Friday, October 18, 2013

Review: Wadjda

Some films are powerful because their simplicity hold a powerful truth within the picture being shown. WADJDA, the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia as well as the first in the country to be directed by a woman, is one such film. To be produced in a country where women are expected to stay quiet is quite a feat, and one that would not be as strong if it were made anywhere else.

Wadjda is a young girl (Waad Mohammed) living in Riyadh, struggling with the rules that are set before her. At first she attempts small personal rebellions, such as wearing sneakers under her robe to school, or playing Western music much to her mother's dismay.

Ultimately these build into a desperate search for money in which to buy a bike. Wadjda has been playing with a neighborhood boy named Abdullah, again against her mother's wishes, and her goal becomes to beat him in a bicycle race. This is not allowed for girls, so Wadjda secretly discovers little ways in which to acculamate enough cash to purchase the bike on her own. While this is happening, her mother quietly deals with the pain of knowing her husband is considering bringing a second wife into the family, in the hopes that she may finally bear him a son.

Director Haifaa Al-Mansour's film debut is a surprisingly strong one, as it features a story that should be a crowd pleaser for any young girl watching. Transplanting the concept of "grrl power" into a country where that ideal could get you killed, Al-Mansour manages to keep the film relatively light. Wadjda's idea of memorizing passages from the Quran in order to win a contest's cash prize could just as easily have taken place in an American film's Bible Camp setting.

In the end, Wadjda is an excellent beginning for a developing film industry. Already submitted to the Academy Awards as a consideration for Best Foreign Film at next year's ceremony, Al-Mansour's artistic triumph could end up being a sign of progress for both her industry and her nation.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: The Way, Way Back

If you drive deep into Eastern North Carolina, there is a small town in Bladen County named White Lake. Less than 1,000 people make it their permanent residence, but during the summer the campgrounds around the lake swell with folks who own little trailers that become their unofficial summer residences. Once the sun sets, you are liable to find more golf carts on the roads than cars, as people drive house to house looking the next keg party or pig pickin’.

These images are what first came to mind upon viewing Academy Award winning screenwriters (The Descendants) and first time directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s The Way, Way Back. Set during a summer seemingly made to be 14-year-old Duncan’s personal hell, he finds himself trapped on vacation in a spot much like what I described above with his mom Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend (Steve Carell), and his teenage daughter. The evenings are packed with neighborhood parties and cookouts, and the days spent surrounded by teenagers he could not be less like. Every family outing becomes a journey into embarrassment for Duncan until he meets the manager of a run-down water park, Owen (Sam Rockwell), who takes the kid under his wing and somehow manages to coax him out of his introverted shell.

Many have lauded the comedy-drama since its premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, but I was nowhere near prepared for what I found when I walked into the screening a couple of weeks ago. Expecting something along the feel-good lines of a Little Miss Sunshine, perhaps even a slightly less hipster Juno, what I found instead was a heartwarming coming of age tale that invites us into a boy’s life for a short while, but long enough to watch as he develops the coping skills to make it as an adult. Anchored by a fine performance by Liam James, the young Duncan must deal with a potential stepfather who views him as an opponent for his mother’s love and a shy nature that allows girls his age to taunt him with rumors of incest. Even his only mode of escape is a pink bike that has seen better days.

Perhaps the finest work by actors in TWWB would be the duo of Collette and Allison Janney, here playing a mom incapable of making the right decision. The two actresses play their roles from exact opposites of the spectrum, with Collette all quiet and loving to those around her, and Janney searching for the inch of scenery that she has yet to chew. The two weirdly counteract each other and bring the best out of the other in each scene they appear in together.

Faxon and Rash have made quite the auspicious debut behind the camera here, as they battle the remnants of the summer shoot-em-up season for a spot near the top of the box office charts this weekend. Regardless of where the film ends up on Sunday night, I already know there is a place waiting for it on my year-end Best of 2013 list.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Review: Red 2

An elderly man fakes his death to trick his friend into delivering a tear-filled eulogy while he’s still alive to hear it. A skit from a random episode of Betty White’s Off Their Rockers? Nope, just another example of the filmmakers’ belief that old folks be crazy in Red 2.

We open in Costco, where the happy star-crossed lovers from the first film, Frank (Bruce Willis) and Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), are beginning to show that their relationship may not be built to last. Frank is more than happy to play the role of happy retiree now that the US government has no reason to hunt him down, while Sarah is beginning to miss the excitement that drew the two together in the first place.

Enter Marvin (John Malkovich), with a theory of a new conspiracy against the elder agents. It seems that someone has leaked the orders of a mission the two were on during the Cold War that involved the transport of a portable nuclear device. After a failed assassination attempt by government operative Jack Horton (Neal McDonough), the trio go on a globetrotting adventure that finds them ducking a hitman with a grudge (Byung-hun Lee), as well as their old friend Victoria (Helen Mirren).

Dean Parisot has been in Directors Jail since Fun with Dick and Jane failed to light up the box office in 2005. Mostly working in television since then, Red 2 is Parisot’s first feature in 8 years. Hopefully his bunk is still open, because I don’t believe this will be the film to cause his peers to figuratively raise his jersey to the rafters. Dull action sequences; uninspired work from Willis, and wasted efforts by Malkovich, Mirren, and Parker; and the latest in a long line to attempt to include comic panels as transitions without coming off as cheesy; all of this can be found inside!

A few of the actors manage to produce enjoyable work, but only by using the age-old method known as “chewing the scenery”. Brian Cox returns as Russian ally Ivan, who once again saves his friends’ hides while taking time to woo his beloved Victoria. David Thewlis appears as a Frenchman selling information to the highest bidder, with an incredible ability to avoid capture. Last but certainly not least is Anthony Hopkins as Bailey, the ill-fated creator of the nuclear weapon, who is also more than he seems.
How does Red 2 rank when compared to the first installment of the franchise? It’s actually really hard to say. While I enjoyed the first one quite a bit, this one failed to connect with me. I suppose it can be blamed on Parisot’s inability to draw the same “fun” out of the performers that original director Robert Schwentke (R.I.P.D.) managed to produce. Suffice it to say, this is probably one you can afford to skip.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Review: The Internship

Nearly 10 years since their massive box office hit Wedding Crashers was released, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson have teamed up again for The Internship. In their latest, Vaughn and Wilson play two salesmen who find out over dinner with a client that their company has gone under. Finding themselves unemployed with little in the way of marketable skills, Vaughn signs the duo up for an internship at Google, believing that their outgoing personalities will make up for what they lack in computer skills. Upon entering the Google campus, however, they discover that they are surrounded by fellow applicants that are half their age and an authority figure (Aasif Mandvi) who seems to be on a mission to kick them out.

From the very first scene it is clear that the easy chemistry Vaughn and Wilson showcased in Crashers hasn’t waned in the decade since. These two actors are never better than when they have a partner of equal strengths to trade zingers with onscreen, and an argument could be made that they are the best comedic duo of the past decade.

The screenplay, co written by Vaughn and Jared Stern (The Watch), attempts to meld characters borrowed from 80s buddy flicks with the product placement that modern Hollywood has turned to in order to finance their gigantic budgets. Vaughn’s Billy McMahon loses his job, house, and girlfriend all in the first five minutes, and upon discovering how wonderful Google appears, talks his slightly-more-adjusted best friend into dropping everything and joining him. This scenario is lifted almost beat for beat from Stripes, with Vaughn and Wilson slipping comfortably into the Billy Murray and Harold Ramis roles, the only difference being a change of scenery.

Where it would be easy to go wrong by pushing the “old guys fighting the young kids” scenario, the screenwriting duo and director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) display a light touch. They never have the partners outright complain about those crazy kids today; instead, the pair are caught off guard by things that could easily slip past folks in their 40s who aren’t addicted to the internet, such as cosplay and Instagram.

Where the script tends to fall flat is during the scenes in which the film has to remind the audience of how great a company Google is. For folks that hate characters holding cans of Coke uncomfortably to showcase the logo, this movie may cause strokes. Be prepared to walk out of the theaters knowing all of the benefits that Google offers their employees, such as free food, nap pods, a spiral slide inside the office lobby, and free transportation around town. In perhaps a nod toward reality, toward the end the kids tell the oldsters that they want to work there not only for the perks, but because new graduates coming out of college are lucky to find any kind of work these days.
The Internship may very well scare away a portion of their potential audience due to that flagrant brand hyping, and that’s a shame. Whether we knew it or not, there is a reason that Vaughn and Wilson chose this film as a renewing of their partnership, and anyone who enjoyed their previous films should appreciate the chemistry they will find here as well.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review: After Earth

It’s not often that you can predict an actor’s fall from the grace of the public. Sure, I think we all knew deep down that sooner or later people were going to turn on Tom Cruise, and let’s be honest here, if all it took was jumping on a couch that’s more on them than him. Along those same lines, it’s been a long time since there has been a more awkward PR tour than the one Will Smith is giving now to promote After Earth, his latest sci-fi film that hits theaters today. In interview after interview, sitting alongside his on-and-off screen son Jaden, he espouses his theory that the world is made up of patterns, mathematical in nature, that control everything that we experience on a daily basis. While Will proclaims himself to be a physicist, Jaden is avoiding questions about dating a Kardashian.

Why do I even bring this up? Because gossiping about the Smiths’ weird behavior is ten times more entertaining than discussing the albatross that they have released upon theatergoers today.

In After Earth, humans have left Earth after destroying with wars and pollution. Opening 1,000 years after that forced evacuation, we are still battling the original inhabitants of our new home, named Nova Prime.  After a long tour-of-duty, Cypher Raige (Will Smith) returns home to reconnect with the family he left behind, especially his now teenaged son Kitai (Jaden Smith) who has grown distant.

While traveling through space on a father-son trip, their craft is damaged by an asteroid storm. Seeking a landing spot on the nearest planet, they crash land on a now dangerous Earth. The only two surviving members of the crash, a badly injured Cypher sends Kitai on a mission to recover the craft’s rescue beacon and call for help before he bleeds to death. Kitai takes off across unknown territory filled with animals that have evolved into killing machines.

Well, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but so is everything else in this film. For some reason, hawks have now gained the ability to grow to be twice the size of humans, but wild boars look the same and run for cover around humans. The planet also now suffers from nightly Ice Ages, with the temperature dropping five degrees every ten minutes at a certain time of day (except for a handful of conveniently placed “hot spots”). This results in one of my favorite bad movie clich├ęs: someone attempting to outrun the weather.

The director of this disaster is the man, the myth, the legend himself, M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense). Remember when this dude was being called the new Hitchcock by folks with straight faces? The days when his new films were eagerly awaited by filmgoers? Well, now he’s a joke, and both Columbia Pictures and the Smiths’ have done everything in their powers to hide the fact that he has anything to do with this film. “Maybe if we just don’t mention a director, people will assume that the film magically made itself!”

To be honest, there really aren’t that many of Shyamalan’s signature touches to be found here. Sure, we have the whispered, intense conversations between father and son that are the norm in his pictures, but there isn’t a twist to be found within a thousand miles of After Earth. That’s right, when we finally beg the guy for something interesting, he carries on like he’s directing an episode of Mike & Molly.

Will Smith is credited with the story, which sees his character sidelined with broken legs early on, and asks Jaden to carry the film from thereon out. The junior Smith was fine in both The Pursuit of Happyness and the Karate Kid remake. In Pursuit, he wasn’t asked to do much; in KK, Jackie Chan did all of the heavy lifting onscreen. Here he is given the unenviable task of being the sole character onscreen for vast amounts of time, with little dialogue to help fill the spaces and only his charisma to rely on. The problems begin when we realize that Jaden is no Will; there is little charisma or charm to be found in this kid, which may be unfair to say about a 15 year old, but you have to point the arrow somewhere when a $130 million production plays like a backyard mumblecore flick.
Usually a reviewer takes the last paragraph to boil down his points, give a final thought, and basically tells you whether to watch the movie or avoid it. Forget that; honestly, do you know anyone that has actually been awaiting this thing? It’s safe to say that most of you were going to skip this one anyway, so instead I suggest you do what I plan on doing: sit back, enjoy the carnage that follows when this bombs, and speculate as to how quickly the Smiths’ will disown any creative contribution they gave to this stinker.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Review: Fast & Furious 6

One of the biggest surprises for film in 2011 was the critical embrace that Fast Five, the fifth installment in the Fast and the Furious franchise, received upon its release. The series of films were considered little more than punchlines to serious cinema fans, but with the fifth a change had come; cinemaphiles seemingly made a decision to laugh with the lunkheads championing the movies, instead of laughing at them.

The derision heeped up the franchise was deserved, however, make no mistake of that. Featuring a cast lead by two walking 2x4s, Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, little thought seemed to go into the scripts other than how to get the characters into cars that go fast.

Fast Five brought a change to the action by introducing Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to the mix, and whether critics knew it beforehand, it turned out that everyone was interested in watching a fight onscreen between Diesel and his Samoan counterpart. By setting the production in Brazil, the filmmakers were able to place the characters in a different setting to destroy as well.

Fast & Furious 6 opens with Dom (Diesel) and Brian (Walker) attempting to create a new life in paradise with their new families, only to be disturbed by a returning Hobbs (Johnson). It seems that Hobbs needs help tracking down and capturing a team of terrorist street racers (stay with me here), and offers the only two bargaining chips he has: full pardons for everyone in Dom’s gang, enabling them to return to the US safely, and the opportunity to reunite with his supposedly-dead ex-girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez).

Reuniting the gang in London, Dom goes about tracking down evil counterpart Shaw (Luke Evans), who is attempting to steal all of the components needed to create a weapon that is capable of knocking out communication among soldiers in battle. Shaw is the antithesis to Dom; completely unattached to the members of his crew, and ruthless in his attempts at escape.

Lets go ahead and put all the cards on the table: this film is nowhere near as good as Fast Five. In fact, it’s not good at all. All of the fun that can be found in the previous film is sorely lacking here.

Was it the big Rock vs Diesel fight that really made the fifth movie enjoyable? Did Diesel just give a damn in that one, since he clearly doesn’t here? Does Diesel look back at his early attempts at branching away from action and starring in serious roles and think, “Whoo, glad that’s over!” Does Paul Walker thank the deity of his choice every night for helping him land this guaranteed paycheck?

If Walker doesn’t, he should, because what little chemistry he and Diesel have displayed together over the years has now vanished, with only Johnson there to provide charisma in this production. On second thought, that’s not entirely fair, as newcomer Gina Carano is brought into the franchise in a largely thankless role, asked merely to stand beside Johnson and smirk for 80% of her screen time. Still, she manages to project a presence, which is more than can be said for the rest of the “crew”.

What it boils down to is, why bother worrying about characters onscreen when it’s clear they are living in a world without consequences. This is a film where someone can threaten a high-ranking government official with a gun and minutes later it is forgotten. Multiple scenes feature people jumping from moving vehicles onto speeding cars below, with nary a scratch to be found afterwards. In fact, it seems the only way to court danger in this film is to be a third-tier character contemplating settling down.

This was the last FF film for director Justin Lim, and a case could be made that he stayed one film too many. While Fast Five surprised many with its action sequences that defy logic, here we are presented with scenes that deny clear thinking. With the heroes committing crimes that would mark them as wanted criminals by every major law enforcement agency in the world, is it too much to ask for at least a flat tire every now and then?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Review: Peeples

It’s hard for one not to be cynical and merely view Peeples as an “urban” rip-off of Meet the Parents. That film, now 13 years old (yeesh), took the tired story of the nervous boyfriend meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time and spun it into gold, thanks to a talented cast playing to their strengths and bringing their A games. Even if Peeples wanted to take that approach with basically the same storyline, would the audience be as invested in Craig Robinson (The Office) and David Alan Grier (In Living Color) as they were for Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro?

Peeples revolves around Wade Walker (Robinson), an aspiring psychologist who has been dating Grace (Kerry Washington) for a year and still hasn’t met her family. When she leaves to visit the family at their house in the Hamptons, Wade decides to follow behind her and surprise everyone by asking her father, Judge Peeples (Grier), for Grace’s hand in marriage. Upon arriving, he finds that Grace has not mentioned him or their relationship. Wade spends the rest of the film attempting to gain the approval of the family, hijinks and misunderstandings be damned.

The biggest strength and flaw of the film was the casting of Robinson in the role of the hapless Wade. Robinson, despite cutting an imposing figure, has always appeared to be a lovable lunk of a guy; if you are the father of a daughter that has had multiple questionable relationships in the past, you would feel like she had finally found a nice fella to settle down with. Hence, one of the reasons the adversarial tone between Wade and the Judge seems so whackadoo. This isn’t Ben Stiller fumbling, mumbling, bumbling and stumbling all over your house; this is a dude that anyone would be happy to bring into your family.

The only way that screenwriter and first-time director Tina Gordon Chism (Drumline) can amp up the tension is by following Parents almost scene by scene. Father doesn’t take potential son-in-law’s career seriously? Check. Does the nice guy hear a conversation that he misinterprets for something much more sinister involving the dad? Of course. Is there a youngest child going wild unbeknownst to his parents? Mmm-hmm. Is there a final fight between everyone involved where the daughter will side with her father’s wild allegations, despite being the only one there to actually know the suitor long enough to have a reasonable suspicion that he may be a thief or drug addict? Well now you’re just taking all of the fun out of this.

Much could, and probably will, be said about the fact that the only true innovation that the film has going for it is its predominantly black cast. Honestly, the film doesn’t even touch on that concept more than a couple of times, like when Wade addresses a family picture as the “chocolate Kennedys”. Why does no one in the film ask what it’s like to be one of the few black families in the lily white Hamptons? When a subplot is introduced over a family member hiding her homosexuality, why isn’t her reasoning behind that thought process explored? One of the many scenes involving bicycle riding could have been excised to give one of these more serious concepts room to grow, but Chism chose to go the more lackadaisical route.
Peeples, despite advertising producer Tyler Perry’s name all over the advertising, isn’t the worst thing you will see this year in theaters. No one is involved in a highly unlikely abusive relationship, and an AIDS scare isn’t shoehorned in at the last minute for a ham-fisted moral. All in all, it isn’t really bad as much as forgettable, and I mean that literally; I could definitely see members of the audience running across this on TBS a couple of years from now and trying to remember if they have seen this film or not. No, in the end the film is simply buried beneath comparisons to its earlier, better inspiration, talented case be damned.  

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review: Iron Man 3

Perhaps no larger honor can be given to Robert Downey Jr. than the fact that so many fans are clamoring to see Iron Man 3 in theaters, despite the tepid response most viewers had to the last installment in the comic-book franchise. More than Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, more than Christian Bale as Batman; hell, maybe even more than Christopher Reeve as Superman, no other actor has come to be synonymis with a character than Downey as the iron-clad tech warrior.

So it goes that Marvel Studios rushed the character back onto the big screen after the wild success of The Avengers, perhaps to wash the bad taste of that misguided sequel out of moviegoers mouths. With Jon Favreau stepping away from the director’s chair, Shane Black was invited into the Marvel fold with his first directing gig since 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and only his second directorial effort ever.

When we first meet Tony Stark in IM3, it is apparent that he has been living an existence one step removed from a modern day Howard Hughes since the events that transpired in The Avengers; constantly tinkering in his basement and building new Iron Man armor, stricken with panic attacks over nearly dying while fighting off the alien invasion in New York, and managing to ignore his girlfriend/new head of Stark Industries Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). If that weren’t enough, he is quickly introduced to two new adversaries: Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), head of A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics); and Bin Laden-esque terrorist The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).

The Mandarin’s unknown followers are responsible for at least nine known terrorist attacks, the knowledge of only three of which have been released to the American public. Tony is drawn into a battle with the Mandarin when an attack in Los  Angeles leaves one of his closest friends in a coma. The battle between these two forces quickly draw others in, including the returning character of Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), old flame Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), and President Ellis (William Sadler).

The visual effects and action sequences are stunning, especially when Tony's Iron Man brigade takes flight. The costuming, however, is more hit-and-miss. Other than a brief sequence that involves Pepper donning an Iron Man suit in an emergency, the filmmakers seem to have no qualms leaving Paltrow to run around in a sports bra. On the other hand, the updates given to The Mandarin, with his ringed fingers and camo-via-Asia outfit, look terrific. It’s hard to believe this is the ridiculous character mocked by comic fans for decades.

The biggest surprise in the film is how easily Black puts his stamp on the franchise. Taking a character that has been given little more to do than create a flying tank and crack one-liners, Black revisits the characters of his creative past and brings a darkness to Stark that has been missing heretofore. A complexity is given to Tony, making us question if he would follow his personal demons into the dark if it weren’t for the neverending project that is being Iron Man.

Without giving too much away, Marvel has managed to tie up the Iron Man franchise with a nice bow at the end of this third film, not necessarily saying we will never see the character again, but definitely letting us in on the fact that it will be a while before Iron Man 4 hits screens. But with closure like this, I’m sure fans will eagerly await the new adventures of Tin Head in the meantime.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Review: The Company You Keep

One of the hazards of waiting until the last second to write a review is, whether you want them to or not, other critics' opinions start to drift in your direction. Now, I have no idea exactly what their thoughts are on any given subject, but I have already picked up on the fact that Robert Redford's latest directorial effort, The Company You Keep, is being released into more markets this weekend without a whole lot of support behind it. This surprises me, because for my money it very well may be the best film that I have watched in 2013.

The Company You Keep stars Redford as Jim Grant, a well-respected defense attorney in his town dealing with life as a single parent after the unexpected death of his wife. Through a series of coincidences discovered by a young reporter in town (Shia LaBeouf), Jim finds his past coming back to haunt him in the form of recently arrested Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon). Solarz and Jim (real name Nick Sloan) were members of the 60s radical activists Weather Underground, and have lived decades under new aliases because of a bank heist that ended in the murder of a guard.

Leaving his daughter in the care of his estranged brother (Chris Cooper), Jim runs in an attempt to reconnect with the only person who can prove his innocence: a former lover (Julie Christie) that was actually a part of the robbery, and can tell police that Jim had nothing to do with any of it. With both the police and the enterprising reporter on his trail, Jim journeys cross-country, all in an attempt to return to the quiet life he knew just days before.

I'm not sure if Redford is a director that actors are just dying to work with, in the same way many view Woody Allen, or if he just used his Sundance clout to strong-arm award winning character actors into just about every speaking role in Company, but this is one of the most impressive casts to hit the screen in years. Ah, who am I kidding? It takes mutual respect to wrangle up fairly big-name actors to appear in roles that are clearly beneath them; it also takes a hell of a director to manage a cast this large and build it into a series of memorable scenes.

If there is a weak link, perhaps it's not surprising that it would be LaBeouf (star of the Transformers franchise). As the young, enterprising journalist, he has the unenviable position of being both the youngest star in the cast and least celebrated actor. In scenes featuring Redford, Sarandon, Stephen Root, and Brendan Gleeson the young man is all but blown off the screen by his elders. Some of this could stem from the fact that LaBeouf's character is so unlikable; there is a sense that Redford likes it better this way, as this is how he sees the younger generation, complaining about their lot in life but without the convictions of the baby boomers to actually fight for anything.

If there is a film that I would compare Company to, it would have to be The Fugitive. There are scenes here, with Redford just barely avoiding capture, that manage to convey the tension in that earlier film without feeling like a knock-off of the same. Perhaps its because of the personal investment he feels in the film, but Redford flexs acting muscles that we haven't seen since his 70s output, or depending on how generous you are feeling, perhaps Sneakers.

With an all-star cast and the best script of writer Lem Dobbs' career, Redford brings to the screen one of the finest films of his career, as well as a strong contender for my Top Ten list at the end of 2013. With Company, Redford manages to show directors with five times his output that it is possible to craft an entertaining political thriller in this era of franchise-crazy studios, as long as you have the talent to pull it off.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Review: Oblivion

When Joseph Kosinski was chosen a couple of years ago to direct his feature debut, TRON: Legacy, it was met by the masses with a collective, “Who?!?” Rumored to be given the job on the strength of a preview reel he showed Disney execs, one can't help but wonder if that reel was nothing more than updated graphics to the original film after watching his sophomore effort, the Tom Cruise star vehicle Oblivion.

In Oblivion, Cruise stars as Jack, a one-man mechanic crew tasked with preserving the small amount of Earth that is still livable. Along with his partner (both technician and domestic) Victoria, played by English actress Andrea Riseborough, Jack is an inhabitant of Earth circa 2070. Fifty years after a devastating war against alien invaders in which the Earth's governments decimated the planet with nuclear weapons in an attempt to drive the enemy back, Jack is given the task of repairing drones that protect machines important toward the survival of the human race. Waking every day to fix machines that have been incapacitated by the alien enemy, Jack can't help but feel that something is off.

While Victoria is more than happy to continue counting down the two weeks that they have left on Earth before being transported back to the moon on Jupiter where humans now live, Jack still loves his native planet. Growing flowers with soil that is supposedly contaminated; adopting a creek side cabin as a retreat to store tokens of humanity's past; listening to old Led Zeppelin tunes while shooting free throws; Jack has managed to turn a desolated planet into the ultimate man cave.

While on patrol, Jack sees a spacecraft fall from the sky. Upon searching the wreckage, he finds humans locked into hibernation units. While attempting to open said units, drones appear and begin killing the survivors. Stumbling onto the unit holding a woman that he has dreamed about, Jack risks his life to save her from being exterminated. Taking her back to his home to be patched up, they begin discussing the past as Jack knows it, and he is shown that much of what he has been led to believe is in reality a lie.

One of the jokes a lot of folks made when they first saw the trailer for Oblivion was in regards to how much it appeared to be a live-action remake of the Pixar film Wall-E, only starring a human instead of a robot. I must admit, I made the same joke as well, and yet I was still blown away by how similar the two full-length films are to one another in their finished forms. Read the above synopsis again; Kosinski (a co writer of the screenplay as well as director) doesn't just have Cruise growing a flower to give to his love, he also has a killer pop-culture collection. That is just scratching the surface, however.

The comparisons to sci-fi films don’t stop there; the hits just keep on coming! Cruise's character and interactions with others seems to be patterned after Total Recall, while managing to excise that earlier film's misogyny. The portrait of the Earth that we are shown borrows from the Planet of the Apes series, while the drones themselves seem to crib liberally from the visuals and mechanics of the Enforcement Droids from Robocop. I'm not even touching on the most exciting action scene of the film, which depending on how you look at it is either a strong homage or rip-off of the space battle scenes from the original Star Wars trilogy.

Most damning is the constant allusions to Kosinski's debut, T:L. The director bastardizes his own film by liberally borrowing the neon look of the homes and vehicle specs of his only other film, which I'm not sure is an act of desperation or an attempt to keep what he considers his audience happy. At a certain point I found it almost funny, especially when the French electronic band M83 would pop up on the soundtrack. Why not just run a stream along the bottom of the screen that reads, "Sorry, Daft Punk wouldn't return our phone calls this time"?

Perhaps it just boils down to Kosinski bit off more than he could chew by accepting a Cruise pic this early in his career, choked, and vomited up this hokum? It's not that the film is even that bad, it's just a pretty piece of junk to stare at vacantly for 2 hours. When the end credits roll, you will walk out with the sinking feeling that you should have just bit the bullet and bought a ticket for Spring Breakers instead, and to that I say you would be right.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: No

Sony Pictures Classics may be the most adventurous “indie” studio going at the moment. Sure, when you’re just a small piece of a huge corporation you can afford to take chances, but there are still those that would be happy to play it safe.
What does that have to do with No, the political comedy focused on late 80s Chile? As smart, funny, and daring as this Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is, it also has the distinction of being the ugliest looking film to hit theatres in quite some time.

Shot in an obsolete video format that looks prehistoric when compared to a clip on YouTube, there is reason for director Pablo Larrain’s madness: the film, starring Gael Garcia Bernal as an ad-man called upon to help drive Chilean dictator Pinochet from office, looks just like the TV clips that comprise a third of No’s running time. It seems fitting that it is difficult to decipher what are real clips and what are moviemaking magic in this satire that is less about the truth than using a version of the truth to get what you want.

 Bernal is great, as always. The Mexican actor displays the charm that he is known for, while showcasing comedic chops that were heretofore unseen as Rene Saavedra, an advertising wiz who’s called upon by Chile’s opposition group to create a television campaign that will capture the masses imaginations and force them to vote “no” in a 1988 election. Rene creates commercials with happy jingles and mimes, knowing that folks will be more open to suggestion with “ear worms” than angry declarations of right and wrong. When it looks to be building steam, the regime begins its own ad campaign, led by Rene’s business colleague, Lucho (Alfredo Castro).

 If this all sounds a bit like a political Mad Men, well, in a way I guess that’s fair. But while Mad Men is lauded for its ability to be unconventional, No makes the TV show look like Charles in Charge by captivating the audience with a great script and wonderful direction. Rarely has a film so ugly been so worthwhile.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Review: 42

As soon as the first scene of 42 flickers across the screen, the audience immediately knows what kind of movie they are watching. Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) is telling two of his closest confindants that he has his mind set on bringing a black player up from the Negro Leagues to become the first African-American player in major league history. While music swells triumphantly behind his announcement, his assistant stutters out a mild objection, only to be stunned silent by Rickey's steadfastness.
That is 42 in a nutshell; completely happy to tell a story known by almost all sports fans without an ounce of originality to it. Nothing will make a filmgoer appreciate Steven Spielberg's work as much as having to sit through Spielberg-lite.
There are so many avenues a filmmaker can take with the Jackie Robinson story. Could we not delve into Rickey's ambitions a little further than the two reasons given: he thought it would be good for business and the right thing to do? Didn't he have moments where he actually feared for Robinson's life, or those of his family and/or teammates? No, we are only given a scene in which he shoves a pile of hatemail toward Pee Wee Reese (an underused Lucas Black) and basically tells him to grow a pair.
Thankfully Chadwick Boseman is there to hold the picture together in a star-making turn as Robinson. Valiantly putting up a good fight against the direction by Brian Helgeland, Boseman manages to convey the inner turmoil of a man fighting against himself, desperate to lash out against those mistreating him while knowing to do so would end his career. Boseman is at ease in scenes both on the field and at home. Those scenes of domestic life are greatly enhanced by the work put in by Shame's Nicole Beharie as his wife.
The entire supporting cast is a masterclass in character work, with many of the actors capable of stealing the film at any moment. Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU )makes an immediate impact upon the movie with his depiction of the legendary Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, willing to bare an open mind for the sake of his ballteam winning, and not conceding an inch of power to ballplayers ready to revolt against the idea of a black man sharing their lockerroom. Alan Tudyk (Firefly) makes an impact as Phillies manager Ben Chapman, the instigator of the most racist reception Robinson encounters on the field that the film addresses. Every line of dialogue Tudyk directs Boseman's way in their scenes together seemingly contains at least two racial epiteths in an attempt to cause a reaction. Tudyk comes away from 42 as perhaps showcasing the finest acting, for somehow being a horrible antagonist while still remaining the comic foil.
Brian Helgeland is without question a talented screenwriter, but with 42 he has proven himself once again lacking as a director. There are a hundred more interesting stories to be found in Robinson's career, but what we are given is the most sterile, "inspiring" version of the man's life that could possibly be produced for the screen. 42 is a fine film to fall asleep to on a rainy weekend day, but its hard to justify paying full admission prices for it.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Review: The Gatekeepers

In The Gatekeepers, six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency, go on camera for the first time and talk about their conflicted feelings toward their enemies, the Palestinians. The mere subject of the documentary (interviews with former directors of Israeli intelligence) is enough to “sell” this film, but it’s the revelations found within that truly make it worth watching.

The Gatekeepers attempts to track the history of Israel from the Six-Day War in 1967, almost to the present day, and the conflicts that the nation has felt during that time.

The six men at the center of the film are not afraid to speak frankly about assassinations and torture. You don’t become the head of Shin Bet by being afraid to pull a trigger. Avraham Shalom, the oldest of the interview subjects, left his position over an incident in which a terrorist was murdered while his hands were tied. Another recalls his greatest success as killing a suspected Palestinian terrorist with a “phone bomb”. Each of the six protagonists speaks on the concept of having to decide if the potential loss of innocent lives is worth “taking out” a suspected threat.

Director Dror Moreh plays his hand a little too soon, seemingly only interested in making this film so he would have the ability to ask these men about the ethics involved in dealing with terrorists. After questioning the elderly Shalom multiple times about the morality in killing these murderers, the old gentleman finally says that there is no morality where terrorism involved. “Find morals in terrorists first.”

Yet the film isn’t one-sided at all. At different points during the film, each of the men condemns the tactics that have been used during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most of them point toward the politicians they worked under as the true heads of Shin Bet during their times running the unit. Also, each of the men describes how the Palestinians reacted to the deaths happening around them; the phone-bomb assassination in particular seemed to stir a hornet’s nest; relations went from low-level hostility to violent retaliation. 

Moreh’s documentary is fascinating, when the director isn’t openly pointing the subjects of it in the direction he wants to take them. Avi Dichter, the second-most-recent director interviewed, comes the closest to comparing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with Germany’s treatment of Jews in the days leading up to World War II. Something tells me that segment is Moreh’s favorite in the film.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Review: West of Memphis

The case of the West Memphis Three has been a cause celebre since it first made headlines in 1996. In 1993, the bodies of three young missing boys were found in a creek, their hands bound and bodies mutilated. After a trial that captivated the state of Arkansas, three teenagers (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley) were found guilty of murder; Echols was given the death penalty, while the other two were given life sentences.

In 1996, the filmmaking duo of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky released the feature-length documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. The film was a critical hit that ended up being the first in a trilogy of films focused on the inconsistencies and troubling police coercion that have plagued the case of these murdered kids, which seemed to point at three young men being found guilty of a heinous crime that they didn't commit.

What West of Memphis, the newest doc to visit the case, has managed to successfully do is take the nearly nine hours of story that Berlinger and Sinofsky has given us and condense it into a more manageable 150 or so minutes. If that sounds a bit flippant, you've never sat through 9 hours of crime footage involving murdered children.

Amy J. Berg directs this documentary. Known best for the Oscar nominated doc Deliver Us From Evil (1996), based on the history of sexual abuse coverups perpetrated by the Catholic Church, she is a director not known for shying away from casting a light on the wrong-doings of authority figures in our society. Here we are given evidence that seemingly grows from scene to scene of a police force more interested in jailing three long-haired kids than finding the real killer.

As someone who grew up in a small town, nothing seen here is really shocking. Disheartening and depressing, sure, but telling the viewer that police forces better equipped to hand out "rolling stop" citations would somehow mishandle a major crime that attracts media attention shouldn't come as a surprise. Hell, the tape recordings of shady jailhouse confessions had barely stopped rolling before cops were fighting each other over who would be the one to release it to the local press.

If there is a major failing with West of Memphis it is the loss of focus halfway through the film. More and more it became clear that the film's producer Peter Jackson (the Lord of the Rings trilogy) would become a major character, whether necessary to the story or not. Also, I like Pearl Jam as much as the next guy, but how many times do I need Eddie Vedder to pop up to offer such nuggets of information as, "We would send them Skittles," or shown at a benefit concert performing Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changing"?

West of Memphis offers a fascinating glimpse into a justice system that managed to fail an entire community, with Berg continuing to showcase that she is one of cinema's finest documentarians of the dark corners of our everyday lives. If you can handle the moments of back-slapping and self-congratulation to be found in abundance, this film is well worth your time.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: 21 and Over

There is something to be said for the comfort one takes in walking into a movie that is sure to be bad. The viewer is under no false illusion that what they are about to watch will be life changing, something that will make them feel better about the world around them. No, if you buy a ticket for something that advertises itself as siblings fighting steampunk monsters in 3D, you don’t expect The Artist.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I hated 21 and Over so much. Surely the ads didn’t hide the fact that this was a low budget “kids getting drunk and naked” flick, with its only calling card being “from the guys that wrote The Hangover.” That being said, it has been years since I have felt this much anger toward a film for treating its audience as drooling numbskulls, with arrest worthy crimes being treated as sophomoric hi-jinks for our half-hearted chuckles.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s take a look at the plot, since that is oh so important in flicks like this.

Miller, Casey, and Jeff, three young men who were best friends in high school, find themselves holding a mini reunion on the occasion of Jeff’s 21st birthday. Miller is our ne’er do well, the Bradley Cooper of our great of college-aged Hangover-esque miscreants. Casey is the straight-laced one in the group; the young man who seems to have everything together, with his only complaint being that he is staring at a career in finance that will bring wealth, but bore him to tears. Jeff has an interview for entry into medical school early the next morning, set up by his overbearing father, so he has the most to lose by going out and going wild. So of course that’s what he does.

It wasn’t five minutes into the film that I realized that this would be a painful experience. Miller (played by Miles Teller) is the first character that we are introduced to, a bro that is ecstatic to cut loose with his buds for the night. Cracking open a tall-boy PBR in the back of a cab, it’s clear the actor was going for a young Vince Vaughn vibe, but all that was coming through the screen was a character modeled after Max Tucker.  Casey (performed by Skylar Astin, last seen in Pitch Perfect) is the straight man, the Ed Helms of the group if you will; milquetoast, seemingly only there for Miller to bounce Jew jokes off of every five minutes. The taxi driver is the only character in the film to show that he has a grasp on reality by calling the two men “assholes” before dropping them off.

That leaves us with the character of Jeff, or more to the point, Jeff Chang. Think about your group of friends growing up. I’m sure you had a couple that, by coincidence, had the same first name. To be sure everyone knew two Michaels growing up, right? When talking to them, how did you differentiate between the two? Maybe one was Michael, the other Mike, right?  Well, in the world of 21 and Over, the only way to talk to or about a close friend is to tack on that last name, whether there is another Jeff within 30 miles.

Within minutes of the introduction of Jeff Change, you realize that the only reason the character is Asian has to do with the writers’ finding Asians inherently funny. Think about it…Asians are the only race that Hollywood writers feel safe in making jokes about now. Remember, the guys responsible for this film are the same ones that stuck Ken Jeong in the trunk of a car naked in The Hangover. Seriously, if you want to hear characters referred to unironically as yellow bastards or treated as walking caricatures, this is the movie for you!

Actually, the only filmgoers I could recommend this film to would be folks that think The Hangover would have been better without Zach Galifianakis’ character, or those that think Superbad would be great if the two main characters openly hated each other throughout the movie’s runtime. The trio of leads has such low levels of chemistry with each other, I believe it dipped into the negatives at times.

The issue that really bothered me the most during this nothing of a movie, however, is the fact that there are countless crimes committed that would lead to arrests, if not serious jail time, if this film had even the smallest amount of consciousness to it. Among the crimes committed: multiple sexual assaults (on both male and females), kidnapping, physical assault, battery, and the threat of gun violence on a student. None of the scenes featuring these charges were funny, but then again, it’s only a comedy and maybe I’m expecting too much.

When members of the press enter a screening, we are given little surveys to fill out, only asking for favorite scenes and our general thoughts on the film. For the first time, I had to fill out the Favorite Scenes section with a big ol’ “N/A”, because I couldn’t even fake a scene that may have gotten a smile out of me. If any of the preceding sounds interesting to you, may God have mercy on your soul.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Snitch Review

Hollywood’s handling of the career of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been fascinating to watch. Upon making his feature film acting debut in 2000’s The Mummy Returns, it was clear that the former WWE World Champion brought the same amount of charisma that the big screen as he had used to catapult himself to become one of the most popular stars in wrestling history; the problem has always been the inability to turn him into the role he was seemingly born to play: his generation’s Ahnold or Sly.

In Snitch, Johnson plays John Matthews, a successful businessman torn from his comfortable life by his son’s arrest for distribution of narcotics. Even though this is the kid’s first offence, the boy is looking at serving ten years in prison due to mandatory minimum sentencing for drug trafficking. Attempting to cut a deal with the Feds in order to spring his son, John offers to work undercover to ensnare local drug dealers. His plan works a little too well, and soon his family is being threatened by Mexican drug cartel members.

What should be a fairly simple action revenge tale is held back by its “based on true events” origins. Now, I have no idea what the real story is here; it’s probably safe to say that one of the filmmakers heard a story about someone getting busted for dealing drugs and here we are. The failure here is that by attempting to bring reality into a film that begs for a 30 minute shoot-out action sequence, we are left with a middling family drama with an awkward moral calling for leniency toward felons.

Johnson does a solid job with the material given to him, and its understandable why he would sign on to the film, but his is just one of several roles miscast. He is playing a father throwing himself into a world of drugs and violence, and his attempts to portray a man frightened by the people he surrounds himself with land with a thud of failure. Audiences waiting for Johnson’s first great role will only be left with disappointment once again after watching Snitch.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Warm Bodies Review

One of the most scrutinized genres of film is the zombie flick. From endless arguments based on whether an undead cannibalistic corpse should have the ability to run, or just wander around slowly with their arms outstretched toward their victims, many horror nerds have spent years of their lives debating the attributes of these fictional monsters. Well folks, if you thought Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake was hotly contested amongst creature-feature fans, you haven’t seen nothing like the fits people are about to throw over Warm Bodies!

Warm Bodies is the tale of R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie of unknown age who spends his days pacing around an airport. Serving as our narrator, he tells the audience that he has no recollection of how everyone became a zombie, or why some have made homes in areas that seemingly brought them comfort at one time.

While on a hunt with a group of zombies, including his best friend M (Rob Cordrry), R stumbles upon a group of living survivors from a local fortified settlement. After a brief skirmish, the zombies completely massacre the humans, leaving only Julie (Teresa Palmer) alive. Falling in love at first sight, R saves Julie from the horde of flesh-eaters. They quickly develop a friendship, and R attempts to help Julie return to her home and father (John Malkovich).

I took notice of director Jonathan Levine last year upon the release of 50/50; I felt some scenes in that dramedy were among the most inventive of all 2011. A young man with a checkered filmography (The Wackness underwhelms, while All the Boys Love Mandy Lane never received a proper release), I put Levine on my mental list of directors to keep an eye on in the future. Well, this is his first feature since 50/50 and this is a huge misfire. Seemingly a simple paycheck job, there is no personal touch to be found from the auteur, with the actors left on their own to make the romance work.

Hoult and Palmer are fine, if mediocre, in the starring roles of the mismatched couple. Hoult is all grown up since starring in About a Boy in the titular role of Boy, but shows little in the way of the charisma most would assume to be necessary for a rotting corpse to attract a beautiful young lady. Palmer does okay as Julie, but it seems as if someone on the filmmaking side of the production just threw a copy of Twilight at her and said, “Be this.” While certainly better than Kristen Stewart in that franchise, Palmer is called to do little more than bite her lip from time to time and act demur around the dead folks.

While not an embarrassment for those involved, Warm Bodies is a trifle that will soon be forgotten by the public and will work its way down the resumes of those responsible. If you are a zombie completist knock yourself out; all others steer clear and catch one of those Best Picture nominees you’ve been putting off.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Capsule Review: Vertigo (1958)

A financial failure upon its release, Vertigo's reputation has slowly grown over the decades until it's now considered one of Hitchcock's very best - if not THE best. It's certainly one of his most psychologically fascinating, as a retired police officer suffering from acrophobia (Jimmy Stewart) is hired to follow the wife (played by Kim Novak) of a wealthy old friend, who the friend suspects has been possessed by the suicidal spirit of her ancestor. Of course there's Hitchcock's usual obsessions, but everyone is working at the top of their game here - from Saul Bass' incredible opening title sequence to Bernard Herrmann's unforgettable score. Much was made of the age different between Novak and Stewart in the film, but Stewart actually gives one of his best performances as a man tortured by memory and his own weakness.