Sunday, June 27, 2010

Knight and Day

The early reception of Knight and Day has been a confusing one considering the prospect of a summer action movie starring the reliable Tom Cruise and the ceaselessly sexy Cameron Diaz. By watching the trailers for the film, it's understandable where this disinterest could stem from. It's a summer movie that, surprisingly, is not interested in telling the viewer everything to expect before they see the movie. That's because the movie is more than just the dazzling stunts featured in the previews.
Knight and Day
surprises early and often with its clever ingenuity and engaging production work. This shouldn't come as a surprise to movie fans with humble director James Mangold at the helm. I say humble only because, in the summer season of "so-and-so presents:" and another "M. Night Shyamalan film," Mangold is perfectly capable of making a good movie without stamping his name all over it. This is one of his first films Mangold hasn't also written or conceptualized. For those of you who don't recognize his name, he is responsible for writing and direction the impressionable hits Walk The Line and Girl, Interrupted. While the script for Knight comes from a relative no-name writer, Mangold has an eye for choosing them.
The film is one of those summer actions flicks that works because it's more concerned with the story than the action. It relaxes the audience into enjoying the movie because in the opening minutes you aren't saturated with a ten minute long shoot-out. Instead, the film shows off clever camera work and visual story telling to introduce us to our main characters. What follows is a film that is really at heart a bit of an indulgent female fantasy. Cameron Diaz's June runs into charming, smooth talking Roy who sweeps her off her feet and takes her to romantic, scenic locations across the world. He is at the same time, June's protector and equal. Diaz's character doesn't fall into the mold of a spy-movie "Bond Chick" who is helpless without Bond and grows faint at the sight of blood. Her character is tough and capable and at one point she remarks, "My dad always wanted boys."
When the action sequences come, which they do as it is a spy movie, they're refreshing. The action sequences rely heavily on real life effects rather than CGI, and the movie sports a stunt crew of more than sixty. With the exception of a few gun fights, the action doesn't last long enough to wear out it's welcome. One fault of the film is that it feels as if due to time or budget it would have liked to tell a longer story. A strange plot device is used to rush us through potential action sequences making a couple of moments light in explanation. In hindsight though, maybe this is a good thing. It gives the movie more time to focus on developing characters. Once again crediting the camera work, the sequences are more loyal to classic action movies like The French Connection than to the new trend of hyper-active editing. Since the film is dialogue heavy, it shouldn't go unnoticed that Mangold knows when to have fun with the camera, and when to pull back and keep things simple.
Knight and Day is not without it's faults. Spy movies have never been known for falling entirely within realistic circumstances, but a lot of the film seems to rely on "luck" and suspension of disbelief. Characters often get from place to place with lightning speed, or overhear whispered, convenient plot devices through a glass window. The same plot device that allows us to thankfully skip burdening action sequences often allows the characters to move from place to place without any real explanation or connectivity. If the movie was sped up, one might even be reminded of this clever old spice ad While it's refreshing to see a powerful female character in a spy film, Diaz's transformation from hopeless ditz to dead-eye shooter is fast and unbelievable.
Knight and Day isn't trying to be a perfect movie, but it does a good job at remaining entertaining without falling into frenzied, summer-action hysteria. In the vein of action flicks, it's probably one of the cleverer ones we will see this summer. The plot is not one track and it takes the viewer for a couple of twists without becoming overly-predictable. Cruise and Diaz are backed up by a strong supporting cast including Peter Sarsgaard of An Education fame and continually impressive young actor Paul Dano. A worthwhile summer spy movie not to be judged by it's cover.

Consesus: See

Friday, June 25, 2010

Pixar Toys With Perfection Again

Toy Story 3 seems like a strange choice to present to the indecisive moviegoer, since I predict that almost everyone could find a reason to see this movie. However, if you truly are an indecisive moviegoer, perhaps this review will come in time to save you from not seeing it.
It's probably a good thing that Disney bought out Pixar. Ever since their founding with the first Toy Story they have proved themselves to be leading the pack in the creation of kid's movies. Pixar's mission is to create classic films. Toy Story 3 may not be the best film of the trilogy even if it makes a strong argument for it. This won't stop the franchise from becoming a new American classic. It hosts a cast of instantly recognizable characters that have stood the test of time. After all, Toy Story stepped onto the scene a whole fifteen years ago and they hardly needed to advertise to move to a $110 million weekend.
Pixar's film make the case for continuing the production of computer animated movies. These days they're becoming a dime a dozen. The Shrek franchise is now on it's fourth film and there's always the occasional title that slips quickly out of memory like the Tim Burton produced 9. The same beauty and attention to detail that Disney made famous in their classic fairy tales is what helps make Pixar's movies exceptional. Toy Story sports vivid colors, attention to lighting, physics and "high-def" details. While pencil-drawn animation purists will always criticize computer animation, Disney's old films could never capture the lifelike details that Pixar's films do, down to the pores of an old janitors face. Only computer animation could capture the humor in a stuffed doll's awkwardness while trying to run across a lawn. Lotso, a giant purple teddy bear who is introduced into the series, is detailed down to the individual fibers of his fur coat.
One of the things that make the Toy Story films great is that the writers seem to understand the drama in the lives of toys. For a long time films have been made about the lives of things that are kept secret from humans. There are movies that focus around aliens, ants, babies and sea creatures. Pixar is the only company brave enough to tackle the subject of toys. They seem to know so well how toys think, act and feel. They not only do this, they do it really well. While films about pets and babies tend to get stuck in the realm of poop jokes and bad puns, the Toy Story films not only delight children but entertain the intelligence of their parents. Pixar has been marked for their political commentary before, most noticeably in the post-apocalyptic Wall-E. It's interesting to watch Toy Story and see how a child's rather simplistic adventure tale can make the viewer think about society. The dialogue is rife with the idea of aggressive expansion and how when we may assume we are wanted, we sometimes aren't. The unspoken commentary in Pixar's Mise-en-scene lies in the background world's obsession with Ipods and video games. Perhaps the movies greatest triumph though, lies in the fact that in a complex drama about the lives of toys, they come off so terribly human.
The series owes a lot of that to their fantastic cast. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen once again bring their talents to the voice cast and there's not a weak link in the whole lot. It's the hard work of the animators and the voice actors that bring the characters to such full and vibrant life. It takes only a second to fall into the world of the movie. To be honest, I can hardly remember the details of the past two films, and the third one stands on it's own as an impressive movie. Save yourself the money and see the movie in 2-D. There will be less strain on your eyes and you'll have more time to focus on the little details. Pixar is all about finding the treasures in the little things. On that note, be sure to show up on time to catch the animated short at the start, and to stay during the credits for the "outtakes." All these things work together to make a complete package of a film.

Consensus: See

"Jonah Hex" Gets Ugly Fast

I had some time to kill today and decided to take in Jonah Hex, the newest film with Josh Brolin. I felt like this film didn't deserve to be written off for several reasons. It's headed by two strong lead actors: Brolin and John Malkovich. It's a movie based off a comic book by DC comics. More often than not, this leads to relatively good reviews and big box office success. It wasn't a surprise to me that these two actors (and we shouldn't forget Megan Fox) all wanted a comic book franchise of their own so they could wallpaper their houses in money. The movie is also backed by "Legendary Pictures," a young production company joined with "Warner Brothers" that has an impressive track record that started with Batman Begins and includes such titles and Where the Wild Things Are and The Hangover. With five previous comic adaptations under their belt, superhero fans should be buying tickets with high hopes.
Unfortunately, Hex feels less like an adaptation of a comic book than a teenage boy's retelling of one. Despite a highly stylized introduction, the movie basically assumes that it's target audience already knows what they need to know. It's a comic book film that skips the origin story, only not intentionally. We are told how Hex's face became scarred, and it hints at his motivations. However the ten minutes of exposition are light in detail, and heavy in an overly-gruff voice over by Brolin. From that minute on, the loud explosions and gunshots come so thick and fast that you barely have time to take the cotton out of your ears before the next wave begins.
Director Jimmy Hayward, whose first film Horton Hears a Who was a relative success, seems to be trying to do to the Western genre what Stephenie Meyer did to vampires with her Twilight books. They both might make some fans out of America's youth, but to the rest of the viewing audience the effort seems amateur and short sighted. The film makes a few concerted efforts to capture life in the wild-west including a bell-tower shootout and wide, scenic shots but it's just more interested in the guns. The editing is lightning fast. Combined with a lot of night scenes and low-budget lighting, eventually you just have to give up and listen to the endless explosions.
What attracted Brolin and Malkovich to the script remains a mystery to me. I suspect that Malkovich wanted to re-create the attention that Heath Ledger got for his Joker in The Dark Knight by playing Hex's nemesis. But due to shoddy script writing and a half-effort by Malkovich, he falls short. As for Brolin, he spends most of the film looking mad and growling his words from the left side of his mouth. A confusing plot hole is his determination to get revenge for the murder of his beloved family, while he spends the movie sleeping with Megan Fox's saucy prostitute Tallulah Black, who loves(?) Hex. Fox spends her screen time making sexy faces and moaning her lines like she just came out from under anesthesia.
Hex is more like watching a freak carnival sideshow than an actual "film." There are explosions, sexy women, mutants and men with scary scars. Hex can talk to the dead, which gives cool opportunities for special effects which are largely wasted. It should also go mentioned that Brolin can look good riding a horse. However, the story and setting runs away from being a western just as fast as it's style does. The location jumps all over the U.S map. Characters are introduced to recite five lines to further the story and are never heard from again. Another thing the film gets wrong from it's "Legendary Films" predecessors is that while they made the formula of "gritty, realistic" superhero movies famous, the plot is so bogus and unbelievable it feels like a re-boot of Will Smith's Wild Wild West. If that's a good thing, maybe this film is for you. Although let me warn you that Brolin has none of Smith's charm in this film and the script is mirthless. If lots of pyrotechnics and loud gunfire is a form of therapy for you, by all means I would recommend this film. However if you prefer story line, or just have high blood pressure, stay away from this one.

Consensus: Redbox it for your son's 13th birthday, he'll have a blast.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Get Him To The Greek

I was just inspired to start this blog today, so I cannot say that I am writing this particular review the minute I got back from the theater in fact, I saw it a few days ago now, so I've had time to ponder it over.
Get Him To The Greek follows a very successful and now, very tried formula of a Judd Apatow production. For those of you who don't know what I mean by that, I will try to explain what I know of it. Judd Apatow seems to have collected a group of young, talented American comedians and trained them to make good movies. It's as if he is an American Fagin, Seth Rogen is Oliver Twist and Jason Segel is The Artful Dodger. I remember hearing a radio interview once in which Apatow was described to "force" a young Seth Rogen and others to come up with 100 good ideas for comedy films. This is how the concept for his biggest success, Superbad came into being when Seth Rogen wrote it and was young enough to play the part Jonah Hill made (im)famous instead of the dopey cop. These ideas go onto a shelf and they simply seem to wait for the right time, like good wine. What this all wraps up to mean is that they are now undeniably some of the most interesting people in American comedy currently.
Get Him To The Greek is at times vulgar, racist, sexist, gross out and childish. Yet it finds a way to mix all those elements into (at times) extremely sophisticated humor. The Apatow crew shies away from slapstick and screwball, and the antics of the characters, in this one particularly, Russell Brand's tragic rock star Aldous Snow are surprisingly human. As far as storyline, those same elements manage to rise above immaturity, by applying themselves to modern culture with uncanny ability. These comedic writers are extremely savvy at tackling modern issues such as accidental cell phone pocket-dialing and Biggest Loser. Also, thanks to their success, Apatow and crew were able to flex their influence muscles to get cameos from many a real celebrity in order to give a current feel to the film.
For those of you wondering, it's an indirect sequel to the hit Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Russell Brand again takes up the reigns of his character Aldous Snow, while Jonah Hill plays a completely new character. The chemistry between these two make the movie fun. They obviously had a good time making it, and Jonah Hill makes us believe him as Aaron, the fan who gets to meet the fame. Surprisingly enough though, Puff Daddy (Sean Combs, P. Diddy, etc.) actually makes the movie in the part of psychotic music producer Sergio. While he admittedly plays an undisguised parody of himself he tackles the role with finesse, and his joke deliveries are unarguably the best in the film.
Unlike its predecessor Sarah Marshall, the movie has surprisingly darker undertones. As a wise woman once described the Oscar Wilde comedy An Ideal Husband, in comparison to The Importance of Being Earnest, the latter is just desserts, while the former is the main dish, it's got some protein to it. Greek is like the former. The two main characters, while funny, are not very likable people when you break them down. Aaron is sloppy and doesn't know how to handle a relationship, and Snow is a wrecked, egotistical rock star. The only really likable character is Aaron's girlfriend Daphne, played by Elisabeth Moss and she is undeniably vilified. While the movie is about Aaron's often futile efforts to get Snow to a concert in Los Angeles in two days, the movie is really about what fame does to people; how it can wreck their lives, make them sad, addicted to drugs, or simply unwilling to let anyone in. By the end of the movie, you feel sorry for Brand's Aldous, who instead of seeming like a handsome rake who has it all, turns out to be lonely, looking for love and estranged from his family (Excellent Irish actor Colm Meaney makes a great cameo as Russell's detached father.)
Their commitment to telling the story of Aldous Snow provides the movie with it's frequent slow bits. The jokes do not fire fast and funny the same way Superbad and Sarah Marshall did. However, what the strong cast does bring the table is frequently hilarious and you will leave the theater having exercised your laughing muscles. It's an enjoyably intelligent look at the way we idolize celebrities and then how those idols who are still people survive the worship. As Bill Murray once said, "If you want to be rich and famous, try just being rich first." and as Sergio comments, "These British rock stars never die! Look at Ozzie Ozbourne! He's gonna outlive Miley Cyrus." Perhaps the new fad of dying if you're a celebrity is what prompted Apatow to pull this script off the shelf. However, it is a comedy so there's a happy ending. Not to worry.

Consensus: See