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Taken 2 (2012)
The story is a bit laundered and rinsed from the original, everything is merely imitation
Released in 2008, Taken came out of nowhere to earn $145 million at the box office on just a $25 million budget. The movie-going public recognizes fresh material when they see it. Taken was original, creative, driven, and hosted one of the most memorable protagonists in recent memory. Of course they would have to make a sequel to wring some more money out of Taken's fans.
A review of a movie sequel which starts outs praising the first installment instead of the new story is most likely not going to be very kind to the unfortunate title which ends in the number 2. Taken 2 keeps Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, Famke Janssen as his ex-wife Lenore, and the always relentlessly annoying Maggie Grace as his daughter Kim. Rule of thumb - if Maggie Grace is cast in your film, it will probably stink. This is her second feature film in 2012, after Lockout, so she is 0-2 this year. The bad guys are also mostly the same; they are the extended family of the first group of Albanians Bryan killed after they kidnapped his daughter and sold her into sex slavery. Now they want revenge; they must honor their dead sons and brothers. It doesn't matter that their sons and brothers were human traffickers, rapists, and murderers. Family honor is family honor ya know?
Bryan is growing close with his family again. After a few days of work in Istanbul as a heavily armed bodyguard, Byran invites Lenore and Kim to Turkey to take in the sights and relax in a very posh hotel. Fortunately for the Albanians, this is where they are going to kidnap Bryan, transport him back to Albania, and torture him to death. The introduction of mom and daughter is a cherry on top for the head bad guy Murad (Rade Serbedzija). He is older with grey hair; I mention this because all of the other couple dozen bad guys run together, he is the only one you will remember. In Taken, Bryan had it comparatively easy. He had one person to save and could methodically move through the ranks of thugs as he stabbed and shot his way to the top. Now, not only does he have to watch his own back, he must save both mom and daughter, sometimes alternating which one he can help at any given moment.
The original Taken was so good because of Bryan's practical and purposeful methods of extracting information, Neeson's deadpan delivery, and the ins and out of seedy Paris locales. Now take everything which made Taken a great movie and divide it by two. You already know the story, you know Bryan will talk slowly and concisely about how he has certain skills, and this time you get to suffer a bit more because Maggie Grace gets more screen time. The camera work also takes a nosedive during hand to hand combat. The camera shakes, jumps up and down, does some jumping jacks, and the average edit is probably .002 seconds. The audience has no hope of logically following who is punching whom or where a new bad guy springs up from. Scenes where Bryan fights with a loaded pistol are much easier to watch.
It's not that I'm mad at writer Luc Besson or director Olivier Megaton; they probably were under a lot of pressure to re-create the Taken magic. Unfortunately, they did not do a very good job. The story is only a bit laundered from the first one and everything else is merely imitation. Stay away from Taken 2, it will only remind you of its superior predecessor.
Time travel can be confusing, but let Gordon-Levitt & Willis worry about that; you get to sit back & enjoy a great movie
Time travel is confusing. Once you think you may have a grasp on it and have ironed out the 'what-ifs', a new paradox will pop up and collapse your argument which was a house of cards anyways. There are too many holes, and especially plot holes, when you try to rationally reason through what it means to travel through time and change the past. Once time travel is invented, hasn't it always been invented then? If you go back in time and change something, will you just disappear because your specific future no longer exists?
Looper sidesteps this whole enigma by having old Joe (Bruce Willis) tell his younger self that there is no use trying to figure it all out; it will just confuse you. This one statement immediately smooths out the conversation he is having with young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the audience's mental gymnastics, and while still leaving them right there in front of you, chooses to ignore the Grand Canyon sized plot holes. If you spend enough time with a pen and a sheet of paper, you will most likely identify a dozen or so glaring issues with jumping back through time, but where is the fun in that? With Looper, it is enough to recognize you have a creative story to watch and gifted actors to watch carry it out.
The year is 2044, not so far in the future to imagine teleportation and interstellar flight, but far enough to dream up new technology, weapons, and illicit drugs. 2044 is quite similar to today's reality, but its every day norms and today's extreme edges magnified by 1000. There are hover motorcycles, currency is literally based on gold and silver, and the drug all the kids are using is administered through eyedrops and appears to have the effects as cocaine. There is also some glaring income inequality, you either have money or you do not; there is no middle class. The city landscape shows thousands of people living on the sidewalks and sometimes in the middle of the street. If someone steals from you, it looks like you are allowed to pull out your personal shotgun and teach them a severe lesson.
Young Joe is a looper. At a specific time and always in the same place, the edge of a corn field, a hooded person will appear out of nowhere and all Joe has to do is immediately pull the trigger on his weapon and get rid of the body. These unfortunate souls are being sent back through time from 30 years in the future where time travel is illegal; therefore, it has morphed into a black market time travel system run by the mob. Young Joe is paid handsomely to do these simple tasks and spends the rest of his day and most of the night going to a club to drink, dance, take drugs, and spend time with Suzie (Piper Perabo), his favorite lady of the evening.
There are rules to follow though. Since the system is run by the mob, breaking the rules is frowned upon. I will not go into the rules because young Joe does a good job explaining to you what they are. In his film noir, gravelly voice, which is trying to match a young Bruce Willis in style, Joe opens the movie and brings you up to speed on what has been happening with the time travel business and his specific spot on the food chain. He has looper friends with Seth (Paul Dano) as his closest one and he gets called in to see the boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), from time to time. Other than that, young Joe is really running his own loop with his day job and his nightly activities.
Old Joe effectively ends that routine as soon as he pops into the corn field out of thin air. One would think that young Joe would have some questions or would want to cut his older self some slack, but no such luck. Young Joe enjoys his current situation and is in no frame of mind to have it messed with, even if it is a version of him doing the interrupting. Old Joe is on a quest to change the past and does not seem too pleased to run into his former self either. These two are the same man, but they certainly are different people. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is really the leading man here because Willis is in more of a supporting role and has noticeably less screen time; however, Bruce still gets top billing on the poster and in the credits. I wonder if that chafes Gordon-Levitt?
Both Gordon-Levitt and Willis are very good here. On one hand, they are playing the same person and must try and match each other's facial ticks and mannerisms, but on the other hand, Gordon-Levitt is playing a kid against Willis's older and yes, wiser, character. Another supporting character is Sara (Emily Blunt) but I leave it to you to discover her role. Sara is saddled with most of the slower scenes in the middle which drag on a bit, but it's good to take a break from Joe, both young and old, after awhile. Looper was written and directed by Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) who should be commended for sitting down and puzzling through what must have been a very arduous screenplay.
You will not understand the physics of how everything works in Looper (probably because the physics actually don't work), but you don't have to. Let young and old Joe worry about that. You just get the pleasure of sitting back and enjoying an original, thought-provoking, and well made sci-fi, action thriller.
Soderbergh's take on the action genre; Haywire's minimalist style works and Gina Carano is a pleasure to watch kick butt
Haywire has style, almost too much style. Since it is a Steven Soderbergh film, a certain amount of gloss and creative camera shots are expected, but Haywire has more gloss and polish than average. It also has in-your-face brutal violence. There are relatively few firearms; the violence is one-on-one mortal combat to the death between somewhat evenly matched opponents, even though one of the fighters is a woman. It's The Limey with extended camera sequences and an absolutely gorgeous protagonist.
Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is a private contractor with a particular set of lethal skills. You hire her to rescue hostages, take down gangs, etc Her boss and ex-boyfriend, always a good combination, is Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) who sets up her missions. Their firm is hired by Alex Coblenz (Michael Douglas) who represents some nameless government agency and a State Department functionary with a very fuzzy role in all of this is Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas).
It does not really matter who works for who or exactly how each piece of the confusing plot puzzle is set up, the film focuses in close-up on Mallory and her quest to not only survive, but to achieve revenge. Mallory is being set up for murder. We do not know why but somebody wants her out of the picture. Is it Kenneth, Rodrigo, or Alex? Maybe it is even one of her co-workers, perhaps the physically capable but not so bright Aaron (Channing Tatum) or the suave Paul (Michael Fassbender). Figuring out who the puppet master is behind the curtain is also a small sub-plot; let's get back to Mallory.
Gina Carano shows zero emotion on her face, even after she head butts enemies, breaks vases on their heads, and chokes them out with her legs. In real life, she was a professional Muay Thai fighter before switching to acting. She was cast in the TV show American Gladiators, not the game show but the scripted one, which is where Soderbergh saw her. Screenwriter Lem Dobbs, who worked with Soderbergh previously on The Limey and Kafka, wrote the script specifically for Carano and I imagine the rest of the A-list cast raised their hands to join because they wanted to work with one of the best directors in the business. Douglas is back again after starring in Soderbergh's Traffic.
Soderbergh made some very specific and very effective choices in his version of a straight up action thriller. The shots are much longer than the standard blink and you miss a jump-cut editing style for fight scenes. Mallory is shown in what seems like minute long takes walking down the street detecting surveillance on her or driving a vehicle in reverse very fast. Audiences have been taught to expect quick second long edits during chase and fight scenes which make them appear faster and more hectic. Not in Haywire. The fight scenes are uninterrupted and gruesome slug-fests. The characters actually bleed and stumble around as they would in a real fight.
I also noticed the music and sound effects, or lack of them. Regular actions films tend to pump up the volume during chases and flying fists. Soderbergh turned the music off. The audience only hears grunts, fists colliding with jaws, and painful groans when they connect. When firearms go off, it actually sounds like a pistol shot instead of a tremendous explosion. I found myself really enjoying this minimalist and reality-based version of action scenes.
Steven Soderbergh has crafted a very different action film than audiences are used to here. This most likely hurt the box office in the end, but bravo to the man for attempting to show a truer, and more intense, version of what bodies go through during fights. The plot is immediately forgetful and secondary to the thrill of watching an extremely dedicated and talented female action hero go after the bad guys. Sit back and enjoy the ride.
Celeste & Jesse Forever (2012)
Admirable effort from two first-time writers; an effective relationship study
From an outside observer's perspective, Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are the perfect married couple. They have multiple inside jokes, sing along to the radio together, and have been together since high school. However, Celeste and Jesse are separated and have been for the last six months. Jesse, the less successful of the two professionally, moved out out their house but only to the guest house/studio in the back. They still have dinner with their friends together and Celeste, perhaps without realizing it, still wears a heart-shaped necklace which says "C&J 4ever".
Celeste and Jesse Forever is a first time writing credit for Rashida Jones and Will McCormack who plays Skillz, the on/off again couple's marijuana supplier and sounding board. For first time screenwriters, the screenplay is noticeably witty without tripping into slapstick or tried and true romantic comedy clichés. There are a few problems though, Celeste is a successful trend forecaster (what?) and the line "Are we really doing this?" or "Is this happening right now?" pops up in almost every situation. When Celeste calls out a coffee shop line cutter, the guys says, "Are we really going this right now?" When yoga classmate a Paul (Chris Messina) tries to ask out Celeste, she naturally responds, "Are you really doing this right now?" Yes, this is trivial, but if dialogue like this distracts the audience during the film, it is unnecessary.
Jesse wants to get back together with Celeste. Yes, they fight and he mooches off of his wife because he is an unemployed artist, but they are so good together. After getting his hopes dashed on too many times, Jesse finally screws up his nerve and moves out. This knocks the wind out of Celeste. For her, Jesse is as predictable as the morning commute. When she doesn't feel like having his company, she just sends him back outside to the studio. But now he's gone. Does Celeste even know who she is sans Jesse?
At work, Celeste works comfortably for Scott (Elijah Wood), a homosexual who makes tacky gay jokes to try and seem more gay. Aside from trend forecasting and promoting her new book 'Shitegeist' which is about the death of quality pop culture, their firm also markets and brands artists. Their new client is Riley Banks (Emma Roberts) who is written as a completely vapid imitation, or actual representation, of Ke$ha. Celeste and Riley have an uncomfortable relationship as Celeste looks down on Riley as all that is wrong with the world and Riley cannot stand Celeste's condescension. It does not help that Riley's new music single is 'Do It On My Face'.
Perhaps Celeste finds it so hard to work with Riley and competently function in day-to-day life because she is having second thoughts and regrets. Was Jesse really so bad? Now that is he is out from under her shadow, what if Jesse straightens himself out, matures, but meets someone else? These are weighty issues for a comedy which turns out to be deeper and incorporates more drama than the average rom com.
Celeste and Jesse Forever is an admirable start for two new writers, a worthy relationship study, and I recommend it for any young couple on a Friday night.
2 Days in New York (2012)
Low brow farce disguised as culturally astute and insightful comedy; one disastrous mess
French tourists are obnoxious, loud, dirty, and oblivious to anything other than their petty concerns. I was under the impressions these are adjectives for American tourists when they venture over to the Old World; however, according to Julie Delpy's new film, 2 Days in New York, French people are truly garish. Five years after her similar effort, 2 Day in Paris, a busy and crowded New York apartment is the setting for a very disappointing movie.
Marion (Delpy) and Mingus (Chris Rock) live together with a modern, blended family setup. Marion has her toddler from a previous marriage and Mingus shares custody with his own elementary school aged daughter. They live in a cramped apartment somewhere in Manhattan but appear to be financially stable. Mingus hosts a few radio shows and writes for the Village Voice while Marion is a conceptual artist who is about to open her first solo show in a ritzy art gallery. The show opening is the impetus behind the invasion of the unbelievable French relations.
Marion's father Jeannot (Albert Delpy) arrives with his other daughter Rose (Alexia Landeau) and her current boyfriend of the day Manu (Alexandre Nahon). Instead of comedic cultural insights or witty observations, the audience is saddled with farce and stupidity. They are delayed in customs for attempting to smuggle in 40 pounds of sausage and cheese. They cut their toe nails at the dinner table, use Mingus' tooth brush during some off-screen sexual tryst in the bathroom, and latch on to a middle school level running gag that Mingus's name rhymes with cunnilingus. I have been to France multiple times where the hell were these people hiding?
Marion's art show is based on two themes, photographs of ex-lovers waking up in the morning showing how a relationship develops over time and the auctioning off of her soul. To the highest bidder, she will sign a contract whereby her immortal soul will be owned by another person. Sound familiar? It should; Bart Simpson sold his soul to Milhouse in a Simpson's episode. Way to dig deep for creative inspiration there Julie.
A film with Chris Rock and Julie Delpy with New York City as a backdrop has so much promise. Why oh why did Delpy write and direct a script which is unfathomably horrible? There is a sub- plot involving a lie about a brain tumor, the relentless antics of the French family, and the noticeable bad acting from Delpy. She was wonderful in the Before Sunrise/Sunset series, but perhaps she was distracted by he director role this time.
Stay far away from 2 Days in New York, it will just let you down with thoughts of what might have been.
The Bourne Legacy (2012)
Bourne Identity remake with a sci/fi twist; the Bourne franchise deserves better
Jason Bourne is one of the more intriguing film characters of the past decade. He methodically and purposefully found out who he was, who was responsible for his condition, and attempted to bring everything back together again. Even better, he was not a superhero; Jason was just a guy who went through a lot of training. He is elite, but deep down he is still one of us. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), on the other hand, has been tweaked a little bit. He pops pills to up his physical and mental skills. Yes, he is still human too, but perhaps a bit genetically modified. This splash of sci/fi does not help an audience tuned in to the adventures of Jason Bourne connect with the new guy.
When I first heard there was another Bourne installment, this time without Matt Damon, I figured someone either wrote a good script to carry on a new story line, or the studio wanted to churn out a guaranteed cash cow under the title of a proved and successful action series. Writer/director Tony Gilroy wrote the scripts for the first three Bourne films, but this is his first time behind the camera in the series. He successfully directed Michael Clayton and the under- appreciated Duplicity, but now the magic is gone. The Bourne Legacy is stale.
Enduring a painfully slow beginning, The Bourne Legacy reveals it is set at the same point in time as The Bourne Ultimatum. In fact, if you have forgotten the plot points and supporting characters of the previous film, take the time to either watch it again or read about it online before heading into the new feature. Jason Bourne's escapades have thrown multiple CIA operations out in the open and the shadowy powers are frantically trying to sweep them under the rug before either Congress or the press start asking questions. Eric Byer (Edward Norton) orders the termination of Project Outcome, the new series of super agent represented by Aaron Cross. Instead of telling the agents to pack up and go home, the CIA chooses to assassinate them instead. Oh, and they try to wipe out all of the scientists who made them so super in the first place.
Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) is one of those scientists seeking ways to alter chromosomes to make a more perfect human. After surviving annihilation himself, Aaron conveniently scoops the good Dr. out of harms way which sets up an 'us against them' theme quite similar to the one you remember from The Bourne Identity. Unfortunately, The Bourne Legacy noticeably lacks the quality script and thrilling action sequences of that first film. The chase scenes in the new film are edited so atrociously, especially during motorcycle elements, that they are almost impossible to logically follow. You know they are weaving in and out of traffic, there are near misses, and flying bullets; but there are only quick glimpses of that on the screen in the midst of the unsteady camera work and split-second jump cuts.
The Bourne Identity also had a mystery to unravel and wandered around the world trying to find out who was behind the curtain. There is no curtain now, Edward Norton is pulling the strings in plain sight using all of the means in the intelligence community he can lay his hands on. There are armed Predator drones, devious mop-up CIA killing squads, and even a possible super- duper agent; imagine the Schwarzenegger Terminator battling the new T-1000.
Renner and Weisz do their best to remake a film which was already pretty great. Yes, they have new names and faces, but they are running from the same agency, dodging the same bullets, but this time they have a higher chromosomal level on their side. The Bourne Legacy will be known as that film which derailed the very respectable Bourne franchise. Paul Greengrass, the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, was correct when he said any further film would feel like The Bourne Redundancy.
The Queen of Versailles (2012)
The filmmaker did not aim to exploit these classless, tasteless billionaires; they took care of that themselves
Schadenfreude - pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. The entire audience at the screening of The Queen of Versailles experienced this feeling about the Siegel family; they are truly atrocious people. Two years ago, David and Jackie Siegel were billionaires. They had planes, Rolls Royces, multiple nannies for their seven kids, hosted parties for the Miss America pageant while David flirted with the contestants, and sat on a golden throne in their Orlando house during interviews for this documentary. They also began construction on a mansion called Versailles, a project which would become the largest house in the entire United States.
It appears the filmmakers wanted to document the rise of this monstrosity of a house and display the lifestyle of the obscenely rich. Even better, these rich people liked to flaunt in front of the camera, not enjoy their splendor in private ala Bill Gates. David Siegel proudly claims he is individually responsible for George W. Bush winning the state of Florida and therefore the presidency; however, he chuckles that what he did was not exactly legal. Oh yes, schadenfreude. David called himself the 'King of Time Shares'. He built 28 resorts and an enormous building on the Vegas strip, parceled them up, and sold them 52 different times to vacationers. Then, in what must have exceeded all of the filmmakers' expectations, the recession hit and everybody in the country stopped buying time shares.
The Siegels were billionaires and yet, they had no savings. They paid cash for the Versailles house and only later put a mortgage on it because that meant millions more in ready, liquid money. They put nothing away for college funds for their kids. In fact, Jackie stares at the camera exclaiming her children might actually have to go to college now. The Siegels can no longer keep up with the Versailles mortgage payments and put it up for sale unfinished for $75 million. The housing market just crashed, tens of thousands of families are entering foreclosure, including Jackie's best friend, and the Siegels are trying to move a $75 million dollar mistake. The realtors may not be quite up to the task of marketing the house since one of the agents exclaims how unique Versailles (pronouncing it Versize) is.
Nobody is buying time shares, therefore, there is no money coming in to the company, and David lays off 7,000 employees. He also fires 19 household servants. Dogs run around crapping all over the house and nobody picks it up. A lizard dies of lack of food and water, a fish floats at the top of its filthy tank, and one of the kids exclaims, "I didn't know we even had a lizard." Don't worry, Jackie still compulsively shops to add to the ridiculous piles of 'stuff' that the kids do not even know they have. She also maintains her plastic surgery regimen. Jackie's chest has enjoyed being a a third character in this whole mess.
Other than the Michael Moore type of documentaries which have a stated agenda, filmmakers are thought to be neutral arbiters. They film the action, interview the subjects, and edit it in a way fair to all the players. However, no matter how one edits the footage, the Siegels are going to come off looking like some very horrible people. David is 30 years Jackie's senior and now that their funds are rapidly dwindling away, he is starting to get tired of his third wife. He hides in his office (a couch in front of a flat screen surrounded by papers and food scraps) to enjoy being away from the chaos which his house has become.
You will not envy the Siegels. They still have more money than you do, but you would never switch places with them. I walked out of the theater with a new appreciation for my situation in life knowing that most of us are normal folks going about our business and enjoy time with our family and friends. The fact that there are folks like the Siegels out there, who by the way are shocked a bank bailout did not filter down to them, makes you shake your head in shame of the human race.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
A fitting trilogy ending with effective new side characters and one mean villain
Superheroes are usually infallible, except for whatever their one weakness is. What I mean is that after a knock down, drag-out end of the world fight, they are able to get up, wipe the dirt off their shoulder, and walk away without any visible scars. Batman is not superhuman though, he relies on technology and a therapist's dream amount of anger. It has been eight years since the events of The Dark Knight and no Gothamite has seen even a glimpse of Batman (Christian Bale). Coincidentally, nobody has seen reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne either.
Bruce limps now; he shuffles around with a cane, stoops his shoulders, and has no cartilage in his knees. During a fundraiser, he is actually at a disadvantage and lets a cat burglar, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), sneak into his rooms and steal his dead mother's pearls right in front of him. Yep, Bruce Wayne is depressed. Business isn't doing too well either. Along with Luscious Fox (Morgan Freeman) who runs the day-to-day of Wayne Enterprises, Bruce sunk half his money into nuclear fusion research trying to develop clean energy for Gotham City. That avenue does not appear to be taking off any time soon. Alas, if it was just his money, Bruce probably would not be so down in the dumps, but he also took the money of philanthropist and do-gooder Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). Bruce really does not like to lose a good looking lady's money.
The Dark Knight Rises would be an altogether odd Batman film if the main villains were depression and the recession. No worries, the bad guy this time literally emerges from a dark hole in the ground, wears a grotesque mask on his head, and sounds like a hard to understand Darth Vader. Bane (Tom Hardy) is a big guy. One could say he grew up in a rough neighborhood and has been socialized to become the world's, and naturally Gotham's, leading terrorist. He nonchalantly takes over and disintegrates a CIA aircraft, takes the entire New York Stock Exchange hostage, and oh yeah, gets his hand on a neutron bomb which he hangs over the heads of the woefully unlucky Gotham citizens. Please Batman, come back to us; but there is no Batman to be found. Gotham City blames the Batman for Harvey Dent's death and despite the best efforts of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to temper their anger, nobody likes Batman too much.
That is just fine with Alfred (Michael Caine). He is more than happy to see Batman hang up his repelling hooks and leather body suit. Besides, he thinks Bruce Wayne can do the world more good than Batman can; especially an older and weathered Batman. But if it wasn't for those gosh darn meddling kids, Batman probably would have stayed out of this whole mess. Rookie police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) knows the truth about Bruce Wayne. How? Well, you will have to watch the film for that; needless to say, I thought it was quite the stretch how he figures it out. Blake works for this film's resident jackass, Foley (Matthew Modine), who is angling to take over for an even more weathered Commissioner Gordon.
The Dark Knight Rises is a big film. I do not necessarily mean that in terms of its budget, its expected box office take, or the IMAX screen I saw it on. Just like The Dark Knight, its underlying philosophy is big. The script dives deeper than the ordinary first layer of is he a superhero or a vigilante? Perhaps Alfred is on to something that what the world needs is another philanthropic billionaire and not a guy hopping around town on his latest crazy gadget. The gadget this time is a kind of batwing, but is just odd looking and clunky. Bane also has his own philosophy, but it is more "We are the 99%" taken to the nth degree combined with a dash of mayhem and some spicy nuclear Armageddon. I only understood about 80% of Bane's dialogue. There are times when he is truly hard to understand. He voice is amplified by a microphone and I think there is an Irish accent in there.
This film is a fine capstone to Director Christopher Nolan's trilogy. It stays away from the campy, make fun of itself side ala Batman Forever and continues the effective choice from the previous film of an incredibly formidable enemy. Just like Heath Ledger's version of the Joker, Bane is not someone you take lightly. Batman can mess around with the Riddler and Mr. Freeze, but Bane would eat those two for breakfast.
Les adieux à la reine (2012)
A fine account of a fictional Marie Antoinette servant rather than a gripping account of the queen herself
The French Revolution kicked off in 1789, not too long after America's ended. Fortunately for King George III, he lived in London and not Philadelphia or Boston. King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were not so lucky; their revolution sprouted on their doorstep. The four days which Farewell, My Queen covers, 14-17 July 1789, were dark days indeed for the French monarchy and their noble hangers-on. Nobody leaves Versailles because it is too dangerous, the Bastille is stormed, and there are pamphlets floating around Paris of 286 named individuals whose heads the revolutionaries wish to chop off. The number one name on that pamphlet is Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger).
Unlike Sophia Coppola's 2006 version of this story, Marie is not as young as she once was. She misses her youth but appears to have found company with the Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). Scandalous rumors circulate not only throughout the palace of the extent of their liaisons, but also through the rest of France. Many believe the Duchess is just as responsible for the people's miserable state of affairs as are the King and Queen. In fact, her name is number three on the guillotine wishlist. However, both of these ladies are merely supporting characters in Benoit Jacqot's version; their story is told through the eyes and ears of the queen's loyal reader, Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux).
Sidonie is at the queen's beck and call whenever she feels in the mood for a play or a novel to be read to her. She does not have a more devoted subject; Sidonie absolutely worships the queen is all she does or could do. The queen recognizes the true adoration in Sidonie's eyes and so employs her as a sort of sounding board and confidant; not to the extent of Duchess de Polignac's level of intimacy, but nonetheless, Sidonie is one of the closest servants to the queen. The other palace servants take note of this and Sidonie appears to be among the more higher-ranking servants. Even downstairs in the servant's quarters there is a caste system of hierarchy and rank. Because Sidonie is extremely well read and discreet on top of it, she is quite the capable spy who can ferret out closely held information when events start to pick up the pace outside the palace walls. Sidonie knows which servants to press for info, whose palms need greasing, and in which particular dark corner of the room to stand to eavesdrop on conversations to acquire the most up to date gossip on how the queen is feeling, who woke the King up in the middle of the night, and how close the revolutionaries are getting to the outside walls.
Unfortunately, what sounds like deep palace intrigue and an interesting history lesson in the French Revolution mostly lands with a thud on screen. Marie Antoinette is seen a few times and the Duchess hardly at all. A movie which spends a lot of time discussing the truth and falsehoods of their relationship only puts them in the same room together once. Sidonie holds your interest as she scurries back and forth trying to please the queen but her limited view of the action also limits the audience's view. As the situation becomes more pressing and hectic, the camera almost latches on to the back of Sidonie's neck as she runs down the long, slick hallways of Versailles. Towards the end, the camera work was becoming a bit distracting. One should not notice the camera's movements too much but after another jerky movement to the right and back left or another awkward close-up, I wished they would just place the camera on a tripod and let it be. What the cinematographer may have thought was innovative and eye- catching was more irritating and a case of needless showboating.
The art and costume directors must have had a field day though. Any film set in 1789 Versailles probably has these types of creative personnel lined up down the block raising their hands to get a shot at it. While Farewell, My Queen works on an aesthetic level to produce a great looking period piece (minus the camera), this film is only for the Francophile. Those who relish any story of Marie Antoinette will probably love this movie no matter what. There is a lot of name dropping and whoever remembers their pre-Napoleon French history class from college may smile and nod as name after name is casually mentioned in conversation. For those who are a bit more discerning in their historical fiction though, you will not take very much away from this film you do not already know. Go enjoy some French wine instead or pick up a copy of A Tale of Two Cities to quench your French Revolution itch.
Take This Waltz (2011)
It is good see acting talent can still gravitate towards quality; Sarah Polley is most certainly quality
What is new and exotic today will eventually, albeit incrementally, morph into routine. Superficially, this applies to the latest products such as vehicles and electronics, but dig a little deeper, and it concerns people. Every now and then, you will meet a person you just connect with. Your wits match, you laugh at the same things, they are outrageously attractive, and you abhor the thought of saying goodbye at the end of the day and going your separate ways. What compounds this situation and serves as the basis for an outstanding film is, perhaps one of the two people who are magnetically drawn together is already married.
Margot (Michelle Williams) is one of those freelance writers who frequently says she wants to be a writer, but she has not started yet. In the meantime, she travels to Nova Scotia to write an update to the official pamphlet for a colonial era village. While there, she meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) who has coincidentally journeyed to the island to sketch and paint. Why the coincidence? They happen to live across the street from one another back in Ontario. Immediately straining credibility limits, Take This Waltz begins on thin ice but very quickly settles down into an entirely engrossing and mesmerizing feature.
Margot and Daniel verbally spar with one another but keep finding ways to bump into one another around town. All of this would be much easier on everyone's guilty feelings if Michelle's husband, Lou (Seth Rogan), was never around or ignored his wife, or was just unpleasant in some overt way. However, Lou is a genuinely nice guy who loves his wife and their situation together. Michelle and Lou have been married for five years, live in a quaint house, and play funny games when the alarm goes off in the morning about who loves the other one more. Lou cooks most of the day because he writing a cookbook all about chicken; this sounds contrived but it works because the audience has never seen it before. Lou's sister, Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), also pops on screen every now and again as Michelle's friend and to carry a small sub-plot as a recovering alcoholic.
Sarah Polley's previous film, the wonderful Away From Her (2006), was about a very hard subject, the onset of Alzheimer's disease in one partner and their institutionalization. At first, the audience assumes Take This Waltz is a break from such weighty subjects and will be a much lighter affair, maybe even a romantic comedy. Oh, but don't be fooled. This film is just as dramatic and heavy. Michelle Williams spends an unusual amount of time in tears. She truly loves her husband and is happy with their lot in life. She cannot conceive of deliberately hurting him. But Daniel just may be her soul mate, if there is such a thing. Their conversations together are profound and meaningful. Every member of the audience will walk out of the theater talking about the scene between Margot and Daniel while they are having martinis. Sarah Polley wrote a very strong screenplay and the dialogue creates scenes of immense magnitude and feeling even though there are just two people chatting over a small table.
This is also a strong cast for what is obviously a very low budget independent film. It is good to know talent still gravitates towards quality. Michelle Williams, Seth Rogan, and Sarah Silverman are some very noticeable names when they appear on a movie poster and stand out even more when they are attached to such a small film effort. As for Williams, this was a much better showcase for her talent than last year's My Week with Marilyn, even though she was nominated for an Academy Award for that. In fact, her performance here blows that one out of the water.
Do yourself a favor and seek out this film. It will most likely be hard to find, but it contains some of the strongest acting, creative writing, and enjoyable filmmaking of the year so far. If not for the clunky meeting in the beginning and an overly long and choppy coda at the end, Take This Waltz was almost perfect. Bravo Sarah Polley.
Your Sister's Sister (2011)
A well written and acted indie comedy; enjoy characters developed over time and with care
Even though Your Sister's Sister is set mostly in the open air of a secluded area of a Puget Sound island, it feels a bit claustrophobic because of the very small cast. There are only three characters who perform 99% of the film's interactions and there are only so many combinations a screenplay can invent to pair two of them off at any given time. There are long, drawn out conversations which have an improvisational feeling about them and are enjoyable to sit back and watch. Audiences conditioned to expect quick cuts, brief sequences, and pointed dialogue may grow impatient with the extended length of scenes, but for those who relish real situations and characters who take more than a few minutes to develop will enjoy getting to know these people, quirks and all.
Jack (Mark Duplass) appears, just by looking at him, to be having a rough time. There are bags under his eyes, he has a few extra pounds, probably from too much booze, he is unemployed, and social conversations he attempts to contribute to have a way of ending awkwardly and uncomfortable for all in the room. His brother died a year ago and he still has no idea how to move on from that. His best friend happens to be his deceased brother's ex-girlfriend Iris (Emily Blunt). Perhaps this is Jack's way of hanging on to something his brother once had. Iris cares for Jack and after one of his completely inappropriate diatribes, she orders him to get on his old bike, peddle down to the Seattle ferry, and go spend a week alone in the woods at her father's cabin. Perhaps some solitude and introspection will kick him out of his funk.
The cabin is not empty though. Someone else with life problems decided to squirrel away there; this is Iris's sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt). Jack and Hannah recognize a bit of themselves in each other, mainly the self loathing bits, and realize that first night together at the cabin that talking about your problems to a stranger over a bottle of tequila is oddly cathartic. Hannah just walked out of a very long-term relationship with her girlfriend and all of their long-term plans they had together. Both Jack and Hannah are searching for what they should do next in life, where to go, and how to change to get there; so maybe this is why they drunkenly end up in bed together.
The film sets itself up to go in many directions. It could have been self-destructive depression for Jack. It could have been a modern west coast version of Walden for lost souls. However, it chose to become a somewhat comedic love triangle. Iris shows up at the cabin early the next morning and Jack decides she does not need to know what happened last night with Hannah. Each of them maintains their own respective agendas and watching them emerge and conflict with one another is amusing and intriguing to wonder how it may play out. Jack is nervous about the truth being revealed, Iris has her own secrets, and Hannah may be trumping them all. This talk about secrets makes Your Sister's Sister sound devious and manipulative but it is not; somehow, the script keeps the atmosphere light and airy.
Writer/director Lynn Shelton has worked with Mark Duplass previously (Humpday) and the summer of 2012 appears to be his emergence to a wider indie public. He has three films in theaters simultaneously (Your Sister's Sister, Safety Not Guaranteed, People Like Us) and reminds me of Jessica Chastain from 2011 who came out of nowhere and seemed to be in a new release every single weekend. British actress Emily Blunt keeps her accent for this film and the plot noticeably includes a few sentences as to why that is. Her being British is not necessary to the film so waiting to see how they end up explaining away her accent causes a bit of an eye roll but it is not too distracting. Rosemarie DeWitt comes out the winner of the three. She has the benefit of playing the most well written character and she has the acting chops to pull it off. Jack is more the clumsy oaf while Iris is more the sounding board for his issues, but Hannah is in on both of their secrets and therefore benefits screen time wise.
Your Sister's Sister is much better than its recent cinematic cousin Safety Guaranteed and aims for more depth in its characters. The film lacks any particular punches which may have catapulted it into more profound waters; however, it is a worthwhile indie film to enjoy in an air conditioned theater on a hot day when the just the thought of another version of Spiderman will not do.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
A phenomenal child actor and solid story are generating well deserved word of mouth; you are going to hear a lot about this film from your friends
Beasts of the Southern Wild is shot through the eyes of a six year old. To Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), the islands of southern Louisiana are a magical place filled with lucky people who do not have to live like cowards behind the levees and only get one holiday a year. Hushpuppy's voice-over reveals the island folk rarely need an excuse to have a party or take another holiday. If this film were shot through the more perceptive eyes of an adult, the audience I bet would get a much different take on things. Extreme poverty, alcoholism, and child neglect are just the first few overt issues which come to mind. It was a very wise move for the filmmakers to stick with the child protagonist. Magical realism is far more acceptable and preferable to an audience than what could arguably be termed child cruelty.
Hushpuppy and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), live in an area called 'The Bathtub'. It is not protected by the New Orleans levee system, people scuttle around from place to place by haphazardly crafted boats, and everyone expects that some day, the melting polar ice caps will submerge their homes and only the strong will survive. It turns out that some day in Beasts of the Southern Wild is now. When Hushpuppy first hears the thunder of the coming storm, she believes it to the be the sound of melting glaciers falling off of Antarctica. It is never mentioned by name; however, the storm appears to be Hurricane Katrina. Since the main part of her father's and his friends' days consist of drinking, there are no preparations for the coming calamity, just praise for the brave souls staying behind for what they claim will be a little wet weather and catcalls to those fleeing behind the levees. Where is mama in all of this? The idea of mama to Hushpuppy is and old, dirty basketball jersey she carries around with her and sometimes talks to. Every now and then, Hushpuppy thinks she sees mama when she glimpses a far away lighthouse or watches an approaching helicopter. Whether mama is dead or has just run off is another unexplained phenomenon kept by daddy.
After the storm, Hushpuppy and daddy float around in their make shift boat which is the back of an old pickup truck with a struggling outboard hanging on behind it. They meet up with a few other survivors who immediately start engaging in activities they do best, drinking. However, this was not your regular storm. The water is not receding, the animals, even the fish, are dying, and whatever sickness daddy had to start with is starting to pick up speed. Throughout the ensuing scenes to remedy their dreadful situation, Hushpuppy keeps the audience involved with her prescient voice-over. A notable example is her comparison of getting old and sick outside of the levee wall versus inside of it. Outside there is savagery; the young will eat the old and move on. Inside, they plug you into the wall (ventilators). Whenever daddy feels he has been a particularly lousy father, he teaches Hushpuppy to do something such as catch a catfish her bare hands and be sure to give it a good punch when she gets it into the boat. There is also an odd side story involving long extent carnivores called aurochs. They represent the savage beasts who kill and eat anything and everything. The allegory is not readily apparent and its payoff is understated at best.
This description sounds starkly bleak, which the subject matter surely is, but the film is very well put together. The scenery looks like it would after biblical destruction, the actors appear to all be locals and have the accents to prove it, and the music is incorporated effectively. The very young actress playing Hushpuppy is phenomenal. Perhaps a few years from now she will realize just how deep her character is written and how only a very minority of child actors could have possible pulled it off. Her father, while not necessarily a sympathetic character, was well cast and while is not particularly an ignorant man, is certainly a man set in his ways determined his progeny will follow in the local footsteps. Having respect for and maintaining the traditions of your place of birth is one thing, but more than likely, Hushpuppy is being set up for a life of substance abuse and unsteady employment. However, that is jumping ahead. Beasts of the Southern Wild is about a very specific time and place with thoughts only of the next meal, not tomorrow, and definitely not next month.
The camaraderie between our heroes and the locals is fun to watch and seeing how they make the best of a horrible situation is quite creative when you see it as Hushpuppy does. There is a high probability this film will continue to progress with strong word of mouth, end up on several Top 10 lists, and be in line for some Oscar nominations. The film is certainly worthy of the word of mouth it is getting because audiences have really not seen anything like this before, but the automatic Top 10 inclusion is a bit far-fetched. It is winning awards for cinematography, but the hand held camera borders on annoying at times. If there is a party, the audience intuitively understands it is fun. Does the camera have to wildly spin around as well? When someone is running, must the camera bounce up and down too? See Beasts of the Southern Wild for the story, the locations, and the child actor. You will tell your friends about it the next day.
To Rome with Love (2012)
Woody Allen sets his camera on Rome this time weaving together an anthology of stories and interjecting Rome as its own character
We have seen Woody Allen's multiple love letters to New York City, London, Barcelona, and Paris; now he sets his satirical eye on the ancient city of Rome. Starting halfway through the previous decade, Woody Allen altered his standard oeuvre from mostly comedic farce with a dash of autobiographical drama set amongst towering New York skyscrapers to films set in major European centers where the city itself is almost its own character. Barcelona nudged its way into the love triangle of Vicky Christina Barcelona and Paris's nightclubs and streets were a central character along with Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein in Midnight in Paris. In To Rome with Love, Woody is even less subtle about his intentions by loudly proclaiming in the film's title what he is up to.
There are multiple stories entering and exiting the stage with even more characters; however, unlike the majority of films which juggle numerous plot lines, these do not intersect; they exist by themselves and involve their own unique Roman characteristics. There is John (Alec Baldwin) who chooses to retrace his former life as a young man in Rome 30 years ago and ends up having a very interesting encounter with Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), Sally (Greta Gerwig), and the flippant Monica (Ellen Page). John has seen it all before and sets himself up as a Greek Chorus variant to the younger crowd. By the end of their section, every man in the audience over 30 should be nodding their heads in agreement about the Sally vs. Monica pros and cons. Their love triangle is a convenient excuse to insert the ancient ruins and architecture which you knew must fit somewhere in the film.
Hayley (Alison Pill) is in her early 20s and fulfills one of the ultimate lost tourist clichés in Rome; she bumps into Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), falls in love, and decides to spend the rest of her life in Italy. Upon hearing the news, Hayley's parents, Phyllis (Judy Davis) and Jerry (Allen), jet over to Rome to meet this guy and survey the situation. In his typical Woody Allen way, Jerry has a lot to say about the turbulence on the flight over, sizes up Michelangelo as a Communist, and can barely stand the irony that Michelangelo's father, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), is an undertaker. Leave it to Woody to be able to fit his absolute phobia of death and all its accompaniments into a film about Rome. This particular film segment uses Roman opera as its backdrop with a very clever farce involving singing in the shower.
The most blatant comedic segment in the film is Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni). He is just a regular working stiff who wakes up at the same time every morning, eats his toast, goes to work, engages in water cooler talk, and comes home. One day, Leopoldo starts getting chased by obsessive paparazzi and screaming autograph seekers wherever he goes who want to know what he likes on his toast, how he shaves, and whether he is a boxers or briefs man. There is no reason for his sudden fame explosion which confuses Leopoldo all the more. This also confused the old ladies sitting next to me; however, this was a brilliant way for Allen to skewer the celebrity fetish. Some people are famous for just being famous even though they have accomplished absolutely nothing.
It seems Woody Allen used his most recent European love letter to fit in some messages he has had stirring around his brain for a little bit. He tackles the odd fascination with know- and do-nothing celebrities, the appeal of going after the vapid and attractive female even though you know she is ridiculous and it will only end badly, and what I suppose is a critique of not being a prude at the beginning of marriage. Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) and Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) have just arrived in Rome after their wedding to start their new life. Through a silly and contrived sequence of events which only serve to set up a ridiculous situation, Antonio winds up with a stunningly gorgeous prostitute, Anna (Penelope Cruz), and Milly winds up tempted by her most favorite actor in the world. This particular part of the film does not work too well but it does provide plenty of laughs as inappropriately clad Anna visits the Vatican.
To Rome with Love is not among the top tier of Woody Allen's decade long infatuation with filming in European locales (Midnight in Paris) but it is certainly not the worst (Scoop). Weaving in and out of these disconnected plot lines is fun and most of them are quite enjoyable. Using Rome and all of its wonderful settings to tie all of his characters together easily helps out what will most likely become one of the more middle of the road and average Wood Allen pictures. However, it is worth noting than an average Woody Allen film is head and shoulders above what is playing down the street in your local multiplex right now.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Enjoy falling into another Wes Anderson fairy tale world this time with runaways, a 45 rpm record player, and a character named Social Services
If the director's name was omitted from the opening credits, you would still know exactly who created Moonrise Kingdom. Wes Anderson's style is so familiar to his fans they would be able to pick out his sixth film anywhere. The character close-ups with them staring directly into the camera are here. The short, simple and declarative sentences are here. Of course, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are here; however, those two are the extent of the usual Wes Anderson film players involved in his latest. There is also the whimsical plot, an omniscient narrator, and a character named Social Services.
Moonrise focuses on two 12 year olds, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). They consider themselves misunderstood and find kindred spirits in one another on a small and isolated New England island in 1965. Sam is in a Khaki Scout troop run under the detailed eye of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). Suzy is an island native being raised by her lawyer parents, Walt (Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), who call each other counselor during conversations. Sam and Suzy follow through on their idea to run away together and are quickly pursued by Suzy's parents, Scout Master Ward, and Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who appears to be the lone policeman on the island.
Sam and Suzy make a good pair. He has absorbed excellent camping and nature skills from the Khaki Scouts and Suzy, after getting tired of feeling like the black sheep of her family, relishes the fact that she is not alone in the world. Sam has been alone a long time. He is an orphan who does not fit in anywhere and is now also pursued by Social Services (Tilda Swinton). These two 12 year olds spend a lot of time in front of the camera together and thankfully pull it off. Moonrise Kingdom would have been in big trouble if Wes Anderson had not found capable kids to fill these shoes.
The adults take on supporting roles either as parents who just don't understand or confused authority figures who cannot figure out why their charges would ever want to run away. Captain Sharp is tired and lonely, the Bishop parents are growing apart (which is not helped by Laura's frequent bullhorn announcements), and Scout Master Ward thought he was running a tight ship of scouts before the run away. He is starkly confused on why anyone would ever want to leave the scouts, even if they are the most unpopular one in the group.
The actual run away escapades, the ensuing search parties, and the developing relationship between Sam and Suzy are best left for the audience to watch and discover rather than read about it in a review. Notable supporting characters pop up now and then which will cause audience members in the know to smile. The most enjoyable part of the film though is Wes Anderson's familiar atmosphere. There are not too many films whose world you wouldn't mind drifting off into. Plenty of people would raise their hands to jump into a Wes Anderson world, be it in such previous efforts as Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and now Moonrise Kingdom.
Robert Yeoman has been the director of photography on all six Wes Anderson films and the audience can see it immediately. The long, panning shots, the in your face close-ups, and the ever so slight fairy tale feeling are all trademarks of his style and camera work. The script is up to Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums standards and thankfully surpasses the lesser efforts of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. Co-written with Roman Coppola, the dialogue is what you expect from Wes Anderson and the scenes with the 12 years olds are spectacularly written. These are not just children, perhaps under-sized adults is a more suitable term.
Thank goodness for Wes Anderson. Without him, the cinema would be a far less interesting place to go to. His peer group includes the Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Cameron Crowe. Together, that list makes a formidable effort to educate movie-goers about what true films are capable of and continue to push back against the mundane garbage you usually are served from the likes of Michael Bay and Adam Sandler.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
April from Parks & Rec gets her own movie with a script trying way too hard for quirky
Aubrey Plaza has this look about her. She is short with large eyeballs so she has this way of looking up at people and showing them non-verbally that she thinks they are morons and whatever situation she is in at the moment is stupid. If you are a fan of the TV show Parks & Recreation, you have seen this character before in April Ludgate. The filmmakers of Safety Not Guaranteed most likely thought, "Well, we have this character straight from Parks & Rec, I guess we'll hire the same actress." Darius (Plaza) is a direct rip-off of April Ludgate; however, instead of working for Amy Poehler in Pawnee, Indiana, she is an intern at Seattle Magazine.
Darius and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) volunteer to tag along with one of the magazine's journalists, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), for a few days out to the cold Washington State coast to track down the guy who posted an abnormal classified ad. Kenneth (Mark Duplass) seeks a partner for time travelling, but the prospective partner must bring their own weapons and he warns them that their safety is not guaranteed. This is not a foundation for the hardest hitting journalism, but then again, the film does not make out Seattle Magazine to be the most informative periodical.
Picking up where Jeff fails, Darius uses some of her feminine skills to convince Kenneth she is interested in being his time travelling partner and they embark on training. Training consists of target practice with a pistol, breaking and entering and grand larceny at a research lab, and sitting around a campfire playing the zither. Jeff, meanwhile, tracks down his old flame from 20 years ago. He has idealized a summer from his past and is convinced Liz (Jenica Bergere) is the one who got away. A simple example to explain just what kind of person Jeff is comes from this conversation with Liz, "So, tell me about your life Jeff. Well, I have an Escalade."
There is something off about Safety Not Guaranteed and I believe it is the script; it tries way too hard to be the next quirky comedy. First of all, her name is Darius? Strike one. Three oddly matched and eccentric people go on a road trip, share a hotel room, and Jeff spends an inordinate amount of time trying to get Arnau laid. Strike two. The zither is strike three. Also, there is an undercurrent of mental illness only hinted at in the script but far more blatant on screen about Kenneth and his time travel ideas. Would a journalist really attempt to write an article mocking a guy who could have a serious mental issue all because he posted a newspaper ad?
Mark Duplass, who is also this film's executive producer, might as well be channeling Zach Galifianakis and his character from the Hangover series. Everything he does is over the top, aimed at the cheap laugh, and leaves a million unasked questions about how he has gotten to this point in his life. Duplass directed both Jeff, Who Lives at Home and Cyrus so he should be well aware of the importance of three dimensional characters and how fast the mocking of a character that may or may not be all there can get old with the audience real quick. Perhaps he is not aware since Cyrus was pretty horrible.
April from Parks & Rec does not need her own spin-off story. Her character works best as a sidekick who shows up every now and then to roll her eyes, say something snarky, and move on. A full feature length film of that attitude wears thin. Jeff's subplot with his long lost love Liz is more promising and works out exactly how it would in real life, so here is a big kudos for first time screenwriter Derek Connolly. However, if Connolly had throttled back a bit on the overt attempt to be quirky ala Zooey Deschanel, Safety Not Guaranteed would have been far better for it.
The Avengers (2012)
The superheroes have the right script and the right director, but the villain does not pack the punch they need to truly become The Avengers
After setting it up with multiple films about how the individual characters gained their super powers, The Avengers finally brings together all of the heroes in one story to either work together as team to defend Earth or fight amongst each other aided by their massive egos and verbal bravado. Perhaps never before in cinema history have there been so many movies released as prequels to set up the eventual crown jewel. Batman and Superman only met in the comics, not on the big screen. The Avengers appears to be sort of a test case to see if so many leading superheroes can all share the same screen.
While all six characters each receive a certain amount of on screen time and side story, some are pushed more into the foreground than others. As Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is a fan favorite and is always handy with a funny quip, he is front and center along with Captain America (Chris Evans) who even though does not have much of a super power, places himself in a sort of leadership role within the group. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and the two characters that did not get their own films, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) all fight for the leftover screen time in the background. The puppet master is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who spends most of his effort in sheep dog mode herding these guys from their billion dollar towers or their self-imposed exile.
So what possible threat is great enough to require the efforts of six superheroes? Eh, it's just Loki (Tom HIddleston); Thor's adopted brother who has a chip on his shoulder. He zooms down to Earth with greasy hair, a ridiculous hat, and the backing of a large and formidable alien Army known as The Chitauri. Countering Loki would seem like a job for just Thor or just Iron Man, not the catalyst for The Avengers to finally come together as a team. Ah, but here is where the film really takes off. Most of these super beings are not team players. Iron Man's ego is way too big to share space with somebody else, the Hulk does not trust himself to walk down the street, and Captain America can't believe these prima donnas represent the future America which remains quite strange to him.
Entrusted with helming this new and star-studded film is Joss Whedon, the brains behind Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel. He has only directed one movie before this, the wonderful Serenity. I would have guessed the studio would go with a more experienced director; however, Whedon has proved before he is more than capable with this type of material. I'm not talking about action movies, but the verbal sparring, witty conversational scenes, and complicated story which must make a lot of room for almost too many characters. Whedon brings his trademark strengths with him including humor. When you think of The Hulk, the words humor and ironic laughter do not pop up in the first 20 adjectives to describe him, but in The Avengers, The Hulk becomes the most amusing character to watch which is all due to Whedon's skill.
There are a few details which do not work as well as others which hurt the film's appeal a little bit. To bring The Avengers together and mold them as a team requires a tremendous villain; however, Loki is not that guy. He is more of a villain's sidekick or henchman rather than the main baddie. Then there is Nick Fury's helicarrier which can also cloak itself and appears to be an upgrade, but direct rip-off of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Oh, and Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill was the absolute wrong casting choice for her role. An unknown actress is always better for a supporting role because every time she was on screen, all I could see was Robin from How I Met Your Mother.
Those are just details though. Whedon shows he was able to weave together a complex sextet of superheroes and take them through the difficult process of becoming a team. For simplicity's sake, some heroes are featured much more than others, but any other script and director would have made the same choices. The Avengers is very good during its climactic fight scene where all of the plot threads come together, but Loki as the villain is just not up to the challenge. Hopefully, whatever sequels come down the line are able to up the ante a little bit.
Lazy and amateur filmmaking destroys what is actually an interesting idea; unfortunately it is in the wrong hands here
Lockout is a product of outright laziness. There is nothing new here, nothing unique, and nothing to recommend. Aside from a few good jokes from our hero, Snow (Guy Pearce), the film has nothing going for it. The plot is stock beyond belief, the dialogue is groan-inducing, and the action editing is some of the worst in years. What is technically a good idea on paper, a prison break in space, is spoiled with extremely lousy and inept filmmaking.
Snow has been set up. He is convicted of a crime he did not commit and is on the way himself to the maximum security space prison known as MS-1. Coincidentally, the President's daughter, Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace), is on a fact finding mission to MS-1 when an inattentive security guard sets in motion an impossible chain of events which ends up with all of the prisoners woken up from stasis, released from their cells, very quickly in control of an immense prison complex, and the captors of the First Daughter.
If only there were one man, a loose cannon if you will, who the government could send on what would basically be a suicide mission to save the girl. Whoa, you mean there is such a guy? Let me guess; is it Snow armed with his chiseled abs and snappy one-liners? Quickly blasted off into space, only Snow can somehow break into an impenetrable prison, find the girl, escape with the girl, and somehow keep all of these violent and psychotic criminals aboard their floating prison which also seems to now be crashing towards the eastern seaboard.
There is a sub-plot where Snow is trying to clear his name but that is just a side note in what is a one man versus many scenario. It is good to see Guy Pearce again in an action film and leading role. Long ago are the days of The Proposition, Memento, and The Time Machine. Unfortunately, for the leading lady they picked Maggie Grace, best known as one of the most annoying characters from the Lost series. Another character actor you may recognize from Prison Break is Peter Stormare who provides his usual menacing one-note skill set.
The target audience here of male action fans will be disappointed by the amateur chase and fight scenes. An early chase scene is reminiscent of Ultraviolet (2006). Remember that horrible film and its horrendous chase scenes which looked like they were done on a computer pre-dating Tron? There is a very similar choppy computer feeling here and you almost expect to see the green screen behind the actors pop into view.
Lockout did not have to be this bad. The idea of a prison break in space, in the right hands, could have been a quality action film with a juicy story and evil bad guys. Here, the bad guys are cartoon characters, the filmmaking is cheap and shoddy, and the film is just a complete mess. Go see The Raid: Redemption instead for your action fix.
Damsels in Distress (2011)
An extremely pretentious and nonsensical screenplay creates a jumbled and ridiculous film; do yourself a favor and stay away from these damsels
Damsels in Distress is perhaps the most pretentious screenplay ever filmed. I imagine there was a more comprehensible first draft and then writer/director Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco) pulled the thesaurus off the shelf and went to work. These damsels come across more as ridiculous caricatures than actual flesh and blood characters; nobody could retain any sort of patience around people who talk nonsense the way these girls do.
Lily (Analeigh Tipton) arrives as a new transfer student to Seven Oaks University. During orientation, a group of girls seemingly pick her out at random to join their group; perhaps it is because her name fits the floral naming scheme. Violet (Greta Gerwig) is the leader of the bunch followed by her one-dimensional acolytes, Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Violet talks incessantly about the goals of the group which include finding and improving boys who are not particularly good looking or intelligent and staffing the volunteer Suicide Prevention Center. The answer as to why a somewhat normal Lily would so eagerly say yes to joining up with this gang and rooming with them is not forthcoming, but then again, there would be no film if she did not.
Seven Oaks is not your normal university. Instead of a Greek system, they have Roman Letter Houses. So many students are depressed that they take to jumping off the roof of the education building; unfortunately it is only two stories tall so instead of killing themselves they only maim. As for suicide prevention, the route to recovery is neither mood altering pills or talk therapy, but tap dancing led by an instructor calling himself Freak Astaire (Nick Blaemire). I told you; pretentious beyond belief.
The damsels have incredibly keen senses of smell and frequently sniff soap whenever unhygienic dorm dwellers walk by. They are also exceptionally open and frank about their feelings. Violet thanks Lily for chastising her for being hypocritical about arrogance and routinely references Lily as better looking and skinnier. This sounds duplicitous on Violet's part, but it is not. She really is that open and sincere...and blatantly towards a more psychotic end of the mental spectrum.
There is no particular plot thread or story arc to tie the action in Damsels in Distress together. It is more random episodes and contrived situations to spur more inane commentary about the student population and the subject of depression. There are men in the film who cause bits of conflict within the group such as Fred Packenstacker (Adam Brody) and Xavier (Hugo Becker) who has an unhealthy infatuation with a sexual maneuver best left unsaid. Furthermore, an undercurrent storyline is blatant stupidity on the part of almost all of the males. One guy does not know primary colors and gets extremely upset when he sees a rainbow and another is fixated on his bean ball.
I want to impress upon you potential viewers out there that Damsels in Distress is truly as awful as it sounds. Great Gerwig, who eats up most of the screen time, was excellent in Greenberg but I have no idea what she is doing here playing an undergraduate; she is noticeable way too old for this role. There are a few laughs in the dialogue but it is not worth sitting through the whole mess to find them. Avoid this calamity at all costs.
Serbuan maut (2011)
20 elite cops vs. hundreds of thugs in a level of screen fighting and violence not seen before; go to enjoy the uninterrupted mayhem of guns, knives, and fists
There is no genre mixing in The Raid: Redemption. Unlike films which are billed as both comedy and drama or mystery and suspense thriller, The Raid is strictly action and that's it. There are different types of action such as martial arts, assault rifles, and knives, but that is as varied as the genre becomes. If you have the desire to see pure action and violence with hardly any intervening scenes to slow it down and provide plot, then The Raid is probably what you've been looking for.
On a very early morning in Indonesia, an elite police squad is on its way to clear out a drug and gang infested building, floor by floor. The sergeant leading the operation, Jaka (Joe Taslim), does not lie to his troops about what awaits them. The building is controlled by Tama (Ray Sahetapy) and his two trusted lieutenants, Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) and Andi (Doni Alamsyah). I leave it up to you to guess which of these guys is the muscle and which is the brains. They hold court on the 15th floor of the building which is used as a narcotics operation and as a boarding house for every violent thug imaginable.
The rookie on the team is Rama (Iko Uwais) who, of course, has a very pregnant wife at home. Along with 20 other police officers, they are to sweep the building, arrest the bad guys, and bring in Tama and his two cohorts. Things obviously do not follow the plan; otherwise The Raid would not be rapidly gaining in cult status as it is. In a twist, Tama, who quickly figures out what is going on in the lower floors of his buildings, makes an announcement to the hundreds of bad guys that whoever helps kill the cops, will get to live in the building forever rent free.
Out come the pistols, machetes, knives, and every other item imaginable as the building's residents suddenly surround the cops and shut down the exits. Wave upon wave of hopped up gangster reigns assault rifle and machete-wielding fury upon the quickly diminishing and out-gunned crime fighters. Rama emerges as a very capable man not only with a knife, but with his bare hands. The close-quartered fight scenes are not short nor are they quickly edited and jumpy. There are extended sequences of men just annihilating one another all over the room employing some extremely impressive martial arts.
Do not go into this film looking for plot and character development. You will not find it because there is no room for it in between all of the mayhem and bodies being flung all over the place. Normally, I would shrug off a film which is so one-sided; however, The Raid is so accomplished in what it is offering to the audience that I applaud it. These fight scenes are so well done they must have taken forever to choreograph and film. Sure, the script is ludicrous but the goal of the filmmaker is not to tell a story, but to impress its intended audience with a level of screen violence and authenticity it probably has not seen before.
The Raid: Redemption is not for everyone; there are audience members (namely females and anyone who does not enjoy flowing blood) who will be repulsed by it and I urge them to stay away. The majority of the audience I saw this film with was male and solo. However, there were enough audible "Ouch!" and "Damn!" exclamations in the theatre that you might as well have been seeing it with your best guy friends.
American Reunion (2012)
It's good to see some old friends again
What high school class puts together their big reunion on the 13th anniversary of their graduation? Well, if it needs to fit the plot because American Reunion was a few years late, then it's made to seem like it's the most normal event in the world rather than a plot device. All of the main characters we were first introduced to in 1999 are back and it feels comfortable and nostalgic. Also, for those of us who have passed the 30 mark, it is refreshing to see that other people have as well, even the American Pie kids.
The characters are in various stages of success and home life and for whatever reason, some just get a lot more attention this time around while other are shuffled towards the back of the line. Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) remain front and center and show up to reunion weekend with a two year kid and lack of steam in the bedroom. They stay with Jim's Dad (Eugene Levy) who is just going through the motions after losing his wife three years ago. The most successful of the group is Oz (Chris Klein). He lives in L.A. and is on TV as a sports anchor as well as carrying around his fame from a stint on a rip-off version of Dancing with the Stars. He also brings his girlfriend Mia (Katrina Bowden) who has to drink at every "I never" in the 'I never' game because she is so experienced.
For some reason, Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is a bit of an afterthought here. He was right up front in the first two films in the series but now he has faded to make room for the more outlandish characters. He has a long-term girlfriend who has a bit of a DVR obsession but no real problems. Vicki (Tara Reid) shows up for the weekend so the audience gets to watch to see if they will or they won't. It doesn't really matter. Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) screams up on a motorcycle and appears to be the most interesting man in the world with tales of South America and Africa. Finally, there is Stifler (Seann William Scott). He never left town, still lives at home, and works a horrible office temp job. This reunion weekend is lined up to be the highlight of his decade.
That was a lot of plot description and there are still plenty of characters not mentioned. This is what reunions are for, you see people you used to know and get the two minute "what have you been up to the past 13 years?" Even though all the kids are now grown up and have adult lives, they are still able to find themselves in those classic American Pie sexual mortifying episodes. Jim and Jim's dad still have those frequent and choppy sex conversations which are no longer amusing, there are misunderstandings when caught with half-naked teenagers, and Stifler still creates the most absurd yet hysterical comedic episodes.
Instead of the usual American Pie crew, they brought in the Harold & Kumar team (John Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg) to breathe some fresh life into this iteration. They also brought back all of the original cast members. Just like at a real reunion, you start asking yourself where have some of these people been lately? Jason Biggs, Tara Reid, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Chris Klein, Mena Suvari, etc It's good to see you guys again but I know that after this reunion, you're just going to leave again and I probably will not see you for another few years.
The pranks and shocking scenes live up to their predecessors' example and American Reunion has surprisingly made itself to be a quality get together. It was easy to upstage the lousy American Wedding and move past the mostly forgettable American Pie 2. Reunion does not reach the peak of the original film, but it is enjoyable and if you look past the ridiculous 13 year issue, you will laugh and enjoy the time with some old character friends of yours.
Wrath of the Titans (2012)
The Titans have daddy issues and humanity pays the price
The ancient Greek mythological realm is ready made for Hollywood script writers. There are seething rivalries, petty jealousies, jilted lovers; pretty much every conflict known to man is already pre-packaged with at least a few immortal deities to go along with it. Even with all of this rich material, Wrath of the Titans chose 'daddy issues' as its central conflict and plot instigator. When you are dealing with names as powerful as Zeus, Hades, Ares, and Perseus, daddy issues cannot be the first story idea which jumps to mind.
Oh, where to begin to describe this ridiculous story. Perseus (Sam Worthington) and his son, Helius (John Bell), reside by the sea as fishermen and seem to be living an enjoyable, yet isolated, life. Perseus's dad, Zeus (Liam Neeson), drops by seeking his son's help warning of dark days to come. Perseus, ever mindful that daddy did not pay him very much attention as a child, refuses and sends Zeus on his way. Zeus meets up with another of his sons, Ares (Edgar Ramirez), to go and meet Hades (Ralph Fiennes) in the underworld to see what is making all of the trouble. Oops, Zeus's poor parenting strikes again. Ares, jealous of his father's love for his half-brother, Perseus, teams up with Hades, also jealous of Zeus, and starts torturing Zeus and tries to wake up Zeus's daddy, Kronos.
This script received thumbs up from the green lighters? This is Hollywood's big budget mythological movie this year? Daddy didn't pay attention to me; daddy likes my brother more than me, so now I feel like destroying half of the world. Oh, and the Gods are starting to lose their powers. Why, because humans do not prey to them anymore. It turns out that the Greek Gods are like fairies in Peter Pan. If you do not believe in them and clap your hands, they fall down and die.
Here comes Perseus to save the day. First, though, he must put together an ad hoc band of heroes to travel down into the underworld and set things right. He picks the beautiful Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) who is required to look good with some dirt smeared on her cheeks rather than to provide any useful qualities to the group. Perseus also picks up another demigod, Agenor (Toby Kebbell), a son of Poseidon. Agenor appears to be an ancient Greek version of Russell Brand. Together, this disparate group encounters Cyclops, the God Hephaestus (an annoying Bill Nighy), the Minotaur, and evil creatures which have two torsos wielding four swords but share the same legs.
There are plenty of technical special effect achievements to marvel at though. The Cyclops are very well done as is Kronos who after being turned to stone for so long lets the lava flow. Those leg-sharing double torso guys are also pretty intriguing to watch as they swivel around chopping up tiny humans. The editing process would have benefited from a bit of a leash though; Perseus's fight with the Minotaur is almost impossible to watch and as a result, the audience never gets a very good look at the monster. There are just way too many cuts in that scene to make it seem incredibly frantic.
Wrath of the Titans is a misleading title. It should be called, "The Titans' Offspring Cannot Move Past Their Childhoods and as a Result, the Puny Humans Must Suffer." Last fall's Immortals is superior in comparison because the character's motives are more understandable and the Gods seem almost normal instead of caricatures inside a soap opera melodrama. Do yourself a favor and stay far away from Wrath of the Titans.
The Hunger Games (2012)
Intriguing and creative material gets bogged down in underwritten script; however, Jennifer Lawrence shines
I always wonder after seeing a movie where I have read the book beforehand, "Would I have liked this better had I not read the book?" Anybody who has read a book later turned into a film is naturally going to be biased concerning the story. They know how much deeper the material goes, the character back stories, and the scenes which did not make the final cut. They may still critique the filmmaking objectively, but not the story/plot.
I read The Hunger Games before seeing the movie. I know that in Panem, an all controlling fascist regime based out of the Capital controls 12 districts in an extremely oppresive manner. In District 12, the proletariat meagerly scrapes by through mining coal and make up for the rest of their harsh existence through scavenging and bartering. To atone for a previous rebellion, every year each District must send one male and female aged 12-18 to the Capital to fight each other to the death. These are the Hunger Games.
Katniss Eberwine (Jennifer Lawrence), at 16 years old, is her family's breadwinner. After her father was killed in a mining accident, her mother sunk into a sort of catatonic shock, so Katniss was forced to use her hunting and archery skills to eke out a minimal existence for her mother and her younger sister. It is technically illegal to hunt outside the District's wire perimeter, but Katniss is adept at evading the sensors and also has a partner in crime with her friend Gael (Liam Hemsworth).
On Hunger Games selection day, known as the Reaping, Katniss's small 12 year old sister, Primrose, is selected against all odds. In an act of selfless protection, Katniss jumps forward to volunteer in her place. Joining her on the stage as the male representative is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker's son and somewhat of an acquaintance of Katniss. Also along for the ride is District 12's Capital representative Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and a drunken former Hunger Games winner, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), who will serve as the mentor for Katniss and Peeta in the games.
This plot description sounds a bit thin but it is truly intriguing. The idea of 24 teenagers running around the woods spearing each other with swords, arrows, or even their bare hands has a particular voyeuristic element to it. Unfortunately, to make sure they wrenched all of the millions they could out of the audience, the filmmakers kept this at the PG-13 level. The violence and ensuing deaths just look silly at this sanitized level. Unlike the book, the dread is absent. Furthermore, the characters are stock and one-dimensional; yes, as opposed to the book.
In the novel, Peeta's motivations and back story concerning Katniss are finely woven into the story and given a lot of weight. However, in the film, you cannot guess if he is sincere or just trying to play the game. In the book, little Rue (Amandla Stenberg) is a very young and tiny waif from the agricultural district whose impact is deeply felt by the reader. In the movie, Rue fills her requisite squares, but fails to make anywhere near the same impact. I am not sure quite where to put my finger on it, but there is something really missing from this movie.
No character gets their due. What I mean is, the plot is faithfully followed, but there is no oomph, no driving force. Katniss comes the closest, but that is just because she is in almost every scene. Jennifer Lawrence has done a very good job here bringing Katniss to life and making her appear scared for her life, which she truly is. Just before her platform rises to begin the Hunger Games, she visibly shakes with fear. Lawrence was even better in Winter's Bone where she really turned in a mesmerizing performance. The biggest disappointments are Panem's dictator and Peeta. These two characters could have added so much depth to what is actually a very light and breezy Hunger Games. If you are familiar with this story, light and breezy should be the last two adjectives which come to mind.
A film should be judged on its own irrespective of whether or not you have read its original material. In that respect, The Hunger Games is a very creative story which is underserved by its meek script and borderline boring filmmaking. Material of this caliber (and budget) deserves so much more.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011)
Ridiculous screenplay hides a darker film than the romantic comedy preview lets on
An Arab sheikh with more money than sense wants to import the sport and/or lifestyle of salmon fishing from cold and rainy Scotland to the barren desert of Yemen. In the meantime, the British government is floundering from scandal to scandal and greedily seizes upon the idea of a cultural rapprochement between the West and the Arab world through this fishing enterprise; it is even better that the sheik is willing to foot the entire bill. The messy details will be filled in by the Fisheries Department representative Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) and an investment rep for the sheikh, Ms. Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt).
Naturally, Dr. Jones is incredulous that anyone would think it feasible to move 10,000 salmon from Scotland to Yemen and considers his assignment a fool's errand. Harriet's apparent upper class business school education prepared her not to stop and question these silly survivability issues. Oh, and out of nowhere see seems to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese. Two characters being (in)conveniently thrust together like this is a classic setup for the romantic comedy genre. You expect to them to start out at odds, grow fond of each other, overcome some last second conflict, and then float away together with their aquatic metaphors. Well, the joke is on the audience and the culprits are the marketing execs.
The preview for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen shows it as a joke a minute and lightly conceived romantic comedy; however, there is barely any noticeable comedy and every scene left out of the preview leans more toward the dramatic. There is an Afghanistan side plot, an unhappy marriage, tribal terrorism, and emotional depression. The character of Dr. Jones is plainly painted as obstinate in the beginning both towards the project and to Harriet because his character arc is required to end up softer and more compassionate. In reality, even if the good Dr. considered the salmon project lunacy, he would not be so overtly rude to Harriet.
The plan's financier, Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked) is an obscenely rich man from Yemen prone to waxing philosophic about salmon. That kind of money can only come from oil wealth, but Yemen has no oil reserves. The plot never explains the source of the Sheikh's money, not because it is not consequential to the plot, but because it cannot. The screenplay could never find an Earthly explanation of why a Yemeni sheikh could haphazardly plop down 50 million pounds on a salmon project. The writer, Simon Beaufoy, most recently adapted 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire into scripts and even he chose to leave that tiny detail out of the script.
What comedy there is in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen comes from the Prime Minister's press secretary, Patricia Maxwell (Kristen Scott Thomas). She is very good at what she does, knows the angle of the story she wants planted in the papers before the event occurs, and moves very quickly to make things happen. Kristen Scott Thomas hasn't played a character this snarky since Four Weddings and a Funeral. Unfortunately, Patricia vanishes a quarter ways through the film and when she reappears towards the end, the plot has unnecessarily shifted her from comedic to more bureaucratic.
The acting in this film is more than capable, especially from McGregor since he is able to talk in his native Scottish dialect. Sadly, the screenplay is a mess and the tone created by director Lasse Hallstrom resembles nothing from the misleading preview and is much darker than the blindsided audience will be prepared for. Feel free to skip Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.
In Darkness (2011)
Underneath the streets hides a group desperate to survive
In Darkness is aptly titled. This film is incredibly dark, both in a lighting sense and its subject matter. Based on the book, In the Sewers of Lvov: a Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust, In Darkness joins a long line of films which document Jewish ghettos during World War II. The story follows an individual group of Jews who evade the Nazis once the ghetto massacre begins. The group dug a hole from one of their small apartments which leads down into the murky mess of the Lvov, Poland sewers.
The resident lord of the sewers is Lvov's sewer inspector, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz). He is a blue collar worker who is just trying to get through the German occupation as best he can. Along with his assistant, Socha ransacks houses formerly occupied by Jews to steal whatever he can and sell the stolen goods to help support his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and his young daughter. One day while working in the sewer, Socha comes upon a group of Jews who have just completed digging a hole from the Jewish ghetto into the sewer. Socha has no love for Jewish people but he has no direct animosity either. In exchange for a hefty sum of cash, Socha agrees to keep mum about the hole and if the time comes, will help a small number of them evade the Nazis and find good hiding spots.
Naturally, the storming of the ghetto comes sooner than expected. The scene of the in-the-know Jews who attempt to flee into the sewer is ridiculous. They fight among themselves on who should go first, physically stuff those into the hole who do not want to go, and in a completely absurd aside, a wife and her daughter refuse to escape with them because her husband has been cheating on her. Socha is true to his monetarily purchased word and leads this infighting rabble to an out of the way location in the sewer.
The sewer maze is an impressive set design with the disgusting atmosphere to match. It is incredibly dark, dirty, rat infested, cold, and full of unimaginable pestilence. However, compared to the massacre occurring right above their heads, the sewer is safe. Unfortunately, the sewer will not accommodate the amount of people in their group. Socha says he can only safely hide 10 of them and in a brutal scene, the financier and leader of the group choose those 10. The others are left to their own volition. The group's leaders are the strong and able Mundek (Benno Furrmann) and the financier Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup).
The Nazis and their Polish sympathizers know there are Jews hiding out in the sewers; some residents can smell boiled onions coming up through their toilets. There is a bounty for whoever turns them in and if Socha is caught, he will be shot right along with the captured Jews. The rest of In Darkness is a series of scenes of infighting amongst the Jews who are cramped in very tight and disgusting quarters and infighting between Socha and his wife and Socha and his assistant, who is sometimes in on the scheme.
These seemingly unending episodes of fighting and sniping become truly tedious after awhile. Scene after scene of this eventually gets under the audience's skin and they welcome the eventual ending after its 145 minute run time. Breaths of fresh air are provided by Mr. Chiger's two children who are a welcome respite from the malicious adults in the room and Socha's gradual metamorphosis from a financially motivated shelter provider to a man who realizes he has a soul which cares about these human beings.
The cinematography and art direction of these sewers are really remarkable as is the contrast in lighting between the action which takes place above ground opposed to the events happening underneath. Unfortunately, the script does not match the shadowy mise-en-scene and In Darkness suffers for it. This Polish film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film but it is clear why it did not win. The muddled sequence of events and unending episodic turmoil morphs from a troubling World War II story to one of near irritation. A more adept script would have catapulted this film to much more notoriety than it is receiving now. There are a multitude of other World War II films to enjoy, do not waste your time on this one.
Safe House (2012)
Middle of the road action film draws superior cast but does not use their talents
You don't see too many action films set almost entirely in Africa. Indiana Jones spent some time in Egypt, Jason Bourne dropped in on Morocco, and I suppose Congo took place in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Safe House spends almost all of its time in Cape Town, South Africa. It's about time they gave Paris, Rome, and New York City a break from being the ubiquitous action cities. Unfortunately, the originality fissured out after location scouting.
After noticing how much money Unstoppable made, it appears the filmmakers here found a way to team up Denzel Washington with another young, white male with model looks but instead of Chris Pine, this time we get Ryan Reynolds. Matt Weston (Reynolds) is a CIA field agent but way down on the totem pole. This is his first assignment and he is in charge of a safe house in downtown Cape Town should real CIA case officers ever need a place to hang out for a few hours. After a sharp and noteworthy chase scene leads off the film, rogue CIA agent Tobin Frost (Washington) finds himself arrested and being tortured by some very grizzled agents in Matt's safe house.
How he ends up there is enjoyable for the audience so I will not reveal it here; however, the script and film really trail off after such a smart beginning. Tobin's interrogation is interrupted when a skilled team of bad guys loudly infiltrate the safe house and Matt, for a rookie, does an admirable job getting Tobin out of harm's way while every other CIA agent gets mowed down. Now on the run in Cape Town, Matt has to protect both Tobin and himself from a very determined mob of assassins. Tobin does not want protection though; he wants his freedom and sees young Matt as not too difficult an obstacle to overcome.
Matt is scrappier than his experience lets on though. He keeps up with Tobin and back at CIA headquarters, his boss David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) sings his praises to an agency which is no longer sure whose side Matt is on. Matt's skeptics include the high-ranking Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) and the very high-ranking Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard). How did Safe House score such a formidable cast and what are they all doing slumming in this middle of the road action thriller? This is fair game for Reynolds and Washington, but Safe House is an odd choice for Gleeson, Farmiga, and Shepard. They get limited screen time and no dialogue to show off their skills. Was it just the quick paycheck? There was a lot of thought put into the fight scenes though. Instead of routine punches thrown and absorbed, the guys here are really getting scratched, cut, bruised, shot, etc Action films usually let their heroes gloss over any pain they might feel or just walk it off, but Matt and Tobin thoroughly endure every bad guy they come across and never come out clean on the other side. Unfortunately, the camera work which filmed these impressive fight scenes was hand-held to make them scene more frenetic and shaky than they should be. Nobody likes the hand-held camera, especially when the cameraman is running down the street along with the action. It is annoying.
I do not recommend Safe House but it is only a marginal non-recommend. The fight scenes are original and exciting but the cinematography and the feeling that I've seen Denzel do this before hurts its cause. Also, enjoy the casting but know that they do not belong here.