Reel Opinions


Friday, February 28, 2014

Non-Stop

The opening scene of Non-Stop pretty much tells us everything we need to know about its hero, Bill Marks (Liam Neeson).  He's sitting alone in his car, looking sadly at the rain hitting against the windshield, which tells us he's depressed.  He glances over at a photo of a little girl he has mounted on his dashboard, which tells us he's obviously lost a child, and it still haunts him.  After staring at the photo for a few seconds, he takes out a liquor bottle and pours it into his coffee cup, telling us that he's battling personal demons.  It's a brilliant little example of exposition, telling us everything we need to know about the character in the opening 30 seconds or so of the film.  It also gets us in the mood for a quiet and personal little drama or thriller.

The movie that follows betrays those expectations.  While it's far from bad, I had a hard time buying a single second of it, and never felt drawn in enough so I could ignore the silliness on display and just enjoy it for what it is.  It's been made with care, and has some reliable actors giving game performances in supporting roles, even if the script is giving them little to do.  Non-Stop is efficient for what it is, but it never quite hit that right level of tension and drama that would draw me in.  It's also a movie that unfortunately gets sillier as it goes on, making it harder to take seriously.  By the time the climax rolls around, the screenplay is throwing heavy-handed cliches left and right, including an out of the blue political message, a killer who loves to just stand there and spell out their ultimate plan, giving the hero ample time to turn the tables, and a child who exists simply so they can be placed in peril.

But before all that happens and the movie derails, we're interested as Bill Marks, a Federal Air Marshal, boards a flight from New York to London.  He takes his seat on the plane next to a chatty and friendly woman named Jen (Julianne Moore), and prepares for what should be an uneventful six hours up in the air.  His personal demons are still hounding him during the flight, so he sneaks into the bathroom, disables the smoke detector with a strip of tape, and helps himself to a cigarette to calm his nerves.  As soon as he exits the bathroom, his nerves get rattled all over again when he receives a text message from someone on the plane who not only knows who Bill is and his troubled background, but also threatens to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired to a private account.  Should the threat be taken seriously?  He lets only a select few people on board know, so as not to cause a panic.  No one is sure what to do.  That's when certain people on the flight start turning up dead, and Bill knows he's being personally challenged by someone on the plane.

With the help of the previously mentioned Jen, and a flight attendant named Nancy (Michelle Dockery), Bill tries to sniff out the person responsible without drawing attention.  But then, some troubling news arrives - The private account that the money is supposed to be wired to is in Bill's name.  This is not a spoiler, as the trailers and ad campaign have already revealed this information.  Besides, the movie has to throw suspicion upon its main character somehow.  This is one of those movies where everybody is suspicious in some way, shape or form, playing on the fact that the killer could literally be anyone on board.  However, the characters are too thinly written to be good suspects.  Most of the passengers are one-note characters (the angry and rude black guy, the tough guy New York cop who wants to take control of the situation, the kind medical doctor, the scared little girl who's never been flying before), and while the actors playing them are fine, they never really get to stand out.

At the middle of it all is Liam Neeson, who at 61, seems to be having the time of his life with this reinvention of himself as an action hero ever since 2008's Taken.  He commands the screen and does his best to hold our attention, even when the plot is flying off the rails.  He does a commendable job, and I'm glad he was in the movie, as he's the only actor who actually does get to make some sort of impression.  Julianne Moore comes close at times.  I liked her character, and I kept on waiting for the movie to develop her further, but aside from an effective scene where she gets to explain her personal view of the world and why she doesn't want to waste a single day, she never gets to stand out as much as she should.  Finally, it's almost criminal how this movie wastes the talented Lupita Nyong'o (an Oscar nominee for 12 Years a Slave) in a nothing role as a flight attendant, where she has maybe five lines of dialogue in the entire film, and spends most of her time standing in the background.  I have a feeling that after this Sunday, you won't be seeing her in roles like this for very long.

I think Non-Stop has all the right elements to be a successful thriller, it just needed to strengthen them in order for the movie to work.  The characters and supporting passengers and flight crew needed to be fleshed out more in order for us to get involved in the "anyone can be a suspect" plot.  The way it's written, when the true identity of the villain is revealed, it's almost an anticlimax.  Heck, were it not for the well-executed, but increasingly ludicrous climax that follows, the ending may have been a total wash out.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Pompeii

As a love story, Pompeii had very little effect on me, mainly because I didn't care about the characters inhabiting the story.  As a disaster spectacle, the movie works a little bit better, especially during the last half hour, when we finally get to see what we paid for - Vesuvius erupting upon the doomed city.  The film's obvious story inspiration is James Cameron's Titanic, in how it takes a historical disaster, and builds it around a love story between a poor man who has nothing, and a wealthy woman who has everything, except love and happiness.  However, unlike Jack and Rose, the young lovers in this story barely get to spend any screen time together, so it's kind of hard to get behind them.

The weak love story may have to do with the fact that the director is Paul W.S. Anderson, the man best known for the Resident Evil film franchise, as well as Alien vs. Predator.  Just by knowing his past work, you can tell that his interest lies in the destruction and the special effects, and not the characters.  With this knowledge, is it really any surprise that the movie finally takes off when the volcano blows its top?  Anderson makes sure that we can glimpse the soon-to-be-erupting mountain in just about every shot.  It's like he's anticipating it as much as we are.  We get a lot of ominous warnings, and close up shots of the land and city walls as they start to rumble and shake - early signs of what's to come.  When Vesuvius finally does go off, it's an impressive sight, as long as you're watching the film in 2D.  With its dark colors, falling ash and flames, the optional 3D version ends up looking kind of muddy and washed out.  See the movie in 2D if you can, so you can truly admire the effects of the last half.

What happens before the destruction centers around a young slave and gladiator named Milo (Kit Harrington), who witnessed his entire people get slaughtered by the Roman army when he was a child, and now seeks vengeance as he fights his way to the top of the gladiator circuit.  That's pretty much all you need to know about our young hero, other than the fact that he pines for the lovely Cassia (Emily Browning), a noblewoman who shares Milo's love of horses.  It turns out she is engaged to be married to the cruel and ever-sneering Roman Senator Corvus (an over the top Kiefer Sutherland), whom she has no interest in, and is the very man who ordered Milo's people to be killed.  Milo also bonds with another fighter named Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who is one battle away from becoming a free man.  If you need another sign that this movie is not really interested in the love story between Milo and Cassia, all you need to do is look at the fact that he spends more time with Atticus. 

I'd wager to guess that the characters of Milo and Cassia spend maybe a grand total of 10 minutes together, and most of that time is spent talking about horses.  Not exactly a love for the ages, you have to admit.  Naturally, this means that there's just not a lot to grab our attention before the city of Pompeii goes up in flames and ash.  The stuff about Milo being a gladiator and forced to fight for the amusement of the nobles doesn't have as much weight as you would expect, and while the battles are shot well enough, they're nothing we haven't seen before, and are completely bloodless in order to secure that PG-13 rating.  This was a movie that was obviously shot to be an R, and you can tell from the rapid editing and quick cuts during a lot of the more violent sequences.  The fights were obviously thrown in to break up the monotony of waiting for the volcano to explode, but it's just not enough.

Really, the one thing that did hold my attention before the spectacle began was the off the wall performance by Kiefer Sutherland.  Speaking with a bizarre accent, and hissing his lines through clenched teeth, Sutherland plays his character like he thinks he's a villain in a kid's movie.  He overacts, his sneer hardly ever leaves his face, and he really plays up the slimy aspect of the character, as if he somehow thinks if he doesn't, we won't get the idea that he's supposed to be the bad guy.  The best performance in the film belongs to Adwale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who brings a small amount of humor and personality to his performance.  That's more than can be said for the young leads, Kit Harrington and Emily Browning, who both look attractive, but apparently left their personalities behind on the set.  Not only is their relationship shortchanged, they generally don't act all that interested in each other.

Pompeii follows the familiar formula of past disaster movies, but has not learned from the films it desperately wants to imitate.  It takes so much more than destruction to sell a movie like this, you also have to give a darn about the people, and feel something when you realize that there is no hope for any of them.  We don't get that here.  When the destruction is over, and we're looking at the aftermath while sad Enya-style music plays on the soundtrack, the images we see don't really mean anything.  That's the last thing I expected.

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Friday, February 21, 2014

3 Days to Kill

The ad campaign for 3 Days to Kill wants to desperately make you think of the Taken films.  After all, they share the same screenwriter, Luc Besson, and both deal with a father-daughter relationship between a middle aged special agent (this time, the role is filled by Kevin Costner, instead of Liam Neeson) and a teenage daughter.  But, truth be told, the films are nothing alike.  And if i must be even more honest, I liked this movie a lot more than either of the Taken films.  It's light, it's at times very funny, and it features one of Costner's better recent performances.

Costner plays Ethan Renner, a hit man for the CIA, with a teenage daughter that he seldom sees, though he does try to get in touch with her to wish her a happy birthday over the phone while on his latest mission as the film opens.  His mission is to take out a pair of terrorists who are known only as The Wolf (Richard Sammel) and The Albino (Tomas Lemarquis), but Ethan hasn't been feeling very well.  He brushes it off as a really bad cold, but as he gives chase to one of the fleeing villains, he suddenly becomes very light headed and faints.  Why the terrorist he's pursuing doesn't take this opportunity to kill Ethan right then and there, I'm not really sure, but I digress.  Ethan awakes days later in a hospital, and discovers that he has cancer with only a few months left to live.  He's dismissed from the CIA, and returns to Paris to set his affairs in order, as well as break the news to his estranged family.

His wife, Christine (Connie Nielsen), learns the truth behind Ethan's return into their lives quite quickly, but Ethan is nervous about telling his daughter, Zoe (Hailee Steinfeld from the True Grit remake), about his recent diagnosis.  Zoe starts out as your typical sarcastic, angst-filled movie teenager, who gets in fights at school, and always acts embarrassed around her parents.  However, as the movie went on, I was delighted to learn that the movie actually is interested in developing a real relationship between Ethan and Zoe, and one that actually feels kind of genuine.  Christine has to leave for a business trip, leaving Ethan alone to bond with the daughter he's seldom spent time with, due to his job.  And while the arc these two characters take, from overall distrust, to grudging acceptance, and finally bonding love, is somewhat predictable, the performances of Costner and Steinfeld are strong enough so that we don't care if we are basically being manipulated at times.

While all this family bonding is going on, Ethan is approached by a CIA femme fatale named Vivi (Amber Heard), who wants him to do one last job for her, and offers him an experimental drug that could prolong his health and life expectancy as payment.  No surprise the job involves Ethan tracking down the two villains who get away at the beginning of the picture.  For the most part, 3 Days to Kill is a darkly comic film, as Ethan tries to juggle this one last assassination job, while at the same time trying to spend more time with his daughter.  What made the film work for me is that the father/daughter relationship makes up a lot more of the running time than you would expect, especially given the title.  The movie takes the time to build these characters and relationships, and while it's nothing deep certainly, they're developed enough that I found myself caring about what happens to them.  Sure, the transition from family bonding to violence during the spy scenes can be somewhat jarring, but even when its in action movie mode, it has a sense of humor about itself, reminding us that we're not supposed to be taking this all that seriously to begin with.

The film is directed by McG, who is known for his elaborate stunts and over the top action.  Fortunately, he knows not to play it too crazy here, and keeps a lot of the action grounded, while still being intense.  We don't see Costner doing a lot of things that should be impossible, so the action never starts to resemble a live action cartoon.  The movie is also very good at mixing the action and comedy, such as the moments where Ethan is interrogating some associates of the villains he is after, and he ends up having to take a call from his daughter in the middle of it.  Surprisingly, this is not a throw away gag, and the movie actually works this into the plot a little, with Ethan developing a bond with a limo driver for the terrorists, who has two teenage daughters of his own.  Not only are the sequences actually funny, but they serve a purpose to the character.  I liked the uneasy bond that grew between Ethan and the limo driver, and how they share parenting tips during their frequently hostile run-ins.

3 Days to Kill is kind of a mess as it tries to balance family comedy with violent action, but it works just enough that I am recommending it.  Costner fits the role well of an aging tough guy, maybe not quite as well as Liam Neeson, but he gets the job done, and you buy his struggles to get back together with his family.  This is an oddly sweet little movie, and I liked it a lot more than I expected to.

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

About Last Night

This past weekend, there have been three different remakes of films from the 1980s, with RoboCop and Endless Love being the previous two.  Of the three, About Last Night is not only the most faithful to the original source material, it's also the best.  As an adaptation of the 1986 film (and the David Mamet play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, that inspired it), this film keeps the general plot, characters and even some of the dialogue in tact.  However, it's not slavishly faithful to the point that it doesn't need to exist, and adds a lot of its own charms, including a very likable lead cast.

Director Steve Pink (Hot Tub Time Machine) and screenwriter Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) have changed the film's setting from Chicago to LA, but have more or less kept the basic plot and characters in check.  Our key characters are Danny (Michael Early) and Debbie (Joy Bryant), who meet at a bar through their respective best friends, Bernie (Kevin Hart) and Joan (Regina Hall).  There is a strong instant bond between Danny and Debbie in the film, and Early and Bryant have more than enough chemistry together that we buy it.  They sleep together after their first date, and move quickly through the different stages of a relationship - starting out as "friends with benefits", and eventually becoming more serious as they fall in love and move in with other.  We get to watch them go through the "honeymoon phase", and eventually become frustrated with each other as reality sets in, and the relationship becomes a normal aspect of their everyday life.  This is certainly nothing we haven't seen before (and Before Midnight did a better job exploring a deteriorating relationship), but the screenplay does have some smart things to say about couples, and the actors hold our attention.

We also get a subplot following Bernie and Joan's relationship, and how it goes from being heavily sexual, to non-existent with the two seemingly hating each other, and back to the starting point when they eventually get together.  If Danny and Debbie are supposed to be the "straight" characters that couples can relate to, than Bernie and Joan exist mainly as comic relief sidekicks, and they do their job well.  Both Kevin Hart and Regina Hall get some big laughs with their dialogue, which seems to be a mixture of the original Mamet dialogue, and new content.  Hart, in particular, finally gets to stand out here, after the rather mediocre Ride Along from just last month, where he showed a ton of energy, but didn't have that good of material to work with.  Here, he gets some genuinely funny dialogue, and displays the same kind of high energy performance, that shows what the guy can do with the right script.

What About Last Night does share with the very good original film is that both are very frank and honest about sexual relationships, and how men and women act in them.  Like I said, it's nothing new, and a lot of films have covered the very same material.  But Headland's script remains very bright, taking a few new angles that were not in the original.  Regardless, she does pay some tribute to the earlier film, even giving the original film's stars, Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, a sort-of cameo that serves as a throwback.  But I think what I appreciated the most is that this is a romantic comedy about smart people that treats its characters as relatively smart people.  Watching this film, I found myself thinking back on the recent That Awkward Moment, which shares a lot of similarities with this, only it's not written as smart.  This is the film that movie wanted to be, and could have been if the characters in the other movie had been written better.

I have already briefly touched on the strong chemistry between the stars Michael Early and Joy Bryant, but I feel I should go a little bit deeper, as they really do bring a lot to their characters.  Unlike the high energy performances of Hart and Hall, these two are required to be much more down to Earth and relatable, and do a wonderful job.  The script gives them a three dimensional relationship, where we can see how it slowly builds and ultimately falls apart, and both are up to the challenge of creating these well rounded characters.  Not only do they have great romantic chemistry, but they are also able to sell the uncertain moments of their relationships in such a way that seems realistic.  When they argue, it feels like a real argument, not a staged moment where they are playing for the cameras.  It's the honesty in the performances and the writing that really sells these characters, and allows us to get behind them and want to see them work things out by the end.

About Last Night is one of the better remakes I have seen recently, as it understands what made the original film work, without trying to completely copy the earlier formula.  It's not afraid to strike out on its own, nor does it ignore the charms from its predecessor.  Throw in a strong cast and some very smart and often very funny writing, and you have a romantic comedy that's strong enough to survive well past the Valentine's Day weekend rush.

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Endless Love

Those of you looking for a remake of the 1981 Endless Love movie that starred Brooke Shields, or even a more faithful adaptation of the 1979 novel that inspired it, will not find what they are looking for with this 2014 version.  This is a sometimes sweet and inoffensive teen romance story that honestly didn't need the attachment to the earlier material to succeed.  And since this movie has nothing to do with the earlier film or the original novel, other than some character names and the fact that a house catches on fire at one point,  you have to wonder why the filmmakers didn't just give it a different title.

Both the earlier film and the source novel were about teenage love turning to obsession, and how it can lead to dangerous things.  This Endless Love takes a more Nicholas Sparks approach, with lots of wistful montages, lots of kissing, and a tiny bit of PG-13 sex and raunchiness just to tantalize the teens in the audience.  Our young lovers, David (Alex Pettyfer) and Jade (Gabriella Wilde), are recent graduates from high school who are separated by class.  David's a lower class kid who works at an auto garage with his dad (Robert Patrick).  He's admired Jade ever since seventh grade, but she comes from a world of wealth, and he's always been afraid to talk to her.  It doesn't help that Jade has been an emotional shut in ever since her older brother died of cancer a few years ago, and doesn't really fit in with everybody.  With high school over, Jade's about to fly off to college to follow in her father's footsteps to study to become a cardiologist.  But then David and Jade have a meet cute scene, and they start to fall in love, which makes Jade question what she really wants to do with the rest of her life.

This does not sit well with Jade's father (Bruce Greenwood), who has the role of the heavy in the story.  He doesn't like David, because the guy seems to have no plans for the future, not even to go on to college.  He doesn't want his daughter to get involved with this guy, and grows even more concerned when he witnesses them frolicking in the lake from his home window.  David does his best to try to win over Jade's dad.  He fixes up the car that once belonged to her dead brother, and he even starts looking into going to college in the second semester.  Bruce Greenwood is a very capable actor, and he's good in the role, but he's stuck playing a character who is supposed to be wrong at every turn, and resist every effort that David tries to win him over.  Joely Richardson plays his long-suffering wife, and she's good too, but her role seems to be cut short.  We keep on waiting for her big scene where she finally blows up at the guy and tells him to get a life, but it never happens.  We can sense her exasperation, and she looks like she's ready to explode at any minute, but she stays muted most of the time.

If Winter's Tale was a romantic fairy tale with a lot of weirdness tossed in, then Endless Love is a much more conventional story about teenage love, and parents who just don't understand.  For what it is, it's made well enough.  Pettyfer and Wilde do actually have good chemistry during their scenes together, and they make a good couple, even if they both look a little too old to be playing 17-year-olds.  All of the actors here are actually very good, and there are some nice moments where we see Jade's family slowly opening up and having fun for the first time when David comes around.  These moments have a certain breezy charm - maybe a bit too breezy, because the movie itself lacks real tension.  For all of Greenwood's huffing and screaming about David being a bad influence, and eventually tossing out a restraining order, we never find ourselves fearful about the fate of this couple.  It doesn't help that the plot eventually becomes horribly contrived, and starts throwing in a lot of forced situations to either keep David and Jade apart, or in trouble.  The movie's at its best when its just being a simple and sweet teenage love story.

I'm certain Endless Love will strike a chord with teen audiences over Valentine's Day weekend, but I can't imagine the shock they're in for if they happen to read the novel after seeing this movie.  Even the original author, Scott Spencer, has spoken out about how this movie has little to nothing to do with his book.  As a faithful adaptation, this doesn't cut it.  But, as a conventional romantic fantasy that kids can get lost in, I've seen a lot worse.

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Winter's Tale

Akiva Goldsman's Winter's Tale gives us a handsome physical production, dialogue that sounds like it was composed by a Hallmark card, and a plot that reads like it was dreamed up in a loony bin.  It's a romantic fairy tale for the most part, but there are elements of it that are just so flat out bizarre, I wonder if Goldsman knew what kind of film he was making.  I'm not recommending it, but at the same time, I recall the film with a small amount of guilty pleasure.  Hey, at least it's not as boring of a romance as Labor Day.  If I had to choose between Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin getting seductive over a fruit pie, or Colin Farrell riding to the rescue on a magical white flying horse, I'll take the horse every time.

The plot is borrowed from a popular novel by Mark Helprin, and is set during two different time periods - 1916 and 2014, to be more precise.  In both time periods, we follow the same hero, who does not age at all during that nearly 100 year time span.  Said hero is the 21-year-old Peter Lake (played by the 37-year-old Colin Farrell).  In 1916, Peter is a small-time thief who is on the run from his former crime boss, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe).  Pearly looks and talks like an early 20th Century gangster, but in reality, he is a demon from the underworld, who answers directly to Satan himself, played here by Will Smith. (Yes, that Will Smith.) What Peter doesn't know is that he plays a role in the battle between Heaven and Hell.  It's Peter's destiny to initiate a miracle, and Pearly wants to make sure that never happens.  Helping Peter out for the side of God is an angelic white horse, who can sprout magical wings and fly when it is in danger.  This is just one of many fantastic elements of the story that Peter (and pretty much everyone else) seems to take in stride and not even question.

While hiding out from Pearly, Peter breaks into the home of newspaper publisher Isaac Penn (William Hurt), with the intent of stealing a few valuables for cash before he flees the city.  But the house is not as empty as Peter thinks, as Isaac's angelic and sickly daughter, Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay) is there.  Peter is immediately captivated by Beverly, who is suffering from that famous Hollywood disease that makes women more beautiful as they approach death.  The two hit it off, and before long, they are exchanging flowery dialogue that cynics in the audience will love to rip to shreds.  But can they stay together?  It does not take long until Beverly is in danger of succumbing to her illness, and Pearly is getting closer each day.  Through plot developments that I must be vague about here, Peter somehow becomes immortal, and must wander the Earth until it is 2014, and he is now an amnesiac with no memory of who he is, or how he got this way.

This is where the second half of the plot kicks in, with Peter trying to unlock the clues of his past with the aid of a reporter for a local newspaper (Jennifer Connelly).  The reporter has a sweet little girl dying of cancer, and it seems almost as if Peter will have to repeat the past, and watch someone he loves die.  Not only that, it seems that Pearly is still alive also after all this time, and wants to finish things that started almost 100 years ago.  As a romance, Winter's Tale is pretty shameless in its sentimentality, with all of its talk of eternal love, guardian angels taking physical form to protect young lovers, and people being reborn as stars in the sky.  This is obviously intentional on the part of the screenplay.  What doesn't work so well is all the mysticism and supernatural elements of the story.  None of it is explained very well, if at all, and Goldsman seems to just keep on wanting the audience to just go with whatever is happening up on the screen.  Maybe this would be easier to do if the characters actually reacted to these mystical happenings.  You would think climbing on the back of a horse, who suddenly appeared on the roof of your New York apartment for no reason, only to have it go flying through the sky and take you on a whirlwind flight through Times Square would elicit some response from the Jennifer Connelly character, but she says nothing while this is happening, or even after.  Those New Yorkers, so jaded.

It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy a movie like this.  You have to be willing to accept that two people can instantly fall in love, even though they know little to nothing about each other.  You have to look at the image of the hero riding on a white horse to rescue the damsel from the villain in the nick of time, and not roll your eyes.  With the right script and tone, I think I could accept these ideas.  I actually wanted to get swept away in the romantic fantasy.  Despite a game effort from Farrell and Findlay in the two lead roles, they never generate enough sparks together to make us want to get behind the couple.  The main thing that did hold my attention, aside from the increasingly bizarre plot, was the look of the film by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.  His snowy landscapes are a marvel to look at, as are some of the old time mansions and structures during the first half of the film.  If you can somehow manage to drown out the dialogue, and just focus on the visuals, you might find yourself enjoying the film more.

Winter's Tale obviously wants us to get swept up in a romantic mood, but the movie doesn't try hard enough to generate that mood, so instead, the audience is kept at a distance.  An audience kept at a distance is the worst thing that can happen to a movie like this, as it allows them to see the various plot holes, and comment on how ridiculous it is.  I've not read the original novel, but I hear it's much better, so it's obvious that something got lost in translation.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

RoboCop

The RoboCop remake is a total assembly line movie.  Sure, it's been made with a certain degree of skill, but it's also been completely sanitized to the point that we watch the movie with total indifference.  It's not boring, but there's never anything that really grabs out attention either.  The graphic violence and gleeful satire of the 1987 original have been completely removed, so that the film can give us a quieter, more character-driven story.  That's all well and good, but the movie overlooks one crucial detail - In order to have a character-driven story, you need interesting characters to drive it.

It's clear what director Jose Padilha and first time screenwriter Joshua Zetumer are trying to do to set their film apart from Paul Verhoeven's Sci-Fi cult classic.  Rather than make a bloody and violent satire on action movies in general, they want their RoboCop movie to be more human.  This film puts a much larger emphasis on Alex Murphy (played here by Joel Kinnaman), the man inside the machine.  It wants to be about how he is slowly dehumanized during the process of him being converted into a mechanical body, and how it effects both him and his family, which consists of a fretful wife and a sad-eyed son.  It also wants to explore some of the ethical questions and issues about the how process of putting a man's soul inside a machine, and question who is in control underneath all that hardware - Murphy or the computer?  Can a man truly be controlled?  These are the serious questions that the scientist responsible for the project (Gary Oldman) finds himself confronted with as RoboCop is unleashed upon the streets of Detroit.

I could get behind this approach if the screenplay was actually willing to ask them, instead of kind of tiptoeing up to the issue, then quickly backing away.  And as I mentioned, the characters simply aren't interesting enough to drive such thoughtful material.  Even before he becomes a mechanical one-man weapon against crime, Alex Murphy never strikes us as a unique or interesting individual.  He loves his wife and kid, and he's obsessed with catching a criminal by the name of Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow).  That's about all we get to learn about him before a car bomb goes off, severely damaging most of his body, and making him a prime candidate to have what remains of him placed in a robotic exoskeleton.  Once he's inside that suit, it becomes an internal struggle as Murphy tries to hold onto what little humanity he has left.  But the thing is, the robot side and the human side never seem all that different.  Unlike the layered performance Peter Weller gave in the original, Kinnaman seems cold in his emotions, even before he is being controlled by a mega corporation as a publicity device.

The RoboCop project is spearheaded by a billionaire robotics genius named Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton).  He wants his robots to protect the streets of the city, but Congress and the American people are questionable about having robots keeping the peace.  He soon comes to the conclusion that a man mixed with a machine might calm some of those fears, and begins looking for cops who have been wounded and handicapped during service.  When he comes across Murphy, he knows he's found his man.  What follows is a very long and drawn out sequence that takes up a good chunk of the film, where Alex must learn to use his new robotic body.  He is trained in using his new hardware, as well as weaponry.  By the time RoboCop is finally ready to be revealed to the public, hit the streets, and start fighting crime, the movie is almost halfway over.  Those who walk into this film expecting a thrill ride will be disappointed.  There's very little action on display here, and what action there is usually is filmed in the dreaded "shaky cam" style.

Again, I could easily live with this if the characters were interesting enough to carry a movie,.  None of them are.  Much is made in this film of Murphy's wife (Abbie Cornish) trying to reach her husband as he is slowly consumed by the computerized brain controlling him.  Her struggle to keep her husband's humanity in check should be a noble one, but the movie doesn't even treat her as a character.  She's instead used as a plot device, and the movie never goes deeper into her relationship with her husband than just the very shallow surface.  Same goes for their young son, who seems bothered by what his father has become.  Again, this could have been a compelling little subplot, but the movie completely ignores it, and pushes it to the side.  This is ultimately what makes RoboCop a frustrating experience.  You can see that it wants to explore these characters, but it never gives itself the luxury to do so.  It's like the movie is constantly selling itself short.

I also think it was a mistake to drop RoboCop's partner from the original film.  While he does still have a partner (played by Michael K. Williams), he doesn't really get to play any part in the story.  He kind of comes and goes from the film at will, and never even gets to work alongside RoboCop, which makes the character all the more pointless.  There's just a lot of wasted potential up on the screen.  You can see promise everywhere you look, but the movie either ignores the opportunity, or it doesn't build like it should.  The movie is frequently interrupted by a TV show called The Novak Element, where a Bill O'Reilly wannabe played by Samuel L. Jackson rants and raves about the need for robots in America.  Jackson is lively in the role, but the satire is limp, since it exists in a universe outside of the actual movie.  The original film featured a lot of funny made up TV clips, which I think this film is trying to mimic here, but it doesn't work that well.  I also enjoyed the film's opening sequence, which shows massive robots keeping peace in Iran, but again, it is merely a set piece, and never really connects with the total film.

I am not of the mind that the original RoboCop movie is sacred and untouchable.  I think a remake could very well have worked if handled the right way, but this movie takes too many wrong turns.  It is a noble effort, and at the very least, it's not as terrible as many fans feared it would be.  It never offends the memory of the original, while at the same time not doing enough to live up to it.

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

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Best Films of 2013

Well, seeing as though everybody else has had their "best of the year" list out since December, I guess I should get off my lazy behind, and get one out also, shouldn't I?  As always, I have a good excuse.  As a regular paying filmgoer, I choose to hold off on this list until I can see as many of the year's films as I can.  And since many of the big end of the year films usually expand slowly (sometimes very slowly) into wide release around January-February, I choose to wait.

As usual, I will be naming my favorite film of the year, followed by what I felt were the great films of 2013.  The great films can be anything that truly grabbed my attention, so they can be dramas, comedies, kid's films, whatever.  Then I'll be listing the "honorable mentions" (the runner ups), followed by my 10 favorite actor and actress performances of the year.  Aside from Best Film, all of these choices will be listed in no particular order.

So, with that out of the way, let's get down to the important stuff - the movies.


THE BEST FILM OF 2013

12 YEARS A SLAVE - Director Steve McQueen has made a masterpiece here, and a truly game-changing film.  Anyone who ever wants to do a film set around slavery or the time period is going to have to step up their game after this devastating account of one of the sadder parts of American history.  More terrifying than any thriller or horror film released last year, we watch how a free black man by the name of Solomon Northup (played unforgettably by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is torn from his family and forced into slavery, where he is placed under the relentless control of a master (Michael Fassbender) determined to break his spirit.  Due to the unflinching nature of the film's honesty and violence, this is not always an easy film to watch.  But it is suspenseful, and a grand piece of filmmaking, complete with one of the best casts of any film this year.  12 Years a Slave transports you to its period of time in a way few films can.


THE GREAT FILMS OF 2013

GRAVITY - Yet another game changer for modern cinema, and a film that was very nearly edged out of the top spot, Gravity is a true wonder, and is that rare kind of cinematic technical achievement we seldom see.  The way that it puts us right into the middle of vast space, along with a pair of astronauts struggling to survive after an accident happens during a mission is nothing short of astonishing.  This is not a plot-driven film, rather it seems to flow in real time.  Everything feels organic, and during its running time, we are right there with the stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as they float helplessly, and try to get in touch with Mission Control.  Throw in some of the best 3D effects ever attempted, and you have that special kind of film that can only be experienced on the big screen.

BEFORE MIDNIGHT - The third chapter in Richard Linklater's romantic trilogy is hands down the best movie about relationships I have seen in years.  In 1995's Before Sunrise, we got a story about love at first sight, as two young people (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) met on a train, and spent the day together.  In 2004's Before Sunset, the characters were reunited and tried to rekindle the feelings they had for each other on that one day they spent together.  Now, in Before Midnight, we get to see a side of relationships we seldom see in movies - What happens when the romantic spark has faded, and normalcy sets into the relationship?  Most movies would use that as a spring board for a film about the couple trying to get back together, but here, we get an honest and heartfelt look at these two characters in the midst of a deteriorating relationship, and we're never quite sure how things will work out.  The characters spend almost the entire running time talking, and walking around picturesque scenery, and quite frankly, when the movie was over, I felt like I could have spent another 2 hours watching more of the same.  That's just how good the dialogue between these two characters is, and how relatable these people are.  This is a film that sparks conversation and debate between couples when they watch it, and seven months after I saw it at the theater, its power has not yet faded on me.

BLUE JASMINE - This may be the saddest and most unflinching film Woody Allen has ever made.  It's also one of his better recent ones.  Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a woman who is shattered both emotionally and mentally, as well as defeated by life.  She has lost the upscale New York life she once enjoyed when she was married to a financial crook (Alec Baldwin).  Now that the money is gone, she is desperately clinging to the past, which makes her mentally all the more fragile after everything that has happened to her.  Blanchett essentially gives two performances here, one in flashbacks when she is proud, confident, and wealthy, and the other in the present when she is bitter, cracked, and slowly slipping into mental illness.  She is perfectly engaging in both, and gives one of the top performances of the year.  Blue Jasmine manages moments of Allen's trademark humor, but it is far more memorable for being tragic and completely compelling.

PRISONERS - When this devastating drama came out back in October, it seemed like a shoe in for awards and nominations, and rightfully so.  Unfortunately, the later films of the fall drowned it out, and it's largely been ignored.  In my mind, however, Prisoners is second only to 12 Years a Slave in its effectiveness as an emotional gut punch that leaves you exhausted when it is over.  Hugh Jackman gives his best performance so far as a survivalist father who becomes obsessed with tracking down the man he believes kidnapped his young daughter and a family friend when they were outside playing together on Thanksgiving.  His obsession leads him down some very dark places, and the movie is unflinching in how it follows him all the way, and does not pull back or spare no detail of how far these ordinary people can go.  Outside of Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal is also wonderful as a police detective investigating the case.  This is a deep and rewarding mystery that not only manages to surprise, but actually makes sense as you go back over the clues and information.  This is an extremely well thought out script, with characters who seem real, and a damp cold atmosphere that only adds to the despair and the tension of the film.  It was largely overlooked at the box office, but hopefully will find appreciation on DVD.

RUSH - Another film that got a lot of praise when it came out, but largely has gone ignored at Award time, this is not only the best film about car racing I have ever seen, but also Ron Howard's best directing effort in years.  Rush tells the story of a famous rivalry between two Formula 1 racers back in 1976, and how their drive to beat the other inspired them.  The rivalry between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl)  is well known to racing fans, but this movie goes even deeper into their relationship, and covers some very tragic and personal events that oddly brought the two together, and inspired them even more.  This is a highly entertaining and intimate bio-film that doesn't feel like it's paint by numbers, or that the screenwriter just skimmed some information about the subject, and filled in the blanks with dramatic license.  This is a very up close and personal film that not only puts us into the world of Formula 1 racing, but also into the lives of these two very different men,

ENOUGH SAID - A truly smart romantic comedy for adults that is lifted up by a warm and wonderful performance by the late James Gandolfini.  Enough Said is a beguiling movie about two middle aged people who find each other just when they have both given up on love.  Julia Louis-Dreyfus breaks out of her TV mold, and gives a true star-making performance as a woman who falls for Gandolfini's character.  Here is a movie that does tackle some tough issues about relationships, specifically how other people's opinions can effect how we see a person.  But more than that, the film is charming, captivating, and truly funny all the way through.  As for Gandolfini, he gets to show a softer and gentler side than he ever got to show in his career, and his warm performance truly makes us realize what a talent we lost.

NEBRASKA - Like all of Alexander Payne's films, there is a core of sadness in the middle of Nebraska.  It's main character, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), is an elderly man who seems to be on the cusp of senility.  And yet, he is still aware enough of the world around him to still cause trouble.  The sadness comes from the fact that the man is obviously slowly slipping away.  Also like all of Payne's films, the movie deftly and expertly blends sadness with humor.  There were moments in Nebraska that had a very crowded theater roaring with laughter, myself included.  This film works not only as a drama, but also as one of the funniest films of the year.  From its scene-stealing performances (particularly June Squibb as Dern's wife), to its nostalgic black and white photography, this is a film to be studied and treasured.  Much more than a simple road trip movie between a father and his adult son (played by Will Forte), this is a testament to Payne's creativity as a filmmaker and a storyteller.

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES - A modern day three-act tragedy filled with unforgettable characters.  The Place Beyond the Pines takes three seemingly unconnected storylines, and covers many years in the lives of very different people who will be connected before it is over.  The film runs for nearly two and a half hours, and it uses its generous time wisely, creating some very rich and detailed characters, and slowly weaving its three plots together in a masterful fashion.  The whole story is told in a straight-forward and linear fashion, but you still have to pay close attention, less you miss some important detail.  This is a very smart film that seems to be arguing how the mistakes we make in the past can carry on to future generations.

HER - There were a lot of moments while watching Her that I found myself asking "where is this movie going"?  For once, however, I wasn't asking this out of boredom or frustration.  It was a real sense of curiosity and involvement.  Writer-director Spike Jonze has taken a fairly common idea in Science Fiction, that of a computer experiencing emotions and becoming attached with a human, and makes it seem fresh with his unique vision and dialogue.  This is a sometimes heartbreaking and often clever look at relationships, and communication in general, whether it be personal, or with the means of a device.  This movie deserves to be seen, but most of all, it deserves to be talked about when it is over, and looked back on long after you have finished watching it.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Mama, The Last Stand, Warm Bodies, Side Effects, Beautiful Creatures, Snitch, Oz the Great and Powerful, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Olympus Has Fallen, Admission, From Up on Poppy Hill, Oblivion, Pain & Gain, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Epic, Now You See Me, This is the End, Monsters University, The Heat, White House Down, Despicable Me 2, The Conjuring, The Wolverine, The Way Way Back, Elysium, The Spectacular Now, The Butler, The World's End, Insidious: Chapter 2, Captain Phillips, Machete Kills, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, Last Vegas, Frozen, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, About Time, Out of the Furnace, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks, The Wolf of Wall Street, Lone Survivor, August: Osage County


MY TOP 10 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTOR (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER):

Christian Bale in American Hustle and Out of the Furnace
Bruce Dern in Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Colin Farrell in Saving Mr. Banks
James Gandolfini in Enough Said
Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight
Hugh Jackman in Prisoners
Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club
Joaquin Phoenix in Her
Sam Rockwell in The Way, Way Back


MY TOP 10 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTRESS (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER):

Amy Adams in American Hustle
Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Julie Delpy in Before Midnight
Judi Dench in Philomena
Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave
June Squibb in Nebraska
Meryl Streep in August: Osage County
Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks

So, those are my favorites of 2013 in a nutshell!  Hopefully, as we go further into 2014, we will get many more bright moments to come in the cinema.

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