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Gavin Grades The Movies

Posts from February 2012

This Means War

In 1952, MAD Magazine was first published and inside was a comic that still runs today called Spy vs. Spy.  It's a silly, wordless cartoon about a black spy and a white spy who just try to kill each other.  About five years ago, it was rumored in Hollywood that they were going to take that wordless, short classic comic and turn it into a feature film.  Bad script after bad script was written and the idea was laid to rest in horrible idea heaven...but then someone came up with the idea to add a girl and make it a love story and the end result was This Means War...a far cry from it's 1952 beginnings.

Even with an idea like the one we end up seeing in This Means War, doesn't mean it's good.  In fact, it's a pretty lame, tired idea of a romantic, action comedy about two so-and-sos fighting for the love of a woman.  What makes this film good is the talent that was brought to the table.  Reese Witherspoon is the only face you may recognize unless you love movies.  Her two handsome suitors are played by Chris Pine (Unstoppable, Star Trek) and Tom Hardy (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises).  These two guys are actors I've had my eye on for a while going all the way back to Pine in Bottle Shock and Hardy in Bronson.  They are both very skilled actors in their own way; Pine is charming and funny and Hardy is dark and intense (albeit not in this).  Their talent doesn't fall short in this either, which is a shock for Hardy to see him pull off comedy so well.

It's still not a talent dreamteam without a good director and This Means War got a pretty good one.  It was directed by a guy named McG.  His real name is Joe McGinty Nichol but he calls himself "McG."  It's true that he has a reputation for being as douchey as that nickname would have you believe but he's actually a pretty talented director when it comes to action films.  He directed both Charlie Angels films and had the balls to do Terminator Salvation, all of which were better than expected.  This Means War might be his best one yet and it captures the fun, explosions, funny and car chases that keep this film exciting.

However, the attempt to make the perfect date movie that both men and women could enjoy is what made this movie fall short of being great.  They spend such emphasis on making sure the film is a romantic comedy and a comedic action that both story lines are elementary at best.  On the action side, yes there's a bad guy the spies are after but what does he do?  Why is he bad?  Who knows?  It's not important.  We just know he's bad because he's wearing black, never smiles and shoots at the heroes.  On the romance side, the relationships are ushered along so quickly that the plausability for Witherspoon to fall for either of these guys or for the guys to be okay with the other one dating her is void.  Not to mention that the way both stories are wrapped up at the end is rushed, confusing and laughably unbelieveable.

But that's not why we love movies like this, is it?  We wanted shallow romance, sexy explosions and cheap laughs and goddamnit, we get it all!  This Means War is a film that is as charming as its two male leads.  Sure it's hardly deep, richly dressed up and doesn't think too much, but who can resist those eyes?  And the car chases, guns and funny quips too?
This Means War  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: B

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Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
Pop Quiz: How do you know a movie is bad?  Answer: When Brendan Fraser refuses to be in it.  Apparently Journey 2: The Mysterious Island is a sequel but I was unclear as to a sequel to what.  Turns out it was Journey to the Center of the Earth, which came out in 2008.  That was a children's movie about a father and son being obsessed with the Jules Vern novel and finding out that it's actually true.  I'm not sure what happens at the end of that movie but I can only assume that the father, played by Fraser, dies because he's not in this nor is there any mention of him.  

As a stand alone film, Journey 2 isn't bad.  Whenever I go to see movies made for kids I usually try to bring some with me.  I gauge the reactions of them as we watch it and the 8-year-old daughter of my co-host seemed to really enjoy the 3D splendor of this film.  The only returning character from the first one is Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games, The Kids are Alright) who ushers us into the thick of the plot withint ten minutes.  He's looking for his grandfather, played by the spectacular Michael Caine (The Dark Knight series, Inception), and he's allowed to go to the middle of the Pacific Ocean looking for him as long as his step-father, played by Dwayne I-guess-now-formerly-know-as-The-Rock Johnson (The Other Guys, Tooth Fairy), goes along.  If that seems like an extravaganza of awfulness in a plot that seems to come from nowhere and all happens in ten minutes, you're completely right.  

Once they reach the Mysterious Island with their new friends played by Vanessa Hudgens (Suckerpunch, High School Musical) and Luis Guzman (Arthur, Boogie Nights) they must figure out the secrets of the island based on different literary classics while trying to survive and escape.  The special effects are slightly above Saturday Morning network shows but the 3D more than makes up for it.  Guzman and Johnson do a really good job of being funny in the PG-perameters and still earning an audible chuckle from me throughout the film.  But that still doesn't avoid the puzzle of how this didn't end up as a straight-to-DVD film to begin with.

There's really nothing to this film outside of bright colors, fast action, funny lines and brainless plotlines.  I have a feeling that this is as close to a show on ABC Family that never gets a second notice from anyone over the age of seven, will ever get to being on the big screen.  At its core, that's all it is.  How did they trick Michael Caine into being in it?  That's a good question but I'm sure it ends with him getting a fat payday.  But it is what it is.  Journey 2 is no worse and no better than the junk your kids are shoving in their heads at the movie theater anyway, so why not have empty-calorie entertainment to go along with the empty-calorie candy.  As far as tawdry kids' films that are simply cash grabs that put zero time into quality storytelling, heart or excitement goes...I've seen far, far worse.  However, that being said, it's still all those other things too.
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island  (Rated PG)
Gavin Grade: C+
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Safe House
I remember the first time I saw Denzel Washington in a film.  It was Glory and I was probably 10-years-old.  My dad is a huge Civil War buff which is why he allowed me to watch such a violent movie at that age.  I just didn't want you thinking he was a bad father.  Washington was so impressive in that film and I wasn't the only one who thought so.  He won his first Oscar that year for Best Supporting Actor, beating out his co-star, Morgan Freeman.  Ever since then, he's had his ups and his downs; all the while playing the same character he did in Glory and it's he's lucky he's so much fun to watch because 21 years of the same character can get pretty boring.

Safe House features Denzel as a smart, smooth former CIA agent who's gone rogue and now works for no government and topples whatever and whoever he feels like for money.  Ryan Reynolds is a low-level CIA agent who's job it is to babysit an empty safe house in South Africa, which is pretty boring.  That is until Washington shows up and all hell breaks loose.  From that point on, this film turns into as predictable a plot as you can imagine.

The director is a guy named Daniel Espinosa who appears to have had the pleasure of this being his first English film.  I give Espinosa credit for doing what he did with such a horrendously dull and cliche script.  He brings a real grittiness to the film and captures the chaos and dangers of South Africa pretty damn well.  His choice of color and light is interesting and makes me think that he's so much better than a drooling action film like this.  That being said, he does action really well.  There are several car and foot chase scenes that get the blood pumping as much as 30 minutes of cardio would.  I get the impression that he's a realist and didn't use any CGI on any of the action sequences either.

Washington and Reynolds rarely turn in bad performances and they don't here either.  I'm not sure if Reynolds playing the fledgling agent that's timid, bumbiling and passive at first but then gets transformed into a sly, ruthless hunter is that believable but because he's fun to watch, I can suspend disbelief.  They also get some help from Brendan Gleeson (28 Days Later, the Harry Potter series), Vera Farmiga (Source Code, Up in the Air) and Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff, The Notebook).  All three of them are very good actors and all three are completely under utilized in Safe House playing roles that should be given out to "hey I think I recognize that guy from that thing" people.

I think the saddest part for me is watching Washington produce yet another meerly adequate performance.  The last time he was really impressive in a really impressive film was Training Day and that was a decade ago AND he still played the same type of character.  I want to believe I should expect more from Washington but if I look at back at his resume, perhaps I shouldn't.  I guess there's one type of character he's good at playing and that's the smart but dangerous, kinda crazy, smooth and funny, mysterious outlaw and/or family man...otherwise known as Denzel Washington.  Like I said, good thing he's fun to watch.
Safe House  (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: C+
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If you were to ask me what two themes in films are way overdone now, I would say the "found footage" and "superhero" vehicles.  Both of these have been done extremely well and completely piss poor.  Both had their place at one point in cinematic history but now, due to oversaturation, it seems they're starting to overstay their welcome a bit.  That really disapoints me since I consider both to be really fun and creative if done right.  Chronicle infuses both into a single film, which is very dangerous ground to tread upon.  Thankfully, they did just well enough.

Chronicle is a film about three high school friends who discover that they aquired special powers after they venture into a mysterious cave that glows blue.  We never see what happens in the cave really because it's all done through "found footage" of the events that take place and it chronicles (get it?) their rise and fall.  It's a first time attempt from director Josh Trank who, prior to this, was only an editor.  It's written by also a first timer, Max Landis, who's the son of the famous director Jonathon Landis; a guy who was once a mighty king in the industry with An American Werewolf in London, Animal House, Three Amigos!, and Coming to America, but has since not really done much of note.

Keeping with the theme of newcomers and fresh faces, you won't recognize the cast either.  It consists of Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan (Friday Night Lights).  When making a "found footage" movie, it's crucial to have an unHollywood cast like this or otherwise it's totally not believable.  This cast of three do a decent job given the limited script that they had to work with.  Make no mistake, the film is cliche and predictable.  That's not to say it's not enjoyable though and one of the reasons why is because of the performances from these three guys.  Especially DeHaan, who looks like a young DiCaprio and shines as the tortured, wayward lead of the film.

One problem I had with Chronicle is that the "found footage" storytelling seemed like even more of a gimick than it usually is in film.  They do a decent job setting up why they start video taping and even explain in a creative way how they can get such interesting and artistic shots.  The problem though is that this movie would have been better if it was told and shot like a standard film.  After a while the "found footage" comes across so forced and almost silly.  There are multiple angles of the big climax and it's all explained how the different dramatic angles are captured but it's still forced and way distracting.  Trank is a good director but I would recommend him dropping the phoney magic tricks and instead giving us a great film.

Chronicle stands as a fun and entertaining example of the superhero origin stories.  It's always fun to see how it all started, although that's usually a lot more fun when it's a prequel for characters we already know well and love.  But the action is fast and there's a fine mix of comedy and drama.  To me, it seemed shoehorned in at times, but everyone else in the audience seemed to enjoy it.  I look forward to another attempt from Trank and DeHaan in the future, just as long as it's not a Chronicle 2...one "found footage" of this story is passable, but any more would be beyond stupid.
Chronicle  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: B-

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The Woman in Black
In 1983, author Susan Hill wrote a book called The Woman in Black.  It was a story about a young lawyer going to a remote part of England around 1910 to sort out the paper work for a mansion to be sold after its owner died.  It's not just a clever title because the mansion is haunted by a woman in black and the lawyer's presence starts a whole new round of disasters for the small town.  The book was so successful that it was turned into a play 9 years later that still runs today due to its insane popularity.  As good as critics say the play is, it's changed drastically from the book.  Luckily for any non-readers, this film version goes back to the source material with attention to detail.

I give actor Daniel Radcliffe a ton of credit.  After performing as only Harry Potter for the last decade, he had his pick of any script in Hollywood for his first non-Potter role.  He would have had to choose wisely since a lot would be riding on it.  Instead of romantic comedy drivel or epic Oscar bait, he made the decision to go with a period horror film.  Balls, kid.  And despite that he's without his wand and glasses for the first time on screen, he's still not quite believable as an adult yet.  That's not to say he's not good in the role.  Radcliffe is a pretty decent actor and has blossomed into someone that's very enjoyable to watch on screen.  His only problem in this is that he's still too youthful looking to pull off a father of a 4-year-old, widower and grown ass man.

But enough about that, the real question is, "Is it scary?"  The answer is, "Yes!"  The Woman in Black is a throwback to the creepfests that used to make the hairs on your neck stand up and cover your eyes with mounting tension and deafening silence.  You only have to wait about 20 minutes for the spooks to start but from the very first seconds of the film, the tone is set for macbre, dark, gothic storytelling.  It's the very definition of the "haunted house" thriller and that's also its downfall.

Director James Watkins gets the spirit (no pun intended) award on this.  His only film prior was an indie horror piece called Eden Lake.  No one saw it, but it was pretty good despite it being cliche.  But with The Woman in Black it was as if Watkins picked up a text book on how to direct a scary movie and followed it with zero deviation.  Everything you've seen for decades is in this film as a method to make you jump.  There is visual misdirection, creeping-from-behind and point-of-view camera angles, well-placed soundtrack and silence, and even loud sound effects that make no sense in the realm of the scene.  It's like comparing a cheap carnival spook house to a legit haunted property - both might make you scared but one is the real thing and the other is tawdry and quick.

I do give massive amounts of credit to his Production Designer and Props team though.  Since most of the film takes place in one house, they had to make it as creepy as possible.  I appreciate that because when you have a small cast and a very limited set, that location almost becomes one of the characters.  I'm not sure if they made them or found them but the film is worth seeing just for the largest collection of nightmare-inducting dolls ever capture on screen.  They're the scariest thing about the movie and worthy of mentioning.

If you're in the market for a creepy ghost story that will scare you, you won't be disapointed by The Woman in Black.  However, it does have a misplaced scare climax and an ending that peters out into a drab finish that didn't satisfy me.  I love ghost stories because they have the potential to scare me more than any other genre of horror.  The Woman in Black could have been so much scarier than what it was and I would have welcomed the nightmares.  Instead we got a pretty good film with excellent mood, images and tone that ends up falling short in the scare department.  Maybe it needed more Dementors.
The Woman in Black  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: B-
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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

The day that the Academy Award nominations came out, this was the film that was on the lips of most people.  The reason why was because it was nominated for Best Picture of the Year and not many people had seen it and those that did were very on the fence about how they felt.  Seems like it should be almost a sure shot at Best Picture quality - stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, is about 9/11, based on an acclaimed book and had a top tier director attached.  But those haters that warned about the mediocre finished product were onto to something.

I can totally understand why people enjoyed the book by Jonathan Safran Foer.  It's a sweet tale about how an autistic boy processes his father dying in September 11 and trys to make sense of it.  Along the way he learns about different people and how they handled September 11, death, love and forgiveness.  But as a film it didn't work and I'm not sure it was any one person's fault.  

Director Stephen Daldry is no stranger to acclaimed films.  He's done The Hours, The Reader and Billy Elliot; all of which were considered great movies and won awards.  He brings a unique approach to everything that is like a watered down version of an Oliver Stone film that moves along at a slower pace so his target audience of crusty, old, art house filmlovers can keep up without getting overwelmed.  Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is no exception and it's visually a feast in some parts.  But it was almost too choppy to come together as a story without looking pretentious and silly.

One thing this film did right was introduce us to Thomas Horn, who plays the main character of Oskar.  Believe it or not, this was Horn's first film ever with his only other credit being Jeopardy! when he won on Kids' Week.  Although Horn is young and a novice, he does a great job of portraying a high functioning autistic child who lives in New York City and is used to visual chaos but still needs to compartmentalize it in his head to make sense.  Because Oskar is designed to be flawed as well as lovable, it makes the character very difficult to enjoy.  There are times when you want to wrap your arms around him with a reassuring hug, scream at him to stop being so annoying and laugh at his quirks and traits.  He carrys the film on his back and it's not his fault that it doesn't work because he did a great job considering all that...and that it was his first shot.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is an average movie when you smooth the whole thing out to look at it.  There are scenes that made me cry a bit but I'm not sure if it's because the plot or acting is so superb or because 9/11 will always make me cry.  There are also scenes that are really awful and almost feel like you're watching a dress rehersal of actors running their lines since the delivery seems so hollow that it couldn't possibly have been a final take.  I wanted to see this, not because I thought it looked good, but because it was nominated.  I suspect that that is the only reason why a lot of people will see it.  I can tell you now that it won't win and I agree that it shouldn't have been nominated, so save your money and pass on this one unless you make it your mission to see all the Best Picture nominees each year.  If it is, you're my kinda movie fan but you'll still feel "eh" about this.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: C

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