Monday, December 31, 2012


For bad films, writing the review can become a bit of an endurance test. For example, right now I'm wondering how many effective words can be written about a film as dull and hollow as Jack Reacher, the new paint-by-numbers thriller starring Tom Cruse and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (Way of the Gun) before I give up out of boredom. 60 words aren't really enough, so I'll go on.

In Pittsburgh a sniper guns down five innocent bystanders. In the aftermath cops arive on the scene, collect evidence and soon arrest mentally unstable Iraq veteran James Barr (Josheph Sikora). Faced with a mountain of evidence Barr tells the overzealous D.A. (Richard Jankins) to simply find Jack Reacher.

Reacher is a retired MP. He's one of those Man-With-No-Name types. He lives off the grid. No address, no phone number, no Twitter. You don't find him unless he finds you, or he magically appears to save the film 20 minutes. Soon Reacher starts to suspect that Barr might have been framed and goes about proving it by beating up people, stealing a series of progressively nicer muscle cars and being just witty enough to not seem like a total asshole. Rinse. Repeat.

When brutal, yet strangely dull violence doesn't work, he enlists the help of Barr's defense attorney Helen (Rosamund Pike) who happens to be the D.A.'s daughter (a conflict of interest if ever I saw one) and the great Robert Duvall as "Elderly Gun Nut" eventually exposing a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, yet has some of the lowest stakes imaginable. When the Master Plan is finally explained, it doesn't escalate tension so much as it lets all the air out of its balloon.

Cruise is adequate, but clearly on autopilot, as is pretty much everyone else, but it's especially disappointing to see Cruse phone it in as it's his go-for-broke gusto that usually makes him such a great screen presence. The only one who seems to be enjoying his part is Werner Herzog (Director of Aguiree: The Wrath Of God, and Grizzly Man) who has been inexplicably cast as the main villain, a man who's name translates to the delightfully existential "Human Prisoner," and insists that a henchmen proves his loyalty by chewing off his own fingers. Given Herzog's dark eccentricities, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he threw out the script and wrote all of his scenes himself. I wish he had done the same for the entire film.

McQuarrie and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, Being There) shoot the film competently. Everything looks good and there's a great deal of technical skill on display in the action scenes. It's refreshing to see someone direct fight scenes so that that the camera is the proper distance from the proceedings and not shaking as if the operator is struggling to support the camera's weight. I really wish more action films looked like Reacher. But McQuarries direction, no matter how skilled, cant make this film interesting. You'll either predict every twist or you'll be too bored to care.

After 513 words there's not much more to say about Jack Reacher. It want's to be a gritty 70's style thriller, but its attempts to provoke the audience (the shooting, a montage showing us all the lives of the victims) feel half heated and lack and real conviction and we're left with this nothing of a film. Last year, Tom Cruse effectively relaunched his carrier with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, a fun, effective action distraction from the December Oscar bait. This year, he's made Jack Reacher, which just succeeds at being a big, wet noodle of a film.

Grade: C

Friday, December 28, 2012


Watching Ang Lee's new film Life of Pi, I kept wishing over and over again that I had read the book. Half of that wish could be attributed to personal guilt, Yann Martel's much acclaimed novel has long sat on my shelf waiting for me to get around to it. The other half has to do with the perception that it's just one of those unfulfillable stories.

But Lee gives it his all, and does a mostly excellent job, telling the story of Pi (newcomer Suraj Sharma), a zookeepers son with a somewhat porous sense of faith. He's born Hindu, but eventually incorporates Catholic, Islamic and Jewish aspects into his own personal religion.

One day Pi's father decides to sell the zoo and move the family and the animals to Canada. But the ship encounters a heavy storm and sinks. Pi ends up alone on a lifeboat with several animal refugees including a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Most of the animals are dispatched quickly, leaving just Pi and Parker in the boat. The idea that Pi could manage to find any sort of bond with Parker is potentially the stories least believable element, but Lee handles it expertly by never forgetting that Parker is a wild animal. Pi is constantly fighting the elements, starvation, dehydration and the tiger. Furthermore Pi knows that the only thing keeping Parker from turning on him is his ability to feed the beast. It's a very complex, carefully built relationship.

Lee's filming of the story is absolutely dazzling. The sinking ship is easily one of the best action set peaces you'll see this year. Many of the digital editing tricks Lee experimented with in Hulk return here, we get transitions were one scene is composited over the next, shifting aspect ratios, animated book illustrations, you name it. But were those gimmicks grew tiresome in Hulk, here they are always invigorating and Lee has learned to keep these tricks at the service of the story. (it also looks fantastic in 3D). The film also uses some of the best CGI ever rendered to bring Richard Parker and the other animals to life.

The thing that doesn't work is the framing device were the author, a clear stand-in for the books author, seeks out the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) to tell his story, which is advertized as "a story to make you believe in God." The movie is a powerful adventure story, but it's not that powerful. I guess it doesn't help that I already believe in God, but the film's final moments, which are the ones designed to affirm or re-affirm spirituality which probably played as much bigger revelations in the book, just don't work as well as they should. As visual and cinematic as Lee makes his adaptation, it's just something that feels more suited to the page because spiritual experiences work better when induced my a more internalized medium. Still, that Lee took on this film at all is commendable. The idea that only 90% of it works, hardly seems like a detriment when the resulting film is as rich and ambitious as this.

Grade: A-

Monday, December 24, 2012


The best thing I can say about Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, part one of a promised 3-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings prelude novel The Hobbit, is that it has much of the technical brilliance of it's predecessors. The sweeping vista's of New Zealand are as jaw-dropping as we remember, Howard Shore's score is one of his best in years, and the performances are mostly excellent. However it's lacking in one critical respect—editing.

The titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), is a completely average hobbit, he likes tea, food and sitting around. One day he meets a wizard named Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who insists on inviting 13 dwarves, lead by Thorin (Richard Armitage), to Bilbo's house. After an endless dinner party Gandalf asks Bilbo to come along with them to a far away land to kill the dragon that took the dwarves homeland.

Bilbo is not the type to go on adventures, but he goes anyway. Apart from some allusion to recklessness in his family tree, his decision to go is never satisfactorily explained. If I recall, the book glossed over this issue with its brisk pace. The film on the other hand, never stops wondering, in a vain attempt to squeeze some complexity (not to mention extra running time) out of this children's story.

A typical exchange goes something like this:
Bilbo: Why am I here Gandalf?
Thorin: Why is he here Gandalf?
Gandalf winks knowingly
Bilbo and Thorin: That doesn't tell us anything!!!

In another attempt to add complexity, Jackson adds some material from the appendices of Lord of the Rings. Some of this material explains where Gandalf goes on his frequent disappearances. Too much features Sylvester McCoy as an insufferable, hippy-dippy, tree hugging wizard named Radagast who is one of the least important characters in Tolkien's mythos. Yet Jackson has beefed up his part so that instead of Gandalf, it's Radagast and his sled of super fast rabbits who stumble onto signs that Rings villain Sauron may be about to return. If you're wondering what any of that has to do with Bilbo, the dwarves and their quest to kill the dragon, the answer is nothing. Nothing at all. But we get so much of it that an audience member could almost be forgiven for forgetting about the main plot.

If that weren't irritating enough, the film goes to great length to extend material that should have been told more efficiently. Compare the film's seemingly endless prologue to the one in Fellowship of The Ring which took less time to set up a lot more. I imagine some hardcore fans will enjoy all the book centric details Jackson has squeezed in here, but the thing that made Jackson's earlier film's work was his ability to balance the nuance of Tolkien's prose while still making efficient, accessible films. Those older films were long, but even Jackson's truly epic extended cuts justified their running times with a sense of momentum and rich, compelling characters.

If Jackson wanted to make this film longer, why didn't he do it by developing the characters more deeply. We have a company of 13 characters in this film and at the end of it I know almost nothing about them. Apart from maybe Thorin, the dwarves are completely interchangeable, distinguishable almost exclusively by beard style. Let's also not start with Gandalf who in this film alternates between incompetence and walking deus ex machina.

Some of these problems are there in the source material, but they're just exacerbated and underlined by this film's epic 169 minute running time. I was frequently reminded of the running gag from Monty Python and the Holy Grail were the film would frequently cut to a large crowd or God yelling at the film to "Get on with it!"

That's not to say it's a total wash. Some of the light comedy is effective, and once the Dwarves leave Rivendel, the momentum really picks up with a rip-roaring action sequence where the company is kidnapped by Goblins. The elaborate razzle-dazzle of it all almost makes all the set up worth it. It's so good that I caught myself thinking that maybe Jackson knew what he was doing after all, and settled in for a good time, but then the movie ended. Maybe the next two films will be better. Maybe Jackson will remember how to tell stories economically and deliver something that will make all this set up worth it, but this film is 169 minutes and covers only the first 120 pages of it's source material and that is unforgivable. The fact that it only feels 40 minutes too long is a strange but dubious victory.

Grade: C+

Note: The film was shot in a new process called HFR. Basically it means that the film was shot at twice the usual frame rate. This theoretically creates more natural motion and improves the quality and clarity of the image, particularly in 3D. A lot of people have disliked it, it's an odd effect. Until my eyes adjusted it seemed almost as if the film was on fast forward. But once I became accustomed, I really dug it, particularly in the night scenes (a notorious problem spot with 3D). When HFR works, the image looks almost disconcertingly real, as if you're watching history's most expensive play. What's more, the frame rate is easy on the eyes. After 2 1/2 hours of constant, intense 3D, I had no eye-strain whatsoever. It's not for everyone, many people just can't stand the look. If you plan on seeing the film in 3D, I'd give it a shot. Otherwise just stick with traditional 2D.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Wreck-It Ralph, Disney's latest animated feature, might be the best videogame movie ever made. The film takes place inside the various games at an arcade. After the arcade closes down for the night the game characters are free to visit each other. The film features many cameo's from famous game characters like Pac-Man and Sonic, but the film follows the much putt upon Ralph (John C. Reilly).

Ralph is the "villain" of a popular Donkey Kong-esque arcade game in he which smashes up an apartment building, only to be thwarted by the games hero Fix-It Felix Jr. (30 Rock's Jack McBrayer). They've been doing this dozens of times a day for the past 30 years. At the end of every day Felix retires to a digital penthouse with a few more achievement medals and Ralph is forced to sleep in a nearby dump, a second class citizen everywhere he goes. One day Ralph decides he's not gonna take it anymore and abandons his game (this is called game-jumping) to find acceptance by winning a medal of his own.

At times, the film feels like a spiritual sequel to Toy Story with a healthy infusion of Tron. Indeed Toy Story director John Lasseter is a producer here. But there's enough personality for Ralph to stand on it's own. Part of that has to do with the work of writer/director Rich Moore. Moore, an animation veteran, has directed some of the better Simpsons episodes and the lions share of Futurama and injects a lot of that sensibility. For instance, part of Ralph's journey takes him to a gritty first person shooter, were he meets Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a brooding space marine who was "programed with the most traumatic back story imaginable."

Eventually Ralph's trek brings him to brightly a colored kid's racing game where the bulk of the film takes place. Here he meets Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a spunky underdog, who's also mistreated by her fellow game characters, particularly by the games overlord King Candy (Alan Tudyk).

That world is amazingly designed. Vanellope's racing game is constructed entirely of perfectly rendered candy and pastries. Willy Wonka wishes his factory looked this delicious. But it's the variety of the different game's we see that help bring the film's world to life. The doesn't create one gorgeous world, it creates 3 or 4. My favorite was Ralph's game and all the little touches that go into selling it as a retro game. Like how the secondary characters all have choppy 16-bit style animations or how things always break in to pixel friendly shapes.

Beyond the visual razzal dazzle, the film has some nice twists (I really liked how the film handles the consequences of mixing games) and closes with an impressively complex action sequence, but despite all the cleverness on display, the film just cant shake an overwhelming feeling of familiarity. Also, I'm not sure how I feel about the film's ultimately conformist message. It's a very good videogame movie, I hope it spawns a franchise, but it's not a quite top-tier children's film.

The film is preceded by a wonderful little short film called Paperman, a silent rom-com about a man and woman who find love via paper airplanes. In addition to being a delightful piece of whimsy, the film is important on a technical level. It's rendered using new software that captures the look of traditional 2D artwork. The illusion is so convincing that you can often see individual brush strokes. It's a great example of how the traditional feel can live on in an industry dominated by new school methods.

Paperman: A
Wreck-It Ralph: B+

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


There is exactly one battle sequence of consequence in Steven Spielberg's Civil War drama Lincoln, and it comes right at the beginning. The short, ugly scene features soldiers fighting in the rain, waist deep in mud, using rifles, bayonets, and bare knuckles. The battle is somewhat futile because, as the film reminds us, by the fall of 1864 the Civil War was basically over, but the battles went on regardless.

Today we generally accept that the end of the Civil War would naturally involve the end of slavery but, as the film documents, it wasn't always certain. President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) want's to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery but faces an uphill slog. His own party isn't enthusiastic about it, and the opposing Democrats are dead set against it. But Lincoln knows that without the amendment all those endless battles would mean nothing.

On paper, the prospect of a two and half hour period film about the complications of passing legislation sounds dull as paste, but it's those colossally high stakes and the lengths that is Lincoln willing to go to that help make the film compelling. In order to get any Democratic support, he must essentially start handing out bribes. If that weren't enough of a potential scandal, Lincoln knows that if the South surrenders before the vote, it will guarantee the amendments failure and so he must find a way to delay the end of the war.

Spielberg delivers all these complex plot points with the help of a very sharp script by Tony Kushner (who won the Pulitzer for Angels in America), partially based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, which delivers line after line of crackling dialogue. Many of the best lines are spoken by Tommy Lee Jones as Republican firebrand Thaddeus Stevens who has some of the best flippant putdowns this side of The Social Network.

Ironically if there's anyone who gets a pass it's Lincoln himself. Day-Lewis is as amazing as we expect him to be, but the film keeps the character at a distance. Apart from a passionate argument with his wife (Sally Field who's every bit as good as Day-Lewis) and a series of affable, home-spun ramblings, there's precious little insight into Lincoln the person. It's strange that showing us his thought-process and the anxiety consuming him doesn't translate into a more complete portrait of the man. This would be less of a problem if the film weren't called Lincoln. This is a film more about the moment that defined his legacy than it is about the man himself.

On the one hand, Spielberg's reluctance to deconstruct Lincoln too much is understandable, the man is the closest thing America has to a bona fide Christ figure. But there is something that just doesn't gel about watching the man talk about all the moral compromises he's had to make, order bribes, suspend habeas corpus, etc, and then slowly put on that famous hat and walk into a beam of light as John Williams's score swells. It's not that the film causes one to lose respect for the man, on the contrary, it's obvious how righteous his goals are, it's just that the film's iconography is simper than the its depiction of the man.

To call Lincoln a bio-pic is a bit disingenuous as it denotes a greater level of introspection then we get here. But what Spielberg has given us instead is equally valuable – an accurate, historical procedural documenting one of the most important moments in American history. It may try too hard for those Oscar moments at times, but on the whole the craftsmanship is strong and delivers a very entertaining film about what could have been a very dry subject.

Grade: B+