Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Catching Up: Four Films on DVD

So as I've mentioned, moving to Florida and going to school put a damper on my movie-going plans for a bit. But as you might have noticed, I've been writing on a semi-regular schedule lately anyway. That's because I only have one class at the moment, so when I'm not doing assignments or working, I've actually had time to make it to the local theater. Though I'm not seeing EVERYTHING (and even when I was, I really wasn't), most of what I want to see I've taken the time to drive the ten miles to see. But what about those titles that came out between January and April that I had missed? Was there anything that I didn't get the chance at the time that I REALLY wanted to see? All I can say is thank God for the quick turnaround on DVD releases (remember when it was a year's wait?) these days! Otherwise, I'd probably have forgotten all about these four flicks before too long.

Okay, yes, I'm starting out with a film that technically doesn't count in comparison to the previous paragraph. But South Korean disaster film The Tower was definitely a title I'd been itching to see since I'd caught a trailer sometime last year. It was originally released in its native country in December of 2012 - where it set box office records - and expanded to several international markets the following year, though I'm unaware of any US releases. Director Kim Ji-hoon was inspired by the classic Hollywood film The Towering Inferno, and imagining what it would be like trapped in a burning skyscraper. He sets his story on Christmas Eve in the fictional "Sky Tower", a 108-story luxury condominium complex built for the enjoyment of the wealthy and privileged. When disaster strikes, leaving hundreds of people trapped on the higher levels, firemen can barely get to the fire to contain it, let alone rescue everybody. The story focuses on a small group of determined survivors as they attempt to escape the deathtrap, though it's safe to say that most won't make it out alive.
Did I mention he was three days away from retirement?
It's been a long time since we've had a really GREAT disaster movie, and with The Tower... you'll be waiting a bit longer. It IS quite a bit of fun, with explosions and collapsing structures and CGI effects beating much of what we've seen from our western shore this past decade. And yet it's disappointing that this film feels so westernized, being from the other side of the planet from the Michael Bays of the world. Some scenes are a little too gruesome (people cooking alive in an elevator, for instance), but for the most part the movie is your standard PG-13 action fare, from relentless (and physics-defying) explosions to basic character archetypes. The acting is quite good throughout, but suffers from a dearth of one-note roles that we've seen a billion times, from the single father (Kim Sang-kyung) and daughter (Lee Ha-na) separated in the tragedy, the woman he is in love with (Son Ye-jin), the rookie firefighter (Do Ji-han) and the veteran (Sol Kyung-gu) who is so dedicated to his job that you KNOW he's going to sacrifice himself at the end. There's even a pregnant woman, though I don't recall her name ever being spoken. Like The Towering Inferno, there is a ton of support cast present, and they all have the charisma to make an impression, even to the point of you liking them and not wanting anything bad to happen (well, for most of them). There's even a bit of comedy, in the form of a Christian group who break out into prayer and treat another fireman as an angel sent by God, to the point where he starts to believe them. But beyond the few leads, most of the characters don't get story arcs, existing solely as a source of expendable cannon fodder for the dozens of kills we're expecting to see.
This is really impossible.
The special effects are another downside to Ji-hoon's obvious infatuation with Hollywood cinema, as it's apparent the budget just did not quite support what he really wanted to show. The practical effects are used to great effect (whether it's torrents of fire or cascades of water washing over non-stuntmen actors), but when scenes call for major CGI use, they don't look nearly as realistic as they should. Distant shots of the fictional tower look like cardboard cutouts, and a scene where our group tries to cross a glass bridge that is cracking under their weight, you can see every single computer-generated imperfection. The story needed a face-lift, as well; there were two subplots concerning the owners of the building being warned of impending disaster and ignoring it, and the fire department prioritizing the rescue of politicians and the rich over the blue collar workers, but neither story goes anywhere, giving way to more death and destruction.
You might like these people, but you have no idea who they are.
But despite my griping, I actually did like The Tower. Yes, the script is manipulative and unfinished and the special effects don't always work the way they're supposed to, but you really care about these characters, since it's all too easy to draw comparisons between the story here and something like the tragedies of 9/11 (though as this is a Korean production, I'm sure the connection is merely unintentional). It's Western mentality also means that it's more open to American audiences than many Eastern flicks you'll see, so it's definitely worth a rental if you want to see something a little different from your usual fare, but not inaccessible.

For something more traditional, you can always check out Ride Along, the surprisingly funny movie starring Ice Cube and current comedian sensation Kevin Hart. For those few who aren't familiar with it (the movie broke box office records as the highest-grossing January domestic release), the story focuses on aspiring policeman Ben (Hart), whose life is going great, with his acceptance to the police academy and the love of Angela, played by Tika Sumpter. But Angela's cop brother James (Cube) isn't impressed, and gets the idea to take Ben on a 'ride along', and see what he does for a living. James hopes that by giving Ben the most insane initiation to police work, he can rid himself of an annoying hanger-on and what he considers an unworthy match with his sister.

So yeah, Ride Along is your formulaic buddy cop story, with the main exception being that one of the pair is not yet an actual police officer. And this is a film that really relies on it's pairing to work, as almost every single joke revolves around how tough James is versus how geeky and physically inadequate Ben is. The side characters serve little purpose other than as narrative tools, prodding the story from outrageous scene to outrageous scene with casual indifference and substandard dialogue. So it's a good thing that Hart and Cube have as much chemistry as they do, overcoming the shoddy story though genuinely funny gags and playing to their strengths as performers. It also helps that director Tim Story is in his element making lighthearted comedies (and NOT blockbuster flicks like Fantastic Four), and the movie benefits from an experienced hand behind the camera, as Story has worked on similar comedic fare such as Taxi and Barbershop.
...and the production truck just blew up. Keep filming!
But yes, by all intents and purposes, Ride Along is not a very good movie. The script (cobbled together by four separate screenwriters) is full of stupid ideas, ironically reminds viewers of the much better films on which it's based (most notably Training Day), has a stupid ending, and to make things worse the final product doesn't have a strong performance outside of it's co-leads. But it's Cube and Hart (who hasn't worn out his welcome yet after playing the same character in his last dozen roles) who effectively carry it to the point of respectability, if not quality. In fact, I'm glad I didn't do a full review of this movie, as all I would have talked about is how good the main actors worked, and it would have driven me crazy. This is brainless entertainment, and as long as you keep that in mind you'll make it through those 100 minutes in no time, and may be entertained just enough to have been worth it.

I wish I could say the same for Paul W.S. Anderson's Pompeii, which sees the director of fun popcorn films Mortal Kombat, Death Race and the Resident Evil franchise try his hand at channeling his inner Ridley Scott, and failing miserably. Similar to his unintended attack on literacy in 2011's The Three Musketeers, Anderson actually tries to tackle something that has historical and mythological significance - the destruction of the ancient city of Pompeii thanks to the eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius, only to turn in a final product that feels like the cloned baby of Gladiator and Volcano.

The sad thing is that there's actually a talented cast wasted here. Game of Thrones' Kit Harrington continues to pay his dues by appearing in whatever schlock will have him as a gladiator who is also the last surviving member of a Celtic horse tribe (wah wah, irony!), while Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) does her absolute best to hem the wretched dialogue she (and everybody else) is given into something actually presentable in a big-screen motion picture. The support cast is easily strong, with Carrie-Anne Moss, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas and Jared Harris filling their respective - if limited - roles well. And beyond the cast, the special effects are absolutely stunning, as Anderson's abilities working with CGI artistry cannot be understated. Argue if you want about how quickly death comes from Mt. Vesuvius, it looks GREAT. Even Anderson's worst movies are at least visually appealing, and that's absolutely the case here, where one-note characters will get offed in a multitude of imaginative ways (or, at least as imaginative as "death by volcano" gets).
"You wear nothing, Jon Snow..."
But, that's where all the good feelings end. It's apparent from the start that the director is out of his depth from the get-go, as he sets a chilling opening montage of ash-mummified Pompeii victims to a surprisingly upbeat, epic score, which is well out of place when we're being set up for the destruction of an entire city and its inhabitants. And it gets worse from there, as the script borrows every cliche and genre trope it can (or in most cases, can't) get away with. Character motivations are simplified to the point of stupidity, and the twists and turns are telegraphed a million miles away, meaning there are absolutely no surprises when all is said and done. That two of the three screenwriters were responsible for Batman Forever, but the third worked on Sherlock Holmes, so I'm shocked that the story could have gotten THIS dumb. My usual complaint about James Cameron's Titanic is that there was a whole ship full of interesting, compelling and complex characters, and the filmmaker decided he'd rather focus on two fictional, useless, boring individuals whose actors were far from their best. That's kind of what Pompeii is, only it manages to make Titanic look like a genuine masterpiece by comparison. And, let's not even get into Kiefer Sutherland and his head-shaking combination of poor casting and a mouth full of industrial strength cotton, though I will admit that as an actor he did make the most of his badly, badly, badly-written role.
You won't sway me with pretty faces and skimpy outfits... THIS time...
It's clear that Pompeii's mid-February release was an effort to try and make a quick buck when there wasn't much more genre fare available, but also sweep it under the rug before people could take too close a look. I'm glad I saw it, if only to confirm that Anderson will never be the director he hopes to become, only the director he is. The same man who brought us Event Horizon and Soldier is never going to give us Alien or Blade Runner or the movie he's obviously trying to copy here, Gladiator. This was a bad, bad effort to build Anderson's repertoire, only to discover that he has a definite, inflexible limit to what he can do on the big screen. As long as his movies are something innocuous like next year's Resident Evil flick, he is a perfectly adequate, semi-talented filmmaker. But when he goes out of his way to try and create something PROFOUND or IMPORTANT, his products aren't worth his time or yours.

Oh, thank god I followed up Pompeii with That Awkward Moment. This ribald, adult comedy was just the antidote I needed to the previous film's dour, pointless, cliched drama. The story focuses on three friends, played by up-and-coming actors Zac Efron, Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan, as they live day-to-day in modern-day New York City. Jason (Efron) is a successful ladies man and book cover artist whose single life is upended when he meets Ellie (Imogen Poots), with whom he can connect on an intellectual and emotional level. His coworker and co-Casanova Daniel (Teller) is the single lifestyle's biggest champion, while also developing feelings for the trio's female friend Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis). And Daniel (Jordan), the responsible member of the group, has just been dumped and divorced by his wife and struggles to figure out what went wrong. The movies plays out much like season 6 of Sex and the City, where the show concluded after successfully finding matching romantic partners for each of the four main ladies by season's end.

Don't judge me, it was a great show.
In New York, the good-looking guys all run in packs.
The story relies on us liking these three guys who, for all intents and purposes, are the types that parents warn their daughters about with regularity. Naturally, their antics are never presented as malicious, dishonest or completely self-serving (as opposed to last year's Don Jon), simply as the way single life works in this day and age, as men and women who aren't attached just want to go out and have a good time. Heck, even the women out there just want to enjoy their single lives, as well. And it's a good thing it got three of the most charming young actors to play these roles, because I'm not sure any other actors could have pulled this off. Well, okay, MAYBE Jaime Bell. Efron of course has been around what seems like forever but now finally seems to have found his niche in adult comedies (see Neighbors for confirmation of this), much like Channing Tatum did in 2012. Teller and Jordan have emerged more recently, but have already shown an aptitude for comedy that translates nicely here. And the female cast is nicely represented by Poots (who looks younger with every film I see her in), Davis, and Jessica Lucas. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it's obvious this cast had a ton of fun working on this movie, as it would have been far easier for it all to fall apart under the tutelage of freshman director Tom Gormican, who also wrote the screenplay. It's obvious the actors involved worked well together, as it really shows up on the screen, whether the scenes are happy, sad, or somewhere in the middle.
This is kind of what I imagine Zac Efron looks like in his own mind.
Naturally, the movie has its share of issues. Despite the marvelous cast, the script (again, Gormicon is a relative newcomer) doesn't give them a whole lot to do, nor does it really explain much of a setting or backstory, beyond that the characters live in New York City, and have jobs doing... stuff. That we rarely see impacting their everyday lives. Beyond that, not all the big laughs work, although most do, and the plot follows many of the usual tropes for a romantic comedy, but with only the genders reversed (or just seen from the other point of view). The film also suffers from trying to appeal to both sides; on the one hand, guys will get into the immature humor and the bro-tastic central characters, while women get to ogle naked Zac Efron and will appreciate the romantic plot more, but there's little that actually appeals to both sides.
Nope, never mind. THAT'S what he looks like in his own mind.
Basically, That Awkward Moment looks like a male-centric SatC with a bit of Judd Apatow humor thrown in. That is to say, it doesn't reinvent the wheel (or even really try) but is charming and irreverent and gets by just fine. It'll be forgotten before too long, but hopefully helps provide career boosts for its cast, as this group is far too talented not to succeed in joining the next generation of Hollywood royalty. They help take this film from being a disappointing mess to an entertaining, if unambitious, time-waster. Worth a quiet night in.

That's it for catching up this week! Anything from 2014 I haven't reviewed on DVD that you want me my opinion on? Let me know and I'll see if it's something I can do. I'll be returning to new releases with the next few reviews, but hopefully soon I'll be able to catch up on all of this year's entries that I've missed, even the truly horrible ones. Hope to see you then!

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