Saturday, February 25, 2012

Act of Valor Review

The only thing Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh’s new movie “Act of Valor” has going for it is realism. It’s about the Navy Seals, so real, active Navy Seals are used in the film as opposed to actors. There are rescue missions that are taken from real life missions and live gunfire is used. As impressive as that all may sound “Act of Valor” is one of those rare movie cases where the subject is far more interesting than the actual movie itself and that doesn’t add up to a good motion picture.

I’m not really going to go into who any of the individual Seals are, because they are who they are. The only thing I will say is that as cool as it sounds to have active Navy Seals you need actors because Navy Seals may be able to kill and rescue people but they can’t act.

Don’t get me wrong, I have complete and utter respect for all the men and woman who are currently in the Navy Seals or any other branch of military but there has to be more to a movie (unless it’s a documentary) than just a strong subject. There’s no emotional spark in the picture, besides the fact that these are Navy Seals, and worst of all there’s no dramatic edge. The script (if you can call it that) by Kurt Johnstad is just a bunch of rescue missions poorly glued together and that glue is a series of boring and badly acted scenes in which the Seals small-talk to one another and the bad guys scheme.

 As for those rescue missions, as realistic looking as they are they’re still surprisingly clinical with no excitement in them. The battle scenes in Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” were far more gripping, simply because there was something at stake. “Act of Valor” holds as much weight as one of those Army Strong commercials.

Look, I know the filmmakers had good intentions, but in the end “Act of Valor’s” only purpose is honoring the troops, and that isn’t enough. As a tribute to the Navy Seals I guess “Act of Valor” succeeds but as piece of filmmaking it’s a failure, pure and simple.


Rampart Review

“Rampart” is a movie that has so much going for it that you wish it would be better. The director, Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”) has gathered a number of parts that would seem ideal in making a good, old-fashioned crime noir picture.

To star with it takes place in L.A., which as we know is a Mecca of the crime genre. It’s not the sparkling, postcard side of L.A. but instead the rough, seedy underbelly. Bobby Bukowski’s gritty, sometimes blurry and saturated cinematography brings out the danger and hostility in the tough neighborhoods where most of the movie takes place. Furthermore it takes place in the midst of the fallout of the Rampart Scandal, a corruption scandal that plagued the LAPD in the late 1990’s.

And to top it all off, at the center of the film is one of those cops, Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson in one of his best film roles), who is a total enigma. On one level he’s like Harry Callahan in “Dirty Harry,” racist, intimidating, has his own rulebook for delivering police justice but also cool and collected. Then at other times he’s utterly sleazy: He drinks and smokes, and goes to a tavern every night and picks up a different girl. But then he has two daughters, to whom he has been a terrible father and wants to atone for all his past mistakes.

All of that should add up to a compelling film but it doesn’t. Visually the movie is strong. The atmosphere and the texture of the picture is just right and Moverman stages some grotesquely nightmarish sequences, like when Dave goes to an underground sex club one night, complete with flashing red and blue lights.

No, the problem lies in the script, which is unfortunate because it’s co-written by Moverman and famous crime fiction writer James Ellroy (who wrote “L.A Confidential”). There isn’t exactly a plot, per se, it’s a character study about Dave, following him down a dark path of no return. He’s in basically every scene so all the other events (as well as the other characters) gravitate around him and frankly not a lot happens.

Ellroy and Moverman introduce a lot of intriguing plot points and side stories: Dave gets paranoid that he’s being watched and set up by the department, thinking that they are going to dump all their dirty laundry from the Scandal on him since he has a bad record. One of the women Dave hooks up with, Catherine (Anne Heche), is a Femme Fatal lawyer for criminals suing the department. Dave has a crooked friend played by Ned Beatty, who lets him in on illegal activities he can partake in to get some extra money. And Ice Cube as a black lawyer is on his case about a recent crime he’s supposedly covering up.

But they don’t find a way to connect them, or at the very least bring them to a conclusion. I’m not saying all the loose ends need to be tied up but most are left out there hanging. The Ice Cube character is particularly interesting because he adds racial tension, and one of the main problems that have always troubled the LAPD is racism but the movie barely does anything with it. So it meanders, following Dave from one point to another until it eventually cuts off without any real conclusions.

All of this is such a shame to report because the character of Dave is very interesting and seeing him wrestle with his different morals is the most fascinating quality about him. On one hand he doesn’t seem to care about anything, he’s in the middle of all these hearings for all his past and current crimes but he’s not worried, like he has nothing to live for. However at the same time he still puts on his uniform and badge and does things according to his sense of what’s right and wrong. Numerous times he insists he only kills the people who deserve it, like racists and no good street thugs.

Harrelson is able to play all the different dimensions perfectly. He can be the cool, confident “honest” police officer Dave as well as the pathetic and remorseful Dave. He neither overacts nor underacts, and when he’s in tense and violent situations he can be ice cold.

Speaking of violence, another weakness of the film is that it needed more of a dramatic punch. Toward the beginning a random vehicle hits Dave’s squad car, he gets out only to chase the other driver down and nearly beat him to death. Frankly, it needed more of that, more abrupt and shocking violence like the kind “Drive” had. Just to get us on the edge of our seat because, while Dave may walk down those Los Angeles streets with ease, the rest of the movie just sort of sits there, not doing much.


Friday, February 17, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty Review

One of the best things about watching an animated film from the Japanese studio, Studio Ghibli, and more importantly, from its founder and well known Japanese animation director/ Manga artist Hayao Miyazaki (who’s made such great animated films as “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke” and more recently “Ponyo”), is that we get to see a truly unique animated experience. As great as animated movies from Pixar and sometimes from Dream Works are, Ghibli films have a certain magical spark and other worldly charm that the American movies don’t always have. Everything from the whimsical and intricate storylines to the fantastic musical scores and of course the magnificent hand drawn animation.

The latest film, “The Secret World of Arrietty,” (co-released by Disney for the North American release) is directed by long time Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi, while Miyazaki served as Executive Producer, screenwriter and planner. Based on the book “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton, it is a charming and pleasant animated fable that is done in a style and tone not seen in many recent animated movies. It doesn’t just appeal to children or adults, but both. It’s serious but not too serious to the point where it’s too dark for children, it’s funny but the humor is more sophisticated so adults can laugh along and it’s not merely trying to squeeze laughs out of the audience. The humor feels natural and deserved when it comes.

“Arreity” is about a lot of things, family, loyalty, isolation, wonder, curiosity but one prominent theme is survival. The film revolves around the Clock family, made up of the autocratic but caring father Pod (Will Arnette), the well meaning but worrisome mother Homily (Amy Poehler) and finally the brave and curious daughter Arriety (Bridgit Mendler). They’re a family of four-inch tall people who live secretly within another family’s home. Every day they have to make (sometimes dangerous) ventures out into different parts of the house while dodging rats, birds, cats and bugs, taking only what they need.

 In order to survive they can’t come into contact with the regular size humans. However, trouble comes when Arriety is accidently found by Shawn (David Henrie), a perfectly harmless boy who is suffering from a heart condition and is temporarily living at the house with his Aunt Sadako (Phyllidia Law) and crazed housekeeper Hara (a magnificently crazy Carol Burnett) for some peace an quiet before he goes to get an operation.

Attention to detail. That’s something that can be said about the film and also Miyazaki’s entire body of work. In one scene Sadako shows Shawn a dollhouse that his mother and father built for the little people long ago to live in. They made everything by hand, down to the very last miniature teakettle. Yonebayashi and his entire team of animators have outdone themselves as well, capturing everything from the slight wiggle in the corner of the eye of the house cat, to the delicate, gelatinous water drops. In addition, the movie has been done in good old-fashioned 2D, which is a nice change considering just about every mainstream animated film is going to be in 3D. With its bright colors and beautifully painted backgrounds it doesn’t need to be in 3D.

To go along with that attention to detail is how patient and gentle the movie is. Most animated films are noisy and hectic and give the audience instant gratification, whereas “Arriety” goes for gradual build up. The soothing score by Ceicile Corbel and Dale Sison, combined with the slow movements of the characters, make each and every scene graceful and unhurried instead of just a bunch of chaotic toilet humor gags and talking donkeys thrown at you.

There’s so much more I could talk about in “The Secret World of Arriety” but part of the fun with Ghibli movies or any other animated films for that matter is discovering the magic for yourself. I could also try and point out minor flaws but that’s not really worth my time. It may not have been directed by Miyazaki but “Arreity” is still another delightful animated adventure from Studio Ghibli. It’s simple yet so detailed and easily one of the best-animated movies of the year so far. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Vow Review

Michael Sucsy’s “The Vow” is a movie that’s better than it probably should be. The ads made it look like an adaptation of another of Nicholas Sparks’ sappy, shallow romance novels. In fact in the official trailer they heavily advertise the fact that both its big stars, Rachael McAdams and Channing Tatum, were in previous Sparks adaptations. It took me another look at the trailer and a trip to IMDB to find out that it wasn’t based on one of his books but instead inspired by true events.

That’s peculiar because “The Vow” has the right look and feel of a Nicholas Sparks fantasy. Perhaps screenwriters Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein and Sucsy took the real events and ran them through the Sparks processor. The film has glossy, picturesque cinematography by Rogier Stoffers with its two attractive leads in the center photographed like gods while Rachael Portman’s music is tinny, sometimes annoying pop rock.

It has a Sparkian set up: Tatum and McAdams play Leo and Paige, a newly married couple who are just so in love with each other, ever since they first awkwardly met in a parking lot. She’s an art student, he runs a small recording studio so they aren’t rolling in money but that doesn’t matter because they are so happy. Did I mention they were madly in love?

But then, uh oh! A Nicholas Sparks curve ball: They both get in a car accident and Paige loses her memory up until right before she met Leo. She thinks she’s still in law school and on good terms with her snobby judgmental parents played Sam Neill and Jessica Lange. And for one final wrench in the machine she thinks she’s still supposed to be with her douche ex fiancé Jeremy (Scott Speidman). So it’s up to Leo to take Paige down memory lane to regain her memory so they can still be together.

If this had been Nicholas Sparks inspired all that stuff would amount to a steaming pile but instead he’s going to wish he had written something like this. Simply because it doesn’t go exactly the way you expect it to go. Just as it’s gearing up for some cliché romance movie moment and you’re about to hang your head and groan, it takes a detour.

McAdams is her usual charming, peppy self, although she’s not as hyper as she has been in the past, like in 2010’s “Morning Glory.” She has it down to a fine art but you can already guess that from the trailer. The more interesting specimen is Tatum.

I’ve always thought of him as a mediocre actor, and just eye candy. Here he’s still eye candy but he actually does a decent job of keeping you interested and invested in his character. At first you may be a little thrown off by his line readings, as he’s trying to go for a sarcastic/charming performance. If you’ve seen any of his previous films you know that isn’t in his comfort zone, so he looks a little uncomfortable. And sometimes you wish he’d be a little more aggressive in trying to get Paige back. Overall though it’s an improvement for his career.

“The Vow” is still far from perfect, could have used fewer make up/passionate speeches towards the end, and Tatum’s character does some narration at the beginning and end that’s superfluous. Also, the film is still candy, whichever way you wrap it. The whole ordeal feels quite painless considering the circumstances. But as far as candy goes there are worse kinds, like a Nicholas Sparks movie.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Safe House Review

 No matter how bad or forgettable the movie is, Denzel Washington can usually make the best of his role. He holds your attention every time he shows up, with his good looks and his crisp way of articulating his dialogue, which makes even the bad lines sound great.

In Daniel Espinosa’s “Safe House,” Washington plays Tobin Frost, a dangerous rogue CIA agent who has been exposing highly classified information about the Agency. After escaping from some unknown attackers he turns himself in to the CIA and is taken to a Safe House. Even though the basics are different, this isn’t foreign territory for Washington. He’s wise, manipulative, charismatic and fearless. When CIA agents try to force information out of him by putting a rag over his face and pouring water on it he never lets up and when they stop he’s ready to go again. He isn’t always in control (although much of the time he is) but he knows how to get himself out of a bad situation, by being patient and crafty and, ultimately, cold blooded.

In the movie he functions as a sort of mentor to young, naïve Safe House guard Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). After the same attackers who initially hunted Tobin breach the safe house, Matt has to escort Tobin through the bustling streets of South Africa to another safe location. Continuously Tobin gets into Matt’s head, trying to convince him that he isn’t in a good situation, and warning him of the action movie clichés that lie ahead (“when they say ‘we’ll take it from here’ that’s when you’re screwed”). But Matt is determined to stay with him despite the mind games.

By comparison Reynolds isn’t as good as Washington (obviously) but it actually goes with the character. Matt is a young, inexperienced agent who wants to do some exciting CIA stuff, he never says it but I assume he means gun fights and car chases. But with Frost he gets what he asks for and then some. Matt’s main motivation in the film is to prove himself worthy and do what’s right. As a character he’s trying to match Tobin beat for beat, just like he’s trying to do as an actor.

As for the rest of the picture, it’s hit and miss. It has an edgy, hard-boiled crime fiction look to it, and it maintains that tone throughout the entire movie. As in a lot of action movies these days, Espinosa is fond of using hand held cameras, especially in the action scenes that take place in crowded areas.

On the other hand the cat and mouse structure of the plot gets old after a while and more often than not the film relies on generic looking shoot outs and car chases for excitement.  Also by about the halfway point you know where the story’s going. Frost isn’t as bad a guy as he seems and there’s always a cover-up.

Essentially what “Safe House” comes down to is the relationship between Tobin and Matt and a veteran passing on knowledge to a rookie, and I liked that angle, I just wish Espinosa and writer Scott Stuber could have found a better way to show it instead of going for a rather standard action movie.

Still, Washington’s in it and he makes the movie at least worthwhile. Without him the movie would have been even more forgettable.