Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hitchcock wouldn't see this film.

Movie Review: Hitchcock

Director: Sacha Gervasi

Reviewed: 26 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--**

Hitchcock proves unworthy of its eponymous subject, focusing its energies on profile shots of an obese,   make-up laden Anthony Hopkins as the director but offering little insight into the mind of one of the greatest directors of all-time. The mind behind Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho is seen in glimpses in Sacha Gervasi's film, but ultimately, it seems unsure of where to go and what to be. Set in the late 1950's during a post-Vertigo malaise, Hitchcock breaks his drifting ennui after reading the book that would become Psycho as well as learning of the horrific murderers of Ed Gein. Collaborating with his wife Alma (a screenwriter and director herself), Hitch as he is called (but not called in the film's title) contemplates the world around him through peepholes and nearly shut blinds, clashing with studio heads and worrying about his legacy. Alma struggles being the woman behind the man, yearning to break out on her own as a screenwriter with a potential project by Whitfield Cook (Danny Houston) that could lead to more. Hitch directs Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) in the shower scene, talks to Ed Gein continuously, struggles with his diet and health, and attempts to craft the first modern horror film while simultaneously investigating his wife's possible infidelity. Whew.

As a Hitchcock fan, I was entranced by the film's window into this period in the artist's life, much like I love watching the MTV videos of my favorite bands from the 90's, catching up on footage and stories that I know I would like but never have had a chance to investigate. However, the film seems content to be a series of wry punch lines, trivia claptrap, and lukewarm conflict. There is no journey into the heart of darkness here, nor any true insight into the artist himself. The film is at its best during the filming of the shower scene, with a flailing Anthony Hopkins holding the knife himself, part director and part maestro. Hopkins and Mirren are capable here, and the film wants to be more than it is. It mentions the director's famed obsessions with his leading ladies but does not go deeper. The conversations with Ed Gein are off-putting and a strange narrative choice; the conflicts are mostly inert. Hitchcock is a revered director and artist, worthy of a well-made artistic film. Hitchcock is not that. The great director himself would no doubt label this film "claptrap" and not recommend it.  I would do the same.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Heat: Melissa McCarthy Brings It.

Movie Review: The Heat

Director: Paul Feig

Reviewed: 24 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

Melissa McCarthy is a national treasure. She follows up her Academy Award nominated turn in Bridesmaids by reuniting with the same director and transforming into the violent and colorfully curse-spewing Boston Police Detective Mullins who is paired with high-flying, widely disliked F.B.I. Agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) as both attempt to solve a case. The plot is merely the frame for hanging McCarthy's unique and brilliant extemporizing of insults and physical comedy, with McCarthy dragging a man out of his car, slamming a suspect down on a fence, and in general, owning the film with her bravura performance. She earned one deep, unstoppable laugh from me that went on for about thirty seconds, and the strength of her character's charming and anarchic ways make this nearly a film that I can recommend.

Working against The Heat is its thoughtless plotting and some seriously unfunny sequences. I think having a scene with Bullock and McCarthy on the dance floor is supposed to be funny but just does not work. And a scene in a Denny's takes a macabre turn for no reason. The bad guys are generic and interchangeable, and the film often has to rely on its soundtrack to tell the story.

The contrast in personalities is fun because McCarthy's character is horrifying to her partner at times while saying things that are impossible not to laugh at. But listening to Sandra Bullock play mousey and weak or fumble over curse words just does not pack the same punch as watching McCarthy bulldoze through her scenes, an artist in obscenity. One character calls her, "Bull in China shop," and I think that is pretty accurate.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Primal Fear: Satisfying and Well-Acted.

Movie Review: Primal Fear

Director: Gregory Hoblit

Reviewed: 9 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

Primal Fear is the film debut of Edward Norton, and it stands out as a solidly built courtroom thriller with plenty of twists and turns and a fun Chicago setting. The Archbishop of Chicago is murdered brutally, and Norton's altar boy is arrested covered in blood, claiming that someone else did the crime. Enter expert defense attorney (and Chicago Magazine cover boy) Richard Gere who sees the case as an opportunity to promote himself as well as crush some opposing lawyers and settle old scores. A courtroom drama and investigation ensues with supporting work from Andre Braugher, Laura Linney, and John Mahoney.

The film never dazzles, but it moves steadily along, chumming through plot and the occasional jolt. There's something to be said for a film that just works its way through its story. The performances are all great, and I loved Richard Gere's work especially. I think it is a really satisfying, well-told film.

The Thing: Body Horror and Creatures at the South Pole

Movie Review: The Thing

Director: John Carpenter

Reviewed: 16 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

The Thing has the pedigree of one of the all-time great horror films, and I will admit that it did not disappoint. Kurt Russell leads a bearded band of scientists on an outpost in the frigid South Pole that encounters a dog being chased through the snow by a Norwegian helicopter. The Norwegians are firing upon the dog, injure a scientist, and end up being blown up themselves. All that is left is the wreckage and the dog and a series of unanswered questions. When one scientist becomes infected by something unexplainable, the remainder band together and try to keep the danger out. However, part of the menace comes from the creatures ability to shape shift and take the form of other creatures, even humans.

The film is unrelenting in its approach with a spare score and a constant stream of suspense. There are multiple jaw-dropping moments of terror with incredible creatures effects and gore. It feels scary in a very authentic way. The hallways are spare, and the cold, unrelenting. The film feels like it takes place in outer space or in a desert with its claustrophobia. A scene where Russell tests the blood of the survivors is quite fun, and the supporting cast of all-male scientists conveys fear, cabin fever, paranoia, and rage, sometimes all at the same time. Wilford Brimley in particular is a standout as a scientist gone wild. The Thing is only as strong as its scary moments, and the team behind the creature here does memorable work. A gripping, disturbing film.

Richard Linklater's Ode to Love, Time, and Change: Before Midnight.

Movie Review: Before Midnight

Director: Richard Linklater

Reviewed: 9 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Before Midnight, Richard Linklater's third film, continues to track lovers Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) every nine years and finds the pair in the south of Greece with their two daughters, sending Jesse's son back to Chicago after a summer vacation. On an artist's vacation, Jesse and Celine take to the countryside for a long, meandering walk when friends agree to babysit for the night as well as renting them a hotel room. The couple explores and negotiates their own relationship and the time that has passed in honest, surprisingly raw ways, and Linklater stays with the couple even through the most uncomfortable moments. A seemingly romantic build-up is undercut by the answering of a phone call; a  long dormant conflict from the past returns; questions of fidelity abound. Celine wonders about the sacrifices that she has had to make to be a parent. Jesse considers moving his family to Chicago to be more of a presence in his family's life. An argument in a hotel room never ends, taking on an epic, otherworldly quality. Films never show this window into adults behaving this way. Part of the format of the film is a change from the previous two. Part of the fun is filling in the gaps in what we have missed in their relationship. The stakes seem plausibly real: the couple negotiates what it means to remain in love in middle-age. I found the final scene quite touching, and I think that Linklater has triumphed in making a film about adults for adults. I think that Hawke and Delpy will be known forever for these roles, and I think that Linklater's cinematic experiment has proven wildly successful.  Here's to another nine years of waiting to see what is in store for this couple.

Moonstruck Strikes Gold

Movie Review: Moonstruck

Director: Norman Jewison

Reviewed: 13 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Moonstruck features an all-star cast and a sweet heart; Norman Jewison's comedy featuring an Italian-American family's struggles with love. Cher stars as Loretta, a widowed bookkeeper engaged to the bumbling Johnny (Danny Aiello). Loretta lives with her mom and dad (Olympia Dukakis and Vincent Manelli), and when Johnny leaves for Italy to comfort his dying mother, he asks Loretta to make peace with his estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) and invite him to their wedding. Chaos (and love) ensues.

Cher and Cage are standouts, and their storyline is one that I wished had more to it. The film shows Loretta's transformation as she falls in love, and the parallel storylines with her unhappy parents provide  a nice counterpoint. The final scene is a standout, and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley's script works everything together in grand comedic fashion. The film feels lived-in and authentic with a sort of Greek chorus provided by the grandfather who lives upstairs and walks his five dogs. The film is concerned with love and its messiness and its complications, and it is rather glorious in what it does.

RoboCop = Awesome

Movie Review: RoboCop

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Reviewed: 13 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Unlike Lethal Weapon, an action film from the late eighties that I finally caught up with last week, RoboCop did not disappoint in presenting a fairly straightforward science-fiction violent thriller with enough laughs and bleak commentary on our civilization to be both enjoyable and prescient. In a chilling echo of modern times, Detroit has declared bankruptcy and Omni Corp seems poised to raze the city and make a huge profit using its automated drones to replace the police. Construction of a new city offers tantalizing amounts of cash to corrupt corporate executives and criminal leaders galore. A newly transferred cop named Murphy survives a horrific attack and finds himself converted into a human cyborg nicknamed RoboCop. A blend of The Terminator and a sharp satire, RoboCop blends some very gory, tactile gross-out moments and effects with some more emotional moments, but the film never loses sight of its targets: the military industrial complex and the corporate culture. Although it is far from perfect, I think it is a perfectly serviceable entertaining thriller, and Verhoeven, as always, has something interesting to say. Peter Weller is fine as Murphy/RoboCop, and I did find some of the body-gore disturbing. The computer effects are fine for the time, and I love the corporate culture focus. It is being remade this year, and I hope it captures the same spirit of fun and sharp satire as this original. Highly recommended.

The Raid: Redemption = A Masterpiece of a Martial-Arts Action Film

Movie Review: The Raid: Redemption

Director: Gareth Evans

Reviewed: 16 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

In 2011's The Raid: Redemption, Gareth Evans has crafted a breathtaking action film, ingenious in its simplicity and stunning in its choreography. A SWAT team of officers in Indonesia burst into a looming building run by a crime boss. In video game style, the team must ascend the flights of stairs and arrest, incapacitate, or kill any of the underlings en route to the boss. Evans puts us squarely behind his lead character, Rama (Iko Uwais), an officer with a pregnant wife at home and at least one hidden reason for making this assault on the criminal fortress.

Once inside, the elite team of soldiers finds themselves outgunned, outmanned, and outmaneuvered as the boss orchestrates a brutal counterattack from his penthouse. The fighting in this film is brutal: a combination of martial arts with knives, chairs, chains, glass, anything at hand. Evans wisely pulls his camera back, allowing the ballet-like display of limbs flying and bouncing off each other to have a real impact. At no point in this film did I feel like it was chaos cinema: unexplained or incomprehensible action. The objectives are clear: get to the top, get the boss, get out. And the team finds itself shattered into smaller and smaller pieces, and Rama faces test after test.

I think that the film is small in scope, big in heart. It accomplishes what it sets out to do. I was blown away by the physicality of all of the actors here. The fights seem impossibly real and inventive and violent; I was continually amazed by the movement of the bodies in motion. A film can be about anything and be enjoyable. For me, The Raid: Redemption is a perfect film, perfectly executed. I'm hungry for the sequel.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Chasing Shakespeare: A Labor of Love

Movie Review: Chasing Shakespeare

Director: Norry Niven

Reviewed: 8 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

Director Norry Niven and writer James Bird have collaborated to craft a fine, moving film entitled Chasing Shakespeare, featuring several parallel story lines, an intriguing and eye-catching color palette, and a lightness of spirit captured by an enjoyable cast from young unknowns to familiars such as Danny Glover and Graham Greene. Niven's attention to detail and economy of story make this film brimming to the top with emotion, and I was surprised by how enjoyable the story was.

I think that Niven's decision to open the film by focusing in narrowly on William and Venus (Danny Glover and Tantoo Cardinal), holding each other's hand in a lightning storm that knocks the power out of their house was a strong one. Niven thrusts the audience right into the emotional core of the film: this central relationship between a dying woman and her husband. The lightning casts shadows across their faces, they whisper to each other and complete recitations from a book of Shakespeare, and Venus persuades William to wheel her bed out into the lightning storm. It was powerfully rendered, and the entire rest of the movie succeeded because Niven grounded everything in that moment.

Older William wrestles with the death of his beloved as well as his relationship with estranged son in a small, rural Arkansas town. As he does, Niven flashes back to younger William (Mike Wade, more than capable) and younger Venus (Chelsea Ricketts, charming in a role that could have easily turned into annoying), a Native American girl desirous of earning the lead in the county production of Romeo & Juliet. The casual racism of the times informs Venus that she "doesn't have the right look" for the role, yet she remains undaunted in her attempts. She similarly pursues William, and the lightest, most fun moments of the film involve the flirting, the courting, and the gruff oversight by the grandfatherly Mountain (Graham Greene), a mysterious and mystical figure who tells William of his family's lightning clan connections and seems to possess supernatural powers. The stories cut and cross back and forth in a confident and intriguing way, as the film mirrors William's memories and current grief. In that way, I found it more challenging than a conventional film, and that challenge helps the film overcomes some of its shortcomings in the script (some clunky dialogue and characters, a few scenes that were missing a payoff, particularly one featuring a performance of The Tempest on a Broadway balcony).

And the Shakespeare connections are wonderful. Niven's film celebrates the written word and the act of reading as well as how the past informs the present. Some of the film's final moments reach out for maudlin sentiment, but I know that I was genuinely moved to tears by the film's denouement (as was the entire row sitting behind me at the screening), and the visuals were crisp, colorful, and always interesting. Norry Niven may have interviewed for directing jobs alongside contemporary Zack Snyder, but in terms of infusing a film with soul and emotional power, Niven triumphs in this confident, uncynical work of art. Although millions more will have seen millions perish under cascading skyscrapers of Metropolis in Man of Steel this summer by Zack Snyder, audiences should see Norry Niven's Chasing Shakespeare.

When a character dies it really means something, and it should mean something.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Lethal Weapon: Boring

Movie Review: Lethal Weapon

Director: Richard Donner

Reviewed: 7 November 2013

jamesintexas rating--**

Mean-spirited, nonsensical, and dumb are just a few of the adjectives that spring into mind when thinking about Lethal Weapon, a canonized 1980's action thriller that I never saw until last week. In a strange set of circumstances, I knew the players, having seen all the subsequent sequels, but I never saw the original. Now I have, and I really could not have been more disappointed.

Detective Riggs (Mel Gibson) is a volatile, grieving police officer known for risking his life recklessly, and Detective Murtagh is the grizzled, aging family man who has just turned fifty. Neither man is excited to be paired up together, but in order to solve the case of a suicide, they join forces. The movie soaks itself in these two characters, contrasting Riggs' alcohol-fueled despair and moments of darkness with Murtagh's exasperated balancing of family politics and his work on his boat. The shadowy crime begins promising but never picks up steam; they follow leads that lead quite easily to other leads, and the plot never demands they (or the audience) works too hard. At one point, Murtagh is in the middle of an alleyway with the baddies barreling towards him in a car because...well, because that is just more convenient than having him find them.

The film feels very eighties from its jazzy score to its love of helicopter tracking shots, and it also feels very clunky and distracting in its action. The bad guys led by Gary Busey disappear for large chunks of the film, so there is never a balance between the warring sides, something that a film of the same time period, Die Hard, did so well with Alan Rickman. The cursing is fine (maybe shocking for its time period), and there are a few sequences that are fun to watch, but the final fight makes no sense. The stakes are nonexistent.

Mel Gibson is an unqualified star in this film, and I loved his charismatic performance. He is tough, funny, wild-eyed and haunted. Danny Glover seems to be having fun with his role too, playing a decent man with an overflowing plate of obligations, screaming at Riggs, his children, the bad guys. There is an undeniable charisma between Gibson and Glover, hence the franchise.

The film knows it has something special with its two leads and works best in those quieter moments. An action film need not be dumb, and unfortunately, Lethal Weapon never asks much of its audience or its characters. The fight at the end in the rain is cool to look at though but ultimately meaningless.