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Thursday
Oct312013

About Time

We all wish we could go back in time. Remember that time you said something stupid and hurt someone’s feelings? Or that time you stumbled over your words while talking to the prettiest girl you’ve ever met? Or when tragedy struck a friend or family member? What if you could go back and do it all again, changing those moments for the better? That’s the premise behind “About Time,” the latest film from Richard Curtis, the writer and director of 2003’s romance hit, “Love Actually.” What’s explored here isn’t exactly new ground, but the way it’s handled is positively exquisite. If 2009’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is an example of how not to tackle similar themes, “About Time” is the exact opposite. It nails it to a degree few films that explore life and love do, making it one of the best and most emotionally affecting movies of the year.

Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) has just turned 21. Aside from the expectations the monumental birthday brings, his life seems pretty normal, but his father (Bill Nighy) is about to change it drastically. It turns out that all men in his family have had an extraordinary ability. They can actually go back in time. All it takes is a dark, secluded room and some concentration and they can be whisked off to any place they’re thinking of, with a couple caveats: they can’t go forward in time, only back, and they can only revisit places they’ve already been and change events they’ve already experienced. This unique ability gives the otherwise timid and introverted Tim a chance to try new things without consequence. Eventually, he ends up in London working a boring job at a law firm, but one night, he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams) and he immediately falls in love.

The story that follows is one of both utter joy and inescapable sadness. It’s one that explores the craziness of life and the hopelessness that one finds when they realize that some things simply can’t be changed. Even with this power, Tim finds that when one thing is fixed, another is broken. It’s a movie that acknowledges that life is messy and it sometimes isn’t going to play out the way you want it to, but it also stops to see its beauty. Throughout his time twisting journey, Tim realizes that happiness isn’t in fixing life’s stumbles, but in embracing them. But perhaps more than anything, he learns that the true key to happiness is simply in living and not taking for granted this wonderful and magical ride we’ve all been granted, in noticing the little things and not letting precious moments pass you by.

While these life lessons are hardly revelatory, they’re handled with the utmost care, turning what could easily be an overdose of cheese into something that’s truly beautiful and easy to embrace and understand. All but those who have led the easiest of lives will be able to connect to the raw emotion presented here. Much of this success comes from the technical expertise in its crafting. “About Time” is a beautiful film to watch, with one of its few downsides being an unnecessarily shaky camera. The camera is so uncomfortable wonky at times that it’s difficult to even see the emotion on the character’s faces, particularly in an early scene when Tim’s walking home after meeting Mary, his elation barely registering because of it. While such shakiness can add to a more hectic movie, it doesn’t fit this film’s generally calm demeanor.

But what really makes “About Time” work is its performances. Bill Nighy is as charming as ever and Domhnall Gleeson proves his chops after working in side roles in films like “Dredd” and “Harry Potter,” but it’s the lovely Rachel McAdams that really shines here. She’s one of the most likable and beautiful actresses working today, but she is normalized here. Her hair is occasionally off kilter, her dresses a bit nerdy and her overall beauty is toned down, but it’s her charisma that makes it work. When Tim runs into his first love, who by all accounts is a much prettier and physically desirable woman, one night in London and she invites him to her place, he turns her down and rushes back home to Mary. There’s an unexplainable connection he feels with her, but we get it. McAdams creates in Mary the girl all guys want to bring home to their parents.

“About Time” is admittedly a little rough around the edges, particularly in its clumsy handling of its numerous side characters like Tim’s perpetually unhappy playwright friend, Harry, played by the criminally underused Tom Hollander, but those rough edges are minor when compared to the joy that encompasses them. This film is relatable to anyone who has ever made a mistake they wish they could fix, anyone who stumbled over their words when trying to explain to their crush how much they cared for them and anyone who has lived through life’s sad inevitabilities. “About Time” may be too sentimental for some to handle, but the romantically inclined won’t want to miss it.

About Time receives 4.5/5

Friday
Aug032012

Total Recall

The Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Total Recall, from 1990 didn’t have high aspirations. It was a campy movie full of hilarious one-liners, explosive, gory action and oddly intriguing sexuality, like the now infamous mutant woman with three breasts and a midget hooker. It was off-the-wall fun and it knew it, fully embracing its silliness from beginning to end. This week’s high octane remake, also titled Total Recall, follows a similar narrative path as the original, but somehow manages to be its exact opposite. Camp is replaced with seriousness, gore is replaced with PG-13 scuffles and the three breasted woman is…well, she’s still there (even if they do cut away before you’re allowed a good look).

By the end of the 21st century, chemical warfare brought on by a third World War has made our planet practically uninhabitable. Earth has been divided into two superpowers, the Resistance and the oppressive Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), which are in a battle for supremacy in a world gone awry. Most citizens are lowly factory workers who spend their days building police robots for the Chancellor in his efforts to stop the Resistance. One of those citizens is Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell). He’s married to the beautiful Lori (Kate Beckinsale), but he nevertheless needs some excitement. One day, he decides to go to Rekall, a company that implants artificial memories into the heads of their customers, essentially allowing them to live out any type of fantasy they wish. While there, something goes wrong and the police force busts in. Next thing he knows, Quaid’s wife is trying to kill him and he’s on the run from the very machines he helped build. The strange thing is now he’s now being told he’s actually a secret agent; he just doesn’t remember it.

Those familiar with the 1990 original will both be in for a treat and a disappointment when watching this update. With plenty of sly references to the original, including a redheaded woman passing through a security gate (“Two weeks” she says when asked how long her trip will be), there is no shortage of little Easter eggs to be found. But sometimes those finds aren’t for the betterment of the film itself. Many of the lines (or at least variations of them) from the original are spoken here as well, but their tone is significantly different. While lines like “If I’m not me, then who the hell am I?” were played as humorous before, they’re played depressingly straight here. All the fun has been sucked out in favor of telling a darker story, but one that lacks substance.

That’s not to say the original had much substance to it, but it then again it never claimed it did. Both are so packed full of action that they hardly have time to tell a particularly engaging story. The difference, however, is that the original was knowingly silly, so it was easy to forgive. This Total Recall, on the other hand, tries to make you care. It wants the conclusion to be something you cheer for, but most cheers will be coming simply from the fact that it’s over rather than because the story has grabbed hold of you. With its over-stylized action scenes and constant forward motion, the characters hardly get breathers and their relationships are never built like they need to be. It’s not necessarily that I didn’t care about what happened to them that bugged me, but that the movie wanted me to, but provided no justification as to why I should.

Much like the original, the big question at the end is whether or not what we saw actually happened or if it’s just a byproduct of the Rekall implant. The question isn’t necessarily a hard one to answer in either movie when you consider certain things (that I’ll leave for you to figure out), but at least the answer had some slight ambiguity in the original. In the remake, it’s more or less cut and dry, despite trying to force that ambiguity in right at the end. The larger question outside the context of the films is: does it even matter? The answer in regards to this remake is a resounding no. This weekend, when you’re thinking about heading to the theater to see it, don’t and watch the original instead.

Total Recall receives 2/5

Wednesday
Nov232011

Arthur Christmas

When was the last time we saw a Christmas movie that became an instant classic and promised to be essential viewing during the holiday season? Love Actually? If so, it’s been a good eight years. If you ask me, though, you’d have to go all the way back to 1983’s A Christmas Story. Not since then has there been a Christmas movie so good, a year just seemed too long to wait for an appropriate time to watch it again. Based on what I’ve just seen with the pleasant, but all around mediocre Arthur Christmas, I don’t expect that to change.

The film follows the son of Santa Claus named Arthur Christmas (shouldn’t his last name be Claus?), voiced by James McAvoy. He works at the North Pole as the letter writer, answering the millions of letters Santa receives every year. He loves Christmas and revels in the joy it brings children the world over. This year, however, a child has been forgotten. A single young girl named Gwen is not going to be getting anything from Santa, though not if Arthur has anything to say about it. Determined to get that little girl her gift, he hops on the sleigh with his old, crazy grandfather (annoyingly referred to as “Grandsanta”), voiced by Bill Nighy, and sets out to make things right.

Arthur Christmas is not a game changer—few will argue it is—but it’s not easy to criticize. It has its heart in the right place and promises to be an enchanting view for the young tykes in the audience. In the film, Santa is as real as the air we breathe. There isn’t any doubt about his existence and nobody questions it. It’s fact. It’s like the movie exists within the head of a young child who struggles to stay up every year so they can catch a glimpse of the jolly fat man, always to no avail. The magic of the holiday is cherished and, at the very least, the film will allow the older folks to remember what it felt like when they woke up on Christmas morning and saw Santa’s gifts resting under the tree.

The problem is that the film just isn’t very funny, but it’s not particularly unfunny either. It rests in that strange middle ground (as so many British comedies do) where you can acknowledge its cleverness, but your amusement never evolves beyond a grin. The voice acting is splendid and the holiday-centric plays on words are fun for a bit, but there needed to be something more. The aforementioned magic never transcends the inherent magic of the holiday; the film itself is rather bland.

Nevertheless, the characters are likable, even when they’re not exactly living up the spirit of the holiday they help create. Arthur, in particular, is selfless and loving. When he embarks on his adventure, it’s not for a thrill or for fame. On the contrary, he’s rather scared. He is afraid of heights and knows that hopping in that sleigh is going to test his courage, but he does it anyway. His desire to get that child her gift trumps his phobias. It’s that love for children and the magic of Christmas that eventually forces the other more narcissistic characters to realize that Christmas isn’t about them. It’s about the unbridled joy a child feels when he or she finally reveals the mystery behind the wrapping paper.

Still, its mediocrity can’t be overstated. It’s a pleasant enough film to watch, but it’s missing that extra spark. Children will have fun and adults won’t be upset they had to sit through it—it’s as harmless as can be—but after a few years, it will fade into oblivion while the true Christmas classics live on.

Arthur Christmas receives 3/5

Friday
Mar042011

Rango

If you’ve ever heard me talk about animation, you know I’m at the forefront of the “Animation is not just for children!” movement. Opponents of that train of thought are, quite simply, daft. Just because children can find enjoyment in a particular animated movie does not mean adults can’t, or even that it was meant for them. Accessibility does not equate to target audience. While it's true that movies like Planet 51 are strictly for kids, films like How to Train Your Dragon, Tangled and many more have proven that animation can delight the young ones in the audience while also sparking the long lost imagination of the older crowd. Well, you can now add Rango, a downright delightful animated Western that ranks among the best non-Pixar offerings in recent memory, to that ever growing list.

As the film begins, we meet a chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) trapped inside of a glass cage as he rides with his family across the Nevada desert. After the car swerves due to an animal in the road, his cage falls out of the window and smashes, leaving him stranded and alone. However, he soon meets Beans (voiced by Isla Fisher) an iguana who is on her way to Dirt, a town inhabited by animals whose only resource is precious water. When he arrives, he creates a rough and tough identity for himself, calling himself Rango and boasting of violent scuffles that never happened. Impressed by his words, the townsfolk make him sheriff. And he couldn’t have come at a better time because the water is drying up and they hope he will be able to find out why.

If you’ve seen the trailers for Rango, you may be aware of the unique filming style. Although animated, the actors voicing the roles physically acted out the performance. It wasn't motion capture, however. As Depp put it, it was “emotion capture.” This technique allowed the performers to interact with each other (as opposed to the usual solitary voice recordings most other films use) and be as silly as possible while cameras filmed their every move, footage that was later used as reference in the animation process. The approach worked because the fun they undoubtedly had creating the movie flows through the screen like no other film in recent memory.

While much of that is due to the terrific script and the funny delivery by the voice actors, it is also due to the beautiful and vibrant animation that is (shockingly) not hampered by the dimming glasses of 3D. The choice to not put Rango in 3D is a wise one and it shows just how much livelier your film can be with every bright color in its palette popping off the screen. In addition, the attention to detail is astonishing. Some are merely nice touches, like the inclusion of mustache-esque scales on Rattlesnake Jake (voiced by Bill Nighy), but others add to the realism of the unforgiving desert, like backgrounds that look like they’re moving because of the scorching humidity.

Rango may not have the heart of a Pixar film (though it tries), but it has fun, particularly with old Western tropes like horseback riding and standoffs, by putting its own little spin on them and crafting some clever jokes at their expense. It has everything that makes a great Western, only exaggerated and manic to properly fit with the animation style and it works. With the exception of True Grit, Rango is the best example of the genre to come along in years. All things considered, that’s pretty impressive.

Rango receives 4/5