I liked Warm Bodies more than I expected I would. I feared it would be some sort of Twilight clone, or too gimmicky, or too teen-oriented, or…something. Instead, I found it generally entertaining, mildly witty, even a little sweet.
Yes, the basic premise (and numerous specific details in the elaboration of the premise) may not hold up to close scrutiny, but this is not necessarily going to be an issue for all viewers—the logical gaps aren’t so noticeable as you’re watching the movie. It’s only afterwards that you may begin to question various “technical” aspects of zombiehood as presented by Warm Bodies, or feel slightly confused about certain events. But it was never a big deal for me, and I am a moderately critical audience.
Sometime in the near future, the zombie apocalypse has arrived! The world is split into three camps: human beings, zombies, and “boneys” (animated skeletons that allegedly evolved—or devolved, whatever—from zombies). “R” is a zombie, which means he has grayish skin, can’t speak (other than the occasional grunt), shuffles around aimlessly, and eats humans (when he gets the chance). But inside this shabby shell is a sentient being, who narrates his story in voiceover. R doesn’t remember his pre-zombie life, but given his garb (a hoodie) and his vinyl record collection, he was obviously a hipster slacker (I guess his black-framed eyeglasses got misplaced). R yearns for a more fulfilling “life,” and one day “fate, or some mysterious force, puts the finger on [him] for no good reason at all.” A small band of humans venture into Zombieland in search of useful salvage, and are attacked by the ravenous horde, R included. [Which raises the point: what happens when the zombies eat all the humans, or are effectively walled-off from live prey? Do they starve “to death?”] R saves Julie from a fate worse than death…actually, that’s incorrect, he saves her from actual death…although he does snack on her late boyfriend’s brains.
[One of the nicest, under-stated moments in the movie occurs later, when R confesses to have participated in the boyfriend’s death. “I think I knew it,” Julie says, “but I didn’t want to believe it.”]
Apparently, consuming brains allows one to experience the other person’s memories, albeit in an odd way: rather than remembering yourself (in the first person) playing baseball, for example, you watch yourself—in the third person—playing baseball, as if you were viewing a film. Who knew? Still, all of these memories, and dreams, and the daily interaction with Julie, begin to have an effect on R. A strange effect… When Julie goes back to the land of the living, R misses her and makes the dangerous journey to visit her. Julie realises she also missed her undead pal, and eventually they overcome the prejudice of her people (= live human beings) to….achieve marvelous things.
Warm Bodies doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s exactly the right tone for this mixture of George Romero and William Shakespeare. Of course many things don’t make sense, even in the context of a zombie movie. In other words, simply suspending one’s disbelief to the extent that you accept the existence of zombies doesn’t mean you must ignore inconsistencies in the film’s internal logic. But Warm Bodies is amusing enough to make some GIGANTIC “issues” more or less harmless (that is to say, they don’t ruin your enjoyment of the movie), and to point them out would be mean-spirited.
More interesting is the (perhaps unintended) allegory of the conflict between zombies and any one of various groups of “others.” “Romeo and Juliet” pitted the Montagues against the Capulets, but these were merely two different families in old-timey Verona: it’s not like Romeo was Anglo and Juliet was Puerto Rican, for heaven’s sake. That would be ridic—oh, wait, it’s been done. Superficially, Warm Bodies is a tale of a romance between a human being and an undead monster. Not an unheard-of premise, eh? I think everyone remembers that very famous movie about a human teen and her monstruous boyfriend…My Demon Lover was the title. Wait, wasn’t there one about a young woman who falls in love with a vampire? Very influential, popular film? It was called…Love at First Bite. Yeah, that’s the one.
Anyway, Warm Bodies is yet another of the cross-cultural romance films made in the Twilight zone, but it’s not much of a stretch to extrapolate even further. Could the zombies be stand-ins for a different race? Religion? Or even, differently-abled, mentally-challenged individuals? Think about that for a moment. The zombies in many ways reflect popular culture’s stereotype of such people: halting speech, naive demeanour, innocence, physically awkward movements…not the murdering and brain-eating though, that’s pure horror-movie stuff. This analogy grows even stronger towards the end of the film, when the undead are depicted as learning to become human once more, and are being accepted by “regular people” as humans.
I don’t want to stress this too much, or suggest that Warm Bodies draws a direct (or deliberate) parallel between differently-abled people and zombies. It may just be my imagination, and the film may have been intended only as a generic parable about tolerance and how we should all treat each other better, and how love and understanding and friendship can literally change the world. Those are all excellent sentiments and the film ends on a really nice note because of them.
Technically, Warm Bodies is fine. Until it was pointed out by the fellows at Half In the Bag (redlettermedia.com) I hadn’t noticed that the stars of the movie physically resemble the protagonists of Twilight, but (fortunately) this resemblance is only physical. Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer are perfectly satisfactory as R and Julie (it always helps if actors have a decent script to work with and the director gives them a fighting chance). Rob Corddry and John Malkovich provide good support. The photography, editing, art direction, special effects, etc., are all decent, professional, and slick.
Certainly, the film has some flaws. But its heart is in the right place, and Warm Bodies turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.
A surprise hit (at least in the context of Crap-Movie January), Mama is both stylish and conventional, and I don’t necessarily mean either one of those as a compliment. Audiences in search of something, anything to relieve their post-Christmas boredom, desperately seized upon this supernatural film and allowed it to earn nearly twice its $15 million cost on its opening weekend alone.
Mama tells the tale of two young girls, Victoria and Lilly, whose distraught father goes on a shooting spree at work (off-screen), then flees with them in tow. They wind up in a cabin in the woods (not to be confused with Cabin in the Woods), where crazy-dad is snatched away by…something…before he can kill his daughters and himself. Five years later, the girls are discovered by trackers in the employ of Lucas, their father’s brother. Why Lucas (as we learn) spent all his money on trackers and why it took them five years to find the cabin isn’t clear. But I digress… Victoria and Lilly have regressed to a feral state, but…they get better. Lucas and his live-in, tattooed, bass-playing, non-pregnant girlfriend Annabel wrest custody of the sisters from the girls’ sour-faced aunt. But Victoria and Lilly had help surviving those 5 years in the wilderness… help from an entity they call “Mama,” and Mama wants her babies back. Dun dun DUN…Oh, and Lucas gets pushed down a flight of stairs by Mama and goes to the hospital, so Annabel is all alone with the girls and their ghostly guardian! Dun DUN DUN…
There’s nothing especially novel about Mama. The premise is adequate but the script alternates between vagueness and being over-detailed: we’re given tons of exposition regarding the origin of Mama (which seems to come to fruition at the climax, only to be discarded in a “twist” ending which renders the backstory irrelevant), but not much information about Jeffrey (the father—whose ghost asks Lucas to save his daughters, although Jeffrey was ready to shoot them to death himself), Lucas, Annabel, or Aunt Jean. Motivations are vague, characterisation is weak, and the plot is filled with illogical occurrences.
Mama was directed by Andy Muschietti, inspired by a very brief short film he made (recreated in one sequence of the feature). Muschietti (who co-wrote the film with his sister and scripter Neil Cross) ladles on the “DIRECTING!” a bit heavily, with various arty shots that seem slightly pretentious, particularly when they’re juxtaposed with standardised, everbody-does-them, jump-scares. Mama herself is mostly a CGI creation and never looks like anything except animation, which really detracts from the overall feel of the movie. She’s simply not menacing and even becomes a bit risible at the conclusion.
Mama, jump-scares aside, isn’t truly frightening. There are some weird images and nice, eerie moments (Annabel assuming a blackish blob is one of the girls playing a trick on her, only to discover both Victoria and Lilly are elsewhere), but there is no real emotional horror. The movie is largely told from Annabel’s point of view, and although there is a suggestion that she eventually overcomes her fear of (or distaste for) motherhood (early in the picture, she thanks God when a pregnancy test comes up negative) and bonds with the girls (especially Victoria), Mama doesn’t take the time to clearly demonstrate what a blow it would be to her if the children were repossessed by their nebulous nanny. Part of the unspoken horror of The Exorcist, Poltergeist, Insidious,The Possession, Sinister, etc. is the idea of a parent losing a child, and Annabel’s feelings for Victoria and Lilly—while they certainly exist—aren’t demonstrably strong enough create this empathy on our part.
The pacing is inconsistent. Despite the lack of “action” in the middle section of the movie, Mama feels rushed and sketchy throughout. Not much suspense is generated or sustained, and the final confrontation between Mama and Lucas, Annabel, Victoria, and Lilly is horribly protracted and awkwardly staged. The overall look of the film is bleak, cold and dark, from start to finish, which doesn’t necessarily translate to “scary” (at least in my book).
The performances are satisfactory. Much has been made of the presence of Jessica Chastain in the cast, since she’s since been nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for Zero Dark Thirty (shot after Mama; she was also in 2012’s Lawless and something called Tar, as yet unreleased). Chastain is fine, although as noted above, the script doesn’t exactly give her a lot to work with. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is adequate but relatively anonymous in a role that could have been filled by any one of dozens of handsome, bearded performers. The girls playing Victoria and Lilly (two sets for each, given their varied ages) are quite natural in their roles, acting their ages (shocking, I know, given that most cinema-children are portrayed as exceptionally precocious).
Mama isn’t aggressively bad or annoying. It’s fairly slick, and doesn’t cheat the viewer or, conversely, pander to the lowest common denominator. On the other hand, it’s basically a predictable, routine ghost story with nothing to recommend it over any one of innumerable other, similar films. The January release now seems like a brilliant marketing ploy, because otherwise this could have gone straight-to-DVD and no one would have noticed.
Calling a film “predictable” is generally not a recommendation. Yes, Stand Up Guys is definitely predictable, but in a way that’s as warm and comfortable as a favourite old sweater. There are no surprises, yet it’s not boring; the script has its witty moments (and some cringe-worthy ones), but the performances are what drive the movie and make it worth watching.
The plot in brief: Val (Al Pacino) is released from prison after serving 28 years for (accidentally) killing an accomplice during the commission of a robbery. He’s collected by his best friend Doc (Christopher Walken), who now lives peacefully in retirement. Doc has been ordered to execute Val by mobster Claphands, whose son was the man killed in the robbery. Val and Doc have one night together—joined by their old pal Hirsch (Alan Arkin), “liberated” from a retirement home—before the (literal) deadline.
Stand Up Guys is a small film that will probably attract a relatively narrow audience. It “skews old” as they say. This is essentially a fantasy for (male) senior citizens (full disclosure, while I don’t quite qualify for “old man” status yet, I’m closer in age to Pacino and Walken than I am to Ryan Gosling). So what if you’re up there in years? You can still (a) hang out with your best friends, drinking and shooting pool and dancing; (b) beat up younger guys; (c) exercise your special skills (picking locks, etc.); and (d) charm young women (and sleep with them too, if you pay for it).
This is an over-simplification, but only slightly. The film is believable because it occurs within the space of a few hours—i.e., the protagonists’ activities are a sprint rather than a marathon, and there are no long-term consequences. Furthermore, in a nod—however perfunctory—to “realism,” a few things are explained or justified (Val requires Viagra to perform in bed, their criminal skills are a legacy of their younger lives, not something which suddenly appears out of nowhere). When, early in the movie, Doc and Val break into a pharmacy (to obtain the aforementioned Viagra), their movements are efficient and professional, a nice touch. While most of their escapades unfold without a hitch, the audience is willingly complicit in believing this is possible, rather than carping about the unlikely nature of the duo’s adventures.
Stand Up Guys doesn’t suggest it is anything but a fantasy, either. Val, Doc, Hirsch, and others bemoan the passage of time and the unpleasant realities of growing old, the death or absence of your loved ones, physical ailments, loneliness, financial problems. But for one final day and night, these things don’t matter so much, because three friends have been reunited and the sky is the limit.
The individual scenes of Stand Up Guys are so nicely done (for the most part—there are a couple of real misfires) that the episodic nature of the picture is not a drawback. The story unfolds in a very narrowly-construed world, centered on Val and Doc: only characters who directly interact with the protagonists appear, otherwise the streets, shops, and so on are deserted. Fortunately, while a fair number of the supporting players are merely utilitarian props (various thugs, a priest, a doctor), the picture does feature strong performances by Lucy Punch as an understanding, second-generation brothel madam, and Addison Timlin as a friendly waitress in Doc’s favourite restaurant, as well as lesser—but still solid—appearances by Julianna Margulies as Hirsch’s daughter and Vanessa Ferlito as a feisty rape victim.
Most of the attention will, justifiably, be directed at Pacino, Walken, and Arkin. Arkin gets the least amount of screen time, but fits perfectly into the ensemble as the gang’s wheelman. He makes the most of the role, creating a character who is distinct from the others but complementary to them. Pacino gets to be “the loud guy” and over-act a lot: Val’s just been released from prison so he’s out to “party” in every way possible (his confession—relating the various outrageous events of the day—to a stunned priest late in the movie is amusing). This is played broadly, but occasionally Pacino will dial it back a few notches and reveal a little more of Val’s personality in a subtle way. Conversely, Walken underplays “Doc” throughout most of the movie, serving as the voice of restraint and reason, and only rarely exposing the steel beneath his kind, grandfatherly exterior. Although the film is motivated by Val’s brassy presence, Doc is the more complex character of the two, and Walken handles the nuances superbly. The interaction between these two characters/performers is so seamless, so smooth and effective that the picture’s weaknesses don’t seem very important.
The direction, production values, etc., are fine. The mise-en-scene of Stand Up Guys has a warm, professional but realistic feel; the music score is appropriate without being overtly “retro.”
Not to suggest originality is overrated, but Stand Up Guys makes it seem…irrelevant. There have been numerous films about “senior citizen gangsters,” notably Tough Guys (1986—Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas) and Atlantic City (1980, Burt Lancaster again) come to mind—so Stand Up Guys breaks no new ground here. Nor does it work any shocking or innovative twists on the “buddy film” genre. Even the conclusion, which is easy to forecast well in advance, echoes at least one well-known “buddy picture” that I shan’t identify for fear of being labeled a spoiler-monger. But…it doesn’t matter! The movie is still funny and touching and definitely worth watching (disclaimer: if you’re in the proper demographic).
Another “meh” film released in the January dumping-ground, Broken City on paper might not seem to fit the “born-loser movie” bill. Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe were most recently seen in Ted and Les misérables, respectively—two major motion pictures. The director is Allen Hughes, one of the Hughes Brothers, a reasonably well-regarded filmmaking team. So why are we seeing this in the vast wasteland that is January cinema?
Perhaps there is no place in today’s world for moderately-budgeted, non-exploitative theatrical motion pictures. I use “exploitative” in the broad sense, i.e., films with a “hook” upon which they can be sold. Animated children’s films, scary movies, comic book superheroes, giant CGI robots, “hot” topics, and so forth: these fit into categories or have aspects which can be succinctly summarised and sold. Broken City is a political/crime/mystery drama, set in contemporary New York City, not much action, nothing controversial, and yet not “serious” enough to qualify as an “important” movie. Consider the poster: Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe standing in front of a high-rise building at night. BO-ring. While Wahlberg and Crowe are both popular performers, neither one has sufficient personal charisma to carry a film on their back, commercially.
In a way, it’s a shame, because this seems to suggest there are only opportunities for films at the far ends of the spectrum: splashy blockbusters on the one side, and quickie money-grabbers on the other. A solid, entertaining middle-of-the-road picture doesn’t have a chance. It’s direct-to-video or cable TV for you, pally.
However, allow me to clarify this slightly: Broken City isn’t exactly a “solid, entertaining” film. It’s not bad bad (if you’ve read my comments, you’ll know I very rarely watch or discuss horrible, horrible movies), but it has its problems. These may or may not have contributed to the picture’s lukewarm reception at the box-office—I’m not sure how powerful word-of-mouth and/or critical reviews are in determining financial success these days—but in the interest of full disclosure, I think I should at least briefly mention a few things. But first, the plot!
Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) is forced to resign from the police force after a controversial shooting. He becomes a private detective and, years later, is hired by Mayor Hostetler (Crowe) to shadow the man’s wife. Hostetler is involved in a tight campaign for reelection against reformer Jack Valliant, who accuses the incumbent of shady dealings, particularly involving the sale of a city housing development to a private company. Taggart gives the mayor evidence that his wife is having an affair with Valliant’s campaign manager. Shortly thereafter, that man is murdered. Taggart suspects Hostetler was not interested in his wife’s infidelity, but suspected her of leaking information to his political opponents. And…the plot thickens.
Broken City is apparently Brian Tucker’s first produced script, and there are some structural flaws. The twisty main plot, with its film noir-ish betrayals and revelations, is substantial enough, and keeps one interested. However, there are random lumps of characterisation stuck throughout the narrative, none of them consistent or well-developed. The mayor and his wife hate each other, check. The mayor is corrupt and thinks he’s invincible, check. Billy is a recovered alcoholic, check. The police commissioner has his own agenda, check. Billy has a cute, sarcastic office manager and a sexy girlfriend, check. The murdered campaign manager may have been gay, check. Unfortunately, few of these mini-plots play out in satisfactory fashion. The Billy and Hostetler characters aren’t sufficiently strong or developed for the film to be about their clash, and there are too many other sketchily-drawn people cluttering up the movie. (On the plus side, virtually all of the individual performances are fine, and some are better than that.)
One of the most obvious, jarring examples is the relationship between Billy and his actress girlfriend, Natalie. Throughout the first half of the movie, things seem to be fine with them—maybe a little friction between his “street-wise” nature and her involvement in the artsy-fartsy world of indie filmmaking—then there’s a sudden blow-up between them and…poof! No more Natalie for the rest of the movie. I’m not saying the film should have focused on Billy and Natalie’s troubled romance, or that they should have reconciled tearfully at the end (frankly, I liked his assistant, played by Alona Tal, a lot more and it’s obvious the writer did too), but Natalie wasn’t a briefly-seen character in an isolated throwaway scene, included to demonstrate how Billy’s life is falling apart—a whole freaking sub-plot is just jettisoned.
This isn’t the only disconcerting instance, although many of the others are more in the nature of “hey, whatever happened to [some character]?” or “where did this [sub-plot or incident] come from?” Instead of a logical progression and/or a series of gradual revelations and discoveries by detective Billy, things simply…happen. The script (and consequently the film) lacks focus and direction.
These problems prevent Broken City from being a really effective drama or thriller. Instead, it’s a mildly interesting, good-looking (nice cinematography & editing, attractive performers, glossy locations) but basically shallow effort. It’s worth 100-odd minutes of your time, although perhaps not at cinema-ticket prices. Ironically, even if the film had been a top-notch neo-noir, it probably wouldn’t have mattered at the box-office, given the current state of the theatrical-film industry. It would have been more fun for us to watch, but it probably wouldn’t have made much more money.
Why does a film fail at the box-office? Because it’s crap? Because its publicity campaign was crap? Because no one wanted to see it? Because a cabal of sinister forces conspired to destroy it? For any specific failure, the answer might be “yes” to any or all of the above, but just as often a terrible film will make money, a poor ad campaign won’t harm a picture’s popularity, and, well, it’s difficult to envision a movie no one would care to watch (and conversely, good films fail, heavily-hyped films fail, and supposedly “sure-fire” subject matter can be made into a motion picture that fails).
Still, there are always some surprises in both directions. The Last Stand is not a bad film, it features a well-known star, and the competition in cinemas right now isn’t very strong. Yet, at least after a couple of weeks in release, this picture looks like a profound financial flop. Why? In the absence of intensive (alright, in the absence of any) market research, I can only surmise that (a) Arnold Schwarzenegger has no box-office appeal any more, and (b) the marketing couldn’t over come this hurdle.
Schwarzenegger was a major action star in the 1980s and ’90s, but this was somewhat misleading. Not especially charismatic nor a particularly versatile performer, Schwarzenegger had a certain physical screen presence and personality—muscular, alternately grim or goofy, capable of a degree of self-parody (and the butt of considerable outside parody)—that fit a certain style of popular cinema of the era. But his last starring role was a decade ago, and it might be suggested that the bloom had been off the Arnold-Rose for some time prior to that. Despite what appears to be a sincere (if misguided and inept) attempt to recapture a bit of that ’80s action magic, The Last Stand proves Schwarzenegger is no longer capable of carrying a film and—more importantly to Hollywood—no longer capable of selling tickets.
Time waits for no man. No longer quite so young myself, I realise there are things I can simply no longer do. Arnold, bereft of his beefcake and most of his swagger and/or ingenuous demeanour, has nothing special to offer a film audience. He’s not bad in The Last Stand, he’s more of what is referred to as “a hole in the screen.” The script tosses in a few, minor “Arnold-isms” and a couple of wry references to his age, but it’s not the same Arnold it was, back in the day. Put a more dynamic performer in the role of Sheriff Ray Owens, and the picture would have been better. I don’t know if it would have made more money at the box-office, but on a pure entertainment level, somebody else would have been an improvement. I’m not Arnold-bashing here (much): he was fine in The Expendables and The Expendables 2 (“Dis cah is smaller dan my shoo!”), but he adds nothing to The Last Stand.
[Apparently the marketing department also wasn’t sure Schwarzenegger alone was a guarantee of ticket-selling success, since at least one of the U.S. posters for the movie gives co-star Johnny Knoxville equal billing. Interestingly enough, Knoxville’s image on this poster has been replaced on at least two foreign-release versions with that of Jaimie Alexander—to suggest a love interest which isn’t actually present in the movie—so it seems Knoxville isn’t quite so popular himself, overseas.]
[Note: although this film features a lot of gunplay, and Knoxville’s character is an eccentric gun collector who boasts that he can restore an illegal machine gun to operating order—and then said gun is successfully used against the invading criminals— (not to mention the scene in which a little old lady blasts a bad guy with a shotgun) I have seen no significant outcry against The Last Stand’s pro-gun stance from anti-gun activists. I’m not suggesting there should be such an outcry, I’m merely commenting on its absence, and therefore eliminating this as a possible reason why the film hasn’t been popular at the box-office. Of course, the fact that hundreds of shots are fired in the course of the movie and only a small fraction ever hit anyone might actually be encouraging to the anti-gun forces.]
If audience disinterest in The Last Stand can be attributed at least in part to the fading of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stardom, what of the film itself (as a film)? The Last Stand is actually a reasonably entertaining action picture. Oh, there are flaws, yes indeed there are: a contrived and illogical premise, minimal character development, uneven pacing.
Not to dwell on the picture’s inadequacies (it’s cruel to kick a film that’s already labeled a failure), but the premise is only barely functional. A major Mexican drug-lord escapes from custody in Las Vegas and heads for the border (no, not Taco Bell…the Mexican border). How? Oh, in an instantly-recognisable, specially modified, stolen car, that’s all. ”Just speeding down the highway at 150 miles per hour, y’all. Don’t mind me.” So much for keeping a low profile. Ah, but assuming he won’t be tracked by air, and that the authorities won’t be able to establish more than one roadblock on the way (a stupid but ultimately correct assumption), his master plan is to avoid the inevitable, final big roadblock at the border by crossing where least expected: driving over a newly-installed bridge across a formerly impassable canyon. But…dum dum DUM…to get there, however, he has to drive right through the little town protected by Sheriff Ahnuld (alright, “Ray Owens”).
This sets up a potential High Noon scenario, with Ray and his motley crew of actual and temporary deputies—callow young guy, cute young woman, comic relief Latino, comic relief gun nut, alcoholic Iraq War veteran—pitted against the drug-lord’s murderous bridge-building and farmer-murdering crew. Unfortunately, The Last Stand spends far too much time setting up and elaborating the ridiculous premise—as well as on time-wasting scenes with FBI agents, etc.—and not enough on characterisation of (and, as a result, building audience empathy with) these people. I understand this is an action film and I’m not asking for it to be a serious drama, but one of the reasons the latter half of The Last Stand works better than the first half is that people we know and care about (a little) are involved in the action. This aspect could have been strengthened considerably in the script, and would have resulted in a much better movie.
And frankly, the action sequences in the first part of the movie are not all that interesting anyway, including the Rube Goldberg-esque escape of drug-lord Cortez and the ludicrous CGI scene in which Cortez wrecks two SUVs carrying a SWAT team. Do audiences find such “stunts” exciting when they’re clearly nothing but animation? The later gun battles in the streets of the town—more High Noon homage, perhaps—are better, since there’s something at stake and we can put a human face on the parties involved. And the action is fairly well-staged, -shot, and -edited. The concluding fist-fight between Sheriff Ray and Gangster Gabriel isn’t epic: the protagonists aren’t really evenly matched, and it’s not much fun to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger puffing and panting as he body-slams sleazy Eduardo Noriega (a Spanish actor, not the late, veteran Mexican performer with the same name). This isn’t exactly Chuck Norris vs. David Carradine in Lone Wolf McQuade, after all.
The performances are generally adequate, within the confines of the sketchy script, except…Schwarzenegger is flat. It’s not his age, Tommy Lee Jones was fine as a senior citizen law enforcer in No Country for Old Men, but as noted earlier, Arnold had a particular screen persona in the ’80s and ’90s, and he seems much too…subdued here. Johnny Knoxville and Luis Guzmán are fine in their cardboard cut-out roles. The guys at Red Letter Media’s “Half in the Bag” make the point that the three “major” female roles in the movie—deputy Sarah, FBI agent/hostage Ellen, and waitress Christie—are played by lookalike actresses. Seriously, they’re all attractive brunettes with similar facial features. Weird. Jaimie Alexander, as the deputy, has the most to do of the trio, and she’s satisfactory in (again) an under-written role. Noriega is adequate as the main villain, but Peter Stormare’s performance as Gabriel’s chief henchman strikes an odd note. I can’t explain it, but…it’s off-putting. The production values overall are decent, although as mentioned earlier, the use of CGI is occasionally annoying.
Richard Wormser wrote a novel in the early 1970s entitled “The Invader,” about a small-town sheriff in the Southwest who has to deal with a gangster boss who’s bought a home nearby. I’ve always thought this would make a good movie, and when I originally heard of The Last Stand, I hoped perhaps this was an adaptation of Wormser’s book. But no, instead we get a retread of High Noon with some splashy The Fast and the Furious-style set-pieces. Action-movie fan that I am, I enjoyed this on a superficial level, but was disappointed that it was, ultimately, superficial.
Still, I don’t blame the film’s failure to attract an audience on this (heaven knows, if superficial = failure, we wouldn’t have had so many Transformers movies). I blame that on Arnold Schwarzenegger (and the script’s inability to recapture his former screen style).
New film reviews coming soon, but in the meantime…Grumpy Cat meets Kaiju Leaf-Monster! Whose frown is more powerful?
Despite his incredible self-indulgence, Quentin Tarantino manages to remain a bankable director. Perhaps it’s because the films he loves and emulates were popular in their day, and retain some of their audience-pleasing power even now. This nostalgia-reboot probably wouldn’t work for every genre, but Django Unchained’s spaghetti Western-blaxploitation combo turned out very well.
There’s a certain amount of controversy swirling about this movie. Occasionally…alright, often…I suspect “controversy” is trumped-up by the film’s publicists, hoping to keep their product in the public eye (“Watch the movie everyone is talking about, see if you think it’s racist or not!”), and/or is the result of self-serving statements by special-interest groups or individuals who want to draw attention to themselves (“Look at me, I’m attacking this popular movie, aren’t you interested in what I have to say about it?”). I won’t go so far as to characterise all of the Django Unchained kerfuffle in this manner, but I have my suspicions about some of it…
The complaints seem to fall into two categories, specific and broad. Broadly, there are those who feel Quentin Tarantino (a white man) is exploiting the issue of slavery for the purpose of “entertainment” (and to make money). Specifically, there is some talk about the heavy use of the forbidden “n-word.”
[As an aside, I’ll re-use the same joke here that I’ve been trotting out in various venues. Whenever someone says “the n-word,” I reply: “What, nesbian?” Only a few people get my reference to the television series “The L Word” (which = “lesbian”). Or perhaps people “get” the joke, they simply don’t appreciate it. Whatever. Be like that, you philistines. See if I care! *wipes away a tear*]
I won’t judge the validity of either of these arguments, except to say I tend to believe Tarantino isn’t a cynical, money-grubbing racist. Whether he truly thought (or intended) Django Unchained would change the world for the better…who knows? (I doubt it) But, while it appears he made the film in good faith, this doesn’t change how some people may perceive him and/or the movie, though.
Setting all of this aside, Django Unchained is darn entertaining, although since I like both Westerns and blaxploitation movies, my judgement may be impaired. Although slightly on the long side—and there are a few obvious places where Tarantino could have trimmed the picture, had he been so inclined—it’s generally well-paced and has amusing characters, good performances, and a clever, linear narrative and witty script. There isn’t much original material to be found here, but Tarantino has spliced together a plethora of characters and incidents from popular culture, history, and folklore, into a seamless piece of entertainment. Yes, there are serious undertones—the seamy side of slavery is not ignored—but this is one of those action films where lots of people get killed but the quips keep a-comin’, to lighten the mood (the hilarious scene with the inept, squabbling masked riders is pure comic relief, but there are “serious” sequences which also have humourous aspects).
If I were pressed, I might gripe mildly about the relative ease and rapidity with which Django picks up various specialised skills and manners, but to be fair Tarantino does at least make passing reference to Django’s training at the hands of Dr. Schultz and to his own innate abilities. So the rapid, quantum leap from field-hand slave to suave gunfighter can be accepted as movie short-hand rather than a deliberate flaunting of reality and logic. My only major complaint about the script comes towards the end, when Dr. Schultz suddenly abandons his pragmatism, with fatal results. Yes, he’d earlier expressed his disgust with the institution of slavery and with slave-owners, but he repeatedly inculcates in Django the idea that one cannot let one’s emotions take over, that reason has to be paramount, only to disregard his own teachings at the most inopportune moment.
In pre-Civil War times, bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (get it, Dr. King?) needs slave Django to help identify several men he’s tracking. Locating and dispatching the men, Django and Schultz strike a deal: if Django assists Schultz in his bounty hunting over the winter months, in the spring Schultz will in turn help him find his wife Broomhilda, sold to another plantation owner. They learn Broomhilda is currently owned by Calvin Candie, a thorough racist who enjoys pitting slaves against each other in “Mandingo fights” to the death. Schultz and Django try to obtain Broomhilda’s freedom without tipping off Candie to their true intentions. They fail, thanks to the perspicacity of Stephen, Candie’s black major-domo, and a final confrontation erupts…
The plethora of film and pop culture references in Tarantino movies is both amusing and annoying. Tarantino is a film buff and presumably inserts these references to amuse himself and to pay tribute to films and filmmakers he loves. Ironically, this may actually undercut the effect of his movies on kindred souls, because playing “spot the homage” does take the spectator out of the film to some extent: it’s difficult to immerse oneself in the drama if you’re constantly bombarded with (or searching for) in-jokes. This reminds me of a story about Alfred Hitchcock and his famous on-screen cameo appearances. Eventually, he allegedly decided audiences were being distracted from the plot while waiting and watching for him to appear, so he made sure he’d show up fairly early in the movie, to get it over with. Some of Tarantino’s references are multi-layered and complex: for instance, the protagonist’s name “Django” is taken from a Italian spaghetti Western, the theme song is also from this picture, and the original screen “Django,” Franco Nero, makes a cameo appearance in Django Unchained. Other bits are subtler and probably only caught by dedicated film nerds (horses “Fritz” and “Tony” are named after the horses used by silent Western stars William S. Hart and Tom Mix), while the various scenes, shots, and camera angles “swiped” from other movies require extensive research and/or knowledge to uncover.
This isn’t to say Django Unchained is nothing but a patchwork of material taken from older movies and pop culture, a la Scary Movie. Tarantino has the ability to meld these elements into a cohesive story of his own devising, and wind up with a slick, professional whole that is greater than the sum of its parts (to coin a phrase).
The production values are fine: I am always impressed by period pictures, understanding how difficult it is to put together locations, sets, costumes, props, and so forth, and there’s nothing amiss here. The performances fall into two categories: excellent, and serviceable. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel Jackson, and Leonardo DeCaprio fall into the first class, while just about everyone else is…adequate. Perhaps they’re just over-shadowed by the emoting of the aforementioned quartet, and who wouldn’t be? While Foxx—as noted above—a bit too quickly transforms from scruffy slave to sleek superhero, he’s believable at both ends of the spectrum, underplaying just enough, and (mostly) resisting the temptation to wink at the camera. Waltz is quite likeable in his role, and although DeCaprio and (especially) Jackson drift towards the outrageous in their parts, they’re extremely entertaining.
I was predisposed to like Django Unchained, and my expectations were met. I wouldn’t call this a great, enduring work of cinematic art, but it was quite fun to watch.
I had no particular desire to see this film: docu-dramas about recent history aren’t especially interesting to me (which is why I skipped Argo, for instance). But since I didn’t have to pay for a ticket, and since it’s been nominated for various Oscars, and since it’s mildly controversial, I capitulated and watched Zero Dark Thirty. Surprise! It’s not bad at all.
Along with what feels like the vast majority of “big” films these days, Zero Dark Thirty is far too long (157 minutes), but while much of the initial two hours is filled with redundant or inconclusive scenes, for some reason the time passes relatively painlessly. It’s difficult to explain why: there isn’t much of a “plot,” there isn’t much “drama” or “characterisation.” Basically it’s two hours of people talking, interspersed with the occasional explosion. Unlike a standard police procedural or detective story, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t have a very linear narrative thread. What happens is more like “the CIA interrogates a bunch of people and eventually stumbles across the identity of Osama Bin Laden’s courier, who leads them to the hiding place of Bin Laden.” Perhaps the point of the film is that in today’s world, intelligence work is not at all like old-fashioned detective work, and new methods of investigation are required. That’s fine, but for the sake of the viewing audience, the hunt for Bin Laden could have been depicted in a somewhat less confusing fashion, even at the risk of over-simplification. [Note: if you read the “Full Synopsis” on IMDB the narrative seems much more linear than it is when you’re watching the movie. Or maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention.] Real life can be dramatic, but it can also be tedious and boring. Not that Zero Dark Thirty is seriously boring (it isn’t). Even if—as I noted above—I can’t explain why it isn’t. Good job by the director, screenwriter, actors, and everyone else, I suppose.
While a bit of the controversy about Zero Dark Thirty was probably fomented by the filmmakers for publicity reasons, there has been some criticism of the film’s depiction of “enhanced interrogation” (which some consider torture). This seems to be coming from two directions: officially, the U.S. government objects to the film’s implication that crucial information was obtained in this manner. Not a denial that these methods were used, but a disclaimer that they didn’t pay off. In other words, “yeah, we tortured people but we didn’t catch Osama Bin Laden because of this.” Which is kind of an odd stance to take, no?
On the other hand, there are those who criticise Zero Dark Thirty for its failure to condemn this “enhanced interrogation,” and—once again—for its implied contention that this was necessary and did yield results. In other words, the film approves of torture.
As the filmmakers have pointed out, Zero Dark Thirty is not a documentary, so strict adherence to the facts isn’t required (alright, documentaries don’t always tell the whole truth either, but that’s neither here nor there). This is a valid argument, except that the very form and structure of the movie presents it as a “true story”—an on-screen title reads “The following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events”— strongly implying that this is a historical film and not a fictional one. The much-ballyhooed cooperation between the government and the filmmakers lends credence to the “truthfulness” of the movie. You can’t have it both ways: if you make a film about the Alamo, and use real names and events, then have the film conclude with a scene of brutal hand-to-hand combat between Davy Crockett and General Santa Ana, people are either (a) going to think it happened that way, or (b) complain because you tampered with the facts.
Still, on the first count—enhanced interrogation provided valuable intel about Bin Laden—one can say it was the filmmakers’ choice to highlight this method and it may have even been their opinion that the information gathered did provide the crucial clue. Anyone who wants the “truth” should look elsewhere and make their own informed decision, don’t just assume the film is accurate in every thing it says or doesn’t say.
On the second charge—that Zero Dark Thirty actually advocates for enhanced interrogation methods—arguments could be made both ways. These scenes are front-loaded: before we see the dogged investigators of the CIA sifting through mountains of data, or watching surveillance footage, or tracking suspects, we see them questioning several detainees in less-than-gentle fashion. The early placement of these scenes in the film lends them greater impact—the viewers’ first impression colours the rest of the movie. Despite the fact that Zero Dark Thirty begins with gut-wrenching audio of the events of 9/11, the various prisoners we see are pitiful, helpless, abused human beings: they’re not demonised in typical fashion (showing them committing crimes, or depicting them as arrogant and unremorseful even in captivity). In addition to 9/11, various terrorist events are recreated or discussed during the course of the movie, but there is only an intellectual connection between these events and the Al Qaeda members and sympathisers shown in the film, not a direct (and thus emotional) one. There are no scenes of an evil mastermind gloating over his crimes—melodramatic, but effective in directing audience animosity.
Consequently, the interrogation scenes are depicted as both disturbingly repulsive and yet tactically effective: valuable information is obtained through physical and psychological methods. Zero Dark Thirty neither condemns nor supports these methods, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it both condemns and supports these methods.
So from the beginning, there is an ambivalent tone to the picture. The CIA and others in the hunt are shown to be passionate about their mission, but there is still a sort of sterility about it all. The most dramatically affecting sequence in the whole film is the death of CIA agent Jessica: although none of the characters is given much back-story or personality, Jessica and the film’s protagonist, Maya, stand out for several reasons. First, they’re women in the largely male-dominated intelligence world, and while their gender has no bearing on their job performance (no accomodation is made, they do the same jobs men do, etc.), they are still a visible minority. Furthermore, given the dearth of personalisation in the film as a whole, even the very minor friendly interaction (a handful of scenes) between Maya and Jessica makes them more “real” to the viewer. Jessica even bakes a cake for a “mole” she’s going to interview, laughing and joking with Maya over the telephone and via text messages. Her subsequent death (spoiler, sorry) consequently has a greater impact than if she’d been more anonymous. That’s the way films work: we like or dislike characters based on various factors (our own prejudices among them), including their on-screen actions. Nonetheless, even this attack isn’t presented in typical action-movie fashion and it’s only Jessica’s presence—because we “know” her—that elevates this sequence above the other, similar scenes in the film.
The main character in Zero Dark Thirty is CIA analyst Maya, well-played by Jessica Chastain despite a relative lack of “character cues” in the script. She has little back-story, no private life that we can see, minimal personal interaction with others in the movie, and yet manages to convey a sort of steely determination and dedication via her expressions, gestures, and body language. The film seems to have deliberately stripped away virtually anything that would smack of melodrama: no romance, no heroics, no screaming confrontations with supervisors (well…almost none). In fact, the few little bits that do creep in (in both Maya’s actions and those of other characters) seem forced and artificial.
Zero Dark Thirty undergoes a curious tonal change in the last half hour or so, with the assault on Bin Laden’s compound. I could almost visualise this being done in another way: rather than the shaky cam/action-film sequence we are given, the film could have presented us solely with Maya’s remote viewpoint of the raid (we get some of this, but most of the footage is recreated action shots of the SEAL team, etc.). This would have been consistent with the overall mood of the movie but then we wouldn’t have had the big shoot-em-up conclusion, would we? To be fair, this sequence is mostly realistically hectic and confused, but there are some minor aspects that shout “Hollywood movie.” And in keeping with the “cool” emotional feel of the film as a whole, the ending doesn’t deliver much catharsis: Osama Bin Laden is just some blurry figure who’s shot and killed, not a ranting, Hitlerian monster whose death ends the threat to civilisation (in fact, in an earlier scene a CIA supervisor says he doesn’t care about catching Bin Laden, he wants to prevent “the next attack” from occurring).
Technically, Zero Dark Thirty is fine. It doesn’t stray from the usual docu-drama tropes, with on-screen date/place titles, mixed-media, lots of scenes of people sitting in meetings and/or in front of computers, and so forth. Slick and effective, it—as noted above—moves at a deceptively brisk pace so that the first two hours are gone before you even notice. The performances are all adequate, the location shooting is good, production values satisfactory.
Ideologically? This is not, despite the subject matter, either a “feel-good,” patriotic docu-drama nor any sort of overt criticism of the performance of the intelligence community. It’s a little of both! (Or to be more precise, you can find elements of both, should you care to look) Let the post-viewing arguments begin!
“Look out below!” (La venganza del Charro Negro, 1941)
Who are all the people seeing Lincoln and why? It’s really done quite well at the box-office, which is slightly puzzling to me, because it’s not, at first glance, an inherently “popular” topic: it’s what one might call a “prestige” picture, a “serious” film. Maybe people feel it’s somehow their duty to attend, that it’s an important movie which confers some of its gravitas on the audience. Never underestimate snob appeal: ”Oh, you went to see This is 40? How nice for you! Moi? Well, I saw Lincoln.”
Lincoln isn’t a traditional film-biography of a beloved president, or a tale of his personal struggles during the nation’s most troubled period. It’s essentially a talky film about the behind-the-scenes political process in the U.S. Congress in 1865, with a politically-correct hook (racial justice) and a barely-glimpsed sub-plot or two. Hardly the formula for box-office success, despite the Spielberg name (which I’m not even sure means much in terms of selling tickets) and the intense hype which preceded its release, and yet… Lincoln appears to have beaten the odds. It’s not a runaway, blockbuster hit, but it’s been consistently drawing large crowds.
[Whether this translates to any sort of international success is questionable, although perhaps judicious marketing might produce some results. I’m not sure I’d want to see a 2 1/2 hour-long feature about a historic Parliamentary debate in England, no matter how well-directed and -acted it was. Lincoln is set for release overseas in 2013, so we’ll find out.]
Many, many (many) years ago, in a “Television Writing” class, I wrote the script for a docu-drama about the 1876 presidential election (which was a rather dramatic one). This experience taught me that there are 3 types of “dramatic” historical films (versus documentaries): those which try to cover grand topics (example, “The Civil War”), those which focus on singular events (“The Battle of Gettysburg”), and those which take on the middle ground between the two. Each type has its difficulties: one of these is the necessity of balancing the information to be conveyed with dramatic action and characterisation. Lincoln is a classic example of the mid-range docu-drama, concentrating on the events leading to the passage of the 13th Amendment, and attempting to portray them in an interesting fashion. Does it succeed? I’d respond with a qualified yes. I found the film eminently watchable and yet I can see where others might not agree.
Lincoln is too long. I started looking at my watch around the 90-minute mark, and while the last hour of the film moved quickly, there’s no valid reason—other than the director’s desires—for the movie to last so long. I’m not even necessarily advocating for the removal of the Robert Lincoln sub-plot, which seems to have been inserted to provide some personal conflict between Lincoln and his family, but is otherwise peripheral to the matter at hand: the film, despite its title is not about “Abe Lincoln in 1865,” but rather the passage of the 13th Amendment. The film’s actual content could have been covered in 2 hours, maybe less.
Furthermore, the on-screen political machinations are depicted in a muddled and redundant fashion. There are too many characters who aren’t clearly identified, and whose motivations are sketchy. Spielberg is never satisfied with one scene of politicians being bribed and/or threatened when he can use two. Or three. Or five. [While we’re on the topic of identification, I’ll vent my irritation at something which, if true, annoys me: Steven Spielberg allegedly changed the names of various Congressmen who voted against the 13th Amendment, to spare their descendants embarrassment. Lincoln is loaded with other historical inaccuracies and anachronisms (some probably inadvertent, others surely falling under the “artistic license” rule), but deliberately meddling with the names of some real people, while retaining the true names of others seems a bit arbitrary and capricious. Shades of Monty Python’s “Ron Vibbentrop” and “Heinrich Bimmler.”]
On the positive side, ladies and gentleman, Abraham Lincoln! Much of the pre-release hype focused on the manner in which Daniel Day-Lewis immersed himself in the role. Admittedly, Lincoln features a fairly one-dimensional image—Lincoln as politician, with a few scraps of Lincoln-as-family-man tossed in—and not the sort of mythic portrayal we’re used to, but not for one second was I aware of “Daniel Day-Lewis the actor, playing the role of Lincoln.” Could this illusion have been sustained if the film covered a more extensive time period in Lincoln’s life, or if the film was more about Lincoln’s personality? Perhaps. But as it stands, Day-Lewis delivers a smashing performance as Lincoln the master politician, the beleaguered wartime president, the distracted husband-and-father. He’s a real, complex individual, not a cardboard symbol.
The same can’t quite be said for Sally Field as Mrs. Lincoln. While certainly adequate in the role, Field is—and this might be something only I feel—too recognisable to be wholly convincing. There’s nothing especially…off…about her work here, and most of the time she’s fine, but she doesn’t lose herself in the part as Day-Lewis does. The other major character is Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Like Field, he’s a familiar face and makes no effort to disguise himself, which tends to set up a bit of a mental wall of the part of the viewer: we know it’s Tommy Lee Jones playing a role. Can he break down that wall and engage us as the character he’s playing, make us forget he’s an actor and accept him as Thaddeus Stevens? Is this even possible? An audience can be swept along by the power of the unfolding drama, and temporarily block out the artificial nature of what we’re seeing; both Field and Jones are good enough performers to convince us, given enough assistance from the script. Do they get it here? Perhaps.
The other actors are adequate, without standing out from the crowd. As mentioned earlier, the Robert Lincoln digression is fairly disposable, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt thus has little to do, but he’s satisfactory within the boundaries allotted to him. No one else has more than the occasional moment or two in which to shine, but everyone looks the part and no one stands out in a bad way.
Lincoln looks splendid—not a Gone with the Wind glossy-splendid, but a realistic sort of splendid, dark and often dreary, lots of men with facial hair, earth tones and military uniforms, candle-lit rooms, and so forth. This isn’t really so important if the drama is compelling enough, but since Lincoln is a very talky movie, a proper look helps the viewer, even if subconsciously, enter into the filmic space. I’ve seen plays (and a few films) with abstract and/or minimal sets which captivated me with powerful ideas, dialogue, and acting, but a more leisurely, cerebral work like Lincoln needs all the help it can get. Lincoln is an entertaining film on both an intellectual and an emotional level, but—as I wrote earlier—it’s a film primarily about the political process, albeit one buoyed by an excellent central performance, and not a conventional drama.
Perhaps I’ve given the impression that—even though I enjoyed it and appreciated it on a number of levels—I think Lincoln shouldn’t appeal to the wider audience it’s apparently reaching in the USA (unless there’s a dedicated core group that’s been seeing the film multiple times to boost the box-office results), that it’s not dramatic enough and too caught up in arcane smoke-filled-room maneuvering, of interest primarily to history buffs and/or political junkies. This isn’t necessarily true, though I confess I am surprised by the decent amount of money it’s made, and this may be a case where I’ve under-estimated the intelligence and taste of the American public. But I’m not going to get my hopes up, cynical fellow that I am.
I’m not a purist when it comes to film adaptations of literary works. So what if the filmmakers leave out a major character or change the ending or alter the entire point of the original work? There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about an author who’s asked if he minds “what the movie did to his book.” ”My book is right there,” he replies, pointing to the shelf. “They didn’t do anything to it.” Novels and films are two separate entities, and if one really, really loves a novel, then no film could ever replicate the experience you had when you read the original work, or do justice to your mental images of the characters and settings.
[Another method would be to see the film version first, then read the novel. While this might result in visualising the characters in their screen incarnations, in many cases the book will have more depth and breadth than the film and can be enjoyed for that, whereas watching a movie which—possibly for very legitimate reasons—changes or omits huge chunks of a novel you liked might unjustly prejudice you against the film as a film.]
Consequently, I wasn’t too dismayed when I learned Tom Cruise would star in a screen adaptation of one of Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels, a series I’ve enjoyed immensely for years. Cruise—even if one stipulates he’s a competent actor and a believable action-movie star, which I think are reasonable assumptions—does not come even vaguely close to the books’ description of the protagonist. But then again, Daniel Craig doesn’t fit my mental image of James Bond, Robert Downey Jr. isn’t the Sidney Paget version of Sherlock Holmes, and—for that matter—Christian Bale is neither the living incarnation of the comic book’s Bruce Wayne nor Batman, yet I had no great difficulty enjoying the films in which these actors essayed these roles.
The basic question for me is not “is this a faithful adaptation of the book,” but “is this a satisfactory film?” Jack Reacher by any other name would be a decent action picture, so I suppose that’s my answer. Yes, there are a few problems which do not arise so much from the original novel as from director-writer Christopher McQuarrie’s adaptation. It’s as if the script was written for the book’s physically-imposing, cow-you-with-a-glance protagonist, and was never revised to accomodate the smaller, handsomer Tom Cruise in the role. It’s only marginally believable when Cruise defeats five men in hand-to-hand combat, or forces people to back down by simply staring at them and uttering some hard-boiled dialogue. Cruise’s tough-guy image is further compromised by various shots in which young, attractive women gaze at him longingly: although these are mostly in the early sequences, it still sets the wrong tone. This is an issue, not because Cruise isn’t the book’s Reacher, but because the script makes him do things which don’t seem possible or appropriate.
In an unspecified city (Pittsburgh is where the movie was shot), a sniper guns down 5 random pedestrians. Former Army sniper Barr is arrested for the crime but refuses to talk, writing simply “Get Jack Reacher” on a pad of paper (then lapses into a coma after being assaulted by a fellow prisoner). Barr’s attorney, Helen Rodin, learns Reacher is an ex-MP (Military Policeman, not Member of Parliament) who now wanders around the country rather aimlessly. Reacher shows up and, despite his knowledge that Barr had committed murder overseas, eventually deduces that the veteran was framed, and that the killings were not all random.
The plot of Jack Reacher (a silly title apparently applied to created a name-recognition “brand” that could be exploited in future films; the source novel was titled “Kill Shot”) isn’t horribly complex (as noted earlier, I’ve read the novel: I didn’t recall too many details, but perhaps some lingered subconsciously and I had a headstart on solving the mystery) but it’s not simplistic either. Reacher functions as a traditional investigator, interviewing witnesses, beating people up (and getting beaten up, but only slightly), provoking the criminals into rash actions, and finally confronting them in a climactic showdown. Helen is around mostly to serve as a sounding board and stooge for Reacher, and then as a hostage for the villains. Helen’s father happens to be the district attorney and there’s also a stereotypical tough-cop who dislikes and suspects Reacher. Most of the other characters are “generic thug #1,” “generic thug #2,” etc.
There isn’t a lot of drama or character development in Jack Reacher, so the plot scenes are mostly filler between the action sequences. Reacher is attacked by 5 guys outside of a bar, Reacher is attacked by two guys in a bathroom, Reacher is involved in a 3-way car chase (he’s chasing the bad guy while being chased by the cops himself), Reacher and grizzled temporary-sidekick Cash take on the whole gang at the end. These are all well-staged and mostly believable (in movie terms), although as mentioned earlier, Reacher in the novels wins his fights through a combination of brute strength and street-fighting savvy, while the movie-Reacher appears to use speed and martial arts skill. It would have been nice if the film had done a little more with this, but possibly producer-star Cruise didn’t want to have the script draw attention to his relatively slight physical stature in the dialogue. ”Let them suspend their disbelief!” he may have commanded regally. [Note: quote is imaginary.]
The performances are satisfactory. Tom Cruise is deadly serious most of the time, and if you can buy into the idea that he’s super-tough and scary, he’s fine overall. The other players are adequate: Rosamund Pike is attractive and delivers her lines audibly and in a convincing manner, while Werner Herzog has a couple of nice scenes (and a few good lines) as “The Zec,” a survivor of a Siberian prison camp, now turned to organised crime in the USA. Robert Duvall shows up late as the folksy Cash, but is always welcome. He seems to be specialising in these “crusty old geezer” cameos now; I have absolutely no problem with this, since he’s an entertaining performer. The film’s production values are fine: this “only” cost $50 million, a reasonable budget for a contemporary action film with one major star.
The plots of Lee Child’s novels are mostly pretty similar—Reacher goes somewhere, gets involved in a “situation,” beats up and/or kills people in various ways, an explanation is provided, Reacher leaves—but that’s not why I read them. I like the “Jack Reacher” books because they’re well-written and the protagonist is interesting. Jack Reacher, although an adaptation of a Lee Child novel, is not the cinematic equivalent of a Lee Child novel. But I bear it no grudge because of that: Jack Reacher is a slick action film with no pretensions to anything more profound, and is satisfactory entertainment.
Best Holiday Wishes—here’s hoping it’s the Good Santa (not the Bad Santa), who visits you this year! I’ll be back in a few days with a review of Lincoln (2012) and more.
Expecting (perhaps fearing) something more serious and profound, I was generally entertained by Life of Pi, a CGI-laden adventure film with a slight philosophical bent. Some may feel the true, deeper meaning of the film eluded my prosaic perception, and I’m willing to stipulate that may have been the case. But I feel confident in asserting that Life of Pi is, in any case, more enjoyable and accessible than, say…Tree of Life?
In Canada, middle-aged Pi Patel is interviewed by an author, who’s heard Pi has an amazing life-story to tell, one that will “make [him] believe in God.” As a boy in India, Pi became very curious about the world’s religions and their relationship to God and the truth, despite the admonitions of his agnostic father and Hindu mother. When Pi is a teenager, his family decides to emigrate to Canada and reestablish there the zoo they have been operating in India. The ship sinks during a storm, and Pi finds himself on a lifeboat. Fortunately, the boat is well-stocked with survival gear (even a how-to manual on “Survival at Sea”). Unfortunately, it also comes complete with a tiger from the family zoo! (Initially, a zebra, hyena, and orangutan are also lifeboat passengers, but…spoiler…they don’t make it)
Pi is understandably perturbed to have to share his space with a carnivorous wild animal, even one named “Richard Parker” (it would have really been a bummer if the tiger had been named “Shere Khan”). Aside from the whole “he will kill and eat me if he catches me” situation, the tiger can’t live on the lifeboat rations, so Pi-the-vegetarian has to catch fish for the big cat to eat. Moral dilemma! Eventually Pi and Richard “Grumpy Cat” Parker arrive at a modus vivendi, and Pi realises the presence of the tiger has actually saved his life, by forcing him to remain alert and occupying his time and thoughts productively. After other adventures, including a visit to an island populated solely by millions of cute meerkats, an emaciated Pi and Richard “Skinny Kitty” Parker make landfall and Pi is rescued.
The interviewer is suitably impressed with Pi’s tale of faith in the face of adversity, but Pi says he didn’t get the same response from representatives of the Japanese company that insured the freighter. For them, Pi concocted a second, more conventional story of the aftermath of the sinking. Pi refuses to say which story is true, but asks the writer: “Which story do you prefer?” “The one with the tiger. That’s the better story,” is the reply.
Life of Pi clearly agrees, since Pi’s second story is only told, not shown, and consumes only a fraction of the movie’s running time, whereas the tale of Pi and Richard “Big Meat Eater” Parker is the heart of the film. This slightly dilutes the movie’s Rashomon-like aspects, since the scales are tipped so heavily in favour of “the one with the tiger.” And why not? Aside from everything else, who wouldn’t rather see Pi and a gorgeous CGI tiger in the middle of the ocean as opposed to Pi and a flabby, racist ship’s cook (played by Gerard Depardieu) on a lifeboat? There is enough ambiguity here for those seeking it—the framing story of Pi’s interview with the author informs us from the first that what we’re seeing is Pi’s version of events, versus objective film-reality—and if one wants to consider the tiger-tale an allegory for what really happened, filtered through Pi’s philosophical viewpoint, then…fine. Everyone else can just accept this as an adventure story with a happy ending, and assume Pi made up the “realistic” version to placate the insurance investigators.
Perhaps it was partly my relief at being spared too much moralising and navel-gazing, but Life of Pi unfolded in a pleasant, leisurely-but-not-slow fashion. I’m no fan of 3-D and can’t comment on its effectiveness here, since I didn’t see the picture in that format. There are a number of shots which are clearly intended for 3-D audiences (jab a stick at the audience, shall we?) and I’ll assume (based on some on-line reviews) that the overall result was satisfactory. Even flat, Life of Pi is a lovely film to watch, and the CGI tiger is especially convincing: this isn’t a film that could have been done otherwise, the interaction between a real actor and a real animal would have been clumsy and/or dangerous, and any other sort of special effects technique (stop-motion animation, rear-screen projection, Andy Serkis in a tiger-suit) wouldn’t have looked right.
When speaking of the performances in Life of Pi, only Suraj Sharma as the teen-aged Pi needs serious mention. Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi and Rafe Spall as the interviewer are sympathetic and competent, but they’re on-screen so little that unless the actors were horrible, it doesn’t really matter. As far as Sharma is concerned, he’s fine and I have to give him credit for essentially acting in a vacuum, with almost no live support. I imagine it’s difficult to “act” opposite an empty space where a CGI creature is going to be inserted (yes, I understand there is generally something there so at least your gaze is directed properly)—even harder than doing a straight-up monologue. On the other hand, you’re not required to interact with others in this sort of role, so you can concentrate on yourself exclusively. Meh, what do I know about acting? Anyway, there’s nothing especially artificial or mannered or false about Sharma’s performance, to his credit (especially since this is his screen debut).
Life of Pi is carefully and effectively scripted and includes a fair bit of humour to balance out the more serious philosophical content. As noted above, the ambiguity of the film, the hints of different levels of “reality” and “truth” (both in Pi’s story and, by extension, the concept of God), the possibility of a deeper “meaning,” etc., are cleverly worked in without being crudely obvious.
Generally a non-threatening, warm and ultimately enjoyable piece of entertainment. More than that, even at the risk of being judged a superficial clod who’s not bright enough to “get it,” I won’t assert.
Notorious as I am for skipping the early films in long-running series, I turned over a new leaf (this time), and delayed watching Taken 2 until I had seen Taken (2008). Not that the first film was especially necessary to understand the sequel, unlike some series I could mention (*cough Harry Potter cough*), but I’d heard that Taken was a decent action movie, and I enjoy those. Not sure why I missed it back in ’08, but one can’t see every film, can one?
Taken, like its successor, is a fairly xenophobic picture, painting “foreign countries” as dangerous places filled with greasy Euro-trash who like nothing more than to abduct and/or assault innocent tourists. It also stretches credulity (in some instances, far beyond the snapping point) and is one of those movies where the protagonist is so powerful and competent that the conclusion is foregone, but it’s entertainingly energetic and manages to include a few honest moments of emotion and characterisation.
Former CIA agent Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is tricked by his ex-wife Lenore and teenage daughter Kim into allowing the latter to travel to Paris alone, to meet a friend. Said friend and Kim are both immediately abducted by Albanian mobsters to be sold into sex slavery. Bryan, utilising his “very particular set of skills,” travels to Paris from California (experiencing no jet-lag, that’s how super-human he is), massacres the bad guys and retrieves his (still virginal) daughter. Yay for America! (We’ll overlook the fact that this picture was produced, directed, and co-authored by Frenchmen)
Aside from its kinetic action sequences—a speciality of producer Luc Besson and Pierre Morel (Banlieue 13), one of his stable of directors—the nice thing about Taken is that it wisely takes a little time to set up Bryan as an over-protective dad with sometimes embarassing paternal instincts. The viewer may sympathise a bit with Lenore and Kim, who feel he’s smothering his daughter, but the film presents Bryan as a lonely man who is trying desperately to compensate for being an absentee father during his CIA tenure, and—fairly quickly—it turns out…he was right. (Of course he was) Paris is a gateway to hell for attractive teenage girls!
Taken 2 picks up where the first film left off, but is but a faded imitation of its predecessor. This movie has almost literally no plot. It’s just a bunch of action sequences strung together. At least Taken, in addition to the aforementioned character development, functioned as a sort of quest/detective tale, with Bryan using research, clues, ruses, and interviews to search for his daughter. But in Taken 2 he discards such clumsy and time-consuming methods, opting instead for some kind of preternatural mental acuity which allows him to pinpoint the location of the villains by just…thinking.
You want a plot synopsis? Ok, it won’t take long. The relatives of the slain Albanian gangsters from the first movie—who, curiously, always speak English among themselves, even in their own village—vow revenge on Bryan Mills. Fairly easily, they pinpoint his current location—Istanbul, where he’s been serving as a short-term bodyguard to a stereotypical Arab oil sheik. As a bonus, Bryan is joined there by his vacationing daughter and ex-wife (who’s now separated from her rich second husband). Time for vengeance, Albanian style! No, I’m kidding, it’s time for Bryan to kill some more Albanians. [Taken 2 also seems to leave the door open for a third film, which can only logically conclude with Bryan destroying Albania with a nuclear missile. Just to, you know, make sure.]
I won’t say Taken 2 is a complete waste of time, despite being massively inferior to Taken, but it’s one of the most superficial and mindless movies I’ve seen in a long time, and I’ve watched 3.5 of the 4 Paranormal Activity films (I bailed halfway through #4; maybe I’ll finish it, someday). It lacks the dramatic aspects that made Taken a more fully-realised film, stripping away these non-essentials and reducing Taken 2 to little more than a highlight reel of stunts, or (more charitably) a parody of action movies.
Perhaps it was unwise of me to watch Taken and Taken 2 back-to-back, since the relative competence of the former makes the latter seem even more meretricious. Had I viewed Taken in 2008, or never seen it at all, I might have accepted Taken 2 as a lightweight but moderately entertaining way to pass 90 minutes. I mean, it still is that, but as I was watching Taken 2, I could not stop myself from thinking “Taken was better, this could have been better, why isn’t this better,” etc., which was kind of a buzzkill, to be honest.
This film popped up on the IMDB “Opening This Week” list a short time ago (although it appears to have only played on 4 screens in the USA and has made very little money here), so—considering few of the new films currently in cinemas have any appeal at all for me—I decided to give it a go. What really tipped the scales was the fact that Citadel is a UK-Irish co-production shot in Glasgow; I probably wouldn’t have watched this had it been a low-budget horror movie shot in the USA, but I’d had such good luck with the last two fantastic films I’d seen from the British Isles—Grabbers and Cockneys vs. Zombies—I hoped for another pleasant surprise.
Unfortunately, Citadel wasn’t a patch on either of those pictures, at least in terms of entertainment value. It’s a bleak, drab film set in a cold, grey land, with a tiny cast consisting of not particularly sympathetic or interesting characters. The story is narrowly-focused, small-scale, and simplistic, with lots of gaping inconsistencies and illogical aspects (for example, late in the movie, the priest gives Tommy an explanation for the existence of the killer children, but this raises more questions than it answers). Most of the “action” is limited to the final 15 minutes or so, and prior to that point there are a few exciting bits but not much in the way of orchestrated suspense, character development, or narrative drive. The picture has a depressing feel about it, despite the more-or-less “happy” ending.
On the positive side, the performances are rather good: this is essentially a four-character movie, with the majority of screen time going to Aneurin Barnard as the protagonist, Tommy. He’s fine in the role, although the part itself isn’t (as noted above) especially sympathetic. The only other significant characters are an angry priest, a helpful nurse, and a little boy, all professionally enacted by their respective performers (James Cosmo, Wunmi Mosaku, and Jake Wilson). Although probably made on a small budget, Citadel looks slick enough—the bleak “look” of the film is almost certainly deliberate and not the result of shoddy filmmaking, just to clear that up. Director-writer Ciaran Foy seems to know how to make a movie, but it feels like he didn’t have enough narrative material for a feature-length film, and the result is a long, not-very-exciting build up to a fairly brief and low-key conclusion. There are some genuinely eerie bits, but not enough of them.
Tommy and his wife Claire are among the final residents leaving a condemned high-rise council flat building. As they depart, the pregnant Claire is attacked by a group of children wearing hoodies, who stab her in the stomach with a syringe and leave her comatose. She gives birth to a little girl. Tommy tries to raise his daughter himself, but has been struck by agoraphobia, so the simple act of leaving his home (in another shabby government housing development) is an ordeal. He also believes he is being stalked by the gang of youngsters who attacked his wife. A local priest says the condemned high-rise is the headquarters of the vicious children; he warns Tommy they want his daughter, and asks him to help him burn down the building, but Tommy refuses.
Claire is taken off life-support and dies. Marie, a nurse at the hospice, befriends Tommy and tries to help him overcome his fears, but she is murdered by the hoodie gang; that same night, Tommy is savagely beaten by the “children”—who are seen to have distorted, monstrous faces—and his child is abducted. Tommy goes to the priest for help, agreeing to help destroy the apartment building in exchange. They are accompanied by young Danny, a little boy who had been rescued by the priest from the building before he could turn into one of the feral killers, and who has some special powers that can help Tommy and the priest in their mission…
The script’s basic premise is decent, but Citadel fails to elaborate on it and thus the picture feels sketchy and incomplete. The first two-thirds of the film seem to consist of nothing but scenes of Tommy urgently pushing his daughter’s pram (“stroller” to us Yanks) through empty streets, missing the local bus, and huddling fearstricken in his shabby flat, over and over again. Then he meets the priest, Marie is killed, the baby is abducted, and finally something is happening, but it is all too little, too late.
Citadel had the potential to go in at least two different directions: it could have concentrated on Tommy’s ordeal in an impressionistic manner, delving more deeply into his personality, contrasting his crippling agoraphobia—which doesn’t really have any relevance in the film as it stands—with his desire to protect his daughter (it is briefly mentioned that social services wants to take her away from him, as an “unsuitable” single father; this could have been elaborated upon, with Tommy trying to save his daughter from both the hoodie gang and the government). The psychological-horror aspects and the concomitant suspense might have proven effective: the film already has a rather nightmarish feel about it—almost no one else ever appears on the street or the bus or anywhere else, there is apparently no such thing as a police force in this town, and so forth.
Or, Citadel could have steered a traditional horror-film course, pumping up the suspense and action throughout, and concluding in a more spectacular, loud, gory and exciting manner. This might have cost more, but it could have been done on a budget, if that had been the path chosen. But the film does neither of these things. Consequently Citadel falls into a middle ground of “not serious enough to be a drama” and “not exploitative enough to be a full-on horror movie.” More crucially, the film is simply not very exciting, scary, affecting, or entertaining.
I don’t want to say Citadel is a complete failure. It’s a bit confusing, but not really boring. It’s not badly made from a technical viewpoint, and the performances are solid. But…it could have been so much better.