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Thursday, April 19, 2012

21 Jump Street
 

             "21 Jump Street" is a combination of three genres that have been done to death lately: the Bumbling Cop Movie, the Big Screen Version of an Old TV Show, and the Foul-Mouthed Sex and Drug Comedy. Like most Bumbling Cop Movies, there are several scenes where the main characters expect something cool to happen like it would in a movie, and the results are less than spectacular. This device was clever once, now it's tired. Like most Big Screen Versions of Old TV Shows, the characters make tongue-in-cheek comments about how the lameness of movies based on TV shows. These comments aren't half as clever and are twice as tired as the movie thinks they are. Like most Foul-Mouthed Sex and Drug Comedies, there's a lot of foul language and sex and drug humor. Sorry to not elaborate, but I have to spare the dirtier details. In this case the humor is at least somewhat clever and not quite as tired, so it's here where the film finds the most success.

            Schmidt (Jonah Hill) is an awkward egghead who was miserable in high school. Jenko (Channing Tatum) is a dumb beefcake who was popular in high school but whose life has gone nowhere since. After seven years, both meet up again as they train to become police officers. They help each other to qualify, but neither is mature enough to serve properly. Fortunately, there is an undercover program that needs immature officers. Their captain (a scene-stealing Ice Cube) sends them to take down a drug ring in a place that got the better of both of them, high school.

            There's a running gag throughout the film that Jenko and Schmidt look like they're too old to be high schoolers. Actually, the actors are too old even for the characters they're playing. Hill is 29, Tatum is 32. The characters are supposed to be 25 and I just don't buy it. The film further pollutes its own timeline by thinking that high schoolers in 2005 would be obsessed with Eminem and "The Real Slim Shady". That song came out in 2000, five years later it was a fossil.

            The film doesn't have much original to say as a cop movie, buddy movie, or high school movie. I will concede that it does do something interesting as a TV adaptation when we find out late in the film that it is actually a sequel to the TV series and not a remake. And yes, the film has a cameo from THAT star of the original series. To that point I will add that before the film there is a trailer for the actor's next film, another Big Screen Version of an Old TV Show in "Dark Shadows". The film looks horrible and the trailer received boos and insults from the crowd at the screening I attended.

            "21 Jump Street" gets a pass from me because of its humor, an immature brand that I nonetheless found pretty funny. As embarrassed as I am to admit it, my favorite parts of the film involved drug trips, the best gag being Jenko's performance in a science class following intake. But there are mounds of other R-rated comedies I can recommend, including 2007's "Superbad" which is a much better movie where Jonah Hill also plays a high schooler. Then again, "Superbad" isn't playing at the theater this weekend. There are worse ways to spend two hours than with a group of friends and a rowdy crowd watching a raunchy comedy like this and laughing at its idiocy together.


Two Stars out of Five.

3:56 pm edt 

John Carter
 

          I feel sorry for Mars. It's been at the center of so many bad movies over the past decade or so. 2000 saw a pair of immense disappointments in "Mission to Mars" and "Red Planet". There was an animated flop last year called "Mars Needs Moms". It was also the setting for the most boring parts of "Watchmen". Now it's the setting for "John Carter" a film whose box office performance is already a punchline.

             Perhaps the marketing people knew that Mars is box office poison, that's why they made the last minute decision to change the film's title from "John Carter of Mars" to just "John Carter". Now all that people can tell about the film from its title is the name of the main character. I've also noticed that a lot of people confuse this name with John Conner, and mistakenly think that the film is part of the "Terminator" franchise. I guess the film is grateful to have this audience because it needs all the help it can get.

            In the film, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a loser Civil War veteran on a quest for a cave of gold. The cave turns out to be a portal to Mars, where the local creatures don't know what to make of him. The species does its best to stay out of a war between the planet's humans, even though the evil side will probably go after them once they've eliminated the good. The only person who can return Carter to Earth is Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) of the good humans, who is set to marry the leader of the bad guys in a sham wedding. Carter is forced to step up to protect "people" he barely knows, yet have so much to teach him about himself.

               Perhaps the biggest flaw of the film is its reliance on made-up words. The locals refer to the planet as "Barsoom" instead of Mars, the characters themselves have strange names, and there are plenty of unique terms for places and objects. The confusing language makes the action hard to follow and the whole film unnecessarily complicated. By the way, I didn't have this problem last week when I saw the movie based on a Dr. Seuss book, and he's best known for using made-up words. Another confusing aspect of the film is that the characters from the main alien species all look alike. And I mean all of them - the males are indistinguishable from the females.

               The film does one thing right, and it quickly squanders the opportunity. When he first arrives on Mars, Carter has trouble adjusting to the planet's gravity. There's a funny sequence where he repeatedly flops, floats, soars, and crash-lands. But all too soon he gets the hang of walking and stays pretty much on his feet for the rest of the film, save for a few scenes where he's required to jump high. Imagine the possibilities if he struggled with gravity for the whole film. It would be funny to see him try to carry on a standard conversation while involuntarily doing flips in midair.

               I think the main thing that makes "John Carter" uninteresting is that we don't get a feel for any of the cultures on Mars. We're told which characters we're supposed to root for, but we don't know exactly what makes them the good guys. Even if we did, we wouldn't care because we wouldn't remember their names. Except for John Carter of course, that name is easy to remember. We'll all remember the name of "John Carter", one of the lousiest films of the year.


One and a Half Stars out of Five.
3:55 pm edt 

The Lorax
 

            "The Lorax" reminds me of how much I love animated movies and of how often I love animated movies. Roughly two out of three animated films are better than the majority of live-action films that I see in a given year. Maybe it's because animated films allow filmmakers to do things that they can't do with live-action. Maybe it's because animated films are so hard to make that everybody puts in extra effort. Maybe I just enjoy humor aimed at kids more than I'd care to admit. "The Lorax" is yet another fine animated film that I mostly found to be cute, creative, and clever.

            The film is based on a book by Dr. Seuss. Actually, only about half the film is based on the book, the other half is an original storyline. Seuss's books are short, filmmakers need to fill in some gaps. The part from the book concerns The Once-ler (Ed Helms), an optimistic young go-getter who dreams of marketing his invention, a glorified fabric swatch called a Thneed. The problem is that Thneeds can only be made by damaging the local population of Truffula trees. This angers The Lorax (Danny Devito), mystical spokesperson for all things nature. But The Once-ler ignores The Lorax and his carelessness leads to ruin for everybody.

            The newer part takes place several years later and centers around young Ted (Zac Efron). Ted lives in Thneedville, a town where everything is artificial and unhealthy. Even the air supply is controlled by evil tycoon Aloysius O'Haire (Rob Riggle). Ted wants to impress his dream girl Audrey (Taylor Swift) who loves the seemingly extinct Truffula trees. His grandmother (Betty White, who even in a voice-only performance is a complete scene-stealer) advises him to talk to the Once-ler, now an old hermit living in exile. The Once-ler has a lot to teach Ted that he himself didn't learn from The Lorax until it was too late.

            It's hard not to love the cuteness of the film. Before the Once-ler destroys their habitat, the forest is populated by all manner of adorable little creatures. My favorites were walking singing fish with a cuddly bear species a close runner up. Just about everything they do is cute and funny. I laughed harder at these scenes than anything else I've seen recently. The human-related humor isn't bad either, but the animals get a reaction out of me simply for existing.

            The major weakness of the film is the way it presents its environmental message. It's bad enough that chopping down trees is portrayed as a villainous act (the book faced the same controversy), but people who use artificial products are portrayed as ignorant sheep. The film would have you believe that the entire world is a few generations away from completely overlooking the environment. There are undoubtedly benefits to going green, but the film unfairly makes it seem like not doing so will contribute to the devastation of all the cutest species of animals. A person making lifestyle changes because of "The Lorax" is like them becoming a vegetarian because they watched "Babe". It's a respectable decision, but is it good that it's done because of a movie that is blatantly fictitious?

            "The Lorax" really hits you over the head with this message, especially toward the end. It does taint the otherwise wonderful film, but it doesn't ruin it. Just go into it knowing that it's going to try to send you on a guilt trip about yourself and your habits. If you can condition yourself to not be bothered by the one uncomfortable element, then you can enjoy the majority of "The Lorax" as much as I did.


Three Stars out of Five.

3:52 pm edt 

Act of Valor

Perhaps the biggest selling point for “Act of Valor” is that its principal cast is made up of active-
duty Navy SEALs instead of traditional actors. I certainly don’t mind the decision to use real-life heroes
for this or any other film, but I do mind that this is the first thing that the ads like to put forward. It’s as if
the film is anticipating criticism over bad acting and is trying to guilt everybody into not expressing these
opinions. For the record I have no problem with the acting in the film, maybe it’s a little stiff at times, but
even with traditional actors I would chalk it up to SEAL discipline. The real problem with the film is that
it doesn’t develop its characters and even with extended sequences of explosions and shooting doesn’t
give them anything terribly interesting to do.

There are a few moments where the SEAL squad hangs out on a beach before they deploy. Rorke
has several kids. Dave has one on the way. The others get even less backstory. Soon the team is sent to
rescue a CIA agent (Roselyn Sanchez) who was onto something big and is now being tortured. They
uncover a plot to attack the United States with a new kind of exploding vest. Firefights and plenty of
explosions ensue. And one member of the team performs the ultimate Act of Valor. There isn’t much in
the way of plot. I guess when the villains are terrorists there isn’t a lot of explanation needed for why they
need to be stopped.

This is the kind of film that likes to show off as many elements of SEAL-related excitement as it
can. There’s actually more air than water involved, the only watercraft that really come into play are
rinky-dink fan boats used during the rescue. The most impressive sequence of the film involves
skydiving, the kind of sequence where I feel sorry for the camera operators who have to do their jobs
while plummeting 30,000 feet. I once got fed up trying to film the local Cinema Center building from the
passenger seat of a car. Needless to say the guys who do that in midair are immensely talented.

The film has a unique feature to its cast even more unusual than the fact that they’re real Navy
SEALs. With the exception of the bad guys and Roselyn Sanchez, the lead actors are anonymous. Usually
when I say “anonymous” I mean that they were virtual unknowns who have now gotten their big break
and are now going on to bigger and better things. But this time when I say “anonymous” I mean that the
film refuses to divulge who they are. Whether this is because of security reasons or something to do with
humility I do not know. But imagine getting a starring role in a multimillion dollar film and not even
having your name appear in the credits.

I’m told that “Act of Valor” started life as a recruitment film and I believe that. If it were a
recruitment film, it would promise the excitement of guns, explosions, saving the country from terrorists,
and rescuing beautiful women. It’s also a good explanation for why the characters are such blank slates.
Potential recruits would need to picture themselves in the shoes of the characters and giving them too
many traits would make them less relatable. But some of the more tumultuous moments of “Act of Valor”
make it unsuitable as a recruitment film, so it’s just passing itself off as straightforward entertainment, a
level where it also doesn’t fit. There’s no denying that everybody behind “Act of Valor” had their heart in
the right place, but the film can’t seem to make up its mind if it wants to appeal to military prospects or
action fans.

Two Stars out of Five.

3:46 pm edt 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
 

            I got some complaints a few weeks ago over my review of "Underworld: Awakening". The film was the fourth in a franchise, and I mentioned that I hadn't seen the previous three. I then proceeded to trash the film, and it remains my frontrunner for Worst of the Year. A few "Underworld" fans contacted me to say that I wasn't giving the film a chance, that I was joining the series in progress without the proper preparation. They had a point, maybe familiarity with the franchise would have led to a better understanding of the most recent installment. I vowed to do better next time.

            "Next time" was this past weekend with the release of "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance". Once again, I was about to go see a sequel without being acquainted with the original. So I did some scrambling and watched the 2007 predecessor on Thursday before catching the new release on Friday. What I accomplished was wasting a perfectly good Thursday night in addition to Friday.

            In the films, Nicholas Cage plays motorcycle stuntman Johnny Blaze. The Devil has endowed him with superpowers, including the ability to light things on fire, suck out souls, and do really dangerous things with motorcycles. When he's using his powers, Johnny's head morphs into a flaming skull. Both films are surprisingly dull despite these awesome elements

            The only good the first film did for me was explain how Johnny got the powers of the Rider from the Devil. He traded his soul for his father's life, which the Devil took anyway on a technicality. The Devil then had the right to use Johnny as his servant, tasking him with collecting evil souls. Johnny has since broken free of the devil's control, and is now trying to stop him at all costs.

             The plot for the sequel involves the Devil (now played by Ciaran Hinds instead of Peter Fonda from the original) trying to take over the body of his son (Fergus Reardon), a boy of about ten who isn't ready to do evil. Johnny initially tries to rescue the boy for selfish purposes, but takes a shine to him and then does so for the right reasons. He is aided by Moreau (Idris Elba), a drunken monk more interesting and worthy of his own movie than Johnny.

             The special effects are a little better this time around. There's a decent sequence where Johnny's face tries to morph into the flaming skull, but keeps getting only about halfway there. Aside from that, I don't have too many compliments. Cage's hammy performance is still a distraction and the story moves along at a snail's pace. One specific problem I had was that I could never tell if Johnny was doing his soul-sucking schtick or not. Come to think of it, I don't remember him actually doing it once in the entire movie.

             The close proximity with which I saw the two films affords me the opportunity to evaluate "Ghost Rider" as a franchise. Simply put, it doesn't deserve to be one. At least not with Nicholas Cage and the sloppy action sequences. There's probably a good movie to have with the character, but we haven't gotten it after two tries. At least you can have some fun going to the theater for "Spirit of Vengeance", but to watch the original "Ghost Rider" at home is to waste your valuable time alone.


One and a Half Stars out of Five.

3:40 pm edt 

The Vow
 

            Here's the requisite mushy romance movie for Valentine's season 2012. It is a relatively inoffensive movie that is designed to be seen by couples who cannot agree on anything better to do with their time. I can see where it would be fun to go see the film on a Valentine's date. It isn't a good movie, but a couple could enjoy themselves jointly mocking the film for being so sappy.

            The film stars Rachel McAdams as Paige and Channing Tatum as Leo. Paige is sweet and smart, Leo is an adorable lunkhead. They spend the first segment of the film in puppy love, the gaggiest part of which is a care package Leo sends Paige during a miserable day at work. They get married and are all ready to live happily ever after. They're even considering a baby. But a catastrophic car accident changes everything. Leo is relatively unharmed, Paige wasn't wearing her seat belt and isn't so lucky. After a brief coma, she wakes up with a devastating case of amnesia.

            It was easy for Leo to handle Paige's trials through the accident and the coma (he did, after all, make a Vow when he married her), but he's not prepared to handle the amnesia. Actually with Leo he's just not prepared to have the more competent mind in the relationship. Then again, Paige's condition would throw anyone for a loop. The last few years of her memory have been wiped out. She doesn't remember anything about Leo including the fact that she's married to him. Nor does she remember her decision to drop out of law school and become an artist. She thinks she still has a strong relationship with her estranged parents (Jessica Lange and Sam Neill). And perhaps worst of all, she doesn't remember breaking up with her slimy ex-boyfriend (Scott Speedman) and there might still be a bit of a flame there.

            Leo does what he can to overcome this new obstacle. Inadvisably he throws a huge party for Paige as soon as she arrives home under the assumption that she'll remember one of her friends and everything will come rushing back at once. She just gets more confused and frustrated. Over the next few days he makes every attempt to jog her memory to no avail. To make matters worse, all the cute things he used to do for her are no longer endearing. As it becomes clear that Paige's memory isn't coming back, Leo feels more distant from the woman he loves. He realizes that he's going to have to make her fall in love with him all over again.

            The film will be best remembered for its endless scenes of cutesy romantic behavior. I think its goal is to elicit more "Awwww"s than a puppy petting zoo. From the initial flirting to the wedding to Leo's attempts to win Paige back, the film is filled with loving gestures that many will find charming but more will find nauseating. Before seeing the film, ask yourself this: do you like the "Twilight" movies but wish Edward was a little more lovey-dovey?

            All the affection isn't really a problem for me since "The Vow" is clearly determined to have as much as possible. But the film could have done with a lot more work as far as character development. Paige's ups and downs are reasonably compelling, but the same cannot be said for other characters. Her father, for example, remains an overprotective snob throughout the entire movie. And I would have felt more sympathetic toward Leo if I could see him as anything more than a total bonehead. All in all "The Vow" is a harmless date movie, but nothing more. I doubt that it even wants to be anything more.


Two Stars out of Five.

3:36 pm edt 

Chronicle review
 

          I typically choose my movie for the week by guessing which one will do the most business. Every now and then I get it wrong. Last year I wrote a review of the miserable "Sanctum" instead of "The Roommate", which did much better. I made a similar mistake this past weekend, but I caught it just in time. I thought that the star power of Daniel Radcliffe would carry "The Woman in Black" to the #1 spot at the weekend box office. I saw the lemon on Friday and spent the better part of the day Saturday wondering how I could stretch "not that scary" into a full-length article. While procrastinating, I caught a tidbit on an entertainment website saying that it was actually "Chronicle" that had the biggest audience Friday night. I scrambled to make it to an 11pm showing. My reward was one of the best and most original films I've seen in a good long while.

            The film is comprised of found footage, a filming style usually reserved for horror films like "The Blair Witch Project" and "Paranormal Activity". It's a refreshing change of pace to see it used in a sci-fi action movie like this. In a few weeks we'll get "Project X" a film that applies the found footage style to raunchy comedy. The style is either going to have a bright future or get old quickly. For now I like it, it gives the film a feeling of unforgiving thoroughness and accuracy.

            The main character of the film is Andrew (Dane DeHaan), an awkward teenager who gets bullied both at school and at home. His only friend is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) who seems to only stick with him out of family obligation. He buys a camera to document his life, which is just one more thing that makes everybody think he's a weirdo. But it turns out to be useful in making a connection with popular kid Steve (Michael B. Jordan). Steve has found a mysterious crater in the woods, and wants Matt and Andrew with his camera to explore it with him. The three find themselves in an underground cave where they happen upon an alien edifice. Next thing they know they're somehow out of the cave and they've developed telekinetic superpowers.

            The characters are teenagers, so of course they initially use their powers for immature things. They play pranks, wow their friends at the school talent show, and of course, pick up girls. Andrew makes his camera float, which means that he doesn't always have to be out of the picture while filming. The group also discovers that they can fly and go soaring above the clouds until pesky airplanes interfere. The sequences of them flying for the first time are the most memorable of the film, but the other scenes where they have fun exploiting their powers could use some trimming.

            Things turn dark when Andrew realizes that he can use his powers to dominate others. He gets back at people who have bullied him, robs and mugs others, and even commits a murder. Soon he's a monster, spreading terror throughout metropolitan Seattle including a midair battle with Matt at the tip of the Space Needle. Andrew makes for a very compelling villain, especially since we're able to follow him from his bleak beginnings.

            "Chronicle" is nothing less than a highly enjoyable film. It does some things that I've never seen before and now am glad to have experienced. The film is in not yet part of a franchise, but I imagine we'll get at least one sequel where we find out more about the extraterrestrial entity that allows the characters to have powers. It's a bit scary to think that I nearly missed out on "Chronicle" but the fact that it was a pleasant surprise makes it all the more special.


Three and a Half Stars out of Five.

3:34 pm edt 

The Grey review
 

            I've spent the last few weeks complaining about the lame release slate in January and February. These months are regarded as a dumping ground for weak new movies that would never survive in a busier movie season like summer or the holidays. That said, I did think we might be in for a rare bright spot in "They Grey". It's an ugly movie about wilderness survival, and I figured a movie like that is a tough sell at any time of year. It may as well come out in January where the star power of Liam Neeson can let win a weekend where people are desperate for anything halfway decent. I thought that maybe it was a good movie that was simply short on marketing potential. Alas, my optimistic theory proved fruitless. "The Grey" is both unappealing and uncompelling.

            Neeson stars as a mopey wolf expert for an oil company in Alaska. His job is to shoot any wolves that are making a beeline for the workers. After a last-minute decision not to commit suicide, he joins the others on a plane headed back to wherever they call home. The plane goes down. Now Neeson and a small group of fellow survivors are stranded in the middle of nowhere and the nearby wolves feel threatened by their "invasion". With only crude spears for armament, the group tries to make it to safety with full knowledge that they themselves are being hunted.

            The wolves are fearsome enemies, but it's hard to take the "man vs. nature" theme seriously when they behave like typical horror movie slashers. That is to say that they strike only when the plot decides that we haven't seen a wolf attack for a while, and it's always during an otherwise quiet scene so the movie can give us a cheap scare. On the upside, I don't have to question their motives for attacking like I did with the werewolves from "Underworld" last week. "Scared and hungry" is a simple explanation, but a sufficient one when the characters aren't supposed to be super-intelligent.

            As for the humans, their story isn't terribly interesting. Neeson is good for a halfway decent performance as always (the best scene of the movie is one where he talks a fatally-wounded passenger through his final moments), but his fellow survivors are way short on personality. It's hard to see them as anything more than inevitable victims. One element I found interesting but depressing is that there's very little talk of getting rescued or going back to their lives. It's as if they're all staying alive for the sake of staying alive. The film tries to be deep about it, asking us to ponder issues such as life and its purpose. My simple answer is that nobody wants to end up as a frozen corpse or wolf food.

            "The Grey" is at least a competent film, which is more than I can say about many of the films released in January and February. But it is by nature an unpleasant film, the kind that only works if it's extraordinarily well done and compels you to brave its subject matter. It instead has a moderate quality that is a notch above everything else that's been released recently, but by itself isn't terribly entertaining.

            There is still hope of getting some good movies this season. The Academy Award nominations were announced this past week and both "The Artist" and "The Descendants" did very well. They should be getting wide releases soon and then you can treat yourself to two of 2011's most exceptional films.


Two Stars out of Five.

3:33 pm edt 

Underworld: Awakening review

           Last week in my review of the lousy "Contraband", I wrote that January and February generally consist of a miserable slate of new releases. The principle is that if a movie were any good, it would be released in the summer or near a holiday where it could get a ton of business. Though it will dominate the weekend box office because there isn't another franchise piece in sight, "Underworld: Awakening" is indeed a miserable new release. The film is so bad that the season could include three decent new releases and I would still consider it a dumping ground because it contained this one.

            By my own admission, it doesn't help that I'm just now entering the franchise. I have not seen the previous three entries (which came out in 2003, 2006, and 2009 respectively) which may explain why I can't make sense of plot of this most recent installment. To its credit, he film actually does make a valiant effort to catch me up with a nifty little prologue. I understood that Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a 600-year-old human who fights on the side of vampires in their war against the werewolves. I understood that the vampire elders betrayed Selene, which is why she's less then welcome when she visits a vampire coven midway through the film. I even understood her relationship with a vampire/werewolf hybrid that produced the hybrid daughter she has in the film. But I did not understand Selene's need to kill everything in sight, and for that I found the film to be pointlessly violent.

            As the film opens, humans are trying to wipe out both vampires and werewolves. A scientist (Stephen Rea) promises hope, although I'm not sure what he's trying to cure exactly. Selene and her lover are trying to get out of the city, but in a crazy mix-up she gets cryogenically frozen for over a decade. Selene awakens to find that both vampires and werewolves are nearly extinct and she has a hybrid daughter whose DNA can be used to repopulate either race. Despite the betrayals in her past, Selene is still most loyal to the vampires, which makes the werewolves the bad guys. Selene cannot let the werewolves or the human scientist (who has nefarious purposes of his own) get ahold of the daughter. And she kills hoards of people to make sure of it.

            It was just last week in "Contraband" that I watched Kate Beckinsale take a discomforting amount of abuse. I should find it enjoyable that this week I get to see her dish it out. The problem is that the character she plays is so poorly constructed that I couldn't even cheer for her. I just didn't get the sense that half the people she kills needed killing. I honestly felt that some of the conflicts she finds herself in could be solved by talking and trying to make sense of the situation. But no, she needs to go right to the fancy knifework. It should also be noted that the film is so dark and ugly that the action is hard to follow. We don't even get too many good looks of Beckinsale in her skintight black suit, which is supposed to be one of the film's major selling points.

            "Underworld: Awakening" is a mess, pure and simple. The only reason to see it is if you absolutely have to see the movie that everybody else will unfortunately be seeing. We've still got a lot of this sloggy season to get through, hopefully "The Artist" and "The Descendants" will get wide releases in the coming weeks and then you can treat yourself to two of the best films of 2011.


One and a Half Stars out of Five.

3:31 pm edt 

Contraband review
 

            The first few months of the year are traditionally the worst as far as getting decent new movies. Mega-blockbusters usually open in the summer or around the holidays. Lately the release slates in March and April have been gaining steam as well. But January and February are still regarded as a dumping ground for lame movies that the studios know would get crushed by the competition in a better season. Speaking of lame movies that would never survive against real competition, Mark Wahlberg has a new movie out called "Contraband". You can probably guess from the trailer that it got dumped in January because it's a piece of junk, the film itself spends 110 minutes confirming that theory. 

            Wahlberg stars as Chris Farraday, an ex-smuggler who's been successfully legit for a few years now. He is currently enjoying a domestic life with his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and his two kids. He still hangs out with a buddy from his smuggling days (Ben Foster), and he looks to be about ready to straighten up soon. Trouble arises when his brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) botches an important run for the malicious Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). Andy now owes Briggs $700,000, which means that the whole family owes Briggs $700,000. Andy's not too bright, so it's up to Chris to save the day. His old friend has plenty of smuggling work available, so Chris just has to pull one last job.

            The job requires that Chris take a job on a boat working for an unpleasant captain (J.K. Simmons). In order for his plan to work, he has to do some minor sabotaging of the boat. The film overestimates how much its viewers understand the mechanical workings of such a boat, especially when it comes to its fuel system. I was completely lost during these scenes. I wish Chris had just made everyone worry about a hole or something. I know holes are bad for boats.

            The film tries to build suspense with the smuggling job itself. The problem with doing this is that you know Chris is going to have to make it home because that's where the bad guys are and they need to be dealt with. There is one scary part where he gets on the wrong side of a Panamanian crime boss (Diego Luna), who is too psychotic to make a good criminal, but unpredictable enough to be a threat. But mostly this chunk of the film is just dull trickery that's been done to death in death in the "Ocean's" movies. 

            The element that people are going to remember most about "Contraband" is the amount of abuse taken by Kate, the wife. Briggs wants his money, and he doesn't much care that Chris is out of town getting it. He gives her some unforgiveable "warnings". She suffers even more violence at the hands of another villain. I seriously question the logic on the part of the characters (it makes Chris less likely to atone and more likely to get back at them) and I question the logic of having these types of scenes in the film at all. Nobody's questioning the stakes, including disturbing scenes to reestablish them is unnecessary and it takes away from the spirited attitude that the film wants to have. 

            All the new releases in January and February are going to be about as worthless as "Contraband". But the season does have an upside and that's the wider expansion of Academy Awards nominees. You'll probably have a chance to see "The Artist" and "The Descendants" in the coming weeks, I suggest you do so. I'm hoping that the films are popular enough to justify articles and then I can write two of my most positive reviews of the year.   


One and a Half Stars out of Five.

3:29 pm edt 

War Horse review
 

            For the past few months I've jokingly referred to Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" as "Oscar, Please". I've had this mental picture of Spielberg submitting a canister of film to a low-level Academy employee and then arrogantly outstretching his hand expecting to receive an award. 

            The reason I think this way is that the film incorporates a lot of elements that typically lead to a good showing in Oscar voting. The film has shots of English countryside, harrowing war scenes, tales of triumph, European accents, a swelling score by John Williams, lovely evening lighting in the final scene, and of course a horse that you can't help but love. Spielberg combines all of these elements marvelously, but the sheer quantity of the elements makes it seem like he's pandering to Academy members. That said, Academy members have good taste and if you have good taste you'll probably find a lot to like about "War Horse". 

            The horse is purchased early in the film by a drunken but good-natured farmer (Peter Mullan) who risks his family's farm buying a beautiful horse instead of a practical one that can pull a plow. His son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) has an immediate rapport with the horse, who he names Joey. I couldn't be sure, but I think there might be something off about Albert as far as his mental faculties. That's another one of those awards-bait elements right there. With rent due and the landlord's patience running out, Albert must get Joey to plow a key field. Against all odds the team succeeds and they become inseparable. But then they're separated. The father needs more money after all and the British army needs horses for World War I. Joey is sold and goes to war. 

            Joey sees the war from both sides as he's passed around from one owner to another. He starts out with a hotshot British captain (Tom Hiddleston), then is captured by Germans and put in the care of two teenagers who try to desert, then is found and by a girl and her grandfather on a farm in France, then is taken by Germans to pull artillery, then escapes and becomes trapped in the middle of a battlefield during a tense standoff between armies. Joey is very lucky in all his adventures as it seems there's always some horse-lover nearby to stick up for him just as he's about to be shot. Albert meanwhile joins the army hoping to track Joey down and goes through some wartime adventures of his own. 

            The battle scenes are very well done, capturing the horrors of war while not making the film inappropriate for a PG-13 audience. And the plow scene at the beginning is an inspiration to us all. But the film's best scene is the one where poor Joey is trapped in the middle of the battlefield as soldiers from both sides empathize with his struggle. The characters' actions in this scene are very low-key, but the tensions are very high. The scene proves that Spielberg is a great filmmaker even when he's not handling a flashy blockbuster.

            "War Horse" is Steven Spielberg's best film in a while. I like him more when he does serious films like this one. I believe 2005's "Munich" was his last great one. He's been dropping the ball lately on his "fun adventure" movies like the alien-heavy fourth "Indiana Jones" installment and the dull big screen adaptation of "Tintin". I was afraid that "War Horse" would be a beautiful but uncompelling film, and I'm glad that it turned out those fears were unfounded. 


Three and a Half Stars out of Five.
3:27 pm edt 

Girl With the Dragon Tattoo review

           Going into "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", I felt confident that the film was going to play a major role in this year's Best Picture Oscar race. It's directed by David Fincher hot off "The Social Network" (and reuniting him with actress Rooney Mara and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross among others), it opened at the height of awards season, and it's based on a bestselling crime thriller by Stieg Larsson that I hadn't read, but I knew was very popular. Had I known the exact nature of the subject matter in the book and now the film, I never would have declared it an Oscar frontrunner. 

            Daniel Craig stars as Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced investigative journalist. He's hired by mysterious millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the decades-old "murder" of his niece at the hands of someone in his own family. Blomkvist begins questioning family members, who mainly tell stories of how much they hate the other family members. The only likeable member is Henrik's nephew Martin (Stellan Skarsgard), so you know he has to be hiding something. Blomkvist decides that he needs someone to assist him and he chooses the person who was hired by Henrik to investigate him to make sure he was right for the investigation. Her name is Lisbeth Salander (Mara) and she is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

            Lisbeth is supposed to be a terribly interesting character, and to listen to a description she is indeed interesting. She's tricked out her face and body with piercings and accessories, she's a brilliant hacker and detective who puts Blomkvist to shame, she turns psychotically violent at a moment's notice, and she tosses aside all sorts of social and sexual boundaries. And yet for some reason the character is portrayed as wooden, wooden, wooden. Her dialogue is always either a regurgitation of information or bored bragging about how effortlessly she's done something complex and intricate. I know that the explanation is that she's been through a lot in her life and she's emotionally repressed, but she's like a robot. A kinky robot that perverts can't wait for scientists to invent, but a robot nonetheless. 

            The film is heavy on violent and sexual content, and it's often both at once. There is a rape scene, but it's an R-rated rape scene as opposed to an NC-17. It's the kind of scene where you're very aware that the film is trying to hide just enough to avoid further censorship. It has a dishonest feel to it. It is followed by a much more gratifying revenge scene against the rapist. Elsewhere there is a detailed description of a rape and murder spree. The crimes are described with such an array of disgusting details that Stieg Larsson must have gone through quite the writing exercise to come up with it all. The film's climax is a torture scene where the villain goes on an increasingly crazy monologue about his shocking exploits. Daniel Craig may not be James Bond in this movie, but he still has to endure boasting from an overconfident villain. The scene goes on so long that it starts to seem silly.

            "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is a grisly movie that feels unrewarding because of its vileness. It works well on many artistic levels, it's well shot and edited and there's an awesome title sequence on par with the best James Bond films. I wouldn't even call it a bad movie, just one that I have no desire to revisit. I feel dirty having seen it, but I feel dirtier that millions of people are going to see the movie and read the book without knowing what they're in for.  Prepare to be disturbed. 


Two and a Half Stars out of Five

3:25 pm edt 

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
 

             Last week I wondered if we really needed "Sherlock Holmes" at the movies when we already have "House" on TV. This week I question the necessity of a fourth "Mission Impossible" movie when we already have 22 James Bond movies with a 23rd on its way next year. Bond and Ethan Hunt are both super-competent spies with an array of neat gadgets at their disposal. Not to mention that they both have trademark opening sequences and iconic theme music that follows them everywhere. But Hunt as a character doesn't have as many distinctive traits as Bond, and it makes the whole franchise come off as derivative and unoriginal. That's the bad news. The good news is that "Ghost Protocol", is arguably the best installment of the inferior franchise. 


           Tom Cruise stars once again as Hunt, his celebrity smile somehow always showing even when the scene doesn't require it. Other members of his team include Paula Patton as the requisite tough beauty, Simon Pegg as the comic relief computer nerd, and Jeremy Renner as a dull analyst who gets sucked into the action. It's a lightweight team, with two members who are rookies, one who's rusty, and two who spend most of the time beating themselves up over past failures. I think there should be at least one member who looks somewhat dangerous. It's a shame previous cast member Ving Rhames pretty much sits this one out, he would have worked well as a fifth member or as a better choice than Pegg for a fourth. 


           The plot is some mumbo-jumbo with Russian nuclear launch codes. The team first has to break Ethan out of a Russian prison, then they undertake a mission in the Kremlin which gets botched. The team is disavowed (just as Ethan's overseers are always threatening to do) and they have to carry out the rest of their mission with only a traincar full of supplies.  It would have been a more interesting challenge if they didn't have an entire traincar, but they need to keep all the spy toys somewhere.  Then they have to manipulate some bad guys in the world's tallest building and then get vital information from the host of a fancy party. It's practically a requirement with spy movies that the characters go undercover at a fancy party.


           The scenes at the Kremlin and the high-rise are the film's strong points. At the Kremlin the team uses a hologram to sneak down a hallway in an impressive sequence. The tower sees a tense series of negotiations, a super-sexy catfight, and Ethan having to climb the side of the building twice, once using adhesive gloves of dubious functionality and again improvising with a poorly chosen rope. I hate heights, but I love those scenes. The film's weak points are its predictable second half and its poor choice of villain (Michael Nyqvist), probably the most uninspired antagonist of the year.  The climactic fight scene in one of those car vending machines is sort of a draw, the action isn't terribly original, but it gets points for its unique location. 


           "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" goes along quite nicely for a while, but loses its way after the tower scene. Director Brad Bird is best known for animated work, which perhaps explain why the film has impressive visual sequences but is lacking in its script. It's an agreeable enough action movie, some decent eye candy for the holiday season. I still don't have the same loyalty to the "Mission Impossible" franchise that I do for James Bond, and because of that I see "Ghost Protocol" as little more than a warm-up for next year's "Skyfall". 


Two and a Half Stars out of Five
3:21 pm edt 


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