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Friday
Feb032012

Chronicle

Chronicle came out of the blue. Trailers weren’t interesting, it starred no one of interest, it was coming from a first time film director and there was little buzz leading up to its release. Then it started getting positive reviews from early screenings. It sat at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for a while and still holds an impressive score as the reviews flood in. Some are giving it perfect, or near perfect, scores and heralding it as a wholly unique take on the found footage/superhero genres. I wouldn’t go that far—there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before—but it’s nevertheless a polished film with the occasional insight into real world problems, even if they’re never properly explored.

The film begins with Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), a high school teenager who deals with verbal and physical abuse from both his father at home and his fellow students at school. He lives under harsh conditions, has no friends, aside from his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), and his mother is dying from a crippling illness. Presumably due to these factors (but left somewhat vague, as most found footage movies tend to do), Andrew decides to film everything in his life. One night, after being forced to go to a party he doesn’t want to go to, he, Matt and popular kid Steve (Michael B. Jordan) find a hole in the ground. In the hole, they find a mysterious artifact that gives them superpowers. These powers are initially weak, but as they use them more and more, they grow and become stronger. They use them innocently enough at first, but things soon spiral out of control and Andrew begins to take matters into his own hands.

Chronicle’s strongest aspect is its portrayal of the three teenagers after they’ve discovered their powers because they do exactly as you would expect. They don’t just acknowledge the fact that they have these incredible abilities; they’re genuinely fascinated by them. They try to outdo each other in the spirit of male competition that all men seem to have wired into their DNA. They run around and use their powers to pull harmless pranks on people, laughing it up as they do. Andrew even uses them to gain some popularity in school by passing it off as magic and performing in front of the student body at the talent show. Popularity is still important to them and having stupid fun is at the top of their priority list. Despite the powers, these are teenagers through and through.

The problem is that no movie, especially one such as this, is going to maintain audience interest without some action and the road to that point is poorly developed. Those early moments set the stage for an angry, depressed teenager that is likely to snap, but that’s all they are: moments. At a short runtime of 84 minutes, Chronicle speeds through all that to get to its next stage and Andrew’s life makes a turnaround. He finally has friends, a sense of camaraderie he has longed for. Students genuinely like him and girls seem to be interested in him for the first time ever. An embarrassing event acts as the tipping point for his eventual evil ways, but the fact remains that you see more good things happen to him than bad. Chronicle acts as a commentary on parental abuse and school bullying, but it’s a meager offering at best and doesn’t go nearly in-depth enough.

If there’s one thing Chronicle does that’s different, it’s in its use of the found footage genre. It still succumbs to the usual pratfalls of the genre where characters needlessly grab the camera before doing anything and every important story point just so happens to be caught on film, but due to the characters’ ability to levitate objects, the main protagonist isn’t always stuck off-screen, heard only as a voice and rarely seen. Instead, he can position the camera to film him as he goes about his business. No cameraman necessary. This also allows for smoother camera movements, doing away with the nauseating shaky cam that constantly plagues these movies. It loses points near the big action climax where things are shown despite there not being a physical camera present, but on the whole, it does what it does and it does it well.

Chronicle is not great. It’s not the next blockbuster and, despite its cleverness, there are too many amateurish flaws to exclaim that new talent has arrived. It thinks it’s a lot deeper than it is and it loses its found footage illusion by the end, but it still works. There is a sense of realism in the personalities and behaviors of the characters, even if it tries to force in anger and conflict through contrivances. Some critics are overemphasizing this film’s quality, but one thing we can agree on is that it’s still worth seeing.

Chronicle receives 3.5/5

Friday
Jan272012

Man on a Ledge

Man on a Ledge is a misleading title. Unlike Snakes on a Plane or Zombie Strippers, whose titles reflected everything they had to offer, Man on a Ledge tries to be more. It starts, sure enough, with a man on a ledge, but its story isn’t confined to that man or that location. Its seemingly succinct title is just a glimpse of what the movie has to offer. Unfortunately, what it offers doesn’t amount to much more than the occasional mild thrill. It’s not the worst movie to ever come out in the dump month of January, but it’s a good example of why this time of year is the worst for moviegoers. Even movies with interesting premises and plenty of potential fail to live up to quality standards.

The film stars as Sam Worthington as Nick Cassidy, the titular man on the ledge. He has just escaped from prison after being convicted of stealing a $40 million diamond from a real estate mogul named David Englander, played by Ed Harris, a crime he claims he didn’t commit. Now he wants to clear his name, but to do so would mean finding the diamond in Englander’s possession and showing to the world that he was set up. So as he talks with a police psychologist, played by Elizabeth Banks, about his intentions, a massive heist run by Nick’s brother and his brother’s girlfriend, played by Jamie Bell and Genesis Rodriguez, begins only a building over.

That’s a great premise if there ever was one. Sure, the trailers ruined it beforehand, but if you walked blindly into Man on a Ledge, it would look like a simple tale of a desperate man contemplating the unthinkable. The story twist would throw you for a loop, but that twist’s inherent intrigue never pans out into anything meaningful. Your interest grows weary as the story loses traction, becoming even more outlandish as each minute ticks by. For instance, after you learn that it took a year to plan the heist, you can’t help but role your eyes over the team’s approach, which involves such ridiculousness as taking a picture of a room with a digital camera and then dangling the picture in front of a security camera, slyly fooling the guard who just so happened to look away as they hung it up. Such a trite course of action surely couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes to figure out, much less a year.

Though small in nature, quibbles like that eventually lead the viewer to a realization. How did the team know the layout of the building anyway, including the vents? How did they know what vault they would be up against once inside? How did they know anything at all? You’re supposed to just go with the fact that they planned for a year and already looked into everything, but I wasn’t buying it. The writing leaves too many questions unanswered and uses plot conveniences to get the characters where they need to be. Nothing is explained and the final twist, which will remain unspoiled, is a real head slapper. This thing needed at least an extra hour at its front to help lead into what you eventually see.

The thing is that if the heist was fun, these questions wouldn’t matter so much and would be easy to look past, but it’s relatively small in scale (at least compared to other heist movies) and the cutesy, flirty dialogue between the two pulling off the heist is beyond annoying. The over-the-top and comically insane heist pulled off in last year’s Tower Heist is more interesting (and believable) than this.

The men behind Nick’s set up are obvious from the get-go, Banks is miscast (in perhaps the worst actress-to-profession casting since Tara Reid as an anthropologist in Uwe Boll’s misfire, Alone in the Dark) and Worthington’s eventual transition into an action hero cross between James Bond and Spider-Man is sudden and insane, but it’s not all bad. Ed Harris is great as the evil mogul, which gives at least a little bit of a reason to care for the good guys to prevail and a couple of late movie stunts are fun to watch, but there comes a time when you want it to get to the point. The problem is that there is no point and its thrills are insubstantial, certainly not good enough to carry a 102 minute movie. It simply doesn’t have enough to sustain itself through what eventually becomes another lame, predictable action flop. Like I said earlier, Man on a Ledge may not be the worst movie to ever come out in January, but that in no way means it’s good.

Man on a Ledge receives 2/5

Friday
Jan272012

The Grey

These days, movie marketing seems to always do one of two things. It either shows far too much of the movie, spoiling any type of surprises it would have had in store for the audience, or it makes one out to be something it’s not. The trailers for director Joe Carnahan’s new film, The Grey, does both. The final shot of the entire film is actually in the commercials and it’s a shot that promises action, but The Grey is not an action movie. There are some thrills to be had, but this is a tale of survival, not constant gunfire and massive explosions. It’s going to disappoint some who go in with preconceived notions of what it should be in their head, but I plead you to keep an open mind instead. In a month normally designated for films the studio’s have no faith in, The Grey is a suspenseful, visceral, well made film that is absolutely worth a look.

Liam Neeson plays Ottway, an animal and weapons specialist who has been hired by an oil company to protect their drilling team from the numerous wild animals in Alaska. However, they never make it to the drilling site. On their way to their destination, their plane crashes and only a handful of them survive. The harsh weather conditions are enough to put them down for good, but unfortunately for them, there’s also a pack of wolves hunting them down. The plane has crashed somewhere near their den and the humans are seen as intruders.

The Grey doesn’t feature any aliens, robots, or even a human enemy. It’s merely about a group of men trying to survive the blistering cold and a pack of wolves and it’s as gripping as they come. It’s more suspenseful, interesting and, yes, frightening than most other movies in recent memory. Aside from a few unnecessary jump scenes, the creepiness derives from some excellent camerawork that frames the wolves in low lighting or emerging from a distance. The film also uses sound to a great degree to ratchet up the suspense, like one terrific scene where the guys are surrounded in the woods by the howling wolves, yet none are to be seen.

The delectable camerawork translates all through the movie, including the early plane crash scene where the camera pulls back through the entire cabin as the breath of the passengers waft through the air. Although due credit goes to cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, the same man who filmed one of last year’s best films, Warrior, director Joe Carnahan deserves the most accolades. Director of 2010’s over-the-top, but still fun The A-Team and 2002’s largely forgotten, but nevertheless fantastic Narc, Carnahan brings a steady direction to what could have otherwise been a hectic, Hollywood-ized tale. He doesn’t ratchet up the pace or bring in any distracting or unnecessary filmic techniques (aside from the aforementioned jump scenes). He crafts a movie that is about people and their will to survive even when the odds weigh heavily against them.

In that sense, it’s something that viewers will be able to connect to, even though they most likely haven’t been in a similar situation. Still, The Grey isn’t perfect. There are some humorous references to other films, the most effective being Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, but it’s a wink and a nod that doesn’t need to be there and although it will go over most people’s heads, those who have seen it will be pulled out of the movie. There are also some scenes that work great when isolated, but don’t work when in the context of the larger picture, like an early death scene after the plane crash where Ottway stands over one of the passengers and calms him down as he slowly dies. This moment is written and acted well, but we don’t even know who this guy is. The emotion isn’t there despite the technically effective production of the scene. I’m not too sure about the iffy ending either, given the dreamlike moments leading up to it where Ottway’s wife tells him to not be afraid. It seems to go through a sudden change, behaviorally and thematically, though to go into further detail would be ruining too much.

So there are some notable blunders, but whereas most movies would be dragged down tremendously for such mistakes, The Grey stands strong. Scenes that would be full of meandering dialogue in other movies serve to enhance character personalities and motivations here, so when something does happen to one of them, it hits you hard. The first couple months of every year usually bring some rotten movies to theaters, but if what follows can live up to the unexpected quality of The Grey, we’re in for a pleasant movie going year.

The Grey receives 4/5

Friday
Nov112011

Immortals

When watching director Tarsem’s Immortals, it’s impossible not to reminisce on 300. Aside from the centuries apart settings, the movies have similar goals, look the same and feature a lot of good looking, sweaty men with their shirts off. What 300 lacked in story, it made up for with constant, stylish action. It knew its plot was thin, but, in a strange way, that was one of its strengths. It never believed itself to be more than it really was. Immortals, on the other hand, thinks it’s all that and more. Its nonsense story is tiring and uninteresting, yet it explores it thoroughly. It talks and talks, but has nothing to say. If the two must be compared, Immortals is nothing more than a pretentious 300.

The story has something to do with King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) as he searches for the Epirus Bow that will release a group of Titans from their shackles and allow them to wreak havoc on humanity. However, a young man by the name of Theseus (Henry Cavill) is out for revenge and determined to make Hyperion pay for killing his mother, a quest that may end up saving humanity.

I suppose I could go into more detail regarding the oracle played by Freida Pinto, who is able to see into the future supposedly because she is still a pure body, though her eventual (and hilarious) loss of virginity doesn’t seem to have any consequential effects. Or I could talk about the gang of slaves, one of which is no other than Stephen Dorff himself, who accompany Theseus on his mission for no reason that I could decipher other than because they had nothing better to do. But it seems frivolous for a story so meaningless.

Immortals is all style, no substance, which should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Tarsem’s other work. Having directed only two movies prior to this, Tarsem has nonetheless proven himself as a masterful filmmaker, able to combine striking visuals with well told and undeniably unique stories. Both The Fall and the horribly underrated The Cell looked gorgeous, but those looks complimented the story and came naturally to its needs. Here, the looks are all you get and even then, it’s hard to shower them with praise. Although each shot seems to have been carefully planned and executed with poise, the graphic novel style, slow motion approach is becoming old. While The Fall and The Cell are still unique to this day, Immortals steals from a look that seems to have run its course.

Tack on Dorff’s egregious miscasting (his thick American accent is incredibly out of place in a movie set in 13th century Greece) and dull dialogue that makes an already boring movie even more so and all you’re left with are the action scenes. Fortunately, this is where it shines. Sure, it uses the same tactics made popular in previous films, but it nevertheless remains exciting. The climax in particular is adrenaline fueled fun. The problem is that you’ll have invested nothing in the characters or story and won’t care either way what happens. It serves its purpose as a visceral thrill, but that’s a compliment as shallow as the film itself. If Tarsem’s other films found their own voices, Immortals is a ventriloquist act.

Immortals receives 2/5

Friday
Oct282011

In Time

Now here’s something the cinema world is lacking: an exciting science fiction movie with an original premise, an emotional story and a point to make. For what it’s worth, In Time is simply phenomenal. Its trailers make it out to be a simple story full of the same mindless action we’ve come to expect, but it turns out to be so much more. It’s an allegorical statement on modern times. It’s a political calling. It’s about a corrupt system that feeds off the misery of the poor while the rich reap the benefits. It’s about challenging that system and doing what’s right even if what’s right goes against the established way of living. This movie, though presumably set in the future, is timely and relevant to today. It questions the way things are run and feeds off the anger many are feeling towards those who caused the current recession. In Time is not simply sci-fi fodder. It’s as intelligent and thought provoking a movie that has come out all year.

In the film’s universe, people have been genetically engineered to stop aging at the age of 25, but once they reach that age, they are given one more year to live. A clock that is wired in their arm begins to count down and once it reaches zero, they’re dead. Because of this, time is the new currency. To buy a coffee, you don’t pay with cash. You pay with minutes. Through this system, the rich are able to live forever while the poor struggle day by day to get by. Will (Justin Timberlake) is one of those poor people. Every day he wakes up and has mere hours to live, so he toils at his job at the factory and is given more time. One day, however, he is given over 100 years by a rich man who has had it with life and is ready to die. Unfortunately, the police force, called Timekeepers, led by Raymond (Cillian Murphy), thinks he stole the time and killed the man. So the chase is on, but not before he enlists the help of wealthy socialite, Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried).

The rich prosper while the poor struggle day by day to get by. Sound familiar? If there’s one movie this year that nails the financial crisis we are currently in, it’s this one. It expresses its disgust by the greed of a select few while millions suffer daily. It asks why, when there are more than enough resources for all to live on, we allow such suffering to take place. It takes the notion of social Darwinism (called “Darwinian capitalism” in the movie) and explores it thoroughly, applying the phrase “survival of the fittest” not simply to physical strength or evolutionary superiority, but to riches and status. And it does it all within its own futuristic world; it never sacrifices its story to make a point. Instead, it coalesces the two, creating something that works by itself, but has significance to the real world.

Even if you took away all of that commentary, In Time would still be something worth watching. It takes a downright brilliant concept and runs with it, tapping into a fear we all have: our impending deaths. We all know that one day, we’re going to die, but it’s the not knowing when that makes it easy to live. If we knew precisely how much time we had left, everything would be different, but that’s something these characters have to deal with and you fear for them just as they fear for themselves. Every tick of the clock weighs heavy on your emotions and that combined with the mesmerizingly beautiful score manage to create feeling in a movie that would be easy to assume had none.

Is In Time perfect? No, of course not. No movie is. Some of the cutesy humor doesn’t work and feels out of place in a story where the characters face such dire situations, some of the dialogue is taken out of the handbook of action movie clichés and certain motivations don’t necessarily make sense (“No one should be immortal if even one person has to die” is flawed logic), but otherwise, In Time is tight, well crafted, poignant, refined and uncommonly intelligent. It couldn’t come at a better time, when Americans are lining up to protest Wall Street for screwing them over with corrupt business practices, and it dares to say something about the unfairness of the system we live in. This may be a work of fiction, but take away the futuristic element and it’s a based-on-a-true-story drama of modern times.

In Time receives 4.5/5