), and Mikey manages to get back together with his wife.

There's no way any rational guy would stick to this pact.  Each of them would say to the others "Sorry guys, but I changed my mind about that whole single pact thing."  The lengths they go to in order to keep their respective relationships secret from their friends make no sense.  Daniel even goes so far as to tell Chelsea how his friends reacted when he told them that he was in love, when of course he hasn't said a word to them.  And when Ellie comes over to Jason's apartment, interrupting a night of drinking and X-Box, he bends over backwards to convince the other guys that they're just friends, she's not his girlfriend, ect.

So that's the story.  If you've ever seen a rom com before, you will see exactly where this story is headed.  In every rom com, if one character has a secret, you know the other person will discover this secret at about the hour and ten minute mark.  Then there will be a good 10 or 15 minutes where the guy is sad and realizes he screwed up, and then he will apologize and profess his love in the most public place possible.  I kept hoping this movie would surprise me and go in a different direction, but no.  That was too much to ask.

One problem with this movie is it's being advertised as a comedy.  It really isn't.  Miles Teller has some funny moments, but there are long stretches without a single laugh.  And the story just isn't interesting or compelling enough to make it a good drama.  But the biggest problem is just how unlikeable the characters are, especially Jason.  It's one thing if a guy doesn't want a relationship and wants to keep having one night stands.  But something happens between Ellie and Jason late in the movie that, for me, made his character unforgivable.  I was really hoping she would tell him off when he tried to win her back.  But the movie wants us to sympathize with him instead of with Ellie.  A better actor may have been able to make us sympathize with Jason, but Zac Efron is not up to the task.

In case you couldn't tell, I didn't like this movie. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sundance Review: The Signal - 1 star

This is one of those movies that might have worked as a short, but not as a feature length movie.  It's about three college students.  The movie doesn't give them much of a backstory.  I'm not sure what they're studying or where they go to school (they might have mentioned it and I missed it), but they are on some kind of road trip.  It seems the server at their school was hacked, and they were blamed for it.  Now they're going to track down the hacker who was responsible. 

Once they get into the desert, something happens and they pass out, or something like that.  They wake up in some kind of a government research facility.  Were they abducted by aliens, and now the government is trying to figure out what happened to them?  Or are they on the ship now and the doctors are aliens? 

Lots of interesting ideas in this movie, but the script is just a mess.  The first act bored me because the movie hadn't given me any reason to care about these characters.  Once they incident in the desert happens, I was intrigued for about 10 minutes.  Then the movie has nowhere to go.  Eventually they escape and things get even stranger.

There's nothing wrong with a movie disorienting us and making us put the pieces together ourselves.  But this movie is nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is.  It really needed a couple of rewrites by someone who understands how to do this kind of science fiction without boring the audience. 

The only thing the movie has going for it is Laurence Fishburne.  But the filmmakers seem to think that giving him lots of exposition will remind us of The Matrix.  His voice is hypnotic and I was reminded of Morpheus, but the more I listened to him I realized that the screenwriters were reaching beyond their grasp.

I hated this movie.

Sundance Review: Life Itself - 4 stars

Well, this isn't a big surprise.  I admit that I'm predisposed to like a documentary about Roger Ebert.  But director Steve James did a great job of adapting Ebert's memoir, and it was even more moving than I thought it would be.

Using photos and video clips (of which of course there are many), Life Itself tells the life story of film critic Roger Ebert.  We learn about his days as a bachelor and a heavy drinker, his career as film critic of the Chicago Sun Times, his partnership with Gene Siskel, and the cancer that would eventually take his life.

I don't think you have to be a fan of Ebert or of film criticism in general to enjoy this movie.  In fact, I would have liked to hear more about how he advanced film criticism and inspired so many other critics.  There is some time devoted to the argument that he and Siskel dumbed down criticism by simply saying "thumbs up" or "thumbs down". 

But for the most part, it focuses on Ebert the man.  We see some really difficult footage of Ebert suffering in the hospital, going through rehab, and arguing with his wife, Chaz.  I have read a lot about Ebert's medical troubles, but I had no idea how bad things got.  It's also very interesting to see the struggles his wife went through as his caretaker.

As hard as that stuff is to watch, it's also very inspiring.  I think at one time or another, all of us have gone through or will go through similar health issues.  We'll either be the sick one or the caretaker.  It's nice to see that despite the reassurance and the presence of mind he exhibited in his blog, Roger was a normal man going through hell.  He got frustrated and upset just like any of us would.  And while Chaz was an incredible caregiver and loving wife, she had her frustrations too.  Sometimes she had to fight with Roger to get him to get out of his wheelchair and walk up the stairs.

This is a wonderful movie, and I really have a hard time being objective about it since I was such a big fan of Roger Ebert.  Many of the clips in the movie are available on YouTube.  The clips of Gene and Roger fighting while trying to record promos are great fun, and I always enjoy seeing them argue passionately about a movie.  I'm one of those people who will spend time on just to watch their old shows. 

Just so you know where I'm coming from.  I'm a fan and I feel like this movie was made for me.  Hopefully you will enjoy it too.

Sundance Review: Calvary - 3 1/2 stars

Brendan Gleeson stars as Father James Lavelle, an Irish priest in a small town.  As the movie begins, a man enters the confessional.  We don't see his face, we only hear his voice.  In fact, the camera stays on Gleeson's face for the entire scene.  This man tells the priest that he was molested by a priest when he was young.  Because this priest is dead, he's going to kill Father James in his place.  He also says that killing an innocent priest will have more of an effect than killing a bad priest would be.

The man says he's going to kill Father James in seven days.  So the rest of the movie is Father James going about his daily business like usual.  His daily business often involves visiting the people in his town, including a woman who is having an affair and gets beaten up on a regular basis, an old author who's thinking of killing himself, and a rich banker who is facing jail time and wants to give money to the church in order to atone for his sins.

Brendan Gleeson is one of my favorite actors, and I really enjoyed his performance.  He gets to play a wide range of emotions, from being the kind and wise priest to getting drunk in a bar and getting into fights.  Father James is something of a recovering alcoholic, so there's always the possibility that he will start drinking again.

The movie moves at a leisurely pace, and it would drag a bit if it weren't for Gleeson's performance and the great writing by John Michael McDonagh, who also directed.  There is some really good dialogue in this movie, and while it isn't a comedy like their last collaboration, The Guard, there are still some pretty good laughs. 

The ticking clock is an overused device in movies, but it works just fine here.  Every 10 -15 minutes there is a title card on the screen to inform us what day it is, so we keep getting reminded of how many days until someone will try to kill him.  The other stuff going on with the characters is interesting enough that I would forget about his impending doom for a few minutes.  Then I would be reminded and wonder how it's going to work out.  Is he going to be killed?  Is he going to be able to talk the man out of it?  Or will he defend himself?

This is probably the best movie I saw at Sundance that wasn't a documentary.  I'm looking forward to its release so I can watch it again.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sundance Review: Fed Up - 4 stars

This is a documentary about the obesity crisis in America (and the rest of the world).  I thought I knew a lot about how processed foods are bad for you, the rising numbers of overweight and obese children, and even how in the 70s the food industry started using high fructose corn syrup in everything.

This movie revealed a lot of stuff I didn't know.  We've been told for so long to watch calories and fat content in the foods we eat, but we don't hear a lot about sugar.  I look at food labels often, and I never noticed that while the labels say how much sugar is in something, it doesn't tell you what percentage of the daily recommended allowance the food has.  That's because many foods have over 100% of the daily allowance in a single serving.

There is also a lot of interesting information about the power of the food and sugar lobbying groups, and steps the government has taken to keep people in the dark about food.  Even Michelle Obama's work to get kids in shape completely misses the important issues.

This is one of those movies that can change your life.  The numbers they give are frightening.  I've heard about how higher and higher percentages of people are developing diabetes, but where we are headed is truly terrifying.  We learn about how addictive sugar is, and the earlier a child gets conditioned, the harder it is to resist.

It reminded me of Food, Inc., another documentary that exposes the food industry and our eating habits.  It builds on the information from that movie but it does so with a real sense of urgency.  I was surprised to learn just how bad the school lunch program is in this country.  I was in elementary school in the 80s, and I remember what cafeteria food was like.  It wasn't that good, but the choices were healthy.  Then in high school, suddenly there was a Pizza Hut Express in the lunchroom.  Today, elementary school kids have the choice of Pizza Hut and Arby's in their lunchrooms. 

As far as how to eat healthy, the information in this movie isn't completely revolutionary.  It reminds us that the healthiest way to eat is to cook your food rather than eating processed food, and fruits and vegetables are best.  What this movie does is explain how we got here, and how much we have to change.  The movie makes a very convincing argument that the way junk food is advertised to kids needs to stop, and we need to look at junk food and soda the way we now look at cigarettes.  One amazing moment was when they showed a Flintstones ad from the 50s that was selling cigarettes.  It took many years for the public to recognize the dangers of smoking, and our bad eating habits are probably more dangerous because kids are the most susceptible. 

I try not to say this too often, but this is a movie everyone should see. 

Sundance Review: E-Team - 3 stars

This is a documentary about people who work for Human Rights Watch, specifically members of the Emergencies Team.  These are the people who risk their lives and go into places like Syria and Libya so they can document crimes against humanity.

These people are incredibly courageous.  Sometimes they have to sneak into the country at night watching for guards who would probably shoot them on sight.  Once in the country, they have to keep a low profile so they aren't discovered.  Some of the screen time is devoted to their investigation in Syria.  They interview a number of people who had family members killed by the regime, sometimes within hours of their arrival. 

There is also coverage of the Serbian genocide, and we see how instrumental Human Rights Watch was in putting Milosevic on trial at the International Criminal Court.  We also see them doing a press conference in Moscow, trying to get Russia to stop supporting the regime in Syria.  At the press conference, they have to deal with reporters who accuse them of spreading propaganda. 

There is also footage of them in Libya, dealing with the revolution there and the death of Gaddafi.  We see them trying to convince the victorious rebels that they aren't justified in taking revenge as that will only prolong the violence.

It's amazing to see these people risk their lives in order to get the truth to the world.  The movie was very informative and it makes me feel like I can never complain about my job again.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sundance Review: Land Ho! - 2 1/2 stars

A pair of former brothers-in-law take a trip to Iceland together.  That's the story. 

Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) is from Louisiana.  He's a recently retired doctor, and kind of a good old boy.  He's likes to get high and he's always up for a good time.  His companion on the trip is Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), an Australian who's kind of a sourpuss. 

Their dynamic was probably inspired by Miles and Jack from Sideways.  Colin just wants to stay in, and Mitch wants to go out and party.  Their second day in Iceland, Mitch arranges a night on the town with two young ladies.  One of them is his niece, but he says "beautiful women begat other beautiful women."

The first act of this movie was just delightful.  Mitch is hilarious, and it seemed like a good road trip movie was ahead of us.  But the movie gets to a point where it just seems like the screenwriter ran out of ideas.  The middle of the movie goes nowhere and the movie started to lose me.

As much fun as Mitch is, some of his dialogue seems very scripted and out of character.  He's always talking about sex, but once in a while he says something that just seems over the top, even for him.  The rendezvous with the two women goes nowhere, which is good because it would have been a bit creepy if either of the old guys had hooked up with the young women.  But they are only in the movie for about 10 minutes, and once they leave their presence is missed.  After about a half hour of just the two guys, I got tired of their company.

There is another nice encounter late in the movie.  While at a natural hot spring in the mountains of Iceland, they meet a Canadian woman.  She and Colin have nice chemistry together.

Besides the obvious similarities to Sideways, it also reminded me at times of The Trip.  While there are no Michael Caine impressions, they do talk about movies a lot and there are Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions.  There is also a scene where they go out to dinner and the camera takes time focusing on the dishes they're eating.

The movie is nice and sweet.  Overall I did like the characters and mostly enjoyed the time spent with them.  But it seems like the movie was lacking.  There wasn't enough drama or pathos, and the laughs are few and far between late in the movie.  It's close, but I can't quite recommend this movie.

Sundance Review: To Kill a Man - 3 stars

Official synopsis:  When Jorge, a hardworking family man who's barely making ends meet, gets mugged by Kalule, a neighborhood delinquent, Jorge's son decides to confront the attacker, only to get himself shot.  Even though Jorge's son nearly dies, Kalule's sentence is minimal, heightening the friction.

I moderately enjoyed this dark story of a man pushed to extremes.  The interesting thing is that for most of the movie, Jorge does exactly what he should do:  he goes to the authorities.  The problem is they don't seem too interested in helping him.  When Kalule gets out of jail, he doesn't hide the fact that he's out for revenge.  When Jorge tries to get a restraining order, he is told that there isn't enough evidence, or the prosecutor is too busy and he has to wait until Monday, stuff like that.

The movie was pretty effective at ratcheting up the tension.  I think my biggest problem was the pacing.  Like many movies at Sundance this year, it just takes too long to tell the story.  There were too many scenes that dragged on without furthering the story or developing the characters. 

But there are things in this movie that will stay with me.  There are a couple of brutal incidents that are filmed in one take, which is very effective. Overall I liked this movie.

Sundance Review: Stranger by the Lake - 2 1/2 stars

Official synopsis:  Frank spends his summer searching for companionship at a lake in France.  He meets Michel, an attractive, mysterious man and falls blindly in love.  When a death occurs, Frank and Michel become the primary suspects.  Stranger by the Lake is an erotic thriller testing the limits of sexual desire.

The only location in this movie is the nude beach by the lake.  Most of the men who go here are gay, and they are there cruising.  Plenty of scenes are of men going off into the woods to have sex.  And the movie does not shy away from showing the nudity on the beach, or the sex in the woods.  While I give the filmmaker props for making these bold choices, it does at times become gratuitous.  No question this would get an NC-17 rating.

There are two interesting relationships in this movie.  One is between Frank and Michel, the other is between Frank and Henri.  Henri is overweight and a loner.  He also is maybe the only person who goes to the lake to relax rather than have sex.  The friendship between Frank and Henri is probably the best aspect of the movie. 

Overall, the story is just too thin.  The murder happens fairly early on, and Frank's actions don't make a whole lot of sense.  I think we are supposed to know that Michel killed someone, and Frank witnesses this.  But instead of turning him in, Frank quickly falls in love.  For this to work, I think the movie should have done a better job of showing the attraction between the two. 

But I really liked the look and sound design of the movie.  The location is gorgeous, and there is no musical score at all in this movie.  The only sounds are the natural sounds of the outdoors, and the way the wind builds to a crescendo at critical moments is really cool.  Also, the acting is very good, especially Patrick D'Assumcao as Henri, the most sympathetic character in the movie.

Overall, a lot of talent on display here.  Maybe a little better editing and shorter running time would have made the movie more enjoyable.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sundance Review: Last Days in Vietnam - 3 1/2 stars

This is a documentary about, well, the last days of the Vietnam War.  It tells the story of the U.S. evacuation of Saigon in 1975 as the North Vietnamese military forces advanced on Saigon. 

Using incredibly gripping footage of the event, as well as interviews with the players involved, the movie tells an incredible story.  For months, the Americans in Vietnam knew that the north was advancing.  They pleaded with the ambassador to make evacuation plans not only for them, but the thousands of South Vietnamese who worked for the Americans.  They knew that once the north took control, any Vietnamese citizen who helped the U.S. would likely be executed. 

No plans were made until it was too late.  When the evacuation started, the orders were to evacuate U.S. citizens only.  But hundreds of U.S. soldiers did everything they could to evacuate as many South Vietnamese as they could. 

I was really moved by this story.  I knew some of the general details of the Vietnam War, but I didn't know the specifics of the evacuation.  It's just amazing to see the thousands of Vietnamese people trying desperately to get into the U.S. Embassy, climbing walls and trying to bribe the guards.  The soldiers talk about the way the United States betrayed these people by leaving them to their fate.

It's not all doom and gloom, though.  There are some great stories about soldiers defying orders to get people out.  You've probably seen photos or video of helicopters landing on a ship, them being physically pushed over the side to make room for another to land.  One helicopter was too big to land, so the people had to jump out.  Then the pilot landed in the water, turned it on its right side and jumped out the left.  Amazingly, he survived.

There have obviously been plenty of books and movies made about Vietnam.  But this movie is necessary, and I'm surprised it took this long for someone to make it.

Sundance Review: The Sleepwalker - 1 star

A young couple, Kaia and Andrew, are renovating Kaia's family estate.  One night Kaia's sister Christine calls.  She is at the train station and needs to be picked up.  The next day, Christine's fiancee Ira shows up.  The rest of the movie is these four people dealing with their issues.

Christine sleepwalks, and some nights Kaia follows her to make sure she doesn't hurt herself.  Their father may have been abusive, and Kaia was seriously injured when she was younger.  Andrew was a bully when he was younger, and he's still kind of a dick.  He really resents Christine and Ira being there, but he's trying to sensitive to his girlfriend.  He also feels like he's doing all the work of renovating this house.

The movie at times feels like a suspense thriller, but nothing ever happens.  Sometimes Christine is sleepwalking, the camera follows her for five minutes, then it cuts to the next day.  There are a lot of pointless sequences like that.  In a better movie, they would work to give us a sense of uneasiness or dread.  In this movie, they just bored me to tears. 

I didn't really like any of the characters.  They never had any interesting conversations, and the movie is completely devoid of any humor. I also thought it was strange that none of these characters ever go to work.  The only character who mentions having a job is Ira, but apparently he doesn't have to go to the office. 

In case it's not clear, I didn't like this movie at all. 

Sundance Review: Wetlands - 3 stars

From Germany, Wetlands is about a girl named Helen Memel.  She's obsessed with sex, she likes to shock and offend whenever she can, and she has a lot of trouble with hemorrhoids and anal fissures.  But her main goal in life is to get her divorced parents back together.  When she goes to the hospital for an operation, she sees an opportunity.  If she can get her parents to arrive at the same time, maybe their concern for her will make them realize how much she needs them to be together.  When the reunion doesn't happen, she conspires to stay in the hospital for as long as it takes.

This is a really graphic movie.  There is a lot of sex and nudity, and I think every bodily fluid is on screen at some point.  Some of it is over the top and gratuitous, but if you have the stomach for it, the movie is enjoyable.  Helen is an interesting character, and I was never bored by this story.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit - 2 1/2 stars

This is the fifth movie to feature Jack Ryan, the character created by the late author Tom Clancy.  Chris Pine, the new Captain Kirk, is the fourth actor to play him.  Unlike the first four movies, this one is not based on a Tom Clancy novel.  Going in, I wondered whether the screenwriters could write a story as interesting as Clancy.

Not surprisingly, the answer was no.  This is a very generic, by the numbers spy thriller.  It's written by people who know what they want the major story beats to be, but they have no idea how to write the details.  Besides the great characters and stories, Clancy was so good at the details.  Those details helped make the stories so much more interesting.

Since this is another Jack Ryan reboot, we have to forget the previous movies.  When we first meet Jack Ryan, he's a university student in London when 9/11 happens.  Inspired to join the marines, his helicopter is shot down and he faces a long and painful recovery.  While he is in the hospital, he meets two important people.  One is Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) who he falls in love with, and the other is William Harper (Kevin Costner), who recruits Ryan into the CIA. 

While working for the CIA, Ryan's job will be to use his financial expertise to look for terrorist groups by following their money.  What he finds leads him to Moscow and the movie's villain, Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh).  Like Gary Oldman in Air Force One, Cherevin is one of those Russian villains who's biggest goal in life is to return the Soviet Union to its former glory. 

This movie doesn't suck, but it isn't nearly as good as it should have been.  Since the screenwriters couldn't figure out the details, we get to watch Ryan look at financial statements and computer screens and figure out what it all means.  It's laughable that he is suddenly able to see an algorithm that tells him exactly when and where a terrorist strike will happen in the United States.  There is also a scene where Ryan and Harper - aided by 10 - 15 analysts sitting in front of computers - are able to solve a bunch of mysteries in about 30 seconds.  Ryan is such a genius that he barely has time to think before he's able to figure out all of the villain's motives, who his sleeper agents are in the US, everything. 

Chris Pine is too bland to play an interesting Jack Ryan.  Kevin Costner is good but he isn't given nearly enough to do.  He has a good line here and there, but not nearly enough.  The actor having the most fun is Branagh, who also directed.  I'm trying to think of another example where the director cast himself as the villain, and I can't think of one.

Overall, this movie doesn't suck, but I've seen it done so much better.  I think I'm going to go watch The Hunt for Red October or Patriot Games, just to cleanse the pallet.