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Entries in Olivia Wilde (6)

Friday
Sep272013

Rush

Ron Howard is a director that most think rather highly of, but the truth of the matter is that he’s somewhat inconsistent. Sure, we all love “Apollo 13” and “Frost/Nixon,” but there’s also his lousy adaptations of “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons.” He’s even dabbled in comedy a bit over his many years, most recently with 2011’s “The Dilemma.” Anyone remember that train wreck? Probably not, because our perceptions of his skills as a director are skewed towards his greater works. His latest, “Rush,” is closer to the latter films than the former, unfortunately, but that doesn’t automatically make it bad. It’s a good movie and its problems stem more from a slightly unfocused script and poor characterizations than any specific directorial decision, but as far as dramatic, based-on-true-stories go, it’s not particularly memorable.

The movie takes place in the 70s and stars Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt, a reckless Formula One racecar driver with dreams of becoming world champion. He’s one of the absolute best in the sport, matched only by Niki Lauda, played by Daniel Bruhl. The movie follows their rivalry and creates an interesting dynamic between the two. Despite their dislike for each other, there’s a mutual respect. Without the other, they would be unstoppable, which isn’t as interesting to them. It’s the competition, the thrill of victory after a hard fought battle, that compels them to do what they do. Because the two hardly spend any time together, their complicated relationship must have been tough to convey, but “Rush” rises to this challenge. Aside from the intellectually insulting closing narration that unnecessarily spells out their feelings, the complexity of their bond is handled with aplomb.

Nevertheless, the film loses its focus all too quickly. Just as we’re getting to know one of these men, a transition is made to the other, or even worse, the focus leaves them altogether. Too much of the early moments in the movie focus on the economics of racing—like the battle to find a sponsor—rather than the emotional struggle and pressure they must have felt in those early days. Too often, important moments in the lives of these men are glossed over. These moments could have helped us gain perspective on who they were and what drove them to race so vigorously, but the movie doesn’t seem interested in that. A good example comes in the form of Hunt’s short-lived wife, Suzy Miller, played by Olivia Wilde. When she randomly and awkwardly appears, the film immediately cuts to their marriage, only for the next scene to play out their break-up. She then disappears for nearly the entirety of the rest of the movie, reappearing only for a brief lunch scene with Hunt. It’s implied that Hunt’s love of racing interfered with his love for Suzy, but the entire arc is rushed through so quickly, it hardly makes an impact.

I suppose such a decision was a conscious one. The film is trying to condense many years worth of time into a couple hours—seen most noticeably when it starts bypassing important races and instead lets us know what happened through onscreen text, not exactly the most exciting tactic one can use in a movie about racing—so Suzy’s lack of prominence isn’t surprising. If this speedy approach does one thing well, it filters out some of the narrative pollution and allows the natural tension of such a dangerous sport to take center stage. These drivers live on the edge, well aware that every time they hop on that track, it could be their last. As Hunt puts it early on, “The closer to death you are, the more alive you feel. It’s a wonderful way to live, as if each day is your last.” This theme is an interesting one that will allow those who have never really done anything daring to live vicariously through the characters. Even if you don’t care at all about Formula One racing, it will be hard to deny that you weren’t on the edge of your seat during the nail-biting finale.

Yet the fact remains that the film, from a storytelling and scriptural point of view, is lacking. Frankly, if you’re looking for a great movie with a similar story, you’re better off with 2010’s wonderful “Senna.” Although a documentary, its drama is more potent, its action is more intense and the devastating ending touches on feelings “Rush” doesn’t come close to. With some great performances and exciting sequences accompanied by a sometimes frustrating lack of focus, “Rush” relegates itself to a minor diversion and nothing more.

Rush receives 3/5

Friday
Mar152013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" is a movie that’s easy to like. Its cast is charming, committed and they get into enough interesting antics that it will hold your attention. Unfortunately, it’s also very easy to hate. With frequent comedic dry spells in a somewhat dull script with satire that is anything but timely, the film just lacks that special something. It will certainly muster some laughs out of even the most hardened viewer, mostly due to its willingness to embrace the goofier side of magic, but for every joke it nails, another lands with a thud. It’s easily the most uneven movie of the year so far and is bound to sharply divide critics who have to decide whether or not to give it a recommendation.

Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) was a lonely kid. He didn’t really have any friends, was picked on mercilessly by his peers and his mother was never there for him, to the point where on his birthday, she went to work and didn’t leave him a cake, but rather the ingredients to make one. On that fateful birthday, however, he’s given one gift: a magic set endorsed by famed magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). This changes his life forever and, along with newly formed pal Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), he makes it big and becomes a famous Vegas magician. Unfortunately, a new trend is popping up called street magic. The most famous purveyor of street magic is Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) and he’s stealing Burt and Anton’s patrons. This leads to the closing of their show, a falling out of their friendship and a feud between Burt and Steve. Having never planned for the future, Burt never put away any money and is now broke, so what’s he to do?

The answer to that question is fairly clear, following a narrative trajectory that’s been around since we first started telling stories through moving pictures. If broken down to the most simplistic analysis, "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" a story of the rise and fall and rise again of a popular character with contrived plot turns and obvious, trite romances. But to focus on narrative inconsistencies would be silly with a cast like this. What matters is how often it brings the laughs and when it does, it’s really funny.

In a great example of inspired casting, Jim Carrey steals the show as Steve Gray, the street magician shooting his television show “Brain Rapist,” a clear parody of Criss Angel’s “Mindfreak.” His rubber face and over-the-top antics are a perfect fit for the over-the-top nature of street magic. He, and the writers who wrote the character this way, understand that street magic is all about showmanship and macho posturing and with this knowledge, Carrey creates a character that is as absurd as he is amusing. He amplifies the inherent ridiculousness of street magic tenfold, capturing the essence, albeit exaggerated, of street magicians like Criss Angel. Jim Carrey, in a welcome return to form, saves this movie.

Yet one can’t help but realize that the parody is coming a bit late. With "Mindfreak" having been off the air for three years (and having lost its relevancy far before that) and Criss Angel a speck in our memories, what was the film trying to accomplish? The best satire relates to the present, making a point about something that is happening now and needs to be addressed, from big government decisions to silly pop culture fads. "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" feels like it was written during a week long DVD binge watching session of “Mindfreak” and quickly loses its relevance in a world that has moved on.

Some of its satirical bite, however, is not out of date, like when Anton heads overseas to impoverished countries devoid of food and water to teach kids magic. When asked by a reporter if he’s also bringing food and water, he replies with a smile, “No, just magic.” It’s a great jab at those who travel around the world preaching their own beliefs, be they religious or simply ideological, without providing the actual elements that are truly needed in those areas, but it’s not fleshed out. It’s little more than a side note in a movie that repeatedly shows it has no idea when it has something good going on.

Its best thematic endeavor comes with the idea that magic is, well, magical. It believes strongly that magic can instill a sense of wonder in everyone, from the smallest of tykes to the oldest of adults and it’s right. Magicians, for the brief time an audience is watching them, can make the impossible possible and the film taps into this idea and uses it to bring its characters full circle. Granted, there are better options out there if that theme is all you’re looking for, like the wonderful 2010 documentary, "Make Believe," but the fact that it’s there at all shows that the filmmakers at least had their own childlike wonder, if not passion, for the art of magic. It’s just a shame it’s stuck in such a middling movie.

I suppose at the end of the day, I have to join all the other critics and make a decision on where my opinion falls with "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" and I sadly fall on the side of a non-recommendation. It’s a decision I make with a heavy heart because there is a lot to enjoy here, but it’s impossible to overlook such glaring flaws. It definitely has an audience, though, so if you think you’re in it, go for it. At the very least, you won’t hate it.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone receives 2.5/5

Friday
Dec072012

Deadfall

With December finally here and the awards season right around the corner, one can’t help but wonder what the motivation was to release Deadfall right in the thick of it. It certainly doesn’t deserve a place among the more coveted films to be released this month, instead feeling more like a standard throwaway thriller that should have been released in January or February, when studios dump whatever garbage they have sitting around into theaters just to get it out of their hands. To be fair, Deadfall isn’t terrible. It’s just terribly boring. With movies like Skyfall behind us and The Hobbit in front, there’s no real reason to see this. Just wait the extra week until it inevitably vanishes from our collective memories.

Addison (Eric Bana) and Liza (Olivia Wilde) aren’t your typical siblings. They’re actually thieves who have just escaped from a casino heist gone wrong and are on their way to the Canadian border. However, when their driver crashes their car in an attempt to avoid a passing animal, they find themselves forced to make the trek on foot in a blizzard, splitting up and vowing to meet later. Eventually, Liza runs into Jay (Charlie Hunnam), a Silver medalist at the Beijing Olympics who has just been released from prison and is on his way to his parents (played by Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson) for Thanksgiving dinner. Liza and Jay start an innocent fling with each other, playing a game where they pretend to be together and go by different aliases, which puts a kink in Addison’s plan to reunite with his sister and cross the border, which Jay’s parents live very close to.

And, as expected, this leads to a final showdown at Jay’s household that plays out more like a whimper than a bang. Although it wouldn’t be right to spoil what happens, Deadfall is such a conventional thriller that all but those who are completely unfamiliar with the genre will be able to predict its sequence of events well before they actually happen. It plods along rather typically and banally; it’s not until that final sequence that the film manages to build up any excitement at all. When everyone converges on that house where Bana has taken the parents hostage and the game between Jay and Liza has blossomed into a full-fledged romance, everybody unaware of Liza’s true relationship to Addison, intrigue is built, but by then, it’s too little too late and it ends too abruptly, never allowing us to savor the feeling of watching certain characters get their comeuppance.

With such a boring, trite story, the least Deadfall could do was give us the pleasure of watching someone get what’s coming to them, but it instead favors wrapping up inconsequential side stories that were mostly uninteresting and laughable to begin with. The most egregious offender of this comes in the form of Hanna (Kate Mara), a police officer in this small, quiet town who has daddy issues revolving around sexism, blame and a lack of trust. Unfortunately for her, her dad is the Sheriff and she answers to him. It's a terrible an underdeveloped B-story and every exchange they have is forced to the point where I’m pretty sure the actors involved developed hemorrhoids. (When asked why she can’t go out and help in their investigation, he responds with a question about what she would do if something important came up. “What if you have to change your tampon?” he asks.)

Perhaps the only thing more bored than I was while watching Deadfall were the actors actually in it, most of whom seemed to be coasting by for a paycheck while they waited for their next big break, particularly Eric Bana, who has always been an underwhelming actor, even in critically lauded films like Munich. They all seem to put forth only the slightest bit of effort, as if they knew that pretty much nobody was going to watch their movie. If they somehow had that premonition, they’re likely to be right. Deadfall just doesn’t deserve our time. Put it out in the middle of February, when moviegoers have been numbed by at least a month of likely-to-be-bad films and perhaps it looks more appetizing, but now? We have plenty of better options.

Deadfall receives 2/5

Friday
Aug052011

The Change-Up

Redundancy in cinema is commonplace. There are only so many stories to tell and most films end up regurgitating story points from those that came before, but none seem more worn out than the “body switch” subgenre. It was tired well before now, but still we have The Change-Up to battle against. It’s a movie that requires very little of its audience, but in a marathon day where I sat through four different movies with this being the last one, mentally exhausted by the time it came around, I still found it inane and generally unfunny. Just think how much I could have hated it had I actually thought through it.

Dave (Jason Bateman) is a lawyer who spends far too much time worrying about his job, despite his wife, Jamie (Leslie Mann), and three children (including twin babies) back home who need his attention. His best friend, Mitch (Ryan Reynolds), on the other hand, lives alone, has no job (though he has just lined up an acting gig in a “lorno,” a light porno) and spends most nights with a different woman. One night, after a drunken bar visit, they talk about how great each other’s lives are, Dave jealous of Mitch’s carefree lifestyle and Mitch of Dave’s loving family. While simultaneously urinating in a fountain, they wish they could switch lives. When they wake up, they find their wish has come true. Dave is now in Mitch’s body and vice versa.

Despite its been-there-done-that feel, The Change-Up is not a bad idea. Its two lead stars are charismatic and different enough that it’s relatively fun watching them play each other. It’s hard to keep things straight sometimes when you’re watching Ryan Reynolds play Jason Bateman playing Ryan Reynolds, but if you’re familiar enough with their usual onscreen personas, you’ll get the jokes. Bateman, for instance, is usually typecast as your typical nice guy, but he’s definitely playing against type here. He’s loud, rude and abrasive, not at all like the straight man we’ve come to know over the years.

The problem is that the characters, no matter which body they are in, are unlikable. Before the switch, Dave complains about his life, defining his marriage to his wife and having their three children as a mistake. As he says, he “pissed away” his life. Mitch is despicable in another way. He’s a vulgar, misogynistic loser who disregards others and treats Dave’s children like dirt. After the body switch, he tells Dave’s daughter to always solve her problems with violence and he carries around the twins by the back of their necks like cats. His abusive tendencies towards those around him make him hard to sympathize with or, most importantly, laugh at, despite Bateman giving it his all. Of course, as is par for the course in these types of movies, both characters learn valuable life lessons that any viewer will be able to see coming from a mile away, but these late movie redemptions don’t forgive its mean-spirited attitude.

This particular body switch is the most interesting since Nicolas Cage and John Travolta in Face/Off, or at least it would have been had it not been assumed the film could be carried solely off watching the two actors play exaggerated versions of each other. I could complain about the unnecessary side story that has something do with Mitch’s father, played by Alan Arkin of all people, getting married, but I don’t think that matters to this movie’s target audience. If you’re wondering if that’s you, here’s a quick test. Within the first five minutes, one of Dave’s babies shoots poop into his mouth. Did you laugh?

The Change-Up receives 2/5

Friday
Jul292011

Cowboys & Aliens

The western and sci-fi genres are at odds with each other. Out of all the possibilities movies give us, such a mixture seems strange. One tells its stories entirely in the past while the other relies on futuristic elements. It’s a mash up that is rarely seen, but when it is, it usually breeds interesting and unique results (like Joss Whedon’s wonderful short lived television show, Firefly). This week’s Cowboys & Aliens attempts to do the same, taking familiar western elements and fusing them with conventional sci-fi fare, but it feels half-hearted and, oddly, all too familiar.

The story is simple enough: a race of aliens have descended on a small town in the 1800’s and begun abducting its inhabitants, while the remaining few head off to save them. Where Cowboys & Aliens stumbles is not in its simplistic story, but its simplistic characters. Despite its talented stars, most never rise above traditional western archetypes. Daniel Craig is the tough, hardened outlaw who talks tough but actually has a heart of gold and Harrison Ford is, well, Harrison Ford. Both give great performances, but it means little in a movie that doesn’t take the time to build its characters.

I suspect this may have been intentional, given its succinct title that suggests nothing more than a good popcorn summer blockbuster, but director Jon Favreau is too good a filmmaker to limit himself like that. It’s almost as if his initial intentions were to make a dumb fun movie, but he realized while shooting that such a thing was beneath him, so he tried, unsuccessfully, to flesh out the thin characters he had neglected up to that point. Bad drama is forced into the film where it doesn’t belong and extraneous side characters spout heartwarming monologues that are supposed to instantly change our perception of certain characters, but it doesn’t work because nothing has been leading to these moments.

Perhaps that is because the film’s dialogue is overburdened with exposition, spending far too much time explaining what is happening. When you’re watching a movie called Cowboys & Aliens, the title says it all. What more do you need to know? But it goes on anyway, saying a lot without really saying much of anything at all, attempting to fill in plot holes the screenplay has amateurishly overlooked. One character in the film, it is revealed partway through, is not human and lives “beyond the stars,” but where precisely did this person come from? What is his or her purpose? What does he or she hope to accomplish? Such cryptic language should be fleshed out, giving more narrative weight and emotional meaning to the proceedings, but, aside from a few supplementary lines of dialogue, it is left alone, an insufficient explanation for what should have been a major plot turn.

The screenplay too is packed to the brim with conveniences, disrupting whatever human danger the characters may find themselves in with the impeccably timed arrival of alien spaceships, but take away all its baffling story problems and Cowboys & Aliens still only works for those willing to dumb themselves down for it. It's hard to ignore the fact that these aliens have mastered interplanetary travel and have futuristic weapons technology that far surpasses what we have even today, yet insist on rushing head first and unarmed into battle. Again, their reasoning is briefly explained with throwaway dialogue and again it’s insufficient.

But at least the scene I’ve discussed above is bright enough to see. At times, Cowboys & Aliens is far too dark, like it was shot through tinted windows. Like many cases these days, it could be that the theater I saw it in had previously shown a 3D movie and the projector had not been properly prepared for 2D, but I saw no indications of that. It simply appeared to be an oversight from the filmmakers.

Even with all that in consideration, Cowboys & Aliens still should have been a great, or at least fun, movie. It’s the most interesting use of the classic western setting since developer Rockstar’s great Undead Nightmare video game, but it does little more than prove that an idea is not enough. That idea must become something greater, something that doesn’t rely solely on its title to get audiences in the theater.

Cowboys & Aliens receives 2/5