Saturday, September 29, 2012

Looper (2012) - Movie Review

I think if Bruce Willis really came back in time, he'd want to stop himself from making The Whole Ten Yards or Look Who's Talking, Too.

The year is 2044.  Time travel hasn't been invented yet, but in 30 years it will be.  It's already been outlawed, but that doesn't stop the mob from using it.  What does the mob use it for?  Killing people, of course.  Why, you say? Apparently, disposing a body has become extremely difficult in 2074, so the only way to really get rid of someone is to send them to the past where there will be no trace.  It's a little confusing at first, but Looper doesn't spend a ton of time dwelling on the details, and just gets on with the story.

Loopers are contracted by the mob to do the killing in the present, and Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of the best in the business.  They get paid well for their work, but there is a drawback: when the mob decides your contract is up, they send your future self back to be killed by your younger self.  This is called 'closing the loop'.  You're paid off, and then you're free to live your remaining 30 years.  At first I thought that would suck, but then I realized it's kind of cool knowing how many years you have left and when you're going to die.  Plus, you're basically retired in your prime with a pile of money.

It's very bad when a Looper lets his future self get away, which you see an example of when one of Joe's friends, another Looper played by Paul Dano, lets this happen.  This shows you an early example of how the movie uses the cause and effect relationship of time travel in their world. Shortly after, Joe is awaiting the arrival of his next hit, but hesitates when he realizes that it's his future self (Bruce Willis).  Future Joe uses this hesitation to get away, but he has a bigger goal in mind than just staying alive.  This is about the end of where I talk about that plot, as I really don't want to spoil anything for you.  Looper has lots of nice surprises and is a movie you'll enjoy all the more the less you know about it.

Looper is one of the few time travel movies that didn't make my head hurt or confuse the hell out of me.  It never gets into the specifics of how the time travel worked or any of the science, and it's really not important to understand that.  There are all kinds of nice touches to make it work in our world.  Like, modern cars that all appear to be retrofitted with an alternative powersource, solar panels affixed to almost everything, and the occasional gadget shows up from time to time.  They didn't go overboard with futuristic elements, so it felt more realistic and like it was still set in our world.

It's great when you watch a sci-fi film that touches on a familiar subject, but does it in a way that it still feels fresh and original.  They do many cool things throughout, like how they handle memory. As with many time travel movies, you see characters struggling with their fate, but it takes time to stop and show you the motivations of why they behave the way they do.  While being serious and thought-proviking, it's much funnier than I would have expected and the dialog is very sharp.

Another thing I loved, is that without even trying, this becomes a much better origin story for Darth Vader than any of the Star Wars prequels.  I can't say why without spoiling a huge plot element, but you'll know what I'm talking about once you see it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt does his best Bruce Willis impression, and they even did a good job with the makeup to make him look like a younger version of Bruce Willis.  His performance makes the whole thing more believeable, since you don't have stray thoughts of how the old and young versions of Joe don't look or act enough like.  When these two square off, they play off each other well and have some great moments.  Willis shows emotional depth as he struggles with doing things he knows are wrong, but necesary to preserve his future.  Both are great and made the movie worth watching.

It's a great supporting cast as well.  Jeff Daniels plays a mob boss that's in charge of the Loopers, and he has the weariness of someone that's living in the present knowing how the future going to turn out.  You can tell he had a lot of fun with the role.  Joe eventually hides out in a country home where he slowly befriends a mother (Emily Blunt) and son (Pierce Gagnon).  Blunt was good as a tough mother that is just trying to protect her son, and Gagnon was surprisingly good in a role that plays a large part in the plot.  Garrett Dillahunt and Piper Perabo have small roles as well.

After having critical success with smaller films like Brick and The Brothers Bloom, writer/director Rian Johnson has a hit on his hands.  I think he's ready to move into Christopher Nolan territory, and I expect much bigger things from him soon.  I would love to see what he could do with a known sci-fi/fantasy franchise.

Looper is a smart, fun and thrilling sci-fi film that succeeds on multiple levels.  Because it doesn't hammer the audience with the sci-fi elements, and has some emotional depth to it, it will appeal to a much broader audience.  It'll make you think, and I'm already looking forward to seeing it again. This is something you shouldn't miss in the theater.

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, September 28, 2012

Arbitrage (2012) - Movie Review

I was interested in getting some insight into what Arbitrage was and how it related to the film, so I looked it up and found that, 'arbitrage' loosely translates to 'rich, white people problems.'  Okay, I made that up.  In all seriousness, I couldn't figure out how actual arbitrage had anything to with Arbitrage.

Richard Gere plays Robert Miller, a hedge fund manager who's in the process of selling his company.  He's also trying to cover up a $400 million dollar loan being used to cook his books and cover for a loss until the sale goes through.  I was never really quite clear on what the deal was with this $400 million, and even when it was explained later, I still wasn't.  Like last year's Margin Call, you never quite understand the financials or what they're are talking about, but at least Margin Call feels like a smart movie that knew what it was talking about.  Arbitrage felt like it was faking it's way through it.

Miller has a lovely and supporting wife (Susan Sarandon), so naturally he's cheating on her with an emotionally-unstable artist that's half his age (Laetitia Casta).  The movie sets up Miller as an unlikable asshole and never does anything to make you root for him as the movie goes on.

One night he goes for a drive with his mistress, and gets into a car wreck that kills her.  He flees the scene, which was stupid because he's pretty much the only guy anyone would suspect, and contacts an old acquaintance, Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), to use as an alibi.  It takes only hours before the lead police detective (Tim Roth) is questioning his role in the accident.  Miller knows that if this gets out, it will kill the sale of his company, not to mention expose the $400 million he's hiding, so he's trying to deal with both cover-ups simultaneously.  It's here where the movie kind of lost me.  What was this movie trying to be?  A financial thriller or a crime thriller?  In trying to be both simultaneously  it felt a little all over the place, and it really hurt the film.  Each story could have been told separately.  In fact, this felt like something that should have been on a TV series, like a season of Damages.

As the cops get closer to nailing him, he continues to lean heavily on Jimmy to keep up the alibi. You continue to get irritated with Miller, because you realize that he picks this one guy in his world he knows won't rat on him.  Even when faced with a prison term, Jimmy won't rat him out. He continues to string Jimmy along, begging him to be patient until he can take care of his business. At one point, even Jimmy's girlfriend tells him to give him up, and by then I wish he had, too. Miller didn't deserve that kind of loyalty, and it was clear Jimmy was being taken advantage of.

I credit the performance of Richard Gere for being able to make Robert Miller compelling to watch even though there is no reason at all to like him.  He's doing shady business dealings, lying to everyone, cheating on his wife, and taking advantage of someone to keep his ass out of trouble. Model citizen, huh?  Anyway, Gere carries the movie and it's one of his better roles in recent memory.

Maybe this was the point, but the worst part of this, is despite all of this - SPOILER ALERT - there's no consequence to any of his actions, other than his wife leaving him.  You're actually glad she leaves him at the end.  Were they trying to make a statement saying that evil, rich business men get away with cheating and murder?  There's also something the police do at the end that made me scratch my head at how ridiculous it was.  It undermined the movie a little bit because it gave Miller's character an out he didn't deserve.

Besides Gere, Arbitrage features a very strong supporting cast.  I always like Tim Roth, and here he plays streetwise cop that knows Miller is guilty and really wants to see him burn.  He's a little corny at times, but it seems like he had fun with the role.  I'm sure he's hoping he'll get a chance to play a variation of his character from Lie to Me, and I'd like to see that.  Susan Sarandon has a great scene at the end, but she's barely in it.  Then again, she's been in so much stuff lately that maybe she only had a day or two to shoot her scenes.  Their daughter is played by Brit Marling, and while I really enjoyed her in Another Earth, I felt she was very flat here.  The guy the really surprised me was Nate Parker.  He ends up being the only really sympathetic character in the film and showed some nice internal conflict and range.

Arbitrage was written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, and it's once again another movie that suffers from not quite knowing what it's identity is.  It actually felt like something that could have been a adaptation of a novel, but then they couldn't figure out what to get rid of to make it all fit in a movie, so they just left everything in.  He did a good job with the performances and I did feel like there was some tension, but there were a few too many plot holes for me to get much out of the story.

Arbitrage is a movie that feels like it's being trotted out as Oscar bait, and while there is a pretty compelling performance by Richard Gere, the movie itself is too uneven to say it elevates to those heights.  It's not a bad movie, but it's not as good as it thinks it is, and ends up being kind of forgettable.  It's a rental.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Master (2012) - Movie Review

No milkshakes were drank during the making of this film.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a World War II veteran that's suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  He's an alcoholic, making drinks out of any chemicals he can get his hands on, who's also prone to violent outbursts and cannot hold down a job.  One night, he stows away on a boat owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philipp Seymour Hoffman).  Dodd takes an interest in Freddie at first because he likes the drinks he can make, but also because he sees something in him, like a stray dog he wants to fix.

Lancaster Dodd is the leader of a movement simply called The Cause.  A lot has been made of how this is a movie about, or analogous to, Scientology.  While there are some similarities, they never come right out and say it, and it stays fairly vague throughout the movie.  As someone not all that familiar with Scientology, I can't really comment on how accurate they are being.  Outside of a few lines here and there, I didn't think it was much of an indictment of the belief system shown.  The Master is more about following the characters and their relationships.

Freddie wants to get better, so he buys into The Cause and follows them around.  He also serves as Dodd's unofficial attack dog, assaulting anyone that challenges Dodd and his beliefs.  He even challenges Dodd's own son (Jesse Plemons, who looks like he could actually be the PSH's son), who believes he's making this all up as he goes along.  Between his drinking and his use of violence, many members of the The Cause, including Dodd's wife Peggy (Amy Adams), fear and don't trust Freddie, but Dodd wants him there.

Joaquin Phoenix feels like a damaged, rabid dog throughout the film.  He transforms physically, looking much older, walking with a hunched-over posture, and speaking in a mumbled voice you can't understand at times.  With this way I've described him so far, you probably are wondering if there's anything redeeming about him, but Phoenix gets many chances to show some emotional depth and even a sympathetic side.  It really is a brilliantly insane performance, and I'm sure he'll be at the top of the Oscar short list this year.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays "The Master" with more control, and has a charisma that makes it easy to believe that so many people will buy into anything he says.  At the same time, you know there's something just beneath the surface waiting to get out.  He eventually submits to his own outbursts of anger when challenged.  You see that Dodd and Freddie are really just two sides of the same coin, and it felt like that was the real reason why Dodd wanted him around when nobody else did.  It's like that master that can't admit his dog is bad and beyond fixing.

The Master is an interesting film, and it's one that you'll be thinking about well after, even if that thought might be, "What the hell did I just watch?"  Much like There Will Be Blood, the movie is much more character based than story driven.  I hesitate to call it boring, but some of you may think that when watching it.   Even I thought there were more than a few times towards then end where I thought it was going to end, but then it kept going for a few more minutes.  It does kind of meander in that way.  However, it's extremely watchable due to the mesmerizing performances of the cast.  Even Amy Adams at times gives off a creepy vibe, as someone that buys into The Cause fully.  It's a much smaller role for someone of her stature, and the rest of the cast are mostly bit players.  Laura Dern also has a smaller supporting role as one of the followers of the cause.

Paul Thomas Anderson, not to be confused with that Resident Evil hack Paul W.S. Anderson, once again gives us a movie that looks great and has extremely interesting characters.  It's a gorgeous looking film and has the look of something that appears it was actually made in the 50's. Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead provides a swirling and eerie soundtrack.  It was hard not to notice, and the whole movie I wondered if it was Greenwood, as it reminded me of the similarly eerie soundtrack he did for There Will Be Blood.  The look and soundtrack gave this an almost ethereal feeling at times, and I was just meditating watching it.  I think P.T. Anderson is one of the five best directors working today.  He's able to write such interesting characters that have so much depth to them, and then he gets the performances to match.

I will say The Master also gets points for satisfying something I've had a weird issue with lately. Have you ever noticed that nobody farts in a non-comedy?  People fart.  It's a normal thing, and you just don't see it that often in movies outside of comedies.  The Master delivers on a well placed fart.  It's especially bizarre as this happened in the movie just as that thought popped up in my head again.  There's also a surprising amount of nudity in the film, and pretty much the last shot of the film is of a woman's naked breasts.

The Master is a worthy follow-up to There Will Be Blood.  It has great, Oscar-worthy performances, and is a fantastic looking and sounding film.  However, expect that it's not going to be the most entertaining film, and I wouldn't blame you if you thought it was boring or didn't get it.  If you can focus on the characters, and not get fixated on where things are going, then you should be able to enjoy it.  This is rental for most audiences, but if you want to see something that's going to challenge you a bit, I highly recommend seeing this soon.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

10 Years (2012) - Movie Review

Is Channing Tatum omnipresent?  I feel like he's everywhere now.  I suppose it's the year of Channing Tatum, and this was before they pushed back G.I. Joe: Retaliation.

I was a little leery when I heard this was yet another high school reunion movie.  We already had American Reunion earlier this year, which is an increasing disappointment the more I think about it.  How many more variations can we have on the reunion theme? Fortunately, 10 Years is what American Reunion could have been if it had any humanity about it.

The story focuses primarily on Jake (Channing Tatum), who goes to his reunion with his current girlfriend (played by his real-life wife Jenna Dewan-Tatum).  You meet most of the major players at a small pre-party gathering, hosted by former jock Cully (Chris Pratt) and his wife Sam (Ari Graynor).  They've settled down and had a few kids, but Cully is looking forward to cutting loose.  He also desperately wants to apologize for the bullying he did to several of his classmates.  There are close friends Marty (Justin Long) and AJ (Max Minghella), who both really want to see the hot, popular girl Anna (Lynn Collins).  Marty, in particular, is hoping that maybe there's potential for some reunion hook up action.  You have Garrity (Brain Geraghty), who comes with his wife (Aubrey Plaza), but she isn't too thrilled to find out how he used to be back in high school.  There's even the now-famous Reeves (Oscar Isaac), who wrote a hit song, and is anxious to talk to the girl he used to have a crush on.

As the alcohol flows, you find out more about everyone and their stories from high school.  For some of them their old high school personalities resurface, and some get nervous to talk to their old crushes.  You see how even though 10 years has passed, some are still struggling with adulthood. There is a realism to 10 Years that I don't normally see in a movie like this.

It seems that they went to a fairly small school, as nearly everyone was to be fixated on whether or not Jake's ex, Mary (Rosario Dawson), will show up.  She eventually does, with new husband (Ron Livingston), and you could feel the tension in the room.  They build up that something happened between them, but when you find out what it was it seemed a little overblown. I get that because they were homecoming king and queen that all eyes might have been on them, but it's been 10 years.  Not all high school sweethearts work out.  People grow apart and move on.  It's not that it wasn't significant, but with the way everyone was acting, I was thinking it was going to be something more earth shattering.  Thankfully, Jake and Mary get a chance to talk like adults, and the movie doesn't go down a predictable path for these two.  It might have ruined the film if they had.

As for the others, Marty and AJ do catch up with Anna, but it's funny to watch Marty become increasingly frustrated with AJ competing for her attention. Why are you cock-blocking your buddy, AJ?  Bad form!  You also spend a lot of time with Reeves and his crush (Kate Mara), and at first it seemed like they were getting too much time in the movie, but then their story has a nice payoff that made it worth watching.

Cully gets his opportunity to apologize, but as he gets progressively more drunk, he becomes a bully of a different sort.  It's uncomfortably hilarious for us to watch.  As he's shown how he can be on Parks and Recreation and The Five-Year Engagement, Chris Pratt is hilarious throughout the movie.  He was definitely the highlight.  Ari Graynor was also great as she continues to babysit him and get frustrated with his antics as the night goes on.

I almost forgot about Channing Tatum.  He was one of the producers of the film, and even though the movie primarily followed him, it felt like he took a back seat to much of the cast.  It gave the movie a sense of balance, where you didn't feel like the other characters didn't matter.  It was also cute seeing him with his wife.  They had nice chemistry on screen and are a gorgeous couple that will have super babies when their lives take them down that path.

This is the directorial debut for writer Jamie Linden (Dear John, We Are Marshall), and he did a good job of balancing a fun cast and getting good performances out of everyone.  When the movie starts, I was getting excited when I saw people like Aubrey Plaza, Justin Long, Ron Livingston and Anthony Mackie, but I was worried that the cast might be too stacked.  Fortunately, they all get to have their moments as the night goes on. Despite everyone's flaws, they all felt very real and and sympathetic.  I also appreciated that nobody came off as an over-the-top high school stereotype. 10 Years is very funny without trying too hard or going for silly and obvious jokes.

10 Years isn't breaking any new ground as far as premise.  However, it goes to show you that if you have a likable cast and don't fall prey to melodrama, you can still have an engaging and entertaining movie.  As someone that recently had his 20-year reunion, this felt like a very realistic and consistently funny look at one.  10 Years is in limited release, so I strongly recommend it as a rental once it becomes available.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Dredd 3D (2012) - Movie Review

Karl Urban is the law!

I guess today was a 'peace officer' themed day seeing Dredd and End of Watch back-to-back.  While vastly different movies, it's interesting that I managed to watch two movies where I rooted for the cops.

If you haven't seen Sylvester Stallone movie from 1995, don't bother.  That movie was such a disaster that I'm amazed anyone even bothered with making another.  Like many of you, I've grown tired of the constant reboots and remakes of older films, but one of the few exceptions where I think it can work is when the original film was flawed, and a reboot has a chance to do things right or taking a franchise in a different direction.  Dredd 3D is an example of a remake finally working.

Dredd transports us to a future where the world is largely a radioactive wasteland.  The remaining inhabitants of North America live in a mega-city simply called Mega-City One.  Many reside in huge skyscrapers that are essentially self-contained cites, having their own schools and commerce.  The peace is kept by the Hall of Justice and the Judges, who have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner.

There's a new drug hitting the streets called 'Slo-Mo', which has the effect of the user perceiving time at 1% of it's normal rate.  This allows for some of the best use of extreme slow motion that I've seen in a while.  It's interesting that just last week I watched Resident Evil: Retribution where I was annoyed with it's overuse of slow motion, but Dredd actually uses it creatively.  Dredd also manages to be a movie that effectively used 3D to enhance this effect.  The combo of the 3D and super slow motion provides us with some of the most vivid violence I've ever seen in a movie.  It was like watching an art film about brutal murder.

Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is tasked with evaluating rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thrilby), who's failed her previous tests, but is a powerful psychic.  They respond to a crime scene in a skycraper known as Peach Trees, but things quickly escalate when they arrest a henchman, played by none other than "Avon Barksdale" (Wood Harris), of the drug lord that controls the building.  The drug lord, known as Ma-Ma (Lena Headey),  knows that he won't hold up under interrogation, so she locks the building down in the hope of killing the Judges.  The Judges have no choice but to fight their way to the top floor.

I know what you're thinking, this is essentially the same plot as The Raid: Redemption, and yes, they are very similar.  However, it worth noting that Dredd was in production and filming long before The Raid: Redemption, so I believe this is an unfair criticism of the movie.

Once the building is locked down, the action ramps up, and Dredd earns every bit of its R-rating with its insanely bloody violence and action.  This is where the slow motion and 3D really shine. You literally get to see bullets tearing though bodies.  Despite the brutality, it's also darkly funny in parts.  Between the humor and the violence, I was often reminded of Robocop.

Judge Dredd may be the law, but Karl Urban is the man.  Urban was a big fan of the character, so he actively campaigned to make sure that he never removes his helmet, something Dredd never did in the comics.  In a time when we see so many characters needlessly remove their masks or helmets, it's refreshing to see a movie where that doesn't happen, and an actor that cares more about the character than he does about getting his face on the screen.  Even with only seeing his chin, I though Urban was captivating and played Dredd effectively as an uncompromising force of nature for justice.

I really like Olivia Thirlby, but I initially thought she was an unusual choice to play a Judge.  I'm used to seeing her in smaller, independent films.  However, I thought she did a good job with a role and played off Urban well.  Her character's psychic ability was used in an interesting way and allowed her to be a contrast to Dredd.  Dredd sees things as black and white, where Anderson sees the shades of grey.

Lena Headey gave a nice, understated performance as Ma-Ma, and I appreciated she wasn't over-the-top.  He cold demeanor actually made her seem all that much more deadly and menacing.  Wood Harris was also fun to see as Ma-Ma's henchman, Kay.  I haven't seen him in much since The Wire, so I was just happy to see him again.

Director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) and writer Alex Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later...) did a great job of staying true to the source material.  I'm also impressed with what they were able to do with a fairly modest budget.  The movie looks great and you get immersed in this world. The movie never takes itself too seriously, and you shouldn't either.

While not breaking any new ground with the plot, Dredd 3D is an insane action thrill ride that should please both action fans and Judge Dredd fans.  It makes up for the disappointment of the original film, and it's finally an example of a remake done right.  I watched this film with a goofy grin on my face from beginning to end and I enjoyed the hell out of it.  It's also one of the few films I actually recommend seeing in 3D in the theater.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

End of Watch (2012) - Movie Review

End of Watch gives a different look into the lives of cops working in South Central Los Angeles.  Imagine an episode of COPS where you really get to know the officers and see the grisly side of their job.

An opening narration by Officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) describes his thoughts on the job as you are watching a POV car chase shot by a dashboard cam.  It really puts you in the action and was one of the more interesting car chases I've seen in a while  Taylor is filming a documentary for a film class, which basically serves as an excuse for use of the many handheld camera shots used throughout the film.  It felt at first that this may be yet another found footage film with lots of shaky cam work (even the villains are seen using cameras), but as the movie progresses you get more standard camera angles.  It might be a little off putting if you're someone that notices that kind of thing, but it didn't detract from the strengths of the film. Having said that, I think the movie would have been even better if they had ditched all the handheld work and just shot it as a standard film.

Officer Taylor has been with his partner Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) for years.  These guys are so close that they are essentially family.  Zavala is expecting his first child and Taylor is just starting a relationship with Janet (Anna Kendrick).  Seeing this adds to the depth of their characters and it's impossible to not care as you learn more about them.  What really sells this is the natural and authentic chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Peña.  Their banter is so funny that without even trying, it ends up being on of the funnier buddy cop movies that I've seen, and keep in mind that End of Watch isn't even a comedy.

When you see them at work, you get a gritty and realistic look at a day on the job.  Be warned that there are some extremely gruesome and shocking things in the movie.  Officers Taylor and Zavala aren't interested in giving out traffic tickets, something their superiors seem to be annoyed by.  They prefer to get in the middle of things and are pretty much super cops, even earning medals for their heroics.  However, they make a few busts that put them in the crosshairs of a Mexican cartel.  This sets up the explosive and emotional end of the film, which I won't spoil here. I will say that because you get so invested in Taylor and Zavala you just hope everything works out.

Jake Gyllenhaal has been doing great work for years, but I think this might be the most I've enjoyed him in a film.  Michael Peña has always been a favorite of mine, but this is easily the performance of his career.  Their performances carry the film, and I would not be surprised to see some nominations come their way come award season.  The movie is fleshed out with a great supporting cast of people like Natalie Martinez, America Ferrera, Frank Grillo and the always appealing Anna Kendrick.  Kendrick doesn't have a large role, but makes the most of her screen time.

Writer/director David Ayer, who's given us many other cop-driven films, with Training Day at the top of that list, gives a change of pace from his previous work.  Instead of a film about dirty or hugely flawed cops, we get a movie about two good cops and humanizes them in a way we don't normally get to see on the big screen.  Yes, cops are people, too.  They have family, friends, and actually want to do good in the world.  I'm so used to seeing the opposite of this that I kept waiting for one of these guys to do something questionable or immoral.  I'm glad the film never took us in those directions.  Another aspect of the film that really came through to me is how much the entire police force is one big family and how much they have each other's backs.  If I had an army like that at my back, I'd feel like I could take on all the evil in the world, too.

End of Watch is one of the better cop films in years, from a director that pretty much the current master on films about the boys-in-blue.  It's anchored by fantastic performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña and they elevate this to something more than just another cop film. It's also a tense thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat.  I strongly recommend checking this one out as soon as you can.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Trouble with the Curve (2012) - Movie Review

I have a feeling Gus Lobel would love to tell those Moneyball guys to shove it!

Clint Eastwood plays Gus Lobel, a lifelong baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves.  Age is catching up with him and his eyesight is fading fast, but can't admit it or he's out of a job.  The organization is losing faith in him anyway, in favor of scouting players using stats and modern technology.  Gus is a purist that believes you certain things you simply can't know about a player by looking at a bunch of numbers. He prefers to rely on his senses and instincts.  I got a distinct anti-Moneyball sentiment from Trouble with the Curve, and if it comes down to a fight, my money will always be on Dirty Harry.

The upcoming draft has a huge talent the team wants as their No. 1 pick.  Gus goes back out the road to scout this kid and to prove he can still do the job.  His oldest friend, played by John Goodman, urges Gus' daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to go along with him and make sure he doesn't screw up.

Oh, and Justin Timberlake is in this, too.  I almost forgot as they establish his character in an early scene, but then he doesn't appear again for a good 15-20 minutes, which really made me wonder why he was in the movie.  You learn that he's a former player that Gus once scouted and is now a scout himself for the Red Sox.  He and Gus seemed to have a close, almost father/son, relationship, but it's never really explored, which seemed like a missed opportunity considering the family dynamics of the film.  Naturally, he immediately has the hots for Mickey, and who can blame him, but the way his character came in and out of the film it felt he was thrown in there because they felt the movie needed a love interest.  It didn't help that it seemed that he was a little too immature for Amy Adams, and that's partially due to the fact that I know she's 38 while he's 31.  It didn't seem like the most natural pairing.  This is nothing personally against Justin Timberlake though, and I do think that he and Adams had good chemistry.

I'm getting off track, but I felt the main problem with the movie is that, once again, it's a movie that didn't quite know what it wanted to be, so it felt a little scatter-shot and uneven at times.  Is this a baseball movie?  A family drama?  Is it a romantic comedy?  I would have been fine with a movie about a stubborn, work-driven man and his stubborn, career-driven daughter reconnecting and finding some common ground over baseball.  Instead we got something that felt a little all over the place, and it suffered from having too many ideas going on.  As the movie is almost two hours, it would have benefit from a little more focus.

Another thing that hurts the film is how predictable it is.  You pretty much see where things are going to go from the outset and they constantly foreshadow plot points.  It's a minor complaint as it's not like I was expecting twists, but certain things just felt too obvious.  The conclusion was way too tidy, with every little thing being resolved by the end, and the conclusion was unsatisfying as a result.

Now we get to the strength of the film: the cast and performances.  Clint Eastwood gives a great, emotional performance   When it starts, he's the cranky and crotchety old man we've come to expect, but early on he has a very sweet and emotional scene, and it shows that there's some sadness there and more to him.  His back and forth between Amy Adams is both funny and heartfelt.  They really make you believe that she's a chip off the old block.  Both are overly focused on their work and push people away.  When you have a great actors like this, they are able to pull back just a bit, so that it doesn't feel melodramatic, which was another thing I appreciated.  They could have gone for a manipulative tear jerker, but thankfully didn't.

The rest of the supporting cast is great as well.  John Goodman is always a welcome sight.  Plus, you have a nice performance by Matthew Lillard, as a hot shot exec that you just want to see get his in the end. The T-1000 (Robert Patrick) is in this as well.  Justin Timberlake's performance was fine, even though I felt like he was just playing Justin Timberlake again.

This was a good first effort from director Robert Lorenz and writer Randy Brown.  Lorenz was smart to get out of the way of his actors and let them just do their thing.  Again, I think the main issue here is that he didn't try to reign in Brown's script a bit.  There were too many subplots and most weren't developed quite enough to have the impact they should have, and some felt like they really didn't need to be in the movie.  Another positive is that it's a much funnier movie than I was expecting, even though some of the humor felt a little easy, maybe even a little cheesy at times. The audience seemed to be really enjoying it, so maybe it was just me.

Overall, Trouble with the Curve is a charming movie that should please most audiences.  You have great performances and chemistry from the actors and a good balance of humor and emotional moments.  The drawback is the movie's predictability and lack of focus.  Whether you're a baseball fan or just want to see a nice family drama with some heart, it's an enjoyable film.  It's nothing you need to rush out and see though.  It's a good matinee or rental.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, September 14, 2012

Sleepwalk With Me (2012) - Movie Review

I've always been a fan of Mike Birbiglia since I first saw his stand up on Comedy Central, so when I heard he wrote, directed and starred in a semi-autobiographical tale of his life, I was interested in checking it out.

Mike plays Matt Pandamiglio - which I'm sure is a clear play on his name and how it was likely butchered by many MCs over the years - a struggling comic that's having trouble getting gigs and bartends at a comedy club.  His material is very rough and can only get an opportunity when someone cancels or doesn't show up to the club.  He has a supportive girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose) that he's been with for eight years and can't seem to take the next step with, but she's still being patient.

Matt also has a severe sleepwalking disorder.  This has some hilarious, and even dangerous outcomes.  He knows it's a problem and there's likely something deeper behind it.  Matt's encouraged to get help, but continues to cancel appointments, not even able to make a commitment to that.

It's only when he begins to talk about his life, insecurities and relationship on stage that he starts getting laughs and things look up for him.  He knows that talking about his relationship might have consequences with his girlfriend, but that's not a huge concern for him.  Matt starts hitting the road, still getting paid dirt, but excited that he's finally getting some work.

I liked this in the same way I like Louis C.K.'s Louie.  Don't get me wrong, it's not nearly as raw and uncomfortable as Louie.  It is an honest and real look at his life, and that vulnerability leads to genuine laughs, both on stage for him and for us watching the movie.  I've always found it fascinating to watch comedians develop their act and go from routinely bombing or only getting a few chuckles, to headlining or being on TV.  I've had the opportunity to see this a few times first hand and it really is an interesting experience.

I think it took a lot of guts for Mike to put himself out like this.  He knows he's not necessarily playing the most sympathetic or likable guy, and even jokingly reminds you during his narration that you're supposed to be on his side.  At times he comes off looking bad, but you never genuinely dislike him.  He's a guy that's still trying to figure out who he is and knows he has problems, but also has doubts and not quite sure what to do next.  Sound familiar?

There's also a great supporting cast.  Lauren Ambrose is great as Matt's girlfriend.  She's so supportive of him, and you sympathize more with her through most of the film.  James Rebhorn and Carol Kane are also great as Matt's parents, and his interaction with his family is great.  You even see a few comics pop up here and there like David Wain, Kristen Schall, Wyatt Cenac, and Marc Maron has a notable scene.

Mike co-directed this with Seth Barrish, who also co-wrote along with Ira Glass and Joe Birbiglia and all I can say is that it's a great team effort.  There'a a lot of talent here and it shows in the finished product.  I can't wait to see what's next for Mike Birbiglia.

Sleepwalk With Me is a fascinating look at a burgeoning comedian's life.  It's funny, honest and neurotic.  Mike Birbiglia carries the film and shows that he's a star on the rise.  If you're already familiar with him, then I think you'll really enjoy this, and if you aren't, you might find yourself becoming a fan.  The movie is in limited release, so most of you won't have a chance to see this until it hits the home markets, but I highly recommend checking it out.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012) - Movie Review

Can someone explain to me why a movie that has "Retribution" in the title has no actual retribution in it?  A more accurate title would have been Resident Evil: Slow Motion Nonsense.

It's interesting the tag line on the poster for Resident Evil: Retribution is  "The Ultimate Battle Begins", as this movie is simply a 95 minute beginning.  I'm not sure how it takes Paul W.S. Anderson five movies to tell the beginning of a story, but he managed to do it.

If you aren't familiar with the series at all, it doesn't matter, as you get a recap of the previous films, not that any of it actually makes sense in the first place.  Before we get to that, you get to see the first of what seemed like a billion slow motion action sequences.  The twist is this one is in reverse!  Then you get the recap, followed by that same reverse slow motion sequence played forward, mercifully in regular speed.

Alice (Milla Jovovich) wakes up in a house, with a family, but then zombies show up and cause destruction.  Later in the movie, something is revealed that makes that opening sequence pointless to watch, but I won't get into that.  Alice wakes again in an Umbrella Corporation facility and is joined by what I think was a real-life android named Ada Wong (Bingbing Li). Wesker (Shawn Roberts, who looks like a roided out, young Val Kilmer) appears on a screen to explain the plot, if you want to call it that.  He needs Alice for some reason, even though they just finished telling you that she no longer had her powers and that Wesker was the bad guy in the last film.  Anyway, so the entire movie is Alice and Ada trying to break out of this underwater Umbrella facility, while another team breaks in to help get her out.  As they attempt to escape, the Red Queen throws zombies and bosses at them on each 'level', and Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) pops up from time to time to harass them.  That's it, that's the whole movie.

The main problem is that Resident Evil: Retribution could have been cut down easily to 20-25 minutes, and then they could have gotten to an actual story.  That the movie ends showing that there's a bigger battle to be fought, you know 'the ultimate battle', really made it all seem pointless to have an entire movie dedicated to what basically amounted to a jailbreak.  So, Resident Evil fans, there's at least one more movie coming and maybe that will finally get to the point.

As mentioned before, nearly every action or fight scene is padded with excessive use of slow motion.  All it did was to just show how poorly choreographed some of the fights were, except for when they stop to pose in the middle of a fight for dramatic effect, which was also often.  If you're going to have drawn out fight scenes, maybe next time get some actual martial artists to do them. If you want to see an example of this done right, watch The Raid: Redemption.

It's very much a video game movie, and it's actually broken up into levels.  Several times, they show you a map of the facility breaking down all of the areas.  You have a Moscow level, New York, Japan, Suburbia, etc.  Characters seemingly never need to reload or have difficulty finding a weapon.  That kind of stuff I can forgive though.  The problem is that the action isn't even interesting, creative or original.  Much of this is stuff recycled from the other Resident Evil movies, and how many faceless soldiers or generic zombies can you see gunned down?  Even the actors didn't seem like they were invested, as they would just stand around while bullets whizzed by just inches from them.  Nobody was concerned about being hit or taking cover, as the bad guys can't shoot for shit, and the good guys are expert marksman.  It wasn't consistent, even when they'd occasionally do something cool.  During one fight, they show an X-ray shot of an arm breaking (which has been done in other movies), but seconds later the guy throws a punch with the same arm and shows no ill effects from it later.  People in the audience were scoffing at the silliness of it.

I didn't see this in 3D, but I counted eight times where something was thrown or shot directly at the screen and almost all were in slow motion. One made laugh out loud as Alice threw her weapon at a person standing just inches from her, but maybe she was going for more style points there.

It should be no surprise that the dialog was awful, and the actors read it as such.  Nearly everyone had a robotic delivery and many sounded like their dialog was dubbed by someone off screen.  The acting makes you wonder if they just took the first take for every scene, or did Paul W.S. Anderson not provide them with any direction other than 'act like a robot.'  The first guy to die doesn't even get a word in before he gets chainsawed to death, and his partners don't even react to it.  It also manages to waste actors I normally like (Kevin Durand, Michelle Rodriguez, Oded Fehr) in small, mostly meaningless roles.

The one thing I'll say for Paul W.S. Anderson and Resident Evil: Retribution is that it least it looks nice.  With a few exceptions, the effects were good and I didn't feel that it looked cheap.  His problem has always been with his writing of coherent story.  How does one guy write five movies set in the same universe and there's still no progression?  It's like he's making it all up as he goes along and we're going in circles.  This just reaffirms that Paul W.S. Anderson is Uwe Boll with a bigger budget.

I want to give Resident Evil: Retribution a pass because I never expected this to be good, but it's still really awful.  It's bloated, recycled nonsense, and it was pointless waste of time.  Even if you're a fan of this series, I can't recommend anything better than a rental, and for non-fans, it's a shit film that you never have to watch.

1 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

For a Good Time, Call...(2012) - Movie Review

When we first meet Lauren and Katie, both are going through their own personal crises.  Lauren's boyfriend breaks up with her as he takes a job in Italy, citing that their relationship had become boring.  Katie's in danger of losing her apartment unless she can get a roommate in just a few days.  They are put together by a mutual friend, but there's a big problem:  These two met back in college and don't like each other.  Also, they are polar opposites as far as personality.  Both are desperate though, so they give it a shot.

After a short time, Lauren (Lauren Miller) finds that one of Katie's (Ari Graynor) many odd jobs is talking on a phone sex line.  Lauren disapproves, but notes that Katie can make a lot more money if she sets up her own line.  As Lauren is recently out of work, she agrees to help with the business side of things.  Their friendship grows over time, and eventually, Lauren loosens up enough to talk on the phone sex line herself.

It's interesting I watched this and Bachelorette (should have the review up for that one later) back to back as they are both female-driven raunchy comedies written by women.  The difference with For a Good Time, Call... is that while it's a raunchy comedy, it's done without over-relying on visuals, where Bachelorette's humor felt more blunt and obvious.  I never really felt like For a Good Time, Call... went over the line as far as being vulgar.  The movie is as much about about these two becoming best friends and learning more about themselves, than it is about what they do to make money.  That friendship is what keeps you watching.  It would have been easy for them to rely strictly on sex jokes, and not develop their friendship and personalities, but fortunately we get something that has more substance than that.

Lauren Miller co-wrote this with Katie Anne Naylon, and it's based on their own college experiences.  This fact just makes me wish I had known them back in college.  I'm sure they were a lot of fun.  I also just read that she's the real-life wife of Seth Rogen, who has a small cameo in the film.  Seth is a lucky man.   As far as their script, my only real issue is that it's a little too predictable at times, especially with the conclusion, but the strength is the realistic dialog and characters.  As the conservative and reserved one, Lauren is playing the 'straight man', but I think was vulnerable and sexy in her own way.  Miller said she specifically wrote the role of Katie for Ari Graynor.  Perpetual indie movie best friend up until this point, Graynor finally gets a chance at a leading role and she makes the most of it.  She's plays the role with the perfect combination of sassy, sexy and funny.  I really can't see too many other young actresses pulling the role off as well as Graynor did.  You should expect bigger things for both of these two going forward.

Scene stealer, Justin Long, is great as their gay best friend.  He's not quite as over-the-top as he was in Zack and Miri Make a Porno though.  Ironically, Kevin Smith also has a cameo appearance in this, while Lauren Miller had a small role in Smith's film, so talk about making good use of your friends.  Anyway, Justin Long continues to be a go-to guy for funny supporting roles, and has become one of my favorite, underrated actors.

First time feature director (always seems to be a theme with late summer and indie films) Jamie Travis gets good performances out of his cast and everyone remains likable.  It's always nice when you watch a movie and you can see yourself hanging out with these people.  As the movie takes place over a few months, the friendship felt natural and wasn't rushed.  This was impressive to me, as the movie runs just 86 minutes.  They use their time well.

For a Good Time, Call... is a predictable film, but it's not without it's charms.  It's a funny look at friendship and carried by the strength of the performances.  It's not a perfect film, but it's exactly what the title says, a good time.  That's all I ask with any comedy.  This is a great matinee and something to get a few friends together to watch.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Bachelorette (2012) - Movie Review

Have you ever watched Bridesmaids and wondered what those girls would be like if they were bitchier and on lots of cocaine?  Bachelorette gives you a look at this world.

Four high school friends are reunited when one of them finally gets married.  Immediately, jealously starts to rear it's ugly head, as the others all thought they would get married before their 'fat friend'.  The only positive they seem to take from this is that it means they can have a bachelorette party.

Other than the actual bride, Becky (Rebel Wilson), it doesn't take long to figure out why the bachelorettes are still single.  Regan (Kirsten Dunst) is a Type A, pushy business woman, Gena (Lizzy Caplan) is a barely employable, druggie that sleeps around, and lastly Katie (Isla Fisher) is a ditzy girl that seems too dumb to function.  These girls call themselves 'B-Faces', which is short for 'Bitch Faces', a name they seem to have earned. Based on their self-absorbed behavior, one of the things I had a hard time wrapping my head around was how the bachelorettes were friends with Becky in the first place.  Their personalities don't seem to fit and these girls seemed like the type to make fun of her back in high school. Becky has grown up, but the others haven't.

Becky wants a low-key party, but the girls insist on partying it up and getting a stripper.  There's a incident with the stripper, and the bride and the rest of the girls go home, leaving the B-Faces to drink more, do lots of coke and complain about why they aren't married yet.  While screwing around, something happens to the wedding dress, and now they have to scramble to get it fixed before the wedding the following morning.  It's as if the movie knew we wouldn't be able to sit through 90 minutes of nasty girls drinking and doing coke, so they had to give them a goal.  Now we get to watch them run around frantically as they try to make things right.

Much of what you see in Bachelorette are cheap drug and sex related jokes that you've seen many times before.  There are some funny moments, but they were too infrequent to make up for the unlikability of the characters.  As the movie progresses, they try to show you that there's more to the bachelorettes, but the problem is that what I learned about them didn't make me sympathize with them more.  As I mentioned in my For a Good Time, Call... review, one of the things I enjoyed was how I could see myself being friends with those people.  In Bachelorette, I wouldn't want to know these people or hang out with them.  I was actually kind of surprised at how catty these girls were, and how willing and capable they were of stabbing their friend in the back.

What I could relate to was a wild bachelorette party and getting crazy, but think about all of the times you gotten hammered with friends.  It's funny to you, but you know how you tell someone a story that doesn't get a laugh and then say, 'Well, you had to be there.'  That's Bachelorette.

The positive I got from the movie was the good cast and the performances.  Kirsten Dunst continues her career renaissance playing flawed characters.  Lizzy Caplan is always great, but this is a role she can play in her sleep.  The same for Isla Fisher, who gets the majority of the laughs.  There's nothing wrong with either of their performances, but neither of them had to stretch much here.  Rebel Wilson seems to be a star on the rise as she continues to get roles in higher profile films, but she's more of a side character and doesn't take part in the festivities as the night goes on.  I realize the contradiction of liking the performances, but not liking the characters, but it was more that I didn't find them interesting or relatable.

Adam Scott and James Marsden are once again underused and these guys deserve better.  They are both on my "most under appreciated actors" list.

Written and directed by Leslye Headland, Bachelorette is a good idea, but it never quite takes off. I felt that the ending was too predictable and unearned, where they try to give everyone a happy ending and everyone learns a lesson.  A riskier, darker ending would have fit better with the tone of the film and been more satisfying, even if it wasn't a happy one.

Bachelorette isn't as funny as it thinks it is.  It tries to one up Bridesmaids, but it ends up being a less funny version of The Hangover.  It wastes a talented cast with tired jokes and bits, and then tries too hard to make you sympathize with characters that really don't seem redeemable. It's a rental at best.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

AngryVader's Day Off...

As many of you know, I'm on vacation this week.  It's my birthday in a few days, so I always take some time off to relax.  These days I'm big on the 'staycation', especially since I'm 'house-poor' and single, so I normally like to just explore the area.  My goal today was to drink a few beers, have a burger and watch a movie.  While I accomplished my mission, and it was a beautiful day, I had an unusual experience, and I thought I'd share it with you, as it's still stuck in my head and I'm a little bugged I didn't take the opportunity to speak up.

As a warning, this post might be more stream of consciousness than my normal reviews but I've had like 7 beers today and drinking a Guinness now.

If you're at all familiar with the Bay Area, are main public transportation out here is BART.  It's expensive, dirty, and had it's share of controversy in recent months.  However, if you want to drink and have a nice day trip to San Francisco or Berkeley, then it's the way to go.

Today, I took BART out to Downtown Berkeley to check out a movie and a few bars I've heard good things about.  I was on BART around 1 PM.

Normally, I listen to podcasts while on BART, (Adam Carolla, Doug Benson, 10 Minute Podcast, WTF), but I could hear someone shouting over the sound of my earbuds.  Some toothless guy (literally toothless) was shouting about kicking ass, selling crack and other random nonsense.  I'm not even sure if he was directing it at anyone in particular, but he was going on for several minutes, and people started to clear his side of the train.  It was clear he was freaking people out and they just wanted to put as much distance as they could from him.  A few people were on their cell phones notifying the police and calling the BART driver over the intercom.

The crazy, toothless dude, noticed this and the fact that staying on the train meant sure arrest, got off at the next stop.  The crisis was averted and you could see the tension on the train dissipate as soon as he got off.  This isn't the part of the story that bugged me though.  After he got off, the BART driver asked over the intercom for a description of the man.  One of the guys got on the intercom and described him as a 'six foot, black man in a blue sweater'.  A blonde, white girl who was maybe 18, if that, cries out, "Is there any other way you could describe him?"  Huh?  I'm sorry, when describing someone to the authorities, they will usually want to know his ethnicity.  What else was he supposed to say?

"Um...he was a six foot, toothless man in a blue sweater."

"What ethnicity was he?"

"Sorry, I didn't bother to notice."

Yeah right.  After he gets off the intercom, this stupid girl yells at him, "Do you know what BART police do to people around here?  They shoot people!"  The guy didn't know what to say, and was smart enough to not engage with her.

Yes, BART has had come controversy lately, but aren't you overstating the issue a bit?  Do you really believe that if the police had shown up at that moment, they just would have shot him?

Grow up and get real little girl.  This guy was being threatening to several people on the train, and they were complaining about it.  Should we not report this to the authorities?  I'm really interested as to what your reaction would have been if he had been directly threatening to you.  What exactly would you have done?  What if he had a knife, or a gun?  I bet you wish the BART police would have been there ASAP, huh?

I'm also really curious if this girl would have shown the same outrage if the person in question was a white guy, and was described as a 'six foot, toothless white guy'.  Would that have been any less offensive or inaccurate?  It's a simple, physical description of the man.  It doesn't matter if he was white, black, Asian or Hispanic.  What's the most accurate description of the guy, right?

This is where I was mad at myself for not speaking up.  Public safety is something that is a concern to everyone.  Don't get me wrong, if this guy had started to physically threaten someone, I (and I'm hoping several others) would have stepped in to protect those that couldn't defend themselves, but not speaking up bugs me.  It also bugs me that this girl lives in a fantasy world where her main issue was that he was described as a 'black man' instead of being more concerned about that fact that he was scaring the shit out of several people on public transportation.  What's the bigger issue here?  Do I need to point out that several of the people that moved away from this guy were also black?  Being scared and threatened by a crazy person is not something that's specific to any ethnicity.  This is stupid.

Anyway, I got off at the next stop, enjoyed a beautiful day in Berkeley, had several beers, a burger and a good movie.  As far as Vader's day off, it was a success, but this one moment sticks out as something that could have ruined my (and many others) day.

Look, this is one buzzed guy's opinion.  What would you have done in that situation?  Leave your comments below...

Monday, September 10, 2012

Robot & Frank (2012) - Movie Review

If I ever get a robot, I want it to speak with Patrick Stewart's voice.

Set in the near future, Frank (Frank Langella) is an ex-burgler living in a small home on the outskirts of town.  His dementia is getting worse, and is losing the ability to take care of himself.   His son (James Marsden), growing tired of driving out to take care of him, buys him a robot caretaker.

Frank's not too wild about the robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) at first, but he learns that the robot isn't programmed to know if an activity is illegal or not.  Even better, Frank learns the robot can also pick locks.  This enables Frank to plan a few more robberies, which keeps his mind engaged and gives him something to do again.  His mind isn't completely gone though, as he spends some time flirting with the local librarian (Susan Sarandon).

For a time, Frank's daughter (Liv Tyler) comes to take care of him, and deactivates the robot.  This upsets Frank, as it's clear that he's become attached to the robot, and also time is running out on the robberies they have planned.  Eventually, he's able to convince her to let him keep the robot, and she leaves.

The robberies are successful, but the local authorities (led by Jeremy Sisto), knowing Frank's history, question him and surveil his house.  The robot points out to Frank that his memory can be used against him and advises him to format his memory.  This puts Frank in a tough spot.  This robot is his only friend and is it right to erase its memory, even if doing so will keep him out of jail.

This was an impressive debut for director Jake Schreirer.  He kept things moving and easy to follow.  The robot has a simple design, similar to modern robots by Honda, so the premise never seems hard to believe.  Based on how our technology is advancing, this genuinely feels like something that could happen just a few years from now.  The script by Christopher D. Ford hits all the right notes.  It's smart, funny and sweet.  The story is fairly straightforward, but I felt it was emotionally complex.

Frank Langella is always great and he gives another fantastic performance.  He's able to say so much with those soulful eyes of his and it's hard to not get wrapped up in what's going through his mind.  It's a very small cast, and they all play their parts well, but this is really just about Frank and his robot.  Their interaction is touching and humorous.  I wasn't expecting to be as moved by this as I was, nor was I expecting how funny it turned out.

Movies like Robot & Frank are why I love movies.  It's a smart movie about aging and the fragility of memory, but it's also a charming and funny buddy movie.  Led by Frank Langella's wonderful performance, this might be one of my favorite films of the year.  I highly recommend checking it out if it's playing at a theater near you, like The Vine (

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Words (2012) - Movie Review

We begin with the reading of a book, The Words, by successful author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid).  The book is the story of another author, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), who lives in New York with his girlfriend, Dora (Zoe Saldana).  Rory is an author struggling to get published, and is forced to get a day job when his father (J.K. Simmons) says he can't support him anymore and hints that maybe it's time to move on.

While on their honeymoon, the couple finds an old leather bag that contains an old manuscript. Rory reads it and realizes that it's better than anything he's ever written.  He types it, word for word, into his computer just for the experience of having the book go through his hands.  Dora finds the re-typed manuscript and is moved by it.  She encourages him to get it published, and Rory can't bring himself to tell her that he didn't write it.

The book is a hit and things are looking up for Rory, but things get complicated when the book's original author, simply billed as "The Old Man" (Jeremy Irons), tracks Rory down and tells him his story.  We are transported to World War II France and get a mini period piece detailing how The Old Man wrote and then lost his book.  I felt this was the strength of the movie, simply for Jeremy Irons performance.  He just provided narration, but he's so good in that 'I could listen to him read the phone book' way.  It's worth watching The Words just for Jeremy Irons.

Most of the performances in The Words are strong.  I thought Bradley Cooper was great.  To think a few years ago I thought he was going to be a flash in the pan.  Cooper shows emotional depth that I don't think we've seen out of him up until now.  Zoe Saldana was good as well, but she wasn't given much to do and the story wasn't about her.  I also really enjoyed Ben Barnes and Nora Arnezender as the young couple from The Old Man's story.  He doesn't get enough screen time, but it's always great to see J.K. Simmons in anything.

You'd think that things would get really interesting once the two authors meet, but the problem is that The Old Man doesn't want anything from Rory.  As a result, the movie fizzles out and you never really get to see how this affects Rory.  There are some consequences, but Rory is never publicly outed and they don't spend very much time at all showing Rory deal with the guilt of what's he's done.

What should have been the emotional climax of the film ended up switching back to catch up with Clay, who's flirting with an apparent literary groupie played by Olivia Wilde.  She's very interested in the story, so you think there might be something deeper to her character, but there isn't.  I like Olivia Wilde, but once again she plays a role that felt thrown in just to have another pretty face in the movie.  I'm sure the script appealed to her, as her surname was taken from author Oscar Wilde.  There was some very odd and awkward interaction between Quaid and Wilde as he uncomfortably tried to flirt with her.  Have you ever had a friend that didn't quite know how to talk to women and tries way too hard, so it comes off as a little creepy?  It was like that.

With all this story within a story within a story, I felt like I was watching a literary version of Inception.  It's never truly clear if Clay is actually Rory or just telling a story.  They leave that up to you to decide, but it kind of felt like the movie was trying really hard to be clever.  The movie ends very abruptly and you're left wondering what the point was.  I'd like to ask co-writers and directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal what they were really trying to say here.

I'd love to write more about this movie, but I can't find...The Words.  Ha ha ha!  Do you see what I did with that totally hilarious joke that I in no way had any assistance with?

The Words is a very well acted and good looking film, but the story is overly complex and ultimately something that won't stick with you.  I do think it's worth watching for the performances, especially Jeremy Irons, but this is better suited for a rental.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

The Cold Light of Day (2012) - Movie Review

Don't worry, the title didn't make any sense to me either. You could have just called this "Superman Tries to Get His Bourne On".

When we meet Will (Henry Cavill), he's already having a bad day.  He arrives in Spain for a family reunion that he doesn't want any part of, and learns that his luggage is back in San Francisco.  Most people leave their hearts there, but Will Shaw left his luggage there.  You meet his father, Martin (Bruce Willis), and the rest of his family. Will and his brothers have daddy issues for some reason that we're never really clear on.  Something about Martin's work.  Waa waa waa!  Daddy wasn't there for me, or something like that.

The family goes sailing the following day, but Will is preoccupied with calls, as he learns his business is bankrupt.  Will's lack of focus causes an injury to a family member, so he swims to shore to get medicine.   Upon his return, the sailboat is gone.  He eventually catches up with the boat to find it abandoned and ransacked.  Going to the police doesn't help, and they just lead him back to the beach, where he meets a man that says he knows where is family is and will take him to them.  Instead of going along, Will takes off, chased by the cops.  They catch up to him, but Martin magically appears to fight them off.  He reveals to Will that he's actually been a CIA agent all along, and they need to retrieve some briefcase or their family will be killed.

They meet up with Martin's partner, Carrack (Sigourney Weaver), and the movie doesn't even try to make you believe for a second that she's not the real villain.  Carrack betrays Martin, and Bruce Willis checks out at this point, or maybe he just wanted to collect his check and go home early. It's now up to Will to figure out what's going on and get this briefcase back before it's too late.  What's in the briefcase, you ask?  It doesn't matter, and the movie never even tries to explain it. It could have been a flash drive or microfilm for all it mattered to the 'plot'.

Along the way he meets a cute local named Lucia (Veronica Echegui), who turns out to be Will's half sister.   Yes, in addition to misleading his sons about his career, Martin also had a second family in Spain.  One unusual point is that Martin reveals that while his sons never knew about him being a CIA agent, his wife did.   I'm not sure why it's okay to tell your wife, but not your kids, but whatever.  His reveal that he's a CIA agent was so obvious from the opening moments of the film that it felt pointless to even begin with him pretending otherwise.

The Cold Light of Day doesn't bother with things like making sense.  One of the better examples of this is at one point Will is shot, and he's taken to a safe place (not a hospital) where a random person examines him and announces that there's no bullet in him, even though he was shot in the midsection and there's no exit wound.  Um...thanks for your expert advice there, not-doctor.  I guess he's in the clear then.  Characters behave irrationally throughout, and don't seem to have any issue putting people in danger that they just met.   The story and terrible dialog felt recycled and pieced together from other films.  Even the score felt like it was meant for another movie.  This was written by Scott Wiper and John Petro, who don't have a very impressive resume so far, and they don't do anything creative or original here.

I have a feeling this was something originally meant for direct to video, but they tried to push out during a slow weak in hopes of generating some buzz for Henry Cavil.  This movie isn't going to do it though.  In fact, I'm much less confident that Zack Snyder picked the right guy for Superman now.  I don't dislike Cavill, but he seems too serious (and skinny) and I just can't see him as Clark Kent or Superman.

It's a shame, because when I see names like Willis, Weaver and Cavill on the poster, I had hoped that this would at least have a certain level of quality.  Sigourney Weaver gives the best performance here, but it's odd to me that she seems to now be the default, bad-guy-agent or head of an organization in most of her recent roles.  If she would have played this as over-the-top as Michael Shannon did in Premium Rush, then I'd have an easier time recommending this.  As mentioned earlier, Bruce Willis is barely in this, and his early exit in the film seems to say that even he knew this wasn't going to be very good.  I'm sure he enjoyed his mini-vacation in Spain though.

I can't even say it's a good spy movie, because it's not about a spy.  It's a normal guy thrown into a situation he has no understanding of.  There's lots of chasing between Will and Carrack, but it's all shot in a way that at times you can't even tell what's going on, and it becomes tedious to watch instead of entertaining.  If you're someone that's annoyed by quick cuts and shaky cam work, you get tons of that here.  Some of this shaky cam work is done at night with very little light, so you really can't tell what's going on.  It's all done to cover for poorly choreographed fight and chase scenes.  There's also a lot of awkward mirror shots that may have worked in a better movie, but here just felt like a gimmick.

I'm surprised this didn't turn out better as the director, Mabrouk El Mechri, also directed JCVD, which is an infinitely better film.  I don't know what happened here, but if you haven't seen JCVD yet, rent that instead of bothering with this.

The Cold Light of Day is a totally forgettable thriller that felt like a bad Bourne-clone.  It's completely by-the-numbers and doesn't bring anything new, fun or interesting to the genre.  This is the kind of movie you'd probably think wasn't bad if you caught it on cable recovering from a hangover on a Sunday afternoon and couch surfing.  No need to see this one in the theater.  Save this for cheap rental, streaming or cable.

1.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, September 6, 2012

REC 3: Genesis (2012) - Movie Review

Don't let your drunk uncle come to your wedding, he may end up causing a zombie outbreak.

REC 3: Genesis is the third in the Spanish REC film series.  Some of you know may know the series by it's American remake, Quarantine.  REC 3 is not a direct sequel to either of the previous REC films, so you aren't missing anything if you haven't seen the previous two.  In fact, you really aren't missing anything if you never see this film.  Yes, as you might have guessed, REC 3: Genesis continues the trend of weak horror films this summer.  It's one of those movies that more you think about out, the stupider you realize it all is.

Spoilery rant ahead...

As it's a Spanish film, it's subtitled, but it really doesn't matter as there's very little meaningful dialog, and what there is doesn't make much sense anyway.

We begin by watching a film crew setting up to film a wedding.  This starts out like it's going to be yet another found footage flick, but they abandon that aspect after about 10 minutes.  During the reception, a seemingly drunk uncle falls off a balcony, but then attacks the first person that tries try to aid him.  Out of nowhere, several other zombies show up from different locations.  Where did these guys come from?  This was a wedding right?  Wasn't everyone there by invite?  Don't you think some of the other guests might have been noticing the condition of people they likely knew?

One huge problem I had with the film, is that before this outbreak happens, you see some kind of hazmat team outside doing some work, so they must have known there was a danger, but yet they didn't do anything to contain it before it spread to the whole party.  This team's lack of action led to the deaths of close to a hundred people.  Why didn't they act before things escalated?  Were they the cause of the outbreak?  It appeared the infection could only be passed by being bitten, so I don't see why they couldn't evacuate or warn people.

The bride and groom, Koldo (yes, his name was Koldo) and Clara, get separated.  Clara is able to contact her Lord of the Rings-named husband over the P.A. system to let him know that she's fine and also pregnant.  Do you think five minutes into a zombie outbreak is the best time to tell your husband of less than an hour that you're already pregnant?  In keeping with his fantasy origins, Koldo (Diego Martin) dons a suit of armor and mace and heads out to find Clara (Leticia Dolera).  I actually thought this was one of the cooler aspects of the film.  I think that's an badass way to charge into the zombie horde.  Unfortunately, REC 3 does not take advantage of this opportunity to do something awesome, and has Koldo instead do a number of head-scratching moves instead. At least two separate times, he puts his only weapon down, and continues on unarmed, even though there are clear threats close by.  Who does that?

Later, Koldo and Clara reunite just as she's about to get bitten.  They share a long, passionate embrace rather than run away, but they didn't bother to secure the hatch she just escaped through with zombies on her heels. Conveniently, the zombies decide to take their time to allow them to share their embrace.  These zombies are more polite, I guess.

Clara gets to have her badass moment, too. She finds a chainsaw, and then immediately uses it to cut a small part of her dress away.  Then, she turns it off knowing that zombies are just around the corner. Of course she has difficulties turning it on again when they are right on top of her.

Why is it in movies like this are the main couple the only two people that show any aptitude at either avoiding the undead or killing them?  You see many able bodied people throughout, yet they are all helpless and their deaths are telegraphed.  Haven't any of these characters, or the makers of this movie for that matter, ever seen a zombie flick before?  I understand that panic makes people not think clearly, but you'd think survival instincts would take over.  Don't let them bite you, and give them head trauma.

Oh, but wait, in REC 3 the undead die inconsistently throughout the film.  Sometimes it's enough to stab them in the chest or abs, yet at other times you need to cut their head in half.  Also, in a new wrinkle, the undead can by immobilized by prayer.  Yep, that's right, a priest figures this out early on in the film, but doesn't bother with it again until almost the end.  Since this was all caused by an infection, it makes sense that prayer will neutralize it, right?  Another unexplained wrinkle is that when you see the reflection of a zombie in a mirror, they appear as ghoulish creatures, rather than the zombie they are.

It's mercifully over at just 75 minutes, but it just shows you how very little this movie had going on.

This is normally the kind of film I have fun with, but maybe I just wasn't in the right mood.  It's bloody and there are some moments where I thought they were leading up to something better, but it just falls into all the same cliches you see in any other horror film.  Side characters die off as if on cue, bad decisions are made by everyone, people for some reason fall behind the larger group, etc.  There's nothing here you haven't seen before, and the things that would have been cool aren't taken advantage of.  I understand what they were trying to do here, but I think that's the problem.  They were trying too hard, instead of letting the humor happen naturally.

REC 3: Genesis was written and directed by Paco Plaza, and co-written by Luiso Berdejo, which surprises me as they also were behind the previous REC and Quarantine movies.  They seemed to be really scraping the bottom of the barrel for ideas here.  Apparently there's already a fourth REC film planned, so hopefully they can go out with a bang, because there's been a steady decline since the first REC/Quarantine, which I really enjoyed.

REC 3: Genesis tries to add a new setting and few new wrinkles to the zombie movie genre, but it ends up being just another really dumb horror film.  It's not scary in the least and they tried to make it funny, but everything fell flat.  If zombie movies are your thing, you might get something out of this, but otherwise I can't recommend wasting your time with it.  Pass.

1 (out of 5) Death Stars