Sunday, January 31, 2010

Edge of Darkness (Review)

     Going into the theater, I was optimistic about "Edge of Darkness."  It seemed to have a lot going for it; Mel Gibson in an angry, emotional role, Ray Winstone in a shadowy, mysterious role, a dark story, and director Martin Campbell, who also directed the BBC mini series that the movie is based on.  Happily, it all comes together well.  Well, it comes together well if you like dark and violent.  (I do!)

     "Edge of Darkness" is a dramatic tale of mystery and vengeance starring Mel Gibson as Thomas Craven, a Boston police detective who's daughter is shot and killed just as she is trying to reveal to him the real reason for her sudden visit.  Craven begins to investigate his daughter's murder and becomes increasingly motivated by revenge as he descends into a complex web of corporate conspiracy and government cover-ups.  He is aided (or is he?) by a shadowy NSA agent named Jedburgh, played Ray Winstone.  Both characters are searching for a kind of redemption and, in the end, both receive some measure of it.

     "Edge of Darkness" has a gripping, dramatic, story that keeps you engaged and resolves all the mysterious elements, but only in due course.  The drama and mystery are punctuated by scenes of sudden and intense violence, all of which are done very realistically and are not over stylized or completely unbelievable or unintelligible like a lot of action movies seem to be today.  The violence is also not inappropriately bloody or gory, but, again, is realistic and believable, though some scenes are appropriately bloody and intense.  Gibson is quite convincing, almost frighteningly so, as a bereaved father who will stop at nothing to avenge his daughter's death because he has nothing else left to lose, and Winstone, in some ways, outshines Gibson in his stone cold portrayal of a NSA fixer who may, or may not, be tired of cleaning up other people's messes.  The thick, Boston accents didn't distract form the film and seem, to me anyway, to be authentic, but, then again, I can't really tell (y'all.)

     I always enjoy realistic action dramas or thrillers.  "Michael Clayton" comes to mind.  "Edge of Darkness" is a bit more intense than "Michael Clayton," and a lot more violent, but all the same basic elements are there, good actors, good characters, good writing, good drama, and a realistic execution.  All of it makes for a well done drama that one can enjoy without having to suspend disbelief.

Extraordinary Measures (Review)

     I almost didn't see "Extraordinary Measures."  I almost allowed a lot of poor critical reviews stop me from going to see a well done story of courage, hope, human drama, and just the right amount of some very heartwarming humor.  I'm glad I don't always listen to the critics.

     "Extraordinary Measures," based on a book and actual events, is the story of a father, John Crowley, played by Brendan Fraser, who is desperate to find a cure for two of his children who are dying of Pompe disease.  He finds Dr. Robert Stonehill, played by Harrison Ford, an eccentric researcher whose work is radically different and advanced.  Crowley begins to raise money for Stonehill's research and eventually gets the good doctor in a position where he can make real progress on an actual treatment before Crowley's children die.

     I've heard that the book "Extraordinary Measures" is based on, as well as the movie its self, doesn't quite stick to the facts and gives too much credit to John Crowley and not enough to Dr. William Canfield, the real life researcher that Ford's character is based on.  I don't know how true this is or exactly how accurate or skewed the facts are, but that doesn't really matter.  "Extraordinary Measures" is a story based on true events, not a historical bio pic.  Even though the character of John Crowley is supposed to be the hero, and he is in some very important ways, when he is not being a loving, dedicated father who will do anything to save his children, he's still a corporate executive, a stuffed suit, and not all that likable, and despite the fact that the character of Dr. Stonehill seems to have to be pushed to overcome himself in order to do the right thing, his character seems far more human than Crowley and, ultimately, is the real hero.  It likely doesn't help each of these characters much that Brendan Fraser, who is a fine actor,  pales next to the incredible acting talent of seasoned veteran Harrison Ford.  I do sympathize with a father trying to save the lives of his children, but that doesn't make him, or his character a likable person.  Perhaps these actors do a better job in their respective roles than they are given credit for.  In any case, the story is supposed to be about how a father's determination saved his children, but what comes through is that large pharmaceutical companies are heartless and driven solely by profit, a father will be as much of a jerk as he has to be in order to save his children, and  a brilliant and kind-hearted, yet odd, doctor did everything he could to save one man's children, and many others, from death at the hands of a terrible disease.  (That and Meredith Droeger is absolutely adorable as a sick little girl who won't give up.) 

     "Extraordinary Measures" may not exactly be the truth, but is makes for a good story and a bittersweet, good time.  Besides, I'm sure The History Channel will come out with a more accurate account, and we can all watch that and be informed.  Until then, just feel good that there's one less disease killing children.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Legion (Review)

     I didn't really know what to think about "Legion" going into it.  The previews had a lot of fast action and and one, mean grandma.  I was hoping that the action was all in the trailer and there was a lot more of grandma or her ilk.  I wasn't too disappointed. 

     "Legion" is an action/thriller about a coming apocalypse and a renegade angel who it trying to save humanity from it.  Paul Bettany plays the fallen Archangel Michael, who has come to protect Adrianne Palicki's character, Charlie, and her soon to be born (on Christmas!) baby from the Archangel Gabriel, played by Kevin Durand, who is now leading heaven's armies aganist humanity, Michael, Charlie, and her soon to be born, savior child.  Dennis Quaid, Charles S. Dutton, and a few others round out the cast as well written, pretty well acted supporting characters and cannon fodder. 

     "Legion" does a good job at building suspense, developing its characters, and moving the story along while still giving you plenty of action, explosions, and angel fights.  Much of the movie has a nice, trapped in a house/zombie movie feel to it as the main characters barricade themselves in a diner and fend off waves of angel possessed humans.  Bettany and Durandis both do well as frighteningly dedicated angels, both hellbent on carrying out their respective missions, but it really is Quaid, Dutton, and some of the other supporting characters who make this film as good and enjoyable as it is.  This shows in the ending, which is satisfying enough and appropiate for a movie like this, but is also a little dry with the majority of the supporting characters gone and is a bit too action oriented. 

     "Legion" isn't going to be a classic or win any Oscars, but it is an enjoyable time in the theater and is worth, at least, a matinee ticket price. 

     P.S.  "The Prophecy" is still the reigning champ for creepy angel movies.  You just can't beat Christopher Walken and Viggo Mortensen

Sunday, January 24, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different (Review)

     This is sort of a movie so I guess this is sort of a review.  "And Now for Something Completely Different" isn't really a movie as much as it is a collection of skits from the first two seasons of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" redone for the movie screen.  It was shown in theaters around the US in the early 70's, so technically, I suppose, it qualifies as a movie.  It was originally intended to introduce American audiences to Monty Python (no YouTube or Hulu back then) and is the first of the Python's films.

     Just in case you don't know what "Monty Python's Flying Circus" was, they were a comedy troupe out of Great Brittan in the early 1970's.  Their comedy was so unique that dictionaries had to invent the word Pythonesque just to describe it.  Their skits are often ridiculous in premise, go in completely unexpected directions, and have no ending or punchline, but rather, they just bleed into the next skit or end suddenly or they get interrupted by another skit or a bit of some of the oddest animation anyone had seen at the time, and that's exactly what you can expect from "And Now for Something Completely Different;" oddities like a pet shop owner who can't be convinced that a parrot he sold is actually dead, a mountaineer with double vision who wants to go up the twin peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro, (there's only one!) and, my personal favorite, an instructional video on how not to be seen.  (Don't stand up!)

     Of all the Python's movie's, "And Now for Something Completely Different" is the least movie like and, really, exactly like watching an hour and a half of their TV show.  If you like Monty Python, then you'll like this, if you don't, you won't, and if you've never seen them, well, this will give you a really good idea of what you're missing.  You'll also learn how to defend yourself when your attacker is armed with fresh fruit.  (Eat the banana, thus disarming your attacker.) 

The Book of Eli (Review)

     Denzel Washington and a gritty, realistic, post apocalyptic Hellscape; how can you go wrong?  Well,sadly, it's quite easy; lousy story.

     "The Book of Eli" features Denzel Washington as Eli, former K-Mart employee who is now 30 years into a post apocalyptic journey to get a book of great importance somewhere in the West.  We pick up his journey near its end as he comes across a small group of people living in the rubble of a former town and being led by a tyrannical dictator named Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman.  Oldman's character wants the book as well.  Mila Kunis plays Solara, who is either fleeing the tyranny of the town or working against our hero to steal his all important book.

     "The Book of Eli" manages to do almost everything right, the casting is very good, Denzel Washington does a good job as a hardened man on a mission, the landscape and special effects are superb, the directing and pace of the film are just right for an action/thriller, and the action scenes are almost over the top, but not too bad and they aren't too numerous or drawn out.  (Except for the opening, arrow shot sequence.)  So, what kills this movie, really?  (I'm completely giving the ending away here.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Daybreakers (Review)

     When you push to far to one extreme, there is always a backlash; disco brought on punk, Bush brought on Obama, and now, thankfully, romanticized, teen angst laden vampires bring on "Daybreakers."  The previews made it look like a typical, fast action, slick, special effects laden bowl of Hollywood tripe.  Little did I know that nothing could have been farther from the truth. 

     "Daybreakers" is not your typical vampire movie.  Here, a virus, spread by a bat, began infecting people and turning them into vampires.  It seems that most of the classic vampire lore applies; sunlight kills, as does a stake through the heart and decapitation, and you become a vampire when one feeds on you.  With people becoming vampires at a rapid pace, ordinary human beings soon become a minority and the world is now run by vampires.  These vampires need human blood or they devolve into a nasty, more bat like, mindless, vampire creature, so, human beings are now captured and farmed for blood, however, ten years into Vampireland, there are not enough humans left to sustain the vampire population and blood supplies are beginning to run short.  Enter our hero, Edward Dalton, played by Ethan Hawke, who is a vampire doing research on a blood substitute.  He meets up with former vampire Lionel 'Elvis' Cormac, played Willem Dafoe, and a small group of human resisters.  They have a cure, of sorts, that DaFoe's character accidentally discovered, and they need Hawke's character to develop it.

     "Daybreakers" is a bit of an action movie and a bit of a gruesome monster movie with some well thought out social analysis as a backdrop.  The action sequences are well done and appropriate, lacking the current Hollywood penchant for slow motion CGI closeups.  They are fast, shocking, and often gruesome, but not overly so, and appropriate for an adult oriented monster movie.  The visual effects are quite good and are used when necessary rather than the overkill we are used to.  There is even quite a bit of development of what a vampire lead society would be like, complete with social divisions, an underclass, (quite literally under the city) a human hunting vampire army, and coffee.  (Now with 20% blood!)  There could be more development of the culture, but not without sacrificing the action/monster movie core.  The rest is good execution of story and character.  "Daybreakers" isn't a character based drama by any stretch of the imagination, but it does pay enough attention to both character and story to keep both interesting and believable while advancing the plot of a action/monster movie, making it a far better than your typical, shallow, action or monster movie.  The ending is satisfying enough, though we are left in sequel or franchise territory, which I think wouldn't be such a bad idea as long as newcomer writer/directors Michael and Peter Spierig can remain in Australia and away from the influence of major motion picture studios. 

     I was pleasantly surprised at "Daybreakers," and if you are sick and tired of wimpy, teen aged vampires bemoaning their feelings, I think you will be too.

Up in the Air (Review)

     I hate watching modern romance films.  They are all the same.  People who shouldn't be together and will make each other miserable if they try to spend the rest of their lives together spend the entire movie realizing that fact, until, in the end, there is a romantic moment, which somehow makes up for everything else that has transpired, and the couple that shouldn't be has a long, romantic kiss, and the movie ends.  The really sad fact is that some of these movies are actually pretty good, up until the third act, where it all falls apart because the doomed couple has to get together in the end.  "Up in the Air" looked like it might be different, and it was, but not enough.

     "Up in the Air" stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a man who works for a company that sends him around the country to fire people during large lay offs or whatever and help counsel them with their severance packages, finding a new job, ect...  He has spent his life doing this, he is very good at it, he spends more than three hundred days a year on the road, has little connection to friend or family, and is quite happy and successful.  In his off time, he does speaking engagements, most of the time to promote his book on how movement is life and relationships only weigh you down.  Clooney's character meets Alex Goran, played by Vera Farmiga, a business woman who also spends a lot of time on the road and they begin a physical relationship which they consummate whenever their busy itineraries happen to bring them near one another.  Then we get the younger woman, Natalie Keener, played by Anna Kendrick.  Kendrick's character is a recent college graduate who is there to innovate the way Clooney's character does his job.  She proposes ending the traveling and wants to start firing people via video phone.  Before this plan is implemented, she spends some time traveling with Clooney's character to see what it is he actually does.

     The first two acts of "Up in the Air" are very good.  You've got some really good writing and some great actors.  It was very enjoyable and gave me hope that this movie might not be your typical romance film, and it wasn't.  It was far worse.  (Sorry, but I'm going to give away the end here.)

Sherlock Holmes (Review)

     Holiday blockbusters are always so dicey.  They seem to want to include something for everyone (so everyone will pay to see them) but satisfy almost no one.  "Sherlock Holmes" does this and still manages to pull off something that's enjoyable, even if it's not on par with the classic source material.

     In this latest tale of these iconic characters, Jude Law plays Dr Watson, who is finally giving up mysteries and murders so he can get married.  Holmes, played rather realistically and convincingly by Robert Downey Jr, isn't ready to call it quits, and isn't above trying to ruin Watson's marriage to satisfy his own need for intellectual stimulation.  Holmes and Watson are soon pulled into a mystery that threatens the very foundations of British government and are compelled to solve it.  (So, what else is new?)

     Robert Downey Jr. does a great job as a troubled and driven Holmes.  The story is fairly intricate, as it should be, yet remains believable.  (Some parts more than others.)  It should be difficult to go wrong with good actors and legendary characters, you don't even need that great of a story, and this story isn't half bad, however, this movie tries to pack in way too much for the sake of drawing a large, holiday movie audience, and it suffers for it.  The pace is broken up by too many action points and unnecessary special effects sequences.  At two hours and eight minutes, you can afford to lose some of the slow motion explosions and fight scenes.  The poor pace also makes it difficult to connect to the characters, which is a real shame with these actors and characters. 

     "Sherlock Holmes" wastes a lot of potential in order to draw a large, holiday audience, but it does manage to make an enjoyable movie, even if it could have been much, much better.

Avatar (Review)

     I had been seeing the previews for months, as I'm sure a lot of you have, and I was worried.  James Cameron knows how to make a movie, and I'm willing to give (almost) anything he makes a chance, but "Avatar" seemed unnecessarily over the top.  The more I heard about the truly amazing, new techniques and technologies being used, the more I worried about more basic story elements being overlooked.  The more hyped the movie was, the more I worried that anything less than an absolute masterpiece was going to be a complete letdown.  In many ways, my fears were realized.

      "Avatar" is about a planet of primitive, alien natives who just happen to be living directly on top of their planet's largest concentration of valuable ore. (Upsidasium)  A corporate mining operation wants the natives to relocate and the space marines protecting the mining operation are all too happy to blow the indigenous population up if they resist.  At the same time you've got xeno-anthropologists, led by Sigourney Weaver, studying the aliens, trying to teach them English, (and the American way) and, supposedly, trying to convince them to leave their scared tree and move so the Marines won't blow them up.  Enter our hero, played by Sam Worthington, a former Marine who is now confined to a wheelchair. (Yes, we have intergalactic space ships but are still using wheelchairs!)  His job is to use a genetically engineered alien body, that he controls with his mind, to help the xeno-anthropologists study the natives and secretly gather intelligence for the military so they can either convince the natives to leave or have an easier time blowing them up.  Of course, after spending three months living as an alien, he forms attachments, loyalties are called into question, and inner conflict arises.

     The story is an old one, even if it is significantly modernized.  Do you remain loyal when loyalty means injustice, or do you betray everything you know to defend the helpless?  (Or, at least, the seriously outgunned?)  With that kind of a story, you pretty much know exactly what's going to happen, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as you develop the story and characters well, move the plot along, and keep the audience emotionally invested; in short, you tell a good story.  Cameron does this, somewhat, but but he also sacrifices these basic story elements to showcase his new special effects techniques.  To be fair, the special effects are, for the most part, amazing.  The 3-D, however, was, at best, unnecessary and at worst, distracting.  During the CGI sequences, the 3-D is, of course, faked by computers, so it isn't all that amazing, during the parts that are shot on set, the 3-D is real, but useless as the sets are not that large, and anytime they mixed CGI with actual sets, the 3-D actually makes the computer graphics stand out and look less real.  The plot plods along at a terrible pace and is broken up by far too many extended CGI action sequences that do little or nothing to advance the story or develop the characters.  At two hours and forty-two minutes, you can afford to cut out a lot of the action sequences and add some character development.  The love story between Worthington's character and the alien 'princess' seems to simply pop into being rather than being developed over the course of the movie in a believable fashion.  Similarly, so does his character's detachment from reality and his native culture.  Both are spilled out quickly in awkward exposition.  We are never really given the opportunity to empathize or develop any real feelings for any of the characters.  Additionally, the CGI character's lack of facial expressions makes them seem emotionless and almost cartoon like.  Despite Cameron's new CGI techniques, which were meant to capture actor's facial expressions and transfer them to their computer generated characters, the CGI aliens still seem rather flat in most of their expressions.  We spend quite a bit of time with these aliens and not having the subtlety of realistic facial expressions makes it quite difficult to get a sense of their feelings or to form any real emotional bond with them.  

     "Avatar" isn't a bad movie, but it is far too long for an action movie and it doesn't have nearly enough character or story development for a sci/fi morality tale.  It feels more like an extended ride at a studio theme park; lots of eye candy but not a lot of substance.  I think Cameron shot way too high on this one and missed.