Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Warrior

Directed by Gavin O’Connor.
2011. Rated PG-13, 140 minutes.
Cast:
Nick Nolte
Tom Hardy
Joel Edgerton
Frank Grillo
Maximiliano Hernández
Kevin Dunn
Jennifer Morrison
Denzel Whitaker
Kurt Angle
Erik Apple

What happens when your demons catch up to you? Our three main characters in Warrior have to find out the answer to that very question. There’s Paddy AKA Pop (Nolte), and his two sons, Brendan (Edgerton) and Tommy (Hardy). The three have been estranged for quite some time. Pop is a drunk who abused the boys’ mother. He’s been sober for close to 1000 days. When he comes home one night he discovers Tommy waiting on his doorstep. We quickly learn that a few years ago Tommy took mom and fled in hopes of getting her as far away from Pop as possible. He seethes hatred for his old man, yet here he is. Brendan lives not too far from his father but refuses to see him, mostly for the same reason as his brother. However, there is even more to that dynamic. The two brothers aren’t speaking, either. Both are trained fighters, but not working as professionals. Still, they both decide now is the time to get back in the game and start seriously training for a very high profile mixed martial arts tournament where the winner takes home $5 million. They do so separately and without knowledge of what the other is doing, of course. Interestingly enough, Tommy asks Pop to work with him.

The three men share something I hesitate to call a bond. That would imply that what they have is a positive thing. Rest assured, it is not. It’s much more akin to shackles that keep them connected no matter how much they desire to be otherwise. Indeed, they are each other’s demons. It seems they’ve been haunting one another all of their lives. Despite all the anger between them, we empathize with each of them. We understand the actions of the two sons. Things are a little trickier with regards to Pop. However, we feel sorry for him. He desperately wants to make amends but knows his mistakes are unforgivable.

Besides watching the guys rage against each other, the reason the two brothers want and need the prize money is also explored. This adds to the drama and helps to flesh out the characters. The writing and the actors themselves aid in this also. Nolte and Hardy are particularly good. It’s one of Nolte’s best in years. He really conveys a man constantly grieving his own errors, desperate to reconcile with his offspring and feeling completely dejected. It’s heart wrenching stuff. Whenever Hardy’s on screen, Tommy’s anger consumes both him and us. We feel the chill of his coldness. However, knowing what’s gone on in his life, we totally understand. By the way, as Brendan, Joel Edgerton holds up well also. Unfortunately for him, his performance is bookended by two outstanding portrayals.


Don’t go getting the wrong idea. There is lots of MMA action. It’s oddly handled, though. It’s brutal, but only up to a point. Fists, elbows, feet and knees hit as bone-crunching noises threaten to blow out your speakers. Bodyslams certainly live up to their name. However, it’s all strangely sanitized to fit into the movie’s PG-13 packaging. In short, it’s a bloodless affair. Anyone who’s seen the sport in real life knows this isn’t the case. Often, someone is being pummeled but where they’re being hit is barely out of sight. When you see this realize it’s the camera doing what camera’s aren’t supposed to do: flincing.

The fighting in Warrior is not here to satisfy my bloodlust, though. It’s here to provide a triumphant achievement for one of the brothers. For this reason, it’s been called just another Rocky clone. I disagree. There is that element to Warrior, but it’s much more. It’s about the painful relationships the three men share. This comes through even in its most Rocky-esque moments. Though one son assumes the Balboa role, the other is no Apollo Creed. He’s much more reluctant hero than villain. However, we do get an Ivan Drago in the form of unbeatable Russian champion Koba (Angle). In reality, he’s merely an interesting sidebar. Finding a way to defeat him is not the point of the nearly two hours we spend with this dysfunctional family. The point is to see how much the thrill of victory can be tainted by the agony of defeat.

MY SCORE: 8.5/10

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

Directed by Michael Rapaport.
2011. Rated R, 97 minutes.
Cast:
Q-Tip

Phife Dawg
Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Jarobi White
Afrika Baby Bam
Mike G
Common

Angie Martinez
Chris Lighty
Monie Love
Black Thought
Questlove
Bobbito Garcia
Pharrell
Mary J. Blige
Adam Yauch

Back in the days when I was a teenager, before I had status and before I had a pager (remember those?) you could find young Dell listening to hip hop, my mom used to say it reminded her of be-bop. True fans know this to be a paraphrase of the first verse of “Excursions,” the opening song on A Tribe Called Quest’s classic hip hop album “The Low End Theory.” Yes, I’m a true ATCQ fan. At a moment’s notice I can recite whole songs of theirs completely from memory. Obviously, Beats Rhymes & Life is a movie that I could not miss.

For those not in the know, ATCQ is composed of four members. Q-Tip is the face of the group. Initially, he handled most of the rapping. He also handled most, if not all of the production. Later, his lyrical role was reduced to pretty much half. More than any other, his fingerprints are all over the Tribe’s identity. Tip is a bit eccentric, very much so by hip hop standards. Phife does the rest of the rhyming. His much more muscular yet witty approach to the mic provides the gravity that keeps Tip from spiraling off into outer space. Ali Shaheed Muhammad is the group DJ. He keeps the live shows moving and eventually helped produce. Before this documentary, Ali never seemed to say much, except with his hands of course. Fourth member Jarobi is a mysterious figure to many tribe fans. He was visibly and audibly part of the crew at the beginning yet disappeared by the time their second album came out. He was spoken of, but hardly seen. However, he does travel with them on occasion.


We meet up with our heroes in 2008 on the “Rock the Bells” tour. The Tribe is headlining despite not having recorded together since their very public break-up a decade prior. Time has not healed all wounds. Q-Tip and Phife constantly teeter on the edge of a fist-fight. By this point in their relationship, everything Tip does irritates Phife on some level. Ali and Jarobi are pretty much caught in the crossfire, unable to help the situation. Director Michael Rapaport spends plenty of time getting the points of view of the two bickering parties. He also gives us some commentary from the other two members.

To reinforce the iconic status the group enjoys in hip hop culture various artists producers, industry folks speak about how ATCQ influenced them or their experiences with them. ATCQ devotees, such as myself, will delight in seeing the likes of Common, Pharrell, The Beastie Boys and Monie Love testify to the Tribe’s greatness. Fellow Native Tongues alums, The Jungle Brothers, are particular helpful since they were greatly involved in getting a record deal for ATCQ. The Native Tongues were a group of artist that often worked together and were an eclectic bunch with an afro-centric outlook, a great deal of social awareness but decidedly less militant than much of the rap music of the time. The most successful NT member, Queen Latifah, provides us with the most glaring absence. She has transcended the music to become one of the most recognizable women in the country, an Oscar nominated actress and best-selling author. She would provide us with something the movie is a bit lacking in: another person young people or those not necessarily Tribe fans would easily connect with. She’s mentioned and seen in old clips but does not appear and share any of her recollections.

People gushing over our heroes is nice, but not what keeps us intrigued. What does it is the same thing that drives all those episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music. We want to see what happens to people who grew up as friends and achieve success together to destroy their relationships. Here, like in most cases, it’s everyone’s fault to some degree. Phife seems tired of Tip’s controlling ways and sometimes envious of the attention his bandmate gets. Q-Tip often appears oblivious to what’s going on as it’s happening. Then, he feels blindsided when he finally realizes the problem. The two have an interesting dynamic that’s explored thoroughly. However, what we’re offered as a resolution isn’t one, at all. In light of where they are when things end, we need to be given more.



We also should have more of their personal lives. Phife has serious health issues which we spend lots of time on. However, we learn little or nothing about the other guys’ lives away from the stage. Is anyone besides Phife married? Anyone have kids? If their parents are still alive what do they have to say? There is a scene of Tip going back to his old high school and catching up with some of his former teachers. However, none of them get a moment to speak on their ex-pupil. They are merely props for him to interact with, more or less.

Beats Rhymes & Life overcomes its flaws to still be a very good documentary. For Tribe fans, and those of 90s hip hop, the nostalgia factor is off the charts. For younger viewers it gives insight into a legendary group they may not know much about even though many of the artists they currently listen to know plenty. For non-rap fans, it’s hard to say how much value this holds. Thankfully, Michael Rapaport does a nice job of making this a very human story of strained relationships. I’d again refer to Behind the Music. If you’re the type that watches that show regardless of who the artist is, you’ll enjoy this.

MY SCORE: 8/10

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Drive

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.
2011. Rated R, 100 minutes.
Cast:
Ryan Gosling
Carey Mulligan
Ron Perlman
Bryan Cranston
Albert Brooks
Oscar Isaac
Christina Hendricks
Kaden Leos

The kid or Driver (Gosling), as he’s listed in the credits, is special behind the wheel. His ability has gotten him a few different gigs. He’s a mechanic and part-time Hollywood stunt driver. His boss at the shop acts as his agent and is trying to borrow money from the local gangsters to finance a racecar driving career for his boy. The kid is also a popular and highly effective getaway driver for area riffraff. We get the impression that when he’s not doing any of these jobs he sits in his small one bedroom apartment all alone and stares at the walls. He doesn’t say much. His conversations consist mostly of one word answers to the questions of others. It’s pretty safe to say he’ll never be mistaken for a social butterfly. I imagine it’s kind of hard to meet girls that way.

Ah, but a girl there must be. The kid has a thing for Irene (Mulligan) who lives next door with her son Benecio (Leos). We quickly realize, she has a thing for him, too. They often see each other in the elevator but might never have interacted beyond saying a polite hello if not for her car breaking down. You see, she’s less shy than he, but still not a big talker. He manages to string together enough words to ask her out. She accepts and they sort of become a couple. Even though there are fewer words shared between them than sheepish grins, they understand one another.


Showing such a silent relationship is a tricky proposition. Movies are generally cluttered with noise. It’s what we expect. Here, neither of our lovebirds says much with their mouths. Body language and facial expressions handle the bulk of their communicating. The make a cute couple. The trick that’s turned is making us understand the depth of their feelings for each other. Even this is done without the usual visual panache. They never look longingly into each other’s eyes or go running towards one another and kiss deeply while sweeping music blares from the speakers. Neither tries to chase the other down while the object of their desire is aboard a departing bus or train with tears streaking down their face. There are no love scenes. What they have just is.

Well, it just is until it just isn’t. Rather, it lurks in background when we get a large piece of information. This info that I won’t divulge is the dime the movie turns on. When we get it, we may realize things are about to change. Still, we can’t fathom how it will lead us to the place at which we eventually arrive. Just know that this makes the second half of the picture a graphically violent excursion.

For some, the fact that all the action takes place late will be problematic. They’ll be frustrated by all non-verbal communication and general lack of adrenaline during the first part of the movie. The issue will be that these people have likely seen the trailers for Drive and happily hit the play button expecting something more along the lines of a Fast and Furious retread. They will be severely disappointed. The rest of us will be drawn in by the uncommonly quiet half of the film and will delight in the explosion of violence when it comes.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Joyful Noise

Directed by Todd Graff.
2012. Rated PG-13, 118 minutes.
Cast:
Queen Latifah
Dolly Parton
Keke Palmer
Jeremy Jordan
Dexter Darden
Courtney B. Vance
Jesse L. Martin
Angela Grovey
Dequina Moore
Kris Kristofferson
Kirk Franklin

When Bernie (Kristofferson) passes away Pastor Dale (Vance) decides Vi Rose (Latifah) will take his place as choir director, much to the chagrin of Bernie’s widow G. G. (Parton), who wants the position for herself. The two already have issues with one another so this just makes things worse. Vi Rose is also trying to raise two teenagers by herself since her husband is away in the service. Her daughter Olivia (Palmer) is a member of the choir and a fairly typical 16 year old. Walter (Darden) is a little younger and has a form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome. We’re told he can’t pick up on things like humor and sarcasm, doesn’t like to be touched and is totally fixated on one-hit wonders. Then there’s Randy (Jordan). He’s a trouble-maker who’s been kicked out of his parent’s house. He’s also in love with Olivia. Melodrama, puppy love and singing ensues. Lots of singing.

As in her best work, Queen Latifah is a force of nature as Vi Rose. Her presence is undeniable. She has a way of dominating a scene whether she’s the focus, or not. This pays the most dividends when she argues with or consoles other characters. She overwhelms them with an unstoppable wave of passion we can’t help but be glued to. Fortunately, we’re given several of these scenes throughout the movie.


The rest of the acting is spotty and seems to break down along gender lines. Most of the ladies are very good. Most of the guys, not so much. Jeremy Jordan as Randy is the biggest offender. He’s just not at all believable as a bad boy and seems to be channeling Zac Effron during the High School Musical days whenever he bursts into song. He’s a cute kid, hardly a menace to society. As far as the other guys go, it’s largely due to the script giving them nothing to do until they have to suddenly drop some supposedly heartfelt pearl of wisdom. This particular strategy fails to aid their performances. Some get nothing to do at all. The usually excellent Kris Kristofferson dies within two minutes of the start, only getting a superfluous flashback scene later in which he only gets to dance cute with Dolly. The talented Courtney B. Vance is on the screen often, but relegated to bump on a log status.

Speaking of the script, it tries to do too much and winds up doing nothing whatsoever. At least, it doesn’t do anything unique. It’s mildly amusing, on occasion, and the various plotlines play out pretty much as expected. One of those is a sob story about how hard the town they live in has been hit by the recession. There is no doubt lots to be explored down that avenue, but none of it is. It just feels tacked on and even more manipulative than the other already gushy storylines.


The same goes for race. Joyful Noise goes out of its way to show us interracial relationships. The choir is more diverse than any I’ve ever seen in real life. I’ve no problem with either other than it feels as if some grand point will be made, but we never get around to it. Then again, maybe that is the point.

What we end up with is a movie that barrels towards a plethora of happy endings and fails to make any decipherable commentary on the topics it seems to want to: the economy and race. On the other hand, it springs to life whenever leading lady Latifah is called upon to give us a show-stopping moment or when the music gets going and we’re treated to another lively tune. The question for you is: do you want a cute, light-hearted and homey musical with a religious slant?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Directed by Brad Bird.
2011. Rated PG-13, 133 minutes.
Cast:
Tom Cruise

We start on what by now seems to be a normal day in the life of extra super duper secret agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise). He busts out of a Serbian prison while dragging along a fellow inmate who may have some valuable information. He finds out that one of his buddies was killed in the line of duty. More importantly, Hunt learns that he has to retrieve a file that’s locked away in the Kremlin. Yes, an actual physical file and not an electronic one. While there, someone else blows the place up. Unfortunately for our hero and his crew, they’re being blamed so the good ol’ USA has to disavow any knowledge of Ethan and company. We learn this is called ghost protocol, hence the title. Anyhoo, not only do the good guys have to clear their own names, but that of the United States, as well. They must do this without the help of their native land, either. Of course, accomplishing this means they also must stop some Russian nut from starting a nuclear war. And you thought you had a tough day at work.

Thankfully for us, watching this particular mission is a better viewing experience that the last couple. The first movie in the series was pointlessly and aggressively convoluted making it a chore to watch. As a knee-jerk reaction to the sheer confusion of much of its audience, parts II and III turned Hunt into a superhero and dumbed everything down to seemingly random stunts and explosions. So far, the franchise hasn’t been able to strike the proper balance between sophisticated espionage and stupid action.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol takes a step in the right direction. Make that a few steps. The action is dialed back a bit. Don’t worry junkies, there’s still plenty for you to tweak on. The difference is that everything going boom isn’t the focus. The story between the stunts actually intrigues us. Occasionally, it slips into needlessly cryptic exposition but for the most part, it works. So does the comic relief, courtesy of Benji (Pegg). For that matter, the camaraderie and sometimes contentiousness of this new squad is pretty entertaining. This includes an interesting turn by Jeremy Renner as Agent Brandt. Though I must admit that I did miss Ving Rhames who only has a cameo in this installment.


If there is a problem with MIGP it’s with Ethan Hunt, himself. Mind you, I’m not talking about Tom Cruise. Haters be damned, he’s solid just doing what he normally does: giving us the Tom Cruise persona. I’m talking about the actual character. It’s the same problem that’s plagued the franchise and one I alluded to earlier: Ethan Hunt is invincible. His decision making is also infallible no matter how quick he has to make them or how stressful the situation in which he finds himself. It’s kind of hard to generate any real suspense when we know that regardless of what our hero does it will work out without any real consequences. Brandt even asks about Hunt’s extraordinarily quick wit. Hunt responds that he was playing a hunch. His hunches are always right.

Complaints aside, I have to reiterate that MIGP takes the franchise in a positive direction. In fact, it may well be the best of the four movies. In my opinion, only the first is any competition. That’s the only one that even tries to engage our brains. The other two are assaults on our senses, and not in a good way. Here, there is a well stirred mixture of the two approaches. Sure, we might still roll our eyes at some of the stuff Super Ethan pulls off, but when woven into the fabric of an interesting narrative it’s more palatable. For me, at least. If you’re already a fan of the series you won’t be disappointed. If you’re not, you might actually be pleasantly surprised.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Ides of March

Directed by George Clooney.
2011. Rated R, 101 minutes.
Cast:
Ryan Gosling
George Clooney
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Paul Giamatti
Marisa Tomei
Evan Rachel Wood
Jeffrey Wright

Max Minghella
Michael Mantell

Stephen (Gosling) is a young hotshot in the world of campaign managing. He’s trying to help Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) win the presidential nomination of the Democrats. At this task he’s second in command to Paul (Hoffman). Together, they work against the force of evil known as Duffy (Giamatti) who manages their opponent’s campaign. The reason they get to be the good guys is because their candidate is not just a good guy, he’s a great guy. Even Duffy acknowledges this on several occasions. Stephen is so smitten, he’s sure the governor will “take back the world” should he become commander-in-chief.

Don’t worry, things aren’t all so black and white. A major conflict in the story is whether or not our young jedi will turn to the dark side. After all, you’re not really good at your job if no one else wants to hire you. Of course, there’s also a love story. Or, is it a lust story? Either way, like the rest of the movie, things start innocently enough and eventually get very messy.


The various messes are handled nicely. Strangely, the twists and turns that create them aren’t of the totally unexpected sort. In fact, we can kind of see them coming. The intrigue comes from seeing how the people on the screen will handle the curves their lives throw them. We say “I knew it” to ourselves when circumstances change. After this, we’re fully vested in the answer to our rhetorical question: Whaddya do now?

Many of us are jaded enough to believe there are no heroes in politics, only villains. We think the people in all aspects of the game are all relentlessly pursuing their own best interests under the guise of working for the betterment of society. They’re constantly hiding things because they need us to believe the words coming out of their mouths. Their livelihood depends on it. Never is this more true than in a presidential election year. Jobs are won and lost. Fame and infamy are gained. The direction of the nation is swayed. This is true whether we’re talking about the politicians themselves, the people who run and work for their campaigns or the journalists who cover them. The Ides of March drags us into the muck with fantastic results.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

13 Assassins

Directed by Takashi Miike.
2010. Not Rated 141 minutes.
Cast:
Kôji Yashuko
Gorô Inagaki
Takayuki Yamada
Mikijiro Hira
Masachika Ichimura
Hiroki Matsukata
Ikki Sawamura
Arata Furuta
Tsuyoshi Ihara
Masataka Kubota

There’s been peace for quite some time in 19th century Japan. However, the looming promotion of Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki) threatens to bring back “the age of war”. He’s a member of nobility about to ascend into greater power by virtue of the family he belongs to. Unfortunately, he’s also a homicidal psychopath making victims of peasants all across the land. To stop his reign of terror, Sir Doi (Hira) hires Shinzaemon Shimada (Yakusho), a samurai, to assassinate Lord Naritsugu. Since the lord is well guarded at all times, Shimada recruits a number of other samurai to help until their numbers reach 13. Even so, they face long odds as the lord routinely travels with about 70 men defending his person. Our heroes have their work cut out for them and they’re more than willing to die for the cause.

Director Takashi Miike is known for going over the top, often at a relentless pace. He usually offers us a string of delightfully disgusting visuals. 13 Assassins does this, but in much different manner than he normally goes about things. The storytelling is wonderfully patient for first two acts then completely goes for broke during a third act solely consisting of an extended battle scene.

Early on, we meet and learn a bit about our principles. We watch Shimada go through the recruitment process. We also meet Hanbei (Ichimura), a samurai who is head of security for Lord Naritsugu and no less willing to die to do his job. He gets wind of the assassination attempt and fills us in on how great a warrior Shimada is. One of the great samurai codes is firmly established: whether one lives or dies, he must do so honorably and in complete loyalty to those he serves. During this portion of the movie we’re intrigued but little happens in the way of action. Most of what does cements in our minds that Lord Naritsugu is thoroughly and irredeemably evil. The things he does to those powerless to stop him are beyond appalling. To tell you that you will hate him is understating things by quite a bit.


The second act consists of strategizing. The good guys devise a plan to track and trap the lord. The bad guys try to anticipate what’s coming and make countermoves. Back and forth the advantage swings. It’s an interesting chess match that comes oh so close to wearing out its welcome. We can feel the outburst of action coming but Miike holds off as long as can. Just Every time it seems confrontation can no longer be avoided something causes a delay. The assassins themselves can barely take it. Like us, they’re itching for battle. They have a job to do, if only Shimada will let them do it.

As if sensing how close the audience is to restlessness, Miike finally brings us to the tipping point: that moment when a violent showdown is not only inevitable but imminent. Even though the bad guys numbers have almost tripled, our heroes have no choice but to spring into action. Simply put, all hell breaks loose. By hell I mean roughly 45 uninterrupted minutes of what we came for: samurai action. It’s an ambitious decision to put almost all of your action at the end of the film. Here, it pays major dividends. That’s because even though we came for the swordplay, we stay because of the characters, their strict code of ethics, the game of hide and seek the sides play with each other and of course, we really hate Lord Naritsugu. We’re earnestly rooting for our heroes.

13 Assassins has been compared to Seven Samurai. Indeed, it was inspired by the classic and some have even called it a remake. Some of the personalities of the good guys feel as if they were taken directly from Kurosawa’s film and the style is reminiscent of it, as well. Like SS, most of the action is backloaded to the latter portions of the film. Though it’s not quite as patient as SS which stretches to well over three hours, 13 Assassins is a very restrained effort more fit for today’s audiences shaving more than 60 minutes off of the former’s runtime. It’s remarkable that it comes from Miike, a director not known for self-control. Holding back the action and giving us plenty more intriguing things in its place draws us in is an ambitious decision that pays off. When we finally get to the battle, it’s made so much better by the fact that we actually care who wins.

MY SCORE: 9/10

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Think Like a Man

Directed by Tim Story.
2012. Rated PG-13, 122 minutes.
Cast:
Taraji P. Henson
Gabrielle Union
Regina Hall
Michael Ealy
Jerry Ferrara
Romany Malco
Terrence J
Gary Owen
La La Anthony
Chris Brown
Arielle Kebbel

Morris Chestnut

The battle of the sexes rages on. Think Like a Man takes the phrase quite literally. It’s based on the relationship advice book for women Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man by famed comedian and “Family Feud” host Steve Harvey. It never lets you forget this fun fact. More on that later. The movie focuses on a group of young men and women at various stages of their love lives. The guys are a tight knit bunch who discuss their successes and failures with women over many games of basketball. Rest assured, there is far more chit-chat than basketball. Afterwards, they continue their conversation at their favorite bar. The women are broken into three sets of two. One woman from two of those sets and one of the guys is totally irrelevant. The ladies that matter see Steve Harvey dropping pearls of wisdom during a television interview and decide to go out and purchase his book. It must be a real page turner because it seems they all have it read moments after coming into its possession. Armed with the knowledge Mr. Harvey has imparted upon them, they wage war on the men in their lives in hopes of straightening them up. Of course, all of their guys belong to that tight knit group. Keep up.

There are a good deal of laughs to be had. Almost all of them come courtesy of Cedric (Hart). Ironically, he’s one of the least relevant male characters as it pertains to plot. However, he has to be here because he provides the overwhelming majority of the comedy in this romantic comedy. His character is nearing the finalization of his divorce. He bad mouths his ex, hangs out at strip clubs and warns his buddies about dealing with their woman. He also serves as one of the narrators. In this role, he provides a running commentary on all the goings-on.

Everyone else handles the romance. The girls quote passages from the book, plot and make their next move. The boys are caught off guard and react poorly to what the ladies are doing. Eventually they discover the book for themselves and form their own strategies. Most of this unfolds in an enjoyable, if predictable manner. Like most rom-coms it has an air of inevitability about it because we know that no matter how contentious things get all of our princes and princesses will live happily ever after. It’s when the movie transitions from warfare to reconciliation that it drags badly. This is mostly due to the large number of storylines to be wrapped up. After all, we have to see that magic moment when a couple realizes they can’t live without each other play out five times.


The bigger problem with the movie is all the narration. Kevin Hart is only one of the people fulfilling the role of narrator. Steve Harvey himself serves as the second. He pops up every so often on a TV screen to quote his own work and set us up for the next scene. The effect is two-fold. First, it becomes a film that doesn’t trust its audience to follow the action on its own. Viewers are spoon-fed everything the film wants us to know from beginning to end. Second, it begins to feel like a long commercial for the book. Honestly, it gets more screen time than most of the actors and never more than a few moments pass before someone explicitly mentions it.

Beneath the issues, there is a fun but predictable movie. It never really threatens to be anything more. However, it is also nothing less. It earns extra-credit from me for a couple of jokes at Tyler Perry’s expense even though several of the performers here have appeared at least one of that director's films. TLaM is one of the increasingly rare movies to feature a predominantly black cast and not have his name attached. As such, it offers a different perspective on black life and a different style of storytelling. It’s no more or less valid than Perry’s work but a desperately needed complement. Hopefully, this will inspire Hollywood to widen the spectrum on what types of stories are produced not only about blacks but about other ethnicities, as well. Of course, the danger here is that powers that be will do what they always do and simply start cloning a few successful films. On that, my fingers are crossed but I’m not holding my breath.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Conspirator

Directed by Robert Redford.
2011. Rated PG-13, 122 minutes.
Cast:
James McAvoy
Robin Wright
Kevin Kline
Tom Wilkinson
Evan Rachel Wood
Danny Huston
Justin Long
Colm Meaney
Norman Reedus
Alexis Bledel
Johnny Simmons

Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, a number of suspects are round up and tried for conspiracy to commit the crime. Among them is Mary Surratt (Wright) who runs a boarding house frequented by many of her co-defendants. Former Union officer Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) has just become an attorney. Reluctantly, he agrees to defend the widowed Mrs. Surratt at the request/command of his boss Reverdy Johnson (Wilkinson). Courtroom drama based on a true story ensues.

Like most films centered around a trial, the acting has to be superb for it to have a chance. Thanks to its performers, The Conspirator has a chance. James McAvoy plays the male lead and does well. However, his is one of the weaker portrayals. Kevin Kline (as Sec. of War Edwin Stanton) and Tom Wilkinson both turn in outstanding work, as does Colm Meaney and Evan Rachel Wood. Justin Long is miscast but acquits himself well enough.

The true star here is Robin Wright as Surratt. She perfectly conveys a woman resigned to her fate. From the beginning, it appears she’ll be convicted whether or not she’s guilty. Her young lawyer feels that her best defense is incriminating her son, the lone suspect still unaccounted for. She vehemently opposes this course of action. This makes Aiken’s job even more difficult than it already is. Through it all, Wright rings true. She never hits a sour note. It’s a nuanced, subtle performance. It is not the type of big, showy portrayal we saw in The Help or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the latter of which includes more strong work from Wright. In my humble opinion it’s quietly one of 2011’s best.



As good as the acting is, it doesn’t completely save The Conspirator. The story drags and is a bit repetitive with a number of conversations about the “best defense.” Battle lines are a little too clearly drawn as the prosecution and the Sec. of War are clearly positioned as heartless villains who rig the trial only because the script requires them to be bad guys. History buffs, of course, may bristle at some of the other narrative liberties taken with known facts.

Even with its flaws, The Conspirator is a solid film that tells a good tale. During courtroom scenes and the ones where McAvoy and Wright interact the movie sizzles. It helps that we’re examining a piece of American history that hasn’t been rehashed for the screen a thousand times already. As such, it gives us something to ponder. What would we have done if we were in any of their shoes?

MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cowboys and Aliens

Directed by Jon Favreau.
2011. Rated PG-13, 118 minutes.
Cast:
Daniel Craig
Harrison Ford
Olivia Wilde
Sam Rockwell
Paul Dano
Clancy Brown
Keith Carradine
Noah Ringer
Adam Beach
Abigail Spencer
Ana de la Reguera

Occasionally, I go into a movie not really knowing what to expect. Such is the case when I sit down to watch Cowboys and Aliens. Yup, it’s yet another movie based on a graphic novel I’m not cool enough to even have heard of. Judging by the title, I sorta think I’m in for a wild, campy ride that’s possibly so bad it’s awesome. Let’s be honest, Cowboys and Aliens doesn’t exactly scream art house cinema. On top of that, Jon Favreau is the director. He’s injected so much well-timed humor into the Iron Man franchise it should be easy doing the same for something with such a kooky title. Then again, the star is Daniel Craig. As an actor, I’ve seen him in a number of different guises: action hero, crusading reporter, lover of old women, etc. A barrel of laughs, he is not. Sure enough, once the movie starts it’s pretty obvious we’re playing things straight.

Our hero wakes up quite literally in the middle of nowhere and remembers nothing of his life to that point except how to fight. We gather that from the way he handles the trio of bumpkins who happen upon him. More importantly, he notices a futuristic metallic bracelet locked onto his left wrist. He wanders to the nearest town, learns his name is Jake (Craig, duh) and he’s an outlaw. We get a few scenes to establish Jake as a real badass then the aliens show up. A bunch of townspeople get snatched up, Jake’s bracelet seems to activate on its own and he takes down one of the extraterrestrial planes by firing a blast from it. One of those abducted is Percy Dolarhyde (Dano). He’s the son of wealthy, ruthless cattleman Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford). Don’t call him colonel, though. He hates that. As always, there’s a girl. This one is named Ella (Wilde). She seems to know more than Jake about his own past. The two of them plus the grumpy old colonel set off trying to find the missing folk.


Aside from the fact that all the good guys ride horses and fire six shooters or shotguns, Jake’s bracelet aside, C and A isn’t much different from other alien invasion flicks. The creatures exist merely to destroy everything in their path. Humans exist merely to stop them. Playing it straight, without even a hint of satire or self-awareness dictates that this is how it must be. It’s uniqueness is completely tied to its setting. The storytelling and characters are all fairly stock. It helps that Harrison Ford is exceptional in his role and gives us much of the humor. A few of the bit characters are also great in this regard. Daniel Craig is a fine actor, but doesn’t give us anything special. He’s pretty much doing Bond in a western. Olivia Wilde is pretty. Sorry, that’s all she gives us. It’s a Megan Fox-like performance: a gorgeous face doing nothing.

What’s left then, are the action scenes. They come frequently enough and entertain. The mixture of old-school western and high-tech aliens gives us an interesting juxtaposition. They’re never a preposterous pair. Though these scenes are fun, they’re hardly tense. They should be, particularly when humans are getting snatched off their horses and appear like tails on a kite as they trail the alien ships. However, it rarely rises above the level of “did you see that?” That works out okay. I guess. However, it would be so much better if we could not only see it, but actually feel it. We never do. Part of the problem is that like most recent movie aliens, the invaders are faceless and seemingly thoughtless snarling creatures that do little to justify the higher intelligence assigned to them. The humans only fare slightly better.

The whole thing does what it sets out to do, but fails to set itself apart. It feels like a massive opportunity has been missed. The alien invasion genre is ripe for skewering. Clichés are abundant, even within this film. There is ample material to examine. C and A never attempts anything deeper and/or funnier than a straightforward affair. It takes an inventive premise and does nothing with it, satisfied with being run-of-the-mill. At being run-of-the-mill, it’s not terrible. It moves along quickly and supplies us with a solid amount of visual thrills. It’s light on the chills, but fun enough to compensate. For a movie night gathering, it should do the trick. It’s just a shame that something with the potential to be so memorable is so not.

MY SCORE: 5/10