Friday, September 28, 2012

"Trouble" with the Curve

You see what I did there? How I used quotation marks to emphasize the one word in the title of the movie that actually describes its execution? Wasn't that clever? What? It wasn't? Well, Clint Eastwood has made a career out of making similar unsubtle statements in his films he directs. No, it hasn't always been a deal killer; he has built movies wonderful (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby), awful (Letters from Iwo Jima, Hereafter) and everywhere in between (Mystic River, J. Edgar). But anyone who contends that he is a great director has obviously been swayed by his long acting career and forgiven many of the cliched storytelling elements he includes in his pictures, ones that most truly talented filmmakers would never use in this day and age.

I was worried at first that this style would be the problem with Trouble with the Curve, which is also Eastwood's first acting gig since people say he was snubbed for a Best Actor nomination in 2008's Gran Torino. Surprisingly, while there are a few cliched moments (parent releasing child's hand to show abandonment, a few lingering shots expressing a character's loneliness), Trouble was not the technical abomination I had been expecting. I found out in the closing credits for the reason for this; turns out the film wasn't directed by Eastwood at all. Instead it was filmed by Robert Lorenz, who had been an assistant director on over twenty films. While Lorenz certainly learned a bit from working with Eastwood on Bloodwork, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, it's obvious he also developed his style from working with other directors, making for a thankfully more adept movie than I was expecting.

Timberlake gets directing tips from Eastwood.
It's a shame that my expectations had been so low, as a movie featuring baseball, Eastwood, Amy Adams and BASEBALL should have been one of my more highly expected theatrical releases. It was, but more for potential than what I actually thought I would see. Eastwood plays longtime baseball scout Gus Lobel; an employee of the Atlanta Braves, Gus is as old-fashioned a talent scout as you can get, completely eschewing the modern computer age and relying exclusively on what he can see in a player. This hasn't endeared him to his superiors in Atlanta, who want him to check out a highly-touted player in the Carolinas as their potential top pick in the upcoming draft. The expectation is that if Gus fails, they can simply let his swiftly-expiring contract run out. When his longtime friend and superior Pete (John Goodman) worries about his diminishing health, he calls Gus' daughter Mickey (Adams) to join him to see if there is anything she can do. With relations already strained between Gus and Mickey, all they can do try to communicate with one another while bonding over the one thing they both seem to love; baseball.

Unfortunately, just because it's not directed by its star doesn't mean that it's automatically better. This is the first ever published screenplay by Randy Brown, and it definitely shows in the overly-simple rendition of what should be deep emotional themes. There doesn't seem to be any consistency in the routes the characters take, with the relationship between Gus and Mickey especially jumpy in between scenes. One scene they seem fine, the next they're at each others' throats. There are reasons for that, and the film does its best to lay them all out, but I never felt as though any middle ground between those two points was explored. Adams is nevertheless wonderful, her naturally bubbly persona taking a backseat to a serious, dramatic side that gets her attention and awards. Eastwood however tends to rest on his laurels, with only a few scenes making him reach as a performer. His role is fine, as is that of Justin Timberlake as a former player turned scout (turned love interest for Mickey) for the Boston Red Sox, but both are limited to performances that are high on levity and short on storytelling.

Standing around waiting for something to happen; just like the real game!
Worse is the cliched junk that seems tossed in as filler. Of COURSE there's an "evil scout" who relies solely on computer data (Matthew Lillard) who actually seems to want Gus fired. Of COURSE the player Gus is asked to scout is a complete asshole. Of COURSE he has a fatal flaw which is not apparent at the college level but that Gus knows will prevent him from being successful in the big leagues. Of COURSE the answer to everyone's dreams is telegraphed a mile away. Of COURSE Gus is losing the ONE THING (his eyesight) which would prevent him from excelling at his job. Of COURSE they use a Dirty Harry scene for a flashback. Okay, that last one was a bit out of left field. The point is that for every decent or genuinely good thing Trouble pitches us, it lobs more than a few stinkers that undermine the quality of the film. A script rewrite should have been in order, and the lack of one indicates that Eastwood was more in charge than we were led to believe.

"Wait, he gave us a bad review?"
Trouble with the Curve came out with a LOT of potential. Baseball may not be that popular sport, but it has inspired more great stories in film and print than just about any other game, even the all-powerful sport of football. For a baseball story to appear so hollow and disingenuous is certainly a disappointment, especially when it gathers such a solid blend of acting talent as its foundation. Still, Curve disappoints, especially considering its fighting the scout/computer battle has been more or less settled in the years following the publication of Moneyball. Like Eastwood, Curve is a story out of time, not exactly sure where we are today, and both scared and angry about it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Two Days 'Til Retirement

In a weekend where there were four major theatrical releases, at least two high-ceiling limited releases and one major expansion into wide release, there's one reason that people didn't go out and enjoy Dredd, an excellent genre flick which sadly finished in sixth place at the box office and hasn't gotten the love it deserves. It wasn't House at the End of the Street or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which mostly attracted young women. It wasn't Trouble with the Curve, which appealed mainly to older folks. And it wasn't The Master, which is more like Oscar bait than blockbuster. No, for a film appealing mainly to young men, Dredd was hampered by the fact that most of their potential audience was instead down the hall with End of Watch. This movie is perfectly in director David Ayer's wheel house. The writer/director has been basing his stories in Los Angeles for over a decade, and he's best known for the man who wrote Training Day, which won Denzel Washington an Oscar and is this century's epitome of Los Angeles crime drama. All this time later, and Ayer still has stories to tell about the LAPD, though thankfully they're not all about corruption and scandal, as he proves here.

Just another day in the office.
Police officers and best friends, Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are two of the hottest shots, regularly seen patrolling the worst areas of South Central Los Angeles. End of Watch details their close friendship, rivalries and pranks with other officers, and their everyday lives, which include Zavala's expecting a child with wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) and Taylor's burgeoning romance with a Janet (Anna Kendrick), whom he meets at school. When the duo discover an even darker side to the city in the form of the Mexican drug cartels, Taylor and Zavala find themselves on the wrong side of Hispanic gangs that have lately been rising in prominence in the area. One night, that brewing conflict will all come to a very violent conclusion

No, ma'am, this isn't Magic Mike.
Strangely, though, that finale really takes its time to come around, meaning that most of the first two acts of the film are not intensely focused on the cartels but the everyday challenges of being a beat cop in LA. Having had a grandfather on the force in Atlantic City, I appreciate how the movie took care to present the men and women of the law as normal people with families and problems and times both good and bad. Ayer humanizes his heroes, and while they're considered among the best of their class, Taylor and Zavala are still unpredictable, prone to both mistakes and heroics. Most importantly, they're men who love their jobs, which makes it incredibly easy to root for them.

Paperwork: the stuff that keeps the world spinning.
Ayer also makes an effort to portray the story from a gritty, street-level perspective. To that end, he has incorporated the popular "found footage" method by showing the footage as being recorded by the two officers via a handicam and some fairly sophisticated flash cameras attached to their uniforms, all as part of a college project for Taylor. It does a great job of making much of the film feel natural and off the cuff, but it does present its own set of problems. For one, while it's feasible for some police helicopter footage to make its way into the film to present a sense of scale, some of the movie contains far less likely cam footage, for instance from the perspective of the Latino gang that just happens to be recording their own misdeeds at the same time as our heroes. It's far less natural than the police footage, and gives far too much away, as I would have preferred more mysterious and less predictable antagonists. Also, the found footage attempt turns in a few clunkers, as more than a few occasions see scenes apparently not captured by anybody's camera, but are shot just the same. Ayer is quoted as saying (in an interview on Open Letters Monthly) that if you're wondering who is carrying the camera, then he lost you. Well, as a critic, he did lose me. It wasn't often, but occasionally my thought process turned to the fact that nobody could have been casually shooting at a certain moment. Thankfully, those were few and far between, and most of the camera efforts were done well enough to escape serious scrutiny.

...And there was much rejoicing.
Of course, none of this would have been worth anything if not for the excellent acting and chemistry of leads Gyllenhall and Pena. Ayer did a great job preparing the two actors for their constant partnership throughout the film, and it really shows in their ability to bounce seemingly random things off one another from scene to scene while still remaining relevant to the story. Gyllenhaal has struggled to define himself in modern Hollywood, going from young talent to pseudo action star to the character-driven performances in which he often excels. While he has sometimes struggled with consistency, that doesn't happen here, and he brings his special brand of intensity that often worms its way into his best work. Pena meanwhile has always been excellent, while not necessarily getting the choicest roles (the lot of Latinos in the movie industry, unfortunately). Still, he's often the best part of even bad movies, and he rewards Ayer's confidence in him by simply being the most wonderful, animated thing on the screen at any given time. Together the pair's antics are as authentic as anything I've seen in theaters this year, and their interaction with the surrounding landscape looks completely natural and familiar. While the film mainly centers around its leads, the pair get a lot of support from Kendrick and Martinez, as well as Frank Grillo, America Ferrera, Cody Horn and David Harbour as their fellow officers.'s the bad news...
The only real problem with End of Watch is its mess of an ending, which is almost completely predictable if you actually pay attention to the story (or the trailers, for that matter), and understand the usual cop movie cliches. This isn't really a surprise, as Ayer seems to like his tragedy-laden final acts, and to be fair it really doesn't feel out of place in the grand scheme of things. But for once I would love to be surprised, and Ayer just isn't the director who is going to do that for me. End of Watch is still an inspired production, with much more to like than not. Ayer needs to up his writing skills though, especially if he's going to keep working around treatments of the same subject matter. While I still believe Dredd is the best option for you action lovers in theaters right now, End of Watch is a more than solid second option while awaiting Looper's release this coming weekend.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Movie Monday: Dredd Life

How far can you possibly run from a Sylvester Stallone movie? Dredd has used excellent acting, a well-told story and major contributions from the character's creator in distancing itself from the horrible 1995 flick Judge Dredd. With screenwriter Alex Garland directly behind this reboot, we have a Dredd who doesn't enter romantic relations and never EVER removes his helmet. Thank you, Hollywood!

In the nuclear wasteland that is North America, one light of life is Mega-City One, stretching from Boston to Washington, populated by over 800 million people. With so much humanity crammed together, chaos and criminal activity run the streets, with innocents often trapped in their hellish nets. The city's response to the overwhelming violence? The Judges, granted the combined powers of judge, jury and - when necessary - executioner. Judge Dredd is one of the best, but even he knows that there's only so much the Judges can do in such a large city. While tasked with assessing the potential of psychic, rookie Judge Anderson, they find themselves on the bad side of drug kingpin Ma-Ma, who traps them in a slum complex and sends her men in to wipe them out. The only way out is up, and without backup Dredd and Anderson must scale 200 floors to shut down Ma-Ma's criminal enterprise if they want any chance at survival.

Dredd is written by Alex Garland and directed by Pete Travis and stars Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby and Lena Headey.

Click here to read the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Bangkok Badness

With so few new options available in my immediate area after reviewing both Resident Evil: Retribution and Finding Nemo, I decided to give martial arts film Bangkok Revenge a look... wait, what was that? The title that appears on the screen is actually Bangkok Renaissance? And then it has a subtitle in parenthesis that says Rebirth? But it says Bangkok Revenge on the sign outside! What's going on here?

Well, there seems to have been some issue in distributing this co-produced French/Thai production in the States. Obviously someone thought that Bangkok Renaissance would be a bit too confusing, and since the film directed by Jean-Marc Mineo was a classic revenge tale, the refurbished title was an obvious choice. Still, it would have been nice for the distributors to get someone to patch together a new title screen for the movie, even if it was one they were barely marketing.

Anyway, despite a couple of other options including Richard Gere's Arbitrage and the ensemble fem-comedy Bachelorette, I had a strong desire for an action flick. I know, I know, September seems to be packed with one big action film after another, with Dredd and Looper coming in the near future; still, I have fond memories of this past spring's The Raid: Redemption and hoped to capture that same combination of fun and amazement at the execution of impossible stunts.

You should see the other guy.
When his family is murdered by the heavily corrupted police, young Manit is left with a bullet lodged in his head and strapped to a hospital bed, surprisingly alive. Rescued from certain death and trained in the methods of self defense, he is discovered to have no emotions, good or bad, due to his injury. It results in a young man (John Foo) with little regard for others, or himself. Soon he returns home to exact justice on those who murdered his family, aided by a journalist (Caroline Ducey) and a drunken boxer (Michael Cohen) with nothing to lose.

Wax on, wax off... Sorry, wrong movie.
Unfortunately, the hilarious name-changing incident is by far the most interesting thing about Revenge...Renaissance...Whatever, as the story takes a simplistic approach to both storytelling and character design. The film does come to us from Mineo, a veteran actor but first-time director, so that is hardly a surprise. However, that means that scenes are forced together in configurations that either feel totally sporadic (in a bad way) or derivative of everything that came before it. More confusing is the massive influx of the English language into what I thought was going to be a 100% foreign language flick. Hindsight shows that Foo, raised in England, was probably more comfortable speaking his usual language than the local dialect, but the result is a number of Thai actors whose skills don't stack up in comparison. When they're speaking Thai and I can read everything in the unusually clean subtitles, everything is fine. But when they arbitrarily switch to English, most of them simply cannot pronounce certain words or even convey emotion, and so their dialogue sounds more like Stephen Hawking's chair than a living human being. It's not just relevant to the Thai actors, but the French ones as well; the English of both Ducey and Cohen is atrocious to say the least, and Mineo would have been better off casting some desperate-for-work American or British actors for all the work his people do to mangle the English language.

A knee to the gut: effective, but not very exciting.
The fight scenes are similarly disruptive. While there are a few moments that manage to impress the fight fan in me, Mineo does not seem to have the talent as a director to handle any more than the few minutes of excitement Revenge delivers. Foo is obviously a talented martial artist, and the proof lies in those scenes where we actually get to see him perform amazing feats that normal men could only dream of pulling off. But the moments are far too fleeting, just beginning to gain traction when everything suddenly stops or something interrupts the action. Mineo also commits the cardinal sin of following action too closely with the camera, muddying the waters and preventing the viewer from discerning what is happening.

Yeah, this scene actually happens.
The situations and characters are also just a bit too strange to take seriously. Among the antagonists that include crooked cops and gangs of young men, one group that stands out is an all-girl gang whom the police use to cover up their dirty work. In spirit that would be fine, but the gang includes women tarted up as J-idols, psychotic little girls and even a heavily-muscled cross-dresser. That they take a central role in the film's events and are not just a bit diversion detracts from the other, more grounded characters, ultimately coming to the point where the whole thing goes from vague disappointment to "What were they thinking?" But even they have nothing on the awful character archetypes, whether they're a cheap reincarnation of Mr. Miyagi (Kowich Wathana) or a nurse with a heart of gold (Aphiradi Phawaphutanon). Most of these secondary characters are played by folks who have no prior professional acting experience, and it really shows. John Foo is fine, albeit unable to mask the fact that Manit can speak English better than the characters who supposedly raised him. But major characters in Ducey and Cohen are so bad, both in planning and execution, that you can't help but feel that the director just owed them a favor. Cohen's alcoholic boxer is merely unexplored, though his dialogue is so jumbled and incoherent that more exposure might not have actually done anything of value. But Ducey's journalist Clara is the worst type of female character in any film, an idiotic, naive waif who seems to think that - despite walking around the dark alleys of the city in cutoff jean shorts - she is immune to harm. The result is a damsel constantly in distress, and after a while we just don't care whether she lives or dies. Throw in the most uncomfortably unerotic sex scene ever (and the character's response afterward), and she officially brings nothing good to the cinematic table.

Clara finds herself in this position a lot.
Bangkok Revenge (since that's what the sign outside called it, I'll stick with that) is a reminder that not every martial arts film can be as original, competent or fun as The Raid. This was one of the most derivative, un-fun movies I've seen in quite a while, making travesties like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and Snow White and the Huntsman look like perfect gems in comparison. Only the fact that it's playing in 22 theaters right now will prevent it from hitting the year's worst list (where in the idea of fairness I won't include releases of fewer than 300 theaters). But this isn't even a movie where those people who need a martial arts hit should apply. How this film, among what I'm sure is a worthy selection of foreign titles, garnered an American release I'm not sure. But we would all feel a little better if they had just decided to leave this one at home.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Discovering 'Nemo'

For the umpteen-millionth time; no, I'd never seen Finding Nemo before this past weekend. An early Pixar entry, Nemo was released well before my forays into animated movies. That's what makes Disney's recent trend of translating their animated titles to 3D for big screen release such a nice opportunity. They have already released The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast in 3D, and now that they're focusing on the more advanced animated pictures, I'll have the chance to not only see movies like Nemo that people are now constantly telling me are good, but also to see them on the big screen, the medium for which they were designed. I've already seen Monsters Inc in the theater, so I think I'll skip that particular conversion, but I'd love to go to the movies to see Ratatouille for the first time, and I'd gladly watch Wall-E, The Incredibles, and Up again were they to get the same treatment.

For those like me who have yet to see this, Finding Nemo follows young Nemo (Alexander Gould) and his overprotective father Marlin (Albert Brooks), two clownfish living in the great oceans. When Nemo is captured by humans and taken far away, Marlin searches the ocean for this son, helped by an absent-minded Pacific Blue Regal Tang named Dory (Ellen Degeneres) and a whole ocean of unique life. Meanwhile, Nemo finds himself in a dentist's office fish tank, alongside a number of other domesticated fish, and joins their leader Gil (Willem Dafoe) in their attempts to escape back into the ocean.

There's a whole ocean of life to explore.
I'm not sure what impresses me more; Finding Nemo's wonderful father/son story, or the fact that Pixar's method of mature storytelling has remained especially potent after all this time. Pixar tends not to treat the children who watch their movies like idiots, a saving grace when you consider how much Dreamworks tends to dumb down their content for mass consumption. In allowing mature themes (like the death of a spouse or the kidnapping of a child) to be the backbone of their animated features, Pixar makes their films so that both children and adults can appreciate. It really feels as though the studio puts as much effort into telling a film's story as it does making sure the animation is the absolute best, and that makes all the difference in the world. And their stories are so timeless that, should I have children of my own some day, I would gladly raise them on Pixar's animated movies.

The animation studio has created a world undersea that feels absolutely ALIVE, and the creatures that inhabit it have a wide range of characteristics that play extremely well. Working with a wide variety of sources, director Andrew Stanton and his crew took pains to make sure every detail of the species they were committing to the big screen was accurate, while still making their characters unique and indistinguishable from one another. My personal favorites were the trio of sharks who had sworn off of eating their fellow sea creatures ("Fish are friends, not food"), but there are no weak characters for the entirety of the film. The voice cast finishes up by providing their usual excellence, with a cast that includes Brooks, DaFoe, Geoffrey Rush, Allison Janney and even Stanton himself in key roles. Degeneres however is a stand-out that really makes your heart tug. As an actress, she manages to take what could have been a one-note annoyance in Dory and make her performance absolutely heart-felt and essential to the story. There's a reason Degeneres became the first and only performer to win a Saturn award for a voice-only job, and seeing this I'm surprised she hasn't been approached for more roles in animated features.

"Stick with me, kid and you'll go places. Out the window, if you're lucky."

Of course, sometimes I have to remind myself that this movie DID come out in 2003, when computer-animated films were practically still in their infancy. While Stanton and his artists did a wonderful job animating the dozens of different animals that inhabit the world in and around the ocean, this was still a time when human animations were not quite at the same level. Additionally, one scene at the beginning that features a speeding boat at a distance feels extremely inferior to the otherwise-excellent animation. On the 3D side, it's actually surprising how little you notice the 3D elements once the film gets underway. There are some instances where you specifically notice pop, but more often the technology simply allows the viewer to melt into the oceanic landscape, rather than marvel at things coming out of the screen. That's a success, in my book, and well worth the extra ticket price to see it at the theater.

You'd better hope fish remain friends...
While it might not be quite as perfect as many of Pixar's more recent offerings, Finding Nemo manages tell a lively story, and sets it in a place as alien to many of its viewers as the vast reaches of space. And yet the animators still managed to make the whole thing feel absolutely human, exploring the father/son relationship in a way that is smart, heartbreaking, and oftentimes quite funny. It's easy to see how Pixar could go from this to some of their more recent creations. I still have a number of animated films from the last year on which to catch up, but I'm very, VERY happy I saw this on the big screen. If you have also successfully avoided seeing this before now, I encourage you to get out there and take the opportunity to see it in 3D while you can. I can't wait to see what Pixar does next, whether it be something brand new or a rehashing of the old. At this point, they can do little wrong by me.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Danger Zone

I'll make no bones about it; despite the critiques of its detractors, I have overall enjoyed the Resident Evil films from Paul W.S. Anderson. The first movie I thought was an underrated gem in its ability to weave the hostile environments of the Capcom survival horror game series with a new cast of characters and in a story Anderson exclusively penned for the big screen. And while Resident Evil sequels Apocalypse and Extinction slowly deteriorated the quality of the franchise, Afterlife rejuvenated my love of heroine Alice's tale by being infused with much character and class while raising standards with its amazing special effects. It was arguably the best genre film of 2010.

Resident Evil: Retribution takes place immediately following the cliffhanger ending to Afterlife, and features Alice being taken captive by the global supercorporation Umbrella. Escaping from their top-secret base is the first step, as Alice slowly begins to uncover Umbrella's master plan, joining up with new allies in preparation for the ultimate final battle with the company responsible for all but wiping out the population of the planet.

Resident Evil: Retribution is written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, and stars Milla Jovovich, Sienna Guillory, Michelle Rodriguez, Johann Urb, Kevin Durand, Li Bingbing, Boris Kodjoe, Oded Fehr and Shawn Roberts.

Click here to read the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Double Feature: 'The Words' and 'The Cold Light of Day'

Last weekend was something of an historic moment for Hollywood. While the beginning of September has kids going back to school and is often a weak time for theaters in general, and production companies shove out what they believe to be some of their less prestigious fare, a feat was achieved in the release of ensemble drama The Words and action thriller The Cold Light of Day. The pair of new releases added little to a weekend in which the top twelve grossing movies brought in only $51.9 million, the worst since 2008 and one of the lowest weekend grosses in recorded history. Both films featured rising stars and proven performers, so why did nobody turn out to see them? Where did it all go wrong?

Of the two releases, The Words was felt to have far more potential. Beyond the original story (centering around the harmful effects of plagiarism) that would on the surface appear to agree with the literary-minded set of Hollywood, this was a time-traveling ensemble piece that more than a few people expected to contend for awards this winter. Pulling it together is the talented cast led by The Hangover's Bradley Cooper but also featuring Jeremy Irons, Zoe Saldana, Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde, with Cooper giving a surprisingly soulful performance that stands far out from his previous, more light-hearted efforts. The only negative thing I can say about Cooper's work is that the script does its best to get away from him in order to tell the story; when he's center stage, however, he's electrifying.

Don't worry; you're not forgotten, Mr. Irons.
But if there's one performance that will be remembered this award season, it will be Jeremy Irons as the nameless Old Man from whom Cooper's desperate author accidentally cribs in creating his best-selling novel. It's funny how Irons has reinvented his career in the past year, with his success on the Showtime series The Borgias likely a major factor in his casting. The Old Man vocalizes wide swaths of the tale, but that's no problem; if Irons' throaty rasps could do all narrative voice overs for the rest of time, I'd never complain about them again. The work he puts in here is exemplary, and cannot be easily defined by a few lines of text. He's easily redefined himself as one of Hollywood's go-to scene-stealers.

Yup, this is me at crunch-time.
But The Words' rookie co-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal just don't have enough narrative clout to make this film work overall. While most of the movie takes place in Cooper's present and Irons' past, a third time frame presenting the preceding events as a work of (maybe autobiographical?) fiction from ANOTHER author (Quaid) falls flat, although I can at least understand why the storytellers felt they had to go in this direction. However, the result is a choppy narrative that tries to delve too deeply into what shouldn't be all that difficult a message. Some great dialogue is wasted on a mediocre movie, though at least The Words was not the worst widely released movie to come out last weekend.

That distinction gets to belong to The Cold Light of Day, a low-tech action thriller that riffs off of the Bourne series without any of the charm and excitement that made those films such unexpected hits. The story pits an everyday guy (Immortals' star Henry Cavill) in an unbelievable situation; despite the extremely long odds, we've no doubt as to who will come out on top. When I first saw trailers for this film I was under the assumption that this would be the one to catapult Cavill into recognizable status leading into next year's Superman reboot, but apparently it wasn't even going to get a wide release in the states following the drubbing it got overseas. But with The Words as their only competition, it seems Summit Entertainment had a change of heart and started throwing the film at whatever theater would carry it. Honestly, they probably would have been better off going the limited release route.

Simply put, this is a dry, unoriginal action piece that has some decent actors rattling off inane dialogue and performing stunts that have been done to death in better, more groundbreaking productions. French director Mabrouk el Mechri certainly knows how to work his chosen genre (as he proved in the surprisingly good JCVD), but this movie has none of fun, charm and wit that is needed to carry a really good action flick. I get that every director needs to pay their dues until they get a REAL Hollywood job, but making films like this just because you don't want to give someone a shot just yet is kind of ridiculous.

The most awkward father-son chat EVER.
To make things worse, most of the veteran talent seems intent on cashing their paychecks, for all the enthusiasm they shrug into their performances. This should have been a big year for Bruce Willis, but between the last second delay of the GI Joe sequel, the "been there done that" of Expendables 2, and his uninspired performance here, it's been a mixed bag for the action star. Moonrise Kingdom has been his only legitimately good gig lately, and he might earn some points sitting across from Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the upcoming Looper, but overall this has to be a disappointing year for him. Likewise preening for the camera is Sigourney Weaver, which is a personal pain for me. In recent years Weaver has stopped caring about the roles she takes, and for every great cameo in Paul or Cabin in the Woods is matched by even more godawful dreck not fit for public consumption. What on Earth happened to Ellen Ripley and Dana Barrett? This used to be an actress I loved to see in movies; now she's little more than a famous face brought in to spruce up a sorry paint job. Finally, Cold Light does little to showcase Cavill as a potential action star. He's definitely working harder than his veteran cast-mates, but still lacks that special something that makes someone a movie star. Maybe that will change come Man of Steel's arrival next year; maybe it won't. But for whatever reason he doesn't have the inhuman strength required to carry this particular movie all that far.

Trying to hold a nonexistent audience hostage is not a good idea...
Hmm, normal guy whose existence is stripped away with the revelation that his family is not what he thought it was? And then in Bourne-like fashion he fights against all odds to retain his life, only to succeed thanks to highly irregular coincidences? Where have I heard of this before? Oh, that's right, that was the same story as Abduction, one of the worst films of 2011! You know things aren't right when you're copying the mission statement of a Taylor Lautner vehicle, but hopefully Cavill's career won't take the downward spiral that will siren-call Lautner after the final Twilight film releases. Cavill has the talent and potential to be a bigger star than most of the current "Next-Gen" actors currently working their way up the Hollywood ladder. Thankfully, nobody really sat down and watched this film, so he is in no danger of becoming the next Brandon Routh just yet. But it does raise yet another red flag in relation to the upcoming Superman film; with almost nothing (especially director Zack Snyder) pointing towards a positive experience with Man of Steel, can everybody involved in the project really step up and do a better job than they've ever done before? Because for that movie to even meet the insanely high expectations placed upon it, Snyder, Cavill and company are going to have to do just that. And The Cold Light of Day does nothing to allay those fears that it won't.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Brand Name Bads

What if big business was out of control?

Okay, what if big business was more out of control than usual? Imagine a near future where marketing and advertising determined every piece of clothing, major appliance and scrap of food we purchase. It's a world where a marketing guru conspires to put an innocent woman in a coma for the sole purpose of promoting fast food to millions, and where brands seek to destroy one another due to a crowded market and limited consumers. One man wants to step up and put a stop it. Once an ad man renowned for his many successes, Misha Galkin lost everything when the guru put his plan in action, falling out of love with the multimillion dollar industry he helped build. Now he can see the monsters his work helped create, and will do everything in his power to stop the manipulative machinations of greedy corporations.

Branded is written and directed by Jamie Bradshaw and Alexsandr Dulerayn, and stars Ed Stoppard, Leelee Sobieski, Jeffrey Tambor and Max von Sydow.

Click here for the complete review at Open Letters Monthly.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Women headlining comedies might seem like a recent trend, but there is a long list of women who made comedies work on their own terms. So why is is we haven't seen the next iterations of Cher, Bernadette Peters and Goldie Hawn? Sure, Kristen Wiig gathered a nomination for Best Actress for her ensemble movie Bridesmaids, but unless she can produce something like that again, it's more of an aberration than a legitimate step forward. And while some actresses have made some headway in their movie careers, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham have had much more success on the small screen (and in some cases, the literary market) than they have in theaters. The only comedic actress right now who regularly gets big screen work is Anna Faris, and she hardly picks the best projects to join. Female-fronted comedy is currently at its highest popularity in decades, with only cinema the last remaining unconquered hill. There's always a need for more funny women in Hollywood, and For a Good Time Call... adds actresses Ari Graynor and Lauren Miller to the mix with satisfying results.

He's like a next-generation Jack Tripper
When Lauren's (Miller) boyfriend dumps her and leaves her without a place to live, she has no affordable place to live by herself in New York City. Katie (Graynor) has a wonderful apartment her grandmother left her but cannot afford to stay without a roommate. Obviously this wouldn't normally be a problem, except the two have been enemies since an unfortunate incident in college involving urine and a Big Gulp container. Convinced to give living together a shot by their shared best friend Jesse (Justin Long), the two are at first hostile towards one another until Lauren discovers Katie's side gig as a phone sex operator. Let go from her cushy publishing job and unable to secure new employment, she turns to Katie and the pair create their own sex line, with Katie taking the calls and Lauren managing the business. But when Lauren decides that she's tired of her safe, "boring" life, Katie agrees to let her on the line as their second operator. However, the pair's growing friendship eventually hits a major obstacle that threatens to reset everything to the way it was, and end their companionship forever.

You know what's harder than running a sex line? Getting it to work with Discover.
Like many small-budget films, this is one that needs its major characters and performers at their best when it comes to telling their story. Thankfully, the dual leads of Graynor and Miller are up to the task. Graynor is in a word fantastic, commanding the screen as well as the divas of yesteryear and with the bubbly, fun-loving personality that hearkens back to an Almost Famous-era Kate Hudson. As a young woman much more complex than she at first seems, Graynor simply owns the screen. Why the 29 year-old actress hasn't gotten a bigger shot at stardom is a mystery, but hopefully this film will give her an edge in breaking into leading roles. Miller is no slouch, though you might at first think her role as the "straight woman" against Graynor's juvenile actions is not much of a stretch. In fact, her transformation from uptight businesswoman to well-rounded character is such a subtle, shocking change that it sneaks up on you just how good she actually is. In fact, the leads in Good Time are so strong that it's not a weakness when the secondary characters don't get as much screen time as they would usually. Most shoved aside is Long, whose portrayal as the duo's gay best friend probably benefits from not taking center stage too often. And Scott Pilgrim's Mark Webber is surprisingly effective in the relatively limited role of Katie's love interest. Hilarious cameos by Kevin Smith and Miller's husband Seth Rogen help keep the pace going forward, but it's most certainly Graynor and Miller who steer this ship.

One thing this movie does not lack is phones.
But beyond the excellent acting, There's the wonderful storytelling thanks to a screenplay penned by Miller and Katie Anne Naylon. Miller and Naylon were roommates in college, and the story was at least partially based on their real-life experiences, most notably Naylon's brief experience as a phone sex operator. The movie does a great job exploring the motivations of each character, and really establishes the vast differences between Lauren's wealthier upbringing to Katie's less supportive family while also proving that the two have a lot in common despite their differences. For a Good Time, Call... is much like a low-rent variant of Sex and the City with its focus on female empowerment, friendship and love, but without the needlessly superficial shoe hoarding. The script allows its characters to shine, and the only reason you could not like the movie would be if you don't like the topic of sex at all. Even then, the hotline is never over-used, allowing the friendship between Lauren and Katie to blossom on the screen.

Do it!
With some great humor (though not as much as you might have thought), wonderful characters and a story that never falters, For a Good Time, Call... is one of the year's better indie films. Though folks won't be flocking to it in the same droves as say, Magic Mike, Jamie Travis' directorial debut is extremely superior to much of the indie fare I've seen in 2012. Graynor especially is an excellent reason to watch, though anyone with leanings towards New York City, SatC, and/or female-fronted comedies in general should heartily investigate. After a summer of bust releases, I'm quite happy to say that this is one film this year worth watching, though hopefully it won't be the last.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Scary Good

If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again.

This was a perfectly reasonable piece of advice when William Edward Hickson penned it in the 1800's, and it remains so today. This is one of the reasons why, after sitting through one of the worst horror films this decade in The Apparition, Todd and I were willing to give the genre another shot, this time with a familiar face behind the scenes. Sure, co-producer Sam Raimi (He of Xena and Spider-Man fame) might not have been creatively behind the filming of The Possession, which was led by Danish director Ole Bornedal; anyone expecting this movie to be the next Evil Dead deserves whatever disappointment they feel. But while it's been a few years since Raimi has made anything of note (I'll reserve judgment of the upcoming Wizard of Oz prequel), he's done enough over the past couple of decades to earn some goodwill from his audiences. Besides, Todd still had a hankering for horror, and as The Apparition proved itself nowhere close to scary, we thought a mulligan was in order. But could this Jewish horror title do what its predecessor could not?

She just watched The Apparition, too...
Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie Brenek (Kyra Sedgwick) are a couple going through separation. Clyde is having a hard enough time being away from his life, and is hurt that she has begun seeing others. Meanwhile, he dotes on his two daughters, whom he takes on during weekends. When the youngest, Em (Natasha Calis) buys a strange box on a yard sale trip, she begins to obsess over opening the seemingly sealed box to discover what is inside. Soon, she begins to change, and Clyde notices mysterious events transpiring around her. It's soon evident that Em has been possessed by a Dybbuk, a Jewish demon that had been trapped in the box she found. Now despite Clyde being in well over his head, he will do anything in his power to protect his daughter from the unknown creature that has claimed her body for itself.

The Thriller flash-mob was a little under-staffed...
Now, if you're saying "Hey, that just sounds like a Jewish clone of The Exorcist," congratulations! You've come across the one major flaw of the whole entire movie! It's absolutely true that in essence the whole tale is built from the debris of older titles. In fact, with the exception of the Dybbuk box and the demon trapped within (and even a demon trapped in a box is a familiar fable), and any and all references to Judaism, there's nothing here you haven't seen in just about every movie concerning demonic possession ever released. Every scene has at least one reference to lore that seems intimately familiar, and all the familiar horror tropes are there: locusts, a cursed ring, the black person dies first, the campiest music, false endings, "This isn't right!", lots and LOTS of insects, a professor unnaturally amused by the whole backstory, and a creepy kid. While the Catholic church has held the monopoly on exorcism films since their inception, the Jewish seem to want to make up for lost time by including every minor detail from other movies in making their own. Bad things even happen to the Priest brought in to perform the proper ceremony (though it's a Rabbi, here).

See, now that? That just isn't right...
Of course, if there was ever a movie that proves that being a UNIQUE film and being a GOOD film are two completely different things, it's The Possession. Like this year's The Amazing Spider-Man, The Possession is grounded in what we as audiences have covered before (and not all that long in the past), but the overall quality of the film is so good that such doesn't matter much at all. There are several reasons for this. The first is that The Possession doesn't take itself all that seriously. While the characters act as though everything happening is the worst thing in the world, the complete familiarity of the situation means that the audience can focus on the unexpected humor, campy acting and situations, and cliched music that feel fun and fresh with the complete lack of high expectations.

The movie's lesson to parents? Avoid yard sales!
But The Possession is hardly all fun and no scares; the creature effects are actually really effective for a low-budget film. Sure, it's no Insidious, but very few movies can be. Scenes drip with creepy atmosphere, and the few moments we see the demon itself manifest in its host are among the most hair-raising of 2012. This is all accented by the unnatural talents of young actress Natasha Calis, who makes this film with her out-of-this-world performance. Where she finds the ability to go from cute, normal kid to harbinger of the apocalypse I don't know, but I certainly hope that this isn't the last time we witness her in action. Wherever Bornedal found her, he lucked out in perfectly casting a role that was in danger of being a cheap Linda Blair copy with anybody else in the role.

Holy men rarely see the end of exorcism flicks.
The rest of the cast is more than adequate, and part of that reason might be the casting of Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the lead role. Known for effective support roles in Grey's Anatomy, Supernatural and Watchmen,. Morgan does a great job playing the everyman, for which this part definitely qualifies. While he plays the effective lead Sedgwick, Grant Show and Jewish reggae musician Matisyahu do effective work in backing him up. Each character feels organic, and though their fates are as predictable as the sunrise, each brings something to the table to make sure they are more than fodder for the machine. Also, not to be forgotten is Madison Davinport as Clyde and Stephanie's elder daughter Hannah. She's mainly a scream queen, but plays well enough off of her fictional sister and parents that her relatively small contribution is much respected.

Filming in a wind tunnel might not have been the best idea...
Sure, you know what's coming at all times. Yes, the whole thing is one Catholic priest away from a full-blown case of plagiarism. Yeah, it's campy and just a little silly. But it's because - and not in spite of - these things that I ended up enjoying The Possession. The film is acutely aware of how much it borrows from other sources, and plays with that honesty for all it's worth, which turns out to be quite a bit. It doesn't hurt that it's also a creepy, fun, and at times gross-out horror flick that could be well worth a re-watch when it becomes available on DVD. Raimi might not have been the master storyteller behind the scenes, but Bornedal proves himself a capable director whose future efforts will definitely garner a look. If you're a fan of scary movies, this is one that will be well worth your time.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Open Letters Monthly Review: Lawless

As movie watchers, we're always on the look for the Next Big Thing. With former box office guarantees dropping the ball left and right and no longer appealing to mainstream audiences, Hollywood is trying to determine who of the new generation of movie stars will lead them into the next era of blockbuster success. Who will be the next superstars? Fassbender? Lawrence? Hemsworth? Worthington? Saldana? Sure, they seem to be doing fine now, but with so many young faces waiting in the wings, how long will they actually last before someone else gets a shot? Lawless uses some of that newly-discovered talent and takes it for a ride. Will the latest movie from the director of The Road be a proper showcase of their talents?

In the county of Franklin, Virginia, the Bondurant brothers run a moonshining operation at the height of Prohibition. Life is good, as nobody bothers them or tries to shake them down. That changes when corrupt politicians attempt to take over, sending the particularly ruthless Charlie Rakes to commit violence against anybody who doesn't fall in line. The Bondurants don't bow down to anybody, however, and now it's a battle between the corrupt law and the honorable lawless to determine who will ultimately control Franklin.

Lawless is directed by John Hillcoat, from a screenplay written by Nick Cave. It stars Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce.

Click here for the whole review at Open Letters Monthly.