Reel Opinions

Sunday, March 24, 2013


Director Paul Weitz has a talent for making very human stories about relationships that are filled with both pathos and humor.  He first showed this ability with 2002's wonderful About a Boy, and followed it up with 2004's In Good Company.  His latest film, Admission, is in the same category, and while it's not as strong as his earlier films, I still liked it enough that I'm recommending it. 

picThe movie is being marketed as a breezy romantic comedy starring two wonderful talents, Tina Fey and Paul Rudd.  In a way, I can understand the studio's decision to do so.  The two have a very likable presence together, even in interviews, so who wouldn't want to see them in a comedy together?  The thing is, Admission is a hard movie to peg.  Yes, it does have elements of a conventional romantic comedy, but at the same time, it can't really be labeled as such.  It tackles a wide variety of subjects and emotions, some better than others.  Audiences will come looking for laughs, and may be surprised to find that the movie is a semi-serious look at life, relationships, and the feelings of loss and regret.  The laughs are there, but they are small.  This is not a laugh out loud movie.  Rather, the movie uses humor to lighten the mood when things start to get too serious.

picAt the center of the film is a young man named Jeremiah Balakian (Nickelodeon TV star, Nat Wolff).  Jeremiah goes to a special high school that sort of looks like a summer camp, and where the students are encouraged to debate and lecture in their pursuit of knowledge.  His dream is to go to Princeton University after he graduates.  He certainly has the makings for a fine college student, having aced the SATs and AP exams, despite having never taken any Advanced classes.  The only thing holding him back is that Jeremiah has a very long history of a low GPA, multiple suspensions throughout his school career, and other blemishes.  The principal at Jeremiah's school, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), is one of the few people who believes in the kid, and feels he's destined for great things.  He's the one gunning for Jeremiah to aim for Princeton.

picFortunately, John has a connection at the University.  An admissions officer at Princeton named Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), just happens to be an old classmate of his, and he tracks her down, insisting that he meet his oddball yet brilliant pupil.  Portia arrives at the school, not sure what to expect, and gets a little bombshell of her own - John has come across some information that leads him to believe that Jeremiah (who was orphaned shortly after being born) may just be the son that Portia put up for adoption when she became pregnant while back in college.  Portia brushes him off at first, but as she looks at Jeremiah's birth record, and spends time with the kid, certain pieces do fall into place.  Her maternal instincts kick in, and before long, Portia finds her job a lot more difficult, as she must judge Jeremiah on his academic record, not on personal emotion.

picAdmission is a movie that seems to be pulled in a variety of directions.  Is it a comedy?  The scenes between Fey and her feminist, shotgun-toting mother (played by a very funny Lily Tomlin) would seem to suggest so.  Is it a romance?  Fey and Rudd do have great chemistry together as they find themselves drawn together into a possible relationship.  Is it a satire on the University acceptance process, and the extremes some students (and their parents) will go to in order to get noticed by a prestigious college?  It has its moments there, too.  Is it a drama about a woman who begins to question the choices she has made and the path she has followed in life?  That too.  All this, and we even have a plot where Portia is gunning for her boss' position, when he announces he is ready to retire in the coming year, and has to deal with a rival.

picBy all accounts, the movie should not work.  It's cluttered, and its tone is far too inconsistent at times.  And yet, I found myself drawn in by Fey and Rudd, as well as the supporting performances by Wolff, Tomlin, and Wallace Shawn (as Fey's boss).  The movie may be rough around the edges, but it stays grounded by a very honest and heartfelt tone through most of the film.  The movie may also be sloppy, but it never feels dumbed down.  The characters are as smart and likable as they should be, and I think that's what carried me through the film's rough patches.  Through it all, this is a warm and likable movie about intelligent people who actually get to act intelligent.  Yes, the movie is contrived at times, but it also took a few steps that I didn't expect and actually enjoyed.

I have no idea if Admission will find an audience.  I'm kind of rooting for it.  No, it's not a great movie, but I left the film feeling pretty good.  There's actually a scene in this movie that describes how I feel about it.  A Princeton professor is made to watch Jeremiah give a ventriloquist sketch inspired by a philosopher.  The skit is awkward, sloppy, and just plain strange, but in the end, he has to admit that he liked it.  I kind of know how he feels.

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Olympus Has Fallen

The first of two "terrorists take over the White House" movies that we're getting this year (the other being June's White House Down with Channing Tatum), the biggest surprise about Olympus Has Fallen is that it is a better Die Hard movie than the actual Die Hard movie we got last month.  Yes, it's overblown, and it can be very heavy-handed at times.  But, I really got into it.  I'm really surprised to see a movie like this released in March, as it has all the makings and production values of a genuine summer blockbuster.  Not only that, it gives Gerard Butler's struggling career a much needed shot in the arm.

picButler plays Mike Banning, a former Secret Service agent to the President (Aaron Eckhart), who left his position after he failed to save the President's wife (Ashley Judd) from a Christmas Eve car accident near Camp David.  Some time later, he is forced to go back into action when he finds himself the only man who can stop an army of North Korean terrorists who attack Washington DC (they fly in planes overhead, firing down upon innocents, and even destroy the Washington Monument), and take control of the White House itself, holding the President and Vice President hostage deep below in the security bunker.  The North Koreans seem to have become the "foreign villains du jour" in action films of late, for obvious reasons - Not only for political reasons, but also because Hollywood movies don't screen over there, so there's no danger to the overseas box office.

picWhat do the terrorists want?  Namely, they want the US to withdraw, so that North Korea can sweep south without being impeded.  The chaos of the simultaneous attack on Washington DC and the White House itself has pretty much wiped everyone out, and now Mike Banning is the only man left who can stop them.  When I said that Olympus Has Fallen has much in common with Die Hard earlier, I meant it, as Banning is pretty much a hero in the John McClane mold.  He's capable and strong, yet frequently finds himself in over his head, or bloodied and bruised from a fight or narrow escape.  He's also quick with a sarcastic quip or one liner, which Butler pulls off quite well, making his character immediately likable to the audience.  This is a big and overblown movie, so it helps that its hero doesn't always take things all that seriously all the time.  Plus, the character is a lot more human and relatable than Bruce Willis' more recent portrayals of  McClane.

picMike's mission is to infiltrate the White House without being noticed by the many terrorists who patrol the halls, find the President's young son, get him out, then go back in and save the President.  All the while, the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman) and the Secret Service Director (Angela Bassett) closely monitor his progress from a secure area, and keep in contact with him through radio communication.  These two actors are not given much to do in the film, but they make the most of it, and lend an air of authority to their roles.  Actually, looking back, the movie is full of a lot of inconsequential roles that easily could have been written out, such as Mike's girlfriend (Radha Mitchell), a nurse at a nearby hospital who watches the action fretfully on TV, and locks her hands together, hoping for his safety.  The movie keeps on cutting back to her, making me think she was maybe going to play some role at one point, but never does.  One character I would have liked to have seen more of, however, is the fiercely loyal Secretary of Defense, played by an unrecognizable Melissa Leo.  She not only disappears into her role (I didn't know who she was until the end credits), but her performance is excellent.

picA movie such as this lives and dies on its villains, and while they don't exactly stand out in any real way, they are at least able to create a sense of menace.  The lead terrorist, Kang (Rick Yune), is not the over the top villain we expect in a movie like this, but is rather quiet and calculating.  If the screenplay had given him more to do during the film, he might have actually been chilling.  There is also an American traitor working for the terrorists, whose identity I will not reveal.  The rest of the villains are a largely faceless group for Mike to kill off.  This would probably be a good time to bring up the violence, which is very strong.  It's not just the villains torturing and killing their enemies, but also Mike Banning himself, who uses his Secret Service training for brutal means.  Director Antoine Fuqua (Shooter) lays the violence and blood on thick, without making the film unwatchable.  He knows when to be graphic, and just how much to show, and when to scale back.

Olympus Has Fallen is the kind of fun, overblown, throwback action film to the 80s and 90s that Hollywood has been attempting to make so much recently with failed efforts like Bullet to the Head.  This one finally gets it right.  It uses its "hero trapped in a confined space" premise to great effect, it features a strong cast, and it's probably the first action movie of the year that truly deserves to be a blockbuster.  I was actually quite surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  Come June, Channing Tatum's movie will have a lot to live up to.

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Friday, March 22, 2013

The Croods

No, The Croods is not as forgettable as Escape From Planet Earth, but in a lot of ways, it's much more disappointing.  It's simple, really.  Escape From Planet Earth was a low budget quickie that no one had much faith in.  The Croods is a big, beautiful, lavish Dreamworks Animation production that looks great (as most CG cartoons do), but is saddled with a weak script, a meandering narrative, and characters we don't care a whole lot about.

picThe film was co-written and co-directed by Chris Sanders, who is best known for creating Lilo and Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon.  Those are both wonderful films, filled with wit and characters that endear themselves to us.  What happened here, I don't know.  The movie suffers from a complete lack of focus.  It's simply a series of stale visual gags and weak vignettes looking for a purpose.  It's also often far too frantic, with the characters constantly running away from some kind of danger or hazard in almost every scene.  It gets exhausting.  It also keeps the characters constantly at a distance to us, since the movie seldom slows down long enough for us to get to know them.  It doesn't take long for the film's cast of CG cartoon characters to start resembling video game characters, running and fighting off dangerous creatures.

picThe Croods are a family of cavemen struggling to survive in a harsh prehistoric world.  All they know is that they are the last of their kind.  There used to be lots of other cavemen around, but they died out, either by attack from prehistoric creature, or disease.  The Croods have managed to avoid extinction by seldom leaving their cave.  The overly protective father of the family, Grug (voice by Nicolas Cage), makes sure that no one in his family ever ventures outside by telling them horrible stories of what happens to cavemen who are curious, and venture beyond the safety of the cave.  Most of the family abides by these rules, except for fiery teenage daughter, Eep (Emma Stone), who wants to explore the outside world.  The other members of the Crood clan include sweetly bland mother Ugga (Catherine Keener), feisty grandmother Gran (Cloris Leachman), and dim-witted son Thunk (Clark Duke).

picOne night, Eep decides to leave the cave without permission, and comes across a more intelligent and evolved form of human who calls himself Guy (Ryan Reynolds).  Guy has already mastered fire, invented shoes for his feet, and tells Eep of the world beyond the cave.  More than that, he tells her that the world is changing, and that they need to head for higher ground in order to be safe.  Sure enough, the continents begin to drift and change shortly thereafter, and the Croods' cave is destroyed in the process.  Now the whole family has no choice but to follow Guy to a new world so that they can evolve like he has.  That's pretty much the whole plot right there, as the remainder of the film are a bunch of visual gags concerning the Croods making new discoveries of the world, creating failed inventions, or being confronted by some kind of strange prehistoric beast.  You know, I don't require a big plot in a children's animated film, but it's at least nice if the plot feels like it's going somewhere.  This one drags its feet to no real destination in particular.

picThe Croods is supposed to be a journey of discovery for its characters.  Grug the father must learn to take chances, and discover how to let his teenage daughter find her own way in life.  Eep discovers feelings for Guy as they travel together.  And so on.  These ideas are established, but never really explored, because the movie never slows down long enough to let us get to know them.  Grug's revelations are cheap and automatic, and happen as plot contrivance, rather than character development.  As for Eep and Guy, they seem to fall for each other because we expect them to.  The movie seldom gives them a moment alone, or a scene of dialogue where the two discover they are kindred spirits.  This is a generic script where things happen out of necessity, not because of relationships.

picBut hey, at least you get some beautiful visuals to distract you from the fact that there's not much of anything going on.  Provided you see the movie in 2D.  Like every other animated feature to come out these days, the movie is being released in 3D, where the glasses mute the colors, and make everything appear murky and brown.  Simply by taking off those dumb glasses at anytime, you can see the vivid art and color that went into making this.  Once again, audiences are being asked to pay a bigger ticket price for lesser picture quality.  I would think audiences would have wised up by now, but apparently not.  Regardless, there are some beautifully rendered scenes here, and I liked the unique designs of the various creatures that the Croods encounter.  Not that those details make this movie worth seeing.

For all of its hype and big production values, The Croods is a surprisingly chintzy production.  It's not particularly funny, most of the capable voice cast are wasted in underwritten roles, and nothing up on the screen resonates.  It's something audiences expect from a cheap animation house, not the studio who brought us the Kung Fu Panda films.  Dreamworks has been making some pretty big strides in animation lately, but this is a big step back.

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Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Call

For the first 70 minutes or so, The Call is a tight, suspenseful, and kind of thrilling little low budget movie that plays it smart.  Then comes the next 20 minutes or so, where the movie turns into a Mad Slasher picture, where the villain is not dead the first time he goes down, and just keeps on coming, no matter what the heroines do to him.  It was a disappointing turn, but I was still willing to recommend the movie, because what came before it was so good.  And then came the film's final scene, and it killed any good will I had toward the movie.  The last two minutes are morally repugnant, and left me feeling nothing but contempt for the film itself.

picWhat was screenwriter Richard D'Ovido thinking when he came up with that last scene?  Why did he choose to end this story in such a way that we hate everyone who has played a major role in the film?  I have seen many a film that has been brought down by a disappointing climax or ending, but I cannot remember hating an ending more than this.  It cheapens and goes against everything the movie has been building up to.  Not only that, it leaves us on a sour note, where we end up despising the main characters who, up until that point, have been decent people.  Did the filmmakers really think that this was the right way to end their story?  Did they stop and think what message they were sending to the audience, and how it goes against everything that came before it in the movie?  I'm trying to think of answers to rationalize the decisions the movie comes to, and I come up blank.

picBut long before the movie flies off the rails into morally questionable territory, it's an effective thriller.  Halle Berry plays Jordan, a 911 operator who, early in the film, answers the call of a frightened teenage girl (Evie Thompson) whose house is being invaded by an intruder when she's home alone.  The girl goes into hiding, and as she does so, she accidentally drops the call.  Jordan makes the mistake of calling the number back, which alerts the intruder to the girl's presence when the phone starts ringing.  Jordan is forced to listen to the girl's abduction over the phone, and days later, the teenager's body is discovered in a field on the side of a road.  Jordan blames herself for the girl's murder, and leaves her position as an operator, opting instead to train new operators for the challenges they will face on the job as they deal with these emergencies.

picJordan is called back into action when it appears that the same abductor from that night has taken another teenage girl hostage.  This time, he kidnaps young Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin) from a mall parking garage, and throws her into the trunk of his car.  Casey is able to call 911 from her cell phone, and the bulk of the film deals with Jordan trying to talk Casey through her situation, and how to get the attention of other drivers on the road, such as kicking out the car's taillight, and waving her hand, so people will know someone is in the trunk.  It turns into a race against time as Jordan and her fellow operators try to track down the car, and just where Casey is being taken to.  This is where I was completely behind the film.  The pace is tense and relentless, and both Jordan and Casey are written as semi-intelligent women.  I especially liked that Casey was not written as a total victim, and does make an effort to fight back.

picThe police eventually learn the identity of the kidnapper, and follow the clues which lead them to a house in the suburbs.  Turns out he's a family man leading a double life, with a wife and kids who have no idea of what he's been doing.  Their leads go nowhere, however, and soon it seems as if Casey will become another victim of this psychopath.  That's when Jordan decides to take the law into her own hands, and the movie starts to break down.  Its downfall is gradual at first, but it picks up steam when Jordan starts doing her own investigating, and learns that the madman has dragged Casey into a secret underground torture lair out in the middle of nowhere.  We get a lot of grisly, bloody images, and a lot of shots of the kidnapper frothing and overacting.  It's the kind of stuff we've seen in a dozen Mad Slasher movies just like it, and it makes no successful argument as to why we're sitting through it again.

picAt this point, The Call has downgraded from a fairly tight and suspenseful thriller, to a stupid slasher film.  Disappointing, yes, but still livable.  I thought this was going to be the biggest offense the movie was going to pull on its audience, and I was willing to be kind.  I guess nothing could prepare me for what would happen next.  You have no idea how much I long to spoil what happens next in the hopes that it will keep some people away from this movie.  Heck, by building it up and tiptoeing around it, I'm probably just building interest in you, the reader.  I sincerely hope not.  Don't let morbid curiosity suck you in.  If you want to know how it ends, check the film's message board over on the IMDB.  They love to spoil movies over there.  All I will say about the ending is that it somehow manages to be manipulative, wrong-headed, repulsive, morally questionable, and creatively bankrupt all at the same time.

picI think the reason why the ending struck me in such a horrible way is up until that point, Jordan and Casey are portrayed as likable and semi-intelligent people.  Both Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin give strong performances.  Berry, in particular, is good at portraying her sympathetic and haunted character, and is believable as someone who is cool under the pressure of her job.  In fact, the movie itself does a really good job of creating a 911 call center, and the pressures the job entails.  As for Breslin, she has the more difficult task of having to be crammed in a claustrophobic space for much of her screen time.  She is emotional and strong, and has come a long way from the little girl in Little Miss Sunshine.  I liked both of these actresses and their performances, and the film's ending seems to go out of its way to betray that.

I don't remember the last time an ending has done a greater disservice to a movie.  If this is the way that director Brad Anderson really wanted to wrap things up, then he only has himself to blame.  It's a shame, really.  About halfway through the film, I was pretty much writing my positive review in my head.  Then, little by little, my feelings began to change.  When it was over, I could only feel sad, and wished I could go back to feeling the way I was before.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Watching The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was a strange experience.  It would be playing out up there on the screen - pleasant enough, but not really building to anything.  All of a sudden, out of the blue, there would be a huge laugh or a dark joke that would completely catch me off guard, and make me laugh out loud.  Considering no other comedy released so far this year has been able to accomplish that, it was a wonderful feeling, even if it was scattered, instead of consistent.

picI can't quite call Burt Wonderstone a great comedy.  Yes, it's funny, but the stretches between the jokes that hit really hard are often too long.  It is nice and quite likable all the way through, however.  Maybe a bit too nice.  I wanted the movie to be a bit meaner, to take a few more chances.  It does from time to time, and when it does, those were the moments when I found myself laughing so hard.  But the movie mainly wants to be a nice little redemption story about Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell), a stage magician who becomes an insufferable egotist when his act hits Vegas and becomes a success.  The bulk of the movie is about him losing it all, and then learning to be a better person as he tries to recapture the fame he once had.   This works well enough.  I liked Carell's performance, I liked his character, and I liked his co-stars.  It was all very pleasant and enjoyable.  I just kept on wishing the movie would show its edge a bit more often.

picWhen we first meet Burt, it's 1982, and he's an unpopular preteen who's a target for bullies.  His mom buys him a magic kit for his birthday, which comes with a video cassette hosted by his hero, the magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin).  On the video, Rance proclaims that everyone loves a magician and a magic act.  Burt takes these words to heart, and begins practicing his own magic routine, hoping to make friends that way.  The only kid he's able to impress is Anton Marvelton, the only kid in school who is as unpopular as Burt.  He grows up to be played by Steve Buscemi.  Burt and Anton become a duo act, and hone their skills until, 20 years later, they're headlining their own magic act at a major casino in Las Vegas.  At first, the act is a success, but as time marches on, Burt has become a pompous and womanizing louse, whom his partner and former best friend, Anton, barely recognizes anymore, and his female assistant, Jane (Olivia Wilde), can hardly tolerate.

picWith sagging ticket sales, not to mention a stunt intended to freshen up their magic act going horrible wrong, Burt and Anton go their separate ways and the act collapses.  Burt finds himself out of work, and forced to do children's birthday parties and appearances at Big Lots.  Meanwhile, there's a new kind of magician who is rapidly building in fame.  This is Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a wild-haired and tattooed buffoon who is intended as a parody of Criss Angel.  He even has his own TV show called Mind Rapist, where he performs stunts such as sleeping on a bed of hot coals, holding in his urine for a number of days, or basically self-mutilating his body for the entertainment of the masses.  Carrey's performance here is wonderfully off-kilter, and brings to mind his early days in films such as Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber.  The movie could have used more of him.  Regardless, Burt sees the growing popularity of Steve's sick act as an insult to magic itself, and decides he needs to recapture the feeling he once had when he started show business.  He must mend the bridges he's burned with his friends, and find a new act that will impress everyone.

picBurt Wonderstone is at its funniest when it strays from the plot, and comes upon a wickedly funny idea.  One of the funnier moments occurs after Burt and Anton break up their act, and Anton decides to become a humanitarian, visiting impoverished people desperately in need of food and clean water.  I won't spoil the joke, but I will say it's in bad taste, while at the same time being screamingly funny.  That's what this movie needed more of.  It becomes so focused on making the character of Burt into a nice guy who recognizes his mistakes that the movie itself kind of becomes soft, when it should be sharp and edgy.  I guess that's why the film's darker and funnier moments took me so off guard.  The movie is credited to two different screenwriters, with four separate people listed with coming up with the plot.  Something tells me there was a major struggle for control of this film behind the scenes, given the sometimes dual nature of the film itself.

picAnd yet, even though I wasn't laughing, I kind of liked the sweeter elements of the movie, also.  That's why I'm ultimately recommending it.  This is a likable movie, with some very sweet little moments.  I liked the relationship that forms between Burt and his idol, Rance Holloway, when he bumps into the former magician at a nursing home for Vegas entertainers.  And as Burt and Anton, Carell and Buscemi make a great team, and get some good laughs.  I liked all of these characters, and the performances are a lot of fun to watch.  You can tell that Jim Carrey is relishing his oddball role, after years of Oscar Bait dramas and safe family films.  This is a fun and very likable movie that just needed a few more barbs in its humor to really bring this material to its full potential.

Even if I was left wishing for more from this movie, I still enjoyed what I got.  It's warm, it's very funny at times, and it features a very talented cast who seem to be having a great time up on the screen.  Sometimes that's all I'm looking for in a movie.  If this movie were a real magic act, it wouldn't blow you away, but you would still applaud the effort.

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Saturday, March 09, 2013

Dead Man Down

I knew very little about Dead Man Down walking in, which I think was for the best.  The movie throws us in head-first into its premise, explaining very little, and allows us to figure it out for ourselves as it goes along.  As the plot slowly unfolded, I became more intrigued, and found myself drawn in by the characters.  This is a slow burn crime drama that works...At least until the last 10 minutes or so.  That's when the movie switches tone completely, and becomes an over the top action shoot 'em up.  It's like the filmmakers sent the thoughtful writer out of the room, and sent in the hack writer behind A Good Day to Die Hard to finish the last few pages of the screenplay.

picI'm recommending the film, because everything outside of those final minutes is very good.  The film is the Hollywood debut of director Niels Arden Oplev, the Danish filmmaker behind the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Fortunately, this doesn't feel like an overly-Hollywood production.  The tone of the film is very dark and unapologetic, and the pace is leisurely, but never dull.  It trusts our intelligence enough that it doesn't feel that it has to spell out its plot in a simplistic manner.  While the story is certainly nothing complicated, it is told in such a way that we do sort of feel cast adrift for the first 20 minutes or so, not really sure where things are going.  Those who are patient enough to stick with it, however, will find a quiet and rewarding noir thriller.

picThe movie stars Colin Farrell as Victor, a hired goon for a New York thug named Alphonse (Terrence Howard).  For the past three months, Alphonse has been receiving cryptic and threatening messages, as well as what appears to be a family photo with the central figure cut out.  Now, one of his men has wound up dead, strangled, and placed in his freezer.  Alphonse suspects that someone within his own gang is behind it all, but he can't figure out who.  We quickly learn that Victor's loyalties to his boss are not what they seem.  It seems that years ago, Alphonse put a hit out on Victor's family when they refused to leave an apartment building that he wanted for his gang activities.  Victor was left for dead, but survived.  Now swearing vengeance for the wife and daughter he lost, Victor changed his appearance and identity, got close to his enemy, earned his trust, and is now slowly destroying Alphonse' criminal empire from the inside.

picThere is a woman who lives in the apartment building across from Victor.  She is Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), and like Victor, she is seeking vengeance for a past grief.  Up until one year ago, Beatrice was a happy and carefree young woman, working as a beautician.  But then, her car was struck by a drunk driver, and Beatrice's face was damaged beyond recognition in the accident.  She has had reconstructive surgery done on her face, but the scars still show, and she knows that she will never be the same.  The man who struck her car that night got a light sentence, and only had to serve three weeks in jail.  This is something she cannot stand, let alone comprehend.  She sometimes follows the man to his home, and watches him, contemplating her own vengeance.

picVictor and Beatrice are brought together in what might have been a "Meet Cute" in an entirely different movie.  They know each other by watching each other through their windows from time to time.  They seem attracted to each other, but are both too nervous to make a move.  Finally, they get the nerve to talk to one another, and go on a date.  However, after dinner, Beatrice drives Victor to the home of the man who struck her car.  She then pulls out a video phone, and shows Victor a video she shot of him murdering one of Alphonse's goons in his own apartment.  She filmed it from her own window, and now plans to use Victor to get what she wants.  Beatrice knows that he is a killer, and wants his help in murdering the man whom she feels destroyed her life.  The complex plot unwinds from there, combining the individual revenge plots of these two wounded souls who have found solace in each other, as well as the guarded romance that slowly builds between them.

picDead Man Down does a great job of bringing us into the lonely worlds of these two people.  Both live entirely in the past, and almost like hermits.  Victor routinely tortures himself by watching old home movies of his wife and child, where on the film, he promises to protect his daughter from "monsters" that might harm her.  As for Beatrice, she locks herself in her room with articles and newspaper clippings about the accident.  Whenever she does try to step outside, she is usually harassed by some of the local kids, who have been bullying her about her appearance since she came home from the hospital.  The film is an odd mixture of revenge crime drama, and shy romance, but it does manage to work, thanks in no small part to the two effective leads.

picThis is probably Colin Farrell's best performance in quite a while.  As an actor, he's been throwing his talent away lately in a lot of action films and forgettable remakes.  But here, he gets to give a quiet and powerful performance.  He gives a wonderful physical performance, showing the pent up rage that his character is holding in.  He looks like someone who has control, but could also explode in violence at any second.  He's also quite good in his more sympathetic scenes with Rapace.  Speaking of her, this is probably her best role in a Hollywood film so far.  Having obviously worked with the director before, she is most likely in her comfort zone here, so maybe that explains her more natural performance.  It certainly also helps that the actors have guarded, yet genuine, chemistry during their scenes together.

Dead Man Down is an intelligent and leisurely thriller that is mainly let down by the ending, which seems like it was tacked on by a Hollywood executive.  Given how badly it sticks out from the rest of the movie, I have no doubt that it was probably not the ending originally intended.  I could be wrong, but I hope not.  I'd hate to learn that a filmmaker really wanted to end a quiet and effective movie like this with the mindless action we get.  Regardless, for most of its running time, I enjoyed discovering where this movie was going, and found myself drawn in by their sadness.  The movie's kind of sad and bleak too, but in a way that is thought provoking instead of manipulative or depressing.

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Friday, March 08, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful

Now this is more like it.  Oz the Great and Powerful is pretty much everything that last weekend's disappointing Jack the Giant Slayer wasn't.  Not only are its effects stunning, but it also shows some real imagination in their design.  And while the plot is nothing new, I found it kind of engaging.  There is a sense of fun here that I found missing from Jack.  The effects and the world it creates serve a purpose, and are not just for show.  Of the many recent blockbuster films inspired by children's stories, this is easily my favorite, with last year's Snow White and the Huntsman close behind.

picThe movie serves as a prequel to The Wizard of Oz.  This is not a new idea, as anyone who has read Gregory Maguire's wonderful novel, Wicked, or the Broadway musical that was made out of it knows.  However, while Maguire's story told the events from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West, this film gives us the story from the Wizard himself.  We get to see how a small time circus magician and con artist named Oscar (Oz to his friends) came to the magical land of Oz, and how he achieved the status of power he held when Dorothy eventually arrived years later.  We see how he created his illusions, we see how the Wicked Witch came to be, and we even get to see some parts of Oz that we haven't seen in past film adaptations, like a city that was once comprised entirely out of living porcelain glass China dolls (until the evil flying monkeys came and destroyed all but one of its inhabitants).

picJames Franco plays the man who will eventually be the Wizard, Oscar "Oz" Diggs.  With his wide toothy grin and snake oil charm, Franco is a surprisingly good fit for the character.  I've heard other people say he's miscast, but he didn't strike me as such.  He brings a certain theatrical style that the character needs.  He's a womanizing circus magician as the film opens.  In a clever nod to the 1939 film, director Sam Raimi shoots the opening scenes in black and white (complete with a smaller scale-sized screen), and then switches to color and full screen once Oscar arrives at his mystical destination.  In another reference to that earlier film, the people that surround him at the circus will play different roles once he arrives in Oz.  The woman who truly owns his heart, but is engaged to be married to a man with the last name of "Gale" (played by Michelle Williams), appears as Glenda the Good in Oz.  Even Oscar's long-suffering assistant at the circus (Zach Braff) is reimagined as a timid flying monkey who accompanies him on his adventures.

picAnd just how does Oscar wind up in Oz?  When his womanizing ways catch up with him and he ends up angering the circus Strong Man, he must make a quick escape in a hot air balloon.  A storm cuts his flight short, and once the balloon is sucked into a violent tornado, he finds himself transported to the mystical kingdom.  Once there, he is immediately thrown in the middle of a conflict of three witch sisters who are fighting for control of the Emerald City.  There's the previously mentioned Glenda, as well as her two sisters; the scheming Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and the naive Theodora (Mila Kunis).  Of these three, one of them will eventually become the Wicked Witch of the West that we all know.  And since we can obviously rule out Glenda, that gives us two choices, and it's really quite easy to figure it out as the plot plays out.

picBut it's not figuring out the plot that's the fun part of this movie, anyway.  It's the charming way the story is told, and the fact that even with a $200 million budget, Sam Raimi has not lost any of his edge, or his enthusiasm for the strange.  For once, this doesn't feel like a talented director selling out for a bloated blockbuster.  All of his trademarks are here, from the bizarre horror elements and weird creatures (though obviously toned down considerably for the younger kids), right down to the expected cameo by Bruce Campbell.  He also doesn't fall down a lot of the pitfalls that similar special effects spectaculars sink into.  For example, even though the film provides Oscar with two CG comic relief sidekicks (the previously mentioned flying monkey, and a living China doll), they are likable, not odious or obnoxious.  Not only are the effects used to bring the characters to life second to none, but the voice acting by Zach Braff and Joey King respectively are filled with humor and charm.

picOz the Great and Powerful is that rare blockbuster that just feels alive.  The characters have personality, and the world they inhabit has obviously been crafted with care by the set designers and special effects artists.  There are obviously plenty of nods to the 1939 film, but since this movie was made by Disney, and that earlier film is currently owned by Warner Bros., the filmmakers were forced to create their own unique spin on some of the more iconic images.  In a way, this is a blessing in disguise, as it allows us to see a different interpretation on some familiar material.  This is easily the most beautiful looking movie of 2013 so far.  I saw the film in traditional 2D, which is vibrant and colorful.  I can't comment on how good the 3D is, but there are a number of scenes where it looks like it could actually be useful.  I'd have to hear if it is worth it, but I just may consider seeking of the 3D version, and seeing how it stacks up.

So often when a talented director gets attached to a big project like their, they lose their personality and just make a shallow commercial product.  Raimi has successfully bucked the trend, and given us a devilish and quite entertaining little fantasy.  It doesn't reinvent the genre, but no one said it had to.  It's just incredibly fun, a wonder to look at, and simply joyful.

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



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