Monday, March 24, 2014

The Hangover Part III (2013) * 1/2

Directed by:  Todd Phillips

Starring:  Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Ken Jeong, John Goodman, Justin Bartha

The plot:   The Hangover guys are at it again, this time tracking down their old frenemy Chow to deliver him to a mobster he stole from.   

With the exception of a brief scene shown during the closing credits, there is no hangover in The Hangover Part III.     Part II was pretty much The Hangover set in Thailand and it was so lame that I wrote as the last sentence of my review, "Please don't call me if there is a Hangover III."    Well, there is and I watched it.    It is only slightly better than Part II, but that's faint praise.     Judging by the lack of energy some of the actors exude here, a Hangover 4 is not in anyone's plans.  

The last two Hangover films allowed the two most annoying characters to take center stage:   Alan (Galifianakis) and Chow (Jeong).    Both are nearly unbearable.    We almost wish the fate of the poor giraffe Alan is proudly driving home on the freeway would befall one or both of them, but alas they are in for the long haul.      Much of the humor is aimed at killing animals or Alan and Chow's homosexual tendencies.     When a pawn shop owner (Melissa McCarthy) arrives later in the movie and becomes Alan's love interest, we can scarcely believe it.     Alan has just spent three-quarters of the movie making passes at Phil (Cooper), who is as disinterested in that as he is mostly everything else in the film.    It came as little shock that Cooper was paid $15 million plus back end profits to start in this film.     It may take twice as much for him to come back for a fourth installment.

The Hangover Part III plays more like an action thriller than a continuation of the story, which really didn't need to be done anyway.     The original Hangover was a self-contained comedy that didn't require sequels, but box-office receipts and studio execs seeing dollar signs thought otherwise.     What we have is here is tired and predictable.     There is maybe one chuckle in the movie, which I think Alan delivered in his eulogy to his father.    I think I chuckled anyway.

The guy I really feel sorry for is Doug (Bartha), who is the kidnap victim of mobster Marshall (Goodman) as insurance the guys will deliver Chow to him.     In all three films, he has to wait on the sidelines off screen while everyone else gets in on the fun.     Then again, he doesn't have to appear on screen that much, so maybe it's a blessing.     Marshall's rationale for targeting the Wolfpack (ugh) is that they brought Chow into his world so they must be held accountable for him.       I'm starting to feel the same way about the original Hangover. 

Erin Brockovich (2000) * *

Directed by:  Steven Soderbergh

Starring:  Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Marg Helgenberger, Cherry Jones, Tracey Walter, Peter Coyote

The Plot:   Law firm file clerk Erin Brockovich investigates alleged water pollution in a small California town, leading to the biggest class-action settlement in U.S. history.

The biggest issue I have with Erin Brockovich (Roberts) is its abrasive title character who is frequently allowed to chastise others in long, demeaning speeches.     Her tactlessness is mistaken for assertiveness.    She lashes out in many cases at the slightest hint of disrespect, leading me to believe she has serious anger management issues, yet she is celebrated as a hero. 

Erin Brockovich is a real person (who has a cameo in the film as a waitress).    She is now a famed environmentalist crusader who started as a file clerk for the law firm that represented her unsuccessfully in a personal injury case.    It's no wonder her case failed.     The judge is one of the recipients of the aforementioned speeches.     Dressing in outfits a prostitute would wear proudly, she bullies her way into a job with the firm run by harried Ed Masry (Finney).    With boxes and files strewn everywhere, the Masry law firm could certainly use another file clerk, but not this one.    It's little wonder that nothing seems to get done around there; the clerks are all busy giving Erin dirty looks.

Erin stumbles across a land transfer file containing medical reports and test results on a homeowner, which Erin finds peculiar and travels to the small town of Hinkley to get the story.     The homeowner was offered a large sum of money by a powerful energy firm to sell her home to them, but she refuses.     Some more poking around reveals that the energy company may have used a toxic substance to line its pipes and thus contaminating the town's water supply.     Many more people report illnesses directly related to the contamination, which causes Erin to talk her already overworked boss into bringing lawsuits.     

Also in the mix is George (Eckhart), a neighbor biker who watches Erin's children and falls in love with her.    Her initial meeting with him is another of her self-righteous speeches, but they fall in love anyway in a very unconvincing relationship.     George is a very nice man and doesn't deserve to be treated with such disdain by Erin, who is clearly taking advantage of his near saintly demeanor.
Their relationship is a perfect example of two people falling in love because the script requires them to.     There is no juice at all.

Julia Roberts won an Academy Award for this film and I suppose I can't fault her performance.     She is following the role as written, which is as a loud, self-righteous blowhard.     I would have to think the real Erin Brockovich was slightly more composed and tactful.     I've seen her interviewed and it certainly appears that she is, although she still has a fondness for short skirts.  

The supporting characters in the movie are well-played, especially Finney who is the epitome of overworked and much more patient with Erin than he should be.    The movie works better when it studies the ever-challenging world of litigation and class action lawsuits.     However, much of that falls by the wayside when Erin begins her grandstanding.  


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Counselor (2013) *

Directed by:  Ridley Scott

Starring:  Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Rosie Perez

The plot:   An attorney becomes part of a drug deal that goes wrong and finds himself hunted by the people involved.

The Counselor is a waste of an A-list cast and a master director on a Z-grade film.     The actors are saddled with long, Deep speeches about life and death.     There are no characters, good or bad, (although most are bad) that we care about.    The screenwriter is Cormac McCarthy, whose novel No Country For Old Men was adapted by the Coen brothers into a great film.      If The Counselor is any indication of his screenwriting ability, he should stick to novels.

In terms of plot and excitement, The Counselor is a dead zone.     The protagonist is The Counselor (Fassbender), who is referred to as "Counselor" and doesn't seem to have a first name.     His wife (Cruz) doesn't even refer to him by whatever his first name is.     It's tough to see what his motivation is for entering into a drug deal with a Mexican cartel.    He seems to earn enough money to afford to buy his wife a 3.9 karat diamond ring.    (Or does he need the money to pay for it?)     My advice to The Counselor would be to buy something cheaper so you don't have to get in bed with a ruthless Mexican drug cartel.

But get in bed he does, and soon enough, a courier hiding a $20 million stash in his motorcycle helmet is beheaded and the money stolen.     Because the courier's mother is a client, The Counselor is being held responsible for the money and becomes a target.     The Counselor soon realizes that the cartel is immune to reasoning.      The whole business of how the courier ends his life without a head is something Wile E. Coyote would dream up in order to snare the Road Runner.     Get this:   A guy stretches a thin, sharp wire across a deserted highway.     When the motorcyclist speeds by, off goes the head.     How did they know the courier would be taking that road?    If a truck or another vehicle came by, did the guy have to set the whole thing up again?     How many times did this hapeen?   I would've preferred a scene where the guy, setting up the wire after an 18-wheeler ran through it, is run over by the speeding motorcyclist.    

Fassbender doesn't create a protagonist we have any feeling for one way or the other.    Brad Pitt shows up as a shadowy figure who warns Fassbender about entering into a deal with the cartel.     It is not especially clear what his function is.    Cruz is barely onscreen enough to care about her if and when she goes missing.     Javier Bardem recites painful dialogue while sporting a hairdo that looks like he stuck his wet finger in an electrical outlet.     And he thought his hairdo in No Country For Old Men was bad.    Cameron Diaz seems to be trying her best to have fun with such absurd material, but she too is saddled with dialogue like, "Truth has no temperature," which brings unintentional laughs.    

Who knows?  Maybe "Truth has no temperature" was kicked around as a tagline for the movie poster.    I sincerely hope not.     But The Counselor doesn't want to be a simple thriller.    It wants to be Deep and Meaningful, thus having drug kingpins telling stories about grief, loss, and misery to others.     It's goals are loftier, but that doesn't make the film any better.     I sometimes say that mindless action thrillers shouldn't be so mindless.     I suppose with The Counselor I get exactly what I deserve.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Walk The Line (2005) * * * 1/2

Directed by:   James Mangold

Starring:  Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Patrick, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dallas Roberts

The Plot:  A biopic focuses on Johnny Cash and his rise to stardom, his battles with drug addiction, and his long courtship of June Carter.

Johnny Cash started from a humble Arkansas upbringing in which his father blamed him for his brother's death.    His father Ray would make pointed comments like "The wrong brother died", which would fuel Johnny's desire to become a famous singer.     It also may have driven him to such despair that he would turn to pills and alcohol to relieve the pain.     Consuming drugs and alcohol usually only adds to life's pressures, but an addict doesn't see that.    Cash's life soon became unmanageable, rescued by June Carter and her strong, close family.     June is a strong, sensible woman with a knack of hooking up with the wrong guys.     She doesn't want to rescue Johnny from his demons, saying, "I don't want to be down there with him."    Her mother replies, "You are already down there with him."

The relationship between Johnny and June, who eventually married in 1968 after a long courtship, is at the heart of Walk The Line and makes it an above-average biopic.    They remained married until her death in May 2003, which was followed by Johnny's death four months later.    It's at its heart a romance, but plenty of Cash's songs are highlighted, with Phoenix singing vocals and sounding eerily like Cash.    (Witherspoon also sang her own vocals).     Like many stars, Cash can never learn to fully appreciate his life until he kicks drugs and buries his demons.     He hits bottom over a Thanksgiving weekend in Nashville when he tries to unbury a tractor stuck in the mud.   

Phoenix, as Cash, is the soul of the film, but Witherspoon is the heart.    She clearly loves him, but because she is smart and in control, she avoids having an affair with him.    Despite her love, she's not in the habit of enabling.    "You don't walk no line," she tells Johnny after he shows up drunk at a rehearsal.     She walks out on their tour and only returns after Johnny begs her to come back.    He clearly loves her also, but can't get out of his own way or his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Viv (Goodwin).

Like many biopics, some scenes in Walk The Line are fictional or play fast and loose with the facts, but it doesn't make it any less entertaining.     The performances are top-notch, with Phoenix and Witherspoon playing convincing real-life people.    They also sing very well, which allows for an appreciation of the legendary music they created.     Since some of the scenes were fictional anyway, I would've liked a more definitive resolution to Cash's ongoing conflict with his disapproving father.     There is a buildup to a big fight that never takes place.    At the end, things seem to be ok between them, but we don't really know why.    That's a minor quibble in a mostly enjoyable film. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) * 1/2

Directed by:  Francis Lawrence

Starring:  Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, Jena Malone, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland

The plot:  Round 2 of The Hunger Games, in which past winners compete with each other in a terrain of traps and monsters, under scrutiny of President Snow, who wishes to use the games as a method of extinguishing any hope from the masses and prevent a revolution.

I swore to myself I wouldn't watch any more Hunger Games movies, but here I am breaking my own vow.     Catching Fire is slightly better, probably because plot developments aren't announced over a loudspeaker.    Plus, if you look quickly enough, you will see some sunshine peeking through (unlike the first movie where skies were gray all day long.)

So here we are in the America of strange names and dictatorship, where the annual Hunger Games are televised to entertain the downtrodden masses.     Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), co-winner of last year's games, is booked on a nationwide tour with her other co-winner Peeta Mulark (Hutcherson).    They love each other, although they don't fully acknowledge it yet, and are convinced by their handlers to act as if they are in love so the masses will be swayed by their love story.     Considering the condition of the people and their cities, this is a fool's errand.

President Snow (Sutherland) is fearful that Katniss will be seen as a symbol of hope and wants her killed.    His assistant Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman-in one of his last performances) thinks otherwise, wanting to discredit her instead of outright killing her and turning her into a martyr.    Or maybe he has other plans for her?    In the meantime, Heavensbee controls the playing field in which the participants hunt each other; including changing weather, unleashing grotesque monsters, etc.   
It can't be a coincidence that he is named "Heavensbee" and plays God with the participants.   

The actual games arrive at about the 90-minute mark and because everything is so dark and there is so much vegetation, the action is hard to follow.     It seems one character is killed, only to find out it was another one.     A screen pops up in the sky every now and then to keep the participants (and us) straight on which characters were killed off.      Also, Katniss' weapon of choice is the bow and arrow.   She shoots arrows liberally, yet never seems to run out.    How does this happen?    Does she grow them?  Or take them out of the dead bodies to recycle them? 

Catching Fire is a long movie, running nearly 2 1/2 hours with enough political subplot to make one think he is watching CNN.     Two more movies are promised, Mocking Jay Parts I and II,     This seems to be the latest development in movie franchises:  Turn the final movie into two parts just to squeeze as much money out of the films as possible.     I won't make any promise that I won't watch these final two films, but the first two have been long, wearying, silly movies.     There is a cast of great actors here who deserve plenty of credit for taking it all seriously.  

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Monuments Men (2014) * *

The Monuments Men Movie Review

Directed by:  George Clooney

Starring:  George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Cate Blanchett

The Plot:  A group of Allied soldiers are tasked with saving works of art that were stolen and hidden by Nazis near the end of World War II.  

Here's a movie with a group of A-list actors that are all dressed up with no place to go.     It tries very hard to convince us that there is a story here worth caring about, but there isn't.     When a character provides three different speeches proclaiming how important the mission is to all humankind, we sense he is trying to sell us.     It's difficult, however, to get worked up over stolen art when Nazis committed far more heinous atrocities against humanity.      Stealing the Mona Lisa ranks rather low on the hierarchy of Nazi war crimes.

It's a shame to waste all of this combined talent, whether in front of or behind the camera, but The Monuments Men does just that.     Most make up the title characters, while Blanchett portrays a museum secretary in occupied France who assists the soldiers in finding out where the Nazis put all of the paintings, statues, and sculptures.     There is plenty of goodwill we have with these actors, who do their best to entertain, but the characters aren't interesting and we don't really care about them.

The Monuments Men never really crackles along.    There are too many sidebars and too much meandering, with little suspense because most of the abandoned mines the Nazis used as hiding places are sitting there unguarded waiting for the Monuments Men to find them.     Even a plot development involving Hitler's decree to destroy whatever art the Nazis stole seems thrown in as a "race against time" to help generate needed suspense.    Not much is done with this however.   

It shouldn't come as a surprise that a couple of the Monuments Men will be killed.    It seems the least recognizable actors are the ones that get whacked.     Just look at the top of this review at the names of the stars and you'll be able to deduce which two don't make it.    After the mission is accomplished and thousands of priceless works of art are saved from destruction, Clooney's character discusses the mission's success with President Truman, who asks not unreasonably if the mission was worth the lives of two men.      You know a movie is in trouble if even the film's screenplay questions the sanity of the mission.      Let's face it:  The Monuments Men really had no reason to be made. 

8MM (1999) * * * *

Image result for 8mm movie pics

Directed by:  Joel Schumacher

Starring:  Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Morton, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Anthony Heald, Chris Bauer, Peter Stormare

The Plot:   Private detective Tom Wells (Cage) is hired by a rich widow to verify the authenticity of a snuff film found in her late husband's vault.     His search takes him into a dark, amoral world he isn't quite prepared for.

I described the plot, but not the substance behind it.    People may likely hear about the plot and assume its subject is strictly about snuff films, but the film is what leads Wells into a world of hardcore pornography that transforms him.   It is difficult for Wells to walk through the murk without getting any on him.  He doesn't get away clean.

8MM is a powerful film, directed by Joel Schumacher as part thriller and part character study.    We see and learn about not only Wells, but Janet Matthews (Morton), the mother of the girl seemingly hacked to death in the film, who only wants to know for sure what happened to her daughter.    We meet Max California (Phoenix), a porn video store clerk who acts as Wells' guide through LA's deep, dark porn industry.     Wells is out of his depth, so Max, who once had dreams of film stardom, takes Wells on a tour of what could pass for Dante's Inferno.

Through painstaking investigative work, Wells is able to track down the makers of the film, who for a high price specialize in making whatever film turns you on, even if it involves murder.    One of the most intense scenes in the movie occurs when Wells calls Janet and asks for her permission to kill one of the film's slimy producers.     In his search for the truth and justice for the murdered girl, Wells becomes something that he never anticipated he would, which by the end has changed him.     His last words to his wife are "Save Me" as he cries helplessly in her arms.     Not "I Love You", but "Save Me".    We certainly understand why and this is a strong, moving scene.  

Schumacher juxtaposes Wells' professional life with his private one.    He has a wife he loves (Keener) and a baby, both of whom become targets when he gets closer to the truth about the film.    He calls her daily, seeking the sound of her voice and the baby's to keep him sane.     Most movie character's family lives are perfunctory and thrown in for color.    In 8MM, it's Wells' family that keeps him from spiraling out of control.  

8MM is not a film with a happy ending or even answers to some of the characters' motives.    When Wells confronts the hooded killer from the film, known as "The Machine", he asks why he murdered the girl.    The Machine bluntly states, "I do these things because I like to do them.    I wasn't abused or molested."     In some cases, this is a simple truth when we rack our brains trying to comprehend evil.     It can't be explained or comprehended, which is something Wells discovers as much as we do. 


Monday, March 3, 2014

86th Academy Awards: Some Thoughts

*  I've never seen a movie win Oscar after Oscar like Gravity did...and then not win Best Picture.    I picked 12 Years A Slave to win Best Picture, but as Gravity racked up technical awards and then Best Director, I thought for sure my prediction would be wrong.    Overall, Gravity won 7 Oscars while 12 Years A Slave won only three.    However, in my predictions in the major categories, I went 7 for 8 and went 17 for 23 in all categories.     My best year in a while. 

*  Once again, the telecast runs over 3 1/2 hours and the show could easily be finished in 2.   This year, many of the reviews of the telecast stated what I'm about to state:  It's time to stop televising the awards no one cares about.     I figure maybe 10 awards are needed to be televised.     The others should be handed out at their own non-televised ceremony on another night and recapped on the Oscar telecast, like the Scientific awards are now.    

*  This year's audience was even more standing-ovation happy than last year's.    I counted 12 standing ovations, which to me devalues the ovation.    It seemed anyone who sung a note received a standing ovation, including Darlene Love, who sang her acceptance speech when the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom won.    I couldn't really understand her and her singing was noisy.    Other performers seemed to stand there after they finished singing awaiting a standing ovation, as if they weren't going to leave the stage until they coaxed one out of the audience.

*  Host Ellen DeGeneres wasn't as horrible as she was in 2007, but she, like the show, was bland and full of shtick and stunts that went nowhere.    Delivering pizzas to the audience took up precious time and delivered zero laughs.    The now-famous selfie which crashed Twitter didn't do much for me as far as entertainment.     I just don't get her.

*  Where did they dig up some of these presenters?   Kim Novak?   (who looked frightening with the work she had done on her face).    Kate Hudson?  (She looked beautiful, but does she still make movies?)   Will Smith, who just won a Razzie Award the night before for Worst Actor, presented Best Picture?    Does no one want to present anymore?

*  It was great to see Sidney Poitier again, even though at 87 he is clearly slowing up.    But a legend is a legend.  

*  What exactly was Matthew McConaughey talking about?   Each acceptance speech this awards season gets progressively weirder with this guy.   And he thanked God, which apparently was lauded by the right.   Why is his mentioning God considered a victory for the religious right?    I'm sure McConaughey isn't the only actor who believes in God.    I guess the religious right had a tough week, considering their proposed discriminatory bill in Arizona was vetoed.  

*  And please, please, please, please stop with the montages.    This year's theme was "movie heroes", which means we get to see clips of Raiders Of The Lost Ark we've already seen a million times before.    Why do Oscar producers feel that the show has to have a theme?   Just give out some awards and end the fucking show while it's still Sunday night on the East Coast.