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29
Aug

Ghostbusters II


Ghostbusters II (1989)
★ / ★★★★

Five years after they saved New York City from Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the Ghostbusters (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson) are out of business. The city also has a restraining order against the team which prevents them from pursuing and solving paranormal activities. Meanwhile, a spirit (Wilhelm von Homburg) inside a strange painting in a museum wishes to be reborn. Dana (Sigourney Weaver), divorced, happens to have a baby boy who just may be a perfect vessel.

“Ghostbusters II,” written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, begins promisingly but its paranormal subplot involving a river of ectoplasm beneath the city is overshadowed by the sheer joy of watching Murray and Weaver’s characters flirting with one another. The premise involving the slime is potentially interesting. When the guys are in the lab and test its capabilities, I was as curious as they were and there are times when I was genuinely surprised by its biology.

However, when the Ghostbusters are out and about the city, most of the humor either comes off forced or falls completely flat. There is only one time when I caught myself laughing out loud which involves the Ghostbusters pretending to be construction workers. A pair of cops are suspicious of their digging in the middle of the street but the boys must somehow persuade them, by acting like how they perceive construction workers are like, that they have been authorized to create a big hole and cause a commotion.

Unfortunately, this moment of inspired comedy is diluted by endless aimless gags where the jokes lack punch. I did not enjoy that I felt as though I was always one step ahead of our protagonists. For a bunch of really smart guys, the screenplay gives them too much time to finally make the connection between the research that Dr. Spengler (Ramis) is conducting and the slime that reacts to extreme emotions. I got the impression that padding is inserted between interesting scenes for the sake of bulking up the running time. As a result, the film’s pacing is slow and there is barely a sense of magic, despite the generous special and visual effects on screen, in the discovery of the evil plot.

Furthermore, I sensed a lack of creativity in the resolution of the bizarre happenings all over the city. While it is hilarious to see a woman’s fur coat come alive and attack her, why even bother showing us the police receiving calls from citizens about, for instance, being attacked by a park bench and other inanimate objects if the police were never shown doing anything about the report? Also, it is not necessary that we see another giant prancing around the city because that has been done before.

The film’s strength is its quieter moments. For example, Dr. Venkman (Murray) playing with Dana’s baby and Dr. Venkman and Dana going on a date and discussing what went wrong in their once promising romantic relationship. Such moments of reality should have been the anchors of the picture. If the screenplay had given the human angle to simmer and evolve and the paranormal quirks had been dialed down a notch, “Ghostbusters II,” directed by Ivan Reitman, could have had a chance to be good. Instead, the picture feels as weightless and lifeless as its transparent, raggedy-looking ghosts.

27
Aug

Kung Pow: Enter the Fist


Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (2002)
★ / ★★★★

Spoofs and parodies are very difficult to pull off with grace and a consistent level of humor. Steve Oedekerk’s “Kung Pow: Enter the Fist” validates the previous statement because the resulting work is neither graceful nor does it offer a strong enough consistency with its jokes to inspire those who may not be kung fu or martial arts aficionados to keep watching. The film attempts to entertain, if such a word is even applicable to this dross, solely on a sensory level and so it must be judged within the limitations it sets for itself.

It is an interesting choice to combine images from Yu Wang’s “Tiger and Crane Fist,” also known as “The Savage Killers,” and original footages shot by Oedekerk to coordinate the plot away from the former. But creative choices that work stop there. Halfway through, one starts to get a sinking feeling that it has peaked and there is absolutely no point in seeing the rest other than to subject oneself with torture.

It is plagued with incredibly bad dubbing. Worse, it is done on purpose for comic effect. While there are kung fu movies in existence with egregious dubbing, other elements are present to make up for what is missing. Here, fighting scenes that show artistry are taken directly from “Tiger and Crane First.” The so-called original shots are so transparently awful that the camera attempts to utilize extreme close-ups to hide its inadequacies—as if we were stupid enough not to notice.

Admittedly, there is one action scene that I enjoyed… which involves a computerized cow, udders and all, that knows kung fu. Yes, you read that right. There is a cow. That knows kung fu. (Tip: It is best to search for a YouTube clip than to have to sit through an embarrassing parade of incompetence.) I liked that the cow looks like it is rabid and on steroids. This is not a back-handed compliment. I admired that, at least with regards to the cow, the filmmaker is willing to go all the way in a manner that works.

Comedy most often works when it does not always try to make the audience laugh. In other words, humor should be treated as a punctuation point—not as letters. Once it is treated like the latter, audiences are bound to feel desensitized and it becomes that much more difficult to impress the viewer. The writer-director is desperate for laughs—and it shows. For instance, it might have been better if there was only one character given really bad dubbing. Every time that person spoke, he or she and whatever was about to said would highly likely stand out.

What is the plot? I place it here because it really does not matter. But for those who might still be interested (I implore you: watch something else), it is this: Representing the aims of the Evil Council, Master Pain murders an entire family because he and his group are convinced that the baby who had just been born is “The Chosen One.” The baby escapes and over time, he is able to learn and hone his fighting skills to avenge his family.

“Kung Pow! Enter the Fist” commands a brand of humor but that brand is not original or exciting because the picture fails to excel in any one thing. Anybody can grab a camera and employ extreme close-ups. Anybody can put on a wig and act really silly. And anybody can make really annoying voices. Imagine: This was made with millions of dollars. That money could have been donated to the poor, to animal shelters, or research. But no, it was used to create this hogwash.

26
Aug

I Love You to Death


I Love You to Death (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★

Joey Boca (Kevin Kline), a pizza parlor owner, confesses to a priest that he had cheated on his wife, Rosalie (Tracey Ullman), about a dozen times—“give or take”—in the past two weeks. Joey claims that although he loves looking at women and being physically intimate with them, it does not mean that he no longer feels anything for his wife, readily available for his every need.

When Rosalie is returning books to the library, she catches her husband feeling up another woman behind a shelf and hears talk of going to a private place to mess around. Heartbroken and outraged, Rosalie informs her very Yugoslavian mother, Nadja (Joan Plowright), of what she has just witnessed and the duo plot to kill Joey for his indiscretions.

Loosely based on a true story in Allentown, Pennsylvania, “I Love You to Death,” directed by Lawrence Kasdan, is so vibrant in its portrait of husband and wife that the darkly comedic elements work wonders when it probably should not have if the level of humor and timing had been off by a degree. And given its subject matter, it certainly easily could have been exploitative but underneath its twists and turns, it has a heart that the material is not afraid to acknowledge.

While its premise is reasonably thin, some may say gimmicky, it is a joy to watch because the actors seem really excited in playing their roles. Plowright is especially hilarious as Joey’s mother-in-law who looks for ways to antagonize him. She delivers her brilliant one-liners with such precision that we forget about her character’s age and the stereotypes that go along with it.

One of the best scenes is an argument the two share in a restaurant as Joey insults Nadja in Italian and Nadja curses at him in her native language. The neat thing is that although most of us would not be able to understand their remarks, it matters not: we feel their distain for one another by reading their facial expressions, intonations in their voices, and the way they use their hands as if they wanted to grab and pummel each other.

After one failed attempt after another in getting rid of Joey the adulterer scum, the mother-daughter’s plot becomes increasingly complicated as familiar and not-so-familiar faces begin to visit the house to finish off what they started. Devo (River Phoenix), an employee in the pizzeria, has a crush on Rosalie and claims he would do absolutely anything to win her affections. Devo is an interesting ingredient because Phoenix downplays his character’s sense of humor. Instead of attempting to match Nadja’s wit and sass, he is more about playing up ideas in his head with very poor execution.

However, the film hits a few snags in terms of pacing. When drug addicts, Harlan (William Hurt) and Marlon (Keanu Reeves), enter the equation, they are quite amusing initially. But as they spend more time in front of the camera, they begin to overstay their welcome because their type of humor relies more on slapstick rather than irony.

Finally, while the majority of the picture embraces a light-hearted tone, there are moments when it is dead serious. While the level of seriousness may vary for everyone, for me, I started to consider that maybe it is time for Rosalie and company to send Joey to the hospital when blood starts to flow.

“I Love You to Death,” written by John Kostmayer, is effective because absurd and bizarre elements are matched by enthusiastic performances. Philandering spouses will get a kick out of this.

24
Aug

Divergent


Divergent (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Dystopian Chicago is divided into five factions: Erudite for the intelligent, Amity for the kind, Candor for the honest, Dauntless for the brave, and Abnegation for the selfless—each believed to serve a specific function to maintain peace and order. Young men and women take an aptitude test and the result of the exam gives each participant an idea which faction he or should should join. Typically, a person falls under one category. However, in rare of circumstances, a person may be considered a good for fit more one than one group. These are called Divergent and they are considered a threat to society.

Based on the novel by Veronica Ruth, though “Divergent” offers an interesting premise, it is a problematic picture largely because its exposition is expanded to such an extent that it becomes increasingly clear that it is a movie that never stops beginning. When it does hit its stride eventually, some time after the hour-and-fifteen-minute mark, the film is halfway over and supporting characters that are potentially worth knowing remain on the side. As a result, the material ends up offering very little substance—especially to those, like myself, who have never read the series.

Suspense is absent for the most part. Let us take a look at Gary Ross’ “The Hunger Games.” There is a sense of build-up with scenes that lead up the The Reaping. Silence is utilized in such a way as to highlight the oppression endured by the protagonist’s long suffering district. Here, because the screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor fails to place heavy importance in what is about to transpire—the very thing that will propel the story forward, it feels as though taking the personality-based exam is a piece of cake. Although Tris (Shailene Woodley) is nervous about taking the test, I found myself watching rather passively rather than in anticipation.

Deaths occur later in the picture—which is now expected with films of this type. I wanted to know more about the friends Beatrice has grown close to in her chosen faction (Zoë Kravitz, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Christian Madsen). What about her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), who joined Erudite, a group that wishes to gain power and control over the city? What are his experiences like at that camp? And when Beatrice and Caleb left home, how did their parents (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn) cope? These are not deep information about the characters but they are necessary for context.

Instead, we get an abundance of scenes surrounding so-called training: jumping off trains, hand-to-hand combat, target practice… Relatively boring junk, not to mention unconvincing. In my eyes, two of the “leaders,” Four (Theo James) and Eric (Jai Courtney), do not actually lead. They do a lot of standing and looking stern. They are not shown helping the recruits on how to hone their techniques and improve their performances. An exemption is when Four comes up to Beatrice and gives tips—but it is only because he is romantically interested in her. The charade is superficial, obvious, and cheesy—only there to appeal to people whose definition of sexy is outward gestures.

I enjoyed Kate Winslet’s presence as the Erudite leader. She elevates the material because even when her character is not saying a thing, we can tell immediately that she is someone of importance. It is in the way she stands, the way she walks, the way she looks—or not look—at others who she considers to be below her. However, Winslet does not have very many scenes. She did not have a chance to turn her cold character into someone with more substance, a villain with more to her than verbalizing her goal to maintain “peace.”

Directed by Neil Burger, “Divergent” is a mildly entertaining movie that offers standard action behind a premise that should have had more depth. If one were looking for shootouts at the end, one would likely be satiated. If one were looking for romantic glances and flirtations, one would likely walk away swooning. But I am not looking for standard; I am looking for something that attempts to set the bar—or at least meet it. In this respect, the film is a major disappointment.

23
Aug

The Edge of Love


Edge of Love, The (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

Poet Dylan Thomas (Matthew Ryhs) makes a living writing scripts for the government during World War II. When not at work, he enjoys spending time with a childhood friend, Vera (Keira Knightley), a singer, in a bar, drinking, flirting, and chain smoking. When Dylan’s wife, Caitlin (Sienna Miller), pays him a visit, she suspects that he might be having an affair. Meanwhile, William (Cillian Murphy), a soldier, admires Vera’s beauty and elegance from afar.

Based on a true story, “The Edge of Love,” written by Sharman Macdonald, works more like a commercial for things to do to distract oneself during a war rather than embodying a focused and engaging story about a poet with a yearning to contribute his talent. The first half seems to be about the glamour of being free and not having to be responsible. Everything glows beautifully, from Vera’s hair as she entertains the bar’s customers to the alcohol-filled glasses being handed to those who wish to escape the horrible and traumatizing realities of the outside world.

I enjoyed deciphering the relationship among Dylan, Vera, and Caitlin. While too apparent push and pull forces are present between the two women, they are marginally interesting because the performers play upon a certain level of mystique. A kind of friendship is built upon what could have been jealousy or rivalry. By the end, it can be argued that what they come to share is the only true and lasting element in the film.

There are amusing moments when Dylan believes he is the center of attention—so seemingly adored by the women in his life—but he fails to realize that at times he is being made fun of for his tomfoolery. Somewhere in the middle, however, the picture is stripped off of its glamour. This is the point where we expect Dylan’s story to move front and center so we can understand how his mind works, his specific motivations, how much he values his partner, the children that they have, and the war that threatens to destroy everything.

It is disappointing because the screenplay comes across as reluctant to really delve into the darker side of his relationships. Tragic things happen but more than half are so out of context, sometimes I found myself confused and was forced to think back to the film’s common threads and themes in order to try to make sense what had just transpired. The lack of clarity in terms of presenting events in a logical way is problematic because instead of being invested in the emotions and psychology of the drama as well as anticipating what might happen, I spent ample time looking back.

While the women’s story held my interest, especially at the point when they are forced to evaluate their worth in their men’s lives as well as a possible attraction between the two of them, I wondered why Dylan is missing from the frame for extended amount of time. When he is finally shown, the picture fails to provide dimension. We see him drinking, looking sad, and acting cranky but we are not given a full understanding of him after the partying and fun times have come and gone. So when he makes critical decisions pertaining to another character near the end, it comes across more random than shocking. Since we never get to know Dylan as a person, his emotions and actions lack depth and resonance.

Directed by John Maybury, if “The Edge of Love” were a fashion video, it would be a success. It inspires us to look at the intricate details of the clothes and how the actors carry off the looks. However, as a peek into a time period in Dylan Thomas’ life, a poet of whom I had no knowledge of, it is quite uninformative.

22
Aug

The Vicious Kind


Vicious Kind, The (2009)
★ / ★★★★

Caleb (Adam Scott) just picked up his younger brother, Peter (Alex Frost), from college to take him home for Thanksgiving weekend. When the siblings stop at a diner for breakfast, Caleb goes on a tirade about how predatory and wanton all women are, including their own mother, and Peter had better watch out since he has gotten himself a new girlfriend, Emma (Brittany Snow). Initially, Caleb is passive-aggressive toward Emma because she reminds him of a girlfriend who cheated on him. But as the two keep crossing paths all over the small town, Caleb starts to feel a gnawing attraction toward her.

“The Vicious Kind,” written and directed by Lee Toland Krieger, is like an inconsolable child. You want to know what makes the characters so unhappy but the material is so willful in creating a brooding mood, everyone ends up being as boring as a plank and the picture goes on as the day is long. It seems like just about every scene is ripe for an argument and silence, especially when a line is crossed and the atmosphere turns very awkward, is never an option.

I got the impression that the only way that writer-director feels he is able to salvage a desultory storytelling is too keep everybody talking even if what is being said is nonsensical or forced. If you were in a car and a stubborn person said something offensive but you did not feel like arguing, do you continue to try to change that person’s mind? I know I wouldn’t. I would keep certain things to myself until perhaps later when the same or a similar issue comes up and I had energy to spare.

The sky looking dark and the surroundings looking wet all the time fail to translate into something substantial if human behavior is not embedded in realism. This is ironic because Emma majors in psychology. One would think that she could offer us some sort of insight as to why the people she spent Thanksgiving with behaved the way they did.

In any case, the relationships among the key players are vague because the execution of the screenplay lacks wit and control. We are not given enough reasons why Emma, a beautiful girl with a punk-rock style, would ever date someone like Peter. Peter is relatively quiet, enjoys pleasing his father (J.K. Simmons), and finds certain lines of conversations that a lot of people are likely to find within the realm of normality as taboo. What is her romantic history? Does Peter fit her type of guy? If she does not have a type, what is so special about him? Does she feel blasé about the relationship?

That last question is particularly interesting to me because Emma admits that she does not want to be home during Thanksgiving because her parents are drunks. Perhaps Caleb is right about Peter having to watch his back for going out with this girl. Also, I wanted to know more about Peter, but his proclamations of love toward his girlfriend are so saccharine and repetitive, it is like Script Writing 101.

And then there is Caleb, the self-proclaimed misogynist. I found Scott to be out of his depth because there is a lack of believability whenever he shifts from angry to tender. Instead of painting Caleb as a conflicted character, the person he plays comes off as a jerk who deserves to end up alone. I felt no sympathy for him.

When the material forces the audiences to accept him, I was offended because it feels like my intelligence is being attacked. None of its big emotions are earned even if the mawkish soundtrack is played full blast.

20
Aug

The Purge: Anarchy


Purge: Anarchy, The (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

The problem with “The Purge: Anarchy,” in which its predecessor is not immune from, is that it gets too bogged down by the action that a wonderful concept is left rotting in the shadows. One cannot help but wonder what would result if a seasoned writer-director with a penchant for the cerebral rather than the visceral took the helm and scoped out the complexities and conundrums of an American futuristic society in which the government authorizes any criminal act—including rape and murder—for one night without lawful repercussions. I realize that movie studios are not interested in that kind of picture, but it would have been right for the material.

And so here we have the sequel to James DeMonaco’s “The Purge,” slightly better than the one that came before but not by much. Though the title promises a subversion during March 21st’s The Annual Purge, the anti-Purge group is given very little time on screen. They appear in the latter half eventually but by then it is too late. They are treated as a device rather than the central element that comes to define the picture.

Instead, time is dedicated to three groups who decide to work together to keep alive while running about downtown: Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoë Soul) are forced out of their homes by armed men; Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) find themselves stranded when their car broke down minutes before The Commencement; and an unnamed man (Frank Grillo) hopes to exact revenge. Though all of the performers have the charm to command the camera, the script fails to go beyond standard lines.

Most of the characters are given an annoying habit of talking when they are supposed to be silent, hoping not to attract attention from potential snipers on rooftops. If this were a horror movie, it would be without a doubt that they would all end up dead. When they do speak in so-called safe areas, they say nothing special or thought-provoking. One gets the impression there is dialogue only to buy time for the next action sequence in which they are once again the targets and one of them will most likely end up injured.

The climax of the picture takes place inside a compound where the rich are encouraged to bid and, if they win, participate in hunting and murdering individuals—often the poor—who were taken off the chaotic streets overnight. The scene that depicts the hunting is so poorly executed that one must squint in order to get an idea of what is going on exactly. The room is already very dark. Couple that with the camera being focused so closely on faces and bodies that when two people or more get into a scuffle, there is only confusion depicted on screen. To make matters worse, the camera moves so quickly that the director might as well have employed quick, incomprehensible cuts. The climax offers very little artistry so it is not only most disappointing, it is also not at all entertaining.

“This is my right granted to me by the government,” including other variations of it, is a line repeatedly uttered throughout the picture. It would have been a good starting point to explore the implications of the holiday of interest. For one, there is an implication of entitlement—despite having the right to do something regardless of the action actually being right or wrong.

Entitlement is a very relevant thing in modern American society and there are multiple ways to explore it—as a praise or a critique, or both. Alas, it is a shame that the film gives the impression that it must consistently appeal to the lowest common denominator. That is, it must show images of people shooting people, torture, mayhem. As far as mainstream works go, these images need not be explained within a limited standard running time.

19
Aug

Canvas


Canvas (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★

Chris (Devon Gearhart) has spent the past summer with his aunt in Alaska and has recently returned to Florida for the school year. Part of the reason he went away is to have fun during his time off. The other part involves his mother, Mary (Marcia Gay Harden), having schizophrenia. The medications she has been prescribed has become less effective so she is more prone to endanger herself and her family. Her husband, John (Joe Pantoliano), finds himself ill-equipped to handle his wife’s mental illness.

Written and directed by Joseph Greco, while “Canvas” offers nothing particularly new in terms of movies dealing with schizophrenia, the fact that the story is told through a ten-year-old boy’s perspective allows the material to become a little bit more accessible. Each time Mary’s condition is discussed in private or comes to light in a very public space, it is interesting that the camera has a tendency to zoom in on the boy’s face.

Gearhart is quite impressive in emoting a conflation of embarrassment, anger, and confusion. It made me think of how I would have reacted if Mary were my mother. The movement of the camera is not only designed to capture our protagonist’s emotions but to win over our sympathies. By limiting our physical scope of the situation—as opposed to the camera capturing the conflict around Chris—it dares us to question the fate of the boy. Given that schizophrenia can be passed on biologically, is what Chris seeing a premonition of what he might potentially go through in the future?

Despite the love that his mother and father have to give to him, is it right for him to be in an environment where safety is a gamble? These questions do not have easy answers and the screenplay is smart to offer only possibilities. Chris does not really understand his mother’s affliction and neither does John. A lot of people are likely able to relate to them. In one of the small but key scenes, John expresses his frustration toward his wife’s doctor. “The medicine was supposed to make her better,” he demanded.

Like Gearhart, Pantoliano is so good in expressing many conflicting emotions at once. It may seem like he is angry at the doctor for a lack of an effective treatment, but the camera focuses so much on his face to the point where we see that the person he is really angry toward is himself—perhaps for allowing himself to put his complete trust that medicine will control the affliction completely.

Of course, no one is to blame and, in my opinion, that is probably one of the reasons why the illness feels so unbearable for the families who choose to live with it. “Why can’t you act normal?” the son asks his mother once they get home after she embarrasses him in front of his friends. It sounds like an insensitive question but I admired the material is brave to bring it up. The way Mary answers her son is so simple and so moving, it assured me that no matter what happens, this family will be all right.

“Canvas” has a sense of humor, too. From Chris taking up sewing as a hobby to the way he is reduced to mush when his crush (Sophia Bairley) comes up to talk to him, the small victories feel earned. The film reminds of us two things. First, we only get one family so it is worth really trying and making it work. Second, certain types of sadness in our lives, no matter how hard we try to push, never really go away. But that does not mean we cannot still go on and live our lives.

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