Monday, January 27, 2014

Clear and No Surpises--Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

     There's no real reason to call Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit a Tom Clancy movie: sure, some of the characters are based upon the late author's, but there isn't too much to differentiate between Jack and Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt--other than Jack Ryan, in this 5th incarnation that features the character (dating back to Alec Baldwin's portrayal in 1990's The Hunt for Red October) is less exciting than most. He's just a pretty face who knows how to handle himself in stressful situations, instead of a gruff and entertaining machismo like what Harrison Ford brought to the table. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit contains all of the ingredients to make delicious spy-movie stew (a good director and supporting cast, an intriguing echoes-of-Cold-War story): but since this incarnation of the Ryan character is so bland, Shadow Recruit becomes a tame and by-the-numbers action movie. It barely satiates your appetite.
    Chris Pine stars as the titular character, and he has enough charm to definitely make Jack likable. But he's more fitted to the cocky swagger of Captain Kirk than the humble Marine turned Wall Street compliance officer that Jack Ryan is in this "reboot" of the so-called franchise. We first meet Jack as he witnesses the 9/11 attacks from London, where he's attending their School of Economics. Deciding to become a Marine, he gets deployed to Afghanistan to fight for his country. Events transpire that cause him to become a hero, and people take notice: most notably Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner, in full-on mentor mode) and Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), his rehab nurse who gets all googly-eyed at his quick progress.
     So begins this reboot, minus any significant excitement that the viewer got from Bond's reboot in Casino Royale or Batman's in Batman Begins. We flash-forward 10 years, and Jack is working under cover on Wall Street for the CIA, trying to decipher terrorist activity through stocks, companies and numbers. He soon finds enough information about some peculiar transactions, and he gets sent to Moscow on what turns out is his first operational mission, complete with assassins, constant surveillance and a loaded handgun.
     Much of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit's tension revolves around typing on a computer or plugging a drive into a port or hacking into security systems. It's all very hi-tech, but there's only so much excitement one can draw from fast-moving fingers on a computer screen with hundreds of codes and passwords flying by. We get a villain, Victor Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh, who also directed), a Russian who plans to bring down America's economic system. But villains have been far more complex and terrifying in many different Bond films. Sometimes you may wonder how Victor even became so powerful, since he gets duped numerous times by ideas that are in the Obvious 101 handbook. The climax of the film is kind of laughable and anticlimactic, featuring a generic motorcycle chase scene and some hand-to-hand combat where the viewer can barely decipher who is punching who.
      These first couple of months of the new year are usually the cinematic dumping grounds, where studios drop off films without originality or wit to die. Occasionally, viewers can come upon a surprise: but Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit surely isn't it. The cast and director Kenneth Branagh (who has the skills--he directed the first Thor) do fine with the standard script, but the lack of major excitement and the absence of any thought-provoking views make this Jack Ryan a film that won't be remembered a few months from now.     (C+)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Top 10 Films of 2013

     I don't know if anyone could claim that the year 2013 was a great year for film making: sure, there were some gems, but they were few and far between and were sandwiched between dozens of below-average efforts. A question begs to be asked: does Hollywood know that much of the public is tired of the same ol' stuff? By the looks of the first few months of 2014, it seems that the answer is "No". However, it didn't stop me from watching 72 films released in the year 2013. Here are my favorites:

Honorable Mentions:

25. Enough Said
24. Don Jon
23. Her
22. Side Effects
21. Oblivion
20. Upstream Color
19. American Hustle
18. Dallas Buyers Club
17. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
16. The Place Beyond the Pines
15. Pacific Rim
14. Blue Jasmine
13. This is the End
12. Out of the Furnace
11. Before Midnight

Ron Howard's Rush is an exciting sports film, and it's filled with great competition and a cockiness that makes every minute fun to watch. If you don't know the specifics of the true story, even better: the rivalry between Britain's James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austria's Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) during the 1976 Formula 1 racing season has as many twists and turns as an event at Watkins Glen. But there's one reason Rush races ahead of more average sports stories: Daniel Bruhl's portrayal of Niki Lauda. If Bruhl's face looks familiar, he had roles in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds and was in one of the Bourne films, but in Rush he really becomes a name to watch. As "rat-faced" Niki, Bruhl portrays a racing obsession (and making his life goal beating cocky playboy James Hunt) with a charm and likability that grows as the film's minutes zoom by. And after a race that changes both of the drivers' lives forever, James and Niki's competition morphs into an ever-growing respect for one another that defines the rest of their lives.

Short Term 12
This little indie film probably isn't on your radar, but it should be. It's mostly about a character named Grace (Brie Larson) who works at a facility for at-risk teenagers. These kids come from broken homes, or they've been molested, or they have anger issues that don't allow them to communicate well with others their age. Short Term 12 is about the people who basically dedicate their lives to make a difference in the kids' lives. It could have easily (and quickly) fallen into TV movie cliches and eye-rolling, but it somehow sidesteps most of the pitfalls of the genre, becoming an emotional experience that is sad, heart-breaking and hopeful from scene-to-scene. Brie Larson is a wonder as Grace, and John Gallagher, Jr.'s Mason (you might recognize him from HBO's The Newsroom) is funny and touching, as he slowly comes to realize the reasons why Grace is so passionate about her work. It can be a little corny at times (no story about social work avoids that), but Short Term 12 has the most true-life emotion of any film this year.

Alfonso Cuaron created one of my favorite films of the last decade in 2006's Children of Men: the cold and realistic setting was made even more real when the theater I saw it in (during the winter time) hadn't turned on the heat yet due to its early matinee showing. We could actually see our breath. I went to see Gravity at the IMAX and had a similar experience (but not due to the temperature): the big enveloping screen made me feel like I was actually floating in space, adding to the weightlessness feeling that is prevalent throughout the film. Gravity instilled a sense of panic in my nervous system that I wasn't sure was possible in modern cinema. It's also the most technically brilliant film 2013: though I couldn't really care less about the story (or Sandra Bullock's dead child plot line), Gravity is sheer glory in its special effects, computer generated imagery, and its use of sound (or lack thereof, due to the vacuum of space). No, Gravity doesn't have a great story, and it didn't come close to affecting me like Children of Men, but it's a master class in the potential of where film making may be headed in the coming years.

Blackfish is the best documentary of the year. It's also one of the most thrilling films, period. You're stuck in you're own little bubble if you think this story of the behavior of killer whales in captivity (particularly at SeaWorld) is just liberal propaganda or just another basic sob story of animal cruelty (not that those aren't relevant, too). Focusing on Tilikum, a killer whale whose bloodline is full of rage and violent outbursts against trainers at ocean-life parks, Blackfish plays out like a horror movie: it's drowning in shocks and incredibly violent moments that almost take your breath away. It can also bring tears to your eyes--not just because of the living conditions or treatment of the killer whales (which surely is sad enough), but because of the trainers whose lives have been altered even if they had perfectly good intentions. Blackfish does two things: it makes you never want to go to SeaWorld (if you ever did, anyway), and it solidifies its status as top-notch documentary film making.

Iron Man 3 
Star Trek Into Darkness 
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
If Hollywood did something correctly in 2013, it may have been big-budget sequels. Most were better than their previous installments (Maybe not Star Trek Into Darkness, but it was at least as good), something that is rare in this era that puts more stock into watching the money roll in than the actual quality of a film. These three were the best of the bunch:

Iron Man 3: This sequel far surpassed Iron Man 2. Reinvigorated by director Shane Black (of 90's era action movie fame), this incarnation of Tony Stark's story is full of wit and incredibly done comic-book action sequences (that plane scene) that leave you breathless. It unfortunately still contains Gwyneth Paltrow, but an entertaining Guy Pearce is a nice touch. 

Star Trek Into Darkness: Many fans were pissed about the big reveal (that wasn't much of a reveal at all): it's Khan! How dare they do another story about Khan? But I really didn't care. It's every bit as fun as J.J. Abrams' first installment, and Benedict Cumberbatch's villainous performance is thrilling. I could listen to him read J. R. R. Tolkien and it would be entertaining--and I did later in the year, because he's the voice of the dragon Smaug in the newest Hobbit

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: I was wondering how the filmmakers would pull off "The Clock" (the new arena for the competitors). I thought they did an admirable job. The budget was almost double of the original, and it's easy to tell: the action and special effects are slicker and more exciting. And though Jennifer Lawrence can show off her acting chops easier in other roles, she embodies Katniss and is as watchable as ever. 

You're Next
You're Next was some of the most fun that I've had at the movies this year, and that's why it has climbed so high on my list. In a year full of pretty good (not amazing) movies taking on serious subject matter (many of which take themselves a little too seriously), You're Next was a breath of fresh air--well, not too fresh, with all of the bloody mist flying about. It starts off as a typical low-budget slasher film with some less-than-stellar acting: a wealthy family is having a reunion at their remote Missouri mansion. There's plenty of family tension with arguing and dick-measuring (not literally). The crew sits down for dinner and...all Hell breaks loose. Outfitted with creepy animal masks, a group of intruders begins to assault the house, picking off members of the family with brutal weapons and excessive violence. It's short and sweet at 95 minutes (more would have been too much), and it's slathered with stylistic horror, it's full of laughs and it has a heroine who is significantly more than what she seems. A fun time.

Matthew McConaughey is the man. Throughout the past couple of years, he has completely transformed himself into a damn fine American actor: Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Dallas Buyer's Club, The Wolf of Wall Street--his roles in all of these films (however big or small) are memorable and are the work of a person at the top of their game. He's already garnering praise for HBO's new show True Detective and also is starring in one of my most anticipated films of 2014, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. Mud is no different. Directed by the skilled independent director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter), Mud is a modern day Mark Twain-esque story about two coming-of-age boys and a strange man on the run (McConaughey), taking place among the swamps of the Mississippi River. It has the essence of a fairy tale: Nichols directs the setting and nature of the area to make it feel almost timeless. But McConaughey's performance is what anchors Mud: it's full of sadness and regret, but also a fierce excitement and hope. Many people didn't like the violent outburst of an ending. But I thought it solidified Mud as an unsettling parable about growing up.

12 Years A Slave
If you had seen director Steve McQueen's other two films, Hunger and Shame, you'd realize that the man can take on any subject, making it riveting and uncomfortable viewing. American slavery is already an uncomfortable subject, one that hasn't been portrayed that well in cinema (I'm not counting last year's revenge fantasy Django Unchained). Until now: 12 Year's a Slave is necessary viewing, and not just for white liberals who want to suffer in guilt because of their ancestors. For everyone. Some of the film follows a pretty standard path, but a few particulars stand-out: Michael Fassbender's scary portrayal of slave owner Edwin Epps. Can he just be a part of every film from now on? Chiwitel Ejiofor's portrayal of Solomon Northup, a free black man who wakes up in chains after a night of drinking, and realizes the tightrope walk of life and death that he's now living. And two scenes that are incredibly difficult to watch: Solomon hanging from a noose with his tiptoes barely touching the ground and Solomon having to whip another slave to save his own life. McQueen's handling of these scenes transforms them into some of the best of the year.

Prisoners is far from a feel-good movie. It has the kind of story that gets under your skin and sits there, festering until a resolution allows the pressure to dissipate. It's incredibly powerful: when Keller Dover's (Hugh Jackman) daughter gets kidnapped, how far should he take himself into an abyss of violence when he thinks he knows who committed the crime? And can Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhall) locate the girls before it's far too late? Both Jackman and Gyllenhall have top-notch performances, but I'm especially partial to Gyllenhaal's: his Detective seems typical at first (single, incredible solving-crimes record), but it's not long before you can see something boiling under the surface of his nervous tics. But the real star of Prisoners is director Denis Villeneuve. This is his first American film, and his beautiful direction, transfixing imagery and incredible use of darkness and light allows Prisoners to transcend a normal kidnapping film, becoming a dread-filled exercise in great film making. 

The Wolf of Wall Street
No film this year is crazier than The Wolf of Wall Street, the story of stockbroker Jordan Belfort and his rise from pushing penny stocks at a rundown strip mall operation to snorting cocaine out of an expensive stripper's butt hole. And no performance reaches the highs of Leonardo DiCaprio's: his passion, his insanity, his hilarity, his powerful speeches, his shocking bursts of emotion. Martin Scorsese--DiCaprio's frequent collaborator (and after Wolf, let's hope these two have even more in store for us in the near future)--has created a three-hour film about sex, drugs and America that consistently pushes the boundaries of good taste and misogyny yet crosses the line so quickly that the audience refuses to care. It's the work and cockiness of (since Scorsese is 71) a much younger man. You may think The Wolf of Wall Street is a drama about stock brokers on Wall Street who behave badly on their free time. But you'd be wrong: The Wolf of Wall Street is a bleak black comedy--and it's one of the funniest films of the year. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Behind Enemy Lines in Lone Survivor

     If you're not familiar with the story of Lone Survivor (based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson), you only have to read the title to realize that the majority of the characters you come to know in the film are going to die. And die they do, typically in absolutely brutal fashion. The everything-goes-wrong mission in Afghanistan--called Operation Red Wings--is ripe for a film about the skill of soldiers, patriotism, and the capacity of a human being's survival instinct. The acting is good, particularly when the bullets start flying: Mark Wahlberg has confidence and intensity, Emile Hirsch's terror is sad and vivid, and Ben Foster has a wild-eyed fervor that he brings to every role. So why is Lone Survivor a good (but not great) movie? I point the finger at director Peter Berg. Though he does a much better job than his last two films (2008's horrible Hancock and 2012's abhorrent Battleship), Berg's decision for more action and less subtlety and his over-the-top depiction of the violence causes Lone Survivors' characters to seem like invincible action heroes instead of actual human beings.
     From the opening montage scene during the credits, showing real-life Navy SEALs in training and gaining a confidence that they can push their bodies far further than they ever expected, Lone Survivor almost feels like a recruitment film for the armed forces (similar to portions of 2012's Act of Valor). When we first see the actors, they're doing normal things that soldiers do while on base: chatting with their girlfriends online, participating in a macho one-upmanship (whether running or ribbing on each other), and relaxing in cool confidence before their next mission. Though some have families back home, this is their real home: with their brothers, getting put through the Hell of war to protect America.
     After the few minor character development scenes, our four main SEALs are dropped into enemy territory, the treacherous and sometimes beautiful mountains of the Kunar Province. Their task seems doable: disrupt an Anti-Coalition Militia in the area by capturing or taking out a higher-up in the Taliban. They inch their way through the terrain until they reach a high vantage point of a village where the target has been located. Then they wait. Until a small group of goat herders walks right into them. A decision must be made: Kill the herders and trek up the mountain for extraction, tie them to a tree and trek up the mountain for extraction, or let them go and risk them coming back with an army. They choose the latter option, and it sets in motion the bloodbath of the rest of the film.
     Not long after the three herders are released, the SEALs can't get a connection with their Base, and a large group comes up the mountain to kill them. This middle potion of the film has the highest highs and the lowest lows: some of it is extremely intense, especially when our SEALs first realize that they are being surrounded. That first head shot, full of the notorious pink mist, is satisfying. And much of the violence is so visceral that you can almost feel it, a rarity in violent movies nowadays. But it grows to be too much: our characters are shot, take shrapnel, jump off a cliff, smash their heads on rocks, smack their bodies on trees, get shot some more, take rocket launcher blasts, jump off of another cliff, smashing their bodies on boulders, breaking bones, and clearly destroying their internal organs. After all of this, they still run (or at least hobble) around, splitting up blood, but they're still healthy off to pick off the militant forces. And of course, the non-Americans usually only take 1 bullet to die. The ending is rushed and leaves little impact (except for the montage of photos of the actual soldiers before the end credits).
     Filmmakers who decide to make a film about war have to walk a fine line: be too subtle and slow, and you risk boring the viewer. Focus too much on shooting, killing, and explosions, it becomes sensory overload, boring the viewer in the opposite fashion. A little nuance would have gone a long way in Lone Survivor: there's plenty of intensity in the film, but it never hits any relevant social commentary like Full Metal Jacket, never makes you sweat like The Hurt Locker, and it's not as well-directed as the Bin Laden compound raid in Zero Dark Thirty. It's more straight action movie (and sometimes even seems like a parody of one, like when the four Seals jump off a cliff, hand-in-hand in slo-mo). And that's okay--you can't claim that Lone Survivor isn't entertaining as an action movie, once the tension is raised and the heroes are put into peril. I just like my heroes--especially in war films--more human being than nearly indestructible force.     (B)