The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, January 31, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

I think the first 14 years of the 21st Century have earned a new nickname, a new era. We are residents of the Reboot Era!!! Basically any successful franchise series from the past, from any decade with any potential for earning money is going to get a reboot. Young audiences can't be trusted to actually look to the past, can they? Some are good, some are worthy, and some are clearly ploys to make boatloads of money. Enter 2014's Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit because there was audiences knocking down doors for a reboot of the famous Tom Clancy character.

Studying in London when the 9/11 attacks occur in New York, Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) decides to put his academics on hold, joining the Marines and becoming a hero in Afghanistan in a helicopter accident, saving two fellow Marines. The accident almost cripples him, but as he goes through extreme rehab, Ryan is approached by Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), a C.I.A. official interested in recruiting Ryan as an agent. His hope? Harper wants Jack to work as a compliance officer at a brokerage house on Wall Street, looking for patterns and algorithms in the sales and deals. Ryan heads back to school, gets his degree, gets a job and goes to work for the C.I.A. deep undercover. Ten years pass, Ryan staying in touch with Harper, especially when he starts to find hidden accounts from Russian organizations that are doing the exact opposite of what the market suggests. This is enough money to cripple the United States, its government and its economy. Looking to get some answers, Jack heads to Moscow to investigate.

Before his surprising passing in October 2013, Tom Clancy was a go-to author for anyone interested in espionage and military science and technology. His most iconic character? That would be Jack Ryan who has been played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck in four Ryan movies. All four movies are good in their own right, but it's been since 12 years since 2002's The Sum of All Fears. Did we really need a reboot? Were audiences clamoring for a new movie? For me, it seems like a ploy to make money, pure and simple. Naive of me? Probably, but here we sit. Still, there was a lot of talent assembled here, and as a Jack Ryan fan, I wanted to give it a shot even if I wasn't dying to see this new espionage thriller from director and co-star Kenneth Branagh.

So is it worth it? Yes and no. I've got some issues with it. This is the first Ryan movie not to be based off a Clancy novel, and I think it shows. We're re-introduced to the character, tweaking his backstory to make it more modern, more appropriate for the 2010s, not the 1980s/1990s. For starters, the movie clocks in at just 105 minutes. Take away a seven or eight minute credit sequence at the end, and we're talking a movie just over 90 minutes long (about the length of your average screwball comedy). From the opening 10-15 minutes, things are far too rush. Ten-plus years of Jack's backstory are jammed into that first 15 minutes. We go from London to Afghanistan to Walter Reed in a flash, and then we're off to international intrigue as Jack really delves into things in the financial world. The character is too cool for it not to be at least remotely interesting. While it has its moments though, it feels like James Bond meets Jason Bourne meets the Mission Impossible series. Not unique enough to really stand out. Still entertaining? Yes, but nowhere near as good as it could have been.

There are positives, starting with the cast. A star of another successful franchise reboot with the Star Trek movies, Pine is a strong choice to play Jack. He's likable, funny, and more than capable of handling himself in an action scene (but more on that little thing later). Too much time is spent on his relationship with his fiance, Cathy (Kiera Knightley, rocking an American accent), as they try to figure out what their future holds. Oh, by the way, he can't tell her he's a C.I.A. agent, Cathy a young, successful doctor relegated to paranoid girlfriend mode. The human element is one thing, a good thing, but focus on the espionage more! Costner has officially become that Actor, the older actor who isn't the A-list star who carries a movie. Instead, he has become that great actor who now plays the key supporting part, stealing scenes left and right. His Thomas Harper is a great supporting part. As for the villain, Branagh plays Viktor Cherevin with relish, a fun bad guy who's smart and sinister and extremist. A fun part, up there with Costner as the best characters.

Rushed though the story may be, it has some really cool set pieces. Upon arriving in Moscow, Ryan must face off with a hired killer (Nonso Anozie), a brutal, knock down fight in a high-class hotel room. The fallout and payoff is just as good, a CIA team coming in to remove any traces of the fight, including the body. Later in a scene reminiscent of 1996's Mission: Impossible, Ryan must sneak into Cherevin's highly-guarded office with every sort of security imaginable. Knightley's Cathy helps distract Cherevin while Costner's Harper looks on as security from the building across the street. It is a perfectly tense extended sequence that shows you don't need huge special effects or explosions or gimmicks to work. Definitely the high point of the movie.

Where are the gimmicks then? In the immediate follow-up, and that's where the rushed feeling of the entire movie becomes an issue. It's the type of scene that drives me nuts. With time running out, Jack figures out in about 37 seconds what Cherevin's plan is, how he'll execute it, where he'll do it, when, how his sleeper agent (Alec Utgoff) will accomplish it, how he created the bomb, blah blah blah. It's an almost painful scene, agents sitting around a command post and plane while Ryan rattles off numbers and names and questions, clues coming together at an alarming rate. Yeah, I get it. He's a brilliant analyst, but he's able to do in minutes what the C.I.A. and all the government agents couldn't do in years? Come on, man! I'm not buying it. The one actual action sequence in the movie follows it up, a sequence with a complete lack of a payoff. It counts far too much on coincidence to work, characters doing things that need to happen for the story to continue, not because it makes any sense.

I realize I'm really ripping this one. I can't help it. When it is bad, it is really bad, but I still found myself liking it. I walked away disappointed because the finale is so dumb, but the build-up was entertaining. 'Shadow' does have the feel of a throwback spy movie where the Russians are evil, the Americans angelically good, and dammit, we've gotta save the world. Definitely a mixed bag, but just enough to recommend in the mindless entertainment department. I just expect more from a Jack Ryan movie.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, January 30, 2014


There are certain movies out there that are just hard not to appreciate. You don't have to like it, don't have to come away with a new appreciation for film. You just have to appreciate it. Appreciate a style, a story, a character, a storytelling technique, just something. I'd like to put 2013's Nebraska in that category, but with an exception. I very much liked it, even if I'm still processing and/or digesting it.

An old man in Billings, Montana who's health problems are starting to wear on him, his health, his mind and his family, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is on a mission. He's received notice in the mail that he's won $1 million dollars, and he intends to go pick it Lincoln, Nebraska. Woody keeps leaving the house, beginning to walk to Lincoln, picked up every time and brought back home. His son, David (Will Forte), is going through his own personal struggles, at home and at work, a 30-something midlife crisis of sorts. With his mother, Kate (June Squibb), nagging him to do something, David agrees to take Woody on a road trip to Lincoln to "pick up his winnings," basically calling his mother's bluff. He isn't quite sure what to expect, only knowing that his aging father has become quite the handful to take care of. What does he hope to achieve, knowing there is no million dollar treasure at the end of the road?

From director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt) and screenplay writer Bob Nelson, 'Nebraska' piled up the Oscar nominations, the Academy Awards about a month away, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. I'll be curious to see if this film picks up any wins because it definitely deserves the wins. This is a movie about story above all else. There are no distractions, no special effects, no sex/explosions/violence, just a story about family. The score from composer Mark Orton is a soft, folksy, even soothing score that is underplayed, never overpowering the story and characters. It's so straightforward that it plays almost like a documentary, a look into the Grant family after years of alcoholism, arguments, disagreements and all the trappings that come with being a family, for good and bad.

Where to start with the whole acting thing? With a part that De Niro, Hackman, Duvall and Nicholson were all considered for, Bruce Dern nails the part as Woody Grant, a Korean War vet, an alcoholic who doesn't think drinking beer makes him an alcoholic, a quiet man of few words, and as we learn, he has a past full of generosity with a desire to help and so much more. He's also struggling with some health issues. Woody can't hear too well, seems to drift at times and wants nothing more than to go get his million dollars. Why? He wants a new truck (he can't drive) and an air compressor (he doesn't paint anymore). Like all the performances here, nothing feels forced. It's very natural. His hair disheveled, his beard needing a trim, his clothes hanging on him a bit. Dern nails the part from the word 'go.' I don't know if he'll win the Best Actor Oscar, his second nomination including a Supporting nod for Coming Home, but it is a perfectly played part. It's human, flawed, authentic, like being 

There isn't a weak performance in the whole movie. As my buddy Steve said, the straight man never gets the accolades, but I think Will Forte deserves more buzz for his performance here. He is the straight man, the regular guy among all the kookiness. He's struggling a bit in his mid 30s, dealing with all the drama from his own relationship/break-up, his low-paying retail job, and a less than close relationship with his father, still holding some resentment for his childhood. When his father continues to bring up the sweepstakes winnings in Lincoln, David agrees to go with, hoping to spend some time with his father, but also help him feel like he's got a reason to live. The father-son dynamic is an essential ingredient here, Dern and Forte making it look easy. And then there's June Squibb as Kate, Woody's wife who feels ignored over the years as everyone worries about Woody. This was such a crazy, off the wall character, absolutely no filter as she talks about friends, family, acquaintances, anything and everything, usually knowing the dirt on anyone and everything. Quite the family for sure.

That ain't enough, is it?!? No! There's so much more. Stacy Keach makes quite an impression as Ed Pegram, an old friend of Woody's who is glad to see his old buddy but with his own motivation. Mary Louise Wilson and Rance Howard play David's aunt and uncle still living in the town Woody grew up in, Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray (Buzz from Home Alone) their sons (David's cousins) who are a tad suspicious of Uncle Woody's winnings. Also look for Bob Odenkirk as Ross, David's older brother who's a bit more successful in his career, but is still close with David. There are too many other bit parts to mention. We meet a person here, a couple here, an old friend there, some congratulating Woody, others just glad to see him. These are appearances no longer than a minute or two for the most part, but like everything else, they feel natural, giving 'Nebraska' that additional sense of realism.

In bringing Nelson's script to life, director Payne made an interesting stylistic choice. He filmed his movie (clocking in at 110 minutes, leisurely played in an episodic story but never dull) in black and white, not color. It reminded me of 1971's The Last Picture Show and 1973's Paper Moon, also filmed in black and white even though color shooting is readily available. The black and white shooting gives it a retro, throwback look, like we're watching a movie from the early 1960s, maybe even a John Ford-esque movie from the 1940s. Even the opening credits are brutally straightforward, white letters on a black screen. It's hard to describe why the black and white works. It just does. Like so many other aspects of the movie, it helps strip away anything extra or unnecessary. And just on the visual level, it makes the story more appealing, like individual shots are Ansel Adams pictures. Don't make me explain it, but it works. Credit to Payne for trying it because if the style choice didn't work out, his movie was in trouble.

A couple hours after watching the movie, I'm sitting here thinking if Payne's movie had a specific message, something it wanted to tell us as an audience. What did I come up with? Nothing. I don't think there is one message to take away, and that is intended as a compliment. As cheesy as this may sound, I think it's a movie about small-town America, about tough times with the economy, about growing old, about appreciating family even when it's damn near impossible to do so. Payne shoots his movie with a respect for those country roads, those small, isolated towns dotting the map, the rolling farm land, all providing a great backdrop for the family-oriented story. An incredibly easy movie to recommend. Go out and see this one, dramatic, uncomfortable, funny, and most importantly authentic.

Nebraska (2013): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

PT 109

John F. Kennedy  is known for any number of things from a tragically shortened life. His beautiful wife, Jackie, his supposed affairs with Marilyn Monroe among others, his charm and popularity, his turbulent presidency that included the Cuban Missile Crisis, and most tragically, his assassination under the rifle of Lee Harvey Oswald. One of the most fascinating parts of his adventure-filled life? His World War II exploits as told in 1963's PT 109.

While the fighting rages in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific in 1943, Lt. John F. Kennedy (Cliff Robertson) arrives at a small naval base specializing in patrol torpedo boats (PT) meant to keep Japanese forces at bay. Kennedy is given command of PT 109, a beat-up old boat that has seen far better days. He's given just a week to get the 109 ready for action, assembling a crew, including Ensign Leonard Thom (Ty Hardin), cleaning the boat, and rehabbing the engines. They manage to come in under deadline, Kennedy, his crew and the 109 thrust immediately into action. The day-to-day life of a PT boat is a dangerous one though, the boats meant to be used to buy time while the U.S. Navy still tries to recover from Pearl Harbor. Patrols, routine or not, rescues, deliveries, Kennedy and his crew take it all on, but the mission that will put them all in the history books awaits one pitch-black night in the Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands.

One of my favorite movies growing up, I can still go back and visit this 1963 WWII movie from director Leslie H. Martinson and enjoy it from beginning to end. This isn't the most hard-hitting of movies, but like some other WWII movies from Warner Bros., there is a distinct visual look, a professionalism and a straightforward style that plays well. Could things be tightened up a bit with a 140-minute movie? Sure, here and there, but it's an excellent story and film just the same. It was filmed in the Florida Keys, and it's sunny and sandy with plenty of palm trees to help stand in for the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. The musical score from composers David Buttolph and William Lava knows when to lighten the mood and when to show the developing drama, a score that sounds similar to another Warner Bros. WWII movie, 1962's Merrill's Marauders.

Released in theaters less than six months before his death in Dallas, PT 109 was made with the help of Kennedy right in the midst of his term as President. He even had final say on the actor who would play him, Robertson being his ultimate choice. It ends up being a great pick, one that makes the movie far more memorable in my eyes. Besides the striking physical resemblance -- look at Robertson in an iconic JFK picture HERE -- Robertson nails the heroic, likable, charming part of a future American president. That's the movie's goal, to show Kennedy as a hero. More on the details in the next paragraph, but Kennedy's actions were more than enough so Martinson didn't have to stretch things too much. Robertson's Kennedy is smart, quick with a comeback and a plan, a leader who's respected by his men and fellow officers, and a capable commander with a knack for doing the right thing. It's not the most in-depth characterization, but it never set out to be. Kudos to Robertson, already one of my favorites.

Semi-SPOILERS from here on in. The truth of the story behind PT 109 is remarkable in itself. Patrolling in the Blackett Strait a dark August night, the 109 was struck by a Japanese destroyer similarly on patrol. Kennedy's boat was ripped in two pieces, two crewmen killed in the collision. Banding the men together, Kennedy got the survivors to swim to a far-off island and hopefully wait for survival. What followed is and was an inspiring story in itself, Kennedy ultimately winning the the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions. The movie itself is divided into two halves, the first introducing Kennedy, the crew, the boat and their exploits, the second half following its chapter in history as a Japanese destroyer tears the little boat apart. Both halves are excellent, but it's hard to beat the second half as the survivors desperately wait for help in one form or another, Kennedy swimming out into the Strait at night to flag down an American ship.

While the focus is obviously on Robertson as Kennedy, the supporting cast is very solid without stealing the spotlight. Hardin as 2nd-in-command Ensign Thom has a good chemistry with Robertson, Robert Blake, Norman Fell, and Biff Elliot starring as the most visible of the 109's crew. James Gregory is a scene-stealer as Commander Ritchie, the leader of a squadron of PT boats, a veteran officer who's never seen combat but is always searching for the best out of his men. Even Robert Culp shows up at the halfway point as Ensign Barney Ross, an old friend of Kennedy's who ends up on the 109 for its fateful mission, Michael Pate making a memorable appearance as Evans, an Australian coastwatcher who plays an integral part in the eventual rescue of Kennedy and the remaining survivors. Also lending his voice talents in an uncredited narrator role is Andrew Duggan

This isn't a WWII movie that rewrites the genre. It is a movie meant to honor the heroics of future president John F. Kennedy, and it does it well. Exciting with some good action, some genuine laughs and some lighter moments, and Robertson in a great leading part as Kennedy himself.

PT 109 (1963): *** 1/2 /****
Rewrite of August 2010 review

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

We're the Millers

It's hard to mess up a good road trip movie, thinking of a bunch anywhere from National Lampoon's Vacation to Little Miss Sunshine and a whole lot in between. Anything can happen on the road, and these movies have surely illustrated that point. It can be difficult to come up with a new twist for a familiar story/genre so kudos to 2013's We're the Millers for trying something unique.

A longtime and still low level pot dealer, David Clark (Jason Sudeikis) is in a bit of a spot. His stash and all the money he owes his dealer have been stolen, and David has no way to pay off his debt. Well, his dealer, Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms), has a solution, albeit a dangerous one. Brad has a smidge of marijuana waiting for pick-up south of the border in Mexico, and he'd like David to go pick it up and bring it back. If he does, his debts will be cleared. David agrees, but he knows this plan won't be easy. He too comes up with a solution, hiring three acquaintances to pose as his family so he can get in and out of Mexico without causing a stir and getting caught by the border patrol. It's still a screwball plan, but can "the Millers" somehow pull it off and save David from some serious trouble?

If you hadn't/haven't seen the previews before reading that plot synopsis, I bet you wouldn't have pegged director Rawson Marshall Thurber's flick as a comedy, but that's just what it is. Okay, yeah, it's pretty dark at times, but it is a comedy for sure. It starts off really well, dark but not too dark and blended nicely with a good combination of some lowbrow, physical humor and smarter laughs from a funny script that's all about the line delivery. Early on, I liked it a lot, but as the movie hits the road it gets a little too goofy, a little too rambling. It's never bad but unfortunately it also isn't as good as it could have been. Still, there is enough to recommend, a good but not great comedy with some genuinely funny laughs.

One of my favorite stars from recent Saturday Night Live seasons (he's since left the show), Sudeikis has made a good name for himself over the last couple years in movies like Hall Pass, Horrible Bosses, even a memorable supporting part in rom-com Going the Distance. While it is an ensemble cast, Sudeikis is the star here, and he carries himself well. I've read comparisons to Vince Vaughn, and that's fair. He's best when he's underplaying his part and going for the subtle laughs. As a low-level drug dealer, Sudeikis brings a certain oddball charm, a man-boy who never really grew up (which we see in a very funny appearance from high school buddy Thomas Lennon). It's also not your typical comedic lead, a drug dealer with his back up against the wall who's gotta pull some fast ones over some relative strangers.

As for the Millers, there's a good dynamic among David's fake family. They include Rose (a top-billed Jennifer Aniston), a stripper living in David's apartment building who's got some serious money issues, posing as David's wife, Casey (Emma Roberts), a punk, runaway teenager who basically lives on the streets, and Kenny (Will Poulter), a squirrely teenager who lives in David's building as well, inexperienced in....well, just about everything, especially any sort of interactions with girls. There's an enjoyable dynamic among the quartet, four very different people who find themselves working together with a whole lot on the line. David is getting $100,000 from Brad, promising $30,000 to Rose, $1,000 to Casey and a whole bunch of nothing to naively nice Kenny. Some of the best moments come from their act to pull off the Miller family act, and sometimes they're the quieter moments like David passing out sombreros to really prove the tourist family act.

Filling out the supporting cast is Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn as the Fitzgeralds, the real deal when it comes to American families who keep meeting up with the Millers on the road, Molly Quinn as their daughter who makes a surprising revelation in the Millers' epic RV. Tomer Sisley plays a Mexican drug supplier on David's trail, Matthew Willig his menacing enforcer, One-Eye. Also look for Luis Guzman as an opportunistic Mexican cop while Ken Marino plays the clueless owner of the strip club Rose works at.

Like I usually do with comedies, I'm wary of giving away too much because then I ruin the surprises and laughs that come up along the way. There are plenty of them, but some of those laughs get bogged down in a story that gets a little too family-oriented, a little too sentimental as the fake family becomes a bit of a real family. Good but could have been better. Oh, and Jennifer Aniston performs a striptease so there's that, and that is never a bad thing.

We're the Millers (2013): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, January 27, 2014

Into the Blue

It seemed like one of those fake celebrity death stories that seem to pop up more and more over the last couple years. No, this one was real. A star of the Fast and the Furious movies and many other flicks, Paul Walker died in a car accident November 30th. He was just 40 years old. I was and is a huge fan of Walker -- mostly because of the F and F movies -- but I realized I hadn't seen many other movies he was in. Let's try and switch that, starting with 2005's Into the Blue.

Living in the Bahamas, Jared (Walker) is a bit of a beach bum, doing odd jobs and living with his girlfriend, Sam (Jessica Alba). He moves from job to job, living out of a little trailer and working on his beaten-up old boat, hoping to one day find some sunken treasure that will provide for himself and Sam for the rest of their lives. After losing a scuba diving job, Jared gets a visit from his old friend, Bryce (Scott Caan), and his recent babely pick-up/hook-up, Amanda (Ashley Scott), the quartet partying it up at an immense villa Bryce's firm has taken control of. While partying out on a yacht and scuba-diving, Jared lucks upon a huge find waiting for him on the ocean floor, the long lost remains of a shipwreck that has grown to mythical proportions over the years. Now, they just need some money and equipment to lay claim to the treasure, but there's one more problem. Not far from the wreck, they find a crashed plane with dead bodies inside and more dangerously, hundreds of kilos of cocaine. What to do? What to do?

While I thought this John Stockwell-directed film looked interesting when it first came out, I never sought it out. Over recent years, I even watched a movie from the 1970s, The Deep, that looked like 'Blue' tried to duplicate almost to a T. But soon after Walker's sudden passing in November, it popped up on MGM-HD, giving me a chance to catch up with it. What's the appeal? Well, for starters just look at the poster up above. It's pretty people being pretty having crazy adventures in beautiful, exotic places. Do you really need anything else? This isn't a movie that's going to strain any brain cells while watching. Clocking in at 110 minutes, it's an exciting, action-packed story with some twists along the way that keep in interesting. Sit back with some popcorn and enjoy it, just don't overthink it.

Let's face it. Paul Walker is a good-looking guy. This was a movie made for his fans who like him for his....physical talents? Like the entire cast, Walker spends much of the movie in board shorts, swimming around and generally being dreamy. More importantly though, he does what he does best. Walker was an underrated action star, more than capable of handling his own in any number of action sequences. It sure looks like he's doing most of his own stunts, on land and underwater, giving a sense of authenticity to the action (more on that later). On top of that, I also liked Walker's Jared character. If it sounds simple, so be it, but he's a good guy who has a good life if not a glamorous one. When he's presented with a chance to provide for the rest of his life, he's conflicted on what to do, knowing that those crashed drugs he finds were meant to be somewhere and someone is going to come looking for them. An underrated actor with the right script/character, Walker does a strong job leading the way in this Bahama adventure.

The rest of the cast is more hit or miss. Alba was nominated for a Razzie for Worst Actress, but I won't go that far. I thought she did a good job at Walker's side, basically the perfect girl....well, ever. Her Sam is the most conflicted morally about what they should do, the $ only blinding her momentarily. While I normally like Scott Caan, this isn't a great part for him, his Bryce beyond annoying and beyond stupid, making one stupid decision after another. The same for Ashley Scott who seems to be around as eye candy and little else. Because he was originally typecast as a villain, Josh Brolin is the villain, Bates, a boat owner with a huge reputation, and some tricks up his sleeve. There's plenty of other villains around including James Frain as Reyes, the slimy drug dealer, Tyson Beckford as Primo, a Bahamian thug who rocks a mohawk so you know he's a bad guy, Dwayne Adway as Roy, a Bahamian cop who may be pitting all sides against each other.

You wouldn't know from watching, but this PG-13 flick sure seems more like an R-rated flick. The action isn't graphic, but it sure is brutal. As the twisting story throws one nasty bad guy at Jared and Co. after another, the story takes a particularly brutal road to the finish. Let's just say John Stockwell's film has some interesting ways to dispose of some villains. It does get a little silly toward the end, but it's never dull so I'll give credit where it's due. At a most basic level, this is about showing scantily clad individuals -- male and female -- cavorting around the Bahamas.

Seriously, if you muted this movie, you may think it's a porno. The camera lingers a whole lot (and in slow motion) on Jessica Alba and Ashley Scott, and to a lesser degree Paul Walker and Scott Caan. That's what is worth mentioning. It's an easily digestable, fun, action-packed movie with some truly stupid characters in their swimsuits making some truly stupid decisions. How can you wrong?

Into the Blue (2005): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, January 24, 2014

Man of Steel

First appearing in 1939 comic 'Action Comics 1,' Superman has become one of, if not the most recognizable superheroes around, right up there with Batman and Spiderman. He's come a long way in countless comics, even getting a 1950s TV show and ultimately feature films, starring Christopher Reeve, before disappearing for years (of sorts). Then, there was a 2006 reboot that the universe unanimously agreed was really, really bad. Well, it didn't take long for another reboot, 2013's Man of Steel

The planet Krypton is quickly dying, a father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), saving his infant son by sending him off the planet at the last minute with Krypton's incredible power hidden away in the capsule. The space capsule travels through the galaxy, ultimately crashing on Earth where the infant is cared for and raised by a middle-aged farm couple. He grows up knowing he isn't quite normal, the young boy showing incredible feats of strength as needed. The boy, Clark, grows up and into his 20s and 30s, Clark (Henry Cavill) is still struggling to find himself as an outsider in this similar but ultimately strange world. He drifts from job to job, his strength and powers usually forcing him to leave sooner rather than later. Clark begins to find out who he really is as the years go by, all in time for him to fully embrace his superpowers. A survivor of Krypton, General Zod (Michael Shannon), has finally tracked Clark down after 30-plus years of searching the galaxy. Can Clark embrace his true self and help save Earth in the process?

Growing up, I was a Batman fan above all else. I'm pretty sure as a kid I watched the Christopher Reeve movies with my folks, but it's been years, and I don't have a great recollection of them. When I saw the teaser trailer way back in summer 2012 though for this Superman reboot, I was more than psyched. The talent behind the film was evident, director Zack Snyder (of 300 and Watchmen fame) working with producer Christopher Nolan (of the recent Batman trilogy) and a script from David S. Goyer (who wrote the Batman trilogy) working together to bring this reboot together. And going in, I think a distinction should be made. This is a movie about how Superman came to be, not an established Superman saving the world. It is exactly what a reboot should be, an explanation of how an iconic character that most of the audience knows and how he came to be that icon.

The obvious place to start is with Superman himself, Henry Cavill, the 30-year old British actor cast in the part of Clark Kent. A relative unknown in terms of star power before this role, Cavill is ideal casting. I thought he did a great job putting a new spin on a familiar character. This isn't the jokey, smart-mouthed Superman. Instead, Clark is an introspective, intelligent and even tortured individual trying to find who he is in this strange world. He has some similarities to us, but he also knows there is something very different and potentially dangerous about him, his powers coming to light as he grows up and learns his true identity. Now I should say, I'm a sucker for tortured anti-heroes dealing with their own demons, but I really enjoyed a far more serious, more cerebral superhero movie. It's hard not to compare this film to the Batman trilogy in that sense, a look at a superhero but without that comedy and sense of humor to fall back on. Oh, and as for Cavill? He looks like Superman, like he could pick a skyscraper up, save a bus from sinking in a river. The physical goes a long way.

What surprised me some in the development of the character was the reliance on the father-son dynamic between Clark and his father, Jor-El (Crowe nailing the part, "huge surprise" there), and his adopted father on Earth, Jonathan Kent, similarly played to perfection by Kevin Costner. It's a surprising dynamic that develops, Clark learning through he is through conversations with Jonathan, but also talking with his long-dead father through Krypton technology. It's those little things that bring the movie up a notch or two, Goyer's script providing some emotional, effective moments that ring true, not false as Clark becomes what he must become. In a weird way in terms of that father-son dynamic, 'Man' reminded me some of 2013's The Place Beyond the Pines in how it deals with that tricky relationship. It works though, right from the start, adding a layer to the story. Yeah, we've seen a Dad helping his son out before in movies, but how does a Dad help out his son who also has superpowers that could save or destroy Earth? Surprisingly, it's not that different.

From top to bottom, the cast may not have the instantly recognizable huge names, but I think that works in the movie's favor. Along with Cavill, Crowe and Costner, look for Amy Adams as Lois Lane, intrepid reporter who may be onto Clark's real identity and ability, Diane Lane as Martha, Clark's adopted mother, Harry Lennix and Christopher Meloni as Army officers tasked with finding the truth about Superman, Laurence Fishburne as Lois' editor at the Daily Planet, an underused Richard Schiff as a scientist working with the military, and Ayelet Zurer as Lana, Clark's real mother on Krypton who must decide what sacrifice to make with her son. As the villain, General Zod, Shannon is great casting, his huge presence a big positive in this reboot, Antje Traue as his indestructible right-hand officer.

Reading reviews, listening to friends, what caught me off guard was the hate this movie received. I don't know why. If anything, I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe it's because I didn't go into the movie with any preconceived notions of what the movie should be, not being a diehard Superman fan. I came away very impressed from the get-go. The story is non-linear, bouncing around between flashbacks and the current time as Clark moves ever close to fulfilling his destiny. The storytelling device works, simple as that. Composer Hans Zimmer's score is big and booming and appropriate while the visual look of the movie -- polished, but slightly washed out, even faded -- similarly works very well. Even Superman's outfit is a darker, more pale blue, not that bright blue we've come to associate with the character. The action is solid, especially an epic showdown in Smallville, but I found myself more drawn to the story and the characters. Go figure.

In the months since the release of 'Man,' the franchise/series has been in the news because of where it's going. Instead of just continuing the Superman movies, the next movie will be Batman vs. Superman, scheduled for a 2015 release. I'm curious, even intrigued, but I can't say I'm excited. 'Man' leaves the story on such a good jumping off point that it seems almost a gimmick to revive Batman so quick and bring him into this series. That said, I'll probably go see it. If nothing else and not knowing where the franchise will go, 'Man' is a great jumping off point in itself. Lots of dissenters and haters out there, but make up your own mind. I for one, loved it.

Man of Steel (2013): *** 1/2 /****

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Red 2

A good if not great success released back in 2010, Red was a good if not great summer-type blockbuster that earned almost $200 million worldwide. I liked it, a movie that was familiar but also really fun and action-packed. I can say I was pretty surprised to hear it was getting a sequel, but with all the duds out there, I wanted to give it a try, even if it was an unnecessary sequel. Here we go with 2013's Red 2.

Having survived the shady branches of the government trying to burn him (i.e. kill him), former C.I.A. operative Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) has moved onto a quieter life, moving in with his girlfriend and former customer service operator, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). Well, it was a quieter life. Friend, fellow former agent and all-around kook Marvin Boggins (John Malkovich) has tracked Frank down and is seeking his help. Dating back to a mission they accomplished in the early 1980s, an internet leak (hello, WikiLeak!) links them to placing a nuclear bomb somewhere in Moscow. There's a catch. Supposedly, it's still there, and a rogue government agency that's "interested in national security" wants to not only find the bomb, but kill Frank, Marvin and anyone with any knowledge of the bomb. Bringing Sarah along to protect her -- even though she's excited to come along -- Frank and Marvin (and some other friends along the way) hit the road looking to save millions and exonerate themselves.

Above all else, this sequel and its predecessor are what movies supposed to be. They're not great, they don't rewrite the genre, and at times, they're too schizophrenic for its own good. What are they then? They're a whole lot of fun, whole lot of action and a whole lot of talent assembled in the cast. Director Dean Parisot follows the same formula as the original, giving his retired agents (RED stands for Retired, Extremely Dangerous) an impossible mission to accomplish and letting them do so in multiple exotic locations around the world. Originally based on a graphic novel, some scene transitions reflect its background, the characters and action turning to animation with a quick blur to the next location. Even though it's a little long at 116 minutes, things never slow down long enough for it to actually be boring.

The biggest reason for the success here is that the cast is clearly having a lot of fun. That doesn't always translate, but in here it is definitely a positive. We're talking a talented cast here, Willis, Louise-Parker, Malkovich and Helen Mirren all returning from the first movie. There is an easy-going, friendly charm that brings the movie past its familiar, action-packed roots, another layer to appreciate. Willis as the very capable Moses is his usual action hero, but with a spin, a quasi-nerdy homebody who is the polar opposite of what you'd think a cold-blooded C.I.A. agent would be. Malkovich and Mirren are the best parts of the movie, legitimizing the movie just by being there, but also committing to their parts and having some fun. Malkovich's possibly unhinged Marvin is a scene-stealer, always ranting about conspiracies and plots for evil....except he's usually right. Mirren too is perfectly cast as Victoria, a very ladylike older woman who's also capable of pulling out the big guns to get the job done, doing her job and doing it well. It's a great, fun trio to lead the way.

What I noticed with this sequel is its got some touches of Sylverster Stallone's Expendables movies. You have your core cast, but then you fill out the rest of the parts with as much talent as humanly possible, and in this case with a lot of fun parts. Also returning briefly from the first Red is Brian Cox as Ivan, a former and now current love of Mirren's Victoria, with newcomers Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, David Thewlis and Neal McDonough all joining the story. I don't want to give too much away about the characters, each of them holding some good twists as the story develops. My favorite supporting part went to alum of the G.I. Joe series Byung-hun Lee, playing the Han Cho Bai, the world's best hired killer, this time hired to take out Moses and crew. It's a really entertaining part that is both dark and fun, his past history with Frank Moses and the ever-evolving killer/victim relationship developing with some fun jokes.

If there's a weakness in the cast, it's Mary-Louise Parker as Sarah, Frank's thrill-seeking girlfriend. She loves Frank, but she's also bored to tears with their new quiet home life. I saw a lot of movies this year, and I don't know if there was a more annoying movie character out there. The script really tries to involve her in the action, her oddball personality blending "well" with the group, but it tries too hard. She's supposed to be cute and quirky and adorable, but any dialogue involving her relationship (and its problems) with Frank can be painful to watch. It provides some good moments as Malkovich and Mirren offer solutions, but it's just window dressing on some painful moments.

The action is another thing here that surprises me. Red 2 is pretty violent, but because it's PG-13, it isn't as effective as it could be. I'm not always a proponent of graphic violence for the sake of the violence, but the on-screen killings, gunfire and explosions are pretty hardcore at times, making me question if a harsher, blood-splattered version wouldn't be a tad bit better. The action manages to blend that schizo, over the top stylish action with the harder, grittier shootouts, never going too long between sequences. It does give the cast some funny moments during these hellacious firefights, Frank at one point asking Marvin "Is that dynamite in your pocket?" to which Marvin answers "Yeah, I was saving it for an emergency." It's that type of goofiness that plays well in this action comedy.

Long story short....if you liked the original, you'll enjoy this follow-up. Not a classic, but very watchable and a good popcorn movie.

Red 2 (2013): ***/****

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Trouble with the Curve

I really like baseball. I also really like just about any movie Clint Eastwood has ever done. So naturally I should like a movie that combines the two things, right? Right?!? Yeah, that's what I thought, but it didn't quite turn out that way. I had modest expectations going into 2012's Trouble with the Curve, but it was surprisingly bad.

A longtime scout for the Atlanta Braves, Gus Lobel (Eastwood) has made a career out of being able to analyze a baseball player's skills and tell if they'll be able to cut it in the Majors. His contract is about to expire, just a few months away, and though he's unaware of it, the Braves are trying to decide if they should re-up with him. With the first-year player's MLB Draft fast approaching, Gus has been tasked with scouting Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), a power-hitting third baseman projected to be either first or second pick overall. The Braves have the No. 2 pick so Gentry could fall to them, but Gus has a serious issue. He's starting to lose his vision but refuses to get any help. His daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), an associate aiming to be a partner at her law firm, takes a few days off to accompany her Dad and help him out if possible. Their relationship is to say the least strained though, and both are working through some past and current issues, the draft approaching ever faster.

I really thought this was a can't miss kind of film. No, not an all-time classic that would rejuvenate my love of movies, but a good, old-fashioned story about family and baseball and all that good stuff. So as I mentioned, modest expectations, nothing more. Even then, I came away extremely disappointed. Basically all the reviews made a clear distinction. The script from Randy Brown is schmaltzy, sappy, too darn sweet, and oh so darn heartwarming. Everyone admitted it, but it seemed to divide the reviews. Some people said all those things and liked it (I didn't see many "love" reviews) while others said all those things and came away disappointed with a dull, cheesy movie. I'll give two guesses, but you'll only need one. Which camp do you think I'm in? 

It doesn't take a genius to watch the trailer and figure out it's going to be all of those things I mentioned above (watch the trailer below at the end of the review). I figured it would use that as a jumping off point, a springboard to bigger, better and more. Yeah, about that.....nope, it just doesn't happen. A movie that runs 111 minutes plays like one big after school special. A torn apart family, wounds still fresh and unresolved, a chance to come together and get a shot at some redemption, it gets tedious by the second or third confrontation between Eastwood's Gus and Adams' Mickey (named after Mickey Mantle). Mickey wants to deal with their checkered past, Gus a single dad who worked a lot and tried his best but really pawned off his little girl on family. It takes too long to get anywhere, it's dull getting there and the resolution is more than just predictable. You can predict it now. Go ahead, try it.

As the plodding story moved along, I kept waiting for this movie to get better. If nothing else, the talent assembled would make it worthwhile, or so I thought. It didn't. Eastwood came out of acting retirement to star here, but he's playing that same gruff, growling old man he's done in Gran Torino and any number of other movies. It's not a bad performance, just a familiar one that isn't particularly interesting. Adams tries her best here to bring it all together, a woman who's spent much of her adult (and child) life trying to adjust and cope with what happened to her as a kid. Her chemistry is okay with Eastwood, but far too much time is devoted to her 'Will they? Won't they?' possible relationship with Justin Timberlake's dreamy young baseball scout, Johnny. So Mickey is trying to help (read = save) her Dad, but her Dad is the one that's helping her out too, everyone learning a lesson in the process? Gag me.

Also look for John Goodman as a higher-up Braves official and a close friend of Gus, Robert Patrick as the Braves general manager, Matthew Lillard as a younger scout who's embraced all the stats of scouting rather than the personal analysis of watching a player, and Ed Lauter, Chelcie Ross and Raymond Anthony Thomas as fellow crotchety baseball scouts.

More than anything, I had an issue as a baseball fan of a baseball movie that doesn't know the sport it's writing about. The Red Sox are going to send an inexperienced scout like Timberlake's Johnny to scout the possible No. 1 player in the draft? And Bo is a five-tool player? He's slow, chubby and is supposed to be the next Albert Pujols? Yeah, I'm not buying it, the character an unlikable caricature. Those are all issues but nothing that would ruin a movie. That comes in the finale, a ridiculously forced ending that would happen in no real world of professional sports with millions of dollars on the line. Big, broad characters -- for good and bad -- and a story that's going to get where it wants to get, making sense be damned. A huge disappointment.

Trouble With the Curve (2012): */****

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The World's End

With 2004's Shaun of the Dead, director Edgar Wright and co-stars and real-life friends Simon Pegg and Nick Frost put themselves on the pop culture map. Three years later, the trio proved they were no flukes, releasing the equally funny and the underrated 2007 flick Hot Fuzz. Well, it took the three of them a couple years -- as in six years -- but they've released the third movie in their unofficial trilogy, 2013's The World's End.

It's been 20 years since Gary King (Pegg) and his four friends celebrated their last day of college with an epic pub crawl, the Golden Mile, that tries to cover 12 different bars around Newton Haven, the town they all grew up in. The celebration went awry though, Gary and Co. only making it about halfway through the crawl. Now in his early 40s, Gary never really moved on with his life -- ever the partying college student -- and now he wants to do one thing above all else; finish the Golden Mile. Gary meets up with the rest of his friends who's he drifted away from over the years, Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steve (Paddy Considine), Peter (Eddie Marsan) and even Andy (Frost), his former best friend he had an epic falling out with, and convinces them all (some more willing than others) to reunite and try to pull it off. It's been years though, and there's something going on in Newton Haven that none of them could see coming.

I really liked both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz so when I read there was another film in the works from Wright, Pegg and Frost, I was excited to see where it went. Then, I saw the trailer which I'll link to below at the end of the review. It starts off decent enough if in some familiar territory about college friends reuniting to take on the world in a way. And then it happened in a flash. SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS The quintet stumbles onto some sort of alien replacement invasion, the town they grew up in drastically changed in ways they could never have anticipated. What?!? My first thought was simply "That looks incredibly dumb," but then I realized I had a similar thought about both 'Shaun' and 'Fuzz.' The third time wasn't the charm here, the talented trio coming up short with their third film.

What's the biggest detriment to its success? Quite simply, I didn't find it very funny. It just doesn't have enough laughs to recommend. Sure, there are some funny moments spread out over a 110-minute flick, but not enough to sustain the energy throughout. I thought too -- trying to go in with an open mind -- that the genre-bending story of five college buddies reuniting with a possible alien invasion was oddly brilliant in an out of left field, random fashion. It never molds together though, never finds that right balance between the two and in the end falls short because of it. At different points, it reminded me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (loved it) and more recently, The Watch (hated it). I wanted to like it just because of the talent assembled working together, but I didn't. It's a comedy without the laughs unfortunately.

If there's something that helped me get through 'World,' it is the casting. Even with a script that wasn't necessarily entertaining, the talented cast makes the most of it, specifically the quintet. Pegg as Gary King starts off as a truly obnoxious character (intentionally so), one I was worried would single-handedly handicap the story. As we learn more about him, he's still pretty grating, but there's a certain idiotic charm to his quest to complete the Golden Mile. Not surprisingly, the best thing going is the dynamic between Pegg's Gary and Frost's Andy, a more than frayed former friendship as Gary left Andy out to dry years before, his drinking/partying/drugging breaking up the friendship. Now, Andy either wants to give him one more shot, whether it's to end it once and for all or to see if Gary has changed. The dynamic among the five is fun, Freeman's Oliver a buttoned-down real estate agent, Marsan's Peter a beaten down husband, and Considine's Steve going through a bit of a mid-life crisis.

The best moments come from the group, Pegg and Wright's script effortlessly showing what a friendship would be like this. The group has plenty of history, the script giving them plenty of chances to show off that subtle comedic timing, the dialogue pretty snappy throughout as these friends must band together to get through that hell. Also look for Pierce Brosnan as a former teacher, Rosamund Pike as a former love (oh, yeah, love triangle!), and Bill Nighy providing his voice in a key role late as things come together.

I'm disappointed. I wanted to like this movie. I did like the cast. There is a charm, a style with its goofy cuts and hyper-fast editing and zoom-ins on random objects, but it gets bogged down. Not enough laughs, the message in the finale trying desperately to save things. The finale does provide a good twist in its random darkness which provides a bit of a saving grace but not really enough to save it overall.

The World's End (2013): **/****

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick has been downright busy the last couple years. His first feature film, Badlands, was first released in 1973, and over the next 32 years the director made just three more films. Over the last two years and looking ahead to 2014, Malick will have made five films total. Talk about picking up the pace, huh? Picking up an Oscar nomination for The Thin Red Line, Malick recently picked up his second nomination, this one for 2012's The Tree of Life.

A straightforward plot description really wouldn't do this one justice, plain and simple. Even the more linear Malick stories/films like Days of Heaven or Thin Red Line basically refuse to be tied down by a straightforward description. Here's a general gist of it all....very general. A middle-aged man, Jack (Sean Penn), works in modern times in a major city as an architect. He one day gets word that one of his brothers has died, opening up wounds from a odd, turbulent childhood that still haunts him. In flashbacks, we see that childhood, a younger Jack (Hunter McCracken), growing up with his two brothers and his parents, his father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain). What did it all mean? What does it mean now in relation to his life?

Look, I get it. Terrence Malick doesn't make movies. He makes films. These aren't easily digested, popcorn movies you watch on a rainy Saturday afternoon. You've got to be primed, psyched for what you're about to watch. You've got to be in the right frame of mind. More than that? Don't even be slightly tired. If a nap is in your future, try the movie after your nap. A Malick movie is all about the style, the narration, the visual, the love and appreciation of nature and Earth and living and life. That sentence should do one of two things. One, encourage you and entice you into watching this film. Two, pack up your belongings and run for the hills. I have a love/hate relationship with Malick and often within his movies. One scene, one visual, one line of narration can be profound in its beauty (accompanied by Alexandre Desplat's worthy score), but that moment of brilliance can be lost in wave after wave of nauseous, overdone scenes that wallop you over the head in an attempt to be brilliant.

That ultimately is what prevented me from actually liking Malick's Tree of Life. I'd like to say that it is really trying here, really trying to say something profound, deep and all-meaning about life and growing up. Life can be equally beautiful and equal parts ugly in terms of personal relationships, emotions and interactions. It's finding that middle ground that makes it worthwhile. The word that came to mind over and over again while watching 'Life' was 'pretentious'. Then, reviews one after another I read used the description. Then, supporters of the movie said anyone who said it was pretentious was stupid, didn't get the meaning and should go back to watching Transformers. Very mature, huh? I debated even using the word itself because it is a pretty damning description in my mind. Maybe it is just trying too hard, but I keep coming back to it.

The biggest issue is that the message is....well, muddled? I don't know what it's trying to say. At 138 minutes, it is rather leisurely (to say the least) in its pacing. There is no linear story, but that in itself isn't a deal-breaker. The biggest focus is on Jack growing up as a child, specifically his teenage years, a turbulent time in any young man's life. What kind of person will he be? Kind and caring? More calculated and less emotional? Jack finds himself in a tug of war between his ultra-caring, sympathetic Mother (a solid part for Chastain) versus his ultra-tough, always teaching Father (a decent Pitt, nothing special). It really should be Mother and Father, the sense of an existential message doused in symbolism and a deeper meaning. Not just father and mother, but Father and Mother. Is that what Malick is going for? An all-meaning, all-told story of life and birth, ups and downs, living and learning, mistakes and victories? I really have no idea what he is going for in the least.

I don't know either if it is a movie that leaves so much up to the viewer/audience to make his own interpretation. I felt like it actually said very little, dragging on in a 138-minute film. It says a lot (or at least thinks so) while actually saying very little. As I write this review, it has now been a full week since my first viewing, and I still struggle to put into words what happened here. 'Life' is not a "Bad" movie. It strives to be something different, profound, maybe even something great. It is visually a stunner, something to sit back and appreciate like all of Malick's previous ventures and most likely his future films. But is that enough? If a movie strives to reach for the stars....and fails, how do you reward or penalize it? I can give credit where it's due, but on almost all levels I felt this one falls short. No story to speak of, narration that borders on the inane because it's trying to be profound, a 20-minute evolution sequence that shows the development of the universe, asides that may or may not be dreams/hallucinations/death/afterlife, all add up to a painful movie to watch at times.

As I've pointed out, I don't need a movie spelled out for me scene by scene, but a little help would have been appreciated. A little help, that's all. Even Penn in interviews said maybe Malick should have tweaked his film a little here and there, make it slightly more palatable to audiences. As is, I don't know what it's trying to say other than 1. Life can be tough. 2. Life is an ongoing, learning experience. 3. Life is full of constant tough decisions and 4. Appreciate it every minute because it's fleeting. An incredible disappointment to say the least.

The Tree of Life (2012): * 1/2 /****  

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Fifth Cord

Take a look to your right and find the runner marked Labels. Can you tell I like spaghetti westerns, a sub-genre of westerns with a cynical take on violence and the old west from the late 1960s and 1970s made with Italian backing and often starring American actors. I love the genre, but it's also opened the door to all sorts of other Italian films like sword and sandal epics to a new genre for me, the Italian giallo, starting with 1971's The Fifth Cord.

A journalist and reporter with a drinking problem, Andrea Bild (Franco Nero) attends a New Year's Eve party and ends more than sufficiently liquored up. He staggers home, sleeps it off and heads into work the next day to find out that a woman who attended the party, and a friend of Andrea's too, was murdered following the party. With an in at the police department, Andrea does his own investigation and doesn't buy how the police are tying it all together. It's not long though before several other murders take place, all of them guests from that same New Year's Eve party. Andrea tries to piece it all together at the risk of his own life, knowing that this serial killer may be targeting him next. Can he track down the murderer before he becomes that next victim?

The term 'giallo' in this context can mean any thriller, often about serial killers, gruesome murders and all that good stuff. Pretty uplifting, right? The genre blends in all sorts of archetypes, from the rather gory murders -- throat slices to decapitations -- to the typically deranged killers doing the deeds. It wasn't just about gore or shock value though, typically trying to amount to more, making an art of the genre. There is a style and a visual that helps it rise above the same old, same old from a familiar genre. I'm not a huge fan of just the good, old-fashioned slasher genre so having something additional to focus on makes it more than just a scare factor movie, a jump out of your seat fright fest one after another. And oh yes, it is pretty creepy.

As a writer -- okay, a freelance writer who typically writes about sports and movies -- I'm a sucker for most movies depicting the oh so glamorous lives of writers, reporters and journalists. If you listen to movies though, anyone who has ever committed a word to paper is drunk, really drunk, a drug addict or has such serious personal issues that it's amazing writers aren't crippled by their own flaws. Franco Nero does a solid job in the lead performance as the drunken journalist trying to track down a murderer before that murderer can get to him. I think Nero was a solid to above average actor, but when he was at his best it was because he was a huge, brooding, emotional presence. A life and death situation certainly brings that out. Nero was always able to do a lot with his eyes, that sinister, low-burn intimidation or that big, wide-eyed fear and/or panic. The story was hard for me to follow at times, but Nero was excellent.

I can't say that for the rest of the cast. For me, it felt like I was seeing a rotation of similar characters with very little in the way of distinguishing features that sets them apart from each other. No doubt, part of that comes from my complete lack of familiarity with most of the Italian cast, but some of it has to be attributed to the script. Familiar WWII face Wolfgang Preiss plays the police inspector who works with Nero's Andrea but also starts to suspect him as the clues and evidence mount up. Here's a problem though. With an exception here and there, I can't remember a single other prominent character five days after watching this movie. Some people get killed, some are introduced (poorly), and then one is revealed as the killer. When it happens, I couldn't even place him, questioning if we'd even met him at some point. The reasoning is cool, something we've seen as an audience many times in Law and Order, but when the payoff alone isn't worth it, any twist and/or reveal lands with a thud.

So while the story is disappointing, the giallo qualities work well. As an underplayed, moody and downright unsettling murder mystery, it works because the murder scenes are so perfectly uncomfortable. Director Luigi Bazzoni uses some off-center, wide-angle camera angles, zoomed in and then zoomed out to extremes to build up the tension as to what's about to happen. A paralyzed woman (Ira von Furstenberg) is trapped in her home, unable to reach her wheelchair, the killer tracking her down in the spacious, poorly lit rooms and hallways. Later, a little boy desperately tries to lock all the doors to his home, his Mom on the phone willing him to go faster, the killer trying to get in. Why? Eh, not really explained why the little boy is a target. And there's your problem. I feel like I missed a whole lot of explanation, and the story falls short in the end.

The Fifth Cord (1971): **/****

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Drinking Buddies

I have a theory about movies and the critics who review them. Sometimes I think critics get together as a group, grab some lunch and collectively agree whether or not to give a positive or negative review to a specific film. That's the biggest thing I took away from 2013's Drinking Buddies, currently rocking an 82% from critics (that's good) at Rotten Tomatoes but only a 56% from audiences (strictly mediocre) and 6.2 at IMDB (a "Meh" if there ever was). Which one is it? Critical darling or audience dud?

Working at Revolution Brewery in Chicago, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) are the best of friends. They hang out together, go drinking after work, bust each other almost non-stop about...well, everything and more importantly trust the other one about just about everything. Their friendly(ish) flirting goes on almost non-stop as well, but there's a problem. Both are in relationships, Kate dating Chris (Ron Livingston), who signs promising artists for a record label while Luke is quasi-engaged to Jill (Anna Kendrick) as the couple figures things out for the future. Could anything come of their friendship like the perfectly compatible Kate and Luke deciding they should date and be together? Or will their significant others in their relationships end up being 'the one'?

I don't know if I've ever written a more cliched plot description than that. I remember watching the trailer for this gem at some point late last summer, the thought that maybe it would be good, and just wasn't. If you're looking to save 90 minutes of your life, just watch the trailer. It hits seemingly all the necessary plot points and then ends. Wanna know the catch? That's the entire movie. It doesn't get any better than that. The entire movie is based on the 1990s TV sitcom cliche that Pretty Girl A is meant to be with Quirky but Perfect Guy A. The problem? Pretty Girl A is with Quirky but Not Perfect Guy B. Quirky but Perfect Guy A....yeah, he's all over the place. I didn't like this movie, and I was real close to completely bailing late in the 90-minute flick. For you loyal readers, I stuck with it though.

If I'm going to criticize, I've got to have it all figured out, right? I watched this movie from director and writer Joe Swanberg and couldn't quite put my finger on it. Just about each and every scene had this weird tone to it, an uncomfortable back and forth, silences that are too long for their own good. These are conversations and dialogue that just seem, well, forced. Why is that exactly? The entire movie was improvised. Yes, Swanberg provided a rough outline for his cast to work off of, but nothing definite in terms of actual lines. Instead, the cast just went with it, making up dialogue as they want. You know what? It shows. Beyond any reality of the awkwardness of male/female relationships, there are too many scenes that are just uncomfortable to watch. They're either too short or gone on for too long. There is little to no rhythm from scene to scene, slowing down an already glacial-like pacing.

There is talent here though so there has to be something worth recommending, right? Nope, Swanberg's outlined script making it really hard to be sympathetic with any of the four main characters. We know basically from the start that Kate and Chris aren't going to make it, and that Luke and Jill similarly have some pretty serious issues to deal with if their relationship is going to last. Maybe it is the entire lack of a script -- just that lovely outline -- or just the acting in general, but I didn't like any of the four main characters. Wilde's Kate seems too dumb and goofy for her own good, Johnson's Luke is too nice and equally clueless, Livingston's Chris is just odd, always off a beat or two, and Kendrick's Jill is very twitchy and awkward and uncomfortable. The issues they're dealing with, their emotions and relationship struggles are all pretty real, not some contrived movie relationship issue, but the characters range from dumb to annoying to unpleasant and the story never brings any of it to life.

'Buddies' does take some interesting twists about the halfway point, but by then I was almost completely checked out. It had already dug its grave way too deep by that point. It ends on a disappointing note, not resolving much and leaving too many plates spinning all at one time. And then for a couple other things worth mentioning. Jason Sudeikis is the only other supporting part worth mentioning, Kate's absent-minded boss who tries to avoid work at all costs. Also, the film is set in Chicago, featuring references from everything to Revolution Brewery to random mentions of streets, schools and suburbs in the area. All well and good, right? Yeah, especially for Chicago viewers. It's all a cop-out I tells ya!!!! We never see Chicago in the least. What a city tease, Drinking Buddies, for shame.

A movie about late 20-somethings dealing with the hell that can be life (and set in Chicago) sounded moderately appealing even if the trailer was less than convincing. Nothing comes of it, the lack of a script being the biggest impediment to anything good as a finished product. It's called Drinking Buddies, and that's what we see, four people drinking a lot of beer (and some wine), brooding over their relationships, flirting with their friends, and in general, being pretty annoying. Steer clear, just go to a local bar and people watch. It'll be more entertaining.

Drinking Buddies (2013): */****

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

47 Ronin

Like any film genre, the samurai genre played itself out in the 1970s after wave of wave of flicks hit the screen. The genre had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, directors like Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Gosha, Masaki Kobayashi and Kihachi Okamoto putting the samurai on the popular culture map. Damn the 1970s, a decade that helped kill the western too! So now in 2014, it's cool to see new takes on familiar stories from a genre that was once hugely popular, like 2013's 47 Ronin.

An outcast living in feudal Japan, Kai (Keanu Reeves) has spent his life as an outsider. His parents are unknown with very little known about how he grew up or even where he grew up. Now a grown man, he lives on the land of Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), doing odd jobs and trying his best to stay away from trouble. Kai becomes an accomplished fighter and swordsman, but as an outsider, he can never become a true samurai. When Asano is betrayed by a rival lord with high aspirations, Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), Kai is sold into slavery, finding a living of sorts as a gladiator forced to fight to the death. A full year goes by when Kai is approached and rescued by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), Asano's former samurai commander, with an offer. If Kai joins Oishi and his other banished samurai, they can work together to take down Kira. Their chances are slim though, death a likely ending for anyone who dares challenge Kira and his immense army.

There's a simple reason I've always liked samurai movies. They remind me of westerns in a lot of ways, the only real problem being that it can be difficult to track them down in the U.S., on DVD, whatever. Samurais and ronins (disgraced samurais who roam the country on their own) are a Japanese equivalent of wild west gunslingers. Even Kurosawa's Seven Samurai was adapted into one of my favorite movies, the American western The Magnificent Seven. When handled correctly, these can be great characters. They live, work and -- for the most part -- operate on their own. They decide if they will be good or bad, to help or harm. As presented in films, the samurais, ronins and gunslingers live by a code, one that revolves around honor, loyalty and sticking to your word. So how about a disgraced group of samurais trying to regain their honor? Yeah, count me in.

Director Carl Rinsch's film plays on that samurai code well, focusing on the unlikely partnership formed by Reeves' Kai and Sanada's Oishi. These are two different men with different backgrounds, but when it comes to who they are and what they believe in, they're really not so different. The two men have a past together, Oishi finding a knocked-out Kai in the woods as teenagers, how Kai got there completely unexplained (resolved later). A poor, outcast fighter and a lifelong-trained samurai with all the necessary bloodlines are an action movie Odd Couple, men from different backgrounds who have the same goals and same motivations. They're going to have to put their differences aside if they hope to achieve those goals. I liked both characters a lot, Reeves actually taking a backseat to Sanada. I don't think anyone will call Reeves a great actor, but as an action star, as a presence, he holds his own. As for Sanada, he's quite the presence too, a brooding, intense actor ready to exact some revenge.

One of the reasons I was psyched for this samurai flick with pretty obvious. I love movies like this that bring a group of disparate, different specialists together to accomplish some impossibly dangerous mission. So 47 Ronin? Yeah, that sounds right up my alley. Among the group of disgraced samurais, we've got Chikara (Jin Akanishi), Oishi's son inexperienced in fighting, Yasuno (Masayoshi Haneda), a veteran samurai who is alive because Kai saved him during a dangerous hunt, Hazama (Hiroshi Sogabe), Basho (Takato Yonemoto), the overweight, joking samurai, and Horibe (Shu Nakajima), the aging samurai and more than capable fighter. I would have liked some more development from Kai, Oishi and their group, but what's there is pretty good.

The rest of the cast is an interesting mix of reality and fantasy. As the villainous Lord Kira, Asano is underused and not quite developed enough, but he's one bad dude in what we do see. Adding a sense of the mystical and other-worldly, Rinko Kikuchi plays Mizuki, a witch who can take human and animal (including one surprising twist late) forms to move around undetected and do her dastardly deeds. Ko Shibasaki plays Mika, the young woman in love with Kai (an unnecessary subplot) going back to their teenage years, all the while knowing they can't be together. Familiar face Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays the harsh Shogun, forced to rule Japan with an iron fist to keep all the districts in place.

This isn't a classic movie, maybe not even a good movie, but I was entertained. It's made just under $100 million in theaters as I write this and was raked over the coals pretty good by critics. It is familiar, cliched, and the early goings take a little while to get going. Near the hour mark though, the momentum picks up the action finally reveals itself. An enjoyable, entertaining movie, nothing more, nothing less.

47 Ronin (2013): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, January 13, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

There are few names as instantly recognizable, as iconic as Walt Disney, the hugely successful businessman who helped create the immense Disney empire. I grew up watching animated Disney movies with my sister, family and friends having been introduced to the older Disney genres at the same time so for me the 1950s and 1960s were the empire at its ultimate best. Think of all the backstories, all the explanations, all the little tidbits explaining how all those movies and TV shows came to be, like the classic 1964 film Mary Poppins, which we see in 2013's Saving Mr. Banks.

Struggling financially to make ends meet in her London home, Pamela 'P.L.' Travers (Emma Thompson) has agreed to do something she's avoided for 20 years. She agrees to meet Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in Los Angeles to discuss selling the rights to her hugely successful children's book, Mary Poppins. While she could clearly use the money, Travers also is less than psyched to sell the rights to her most famous book, the one that put her on the literary map. The book, the story and the characters, they all mean too much to her, and she worries Walt Disney will "Disney-fy" it, adding animation and songs and a far-more lighthearted tone than her original book intends. Having long wanted to turn Travers' book into a feature film (having promised his daughters he would do so), Disney is going to put the full-court press on the author to get the job done. Who's going to buckle first?

There's something to be said for movies like this. Blend a well-written, entertaining story with some fun, memorable characters, throw some style in there for good measure, and let things fall where they may. It isn't trying to rewrite Film, instead it is content to tell that story and hopefully resonate that way. Director John Lee Hancock is a specialist at that type of film, and I mean that in the most positive sense. In terms of what it is trying to accomplish, it reminded me of two other Hancock films, The Rookie and The Blind Side. It certainly helps if you're a fan of the original Mary Poppins to get some of the jokes, the lines, the background, but it's not essential. The story is a good blend of drama and comedy, and don't be fooled. Hancock's film is most definitely trying to pull at your heart strings. Oh, and it does, and does it well.

The movie's success rides on the shoulders of stars Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks. I don't know if either will get any Academy Award nominations, but these are two very human, very layered performances. Over the last couple weeks, 'Banks' has taken some public grief because of its portrayal of Disney -- not too many flaws in view, read more HERE -- as that flawless, pretty perfect hero, but at no point was this a huge, digging character study of a movie. This is about two very stubborn folks who are willing to stick to their guns, Thompson's Travers and Hanks' Disney. Their scenes together crackle, Thompson perfectly cast as the icy, brutally honest author who wants to protect her own story, Hanks breathing life into a likable, charming and even then iconic Walt Disney. Thompson makes it hard at times, but you like both these characters. You're rooting for both of them.

So while I point out this isn't a movie too interested in the characters' real-life flaws, it also doesn't gloss over too much. While much of the story is spent in Los Angeles in the 1960s, a fairly large amount of time is spent in a flashback in the early 1900s in Australia, watching a young Travers grow up, seeing what becomes her inspiration for Mary Poppins and its characters. We see young Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), her well-meaning father (Colin Farrell) with a drinking problem, her mother (Ruth Wilson), overwhelmed by her husband's drinking problems that affect all aspects of their life, and ultimately, Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), Travers' inspiration for Mary Poppins. Of the two halves of the story, I enjoyed the 1960s Disney portion more, but both hold their merits. It's never overdone even if its obvious where the 1900s Australia part is going. I was just more interested in how Mary Poppins came together, a battle of wills between Travers and Disney.

There isn't a weak performance in the movie. The supporting parts are filled out with some big names too, parts that are meant to flesh out the lead roles. My favorite part went to Paul Giamatti as Ralph, Pamela's appointed driver to chauffeur her around L.A. as she decides whether to sell the rights to her book. An eternal optimist with a bright outlook on life, even Travers' almost non-stop negativity can't weight on him. Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as Don DeGradi, the screenplay writer, and Robert and Richard Sherman, Mary Poppins' writers of the music and lyrics. The trio's scenes with Thompson are pretty perfect, three talented individuals seemingly working against a brick wall. It's also fun to see these rehearsal scenes coming together, seeing a handful of iconic scenes from Mary Poppins coming together, including some of its best and most memorable musical numbers. Also worth mentioning are Kathy Baker and Melanie Paxson as two secretaries working with Disney and Travers, almost as middlemen.

An underrated aspect of 'Banks' is the style. Immediately I felt transported back to Los Angeles in the 1960s. The look of the film is perfect from seeing Disneyland in the 1960s to the big boats that were once called cars to everyone wearing immaculate suits to work. The early 1960s were the Disney empire at a high point -- Swiss Family Robinson, 101 Dalmatians, The Sword and the Stone among many others -- and on a simple level, it's just fun to get an inside look at the making of one of Disney's most iconic films. Another positive is Thomas Newman's score, good without being overbearing. Mostly though, it's the moments that work. Through all the laughs, the emotional, dramatic moments work the best, especially as Thompson's Travers opens up a little, 'Let's Go Fly a Kite' providing a great moment.

It's a really good movie. That's it. Go see for yourself.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013): *** 1/2 /****