Thursday, January 28, 2010

Edge of Darkness

It seems were are still in the middle of the resurgence of our 70's and 80's action stars. Recent years have seen the return of John Rambo, Rocky Balboa, Indiana Jones, and John McClane (to mixed success); we have even seen Clint Eastwood telling people to get off his lawn. I had thought we were at the end of that, but Mel Gibson (“Lethal Weapon”) still has to have his turn in “Edge of Darkness”

Based on the 1985 BBC series of the same name, “Edge of Darkness” follows Boston Police Detective Thomas Craven (Gibson) as he tries to uncover the truth behind the shooting death of his daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic as an adult, and Gabrielle Popa as a child). What first seems like a shooter aiming from him and hitting his daughter instead quickly reveals itself to be a conspiracy with possible connections to national security.

The easiest way to describe “Edge of Darkness” is as a slow-burning tense film punctuated by moments of extreme violence. Gibson's Craven questions suspects and potential witnesses alike as if he were a cross between Columbo and Rorschach (complete with brown raincoat); one moment asking an almost silly question and the next pointing a gun in the person's face, or throwing them across the screen.

I'm going to get my only complaints about the film out of the way first. Mel Gibson's Boston accent is easily the worst thing in this film; I'm from California, so maybe that's how some people from Massachusetts sound, but it felt off to me. The other problem is that, while the movie comes in at just under two hours, it feels a little long. There are one or two scenes in the movie that, while entertaining to watch, don't actually lead to anything story-wise.

The best thing in the film is easily the character of Jedbergh (Ray Winstone: “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”). Jedbergh is a shady government fixer who places himself in Craven's path, and whose loyalties are unclear. Winstone plays this stoic, cynical, but darkly comic character perfectly, and lends the movie a level of believability that it might otherwise lack.

Watching this film, I spent most of it waiting for anyone Mel Gibson is talking with the be suddenly and violently killed from off screen. Most of the scenes are shot with a very tight focus on the characters, creating a claustrophobic feeling that adds to the movies tension and preventing you from seeing the death coming up on them just out of view. Will they be shot? Will their car explode? I was constantly on the edge of my seat waiting to see if and how any given character will be killed, and just how much information they would be able to pass on to Craven before it would happen.

Overall the movie is fairly predictable; I had the basic mystery solved within the first ten minutes, and then it was just a matter of waiting for the specific characters responsible to actually be introduced, so if you are looking for a mystery to solve, this isn't it. What it is is a fun and intense movie with an ending I found to be very satisfying.

If you're looking for a nice manly violent hard R rated film this weekend, and you've already seen “The Book of Eli” then “Edge of Darkness” is easy to recommend. It's tense, violent, and entertaining. The writing is snappy, giving a number of quotable lines, and, other than Mel Gibson's accent, all the the characters are believable in their roles. While there's nothing original here, this movie does deliver a full serving and suspense and action for your bloodthirsty eyes.

“Edge of Darkness” comes out nationwide on January 29th.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Book of Eli

It's been thirty years since “The Flash”, and event that turned the world (or at least the United States) in a barren wasteland. Now in order to even walk outside people must where protective eyewear or risk blindness. Humanity struggles to exist in the ruins of the old world; this is the world of “The Book of Eli”.

Through the ruins, the violence, and the cannibalism wanders Eli (Denzel Washington: “Man on Fire”), a man with a mission. For thirty years he has been wandering through the wasteland to answer a call from God; take the last bible in existence west to where it is needed.

While Eli tries to be a peaceful man, he is not adverse to doing what he must to protect the book; his sword, shotgun, handgun, and bow are a testament to this. He knows how to use these weapons, and is not afraid to do so.

On his travels he comes through a small town run by a man called Carnegie (Gary Oldman: “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”), who happens to be searching for a powerful book that will not only allow him to cement his power in this town, but possibly to found others. It is in this town that he meets Solara (Mila Kunis: “Family Guy”), the daughter of Carnegie's concubine, and the person who is to accompany him on the final leg of his quest.

Rounding out the cast are Jennifer Beals (“The L Word”) as Claudia, Carnegie's concubine who he alternately lavishes with affection and brutally abuses and mother to Solara, and Ray Stevenson (“Punisher: War Zone”) as Rutridge, Carnegie's badass chief enforcer. Both of these characters could easily have faded into the background with all of the other extras, but they both end up playing important and memorable roles in the overall story.

Let me get my personal biases out of the way here, I love this setting. When I first saw the trailers for this film I thought “That looks like Fallout”, which of course is in reference the long running series of video games first put out by Interplay and now by Bethesda. Other than the retro style used in the Fallout world, this could be it from the collapsing overpasses to the dusty landscape, to the tape wrapped around the handle of Eli's shotgun, this movie manages to bring that type of world to life better than pretty much any film since “Mad Max”.

“The Book of Eli” is an odd sort of film. While there is a strong Christian message to the whole thing there is also lots and lots of violence. In the film's first twenty minutes or so we see Eli dispatch a half dozen bandits. Limbs and heads fly throughout this film, but it is also strangely bloodless; you will not find any huge geysers of blood through this film.

Also the Hughes brothers seem to have gone to lengths to make sure the violence isn't all that this movie is about. While we are treated to on screen decapitations, the use of a rocket launcher, and people being shot through with arrows, the movie never focuses on this for too long, We never get slow motion close-ups of the violence. If you blink you may well miss someone's head coming off of their shoulders in the middle of a battle. The violence is what it is, and it is satisfying to watch, but it seems like it is not ultimately what the filmmakers want you to walk away with.

Since all of the major characters are people that the actors have played before, they all come across quite well. Washington plays a restrained hero who is able and willing to kick a lot of ass if forced to. Oldman plays the intelligent and restrained villain who is willing to risk everything to get what he wants. Kunis plays a whiny girl. Sure it's a bit of typecasting, but it works really well.

My complaints about this film are few. First off, the movie does get a little talky in the middle as Eli tells Solara how it is that he has the last bible on Earth, and after the more action-focused scenes that come before it does feel like it slows the movie down a lot. I feel like I have to forgive this though, as it did answer a lot of questions I had by that point in the film.

The second issue I have is Mila Kunis. It's not necessarily that she's wrong for this role, Solara seems like she should be a little whiny, it's just that her voice is very distinctive. I found myself frequently having to hold back shouts of “Shut up, Meg!” while she is talking. Is that just me though? Oh, never mind then.

If you are looking for some R-rated violent action this weekend, this seems to me like your best bet. Sword play, shootouts, explosions, and even a car wreck or two made for a fun film in a fantastic setting. I not only recommend seeing it in theaters, but I will be picking this one up when it comes out on DVD. “The Book of Eli” is in theaters now.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

The Lovely Bones

Meet Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan: “City of Ember”), a normal teenage girl growing up in the early 1970's. It's a time, as the character puts it, before missing children appeared on milk cartons; a time when bad things just don't happen to children. She is living a totally normal life, going to high school, figuring out what she wants to do with her life, falling in love. This all comes to a violent end one cold December afternoon when she is murdered by neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci: “Julie & Julia”).

Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings”, “The Frighteners”) brings his vision of Alice Sebold's popular novel, “The Lovely Bones”, to big screen to create a work that is almost, but not quite, excellent. The movie follows not only Susie through her final hours and into her afterlife, but it also focuses on the people around her as they try to move forward with their lives without her.

Aside from following around Susie in her afterlife and George as he covers his tracks and plans for his next victim, the film also follows Suzie's family. Her dad (Mark Wahlberg: “The Happening”) starts trying to get the detective in charge of the case (Michael Imperioli: “The Sopranos”) to investigate every suspicious person in town while her mom (Rachel Weisz: “Constantine”) seems to try and forget she ever had three kids. Her sister (Rose McIver: “Power Rangers RPM”) however is the first one to take notice of Mister Harvey down the street.

This movie is not only long (over two hours), but it is very emotionally draining to watch. Tension is built up masterfully, but with little relief or payoff at any point in the film, I started to feel very worn out just by simply sitting there. In fact the only moment of true humour that I can think of once the movie really gets rolling is when chain-smoking, hard-drinking Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon: “Enchanted”) first moves in to try and help keep the Salmon household together.

All of the performances in the movie work for me, but one of the best parts of the film was Stanley Tucci. George Harvey is easily one of the most evil characters I have seen on the screen in a long time. Tucci takes what could have just been a run-of-the-mill pedophile and turns him in to a sort of nightmare fuel that at first glance seems mundane, but it becomes clear quickly that something truly dark lurks under the surface. From the comb-over to the glasses to his quirky way of talking, Harvey is a truly creepy villain.

As much as the story is driven by the events in the world of the living, it is the scenes involving Suzie that try to make this film unique. The limbo between heaven and Earth that Susie finds herself in is very reminiscent of the heaven from 1998's “What Dreams May Come”; full of vibrant colours and beautiful landscapes that are not always what they seem. There are parts of this movie that are trying to be pure scenery porn, but, while pretty, they lack a certain awe inspiring quality that I would expect from a Peter Jackson project.

It's that certain lack of something that ultimately keeps this movie from being truly great. Everything for a truly award-worthy film is present here, but it all feels just a little hollow. Many of the characters, while well performed and not quite two dimensional somehow still feel not quite three dimensional, and some seem like they should be more important than they end up being. I cannot put my finger on it exactly, but even understanding the point of the movie I still feel just a little unsatisfied by the experience.

I think the thing that will ultimately hurt this movie is people not understanding what they are getting themselves into. The trailers give the impression that this is a thriller of sorts; it isn't. This is not a paranormal story about Susie getting reven, it's not a thriller about her family finding the killer to make sure he never does this to anyone else ever again, it's not even really about the killer himself. “The Lovely Bones” is a film about acceptance and moving on; it's not a typical popcorn movie, and if you go into it expecting it to be one you are likely to leave sorely disappointed.

Having not read the book this information is second hand, but I have heard that book is quite graphic at times; not so with the movie. In order to get a PG-13 rating to attract the teenager who really helped make the novel a success there is no graphic violence in the film. The film instead relies on the masterful use of disturbing imagery and lets your mind fill in the blanks; you never see what that straight razor is used for, but ultimately do you really need to? Chances are your mind is going to conjure up something far more extreme than the MPAA would have allowed on the screen anyway. Given this, you may want to think twice before taking younger viewers to see this movie.

While it falls short of cinematic greatness by mere inches, “The Lovely Bones” is still a movie well worth seeing on the big screen. It is beautiful, intense, and powerful, but you need to keep an open mind when you go to see it. This is not action or horror (at least not in the traditional sense), and you may not feel fully satisfied when the credits roll, but then life rarely wraps up everything neatly so maybe this can be excused.

“The Lovely Bones” is in wide release now.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"Youth in Revolt"

You know how some actors essentially play the same role over and over again, only with a different name? How they never display any real range? Michael Cera is one of these actors, but, as with Ricky Gervais, this may not be a bad thing. Cera has mastered playing the awkward teenager, and continues to pull it off pretty well even though he is now in his 20's (if he ever actually starts puberty his career could be in trouble).

Based on the book of the same name by C.D. Payne, “Youth in Revolt” follows the darkly comic misadventures of Nick Twisp (Cera), an average sex-obsessed teenaged virgin who thinks himself a bit of an intellectual, and therefore finds himself unable to connect with most of his peers. If you have ever read any of the Adrian Mole books, this character should feel quite familiar (this is not a bad thing).

Nick lives in Oakland with his mother, Estelle (Jean Smart: “Designing Women”), and her loser boyfriend, Jerry (Zach Galifianaskis: “The Hangover”), and is little more than a financial burden to his father, George (Steve Buscemi: “Fargo”). He has seemingly only one friend, a boy called Lefty (Erik Knudsen: “Jericho”), and is a complete failure with the ladies.

After selling a defective car to a group of sailors, Jerry decides to take Estelle and Nick on a “vacation” to lie low in Ukiah; it is here where Nick meets the love of his life, Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), a fellow “intellectual” with a thing for the French and the daughter of a conservative Christian lawyer.

Too bad for Nick that Sheeni already has a boyfriend in the perfect form of Trent Preston, a windsurfing-poet-Adonis of a lad. Not content to just let the future mother of his children slip out of his grasp when his stay in Ukiah is over, Nick invents a tougher persona for himself, Francois Dillinger (also Cera), with whose help he intends to lie, steal, manipulate, and vandalize his way back to Ukiah and into Sheeni's heart.

“Youth in Revolt” is one of those dark comedies where much of the humour comes from actions that will make you cringe while laughing out loud. If you are a fan of shows like “Arrested Development” and “30 Rock”, you will probably enjoy this film. Of course if you are not a fan of Michael Cera in particular, you may well want to give this a pass, as unlike “Arrested Development” or “Superbad” this movie centers on him quite firmly.

The above is not to say that the rest of the cast contributes nothing to the film; Smart, Buscemi, and Galifianakis all bring the funny when they are on screen. Aside from Nick's family, you should also look for appearances by Ray Liotta, M Emmet Walsh, Fred Willard, and Mary Kay Place in small but important roles to the story's progression. Unlike a lot of cameo appearances, these roles do use the actors the the definite benefit of the movie.

One of the most striking things about this movie is the dialog. Since the main characters all consider themselves to be somewhat better than their peers, they all find every excuse possible to use large words and be overly polite to each other. This speech is hopelessly clunky and ill-fitting to the scenes, but this only makes the awkward situations that they put themselves into just that much more funny.

There are a couple of sequences in the film where the characters are going on long drives, and rather than just skip the journey we are treated to some very interesting stop-motion animated sequences chronicling these journeys. There is also an animated sequence where images from a book about sexual positions come to life; to go into anymore detail about that would be to spoil one of the film's funnier sequences. These scenes seem a little odd in a movie like this, but rather than detracting from the overall story they add to the film's odd charm.

This is not a good film for the family, aside from the animated nudity there is also a good amount of swearing and drug use in the film, so leave the kiddies at home, or dump them in the “The Chipmunks” while you go and see something a bit more mature... well, mature oriented anyway. For myself, the message Francois adds to side of Jerry's trailer early in the movie, while incredibly profrane, made me laugh out loud every time I saw it.

If you like smart, awkward humour and Michael Cera, you should go out and see “Youth in Revolt” when it crashes into theaters on Friday, January 8th.

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Monday, January 4, 2010

Extraordinary Measures

Sometimes you can tell the makers of a film had a lot of trouble deciding what to call their movie. With a title like “Extraordinary Measures” you might expect to find an action movie, or possibly something about saving a kidnapped child, but that is not what this is; this is a sick-kid movie.

John Crowley (Brendan Fraser: “The Mummy” movies) seems to have it all; he has a lovely wife, Aileen (Keri Russel: “Felicity”), and three kids. He's on the path to make vice president at his company within the year. He has a nice house, and a nice car, but there's one very large problem; two of his children suffer from Pompe disease (a disease that I had never actually heard of before), and are nearing the upper range of life expectancy for sufferers of that illness.

John is desperate to find help for his children, and all his research points to Doctor Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford) as the best hope for finding a treatment. Stonehill is an unconventional sort of doctor (you can tell because he wears blue jeans and listens to loud music); he's obnoxious and impossible to get along with, but he's also a genius, and the best hope at finding a usable treatment.

Of course nothing comes free, so it's up to John to find Doctor Stonehill financial backing and try to guide him through the obstacles of the business side of medcine to arrive at a usable treatment before it's too late for his children. Can John successfully risk everything to save what he values the most?

As I said, this is a sick-kid movie, similar in style to “My Sister's Keeper”, but nowhere near as dark. This movie largely keeps a hopeful outlook through the whole story, but don't think that means that it does not throw things at you with the sole intent of making you cry. The movie does find a nice balance between the sad drama of the overall story and humour injected by the characters.

While all of the actors are more than competent, Meredith Droeger, as Megan Crowley, manages to steal most every scene she is in. Whether she's chasing her older brother around or challenging Harrison Ford to a footrace, all from the confinement of her wheelchair, she definitely shows what is at stake if John and Doctor Stonehill fail.

The only real criticism I have of this film is the casting of Brendan Fraser in a relatively heavy role. I found it hard to watch him trying to be serious and not see his characters in either “The Mummy” or “Looney Tunes: Back In Action” standing there. His performance was not bad, it's just been so long since I have seen him in a real serious role that it's hard for me to see that face and take him seriously.

If you are a fan of sick-kid movies, but find films like “My Sister's Keeper” to be just a little too heavy the this may well be the film for you. Sure this movie will try to make you cry, but the overall tone of it is one of hope, and it never lets things get too depressingly heavy. As far as this type of movie goes, I found it to be quite enjoyable, even if I did find myself glancing at my watch a few times towards the end.

Is this movie a must see? No, not really. You're not going to miss out on anything by waiting to rent this on DVD, but if you want to go to the theater and see a movie not laden with CGI explosions you could do a lot worse. “Extraordinary Measures” hits theaters on January 22nd.

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