Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hanna

Directed by Joe Wright.
2011. Rated PG-13, 111 minutes.
Cast:
Saoirse Ronan
Eric Bana
Cate Blanchett
Tom Hollander
Jessica Barden
Vicky Krieps
Tim Beckmann
Jason Flemyng
Olivia Williams

Hanna (Ronan) is not your typical teenage girl. Being raised in the forest by only your father in complete isolation tends to have that effect. We very soon learn there’s a lot more to it than that. Dad, Erik Heller (Bana) seems to be training her for a very dangerous mission. She fluently speaks numerous languages, has cat-like reflexes even in her sleep, fights viciously and is scarily proficient with firearms. We’re not the least bit surprised when she tells dad that she thinks she’s ready. With that, he digs up something that looks like he’s about to call Batman, shaves, cuts his hair, throws on a suit, gives Hanna a few last minute instructions and bails out. Apparently, the simple fact he’s alive is a threat to national security. Naturally, shortly after Hanna’s flipped the switch on the makeshift batphone a small army of government agents are making their way inside the cabin where she lives with guns drawn looking for pop. They only find her and she disposes of a few of them before letting herself be corralled and hauled off to a very sanitized facility for questioning.


At this point, we still don’t know what it is she’s ready for and why dad took off ahead of the action. Marissa (Blanchett) is wondering the same thing. She pretty much runs things in this particular government operation. The Heller’s plan slowly comes into focus for us while the action occurs rapidly enough. Our young heroine winds up on the run after some death-defying feats, death inducing to a number of those in her way, while dad is on an excursion of his own. Hanna’s introduction to the modern world and lack of social skill serves as comic relief. What exactly her father is doing and Hanna’s quest to reunite with him gives us both the action and the drama. It’s all woven into an intriguing and exciting tale. It's also full of wonderful visuals that keep our eyes dazzled.

Detractors will note that Hanna engages in lots of hand-to-hand combat with grown men. Rest assured, all is explained. I might add that what we’re shown is well depicted. It never feels anywhere near as ridiculous as it might sound. It helps that Ronan handles the lead role superbly. She is a perfect mix of naivete and ruthlessness. The plot does its part by being mysterious enough to keep us interested, but not so much that it feels cryptic. There are some spots where it drags a bit, but the pace feels solid overall. It wisely borrows from another recent action movie with a female lead. If Salt is basically The Bourne Identity starring Angelina Jolie then Hanna is Salt with a teenager. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Rio

Directed by Carlos Saldanha.
2011. Rated G, 96 minutes.
Cast:
Jesse Eisenberg
Anne Hathaway
Leslie Mann
Rodrigo Santoro
George Lopez
Jamie Foxx
Will.i.Am
Jermaine Clement
Wanda Sykes
Bernardo de Paula
Tracy Morgan

As a wee little baby bird Blu (Eisenberg) is snatched from his habitat in the wilds of Rio de Janeiro and winds up in Minnesota as pet to Linda (Mann). One day, ornithologist Tulio (Santoro) shows up and informs Linda that Blu is the last male of his species, the blue macaw. He needs Blu to mate with Jewel (Hathaway) in order to save said species. Of course, they have to go back to Rio for this to happen. Once there, we find out a few things. Jewel is very interested in escaping Tulio’s lab and not at all interested in Blu (she has no use for humans). Smugglers are also interested in our not-so-in-lovebirds, realizing that these are the last two of their kind and very valuable. Finally, Linda and Tulio seem very interested in each other. Chasing, match-making and singing ensues.


What also ensues is little more than an hour’s worth of blandness. It finds its comfort zone in a paint-by-numbers tale that doesn’t hold any real surprises and is more than happy bing cute and slipping in a slightly risqué joke every now and again. Occasionally, something pretty funny happens, it moves along at a nice pace and at a total length of just a bit over 90 minutes it never overstays its welcome. Howerver, it never really differentiates itself from the scores of other animated kiddie flicks made in the last half decade, positively or negatively. Even the songs are kind of ho-hum, not particularly memorable with the exception of the villainous Nigel’s (Clement) tune. This is a shame because you have both Jamie Foxx (Nico) and Will.i.Am (Pedro) in the cast. Love them or hate them, they’ve both made a killing by delivering catchy numbers to pop radio. Most of what we get here feels ripped off from Madagascar.

Don’t fret. This isn’t a bad watch. It’s a perfectly pleasant time-passer. There are some excellent visuals helped by the use of color and the absence of it, in Nigel’s case. Humor comes at a decent rate with the occasional punch line that goes over the kiddies’ heads. They’ll enjoy it and you probably will, also. I’m not sure either of you will love it, but I’m pretty sure you won’t hate it.

MY SCORE: 6/10

Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Sister's Revenge

Directed by Jamaa Fanaka.
1976. Rated R, 100 minutes.
Cast:
Jerri Hayes
Ernest Williams II
Charles D. Brooks III
Leopoldo Mandeville
Malik Carter
Eddie Allen

Following her mother’s death Emma Mae (Hayes) moves from Mississippi to Compton, CA to live with her aunt and her family. Her first day in town she tags along with her two female cousins and their boyfriends. Being just a naïve and ugly country girl, their words not mine, she’s having trouble meeting guys. Tired of the fifth wheel hanging around, he cousin’s beaus pawn her off on Jesse (Williams II), the local pill-popper who is constantly loaded up on “reds”. Well, like dumb ugly girls tend to do (again, their words), Emma Mae falls head over heels in love with him since he’s the first city-slicker to show her the least bit of attention. So smitten is she that when Jesse gets in a fist-fight with some cops she helps out by kicking away an officer’s gun as he draws. Of course, when Jesse flees the scene Emma Mae is right behind her man. By the way, all of this happens in about two days. Not that any of this makes a whole lot of sense but certainly nothing from this point forward mankes any whatsoever. By the way, director Jamaa Fanaka went on to direct the Penitentiary trilogy.

Blaxploitation flicks are known for being way over the top, are often (not always) poorly acted, funny both intentionally and unintentionally due to microscopic budgets and/or poor production values as well as the mere fact of seeing characters, fashions and hearing slang that’s so undeniably 1970s. For a great deal of them, these qualities give them a lovable silliness because no matter how simply constructed the plots may be or how outrageous the action, there is a rhyme and reason. Black Sister’s Revenge takes the overwhelming message of blaxploitation flicks and the civil rights movement that spawned them and completely misappropriates them. It renders itself a rambling mumbling fool too well exemplified by one of its own characters, Big Daddy (Carter). Both the movie and the character want to do the right thing but their understanding of what that is appears suspect. BSR is a mess and much less enjoyable than others of its ilk. We joke that these movies are about “stickin’ it to tha man” or “down with whitey” or another favorite piece of rhetoric, the vague “upliftment of the community”. However, these sayings give us something to hold on to. We know what all the nuttiness is about. Our black hero, or heroine, has been wronged by someone in the establishment and/or by a black dope dealer or pimp. Both forces work against the betterment of the black community and have to be dealt with. Sometime, it’s a dope dealer or pimp realizing the error of their ways. The dynamics of good and evil remain the same. This movie uses that simple and effective formula so inefficiently that it crafts a very misguided point. It’s the equivalent of a person badly scorching every pot in the house while attemption to hard boil an egg.



What on earth am I carrying on about? Mainly, my gripe is with how the movie deals with Jesse, the object of Emma Mae’s desire. He’s a junkie. He’s not a revolutionary who happens to do drugs. He is just a junkie whom everyone knows is nothing more. Yet and still, when he goes to jail Emma Mae is able to get all of Compton helping her to raise enough money to get him out. They carry on as if they’re trying to bail out Martin Luther King Jr. or some other great leader. All the while she’s spouting the same revolutionary rhetoric of other flicks. It feels like totally misplaced loyalty, like we should fall in line behind the “Free Jesse” movement merely because he’s black even though he’s not done a single thing worthy of our efforts.

When Jesse finally gets out, he’s aware of what’s been going on but he’s not changed at all. This is because he must stay this way for the real purpose of the film. Let’s just say its going for a “hell hath no fury like…” vibe. Even this feels anticlimactic because when Emma Mae finishes her big speech at the finale everyone else on the screen should’ve just turned and said “I told you so.” Why they all went through such trouble on his behalf is mind boggling. This includes an impromptu bank robbery, by the way. My thing is since they didn’t like him on the day he went to jail what changed? Many of the tenets of the genre are present and will cause some laughs. Unfortunately, the script and the acting is ridiculously bad in a painful way. Honestly, some of the supporting cast was okay. Even the guy who plays Jesse isn’t that bad. The problem is Hayes as Emma Mae dominates the movie and she is horrible. She gives us lots of cringe worthy line deliveries. Indeed, this was the debut for our star and she never appeared in anything else. Mr. Williams had a couple of credits before this but never showed up on screen again, either. Sadly, it doesn’t quite complete the trick. It never gets to so bad it’s awesome territory. It’s just bad.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Special Day



Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Dilemma

Directed by Ron Howard.
2011. Rated PG-13, 111 minutes.
Cast:
Vince Vaughn
Kevin James
Winona Ryder
Jennifer Connelly
Channing Tatum
Queen Latifah
Chelcie Ross
Amy Morton
Eduardo N. Martinez

What should you do if you find out your best friend’s wife is cheating on him? That question is at the heart of The Dilemma. The conflicted guy is Ronny (Vaughn). He’s not really conflicted, though. He has a pretty brief period of doubt then decides he’s definitely going to tell his pal Nick (James) about his wife’s indiscretions. It’s a matter of timing. Not only are Ronny and Nick best friends they are also business partners in the midst of trying to secure the biggest deal of their lives. The stress of this has already caused Nick’s ulcer to flare up again. Understandably, Ronny fears that news like this would completely break his friend. When he confronts Geneva (Ryder), the guilty party, with his knowledge and plans she offers up some interesting justifications. What ensues is Nick following around both of them while ignoring Beth (Connelly), his own girlfriend. He’s also sort of torn about whether or not to pop the big question to her.

Vince Vaughn gives the same performance we’ve come to expect from him. You can decide for yourself it that’s a positive or a negative. He’s ably assisted by Ryder, Connelly and even a refreshingly subdued Kevin James. There are also interesting turns by Channing Tatum and Queen Latifah. Overall, it shapes up to be a nice little drama with a few funny moments sprinkled in. It’s not mind-blowing or anything, but a decent time-passer.


Expectations is what dooms The Dilemma. If you’ve paid any attention to the marketing campaign for the film and are even slightly familiar with the two male leads you should reasonably expect a screwball comedy. It is not anything of the sort. That people would be severely disappointed only makes sense. It’s like ordering a thick, juicy steak and being given a salad with a few strips of beef within. Sure, that can be good on most days, but today you had your heart set on that steak.

The question that arises is this: Is The Dilemma not really that funny because it’s not trying or are the jokes falling flat? I’ll own up to having trouble discerning. There are some jokes that definitely fail. There are plenty of other spots where I didn’t think they were going for laughs at all, but attempting to make Ronny (and occasionally the others) both a pathetic and sympathetic figure. I thought it worked. However, for audiences craving steak, this salad just won’t do.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Directed by Michael Bay.
2011. Rated PG-13, 157 minutes.
Cast:
Shia LaBeouf
Rosie Huntington-Whiteley
Josh Duhamel
John Turturro
Frances McDormand
Patrick Dempsey
Tyrese Gibson
John Malkovich
Ken Jeong
Kevin Dunn
Julie White

The Decepticons take a third crack at conquering Earth. Of course, Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf), the Autobots and the guy from Sector 7 (Turturro) stand in their way. Megan Fox does not. There is another pretty face in place of hers. More on that later. Moving on, this tale actually begins with man’s first landing on the moon back in 1969. Unbeknownst to us for over forty years, during that initial lunar expedition Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldridge discovered Sentinel, who appears to have crashed landed on the dark side of the moon. He’s an old Autobot who evidently taught Optimus Prime everything he knows. The astronauts bring what they can back to Earth which includes five thingamajigs. Fast forward to the present when Megatron and company have a bunch more of these things. They plan on getting the five that somehow wound up in the Middle East, but are now possessed by the US government. Once they do that they’ll be able to reconstruct their home planet Cybertron in a place that appears to be extremely close ot Earth. Never you mind the science of any of this just know that this is the bad guys’ plan. Oh, once Cybertron is operational they’re going to use mankind as its own slave-labor force.


Essentially, we get a remake of Revenge of the Fallen. That said, there are some revisions. As you can probably tell, the main change is switching out the whatchamacallit for the thingamajigs. Next, instead of destroying the Egyptian pyramids we tear up Chicago pretty darn good. And don’t forget we trade in The Fallen for Sentinel. These changes are neither here nor there. Some others actually do improve upon its predecessor, thankfully. For starters, the two jive-talking bots are nowhere to be found. Ma and Pa Witwicky’s annoying antics are also scaled back. Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of lame humor to go around. Much of it comes from the go-for-broke performance of John Turturro.


The most easily recognizable difference is we have a new damsel in distress, Carly Spencer played by model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. She buys collector items for some uber-rich dude. Yes, this turns out to be a very large part of the reason she comes to be in distress. Sadly, she can’t give Ms. Fox a run for her money in the acting department. By the way, it’s not like I think Megan Fox is ever in danger of winning an Oscar. For Ms. Huntington-Whiteley, her looks are all she brings to the table. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she won this part in a raffle where only models were allowed to buy tickets. Any one of them would’ve been just as good.


The bottom line is that Dark of the Moon is a Transformers movie. If you enjoyed the last one, you’ll enjoy this one. Robots transform, fight, knock over skyscrapers and blow stuff up. Once again, this goes on for a way too long two and a half hours. I will say that this is a step up, though. The Fallen made me want to gouge out my own eyes with a spoon and puncture both eardrums with an icepick. This one merely made me want to bang my head on a hard surface. Heres to progress!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Soul Surfer


Directed by Sean McNamara.
2011. Rated PG, 106 minutes.
Cast:
AnnaSophia Robb
Dennis Quaid
Helen Hunt
Kevin Sarbo
Lorraine Nicholson
Carrie Underwood
Ross Thomas
Craig T. Nelson
Chris Brocha
Sonya Balmores


Teenager Bethany Hamilton (Robb) is already a championship surfer with a bright future. While taking a break during a training session, she is attacked by a shark and loses her left arm. A few awkward days after leaving the hospital Bethany decides not only does she want to surf again but she wants to do so competitively. She faces plenty of hurdles and of course does lots of soul searching on her journey back into the surfing world. Yes, this is based on a true story in case you somehow missed it when it was a major news story a few years back.

Make no mistake, this is a story of salvation through and through. What sets this apart from any others is the person being redeemed is already a thoroughly good person. What she must overcome are the seeds of doubt that have been sewn by a most unfortunate event. Through her tears, and possibly yours, she wonders aloud how any of this could be part of God’s plan. She has a few temper tantrums and revelations. All the while, we closely follow the template of so many sports movies. The only question is whether or not our heroine will win the big game.



As Bethany, Anna Sophia Robb does a very nice job. This becomes especially clear when you realize that she does indeed have two arms but had to only use one for the majority of the movie. The rest of our cast is adequate. Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid, Kevin Sorbo and Craig T. Nelson all wear concerned or upset visages whenever appropriate. Even Carrie Underwood is only asked to do just enough to not embarrass herself and she obliges. The one person we could use more of is Malina (Balmores), our makeshift villain. Beating Bethany seems to be her life’s mission. Nothing changes after Bethany has lost a limb. We get a few brief scenes of her with a sour look on her face as she barks at her nemesis. Since this is a wholesome Christian film, you won’t be surprised how this particular subplot ends. Still, it would’ve been nice to get to know her a little more and develop her more as a person with an axe to grind than just a caricature that we’ve seen a thousand times before.

If there is a serious flaw in Soul Surfer it’s that things come too easy. Each obstacle Bethany faces merely seems like a low hurdle we know she’ll clear with ease. Part of this stems from her. Her faith is briefly in doubt, her nobility is not. Don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful that she’s apparently a terrific person. However, this makes the story we’re told less than compelling. It doesn’t help that the movie quickly sidesteps any weighty issues that pop up such as what happens with the boy that obviously likes her. How does she deal with this? Do the two of them ever talk about what happened to her? How do his friends treat him when they figure out who he’s attracted to? I could go on.



Nevertheless, SS does what it set out to. It’s a full-blown inspirational “triumph of the human spirit” type of flick. The real tale is so ready-made for exactly the treatment it receives here the filmmakers couldn’t mess it up. Some of you will cry. Some of you will cry a lot. The rest of us might find it cliché and predictable. The movie is okay with any of those.

MY SCORE: 6/10

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Salt

Directed by Phillip Noyce.
2010. Rated PG-13, 100 minutes.
Cast:
Angelina Jolie
Liev Schreiber
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Daniel Olbrychski
August Dehl
Hunt Block
Daniel Pearce
Olek Krupa
Andre Braugher


Evelyn Salt (Jolie) works for the CIA and has endured a lot for the good ol’ USA. Still, one day a man claiming to be a Russian defector shows up at the agency and says that she is really a spy from his homeland. Naturally, more and more doubt is cast upon her allegiance to the stars and stripes as parts of the man’s story seem to check out. Of course, through much mayhem and Houdini-like escapability, she gets away from the law and goes on the run. The question is whether she’s trying to clear her name or commit the assassination the defector says she will.


This is a movie filled with breath-taking stunts, brutal fight scenes and narrow escapes. There’s hardly any “down time” but what little there is perfectly sets up what’s to come. It also gives us just enough insight on the title character for us to care. No, we’re not talking grade A character development, but it’s more than sufficient for an action flick.

Helping all this out are a few very deftly performed sleight of hands that keep us guessing what’s really going on. Eventually, it’s not enough, but only because the number of possibilities is limited, at best. There simply aren’t enough characters to keep the mystery going. To keep the ruse up as long as it does is remarkable.



I’d be remiss if I didn’t compliment the star. This is not a role which will get Angelina Jolie nominated for an Oscar. However, it’s a role she plays perfectly. It helps that the role is tailor-made for her. I’m hard pressed to think of another woman who could do the role justice with both her acting and athleticism. Uma Thurman? Milla Jovovich? Lucy Liu? Kelly Hu? I say maybe on all of them, but no doubt on Jolie.

In the end, Salt is very much a female version of The Bourne Identity. You can knock it for that and for the ending blatantly setting us up for a sequel. And frankly, the program said to be causing all this trouble is a flimsy foundation for a story. All of this would drag down a lesser movie. I didn’t mind any of them because they’re all minor and the movie is slick enough to overcome its faults. The overall ride is just flat out fun, even though it is undeniably preposterous. Question my judgment, if you must, but I loved every second of it. Why yes, I am anxiously awaiting that sequel.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Green Lantern

Directed by Martin Campbell.
2011. Rated PG-13, 114 minutes.
Cast:
Ryan Reynolds
Blake Lively
Mark Strong
Peter Sarsgaard
Tim Robbins
Angela Bassett
Jay O. Sanders
Temuera Morrison
Clancy Brown
Michael Clarke Duncan


Abin Sur (Morrison) is the most celebrated member of the intergalactic police force known as The Green Lanterns. When he is fatally wounded by all-powerful villain Parallax (voiced by Clancy Brown) he manages to make it to the nearest inhabited planet before perishing. Of course, that planet is Earth. Once landing, Abin Sur commands his magical ring to go forth and choose his successor in the Green Lantern corps. It chooses loose cannon, ultra sarcastic playboy test pilot Hal Jordan (Reynolds).


Shortly, Hal is whisked away to the planet Oa (pronounced like Noah, but without the ‘n’). This is HQ for all the lanterns and he’s there to get some quick training. That means he gets an explanation on how the ring works and what it does. For the uninformed, the ring can instantly form anything he thinks of. It also allows him to fly and breathe in outer space. We’re never actually told this last bit, but roll with it. Hal doubts that he’s worthy, goes back home, saves a few lives and really gets thrust into the action when Parallax comes looking to make a snack out of Earth’s inhabitants. Meanwhile, Dr. Hector Hammond (Sarsgaard) suddenly develops telepathic and telekinetic powers and goes crazy after examining Abin Sur’s body. A piece of Parallax lodged in the dead alien’s chest infects the doc. In short, Dr. Hammond becomes the tune-up villain for our hero before the big smog (Parallax) comes to Earth.

Although it’s an origin story, Green Lantern is not one of those slow movers where we have to wait an hour before the action starts. It’s a fast-paced affair that gleefully zips along in a relentless attempt to make each action sequence a bigger spectacle than the last. It seems to be trying to make you say “Ooh, he just made a machine gun! There’s a giant racetrack! Ooh, the giant cloud of dust is zapping people!” And so on. By the way, I haven’t even mentioned the steadily increasing size of Dr. Hammond’s head.


For kids and others who just want to see lots of superhero stuff, this is a fun ride. “Stuff” happens all the time. For more discerning viewers, particularly overly critical fanboys, it will be a neon green tinted mess. Sure, lots of stuff keeps happening but much of it makes little or no sense. It feels like they just keep throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. Instead of developing the story, it rushes to the next action scene. This, combined with a tone that’s way too reminiscent of the Fantastic Four movies and a hero that acts more like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark than the comic book version of Jordan gives the whole film a very cheesy feel. I’m not necessarily calling for “dark and gritty” like fanboys tend to do when criticizing the movies based on their favorite characters. However, if memory serves The Green Lantern comic books was more serious in approach. That helped offset some of the inherent silliness of a hero that forms a bunch of green things with his magic ring, has a serious problem with yellow and follows the command of a group of rather large-headed blue guys.


The silliness extends to our villain and the movie’s concept of the size of the galaxy. Creatures that can eliminate entire planets of people are difficult to translate to the screen. They gave a valiant effort but weren’t consistent with what Parallax could or couldn’t do. This is mostly a problem because he flat refuses a couple opportunities to kill our hero. Judging by the ending, our villain isn’t too bright, either. This little bit of ridiculousness involves the sun. I’ll just leave it at that. Still, in comparison to The Fantastic Four again, this movie does a better job with a similar bad guy. We get a far better representation of Parallax than the second FF flick has of Galactus. As far as the galaxy goes, I just find it funny that while no one beams anywhere like in Star Trek, anyone can get anywhere in a matter of minutes. It’s like Earth and Oa are next door neighbors.


I could go on for days about the problems with this movie. There are lots to choose from. However, it does one thing well. It gives us super hero action. It also does it at a pretty rapid rate. If this is enough for you, then you’ll enjoy GL. Be honest with yourself about your feelings for those Fantastic Four flicks. Better than I, that will likely help you decide if you think this is part of the brightest day or blackest night.

MY SCORE: 5/10

Friday, November 11, 2011

Half Nelson

Directed by Ryan Fleck.
2006. Rated R, 106 minutes.
Cast: 

Ryan Gosling
Shareeka Epps
Anthony Mackie
Jeff Lima
Nathan Corbett
Eleanor Hutchins
Tristan Wilds
Tina Holmes

Dan Dunne (Gosling) is a junior-high teacher struggling with drug-addiction and a newly-formed bond he has with Drey. She is one of his students who has her own troubled life and who accidentally sees her teacher/basketball coach Mr. Dunne getting high one night. This is about as far-removed from the normal teacher-saves-ghetto youth tale as you can get. The teacher in question tries to be that guy, but for obvious reasons can't. There's no magical tear-jerker or stand-up and cheer moments. It just trains an eye on these people and doesn't blink. What it becomes is an exhibition of people who perceive right or wrong based on their own circumstances. Since their circumstances, perception of those circumstances and whether "right" will be advantageous to them changes, how they feel about right or wrong also changes. Gosling is outstanding in the lead and Mackie is intriguing as a low-key neighborhood drug-dealer who is not your typical Hollywood thoroughly evil, flamboyant kingpin. He's just a guy who happens to have a somewhat dominant, but never over-the-top, personality and a skewed set of morals. Epps, as the little-girl caught in the middle, handles things with the believable non-chalantness of a 13 year-old but you sense there's some complicated things going on inside of her. When it’s all said and done, its a well-done movie that refuses to sugar-coat things. However, that also makes it a rather depressing experience. This is not one to watch if you're suicidal, easily upset or are planning a fun movie night at the house.

MY SCORE: 9/10

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

Directed by George Nolfi.
2011. Rated PG-13, 106 minutes.
Cast:
Matt Damon
Emily Blunt
Anthony Mackie
Michael Kelly
John Slattery
Terrence Stamp
Amanda Warren


Like tons of movies before it and what I’m sure will be tons more to follow, The Adjustment Bureau is about a boy chasing after the girl of his dreams. He meets her and for some reason or another she keeps getting away. This is the plot of TAB in a nutshell. Widening the scope reveals a religious debate on the free will of man vs. God’s master plan.

The boy is David Norris (Damon). At age 24, he became the youngest person ever elected to Congress. Now in his thirties, he’s working on a run for the Senate. It looks like it is going to be a successful one until an impulsive mooning incident is caught on camera. Just before he is to give his concession speech he has a chance meeting with the girl, Elise (Blunt). At least we think they meet by chance. Along with David, we soon learn that everything happens according to The Chairman’s plan. Yes, we very quickly surmise The Chairman is the name we’re using for God, even if David doesn’t.

David wasn’t supposed to learn of the plan at all, but one of the adjusters literally fell asleep on the job. This allows our hero to see other adjusters at work. Adjusters make seemingly random things happen to keep us following the plan. Of course, when they’re spotted by David they quickly get a hold of him and reluctantly fill him in on the whole plan thing and let him know two things. First, if he ever reveals the existence of the Bureau, even by accident and regardless of whether anyone believes him, his brain will be permanently wiped clean. He’ll know nothing nor be able to remember anything, an instant vegetable. Second, he’s never to see Elise ever again. That just isn’t part of the plan. Of course, this begs the question if they could completely wipe your brain or adjust your reasoning as they do to Charlie (Kelly), David’s best friend, couldn’t the adjusters simply remove his memory of them and the girl? That would certainly be more effective than hoping he does what he’s supposed to. Who am I kidding? If they did that, we’d only have about a 30 minute movie. So off he goes back into the world armed with knowledge he was never supposed to have.

As we all know, the flesh is hard to deny and our hero is determined to get the girl. Whenever he manages to get near her, the adjusters are never far behind. Throughout all this, one of them develops a soft spot for David. His name is Harry. He’s played adequately by Anthony Mackie. Harry is important both within the confines of the film as well as outside its boundaries. What he means to the story is fairly obvious. He pretty much serves as David’s guardian angel. This makes him another in Hollywood’s (and American Lit’s) long line of the archetype known as “The Magical Negro.” This is an African-American character with unnatural abilities who’s sole purpose is to aid the white protagonist. If you think I’m thoughtlessly playing the race card think about The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Matrix, The Green Mile, Bruce Almighty, Ghost, Percy Jackson & the Olympians…I could go on for a long time. It’s troubling because it is such an oft-recurring stereotype that seems harmless but reeks of subjugation. It’s also jarring in movies where that is only black character as Harry is here.

Still, I don’t deem TAB a success or failure solely based on my views of harry. He’s just one item in a very mixed bag. It’s a solid movie with an intriguing premise and fun chase scenes. It’s almost like Damon were playing Jason Bourne again, constantly on the run. The difference is David doesn’t engage in hand to hand combat and nothing blows up. It also has a spiritual aspect the Bourn movies never aspire to. This can lead t o deep, philosophical discussion, which is always good. However, it also defies its own logic for the sake of a clean ending. I have to give it credit because it ends with a brave stance if you think about what it’s saying.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer

Directed by Brad Furman.
2011. Rated R, 118 minutes.
Cast:
Matthew McConaughey
Marisa Tomei
Ryan Phillippe
William H. Macy
Frances Fisher
Josh Lucas
John Leguizamo
Michael Pena
Bob Gunton
Laurence Mason
Trace Adkins

Bryan Cranston

Mick (McConaughey) is a defense attorney with a street hustler’s swag. He uses the backseat of his Lincoln for an office. His big break seems to have come when he’s hand-picked by real estate empire heir Louis Roulet (Phillippe) to defend him in against sexual assault charges. The girl he allegedly assaulted is a prostitute. There is video evidence of her approaching him at a bar nad offering her services. This should be a walk in the park for a savvy guy like Mick, right? You should already know things are never that easy. Soon, our hero comes to the realization that his client might be guilty and even has ulterior motives beyond getting acquitted.

Though our protagonist is a lawyer, this is no courtroom drama. This is a procedural. We watch Mick prepare for the case. We also watch him agonize over the mess he’s gotten himself into and try to strategize his way out. Even with very little in terms of action, it’s riveting stuff. It’s a sharply written tale that refuses to be a mystery. It’s not at all a whodunit. We know precisely who did. Still, there are several questions. What’s our hero going to do about this? How does he do the right thing without breaking any rules himself? Is that even possible? Most importantly, if it’s possible will it work?

Also in the mix is the on again, off again romance between Mick and prosecutor Maggie (Tomei). She gladly passes this case along once she finds out that Mick is on the other side. However, there is one cas she can’t pass on. They have a daughter together. She has custody while Mick usually gets her on Saturdays. Once in a while they’ll all go for ice cream together. Mom and dad refuse to be a traditional family, though. Apparently, they’ve already tried with disasterous results, save for the birth of their little girl. For them, the occasional night of passion will do. Don’t worry, this will eventually figure into the case.

Matthew McConaughey is unquestionably the star of the show. He lights up the screen with a performance that sizzles. It’s one of his best and a jolting reminder of what he can do when he’s not constantly forcing his pretty smile on us in some lame rom-com or pretending to be an action hero. He takes material that’s already good and makes it even better. There is certainly some excellent talent in the cast. They all turn in solid work. However, they’re really just along for the ride he’s taking us on. It is a very fun ride with just a bit of a twist at the end.

MY SCORE: 8/10

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Foster


1975. Rated R, 90 minutes.
Cast: 

Pam Grier
Yaphet Kotto
Godfrey Cambridge
Thalmus Rasulala
Carl Weathers
Ted Lange
Eartha Kitt
Scatman Crothers
Jim Backus

Friday (Grier) is a photographer for “Glance” magazine who witnesses an assassination attempt on billionaire Ford Malotte (Cambridge). We don’t get the normal butt-kicking Pam Grier. Instead, we see her both in super-sleuth mode and using her considerable feminine wiles. Pause. Extended Pause. Catch my breath. Okay…I needed a moment. I mean we are talking about Pam Grier here. Anyhoo, most of the action is handled by the rest of the cast. That cast is dripping with 70s goodness. It includes Carl Weathers as the featured henchman and Ted Lange (Isaac from The Love Boat) as a jive-talking pimp trying to recruit Friday for his stable. There’s also Scatman Crothers as a high-profile reverend and Eartha Kitt hamming it up as a famous fashion designer. Even Jim Backus who played Thurston Howell III on Gilligan's Island shows up. Throw in a plot to kill “all the Black leaders” (whatever that means), some random nudity and a 12 year old kid who gets left home alone apparently for days on end and you get a dumb but fun blast from the past.

MY SCORE: 6/10

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Rango

Directed by Gore Verbinski.
2011. Rated PG, 107 minutes.
Cast:
Johnny Depp
Isla Fisher
Ned Beatty
Abigail Breslin
Alfred Molina
Bill Nighy
Harry Dean Stanton
Timothy Olyphant
Ray Winstone
Stephen Root
James Ward Byrkit
Gil Birmingham

After some slick talking and fortunate accidents, Rango (Depp) finds himself as the sherrif of the water starved t own of Dirt. The town is in such a drout all of their water is kept in the bank’s vault. On Wednesday’s all of the townspeople gather by the giant spicket so the mayor can dole out their weekly allowance. Western style hijinks and shenanigans ensue.

One of the first things we notice in Rango is the vivid colors as our hero is alone in his tank with a few props in the back of a car. Likewise, when he falls out of the car onto the road and into the oppressive sunlight. Most notable is all this is the main characters bright green hue. It serves as a constant reminder of his status as an outsider when most of the colors are stripped away. What we’re left with is a pallet mostly made up of various shades of brown, gray and black. Other colors that manage to get included are muted. It recreates the rustic atmosphere of a place long passed over by time. Through amazing character designs even the citizens of Dirt have the weathered look befitting people who live in a town with such a name. This is no small feat considering these “people” are all animals. This attention to detail perfectly sets the mood and tone.

Of course, this is no straight forward adventure of a stranger riding in to save a desolate town. This is a parody of such movies. Depending on you, this is either a strength or a weakness. For adults that have watched their fair share of westerns this will be a great strength. You will be able to laugh at the parts that specifically poke fun at the genre as well as the more accessible humor, of which there is plenty. For those that haven’t watched many westerns this will likely be a weakness. There may be stretches where it seems nothing much is going on. My children have no use for westerns and my daughters have never watched more than a few minutes of one before giving up. My wife and son may have made it through one or two apiece. Indeed, I laughed more often than any of them.

If there is any other weakness, to me it is Johnny Depp in the lead role. Generally, I’m a Depp apologist. However, he sounds forced in this case. Instead of just using his natural voice, which would’ve worked just fine, he sounds as if he’s trying to imitate what he thinks Rango should sound like. The character himself is reminiscent of Woody Allen, so I also kept wondering why he wasn’t playing the part. It’s not that Depp is bad, he’s just clearly better at live-action than voiceover work.

Fortunately, weaknesses are few in Rango. It’s a wonderful sendup of westerns without alienating the audience at which its aiming. It moves smoothly from comedy to action and uses striking visuals effectively in both veins. There are a few words harsher than one would expect in a PG rated animated flick, so parents be prepared for that. Still, its very well done and lots of fun.

MY SCORE: 7.5/10

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Turning the Page

Thanks to all of you that stopped by during my 31 days of horror. Now that November's here it's time to turn our attentions to more normal affairs. We'll start up again tomorrow. I've got to take the rest of today to wash all the blood off of me. In the meantime, check back at some reviews you might have missed. C ya!