Monday, December 24, 2012

Jack Reacher

After the disastrous John Carter earlier this year, I’m wary of films that have a man’s first and last names as its title. That being the case, I allowed myself to become hopeful regarding Jack Reacher, the new film by Christopher McQuarrie (director of The Way of the Gun) starring Tom Cruise and based off the book One Shot by Lee Child (who had a cameo in the film as the policeman behind the desk when giving Cruise back his belongings). Unfortunately that hope was misplace because, once again, a man-named film left me both unsatisfied and disappointed.

Before I jump into the things I like and didn’t like about the film, you might want to know what it’s about. Here’s how IMDb describes it: “In an innocent heartland city, five are shot dead by an expert sniper. The police quickly identify and arrest the culprit, and build a slam-dunk case. But the accused man claims he's innocent and says ‘Get Jack Reacher.’ Reacher himself sees the news report and turns up in the city. The defense is immensely relieved, but Reacher has come to bury the guy. Shocked at the accused's request, Reacher sets out to confirm for himself the absolute certainty of the man's guilt, but comes up with more than he bargained for.”

The trailer for the film, which can be viewed below, made it seem as this might raise the bar for the Action/Crime/Thriller genre, as I’ve heard Child’s books have in literature; however, what I found was a rather run-of-the-mill action movie. To be honest, saying it was run-of-the-mill may be too kind.

The story itself started out strong by depicting a heinous crime, and from there the plot thickened with the slow revelation of a conspiracy; however, before too long the film began to stall. Suddenly Reacher, who began to come off as an “Average Joe” superhero as opposed to a former military policeman, was pursuing low-life criminals while trying to save a woman stuck in a cycle of abuse.  

My old man was the buddy for this movie.

Cruise was decent as the title character, but I didn’t really feel there was a lot of development regarding Reacher. He’s initially shrouded in mystery, and the little we do find out about him becomes so far reaching that it’s unbelievable. For instance, he’s suddenly an expert marksman when he just so happens to be working a case involving a sniper. Likewise, he just so happens to come across an ex-marine, played by Robert Duvall, who is willing to help him illegally take on a criminal enterprise just because he saw him shoot years earlier? C’mon man!

Don’t get me wrong, things like that can be found in dozens of action movies, but that’s exactly my point, Jack Reacher isn’t anything special. Everything it had to offer I’ve seen before, and to be honest, if it didn’t have the big-name actors that it did, it would have been terrible. Luckily Cruise, Duvall, Richard Jenkins, Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo did a good enough job to keep me watching. I wish I could say the same for the main villain, played by Werner Herzog, but he was about the least intimidating and fear-striking bad guy I’ve seen in years.

Jack Reacher barely kept me entertained, and at times I felt like it was insulting my intelligence—definitely not what I want to see after spending $10 on a ticket.  It’s definitely not worth seeing in theaters, and I wouldn’t recommend it on DVD either, unless of course you’re having a boring night and have seen everything else. Save your money.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 45%

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Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

After I saw the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring way back in 2001, I rushed out and read all J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, starting with The Hobbit. I continued to enjoy the LOTR trilogy over the next two years, and I must admit, I am excited for The Hobbit Trilogy a decade later. Granted, three movies may be too much and a ploy by the Peter Jackson moneymaking machine, but I really don’t mind—it’s more to enjoy.

Here is a lengthy description of the first in the new trilogy, The Hobbit: An UnexpectedJourney, courtesy of IMDb: “Bilbo Baggins is swept into a quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the fearsome dragon Smaug. Approached out of the blue by the wizard Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo finds himself joining a company of thirteen dwarves led by the legendary warrior, Thorin Oakenshield. Their journey will take them into the Wild; through treacherous lands swarming with Goblins and Orcs, deadly Wargs and Giant Spiders, Shapeshifters and Sorcerers. Although their goal lies to the East and the wastelands of the Lonely Mountain first they must escape the goblin tunnels, where Bilbo meets the creature that will change his life forever ... Gollum.”

Let me start by saying how refreshing it was to see some familiar face in The Hobbit. Ian McKellan’s portrayal of Gandalf in LOTR is the stuff of legends, and he picked up right where he left off—which is amazing considering he's a decade older. Likewise, it was nice seeing Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee reprise their roles, albeit limitedly, as Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman respectively; meanwhile, seeing Ian Holm and Elijah Wood in cameo spots gave the film true LOTR authenticity.

In addition to the familiar faces, there were a bevy of new characters introduced in the film including the dragon Smaug, Martin Freeman as a young Bilbo Baggins, and a fellowship of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield, played brilliantly by Richard Armitage. The dragon really won’t become a factor until The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in December 2013, which brings me to Freeman.

I’ll admit I didn’t know much about Freeman prior to his casting other than the fact that he was on the BBC’s The Office. Even so, I wasn’t worried as all of Jackson’s LOTR casting choices have been spot on. Freeman not only handled the role of Bilbo admirably, he knocked it out of the park. He perfectly balanced the steadfast contentment and cautious wanderlust that characterizes Bilbo, and he also did a great job building the character’s confidence. Watching Bilbo’s progression turned out to be an unexpected journey of its own, one the culminated in a memorable interaction with Gollum, once again brilliantly played by Andy Serkis (Can someone please get that guy an Oscar?).

Ben Robertson & Dan Almerli were the buddies for this movie.

As far as the dwarves were concerned, they were entertaining, though a bit hard to keep track of. Thorin was properly fleshed out and is the Strider/Aragorn of the film, but the others were hard to distinguish from one another. With that said, there are still two full-length films to go, so I’m sure that problem will resolve itself.

In regards to the story, I loved how the focus was on the dwarves’ journey but there were also side stories that feed into the LOTR lore. For instance, the necromancer living in the abandoned castle—that’s Sauron; likewise, Radagast the Brown, played by Sylvester McCoy, provided a sneak peek into the wider world of wizards. The story had me entertained throughout, so in that regard it did it’s job well.

While I liked The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a whole, I had one major qualm—some of the visuals were overwhelming. At times there was so much going on that it was near impossible to process it all. This usually occurred in the action-packed, CGI-generated scenes, like when the dwarves were running through the Orc kingdom. Granted, I didn’t see it in 3D (I wish I had but my friend’s eyes don’t allow him to see 3D movies), so it’s possible such scenes look better in the third dimension.

For me, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a great installment in the LOTR saga. It uses the same formula, a wise decision as it’s a proven success, and the consistency of the actors and filmmakers makes the film authentic—by that I mean it doesn’t feel as if it was thrown together to make a quick buck; instead, it’s been made in such a way as to do justice to both the source material and the fans. It’s a little more whimsical than its predecessors, but keep in mind that’s the way the book wass written (for children as opposed to young adults). To put it simply... if you liked LOTR, you should like The Hobbit—I know I did.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 90%

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Killing Them Softly

I recently had the opportunity to see Killing Them Softly, the new film by Andrew Dominik, who last directed 2007’s superb film The Assassination of Jesse Jamesby the Coward Robert Ford, which also starred Brad Pitt. I’ve always enjoyed dark crime films, and this film peeked my curiosity the first time I saw the trailer (which you can view at the bottom of this review).

In case you’ve never heard of Killing Them Softly, which is based on George V Higgins’ 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, here’s how IMDb describes the movie: “Jackie Cogan is an enforcer hired to restore order after three dumb guys rob a Mob protected card game, causing the local criminal economy to collapse.”

The crime/drama film was reminiscent of last year’s Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, in that it’s a dark, realistic film noir. The story is simple and familiar, but Dominik puts his own spin on things. Instead of taking the usual shoot-em-up route, Dominik pulls back and lets realism, as well as the characters, drive the film by taking viewers into the underworld (as opposed to bringing the villains into the real world). It’s there they get a pessimistic and dark-comedy look at the different tiers of felonious players.

Portraying these players was an impressive cast of actors (there were no actresses other than a bit prostitute part). They included Pitt as the practical and down-to-earth Jackie, who took a systematic and badass approach to cleaning up the mess left behind from the robbery. Pitt’s character is a crude businessman, and this, as well as the other’s ineptitude, is brought to life by the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis. Basically the little mob niche was symbolic of the country as a whole, and Jackie wasn’t going to be caught in the crosshairs.

Carsen Nachreiner was the buddy for this film.

Scoot McNairy, who played one of the aforementioned “three dumb guys” who robbed the poker game, also did a great job as Frankie the junkie. Despite being the catalyst of the situation, he was also the protagonist of the film. You find yourself pulling for his survival despite the drug addiction and rashness, but at the same time you know he deserves what’s coming.

The film was bolstered by fine performances from Richard JenkinsJames Gandolfini and Ray Liotta. The seemingly straight-laced Jenkins plays “Driver”, the middleman between the mob and Jackie. He’s an awful lot like Jackie except that he’s held back by conventions. Likewise, Gandolfini plays fellow hit man Mickey, though he’s not calm, cool and collected like Jackie. Instead, he’s past his prime, an alcoholic and barely holding on by a strong. It’s a sad state in reality, but in this film Gandolfini owns it and captivates every second he’s on the screen. Finally there was Liotta, who played Markie Trattman, the low-level mob man who ran the poker game. I’m used to seeing Liotta play badass characters, but in this film his character was rather meek and it was fun watching him play a pussy.

Killing Them Softly was certainly different. When I left the theater, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Part of me hated it, but another part of me loved it. After processing things for a while, I came to the conclusion that it was actually a rather decent film, not only because so few movies leave me feeling so conflicted (which I think is a testament to their influence), but also because it was unique. It’s ironic that such a dark and depressing movie can be so refreshing.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 70%

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Life of Pi

Ever since Avatar reigned supreme at the box office in 2009, the 3D craze has swept Hollywood. While I’m a fan of 3D movies, too many of them take the cheap route by adding 3D in postproduction and sacrifice story in the name of visuals—I do not like that. Fortunately that wasn’t the case with Life of Pi, the film based on Yann Martel’s novel of the same name.

For those who don’t know, here’s how IMDb describes Life of Pi: “Based on the best-selling novel by Yann Martel, is a magical adventure story centering on Pi Patel, the precocious son of a zoo keeper. Dwellers in Pondicherry, India, the family decides to move to Canada, hitching a ride on a huge freighter. After a shipwreck, Pi finds himself adrift in the Pacific Ocean on a 26-foot lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, all fighting for survival.”

Academy Award winner Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain and Sense and Sensibility) directed the film, and he was intent on utilizing 3D technology to its fullest potential. Right from the get go the viewers are hit with some amazing visuals as the camera jumps from animal to animal at a zoo. It was almost like a fighter flexing his muscles before a fight, one that you just knew was going to be good.

Not only did Life of Pi make a strong first impression, it continued to impress throughout its entirety. An epic shipwreck, a swarm of flying fish and a field full of meercats were just a few of the scenes that captivated. The visuals were truly breathtaking, but it was even more impressive that they were designed to support a great story. The film is an Adventure/Drama that sees Pi take an “epic journey of adventure and discovery". I won’t spoil what those discoveries are, but I feel everyone will relate to what they see—I know I did.

Carsen Nachreiner was the buddy for this film.

Newcomer Suraj Sharma, who was actually cast after accompanying his brother to an audition, played the title character, and he turned out to be a gem. He carried the majority of the film by interacting with non-speaking animals, which was not an easy task. On a side notem the animals were actually portrayed in a very realistic manner, which had been a big concern of mine. Anyway, Sharma did a tremendous job bringing the animals to life, such as the (mostly) CGI-produced Richard Parker, who became a strong supporting character. Irrfan Khan, who you may recall from Slumdog Millionaire, also did a great job as the adult Pi as I found myself hanging on his every word each time he was onscreen.

Thanks to superb visuals, a sturdy story, and deep performances, Life of Pi truly takes the viewer on an adventure. It reminded me of a combination of Castaway and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (at least the adventure/visual aspect), and it blended well. I’m comfortable saying that Life of Pi tops the list of 3D movies I’ve seen up to this point (Yes, I liked it even more than Avatar), and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it nominated for several Academy Awards. Any serious cinema fan will surely appreciate this movie, but make sure you see it in 3D as its well worth the few extra bucks.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 86%

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