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Entries in Action (55)

Thursday
Jul152010

Inception

It would be underselling it to call The Dark Knight a success. This time two years ago, the world was readying itself for the return of Batman and chomping at the bits. Expectations were high, yet, somehow, they were met. Destined to go down as one of the greatest cinematic experiences of all time, The Dark Knight changed the way we look at movies. Well, prepare to have that view altered again, this time by Inception, director Christopher Nolan’s ambitious, mind-bending experiment that ranks among the best of the year.

However, explaining why may prove difficult. Having just finished it, with its story behind me and an analysis before me, I think it may be better to just skip the plot synopsis altogether because discovery is better left up to the viewer and, well, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Still, these key things must be understood. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are extractors, men who dive into the minds of their targets and steal information while they sleep. To do so, they need an architect, found in the form of Ariadne (Ellen Page), a person who can construct the dream to make it seem real to the target. Their latest job takes them into the mind of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), but this one is different from the rest. Instead of stealing a memory, they will be implanting one through a process called inception.

In my excitement for this movie, I had a dream. I dreamt I was sitting in a theater and the lights were dimming. The title card appeared and I was ready. I was about to watch Inception. I had been waiting months for it and could hardly contain myself. As it began, however, the crowd became angrily loud. Babies were crying, illiterate kids were asking parents what the subtitles were saying and moviegoers with no etiquette spoke loudly so as to disrupt my enjoyment. I soon awoke and realized how bizarre my dream world had been. The theater was misshapen and it contained no walls, with hallways stretching to the left and right as far as I could see. But it felt so real.

Inception uses this as the foundation for its story. At one point, Cobb tells Ariadne, “It’s only when we wake up that something seems strange.” He explains that in our slumber, our minds play tricks on us and we are unable to distinguish between real and imaginary. This idea is so infused in the movie that the questions it raises linger on well after the credits roll. Cobb has demons of his own and goes into his own dreamlike state to visit a lost love. But is it real? Are those feelings we feel when we’re dreaming—fear, anxiety, happiness, sadness—authentic? If they feel real, who’s to say they aren’t?

While those are important thematic questions, I don’t want to get too philosophical. Inception is an action picture through and through. From a rotating room to a zero gravity battle to a James Bond like ski slope shootout, this film has it all. You’ll see things you never thought were possible, or even thought of at all. You’ll follow the characters through multiple layers of dreams, each stacked on another like a poker chip, but it never gets too confusing. It’s a thinking man’s action picture, which is a breath of fresh air in a summer diluted with idiotic action fare.

If there’s one problem with the film, it would be the lack of emotional connection to what’s unfolding onscreen. So much time is spent on the twisting story that it forgets to provide us with a reason to care. But when your movie is as smart, exciting and unique as this, it’s easy to look past it. Nolan directs with a careful eye, always shooting for practical effects over digital when possible, and masterfully juggles the overlapping dream worlds while the more than capable cast give outstanding performances. All of this adds up to a fantastic, bizarre, imaginative masterpiece of cinema. I guarantee you’ve never seen anything quite like Inception.

Inception receives 5/5

Wednesday
Jul142010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Nicolas Cage has had a bumpy ride. Never mind his personal life and tax problems. His cinematic endeavors alone have yielded mixed results. Raising Arizona, Con Air, Face/Off, Adaptation, all have showcased his considerable skill as an actor in a variety of ways. But the last few years have shown a dip in his ability to perform. National Treasure, Ghost Rider, Bangkok Dangerous and the atrocious Next have rounded out his recent portfolio. However, he seems to be making a comeback. With his darker, comedic turns in movies like The Bad Lieutenant and Kick-Ass, he is once again proving himself as more than capable of carrying a film. His latest movie, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice isn’t quite what you’d expect next from a re-blossoming career such as his, but its good hearted nature, interesting premise and sly humor make it worth a look.

Cage plays Balthazar, a sorcerer who has been on the search for the one known as the Prime Merlinean for centuries. On happenstance, he finds him in physics nerd Dave, played by Jay Baruchel, and takes it upon himself to teach him the ways of sorcery, explaining that sorcerers can use their brains to their fullest extent, which explains why physics comes so easy to him. He is told that he holds the power that will help him defeat Horvath, played by Alfred Molina, who plans on breaking free the evil sorcerers of the world who have been trapped inside of a wooden doll for hundreds of years. Despite his reluctance, Dave agrees to help, though he finds himself sidetracked by the beautiful Becky, played by Teresa Palmer, and unwittingly drags her into the fray.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a movie that gets by on its charm alone. It’s a marginal movie that verges on the brink of self-destruction with problems persisting throughout its runtime, but I found myself smiling and laughing nevertheless. My brain says no, but the small child within me says yes. Chalk this one up as a guilty pleasure.

Such praise may come off as negligible, but I couldn’t be happier. See, I’ve already discredited John Turteltaub as a competent action director. After two unwatchable National Treasure movies with action scenes that have the same effect as a shot of NyQuil, I didn’t expect to find much pleasure here, but I did. While still not particularly memorable, Turteltaub is getting better, although much of the action hinges on special effects with which the actors unrealistically interact.

Baruchel in particular is unconvincing, especially during the dragon chase scene midway through. He has a niche type of talent that fits certain types of movies, like this year’s She’s Out of My League, but he has a tough time pretending to be scared of something that isn’t truly there. It’s good for him then that he’s allowed to venture into other territories away from the action. When not screaming at mythological beasts or throwing his arms around to conjure up plasma balls, he gives a winning performance that makes us care about him and root for him to get the girl. He steps away from the whiny, pity me personality he has inhabited in past films and shows that he can carry some charisma when given the chance.

Still, this is a kids oriented movie, complete with inconsistencies and juvenile humor, which is to say it’s harmless. Perhaps I was in a good mood, or perhaps it was due to the humorous nods to other Disney franchises—the homage to Fantasia (which this is very loosely based on) was fantastic—but I latched onto The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and never let go. I try to walk into every movie with my mind set to neutral, but realistically, one can’t help but have predetermined thoughts on whether or not a movie will be good. In this instance, my expectations and the actual outcome did not match.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice receives 3/5

Friday
Jul092010

Predators

The Predator is one of the most iconic creatures in science fiction history. Show a picture of it and even those who haven’t yet met it call it by name. On the page, the Predator has battled with Batman, Superman, the Terminator and even Judge Dredd. It has starred in two full length video games facing off against the beasts from Ridley Scott’s Alien. But it began its killing spree on film in 1987 with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Despite a bad sequel (Predator 2) and two abysmal crossover films (Alien vs. Predator, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem), the Predator has stuck around based solely off the strength of the original film. The creature’s lasting ability is telling. Now, finally, after 23 years we have a sequel fit to carry on the legacy in Predators.

At the beginning of the film, we meet Royce (Adrien Brody) who is free-falling in mid-sleep. Luckily, he wakes up and is able to open his parachute, though he does so a little too late and lands with a thud in the middle of a jungle. On the ground he runs into seven other survivors, including Edwin (Topher Grace), Isabelle (Alice Braga), Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), Stans (Walter Goggins), Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) and Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali). None of them know how or why they got there and only remember seeing a light before passing out. Forced to work together, they head off to seek answers, but realize none are to be found when they run into the Predators.

Much like the transition from Alien to Aliens, Predators is less a cold, calculated study on terror and more an action movie extravaganza. While Predator wasn’t exactly a horror show, it nevertheless took its time to build suspense and flesh out its characters. This time around it's run and gun. Plus, there was only one creature. Here, there are many. Rather than the scary thought that they could be lurking anywhere, you know from the get-go that they are everywhere.

It doesn’t quite have the same effect as the original, but it doesn’t intend to. Director Nimród Antal seems to be having quite a deal of fun delivering mindless action and the inherent cheesiness of classic action hero one-liners. The only two previous films of note to Antal’s name are the thriller Vacancy and the action picture Armored, both of which lacked the thrills and excitement required from their respective genres. However, he seems to have refined his craft and delivers well staged action scenes complete with both aforementioned traits, even if they do come off as a bit derivative.

Truth be told, this is another one of those “dumb fun” action pictures that have been flooding our screens lately. It isn’t nearly as refined as the original and fails to live up to the quality expected of a summer tent-pole release. In this instance, it’s because of the mediocre writing and some questionable casting. Topher Grace as the comic relief aside, Adrien Brody doesn’t fit comfortably in the role of the tough guy archetype. He spouts tough guy phrases, stands in tough guy positions and talks in a tough guy whisper, but the tough guy persona still seems missing, especially considering he’s working opposite renowned tough guy Danny Trejo.

It's a problem because Predators hinges on its actors and action due to a lackluster story. Outside of the kills, it’s impossible to spoil this movie because nothing really happens. The characters run around the jungle and come into contact with some Predators, some from both factions are killed and then it ends. Somewhere within all of that, the film fits in an assortment of clichés that really drag down the experience, like when one character pulls out a picture of his children to show the group, thus sealing his fate, and a silly, random swordfight between a human and a Predator that, for all intents and purposes, ends in a draw.

Predators isn’t going to change the way we look at action movies, nor is it going to bring a choir of praise as the original did, but it provides a fun, swift adrenaline kick that will surely be appreciated by moviegoers. It may not match the 1987 classic, but it’s certainly the best since.

Predators receives 3/5

Wednesday
Jun232010

Knight and Day

Last week, Toy Story 3 was presented to the world to almost complete adulation, sans a not too surprising negative review from the critic everyone loves to hate, Armond White. In front of that marvelous film was a short from Pixar called Day and Night, which has more thought and ingenuity put into it than this week’s film reversely titled Knight and Day. That in no way makes it a bad movie, however. On the contrary, it’s a blast, a summer popcorn flick that asks you to check your brain at the door. Like the recent Prince of Persia, I was happy to oblige.

The film stars Cameron Diaz as June, a woman on her way home to attend her sister’s wedding. As a gift to her soon-to-be-wed sis, she has been restoring her father’s old GTO hoping that her sister will love it as much as he did. When she arrives at the airport, she bumps into Roy, played by Tom Cruise, a rogue agent on the run from the FBI after being set up by his former partner. June doesn’t yet know this, however, and steps foot onto the plane, unaware of what is about to happen. In the bathroom, she musters up the courage to make a move on Roy only to walk out and find everybody dead, including the two pilots. After safely crash landing in a field, June is drugged and wakes up in her apartment the next day. She thinks she has seen the last of Roy, but he keeps showing up and eventually drags her into his predicament.

There’s more story, something having to do with a battery that can light up entire cities, code named “zephyr,” but what really matters is what I’ve detailed above. Where the two go and why seems unimportant compared to what they do there. The wild action and witty vocal jabs they take at each other are more than enough to please, even if the story seems a bit redundant of other similar pseudo spy comedies like Mr. & Mrs. Smith or Get Smart.

Say what you want about Tom Cruise and his personal life, but the man is a fine actor. Outside of a few select performances, namely the recent Valkyrie, he has always found a way to impress the guys and woo the ladies. He emits vigor and likability at every turn and it’s never been as apparent as it is here. He isn’t merely a side character as he has been in other comedies, such as Tropic Thunder or his brief cameo appearance in Austin Powers in Goldmember. He’s allowed to do his own thing for nearly two hours and he’s great. He’s the kind of actor that can make us forget that what we’re seeing is mindless and surprise us with his versatile mix of humor and physical stunts.

It was the late film critic Pauline Kael who once wrote, “The movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we shouldn’t go at all.” Knight and Day perfectly encapsulates that sentiment. This is the type of movie where the hero stands in wide open spaces surrounded by FBI agents, yet never gets shot. It’s the type of movie where the characters continually make bad decisions. It’s the type of movie whose plot twists are contrived and predictable. It’s stupid, but it’s the right kind of stupid.

When I walked out of Knight and Day, I felt like I had just watched the big screen version of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Action Movies.” It’s not a poorly produced film—on the contrary, it’s quite good—but it’s hard to take this stuff seriously. This is fluff through and through, an entertaining time waster that will drift from my mind as the summer moves along. But rather than look towards the future, I’m reveling in the present and I’m finding that Knight and Day is easy to recommend.

Knight and Day receives 3.5/5

Friday
Jun112010

The A-Team

I’m an 80’s child. I grew up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ghostbusters. I know every word to the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right (To Party!).” I lived and breathed the “Super Mario Brothers” video game. But some things simply came before my time, namely “The A-Team” whose series was wrapping up by the time I emerged from the womb. Having never seen an episode, I don’t have much to compare it to, but the 2010 movie adaptation is nevertheless tons of fun.

The A-Team follows a group of Army Rangers who are wrongfully accused of a crime and put in prison, but quickly break out only to find themselves on the run to clear their names. There’s Hannibal (Liam Neeson), the fearless leader, Face (Bradley Cooper), the reckless womanizer, Murdock (Sharlto Copley), the mentally unstable pilot, and B.A. (Quinton Jackson), the tough looking pacifist who takes a vow of peace after his wrongful imprisonment.

Truth be told, it’s all rather confusing. There’s a prominent CIA figure named Lynch (Patrick Wilson) who may not be who he claims, the beautiful Charisa Sosa (Jessica Biel) who has had a romantic history with Face and is tracking him down, a group of black op mercenaries who are after the same thing as the A-team, and General Morrison (Gerald McRaney) who is the only person able to legitimize the group’s story and clear their names, but dies unexpectedly in an explosion. It’s another one of those movies where the story is not so much incoherent, but insubstantial. It exists solely as a string of flimsy reasons to get the team to the next wild action scene.

And wild they are. Too many action movies feel generic and outdated, but I saw the team do things here that I’ve never seen before, like fly a tank. Yeah, they fly a tank. It’s an action scene that is clearly over-the-top and unbelievable, but you won’t care because that’s the movie’s goal. It balances its somewhat realistic feeling with its crazy stunts almost perfectly. You’ll always anticipate what is coming next, but you'll never find yourself disappointed. It continually tops itself with more and more ludicrous events at every turn.

It seems pointless to say because it should be readily apparent by now, but this picture rarely takes itself seriously and when it does, well, those are the parts that don’t work out too well. The romance between Face and Charisa works only in the end and the speech from Hannibal on “fighting for what you believe in” is unnecessary. But these are slight moments in an otherwise outrageous movie.

The film’s success comes from many things, but it’s clear that much of it comes not only from the frantic, stylized direction from Joe Carnahan, but also from the terrific performances from the cast. Along with this and Taken, Liam Neeson has proven himself as an awesome action star, Copley shows he’s not a one hit wonder after District 9 and provides most of the film’s many laughs, and Bradley Cooper is charmingly brass as Face. The sole weak point of the group is Jackson, a UFC fighter, whose small previous film roles have not prepared him to carry this character. He’s not terrible, but his inexperience shows.

With a rocking soundtrack and outlandish action scenes, The A-Team emits fun for two hours straight. It may not be for everybody and I’m well aware that many will walk out feeling underwhelmed, but I found it to be a real standout in what has so far been a mediocre year for action movies.

The A-Team receives 4/5

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