Archive for January, 2014

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I had high hopes for this movie. I’ve always liked Chris Pine’s movies (even his role in Princess Diaries 2), and Keira Knightley was brilliant in Pride and Prejudice. Not to mention I have read a few pages from a Jack Ryan book, and the story and action seemed competent enough. Even the trailer for the movie was good. But, every expectation I had was dashed, and I regret watching it instead of any other movie. 

Okay, let me start by pasting the summary of the movie.

Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.

 

 I don’t recall the plot well enough, but I can tell you about the beginning. 

 Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit starts off with Chris Pine at the London School of Economics. He notices a lot of his classmates are rushing off somewhere, and he follows them to see that they’re all transfixed on a television. Scenes of 9/11 play on the screen. I think it was when Homeland was released around 2010-2011 that a signal was released to everyone that it’s okay to talk about 9/11 in movies. I think that’s fine enough, but I don’t particularly like it when movies actually show real footage. Or evoke imagery from the tragic incident. Chris Pine’s previous movie, Star Trek Into Darkness, evoked some of those same images, and another example would be Ender’s Game. (Starting to see a pattern with science fiction movies…)

It cuts to 18 months later, and Jack Ryan is now a lieutenant in the marines. He’s on a helicopter, and it’s at this time that I began to worry. The camera shakes all over, it’s unfocused for several seconds, and it’s put in such close proximity of the characters’ faces that I could actually count the number of pores they had on their face. (If I had a notepad, I would’ve listed the number, but I’ve since forgotten the exact amount.)

However, I cut it some slack. After all, they were on a helicopter. It was realistic, I guess, and I had some experience with that type of style being done well. (Hurt Locker. I don’t love the movie, but even I have to admit that the director used that style perfectly.)

Jack Ryan unbuckles his seatbelt to help a newbie with his, and it’s at that moment that an RPG hits the helicopter. It’s here that my hopes started to dim. The helicopter is crashing, and the camera starts to move all over the place. It was dizzying, but once again, I cut it some slack. I just told myself that the director really wanted this scene to be authentic.

Chris Pine is rushed to a field hospital, and we find out that he’s lost feeling in his legs. He screams in pain, and in the next scene, he’s attempting to walk with crutches. It’s here that we’re introduced to Keira Knightley who plays Cathy Muller. She’s a third year med student tasked with helping him recover. The camera isn’t as jerky in these scenes as it was on the helicopter, but it’s still put within inches of each actor’s face. Keira Knightley and Chris Pine are attractive people, but I don’t think anyone can look good that way. (Especially when you’re watching them on a thirty foot screen. If I didn’t already know the plot, I’d think it was a horror movie.)

That's the farthest you can expect to see their faces. The director probably regrets filming them from so far away.

That’s the farthest you can expect to see their faces. The director probably regrets filming them from so far away.

 

Let’s fast forward, shall we? Jack Ryan is recruited by an enigmatic C.I.A. Operative portrayed by Kevin Costner to become an analyst for them. He goes undercover in Wall Street, and they meet in movie theaters that show old movies. Kind of like how in the Departed, Damon and Nicholson meet at a porn theater. It’s here that the movie shows its cheekiness. The director seems to like the contrast of the old, classical style of movies with his own style. Aside from this scene, Keira Knightley is seen watching an old movie on the television. (A shot which is mimicked later on in the movie.) I thought this was a nice touch, and my hopes began to swell again. They were once again dashed when the writer portrayed Cathy Muller so terribly. In the movie, Cathy Muller confronts Jack Ryan about hiding things from her, and she demands to know if he’s having an affair. She stomps away, and Jack Ryan says: “Let’s go to Paris.”

Then all is well. 

I mean, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t really paint her in the best light. She knows he’s lying, and she forgives him just like that for a trip to Paris? Admittedly, it’s understandable, but she could’ve looked a little conflicted about it, at least. Oh, and let’s talk about Keira Knightley’s performance. Cathy Muller is American, and Keira Knightley is British. So, her accent for this movie was crucial. And… It’s all right. It does waver here and there when she raises her voice, but it’s passable. The accent is believable enough, but it does have an unfortunate side effect of lowering her acting ability. She was great in Pride and Prejudice, and even though I didn’t like her character in the Pirates and the Caribbean movies, she was good there as well. Forced to do a foreign accent, however, it’s obvious that she’s struggling. 

It’s perfectly reasonable why she can’t act to the full extent of her ability. It’s a lot of hard work! I couldn’t help but think that her average acting in this movie is the fault of the movie. I feel like she noticed, halfway into the movie, that it wasn’t good. And she just didn’t feel like working that hard for a below average movie. I can understand Tom Hanks and Colin Farrell, I guess, working on their accents for months for Saving Mr. Banks, but I probably wouldn’t have tried so hard for a movie like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

Let’s talk about the fight scenes. I hate shaky cam. Yes, it’s realistic. Real life fights are shaky, unfocused, and messy. But movies aren’t about being realistic. Sure, I like the plots and characters to be realistic. But movies are about elevating reality. Here’s a good example. In Oldboy, there’s a scene where the main character goes down a corridor, and fights over a dozen assailants. The camera only shows it from one angle, and it moves slowly down the corridor while he disposes of the nuisances. It’s calm and precise and rather elegant. It made the fight all the more brutal because you could see everything clearly. It was horrific and brilliant. 

In the fight scenes in this movie, the camera actually isn’t pointed at the characters for certain seconds! I’m not kidding. In the last fight scene of the movie, the camera is focused on the background, leaving the characters in the foreground unfocused. And when they moved, it took a few seconds for the camera to follow them.

It’s ridiculous. It’s hard to take a movie seriously that looks like a home movie I made when I was thirteen and was too lazy to stop recording when walking. (At least with that, the ground and footage of my feet walking was in focus.) 

The villain… Oh, I need to talk about the villain. Kenneth Branagh portrays Viktor Cherevin. I could tell you his occupation, but to be honest, his occupation is to be a villain. That’s what the movie shows you, and don’t expect anything more from him than that.

Ooh, he's looking very villainous here.

Ooh, he’s looking very villainous here.

 

In the first scene we see him, the camera is looking at him from behind. We see an elegant European room while classical music plays loudly in the background. A large bodyguard stands at the other end of the room, and a man is poking a syringe into the arm of the villain. He obviously misses the vein or something like that, and the villain beats him for it. The sounds they used for his punches and kicks sound like something you’d expect if you kicked a pillowcase with a basketball in it. It’s completely fake, and boring. 

In another scene, he’s at a Church lighting a candle while a choir sings, and it is so cheesy that I actually laughed. At the end of the day, the plot isn’t important. In my previous reviews, I told you a little bit about the plot, but to be honest, I can’t even remember the plot of this movie. It’s about Russia being the bad guys. Again. It’s about Chris Pine saving the day, and about the director trying to give you a headache. (He succeeded!)

The one thing I thought was interesting is that they managed to sneak in an F-word. It’s PG-13, I believe, and I think it’s because when the guys in charge of censorship looked at the movie, they realized that you can’t see any of the violence. “Okay, since you can’t see any of the fight scenes, you can have one F-word. Use it well.”

I wish so badly that I just watched Wolf of Wall Street. But unfortunately the showing wasn’t till the day after, and like I said, I did think that this was going to be a good movie. If this movie gets a sequel, which I hope it doesn’t, I will not watch it.

On the bright side, I was on a Lazy Boy at the theater where I watched the movie. That’s the high note of the entire film for me.

 

2 out of 6.

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~Jian

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American Hustle is David O. Russell’s newest movie, and stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner. It is a movie about two con artists (Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld and Amy Adams as Sydney Prosser) who are forced by Detective Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to help him catch other criminals in the act of bribery. The plot is actually a lot more complicated than that, made all the more complicated by the eccentric characters which populate the movie. 

Let’s talk about the characters, then. Christian Bale has always dedicated himself to his movies… to the point that it’s rather unhealthy. In the Machinist, he lost sixty pounds for the role, and then gained it all back within a year for Batman Begins. 

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Yeah, looks pretty drastic to me. In American Hustle, he’s taken to gaining a lot of weight. And unlike in Batman Begins, he did not use that weight to build muscle. That isn’t the only thing he does in this movie, of course, and his acting here is just amazing. Sure, it can feel a bit fake at certain points in the movie (mostly during the beginning), but you’ll forget all about that when you watch a scene of his with Jennifer Lawrence, who plays his crazy wife. 

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I know, people overuse that word nowadays. But she is crazy, and Jennifer Lawrence pulls it off magnificently. It’s so believable, which is why Christian Bale’s performance is enhanced whenever they’re in a scene together. It’s hard not to believe that this woman isn’t nuts, so his own reactions seem authentic and… rather comical with a dramatic overtone. 

You’ll know what I mean when you watch it. Let me talk about the plot again for a moment. The movie begins with Christian Bale making an elaborate combover, and immediately throws you into the middle of a sting operation. Oh, and Bradley Cooper messes up Christian Bale’s combover.

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David O. Russell is nothing, if not brave. It takes a lot of guts to just do that, and trust that whatever you’re watching is interesting enough that you don’t shrug and walk away. 

It’s here that you truly see Martin Scorsese’s influence on David O. Russell. The beginning reminds me of Goodfellas, although a lot funnier, and pop songs from the 70’s undercut a lot of emotional scenes. This can get a bit annoying, if I’m being honest. At times, it’s really awesome. Especially if you like the song, and think, “Exactly! That’s what I would’ve chosen!”

But, the soundtrack feels… impatient. There are plenty of scenes in the movie where you felt like an emotional punch was delivered to your gut, but the scene was disturbed by some obnoxious song. Why not let Amy Adams just act? The actors are too great to be dubbed over with music, and it brings me to my next point. American Hustle is entertaining, fast-paced, dramatic, and funny. 

And a little empty. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll try to do my best. Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s previous directorial feature, was an amazing movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. It was simple, really. It was about a guy that beat up his boss, who was having an affair with his wife. He gets out of a mental institution, and ends up training for a dance competition with a nymphomaniac. (In retrospect, it doesn’t sound that simple.) It also cost very little to make (especially in comparison to American Hustle’s budget), and garnered some awards. (Jennifer Lawrence got an Oscar for it.)

And it’s better than American Hustle. Yes, I normally like movies with some violence, some intrigue, and some con men. The Sting is one of my favorite movies of all time, but American Hustle just feels hollow in comparison to Silver Linings Playbook. I feel like David O. Russell was pressured to up the stakes, rightfully so. But the music, the unreliable narration, the elaborate outfits… They’re all supposed to be icing. They’re not supposed to make up the cake entirely. 

That isn’t to say that this isn’t incredibly entertaining. Like I said, the acting here is incredible. Bradley Cooper essentially plays the villain, and I’m not going to say: “But he makes you feel sorry for him.”

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Not at all. He wasn’t written to be sympathetic, or even realistic. Almost none of these characters are realistic, but he plays his role with such relish and unpredictability that I can’t help but hope that he was the protagonist. Louie C.K. plays his superior in the movie, and you’ll see in their scenes together why I think that.

When Bradley Cooper asks for 2 million dollars, his boss tries to tell him an ice fishing story from his youth. He interrupts him halfway through, and guesses what the ending is. Flustered, his boss tells him that he’s wrong, and he doesn’t deserve to hear the story. Later on in the movie, Cooper asks Louie about the ice fishing story, and again, interrupts him to make up his own ending for the story. It tells you everything you need to know about this character. He’s a control freak, and with his fast-talking personality, he gets away with it most of the time. He can’t stand it when someone else is talking, and he tries to show that he’s smarter than everyone. 

If you’re looking for a sympathetic character, you could look to Jeremy Renner. His character is one of the more realistic portraits of the movie. He plays Mayor Carmine Polito, and Christian Bale is tasked with the difficult job of piling evidence against him to put him and his colleagues behind bars. He’s a corrupt politician, but he does what he does for the city of New Jersey. It made me think of something Christian Bale’s character said to Bradley Cooper. 

I’ll paraphrase, since my memory isn’t good enough that I can remember it perfectly. But, it went something along the lines of:

“The world isn’t black and white. It’s extremely grey.”

Pretty much every antihero in movie and television shares the same view (I do, as well), but I think what makes this morality speech stand out from most is that it doesn’t really refer to Bale. Or Adams. Or Lawrence and all the others. It refers to Carmine Polito. He’s a good guy that does illegal things for good. He’s a big slap to the face of Bale, and I thought it’s one of the smarter things in the movie. All these characters are grey, but Polito’s character is the only one that seems realistically so. 

That’s probably the downfall of this movie, but don’t let this movie’s little faults scare you away. It’s ridiculously entertaining, and I was laughing throughout the movie. If Cooper, Bale, Adams, and Lawrence win awards for it – I won’t be surprised in the least. They acted their asses off, and they deserve them.

But I just don’t think the movie really deserves any more awards than Silver Linings Playbook received.

~Jian

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Saving Mr. Banks is amazing. I know that, as a reviewer, I should first summarize the whole thing for you, and then tell you my thoughts on it in a detailed and intelligent way. But, there’s just no denying that – for me – this movie is awesome. 

So, now that we have that out of the way, I’ll summarize the movie for you. Saving Mr. Banks is a behind-the-scenes biopic of how Mary Poppins was made. P.L. Travers (the great Emma Thompson), the author of the Mary Poppins books, received offers for the movie rights of her beloved books for twenty consecutive years until she was finally convinced by her agent to give Walt Disney (the brilliant Tom Hanks) a chance. That’s the basic plot of the movie, and with those two actors working together, it was already a guarantee for me that it’d be a great experience.

However, one of the biggest surprises was Colin Farrell’s performance as Travers Goff, P.L. Travers’ father. Her childhood is told in a series of flashbacks, normally starting when P.L. Travers is annoyed by a section of the script, and the flashback then shows why she’s annoyed with it. It’s pretty interesting, and it’s easier than some voiceover narration or a lengthy conversation where Emma Thompson is forced to explain every one of her choices. The rule, “Show, don’t tell,” was clearly taken to heart by the writers and director.

Back to Colin Farrell. I thought he was great in In Bruges, but it wasn’t one of those mind-blowing performances that you tell your friends about for months until they forcibly stop you from telling them any more. His performance in Saving Mr. Banks, however, is one of those performances. He plays an alcoholic that dotes on his daughters very much, but seems to be unable to escape the urge to drink. The character is both haunted and happy, angry and contemplative. 

There’s a great scene in the movie where his children are chasing a hen, and he tells them, jokingly, that it’s no hen. It’s their evil Aunt! Later, when he’s about to go to bed with his wife (Ruth Wilson, Luther), it’s revealed that she’s been pleading for him to let her ask her sister for help. There are a few more surprises in the movie, but I won’t spoil them for you.

Back to the present. (Or the 1960’s.) The first scene where Walt Disney appears in the movie is a favorite of mine. The scriptwriter, Don, tells Travers it’s not a good idea to call him Mr. Disney. He likes to be called Walt. Disney then rushes out of his office, and in the background, you can see an entire shelf of oscars, polished as can be. They go out of focus, and you see Tom Hanks’ best smile. 

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I think it was then that Travers decided to do her best to make his life miserable. She calls him Mr. Disney, and continues to do so even though he keeps insisting he call her by his first name. In a masterful scene, Travers lists her demands, and you can see the look on Hanks’ face as she insults his life’s work. Tom Hanks version of Mr. Disney is very interesting. Unlike a lot of actors, he never overdoes it. When he becomes angry near the middle of the movie, you know it. But he doesn’t fly off the handle. After all, you don’t get your own theme park if you throw a temper tantrum every time someone is being unreasonable. 

Emma Thompson, however, has the most difficult role of all. She has to play a difficult, cold… hag. There’s really no other way to put it. I mean, even Emma Thompson admitted that Travers was a bit of a hag in an interview on Graham Norton. But, despite that, she manages to put a lot of heart into the performance. This is a woman that’s seen things, as a child, that she never should have seen.

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As such, she spends her life writing books for children so they won’t have to see the horrible things around them. She uses the joy and wonder that she still possesses in her heart on her books, while putting on a facade of detachment and bitterness when interacting with other people. There’s a wonderful scene in the movie where she starts letting her guard down around her driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti). 

When she first met him, she made it very clear that she did not want to be there. When they see some beautiful scenery on the way to Walt Disney studios, Ralph cheerfully says: “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“If you like that sort of thing,” she replies promptly.

“Well, I do,” he says slightly crestfallen.

But he ends up her only friend, anyhow. I can talk for much longer about this movie, but to do so would mean telling you about some really interesting scenes and I want you to discover those scenes for yourself. The score is beautiful, and the main song is both happy and somber, just like Disney and Travers.

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~J.A. Romano