Archive for May, 2012
DVD REVIEW: ‘This Means War’ leans toward silly comedy, not action
Back in 2011, a film trailer ran that I found rather intriguing. The tagline was “It’s Spy vs. Spy.” Most men will probably tell you that Spy vs. Spy evokes images of the cartoon spy action that unfolded in the pages of Mad Magazine. The film — still untitled at that point — ended up becoming “This Means War.” It is a romantic action/comedy starring Chris Pine, Tom Hardy and Reese Witherspoon as the romantic interest caught in the middle. Now available on DVD, I was curious to see if the film satisfies both fans of the romantic comedy genre and nostalgic readers of the Spy vs. Spy Mad series.
Hotshot undercover CIA agents FDR (Chris Pine, “Star Trek”) and Tuck (Tom Hardy, “Inception”) are put on desk duty after a mission in Hong Kong goes sour. During their down time, Tuck confesses to the womanizing FDR that he longs for a relationship and joins an online dating service to find one. He is matched with Lauren (Witherspoon), who is career-oriented and unlucky in love. Their initial date goes well, though a chance meeting with FDR leads Lauren to date both men. Once Tuck and FDR realize they are wooing the same woman, they turn their spy skills towards sabotaging each other’s relationship while Lauren tries to choose between the two.
The premise of this film has promise with an opportunity for action, drama, interesting locations and comedy. Instead it leans mostly towards comedy — and silly comedy at that — with repetitive sequences involving Tuck and FDR trying to gain the upper hand and Lauren constantly complaining to her best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). It is an hour and a half of the same sequence: Tuck and Lauren go on a date, FDR and Lauren go on a date, Lauren calls Trish and whines about her situation, Tuck and FDR plan their next move. One or two of these sequences interspersed with an actual spy narrative would better match the film’s advertised theme.
Nearly everything about this film is implausible, which makes it impossible to connect with the characters, even for a silly romantic comedy. Two friends throw a life-long friendship away over a flighty character who is just as concerned over a past relationship as her present ones. It’s hard to get past the fact that the very attractive Tuck and Lauren are portrayed as characters that cannot find dates. Lauren switches on a dime from shy and nervous to cool and confident for no reason other than plot convenience. Tuck has the composure to handle the most dangerous criminals in the world, but he can’t seem to get a date. It all comes together as a jumbled mix of bad writing, nonsensical plot and failed comedy bits.
Director McG (“Terminator Salvation”) never seems to grasp what type of film he is making. As a result, the movie simply spins its wheels and never goes anywhere. The film’s exposition establishes a plotline that isn’t revisited until the beginning of the third act. The traditional three act film structure looks like this — Act One: Introduce characters and settings (also known as exposition); Act Two: Build conflict and character development through key plot points that build towards a climax (also referred to as rising action); Act Three: Resolve conflict and develop logical conclusions for major characters (also called falling action and resolution). McG fails to use the second act to build any sort of conflict outside of the silly back and forth between Tuck and FDR. Without that conflict build, you don’t have the investment in the characters or the resolution. The only positive about the resolution of “This Means War” is that is also means the movie is finally over.
REVIEW: Special effects are all that keep ‘Battleship’ afloat
I have a soft spot in my heart for big budget action films. Perhaps it’s because I’m a guy, or maybe it’s the impressive special effects coming to life on the big screen — the theater really is the place to see this kind of movie. As I’ve stated before, I give these types of movie a free pass on things like plot direction, acting and character development. I’ve now realized just how far that leash extends with toy company Hasbro’s latest foray into the film world, “Battleship.” I don’t know how many kids still play the actual game Battleship, but Hasbro execs certainly hope the film will re-stimulate an interest in the game — as well as a recently released series of video games. So is the film a hit or miss?
In 2006, NASA begins sending messages to a distant planet identified as one similar to Earth in hopes of contacting intelligent life. In 2012, several hostile alien ships respond to the message, one of which crashes into a satellite during entry to Earth’s atmosphere. The remaining ships land in the South Pacific near Hawaii — where a multi-national naval competition is taking place, and begin efforts to establish communication with their planet. World-class screw-up Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch, “John Carter”) is reluctantly forced into a leadership role as the highest ranking officer remaining after the aliens destroy a naval destroyer. Hopper must unite the remaining naval crew members at his disposal while using limited and outdated resources to prevent the aliens from contacting their planet and waging an all-out global attack on Earth.
I realized while watching “Battleship” just how much I could allow in the name of the genre. This film makes its Hasbro sibling “Transformers” look like “Citizen Kane.” The subplots are inexcusably ridiculous, the acting is awful, and the cinematography relies too much on unnecessary slow motion shots in an effort to create overly-dramatic moments. I’m pretty liberal when it comes to stretching the bounds of verisimilitude and excusing bad scripts, but “Battleship” takes things to a level even I cannot acquit. I’m not sure where to begin, so I’ll just touch on some of the lowlights.
In the opening scene, Alex Hopper’s brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard, “Melancholia”) exclaims to his slacker sibling, “Either get a job or join me in the Navy!” A few minutes later, after Hopper is arrested for stealing a chicken burrito from a convenience store in an effort to impress a girl (yes, you read that right), Stone shouts, “It’s time for a new gameplan, you’re joining me in the Navy!” Apparently joining the Navy is as easy as tagging along with your older brother. Of course, all of this sets up the maturation of Alex throughout the film, but this exposition lasts entirely too long and is completely implausible.
I’m always a tad confused when studios spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a film (about $200 million in this case) without investing in the actors. Jeremy Renner was rumored to star in the film before the role eventually went to the unlikeable Kitsch. Renner would have brought some depth to the protagonist that is missing in Kitsch’s portaryal of Hopper. How Rhianna was cast in this film is a total mystery to me. Her acting is atrocious, and her character is literally the only female in the entire Naval force. Brooklyn Decker appears in a Megan Fox-style role, running around in tight shorts and a tank top for most of the film. Another mystery is how Liam Neeson ended up attached to this project. He must have owed director Peter Berg a favor. I’m not asking for Tom Hanks, but casting some proven veterans in the lead roles could go a long way in making up for such farcical situations.
The only saving grace of this film is the special effects. The aliens have some pretty cool weaponry that destroys things in an uber-effective manner — which is really what you pay to see in a film such as this. There are some fun battle scenes, and Berg uses a creative way to work in the old grid system of attacking your enemy a la the board game. But that is only one scene in an entire film based on a board game — so it’s not surprising that overall the film is a big miss for Berg & Co.
CLASSICS WEEK: ‘One Crazy Summer’ contains all the elements for a fun summer flick
It’s classics week and with the start of summer right around the corner, it’s only fitting to revisit a classic summer film. After much debate, I decided to go with a classic comedy that stars some now very well-known actors, an ensemble cast of ‘80s stalwarts, and a narrative you’ve come to expect from an ‘80s comedy. This week’s classic summer flick review is the 1986 romantic comedy “One Crazy Summer” starring John Cusack and Demi Moore.
After failing to follow in his family’s footsteps in receiving a basketball scholarship, recent high school graduate “Hoops” McCann (John Cusack) jumps at the chance to get away from his smothering mother and join his best friend George (Joel Murray) for a summer on Nantucket Island. Hoops must illustrate a love story in his attempt to get into art school, but he is in a creative rut thanks to a lackluster love life. His fortunes begin to change when he meets Cassandra (Demi Moore), a struggling musician trying to save her grandfather’s home from a greedy investor. When all else fails, Hoops and his friends must try to beat Nantucket’s most elite at their own game — a boat regatta — in an effort to save Cassandra’s land.
Cusack’s body of work during the fun ‘80s film era is incredible (including “The Sure Thing,” “Better off Dead” and “Say Anything”), and “One Crazy Summer” is a great addition to the list. He graciously shares the spotlight with running mates Murray, Curtis Armstrong, Bobcat Goldthwait and Tom Villard — and they all deliver. This was the debut film for Joel Murray (Bill and Brian-Doyle Murray’s brother), and he plays the quirky sidekick to the hilt. Though this film didn’t launch Joel to the fame by his more well-known brother Bill, he has enjoyed a long film and television career.
Although the film is full of somewhat childish humor, there are some surprisingly sincere plot lines. Director Savage Steve Holland (“Better off Dead”) slowly develops Hoop’s relationship with Cassandra and though predictable, it comes to a satisfying conclusion. “Ack Ack”(Curtis Armstrong, best known as Booger from “Revenge of the Nerds”) has an ongoing struggle with militant dad forcing his values on his son. As most buddy-films go in the ‘80s, there are themes of friendship, teamwork and underdogs coming out on top for the greater good.
For a silly ‘80s comedy, the structure is quite solid. Sure, most of the film’s events are complete fabrications of reality, but Holland creatively uses animations of the protagonist to smoothly move from plot point to plot point. There are a lot of characters planning a bevy of shenanigans and evil plots, but it never gets overwhelming. In the film editing world, there is something known as an open or closed frame that refers to the psychological state of the characters on the screen. For example, using a shot of a character in a cramped, dark space may indicate a feeling of being trapped and helpless, hence a “closed” frame. In “One Crazy Summer,” the actors move freely about the entire island, making it a two-hour, open-framed film that adds to the fun of the characters’ antics.
“One Crazy Summer” has everything you’re looking for in a fun summer flick: Zany characters, handsome frat boy antagonist, good vs. evil plotline, quirky group of dependable friends, a ton of “those guys” (actors who play minor characters whose names you can’t quite remember), and a sports-themed montage. Pair that with great performances by young Cusack and Moore, and you have a great film to pop into the DVD player when looking to stay inside on a blazing hot summer day.
REVIEW: ‘Haywire’ has right idea, wrong execution
I have to preface this week’s review with a caveat as to why I’m not reviewing the record-shattering film “The Avengers.” I’ve been looking forward to the climax of the Marvel series for some time now, but a funny thing happened on the way to May 4: the craze of 3-D. I’m a strong opponent of 3-D films. It seems kitschy to me; something a child might find interesting. As a film connoisseur, I find it only detracts from the story and overall film experience. Film is indeed a visual art form, but it also incorporates storytelling, sound, audience psychology and participation, and acting. 3-D stresses the visual component and places less importance on all other equally important aspects of film. The homogenization of Hollywood continues — and I refuse to be a part of it. So when I discovered the local AMC theater was only offering “The Avengers” in 3-D, I boycotted the theater all together and instead turned to its little sibling, the DVD, to see what was new. I wanted to see “Haywire” when it was in theaters but didn’t get the chance, so I thought it was a perfect compromise for this week’s new DVD review.
Private contractor Mallory Kane (Mixed Martial Arts star Gina Carano) is on the run after being set up and framed for murder. She doesn’t know who is responsible, with potential guilty parties including her boss Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) and the government agent that hired her firm (Michael Douglas). Kane sets out on a mission to find out while hopping countries on the run. She begins to uncover a conspiracy that runs deep and leads her to people she never expected.
Veteran director Steven Soderbergh surprisingly misses the mark with “Haywire.” As spy films often go, not everything is revealed to the audience all at once – figuring it out for ourselves as the audience is a big part of the genre’s experience. The problem with this film is so little is revealed during the first hour that it becomes more frustrating than enjoyable. When the pieces do begin to come together, it involves minor characters who you have to try to recall and find yourself asking, “Who?”
The film is an interesting mix of its predecessors. It features the action and backstory of “Rambo,” the plot of “The Bourne Identity” and the feel of a classic spy film a la “Ocean’s Eleven” (not surprising considering Soderbergh directed the modern “Ocean’s” series). Unfortunately, this is not a case where the sum is greater than its parts. Chase scenes last entirely too long and involve mostly Carano running from unseen threats. It is a stop-and-start affair that never settles on a consistent pace. As girl power goes, Carano fits the bill, but the fight scenes are over-choreographed and also stretch implausible amounts of time.
The cast is star-studded with McGregor, Douglas, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and Bill Paxton joining newbie thespian Carano. Unfortunately, they appear in limited fashion, contained mostly to short sequences, flashbacks or phone calls. Soderbergh misses an opportunity to use the incredibly talented cast at his disposal to piece more of the complicated story together, instead dedicating about a third of the screen time to Carano’s stunts, fights, and chase scenes.
This was definitely a case of “right idea, wrong execution.” The film has an intriguing plot, interesting locations and mise-en-scene, a tremendous cast and a fresh new action star in Carano. You never really feel sympathetic for Mallory Kane because she never stops kicking butt long enough to reflect on her own dire situation. A little less action and more focus on character development could have made “Haywire” a solid addition to Soderbergh’s resume. Instead, things seemed to go a bit haywire for the film and we end up with a shallow action flick focused on the physical nature of the attractive female protagonist rather than her emotional side. Finding a balance of the two could have done wonders for the film.