Reel Opinions

Monday, January 30, 2012

One for the Money

You may have heard by now that not only was One for the Money not screened for critics last weekend, but that it has received some of the worst reviews of the films released in January this year by the critics who did see it. This would probably lead you to think that the movie was terrible. In a way, I wish I could say it was, as that would mean there was something that stood out about the movie. As it turns out, One for the Money doesn't have the gumption to shoot for terrible, or even average. It's just a very underwhelming, bland-as-cardboard movie.

picThe film is based on the first in a series of books by author Janet Evanovich, that chronicle the adventures of female bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum. I have not read the books, but I am giving them the benefit of the doubt, as they have to be more interesting than the movie, which has this bland and overly sanitized feel of a failed TV show. If this were on television, it would be one of those shows that would be canceled in less than a month, and no one would notice it was gone. Katherine Heigl plays Stephanie in the movie. She's a divorced, down on her luck woman who got fired from her job at Macy's six months ago, and hasn't been able to find work since. She has no money for food, so she has to eat dinner at her parent's house every night, which includes her nagging mother (Debra Monk), her long-suffering father (Louis Mustillo), and her feisty granny who likes to fire off guns at the dinner table (Debbie Reynolds). The scenes with the family are obviously supposed to be comic highlights in the film, but there's no energy to the humor. Let me tell you, when you have Debbie Reynolds as a crazy grandma, and you can't think of anything to do with her, you're not trying hard enough.

picDesperate for work, Stephanie blackmails her cousin Vinnie (Patrick Fischler) to give her a job at his bail bonds business. The first case she's given as a bounty hunter is to track down a rogue cop named Joe Morelli (Jason O'Mara), who is wanted for his suspected connection in a murder. This works out nicely for Stephanie in two ways, as catching Joe not only means a $50,000 pay day for her, but it just so happens that Morelli is an ex-boyfriend of hers that she's still sore about him dumping her after a one night stand back in high school. (When she finally tracks Joe down, it turns out he's still sore too, but about the fact that after he broke things off with her, she hit him with her car, which she claims was an accident.) Stephanie's not on Joe's trail for long until she starts to discover that he just may be innocent, and that there may be a bigger crime syndicate involved in a heroin ring behind it all.

picOne for the Money tries to combine a gritty crime thriller, with goofy female-centered humor, and the two elements just don't mix. The jokes aren't funny enough, and the mystery at the middle of it all just isn't engaging enough to grab our attention. The movie just doesn't do enough to get us involved with the characters - Not Stephanie herself, not Joe, and certainly not the two comic relief prostitutes who act as Stephanie's main informants, and just seem to be tossing about various sassy urban slang in their dialogue, and hoping to get a laugh. It also doesn't help that the movie's energy is just completely off. This should have been a fast-paced, exciting, and funny movie. Instead, everybody seems to be slogging through this movie as if they're wearing concrete shoes. First-time feature director, Julie Anne Robinson, just can't get her cast to sell this material.

picEqually off is the romantic chemistry between Heigl and O'Mara. We don't believe that they still have feelings for each other after all this time. Come to think of it, they're not that convincing when they're supposed to hate each other, either. Their banter has no life to it. It's stilted, sounds scripted, and the two act like they're total strangers in some scenes. These characters require lightning-quick dialogue and wit, and a building passion. We don't get that from the stars here. This sense of weariness carries through to the entire cast. The villains aren't evil enough, nor are their identities surprising in the least. This is yet another case of if you want to know who the real villain is, look for the semi-recognizable actor in a tiny role who seemingly has absolutely nothing to do with anything throughout the entire movie.
Lionsgate is obviously banking on this to become a franchise, and to adapt the other books in the Plum series. I wish them the best of luck, as they've stumbled pretty hard out of the gate. Not hard enough that I don't want to see someone try with these characters again, mind you. With a different director, screenwriter, and a cast that could sell this material, I could see this working. As for what we've been given as the start of what the studio hopes will be a long series of films, I can only say I hope they try harder next time, provided there is one.

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Artist

With so many movies looking to advance technology and special effects, The Artist stands out by going all the way back to the silent era of black and white films. This is a charming little movie that I think younger viewers might just enjoy as much (if not more so) than older viewers or those steeped with knowledge of film history, as it will truly be unlike anything they've probably ever seen before. Director Michel Hazanavicius has essentially made a filmed experiment, trying to capture the look, feel, and tone of a lightweight romantic comedy-drama from the 1920s. He has succeeded, and in my mind, this is all The Artist should be viewed as.

picWhat I mean by that is this should simply be viewed as a very sweet and charming experimental film, not as a life-changing experience. With all the awards hype and critical praise that has been heaped upon the film, I'm already beginning to sense a bit of a public backlash. I don't know what some people were expecting out of this movie. They complain that it is formulaic, predictable, and steals from old movies. To those people, I can only say congratulations on pointing out the obvious. I'm sure that Hazanavicius intended that all along. He's not trying to reinvent the silent movie, or make some kind of daring comment on it. He's simply replicating the kind of simplistic and melodramatic storytelling that was common in the era. I've also heard people complain that the plot wouldn't hold up if the movie was in color or in sound. Of course it wouldn't, that's the whole point. There's not a single modern element to this movie's presentation, acting, or storytelling. And in a way, The Artist is better for it.

picI apologize if I sound somewhat bitter, but I have spent part of this weekend listening to certain people criticize this movie for the very things it was striving to do, which makes little sense to me. In the case of this movie, the cliches and the melodramatic storytelling are not faults, but part of the experience. Maybe these people had inflated expectations due to the award hype it's been getting. For me, I was just happy to be watching a movie I felt was worthy of the awards it was getting, after recently being disappointed by Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Best Picture...Really, Oscars?...) and The Iron Lady (a great lead performance searching for a movie worthy of it). I would still pick The Descendants over The Artist, but that's a personal call. I can still honestly say that I was smiling while watching this movie from the first frame to the last. The filmmakers show that they not only know the conventions of the genre from the cinematic time period this movie honors, but that they know how to do so with a touch of wit.

picI realize I've gone pretty far into this review without talking about the plot. In the case of The Artist, I think the story it tells is oddly the least important element. The joy and the thrill comes from the experience of watching a black and white silent movie (well, mostly silent...there's a very clever nightmare sequence that incorporates sound) in the theater. But as for the plot, it covers a five year period from 1927 to 1932, and concerns itself with the fall of silent movies, the rise of talking films, and the early days of the Great Depression. We witness these events through the eyes of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent screen star who, as the film opens, is on top of the world in Hollywood, despite a loveless marriage to his wife (Penelope Ann Miller), who seems to get less attention at home from him than his faithful and ever-present Jack Russel dog, Uggie. While posing for photos outside the theater at the premier of his latest film, George has a run-in with a hopeful young actress named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). There is an instant connection between the two, and when Peppy gets a job as a dancing girl in George's next movie, sparks fly.

picBut before sparks can fly too much, both of their fortunes change. The Hollywood landscape is changing with the introduction of talking films, and while Peppy's career advances, getting larger roles to the point that she is getting top billing in her films and being seen as "America's Sweetheart", George remains stuck in the past, believing that talking pictures are simply a novelty. When the studio lets him go from his contract, George puts all of his money into an expensive and independently made silent movie, which is a massive bomb at the box office, and all but sinks the last bit of his career. With the Depression hitting America and George's fortunes all but gone, he is forced to sell everything he owns, and move into and share the tiny apartment owned by his former chauffeur (James Cromwell). The remainder of the film switches back and forth between Peppy's increasing fortune, and George's descent into alcoholism and depression. And yet, there is a somewhat playful tone throughout the movie that all but assures us everything will be all right in the end. Here, a happy ending is not just anticipated, it's etched in stone, as the two actors find each other once again, and Peppy attempts to get George back on his feet.

picIf Hugo served as Martin Scorsese's love letter to classic Hollywood, then The Artist is a successful attempt to replicate it as closely as possible. Despite the presence of recognizable actors (other familiar faces in the film include John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell, and Missi Pyle), they never become a distraction, nor do they seem out of place in a 1920s light melodrama. Just look at Goodman portraying an early Hollywood era, cigar-chomping, gruff studio exec, and tell me the guy just doesn't embody the part. This is a movie that could have been sold to an audience of the time it tries to recreate, but more than that, it's appealing to today's audience, because there's simply nothing else like it on the screen anymore. Not only that, the movie's just a great entertainment - Charming, often very funny, romantic, and nostalgic all at once. You can tell that this was a labor of love for everyone involved, and nothing has been overlooked.

picIt would also be a crime not to mention the music score by Ludovic Bource, as it is the only thing we hear for almost the entire film. His score is often playful, sometimes ominous and somber, but always sweeping as it underscores every scene and emotion up on the screen. This is a rare treat for fans of film music, as it's one of the few times in a theater that you get to solely concentrate on the music, and just how it brings out the emotions of a scene as much as the actors. His score should be studied by both film and music enthusiasts, and I'm sure will become an important and valuable lesson in film scoring in the near future.
The Artist is a simple, graceful little film, and should be viewed as such. I had a great time, and as long as your mind is open to watching a silent movie (I have heard reports of people walking out, because they didn't know it was a silent movie.), you should find a lot to like, if not love, here. I, for one, view this as a cinematic experiment to go back to the early days of film, and see it as a rousing success at just that.

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Man on a Ledge

In order to enjoy Man on a Ledge, one has to check their brain at the door. I'm perfectly willing to do just that, and for a while, the movie was kind of entertaining in a silly sort of way. But then, the movie just kept on going, and kept on asking me to dumb my brain down more and more to accept what was going on up on the screen. At a certain point, my damn brain just started resisting, and I just wasn't enjoying myself as much as I was.

picThose of you who have seen the ad campaign know that the film has a great hook, with Sam Worthington playing a man staging a publicity stunt on the ledge of a building, threatening to kill himself, all the while distracting everybody from a heist going on at a nearby building. But this is not a crime movie. Worthington plays Nick Cassidy, a former cop who is in prison for a crime he claims he had nothing to do with. When he is let out of jail briefly to attend his father's funeral, Nick decides to stage a daring escape by getting in a fight with his brother (Jamie Bell) and the two cops who are escorting him. He winds up stealing one of the cops' gun, and swipes the brother's car in the process. A chase ensues, in which Nick is able to lose the pursuing cops by driving in the path of an oncoming train. Did he know the train was going to be crossing the tracks at that precise moment? Was it part of his plan? This is not the first time we'll find ourselves questioning Nick's plan to supposedly clear his name.

picFlash forward one month later, and Nick is still on the lam, and checking into the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City under a fake name. He takes a room on the 21st floor facing a certain side of the city, treats himself to some room service, writes what looks like a brief suicide note, and then climbs out onto the ledge of the window, where he is quickly spotted by some bystanders on the street below. The police and news media instantly swarm to the scene, and we're introduced to our other key characters, including a sarcastic cop named Jack Dougherty (Edward Burns), and a NYPD crisis negotiator named Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), whom Nick asks for specifically by name. While all this is going on, Nick's brother from the funeral, Joey (who it turns out was in on the escape play the entire time) and Joey's girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) are breaking into a building across from the hotel. They're climbing through air vents, rigging security cameras, and disabling heat sensors. If we didn't see this kind of stuff done a lot better in the last Mission: Impossible movie, I would have been more impressed.

picIt's about this time we are introduced to one of the film's central villains, a cold millionaire named David Englander (Ed Harris). Harris plays the role as an almost cartoonish villain to the point that he starts to resemble a live action version of C. Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons. When his secretary tells him that traffic is tied up due to a man threatening to jump from a building, he simply rolls his eyes and says, "Why don't people just shoot themselves anymore"? We know that the suicide stunt going on at the hotel, the heist (that's going on at a building owned by the millionaire), and the evil millionaire all will eventually be tied together. I won't go any further into the plan or the plot in order to avoid spoilers, but I will say this - Man on a Ledge relies on way too many coincidences and chances to make me comfortable enough to go along with.

picOkay, I can sort of believe that Nick could stage an incident where he almost falls off the ledge, so that he can distract everyone, so they won't notice his brother and his girlfriend setting off a small bomb on the building across the street. But the way everything just falls into place completely baffled me. The funeral, the publicity stunt at the hotel, the heist...Everything would have to be planned out to a ridiculous degree in order to work successfully. And when the movie tries to explain how these people were able to pull it off, it becomes even more implausible. We can only go along with this plot so far. By the time people are jumping off of the roofs of 20+ story buildings, and landing on the street with hardly a scratch or a limp (even if they did land on a giant inflatable air cushion used to catch jumpers), my brain was saying no more.
Man on a Ledge is dumb fun up to a point, but then it just sort of turns dumb. It's not a total lost cause, and like I said, I was willing to go along with it for a good part of the movie. There just comes a point where the audience becomes disconnected, stops having fun, and just starts marveling at the implausibility of it all. I've seen much dumber and much more impossible action thrillers. This one's mainly a disappointment because it starts out being so interesting and fun.

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The Iron Lady

If you were to judge The Iron Lady simply on its star performance by Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, the controversial U.K. Prime Minister who held power from 1979 to 1990, you would probably be looking at one of the best films of the year. It's no surprise that Streep's performance is amazing here, but what really captivated me is how complete the transformation is. I never once felt like I was watching a celebrity playing a famous figure, she is that convincing. Not only is it accurate, but its incredibly moving at times as well. It's definitely one to remember in her long line of acting achievements.

picToo bad the movie the performance inhabits is almost a total mess. As a bio-picture of Thatcher, you probably couldn't even get any sloppier or historically disjointed, and you would probably end up learning more about her by reading the Wikipedia page about her. The screenplay by Abi Morgan is completely disorganized, jumping from one crucial moment to the next, with nothing in between. Also annoying is the film's narrative. A majority of the film is set two decades after her time in power, with Thatcher as a doddering old recluse, senile and suffering from constant hallucinations of her long-departed husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). The movie will then flash back to an important moment in Thatcher's life or political career, which naturally grabs our attention, only to have the movie pretty much skim over all the major details, and just give us a bare bones recreation of her career. We don't learn about the people in Thatcher's life or career, nor do we discover anything about why she made the decisions she did. The movie's too preoccupied with having Thatcher hanging out with the ghost of her dead husband.

picSuch important events that The Iron Lady decides to completely gloss over include the Falklands War (which is pretty much covered in a montage), and a bombing attempt on her life while she was staying in a hotel with her husband. These things simply happen, and then the movie moves on, expecting us to fill in the blanks. We don't even really get to know the people who influenced her, or were part of her life. This is surprising, since the movie spends so much time with the elderly Thatcher having visits from her dead husband, while the flashbacks never really tell us anything about them in the first place. We never learn why their love was so strong for each other, or even why they really seemed to fall in love with each other in the first place. This is an obnoxious screenplay, where obviously no real research has been done. It simply gives us the "Greatest Hits" of the woman's life, and thinks we know what it's talking about, so it doesn't have to explain any further.

picThe flashback narrative that the filmmakers have used also gives the movie an annoying "stop and go" quality. Just when we're getting involved in the story, such as when it depicts a young Thatcher (played by Alexandra Roach) forcing her way into a male-dominated political system, it goes right back to the modern day scenes with Thatcher as an elderly recluse, and the entire momentum of the film simply just stops dead. The movie is constantly teasing us with intriguing details of her life, only to just give us either the bare essentials, or nothing at all. At one point, the movie talks about political relationship with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, but all we get to see of this is a brief glimpse of the two dancing together at some kind of political ball. The movie's disjointed narrative ensures that nobody gets developed, sometimes not even Thatcher herself. We are watching some great performances up on the screen (everyone here is great, but lack the transformative quality of Streep's performance), but the acting has no role to inhabit.
I'm hard pressed to remember the last time a film about an important historical figure simply glossed over every single detail the way The Iron Lady does. It criminally wastes the wonderful talent the screenplay somehow managed to attract, and by doing so, it only ends up wasting the time of its audience. This is a D-Level screenplay that lucked out and managed to rope in an A-Level cast and production. I guess that averages out to being a C-Level movie.

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Friday, January 27, 2012

The Grey

I would classify The Grey as a very near miss. That said, I would agree there is a lot to recommend about it. The movie is a well made "man vs. nature" story, with a strong lead performance by Liam Neeson, and some stand-out individual moments throughout. I think that there was my problem. The movie worked only in parts for me. The rest, I got a little restless. You may feel differently about it. The movie's already racking up some very good word of mouth. I can agree up to a point, but not enough to fully get behind it.

picBased on the short story "Ghost Walker" by Ian Mackenzie Jeffries (who co-wrote the script along with director Joe Carnahan), the movie takes us to a frigid Alaskan wasteland, where some of the worst people society has to offer ("men not fit to live among men", they're described in a melodramatic voice over by the main character) have found work as oil pipeline workers at the very end of the world. Our focus is John Ottway who, as played by Neeson, is a rugged man with a painful past concerning a woman (more on that later), and a skill for sharpshooting. His job on the oil field is to kill any wolves that may try to attack any of the workers out on the vast frozen land. We don't know much about John, other than he is haunted by the memories of a woman he once loved. The movie is sort of intentionally vague, but I got the impression that the woman had died somehow. Whatever happened in John's past, it's painful enough that in one of his early scenes, he's sticking the barrel of his shotgun in his mouth, and contemplating pulling the trigger. Only the sound of wolves howling in the distance bring him back to reality, and help him realize he still has more to do in this life.

picThe wolves are somewhat invisible predators, always lurking just out of sight, sometimes seen only as glowing yellow eyes in the night. When they are off in the distance and stalking the human characters, they are effectively chilling. It's when they come up close that the movie falters a little. Whenever the wolves attack, they turn into CG or animatronic creations, losing much of their mystery. It doesn't help that whenever this movie depicts a wolf attack, it does so in such a way as to suggest a slasher movie, with the wolf or wolves suddenly leaping out of nowhere, and then a bunch of tight cuts while the camera violently shakes and sputters to represent a struggle. At times, it almost looks like a wolf skin rug is being shaken about in front of the camera, while an actor rolls around and screams incoherently. It's disappointing to say the least, especially since the movie does such a good job of creating mounting tension with the wolves, only to give us the same old thing when they get up close to their victims.

picDespite his skill and expertise in dealing with these predators, John finds himself helpless, along with a small handful of survivors, when a plane carrying them home crashes in the middle of the frozen wasteland. With very little chance of them being discovered, John immediately sets about taking charge of the frightened and wounded men, barking out orders to create shelter, and trying to keep them alive from the elements, and the wolves that seem to constantly be watching the party from the distance. The Grey is not really big on characterization. Aside from a scene late in the film where John is looking at the wallets of some of the other survivors, learning about their lives back home through their photos, we don't learn much about the group of men who survive the plane crash, only to find themselves facing an even bigger test of survival.

picSome of the survival stuff is interesting, and there are some pretty tense moments, such as when the men have to cross over a wide chasm to the other side. My problem is that a predictable pattern eventually settles in. The men fight and argue amongst themselves, the wolves attack, the men band together, one of the men inevitably gets picked off, and the survivors carry on. The movie repeats this simple formula with little alteration. Eventually, we begin to anticipate the wolf attacks, even the "surprise" ones that seem like they were lifted out of a bad horror movie. I found that I was constantly at war with myself while I was watching the movie. The stuff that was good about the movie was so good, I wanted to forgive the flaws. But, I just couldn't get over the predictable pattern, nor the fact that many of the characters seemed to exist simply so they could be killed off in the first place.

picAnd yet, I found a lot to like here, as well. I enjoyed Neeson's performance as John, and I liked the way the character finds himself facing mounting odds and guilt over not being able to protect certain people, yet still finds different ways to carry on. The movie also has a very harsh and grim quality that I think worked very well for this particular story. John and the other survivors of the crash know that they are facing a doomed situation, and so they sometimes turn to dark humor or acts of violence in order to keep themselves strong. (One of the men cuts the head off of a dead wolf, and throws it off into the surrounding woods, hoping the other wolves will find it.) The movie is filled with a lot of good individual moments that are surrounded by stretches that are either repetitive, or don't work as well as they should, such as the wolf attacks.
The Grey manages to end on a somewhat ambiguous note, that I found intriguing, though many I fear will think is abrupt or anticlimactic. For those people, I suggest a bit of patience. Just sit through the end credits, and you'll get the answers you seek. Personally, I would have been fine with the more open ending, but it's nice that the after credit scene is there for those who need it. This is a very well done movie that I really tried my hardest to embrace completely. There were just too many nagging doubts in my mind, most of them swirling around the screenplay.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Red Tails

Whenever Red Tails takes to the skies with its air combat sequences, the movie is quite literally breathtaking. The special effects and the camera work not only recreate what it must have felt like to experience aerial dogfights during World War II, but do a remarkable job of putting you in the middle of the action. It's whenever the movie is on the ground that things get a little more questionable. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to admire here, and I'm certain it will be a big crowd-pleaser. But in telling the true story of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all African American squadron of fighter pilots, Executive Producer George Lucas (who's been trying to get this movie off the ground for over 20 years) emphasizes spectacle over heart, dialogue, and brains.

picMaybe that's no surprise, knowing Lucas' past works, but I was hoping that his interpretation of a more factual story would be a bit more grounded in reality than his usual Sci-Fi fantasies. No such luck. Ham-fisted dialogue, stock characters, and underdeveloped melodrama is the name of the game here. I will admit, I was sort of entertained by a lot of the film's corniness. The movie has the feel of a B-1940s war movie spruced up with modern day effects. This is not the first time the story of the Tuskegee Airmen has been set to film, as there was a very fine HBO movie made about their exploits back in 1995. That was a more factual account of the story. This is a much simpler affair, emphasizing the big effects and the easy to read character types that come right out of a screenwriting handbook. If you accept that this is the style over substance version of the story, you'll probably enjoy Red Tails. I did a lot of the time, but found myself irritated by this film's thin attempts at character building.

picThe four main characters that the screenplay focuses on are the sort you'd expect to see in a movie like this. There's Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker), who is the team leader struggling with alcohol, and a low self image in himself that sometimes leads him to question his own decisions in battle. His best friend is Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo), the resident "maverick" of the squadron who likes to take big risks in battle and doesn't follow orders. Next up is Ray "Junior" Gannon (Tristan Wilds), the youngest member of the Airmen who wants to prove himself, and not be seen as a "kid". Finally, there's Samuel "Joker" George (Elijah Kelley), who as his nickname hints, provides much of the comic relief. To the credit of the actors playing these characters, they are all fine in their roles, especially Parker and Oyelowo, whose friendship creates probably the closest thing to real emotion that this movie gets. The problem lies in the screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, which gives the characters half-baked personalities and motivations.

picA romantic subplot that sparks between "Lightning" and a woman he meets in Italy is a fine example of just how thin the dramatic material is. The movie keeps on constantly cutting back to this plot, which is supposed to show the relationship building between the two. But the thing is, the movie forgets to give the two lovers anything in common. They barely speak each other's language to begin with, so it's kind of hard to swallow when he gets down on one knee and asks to marry her after only being with her two times, and even harder to swallow when she agrees. We're supposed to get behind these characters and feel for them, but the movie completely forgets to give them any real chemistry or personality when they're together. Whenever the movie cuts back to the love story, you can almost feel the film's energy deflating right up there on the screen.

picFortunately, Red Tails devotes most of its two hour running time to its strongest aspect, the World War II air battles. Initially, the Airmen are restricted to clean up missions, taking care of munition trucks and trains that were left behind after an earlier air battle by other squadrons. The racist head generals in Washington are reluctant to give them a chance to see real combat, but after a high ranking official pulls a few strings, they are assigned their first real air battle, and get to show their skill. This leads to more missions, including a bomb strike in Berlin. These air strikes and battle sequences obviously were given the most attention by director Anthony Hemingway (a TV director making his feature length debut). They feature an intensity and attention to detail that the rest of the film lacks.

picI would define Red Tails as an admirable, but flawed film. It's obviously been made with care, but the storytelling, characterizations, and dialogue prevent me from fully getting behind it. That said, for all of its obvious faults, the movie does work at times. The cast of relative unknowns that make up the main characters show a lot of talent, and definitely know how to rise above some of the leaden dialogue they've been forced to recite. In fact, they end up being a lot more memorable than the two more well known actors who get their names above the title - Cuba Gooding, Jr (who also acted in the 1995 film about the Tuskegee Airmen) and Terrance Howard. Gooding is given little to do but bark orders and chomp on a pipe as one of the head officers, while Howard just never really stands out as the commanding officer who helps the Airmen get real missions. Neither get to make an impact like the younger actors do.
While I can't give the movie a full recommendation in all honesty, I do have to say that this is a well made and well acted film. A better script would have really pushed this thing over the top. As it is, it's a sometimes-enjoyable piece of patriotic cheese filled with some impressive aerial fight sequences. This is a movie that improves when it has its head in the clouds, rather than its feet on the ground.

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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

On paper, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close sounds like a heart-stirring drama. But, the movie left me completely cold. Did something get lost in the transition from the original 2005 novel by Safran Foer, and the screenplay by Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)? The movie is far too cute and whimsical, when it should be emotional and powerful. It's about a young boy's quest for closure concerning the senseless death of his father on September 11th, and how his quest winds up touching the lives of many different other people, who were also effected on that tragic day. But this element doesn't come across as strongly as it should.

picInstead, we get a movie that is far too nice and pat, and doesn't dig strongly enough into its own material. If features two big names above the title (Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, specifically), but they are given so little to do in the movie, this must have been like a paid holiday for them. The movie's not really about them, anyway. It's about young Oskar (Thomas Horn, a child Jeopardy champion making his acting debut), a 10-year-old boy who has Asperger's syndrome. I've been seeing a lot of characters in movies with Asperger's syndrome lately, leading me to believe that it is Hollywood's current "disease du jour". Oskar is a smart, but heavily withdrawn boy. He's inquisitive, has a real eye for detail, likes to figure out complex patterns and riddles, and is obviously bright, but has a hard time relating to other people. We witness in flashbacks how his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), used to encourage his son's inquisitive nature by sending him on scavenger hunts across New York City. This was done not only to to fuel young Oskar's thirst for knowledge, but to also allow him to explore the outside world, and meet people.

picThomas dies on September 11th, which Oskar refers to constantly as "the dark day". Since then, he has become emotionally distant to his grieving mother (Sandra Bullock), and spends most of his time locked away in a secret shrine he has built devoted to his father, the centerpiece of which is an answering machine containing six different messages Thomas left before he died. One day, Oskar works up the courage to go into his dad's closet to look through the belongings he left behind. Amongst those belongings is a small key in an envelope labeled simply "Black". Thinking that the label must refer to someone's name, and that this person must have known his father and knows what the key is for, Oskar begins an exhaustive search across New York City, tracking down every person he can find in the phone book with the last name of Black. This leads to a number of encounters, where young Oskar meets various people who are either grieving in some way (either through September 11th, or other means), or spark a special relationship with the boy.

picThese sequences where Oskar tracks these people down seem forced, and don't have the slightest bit of realism to them. First of all, there's the obvious issue of building your entire story around the idea of a small boy going out on his own into the city, and encountering numerous strangers, seemingly without his mother knowing. Yes, the movie does address this issue at the end, by throwing in a last minute revelation about how the boy was really in no danger whatsoever the entire time he was going off on his own, meeting these people. But it feels so completely shoehorned in, it didn't calm my nerves about just how wrong the concept sounds. It simply seemed like a manipulative way to explain a logical hole in the story. And then there's the fact that the people little Oskar encounters don't seem like real people, nor do their conversations sound honest. Take the very first person the boy meets on his quest, a woman (Viola Davis) whose husband is in the process of leaving her when Oskar shows up to ask her about his father and the key he found. Their conversation about elephant tears sounds scripted, and doesn't have the slightest bit of plausibility behind it.

picThe one person Oskar does encounter during his journey that does work in the movie's favor is a mysterious old man who is renting a room in the apartment where Oskar's grandmother lives. He's referred to simply as "the Renter", and is a broken down man who hasn't spoken ever since a tragic event in his past, and communicates simply through hand signals (he has the words "yes" and "no" written on the palms of his hands), or writing down messages on a set of index cards that he always carries with him. The Renter, as portrayed by Max Von Sydow (giving the film's best performance) is portrayed as an unlikely friend and guardian to Oskar, teaching him how to conquer his fears concerning other people, and public transportation. I liked the relationship that he builds with the boy, and how the child slowly warms to him, to the point that he almost becomes a father figure.

picBut as soon as the Renter character and Sydow's performance leaves the movie, we're back to where we started, with an emotionally distant story anchored and narrated by a young boy who just sort of rubbed me the wrong way. I understand that the character of Oskar is supposed to be isolated and socially awkward, but the way the character is written and portrayed (I have nothing against young Thomas Horn's performance) just alienated me. I never warmed up to him, not even when he is supposed to be finally bonding with his mother. It doesn't help that Bullock hardly shows up in the movie, and that her fading relationship with her son is barely addressed. Yes, the movie once again addresses this issue at the end, but much like its explanation on how Oskar was in no real danger going off on his own and meeting strangers, it doesn't ring true. The movie is supposed to be about emotional healing, and how this boy's journey touches the lives of the people around him. But since the people keep on disappearing before we get a chance to really know them in the first place, the whole movie ends up feeling pointless. Well meaning, but ultimately pointless.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close really deserved a more honest treatment. I can easily picture this movie working, but it would require a different screenplay. Director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) gives us some nice images, and the cast is game. They're just held back by a script that is calculated, when it should be truthful. When the movie is centered around September 11th, and you end up not believing a single moment of what you're watching, you know the film has failed in some way.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Underworld: Awakening

Before Underworld: Awakening started, there was a preview for the next entry in the Resident Evil films. This got me thinking how similar both franchises are. Both are distributed by the same studio (Screen Gems), both are rapid-fire action films with horror undertones, both feature stone-faced, ass-kicking heroines designed to bring in the male teen demographic, and both are inexplicably popular, despite the fact that each movie in both franchises have been consistently terrible. Underworld: Awakening does not buck the trend in quality, which pretty much nixes any hope that the next Resident Evil installment (due this fall) will aim higher.

picKate Beckinsale returns as the vampire warrior, Selene, after sitting out on the third movie, which forced the filmmakers to make that one a prequel. This movie picks up where 2006's Underworld: Evolution left off, with Selene and her half-Lycan (this movie's term for werewolf) half-vampire hybrid boyfriend, Michael (Scott Speedman) attempting to escape just as humanity has found out about the existence of the vampires and Lycans (who have been at war with each other for centuries). The humans stage a mass "purging", killing any creature of the night they spot. The first five minutes or so of the movie is devoted solely to Selene slaughtering random cops and other humans as she attempts to join Michael, who is waiting for her to join him so they can escape. Alas, the lovers do not reunite in time. They're caught, gunned down, and Selene is frozen in ice and sent to a science lab, while Michael is apparently killed by the humans.

picFlash forward 12 years later, and Selene is freed from her cryogenically frozen prison by an unseen person. She's been the prisoner of mad scientist, Dr. Lane (Stephen Rea) for the past few years, but as soon as she's thawed out, she slips on her skin-tight black outfit, and picks up where she left off, slaughtering countless humans who seem to think running at her mindlessly will somehow stop her, or prevent her from ripping their heads off. She eventually meets up with some fellow vampires, who have been hiding underground ever since the humans declared war on their kind. The Lycans are still around too, and they're apparently not afraid to run about out in the open, and hunt down the hiding vampires. The fact that we see so much of the Lycans is unfortunate, due to the low budget and unconvincing CG used to create them. The movie tries to hide this fact by having the monsters stand in dark corners or shadows as much as possible, but it doesn't do a good enough job of hiding the fact that you've probably seen more convincing monsters while playing your Xbox 360.

picThere's a little girl thrown into the plot as well. She's Eve (India Eisley), and much like Selene's lost love, Michael, she seems to be a hybrid of both monster races. For the sake of what little plot this movie has, I won't reveal her connection or her significance, but you'll probably figure out just who she's supposed to be and the part she plays much quicker than it takes Selene to put it together. The remainder of the movie is devoted to non-stop action sequences, which are of the particularly mindless and gory variety, and a silly conspiracy plot involving the Lycans trying to use technology to make themselves stronger. All we get for our troubles of trying to follow this goofy thing is an ending that acts as a set up for the next movie, which I'm certain has already been grenlighted, due to the fact that this movie had a strong opening weekend. Oh goody.

picUnderworld: Awakening is a nondescript little movie. It throws a lot of action, CG blood, and monsters around, but can't think of anything to do to really entertain us. In the lead role, Beckinsale does her best to give an icy stare to everyone she meets, hoping we'll be intimidated or impressed with her, but her fight scenes are so choreographed and aided by special effects and wires, we start focusing on the trickery, and not the fights themselves. The fact that I saw Haywire right before this movie probably didn't help matters. That movie's star, Gina Carano, convinced me that she was a true force to be reckoned with in her fight scenes. All Beckinsale convinced me is that she had some talented special effects artists helping her out.
Like the previous Underworld movies, this one's shot entirely in grays, blues, and blacks, giving the movie an unattractive muddy look. The fact that the filmmakers decided this would look good while wearing 3D glasses baffles me. I, fortunately, saw this movie in 2D, and saw no evidence that an added dimension (or being forced to watch the already dark images with dark glasses) would have added anything to the experience. If you must see this movie, skip the added charge, and catch it in 2D. Not that I recommend you see it in the first place.

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