Published at KCActive.com on February 8th, 2013
It’s a good thing MGM went bankrupt. If it hadn’t, the James Bond series might have gotten stuck in the creative rut that was Quantum of Solace. The bankruptcy gave 007’s handlers time to write a real script for Skyfall and make sure it lived up to the standard set by star Daniel Craig’s first outing in Casino Royale.
It does that, and then some. Skyfall may not be the best Bond movie of all time, but it’s definitely in the top five. The plot, involving a cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem) endangering MI-6’s agents, is slightly more linear than most Bond narratives, although if you’re still trying to untangle the
se things after 50 years, you should re-evaluate your priorities. What matters are the great action scenes, the colorful supporting characters, and how good 007 looks in a suit.
Director Sam Mendes is best known for smaller, more personal films like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, but he acquits himself spectacularly here. He stages the kind of set pieces we’ve all come to expect (the Shanghai sequence is the best), but he also gives the film a calmer, more focused feel than usual. Ironically, that seems to help the more amped-up scenes — they’re easier to appreciate when you’re not annoyed/worn out by jittery camera work and bad editing.
The attempts at humor and emotional backstory don’t always work, and the only interesting female character is Judi Dench’s formidable M. But those are minor quibbles compared to the sheer fun of watching Skyfall. Maybe more studios should go belly-up every few years. It can do wonders for a franchise.
Extras: Four making-of features on the standard DVD, with several more on the Blu-Ray; Blu-Ray also has commentaries by Mendes, producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, and production designer Dennis Gassner; premiere footage. (PG-13) Rating: 4 – LL
After making gazillion dollars with his Madea plays and films, Tyler Perry has decided to branch out into serious roles, written and directed by others. With this rebooted adaptation of James Patterson’s crime novels, Perry succeeds in not embarrassing himself, but that’s about it.
Going back to its title character’s Detroit roots, Alex Cross pits the psychologist and detective against a twitchy, torture-loving madman (Matthew Fox). As the bad guy threatens the people he loves, Cross uses his considerable deductive skills to track the man down.
Perry and Ed Burns (playing Alex’s partner) do their best work in the movie’s quieter moments, where they have a likable buddy-cop rapport, and moments of real emotion are allowed to play out. Those scenes are few and far between, thanks to director Rob Cohen (XXX), whose response to every storytelling dilemma is “blow something up!” He can’t even use a location like the old Michigan Theatre ruins effectively — the climactic fight takes place there, but it’s so dark and hyperactive, there’s no way to really see what’s going on.
Fox seems to take his director’s style to heart, hamming it up to an alarming degree. When the man who played Madea is the subtle one, you know you’ve got a problem.
Perry could probably continue playing Cross in future installments, but he’ll need a much better director to make this work in the long term. Either that, or the studio could just turn these into full-on dumb action movies, and dispense with the drama entirely. It won’t make them any better, but at least everyone will know what they’re getting into.
Extras: Commentary by Cohen; a feature on the adaptation process; deleted scenes. (PG-13) Rating: 2 – LL
Published at KCActive.com on December 7th, 2012
The marketing for Hope Springs makes it look like a comedy, but don’t be fooled. While it contains plenty of humorous moments, this is a serious film about the difficulty in reviving a stagnant relationship.
Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play Kay and Arnold, whose long marriage has become a hell of routine and detachment. At least it’s hell for Kay – Arnold is completely unaware of any problem. In a last-ditch attempt to get her husband’s attention, Kay books a trip to the town of Hope Springs, where Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) runs a renowned counseling clinic. Arnold is a jerk through the early part of the sessions, but as he realizes he may actually lose his life partner, he begins to see that he and Kay really do need help.
Much has rightly been made of the performances in Hope Springs. It’s a given that Streep will be wonderful in any role she tackles, including that of an otherwise bland housewife, and she gives Kay touching emotional depth. Jones is playing a variation on his usual grouchy persona, but he also reveals more vulnerability than he’s shown onscreen in years, if ever. Anyone who has been in a long relationship, or knows someone who has (and let’s face it, that’s pretty much everyone), will recognize these characters and sympathize with even their most difficult qualities.
Carell is the real revelation here, playing it completely straight as the understanding therapist. Dr. Feld is never the script’s focus, but his presence is a comforting counterpoint to the many awkward moments between Arnold and Kay. Director David Frankel is known for light fare like The Big Year and The Devil Wears Prada, but he handles the drama in Vanessa Taylor’s script extremely well. Hope Springs may not be groundbreaking cinema, but it says important things about the nature of long-term relationships, and does so with warmth and wit.
Extras: Commentary by Frankel; several making-of features; alternate scenes; a gag reel. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 - LL
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is either brave, crazy, suicidal, or a combination of all three. In a country where dissent is a crime, Ai speaks boldly against the government’s treatment of its citizens, and has become world-famous for doing so.
Alison Klayman’s documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry offers both a biography and a fly-on-the-wall look at Ai’s provocative artistry. He doesn’t get overly emotional, but he does get passionate, especially when he sees harm done to everyday citizens.
Klayman zeroes in on Ai’s attempts to draw attention to the number of children killed in shoddily constructed schools during a 2008 earthquake. He literally flips off symbols of oppression (like Tiananmen Square) then sends the photos around the world, to the delight of his fans and the dismay of the government.
Ai has been doing this sort of thing throughout his career, earning constant harassment from Chinese authorities. His fame protects him somewhat, but his apparent fearlessness remains astonishing. When he’s beaten by police, he doesn’t stay quiet – he files aggressive, formal complaints, bringing cameras with him everywhere. He’s been criticized, in fact, for making himself the focus of his art, and there may be some truth to that. But when he literally risks his life exposing the misdeeds of a massive, powerful government, you can see that this self-aggrandizing eccentric is also a true patriot who loves his country, if not its leaders.
Extras: Commentary by Klayman; deleted scenes; filmmaker interviews. (R) Rating: 4 - LL
Published at KCActive.com on September 7, 2012
The Hunger Games
When they started casting the movie version of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian YA novels, I was in the middle of a weeklong Hunger Games marathon. As the cast took shape, I began to hear the voices of those actors in my head as I was reading. That’s when I knew the people of Panem were in good hands.
Published at KCActive.com on August 3, 2012
The Best Man
The recent death of writer Gore Vidal has led many fans back to his books. For film buffs, however, one of the finest Vidal efforts is the 1964 adaptation of his play The Best Man. And in this election year, its portrayal of political dirty dealings is as relevant as ever.
Published at KCActive.com on July 6, 2012
When The Artist won the Best Picture Oscar, there were people who groused that it was a “conventional” choice. What’s conventional about a silent, black-and-white French film with no big stars? “Old-fashioned” is a better term, as director Michel Hazanavicius has composed an unabashed love letter to the glamour and romance of classic Hollywood.
Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent film star who resists the coming of sound, with disastrous consequences. Luckily, he has befriended an up-and-coming young actress, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who refuses to abandon him when the rest of the industry does. With her help, and that of his faithful butler (James Cromwell) and the coolest dog since Lassie, George learns to adapt or get out of the way.
The joy of The Artist is more than superficial — Hazanavicius not only knows how it should look, he understands how it should FEEL. In the one major scene where sound is used, it feels like something crude and clumsy has invaded this pristine world, which is exactly how George experiences it. Its final use is more hopeful, a representation of his evolution, as well as technology’s. It’s an incredibly clever technique, and shows how fully Hazanavicius has thought this through.
Dujardin is a charming, energetic cross between Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert, and Bejo could easily have stepped out of an early Ernst Lubitsch comedy. If you get those references, The Artist was practically made for you. If not, here’s your chance to enjoy a most unconventional “conventional” film.
Extras: A making-of doc; Q&A with the cast and director; blooper reel; features on the locations, set design, costumes, score and cinematography. (PG-13) Rating: 5 —LL
Act of Valor
Imagine Team America: World Police as a serious, live-action movie, and you have an idea of what Act of Valor is like. They may as well have put “America, Fuck Yeah!” on the soundtrack. On a continuous loop.
What makes Act of Valor stand out is its use of real Navy SEALs to portray the kinds of missions they undertake on a regular basis. There’s a connecting fictional storyline about drug dealers and terrorism, but the tactics — and the ammo — are very real.
Not surprisingly, the action scenes are the best things about the film. Directors Scott Waugh and Mike McCoy are former stuntmen, and they allow the audience to see what’s going on, without drawing attention to themselves with choppy editing or hyperactive camera work. They respect the guys they’re filming, and these sequences have a brutal, visceral power. You can practically hear the bullets whizzing past your head.
If this were a documentary, it would be uncluttered and powerful. Since Waugh and McCoy went the feature route, however, they felt it necessary to include lots of awkward drama that their non-actors simply can’t pull off. Some of them have real screen presence, and would have done fine just being themselves. When they’re called upon to emote, they suddenly get very uncomfortable.
As an action movie, Act of Valor is first-rate. As a tribute to the bravery and sacrifice of America’s elite forces, it’s a respectable hagiography. As a drama that could evoke genuine emotion, it’s a clichéd, manipulative mess.
Extras: Commentary by Waugh and McCoy; deleted scenes; the Blu-Ray also has features on the SEALs and their participation in the film; a making-of featurette; a Keith Urban video with its own production doc. (R) Rating: 2.5 —LL
Published at KCActive.com on June 1, 2012
The Woman in Black
You don’t see many old-fashioned Victorian ghost stories nowadays, and that alone makes The Woman in Black worth a look. Based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, it has an interesting plot and creepy atmosphere to spare. Add a grave, grown-up performance by Daniel Radcliffe, and you’ve got a modestly successful attempt to bring back an old-school genre.
Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young attorney in 1910s England assigned to settle the estate of a recluse whose house lies outside a depressing, marshy village. The locals have good reason to feel gloomy — they’ve been haunted for years by a spectral female figure, connected to the house, whose appearances coincide with horrific child deaths. And she’s not too happy about Arthur’s visit.
Director James Watkins is working here for the revived Hammer Studios, and his pacing and visual style do his bosses proud. He’s also got a bunch of great character actors in supporting roles, including Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer as a troubled couple Arthur befriends.
The ghost herself is terrifying, although Watkins regularly undercuts the impact of her appearances with lots of screeching sound effects and an annoying musical score. Arthur engages in the kind of rock-stupid behavior that propels so many horror plots, never missing a chance to wander down a dark hallway or force open a locked door. Radcliffe is too sympathetic to make you actually root for the ghost, but it’s not much easier to root for someone this clueless.
Extras: Commentary by Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman; a standard making-of doc and one on Radcliffe’s casting. (PG-13) Rating: 3 — LL
Some of the best Shakespeare adaptations are set in very non-Shakespearean environments. Ian McKellen’s brilliant Richard III took place in a quasi-Nazi England. Baz Luhrmann got millions of teenagers to pay attention to Romeo and Juliet by putting the lovers in the middle of an urban crime drama. Now, Ralph Fiennes tackles Coriolanus, giving one of the Bard’s lesser-known tragedies a very modern polish.
Fiennes both directs and stars as the title character, a brilliant military leader whose skills give him access to political power. He disdains the citizens he’s expected to lead, however, and his tactlessness eventually gets him banished from his home city, “a place calling itself Rome.”
This version of Rome could be any floundering democracy, and Fiennes cannily uses images of bloodshed and protest to drive home just how universal the play’s themes are.
Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s toughest characters to make sense of, especially when he joins forces with his longtime enemy, Aufidius (Gerard Butler), in what seems like the world’s deadliest tantrum. Fiennes is up to the task, and he has a dream supporting cast in Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, and especially Vanessa Redgrave, as Coriolanus’ ambitious mother. This is the kind of movie that should be shown in English lit classes — not to mention political science, media studies, acting and film production. Just show it everywhere.
Extras: Commentary by Fiennes; a short making-of feature. (R) Rating: 4.5 —LL
Published at KCActive.com on May 4, 2012
The Iron Lady
In case you were wondering: Yes, Meryl Streep is our greatest living actress. There is clearly no role this woman can’t play, as her Oscar-winning performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady attests.
The movie itself is a mess, which makes Streep’s accomplishment stand out even more. Director Phyllida Lloyd shows the elderly Thatcher puttering around her house, having imagined conversations with her late husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). As she observes the changing world around her, Thatcher recalls key moments in her life, from her days as a politically aware teenager to her controversial run as Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Like most of us who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Jason Segel was a big fan of Jim Henson’s Muppets. Unlike most of us, he became a successful actor, who could convince Disney to let him write and star in a new movie about the beloved icons.
He does everyone proud with The Muppets, introducing a new generation to the dormant franchise without skimping on the nostalgia. Segel plays Gary, a small-town boy with a pretty girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), and a brother named Walter who’s a little … different, as in noseless and made of felt. When Walter tags along on Gary and Mary’s vacation in Los Angeles, he not only discovers his true identity as a Muppet, he leads an effort to save the gang’s old theatre from demolition by an evil oil tycoon (Chris Cooper).
A 3-D children’s movie … by Martin Scorsese?! That was how many people reacted to the news that the auteur of violent dramas would be adapting Brian Selznick’s popular book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. What on earth does the man behind Mean Streets know about family-friendly entertainment?
Quite a lot, it turns out. Scorsese has famously credited his 12-year-old daughter with encouraging him to make something she could see, but it’s the director’s own childlike love of movies that makes Hugo so special.
Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion has many things in common with movies like Outbreak and The Andromeda Strain, with one notable exception — it feels utterly, terrifyingly genuine. It also inspires serious respect for the doctors and scientists who fight deadly diseases, a battle that often seems unwinnable.