Reel Opinions


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Red Dawn

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As a film critic, I try to keep an open mind when I walk into a movie.  With some movies, it's harder than others.  Case in point - I knew walking into a remake of Red Dawn was not going to be a promising experience.  The original 1984 film is pretty much only remembered as a trivia question these days, as it was the first movie to be released in theaters with a PG-13 rating.  Now we have the 2012 film, which shares the same rating, yet feels watered down, hacked and edited, and fairly pointless all around.

picThe film was originally set to hit theaters back in 2009, but due to financial problems with the studio, it was delayed numerous times until a new buyer could be located.  During its long road to the silver screen, the film was altered.  Originally, the Russian enemies from the 1984 film had been replaced with China.  However, due to the fact that the executives thought a movie about Chinese military forces invading the US would hurt its chances in the overseas box office, they decided to make some edits, and change the invading army to the North Koreans.  The flags in the background were replaced to reflect this change, and certain elements of the script were altered and re-dubbed.  So, we have an already implausible premise made even more implausible, and even downright ridiculous.  And this is all before we've even sat down in our seats.  Like I said, sometimes you just know when you're walking into trouble.

picThings kick off with a high school football game that introduces us to our main characters.  Strong-willed quarterback Matt (Josh Peck) has been living with his widower police officer father (Brett Cullen), but now has been joined by his emotionally distant military brother, Jed (Chris Hemsworth), who has returned from a tour of duty.  There is tension at home between Matt and Jed, due to the fact that Jed left for war shortly after their mom died, but the movie is not really interested in this bit of character development, and only uses it to give the characters something to talk about during throwaway scenes.  There is a city-wide blackout later that night, and the next morning, the brothers wake up to North Korean soldiers parachuting out of planes, and attacking their suburban neighborhood.  Their dad is quickly captured and eventually killed by the cruel Captain Lo (Will Yun Lee), which inspires Matt and Jed, along with a handful of teenage survivors who managed to escape the initial attack, to form a military resistance group called the Wolverines, after their high school mascot.

picWhy is North Korea performing this implausible invasion campaign in the first place?  The movie makes a half-hearted attempt to explain this during an opening credit montage of altered news footage, but it still never makes a lot of sense, nor is it really explored in any detail.  The Koreans don't seem to have any agenda, other than to act as targets and get blown away by the young mercenaries. We don't even get a real sense as to how things are going in the rest of the United States.  We hear some talk and rumors, but the invasion pretty much seems centered on Spokane, Washington.  Once the teenagers have been trained to kill and fight back against the invading army (which is covered in a sloppy, five minute montage), the movie turns into a relentless series of never-ending gun battles, and shaky cam editing, almost as if the cameraman is trying to make sense out of the chaos.

picRed Dawn is at times laughably simplistic, especially when it comes to its characters.  The lead brothers at least have one-note personalities, such as Jed is the strict, stern military type, while Matt is a young man driven by the fact his cheerleader girlfriend is one of the prisoners, and frequently goes off on his own or puts the group in danger to try to save her.  Everyone else who makes up the heroic Wolverines have about as much personality and depth as your standard horny teenager in a slasher movie.  In other words, we don't really know why we're supposed to care about these kids.  When they do open their mouths, it's usually to say dialogue like, "We're living Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and it sucks..." Nobody contributes anything useful, or gets to say anything interesting.

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Naturally, the 1984 original was just as ridiculous and implausible, but it still managed to strike a nerve with Reagan-era audiences.  I can't imagine this remake striking a never with anyone, except teenagers, who may enjoy this film's video game-style approach to the action.  Of course, we didn't need a remake of Red Dawn in the first place.  And just to ram that point home, someone did not listen to reason, and went ahead and did it anyway.

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Life of Pi

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Much like Hugo from exactly one year ago, Life of Pi is a testament to what 3D technology can be and what it can do when it is the hands of a skilled filmmaker, and when it is used to tell a story, instead of simply being a distraction.  I'm sure I'll be remembering the visuals that director Ang Lee (Taking Woodstock) has created for a long time to come.  Unfortunately, I don't know if I'll remember much outside of that.  Unlike Martin Scorsese's film from last year, there's not really a narrative that's strong enough to carry a movie just over two hours long.  For all of its visual splendor, Life of Pi seems a little stretched thin at times.

picI think this is a case of a filmmaker being slavishly faithful to the original novel by Yann Martel.  Many believed the book was unfilmable, so maybe Lee took that as a literal challenge.  There is stuff here that I'm sure would work in a book, but on film, comes across as a bad idea.  A good example of this would be the third act of the film, where Pi mainly sits in a bed, telling a story.  Instead of showing us or dramatizing the events he's explaining, we watch him simply sit there and talk.  Given the visuals we have seen up to this point in the film, this is disappointing.  When the characters are simply left to their own devices and talk, the movie slows down.  The narrative and the emotional impact of the story being told just cannot hold a candle to the effects, this time around.

picWe are introduced to Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) as a young boy living in India.  He is teased by the other children at school, because of his full name, Piscene, which sounds to the kids like "pissing".  So, he shortens his name to "Pi", and goes by it from that day on.  We witness Pi's early life, and how he gains his views on religion, and his experiences with the other animals at the zoo that his father (Adil Hussain) owns.  We watch him grow into a young man, learning about love and the hardships of life.  Eventually, economic problems force Pi's family to move themselves, and all the zoo animals, to Canada for a new life.  They board a freighter to take them across the ocean.  About halfway through the journey, the ship is caught in a storm, and only Pi and four other animals (a hyena, an orangutang, a zebra, and a tiger named Robert Parker) manage to escape and survive the disaster.

picFor the next hour, we witness Pi's hardships being lost at sea on a lifeboat.  Three of the animals are killed or eaten quite quickly, until only Robert Parker the tiger remains with Pi.  Fearing the tiger, Pi builds a small raft which is tethered to the life boat, so that he can be safe and have his own space away from the predatory animal.  But eventually, circumstances force Pi to face his fears, and create an uneasy trust with the animal, forcing them to work together to survive.  During their journey to find help, Pi encounters many wondrous sights at sea, as well as an island that seems peaceful during the day, but is deadly at night.  Any suspense that may have risen from this sequence, and Pi's many near encounters with death, are diminished by the poor decision to open and end the film with a middle aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) telling this story to a Canadian author (Rafe Spall).  Since we know the outcome in advance, it lessens the tension that some of these scenes out at sea could have created.

picThis is a real problem, because without the advance knowledge, this whole middle sequence of Life of Pi could have been a thrilling survival story.  I guess it still is (the whole segment at sea, which makes up most of the film, is the strongest), it's just not as strong as it could have been if the film had not used a flashback approach to its storytelling.  I admired that the screenplay by David Magee uses minimal dialogue for pretty much the entire "lost at sea" part of the story, with only occasional voice over narration to move things along.  It does create a sense of putting the audience into the situation.  This is also where the film is strongest in its visual effects, using CG to create Richard Parker.  I, for one, was completely fooled.  It looks and moves exactly like a real tiger would, and you really can't tell that it's not really there.  The other visual effects (such as the shipwreck, and a beautiful sequence concerning a whale) are also stunning, but it's the tiger that really takes the prize.

picSo, yes, there are a lot of strengths to this film.  It's well-acted (mostly by a cast of unknowns, which was probably a good idea), and the footage at sea is quite beautiful and can be powerful.  There was just something holding me back the entire time, and that something was I didn't really get involved that much in the character of Pi.  He never came across as someone who truly grabbed my attention.  As he sets about on his spiritual journey, I never truly got involved.  The first half of the film, which shows us his life in India, goes on too long, and never really shows us anything remarkable.  We're left waiting for the shipwreck, and while the results are worth it, even then, Pi never came across as someone I could truly care about.  This is not the fault of the actor, who is quite good.  He just never truly grabbed me as a character.

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I guess in the end, I am of two minds concerning Life of Pi.  The movie is beautiful and expertly made, but it never made the emotional connection that I was waiting for when it came to the main character.  I was continuously intrigued, but never completely engaged.  I'm sure years from now, I'll remember Richard Parker, I'll remember the island of Meerkats, and I'll certainly remember the image of what looked like a boat floating on an ocean of stars.  I just don't think I'll remember much about the man at the center of it all.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Rise of the Guardians

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In Rise of the Guardians, we learn that childhood mythical figures like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman are actually a strongly united team of heroes who use their powers to protect children, and their innocent dreams.  Sure, I'll believe that.  Even better, the movie takes this idea fairly seriously, and tries to be a fantasy adventure for older children, rather than a comedy.  It succeeds, and is highly entertaining, even for adults.

picOne thing I appreciated is that the filmmakers give us some slightly different takes on these popular legends.  Santa (voiced by Alec Baldwin) is quite massive, and somewhat imposing.  He even has the words "Naughty" and "Nice" tattooed onto each muscular arm.  He speaks with a thick Russian accent, and commands an army of Yetis, as well as his elves.  The Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) looks like a cross between a woman and a hummingbird, and has a vast army of tiny fairies (her baby teeth) to help her out.  The Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) is six feet tall, can run like The Flash, and wields dual boomerangs in battle.  Finally, the Sandman (who is mute) is literally made up out of his own magical sand, and can use it to create just about anything he needs, from a dinosaur to an airplane.  All four of these Guardians answer to the Man in the Moon, who watches over the world, and alerts them when danger is present.

picAs the film opens, the four heroes learn of an impending threat to the children of the world, and that a fifth Guardian will soon join them.  The threat, in question, is Pitch (Jude Law) a shadowy figure who is the literal Boogeyman, who plans to replace all of the childrens' dreams with nightmares so that they will believe in him again, and he will obtain the power he once held during the dark ages of superstition.  As for the fifth Guardian who will join their latest battle, it is revealed to be Jack Frost (Chris Pine).  Jack is the rebel who has no interest in hero work.  He'd prefer to travel the world, creating snow days, freezing lakes, and generally having fun.  But when the four main Guardians begin to lose their power due to Pitch causing the children of the world to not believe in them, Jack must become a reluctant hero who will fight for the kids, and confront a mysterious past that he has no memory of until it threatens to resurface.

picJack serves as the emotional center in the story, as he has grown quite lonely, being invisible to children and all.  He has no memories of his past before he became the frost spirit that he is today, nor does he remember how be became this way.  When the truth is finally revealed, it's kind of touching.  Outside of the character of Jack, Rise of the Guardians is a fast-paced and imaginative adventure film, with a beautiful visual design.  The individual worlds that the Guardians call home (they warp to Earth via portals that they can create) are well drawn and full of detail.  You almost wish the movie would slow down a little and let us truly explore these worlds.  Perhaps the sequels that will inevitably come if this film proves successful will let us more into the worlds of the other Guardians, since this is mainly Jack's movie.

picAnd like the best animated films, the celebrity voice cast does not interfere with or overpower the story being told.  Baldwin, adopting a thick Russian accent, in particular is almost unrecognizable as a Santa who is more a merry warrior, than a jolly old elf.  Jackman gets some of the film's more genuine laughs and one liners as an Easter Bunny who is anything but cute and fluffy.  And while Chris Pine and Isla Fisher do little to disguise their voices, they don't really need to, and each bring the right turn to their voice acting.  As for the Guardians themselves, they're great characters, who will hopefully spin off future adventures. (Either in films, or the book that inspired this movie.) I kind of like the idea of these characters banding together to protect childhood dreams and beliefs.  My only wish is that if there is a sequel, the Sandman gets more to do.  He was underused this time around, and I was intrigued by his abilities, and wanted to see more of them.

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Rise of the Guardians is joining a crowded family market as the holidays approach, but it's strong enough to stand out on its own.  Despite the presence of Santa and the holiday-themed ad campaign, this really isn't a Christmas movie. (It's actually set around the Bunny's holiday.) But, I don't see it being a problem with kids, as the film is filled with enough imagination and adventure to keep them enthralled.

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Lincoln

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Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is not your typical bio-film, as it does not cover the entire life of the 16th President of the United States.  Instead, the screenplay by Tony Kushner (who previously worked with Spielberg on Munich) focuses solely on the last few months of his life and his Presidency.  It is a depiction of his efforts to abolish slavery, and end the war on his own terms.  In a way, just by focusing on this one event, the film shows the greatness of the man much more than it would by showing us his whole life.

picAs a character study of a historical figure, Lincoln is a masterclass of filmmaking.  It shows us a man who was smart, often quite witty, loved to share stories, and knew how to play dirty politics with the best of them.  It shows a man driven to obtain the votes that he needs in order to abolish slavery, and even goes so far as to some under the table deals and bribes to get the votes that he needs.  He seeks to end the war with the South on his own terms, when there is talk that the South might be willing to end the war if he plays by their terms.  We witness all of this through surprisingly intense recreations of political talks and meetings.  For Spielberg, this is a relatively small-scale movie.  Aside from a battle scene which opens the film, there are no grand sequences.  We are locked inside the rooms with these men as they determine the future of the country.  It is a credit to Spielberg's direction that the film never feels claustrophobic, or dreary.

picBy now, you have probably heard much about Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of the President, and if I may be so blunt, his performance is one for the ages.  It's the kind of acting that just makes you want to hand the guy the Oscar for Best Actor as soon as the movie's over.  It is a completely transporting performance, so much so that you don't feel like you are watching an actor up on the screen.  It is a somewhat different portrayal than what we are used to seeing (he does not have the booming voice, and he seems somewhat tired and defeated, but still confident), but it is no less stirring.  It is truly a performance worth celebrating, and one that will not be forgotten once the nominations and awards are handed out.  Day-Lewis is, in a simple word, sensational here.

picAnd yet, I would be remiss not to mention the supporting performances, which are surprisingly just as strong, and just as worthy of recognition.  In particular, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is having the kind of year any actor could only dream of) as his adult son, Robert, and Sally Field as Lincoln's wife, Mary, deliver their best work of their careers in their subplot, which concerns Robert's desire to fight in the war, and Mary still holding remorse over the death of one of their children to an illness.  Also worthy of recognition is Tommy Lee Jones, as the fiery congressman, Thaddeus Stevens.  He gets some big laughs from the insults he hurls at his opponents at the House, but also delivers a surprisingly layered portrayal.  Any of these performances would be worthy of award recognition, and I truly hope they are not forgotten after Day-Lewis' inevitable Best Actor nod.

picThis is the rare historical epic that transported me to the time it was set in.  I stopped looking for the recognizable actors, and just let the performances and the atmosphere of the 19th Century take over.  Lincoln stands head and shoulders over most historical epics, because it does not feel the need to be a summary of the man's life.  It simply takes us back to some of the most important and most crucial months in his term as President, and transports us.  We are engaged as we watch the events unfold.  Spielberg and Kushner have perfectly captured the feeling of the people of the time, and the time itself.  It is an amazing feat.  And despite a strong music score by John Williams, it is surprisingly seldom used.  Spielberg lets the emotion of his scenes speak for themselves.  And when he does use background music, it is used wisely.

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This is one of the surest and most confident political and historical dramas I have ever seen, and one that deserves to be treasured.  Everyone involved has created a movie that deserves to be studied by future film students, and even historians, based on the number of facts it gets right.  To say that this is a great movie would be an understatement.  Spielberg has created a masterclass of acting, storytelling, atmosphere, and the ability to transport us to another time in history.

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Friday, November 16, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2

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After four years, The Twilight Saga ends not with a bang, not with a whimper, but rather with a shrug.  I just don't get it.  How can anything be such a total non-event, and still become a pop culture phenomenon?  How did millions of readers, and later movie goers, get duped into thinking this was a story worth caring about?  How much contempt do you have to hold for your audience to end your story the way this movie ends the long-running story of Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson)?  As much as I have been immune to the "charms" of this franchise, never in my nightmares could I have anticipated an ending this pathetic.

picI want to just throw manners out the window, and rip this entire film series to pieces.  I want to just stop talking about this movie, and dive into a fevered rant expressing my hatred for it, much the way Roger Ebert famously did when he reviewed North.  I want to scream, I want to yell, I want to do something...But I don't think anything I could think of could accurately portray just how mind-numbingly boring and uneventful this movie is.  It's literally a 90 minute build up to something that doesn't even happen.  Yes, you read that right.  The film's ad campaign would like you to think that you're in for some kind of epic conclusion to the story.  Don't believe the lies.  Somehow, the filmmakers have managed to come up with a worse conclusion than one of those endings where somebody wakes up, and we realize the whole movie we just watched was a dream.  This movie is a cash-grab, and a flat-out con job.  Even the studio's decision to release this film in two separate parts smacks of corporate greed, rather than needing more time to tell the story.

picYes, Breaking Dawn was originally one whole story when it was published as a book.  But then, the studio execs saw how much money Warner Bros. made by dividing the last Harry Potter book into two separate movies.  In defense of Potter, that decision made some sort of sense.  The Deathly Hollows was a massive book, and squeezing it into one movie would have been a mistake.  Here, there is nothing to suggest that the events in the last two Twilight films could not have fit into just one movie.  Heck, just edit out the multiple parts where characters stand silently, staring at each other or off into space, and you'd probably shave off a good chunk of its running time.  This entire movie serves mainly as build up, anyway.  There are no revelations about the characters, and nothing that we needed an entire movie to cover.  It's all one big lead up to the biggest anticlimax in motion picture history.

picSo, we pick up where Breaking Dawn Part 1 left off.  Bella's now one of the undead, and thinks it's pretty cool, since it gives her super strength, and allows her to run at the speeds of the Road Runner from the old Looney Tunes shorts.  And, thanks to the film's unconvincing CG and special effects, she looks about as realistic as a cartoon character whenever she's showing off her feats of strength and speed.  She demonstrates her new vampire powers for a good half hour or so, all the while droning away in a monotonous narration where she talks about how happy she is to be a vampire.  She's now married to Edward, and has even given birth to a half human-half vampire baby girl.  Alas, domestic blood sucking bliss does not seem to be in the cards for our lovers.  Their child is growing at an alarming rate, suggesting that she may die after only a few years.  There's also the lovelorn werewolf, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who hangs around while not really contributing much.  But worst of all, the Volturi (a kind of vampire council) is coming to destroy Bella and Edward's child, because they fear it may be an abomination against nature.

picEdward and his vampire clan must round up supporters to convince the Volturi that the kid is not evil, or unnatural.  This takes up a majority of the film.  The vampires from around the world gather, show off their powers, and then stand around, talking about how they will convince the Volturi not to kill the child.  If you think you can stomach 90 minutes of this, then by all means, subject yourself to this movie immediately.  I'm sure that the fans who have breathlessly followed this franchise all this time will find something interesting here.  Anyone who hasn't hopped aboard the fandom train, or picked a side in the "Team Edward" and "Team Jacob" debate will probably be struggling to stay awake, as I was.  There's a promise of an epic battle that will determine everything, but...Well, you'll see what happens should you be unwise enough to find yourself in an audience watching this movie.

picBreaking Dawn Part 2 accomplishes nothing.  It does not give us any exciting last minute revelations, it doesn't challenge everything the characters know or thought they knew, and the ultimate outcome is essentially Stephenie Meyer (the mind behind the franchise) throwing her arms up in frustration over how to end the whole thing, so she'll just slap something together and call it a day.  It's a bait and switch that leaves the viewer feeling deceived and cheated.  Maybe the filmmakers thought they were being clever, but no.  It generates anger, instead of good will.  I have bent over backwards in the past to try to find something to like about these movies.  Maybe that's why this total non-event of an ending felt like such a punch in the gut.  All these years of struggling to understand just what makes this franchise so appealing to so many, and this is the answer we get.

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I'll be glad to put these movies behind me.  And while this is not the last I have heard from Stephenie Meyer (a movie based on another one of her books, The Host, is coming early next year), I will never have to force myself to care about this dippy vampire romance ever again.  A fond farewell this is not.  This isn't even good riddance.  Let's just never talk about it ever again.

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Friday, November 09, 2012

Skyfall

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The James Bond franchise is 50 years old.  And to celebrate it, we get Skyfall, a confident and sometimes-thrilling action movie that falls just a little short due to one crucial detail - James Bond in this movie is a depressed middle aged old poop.  Never mind the fact that Daniel Craig (who is wonderful in his third turn as the super spy) is only 44 in real life.  This movie hits you over the head scene after scene with dialogue about how Bond's getting old, isn't up with the times, is losing his edge, and is basically a metaphorical dinosaur in the spy business.  Not fun, and not necessary, if you ask me.

picHeck, James Bond doesn't even have much time for the ladies anymore, if this movie is any indication.  He has scenes with two sexy young women - one a fellow agent (Naomie Harris), the other a cool vixen who actually is quite vulnerable (Berenice Marlohe).  He has some fun wordplay with the former, and a PG-13 shower scene with the latter, but they don't really have much to do in this movie.  No, the real Bond girl this time around is actually Judi Dench, who returns to her role as M, Bond's superior.  So, instead of the fun, sexy relationship we expect, we get a rather dry "mother-son" relationship.  Their relationship actually makes up a good chunk of the film, and as well done as it is by both Craig and Dench, it's just not the sort of thing we expect when we walk into a James Bond movie.

picLess you, the reader, get the wrong idea, I should probably say right now that on the whole, Skyfall is a satisfying movie, and it does work.  I just was taken aback by the lack of fun Bond seems to be having here.  That's always been one of his trademarks.  Here, he's dour, depressed, and dutiful most of the time.  When the movie's not concentrating on that, it's great entertainment.  The opening action sequence that plays before the opening credits is one of the best in Bond history.  And director Sam Mendes (Away We Go) has a very clean and stylish vision, using minimal CG during the action sequences.  Mendes also does some neat shots, such as the way the lead villain (Javier Bardem) makes his entrance.  He starts out small and unfocused as he approaches the camera, sharing a somewhat dark story from his childhood, gradually coming into focus.  It's a great introduction, as well as a great performance by Bardem.  He makes his villain come across as a mad genius who gets great glee out of what he does.  Heck, he seems to be having more fun than Bond is.

picThe plot concerns Bardem's character seeking revenge on M, due to something that happened in the past.  So, once again, all the focus is on M, and Bond comes across as somewhat of a bystander.  Another mistake, in my opinion.  Maybe that's why while the action sequences thrilled me, the plot left me cold.  I've been trying to figure that out since my screening got out.  I knew I was enjoying the movie, but something was nagging at me in the back of my head the whole time.  While I love Daniel Craig's performance as Bond, I'm less thrilled with the way he's been written here.  He's obedient, he's gloomy, and even when he smiles and cracks a one-liner, there's still a touch of sadness behind it.  I don't want James Bond to be a live action cartoon, as he often came across back in the Roger Moore days, I just want a comfortable balance.  Here, the movie dips a bit too much into Bond's dark side.

picIf this is the direction the series is going, at least there's still plenty to admire.  I think long-time fans of the franchise will get a kick out of this movie the most, as there are some throwbacks to watch out for.  Plus, as I mentioned, this is a genuinely well done movie.  At least the rapid-quick cuts from the last film, Quantum of Solace, are gone.  The movie seems to be trying hard to strike a balance between the edginess of 2006's Casino Royale, and the traditional Bond elements.  Yeah, he doesn't have a bunch of crazy gadgets here (as the young Q says at one point, "we don't do exploding pens anymore"), but he does get a car with hidden guns built in at one point, so that's something at least.  I got the impression that Mendes and his writers were trying to please both old and new fans here.  And, for the most part, it works.

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I guess I just want Bond to lighten up just a little bit.  Aging isn't such a bad thing.  Besides, Bond is immortal, anyway.  The last thing he should be worrying about is being out of touch with anything.  I probably wouldn't have minded so much if the screenplay didn't consistently seem to hammer home the fact that Bond is getting old, with somebody bringing it up seemingly every 15 minutes.  Skyfall can be a lot of fun.  Most of the time.

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Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Man with the Iron Fists

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Guess what happens when you do a Hollywood update on schlocky kung fu movies?  Surprise!  You get a schlocky kung fu movie that feels strangely awkward, since it's trying to hide its Hollywood budget behind a lot of stilted dialogue and silly, badly choreographed action.  The Man with the Iron Fists is the brain child of rapper RZA, who has a passion for martial arts flicks in real life, and stars, directed, co-wrote and provided the music score for the film.  He even hired his pals, producer Quentin Tarantino and co-writer Eli Roth, to help put the thing together.  It's good to have powerful friends in the business when you want to make a movie.  It's even better to know how to act, write dialogue, and tell a coherent narrative.

picRZA portrays a freed slave in the late 1800s who fled from his Plantation, and wound up in a small Chinese village.  It's here that he makes his living as a blacksmith, assembling weapons for the different warring clans that are currently fighting one another for control of the local region.  He has no name (he's simply referred to as "The Blacksmith" in the credits), as well as no personality and a dreadful dull monotone voice.  So, naturally, he gets to be our Narrator.  As the Blacksmith works in his shop, the warring clans all kill each other in elaborate and bloody ways.  So much CG blood sprays and flies at the camera, you have to wonder if this film wasn't intended to be in 3D at one time.  Of the people fighting one another, the only ones we need concern ourselves with are the heroic Zen Yi (Rick Yune), the evil Silver Lion (Byron Mann), and a guy who looks like he walked out of a pro wrestling audition, who can change his whole body to brass whenever he wants in a fight (Dave Bautista).

picThere's some gold being shipped to the Emperor that the evil Silver Lion wants to steal.  Zen Yi is trying to stop the evil plan, because the guy killed his father.  How does the Blacksmith figure in all this?  He's in love with a the local "whore with a heart of gold" (Jamie Chung), who works for the scheming Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu).  Most of the action seems to revolve around Madame Blossom's place.  Eventually, the Blacksmith winds up helping Zen Yi when the guy becomes too wounded to fight.  When Silver Lion finds out about this, he has his goons chop off the Blacksmith's hands.  But then, his life is saved by a violent British man named Jack Knife.  He's played by Russell Crowe, in a performance that I imagine he'll be doing his best to forget before too long.  Crowe looks pudgy, bored, and like he lost a bet right before he stepped in front of the cameras here.  Nonetheless, he has a score to settle with someone in Silver Lion's gang, so he goes about building a pair of iron fists so the Blacksmith can extract bloody revenge along with the other heroes.

picIf The Man with the Iron Fists sounds like it's been cobbled together from a dozen or so martial arts flicks, that's because it is.  I get that RZA is trying to mimic some of his favorite old films of the genre, but because he has no experience with making movies, his attempts at imitation are often sloppy.  The fight and action sequences are filmed so close, we don't get to see everything that's happening.  But perhaps the real problem is the fact that he put himself in his own movie.  His performance is far too modern to belong in the period film that he is making.  The movie should have been told from the point of view of Zen Yi, who often comes across as the real hero of the film.  The Blacksmith character kind of stands in the background until the third act.  I guess he's supposed to appeal to modern audiences, but given what a non-entity he becomes, thanks to RZA's lifeless performance, the movie would have been better off without.

picWhat's worse, I think, is that there is just no joy to the production.  Oh, there are some lines in there that made me laugh (both intentionally and unintentionally), but the movie is so sour and drab, when it should be energetic and colorful.  At times, it seems to want to be a parody as well as a tribute to these old martial arts films, but it never goes far enough.  It kind of stops halfway, in an awkward state where we're not sure if we're supposed to be laughing at the movie because it's intentionally corny, or if we're supposed to be laughing at it because it's so frequently awkward and bizarre.  Maybe something got lost in the final film.  I have heard that the movie was originally four hours long, and got paired down to roughly 95 minutes.  Whatever was in those missing three and a half hours or so probably wouldn't have helped anyway.

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If RZA wishes to step in the director's chair again, I hope he focuses more on actually making a movie, rather than just mimicking old ones.  With people like Tarantino supporting him, he definitely has some talent to lean on.  The Man with the Iron Fists wants to be a loving tribute, but thanks to the amateur direction and screenplay, it ends up being a pale imitation instead.

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Saturday, November 03, 2012

Flight

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I kept on waiting for Flight to take on some kind of deeper meaning.  I kept on waiting for it to truly delve into some of the interesting questions it raises.  But, it never did.  While this is a well-made and at times uncompromisingly dark movie, it ends up being just another film about the evils of addiction.  Do we really need another movie where the main character constantly abuses drugs and alcohol, and keeps on saying "I can quit whenever I want to"?  Do we really need another movie to tell us how an addiction can destroy our lives, and the lives of those around us?  And did we really, really need the last 10 minutes of this movie to turn into an endless and preachy sermon that feels like it's assaulting the audience with its message?

picAs the film opens, airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) wakes up the same way he does a lot of mornings - hungover in a hotel room with an equally hungover naked woman beside him.  He has a flight in less than two hours, so to wake himself up, he takes a hit on the woman's joint, then snorts some coke on the nearby desk.  Moments later, he's heading off to work to be a Captain on a flight from Florida to Atlanta.  As he enters the cockpit of the plane, his co-pilot is suspicious about Whip's behavior, but says nothing.  No one even notices that he slips some miniature liquor bottles into his orange juice.  The plane takes off in the midst of a terrible storm.  It  is a harrowing ordeal, but the plane brakes through the clouds okay.  It would seem the worst is over, but later in the flight, the plane suddenly malfunctions and plummets into a nosedive.

picThe resulting sequence is nothing short of spellbinding and horrifying, as Whip struggles to take control of the plummeting aircraft.  He inverts the plane to level out their descent, and ultimately lands in a field near a church.  Due to his actions, the casualties on the plane are minimal (two crew members, four passengers), and nearly everyone, including Whip, walks away from the crash alive.  Whip awakens in a hospital with a minor concussion and pain.  He also awakens to find himself a hero in the eyes of the media for pulling off such a tricky landing with minimal loss.  Before he can enjoy his sudden fame, however, he is approached by a pilot's union rep named Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and a Chicago attorney named Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle).  They tell him that while Whip was unconscious, his blood alcohol level was tested, and it was found to be well above the legal limit.  While the plane did malfunction, the fact that he shouldn't have been piloting it in the first place in his drunken state could cause problems once they come to light in the press.

picThe movie raises an interesting question around this point - Was it the combination of alcohol and drugs in his system which led to the unorthodox thinking that led to the saving of hundreds of lives?  It raises the question, but never really digs into it.  Instead, the remainder of the movie turns into a predictable series of events where Whip refuses to admit he has a problem, even though it's painfully obvious to everyone around him.  His drinking and drug use has already cost him the marriage to his former wife, and the respect of his teenage son, who wants nothing to do with him.  Now, if word gets out, his entire career and future could be in jeopardy.  This could make for compelling drama, but it's built on a stack of worn cliches.  We even get a scene where a friend and former addict (Kelly Reilly) tries to help him by taking Whip to an AA meeting.  During the meeting, Whip simply rolls his eyes, and leaves early, heading out to buy more alcohol.

picAs the movie goes on, and Whip is forced to fight his demons and temptations for an upcoming testimony to a council about what happened the day of the crash, the movie goes to convoluted lengths to keep him drinking.  For example, the night before he's going to go before the council, Whip is placed in a hotel room with a guard outside the door, making sure he doesn't leave to feed his personal habits.  Even the room's minibar has been stocked solely with juices and soda, at the request of the lawyer representing him.  But then, in the middle of the night, a stray gust of wind blows open the door to the connecting room, which Whip wanders into, and finds a minibar filled to the brim with alcoholic beverages.  As he stares at the bottles, the only thing missing are a little cartoon angel and devil to appear on his shoulders, arguing whether or not he should give in to temptation.

picFlight is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination.  It's well-acted, and the depiction of the plane crash early in the film is bound to leave jaws on the floor, and probably have more than a few people second guessing their holiday travel plans.  I guess I expected a little bit more, since this is the first live action film since 2000's Castaway for director Robert Zemeckis. (He spent the last decade working on high end motion capture animated films like The Polar Express and Beowulf.) This is definitely darker and far more somber material than we're used to seeing from Zemeckis.  I have no problem with that.  I just was disappointed with how simplistic the screenplay handles its dramatic situation.  It takes it at face value, much the same way a high school educational film about teen drinking would, and never really bothers to delve deeper into the characters, or the questions its own premise raises.

picBut then came the ending.  I think that was the deciding factor in my decision to vote this film just below a recommendation.  The last 10 minutes or so of the film are basically spent spelling out everything that we've already picked up on.  Instead of being subtle, it ends by hammering its point home over and over until I just wanted it to stop.  I don't know if it was studio interference or what, but something about the way this movie ended gave me the impression that it was tacked on at some later point.  It turns what was up to that point a cliched, but adult film about addiction, into a simple-minded one where the main character looks into the camera, and gives a speech about what he has learned.  Why was this ending necessary?  Why couldn't it have closed on a more subtle note?

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Flight is a movie that I really wanted to like a lot more than I did.  It means well, and the performances are strong, but I just couldn't get involved.  It does have a lot of truth when it comes to addictions, and it doesn't shy away from the darker side of its subject matter.  But it also never quite dives as deep as it should have.  Consider this a mixed review from me.  I just thought this one could have been better.

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