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The Rock's Best Performance Yet
I have never been a fan of The Rock. I understand his appeal, mind you, but he's never been a key force in my movie viewing life and I typically shy away from his films. I have yet to enjoy him in a comedic setting, I find the allure of professional wrestling to be baffling, and I have long taken the stand that I would not refer to The Rock as any other name until he proved that he could actually act. Well, the day has come, for while Snitch may not be anything to write home about, Mr. Dwayne The Rock Johnson gives what I would consider to be his finest (and perhaps first) example of real acting. Congratulations on your new title, Mr. Johnson. Please don't beat me up.
John Matthews (Johnson) is a hardworking construction company owner who has become estranged from his teenage son, Jason (Rafi Gavron). Jason gets caught up in a federal sting operation when he accepts a package of pills from a friend and since he has no knowledge to parlay, he finds himself facing 10 years in prison. Desperate to help his son, John convinces Daniel (Jon Bernthal), an ex-con who works in the construction yard, to put him in touch with a local drug dealer. Through this association, John is able to broker a deal with the district attorney to get his son's release upon the arrest of a major player in the drug game. But while he proves proficient at his job, John winds up getting closer than he ever expected to the cartel's leadership, a move that puts everyone in his family in great peril.
Snitch is the antithesis of the typical movie you would expect to find Johnson involved in. It has a slow pace, there is very little explosive action until the final sequence, and while the writing isn't particularly special (more on this in a minute), the story is definitely the driving force behind the film as opposed to any other element you typically get in a Johnson movie. Somehow, however, Johnson finds a groove within the world of Snitch that I really don't think he's hit in the past. He isn't trying to be humorous at all (always a plus in my opinion) but much more importantly, he's actually playing a character. Johnson's filmography is filled with examples of characters who are just The Rock in a different costume. The Rock as a cop, The Rock as a bodybuilder, The Rock as a hockey player turned fairy tale entity (*cringe*). In Snitch, however, I actually felt like I was seeing a real person on screen rather than another roided-out persona. John Matthews is a dad, a blue-collar worker, and most of all, a man, and I don't believe I've ever seen that from Johnson before. Moreover, he's a man who is severely out of his depth in a world he doesn't understand or fit in and that comes through quite clearly. In short, there's very little of The Rock being The Rock and beating the snot out of bad guys because he's The Rock. And I quite like that change.
Now, much of the rest of Snitch is mediocre at best. As hard as the film works to push its story as the main course rather than a paltry side dish, it is weak and sometimes horribly heavy-handed. Most of the supporting characters are painted with some extremely tired colors and the actors who play them do little to shed those clichéd and exhausted skins. Sarandon in particularly comes across as bored and uninspired; she can't have spent more than five days filming her part. The aforementioned slow pacing isn't necessarily a bad thing but it was unexpected and I found myself checking the time and wishing things would gear up. In addition, too many of the important events happen in quick bursts when a sustained build would have suited the film much better. John's family could have been developed rather than explained (a pet peeve of mine in a story-centric action film like this one is trying to be) and I could have used way more of Barry Pepper's undercover cop. Note to Hollywood: Barry Pepper makes everything better (except Battlefield: Earth). Give this man some screen time already.
As it stands, Snitch is something like a half-finished project with some strong moments brought to life by Johnson that are surrounded by some incomplete thoughts that could have and should have been refined. Even still, it's a fine performance by Johnson and that alone makes it worth a viewing, a sentence I never thought I'd have occasion to write.
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Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Pretty Much a Masterpiece with the Best Performance of the Year
NOTE: I do not care about the historical accuracy of this film nor the supposed stance it takes on torture. It's a movie and its job is to tell A story, not necessarily THE story. Bear that in mind. Making a movie about the tracking and killing of Osama bin Laden could have been a rather easy endeavor. Just about anyone could have made that movie and turned it into a blockbuster sort of film that would have brought people to the theater even if the quality was low. Turning that movie into an award-winning, dramatic spectacle, though, was quite a tall order. When virtually the entire audience knows the ins and outs of your story right on up to its conclusion, it can be very difficult to create drama and intrigue that doesn't seem false. Katheryn Bigelow's ability to do just that takes Zero Dark Thirty over the top and propels it into the discussion for best of the year. Zero Dark Thirty begins two years after the bombing of the World Trade Center with the brutal torture of an al-Qaeda prisoner at the hands of CIA interrogation expert Dan (Jason Clarke) and a young special agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain). The information gathered through the interrogation leads Maya on an eight year quest with only one goal in mind: the location and apprehension, by whatever means necessary, of Osama bin Laden. This process proves more difficult than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack and costs Maya a great deal throughout her time on the case but the effort is finally justified on May 2, 2011 when SEAL Team 6 is sent in to take down America's number one adversary. Zero Dark Thirty opens with a black screen backed by a 911 call from the World Trade Center on 9/11, a choice that sets the tone for what is to follow in no uncertain terms. To call this movie "intense" would require a new definition for the word. It's more like "mega-intense" or "my- blood-pressure-will-never-recover-intense." Bigelow throws the audience into the torture sequence that made me squirm not for its gratuitous depiction but for its realism. The man being interrogated is BROKEN and that hits home fast and hard. From there, the pace slows at times but the tense urgency of that opening scene never wanes, leaving you on the edge of your seat even when there's virtually nothing happening. And if you do make the mistake of putting your guard down, Bigelow is quick to comeback with an action sequence that reminds you of this film's stakes. Perhaps the finest moment is in the final scene in which SEAL Team 6 invade bin Laden's compound. The sequence takes over 27 minutes to unfold and even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, Bigelow still drove the moment home with a quiet yet furious injection of natural adrenaline that kept my pulse up throughout. What really sets Zero Dark Thirty apart, however, is the performance of its lead. I don't know who discovered Jessica Chastain and gave her the big break she needed but that person should be given a large sum of money and some sort of medal. To think that Chastain could go from completely unknown to the woman who gave the year's best performance (which is what I would call this portrayal) in less than 18 months is a true Hollywood success story if ever there was one. Maya is an awesome and complex character to begin with (a credit to Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal) but Chastain takes that character and runs with it, creating a persona that serves as the driving force behind the entire movie. Chastain shows Maya to be a brash, single-minded personality and in the wrong hands the character could have EASILY become abrasive and obnoxious. Instead, Maya is truly dynamic and begs to be embraced by the audience. It goes much further than this, though; it isn't enough for Maya to be strong and likable. Bigelow puts the entire film on the shoulders of Maya and Chastain by making her the in-movie representation of the audience and moreover, the American people. Chastain is our window into the hunt for bin Laden and the emotions that she goes through are, I believe, symbolic of the ones the audience has gone through over the last decade. Zero Dark Thirty is built with remarkably strong beams in the form of terrific writing, an engrossing and familiar story, and outstanding supporting work from a strong cast of actors (most particularly Jason Clarke who should receive award attention for his role), not to mention a host of technical attributes that serve to heighten the experience. But Chastain is the load-bearing beam of the film and even a great performance might have left the film wanting. Well, it isn't great but instead a powerhouse portrayal that reverberates with far more emotion than I expected to find going in. The relief that Chastain exhibits in the closing moments washes over the audience in a way that can only be described as surreal and, for me, it is this final shot that solidifies Chastain's performance as the best of the year and Zero Dark Thirty as one of the more iconic films of the last decade.
Ruby Sparks (2012)
Harmless, Quirky, Enjoyable
Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is your stereotypical brilliant-but- troubled writer. His first (and only) novel became an American sensation when he was only 19 years old and that success has haunted him ever since. Friendless and lonely, Calvin spends almost all of his time with his brother Harry (Chris Messina) or in the office of his shrink (Elliot Gould) who also happens to be his father. His chronic writer's block begins to clear, however, after a dream and he spends one glorious and productive night riding a story about a manic pixie dream girl named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). But just when his story begins to get good, he awakens to find Ruby in his kitchen, a manifestation of his mind that walks, talks, breaths, etc. like any other human. Calvin and Ruby embark upon what seems like a wonderful journey together, made complicated by the fact that Calvin can control Ruby's emotions, actions, and behaviors simply by typing them out.
For the most part, Ruby Sparks is a harmless, fun, and quirky tale that comes equipped with some quality performances. It's an interesting concept that certainly borrows at times from other films and stories but still manages to come across as fresh. It is often playful and it takes its subject matter lightly which in turn makes Ruby Sparks enjoyable if not particularly noteworthy. The conclusion ventures into significantly darker territory and to be honest with you I'm still not entirely sure if that works for it or not. It is a definite departure from just about everything else the film brands itself as throughout the first two and a half acts. At the same time, Calvin's melancholy nature does lend itself to the character having an edgier side and that certainly comes out as the film draws to a close. Part of me would have liked to have seen Ruby Sparks take a more dramatic, darker approach to its subject throughout its runtime rather that coming to that place in a rather abrupt manner but then this would have been a decidedly different film and much of its charm would have been lost.
The cast of Ruby Sparks does an excellent job of adding depth and value to characters that are fairly thin on paper. They are all made up of stereotypes and generic traits but Dano, Messina, and Kazan all bring some weight to their roles that make the film much more substantially than it would have been otherwise. Dano is superb, hitting the "troubled loner" nail right on the head. He personifies the right balance between successful and fear of further success, as well as a desperate need for attention, love, companionship, etc. Calvin is much the same as his character from Being Flynn in many ways but his performance here is much stronger. Messina, whose career is absolutely taking off between The Newsroom, The Mindy Project, and his small role in Argo, gives his character a slight air of seediness without becoming the overdone, "Just use this for sex!!!" guy that I kind of expected. For me the best scene in the movie is of Messina's reaction to realizing the implications of Ruby's existence. It's funny and perfectly measured. Kazan, who also wrote the film, is cute and charming and touches on each of the emotions Ruby goes through appropriately. I very much look forward to seeing what she has in store for us in the future, both on screen and behind the camera.
Overall, Ruby Sparks does what it sets out to do and brings together an interesting and quirky narrative nicely. It's nothing that I would consider particularly special or far-reaching in its aspirations but it is a nice little film that should go over well with most viewers.
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Zemeckis is a Bit Rusty
It's been a while since Robert Zemeckis has been on the set of a life- action film. After 2000's Cast Away, Zemeckis dedicated himself to the art of motion capture animation, a bumpy road that brought about three relatively unsuccessful films (The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol) and the shuttering of his studio. With that in mind, I think it's only fair to give Zemeckis, the creator of such beloved films as Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, the benefit of the doubt if Flight, his first foray back into the realm of live-action cinema, shows a few signs of rust.
When his commercial aircraft experiences a massive mechanical malfunction, Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) goes above and beyond to save the lives of his crew and passengers, taking evasive maneuvers that perhaps no other pilot could have managed. He awakens in a hospital room as a hero, having lost only six of 102 souls on board in spite of tremendously long odds and a harrowing crash landing. His story takes a turn, however, when it becomes known that Whitaker has a serious issue with alcohol and drug addiction and was in fact drunk at the time of the crash. As investigators close in on his condition and the heaping pile of lies he's told to cover it up, Whitaker's drinking problems reach a whole new level, alienating his only allies, heroin addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and company lawyer Hugh (Don Cheadle), and bringing himself closer and closer to a breaking point.
There are moments of sheer brilliance in Flight that reminded me of just how good Zemeckis can be when he's on his game, especially in the early going. The man is a special effects whiz and whereas someone like Michael Bay uses effects in a, "Look how shiny!" sort of way, Zemeckis has always used his visuals to add drama, tension, and/or intensity to his films. (Example: the plane crash and subsequent struggle for shore in Cast Away.) The sequence of events that take place on the plane in Flight, which takes up about the first 20 minutes of the film, are extremely tense and very well put together. It's both exciting and terrifying and in these moments you get to see Captain Whitaker at his very best, perhaps a look at what the man would have been without the backbreaking influence of chemical dependency. Following this opening sequence, however, the brilliant moments come along less frequently and before long I found myself getting bogged down in the narrative, lost somewhere between apathy and outright disdain for the protagonist.
Addiction is not an easy thing to portray in a film. If you go too soft, you end up with an unrealistic story that doesn't resonate. Go too far in the other direction, however, and you're likely to end up with a character that begins to grate on the nerves of the audience. Christian Bale's performance in The Fighter I think stands out as the prime example of how to bridge the gap between the two. That character is completely realistic down to the very last detail and yet he plays it in such a way that you truly do feel sorry for the character even when he is doing horrible things. Whip Whitaker doesn't quite fit that bill for me. Zemeckis takes the narrative of Flight so far and does so much to show him to be a miserable human being that Whitaker becomes a wholly unsympathetic character. I guess the object of all of this would be to drag Whitaker down to his lowest point so that his redemption will seem all the more fulfilling but instead, I reached a point nearing the film's climatic conclusion in which I said to myself, "This guy sucks and I hope he either dies or goes to jail." At that point, there's really no coming back; Whitaker could have gone on to find a cure for cancer in the film's final scene and I still would have harbored some dislike for him.
As part of this process of breaking down the lead, Flight asks much of Washington while simultaneously putting him in a hole that he has a tough time digging out of. Like everyone else with a pulse, I love Denzel Washington and consider him to be one of the very best Hollywood has to offer. But whereas Flight requires a great performance in order to make the movie work, Washington's is only a good one that holds some real strength but doesn't measure up against the man's better works. It is unfair to demand an Oscar-caliber performance out of anyone, even someone as accomplished as Washington is, but I think that's the sort of portrayal Flight requires in order to hit its mark and as a result, both parts of that equation come up short. The supporting cast, including Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, and American Treasure John Goodman, also struggle to excel and at times come off a bit uneven. I found only Reilly and James Badge Dale, in a short but excellent appearance, to be particularly strong performers. This is disappointing as, given the names attached to this film, Zemeckis could have done considerably more with his cast than he did.
Flight represents a good effort from all parties, though perhaps a little too far-reaching for its own good. Its better moments shine quite bright but they are too often blotted out by a hard-driving narrative and an uneven tone that struggles to strike the right chord at the right time. And in the end, I was left with the feeling that Flight could have been much better than it ended up being.
Please check out my reviews at thesoapboxoffice.com
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Perfect Mix of Disney and Pixar
In 2006, when Disney bought Pixar and put John Lasseter in charge of its entire animation division, most of us expected great things. After 60- odd years of complete domination in the animated movie world, Disney had lost the magic, if you will, of Sleeping Beauty and The Lion King in the midst of a heap of mediocre features that just didn't measure up to the legacy the studio had created for itself. With Lasseter on board, though, multiple generations of Disney fans who had grown up on the virtues of Robin Hood and the like hoped that the man who had redefined the genre with Pixar would return the studio to its previous glory. In essence, we were hoping for Wreck-It Ralph.
All Ralph (John C. Reilly) wants in life is to be appreciated. As the villain in an 80s arcade game known as "Fix it Felix Jr.", Ralph's job (which he does quite well) is to inflict damage upon the Niceland apartment building so that Felix (Jack McBrayer) can fix the damage. For thirty years, the end of each night, when the arcade the game resides in closes up shop, sees Felix returning to the thankful residents of Niceland while Ralph is relegated to the dump. Eager for a change, Ralph sets off into the various realms of the other games in the arcade in search of a Hero's Medal which would, he believes, change his lot back home. But when he stumbled into the racing game "Sugar Rush", he is waylaid by an obnoxious misfit known as The Glitch (Sarah Silverman), and when their paths become tied through a series of wild events, Ralph begrudgingly agrees to assist The Glitch, though he has no idea what he's getting himself into.
I have seen Wreck-It Ralph described as, "Toy Story for video games" and I believe that statement rings absolutely true. In a year in which Pixar's own feature (Brave) felt much more like a Disney movie than one that fit the standard Pixar model, it is fitting that the Disney film should have a decisive Pixarian feel to it. From the early moments, which include a gloriously scripted voice-over that would make Morgan Freeman jealous, Wreck-It Ralph establishes a link to the best of the Pixar universe and it never looks back. The concept itself is ingenious and deliciously outside the box, a truly original idea that opens up a thousand doorways through which to take the film. I imagine that, when advance notice of Wreck-It Ralph began circulating in Hollywood, many studio executives spent some time banging their respective heads against a wall or two, wondering why they didn't think of this. And yet the core value at the film's heart, the universal desire for acceptance, is incredibly simple and stands out as one of the reasons why the film excels. One of the keys to success in the Pixar universe is emotional relevance; they take common themes, struggles, and desires and illustrate them through lavish and meticulously crafted mediums, be they talking toys or a lonely robot. That quality courses through the veins of Wreck-It Ralph, creating a bond between the audience and a giant, buffoonish video game character, and making his journey seem all the more real in spite of the fact that it takes place within the code of an arcade game.
The quality of Wreck-It Ralph, however, goes far beyond the original concept, something I was concerned about going in. It would have been easy for director Rich Moore and his creative team to focus too much on the overlying idea and forget to build the rest of the film up to the appropriate standard. Instead, it is clear that every detail of Wreck-It Ralph was given the proper attention. For one thing, it is a very intelligent film. Sure, you have the requisite "duty" jokes that will keep the kids (and possibly the adults sitting next to me who shall remain nameless) laughing but overall, many of the bits are geared toward an adult audience (though none of it crossed the line to become inappropriate for younger viewers, a quality I appreciated). There are also a ton of little details (you might even consider them Easter Eggs of a sort) that are geared specifically to the gaming population, all of which brought great approval from the audience. The voice work, too, is spectacular. Reilly is the perfect actor to bring Ralph to life and he brings a real sharpness to his role. In addition, Silverman, McBrayer, Jane Lynch, and Alan Tudyk do an excellent job in their respective roles and all of them blend together with their characters. This is a quality I greatly appreciate as I feel that too many animated films utilize their voice actors only to create familiarity with the audience instead of having them actually act. As in, "Hey! That's Adam Sandler talking! Now I like this movie!" I find this very distracting and annoying. Here, though, the actors lend both their voices and their talents to the cast and I think Wreck-It Ralph is much the better for this. I was especially impressed by Tudyk, whose voice was completely unrecognizable to me until the final credits rolled.
Perhaps the most impressive feat Wreck-It Ralph pulls off comes in the form of keeping its narrative integrity and momentum together despite undergoing a fairly significant scene shift. Ralph's stay in "Sugar Rush" takes up a solid half (or more) of the film and that world is dramatically different from the film's initial setup. I was a bit concerned that this would result in a drop-off in interest/quality but instead the film just keeps on rolling. Wreck-It Ralph is a wonderfully fun, smart film that should keep a wide-ranging audience happy and instantly takes up residence amongst my favorite Disney films of all- time.
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Not Bad but Can't Imagine Kids Sitting Through It
The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) wants more than anything to be respected in the pirate community. A consistent underdog, the Captain once again enters the race for the Pirate of the Year award before being blown away by the stout competition. Determined to change his fortune, the Captain and his crew set out on a series of misadventures that fail to bring home the booty they had expected. Desperate and downtrodden, the crew comes across a lonely scientist who turns out to be none other than Charles Darwin (David Tennant). Darwin informs the Captain that his parrot, Polly, is actually the last remaining dodo bird. Sensing an opportunity to make his fortune, the Captain enters Polly in a scientific contest, unwitting opening himself up to the ire of Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).
Admittedly I am not in the target audience for The Pirates! Band of Misfits. I am not a child nor do I have children and more importantly, I've never been a big fan of the previous Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt collaborations. While I respect the Wallace and Gromit films and Chicken Run, I haven't found a reason to fully buy into any of these movies and I've certainly never held much excitement for them. The style of animation is cool in a retro, simple sort of way but quite honestly, I've found all of the Lord-Newitt films to be boring and unfunny. Frankly, I'd given up on these collaborations entirely before The Pirates. The trailer piqued my interest though and I ended up being genuinely intrigued by the time I got around the seeing it.
As is the case far too often, however, almost all of the parts I really enjoyed about The Pirates found its way into the blasted trailer and therefore fell flat in the context of the film. There are a few more laughs here and there but for the most part, if you saw the trailer (and how could you avoid it, honestly, given how fervently the studio pushed it) then you've already cashed in most of the movie's bigger chips. The monkey who communicates through humorous cards, the misguided pirating shenanigans, the sea monster bit, etc. all of the funnier bits can be found in the three minute preview. On the flip side, much of the film's plot is completely unexpected and the tone is significantly different than what I imagined going in. The Darwin component caught me off guard and the twist that he initially brings to the table is great. But those plot points are almost always swallowed up by the lack of interest that began brewing within me from very beginning.
The Pirates definitely has a British sensibility at its core and that comes in to play in terms of the unhurried, meticulous way in which Lord and Newitt take the audience through the narrative. I love British films and television shows and I thoroughly appreciate the detailed way that British filmmakers tend to tell their story. But good grief, that style just doesn't work at all in a kid's film. I cannot imagine any of the kids I work with even sitting through The Pirates let alone coming away impressed. I laughed a few times and I enjoyed the handful of obligatory adult-themed bits, but I had to work to get through this film more than I ever should when watching an 88 minute kid's movie.
Please see my reviews at thesoapboxoffice.com
Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
A Truly Unbelievable True Story
In 1971, folk-rock musician Sixto Rodriguez released his second and final American album on Essex Records out of Detroit. Upon selling literally no copies of the record, Rodriguez was dropped from his label and began a short existence as a struggling artist in the bar scene, a role that didn't suit him, and subsequently led to his on-stage suicide. A complete failure on American soil, somehow Rodriguez's debut album, "Cold Fact", found its way to South Africa and became a huge sensation to a country deeply divided by the apartheid. Before long, Rodriguez's songs became an anthem of sorts for the lower class of South Africa and the middle class who supported the end of the apartheid but lacked a rallying cry. The Rodriguez albums became more and more popular, making him bigger than Elvis or The Beatles in South Africa though almost nothing was known about the man. In the late 90s, a pair of Rodriguez fans, Stephen Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, sought to find out more about their hero and what led to his untimely demise. Through a string of strange events and many months of searching for information, the pair finally broke their story wide open when they were put in touch with Rodriguez, alive and well, making a living as a construction worker in Detroit.
The story told in Searching for Sugar Man is one that would be deemed completely unrealistic if it were presented in a scripted drama. Stuff like this just doesn't happen, even if many of the events took place before the Internet boom. First of all, when you hear the songs Rodriguez penned for his two albums (spliced in continually through the course of the film), you find yourself completely shocked that the guy didn't make it here. Every record producer or former collaborator dug up by director Malik Bendjelloul goes above and beyond in praise of Rodriguez, all of them vexed as to why he never made an impact on the American charts. His songs are reminiscent of the best of Bob Dylan, a soulful bluesy brand of folk that pulls no punches in the writing and is backed by a rich, unique voice. Second, the myth of what became of Rodriguez and his on-stage death was so widely believed as to become written into the history books as fact. Everyone beyond the handful of people actually connected to the man knew him to be dead. And third, the way in which this one man, of all the bands and musicians from the era, became such an enduring sensation in a foreign country, completely unbeknownst to him or really any of his inner circle, is nearly beyond belief. Again, stuff like this just doesn't happen.
The back half of the film centers on the rediscovery of Rodriguez and his return to the stage in 1998. Footage from his six night concert series in South Africa shows Rodriguez to be a proficient, comfortable performer who was in no way intimidated by the throng of adoring fans that flocked to the arenas. Even if Searching for Sugar Man was a complete miss in every department, it would still be worth the price of admission if only to see the reaction of the fans in the packed house when their hero, long believed to be dead, took the stage for the first time. It compares to Beatlemania, Bieber Fever, or any other music- related madness that has gripped a nation. Inserted in amongst the concert footage and the interviews with adoring fans and collaborators are moments with Rodriguez and his three daughters, all of whom paint the same picture of their father as a simple man who never needed the spotlight but nevertheless graciously accepts it and thrives in it. At the time of filming, Rodriguez was still working in the construction industry despite having to take occasional leaves of absence to play sold out shows across the ocean. It is an almost unbelievably surreal life that Rodriguez lives and yet it seems entirely reasonable to the man and his kin.
From a filmmaking standpoint, Searching for Sugar Man isn't flawless. Much of the post-production value seems a bit dated or perhaps cheap and the built-in drama of what became of Rodriguez didn't completely work for me, though it did for others in my party. Nevertheless, the story is such an engrossing one as to make up for a multitude of sins and Bendjelloul does a masterful job of mixing the interviews with his subjects in order to make Rodriguez's tale a cohesive, multi-faceted one complete with humor, tears, and a sense of sheer wonderment. This is a triumphant film that deserves the award attention it is sure to get and one that I hope many of you will seek out.
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Casa de mi Padre (2012)
Bold Move for Ferrell Pays Off
The son of a wealthy Mexican landowner, Armando Alvarez (Will Ferrell) is a simple man who is only entrusted with small tasks around the ranch. When his brother Raul (Diego Luna) returns home with a plan to bring in more money, Armando is initially excited about the proposition despite his jealousy over Raul's new fiancé, Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez). Soon, however, it becomes apparent that Raul's plan involves the drug trade, drawing unwanted interest from both the local cartel leader Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal) and a corrupt DEA agent (Nick Offerman). With the family's legacy in danger and his own life on the land, Armando must become the man neither he nor his father thought he could ever be.
Told entirely in Spanish, Casa de mi Padre plays out exactly the way it is intended, as a mix of Spanish telenovela melodrama and Will Ferrell's manchild foolishness. There are few surprises here and at times this film becomes tiresome but then again, there's something to be said for committing to a bit and sticking with it religiously, and in this way Casa is a success. I half expected Casa to turn into a Scary Movie-like parody but instead Ferrell and the rest take great pains to approach the subject matter with a seriousness that it really doesn't deserve. In doing so, Ferrell sells the movie enough to make one buy in, at least enough to stay relatively interested in a low budget, low expectation movie. If Casa were a car and Ferrell the dealer, you wouldn't buy it as a brand new, turbo charged Mustang but you could grab onto it as a used Camry with reasonable mileage. And really, that's all one should expect from a $6 million indie film built around the idea of Will Ferrell speaking Spanish, no?
The actors surrounding Ferrell are adequate in their roles, though none are asked to do much of anything. Rodriguez fits the bill as the beautiful but troubled love interest and she, better than anyone else in the cast, seems to roll with Ferrell's antics. A scene in which Armando and Sonia become, shall we say, romantically entwined, the lead-up to and execution of which is so absurd as to bring about laughter even though I should know better. Here Rodriguez is an excellent muse for Ferrell. At the end of the day, though, Casa is virtually a one man show, a platform for Ferrell to do something different while still staying in a comfortable place. In comparison to his other films (of which I am a great and lifelong fan), Casa is fairly weak but if nothing else Ferrell should get credit for thinking outside the box and doing something a bit risky. There's more to like here than I anticipated, included the blatantly fake backdrops and at least one scene that is ripped from the pages of a Monty Python sketch, making Casa a modest success in my book.
Please see my reviews at thesoapboxoffice.com
Total Recall (2012)
Adequate and That is All
Allow me a moment to break down my review writing process.
1. See a movie; 2. Discuss that movie with whoever I saw said movie with or, if I saw said movie alone, engage in a Gollum-like solo discussion; 3. Spend one to two days decompressing to allow myself to fully grasp the film and settle in on an opinion; 4. Write the review.
It is the third portion of this equation that can cause me problems. I'm an opinionated guy and sometimes breaking those opinions down into a well-reasoned statement. On the other hand, this section of the writing process proves equally challenging when a movie like Total Recall comes along and leaves me almost entirely devoid of opinion whatsoever, prompting me to give the very vague summary of, "Well, it certainly was a movie."
In the future, the world has been ravaged by the inevitable nuclear war. As a result, only two countries remain: The United Federation of Britain which consists of a chunk of Western Europe and The Colony, formerly known as Australia. Each day, lower income workers from The Colony travel through the earth's core in a super subway known as The Fall to work in the UFB. Like many of his contemporaries, Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell) is unhappy with the life he shares with his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale). On a whim, Doug pays a visit to Rekall, a company that inserts memories into the brain, giving one the feeling of having done something fun, adventurous, or dangerous at a fraction of the cost. But when Doug is strapped into a chair, his real memories are accessed and a host of UFB troops besiege him, claiming that he is a spy. His reflexes take over and he quickly dispatches the troops in a manner that he would have never dreamed possible. Forced to go on the run to discover the truth about his identity, Doug comes in contact with Melina (Jessica Biel), an old friend who insists that he plays a vital role in the fight between the UFB's Chancellor Cohaggen (Bryan Cranston) and the rebels from the colony.
"Adequate" is the word that comes to mind most often when trying to describe Total Recall. A remake of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger "classic" (depending on your use of that word), this version was intended to come closer to the original book written by Phillip K. Dick. Instead, it sort of bridges the gap between the two while attempting to balance the need to remain similar to the 1990 film while still finding ways to strike out on its own. I actually liked the abandonment of the Mars storyline that was central to the 1990 version and the concept of The Fall and the way in which that giant piece of machinery symbolized the struggle between the classes. Other changes, however, didn't make as much sense and in the end, the helpless need for director Len Wiseman and his crew to pay homage to the original became distracting and at times disjointed. There are at least a handful of scenes within this Total Recall that would leave the viewer very perplexed if he/she had never seen the first one. The storyline, too, doesn't measure up to the film's concept and though it isn't a bad narrative, it is certainly bland.
From an acting standpoint, Total Recall is marginally above average. Farrell throws himself into his character and does his best to flesh out his feelings and emotions even if there's not much there to work with. You could make the case that his performance is better than Schwarzenegger's was but the character lacks the magnetism, as it were, that Arnie's version had. Biel and Cranston, as well as Bokeem Woodbine, John Cho, and Bill Nighy are neither asked to do much nor given much to do and as such, they serve their respective mediocre, not-good-but-not- bad purposes. Without question, the star of the film is Beckinsale who has a keen knack for bringing life and glorious power to relatively meaningless characters and films. The Underworld films, for example, are all fairly awful but Beckinsale's fierce charisma makes them worth watching. This role in the original was the jumping off point for Sharon Stone's career but took to the screen for only a few brief moments. Here, Beckinsale chases Farrell from place to place, providing both our lead character and the audience with a tangible adversary while Quaid deals with all the unseen questions about his life. I hope that someday Beckinsale is given an opportunity to play a meaningful role in an actual good film but for the time being, she's pretty great at what she does.
All of this makes Total Recall a decent but thoroughly underwhelming action movie that leans heavily on the action but falls short of making any sort of impact. Had Wiseman gone for a more mysterious, ambiguous conclusion, it could have reached higher but then it might have been too risky in terms of reaching the average summer blockbuster viewer. I can't pick out a single element that is inherently wrong with Total Recall but then again, I can't pick out something that is supremely right, either. It is, at its best, cheap, decent, borderline meaningless entertainment that should probably be reserved for a sick day on the couch rather than a trip to the theater.
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Being Flynn (2012)
De Niro's Best Performance in 15 Years, Film Doesn't Quite Live Up
Like many men of his generation, Nick Flynn (Paul Dano) is defined by his relationship, or lack thereof, with his father, Jonathan (Robert De Niro). Jonathan is a racist, a homophobe, and a drunk and he abandoned Nick and his mother (Julianne Moore) when Nick was only a small boy, communicating with his son only through letters. The only bonds these two share are blood and a preoccupation with writing. But despite his disgust for the man, Nick never can quite shake the need to live up to his father's image, even if that image is completely fabricated. After nearly twenty years of silence, Jonathan reaches out to Nick in need of a favor and almost out of curiosity more than anything else, Nick lends a hand and suddenly finds himself interacting with a man he both hardly knows and knows all too well. Before long, Jonathan has been forced to take up residence in the homeless in which Nick works, forcing the younger Flynn to take a long and painful trip down the path to internal peace with both his father and himself.
Being Flynn is based on the memoir of the real-life Nick Flynn, who worked as a social worker in a Boston homeless shelter in the late '80s where he ended up under the same roof as his father. The tale of the Flynns is a complex one to say the least and it is presented here in a style that pulls no punches. Indeed, Being Flynn is much more difficult to watch that I expected going in. Jonathan Flynn is, for lack of a better, family-friendly term, a miserable old coot, a holdover from a different time who has never adjusted to the world around him. On top of his vocal racism and homophobia, he is thoroughly arrogant in the worst way possible: he's never accomplished anything with his life and yet he expects others to treat him as if he has. In Jonathan's mind, there have only been three great American writers and he is one of them, despite never having had a work published. Worse yet, a life of poor choices and weighty entitlement have only aided in the speed with which his brain is deteriorating, leading Jonathan to lash out violently in both word and action. In short, he is an impossible character to love and even to feel pity for him proves difficult. In the midst of this stands Nick, torn between the childhood need for a father and the adult reason that tells him to kick the man to the curb. He simultaneously hates his father and desires his approval. This dynamic creates a tense, painful atmosphere that made it a challenge for me to sit still without squirming. To be honest with you, I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
On the one hand, it could be argued that director Paul Weitz's goal is to stick the viewer squarely in the middle of the awkward and terse central relationship and force the audience to engage. In this way, Being Flynn is a great success. But on the other hand, being this close to the fray, so to speak, also forces the viewer to react to Jonathan in a personal nature. For me, this led to the overwhelming feeling that Jonathan would deserve whatever fate befell him and stripped me of any emotional attachment I might have had to his plight. Being Flynn should be relatable to anyone who has ever struggled with his or her relationship with a parent but instead I found myself sympathizing some for Nick and feeling nothing beyond "good riddance" for Jonathan.
That's a shame, too, because this is without question the most significant role De Niro has taken on in well over a decade. This might be his best performance since 1996's Sleepers and it is a fantastic, hopeful sight to see him go back to something worthwhile. Despite nearly 15 years of utter mediocrity, I am still of the opinion that when given a reason to invest, De Niro is one of the five best actors in the industry, only he keeps taking awful role after awful role. He does an excellent job of fully committing to Jonathan, creating a memorable character, even if it is memorable for being a wretched human. Likewise, Dano is very good in his role and brings a lot of realism to the part. In the hands of another director (not necessarily better hands, just different), Being Flynn might have turned into a showcase piece for Dano, for which I could see a world in which he would garner award attention. As it is, however, De Niro overshadows him and perhaps this keeps Dano (and Nick) from reaching his full potential. Being Flynn is an interesting film and one that is almost as tough to grade as it is to watch. At times it makes a push to point itself toward "great" but more often than not I felt it floundered despite the best efforts of cast and crew.
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