Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

This is an interesting case of a sequel. It isn't a complete reboot as it stars the same lead actor as the same character, but for all intents and purposes it's ignoring the events of the first film. I'm not even sure if it contradicts the events of that installment, but that doesn't really matter here. All you have to know is Nicolas Cage is back as Johnny Blaze- a biker who made a deal with the devil (Ciaran Hinds) for his soul and now he loses control and turns into biker-demon named Ghost Rider. It's ridiculous, but hey, so is getting bit by the radioactive spider or turning into the big green rage-monster.

Something I've always been impressed about with sequels is how when they are done well, they are really able to feel like more accomplishing stories. You don't have to worry about introductions and origin stories, instead you can just leap right into the action and spectacle of it all. Spirit of Vengeance is definitely not concerned with having to justify any familiarity with the previous film and is instead concerned with just pure lunacy and insanity courtesy of its directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. They are the edgy and over-the-top filmmakers who are responsible for the Crank series and Gamer. 

If you haven't seen Crank: High Voltage, then you are probably missing out on one of the most bizarre satires since... well I'm honestly having trouble thinking of a comparison. Thanks to the various Internet communites, Neveldine/Taylor have formed an awareness about their name/work/brand/etc. They walk a fine line between trashy fun and trash. Therefore, their films walk a fine line with my own sensibilities, but the fact remains that this film is a thinly written action set-piece extravaganza that can be happily added to the Youtube clips of Nicolas Cage losing his shit in everything from Vampire's Kiss to The Wicker Man.

So, to call this film bad, well that might be something that the filmmakers take as a compliment. That's pretty much all there is to say about a movie where the protagonist pees fire.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Safe House

The type of thrillers that "Safe House" resembles, aren't that uncommon. They have a distinct visual style and pace while they are full to the top with some amazing talent in front of the camera. People whom I've talked to have personally said that they don't see much difference between something like this and say a movie from earlier this year like Haywire. They feel that at the end of the day- a bunch of people pull guns on each other, stuff goes 'boom', and you have your quick movie-entertainment fix for the week. Yet I see a world of difference between a movie like Haywire or The Grey and others like Act of Valor or Safe House. I think it comes down to the fact that this "style" I've mentioned, needs to be used for something more than just providing eye candy. When it starts to meld, mix, and mesh with all the other aspects of filmmaking and storytelling that are available at the filmmaker's fingertips, then you have films that are more worth your time than others.

This is director Daniel Espinosa's fourth film and his first American one after the huge success of Sweden's Easy Money (2010). From a cinematographic and editing standpoint this movie is flashy, quick, moody, glossy, and during action scenes the visuals are especially popping out at you and lending itself to sensory overload. This has got that handicam/visual realism that pretty much means everyone who talks about the movie is required to reference the word "Bourne". I actually found myself immediately thinking of Tony Scott and the visual reference point only stayed in my head longer because the lead of this film, Denzel Washington, is a regular collaborator of Scott. Unfortunately with Safe House, you have this flashy looking movie, but with such a shallow and basic plot, this quickly resmembles the lesser films of the Scott brothers filmography where everything looks cinematic, but it's tedious and uninvolving to watch because of the said weaknesses in plot.

The film follows Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a CIA agent in South Africa who runs a safe house. When a U.S. black ops unit drops by with their prisoner, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), the safe house is attacked as Frost and Weston go on the run and try to stay a step ahead of their pursuers while figuring out who in the CIA might have given up their location. Washington is such as master-act that even when the films are at their weakest he is capable of adding layers of watchability just by the factor of his involved performance. No matter what the role, Washington's portrayals seem so committed and this film is no exception. Ever since Training Day casted him against type, we've seen Washington take on more villainous roles, with American Gangster probably being the best example after his Oscar win for the other film. To have Washington play a manipulative villain could present a problem in that he is treading over previously notable territory from his career. In the end, Tobin Frost feels like if Alonzo Harris worked for the CIA, but that is more a comment on the script than Washington's portrayal.

Reynolds is able to carry a film very well, but he has been in action-blockbusters that haven't received the highest acclaim (last year's Green Lantern). At the end of the day, the characters they are playing are just as unique as this film. They are all style with no substance. Safe House is fun to watch, but provides very little food for thought.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Stephen Daldry is a very divisive director. His movies are all very acclaimed and are constantly being nominated for awards or at the least they are mentioned as in contention. Even then, in both conversation with my peers and on message boards or comment threads, the mention of his name usually leads to a discussion about the quality of his filmography. "Didn't he make that movie about the boy dancing?" "Wait, that drama about the three women across multiple eras?" "Huh, you mean that holocaust film?" His films are all dealing with such complex material and to try and adapt it and have it cinematically make sense, I'm a huge supporter of his. His adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is as daring and I think as successful as his other works, but it was something that I don't see myself passionately defending. I've mentioned this before, but he makes films that I can only see myself liking and before I'd recommend them to someone, I'd have to get a better idea of their tastes. I mean, last I checked, this movie was hovering around a 50% on Rotten Tomatoes with both audiences and critics.

So what did I like so much about it? Well, to start off, the one thing that I didn't like about it was how we were introduced to the protagonist in the first act. For the first half-hour, I just kep saying, "this kid is so damn weird." I couldn't understand him and I for sure didn't know what to make of him. Was he just very eccentric and hyper? Was he mentally ill? Is he overly-theatrical because the character or the actor is one of those theater-people who scream and make funny faces? Even before the trauma of losing his father, Oskar (Thomas Horn) just seemed off. The result was that I found him annoying and I was unsure of how he made sense of the world. Maybe this was something I should've known going in, but I didn't catch on in the movie until it was mentioned, but the boy has aspergers. After that was said, it actually helped me better understand the context of why Oskar was the way he was.

Once the movie moved past that hurdle of the first half hour, the film became a profound story of grief. Maybe I was innoculated to it all or maybe Oskar's motivations started to make sense when I understood the gap between his social skills and his intelligence. He was no longer awkward and instead he seemed like he was struggling to understand, but he was also scared of his journey and that made him all the more fascinating to me. Having a first-time actor portray the part was a daring move, but for such an unique character, it all somehow worked. Whenever Horn's inexperience showed through, I just thought it was all a part of Oskar's own growing loss of comfort as he went around the city trying to finish one last "game" with his father.

It helps that there are such strong supporting performances. Tom Hanks is lovable as Oskar's father, Sandra Bullock is enitrely believable as his grieving mother, Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright are both somber in a crucial role as a couple with a connection to Oskar's family, and Max Von Sydow steals the show with his inspired, superb, and emotive role as the renter.

Oskar is dealing with so much that after a while, what might be seen as quirkiness is folded into how the character is mourning. He isn't sure how to mourn and that made the film all the more painful to sit through. In this case, I don't mean "pain" as a descriptor for lack of quality, but as an emotional response to the uneasiness of it all as the film explores that very pain in its story. This isn't an easy narrative to digest and it's rather depressing. Where others have looked at this film as an offbeat adventure of a kid roaming through New York City in the wake of a tragedy, I see it as an exploration of the dark reality and relationship that films take on when they address real-world grief.

Many question how films can be made about true events like 9/11 or the Holocaust where the lead character walks out alive and content because how does that provide comfort for the dead? I therefore find myself comparing something like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to Schindler's List. In neither case do I see those examples as ignoring tragedy. Osckar Schindler can barely cope with the fact that it took him so long to do something, but as Itzhak Stern points out at the end of that film, at least he did in fact do something. Oskar Schell discovers that his father wants him to move on and I frankly think that is what the loved ones of anybody who has passed away would want for their friends and family- to live on and persevere. That is why I think Daldry's film is deserving of the praise, mixed or affirmed, that it has received. It doesn't ignore a tragedy, but it instead takes on an attitude and sentiment of grief with great affection. Where one sees simple storytelling devices to offer healing where there is nothing, I see a simple storytelling device that reminds us to offer healing to each other to at least achieve something.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


This must look like an exercise in self-pity. This film did horrible at the box office and was panned by both critics and audiences alike. Why did I put it on my Netflix que? Well I actually did have a defense prepared, but Now that I look at it, I will admit that it is all a crappy excuse to probably just indulge in my curiousity. 

The script originally was on the Black List, probably because of its daring concept- a boy (Taylor Lautner) notices he is on a missing person's website and then realizes that his parents aren't who they say they are. From there, the film becomes a Bourne-style action-thriller. The trailer looked bad, but then I saw the cast that was assembled (Alfred Molina, Jason Isaacs, Maria Bello, Sigourney Weaver, Michael Nyqvist) and then John Singleton was mentioned as the director. That instantly piqued my interest. I may have only liked his debut film (Boyz n the Hood), but the strength of that alone would propel my interest (and it ended up being a mistake, perhaps I should apply this only to directors who've had a string of hits and then misses like say Olvier Stone?). So far so good/justifiable... and then there came the major factor- the film's lead.

I've yet to see a Twilight movie, but considering the other well talented directors, actors, cinematographers, composers, etc. that have worked on those films, it'd be absurd that one should just write someone off because of their association with something(and I really shouldn't as someone who plans to break into the industry, but I speak as an audience member here, not as a worker). Robert Pattinson wasn't bad in Water for Elephants or Remember Me (the scripts were the chief problem with those films) and Cosmopolis looks good. Kristen Stewart was fantastic in Adventureland although I've yet to see Welcome to the Rileys or The Runaways. So that leaves this Taylor Lautner. Well, it turns out he's bad, really bad. Not even trying to reach for much of a metaphor here, but he sucks the non-existant soul out of this movie. He is childish and annoying in a overly-angsty confused-teenager sort of way. He overdoes it and by "it", I mean every damn possible aspect of this character's being.

The filmmakers don't help much. This film is shot in a stylized manner that doesn't really befit the material or at least the limited attention that is payed to it. John Singleton keeps it simple and settles for lame choices in how this movie is handled as opposed to the risk-taking of directors like Paul Greengrass with The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum or Joe Wright in Hanna. The script has a ridiculous start to it (am I the only one that thinks the girl played by Lily Collins is acting really creepy in how she introduced the inciting event?), but many action films do. It's all about how it's handled and how believable you want to treat it. The moment ends up just passing by leaving its awkward feeling with you as the movie goes on.

I'm going to hurry up and write another entry so this can get further pushed down the page.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Movies Watched in April

All recent releases...

The Adventures of Tintin (2011, Steven Spielberg)
The Five-Year Engagement (2012, Nicholas Stoller)
In Time (2011, Andrew Niccol)
The Three Musketeers (2011, Paul W.S. Anderson)
Young Adult (2011, Jason Reitman)