Reel Opinions


Sunday, April 29, 2012

Safe

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Jason Statham is probably one of the last true action stars we have left working in Hollywood. Too bad a lot of his recent films haven't really shown him off to the best of his abilities. But Safe, a highly effective and brutal little thriller, marks a return to form. This is Statham doing what he does best, in a plot that is just coherent enough for us to follow, but really doesn't matter.

picWriter-director Boax Yakin (Remember the Titans) must have had a blast dreaming up this movie, as it's basically one giant "one man vs. the world" plot, with his star fending off mobsters and criminals from just about every corner of the globe. Statham stars as Luke Wright, a former police detective who turned to martial arts cage fighting when that job fell through, due to corruption around him. When we meet Luke, he's penniless and broke. Some Russian mobsters have made his life a living hell after he refused to throw a fight, and now they've murdered his wife, and have threatened to murder anyone he gets close to. He's living a soulless and hopeless existence, and right when he's beginning to contemplate ending it all, he sees a scared little girl on the run from the same gangsters who destroyed his life.

picThe girl is Mei (Catherine Chan), a 10-year-old math wiz from China with a genius-level brain that can crunch numbers with the same accuracy as a computer. In flashbacks, we see how the head of the Chinese mafia (James Hong) kidnapped her, and forced her to work for them as kind of a human bookkeeper, keeping track of all their businesses, without leaving a detectable paper trail. Mei's latest assignment is to memorize a code that will unlock a safe containing millions of dollars. Now that she has the code in her brain, Mei becomes a sought-after person by just about every slimeball and lowlife in New York. The Russian gangsters try to steal her from the Chinese, wanting the code for themselves. Also thrown into the mix are some crooked New York cops (led by Robert John Burke), and even the corrupt Mayor (Chris Sarandon).

picLuke gets involved, vowing to protect the girl from the people after her, since he pretty much has a history with everyone trying to capture and/or kill her. It's at this point that Safe pretty much stops trying to tell a story, and basically turns into one extended action sequence. Fortunately for the audience, it's an incredibly well executed action sequence. The fights in this movie are not only exciting to watch, but quite brutal. We're getting a rush from the action, but we wince at the same time, as a lot of the stuff Luke does to his enemies does look incredibly painful. The movie pulls no punches, and does a great job of cementing Statham as a true action star a lot better than most of his recent films have.

picAt the center of all the violence and over the top chase scenes is the relationship that builds between Luke and Mei. The movie gives us just enough reason to make us want to see them both get out of this alive, but wisely doesn't slow things down too much. This is not a character-driven film. It's driven by the stunts, and the incredibly well shot action sequences, which are edited in such a way so that we can actually tell what's going on. (A rarity with most action movies, I must sadly confess.) Still, there is some genuine emotion during the few scenes the two heroes get to share together, without having someone shooting at them. The movie feels a bit top-heavy with exposition at first, as the opening half hour is devoted solely to setting up our heroes, and their different situations. But, it does wind up working in the movie's favor, as it helps us cheer for them when they team up.
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Safe is a very silly and convoluted movie, but I'll take it any day of the week over a lot of other failed action movies. It knows what it is, and it knows how to deliver on the action that it promises. I'm sure that there will be many who will knock the film for not making a lot of sense, or for its often wooden dialogue. These are not the levels that a movie like this should be judged. Safe is an unapologetic thrill ride movie, and on that level, it worked for me.

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement

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The ad campaign for The Five-Year Engagement plays up the fact that the movie is from the producer of Bridesmaids, and the writer/star, as well as the director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Audiences expecting a jovial and light hearted romantic comedy in the style of those films may be a little disappointed. Oh, there are definitely some good laughs here, but there's also a more serious and somewhat sad undercurrent to the film. This is the rare romantic comedy with something on its mind, and doesn't come equipped with a predetermined happy ending.

picIs that such a bad thing? Of course not. The movie works, and like I said, has a number of good laughs, though not quite as many as the previous collaborations between writer/star Jason Segel and director/co-writer Nicholas Stoller. It also gets a lot of mileage out of its lead stars, Segel and Emily Blunt, who have great chemistry together as the couple at the center of it all. They play Tom and Violet, respectively. As the film opens, they've been dating for a full year, and Tom proposes on their one-year anniversary. Everything seems to be going the couple's way at first. Tom is a chef at a successful up-scale restaurant, who seems to be on the fast track for a promotion to head chef. Violet, meanwhile, puts all of her efforts into planning the perfect wedding, all the while hoping that her dream job of working as a psychologist at a local college University will come through.

picAs is often in life, some unexpected bumps turn up. First, Tom's best friend, Alex (Chris Pratt), ends up marrying Violet's sister, Suzie (Alison Brie), after she becomes pregnant. Their lavish wedding ends up stealing the thunder of Tom and Violet's plans. A bigger blow for the couple rears its head when Violet gets that University job, except that it's not local - It forces the couple to not only delay their wedding plans for Violet's career, but also requires them to move out to Michigan. Tom plays the part of the supportive fiance, and goes along with the idea, even though it means leaving his success behind. When they arrive in Michigan, Violet finds her career flourishing, while Tom becomes depressed when he can't find decent work, and his life becomes increasingly meaningless and dull.

picThe Five-Year Engagement tries to find humor in its scenario, and is often successful. But it can't be denied that the movie also hits a lot of serious notes concerning couples, and how compromising your plans and dreams can lead to hidden (and not-so-hidden) resentment toward your spouse or partner. Tom does indeed try to make the best of a bad situation, but as time goes on, he begins to resent Violet and her success. His jealousy is further inflamed when he sees his friend, Alex, not only happily married to his fiance's sister, but also enjoying great success in the job position that would have been his if they hadn't moved. The movie walks a fine line between laughter and pain, and it's a credit to the talented cast that they can pull this tricky combination off, without making the transition come across as being awkward.

picI also admired how the movie actually allows us to get to know these characters, before throwing them head-first into the plot. We get to experience Tom and Violet at their happiest, so that when things do start falling apart between them, we share their pain and want to see them work things out. Likewise, the break down of their relationship is gradual, and doesn't feel forced. There's an honesty to this couple that we don't see in a lot of other romantic comedies. It also helps that Segel and Blunt come across as a couple that we can get behind, and have a natural draw. Sure, they've acted together twice before (once in 2010's Gulliver's Travels, and again in 2011's The Muppets), but this is the first movie together where they get to create a genuine relationship, and aren't surrounded by special effects or Muppets. By the time it was over, I thought to myself that I wouldn't mind seeing them work together again.
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So, even if the movie isn't quite the light and breezy piece of entertainment that the ads are selling it to be, this is still a very smart comedy that's well worth your time. With so many romantic comedies choosing to play things dumb, the fact that this movie plays it smart is reason enough to recommend. Fortunately, there's more to The Five-Year Engagement than that. It has two great stars, a funny script, and it doesn't make you feel like you've been talked down to when its over.

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The Pirates: Band of Misfits

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Will kids enjoy The Pirates: Band of Misfits? I honestly can't say. The movie is colorful and fun and all, but will they be laughing at the jokes revolved around Charles Darwin (who has a supporting role in the film) and the Elephant Man (who makes a cameo)? The humor might be a bit too sophisticated for some kids, and the pace might be leisurely at times. All I do know is that accompanying adults who have a taste for dry, British humor will find this a riot. As long as they avoid the trailers, which give away too many of the film's gags.

picIt's always refreshing to see a stop motion animated film on the big screen, and The Pirates is the work of British animation studio, Aardman, who have mastered the craft of stop motion with films like Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run. This movie (based on a series of books by Gideon Defoe, who also wrote the screenplay) is not quite as memorable as some of the studio's earlier works, but it's still a lot of fun, and continues their tradition of filling just about every corner of the screen with some kind of visual gag. Besides, how can you not fall in love with a movie that features a band of scurvy pirates as its heroes, who all have self-describing names like "Albino Pirate", "The Surprisingly Curvacious Pirate" (a woman in a not very convincing beard), "The Pirate with Gout", and of course, "The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens". This band of pirates don't even have a proper parrot to sit on their Captain's shoulder. He uses a dodo bird, instead.

picWhat they do have is a spirited, if not somewhat bungling, Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant), who believes in his crew 100%, even if they are frequently unsuccessful in their efforts of looting and pillaging. He sees his crew as the most loyal band that ever sailed the seven seas, and they see him as a great man, due to his bountiful beard, and the fact that he holds a "Ham Night" every week for dinner. The Captain's biggest dream is to win the coveted "Pirate of the Year" award, a prize that goes out annually to the pirate who steals the most booty. Unfortunately, the poor Captain is at a bit of a disadvantage, as he's currently the least-feared Pirate out there. Heck, his wanted poster only offers twelve doubloons (and a free pen) for his capture. Because of this, he is frequently laughed out of the running for Pirate of the Year by his more successful competition, like the stuck-up Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), or the sexy Cutlass Liz (Selma Hayek).

picDuring his travels to prove his worth to earn the big prize, the Captain has a run-in with Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who is desperately seeking a girlfriend, but mainly has a monkey butler for company. The monkey can't talk, but can communicate with little signs ala the Coyote in the Looney Tunes shorts. Darwin brings the band of pirates to London, so that they can enter the Captain's dodo bird (the last one known of its kind) in a science competition. Of course, things get even more complicated when the violence-prone Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who has an intense hatred for pirates, gets involved. The movie is filled with absurdist humor, and vicious satire of historical figures that will likely fly over the heads of the younger members of the audience. I almost question the studio's decision to market it to kids, as adults are almost certain to get much more out of it.

picStill, that's not to say that there's nothing for kids to enjoy in The Pirates. There are plenty of slapstick gags that will speak to them, as well as an action-heavy third act that goes on a bit too long, and sadly, loses a lot of the wit from earlier in the film. I guess director Peter Lord had to compromise somewhere. Where he fortunately did not compromise is in the casting, especially with the strong central voice performance by Hugh Grant, who hasn't been this funny in years. All of the roles are cast quite well, even if the movie does throw in a few too many recognizable names and voices in small cameo roles, simply so the filmmakers can add another well-known name to its credit list. Still, everyone does a great job here, and the celebrity-heavy casting does not become as distracting as it could have.
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Looking on the IMDB, I see that not only did this movie have its title changed before it came to the US (its original title was The Pirates: In An Adventure with Scientists), but some voices were changed for American audiences, and some jokes concerning leper ships and sexual innuendo were toned down or altered. This pretty much cements my belief that this movie was intended more for adults looking for something witty, rather than kids. Oh, don't get me wrong, your kids are bound to find something to like here. But let's face it, this one's mainly for the adults, and it shouldn't have been edited.

One final note: It also shouldn't have been in 3D, which adds very little to the experience, and muddies the picture quality. See it in 2D if you can.

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Friday, April 27, 2012

The Raven

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In The Raven, we get a fictionalized look at the final days of Edgar Allan Poe, where he is a penniless and drunk shadow of his former glory, called in by the police to help solve a crime involving a series of murders based around his stories. A premise like this calls for a hammy and overblown touch, one which the movie sometimes supplies, but not enough. Oddly enough, director James McTeigue (V For Vendetta) wants us to take this seriously.

picJohn Cusack plays Poe, and it's a performance at war with itself. Sometimes, he wants to cut loose, eyes bulged, and screaming his lines, as if he is somehow channeling the spirit of Nicholas Cage. All too often, however, his performance is dour and serious. The Edgar Allan Poe portrayed in this movie hangs out with a pet raccoon, fights crime, and has a knack for deduction that rivals Sherlock Holmes. Why did Cusack feel the need to rope his performance in? Now that I think about it, the whole movie suffers from the same problem as the lead performance. It's constantly at war with itself. It wants to be grisly and violent, but it is never shocking enough. It wants to be a tense mystery thriller, but it is not smart enough. At times, it seems to be trying to have fun with itself, but then it goes right back to taking itself far too seriously. This is a movie suffering from a major identity crisis.

picSo, there's a mysterious masked killer kidnapping people, and killing them off in elaborate traps and set ups based on Poe's stories, such as The Pit and Pendulum or The Tell-Tale Heart. With a little more effort on the part of the filmmakers, the killer could have been passed off as a 19th Century ancestor to the Jigsaw killer from the Saw movies. Poe is brought in on the case by Detective Fields (Luke Evans), who initially suspects the author is behind the crimes, but soon realizes he needs his help. The two must decipher a series of clues that the killer leaves behind at each crime scene. It becomes even more personal when the woman Poe loves, the beautiful young Emily (Alice Eve) is kidnapped by the killer, and they must solve the crimes before she becomes a victim herself.

picThe ad campaign for The Raven is built around the killer's deadly traps, and seems to hint at something violent and shocking. But, for the most part, this is a plodding and uninvolved mystery built around Poe and Fields racing around 19th Century Baltimore, trying to piece the clues together. With all the running around, and the racing to save Emily before she is killed by one of the madman's traps, you would think that the movie would be able to create some kind of tension. However, the action is low key. Not even the mystery behind the killer's identity manages to create much excitement, as it's fairly easy to figure out if you know the basic rule of murder stories, in that the character or characters who keep on appearing throughout the story, but don't seem to have anything to do with what's going on are usually the ones you should be focusing on. Not only is the killer easy to identify, but the ultimate reveal and the motivations are fairly mundane instead of shocking.

picWhat it all boils down to is that this is a generic serial killer movie dressed up in slightly fancier garb. The use of Poe as a main character, and the references in both the plot and the dialogue to his classic stories gives the movie an interesting hook, but when it's all over, we really just have the kind of "hunt down a madman" thriller that we have seen one too many times. Some movies know how to overcome this burden, but The Raven is not such a film. It sticks too close to tradition, and to things that have worked in the past. It's tame when it should be wild, and tepid when it should be surprising. It just ends up hitting one too many familiar notes with its plot and characters.
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That's not to say the movie is not without its charms. I smiled when Poe wearily proclaimed, "If I had known my would would have such an influence on people, I would have devoted more time to eroticism". The Raven is watchable, and never becomes the train wreck it could have been, but it's refusal to take chances cost it dearly with me.

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Chimpanzee

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When the Disney studio founded their DisneyNature division back in 2009, they started by releasing big, epic nature documentaries about our world, cut down to kid friendly size, such as Earth and Oceans. Since then, the studio has turned its efforts to more limited subjects by focusing on a certain group of animals. This allows the filmmakers to not only focus their attention on a simpler subject matter, but it also allows them to anthropomorphize the animals with a cute narration that gives the animals names, personalities, and even somewhat of a plot.

picIn a way, this is both a blessing and a curse. I'm sure this approach is certainly more kid friendly, and helps the smaller members of the audience identify with with the animals up on the screen. On the other hand, it cheapens what could have been a much more powerful documentary. Chimpanzee is pretty much what you would expect from a DisneyNature film. It's beautifully filmed, and has a couple amazing facts about the creatures scattered about. (Did you know that Chimpanzees eat monkeys?) But the filmmakers' attempts to humanize the subject matter through a comical and G-rated narration by Tim Allen kind of works against it. I'm still recommending it, because there is some absolutely unbelievable footage here. It's also sure to be a big hit with families. I just wish the studio would take these nature documentaries a little more seriously.

picWhat we get in Chimpanzee is a central plot that has been manipulated and strung together by the editors and narration-writers. It follows "Oscar", a baby chimp who loses his mother when a rival packs of chimps (led by the film's "villain", whom the filmmakers have dubbed "Scar") causes them to get separated. Little Oscar gets reunited with his group quickly enough, but his mother never returns. (The sugar-coated narration tells us just enough to let us know that she was killed by a predator.) Now alone in the world, Oscar has to try to live on his own, as the others in the group reject him. It is heartbreaking seeing the little guy growing thin and weak due to lack of food and nourishment. But then, surprisingly, Oscar is taken under the wing of the group's alpha male, "Freddy", who begins to raise and care for him.

picPretty much all the rough edges and harsh realities of living in a dangerous and predator-filled rain forest have been sanded away, so that the story of little Oscar can follow a fairly predictable Disney formula of an orphaned youth overcoming the odds. In a day and age where kids can turn on Animal Planet, and see much harsher (and accurate) documentaries of animal life, this seems more than a little cloying. Still, there's no denying that directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield have captured some stunning nature scenery, as well as gotten us closer to a chimp's society than we could have ever dreamed. In fact, the best part of the movie is the end credits, and I mean that without a hint of irony. That's when we get to see some behind the scenes footage of how the filmmakers got some of these shots, and the hardships they had to go through, such as getting stung by bees.

picOutside of the up close and intimate look at the chimps themselves, we also get some wonderful shots of the world around them, including time lapse photography of vines crawling up a tree, or a spider spinning its web. This kind of stuff is worth the price of admission alone, and is probably why I preferred the earlier DisneyNature films, which was mainly about the world around us. Without the anthropomorphized animals and the Tim Allen narration, this probably could have been stunning. Still, even with the filmmakers' constant manipulations, the chimps themselves do make a fascinating subject matter, and their expressive faces tell their story better than the narrator ever possibly could.
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With a brief running time of only 78 minutes, Chimpanzee is probably perfect entertainment for very small children interested in the creatures. Older nature lovers will admire the footage, but can probably find better documentaries about the subject very easily. I do have to be honest, though. Even though I knew I was being manipulated the entire time, I was entertained for the most part.

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Lucky One

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As romantic dramas go, The Lucky One is pretty thin stuff. It has a workable premise and everything, but the movie can't think of anything to do with itself, so it pads out its running time with one musical montage after another. You know a director has run out of ideas when he puts two different montages in about a span of two minutes apart from each other. The film is based on a book by Nicholas Sparks, who has done much better (and worse) than this. This falls somewhere in the middle.

picOur hero is Logan, a Marine fighting overseas as the film begins, and played with wooden indifference by Zac Efron. There's nothing particularly interesting about Logan to begin with. He's handsome, he's noble, he works hard, and that's about it when it comes to his personality. Despite this, Efron could have shown a bit more life in his performance. After a particularly intense battle, Logan spots a photo of a woman lying in the rubble of the battlefield. Lucky thing he found and walked over to that photo, as moments later, a bomb drops where he was standing just seconds ago, killing his comrades. Logan finishes his tour, but is obsessed with discovering who the woman in the picture is, and who it belongs (or belonged) to. He returns home briefly to Colorado to live with family for a while, but when he can't readjust to civilian life, he packs his bags and, with his faithful dog Zeus by his side, decides to walk cross country to search out who the mysterious woman in the photo is.

picHis travels take him all the way to North Carolina, which is quite an amazing feat to walk all that distance. What's even more amazing is how Logan managed not to get dirty, or even mess up or grow out his hair during those many long months of walking. He arrives at a farmhouse/dog kennel, where it just so happens that the woman in the photo lives and works there. She's Beth (Taylor Schilling), who works at the kennel, is a single mother to her seven-year-old son, Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart), and shares the home with her mother (Blythe Danner, who gives the most interesting performance in the film). Logan means to tell Beth about the photo he found that day, but he just can't bring himself to mention it. Part of this is because of Logan having issues with his own past as a soldier, and part of this is for plot convenience, so that the movie can drag out his secret as long as it can, until it is dramatically appropriate. He takes a job at the kennel, and becomes a natural taking care of the many dogs.

picHe also starts building a bond with both Beth and her young son. She starts sharing her private hopes and dreams with him, and little Ben starts taking him to the old tree house where he hangs out, which is accessible only by crossing a rickety old bridge over a raging river. As soon as I saw that broken down old bridge, I knew it would collapse at one point - most likely during the intense climax, and during a storm. Sure enough, as the climax approached, those storm clouds started rolling in, and all the central characters started heading for that bridge. Logan also gets to meet Beth's ex-husband, Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), who serves as the town Sheriff as well as the town bully. He's a one dimensional villain who exists solely to push Logan and Beth around, and threaten to take Ben away from them. As a villain, he couldn't be any less subtle if he was wearing a T-shirt at all times that had the words "HI! I'M A SLIMEBALL!" written on it.

picThe Lucky One is pretty standard stuff as these kind of films go - The central romance between Logan and Beth is nice and all, but the characters don't really have a lot of personality to go with their physical attractiveness. You get the feeling that these two don't have a lot to talk about when they're alone. The movie also has its share of corny romantic lines, such as when Logan tells her, "You deserve to be kissed every hour, every minute, every second of every day", or when he says, "Finding that picture of you on the battlefield was like finding an angel in Hell". Yes, the movie is gooey in its sentimentality, but it never offends. I also enjoyed Blythe Danner's performance. She seems to know what kind of a movie she's stuck in, and has a little fun with it, delivering some much needed sarcasm and wit in her performance. It's no wonder I found her the most interesting character, she's the only one who gets to act like a real person.
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The movie was directed by Scott Hicks (No Reservations), who's done some films I've admired, but seems to be cashing a paycheck here. I don't blame him for wanting to take it easy once in a while, but I wish he had picked a more interesting script. I can't really picture The Lucky One being a very memorable romantic weepie, but hey, I said the same thing about The Vow, so what do I know?

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Think Like a Man

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By all accounts, Think Like a Man should not work as a movie. It's most glaring and annoying problem? That the film is basically a two hour plug for the self-help book it's based on. Now, movies based on self-help books are not new in Hollywood, but this is the first one I remember where the characters actually hold up the book, talk about the book, and constantly bring up the book in its dialogue. Even the book's original author, comedian Steve Harvey, shows up now and then, to talk to the audience and give his words of wisdom. I haven't seen product placement this blatant since last year's Jack and Jill, where they actually managed to work Dunkin' Donuts into the plot, just so the characters could mention the brand name as often as possible.

picSo yeah, Think Like a Man is not exactly the most subtle movie. It's also not the most original, as I highly doubt that anyone will find Mr. Harvey's thoughts on the battle of the sexes all that striking or revolutionary. But you know what? The movie kind of grew on me. It has a warm, likable tone, a talented cast, and there are quite a few moments that earn some genuine laughs. It's no Mean Girls (still the best movie to be made off of a self-help book), but it will do. The movie follows a group of men and women, juggling multiple plotlines, as they face many of the relationship issues that the book speaks about. Some of the characters probably could have been trimmed without any sacrifice, and the movie can come across as being overstuffed, but it certainly is energetic and sort of fun.

picAs the film opens, the women are lonely and largely unsuccessful in love. But then, that magical book by Mr. Steve Harvey just happens to drop right out of the sky, and gives them all the answers on how to "think like a man". This threatens to turn the tide in the battle of the sexes, as the men fear that the book is giving away all their secrets, so they decide to use the book against the women in their own relationships. Amongst the multiple plots, we have long-suffering Kristen (Gabrielle Union) wanting her boyfriend since college, Jeremy (Jerry Ferrara) to grow up, and move beyond the video games and cartoons he's obsessed with. Next up, single mom Candace (Regina Hall) falls for "mama's boy" Michael (Terrence J), who is forced to decide whether or not their relationship is more important than the one he has with his doting and over-bearing mother. A successful business woman named Lauren (Taraji P. Henson) falls for a wannabe chef named Dominic (Michael Ealy), and must decide if she can love him, even if he only brings home a tiny paycheck. Finally, Mya (Meagan Good) uses the book's advice on how to win over her lady-killer lover, Zeke (Romany Malco).

picLike I said, nothing groundbreaking, and we can predict the happy endings almost as soon as the characters are introduced. But hey, at least the movie acknowledges its own stereotypes, by giving the guys simplistic labels such as "the dreamer", "the happily married guy", "the happily divorced guy", and "the player". Another plus, the movie has been cast very well. These are talented actors who know how to flesh out these simplistic characters. And while they don't exactly make them seem three dimensional, they do come across as very likable, and sometimes funny. Director Tim Story (Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer) also does a good job of juggling the various plots. It helps that all the women and all the men know each other as the film kicks off, so it never feels like the story is jumping around from one point to the next. It manages to come across as a cohesive narrative.

picThe movie does make a few missteps along the way, however. Most notably is the inclusion of Cedric (Kevin Hart), the "happily divorced man" I mentioned earlier. He doesn't really play a role in any of the stories, or the movie itself, and seems to have been shoehorned in to serve as a motor-mouthed comic observer and sometimes-narrator. He constantly stands on the outside of the action, and his sense of humor quickly grated on me. Fortunately, he's not an ever-present problem. There's another member of the guy group ("the happily married guy") who could have been removed from the movie completely without any problem. He plays no role in any of the plots, and the movie never focuses on his character or his relationship (we don't even get to see his wife). He exists simply as a talking head whenever the guys get together to talk about life, and never makes an impression of any sort.
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Look, I'm not implying that Think Like a Man is a great movie, or even an inspired one. It has more than its share of problems. But, the energy of the cast, and the humor of the screenplay manage to smooth over any bumps that may show up along the way. This is a pleasant movie, and one I'm glad I saw. It's not probably one I'll be returning to anytime soon, but for what it is, it works.

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

October Baby

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As October Baby opens, a pretty 19-year-old college girl named Hanna (played by newcomer Rachel Hendrix) is about to star in a local play, with her supportive parents and her lifelong best friend watching in the audience. Hannah begins to do her opening scene, until she is suddenly overcome by a sensation of dizziness, and collapses on the stage. Her parents rush to her side, and take her to a hospital, where Hannah spends her time sitting on the roof, writing depressing poetry, and staring out at the cityscape. (Is it really a good idea for this hospital to allow their patients to go up on the roof, let alone go up there alone?)

picThe doctors run some tests on Hannah, and come to the conclusion that her collapse was the result of epilepsy, which she has suffered from childhood. Hannah spent a lot of time in hospitals when she was very young, but doesn't have a lot of memories. It's at that point that her father (John Schneider from TV's Dukes of Hazzard) must make the shocking revelation that Hannah is not their biological daughter, and that she was adopted. What's more, her health problems stem from the fact that she was born many weeks premature from the result that her birth mother tried to perform a late-stage abortion, which failed. Faced with this news, Hannah just doesn't know what to believe anymore. Fortunately, her previously mentioned lifelong best friend, Jason (Jason Burkey), has just the solution for her.

picIt turns out that Jason and some of his college friends are taking a road trip to New Orleans for Spring Break. He offers to drive her to Mobile, AL, which is where her birth mother supposedly lives. Jason is a handsome, supportive, and all around nice guy, so of course, there's no way that Hannah and him will be more than "best friends" by the time the movie's over. I mean, Jason's dating an icy blonde girl, who constantly glares at Hannah, and seems to enjoy bringing her down and being angry at her every possible moment, even though the movie never really paints a clear picture as to the source of the hostility. There's no way that Jason will finally realize that Hannah is the better choice, and dump the mean girl by the end of the movie, so just put all those thoughts out of your mind.

picThe road trip sequence, as the group of kids make their way to Mobile, is a particularly tedious experience. We meet Jason's friends, none of whom seem to belong in this movie. They belong in a particularly dumb and unfunny teen comedy. They're supposed to add comic relief, but instead add absolutely nothing. The screenplay seems to understand this, fortunately, for Hannah ditches the group as soon as possible to go to Mobile alone, and they're pretty much forgotten for the rest of the movie. Jason leaves his friends behind as well, and accompanies her on her search for her birth mother. Up to this point, October Baby had been a pretty passable drama. Yeah, the comic relief characters were a mistake, but at least they don't stick around long. When Hannah and Jason start looking for answers, however, the movie loses all sense of plausibility in the form of an unlikely series of events and coincidences.

picLet's see, shortly after arriving in Mobile, Hannah tracks down the hospital where her birth mother tried to abort her, and finds that it's an abandoned old building. For some reason, she decides to break into the building. Why she thinks she'd be able to find any answers inside of a building that hasn't been used in years is beyond me. Both Hannah and Jason are arrested by the police for breaking into the building. While Hannah is being questioned, she tells her story to the officer, and wouldn't you know it, he just happens to know the nurse who's name is on her birth certificate! She uses the cop's information to track down the nurse in question, who is played by Jasmine Guy, in a particularly good and heart-tugging performance. Not only does the nurse have all the answers to Hannah's mysterious past, but she also just happens to have all the information she needs to find her birth mother, including the mother's business card with address and phone number just lying around her apartment. This allows Hannah to drop in on the mother she never knew, in a scene that should be powerful, but is really underwhelming and underwritten.

picThe implausibility of October Baby took me out of the potentially powerful story it was trying to tell. It has characters that don't fit, one too many coincidences for us to take the plot seriously, and an overall sense that everything pretty much falls in Hannah's lap whenever she needs it. The script really is the main fault here, as everything else is much better than you would expect for an independently-produced Christian film. The direction is strong (though some nature and establishing shots linger a bit too long), and the cast largely made up of unknowns are quite likable. Rachel Hendrix, in particular, makes a real impression in her first lead role. That said, the simple-mindedness of the plot, combined with the fact that the characters keep on doing only what is required to move the plot forward, took me out of the film.

picI was also disappointed with how the movie seemed to be preaching to the choir, so to speak. It pretty much assumes that its audience shares the exact same views that it does, so it doesn't bother to raise any of the obvious tricky questions or issues that its subject matter brings up. There's no room for a second opinion, it simply plows on ahead, and thinks we're with it all the way. Whatever your views on abortion is, this could have been a very powerful film if it didn't play things so safe, and tried to look at things from both sides. Unfortunately, we don't really get to hear from Hannah's birth mother. She has maybe three or four lines in the entire film, none of which give her a chance to explain her views.
pic
I would call October Baby a well-meaning and well-made little film that suffers from its script and plotting. It also relies too much on its Christian Rock soundtrack to speak for the characters, rather than having the characters exchange dialogue. We get a lot of montages, some good performances, and a lot of wasted potential. I'm sure the movie's pre-programmed audience will love it, but I found it kind of dull.

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