Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Watch Review

As far as guy comedies go, you could do a whole lot worse than “The Watch.” I know that doesn’t sound like strong praise and it is true that Akiva Schaffer’s new movie isn’t anything great. It doesn’t break any new ground with the guy comedy genre. But it’s not a train wreck either. And except for a little bit of shakiness in the third act the whole film surprisingly holds together fairly well. And it’s funny. Schaffer and crew have brought together a group of experienced comic actors who, at the very least, know how to bring about some laughs.

Ben Stiller stars as Evan, a straight-edged suburbanite and the manager of the local Costco. When he’s not looking after the store, he’s doing some other activity in his community, like fun runs or charities. He has a wife at home, who wants kids but he’s shooting blanks, so he’s too ashamed to tell her. After one of his employees gets killed inside Costco at night by some mysterious forces, he feels the obligation to start a neighborhood watch.

As to be expected, most of the people in the neighborhood aren’t interested and in the end he only gets three other recruits: Bob (Vince Vaughn), an extreme, beer drinking, sports watching guy, who mainly joined so he could spy on his teenage daughter. Franklin (Jonah Hill), a younger man with emotional problems and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), a nerdy fellow whose motivations for joining the watch are sketchy at first. After doing some investigating and finding some strange green goo, the four of them find out that aliens have infiltrated their neighborhood and that there is going to be an invasion.

First off, let me say that I think Schaffer and screenwriters Seth Rogen, Jared Stern and Evan Goldberg could have come up with a better enemy for The Watch to take on. These days—unless it’s a really fresh concept—aliens have turned into fail safe antagonists. You don’t have to go into much background as to where they came from (Oh, they came from the sky? OK) and for the purposes of this movie they provide a number of gross-out gags. It’s not to say that the movie is completely laugh free because of them, I’m just saying that Schaffer and the writers could have come up with a much more intelligent story involving humans. But whatever, that ship has sailed.

As for the movie at hand. The script goes through the motions that you would expect. First the four of them don’t get along; Evan is strict and wants to control every aspect of the watch, while the other three members don’t take it seriously initially. Then one night, they are able to prevent one little crime from taking place and while they are celebrating, another person is violently killed. They run into a foul mouthed old man, and find a high tech alien weapon, which they decide to cause a ruckus with. And of course there’s the third act breakup where the group splits up temporarily, only to reunite and become closer friends.

This is only half criticism. For how routine the plot structure feels at least it stays on track. It doesn’t dawdle around; it sticks with the idea of the neighborhood watch all the way through. And as long as the movie is funny, I have no problem, which it is for the most part. I wouldn’t say that the humor is consistent; there are verbal exchanges that go on a little too long. Since Rogen and Goldberg are writers (they wrote “Superbad”), they’re trying to imitate the Judd Apatow style of verbal comedy. There are also a few man jokes that just feel too shallow and easy. But at the same time, there’s still a great amount of random, spontaneous humor scattered throughout.

The acting is definitely mixed. Ben Stiller fits comfortably into the role of Evan, although that’s not a compliment. Recently, whether it’s this movie or last year’s “Tower Heist,” or 2010’s “Little Fockers,” Stiller has a tendency to play the same goodie square-o character. He’s good at it no doubt, but he’s also bland and probably gathered the least laughs. Now that he’s 46 he needs to play against type again, like he did in “Dodgeball” and “Zoolander.”

Vaughn on the other hand is a little too hyper. I know that’s what he’s going for but often times it comes off like he’s trying too hard to be funny. If he had just dialed it down a few notches he would have been fine. Hill and Ayoade are by far the standouts: Hill doing a more intense version of his usual act, with complete ease as always and Ayoade’s tone and mannerisms are pitch perfect. His natural British tongue making his lines even funnier.

So far this year, there has only been one worthwhile raunchy guy comedy, “21 Jump Street,” also with Jonah Hill. “The Watch” isn’t as consistently funny or self aware as “21 Jump Street” but it’s still a marginally fun watch. It will keep its target audience satisfied and there have been worse comedies.


Step Up Revolution Review

In “Step Up Revolution,” people dance. They dance in the streets, in high-class art museums, in fancy pants restaurants. They dance on top of tables, on top of cars and on top of big crates by the docks. For the most part these people dance for performance art reasons, but later on when a hotel tycoon comes to their neck of the woods and threatens to develop in their home, it becomes protest dance, hence the “Revolution.” It’s mostly hip-hop dancing set to the tune of various artists, from M.I.A. to Flo Rida. But then there are also a few slower, ballet type numbers. In short, there’s a lot of dancing. Dance. Dance. Dance. All day dance.

Well, that’s not all that happens in “Step Up Revolution.” Characters have to be established  (not very well though) and there have to be non-dance moments when “serious” plot points happen but that’s just filler. The dancing is all that matters. That’s the only reason why people will go see this movie, why people went and saw the first three “Step Up” movies, starting back with 2006’s “Step Up,” starring the now famous Channing Tatum. In “Step Up Revolution” I’d say there’s about a 80/20 ratio: 80 being the amount of dancing and 20 being the amount of plot and bad dialog. The script by Duane Adler and Jenny Mayer, must have taken thirty minutes max to flesh out. The real work goes to director Scott Speer and choreographer Chuck Maldonado, for creating some very impressive dance sequences and cinematographer Karsten Gopinath for making them look so gorgeous.

The movie takes place in Miami (and by Miami I mean the most glamorous and sparkling sector of Miami) and focuses on a dance group called The Mob. They’re a professional Flash Mob (if that even exists). Flash Mobs? You remember those YouTube videos where large groups of people break out in public places and start dancing? Anyway, the bottom line of the story: There’s a pretty guy, Sean (Ryan Guzman), the leader of The Mob. And there’s a pretty girl, Emily (Kathryn McCormick), a rich girl who joins the mob to rebel against her rich, greedy hotel tycoon father, who’s trying to develop on The Mob’s historic neighborhood…and whatever! We just want to see some dancing! Seriously! Did I mention there’s a lot of dancing? People will literally be dancing in one place, walk over to another place where there will be two minutes of stupid, cliché plot followed by more dancing.

I’m not going to tell you to see or not see this film. It is what it is. If you liked the first three movies then I’m sure you’ll like this one. There’s no point in going over the performances, because acting is not required in these films. If you’re attractive and can dance, you’re in. My only critique with the dancing is that some of the moves can get a little repetitive, especially toward the end. But, OK, all right then.

People dance in “Step Up Revolution.” Take it or leave it.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ruby Sparks Review

“Ruby Sparks” is about a man who dreams up a girl that comes to life, for no apparent reason. If that premise was in different hands (if say, Adam Sandler was producing and starring in it) “Ruby Sparks” could easily be turned into a stupid, ill inspired raunchy comedy. Instead directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and even screenwriter Zoe Kazan (who also stars in it) treat the material delicately, giving it indie-comedy quirkiness. This is a good and bad thing. Good because the movie itself can be funny but also intelligent and touching. Bad because it has a tendency to use the usual brand of indie- movie clichés (yes, those exist), making it feel a little too hoity-toity and even pretentious at times.

Paul Dano (humble, benevolent and a little dorky as always) plays the lucky dreamer, Calvin Weir-Fields. Calvin is an author struggling with writers block. He found early writing success when he wrote a best selling novel in his teens and now he’s feeling the pressure from his editor and his newfound writing friends. Not only that, he’s always being hassled by his slightly arrogant, sporty/businessman brother Harry (Chris Messina) and he has a bit of an ego, so he’s not exactly a ladies’ man. Even though they want him.

One night he has a dream that he encounters a cute, red-headed girl, who understands him perfectly. (Why shouldn’t she, she’s part of his imagination after all.) So the next morning, he goes to his typewriter (yeah, a typewriter, why? Because this is an indie comedy) and begins writing a novel about her, giving her the name Ruby Sparks. Ruby was born in Dayton, Ohio, she doesn’t have good relations with her parents, one of her biggest relationships was with her college professor, and she likes to do art. In other words Calvin’s dream girl is a typical indie rom-com girl. But then, before he knows it, he finds Ruby (Kazan) in his kitchen making eggs. Calvin can’t believe it. Ruby is flesh and blood, not imaginary. People can see and interact with her. Kazan’s script never explains how Ruby came to be, which is for the best. Like with “Midnight in Paris” an explanation would only bog the story down.

Anyway, things get off to an agreeable start. Calvin invites Harry over for dinner, and he acknowledges that Ruby does in fact exist. The scene is also where Calvin finds out he can tinker with Ruby if he wants to by writing. This leads to a few laughs, like when Calvin gives her the ability to speak French all of a sudden. And for a little while the film finds itself in a nice little groove. Kazan, for the most part, gives a gentle, dopey-eyed performance, even though her acts and emotions are affected directly by the movie’s events. Whatever Calvin writes, she does.

 However, at the same time the movie is filled with little quirky clichés that can get annoying. Besides the aforementioned description of the Ruby Sparks character and the typewriter there are also things like The Night Out Montage, where Calvin and Ruby go to variety of clubs and bars and have giddy fun, all to the tune of generic indie music. Or there’s a scene where the two just decide to joyously run on a beach, holding hands.

And then at a certain point—I think it comes right after Calvin and Ruby go out and meet Calvin’s stereotypically kooky, free spirited parents, played by Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas—the entire movie loses its footing. Ruby starts to blend into the real world too much, and the two become distant. So Calvin goes back to the typewriter and begins to tweak her. Sometimes she’s too clingy, sometimes she’s too crazy, and sometimes she’s too angry. Whatever changes he makes to her, she’s still not perfect. Not a bad plot turn, but the picture meanders big time, constantly shifting moods: up and down, up and down. Eventually though, the film comes together for an ending. Not a particularly great ending but a fine ending nonetheless.

There’s not a whole lot else to say; “Ruby Sparks” is an example of a movie that’s just plain decent. It’s not nearly as annoying and head-up-its-ass as it could have been and as I said before, if the premise had been in worse hands the entire picture could have been lowbrow, stupid and pointless. But it’s also not as fresh and original as it presents itself. You won’t lose anything by going to see “Ruby Sparks” but you also won’t gain a whole lot either.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises Review

Batman has sure come a long way. Originating as a comic book super hero created by DC comics in the late thirties, to being portrayed by the legendary Adam West in the campy seventies TV show. Then came the movies. First the caped crusader was processed through the Tim Burton-izer in 1989’s “Batman,” and “Batman Returns” later on. But, alas, the Batman film franchise practically crashed and burned in the hands of Joel Schumacher, first in the middling “Batman Forever” and finally in the awful “Batman and Robin.” After that the franchise lay dormant for eight years. Until the visionary British director Christopher Nolan breathed new and absorbing life into the character. Beginning with 2005’s “Batman Begins,” then 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” and finally, “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Nolan not only rebooted the franchise, he transformed its style and tone. The earlier “Batman” pictures were silly and comic book-y, whereas Nolan’s Batman universe is darker and grittier. Nolan’s Batman successfully transcended its comic book origins and blended in to the real world. “Batman Begins” was a perfect way to begin this stark journey. Nolan took ample time to show the millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne’s painful and vengeance fueled transformation into The Dark Knight. He didn’t rush it along. He made us believe in the character. Not just Batman but Bruce Wayne, because at the end of the day, Wayne is the character we care about.

As great as “Begins” was though, it was still somewhat confined to its comic roots because it was an origin story. You knew he was going to become Batman, no matter how gradually the film moved along. When “The Dark Knight” came along, it not only came with a phenomenal performance from the late Heath Ledger as The Joker, but also the advantage of being the middle movie. It didn’t carry the burden of having to begin the story, nor did it have an obligation to bring the whole series to an indefinite close. “The Dark Knight” not only worked as a highly effective comic book movie but also as a compelling crime saga that just happens to feature a guy who dresses up like a bat. The movie dealt with serious issues, and contained underlying themes about the psychology behind terrorism and villainism.

Now we have “The Dark Knight Rises,” the third and the last film in the franchise. Like “Begins,” “Rises” already comes with a disadvantage. It has to bring this legend to a close. And unfortunately the movie runs into problems nearing its finale. The ending, while not awful, feels a little unsatisfying and muddled. By then, Nolan simply has a lot on his plate and can't quite bring every thing together.

However, at the same time you have to admire the level of craftsmanship Nolan and his crew have put into the finished product. The picture feels well thought out, as opposed to feeling thrown together or rushed into production like some of the recent Avenger movies do. The screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan is ambitious and intelligent. And like “The Dark Knight,” it also deals with underlying themes. This time having to do with the differences in class. (The poor, working stiffs vs. the wealthy and potentially corrupt upper class.)  

On top of that, the movie comes full circle, in regards to the rest of the series. It harkens back to “Batman Begins” when Wayne was trying to find himself, scaling bitter cold mountains in Asia to train with his very first adversary Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson, back reprising his role) and facing his greatest fears and insecurities.

“Rises” takes place eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight,” which is a wise move. It gives the story a chance to breathe, as well as letting new characters enter into the franchise more seamlessly instead of being shoved in.  Some of these include the sly, sexy thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) aka Cat Woman, Batman’s frenemy. Also Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a member of the Wayne Enterprise’s Executive board, who also hides a secret of her own. And John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a young cop who strongly believes in good and justice. Also along for the ride is the always reliable Alfred Pennyworth (a typically soothing Michael Caine), Batman’s faithful butler and the determined but also partially defeated Commissioner Jim Gordon (a wonderfully subtle Gary Oldman).

 Anyway, Gotham has since been at peace. Thanks to the work that D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) did in “Dark Knight” there is no more organized crime. Meanwhile, Batman, or Bruce Wayne (an intense yet cool and collected Christian Bale) has since hung up his bat suit, and become a recluse in his mansion. But of course, as you know from any cop film or TV show, the retired cop doesn’t stay retired forever. “There’s a storm coming,” Selina warns Bruce one night. One mighty storm indeed. In the shape of the buffed up, bald, mercenary terrorist named Bane (a beef cake Tom Hardy, with a peculiar computer altered voice) who wears a mask over his mouth and nose.

This is where the class differences theme comes in. We learn Bane had a rough life growing up in a miserable foreign prison and now he wants the upper class to pay. Through violence, fear and manipulation he inspires an uprising in Gotham. But before you start praising him as a revolutionary for the little guy, Bane is also a terrorist who has other agendas. Hardy is able to add some depth and personality to Bane’s tough exterior but he’s also a little limited by the fact that Bane wears a mask. With The Joker, Ledger had the advantage of facial expressions; Hardy’s performance is restricted in that area.

 As usual, Nolan’s direction is slick and fluent, while the cinematographer Wally Pfister works mostly in different shades of gray, giving it a bleak but gorgeous look. I love how Nolan steadily moves the story along. Like the other two films it gradually builds momentum. He focuses more on the story and the human characters than on Batman. In fact we don’t see Batman until about thirty or forty minutes in. And also like the other films, a majority of “Rises” works as a stand-alone genre pic. Besides the aforementioned terrorism and class system ideals, the movie also deals with finance and alternative energy, adding a political twist to the whole endeavor.

 As I mentioned before, my main qualms with the film have to do with the ending. And because of that, I can’t go into it much further. There are also some other minor flaws (like, having to do with logic) that aren’t worth much getting into. “The Dark Knight Rises” is the lesser of Nolan’s three movies, but considering how good those other two films were and considering how much “Rises” gets right, that’s not a significant criticism.

Note: Try to see it in IMAX, as there is just over an hour of footage shot using IMAX cameras. Also, it’s important to note that the movie was shot ON FILM! And it’s not in 3D.  


Easy Money Review

Without warning, director Daniel Espinosa throws us into the twisted, complex crime saga that is “Easy Money.”  The movie opens on Jorge (Matias Varela), who easily escapes from a prison somewhere in Sweden. Off in the woods surrounding the prison another person is waiting with a car to take him away. Who is Jorge? Why was he in prison? Why did he escape?  And how does he fit in with the rest of the picture? Espinosa and screenwriter Maria Karlsson-- based on a 2006 Swedish novel named Snabba Cash by Jens Lapidus-- aren’t telling us (at least not yet, anyway).

This is the kind of opening that will likely send impatient viewers (like my mother) into a puzzled frenzy. If we were watching this movie together, chances are she would be firing off those questions (and then some) at rapid fire pace. Espinosa doesn’t talk down to the viewer. He doesn’t give us a prolog, establishing the story. He simply places us in the midst of it and moves it along before we have a chance to get ready. I admit, for about the first ten to fifteen minutes “Easy Money” is not easy to follow, and as more characters show up and more plot points come about it doesn’t get any easier. However, if you pay close attention the film will slowly but surely unravel itself and that’s where part of the fun of watching it comes in.

The movie doesn’t necessarily do anything new. The story deals with drugs, money, bad guys, good guys, good guys who become bad guys and bad guys who become good guys. A lot of stuff happens, sure, but none of it is profound. Much like “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” (based on the book by fellow Swedish author Steig Larsson) “Easy Money” is just an expertly made crime thriller. A wonderfully gritty and meaty exercise in pulpiness, like a film noir.

As I said before, there is a lot going on in “Easy Money.” In addition to Jorge, there are two other main characters, and a number of supporting characters thrown in the mix. The next guy we meet is Johan ‘JW’ Westlund (Joel Kinnaman), a pretty boy, and cool cat. He’s currently in college, where he hangs out with spoiled rich students, although he’s not rich himself.  He may be charming and good-looking but he’s also shallow and later on becomes a little pathetic. He has pictures of male models, displaying designer suits taken from magazines, plastered all over his dorm walls. His hair is combed back; he makes sure he’s always wearing the nicest, most expensive suits, all so that he can appear successful. In order to pay for this luxury life he works as a drug runner for local thugs.

This is where he meets Jorge, who is being hunted by a rival gang. If JW keeps him safe for a certain amount of time he’ll get mucho deniro. Meanwhile on the other side of town, a veteran hit man Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) is the one trying to hunt Jorge down, as a final job so he can take care of his young daughter. One of the best things about the movie is seeing these three guys cross paths with one another throughout the picture and also seeing how their characters develop and change over the course of the--just over two hour--running time.

Kinnaman (the handsome 32 year old Swedish actor, who has a main part on the AMC show “The Killing”) plays his role with a poised seriousness, as does everyone else in the movie. In fact the picture itself is quite somber. Even at times when the characters joke around with one another, you can still sense a serious undertone. “Dragon Tattoo” was the same way. This makes the film a little cold and distant but on the other hand it creates an eerie, chilly tension that keeps you on edge. Even the look of the film is glowing and ominous.

More so, the entire film-- from one scene to another-- has an unpredictability about it overall. You don’t know who to trust. Each character has his or her own set of motives. In the end it’s only the innocent characters (Mrado’s daughter or JW’s love interest) who are truly honest. This is the only film so far this year where I was completely unaware of where it was going. Even when it reaches its home stretch (a massive drug pickup) it doesn’t go the way you’d expect it to. So many shady dealings take place, so much intrigue is piled on. Now, I haven’t read Lapidus’ book, so maybe the movie isn’t as unpredictable to someone who has read it. Either way there’s so much excitement and tautness that will keep your eyes glued to the screen.

Espinosa’s most recent film was the mediocre, Jason Bourne-esque crime caper “Safe House” (“Easy Money” was made in 2010 and played at last year’s Toronto International film festival) with Denzel Washington. And like that movie, Espinosa is fond of using the shaky, hand held camera. Sometimes this method works in “Easy Money’s” favor, adding grit and intensity, but at others (like during the action scenes) it makes you queasy and kind of detracts from the impact of certain scenes. There are a few other flaws, mainly that—since there is so much going on—the movie can get messy, especially towards the end.

After playing at the Berlin film festival Warner Brothers won the rights for an American remake of “Easy Money,” which is apparently going to star Zac Efron. If said remake is made it will most likely be more sleek and polished--like David Fincher’s remake of “Tattoo”--and potentially better. Except, I don’t see how Efron could hold a candle to Kinnaman.

In the meantime though, American viewers can bask in this compelling, rough and perfectly enjoyable Swedish export that doesn’t spell things out for you.