Reel Opinions


Friday, August 29, 2014

As Above/So Below

"Abandon all hope ye who enter here"

As Above/So Below tells us that these are the words believed to be written over the gates of Hell.  They are also the same words inscribed near the entrance to a desolate cave that our heroes foolishly enter.  I'm going to go one step further and say that theater owners should place these words over the door of any cinema showing this movie.

This is Hollywood's umpteenth attempt at "found footage" horror.  In theory, the approach is supposed to bring us closer to the characters and the terror they face by placing us in the middle of the action.  In reality, it usually results in a blurry mess that has viewers reaching for some Dramamine instead of covering their eyes in fright.  I have to wonder, are there still some people out there who are thrilled by movies that consist of nothing but characters poking around in the dark until something happens, at which point the camera shakes around so violently, we can't even tell what is supposed to be happening or what we're looking at?  If you want to recreate the experience of this movie at home, turn off the lights, grab a camera, and fumble around blindly.  Have a friend or neighbor waiting in the dark somewhere to throw an object at your camera at random, while you shake the camera violently, screaming "Oh my God, what is that??".  Not only will you have saved yourself the price of a ticket, but you'll probably be having more fun than you would watching this.

The reason why films like The Blair Witch Project and the better entries in the Paranormal Activity series worked is because they actually allowed us to get close to the characters, and made us feel like we were watching the events through their eyes.  We felt like we were right there along with them during the more tense moments.  We never get that effect here, because this movie never really tells us anything about these characters.  We learn maybe one thing about each major character.  This isn't for character development, however, it's to set up a cheap scare later on.  You see, our main characters are trapped in some kind of hellish cave where they are forced to confront their inner demons.  One character's father killed himself, so that person is haunted by visions of their father hanging from a noose as they explore the cave.  That's as deep as the movie goes.  This approach could have created some decent scares, but because we know nothing about these people, there is no impact when their individual pasts haunt them.

Who are our heroes, exactly?  They're a group of adventurers led by a young tomb raider named Scarlett (Perdita Weeks).  She's spent the past few years tracking down the legendary philosopher's stone, which is believed to be able to turn lead into gold, heal the wounded, and grant the user immortality.  With such a fantasy-based subject right off the top, the "found footage" approach shoots itself in the foot, as we don't believe in what we're watching for a second.  But, I digress.  Scarlett believes she has tracked down the location of the stone in a series of tunnels underneath the streets of Paris.  She brings her good friend, George (Ben Feldman), along for the adventure, as well as a small band of experts who know their way through the tunnels.  The deeper they explore, the individual members of the team are haunted by hallucinations of their inner demons.  There are also ghosts, I think, and some satanic worshipers roaming around down there.

As Above/So Below is not really concerned with explaining itself.  I think the basic idea is that these characters are supposed to be descending into Hell the deeper they go into the caverns, but it's never quite clear.  What is apparent is that the movie is not intense or terrifying at any point or time.  I don't know how you film an entire movie in a decrepit and dank cavern, and not create a sense of claustrophobia, but somehow the filmmakers have done just that.  The nightmarish illusions tied to their individual pasts that the characters experience also leaves no impact upon the viewer because, as I mentioned before, we know nothing about these people to start with.  In a better script, these sequences could have been scary and maybe even poignant.  Here, they're either uninspired junk, or inspire unintentional laughs, such as a scene where someone discovers a working telephone in the middle of an abandoned tunnel.

The film is being released on Labor Day weekend, which is an infamous dumping ground for studios.  If you do want to see a movie this holiday weekend, there are plenty of films you can track down that are thrilling, exciting and yes, scary.  This isn't one of them.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The November Man

I'm sure anyone who has ever watched a spy movie or read a novel about them is going to feel like they've seen The November Man before.  It's one of those movies that seems to be made from the bits and pieces of other films.  But, most importantly, it's energetic and kind of exciting in an escapist sort of way.  Now, if the movie had been overly familiar AND boring, that would be a reason to pan it.  This movie is never boring.

A big part of the appeal is the lead performance by Pierce Brosnan.  He's playing a different kind of spy than the James Bond-type he's famous for.  Here, Brosnan is cold and ruthless, the type who is willing to shoot first and ask questions later.  Much like Liam Neeson in his action films, he gives off a vibe of a man who has sort of seen it all, and has nothing to lose.  It's fun to watch Brosnan tackle this kind of role, away from the quips and gadgets he's famous for.  Besides the lead performance, this is a well done production, with some genuinely exciting fights and chase scenes.  Sure, they sometimes push the limits of credibility (a character gets smacked in the head with a steel pipe, and gets back up again), but they're shot well, and staged in such a way that we get involved in the action.

Brosnan is Peter Devereaux, a former agent for the CIA who retired after a mission with his young partner (Luke Bracey) went bad.  After this small bit of background is set up in an opening flashback, the story pretty much jumps right in, with Peter being approached by his old boss.  Peter's skills are needed once again, this time to help someone escape from Russia who has some information that would be very bad for a powerful man who is planning a political run in Russia, and is willing to silence anyone who tries to get that information out there.  The person needing to escape has a personal connection with Devereaux, so he takes the job, only to find himself almost immediately in over his head.  As is to be expected, and without giving too much away, the CIA has their hands in the plot somehow, with somebody inside not wanting the information to leak out, as it could damage the US government.  There's lots of double crosses, lots of American and Russian agents shooting at one another, and a cold assassin walking about working on her own deadly agenda.

The November Man has a complicated plot, but like I said, it's nothing you haven't seen before.  And even though it's fairly complex, it's easy enough to follow without getting lost.  Really, the fun for me was not so much following the plot, but seeing Brosnan obviously having a blast playing this ruthless spy/assassin, who only becomes more enraged as the mission becomes more and more personal.  He does a good job of conveying a cold demeanor to his character, and frequently proves he's not below anything to get to the truth, even when he has to harm an innocent woman in once scene.  The movie is R-rated, and rightly so.  The fights and violence are shot in such a way that we actually wince when people are hurt.  Isn't it amazing how used we are to violence in movies these days?  We can sit through a movie with a huge body count, and nobody in the audience really bats an eye.

Not so, here.  I have not read the series of books by Bill Granger that the film is based on, but the movie has a certain harsh realness that is missing from so many action films, which I appreciated here.  When we see Devereaux knock a bad guy off a ledge, and the thug goes falling to his death, smashing against a marble floor, we feel the impact.  It's been a long time since I've felt something while watching faceless extras getting picked off by the hero, and it kind of felt good.  I appreciated that the movie went the extra mile to give its violence somewhat of an impact.  This is a very cold and unemotional thriller in a lot of ways, and while it does work in its favor often, I did kind of wish that there was more of an impact with the characters who are supposed to be important to Peter.  It would have helped add a bit more emotion, other than brutality.

Still, this is an expertly made thriller.  The November Man has enough jolt-worthy action that I am recommending it, despite how overly familiar it can feel.  Not only does it showcase some great stunts, but it's a wonderful star turn for Brosnan (who also produced the film).  None of the other actors make much of an impact, but I don't think they're supposed to.  This is his film all the way, and he sells it effectively.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

When the Game Stands Tall

The trailer for When the Game Stands Tall makes the movie look more interesting than it really is.  The ads sell it as the story of a high school football team that has gone undefeated for so long, that when they finally lose, it impacts not only the players, but the entire community itself.  The actual movie is something far less interesting.  It's a syrupy and sentimental slog through inspirational cliches.  Yes, the loss does play a big part in the plot, but the movie is much more interested in the team's return to glory, as well as heavy-handed inspirational speeches accompanied by sappy music ringing out on the soundtrack.

We learn that in 2004, a high school football team from Concord, California held the longest-running winning streak in the history of any team in any level (professional, college, etc.) The De La Salle Spartans had won 151 games in a row over 12 championship seasons.  On the first game of the new season, that streak was ended when they went up against and were defeated by Bellvue Wolverines.  Leading up this fateful game, the team had had many personal setbacks.  The coach of the team, Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caveziel), had suffered a heart attack, and it almost looked like he wouldn't be able to coach the team anymore.  When he came back on the job, he saw that his players had lost the value of teamwork, and were more focused on themselves.  Not only that, but many of the top talent on the team had left for college, and in one tragic instance, a star player was fatally shot down in the street.

With the morale of the team at an all time low, Bob must now find a way to lift their spirits back up, and turn them back into the team they once were.  This involves a lot of speeches which fail to be all that inspirational, due to Caveziel's performance.  He must be the most soft spoken football coach in the history of the game, as he never seems to raise his voice above a whisper, even when he's on the sidelines pumping his players up.  We never truly get a sense of the connection between the coach and the players.  We don't actually get to see him work with the players all that much, he mostly just stands in the locker room and talks about teamwork and brotherhood non-stop, while trumpet music plays in the background.  A scene where he takes his team to a hospital for veterans who have lost their limbs in order to inspire them also doesn't work as well as it should, because the movie tosses it aside mostly as a montage, favoring gags instead of actually having the players talk to the recovering war veterans.

Only when the movie is focused on the game itself does When the Game Stands Tall come alive.  Director Thomas Carter brings us some of the most exciting football footage ever in a film, and this is coming from someone who cares little for the game.  Whenever the movie steps off the field, the cliches, the trite speeches, and the shoehorned in religious messages take over, and the pacing of the film suffers because of it.  None of the characters or the various subplots matter much.  There's a subplot early on about Bob Ladouceur not being able to connect with his teenage son, who is on the team.  This plot is given emphasis early on, but is only sporadically brought up now and then afterward.  Likewise, the plot concerning one of the players having a verbally abusive father (Clancy Brown) living vicariously through his son's success on the field feels forced and unfulfilling.  The father sneers and gnashes his teeth like a villain in a melodrama, and the son seems near tears at the abuse, but again this plot is only used sporadically, whenever the movie feels like it.  The father and son battle doesn't even have a resolution.  Laura Dern shows up as Ladouceur's wife, but all she's required to do is wring her hands and smile.

Compared to a movie like Friday Night Lights, this movie really comes up short.  It's calculated and manipulative, instead of being inspirational and uplifting.  There are some interesting themes behind the narrative, such as how hero worship can damage a team, but they are handled clumsily within the cliched structure of the narrative.  I guess how you respond to this movie depends on how you respond to sentiment.  I felt repulsed by the forced manipulations, but I can easily see this being a big crowd pleaser with the right audience.

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Magic in the Moonlight

It's amazing that at nearly 80 years old, Woody Allen can still put out a new film every year, and have it be completely different from the last.  Last year, he brought us Blue Jasmine, a heartbreaking drama with a fantastic lead performance from Cate Blanchett.  This year's film could not be more different.  Magic in the Moonlight is a light, frothy and silly romantic comedy that's a throwback to the kind they used to make in the 30s and 40s.  My only wish is that Allen had gone all the way with his tribute, and filmed the movie in black and white.

You can understand why he would want to make a movie like this after making a film like Jasmine, and while this is not Woody Allen at his best, it is still better than a lot of the stuff currently playing at your local theater.  He's not trying to change the world here.  He just wants you to smile and forget your troubles for 100 minutes, and he succeeds here.  Set in Europe in 1928, the film opens with a stage magician named Stanley (Colin Firth) performing his act for a captive audience.  Stanley's routine is to dress in full Asian make up and garb as Wei Ling Soo, and dazzle people with slight of hand and trickery.  Off stage, Stanley is a sarcastic and cynical man who does not believe in real magic.  In fact, he has made it a hobby to track down people who claim to be psychic, and expose them as the frauds that they are. 

After one of his performances, an old friend (Simon McBurney) approaches Stanley with a proposition - He asks Stanley to help him expose a woman who claims she can communicate with the dead named Sophie (Emma Stone).  Over the past few months, Sophie has convinced a wealthy old widow that she can speak with the old lady's departed husband.  The friend is convinced that Sophie is conning the entire family, but he has not yet been able to prove it, and he wants Stanley's expertise.  Stanley takes the challenge, and when he arrives at the lovely home of the family in the South of France, he is certain that he can expose Sophie as the fraud that she is in no time.  But when he finds that he cannot reveal her so easily, and that she even knows things about him and his family background that there is no way she should know, Stanley's entire view of the world is turned upside down.

What follows is a light romance where Stanley finds himself incredibly attracted not only to Sophie, but also to her view on the world, which clashes significantly with his tired and jaded views.  What ultimately makes Magic in the Moonlight work is the undeniable charm that both Firth and Stone bring to the roles, as well as the quiet and old fashioned romantic chemistry that they share.  Firth, in particular, is hilarious as the stuck up Stanley, who seems to view everything and everyone with a certain amount of suspicion.  He's the sort who, even though he is set to be married, doesn't seem to have a romantic bone in his body.  The best bits of both writing and acting are when Stanley is trying to admit his feelings for Sophie, and they come across as clumsy thoughts or veiled insults.  Watching Firth stumble over his words and thoughts is hilarious, as are Stone's reactions to what is the closest thing Stanley can come to for romantic words.

As for Stone, she seems right at home, not just in a lighthearted Woody Allen comedy, but in a throwback to the screwball romantic comedies of old.  She has great comic delivery, and even better chemistry in her scenes with Firth.  The first half of the film, where they are trading one liners and barbs, is when the performances and the characters they're playing is at its best.  The second half takes a little bit of a dip, and unfortunately, I can't really go into too much detail without revealing some major plot spoilers.  Let's just say that when Stanley begins to fall completely for Sophie's charms, the characters and the dialogue don't hold up quite as strong.  Fortunately, the third act fixes a lot of the middle portion's problems, and brings the characters back to where they belong.  Of the supporting cast, there really aren't any stand outs.  It's mainly up to Firth and Stone to carry the entire production, and fortunately, they are more than up to the challenge.

This is a delightful film, and one that made me smile pretty much the whole way through.  In fact, the only real problem I have is with the MPAA.  In their infinite wisdom, they have decided to give the film a PG-13, even though there is absolutely nothing offensive in its entire running time.  According to the rating, it is for "a suggestive comment and smoking".  I heard no suggestive comment that would give the film anything harder than a simple PG.    That this sweet movie shares the same rating as the hyper violent and stupid The Expendables 3 is mind boggling.

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

What a difference nearly 10 years can make.  2005's Sin City was an exciting movie, kinetic and alive.  It looked like nothing we had ever seen before, and its out of context multiple plotlines were energetic and involving.  Now, after years of delays and a troubled production, here is Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and it's the total opposite.  This is a sloppy and lifeless slog through familiar territory with characters who barely hold our attention.  All the movie has going for it (aside from a standout performance or two) is the same stylized look and production design, and quite frankly, the novelty has warn off.

The original film's directors, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, are back, as are most of the cast.  But, there is a sense that everyone is back due to contractual obligation, not creative energy.  The best sequels can expand upon the characters from the earlier movie, or maybe expand upon the world it is set in.  This one basically regurgitates the same multi-plot structure, gritty comic book look, and film noir characters, yet doesn't seem to know what to do with them.  The central characters this time around are a cocky young gambler who gets in over his head (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a stripper who wants revenge on the man who killed her lover (a lifeless Jessica Alba), and the titular Dame to Kill For named Ava (Eva Green), who plays deadly mind games on a former lover (Josh Brolin) and various other men.

Some of the original actors are underused, such as Mickey Rourke, who is effective despite wearing so much make up on his face, he kind of looks like a villain from Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy movie.  His performance is a lot more energetic than most of the others, but the movie doesn't use him to his full potential.  He gets to kick off the film with a short story where he goes after some rich punks that were abusing a drunk, then after that, he more or less plays supporting roles in other people's stories.  Bruce Willis also makes a cameo as a ghost, since his character died in the first movie.  He's more or less cashing a paycheck here, as he's required to do nothing but stand there and softly talk to Jessica Alba's character in a tone of voice that can either be read as quiet desperation, or he knows what kind of a turkey he's stuck in, so he doesn't give the role much effort.

At least he's in good company.  Alba herself doesn't seem to be giving much of an effort here, as a drunken stripper (who never takes her clothes off while on stage) seeking revenge.  Alba is supposed to come across as pained and tortured, but due to her witless performance and sloppy dancing (if it can be called that - it looks more like she's hopping around) whenever she's on stage at the strip club, she more comes across like she could give a damn about being in this movie.  You start to wonder if the two directors felt the same way, as the movie uses the same repetitive shots and scenarios over and over, giving the film a clunky and dragged out feel.  Despite only running about 100 minutes or so (the first ran just over two hours), the film feels like it's dragging its feet, going nowhere in particular.  This is usually what happens when talented people are called back for an encore they don't want, and it's incredibly evident here.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For has one saving grace, and that is Eva Green, who seems to be the only actor relishing her role as a murderous femme fatale.  While her character hasn't been written essentially well (she's basically sex and violence with legs, and no personality or character motivation), Green's performance is one of the few that actually has life behind it.  She's clearly having the time of her life slinking about the screen and lounging naked in bathtubs, as she seduces and corrupts pretty much every man in a 10 mile radius.  It's too bad she's not the central villain of the film, as the climax (a clunky standoff between Alba and her lover's killer) could have definitely used her scenery-chewing prowess.  But hey, at least her storyline has something that could be called a conclusion.  Some of the other plots in this film just kind of seem to stop at random.

One would think that the movie's visual style would be a highlight, as it was in the first film, but sadly this is not true.  While it captures the same black and white gritty style, with small splashes of color, silhouettes, and animation at certain moments, it looks cheap here.  The moments of color amongst the film's dark world seem to have been thrown in with little rhyme or reason, and often without purpose.  The use of animation and silhouettes also isn't that effective here, as it seems to be used very sporadically.  And I don't exactly know why, but the movie just looks kind of ugly.  I'm not saying gritty or dark, but just plain ugly.  Perhaps it's the fact that all the actors look like they can barely contain their doubts about the project they're in, but everyone looks tired and listless instead of gritty and angry.  The sets are cheap and lack detail, as well.

Everything about Sin City: A Dame to Kill For reeks of a project nobody really wanted to make.  If the original was a passion project, then this is just a lifeless cash in that took way too long to actually cash in on the success of the original.  This is one of the more lackluster films of the year, and given how much energy the original had, that's a huge surprise.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

If I Stay

In If I Stay, the talented young Chloe Grace Moretz finally gets a leading role that is perfectly suited for her.  You may remember that last year, she had the titular role in the remake of Carrie, which seemed ill-fitting and out of place for her.  Here, she displays a natural dramatic presence, as well as a wonderful chemistry with her co-stars.  Even if the material she's been given sometimes falters, she makes it work.

This is an effective melodrama based on the popular Young Adult novel by Gayle Forman.  I've not read the novel, but from watching the film, I can see why it's popular with young readers, as it contains a lot of essential elements that apparently all Young Adult stories must hold to be successful.  There is a romance at the center of the story, with a guy who can be a little bit too good to be true at times, although at least this movie remembers to have the guy say the wrong thing once in a while, or mess up.  This is an improvement over June's The Fault in Our Stars, where the boyfriend character seemed so saintly and perfect, it was kind of hard to buy him as a real person.  And although it is not necessary, it helps if the story has some kind of Sci-Fi or supernatural element.  In If I Stay, its young heroine is trapped between life and death as an out of body spirit.  No one can see or hear her as she is forced to watch her own body fight for life in a hospital bed.  The movie uses flashbacks to show us the young girl's life leading up to the moments that brought her here.  It's an effective way to display the girl's inner turmoil as she lies in a coma, and I found myself getting involved.

Moretz plays the girl fighting for her life, named Mia.  Through flashbacks, we learn that Mia is a cello prodigy with a shot at attending Julliard, and a boyfriend (Jamie Blackley) who performs in a traveling rock band, which means their relationship is forced to be long distance.  In the opening scenes, we meet Mia's family, including her parents (Joshua Leonard and Mireille Enos), who are former rock and rollers themselves that gave up the lifestyle so they could raise her, and her younger brother, Teddy (Jakob Davies).  The scenes with Mia and her family impressed me, as they contain a natural warmth that we don't often see in the movies.  They are a happy family, and the chemistry that the actors share with each other create some of the film's better moments.  They are able to create a bond that feels honest and loving.

While the family is driving to visit a family friend and their new baby, their car is slammed into by another vehicle on the icy road.  This is how Mia finds herself outside of her own body, as she watches emergency workers load her body into an ambulance.  She doesn't know what happened to the rest of her family, or even what has happened to herself.  Her spirit climbs aboard the ambulance that is transporting her body, and as her physical self literally fights for life, Mia thinks back on her entire life.  We see how she met her boyfriend, Adam, and how they came to truly love each other, despite being very different people.   In their relationship, the screenplay shows intelligence by having Mia and Adam acknowledge their differences right from the beginning, and work to compromise with one another in order to make things work.  This isn't one of those contrived romances where they instantly feel like they are destined to be together.  The movie shows them working on their relationship, and the ups and downs that they must face, which makes the couple a bit more believable than we usually get in teen romance stories.

We get to witness Mia studying to be accepted at Julliard, as well as her individual relationships in her life, with both friends and family.  This storyline alone could have made for a very good coming of age drama.  But what pushes If I Stay a little bit further is the parallel storyline set in the present at the hospital.  Mia's soul is wandering the halls of the hospital, and as friends and family gather to learn news about her condition, Mia is faced with the decision of whether she will return to these people, or choose to cross over into the afterlife.  And while the movie doesn't completely avoid heavy-handed sentiment in these scenes, there are some highly emotional moments.  Chief amongst them is a scene where her grandfather (Stacy Keach) sits by her bedside, and has a heartfelt monologue.  Movies like this exist solely for the emotional response from the audience, and this one earns it through its strong performances and occasional touching scene that catches us off guard and leaves us with a lump in our throat.

If I Stay wears its heart on its sleeve, and although it comes close to contrived manipulations, it knows just how far to push, and most importantly, when to hold back so we don't feel like that director R.J. Cutler (a documentary filmmaker making his fiction film debut) is wringing our tear ducts to the breaking point.  I found myself genuinely interested in Mia and her plight to survive, and the people who surrounded her were so likable, I found myself caring about what would happen to them if they lost her.  Again, I must praise the performances, for they are what make this film so effective.  Chloe Grace Moretz has long been a huge talent to me, and I hope that this film will lead to a long career.  She's already proven herself as a young actress who is not afraid to take risks or a wide variety of roles, but here, she finally gets a lead performance that shows what a wonderful dramatic actress she can be.

This movie will no doubt be a target for cynics, but I don't care.  It worked for me, I got involved, and I felt for these characters.  It may not hold a lot of surprises to anyone familiar with the recent teen supernatural romance genre, butt it's also better made than you might expect.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

What If

Michael Dowse's What If caused me to have a completely divided reaction.  I liked the two leads, which is always crucial in a romantic comedy, where we want to see them get together by the end.  But, something bothered me.  I think I was admiring the actors playing them, rather than the characters they were playing.  Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that my reaction was divided, as the movie itself seems split right down the middle.  On one hand, it wants to be a quirky romantic comedy where people talk about offbeat things like how much fecal matter Elvis had in his body when he died.  On the other, it also wants to be a crowd pleasing film that is a slave to conventions and cliches.

So, about those lead performances.  Our main couple here is played by Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan.  Radcliffe can be an effortlessly charming young actor, and has long since proved that he has a career far beyond the Harry Potter films ahead of him, both on screen and on the Broadway stage.  Kazan has a very loose and sweet energy here.  She's able to give a pleasant vibe to her performance without sanding off all the edges, giving her just a tiny bit of a wild streak that we can sense hidden beneath her performance.  Both have a lot of charm in their scenes together, and they seem to be making a big effort.  But that's exactly the problem - all I was noticing was the effort.  I felt like they were trying their hardest to rise above the somewhat uneven material they'd been given.  And so, while I liked them, I always had reservations in the back of my mind.

The premise is more or less tied into 1989's When Harry Met Sally, asking the exact same question as to whether a man and a woman can just be friends in a relationship without sexual thoughts getting in the way.  Radcliffe plays Wallace, a med school dropout who has spent the past year moping over his girlfriend cheating on him.  While attending a party, he meets Kazan's character, Chantry - an animator who seems to share Wallace's love for quirky dialogue and reading up on bizarre sandwiches.  There is an instant connection between the two as they talk at the party, and eventually walk to her home together.  That's when Chantry drops the bombshell on Wallace that she has a boyfriend named Ben (Rafe Spall).  They agree to be friends, although we can sense that both want to be more as they spend time together.

From there, What If more or less goes the way we expect.  Ben is called away on business to Ireland, giving Wallace and Chantry plenty of opportunities to spend time together, and get into awkward situations where it seems like they want to get closer together, but cannot.  The movie at times seems to be bending over backwards to have us like these characters.  They get into cute, contrived situations, such as when Chantry is in a dressing room, trying on an outfit that's too small for her, and it gets stuck on over her head.  Wallace has to crawl inside the dressing room, and help her get it off, while secretly admiring her body.  There's also a scene where the two are at a beach late at night, go swimming naked together, and when they go to get their clothes, find out that their best friends have stolen them.  So, Wallace and Chantry must lie in a sleeping bag together naked, and try to keep each other warm.

These kind of situations would be easier to swallow if they didn't feel like they were crammed into the screenplay in order to force a reaction from the audience.  The film is based on a stage play titled Toothpaste and Cigars, and I don't know if these moments were in it.  But to me, it felt like scenes that were inserted to get a better reaction from the audience.  Also forced is the inevitable misunderstanding late in the film, which leads to the two main characters going their separate ways, even though they know they're right for each other.  This is a movie that shifts uncomfortably from dialogue about how a person can eat their own poop and survive, to contrived slapstick, such as when Wallace opens the bathroom door too quickly, and sends Ben the boyfriend falling out the window to a serious injury.  It switches tones from the whimsical (Chantry sees a cartoon version of herself with butterfly wings at times, acting out her inner thoughts) to the standard formula, and it just ends confused..

It's not that I did not like What If, it's that I felt the movie never quite got a handle of what it wanted to be.  The performances are good all the way around, but the tone is all over the place, so we can't quite get a handle on what kind of a movie they're in.  The film does have a certain easy-going charm, but it only takes it so far.

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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Boyhood

Writer-director Richard Linklater loves the idea of following a fictional character through different stages of their life.  In his trilogy of romantic dramas, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and last year's Before Midnight, we have watched two characters and their relationship grow and develop over the series with 9 years separating each entry.  His latest film, Boyhood, follows a similar but much more ambitious approach.  Rather than follow its characters over a series of films, it manages to fit an entire 12 years worth of a character's life in a film that runs nearly 3 hours, but is completely enthralling from beginning to end.

This is a sort of movie we are not likely to see again anytime soon.  Linklater and his cast filmed the movie off and on over a 12-year-period, so we actually get to see the actors mature and age up on the screen.  But it is much more than an impressive gimmick - Boyhood is one of the better coming of age stories to hit the screen in a long time, as it follows a young boy from the time he is six years old, to the point that he leaves home the first time for college.  There is a documentary feel to the film, as there is no real Point A to Point B plot structure.  Instead, we follow a young man named Mason (played over the course of 12 years by Ellar Coltrane), and his various experiences from family turmoil, to experiencing heartbreak of a failed relationship, and making and losing friends over the years.  It's fascinating to watch not just the character, but also the performance of Mr. Coltrane mature before our eyes.  Everyone in the movie naturally ages along with him, but it is Coltrane's performance that is the most fascinating, as he is our window into this movie's world.

When we first meet young Mason, he's an average kid with his head in the clouds, and a natural curiosity about things like arrowheads and TV cartoon superheroes.  He lives with his single mother (Patricia Arquette) and his sister, Samantha, who is one year older than him (Lorelei Linklater, daughter of the director).  Mason and Samantha's mom is divorced from the boy's father (Ethan Hawke), and is trying to build a better life for both her and her children.  Over the following 12 years, the mother will remarry, get divorced again, and try to build her confidence back up to where she can make a comfortable life for her family.  As for Mason, he bonds with his birth-father over weekend and summer visitations, falls in love for the first time, discovers a passion for photography, and follows that uncertain and awkward path that we all face on our way to young adulthood.

Nothing is overblown in Boyhood.  There is no melodrama, and no forced contrived dangers that the characters face.  Even when Mason must deal with his mother's new abusive husband, the situation is handled in a mature and sensible way, and there is no manipulative music score to tell us how we're supposed to be feeling.  This only adds to the pseudo-documentary feel that the film has, and helps create the illusion that we really are glancing at the life of this young man and the people who surround him during the dozen years the film covers.  The characters here come across as people we already know - they could be our neighbors, friends, or family members.  Linklater has long had a gift for natural sounding dialogue, and to just follow people having a conversation, and manage to make it engaging.  He once again displays that talent here.  There's not one frame that feels artificial or scripted.  The kids can be annoying sometimes.  The mom loses her temper.  Mason experiments with drugs and alcohol as he gets older.  All of these moments ring true.

What also adds a heightened sense of realism to the film is that some aspects of the story are left unfulfilled.  Just like in real life, people drift in and out of Mason's inner circle.  Friends that he has at one stage in his life are never seen or heard from later on.  For once, this is not the fault of an underdeveloped screenplay.  Rather, this is the film's way of showing us the characters have moved onto another stage in their life.  There's also no need for subtitles signaling what point in the life or what year the movie is currently set in.  This is instead handled by the characters talking about the events of the era, such as the Iraq War, or Obama running for President.  This too adds to the feeling that we are watching life unfold for these characters.  There are no typical Hollywood storytelling techniques used here, and the movie is all the better for it.

Boyhood must have been a tremendous undertaking for everyone involved.  In fact, I know it was.  Linklater's experiment has paid off with one of the most fascinating movies of the year, and one we're not likely to see again anytime soon, as I doubt the major studios would have the patience to devote 12 years to a single project being filmed.  This is not just an innovative film.  It is a joyous film full of warmth, humor and life.

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

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Friday, August 15, 2014

The Expendables 3

Watching The Expendables 3, I came to the conclusion that the current career of Sylvester Stallone is not far removed from that of Adam Sandler.  Both are actors whose recent body of work could be considered paid vacations, and basically one big opportunity to hang out with a bunch of friends and make a silly movie together.  In both cases, the end result is a disappointment for the audience.  Stallone's latest film is packed to the rafters with big name action talent from the past and the present, yet nobody is given much to do, except for Stallone, who obviously doesn't want to get upstaged.

From its inception, The Expendables franchise has more or less been the clown car of action movies, stuffing a huge list of big names in a tiny space like Jason Statham, Bruce Willis (who bowed out of this entry due to disagreements over pay), Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, and Chuck Norris.  This time, we get some new faces, like Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson (who plays the villain in this installment), Antonio Banderas, and a name that no kick-ass action movie should be without, Kelsey Grammer.  (Uh huh...) The guys look like they're having fun working together, but just as in the previous two films, the fun doesn't come through in the finished product.  It's a retro action retread that is laughably simple in its plotting.  And despite there being plenty of action, it's hard to get involved or be concerned for our heroes when the villains are too dumb to live.

Yes, this is yet another movie where the bad guys decide that the best way to kill our heroes is to shoot at the ground around them at all times, instead of actually aiming at them.  The only time any one of the heroes are shot, it's dramatically convenient.  The bullets have read the screenplay in advance, and know their marks.  Naturally, this means that our heroes never miss.  They can take on an entire terrorist army that seems to clock in at around 200 men or so, and have them all be dead by the end of a shootout that lasts around 12 minutes.  The movie has a humungous body count, and a wide variety of four letter words in its dialogue.  But, because nobody actually bleeds during the movie, and that really, really bad four letter word is only said once, the movie has been granted a PG-13-rating, instead of an R like the last two movies were.  Obviously, the MPAA is fine with kids seeing countless extras getting blown away, their necks snapped, and their bodies slammed against walls until they're dead.  It's a good thing the rating system is out there to protect kids against films like Life Itself, which has no violence or language of any kind, but got hit with an R-rating simply because it had a photo of topless women in it at one point.

The plot: Barney (Stallone) and his team of Expendables break an old friend (Wesley Snipes) out of a prison train in the film's opening action sequence, only to immediately fly off to another mission.  This time, they're out to stop a mad weapons dealer, only to find out that the man they're after is Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who used to be a member of Barney's team until he went bad.  During the ensuing shootout, one of the Expendables is gravely wounded when he is shot twice in the leg. (Oddly enough, in the next scene, he somehow has a chest wound.)  Barney swears revenge, but he's not going to risk the lives of his old friends.  Instead, he's going to risk the lives of a bunch of fresh, young recruits who are skilled in firearms, computer hacking and martial arts.  Naturally, the new younger members get captured by Stonebanks, so Barney is going to have to rely on the old gang if he wants to get the job done.

With the young new members stepping in and fighting alongside the veterans in the climax, The Expendables 3 is obviously intended to be sort of a "passing the torch" movie to a new generation of action stars.  Of the young talent, the one getting the most attention is Ronda Rousey, a mixed martial arts star who is making her acting debut here.  She makes her entrance in the movie wearing big, thick glasses for no other reason than nobody would expect a woman wearing big glasses could ever kick butt.  For whatever reason, this is the only scene she wears them, and they're never seen again.  As for her performance, while her fighting is obviously great, she needs to learn to show emotion or not talk in the same tone of voice no matter what's going on.  She is the only one of the young cast to stand out, but it's simply because of her gender, not because of anything she actually does in the film.

Just like before, the main draw of the film is seeing these big action stars of the 80s and 90s teaming up to blow stuff up together.  And just like before, it sounds like a lot more fun than it actually is.  A lot of the big names are kept off camera for a good chunk of the film, or given little to do when they are on the screen.  Everybody seems to be making a conscious effort not to outshine Stallone, who always gets to take the lead, gets the most screen time, and gets to kill the most bad guys.  Of the "old veteran" team, the only one who gets to stand out is Antonio Banderas, and it's for all the wrong reasons.  He doesn't grab our attention by doing anything cool or anything, instead he grabs it by being the most annoying comic relief character to appear in any movie so far this year.  Banderas simply tries too hard to come across as "the silly one" of the team, constantly mugging for the camera and talking so fast, you'd think he's being paid by how many words he can fit in a minute.  He's like a live action cartoon who somehow wandered into a Stallone movie.

Each time I've walked into an Expendables movie, I've come hoping for a good time, and each time I've been disappointed.  This one disappointed me more than the first two.  I'm not going to say there's no hope for this franchise, as there are plenty of opportunities.  The series is simply too unfocused and too sloppy to be any fun.  A movie that combines Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford should be a blast.  If only wishing could make it so.

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

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