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Entries in Russell Crowe (4)

Friday
Jun142013

Man of Steel

In the world of superhero cinema, there’s no question Marvel dominates. With the success of movies like the “Iron Man” trilogy, “Thor,” and of course “The Avengers,” Marvel has taken the cinema world by storm, igniting a superhero revolution and wowing millions of people in the process. All of this has been happening while competitor DC Comics has struggled in the background for success. Aside from the Batman movies, DC hasn’t reinvigorated one of their heroes at the movies in a long time, despite a solid and underrated effort by Bryan Singer with 2006’s “Superman Returns.” This week’s “Man of Steel” is exactly what DC needs. While it is by no means perfect, it reinvigorates Superman with some much needed style and defies the expectations of what most people expect from him.

The movie begins on Krypton, the alien home world of a baby named Kal-El, who will eventually become Superman. The planet is dying, so Kal-El’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), sends him off to Earth to save his life, but not before stashing the planet’s codex with him. That codex has the information required to begin life anew for his people, so General Zod (Michael Shannon), a disgraced general that was banished from Krypton and ended up watching his world implode, decides to track it down, along with the now all grown up Kal-El. Now known as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), he has been hiding his true identity to the world out of uncertainty about how the people would react.

Superman has its detractors for a number of reasons. Some of those people have valid criticisms while others miss the point of the character altogether. Superman exists as a Christ-like figure, one that is willing to put himself in danger to protect the people of the world, even the ones he doesn’t personally connect with. Just as the story of Jesus shows his selflessness, the personality of Superman is one that values others above anything else. To attack Superman is mostly frivolous given his lack of weaknesses (which is where the detractors’ issue of kryptonite being his only flaw comes into play), but it’s not attacking him that causes him pain. To really hurt him, you have to attack his humanity and put others in danger. This is why the character is so interesting. He’s not fighting back to try to bring lawfulness to a corrupt city like Batman and his motivation doesn’t stem from vengeance like Spider-man after he loses Uncle Ben. It comes from a simple desire to do good, to take his abilities and use them to help others, working as a savior to humanity.

Perhaps more than any other Superman movie, “Man of Steel” understands this. Although there is plenty of action, much of it occurs in the vicinity of the Metropolis population, all of them put in danger due to the actions of General Zod. When the army shows up to kill the aliens in one scene, their attempt quickly proves futile and Superman has to jump to action, despite the fact that the government doesn’t yet trust him and sees him as an enemy. Their perception of him doesn’t matter and although it would surely be easier to side with Zod, he instead fights for the greater good. Sometimes the Biblical allegory is a bit too on-the-nose, particularly when he floats outside of a crashing spaceship with his arms stretched out in the shape of a crucifix to save a falling Lois Lane (Amy Adams), but it makes it no less interesting.

“Man of Steel” clearly embraces the very idea of the character as this Christ-like figure, but the movie nevertheless goes in its own direction. Some may be surprised to hear that kryptonite is not featured in the movie at all. In fact, it’s not even mentioned and wouldn’t make sense to have given that General Zod is of the same origin as Superman. Although the movie creates a new narratively legitimate physical weakness for him, his real weakness in this movie is his doubt and uncertainty about a world of people he wants to save, but who fear him. In keeping with the Biblical allegory, he comes as a savior, but the people shun him. After saving a bus full of students from drowning in a lake as a child, it’s not gratitude he receives from the parents of the children, but rather suspicion. His parents, played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, teach him to control his powers, explaining to him that one day his powers will come in handy and he will need to make a decision regarding how to use them.

Of course, his ultimate decision is obvious, but director Zack Snyder, the man behind the visually wondrous “Watchmen” and “300,” makes it feel fresh. The fights, though largely CGI, are a thrill to watch and the camerawork behind them is absolutely fantastic, including one tracking shot moving at what seems like supersonic speed as Superman catches up with Zod as they fly through the air in battle. Similar to the way he took a much beloved movie and made it new with 2004’s remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” he makes Superman once again appealing for a new generation of moviegoers.

If any flaws can be directed at the movie, it’s that the end of the final battle is a bit anti-climactic and there is a ton of expositional dialogue, perhaps more than any other movie in recent memory, but that dialogue is written so well and delivered so strongly that it’s more palatable than one might be accustomed to. “Man of Steel” is more of a character study than an action movie, which may not appeal to some. Tack on a slow beginning (despite the most glorious and beautiful destruction of Krypton ever put to screen) and a nearly two and a half hour runtime and divisiveness is to be expected. But in my eyes, “Man of Steel” is a sight to behold and it isn’t until you think about it later that its true wonder shines through.

Man of Steel receives 4.5/5

Wednesday
Dec192012

Les Misérables

The worst type of movie is the one that fails to live up to expectations. Usually when this happens, the movie itself is far below what it could and should have been. Usually, the standalone trailer is astonishing, managing to hit a range of emotions in a short two minutes, while the movie itself, when fleshed out to feature length, completely misses the mark. Rarely, however, does a movie fail to live up to expectations and is still as good as Les Misérables. It would be somewhat of a stretch to call it one of the greatest musicals ever made—it’s not even one of the best movies of this year—but its narrative grandiosity, lush visuals, assured direction and phenomenal performances from a terrific ensemble cast make it more than your ordinary film musical. Les Misérables deftly crafts unparalleled moments of beauty and awe, conveying true emotion around themes of love, loss and hardship that will cause all but the most hardened viewers to sympathize with, and maybe even cry for, those fighting onscreen.

Based on the Victor Hugo novel from 1862 (and adapted into a stage musical in 1980), Les Misérables follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a Frenchman who has spent many years as a prisoner and slave for stealing bread, overseen by policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). When the film begins, he is finally released from his imprisonment, but is put on parole for the rest of his life. If he breaks it, he will be hunted down and captured. Rather than heed that warning, he breaks parole anyway and starts a new life as a wealthy factory owner and mayor of the town he has chosen to settle in. One day, he runs into Fantine (Anne Hathaway), an ex-employee of his who was fired from his factory and is now selling herself to make ends meet and support her young daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen). After tragedy strikes Fantine, Jean decides to adopt Cosette and raise her as his own, all while he hides from Javert’s relentless pursuit. Many years pass and Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried), is all grown up and they’re about to find themselves in the middle of a revolution.

Les Misérables isn’t like your typical musical. It’s not full of flamboyant choreography or energetic numbers that are cut to resemble a music video. Instead, it’s very reserved. The camera more often than not settles on close-ups and rolls without cutting, the performers singing their numbers in one take. This lends terrific weight to a film that relies almost entirely on the emotional fragility of its viewers. When the actors sing these songs, pouring their hearts and souls into them, and you are so close that you see every twitch in their skin and tear forming in their eyes, it’s impossible not to feel something. In particular, Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is heartbreaking and, perhaps due to this single moment in a nearly three hour long film, likely to win her an Oscar.

Much of the emotional impact comes from the fact that, unlike most movie musicals that pre-record their songs before shooting, the actors are singing the songs in real time, much like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. There’s no lip-synching present here and the turmoil of the characters comes through tenfold because they’re singing in character, not in some studio behind a microphone. It’s a tactic that is brilliantly used by director Tom Hooper, who, if 2010’s remarkable The King’s Speech is any indication, knows how to maximize the effect his movies have on an audience.

Despite the tragic story that unfolds and the many deaths that accompany it, Les Misérables has some lighthearted moments that come mostly from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier. Their presence is ever welcome in the sea of sadness, but there’s too little of them and they end up overshadowing some of the other, bleaker moments, if for no other reason than because they’re more upbeat. This discrepancy between these two different styles is indicative of the film as a whole, in that certain sections aren’t as interesting as others. Very few movies of this length have the ability to maintain viewer attention and with a gap of songs that range from breathtaking to flat out boring, Les Misérables doesn’t pull it off.

It’s still a wonder to behold, though, and its final scene, despite some lags in the narrative, packs a punch that wasn’t paralleled in any other movie this year. There has been a lot of hyperbole when expressing opinions of it in recent months, however. Some are saying it’s one of the best musicals (or even crazier, one of the best movies) ever while others are saying it’s overwrought, overlong and manipulative. Neither of those extremes are accurate. Les Misérables is neither great nor terrible, but it’s effective and rousing and, provided you can sit still for almost three hours, absolutely worth a watch.

Les Misérables receives 4/5

Friday
Nov192010

The Next Three Days

Russell Crowe’s star power seems to be dwindling. Two of his last three films (State of Play, Body of Lies) failed to do much more than fizzle at the box office. While they both went on to surpass their budgets in worldwide ticket sales, their domestic intakes were less than impressive. With that in mind, teaming up with Paul Haggis, director of the 2004 Best Picture winner, Crash, almost seems like a no brainer, but a messy script, uneven pace and a general lack of believability will most likely make The Next Three Days just another blip on Crowe’s devolving career.

Based on the 2007 French film, Pour Elle, the story follows John Brennan (Crowe), a normal family man and college professor who is forced to go to extreme measures to keep his family together. His wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), has just been arrested and charged with murdering her boss. Throughout the next few years, she appeals her case and loses every time. The only option left is the Supreme Court, who hasn’t heard a murder case in a very long time and isn’t likely to now. So John, certain that she is innocent, decides he’s going to break her out and bring her home to her child, Luke (Ty Simpkins).

The Next Three Days has a problem that is morally unsound. John knows in his heart that his wife is innocent. He loves her tremendously and refuses to acknowledge the possibility that she could have actually murdered somebody in cold blood. At one point, she even tells him that she did it, to which he simply replies, “I don’t believe you.” We’re supposed to go along with that, but it’s not easy to. Until the final scene, which comes off like a roundabout and more than a little late way of telling us how we were supposed to feel, there is no indication that Lara is innocent. In fact, every sign points to her guilt. She had just had a giant argument with her boss, her fingerprints were found all over the murder weapon, the victim’s blood was found on her jacket and a witness saw her fleeing the scene of the crime. But that’s all supposed to be irrelevant because John loves her. I wasn’t buying it, so the whole movie became useless to me. I didn’t want John to break her out. As far as I could tell, she was guilty and deserved to rot in prison.

The events that unfold in The Next Three Days are about as likely as Ann Coulter taking a liberal stance on anything, which is to say it could happen, but you’d be shocked if it did. John is an English professor (at a community college no less) who hasn’t done a harmful thing in his life. He wouldn’t even know where to begin if he wanted to steal a bag of chips from a 7-Eleven, but he somehow concocts a master plan that spans a giant radius of Philadelphia (complete with a pleasure ride on the metro) where he outmaneuvers the entire police force by accurately predicting their every move. He even plants evidence to send them on a wild goose chase. It gets to the point where you become exhausted. You can only take so many leaps of faith before your legs get tired.

It completely goes off the rails when John buys a gun and starts shooting people up for money (but not before setting a house with a meth lab in the basement on fire). Had I actually cared about what was going on up to this point, I would have found this scene questionable, but I didn’t. The Next Three Days has cinematic ADD, transitioning from the prison break to a shootout to playground shenanigans to romantic entanglements. The pace hits only highs and lows. It’s either moving at a crawl or zooming by.

Sadly, there is a good movie hidden somewhere in here. The Next Three Days is well acted and directed, but it’s only moderately engaging. It’s the type of movie where you’ll find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat in one scene and slumping over it the next. Had the script been tightened up and the proceedings made at least somewhat realistic, this probably would have been a good piece of entertainment, but instead it will sit in your mind for the span of its title and then disappear forever.

The Next Three Days receives 2/5

Friday
May142010

Robin Hood

Robin Hood is a noble character. With his motto of “steal from the rich and give to the poor,” it’s hard not to like the old chap. Or so I’m told. I wouldn’t know personally because, well, I don't really like the old chap. Despite literally dozens (perhaps hundreds) of Robin Hood adaptations in film, television and literature, I’ve never become accustomed with the green-tighted fellow because his antics always bored me. Not much has changed with the 2010 Robin Hood.

Like how last year’s Sherlock Holmes brought the titular character to modern times, Robin Hood modernizes our hero and introduces him to a new generation. Gone are the green tights and feathered caps. Gone is the neatly groomed facial hair. This Robin Hood is rugged, always sporting a rough beard, and wouldn’t be caught dead in sissy green tights. However, also gone is the traditional story of the character. Following suit with most Hollywood films these days, Robin Hood is an origin story of sorts, so he hasn’t quite begun to help the poor through thievery.

This time he is played by Russell Crowe and is in the midst of the Crusades in England in the late 12th century. On his way back from battle, he finds a dying man clutching a precious sword who was on trek to Nottingham to inform the people that their king had died in battle. Robin, being the righteous man he is, takes over the duties and after delivering the information, the new king John (Oscar Issac) is crowned. Power changes, but unrest continues under John. In light of this, France, led by a treasonous Brit named Godfrey (Mark Strong), sees an opportunity to invade and as they plan their descent on the English, Robin Hood and his Merry Men begin to unify the people and plan a defense.

Boring and cliché are two adjectives one would hope not to use when describing a film as promising as Robin Hood, but no other words will do. We’ve seen this basic story arc before—a man fights for his wavering country—right down to the freedom speech with swelling music in the background and it's told in a manner that makes the eyelids heavy, full of dense exposition and forced romances that weigh the entire thing down.

But more goes into movies than the story and it, as important as it may be, does not reflect the rest of the film. Sure, the story may be hogwash, but the presentation is terrific. Russell Crowe gives another great performance as per usual and watching Ridley Scott, a highly esteemed director, tackle such a formidable tale is interesting. Though he stumbles here and there, his direction is quite dashing overall.

Perhaps most remarkable are the extravagant costumes and sets. If ever I found myself drifting away from the lackluster narrative, I could always find eye candy in what was presented before me. Like many period pieces, Robin Hood nails its time period dead on and it is a sight to behold.

However, the saving grace of the film is the action. These battles are epic and watching thousands of men bum-rush each other is fun to watch, even if it does feel a little too familiar. The aforementioned boredom that besets the film comes not from these moments, but rather from the downtime in between.

Robin Hood is not a film that I feel I can firmly define. I’ve struggled as I’ve typed away here because it is neither terrible, nor great. It rests somewhere in the middle and as I watched it, I never truly found myself leaning one way or the other. I was merely in a state of neutrality. Upon reflection, however, I feel the good outweighs the bad and it’s worth a look, as faint a praise as that may be.

Robin Hood receives 3/5