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21 & Over (2013)
It's Exactly What You Expect
"From the writers of 'The Hangover'" comes "21 and Over," another comedy about people getting really drunk and then having a bunch of crude and insane things happen to them. The difference here is that the three leads are not trying to find their buddy; they're instead trying to find their buddy's house. Oh, and the buddy whose house they're trying to find has passed out and has to be carried from place to place as the circumstances around them continue to get more dire.
Let's back up a bit. It's Jeff Chang's (Justin Chon) 21st birthday. He's a pre-med student who has a big interview the next morning. His best friends, Miller (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin), have come to his apartment to surprise him and take him out for drinks, as is the American custom. Upon learning that the biggest interview of his life is the next day, Casey does the responsible thing and says that those plans can be postponed. Miller threatens to keep Jeff Chang up all night if he doesn't come out. "One drink," we're told. Like that's going to happen.
We don't even see Jeff Chang resist the party once it starts. He's loaded by the time we've zoomed forward in time, and only gets worse over the montage depicting the group's bar-hopping. Eventually, he's passed out and time is running out to get him home and to bed. The other two friends are from out of town -- they've all separated once college started, I guess -- so they don't know their way around. They spend nearly the rest of the film attempting to get him into bed before 7AM.
Doesn't this sound familiar? Three guys trolling around a certain location in hopes of finding something, or someone? While doing so, they find themselves in a bunch of "I can't believe it" situations, while also learning things about the others that perhaps should have been better left a secret. When Casey and Miller find a gun in Jeff Chang's pocket, and later learn that he was arrested by the police, we have a mystery on our hands. One whose conclusion is mishandled so badly that I thought there must have been an alternate ending.
It feels too similar, I suppose. We've seen movies that contain situations more shocking than this. When a guy gets run over by a buffalo -- which we don't actually get to see, by the way, because the camera cuts to black before impact -- that winds up being one of the more "crazy" points of the film. Sure, a couple of other moments are funny at the time, if only because at least one of the guys -- Casey -- doesn't seem like he deserved to be put through them, but they're kind of bland for the genre.
There are a few running gags scattered throughout -- always calling Jeff Chang by his full name being one of them -- but most of the humor in "21 and Over" comes from the situations themselves. That can work for some people. Many of you might find a lot of the film funny. It wasn't for me. Watching stupid people act pretty stupid and have bad things happen to them isn't the funniest thing in the world. Like I said, there are a few good moments, but not enough of them to fill the 90-minute running time.
Moving away from the amount of laughter, which is about all that matters in a comedy, the dialogue also leaves a lot to be desired. The film was written and directed by "The Hangover" writers, after all, so that should be expected. It's all profane and silly, and accomplishes one of two things: exposition or forced character development. The dialogue itself rarely attempts to make us laugh. That's a problem, since there's a good deal of time spent walking from place to place.
It says a lot about our main characters that they wind up being chased and/or hated by everyone they come into contact with. They wind up being hunted by at least three groups of people as the film progresses, all of whom show up seemingly at random. These groups are often forgotten about until the script calls for them to pop up for a few minutes. You forget, too, and it makes their reappearances seem to come out of the blue. Sure, the film is about these three guys -- although it's really two of them because Jeff Chang isn't awake for most of his screen time -- but if you want to continue bringing back these secondary characters, at least treat them with a little respect.
I'm sure that all of these actors have talent. Justin Chon turns in the best performance in the film whenever he's awake. Skylar Astin was in "Pitch Perfect" and fared much better there. He delivers every line with great sincerity, but that doesn't work with this type of character. Miles Teller was in "Project X," and plays the same type of role here. He isn't good in either.
"21 and Over" is pretty much the exact type of movie that you expect it to be. If you think "The Hangover" is funny, you'll probably find this movie hilarious as well. It has issues with its characters, dialogue and situations, but if you find it funny you probably won't notice. I didn't like "21 and Over," but if it sounds like your type of thing, you'll probably get some enjoyment out of it.
Gangster Squad (2013)
An Early Frontrunner for Most Inconsequential Movie of the Year
It's only the second release week of 2013 and already we have a strong contender for "most inconsequential film of the year." Shot and edited without any idea of how to make it exciting, written like what a 12- year-old might think a tough gangster movie would sound like, and looking surprisingly modern for a period piece that takes place in 1949 and is "inspired by true events," "Gangster Squad" is a perfect example of mediocrity hitting the big screen.
In fact, the only interesting thing about this movie is how it came to be released in January and not in September like was originally planned. As many of you will note, the Aurora shooting spree took place, and was a tragedy. In "Gangster Squad"'s trailer, the titular squad shoots up a movie theater. Thinking that keeping that scene in would be rather tasteless, the studio pulled back the release date and re-shot portions of the film to have the big shootout take place somewhere else. They then scheduled a new release date of January 11, 2013, instead of September 7, 2012.
Perhaps it's just the cynic in me thinking this, but if the film was any good, why would it get released in January, which is the dumping ground for bad films? If the studio had faith that it was great, surely holding it back another couple of months would have been the right thing to do. My theory is that they knew this wasn't going to be anything special, or even good, so it was dumped in January, even despite its cast of stars and surprisingly large budget of $75 million.
The basic idea of "Gangster Squad" is that a group of LAPD Detectives got together and formed a team whose goal it was to stop the gangsters who threatened to take control of Los Angeles. The villain is a ruthless man named Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a former boxer who pays off anyone who gets in the way of his "business dealings," which are illegal. Nobody can touch him, everyone thinks, but since we know the film is about the titular squad, we're pretty sure that he can, at the very least, be upset, if not fully removed from the equation.
The gang: John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), a family man and our protagonist/narrator; Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), a ladies' man and nothing more; Rocky Washington (Anthony Mackie), someone who really hates heroin; Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), the fastest draw in the Wild West -- seriously, he sounds like he's from the 1840s, not the 1940s; Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña) a rookie cop nobody takes seriously because he's Mexican; and Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), another family man and the one tasked with listening in to a bugged television set.
Does that not seem like some sort of dream cast? Throw in Nick Nolte as the police chief who orders John to do this and Emma Stone as the love interest for one or possibly more of the characters, and you're talking quite a strong group of actors. It's just a shame they had to go and make this, such a lifeless, bland, uninspired movie. Did we really need a soft-remake of "The Untouchables"? That's really what "Gangster Squad" feels like.
Much of the problem comes from the director, Ruben Fleischer, whose previous feature-length work is made up entirely of comedies. He did "Zombieland," which was a lot of fun, and "30 Minutes or Less," which was not. He does manage to inject "Gangster Squad" with some genuinely funny moments -- the best of which involved a knockout blow which failed in its target; you rarely see that in non-comedies at the cinema -- but most of the time he feels completely wrong for this material. He doesn't seem to "get" the feel of this type of movie.
There is no depth to any of the characters. The dialogue is so cheesy and unfitting that it feels like it was written by someone who maybe watch a gangster film once in high school and is trying to remember what the characters sounded like, there's more slow motion than in a Zack Snyder movie, but used without any purpose. Seriously, there's a shootout late in the movie that is done entirely in slow motion and it accomplishes nothing -- especially when you know that none of the main characters will die.
Despite the overuse of slow motion, the action scenes are still cut together in such a way so as to not allow you any idea of who's doing what to whom at any given moment. There's even a car fight, but since all of the characters look similar and the cars are the same models, you never know what's going on. The same is true of the fist fights -- the climax is one, which is to be expected, and is the only decent action in the entire film -- and many of the shootouts.
There's nothing to "Gangster Squad." Under the gangster movie surface, it's an empty, hollow movie, and there's absolutely no reason to watch it. You trudge through it, hoping the payoff will be worth the almost two hours of your life that it takes to finish -- and it feels a lot longer than that -- and you won't get that. "The Untouchables" exists so this film doesn't have to. It has an attractive cast and some touches of humor, but "Gangster Squad" is a cheap knockoff of one of what used to be one of the most reliable genres around.
Big Miracle (2012)
Corny, but fun nonetheless
Set in 1988, Ken Kwapis' "Big Miracle" starts off with a basic premise (trapped whales), adds in a great deal of colourful characters all at each other's throats, and tops it all off with the worst possible things happening at the worst possible moments. Here is a movie about rescuing animals that becomes far more political than one might expect, while also including real human beings for characters instead of genre archetypes.
We begin in the Arctic, shooting in the town of Barrow. Our lead is Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), a likable man whom we first meet doing a news story on a Mexican restaurant. Adam's sidekick is a young boy named Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney), a kid who isn't too fond of his native heritage and traditions. Adam is planning on leaving the town before the week is up, but after being coerced into doing one more story, he soon discovers that whales have become trapped in the ice.
What is there to do? The natives have an idea: Harpoon the whales and eat them. Adam's ex-girlfriend, a Greenpeace activist, hears about the story and flies up there -- after berating Adam for not telling her himself, despite her orders to never call her for anything. "This is different," she exclaims. There's some tension between them, we learn, and instantly we know that they shouldn't be together. She wants to figure out a way to save the whales, most notably by mobilizing the National Guard.
Soon enough, Adam's story essentially goes viral (if such a thing could realistically happen in 1988). It plays on national television, and soon enough, every major network is sending reporters to cover the whale story. One of these reporters is Jill (Kristen Bell), whom Adam has had a crush on for some time. They hit it off after meeting, and spend a great deal of the film together, even though the character of Jill vanishes for a thirty minute stretch, eventually leading to her becoming unnecessary.
Meanwhile, the whale story has become a worldwide phenomenon. Everyone tunes into their television sets in order to bear witness to the events that are happening in northern Alaska. Even President Reagan gets involved at one point. The decision is made to haul an oil drill to break through the ice surrounding the whales so that they can swim to the sea. But currently, they're trapped with only a patch of visible water to breathe out of, and it's closing up fast.
Much of "Big Miracle" is concerned with keeping these whales alive. Taking place in a subzero climate makes it difficult to keep the ice from freezing, although various methods are tried. The whales' condition eventually worsens, other things go wrong, and a lot of improvisation takes place. Some of the tactics work, while others fail. It's surprising just how much tension can be generated when you put a few animals in a perilous situation, and "Big Miracle" milks that for all it's worth.
Despite the ever-present whale situation whose news sweeps across nations, there is also a human element to this production. It's refreshing to see your typical bad guys (the uncaring profit-driven oil driller, the Russians, and so on), put aside their differences in order to help these poor creatures. But they don't do this by completely switching around their characters, either. The businessman still doesn't like the Greenpeace activist, for example. Differences are put aside for these whales, but the whole situation doesn't define, nor is it the sole motivating factor, for these people. They're all very human characters, filled with flaws and strengths just like anyone watching the movie.
It's difficult to set a movie in the arctic and not make it atmospheric, so it should come as no surprise that "Big Miracle" is just that. You feel cold while watching this film, even if it's a little difficult to believe that the characters would be able to perform just fine in -50C weather without something to cover their faces. This is a movie that felt authentic and that everything that happened, no matter how crazy, really could (and did) take place. When you base your film on true events, this is important.
Part of what makes this film successful is the amazing job done with creating lifelike whales. While we rarely see the full creature (usually one will just come up for air and we'll see its head for a couple of seconds), one could be mistaken for thinking that real whales were used. All three of them are given different bodies so that we can tell them apart, and they function well enough as their own characters.
Where "Big Miracle" falters is in its actors and in its story, although the latter is less of a fault and says more about a potential viewer than it does of the film. Firstly, the acting is all over the place, although it gets better as the film progresses. In the first half, most of the actors seemed to struggle with their delivery, and nobody was terribly convincing. As it progressed, the acting go better. Secondly, it would be nigh impossible to tell this story without it coming across as cheesy. If you can't handle a cheesy story, then you'll want to skip this movie. This is more of a way to narrow down a target audience than a real fault, but it bears mentioning.
When it comes right down to it, "Big Miracle" is an enjoyable movie. It manages to overcome spotty acting and a corny script to become a smart film with deep-enough characters and some tension thanks to everything that just has to go wrong at exactly the worst time it can. It's worth watching if you don't mind a corny story and can handle some poorly acted scenes, especially if you want to see some very lifelike whales and learn about the real story that took place in 1988.
Underworld Awakening (2012)
Doesn't Feel the Same, But Still an Enoyable Action Flick
When details finally came out about "Underworld: Awakening," my heart sunk a little. True, the second installment wasn't very good, and the third was a prequel, but I was still looking forward to seeing further adventures of the vampire, Selene (Kate Beckinsale). As it turns out, she's the only returning cast member. Everyone else is gone from the project, leaving her the one tie to a series (seemingly) well past its prime. "Awakening" also clocks in at under 90 minutes, making the first film's two hours seem like days in comparison.
The plot this time around is told to us in the form of exposition. After "Evolution," humans discovered that lycans (werewolves) and vampires exist, and decided to wage war against both mythical creatures. They decided that genocide was the only option, and all but wiped out both species. So, how did Selene manage to survive? Well, she was captured by some scientist folks who decided to keep her alive, but frozen, for the past twelve years. Michael (previously portrayed by Scott Speedman), her vampire-lycan hybrid lover, has presumably died.
So, you'll be unsurprised to find out that Selene eventually escapes from her prison, fits back into that catsuit that she has grown accustomed to, and begins trying to find out just what the world has become in her absence. Of course, she still believes that Michael is still alive, so she sets out on a quest to find him. Meanwhile, she's also getting random visions flashing in front of her. It turns out, as anyone who has seen Evolution will have assumed, she has given birth to a daughter, Eve (India Eisley), and the two are linked via their sight. She can see what Eve can see if they are close to one another.
The villain this time around is the head of the scientists, a man named Jacob (Stephen Rae). I suppose the humans are also the bad guys, as they want to kill any vampire they come across, although the one human whose name we learn, a detective named Sebastian (Michael Ealy), ends up helping Selene. She's also eventually joined by another vampire, David (Theo James). Lycans also still exist, and they end up becoming more frequent as the film progresses after a plot twist is revealed that you'll probably see coming from a mile away, if you haven't already guessed it.
There isn't really a central plot that's worth discussing. "Underworld": "Awakening's" screenplay reads as both lazy and very loose. It's hard to even reflect back on it and try to remember key moments. It doesn't care about secondary characters (they're plot devices), and it doesn't care for its main one all that much either, although Beckinsale's Selene does have to show a tad bit more emotion than in previous installments. But not much more.
Essentially, we're here for the action scenes, which serve both as the main material as well as the glue that holds it together. In what is probably the most action-packed and gory iteration in this series, "Underworld": "Awakening" certainly doesn't have many boring moments. There's no substance to the plot or characters, but if you're watching the fourth "Underworld" film, chances are you don't care about that kind of thing. You're here to see Kate Beckinsale in a tight leather catsuit running around, doing flips off walls, shooting at anything that moves, and doing it all with a blue tinge. You get that with "Awakening."
Initially, I couldn't quite put my finger on why I still didn't have a great time with this film. It did most of the things it needed to right, and was overall quite exciting. But it lacked substance, and I don't just mean in its story and characters. Even at its worst point ("Evolution"), the "Underworld" series has always maintained some depth to the world that the characters inhabit. An entire back story was mapped out, and we understood the history of both supernatural clans. "Awakening" seems dedicated to both ruining and ignoring all of that previous work.
Here is a film that's premise involves the destruction of the majority of both species' members. Presumably, artifacts and historical documents were also destroyed, rendering much of the back story unknown to the survivors. Those who do know, like a man named Thomas (Charles Dance), have no proof of it and have no need to bring it up. The world is no longer an "Underworld" one; instead, it's just a generic action movie with vampires and werewolves. All of the work that went into the crafting of this universe is destroyed with "Awakening." It almost seemed like directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein went with this story just so that they didn't have to include any depth, even if that depth is what made "Underworld," well, "Underworld."
Maybe I'm overthinking things. Like I said, you're watching "Underworld: Awakening" to see Kate Beckinsale in a bunch of physics-defying action scenes while dressed in her character's signature leather outfit. You get that here. The action scenes are slick and well-made, the lycans look better than they ever have before, and the ending sequence, involving at least three distinct battles, is satisfactory, even if the ending as a whole promises much more than it delivers. I did have a good time, even if this installment completely ignores all of the history and back story of its universe. This is a movie for the "Underworld" fans. If you're one of them, you'll have a good time here. Newcomers will want to start at the beginning. If you aren't a fan, this one has less depth and more action than earlier iterations, so make your decision accordingly.
Above-Average Heist Film
From where I'm sitting, there are two main types of heist films. The first involves heavy planning, and then a near-flawless execution, with only one or two things going wrong that have to be rectified. Think the "Ocean's" series. They're intense throughout (if done well), as you're never sure just when things will start to go south. Then, there are films like "Contraband", where everything goes wrong and a lot of improvisation takes place.
Either heist film can easily have the stakes upped by making it a "one last time" type of quest for the main character. "Contraband", to nobody's surprise, does this. The lead is Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), a former smuggler currently married to Kate (Kate Beckinsale). She has apparently turned his life around, and he has stayed on the right side of the law for a while now. He owns his own home security company, he has two children, and he has a best friend in the form of Sebastian (Ben Foster). Things seem to be going well for him. That is, until something bad happens.
That something comes in the form of Kate's brother, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones). Despite Chris' objections, Andy was still smuggling for drug dealers. A run went wrong, he had to dump the merchandise, and he's now owes $700,000 to a drug dealer named Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). Chris goes to Briggs in order to work something out, and eventually is on a cargo shop that he's going to use to smuggle $10,000,000 in fake bills in order to pay off the debt. Maybe that's a little bit of overkill, but we're not sure how well that security business is doing. Maybe the recession hit him hard.
There are essentially two plots at work in this film, although the latter doesn't get much screen time. The first one involves the actual caper, the one where everything constantly goes wrong. Every screw is tightened as far as (you think) it can go, and then tightened even more. The second plot involves Kate and her kids, now living with Sebastian, being threatened by the drug dealer and eventually becoming a major plot point just to tighten those screws even more.
What surprised me most about "Contraband" is how much time is taken to set-up these characters. I wasn't keeping track of the exact time, but I would wager that somewhere around the first 45 minutes are spent before Chris even gets on this ship. Before that, this is a movie that plays out way more like a drama than anything else. There aren't any action scenes, there's little tension, and we're mostly just watching our characters figure out just what to do next.
But once we're on the ship, we realize that the tension has been slowly building beneath the surface. Once the first thing goes wrong, this is a film that doesn't let up. From this point, approximately an hour in, until the very final scenes, this is a very stressful film. All of those character scenes pay off once the action starts. You know who everyone is, you think you know what role they're supposed to play, and you get to sit back, watch everything go wrong, and then watch Chris try to fix it all. There are a couple of major twists scattered throughout, and it all adds up to a fairly involving and thrilling -- if generic -- movie.
There are a few points that don't amount to anything, and not in that clever red herring kind of way. There's a minor subplot involving Chris' father (William Lucking), and another one involving a second drug dealer (David O'Hara), although neither of those really add up. The latter one is important, but it comes from out of nowhere and didn't make a whole lot of sense. It seemed as if a lot of its scenes got cut, or perhaps the script just didn't think to include much of it.
You're also going to have to suspend your disbelief a great deal while watching "Contraband". More here than for many action-thrillers, I think. A lot of this film relies on timing, coincidence, and absurdity. It's all thrilling if you get involved, which will more than likely be the case, but if you step back and think about it, "Contraband" is really silly.
Not that the characters would want you to realize it. Apart from two or three humorous lines (one of which is shown in the trailer), the characters in this movie have no sense of humor. It makes sense; they're all one wrong move away from either going away to prison for countless years and having their families killed, or being killed themselves. But a joke here and there probably wouldn't have hurt the film. There's a type of wittiness that is occasionally shown by the Wahlberg character, but it doesn't happen often enough to say that it was done on purpose.
Ultimately, "Contraband" is an above-average heist film. It takes its time to get going, but once it does, there's no stopping it. The set-up works effectively, slowly building tension until it all gets released in the final 50 minutes. While the script needed fine-tuning, removing some unimportant plot points to help the pacing, this is an engaging film with effective performances.
Sleeping Beauty (2011)
Don't Fall Asleep. You Might Miss It!
When you create a film and title it "Sleeping Beauty," you had better not make it boring. Otherwise, you'll get reviews utilizing every possible play on the word "sleep," but more importantly, word of mouth will spread using the same types of puns. When you use a title made famous by the Disney animation, you're going to have to guard against those comparisons as well. As you can see, this film is already on the defensive.
To put even more pressure on "Sleeping Beauty," before it has even begun, is the fact that it is the directorial debut of a novelist. Julia Leigh also wrote the screenplay, but it is her first time stepping behind the camera to helm a film production. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it means an even bigger risk was taken by the studios, and just as many debuts fall flat as they do flourish. Luckily, Leigh's is a success, even if her film isn't going to be something that many people are going to enjoy.
To start the film, we begin by watching the daily routine of a young woman named Lucy (Emily Browning). The first scene made me cringe, as we find out that one of her many jobs involves testing out medical equipment. We watch a tube being inserted down her throat. This is done in one unflinching shot that has the opposite effect on the viewer. Later on, we learn she also does office work and works at a restaurant, but the medical testing was by far her worst job.
Why does she need to work three jobs? That's really a good question. We learn that she's behind on her rent, and also goes to school. Maybe school is really expensive, but she only seems to have one class, which can't be too heavy a burden. She's renting a room from people she knows, and I wouldn't think that would be that expensive either. Why she doesn't pay her rent on time, I'll never know. This isn't a film that's going to lay things out for you.
Because working three jobs isn't enough for Lucy, she inquires about an ad in the paper that requires her to serve dinner to old rich men while wearing lingerie. It pays $250 an hour, although it's freelance work, we're told. She works once, and after she gets home, she burns a $20 bill. Why? Again, I don't know, and it's actions like this that make me think she isn't wanting for cash. Regardless, working multiple jobs, including the dinner-while-wearing-lingerie one, continues for most of the film, even as her performance gets so bad that she sometimes sleeps on the floor while working.
Sleeping is something she'll end up doing quite a bit as the film continues on. She was told when she took the server job that there were opportunities for promotion. She gets that chance later on, when she's told that she can take a drug, lay naked in bed while passed out, and sleep for a few hours. Oh, and an elderly man will come in and sleep with her while she's knocked out. "Sleep with" in the literal sense of the meaning, as actual intercourse is forbidden.
Not that Lucy really cares. She doesn't seem to care much about herself, and would probably have accepted the job without the binding rule. She's the type of nihilist that will do whatever anyone wants her to do at the flip of a coin. At a bar, she's approached and asked if she wants some cocaine. "Why not?" is her response. Later, two men she just met actually use a coin to decide which one would have sex with her that night. She doesn't care, although come to think of it, I can't remember her saying "no" once to anyone in the film. She's very polite, even if she has no regard for her own body.
There's a lot of symbolism in the film, and if you thought this was a film that's going to make it easy on you, you can look elsewhere. You're going to have to infer a great deal about the characters and their reason for doing what they do for most of the time you watch them. I can see this being seen by some as a lack of character depth and development, but I think it's all there and just hidden behind imagery and a classic fairy tale. The way I saw "Sleeping Beauty," it actually does steal a couple of things from Disney cartoon. Unfortunately, giving that away now might change the way you view the film, so instead, go in with as fresh a mind as you can. This is a movie that will reward subsequent viewings.
If there's a problem here, it's the character of Lucy. She's often difficult to like, and because she's such an apathetic person, not a lot goes on. She's little farther, for better or worse, when the film ends than when it began. None of the blame can go to Emily Browning, as she plays her without fear, but the way the character is written means that she's not exactly amiable or has a decent enough personality to build a film around. This is largely forgotten about once it gets going, but upon reflection, making her grow as the film progressed would have improved it as a whole.
Regardless, I was engaged by "Sleeping Beauty." Is it for everyone? Not at all. If you like artsy films that are there for you to figure out instead of being told everything about them, then it might work for you. It has a solid performance from Emily Browning in the lead role, and it has enough imagery and symbolism to keep you coming back for another watch. That is, if you don't fall asleep during the first time.
Lautner Cannot Carry an Action Film
I was excited when I saw the cast. Listen to the actors involved in this production. There's Sigourney Weaver, Alfred Molina, Jason Isaacs, Michael Nyqvist and Maria Bello. Okay, so there's also Taylor Lautner in the lead role, as well as Lily Collins as his sidekick, but I was hopeful that the supporting cast could allow it to be a worthwhile watch. For a while, I actually believed that "Abduction" could be a good film.
Even the first 20 minutes or so weren't that bad. We watched Nathan (Lautner) and his friends go to a party and get drunk. He wakes up the next morning hungover and stripped of his shirt. Those of you who have seen the "Twilight" films are probably used to seeing Lautner without a shirt on, but surprisingly, it stays on his person for the majority of this film. Nathan goes home to find out that his father (Jason Isaacs) wants to have a boxing session, so they fight, and it's enjoyable. It's especially fun because the younger of the two gets beaten up quite a bit. He's also grounded for a week because he didn't call home. How adorable.
We watch the young Nathan go to school and get assigned a project to work on with his neighbor, Karen (Collins). Their project has something to do with missing children, or maybe just people in general, it's not really elaborated on. When looking at one website, they see a child that looks remarkably similar to Nathan. They do a digital reconstruction of what the child might look like now, and it's almost a perfect match. Then they look closer at the younger photo, and they see that the shirt the child is wearing is the same on that Nathan had as a kid. It even has the same stain on the right shoulder. Weird, right?
Well, apparently not. This was a trap, and Nathan fell right into it. Things happen which I won't spoil, a little bit of "Spy Kids" action goes on in regards to Nathan's parents, and eventually Nathan and Lilly end up on the run from not one, but two parties. The first claims to be the CIA, and is led by Alfred Molina, while the second is a bunch of Russian guys led by Michael Nyqvist. Can the pair trust anyone? Will they get out alive? Who knows, but more importantly, does anyone care?
I certainly didn't. Nathan was as bland as you might expect a Taylor Lautner character to be played. He's your typical teenager -- shy around girls, loves playing video games and hanging out with friends -- and yet, he is an amazing athlete and could easily be the most popular person at the school. He also has weird dreams, which he explains to his shrink (Sigourney Weaver), and that's about as deep as his personality gets.
What's strange about director John Singleton's picture is that he seems to think his characters are deep, and that we deserve to spend a lot of time with them when they're not doing anything. The plot doesn't really kick in until maybe the half hour mark, and even after we do start to roll, there are points when characters will stop just to chat and let us get to know them -- all the bland, lifeless them that there is to know.
His "friend", Karen, isn't much better. She basically serves no purpose except to give Nathan someone to talk to throughout, and even when it would be intelligent to leave her so that she can be safe, he doesn't because, well, I'm not really sure. She protests against going home, although she's not the target anyway. He is, because there's a list that his father -- his real father, anyway, as it turns out that Isaacs' character wasn't really his dad -- stole, that everyone else wants. There's more to the list than just that, but it serves as the MacGuffin to drive the plot.
Whether or not Taylor Lautner makes a good action star will depend entirely on how you see him, and whether or not you can believe it. Personally, I didn't think he had it in him, but if you're a big fan, you'll probably overlook any of his flaws anyway. I can say that he desperately struggled with the more dramatic scenes, line delivery, or even acting like a normal human being whenever he wasn't being chased.
What gets to me most is how poorly the established actors were used. Weaver gets three scenes total, I believe, Nyqvist is always just in the background, except for one scene during a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game which comes close to being the sole highlight, while Molina plays basically the same character as Nyqvist, being used in the same way: Poorly. If "Abduction" goes to prove anything, it's that Lautner cannot carry an action film alone.
This would still all be okay if the action was entertaining, but it just isn't. The action scenes follow this sort of pattern: Fist fight, car chase, fist fight, car chase. Rinse and repeat as often as you can in the remaining hour and change after the plot kicks in, and I've basically described the entire movie. Well, there are those scenes when the characters, and the audience get a break, but they end up dragging us down because the actors involved in them don't make us believe in their characters.
"Abduction" is terrible, especially given how talented the supporting cast members are. But Lautner can't carry this film, the secondary actors are all underutilized, while the writing and action scenes were all lackluster. The plot doesn't even make complete sense, with things needing exposition being ignored, and things easily understood given all of the time. Unless you want to watch Taylor Lautner being chased around for 100 minutes, you have no reason to spend your time with "Abduction".
Sucker Punch (2011)
It's Quite Enjoyable
Within the first few minutes of "Sucker Punch", I wanted to shed a tear for the production. Not because of its quality, which looked fine right off the bat. No, I wanted to cry because of some of the events depicted on-screen. It's a film that gets off to a saddening beginning, which I believe helps to work in its favour by the time it concludes.
The opening scene shows us a much maltreated Baby Doll (Emily Browning), and her kid sister. Their mother has just died, and custody of them has been given to their stepfather. He's, to put it bluntly, not a nice man. Things happen under his watch, leading to the death of Baby Doll's sister. She gets blamed, and sentenced to serve a term in a mental institution. Unfortunately for her, her stepfather has paid what essentially amounts to a prison a large sum of money to have her lobotomized. She only has days left before the doctor comes to perform the procedure. She decides she's not going down without a fight.
This is when things start to get weird. Baby Doll very well might be insane, as a lot of the film happens within her mind. There are two stages in her mind: A brothel where she and a few other girls are forced to dance for customers, and a war field where she teams up with these same girls to fight off all sorts of enemies, ranging from orcs to undead German soldiers. In this second world, she finds the way she'll escape from the asylum; she needs to gather a few magical items and use them in one grand escape plan.
How she plans to capture these items requires some of the other people at the brothel. There are four other girls there, and while Baby Doll dances for some of the clients--apparently they are unable to take their eyes off her while she dances, although we never get to see her dance-- the other girls will steal these items. While the theft is going on in the brothel level, the audience is treated to grand-scale action sequences with all of the girls wielding guns, samurai swords, mechs and airplanes. Never a dull moment, right?
That last question of mine seems to be one of the main things that director Zack Snyder wanted to answer, and make sure that he focused on, while creating "Sucker Punch". He may have actually gone a tad overboard in making sure that the audience isn't bored. While the fight sequences are all interesting, and they are certainly all varied from one another, the enemies never seem to have much of an ability to harm any of the girls. There was a quote in the film about a child sitting at the edge of a sandbox while the other children play with his toys. The enemies in the film feel like toys. They get cut apart, gunned down and easily defeated without so much as a scratch on any of the female leads.
But the battles against them certainly are interesting. Baby Doll, armed with a samurai sword and a handgun, initially isn't up to the idea of taking control and actually fighting back against oppression. In the first 10 minutes of the film, you are hard-pressed to get a single word out of her. By the time she enters her second imaginative state--the one with big battlefields--she begins to take control. She becomes a leader of a squad, and has to act the part of a leader. If you want, you could say that Snyder mixed in a coming of age story within "Sucker Punch", with Baby Doll having to mature far more quickly than she wants, as she is faced with difficult situation after difficult situation.
The most important thing that "Sucker Punch" had to do is be entertaining. It is. Or at least, I can say that I really had a good time while watching it. The action scenes could best be described with the words "visual spectacle", as they look fantastic. Fans of Zack Snyder's work know that there will be a lot of slow motion used, and that is exactly what happens. It's still somewhat excessive, but because the film looks so nice, you usually don't even notice that it's being used; you like looking at the scenery so much that taking a longer glance at a particular shot is something that you want to do.
For what it's worth, (and in a film like this, the acting isn't that important), I thought that the leading cast did a fine job with what they were given. There's some heart behind each one of their performances, and in the emotional scenes of the film, that comes through.
Even though the most important part of an action film like "Sucker Punch" is its entertainment value, there's an interesting enough story going on behind the action scenes. Whenever Baby Doll stops dancing and we return to the brothel, we remember that there is a plot about the girls' escape going on, and it all flows back to you wonderfully. And without spoiling the ending at all, I will just say that it--and looking back, the rest of the film as well--will make you think, giving you a desire to re-watch it.
"Sucker Punch" is a good film for two main reasons: It's entertaining, and it has an interesting enough story to make the action sequences mean something. The acting is fine, the visuals are incredible, the plot will leave you thinking, and the action scenes are unique and fun to watch. Had the girls' been put in actual danger more often, then perhaps we would have an excellent film on our hands. As it is, "Sucker Punch" is one of those films that you'll either really enjoy, or really dislike. I fall into the former category, and I say to give it a shot.
Mean Girls 2 (2011)
Not close to the original, not close at all
When films are released as straight-to-video, expectations are generally lowered. This becomes very difficult when the film is released as a sequel to a film that was already incredibly popular years ago. This is the case with "Mean Girls 2", the follow-up to 2004's "Mean Girls".
Yet again, the story focuses on a high school student moving to a new school. This time, the girl's name is Jo Mitchell (Meaghan Jette Martin), and she's a bit of a loner, so she tells us with her opening voice-over. She is welcomed to the school by Abby (Jennifer Stone), a girl who we can quickly acknowledge as the often bullied girl. She's one of those unpopular students, the ones that the 'cool' people wouldn't be caught dead with. Naturally, Jo befriends her.
She has good reason to though, Abby's father pays her. No really, he offers her $50 000 to be Abby's friend for the rest of the year. Although this isn't why Jo does this, she ends accepting the money. Jo wants to go to college after all, and her father's business isn't going as well as it used to. She needs to accept the money, otherwise she'll have to go to a college close to home, and that just wouldn't do.
Back at school, Abby's life, and by extension, Jo's own, is beginning to take a turn for the worst. "The Plastics" are back, reincarnated for the newer generation. They are led by Mandi (Maiara Walsh), a girl so incredibly evil that she marks the top of her "i" with a heart instead of the usual dot. That's not exactly fair, Mandi and her group is fairly mean, even going so far as to destroy the motor of the car her father was fixing up.
Jo swears revenge upon the new group of evil popular students, and that's what the rest of the film centers on. Over the course of "Mean Girls 2", many jokes from the original are re-hashed, usually far less effectively than before, and the plot takes almost the same path that it took in "Mean Girls". Things do happen differently, but the end result is just about exactly the same.
The thing is, we don't care at all about any of the characters involved. In "Mean Girls", we got significant depth into Cady, and we wanted to see her take the Plastics down. In this one, Jo acts just as, if not more, evil as they do, and when things turn around upon her, we can't feel sorry for her, as the film seems to want us to. Even near the beginning, when she is clearly fighting back against the Plastics, she is still deceiving her "friend" by taking the money from Abby's father.
If there was one main problem that "Mean Girls" had, it was that it felt like the events happening within it were just a bit too far-fetched to actually be happening. I'm sure some of it could and does happen in school, but sometimes it just seemed too unbelievable. In "Mean Girls" 2, almost all of the major plot events are like this. For example, do you really think people would paintball someone's car? How about gluing the seat of someone's moped so that they become stuck to it?
What's worse, the Plastics in this film have even less reason to make Abby and Jo's lives miserable. For Abby, they don't like her before the film begins, and it's just because Abby is richer than Mandi. For ruining Jo's life, it seems to be based purely on jealousy, even if Mandi stays popular even after Jo appears at the school. The so-called jealousy doesn't even have much backing behind it, let alone letting it drive an entire character throughout the story.
Okay, so it has got a weak plot with weak characters, at least it has a humorous script, right? Nope. It doesn't, sorry. It has a couple of moments that will give you a chuckle, but for the most part, no, it just isn't that funny. The funniest parts, for me at least, were when the lower budget really came through in the filmmaking.
Definitely showing the lower budget were the actors hired. The main cast, Jo, Abby and Mandi, are all former Disney stars. This doesn't bode well for them to begin with, and we begin to notice in a feature-length film that they aren't the greatest actors in the world. They're not terrible, no, but they have about as emotional a performance as a brick wall. Yes, if allow paint to drip down it, you can make it look like it's crying, and that's about how the actors in the film felt like.
For all the complaining about the film I've done, I can't say that the film was a complete waste. For some reason, I didn't absolutely hate it. It stayed somewhat entertaining throughout, maybe for the "so bad it's good" factor, I'm not really sure. Maybe I kept hoping that it would improve, even if it did keep getting worse as the film progressed. There were some humorous parts, and the story does at least have enough twists in it that if you haven't seen "Mean Girls", you'll be surprised by them.
Basically, there isn't any reason to see "Mean Girls 2", because "Mean Girls" still exists. The characters have little depth and almost no motivation, the story isn't surprising if you've seen the original, and most of the jokes are replays of the ones seen in the first film. The acting isn't all that good, and while it was nice to see some Disney stars taking on more mature and realistic roles, the film didn't feel at all believable, as the entire drama of high school felt way too over- the-top. There isn't much reason for this film to exist, except cash-in on the "Mean Girls" name. Don't let it draw you in.
No Strings Attached (2011)
There really are no strings attached
"No Strings Attached" works precisely for one reason, its script. Paramount Pictures, the studio backing the film, allowed the script to be R rated, meaning that "grown up" words, the ones that are four letters and need to be bleeped out from standard radio and television could be said. For a film that is about casual sex--one that tries to portray its characters as realistic--these words need to be included in the characters' dialogue. So, yes, thank you Paramount for allowing the script to be R rated.
The plot centers on two characters who have been friends for many years, seeing each other only once in a while over that timeframe. We see each encounter through flashbacks right at the beginning of the film. Eventually, we move to the present, where Emma (Natalie Portman) has moved into the same city as Adam (Ashton Kutcher). They meet up, and decide that they should hang out some time.
Adam ended a relationship with his girlfriend months ago, and one day finds out that his father is now dating the same girl. After some razzing by his friends, he decides to drunkenly call every girl's number that is in his cell phone, in hopes that one of them will have sex with him.
He eventually passes out, waking up naked in the company of four people, one of which happens to be Emma. They end up having sex, and decide to be "sex buddies". They won't be in a formal relationship, but they will call one another up if they are "in the mood", so to speak. If either character starts to actually feel attraction for the other, they would call this agreement off, and move on with their lives. No feelings would be involved in their interactions with one another, and therefore there would be none hurt of things went sour.
"Where's the conflict?" is a question that you might be thinking to yourself right now. Well, that comes from one of the characters, (no, I won't tell you which), developing feelings for the other. The rest of the film focuses on the characters' relationship following this revelation.
If you are now thinking to yourself that you know almost exactly how the movie ends, well then you aren't alone. Just by the trailer for "No Strings Attached", it's not difficult to figure out the film's conclusion. It won't throw many curveballs your way throughout, and is overall fairly predictable, with only a couple twists that are really any bit surprising. And even those are only surprising because of their timing, not because of what the twist actually was.
Although, I'll admit that I didn't want the film to end. I liked the characters, and I wanted to continue to see what would happen to them. In fact, when "No Strings Attached" finally did wrap-up, I think they chose the wrong point to end it. It ends on a little bit of a cliffhanger, where as if it finished earlier, that wouldn't have happened.
As a matter of fact, the ending was actually the worst part of the film, just because it didn't really give a solid conclusion to the story. And no, I'm not hoping for a sequel, even though one is definitely possible. Does that information make you second-guess how you think the film will end? It probably shouldn't.
Anyway, thanks to the R-rated script, the characters actually felt believable and realistic. They still suffer from some of the flaws that come from being in a romantic comedy, mainly their awkward interactions with almost everyone and their somewhat idealistic nature, but that comes with the territory. They are both likable characters, who are actually fair well acted for this kind of thing.
Natalie Portman especially gives a very solid performance, actually being the more energetic person in the duo. Ashton Kutcher is someone I've been told isn't a very good actor, and while I didn't feel he was great, sometimes not really seeming 100% on-board with what he was supposed to be doing, he was competent as the more reserved Adam. The pair had an easy-going chemistry, and because of the script, felt real enough to believe in.
Thanks to the characters being believable and likable, when the film tries to make you emotional, it succeeds. You want to see both characters happy, and when they aren't, you feel sad yourself. When things go right, you almost want to cheer, although it doesn't work quite that well. You'll feel emotion, but not enough to actually bring it out of you. This isn't a tear-jerker or a feel-good film, despite having moments that come close to these levels.
No, what "No Strings Attached" tries to do most is to make you laugh. And it will do so, as it is a very funny film. The aforementioned awkward moments and timing are quite charming, the dialogue will make you laugh, and even some of the situations, (sadly many of them ruined in the trailer), will make you chuckle. It isn't really a laugh-out-loud film, but one that will make you laugh quietly to yourself, every now and then bringing out a full-blown laugh.
I liked "No Strings Attached", probably more than I rightfully should have. Regardless, I did enjoy it-- having a good time while watching it. The characters were likable, the plot, while predictable, was fun to watch, and the film was on the whole pretty funny. It doesn't do anything new to the romantic comedy genre, but it's an entertaining film that will give you a good time at the theatre, and that's really all you can ask for.