Thursday, January 26, 2012

Red Tails

I knew it was only going to be a matter of time.  Recently I have watched a string of movies at the theater which I deemed very entertaining.  I knew though, there would be more films I was going to be disappointed in and unfortunately Red Tails wasn’t as good as I hoped. 

Red Tails is the story of the famed Tuskegee airmen and their contribution to the war effort in Europe during World War II.  This is a great story to be told and an important one at that.  I’ve read that producer George Lucas wanted this movie made and pretty much paid for the whole thing.  He should have made sure the product matched the material.

Not everything was terrible.  The CGI aerial battle scenes were exciting and well done.  These action scenes were big and spectacular and saved this film from being a total train (or plain) wreck.  Also, an effort was made to be true to historical accuracy and several minor details were as they should have been.  Now, it was not totally accurate but most of the things that didn’t stack to reality were relatively minor and only a history nut like me would even notice.  A couple of actors, namely Nate Parker and David Oyelowo, did much with a weak script. 

Now for the bad stuff.  Most of the dialogue was stiff and unnatural, full of lackluster speeches and empty platitudes.  The story lines of the pilots were shallow and not fleshed out at all.  Parker and Oyelowo did a good job but it was never established why each of their flawed characters had their demons.  There was a romantic plot line that featured the usually fantastic Daniella Ruah that was just awkward and uncomfortable.  The actors had zero chemistry or spark and had to work around an awful script.  This plot served no purpose in moving along the story as a whole and dragged down the film’s pace drastically.  Even on the issue of race and prejudice, this script came up way short of being intriguing, using stale, stagnant scenes that was as poor as it was unimaginative. 

I’m sorry that such talents as Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Gerald McRaney, and Michael B. Jordon were wasted on such a poor film.  It had a chance to be something special but it stalled when it got away from the CGI driven action scenes.  It was like the film makers were torn between the idea of an action film and the idea of an important period piece dealing with an important and inspiring group of men.  The movie made a big mistake fictionalizing all characters, probably so they could just spew out any contrived plotline they wanted. 

If it is cool action with some really beautiful aerial views, this is the movie for you.  It certainly has its entertaining moments and they are not few.  My twelve year old son, who is a big history fan, absolutely loved the movie.  He didn’t care about the writing or the love story, or the other side plots.  He loved the planes, the dog fights, and the history.  If those are what you like in a movie, you will enjoy this film.  If you are looking for a well written drama with well developed characters and real, raw, believable story lines, you will be sorely disappointed. 

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Normally if you went to a movie headlined by megastars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock and these two only appeared on screen about twelve minutes combined, you would probably not be a happy moviegoer.  Well, in the case of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Hanks and Bullock have only small, but important roles.  This whole film is carried by young Thomas Horn and he was absolutely brilliant.

Horn portrays Oskar Schell, a troubled youth with a myriad of problems.  He is a strange child who is scared of nearly everything.  He has been tested for Asperger’s syndrome but the results were inconclusive.  Luckily, Oskar has one person who understands him completely – his father.  Thomas Schell (Hanks) challenges his son constantly to take on his fears and to enjoy the journey of discovery and knowledge in his young life.  Thomas lays puzzles for his son to solve.  He puts together treasures hunts where the prize is not gold, but knowledge.  Thomas is always pushing Oskar to grow as a person and not give in to his phobias.  Unfortunately, a tragedy shatters Oskar’s life in the events of the “Worst Day” (9/11).

What follows is Oskar’s journey toward healing and it is a journey obstructed by fear, guilt, and self doubt.  Oskar finds a key, a normal every day, with no lock.  He sees it as one last treasure hunt set before him by his father and the film follows trials and tribulations as he tries to follow the clues left for him. 

Oskar is aided along the way by a nameless man who rents space from Oskar’s grandmother.  Max von Sydow is terrific as the new male in Oskar’s life who mentors the youngster and learns a few lessons of his own.  Veteran von Sydow never speaks a word in the whole film but he conveys a man on a journey himself, watching Oskar with an amused, bemused expression set on his wrinkled face.  This isn’t von Sydow biggest role ever but I doubt he has ever been better in his long, distinguished career.

Ultimately though, the film is dominated by Thomas Horn’s incredible performance.  He is in nearly every scene and in many scenes, he is by himself.  The most amazing aspect of his performance is that he never slips, not for instant, from his character, a remarkable accomplishment for such a young actor in his first role.  Everything is perfect, from his facial expressions to his body language.  Horn makes you believe in his anguish and fear.  You hurt for what he is going through.  You ache for the distance that grows between him and his mother.  You feel his failures and your heart races at his triumphs, no matter how small.  Every now and then a child actor steps forward and delivers a tour-de-force performance and Horn does just this in this picture.  I can’t wait to see him in whatever movie he appears in next.  I hope he has long career in the business.

The cast is filled out with small but powerful for Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright.  John Goodman appears in a few brief scenes as Oskar’s doorman.  Davis’s and Wright’s performances deliver the excellence we have come to expect form each of them.  Sandra Bullock as Oskar’s mom is a small role but incredible one.  I won’t get into her role much but I will say do not give up on her character too soon.

This is a powerful picture that deals in inner pain, in fear, and in triumph.  We are reminded of how important it is to be a supportive parent, through good times and bad.  We see the power of courage, spirit, and friendship and how important even small kindnesses, even to total strangers, can be and how much influence one can have in lives other than our own.  I find it very hard to believe there will be a better acting performance in 2012 than Thomas Horn’s and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close moves to the top of the list for movies in 2012.  I know the year has just begun but there will not be many films that can top it.

Adults will enjoy this film but take plenty of tissue – you will need it.  Younger children may be bored and there are some disturbing images and raw emotions throughout.  It may be a lot for even a pre-teen to process.  It is worth the watch for just about everyone else and I highly recommend it.

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Saturday, January 14, 2012


I have received a couple of comments from readers complaining that I seem to like every movie about which I write.  I can’t really disagree.  There are reasons for this, though.  One, I only go see movies I want to see, therefore there is a better chance I will like it.  As of now, I am not getting paid to be a professional movie critic.  I do it because I love movies and I like writing about them.  Now, if someone wants to start paying me a stipend to do what I am doing then that would be great.  I would start watching more movies, including those I have little interest in, and I would more likely write a few more negatively tilted reviews.  Secondly, I try to watch movies for their entertainment value and not their technical or critical value.  I try to write my reviews as a movie fan, not as a critic.

It was only a little less than a year ago I wrote how upset I was about the quality of films Hollywood was churning out.  Many of them had very little quality entertainment value and many were hardly worth watching.  Film makers were flooding the theaters with crappy 3D versions of movies not even filmed for 3D and charging us extra for the privilege.  While those movies are still appearing, the 3D fad seems to be slowly.  I must ask, though – who wants to were those heavy 3D for three and a half hours for the re-released 3D Titianic?  Not me.  I have seen a string of movies over the past six months that give me hope for Hollywood.  I think there have been more really decent movies in those past few months than were released in the past two or three years.

I digress.  I really wanted to see Contraband and thought it would be good.  It turned out to be a lot different than I anticipated and even better than I thought it would be.  Marky Mark Wahlberg has really turned out to be one of my favorite actors and I really like many of his films.  He is really a strong leading actor in dramatic roles as well as believable as an action star.  He does not disappoint in Contraband.

Wahlberg plays a self rehabilitating smuggler who is trying to stay legitimate for the sake of his young family.  His idiot brother-in-law gets himself in a pickle with some local drug running baddies and Chris (Wahlberg) returns to his former life to fix the situation, which has bled over to involve his own family.

Most of the meat of the film takes places on a ship and in Panama as Chris sets in motion a plan to smuggle $15 million in high end, top quality counterfeit bills.  The plan unravels in many places and his family back in New Orleans is threatened by the sinister gangsters.  The movie is filled with subtle twists and turns, deceit and betrayals, as Chris and his crew work to overcome the obstacles that arise at every turn.

Director Baltasar Kormakur does a great job keeping the action under control, using the situations to build suspense, and then dispensing the action judiciously.  This film is more of a dramatic thriller with great characters than a straight action flick and it works beautifully.  The plot itself isn’t all that strong or original but the directing and acting pushes the film past that small weakness.

Wahlberg is at his best and the brilliant Giovanni Ribisi was terrific, as always.  I was a little disappointed in Ben Foster, who was somewhat flat for the first half of the movie but delivered nicely in the second half.  I wish Kormakur would have used Kate Beckinsale a little more.  I think there was a missed opportunity late in the film to let her shine and the director didn’t take full advantage.  J. K. Simmons and Lukas Haas (it has been a very long time since Witness) take full advantage of their supporting roles. 

The film had its weaknesses but its strengths certainly overwhelmed those weak parts.  Wahlberg’s Chris is an imperfect character but he was easy to sympathize with and to cheer for.  The pace was not break neck by any means but it did not dawdle or get stuck at any point.  The movie features a deep, talented cast who deliver in most instances.  It is rated R for violence and language.  Most, but significantly not all, of the surprises help keep us on our toes and waiting to see what happens next.  If you like thrillers with a very good dose of character and action, you will certainly be entertained with Contraband.

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Friday, January 6, 2012

Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol

It is very hard to believe Tom Cruise is almost fifty years old and embarking on his 4th decade of movie making.  For someone who grew up with Cruise’s early work like Taps, The Outsiders, Risky Business, All the Right Moves, and Top Gun, I find myself in denial that Tom Cruise and I have gotten so old.  Of course, Mr. Cruise carries his years much better than I do, even if I am a few years younger.  Oh well.

What is even stranger is that Tom Cruise and his character Ethan Hunt may be Hollywood’s top active cinematic action stars.  With the 007 franchise on life support and the action stars we grew up with settling into their sixties and seventies (Sly, The Governor, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, etc. - The Expendables not withstanding), and younger stars like Will Smith seemingly giving up the blockbuster action genre.  Only Cruise and Jason Statham appears willing to carry the torch for this type of film on a regular basis.      

Give Cruise credit.  After going a little nuts a few years on the talk show circuit, he has slowly recovered from what easily could have been a career ending walk down Crazy Street.  That could not have been easy to do.  He has remained patient by not over saturating the theaters and by looking to star in a film niche that is overwhelmed by comic book super heroes.

Mission Impossible ­- Ghost Protocol is an old fashion rock‘em sock’em action flick in the classic fashion of James Bond and – Ethan Hunt.  It is not trying to be anything else.  It is all high tech and car chases.  It is all exotic locals like Budapest, Moscow, Dubai, and Mumbai.  It is fist fights, explosions, and bullets.  It’s all quite a fun, rollicking, good time.   There is very little time to catch your breath from the opening scene to the final curtain.  As in all true action flicks, there are a fair share of imagination stretching acts of valor, from a Spiderman-like crawl up a hotel glass fa├žade more than a hundred stories high with a spectacular view over modern day Dubai to driving a car off a ledge into a several story high nose dive.  These sort of unbelievable action stunts are the bread and butter of the classic action film and do not distract from the enjoyment of the movie.

Tom Cruise himself has not lost the broad appeal and believability of an action star.  He jumped onto a shaky vehicle recently with the flat, but not awful Knight and Day but he has bounced back nicely with the fourth theatrical installment of the Mission Impossible franchise.  Cruise has a personal stake in this franchise succeeding because he has served as a producer on all four films.  He is also good about surrounding himself with a likeable crew.  In this case, Simon Pegg serves as the comic relief and Paula Patton is his butt-kicking cohort.  The up and coming Jeremy Renner does a fine job as the agent with a past to round out the team.  Michael Nyqvist does seem to fall a bit short on the evil villain scale and could have been fleshed out just a little more but this nit picking.

I thoroughly enjoyed the accelerated action and the spectacular back drops from the various cities.  I didn’t look at my watch and time flew by.  If you are a fan of this slowly disappearing genre, give Ghost Protocol a chance.  Tom Cruise is trying to keep the blocker buster action film alive and he deserves our support.  Few movies are more fun than the engine revving action flick and this film holds its own with the previous installments.

There is a fair share of violence but most of it is not overly graphic and I think it is safe for older pre-teens.  There is no nudity but there is some of the typical PG-13 language.  All in all, this movie is suitable for all but young children.  Buy a bucket of popcorn, strap in, and hold on.  It is quite the ride.

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