Reel Opinions


Sunday, September 29, 2013

Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of the smartest young actors working in the movies today.  So, it's mystifying to me that he would want to make something as stupefyingly dumb as Don Jon.  And yes, I mean both the character he plays, and the movie that's named after him.  This is Gordon-Levitt's writing and directing debut, and he gives us a bunch of exaggerated cartoonish New Jersey stereotypes who act and talk like they stepped out of a Saturday Night Live sketch.  Yeah, the movie is light and mostly harmless, but it's just so relentlessly dumb at times, I almost couldn't stand it.

This is a broadly told tale of a muscle-bound meathead from Jersey named Jon whose passion for picking up "perfect 10" women at bars and nightclubs is matched only by his addiction to Internet porn.  With his bulked up body, constant dim expression on his face, and an over the top "Joisey" accent that sounds like he learned how to talk by listening to a stand up comedian imitating the Jersey accent, Gordon-Levitt shuffles through his own movie, never really creating a character I could remotely get attached to.  He's shallow, he's narcissistic, and he has all the smarts of a speed bump.  Yes, I know this is intentional, and maybe if the screenplay had some funny or clever things to say about the character's stupidity, I would find myself laughing.  But, it never builds to anything, and the character never comes across as a human being.  Make that characters, since almost everyone who walks into the movie is just as thinly developed and an exaggerated stereotype as he is.

The supporting characters include Jon's stereotyped Italian parents (played by Tony Danza and Glenne Headley), who do nothing but eat pasta in almost every scene they appear in, and drop F-Bombs in their dialogue.  There's Jon's two closest friends, who join him in picking up women at clubs, but never seem to be as successful as he is.  Finally, there's the new woman in Jon's life (Scarlett Johansson).  She likes to lose herself in the fantasy of Hollywood romantic comedies, and becomes distressed when she learns that her new boyfriend still prefers pleasuring himself to porn even after they've been together for months.  The screenplay seems to want to take a look at the reality and the fantasy of sexual relationships, and what different people build up in their minds due to the images that they see everyday.  This is a very interesting subject, and I think it could have worked in a movie, but not in one as intentionally dim-witted as this. 

Gordon-Levitt uses repetition in his directing style, showing us the same scenes over and over again, as a way to represent how an addiction can control your life.  Once again, a great idea, but one that doesn't quite work out as intended.  If Don Jon comes across as being shallow and one-note, that's because the characters within are equally so.  Everybody talks and acts like they belong in a parody.  Whenever the movie tries to make a point about something, it doesn't come across as strong as it should, thanks to the way the characters are written.  The performances, despite being delivered by very talented actors, don't help in adding dimension to these people.  It's not until the movie's third act that the things finally start to pick up a little bit.

That is because this part of the movie revolves around the one character in the film who actually comes across as a human being.  That would be Esther (Julianne Moore), a lonely woman whom Jon meets at a night school class, and slowly builds a relationship with.  She's the first to realize that Jon does not exactly prefer porn to real sex, rather that he has just never connected emotionally through sex before with another woman.  This last half is thoughtful, smart, and pretty much everything that the rest of the movie should have been.  But, it comes too late to redeem all the stupidity that came before it.  But, at least it shows us the kind of film that Gordon-Levitt was trying to make, or thought he was making.  If he hadn't have gone in such an over the top direction before, maybe he could have succeeded.

I'm sure that the actor has a great movie within him to make as a writer and director, but Don Jon is not it.  By filling his movie with such broad, cartoonish stereotypes, he kind of betrays his own ideals.  Looking at other reviews over on Rotten Tomatoes, I can see that I am in the minority, as other critics are giving it quite a lot of praise.  Maybe the problem is with me.  All I know is a good part of this movie really just irritated me.

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2

2009's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs wasn't my favorite animated film from that year, but it had some undeniable charms, a strong voice cast, and a few rare moments of true emotion and tenderness.  The sequel, just released in theaters, pretty much tosses out what worked the first time, save for the cast.  Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 is as unnecessary and as relentless a sequel as we're likely to see in 2013.  It's loud, it's pointless, and it's just not that funny.

Picking up mere moments after the original ended, we rejoin eccentric yet likable scientist Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader), his new girlfriend Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), and their offbeat friends as they are forced to leave their island home after Flint's food-making machine went out of control, and dropped giant portions of food on their home, turning their town of Swallow Falls into a wreck.  They are all relocated to San Franjose, California, while a clean up crew repairs the damage to their homes.  In their new location, they are all given new jobs.  Flint, in particular, is given a dream position working for his childhood hero, a scientist who used to host a kid's show named Chester V (Will Forte), and now heads a huge planet-friendly mega corporation called Live Corp.

It turns out that Chester is in charge of the clean up operation back at Swallow Falls, and that he has nefarious plans for Flint's food-making device when he eventually tracks down the remains of it.  However, finding it will be harder than it sounds, as it seems that the massive quantities of food left behind have somehow mutated into animal/food hybrids.  With the eco system on the island changing, and Chester's goons unable to track down the device, Chester decides to send Flint and his friends on a secret mission where they must return to the island and destroy the food making machine once and for all, before the food/animal mutants find a way off the island, and wreak havoc on the world.  But are the creatures all bad?  Sam is the first to notice that the creatures may not be harmful when she befriends a little strawberry creature.  The longer Flint and his friends stay on the island, the more they begin to realize that the creatures are not really dangerous, and the man they're working for may not have the most noble of intentions.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 is bright and colorful, and has the same likable characters from before, but it plugs them into a generic plot where they're constantly facing danger, instead of interacting with each other.  Even though I wasn't a big supporter of the original, I still found the moments where Flint tried to connect with his emotionally distant father (James Caan) , and win the heart of the sweet Sam Sparks kind of touching.  We get none of that here, as the characters, while still likable, just aren't that interesting this time around.  This is most likely due to the fact that this latest film has different directors and writers behind it.  Instead of focusing on the emotions of these characters, they over-emphasize the bad food-related puns, and mindless action sequences that were tiresome in the last movie, and come across as uninspired here.

It's obvious the only reason this movie exists is because the first one was a surprise hit at the box office.  But that doesn't mean that so little effort had to be put into it.  Aside from some striking visuals (some of the food/animal hybrids, such as a cheeseburger spider with sesame seed eyes and french fry legs, are clever) and the returning voice cast, this is a largely generic enterprise.  The jokes are basically non-stop food-related puns, which really little kids may enjoy.  The one time I did laugh was at a sight gag involving a fellow inventor's latest creation - the "Awwh-tomobile", which is a car that runs on a cute little kitten being stuck in the gas tank.  Maybe the movie needed more absurd moments like that one.  The rest of the jokes seemed kind of predictable in comparison.

With no other family films out there at the moment, I'm sure the movie will make money.  All I can do is comment that 2013 is reaching its end in a few short months, and we still haven't had a great animated film.  Our next best bet is the Fall offering from the Disney Studio, Frozen, which hopefully will show more imagination than this film did.

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Friday, September 27, 2013

Rush

It took a movie like Rush to remind me what a fantastic director Ron Howard can be with the right material.  His output of work this past decade has been largely hit or miss, with 2008's Frost/Nixon easily being his best recent film, until this one came along.  Rush re-teams Howard with that earlier film's screenwriter, Peter Morgan, and the end result is an intense and highly entertaining account of a rivalry that took place between two Formula 1 racers back in 1976.

Unlike a lot of recent uninspired bio-films we've been getting about famous people lately, this does not feel like a paint-by-numbers screenplay that merely recaps the important events of the subject's life.  There is something very up close and personal about Morgan's screenplay that not only puts us into the world of Formula 1 racing, but also into the lives of its two very different main characters who start out as bitter rivals, and eventually build a sort of respect for each other both on and off the race track.  The movie centers on the year that brought us the intense feud that pitted handsome, hard-drinking, hard-living British racer, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), against the dour and serious Austrian racer, Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl).  James is brash, reckless, and womanizing.  He's the guy who goes to a hospital to fix a wound he got in a fight over another man's woman, and winds up dating the nurse who takes care of him.  Niki, meanwhile, is careful, controlled, calculated, and driven completely to succeed at whatever he does.  So is James, he just believes in having fun along the way.

These two were born to compete against each other.  Of course, they don't see it that way at first.  When they first meet, they can barely stand each other, and see the other as an annoyance.  But right from the beginning, we can see how they are constantly trying to one-up one another.  When Niki manages to use his family fortune to buy his way into Formula 1 racing, James has to advance and compete with him.  When the two men become the frontrunners in the series of races, each can only talk about the other in interviews, and planning strategies to beat one another.  It is the drive that both men feel to top the other that leads to an event that ultimately puts their rivalry in perspective, and makes them realize that they needed each other in order to fulfill their drive to be the best.  I'm being vague here, so as not to ruin some of the more effective dramatic moments of Rush, which turns what was previously one of the best movies about auto racing I've ever seen, into a compelling human drama, and one of the better films of the year.

There are romantic subplots for both men.  James marries a model named Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), only to have their relationship fall apart due to his womanizing ways.  As for Niki, he has an encounter with a young woman named Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) early on, and they eventually end up standing by each other through their most difficult moments during the later sections of the film.  Some critics have accused the romantic angle of the film of being underdeveloped or pushed in the background, but in this film's case, I almost think it was intentional.  It helps to show just how driven these two men were to beat each other, and how it consumed so much of their lives.  Besides, both women get individual effective moments in the films, so it's not like they're stuck playing shallow types that we have no emotional investment in.

But it is the two lead performances that rightfully make the film what it is.  Hemsworth and Bruhl create two captivating portrayals that are flawed, yet enticing.  Of the two, Bruhl's portrayal of Niki probably earns our sympathies more, especially with some of the struggles he has to go through during the film.  But the screenplay is smart not to make him the flat-out "hero" and the womanizing hard-living character Hemsworth is playing the villain.  Both men have their virtues and their weaknesses, which make both all the more interesting.  When James is talking about his desire to enjoy life as much as possible, it sounds like something he passionately believes in, and in a way, you can see his point.  Not only are both men written intelligently, but the performances are exceptional, with both lead actors delivering their best turns here, especially Bruhl as the dour and driven Niki.

I would also be remiss not to complement the racing sequences, which are some of the best I have ever seen on film.  As someone who is not exactly enamored with auto sports, the way this movie was able to hold my attention through each and every race it depicts is a sign that masters are at work up on the screen.  The racing perfectly captures the exhilaration and the danger that every driver must feel behind the wheel.  We get a real sense of the hazards these men were facing, and even though the film solely focuses on just these two drivers (as it should), we never feel like we're living in a closed world that just centers on them.  Everyone on that track is probably going through the same emotions that they are.  They are our entrance into the world, and are brilliantly used to show the highs and the potential disasters that every driver goes through.

Rush is as exciting as any action film I've seen this year, but more than that, it is a gritty and honest story about two men pushing each other to do their best without realizing it initially.  The movie is raw and can be quite shocking at times (this is probably Ron Howard's harshest movie yet in terms of content), but it is also just an immediately pleasing drama that grabs you early on, and refuses to let go.  Even with some strong early Fall competition, Rush stands as a crowning achievement.

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Prisoners

When Prisoners ended, I felt emotionally drained, and it felt good.  I very seldom label a drama as being devastating, but that's exactly what this movie is.  It's raw, it's emotional, and it holds a certain kind of dramatic power that few films achieve.  The fact that the film's screenwriter, Aaron Gruzikowski, was able to tap into this power with only his second screenplay (his first being last year's mediocre Contraband) shows two things - That he's learned a lot since his last script, and that he knows something that a lot of other writers in Hollywood should learn.

As fate would have it, just this morning, I was talking with somebody about how so many movies are afraid to have the audience feel.  They have plugged in characters, facing a pre-packaged crisis that is designed to solve itself neatly in about 90 minutes.  Either that, or they're so generic and bland, I'm left wondering who thought it was a good idea to sink millions of dollars into the project in the first place.  Take the last movie I saw and reviewed, The Grandmaster - a visually striking film that was completely cold and lifeless on the emotional level.  Were it not for the director's style, it would have been as forgettable as stale white bread.  Now, Prisoners is a complete package.  Not only is it chillingly beautiful (thanks to director Denis Villeneuve, and cinematographer Roger Deakins, who give the film a bleak and appropriate winter setting), but it is emotionally involving, and the rare mystery that will actually keep you guessing.  The movie doesn't try to be clever or throw you off.  It's just been very carefully constructed, and the material works because it's not the cookie cutter sort of mystery and suspense that we expect from a major studio production with big name talent.

The story starts out simply enough, with two neighboring families coming together for Thanksgiving.  They are the Dovers, headed by survivalist father Keller (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello), and the Birches, which include father Franklin (Terrance Howard) and housewife Nancy (Viola Davis).  After dinner, while the adults are chatting in the living room, and the teenage kids are watching TV, the two youngest daughters from both families, Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons) decide to go outside and play, and disappear shortly thereafter.  The only possible clue is that Keller's teenage son saw the two girls playing around an old R.V. that was parked outside a neighboring home earlier, and now the vehicle is gone as well.  Police Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is called in on the case, and quickly tracks down the suspicious vehicle and its driver, a man named Alex (Paul Dano) who has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old, and claims to know nothing about the girls.  There is circumstantial evidence, but not enough to hold him in prison for longer than 24 hours.  When Keller learns about this, he decides to take the law into his own hands, and begins following Alex around, thinking of how to force a confession from the young man.

The trailers and ad campaign for Prisoners make it look like this is a story of a father possibly going too far in his search for the girls and for personal justice.  And while that certainly is a big element of the plot, it's far from the central focus.   This is the rare film that truly cares about the characters, and have made them intelligent, thoughtful people who are flawed.  Therefore, we are immediately drawn to them, and are willing to follow them down whatever desperate or dark paths their actions may take them.  And yes, this is an unflinchingly dark movie.  Some may find the film hard to watch, due to its themes of child abduction and possible murder, as well as torture and cruelty.  But this is not an exploitive drama.  Yes, it is sad and terrifying, but it is also fascinating, and it is that human element that makes it so.  We like these people, and when they are forced to do terrible things, we feel for them, as well as feel their mixed emotions about what they are doing in order to get answers.

I know I talked a little bit about it early on, but let me go into more detail about how well thought out the script is.  Nothing is left to waste here, and while certain elements may seem out of place in the plot at first, the writer is only setting up something for later.  This thriller not only managed to surprise me on more than one occasion, but it actually made sense as the pieces fell into place.  Being so used to movies that start out with a great set up, only to fall apart as the answers are revealed, I can only say that this script should be studied by anyone writing a mystery, or thinking of writing one.  Nothing seems like it was just thrown in to catch the audience off guard, or lead them in the wrong direction.  This is a story that has been thought out step-by-stop, and it shows in just about every scene.

I really can't think of any aspect of the film that doesn't add to it in some way.  There's the appropriately damp and dreary winter atmosphere, which adds to the hopelessness these characters are feeling.  There's also the subtle music score, which is wise enough to never drown out the action or spell out the emotion we're supposed to be feeling.  And, of course, there are the performances.  Headed up by a career-best performance by Hugh Jackman (He has never been so absorbing as he is here.), the entire cast, which includes a number of award winners and nominees, is in top shape, and will hopefully earn some recognition early next year when awards are handed out.  These are all honest performances.  Nobody seems to be playing for the cameras.  This is as raw and as emotional of a movie that I have seen so far this year.

I have already spoken to some people who say they don't want to see Prisoners, because "it looks depressing".  I have no idea how anyone could find a completely absorbing drama depressing.  Yes, it can get very dark, and this is not exactly a "feel good" movie.  But how can it be depressing when it is so captivating?  You want to watch a depressing movie?  Go see the number of movies out there that are just like everything else you've seen before, only done with less passion.  This is a real cinematic experience.

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Friday, September 20, 2013

The Grandmaster

I didn't know it at the time, but the opening scene of The Grandmaster is a good indication of what's to come.  Director Wong Kar-wei opens his film with an elaborate martial arts fight that is more interested in the poetry of the movement, than in the brutality of the fighting.  He sets the fight scene (and the others that are to come) up almost like a ballet, using slow motion and wire work to capture the beauty of the battle.  It's a visual spectacle to be sure, but at the same time, the context of the scene is more than a little muddy.  It was an odd experience of being enthralled by what I was seeing, while at the same time, not really knowing where it fit in.

The Grandmaster is lavish and beautiful, but ultimately fractured and uneven.  In telling the true life story of Ip Man, the master of the Chinese martial art Wing Chun, and the man who would eventually go on to train and mentor Bruce Lee, this is a movie that has fantastic production values, costumes, and sets that recreate the era.  Where the movie is less certain is in the telling of the story.  It is muddy, feels like it has entire chunks missing, and is likely to confuse anyone who doesn't already know the story beforehand.  It's also constantly losing focus, concentrating on other people or subjects, while leaving the central one behind.  I am not sure how much of the fault lies with the film itself, and how much lies with the movie's US Distributor, The Weinstein Company, which has reportedly cut nearly a half hour out of the original film for its American release.  Supposedly parts of the story were cut, so the movie could could get to the action scenes faster.  The end result is a fragmented and unsatisfying film.

But then, the film's narrative style doesn't make things much easier to follow.  Kar-wei frequently uses flashbacks, flash-forwards, and lengthy patches where he cuts away from his main character and story, only to focus on somebody completely different.  The film opens with the rivalry between martial artists in the northern and southern regions of China.  Ip Man (played effectively by Tony Leung) is right in the middle of this battle, until the Japanese invade China, where he is forced to leave everyone he knows behind, and head to Hong Kong.  In his new life there, he tries to start a martial arts school of his own, teaching his art which was previously reserved only for wealthy families.  At the same time, he tries to track down someone from his past - a woman from the northern region named Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), who is currently making a living as a doctor, but still harbors memory of a quest for revenge she once undertook when her father was defeated in battle.

The relationship between Ip and Gong holds a lot of potential, as there is a hint of rivalry, respect, and romance between them.  But, thanks to the confusing storytelling, these characters never come across as being as strong as they could be.  In fact, for a long section of the film, Gong's story of revenge for her father completely takes over the movie, leaving Ip's story behind.  Not only can this movie seem to decide which character or plot it wants to focus on, it also has a hard time making us care about them.  For all the lavish costumes and sets, expertly choreographed fight scenes, and beauty that the movie holds, it never lets us in beneath the surface, and to truly get to know these people who inhabit the story.  It sometimes feels like a series of fragmented vignettes.  Ip will encounter someone, their name and martial arts specialty flashes on the screen, they fight, Ip wins, and he moves on.  Despite how much I admired how the fights were staged and shot, if there's little to no consequence behind them, it's all too easy to lose interest.

Even with a reduced running time from the original Chinese release, The Grandmaster still feels oddly sluggish.  A lot of this has to do with the scattershot storytelling, which jumps and moves around so much, we never get much of a sense of a story being told.  Once the thrill of the visuals subsides, we wait for the plot to grab us, and it never does.  I could easily forgive the lack of plotting if the characters were engaging or compelling, but they are constant enigmas to us, and to the filmmakers.  Even after watching it, I feel like I know as much about Ip Man now as I did before I saw the film, which was practically nothing.  Even worse, the movie ends right about the point we feel like it should actually be starting.  That would be when Ip takes on Bruce Lee as a student.  We don't get to see any kind of teacher and student relationship, and we don't get to see the future great one learn from the master, because the movie runs the credits mere minutes after they're introduced to each other.  Maybe it's a set up for a sequel?

Whether its due to the extensive editing the film went through before hitting American theaters, or if it was a problem from the beginning, this never feels like a complete movie.  There are bits and pieces that raised my interest, and there are some stunning visuals, but they can't carry this leaden and unfocused movie very far.  For all of its expertise in visuals and style, The Grandmaster is ultimately a crashing disappointment.

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Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Family

Luc Besson's The Family is a nasty little piece of work disguising itself as a fun comedy.  This is a very violent movie, shockingly so at times, and the fact that most of this violence is performed by the main characters on innocent people made me cringe.  I have no objection to violence being in a comedy, as long as there's a point to it.  But there's little point to this meandering and aimless screenplay, featuring thin characters, and a talented cast of actors who are given little to do.

Remember 1999's Analyze This, which featured Robert De Niro spoofing his own tough guy image?  Well, The Family does the same thing, only not funny and not the slightest bit interesting.  He's Giovanni Manzoni here, a mobster and family man living under the pseudonym Fred Blake ever since he snitched on his former mob boss.  The film's central (and let's face it, sole) joke is that Giovanni and his family are supposed to be in hiding, and not trying to draw attention to themselves, but frequently resort to their old ways, violently thrashing, torturing, and killing anyone who upsets them.  In one scene, a plumber tries to scam Giovanni when he wants the pipes in his new home fixed, so Giovanni responds by beating the man to within an inch of his life, and giving him multiple fractures, which he tries to explain as simple accidents when he takes the man to the hospital.  Ho, ho.

As the movie opens, Giovanni and his family have moved to a tiny little town in Normandy.  His family are just as violent and vengeful as he is, and include wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and teenage son and daughter Warren (John D'Leo) and Belle (Dianna Agron).  Despite being in witness protection and closely watched by some federal agents led by the straight-laced Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), Giovanni and his clan frequently bend the rules, and carry out violent acts toward people that either upset them, or that they just don't like.  As soon as they arrive in their new home, Giovanni pulls a body out of the trunk of his car, and buries it in the backyard.  And the very next day, Maggie blows up the local grocery store because the owner made fun of her for being an American. (Never mind the fact the movie doesn't explain how she even understood him, since he was speaking in French, and it was established before that she understands very little of the language.)

The kids seem to take after their parents.  When they arrive at school, Warren institutes a plan to savagely beat a local bully, while Belle nearly pummels to death any student who tries to hit on her, or looks at her the wrong way.  I think what offended me was not really the violence, but that there is nothing else to these characters.  They simply are maiming and torturing people with very little to no motivation.  If Giovanni and his family had maybe had dimensions, or written as complex and funny characters, I probably wouldn't have been as put off by the violent acts they perform.  But, I think director and co-writer Luc Besson is pretty much making the violence the joke here.  These are shallow people who do terrible things to equally shallow people.  There's nothing behind these characters, or the violent acts they commit, so there's no reason to laugh.

The Family is overlong, and fails at telling the same joke over and over, the joke being that these guys just don't fit in with their new surroundings.  It follows the same sequence of events in just about every scene.  Giovanni or one of his family members tries to fit in, the attempt fails, so a brutal act of violence is committed.  This is a tired and weary movie that keeps up its repetitive nature for far too long.  It's not until the film's last 20 minutes that things pick up a little bit.  That's when Giovanni's former mob boss learns of his location, and sends some of his goons to kill the family.  Here we get some pretty good action, but once again, we don't care about these characters, so there's no real investment on our part.  It also comes far too late to save what has been up to this point a very meandering and aimless film.

And despite Besson filling his cast with A-list talent, he can't get any interesting performances out of them.  De Niro can easily play the role of Giovanni, and has pretty much played him multiple times throughout his career.  But he's given nothing to work with, since his character is written so thin, so it ends up being one of his more forgettable performances.  As for Michelle Pfeiffer, the only notable thing about her performance is her shaky Brooklyn accent, which seems to come and go at will.  Finally, Tommy Lee Jones exists in this movie to simply look exasperated or stone faced at De Niro.  He's actually given the least to do of the cast, and makes you wonder why he even bothered to show up in the first place.

I was bored almost from the start by this drawn out and tone deaf comedy.  The Family is the kind of movie that gives you a bad feeling from the beginning that you're not going to enjoy it, but you try to keep your spirits up, especially by seeing these talented actors up on the screen.  As the film dragged on, and I began to realize it wasn't going to redeem itself, I sunk in my seat and waited for the whole experience to be over.  It wasn't over soon enough.

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Insidious: Chapter 2

Only two months after he brought us the effectively creepy haunted house thriller, The Conjuring, director James Wan is back with an effectively silly one, Insidious: Chapter 2.  I imagine that Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell had big, goofy smiles on their faces as they were dreaming up this sequel to their surprise 2011 hit film.  The movie does have a sense of humor about itself, though I don't know if some of it was intentional or not.  That being said, it still carries on Wan's tradition of getting some effectively creepy moments out of a minimal budget, with no distracting CG or special effects.

The sequel picks up mere moments after the first, with family man, Josh Lambert (once again played by Patrick Wilson), having returned from the spirit world (known in this movie as "The Further") to rescue his son who was trapped there in the first movie.  However, has he truly come back, or is there some dark spirit residing within him now?  That's the question his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) would like to know.  You would think the fact that Patrick happened to strangle and murder the kindly old hypnotist, Elise (Lin Shaye), as soon as he came back from the spirit world would be a clue that something is very wrong, but the seemingly-possessed Patrick somehow convinces Renai that everything's fine, and that they can be a family again.  You can call Renai a lot of things, but you certainly can't accuse her of not being an optimist.

With the police investigating their home, the family moves in with Josh's mother (Barbara Hershey), only to discover that the paranormal activity has followed them to their new house.  The menacing apparition, which takes the form of an old woman in a black wedding gown and veil, is still lurking about, and seems to be targeting Patrick and Renai's youngest child this time around.  Then there's the fact that Josh just hasn't been acting like himself ever since he came back from his adventure in the spirit world. (He doesn't recognize the song on the piano that his wife wrote for him.) It is Josh's mother who finally decides to take some initiative, and do a little bit of investigating of her own about the spirits.  She teams up with a psychic (Steve Coulter), and the two comic relief ghost hunters from the first film (Angus Sampson and screenwriter Whannell) to search through some spooky abandoned hospitals and houses in order to learn the backstory of the evil entity that is constantly threatening them.

Insidious: Chapter 2 is not a bad sequel by any stretch of the imagination, especially for a forced one that exists simply because the first movie was an unexpected box office smash.  It mainly fulfills the need to fill in the holes that the first movie left open, and at that, it does an admirable job.  We learn more about the entity itself, without completely giving away all the mystery behind it, as well as Josh's childhood connection with it.  The movie even pulls off a few successful jolts that actually made me jump from time to time.  There is also a nice subtlety to Wan's directing style.  For the most part (at least until the third act), he doesn't seem to be hitting us over the head with the terror, and even pulls off a few shots where we'll notice something ominous in the background, but the movie doesn't call our attention to it. (Was that a shadowy figure sitting in that chair in the other room?) And if anything, he's become even better at creating an effective atmosphere on a very small budget.

If there is a weakness, it is Whannell's script, which seems to be all over the place at times.  It's constantly jumping back and forth between the past and the present, and between the real world and the spirit world.  And just like the first film, the build up is better than the pay off, with the third act owing more than a little to The Shining.  And yet, I have to wonder just how seriously Whannell intended his audience to take this story.  There are some moments of humor scattered throughout, and even more moments that got laughs, but I'm not sure if they were intentional or not.  This is a very silly movie, and the filmmakers must have known this, as they go all out.  I enjoyed myself for the most part.  I got tense at the right moments, and was laughing a lot of the time.  No matter how ridiculous the plot got, the performances and Wan's direction kept me from getting lost.

According to interviews, this will be the last horror film for James Wan for a little while, as he turns to directing the next Fast and Furious movie.  The Conjuring would certainly have been a stronger note to end on (it's the better of his two haunted house movies this year), but there's still fun to be had here.  I have no doubt that this movie will win big at the box office, as the audience I saw it with last night seemed to be eating it up.  However, I don't know if there's enough material for the third installment that the ending hints at.  I guess we'll find out soon enough, as I'm sure another sequel will be greenlighted shortly.

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

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Sunday, September 08, 2013

Riddick

The last time we saw space criminal and antihero, Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel), it was back in 2004, and he was headlining the overstuffed, $100 million+ summer film, The Chronicles of Riddick.  Due to the fact that the movie strayed from the dark Sci-Fi horror roots that introduced the character (2000's Pitch Black), the fans stayed away, and the Riddick franchise seemed to stall just as soon as it had started.  But, thanks to Diesel's recent surge in popularity thanks to the recent Fast & Furious sequels, Universal Studios has decided to give the character another chance with Riddick, a much more modestly budgeted film that takes the character back to his darker roots.

It's a good idea, and director and co-writer David Twohy (who has been with the series from the beginning) seems more comfortable working with a smaller budget.  But there still seems to be something off about this whole enterprise.  While Riddick remains an intimidating and intriguing antihero, we still don't know all that much about him, three films in.  And the plot that Twohy has dropped his character into is pretty thin stuff, and not strong enough to carry a two hour film.  The reduced budget also shows, with some questionable CG effects, and a murky look.  And yet, the film could have overcome all of this if it gave us something to care about, which it doesn't.  Despite some strong individual moments, Riddick never quite gets off the ground.

The opening half of the movie is where it is at its strongest.  Here, Riddick finds himself stranded on a barren desert planet that seems to be out to get him, as just about every form of life that lives there seems to be trying to kill him.  We learn through flashbacks what happened between the last movie and now - Riddick had grown tired of his position as Lord Marshall of the Necromongers, gave up his thrown, and decided to return to his home planet of Furya.  After one of his subjects betrayed him, he now finds himself on this deadly planet, which he has dubbed "Not Furya".  As the only person on this world, he must try to survive, mend his own wounds, and search for food, water and shelter.  With minimal dialogue, aside from a growling voice over narration provided by Diesel, the movie manages to create a tense atmosphere just through its visuals.  The only thing that took me out of this part of the movie is its somewhat low rent CG effects.  Riddick actually manages to befriend an alien creature that somewhat resembles a dingo, who becomes his companion/comic relief in the first half of the picture.  Too bad the effects make the creature look like a CG cartoon character at times, completely out of place in the live action environments.

Riddick eventually finds an emergency beacon, which signals two different ships to his location.  Here is where we enter the second half of the film, and where things start to go downhill.  One of the ships carries a band of mercenaries, led by the greedy Santana (Jordi Molla), whose main motivation is to cut off Riddick's head, and place it in a box for a bounty.  The other ship is led by the noble Johns (Matt Nable), who also wants Riddick, but wants to capture the criminal alive, so that he can be questioned.  Johns is accompanied by Dahl (Katee Sackhoff from TV's reboot of Battlestar Galactica), who is the film's prerequisite strong female character, and provides sex appeal.  Everyone else aboard the two ships are not worth mentioning, and don't even get developed.  Why should they, since they pretty much exist to be killed off either by Riddick, or by aliens?  Riddick uses his survival skills to outsmart his pursuers for a while, but is eventually captured.  And when the two groups come together to argue over what's to be done with the criminal, some unfriendly aliens happen to show up, attack the base, and start picking off the survivors.

It's a thin premise that would have been fine at a lean 80 or 90 minutes, but at a full two hours, seems stretched completely thin.  Heck, by the time the aliens finally show up in the last half of the film, the movie has just less than a half hour to go, so the screenplay has to rush its way through this situation, and get the surviving characters to its ending.  The attacking monsters, shrouded mostly in darkness and shadow, aren't even all that interesting in the first place.  So, what is there to engage us?  Very little, I'm afraid.  The dialogue in Riddick consists mainly of exposition, and the characters bickering back and forth over what they're going to do with the main character once he's captured.  There's very little tension created, and little reason for us to care about anyone up on the screen.  The movie picks up every now and then with Riddick pulling off some shocking or brutal attack on his wannabe captors. (This is a movie that earns its R-rating.) But every time this happens, it feels like a jolt to keep the audience awake, instead of interested.

A few of the performances do manage to overcome this thin material and grab our attention.  Vin Diesel, as he has been since he first played this character 13 years ago, commands the screen, and has a very dark but oddly likable presence as this convicted murderer who always finds himself in situations where he has to be a hero.  And yet, over 13 years and three movies (plus some video games), we still know very little about the character.  It's Diesel's intimidating on screen presence that draws us in, not the character as he is written.  The other standout performance is provided by Katee Sackhoff.  She's supposed to bring to mind some great tough women in past Sci-Fi films, like Ripley in the Alien franchise, or Sarah Conner in the Terminator movies, and Sackhoff is more than capable of the job.  The problem once again stems from the fact that her character is underwritten.  Her performance grabs our attention, but the script can't provide an interesting character to go along with it.

I have a sense little of this will matter to fans of the character.  They'll just be happy to see him again, and in a darker and R-rated film. (The last Riddick movie was toned down to a PG-13, due to its massive budget.) I really wanted to like this movie more than I did, but its plodding pace and underwritten cast made it impossible.  Maybe it's time someone other than Twohy took a try with the character.  I'd like to see a fresh spin on Riddick, keeping his dark and violent roots in tact, while also maybe digging a little deeper into him.

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

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