Reel Opinions


Monday, December 31, 2012

The 7th Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

We've hit the last day of 2012, so it's time for a little tradition I have here at Reel Opinions.  That's right, it's time to take one last look back at the films that stole the time of myself, and anyone else unfortunate enough to see them.  To be fair, 2012 was a pretty good year for movies.  The good far outweighed the bad.  But, that doesn't mean that some big stinkers didn't slip on through.  And that's what this list is for.  It's time to "honor" the year's biggest bombs, and hope that those involved with them will get to work on a good movie in 2013.

As always, my "Best of 2012" list is still on the way.  There are still some movies stuck in limited release that will be expanding nationwide soon, so I'm going to hold off on that until I see them.  I usually post my choices for the best films on the day of the Oscars, so that's probably when you can expect it this year, as well.

With that said, it's time to carve some cinematic turkeys.


THE 10 WORST FILMS OF 2012:
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10. THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY - Let's kick things off with what is probably one of the most forgettable action thrillers of this or any other year.  The Cold Light of Day desperately wanted to be a white-knuckle film along the lines of the Jason Bourne films, but it lacked confidence in itself, and only gave a minimal effort.  Too bad even that minimal effort was pretty terrible.  Future Superman star, Henry Cavill, shows a total lack of personality as he races around a stupid plot where his family has gone missing, and everyone from the police to the CIA seems to be in on some massive conspiracy.  Bruce Willis literally cashes a paycheck as the father of the main character, a CIA operative who shows up in the movie just long enough to explain what's going on.  The whole time he's on camera, he looks like he can't wait for the director to yell "Cut", so he can get the hell out of this bomb.  Finally, we have Sigourney Weaver as the film's villain.  She tries to act cold and intimidating, as she pretty much marches through all of her scenes, firing off bullets non-stop.  Too bad like everyone else, the movie gives her absolutely nothing interesting to say or do.  This is one of those movies that almost seems to know it's bad, and everyone was just kind of sleepwalking through it.  The few people who saw this one during its brief theatrical run probably had a hard time staying awake, too.
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 09. THIS MEANS WAR - This misguided attempt to blend spy action and romantic comedy was one of the more bizarre movie experiences of the year.  Nothing in This Means War works.  This is a total misfire that not even the talents of Tom Hardy, Chris Pine, and Reese Witherspoon can salvage.  Hardy and Pine play CIA operatives and best friends who both happen to fall in love with Witherspoon's character at the same time.  When they discover this fact, both men turn into childish bozos, and start using spy tech to spy on each other, or to sabotage their chances with the woman.  This is an incredibly witless and dense movie about two guys acting like idiots, and Witherspoon's character being completely oblivious to everything that's going on around her.  So, why are we supposed to like these people?  The movie offers us no answers.  All it gives us is a lot of groan-inducing comic moments, and an action finale that is not only completely over the top, but absolutely pointless.  This was the first big stinker of the year, but far from the last.

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08 CHERNOBYL DIARIES - This "found-footage" horror film gives us a great setting - the city of Pripyat, which was once home to the people who worked at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, and were forced to flee during the disaster.  Just looking at photos of this abandoned city is enough to give anyone goosebumps.  So, what does Chernobyl Diaries do with this setting?  It plops in some of the dumbest and most unlikable lead characters to ever be stalked in a horror movie, and gives us a third rate The Hills Have Eyes knock off plot, with cannibal mutants waiting in the shadows for our heroes to do something really stupid.  The entire film is made up of nothing but the most rote of thriller cliches.  The characters are identified not by their personalities, but by who's playing them.  And there's not a single genuine thrill or scare in its entire running time.  All it has going for it is its setting.  The filmmakers picked a perfect spot for a horror movie, and then forgot to give us a movie to go along with it.  Real shame about that.

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07. ALEX CROSS - This misguided attempt to reboot a film franchise based on the series of detective novels by James Patterson got off on the wrong foot from the word go by casting Tyler Perry as the title character.  Yes, the guy best known for dressing in drag and a fat suit in the Madea movies, was stepping in for Morgan Freeman, who played the character in two earlier films.  This alone was enough to raise a few red flags, but then people actually saw the finished film, and they had a whole lot more than a miscast lead to complain about.  Director Rob Cohen gave us a simple thriller where Alex can pretty much walk into the room of a crime scene, and deduce everything that happened in a matter of seconds.  Is he brilliant, or is the script just in a rush to move things along?  Given that he never gives any indication of how or where he is getting this information from, I'm going with the second choice.  The trail of clues leads to a mass murderer (played by an over the top Matthew Fox), who likes to leave clues that resemble those old fold-in covers you would find in Mad Magazine.  It all builds to the single worst action climax of the year, with both Perry and Fox fumbling their fight choreography, and the camera shaking and moving around so much, we can barely tell what the heck is even happening.  Instead of the thrills it promised, Alex Cross ended up delivering unintentional laughs.

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06. SILENT HILL: REVELATION - An unnecessary sequel to a semi-successful video game adaptation movie from 2006, Silent Hill: Revelation was a total embarrassment for either fans of the first movie, or the popular video game franchise that's been running for 13 years now.   It attempts to blend the plot and characters of the first film, with elements of the Silent Hill 3 game, and the end result is not the least bit scary, and more often ridiculous and incoherent.  All the psychological tension and horror that the games are known for was replaced with generic funhouse thrills of monsters popping out of dark shadows and screaming at the camera.  The dialogue was atrocious, with characters pretty much standing around, spewing plot exposition non-stop.  To top off this disaster, it was also probably the worst-acted movie to get a mainstream release in 2012.  A major acting "highlight" here would be Malcolm McDowell, showing up in an inexplicable scene as a mental patient, where he plays the role almost as if he thinks he's playing Hannibal Lecter in a bad community theater production of The Silence of the Lambs.  I know a lot of fans of the games were disappointed with the first Silent Hill movie.  I would have loved to have seen their reaction to this mess.

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05. THE WATCH - Despite the presence of big comic names like Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill, this wannabe summer comedy blockbuster came and left from theaters fairly quickly, and for good reason.  The movie was absolutely horrible.  The film features the three guys, along with cult comic icon, Richard Ayoade, teaming up to start a Neighborhood Watch program after a series of bizarre murders start happening in their quiet little neighborhood.  It ultimately turns out to be the work of an alien race that is plotting a full-scale Earth invasion.  This is a workable premise, but the movie completely squanders it at every opportunity.  Instead of giving us laughs, the screenplay gives us the lead actors using a string of profanity and four letter words non-stop.  The four stars desperately try to improvise off of each other, but they don't earn a single chuckle, because nothing they say or do is funny.  This is just such a desperate movie, filled with people who have been funny in the past, acting like they are having a great time, when we can all see the sour look of doom on their faces.  They knew The Watch wasn't working while they were filming it, and they were right.

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04. THE APPARITION - Quite possibly the worst haunted house movie to come out since 1999's ill-fated and bloated remake of The Haunting, The Apparition sat on the studio shelf for a good two years or so before getting a halfhearted release in theaters around Labor Day Weekend.  During those two years, the movie was hacked and edited into a total mess that only ran 70 minutes, and didn't make the slightest bit of sense.  The basic idea is that a young couple (played by Sebastian Stan and Ashley Greene) move into a home that is haunted by a spirit connected to their past.  Simple, right?  Well, from that point on, the movie pretty much starts making up its own rules, and not even explaining them.  A neighbor's dog manages to run inside the house, and suddenly drops dead seconds after entering.  Why, you ask?  Why, indeed.  Why is there giant patches of mold growing in the corner of the ceiling?  And why does the ghost seem to have a big interest in Ashley Greene whenever she's walking around in her underwear? (Which is quite often in this movie.) Don't even try to follow the plot on this one.  You'll be fighting a losing battle.  The Apparition was edited so much before it got released, it barely resembles a movie anymore.

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03. THAT'S MY BOY - Adam Sandler has sadly become a regular on my Reel Stinkers countdown in recent years.  I cannot help but think that this once huge comic star is now on a single-minded quest to find the worst possible comedy script to appear in.  He came pretty close with last year's stinker, Jack and Jill.  But with That's My Boy, he manages to top even that "accomplishment".  Sandler takes his obnoxious man child act to extremes here, playing a guy who had sex with his teacher back when he was 13, and was forced to raise their son on his own when the teacher went to jail.  The son has now grown up to be Andy Samberg, who wants to forget his father and his past, and marry into a wealthy family.  That proves impossible when Sandler shows up, crashing the wedding party weekend.  The movie revolves around Sandler and Samberg generally acting like giant asses, and everyone loving them for it.  The movie is crude, crass, and holds the distinct honor of featuring former rapper Vanilla Ice in a supporting role, and somehow managing to be even worse than his early 90s starring effort, Cool as Ice.  Both Sandler and Samberg have been funny on Saturday Night Live in the past, but you wouldn't know it by watching this bomb.

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02. PROJECT X - For most of the year, Project X held the title of the worst film I'd seen in 2012, but it recently lost the title to a late-year release that literally came out of nowhere.  Regardless, this is still one of the most unpleasant experiences I had at the movies all year.  How could a major studio like Warner Bros release a movie this pointless?  It's cheap, it's exploitive, and it has all the production values of one of those sex tapes you can find on the Internet.  This comedy (in theory, not execution) is supposed to be about a group of unpopular teens who throw a huge bash in order to become popular and get girls.  Sounds pretty basic and uninspired, but not terrible, right?  What makes Project X reach the bottom of the barrel is how it barely resembles a finished movie.  I'd say a good 75% of the movie is made up of random footage of extras dancing, having sex, drinking, and doing drugs.  The story of the three friends trying to have their sexual awakening is eventually pushed in the background, and we just get non-stop hip hop music and obnoxious Jackass-style stunts by faceless extras.  It doesn't take long until the movie becomes a monotonous bore of random images of people partying.  The movie doesn't want to tell a story, deliver laughs, or have a point.  It's about as much fun as being the only sober person at a party, and sitting alone, while everyone around you looks like they're having the time of their lives.

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01. THE COLLECTION - The only movie bad enough to knock something as pointless as Project X out of the top spot would have to be The Collection - a sequel to a slasher film from a few years ago that not many saw, or even remembers.  What the filmmakers have essentially given us is an 80 minute series of grisly images that flash upon the screen, and then stops.  This movie is too cynical to include things like characters, motivation, plot, or suspense.  All the set up we're given is that a teenage girl who is partially deaf is stood up by her boyfriend, so she goes with her friends to a dance club.  Too bad for her (and us), the dance club turns out to be an elaborate death trap set up by a masked murderer known as the Collector, who somehow has rigged the entire club to have massive blades drop from the ceiling, and kill everyone right there on the dance floor.  He then proceeds to kidnap the girl and take her to his hideout - an abandoned hotel that's filled with even more deadly and increasingly implausible traps.  The rest of the movie is simply nothing but random people with no names falling into these traps, being sliced, vivisected, and mangled beyond recognition.  We also get to watch the Collector perform deranged surgical experiments on his victims, and dress them up as if they were dolls  This movie is just nothing but unpleasant and gory ideas and images with nothing holding any of them together.  The footage could be shown in any order, and it wouldn't make any difference.  It goes without saying that The Collection is the worst time I've had at the movies all year.

Well, that cover the Top 10, but I'm far from finished.  It's time to cover the Dishonorable Mentions, the films that were bad, but not quite bad enough to crack the bottom of the barrel.  Despite this fact, they should still be treated with caution.  Do not view any of these films, unless you enjoy wasting your time.


DISHONORABLE MENTIONS:

Joyful Noise, Underworld: Awakening, One for the Money, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Gone, Wrath of the Titans, Lockout, Battleship, Step Up: Revolution, Nitro Circus: The Movie, Sparkle, The Possession, Paranormal Activity 4, Fun Size, The Man with the Iron Fists, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, Red Dawn, Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away, Parental Guidance


THE INDIVIDUAL REEL STINKERS AWARDS:

WORST SEQUEL:
The Collection

MOST UNNECESSARY SEQUEL:
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

WORST PERFORMANCE BY A RESPECTED ACTOR/ACTRESS:
Russell Crowe in The Man with the Iron Fists

WORST OVERALL PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR/ACTRESS:
The entire cast of Silent Hill: Revelation

WORST USE OF 3D:
Nitro Circus: The Movie

WORST REMAKE:
Red Dawn

WORST IDEA FOR A MOVIE THAT NEVER COULD HAVE WORKED:
Doing a remake of Red Dawn

REPEAT OFFENDERS (ACTORS WHO WERE INVOLVED IN MORE THAN ONE STINKER IN 2012):
Liam Neeson in Wrath of the Titans and Battleship
Chelsea Handler in This Means War and Fun Size
Ashley Greene in The Apparition and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2

WORST ON-SCREEN TEAM:
Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg in That's My Boy

MOVIE EVERYONE SEEMED TO LOVE, BUT I COULDN'T GET INTO:
The Hunger Games

WORST CELEBRITY STUNT CASTING:
Tyler Perry in Alex Cross
Rihanna in Battleship

STUDIO THAT RELEASED THE MOST STINKERS IN 2012:
Warner Bros, for giving us Chernobyl Diaries, The Apparition, Project X, Joyful Noise, and Wrath of the Titans

Summit for giving us The Cold Light of Day, Alex Cross, Gone, Step Up: Revolution, and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2

Well, that's the worst of 2012 in a nutshell.  Time to look ahead to 2013, and hope for the best.  Have a wonderful and safe new year, everybody!

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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Django Unchained

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Strange as it may sound, I think Quentin Tarantino was trying to make a fun little feel good movie with Django Unchained.  It's a highly effective action film, driven by a simple but effective love story underneath, where the good guys ride in to punish the bad guys, for the simple reason that the villains are doing wrong to other people.  It's the very basic description of many a feel-good blockbuster.  Tarantino follows this successful formula, and throws in his gift of dialogue, extreme but well-executed violence, and moments of genuine laugh out loud humor.  This is not only the best of the big Christmas releases, it's one of the better films of 2012.

picAt its core, Django is a revenge story.  This is something that Tarantino has experience in, most notably the Kill Bill movies.  However, unlike Uma Thurman's The Bride, Jamie Foxx's Django is not driven solely by punishing the people who have wronged him in the past.  His main goal is to be reunited with the only woman who has ever meant anything to him.  That would be Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whom Django was married to at one time, until they were separated and sold to different people by slave owners.  Django's story is set two years before the Civil War, so when we first see him, he's a slave, most likely set to a life working on a plantation.  But then, he has a chance encounter with one Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist-turned-bounty hunter.  Schultz needs a freed slave to help him identify his latest bounty, and when Django's owners won't part him him, he resorts to other methods to set Django free, and introduce him to the world of "killing bad people for money".

picThe first half of the film resembles a buddy film of sorts, as the German Dr. Schultz takes Django under his wing, teaches him his business, and promises to help him track down his wife when the time comes.  The relationship that builds between the two really works, thanks to the wonderful chemistry between Foxx and Waltz.  As Django, Foxx hasn't been this good since he won the Oscar for Ray.  This is a wonderful role for him, filled with passion, drama, and humor.  He also pulls off the film's numerous gunfights and action sequences with ease.  As for Waltz, he's playing a very different character than the last Tarantino film he was in, but he is no less effective.  As the elegantly-spoken, witty, yet highly dangerous Dr. Schultz, Waltz seems to be constantly walking the fine line between noble stability, and a hair-trigger violent side that can erupt at a moment's notice.  We spend so much time with the two and the relationship that builds between them that we can't help but be attracted to them.

picThe second and main part of the movie occurs when the two finally track down Django's wife, and who bought her.  Their search leads them to the plantation of the slimy Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, obviously relishing his over the top villain role), where he keeps Broomhilda as a maid and occasional sex toy at the request of his guests.  The doctor and Django arrive at Calvin's home, under the guise of wanting to purchase one of his slaves.  However, Calvin's personal slave and butler, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), sees through the ruse instantly, and threatens to ruin everything.  Where the movie goes from there, I will not reveal.  One of the joys of Django Unchained is how it continuously surprised and delighted me with each plot development.  The film is nearly three hours long, but it earns it.  Tarantino is telling a captivating story here, and rushing it would rob us of some of the richer character developments his screenplay provides.

picYou've probably heard by now that this is a very violent movie, and yes, it is.  But it is also a joyous one.  The movie is never mean spirited in its violence.  It's explosive, exciting, and often over the top.  And besides, Tarantino is more interested in getting us into these characters, than just having them shoot each other.  When the bullets do start flying, it is often spectacular.  But what's even more so is that we are drawn into the action, because we already have involvement with the characters.  I mentioned earlier that part of this movie is a buddy film, which I think may be a first for Tarantino (I could be wrong).  He develops his characters so well, and gives them such great dialogue that we fall in love with them.  Even the more unsavory types, such as DiCaprio's character, are given dialogue to make sure that they are not simple, cardboard cutout villains.  A lot of thought went into this script, and it shows in nearly every scene.

picAs is to be expected, Tarantino has gathered some wonderful actors.  I've already talked about Foxx, Waltz, and DiCaprio, but one actor's performance who I don't think hasn't gotten a lot of attention is Samuel L. Jackson.  Maybe it's because his character mainly stays in the background in a lot of his scenes, but in a way, that makes him all the more dangerous.  He is watching the heroes, and threatening to blow their scheme at any moment.  It creates some genuine tension, and Jackson is very good once he steps forward, and reveals his true intentions.  Also as is to be expected, Tarantino has taken a former celebrity, and given him a second chance.  In this case, it's Don Johnson in a supporting role as a "Big Daddy" Southern Gentleman-type.  His screen time is brief, but he gets a lot of laughs.  There are also cameos for Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, Robert Carridine, and many others to look out for.

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Django Unchained is a constantly surprising spectacle of action, dark humor, romance, and thrilling adventure.  It does so many things right, it's almost depressing that more films can't figure out what this one knows.  It's a perfect blend of characterization, and edge of your seat excitement.  Tarantino has made more than just a tribute to the classic Westerns.  He has made his own skillful movie, one which sits amongst some of his greatest film achievements.

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

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Friday, December 28, 2012

Parental Guidance

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You would think that by this point in their careers, both Billy Crystal and Bette Midler could smell a stinker script like Parental Guidance from a mile away.  And yet, here they are starring in it.  And look, Crystal's even credited as the lead producer, meaning he really had a lot of faith in this project.  Either that, or he's taken leave of his senses, and thinks appearing in a movie where he gets hit in the crotch with a baseball bat AND throws up on a kid (in the same scene, nonetheless) was a good career move.

picHere is one of the dumber comedies of the year.  How unfortunate it's also the last.  Crystal and Midler play Artie and Diane, respectively - aging grandparents trying to get used to retirement after Artie is fired from his long-time job as an announcer for a minor league baseball team.  They're an old fashioned couple, which of course means that their adult daughter, Alice (Marisa Tomei), is the complete opposite.  She lives in Atlanta with her husband (Tom Everett Scott) and their three kids in a computerized smart house where everything is automatic.  Alice and her husband feel overworked and overstressed, and want to take time away from the kids.  The old-fashioned Artie and Diane are chosen to babysit the modern and tech-savvy kids while the parents are away.  Bet you didn't see that coming!

picThe kids are a pretty standard lot for this kind of film.  They include oldest daughter Harper (Bailee Madison), shy middle child Turner (Joshua Rush), and youngest Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf).  Each of them are dealing with their own issues.  Little Harper is an overachiever, and doesn't have time for fun things like going to a birthday party being thrown by a boy that she likes.  Turner stutters, and is dealing with a bully at school.  And little Barker's only friend is an invisible imaginary kangaroo that the family goes to extreme lengths to humor the kid.  Naturally the grandparents will help the kids with their problems during their time there.  Harper learns how to have fun when they teach her how to play Kick the Can in the backyard.  Turner finds his voice by listening to Artie's old baseball broadcasts.  And Barker learns to let go of his imaginary friend when the family holds a funeral for it, after Barker pretends it ran away from home, and got hit by a car. (I'm dead serious.)

picThis is such an artificial and cloying movie, filled with people and situations that could never be remotely plausible.  Consider this particular scene - After being fired from his job, Artie tries to get a job as an announcer for the X Games.  He dresses himself up in dated hip hop attire, trying to make himself look younger than he is.  The people giving the interview are not fooled, but decide to let him audition anyway, and work as an announcer while skateboarder Tony Hawk is performing.  Everything is going great, until little Barker sneaks away, and decides to urinate all over the half pipe that Tony Hawk happens to be performing on, causing him to slip up and fall.  This costs Artie the job.  Does anything I just described sound like something that could remotely happen?

picParental Guidance is essentially a very bad TV sitcom stretched to the breaking point at feature length.  The dialogue is witless, and doesn't even sound like dialogue to start with.  It's just a bunch of weary set ups for bad punchlines.  The movie somehow manages to get even worse in its last half hour when it stops going for laughs, and turns on the schmaltz.  It's one sappy wannabe tearjerker scene after another as Artie reconciles with Alice, Alice reconciles with Harper, Harper reconciles with herself and discovers what she wants out of life, Turner learns how to speak up for himself and overcome his stutter, and the movie ends.  Personally, that last part is the only thing that made me truly happy.  While all this is going on, Crystal and Midler kind of stand around, throwing out tired one-liners, and doing the occasional musical number now and then.

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Yes, this movie is safe and inoffensive.  It's also tremendously stupid.  There are so many better movies to take your kids to see over Christmas Vacation.  Movies that will make them laugh, and spark their imaginations.  Parental Guidance might keep them quiet for a little while, but ask yourself, don't your kids deserve more?  If you answered yes, then take your kids to see The Hobbit.  If you answered no, you get what you deserve.

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

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Les Miserables

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Even though I am recommending Les Miserables, I find that I am somewhat at war with myself over my reaction to the film.  Yes, the movie is appropriately sweeping and epic, if not bombastic.  It's also sung pretty well for the most part. (A good thing, since the film is pretty much 95% singing, with small snippets of dialogue here and there to move things along.) Where I find myself divided on the film is when it comes to the director, Tom Hooper.

picNow, Hooper is a fine director.  His work on The King's Speech was rightfully praised.  And yet, I have mixed feelings on the job he has done here.  Let's look at what he does right, first.  He does a good job of "opening up" the famous stage musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, and making it feel like a movie, instead of a filmed version of the play.  His well-publicized decision to have the actors sing live on the set, instead of lip-synching (which is standard on a movie musical) also pays off, thanks to his talented cast.  Are some actors better singers than others?  Definitely.  But his gamble is not what brings the film down.  He also gives the film a glorious look, with wide open settings, and a 19th Century French village that seems to span for miles.  At least that's what it looked like during the precious moments I could see it.  That brings me to where I become divided, and to my key problem.

picIn staging Les Miserables, Hooper has decided to shoot almost all of the musical numbers in very tight close up.  Not only is this distracting, but it robs the audience of the hard work that obviously went into the set and production design.  Occasionally, the camera will move or swoop around the actor while they are singing, and this is not much better.  Surely there must be another way to make us focus on the singing of the actors, with not having the camera constantly up in their face the entire time.  The editing is also strange.  Sometimes, it seems like the camera can't stay on a single image for more than three seconds.  Other times, it holds on a certain image or actor too long.  He also seems to have a problem with having more than one actor on screen at a time, so the editing bounces back and forth between one person and the other.    It's needlessly distracting, and makes you wonder why no one spoke up while the dailies were being shown.

picMaybe it's a testament to the stage musical (and the original novel by Victor Hugo) that despite this glaringly bad decision, the movie still works.  By now, just about everybody has either heard of the musical, or at least heard one of its songs.  Heck, you probably already know what you think about it.  This is as Critic-Proof a movie as there has ever been.  What's surprising is how long it's taken this musical to reach the cinema.  Not that Hollywood hasn't been trying - There's been at least one screen version of the musical stuck in Development Hell since the early 1990s.  During that time, we had two non-musical adaptations of the story hit the screen. (One, a well-received modern day re-invention, and the other a more straight-forward adaptation with Liam Neeson that is hardly remembered today.) The musical film is the one that most people have been waiting for, however.  Now that it's here, I have to say that the built-in audience is sure to appreciate its faithfulness, and its ability to streamline the story and the songs just a little bit, without losing any of the dramatic edge.

picJust like the songs themselves, the story should be familiar by now, as well.  We follow the life of a man named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), whom we first meet as a convict in a Paris chain gang in 1815.  He has served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, and is paroled.  However, finding that the world rejects him because of his criminal background, he breaks parole and changes his name and identity, vowing to lead a just and better life.  Constantly on the run from the relentless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who pursues him after breaking parole, Valjean has managed to allude capture, and successfully change his life, so that eight years later, we find that he is the mayor of a town, as well as a factory owner.  His past catches up with him when he is forced to expose his true identity in order to help a prostitute named Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who is fatally ill, and has a child she can no longer care for.  On her deathbed, Jean vows to raise the child as his own, and once again goes into hiding, continuing to avoid capture, while trying to lead a normal life for the small child, Cosette (Isabelle Allan).

picFlash forward yet another 10 years, and we find that Paris is on the verge of a revolution.  Is is here that the now-adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with a young student soldier named Marius (Eddie Redmayne).  A love triangle of sorts forms, as another young woman named Eponine (Samantha Barks) is also in love with the young Marius.  Is is here that the film carries over one of the original stage musical's most glaring faults - The romance between Cosette and Marius is completely unconvincing, due to the fact that they fall in love, despite knowing nothing about each other, and only having been around each other for five minutes.  Somehow, this is enough to make both young lovers devote their entire lives to each other.  The fact that Cosette pretty much disappears from this entire arc of the story until the end only furthers my suspicions that the original writers of the musical did not care much for her character, or the relationship.  Regardless, war is looming, and Marius must decide if he will stand with his fellow revolutionaries, while Jean must face his own feelings about losing Cosette to this young man.

picAll of this is told with high melodrama, and big, grand production numbers that has made the musical famous (or infamous, depends on whom you talk to) for nearly 30 years.  For all that Hooper did wrong in telling this story visually, he at least has found a talented cast to sing it.  Even the actors who aren't as strong as they could have been (primarily Russell Crowe), there is no one who seems completely wrong for the role, such as the infamous casting of Gerard Butler as the Phantom of the Opera in that particular musical adaptation film.  Of the cast, the ones who come across the strongest are Hugh Jackman (who has the most musical theater experience of the "name" actors), Anne Hathaway (who makes the most out of her small role, and guarantees that the 20 minutes or so of screentime she has are heartbreaking), Eddie Redmayne (from My Week with Marilyn, and is the biggest find here, musically), and Samantha Barks (who played the role in a London stage production, and is making her screen debut).

picRounding out the lead cast are Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, camping it up to heights unknown as the film's comic relief duo.  There's also a new song that's been written for the film (for Oscar eligibility, no doubt) that is instantly forgettable, and the film probably would have been better off without.  Fans of the stage show can also have some fun with the film's numerous cameos, including Colm Wilkinson, who played Valjean in the original London and Broadway casts, showing up as a Bishop early on.  This is a movie that has been made well and is sung-well.  It's only the bizarre direction and editing decisions I take issue with.  What it all boils down to is that Les Miserables is a successful musical adaptation that needed someone else behind the camera.

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But, like I said, this movie is critic proof.  You already know if you're going to see it or not.  It will make millions at the box office, and will probably make even more in DVD sales.  Heck, it might inspire some sing-a-long touring versions.  I can easily see this movie having legs long beyond the holiday movie rush.

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away

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I'm certain that there is an audience for Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away.  I'm also certain that I am not part of it.  This 3D feature film by the popular Montreal-based circus group that combines theatrical art and wizardry with complex dance and acrobatics is long on spectacle, but short on coherence.  The movie starts out trying to tell a simple narrative, but then it kind of degrades into a series of stunts set to music, many of which are taken from the group's different shows.  What we essentially have here is a 90 minute sample of their many productions, strung together by a very thin plot.

picAs the film opens, a young girl named Mia (Erica Linz) comes across a ramshackle old circus, and decides to explore within.  She eventually comes across a handsome Russian aerialist (Igor Zaripov), and is immediately taken by him when she sees his act.  As the aerialist performs his death-defying acrobatic act, he misses, and falls to the sandy ground far below him.  Much to Mia's surprise, the sand turns into a vortex which swallows the aerialist down.  Concerned for him (I guess), she follows him down the hole, and finds herself in another world of gymnastics, synchronized dance and swimming, and cover songs of Elvis and Beatles music.  From that point on, the movie kind of just stops trying to tell a story, and simply turns into a promotional tour for the Cirque du Soleil group, as we witness highlights from their different shows, many playing in Vegas.

picI guess Mia's search for the aerialist is supposed to string these sequences together, but it doesn't really work out, since there's never a coherent plot developed by writer-director Andrew Adamson (Shrek).  One minute, the aerialist is being held captive by evil dancers.  The next, he seems to be enjoying himself, and enticing Mia to explore this bizarre world further.  As amazing and thrilling as some of these sequences can be, there is simply nothing there on an emotional level.  We're just stuck watching surreal images.  Don't get me wrong, they're intriguing and well-performed surreal images.  They're just not enough to build a movie around.  And that's all this movie really is.  There's little to no dialogue, and no attempt to explain what is supposed to be happening.  We're just watching the highlight reel.

picI'm sure the thrill of watching a Cirque du Soleil performance live is seeing these amazing stunts and dancing done in real time.  In a movie, much of that thrill is gone, since you know the whole thing has been edited, and the director could just yell "cut" whenever something didn't work out right.  Plus, thanks to the magnified images on the big screen, you can clearly see the wires holding the dancers up - something that you don't see in a live audience.  To say that this robs a little bit of the mystery of the performance would be an understatement.  That's not to say there aren't some interesting moments here.  I like the riderless tricycle that guides Mia a long at certain times, and the scene where a rabbit's head turns into a living creature is also interesting.  But, once again, the question remains - what the heck does it mean?

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Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away never comes up with a reason to exist.  With so many productions by the group playing just about all over the world, it's not like there's a shortage of them to choose from.  The movie is supposed to be a sample of their different performances, but it's not a very engaging one.  Instead of inspiring audiences to seek out their live shows, this movie just may leave them walking out of the theater scratching their heads, and wondering what they just watched.

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Jack Reacher

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Last Christmas, Paramount had a big box office success by teaming up with Tom Cruise for the action thriller, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.  Obviously hoping lightning will strike twice, they've partnered with him for another thriller, Jack Reacher, based on the series of books by Lee Child.  Those expecting another fast-paced Mission: Impossible-style thriller may be disappointed.  This movie is much slower, and more focused on dialogue than action.  It's also very silly, but it at least has the good sense to know this, and not to take itself entirely seriously.  It may not be very memorable, but I have to be honest and say I kind of liked it.

picJack Reacher (Cruise) is a former military man, turned drifter.  As one character describes him, "he's a ghost", with no credit cards, background history, or personal records.  This obviously makes him next to impossible to track down.  Fortunately for the investigators behind a recent mass murder, they don't have to.  Jack shows up when a trained sniper named James Barr (Joseph Sikora) is apprehended after shooting five random people on a street (which provides this film with one extremely tense opening sequence).  When questioned about his involvement in the shooting, Barr simply requests for the presence of Jack Reacher.  When Jack does arrive, he confirms that he is not friends with the convicted shooter, but he does have a past with him.  Jack teams up with Barr's lawyer, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), to work out a case for her client.  But, as Jack begins to investigate further, he begins to realize that the whole murder plot may be much bigger than initially thought, and that maybe the targets chosen that day were not random.

picJack Reacher contains one of the strongest openings to a thriller I've seen this year, as we witness everyday people going about their lives through a sniper's scope, before they are suddenly gunned down.  The first five minutes or so contains no dialogue, focusing instead on the intensity of the situation.  If anything, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie knows how to grab our attention right off the bat.  At this big scene, however, the movie takes on a much slower and methodical pace, as Jack slowly picks the case apart, and uncovers the much bigger story behind it.  The slower pace does drag at certain times, but it works, thanks a lot to Cruse's successful slow-burn lead performance.  He portrays Jack as a very patient and calculating man, and the plot follows suit, giving him plenty of time to uncover the truth.

picLess you think the film is all quiet sleuthing and finding the facts, the movie also does have a very goofy side to it as well.  Sometimes this is intentional, thanks to Reacher's often sarcastic sense of humor.  There is also a very odd scene when Jack is attacked by three incompetent thugs in a sequence that almost borders on slapstick.  In other ways, the movie is sometimes just plain weird.  Acclaimed filmmaker, Walter Herzog, shows up as an over the top Russian villain who looks and acts like he just walked out of a second rate James Bond movie.  With his glass eye, broken English, and strange monologue to one of his thugs about how he once had to chew some of his own fingers off just to survive once as a child, it's a very bizarre character, and an even stranger performance from Herzog.  Still, if his directing career ever goes belly up, he may have a future playing weirdo villains.

picThe plot in Jack Reacher also becomes very convoluted as it goes along, with crooked cops and a suspicious D.A. (played by Richard Jenkins, although he is sadly given little to do) getting mixed up into it all.  It never becomes so complex that we can't follow, however.  And really, it's Cruise's performance and the occasional moments of intentional (and unintentional) humor that carries us through the film's shortcomings.  This is essentially a B-movie with A-level production values.  Maybe it's a credit to the filmmakers that it works as well as it does.  The director knows how to make this material work, as do the actors.  I think this is a case that if I was just reading the script, I probably would have hated it.  But thanks to the efforts up on the screen, it succeeds.

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Will I remember Jack Reacher a year, or even months from now?  I highly doubt it.  It's surprisingly small-scale for a Christmas weekend release starring Tom Cruise.  But, truth be told, I had fun while I was watching it.  I can't picture this becoming as big of a blockbuster as Cruise's last action film, but it does its job, and that's okay in the end.

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Sunday, December 23, 2012

This is 40

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It's gotten to the point where you pretty much know exactly what you're in for when you go to see a Judd Apatow movie.  His personal style seems to revolve around mixing adult sexual humor and somewhat coarse dialogue, with moments of genuine sweetness and sincerity.  His latest film, This is 40, is no different.  However, it may also be his most heartfelt and personal film yet.  Not a big surprise, considering the movie was supposedly inspired a lot by his own life and marriage to actress Leslie Mann (who stars in the film).  This is a funny and engaging film up to a point.  At 135 minutes, the movie does get stretched a bit too thin.  Unfortunately, this is also something audiences have come to expect from an Apatow movie, and something he doesn't seem to be in a rush to change.

picThis is 40 is being advertised as the "sort-of sequel to Knocked Up", Apatow's hit comedy from 2007.  Basically what this means is that two of the supporting characters from that film have been advanced into the lead roles.  No knowledge of the earlier film is required to enjoy this.  The two characters in question taking the center stage in this film are married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann).  The film covers a very loose narrative over the course of two weeks, where the couple prepare to hit their 40th birthdays just days apart from each other, deal with the joys and problems of raising two young daughters (played by Apatow's real life daughters, Maude and Iris), and financial difficulties.  Pete, in particular, is the owner of a struggling independent music label that desperately needs a hit in order to stay afloat.  As for Debbie, she runs a clothing store, and one of her employees is supposedly stealing money from her.

picThere is no real concrete plot to follow here.  The movie is made up simply of a series of vignettes and subplots, some of which are more successful than others.  The ones that worked best for me were the ones centered on the family itself.  I liked the scenes with the daughters, and I especially enjoyed the individual subplots concerning Pete and Debbie's respective fathers.  In Pete's case, his father (Albert Brooks) never really seems to take things all that seriously, despite the fact that he has a much younger wife and three young kids at home to take care of.  He's constantly "borrowing" money from his son, which puts further financial strain on Pete's life.  As for Debbie, her father (John Lithgow) left when she was very young, and has hardly been a presence in her life.  When he shows up at a family gathering late in the film, he is essentially a stranger to everyone.  The movie is also at its best when it is just taking an honest and often funny look at everyday events in Pete and Debbie's marriage - The arguments, the attempts at sex (which are interrupted either by the kids, or a dispute that arises between the two), and trying to keep the image of a happy family when everything is falling apart around you.

picWhat sets This is 40 apart, and what made me enjoy it, is that it's not about a marriage imploding, nor is it about Pete or Debbie being tempted to find sexual release with another person.  It is simply about a marriage, a family, and the everyday lives of these people.  Though the film's numerous subplots, we're introduced to the different aspects of these people and their lives.  Pete and Debbie seem like real and fleshed out characters, though not quite enough to carry a 2 hour + long movie.  This is the big downfall here.  Apatow really needs to learn editing, as there are numerous scenes or plots that could have easily been removed without any consequence.  It's not that they're badly written or acted, they just seem to exist simply as padding.  And the movie also starts running out of steam around the 100 minute mark, which means there's still just over a half hour left to go.  There's just not enough substance here to carry a film this long.

picBut before that final stretch started to drag, I was loving every minute of this movie.  You can tell that the entire cast are putting their hearts into this movie, with Rudd and Mann giving some of their best performances recently.  It's also very observational about marriage, and families in general.  Sure, it's nothing we haven't heard before in a movie, but Apatow's trademark humor (which can swing toward the vulgar and the crude more often than not) gives it a fresher spin.  This is not just a generic romantic comedy about two people rediscovering feelings for each other.  It's been well thought out, and Apatow is clearly writing from his very soul, and sharing some of the things he has learned from his own life.  It gives the film a more honest angle than I was expecting.

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This is 40 is wise, very funny, and filled with everyday occurrences that is likely to have audience members nodding their heads with recognition.  The only thing holding it back is its length.  With a good half hour or so chopped off, this could have been a great movie instead of a good one.  Still, given that a number of December's releases thus far have been disappointments, I'll gladly take good.  This is the kind of movie where I think a lot of people who watch it will be able to see a little bit of themselves up on the screen.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Guilt Trip

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In the long history of strange Hollywood team ups, the combination of Seth Rogen and Barbara Streisand has to be one of the more bizarre in recent memory.  Walking into The Guilt Trip, I wasn't sure what to expect.  Fortunately, they end up working quite well together as a stereotypical Jewish mother, and her silently suffering adult son.  The movie gives them plenty of chances to play off each other, and they do so quite well.  If only the rest of the movie worked as well as its mismatched leading team.

picThis is an average road trip comedy written by the usually talented Dan Fogelman, who has been on quite the streak lately with his scripts.  Some of his recent credits include last year's wonderful Crazy Stupid Love, and the Disney animated comedy, Tangled.  This movie isn't bad enough to completely derail his momentum, but it is a definite step backwards.  Here, he seems to be lacking a certain amount of energy with his comedic writing.  Maybe his heart wasn't in this one.  The movie follows the basic rules of the "mismatched pair go on a road trip together" formula, which has produced some good films in the past. (Most notably, 1987's Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.) It hits all the obligatory notes, such as run-ins in bars, encounters with colorful characters, and the scene in the motel room where tempers between the pair finally flares up.  It has all the right pieces assembled, but they don't fit together like they should.

picIt's up to Rogen and Streisand to carry this material with their chemistry, and while they do their best, the leaden script holds them down somewhat.  Rogen plays Andrew Brewster, a struggling young inventor who is about to embark on an 8-day cross country business trip in an attempt to sell his product to different chain stores.  He's trying to get an environmentally safe cleaning product he invented off the ground.  Streisand is his widowed, meddling mother, Joyce.  She hasn't had anyone in her life since her husband died when Andrew was only eight years old.  Sensing her loneliness, Andrew decides to invite her to come along with him on the trip.  His ultimate goal in bringing her along is that he hopes he can help her reconnect with a man that she once loved before she married his father.

picJoyce starts the film off as a typical, stereotyped Jewish mother that we've seen in countless bad movies and sitcoms.  But then, the movie starts to peel away that side of the character, and make her a little more human and sympathetic.  This is the part of the film I liked.  It's during these scenes that the chemistry between the stars starts to show.  When Rogen and Streisand are just having quiet scenes where they get to play off one another, they actually do show a lot of warmth, and create a believable relationship.  If only the rest of The Guilt Trip was this honest.  Whenever the movie's not focused on the likable chemistry of its leading actors, it decides to bore us with perfunctory cliches of the road trip movie, such as bar fights, crazy hitchhikers, and quirky characters with hearts of gold.

picI normally wouldn't mind these cliches so much, as they practically come with the genre.  We expect them to be in there when we see a movie like this.  The problem, I think, lies with the director, Anne Fletcher (The Proposal).  There is a lack of energy to these comic moments.  Everything's so muted and laid back.  We're supposed to feel Andrew's exasperation as these bizarre situations and encounters build up, along with having his nagging mother in the car seat next to him.  But, he never seems anything more than mildly annoyed.  Even when he finally blows up at her emotionally, it doesn't have the anger we expect.  He's not lashing out at her, he's just...irritated, at best.  If you want to see this kind of scene done right, I must once again bring up Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.  Watch the scene where Steve Martin finally lets John Candy have it with his frustrated tirade of anger.  Watch how Candy reacts with genuine sadness.  That is a masterclass on how you do this kind of scene.

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I will admit to smiling a number of times while watching The Guilt Trip.  I will even admit to laughing out loud once.  Is that enough to recommend it?  I don't think so.  There's going to be some heavy competition over the holiday weekend, so there's bound to be something better playing in just a couple days.  If you want a good indication of what this movie could have been, just watch the improvised outtakes during the end credits between Rogen and Streisand, which end up being funnier than anything in the movie itself.  Maybe the filmmakers should have just tossed the script out, and just let the stars go at each other.

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