Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Double Feature: R.I.P.D. and Turbo

The common theme for today's double feature is Ryan Reynolds. Back in the early 2000's, the Van Wilder actor was going to be the next superstar of the big screen. Unfortunately, while still a talented performer, he's never quite achieved the level of career prosperity that folks once predicted, and his Hollywood experience has consisted of peaks and valleys, with most of his appearances coming in supporting roles and his biggest draws being shared with bigger, more prestigious actors (Denzel Washington in Safe House, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal). He's certainly been busy this year, with roles in TWO animated features (the first was The Croods) and one sci-fi action film. We'll look at the live-action flick first, as Reynolds teams up with Academy Award-winner Jeff Bridges in RED director Robert Schwenke's R.I.P.D.

When Boston Police detective Nick Walker (Reynolds) is killed in the line of duty, his soul does not go to Heaven or Hell. Instead, it is transferred to the Rest in Peace Department, an afterlife police agency that tracks down bad souls on Earth that have escaped judgment. Partnered with former US Marshall and curmudgeon cowboy Roy Pulsipher (Bridges), the pair clash frequently in their search for hiding "Deados". But when an ancient artifact is discovered that threatens to return the dead to the Earth, Nick and Roy must settle their differences before the world as they know it comes to an ectoplasmic end.
Bridges is of course playing Rooster Cogburn.
On paper, R.I.P.D. seems to look something like a cross between Men in Black and Ghostbusters, with a decent amount of Ghost thrown in. Based on the comic book series of the same name from Dark Horse Comics, you figure that there would be plenty of material to mine in putting together the story. Unfortunately, Schwentke's final product is rushed, cramming potentially two and a half hours worth of material into a slim 96 minutes. Everything is hurried, with no chance for the audience to slow down and adapt to the idea of the R.I.P.D. and its role in protecting the planet in secret. The result is that the story comes off as phony and unbelievable, and the films that should have been sources of inspiration (the three above) are instead mined for specific imagery, their theft leaving R.I.P.D. without an identity all its own. The special effects are at least better than you might expect, but the quality isn't consistent, switching between good and mediocre in a heartbeat.
R.I.P.D. even stole M.I.B.'s secret locale.
There are two factors in which the film does redeem itself, however: humor and acting. Annoying physical humor aside, R.I.P.D. actually has excellent dialogue, which is crisp and helps alleviate the mediocrity of the overall story. And that humor really comes across thanks to a cast not just composed by its leads, but also by Mary-Louise Parker, Stephanie Szostak, and Kevin Bacon, who has really enjoyed a career renaissance on screens big and small the past couple of years. They manage to elevate the movie by a couple of rungs, and both Reynolds and Bridges carry the film through the strength of their constant interactions.I do wish the director had stepped away from the duo a bit more to focus on the support cast, but otherwise I can't really complain, as the result is entertaining enough.
Get to the choppah!
But despite some fun that can be had, it's hard to get around the fact that R.I.P.D. could have been much, MUCH better than it turned out. It's just too derivative to fully get behind, and while it's not nearly the train-wreck that many critics have attested, for the money that was allegedly spent ($130 million got us THIS?), it's definitely going to go down as one of the most disappointing comic book adaptations this year. It might be worth a rental in a few months, but don't rush out to see it just yet.

A much better Ryan Reynolds jaunt (and one for the whole family, no less) is the latest animated film from Dreamworks, Turbo. If you were to take Ratatouille, change the animal in question from rats to snails, and then fuse it to Cars, you have an idea of how this one plays out. Theo (voiced by Reynolds) is an average gastropod, weary of his slow-paced existence and dreaming of becoming a world-class racer like his heroes on the NASCAR circuit, much to the chagrin and embarrassment of his sensible older brother Chet (Paul Giamatti). When a freak accident with nitrous oxide turns Theo into the super-fast snail Turbo, his dreams of going fast quickly become true. Soon, he is teaming up with fellow dreamer and taco truck driver Tito (Michael Pena), whose family business is suffering due to its poor location. Tito and Turbo hatch a plan that's so insane and unbelievable that it could only happen in a Dreamworks movie, as Tito uses all his saving to enter Turbo into the Indy 500, racing against the top car racers in the world. But could Theo's powers be only temporary, and if they are, what will happen if he slows down during the big race?

Turbo; a snail with a plan.
Like all Dreamworks animated pictures, Turbo is quite pretty to watch, but not quite on par with its superior competition. The company's response to the idea that they aren't as deep or emotional as those put out by Pixar (even over the last couple of years, Dreamworks has struggled to maintain its second-place status on the animation front), the response has apparently been to crib the best themes from Pixar's highlights (in this case the excellent Ratatouille). First-time feature director David Soren at least does a decent job with his second-hand story, mixing the idea of never giving up on your dreams with a healthy mix of characters.
Just stand back and let the merchandise sales roll in.
And it's the characters that stand out most in Turbo. Excellent actors such as Paul Giamatti and Michael Pena hold key roles, and the gang of renegade racing snails (which feel remarkably akin to the Fast & Furious gang), are a lot of fun. They're led by Samuel L. Jackson, but Soren never relies on them to pick up the slack elsewhere. In most films, that would be a great sign of restraint, but here it seems a little foolhardy. Turbo, and Reynolds as his voice, are interesting enough to maintain their lead character credentials but is a bit vanilla for an animated lead. Though there's a great cast in here, they can't quite make up for an uninspired lead.
In the grand scheme of Dreamworks animated films, Turbo is certainly not bad. On a scale between the excellence of How to Train Your Dragon and the much-reviled Shark Tale, their latest comes in somewhere around Kung Fu Panda. While the concept is almost as absurd as it is derivative, kids will definitely get into seeing this animated feature on the big screen, and unlike a lot of Dreamworks' other titles, Turbo has enough for adults to get into the act, especially if they're fans of the still-growing race culture. But with Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 still in theaters, I can't see any reason you should rush out your door to see it either, unless your kids really love the idea of racing snails. Or if you do. No judging.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Open Letters Monthly: The Wolverine

Now that Marvel Studios have changed the way people see comic book movies, it's time the other major studios got on board. It's currently 20'th Century Fox's turn with The Wolverine, the second spin-off (and sequel to the much-hated X-Men: The Last Stand) of the popular mutant superhero team that first leaped onto screens way back in 2000.

Riddled with guilt over his actions in The Last Stand, the man formerly known as Wolverine is living the hermit's life in Canada when he is discovered by a Japanese agent named Yuki,sent to give him a message. A man the near-immortal Logan saved in World War II wants to say goodbye, but when Wolverine goes to Japan to give his farewell, he is made an offer from the dying clan leader. For saving his life that day at Nagasaki, Logan is given the deal of a lifetime: allow his mutant healing factor to be transferred to someone else, so that he can live a finite existence and eventually be given peace from the demons that haunt him. But some demons wear human skin, and the world just might need Wolverine alive and kicking, even if he doesn't always feel the same.

The Wolverine is directed by James Mangold and stars Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Will Yun Lee, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Svetlana Khodchenkova and Famke Janssen.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Open Letters Monthly: RED 2

The first RED, released in 2010, was both a surprise hit and a critical darling. Turning the action genre on its ear by taking the likes of John Malkovich and Helen Mirren, giving them guns, and allowing them to go wild. Now they're hoping that lightning strikes twice with RED 2, the flick that brings back everybody's favorite retired secret agents for a globe-trotting adventure full of twists and turns.

When retired CIA agents Frank Moses and Marvin Boggs are publicly outed as having taken part in a top-secret mission codenamed "Nightshade," both are surprised, mainly because they've never even heard of the operation. Now they've got dangerous people from around the world hunting both them and an experimental nuclear explosive that was smuggled into Russia at the height of the Cold War, piece by piece. On the run from just about every government agency on the planet and with perilously few friends, it'll take everything they've got left in the tank to stop a madman from detonating that device.

RED 2 is directed by Dean Parisot and stars Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Byung-Hun Lee, Anthony Hopkins, Neal McDonough and Helen Mirren.

CLICK here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


There are a few people who will dispute me on this, but 2010's Insidious is one of the most frightening, best-made modern mainstream horror films of the 21'st century. Within a sea of found-footage Paranormal Activity clones, the brainchild of Saw (just the first one) director James Wan was surprisingly moody, atmospheric, and well-acted for a budget film, delivering some of the best scares in recent memory. Add in being a money-making machine, and you've got all the ingredients for a sequel, which is due out later this year. But in the meantime, Wan put together this new horror which apparently has been trying to get the big-screen treatment for more than twenty years.

The Conjuring is based on the true story of Ed and Lorraine Warren, who for decades investigated paranormal instances around the United States. Ed was a demonologist and the only non-Catholic priest allowed to perform exorcisms (at least according to the movie), while Lorraine was (and still is today) a clairvoyant and medium who could communicate with dead spirits. The pair are perhaps best known for their study of the infamous Amityville Haunting, but they also claim to have taken part in over 10,000 investigations during their career. This film is based on one of those cases, as Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) and their five daughters find themselves haunted by a particularly vengeful spirit in their new home. With their lives a living hell and no place else to go, the family calls on the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to find out just what's happening and to stop it. What they find however might just be the most terrifying event the pair have ever discovered.
If the recording equipment wasn't clue enough, that sweater just SCREAMS the 70's
From moment one, when we see an earlier investigation into the case of two nurses haunted by a possessed doll, Wan's skills as a modern master of terror are established. This is a man who not only uses darkness to his advantage (because any decent horror director can do that), but can make something scary when fully illuminated through timing and not showing too much. A pair of undead legs peeking out from under a table or some kind of creature peering out from atop a tall dresser are absolutely terrifying under the right circumstances, and Wan is an expert at keeping that level of atmosphere prevalent throughout the entire film. As a result, you can be assured that The Conjuring is meant for horror aficionados and anybody who can use a good scare. If you balk at the tiniest of frightening moments however, this title (or in fact any scary movie) is not for you.
Yeah, we might just have a haunting here.
For those whose lives cannot consist of chills alone, The Conjuring also possesses a stellar cast led by Wilson and Farmiga. Wilson is of course a Wan veteran, also having starred in Insidious. While his performance here is certainly more low-key than it was in that scare-fest, he's an effective lead and moves the story forward more than most of his co-stars. While Wilson plays the Warrens' logic, Farmiga is the soul, effortlessly playing the mystical half of the investigative pair. Hers is an esoteric performance, full of life and emotion that leaves the rest of the actors in the dust. In doing so, she also happens to put in one of her best performances in years, even better than her Oscar-nominated work in Up in the Air. From the supporting players, the best is definitely Lili Taylor, who steals the screen with her classic wife/haunting victim on more than one occasion. Ron Livingston puts in more of an everyman performance, but that's all the script calls for from him, and he does so well enough. Their five daughters contrast between well-known genre actresses (White House Down's Joey King and Twilight's Mackenzie Foy) and ones not quite as recognizable (Detention's Shanley Caswell, Lie to Me's Hayley McFarland, and newcomer Kyla Deaver), but all are effective when called upon to perform, although with such a big cast it's not as often as I would have liked. Still, it's a more-than-effective cast that Wan has brought forth, and they really sell the horror of what is happening on screen.
Yup, I think there might be spirits here.
Unfortunately, what you see in the theater is pretty much what you've witnessed in any classic Exorcist-type film in the past twenty years. Wan might make it terrifying, but that doesn't change the fact that every single horror trope we've come to expect from the genre is back, even if it is with a vengeance. Obviously, for a story from over forty years ago, you can expect that details would leak into other, newer horror films of franchises. But while Wan's Insidious was instrumental in reinventing the budget horror classic, here he's just doing what everybody before him put on, and the result is definitely less than you might expect. It's actually kind of surprising that Wan and his crew didn't take discretionary control of the story, as "Based on a True Story" has never limited any director's ability to put interesting content first.
And she would have gotten away with it too, if not for those meddling kids.
Still, despite The Conjuring's less-than-original premise, you can't help but be scared out of your pants by Wan's effortless atmosphere and the horror that you are made to see through his lens. That and great performances can achieve quite a bit, and while there's no reinventing sliced bread here, it's still a VERY scary product that can be enjoyed by just about anyone looking for a cheap scare. Is The Conjuring the scariest movie out there? No. But it IS the scariest movie so far in 2013, and right now that definitely counts for something.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Biggest Screen Possible

That's what you'll need if you ever want to get the most enjoyment out of Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, the "giant robots vs. giant monsters" inspired less by Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and more on Japanese monster films like Godzilla and the popular anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. del Toro's stock might have taken a hit in recent years (he hasn't directed a film since 2008's well-reviewed but financially-disappointing Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and his production efforts have drawn little in the way of audiences), but this is still the same man who wowed us with bizarre and imaginative visuals in Pan's Labyrinth and the original Hellboy. He's gained a following as an artist who thrives on creativity and original ideas, and like a more talented Tim Burton he loves to drench his movies in his signature level of darkness and dark humor. This makes his movies instantly worth watching, as you never get the feeling that you're seeing the same old story just one more time.That said, "giant robots vs. giant monsters" isn't exactly going to appeal to anything outside a niche audience, and even with the full backing of Warner Bros. Pictures, it seems like an incredible risky project to make. So it's up to one director and his barely-famous cast to make the whole thing work.
Yeah, it was a bad day to live on the coast.
At the beginning of Pacific Rim, we're told the history of the unexpected Kaiju (translated: giant monster) attacks on major cities around the globe. A portal between dimensions has been opened deep beneath the Pacific Ocean, and it keeps spewing forth these destructive Kaiju with no end in sight. When our militaries can only do so much, countries around the world fund the Jaeger program; giant robots designed to go toe-to-toe with their gargantuan enemy, in which two pilots share the mental strain of melding their brains to a machine of war for greater effect. At first, they are successful, until more monstrous creatures begin to cross the breach. Now the Jaegers are all but decimated, the program shut down not only by lost comrades but by the dwindling hopes and funds of shell-shocked nations. With only a few of the colossi left, and one piloted by a washed-up operator (Charlie Hunnam) and an inexperienced rookie (Rinko Kinkuchi), the remnants of the force must pull together and finish the job before the Kaiju succeed and completely exterminate the planet.
Wait 'til you see them dance the Robot.
Let me reiterate: if you're going to see Pacific Rim (and putting aside genre bias, there's no reason you shouldn't), do yourself a favor and watch it on the BIGGEST SCREEN AVAILABLE. This isn't just a special effects bonanza; it's the KING of special effects bonanzas. Thanks to major studios shelling out big bucks for CGI, there have been some exceptionally beautiful movies this year, sporting names like Oblivion, Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness. But Pacific Rim puts them all to shame with wholly immersing environmental effects, a 3D system that actually draws you into the action (remember when that was supposed to be a thing?), and computer generated creatures that actual feel seamless with the real world to which we are presented. del Toro has an amazing creative eye, and it comes out in every conceivable facet, from the vastly differing designs of the Jaegers to the varied monstrosities apparent in the Kaiju. He truly makes his little universe alive, and the battle scenes especially feel epic in scope; though they take up perhaps far too much of the movie as they should, they're never over-long or boring, as we've seen in many a summer blockbuster. Overall, it makes for a unique visual feat that filmmakers will be trying to emulate for decades.
I have GOT to get my beer goggles tuned...
But while the opulent visual artistry is there for all to see, it's a shame that the rest of Pacific Rim feels so... pedestrian. A distinct lack of character development is a major factor, a shame especially considering the talent involved. Charlie Hunnam might not have much leading man experience beyond his Sons of Anarchy role, but he proves to at least be serviceable here. Though his character is obviously a cheap knock-off of the best of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, he at least puts everything he has into  Raleigh Beckett's typical American cowboy. Rinko Kikuchi, who was nominated for an Oscar back in 2006 for her deaf, traumatized teenager in Babel, is the same, playing the kind of self-deprecating, timid sort we're used to seeing Asians play in cinema. You can tell that she has talent; she's just never given a chance to really stand out. Rounding out the the trio of stars is Luther and The Wire star Idris Elba as the tough-as-nails chief of the Jaeger program, who really gets to have fun with the Bull-Pullman-esque speech to set up Rim's final act.
That's right: Elba stands above you because he's better.
Like the lazily-designed characters, there's no trope from del Toro's "Jaeger vs. Kaiju" story that discerning fans haven't seen dozens if not hundreds of times before. Leading characters with a tragic past? Triple check. Requisite comedic relief in the form of two scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman), not to mention a particularly flamboyant black market dealer (Ron Perlman)? Check. Field technician in a bow tie (Clifton Collins, Jr)? Rival Jaeger operators (Max Martini and Rob Kazinsky) with no real basis behind their beef? Scientists missing crucial details on subjects they're supposed to be experts on (and that the audience already understands to be truth)? Confusing, slightly lackluster ending? Really, let's just mark all of those down right now. As original as it might feel to an audience with no prior knowledge of the genre, there's way too much reliance on what came before and not enough unique aspects that have been a staple of the director's work. That's what's truly disappointing about Pacific Rim: for all the creator's supposed chutzpah, this is at its core standard action fare with few frills.
Yeah, this big ol' crowd walk has never been done before.
But as "standard" as it is, del Toro still manages to present to his audience a gorgeous, amazingly fun popcorn film that perfectly balances the over-the-top action with a sense of humor and heart that most career action directors are still trying to master. Is it perfect? Heck no, or at least in the case of a paint-by-numbers action flick cannot truly be perfected. It's still a direct product of its genre, and that's just not going to appeal to a large selection of theater-goers out there. To those people I would normally recommend a rental, but in this case I cannot. Pacific Rim is easily approachable and can be enjoyed by anyone, and its groundbreaking visual effects simply cannot be appreciated on anything smaller than a standard theatrical screen. I even recommend 3D, and anybody who knows me understands my general distaste for that particular overused technology. The fact is that this is an event movie, suitable for geeks and non-geeks alike, and deserves your patronage while it's still in the theaters. It's not one of Guillermo del Toro's best... but it sure is one of his most fun.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Open Letters Monthly: Grown Ups 2

Couldn't we have another Hangover movie instead?

Grown Ups was not just a surprise hit when it was released three years ago, but also the biggest-grossing film for star Adam Sandler. With his next few projects garnering mixed reviews and negative box office receipts, he got together the old team from that 2010 hit and put together the aptly-named sequel (his first actual sequel as well) Grown Ups 2.

Lenny Feder and his family have moved to his New England hometown in an effort to lead a normal, low-key life with his friends Eric, Kurt and Higgy and their respective households. On the last day of school, each grown-up is provided with a challenge which educates them about how special their children are and just how good a job they have done as parents. But will rivalries old and new derail those new found discoveries?

Grown Ups 2 is directed by Dennis Dugan and stars Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade, Nick Swardson, Steve Austin, Salma Hayek, Maria Bello, Maya Rudolph and Taylor Lautner.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Summer Shenanigans

With the Summer full of typical, audience-hungry blockbusters vying for your attention, it can often be difficult for an arthouse independent to gather much traction. I think that's why, when truly special ones are coming out, critics will give them platitudes such as "This year's Little Miss Sunshine", referring of course to the 2007 Hollywood darling that was a dark horse candidate at several awards ceremonies after its mid-July release. That could certainly be the upside for The Way, Way Back, the directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Oscar winners for their screenplay of 2011's The Descendants). While there's certainly no shortage of quality indie films this year (many of which could be considered outside-shot Best Picture contenders), there's just something immediately special about this "Best Summer Ever" picture, which comes complete with an all-star cast, raging emotions, and a sufficient number of water slides.

Fourteen year-old Duncan (The Killing's Liam James) is miserable, forced to spend his summer at the beach house of his mother's pig-headed boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) instead of being able to visit his dad, who lives across the country. While mother Pam (Toni Collette) goes along for the ride, Duncan's anguish is compounded by the embarrassing behavior of Trent's friends, the disdain he gets from his nemesis' teenage daughter, and his own inability to reach out and make new friends. That begins to change when he meets girl-next-door Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) and chances into entrepreneurial slacker Owen (Sam Rockwell), who runs the Water Wizz amusement park. Soon, Duncan is able to ignore all his problems and enjoy growing up for a change. But when things escalate at the home front, the list of good things in Duncan's life might become much, much shorter, and his sometimes-excellent Summer may come crashing to an end.
 Quite the motley crew.
First of all, this is an excellent acting core that Faxon and Rash have assembled, starting with the relative newcomer James. His general morose demeanor throughout the film would suggest that the young man was playing a relatively one-note character, but it's the moments when he smiles or otherwise changes tack, the glimpses of a good time had, that the audience gets a feel for the veracity of his performance. While there are a number of talented actors in this cast, only James has the opportunity to truly carry the film, and that such a young man can do so is a testament to his ability. Rockwell and Carell also do wonders as the two father figures in Duncan's life. Rockwell is generally within his "likable goofball" wheelhouse, but also shows a tender and protective side when it comes to his new ward, again showing his (at times) surprising versatility as a performer. Carell, meanwhile, lets us thank the heavens that he can play something other than cheap Woody Allen knockoffs, and brings an excellent showing to this movie, his most impressive performance in years. What's interesting is that both characters are essentially imparting the same message to Duncan - get out there and do something - but while Trent wants nothing to do with Duncan outside that, Owen is more accepting and inclusive to the young man. The cast is rounded out by good-to-great performances by the likes of Robb, Collette, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet and the always-excellent Allison Janney. Even Faxon and Rash get in on the action, playing minor comedic roles along the way.
I've never hated Carell so much... and that's a good thing.
But these actors also have a great story to work with, one penned by the directors and dripping with Duncan's easily identifiable personality. It's quite effortless to sympathize with the young man as he searches for his own path through life, and Faxon and Rash exquisitely tap into that vein to tell a story that feels not like a cliched coming of age tale, but a true slice of the American experience. Yes, things do develop a little predictably, and it doesn't possess the sheer volume of surprise and heart that Little Miss Sunshine brought with it in spades. But in The Way, Way Back we see a realistic, down-to-Earth recounting of youth and innocence in a way rarely done right on the big screen. Duncan's life-changing summer might be a little bit calculable, but through its performance never is it dull or anything less than promising and encouraging.
Yup, this is where C.J. Craig vacations...
That's where The Way, Way Back stands, as a great but not groundbreaking acting tour-de-force that in reality is no more remarkable than the excellence of Mud or The Place Beyond the Pines but will still be remembered over those entries by viewers and critics this winter simply because of its effort in counter-programming the likes of Man of Steel, White House Down and Pacific Rim. It certainly worked for A Better Life, the 2011 film that had only a modest theatrical run but netted Demian Bichir a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars. Whether that will be the same fate for this film is anybody's guess, but there's no good reason to skip this movie when it soon makes its nation-wide expansion in the coming weeks. It may seem like I'm giving this title a ho-hum review, but I promise you that - while it's no Sunshine - if you give The Way, Way Back a chance, you won't be disappointed by your decision.
Didn't anybody ever tell you to never eat amusement park food??

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Saddle Sore

You know that thing that seems like a really bad idea? Somebody's going through with something, and for the energy and attention and hype they are devoting to that project, you can't for the life of you understand why? That's pretty much my case with Disney's epic western, The Lone Ranger. All the elements for failure are here. With very few exceptions, nobody WATCHES westerns anymore. On top of that, the budget for this particular piece is so bloated ($215 million, not counting advertising) that it would have to be the highest grossing western ever JUST to be considered a success. Plus, Disney's attempts to push into the action-adventure genre in recent years have fallen flat creatively, and for every financially successful dip into the nostalgia pool (Oz the Great and Powerful) there have been far too many pricey belly flops (Prince of Persia, John Carter and the last Pirates flick, for example). Finally, there's a bunch of negative attention out there focused on the casting of Johnny Depp as Comanche sidekick Tonto, which essentially has the top-billed star performing the Native American variant of blackface. Can The Lone Ranger overcome all these issues by simply issuing the statement that it was from the same team that brought you Pirates of the Caribbean (director Gore Verbinski, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Depp)?

The short answer is no, it cannot.
Surrender is not an option.
Based on the character from the popular TV show and radio serials that first appeared way back in the 1930's, The Lone Ranger tells the origin of the man once known as John Reid (Armie Hammer), who returns home from college to Colby, Texas to become the new District Attorney. Unknowingly, he is aboard the same train as outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), soon about to hang for his crimes against the Indian natives. But when Cavendish's gang breaks him out, kills several Texas Rangers (John's brother included) and leaves the young lawyer for dead, John must team up with eccentric Comanche Tonto (Depp) to avenge his family and bring law back to the untamed West as the masked outlaw known as The Lone Ranger
Hope you like him... he gets old fast.
Right from the start, we're assaulted with idiotic imagery, as the opening scene takes place in a San Francisco museum in the 1930's, where a young fan of the Lone Ranger meets an aged and demented Tonto (Depp in heavy makeup). There, Tonto begins to narrate the entire tale, a plot device so contrived and ill-conceived that I can't believe it made the final cut. Why not just go right into the story and action? Do we NEED to see that no matter what, the legend of the Ranger has endured? Isn't what you're about to show us going to do that? It's a lousy way to begin this whole experience, as I don't ever remember Pirates needing to remind us that the entire plot was written around a theme park ride.
The railroad: our first major environmental devastator.
This is just the beginning of Lone Ranger's problems, as that opening (and subsequent occasional story-breaking subplot) sets the tone for a movie that can't figure out what it wants to be. On one hand, it's light-hearted action-adventure, with classic cowboy gun play, colorful bad guys and even a bit of witty dialogue. On the other, it tries way too hard to overcome its lighter fare and attempts to show some authentic culture of the time. This includes a scene in which one of the bad guys (in this case, Barry Pepper's military officer) leads an army in the slaughter of an invading Comanche tribe. With bodies clogging up a river, it's a powerfully sad reminder of the atrocities committed in the name of "progress." And then, not twenty seconds later, Tonto tells a one-liner about a horse. It's this unevenness in theme and plot even within the confines of a single scene that mars much of the fun that could have been had with this western tale.
HBC with a gun leg? Are you sure Tim Burton didn't direct this bit?
And that's sad, because the film really does have its moments. Despite any niggling concerns about the quality of the production, this is a veteran team who have committed great acts of filmmaking in the past. This was especially true for the first Pirates of the Caribbean, and there are times during Ranger where you remember why you liked that swashbuckling adventure so much. The action is better than you might expect, culminating in an insanely epic - and surprisingly fun - battle atop, under and through racing train cars, set to an updated (but still classic-sounding) variant of Rossini's 'William Tell Overture.' Though the special effects are not always as sharp as they could be, at least they don't possess the cartoonish quality of a George Lucas adventure. It's easily some of Verbinski's best action work, and never feels overlong (which you couldn't say about any of Pirates' battles). There are also a slew of talented actors and interesting characters, though for the life of me I'm not sure how I feel about Ruth Wilson's mediocre performance. On the more positive side, Armie Hammer is as pleasant a lead as you can get. I wish he'd pick better projects (his last two were the terrible Mirror Mirror and the meh J. Edgar), but at least you can't say anything negative about his efforts or talent. He's supported by a bevy of charismatic villains in Fichtner, Pepper, and Tom Wilkinson as a corrupt business magnate (in Hollywood, is there any other kind?), who are a triple threat to the forces of justice. However, I wish we could have seen a bit more of Helena Bonham Carter's peg-legged (and bad-ass) brothel madam Red Harrington, who charms in a few scenes but is missing for almost the entirety of the movie. James Badge Dale meanwhile rounds out the cast (and is enjoying a pretty good career run presently) as John's brother.
Let's just get this trope out of the way.
But the film boasts two big stars. One is featured on the poster above; the other is not. One was in Pirates of the Caribbean; the other was not. One has a few moments of levity but is otherwise remarkable; the other is a horse who absolutely steals the show. Johnny Depp fails to attain the same level of entertainment he managed as Captain Jack Sparrow, which I wouldn't even bother mentioning if it weren't obvious they were trying to emulate the exact same process by making Tonto a wise-cracking, deranged and occasionally dangerous individual who is supposed to steal scenes and chew scenery. However, he doesn't do any of those things, despite wearing a dead bird on his head and wearing more makeup than KISS. His too-frequent motions to "feed" the bird get old after the first few minutes, and his monotonously-delivered dialogue doesn't show the same charisma we've come to expect from the actor. And his Native American routine (which I'm sure was meant to be endearing and honorable) never feels fully developed, as though he and the filmmakers never really took the time to nail down his characteristics. While it's certainly not as insulting as it could have been (especially when there are a few Native American actors in here that are great), there's no doubt that Depp was the wrong man for the job (seriously, the kid who plays his younger self has darker skin), brought in as box office padding and nothing more.
Guess who's better?
No, the star of The Lone Ranger turns out to be none other than Silver, the albino horse who can often be seen hanging out in trees or silently arguing with his human counterparts. Stories from the set overtly praise the abilities of Silver, and his on-screen antics certainly seem to prove these tales accurate. However, he doesn't stand out in all that many scenes, and even then as a comedic foil to the Ranger and even to Tonto's more lucid moments. Still, it's a sad day in the industry when a horse not only outperforms his human hosts, but does so with relative ease.
"I am the Law."
Sadly, despite a few glimmers of genuinely strong filmmaking, The Lone Ranger is everything you might have feared: it's a pretty, over-bloated, uneven, SFX-dependent, mediocre, and slightly racist epic that never deserves the attention that it attempts to demand. It's understandable why the marketing department for this film focused so hard on the "from the people who brought you Pirates" plan, as I'm sure the remaining fans of that franchise represented a significant percentage of those who actually showed up opening weekend. But Lone Ranger is no Curse of the Black Pearl. Its desire to resurrect the western genre is admirable, but better movies have been made in recent years (including True Grit and 3:10 to Yuma) that had far less a budget than the one used by Bruckheimer and crew. If he and his fellow producers had perhaps lowered their ambitions somewhat and put together a smaller, low-tech production with the crew and cast that they had, The Lone Ranger might have been a winner. As it is, it's just a mess we'll they'll be spending the next couple of weeks cleaning up.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Open Letters Monthly: Despicable Me 2

In 2010, Despicable Me came out of nowhere to steal hearts and hearken a new challenger to the dominance of Pixar and DreamWorks over the animation landscape. Three years later the former villain Gru and his cute and cuddly Minions are back, sowing seeds of adventure and fun throughout theaters around the country.

Gru has turned into a model parent caring for his three adopted daughters. But with a new bad guy arriving in town and a plot to take over or destroy the world seeming likely, the Anti-Villain League recruits Gru to get inside this new bad guy's head and beat him to the punch. At first, Gru is simply interested in returning to the spy game, but when the evil El Macho threatens his family by turning his Minions into dark incarnations of themselves, the Single Father of the Year must step up, save the Earth and get the girl before it's too late.

Despicable Me 2 is directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, and stars Steve Carrel, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand, Steve Coogan, Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Yesterday Was Our Independence Day!

I admit that I make mistakes. I generally post reviews in the order in which I see them. It makes things easier to keep track of, and even if I'm backed up and can't review a movie for several days, I have some way of pacing my writing. The only exceptions are my Open Letters Monthly posts, which are almost always reviewed upon my watching them and don't get in line behind the rest. That being said, yesterday I reviewed the independent film The Bling Ring, about a bunch of kids who stole from rich celebrities. Realizing now that yesterday was July 4'th, how could I completely miss the obvious and not review the most patriotic film in theaters right now, White House Down?

The second of two "terrorists take over the White House" movies this year (the first was March's mediocre Olympus Has Fallen), White House Down has some serious advantages over Antoine Fuqua's strikingly similar Spring effort. For one, this film is from director Roland Emmerich, who before this has already blown up the building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Independence Day) and crashed a tsunami into it for good measure (2012). It's safe to say that if anybody knows how to tell a story in which a paramilitary group (led by an excellent Jason Clarke) breaks into the White House to capture President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) and take a number of others hostage, while on the outside the public can only watch in horror. The country's only hope? Failed Secret Service applicant John Cale (Channing Tatum), a former soldier and present police officer who had tried for the job to impress his estranged, politically-inspired daughter Emily (Joey King). Now, with Emily numbered along with the hostages and the President's life in his hands, John must find a way to help Sawyer escape while also rescuing his daughter. Oh, yes, and stopping a global terror plot that threatens to derail the President's Middle East peace offer. So, no pressure.
This is the man who will save the planet.
Surprisingly for a Roland Emmerich film, however, the strongest aspect of the movie might be the casting. When Olympus Has Fallen came out, it's only strength was a cast headlined by Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart and Morgan Freeman. It was an excellent collection of actors who almost allowed that title to rise above it's idiotic story, but White House Down offers just as strong a group, if not better, led by the charismatic pairing of Tatum and Foxx. Tatum has seen a huge upswing in his career after an excellent 2012, and continues that trend here as an everyman who finds himself in an impossible situation. Some critics have taken to calling White House Down "Die Hard in the White House", and on more than one front they'd be right, as there's plenty of common ground between Cale and franchise favorite John McClane. It's obvious that Emmerich was inspired by that series, including many references and Easter Eggs hinting at his love of all things Die Hard. But that would mean nothing if Tatum couldn't live up to the comparison, and he does so with gusto, matching up nicely with the A-level 80's action star in physicality, humor and overall acting ability (not to mention his white tank top). In fact, the only thing missing from Tatum's arsenal is a witty catchphrase, so essential to McClane's sustained survival over the years. Still, it's been a long time since Tatum was a dry portion of an underwhelming GI Joe movie, and he shows here that he's not taking any steps backward anytime soon. Foxx as well shows his versatility, and while his character doesn't exactly speak to the power of the Presidency that we've come to expect from men such as Eckhart, Bill Pullman or Harrison Ford, he comes darned close, and even makes up for any weaknesses thanks to taking part in the action and an easy back-and-forth with Tatum. The cast is handily rounded out by government types (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, Lance Reddick) and villains (Clarke, Jimmi Simpson, James Woods), all of whom play cliched-enough parts but who are talented enough to overcome that deficit.
The one in the middle will have the best career.
But while the film focuses on Cale and Sawyer and they're attempts to evade capture, it's young Joey King who steals the spotlight. You might remember her wonderful appearance as the China Doll in the otherwise-uninspired Oz the Great and Powerful, and here the precocious kid becomes the pro-American heart of the movie. What could have been a throwaway part becomes arguably the strongest role in the entire film, and an actress who has had a slightly under-the-radar career the past decade is looking to perhaps be one of Hollywood's biggest stars by the end of the next. If 2013 is any indication (Oz, White House Down and soon The Conjuring), she's well on her way.
That's going to take time to clean up.
Beyond acting, though, there's plenty of action in White House Down, thanks especially to Emmerich's experience in blowing stuff up and the significantly larger budget he puts to use. There's no doubt that this film feels much smaller in scale to his past works (even his Shakespeare conspiracy Anonymous had an epic quality to it), but that doesn't mean things won't explode in spectacular fashion when those situations are called upon. Explosions are loud, gunfire is constant, vistas are gorgeous, and unlike the ultra-violent Fuqua film, you never get the feeling that the director is upping the violence just because he's going for shock value. There might be tons of unnecessary violence in this movie, but never is it dull or completely without reason (the opposite of Man of Steel). Emmerich is of course a master of this particular craft, and his movie ripples with aftershocks from every explosive moment, keeping the film moving forward and the audience members on the edge of their seats
Just don't get on his bad side.
And while the story itself is quite dry and predictable (partly because this has been done before, partly because patriotism won't allow certain events to occur in a Hollywood script), the script never overtly preaches its allegiances or stretches itself beyond it's capabilities. It's a simple a popcorn film that happens to take place at the White House, and places Tatum's career firmly on trajectory to emulate that of Bruce Willis in his heyday. It's a lot of fun, and if studios were smart they'd plug Tatum right back in the hole and build a franchise around this character, as there's plenty of growth to be had. It would be way more fun than a continuation of the Die Hard series, whose recent trip to Russia was a mission to forget. White House Down, meanwhile, is an excellent way to spend a couple of hours this Independence Day weekend, and I just wish I'd thought to tell you that yesterday.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Warning: Real Life Approaching

As a culture, we have arguably gone a little bit crazy for Hollywood and celebrities. Many of the top magazines sold around the country are US Weekly, People and Star, titles that make their living by capitalizing on this desire for information on the rich and famous and focusing on such things as whom they are currently romancing and how they dress. It's not exactly important information, but much of our society just can't seem to get enough of it. This isn't meant to disparage those of you who DO read these periodicals; this is simply my personal opinion. I mean, I'm a FILM reviewer. While I don't talk about the latest fashions, I still bring attention to celebrities' movies on a regular basis. Speaking of film, the best example of celebrity worship getting out of control might be The Bling Ring, the latest movie by director Sofia Coppola. It tells the true story of a group of young Californians whose desire to be closer to the lifestyles they desired became an obsession that saw them break into the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson and more, stealing to their heart's content. Between 2008 and 2009, these kids stole upwards of $3 million in cash and belongings before they were arrested. If nothing else, it's the perfect example for how this kind of behavior can get completely and utterly out of hand.
Emma Watson's going all Bonnie and Clyde on us.
The kids in Coppola's latest motion picture are definitely a little messed up. Marc (Israel Broussard) is a loner who has never been very popular and got kicked out of his last school for too many absences. Rebecca (Katie Chang) is a minor criminal who gets off on breaking and entering and theft. Chloe (Claire Julien) talks "gangsta" and gets a little wild. And Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) are home-schooled best friends who take Adderall regularly and whose education is based entirely on Rhonda Byrne's Laws of Attraction book "The Secret". So getting past the part where none of these kids really had a chance, their descent into theft is both glitzy enough to shine on the big screen and dark enough to make for a decent character study of their various issues. Coppola cast mainly unknowns for her leads, and the real surprise is not how great Emma Watson is (because seriously, she's fricking Emma Watson), but the quality of performances from the rest of the young cast. Though Watson is undoubtedly the movie's biggest star, the film belongs to Broussard and Chang, who are talented young actors given genuine moments to stand out and succeed in a variety of ways. The cast is rounded out by Leslie Mann (as Nicki's mother) and Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale to fill the film's adult quota, but this film definitely belongs to the kids, and they make the most of their opportunities.
We're in a movie taking pictures of ourselves! Wild!
The acting is aided by a director in Coppola who has a flair for cinematics. While the "Girls Gone Wild" indie concept has already been adequately handled by March's Spring Breakers, Coppola is by far a better director than Korine, using music and visual flair to accentuate her specific narrative style, rather than try to hide her movie's inadequacies. It's a talent that only the best - not necessarily most successful, but best - directors possess. In The Bling Ring, Coppola manages to infuse every scene - no matter how inconsequential - with an artistry that instantly makes everything BETTER, like a cure-all that can magically heal all the film's wounds.
I'm sorry... what was I saying?
Unfortunately, that cure-all is, in reality, simply a band-aid. While the acting is excellent and the atmosphere Coppola adds does vastly improve things, there's just not all that much story going on here. There are whole scenes which have little to do with moving the story forward (including a shot from Marc's computer camera of him dancing around), and are just filler, adding absolutely nothing of value. There are a few inspired scenes (Marc and Rebecca robbing Audrina Patridge's home as seen from a distance outside), but most of the "shopping" bits - as they're called - aren't nearly as fun or original as they ought to be. In fact, they feel suspiciously like the worst fashion-centric moments of Sex and the City, when all the ladies can talk about are Gucci and Jimmy Choo's. Interaction between characters is great. Interaction between characters and articles of clothing, not so much.
Direct quote here: "I want to lead a country one day, for all I know."
When there's a story to follow and the actors get to play up the chronic naivete of their generation, The Bling Ring is at its trashy, dumpster-diving best. This is not a movie that condones celebrity worship; in fact, it does its best to show just how bad that behavior has gotten in some parts of our society. But unfortunately there's just not a whole lot of meat on those bones, even for a film that barely clocks in at an hour and a half. Coppola does her absolute best, and I doubt that this could have been better in anybody else's hands. But similarly to Spring Breakers, recommending that somebody see The Bling Ring on the big screen is not a task I would be up to taking. Which is a shame, because there are genuinely strong scenes and evocative moments that absolutely make it worth a rental option. Watson is a star who is still rising, but even her excellent performance can't convince me to convince you that it's worth your time right now.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Open Letters Monthly: The Heat

It's a tale as old as cinema itself. Uptight, straight-laced officer of the law goes to city to solve a major crime and is paired up with an eccentric, potentially insane local officer. Personalities clash, but their shared dedication to the law rallies them into working together and saving the day. It's the formula for every buddy cop movie in existence. But those cops have never (to my knowledge) both been women, as is the case in Paul Feig's The Heat.

FBI agent Sarah Ashburn has been an exemplary investigator her entire career, but she's made a ton of enemies in her own department along the way. Fearing that she doesn't play well with others, her superiors send her to Boston to help break up a violent and brutal drug ring and discover the face of its mysterious leader. Once there, she finds herself working with Detective Shannon Mullins, a cop who regularly skirts the boundaries of legality in the pursuit of cleaning up her neighborhood. It soon becomes obvious that they cannot solve the case without the other. But can they survive one another long enough to collar the bad guys?

The Heat is directed by Paul Feig and stars Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demian Bichir, Michael Rapaport, Marlon Wayans, Kaitlin Olson, Jane Curtin and Spoken Reasons.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.