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Friday, November 29, 2013

Homefront

There have been a lot of movies recently that have been trying to recapture the simple, adrenaline-fueled formula of an 80s action film.  Of those recent attempts, Homefront is one of the better ones.  It's not all that special, mind you, but it's better made than the others.  It also includes some actors you don't expect to see in a movie like this, including James Franco, Kate Bosworth, and Winona Ryder.  And while I can't say any of those actors are having their talents tested with this material, at least they're not just cashing a paycheck.

Originally intended as a star vehicle for Sylvester Stallone (who wrote the script, and serves as the head producer here), Homefront now stars Jason Statham as Phil Broker, an ex-undercover cop who, after recently losing his wife to a disease, decides to move to a small town in Louisiana with his 10-year-old daughter, Maddy (bright young Izabela Vidovic).  Phil's only wish is for his daughter and him to live a quiet and peaceful life.  If so, he should have looked into another town.  Not only is the place crawling with hate-filled rednecks who hold big-time grudges, but the whole town is run by a slimy meth cooker named Gator (James Franco), who pretty much has the law in his back pocket.  The problems start when little Maddy stands up for herself, and knocks down a bully at the school playground.  The bully's mom (Kate Bosworth), who just happens to be Gator's sister, wants vengeance and turns to her brother, hoping that some of his men will stop by Phil's house and "scare him".

The scare tactics don't work on Phil, so Gator naturally has to up the ante.  Things get even worse when Gator's girlfriend, Sheryl (Winona Ryder), discovers that Phil used to be an undercover cop, and helped put away a big-time drug kingpin.  Sheryl arranges a visit with the kingpin in jail, who in turn sends out his men to stage a hit on Phil's home.  The armed goons show up, young Maddy's life is put in danger, and we get to see Statham do what he does best.  That's really the reason you go see a movie like this, and on that level, it works well enough.  It has enough fist fights, car chases, and exploding drug labs to keep his fans happy.  We also get a few moments where we get to see Statham's softer side, during the scenes he shares with his daughter.  I liked these moments, and young Izabela Vidovic is a talented child actress, who makes the most of what the movie asks her to do.

This is also a well-paced action film.  It moves along at a quick pace, but it never feels overly rushed, or shallower than it needs to be.  That doesn't mean that there's a subplot or two that the movie probably would have been better off without, though.  One such plot involves Phil striking up a potential relationship with a woman who works at Maddy's school (Rachelle Lefevre).  His daughter turns him on to the idea of getting closer to her, and for a little while it seems like there's going to be a nice little romantic subplot tossed in, only to have the movie completely forget about it, and never bring it up again.  I guess the filmmakers thought it would get in the way of the shootouts.  Still, I kind of like the idea of Statham having a romantic side.  Surely he can't be angry and glaring all the time, right?

Still, for what it attempts to do, Homefront is mostly a success.  It manages to create a small amount of tension, and I managed to get more involved than I thought I would.  The fact that it's being released on a holiday weekend up against big films like The Hunger Games and Frozen obviously means the studio doesn't have a lot of faith in it, and hopes it will disappear quickly.  While I wouldn't exactly call this a great movie, it does definitely deserve better treatment than that.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Frozen

Given the rather mediocre slate of animated films we've had this year, Frozen instantly jumps to the head of the pack, and easily claims the title as the best of the crop.  That doesn't exactly mean Frozen is a great animated film, however.  I would say it starts out rather great, then kind of loses its focus somewhere around the middle, while still remaining enjoyable throughout.  Still, it's consistently entertaining, beautiful to look at, and features a Broadway-ready musical score by husband and wife composers Robert Lopez (best known for co-writing Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon), and Kristen-Anderson Lopez.

Much like Tangled from a few years ago, this is an attempt by the Disney studio to combine state of the art CG animation, with the classic Broadway musical-style storytelling that they were famous for back in the 90s.  And just like that earlier film, the attempt is successful.  Despite the modern day look, this really does feel like an older Disney production, complete with an overall message that the power of love can perform miracles.  And while there is a handsome Prince and a love interest for the female lead in this story, this time, the love seems to come from between two sisters who are heirs to a far away kingdom.  Elder sister Elsa (voiced by Broadway veteran Idina Menzel) is a somewhat distant young woman who was born with the unusual ability to control and manipulate the elements of snow and ice.  How and why this came to pass, the movie keeps to itself.  Her younger sister, Anna (Kristen Bell, giving a wonderful and spirited performance here), is plucky, likable, and a little bit lonely, since she doesn't understand why Elsa constantly prefers to keep to herself, locked away in her private chambers. 

Of course, how could Anna understand?  She had her memories of the moment the sisters were torn apart magically erased from her mind.  As we learn in the opening sequence, Elsa and Anna were the closest of sisters when they were children, and Elsa would frequently use her magical powers to entertain and delight the young Anna.  But one fateful night, Elsa's powers went out of control, and wound up severely wounding Anna.  From that moment on their parents, the King and Queen, decided that Elsa should be locked away so that she could be privately taught how to control and keep her powers hidden from the world, out of fear that people would reject her or just not understand.  Further, the King and Queen had Anna's memories of the accident erased by a local magic user, so she does not know why Elsa avoids her.  This is the way it has been for the two sisters for most of their life.  Now, Elsa has come of age, and must take her place at the throne as the ruler of the kingdom.  A coronation ceremony is held, and it is there that Anna meets the handsome Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), and the two immediately fall in love.

As for Elsa, she tries to keep her powers hidden during the ceremony, but things eventually go awry, and she is forced to flee the kingdom, but not before her out of control elemental powers bring forth an eternal winter upon the people of the land.  She locks herself away within a palace made of ice that she creates for herself on top of a nearby mountain.  Anna decides to venture out into the frozen wasteland to find her sister.  Along the way, she is joined by an ice-cutter named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), who brings along his own comedic animal sidekick, a reindeer named Sven.  But Sven doesn't talk, so Anna is eventually joined by a second comic relief character - a talking snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), who was brought to life by Elsa's magic.  Together, the heroes try to track Elsa down and stop the winter, before some of the kingdom's soldiers who witnessed Elsa's powers and view her as a monster find her first and attempt to destroy her.

The best moments in Frozen are the ones concerning the somewhat tragic relationship between the two sisters.  The movie actually takes its time in setting up the story, and letting us get close to Elsa and Anna, so by the time Elsa's powers go out of control and curse the land, we truly feel for both of them.  This opening half also seems to have the most musical numbers devoted to it, which further heightens the love these two young women hold for each other, and how they are forced to be apart.  This is when the movie is the closest to greatness, and I was really getting involved.  Once the actual plot kicks in, the narrative oddly meanders just a little.  The comic relief characters take center stage, as does the relationship between Kristoff and Anna.  Don't get me wrong, they're fun characters and I liked them, but I was far more interested in the stuff that came before.  The plot also lacks a truly memorable villain.  Sure, we do eventually get one, but the character's change of heart seems rather forced, and they pretty much remain on the sidelines for the majority of the film. 

Even if the movie never quite lives up to the promise of the first 30 minutes or so, it remains entertaining throughout.  The animation is obviously beautiful to look at, and deserves to be viewed in 2D.  Sure, the 3D version adds some better textures to the scenes, but you lose a lot of the color.  The songs are also quite good, with Elsa's ballad 'Let It Go", which she sings when she decides to leave her old life behind, easily being the one that will get stuck in your head when the movie's over.  The film also does a very good job of balancing out stuff for different people in the audience.  Older viewers will obviously find a lot to like in the scenes surrounding the two sisters, while the kids at my screening were cracking up over the antics of Olaf the snowman.  He sort of got on my nerves after a while, but the character wasn't written for me, and I'm sure Olaf toys will be flying off the shelves during the holidays.  The fact that the movie really does have something for everyone is probably the highest praise I can give it.

So, Frozen is not a classic Disney production.  It's still a very good one, and I'm always up for that.  And since it's the only new family film playing up until the Christmas weekend, it's almost certain to have a big box office haul.  I recommend it without hesitation, and will probably watch it again when it hits home, so I can revisit my favorite moments.

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Delivery Man

I can see what Vince Vaughn is trying to do with his performance in Delivery Man.  He's trying to dial down his trademark motormouth comic delivery, hoping to come across as being a bit more likable and less abrasive than he sometimes can be.  Where the performance goes wrong, I think, is that he dials it back a little too much.  He seems worn out and kind of deflated.  Or maybe he just had a sinking feeling that the film he was stuck in just wasn't working out.  Whatever the case, Vaughn's performance seems kind of downbeat, and it kills the energy of the film.

Delivery Man is a soppy little comedy-drama that fails at both of the genres it aims for.  It has no real laughs, and the dramatic moments are manipulative and soggy in their sentimentality.  It is a remake of the French-Canadian film, Starbuck, which I have not seen, but remember reading good things about.  Both the original film and the Hollywood remake share the same writer and director, Ken Scott.  Given the praise I have read for Starbuck, I can only guess that something got lost in Scott's own adaptation.  In the film, Vaughn plays David Wozniak, a 40-something slacker who is in debt in both unpaid parking tickets, and to some criminals that he apparently owes around $80,000 to. (A plot point that is established early on, and brought up now and then, but holds no real impact on the story oddly enough.) To add to his financial problems, David's girlfriend (Cobie Smulders) has just announced that she is pregnant, yet feels that David is not financially responsible enough to be a father or a husband. 

David strives to prove her wrong and "get a life", as he puts it, but it's about this time that he gets a visit from a lawyer with some shocking news.  It seems that 20 years ago, David sold his sperm to a fertility clinic a grand total of 633 times over a period of three years.  The end result is that he now has 533 children created from his sperm, and some of those kids are suing in order to find out the identity of their biological father.  In the process of hiring his best friend, Brett (Chris Pratt), to act as his lawyer in the upcoming trial, David starts to become curious about who these people are who want to know his identity, and starts flipping through their profiles.  He becomes so intrigued that he actually starts seeking these people out, and helping them out in their everyday lives, either as a kindly stranger, or an anonymous good samaritan.  This brings about a lot of contrived and forced sentimental moments where David starts to care about something other than himself for the first time.

I think the idea behind Delivery Man could work, but the script is so heavy with its drama, and none of the jokes hit, so the movie never takes off.  It also desperately wants to be a feel-good crowd pleaser, so it piles on the schmaltz in such heavy doses, I started to feel assaulted as the film wore on.  This is a movie that has its heart in the right place, but the brain is completely absent.  The screenplay by Ken Scott is clumsy in the way it sets up these scenarios where David meets his own children under hidden pretenses.  Some of the scenarios don't even make that much sense.  In one instance, he tracks down one of his kids - a woman whom he sees through an open window of her apartment building is having an angry phone call with somebody.  Wanting to find out what's wrong, he decides to disguise himself as a pizza delivery guy so he can get inside her apartment.  How did he know she had ordered a pizza in the first place, though?  Lucky thing he got in, however, as he is able to save her life when she has a drug overdose, and helps her keep her job at the department store she works at.

There is also a very odd subplot concerning one of David's kids named Viggo (Adam Chanler-Berat), who finds out that David is his biological father, and offers not to tell the other kids if he will let him stay in David's apartment.  The movie seems unsure what to do with this character, as once he's introduced, it forgets to give David and Viggo a real relationship, nor do they spend a lot of time together.  The fact that the two share a supposedly heart-warming scene near the end is obviously supposed to imply that these two characters have grown close with one another, but it never comes across at any point in the film.  Not only is the introduction of Viggo unnecessary, but the character doesn't generate any laughs to begin with. 

Then again, I'm hard pressed to remember any real laughs during Delivery Man.  I think I might have smiled once, and that's being generous.  It seems that with each passing film, Vince Vaughn gets further from the success he once enjoyed.  With this film, he almost seems to have given up, which might explain his sadsack portrayal of his character.

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Friday, November 22, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

After two movies, I still find it hard to get into the world of The Hunger Games.  It's not so much that I find the movies bad, but rather, they are disappointments and never as big or as good as I feel they should be.  The millions of you who are fans of the books and the films should take heart, however - Catching Fire is definitely a better film than the first.  You're all but guaranteed to love it.  For all of this sequel's improvements (the action flows better, and the obnoxious shaky camera work is gone), I just find it hard to get excited about these characters.

And yet, I have a sneaking suspicion that the next two movies (already in production, and set to be released one year from now, and the year after) might interest me more, as the story seems to be building toward something very big.  That's actually the whole point of Catching Fire, to set up the big events that will happen.  It does indeed seem that the series heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), is about to embark on something much larger than initially hinted at in the original film.  But, as the film opens, it's one year after the events in The Hunger Games, and we find that even though Katniss has become a celebrity after winning the Games, she is still haunted by her actions.  In an early scene, she attempts to hunt a wild turkey, and when she fires with her bow and arrow, she suddenly sees the turkey as one of the kids she was forced to kill in the last movie.  This grabbed my attention, as I figured the movie would attempt to create some internal conflict with the character, but unfortunately, it's not developed much further and deeper.

That's not to say she doesn't have any tangled emotions.  It seems that she's still in love with the handsome young Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but because of events in the first movie, she is being forced to act like she is in love with the equally handsome and young Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) from last year's Games.  The scheming President Snow (Donald Sutherland) even shows up at her house, explaining that if she does not play by his rules and put up a good show for the public as she makes the celebrity circuit rounds, he will harm her mother and precious younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields).  Katniss and Peeta are forced to travel to the different Districts, and make pre-written speeches supporting the President, the Games, and the system that is keeping so many living in poverty, while a select few get to live in lavish excess. 

The theme of the haves versus the have-nots is an important idea in this franchise, and I'm not really a fan of how it is represented.  It's far too black-and-white, with the poor District citizens looking like they've wandered in from a post-apocalyptic Charles Dickens story, while the wealthy few are depicted literally as pompous, live action cartoon characters.  That's really the only way the wealthy can be described in this series.  Their appearance and make up is so over the top, they look like cosplayers at a Sci-Fi convention than members of high society.  They have overly exaggerated faces and physical features, and generally behave like they're in a completely different movie - maybe a parody.  It creates a jarring contrast, as most of the film seems to be dark and very serious, while the scenes depicting the smug upper class is like something out of a live action cartoon adaptation.

As Katniss and Peeta make the rounds to the different Districts, they seem to inspire rebellion amongst the poor wherever they go.  Snow's stormtroopers try to keep them in line, but when that fails, the current mind behind the Hunger Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), comes up with an idea to destroy Katniss' public image.  He sets things up so that this year's annual Hunger Games will be played by former winners, which means that both Katniss and Peeta will have to fight for their survival once again.  The Games themselves makes up a majority of the second half of the film, and while the action is definitely handled better by new director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), I still find it hard to drum up a lot of emotion for the Games, or the people forced to play them.  Whenever someone becomes a victim to the deadly sport, it fails to resonate, because we once again know very little about who these people are.  Katniss is easy enough to root for, as she's strong and resourceful, but almost everybody else never gets to develop much of a personality or interest.

But my biggest problem with Catching Fire comes when information that has been kept from us the entire film is revealed in order to set up the events in the next two sequels.  Frankly, it doesn't make any sense to me that Katniss wouldn't be clued in to any of it.  The larger plan is kept from her, even though there was really no reason for it to be.  It was kept from her only so it can be a surprise to us, the audience.  This makes the cliffhanger (which I must admit, is pretty good) more forced and calculated than it should be.  It also seems very abrupt and out of the blue, with little lead in or explanation.  I'm sure the next movie will clear things up better, but for now, the whole reveal seems built around plot convenience, rather than the common sense of cluing the main character in sooner.

Of course, none of this will matter to the legions of fans.  Walking out of my screening, I heard a young girl groaning about how she'll have to wait a full year for the next movie.  I'm sure it will break all sorts of box office records this weekend.  I can admire the enthusiasm of the fans, but I just can't join them.  There are elements that I like, but they are overshadowed by plot elements or performances that just don't work for me.  I can admit to having interest in where the story may be going from here, but I just can't throw my full support behind this series so far, or this particular entry.  Consider myself on the fence for the moment, and depending where future entries go, I could be pushed either way in my opinion.

I would so far call The Hunger Games far above the Twilight films, while not quite reaching the heights of the better Harry Potter movies.  Even if I'm not completely sold on the franchise, at the very least, I do want to see where it goes.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Just like when I saw Prisoners a couple months ago, I felt emotionally drained walking out of 12 Years a Slave.  However, it wasn't just that.  I also felt sad and very angry.  I had just been through the emotional wringer, and I was grateful that director Steve McQueen had gone to that extra effort.  This is an astonishing piece of filmmaking that is bound to be remembered long after the Award Season hype has died down.  I have been moved emotionally by films in the past, but I have never felt such an effect as this, where a movie just enveloped me with its emotions, and even a day later after seeing it, its effect has barely faded.

I think the entire movie and the feelings it inspires can be summed up in an entire scene that occurs late in the film.  In it, we get a shot where the camera holds on the face of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejofor).  Up to this point, we have been following Solomon's tragic journey of when he was a free black man in Syracuse, New York with a wife and two children, and how he was abducted and sold into slavery back in the 1840s.  We have seen him go through unimaginable cruelty and abuse, none of which the movie shies away from, showing us every hardship that he and those around him have gone through.  The scene is free of dialogue, and feels almost like a quiet meditation on everything Solomon has gone through.  As the camera holds on his face, we are clearly looking at someone who can handle no more.  He has been defeated completely in spirit.  We get to see this and feel this with no sound, no dialogue, and no underlying music score. 

Just a little while ago, I described this film as Solomon's tragic journey, but this really is a depiction of the tragedy of so many people, not just him.  The tragedy centers around not just the fellow slaves who were equally broken and chipped away in spirit, but also in a way by the cruel people who are doing these things, and how they defend their actions.  No, this is not a movie to watch, nor should it be.  And less you think the movie is one big guilt trip, it is not.  It is a masterfully crafted drama that goes deeper into its subject matter than any earlier film has ever dared.  In one early scene, a slave trader played by Paul Giamatti guides potential customers through a beautiful mansion-like home, where black men and women are forced to stand naked on display so that the buyers can "inspect them at their leisure", and see how fit they are to work.  It is a scene of horror and humiliation unlike anything I have ever seen before.  It was this scene that first made me realize just how powerful this film was going to be, and that it would not be holding back in any way.

Solomon is one of those people who watches his freedom disappear.  We get some brief early scenes of happiness, and then, he has the misfortune of running into a pair of con artists who offer him a job, and take him out to a luxurious restaurant to celebrate, only to drug his drink, and sell him to the previously mentioned trader.  So begins Solomon's 12 year ordeal.  His first owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) is actually somewhat benevolent toward Solomon.  This does not last long, as Solomon soon runs afoul of a worker on the plantation (Paul Dano), and he has to be sold to a different owner for Solomon's own safety after he is almost hung by the vengeful worker.  This leads him to working for the violent and cruel Epps (Michael Fassbender), where he spends most of the remaining time during his years in slavery.  Epps wakes up his slaves in the middle of the night so that they will dance and play music for him for his own amusement.  We also meet another slave on Epps' plantation named Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), who gets the master's attention by working harder in the cotton fields than anyone else, so he rapes her on a regular basis.  Not only must she endure this, but also the cruelty of Epps' wife (Sarah Paulson), who becomes jealous and goes out of her way to mistreat her above the others.

All the while, Solomon does his best to hold onto what little hope he has by scratching the names of his wife and children into the base of his violin - an object that will later be destroyed in a fit of hopeless rage.  In yet another instance, he tries to gain the trust of a white field hand, and gives him some money he stashed away to deliver a letter for him to his friends back in New York, hoping that someone will come and help him.  The field hand betrays him, and Solomon is forced to burn the letter that could have saved him.  If I am making 12 Years a Slave sound like a movie you endure rather than watch, well, it can certainly seem that way at times.  And yet, it has also been expertly cast, and given a smooth, flowing screenplay by John Ridley (based on Solomon's own published memoir about his experiences).  This is the kind of film where all the elements have come together to create a perfect dramatic experience.  The performances, McQueen's expert direction, the cinematography (which can be beautiful and chilling all at once), and even the music score by Hans Zimmer - not one element here deserves to be overlooked, and aids the film in becoming the unforgettable experience that it is.

I have already listed many moments throughout the film that I will not soon forget, but I am pleased to report that there are many more that I have not talked about.  This is such an expertly put together film, you can expect a moment that is guaranteed to stick with you just about every few scenes or so.  And yet, I think what I enjoyed the most is just how remorseless the film feels.  We are seeing things we haven't seen before in past movies about this subject matter.  This feels like an entirely new experience, rising far above anything that may have come before it this year.  When it was over, I felt sad and angry, but I also felt like I had a cinematic experience I would not have traded for anything.  Not only does it deserve to win Best Picture during the award season early next year, but it deserves to be remembered far long after that.

I think it will be.  12 Years a Slave is not a comfortable movie to watch, but it's one that needs to be experienced.  This is the kind of movie you go to when you want to think, want to feel, and want to experience emotions that very few films can bring out of you.  This movie is simply unforgettable.

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Friday, November 08, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

I remember finding 2011's Thor to be a pleasant enough movie that paled in comparison to some of the better attempts to bring Marvel superheroes to the screen, namely Iron Man and the early Spider-Man films.  And yet, as I look back on that film, I find that I have a hard time drumming up much excitement for it.  Perhaps its charms have faded on me over time.  Whatever the case, Thor: The Dark World does little to make me remember those charms.  It's the kind of movie where things are constantly happening, and while it's never boring, it leaves absolutely no impact on you whatsoever.  And the more you think back on it, the more you realize how little it all adds up to.

And yet, I had some high expectations walking in, given the fact the filmmakers promised that this sequel would show us more of Thor's mythical land of Asgard.  The original movie took place largely on Earth, and so I saw this sequel as a chance for the filmmakers' imaginations to run wild.  And while we do indeed get to see a lot more of Asgard, what we do see is completely underwhelming.  Oh, it's been realized well enough all right with special effects.  But, there's no sense that we are being transported to another world.  We're simply watching actors walking around in flowing robes and gold armor, as they stand in front of expensive looking, but oddly nondescript, sets.  Asgard, and the other realms that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) visits during the course of the film, never feel completely real.  Maybe I wouldn't have minded so much if the people who inhabited these worlds were interesting or held personalities, but I must admit, of the Marvel film superheroes, Thor comes across as a bit of a dullard.  Sure, he's got those cascading golden locks of hair, and he wields that mean hammer, but when you get right down to it, Thor is not the kind of superhero you'd want to be stuck sitting next to on a long bus ride, as he seems to have little to say.  At least if you were sitting next to Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), he'd have some jokes to tell.

Conventional wisdom states that your superhero is only as good as the supervillains that they fight.  In this regard, Thor: The Dark World, comes up short, and gives us the Dark Elves - a group of non-entity villains who scheme to bring darkness to the land.  Their leader is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who lacks any sort of personality, and is driven solely by revenge.  He flies around in a spaceship, looking for an ancient weapon called the Aether that can help him with that whole "plunge the world into total darkness" thing he has going.  As villains go, Malekith is so stock, he could have come from a 1980s Saturday morning cartoon.  Oh, and Thor's old nemesis and brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is back to cause more mischief, only this time, he's an antihero instead of a villain, as he is forced to fight alongside Thor.  This brings about some comedic banter that can be funny at times, but for the most part, it feels like he was shoehorned into the plot because he's developed his own fanbase after the first movie and last year's The Avengers.  There are reports that say the movie went under major reshoots in order to strengthen Loki's role in the film.  It shows, as he often winds up making a more lasting impression than the hero.

When the action does eventually switch to Earth, we are reunited with Thor's human friends from the first film.  His main lady, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) apparently has spent a good part of the past two years wondering why Thor hasn't visited her since then.  Jane's sharp-tongued intern, Darcy (Kat Dennings) dispenses more sarcasm, and has an intern of her own to insult and eventually grow romantically attached to.  Meanwhile, Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) has basically been reduced to a running gag here, having taken up nude streaking, and having recently discovered that he does his best scientific research without pants on.  Jane gets to kick off the plot when she comes across the Aether that the Dark Elves are seeking, and somehow gets its essence trapped inside her body.  There's some talk of how her body won't be able to handle the power of the weapon within her, and that she will eventually die, but it never seems as grave of an issue as it should, and the screenplay even seems to forget about it for long periods of time.

That's another problem with Thor: The Dark World, the lack of urgency.  Things keep on happening, battles are raged, and special effects throw themselves across the screen, but there's never a true sense of impending doom for a good part of the film.  When the Dark Elves attack Asgard to try to get the Aether, this should be a dramatic moment, but it really just amounts to an impressively mounted action sequence with nothing behind it.  We're watching the battles and the effects, but it all goes in one ear and out the other.  There's no dramatic weight to anything here.  It's not until the film's final moments that things finally start to get interesting, thanks to an interesting battle scene where Thor and Malekith are constantly warping to different worlds in the middle of their battle.  Naturally, by the time this happens, the movie is essentially wrapping itself up.

As soulless an enterprise that this movie comes across, there are fleeting moments of humor that seem to hint at a brighter and funnier film.  Moments like Thor hanging his hammer up on a coat rack as he enters an apartment, or asking directions while riding a subway train seem to suggest that there is fun to be had with this character.  So, why don't the filmmakers take more advantage of this?  Instead, the screenplay plays this material deadly serious for the most part, with some comic relief characters on the side making the occasional snarky comment, or taking their clothes off for laughs.  This is a movie that could have benefited from a more tongue in cheek approach, or maybe more of a hint that the actors are having fun with this stuff.  It comes across now and then, but not enough.

Thor: The Dark World isn't as hollow or as empty a spectacle as last weekend's Ender's Game, but it still feels smaller and less fun than it should.  Perhaps there's only so much you can do with the guy in a movie, or he works better in a group, as in The Avengers.  All I can say with certainty is that I had more fun with the last two Marvel films from earlier this year, Iron Man 3 and The Wolverine.

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Sunday, November 03, 2013

Free Birds

2013 has not exactly been a banner year for animated films.  Sure, we've had a couple of good ones, like Despicable Me 2, Monsters University and Epic.  Still, none of those could certainly be called classics.  Most of the other entries in the animated family genre this year could be labeled as average, derivative, or worse.  Those very same labels could be applied to Free Birds.

Remember Chicken Run, the clever and witty animated film from 2000 about the chickens trying to escape from the farmer before they became the main course for his supper?  Well, consider Free Birds an uninspired take on the same idea, only with turkeys as the stars.  To differentiate the film, director Jimmy Hayward (who did the much better Horton Hears a Who a couple years ago) and co-writer Scott Mosier (best known for his work on Kevin Smith films) throw in elements of time travel, a top secret U.S. government project, a fight for survival, and even former President Bill Clinton (I kid you not).  The end result is an overly stuffed animated movie that tries to tackle too much, while not really succeeding at any one element.  The movie's not as sharp or as funny as it needs to be to work, the puns and wordplay between the talking turkeys is lame, and the animation, while colorful, is not lively enough to hold our attention. 

And yet, things in the film start out cute and promising as we're introduced to our main character, Reggie (voice by Owen Wilson), a rare survivalist turkey who has figured out why the farmer is fattening them all up with corn, and what he plans to do with them.  He tries to warn his bird brothers, but he quickly comes to the conclusion that "turkeys are dumb" when they won't listen to him, and go on believing that the farmer is their best friend.  With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, Reggie thinks he's done for when he is plucked out of the crowd by human hands.  Turns out those human hands belong to the President (voiced by director Hayward, doing a Clinton impersonation), who has chosen Reggie to be this year's "pardoned turkey".  Reggie is whisked off to Camp David, where he becomes the playmate of the President's hyper-active young daughter (who is also apparently a narcoleptic, given how she falls asleep at a drop of a hat), and begins living the good life as he discovers the joys of delivery pizza, Mexican soap operas on TV, and fuzzy slippers.

This introduction gives us some hope that Free Birds might work, but then things start to fall apart when we're introduced to our other main turkey character.  That would be Jake (Woody Harrelson), a large and possibly insane bird who believes that he is on a mission from "the Great Turkey" (a spiritual bird who he claims appeared before him and spoke to him) to go back in time and stop turkeys from becoming the main course at the first Thanksgiving.  Supposedly, the Great Turkey also told Jake that he needs to take Reggie along with him on his mission, so he abducts Reggie from Camp David, and leads him to a secret underground bunker where the President and the military is supposedly holding a top secret time traveling device.  Why does the President happen to have a time machine, and what does he plan to do with it?  The movie oddly never explains, so I guess we're just supposed to go with it.  Oh, and the time machine is also named S.T.E.V.E., and it has the voice of George Takei.  Just go with that, too.

So, Reggie and Jake travel back in time to a few days before the first Thanksgiving, where they find that the colonists are starving, and the gun-crazy Myles Standish (Colm Meaney) is on a personal mission to hunt down as many turkeys as possible for the feast they plan to hold.  Our heroes learn that the turkeys in this time period are already beginning to stage a rebellion against the hungry humans.  The turkey resistance is led by the noble Chief Broadbeak (Keith David), and his strong-willed daughter Jenny (Amy Poehler), who becomes a love interest for Reggie.  The time-traveling duo join up with the resistance, where they concoct a plan to destroy all of the humans' weapons and traps, so that they can't hunt turkeys anymore, as well as rescue all of their brothers who have already been captured.  It's about this point that the movie's plot becomes a bit too overstuffed and convoluted for its own good.  It's also the point where Free Birds loses any charm it may have had in its opening moments, and becomes an unfunny, loud, and tedious adventure story about survival.

Everything about this movie feels stagnant and underwritten.  The time travel element is confusing instead of being fun, the romance that blossoms between Reggie and Jenny is not very interesting, and the whole thing about the turkeys fighting for survival turns out to be a sloppy metaphor for the treatment the Native Americans got from the new settlers.  Worst of all, the script's just not that funny.  It tries to throw in a few jokes that will fly over the heads of the kids in the audience (including a brief, unneeded reference to the fact that the President may be having an affair), but most of them fall flat.  I doubt kids will even find much to get excited about here, other than the bright and colorful animation.  I hope I'm wrong.  I want kids to have a good time when they go to movies like this.  But I also think they deserve better than what they're given here.

With Free Birds, there's just one question you have to ask - Just because the movie is about turkeys, why does the movie itself have to be a turkey, also?

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

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Saturday, November 02, 2013

Last Vegas

We walk in expecting a good time with Last Vegas, and for the most part, the movie delivers.  True, the script could have been funnier, but the movie provides us the golden opportunity to see old pros like Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline acting together and having a great time.  They are wonderful, as is Mary Steenburgen, who plays a small-time lounge singer they befriend.  There is an undeniable charm to this movie, and this bright cast is responsible.

The ad campaign for the film seems to be trying to sell this as kind of a geriatric take on The Hangover.  Thank heavens, it's much better than that.  The plot kicks off in 1955, with the four main characters as childhood friends growing up in Brooklyn who call themselves the Flatbush Four.  Flash forward to the present, and the guys have stayed in touch for the most part, despite going their separate ways.  Sean (Kline) lives with his wife (Joanna Gleason) in Florida, and is pretty much surrounded by reminders that he's not getting any younger, his recent knee replacement being the latest sign.  Archie (Freeman) has recently suffered a mild stroke, and now must live under the care of his overly protective son, who treats his father like the slightest breeze will knock him over.  Paddy (De Niro) is still grieving over the death of his wife and has become a recluse, refusing to leave his apartment, surrounded by photos of the woman he loved.  Finally, there's Billy (Douglas), who lives in a beach side home in Malibu with a girlfriend who is half his age.  When Billy proposes to his 31-year-old girlfriend, the four decide to reunite in Las Vegas for a bachelor party weekend.

Credit goes to director Jon Turteltaub (The Sorcerer's Apprentice), who knows how to play up to the individual acting strengths of his four main stars.  The chemistry between these guys is so immediate, they really do seem like life-long friends from the moment they walk on the screen.  Credit must also go to screenwriter Dan Fogelman (The Guilt Trip), who not only provides a light and breezy comedic script, but also some surprisingly effective character-building moments.  This mainly surrounds the De Niro and Douglas characters, who have had a falling out in the past few years, and old wounds are reopened when they come together in Vegas.  Not only does the script deal with their issue honestly for the most part, it also manages to avoid some heavy-handed melodrama that the content could have easily lent itself to.  De Niro's performance especially benefits from this aspect of his character, as he actually gets to act here, and is not just cashing a paycheck.  After seeing him in back-to-back bombs earlier this year (The Big Wedding from this past Spring, and The Family from a couple months ago), it's nice to finally see De Niro get to be likable, funny, and kind of charming here.  For once, he's not just playing on his stereotyped tough guy image.

All of the four main stars get to stand out in some way, which is really the charm of Last Vegas.  Kevin Kline, in particular, gets big laughs from his performance, and manages to turn scenes that could have been stupid (such as when he can't figure out how to work the trunk in his rental car) into moments that made me smile.  No matter how broad the comedy in this film gets at times, these actors know how to play it in such a way that it seems, well, kind of grounded.  I never thought the sight of Douglas, De Niro, Freeman, and Kline judging a bikini contest could work, but these guys manage to make it fun.  We're laughing with these guys, instead of rolling our eyes like we know we should be.  And then there's the romantic subplot, concerning Mary Steenburgen's character, whom they meet shortly after arriving in Vegas.  Her plot and character is very sweet and likable, and doesn't feel as tacked on as it would in a lesser movie. 

Last Vegas only wants to be a gentle little crowd pleaser, and it works very well on that level.  It's brisk, it's silly, and I didn't buy a single second of it, but I also found that I didn't care.  The movie's too likable and sweet, and delivers on its promise of escapism.  I imagine it will be a small word-of-mouth hit in the coming weeks.  It certainly deserves to be.

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

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