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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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