Reel Opinions

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Won't Back Down

The failing of our public schools is a hard-hitting issue, and deserves an equally hard-hitting movie to cover it.  Won't Back Down is certainly not that movie.  It's safe, formulaic, and by the numbers.  It argues that certain failing public schools would be better off if the parents took over, and kicked out all those lazy, unproductive teachers that are protected by seniority.  And how does it show that the school would be better off?  Well, it doesn't, really.  Once the parents get what they want, all we get to see are the kids singing during an assembly.

picThe movie is not "based on a true story", rather it is "inspired by actual events".  It follows a working-class mom named Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who teams up with a teacher at her daughter's school (Viola Davis) when both become frustrated with how their special needs children are being treated in school, and by the staff.  Jamie's daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), is dyslexic, and is not getting the help she needs by her uninterested teacher.  The teacher that Jamie teams up with, Nona, feels her pain.  She has a son who is struggling with keeping up with the rest of the class.  Both are tired with the way things are run, and so they decide to team up to take the failing elementary school away from the unions, and put it in control of the parents and the community.

picThe characters keep on stressing that this is a difficult process that could take years to complete, and even then, it's not a guarantee to go through.  Yet, Jamie is spunky, spirited, and never lets anything get her down.  Gyllenhaal plays her like she's constantly leading a pep rally to cheer on the home team.  Even when she seems to be on the verge of tears, she just shakes her head, and there's that smile again.  No matter how difficult things get, she lives up to the film's title, and won't back down.  Of course, things never really get all that difficult.  Sure, there are a lot of people who try to tell her it can't be done, or some people get mad at her.  But, she's still able to get all the required signatures necessary in about the span of a montage.  Before you know it, she's staging massive protest rallies and support drives that would take weeks to plan in real life, but in this movie, only takes an afternoon of planning.

picWe never get a sense for these characters.  Jamie and Nona never create a bond of friendship that I believed in, or got behind.  They simply plow ahead with their plans, and when they are successful, they smile and embrace each other.  We're supposed to get the feeling that they've been through a lot together and only by helping each other did they get this far.  I didn't get that feeling, because of how simplistic the narrative is.  There's also a subplot concerning Jamie falling for a cute young teacher (Oscar Isaac) that doesn't go anywhere, nor does it add anything to the movie.  The plot and the character of the boyfriend could have been written out without any sacrifice.  Equally unnecessary is a plot concerning Nona's ex-husband, who leaves her early on for reasons the movie didn't really make clear, and then shows up now and then so he can complain about how she's raising their son, and then give her an approving hug at the end, showing us that everything will be okay, once again for reasons the movie didn't really make clear.

Won't Back Down simply lacks intensity, integrity, and a reason for us to get behind it.  It wants to be about something, but then it backs off, and handles everything in such an uninspired and formulaic manner that we don't get involved.  There's a documentary called Waiting for Superman which covers this same topic in a much more fascinating and truthful way.  Compared to that, this movie is pretty thin soup.

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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Hotel Transylvania

Kids up to a certain age (around 7-10) are bound to get the most out of Hotel Transylvania.  Let's face it, kids are fascinated by monsters, and this movie reinvents some classic movie monsters like Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Mummy into energetic and silly characters that children will instantly latch onto.  As for the accompanying adults, they'll find it watchable, but not very memorable.  Despite a fun premise, not a whole lot is done with it here.  Still, the animation is quite good, and the movie never offends.

picAccording to this movie, Count Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler, doing an over the top Bela Lugosi imitation) is really nothing more than a concerned single parent.  For the past 118 years, he's been closely guarding his only daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez), from the outside human world.  In order to keep her safe, Dracula built a luxury resort for monsters, where the creatures of the dark (all of whom are really quite nice and misunderstood) can hide from the human tormentors.  As Mavis' birthday nears and all of Dracula's monster friends arrive at the resort to help celebrate, Dracula learns of his daughter's desire to see the world outside the castle, despite all of his warnings about how terrible humans are.  Mavis may be 118, but that's apparently a teenager in vampire years.  And like a lot of teens, she wants to get out of the house and enjoy her freedom.

picIt's right about this time that a college student backpacking across Transylvania named Jonathan (Andy Samberg) happens to stumble upon the monster hotel, and upon seeing the creatures, mistakes it for some kind of elaborate costume party.  Not wanting to cause a panic amongst his guests and friends, Dracula disguises the human Jonathan as a Frankenstein's Monster until he can figure out what to do with the wandering trespasser.  Naturally, during his time at the resort, Jonathan comes across Mavis, and it is instant love for both of them.  Will Dracula let the kids follow their hearts?  Honestly, at times, I wondered if the movie itself cared.  Despite some nice heartfelt moments, it seemed much more interested in sight gags involving Dracula's monster friends,  the Frankenstein's Monster (Kevin James), the Wolf Man (Steve Buscemi), Murray the Mummy (CeeLo Green), and the Invisible Man (David Spade).

picHotel Transylvania has a lot of energy, and is kind of frantic at times.  Director Genndy Tartakovsky got his start working on animated TV shows like Dexter's Laboratory, Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack, and the movie certainly does have the feel of a Saturday Morning cartoon with better animation at times.  I actually quite enjoyed the look of the film.  It's not as detailed as some big budget computer animated films, but it has a very loose and well-animated style that appealed to me.  I particularly found myself focusing on how Dracula moves.  He's very exaggerated, and can instantly zip about from one side of the room to the other, kind of like the classic Looney Tune shorts, where they would have the characters move faster in order to get to the jokes faster.  This movie takes a similar approach, only the jokes it's racing to are not quite as funny.  I smiled quite a few times, but the only true laugh I got was when the film made a joke at the expense of Twilight.

picI'm probably making the movie sound worse than it actually is.  This is what I would describe as a "cute" movie.  It's very pleasant, and I smiled a lot while I was watching it.  But it never quite went that extra mile beyond "passable".  I wanted to enjoy the movie, and merely found myself appreciating it from time to time.  This is not the fault of anyone involved in the cast or the animation staff.  It's obvious that a lot of work went into the film looking and sounding great.  The problem lies with the script.  There are some good ideas, and a couple quiet moments that work (such as when we learn what happened to Mavis' mother), but on the whole, it doesn't stand out compared to much better animated films.  The recent ParaNorman did a much better job of mixing horror elements with a strong sense of humor.

Hotel Transylvania is being shown in both 2D and 3D formats.  I was lucky enough to get to see the movie in 2D, which made the colors much more vibrant.  From what I saw, I did not see any sequence that would benefit much from 3D, other than a wild chase scene involving flying tables.  If you ask me, that's not worth the inflated 3D price.  If you have kids who want to see this movie, try to see a 2D showing if you can.

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Friday, September 28, 2012


 I walked into Looper knowing next to nothing about the plot.  I knew that it was a time travel movie, and that it dealt with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis playing the same character in different time periods, but that was about it.  Frankly, I think this is the best way to walk into the film.  This is a complex (but not confusing) and well thought-out science fiction thriller.  I will do my best not to reveal many of the surprises this film holds, but it's hard not to gush when it comes to Looper.

picI will do my best to stick to the minimal plot details - Sometime around 2070, time travel is discovered to be feasible, and is immediately outlawed.  Of course, this does not stop the more powerful criminal organizations of that time period from using it to get rid of their enemies.  Said enemies are bound and gagged, and then send back in time to the year 2044, where a hit man known as a "looper" is waiting for them to shoot them dead as soon as they arrive.  The looper then takes his reward (bars of silver that have been strapped to the victim), and disposes of the body, essentially erasing the person from existence.  We are introduced to this concept by one of the best loopers in the business - a hardened young man named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who answers to a local crime boss named Abe (Jeff Daniels).

picJoe is a selfish and self-centered man - He's addicted to a futuristic drug, and seldom thinks of anyone but himself.  He certainly doesn't think about the victims that are sent to him to kill.  He actually shoots them the very second they appear before him, not even bothering to look at their faces.  But one day, he is forced to look at the victim, when the person shows up without the usual hood covering their head.  It is revealed to be the Joe from 30 years from now (Bruce Willis).  This event of a looper encountering and having to kill his future self is actually not a rare occurrence.  It's actually how a looper knows that their time in the business is over.  Once they kill their future selves, they are required to leave the business, and just enjoy the next 30 years until it is their time to be sent back to be killed.

picRegardless Old Joe will not go quietly.  He escapes from his bonds, and knocks his younger self out, making an escape.  This is the point where I will have to tread lightly with the plot in order to avoid spoilers.  Joe actually manages to have a meeting with his future self in a local cafe, where he learns that the elder Joe has his own motives for being sent back in the past.  The future Joe is very different from the one we know - He's quieter, more caring.  Something happened during those 30 years to change him.  What it is, I will not reveal, nor will I reveal how a young single mother living on a farm (Emily Blunt) and her young son (Pierce Gagnon) play a part in it all.  Like I said, figuring it out is part of the fun, and I haven't had this much fun figuring out a movie in a long time.

picLooper is not a movie that tries to trick us, but I was genuinely surprised by some of the revelations that writer-director Rian Johnson (The Brothers Bloom) throws in.  What's even more surprising is that these plot developments actually work, and add to the enjoyment of the film.  So many times, when movies try to be clever, they end up trying too hard, or trying to fool us with red herrings and wrong information.  This movie plays fair.  It doesn't jerk us around, and it's actually thought its plot through, so there's no out of the blue plot points, or convoluted back-peddling in order to cover up logic holes.  It's not exactly a simple narrative, but it never once tries to throw us off, nor does it get lost in its own complexities.

picI also admired the futuristic world that the movie has given us.  While there are some sci-fi trappings like hover bikes and futuristic-looking buildings, there is still a sense of reality to its design.  It looks like technology that could feasibly be just a little while away.  So many movies like this get lost in its world, or focuses so much on the production design and effects that it forgets the story and characters.  This one is successful on all levels.  We care about these characters, especially the elder Joe, who almost seems taken aback by his younger self.  Willis gives a low key, yet very emotional and feeling performance here.  While he does get a number of action sequences, he's quite intelligent and is immediately intelligent and sympathetic.  Compare his work here to his recent performance in the massive turkey, The Cold Light of Day, and it's like looking at two different actors.

picThe entire cast is equally wonderful.  With Joseph Gordon-Levitt becoming one of the hardest working actors in the movies right now, there's a danger of being overexposed to audiences.  And yet, he makes a great antihero.  The younger Joe is not a good person, or even all that nice of a guy.  We follow him, because we want to see how he goes from the way he is now to the point where he becomes the more soft-spoken and likable elder Joe.  We see glimpses of it during the course of the film, as Joe is forced to reevaluate his life.  It's a great central performance that carries the film well.  Sadly, he does not get to interact with Willis much, but the few scenes they are together (especially a confrontation in a diner) are memorable.

Looper is a rich and rewarding movie.  It's full of ideas, and actually knows how to use them.  With so many cookie cutter and formulaic films coming out of Hollywood, here is something that actually tries to think its complex plot through, and awards us for our efforts of following it along.  Even the ending finds the right note.  This is a movie that aims high, and actually makes it, due to the fact the script has been treated with such care.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

House at the End of the Street

The good news about House at the End of the Street is that it's coming out early enough in Jennifer Lawrence's rising career that it shouldn't effect it much.  Her career will move on, and hopefully she'll move onto smarter material after the Hunger Games franchise is over.  Still, when all is said and done, she probably should have passed on this all together.  While not the worst teen horror film I've seen, this is a dull and schlocky rip off of Psycho that fails to impress on just about every level.

picLawrence plays Elissa, a high school girl who seems indifferent to just about anything and everyone around her.  I'm not sure if that's the way the character was written in the script, but it's how the young actress has chosen to play her.  It's a one-note performance, with Lawrence pretty much using the same semi-blank expression no matter what may be happening to her.  As the film opens, Elissa and her mom Sarah (Elizabeth Shue) have moved from Chicago to a small rural town.  There's tension between mother and daughter, due to Sarah's past with substance abuse.  Now mom wants a new start on life, and has taken a job at a local hospital, hoping it will lead to better things.  They move into a home that's somewhat isolated and surrounded by a dark wooded area, which will provide suitable tension when the horror elements come into play later in the film.  In fact, Sarah tells Elissa up front that the only reason why they can afford to live in the new house is because of a double murder that happened in the house next door to them.

picThe house next door is supposed to be abandoned, but late one night, Sarah hears a car pull up to it, and a light goes on from within.  She starts asking the locals what happened in that house and who lives there, and gets all the details.  Turns out four years ago, a young girl named Carrie Anne (Eva Link) murdered her parents late one night, and then disappeared into the surrounding woods, where it's believed she eventually died.  Now, the murdered couple's surviving son, Ryan (Max Thieriot), lives alone in the house, and is generally treated as an outcast by the entire neighborhood.  Elissa eventually meets the mysterious Ryan, and finds him to be kind, sympathetic, artistic, and misunderstood.  Of course, she doesn't get to see what we do when as soon as Ryan is alone, he makes his way to a secret locked room in his basement, where he keeps a young woman, which is apparently his thought to be dead sister, hidden away and sedated with drug injections.

picIt's hard to talk about this movie without diving headfirst into spoiler territory.  The movie aims to be a psychological thriller that keeps us guessing right up until the end about Ryan's true motivations, and whether or not the woman he keeps in his basement actually is his murderous sister.  Said girl has a nasty habit of getting out of that hidden room, with Ryan having to chase her down and sedate her again.  Is he trying to protect Elissa from his sister, or does he have other motives?  Once again, the movie is a bit unclear until the third act when everything is revealed.  I can see this idea working successfully as a thriller, but House at the End of the Street is all wrong in its pacing.  It's never tense, and almost seems bored with itself at times.  There are long periods where nothing happens, and it focuses on the strained mother-daughter relationship, when it should be more concerned with the nice but kind of creepy guy next door.

picEverything about this movie seems off.  It's laid back when it should be scary, and when it tries to be scary, it doesn't try hard enough.  This carries right down to the cast, as it's not just Jennifer Lawrence who seems indifferent and bland in her performance, but everyone else as well.  The scenes where Elissa and Ryan are supposed to be getting closer together generates no chemistry, nor even any hidden tension.  We don't feel afraid for Elissa as she gets closer to this guy like we should.  The film's director, Mark Tonderal, is relatively inexperienced behind the camera, so maybe he lacks confidence.  He certainly doesn't seem to know how to raise a sense of dread, or make us care about these characters.  The main thing that held my interest was trying to figure out what was really going on.  When I got the answers, I wanted to go back to not knowing.  I was having more fun.

House at the End of the Street is not terrible, and it at least shows some more effort than some other recent PG-13 thrillers, like The Apparition.  However, when you consider that The Apparition made absolutely no effort whatsoever, that's not really saying a lot.  This is a mediocre and forgettable little movie, and I'm sure Jennifer Lawrence will be doing her best to move past it as quickly as possible.  The sooner the better, I say.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dredd 3D

As comic book heroes go, Judge Dredd is not exactly a witty conversationalist, like Iron Man or Spider-Man.  He's the kind of guy whose main method when it comes to dealing with villains is to kick a door open, and shoot everyone in the room.  Hey, you can't argue that the guy doesn't get results.  We're not really supposed to know anything about him, as he hides behind his helmet (that only shows his chin) and heavy armored suit at all times.  In fact, at times, he kind of looks like a walking chin with a gun.  Since he's not exactly the most personality-filled hero, it's hard to adapt him into an interesting movie.  Fortunately, Dredd 3D solves this issue by putting him in the middle of a frantic action-filled plot where he doesn't have time to do anything EXCEPT shoot first and ask questions later.

picThis is not the first time Judge Dredd has found his way to the silver screen.  You may remember that back in the summer of 1995, there was a big budget misfire starring Sylvester Stallone that quickly came and left theaters.  And if you don't remember it, don't go out of your way to remind yourself.  Dredd 3D is a much leaner and well-executed affair.  It doesn't bother with bloated special effects or massive set pieces.  It simply places its square-jawed, gravel-voiced hero in the middle of a situation where he has to fight for his life all the way up to the end credits.  Karl Urban is the man behind the helmet this time around, and while his performance as Dredd seems to be more than a little bit inspired by Christian Bale's interpretation of Batman (complete with the silly, overly forced growl of a voice), he gets the job done as he protects the post-apocalyptic Mega City One as a one-man army/judge, jury, and executioner.

picDredd has been given a sidekick on his latest adventure, and fortunately, the filmmakers did not get a hold of Rob Schneider, as in the '95 film.  This time, his sidekick is a rookie Judge named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who holds unique psychic powers due to the fact that she is a "mutant" from the war that has turned most of Dredd's Earth into a scorched wasteland.  Anderson is easily the most human character in the movie, despite her powers.  She has a sympathetic backstory (she lost her parents long ago), and shows more emotion (even to some criminals) than her battle-hardened mentor.  She's a great addition to the film, as she gives the movie some occasional moments of heart and soul to go along with the non-stop graphic carnage.  Thirlby also manages to deliver the best performance in the film.  Should Dredd warrant a sequel, I hope to see her return, and get a chance to flesh out her character a bit more.

picOnto the plot - Dredd and Anderson are called into a futuristic building that acts as a slum and low level housing for the poor.  They arrive at the building for what they thing will be a normal drug bust, only to find out that a prostitute-turned-drug lord named Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her gang has total control over the building, and its inhabitants.  When Ma-Ma learns that there are Judges in the building, she seals it off, and turns the entire building into a death trap for Dredd, as well as some of the inhabitants who don't exactly follow her orders.  It's a simple, but effective, premise for an action movie.  Director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) uses his setting well.  Since the Judges are essentially trapped in a highrise building that serves as a neighborhood and residential center, they come across different areas of the building that are controlled by gangs or junkies, and have to fight their way through in order to get to Ma-Ma on the top floor.

picAs the title suggests, the movie is in 3D, mainly so that the various blood splatters and other bodily fluids (yes, this movie is a hard-R) can fly right off the screen.  It's a neat effect, but in a way, I wish the movie had used it to its advantage even more.  There are some neat effects involving SLO-MO, a drug manufactured by Ma-Ma which makes the user feel like time has slowed down around them.  All in all, however, the effects mainly come across as a gimmick.  But if I really have to pinpoint what held the movie back a little for me, it's that Ma-Ma is kind of a dullard as a villain.  She gets one memorable scene about halfway through the film, where she opens fires on the Judges, and winds up killing many innocents in the process.  It's a chilling scene to be sure, and it's too bad she never gets as effective of a moment again.  Even her final confrontation with Dredd is a total joke, and seems to be over just as it starts.

Dredd 3D is not a great movie, but its well-paced, tightly executed, and kind of tense in some moments.  At the very least, it knows how to use its main character, and slips him into a plot where he does what the fans of the comics expect him to do.  As someone with very limited knowledge of the comics and character, I found the movie to be effective, if not very light, entertainment.  It won't win any awards and I doubt I'll remember much about it months from now, but I'm glad I saw it.

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Trouble with the Curve

I liked the characters and the performances in Trouble with the Curve, so I am recommending it.  I just wished the screenwriter Randy Brown had given them a better plot to inhabit.  The movie is pleasant and very likable, but it just comes across as being so routine and predictable that we know what roles each and every character will play as soon as they walk onto the screen.  Fortunately, we have skilled and likable actors like Clint Eastwood and Amy Adams playing those characters.

picEastwood plays Gus, a grizzled and aging baseball scout whose eyes are starting to fail him, although he's too proud to admit it, sometimes even to himself.  Part of the plot deals with Gus defending his old traditional ways of scouting baseball players, using paper stats and traveling cross country to actually watch these players in action.  His rival in the business is an oily and cocky young scout (Matthew Lillard, giving an overly oily and cocky performance), who thinks that computers can do all the work for him.  With the movie taking a pro-old fashioned stance, you could almost say that the movie is a counterpoint to last year's film about baseball agents, Moneyball.  Unlike that film, however, the movie is not entirely about the scouting process.  It's a sentimental drama about a father and the estranged adult daughter whom he never paid much attention to over the years.

picThat would be Mickey (Amy Adams), a career woman vying for a partnership at the law firm she works for, who has pretty much given up on having much of a personal relationship with her father.  She visits him from time to time, but their meetings usually result in long periods of awkward silence.  As Gus prepares to leave in order to scout out the newest high school baseball sensation who seems destined for the Majors, Mickey gets a visit from Gus' boss and friend, Pete (John Goodman), who knows that something is wrong with Gus' vision, and wants her to follow him along on his latest scouting trip.  She reluctantly agrees after much personal reflection, and joins her dad on a trip to North Carolina, where there will be much father-daughter bonding, secrets of the past revealed, and as many plot contrivances that you can cram into a screenplay.

picIt's the performances and chemistry of Eastwood and Adams who make the trip worth taking, and the movie itself worth watching.  While there is nothing particularly new about either of these characters (both are pretty much playing character types they've played in the past), they are fun to watch, and each get their own individual moments that hint at an even better movie.  Such instances include Eastwood's heartbreaking visit to his wife's grave, and the big confrontation scene between father and daughter where it is finally revealed why Gus left her behind with an aunt and uncle when she was only six years old.  While everything here is predictable and familiar, it's done with a certain degree of skill by director Robert Lorenz (a longtime assistant and producer to Eastwood on his films).  Even if the material he's been handed isn't the best, he knows how to work with these actors, and gets some strong individual moments in there.

picAlso worked into the plot is a love interest for Mickey named Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a former pro player that Gus discovered a couple years ago.  Since then, Johnny has been forced to leave the game he loves, since he wrecked his arm by pulling off his signature fastball pitch one too many times.  He's now working as an agent as well, and hopes to get a job up in the announcer's booth.  The character of Johnny isn't particularly well developed.  He pretty much shows up so Mickey will have someone to open up to.  And yet, once again, it is Timberlake's performance that wins us over.  He has good chemistry with Adams, and fires off his comedic one liners with enthusiasm.  This is a case of a cast rising above the script they've been given.  With the wrong approach, this material could have been hopelessly sentimental.  But Eastwood, Adams, and Timberlake bring enough honesty to their performances that we go along with it.  The only stuff they can't sell is the last 15 minutes, which is hopelessly contrived, and feels like the script is checking off every hanging plot thread one by one, wrapping everything up in an overly convenient fashion.

Trouble with the Curve is not a great sports movie, like Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, but it's still highly enjoyable, despite the familiarity.  It's small, quiet, and might have a hard time getting noticed as the big fall movies start to roll in over the coming months.  But, it's always comforting to see Eastwood in front of the camera again.  If this does turn out to be his last acting job, it won't be remembered as a great moment in a tremendous career, but at least it won't be a bad one.

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

End of Watch

David Ayer's End of Watch is probably the most gripping and emotionally effective cop dramas I have sat through in a long time.  It feels honest and real, and the relationship between its two lead stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, feels completely natural.  We believe them as friends and partners both on and off the police force.  The movie also uses a highly effective "day in the life" approach, making us feel like we are looking in on the everyday lives of these people.

picAll of this amounts to a superb film, with one major setback - The decision to shoot the whole film with shaky, handheld cameras.  Part of this decision makes sense, as Gyllenhaal's character always has a digital camera on hand filming everything he sees on the job for a film project he's doing for a class.  But, even when we are supposed to be looking at the characters in a third person perspective, not through Gyllenhaal's lens, the movie still uses the shaky handheld style.  For most of the film, it's simply a mild annoyance, although I imagine those audience members who are sensitive to the camera constantly shaking and bouncing may want to skip this one.  But, in certain action-heavy scenes, such as when the two lead cops race into a burning house to rescue some children trapped inside, the handheld-style turns the sequence into a shaky and incoherent mess.

picThis is the one flaw of an otherwise flawless movie.  In a somewhat bold movie for Hollywood, Ayers does not focus on any police corruption, or officers going beyond their badge.  It is simply about the relationship and the day to day experiences of two street cops who patrol L.A. in some of the more gang-infested areas.  They are Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena).  We see how they interact with each other, and we see their private lives, such as Mike's wife (Natalie Martinez) expecting her first baby, and Brian thinking about proposing to his girlfriend (Anna Kendrick).  When you see as many movies as I do, you end up unfortunately watching a lot of stuff where you just don't care about what's going on, or the characters within it.  Here, however, we are completely emotionally invested, because Ayers' screenplay really seeks out the humanity in the people who drive the police cars.  Not just Brian and Mike, but the other people they interact with on the force.  There's a real sense of camaraderie and companionship that we don't get in a lot of movies.

picMost of the movie seems to be devoted to Brian and Mike responding to everyday calls, such as children who have gone missing, or checking on a house where an elderly woman has not been heard from for the past few days.  And yet, a lot of these events eventually become connected, and are building to a highly intense final 30 minutes.  When Brian and Mike begin to be recognized for their various efforts in the local gang areas, they draw the attention of a Mexican drug cartel who fears that the cops are getting too close to their operation, and are also staging a war with the black gangs for control of the territory.  The two partners don't realize what they are being dragged into, but we do, which creates an urgent sense of tension in the film.  The way that the plot ultimately unfolds is subtle and masterful, and the execution of the climax is one of the more tense action sequences I've seen in years.  The way the script has built up our feelings for these characters only adds to the impact of the climax.

picPart of what makes the climax so thrilling is up until that point, a lot of End of Watch has shared the same easy-going likability that the two lead characters hold.  There are some dramatic and tense moments throughout, but they are always punctuated afterward by Brian and Mike's laid back relationship with each other.  Gyllenhaal and Pena act like they have known each for years, and create such an easy communication with each other that it becomes one of the more natural screen partnerships I've seen in a while.  The entire cast is equally excellent.  Although there are some recognizable actors in there, nobody comes across like they are giving a performance, and seem like they've been patrolling the streets for years.  There's not a moment between these people that feels scripted.
David Ayers has worked on a lot of cop dramas in the past, his most famous effort being writing the screenplay for 2001's Training Day.  I feel that End of Watch is honestly his best and most realistic effort.  It sucks us in with its laid back and down to earth depiction of these cops in their everyday lives, and then builds tension without us even noticing.  If you can handle the camera shaking and bouncing around, you will be rewarded with one of the better movie experiences of 2012 so far.

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution

The Resident Evil film franchise, now ten years old and on its fifth movie, is pretty much only speaking to its rabid fan base by now. Don't be fooled by the fact that the film opens with a three minute recap of the entire story up until now by the series heroine Alice (once again played by Milla Jovovich). Anyone who walks into this movie without previous knowledge will likely be lost. As someone who hasn't much enjoyed the earlier movies, it is no surprise that Retribution did not do a lot for me, either. But, in fairness, I will say it's not as bad as some of the other ones. Yes, it's just as dumb and nonsensical, but it moves by too fast for you to care that much.

picThe film picks up where the last one ended, with a massive battle aboard a sea craft between Alice and the insidious Umbrella Corporation, who has been behind all the zombies, mutants, and God-only-knows-whats she's been fighting for five movies now. Actually, we get to see this sequence twice - Once in reverse during the opening credit sequence, and then again after the previously mentioned recap of the plot so far provided by Alice. The action then suddenly switches to Alice as a suburban housewife, living with a handsome husband (Oded Fehr) and a cute little hearing-impaired daughter (Aryana Engineer). Naturally, domestic bliss is not in the cards for our heroine, as some zombies suddenly burst into the house, and start attacking her family. Alice manages to escape with her daughter, only to find that the entire neighborhood has been turned into a zombie apocalypse.

picObviously, none of this is real, and Alice awakens within the deep chambers of the Umbrella Corporation, where she is being tortured by her former friend-turned mindless killer Jill Valentine (Sienna Guilloy), who is now under mind control. Alice manages to escape when someone or something manages to disable the Corporation's hi-tech security for a couple minutes. They even supply her with a skin tight black outfit, which guarantees that Jovovich will be fulfilling the fantasies of many young men in the audience for the rest of the film. Now equipped with her suit and automatic guns, Alice has to escape from the compound. Surprisingly, in order to survive, she will have to rely on her arch nemesis, Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts), who strikes an uneasy temporary truce with Alice, since he realizes he needs her help this time. He even supplies her with one of his operatives to help her out, a woman named Ada Wong (Bingbing Li), who dresses like she is going out for a fancy dinner party, rather than for surviving a zombie apocalypse. Regardless, Ada is handy with a gun, and helps Alice blast through the various monsters they will encounter for the next 90 minutes.

picOnce Alice and Ada are off and running and gunning, the movie pretty much turns into an extended feature-length action sequence that does not end until the closing credits show up. The two make their way through the underground Umbrella complex, fighting their way through a variety of simulations of major cities like New York, Tokyo, Moscow, and the suburbs where Alice found herself living in as a housewife at the beginning. Why does Umbrella have all these simulations? Well, the script says they're so the evil corporation could test the effectiveness of their bio-weapons in a controlled environment, but I say it's so returning writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson can give us some semi-interesting set pieces, other than just the sterile and brightly lit hallways of the Umbrella building. It's a neat idea, but we see so little of these major city simulations, they don't get to leave an impact on us. In the New York sim, for example, we could have had Alice battling some mutants in the Empire State Building or something. Instead, all we get is a very short battle with some massive monsters who carry giant hammers on the streets.

picResident Evil: Retribution is a particularly mindless entry of an already mindless film franchise, as it's essentially non-stop noise, gunfire, and gory special effects, broken up by I think about six or seven minutes of exposition dialogue early on. After that, the rest of the dialogue pretty much consists of Alice and her survivor friends saying things like "over here", or "look out". Anderson's screenplay does throw the heroes a couple comedic one-liners, and there's a brief attempt to create some kind of emotion, with Alice bonding with the little girl from the beginning. But let's not kid ourselves. The movie is essentially a 100 minute long special effects and make up demo. At that, it can be effective from time to time. There are some good action sequences tossed in. But, the non-stop shooting and carnage just exhausted me eventually, and I was ready for it to be over long before the movie actually was ready to end.
But then, this movie was obviously not made for me. The fans who turn out in droves to see these movies every couple years will likely get what they want, and I'm sure we'll be seeing the sixth Resident Evil movie that the ending sets up very soon. I can wait, personally, but if you're a fan, at least you now have something to look forward to.

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Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Words

I liked The Words, and I am recommending it, but I think I would have liked it more if the multi-plot structure had been simplified. The movie weaves together three different plots, each of them connected to one another by a common theme. This is all good, but of the plots, one of them is almost completely unnecessary. If the movie had just focused on the two main plots, given them even more time to develop, and had completely dropped the third one, this could have been something to really rush out and see.

picThe plot that doesn't work is the one that opens the film - An author named Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is reading from his latest novel to an appreciative audience. The story he is reading is what will make up a majority of the film. So, why is this plot here? I guess it's supposed to make us wonder about the tone the movie ends on, and I'm trying my hardest to avoid spoilers here. Clayton meets with a young fan of his work (Olivia Wilde). They connect, he takes her back to his apartment, and then...Well, I guess I'm getting ahead of myself, actually. Like I said, the segments with Quaid's character are supposed to set up the two other main plots, which are much more interesting and manage to hold our attention better. Every time the action switches back to Quaid reading the book, I started to get restless in my seat a little.

picThe story that Clayton is reading (and the film's central plot) concerns a wannabe author named Rory Jenson (Bradley Cooper, very good here). Rory is frustrated, as he's been trying to get his book published for years now, and no one seems interested. He's starting to doubt himself, and wonders if perhaps he will just be one of those people who never gets to do what he wants in life. Then, while honeymooning in Paris with his lovely wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), he happens to buy an old leather bag at an antique shop. Inside the bag is an unpublished manuscript that Rory knows is better than anything he could have ever written in his life as soon as he reads it. This knowledge infuriates and intrigues him at the same time. One fateful night, Rory decides to rewrite the manuscript word for word, wanting to know how it felt to write something so heartfelt. Dora happens to stumble upon his rewritten manuscript and, mistaking it for his own work, encourages him to show it to publishers.

picWhat I particularly enjoyed about Rory is how they play all sides of his dilemma. Yes, he knows he is wrong for taking credit for it. Part of what's wonderful about Cooper's performance is how he is able to show the guilt his character is going through, and the emotional hoops he has to jump through in order to keep the lie going. When the book becomes published and becomes a worldwide sensation, Rory does not know how to handle it. This is when a character who is known only as the Old Man (Jeremy Irons) enters the picture. He is the man who originally wrote the novel years ago, and lost it. One day, he tracks Rory down in Central Park. The Old Man does not necessarily want to confront Rory about his theft, as he is not even all that angry about it. He simply wants to tell Rory the story behind the book.

picThis brings us to our third plot, which is a flashback story about a young American soldier (Ben Barnes) in post-World War II France who falls in love with a beautiful young woman (Nora Amezeder), and gave up his old life to remain in France with her. They married and had a child, who later died of a disease at a very young age. This created friction in their relationship, and when the woman could no longer handle things and left him, the soldier sat down at a typewriter, and poured his heart into writing a novel. Said novel was later lost on a train, and had never been seen again until Rory discovered it, and published it as his own story. The story of the Old Man, and Rory's ethical battle with himself after he learns the truth should have been the central and only focus of the film. It is clearly when The Words is at its best.

picThe stuff concerning Rory's struggles with writing and getting published is also fascinating, as it rings true, and seems honest. I can't say for sure, but it certainly sounded like writers and directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal were speaking from experience here. Also good is the stuff concerning the Old Man. Jeremy Irons gives a great performance, one that is somewhat sad and regretful, but also wise. The movie is smart not to make him a confrontational character, or to try to threaten Rory for stealing his book. It plays things a bit smarter, with the Old Man passing on his story to Rory, and sharing what he has learned in his life. It also helps that the characters are written as smart people, and seem quite likable.

picIt's the other plots that drag things down a little bit. I already talked about the plot concerning Quaid's character, and how it didn't really seem all that necessary, since the focus should have been completely on Rory's story. But, the flashbacks concerning the Old Man's younger years kind of drag, also. But, I understand that this is also a necessary and key part of the story. The flashbacks are the real heart of the film, and while they're well made, we don't get to know the lovers as much as I think we should have. I guess this is why I wanted the third plot concerning Quaid to be removed. It would have given both Rory and the Old Man's stories time to be truly fleshed out. I felt like there was more than what was being told. We get enough of the details to get by, but I still wanted to know more.
In the end, I am still recommending The Words, because what does work is very strong. The performances are wonderful all around, and the movie respects its characters and its audience by playing things mainly smart. I just think the multiple plots could have been tightened a bit more. If they had been, this would have been truly a movie to remember. As it is, it's a good movie with some flaws holding it back.

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