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Entries in Helen Mirren (6)

Friday
Jul192013

Red 2

It was a great year for movies in 2010. Pixar put out their most mature film to date with “Toy Story 3,” David Fincher blew us all away with his masterful Facebook movie, “The Social Network,” we saw a completely different side of Natalie Portman in the haunting “Black Swan” and Colin Firth gave an unforgettable performance in the Best Picture Academy Award winner, “The King’s Speech.” But the year was also full of perplexing oddities, movies that gained a surprisingly large fanbase and a warm critical reception when they hardly did anything special. “Red” was one of those movies. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t particularly interesting either and, despite some minor improvements, “Red 2” is just more of the same, for better or worse.

Much like the previous film, ex-black ops CIA agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is on the run, deemed a domestic terrorist by his own government, and, through some complicated plot structuring, on the hunt for a dangerous portable nuclear device that was previously thought to be nothing more than a Cold War myth. To help him, he enlists the help of his old buddies, Marvin (John Malkovich) and Victoria (Helen Mirren). It gets more complicated, however, when he learns that the world’s greatest contract killer, Han (Byung-hun Lee), is out to kill him, all while a former fling and Russian counter intelligence agent, Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), attempts to seduce him to fulfill her own ulterior motives, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker).

The best part of the original “Red” was not the action scenes, but rather the banter between the group. Watching these veteran actors play off each other is an absolute joy, but it was bogged down in the first film by what can only be described as pseudo-hipster dialogue, a lame attempt to spice the film up and cater to a younger demographic, despite the older cast. Thankfully, much of that is gone here while the witty banter remains. Malkovich is at the top of his game, eliciting laughs with the slightest of facial cues and many of the one-liners are undeniably amusing.

But the film never goes past that amusing state. “Red 2” is humorous, but it’s never really funny. It’s clever, but it’s never really smart. It’s lighthearted, but it merely teeters on the edge of being fun. The movie plays out almost like something that’s surprised it exists in the first place, rarely venturing beyond what barely worked in its predecessor and rehashing the same pleasant, yet unimpressive, style and tone. Where the film steps it up is in its get-to-the-point dialogue that does away with needless filler (like in the first movie when Morgan Freeman revealed he had stage four level cancer and then completely drops it, not unlike the breast cancer line in Tommy Wiseau’s infamous “The Room”) and in its varied action.

The first film was boring. It moved slowly and its action took place in some of the most clichéd places imaginable. Locations like a shipping container yard and parking garages were its highlights, giving it a feeling of a generic shoot ‘em up video game. Due to the nature of its story, “Red 2” jet sets all around the world (sometimes to an annoying and confusing degree), but it gives way to a number of various locales that were all but missing in the original. There’s a great hand-to-hand battle in an airport hangar, a suspenseful infiltration of the Moscow Kremlin and a terrific finale that takes place in the Iranian embassy in London. While much of the action is far-fetched (and if you want to see aging movie stars wielding giant weapons, you’re better off checking out the far more entertaining “Expendables” movies), it’s this diversity that keeps it interesting.

Although “Red” wasn’t an unpleasant movie, it was too bland and generic to stand out. “Red 2” has many of the same problems, but it fixes enough of them to make it the easy choice among the two. Certain scenes are so good, particularly the interesting new take on interrogations—turns out there’s no need for torture; just get the victim all hot and bothered by a beautiful woman and he’ll tell you everything—that they’re almost worth the price of admission alone. Luckily, there’s a bit more here than just random scenes that work. You still won’t care about what ultimately happens, but you’ll have a pleasant enough trip getting there.

Red 2 receives 3/5

Thursday
Jun202013

Monsters University

With last year’s middling, but still solid, “Brave” and 2011’s “Cars 2,” the only movie ever to receive negative reviews from the otherwise untouchable Pixar, people began to question whether or not the animation studio had lost its edge. Their warm, emotional and downright brilliant movies like “Up,” “Wall-E” and the “Toy Story” franchise had devolved into kiddie fare (as opposed to the family friendly movies that had come before and were accessible to everyone) with simplistic themes and unimpressive stories. Well, it looks like they’re back on track with “Monsters University,” a wholeheartedly impressive movie that takes a subject from the wonders of a child’s imagination and injects it with a truthful examination on failed dreams and the meaning of friendship.

The movie begins with Young Mike (Noah Johnston). He’s a happy-go-lucky kid with a wonderfully positive attitude despite his classmates’ negativity towards him. While on a field trip to Monsters Inc., the company responsible for scaring children and powering the monster world with their screams, he finds his calling. He’s going to be the greatest scarer that ever lived. Now he’s all grown up and Mike (Billy Crystal) is headed off to college at Monsters University. His entire life has led up to this moment and nothing will stand in the way of him achieving his dream. However, when it’s decided he’s just simply not scary, he’s taken out of Scare School along with the unfocused Sully (John Goodman). But his determination won’t keep him down, so he partners with the dorkiest fraternity on campus, Oozma Kappa, and his newfound frenemy to compete in the school hosted Scare Games. If they win, they’ll all be allowed back into Scare School and Mike will have a second chance at achieving his dreams.

And if you’ve seen “Monsters Inc.,” you know he doesn’t. While Sully goes onto break records while scaring children at night, Mike is relegated to sidekick, the unsung hero who lives vicariously through Sully. Yet as a child and a college student, Mike just knows that if he works hard, his aspirations will naturally fall into place. He has a naiveté that many in his position share, unaware of the fact that no matter how much you want something and no matter how hard you work for it, it may not pan out. Life throws curveballs and takes you down different roads than you originally imagined.

It’s a brave stance to take in a kid friendly movie and is opposite of the “you can be whatever you want to be” message so many kids are exposed to these days. It may even seem like a negative stance, but the opposite turns out to be true. Although the movie takes an honest look at failed dreams and shows that life sometimes doesn’t work out the way you had planned, it’s ultimately a hopeful and encouraging movie because it shows that other skills can lead to happiness and success. It emphasizes the idea that one dream crushed is another dream created and even though Mike is initially disheartened by the sudden realization that his lifelong dream will never come to fruition, he discovers other opportunities in his strengths.

This is exactly the type of theme Pixar needed to tackle, one that is necessary for children, but also relatable to adults. Very few people have lived their lives and achieved their one lifelong dream, so many in the audience may be shocked to see such a truthful representation of themselves in a movie about monsters learning to scare children. As far as storytelling goes, “Monsters University” is nearly flawless, if only one little inconsistency that fails to connect the two movies didn’t rear its ugly head. In “Monsters Inc.,” Mike specifically says to Sully, “You’ve been jealous of my good looks since the fourth grade,” implying that they have known each other nearly all their lives. But in “Monsters University,” they’re meeting for the first time at college. Although relatively minor in the big scheme of things, the stories of the two movies don’t connect as they should, which is a cardinal sin for any sequel or prequel.

Nevertheless, the most important aspect of “Monsters Inc.” carries over without a hitch: its amiable charm. In terms of pure wit, this is perhaps the cleverest movie Pixar has done since, well, “Monsters Inc.” As Mike walks down the main university strip on his first day, for instance, he passes by the debate team led by a monster with two heads that can’t seem to agree with each other and the improv club that can’t even improvise their pitch to get him to join. These small moments are delightful and really give the film a humorous appeal.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical of Pixar after their last couple films, especially when those disappointments followed their three best and most mature efforts to date, “Wall-E,” “Up” and “Toy Story 3,” but they’ve renewed my faith in them after this. “Monsters University” is gorgeously animated, wonderfully voiced (with additional help from John Krasinski, Nathan Fillion, Charlie Day, Aubrey Plaza and Helen Mirren as the Dean of the school) and all around magical. It’s that rare film that mixes childlike wonder with adult themes while never neglecting the details that are needed to bring the world to life. “Monsters University” is a joyous experience.

Monsters University receives 5/5

Wednesday
Nov212012

Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock is a director who is disputed over constantly. Those disputes aren’t about whether or not he was talented—all agree he was—but rather on which of his movies stands head and shoulders above the rest. With so many great ones to choose from, opinions inevitably vary. Some argue Vertigo was his finest work. Others point to North by Northwest. I personally hold Psycho up as his greatest achievement. That was a film that pushed the boundaries of the time with a subject matter that many deemed vile and unworthy. Its road to the big screen was a bumpy one, but the results were magnificent. Creepy low angle shots and brilliant use of shadows and props created what is still to this day one of the scariest films ever made. This week’s film, succinctly titled Hitchcock, takes place during its filming and the results are a mixed bag. Despite an Oscar worthy turn by Anthony Hopkins in the title role and endless material to borrow from, the film itself feels substanceless, neither an in-depth biopic of the man nor a particularly involving “making of” look at Psycho. It’s definitely a good movie, but it needed more meat to truly stand out.

Being an avid Hitchcock fan, both of the person and of his films, will bring simultaneous feelings of disappointment and appreciation to Hitchcock. Numerous film references abound, some subtle, some blatant, but they’re all something that will give viewers of his work pleasure, like the numerous shots of Hitchcock’s famous silhouette from his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. However, if you’re aware of his personal demons, those that extend from what he captured onscreen, you’ll find surprising and unwelcome restraint.

Hitchcock had a weight problem, one that haunted him his entire life, like when he was rejected from the military during World War I for his weight. His weight fluctuated his entire life. He could never seem to truly keep control of it. In the film, little is said about this subject, which is explored only through a nagging wife, played by Helen Mirren, who tries to get him to eat fruits instead of junk. When he passes out at one point in the movie, it seems to be more a byproduct of his constant stress from filming Psycho rather than from his unhealthy physical condition. Similarly, Hitchcock was famous for obsessing over his female stars, which is mentioned only in passing dialogue rather than shown as an attribute of the man as portrayed in the film. In these ways, the writing lacks focus. Its title implies a biopic, one that will reveal who Alfred Hitchcock truly was behind the camera and elsewhere, yet it’s as shallow an exploration of a larger than life person as I’ve ever seen.

Nevertheless, the film somehow remains fascinating. Not once was I bored, nor was I angry that it wasn’t living up to its potential, even if that feeling of disappointment was lingering in the back of my mind. This is in large part due to a brilliant performance from Anthony Hopkins, who perfectly nails Hitchcock’s mannerisms, right down to the way he would slightly upturn his head when staring head on and cross his arms over his protruding belly. The only thing preventing a full transformation is Hopkins’ recognizable voice, which he seemingly doesn’t even try to hide. That in no way diminishes the care he put into who he was playing; everything else is so perfect, the voice hardly seems a distraction. He pulls off some truly great scenes, including a late one as he stands outside the theater doors on Psycho’s opening night, orchestrating the screams of viewers inside who have just reached the famous shower scene.

Some of its more intriguing moments come when the film explores Hitchcock’s inherent interest in the macabre or when they show off his cunning, like when he argues his way past the infamously strict censors who enforced Hollywood’s Production Code (which was then abandoned a mere eight years later in favor of the current MPAA ratings system). It concludes on a high note as well, with an ingenious ending where Hitchcock addresses the audience regarding how he will be on the lookout for inspiration to lead him to his next movie, just as a bird lands on his shoulder. But these moments are fleeting and don’t encompass the film as a whole. Hitchcock is such an interesting man and Psycho such an amazing movie that led a troubled production that there’s a wealth of content to explore, yet nearly all of it is brushed over. Frankly, a documentary would have suited this subject better. It’s difficult not to criticize the movie for what it isn’t rather than what it is, but I suppose that’s not such a bad problem to have. It may not be what one might hope, but at least what it is, is good.

Hitchcock receives 3.5/5

Friday
Apr082011

Arthur

When a movie like Arthur comes along, I can’t help but sigh. Is the 1981 original really worthy of an update? No matter how you cut it, I would argue it isn’t. While a popular comedy in its own right, its name is not recognizable enough among all generations to ensure a high number of ticket sales, but more importantly, it holds up remarkably well. It isn’t a film that has degraded with time and needs a modern retelling. So who exactly is this remake of Arthur for?

Taking the role from Dudley Moore in the original is Russell Brand as the titular character. He’s the wealthy son of Vivienne, played by Geraldine James, who supplies him with endless amounts of cash ($950 million if we’re being exact) for him to live his life the way he wants. However, she has grown tired of his slacker ways and has become embarrassed by his confrontations with the law. His public troubles are hurting her company, so she tells him she is cutting him off unless she marries Susan, played by Jennifer Garner, a woman she hopes will set Arthur straight. Unfortunately, Arthur doesn’t love Susan, but agrees to go through with it anyway to keep the cash. However, he soon meets Naomi, played by Greta Gerwig, the love of his life, and he finds himself torn between love and money.

There are two things this remake does better than the original. In regards to the cast, Gerwig is infinitely more likable than the bland (yet inexplicably popular) Liza Minnelli. She has a radiant onscreen presence and, along with her performance in last year’s Greenberg, has catapulted herself to the head of America’s sweethearts. She is to die for and conveys a type of innocence that is all but missing from women in the cinema these days.

The other step up is that the romance in this update is sweeter and better developed. While largely thanks to Gerwig, it also helps that the Arthur character isn’t as obnoxious here. In the original, he was loud and grating, stumbling over his words and his feet as he drank himself stupid. It was never entirely clear why Minnelli’s character fell for Arthur, but it’s understandable in the remake. Although he does drink and can sometimes be a little too much to handle, his crazy antics rarely reach the unpleasantries of his 1981 counterpart.

The problem is that those crazy antics are what made that movie so darn funny. The romance may have been a bit weak, but its main goal was to make you laugh and it succeeded. That prioritization is the same in the remake, but it only gets the less important romance parts right while the jokes strain to get the slightest reaction from its audience. A few are undeniably funny, but the rest are lazy, boring and obvious.

A lot of the original’s charm and laughs came from the butler character, played by John Gielgud (who won an Oscar for the role), but that charm is entirely missing here. Instead, the role is taken over by Helen Mirren, who laces her lines with contempt. Rather than coming off as cynical, yet playful as she is supposed to, she simply comes off as mean. So when the time comes for the inevitable late movie bonding scenes, they feel forced and fake.

To continue along with this doesn’t-live-up-to-the-original rant, Brand is simply a poor replacement for Dudley Moore. He has given me plenty of laughs in the past in movies like Get Him to the Greek, but he is strangely subdued here, probably because he is forced to restrain himself to keep with the PG-13 rating. Aside from the previously mentioned positives, everything in this remake (including those left unmentioned) is a step down from the original. I suppose those who haven’t seen it may find something worth watching here, but if you’re like me, there’s really no comparing the two.

Arthur receives 2/5

Friday
Oct152010

Red

It’s not everyday you get to see Helen Mirren wield an Uzi. It’s with this thought that I found myself so excited for Red, the latest graphic novel to be given the Hollywood treatment. Unfortunately, it’s a movie that can only be described as a polished mess. It takes more than some decent hand-to-hand fighting choreography and an A-list cast of actors to make a riveting action movie.

Bruce Willis plays Frank Moses, an ex CIA black op agent who has little interaction with the outside world apart from his phone calls to Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a government pension administrator. Although they have never met, there’s a connection and when he tells her he is about to visit her area, they decide to meet up. But before he leaves, he is nearly killed, discovering he is now on the government's hit list and unsure why. After discussing it with former partners Joe (Morgan Freeman), Marvin (John Malkovich) and Victoria (Mirren), he and his gang head out in search of some answers.

There’s no shortage of comic book movies, or on an even broader scale action movies, in Hollywood. Red is merely another in a long line of mediocrity, but it tries real hard to be something different. It tries to make interesting the action by giving loud weapons to actors that are aged well into their 60’s and 70’s and by including poorly written pseudo-hipster dialogue that is laughable coming out of their mouths.

The fact of the matter is that compared to recent comic book movies, this isn’t as funny as Kick Ass or as original as Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and when it comes to action, it’s not as exciting as something like The Expendables or The A-Team. It’s a third rate combination of all of those films.

What’s disappointing, outside of its lack of originality and misappropriation of its stars, is that for an action flick, it moves slow. It wastes its time with needless conversations that contribute so little to the plot that their inclusion is nebulous at best. Take for instance an early scene where Joe tells Frank he has stage four level cancer. This little anecdote is brought up and dropped so quickly it recalls memories of the breast cancer line in Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

When Red finally does take time for some action, it’s generic fare, with gun battles in a maze of shipping containers and parking garages. The most interesting scenarios in the whole film are sidestepped by the most convenient placement of characters I’ve seen in a while. Whenever somebody was in peril, a distant friend would show up at the exact right moment and snatch them away from harm. This tactic is repeated a number of times, further crippling its already crumbling structure.

I didn’t hate Red, however, despite my criticisms. Bruce Willis oozes cool in the film and never breaks a sweat, even when surrounded on all sides and facing a hail of bullets, and although Mirren and Freeman aren’t given much to do, it was interesting seeing them at their age as the main stars of a comic book action movie. The fun the actors had making Red comes across onscreen, but that fun never reaches us.

Red receives 2/5