Latest Reviews

Entries in Robert De Niro (4)

Friday
Dec092011

New Year's Eve

There are lots of different aspects of a movie that can make or break it. One of the most important is focus. When a movie meanders too much or introduces too many characters or tries to juggle multiple stories in its short runtime, it almost never works. The exception to that rule is 2003’s Love Actually, a delightful, though still certainly flawed romance that now ranks among many people’s must watch love stories. Last year’s Valentine’s Day attempted to recreate that movie’s charm and scraped by on the skin of its teeth. Now that film’s director is attempting to recreate his own recreation with New Year’s Eve, an unwise decision. The small amount of luck he had with Valentine’s Day is all but gone and most of the joy that comes from watching it is due to how bad it gets as it draws nearer to its conclusion. New Year’s Eve takes cheese to an entirely new level.

The film is told through a number of vignettes featuring characters on December 31st, 2011 as they prepare for what the new year will bring. There’s Claire (Hilary Swank), the person in charge of the New York City ball drop, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), an unhappy record company employee who has just quit her job, Paul (Zac Efron), the young delivery boy Ingrid buys for the day to help her meet a list of goals before midnight, Stan (Robert De Niro), an old man dying in the hospital, Aimee (Halle Berry), his nurse, Tess (Jessica Biel), who is close to giving birth but is trying to hold out with her husband Griffin (Seth Meyers) until midnight because the first family to give birth in the new year gets a large cash prize, and Grace (Sarah Paulson) and James Schwab (Til Schweiger), the competing pregnant couple across the hall.

Believe it or not, I haven’t even come close to naming off all the film’s characters. Not mentioned in the above synopsis are Cary Elwes, Alyssa Milano, Common, Carla Gugino, Katherine Heigl, Jon Bon Jovi, Sofia Vergara, Ashton Kutcher, Lea Michele, James Belushi, Sarah Jessica Parker, Abigail Breslin, Josh Duhamel, Ludacris and more. The film leaves no celebrity unturned, even going so far as to give Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson on The Simpsons, a supporting role. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy playing “spot the celebrity,” but it doesn’t make for the most structured movie. Rather than introducing them organically through the needs of the story, they are introduced just as they are, as celebrities. It becomes distracting.

But in a movie with so little going for it, that hardly matters. As expected with a film that crams so much in a small amount of time, none of the individual stories are given room to breathe. Most are sped through so as not to make the movie five hours long, which gives little time for characterization. The two or three interesting stories are either overshadowed by a dozen other lousy ones or undermined by poor writing, where conflicts are thrown in arbitrarily in a desperate attempt to build emotion by the end, like the scene where Paul stands alone in a room with Ingrid and talks to his pal on the phone about how pathetic she is, as if she can’t hear him while she’s standing a few yards away. Moments like these derail New Year’s Eve from what is already a pretty wobbly track.

But hating the film is not easy. It’s cheery and optimistic, even if that optimism borders on annoyance. It knows its audience and it panders to them. The simplicity of its story is exactly what the people who go to see this will want, so in a strange way, you could almost call it a success. Luckily, however, its simplicity doesn’t carry all the way to its end. There are a few legitimate surprises in store for its viewers, a twist or two that actually manage to create some intrigue as the clock strikes midnight for the characters, even though the film’s window for emotion is long gone by then. Still, getting to those clever twists is a chore. New Year’s Eve is only two hours long, but its gooey amounts of cheese and hilariously awful song numbers will make it feel like you’re watching the whole stupid day unfold.

New Year’s Eve receives 1.5/5

Friday
Sep232011

Killer Elite

Speaking to colleagues that had already seen Killer Elite, I was told to lower my expectations. I was told that, despite the promising trailers and impressive cast, it’s little more than another routine Jason Statham movie and only if I approached it with that in mind would there be a chance of me finding enjoyment in it. Having now seen it, I’m not so sure any mindset would have made it work. It’s not terrible, but it is a slow, plodding watch. Its admittedly impressive action scenes provide the occasional burst of entertainment, but it’s the stuff surrounding them that doesn’t work.

The film is based on a supposed true story (though that claim has been disputed) detailed in Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ book, The Feather Men. In it, Danny (Jason Statham), an ex-hitman who has retired from killing, is, you guessed it, pulled back in for one last job. His old partner, Hunter (Robert De Niro), is being held captive by a Dubai sheikh who will only release him if Danny kills the men who killed his son. The targets are members of the British Special Air Service, which makes killing them very dangerous, but Danny decides he must make an attempt nevertheless. However, a group of vigilante SAS members, led by Spike (Clive Owen), is determined to protect their comrades at whatever cost, which means getting to Danny before he gets to them.

Killer Elite begins with a bang, opening with an exciting and violent, but not over-the-top, action scene that demonstrates the expertise of Danny and Hunter, showing them as professionals who approach their targets in an intelligent, calculated way. It works as a set-up for future scenes, so when Danny is later able to somehow elude capture and death after finding himself in a number of sticky situations, we’ll be able to buy it. It’s an action scene with meaning, but, unfortunately, it’s the only one. The film follows this up with a scene of little consequence—one that exists solely to please the action fans in the theater—an attempted breakout that is predetermined to fail because, as most viewers will be able to realize, there is no movie if Hunter escapes.

Then it hits a lull. Danny goes about finding and eliminating his targets, but a sense of urgency is missing; it’s easy to forget why he’s even doing it. He runs into the men, all of whom have names and faces, but might as well not, he makes them disappear and that’s that. The problem is the targets are integral to the story, but are too often passed over in favor of a tired cat-and-mouse chase between Danny and Spike, similar to that of a Bourne movie, only boring. We are supposed to accept their demises, but their personalities and motivations needed expansion for that to happen.

Killer Elite is not a movie to bother with details. It worries not about how it gets from scene to scene, just as long as it keeps on moving. At one point, Danny decides he needs to score a lethal drug to administer to the next target so as to make it look like an accident. The next thing you know, he’s in a doctors scrub signing off for it, but how did he manage that? This film doesn’t care. It even goes so far as to set itself in 1980, but skimps on the details. Aside from some high riding shorts and older model cars sitting in the streets, the time period is indistinguishable from today.

To make itself even less interesting than it already is, Killer Elite throws in an underdeveloped love story between Danny and Anne (Yvonne Strahovski), told mostly through flashbacks because, one can only assume, the filmmakers couldn’t figure out a smoother way to fit it into the story. The romance exists only as a means to end, to flip our perception of Danny from a cold-blooded killer to a hero. It doesn’t work because the film is trying to be something it’s not. It works best when it pits the men on the poster against each other, not bogging itself down in trite courtships, but even that proves to be a lie. While it’s certainly fun watching Statham and Owen go at it, De Niro is barely a presence thanks to his incarceration, despite his prominence in the marketing. Because of these things and many more, Killer Elite is not what you expect, and it isn’t good enough to make up for it.

Killer Elite receives 2/5

Friday
Mar182011

Limitless

Limitless is a film that merely exists. It doesn’t impress. It doesn’t offend. It’s just there. It spends an hour and 45 minutes moving neither forward nor backward. It creates a feeling of apathy among its viewers, disconnected from what’s happening onscreen and ready to depart from the theater and experience something more exciting. It’s a movie that has an interesting idea, but never does anything interesting with it. It’s not a waste of time, but it’s also not worth it. The strange crossroads Limitless finds itself in is one of equal mix hatred and admiration. If that’s the best it can do, despite some positive aspects, I’m going to have to advise you to skip it.

Bradley Cooper plays Eddie, a struggling writer who is in the middle of a block, unable to find anything in his mind that is worth putting on the page. After months of producing nothing, he runs into his ex brother-in-law, Vernon, played by Johnny Whitworth, who gives him a drug that allows him to use all of his brain rather than the small percentage humankind has been limited to. The drug is called NZT-48 and, rather than use it to further pursue a literary career, he makes a name for himself in the finance world, catching the eye of big business mogul, Carl Van Loon, played by Robert De Niro. Unfortunately, there are side effects that Vernon didn’t mention and Eddie quickly finds himself wondering if it was all worth it.

Limitless is a film that reminds one of The Social Network, only to a lesser degree. Its comparative dialogue, which is fast moving and quick witted, makes it seem like it’s aiming for something smart, but that aim seems to be in the wrong direction. It may use big words, but without proper implementation of them, they are nothing more than psychobabble. And its script relies on ridiculous scenarios and contrived happenstances to move the plot along, like an early scene when Eddie is looking for the drug in his now dead brother-in-law’s apartment. After an unsuccessful search, he says that without the drug, he’s “cooked,” which naturally leads him to finding a secret compartment inside the oven.

Essentially, Limitless is a story about a drug addict. Eddie takes the drug, becomes addicted to its intoxicating, feel good effects and then finds himself in dire straits as it begins to take his life. Given the subject matter and the path Eddie goes down after taking the drug, it would be easy to assume that there is some type of anti-drug message, but that’s not the case. In fact, the end result of the film, which will not be revealed, shows that prolonged drug usage can have a positive effect, as long as you can work through the initial negative side effects. It’s an ending of questionable morals and it comes off as more than a little irresponsible.

But when it all comes down to it, it’s not the contrivances or the problematic message that kills Limitless. It’s that it’s just kind of boring. While a technically solid film, it fails to capitalize on its intriguing premise. Surely if we could use our brains to their full extent, it would be more interesting than this. An idea ripe for the picking is wasted on a screenplay that has no idea what to do with it. It’s ironic really. The characters in Limitless are brilliant, but the story they are forced to trudge through is dumb as a rock.

Limitless receives 2/5

Friday
Sep032010

Machete

In a summer filled with action movies that, at their best, are stupid fun and nothing more, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a movie like Machete, the chaotic, deliberately silly and ultra violent full length feature spawned from the terrific faux trailer attached between the two films in 2007’s overlooked Grindhouse. In all its unrestrained glory, this is a movie that has brains behind its ridiculousness. It may be because this year at the cinema has been particularly underwhelming, but Machete is, at this point, one of the best films of the year.

The movie begins in Mexico where a Mexican cop called Machete (Danny Trejo) is on his way to rescue a girl being held captive by Torrez (Steven Seagal), a druglord who has complete control over all law enforcement in the country. When Machete arrives, Torrez surprise attacks him and ends up killing his wife. Three years later, Machete is living in Texas as an illegal immigrant. Election time is coming up and Republican Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro) is running under the promise of completely wiping out all illegal immigration and closing off the borders with a giant electrified fence. One day, Machete is approached by Booth (Jeff Fahey) and given $150,000 to kill McLaughlin. He agrees, but is quickly double crossed and finds himself on a mission of revenge and righteousness.

Machete is a cynical movie, sarcastically portraying right wing ideologies in as humorous and degrading a way as possible. With the central theme of immigration as its crux, the film takes a stand on the idea that we are fighting a fight that doesn’t need to be fought. While any economist that has studied the issue will agree, many conservatives will not and the film, quite effectively, shows the ignorance and hatred that seeps out of the most extreme. If they aren’t unfairly calling all immigrants “terrorists,” they show how the craziest of those on the right are greedy and power hungry.

Of course, there’s not really a message here as much as playful poking. There’s no hidden left wing agenda supporting immigration and no true hatred for those on the opposite side. The conservative characters come off as mere caricatures, not indicative of the majority of reasonable righties. That’s not what this film is about. It’s about recapturing the feeling of an old, gritty grindhouse picture and it succeeds.

Known for their sexually exploitative and graphically violent nature, grindhouse films are inherently bad, B-movies by their very nature. Machete mimics that experience, but does it purposely, fully aware of how silly it is. Limbs are hacked, throats are cut, people are shot and gratuitous nudity are all basic features. Where it lacks, however, is in its aesthetics. Recall the underappreciated Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez collaboration Grindhouse, which used visual tricks to capture the look of an actual grindhouse film, complete with missing frames and dust specks, intentionally aging its print. Outside of its opening credits, Machete fails to do the same. It captures the feeling of a grindhouse picture, but it overlooks the necessary visuals to accommodate it. But when you’re having this much fun and laughing at the endless amount of gory ingenuity, including a hilarious intestinal rappel, it’s hard to quibble too much.

I haven't enjoyed a goofy, madcap, knowingly absurd movie like this since Shoot ‘Em Up. I loved Machete and if the Bond-esque closing that promises the title character will return is true to its word, my enthusiasm is only just beginning.

Machete receives 4.5/5