Thursday, January 26, 2012

Man On a Ledge Review

Asger Leth’s “Man on a Ledge” puts Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington), a recently escaped prisoner and ex-cop who was supposedly set up for stealing a prized diamond, high above the streets of New York, perched on top of a ledge of an upscale hotel. After a couple of minutes a massive crowd starts to form, and the cops are called in to try and talk him down.

An intriguing setup that’s ultimately wasted. “Man on a Ledge” turns out to be one of those movies that gets less interesting as it goes on. We find out that Nick is up there to prove that he was set up. Across the street his brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and Joey’s girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) are stealing the diamond (as if diamond heists weren’t already overdone in movies).

So you sit there, watching Nick on the ledge, Joey and Angie playing “Oceans Eleven,” (Joey outsmarts the cameras and the heat detectors, while Angie slips into a kinky leather suit to slide through a vent to get to the safe containing the diamond) and the cops bickering with one another. We wait for something interesting to happen, some big plot twist. But nothing comes and soon the movie builds up to a rather lazy ending.

Sam Worthington is still bland as ever and maybe that’s tolerable in a mindless action film like “Clash of the Titans” but in this one he has to stand around and make conversation with cops and be cool about it, and Worthington doesn’t have the range for that. Luckily he’s helped out tremendously by a lively supporting cast, made up of Elizabeth Banks as a recently shamed cop who tries to get Nick to come in, Ed Harris as a maniacal hotel owner who set Nick up, Edward Burns as a wise guy detective, Titus Welliver as a corrupted cop and Anthony Mackie (in another good but brief role) as Nick’s cop friend.

Look, “Man on a Ledge” isn’t a “Worst Movie of the Year” candidate; it has a certain level of kinetic energy that most audiences will respond to. It has a good premise, but Leth and screenwriter Pablo F. Fenjves fail to take it anywhere exciting or interesting.

The Grey Review

In “The Grey,” it’s nice to see Liam Neeson back in a movie where he looks like he’s enjoying himself as opposed to picking up an easy paycheck, which is what he seems to have been doing that for the past couple of years. You forget the 59-year-old Irish actor can be quite good. He doesn’t play a campy character, as he did in 2010’s “Clash of the Titans” and he’s not stuck in a confusing cover-up movie like he was in last year’s “Unknown.” This time he’s back to playing someone full of wisdom who can also kick butt in a simple, straightforward action film.

He holds a natural, cool screen presence and there’s something soothing about his slightly gravely Irish accented voice. He plays Ottaway (even his name is wise), a man stricken with grief (his wife died sometime off screen). He works on an oil drilling team up in Alaska and is a master of wolves. When they sniff around the place, he kills them.  On his way back from the camp the plane he’s on goes down and he along with others find themselves stranded in the wild artic where they are stalked by wolves. (Talk about irony!)

Neeson’s character is so interesting that if the director and co-writer Joe Carnahan (along with Ian McKenzie Jeffers) had found a way to make the film only about him stranded and having to face his demons as well as the wolves, “The Grey” would have been very good, but unfortunately he’s stuck with a lackluster supporting cast of characters. They’re a fighting, cussing, meat headed bunch of males that may as well be labeled “wolf food.” There’s the goofy joker who irritates Ottaway, there’s the token black man, and then of course there’s the one who may as well be wearing a nametag that says “Hi! I’m going to be unpleasant for most of the movie until right before I die when I have my one redeeming moment.” And some others that just provide additional kills.

It’s not that they’re terrible, it’s just that (with Neeson) they are out of place in this movie. After the plane goes down Ottaway goes immediately into survivalist mode. He makes a fire and directs the others to find food and supplies and when the wolves come sniffing around he enlightens them on wolf behavior. And finally he leads them off into the wilderness to find help. Whenever Ottaway interacts with the others (when they stop and make a fire, for example) it feels like an old man trying to hang out at a young hip nightclub. This isn’t to say that Neeson is pathetic; he’s just on a completely different level. He deserves better.

As for the rest of the movie, “The Grey” plays like a typical “and then there were fewer” type of action movie. The group travels by day and camps by night, whilst dropping like flies until only one remains. (I bet you can figure out who that is).  But at least it’s a good old-fashioned Man vs. Nature movie. No aliens or supernatural beings to be found, only wolves and other obstacles like the coldness and a river, which is truly scary.

And hey, at the very least you learn about wolves. When they first start attacking I wondered to myself “O.K, how often do wolves stalk and kill humans?” Then Wolf Whisperer Ottaway explains that they will if you’re near their den. Is there anything this man doesn’t know?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Declaration of War Review

 Valerie Donzelli’s “Declaration of War” is a peculiar picture in that it deals with such a heavy subject (a couple has to deal with the fact that their infant son has a brain tumor) in such a subtle way. There’s absolutely no melodrama in it. Through her simple staging of each scene, Donzelli (who co-wrote the movie with Jeremie Elkaim) is trying to make the film as realistic as she possibly can.

There’s nothing wrong with doing that. Last year we saw director Dee Ree do splendidly with her debut film “Pariah,” but unfortunately Donzelli is too subtle in her handling of the film to the point where it’s almost emotionally neutered. You may feel sorry for the kid but only because the subject matter requires you to. There’s no emotional charge whatsoever.

To start with the couple at hand is dull. In fact their blandness is quite astonishing. Donzelli plays the woman, named Juliette, and the man is Romeo, played by Elkaim. They meet at a party and fall in love for some reason and then in no time they have their kid. There’s no passion between these characters and we never learn anything about them (except for a few facts about their families in the beginning); therefore they don’t evolve.

Considering the sense of realism she’s trying to evoke, that could be Donzelli’s intent. She’s not interested in the characters as much as the idea of them. Romeo and Juliette are more like representations of average people going through this problem and in the end the movie seems to be about the situation. They love their child Adam and they give up everything for him. They get him the best treatment possible and stick with him even when complications come up.

If that’s the intent, Donzelli miscalculates big time. By not individualizing them we don’t buy them as a couple or as parents.

On top of that, the movie doesn’t always cohere. There’s unnecessary narration that comes in at certain times to describe scenes, give us background and to explain the overall themes of the movie (when a movie has to explain its themes to you, it’s a bad sign). And then there are scenes that don’t fit in with the rest of the movie, like when Romeo and Juliette randomly begin to sing to each other.

But the main problem “Declaration of War” suffers from is reason for existing. The film doesn’t have a dramatic punch, its subject isn’t original and its characters are outlines, so then what does it have? While writing this I couldn’t think of a single memorable moment. At 100 minutes Donzelli keeps the movie moving fairly quickly--which she probably did for our benefit--but a movie like this doesn’t need to be hasty. In an attempt to make a true to life movie Donzelli has instead made one that leaves you cold.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Review

Whenever the 9/11 terrorist attacks show up one way or another in film you know it will be gut wrenching. Which is appropriate, 9/11 was a tragedy after all that affected thousands of people. But much like The Holocaust it can be used as a manipulation tool, designed to milk every last tear from the audience. The movie may be touching, yes, but by the same token you feel cheated.

Stephan Daldry’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” deals with 9/11 but not as much as you’d think it would. I suppose that’s a good thing but at the same time Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth (who adapted it from the book by Jonathon Safron Foer) clearly want you to know that it’s there. In an office complex looking out a window we see the twin towers in a blaze. Or later on along a sidewalk people have put up pictures of missing people and flowers in an alter. As near as I can tell the only purpose 9/11 serves to the story is to add emotional weight to the death of one of the main characters. That’s all well and good but it doesn’t feel entirely necessary to the central narrative.

The film revolves around Oskar (Thomas Horn), a nine-year-old boy with Asperger’s. He doesn’t really like to be around people, so he doesn’t go to school often, or when he does he’s not paying much attention. What he really likes is to do stuff with his father Thomas (Tom Hanks), a rather lively jewelry shop owner. They do what Thomas calls Reconnaissance missions. He gives Oskar clues and makes him go out and find stuff all around NY City. They’re games but they also serve as daily lessons for Oskar, challenging him to go out of his comfort zone and talk to strangers.

However, it all comes crashing down (literally) on that tragic day. Thomas is killed in one of the towers. This affects Oskar deeply but it doesn’t stop him from going on one last Reconnaissance mission. He finds a key within a vase among Thomas’s things, which he thinks is a clue from Thomas.

The fact of the matter with Oskar is that he has Asperger’s. If you can’t get behind that then you’re not going to enjoy the movie, as Oskar isn’t exactly likable. He keeps a distance from most everyone (including the audience), even from his kind-hearted mom Linda (Sandra Bullock), and he can be pretty mean. You may get a little annoyed with him at first but as the movie progresses you understand that he has this condition he can’t do anything about and you learn to accept him. For a youngster Horn gives a perfectly appropriate portrayal of a kid who has Asperger’s, saying each word precisely and sometimes nastily and it holds up for the entire film. Oskar isn’t a “good little boy” and that gives him more identity, more dimension.

I wish I could say the same about his father. Although I have no complaints with Hanks’ humble performance, the character is one sided. He’s made out to be the world’s greatest dad and that’s all we see of him. There’s never once a scene where he gets mad at Oskar or annoyed, nor are there any scenes in which we see quarrels between him and Linda, which I think there would be considering Oskar has Asperger’s. You only see one side of him--it’s a good side no doubt--but only one side.

In no time, Oskar is off on his journey, taking him all over the city, up town to down town, where he runs into a number of people who he thinks might know his dad. One is Abby Black (Viola Davis), a woman who is going through her own issues. Eventually, Oskar meets up with his mysterious grandfather (Max Von Sydow, in a marvelously endearing, wordless performance) and soon both of them are trying to solve the puzzle. The great thing about this narrative is that it doesn’t allow for an overflow of melodrama. There aren’t endless scenes of Oskar crying and grieving over Thomas because he’s too busy doing his mission. It keeps the picture moving along.

But, as to be expected there is much sadness and melodrama to be had. Plenty of perfectly timed tears roll down people’s cheeks (probably in unison with the audience’s). There’s a scene at the end where Oskar writes a letter to each of the people he comes into contact with that’s a little much but then there are a couple underplayed moments that almost drove me to tears.  Both involve the answering machine messages that Thomas left the day he died, going from good to bad, to worse.

All of this brings me back to 9/11. Would “Extremely Loud” be any different without that terrible tragedy as a backdrop? Would those moments I mentioned in the previous paragraph be less effective if Thomas had died some other way? I don’t think so. The characters are strong for the most part and the story stands on its own. The use of 9/11 feels like an extra (but superfluous) way to extract tears from the audience.

Red Tails Review

At its core Anthony Hemingway’s “Red Tails” is a story of racial segregation and defying the odds. Inspired by a true story, it centers on the all black crew of fighter pilots that came out of the Tuskegee training program during World War Two, which had one of the best records in the war. However, I have not seen a movie like this done in such a playful and exhilarating way.

Here’s a movie about racial segregation that isn’t so by the numbers. Hemingway and his writers don’t shove the morals down our throats but instead do it in the style of a B action movie. So in the end it becomes more about the black fighter pilots having to fight the common German enemy as opposed to always being at odds with the whites. Considering it’s Executive produced by George Lucas, that should come as no surprise.

With John B Aronson’s airbrush painted cinematography and Terence Blanchard’s rousing and patriotic soundtrack, “Red Tails” evokes a sense of nostalgia, an homage to earlier war movies. In the same way Lucas drew from early matinee serials and pulp magazines for inspiration for the creation of “Indiana Jones,” the same could be said about this film’s style. And by making it inspired by a true story it gives Hemingway and his crew some room to exaggerate.

The film isn’t always successful, in fact sometimes it can be a little too cartoonish (a maniacal one dimensional Nazi pilot that’s given more screen time than needed, for example) but for the most part this lively take on an inspiring story is entertaining and refreshing.

When we first meet the fighter pilots, they’re not at the training school getting yelled at by white officers but instead up in the air on a run, jiving and joking back and forth between each other about how they don’t get any good missions and that they have to fly hand-me-down planes. We get to see them in a positive light, all cocky and confident. Even though they’re the underdogs they still hold their heads up.

  As with many war movies, “Red Tails” has the difficult task of balancing all the different characters. It’s not entirely successful but overall it does a modest job of at least establishing a few main characters that we can latch on to. These include Nate Parker as Martin Julian, the squad leader, and David Oyelowo as Joe Little, who’s the most battle hungry of the squad, the one willing to go head first into a highly dangerous fight.

The script by John Ridley and Aaron MacGruder is at its best when it shows the camp life. Showing the brotherly love between the pilots and the other crewmen (they have nicknames for each other like “Ace” and “Lightning”) and also showing their quarrels and problems like Parker’s drinking problem. The main issues the movie chooses to focus on aren’t just racial.

Now, I’m not saying that the picture completely avoids the racial segregation issue, Hemingway just isn’t heavy handed about it. He doesn’t assume that the audience has no idea what it is and what it looks like. The fact that it’s an all black crew (pilots, mechanics, doctors, etc) is enough. He doesn’t flood the screen with one scene after another of white soldiers ridiculing the blacks and the few confrontations between them are turned upside down.

Such as a scene where Little is told to leave an officer’s bar, filled with all whites. Instead of hanging his head in shame he goes back and punches the officer, the same audacious thing someone like Indy Jones might do. Or later on after a successful mission when Little and Parker and a few others are confronted by the same white officers, not with hostility but with gratitude, and even offer to buy them a drink. The scene may be corny but it’s amusing watching their puzzled faces, unsure of whether to go in or not.

By choosing to make the film the way they did, Hemingway and crew have mostly waived the opportunity to show the raw intensity of war. Instead of making war look like hell, they’ve made it look glorious. Making the planes and the battles CGI already creates some emotional disconnection. And as I’ve said the movie doesn’t always work, there’s a side plot between Little and an Italian girl that feels tacked on, but for dealing with such a heavy issue Lucas and Hemingway have made a versatile movie that can appeal to a wider audience.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Top Ten Movies of 2011

Making a top ten-movie list is a good thing and a bad thing. A good thing because you get to look back on all the movies you’ve watched that year and pick your favorites. It’s a bad thing because you have to look back over all the movies you watched and see if you can pin point which ones are worth mentioning. This isn’t an easy thing when taking into account all the bad movies there have been this year.
This was a good, not great year for movies There were a lot of movies that ranged from good to very good and then there were a few that really blew me away. On this list there are only four movies where I walked out of the theater thinking “Wow!”
I know that usually you’re supposed to rank the movies from one to ten but there’s no way I could do it and make it fair. I mean, how do you rank a movie like “Midnight in Paris” to “Drive.” Both films are entertaining but have different premises, styles and tones. Anyway, here are my top ten movies of 2011 in alphabetical order:

The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius)

 Michael Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” is the most daring and risky film of 2011. Making a movie in black and white and in the silent movie isn’t exactly something a lot of people want to see. But that risk pays off big time, as “The Artist” is a delight. It’s story is simple and straight-forward: A famous silent movie star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) has reached his peak and is now being fazed out by the incoming talkies. Accompanied by an excellent silent movie-esque soundtrack by Ludovic Bource, Hazanveticus’ film is a love letter to a glorious era in movies as well as a contemporary statement on the current changes in cinema. These are the kinds of risks I like to see directors take, among all the 3D, CGI, Spielberg sentimentality and Michael Bay caliber explosions.

Carnage (Roman Polanski)

Four couples played by Jodie Foster John C Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Walz meet in an apartment to discuss a school-yard fight between their young sons that slowly turns into verbal warfare. It’s one of the most true to life movies I’ve seen this year and also one of the funniest. Although it’s not raunchy or screwball it is incisive, it comes from the simple truth that intense, nasty conversations can be funny. Yes, not a lot happens in “Carnage” in the sense of real movie action (It takes place in one place and in real time) but so what? Amidst all the 3D, CGI and shoot em up action flicks it’s nice to see a movie about people having an insightful as well as funny conversation. Andre Gregory and Wallace Shaw did it in 1981, so why can’t these fine actors do it now?

Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn)

“Drive” is simply a movie that must be seen. Trying to describe its premise does it no justice because there’s nothing particularly different in its story structure, nor in its story structure. There’s a clear hero, a clear antagonist and it follows a clear path.  Ryan Gosling plays a man known as Driver, a stunt driver for movies by day and the getaway driver for heists by night. “Drive” is purely an exorcise in the craft of filmmaking, directing, cinematography, music, editing, and acting. Much like Quentin Tarintino, Winding Refn has a love of film nostalgia. There are numerous references to other action movies and the whole film has an 80’s vibe to it. The action in it is gripping and exciting but it isn’t overwhelming or fast paced. Winding Refn slows it down so it’s almost graceful; yet, at the same time it’s not afraid to embrace B movie thrills. It’s a cross between a compelling drama and a Grindhouse style revenge movie.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)

This movie doesn’t rise to the greatness of Fincher’s 2010 critically acclaimed “The Social Network” and it doesn’t stray very far away from Stieg Larssons book or the 2009 Swedish language adaptation but David Fincher’s American adaption of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is still a compelling and expertly made murder mystery. Daniel Craig has a stern ruggedness that’s fitting for the role of Mikael Blomkvist, the shamed journalist and editor of Millennium Magazine, who takes up the job of solving a forty-year-old murder mystery that lies within The Vanger family, a powerful Swedish syndicate that owns a major corporation. Meanwhile Rooney Mara plunges herself into the broken down, tattooed, body pierced, out cast hacker Lisbeth Salander, who works with Mikael as his research assistant. Fincher’s stylistically smart direction combined with a rapid-fire and meaty screenplay by Steven Zallian makes “Dragon Tattoo” an enthralling, sometimes disturbing but ultimately satisfying film.

Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

A love letter to early cinema, “Hugo tells the story of a young orphan, Hugo Cabaret (Asa Butterfield) living in a Paris train station who discovers that a grumpy old man (Ben Kingsley) working in a toy store in the station is really Georges Mellies, an early pioneer in silent movies. In addition to the movie’s endearing and touching story, “Hugo” is a visual marvel. Scorsese’s use of 3D is the best in any movie (even better than “Avatar”) so far. The movie is a living, breathing organism about young meets old, a celebration of technologies and a golden age in cinema.

Margin Call (J.C Chandor)

“Margin Call” is a true horror story but instead of being about murderers and people getting hacked to pieces it’s about something that’s truly is scary: the 2008 financial crisis and the people responsible. Taking place at an investment bank similar to one like Lehman Brothers, “Margin Call” is the best film that has been made about the crisis in recent years. It’s not cool and slick (like “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”) or sentimental (like “The Company Men”). Instead it’s cold and claustrophobic, taking place mostly within the investment bank building. Most importantly it’s brutally honest and Chandor goes into the characters as opposed to overdramatizing the situation. As a first time director, Chandor shows impressive skill, especially since he has little room work with. His script is intelligent as well as entertaining and the movie is carried by fantastic performances from Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons and others.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)

Sean Durkin’s directorial debut is a haunting and sometimes chilling portrait of the dangers of being in a cult. Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, a young woman who has recently escaped from an abusive cult led by a charismatic cult leader played by John Hawkes. She stays with her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). However memories of being with the cult still plague her soul and she’s always worried whether or not the cult will find her. The movie is subtle, considering it’s about a cult but there are some scenes in it that made me downright shiver. Making her film debut, Olsen is a natural as naïve and damaged Martha and Hawkes gives a calm but sinister performance, perfect for a cult leader.

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)

This is arguably the best work Woody Allen has done in years. “Midnight in Paris” tells the story of a struggling writer named Gil (Owen Wilson) on vacation in Paris with his future fiancé. Gil is unhappy because he would much rather live in Paris during the 1920’s. One night he gets his wish and he’s transported back to that golden age where he gets to meet his literary idols, Ernest Hemmingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and others. The movie is by no means deep but it’s nevertheless a charming little romantic comedy/fantasy about finding your place and appreciating the time period you live in. Allen doesn’t try to come up with an explanation for Gil’s elapses through time, as he doesn’t need to. Cinematographers Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas shoot the film in warm, inviting colors and the film will certainly make you want to go to Paris.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt)

Who would have thought a reboot of “Planet of the Apes” would be possible. Who would have thought CGI, motion capture apes would be more interesting than the human characters. Rupert Wyatt’s new film is a perfect balance between a popcorn action flick and an absorbing drama that just gets better and better the more you watch it. Wyatt does a smart thing with this movie, he takes his time establishing the origin of the ape uprising. This film isn’t about global domination but instead about the apes escaping from their evil captors. A lot of the movies success goes to Andy Serkis playing Caesar, the humble, genetically enhanced ape that starts the rebellion. Serkis gives one of the best supporting male performances of the year and does it all through almost no talking.

Young Adult (Jason Reitman)

Without having a major film role since 2009, it’s nice to see Charlize Theron back in full form. In “Young Adult” she gives a multilayered, down to earth performance as Mavis Gary, a former popular girl in high school, but now in her forties she has become depressing and bitter. What begins as another comedy about a malicious person turns into a rather bleak character study about not wanting to grow up. Although, the single best thing about “Young Adult” is that Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody are able to end the movie cliché free, which wont appeal to everyone. It’s not the happiest of endings but it is optimistic and one of the most realistic ones I’ve seen in years, which is key to the entire movie’s success.

Honorable Mentions (In alphabetical order):
 50/50, Beginners, Bridesmaids, Buck, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Descendants, Hannah, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2, Into the Abyss, Money Ball, Pariah, Rango, Scream 4, Shame, The Skin I Live In, Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Tree of Life, The Whistleblower, X Men: First Class.