2012 Movies

Silver Linings Playbook

Bradley Cooper burst on the scene in 2009’s The Hangover and has been pretty busy ever since. He went on to star alongside Robert De Niro in Limitless, which gave me the opportunity to witness him in a more dramatic role.  He continued to expand his more serious repertoire with last summer’s The Words, giving an authentic performance wrought with emotion.  I disagree with those I’ve heard question Cooper’s range and talents.  His latest Oscar-nominated feature may convince some that he has what it takes to stick around for a while, as he teams with talented director David O. Russell (The Fighter) for Silver Linings Playbook.

Cooper stars as Pat, a man trying to rebuild his life after an emotional betrayal sends him into a psychological tailspin.  His marriage is on the flimsiest ground, a fact that is apparent to everyone but Pat.  We are introduced to him on the day of his release from a mental health facility in Baltimore, where he was sentenced to a brief stint after the aforementioned wifely betrayal left another man in intensive care.  Cooper reunites with his Limitless co-star Robert De Niro in the movie, as the veteran actor stars alongside Jacki Weaver (The Five Year Engagement) as Pat’s parents Dolores and Pat Sr. They are loving towards Pat and his older brother Jake (Shea Whigham, Boardwalk Empire), though Pat’s recent troubles and attendant mental state have given them cause for concern.  During his hospitalization Pat was diagnosed as bipolar, which clarifies some of the turmoil he’s experienced in his life up to that point.  He learned some coping mechanisms while there, and he tries to apply his new positive philosophy to life by looking for the “silver lining” whenever possible.

Pat settles in back home in Philadelphia, reconnecting with friends.  He has dinner with his old buddy Ronnie (John Ortiz, Pride and Glory) and his overbearing wife Veronica (Julia Stiles, The Bourne Ultimatum), where he is reintroduced to her sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, X-Men: First Class).  She is detached yet alluring, her grip on mental stability just as tenuous as Pat’s.  As Pat lives in denial about the possibility of reconciliation with his estranged wife Nikki, Tiffany continues her recovery from sex addiction in the aftermath of her husband’s recent death.  At Tiffany’s insistence, the pair form a friendship that initially begins as a quid pro quo where she will deliver a message to Nikki (who has a restraining order against Pat) if Pat will be her dance partner in a local ballroom competition.

Cooper’s performance was honest, and his chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence was effortless.  They both gave unguarded, nuanced performances, as their characters struggled for acceptance and affirmation in one another.  Lawrence shows incredible versatility, proving that she can shine in virtually any role: from popcorn fare like X-Men or The Hunger Games to grim material like Winter’s Bone.  I can’t recall the last movie I’ve seen that had so many standout roles.  The film has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, a whopping four of which are in acting categories.  De Niro put on a brilliantly understated display that began with subtlety but ended with layered complexity, revealing where Cooper’s character may have inherited some of his idiosyncratic and manic behavior.  Every performance was noteworthy, including Chris Tucker’s (Rush Hour) turn as Pat’s quirky pal Danny.  I don’t usually get caught up in the Oscar buzz, but in this case the hype is justified.  Grade: A

Skyfall

I’m no expert, but I do consider myself a 007 enthusiast.  During one particularly nasty winter several years ago, I was trapped indoors by a blizzard.  Since I couldn’t go anywhere, I pretty much watched TV the whole time.  It turns out that every James Bond movie ever made up to that point was available On Demand.  I watched easily about 10 movies, give or take. That means I saw all of the ones with Sean Connery and most of the ones with Roger Moore.  I’d seen the more recent entries at that point, which would have included those with Pierce Brosnan.  I’ve bored you with that anecdote so you know where I’m coming from when I say that Sean Connery remains the best to have ever ordered a martini shaken, not stirred.

Although I think Connery was the best, Daniel Craig (Dream House) has pleasantly surprised me, and I’d actually rank him in the top 3 to ever take on the iconic role.  The franchise got a reboot in 2006 when he stepped in for Casino Royale, the first book in Ian Fleming’s series.  Craig has grown on me.  He’s not traditionally handsome, and I couldn’t imagine him in the part until I saw for myself just how capable he was.  He kept momentum with Quantum of Solace, and I expected Skyfall to be nothing short of amazing.  It was pretty good, but not exactly great (to me).

There are certain things that I like about this franchise; I guess it’s my inner geek that enjoys these little hallmarks.   I like the theme, with its typically slow-motioned graphics and scantily clad silhouettes.  I also like Bond’s penchant for harrowing chases and narrow escapes.  All of that was present, but the actual storyline left a little to be desired.  When we catch up to Bond this time, he is in the midst of a hot pursuit.  The movie opened up with immediate action, and as usual Daniel Craig delivered.  Suave yet rugged, he personifies the embodiment of danger and refinement.  When Bond inadvertently gets in the crosshairs of another agent (Naomie Harris, Ninja Assassin), M (Judi Dench, J. Edgar) authorizes her to take the risky shot anyway.  She narrowly misses her intended target, wounding Bond instead.  Believing that Bond is dead, M tries to regroup.

Their grief is short-lived, as Bond resurfaces just as the Boss of the same villain he previously pursued carries out a terrorist attack on MI6.  The nefarious mastermind in question is Silva (Javier Bardem, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), a former agent with a vendetta against M.  To further foul things up, Silva also engineers the release of every active agent’s true identity.  Here we reach my primary criticism of Skyfall: the lack of originality.  A very similar plot was already featured in last summer’s The Bourne Legacy.  The first time I saw a movie where the identity of every secret agent was leaked, I was impressed.  But once something becomes trite or hackneyed, I’m no longer impressed by it.  Although I always appreciate a clear storyline, I thought the writers could have done more.   

Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) conveyed the excitement of the franchise and captured the chemistry between Daniel Craig and well…everybody.  Javier Bardem is a fine actor and made a great villain, but really – will any bad guy he portrays ever rival his turn in No Country For Old Men?  Impossible.  From a visual perspective, the movie was sleek and polished, with some really cool cinematography at certain points.  I didn’t find much fault with the film, but there have been better entrants in the series.  Overall, Skyfall won’t disappoint you Bond fans out there.  Those with a less forgiving eye may be underwhelmed, but by all accounts most people enjoyed it.   I think it’s worth checking out.  Grade: B+

Flight

I’m getting a little repetitive in my reviews here lately, but it can’t be helped. There’s just some good stuff coming out of Hollywood lately, and the last few movies I’ve seen have been amazing.  Flight was another recent addition to what’s been a great year in film.  Denzel Washington (Safe House) is one of the preeminent actors of our generation, obviously.  We already know that he’s talented and marketable, but I think that the further along and more settled an actor becomes in their career, the less likely they are to take risks or to stretch themselves.  Washington has made a career out of being the hero, and when I initially saw the trailer for Flight, I assumed it would be more of the same.  Like, you saved people from a train (Unstoppable), and now you’re going to save people on a plane.  Been there, done that.  But after watching Flight, I was simply blown away.

Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, a seasoned commercial pilot whose experience, knowledge, and gumption make him one of the best.  While he’s in complete control in the cockpit, his personal life on the ground is much rockier.  He has a contentious relationship with his ex-wife and is estranged from their teenaged son.  The movie begins in a hotel room with Whip GETTING. IT. IN.  I mean, whatever you’re into – he had it; pick your poison.  Coke? Check. Drink? Check. Weed? Check.  I thought he was just having a good time, so imagine my surprise when he and his lovely bedmate mention their impending flight!  I like revealing, expository opening scenes, and director Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away) expertly told us all we needed to know about Whip in five short minutes.  Well, almost all we needed to know.

Let’s jump to the actual flight, which includes one of the most intense scenes I’ve ever witnessed on the silver screen.  The real trouble starts when the plane takes an unexpected nosedive about 20 minutes into the flight.  Folks, let me pause here.  This scene was nothing short of amazing.  I have to tip my hat to Zemeckis for this because I’ve never been so riveted by a single movie scene, and I swear I’ve seen it all at this point.  My movie buddy clutched my thigh, and my eyes began to water.  That’s how amazing this crash scene was.  Everything was depicted perfectly, from the panic and terror of the passengers, to the bravery and sacrifice of the flight attendants as Whip once again showed his mettle.  To stabilize the plane, he inverts it…and they fly upside down!  The plane levels off and he rights the aircraft, lessening the inevitable impact of the crash while lives hung in the balance.  To put it simply…Whip is The Motherfucking Man.

I’ve chosen my words carefully and tried not to reveal anything that I don’t think you’d already have gleaned from the trailer.  Whip’s aviation abilities are above reproach, but his pre-flight behavior was indicative of a man with a serious problem.  After the crash, that behavior is scrutinized and it’s revealed over the course of the film that Whip is a raging alcoholic.  The depths of addiction know no bounds, and I’m speaking from experience.  If you’ve never struggled with it or known someone who has, some of the things Washington’s character does will seem unbelievable, but I thought it was spot-on.  Anyone who has dealt with addiction knows there’s a dark place you have to go before you can vanquish whatever demon threatens you – and that place is called Rock Bottom.  I was greatly impressed with Washington’s ability to portray a character that was deeply flawed, yet sympathetic.  His obvious addiction is expertly juxtaposed with the heroism and skill he displayed on the flight.  As a viewer, you want to despise the recklessness of his actions one minute and applaud him the next.  That conflicting duality of his personality made for an excellent film.  We are the sum of our parts, but it was hard to define Whip Whitaker at times.

Flight literally took my breath away, it was that good.  Washington is a force to be reckoned with and he swagged all over this joint.  His sex symbol status is different now, and I could have done without the shot of his booty, but he is still handsome and oozes charisma.  I’ve never seen him in such a fluid role, where the dichotomy between right and wrong and hero and villain becomes blurred by circumstance.  Actress Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) was also a revelation in her role.  I’d never heard of her before this, but she was a wonderful counterbalance to Whip’s addictive personality, as they forged a tentative romance that never really had a fair shot.  Go see this movie! Grade: A.

The Man With the Iron Fists

I was rather excited when I saw the commercial for RZA’s The Man With the Iron Fists.  The Wu Tang Clan super producer finally had the chance to bring his demonstrated love of Chinese martial arts culture to the big screen.  RZA has been fusing Chinese culture into music since he first beckoned us to enter the 36 chambers back in 1993.  Wildly creative, even when it produces mixed results (anyone remember the Bobby Digital album?) – RZA has never been afraid to forge new ground.  It should be no surprise that his first foray into filmmaking yielded positive results, even though he relies on some help from a talented cast that included Russell Crowe (The Next Three Days), as I’ve never seen him.

RZA stars as an unassuming blacksmith in ancient China.  He calls Jungle Village home, a town overrun by powerful clans.  Caught between warring factions, the blacksmith must fashion weaponry for the gangs without pledging allegiance to any particular one.  Running a profitable but dangerous enterprise, he earns his keep so that he and his woman Lady Silk (Jamie Chung, Sucker Punch) can leave town and make a better life for themselves.  Things take a turn for the worst when the leader of the Lion Clan is murdered by his own lieutenant.  The turncoat is Silver Lion, a ruthless warrior who wants to take over Jungle Village.  He and Bronze Lion conspired to murder Gold Lion, the leader of their gang and a relatively peaceful captain.

After his death, his son Zen Yi (Rick Yune, Ninja Assassin) travels to Jungle Village to investigate and avenge his father’s demise.  Complicating matters is the Lion Clan’s planned hijack of a shipment of gold bullion belonging to the governor of their province.  The shipment is being guarded by the Gemini Twins, a pair of deadly martial artists.  Also tracking the bullion is Jack Knife (Crowe), a British soldier who seems like he prefers the brothel to the battlefield.  Earning his moniker through handiwork with a scissored blade, Jack is a formidable opponent who is not afraid of the Lion Clan.

The backstory of the movie involves Lady Silk’s employer, Madam Blossom.  She runs Jungle Village’s Pink Blossom brothel, where both the Lion Gang and Jack Knife are shacking up.  Madam Blossom and her stable of lovelies have their own designs on the gold bullion and are not to be underestimated.  RZA’s blacksmith is the titular character of the movie, but the wide cast of characters shape his existence and are an integral part of the storyline, which ventures all over the place.  The blacksmith’s loyalty to Zen Yi costs him dearly, but he eventually uses his newfound disability to his advantage, becoming the man with the iron fists.  With Jack and Zen Yi as allies, the stage is set for an unforgettable showdown with the Lions.

The Man With the Iron Fists won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.  The dialogue is often campy and “on the nose,” and even the costumes and makeup are ridiculous in some instances.  For example, Silver Lion looked like Prince, at least to me.  Despite these laughable elements, I thought the movie was great – and even those comical aspects may have been intentional.  Those old Kung Fu movies that probably inspired RZA weren’t exactly known for their profound acting performances.  Any shortcomings by the cast were more than made up for by the performances of Lucy Liu and Russell Crowe.  Crowe particularly seemed to relish his role, a fun and raucous departure from his more recent efforts.  Lucy Liu is no stranger to the physical demands of her character, having played O-Ren Ishii in Tarantino’s Kill Bill vol. 1, which was not so coincidentally scored by the RZA.

Speaking of Tarantino, his imprint is all over this one, which is not a bad thing.  Of course RZA is no Tarantino, but this was a fun movie that will undoubtedly please its intended audience.  RZA has his own style, and his musical background provided for some unique cinematic sequences.  I don’t know how involved directors typically are in scoring their movies, but the musical choices here were perfect.  RZA eschewed traditional filmmaking and created an unconventional movie with a dope score to boot.  It won’t ever be nominated for Best Picture, but it sure makes for a cool day at the movies.  Grade: B

This review first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.

Argo

Some things just lend themselves to cinematic visualization.  You’re probably familiar with the expression “stranger than fiction,” a phrase describing the fantastic things that occur in real life, but are so unbelievable they seem like the stuff of fantasy.  We see so many amazing things in movies, most of which is fiction.  How cool is it when the unbelievable shit you see in a movie actually really happened?  Ben Affleck (most recently of The Town) brilliantly depicted the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 in Argo, demonstrating that he could be the next Clint Eastwood one day – a popular actor whose directorial efforts rival his thespian pursuits.

In 1979, the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran was taken over by protestors who were outraged that the United States had granted amnesty to its recently ousted Shah.  In an effort to minimize the security threat of the takeover, the diplomats began destroying classified material before it could be seized, including passport plates and personnel files.  During the siege, six diplomats escaped, taking refuge at the nearby Canadian Embassy.  Back at the American Embassy the dissidents would eventually begin making the hostages painstakingly reassemble the shredded documents, which included personnel files identifying the escaped diplomats.  There were also neighborhood searches of private residences to ensure that no locals were harboring anyone.  Obviously, any American separate and apart from the Embassy would be in grave danger, at risk for public execution as an example to the West.  The escaped diplomats included four men and two women, with two married couples in that number.  Getting the six out of Iran alive would prove a most daunting task, setting the stage for a nail-biting chain of events.

Back on American soil, the CIA hatches a plan to extract the diplomats, and this is where things really get fun and interesting.  Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, an operative whose specialty lies in such creative recovery missions.  The crisis presented a unique conundrum for the Agency, as any ruse to rescue the diplomats must be executed perfectly.  Mendez gets the idea to pose as a Canadian film crew, complete with a fictional script and Hollywood producers.  He plans to prep each diplomat with a cover story that they will have to memorize.  As explained by Mendez’ superior, the scheme is “the best bad idea” they could come up with.  Argo was the name of the movie, a sci-fi flick set against a desert landscape.  The phony film crew is supposedly in Iran scouting potential film locations.  Authenticity was important, so the idea was based on a real script that had been submitted to a studio.  There was even a fake cast lined up!  Throughout the movie I was riveted, marveling the whole time that this actually happened.  Stranger than fiction, indeed.

Quite simply, Argo is a fantastic movie.  It kept pace throughout, beginning with a brief history lesson to let the audience know the circumstances giving rise to the conflict.  This could have been boring, but it was fascinating and insightful.  The scenes in Iran were wrought with tension, and I was on the edge of my seat as if I didn’t know how the story ends.  The tense atmosphere was balanced perfectly by the funny scenes involving the Agency’s formulation of the rescue mission.  Shout out to the veteran Alan Arkin (recently of The Change-Up) in his amusing turn as the film’s producer, Lester Siegel.  I’m also very impressed by Ben Affleck, who wonderfully conveyed the complexity of a character with the weight of the world on his shoulders.  It was Mendez who had to enter Iran and physically escort the diplomats out of the country, relying on his wits and preparation to see him through.  Affleck is three for three in the director’s chair, by my count.  Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo prove that this burgeoning new facet of his career has yielded great results thus far.  I’d go as far as to say Argo was one of the best movies I’ve seen this year – a must-see for sure.  Grade: A.

Taken 2

If some is good, more is better, right?  When it comes to movies, maybe not so much.  A sequel can be a logical continuation of an original idea, or it can be a watered-down duplicate that serves nothing.  Guess which category Taken 2 falls in?  As much as I was looking forward to Liam Neeson’s (The Grey) reprisal of Bryan Mills, aka Super Dad – the results were rather disappointing.

When we last saw Bryan Mills, he was saving his teenaged daughter from sex traffickers who kidnapped her and her friend.  Bryan rescued his daughter in daring fashion, while leaving numerous bodies in his wake.  Fast forward a few years, and the families of the men that Bryan killed want revenge.  I don’t know how much time is supposed to have elapsed since the first movie, but it can’t have been a long time.  Bryan’s daughter Kim was a teenager before, and she still is.  She’s 16 now; a fact that is patently absurd when considering that actress Maggie Grace (Lockout) recently turned 29.  She looks every bit of it, but ridiculous casting is least of what’s wrong with Taken 2.

In the first movie, the plot was original, and the action seemed to unfold organically.  Bryan was resourceful, and all of his fighting scenes were realistic.  Neeson was perfect as the seasoned former government agent whose skillset uniquely equipped him for a rescue mission.  This time around, he seems a step slower and the entire plot feels forced.  After all that has recently happened, one would think that the Mills family would take added precautions when traveling internationally.  Nope.  They express no reluctance in traveling to Turkey to meet up with Bryan while he travels on a business trip.

Brian’s daughter Kim and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen, X-Men: The Last Stand) join him in Istanbul; while unbeknownst to them they are being tracked by bloodthirsty Albanians.  They want to avenge the murders of their sons and brothers who were killed by Bryan in the last movie.  Eventually Lenore and Bryan are kidnapped in Istanbul, but he is able to get word to Kim back at the hotel, forewarning her before she too is abducted.  He was able to warn Kim because his captors allowed him to make the phone call right in front of them while they held him at gunpoint.  What followed was scene after scene of stupefying occurrences, each more absurd than the one preceding it.  Nearly everything about Taken 2 was unbelievable, from a decidedly middle-aged Neeson easily dispatching much younger men, to Kim somehow morphing into an Angelina Jolie action character.  When she expertly darted across rooftops while throwing hand grenades with Aaron Rodgers-like accuracy, I checked out of the movie.

My friends with whom I saw Taken 2 shared my disappointment.  I thought it began well enough, but as soon as the meat of the action got underway, it was all downhill.  There was only one good fighting scene because it was the only one that was remotely believable.  Neeson is a fine actor, and I’m not saying that he’s too old for an action movie, but this is a movie that didn’t need to happen.  The camera shots even seemed sped up in order to create the illusion that he could actually pull off the fighting scenes and they didn’t look authentic.  Taken 2 looks like it will open at the top spot in the box office, but I’ll bet it plummets by next week.  If you’re looking for a good movie to see, I’d suggest Looper.  It has a much better plot and a better performance by an aging action star (Bruce Willis).  Grade: C

The preceding article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission

Looper

Every self-proclaimed movie buff has a favorite genre and type of movie.  My favorites are suspense thrillers or crime dramas.  I also like movies that feature intersecting storylines.  I think the best movies are “high concept,” meaning that the storyline is uniquely original and it features a refreshing central idea.  Some examples would be Inception, In Time, and Minority Report.  All three of those movies were unlike anything that preceded them.  Looper was such a movie, a high concept tale characterized by an inventive storyline.

J. Gordon Levitt (Inception) has matured into a fine young actor.  He has been impressive in everything I’ve ever seen in him, most notably 500 Days of Summer.  In Looper he stars as Joe, a young criminal in the desolate future of 2044.  30 years from that in 2074, time travel will be possible.  It is ultimately outlawed, used only by criminal organizations in secret as a way of eliminating unwanted offenders.  Joe is a looper, a person who executes people who have been sent back from the future.  Criminals in 2074 send their victim (always another criminal) back in time to 2044, where they are immediately shotgun blasted out of existence by a looper.  There is now virtually no trace of the person ever having existed.  It’s a sad and efficient way of dispensing with an enemy.  Occasionally a crime boss will want to get rid of an employee, even a looper.  When this happens, the looper will make the requisite kill, only to remove the pillowcase from his victim to discover that it’s him or herself (in the future).  This is called “closing your loop,” which means that your future self no longer exists.  The worst thing that a looper could do is fail to close his loop by letting his future self escape.  An open loop means that a future and present version of the looper co-exist in the present.  It also means that they haven’t been removed from the future yet.  It would be like 33-year-old Tanya and 63-year-old Tanya chilling right now in 2012.  Bugged out, right?  Exactly, that’s why it can’t happen.  As crazy as it must seem to put a bullet in your future self, that’s what a looper must do, if necessary.  Joe doesn’t lack the resolve to do it, but he bungles a hit on his future self (Bruce Willis, Red) when the time comes.

Of course, being a looper, Future Joe (Willis) knows exactly what is going to happen when his bosses try to send him back in time.  He prepares for it and outsmarts Present Joe easily, overpowering him and escaping.  I’m just going to refer to Future Joe as Bruce Willis, for simplicity’s sake.  Once his bosses find out that Joe didn’t close his loop, they send a bounty hunter (Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom) back in time to eliminate both Joes – the young one for botching the job and the old one because he was the target in the first place.  Joe himself is also very committed to killing himself, stopping at nothing to track Bruce Willis down.  There is a curious dynamic between Young Joe and Bruce Willis, as their agendas are wildly divergent.  Bruce Willis wants to make sure that his life plays out, as it should, the way he knows it.  He already knows what his version of the future holds, because he’s lived it.  He has a wife that he’ll never meet if Young Joe somehow alters the course of their lives.  Young Joe wants to make his own way in the world and cares nothing for a hypothetical future that he knows nothing about.

Looper was an intriguing movie.  Its high concept premise lured me in, but there were several enjoyable elements.  The casting was great.  Bruce Willis was fitting as the grisly older man who is one step ahead of his younger self.  He really looks like an older version of J. Gordon Levitt, which was especially noticeable in one scene where both actors were shown in profile.  Emily Blunt was also featured, and I think she’s very versatile.  Here she showed a vulnerability and sense of love and compassion that I liked very much.  Her performance was both emotional and convincing.  Levitt always simply does whatever is required of him, and he does it very well.   Looper was nearly flawless, and I hope that Levitt continues to challenge himself with great scripts like this one.  Grade:  A