Tuesday, June 26, 2012
In a top secret underground installation S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Nick Fury (a hammy Samuel L. Jackson) attempt to turn the tesseract (the much-prized glowing cube from CAPTAIN AMERICA) into a weapon. Before this can happen THOR villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) steals the prize and turns scientist Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) into unwitting minions. Fury asks Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to enlist Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), and reclusive Bruce Banner aka The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to locate Loki before he uses the tesseract to open a wormhole and allow an alien army to invade Earth. The mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth) shows up to help wrangle his errant brother, and soon superhero bickering and banter ensue along with requisite infighting before this unwieldy bunch joins forces for a final climactic fight. If you did not see the myriad (and mostly frustrating) precursor films, it may take time to get your bearings. Writer Joss Whedon wastes no time with back-story, though his busy script has plenty of snappy dialogue and satisfying character moments. Meanwhile director Whedon never allows you to ponder the film’s logic too closely. After seeming constrained in the disappointing IRON MAN sequel Downey, Jr. is looser here. Likewise Evans finds fun in his square character, perhaps because he’s not required to carry the film. Renner is fine but remains ill at ease as an action hero (see last year’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE), and Hemsworth feels oddly shackled in his role. This is not the case, however, with the marvelous Hiddleston, the smoldering Johansson, and the understated Ruffalo, who make each of their comic book characters both relatable and idiosyncratic. But for the final, overblown battle sequence in which much of Manhattan is laid waste, Whedon attains a successful balance between action and character throughout and delivers that which most action directors can only dream – an almost perfect popcorn picture.
Thursday, June 21, 2012
On a desolate oil field in the barren arctic tundra, Ottway (Liam Neeson) works as a hired killer, shooting wolves and other predators that threaten the coarse, hard-bitten workers as they go about the company’s business. The workmen board a plane (for where and why, it’s never clear) that subsequently crashes in the Alaskan wasteland, leaving only a handful of survivors, including resourceful Ottway, rebellious Diaz (Frank Grillo), quiet Talget (Dermot Mulroney), thoughtful Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), and motor mouth Flannery (Joe Anderson). They build a fire and take stock of provisions, but discover more immediate danger from an aggressive pack of wolves that, Ottway believes, may be protecting a nearby den. The men journey in the direction of what they hope is civilization while pursued by the persistent and lethal wolf pack. Director Joe Carnahan, best known for such high-octane action films as THE A-TEAM and SMOKIN’ ACES, announces a more contemplative intent from the outset. The night before the fateful flight Ottway writes a soul-searching letter to his estranged wife, then contemplates suicide, and is only brought to his senses by the mournful howl of a wolf in the distance. In the aftermath of the crash Ottway gently coaxes a dying man to let go. For much of its first half the film has many trappings of the action and horror genre – men isolated in the wild, stalking monsters (wolves in this case), sudden and gruesome death. But around its midpoint the script by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (from Jeffers’ short story “Ghost Walker”) begins revealing more of the men’s hopes and fears as they ponder life, death, and their uncertain future. In trifling films such as TAKEN Neeson’s presence has given implausible action more gravitas than it would otherwise deserve. Here the action, while often no less implausible, is buttressed further by strong support from Grillo, Mulroney and Roberts. Just as last year’s SOURCE CODE used its genre conventions to explore a more cerebral theme, Carnahan’s stark tale of adventure delivers suspense, thrills and a thoughtful meditation on survival.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Provocateur actor/writer Sacha Baron Cohen specializes in off-putting, offensive comedy through personas such as Borat, Bruno, and Ali G. He uses these agents of chaos to expose the closeted sociopaths we in civilized society pretend not to be. Cohen’s first feature BORAT used an ingenious mixture of candid and staged footage that provoked laughter and gasps of social horror, usually at the same time. He keenly targeted the funny bone and hit nerves with such accuracy that Cohen’s film spent years fighting lawsuits from irate subjects who felt betrayed, despite having signed releases. His latest uncivilized comedy is a completely scripted affair and, as such, aims lower but hits its mark more often than it misses. Cohen stars as Admiral General Aladeen, the despot-in-chief of a fictional, oil-rich country called Wadiya. Aladeen rules with an iron fist of sorts, routinely ordering the execution of cabinet members and citizens for the most innocuous of offenses, but regularly paying movie starlets (Megan Fox has a funny cameo) to have a Polaroid taken with him the morning after. When the U.N. Security Council demands Aladeen clarify his country’s nuclear intentions, the general and his advisor, uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley), travel to New York where Tamir attempts to assassinate his nephew and replace him with lookalike Efawadh (Cohen again). For reasons better seen than explained the assassination fails and an unrecognizable Aladeen is set loose in NYC. He becomes an employee at activist Zoey’s (Anna Faris) food co-op and schemes to reveal his uncle’s deception and be returned to power. The screenplay by Cohen & Alec Berg & David Mandel & Jeff Schaffer has something to offend everyone, even poking fun at post-9/11 terrorist fears; and Larry Charles, a frequent Cohen collaborator, provides serviceable if slapdash direction. The delightful Faris feels subdued here, while Kingsley and John C. O’Reilly (as a treacherous American agent) are game but used too little. Cohen’s earlier films invited audiences to laugh at those taken in by his ruse. Here everyone is in on the joke, so the humor has less bite.
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
In 1979 a horror film set in the far reaches of space, modestly called ALIEN and directed by the unknown Ridley Scott, opened in theaters and became a sensation. In 1982 Scott gave us BLADE RUNNER, securing his reputation as a visionary filmmaker. Now thirty years later he returns to the milieu that made him. This time, rather than a mining ship responding to a distress call, a team of scientists travel on the good ship Prometheus to a planet light-years from Earth where, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe, an alien species created the human race. Mysterious tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) has funded the trip posthumously (he’s seen in hologram) to the tune of trillions. The ship’s crew consists of no-nonsense Captain Janek (Idris Elba), an android named David (Michael Fassbender) who has uncertain loyalties, the icy Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) representing the interests of the dead Weyland, and several redshirts (read: alien fodder). The film begins with promise – a sacrifice on a barren planet; David preparing himself and the ship for arrival. But once the shipmates wake from their forced sleep and begin speaking lines by screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, that promise deflates like a balloon with a slow leak. Rather than evoke well-paid professionals on an astronomically expensive (not to mention important) mission, the demeanor of many of our space travelers more closely resembles that of fraternity pledges duped into a journey that, had they been sober the night before, they would have refused. So it should come as no surprise that much of the impending carnage can be attributed to stupid, reckless or self-serving behavior. Arthur Max’s production design and Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography dazzle, but the performances and story remain inert. Rapace seems miscast, Marshall-Green is annoying, Elba and Theron are underused, while Fassbender makes the only lasting impression. Too often Scott and the writers make oblique reference to seminal moments in earlier movies, so that we long to view them again and forget this disappointment as quickly as possible.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
The latest thriller from director Steven Soderberg is cool and brutally efficient, very much like its black ops protagonist Mallory Kane (played by mixed martial arts fighter turned actor, Gina Carano). When we first meet Mallory she’s on the run, taking shelter in a remote diner where an unwelcome Aaron (Channing Tatum) soon finds her. At first we suspect the sullen fellow is an estranged husband or boyfriend. But when the fists start flying and the gun comes out, we know these two are something else entirely. With the help of a fellow patron (and said patron’s car) Mallory escapes at high speed while relaying to her civilian benefactor the convoluted series of events that brought her to this point. The screenplay’s expository contrivance makes little sense, but the film’s brisk pace allows little time for contemplation. We learn that Mallory and Aaron worked on an extraction job in Barcelona set up by her handler (and former lover) Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) at the behest of shady U.S. government official Coblenz (Michael Douglas) for the benefit of slippery Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas). After the job Mallory attempts to sever business ties with Kenneth, but he persuades her to pose as the wife of British operative Paul (Michael Fassbender) for a “babysitting” job in Dublin. The job is a double cross, so she must escape hired killers, clear her name, and exact satisfying revenge. Screenwriter Lem Dobbs spends all his energy on the complicated plot and elaborate fights but leaves little room for character shading or moral ambiguity. This plays to Carano’s strength; clearly she is more comfortable (and better at) fighting than talking. Likewise the veteran actors around her provide solid, serviceable performances, with Bill Paxton making a welcome appearance as Mallory’s ex-Marine father. The exception is the exceptional Fassbender, who hints at depths where the script offers none and raises the stakes in the film’s most harrowing sequence. In his best films (like OUT OF SIGHT) Soderbergh juggles locales and timelines with practiced ease but maintains strong emotional underpinnings. Here he gets the heart pumping but rarely engages it.
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
London solicitor Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) lost his wife four years earlier during the birth of son Joseph. Clearly grief has affected his work since his boss sends him to the isolated village of Crythin Gifford to handle the Eel Marsh House estate with the stern admonition that Kipps prove his dedication to the firm by pouring through each document in the house. He leaves behind son and nanny and trundles via locomotive (it is the early 1900s after all) to regions remote. En route Kipps meets Daily (Ciaran Hinds), a kindly Crythin Gifford resident who offers him a ride to his lodgings in the pouring rain. This is the only kindness he receives once in town. The innkeeper claims to have no rooms available, the town solicitor offers Kipps an unsolicited ride back to the station, and the locals cast wary glances and lock their doors. This reception does not deter our Mr. Kipps, as he makes his way to the abandoned estate. His research unearths a tragic history (a son drowned in the marsh) and stirs a vengeful spirit in the form of a woman in black, whose appearance portends the death of village children. Jane Goldman based her screenplay on the novel by Susan Hill, but the film’s plot and characters feel tissue-paper thin. The script presents little of Kipps’ history, aside from his widower status, and never offers a plausible reason for him staying overnight in an abandoned estate haunted by a malevolent spirit – except to provide increasingly cheap shocks at regular intervals. Director James Watkins revels in these atmospheric scares but fails to create a context that resonates beyond superficial shudders. Rather than having a charismatic actor like the underused Hinds offer insight into local history and superstition, in example, Goldman and Watkins present information in snippets from stale documents with all the drama of a library orientation. Janet McTeer has some touching moments as Daily’s unstable wife, but the miscast Radcliffe never convinces as a father or lawyer. He can’t shake the Harry Potter stigma and comes off as a boy wizard playacting the grown up. Although there are some genuinely creepy moments, they are few and far between.