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Entries in Zoe Saldana (5)

Thursday
Dec052013

Out of the Furnace

It should be said right off the bat that “Out of the Furnace” is not a great movie. In fact, it’s relatively typical of your normal revenge thriller, though it clearly aspires to be more. It stumbles in many areas, but what makes it so appealing is its terrific ensemble cast. Everyone in the film gives applaud worthy performances, elevating the tale to something better than it has any right to be. While it may not reach many “best of” lists, it would be a shame to see it not receive some acting nominations from awards groups nationwide. Although by-the-numbers in many ways, “Out of the Furnace” is still a gripping watch because of them.

Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is a small town mill worker who wants nothing more than to live a normal life. He’s one of those quiet heroes screenplays are so fond of, someone who gets things done, helps others and fixes mistakes without dealing with any real confrontation. Despite his non-confrontational attitude and desire to live a normal live, his days are complex. His brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck) who is likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after his stint in Iraq, is a gambler and can’t find the money to pay his bookie, John (Willem Dafoe). This means Russell has to bail him out with the little bit of money he has earned, lest something bad happen to him. His girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), wants nothing more than to have a child, though his hesitance shows he may not be ready for one. And on top of that, his father is gravely ill.

This is enough to give the film its dramatic and emotional edge, but “Out of the Furnace” takes things a few steps further. Russell eventually ends up killing a mother and child when he accidentally slams into their car, which incarcerates him. By the time he gets out, his dad is dead and his girlfriend has left him. It should also be noted that all of this happens in the front end of the movie. These things pile on so high that it would be tragic if it wasn’t so comical. Things get even more complicated later on, if you can believe it, when the psychotic crime boss Harlan (Woody Harrelson) enters the picture and threatens violence against Russell’s brother.

Cramming so much into one picture proves to be the film’s biggest downfall. It’s like the screenwriters didn’t have total faith in their material, so they just threw more and more on top of it until they reached a point where they thought it would practically force viewers to sympathize. It’s a tactic that doesn’t work and it comes off as a tad insulting. Its interesting messages also find themselves skewed by this oversaturation and by some late movie muddle that takes otherwise grounded characters and jumps them to extremes with some questionable actions.

Essentially, “Out of the Furnace” is about how we handle desperation. In the film, Russell handles his situation with poise, showing his kindness whenever he can, even if that kindness means something as seemingly minor as sparing the life of a deer he has resting at the end of his sights, while Rodney is self-destructive, opting to fight in an underground ring, but refusing to throw the fight as instructed due to his own vanity. The juxtaposition is striking at first, but as the film goes on and characters abandon these ideals, it loses its focus. One could argue that what happens is still an exploration of how we handle desperation when we reach our tipping point, but it makes the message no less flimsy. What it explores in its opening moments are negated by its closing.

Even without its hypocrisy in its final moments, the climax is too silly to be taken seriously, ending with your typical Hollywood stylization with an event that would never be allowed to happen in real life given the circumstances. To say more would be to give it away, but what it all boils down to is that “Out of the Furnace” doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to be. Yet it all goes back to the performances. Every one of these actors, including the ones I’ve neglected to mention, give uniformly excellent performances, doing their absolute best with material that is decidedly subpar. For those less interested in acting and more interested in story, “Out of the Furnace” won’t be too enticing, but if you enjoy seeing some of today’s most talented performers at the top of their game, this is one you won’t want to miss.

Out of the Furnace receives 3.5/5

Thursday
May162013

Star Trek Into Darkness

In 2009, director J.J. Abrams rebooted the much loved “Star Trek” series with one of the most thrilling, visually engaging and humorous science fiction movies in recent memory. He took a franchise that had remained largely stagnant since 2002’s underrated “Star Trek: Nemesis” and reinvigorated it with style. It may not have been the “Trek” we have all come to know and love, but its new identity nevertheless managed to win fans over, even if it failed to touch upon some of the wonderful themes from the previous movies. If the first batch of films with the original crew explored the meaning of life, the inescapability of death and religion vs. evolution, 2009’s “Star Trek” is more like “Star Trek: First Contact,” a technically well made, devilishly exciting action movie that doesn’t have a whole heck of a lot to say. The follow-up, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is largely the same. Luckily, a movie doesn’t have to be profound to be entertaining and “Star Trek Into Darkness” is likely to be one of the most entertaining movies of the summer.

The story begins on a primitive planet where the species living on it has “barely invented the wheel.” A volcano is about to destroy the planet, so Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the rest of the crew set out to save it. Federation regulations state that the crew of the Enterprise must not make their presence known to these people, a regulation they inevitably break. This reckless behavior lands Kirk in hot water with the Federation and his ship is taken away. However, an attack on Starfleet headquaraters by a mysterious man (Benedict Cumberbatch) leads to a desperate reversal of that decision. This man’s last known location is on the Klingon planet Kronos and even though that area is off limits to the Federation for fear of starting an all-out war with the Klingon empire, Kirk and his crew head out to bring him to justice.

One of the reasons 2009’s “Star Trek” was so good was because of it’s absolutely brilliant storytelling that not only managed to squeeze out some wonderful emotion in its opening moments, but also craft a story that didn’t neglect everything that had come before. It wasn’t a reboot in your typical Hollywood sense. Because the story involved time travel, a ripple occurred in the timeline, creating a new one and changing the personalities and adventures of the crew, even if only slightly. This allowed Abrams to preserve the original stories while crafting his own and include everyone’s favorite Spock, Leonard Nimoy, in the now famous 2009 cameo.

Unfortunately, this desire to preserve memories while crafting new ones is the new movie’s biggest downfall. Without giving too much away, “Into Darkness,” or at least its ending, sticks so closely to one of the franchise’s previous installments that it almost becomes moot, almost like a 2.0 version of that film in question. The path to the conclusion becomes so clear that only those unfamiliar with “Star Trek” lore will find what transpires surprising. Despite giving it its own little twist, it comes off as lazy—any screenwriter can take an existing story and repackage it with minor changes. Furthermore, when this same conclusion rolled around previously, it meant something. When it happens here, it feels derivative and any emotion that may be felt is offset no more than ten minutes later, its impact completely diminished. My vague criticisms may be frustrating to read, but to go any further would constitute spoilers and fans of the franchise are astute enough that they’d know exactly how this movie plays out, if they haven’t already.

Clearly, this is not as good as 2009’s “Star Trek” (though that’s perhaps an unfair comparison to make since it could be argued that film is the best of the bunch), but the style and fun remains. Abrams’ obsession with lens flares is still very much evident, to the point where the entire screen is sometimes covered with them, and his ability to use canted camera angles to make something as simple as running down the Enterprise’s corridors interesting is uncanny. The humor is still there as well, even if the proceedings are a tad darker than the previous installment. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength, however, is Cumberbatch in that mysterious role that I dare not reveal. Unlike Nero, the Romulan hell-bent on revenge from the crew’s last adventure, this character is calm, collected and manipulative. Once aboard the Enterprise, his incarceration becomes a little bit like “Silence of the Lambs” in space, where he becomes the equivalent of the intelligent and smooth talking Hannibal Lecter. Cumberbatch, in one of the film’s most moving scenes, turns to the camera and speaks of horrible atrocities while tears roll down his face, cementing himself as one of today’s great performers.

So although you could say this is a disappointment when compared to the previous film (or a number of other “Star Trek” adventures), doing so would be focusing too much on the negative. Its stumbles certainly don’t eclipse its technical proficiency, its exhilarating action or its stylish flair. “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a solid action movie that builds character personalities and relationships even while neglecting the themes that made the franchise so great.

Star Trek Into Darkness receives 4/5

Friday
Sep072012

The Words

The Words is a movie that gets by on its idea alone. It comes from Lee Sternthal and Brian Klugman, first time writers/directors, and therefore is a little rough around the edges—even its talented cast comes off like first time actors who have finally caught their big break and are unconvincingly trying way too hard, a problem which hearkens back to the amateur directors—but where it lacks polish, it more than makes up for with an engaging story and an interesting, if somewhat obvious, twist. A movie that seemed so simple at first suddenly becomes surprisingly poignant. It’s an Inception like narrative that is weaved together in a way that creates a character parallel that is difficult to explain, but is immediately apparent when watching. It may be a stylistically rough movie, but thematically, it’s quite beautiful.

The movie stars Dennis Quaid as Clay Hammond, an author who is reading his latest book to a crowd of fans who have gathered around to hear him. As he reads, we’re pulled into his story and meet his character, Rory (Bradley Cooper), an author himself who is struggling to get his first book published. He’s put three years of work into his novel and despite his admittedly excellent writing, he is turned down by every publisher he submits his book to. One day, while on vacation in London, he finds a worn down valise that contains a manuscript that is among one of the best he’s ever read. He begins to type it into his computer, not with intent to plagiarize, but, as Clay the narrator says, to feel the words flow through his fingers. However, his wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), soon stumbles upon what he typed up and begs him to shop it around, not knowing every word of it is stolen. In order to not disappoint his wife, he does just that and the book is immediately bought. It quickly becomes a hit and Rory finds himself among the top authors in the world. A few years later, an old unnamed man played by Jeremy Irons appears and begins to tell his own story (which we also see onscreen) about a man who wrote a story back near the end of World War II, but then lost it. Rory quickly realizes that the old man is referring to the story he stole.

The Words, a story about an author reading a story about a struggling author stealing a story that another author wrote many years ago, may sound confusing, but it isn’t. It somehow manages to balance the accessibility of the narrative with complex themes and meanings. It never dumbs itself down for fear of isolating some audience members (aside from a few tiny narrations from Quaid as he reads from his book) and if nothing else, it should be commended for it. It doesn’t always succeed in what it sets out to do, but The Words is unique, taking a basic foundation made popular by 2010’s Inception and tweaking it to fit within the context of a dramatic story.

Nearly every aspect of the movie, from its performances to its looks to everything in between, is a give and take. For every one thing I would fix, there’s something else I wouldn’t touch. Some scenes work wonderfully while others fall flat on their face. The best example of the latter comes when Dora tells Clay that reading his novel was more honest, true and passionate than anything else he’d ever written. She tells him that the book contained all of him, even the parts she didn’t know existed. Of course, the book wasn’t written by him, so while she thinks she’s giving him a compliment, she’s really crushing him on the inside. The scene is a catalyst for all the events to come, but it’s more amusing than it is dramatic and more worthy of laughs than it is tears.

As far as visuals go, The Words is, like everything else, a mixed bag. For example, there is some awkward framing prevalent throughout the entire movie—sometimes it’s too uncomfortable to see these actors that close up, especially given their by-the-numbers performances—but once again, it’s strengths outweigh its flaws. Interestingly, the directors opt to shoot their movie using both the digital and film formats, the former for the current time settings and the latter for the World War II setting. This gives the movie some much needed style that is missing elsewhere and it creates a distinct feeling for each time period, keeping them separated before their thematic relation is finally revealed.

It’s a nice touch in an otherwise bland looking movie. In fact, the whole thing could essentially be summarized like that. The remnants of a bad movie are there, but there is enough thought and care put behind its creation that it comes out as much more. While I hesitate to hype it up more than it’s worth, The Words is nevertheless a surprising, underrated gem that is definitely worth a look this weekend.

The Words receives 3.5/5

Friday
Apr232010

The Losers

Hollywood ran out of ideas years ago. Movies, a medium heralded for originality and inventiveness, have lost those trademark qualities. The latest craze is to snatch up the rights to as many comic book series as they can and pump them out before the novelty of watching our favorite superheroes onscreen fades away. So what do you do when you run out of your Batmans and Supermans and Iron Mans? You reach way down and bring forth a property nobody has ever heard of or cares about. Such is the case with The Losers.

The Losers (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chris Evans, Idris Elba, Columbus Short and Oscar Jaenada) are a ragtag group of men, soldiers who fight for what’s right, and at the outset of the film they find themselves in Bolivia targeting a man who they think is up to no good. They order an air strike, but then they see a group of 25 children being escorted into the area. They have eight minutes until the bomb drops, so they do what they do best and head down quickly to save the kids. When their rescue helicopter arrives, there isn’t enough room for both them and the kids, so they decide to stay behind and let the children go to safety, but then a rocket comes out of nowhere and blows them all up. It was meant for them, so they fake their deaths and find themselves stuck overseas with no way home. That is until a sexy woman named Aisha (Zoe Saldana) makes a deal with them: she will get them home in exchange for their help in killing Max (Jason Patric). As it turns out, Max is responsible for the helicopter explosion intended for them, so they agree.

The story of The Losers isn’t a case where some issues needed to be resolved because its issue is that the story isn’t even really there. So much is left unexplained that you never truly get a grasp on the situation at hand. Who is Max, really? Is he CIA? Is he working for a corrupt government? Or is he merely an every day evildoer carrying out his own diabolical plan? The former is alluded to, but the latter seemed more applicable given the information shown.

Max wants a highly dangerous weapon that is capable of disintegrating anything in its wake, known only as the snuke, but why? Is the government trying to start a war and the film is trying to make some allegory to current times? I don’t give it that much credit. At its core, it’s another silly comic book adaptation that delivers sporadic thrills and thinks it is way cooler than it really is. For every amusing one liner, there were five terrible jokes carried by its too-cool-for-school hipster attitude.

The only person in the entire film that seems to be having any fun with his character is Jason Patric. He’s one of those seemingly non-threatening bad guys who get by not on their brute strength or keen intellect, but by their cold, soulless disregard for human life, as seen by his brutal (yet hilarious) killing of a woman shading him with an umbrella who, thanks to a sudden burst of wind, accidentally allows the sun to reach his skin.

As far as the actual filmmaking process outside of the performances and poor script development goes, it’s an uneven blend of awesome action and excruciatingly boring exposition. The film opens and ends with a bang, but everything in between fizzles due to a lack of cohesion.

It would be an easy joke to say that The Losers loses, but it’s just not that simple. The movie is neither excellent nor tedious. It’s merely tolerable. Maybe it’s the fact that my expectations going in were low, but it worked for me despite some significant problems and it’s just fun enough to recommend.

The Losers receives 2.5/5

Friday
Apr162010

Death at a Funeral

Rarely does a movie come along that is so funny you laugh until you can't breathe. The British 2007 comedy Death at a Funeral is one of those rarities. While a lot of British humor is hit and miss with American audiences, Death at a Funeral successfully bridged that gap and made itself accessible to everyone domestic and abroad. The remake can only wish to attain that status. It tries hard, but ultimately this Americanized Death at a Funeral feels like a shoddy rehash of the wonderful original.

The film stars Chris Rock as Aaron, the oldest son of his recently deceased father. Today is his burial day and the turnout is great. Everyone from his family, as well as many of his friends, have all shown up to give him a fond farewell. Among them are his brother Russell (Danny Glover), his author son Ryan (Martin Lawrence), his nephew (Columbus Short), his niece Elaine (Zoe Saldana) and her boyfriend Oscar (James Marsden). But thanks to some hallucinogenic drugs and a little person named Frank (Peter Dinklage), who claims to have had some, shall we say, uncouth rendezvous with him, his funeral is about to get a little more zany than the usual.

Death at a Funeral follows its British predecessor to the letter. The writer, Dean Craig, penned both scripts, though it really seems more like a copy and paste job than a whole new script in and of itself. This version follows the original, quite literally, scene by scene and rehashes the exact same jokes word for word. There are minor differences here and there, but by and large this is the same movie.

Which is to say the writing is brilliant. The absurd twists and turns both movies make are delightful and work despite their inherent goofiness. The writing takes a morbid subject and somehow wrings laughs out of a period normally set aside for grieving.

Or at least that's how the original worked. What this remake proves is how crucial comedic delivery is to a film. Despite using the same jokes that came from the same writer who more or less used the same script, this version of the film lacks laughs because the actors simply aren't up to the challenge. Rock is a poor replacement for Matthew Macfayden, who played his part in the original. Macfayden brought the character to life. He played him in a soft spoken kind of way. You could tell he was grieving over his father and in distress by the crazy events unfolding around him. All he wanted was to get the day over with and move on. Rock doesn't do that. You never sense that he, or any other attendee for that matter, is grieving in any way. He stands up there and does his usual schtick better suited for a stand-up routine, but never brings any depth to his character. Most actors fall into this category.

That is except for James Marsden. Playing the role Alan Tudyk knocked out of the park in the original, Marsden breaks from the monotony of the rest of the cast and switches his performance up. Rather than simply mimicking the cast of the original, he is allowed to roam free and be as goofy as he wants. Being the unfortunate victim of an accidental acid hit doesn't hurt of course, but nevertheless he plays his part wonderfully and produces the most laughs of anyone in the film.

But that doesn't change the fact that this is simply an inferior product to the original. Contrary to last week's Date Night, which had bad writing, but was saved by excellent performances from two hilarious leads, Death at a Funeral has terrific writing, but is hurt by poor performances from actors who don't know what to do with their characters. I wouldn't say I hated this Americanized remake, but why would I recommend it when I can simply point readers to the far superior original?

Death at a Funeral receives 2.5/5