Reel Opinions

Monday, February 25, 2013

Dark Skies

It's not so much that Dark Skies is a bad, or even an unwatchable movie.  It actually has very good intentions.  It wants to be a slow burn paranormal thriller, that ratchets up the tension as the story goes on, and largely keeps its mysterious menace in the shadows for the entire running time.  Unfortunately, I don't know if writer-director Scott Stewart (2011's Priest) was the man for this particular job.  His method of storytelling is very confused and repetitive, and he ends up getting a couple unintentional laughs when he's supposed to be scaring us.

picOn another note, it would have been nice if Stewart could have come up with some of his own ideas for his film.  A lot of his images seem to have been lifted whole from other thrillers, past or recent.  I don't expect every movie I see to be wholly original.  But, when the movie starts turning into a game of "spot which movie the film is currently imitating", it becomes distracting.  Off the top of my head, I note that Stewart has drawn "inspiration" from films such as Poltergeist, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg, in particular, seems to be a big influence here), Paranormal Activity, Signs, and even Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.  That's not to say he doesn't have some of his own good ideas thrown in here and there.  I liked his use of overhead shots, which seem to suggest someone or something ominous is watching the action from above.  But on the whole, he fails to bring his own unique vision to his own story, and instead cobbles together a bunch of images and ideas from movies he's seen over the years.

picLike a lot of the films he's trying to emulate, the action is set in a seemingly-normal suburb.  Here, we meet the Barrett family.  Dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton) is an unemployed architect, desperately trying to get back in the game after being laid off months ago.  Mom Lacy (Keri Russell) now has a lot of pressure, being the only one working.  Things aren't going so great for her at work, either.  She's a realtor, struggling to unload an outdated old house she's been stuck with selling.  They have two kids - alienated 13-year-old Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and youngest son Sam (Kadan Rockett), who likes to listen to the scary stories his brother tells him over their walkie-talkies late at night.  The trouble for the family begins when it appears that someone is sneaking into their home late at night, and pulling pranks, such as emptying all the food from the fridge, or stealing all the pictures from photo frames in the living room.

picThe police chalk it up to one of the kids playing a trick.  When Lacy asks little Sam if he knows anything, he keeps on talking about someone called the "Sandman" who visits his room every night and talks to him.  Somehow, despite their established cash problems, Daniel is able to rig up an elaborate home video security system that allows him to monitor every room in the house while they're asleep.  That's when the ominous signs start building up.  The cameras seem to go all wonky at certain times of the night.  Sam starts sleepwalking, with no memory of what happened.  Daniel and Lacy start suffering blackouts, and exhibiting strange behavior that they can't explain.  Their house is the target of three different flocks of birds, who seemingly all go crashing into the house at once.  Strange marks and bruises begin to appear on both of the childrens' bodies, leading the neighbors to suspect that Daniel and Lacy are abusing them.

picAll of this certainly sounds interesting, but its all paced so poorly, it never generates the tension that it should.  There is also a frustrating lack of answers, at least until the third act, when a walking plot exposition device enters the movie, in the form of an alien expert played by J.K. Simmons.  Seeing him appear, my interest immediately shot up.  Simmons is a wonderful actor who can liven up just about any film he's in, but he's not given a character to play here.  He simply shows up to explain the plot to Daniel and Lacy, and to us, then disappears.  You don't put an actor as valuable as Simmons in your movie, and basically use him as the Narrator.  Once he exits, we get a very confusing climax, and the movie ends with one of those scenes that's supposed to make us realize how clever it was for fooling us, but by that point, we just don't care.

picDark Skies has been competently made, despite its obvious meager budget.  Even the performances are better than this material deserves, especially Keri Russell, who makes a convincing mother trying to protect her family from invisible forces that she doesn't quite understand.  It just never seems to build to anything in particular.  Stewart's script and direction piles on the atmosphere and potentially creepy moments, but most of them have no pay off.  As the odd occurrences build up within the Barrett home, we keep on waiting for the pace to pick up, but it strangely never does.  It's cautious, laid back, and kind of tedious.  We don't become invested with the characters or the strange things happening around them.  And since things never seem to build, we start to expect a disappointing payoff when the film starts to lead up to something, which the movie sadly obliges.

I guess the real problem that it all boils down to is that there was no need for Dark Skies to be made.  It's not original, it's not ambitious, and it never seems sure in where it wants to take us.  And yet, I can't bring myself to completely hate it.  There was obviously some effort put behind this.  Too bad the material doesn't deserve a lot of that effort it got.

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You have to admire the fact that Dwayne Johnson even considered starring in a movie like Snitch.  Even though the ad campaign makes it look like it's the usual kind of action thriller that he would usually appear in, this is actually a drama.  All the action featured in the trailers is in the last 15 minutes or so.  Up until that point, he gives a genuinely interesting performance as a father caught in the middle of forces much more powerful than him.  He's not going to win any awards for this anytime soon, but it is nice to see that he is trying to stretch here, and that he is quite likable in such a role.

picThis "inspired by a true story" film centers on Jon Matthews (Johnson), an everyman who owns a successful trucking company.  His ordinary life comes to a sudden halt when his teenage son from his first marriage (Rafi Gavron) is arrested in a sting set up by the Drug Enforcement Administration.  It turns out the kid reluctantly agreed to hold onto a package of Ecstasy for a friend.  What he did not realize is that the friend had set him up as part of his own plea bargain.  Jon's son is being threatened with a 10 year minimum jail sentence, unless he himself can make a similar bargain, and point out some drug dealers.  The problem is Jon's son was only a casual user, and doesn't know anyone else in the drug game, except for the friend who used him.  If he refuses to cooperate, his sentence could be pushed up to 30.

picAt first, Jon is angered at what his son did, and feels that he should serve the time.  But when he begins to visit the kid at prison, and sees that he is being abused by the other prisoners, he realizes that he has to take matters into his own hands in order to get his son a shorter sentence.  He goes to the local U.S. Attorney, Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) in order to set up some kind of deal.  He offers to go undercover and help catch some of the local drug dealers if it will mean his son gets a reduced prison sentence.  Joanne is against the idea, but Jon goes against her wishes, and hooks up with one of his employees (Jon Bernthal) with a criminal history to get him introduced to a local drug dealer (Michael Kenneth Williams).  When it turns out that the dealer may have ties to one of the biggest drug kingpins in Mexico, Joanne suddenly becomes interested in Jon's plan.  If he cooperates with police to bring down the kingpin, she will give his son an early release.

picSnitch largely works as a dramatic thriller, where both Jon and his son are being used by the U.S. Attorney, who is planning a run for Congress in the near future, and is really only concerned with catching the drug kingpin in order to advance her career.  She knows that Jon will do anything to get his son free, and so she manipulates him into going deep into dangerous situations.  The movie probably would have worked better if it had just focused on that angle, but instead, the movie introduces a lot of side characters - probably way too many more than a film like this needs.  We have Jon's ex-wife, his current wife, and his young daughter from his current marriage.  Not only that, but the employee that he teams up with to bring down the drug cartel has a wife and son of his own, as well as his own backstory.  Everybody seems to be vying for our attention, pulling us away from the central father and son story, which works well enough on its own.

picAnd it is Dwayne Johnson who largely makes this movie works.  He comes across as being very sympathetic and actually somewhat fearful the deeper he gets into this mess.  The first time he tries to go up against some drug dealers completely on his own and without the cooperation of law enforcement, he gets beaten up quite severely, and left for dead.  For an action star, this is like a cold dose of reality.  It's nice to see that Johnson tries to make his character as human as possible.  It's always a bit of a stretch when we see an actor we're used to seeing in action films playing a father and a general "everyman" role, but he pulls it off quite well here.  He's largely taking a chance with this role, and it manages to pay off.

Snitch ends with some facts flashed upon the screen about how our drug laws are largely inconsistent, compared to other crimes.  It's certain to leave audience members talking on the way out.  Any movie that inspires conversation is definitely a good thing.  Hopefully the film will do well enough at the box office to inspire Dwayne Johnson to take another chance like this again.

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Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Best Films of 2012

Well, it's Oscar weekend, and I think it's well past time that I look back and pick my favorite films of 2012.  I know, it's almost March, and most people do this sort of thing back in December.  But, as a regular paying filmgoer, I choose to hold off on this list until I can see as many of the year's films as I can.  And since many of the big end of the year films usually expand slowly (sometimes very slowly) into wide release around January-February, I choose to wait until around Oscar night to post my picks.

As usual, I will be naming my favorite film of the year, followed by what I felt were the great films of 2012.  The great films can be anything that truly grabbed my attention, so they can be dramas, comedies, kid's films, whatever.  Then I'll be listing the "honorable mentions" (the runner ups), followed by my 10 favorite actor and actress performances of the year.  Aside from Best Film, all of these choices will be listed in no particular order.

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


ARGO - A spellbinding, intense, and sometimes hilarious look at how a fake sci-fi movie sound up saving the lives of six Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, Argo was easily my favorite movie of the year.  Yes, it could be argued that director and star Ben Affleck did play up the drama a bit too much in certain scenes.  But, there's also no denying that this is a genuine crowd pleaser, that mixes an intense story of human survival, with an incredible eye for detail and a sharp sense of humor.  Argo tells its story with an incredible sense of urgency.  There's never a moment where I was not completely involved or not on the edge of my seat.  Affleck's precise direction allows us to follow the events unfold minute by minute, so we become all the more involved.  With its incredible tension and detail, not to mention some wonderful performances (including inspired comic turns by Alan Arkin and John Goodman), there is no doubt in my mind that Argo was the best time I had at the movies all year.


CHRONICLE - Here was one of the year's genuine pleasant surprises.  It starts out as somewhat of a mess, as I wasn't sure whether the movie was trying to be a coming of age story concerning an alienated young man, a sci-fi thriller, or a teen comedy.  But, as the film played out, I became greatly intrigued, and for once, my fascination was warranted.  Chronicle is that rare kind of movie that seems to be truly fascinated in its own ideas, and gives them time to develop.  The movie follows three teenage friends who develop super powers after discovering an alien object in a cave.  From there, the very well-thought out script by Max Landis develops beautifully, turning what could have been a gimmicky and cliched film into a powerful experience.  This is a great entertainment, and while it works as a reimagining of the classic superhero/super villain formula, it also works wonderfully as a tragic human drama.

THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL - One of the gentlest and most charming movies I have seen in a long time.  The heartfelt story of a retirement community in India, and the people who work and live there, juggles its multiple plots and characters beautifully.  No one seems underwritten or unnecessary.  The winning cast includes such names as Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, and Maggie Smith, all of whom working at the top of their game.  The cast and the performances would probably be enough to recommend this film, but the script itself is genuinely funny, and quite sweet.  Is this a deep or personal movie?  No, not really.  But it is bright, wonderfully acted, and a genuinely beautiful film.

PARANORMAN - My favorite animated film of the year, this stop motion animated film from the studio that produced Coraline is yet another winning and surprisingly sympathetic look into the darker side of children's animation.  The film follows a young outcast boy who has the ability to see and talk to the dead, and becomes his town's only hope in stopping an invasion from beyond the grave, and the vengeful return of a witch long buried.  Mixing humor, horror, and genuine heartfelt drama, ParaNorman is a wonder to look at, with its beautiful visual style, and numerous hidden jokes that the animators have thrown in.  It's also emotional, frequently very funny, and quite involving.

MOONRISE KINGDOM - For those of you who have grown weary of writer-director Wes Anderson's combination of whimsical fantasy and dead-pan humor, this movie probably isn't going to change your mind.  But, I apparently have not yet tired of it, as I found it to be quite charming.  At its core, it's a simple first love story, of two young children on the verge of becoming teenagers running away together.  But, thanks to the imagination and wit of Anderson, we get a film filled with absurd humor, imagination, and creativity.  This is the kind of movie that is so full of affection and creativity, that we are transported into its strange little world.  I have seen this movie many times, and each time, I get lost in its wonder and heart.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS - For all the fame that filmmaker Joss Whedon achieved for his Avengers film, I personally was more enthralled by a much smaller project he worked on.  A little comedic horror film that had actually been filmed years ago, and was left sitting on the studio shelf until it could find a distributor.  The Cabin in the Woods is a hilarious, thrilling, and intelligent dissection of horror cliches, urban legends, slasher films, and the horror genre in general.  It's been made with so much cheer and invention, it's hard not to get caught up in its spell.  While its far more successful generating laughs than actual scares, the movie still manages to be thrilling, due to its fast-pace, and the sheer creativity on display.  This movie has "cult hit" written all over it.

SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD - A bittersweet apocalyptic love story about two very different and lonely people who connect during the Earth's last few days before it is hit by a massive asteroid, this is a surprisingly thought provoking film, that explores how different people would react to the news that the world was ending, and actually made me think of how I would react in such a situation.  But at its core are its stars, Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, who play the lovers who develop feelings for each other during a road trip to try to fulfill their individual final wishes before humanity ends.  Thought provoking, and sadly was advertised as a wacky comedy, when it really has so much drama, heart, and emotion that it really can't be placed into just one category.  This is a movie that stays with you long after it's over.

END OF WATCH - This film, sadly overlooked during its theatrical run, is one of the best cop dramas I have seen in years.  Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena come across as naturals playing cops and life-long best friends as they cover the streets of L.A.  Not even the film's sometimes obnoxious "shaky cam" style of shooting cannot diminish the power and drama of this film that follows their everyday lives.  This is the rare cop movie that's not about corruption within the force, or officers being forced to decide what side of the law they are on.  It is a simple, engaging, and dramatic look at the lives of these two men both on and off the force.  Despite its often laid back atmosphere, the movie is slowly building tension, which comes to a head during its thrilling climax.  End of Watch is unforgettable, and powerful entertainment.

LINCOLN - Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is not your typical bio-film.  Instead of covering the entire life of our 16th President, it focuses on the last few months, which may have been some of his most important.  In showing his efforts to abolish slavery and end the Civil War on his own terms, the film manages to show the greatness of the man much more than it would by showing his entire life.  And thanks to one of the strongest casts assembled for a film in 2012 (including Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, as well as equally strong turns by Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field), we become even more immersed in the story.  With its somewhat small scale and intimate tone, this film was somewhat of a gamble for Spielberg and the studio, as I'm sure many were expecting a much bigger and grander film.  However, everything comes together beautifully, making this one of the more memorable films of the year.

THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY - My other favorite animated film of the year comes from Japan's acclaimed Studio Ghibli, and is a beautiful and heartwarming rendition of the classic story of The Borrowers.  With an incredible eye for detail and story, this gentle and leisurely-paced story creates a lot of emotion in the relationship that grows between a tiny young woman (a borrower), only a few inches tall, who lives under the floorboards of a house, and a human boy who is gravely ill.  With its stunning hand drawn visuals, haunting music score, and touching story, there is so much to admire here, it requires multiple viewings.  A rewarding movie that was sadly overlooked at the theaters, but has gained a cult following.

ZERO DARK THIRTY - Kathryn Bigelow's controversial film may lack the raw intensity of her last film, The Hurt Locker, but this does not make Zero Dark Thirty any less compelling.  The story concerns a female CIA agent (played memorably by Jessica Chastain) and her obsession in hunting down Osama bin Laden.  The lead character intentionally is an enigma to us, as her mission and her obsession slowly consumes her during the course of the film.  For all of its realistic depictions of torture practices and terrorism violence, the most powerful moment comes at the very quiet and bittersweet end, where Chastain's character finds herself uncertain now that her mission is over.  This is a harsh, uncompromising film, and it's frankly all the better for it.

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER - One of the best teenage dramas I have seen in quite a while.  Based on the acclaimed young adult novel by Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote and directed this film), the movie follows a young man named Charlie (memorably played by Logan Lerman), an introverted young man and the titular wallflower.  As Charlie enters high school, he befriends step-siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), who invite him into their circle of friends.  The remainder of the film deals with Charlie's troubled personal past, and his attempts to prevent his new life from unraveling.  While it all sounds familiar, the film is captivating, and told with an emotional depth we seldom see in films targeted at youth audiences.  Filled with strong performances, this is an enriching film that should be mandatory viewing for teens.

THE IMPOSSIBLE - A dramatization of the aftermath of a tsunami that struck coastal Southern Asia in 2004, The Impossible is a harrowing and gripping tale of survival, as a family who was vacationing for Christmas, becomes separated during the tragedy, and struggle to find one another.  Filled with unforgettable and emotional moments, the movie also boasts one of the better performances of the year, namely Naomi Watts, as the mother of the family who struggles to survive from life-threatening injuries she suffers from the tsunami.  A straightforward film, but nonetheless powerful and inspiring, this is a movie that is completely captivating, and never once feels forced or manipulative.

DJANGO UNCHAINED - Strip away all the controversy that this film has attracted, and you'll see that Quentin Tarantino has essentially made a highly effective action film, driven by a simple love story.  It's a basic "good punishes evil" story, told with a high amount of style and wit.  It's not deep, but it has no delusions of being deep.  It's instead a constantly surprising spectacle of action, dark humor, romance, and adventure.  Filled with wonderful characters and thrilling moments, Tarantino has made more than just a tribute to the classic Westerns of old.  He has made his own skillful movie, one which sits amongst some of his greatest film achievements.


The Woman in Black, Safe House, John Carter, 21 Jump Street, American Reunion, Chimpanzee, The Pirates: Band of Misfits, The Five-Year Engagement, Safe, The Avengers, Snow White and the Huntsman, A Cat in Paris, Bernie, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, Brave, Magic Mike, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, Hope Springs, The Bourne Legacy, The Campaign, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Premium Rush, Looper, Trouble with the Curve, Frankenweenie, Here Comes the Boom, The Master, Seven Psychopaths, Cloud Atlas, Wreck-It Ralph, Skyfall, Rise of the Guardians, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, This is 40, Jack Reacher, Les Miserables, Silver Linings Playbook


Alan Arkin in Argo
Jack Black in Bernie
Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook 
John Goodman in Argo
Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master
Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln
Logan Lerman in The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln
Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
Christophe Waltz in Django Unchained


Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Sally Field in Lincoln
Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables
Kara Hayward in Moonrise Kingdom
Keira Knightley in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook
Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman
Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild
Emma Watson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Naomi Watts in The Impossible

With that said and done, I guess all that's left to say is enjoy the Oscars tomorrow night, everyone!!


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Escape From Planet Earth

The new animated comedy, Escape From Planet Earth, is gentle, goofy, and should be great fun for kids up to a certain age.  I'd say about 8 or 9.  Anyone in the double digits, and you might be pushing it.  The movie is brightly colored, well animated, and features a strong voice cast, but none of these features are really being put to their best use here.  It's mediocre at best, and forgettable at worst.

picThe plot starts out on the distant alien planet of Baab, home to creatures who kind of look like Smurfs if they were taller, and had been hitting the gym.  We're introduced to two brothers, who naturally, are as different as can be.  One is Scorch Supernova (voiced by Brendan Fraser), the planet's resident superhero who goes on a lot of exciting adventures, and saves other worlds in peril.  The other brother is Gary (Rob Corddry), who is a family man, and is not very fond of adventures, preferring to help his brother out from the safety of mission control.  The action kicks in when Scorch is forced to answer a distress call on the "dark planet".  It is called this, because no alien who has ever visited the planet has ever returned.  This planet is better known as Earth.  Scorch heads for our world, only to discover that the distress call was actually a trick engineered by the evil human, General Shanker (William Shatner), who is kidnapping aliens and sending them to Area 51 to fulfill his own purposes.

picWhen Gary learns of his brother's capture, he has to go against his own nature, and fly off to Earth in order to rescue him.  It does not take long for Gary to get captured by Shanker also, where he finds out that the villain has been kidnapping aliens for decades in order to steal their advanced technology, and then selling it to Earth corporations.  According to this movie, things like smartphones, mp3 players, and even computer animated movies are all alien technologies that have been stolen over the years.  It's a clever little bit of satire, and it's a shame that the movie doesn't follow further with this idea after it introduces it.  It's eventually revealed that Shanker has even more diabolical plans in store, as he is forcing the aliens in captivity to create a massive super weapon that can destroy entire worlds.

picEscape from Planet Earth is strictly for kids, except for a handful of clever moments that seem to have been tossed in there to keep accompanying adults from getting too bored.  These include a short 1950s-style film that Shanker shows to recently captured aliens to introduce them to Earthlings, and a different short film that Gary watches at one point which chronicles the history of intelligent life on Earth.  Very young kids under 10 will get the most out of this.  It's energetic, and the jokes aimed at them fly pretty fast.  And while it isn't the best looking animated feature out there, it does have a very nice and colorful look to it.  There's simply nothing all that special about it.  Despite the efforts of the large and spirited voice cast (which also includes the likes of Ricky Gervais, Jessica Alba and Jane Lynch), the movie delivers very few dialogue-driven laughs.  But don't worry.  There's enough toilet and fart humor to keeps the kids rolling in their seats.

Since the movie is being released in the middle of winter, and it's the only family-friendly option out there right now, I'm sure it will carve out a small niche in the box office before going to DVD where it belongs.  Beyond that, there's very little to say about it.  It's kind of uninspired and not that memorable, but it will entertain the kids for about 90 minutes.

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Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard

The Die Hard film franchise turns 25 this year, and to celebrate, we have been given A Good Day to Die Hard, a movie that pretty much stomps on everything that has made the series endure for so long.  Gone are the days when its hero, John McClane (once again played by Bruce Willis), came across as an everyman dropped in an impossible situation.  Now he walks through mindless action sequences like a generic Terminator clone, blasting away everything that moves, while the movie tries its hardest to deaden our emotions by blasting noise on its soundtrack.  What a letdown this is.

picThe filmmakers behind this one, the fifth entry in the series, have carefully removed the one aspect that made the films so enjoyable - John McClane was vulnerable in the past.  Remember how he struggled to make his way across a floor covered with broken glass in the original movie?  Well, it seems that age has somehow strengthened McClane, so that in this movie, he can drop multiple stories through numerous plate glass windows, without suffering so much as a scratch.  It saddens me to say, John McClane has essentially become a cartoon.  Much like the classic Looney Tunes characters, he can seemingly get blown up or tossed from a moving vehicle, and simply stand up and brush himself off.  The human element behind the character is gone.  Yeah, so he still gets off a couple funny one liners once in a while.  Great, so he's a sarcastic robot now.  This is a soulless, loud, and overly generic entry.  No wonder the studio decided to bury this one in the middle of February, when all the previous films were placed as big summer movie events.

picEven the plot itself is entirely standard, and holds little interest.  It revolves around John's adult son, Jack (Jai Courtney), who is working as a CIA agent in Russia.  He has now been arrested for murder and is awaiting trial.  Hearing this, John decides to fly to Moscow to be with his son, and hopefully reconnect, as the two have not spoken in years.  Before John can even get to the courthouse, it is blown up in what appears to be a terrorist plot.  The target of the villains is Komarov (Sebastian Koch), a political prisoner who has a disc filled with inside information that could damage some very powerful people.  Jack manages to escape with Komarov during the chaos, and not long after fleeing from the courthouse, they run into John.  Now he's involved, and the remainder of the film is built around a number of particularly mindless action sequences, while John and Jack have some very lame father and son banter that is this movie's idea of character development.

picAs the events unfolded, I felt that there was a curious lack of menace.  I was trying to figure out why, and then it hit me - A Good Day to Die Hard does not have a strong, central villain character, like Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber in the original.  Here, McClane and his son mostly fight against faceless thugs who hide behind machine guns at all times.  There is no menace, because there is no real physical threat.  Our heroes are mainly going up against hired goons.  There is a reveal of a main villain in the third act, but by then, it is far too late.  We don't care by that point, and the reveal isn't special enough to make us wait that long.  You know, with all the "retro" action films that have hit the box office lately (The Last Stand, Bullet to the Head), it's odd that the latest Die Hard plays it so modern.  Instead of relying on what made the earlier movies work, this one concentrates on shaky-cam action, and villains who act like targets in a video game.  If ever there was a movie that should have been reaching into the past for inspiration, it's this one.

picBut then, action movies have not exactly been drawing in the big business lately.  The previously mentioned The Last Stand and Bullet to the Head came and left theaters fairly quickly.  There was also Parker, the latest Jason Statham vehicle - that one was a blink and you missed it, too.  Are audiences not in the mood for these kind of films, or is it just the lack of quality? (Although, to be fair, I did enjoy The Last Stand.) I predict that this movie will do better than the ones that have been released so far this year, but it will fall short in comparison to past Die Hard entries.  It just does not pay respect to the series.  Yeah, it's fun to see Bruce Willis back in the role that made him a big screen star, and he still has what it takes.  The problem is, it's not enough.  This movie is just very generic.  This series has always been about spectacle, and there's very little of that on display here.  Yes, the movie is competently made for the most part, but we expect more with this series.  It never delivers, and it never reaches for the heights of its predecessors.

Will this end the series?  I honestly don't know.  There have been worse sequels that made enough money to carry on their respective franchises.  What I do know is that there is just nothing special about this one.  It takes a classic name and a classic character, and slaps them onto an uninspired action script, with some unsuccessful bonding scenes between the two male leads that drag things to a halt regularly.  Should there be another movie, let's hope it brings a little bit of humanity and vulnerability back to John McClane.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Safe Haven

It's Valentine's Day weekend, which means it's time for another visit from the Nicholas Sparks romance factory.  We get an adaptation of a Sparks novel just about every year, and this year's film, Safe Haven, is an awful lot like what we've got in the past.  We have two attractive young lovers - one with a mysterious past, and the other with a tragic past, usually involving the loss of a loved one due to cancer.  We have a one-dimensional villain/bully, whose sole purpose is to make things miserable for the lovers, and is usually the ex of one of the people in the couple.  We also have a lot of picturesque scenery, which serves it purpose during the many music montages that are used to pad out the thin plot.  In other words, it's everything you'd expect.

picAs the film opens, we find our young and attractive heroine, Katie (Julianne Hough) on the run from the law.  We see brief and fleeting glimpses of her backstory throughout the film, which makes it looks like she is fleeing from a murder scene.  When we get the full story late in the film, we learn that she is truly innocent.  Not that we don't know that right off the bat.  Romantic heroes in Nicholas Sparks stories can do no wrong.  Katie hops on a bus to escape the detective pursuing her.  After riding for what seems like days, she hops off in quiet little seaside town that seems to be made up of I'd say around 20 people, tops.  Of primary interest to Katie is Alex (Josh Duhamel), a handsome and kindhearted young man who runs the local general store.  Not only did Alex lose his wife a few years ago to cancer, but he has two adorable little kids who sometimes help him out in the store, and act as a plot device when needed. (His little boy is still upset over his mom's death, and doesn't know how to handle it.)

picKatie settles into the new town, buying a small little shack for herself out in the middle of the woods, and getting a job working as a waitress at the local diner.  She has a lot of run-ins with Alex and his kids, and before too long, they're getting closer, going on day trips to the beach, and canoeing.  Before you know it, Katie and Alex can't seem to stay away from each other.  Never mind that they never really have much to talk about.  They're both attractive, that's all that counts in this movie.  As the two begin to fall into lover's bliss, the film constantly hints that there's trouble afoot.  Remember the detective pursuing Katie at the beginning of the story?  He's played by David Lyons, and he seems to have quite the obsession with her, for reasons I will not spoil, should you choose to see this film.  Not that it's too hard to figure out his role in the story.  The movie makes it clear right from the start that he's pretty much slime, who likes to threaten little old ladies.  And hey, that's not water he's drinking in that bottle he always carries with him, that's vodka!!

picThe plot of the detective trying to track Katie down is obviously supposed to add tension to Safe Haven, but it doesn't do a very good job.  That's because very little actually happens here.  After Katie arrives in the new town in the first five minutes of the film, we pretty much get to spend over an hour of her slowly opening up to Alex and his kids.  She laughs, she goes for a swim, she plays with the kids, and she tries to pick out the right color to paint her kitchen floor.  It would at least be something if we got a sense of a relationship growing between her and Alex, but the movie doesn't even do that good of a job conveying that.  We never really get to see what they want in each other, other than the obvious physical attraction.  Anyone can make a movie about a woman falling in love with Josh Duhamel.  It takes a real script to give these characters personality, and an actual reason to fall for each other.

picTo be fair, the movie does have one element that came as a surprise to me, and not in a good way.  That would be the very loopy plot twist that the film tosses in quite literally in the final two minutes.  It's so unnecessary and so far out there, you have to wonder who thought it was a good idea.  I have not read the novel the film is based on, but doing some research, I learned that the book ends the same way, so it's not exactly the fault of the screenwriters for throwing it in there.  But still, couldn't anyone see that the ending the way it is written just doesn't work?  Did they have no desire to maybe change it?  It's the kind of last minute revelation that leaves you sulking out of the theater, which is definitely the wrong tone to go for in your feel-good romantic drama.

Regardless, I'm sure the movie will rake in the bucks this weekend.  Safe Haven is cinematic comfort food for anyone who has ever enjoyed a Nicolas Sparks story.  It contains all your favorite elements from his past stories, and it never offends.  Even with those terrible last couple minutes, the movie's not really all that bad.  Just way too familiar, and never all that interesting.

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Beautiful Creatures

I know it's only February, but I have a feeling that Beautiful Creatures will go down as one of the goofiest movies of 2013.  I guess in an attempt to fill the void of the Harry Potter and Twilight films being over, here we have a movie that kind of mixes the two together, a supernatural love story between a teenage boy and a witch (or a "caster", as she likes to be called) in the middle of a small Southern Bible-thumping town.  It also features respected British actors like Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson forcing themselves to talk with shaky Southern accents.  And yet, silly as it all is, the movie has a sense of humor about itself.  Maybe that's why I kind of liked it.

picBeautiful Creatures is based on the first book in "The Caster Chronicles" series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  It's obviously intended to lead to many more sequels based on the further books.   Whether or not the movie hits it big enough at the box office to ensure more movies, this is an interesting film.  Writer-director Richard LaGravenese has obviously studied the teen supernatural romance craze very well, and gives the young girls in the audience plenty to squeal over.  And yet, he throws in a little more wit and intelligence than you might expect.  The characters are certainly smarter than anyone who's ever inhabited a Twilight movie.  They talk about and read from authors like Kurt Vonnegut, and have a sense of humor about themselves.  It's almost like the characters are in on the joke.  The moment I heard Emma Thompson proclaim "Well slap my ass, and call me Sally!", I knew that the actors were having as much fun with this stuff as I was.

picThe story is set in the fictional small town of Gatlin, which is home to 12 churches and no Starbucks, our young hero proclaims at the beginning of the film.  That would be Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a disillusioned young man who escapes into books like Slaughterhouse Five in order to avoid the more popular students at his high school, who are general Bible thumpers, and see anyone different from them as a threat.  Ethan has enough easy going charm that one of the popular girls likes him, but he has no interest in joining their clique, and plans to get as far away from Gatlin as soon as he graduates.  On his first day of school, a new student shows up in his class - Lena Duchannes (the likable Alice Englert).  Lena is treated as a total outcast almost the instant she shows up in class, due to the fact she lives in the decaying Ravenwood mansion with her Uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons), whom many in the town suspects is a devil worshiper, due to the strange tales of rituals that surround the home.  Ethan is smitten with the girl, and becomes even more fascinated when it seems like she can make the windows in the classroom shatter in an instant without doing anything when the other girls in class start picking on her.  This leads to her following her home one day.

picAt Ravenwood, Ethan strikes up a friendship with the withdrawn and cautious Lena, who seems very nervous about making friends in this narrow-minded community.  Turns out, she has good reason.  Lena is a "Caster", and holds tremendous magical power.  In fact, in her family of witches and warlocks, she is the most powerful.  Lena is set to turn 16 on December 21st, and apparently that's an important milestone, as when they reach that age, a Caster discovers their true nature in a ceremony, and whether they will be claimed for the forces of good or evil.  With her fateful birthday approaching, some uninvited guests show up in the town of Gatlin.  Lena's mother, Serafine (Emma Thompson), a dark Caster, and Lena's cousin Ridley (Emmy Rosum), a siren who can control the minds of men, have arrived to make sure that Lena follows their path of darkness.  While this battle for Lena's future soul begins to ignite between the "light" and "dark" Casters, the town itself seems to take little notice.  They're too busy gearing up for the annual Civil War re-enactment, which just happens to fall on Lena's birthday.

picBeautiful Creatures comes dangerously close to being overly stuffed and going over the top at times, but its reeled in with its laid back humor, and the fact that the two young lovers in the middle of it all are quite likable.  For all of its special effects and eternal battle between the forces of good and evil, this really is a simple love story about two outcasts who find support and comfort in each other.  What's more, these are semi-interesting characters who talk like they have brains.  Unlike the vapid lovers of Twilight, Ethan and Lena act like they've had an intelligent thought in their young lives.  That alone makes them at least interesting to watch.  As for the story that surrounds them, as silly as it is, it's certainly never boring.  I was interested in the hidden world of Casters, and wanted to learn more.  One of the annoyances of the screenplay is how condensed the plot feels, despite having an overly generous running time of just over two hours.  I guess that's what the books are for.

picI also like how many of the actors just throw themselves into the performances.  Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson are obviously having a grand time playing the head representatives of the "good" and "evil" sides of the Caster world, respectively.  Should sequels to this movie be made, I hope it will go further into some of the interesting characters that we only catch glimpses of in this movie.  This would include most of Lena's family, who are introduced during a dinner party scene, show up throughout the film, but are never really developed.  However, at least the filmmakers have planned for the worst.  In case this movie bombs and no more get the green light, at least we're not left with a cliffhanger that will never be fulfilled.  The movie does end in a somewhat open-ended fashion, but in case no more are made, it works as a resolution to this particular film's story.

My ultimate dream concerning Beautiful Creatures is that it will inspire the younger members of the audience to read.  Not the source novels that inspired the movie, mind you, but rather the books that the young leads discuss with each other throughout the film.  I know, it's probably wishful thinking, but it's a nice thought isn't it?

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