Reel Opinions


Saturday, September 25, 2010

You Again

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What a fitting title for a movie that is made entirely from off the shelf parts of lesser romantic comedies. You Again is the latest model of the standard Idiot Plot formula. It's filled with characters who are supposed to be successful adults, but constantly act like spoiled children. They scream, they fight, they scheme, and they tumble into and out of anything that could serve as a slapstick gag. What they don't do is provide a single laugh, have anything resembling an idea, or give us a reason as to why we should be watching this garbage.

picThe premise, like everything else about the movie, holds little interest. Marni (Kristen Bell) is a successful and beautiful P.R. woman for a big company. But eight years ago in high school, she was a pimple-faced misfit with big glasses. Her main tormentor in school was Joanna (Odette Yustman), the pretty and popular head cheerleader. Marni thinks she's gotten over the past, until she returns home for her brother's wedding, and finds out that he's marrying her former rival. Joanna does not seem to remember the past, but Marni's not buying it, and begins coming up with countless schemes to show her brother Will (James Wolk) just how evil his fiance truly is. Of course, this situation could be solved if the three sat down and discussed things like adults, but then the movie would be over in 10 minutes.

picThere's another plot concerning Marni's mother, Gail (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Joanna's Aunt Ramona (Sigourney Weaver). Apparently, they were former friends-turned rivals in school as well, so they begin showing each other up in childish ways as well. It's always sad to see talented actors working below their ability, and the scene where Curtis and Weaver have an argument that ends in a forced gag with them both falling into a swimming pool together had me putting my face in my hands. You Again is so creatively bankrupt, it even casts Betty White as Marni's grandma, simply because Betty White is "in" right now. Never mind that the movie gives her little or nothing to do, and could have been filled by any elderly actress who could recite a zippy one-liner once in a while.

picThis is the kind of movie that mistakes sappy piano music on the soundtrack for emotion, and has never met a worn-out joke it didn't like. See that pot of soup in the background during the scene when Marni and Joanna are arguing? No prizes for guessing if it's going to be dumped on one of their heads before the scene is over. What about that tree house in the backyard? It's just asking for people to tumble repeatedly out of it over and over again! And when Aunt Ramona leaves her expensive dress hanging up in the bathroom, you just know that some implausible accident with the sink is going to occur to ruin it. This screenplay wasn't written, it was dug out of a dumpster.
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Could this material have worked? Of course. Any premise can with the right approach. But director Andy Fickman doesn't trust our intelligence, and instead decides to insult it for 105 minutes straight. Any point it may be trying to make about the lasting effects bullying has on people is overshadowed by its need to cover every cliche in the book, including having the characters dancing together during the end credits at the big wedding party. Oops, did I give away the ending?...

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Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

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What a visually striking film this is. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is not only one of the most beautiful animated films I've ever seen, it's also one of the most beautiful films period. The film's cast, made up almost entirely out of owls (there's a few snakes, bats, and other animals in there, too) are intricately detailed, and animated to such a degree that I often found myself staring at the screen in disbelief. There's also some absolutely stunning scenery, such as the owl kingdom of the Guardians, that I would like to see more of if the sequel the ending hints at ever gets made.

picSo, what's the plot behind these visuals? Well, here the movie is on less certain ground. There's not a single element of it that fans of fantasy or sci-fi haven't seen before, and the characters all have pretentious-sounding names like Ezylryb, Otulissa, and Allomere. There were also elements of the plot and characters that left me confused, and I'm sure the series of books by Kathryn Lasky that inspired the film do a better job explaining it than director Zack Snyder (Watchmen) does. That being said, I'm still recommending the film. It's entertaining, and kept my interest, even when I felt in the dark a little as to what was going on. If the script had matched the visuals, we'd be looking at one of the best films of the year. As it is, kids will be enthralled, and it stands out enough to grab the attention of accompanying adults. Besides, after the somewhat generic Alpha and Omega last weekend, anything that manages to try something different is an improvement.

picThe story opens with two young owl brothers, Soren (voice by Jim Sturgess) and Kludd (Ryan Kwanten). Soren is the youthful dreamer, enthralled by his father's stories of the legendary Guardians of Ga'Hoole, noble owl knights who saved their tree kingdom of Tyto years ago from a villain named Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton). Kludd is the more cynical of the two, and doubts that the Guardians even exist. The two fall out of their parent's tree, and are quickly snatched away by a pair of mean owls who speak with Cockney accents, and basically act like feathered gangster rejects from a Guy Ritchie movie. The brothers are taken to a place where the beautiful but twisted Nyra (Helen Mirren) is helping Metalbeak build a fascist army called "Pure Ones". Those that they deem strong and worthy become soldiers in their army, while those considered weak are brainwashed and forced to pick through owl pellets for a strange blue substance that can be used to build a massive weapon to conquer the forest kingdoms.

picSoren is sentenced to be a lowly worker, while Kludd becomes a soldier, and quickly betrays everyone he knows and loves, swearing allegiance to the villains. Too quickly, for my taste, as his change of heart is never really explored. He seems like a decent and sensible guy at the beginning, then he's suddenly plotting to kidnap his baby sister Eglantine (Adrienne DeFaria) and subject her to the brainwashing method. Soren, however, finds that he is immune to the brainwashing, and escapes with the help of some friends that he meets down in the digging pits. Once he's free, he sets out to find the legendary kingdom where the Guardians reside, and inform them of Metalbeak's plan. Soren meets a pair of comic relief characters named Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia) and Digger (David Wenham), and eventually reaches the Guardians' home, where he becomes the student of the wise old Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush), one of the heroes of legend.

picLegend of the Guardians is such a beautiful film, I often found myself wishing that the story would slow down long enough to admire it. The plot speeds along, introducing elements and characters, sometimes with little to no explanation as to how they fit into it all. I was able to figure most of it out on my own, but I still feel that those who have read the books (this film supposedly takes elements from the first three) will have a better idea than audience members who walk in cold. The story itself is certainly nothing new. It's a standard good vs. evil story where a young dreamer gets to become the hero he always wanted to be. The movie even comes equipped with its own catchphrase, like "Use the Force" in Star Wars, when Ezylryb tells Soren constantly to "Trust your gizzard". Somehow, I don't see that line catching on the same way Obi-Wan's words of wisdom did.

picDespite this, I was entertained. I was interested in the characters and the world they inhabit, and wanted to know more about them. Writers John Orloff (TV's Band of Brothers) and Emil Stern never go as deep into these aspects as I would have liked, but I'm sure sequels could easily correct that. I can also easily picture kids not familiar with the books wanting to seek them out after the film is over, which is never a bad thing. A lot of work and effort clearly went into the making of this film, and I admired a lot of it. I just hope that if there is a next time, they pay more attention to the characters, and take their time to allow us to truly explore the world that they inhabit.
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One final note: Legend of the Guardians is being shown in 3D and 2D. I had a choice at my local theater, and decided that the visuals that the trailer promised deserved to be seen in traditional 2D without the dark glasses muddying the images. I truly hope that other people will make this choice, and get to see just how colorful and full of life this film's visual style is. That being said, I have heard good things about the 3D effects implemented. If I get a chance to view it in 3D, I will update my review and offer my thoughts.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

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Seeing Michael Douglas return as his iconic character, Gordon Gekko, is quite a thrill. Whenever he's on the screen, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is completely engaging. It's the rest of the time when he's not that the movie drags its feet. Though this is a passable follow up to Oliver Stone's classic 1987 film about financial corruption, the film lacks bite and energy when Douglas is not around, which unfortunately is all too often for half the film.

picThe film begins with Gekko being released from prison in 2001 after serving an eight year sentence for insider trading. He steps into an uncertain world, with no one outside to greet him, and the limo parked out front is there to pick up a common criminal, also getting out, who has family and wine waiting for him. We want to see Gordon adapt to the new world, but the movie casts him aside for a long period, opting instead to focus on the 2008 stock market meltdown that led to the bailout package. It's here that we meet the film's central focus, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf). Jake is a hot shot whiz on the market, and student to the wise old mentor at his firm, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella). He also just happens to be engaged to Gordon's daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Jake wants to meet his future father-in-law (Winnie wants nothing to do with him, blaming most of her family's problems on her father), and begins arranging meetings with Gordon behind Winnie's back.

picMeanwhile, things at Jake's firm are not going well. A rival by the name of Bretton James (Josh Brolin) takes advantage of Louis' recent misfortunes, and offers an ultimatum for his firm. Distraught, Louis decides to make a rather dramatic exit in front of a group of spectators waiting for the morning subway train. Knowing that Bretton is responsible for his mentor's suicide, Jake vows revenge, and turns to Gordon (who has a history with Bretton) for help. He agrees to help, but only if Jake will reunite him with his estranged daughter. It's no secret that Gordon has something else up his sleeve. Is he really just a man who wants to redeem himself in the eyes of his daughter, or is he up to more? The movie itself seems a little bit confused, as it portrays the character of Gordon in a lot of different lights in each scene. Douglas' performance is flawless, but the screenplay by Allan Loeb (The Switch) and Stephen Schiff (True Crime) seems conflicted at how to portray him.

picAnd yet, he is easily the most interesting character in Money Never Sleeps. At least he seems to have dimensions, which is more than I can say for most of the other characters who walk through the story. Jake makes for a rather dry young hero, and as played by Shia LaBeouf, never quite grabs our attention like he should. He seems far too tame and timid, and never quite risky enough. This point is rammed home even more when we get a brief cameo by Charlie Sheen, returning as his character from the first film, Bud Fox. Likewise, Jake's relationship with Winnie often comes across as being stilted, as they never generate any real passion in their scenes together. The performances that do stand out, outside of Douglas, are the smaller ones, such as Langella as the doomed mentor, or Susan Sarandon as James' mom, a real estate agent facing hard times in a collapsing house market. Josh Brolin gets a couple good scenes as the slimy Bretton, but he disappears for long periods, and never gets to make as much of an impression as he should.

picThe end result is uneven. There are some great scenes placed throughout, and some standout performances, but it never turns into a truly successful whole. It's never bad, it's simply passable, and we expect more than that. What's perhaps the worse offense is Stone's decision to use a lot of gimmicky eye-catching film style choices that are completely unnecessary and take us out of the film. He uses split screen, multi-screen, computer graphics, CG animation acting as visual aids, and other such tricks that distract us when we just want to focus on the characters. He also uses some heavy-handed symbolism, such as children's bubbles floating in the air when characters are talking about, you guessed it, financial bubbles. There were a lot of times when I found myself wishing that Stone would just let the material talk for itself, rather than giving us distracting visual aids.
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So, yeah, it's great to catch up with a character like Gordon Gekko, but the movie that surrounds him could have and should have been a lot better. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps just lacks the energy to make it a film of its time, like the original was to the 80s. If you really want to compare the two films, the original ended on a note of some uncertainty. This movie ties everything up with an ending that feels forced, drawn out, and false. It's not so much a sign of the changing of the times, but a sign that Stone is losing his edge as a director.

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Alpha and Omega

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A movie like Alpha and Omega really makes you appreciate how far animated films have come, both in visuals and in terms of quality of writing. This is not really a bad movie. There are a couple charming moments, and young kids will definitely like it, though I doubt they'll be enthusiastic about it. It is, however, flatly drawn and animated. And the characters, while agreeable, don't stand out in any way. It's a pleasant, but very uninspired, film all around.

picOne thing I did appreciate is that the movie does not take the expected environmental stance, nor does it it make humans out to be evil. Even when hunters do show up, they have good intentions, and don't want to actually hurt the lead animal characters. They just want to transport them to a different area. As the film opens, we're introduced to two rival wolf packs that are competing against each other for the caribou that roam the land. Food is running scarce for both packs, and rather than fight each other over the caribou, the pack leaders Winston (voice by Danny Glover) and Tony (Dennis Hopper in his final role) decide to unite their two groups with the marriage union of their two lead "alphas" - Winston's daughter, Kate (Hayden Panettiere) and Tony's son, Garth (Chris Carmack). As you would expect, Kate is nervous about this, but her mother (Vicki Lewis) has some good advice when she tells her, "Any fooling around, go for the throat, and don't let go until the body stops shaking".

picAccording to this movie, wolf packs are divided into two separate classes - Alphas and Omegas. The Alphas are the hunters and leaders of the pack, while the Omegas seem to be the slackers. They spend their days playing and sliding down hills in hollowed out logs. Not a bad gig, if you ask me. The main Omega character is Humphrey (Justin Long). He's longed for Kate since they were kids, but it's apparently forbidden in the packs for Alphas and Omegas to get together. The mating ceremony between Kate and Garth begins, and it ends up being a disaster, because Garth can't howl. Apparently, that's how wolves prove their love for each other, kind of like the singing penguins in Happy Feet. Kate runs off, bumps into Humphrey, and as the two begin talking, they're rudely interrupted by a pair of tranquilizer darts in the rear, which knocks them both out. The hunters who capture them ship them off to a tranquil forest in Idaho, where Kate and Humphrey are expected to repopulate the area.

picAlpha and Omega turns into a road trip movie at this point, and a fairly mild one, as Kate and Humphrey attempt to find their way back home to Jasper National Park in Canada. They hitch a ride in the back of a trailer, board a train, have a brief run-in with some bears, and that's about it. There's a lack of suspense and danger in the journey, so it's hard to get involved. Comic relief is provided by a French goose with a passion for golf (Larry Miller) and his British duck caddy (Eric Price), and while they get a couple laughs, they're not memorable enough to save the slow mid section of the film. Actually, that's the problem with the whole movie. Nothing stands out, or is memorable in the slightest. There are a couple cute moments, such as the relationship that grows between Garth and Kate's ditzy Omega sister, Lilly (Christina Ricci), but nothing ever builds to anything worthwhile.

picThe movie is presented in 3D, which helps some of the scenic mountain and forest backdrops stand out, but isn't enough to warrant the extra cost of watching the film. I was disappointed with how clotted the fur on all the wolves look, especially since animated studios have been able to produce realistic looking fur and hair for years now. This is a very average looking movie, and wearing those dark glasses doesn't help in hiding the visual flaws. On the plus side, I did admire that the screenplay by Chris Denk and Steve Moore avoids some cliches. Humphrey and Kate generally get along well during their travels, and we don't get the standard "they start out hating each other, but slowly fall in love" plot. Here, they start out as friends, and then fall in love. Much like the movie they're in, they're pleasant and likable (as are Long and Panettiere's voice performances), but just don't do enough to stand out.
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Alpha and Omega plays kind of like a throwback to the 90s, when everyone was trying to catch up with Disney. The thing is, studios have caught up, and some are producing stuff that's just as good. In this day and age, adequate just doesn't cut it, and that's all this movie is. It's the kind of movie that will be forgotten in a week or two, disappear, then be used on DVD as something for the kids to watch while the adults go off and do something else. Given how far animated films have come, we all deserve better.

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Easy A

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Last year, director Will Glick brought us Fired Up, one of the worst teen comedies in recent memory. This year, he brings us Easy A, which is one of the best teen comedies in recent memory. What a difference a script makes. The screenplay here by Bert V. Royal is smart, objective, current, and most of all, hilariously funny. With a lot of mainstream comedies, you're lucky if you get one laugh out loud moment. This one has many.

picHaving seen Easy A, I firmly believe two things. One is that it's going to be remembered alongside such films as Clueless, Mean Girls, and Election as a teen comedy that speaks directly to its intended audience, but is smart enough for adults to get involved. The other is that this is going to be a star-making role for Emma Stone, an actress who has done very good work in films like The House Bunny and Zombieland, and gets her first chance at a leading role here. It requires her to be intelligent, sarcastic, and vulnerable, and she pulls it off beautifully. She has no problem at all carrying the film, and immediately gets the respect and sympathy of the audience. After this performance, I can't wait to see her grow into more adult roles.

picShe stars as Olive Penderghast, a smart 17-year-old who is tired of everyone not noticing her. She's a normal and kind of boring girl with parents who are not only laid back and supportive, but also loving. They're played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, both hysterical. It's a refreshing change of pace in a teen comedy to see parents who are calm and keep up with their daughter's life, rather than the clueless buffoons we usually get in these movies. Olive is tired of being boring, so she decides to tell a little white lie to her best friend, Rhiannon (Aly Michalka). The lie suggests that she spent the past weekend losing her virginity with a college guy. Naturally, the lie is overheard by Marianne (Amanda Bynes), the school's self-righteous gossip and leader of the Christian fellowship group. It does not take long for Olive's story of made up sex to spread through the halls, and become bigger than it originally was.

picRather than being embarrassed, Olive becomes inspired. She uses this as an opportunity to create a new image for herself, one that is bigger than she ever was normally. She also decides to make a sarcastic statement about many of the rumors that begin to spread about her sexual escapades. Inspired by the fact that she is reading The Scarlet Letter in her literature class, she decides to sew a big scarlet "A" on the front of her clothes. This not only gives her even more attention, but also inspires many fellow students just like her, who don't stand out in any way, and just want high school to be over. They want to create new lives for themselves as well, and begin offering to pay Olive for the chance to pretend to have sex with them.

picWhere the story goes from there, I will not reveal, but Easy A is smart enough not to fall into the traps that many lesser teen comedies fall into. It never descends into flat-out fantasy, and is grounded by some very sharp observational humor and wonderful dialogue scenes. One of the better moments is a scene where Olive talks to her favorite teacher, Mr. Griffith (Thomas Hayden Church). He tells her how modern teens feel the need to share their every action via computers or other communication devices. It's not just a well-written and timely scene, but also kind of the heart at the center of the story. The more Olive reveals about her "new self", the more exaggerated it becomes, and the more it begins to backfire. If Olive's life spirals out of control, it's all because she was too willing to share too much information with everyone around her.

picIt's a cautionary tale, and one that today's youth can definitely take to heart, but it's also a lot of fun. Olive narrates the film via a webcast that the film periodically cuts to, and her narration is full of intelligence and pop culture references that are actually amusing. I especially love the way she recaps the story of The Scarlet Letter, then advises the audience to watch the original movie, not the Demi Moore version. The movie also has a great ear for dialogue, and a wonderful cast assembled to perform it. While Emma Stone clearly walks away with the film, there are a number of memorable supporting performances, especially from Tucci and Clarkson as her parents. The cast is not wasted here. Every character gets at least one scene to stand out or make an impression.
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Easy A is a comedy that really works. It earns its laughs, it has a lot of things to say, and it's been put together extremely well. We like Olive almost the instant we meet her, and then we care about her quite a lot near the end. We like her because she's smart, and we like the movie because it shares her intelligence. That's a rare thing for any film, which is what makes this a great one.

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Devil

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Five strangers step aboard an elevator in a Philadelphia corporate high rise. They include a mechanic named Tony (Logan Marshall-Green), an old woman (Jenny O'Hara), a temp security guard named Ben (Bokeem Woodbine), a sleazy mattress salesman named Vince (Geoffrey Arend), and a beautiful young woman named Sarah (Bojana Novakovic). During the elevator ride, the power is cut. As the five passengers begin to wait for help, their personalities clash. These are five people who probably didn't want to be in an elevator together in the first place, and now that they're stuck, tension is building.

picThe lights in the elevator periodically go out for brief moments, and when they do, the group can sense something or someone moving amongst them. When the lights come back on, they find that one of them is severely injured, or even killed. As the passengers aboard begin to panic, one of the security guards watching the action on a monitor from a security camera (Jacob Vargas) notices something. Right before the lights go out, a demonic-looking face briefly appears superimposed over the image of the passengers. He fears that there is something evil hiding within one of the people stuck inside. A police detective who is also helplessly watching the action, as he tries to think of a way to save these people (Chris Messina), thinks there's a more rational answer. He's a cynic to begin with, having almost lost everything due to alcoholism and a tragic car accident that cost him his wife and son five years ago.

picDevil takes all of these characters (both those trapped inside, and those watching), and tests their will and faith. It's certainly a workable premise, and I could see it being successful as part of an hour-long horror anthology TV show. But as a movie, even one that runs a very brief 80 minutes, it's repetitive. Once we figure out the pattern that the movie follows, we can predict what scene is going to come next. This obviously lessens the tension that the film itself is trying to build, and as a result, we lose interest and just wait for the reveal at the end as to who is causing all of this. Given the title, it's no surprise that the answer is indeed supernatural and demonic. The mystery lies in just who is evil entity tormenting these people. The filmmakers go to great lengths putting all of the passengers in a shady light, revealing dark secrets in their past. But, if you watch closely how one of the passengers reacts to everything, it's not too hard to narrow it down.

picThe film is actually the first in a series of horror films labeled "The Night Chronicles". They are films dreamed up by filmmaker M Night Shyamalan (he is credited as head producer and for the story), and then handed off to other teams to bring to the screen. For Devil, director John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine) and screenwriter Brian Nelson (30 Days of Night) have been assigned the task. They do an admirable job of setting up the situation and getting us involved, but the events that unfold are not as effective, and the characters thinly developed. I never got the sense of growing claustrophobia that the movie is obviously aiming for. And while I can certainly admire the film's use of darkness, allowing the audience to use their imagination in depicting its demonic villain, it backfires and becomes repetitive when we realize that a blank screen with some sound effects is pretty much the only scare the movie's got when it comes to scares.

picEven if the movie never did quite grab my attention, I did find myself admiring how it was made. The movie opens with a surreal opening credit sequence, where we see the city of Philadelphia turned upside down. It grabs our attention, and creates an oddly ominous mood for things to come. The movie is also competently acted, with Logan Marshall-Green, as one of the trapped passengers, and Chris Messina as the detective delivering the standout performances. But none of this really matters if the material they're given delivers no real thrills, which it doesn't. Devil ends up being a bland little supernatural mystery that repeats itself far too often, and never really seems to go anywhere.
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If Shyamalan wants to continue his Night Chronicles series, I suggest that he fleshes his ideas out a little more, giving the filmmakers more to work with. There's an interesting idea for a movie here, but it seems to be constantly holding itself back. The film promises us claustrophobic thrills, but all it gives us is some actors standing in an elevator, periodically cutting to black over and over.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

The Town

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Just like in his 2007 directorial debut, Gone, Baby, Gone, Ben Affleck shows a true understanding for character, tension, and setting in The Town. Just like before, he uses the city of Boston as his setting, and creates an authentic portrait of the people and the way of life. It's not just a setting, and it helps make it feel like we're not just watching characters up on the screen, but people with real lives. He understands the city and its inhabitants the same way filmmakers like Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen understood New York in their classic films.

picAffleck (who stars, co-wrote, and directed the film) also knows how to play his audience's emotions. There's a brilliant scene that is so tense and tight, and yet free of manipulation. There's no music cues, and no close ups of the main character sweating. In fact, under normal circumstances, it would be just an ordinary scene. But because we hold knowledge that two of the characters in the scene don't, it's full of heart-pounding tension. In the sequence, a career criminal named Doug MacRay (Affleck) has an unwelcome visit from one of his colleagues in crime, a loose cannon named Jem (Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker). His arrival comes at the worst time, as Doug is currently seated at a table with a woman named Claire (Rebecca Hall), who noticed the tattoo on the back of Jem's neck during a bank robbery. If she notices the tattoo, everything is certain to fall apart. Doug looks about uncomfortably, and tries to drop hints to get his friend to leave, but the guy just doesn't get up, and keeps on talking. It's a brilliantly executed and nerve-wracking scene.

picDoug and Jem belong to a small group of professional bank robbers in Charlestown. The opening titles inform us that Charlestown is known for more bank and armored-car robbers in one square mile than anywhere else in the U.S. In this blue collar working community, crime is passed down through each generation, almost like a family business. Doug comes from such a family, as his father (Chris Cooper) is currently serving multiple life sentences. There was a time when Doug seemed like he was on his way out of this life. He had a promising future as a professional hockey player, but it didn't work out. He came back to his hometown, took a menial job, and now plans bank heists on the side with three of his best friends. Jem is the wild card of the group, prone to violence and rash decisions. We see this in the opening scene when, during a job, Jem viciously beats a man whom he suspects triggered the silent alarm, and takes the bank manager, Claire, hostage. This is how Claire briefly noticed the tattoo on the back of his neck, before they blindfolded and eventually released her.

picThis is not the end of it, of course. They learn that Claire lives in the local neighborhood and, fearing that she may help the cops identify them, Doug sets up an "accidental" meeting with her in a laundromat. He was wearing a rubber skull mask during the heist, so she does not recognize him as one of her captors. Doug intends to strike up a relationship to find out what, if anything, she knows, but then he begins to genuinely fall for her and build a true romance with her. He even begins to see her as his way out of Charlestown. Jem sees this as a betrayal, and it sets up some obvious, but no less powerful, tension within the group. Meanwhile, a special agent named Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) is leading the FBI closer to the identities of the robbers, and is asking for Claire's help.

picThe Town certainly sounds derivative on paper, and in lesser hands, probably would be. But the energy and tension that is built between the criminals, as well as the fragile relationship between Doug and Claire, gives the story tremendous force. I admire the way that the screenplay does not rely solely on heavy-handed melodrama. This is a movie of quiet power that builds and builds to a fast-paced climax. At the center of it all is Doug, who really just wants to lead a normal life, but always finds himself pulled into doing just "one more job". There are people all around him who know how to use his feelings for Claire to get what they want from him, particularly a local crime boss named Fergie (Pete Postelthwaite), who doesn't want to lose Doug's services. The fact that the screenplay allows these characters to talk and think like real people, rather than walking crime drama cliches, allows us to sympathize with them every step of the way.

picThis is no more evident than with the character of Jem who, as played by Renner, is unpredictable and off-key. He's violent, prone to fits of uncontrollable rage, but also a sense of loyalty to him. It's a complex character, and a fantastic performance by Jeremy Renner, who never seems to show the same side of the character twice. Even if he's repeating an emotion from a previous scene, he still finds a different way to handle it. It's a captivating performance to be sure, and one that is in good company in this film. Everyone brings dimension to what would be stock characters under normal circumstances. No one quite leaves the impression that Renner does, but then, the movie doesn't spend as much time with them. Even Doug seems to be pushed to the wayside at times, but Renner is constantly commanding.
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If The Town does not quite have the same impact of Gone, Baby, Gone, it's only because the story is a bit too familiar at times. It's certainly no fault of the talent at hand. With only two films under his belt as director, Affleck has proven himself a true talent, and a master at drawing emotion out of his scenes in a subtle manner. He knows how to bring the most out of his actors, and even his settings. Affleck is a real filmmaker, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Resident Evil: Afterlife

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Much like the walking dead who shuffle about the streets during the course of the film, Resident Evil: Afterlife is a plodding, dull, and pointless movie that exists solely to bilk more money from those who saw the last three films, and played the video games they're loosely based on. It's a tired entry of an equally tired film franchise that didn't have much inspiration to start with.

picTo call it a cinematic dead zone would be putting it lightly. There is no wit, no imagination, no style, and not even any creativity when it comes to its over the top graphic violence. After watching Machete last weekend, and seeing its hero rip out a villain's intestines and use it as a rope to escape from a building, watching Resident Evil's heroine Alice (once again played by Milla Jovovich) slice a mutant dog in two just doesn't seem all that exciting. A good example of how creatively bankrupt this movie is can be found right near the beginning. If you'll recall at the end of the last movie (Spoiler alert!), Alice came upon a room full of clones of herself, and decided to use them in her fight against the evil Umbrella Corporation, which through their unethical experiments, has turned most of the world's population into flesh-eating zombies and mutants. The film opens with Alice and her army of clones sneaking into and ambushing an Umbrella compound in Tokyo.

picThis could, and should be, a very fun sequence, but instead it's mindless. It's another one of those action sequences where hundreds of rounds of ammo are fired, but no one gets shot unless the script requires them to. The bad guys all have terrible aim, unless the camera is ready for a close up of one of the Alice clones getting shot. The movie is making a hopeless attempt to fool us into thinking the real Alice has been killed, but of course, she hasn't. She sneaks on board a plane that the head of Umbrella, Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts), is using to escape. Just like in the last movie, Albert is almost always seen wearing sunglasses, even if he's in a top secret underground bunker. I guess this is supposed to make him look badass, but actually makes him look ridiculous. So, Alice sneaks aboard the plane, and raises her gun to shoot the villain. He hasn't even noticed her yet. Does she shoot, though? No! She walks up behind him, says a one liner alerting him to her presence, and just stands there, giving him amble time to inject her with a serum that robs her of all her superhuman abilities she's been using to fight during the past few films.

picAlice survives the encounter, and now travels the world, looking for fellow survivors. She soon finds one of her former allies, Claire (Ali Larter), who has lost her memory thanks to a strange device the Umbrella corporation placed on her. The movie does not go into great lengths to describe just what this device is. In one of the film's funnier moments, when we first see Claire, she's covered with filth and hair over her face, but a quick scene change later, and she suddenly looks like she just came out of a day spa. It's a credit to the women in this movie that they can trudge through sewers, zombie-infested streets, smelly tunnels, and corridors lined with blood, and still come out looking like they're ready to grace a magazine cover. Alice and Claire come across a group of survivors holed up in an abandoned prison. The survivors are a generic lot. There's the slimy backstabber (Kim Coates), the tough but kind-hearted black guy (Boris Kodjoe), the nice girl (Kacey Barnfield), the timid and cowardly guy (Norman Yeung), and a shady guy who nobody trusts at first, but may have their key for survival (Wentworth Miller).

picYou can pretty much pick out who's going to live and die almost as soon as they walk on the screen, and the problem is that Afterlife spends too much time introducing us to these characters, while giving them nothing to do. A large chunk of the film is devoted to the characters standing around in a prison, deciding what their next move should be. When the action finally does pick back up again, it's hampered by director Paul W.S. Anderson's (who directed the original Resident Evil) decision to shoot the movie in 3D. Which means, we get non-stop gimmicky shots of things flying at the camera over and over. Broken glass, throwing stars, knives, mutant dogs, bullets...Pretty much, if it can be picked up and thrown, Anderson tosses it in our faces.
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Adding further insult to the 3D (and the movie itself) is that most of the film takes place at night or in dark corridors, making the movie look especially muddy and murky through the glasses you have to wear. It's about this time I realized I was watching a total cash grab. The movie exists simply because the past films had big opening weekends. And since this is the only movie getting a wide release this weekend, it's sure to have a big opening, guaranteeing we get another movie that the ending hints at. Personally, I think the well has run dry on Resident Evil. The zombies are boring and are hardly used at all, the characters are shallow, and the action seems to be ripped almost entirely out of The Matrix. Is there anything in this movie that's worthwhile? Not really, no.

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