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Entries in Gerard Butler (6)

Thursday
Jun122014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

If you’ve seen all their movies, it should go without saying that DreamWorks Animation is not the most consistent animation studio in the world. For every terrific film they make like “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda,” they make equally bad movies like “Shark Tale” and “Madagascar.” Watching them in order of their release is like riding a roller coaster full of gigantic peaks and very low valleys. They always lagged behind Pixar for a number of reasons, but with the release of 2010’s “How to Train Your Dragon,” it seemed like they were finally catching up. It was their most beautiful and mature film to date and, though it had some problems, it was perhaps the first time you could visualize DreamWorks nipping on Pixar’s heels. Its sequel is good, but less successful, even if it does retain the same aspects that made the original so good.

The film once again takes place in Berk, the best kept secret this side of “well, anywhere,” as Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) explains. Since the last film, his people have learned to tame and live alongside dragons, domesticating them as pets and using them to help with their everyday lives. Hiccup, along with his dragon, Toothless, tasks himself with charting the surrounding areas, since the ability to fly gives him a greater ability to travel long distances. On an adventure one day, he runs into Eret (Kit Harington), a dragon trapper working for the evil Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who is rounding up dragons to build an army and using them to take over the land. Hiccup, having already changed the minds of his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), and the people of Berk about dragons, sets out to do the same to Drago.

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” has one very clear deficiency: its story is rushed. There’s a revelation about Hiccup’s past regarding someone missing from his life, which is introduced through minor dialogue, only to be explained, explored and resolved just as quickly after. There’s no real emotion behind Hiccup’s character, so little drama comes through, even when the film takes dramatic detours and plays out huge events that will change Hiccup’s life forever. When it looks like one of these moments will work, the film doesn’t linger on it enough for it to resonate. Simply put, Hiccup by himself just isn’t a very interesting character.

Luckily, he has Toothless. Much of the fun of the film is watching the dragons frolic in the background like caffeinated puppies, chasing each other and rolling around on the ground, while the human characters speak in the foreground. This gives the film a playful charm—even if these moments do ultimately serve to distract from the story at hand—but when Hiccup and Toothless are together and away from these diversions, the film is at its best. As they soar through the clouds, each defending the other from any perils they come across, their bond grows. They trust each other, as evidenced by Hiccup’s reckless attempts to fly himself with a makeshift wingsuit, and the natural majesty of the beautiful flying scenes (which are enhanced by the 3D, one of the only times the format has benefitted its host film) really make their companionship special.

Of course, this is still a DreamWorks animated movie, so it still relies heavily on silly humor to push it along, doing its best to negate its overbearing drama, and it mostly succeeds. There are some genuinely amusing jokes here, including those of the “pay attention or you’ll miss it” variety, like the Vikings humorously exclaiming “Oh my gods!” when something exciting happens. While this isn’t the funniest movie in the world, its humor keeps things lighthearted enough to spice up some of its duller moments.

But it all comes back to the poorly handled story. The entire thing is generally sloppy, failing even to follow its own internal logic. “He can’t fly by himself!” Hiccup yells when Toothless is left falling to the ground; that is except for all those other times before and after that he does. Because of issues like this, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is a clear step down from its predecessor, which is par for the course for most sequels, yet its world is vibrant and wonderful, brimming with exciting stories that could be told. Future sequels will inevitably take advantage of that fact. “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” while still a solid adventure, stumbles too much to make much of an impression.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 receives 3/5

Thursday
Mar212013

Olympus Has Fallen

This week’s new film, "Olympus Has Fallen," is not going to be for everyone because it brings out feelings that many know all too well. Although it’s perhaps a strange comparison to make, the film will undoubtedly remind many Americans of what they felt on September 11th, 2001. The story revolves around an extremist terrorist group that infiltrates the White House and takes the President hostage, killing dozens in the process. It’s an unwarranted attack, much like that sad day in American history, and the group’s motive is nothing but one of hate, though they hide it under the veil of their skewed ideologies. Some will find the feeling too much to bear and perhaps even find the premise itself despicable while others will swell with patriotic pride at the way the characters onscreen handle themselves in such an extreme situation. Being an inhabitant of the Washington DC area (and having watched the movie mere miles from the actual White House), I felt a strange mixture of both, but the latter outweighed the former. Olympus Has Fallen knocked me down and drained me emotionally, but those initial feelings just made the back half of the film that much sweeter, when I had to fight my urges to stand up in the middle of the theater and cheer.

Gerard Butler plays our hero, Mike Banning, a former Presidential bodyguard who was demoted after allowing the President’s wife, played by Ashley Judd, to perish in an automobile accident, even though it was the right call to make and it saved the President’s life. A year and a half later, those aforementioned terrorists overtake the White House, codenamed “Olympus,” so Banning, not too far from the building itself, springs into action. With the White House’s staff all dead and the terrorists holding the President, played by Aaron Eckhart, hostage, it’s up to him alone to save the day.

If you strip away the setting, Olympus Has Fallen tells a well-worn story. From the “last action hero” set-up to the “ticking clock” conclusion, it’s nothing we haven’t seen a hundred times over. Luckily for the movie, it’s that setting that makes it so intense and, ultimately, rewarding. Because of its sensitive subject matter, it will surely sadden some and anger others, while forcing them to ask that one question one always asks when they witness such senseless violence: why? But that’s what gives the film its bite and when that good old fashioned American bravado comes into play, it’s immensely satisfying.

Of course, this is all assuming you can get past the fact that the story itself is so outlandishly absurd. The background of these terrorists and the extensive preparation they must have undertaken are absent from the overall narrative, most likely because there is no convincing way to make their actions seem legitimate. To be fair, this isn’t the film’s focus, but one can’t help but wonder how they were able to pull this mission off with such accurate precision, which included in-depth knowledge of highly confidential information, American nuclear weapons systems and “next generation weaponry” that, for some reason, is mounted on the White House’s roof.

The story is indeed ridiculous and its poor CGI doesn’t help in pulling off the illusion of plausibility, but it’s nevertheless gripping. Where it lacks is in its side story revolving around Banning’s wife, Leah, played by Radha Mitchell, which is embarrassingly underwritten and exists solely for some late movie cheese that should have been cut out altogether. It also tends to dumb things down a bit, constantly flashing names and places onscreen, as if it thinks its audience isn’t smart enough to realize the characters are standing in the middle of the Oval Office. But what Olympus Has Fallen lacks in intellectualism, it makes up for with pure visceral thrills and optimistic pride and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work, even if it is a little too obvious for its own good.

Olympus Has Fallen receives 3.5/5

Friday
Feb172012

Coriolanus

How do you review a movie that is of top notch production values, features a handful of amazing performances, tells a gripping story and gets nearly everything right, but you just can’t recommend? I wish someone would tell me because Coriolanus is one of those movies. There’s so much good, so many things to admire and rave about, but there is one giant problem with the film and it pervades its entirety. Watching the movie is like eating a gourmet meal where the main course is only slightly overcooked. It shouldn’t ruin the whole thing, but it kind of does. I want to do nothing more than tell you to watch Coriolanus, but my dismay at one of the most ill-advised decisions I’ve seen in a film in quite a long time is keeping me from doing it.

The film is based on the William Shakespeare play from the early 17th century and it stars Ralph Fiennes as Roman general Caius Martius Coriolanus who, after years of duty to his country, is banished and decides to take revenge on Rome with a man who used to be his enemy, Volscian army general, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). It’s a tried and true story, one that is wrought with tension, suspense, drama and meaning that can be tied to modern times in our treatment of soldiers during and after wartime. There is nothing inherently wrong with this story, but the way it’s adapted is a pity.

What Coriolanus does is take an old play that was written over 400 years ago and modernizes it, setting it in the present day and in the current political and societal climates. However, it retains the old Shakespearean dialogue from the early 1600’s and, plain and simple, it doesn’t work. It’s beyond silly to watch a group of soldiers run through the streets with their AKs shooting each other up followed by those same soldiers speaking archaic rhetoric that doesn’t fit the modern time period. Although this decision does allow for some intense monologues, most notably from the terrific Fiennes, these moments only work by themselves and not when analyzed within the overall picture.

Coriolanus is an odd mash-up of two different time periods that don’t work well together and it drags the entire film down because it’s not just one tiny aspect of its production. It’s a major narrative decision, a persistent problem that runs throughout its entire 2 hour length. If writer John Logan wanted to retain that old language, he should have set the film in the appropriate time period. Nobody these days talks like this, about how “thou art lost” and how someone doesn’t hate you, but instead hates “thee.” It’s an artistic decision that is nothing more than laughable.

It’s such a shame because in his directorial debut, Fiennes crafts a beautifully shot film with a handful of outstanding performances that could have made for a powerful experience. He has a distinct visual eye and shoots each scene appropriately within the context of where the story is at that point and he, perhaps because this is an obvious passion project for him, gives what may be his single greatest performance. He’s a sight to behold in this film and the fact that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar this year is a crying shame.

It’s rare that one bad decision can sour an otherwise solid production, but there you have it. It’s far too hard to blend two different time periods together, your eyes showing you one thing while your ears tell you another, which is most notable in a scene where political pundits argue on the television. Their debate comes off more like gossip between guests at a costume party in 1607 than actual political discourse. Moments like that are indicative of the entire film. Even when you’re watching scenes with breathtaking performances (of which there are many), you can never fully shake how ridiculous the whole affair is. Set this in 17th century Rome and you may be onto something, but as is, Coriolanus is an anomaly: a movie that gets 95% of its content correct and still fails.

Coriolanus receives 2/5

Friday
Sep302011

Machine Gun Preacher

If you’re anything like me, the title Machine Gun Preacher gets you excited. It’s a great name that forced visions of a good, old fashioned exploitative Grindhouse movie to rush through my head in excited anticipation. I could see the poster all too clear: a man of the cloth holding a giant gun front and center with the tagline in dripping red, “Jesus died for your sins. He’ll kill you for them.” I assumed the title was an all-you-need-to-know type, like Snakes on a Plane or Cowboys & Aliens, but perhaps I let my excitement get the best of me because Machine Gun Preacher is not what I pictured. It’s a true story with religious significance that thinks its artistic endeavors are reaching something profound when, really, it isn’t.

The story begins in Southern Sudan where we get to witness the brutality of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a vicious military group that abducts and murders the people in surrounding villages. Flash forward to “Pennsylvania, USA, a few years earlier” (a title card that is, oddly, both specific and unspecific at the same time) and Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is being released from prison. He is a violent, abusive junkie who treats his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), like a lesser individual. After a night of drug use with an unnamed pal (Michael Shannon), he attacks and stabs a man, placing him in critical condition in the hospital. Thankfully, he seeks help and begins going to church with Lynn, where he finds God and considers it his calling to help others. He begins by building a church across the street from his home, but soon winds up in Africa, rescuing orphaned children and fighting back against the LRA.

Machine Gun Preacher strikes me as a movie that only a select few will enjoy. Despite its Christian themed story and values, it features explicit sex, graphic violence, atrocities of war and offensive language, including racial slurs. It will undoubtedly turn off the more conservative viewers who would not normally watch this sort of thing. On the other side of the coin are the non-believers who, if they even venture into the theater at all, will see everything through cynical eyes. At one point, Sam is distraught and thinking about giving up after the LRA burns down the church and orphanage. Lynn tells him it was merely a test from God, but if He truly sent them to destroy, then surely He must have condoned the killing of the innocent too, a conundrum that goes against the very basis of religious indoctrination. It’s moments like these where the more skeptical among us will roll their eyes.

Still, at least Sam has that thought. As any normal human being would, he begins to question his own faith after witnessing the murder and destruction around him, wondering how a just and loving god could allow these terrible events to occur. It’s a natural progression that is, unfortunately, impeded by a screenplay that doesn’t take the time to develop it. His character goes through the motions without ever truly experiencing them. His loss of faith is barely touched upon (perhaps so as not to alienate the Christians in the audience) and his journey into it is rushed past the point of credulity. For the first 20 minutes, you watch him attack, steal from and abuse those around him, but after attending one, only one, church service, he finds himself a changed man. Before you know it, the racist you just watched shove a gun in a black man’s face is sharing a Coke with an African. This is a moment that should be heartwarming, but it instead feels forced, cheesy and manipulative because the necessary work to get us there had not been done.

Machine Gun Preacher has a rough start. The performances and character actions are so wildly over-the-top, they’re hard to take seriously, the heavy-handedness gets grating—the filmmakers try far too hard to make Sam an outrageously sinful man, so as to make his eventual redemption that much sweeter— and the churchgoers are stereotypes, waving their arms around in the air like they’re swatting bugs. Eventually, as the title suggests, Sam goes Rambo on the rebels, emerging from clouds of smoke with rocket launcher in hand, and it begins to pick up. Regardless of what one may think of his violent approach to helping, it can’t be argued he doesn’t make a difference.

So many people use religion wrong, but Sam Childers is a guy who uses it right. He was a lowlife, drug using criminal who turned his life around and dedicated it to helping others. He’s still going strong today. One can’t help but admire him, but his biopic is decidedly lackluster. Machine Gun Preacher feels like a made-for-television movie and is missing the gravitas it needs to tell its story.

Machine Gun Preacher receives 2.5/5

Friday
Mar262010

How to Train Your Dragon

There's no denying that the king of computer animation is Pixar. That juggernaut has released 10 movies and all have been good. Their track record truly is amazing. DreamWorks, on the other hand, hasn't fared so well. After two solid films in Antz and Shrek, they went downhill quickly, releasing junk like Shark Tale, Over the Hedge, Bee Movie and the two Madagascar pictures. They redeemed themselves a tad with Kung Fu Panda and Monsters Vs. Aliens, but their newest film, How to Train Your Dragon, may very well be their best. They still have a long way to go before they start nipping at the heels of the folks at Pixar, but this is a step in the right direction.

The film takes place in a village where Vikings rule. For hundreds of years, these Vikings have been at war with the local dragons who come to their land, burn down their houses and steal their livestock. To these people, dragon hunting is the most admirable thing you can do and those who do it earn the most respect. The leader of the warriors goes by the name of Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler), a man who finds shame in his puny son Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) because he has never amounted to anything. Hiccup desperately wants to be accepted and wants to kill a dragon to prove himself, but his weak stature doesn't allow him to. One day, however, he lands a hit on the most dangerous dragon of them all, a Night Fury, but can't bring himself to kill it. Instead, he lets it loose, but its tail is severely damaged and it loses the ability of flight. Hiccup bonds with the dragon, whom he names Toothless, and creates an artificial tail to help aid him. He quickly learns that dragons aren't dangerous creatures at all and, with the help of Toothless, tries to convince his village the same.

Story-wise, How to Train Your Dragon is DreamWorks most complete film to date. It hits a range of emotions they previously could have only hoped for. Like a Pixar film, this movie creates a distinct relationship between its two characters, in this case Hiccup and the dragon, and you come to appreciate their bonding. Toothless is like a stray dog who wants to be loved, but is wary of anybody offering it because he simply isn't used to it. He looks at Hiccup as he approaches him, all tied up in the projectile net, desperate and afraid. After Hiccup releases him, he attacks him based on the assumption that Hiccup means harm. It isn't until he spends time with him that he starts to let his guard down. It's truly amazing how much emotion seeps through this creature just by the way he looks at Hiccup. His character development rivals everybody else in the movie and you see him grow throughout.

The bond they create is the crutch of the film. You'll love them as soon as they start to love each other. Despite its colorful nature and appeal to children, its the drama that comes through the best. You'll care about the characters, sympathize with them and fear for their plight. It's the humor that doesn't necessarily work.

Much like most animated features, How to Train Your Dragon tries real hard to produce laughs, but it feels more strained here than in others. I wouldn't say this is a dark film, but it's not exactly happy-go-lucky either and deals with rejection, loneliness and crippling injury, both to humans and animals. However, it doesn't go all the way. Nobody dies in this movie. When the dragons shoot their fire, the humans jump out of the way and it passes right by. Due to what I assume is fear of excluding children, the film is toned down in every area, which includes its forced humor to lighten the tension. None of it works. Had it gone a more adult route and had the chutzpah to show the violence and drama unfold more naturally, this would be a modern day adult animated masterpiece.

It doesn't quite reach that height, but it's a solid tale nevertheless. The animation is beautiful, the close-to-being-overdone 3D works magic and the voice acting is wonderful. Despite a few too many recognizable voices from the likes of Jonah Hill, Butler and Baruchel, who just recently starred in She's Out of My League, they fit their characters well and by the time you reach the high flying, pulse pounding climax, you will have forgotten that there were actual people voicing these characters, though it does take a bit of time to get to that point.

I've always been a person fascinated with flight. Ask me who my favorite superhero is, I'll tell you Superman and I'm astonished when someone in a window seat on an airplane puts the cover down so they can't see out the window. Being up that high and being able to soar through the clouds holds a sense of wonder for me. It's a sight so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes. Perhaps this is why I loved How to Train Your Dragon, because it tells a story not always through dialogue, but through flight showing how their friendship develops while they are in mid-air swooping up and down and around. The beauty of these scenes is reason enough to buy a ticket. It may not be the next Wall-E or Finding Nemo, but it's a pleasurable diversion that promises a more promising future from DreamWorks.

How to Train Your Dragon receives 4/5