Friday, August 31, 2012

Ride Like Hell and Run Like You Stole Something

On my last day off from work, I had so much extra time that I decided to pull a two-fer at the movies. Sometimes I'll do this, especially when my schedule has no overly-burdensome tasks laid out for me and I've got nobody else with whom to share my time. And so today I'm going to talk about two VERY different movies, the bike messenger thriller (yes, you read that right) Premium Rush and the sci-fi drama Robot & Frank.

In Premium Rush, rising star Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Wilee, a thrill junkie of a NYC bicycle messenger, one of the many riding through the streets of the city (my own recent jaunt to the United States' most populous city did not witness any cyclists, but maybe it was an off week). Among his peers, Wilee is considered one of the best, and it's his reputation that gets him a premium rush job, transporting one envelope from a friend from one side of the city to the other quickly. But the package turns out to be a hot commodity, as Wilee finds himself dodging Chinese mafia, dirty cops, legit cops, and even rival bike messengers in a bid to get the package delivered on time.

"Why yes, I WAS that kid from 3'rd Rock!"
This is a huge year for Gordon-Levitt. After finally gaining mainstream acceptance with his role in 2010's Inception, he has been steadily raising his status as a Hollywood star, and 2012 looks to be his biggest year yet. He was a huge reason Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises was as good as it was, and he'll be following up Premium Rush with the sci-fi thriller Looper, which is one of my more anticipated sci-fi flicks this year. He also has a role (how large, I'm not sure) in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which is as big as a deal as it sounds. While his Wilee does come off as kind of a jackass at times, it's Gordon-Levitt's charm that ensures that we never get tired of his schtick. He's front and center most of the time, and his casual, take-no-shit attitude and his interactions with others are what makes him such an effective protagonist.

"What do you mean he's 'not Batman'?"
Surprisingly, for a film centering around such an obscure job this movie never feels out of place or far from your comfort zone. Replace the bike chases with car chases, and you've got your standard high-level action film ready for distribution. That might make it seem like Premium Rush is no different than anything else out there (and you'd be right), but that doesn't mean that it's a bad thing; the film packs all the excitement of your standard thrill-ride, simply replacing four wheels with two. The supporting cast seems to have been set up with this action pastiche in mind; with Dania Ramirez and Aasif Mandvi doing the best they can with limited character. Michael Shannon especially steps up, as his cliche dirty cop with a gambling problem would be a disaster in anybody else's hands. Director David Koepp's biggest coup was casting the former Academy Award nominee in the role, which benefits from his experience and ability to command a scene effortlessly.

Out-riding all his newfound glory.
Anyone expecting Premium Rush to have more brains than it does is bound to be disappointed. The biggest surprise is that for an action piece with no emotional commitment, it's a lot more fun than it really has any right to be. You might want to overlook this movie (and as it made very little opening weekend, a lot of people did just that), but for a mindless action flick this one is actually clever enough to make the cut. It might not be Top 10 material, but it's still a lot of fun.

The next title required me to head to the oft-cited Coolidge Corner Theater. The story of Robot & Frank definitely struck me as a peculiarly odd, but somehow ingenious concept. Set in the near future, it stars Frank Langella as Frank, a mentally-afflicted father and former cat burglar who has strained relationships with his children. When his son (James Marsden) brings him a robot butler (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to help keep his life in order and remain healthy, Frank is at first distrustful of having the thing around the house, but slowly begins to accept Robot's help. This comes to a head when he discovers that his new companion has no protocol that says that stealing is wrong, prompting Frank to plan a major heist to strike at the rich folk who he believes don't deserve their vast wealth.

On the surface, Robot & Frank has a lot going for it; a great cast (which also includes Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler and Jeremy Sisto), an interesting hook, and some clever societal statements made it one of the smarter-looking movies this year. And for the most part, that is the correct assumption. Clever in a completely different way than Premium Rush could ever have hoped, this movie is more of an actor's film, with the characters guiding film in a way you don't see much anymore. The acting is all excellent, especially Langella, who might be Oscar baiting if the film can gather any traction beyond the science fiction crowd. If Sam Rockwell's under-loved role in Moon is any indication however, the Academy won't be giving this sci-fi movie any credit anytime soon. That's a shame for both Langella and Sarsgaard, who once again provides the kind of excellent performance we now expect from him. Together, they create a nice one-two punch and are one of the better pairs I've seen in 2012.

Two of the best performances you'll see this year.
Unfortunately, the film's slow and inconsistent pacing make many a scene less interesting than the film as a whole. While we get to experience the budding friendship between our two leads, director Jake Schreier does so at the expense of many of the other characters, most notably Sarandon's librarian who befriends Frank only to be cut from most of the main story. While the story as a whole is solid, and at times a ton of fun, there is a lot of evidence that Schreier is - for good or bad -  the first-time director that he is.

Guess who wishes Liv Tyler was elsewhere right now?
Still, Robot & Frank has a lot of charisma in its bones, and the story and characters combine for a fun if not perfect time at the movies. If it comes to a theater near you, it's a solid option as a smart, funny, and clever film. Langella and Sarsgaard are well worth the effort, and even if you somehow miss this small gem, definitely take the time to see it on DVD when it's available.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Disney Oddity

When I first saw promotional material for The Odd Life of Timothy Green, I was still dating former "loyal sidekick" Anne. That was over a year ago - well before Todd and I met - and illustrates just how long parent company Disney has been pushing this feel-good family release. It seems like an odd decision to do so; in the time since, similar film We Bought a Zoo released its trailers, got into theaters in December, banked its profits and released on DVD. For such a title as Odd Life to promote itself a year in advance seems like either shoddy marketing or a failure in the making. In fact, after seeing that trailer for the first time, I didn't see a single follow-up until just this past spring, causing me to believe that the movie had been delayed due to negative feedback. But no, August 15'th was always meant to be the film's release date, and The Odd Life of Timothy Green, with midcard performers Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton at the forefront, finally hit theaters a couple of weeks ago. Worth the extensive wait? I suppose it depends how much saccharine you like in your coffee.

Parents without a clue.
When married couple Cindy (Garner) and Jim (Edgerton) Green discover that they cannot conceive a child, they are understandably crushed. Cindy desires that same proud feeling her sister expresses about her "gifted" children, while Jim desperately wants to be the attentive, loving father he never had. Spending every dime they had on medical treatments and examinations, they are at the end of their rope. Finally, in an attempt to move on, they take down all the ideas of what their perfect child would be, lock those written notes in a box, and bury it in the garden. That night, they are shocked to discover a young boy (CJ Adams) appear in their home, a boy who apparently dug himself out of the garden. Calling himself Timothy, the naive and earnest boy sets about changing the lives of the Greens and their friends and family, in many unexpected ways. But what nobody but Timothy knows is that he only has a limited amount of time on this Earth...

The "Family Talent Show" did not go as well as planned...
I admit that there were some notions of the trailers that had sparked my interest, from the magical appearance of Timothy to the leaves that are seen on his legs from the get-go. But beyond that, the idea that this movie could be anything beyond its "miraculous" lead character didn't seem possible, and director Peter Hedges doesn't do anything to prove me wrong. It's all Timothy, all the time, and between his parents' shock at everything he does and says to people alternating between thinking he's weird and genuinely liking him, his presence gets very tired VERY fast. It doesn't help that CJ Adams is just one in a long line of annoying kid actors whose earnestness and energy become a major liability the more the audience is exposed to them. And despite the fact that both Garner and Edgerton are quality talents, neither is at the top of their respective games. We've seen the pensive mother-type from Garner before, but she was so much better in Juno. And for Edgerton, going from dark, gritty roles in Animal Kingdom, The Thing and Warrior to a more family-friendly movie doesn't feel as genuine as he and I had hoped.

How does this end? He leaves her.
 This means that The Odd Life of Timothy Green must live or die by the strength of its supporting characters, a varied bunch limited by the cliched similarities inherent in small-town American towns. Rosemarie Dewitt (who has appeared in a lot this year), Dianne Wiest, M. Emmet Walsh, David Morse, Ron Livingston and Common play normal people in normal ways and don't really do anything special outside of being very talented, which is fine but not great. There are a few standouts, however. Playing Timothy's best friend, Odeya Rush makes a wonderful splash as the reserved, artistic Joni. And Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo carries the small role of a representative for an adoption firm that the Greens are in contact with. Both actresses put on great performances, but are sadly underused and could have done much more to liven up the story.

The whole thing is about as exciting as this screenshot
Because despite the talent of the people onscreen, it is the story that sinks Timothy Green. The plot feels incredibly thin, as Timothy's journey to impact lives over and over again and help Cindy and Jim overcome their parenting hiccups stops being charming after the first hour. What follows is boredom: lots and LOTS of boredom as you wait for something (Anything!) fun to happen. There's no way small children will be able to maintain their attention throughout this movie, which is weird since this IS supposed to be a family film. While it does keep the sugar factor going strong and wrap up things in a happy fashion, it doesn't make the boring interludes forgivable, nor does it manage to carry the script beyond the interesting idea that it once was.

"Hello, I must be going."
It's that lack of follow through that makes The Odd Life of Timothy Green one of this year's lesser films. It's not horrible, but much more needed to be done to make this a film a classic children's film, and it ends up in the lower half of 2012's mid-range pack. This is Disney playing it safe, while ParaNorman does a much better job entertaining kids in its own charmingly subversive way. Wholly uninteresting and not worth the ticket price, you can save Timothy Green for a final-option DVD rental.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Movie Monday: The Apparition

This week Todd wanted to see a scary movie, and so with three weak-looking wide releases hitting theaters, we decided to gamble on The Apparition, the season's first horror film. We've seen some interesting ghost stories in the past couple of years, from the excellent Insidious to well-done fare like The Woman in Black. Can this new title live up to it's scary brethren?

When an experiment designed to "create" a spirit from pure belief goes awry, young couple Kelly and Ben discover strange things happening in their new home, from open doors that had been locked shut to moved furniture to a strange-looking mold in the walls and ceiling. Soon they discover that this is the effect of the ghost that Ben helped summon to their world, a malevolent spirit with murder on its agenda. The couple pair up with Ben's former classmate Patrick to try and eradicate the spirit, but it already may be too late to send the creature back to where it came from.

The Apparition was written and directed by Todd Lincoln and stars Ashley Greene, Sebastian Stan and Tom Felton.

Click here for the whole review at Open Letters Monthly.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sparkle, Sparkle!

On February 11, 2012, the entertainment industry lost one of its most talented performers with the death of musician Whitney Houston. Though her life was filled with problems and addictions that the star could not quite get a handle on, nobody could say that she lacked the talent to be everything most of us could only hope to aspire to. Her biggest heyday might have definitely been in the eighties and nineties, but Houston had managed to stay relevant throughout the new millennium, and the fact that her starring appearance in Sparkle has been what has drawn people to this remake of the 1976 film of the same name is a testament to her reigning popularity even today. But is her performance in this movie enough to actually recommend it to the casual viewer? Or is this just an overcooked presentation designed to give her one last Hollywood Hurrah?

In 1968 Detroit, Motown is king, and Sparkle (American Idol winner Jordin Sparks) secretly desires to be part of it. Her mother Emma (Houston) once tried to strike out as a singer and fell quickly from grace, and Emma has since devoted herself to the local church, not wishing her three daughters to go through the same things she suffered. But Sparkle's desire and talent as a singer and songwriter break out, and soon she and her older sisters Sister (Carmen Ejogo) and Dee (Tika Sumpter) are making a name for themselves based on the songs she writes. Just as things are looking their best, fame takes hole, and Sister falls victim to drug addiction and an abusive relationship. When Emma learns of the group and expresses her disapproval, Sparkle is thrust into the impossible decision between family and seeking her shot at the spotlight.

This is the type of movie you're expecting...
Let me start off by saying that despite any issues this film has, I actually liked what was put before me. And it wasn't for the reasons I would have thought, either. Setting the film during the height of the Detroit music scene presents an amazing soundtrack, one of the best I've heard this year. While many of the tracks, especially those written by legendary artist Curtis Mayfield, come from the soundtrack of the original Sparkle, they manage to sound far fresher today than they did back in the seventies. The excellent "Something He Can Feel", which the first movie introduced before both Aretha Franklin and En Vogue made it a #1 hit, is as entrancing now as it ever was. And the additions by modern R&B artist R. Kelly, the most prominent of which is the Sparks track "One Wing", manage to fit perfectly with the film's tone while amazing the audience with the sheer power of the performance. Not only are the tracks wonderfully captured on film, but the performances themselves defy expectation. Houston is of course pitch perfect, while Sparks will stagger you once she actually gets an opportunity to show off her vocal chords.

While THIS is the movie you get! Wowzers!
Sparkle also features a strong tide of acting performances, some of them from places you wouldn't expect. Sparks is one of the film's bigger surprises. As she's making her feature film debut, you might expect that she would rely more on her singing than her acting. But despite the fact that she doesn't get to blow us away until the final act, she actually does a decent job on the acting side of things, contributing a bit more than you might expect. Also putting their best feet forwards are supporting actors Sumpter, Derek Luke, Mike Epps, and Omari Hardwick. Though they play relatively straightforward characters, each take their work very seriously, playing their parts as honestly as they can. Epps especially stands out, the comedic actor striving down a dark path with an intense, charged performance that will shock you if you've seen him before.

You'll never see Friday after Next the same way again.
But this film soars on the shoulders of one performance, but to my shock that job did not fall to Whitney Houston. In fact, while I was impressed with the job Houston did overall, I was also surprised when her disapproving mother hen character appeared less and less as the film progressed, only to resurge in the final act. Though it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, and she does have more than her fair share of moments, the muted nature of the character simply didn't wow me as much as I thought it would. Instead, I hold all the praise in the world for Ejogo, whose portrayal of Sister is deserving of far more than pretty words on a computer screen. I don't know where the British Nigerian actress has been hiding, as how such a source of monumental talent has gone unnoticed all this time is a shock, and is the perfect example of how often black actresses are overlooked in Hollywood. If someone as beautiful and classically talented as Carmen Ejogo cannot get recognized after this performance, then the system simply doesn't work. Needless to say, she's my new favorite for Best Supporting Actress once award season rolls around.

Take them! Take ALL the awards!!
When Sparkle first reared its head, I feared we were in for an inferior Dreamgirls clone, which isn't a stretch since both films were loosely based on classic Motown group The Supremes. But for all its melodrama, cliched plot devices and weak moments, I really LIKED Sparkle. I loved the acting, the music and the spectacle, and the film really outdid my early expectations by making me care about the characters whose lives were tossed about by the tale. Director Salim Akil has done an amazing job here, notable in that it's just his second feature film. It's not perfect, and Houston could have used a better sendoff than this for her legacy. But there's more to like here than not, and Ejogo's performance alone is worth the price of a ticket. See this and tell me I'm wrong.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Everyone's Expendable

Many of you might remember a review I wrote at about this time two years ago. In it, I spoke of a not-great film that pitted its heroes against completely unbelievable odds and saw them come out the other side successfully. But what made this film so different from its modern action counterparts were two things. One, it didn't take itself nearly as seriously as your standard movie by Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer. Secondly, the "heroes" in this instance were not young guns, but veterans of the action movie industry. If you haven't guessed by now, I'm talking about The Expendables, a comeback movie of sorts that was written by, directed by, and starred Sylvester Stallone as the leader of a veteran mercenary group who are generally hired to carry out impossible missions. While implausible, dumb, and a lot of other negative adjectives, The Expendables had one good thing going for it: it was FUN. And that is why fans of the original have been waiting patiently for the second chapter in Stallone's mercenary saga; unlike a lot of this year's summer movies, it's a safe bet that The Expendables 2 - despite not being directed by the remarkably-talented Stallone - would retain that same sense of excitement and good old-fashioned mayhem that made the original a box office champion.

Schwarzeneggar, Stallone and Willis: the holy trifecta.
After a battle in Nepal that likely defies any previous records in terms of body count, the Expendables return home for some rest and relaxation. It's slow in coming however, as Barney Ross (Stallone) is once again approached by the man known as Church (Bruce Willis). The CIA is a little miffed at the group's actions in the first film, to the point where Church believes that the Expendables owe him the money he paid them before. To pay him back, Ross agrees to go through with a mission to retrieve sensitive material from a downed plane in Albania. What starts off as a cakewalk gets more complicated when they lose the material - plans to a cache of stored Russian plutonium - to rival mercenary Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme). It's up to the Expendables and their newest recruits (Yu Nan and Liam Hemsworth), along with a few allies, to track down the bad guys and put them down for good.

Okay, Moses he ain't...
The man behind the camera this time around is Simon West, an experienced action director whose previous efforts include Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and The Mechanic. Yeah, that seems like a mixed bag of a recommendation, but what can I say? Stallone didn't want to do all the heavy lifting this time around, and at least West has a record of audience-pleasing that would seem to suit his expectant audience. It's not as though we expect a whole lot out of this sequel: stuff gets blown up, old action stars make cameos, and the dialogue doesn't so much move the story forward as it does spew out glib comments and hilarious gags about the history of the icons on the screen. In other words, it's an action director's low-maintenance dream.

Yes, the bad guy's name is 'Vilain'. I swear you can't make this stuff up...
Of course, those "great" actors of action's golden age don't quite stand up as straight in this second go-around. For one, while expanded roles for Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger are used to great effect, and new cast-mates Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Hemsworth and Nan work well with their material, the original heroes are the ones left with little to do. Only Stallone feels untouched, while Jason Statham, who was a major factor the first film, finds his role drastically reduced. While the original Expendables made an effort to include all the hero characters equally, that wasn't the case for the returning Randy Couture, Terry Crews and even Jet Li, who isn't even present for most of this outing. The over-sized cast is the main culprit, and while the new guys manage to give us plenty to laugh and be excited about, the final effect just isn't the same. Nobody steps up to claim the "soul" portion of the film and fill in for the departed Micky Rourke, either. That's a shame, because the first movie definitely benefited from his emotional and heartfelt monologue. At least Dolph Lundgren gets ample moments to shine, as he's a natural comedian when called upon. In fact, he's probably the biggest surprise of the cast, by far.

Tell me this wasn't your favorite part of the trailer.
While all the violence, explosives and smart-assery are all thankfully similar to The Expendables, the film does actually get better in one department with the casting of Nan in a major role. In the first movie, females were an afterthought, with only damsels in distress somehow needing to apply. I stated outright that plenty of female action stars, from Cynthia Rothrock to Michelle Yeoh, could have been tapped to fill the male-dominated scene and shown that women did - and still can - kick ass. Nan might not have the pedigree of those actresses, but her part here is definitely a step in the right direction for the franchise. She's got the rough stuff down, but while she most certainly can hold her own in a firefight, it's frustrating to see the script try and force her into a romantic subplot with one of her (much) older co-stars. Can't a woman be in an action film without automatically being a love interest? As I said, it's a step in the right direction. What we need now is a booty-busting femme fatale who doesn't respond to the testosterone factory that is this merc group and we'll be fine.

Just shooting a little shit before committing mass murder.
The inside jokes are really funny (favorites include mockery of Norris' Internet fame and a verbal interaction between Willis and Schwarzenegger), the action is solid, and even the story picks up in the latter half of the film. This all manages to make up for the a practically dull first half, rote and predictable plot devices, and Stallone's downright horrid moustache. Probably the worst thing the Expendables franchise has done is start up a whole sub-genre of action films starring past-their-prime stars, such as Stallone and Schwarzenegger in next year's The Tomb and the former "Governator" himself in the upcoming The Last Stand. The Expendables has managed to resurrect the careers of these once-dominant monsters of the big screen, and now they will not let go. If all such releases can be as entertaining as The Expendables 2, then good for them. But hopefully this won't be the catalyst for every major action film filling a quota for at least one geriatric to round out their roster. There's no need for it, and no reason to think that the magic found in The Expendables and its sequel can be artificially generated in any clone. The Expendables 2 is the real deal, and if you like action films, then you shouldn't turn up your nose to this particular brand. That said, I hope it's the last one, as I really don't want to see anyone break a hip, or Clint Eastwood blow anybody away from the comfort of a wheelchair. You've got to say 'Stop' eventually.

It's time.

And a big Boom for the win.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Movie Monday: ParaNorman

Looking for the best animated film of the year? Look no further than ParNorman, the latest stop-motion picture by Laika, the company behind Coraline. In fact, this is the #4 movie for 2012, and for good reason.

In the small Massachusetts town of Blithe Hollow, Norman Babcock is a withdrawn, shy boy who just happens to be able to talk to the spirits of the dead. It has caused friction with his parents, his sister, and the kids at school, many of whom bully him over his "weirdness". But one person does not think Norman is strange. He gives Norman the task of protecting the town from a witch's curse, one that threatens to raise the dead unless countered by Norman's ability. For the first time in his life, he will have the chance to prove his detractors wrong and become the hero he's destined to be.

ParaNorman is directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler, and features the voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, and John Goodman.

Click here for the complete review on Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Left Hanging with Chad

We're past the halfway point for 2012, and approaching he zenith of an exceedingly divisive election season that has called out practically every hot-button topic that exists in its progression. Whether you identify as a Republican, Democrat, or "Other", you have to wonder whether this is the absolute best or absolute worst time for the west coast to send us an R-rated election-themed comedy, and one headlined by two of the more frenetic comedians in movies today to boot.

To be blunt, I'm not that big a fan of the leads in The Campaign. While I did like Zach Galifianakis in the Hangover series, I haven't seen much else, and I'm still not sure the actor can do much more than be an amusing co-star. And while Will Ferrell has had his moments, I cannot say that I find him funny more often than not. A GOOD film with these two would perfectly satirize the electoral process while giving us great laughs in the meantime. A BAD film would be full of scatological "humor", nonsensical leaps of logic and be a complete mockery of the US political system. Hmm, one of the screenwriters co-wrote The Other Guys, but he also wrote Land of the Lost. And the director is Jay Roach, of Austin Powers and Meet the Fockers fame. Things aren't looking good...

It's like I'm watching a John Edwards documentary...
That The Campaign does manage to eek out its fair share of laughs is probably the biggest surprise in this whole show. When Democratic North Carolina Congressman Cam Brady's (Ferrell) campaign for his unopposed fifth term in office is derailed by a scandal, he opens the field to Republican candidate Marty Huggins (Galifianakis). Huggins, an everyman small-town tour guide, has been approached and supported by corporate honchos intent on removing the "embarrassing" Brady from office. What follows is a massive battle, as Brady is as determined to retain the perks that come with his appointment as Huggins is to help the people of his district.

Not quite sure which one could eat the other...
The film is at least partially a commentary on the dirty side of politics, covering everything from smear campaigns, super PACs, negative advertising, and kicking the other guy whenever the opportunity arises. As the battle goes back and forth between Brady and Huggins, it's easy to re-imagine the situation featuring your local leaders. The film even does a fine job of satire in showing the seeming willingness of the loyal voters who more often than not seek inspiring quotes and buzz words over actual job performance. The candidates are shown to be fully aware of this, never promising anything beyond vague positives while pretending they're everybody's best friend. In truth, neither candidate is portrayed as either good or bad; Brady is a jaded career politician who early in his career had actually hoped to help change things, while Huggins wants to fix things now, but is in the pocket of big business.

And this is why you never see candidates near one another besides debates.
Of course, the filmmakers' efforts at satire cross the line a BIT too much, and while there are a few times when it creates the perfectly hilarious moment (as when Brady famously punches that baby in slo-mo), most of the time the result is more uncomfortable than actually being funny. Many of the actions characters take (and the public's response to them) are so flagrantly bizarre that it practically declares the election process a farce. That said, I wonder if there is anyone out there who thinks that the Brady/Huggins campaign looks like business as usual in their district. Suffice it to say, Roach seems to plaster the idea that every politician, no matter their intent, will eventually forget all about the people they're supposed to be representing. It might have seemed like a more humorous idea when written down on paper, but considering how seriously people take politics these days, it might have come off as darker than originally intended.

Don't let this man ever run your political career.
Farrell and Galifianakis are at their best pretty funny, but neither stretches from their standard creative zones here. Farrell is doing his George W. Bush SNL impression throughout the entire film, even using the exact same accent (as though all southerners sound exactly the same). And Galifianakis' relative lack of facial hair doesn't cover up the fact that his sub-intelligent character demeanor is in full effect. Fortunately, the leads have a good enough support cast to keep things interesting, from Jason Sudeikis as Brady's straight-arrow campaign manager to Dylan McDermott as a psycho hired to make Huggins "not suck so much." Dan Ackroyd and John Lithgow are decent as the big business Motch Brothers (a play on the real life Koch Brothers), but don't really get enough to do. And while I wish the film had found a bigger role for Jack McBrayer, they perfectly cast veteran scene-chewer Brian Cox as Huggins' disapproving father.

He looks like something on To Catch a Predator.
I was never all that high on the idea of The Campaign, and the final product pretty much proved my initial beliefs. There are some laughs, and the film as a whole will be more fondly remembered than such fare as The Dictator, or the absolute crap-fest that was last year's Bad Teacher. But while you might get some laughs out of The Campaign's script, this is a title that cannot find that perfect satirical balance. Different leads, or perhaps even better writing, could have made this more than just another mediocre comedic outing, but there's really no reason that justifies seeing this film in the theater. It'll be on DVD before this fall's elections, most likely, and if you're that hard up for a Will Ferrell comedy, there are a few excellent options available (like Stranger Than Fiction or The Other Guys) for rental instead. This won't be one of them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Open Letters Review: The Bourne Legacy

I love the Bourne films. Starting with 2002's Bourne Identity, we were introduced to Jason Bourne, an amnesiac, kick-ass super-agent played surprisingly by Matt Damon (remember, this is back when people thought his running Ben Affleck would be a bigger star), and the movie featured twists, action and excitement on unprecedented levels for the time. After the conclusion of Damon's trilogy, the studio decided to look into the fallout of Jason Bourne's actions by telling the story from another genetically-modified agent, this time Jeremy Renner's Alex Cross.

When Jason Bourne threatens to expose the actions of the United States black ops group Treadstone, it sets off a domino effect. Outcome, and its chief Eric Byers, decide to play it safe and liquidate the program, to take the accumulated data and start over elsewhere. Unfortunately for people who work at Outcome, that means murdering agents, scientists and support staff to wipe out all record of the program. Two people who refuse to go down are agent Alex Cross and virologist Dr. Marta Sheering, who find they need one another's help if they're going to survive this government coverup.

The Bourne Legacy is directed by Tony Giltroy and stars Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton, Rachel Weisz, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Stacy Keach, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn and Albert Finney.

Click here for the whole review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Strike Twice

We're finally in August, and as most of this past summer has featured one major movie a week with very little in the way of alternative fare, it's nice to finally see more than a few options on the table. This August not only adds more titles I want to see than existed the entirety of the last few months, but some of the films I've been most anticipating this year. One of those films was the second film directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Ruby Sparks. Their eventual follow-up to the surprisingly wonderful 2006 movie Little Miss Sunshine, this was a tale with a talented cast, seemingly proven directors, and a fascinating story.

In the screenplay by Zoe Kazan, Calvin (Paul Dano), a once-successful novelist is suffering from a severe case of writer's block. Ten years after writing an extremely popular work of fiction, he is frustrating his agent and publisher with his inability to get anything down on paper. Regular visits to his therapist are little help, until Calvin  literally discovers the girl of his dreams. Inspired, Calvin creates the life of Ruby Sparks, a 26-year-old with a history of romantic follies and a bubbly personality of which he cannot get enough. Calvin falls in love with Ruby, even as he knows that he cannot practically fall in love with his own creation. Then the most amazing thing happens. After a night of writing, Calvin descends into his kitchen to discover Ruby Sparks, just as he has written her. And she is very much real.

Tell me you wouldn't want to wake up to this just once.
That magical element of Ruby Sparks is what makes the film so interesting, and certainly lays the groundwork for the moral dilemmas and questions of what makes you and I real that fill the script. Upon discovering that whatever he writes about Ruby comes true, Calvin at first makes the correct decision and decides not to write anymore, determining that he loves Ruby just the way she is (Ruby in turn doesn't know she's a fictional creation). But when the "honeymoon" portion of their relationship ends and Calvin finds some of Ruby's personality quirks irksome, he is tempted to write one sentence and "fix" things (as you can tell, it doesn't always work out the way he thinks). Burdened by the fallout of his previous failed relationships, Calvin doesn't want to risk losing the supposed love of his life. In Kazan's story, we get to see both sides to the issue, and how none of the decisions made are done so lightly.

Yes, they play brothers. No, I don't buy it either.
Of course, while these moments abound in the film, so too do many dry spells and dead spots thanks to uninteresting or unnecessary characters and a lack of solid ideas. This wouldn't be a problem if the film exhibited the same sort of natural charm that helped Little Miss Sunshine succeed, but the directors strangely struggle in replicating that effort here. That certainly didn't help, especially as every moment past the film's halfway mark makes Calvin less and less sympathetic a character, and unlike his Sunshine co-stars Steve Carrell or Abigail Breslin, Dano does not seem to have the ability to exude charisma on his own. Better is co-star Kazan, who is a ball of energy that can be redirected anywhere at a moment's notice. All of their co-stars, which includes Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould and Chris Messina, are good talents, but the script restricts just how much they contribute to the story as a whole.

That's a LOT of foliage...
If there's one word with which I could describe how the film made me feel, the most obvious that comes to mind is "uncomfortable". That's mostly in relation to the romance between Calvin and Ruby, and in a way it's the reason the film's story is as solid as it is. Romance in Hollywood tends to be uncomplicated, clean and without major issues. Romance in Ruby Sparks is complicated, messy and full of unseen dangers. In other words, the relationship between Calvin and Ruby is at times uncomfortable to watch because real relationships can in fact be uncomfortable, and being with your "soul mate" is never as easy as fiction would let you believe. Unfortunately, while Kazan manages to encapsulate the ups and downs of real-life romance, it doesn't make for a particularly lovely experience, unless you happen to thrive on conflict. The reason Hollywood romances starring Channing Tatum or Ryan Gosling are so beloved is that they're pipe dreams. Plenty of people already know how complicated real life can be. That's why Sparks is only playing at about a dozen theaters around the country.

As my compatriot used to call it, a "Hot Mess".
Still, I can't help but like Ruby Sparks, even if it didn't live up to my expectations. Kazan is a breakout star, and does a great job carrying the film, whether it was on the acting or writing sides. This movie is a complex mix of fantasy and reality that, while at times seeming a bit too much, really makes you change your perspective on what makes for a "successful" relationship. It's a quality release, and one I'd recommend seeing, though perhaps a film that would be better explored on the small screen.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Drifting Away

I remember seeing the first Ice Age film back in 2002. It was a resurgent time for animated films, with the likes of Shrek and Monsters Inc. having set new, high standards for cartoon entertainment, and the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature was was created to finally give recognition to the artistic importance of these movies. Compared to the excellence of titles like Lilo & Stitch, Ice Age was a fine, if not particularly special, release that focused on the survival of mammals during the Paleolithic ice age. I remember LIKING Ice Age, but also thinking that there was no real reason to revisit the lives of Manny the woolly mammoth (Ray Romano), Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo) and Diego the smilodon (Dennis Leary). That's why I've effectively avoided the film's first two sequels over the past decade, and also why only the first Ice Age received a nomination for Best Animated Feature (it lost to Spirited Away), while the others have earned just middling reviews. Still, the series has proved popular with the kids, so Manny and company are back in Ice Age: Continental Drift, and I was just curious enough to see what the three heroes have been up to in the past ten years.

Bet he's starting to look a little tasty right now...
After starting off with the dialogue-less The Longest Daycare starring Maggie Simpson (a wry and fun short), we discover that things have certainly changed for our heroes. No longer alone in the world, Manny has found Ellie, the love of his life (Queen Latifah), and the two have a teenage daughter named Peaches (Keke Palmer), who is just beginning to discover boys. Sid is briefly reunited with the family that abandoned him, only to have them drop off his elderly grandmother Granny (Wanda Sykes) before quickly escaping again. Soon Scrat the saber-toothed squirrel (about the only reason this series has lasted as long as it has) is up to his usual antics, finding a place to bury his beloved acorn. When this action causes the breakup of Pangaea into the continents we now know, our Manny, Sid and Diego are separated from their herd on a small, uncontrollable iceberg. Soon Manny and his crew (alongside Granny, who accidentally tags along for the ride) find themselves the targets of pirates, led by the gorilla Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage) and his feline first mate Shira (Jennifer Lopez). It's a race home for our heroes, who won't let anything get between Manny and the reuniting of his family.

Look, it's the foreign box office! Start paddling!
I'll give this to the new Ice Age; the animation is much better than I expected. All the previews I have seen had led me to believe that the computer animation, especially the background art, would pale in comparison to other recent contemporary fare, even less than mediocre titles Kung Fu Panda 2 or Puss in Boots. Fortunately, what looks like bad animation on small screens actually comes to life on the big ones. It's still nothing in comparison to anything you've seen in a Pixar title, but the backgrounds are amazingly lifelike, and the character animations are fluid and spotless.

His heart, it breaks.
Sadly the story is what really lacks any depth, though this does have the benefit of making it easy for the children in the audience to follow along. Manny and company's story pits them consistently against Gutt's pirates, with apparently no other major predators residing in the middle of the ocean. Meanwhile the biggest story on the mainland is not escaping the slow moving rock wall that threatens to wipe out the herd, but Peaches' discovery that the boy she has a crush on is not all he turns out to be. Meanwhile Scrat's story is more out of favor than usual, and while he is still the film's most entertaining character, his skits are far closer in quality to the rest of the story than they used to be. Or maybe I'm just getting older. But where the story lacks depth it makes up for in honesty, as the motivations and desires of all the main characters is easy enough to follow for both adults and their kids.

Not the kind of people you want to meet in the middle of the ocean.
Directors Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier also do a great job putting together a cast that, with very few exceptions, feel at home in this ice-cold world. Still, this film wasn't a challenge for everyone. While the returning Romano, Leary, and Latifah had to just be themselves, only Leguizamo and newcomers Palmer and Josh Gad feel as though they're playing actual characters in a story. Still, the interplay between Manny, Sid and Diego more than makes up for any lack of creativity on the actors' side, and Latifah and Palmer hold their own in their storyline. The pirates are also a lively bunch, featuring the talented voices of Dinklage (the image of Tyrion Lannister playing a giant gorilla makes me smile inside), Nick Frost, Aziz Ansari and Rebel Wilson in what might be the best additions to the franchise. And Sykes has the perfect voice and comedic timing to make her character even more timeless as Scrat. But not everyone's inclusion was a slam dunk; when did Jennifer Lopez become so DRY a performer? Shira's potential romance with Diego means little when you just don't care about her, no matter how many cliched transformations the villain-turned-hero undergoes. And why did the producers bother going through the casting and promoting of musical artists Drake and Nicki Minaj when the pair would do so little, and not even all that well? These gripes are thankfully limited, and the cast on the whole does what needs to be done to make the film an entertaining experience.

I know who I'm rooting for.
In the end, Ice Age:Continental Drift ends up quite close in quality to this past June's Madagascar 3. That's not too bad a place to be, as most animated films released this year have been somewhat underwhelming, even the admittedly highly-anticipated Brave. Only time will tell how well we remember this latest Ice Age outing, but this was certainly better than some of the award-nominated fare in the last few years, and the franchise is still popular enough to churn out a few more sequels. I can actually recommend this one to adults as well as kids, and that's probably the best thing I've ever said about an animated film in 2012.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Movie Monday: Total Recall

Remakes. Good? Bad? If I've learned anything in recent years, it's that remakes of classic films and stories are not automatically either of these two things, but are good or bad based on the actual quality of their production. Todd knew about Total Recall long before I did, but after learning of it I did develop high hopes for the Len Wiseman-directed action film, a retelling of the tale by Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger from way back in 1990.

What if you could imprint false memories into your brain? Would you do it to escape the drudgery of everyday life? If you could be a world class athlete, millionaire, or simply irresistible to the opposite sex, would you? What is your fantasy? In the not too distant future, factory worker Douglas Quaid decides to try out Rekall, wanting to add memories of being a secret agent into his head and spice up his dull existence. But something goes wrong, and Quaid suddenly discovers that his whole life is a lie. Now on the run, he finds himself sought by two global superpowers; the United Federation of Britain, who seek world domination, and the subjugated, struggling Colony. He is the most important chess piece on the board, and his actions will determine the fate of the world.

Total Recall is directed by Len Wiseman and stars Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bill Nighy, and John Cho.

To read the whole review at Open Letters Monthly, click here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

... While Rome Burns

Last year, acclaimed director Woody Allen released his most successful and arguably best film in years in Midnight in Paris. The romantic comedy, which saw Owen Wilson's young artist travel back in time to what he considered the best creative moments of the city he loved, was an astounding piece of film making. I didn't think it was one of the BEST movies that came out last year, but it IS one of the few from 2011 that I saw twice in the theater, and it won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, while Allen and his movie were respectively nominated for Best Director and Best Picture. Midnight in Paris was simply beautiful, and there was no doubt that the next step by Allen would either barely live up to that high standard, or fail miserably in comparison.

Somehow, To Rome with Love manages to evade being totally eclipsed by its predecessor, but naturally it cannot stand up to the wonder that was Midnight. The story takes place in four vignettes, depicting both residents and visitors to Rome and their stories. In one, Jerry (Allen, in his first acting role since 2006's Scoop) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) visit their daughter (Alison Pill) and her fiance Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Jerry, a retired classical music composer, discovers that Michelangelo's blue collar father (Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato) has a natural operatic voice, and wants to help the mortician become famous. In the second, newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are in the city for the first time, where Antonio is hoping to impress his successful family and get a job in the family business. But Milly gets lost in Rome and Antonio must try to pass off a prostitute who mistakenly showed up at his room (Penelope Cruz) as Milly. In the third, John (Alec Baldwin) is revisiting the city he lived in when he was younger. He runs into aspiring architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives with his student girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). Sally's best friend and aspiring actress Monica (Ellen Page) arrives to stay with her friend for a while, and tries to seduce Jack along the way. Finally, Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) is a desk-bound clerk whose life is turned upside down one day as he (for reasons unknown) becomes an overnight celebrity.

Yes, he's back and looking better than ever.
While To Rome with Love contains some of the more fantastical elements of Midnight in Paris, and is of course told in Allen's signature voice, but that's precisely where any comparisons come to an end. Rome is Allen's third movie in five years (the first two being Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight) that focuses on a famous and beautiful European city. Unlike those films, Allen only sporadically captures the essence of the city in question here. While every shot in Midnight in Paris and many in Barcelona evoked wonder and awe purely in the visuals, there is little of that ability shown in Rome. Sure, Allen manages to get some lovely shots of the city through his lens, but compared to the constant "Wow" factor that he had accomplished previously, what we see is somewhat disappointing.

Alec's still got "it".
There are also major hiccups with the stories themselves, a shocker considering how much thought Allen usually puts into his written work. Both the newlywed and celebrity vignettes pale in comparison to their contemporaries. Benigni's piece, in particular, feels totally out of place, simultaneously railing against an establishment of unearned celebrity while acknowledging that, still, it feels good to be recognized. Despite Benigni's great work, the theme smacks a bit too forcefully, and the piece feels unfinished and unpolished. Cruz also is the best part of her vignette, as both Antonio and Milly are too stupid and uninteresting to fully get behind. Meanwhile, showing everyone how it is done, Cruz blows everyone she interacts with out of the water, a force of nature that I wish had been granted a better tale. While the other vignettes are not perfect, they do have plenty more to interest the viewer, from Armiliato's rise as an opera star to Jack and Monica's flirtations to just about everything Alec Baldwin. Allen's dialogue is at times razor sharp, reminding you why he has remained so popular for his entire career.

Say it with me now: "Rawr."
Sadly, these few positives are not enough to make for a great movie. The film feels rushed at points, and not just due to the filming pace. Allen's themes of celebrity and infidelity are nothing new, and in fact are simply rehashed from his previous works. While there are plenty of laughs, they are unevenly dispersed among the ensemble, with some character getting next to nothing for their efforts. Allen also seems to have set a record for characters based on aspects of himself (five, including Allen), and while he manages to create some unique female characters, his inability to make a man that is not himself stands out. And the acting itself is not much better, with only Baldwin, Benigni, Cruz and the surprising Armiliato doing better than their scripts would dictate. Allen himself stammers his dialogue even more than usual, making you wonder which of his takes did NOT make the final cut. And his was still one of the less dry performances in the entire film. All this speaks to lazy writing, and drop Rome from the underrated piece it could have been to the undeserving theatrical release it has become.

This is literally the best the film has to offer... and it's damned good.
This really can't be surprising. Woody Allen hasn't hidden the fact that he hates the film's title, which he only settled on because previous names Bop Decameron and Nero Fiddles were deemed too confusing by many people. How can we be expected to like a film when it's creator is not happy with an aspect of it? Still, there is a bit to appreciate about To Rome with Love, but if we're being honest with ourselves then it's just more burden than it's worth. This is a title that has certainly benefited from the weak summer schedule, and as a result it may get more attention than it really deserves come award season. If you REALLY can't wait to get your Woody fix, then you're going to go see this no matter what I say. But if that's the case then you already OWN this movie. It's already on your DVD shelf, if under a different title. You'd be better off re-watching the superior Midnight in Paris than seeing this new film on the big screen, so only die-hard Allen fans need apply.

"What do you mean, 'I'm the weakest link?'"