Reel Opinions

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


As I was watching Lawless, I found myself admiring how the film was made more than the story that it was telling. The plot, based on a true story of three brothers who ran a moonshine business and stood up to some crooked lawmen back in the Prohibition Era, should be engaging by all accounts. But, the characters are thin, and I just didn't really care for the brothers or their girlfriends. There are a lot of good actors up on the screen giving their all, but the screenplay often does them no favors.

picThe film opens by introducing us to the Bondurant Brothers, three devil-may-care men living in Franklin County, Virginia in the early 1930s. They're famous for two things - the moonshine business that they run, and the fact that they consider themselves invincible, due to the number of times they have cheated death. The unofficial leader of the boys is Forrest (Tom Hardy), who almost does live up to his "invincible" reputation when he gets his throat slit by a couple of thugs, and he ends up walking all the way to the hospital, his hand covering his wound. The middle and least interesting of the three is Howard (Jason Clarke), who the screenplay forgets to develop into a character. And finally, there is the youngest, Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who serves as the film's narrator, and is the main focal point to the story.

picOver the past five years, Shia LaBeouf has mainly been acting solely in mindless special effects spectacles like the Transformers movies, so Lawless represents his first real acting effort in a long time. There's nothing wrong with his performance here, but his character of Jack never demands much attention of us. He has a passion for fast cars, flashy clothes, and gangsters. He also pines after the lovely Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), the timid daughter of the local preacher. This romantic subplot seems shoehorned in, as we learn very little about the two, nor do we ever feel any chemistry at any time in the film. The same goes for Forrest's relationship with his girl, Maggie (Jessica Chastain). While she seems like an interesting character (she's an exotic dancer who fled from Chicago to find a life away from the gangster violence), the movie never fully develops her into a full character. In the case of both Wasilkowska and Chastain, there is nothing to fault about their screen presence. They're just short changed by the script.

picEventually, the Bondurant Brothers find their business and their lives threatened by the arrival of a deputy from Chicago named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). Charlie is so oily and immediately sleazy, he's the type of villain who may as well be wearing a sign around his neck reading, "HI! I'M THE VILLAIN!" As soon as Charlie arrives, he starts threatening the Bondurants and the rest of the local bootleggers to pay him a fee in order to get him to look the other way. Those who do not comply are met with brutal violence, which the movie likes to show in great detail. Naturally, the three brothers refuse, and a war breaks out, which eventually gets the attention of famed gangster, Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), who is supposed to side with the Bondurants. Unfortunately, Floyd is so underwritten and his part is so small, he makes no impression whatsoever, and Oldman is essentially doing a walk-on here.

picLawless has been made with a considerable amount of skill. It looks and feels real in its setting, giving us a sense of being in a certain time period. And the violence, while often very grisly and extreme, feels stylistic, and not exploitive or offensive. The problem lies solely and complete with the script by Nick Cave, and its inability to make us care about the people inhabiting the story. It seems fascinating, and it seems like it should be engaging. And at times, it is. There are some tense moments throughout the film that got me close to recommending this. But, in the end, I just could not shake the fact that the characters and various subplots that are supposed to strengthen them had no effect on me.

picI must admit, I admired that the movie did not try to completely romanticize the Bondurant Brothers. They are criminals, and they can be quite ruthless. However, the law (represented by the slimy Charlie Rakes) is much worse, so they come across as the lesser of two evils. This could have been intriguing, but the character of Charlie is so one-sided in his evil nature, it's just not as interesting as it should be. Guy Pearce plays the role of Charlie almost as if he is channeling Dick Dastardly. I half expected him to take Jack's girlfriend, and tie her to the railroad tracks during the climax. In order for the character to work, he needs a much less broad approach. And in order for the Bondurants to be interesting, we need to actually know about them.
Maybe this movie needed to be longer, so it could flesh out the characters more. In its current state of just short of two hours, it feels incomplete. I admired this movie in a lot of ways, but those pesky script problems kept on popping up, and preventing me from fully enjoying it. Lawless needed another rewrite or two before it was ready to go before the cameras.

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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Premium Rush

David Koepp's Premium Rush is about as slight of an action movie as you're likely to find. Not that you'll have time to think about that while you're watching it. Much like the bike messengers who zip about Manhattan in the film, the screenplay by Koepp and John Camps seldom slows down, except for a flashback or two to fill in some necessary plot information. This isn't exactly a plot or character-driven film, anyway. It's a stunt movie, and at that, it's a complete success.

picI personally always enjoy it when a movie gives us a look into a profession that is seldom seen in most films. That is certainly the case here, as we are introduced to the high speed world of bicycle messengers, who zip in and out of New York gridlock traffic in order to deliver their parcels on time. We're introduced to the best of the lot, Wilee (as in the coyote from the Looney Tune shorts). Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Wilee is the devil-may-care type, swerving in and out of traffic, and always looking for the safest route to his destination. The film's best moments are when we get to see him faced with a tough traffic situation, and he surveys his options to avoid a possibly fatal accident. We get to see these different alternatives play out. If he turns left, he'll get creamed by that semi barreling down the road. If he turns right, he'll hit a woman with a baby stroller. If he does some clever zig-zagging down the middle of the road, he's home free. Moments like this not only show cleverness in Koepp's direction, but also shows us what kind of split second decisions he must make every day.

picWe get a brief glimpse into Wilee's life before the plot kicks in. He walked away from a career in law, not wanting to be tied down with a desk job. His on again-off again girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), is a bike messenger also, and is in danger of falling in love with his personal rival on the messenger circuit, the arrogant Manny (Wole Parks). The plot is set into motion when Vanessa's roommate, Nima (Jamie Chung), attempts to smuggle her young son out of China by delivering something to a woman in Chinatown by 7 PM. Wilee is put in care of the package, but as he begins the delivery, a crooked cop by the name of Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) stops him, and tries to get the package he's delivering. His attempts to obtain it grow more violent as the film goes on. We witness in flashbacks that the object Wilee is delivering is worth a lot of money, and Bobby needs it to pay off some gambling debts. The chase begins, and pretty much does not let up for the next 80 minutes or so.

picEven though he has many directing efforts to his credit, David Koepp is more known for writing screenplays to big budget blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Spider-Man. In Premium Rush, he gets to show a lot of skill behind the camera with how he shoots the action. You would think that since most of the action concerns bikes and cars screaming down city streets, there would be a lot of shaky cam action to keep up with it all. Fortunately, this is not the case. Not only does Koepp give us a clear view of all the action, but he also shows it from different angles (up above, first-person) in order to keep things from getting stagnant. These, combined with the clever "split second decision" sequences mentioned earlier makes this one of the more visually interesting action films out there right now. The creative and fast-paced direction here certainly thrilled me than anything in last weekend's The Expendables 2.

picThe film also expertly mixes some professional stunt work and well-done CG to recreate the dangers that bike messengers face every day in the city. Fortunately, it's all blended quite seamlessly, so we don't spend the whole movie trying to figure out what's what. Joseph Gordon-Levitt supposedly did some of his own bike stunts in this film, and it does look like practical stunts and effects were used as much as possible, which is almost a necessity in a film such as this. It's a good thing the film seldom if ever slows down, because when it stops long enough to focus on its plot, the movie gets bogged down a little by Michael Shannon's silly and over the top villain performance. He chews the scenery as much as possible, which is fine when he's driving fast on the tail of a bike messenger. But, when he has to deliver a real scene, his performance sometimes comes across as more than a little cartoonish.

picEverybody else's performance, fortunately, is a little more grounded. They come across as likable, hard-working people who just get wrapped up in something much bigger than they anticipated. There's an honesty in the way the messengers talk to each other, and how they relate to one another. That's something that kind of caught me off guard. While these messengers risk their lives on the streets of Manhattan, they are not just mindless thrill seekers. They have real lives and concerns, and the movie does touch upon that. It also helps that this is a particularly strong cast of young actors in the leads, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt once again branching out into a very different kind of role.
Premium Rush does not offer to be much more than a good time at the movies, and it delivers on that simple necessity. But it's also been made with a lot more skill than you may expect. Thanks to its solid direction and strong lead performance, this movie ended up surprising me in a lot of ways, as well as being a lot of fun.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hit & Run

It looks like Hit & Run was a lot of fun to make. Watching it, you get the impression that the actors are a bunch of friends who just decided to get together, and make a goofy comedy action movie in the style of those 70s and 80s car chase pictures that used to star Burt Reynolds, like Cannonball Run or Smokey and the Bandit. That's great and all, and the movie is kind of fun in a silly way. But boy, is it ever thin stuff. I have a feeling the actors will have better memories about making this movie than audiences will have about watching it.

picThe movie is the pet project of comic actor, Dax Shepard, who not only stars in the film, but also wrote the script, and co-directed the film along with David Palmer. He cast his girlfriend, Kristen Bell, in the female lead, which was a good idea, as they do have obvious chemistry during their scenes together. He then cast a bunch of his actor friends in the supporting roles, including Bradley Cooper, Tom Arnold, Kristen Chenoweth, Michael Rosenbaum, and Beau Bridges. There are more recognizable actors in smaller roles, which turns the movie into a game of which celebrity is going to pop up in the movie next. I'm sure a great time was had by all on the set, but why couldn't the script give these actors actual characters to play? Outside of Shepard and Bell, we learn very little about these people, other than they're goofballs who like to drive really fast cars. This film starts out amusing, as we listen to Shepard and Bell's witty dialogue. But then the plot kicks in, and the car chases take over.

picShepard plays a man who goes by the name of Charlie Bronson. That's not his real name, because he's been in the Witness Protection program the past few years after he testified against some criminals. At least, that's what his girlfriend, Annie (Bell) thinks. As it later turns out, he has a closer tie to the criminals he helped put behind bars other than just testifying against them. But, before all that, Annie gets a job interview in Los Angeles. It's the chance of a lifetime. Not wanting to lose her, Charlie decides to break away from the accident-prone U.S. marshal who has been hired to protect him (Tom Arnold), and drive Annie to L.A.

picIt should be a simple drive, but Annie has to make a quick stop at her ex-boyfriend's house (Michael Rosenbaum) to get something before they leave. This is a mistake, as the ex has always been suspicious of Charlie's criminal past, and after a quick search on the Internet, learns that the guy has connections with a notorious bank robber named Alex Dimitry (Bradley Cooper). Turns out Charlie didn't just rat on the guy, he was his former getaway driver. Alex has been hungry for revenge since getting out of prison, and when he finds out from the ex that Charlie is on his way to L.A., he sends his gang after the couple. Also pursuing Charlie and Annie is the previously mentioned U.S. marshal, and two local sheriffs, one of whom is gay for the sole fact that someone felt the movie needed a comedic gay character in its cast of oddballs.

picHit & Run is quirky and weird, but seldom funny, and that's the big problem. It thinks it's funny just because its characters are strange. It throws weirdos, redneck gay cops, and a sex orgy made up out of elderly people into the mix, and expects us to laugh just at the sight of them. Maybe we smile a few times, but we seldom laugh. Actually, I laughed the most during the opening scenes introducing us to Charlie and Annie, because they have a comfortable, sweet, and witty relationship with each other. I would have been happy if the screenplay had just focused on these characters. I liked them, and the movie seemed to be building to an offbeat romantic comedy angle that seemed kind of different.

picThen the characters hit the road, and my heart sunk with each passing minute. While the film remains watchable and pleasant, it just simply runs out of any inspiration. Instead of characters and witty dialogue, we get a lot of car chases. I don't know about you, but I do not find cars driving around really fast, or flying off of things funny. I also didn't find it funny that the Tom Arnold character is so unlucky and accident-prone that he crashes his car in nearly every scene he's in. By the end of the movie, the thing looks like a wreck. Are we supposed to be laughing at the vehicular damage? I suppose people who are really into cars will enjoy these scenes. They can point out what the characters are driving, and get to see some of them get smashed up really good.

picI also have to take issue with the casting of Bradley Cooper as the villain. He simply is not intimidating here, not even when he's strangling a guy and forcing him to eat dog food. Whenever he's supposed to be confronting Shepard's character, they seem like they're having friendly banter, not bitter enemies. And when he kidnaps his girlfriend, we don't really fear for her, because his heart doesn't even seem to be in it. This kind of role calls for an actor with manic energy, and Cooper is simply too safe and mild. Everybody else fills out their roles well enough, with no one really standing out. I mentioned that Shepard and Bell had good chemistry together, and they do. Made me want to see them in a movie where they could fully exploit it.
Hit & Run is not an awful movie. It's light, silly entertainment, and if you should happen to see it on a boring afternoon, it will kill some time. I just wanted more laughs to go with the silliness. If anything, this movie proves that there's more to making a successful film than just the actors having fun. The audience has to be let in on the fun. There are moments where we feel like we're in on it, but most of the time, I felt like the actors were all sharing a private joke between them that I didn't fully understand.

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Sunday, August 19, 2012


Even though I have never seen the 1976 movie that inspired Sparkle, I already felt like I had seen it. That's because the screenplay reads like an explosion at the inspirational music movie cliche factory. There's not a single moment that can't be predicted here. This is one of those movies where you can walk in 30 minutes late, and pretty quickly figure out everything that came before, and everything that's going to happen.

picStop me if you've heard this plot before - Three young black girls dream about being a Motown music trio. One of them is big, brash, and has the best singing voice. One of them is the overachiever. And the third is the little mousy one who doesn't stand out much, but is secretly the most talented of the three, both as a singer and a songwriter. She just needs to find the right man to believe in her, and bring out her talent. The three girls are under the thumb of a very strict mother, who is very religious, and pretty much sees everything that her girls think is fun as "the devil's work". They go against their mom's wishes, and quickly skyrocket to fame with their music act. But then, trouble hits. The big, brash lead singer gets involved with an abusive and slimy man who frequently beats her, and gets her hooked on drugs. It looks like the act's going to have to break up. But then, the little mousy one finds the power to believe in herself and her talent. With the help of her supportive boyfriend, she starts a successful solo career. And of course, her strict mother who has been against her dreams from the very start, is there in the audience, nodding approvingly, and cheering the loudest when the girl sings her big number at the end.

picYou can probably name at least one movie with that exact same plot. If you can, you've already seen what Sparkle has to offer its audience. At the very least, it does have a bright and hopeful performance by Jordin Sparks, a former American Idol winner who makes a likable screen debut here. I look forward to seeing her in better material. For now, she plays the titular Sparkle, the mousy one of three sisters, which includes the big, brash Sister (Carmen Ejogo) and the overachieving Dolores (Tika Sumpter). Despite Sparkle getting her name in the title, a lot of the movie seems to revolve around Sister. She's the one who lets fame go to her head too early, and she gets seduced by a smooth-talking, oily comedian named Satin (Mike Epps). Within two minutes of marrying her, he starts beating her routinely, and forcing cocaine upon her. No explanation is given as to his change of heart toward her. He knows he's the villain, so he does what the audience expects of him.

picThe other half of the movie is supposed to be about Sparkle finally becoming her own person, believing in herself, and standing up to her God-fearing mother. Unfortunately, none of this resonates, because the script doesn't seem all that interested in her transformation into a confident woman. It seems much more interested in the melodramatic story of Sister's decline into drug addiction. Once that's been resolved, it hurries through the obligatory scenes of Sparkle moving out of her home, mending things with her boyfriend, and winning over a record executive, who agrees to give her a chance. It's almost like the movie can't wait to get itself over with. I could certainly sympathize with the desire for a quick end, but it's always kind of depressing to see a movie not that interested in its main character.

picAnd then, of course, there is Whitney Houston, giving her final performance as the girls' mother. For an entertainer's swan song, this is a depressingly low key one. Nothing about Houston's performance stands out. Her voice is usually raspy, and whenever she's supposed to be angry about something, she never quite seems as angry as she's supposed to. Her key moment in the film comes when she gets to sing a number in a church scene. Even this disappoints, as it seems she has a harder time hitting those high notes she was once famous for. This is not a strong performance, and far from a fitting send off for one who was a great entertainer. At one point in the film, someone tells her character she looks tired, and she responds that she is. I seriously could not tell if this was dialogue, or the actor having a moment of honesty, given Houston's sadly lethargic performance here.

picI think what ultimately bothered me the most about Sparkle is how over the top it is. Yes, I understand that this is supposed to be a melodrama. But director Salim Akil (Jumping the Broom) takes things to such extremes that the movie borders on self-parody at times. The chief offender is how the movie will at times go into slow motion for seemingly no reason. Maybe he thought this was heightening the tension of certain scenes, but given the over the top performances from the actors, these moments end up getting some unintentional chuckles from the audience. Everything's so broad and so forced, we can't believe in these characters. A more subtle approach would have been appreciated. This movie's approach is to bash you over the head to the point that you start to feel physically assaulted.
Sparkle was obviously made with the best of intentions, but it finds so many ways to go wrong, it just cannot be ignored. At the very least, it does prove that Jordin Sparks does have what it takes to carry a movie. Now if she'll just be a bit choosier with her next project, she'll really be on to something.

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Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Expendables 2

I wasn't a huge fan of 2010's The Expendables, and although I found the sequel slightly better, I wasn't a huge fan of this one, either. At the very least, The Expendables 2 has the common sense not to take itself seriously. At times, it seems like these big action stars are exchanging one-liners and insult jokes more than bullets. It got to the point where I wondered if I was watching an action film, or The Friars Club Roast of Sylvester Stallone.

picThe gimmick for the sequel is essentially the same as the first movie - Gather a bunch of big name stars from the 80s and 90s, and have them play some middle aged guns-for-hire, who swoop in and kill all the bad guys whenever they're needed. Just like the last film, despite all the big names that appear above the title, only a small handful of them play any actual role in the plot. Sylvester Stallone (who co-wrote the film) and Jason Statham pretty much get all the dialogue. Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, and Randy Couture pretty much exist solely for the action scenes. And Jet Li, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Chuck Norris are here for a quick cameo. Norris, in particular, pretty much shows up unannounced, makes his own personal "Chuck Norris" joke, and then walks off. He does return for the big climactic shoot out, but I sense this is only because the studio wanted to use him more than just for a walk on.

picThe plot: There's a fresh young member to the team of heroes named Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth). After the introductory action sequence, he pulls Stallone aside, and tells him he wants to quit the team. He's young, full of dreams, and is in love with a pretty young nurse. In other words, the kid's doomed. Being full of dreams and love in an action movie pretty much guarantees you'll be the first major character to die. It's right up there with being a cop who is only two days away from retirement. Sure enough, when Stallone and his crew are sent on their next mission to retrieve a computer with the aid of a Chinese woman named Maggie Chan (Nan Yu), they run into the film's villain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who promptly steals the computer, and kills Billy. This is enough to give our heroes motivation to spend the rest of the movie chasing after the bad guys.

picI smiled when I saw Van Damme show up as the bad guy, my mind racing with the possibilities of what sort of villain he would turn out to be. Turns out, he's not much of one. The main distinguishing trait of his character is that he wears sunglasses pretty much at all times, even when he's deep underground in a mine shaft. He doesn't even get to play any sort of role in the movie after he appears. He pretty much disappears until it's time for his climactic fight scene with Stallone. So, why did he want the computer? Apparently, it shows the location of some plutonium that's been hidden in a mine since the Cold War. He says to his lead henchman that he already has some buyers for the plutonium. Who, you ask? He doesn't say. I'm assuming this is to help the film in the overseas market. If he doesn't name what countries are interested in buying from him, then nobody will get offended.

picThat's pretty much all there is to The Expendables 2. It's mindless, it has a couple of over the top action scenes, and the actors make a lot of jokes and references either to how old they are, or to their past movies. (When Schwarzenegger gives his iconic "I'll be back" line, Bruce Willis responds with, "No, I'll be back. You've been back enough".) There's an audience for this movie, and the people at my screening seemed to be having a lot of fun. I'm just not part of that audience. It's not that I really have anything against the movie. It's made well enough, and it never offends. I just was never thrilled or amused by it. I think it's safe to say that you already know whether or not you're the audience for this movie. If you are, ignore this cranky old critic, and go have fun.
The movie drew some minor controversy earlier this year when it was revealed it would be PG-13, when the last movie was rated-R. Fans protested enough, so the filmmakers went back and added a bunch of fake looking CG blood effects so that the movie could get the harder R-rating. Naturally, this adds absolutely nothing to the film itself. Besides, I see no reason to keep teens away from a movie like this. If anything, it seems like it was tailor made for them.

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Friday, August 17, 2012


Little Norman Babcock (voice by Kodi Smit-Mcphee from Let Me In), the hero of ParaNorman, is a boy about 12 or so who can see ghosts and talks to them regularly. The one he speaks to the most is the spirit of his grandma (Elaine Stritch), who spends most of her time as a ghost doing what she probably did when she was alive - sitting on the couch, watching TV, and giving Norman advice when needed. His dad (Jeff Garlin) and shallow older sister (Anna Kendrick) are embarrassed by his behavior of talking to ghosts they can't see. His mom (Leslie Mann) does her best to understand and support Norman, but even she seems concerned when she tries to convince him that grandma's gone to a better place, and Norman responds with, "No she's not, she's in the living room!"

picThings are not much better for Norman outside of the home. It seems that everyone knows that he believes he can talk to the dead, which has understandably given him the reputation of being the town weirdo, and a victim of the local bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The closest thing to a friend that Norman has is a chubby and dorky kid named Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), who looks kind of like an animated version of Rowley, the chubby and dorky kid from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies. Norman and Neil live in the small town of Blithe Hollow, which serves as a stand-in for Salem, Massachusetts. Like Salem, Blithe Hollow has a history of witch trials. In fact, one of those witches' spirits still haunts the town with a curse that forces those who persecuted her long ago to rise from the dead as zombies every year on the anniversary of her death.

picOf course, no one in town knows about this curse, because it's been kept in check by Norman's crazy Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman). He can see and talk to the dead also, and up until now, it's been his duty to prevent the witch from rising from the grave every year. He does this by reading a passage from a certain book. But this year, Prenderghast does not live long enough to stop the curse from happening. Fortunately, he happens to know that Norman shares his gift for seeing ghosts, and so his spirit visits the kid during a most unfortunate time (while Norman is using the bathroom), and charges him with the task of finding the book, and completing the ritual that will hold back the curse for another year. Norman finds the book easily enough, but doesn't get to the witch's grave in time. Therefore, the witch rises from her slumber, the dead start walking the Earth, and young Norman will have to put aside his fears, and use his sixth sense to save his town.

picParaNorman is the latest in a line of animated films for kids with horror undertones, like Monster House, Coraline, and The Corpse Bride. Much like those movies, this is a clever and frequently very funny film that understands a simple basic truth - kids like to be scared. There's no denying it. Why else would they have such a fascination with monsters? Not only does this movie get it, but it's been written in such a way that it will thrill kids, but not really terrify them. The movie can be a little intense at times, but it never takes itself entirely seriously. Even the zombies seem to be in on the joke, and are frequently used as comic relief, rather than objects of terror. Kids will love this movie for the adventures that Norman and his friends go on to stop the witch's curse. Accompanying adults will probably love it more, for its sly dialogue and smart script.

picNot only is it wonderful to listen to what these characters say to each other, it's a joy to look at, too. The movie is done with stop motion animation, which means all the sets are models and incredibly detailed. There are a lot of hidden gags found all around the background that most audience members will miss. At one point, as the camera is flying over the town of Blithe Hollow, we see a sign reading, "Welcome to Blithe Hollow - a nice place to hang". This is accompanied by an image of a smiling witch with a noose around her neck. Aside from the hidden background gags, the movie features some truly stunning action sequences, made all the more amazing when you consider that the characters are all three-dimensional figures being moved frame by frame by the animators. Stop motion animation is one of the more time consuming versions of the artform, and the true brilliance of ParaNorman is that we very quickly forget that we're looking at model figures up on the screen, and eventually just accept them as genuine characters.

picThat's because this is a surprisingly tender and heartfelt film. For all of its ghosts, witches, and zombies, the movie is really about a little boy trying to fit in and find his place in the world. Nothing new, obviously, but this film deals with it in a very mature manner that helps us relate to and connect with young Norman. And while some of the characters who surround him can seem quite silly, they never come across as shallow caricatures. This is a movie that's been thought through in just about every category, and it really shows. I think the best complement I can give is that the movie pulls off the rare feat of being charming, funny, suspenseful, and heartfelt often at the same time. It's one of 2012's best animated releases, also.
One final note: ParaNorman is being shown in 3D in select theaters. I cannot judge it, as I saw it in 2D. However, having seen the movie, I can't imagine it being much better in 3D. The added dimension seems mostly to be used for things flying at the camera in a few scenes. Besides, the movie is frequently dark, or takes place at night. Experience has shown time and time again that if you watch a dark movie with dark glasses, it just makes the picture muddy and dull. See it in 2D if possible.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

I can just imagine what kind of reviews The Odd Life of Timothy Green will get. I'm sure a lot of critics will call it sentimental, and lacking dramatic tension. They certainly won't be wrong. The movie is easily the kindest, most gentlest movie to hit screens in 2012. And nothing really bad happens to these characters. Yeah, a kindly old man passes away at one point, but at least he's happy as he departs his life. I usually sneer at movies that so blatantly and desperately want to please and manipulate its audience, but I didn't this time. The characters are likable, and the script's a bit smarter than you would expect.

picThe movie was written and directed by Peter Hedges, who has done some really good, small movies about everyday people, such as What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, About a Boy, and Dan in Real Life. This time, he's made a whimsical little fantasy filled with everyday people. The movie kind of plays out like a bedtime story, and makes me wonder if he didn't originally plan for this to be a storybook at some point. We're introduced to Jim (Joel Edgerton) and Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner), a childless couple who on the night they learn from the doctor that they will never have children, decide to dream up the perfect child that they know they'll never have. They write down all the qualities and traits they would want the kid to have. (Honest to a fault, good sense of humor, be artistic, etc.) Afterward, they place everything they've written down in a box, and bury it in their garden before going to bed.

picThat night, a magical rainstorm hits the Green home. We know it's magical, because it's only raining directly on their land, and nowhere else in the small country town where they live. They are awakened by the storm, only to see muddy footprints covering their floor in different parts of the house. They follow the trail to a small bedroom, where a boy about 10-years-old covered with mud is waiting for them. He addresses himself as Timothy (CJ Adams), and calls Jim and Cindy "mom and dad". Where did he come from? From the spot in the ground where they buried the box earlier that evening, apparently, judging by the hole that's suddenly there. The boy is a bit awkward and not that coordinated, but he possesses all the traits that Jim and Cindy dreamed of in their "perfect child".

picThe movie wisely does not really try to explain Timothy, or what he is. We know he's not entirely human, because he has fresh green leaves growing out of his skin around his ankles. Regardless, the Greens accept him as their own, and before long, so does most of the local townsfolk. Timothy develops a relationship with a withdrawn, but nice local girl (Odeya Rush) who appreciates him for how different he is and acts. He even manages to somewhat win over the mean old lady (Dianne Wiest) who runs the small museum where his mother works. No big plot developments happen once Timothy appears into the lives of his parents. This is a quiet, gentle fable about two people learning to love this strange little boy whom they know nothing about, nor where he truly came from. Meanwhile, little Timothy gets to experience life, and the different people who make up the town. How long he will get to enjoy this is another matter, as when the leaves on the trees start to change color, so do the ones on Timothy.

picThe Odd Life of Timothy Green will most likely speak to children with big imaginations. It has an innocence and wonder to it that is surprisingly rare to find in a family film these days. I also grew to love the characters. Jim and Cindy are not the perfect parents, but that's okay, Timothy is not the perfect child. He makes mistakes, and doesn't always understand what's going on around him, as kids are known to do. I also enjoyed the relationship he shared with the local girl, which has an honesty about a child's first crush that few movies hold. I even wound up liking the movie's great big heart. It never once seems manipulative or forced with its emotions. Yes, this is a sweet movie, but it's not a sappy one. Its sentimentality ends up being sort of charming.
Most of all, the movie is honest about the topics it touches on, which is mainly hope, life, and being forced to part. Despite all the fantastical story elements found throughout, this really is a very human little story. I only hope it finds an audience during these late summer months, as it holds no CG, nor does it have any promotional tie-in campaigns, like the other family films playing in cinemas do. But then, that's kind of a nice change of pace, don't you think?

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Campaign

It's true that The Campaign probably could have been a little smarter with its political satire. However, it's also true that I found myself laughing all the way through the film. This is a movie that knows how to use its two stars (Will Ferrell, and Zach Galifianakis). Sure, they're not exactly challenging themselves here. Ferrell once again is playing an arrogant, yet quite clueless, blowhard, while Galifianakis once again is playing the weirdo with an offbeat charm. But, it works and it fits these actors.

picFerrell is Cam Brady, a Senator in North Carolina's 14th District, who has held office for so long, largely because he's gone unchallenged. He's been in office for so long, he treats everything (even family life at home) as part of his campaign, and probably doesn't remember the last time he said something that had nothing to do with boosting his approval rating. A recent phone sex scandal has threatened his plans for another run in office, however. His main supporters, the wealthy Motch Brothers, Glenn and Wade (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), suddenly find themselves in a position where they can no longer back Cam, due to his growing list of scandals. Instead, they decide to back a dark horse candidate, and the first competition Cam has had for his position in years.

picThat candidate is Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), a local tour guide who talks with a chirpy little voice that almost makes him sound like a cartoon character. Marty is a decent enough guy, but he doesn't have a clue and he can't mudsling to save his life when he goes up against Cam in a televised debate. He's teamed up with a campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) who not only teaches Marty how to sell his soul (and sacrifice his family) for approval points from the voters, but also how to play at Cam's level of dirty politics. Before two long, the two candidates are attacking each other's values. Cam calls Marty a Communist, because he owns Chinese pug dogs, so Marty counters by attacking Cam's religious beliefs. As the battle between the two escalates, the movie becomes broader, and obviously has a lot of fun letting these actors cut loose.

picThe Campaign was directed by Jay Roach, who before doing this movie, directed a very different kind of political movie, Game Change, which chronicled John McCain's 2008 presidential run. I'm not sure if that film had much influence on this one, as aside from the fact that it deals with a campaign, they have little in common. Regardless, he knows how to keep things moving, and he gives his comic stars plenty of opportunity to banter and run wild. There's a little bit of Ferrell's interpretation of George W. Bush from his Saturday Night Live days in his performance of Cam, especially when he talks. ("Schools is this nation's backbone".) But, he wisely doesn't try to base his performance on any one political figure. Besides, the movie is nonpartisan, and not really trying to offend any particular figure or party. It's a silly and very funny film that gets even funnier as the characters try to one-up each other.

picThe movie is funny in two ways. It's funny, because it attacks some recognizable traits of political campaigns, and the "anything to win" approach that most candidates win. We laugh, and we nod our head in recognition during these moments. The other way that it gets its laughs is by just being as broad as possible. When Cam decides to seduce Marty's wife and make a sex video out of it, we're sort of shocked. But that shock turns into a huge laugh when that video becomes an actual campaign commercial for Brady, and it gets him higher in the polls. Yeah, this is not a high brow movie. But I laughed, darn it! The film's third act, where the candidates finally stop and realize how low they've stooped, kind of bogs things down a little, but by that point, the movie had already earned enough good will with me that I didn't mind.
So what if The Campaign seems more interested in its funny situations and bizarre characters than getting deep into politics? The movie is likable in a big part because of that. It doesn't get mired in its own views, nor does it try to sway us or think. It's an entertaining, goofy little movie with two very strong comic performances in the center that just might make you nod in recognition once in a while.

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