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Capsule reviews #3

Time once again for another bunch of short reviews. I considered doing these as a podcast, but since I haven’t written much lately I thought I’d go that route instead. Quite a variety this time: art house, spy, action, drama, period, horror, and more. Something for everyone, I hope. Enjoy!

A Dangerous Method (2011) – A very, very talky film about Freud and Jung. I thought the acting was pretty much impeccable (Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightley). I just found the movie itself to be a bit of a slog. I liked David Cronenberg’s last couple of outings (A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises), but this one left me a little cold. It’s just a very non-cinematic subject, as evidenced by several scenes showing the main characters writing snotty letters back and forth to each other (read to us in voice over). Perhaps the original stage play might’ve been more my speed.

Certified Copy (2010) – Quite an unusual film that left me wondering what I’d just seen. I don’t want to say too much about it, but simply put it’s a more philosophical/arty version of Before Sunrise/Before Sunset. Although that’s perhaps a poor comparison, since I loved those movies and only generally liked this one. Like A Dangerous Method, this movie is extremely talky. In fact, the whole thing is basically one long conversation. But the conversation takes some really interesting turns, and I found myself engrossed in it in a way that I wasn’t with Cronenberg’s movie. Juliette Binoche is characteristically excellent, and William Shimell holds his own opposite her in his film debut.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) – I’ve never read anything by John le Carré, but this film (an adaptation of his novel of the same name) might give me the push I need. For one thing, reading the book might help me understand what the hell was going on here.

I’ll start with what I do know. Retired British spy George Smiley (brilliantly played by Gary Oldman) is forced back into action to root out a Soviet mole embedded at the top level of the Secret Intelligence Service (aka the Circus). He teams up with another agent, Peter Guillam (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). From there, things quickly get confused in a series of betrayals and comeuppances, but what I can say is the entire cast is superb. In addition to Oldman and Cumberbatch, you’ve got Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Toby Jones… And the list goes on.

This is one I’ll need to see again to appreciate fully, although I’m also considering the BBC miniseries. I think the longer format might help the story a little, because as it stands in the film, there’s not a lot of room to breathe. There are a lot of characters, and a lot of twists and turns. It’s really too much for a two-hour film to contain comfortably. Plus, the miniseries features Alec Guinness as Smiley, and more Alec Guinness is never a bad thing.

Chronicle (2012) – As found footage movies go, this is a pretty decent one. And the idea is somewhat original (at least by movie standards it is, this has been done a bunch in comics): three kids get superpowers and use them for their own selfish pursuits, chaos ensues. It just seems like the sort of thing that would actually happen in this scenario in the real world. As opposed to how things play out in X-Men: First Class, say.

The young cast is reasonably talented. Dane DeHaan doesn’t quite pull off the wimpy-kid-turned-supervillain, but the script is kind of ham-fisted with regard to his character, so it was a tough assignment. Alex Russell fares slightly better, but the real standout is Michael B. Jordan (aka Wallace from The Wire. You have watched The Wire, right? No? What the hell is wrong with you?!). Of the three stars, his part is written the best, and he does good work with it. He’s funny and likeable in the role.

This is a film where the ambition outstretched the budget a bit, I think. I’m not usually a guy who complains about effects, but they are noticeably cheap here. Still, this is worth seeing. Nothing spectacular, but a good feature film debut for director Josh Trank.

Rampart (2011) – A forgettable cop drama that had a lot going for it but still fell short. This film is a re-teaming of director Oren Moverman and actor Woody Harrelson (they previously worked together on 2009’s The Messenger). It also co-stars the likes of Robin Wright, Ben Foster, Brie Larson, Sigourney Weaver and Ned Beatty. So like I said, a lot going for it.

The plot concerns Dave Brown (played by Harrelson), a dirty LAPD cop on his way out during the fallout of the Rampart scandal in 1999 Los Angeles. There’s also a lot of family drama. He lives with two sisters (played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) and has a daughter with each. And he’s in another relationship with an attorney (played by Robin Wright). It’s a promising setup, but it feels like there was only half a script written when they started filming. By the end, everything just peters out. Basically, Moverman sets a whole bunch of different plates spinning only to let most of them crash to the ground. Interesting peripheral characters like Foster’s paraplegic veteran General Terry get introduced, but their stories don’t really go anywhere or have much to do with the main plot. I don’t need my movies to bend over backwards trying to tie everything together, but Rampart doesn’t even make an attempt.

Centurion (2010) – I got roped into seeing this movie by an intriguing tweet from film critic Scott Weinberg, which read, “Gladiator minus emo equals Centurion.” First of all, I was a bit baffled by his characterization of Gladiator as “emo”. And second of all, I realized, “Hey, that guy who made Dog Soldiers and The Descent is still making movies! I should look into this.”

So yes, Neil Marshall made another film, and I somehow missed it. It’s a pretty fun film too, so I was glad to have it brought to my attention. It stars Michael Fassbender, Dominic West (oh look, another connection to The Wire!), and Olga Kurylenko. I won’t go into much detail on the plot, but basically Fassbender is a Roman whose outpost is captured in a raid. He escapes, and encounters another group of Romans led by West as they head for the frontlines. Kurylenko is a wild, mute woman who is acting as the group’s scout. They all wind up trapped behind enemy lines, and most of the rest of the film is a long chase sequence as they try to escape.

This was a solid film. Good character development, plenty of action. Maybe a bit light on story, but enjoyable nonetheless. For the record, I think Gladiator is far superior, though I’m not sure why you’d compare them in the first place. Gladiator has a much more epic feel, right down to Hans Zimmer’s sweeping score (yeah yeah, he ripped off Holst, whatever). I don’t think I even noticed the music in Centurion. But really, aside from both films being set in ancient Rome and featuring lots of bloody battles, they aren’t terribly similar.

The Loved Ones (2009) – The first of three horror movies I’ll finish up this bunch of reviews with. This is an Australian film, and the feature debut of director Sean Byrne. I didn’t much care for it. It’s about a psychopathic teen named Lola (played by Robin McLeavy). An outcast at school, she enlists her father to kidnap her classmate Brent (played by Xavier Samuel), and then the two of them torture him during a grotesque mock prom. That’s pretty much the film in a nutshell. There’s also a subplot involving two other kids at the real prom, which I don’t think is ever tied together with the main story. And that’s really my biggest problem with this film. It’s not even 90 minutes long to begin with. Take out the subplot that’s basically just filler, and you aren’t left with much. Just the standard torture porn stuff I’m sick to death of by now.

Okay, it’s not totally worthless. Lola is a genuinely creepy villainess. The glee on her face as she does… well, all the awful stuff she does, is pretty unsettling. But nothing else about this feels remotely original or interesting. It’s got all the standard crappy horror movie beats, right down to the scene where the victim could easily get away but blunders right back into their captor’s clutches for no particular reason other than they haven’t quite been tortured enough yet.

Rabies (2010) – Billed as “Israel’s first slasher movie,” Rabies throws some interesting twists into the standard horror formula, but in doing so it sacrifices believability. I like a movie that can surprise me, but what I don’t like is a surprise that doesn’t feel earned. Random, arbitrary bursts of violence will definitely get my attention, but if I don’t believe the character’s motivations for doling out said violence, you’ve lost me.

I don’t want to hate on Rabies too much. I think it’s actually pretty clever in some ways. Not to spoil it, but it’s one of those movies where the random psycho killer barely has to do anything because all his would-be victims keep offing each other in increasingly implausible scenarios. In that way, it reminded me a little of Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil. Only not as over the top. Or funny. Or all that good. But hopefully, rookie co-writers/co-directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado keep making movies, ’cause I think they’ve got potential.

Cold Prey (2006) – We started out in Australia, moved on to Israel, and now we conclude in Norway with director Roar Uthaug’s Cold Prey. This is by far my favourite of the three. It’s interesting, because Cold Prey is also easily the most straightforward of the bunch.  The story is the sort of thing you could write in a day. Group of attractive young kids? Check. Seemingly idyllic location cut off from the outside world? Check. Madman to hunt them down one by one? Check. It’s all right there, uncomplicated as can be.

So why do I like this movie? Two simple words: character development. So many horror directors today seem to actively hate their protagonists. They barely set up who these people are, instead spending all their time devising ridiculously elaborate and gory ways to dispatch them. Uthaug takes the exact opposite approach, using the entire first half of his film to introduce us to the five main characters. You’ve got two couples – Mikal and Ingunn, Eirik and Jannicke. Plus fifth wheel Morten Tobias. And these aren’t the stereotypical slack-jawed dummies you see in most horror movies today. These are nice kids. You’re actually rooting for them to make it out alive.

Like I said, the movie is straightforward. So horror buffs might be a little bored here since it’s pretty obvious right from the get go who’s going to be left toward the end. And gore hounds won’t be much happier, as Uthaug has no interest in flashy kills. But for me personally, neither of those things really hurt Cold Prey. If I had to point out a shortcoming, it’s that the killer is pretty generic, and his motivations aren’t really explored in much depth.

Though I mostly liked it, the predictability problem does preclude me from giving Cold Prey a really strong recommendation. Unlike The Loved Ones or Rabies, it never really shocked me with its violence or caught me off guard with a twist, which are things I hope for from a good horror movie. Nevertheless, I really appreciated the way it built up suspense over time. Even though it feels very conventional in its approach, I still found Cold Prey well put together.

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2 responses to “Capsule reviews #3

  1. michaelwalls May 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    I really, really liked CHRONICLE. I agree that its budget shows in a lot of places–and yet, I think in others it outshines those limitations–and I wasn’t a huge fan of Matt’s character. However we both more than agree that Michael B Jordan is the standout. His work in The Wire and Friday Night Lights and now this show that he’s a fucking star-in-the-making. Like, if he doesn’t blow up huge there’s something wrong with hollywood. It helped that his character was well-written. I also really enjoyed Dane DeHaan as the lead and look forward to more from him. The script is well done and I enjoyed what they did with the found footage genre(the superpowers is a great device for having a camera capturing action, like the circle of handheld devices in the finale). There’s a sequel in development, so that’s something to watch. Don’t know how much I’d care about it, considering they kill off the two most interesting characters.

    • Mike Lake May 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm

      I found all three characters were pretty shallow. It basically came down to my reaction to the individual actors.

      Jordan had little to work with, but basically nailed it. I haven’t watched Friday Night Lights but if he plays a big part in it I’ll go back and check it out. This dude is definitely going places. But any time he’s brought up, the first thing I think of will always be “WHERE THE FUCK IS WALLACE?!” which wasn’t even said by him. Hehe…

      I didn’t like Dane DeHaan as much as you, but I also think he also had the toughest part by far, and the way his character arc was written wasn’t always great. It’s hard to shift from beat-down kid to supervillain, and I wish it had taken a bit longer before he finally snapped.

      And Alex Russell was in the middle. Fine in terms of acting, but didn’t elevate it like Jordan did. And his character was a bit silly too, with all the random philosophy stuff he kept going on about. I mean maybe the writer was just trying to make him seem pretentious, but if so it could’ve been done a bit more subtly.

      Even though the found-footage aspect was incorporated cleverly, I’m pretty sick of that trend. So, not too excited about a sequel to this (assuming they use the same style). But I guess it would depend who’s in it.

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