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Entries in Action (55)



Movies that aim low are hard to review. Critics criticize films that are loud, overblown and silly, but if that’s its intention, does it become something we should praise? It’s all about perspective when it comes to movies like this week’s Lockout. Some will destroy it for its clichés and unoriginality while others will check their brains at the door and just have fun with it. Although I certainly recognize its problems and all around derivativeness, I’m in the latter group of critics. Lockout is good dumb fun, plain and simple.

The movie is set in 2079 and stars Guy Pearce as Snow, an ex-CIA operative who is finding himself in trouble with the law, accused of conspiracy to commit espionage against the United States. He knows such is not the case, but all evidence points to the contrary. The only thing that can save him is a briefcase that was left with his partner, Mace, played by Tim Plester. Unfortunately, Mace is now locked up in a new maximum security prison floating in space called M.S. One where he is kept in a state of stasis, just like all prisoners imprisoned there. However, all hell is about to break loose. It turns out that the President’s daughter, Emilie Warnock, played by Maggie Grace, is onboard to ensure that no corruption is taking place. When she pulls a prisoner out of stasis to interview him, he grabs a guard’s gun and escapes, freeing all of the other prisoners in the process, including his brother and ringleader, Alex, played by Vincent Regan. Due to the situation, the government makes Snow an offer. Get in there and rescue Emilie and he can go free. Seeing it also as an opportunity to find Mace, locate the briefcase and prove his innocence, he accepts.

The film, as so many have described it, is basically Escape from New York in space. In that movie, the main character was tasked with finding the President in a futuristic prison setting. Here it’s the President’s daughter. The protagonists in both films are strong, skilled in combat and have smart mouths. They’re more interested in cracking quips than cracking skulls. Fans who rejoiced over the stalled plans to remake Escape from New York may let out an exhaustive grown over Lockout because the two are so similar, it may as well come out from behind is poorly veiled “original concept” cover and own up to ripping off that beloved cult classic.

But those semantics should be left to the studios to fight out. For moviegoers, all that matters is if it’s any good or not. Luckily, it is. This is exactly what one should expect from a movie at this time of year, about a month before the summer movie season kicks off with The Avengers. It doesn’t do anything to blow you away, but it works as a serviceable time killer until the heavy hitters arrive. It’s a ridiculous movie to be sure—I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure it broke about a dozen unbreakable laws of science—but that’s part of its charm. It never takes itself too seriously and embraces its silliness.

This leads to some welcome comedy in a film that could have otherwise been a grim, violent tale. Guy Pearce, one of our most underappreciated and talented actors, is wonderful here, striking the perfect balance between machismo and playful shenanigans. He takes a role that could have been capably filled by any moderately talented actor and makes it his own, obviously having fun playing a man who knows he’s unstoppable. His evil counterparts are just as fantastic as they spout off intimidating, yet humorous one-liners while they terrorize the workers on the floating spacecraft. As one might expect, a romance between Snow and Emilie is tacked onto the film, but it’s so lazily thrown in there that it barely exists at all and does little to detract from the fun of what you’re watching.

It’s easy to criticize a movie for being dumb, but it’s far more fulfilling to embrace its absurdity and go with it, especially if the film itself is aware of what it’s doing. I was able to do that with Lockout. Sure, its stupidity sometimes borders on condescending, like through its onscreen textual introductions of every character and location (including some that are introduced multiple times, just in case someone forgot that the giant floating complex in space was the prison), but it would be hypocritical of me to praise the film for its unabashed idiocy while simultaneously criticizing it for the very same thing. Lockout is pure escapist entertainment and there’s nothing wrong with that. Most who watch about it will probably forget about it in another month or so, but in the moment, it’s a fun ride.

Lockout receives 3.5/5


The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, the film adaptation of the best selling young adult novel by Suzanne Collins, has been shrouded in secrecy. Little was revealed about the film leading up to its release and critics were even asked to sign non-disclosure agreements before watching the film, meaning if they broke the embargo set by the studio, they could be punished in court. It’s a little extreme to be sure, especially since it isn’t anything particularly special. It’s a good film, but the hype it has garnered is a bit much, though if audience reaction at my screening is any indication, it will be a huge hit.

The film is set in a dystopian sci-fi future where every year, 24 kids from the ages of 12 to 18 are thrown together in an arena to battle to the death, one girl and one boy from each of the 12 districts. In District 12 lives Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman who has been forced to act as the head of the household. Ever since her father died, her mother has been useless and she has had to take care of her younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields). Well, Primrose has just hit the age of 12 and for the first time ever is eligible for what they call The Hunger Games. As fortune (or misfortune) would have it, Primrose is selected, but before she is taken off, Katniss volunteers herself in Primrose’s place. So along with the selected male in her district, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), she heads off to compete, knowing full well she may be approaching her final days.

For film buffs who are familiar with Kinji Fukasaku’s masterful Battle Royale (which is also, coincidentally, based on a book), The Hunger Games is going to seem mighty familiar. The premise is more or less the same—kids are thrown in a remote area and must fight to the death until only one remains—but tonally, they are quite different. The Hunger Games injects more drama and heart into its runtime than Battle Royale, though that doesn’t necessarily make it superior. For what both are trying to accomplish, Battle Royale does a better job.

The Hunger Games’ greatest strength is its individual moments. It competently builds the characters to the point where you care about them not just because they’re too young to die, but also because of their motivations, selfless actions and realistic emotions. Katniss, for instance, is obviously fearful for her life, but doesn’t want to kill anybody, though she knows she’ll have to. When she runs into Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a young girl of only 12 or 13, she befriends her only to watch her die shortly after. It’s a powerful scene and both actors sell it well. There are more instances like this too, but the problem is that these individual moments don’t ripple throughout the entire movie. After Rue’s passing, she’s never mentioned again and the trauma of such an event is never truly felt in Katniss’ behavior or actions. The respectable and affecting drama is too often traded for cheap thrills, like a late chase through the woods by a pack of wild beasts.

At its core, though, The Hunger Games is a commentary on society, on our bloodlust and our fascination with watching people destroy themselves via reality television. This is where the film works best, even if the ideas have already been explored more successfully in the ahead-of-its-time action film, The Running Man or, in a more dramatic sense, The Truman Show. With our idolization of people like Charlie Sheen, our fascination with shows like Celebrity Rehab and even our obsession with bloody, violent sports like boxing and mixed martial arts, it’s hard not to feel like we’re heading in the direction of pitting people against each other to the death for entertainment. The fact that the film is rated PG-13 is only another indication of our downhill slide because it doesn’t shy away from its brutal violence. Kids are hacked up with machetes, shot with arrows and punctured by spears. Showing blood used to be enough to garner an R rating, but blood splashes up through the screen here while little children are shown dead or dying. While I hesitate to call the violence overly gratuitous (this is no Saw film, after all), the sheer amount of it is startling given its rating, yet it works in favor of the film’s commentary.

Given its grim set-up that all children must die but one, which should lead to conflicting emotions and, ultimately, rich drama, a late movie twist feels a little bit like a cop out; if not a cop out (since they did, in all fairness, set this turn of events up fairly early), then a missed dramatic opportunity. This miss is indicative of the film as a whole. The set-ups aren’t followed through on and the dramatic repercussions of experiencing such a terrible circumstance are left unexplored. Still, those aforementioned individual scenes pack a punch, even if the movie as a whole doesn’t.

The Hunger Games receives 3.5/5


John Carter

Money doesn’t make a movie. A big budget film can still be hackneyed and derivative (see Avatar for that) and a movie with a low budget can be wonderfully imaginative with richly drawn characters and thought provoking subject matter (like Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, which was made on a budget of well under one million dollars). This week’s John Carter, with its purported budget of around $250 million, is a clear example of the former. No amount of money could save its abysmal script, uninteresting and hopelessly convoluted story, bad acting and generic action. If early predictions are correct, John Carter could end up being one of the biggest flops of the year, perhaps of all time. Based on what I’ve seen, such failure wouldn’t only be justified. It would be worth cheering over.

The story revolves around the titular John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) a Civil War veteran who one day stumbles upon a fabled cave. There he finds a medallion which transports him to Mars. Upon arriving, he is greeted by a species of tall green creatures led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), who is initially interested in John’s ability to jump vast distances (due to the different gravitational pull of the planet), but soon finds his rebellion untrustworthy. John becomes their prisoner, but soon a war breaks out between the planet’s different factions and he is called upon by Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to help stop Matai Shang (Mark Strong), the leader of a race called the Therns, who, I don’t know, control the planet’s destiny or something.

As with most movies that are too complicated for their own good, it’s not difficult to get the gist of what is happening in John Carter—an ordinary man is placed in an extraordinary situation and must help defend Mars’ inhabitants from an approaching evil—but specifics are difficult to decipher. Much of this is due to the fact that it’s far too hard to even distinguish between characters, much less figure out their motivations. The aforementioned tall green species, for example, all have four arms, tusks growing out of their heads and nearly identical skin tones. I’m sure you could spot tiny differences from alien to alien, but the baffling story will most likely keep you from caring enough to do so.

Such a lack of imagination permeates not just in those creatures’ design, but through the entire film. Although Mars is indeed nothing more than surface rocks in the real world, such bleak, dreary visuals are unbecoming for a science fiction film. When Carter first arrives, his surrounding environment looks more like a Western than anything else, only without trees and with a redder hue. There are aliens other than those generic green people on the planet too, but they’re nothing more than humans with tattoos on their faces and silly costumes that look like they were made out of plastic. In a sci-fi world set on Mars, there needs to be more. It’s too simple to make half of the creatures human and the other half humanlike, only with two more arms and green skin.

Such blandness begs the question: where did that $250 million go? The effects are good, though not always effective, and most of the actors aren’t recognized enough to demand too high of paychecks. It shows too. Taylor Kitsch doesn’t have the chops to carry a big action film such as this and he annoyingly speaks in a whispered monotone, similar to Jack Bauer in TV’s 24, which South Park so brilliantly lampooned in Season 11’s “The Snuke.” His love interest, played by Collins, is similarly poor. If you look through her filmography, you’ll see that she’s been in well known films like Bug, The Number 23 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but chances are you won’t remember her in any of them. Something tells me there’s a reason for that.

Twenty minutes into John Carter, I was ready for it to end, but then it went on for another two hours. That’s a long time to sit through a movie with almost nothing going for it, including its shoddily up-converted 3D effects that remind us, even after Scorsese utilized the format so beautifully in Hugo, that it’s little more than a cash grabbing gimmick and rarely useful in the telling of a story. Simply put, John Carter lacks the vitality of the science fiction genres most beloved films. It’s a waste of time of money.

John Carter receives 1/5


Act of Valor

There’s something discomforting about the new action film, Act of Valor. At its core, it’s an action thriller starring (interestingly enough) actual active duty U.S. Navy SEALs that aims to be an authentic experience, but hidden under all the explosions and gunfire is a recruitment video. There’s no denying it, so I might as well say it: Act of Valor is a propaganda film. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you. Propaganda films have existed for quite a long time. As cherished as it is today, Casablanca was initially thought of as a propaganda film. The great Charlie Chaplin dabbled in propaganda with his Nazi satire, The Great Dictator. The 1942 best picture winner, Mrs. Miniver, similarly hoped to rally the support of a nation at a time of war. But Act of Valor is different.

Mrs. Miniver, for example, was an even affair. For all its patriotism, the real mark of its power came in the sadness it exemplified. It never shied away from the atrocities of war. The main character’s step daughter is shot and killed in the movie. Her house is destroyed. She maintains a constant level of fear as her husband and older son go off to fight, unaware if she will ever see them again. When bombs drop all around them one night as they lay in their bunker, the younger children wake up screaming and crying and all she can do is hold them and pray they make it through the night. It showed what war could do to a person, a family, a neighborhood and, thus, a country. Act of Valor is the exact opposite. If anything, it portrays violence as exciting and the soldiers in a godly light, as if no harm could ever come of them, a dangerous idea to be sending out to young minds who may end up watching this.

Take, for instance, early in the movie when a soldier is shot in the head, but doesn’t die. Later, one is shot with a rocket that hits him in his stomach and hurls him back towards a wall, but it turns out to be a dud and he brushes it off. Only one soldier death occurs in the entire film and it’s a heroic death at that, sacrificing himself to save others. I dare not question the abilities of our armed forces; such a question is beside the point. The fact remains that the atrocities of war—the pain, the hardship, the struggle—is left largely unexplored. Despite that one death and the constant hail of bullets, Act of Valor never accurately portrays the dangers and risks involved with military work. There’s a lot of nobility to joining the armed forces and my hat is off to those who do, but there’s also a lot of ugliness accompanying it that is absent in the film.

Sitting beside me during the screening was a young, enthusiastic critic and if his reaction is any indication, Act of Valor will be seen as fun and indeed, the action scenes are pretty spectacular, but that’s precisely the point. This shouldn’t be a fun movie. It should be gritty, harsh and sometimes difficult to watch. Instead, its violence is stylish and meant to be cool, a far cry from the harsh reality of such situations. Through all its macho posturing and overt patriotism, Act of Valor is nothing more than a glossed up action movie with a recruitment angle.

But to pretend I wasn’t entertained would be disingenuous. The action scenes are incredible and, if nothing else, the film accurately (at least to my knowledge) portrays the operations that these soldiers carry out (without the repercussions, of course). It’s a contradictory compliment given my previous criticisms, I know, but the film is shot well and it will undoubtedly get the adrenaline pumping in your body, though it’s not without its technical faults.

Because the filmmakers used actual active duty U.S. Navy SEALs, the acting is expectedly weak. Some of the dialogue exchanges are painful to sit through and a personal bond meant to be built between two of the soldiers probably worked well on paper, but is worthless when executed by two people without the acting skills necessary to pull it off. There’s also a problem with perspective throughout the movie’s action scenes when it jumps from the standard filmmaking perspective to a first person one. Most of the soldiers hold their guns up on their right, but they are always shown on the left side of the screen when watching the action through their eyes. It’s a laughable and horribly amateurish mistake.

Joining the armed forces and fighting for our freedom is undoubtedly a heroic deed, but the consequences can be deadly. You wouldn’t know that from watching Act of Valor, though. This thing is so insincere, younger, fragile minds may get the wrong impression of what it means to fight for our country. It’s one of the most altruistic things you can do, yes, but it’s not without its downsides. Although I am still recommending Act of Valor because of its well staged action scenes, I do it with the caveat that viewers are aware of its dishonest propagandist intent.

Act of Valor receives 3/5


Safe House

It’s always a pleasure to watch Denzel Washington, even when he’s in a movie that fails to live up to his screen presence. If anything, his mediocre films, like Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Book of Eli, only strengthen that argument. He’s so good in all of them that he makes them better than they deserve to be. Still, one can’t help but long for his glory days of starring in bona fide winners, like Man on Fire and Training Day. His latest, entitled Safe House, isn’t a return to form, but it’s a step in the right direction, easily a notch above his last few efforts, but far below the quality of film he deserves to be in.

Washington plays Tobin Frost, an ex-CIA traitor who has been leaking important government information to a number of various parties for years. He has just been caught and transported to a government safe house in South Africa, which is cared for by an up and coming agent named Matt Weston, played by Ryan Reynolds. However, the safe house is quickly breached by an unknown party and Matt soon finds himself in possession of Tobin and tasked with bringing him in.

Safe House has a pretty simple story, though it tries to cover it with talk of government espionage, encrypted files and the like. It’s little more than an action movie where the characters have to move from Point A to Point B while dodging gunfire and participating in car chases. There aren’t any surprises to be found, including an eventual revelation that someone inside the CIA may be corrupt, but it moves forward at a brisk pace, occasionally stopping for some expositional dialogue, and always manages to entertain.

This lack of story development may be frustrating for some, but in this case, its simplicity is its gain. Many films with government conspiracies and espionage get bogged down in their own confusing narrative, but Safe House doesn’t, instead focusing more on what the characters are doing rather than why they are doing it. With two impressive performances from its leads, including Reynolds who has come a long way since his goofy comedy days, this focus works. Reynolds and Washington manage to keep the audience gripped, even after they’ve lost interest in the overall goal of the film.

Where it suffers is where many action films these days do: its persistent use of shaky cam. When things get hectic in Safe House, so does the camera, which leads to disorientation and the occasional inability to tell what’s going on. Ever since the Bourne movies, this technique has been a go-to for many filmmakers, but it rarely works. Although it may give more of a sense of actually being there, which is a benefit for some movies (most notably “found footage” films like Cloverfield), it prohibits the audience from achieving maximum enjoyment. In Safe House, it’s a hindrance.

With an untested director behind the camera, this ill-advised decision isn’t surprising (though cinematographer Oliver Wood, who also framed the aforementioned Bourne movies, does what he can to make it work). With his insistence on the technique and off-putting lighting filled with dark, dank hues, it’s difficult to say whether Daniel Espinosa has the chops to be a big time filmmaker, but at least he chose the right movie to make his American debut. It’s nothing so special to be out of his talent range, but nothing so dumb that he will be written off. Safe House rests squarely in between. It’s not the smartest movie of the year, nor the most exciting, but given its February release, it’s enough.

Safe House receives 3.5/5