Reel Opinions


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Pain & Gain

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With Pain & Gain, filmmaker Michael Bay seems to be trying to mix his overblown, fast-paced directing and editing style, with the warped sense of dark true crime humor of the Coen Brothers.  It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Bay has been given a smart and very funny script here that knows how to make it work.  The end result is not only the best film the director's ever done, but also the first truly successful comedy of 2013.

picYes, the movie is based on a real life kidnapping and murder case that happened between 1994 and 1995 in Miami, Florida.  And yes, in the wrong hands, making a dark comedy out of the events could come across as being extremely crass and tasteless.  I'm sure a number of people may even be offended by it.  But for me, the movie worked, because it never felt like Bay and his screenwriters were trying to make me laugh at the misery on display.  Instead, the movie plays up how unprepared the three kidnappers are for their situation.  And as the situation spirals out of their control, we laugh at their simple-minded attempts to cover it up.  The movie is wise to make sure we are laughing at these people, not with them.  The three main characters (and even some of their victims) are horrible people, and the movie makes no bones about letting us know this.  They don't deserve our sympathy, and the movie offers none.

picThe story of Pain & Gain is the pursuit of the American Dream, and three bodybuilders who got tired of waiting for it, and decided to try to steal it.  The leader is Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a guy obsessed with self-help programs in an effort to better his own life.  He works as a personal trainer at a local gym, and one of his clients is a self-made millionaire named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), who has basically lied, cheated, and stolen his way to living a luxurious and wealthy life.  Victor is not a nice guy.  He's verbally abusive to some of the people who work at the restaurant he owns, and seems to look down on anyone who is not like him.  The more time Daniel spends with Victor, the more he begins to realize that it's not fair that a "decent guy" like him has so little, while Victor seems to have everything.  He concocts a plan to steal all of Victor's wealth and assets, and enlists the aid of two fellow bodybuilders from the gym to help in the plan.

picThe cohorts he enlists include a pair of dim individuals who probably shouldn't be anywhere near a crime plan.  Then again, neither should Daniel.  His only experience in planning a kidnapping is that he's "watched a lot of movies" for inspiration of his plan.  Aiding him are Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), an ex-con and born-again Christian who has a weakness for snorting coke, and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), whose continuous steroid use has left him with a bad case of Erectile Dysfunction.  Their early attempts to kidnap Victor are downright incompetent, and provide some big laughs as they try to disguise themselves as ninjas or other outlandish costumes to hide their identity.  When they're eventually successful in nabbing their intended victim, they lock Victor away in an abandoned warehouse, and torture him until he signs over his house, money, and everything he owns over to them.  When they get what they want from him, they attempt to murder him.  But even after crashing his car at full speed with him inside it, setting the car on fire, and even running him over with their own car two times, Victor Kershaw is still alive.

picYes, this actually happened.  The movie has a lot of fun with the fact it's based on real events.  At one point, when the film gets especially outrageous, it pauses just to remind us that yes, what we're watching is a true story.  What starts as a kidnapping and extortion plan soon turns to murder, and then spirals even further out of control when the guys decide to go for a second kidnapping job.  The movie itself is a dark satire of material and excess indulgence, and the twisted vision of the American Dream that these three men share of big homes, money, women, alcohol, and drugs.  Who better to parody excess and greed than Bay, who with his overblown blockbusters has often been accused of being overly excessive with his explosions, special effects, and sex appeal in his films.  With a more modest budget and an actual story to tell, Bay finds himself in unfamiliar territory, but he does a fine job.  I especially liked how he uses multiple narrators to portray different views of events as they unfold.

picI should also point out that the cast is very brave for not only taking on these roles, but for throwing themselves as much into them.  As I mentioned, nobody comes across as being sympathetic or likable in this movie, which is the way it should be.  And yet, Wahlberg, Johnson, and Mackie all strike the perfect balance of egotism, anger, and being unknowingly dumb as a brick, which brings forth many of the film's laughs.  These are guys who think they're the smartest people in the room, but frequently screw up when the pressure's on.  In one of the film's funniest moments, the three guys are trying to find someone in a hospital, and end up getting lost, because they can't follow the color-coded system leading to different wings of the building.  The three leads wisely do not play their roles as antiheroes.  They are killers and thieves.  The fact that they are so incompetent allows us to laugh at them, not with them, as I mentioned earlier.  It's hard to play dumb without making it look forced, but Wahlberg and his two co-stars pull it off.  In fact, this is probably my favorite performance from Dwayne Johnson so far.

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I just greatly enjoyed Pain & Gain from beginning to end.  It's not only the funniest film of the year so far, but it's also a great story, and a very well put together movie.  This is the kind of film Michael Bay was born to make.  You can tell that his heart was in this project 100%, and that he really believed in this movie.  I'd say the guy's turning a new leaf, but he has Transformers 4 coming down the pipeline, so I'll hold my tongue.  For now, I commend him and the cast for taking on this risky and rewarding dark comedy.  I'm actually looking forward to seeing this one again.

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Friday, April 26, 2013

The Big Wedding

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One can only look at the list of names appearing in The Big Wedding, and just wonder what any of them saw in this overly safe, inoffensive, and laugh-free wannabe sitcom.  I mean, just look at this cast - Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Amanda Seyfried, Topher Grace, Katherine Heigl, Robin Williams, Christine Ebersole...All likable actors who are cast adrift here in a particularly mindless romantic comedy that all but wastes their talents.

picAdapted from a French film, this is one of those movies that is harmless enough, but has absolutely no reason for existing.  It's not particularly funny in any way, and the big name actors that writer-director Justin Zackham (he wrote the screenplay for The Bucket List) managed to round up are mainly going through the motions here.  And don't let the fact that the film is R-rated fool you into thinking that it's some outrageous comedy for adults.  Were it not for some unnecessary four-letter words and some mild sex jokes, this would be hard pressed to earn a PG-13.  This is a movie that wants to be a farce where things build and grow out of control as two families gather together for a wedding.  The only problem is things never grow out of control like they should, and the whole thing kind of meanders along, instead of building energy.

picOur two leads are Don (Robert De Niro) and Ellie (Diane Keaton).  They're divorced, but still on friendly terms with one another.  Don now lives with Bebe (Susan Sarandon), and the three are brought together when Don and Ellie's adopted adult son, Alejandro (Ben Barnes), is set to marry his childhood sweetheart, Missy (Amanda Seyfried).  Also attending the wedding weekend are Don and Ellie's two other children - Jared (Topher Grace), a 29-year-old virgin, and Lyla (Katherine Heigl), who is dealing with the emotional blow of her husband having recently left her.  Also coming for the wedding is Alejandro's birth mother from Columbia, Madonna (Patricia Rae), who just happens to be a Catholic and believes that divorce is a sin.  Not wanting to upset his mother, Alejandro stages an elaborate and hairbrained scheme where Don and Ellie will pretend to be a married couple for the weekend.  The comedy is supposed to build from this lie spiraling out of control, as well as the various other subplots and complications that spring up from it.  But the tone of this movie is much too relaxed to be funny, and we don't care about these characters.

picThe Big Wedding is the kind of movie that the word "mediocre" was created for.  It's flat, uninspired, and the actors are obviously just cashing a paycheck, especially Amanda Seyfried (who spends most of her screen time in the background, smiling) and Robin Williams, who has an unfunny cameo as a Catholic Priest.  The actors that are given more to do, such as De Niro, Keaton, Sarandon, Grace, and Heigl, are pretty much just repeating performances they've given in other films.  There's absolutely nothing new about the performances, the story, and the jokes.  So, why are we supposed to be involved?  I kept hoping that the next scene would provide an answer with some kind of wit or fresh spin on the material, but it never happened.  At least it knows not to overstay its welcome, and flies by at a very breezy and short 90 minutes.  You know I'm pressed for complements when I'm praising its short running time.

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There's really not a lot else that needs to be said.  It's one of those movies that will be forgotten quickly, and will probably be gone from theaters before Memorial Day.  I'm sure the cast took this project as an easy paycheck before going onto more exciting films.  At least they got paid.  That's more than the audience will get from this.

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

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Very few movies can completely move me, but The Place Beyond the Pines did just that.  This is a thrilling and captivating work.  Co-writer and director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) has made a modern day three-Act tragedy filled with unforgettable characters and performances.  In a year of movies that has largely been forgettable, this easily earns the title of the first truly great film of 2013.

picThis is a sprawling story that covers many years in the lives of very different people who will be connected before it is over.  It begins by introducing us to Luke (a mesmerizing Ryan Gosling), a professional motorcyclist who performs as a stunt biker in a traveling carnival.  He arrives in the town of Schenectady, New York, where he is reunited with Romina (Eva Mendes), a woman with whom he had a one night stand with the last time he was in town.  He learns that she has a one-year-old son from that night they shared.  Romina claims she has moved on, as she is living with a new man.  But, she gives Luke the slightest bit of hope that maybe, just maybe, there might be a chance.  Luke quits the carnival, and stays behind in town to start over and support his son however he can.  But, employment is hard to come by, and soon Luke can think of only one solution - start robbing banks.  His hold-up jobs start getting sloppy over time, and this brings the second main character into the story - an ambitious cop named Avery (Bradley Cooper).

picWithout giving too much away, Avery becomes the central focus of the second half of the film.  He's a rookie cop with big dreams of following in the footsteps of his father, a respected judge (Harris Yulin).  Like Luke, Avery has a cool and calm exterior, but holds a lot of personal doubts and demons within.  Those doubts become even stronger when he becomes lionized by the public and the media as a hero after an event throws him in the spotlight.  This fame also gets him some unwanted attention at work, as some of the more shadier cops start welcoming him into their group and their activities.  The leader of the crooked cops is played by Ray Liota, which is a natural choice when you think about it, as nobody can play a corrupt cop better than him.  Regardless, Avery is eventually able to manipulate himself to a position of political power.  This leads to the third and final act, set 15 years later, with Avery having the success he's always wanted, only to learn his wayward teenage son (Emory Cohen) has befriended another boy at school (Dane DeHaan), which leads to family secrets being revealed.

picThe Place Beyond the Pines runs for nearly two and a half hours, and it uses its generous time wisely, creating some very rich and detailed characters, and slowly weaving its three plots together in a masterful fashion.  The whole story is told in a straight-forward and linear fashion, but you still have to pay close attention, less you miss some important detail.  This is a very smart film that seems to be arguing how the mistakes we make in the past can carry on to future generations.  This is obviously not the first time a movie has used this message, but Cianfrance and his fellow credited screenwriters have weaved a complex and rewarding series of narratives that make the message worth listening to again.  When you think about it, the stars of the first part of the film, Luke and Avery, are very much the same.  Both feel guilty about their failures, both as fathers and as sons.  Their attempts to rectify these failures lead them both to tragic, and perhaps inevitable, circumstances.

picEven when plot contrivances start to rear their ugly head (especially during the third part of the film), the movie never came across as feeling overly calculated.  A lot of this has to do with the performances, which help ground the characters in reality.  Gosling, Cooper, and Mendes all make for attractive melodrama figures.  They know how to play this material, so that it is never heavy-handed or sentimental.  The performances let us know that we are in good hands, and they don't disappoint.  Actually, Cianfrance lets us know we are in very good hands right from the opening scene of the film, which is an unbroken, extended tracking shot of Luke making his way through the carnival grounds to the tent where he will be performing.  When you open your film with a shot like that, you automatically set up expectations.  This one manages to fulfill just about each and every one.

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It's often been said that a great movie can never be long enough, whereas a bad one can never be short enough.  The Place Beyond the Pines proves this, as its 140 minute running time had me captivated from beginning to end.  I've sat through 70 minute films that felt longer than this.  Not a single minute is wasted, no performance hits a wrong note, and each leap in the plot to a different focus makes sense.  This is an astonishing film, and easily the best film of 2013 so far.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Oblivion

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I walked into Oblivion expecting a fun, fast-paced Sci-Fi thriller, and instead got something even better.  Oblivion is a movie that's actually about ideas, and interested in the world its set in.  Yes, the film is very derivative of past movies just like it, and I'm sure audiences will be picking this plot apart for years to come.  But I got involved in the plot, the characters, and its post apocalyptic depiction of Earth.  Besides, it's kind of nice to have a mainstream Sci-Fi film that doesn't exist simply to be a tech demo for special effects, or a commercial for a tie-in video game.

picOblivion is a somewhat leisurely-paced (though never boring) story that asks questions about love, humanity, and how our memories can shape us.  The screenplay (which is based on a graphic novel) actually takes the time to ponder these questions, and let them sink in with the audience.  The obvious question then naturally becomes, how will the audience respond to this?  The studio is promoting the film as a big special effects spectacular starring Tom Cruise.  And while it certainly can't be accused of false advertising (Cruise is as likable as ever here, and the special effects and action set pieces are truly first rate), some may be left restless by how dialogue heavy the film can be at times.  Will this hurt its chances at the box office?  I honestly cannot say.  While it has more than its share of starship battles and narrow escapes, it seems to share more in common with Moon (the 2009 indie film starring Sam Rockwell) than with Star Wars.

picThe plot is set in 2077, and we find that Earth has largely been destroyed and abandoned after a war with a violent alien race some 60 years ago.  Despite winning the war, humanity has left Earth behind, and headed for the distant moon of Titan to start a new life.  The aliens who invaded still stalk the Earth, however, and so flying robot battle drones patrol the Earth, seeking out and destroying the surviving invaders.  Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is one of the few humans left on Earth.  His job is to maintain and repair the drones that get shot down by the aliens, and to also watch over massive power stations that are funneling Earth's natural resources, and converting it to energy to be sent to Titan.  His partner is Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who monitors him from the building that serves as their base of operations and their home, and receives orders from Sally (Melissa Leo), who resides on Titan and watches Jack's progress with great interest.

picAs the film opens, Jack and Victoria's mission is almost over.  In two weeks, they will be sent to Titan.  Victoria is anxious to head to the new world, but Jack still holds fond memories of Earth.  He even has built for himself a refuge with some of his favorite old things from Earth culture in an abandoned old cabin that Victoria does not know about.  What's more, Jack is being haunted by dreams that seem more like memories which concern the Empire State Building, and a mysterious woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko) whom he feels he should know, but doesn't know why.  I feel I should tread lightly when it comes to the plot from this point on, as Oblivion is a movie designed to turn itself on its head.  It delights in switching around everything you think you know, which can be dangerous in a movie, or come across as a cheap gimmick in the wrong hands.  Here, the surprises in the plot work.  I was genuinely interested in the reveals.  I can't say much more than that, however.  I can't even talk about the role Morgan Freeman (who, despite getting second billing, is only in the film for about 15 minutes) plays, less I dive head-first into spoiler territory.

picWhat I can talk about in more detail is the look of the film.  With the help of a healthy budget, director and co-writer Joseph Kosinski (2010's Tron Legacy) has created a very realistic depiction of a destroyed Earth, even putting to good use some famous landmarks, such as Pentagon, the previously mentioned Empire State Building, and the Brooklyn Bridge.  He also flawlessly executes some CG-heavy action scenes, and gives us some interesting set pieces, such as the ruins of a public library that is now buried under the ground.  I was intrigued by this world, and was glad to realize that the movie shared in my interest, and allowed for some scenes where the characters explore these settings, rather than simply using them as a backdrop for one shootout after another.  I also just liked the design of the technology - the small ship that Jack uses to fly across the scorched earth, the flying robot drones that scout the land, and the home that Jack and Victoria share.  There's some very well thought out hi-tech designs here.

picBut what I think sets Oblivion above being just a fun Sci-Fi thriller is the chemistry between Cruise and Kurylenko.  As the film went on, I found myself greatly involved in the relationship that builds, and how they play off one another.  Once again, I find myself in a position where I have to tread lightly with my explanations.  All I can say is that this chemistry is key to the film's success, since the entire second half of the movie is based around it.  If there was no spark, or no reason for us to care about them, the entire movie would have fallen flat on its face.  Fortunately, this is not the case.  Kurylenko is a Russian actress who's been working in films for a while now, but her performance here with her expressful face is a real stand out.  She's not only a natural beauty, but her performance gives much of the film its heart.

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It must be said, Oblivion does draw heavily on past Sci-Fi films.  I'm sure fans familiar with the genre will be spotting references and "tributes" left and right.  But, it's also a movie filled with actual ideas, and a central relationship that I really got behind.  It might seem a bit too ambitious at times, but hey, at least it has ambition.  That's more than you can say for a lot of 2013's releases so far.

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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Scary Movie 5

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When did film parodies actually stop being parodies, and simply become recreations of hit films that just happen to have some bathroom and dick humor added to the scenes?  Actually, I think it was right around the time the original Scary Movie hit back in 2000.  So, you can't really blame Scary Movie 5 for not breaking tradition.  You can, however, blame it for being lazy, incompetently made, poorly written, and a total dead zone of a comedy.  Even with a running time of just 75 minutes (plus an extended 5 minutes of outtakes and bloopers during the end credits to stretch the film to the minimum feature length of 80), there were many moments where I felt trapped while watching the movie, and felt as if it would never end.

picThe film opens with Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan giving pointless cameos as themselves as they prepare to make a sex tape together.  The scene is supposed to show both Sheen and Lohan being good sports and parodying their real-life problems, but it's really kind of depressing, and only ends up showing how low they will go for money.  Anyway, it turns out the house they're filming the sex tape in is haunted.  Lohan becomes possessed by a demon, and kills Charlie.  We then get a Narration, provided by a voice who sounds an awfully lot like Morgan Freeman.  In fact, watching the film, I thought it actually was him, and was going to knock the film for not giving him anything funny to do.  I learned from a friend, however, that the narration is actually provided by Josh Robert Thompson, who does a dead-on impersonation.  Still doesn't excuse the movie for not giving him anything funny to do.  Through the Narrator, we learn that the demon that possessed Lindsay Lohan kidnapped Charlie's three children, and took them to a cabin in the woods.

picThe children are discovered by Snoop Dogg (yet another cameo), who returns them to society.  The kids are placed in the care of Charlie's brother, Dan (Simon Rex), and his punk rocker girlfriend, Jody (Ashley Tisdale).  They move to a house in the suburbs, where they quickly learn that the demonic entity that was taking care of the children while they were living alone in the woods is now haunting their home.  They set up a high tech video security system so that they can record the paranormal activity in their home.  Meanwhile, Dan gets a job at a science lab, where he works on an experiment with a highly intelligent ape named Caesar.  As for Jody, she takes up ballet, and winds up getting the lead in a production of Swan Lake, which puts her at odds with rival dancer, Kendra (Erica Ash), and the alcoholic aging former star of the dance group, Heather (Molly Shannon).  There's also a Book of Evil worked into the plot, which may hold the secret to destroying the evil demon that haunts their home.

picSo, Scary Movie 5 is essentially a mash up of Mama, Paranormal Activity, Black Swan, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and even the Evil Dead remake from just one week ago.  If you're wondering how the movie can parody a film that had not come out yet while it was being made, supposedly there were massive reshoots on this thing the past couple months, and they based a lot of the Evil Dead stuff on the trailers.  For good measure, the movie also includes small nods to Sinister, Inception, and 50 Shades of Gray.  That's an impressive array of targets for one spoof to be taking aim at.  Don't be too impressed, however, as it misses on every gag it tries to squeeze from its sources.  This movie's main source of satire is to take recognizable scenes from the many movies it takes inspiration from, and then fill them with jokes about sex, bodily fluids, or lame sight gags.  You can easily find more cutting satire in just about any average issue of Mad Magazine.

picNot only is the movie just plain not funny, it's badly made as well.  One thing that annoyed me throughout the film is how the lips of the actors often don't synch to the dialogue.  This may be the result of the film going through extensive reshoots early in the year to throw in the references to Mama and Evil Dead.  Regardless, it was a big distraction for me.  Another distraction are the horrible special effects.  Yes, I know, it's a low budget spoof movie, and I should probably go easy on it.  But, I'm sorry, if you're going to expect audiences to pay full ticket price, the least you can do is get an ape suit that doesn't look like it came from someone's attic.  You also get the sense watching this film that director Malcolm D. Lee has no sense of comic timing, given how his scenes often have no pay off.  Of course, anyone who has seen his much better spoof film, Undercover Brother, knows this is not true.  Maybe he was having an off day?

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Scary Movie 5 doesn't seem to be trying in any way, which makes it all the more depressing of an experience.  I would say that maybe really little kids will find it funny, but they shouldn't be watching this movie anyway, as it pushes the limits of a PG-13 with its gross out gags and sexual references.  It's too dumb and juvenile for adults, yet too vulgar for kids.  It's a movie made for no one, and therefore, no one should see it.

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Friday, April 12, 2013

42

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In bringing the story of Jackie Robinson to the big screen, writer-director Brian Helgeland treats his central figure as a stoic, but distant icon.  42 puts much of its focus on Robinson suffering the various slings and arrows of racism as he becomes the first black man to play professional baseball for the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers.  In fact, it puts so much focus on this aspect, it almost completely forgets about Robinson's accomplishments on the field that season, as well.

picWatching the movie, I felt like huge chunks of the story had been ripped out.  Jackie Robinsin is played very well by Chadwick Boseman, but to what end?  We learn so little about him, he remains an enigma for almost the entire film.  He's recruited early in the film by Brooklyn Dodges General Manger Branch Rickey, who as portrayed by Harrison Ford, comes across as a cartoonish cigar-chomping old coot who would be right at home if Hollywood ever does a remake of Grumpy Old Men.  We don't even fully learn Branch's reasons for recruiting Jackie until late in the film.  This is a movie that is made up out of historical settings, practice games, and brief snippets of actual games that give us absolutely no sense of the team, or even Robinson's skill as a player.  When one of his teammates tells Jackie in the locker room that he is carrying the team, I found myself asking why, since we see so little of Jackie actually playing.  We also learn that the Dodgers were having an undefeated season up to that point.  Shame we never get to see them actually win a game until the very last scene.

picInstead, the film focuses on the racial issue that followed Robinson being drafted into the Dodgers.  This does bring about some effective moments, such as when Jackie is forced to hold in his feelings while listening to the insults and taunts from Phillis coach Ben Chatman (Alan Tudyk).  The movie makes much of the point that Robinson was the beginning of a turning point in professional baseball, but once again, it does not dig deep enough.  We don't get a sense of peoples' minds being changed.  That's because the movie is constantly soft with the facts.  It constantly shows Robinson taking the verbal abuse, but seldom shows the effect it had on him.  He simply stands there, defiant, and doesn't go any deeper then that.  True, there is one scene where he breaks down after having to put up with Chatman's abuse while on the field, but outside of that, we never get a real sense of the struggle that Jackie went through in his first year.

pic42 continuously whitewashes over the details, turning people who should be important figures in the film into well-meaning, but uninteresting caricatures.  Jackie's wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), was obviously a key player in keeping her husband strong during the times the world felt like it was against him, but you wouldn't know it here.  Despite a fine performance from Beharie, she's not given a character to play.  Rachel's main role in the story is to sit in the bleachers, clapping for her husband, or holding their baby as she watches her husband play.  She gets to say a couple inspiring speeches that help keep her husband going, but that's about it.  We learn nothing about their relationship, or what they really meant to each other.  I'm sure she was just as supportive as she comes across in this movie, but surely she must have worried about her husband, or faced some of the same backlash he did.  None of this comes through in the movie.

picWe keep on seeing various moments from Jackie's life and career, but none of them resonate, because Helgeland's screenplay simply checks off these moments with little to no emotional impact.  We know they are important, but we're seldom given any context.  A good example is when the team's manager is caught in a sex scandal, and has to be let go.  This would seem significant, but in this movie, it's barely touched upon, we don't really learn the impact it had on the players, and it's resolved with no consequence just a couple scenes later.  What did the players think about the old manager being let go?  What did they think of the new guy?  Heck, what did Jackie think?  This movie doesn't care.  It tells its story in such a breezy manner that we seldom learn what any of these people think about any of the events going on around them.  These are characters who know they're in a docu-drama.  They know that we can just go home and look up information on these people at home on line and in books.  They don't have to tell us anything except the bare facts.  We're expected to fill in the blanks for ourselves.  I can live with that normally, but this movie leaves so many aspects of these people blank that they don't feel like people to start with. 

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42 is a well-made movie, and it's generally well-acted, outside of Ford's somewhat over-the-top performance.  The problem lies strictly on the script level.  It's so busy hammering home its message of racial equality that it pretty much brushes aside every other aspect of Jackie Robinson's life.  Even the sequence at the end that tells us what happened to these people after the movie leaves off doesn't really fill us in all that much.  This is an overall disappointing film that has a few fleeting moments of inspiration that is brought down by some very clunky storytelling.

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Friday, April 05, 2013

Evil Dead

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One year after Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard gave us their masterful tribute to horror, The Cabin in the Woods, we get a remake of what is perhaps the essential "cabin in the woods" horror film of the past 30 years - Evil Dead.  The original launched the career of a young filmmaker named Sam Raimi, and started its star Bruce Campbell on the way to legendary cult status.  Something tells me this movie won't have the same effect for its director, or for anyone in its cast.  It's slicker, sleeker, and definitely a lot sicker than Raimi's film.  But it's also kind of hollow, and certainly not as imaginative.

picThis is a remake that has had all the fun, atmosphere, terror, and memorable characters removed from the equation.  What else is there?  Well, a lot of well-executed gore.  Done with pretty much all practical effects and as little CG as possible (if any), the blood and gore effects are certainly something to behold.  A person's tongue is split by a knife, chunks of flesh and facial tissue are removed, appendages are chopped off with wild abandon, and the blood flows so freely, it's literally raining from the skies by the time the climax comes around.  How the movie avoided an NC-17 in its present state is a mystery, and yet another notch in the MPAA Hall of Shame.  It's obvious that first time director, Fede Alvarez, has a knack for this kind of shock imagery.  Now all he needs is to learn how to generate terror in his films, because as bloody as the thing is, it's just not scary in the slightest.  That's because behind all the severed limbs and screaming demonic ghouls, there's just no soul to this picture, and absolutely nothing to care about.

picWhile there have been some changes made, for the most part, the basic premise remains the same.  Five college friends have arrived at an old cabin for the weekend in an effort to help one of the group, a young girl named Mia (Jane Levy), kick a drug habit.  The other members of the group include Mia's emotionally distant older brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez), friendly nurse Olivia (Jessica Lucas), David's girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and Kurt Cobain lookalike, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci).  The weekend is not going well, as Mia seems to be having a harsh reaction to kicking drugs cold turkey.  Things get even worse when the group's dog uncovers a trail of blood leading to a cellar door.  Said door leads to a room full of dead cats hanging on hooks, signs of some kind of ancient ritual, and a creepy looking book made from human skin that contains various spells for summoning demons and beasts, as well as handwritten warnings scrawled across its pages not to read the book.

picNaturally, Eric winds up reading the book, and even reads the ancient scripture that is supposed to summon the ancient demons out loud to himself as he glances over the forbidden tome.  Did I mention that the characters in this movie are as dumb as dirt, and constantly make bad decisions just so there can even be a movie in the first place?  The evil is summoned, possesses Mia, and soon everyone is dying in a lot of nasty and elaborate ways.  The movie telegraphs some of its violence in not so subtle ways.  At one point early in the film, we get a close up of Natalie carving raw, bloody meat with an electric meat cutter.  Why, you ask?  Because later on, she'll be using that same device to chop off her own arm when it becomes possessed by the evil spirit and starts to rot away.  And it's also established early on that Olivia the nurse carries a lot of needles in her little medical bag.  How much money you want to bet she'll be using those needles for torture instead of medical uses long before the credits come?

picEvil Dead lacks a character we can get attached to, or a meaning to exist outside of being a technical demo for gory special effects.  Since Ash, the lead character from the original movie has been removed, we don't have anyone we can root for.  All five of the young people staying in the cabin are written as being incredibly stupid, and some even lack the most basic of character traits.  That's because director Alvarez only cares about the bodily fluids splattering on the walls, floors, ceiling, whatever.  He couldn't care about raising tension, building character, or giving us something to care about.  He's all about the "money shot", and that's all this movie is.  One messy scene of killing and torture after another.  There are some tiny bits of dark humor sprinkled here and there, but they are nowhere near as clever as the humor touches in the earlier films.

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This movie obviously wants to be an endurance test.  Can you watch it all the way through?  Can you handle all the images of torture and disembowelment?  I actually had no trouble.  In fact, the movie became kind of boring once I realized there wasn't really anything behind it, and it was just another empty and unnecessary remake.  Even when the film starts to go in a different direction from the original during the end, it's still not that interesting or exciting.  This is what happens when you pump up the violence, and decrease everything else that made the earlier film work.  You get a bloody film with no heart.

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Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The Host

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Based on the novel by Twilight creator, Stephanie Meyer, and adapted for the screen and directed by Andrew Niccol (In Time), The Host starts out kind of intriguing, but then kind of runs out of gas.  It's rejuvenated only by its moments of unintentional goofiness.  This is not exactly a good movie, but it's kind of amusing in that bizarre kind of way.  At least it's more interesting than anything that was featured in the Twilight Saga.

picThe intriguing stuff I mentioned earlier is all in the set up.  Set during an unspecified time (but presumably the near future), Earth has been invaded by a race of aliens known as Souls.  The Souls take over human bodies, and use them as hosts.  The only way you can tell a human from one harboring an alien Soul is that the Souls give their host a bright blue ring in their eyeballs.  Most of the human population is now controlled by the Souls, but there are still small pockets of human resistance out there, willing to fight back.  Amongst this resistance movement is a young girl named Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), who has been fighting to protect both herself, and her kid brother.  Early in the film, Melanie is cornered by some Souls, and rather than lose her freedom and her body to the aliens, she attempts suicide by throwing herself out a nearby window.  She survives the fall, however, and her body is implanted with a Soul known only as Wanderer.

picNow that Wanderer is inside and controlling Melanie's body, her job is to search through Melanie's personal memories, learn where the resistance movement is hiding out, and report her findings to an alien superior named Seeker (Diane Kruger).  However, it turns out that Melanie's not entirely dead inside her own body.  Wanderer can often hear Melanie's voice inside of her own head, and there are even moments where Melanie can briefly take control of her old body.  Through Melanie's influence, Wanderer is sent to a cave in the middle of the desert where the human resistance hides out.  There, Wanderer is introduced to Melanie's Uncle Jeb, the leader of the resistance (played by an uncharismatic William Hurt), as well as fellow resistance member and Melanie's former boyfriend, Jared (Max Irons).  The humans are suspicious of Melanie's body now hosting a Soul, but over time, they begin to notice some of Melanie's old mannerisms, and realize that her old personality is still in there somewhere.

picIt's about the time the movie hits the cave that things start to slow down considerably.  After this point, we seldom leave the cave, so we're stuck there for most of the movie.  This is disappointing, as I was really hoping to get to see more of the world under the control of the Souls.  We learn in an opening narration that world peace has essentially been achieved since humanity was taken over.  There are no more wars, no more poverty or hunger, and pollution is a thing of the past.  Wouldn't you like to know what such a world would be like?  Instead, we get a ridiculous "love square" when both personalities inhabiting Melanie's body fall in love with different guys.  Remember how I said Melanie's old boyfriend is a member of the resistance?  Well, the fact that she no longer has total control over her body or personality makes things complicated.  Things get even more complicated when Wanderer (using Melanie's body) starts to fall for a different resistance member, the hunky young Ian (Jake Abel).

picI admit this idea could be interesting in the right hands, but The Host screws everything up by showing us too many scenes where the actress, Saorise Ronan, is just standing there, pretending to have conversations and monologues with herself.  We hear Melanie's voice inside her head, and then Wanderer will respond.  The movie relies on this many, many times, which is unfortunate, since it eventually starts to lead to some bad laughs.  It gets especially ridiculous when the two personalities sharing the body start arguing over the two guys, and who they want to be with.  Funny that neither Melanie or Wanderer come to the same conclusion that the audience does - Neither Jared or Ian is worth all this internal arguing and fighting.  Both guys are handsome, but dull as dish soap.   Melanie and Wanderer deserve better, and would probably keep each other company better than hanging out with these soulless pretty boys.

picOnce the love story kicks in, everything slows to a crawl, and we wish we could turn back time to the earlier scenes when the movie held promise.  Writer-director Andrew Nicoll is a talented filmmaker, who has been involved with a number of films I've admired over the years. (Gattaca, The Truman Show, Lord of War) Here, he seems the most at ease during the early sci-fi scenes.  There's some pretty good tension, and the glowing blue eyes of the humans inhabited by Souls is a subtle yet creepy effect.  Once the action switches to the cave hide out, however, you can just feel everything break down, starting with our involvement in this plot and characters.  I've not read the novel the film is based on, so I don't know if it shares the same problems as the film.  But considering that Stephanie Meyer is credited as lead producer, I have a feeling that Nicoll was forced to stay pretty close.

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The Host is one of those movies that deserves a remake, with a different script, writer, and dialogue.  There's a set up for a good movie here that gets lost around the half hour mark.  It's too bad.  I was actually kind of involved during the first act.  But as the movie dragged on to a rather contrived and forced happy ending, I quickly found myself losing my patience.  This is a largely empty little film with a couple good ideas, but not much else to recommend it.

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