Reel Opinions


Friday, August 30, 2013

Getaway

There's nothing wrong with Getaway that couldn't be fixed by changing three essential things.  Those things would be the following: Firing current director Courtney Solomon (2000's Dungeons & Dragons), and replacing him with a filmmaker who knew how to shoot an action sequence.  Second, hire a competent editor who doesn't feel the need to change the shot every 2 or 3 seconds, and essentially switch back and forth between the same four angles or shots.  Finally, give the script a complete overhaul so that it understands how bad it is, and can have fun with itself, instead of taking itself so deadly seriously. 

Getaway desperately wants to be a summer thrill ride movie, but it's hard to thrill when the direction and editing make it impossible to tell what's going on at times.  It has a high energy feel, but there is just something generic about the whole package.  We get the same rapid and hastily cut images of cars crashing, exploding, or ramming into each other to such a degree that it becomes monotonous.  And yet, I felt a hint of promise at the beginning.  The film's opening scene sets up the scenario in a clear and precise way that wastes absolutely no time.  It's also set at Christmas time, which made me immediately think of some action films from the 1980s that used the holidays to good effect, such as the original Lethal Weapon or Die Hard.  Unfortunately, after that glimmer of hope, it's all downhill.  The story becomes needlessly dumb after an intriguing set up, and the movie could have been set at any time of year, and not been altered, aside from removing some random Christmas music from the soundtrack.

The premise: A former professional race car driver named Brett Magna (Ethan Hawke) returns to his home to find it completely trashed, and his wife missing.  In a black and white flashback, we witness how his wife (Rebecca Budig) was decorating the house for the holidays while he was away, only to have some mysterious assailants break in, beat her, and kidnap her.  Brett receives a call on his phone from a mysterious mastermind whom we never really see, but we learn at the end is played by Jon Voight.  The voice on the phone orders Brett to steal a rare Shelby Super Snake Mustang car from a nearby parking garage, and then recklessly drive about the city in a series of deadly missions if he ever wants to see his wife again.  As the car careened through the city, and was forced to make its way through highly populated parks and areas without slowing down, it eventually took a superhuman effort on my part not to view this movie as some kind of low-rent remake of 1994's Speed.  To further ram the similarity home, there's even a scene where Hawke uses a video loop of himself driving in order to fool the mysterious villain, just like Keanu Reeves did in that earlier movie.

Things become further complicated when, while in the process of driving recklessly around the city, Brett is carjacked by a teenage girl with a gun (Selena Gomez).  She's forced to go along for the ride, and at first, we think she's just a random thug kid who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  However, it soon turns out that she has a connection to both the stolen car, and the ultimate goal that the villain hopes to accomplish before the night is over.  It doesn't really matter, at least not in the screenplay by first-time writers Sean Finegan and Gregg Maxwell Parker.  That's because neither Brett nor the teenage hostage (who is not given a name, and is only referred to as "The Kid" in the credits) are given personalities, interests, or things to talk about outside of the plot.  In fact, they seldom talk to each other at all, as the movie is so dead-set on being a fast-paced thriller, it often forgets to slow down long enough as to explain why these two characters start to bond during the course of the film.

That's really what sinks Getaway.  For all of its non-stop, frantic action, there's nothing to be invested in or care about.  I have no doubt that you could make an exciting movie based on such a bare bones premise.  Heck, it's been done very successfully before.  But there's just such an amateurish feel to this.  Ethan Hawke doesn't so much act, as hold on to one facial expression the entire film.  Jon Voight is literally phoning in his performance for much of the movie.  And Selena Gomez makes another unsuccessful attempt to shed her "Disney girl" teen-friendly image, after Spring Breakers from earlier this year.  In that film, she tried to rely on sex appeal.  This time, she gets to say a lot of forced four-letter words in her dialogue.  Despite this, the movie is PG-13, because all of the on screen violence is so rapidly edited, we barely notice it happening.  Because of this, it's safe for kids and teens to see their favorite Disney Channel star flip people off, and swear like a sailor.

There is one great shot in the movie - It occurs late, and it involves an uncut point of view driving shot that goes on for a full minute or so, and becomes kind of thrilling as it weaves through traffic and stoplights completely uninterrupted.  Considering how inept the rest of the editing is, you wonder if the filmmakers just had a brief lapse of sanity, or if they were just trying to tease us with the kind of movie this kind have been.  By that point, the movie was beyond help, and I was just ready for it to be over.  When something dampens your spirit so much that even a truly impressive shot can't even lift you back up, you know you're just having a bad experience.

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

The World's End

With The World's End, director Edgar Wright and comic stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost conclude their so-called "Cornetto Trilogy", a series of extremely loosely connected films that started with 2004's Shaun of the Dead, continued with 2007's Hot Fuzz, and supposedly ends here.  If this truly is the end for the team, I will say this - While the films may not have the strongest connections between them, they all share one thing in common - They are all tightly written comedies that contain little to no filler, strongly constructed characters, and more heart and warmth than one might initially expect.  For one film alone to have these qualities is something special, but three in a row is almost unheard of.

If Shaun of the Dead parodied zombie movies, and Hot Fuzz mainly targeted buddy cop films, then The World's End can best be described as a spoof of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with perhaps a little bit of The Stepford Wives put in for good measure.  And yet, the word "spoof" doesn't seem to do the movie justice, as it really does so much more than just poke fun at an established movie or genre.  The screenplay by Wright and Penn is well thought out, delivering not just big laughs, but also plenty of character development, and even some genuine emotion and sorrow.  When you stop and think back on the film, there is a kind of vibe of sadness that hovers over the film.  And yet, it does not dampen its attempts at humor, or turn the characters into sad sacks.  This is a highly entertaining and frequently laugh out loud funny film, and were it not for the somewhat similar This is the End, it would probably rank as my favorite comedy of the summer. (Is it odd that two of my favorite comedies this summer revolve around an apocalyptic event that almost wipes out all humanity?)

The film kicks off with Gary King (Simon Pegg), a 40-something guy who's pretty much spent his whole adult life living in the past.  In particular, he's stuck on his memories of one certain night - June 22nd, 1990.  That was the night that he and his closest friends graduated from high school, and embarked on an epic "Pub Crawl", where they dried to drink one pint of beer from all 12 taverns along a route affectionately referred to as the Golden Mile.  They did not succeed in drinking at all 12 bars in a single night, but ever since then, Gary has held onto that one night as a crowning glory.  Pretty much everyone who joined him that night has moved on, and are living regular adult lives.  But Gary refuses to let go of his younger glory days, driving the same car and even listening to the same music that he did back in 1990.

Driven by nostalgia, Gary decides to gather up his friends from way back when, embark on another mission to do what they could not 23 years ago, and visit all 12 taverns.  His friends are reluctant to join him at first, but eventually give in thanks to some manipulation on Gary's part. (He tells them his mother recently passed away, and he wants to reconnect with them.) His friends, who were once his wild high school drinking and garage band buddies, are now straight laced individuals with families and concerns of their own.  They include Pete (Eddie Marsan), who works for his father's auto dealer, Steven (Paddy Considine), a contractor, Oliver (Martin Freeman), a realtor, and Andy (Nick Frost), a lawyer.  Andy, in particular, was once Gary's closest friend, the two being inseparable until a fateful night in their friendship that neither likes to talk about tore them apart.  Regardless, Andy comes along for the ride, and the five friends return to their hometown to embark on Gary's mad quest to recapture the past.

The main message of The World's End is that no matter how hard you try, you really can't go back home, and things will never be the same as you remember them.  However, this movie adds a Sci-Fi twist to that idea.  As they return to the town they grew up in, they immediately sense that something is a little bit off about the people.  Everybody seems way too quiet and mannered, and walks in a stiff, almost programmed way.  Since the film's ad campaign has pretty much already revealed what's going on, I feel it's safe to say here - Almost everyone that the guys grew up with have been replaced with a robot replica in part of an invasion campaign by alien forces.  With the invasion set to spread, the five friends find themselves at the forefront of the battle for humanity.  By the way, the title of this film has a double meaning - It not only refers to the robot apocalypse that is brewing in their sleepy little burg, but it's also the name of the last bar on the legendary pub crawl that Gary is determined to complete, whether or not killer robots are on his tail.

Co-writer and director, Edgar Wright, really is pulling off a difficult juggling act of tone here, as he mixes broad slapstick humor, Sci-Fi horror, emotional scenes between former friends who have long parted ways and probably shouldn't be trying to mend things, and even some expertly staged action sequences that thankfully don't rely on shaky cam, like a lot of movies this summer have.  And then there is the dialogue, which is frequently funny and sharp, but also flies so fast, the film will probably require a second viewing just to get the ones you missed the first time.  This is one of those movies where you sometimes find yourself laughing, and then are kind of disappointed you did, as you wind up missing the next joke.  That's how fast the jokes fly here, and nearly all of them hit.

And yet, this is a much deeper movie than just being a funny comedy.  Like I said, there is an air of sadness in its overall theme of letting go of the past, as well as the obvious dark elements that the robot invasion brings.  The movie even manages to build a small amount of suspense, as you're never really sure how things are going to turn out, or who will make it through the night of the invasion.  These elements really do show the great amount of care and thought that went into the screenplay, and it carries through in the final film, with some wonderful lead performances.  Speaking of the performances, Nick Frost in particular impresses here, as he's mainly playing the straight man, instead of the silly sidekick that he's usually played alongside Pegg in their past films.  He still gets laughs, but there's also some drama to his performance as well, especially during the scenes when he is forced to confront the fateful night in his past with Gary.

This is a movie that surprised me.  I walked in hoping for a funny film, and I got it, but it's also a lot more heartfelt than you might think.  If The World's End is truly the last collaboration between Wright, Pegg and Frost (and I'm hoping it's not), then at least it is a fitting end to a truly great and intelligent comic team.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

You're Next

I am probably not the right person to be reviewing You're Next.  I can admire that the film has been made with a certain degree of skill (though I wish the camera didn't shake around so much in certain scenes), but this just wasn't made for me.  This movie is for those of you who have a soft spot in your hearts for those late 70s and early 80s slasher films, where a bunch of people gather in one place, and then are picked off one-by-one by masked killers.  If that's all the plot you need, and you judge your horror movies by their gore content, then by all means, ignore this review, find the nearest theater, and go have the time of your life.  I won't stop you.

Those of you who ask for a little bit more, you might be a little disappointed, as I was.  Maybe it's just a result of bad timing.  This is the second home invasion horror film we've had in two months (the other being The Purge, back in June).  This is not the fault of the filmmakers, as You're Next was actually filmed and completed two years ago, and has been looking for distribution since then.  But mostly, there's just not a lot to the film once you start looking beneath the surface.  Yes, there are some clever ideas, some moments of dark humor, and a lead heroine who's a lot better and smarter than the type we normally get in these kind of movies.  But the whole thing just didn't add up to a lot for me.  Please don't read this review as me saying that this is a bad movie, as it's certainly not.  Rather, I would say that this simply didn't do it for me, although I did admire it to an extent.

The plot, as expected and explained earlier, is simply an excuse to gather a bunch of people in one place so they can be hunted.  In this case, the victims are the Davison family, who have gathered to celebrate the 35th wedding anniversary of their parents, Paul (Rob Moran) and Aubrey (Barbara Crampton).  Their four adult children arrive, along with their individual boyfriends and girlfriends, and get set for what is supposed to be a restful family reunion weekend.  However, it doesn't take long for pent-up sibling rivalry to flare up amongst the Davison siblings, especially when the family gathers for dinner the first night they're all together.  The family dispute is interrupted when an arrow from a crossbow suddenly comes flying in through a nearby window, piercing itself into the skull of one of the dinner guests.  I hate when that happens.

Turns out the house is being staked out by three mysterious killers who hide their identities behind crudely made animal masks (a fox, a lamb, and a tiger).  They've not only rigged the outside of the home with deadly traps, but they've managed to get inside the house, and seem hell-bent on killing everyone within.  That's where our lead heroine, Erin (Sharni Vinson) comes in.  She came to the Davison place as the date of one of the sons.  When the killers show up, and everyone around starts getting bumped off, she gets to show her stuff, and proves herself more than capable in holding her own against the home invaders.  Turns out she has a secret past that she hasn't really told her boyfriend.

Not only is Erin the most likable character in the film, but she's also the most original element of You're Next.  She is what is commonly referred to as the "final girl" in these kind of movies, as she usually has to stand alone against the masked madman (or madmen, in this case) in the climax.  And yet, while she fills this role, she's also very different from what we usually get.  She's strong and assertive almost from the moment things start to go wrong.  When everyone else starts panicking, she takes charge, and pretty much leads the charge in fighting back.  This makes sense when we find out about her background, which I won't reveal here.  Also, she mostly makes smart decisions during the course of the film, which is a rarity in this genre.  But don't worry, the screenplay still does play by the basic rules of a slasher movie, by having everyone around her making incredibly stupid decisions, and lurking in dark places alone when they should have stuck with the group. 

Outside of a surprisingly strong female lead, there's not a lot that stands out here.  It's a fairly routine home invasion movie that would have been right at home in the late 70s and early 80s heyday of the slasher movie.  In fact, were it not for some modern day references to cell phones here and there, I wouldn't be surprised if this wasn't some script from that time that got dug up.  I guess I should complement screenwriter Simon Barrett on being faithful to the kind of films he's emulating here.  I can sense the enthusiasm with which this movie was made, but it simply didn't speak to me, as I don't have that particular kind of nostalgia that the filmmakers possess.  This movie was made for a certain audience, and while I am not a part of it, I can at least respect it, and understand that this will be a great experience for those of you who are a part of it.

So, while You're Next was not made for me, I have no doubt it will have its legions of fans.  Heck, it's probably the best-made example of its kind since the original Scream back in 1996.  This movie didn't do a lot for me, but it might for you.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Poor Clary Fray (Lily Collins) is having a really bad day.  While she's out at a dance club with her best friend, the geeky movie-referencing Simon (Robert Sheehan), she happens to witness a murder.  Weird thing is, she's the only one who seems to have seen it, as when she tries to point out what's going on to her friend, he sees nothing.  To make it even more creepy, one of those guys she saw at the nightclub starts following her around.  Good thing he's a hunky blonde dreamboat with smoldering looks and a British accent, or Clary might actually be in trouble.  As we all know, in movies targeted at teen girls, mysterious handsome boys with dreamy accents are never dangerous.

The stranger is named Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower), who is surprised that Clary can see him, as he is a "shadow hunter", and cannot usually be seen by normal people ("mundanes", as they're called in this movie).  It turns out that shadow hunters spend their days killing demons that can disguise themselves as humans, dogs, or whatever they please.  So, why is he visible to Clary, then?  Before those answers come, Clary gets a frantic phone call from her mother as their apartment is being ransacked by home invaders who are looking for a magical goblet that her mother has supposedly hidden from evil forces.  Turns out her mom's in on this whole shadow hunter business, and hasn't been very open with Clary.  Mother tells her daughter not to come home, but Clary does anyway, and finds her mom gone.  Good thing the crazy woman who lives in the apartment downstairs (CCH Pounder) is actually a witch who knows a thing or two about these shadow hunters, and can send Clary and Jace on a quest where they can find some answers.

Yes, it turns out that not only do demons walk amongst us, but so do witches, warlocks, vampires, werewolves, and just about any other mystical monster you could think of.  Clary is introduced to this secret world when Jace takes her to "the institute", where the shadow hunters live.  They dress in a lot of black leather, and draw runes on their skin that allows them to use magic powers against the forces of darkness.  Speaking of the forces of darkness, they're working for a rogue shadow hunter named Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who wants that mystical goblet that Clary's mom was apparently protecting.  Why he wants it, we don't completely know yet, unless we have read the series of books by Cassandra Clare.  In fact, as the events unfold, we don't know a lot of things.  It's pretty much a prerequisite that you must be up on the books in order to enjoy this movie, or sometimes even understand what the heck is supposed to be happening.  The true success of any adaptation is that it should not only please those familiar with the original source, but also build interest in those unfamiliar.  This is ultimately why The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones largely fails.

City of Bones is the latest "young adult" book phenomenon to be adapted into a movie, hoping to ride the tails of the Twilight and Hunger Games franchises to massive success.  The studio is so confident in this movie's success, they've already greenlit the second film, set to be released next year.  In adapting the original book in the series, first-time screenwriter Jessica Postigo crams the dialogue with as much exposition as she possibly can.  Oddly enough, the more the movie tried to explain itself, the more confused I became.  Even with a running time that stretches past two hours, this thing feels needlessly complicated.  There are so many characters, so many different races of monsters, and so much information to take in that it just gets overloaded.  It doesn't help that the pace of this film is lethargically slow.  Apparently these people are in no rush to save the world or find out what happened to Clary's mom, as they have plenty of time to stand around, talking in drawn-out conversations that seem needlessly wordy at times.

It's obvious that the movie wants to be a story of female empowerment, as the frightened teenager Clary realizes her destiny, and begins to take her stand against evil amongst the shadow hunters.  Yet, even this is clumsily handled here, as we never get a sense of her transformation.  Part of this is due to the underwhelming performance of Lily Collins in the role (who is attractive to look at, but less convincing in her portrayal), but I think a big part of the blame should be laid at the feet of the screenplay, which doesn't even give Clary an opportunity to react to this strange new world of hidden monsters that she's discovered.  I mean, you would think that discovering the secret society of shadow hunters would at least elicit a "wow" out of anyone, but not Clary, who acts as a tool of the plot, simply moving from one point to the next.  Even the love triangle that develops between her, the sexy and mysterious Jace, and her best friend Simon feels limp here, and certainly offers no dramatic tension. (Gee, do you think she'll end up with the handsome and rugged British guy, or the dorky guy with glasses who likes to quote movies like Close Encounters and Ghostbusters?)

And if you're going to build your movie around a secret fantasy world that exists within our own, why make it so darn dark and ugly looking?  A good majority of this movie is shot in abandoned hotels, murky hallways, and dark corridors.  There is one moment in the film that I think is supposed to be beautiful and magical (a romantic moment between Clary and Jace in a magical flower garden), but even that is underwhelming, and mostly serves to highlight a forgettable pop song on the soundtrack album.  Not even the characters generate much interest, save for one moment where it is hinted that one of the shadow hunters may in fact be gay.  This grabbed my attention, as it would be the first time a movie based on a young adult novel would actually acknowledge a homosexual relationship.  However, it was not to be, as it's immediately dropped as soon as its brought up.  And here I was hoping the genre was going to grow up a little.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is uninspired in just about every way imaginable - performances, characterization, and plotting.  There's opportunity for fun, or at least intrigue, but the movie misses every opportunity.  Even with some small bits of humor scattered throughout, this is a largely joyless and drab film to sit through.  This movie is only for those who are completely enamored with the books, and even they probably deserve better than this.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Butler

As an examination of the Civil Rights movement, The Butler is effective enough, but constantly is sidetracked by distracting celebrity cameos appearing as different U.S. Presidents.  Where the movie finds its real strength (and what ultimately won me over), was its depiction of the central father and son relationship, and the turmoil it endures as the decades and famous American events pass by.  The movie's heart ultimately beats whatever odd casting decisions the movie may throw at us.

Loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, an actual butler who served at the White House under eight different Presidents, The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines, who starts the film off as a small boy working on a Southern Plantation in the 1920s.  After watching one of the cruel owners of the Plantation have his way with Cecil's mom and shooting his father down right there in the cotton fields, Cecil is invited by house matriarch, Annabelle (Vanessa Redgrave), to work inside the house instead.  As an adult (now played by Forest Whitaker, in a great performance), Cecil leaves the Plantation and gets a job at a luxury hotel in Washington D.C., where he learns how to anticipate the needs of the guests.  He is discovered by someone who works at the White House who becomes so impressed with the service Cecil provides that he offers him a job as one of the President's personal butlers.

As Cecil serves in the White House, working for every President between Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Reagan (Alan Rickman), he also tries to keep order in his increasingly turbulent home.  His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) resents all the time he spends on his job, and turns to drinking, as well as possibly the company of another man (Terrance Howard).  And of his two sons, one chooses to serve his country in Vietnam, while the other, eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo), goes to college, and becomes involved in the Civil Rights movement.  Through his son's eyes, we witness peaceful protests, lynchings and beatings of blacks demanding equal rights, and ultimately, the radicalization of the movement, leading to Louis' involvement in the Black Panthers.  The rift that grows between father and son expands over the decades, until both men have grown so far apart, they're not even part of their lives anymore.

It's been widely reported that much of what happens within the film was highly dramatized and is essentially fiction, except for the scenes within the White House.   It would certainly seem that screenwriter Danny Strong was certainly more interested in the fabrication rather than the facts, as the scenes within the White House don't hold up as well.  They're not bad in theory, or how they've been written.  It's the annoying stunt casting that took me out of these scenes.  Each of the Presidents Cecil works for is played by a celebrity name actor, and these range from the adequate (James Marsden as Kennedy), to the downright baffling (John Cusack as Richard Nixon.) I don't exactly require an exact replica of a political figure in my movies.  Heck, I remember the great performance Frank Langella gave as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, and he looked nothing like the guy!  But seeing Cusack as Nixon not only takes us completely out of the movie by not looking like him, it's just a generally bad performance all around.  In the history of bad casting choices to play historical figures, Cusack as Nixon ranks right up there with John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in The Conqueror.

What ultimately saves The Butler from any missteps that occur within the White House scenes are the scenes that take place within Cecil's home.  There is the subplot concerning his wife, Gloria, and how she feels unappreciated by her husband.  This is effective, and features a great performance by Winfrey.  However, the real drama is delivered in the relationship between Cecil and his son, Louis.  They are men who were raised in different ideals.  Cecil believes in not causing trouble, and simply working hard, having been a servant most of his life.  His son, on the other hand, wants to take a stand, and be a part of different movements.  This leads to him being incarcerated in prison numerous times over the decades the film covers, and Cecil becoming increasingly frustrated with his son's actions.  After losing his other son to war, Cecil becomes even more distant to Louis, until the two are no longer talking.  This depiction of a family being effected by the Civil Rights Movements may be somewhat formulaic, but it rings true, and hits all the right notes with its performances.

It's actually the lead performance by Forest Whitaker that carries the entire film.  He brings a quiet elegance, as well as quite a bit of emotional power in some of his more confrontational scenes with David Oyelowo, playing Louis.  Even when Whitaker is hidden underneath some effective old age make up during his later scenes, he still conveys the right emotions, and doesn't let his performance get lost amongst the latex he's forced to wear.  There's been some Awards talk about the film, and while I personally don't think the film itself is quite strong enough to be remembered come Oscar time, I do hope that Whitaker at least gets a mention.  This is some of his best work in a while, and it deserves the recognition and buzz that it has been building.

The Butler really is a movie in two parts - One covers the changing politics within the White House over the passing decades, while the other focuses on a home that becomes divided by a national movement.  Had the script just focused on the stuff at home, or maybe just not gone with the stunt casting approach when it came to depicting the Presidents, this would have been a much better movie.  As it is, there's still more than enough here to recommend, especially when it comes to the lead performances. 

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Jobs

Here is a movie that pulls off the neat trick of being better than I thought it would be, while simultaneously also being as disappointing as I feared it would.  As a bio-picture on the man behind Apple Computers, Jobs is about as standard as you could think.  It selects bits and pieces of certain moments from Steve Jobs' life, giving us very little to go on for what happened in-between.  If the film feels rushed, that's probably because it was. (The film went into production a mere six months after he died.) And yet, we also have some very nice individual moments throughout, and a surprisingly captivating performance by Ashton Kutcher in the title role.  It even manages to be compelling at times.  But it can't escape its scattershot and sometimes random story structure.

The movie tries to pick and choose the key events of Jobs' life from the time he was in college, right up to about the start of the 21st Century.  Given the roughly two hour time frame, this is tricky, but not impossible.  There have been very successful movies that have managed to cover the great moments of a figure's life, but this isn't one of them.  Perhaps an approach similar to last year's Lincoln, which centered on a specific time of President Lincoln's life, rather than cover his whole story, would have worked better here.  It might have made things less confusing.  There's a real lack of a sense of time in this film, as we jump from one major event to the next.  Some of the jumps are even oddly unexplained.  For example, at one point late in the film, we're suddenly introduced to his wife and son, even though we have never seen them before up to that point.  And in that same scene, a daughter he had with another woman that he had refused to acknowledge up to that point in the film, is suddenly sleeping on his couch with absolutely no explanation whatsoever, nor do we see or hear from her ever again after that.  I don't think that the script by Matt Whiteley is to blame here, as I have a strong hunch that this film was severely edited before it hit screens.

Even with a flimsy and sometimes incoherent grasp on the events of its topic's life, the one thing that holds this film together is the performance by Ashton Kutcher, who not only looks like him in certain scenes, but even has the man's mannerisms down.  Kutcher has never been a favorite of mine, and I was very worried when I heard the casting initially.  However, he manages to capture the charisma and the passion of Steve Jobs.  I also admired that the film is not a complete fluff piece.  While it certainly celebrates him, it also takes time to focus on the fact that he was not an easy person to work for, had a hard time relating with others, was quick to fits of verbal rage, and drove some people who were close to him away.  And yet, because we feel like we are only getting bits and pieces of the guy's life during a roughly 25 year time span, the characterization never feels as complete as it should.  Kutcher looks, moves, and acts like the man he's supposed to be portraying, but he's still not a total character, even if it's through no fault of his own.

For the first 20 minutes or so, Jobs is quite shaky as it centers on his college years, with him doing drugs, having sex, and slowly building the philosophy that will be the basis of his adult life.  It's not until he partners up with Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad from Broadway's Book of Mormon), first on a video game project for Atari, and then on the idea that would eventually become Apple Computers that the movie starts to take shape a little.  Apple is initially a struggling start up company based in the garage of Jobs' parent's house.  But, when financial investor Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney) gets involved, the company is able to become a reality, as well as a real force in the industry.  As the years pass, and Jobs becomes more passionate about creativity and doing what nobody else is doing, the board of directors at Apple (represented by J.K. Simmons) begin to grow nervous, thinking that his methods is costing the company a fortune in delayed and disappointing products.  He is fired, only to be brought back some 10 years later, when the company is on the verge of becoming a memory.  With Jobs' guidance, Apple Computers grows into the juggernaut corporation that it is today.

Even if it does cover some important elements of the story, and makes a convincing argument on how far computers have come in the home in a short time, from a curiosity to a necessity, Jobs still feels like it is missing some vital details.  Anyone hoping to see Steve Jobs' reaction to the launch of Windows that basically copied his design plan will be disappointed that aside from a quick scene where he makes an angry call to Bill Gates, it's not really addressed. (For those interested, there is a very good TV movie on this subject called The Pirates of Silicon Valley.) That said, even if the movie does feel incomplete, and many events are supposedly fabricated (as many of the people involved in the real story claim), Jobs does still entertain on a very basic level.  It's an interesting story to begin with, and even when it is imperfectly told, it can still captivate at times.  At least, it did for me.  At the very least, the performances were enough to hold my attention.  While Kutcher impresses, I also have to point out the performance Josh Gad gives as Wozniak, who makes him very sympathetic.

I've heard talk that there is another movie about Steve Jobs somewhere in the pipeline.  I can only hope that the filmmakers behind that project will use this as an example, not to follow, but to maybe see what blanks they need to fill in when it comes to the storytelling.  This is a well made and well-acted film that, due to the fact it was rushed into production, ultimately comes across as a C-grade research paper.

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Kick-Ass 2

When my screening of Kick-Ass 2 got out, I couldn't put my finger on it right away, but it seemed like a very different movie from the first.  The original 2010 film was an edgy, extremely dark, hard-R action comedy that tried to put superhero movies in a somewhat more realistic focus. (This goal was somewhat betrayed by having an 11-year-old girl wiping out an entire room full of hired goons, and a major character meeting his end with a bazooka missile.) The sequel still has some very over the top violence, and yet, the movie seems a little bit lighter and kind of oddly sweeter than before.  It's almost as if writer-director Jeff Wadlow (Never Back Down) is trying to make the world of Kick-Ass into a live action cartoon at times.

This is also a very crowded sequel.  I understand that the basic idea of a sequel is to go bigger than the first, but Wadlow crams his narrative with so many characters, plots and ideas that it's a little overwhelming.  None of the ideas that make it in are bad ones, exactly.  They just seem to constantly be competing with each other for our attention.  I have not read the original graphic novel by Mark Millar, so I don't know if this is something that carried over from the source material or not.  All I know is that the movie kept on kind of drawing me in by bringing up an interesting plot or character, only to disappoint me with a half-assed conclusion.  I have a feeling that the filmmakers were trying for a somewhat more human and emotional approach than the first.  But due to the overflow in the narrative, it doesn't work as well as intended.

Let's start with our two returning heroes, Dave/Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Mindy/Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz).  In the three years since the events of the first film, Dave has seen a number of regular people taking inspiration from him, and taking on superhero personas so that they can help out others.  He's giving serious thought to adopting his Kick-Ass alter ego once again, and hitting the streets.  To do so, he turns to Mindy, who has been keeping the streets safe as Hit-Girl, carrying on the legacy and the name of her late father.  Unfortunately, right about the time that Dave and Mindy think about becoming a team, Mindy's concerned parental guardian, Police Detective Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut), lays down the law with the girl he's been placed in care of.  He doesn't want Mindy throwing herself into danger, and would rather she have a normal teenage life as she starts high school.  Mindy must drop her Hit-Girl persona, while Dave fears he will have to hit the streets as Kick-Ass alone.

Fortunately, Dave's not alone for long, as he runs into an underground group of costumed crime fighters who call themselves Justice Forever.  Led by a former mob enforcer-turned born again Christian who calls himself Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), the team welcomes Kick-Ass with open arms, and even leads to a possible love interest when Dave strikes up a sexual relationship with fellow super heroine, Night Bitch (Lindy Booth).  Just as the legion of superheroes seems to be growing, however, Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the son of the mob boss that Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl defeated at the end of the first movie, decides that there should be a legion of supervillains to combat this growing superhero fad.  He modifies his mom's old S & M fetish wear into a costume, and gives himself a villain identity whose name I can't exactly say in a family-friendly review. (I'll give you a hint: It sounds like "Mother Trucker".) With an army of costumed criminals at his side, he vows to get revenge on the ones who killed his father.

Kick-Ass 2 seems to be a movie that is constantly sidetracking itself at times.  It keeps on taking its focus away from the main revenge plot, so it can concentrate on things like Mindy trying to fit in with the more popular girls at school, Dave's turbulent relationship with his father (who doesn't like that he's going out as Kick-Ass again), one of Dave's friends at school feeling left out since his best friend is leading a double life as a superhero and has no time for him, and you have the individual members of the Justice Forever team, who seem like interesting individuals, but never get a chance to stand out like they should, given the crowded narrative. (Even Jim Carrey, the biggest name in the cast, seems to mainly be making an extended cameo here.) Some of the subplots also work better than others.  For example, the plot about Mindy trying to lead a normal life to please her guardian has some very nice moments, and Moretz and Chestnut show good chemistry in their scenes.  But the plot about her trying to fit in with the popular girls at school feels like an uninspired remake of Mean Girls, and really serves no point to the story, as it simply leads to a gross-out gag, only to have it pretty much unceremoniously dropped immediately afterward.

Despite its obvious flaws, I was never bored while watching the film.  The performances are very good all around, and this is a well-made film with a lot of interesting visual approaches to try to make the film resemble a living comic book at times. (I like how translation subtitles were inserted in comic-style word balloons coming out of a person's mouth.) I even found myself caring about these characters quite a bit at times.  This is just such a severely jumbled and crowded movie.  Every time I would find something I liked, the film would switch over to something I didn't.  Kick-Ass 2 does have a shorter running time than the first one, so that may play a part in it.  Things simply seem rushed here.  Even the climactic final battle between the armies of heroes and villains seems more like an afterthought, rather than the grand finale that it should have been.

The ending seems to be leading up to a third film, but I'm not sure how the fanbase will react to this one.  While it features the same characters and cast, it does feel like a very different movie.  As for me, I can't view it as either a total success or a failure.  Just as the film itself seemed to be constantly struggling with its own focus and tone, I too find myself struggling with how I reacted to it.  I guess the best way to sum it up is I enjoyed Kick-Ass 2 some of the time, and was less engaged the rest of the time.

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Paranoia

I was going to start out this review by saying that Paranoia is a technological thriller for people who don't know a lot about technology.  But just as I wrote that down, a thought occurred to me.  I myself am not exactly up on technology, and I hated every damn minute of this movie!  This is an ineptly directed film harbored by a bad screenplay mixed with a concept that has so many holes, the plot barely holds up to scrutiny.  But hey, at least it has an attention-grabbing title!

The last time Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman worked together, it was in the 1997 "President in peril" movie, Air Force One.  This time, they play rival heads of two different companies.  The film's focus, however, is on a young man named Adam Cassidy (Liam Hemsworth from The Hunger Games films), a cocky and arrogant guy who I hated about two minutes after meeting him.  Naturally, he's the film's hero.  As the story opens, Adam is working for WyattCorp, the company run by the Oldman character, Nicolas Wyatt.  Adam and his friends are low level employees in the company, but think they have a product that could launch them to the top, and schedule a pitch meeting with Wyatt early on.  The meeting does not go well, and Adam winds up getting himself and his friends fired.  In retaliation, Adam decides to live it up by charging a lavish night on the company credit card that miraculously is still active, even after getting fired.  Wyatt finds out about this, and sends some of his hired goons out to kidnap Adam the next day, and bring him to his office to make an offer.

Rather than arrest him, Wyatt offers Adam a chance to work for him as a spy for the competition.  It seems that Wyatt's former mentor and now business rival, Jack Goddard (Ford), has a new smart gadget in the works that will revolutionize the way we live, and it's mere months away from officially being revealed.  Wyatt hopes to pass Adam off as a high-level employee for Goddard's company, so that he can steal this top secret project for him.  With Wyatt's help, Adam is easily able to pass himself off as an executive, and gets into the rival company easily, as well as befriends Goddard, quickly earning his trust.  Before long, Adam is knee deep in corporate espionage, starting a relationship with a pretty young woman who works at Goddard's company (Amber Heard), and trying to stay one step ahead of the FBI, who quickly catch on to what Adam is up to, and start following him around.

Paranoia is a profoundly stupid movie, filled with scenes that sometimes contradict what's come before.  For example, once Adam starts working as a corporate spy for Wyatt, we learn that Wyatt has secretly bugged Adam's apartment, as well as the home where his father lives (played by Richard Dreyfuss, giving the film's single likable performance).  At one point, an FBI agent shows up at the home of the father to ask Adam some questions.  You would think Wyatt would bring this up, or be concerned, but no.  He knows absolutely nothing about the FBI's involvement, even though the visit should have been picked up on one of his secret cameras.  Also, why would Wyatt pick Adam for this job anyway?  This is also one of those movies where characters seem to enter and exit the narrative at random.  At one point, Adam is threatened at gunpoint by Wyatt's main hired goon in a parking garage.  Adam manages to punch him and escape, and we never see or hear from the hired goon ever again after that.  Did he just decide chasing down this kid who has information that could have him arrested just wasn't worth the trouble?

The movie tries to employ some flashy camera effects (slow motion, sped up motion, etc.) to mask the fact that there's not a lot going on the screenplay level.  There is absolutely no tension generated in the plot of Adam running for his life as he is dragged deeper into the world of corporate crime.  The chemistry that is supposed to build between Adam and his love interest at the rival company is practically non-existent.  Not even the sight of old pros like Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford trading verbal barbs as heated rivals can create any excitement.  Despite Oldman chewing the scenery with feverish glee, he never comes close to creating a real character.  Harrison Ford, meanwhile, seems to just shuffle his feet through his scenes, looking like he was as anxious to get this experience over with as much as I was.  And Liam Hemsworth simply rubbed me the wrong way from his introduction.  He's smarmy, self-centered, and arrogant.  So, why are we supposed to be rooting for him, again?

That's what really sinks the whole enterprise.  It's not the annoying direction, the obnoxious techno music score, or the fact that the plot is as flimsy as tissue paper.  I simply didn't like any of the main characters.  Don't get me wrong, there have been plenty of good movies about greedy or selfish people.  The difference is those movies knew how to make their characters interesting, whereas in Paranoia, we just couldn't care less.  I mentioned earlier that Richard Dreyfuss gives the closest thing this movie has to a likable performance, and it's true.  It's not just the fact that his character is so different from everybody else, playing a down to earth guy who worked as a security guard for 30 years before retiring, and is just enjoying a simple life.  It's the fact that he's the only character who gets to show a hint of spark in his personality or a sense of humor.  So, naturally, the screenwriters decide to focus as little attention as possible on the guy.

This is the kind of movie the month of August was made for, the time when studios push out their smaller movies that they don't have much hope for.  With such big names attached, maybe the studio once viewed it as some sort of prestige project, or at least an early Fall release.  Putting it out in the middle of the dog days of summer in a crowded weekend where it's likely to barely be noticed sounds like a pretty good plan, given the quality of the film on display.

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