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The Judge

With all the recent hoopla surrounding “The Avengers” and the “Iron Man” franchise, it might be easy to forget that Robert Downey Jr. is a damn fine actor even when outside of that iconic suit. Even when his films fail to live up to expectations (2009’s “The Soloist” being a perfect example), he shines. His latest, “The Judge,” may be his single best performance yet. Working opposite the always fantastic Robert Duvall, he gives the rawest, most emotional performance of his storied career. However, like “The Soloist,” the film he resides in is less than the sum of its parts. An occasionally sloppy script and baffling directorial decisions keep this from going very far, but if you enjoy seeing two great actors at the top of their game, you can’t go wrong here.

Downey Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a soon-to-be-divorced lawyer whose cases consist entirely of defending the guilty and getting them off for whatever crime they may have committed. Naturally, he’s not a courthouse favorite, nor has he made his father, the titular Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), particularly proud, despite his talents. One day, he gets a call that his mother has died, so he heads back to his hometown in Indiana. A cynical man, he has clearly outgrown the small minded nature of this otherwise friendly town, a place where everyone knows each other and drivers wave as they pass each other on the road.

He hasn’t been home in years and as soon as he arrives, the hostility that kept him away resurfaces. His brothers, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), do their best to diffuse the situation, though the latter has a harder time dealing with it due to mental illness, but his father keeps pushing. Eventually, the judge heads out to the grocery store, for both practical reasons and to get away from his disappointing son, but arrives home with no memory of what happened. Unfortunately, there’s blood on his car and a body on a road he was spotted on, the victim a violent criminal he gave a second chance to many years ago. Did he purposely run this man down to make up for his past mistake or was this a simple accident? Regardless of the answer, Hank decides to stick around and defend his father.

“The Judge” suffers not from an uninteresting premise. Although it heads in obvious directions and the eventual answer to the above question is likely to be answered by the audience far before the characters onscreen, the foundation that the narrative is built upon is sturdy. Unfortunately, it’s the execution that cripples the film. Directed by David Dobkin, a man most known for his goofball comedies like “Wedding Crashers,” “The Change-Up” and “Fred Claus,” the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Does it want to be a lighthearted dramedy about family, a message movie about moving on and forgiving others or something else entirely? It’s never very clear, as the tone shifts from here to there and back around again.

Mixing tones is not an inherently bad thing, but Dobkin simply doesn’t have a clean grasp on any of them. As one critic friend whispered in my ear during our screening, “The Judge” occasionally plays like a Lifetime movie, complete with sappy music and cheesy dialogue, and he wasn’t wrong. The music, oddly, ramps up and down seemingly based entirely on those dialogue cues. The music doesn’t enhance what’s being said or depicted, but rather exists as a manipulative force to make it seem like what’s being said has some type of emotional impact. Its lyrical selections are heavy-handed and its other selections sound so similar to the drum heavy nature of those silly crime dramas on television that it’s laughable. Visually, “The Judge” is no better, also moving uncomfortably from tone to tone, but if there’s any consolation to be had, it’s that these moments as described above are infrequent.

The saving grace, again, are the fantastic performances from the stellar cast. Aside from some notable exceptions, like Leighton Meester in a small, inconsequential role—an actress that has starred primarily in nonsense teen dramas and B-movie quality thrillers and doesn't quite have the chops to keep up with her co-stars—everyone here is great and elevates the substandard material into something more than it would be otherwise. The dialogue isn’t great, but it’s delivered with such gusto that you buy into it. It’s easy to understand the motivations and emotions driving Hank and his father, from a basic level of conflicting morals to more serious, unresolved family issues from their pasts that are revealed as the film goes on, and it’s due almost entirely to the actors in the roles.

Stilll, at nearly two and half hours, it’s understandable if certain moviegoers decide to pass on “The Judge” given its many faults, including a wholly unnecessary and uncomfortable side story involving the mystery paternity of Meester’s character, but this is not a bad movie. It is merely an underwhelming one. What had the potential to be one of the best of the year instead ends up as a mildly entertaining diversion; inconsequential, but nevertheless memorable. There will be better movies in the coming months as the awards season ramps up, but you could do worse than “The Judge.”

The Judge receives 3/5


The Conjuring

Modern horror directors aren’t easy to come by. The glory days of the George Romero’s and John Carpenter’s seem all but lost; only a handful of well-known horror-centric directors exist today and “well-known” can be argued given that many mainstream audiences may not recognize the likes of Xavier Gens or Ti West offhand (though they may have seen some of their movies). Arguably, the biggest name in horror currently is James Wan, the man responsible for sparking one of the biggest and most popular horror franchises today. With movies like “Saw,” “Insidious” and “Dead Silence” under his belt, he has proven himself, despite his critics, as one of the most stylish and interesting horror directors working today, yet his latest, “The Conjuring,” feels lackluster. The frights from his previous films are all but lost here and all ingenuity has dissipated. You’ve seen this movie dozens of times over and even Wan can’t do enough to reinvigorate old clichés.

This supposedly true story takes place in the late 60s and follows a team of husband and wife demon hunters, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). They’re the same folks who tackled the infamous Amityville Horror hauntings (which should give you a good indication of whether or not this is actually real), but this time they’re investigating a possible demonic entity in the household of Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), who have just moved into a new farmhouse with a dark history along with their five girls, Andrea (Shanley Caswell), Nancy (Hayley McFarland), Cynthia (Mackenzie Foy), Christine (Joey King) and April (Kyla Deaver).

Lights are flickering on and off, birds are inexplicably crashing into their windows, televisions go static, loud noises go bump in the night and doors are creaking open all by themselves. And I mean lots of doors. I’m fairly certain that if we counted the number of creaking doors opened by an unseen entity,” “The Conjuring” would set the record. This tactic is indicative of the film as a whole: it has nothing new to present. It relies so heavily on obvious horror movie tropes that it never finds its own identity and, aside from a few effective moments that come forth through a game called “Hide and Clap,” it certainly never gets the heart racing. Unless you’ve never seen a horror movie before, you’ll quickly become aware of its tricks.

In fact, the film’s biggest asset doesn’t come from the horror atmosphere at all, but rather from its surprising focus on the characters, not unlike last year’s excellent “Sinister.” The build is slow and takes the time to develop them, not simply tossing them into a spooky house as fodder for jump scares. While they’re not necessarily interesting characters in and of themselves, it’s a welcome change of pace for a genre that regularly struggles to tell a meaningful story, which is mainly due to its skewed focus on things other than the people. Unfortunately, much of its attempts to build them into people we can care about, which come complete with soothing music and cheesy dialogue, are awkwardly wedged in between scenes of horrific nightmares, never segueing convincingly into and out of each other and throwing the whole tone off.

What “The Conjuring” boils down to is a talented and underrated horror director working with substandard material, though much of that talent undoubtedly stems from an outside source. So much of his style matches so well with frequent collaborator Leigh Whannell, who has written all of his horror outings, that many of his flaws shine through here. Take the finale of “Insidious” as an example. While the movie certainly had its issues, the ending took place in a surreal dreamlike state, almost like a cross between “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and the “Silent Hill” video games. This gave Wan some room to breathe and interpret as he saw fit. The frightening visual environment he created was haunting and unforgettable. “The Conjuring” has no unique moments like it, nothing that allows Wan to flex his creative muscle.

It even falls prey to the same typical dumb mistakes so many characters make in these things. While the ghost obviously needs to stay with the characters no matter where they go for the purposes of storytelling, an attempt to escape still needs to be made. In “Insidious,” the characters left the house as soon as things got too weird, an ultimately fruitless decision, but welcome in a genre so heavy laden with idiotic decisions. Comparatively, “The Conjuring” writes the notion off with one quick line of dialogue, a metaphor about stepping in gum so thin, it comes off as laughable, especially when it comes from the so-called demonologist experts who should be able to explain it better.

When all is said and done, “The Conjuring” is a huge disappointment. Early buzz was positive and it was reportedly deemed so scary by the MPAA that despite its lack of language, sex or violence, it was given an R rating (though this was said by the film’s executive producer and could very well be a clever marketing ploy). But if anything, that’s only going to raise expectations on a film that is anything but terrifying. Horror newbies may get a kick out of it, but if you’re looking for something to truly unnerve you, “The Conjuring” isn’t it.

The Conjuring receives 2/5


Safe House

It’s always a pleasure to watch Denzel Washington, even when he’s in a movie that fails to live up to his screen presence. If anything, his mediocre films, like Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Book of Eli, only strengthen that argument. He’s so good in all of them that he makes them better than they deserve to be. Still, one can’t help but long for his glory days of starring in bona fide winners, like Man on Fire and Training Day. His latest, entitled Safe House, isn’t a return to form, but it’s a step in the right direction, easily a notch above his last few efforts, but far below the quality of film he deserves to be in.

Washington plays Tobin Frost, an ex-CIA traitor who has been leaking important government information to a number of various parties for years. He has just been caught and transported to a government safe house in South Africa, which is cared for by an up and coming agent named Matt Weston, played by Ryan Reynolds. However, the safe house is quickly breached by an unknown party and Matt soon finds himself in possession of Tobin and tasked with bringing him in.

Safe House has a pretty simple story, though it tries to cover it with talk of government espionage, encrypted files and the like. It’s little more than an action movie where the characters have to move from Point A to Point B while dodging gunfire and participating in car chases. There aren’t any surprises to be found, including an eventual revelation that someone inside the CIA may be corrupt, but it moves forward at a brisk pace, occasionally stopping for some expositional dialogue, and always manages to entertain.

This lack of story development may be frustrating for some, but in this case, its simplicity is its gain. Many films with government conspiracies and espionage get bogged down in their own confusing narrative, but Safe House doesn’t, instead focusing more on what the characters are doing rather than why they are doing it. With two impressive performances from its leads, including Reynolds who has come a long way since his goofy comedy days, this focus works. Reynolds and Washington manage to keep the audience gripped, even after they’ve lost interest in the overall goal of the film.

Where it suffers is where many action films these days do: its persistent use of shaky cam. When things get hectic in Safe House, so does the camera, which leads to disorientation and the occasional inability to tell what’s going on. Ever since the Bourne movies, this technique has been a go-to for many filmmakers, but it rarely works. Although it may give more of a sense of actually being there, which is a benefit for some movies (most notably “found footage” films like Cloverfield), it prohibits the audience from achieving maximum enjoyment. In Safe House, it’s a hindrance.

With an untested director behind the camera, this ill-advised decision isn’t surprising (though cinematographer Oliver Wood, who also framed the aforementioned Bourne movies, does what he can to make it work). With his insistence on the technique and off-putting lighting filled with dark, dank hues, it’s difficult to say whether Daniel Espinosa has the chops to be a big time filmmaker, but at least he chose the right movie to make his American debut. It’s nothing so special to be out of his talent range, but nothing so dumb that he will be written off. Safe House rests squarely in between. It’s not the smartest movie of the year, nor the most exciting, but given its February release, it’s enough.

Safe House receives 3.5/5


Source Code

Director Duncan Jones is a talented filmmaker. Last year’s Moon was a terrific little science fiction film that deviated from your standard genre fare. It actually had ideas and wasn’t about endless gunfights with random alien creatures (although those can be fun too, as seen with the recent Battle: Los Angeles). It was a very good movie, but stumbled just enough to fall shy of greatness. His follow-up, Source Code is analytically identical. It comes so close, but thanks in large part to a miscalculated ending, Jones again finds himself just out of reach of achieving something special.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot for the US Army. One day, he inexplicably wakes up on a train sitting across from Christina, played by Michelle Monaghan. He doesn’t know how he got there and is confused that this woman sitting across from him, whom he has never met, is addressing him as Sean. As he attempts to explain to her that he isn’t who she thinks he is, a bomb goes off on the train. Suddenly, he wakes up in a capsule with a video monitor of Sergeant Carol Goodwin, played by Vera Farmiga, who begins to talk to him about the events on the train. Although he doesn’t know how he became involved, he learns that he is a participant in the government’s newest technology, dubbed the Source Code, which allows him to relive through somebody else’s eyes the last eight minutes of their life. His actions in the Source Code don’t change the course of time or the outcome of the event, but if Stevens can find the bomb and figure out who planted it, he may be able to stop further disasters from happening.

Source Code is a movie with its pieces scattered everywhere and intentionally so. Things are purposely vague at first, but as the movie begins to repeat itself, changing little things each time, the puzzle starts to come together. Stevens lives through the same eight minutes each time and as he does, so do you. Like him, you’ll memorize how events will play out in different scenarios and, rather than simply watch him solve the mystery, you’ll become an active sleuth yourself. It almost becomes a game of who can figure it out first, the viewer or the character in the movie?

In these ways, Source Code works the brain, but it doesn’t forget the more visceral senses either and delivers a healthy dose of excitement and action amidst the thought provoking subject matter. Although you eventually become numb to the explosion that inevitably occurs every time you’re on-board that train, it’s the events leading up to it that manage to keep your adrenaline rushing. Because he is told he cannot manipulate the space time continuum and nothing he does to these already deceased people has any consequence, it allows him to do and act as he pleases, which includes holding passengers up at gunpoint and breaking into areas he otherwise wouldn’t go.

Unfortunately, Source Code shoots itself in the foot as the conclusion rolls around. Without giving anything away, it should have ended five minutes sooner, but it instead opts to give audiences the easy ending rather than the tough one. This epilogue goes against the very essence of the film and effectively ruins its chances of garnering any end of the year awards.

Other problems persist, like the underdeveloped romance between Stevens and Christina, but Source Code is nevertheless intricate, tight and, most importantly, not confusing (as long as you’re paying attention, that is). It delivers everything you could ask for in a thriller and refuses to dumb down its subject matter for an audience that would rather be spoon-fed everything. And for that, I commend it.

Source Code receives 4/5