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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Cesar Chavez - C

Michael Pena as Cesar Chavez
Rated PG-13, 101 minutes

With a worthy, well-acted story, "Cesar Chavez" still fails to connect

You'd be hard pressed to find a more worthy film subject than Mexican-American civil right leader Cesar Chavez, who championed the cause of the migrant worker in California. However, he is deserving of a better effort than the new drama "Cesar Chavez," a well-acted but scattered and unsatisfying tale that barely scratches the surface of Chavez's many accomplishments. The film follows Ch├ívez's (Michael Pena) efforts to organize 50,000 farm workers in California, many of them temporary workers from Mexico  With poor working conditions for the workers, who also suffer from racism and brutality at the hands of the employers and local Californians, Chavez forms a union for the workers to get better wages, at the risk of his own life and health. Directed by actor Diego Luna ("The Terminal") in his English-feature directing debut, "Cesar Chavez" is an uneven, somewhat incoherent look at Chavez's struggles to organize a more perfect union for the migrant workers in California. It goes in too many directions, a little here on family, a little here on the unions, a little on his personal life, though it's not revelatory into any new details into Chavez's life. Pena is an affecting Chavez and he gives a strong performance amongst a talented cast that includes America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson and John Malkovich as one of the evil winery owners. "Chavez" is most successful when it's focused in the area of the organization of the unions, though it falters under the flat direction of an inexperienced director such as Luna. "Chavez" has a handful of inspiring moments thanks to Pena's believable performance, but in the end it comes up unsatisfying, lacking power and relevance that could've been better served by a tighter script and a more focused direction. The story of "Cesar Chavez" is a worthy one, but it needs a better film effort than this.

Wes's Grade: C

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sabotage - D

Rated R, 109 minutes

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Someone "Sabotage"-d this tiresome, unoriginal action flick

What a bloody waste. That's what the familiar new Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie "Sabotage" is. A waste of time, talent and resources with a half-decent story that's lost amidst the gratuitous violence and bullets. Schwarzenegger leads an elite DEA task force that takes on the world's deadliest drug cartels. When the team successfully executes a high-stakes raid on a cartel safe house, they think their work is done - until, one-by-one, the team members mysteriously start to be eliminated. As the body count rises, everyone is a suspect. Directed and co-written by David Ayer, the unoriginal "Sabotage" has a great cast and an interesting story that's completely undermined by so much violence, it throws the film off the rails completely early on. As Schwarzenegger's DEA team, it's filled with a gallery of intriguing actors completely wasted in this mess: Josh Holloway, Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Terrence Howard, Mireille Enos, all given barely a line or two, not to mention the woefully miscast (though otherwise fine actress) Brit Olivia Williams, trying to exude a Tilda Swinton-vibe that comes off laughable underneath a ridiculous Southern accent that's as sporadic as the film's plot. Arnold has his way of getting the bad guys, and he does here too, which shouldn't be a big surprise, though expect considerable (and largely unnecessary) bloodshed along the way. Ayer has done this type of thing much better (like "End of Watch"), and by amping up the body count here, "Sabotage" undermines itself from being a half-decent film. This won't stop Arnold's fan base from coming out, who could make "Sabotage" a hit (though much of what he's done lately has flopped) but much like Arnold himself, this grows old and tired very quickly. Stay away.

Wes's Grade: D

Noah - B

Russell Crowe as Noah
Rated PG-13, 132 minutes

"Noah" is intriguing, entertaining interpretation

The epic new film "Noah" from acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky ("Black Swan") isn't a faithful, literal interpretation of the Biblical story of Noah's ark, but what a sublime, creative interpretation it is, bound to cause plenty of controversy amongst the Evangelical Christian set. Vastly entertaining, highly watchable though flawed and uneven in places, most of it works remarkably well. In a world ravaged by human sin, Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family (Jennifer Connelly, Logan Lerman and others) and  is given a divine mission: to build an Ark to save creation from the coming flood. Directed and co-written by Aronofsky, the visually enticing, affecting and well-acted "Noah" may be a divisive film with some, but the basic themes of sin, the fall of man and God's mercy ring true. Of course, some (Biblical scholars) may not appreciate some of the liberties that Aronofsky takes with the story, altering some details of the story, not to mention some egregious interpretations (namely with that of the crusty angelic beings The Watchers, which gives it a "Lord of the Rings" feel yet is one of the few things that doesn't work). Still, Crowe is perfectly cast as Noah, and the sublime visuals add some entertainment value, particularly with all the animals, the built-to-scale Ark and the tense, impressive flood scene, which seems much more expansive and epic here than in previous versions. "Noah" isn't perfect; much of Aronofsky's creativity pays off and the expensive film works much better than you might think, though it's a little muddled in its initial chapters and some may be disappointed that the flood, which takes center stage in the trailers, doesn't come until mid-film. "Noah" takes better shape later on, and the themes of mercy, family and forgiveness are relevant. Whether or not you're a believer, you will appreciate this intriguing, highly entertaining version of "Noah," just see it for yourself before you criticize it.

Wes's Grade: B

Friday, March 21, 2014

Stranger by the Lake - C

Unrated, 97 minutes
In French with English subtitles

French psychological thriller "Stranger by the Lake" fails to shock

Pierre Deladonchamps
The new erotic French thriller "Stranger by the Lake" has a unique premise as it strives to be an unconventional erotic murder mystery. It can work well ("Basic Instinct") but usually does not (nearly anything with Madonna), and put the gratuitous, unsatisfying "Stranger by the Lake" in the "Not" category. Frank (Pierre Deladonchamps) spends his summer days crusing for companionship at a popular cruising spot on the shores of a rural French lake. He meets and falls in love with Michel (Christophe Paou), an attractive yet darkly mysterious man. Frank and Michel become the primary suspects in a murder by the lake but they choose to ignore the dangers and instead choose to continue their passionate relationship. Directed and written by Alain Guiraudie, the erotic drama the mediocre "Stranger by the Lake" pushes the buttons alright, but generally the wrong ones. As with many films that fall into this category, it has a striking premise that's undermined by so much gratuitous nudity and sex (in this case full male nudity, and alot of it) that it should be categorized as gay porn than a mainstream French film. What's worse, it really doesn't add to the plot or storyline and director Guidraudie seems more concerned with the shock value than with subtlety, which is unfortunate since the handsome Deladonchamps is a fine actor wasted in this mess of a movie. Some intensity in the last act still doesn't add up to much, and Guiraudie seems to think it's fine that the characters choose love over morality itself. "Stranger by the Lake" had some potential with an unconventional story, but once the pants come off, it falls short. Not worth your time.

Wes's Grade: C

Omar - B

Unrated, 98 minutes
In Arabic with English subtitles

"Omar" is a gripping, tense Palestinian thriller about love and betrayal
Adam Bakri as Omar

Familiar yet engrossing, the new Palestinian drama "Omar" touches on themes we all know about: family, friends, ideals that are all important to us and things we must often choose to accept or give up. Omar (Adam Bakri) is a Palestinian baker who routinely climbs over the separation wall to meet up with his girl Nadja (Leem Lubany). By night, he's also a freedom fighter with his childhood friends Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat). Arrested after the killing of an Israeli soldier and tricked into an admission of guilt by association, he agrees to work as an informant. Omar must choose - either be faithful to the cause - or lose everything by betraying. Directed and co-written by Hany Abu-Assad ("Paradise Now"), "Omar" is a captivating, often poignant example of how the Middle East conflict is so distant but is filled with themes we in the West can relate to as well. Nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar at this year's Academy Awards, it's also superbly acted by newcomer Bakri in the lead, and his warm chemistry with Nadja is among the film's highlights. Part thriller and part love story, it's really nothing new with other recent films ("Bethlehem") touching on similar themes, though the added love story helps add a little emotion to "Omar's" story. It's also peppered with blood and violence, and that may keep some away from the captivating, touching "Omar," which is one of 2013 best imports.

Wes's Grade: B

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Divergent - C+

Rated PG-13, 143 minutes

Intriguing premise in "Divergent" watered down under its predictability

Shailene Woodley and Theo James
For a movie about non-conformity, the entertainingly bland Young Adult sci-fi "Divergent" tries too hard to fit in. With an intriguing premise, some nice visuals and an attractive cast (including the lovely but underused Kate Winslet in a smallish role), it's ultimately disappointing under a dull, overlong plot. Set in a futuristic world where people are divided into distinct factions based on human virtues. Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) is warned she is Divergent and will never fit into any one group. When she discovers a conspiracy by a faction leader (Winslet) to destroy all Divergents, Tris must learn to trust in the mysterious Four (Theo James) and together they must find out what makes being Divergent so dangerous before it's too late. Directed by Neil Burger ("Limitless") and based on the set of popular YA novels by Veronica Roth, "Divergent" has some bland appeal and some enjoyable moments, though ironically, its message of non-conformity is lost in desperately trying to find mass appeal of that same audience. Better than "Twilight" in depth but lacking the intensity of "The Hunger Games," it should still be a big hit with both teens and their parents. Woodley, in a star-making role if there ever was one, nearly single-handedly carries the movie on her back as the girl with a secret, though she lacks chemistry with newcomer James, miscast here as her colleague and love interest; his rote, monotone line readings drag the film down in true Robert Pattinson-Taylor Lautner fashion (in other words, he can't act). The premise from Roth's novels is intriguing and the some of the visuals are first-rate, but it never quite takes shape and seem watered down, and may disappoint fans of Roth's (who is only 25 herself) novels. The bland, unsatisfying "Divergent" has been obviously designed as the next tentpole film once the "The Hunger Games" runs its course, and on that note it will likely be a big hit (it certainly didn't stop the much-worse "Twilight" series). Flat and middling at best, there are better options than this. Drop the kids off and go see "The Grand Budapest Hotel" again.

Wes's Grade: C+

Bad Words - B

Rated R, 88 minutes

Darkly amusing, irreverent "Bad Words" is dirty but charming
Jason Bateman

The facetiously delightful new dark comedy "Bad Words" is the sublime directorial feature debut for Jason Bateman ("Horrible Bosses"). Part revenge flick, part satire and loads of profane fun until it reaches its quaggy final act, "Bad Words" is a strong Rated R because it has plenty of them. Guy Trilby (Bateman), a 40-year-old high school dropout gets his revenge by finding a loophole and attempting to win a spelling bee as an adult. Along the way, he befriends a female reporter (Kathryn Hahn) and a young Indian contestant (the wonderful Rohan Chand from "Homeland") who he exposes to the wilder side of life. Irreverent, implausible but chock full of entertaining moments, "Bad Words" is its best when it lets loose and doesn't care what you think, which happens often in the first part of the movie. Bateman (who also co-produced) should be commended for his impressive direction, and even better, choice of a serviceable script by Andrew Dodge and a talented cast that is rounded out by Ben Falcone, Philip Baker Hall and always hilarious Allison Janney, underused here but making the most of an underwritten role. The dark bite of the first two acts seems lost in the softer final act with an ending that seems out-of-place and rewritten to appeal to a wider audience, not to mention anti-climactic given Guy's unique backstory. Still, there are some well-placed, laugh-out-loud moments in "Bad Words" with obvious design to shock that should please those who enjoy the low brow. With a decent script, a charming cast and some enjoyably dirty moments, "Bad Words" is both piquant and convivial, and one of the year's most inimitable new comedies. Worth a look, but leave your spell checker (and your kids) at home.

Wes's Grade: B