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Friday
Feb122010

Valentine's Day

There are few days of the year that make me feel as miserable as I do on Valentine's Day. It's one of those days where the single become non-existent, where swooning couples become the center of attention. As far as this day is concerned, if you aren't in a relationship, you mean nothing. My cynicism for the day goes far beyond what I've typed here, so imagine my dismay at the thought of sitting through a movie that bears its title. But my job is not to judge based on my preconceived thoughts on the actual day, but rather on the film itself and in doing so I found that Valentine's Day actually isn't half bad.

Much like Love Actually, Valentine's Day features an ensemble cast with dozens of notable actors including Julia Roberts, Bradley Coooper, Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Jennifer Garner, Jamie Foxx, Patrick Dempsey, Topher Grace, Anne Hathaway, Ashton Kutcher, Taylor Lautner and even Taylor Swift. However, this is more like a second rate Love Actually rather than a direct comparison. While that film is an absolute delight and explores love in more authentic ways, Valentine's Day is hit and miss with more than its fair share of poorly drawn out romances that feel forced from the page. There isn't a single normal relationship in the entire movie. Even the 51 year old relationship between veteran actors Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine that is meant to show the everlasting endurance of true love proves to be less perfect than expected, with an unnecessary affair popping up in conversation halfway through the movie.

Now, I've purposely skipped over the plot description of the film because there are a large number of storylines, with each character sporting their own, and they are juggled relatively well. Most of them get equal screen time, though a few are left at the wayside and never fully come to a conclusion.

Keeping in mind the actors above, it's easy to see how inconsistent this movie can be. With great talent from Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx and Anne Hathaway comes the less so Taylor Lautner, Jessica Alba and Ashton Kutcher. Actually, the first two characters introduced in the entire movie were Kutcher and Alba with a scene that ends in their engagement. Kutcher and Alba? That's a recipe for disaster.

Surprisingly, Kutcher's storyline ended up being the best part of the movie. He's the guy that I suspect most men in the audience will relate to the most. He's euphoric with the thought of love after his engagement, but even when he later realizes love isn't as joyous as he originally imagined, he thinks of others. He finds his friends and tries to prevent them from making the same mistakes and feeling the pain that he does. He's a wholly likable guy, most notably when a young boy walks in his flower shop and orders a dozen roses for his elementary school crush. He hands over 11 dollars, far short of what a dozen roses costs and Kutcher simply smiles and asks what the lucky girl's name is. His character is written well and he downplays his usual insufferable comedic antics to fit the role. It still feels weird saying it, but Ashton Kutcher was the shining light in an otherwise mediocre film.

Of course, his storyline was still fairly predictable, as were nearly all of the others. I knew exactly what was going to happen to Garner, Biel, and even Roberts, whose storyline was nonetheless very sweet. The only one that caught me by surprise was Bradley Cooper's. The movie smartly set his storyline up in a manner that makes you believe you know where it is heading, but then turns it 180 degrees and goes somewhere else. It was this surprise that ultimately pushed me to the side of a recommendation.

Lucky for it because most of this thing simply lacked the charm or wit of its far superior spiritual brethren Love Actually. Not to mention that Taylor Swift is simply atrocious and needs to stay as far away from movie cameras as she possibly can. Of course, expecting it to match Love Actually is lofty, so as long as you don't focus on how much worse it is, you might be surprised at how much better your perception will be.

Valentine's Day receives 2.5/5

Friday
Feb052010

Dear John

When you walk into a theater to see a film based on a book by Nicholas Sparks, you know exactly what you're getting. Much like his previous adaptations, Nights in Rodanthe, A Walk to Remember and The Notebook, Dear John attempts to tug at the heartstrings. Unfortunately, it's so derivative of other romances, not to mention his previous big screen counterparts, that it comes off as hokey, a cloyingly sentimental exercise in derivativeness. You know that old cliché in these types of movies where somebody receives a letter and the writer of the letter is heard reading it through voice-over? Dear John is an hour and 40 minutes of that.

Channing Tatum plays John Tyree, a soldier in the US Army who is on leave for a couple of weeks and back visiting his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. After pretty girl Savannah, played by Amanda Seyfried, stupidly places her purse on the railing of a pier overtop the beach water causing it to fall off, she meets John who jumps in and grabs it for her. She invites him to a party she's throwing that night and sparks fly. Although John has another 12 months to serve, Savannah promises to wait for him. However, during this time, the attacks on September 11th occur which causes him to re-enlist. This means he will be gone for another two years while back home Savannah and his autistic father, played by Richard Jenkins, wait for him. To keep in touch, John and Savannah promise to write each other as often as they can and detail everything they do. This way, they will be with each other all the time even when they aren't at all.

Here's the thing about Dear John. The title obviously reflects back on what occurs in the movie, but a more accurate one would have simply been Montage. Dear John features the largest number of montages in any film in the last 20 years, perhaps ever. If it wasn't a montage that occurred over the aforementioned letter readings, it was while Savannah and John were together kissing and laughing like one of those couples you hate seeing in public. You know the ones; those gooey, mushy pairs who waltz around downtown like they're the only people there, unaware that you don't want to see them shove their tongues down each other's throats.

The thing about this film that irritated me the most though wasn't the annoying excess of montages, or even the manipulative attempt to make me cry. It was that I simply didn't care. It never gave me a reason to. Truth be told, nothing too tragic really occurs. That's not to say what does isn't sad, but considering the alternate possibilities, things could have been a whole lot worse. It went a different route than expected, which I appreciated, but in doing so it took away that emotional punch to the gut that this romance story so desperately needed.

If I'm being honest, Dear John isn't all that bad. It has problems, but it also has some high points. The way the film dealt with the tragedy of 9/11 was smart and focused. It didn't show the panic on a national scale. It showed how it affected a certain number of people in a seemingly small community and how it affected the soldiers, especially the ones already enlisted before the attacks, who found a renewed patriotism within themselves to stay and fight despite a waiting family back home.

The chemistry between Tatum and Seyfried was also surprisingly authentic. I bought their relationship, at least when they were together, though for much of the movie they were not. Their emotions ran the gamut during different situations and it was nice to see some flexibility in their acting, though Tatum is still not convincing during the more intense scenes.

All of that is handled with poise, but it's another one of those movies you watch and ask yourself when it's over: what's the point? There's nothing new about Dear John and its incessant use of cheesy montages will dissuade many from taking a liking to it. It's better than A Walk to Remember and Nights in Rodanthe, but doesn't come close to the effectiveness of The Notebook. Dear John rests squarely in the middle of those two extremes.

Dear John receives 2/5

Friday
Feb052010

From Paris with Love

In the first quarter of every year, there seems to be at least one action packed thriller in theaters. Last year we were treated to the excellent Taken, an entertaining action film that became even more so once the unrated, and far better, DVD was released. A year later, almost to the day, the filmmakers behind Taken are releasing another action picture, From Paris with Love, a movie with a similar style, but none of the polish.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays James Reece, a man who works for the American Embassy in Paris and is working on getting promoted to a secret agent. His next assignment, the one that will finally give him that much desired promotion, is to haul Charlie Wax, played gratingly by John Travolta, around town as he does his dirty work busting bad guys and stopping a terrorist organization from unleashing their next fiendish scheme.

How original. How unique. How, shall I say, avant garde of From Paris with Love to come up with such an unconventional plot. This movie is nothing more than other, better movies rolled into one. Travolta plays a character similar to his role in the recent Taking of Pelham 123, it uses the style of Taken, steals the title from James Bond's second film, From Russia with Love, and plays like a buddy cop movie, kind of like Lethal Weapon without the laughs, excitement, character depth or fun. There wasn't a frame of this thing where I saw even a hint of originality.

You'd think with the director of Taken and the penman behind it concocting this story, there would be something to desire here, but there simply isn't. It's written so poorly, from the dialogue to the reoccurring motif, that a credible threat is never even established. From Paris with Love goes from scene to scene without so much as an explanation as to what is going on and why. All we know is that a terrorist organization is planning an attack, and we only learn that after dealing with an array of drug smugglers whose relevance to the plot is questionable. The problem lies in its broadness. Who is the leader of the terrorist organization? Is there any real reason they want to carry out this attack? The film never makes it clear who the characters are fighting against, so the whole routine becomes nothing more than shooting galleries where Charlie picks off dozens of indistinguishable men for unclear reasons.

I wouldn't say that's necessarily a problem for all films. Some movies can have little to no story and still be a blast if the action scenes are carried out well (like Taken for instance), but the ones here are so bland that they may as well have been shooting water guns at each other. Nothing particularly exciting happens in any of them because most merely consist of Charlie popping in and out of cover while an endless parade of baddies rush through the door seemingly oblivious of their fallen comrades. I felt like I was watching a video game and had the controller taken away from me.

If anything, From Paris with Love gives me a newfound appreciation for The Book of Eli and Edge of Darkness, two recent action flicks that, while certainly flawed, at least had some brains behind them. This one is more like a comatose victim that you look at and simply feel bad for.

From Paris with Love receives 1/5

Friday
Jan292010

Edge of Darkness

Edge of Darkness has an impressive resume. It's directed by Martin Campbell, the man who helmed the excellent James Bond reboot Casino Royale, written by William Monahan, writer of the Oscar winning picture The Departed and stars Mel Gibson, an excellent actor in his first role in seven years, since 2003's The Singing Detective. It has all the parts needed to come together and create an amazing, visceral action picture. So where did things go wrong? Or more precisely, how in the world did these talents come together to create such a mediocre product?

The film follows Craven (Mel Gibson), a Boston detective who has just picked up his daughter (Bojana Novakovic) from the airport. Once she arrives, however, she starts to puke and her nose bleeds uncontrollably. In a panic, she tells her father she needs to go to the hospital, but before they do she insists on telling him something. Before she can get it out, a man in a ski mask appears at the front door and kills her with a shotgun blast to the chest. Craven, now a man with nothing to live for, goes on the hunt to find her killer and unravel the conspiracy that led to her demise.

So basically what I'm saying is that it's your typical revenge flick. Although this does differentiate itself a bit from the others, namely because his kid dies for a reason rather than just plain bad luck (like in 2007's Death Sentence), which gives the protagonist something to track other than the murderer, it's still a routine revenge movie where a vigilante father goes berserk on the baddies with a wide assortment of firearms.

Which is fine. I'm all for a good revenge movie, but Edge of Darkness fails to keep consistent with the whole novelty of the sub-genre. More often than not, nobody really cares about the fallen family member so much as the bullets that fly afterwards. This is no different. Craven's daughter is onscreen for such a small amount of time that it's impossible to truly care about her, even after she's filled with holes, but the movie nevertheless tries to wrangle some teardrops out of nothing. After she is killed, Craven takes her ashes to the beach and dumps them in the ocean, reflecting back on the film's opening 30 seconds that shows an old family video where she is playing in the water as a kid, which is hardly a set-up for an emotional payoff. My complaint isn't the fact that the film lacked emotion. Rather, it's that it tried too hard to force that emotion through when none was really needed.

Now, there are only a couple of things I hated in Edge of Darkness and for every bad thing, there's a great one to balance it out. For instance, the acting is terrific. It's a return to form for Mel Gibson. His gritty determination as the hellbent father vowing justice for his fallen daughter is played pitch perfectly, even if he is forced to act out a few ridiculous scenes where he sees the ghost of her or hears her voice speaking to him. Couple him with another great actor, Ray Winstone, who plays a government operative sent to clean up their messes, and you have a sublime pair whose scenes play out like a fluid dance. Their dialogue together is wonderful and neither outshine the other. They simply do their part in telling the story. Their scenes together are easily the best part of this movie.

Unfortunately, the skillful panache of those scenes does little more than draw attention to how haphazard the rest of the production is. Some scenes don't fit into the flow of the story, working as an unnecessary way to break up the talking with some action, the material doesn't stay completely afloat during its two hour run time and the final shot of the movie is, I'm pretty sure, the dumbest possible way this thing could have ended.

That's not to say this is a bad movie. It's not. It's just a painfully mediocre one. I'm tempted to recommend Edge of Darkness anyway given the poor quality of movies this month, but it is in its failure to realize its own potential that prevents me from doing so.

Edge of Darkness receives 2.5/5

Sunday
Jan242010

Legion

Ok, now it's getting a bit ridiculous. Being an avid film lover, I watch a lot of movies and let's face it, very little separates each one from the next. Leap Year is no different than the countless other romantic comedies I've seen just as The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day mimics innumerable other action flicks. Still, the apocalypse sub-genre is fairly new, or at least has seen an explosion in recent years. Each film tries to differentiate itself from the last, with modest success. We've seen a hard hitting drama in The Road, a tongue-in-cheek B-movie in 2012, the zombie apocalypse in Zombieland and the vampire apocalypse in Daybreakers. But we're pushing it a bit far now with Legion, a ridiculous movie where God sends his angels to demonically possess humans and kill everyone alive.

Huh?

That's the sentiment I had rolling around in my head as this film wrapped up. The story, as foolish as it may be, revolves around an angel who has fallen down to Earth, cut off his wings and made himself human. His name is Michael (Paul Bettany) and he has rebelled against God's wishes to wipe out the human race. You see, God is pissed off. Just as we have lost faith in Him, He has lost faith in humanity. We kill each other over race and greed and we start wars unjustly and He's sick of it. As the movie points out, the first time he lost faith in us, he sent a flood, now he is sending angels. Yep.

Well, for some reason, there's a baby that is the last hope for humanity. It's in the stomach of Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), who works at a small diner in the middle of no man's land where the next service station doesn't come around for 50 miles. She works there with a group of disposable fodder played by Lucas Black, Charles Dutton, Jon Tenney, Willa Holland, Kate Walsh, Tyrese Gibson, and Dennis Quaid. Michael's job is to protect Charlie and the baby, the main target of the angels.

This is getting out of control. While not all of the recent apocalypse movies have been particularly good (2012, The Book of Eli), at least they made sense. Legion makes as much sense as using a sterilized needle at a lethal injection. There's so much in this movie that needed to be answered, yet so little is. For example, why the baby is so important is never explained. Who is it? Is it the second coming of Christ? If it is, why would God send his angels to kill it? What the hell was going on in this thing?

The weird thing is that there's plenty of downtime for explanation. For a movie about an angel takeover and the human extermination, this thing moves slow and the copious amount of dialogue does little more than waste time in between action scenes. There were a handful of moments where two characters would have a dialogue, but it was usually about trivial matters, like why Gibson's character carried around a handgun. Well, because he grew up in the streets yo. Great, but who cares? It's irrelevant to the story, existing as nothing more than a sad sack attempt at putting a personality to the character.

Complaining about scenes that flesh out the personalities of the characters feels weird because if we want to care about them, we need to know about them, but Legion takes itself far too seriously and would have worked better as a humorous, balls to the wall action film. Surely the filmmakers knew their movie was absurd. Why not play it for laughs?

Taking the serious route did little to help them anyway. The action scenes, which are meant to be epic battles between heaven and earth, are shot so darkly that not much can be seen. The little bit that can is unimpressive and, more often than not, anti-climactic. In the trailer, a man rides up in an ice cream truck. His mouth opens wide, his arms stretch out and he runs toward the camera. In the movie, he is shot immediately after he starts to run. What could have been a tense battle ended up being a major disappointment.

I've seen lots of apocalypse movies recently, but this could be among the worst. Paul Bettany does a good job and a few moments of what looked to be a good movie were hidden in it, but everything else is a misfire. Even the wanton stupidity of 2012 was more entertaining than Legion.

Legion receives 1.5/5