Reel Opinions

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

The only way you can judge a movie like Bad Grandpa is by how much you laughed during the film.  I will admit to laughing out loud on a few occasions, and smiling more than once.  Even if the joke wasn't working, I still appreciated the effort.  Look, I'm not saying this is a great comedy, and you should rush out and see it.  But, it entertained me enough while I was watching it, so I'm giving it a marginal recommendation.

The film is a spinoff of the Jackass TV series and films, and unlike the earlier entries, has a loose plot to tie together the various stunts, pranks, and gross out gags that make up a majority of the film.  We're introduced to an 86-year-old codger named Irving Zisman (Johnny Knoxville, under a lot of make up) as he sits in a hospital waiting room, and learns that his wife has passed away. ("I thought she'd never die!", he tells a woman seated next to him.) Irving now aspires to spend his remaining days hitting strip clubs and massage parlors, but before he can live it up, he learns that his daughter (Georgina Cates) is being sent to prison on a drug charge, and is entrusting her eight-year-old son Billy (Jackson Nicoll, who acted alongside Knoxville in last year's Fun Size) in his care.  Irving must drive cross country with the kid, so that they can track down Billy's deadbeat dad (Greg Harris), who will take him off his hands permanently.  Eventually, the grandpa and boy bond over childish pranks played on unsuspecting people captured on hidden camera footage.

That's pretty much the entire 90 minutes or so of the film wrapped up right there.  The movie is a combination of scripted story scenes (where Irving and Billy drive cross country, and exchange insults with each other), and "hidden camera" scenes where the two walk into places like a restaurant or a grocery store, and we get to witness locals who don't know they are on camera, and their reactions as this old man and boy seemingly do things like shoplift, shoot fecal matter on the walls, and scream lurid pick up lines at women who walk by.  I will admit to laughing at several of the staged pranks, such as one involving an adjustable bed, and a sequence where Irving attempts to mail the boy he's put in charge of to his father.  The reactions from the shocked (and sometimes horrified) unsuspecting locals is often amusing enough in itself. 

If you've enjoyed any of the earlier Jackass films, you'll probably find a lot to like here.  As someone who hasn't been a huge fan of the series, I appreciated the plot-driven angle, and the emphasis on the reactions of people who are not in on the joke.  The movie does try to add a certain twisted sentimental angle with Irving and Billy bonding during their adventures, and while it's not entirely effective, I do have to admit that I found myself liking these two characters.  Knoxville has good comedic chemistry with his young co-star, who it must be said even gets to stand out on his own on more than one occasion, such as when the kid clings onto an unsuspecting man passing by, saying that he wants the man to be his new daddy.  The jokes are juvenile and crude, as is to be expected, but there's also a certain sweetness to some of them that probably helped push me to a favorable response.
Bad Grandpa arrives at a time when the studios are starting to roll out their big, intense, and serious Fall movies, so maybe it was just good timing, and I was just in the mood for a very silly movie like this.  Whatever the case, I laughed, and even when I wasn't laughing, I was amused.  At the very least, it's something different for the Jackass franchise.

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The Counselor

Here is one of the talkiest and most dragged out movies I have ever seen.  The characters in The Counselor talk relentlessly in endless scenes that don't seem to go anywhere.  And then, when that scene is over, and the next one starts, the same thing happens all over again.  It would seem that in writing his first original screenplay, acclaimed author Cormac McCarthy (He wrote the novel that No Country for Old Men was based on.) fell so in love with listening to his own characters' dialogue, that he sometimes forgot to give them something to talk about, or to make his characters interesting in the first place. 

And yet, it's impossible not to get excited for the movie while the opening credits roll out.  There are some very talented names attached to this movie, setting your expectations sky-high.  The director is the usually reliable Ridley Scott, who knows his way around a thriller like this movie wants to be.  And look at the names in this cast he's rounded up, which includes the likes of Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, and Javier Bardem.  And yet, all the talent in the world would not be able to rise above that damn script, which is not only needlessly wordy, but kind of pointless the more you think about it.  The Counselor is a dark and downbeat story about bad people doing horrible things.  That's fine and good, I have enjoyed many films that followed that example.  Where this one gets it wrong is that it doesn't make these bad people interesting or even intriguing, so we're simply forced to sit and wait for the bad things to happen to them.  Not so much because we want to see these characters go through these horrible things, but because the movie will be one step closer to being over with.

An early scene that kind of set off an internal alarm that the movie was not going to be going anywhere concerned The Counselor himself (he has no name in the script, and is played by Michael Fassbender) having what felt like a five minute conversation on diamond quality.  We understand why the scene is in the film (he's buying it for his soon to be fiance, and it establishes that he enjoys the finer things in life), but it's just so needlessly wordy, and seems to go on forever.  It's pretty much a set up for everything that will go wrong later on.  There are one or two conversations that do catch our interest, such as the scene when one of The Counselor's wealthy friends, a man named Reiner (Javier Bardem), talks about the night his girlfriend (Cameron Diaz) had sex with his car.  It's well told, and has a spark of wit that the rest of the film is missing.  But once again, the scene ends up being long-winded, and we never truly get to know the characters.

Take the nameless Counselor.  He's supposed to be a defense attorney who's torn between his sweet, innocent fiance (Penelope Cruz), and the dark world of drug trafficking that he finds himself pulled into when he becomes desperate for living the good life, and getting big money quickly.  He has to pay off an extravagant diamond ring that he buys his woman early on.  This idea could work, but the character is not fleshed out in any way so that we can sympathize or even relate with him.  He's simply a cypher to move the plot along.  When the drug deal inevitably goes wrong, and people around him start getting hurt or killed, we once again don't feel anything because we know so little about him or the people who surround him.  Even the most interesting character in the movie, Reiner's ice cold girlfriend, never comes across as being as interesting or as evil as she should.  Diaz gives a great, icy performance, but the character seems to go nowhere.

The actors wander in and out of the screenplay, spewing exposition and philosophizing without ever really saying anything.  Take Brad Pitt for example, who shows up as a colorful and seemingly-interesting character, yet still manages to make no impression whatsoever on the audience.  He shows up, he talks for longer than needed, and then he leaves - just like everyone else.  I have nothing against movies that are densely written in terms of dialogue, but in this film's case, there's just nothing to grab us or to follow.  I have a strong feeling that this movie started out as a failed novel tucked away somewhere in Cormac McCarthy's desk drawer, so he decided to turn it into an original screenplay.  If so, he made the wrong choice, as a novel would have been a better opportunity to flesh out these people, and the dialogue wouldn't seem so dense, as he could have broken it up with narrative.  The movie plays like a failed adaptation, where the writer fell so in love with the words in the book, he didn't dare to cut out a single word.

The Counselor is well-directed, and as expected from the cast, the performances are first-rate.  Like I said before, it's the script that brings everything else down.  Ridley Scott needed to find a way to make this material accessible, and he never quite pulls through, even with the talent he was able to attract.  The fact that the studio is giving this film little promotion was perhaps a tell-tale sign that they knew something was wrong.  They were right to worry.  This is one of 2013's most disappointing films.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Escape Plan

How anyone could put Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the same movie, and have it turn out so average, is simply beyond me.  You would think Escape Plan would be an obvious slam dunk.  Take two aging action icons, known for their ridiculous films and corny one liners, put them in the same movie together, throw in a cheesy plot, and let the sparks fly.  The only ingredients listed above the filmmakers have gotten right is the cheesy plot (which the movie doesn't have as much fun with as it should), and putting the two aging acting icons together.  There's some interest in watching the stars acing along side each other (and not in a one or two scene cameo together, like in Stallone's Expendables films), but that's literally where the interest in this movie also stops.

The film's glaring problem should be visible to just about anyone who sits down and watches it - For an action movie, there's just not a lot of action here.  The filmmakers do know that the audience is here to see these actors in action, right?  So why does the movie take so long in getting to it?  We don't get to see Stallone of Schwarzenegger battle the bad guys until almost 90 minutes into the film.  Instead, we get a dialogue-heavy script that is never really bad, it just never becomes anything memorable.  Yes, you heard right, somebody has cast Stallone and Schwarzenegger in the same movie, and given them nothing to do but talk for most of its running time.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Does that seem crazy to you?  Hiring these guys to deliver dialogue makes about as much sense as hiring Christopher Walken to play someone who's not completely nuts.  There's a reason why the biggest and most successful movies featuring these two emphasized action and special effects over talking, and Escape Plan serves only to ram that point home.

Before I go much further, I should probably set up the premise.  Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a guy who makes his living as a security specialist who breaks out of prisons, so he can report on how these prisons can improve their security systems.  His partners on his team include an old flame (Amy Ryan), a computer expert (rapper 50 Cent), and a guy who seems to play no real role in the movie, yet is played by a recognizable actor (in this case, Vincent D'Onofrio), so you know he has some role in the plot, despite the movie's best efforts to make him come across as if he doesn't matter.  Naturally, Ray also has a tragic backstory, which explains why he has devoted his life to making sure prisons are completely secure.  Early in the film, Ray is given his new task to test the security at a top secret government prison hidden in a secret location where the worst of the worst are held.  Ray takes the job, which turns out to be a mistake.

From the beginning, something seems wrong.  The tracking device so that his friends back at the office can keep track of him is removed immediately by guards, and the prison warden he was told would be waiting for him is not there.  Instead, he finds the sadistic Hobbes (Jim Caviezel) in charge, and it's clear that he has it in for Ray, for some reason he keeps to himself at first.  The first glimpse we get of Hobbes' hi-tech security prison holds a lot of promise.  The whole place has a Sci-Fi feel, with guards who wear matching featureless black masks, and all the cells are made out of a clear plexiglass-like material, and seem to be suspended in mid-air and stretch on for miles.  Alas, after this intriguing first glimpse of the prison, the movie fails to deliver any more intrigue or wonder.

In prison, Ray meets up with and befriends another prisoner named Emil (Schwarzenegger), whom Hobbes also seems to enjoy torturing, mainly because his character seems to have information on a certain person that Hobbes desperately wants to track down, and he's not forthcoming with the information.  Ray and Emil team up to escape the prison, find out where they are, and who set Ray up.  The answers to all of these questions are nowhere near as interesting as we would hope.  Escape Plan ends up being so mediocre, not even the sight of these two action legends together can generate much excitement.  That's because the movie, rather than playing up to the strength of its two leads, devotes most of its time to a convoluted plot that is just not that much fun.  None of the characters get to make most of an impression, either.  My attention piqued briefly when the always interesting Sam Neil turned up, playing the medical doctor at the prison facility.  Unfortunately, the script gives him nothing to do but spew out some exposition dialogue, then disappear once his character is no longer needed.

When we finally do get to the film's big action sequence that closes the film, it is also extremely disappointing, especially considering the movie made us wait so long for it.  I know that Stallone and Schwarzenegger are not quite as young as they used to be, but surely they can do better than this.  Just like everything else that's come before it, the action's not really bad in any way, it just fails to make the slightest impression.  That's certainly not what I was expecting walking in.  I was looking forward to a fun, over the top action film starring two classic masters of the genre.  Instead, I got a long, drawn-out, tedious movie with two classic masters of the genre not really giving the material their all.  I was also very disappointed by the lack of one liners.  Given how many catchphrases these guys gave us over the years (especially Arnold), you'd really expect more.

To its credit, I will say that Escape Plan is much better than the last Stallone movie we got (the dreadful Bullet to the Head).  Unfortunately, it's not as much fun as the last Schwarzenegger movie we got roughly around the same time (The Last Stand).  All I wanted from this movie was a heavy dose of dumb fun, and the filmmakers failed to deliver on even that simple desire.

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Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Fifth Estate

I would say that The Fifth Estate is worth seeing, just for the performance by Benedict Cumberbatch alone.  He plays Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, as a tall, emotionally-distant man who frequently talks about how information should be free and unclassified, while at the same time, keeping his own past and life secret from those around him.  If the movie is somewhat flawed, thanks to a few too many subplots and a certain lack of focus, it is his performance that keeps us riveted the whole way through.  The movie itself has more than a few great moments, and does just enough right to make it worth a look.

The movie is kind of like The Social Network crossed with a 1970s conspiracy thriller.  It tracks the early days of the WikiLeaks website, when it was literally just Assange working under a number of aliases and fake e-mail addresses, to make his operation look bigger and more important than it really was.  The real focus of the story, however, is Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl from the recent Rush) who is lured into Assange's operation by talks of them being able to make history and disclose corruption in corporations and governments by publishing classified documents and videos for all the world to see.  Their first big success working together is when they manage to topple a powerful Swiss bank by revealing reports of corruption from within.  Other stories the two are able to break open as their operation grows bigger includes the murder of two journalists in Iraq, and death squads in Kenya.

Over time, Daniel begins to notice something disturbing about Julian.  He's all about getting the story and revealing the truth, but he doesn't seem to care about anyone or anything else.  If the information they are to reveal is set to place certain people in danger, Assange acts as if it matters little in the face of exposing the truth to the public.  It's about this point that the movie starts to resemble a paranoid thriller, and loses its way a little, with a subplot concerning Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as two US government agents trying to deal with the blowback when WikiLeaks releases some sensitive documents, revealing the names of operatives.  While Linney and Tucci are good in their scenes, they feel like they belong in a different movie, and take us away from what is really working - the fragile relationship and ultimate fallout between Julian and Daniel, and how Daniel eventually decides he must strike out on his own, and attempts to shut down the site.

The Fifth Estate is at its best when it is dealing with the topic of how powerful the Internet can be, and how freedom of information can both be a blessing and a curse.  At the beginning, Julian is seen almost as a Robin Hood figure, taking down greedy individuals who have been robbing the public blind.  But his desire for information soon seems to cloud over what better judgement he has.  The film is also at its best during these moments, because director Bill Condon films his scenes between Assange and Daniel in a tight, almost claustrophobic style that creates some magnificent tension, especially in their later scenes.  We get to see Daniel's respect for the man he works with slowly unravel over time, and we get to see Assange change from "a man of the people" to a man who only cares about breaking a story.  It's effective, and would have been more so if the movie had as much heart as it had brains.

This is the core problem with the screenplay, credited to Josh Singer.  It's obviously been researched very well, there's no doubt about that.  While I don't know how much of the film has been dramatically fabricated, it feels authentic, and throws a lot of facts and details at us.  What it needed a little bit more of to truly break through was a little bit more of a human touch to these two main characters.  What we learn about them is definitely interesting and holds our attention, but at the same time, we feel like we should be learning more.  The movie sometimes seems more interested in throwing facts and information our way, rather than fleshing out its characters.  It never completely kills the film, as I did ultimately enjoy it, and am recommending it.  But it does make me wish it went through just one more rewrite to add another emotional level to the story.

I think with that approach, and maybe a bit more focus on the main plot, rather than cutting away to various subplots, The Fifth Estate could have stood as one of the better films of the year.  As it is, it is a smart and engrossing, but imperfect film.  I do hope that Cumberbatch's portrayal of Julian is remembered around award time, however.  It's one element that actually reaches the levels of greatness that the movie itself obviously aspired to, but fell short of.

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Friday, October 18, 2013


There is something just so unnecessary about this remake of Carrie.  It's not just the fact that Stephen King's classic story of teen isolation and revenge has been told so many times before.  There was the original 1976 film adaptation, obviously, a 1999 sequel to that film that was more or less a retread, a made-for-TV adaption that was supposed to launch a TV series, and even a failed attempt at a Broadway musical.  No, what makes this film feel so unnecessary is that it's just so lifeless and bland.  There's no tension of any kind, no dramatic stakes, and an overall sense that the movie knows its audience already knows the story, and is just going through the motions.

This actually surprised me, considering the director of this remake is the usually reliable Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry).  You would think that she would be able to find a fresh spin on the material, but she never does.  Her directing style is bizarre, with tight close ups and off-kilter camera angles.  Maybe this is supposed to add to the weirdness of the tale, or make us feel uncomfortable, but all it did was take me out of the film, and make me wonder why she was making these choices.  When we get the infamous pig's blood scene in the film's climax, for some reason, Peirce feels the need to show Carrie getting doused with the stuff three or four times in a row from different camera angles.  Maybe she was trying to recreate the split-screen effect Brian De Palma used in the original sequence?  Whatever the reason, it felt like unneeded style over substance.

The movie pretty much follows the story you already know, beat-for-beat, guaranteeing no surprises are in store for us.  Mousey and pale-skinned Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz) is constantly being verbally and physically abused by her religious fanatic mother, Margaret (Julianne Moore), and being teased and bullied at school by the more popular girls who surround her every day.  There's the main mean girl Chris (Portia Doubleday), who plots a cruel prank on the poor girl, there's the prom, there's the pig's blood, and there's the ensuing bloody vengeance where Carrie unleashes her rage on an unsuspecting public.  The only new spin the movie does attempt with this material is to add a modern day element of cyberbullying to the story, but it doesn't exploit this angle enough for it to be interesting, or really worth mentioning.

Carrie still could have succeeded as a remake if the cast were able to make these characters their own, or stand out in some way.  And yet, even with great talents like Moretz and Moore in the lead roles, they fail to fill the shoes of their predecessors.  Moretz is fine enough as the put-upon Carrie, but she never comes across as sympathetic as she should.  Actually, the movie doesn't seem to be all that interested in her, making her transformation from a scared and timid girl to a more confident young woman (until she loses control) not as emotional or as powerful as it should be.  There is an air of indifference about her, and that's certainly not what I was expecting.  As for Moore, her portrayal as the cruel Margaret White is all bug-eyes, self-mutilation, and religious ranting.  She never gets to create a real character, or become truly terrifying.  Of the cast that surrounds them, only Judy Greer as a gym teacher who sympathizes with Carrie stands out.  All of the fellow high school students are played by bland, faceless model-types who seem to have wandered into the movie from a prime time teen soap opera, and make little to no impression at all.

Thinking back over the movie, I don't think my problem is so much that I have heard the story of Carrie one too many times.  It's easy to see why it resonates and keeps on being remade, since it's probably the most sympathetic and relatable of King's horror stories.  It's easier to identify with a lonely and bullied girl, than say a guy who brings his pets back from the dead (and they try to kill him), or a car that comes to life (and tries to kill people).  My problem here lies with how flat and uninspired the whole thing feels.  There's no drama, no tension, no scares, no sense of tragedy, and no real emotional involvement.  The movie plays out, then sends us on our way feeling empty.  We have to admit that it has been made with a certain degree of skill, but we're left wondering why it was even made at all.

Just in case we need any more evidence that this is an inferior telling of the story, let's compare the final scene of the original film to this remake.  Remember the highly effective shock that closed out the original movie?  Here, it's replaced with a clumsy and confusing sequence that almost seems to be trying to set up a sequel.  Sure, we've already had Carrie II, but seeing as though nobody really remembers that movie, I wouldn't put it past the filmmakers to give us another just in case this movie winds up being a surprise hit at the box office.

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Machete Kills

Even though I enjoyed 2010's Machete, I was a little nervous walking into the sequel, thinking that maybe another cinematic helping of the steel-eyed Mexican hero might drag the joke out a little too far.  Fortunately, this is not the case.  While not quite as fresh or as surprising as the original, Machete Kills still manages to entertain in its intentionally over the top humor and violence, that at times almost makes it like a live action take on those Itchy and Scratchy cartoon shorts you see on The Simpsons.  At the very least, the movie entertained me enough to make me anticipate the third film that we're promised in a fake trailer that opens the movie, Machete Kills Again...In Space!

The Machete movies are intentionally bad, and as we all know, intentionally making a campy or cheesy movie often leads to disaster.  Bur director Robert Rodriguez knows just how to hit the right note.  He's not hitting us over the head with the jokes, nor does it feel like he's constantly laughing at his own material.  Oh, there's plenty of over the top ideas to be found, but they're clever over the top ideas, such as a psychotic brothel madam who battles with a metallic machine gun bra, or a supervillain who is such a big fan of Star Wars, he's actually managed to make working versions of the technology from those films, such as a land speeder, or an actual carbonite freezing chamber.  In the middle of all this craziness is Danny Trejo, who returns as the titular hero, and stomps his way through the movie like a man on a mission.  With his steel-eyed glaze, and a face that seems to be made out of leather, he's the perfect badass to headline a movie where the hero is required to in one scene cut out a villain's intestines, and then attach it to a spinning helicopter blade. (Did I mention this movie is a comedy?)

This time, Machete's mission takes him to Mexico, where he has to track down an insane drug cartel leader with a split personality problem named Mendez (Demian Birchir).  Machete is working on orders from the President himself, who is played by Charlie Sheen, and naturally uses, "Winning was just the beginning", as his campaign slogan.  It seems that Mendez has a missile targeted at Washington, and has even hardwired it to his heart, so that if it stops beating, the missile will automatically fire.  Machete must rely on the aid of his handler, an undercover agent posing as a beauty pageant contestant, Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard), to pull off this mission, and stop a global war.  As it turns out, Mendez is only a front for the true mastermind, a madman/weapon designer named Voz (Mel Gibson), who wants to nuke the Earth, so that he can start a new race of humanity in an outer space station with his clone army. 

Did I forget to mention the subplot where there's a bounty on Machete's head, so he's being hunted down by an assassin known only as The Chameleon, who can change its appearance with a series of disguises, so it can take on the form of Cuba Gooding, Jr, Lady Gaga, or Antonio Banderas?  If I did, it's only because the subplot largely does not go anywhere, and seems to be an excuse for Rodriguez to throw in a few more celebrity cameos into his movie.  Truth be told, fun as Machete Kills is, it could have used some trimming, as a close to two hour running time does come dangerously close to becoming too much of a good thing.  There are a lot of characters, plots, and action sequences competing for our attention that the movie is probably very overstuffed, and too complicated for its own good.  What saves the experience for me is the tongue and cheek tone that Rodriguez employs.  This is a movie that, right before a sex scene, gives us a message to "put on your 3D glasses now".  Only, the movie's not in 3D, so the ensuing sex scene is extremely blurry to us.

So yeah, Machete Kills is not art, but it is a lot of fun.  Its celebrity-filled cast seem to be enjoying the chance to cut loose in a live action violent cartoon which, let's face it, this movie essentially is.  Fortunately, nobody's winking at the camera, as if they're saying "can you believe I'm actually appearing in a movie like this"?  Everybody plays it straight, which is the way it should be with this material.  I also enjoyed how Rodriguez doesn't play up to certain cast member's personal lives.  Aside from a gag involving the President in bed, Charlie Sheen does not parody his image.  As for Mel Gibson, he reminds us of what a commanding actor he can be, despite his personal beliefs.  You do have to ask, however, if he would be appearing in this movie if his career had not derailed.

Your reaction to Machete Kills will most likely mirror your reaction to the first, as this really is more of the same.  The proposed third film, at least, will give us a new setting and some new opportunities for satire, so hopefully Rodriguez and his team gets the go-ahead.  Hopefully it will also be the end of the franchise as well, as I don't know how much longer they can drag this joke out, and have it work.

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Captain Phillips

Just as he did with 2006's United 93, director Paul Greengrass takes a high tension moment in recent history, and films it in a docudrama style that seems to capture each tense moment.  What made United 93 feel so genuine was Greengrass' decision not to use any name actors playing the passengers on the doomed flight on September 11th.  That's why I was a little nervous walking into Captain Phillips, as he has decided to use one of the biggest A-list Hollywood names (Tom Hanks) to headline this film.  Fortunately, not only is Hanks in fine form here, but his presence does not distract from the tension the film creates, nor does it make this feel like a glossed up Hollywood production.  This is a raw and uncompromising film.

The film is based on the memoir of Captain Richard Phillips, whose cargo ship was hijacked by Somali pirates back in the Spring of 2009.  When the pirates board, they say they want the money locked away in the safe.  Phillips obliges and does his best to keep order on the ship and his men safe, but things quickly spiral out of control.  In making their escape in a small life boat, the pirates also kidnap Phillips as well, holding him for ransom.  With the U.S. Navy in pursuit, Phillips is forced to try to talk some sense into his captors, telling them there's no chance that they will survive this, as well as just trying to keep himself alive as the events unfold.  Playing Phillips, Tom Hanks comes across as a man who desperately tries to keep control of a situation he knows he has no power over.  He is calm for the most part, but obviously knows that things can go wrong at any minute.  Even for an actor as accomplished as Hanks, this is a smart portrayal.  He does not over-emphasize the heroism of the man he's playing, or make him seem larger than life.  His Richard Phillips is just a normal man in a very dangerous situation.

One of the trademarks of Paul Greengrass' directing style is to use a shaky handheld camera to follow the action, and simulate realism.  Fortunately, he does not rely on that style as much here, and tells the story in a much more simple and direct way.  He uses the claustrophobic nature of Phillips' vessel, and eventually the tiny and cramped lifeboat, to create tension, and it works wonderfully here.  There is a sequence where Phillips' crew must keep themselves hidden from the pirates after they board, and use different tools of distraction in order to escape detection.  Not only is this effective at ratcheting up the tension, it helps showcase the bravery of the rest of the crew, so that Phillips is not the only one in the spotlight.  It's too bad they exit about halfway through the film, and we don't get to see them be reunited with their Captain at the end.  When we see Phillips get rescued, and how the calm demeanor he's been holding onto through the whole film finally break down, I can only imagine that the rest of his crew felt the same way after experiencing all this.

What I also admired about Captain Phillips is how it tries to give the four Somali pirates who hijack the boat some form of a backstory and a personality.  They are not just one-dimensional villains.  In fact, as one of them tells Phillips when he is told there is another way to get what he wants, and he somberly replies that there is no other choice for him, we get the sense that he is reminding himself of this, rather than informing Phillips.  The leader of the pirates is played wonderfully by Barkhad Abdi, who gives the character a violent temper, as well as a begrudging form of respect for Phillips, since they are both the heads of their respective teams.  They also become intellectual enemies, as they both try to handle and take control of the situation at hand.  It's also interesting to see how Phillips tries to manipulate one of the pirates, a teenage boy who injures his foot early on.  By offering medical assistance, we get the sense that Phillips is trying to at least win his enemy's support.  When that doesn't work, he must fight alone.

The continuous and mounting tension that the movie manages to create helped me get over one of my big questions, which was why didn't anyone on Phillips' ship have a gun, or a better way to protect themselves other than just outboard hoses?  I'm sure there is a reason, but it's never really explained in the screenplay credited to Billy Ray.  It is the situation and the dread it creates that grabs our attention, not so much Captain Phillips himself, who remains somewhat of an enigma in this film.  We learn little about him before this event, so it is Hanks' portrayal that draws us into the character, not anything the movie tells us about him.  I think this is the one element that holds me back from truly loving the movie.  While it is ingeniously mounted and executed, there is not much emotional investment in Phillips, outside of the performance.  We automatically like Captain Phillips because we like Tom Hanks. 

Is that a problem?  In a way, yes, but not so much that it sinks the entire enterprise.  Captain Phillips still manages to enthrall, and for me, that's the bottom line.  It's an imperfect thriller, but one that manages to thrill all the same.  When you think back on all the movies this past year alone that failed to even do that, that alone deserves some kind of recognition.

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Enough Said

Here is a movie we seldom see - a truly funny and smart romantic comedy for adults.  Enough Said is not only a joy to watch, it is also a reminder of what we lost in James Gandolfini when he unexpectedly passed away back in June.  Giving one of his final on screen performances here, he has never been so warm and likable.  Watching his performance, and the chemistry that he shares with Julia Louise Dreyfus up on the screen, is not only a fitting tribute to the actor, but a poignant reminder of a great talent that we have lost.

Dreyfus and Gandolfini play Eva and Albert, respectively.  Both are middle-aged, divorced, and soon to be empty-nesters with daughters on their way to college.  They meet at a party being held by a mutual friend.  Nothing much happens during their first encounter, but then he gets in touch with her, wanting to spend some time alone with her.  She agrees, and before long, they are building a strong friendship which eventually turns romantic.  Albert doesn't seem like date material at first, as he's a bit of a self-described slob.  He's the kind of guy who shows up for Sunday brunch wearing a T-shirt and pajama bottoms.  But, he has a good heart, and genuinely cares about Eva.  They realize how right they are for each other the more time they spend together.

There is a complication, of course.  Eva works as a masseuse, and one of her new clients is a woman named Marianne (Catherine Keener).  The two become friends.  Marianne is an intelligent woman who writes poems for a living, but one of her favorite topics of discussion is badmouthing her ex-husband, whom she frequently insults and flat-out refers to him as a "loser".  Eventually, Eva figures out that the man that Marianne is always talking about is none other than Albert.  In your typical romantic comedy, this would probably lead to some crazy misunderstanding, but writer-director Nicole Holofcener uses this set up as an opportunity to explore some tough issues about relationships, such as how the opinions of others can influence how we see people.  She even explores how a single parent may react to their only daughter leaving home for the first time, by having Eva turning her attention to one of her daughter's more lonelier and needier friends.

Despite tackling these issues, Enough Said is a warmhearted and funny comedy, and it never lets the more serious undertones drag it down.  The performances play a big part in giving the film its light and charming feel.  Dreyfus and Gandolfini not only are great together, but they both manage to create these likable and instantly relatable characters that we truly want to see end up together by the end of the movie.  Dreyfus may more be known for her TV work, but she shows a real star quality here that I don't think has been explored by a filmmaker in the past.  She's not the typical attractive, yet bubbleheaded female lead we usually get in romantic comedies.  She's a smart and witty woman who finds herself in over her head, and doesn't know how to get out of her situation without hurting someone she cares about - either the man she's falling for, or her new friend.

Naturally, it is Gandolfini's performance that really draws our attention, and earns a certain sort of poignancy, due to real life events.  Even if this movie had come out before he passed away, it would still be a performance worth celebrating, because it shows a much softer and gentler side we seldom saw him give.  He has a gentleness here that feels genuine, and never forced.  We can see why a woman would be drawn to him, despite his obvious flaws.  As the situation became more complicated, I actually found myself not wanting to see the guy up there on the screen get hurt.  This is such a wonderful and warm performance, and a great reminder of how we lost his talent far too soon.

Enough Said is a simply beguiling movie - Charming, captivating, and truly funny all the way through.  It makes you wish that more romantic comedies could attempt to reach its heights.  Regardless, it deserves to be seen - Both as a genuinely well made movie, and as a tribute to Gandolfini.  This is easily one of the sweetest movies I've seen this year.

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Saturday, October 05, 2013


Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is that rare kind of cinematic technical achievement we rarely see.  Remember the first time you saw the grand dinosaurs in Jurassic Park?  Or how about Gollum in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and how he single handedly pushed the art of motion capture into the forefront?  In the 90 or so minutes that Gravity runs, we are watching something totally extraordinary, and not just in a technical sense.  As a harrowing tale of survival, there's really been nothing quite like it on the screen.  This is the rare movie that needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and in 3D.

Yes, the guy who has frequently gone on the record of calling the recent 3D boom the biggest cinematic scam of the 21st Century, is recommending that you see this in 3D.  That's because there's never been a film that has used the technology to this subtle, yet necessary, effect.  Pick any of the recent films that have pushed the current 3D effects to its current heights (Avatar, Hugo, Life of Pi), and Gravity meets or exceeds them.  And yet, this is not really a movie that throws its special effects and technological wizardry in your face.  Though set in space, it is not science fiction.  It is a simple story that is not even really plot driven.  It is instead driven solely by the main character's struggle to survive in the vast vacuum of outer space.  It features two big stars above the title, but this is not a star vehicle, nor is it an ego-driven vanity project.  It is an experience where for the entire running time, we are transported into the situation up on the screen.  You can hardly hear a breath from the audience around you.  You are immersed.  And that is the beauty of the film's simplicity.

That simplicity comes from the fact that while you are watching it, you're not constantly reminding yourself that you are watching special effects.  When I see towering robots smashing their ginormous fists through a building, or an army of computer generated zombies chasing after a fleeing victim, I find myself immediately in the mindset that I am watching something artificial that was created on the computer.  When you see so many spectacles, it can sometimes take a lot to truly impress.  Watching Gravity, I never once had that feeling that I was watching something computer generated.  The movie is so encompassing, and the events flow so naturally, I truly want to believe that Warner Bros. somehow ponied up the money to shoot the cast and crew into space, and film everything that happened to them.  For once, I don't want to know how they did it.  Give me the illusion.  What I will believe is that years of hard work went into this film, and it's all up there on the screen.

Even the way the film unfolds is in an organic and unforced way that feels like everything is happening in real time.  When we first see veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and the inexperienced Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) performing a space walk on the outside of their craft that slowly drifts into view in the stunning opening sequence, we are immediately transfixed.  We hear their banter as they try to repair a problem on the outside of their ship, and it simply sounds and feels real.  The actors are able to create their characters within this simple yet spellbinding sequence.  Clooney is cool and confident.  He's done this many times, and he loves it.  Bullock's character is more restrained about being in space.  This is her first time, and she's not really enjoying it.  They talk, and cooperate with each other on the repair mission.

Just then, an urgent call comes from Houston Command.  A Soviet satellite has exploded, and the debris is headed for them.  They have to get inside the ship before the debris hits.  Matt tries to hurry Ryan inside, but she wants to finish the task.  The debris hits moments later, destroying their ship, and sending them both hurtling into the vastness of space.  The way that the movie (and the 3D effects) throw us right into the middle of the situation is mesmerizing.  There is an intimacy to this film that makes the situation so harrowing.  Whether the characters are running low on oxygen as they drift through space, or they are struggling just to reach a nearby scrap of metal that can be the difference between life and death, Cuaron's directing style puts us right there every step of the way.  It is this intimacy and sense of immersion that makes this a different kind of blockbuster.  We're not focused on how much money is being burned up on the screen, we are simply enveloped into the story and the situation at hand.

The performances of the two stars naturally draw us in further.  Not only does Sandra Bullock deserve a second Oscar nomination for this role, she deserves a second Oscar win as of this moment.  I'm sure as the big Fall movies continue to role out, there will be some strong competition from other actresses, but for now, Bullock's in the front running with me.  As for Clooney, his brave and cool demeanor in the face of even the worst situation ends up being a relief for the audience almost as much as it does for Bullock's character.  This is a very intense movie, and were it not for Clooney, parts of it might be a little too much to take.  He's not just there to take the edge off the film every once in a while, he's there to take the edge off the audience as we become drawn deeper into the events up on the screen.

Gravity is the rare film that truly needs to be experienced on the big screen.  Watching it at home is almost certain to lose a good part of its effectiveness.  This is truly a seldom instance where you can get an experience unlike anything you've seen before, and the extra surcharge to watch it in 3D is more than worth it.  It goes without saying, but see this movie.

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