Reel Opinions


Friday, September 30, 2011

50/50

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My main concern regarding 50/50 is that it will be largely ignored by audiences during its theatrical run. Already I've spoken to a number of people who state that they do not want to see a (using their words) "comedy about cancer". They are most certainly missing out, as this movie manages to be so much more. It's thoughtful, wise, uplifting, hilarious, sad, dramatic, and highly entertaining. Like the best movies, it refuses to be pigeonholed to a specific genre. It's most certainly not just a "comedy about cancer".

picAs has been widely publicized, the film's screenwriter, Will Reiser, based the film on his own experiences on being diagnosed with, and surviving cancer. The film's co-star, Seth Rogen, is an old friend of Reiser's in real life, and plays the best friend of Reiser's on-screen counterpart, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Walking into the movie, I expected a wonderful performance from Gordon-Levitt (and I got one), but I was especially impressed with Rogen, who I am not a particularly huge fan of. Oh sure, I've enjoyed him in some films (most notably Funny People and Observe and Report), but more often, Rogen as a lead actor does not sit well with me. But here, I found him quite funny, and surprisingly sensitive. Sure, he's pretty much doing the same big, dopey lug routine that he does in almost all of his movies, but here, there's a bit more sincerity behind his performance, and his one-liners are funnier.

picAs the film opens, Adam is a happy young man with a supportive artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), and a job writing for a local radio station. He's had some nagging back pains lately, but he's not very concerned about it, until his doctor comes back with the diagnosis that Adam has a rare form of spinal cancer. The doctor is vague about Adam's chances for survival, but doing some private research on his own, he learns that he has a 50% chance. He breaks the news to his girlfriend, his best friend Kyle (Rogen), and finally to his mother (Anjelica Huston), who is already dealing with having to take care of her husband, who is suffering from Alzheimer's, and now finds herself constantly fretting about her son. Of the three, Kyle takes the news the best, and sticks by Adam to the end. The extent Adam's girlfriend does is get him a dog to cheer him up, and drive him to the hospital sometimes. She soon breaks down from the pressure of having to deal with Adam's illness, and leaves him.

picThe movie follows Adam as he goes through the different stages of anger and eventual acceptance about his disease. He's helped along the way by Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a young therapist who is assigned to help Adam work through his feelings, and winds up getting more involved in her patient's situation than I think a therapist is supposed to. He's also helped by a pair of fellow cancer patients played by Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer, who provide a witty commentary on what Adam is going through, and what he can expect. While a lot of things have clearly been simplified, there is a lot of honesty in the screenplay, and you can tell that Reiser is writing both from experience and his own imagination. The movie uses a fairly basic formula, but it is smart and well-written, and often quite hilarious. It knows when it's okay to laugh, and when it has to take itself seriously. Best of all, it never feels like a "disease movie", nor does it feel overblown. When the time comes for Adam to have surgery to have the tumor removed, very little is said, or needs to be, as the physical performances of the actors say plenty.

picWhat impressed me the most about 50/50 is how interesting the characters are. These are well-developed people who change during the course of the film, and don't just stay on one course. Of particular note is Anjelica Huston as Adam's mother, who could have easily have been made out to be an overly protective and smothering shrew, but thanks to some third act developments, comes across as being much more human than we anticipated. Even Adam's friend Kyle, who spends most of the film trying to teach Adam how he can use his cancer to pick up women, ends up being more sympathetic. Best of all, these don't feel tacked on, as if the screenplay is suddenly asking us to feel for these characters. The changes and developments feel natural.
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I'm sure there will be those who think the movie glosses over the more serious reality of living with cancer, and those people would probably be right. But, it would also be right to say that the movie is engaging, funny, and warm. To me, those qualities win out in the end. This movie is a wonderful entertainment, and while I doubt it will hit gold at the box office, it's a movie well worth seeking out.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Killer Elite

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All things considered, Killer Elite is a standard Jason Statham action vehicle, only with a bit more class than you would expect. That class comes from the fact that Robert De Niro and Clive Owen co-star in the film. While De Niro is pretty much pushed aside in an extended cameo, Owen proves to be quite the magnetic presence. With some very well handled action sequences, the movie becomes a pleasant diversion. If we cared more about what was going on, it could have been so much more.

picThe movie claims to be based on a true story, although the book it is based on ("The Feather Men" by Ranulph Fiennes) has largely been challenged in its authenticity, and even debunked in some cases. I highly doubt most in the audience will be concerned with this knowledge, as people don't usually go to Statham movies to learn something. The action is set in 1981, and is focused on a professional assassin named Danny (Statham) who wants out of the business after his conscience gets the best of him during an assignment. He goes into hiding for one year, but is forced back into action when he finds out that his friend and former partner, Hunter (De Niro) is being held captive by a sheik in Omar. If Danny wants Hunter's freedom, he'll have to kill some of the sheik's enemies for him, and bring back proof.

picThe enemies in question are three British SAS officers who were responsible for the deaths of the sheik's sons during a period of war. Danny must not only kill these officers, but he must also get a videotaped confession before the murder. He also has to make it look like an accident instead of a murder. Helping him in his mission are fellow assassins Davies (Dominic Purcell) and Meier (Aden Young). As the three set about their mission, they are eventually discovered by ex-SAS officer Spike (Clive Owen), who pieces together that someone or a group of people are murdering his former colleagues, and goes about trying to track them down. The action unfolds as you would expect, with some lively action and chase sequences, and the most minimal amount of character development possible to make the characters seem somewhat human, but not too deep, so as not to divert us from the action.

picDespite a running time of nearly two hours, we don't get a lot of details. There are a lot of political and power figures behind the scenes pulling the strings, but their involvement remains mostly murky. Likewise, a romantic subplot between Danny and a woman he's left behind because he doesn't want her to get involved (Yvonne Strahovski) largely goes nowhere. Where Killer Elite is at its best is when its focused on the antagonistic relationship that grows between Danny and Spike. Statham and Owen develop an interesting chemistry, as they are constantly trying to one-up each other, and either hunt the other down, or throw them off the trail. You wish there was more to both of the characters, especially late in the film. But, the movie largely treats them as two guys constantly trying to outgun and outrun one another. It's fun, yes, but not very substantial.

picAt least Owen gets plenty of opportunities to be interesting, and does what he can with the limited resources of the script. De Niro largely disappears for a long period of time, other than the beginning, and the last half hour or so. It's a shame, because he's quite likable here. Sure, it's not up to what we expect from an actor of his legacy, but at least he doesn't come across like he's cashing a paycheck here, even though he obviously is. The rest of the cast, and the movie in general, is largely interchangeable. There are some nice action sequences throughout, but the plot never really grabs us like it should, nor does it delve deep enough. We're entertained enough, and we're certainly not bored, but we're also left wanting more.
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Killer Elite should be more than enough to satisfy Statham's fans, or anyone looking for a movie with lots of gunplay and explosions. As for me, I admired it, but wanted to like it more than I did. It's almost like first-time director Gary McKendry thought the presence of stars like De Niro and Owen alone would help lift the material. They certainly help, but any good filmmaker knows that a star is only as good as the material they're given to work with.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Dolphin Tale

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I would describe Dolphin Tale as being nice and pleasant, but not very interesting. This is a sappy and drippy little family film inspired by the true story of a little dolphin who had her tail amputated after getting it stuck in a crab trap off the coast of Florida back in 2005. The movie takes this simple idea, and then adds a lot of unfortunate Hollywood elements, like a pair of plucky kids who befriend the dolphin, a comic relief pelican, and Morgan Freeman and Kris Kristofferson playing wise old men.

picOne interesting element of the film is that the actual dolphin (who has been given the name "Winter") plays herself in the movie. Sure, it kind of lessens the drama about whether or not the dolphin will survive, but it's still nice to see. The human hero of the story is a sad-faced and isolated 11-year-old kid named Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), who lives alone with his mother (Ashley Judd). It's summer vacation, but all Sawyer has to look forward to is summer school after flunking almost all of his classes. To make matters worse, his best friend and cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), is a soldier and has been called into duty to fight overseas. One morning, on his way to school, he happens to see a beached dolphin caught in a crab trap. He helps a marine animal rescue crew free it, before it is taken to the local marine hospital. Worried about the dolphin, Sawyer begins skipping his summer classes, so that he can hang around the animal hospital, and help nurse Winter the dolphin back to health.

picThe marine hospital is run by a loving family that includes head veterinarian and father Clay (Harry Connick, Jr), his plucky young daughter Hazel (played by plucky young newcomer Cozi Zuehlsdorff), and kindly grandfather Reed (Kris Kristofferson), who mainly stays out of sight, except for when the screenplay requires him to dispense words of wisdom to either young Sawyer, or to Clay. The chances for Winter to recover from the injuries she sustained while in the trap look slim, but then Sawyer begins to bond with it, and the dolphin starts regaining its strength little by little. Of course, there are plenty of problems along the way. These include Sawyer getting in trouble at school for missing so many of his classes to be with Winter, cousin Kyle coming home from the war injured after an explosion and being depressed, and the marine hospital facing huge financial debt, and being in danger of being bought out by a millionaire tycoon who wants to tear the place down and put up a luxury resort.

picBut the biggest problem revolves around Winter, and the fact that she can't swim properly after her tail is forced to be amputated when the wounds become infected. She does learn how to swim by twisting her body side-to-side instead of wagging her tail up and down, but this could have great health risks for the dolphin, as her body is not meant to move that way, and could lead to spinal problems. Fortunately, just when things seem bleak, a kindly old man named Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) enters the picture with an idea on how to create a prosthetic tail for Winter. That's the kind of movie Dolphin Tail is. It never lets itself get too bleak or sad. Even when things do seem bad, the music is still kind of upbeat, and the characters are constantly smiling, as if they just know there's a ray of sunshine waiting behind the gloom. Every problem brings about a life lesson, as well as a last minute miracle solution that wraps everything up so nicely, the word "contrived" doesn't even begin to describe it.

picI don't like giving bad reviews to movies that obviously have no desire other than to be uplifting family entertainment. It makes me sound like a bitter and cynical person. But I can't help it, Dolphin Tale did not interest me in any way. I didn't care about the human characters or their problems, and while Winter the dolphin is definitely cute, she doesn't really get any big scenes all to herself. There are times when the movie almost seems to treat her like a prop for the actors to manipulate. The movie tries so hard to be nice and uplifting that I eventually felt like I was being assaulted by the good feelings it was trying to bestow on me. I like a feel-good movie as much as the next guy, but there's a line this movie crosses when I start to feel overly-manipulated.
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The movie ends with some real life documentary footage of Winter's rescue and rehabilitation, and this is when the movie comes the closest to working because it feels real. The movie that comes before it is too cold, calculated, and mechanical. It's been engineered top to bottom to win our hearts, and it just tries too hard. I've been able to put aside my cynicism and enjoy movies like this. I did my best to do so while watching Dolphin Tale, but I'm afraid my efforts were in vain, and my cynicism won out. Or maybe this just isn't that good of a movie to start with.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Abduction

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John Singleton's Abduction is not the goofiest action movie I've seen this year (that honor still belongs to I Am Number Four), but it certainly makes a good effort for the title. Let's take the title for starters, which is completely mind-boggling, as no abduction of any kind takes place during the course of the film. Yes, there is a point where its young hero Nathan Harper (played by Taylor Lautner, the shirtless-wonder from the Twilight movies) thinks he was kidnapped as a small child, when he sees his photo on a missing persons site. But, the whole site turns out to be a ruse set up by the film's villain. No abduction ever took place, making the title all the more bewildering.

picAnd what about that missing person site, which turns out to be a major part in the villain's plot? For years, the villain has been hunting Nathan down, for reasons that remain unclear for most of the movie, and when the reasons are revealed, you kind of wish they were unclear all over again. So, he posts a photo of Nathan as a small child on a website, and posts a phone number to contact. When Nathan discovers the website and the photo while doing research for a school project, he contacts the number, which tips the villain off to where Nathan is located. So, let's think this through - The villain somehow knew that Nathan would one day have to do a school project that would lead him to the fake missing person's website he set up years ago as a way to track Nathan down. Surely there must be easier and less convoluted ways to track someone down. I'd hate to see how this guy goes about having someone murdered, if he goes through all this trouble just to find somebody.

picBut, I digress - Abduction is intended to be a starring vehicle for Lautner that shows off his skills as a leading man action hero. It fails on all counts. There is very little action to speak of, other than a scuffle with a bad guy on a train. The rest of the time, Nathan spends his time running along side his somewhat-girlfriend Karen (Lily Collins) from evil terrorists, C.I.A. agents who can't be trusted, and other shady individuals. Heck, for a movie that is supposed to be grooming Lautner as the next big action star, you'd think the movie would give him the chance to battle the lead villain in a big standoff scene. But nope, he just runs away, and is saved by sheer dumb luck. Say what you will about Schwarzenegger as an actor, but at least he always took care of business in his movies. Lautner shows not the slightest bit of charisma or personality, as he spends most of the film's running time staring blankly at whatever might be happening (his parents being murdered, his house blowing up, his girlfriend being put in danger). I suppose this was a choice on the part of the filmmakers, trying to make him look deep and edgy. Instead, it makes him look lost, as if he's not sure what he's supposed to be doing whenever on camera.

picSo, the plot - Nathan stars the movie as an ordinary suburban teenager who likes partying and getting drunk, while his parents (played by Jason Isaacs and Maria Bello, both of whom should have known better) enjoy kicking the crap out of him, and disguising it as a martial arts workout, when he comes home with a hangover. Nathan stumbles upon the missing persons website while researching a school project, and a short while later, some mysterious men show up at his doorstep to kill his parents. Nathan and his girlfriend from across the street are forced to run when they discover that the villains somehow managed to stick a time bomb in the oven during the time they were having a kung fu fight with Nathan's parents. The house blows up (which oddly does not bring any gawkers or neighbors out of their homes), and Nathan and Karen are now on the run.

picAt the hospital, they come across Nathan's therapist, Dr. Bennett (Sigourney Weaver), who tells Nathan not to trust anyone, especially not a C.I.A. agent named Burton (Alfred Molina). The whole thing has to do with some foreign assassins led by a man named Kozlow (Michael Nyquist). He was the man responsible for the fake missing persons website, as well as the one responsible for the death of Nathan's parents, as well as his real mother when he was a young child. It turns out that the parents Nathan was living with were special agents who had adopted him after the death of his real mother. Dr. Bennett is an agent too, and all of them have been looking after Nathan, in case Kozlow would ever find him. Why is Kozlow trying to track him down? I'll leave you to discover that for yourself if you're unwise enough to see this movie. If you do, expect to be asking a lot of questions, as very little in this movie makes any real sense.

picDirector John Singleton burst onto the scene in the early 90s with his acclaimed film, Boyz 'n the Hood. Since then, he's usually been slumming it in action junk like this, so it's not really a big surprise to see his name attached to Abduction. He shows no sense of timing, pace, or energy here, however. For an action movie, everything's set at such a casual pace. There's too much set up, and we don't get our first real action sequence involving Lautner until about the 75 minute mark. Watching the movie, I felt like everything was just completely off - The performances, the editing, and especially the pacing. A good action movie makes you feel like you're being taken along on a thrill ride. This movie only makes you feel like checking your watch every 15 or 20 minutes, to see how close it is to the film being over.
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I won't go so far as to say that Lautner has no future in action films, as I don't think this is the best movie to judge. However, if he really does think a movie like this will win him new fans, he's completely delusional. I won't go so far as to say this is the worst movie of the year, as there's much worse out there. But it has to be one of the dumbest.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Moneyball

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Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (who co-wrote Moneyball alongside Steve Zaillian) has a talent for taking dry, nerdy business-oriented subjects, and turning them into great entertainments. Last year around this time, he hit critical and box office paydirt with The Social Network, a movie about the creation of Facebook that could have been a dullard, but wound up being my favorite movie of last year, thanks to its sharp dialogue, great direction, and an emotional theme. All the facts, numbers, and complicated statistics were there on the screen, but it was moved along by a very human story.

picMoneyball tries for a similar formula, and though it comes up short compared to Sorkin's last film, it's still a much more entertaining film than one could imagine walking in. This is an unconventional sports movie, in that it's not about the players or the game itself, but about the General Mangers who work behind the scenes, pick the players, make trades during the seasons, and do a lot of wheelings and dealings. Once again, we have a sharply written and well acted movie that manages to make what could have been a dry and dull subject matter (or at least something that sounds like it would have worked better as a documentary), and make it completely fascinating. The only thing holding it back from the greatness Social Network achieved one year ago is that it's not quite as emotionally compelling.

picBased on the 2003 nonfiction book of the same name, the film takes a look at the baseball team the Oakland A's about a decade ago, when the team had such a low budget to work with, they couldn't afford the top players that were up for drafting. General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, who hasn't been this charismatic in a performance in a while) is a man who is tired of losing. He had a career as a professional player in the 80s, only to have it not lead anywhere. As the film opens, he's faced with more losses, as the Oakland A's have just lost the 2001 World Series, and three of their best players have been lured away to wealthier teams with deeper pockets. Billy knows he doesn't have the money or the resources to create the kind of team he wants. Until he learns of an alternative method of hiring players from Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate who came up with a system to hook up overlooked ball players at dirt cheap prices.

picPeter's system uses statistics and stats to show potential in undervalued players. Using this system, Billy is able to drum up a dirt cheap team that at first looks like a joke, even to those on the team. Why is Billy listening to this pudgy, withdrawn Yale kid, rather than his fellow managers, who have years of baseball experience? The team seems like a losing gamble at first, but as the season goes on, and Billy makes some smart trades and actions, the Oakland A's begin to have a record-setting string of winning games. But, Moneyball is not really interested in the big game, or the A's winning streak. It's mainly set behind the scenes. Billy doesn't even usually like to watch the games. He'll turn the game on once in a while, to see how things are going, but for the most part, we follow him through the corporate offices of the team, not through the ballpark itself.

picThis becomes both one of the strongest aspects of the film, and also one of its failings. The strong comes from the fact that this is a side of the sport that we haven't really seen in movies before, and it's kind of fascinating to see what goes on with the business side of things. The failing comes from the fact that although the screenplay is often very technical and fascinating, it comes at the sacrifice of some human emotion. While it is there in some form (particularly a subplot concerning Billy and his 12-year-old daughter from a failed marriage), the movie is almost entirely "inside" the sport. I think this will be a bigger problem for some than others. The movie runs a bit long, and sometimes becomes a bit too obsessed with stats and numbers, to the point that the characters and emotions almost seem to be second.

picBut, the movie always pulls through, and is never once boring. It has a wonderful star turn from Pitt, who shows a great deal of personality for playing a character who's a bit of a shut in, and doesn't even really like mingling with the players all that much. His life is his job, aside from the time he spends with his daughter, and Pitt is able to show both the intensity, and the humanity of his character. As Peter Brand, Jonah Hill is very quiet, but likable, as a guy who is out of his element with all these grizzled baseball pros. He's confident in his ideas, and by being around Billy, he's able to have the confidence to speak up about them. We get the sense he's someone who hasn't been taken seriously a lot in his life, so the fact that Billy is willing to put so much stock in his unorthodox ideas to picking players is the first vote of confidence he's heard in a while, if not ever.
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Moneyball is a movie filled with great moments, but just misses the mark of greatness itself by being too wrapped up in its own technicalities. Some viewers may be divided, but I don't see a lot of complaints coming. Even if it doesn't reach the heights it aims for, it's still immensely entertaining, and holds wonderful performances by Pitt, Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the team's coach. I would have liked a bit more emotion, but this is still one of the finer baseball movies to come out in a while.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

I Don't Know How She Does It

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It's futile to complain that I Don't Know How She Does It is essentially a feature length sitcom. It knows it is, and revels in it. From the stock character types and situations, right down to the moments when the main character literally pauses the action around her, and breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience - This movie exists in a cookie cutter romantic comedy universe. Would I have preferred a more honest approach? Of course. But, what's up on the screen isn't all bad, thanks to some likable performances and some nice moments throughout.

picSarah Jessica Parker is Kate Reddy, an overworked Boston financial analyst, wife to her faithful husband Richard (Greg Kinnear), and hurried mother to two young children - One who is six, and old enough to be sad that her mom has to go away for work so much, the other who is two, and is to young to complain. Kate is a "supermom" at home, doing her best to organize everything and keep her family running smoothly. (Instead of sleeping at night, she lies awake in bed, and composes a list in her head of things she has to do.) But, it's getting harder for her to balance her home life and her career when her boss (Kelsey Grammer) is constantly sending her away on business trips. It's about to get even harder now that one of her original projects has caught the attention of Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan), a New York power player who could bring about big things in Kate's career, but it would also mean a lot more time away from home.

picThis being a fluffy comedy, we get the expected contrivances and bizarre situations. Right before her first big meeting with Jack, Kate gets a text that her daughter has lice, and that Kate just might have them too. (No wonder she's been scratching her hair so much lately.) Just how fluffy is this movie? One of the big plot points revolves around whether or not Kate will be able to keep her promise to her daughter about them building a snowman together the next time it snows outside. This works about as well for the movie's favor as you would think, which is not very. And yet, I can't deny, parts of the movie worked for me. I especially liked Kate's personal assistant, Momo (Olivia Munn), who vows never to get married and have children, and throws herself entirely into her work to prevent either from happening. Her character is not only funny, but she gets a couple sweet moments near the end.

picI also liked the Jack Abelhammer character, who as played by Brosnan, is quite charming and likable. His character is also handled quite well. When we learn that he's a widower, and when the movie starts throwing suggestions that he is starting to like Kate during his time working with her on the project, I sunk in my seat, certain that he was going to go through a sudden change and become a villain, determined to break up Kate's family. Thankfully, the movie is smart enough in this department to keep him honest. Yes, he does have very strong feelings for Kate, and yes, he does admit them to her. But, she doesn't give it a second thought - her heart is with her husband. What's more, he understands, and does not pressure her. Sure, the ending the character does have is a bit too pat and perfect, but at least the movie doesn't suddenly make him a jerk for the sole purpose that the screenwriter thought the film needed a villain.

picEven Parker gets some nice moments in the lead role. She's a lot sweeter and more sympathetic than she's allowed herself to be in the recent Sex and the City films. She also has some good chemistry with Kinnear, and especially with Brosnan. This is a strange movie. It would just be going along, not really impressing me all that much, and then something would stand out, only for the movie to go back to its regular routine. There aren't enough stand out moments for me to recommend the film fully, but I'd be lying if I didn't say the movie won me over from time to time. No, it's not as smart or as funny as Crazy, Stupid Love. But, as far as fluff women-centric comedies go, this one's not bad.
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I imagine that most people will find I Don't Know How She Does It comforting. It's non-threatening, it's kind of sweet, and it does absolutely nothing to challenge the viewer. Sometimes that's a good thing. For what it is, the movie works enough for me to say this isn't a movie I would go out of my way to see, but I'm glad I did anyway.

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Straw Dogs

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The problem with remakes is universal - The original movie is always hanging over the memories of the audience, so we're constantly comparing it to what came before. The problem with the remake of Straw Dogs is that it virtually asks us to compare it to the original. Writer-director Rod Lurie has stayed so faithful to the original movie, we can't help but draw comparisons. And while I'm not one to complain about a filmmaker being faithful or paying tribute to the original work, there's a fine line between being faithful and just plain ripping it off. A line this movie crosses many times.

picLet me first say that on the whole, and taken solely on its own, this movie is certainly not bad. The location where the story is set, and some other details have been changed, but for the most part, this is the same as the original 1971 controversial film. It's been simplified in some ways, I guess to reach a wider audience. Many of the film's themes aren't explored as well as the first time around, and there's some dialogue that's been added that literally spells out to the audience what the title is supposed to refer to. Other than that, the movie sticks note to note to the original. So, why can't we just watch the original? That's the question this remake fails to answer, and it suffers because of it. The movie is never boring, but it's softer, and maybe a little too sanitized at times. (The film's infamous rape scene is in tact, but features a lot more cutaways.) Something tells me the people who have made Straw Dogs a cult classic over the years have not exactly been wishing for this.

picThe setting's been switched from a small English town, to a small town in the deep South, and the professions of our two leads have been changed, but otherwise, the set up is exactly the same. Hollywood screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) and his actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) have returned to Amy's hometown, so that David can escape from his usual hectic L.A. lifestyle, and focus on writing his latest script about the 1943 battle of Stalingrad. Amy's hometown is a secluded place called Blackwater, where everyone's lives seem to revolve around the high school football team, and the local bar is filled with every colorful (and shady) sort imaginable. Obviously, when David and Amy pull into town in David's classic Jaguar car, they don't exactly fit in with the locals. Oh, did I mention that many of the locals look like every dangerous Southern redneck stereotype known to man?

picOur main antagonist is Charlie (True Blood's Alexander Skarsgard), who also just happens to be Amy's former flame back in high school. He hasn't forgotten her, and spends most of his time not-so-subtly towering over David, as if he is silently challenging his manhood. David plays up the passive nice guy aspect around Charlie. He doesn't want to mingle with his sort, but he doesn't have a choice, as it just so happens that Charlie and his gang of redneck ruffians are the team that have been hired to fix the roof on the house that David and Amy are staying in while they're in town. David simply does not want to start any trouble - Not when Charlie's friends walk around the house like they own the place, raiding the fridge whenever they please, and not even when Amy starts complaining about Charlie leering at her while she's out jogging. This obviously becomes hard when Charlie and his friends start upping the stakes, first by killing Amy's pet cat, and then by threatening Amy herself.

picStraw Dogs wants to ask a lot of tough questions, such as how far can a "civilized" man be pushed until he is forced to fight back, or if a part of Amy does not in fact miss Charlie. As I mentioned, while these points are still present in the remake, they have been simplified, and kind of muddied. What we get here is a movie that hits the same beats as its predecessor, just not as effectively. The violent and sexual nature of the story has been muted, even though the film's famously violent climax (right down to the bear trap and the nail gun) has been recreated top to bottom. This makes the remake a bit of an oddity. It's well-made, well-acted, and obviously has been made by people who want to respect the original. But something is constantly off. It's like watching a stage show, where the original cast is long gone, and the new cast is trying their best to capture the feeling of the show, but just aren't grasping it. Nothing hits as hard as it should.

picThat certainly doesn't mean that the cast doesn't try. James Marsden (looking a little like James Franco here) doesn't have quite the "quiet nerd pushed to the extreme edge" intensity that Dustin Hoffman had in the 1971 film, but I really didn't have any big complaints about his performance. Likewise, Skarsgard does a good job of seeming intimidating just in the way that he seems to tower over his enemies. He smiles, and does his best to come across as being someone you can trust, but he's clearly a wolf, and brings a lot of intensity. Bosworth, in the lead female role however, suffers from the same problem as in the original - She's more of a pawn to be used by the two lead men, than she is an active participant in the story. All three of these performances manage to be restrained at least, which is more than I can say for James Woods, who leaves no piece of scenery standing in his performance as the drunk and dangerous football coach.
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The 2011 Straw Dogs manages to be almost exactly like the original, only tamer and not as dangerous, which I guess is to be expected. Judged on it's own, it's pretty decent, with a couple over the top performances thrown in. I would recommend it if you haven't seen the original, but why, when the original can easily be rented? This is not really that bad of a movie. I just see little reason for it to be out there in the first place.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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Friday, September 16, 2011

Drive

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It's always welcome when a movie goes beyond my expectations, such as Drive does. Walking in, I expected this to be a high-octane thrill ride, but rising filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn has better and smarter ideas. Here is a revenge thriller that gets its thrills not from white-knuckle action and gunfights (although there is some of that here), but by building the tension at a deliberately slow and tense pace. This is one of the rare action movies that left me wondering if the hero was going to still be around by the end credits.

picThe film's opening sequence sets up what the remainder of the film will be like beautifully. A store is robbed, and two crooks climb into the getaway car. The driver of the vehicle does not make a speedy escape, like we expect. Instead, the sequence plays out as an extended game of cat and mouse, with the driver using a stopwatch, a police scanner, and a live baseball game on the radio to plan out his escape. Instead of tearing through the streets of L.A., the driver is slow and deliberate, hiding when needed, and trying to keep a low profile as the police presence slowly begins to build on the streets. It's a tense and beautiful sequence that, taken alone, could have made for a wonderful short film. After the job is pulled off, the driver walks away. And even though we follow him for the rest of the movie, we learn little about him. This is intentional.

picWe don't even learn his name during the course of the film. The credits simply list him as "The Driver", and he's played by Ryan Gosling in a performance of steely magnetism. He doesn't say much, nor does he have to. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the screenplay by Hossein Amini should be studied by anyone who wants to learn effective minimalist dialogue, as most of this film's power is through expression and the actions of the characters. We learn that the Driver works as a Hollywood stuntman during the day, and serves as a getaway driver for hire on the side. His life seems to be under control, for the most part. Then he meets the pretty young woman who lives in the apartment down the hall from him. Her name is Irene (Carey Mulligan), a mother trying to raise her young son on her own while her husband is in prison. The husband is due to get out fairly soon, but the Driver can't help it. He falls for the woman, and as he spends time with her, he falls for the kid too.

picThe movie is not in any sort of rush, and allows these characters time to grow and develop. We know that Irene has the same feelings for our hero as he does, but she is faithful to her husband. When the husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), returns home after serving his time, he is surprisingly not jealous of the relationship that grew while he was away. We can tell that he's a good man who has made a lot of mistakes in the past, and wants to go straight. However, the people around him won't let him go straight, and he owes a lot of protection money to a pair of mobsters. When threats start being made against Irene and her son if Standard does not pull off one last job for the mobsters, the Driver agrees to step in, and act as the getaway driver on the job.

picEven though we know there's going to be a double cross, and the Driver is going to wind up in over his head, Drive continues to surprise us with how the film handles the ensuing events. The movie, which has taken a fairly laid back tone up to now, suddenly becomes shockingly brutal and violent. It's all the more brutal, because it is happening to characters that the movie has taken the time to let us get to know before the guns start firing and the heads start exploding. While the plot may sound like your standard Hollywood action film, the film is artful, thanks to the beautiful direction of Refn, who gives the film a very cool and somewhat uncomfortable vibe, which heightens the sense that something bad could happen at any second. It also loves and respects its characters. While the Driver himself may be a mystery to us, we can sense the love he feels for Irene and her son, which carries his actions throughout the film.

picThere is some interesting casting here, as well, and all of it works. Gosling, who has mainly worked in conventional romantic and light comedy roles, plays the silent, deadly, yet compassionate type very well. He says little, but his emotions run deep, and we can tell that there is a lot going on in his character and his portrayal. Another great example of playing against type is Albert Brooks, as one of the deadly mobsters behind it all. Usually known for sympathetic and funny roles, Brooks at first does not look the part, but he is able to convince us with his portrayal of a level-headed man, who is no less dangerous than his more outspoken and violent partner in crime, played by Ron Perlman. Both make effective villains, but Brooks stands out more, since it's such a different role for him, and he tackles it so well.
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It's somewhat hard to pin down just what makes Drive work so well, as it works well in a lot of areas - The direction, the camera work, the music and song selections, the performances, and the editing all contribute. Maybe that's what makes this movie stand out more than the usual action norm. It's not only stylized, but it's emotional. This is a fine piece of filmmaking that has me excited to see what the director will do next.

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