Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
The Hunger Games (2012)
Superfans Be Easy.
Superfans be easy. If your barometer for measuring the success of Hollywood's Hunger Games adaptation begins and ends with faithfulness to the source material, by all accounts it is one. If you can swing a bit of emotional transference, all the better — I suspect few who enter without a preexisting love for Katniss and Peeta will be moved by their exploits. This $78 million companion piece to Suzanne Collins' young adult novel isn't especially concerned with converting the uninitiated; it's about cashing in on a fertile franchise. Cha-ching!
For the rest of you: Katniss Everdeen is a girl from District 12. In the future, America is divided into 12 districts under a totalitarian government. Once a year, at a grim lottery known as a "reaping," two adolescents' names are drawn to represent each district in a televised battle to the death known as The Hunger Games. Katniss, 16, has survived several reapings, but when her younger sister's name is called, she volunteers to fight in her stead.
Directed by 55-year-old Gary Ross, The Hunger Games isn't exactly brimming with angst and youthful energy. His craftsmanship is competent, but Ross puts too much pressure on the talent to sell Collins' world and contributes too little himself. Where's the scale? The novel pops with aesthetic opportunity, but Ross isn't visionary enough to really capture our imagination. District 12 is a destitute mining community that counts starvation and black lung among the leading causes of death. Show us that. By skimping on act one atmosphere, the director undermines the comparative splendor of the bizarre and extravagant capitol city.
Ross routinely sabotages the emotional potential of Collins' story and setting. The reaping in particular lacks narrative punch. Ross adequately animates the flesh of the scene, but as a storyteller he fails to find the soul. On paper, a family is splintered and an act of defiant bravery instigates a Herculean trial. Ross puts the impetus on the audience to feel the weight of that choice — artistically, he renders the scene with all the gravitas of mild indigestion.
And the cast — talented though its constituents may be — often feels curiously misplaced. Kudos to Ross for casting an anti A-lister like Jennifer Lawrence as his lead, but he negates any goodwill with clunky misallocations of more famous folk. Woody Harrelson sticks out like a sore thumb as drunkard slash mentor (in that order) Haymitch Abernathy. Harrelson's half- hearted take on the character plays like a spacey stoner from a bad SNL sketch. Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz are also underwhelming as Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman and stylist Cinna, respectively.
It feels like an eternity before the games actually get underway, and it quickly becomes apparent (this is a criticism consistent with the novel) that any illusion of challenging the preconceptions of preteen storytelling disintegrates. Granted, there's a bloody death or two, but mostly Katniss gets by with clever alternatives to direct combat — there's something distinctly Home Alone-ian about watching her drop a hornets' nest onto her would-be assassins. For Ross' part, he frames the action just inelegantly enough to obscure any offensive violence.
Ultimately, what works about Hollywood's Hunger Games adaptation are the traits intrinsic to the novel. A worthy premise lends a compelling backdrop to a young adult coming-of-age sci-fi romance whatchamacallit — and Ross borrows those ideas wholesale. It's all there. His is a relatively faithful transcription of the source material, and it's a shame he does so little to distinguish his version. He fails to replicate the emotional oomph of Collins' imperfect novel, and expands upon those imperfections with lazy visuals and uneven pacing. After all, when financial success is a certainty, there's little incentive for a director to think outside the box.
Naturally, my complaints will carry little weight with the Hunger Games superfans, for whom this film was expensively and exclusively realized. If you count yourself among that elite group — read no further. This is your film. Enjoy it.
The Woman in Black (2012)
Horror by the Book
Recipe for a Hollywood horror flick: pick a screenplay with a vaguely creepy-sounding title like The Woman in Black. Be sure the writer included one or all of the following: portraits with the eyes scratched out, little kids' drawings, antique toys, etc. Next, shoot everything at half exposure. Then pick a quiet weekend to release and collect your fifty million dollars. Repeat. It's a racket that works like a charm, and isn't going away until the audience does.
The Woman in Black stars 'Arry Potter 'imself — Daniel Radcliffe — as Arthur Kipps, an adolescent English estate lawyer bound unluckily for a haunted house in the boondocks. Kipps' job is on the line, which accounts for his eager beaver attitude upon arrival, and dogged insistence on seeing the property, even against the behest of, oh, everyone in town. You know where this is going.
Once inside the isolated island manor, Kipps can't seem to get any work done. A typical sequence of scenes plays out with the protagonist sitting down to study a stack of documents and being immediately distracted by some foreign sound or supernatural happening. And then the investigation's afoot; jump scares abound, though they fall too formulaically to conjure much anxiety or subsequent shock. After all, scares by appointment aren't very scary.
The screenplay is particularly disappointing given its author, Jane Golden, who spun genre into gold with Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class. Too dour to pass as a throwback haunted house flick, and too clichéd to surprise anyone, The Woman in Black is caught in the nebulous nowhere between fun and frightening. Even if her writing were stronger, however, there's no guarantee it would be spared the blunt hand of James Watkins, a director with the finesse of a steamroller.
He brings not an ounce of aesthetic originality to the table, imbuing the movie with the same ugly, washed-out palette of six dozen other studio horror failures. The technique is intended to foster a mood, but it's a cheap substitute for good old-fashioned filmmaking. Mood isn't achieved in camera — it's an aggregate of art direction, camera placement, performance, music, etc. The obvious digital look of the film also hampers the believability of its period setting — the turn of the century never looked so bland.
Performances add little life to the landscape. Daniel Radcliffe manages not to embarrass himself, and that's being generous. Frankly, it's tough to buy the Hogwarts alum as a dad when he's been playing a teenager for ten years. It's equally tough to imagine him a widower, as he broods with all the emotional turmoil of an Olsen twin. Ciarán Hinds plays Kipps' sole confidant in the haunted hamlet, and fittingly enough, delivers the film's sole compelling performance. Still, his character never goes anywhere, a waste of Hinds' talent.
Effective horror is contingent upon a willingness to take the audience outside its comfort zone, and The Woman in Black is too creakily formulaic to creep us out. Because Hollywood is a business, it's more desirable to greenlight a derivative script and hire a yes-man director than to risk something edgier that might not pay off. The cycle continues. The Woman in Black follows that recipe to a T, but there's something lost in translation. Maybe the recipe wasn't all that good to begin with. Maybe the whole cookbook needs to go.
The Grey (2011)
A Flea-Bitten Excuse for an Epic
So it's come to this: Liam Neeson, a pack of wolves, and a filmmaker with delusions of grandeur. The Grey might have passed as merely a second-rate survival flick had it laid off the pseudo-intellectual grandstanding and quickened the glacial pace. Unfortunately, its shepherd, Joe Carnahan, knows no such restraint. Bloated, juvenile, and absurd, the movie attempts to pass off a few cheap thrills as an ode to humanity. Oh, and according to Carnahan, it may return to theaters to make an Oscar run in October. Give me a break.
Neeson plays Ottway, a professional wolf hunter with a penchant for internally reciting corny poems written by his deceased daddy. "Once more into the fray/ Into the last good fight I'll ever know/ To live and die on this day," he rasps. Hey, how that's poetry elective going? It might seem profound as a beer hall anthem to rally spirits in the fourth quarter, but it's embarrassingly maudlin as the emotional crux of a movie. But enough about poetry — let's talk about wolves.
A plane crash strands about half a dozen men in The Middle of Nowhere, Alaska. Hounded by a pack of edgy predators, the crew must literally fight for their survival. Never mind the practical how-tos like sustaining an expedition without potable water — they've got man- hungry wolves on their tail! The biggest, nastiest wolves special effects can conjure, though they're mostly relegated to chasing everyone from one tired setpiece to the next.
Here's the problem — with riveting wilderness docs like Touching the Void and Encounters at the End of the World streaming online, there's no excuse to settle for such a stagey drama. But Werner Herzog is obviously beyond these morons; someone in The Grey paraphrases Grizzly Man as that movie about "The fag and the bears." Are these guys from Alaska or a college fraternity?
I don't demand that any character be likable — but I ask that they be interesting. Not a one in Ottway's ragtag group of "fugitives, drifters, and assholes" brings a single compelling trait to the table. Ottway wins the likability contest by default, even though his character might as well be the Wikipedia page on wolves for all he contributes to the conversation.
And it's a shame we're stuck with such shallow people, because their trek is often atmospheric, and the many perils they face might mean something if we actually cared about who they are. Writer/director Joe Carnahan can get by on keen visuals, but he writes like an emotionally stunted 19-year-old. His ceaselessly abrasive, hollow characters engage in dialogue with all the wisdom and wit of a whirring garbage disposal. Their pointless, profanity-laden bickering and eventual, manufactured camaraderie play stilted, not uplifting. Just die already.
The Grey is a mangy, flea-bitten excuse for an epic with an obnoxiously inflated self-image. Nowhere in its unwarranted 117 minutes does it possess a shred of the intellectuality it pompously aspires to, nor does it achieve a badass nirvana despite its consistent, cocksure projection of masculinity. Carnahan succeeds in scoring a few cheap thrills, but he ought to leave the philosophizing to the artists. End rant.
Haywire is a lot like last year's Drive. What both lack in substance, they make up for in style. Likewise, both could be dismissed as pulp dreck if their respective directors hadn't classed up the material. Haywire isn't as riveting as last year's sleeper hit, but the way Steven Soderbergh stages and choreographs the action elevates it from generic genre fare; especially apparent in contrast to its opening weekend competition: Underworld Awakening.
Punctuated by terse life-or-death scuffles between a badass black ops agent and her would- be assassins, it's no wonder Soderbergh hired martial artist slash actress Gina Carano (not to be confused with Carla Gugino). Of her handful of big screen credits, Haywire is by far the biggest deal; her casting is a move reminiscent of another recent Soderbergh flick — The Girlfriend Experience, which marked the dramatic debut of porn star Sasha Grey.
Both actresses fit well in the roles Soderbergh picks for them, but I question how well either would come off when working with a director less versed in coaching non-actors. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Carano's performance is that she holds her own in such formidable company: Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas, etc. Channing Tatum. The list goes on.
Their collective effort is in large part what makes Haywire such a breezy watch. 93 minutes soaking wet, the film flashes backwards and forwards in its narrative to keep the momentum from faltering (and also, I reckon, to gussy up a simplistic espionage tale). The IMDb synopsis says it all: "A black ops super soldier seeks payback after she is betrayed during a mission." The film's final moment perfectly reflects the entirety: cheesy, cheeky, fun, and ultimately, forgettable.
Famous for his Hollywood haggling to get passion projects off the ground ("One for me, one for you"), Soderbergh is blurring the line between his studio pictures and personal films. With Haywire, the lack of marketing oomph and no-name lead suggest it might fall into the "One for me" category, especially after his crowd-pleasing Contagion. But if the audience I saw it with was any indication, Haywire is no less accessible.
Nor does it feel as obligatory as, say, an Oceans sequel. For the most part, Soderbergh brings his A-game, although I do take issue with the cheapo aesthetic. The harsh digital look he seems fond of works in low-key experiments like Bubble, but feels out of place in a fast- paced action flick. Dim, bland interiors with overblown light sources lend to the film's overall disposable vibe.
But while it lasts, Haywire is an enjoyable January actioner. Though it pales in comparison to Nicolas Winding Refn's excellent Drive, they have a lot in common: a bare bones story spearheaded by a brutal and ruthless protagonist, and a director who knows how to play them to maximum effect. Drive skews operatic while Haywire skews goofy, but both provide more compelling action sequences than any of last summer's blockbusters, Contagion included.
Plus, this time of year empirically means slim pickins for the discerning cinephile. It's either this or Underworld, folks. I'll give you a minute.
Sex without the Pleasure
Sex without the pleasure — and you thought starving to death in an Irish prison was rough. Following Hunger, director Steve McQueen's new collaboration with Michael Fassbender is a similarly self-destructive character study. Shame stars the latter as Brandon Sullivan, a sex- addicted New York businessman whose explicit lifestyle is threatened by the surprise arrival of his orphaned sister (Carey Mulligan). Loaded with full-frontal male and female nudity and graphic depictions of sex, the NC-17 rated flick may not be coming to a theater near you.
Far from crass or exploitative, however, McQueen's film succeeds in making Brandon's many lascivious liaisons feel obligatory rather than erotic. Shame is Requiem for a Dream for sex. A gorgeously shot but emotionally upending orgy late in the film drives home the utter desperation of the act in a prolonged close up on Brandon's contorted face. Excited yet?
McQueen's flirted with minimalism before. Smack dab in the middle of Hunger is a seventeen and a half minute static shot in which Fassbender's character dialogues with a priest. While it showcases two terrific performances, such laissez-faire filmmaking techniques do little for me. Shame likewise features long, deliberate takes, but McQueen's evolution as a director is apparent from his dynamic use of the frame.
For example, during a dinner date between Brandon and his coworker (Nicole Beharie), a subtle camera push-in (from the wide restaurant interior, bustling with the comings and goings of patrons and waiters, to an intimate two shot) keeps the emphasis on the performances without needlessly drawing attention to the process. It's the rare circumstance where more is actually less. Conversely, the extreme close up of Carey Mulligan's face when she performs a heart-wrenching rendition of "New York, New York" works because she fills the entire frame. By comparison, the aforementioned sequence in Hunger is visually flabby, full of superfluous space.
But Shame isn't just a technical triumph — even more compelling is what's in the abstract. Fassbender's alluringly enigmatic portrayal of his volatile character is the centerpiece of a complex, cerebral story. Brandon carries his addiction like a ticking time bomb in his breast pocket, and things get particularly uncomfortable with his vulnerable (and oddly familiar) sister around. Their relationship adds a grimy layer of squeamish tension to the film.
Unhappiness manifests itself in many shapes in Shame, from Brandon's insatiable carnal appetite to the loneliness of the women in his life. Incapable of transcending their physical connections, the characters share sex or blood, but don't understand each other or strive to communicate better. The result is intercourse that frequently comes across dehydrating, disgusting, or dehumanizing. Sometimes all three!
Shame isn't without its moments of levity. McQueen's subtle humor saves him from slipping into the mire of downbeat melodrama. James Badge Dale plays Brandon's wingman (or is it the other way around?), whose paper-thin personality and repeated drunken strikeouts never fail to conjure a smirk. Also, I'm not sure there's a world where getting caught masturbating isn't at least a little funny. But leave it to Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender to make it captivating too.
The culmination of lesser successes, Shame sees both actor and director at their best. Fassbender makes Brandon's incongruities flesh (so to speak), and McQueen strikes the perfect balance between minimalistic staging and cinematic artistry. Shame is an ambitious, ambiguous film that ranks easily among the year's best. Plus, you get to see Michael Fassbender naked. There's also that.
Half and Half
Who's the audience for Hugo? With roots in the fantasy/adventure genres and a comfortable color palette for the Harry Potter and Twilight crowds, "preteen" seems a safe bet. But it undergoes a metamorphosis around the midpoint that fixed my posture and put the kids to bed. Not that I'm complaining.
The two halves of Hugo are at odds. In the first hour, we meet Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield – the spitting image of a prepubescent Malcolm MacDowell), an orphan and wee tinkerer living behind the walls of a Parisian train station circa 1930. He lives only to wind the clocks and scavenge parts for his prized automaton – a wrecked robot with sentimental ties to his late father (Jude Law). A chance encounter with a young girl (Chloë Moretz) may be the key to unlocking the secret of his antiquated android.
In the second, Scorsese taps his inner film buff. Enter French silent filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose spectacular oddball A Trip to the Moon features prominently. Hugo posthumously honors the artist's under-appreciated oeuvre, complete with stunning recreations of his avant-garde genre flicks. The also-underrated Michael Stuhlbarg plays film historian Rene Tabard, a champion of Méliès' lost legacy.
Somehow, the story of a boy and his robot and the redemption of a brilliant, misunderstood artist mesh, if reluctantly. I can't feign complete enthusiasm for Hugo's by-the-numbers fantasy beginning, but loved the playful manipulation of art history it preceded. Conversely, I imagine the general audience will go for the "Once Upon A Time," but neither know nor care who Méliès is. Some may walk away none the wiser to the elements of nonfiction.
Unifying Hugo's disparate halves are gorgeous storybook visuals bolstered by inspired use of 3D tech. Action sequences up the gee-whiz factor, but Scorsese's most compelling use of the gimmick is also among his most subtle; touches like adding the effect to Méliès' films has the revelatory effect of making history come alive. And it doesn't carry the stink of desperation that accompanies Disney and Star Wars' conversions. As a magician who embraced every trick in the book, Méliès would have loved 3D.
Another constant is the caliber of the performances. The principals are solid, and Hugo is packed with veteran character actors who breathe vibrant life into their world. Folks like Ray Winstone as Hugo's Drunken Uncle, Ben Kingsley as a shopkeeper with a secret, Christopher Lee as a kindhearted librarian, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the bumbling station inspector help even the one-dimensional roles shine.
Pushing himself while pushing 70, you have to admire Scorsese's dogged tenacity. The director won his long-belated Best Director Oscar in 2007 for The Departed, which seems to have freed him from falling into an Eastwood-esque downward spiral; first with the psychological thriller Shutter Island, and now with the unabashed fantasy, Hugo. That jarring juxtaposition is just one factor in obfuscating who its audience is supposed to be.
Diplomatically, the new Martin Scorsese picture aims to please everyone, but divides more than it unites. Parents may be left twiddling their thumbs during the first drama-lite hour, and kids may nod off during the second half history lesson. However, for a particular breed of cinephile, Hugo is magic – a love letter to film from a master of the medium. Scorsese's adoration is tangible – not for Georges Méliès specifically – but for artists both great and small. It's sublime. It's beautiful. But bring a pillow.
The Descendants (2011)
Welcome Back, Alex
Alexander Payne paints a different picture of Hawaii. In the opening montage of his new film The Descendants, the director not so gently reminds us that the island "paradise," with its little-photographed cities and suburbs, isn't exactly the Eden we've been sold. The sequence perfectly reflects Payne's no bullshit pragmatism, seen last in 2004's excellent Sideways. For gluttons for Payne, The Descendants has been a long time coming.
Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film follows George Clooney as Matt King, a wealthy lawyer with hereditary ties to Hawaiian royalty, and the sole trustee of his family's thousands of acres of untapped land. As King circles a buyer for the valuable property, his wife falls off a jet ski and into a coma — but there are no saints in an Alexander Payne movie. Even the comatose Mrs. King has her share of skeletons.
Few filmmakers walk the line between comedy and drama so effortlessly. The Descendants finds a happy middle ground in Payne's oeuvre, somewhere between the amusing introspection of About Schmidt and the droll wit of Sideways. And if the subject at hand seems too heavy or dry, never fear — Payne's world is colored by conflicted, flawed, funny, but singularly endearing people.
Take King's daughter's dopey friend Sid, a character with shades of Election's all-heart-no- brains jock, Paul Metzler ("You Betzler!"). Or better yet, take King himself, who bares all the familiar scars of an Alexander Payne protagonist. From his casual narcissism to his angered impulsiveness, King's foibles are many, brought vividly to life by George Clooney.
Payne has a history of stranding his actors outside their comfort zone. Clooney isn't as malleable a leading man as Paul Giamatti, but there are sides of him in The Descendants that I haven't seen before. He plays King with an empathetic weakness many of his past roles have lacked. Clooney characters tend to overcompensate for their flaws with charisma, with interest. Under Payne, Clooney doesn't have the luxury of playing up that strength, and the results are revealing.
This isn't the first time Payne has deliberately subverted audience preconception, either. No doubt he had Ferris Bueller in mind when he cast Matthew Broderick as a high school civics teacher in Election. He got Jack Nicholson (Chinatown's Jake Gittes!) to play a curmudgeonly widower in About Schmidt. In The Descendants, George Clooney, Sexiest Man Alive twice over, cries.
Alexander Payne's films have been accused of being callous and misanthropic, but The Descendants highlights his earnest side as well. It isn't sentimental, and it earns it moments of sentimentality. Early on, the film teeters on the precipice of becoming a tacky father- daughter Movie Of the Week. The tropes are there, but Payne stylishly navigates a minefield of clichés in which most directors would eventually misstep.
A near perfect combination of comedy and catharsis, The Descendants is an impressive film from a director who's been dormant too long. Seemingly, not much has changed for Payne since he released Sideways seven years ago, but the hiatus has made him no less confident in his unique American perspective. Welcome back, Alex.
Tower Heist (2011)
Everyone's excited for the new Brett Ratner movie, right? Jonesing for another marginal action-comedy in the vein of Rush Hour 2? You're in luck! Tower Heist fits the bill, and despite its allusions to 2011 Wall Street turmoil, the familiar flick feels very much of that era. The Rat-man's latest is cookie-cutter entertainment at its most transient, but everyone likes cookies. Right?
In Tower Heist, Ben Stiller plays subservient chief of staff at a ritzy Central Park apartment complex — but when a tenant (Alan Alda) swindles him and his workforce out of their pensions, it's no more Mr. Nice Josh. He masterminds a robbery with the help of his concierge (Casey Affleck), an elevator operator (Michael Peña), a downtrodden former resident (Matthew Broderick), and a Jamaican cleaning woman (Gabourey Sidibe). Unschooled as they are in the art of the steal, Josh also employs the aid of petty criminal "Slide," (Eddie Murphy) who gives the crew a crash course in crime.
The cast of Tower Heist, anchored by Stiller, Alda, and the under-appreciated 'other' Affleck, is its greatest asset. Gabourey Sidibe pulls a Melissa McCarthy in a similar big girl supporting role, and as for Eddie Murphy — it's good to know that there's still a funny guy beneath the Norbit prosthetics. Granted, nobody's working with AAA material here, but their comic chemistry makes for some laugh out loud moments.
Conceived and written by Ted Griffin of Ocean's Eleven and Matchstick Men, Tower Heist strictly adheres to caper convention. Assemble the team, unfurl the plan, set said plan into motion, and wait for it all to come undone. It's a tried and true formula, which is ironic considering the risk its characters incur. There's even a heavy-handed chess metaphor about sacrificing one's Queen, but Griffin is a decidedly defensive player.
Then there's the Rat-factor. Poor Brett's an easy guy to hate. Called "Hollywood's Ad Impresario" by Businessweek, he's the dude who wants to make a Guitar Hero movie. He's a purely commercial filmmaker who's helmed competent but inferior follow-ups to beloved franchises like X-Men and Silence of the Lambs. And let's face it, he's kind of ugly. With Tower Heist, the director isn't flexing any artistic muscles, but he's got the mechanics down pat.
Plus, he's got the good sense to hire performers who probably don't need much direction. Guys like Stiller, Murphy, and Broderick are so well practiced that they're entertaining even when they're resting on their laurels. Similarly, Ratner's worked with cinematographer Dante Spinotti enough times to not have to concern himself with the visual aspects of filmmaking. Though the credits suggest otherwise, Ratner's role is nearer to producer than director.
Consequently, Tower Heist feels impersonal and even a bit disingenuous. After all, what could Brett Ratner, the privileged son of a Miami socialite turned blockbuster director, have in common with the working stiffs he portrays? It's easy to hate Ratner, but unfair to channel that negative energy at his work. With a good cast and decent material, Tower Heist is an amusing, inconsequential diversion that entertains and evaporates in the span of 100 minutes. And with a family friendly PG-13 rating, this cookie-cutter action-comedy is poised to make loads of dough.
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
Long Live the Reigning King of "Gotcha!"
Reigning king of the "Gotcha!" moment, Paranormal Activity is back – and though the premise may have worn thin, (how many compulsive videographers can one extended family have?) its minimalist scare tactics are as effective as ever. Scream for scream, the theater experience is without rival; hushed gasps, nervous tittering, and shrieks of surprise are empirical evidence of the films' effectiveness. Hence the backlash when Paranormal Activity hit home video: these movies cater to a crowd.
A prequel of sorts, Paranormal Activity 3 rewinds the franchise to 1988, illuminating the origins of the Presence that ran amok in parts one and two. Helmed by Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the flick treads familiar territory, but keeps the audience on its toes. One of the major criticisms leveled against Oren Peli's original was its predictable cycle of daytime exposition and midnight scares. Rinse and repeat.
Screenwriter Christopher B. Landon, who also wrote the underwhelming Paranormal Activity 2, does a better job this time of pitching the odd changeup. With an omnipresent atmosphere of unease, no moment feels entirely safe. And it goes without saying that the freaky stuff is much more explicitly freaky. Rest assured the Rey family doesn't own a pool, let alone a cleaning robot.
Probably the single most brilliant technical addition to the Paranormal Activity repertoire is the oscillating camera. Panning ominously between kitchen and living room, the simple mechanic works like a suspense machine. Joost and Schulman certainly get their money's worth out of the gimmick, milking it for some of their whitest white-knuckle moments. Fashioned from a tabletop fan, the device is a perfect metaphor for the franchise itself: cheap, homemade, effective.
But for ingenuity and inventiveness, the original is still tops. For all its merciless suspense, Paranormal Activity 3 falls back on a few too many false alarms ("Gotcha!") and bad payoffs, and offers no real innovations in imagery. From Poltergeist to The Exorcist, it's easy to tell where the directors pulled inspiration, almost copy-and-pasting classic moments into the found footage aesthetic.
Then again, anyone expecting real innovation from the third Paranormal Activity film is barking up the wrong tree. Part of the fun is how loosely defined the abilities of the otherworldly antagonist are. It possesses, communicates, and manipulates. But wait, there's more! Paranormal Activity 3 plays like a grab bag of horror ideas and iconography. Like any grab bag, not everything inside is interesting.
For one, hand-held footage plays a more prominent role than ever, which strains the believability of some key sequences. Then there's hokey filler like the "Bloody Mary" urban legend, which squarely fills the vacancy left by the Ouija board on the Paranormal Activity blueprint. And who could forget Randy (Dustin Ingram) and his transparent, annoying attempts at comic relief?
Paranormal Activity 3 doesn't reinvent the franchise. It's not even the best Paranormal Activity film. It doesn't need to be. Its aim is to refine the series' mechanics and reinvigorate audience interest, and it succeeds. So what's next? Likely what keeps Paramount executives up at night is how to squeeze the supernatural saga for every penny it's worth. Long live the reigning king of "Gotcha!"
Drama, Comedy Split 50/50
50/50 is the anti-MOW. Hot off the festival circuit as the much buzzed-about "cancer comedy," its hype doesn't tell the whole story. Directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), 50/50 is a dynamic blend of offhand humor and compelling character study. Just don't go in expecting one or the other.
Loosely based on his own experiences as a twenty-something cancer survivor, screenwriter Will Reiser assembles a flawed cast of characters for his retelling – himself most of all. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is not a take-charge kind of guy. He greets his diagnosis with cynicism and reclusiveness, and at his age who can blame him? Holding his life at arm's length, he severs ties rather than strengthening them.
It's a notion that Levine actually undercuts. Whether it's his direction or just the conventions of a hero-narrative, Adam frequently comes off better than he deserves to. His cancer gives him carte blanche to abuse and ignore his friends and family, and it's important that those unflattering traits get their due. The cathartic climax is about tearing down those walls.
Levine is more forthcoming with the foibles of other characters. Seth Rogen plays Adam's pal Kyle, a predictably crass and outgoing foil to Gordon-Levitt's narcissistic introvert. Adam's girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) comes away looking particularly ugly, and is admonished by Kyle in one of 50/50's funniest scenes. Anjelica Huston and Anna Kendrick play Adam's overprotective mother and fledgling therapist, respectively, and Philip Baker Hall makes an appearance as a fellow cancer patient with an affinity for pot.
Rounding out the cast is Serge Houde as Adam's Alzheimer's-afflicted father. Unlike Adam however, his condition seems superfluous, occasionally lending 50/50 the maudlin air of an issue film. Which is odd, because elsewhere the filmmakers strive to remove sentimentality from the equation. In fact, the nitty-gritty of Adam's treatment is relegated almost entirely to off-screen action. The film focuses instead on the impact it has on his life. Consequently, and in the interest of levity, the threat is diluted.
In that respect, 50/50 isn't even about cancer. The common storytelling mistake, as Reiser sees it, is treating the disease as subject; Reiser's subject is himself. Cancer is just the shitty thing that happened to him. The film begins like any other buddy comedy, and initially feels stilted because of it. Even the obligatory reveal and diagnosis of the disease comes across awkward. But it gradually builds into something significant.
The beauty of 50/50 is in the way its characters behave and bounce off each other. There's no bromance a la I Love You, Man – the friendship portrayed by Gordon-Levitt and Rogen is subtler. Adam's eventual turn from reticence to reliance makes his transformation as a character more compelling than his struggle with cancer. After all, it's not about that.
I don't envy the marketing team tasked with selling 50/50 to the general audience. Cancer isn't exactly a crowd-pleaser, but you can't bill it as a comedy without being at least a little disingenuous. Resier and Levine's film delivers a unique hybrid of emotion and entertainment that tries, not always successfully, to pave new territory – which is admirable in and of itself. Whether 50/50 is remembered more as a cavalier drama or dark comedy remains to be seen, but you can bet it won't go down in history as another after school special.
Not a Homerun, Maybe a Ground Rule Double
Take my review of Moneyball with a grain of salt. Its two-and-a-quarter-hour running time probably rivals the aggregate amount of professional baseball I've watched over the past three years – which is to say, not much. I'm not the target audience for any sports flick, but a great cast delivering an Aaron Sorkin script put me in the seats. On that level, Moneyball delivers.
Sorkin has a knack for finding the humanity in black and white statistics. It's in part what made his telling of Facebook's success story (last year's brilliant, brainy The Social Network) so remarkable. A fitting – if inferior – follow-up, Moneyball is as much about business as it is about baseball. In fact, the thesis of author Michael Lewis, upon whose book Sorkin and co- writer Steven Zaillian sculpted the screenplay, is that victory on the field can be reduced to mere mathematics.
Enter Brad Pitt as Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane. After being creamed in the playoffs, many of his star players pick up contracts with teams with deeper pockets. The truth as Beane puts it is that baseball is a fundamentally unfair game. Affluent teams can afford the best players, and subsequently win the most games and the most championships. But rather than accept the status quo, Beane hires Yale grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), and cooks up a way to build a team around underrated but undesirable players, like a pitcher with unorthodox form and a ex-star pushing 40.
"We're card counters now," Beane explains to his mystified staff. Moneyball plays almost like a heist – and cheating any flawed system is exhilarating to watch. The problems stem from elsewhere; the movie drags in its second half, lacking the concise narrative momentum of fiction. It's a problem from which many biopics suffer, and though Sorkin fares better than most, he doesn't have a David Fincher behind the lens this time around.
Granted, director Bennett Miller is no slouch, having made his Oscar-nominated Hollywood debut with Capote in 2005. With Moneyball, Miller faithfully photographs Sorkin and Zaillian's script, but never elevates it. Pitt and Hill are empathetic underdogs, and their performances convey admirable depth. Still, even in their best moments, it's hard not to wish that more weren't going on on screen.
Moneyball also gets bogged down by superfluous subplots like flashbacks to Beane's fizzled pro baseball career and his relationship with his twelve-year-old daughter. The sequences give insight into the inner workings of the character's mind, but seldom feel relevant to the main thrust of the plot. Especially when they beget a string of false endings that has the audience on the edge of their seats in the worst sense of the term.
Those scenes don't sink Moneyball, but they somewhat stifle its potential for greatness. The fascinating premise, that computers can pick winners better than we can, is partially buried under content far less novel. I've seen enough strained father/daughter relationships, thanks. The film would likewise run thinner and healthier without Beane's trips down memory lane.
But it still works. Probably the best indication of the film's merit is that it appeals to viewers with no vested interest in the sport. At its finest, Moneyball is about the deconstruction of baseball romanticism, with a straightforward exchange of ideas that feels almost documentary at times. Surprisingly enough, it's the conventional storytelling devices that feel sluggish, unexciting, and repetitive. Not the baseball.
After a summer of cheap thrills, Drive delivers thrills on the cheap. With a budget Michael Bay might have allocated for a single effects sequence in Transformers 3, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn made one of the best movies of the year. Following Bronson and Valhalla Rising, Refn crafts his most polished, commercial work yet, while retaining all the ambiguity and unbridled aggression of his tough-as-nails art house pictures.
Bearing thematic resemblance to Darren Aronofsky's recent output, Drive is like Black Swan in overdrive. The film pins its headlights on the dark implications of unchecked obsession and good intentions gone haywire. That dangerous duality – humanity on the razor's edge of animal brutality – is played to unnerving perfection by Ryan Gosling.
Rightly among the most reliable names on the Hollywood marquee, the star of Drive plays a crucible of a character. A friendly, fatherly figure to his neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, he's decidedly less so when the two are threatened. A sort of oblique, ultraviolent superhero, the driver leaps to defend the innocent with bloody determination. If the first half of Drive plays as drama, the second is straight up revenge fare.
Playing on the juxtaposition of calm and calamity, Refn keeps us on our toes throughout. Quiet moments stretch into suffocating silence, and the explosive violence that inevitably shatters it practically tears the frame in half. The audio is expertly mixed; you'll want to see Drive loud. From its roaring engines and visceral blows to its curt dialogue, the film is an altar to the power of great sound design.
In truth, Drive isn't pervasively violent, though its most excruciatingly effective moments leave a memory trail like tire streaks on a sunbaked highway. At the heart of the story is a compelling, surprisingly tender romance. Carey Mulligan has proved herself a similarly reliable talent to Gosling, and has worked in recent years with the likes of Michael Mann, Oliver Stone, and Mark Romanek.
Her fragile character's relationship with the driver is subtle and nuanced in a manner atypical of thriller convention. They're not family, they're not even sleeping together. Drive is not a sexy film. Refn fetishizes neither cars nor women; if The Fast and the Furious is the sleek exterior curves of an automobile, Drive is the greasy, undulating pistons. And it's utilitarian at a lean 100 minutes.
The rest of the small cast also impresses. Albert Brooks plays against type as a cutthroat crime lord, and a note-perfect Ron Perlman plays his meathead partner. Bryan Cranston of TV's Breaking Bad has a small role too, as employer and confidant to Gosling's character. Their relationships shuffle as lines are drawn and redrawn, but none of them comes away unscathed by the film's end.
Drive is either the explosive end to a lukewarm summer movie season or an early autumn adrenaline rush. In machismo, it far outpaces its hundred million dollar competition, leaving overwrought tales of lesser heroes like Thor and Green Lantern in the dust. Its troubled characters, and the bonds of desperation that link them, elevate the film above its genre trappings and shield it from disposable entertainment status.
Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is an anomaly. It's like a 1200 horsepower hybrid. And it's one of the best movies of 2011.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)
Horror is kind of like porn. Either it's convincing and effective or it's embarrassing and laughable. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is the latter, and there isn't even any nudity. This haunted house of clichés shepherded by Guillermo del Toro brings nary a new idea to the table, and doesn't even execute on old ones effectively. Chalk that up to first time feature director Troy Nixey, who does suspense about as well as Jenna Jameson does acting. And in the end, it's the audience that gets screwed.
Stop me if you've heard this one. A family at odds moves into a charming old mansion with a (gasp!) terrifying secret. If, during Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, you find your mouth agape, it's more likely your letting loose a yawn than a scream. Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes play parent and guardian respectively to Sally (Bailee Madison), a sulky Los Angeleno forcibly relocated to Rhode Island and relinquished into her father's care. While exploring the nooks and crannies of her lonely new home, Sally awakens a long-dormant evil, and yada yada yada.
Where it isn't derivative, Nixey's film is asinine. Even the title makes no sense. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a movie that validates fear of the dark. The characters don't surmount their supernatural oppressors with courage; they fight them with light. That is, when they think to. Somebody ought to propose an "all lights all the time" policy in this house, because the amount of time spent fumbling for flashlights is entirely unnecessary.
Del Toro co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew Robbins, and there isn't a fresh idea between them. A thematically faithful remake of the 1973 TV movie of the same name, 2011's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is haunted by logical fallacies, dull stereotypes, and uninspired scare tactics. Has del Toro become so ensconced in his producorial duties that his writing has irrevocably lost its creative spark? I hope for The Hobbit's sake it hasn't.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is so uniformly sloppy, however, that no one person can shoulder the blame. The acting is subpar; I can't remember the last time I saw an entire cast deliver such a collectively mediocre performance. Whether fault lies with the actors themselves or the inexperienced director is debatable, but that the film suffers is undeniable.
If a paltry few circumstantially effective jump scares are your measure of success, than by all means plunk down your 11 bucks for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Just don't expect to be afraid. Every year we get a few great dramas, and one or two good comedy and action flicks. What gives? Why should horror have the lowest success ratio, and its fans the lowest standards? When was the last time a film genuinely scared you?
Audiences shouldn't settle for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Like a bad porno, we're left bored by its expository sequences in anticipation of the action. And then the action arrives and underwhelms. We can't even fast-forward. The whole dim, dumb movie is an exercise in textbook tedium, created as though by combining at random items from the approved horror glossary, 666th edition. Horror, like porn, leans on the believability of its flimsily constructed reality. When that spell is broken, it's only too apparent that you're staring at some guy's bare ass. In this case, del Toro's.
30 Minutes or Less (2011)
Less than Funny
Jokes are overrated. The best comedies cull humor from character flaws, and while the cast of 30 Minutes or Less has those to spare, human foibles have little bearing on the way these people behave. Instead, it's about one-liners and crass one-upmanship in a string of exponentially less believable scenarios. First time screenwriter Michael Diliberti (previously credited as executive assistant to producer Scott Rudin) blunders his way past a great premise to lowest common denominator comedy.
Nick (played by Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network) is a pizza delivery boy who gets jumped by a pair of goons (Danny McBride, Nick Swardson), and strapped with a bomb and an ultimatum: rob a bank within ten hours or face the explosive consequences. Sounds exciting, right? Wrong.
Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer ignores the inherent tension. The homemade bomb should be a volatile, omnipresent threat, but there's never any indication that the device will actually explode. Granted, I'm not expecting Hitchcock here, but if I can't have suspense, even logic would suffice. With a whole ten hours on the clock, Nick and his buddy Chet (Aziz Ansari) idiotically ignore every safer stratagem at their disposal while playing ball with the crooks.
Part of the problem is that McBride and Swardson are portrayed as such inept villains, and occupy so much screen time. 30 Minutes or Less, at 90 minutes or less, prominently features these characters out of necessity to fulfill its own feature-length ambitions. Dramatically, it makes no sense — is Nick really the type of guy who would steal $100,000 at the behest of stooges like these?
A better 30 Minutes or Less would have ditched its emphasis on the antagonists and focused instead on Nick's foiled attempts to extricate himself from his predicament. As it stands, he seems all too willing to make himself an antihero: not just in robbery, but in voluntary crimes like grand theft auto and threatening a cop. It would have been more believable and exciting if the character complied only as a desperate last resort. That his roommate accompanies him on the heist is more asinine still.
As always, if 30 Minutes or Less were funnier, it would be easy to forgive the injustice done to its premise. The humor is hit-and-miss leaning toward the latter, and even my eager audience was rendered deafly silent by many of McBride's big moments. It isn't expressly his fault — his character just doesn't belong in the movie, and there's not much character there to begin with.
To draw a comparison, Tropic Thunder ranks among my favorite action-comedies of recent years because its characters instigate the plot, not vice versa. In that film, dramatic tension is elevated by the conflicting egos of its cast. In 30 Minutes or Less, narrative devices as lethal as Nick's bomb vest routinely hold the story ransom.
But the real robbery isn't a bank job — it's the shameless adoption of modern comedy's worst habits by Diliberti and Fleischer. From their casts of emotionally stunted man-children to their disposable pop-culture jabs and gratuitous bawdy dialogue, the irony of these R-rated comedies is that they cater to a PG-13 crowd. 30 Minutes or Less had an opportunity to distinguish itself with action beats, but the nearest it comes to Die Hard and Lethal Weapon is mentioning them. Even in a summer with little competition, Fleischer's film is light on laughs and even lighter on character. Now there's a commodity that's underrated.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
Cowardice & Aliens
Cowboys & Aliens sticks to its guns. Symbolically, that might suggest a certain strength, but in truth it means the filmmakers couldn't have played it any safer. The story is a weak hodgepodge of ideas riding past the point of homage clear into Cliché County. The crisp, colorful visuals likewise present an unmemorable wallpaper of established western and science fiction iconography devoid of individual vision.
It's a clear case of too many cooks. Credited to a screen writing seven, their conglomerated output is anything but magnificent. With a cast of caricatures that includes an amnesiac outlaw (Daniel Craig), a bumbling medicine man (Sam Rockwell), and a grizzled cattle rancher (Harrison Ford), director Jon Favreau's crack team of creatives had their bases covered with western stereotypes. Their failure is in their unwillingness or inability to add anything beyond extraterrestrials to the mix.
Stripped of its sci-fi gimmick, the world collapses. These people aren't compelling in their own right, and their predictable reaction to an otherworldly threat negates the period setting. The titular visitors are off-handedly called demons, but the unique perspective of a society that hasn't yet read H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds is absent. Explaining the invasion using Christian ideology might have helped set Cowboys & Aliens apart, but it subsists instead solely on the novelty of combining its constituent genres while doing neither justice.
Presumably because the audience is expected and even depended on not to think, the screenplay circumvents such ambiguity at every turn. Instead of allowing our turn-of-the- century protagonist to make sense of the ordeal on his own terms, religious or otherwise, the writers employ an expendable, expository character to do it for him. Do we really need to know the back story and endgame of the antagonists? It used to be enough just to know they're here and they're dangerous.
Then there's the aliens themselves. It seems almost unjust to criticize the creature design given how low Hollywood has set the bar, but Cowboys & Aliens' take is particularly uninspired. Bearing resemblance to the grasshoppers from Pixar's A Bug's Life, these cartoony insectoids feel completely at odds with the gritty western setting. Granted, dichotomy is the name of the game, but when they share screen space with our human heroes, the result is more Who Framed Roger Rabbit? than was likely intended.
But far more important than its intellectual and stylistic shortcomings is the fun factor. Cowboys & Aliens has a handful of decent set pieces, though its climactic battle is too helter- skelter to impress. Aerial assaults in the aliens' mechanized dragonfly drones prove most entertaining, though remain too few and far between. Their unannounced arrival is especially memorable and chaotic, but as the scale escalates, the stakes never ante up.
Cowboys & Aliens is a hopelessly average blockbuster. Big stars, bigger budget, and zero staying power. Much has been made of the "risk" associated with Favreau helming such an unproven franchise. After all, where are the wizards, the superheroes, and the vampires? This is not a brave film, nor the work of a brave filmmaker. Universal Pictures inherits the slim financial risk that this oddball mash up won't recoup its hundred million dollars; Favreau himself takes none.
In other words, he sticks to his guns. He fulfills his contractual obligation to bring the offbeat Cowboys & Aliens comic to the screen, but traverses cautiously over the safest possible path to deliver it. Call that what you will, but cowardice has a nice ring to it. — Colin
Last Time's the Charm
The sorry state of comic book movies is laid bare in Captain America: The First Avenger. The star spangled superhero hurdles higher than many of his peers, begging the question how he ended up last in the rotation. With the cinematic landscape cluttered with Hell-sent motorcyclists and Norsemen from outer space, could it be that Marvel sought to save the best for last? Nah.
The studio's lack of faith in the character is apparent in the caliber of talent they put behind the lens. Director Joe Johnston (once of The Rocketeer fame) boasts a career blemished by Jurassic Park III and the toothless 2010 Wolfman reboot. Still more disconcerting is the track record of screen writing duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, best known for Disney's disastrous Chronicles of Narnia adaptations. If I were a betting man, I'd be out a few bucks this weekend.
Fortuitously, Johnston's strengths cover Markus and McFeely's weaknesses, and vice versa. The authors offer a fertile narrative, and the director plants personality. He's summoned great actors for even his weakest efforts, and the cast of Captain America shines. An earnest Chris Evans takes the lead, supported by talents like Hugo Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, Tommy Lee Jones as himself as a general, and Stanley Tucci as a mad scientist in military employ. They obviously had a blast.
But the captain's greatest boon is simply having been born a century ago. Set against the backdrop of WWII, the twentieth century aesthetic goes a long way in instilling the adventure with the magic most modern superhero pictures lack. It's somehow easier to suspend our disbelief when the storytellers rustle history's hair à la Indiana Jones. And when it comes to sense of humor, the fewer opportunities for Facebook jokes the better.
Yet Captain America succumbs to its own set of shortcomings. For starters, Johnston's action is inarticulate. Many of the fight scenes suffer from klutzy choreography or are stylistically gimped by passé techniques like speed ramping. Markus and McFeely share equal blame for many of these uninspired sequences, which recast the captain as a personality deficient nobody shooting his way through dim corridors.
But the most glaring flaw is Captain America's irksome link to the inevitable Avengers movie. There's nothing interesting about Marvel's obligatory nods to their other franchise properties — they come off like commercial breaks. And can we get a moratorium on Stan Lee cameos? It was cute the first half-dozen times, but by now their sole purpose is to uphold tradition and to farm further nostalgia for the work of the studio's once golden boy.
Marvel evidently loves taking its audience out of the experience. They'd rather have people whispering to their neighbor than glued to the screen. This is especially annoying in Captain America, because for the first time since Iron Man, the audience is being treated to an origin story worth telling. And instead of letting that story shine in its own right, Marvel literally ends it with an ad.
It doesn't upend the preceding two hours, but it does leave a bad taste in the mouth. If the studio weren't so interested in franchising, Captain America might be remembered as more than a mere prequel to The Avengers — and it might very well be better. The movie has a rare lightheartedness that's absent from the rest of the Marvel's autonomous efforts, and likely will be from their blockbuster crossover.
Regardless of how it ended up last in the rotation, Captain America outshines even some of the higher seed heroes — pity it got ambushed by Marvel's marketing department. The film succeeds in spite of their routinely poor creative decision-making, but a more important question lingers. Did their ploy succeed in selling me The Avengers? Nah.
Deathly Hollow: Part 2
"It all ends." So reads the succinct tagline for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Capping a decade and eight blockbuster adaptations, Warner Bros. and director David Yates have finally put the franchise to bed. This is Potter's final hour, but is it also his finest?
Depends on who you ask. It's a criticism J.K. Rowling superfans may never understand since the Potter films are tailored to them, but the franchise is neigh impenetrable to the layman. Creative sovereignty is secondary to providing a faithful if mechanical visual companion to the source. Consequently, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 isn't even half a story. There's no beginning or middle — the entirety of the two plus hour runtime is one drawn-out ending.
Often that's an exciting feeling. Deathly Hallows' upbeat action sequences outpace many of its predecessors' — a magical bank heist and a Peter-Jackson-sized skirmish at Hogwarts Castle broaden the scope of the series. Others disappoint. What should be the climactic culmination of a 20-hour epic arrives without the exhilarating catharsis its audience deserves. Standing at 10 paces, Harry and his nemesis cross wands, sans emotional stakes. The archrivals spar simply because they're destined to, and the outcome will surprise no one.
Sandwiched between action and more action are dense expository scenes. When we last left Harry, he was hunting horcruxes ("Pieces of Voldemort's soul," he helpfully reminds us). With three of the elusive artifacts still left to unearth, he, Ron, and Hermione have plenty of scrounging to do before their much-advertised and inevitably underwhelming confrontation with the dark lord. The way that series screenwriter Steve Kloves artlessly espouses these crucial bits of info is telling — he could care less whether we follow him because he's following a blueprint.
Still, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is superior to its predecessor if only because it contains the bulk of the book's action and the characters' overdue closure. There is likewise little fluff, especially compared to the middling middle Potter flicks — but at least Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire didn't ask anyone to cough up extra to see the ending.
Dividing Deathly Hallows into two films was a brilliant marketing strategy, but one bereft of creative merit. All of the Potter films suffer to an extent from their unwillingness to embrace a fundamentally different storytelling medium, hoping instead to appease fans by cramming in as much exacting detail as will fit. And that's fine if you view the two billion dollar movie franchise as a visual supplement to the novels, but their standalone worth is negligible.
Hollywood's Potters do a good job of making flesh Rowling's beloved characters and their ever-evolving universe. Removed from the cultural phenomenon of her writing however, they are shallow, mediocre fantasy films cluttered with unnecessary detail. Some would utter an unforgivable curse at this suggestion, but Harry Potter would have made a better trilogy — there, I said it. I just hope you witches and wizards appreciate the irony of burning a Muggle like me at the stake.
Much of the positivity toward Harry Potter can be traced directly back to J.K. Rowling's writing from the generation that grew up reading it. None of the adaptations are bad enough to undo the goodwill she accumulated, but none of them stands independently either. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 stumbles with the right idea — to send the franchise out with a bang — and it does rank among the more enjoyable installments for sheer leanness. Whether or not it's Potter's finest hour is irrelevant; when it all ends, the films are only secondary.
The Tree of Life (2011)
Life Under a Microscope
Terrence Malick's existentialist experiment The Tree of Life triggered walkouts, exasperated sighs, and confused chatter. I loved every minute of it, but it's easy to sympathize with an unprepared audience. Imagine it: half an hour into an otherwise grounded '50s family drama, the universe is born. Their confusion was understandable, but their rudeness was less forgivable — I had to tell two whispering women behind me to curb their incessant chatting. With the shuffle of shopping bags, they not only obliged, they left.
Though not particularly fair, it's easy to defend Tree of Life and condemn their reaction in the greater context of Malick's body of work. I don't know what contingent of the crowd had had exposure to the filmmaker, or consequently arrived as preconditioned to his introspective narrative stylings as I had. I'd venture a guess that a few of the least satisfied patrons likely hadn't even seen the trailer. But if Tree of Life is only a great film if you've already seen Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, then it isn't a great film.
The Tree of Life is great, but it will bewilder and bore an audience unwilling to entertain Malick's bizarre tangents. I don't pretend to understand exactly what the filmmaker is suggesting with each visual cue, but at their most visceral level, the images are appreciable as pure visual poetry. And written in the firestorm of newborn planets, Malick finds awesome beauty in the smoldering foundations of Earth, and the burgeoning life of our progenitors.
Opinion will doubtless hinge on this outstanding segment, but in truth Malick's trip to the planetarium isn't an especially significant aspect of the story. The birth of our world is an important prologue, but the director is more interested in comparably recent history. Sean Penn plays a modern man. Stuffed into a business suit and entombed in a monolithic glass office, he reflects on his upbringing with his parents and two brothers. With no conventional narrative to speak of, he's left grasping at an odd assortment of memories and feelings.
First steps, family suppers, neglected chores. The genius of Malick's film is playing these little moments on a galactic scale. Consider it this way: we meet a family with all the requisite triumphs and tragedies. Been there, done that. By pausing their story to illuminate the incalculably vast and random series of events that made possible their microscopic lives, the filmmaker gives us a new perspective on the size of even their shortest shortcomings. Juxtaposed with the unending expanse of the universe, the infinitesimal experiences that chip away and eventually shape their characters are monumental.
And then you've got the nuts and bolts of Malick's filmmaking. Gorgeously shot by Emmanuel Lubezki and backed by Alexander Desplat's emotive score, The Tree of Life deftly marries sight and sound with a Kubrickian flair that recalls the director in top form. It remains to be seen whether Malick's oeuvre will have the lasting impact Kubrick's did, but the two are alike foremost in their uncompromising commitment to their craft.
Tree of Life, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a big film. Its ideas are expansive, provocative, and timeless. As was demonstrated at the Cannes premiere and in my theater Saturday, the price of that intellectual ammunition is accessibility. This is not a film for everyone. It's not a film that conventionally entertains. What Malick attempts to elicit from his viewers is infinitely more valuable than endorphins — a reverie for life itself and empathy for mankind. It must have worked, I feel sorry for those walkouts.
Super 8 (2011)
It's getting harder and harder to make movies like Super 8. Without the marketing muscle of a comic book superhero or a million dollar mug to slap on the poster, director J.J. Abrams gave the Hollywood bean counters dangerously little to count on. Even after Star Trek proved Abrams could direct the hell out of a summer blockbuster, the budget allocated for his pet follow-up is as diminutive as its young cast.
There is one megaton name Abrams drops on the Super 8 one-sheet: Steven Spielberg. But then, even his involvement means little when stinkers like Transformers and Eagle Eye regularly reappropriate his reputation for their own nefarious purposes. Fortunately, Abrams' connection to Spielberg is more personal.
Super 8 is a tribute to the early accomplishments of the famous filmmaker, and to his ilk who fell under the Amblin Entertainment banner in the 1980s. Abrams draws thirstily from their well, and precedes his film with that iconic E.T. over-the-moon title card. His contribution isn't quite the missing masterpiece many might have hoped, but it is a fun sci-fi throwback with modern flourishes and plenty of heart. Imagine that.
Like Richard Donner's Goonies, the pint-sized protagonists of Super 8 are kids. Not the angsty teenage set that Twilight has cornered, but kids. Cute, flawed, and endearing, the cast and casting director deserves a lot of credit. Two of the youngest stars make their debut here, including Joel Courtney as Joe, a boy dealing with the untimely death of his mother, and Riley Griffiths as Charles —Joe's (token big boned) friend with directorial aspirations.
Hence the title, a love of filmmaking permeates Super 8 — not just in Abrams' confident, informed direction, but among his characters as well. Set in the summer of '79, our heroes sneak out by night to shoot scenes for Charles' schlocky zombie detective short, The Case. Anyone who's messed around with a camcorder as a kid or endured an amateur film festival will immediately recognize the beats. Armed with approximations of professional equipment that would put my friends and I and our Mickey Mouse operation to shame, these characters are seriously creative. But then, being written by J.J. Abrams doesn't hurt.
It's no real spoiler that Super 8 is an alien flick, and Charles' little project takes a dramatic turn when he records something he was never meant to see. A loosed extraterrestrial menace stirs up trouble in the close-knit community, but with the subsequent government invasion, the first act's micro-focus begins to blur. Spielberg's own E.T. benefited from an exclusively adolescent perspective. By comparison, Super 8 wanders.
Though we're never parted from Joe long, the unfolding alien drama rarely meshes with the human story. Creature characterization should be married to his coming-of-age, but instead, exposition usually amounts to an isolated attack on a tertiary character. The scenes play well with suspense and camera trickery, but in hindsight, the plot is pretty much paused for action.
Super 8 is still a summer movie to aspire to. Like Inception, it defiantly forgoes franchising in favor of an as-yet untapped creative reserve. Of course, Abrams draws from the same wellspring that Spielberg, Donner, and Dante drank from, but even when he borrows, he reminds us why so many films made for triple the price aren't half as enjoyable — heart. Call Abrams overambitious, but his is a story of love, reconciliation, and friendship. How exactly do you quantify that?
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Herzog: the Indiana Jones of Documentarians
No one shoots 32,000 year-old cave paintings like Werner Herzog. First off, they're not allowed. The storied German filmmaker was recently granted unprecedented access to Chauvet caves in south France, which house the earliest known human paintings. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the latest in his library of offbeat and mostly fascinating documentaries. Of course, Herzog's unique perspective is as much a draw as the subject matter itself — the man could make a movie about dirt and I'd be the first in line.
Fortunately, he's dealing with no such handicap here. The paintings that line Chauvet are beautiful, perfectly preserved, and enigmatic. But it's their technique that's most impressive. The conception that early man doodled only rudimentary stick figures and geometric animals is a fallacy, as the craft on display in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is staggering. So much so that early analysis doubted the authenticity of the drawings. Sealed beneath a thick layer of calcite, however, carbon dating proved them genuine.
In truth, there are no depictions of man on the walls of Chauvet. Instead, most panels appear an altar to the animal kingdom, with awesome recreations of bison, horses, lions, and now extinct wooly rhinos. Painted from memory in a dark recess of the cave, the images could only be seen by firelight. Art historians speculate that in those flickering flames, the drawings might have appeared to take life, which Herzog equates to a sort of "proto-cinema." Also of special interest to the director is a bison with a woman's body painted onto the curvature of a stalactite.
Complete with bizarre metaphors, inner musings, and tangential conversation, there can be no mistaking the author of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. At times, the filmmaker even seems aware that he's being Werner Herzog. Not every one of his digressions proves equally illuminating, but you can't really complain about Herzog being Herzog in a Herzog documentary.
Funded in part by the History Channel, his input is infinitely more valuable considering the sterile TV special this might have been. His knack for compelling autobiography proves one of the most intriguing aspects of the film, and rather than work around his crew and equipment, Herzog mines drama from their creative difficulties. The team was permitted inside for just a few brief hours per day, and restricted to two foot wide metal walkways once there. The many precautions and restrictions protect the integrity of the cave floor, and the still fresh footprints and animal remains that have survived there for so long.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams isn't Herzog's best work by any stretch of the imagination, but at almost 70, it's amazing he's still up for the Indiana Jones routine. From the Peruvian rainforest in his youth to Antarctica and now some light spelunking, Herzog is one of the most traveled filmmakers alive. That he can still churn out progressive, stimulating entertainment is a rarity among artists his age.
And as obtuse as it may be, Herzog's ideology is invaluable. Through his eyes, Chauvet cave is a wonder to behold; he captures the transcendent beauty of the paintings and ruminates on the lives of their anonymous creators. Though sometimes he overstates his own eccentricity, the through line of art as an essential human quality circumvents his digressions. Our ability to appreciate the creative output of a society millennia removed from our own is a powerful concept. Here's hoping folks from the year 34,000 appreciate Herzog as much as we do.
On Tamer Tides
Pirates of the Caribbean debuted atop a cresting wave, but after a hat trick of subpar sequels, this rickety franchise is all but shipwrecked. The fourth installment, On Stranger Tides, cements a downward spiral of diminishing creativity with Captain Jack Sparrow's most shallow adventure yet. Gone is director Gore Verbinski, whose surrealist sensibilities were the saving grace of Dead Man's Chest and At World's End. His leftfield replacement is Rob Marshall, the man behind the Academy Award-winning musical, Chicago.
Action is obviously not Marshall's forte, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to have expected better choreography. Marred by shapeless large-scale skirmishes, On Stranger Tides lacks the series' signature spunk. To that effect, personality walked the plank prior to the opening titles.
Granted, the characters of the Pirates universe have always been archetypes enlivened by smart performances, but even the novelty of Johnny Depp as our ne'er-do-well antihero is wearing itself thin. Likewise, Geoffrey Rush trotting out his Barbossa doesn't deliver the same impact four times over. Other familiar faces appear throughout this overlong narrative, but On Stranger Tides is better defined by its absentees and new recruits.
Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are the most obvious examples. Axing their dull relationship is no great loss, nor is the omission of squid-faced antagonist Davy Jones. Pity their replacements are less interesting still. An aloof Penélope Cruz might be the most boring woman on the seven seas, and her romance with Sparrow is dead in the water. Don't even get me started on the courtship of the cleric and the mermaid, which sounds like the setup to a bad joke. Deadwood's Ian McShane turns in a compelling interpretation of the legendary pirate Black Beard, but is criminally underused.
Weaving a tale that involves three factions pulling anchor to find Ponce de Leon's fabled fountain of youth, On Stranger Tides plays out like the world's most expensive snail race. And the audience ain't getting any younger. No epic is as simple as point A to B, but Pirates revels in getting sidetracked. Silly business like voodoo dolls, mermaid tears, and magic compasses needlessly postpone the endgame; "It's not the destination so much as the journey," Sparrow quips. I'd be inclined to agree if either were any fun.
Of course it wouldn't be a Pirates of the Caribbean movie without CGI sea creatures and mystical trinkets, but both serve merely to inflate the plot — it's like catching a glimpse of the director backstage gesturing 'stretch, stretch!' Or perhaps it's proof of weak characterization that the inanimate objects prove just as interesting as our heroes.
With a gray-brown pallet and precious few postcards to remember it by, On Stranger Tides is inconsequential even by popcorn standards. The franchise has become increasingly inaccessible, and while this fourth installment stands better alone than At World's End, there is little incentive for viewers not yet familiar with the wily charms of Jack Sparrow to care. Accordingly, attendance for the Pirates films continues to drop, though the 90 million Marshall raked in over opening weekend is nothing to sneeze at. Word is a fifth installment is already in the works.
Realistically, Pirates won't stop until Disney runs it aground or Depp says no — and like any good captain with a multi-million dollar check in hand, he's going down with the ship.
Brides and Banana Peels
It's clear "Bridesmaids" got greenlit as "'The Hangover' for chicks," but to condemn it as such would be a disservice. The latest Judd Apatow Family Production is a savvy, character-driven comedy worthy of commendation in its own right. SNL's Kristen Wiig stars, having co-wrote the screenplay with actress Annie Mumolo. In a culture with great reverence for the pomp and circumstance of marriage, the pair dispenses a generous allocation of banana peels along the length of the aisle.
It may not make for the most intellectual humor, but "Bridesmaids" thrives on broad comedy by way of endearing characters and vibrant performances. Wiig plays Annie, the broke proprietor of a failed bakery whose best friend (Maya Rudolph) is engaged. Named maid of honor at the upcoming wedding, Annie is soon overwhelmed with all the inherited responsibility. She spars with bitchy perfectionist Helen (Rose Byrne) over bridal shower themes, bachelorette party locales, and naturally, bridesmaid dresses.
Though the cast is rounded out by Wendi McLendon-Covey of "Reno 911" fame and Ellie Kemper from the American "Office," the real standout is "Gilmore Girls'" Melissa McCarthy as Megan, the 180-degree antithesis of class. Heavyset, hilarious, and not the least bit demure, she easily walks away with the movie. Whether she's accusing a seatmate of being an air marshal incognito, or bent over a sink in a compromising situation, the funniest moments in "Bridesmaids" are almost exclusively hers.
Not that "Bridesmaids" has any shortage of funny moments. Some scenarios work better than others however, and at two plus hours, it's hard not to notice where it could use a trim. For all the positives Apatow doubtless brings to the production, he is a poor role model when it comes to maintaining an appropriate run time. Director Paul Feig is more directly to blame for not axing the most superfluous and least funny bits; Annie's portly English roommates spring to mind as characters whose absence might make the film leaner in more ways than one.
The lack of focus keeps "Bridesmaids" from achieving real staying power. Subplots like Annie's relationship with an Irish cop (Chris O'Dowd) — amusing though they may be —consume too great a slice of our time, and dilute what makes the simple premise so strong. Feig and Wiig are firing on all cylinders during the ensemble scenes, and I'm confident a better 90-minute cut exists somewhere in the folds of this wedding comedy, which has as many frills and puffs as even the gaudiest bride to be.
"Bridesmaids" may not be one to have and to hold until death do you part, but it's still a saucy affair. Wiig plays a lovable loser and surrounds herself with some seriously funny ladies. Their performances alone carry most scenes. Coupled with a refreshing refusal to cater exclusively to the sense of humor of teenage boys, the film suffers only in setting itself too high a standard and failing to continually exceed it.
Though the output is sadly less than the sum of its parts, there is enough great, boisterous energy on hand to make "Bridesmaids" worth checking out, gender regardless. It's leagues ahead of the competition when it comes to personality, and its savvy, character-driven comedy could actually teach a thing of two to those clowns behind the "'Bridesmaids' for bros."
"Thor" operates under the mistaken assumption that Thor is cool. Marvel's unsolicited film adaptation makes no attempt to entice an audience that may yet be unfamiliar with this benchwarmer hero. Peter Parker was a dweeb; Bruce Wayne lost his parents; Clark Kent was abandoned at birth; great comic heroes have compelling origin stories. Our introduction to Thor is as a spoiled warmonger about to ascend to kinghood. Why are we rooting for this guy, again?
Pitting your audience against the protagonist is something a filmmaker the caliber of a P.T. Anderson can pull off, but I'm pretty sure we're supposed to like Thor. Maybe we're supposed to sympathize when daddy takes away his mallet, but once the eponymous meathead is booted from his cushy Asgardian throne, he crash lands on Earth as a colossal buffoon. See Thor get tased. See Thor smash a coffee mug while a glib teenager uploads a photo to Facebook and you'll have an idea just how low the comedy here is flying. Watch your heads.
"Thor" treats Thor with such undeserved adulation that reducing the thunder god to a punch line in the second act comes like a bolt from the blue. Following a foundation of pretentious melodrama set in a Seussian CGI metropolis, even the more successful attempts at humor later on play foreign and weird. And just to keep the audience on its toes, the tone wobbles wildly to and fro like a pair of burly Norsemen on a teeter-totter.
I've got nothing against flawed heroes. Thor's arrogance might have helped make his story worth telling. Instead, the filmmakers (with credit to no less than five writers) waste two hours attempting to redeem him in the audience's eyes. Still, the real problem is that the character is uninteresting. It's more than possible some of the nuance of the comic books has been lost in translation, but I can't think of a single trait that makes Thor (Chris Hemsworth) appealing.
The same goes for the rest of the cast. Natalie Portman plays a scientist who ought to be studying the mysteries of her missing personality, and Stellan Skarsgård plays her mentor, an equally pale placeholder character. Rounding out their misfit team is Kat Dennings, whose character description might as well read: "Social media junkie; loves her iPod, and whatever else those damned teenagers are into nowadays."
The aesthetic of "Thor" is as bland as its players. Director Kenneth Branagh, best known for his Shakespearean endeavors, takes a 'broken tripod' approach to directing this summer tent pole. He has cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos frame half his shots diagonally in lieu of investing in a coherent visual style. Branagh is elsewhere absent as the shepherd of his cast — otherwise proved performers mumble their way through the movie.
As if Thor didn't have enough shame to contend with as a D-list superhero, his big screen debut is similarly underwhelming. Instead of making a case for the character, Branagh and a gaggle of screenwriters cement his lame duck status in this bludgeoningly boring popcorn flick. Even undiscerning cinema-goers looking for little more than a two-hour refuge from the summer sun have better choices available to them. Comic book aficionados likewise have no shortage of spandex to look forward to in the coming weeks.
After years of warming the bench, Thor finally got called into the big game, only to slip up and sustain a career-ending injury on his first play. That's gotta hurt.
Fast Five (2011)
Cars, Muscles, and Muscle Cars
Forgive my ignorance of the "Fast and Furious" films. Believe it or not, this fifth installment is the first I've seen in its entirety. I could generally care less about car culture and only just learned how to change my own oil. The closest I come to drifting is in "Mario Kart." I am not the target audience. But as the producers have apparently exhausted street racing tropes, they've pimped the franchise out to the masses. Color me impressed, it actually works.
"Fast Five" may be brainless action, but at least it's the type that revels in its own ridiculousness. The genre has lately fallen into a self-serious slump, teeming with stern- faced heroes who don't enjoy saving the world one bit. Conversely and to all appearances, Vin Diesel and company couldn't be having a better time tearing up the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Sometimes a fast car and a toothy grin is all you need.
Director Justin Lin obviously appreciates the simple and satisfying marriage of physical stunt work and compelling cinematography. Granted, it's no master's course in action filmmaking, but his use of the camera to transfer momentum is undeniably effective. Particularly impressive are his opening and closing chase sequences, in which he employs CGI sparingly in favor of real vehicles and visceral wrecks. Smartly favored in the trailer, "Fast Five" is bookended by an hour of easy escapism.
The problem is everything in between. No one was expecting Shakespeare, but Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan should have at least dog-eared the bit about brevity being the soul of wit. At two hours 10 minutes, "Fast Five" is longer than it has any earthly business being. The bloated running time allows for some presumably obligatory street races and more tiresome exposition than you can shake a stick shift at.
Hours seem to wither away in a dimly lit garage where story beats are spoon-fed to the audience. Get on with it; "Fast Five" is a "one last job" heist film with few surprises. Whole swaths of the story could be cut—they exist solely to justify more drag races, fistfights, and shootouts. Morgan also relies on cheap, microwavable drama in his peripheral storytelling: an unexpected pregnancy and leftfield romances add little depth to the proceedings. Having his characters emote plays to nobody's strengths.
Thankfully, the charisma of the cast buoys any less than Oscar-worthy performances. Diesel comes off surprisingly empathetic as the muscle-bound mastermind of the hundred million dollar heist. Along the way, he spars with a gargantuan federal agent played by The Rock, and calls in help from a colorful cast of returning characters, including an ex-rival (Paul Walker), his sister (Jordana Brewster), a smooth-talker (Tyrese Gibson), and a safecracker (Ludacris).
Despite its lulls, "Fast Five" kicks the summer off right. With more judicious pacing, it might have been the perfect Saturday afternoon snack, but junk food necessitates a conservative serving size. Lin's overlong film is fortunately punctuated by the sort of tangible high-octane action that has become a rarity in the age of CGI superpowers and spell craft. Even if you're as unfamiliar with the franchise as I was yesterday, you'll likely find this fifth installment immediately accessible and intermittently fun. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a date with my 2001 automatic transmission Toyota Camry.
Rio de Generic
"Rio" is one for the kiddies, so you'll have to forgive this childless twenty-something for feeling at odds with the target audience. The theater was stuffed with tykes with mouths agape—whispering, screaming, and coughing. I have no idea if that means they were enjoying it. From an adult perspective, this anthropomorphic epic isn't necessarily a painful endurance test, but unlike Nickelodeon's "Rango," there isn't a single compelling reason to recommend it to anyone over the age of 12.
The voice cast is unsurprisingly stacked with actors in vogue looking to score an easy paycheck. Jesse Eisenberg channels his innermost neurosis as Blu, our fine, feathered protagonist with a fear of flying. Leslie Mann plays his owner Linda, a bookish Minnesotan who is coerced into schlepping her beloved pet to the eponymous South American city in order to have him (ahem) mate with the only known female of his kind.
If you've ever been subjected to children's programming, you may know the cadence that most of the cast adopts. Sentences delicately spill from animated lips with careful annunciation of each syllable, lest anyone fall behind. There are a couple of legitimately impressive performances, including Jemaine Clement of "Flight of the Conchords" fame as a conniving cockatoo, and Tracy Morgan from "30 Rock" as an oversensitive bulldog. Rounded out by the likes of Will i Am and Jamie Foxx, "Rio" draws from a pool of veteran vocal performers.
And if the above talent didn't tip you off, I regretfully inform you that "Rio" fancies itself a musical. Doubtless spurred by the success of "Happy Feet," every so often the characters break into exuberant song, which is even more grating than their unhurried dialogue.
The archetypical adventure plays out predictably. Blu doesn't exactly hit it off with Jewel (Anne Hathaway), his undomesticated mate—but the two are birdnapped and find love as they find their way home together. Granted, it's a proved template, but to use the oeuvre of Pixar as a counter-point, there's plenty of wiggle-room to establish identity within the stringent confines of a narrative 'sure thing.' Even when Pixar isn't pushing boundaries, its creative shepherds generally recognize the chasm that separates the kiddie crowd from general audience.
Not that there's anything wrong with catering a cartoon to children, but even under those auspices, I can only recommend "Rio" to, what, 15% of the population? Probably none of whom are reading this review. Parents have my condolences if they're dragged to this utterly uninteresting animated flick, though history is fraught with worse cinematic prison sentences.
It's hard to outright hate "Rio" given that I am almost two decades the elder of its target audience, and childless to boot. Thus, my window into its appeal is either long-since closed or not-yet open. As a fan of animation, however, I can safely assert that grown ups need not apply. If readymade heartstring pluckers like lost pets and orphans get you all gooey-eyed, maybe "Rio" will speak to you—but my sense is that most of us are calloused to such obvious emotional exploitation.
As for the twelve and unders—their reaction was tough to gauge amid the chorus of whispers, shrieks, and hacking coughs. They all pretty much sat still and watched the damn movie. That must count for something.