Thursday, October 30, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - 3 stars

Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is a washed up Hollywood actor.  He played the superhero Birdman but walked away from the franchise after three movies.  Now he’s trying to reinvent his career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. 

The movie takes place over a few days while the play is in previews.  When a cast member is injured, he brings in the famous method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who Riggan can’t stand.  He’s also dealing with his girlfriend who may be pregnant, his high strung agent (Zach Galifianakis), and his daughter (Emma Stone), who resents him for being an absent father most of her life.

There are a lot of things I liked about this movie, most of all Michael Keaton’s performance.  He’s appeared in some supporting roles over the years, but this is the first big starring role he’s had in years.  And he’s great in this movie.  He has a lot of emotions he gets to play.  Sometimes he talks to himself, and this is portrayed by his Birdman character talking to him.  Sometimes we just hear the voice, sometimes Birdman appears in the scene with Riggan.  It could easily look ridiculous, seeing him having a serious conversation with a guy in a bird costume.  But Michael Keaton pulls it off.

I also liked the behind the scenes stuff.  Most of the action in the movie takes place in the dressing rooms or backstage, so we get to see a lot of the actors walking around the sets and rehearsing the play.  The fights between Riggan and Mike were also pretty funny.  Mike is such a method actor that if he’s drinking in a scene, there better be real alcohol in his glass.  If Riggan points a gun at him in a scene, he better not be able to tell it’s a plastic gun.

I did have some reservations though.  For one thing, the movie is shot in such a way that it looks like it’s all one take.  It was actually a bunch of long takes cut together, but those shots sometimes get tiring.  We’ll be in the dressing room with Riggan, then he walks out into the hallway and the camera follows him through the hallways.  Then we might pass by Mike walking the other direction and the camera will start following him.  It will stay with Mike as he enters another room and starts talking to someone else.

This is all very cool, but after a while it distracted from the story.  It feels too much like the director was trying to show off and cover for the lack of plot.  There’s enough plot for a 90 minute movie, but this was just over two hours, and it could have been shorter.  I got bored a few times, and I was ready for the movie to end at least 20 minutes before it did.

Also, I think the movie was made to be really grand and dramatic.  The music, camera angles, and the stuff that happens at the end is supposed to be really emotionally impactful, and it didn’t have that effect on me.  The movie is nowhere near as deep as it’s trying to be, and I wish the director hadn’t tried so hard to make it so big.  I think the word I’m looking for here is pretentious.  I guess in the end, the movie just left me cold.

It’s a close call, but I’m still recommending the movie despite my reservations.  It’s original and interesting, and Michael Keaton’s performance is enough to make it worth watching.

Before I Go To Sleep - 1 1/2 stars

Every morning, Christine wakes up with no memory.  She doesn’t know where she is, and she doesn’t know the man in the bed next to her.  Each day, her husband Ben explains to her that she has a form of amnesia.  Every night when she goes to sleep, she loses that day’s memories.  It’s been like this for 10 years, since she had a bad accident.

When he goes to work, she gets a call from a doctor.  He explains that he’s been treating her.  He tells her to go to the closet and find the camera.  She’s been recording a diary for herself every day so she can bring herself up to speed.

This is a good story idea, but it’s terribly executed.  The movie really drags and it has no good scenes.  I kept waiting for something interesting to happen.  The only thing that kept my interest was wanting to know how it turns out.  As she learns more about her situation, she starts to think that her husband may be lying to her. 

One thing that bugged me was the doctor’s role in all this.  Where did he come from?  Who hired him?  More importantly, who’s been paying him?  He doesn’t seem to know anything about [leaving out the spoiler] so how did he get involved? 

Think about that if you see the movie.  But don’t see the movie.  It isn’t very good.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ouija - 1 1/2 stars

Is it too much to ask for an original horror movie?  Or at least one with characters that are actually three dimensional?  With dialogue that doesn’t suck?

Here’s the story:  a girl uses a Ouija board, summons an evil spirit and is killed.  Then her friends decide to use the same Ouija board to try and contact her.  They summon the same evil spirit, and they’re killed off one by one.  Along the way, they consult a crazy old woman in an insane asylum who knows what’s going on and how to stop it.  This involves finding a hidden room in the basement of the old house where many years before, a family was killed …

After the initial killing, the movie is really boring for about a half hour.  There are a couple of minor scares, but mostly we’re watching forgettable characters with nothing interesting to say to each other.  The climax of the movie is exciting for about five minutes, and there was one thing that happened that really freaked me out.  But otherwise, I was just bored.

It’s funny how out of nowhere, the main character’s old housekeeper knows exactly what to do.  We’ve only seen her a couple times in the movie and we get no backstory on her.  But because every horror movie needs a character like that, she’s the one who can tell the kids how to stop the evil spirit.

If all you’re looking for is a scary movie to make you jump a few times, this will do the trick.  But that’s all the movie has going for itself.

John Wick - 3 stars

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a retired assassin.  He settled down and got married.  As the story begins, his wife has just died.  Before she checked out, she got him a puppy as a gift.  Now that puppy is all he has left in the world.  Well, that and his car.  When Russian mobsters (isn’t it always Russian mobsters?) steal his car and kill his dog, he’s going to get revenge. 

This movie was a lot of fun.  There’s a ton of shooting and bloodshed, and it’s all done with a great visual style.  Keanu Reeves plays this type of character really well.  He doesn’t have to emote much, just grunt and look pissed off. 

There were so many things to like in this movie.  There’s the crew that comes in to clean up the bodies after a shootout.  There’s the way he has a stash of gold coins, and that’s what he uses to pay everyone.  There’s the hotel where gangsters and criminals go to socialize.  The hotel is like a fraternity, and one of the rules is no business is to be conducted on hotel property.  Ian McShane has a couple of nice scenes as Winston, the enforcer at the hotel.

But my favorite scene is the one where Viggo Tarasov (the head of the Russian mobsters) finds out it’s John Wick who’s after his son – his son Iosef is the one who killed John’s dog.

I know I’m sometimes hard on movies if they aren’t original.  This is definitely a story I’ve seen before.  If it was made in the 70s, it would star Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood.  But this movie was so stylish and fun, and it had such a good sense of humor about itself, that I didn’t mind how predictable it was.  And I wouldn’t mind at all if they made a sequel.

Men, Women & Children - 2 1/2 stars

Men, Women & Children follows the story of a group of high school teenagers and their parents as they attempt to navigate the many ways the internet has changed their relationships, their communication, their self-image, and their love lives.  But it’s very heavy-handed about it …

There are a lot of characters in this movie.  Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Don (Adam Sandler) are stuck in a loveless marriage, and each of them is thinking about having an affair.  Don uses his son’s computer to view internet porn.  His son has been addicted to internet porn since he was young, and he’s gotten so desensitized to normal sexuality that his first sexual experience with a real girl doesn’t go well.

Jennifer Garner plays Patricia, a mother who does nothing but worry about who her daughter is chatting with online.  She has nothing to worry about, but that doesn’t stop her from monitoring everything her daughter does.  Every night she logs into her daughter’s computer and phone and reads every message and text.  This becomes a problem when her daughter gets a boyfriend, a nice guy named Tim.  Tim is addicted to online gaming and his mother recently split for LA.  His newly single father Kent isn’t interested in dating again until he meets Joan.

Joan Clint (Judy Greer) is obsessed with helping her daughter Hannah become a celebrity.  She helps her by taking pictures of everything Hannah does and posting them to a website.  The website was originally intended to be like an online resume for Hannah’s acting ambitions, but Joan discovered that there’s money to be made in a “member’s only” section of the website …

There’s also a girl who used to be fat but is skinny now, and she’s determined to have her first kiss with the football player who made fun of her last year. 

There are some good stories here and I wasn’t bored watching this movie.  There were some cool effects used to show everyone on their phones.  When we see a hallway full of students getting out of class, they’re all on their phones.  Above their heads, we see the various screen shots of their text, facebook chats, and other stuff.  It’s a cool device to show how each person is in their own little world instead of interacting with each other.

Despite the good stuff, the movie falls flat.  It feels like it’s trying to be too important and profound.  We know the dangers of online dating and that we need to be aware of what our kids are doing online.  These are good themes for a movie to explore, but I think this movie bites off more than it can chew.  And the movie keeps cutting back to scenes of the Voyager spacecraft exploring the solar system and referencing Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan.  Profound stuff but the movie’s not that deep.

The Best of Me - 1 1/2 stars

There’s a formula to a Nicholas Sparks movie.  First, you take two pretty white people.  There has to be an obstacle that makes love between them impossible, but then they fall in love anyway.  Then, an exploitative disaster happens that turns the romance into a tragedy.  Someone has to die, and you have your movie.

In this movie, the pretty white people are Dawson Cole (James Marsden) and Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan).  The obstacle is their family situations.  Her family’s rich and he comes from a family of criminals.  There’s even the obligatory scene where her father offers to pay Dawson if he’ll stay away from Amanda. 

The love story is told mostly in flashback.  Young Dawson (Luke Bracey) and young Amanda (Liana Liberato) meet in high school and fall in love, despite their differences.  Early on, Dawson runs away from home and is taken in by Major Dad, I mean, Tuck (Gerald McRaney).  Tuck’s wife died recently and taking in a runaway is exactly what he needs, I guess.

Tuck’s death is what brings old Dawson and Amanda back together.  We know right away that they didn’t end up living happily ever after, so for most of the movie, we’re just waiting to find out why they split up.  When we do find out, it’s because of … wait for it … a manipulative disaster where someone dies.  Now that the late Tuck has arranged for old Dawson and Amanda to reconnect, will they fall back in love, or will they remain apart?  Or will there be ANOTHER disaster where ANOTHER person will die? 

I tried to cut this movie some slack … oh, who am I kidding.  I knew the movie would suck, and it didn’t disappoint.  It’s badly written, it’s manipulative, and it’s way too long.  There’s a reveal in the last five minutes of the movie that had the entire theater laughing. 

Nicholas Sparks is a menace and he needs to be stopped.  Don’t waste your time seeing this movie.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day - 3 stars

Alexander’s terrible day is only the setup to this movie.  He does have a pretty bad day, but that’s only the first 5 or 10 minutes of the movie.  Before going to bed that night, he wishes that his unsympathetic family would have a bad day of their own, so they would understand what he’s gone through.  The next morning, it’s his family who has a horrible, no good day.  His day actually goes pretty well.

Each member of the family has something really important going on today.  Dad is an out of work rocket scientist, and he has an interview with a video game company.  Mom works for a publishing company, and she’s in charge of a big celebrity book reading that day.  Alexander’s older brother Anthony has both his driving test and junior prom that day, and his sister Emily is playing the lead in the school’s production of Peter Pan. 

I had pretty low expectations for this movie going in, and I was pleasantly surprised.  Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner play his parents, and they provided plenty of laughs.  And Ed Oxenbould does a pretty good job playing Alexander.  Jennifer Coolidge shows up as a crazy driving instructor, and it’s always nice to see Dick Van Dyke in a movie, even if he only shows up for 30 seconds or so.

I’m probably going too easy on this movie.  I’m sure I could pick it apart if I wanted to.  Why would the school hold this big play and junior prom on the same day?  None of the characters really grow or learn anything, and everything kind of works itself out just by dumb luck. 

But it’s a good movie to take the family to.  It’s not too long (only about 80 minutes), there are laughs for the kids and adults, and everything works out for everyone in the end.  

Kill the Messenger - 2 1/2 stars

Based on a true story, Jeremy Renner plays Gary Webb, a reporter for a small newspaper.  He accidentally discovers evidence of the CIA’s involvement in the crack epidemic.  Basically the CIA worked with crack dealers back in the 80s, and they used the profits to fund an illegal war in Nicaragua.  When Webb writes the story, his paper runs it, and then the trouble starts. 

It’s hard to talk about a movie like this without referencing All the President’s Men.  There are a lot of similarities – a reporter out of his league, his editor pushing him to get sources and make sure the story’s tight, intimidation from the government, and exposing national corruption.  For the first hour or so, that’s where it seemed like this movie was going, and I was really enjoying it. 

But late in the movie, there’s nowhere for the story to go.  The investigation is done and the story is published, and the CIA stops going after him.  There’s a good 20 minutes where nothing much happens.  The focus shifts to Webb and his family, but the movie doesn’t do much with that.  There are a couple of good scenes showing the tension his family is under, and there is a really good scene where Webb is confronted by his son for a past indiscretion.  But most of the time, I was bored.

Part of the problem is the story is anticlimactic.  I’m not sure what they could have done exactly to make the last half hour better.  I am glad they didn’t add anything like a car chase or shootout that didn’t happen in real life.  But at the same time, it makes for a less exciting movie.  

The Judge - 3 stars

Robert Downey, Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a hot shot, big city lawyer.  His mom dies and he has to go home to Small Town, Missouri (or wherever it is) and face his dad (Robert Duvall).  His dad is a well-respected judge in the town, and the two of them hate each other.  When his dad is accused of murder, Hank has to convince his father to take him on as his attorney.

This movie is trying to be several things at once.  Most of the time, it’s a dysfunctional family drama.  From their first scene together, we can tell the relationship between Hank and his father is not good.  But then his father is on trial, and we meet the slick prosecuting attorney, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton).  At this point, the movie becomes a courtroom drama.  Hank is also dealing with his ending marriage and pending custody battle over his daughter.  The movie also finds time for a little romance between Hank and his high school girlfriend, Samantha (Vera Farmiga).

The first 20 minutes or so of the movie are pretty rough.  It feels sloppily edited, and I thought the trailer did a much better job of conveying the emotional beats that the movie is going for.  In fact, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie.  The only things you’re waiting for in the movie are why do Hank and his dad hate each other so much, and will his dad be convicted of murder.

But the reason to see this movie is the performances.  It’s a lot of fun to see Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall bicker and argue the way they do.  As the movie progresses and we learn more about the pain they’ve gone through, the scenes get deeper and more intense.  There’s some real powerful stuff going on in their scenes together.

Besides those actors, Vincent D’Onofrio does a good job as Hank’s brother, Glen, who’s kind of the anchor keeping the family together.  And Dax Shepard gets some laughs as a lawyer / antique dealer who’s not at all up to the challenge of a murder trial. 

The movie is 2 ½ hours long, and it feels it.  I think it would have been a good idea to cut at least one of the storylines out, or cut it down.  The most important story in the movie is Hank’s relationship with his father, and I really didn’t care that much how the trial turns out.  And there’s a really unnecessary scene at the end where we see Hank back in the same bathroom he was in at the start of the movie, having a conversation with the same lawyer.  The scene is showing us how much his character has changed by the end of the movie, and it was too on-the-nose. 

But despite my reservations, I enjoyed the movie enough to recommend it.  

Friday, October 3, 2014

Gone Girl - 4 stars

Based on the book by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), Gone Girl is directed by David Fincher, who is probably my favorite director working today.  Almost every movie he’s directed has ended up as one of my favorite movies of the year.  Zodiac, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Game, Fight Club, and Se7en are movies I can watch over and over again.  Those movies are so well cast, the performances are all great, the stories are interesting, but my favorite element is hard to explain.  It’s something about the look and atmosphere of those movies.  Fincher just has such a great eye for cinema, and every shot looks great.

Anyway, enough about the director, let’s talk about this movie.  Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, and Rosamund Pike plays his wife, Amy Elliott-Dunne.  As the movie begins, Nick doesn’t look happy.  He goes to the bar he owns with his twin sister and hangs out with her for a while.  When he returns home, there are signs of a struggle and his wife Amy is missing. 

As the police and volunteers start searching for Amy, we see flashbacks of how Nick and Amy fell in love.  Their marriage seems almost too perfect for a while, then things start to bad.  See, Amy’s from New York City but Nick is from Missouri.  He’s living in New York when they meet and get married, but two things cause them to move back to Nick’s home town.  First the recession hits and they both lose their jobs.  Then Nick’s mother gets cancer and he wants to move home to take care of her. 

As their story progresses, we see Nick and Amy grow further apart.  She’s not happy living in this small town and he starts changing.  In her eyes, he isn’t the same guy she married in New York.  By using her diary as narration, we get a pretty good picture of a marriage falling apart.  Add to that the fact that she’s rich, owns the bar he and his sister run, and Amy made Nick sign a prenuptial agreement. 

The movie cuts back and forth between the history of their marriage and the current investigation into Amy’s disappearance.  The movie does a great job of keeping us guessing.  Nick may have snapped and killed his wife, or he may have had nothing to do with it.  There are other surprises as the movie goes along, but the less you know about that, the better.

This is the best work Ben Affleck has done in a long time, but even better is the performance by Rosamund Pike.  She’s been in quite a few movies, including Die Another Day, An Education, Jack Reacher, and The World’s End.  But she didn’t really stand out in any of those.  In Gone Girl, she gives a career making performance.  There’s a lot to this character and she does a really good job.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she got an Oscar nomination for this movie.

Besides the two leads, there were a lot of other really good performances.  Carrie Coon plays Nick’s sister Margo, and she’s kind of the conscience of the movie.  Neil Patrick Harris is an ex-boyfriend of Amy’s and he’s surprisingly creepy.  Kim Dickens is the detective investigating Amy’s disappearance, and she was a lot of fun.  I think my favorite scenes were when she was on screen.  She’s a feisty woman with a southern accent, and she reminded me a lot of Holly Hunter’s detective character in Copycat.  She’s always in control of a crime scene and ordering all the other cops around.

But the biggest surprise is probably Tyler Perry as Tanner Bolt, the most famous and expensive lawyer in the country.  Perry has already made a name for himself with his Madea movies.  I haven’t seen very many of his movies, but he was really entertaining here. 

This is a great movie.  It’s a really interesting who-done-it crime drama, but it’s so much more than that.  It’s satirizing the media and our obsession with reality TV.  It’s commenting on post-recession America and how that affected people.  It’s making a statement about the complexity of marriage.  And as of early October, it’s the best movie of the year.

Annabelle - 2 stars

Annabelle is kind of a prequel to The Conjuring, which was a really good horror movie from last year.  I say “kind of a prequel” because the doll Annabelle wasn’t a big part of The Conjuring.  If you remember that movie, when we first met paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), they had just finished the case involving Annabelle.  The doll was kept in Ed’s room full of cursed objects for most of the movie.

Set before the events of The Conjuring, Annabelle starts with John Gordon giving his pregnant wife Mia a creepy looking doll.  Scary stuff starts happening, the couple moves from their house to an apartment, and scary stuff keeps happening.  So it isn’t the house that’s haunted but something else.

The story of this movie is very predictable.  If recycles ideas from better horror movies, including the wise old lady who owns a vintage bookstore.  The store just happens to have just the right book to explain demons and possession, and the old lady just happens to be an expert.  Another problem is the characters John and Mia are really boring.  All Mia does is sit around the house all day waiting to be tormented by a demon.  All John does is go to work, come home and disbelieve his wife.  The performances aren’t bad, but the script gives them absolutely nothing to work with.

The only things this movie has going for it is its connection to a far better horror movie and some good scares.  And I admit those scares are pretty good.  There’s a sequence in the basement of their apartment building that really freaked me out.  Some creepy stuff happens, Mia gets in the elevator, the doors close, and when they open she’s still in the basement.  This continues for a few minutes, and it was really effective.  There are some other good scares that made me jump, but that’s it.  When nothing scary is happening, I was just waiting for the next scary thing to happen.  Nothing else happens in this movie. 

So overall, the movie is boring with a few good scares.  And that doll is really creepy.

The Equalizer - 3 stars

Denzel Washington plays Robert McCall.  Robert follows the same routine every day.  He gets up, goes to work at the hardware store, then at night he goes to a local diner where he reads The Old Man and the Sea.  We can see that he’s got OCD because of the way he arranges his napkin and silverware just so, and he brings his own teabag to the diner.  While there, he chats with Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young call girl working for Russian gangsters.  He doesn’t approve of the way they treat her, and eventually he’ll have to get involved.

We’ve seen this kind of movie before.  McCall is a guy everyone thinks of as a mild mannered nice guy, but he has a secret past, and he has a very special set of skills.  You can tell right away that when he’s pushed and has to start fighting, he will have no trouble kicking some ass.  

What makes this work is Washington’s performance.  In the hands of a lesser actor, this could have been a boring character.  But Washington is so good that he’s even interesting when he’s doing nothing but watching others.  It takes a while for the action to start – it was a good 20 or 30 minutes in before he has his first confrontation with the Russian gangsters.  And the confrontation is a bloody one.  He uses whatever is in the room, including corkscrews, to dispatch half a dozen of his attackers.  

One problem I did have was that he never seemed to not be in control.  We never see him get hurt or make a wrong decision.  At some point, it loses the excitement when every time he encounters some more bad guys, he dispatches them without hardly batting an eye.

On the other hand, that’s part of the fun too.  We watch in slow motion as he looks around the room and sizes up the threats.  Then he goes to work.  The climax of the movie takes place in the hardware store, and I may never look at a drill the same way again.
The movie is too long, and I started to get bored in the second half.  For a while, the movie has nowhere to go and we spend a lot of time watching the main villain, Teddy (Martin Csokas) looking for McCall.  They could have easily cut a good 20 minutes out of this movie.

But that aside, I enjoyed it.  It’s always fun to watch Denzel Washington in ass kicking mode, and the story was compelling enough to recommend the movie.