Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Monday, December 03, 2012

721

Although my posts on this blog have slowed to a trickle, I still maintain a very active web presence over at Critic Speak. All of my reviews there can be browsed here.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

720 - Moonrise Kingdom review




In Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” things begin in a bright red home whose interior and occupants are filmed as if they were part of a toy set, the naturalistic appearance of the world outside heightening the calculated formality of the human constructs. Anderson’s films feature mannered characters making their way worlds that inherently see them as foreign, even as these environments are recognizable as somewhat fantastical.

Anderson’s style, which can be enthralling (“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) or exasperating (“The Darjeeling Limited”), lend his works an almost ineffable quality, presenting dramas that differ from our own in terms of realism but consistently hit recognizably human notes. “Moonrise Kingdom” proves to be the purest example of his approach yet, his offbeat sensibilities imbuing the occupants of New Penzance, a lovely (fictional) New England isle, with a uniform richness of character not normally afforded his entire cast. Realism is always the goal, but it’s emotional realism, not physical, that films need, and this captures that perfectly. 

The film’s heroes are 12-year-olds Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), two wounded souls escaping their respective guardians for a few days of idyllic romance. Sam, on the island as part of a Scouts trip, is rebellious, resourceful kid whose stoic countenance certainly conceals profound sorrow. Suzy, who lives on the island, is a sharp, rebellious girl.

When they meet, one can sense it’s as much about taking refuge from their regular lives as it is about their affections for one another. Sam is a recent orphan, his parents deceased of unstated causes, normally living at a boy’s home where the other kids treat him with less than kindness. Suzy has ditched her parents (Anderson staple Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), one of those couples who supply with their children with adequate material possessions but allow their own wounds to harm the children. They aren’t bad people or even bad parents, but kids can tell when their parents are deeply unhappy.

The kids’ wilderness excursion presents some of the most delightful, complex coming of age material ever put to screen. Sam and Suzy’s ages place them right at the magic spot where one’s childish impulses co-exist with an aching awareness of how lonely and bleak life will treat them. But this isn’t to say that Anderson’s films are bleak. On the contrary, his heroes tend to be men and women who eventually find solace through the redemptive kindness of others, his stories about the way light can break through the dark.  

Anderson’s characters always inhabit a mannered society, one where people treasure the formality of things such as letters and titles. His work treats life almost as a process, a series of procedures to be followed. This may not be how we as people behave, but it certainly resembles how we remember things, ordered and just a bit absurd.

Anderson’s use of his actors has been among the best of any director in recent years. Anderson’s use of Murray in 1998’s “Rushmore” was the cinematic equivalent of a light bulb over the film world’s head, illuminating to the world to see the actor’s capabilities as a profound, powerful dramatic lead. With “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson does not let us down, getting note-perfect performances out of his varied cast, which includes Edward Norton and the great Tilda Swinton. 

The best performance comes from Bruce Willis as Captain Sharp, the island’s sole policeman. Sporting a meek pair of glasses and a demeanor to match, Sharp’s dedicated quest to protect the lost children contrasts quietly with his hopelessly sad personal life. Sam and Captain Sharp become unlikely sides of the same coin, discontent handled in and out of maturity. It’s really quite something that by the film’s end, we believe that happiness is possible for all involved. This is a marvelous work, like a song one lets wash over them so that they can feel the beats of the beautiful music.  

5 out of 5

Sunday, July 22, 2012

719 - The Dark Knight Rises review


I enjoyed "The Dark Knight Rises," even though it's nowhere near as good as "The Dark Knight," which was a masterpiece. As far as Christopher Nolan films go, I'd rank it above "Insomnia" and "Batman Begins," but under the rest. My review is up at Critic Speak.

Friday, July 13, 2012

718 - To Rome With Love review



“To Rome With Love” is classic Woody Allen, more in the sense that it contains many of the elements we expect from the icon’s films more than it is particularly wonderful. I don’t want to say Allen’s coasting, since anyone who has attempted writing and filming a movie knows it’s a brutally tough enterprise, but this feels pretty close.

This is one of his comedies, and a lighter one at that. It takes us through four stories set in Rome, none of which ever connect, either practically or thematically.

My favorite of the four: Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), an architectural student, lives with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) in Rome. Sally’s best friend Monica (Ellen Page) moves in, her pseudo-intellectual posturing and casual beauty sending Jack into a frenzy of Allen-esque lust and indecision. Alec Baldwin plays Jack’s hero, who magically appears in these scenes to warn the characters against every impulse they have, unsuccessfully. This material has been covered by Allen in literally dozens of films, yet no filmmaker has ever managed the delightful combination of humor, skewed morality, and human interest that he makes look effortless.

Another story: Antonio (Alessandro Tiberian) and his new bride Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) arrive in Rome to meet his family. Milly gets lost in Rome and runs into a beloved Italian movie star (Antonio Albanese), while Antonio unexpectedly receives the determined attention of a gorgeous prostitute (Penelope Cruz). Both halves of the marriage are desperate to remain faithful to one another, though as one of them eventually reasons, why not regret the fun rather than regret the lack of it?

Another: Allen plays Jerry, a hack opera director not enjoying his forced retirement from the music biz. He and his wife (Judy Davis) fly to Rome to see their daughter (Alison Pill) and meet her fiancé (Flavio Parenti). As if begrudgingly responding to criticism that his recent films have spent time gratuitously insulting conservatives, Allen has Jerry aghast at the fiancé’s communist sympathies. He doesn’t like the fiancé one bit, but he does like the father (opera singer Fabio Armiliato), who sings flawless opera, with one caveat: he must be in the shower. So Jerry sets up an opera that would look normal were it not for the lead always singing naked under a torrent of water and soap. This appears funnier on screen than it reads on the page.

Finally: Roberto Benigni plays a markedly ordinary low-level bureaucrat who wakes up one morning to find himself the most revered celebrity in Italy. Suddenly, the paparazzi tracks his every move, and TV anchors breathlessly report on what he had for breakfast and his preferred method of shaving. Allen clearly disdains those famous for being famous, though the bureaucrat’s not a figure to revile, but pity. I’m reminded that Allen has claimed that the bad parts of fame are “greatly outweighed by the dinner reservations.”


All four scenarios unfold with charm that grows from modest to moderate as the plots progress. Allen’s films usually have a clear, in often conflicted, moral to explore, though here he demonstrates an uncharacteristic lack of concern for thematic unity. If there’s a consistent bit of wisdom to be found, perhaps it’s that good things happen not by virtue of one’s wisdom, but by glorious, dumb luck, though I’m not even certain that was intentional.

This is a far cry from his best work, such as “The Purple Rose of Cairo” or “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” but it should fit securely in his filmography as a minor yet enjoyable entry. If nothing else, it presents, along with Oliver Stone’s excellent drug-thriller “Savages,” apt adult counter-programming for a summer film season crowded with dull blockbusters and animated children’s fare. After all, it’s preferable to watch Woody Allen coast than see 99% of working filmmakers give it their all.

3 out of 5

Thursday, June 14, 2012

717 - Safe House review



"Safe House" is a thematically appropriate title for this boilerplate Bourne-esque spy yarn, a film that aggressively aspires to adequacy. Ryan Reynolds, who holds the world title for Least Deserving Movie Star, plays a CIA gopher who finds himself in custody of a rouge agent played by Denzel Washington. Pic consists largely of modest action sequences and talky, unimaginative boardroom dialogue leading up to one of those sadly common spy movie tropes that mistakes treason against the U.S. for morality. One needs only half a brain to anticipate every development, especially the identity of the CIA mole. Though Daniel Espinosa’s shaky-cam direction is less inept than Paul Greengrass similar efforts, someone needs to tell these people action scenes work better when the audience can tell what’s going on.

2 out of 5

Sunday, May 20, 2012

716 - Battleship review


My review of "Battleship," the summer's first domestic box office catastrophe, is up at Critic Speak. Check it out here.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

715 - The Dictator review


My review of "The Dictator," the latest starring Sacha Baron Cohen as a Middle Eastern buffoon, is up over at Critic Speak. While you're there, take a gander at the Video Minefield, where I look at "Albert Nobbs" and "Chronicle," while Danny Baldwin takes on "The Devil Inside," "The Grey," "One for the Money," and "Rampart."

Saturday, May 05, 2012

714 - The Avengers review


I have a review of "The Avengers" up over at Critic Speak. Check it out, and while you're there, don't hesitate to take a gander at the rest of the site.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

713

Recently, my pal Danny Baldwin and I, convinced that what the internet needed was one more movie website, put our heads together and came up with Critic Speak, a new source for entertainment news and reviews.

The website has been up and running for over a week, and has thus far proven more successful than we had originally anticipated. And we're not even close to where we intend to be, as the coming weeks will see the addition of a number of the web's best voices on film, TV, and whatever else those in the key advertising demographics enjoy. 

That said, this blog will continue as it always has, primarily as an outlet for my own reviews, although now a great number of them will be exclusive to Critic Speak. I've already got reviews of "The Raid: Redemption" and "American Reunion" up, with many more to come. We have big plans, and we're certain that there will be something for just about everyone.

Visit Critic Speak for the reviews, but stay and return for the news, as the site is updated several times daily. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

712 - 21 Jump Street review



Am I wrong, or are big screen comedies getting nicer? By that I certainly don’t mean “cleaner,” since the intensity of filthiness allowed under an R rating has crept up to levels unimaginable earlier in my lifetime. Yet these same movies make a point of conjuring up as much empathy for the leads as possible, as if to insist that they, and by proxy the audience, constitute decent people deserving of happiness. The protagonist jerks seem to have all migrated to television.

Take “21 Jump Street,” which, like “The Brady Bunch Movie” from the 1990s, is a parody of the old TV series rather than a serious attempt of recreating its original intent. I’ve never seen an episode, though I doubt it had as much heart as this. I also doubt it had as much cursing and as many sex jokes.

The film’s protagonists, Schmidt (Jonah Hill, who also gets a story credit) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), are in the middle of a hardcore bromance, that useful and already overused term that describes relationship arcs in movies where what would normally be a romance occurs between two heterosexual men. Has the contemporary commonality of divorce slowly been convincing a new generation that the true love of one’s life is to be found in friendship instead of romance? These films tend to forget that breaking up with a good friend can be every bit as explosive and traumatic as doing so with a romantic partner.

Schmidt and Jenko were opposites in high school, but befriend one another at the police academy when it becomes clear that lacks a key element to police work (good fitness and average intelligence, respectively).After a brief and blazingly incompetent stint as bicycle officers, the pair are assigned to an undercover unit that places youthful looking officers in high school classrooms. That both easily look too old for this becomes the point of more than a few jokes, as does the unoriginality of the premise.

A return to high school represents a challenge and a therapeutic opportunity for both men. Schmidt was an unpopular nerd that couldn’t even get a date to the prom, whereas Jenko was cool but so pathetic academically that the school rescinded his invitation to the dance. Thanks to a mix-up, each inherits the other’s cover story, so Schmidt now finds himself surrounded by the cool kids, whereas Jenko’s time is spent in AP Chemistry, the sort of class smarter men than him avoid.

Against their expectations (though perfectly in line with our own), they each thrive as the other half. As they infiltrate a drug ring, Schmidt finds himself in an actual romance with a pretty senior (Brie Larson), that the film takes pains to inform us is 18-years-old. Parents, if you were to find out that your high school student’s love interest was an undercover cop, would that bother you, even if she was 18? I’m getting too serious, I know.

At its heart of “21 Jump Street” is that bromance, the idea that competing personality types can functionally synthesize and complement one another, perhaps especially when separated from the cliques of a place such as high school. Hill and Tatum have a comedic rapport that carries the film through its tropes and nostalgic gags, not so much elevating the material as sharpening it. There’s not much memorable about specific jokes, action scenes, or themes, but there’s a warmth and sincerity to the lead performances that makes me hope that we get to see these undercover cops take a swing at college.

3.5 out of 5

Friday, April 13, 2012

711 - Wrath of the Titans review



“Wrath of the Titans” is a sequel that doesn't have to clear a terribly high hurdle to best its predecessor. “Clash of the Titans,” the 2010 film roundly criticized for its mundane plot and dreadful post-production 3-D, was so boring that I'm having trouble remembering much of it. Here, we've got something a bit better, a would-be blockbuster that generates enough interest that the average audience member should be able to recall at least two cool scenes immediately after the credits. There's your standard for this sort of movie: can one remember at least two scenes they enjoyed?

Like its predecessor, this one features a quest led by Perseus (Sam Worthington), the half-god son of Zeus (Liam Neeson, of course), to defeat the evil schemes of Hades (Ralph Fiennes). Here, the gods are embroiled in a bitter feud over their own power and the fate of humanity, leading Hades to place Zeus in shackles and attempt to conquer all of the known world, which seemingly includes some concept of heaven and hell. Despite this, Hades laments that while humans have an afterlife to look forward to, as a god he and Zeus can only anticipate oblivion. So here we have this: gods who anticipate the afterlife for others, but not for themselves. Is that a distant cousin of atheism?

Perseus' team, which includes the human queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) and Agenor (Toby Kebbell), son of Poseidon (Danny Huston), travels across Greece in order to defeat Hades and restore balance to the Force, or humanity to earth, or something to that effect. I never was entirely sure what Perseus' party was doing at this place or with that person, but the why is clear, even as the how was a bit murky.

The film looks pretty good, as long as one doesn't blunder into a 3-D screening (note: if you can ever see a film in 2-D instead of 3-D, then do so). The action scenes typically involve elaborate fights where human-sized men and women plunge edged weapons into well-animated monsters, a formula that drew no complaints from me, even if it didn't generate enormous interest, either.

Of special note is a scene where the characters must navigate a labyrinthine prison in order to infiltrate the underworld, and a fiery beast at the end that can soak a battlefield with molten lava. These effects look great, and are directed just well enough by Jonathan Liebesman that one has a reasonable shot of knowing exactly what's going on.

The actors handle their roles as well as could be expected of one reciting expository dialogue about gods and monsters. Neeson and Fiennes starred together in “Schindler's List,” and one wonders, do they as actors enjoy this sort of work to that? Is a big budget movie with no brain more fun or even more challenging, or does it just remodel the kitchen? Something to think about when the characters are just talking about the plot.

“Wrath of the Titans” carries virtually none of the thematic weight of “The Hunger Games,” its primary American competition, nor does it possess that film's storytelling clarity. On the other hand, it does cost about twice as much, even though it entertains about half as much, which with this comparison, isn't a crippling fraction. At least it has its two scenes.

3 out of 5

Saturday, March 10, 2012

710 - Act of Valor review



When “Top Gun” was about to be released on video, the studio offered the Navy the chance to put a promotional advertisement at the start of the tape in exchange for credit towards the production. The offer was rejected, as it was noted that the film already functioned as a recruitment tool and that extra enticement to join the military was not required.

26 years later we have “Act of Valor,” another Hollywood film that doubles as a recruiting tool for the Navy, this one crafted from the ground up for that specific purpose. When an insolent teenage theater employee demanded my ID at the counter before selling me a ticket, I couldn’t help but find the R rating a bit ironic, as the vast majority of people likely to see such a film and then feel compelled to volunteer for military service are kids. Who else can watch a widow weep over her husband’s casket and think, hey, that can be my widow someday?

Despite its origin and status as an advertisement, “Act of Valor” contains scenes and moments of surprising honesty and excitement. In truth, Hollywood makes advertising films all the time, usually for left-wing social causes, but they rarely provide as entertaining of an experience as this one, about what’s theoretically a non-partisan concern to boot.

The plot sees a group of SEALs tracking a multi-ethnic jihadist group across continents as a nefarious (and perhaps even plausible) plot unfolds that one of its leaders promises will make 9/11 look like “a walk in the park.” The action scenes are aptly done, finding a spot at the nexus of combat that makes it loud, chaotic, and dangerous, yet with a certain clarity realized through the perspective of the combatants.

Certainly the film’s Navy SEALs, played by actual active duty warriors whose names are withheld, look at least as convincing as any actor during the action parts of their roles, which involve sneaking around terrorist compounds, kicking in doors, and shooting lots and lots of bad guys. Unfortunately, these are career SEALs, not actors (a career reality I doubt many in either profession regret), and the moments that don’t involve the more cinematic part of their duties seem stilted, to put it charitably. These heroic men can dole out death in ways unparalleled across the world, and certainly they have rightly earned more genuine admiration than the most glamorous movie star, but convincingly reading even simple dialogue proves harder than it looks. As a result, we wind up with a film nearly as sympathetic to the terrorists as to the SEALs, played by actual actors who are shockingly allowed to imbue their characters with a trifle of humanity.

It’s that kind of touch that leads to a mild endorsement, the unexpected flourishes of reality that adorn this very profitable advertisement. Just as the SEALs are people with families, the bad guys do too, and it’s those in one’s life, be they a child across continents or a fellow fighter, that fuels those involved. The kids might not be able to read in-between the lines, but adults usually can, and “Act of Valor” functions as a reminder that war, however thrilling it can appear to those uninvolved, can rob even its most skillful participants of life and limb.

3 out of 5

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

709 - Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance review



In “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” Nic Cage and his hairpiece return as Johnny Blaze, the Ghost Rider, a second tier Marvel Comics character whose fans revere by dint of his manufactured awesomeness. With his flaming skull head, his motorcycle spitting fire, and Satanic origin, Ghost Rider was one of the silliest characters in a silly medium, but in this sequel that status is used as a virtue. His preposterousness is shanghaied into a dose of skillfully absurd amusement.

Set in “Eastern Europe” and filmed in Romania and Turkey, “Ghost Rider 2” functions as both a comic book action film and a surprisingly effective homage. One could be forgiven for anticipating quasi-mindless fanboy fodder, and certainly it could be interpreted that way. Yet my own temptations to view it so kept being undercut by the competence of the manic filmmaking style, the gonzo enthusiasm that makes what could have been mundane into a searing blast of fun.

In this installment, Blaze has fled to Eastern Europe, where he and a biker priest (Idris Elba) find themselves the protector of a boy (Fergus Riordan) and his mother (Violante Placido), both pursued by the Devil (Ciaran Hinds) and an array of mercenaries and demonic hoodlums. The Ghost Rider’s powers seem to render him invincible, though the surprisingly straightforward use of grenades and explosives can throttle him back to the vulnerable mortal form. As one might guess, his exploits unfold through a series of chases and battles with the villains, which see Ghost Rider do a lot of incinerating and commandeering an array of vehicles, most amusingly when he turns a piece of mining machinery into an orange beast of death.

This is actually vastly superior filmmaking to “Captain America,” a washed out, meandering tribute to an era no one misses with a studiously designed to avoid offending the residents of German nursing homes. “Ghost Rider 2” successfully evokes the B-movie spirit that Quentin Tarantino failed at with his “Grindhouse” debacle, which served as a reminder that parody is often mistaken for homage. In this film, the handheld camera work, the desert highway chases, the occult-driven plot, all coalesce together as something sincere, a descendant of everything from “Mad Max” to 70s horror films. Granted, with its thin premise this never for a moment comes close to the poignancy and relevance of truly great comic book films such as “Spider-Man 2” or “The Dark Knight,” but even a decently sincere work such as this will always surpass a well-crafted fraud like “Captain America.”

Cage, who in his rush to suck up every dime not nailed down to alleviate his tax problems, marks his third B-movie with Christian theology as a driving force behind the plot. His volcanic eruption acting style seems thematically appropriate here as he plays a character that literally spits fire. Torment and frustration are what he does best, and I’d be hard-pressed to argue that he doesn’t belong here. Cage even gets a poignant moment where Blaze tells the boy that our darkness as humans can be used for good and need not define who we are, a bit of insightfulness that lends unexpected moral clarity to a narrative that many filmmakers would doubtlessly treat as a mindless excuse for fiery destruction.

“Ghost Rider 2” is directed by Neveldine/Taylor, a team of filmmakers not exactly known for their mannered, elegant work. Remember the “Crank” films, arguably the most offensive films to ever get a wide release? I sometimes wish I didn’t. Those movies managed to violate seemingly every convention of good taste and human decency. However, it stands to reason that in order to be so effective at insulting good sensibilities, an artist must possess them to begin with. Here their strange habits have a rare effect, infusing what would normally be an inert franchise movie with something it badly needs: a soul.

3.5 out of 5

Sunday, February 26, 2012

708

Oscar time again, and I've got predictions. They can be found over at Big Hollywood. I'm leaning towards a sweep for "The Artist."