Archive for February, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)Starring- Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, Nina Dobrev, Mae Whitman, Erin Wilhelmi, Johnny Simmons, Nicholas Braun, Reece Thompson, Paul Rudd, Melanie Lynskey, Joan Cusack

Director- Stephen Chbosky

PG-13- on appeal for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight — all involving teens

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5rh7O4IDc0

If Sleepwalk with Me was unlikely, then The Perks of Being a Wallflower is downright impossible. Double the budget and quadruple the controversy — and hey, while we’re at it, might as well let the author of the book write and direct it, right?

It’s a bit of a retread of ParaNorman for me in that I admire its bravery and, to a lesser extent, its principle more than its actual execution — which is far from bad, mind you, just a touch haphazard and rough around the edges. I like its ideas better than its outcomes.

Still. This got made. And that’s kind of fascinating to me in itself.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a depressed teenager on the verge of starting high school after suffering what could reasonably be described as a pretty difficult year. He doesn’t fit in at first, but soon finds a group of friends — what the film calls “the island of misfit toys,” students, mainly seniors, who don’t fit comfortably into any niche other than their own.

Charlie particularly finds friendship with seniors Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) — perhaps something more with the latter, even if only in his dreams. Through them, he begins to get a taste of the real world.

So, anyway. Uninitiated reviewer here. I have not read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which is probably something I should remedy soon. In any case, I don’t have anything to which to compare this. Whether that helps me or hurts me, who can say?

What I know about it is this — despite being a novel about high school geared toward teenagers, it’s been banned from a whole lot of reading lists. And if it’s anything like the movie, I suspect I know why that is.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not a cowardly film, but unlike my perception of End of Watch, it doesn’t lay it on so thick that it becomes unbelievable. Rather, it creates a group of characters who one suspects would credibly lapse into drugs and sex and everything therein implied.

However, the source of a lot of the controversy — beyond the mere fact that it is a book and a film that is pretty starkly honest about the kinds of things many wayward teens wind up involved in — seems to be the perception that the story condones all of this and in fact presents it as harmless at worst and beneficial at best.

This is going to surprise no one: I disagree with this assessment.

The reasoning behind it, as I have most often heard it, is that Patrick and Sam are portrayed as awesome and wise beyond their years and generally fun and nice and cool.

And it makes me wonder if they saw the same movie I did.

It’s not written in the subtext either, for only the most analytical of people to find — it emerges very clearly as the story progresses that Patrick and Sam are absolutely every bit as messed up as Charlie is, and perhaps more so. They’ve both got their secrets and their burdens and their trials — and like Charlie, they’re more objectively terrible than what most teens endure, even in high school.

What’s interesting about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, however, is that it doesn’t take the usual path of resolution out of this. It doesn’t go the route of the average family film, having Charlie come to the realization that he’s better than these people or that he doesn’t need them and then having him essentially abandon them for a better group of friends that magically appears out of nowhere.

No, what happens here is that these disparate, broken pieces come together, fit in a very odd way, and somehow, the minimal sum of their broken parts manages to add up to three people who are less broken than when they started. This movie isn’t just Charlie’s coming of age story; it’s also Patrick’s and Sam’s. They’ve all got their demons to face, and at least two of them are haunted by some pretty powerful ghosts from their past. What they find is not necessarily resolution, but it is at the very least a path to it.

Of course, a lot of this depends on one’s interpretation of the ending. I won’t spoil it. A certain action toward the end is implied but not directly shown, leaving it a touch ambiguous as to exactly what happened. Without saying what it is, I will indicate that I have very mixed feelings about it — assuming it did indeed take place. I have no issue with it on a character level; it makes sense that two people in that situation might do that. What I do have an issue with is the way the film seems to present it — as a path to mutual healing from a shared terrible experience, as a way of redeeming the action itself to the characters. Given the age of the individuals involved, as well, it takes on a very odd subtext. Of course, this is all up for interpretation.

The strength of The Perks of Being a Wallflower really is in its leads. That Ezra Miller has some range, let me tell you; the role he plays here could not possibly be more unlike the one that placed him in the public eye, and he performs it flawlessly. Emma Watson is reliable as ever. Logan Lerman, however, really surprised me. I didn’t think he had this performance either; he seemed originally like a byproduct of that phase we went through a few years ago where we were trying to concoct a new, young, white male teen star. I didn’t think he was going to last long, but he delivers what has got to be the one of the most Oscar-worthy portraits of the stereotypical lonely, awkward, angsty teen role ever committed to film.

The writing doesn’t hurt him either. Charlie’s battle with depression is very well observed and feels like something the author perhaps lived in, or at least witnessed at close-range. It manages not to be patronizing, or to ring insincere. Most films have a tendency to give their depressed, lonely characters friends and then to have said depression instantly vanish forever. The Perks of Being a Wallflower treats it more like a band-aid: it makes Charlie better at first, but as the relationship progresses, his depression worsens. He becomes dependent on his friends to keep him distracted, and when those distractions are gone, he realizes he’s treated only the symptoms and not the disease. And he starts to worry that the disease is never going away. Ultimately, being with friends is a good thing for him, but he still needs more help than what they alone can offer him, and I’m so glad this movie acknowledges that. I suspect that far too many kids think to themselves, “Oh, well, if I only have this or that, then things will get better, and I’ll be happy again,” and then forgo the necessary treatment and become even more broken when they get what they want and it doesn’t satisfy them.

A lot of the supporting cast works out really well, too. Only the three leads undergo any substantial development, but the other players are believable and memorable. Mae Whitman is fun as Charlie’s clingy first girlfriend, an uncharacteristically bossy and uptight Buddhist who acts aloof but isn’t, really. Her kleptomaniac friend (Erin Wilhelmi) is a fun addition, too. The most interesting supporting member of their group of friends is probably Brad (Johnny Simmons), the school’s star football player who is secretly gay and in a relationship with Patrick. When that comes to a head, Brad’s confusion is really palpable in the way he lapses from hurt to anger to hatred to violence to compassion to love and, finally, to regret.

It’s also nice to see Paul Rudd out of type as a kindly English teacher who befriends Charlie and nurtures his interest in literature.

At the same time, however, the casting is a mixed bag, in that it’s both fantastic and entirely wrong. I’ll try to explain.

Every single actor in this movie does a really great job with his or her part. Really, they do, they’re attuned to the personalities and idiosyncrasies and bring them to life very believably.

They are also, with only a few exceptions, far too old for these roles.

To be fair, when I checked out the cast on IMDB, I expected them to be older than they are; movies like this have a habit of casting people who are nearly thirty as teenagers. Nevertheless, out of all the actors portraying high schoolers in this film, only two of them — Lerman and Miller — are younger than I am, and even then, only barely.

The problem here is that I perceive most of these people as being my age, and while it’s not necessarily true that all of my peers are incredibly mature and advanced and wise, they’re still mostly above petty high school drama. And watching a lot of these actors reenact petty high school drama was a frequently awkward experience for me.

To be honest, I find most films about high school drama to be a touch awkward and difficult to watch, possibly as a consequence of the fact that I didn’t really have the “traditional” high school experience. Nevertheless, I remember bullying as most often taking the form of mere ostracizing; they actively ignore you more than they just harass you. And that hurts quite a lot; I’m not making any mistake about that. But I don’t remember the experience where you’d be walking down the hall and some guy you didn’t even know would run past, deliver a fifth-grade-level insult, knock your books out of your hands, and move on. Okay, I remember people who would do that, but they weren’t popular among their peers and were generally respected only by those they could beat up.

Again, perhaps my experience was merely unusual. Nevertheless, seeing it portrayed in movies and taken seriously always dials up the cheesy meter for me, especially when it’s being acted out by people more than old enough to know better.

But I digress. Does it hamper the film — at least for me? Yeah, a bit. But again, my experience was unusual, and it’s possible the reaction I had to those parts of the film is entirely unique to me. Does it sink the film? Absolutely not.

I’m not going to call The Perks of Being a Wallflower great because I don’t quite think it is. But much like its characters, it’s a diamond in the rough; there are very great things about it, for those willing to dig. It’s not always a pleasant or happy film, though it does have its wits about it, and it’s hard to recommend to people who prefer the more comedic and nostalgic takes on high school. It tackles a lot of extremely tough issues; this isn’t a teen flick filled solely with struggles against bullying and bad grades and figuring out how romance works. It covers a spectrum including suicide, drugs, sex, child abuse, homosexuality — tough, tough issues. It can be a deeply uncomfortable watch. But at the same time, there’s something about it that rings very authentic, that feels experienced and lived in. It treats all of its tough issues with respect and an even, non-judgmental hand. I suspect repeat viewings would do it a lot of justice.

-Matt T.

End of Watch (2012)

Starring- Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Natalie Martinez, Anna Kendrick, David Harbour, Frank Grillo, America Ferrera, Cody Horn, Richard Cabral, Diamonique, Maurice Compte, Yahira Garcia

Director- David Ayer

R- strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mf2K9GzgiF0

It is my belief that there are people in the world who are professional base jumpers, who scuba dive with sharks, who wrestle alligators in the Everglades, who have tangled with criminals, who have survived earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes, who have looked down upon the world from the top of Mount Everest, and so on and so forth.

However, if you told me that one, singular person had personally done all of those things, we would begin to push the limits of plausibility.

This is essentially my issue with End of Watch. It is, in many ways, an almost brutally honest look at the lives of police officers in some of the worst, most crime-ridden hellholes the United States has to offer, not shying away from the death and the ugliness and the psychological burden it gradually inflicts.

But at the same time, by inflicting it solely upon two characters and limiting the time period to just a handful of months, it takes on the feeling of being a touch exaggerated. So, it does what it seems to have set out to do — increases your understanding of what many police officers endure and perhaps, as a result, your respect for their willingness to endure it — but it also feels “put on” at a certain point, like it’s slathering you in so much of the worst of it that it nearly swings into propaganda territory. And that’s the problem.

Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are partners in the LAPD who cover some of the worst districts of the crime-infested city. Things take a turn for the worst when one of the area’s most influential gangs puts out a hit on both of them for sniffing too close to their turf.

End of Watch, on the whole, is largely a well-made film, more so than what I was expecting. It doesn’t have many huge flaws, but it does have a number of little ones, all of which would be survivable on their own but become serious due to the extent that they add up.

The biggest one, naturally, is that as “real” as End of Watch is, and as courageous as it is in not balking at any sight a cop in such a district might encounter, no matter how gruesome and awful, it still goes much, much too far.

I will admit right off the bat that perhaps I am ignorant about this. Perhaps it is far worse out there than I could ever possibly know, having grown up in a community where heroin is the worst problem we have, and shootings are rare enough that even the non-fatal ones stay in the new for months. As far as I know, police in the slums of the inner city may regularly encounter sights this awful, but it is very difficult to swallow, and the movie doesn’t make it any easier.

This is a movie where police can’t make a routine traffic stop without ending up in a gunfight. They can’t check up on a little old lady nobody’s heard from in a while without stumbling into somebody’s torture dungeon. They can’t follow up a lead on a drug runner without uncovering a human trafficking ring. Police are attacked, shot at, beaten within an inch of their lives, and sometimes killed. And worse still, the movie takes place over a period of time that probably covers less than a year.

With that kind of thing happening to these officers on almost a daily basis, that, eventually, they will all be killed in action, or at least injured to the extent that they are forced out of the job, seems completely inevitable. And while officers have died in the line of duty, and continue to do so at least relatively often, the job we see in this movie seems incapable of producing veterans. No one would survive very long with that many bullets being fired at them in a day.

Then again, perhaps I am ignorant. I do know that statistical odds, over large populations, turn unlikely events into certainties and that, therefore, it’s quite possible there’s a pair of officers with this kind of record under their belts. But that would be like making a movie about a person who got struck by lightning twice and claiming that that person is representative of all humanity. That person almost certainly exists, but his or her experience is not one shared by the majority of us — inasmuch as I doubt the experiences of the two officers in this movie are representative of most police officers.

That’s not to say there aren’t parts of the job that are going to be uniformly awful — that’s true even in areas like mine, where the most a cop might do in a week is calm down some guy who’s being belligerent in a Walmart parking lot. But a second problem with End of Watch is this — it pays lip service to the psychological burden that its characters are carrying, but it doesn’t seem to affect them tangibly. Taylor, especially, is deeply affected after stumbling into an environment where children are being abused, but only for the scene immediately following that. The same goes for a lot of the events in this movie, which is quite episodic on the whole, showing the daily grind more than an overarching narrative. The two of them will see something absolutely terrible and will be disgusted and horrified and moved to compassion for about two scenes, after which they’ll seemingly be back to normal.

And for what it’s worth, End of Watch does manage to do a pretty good job of juxtaposing the rigors of its protagonists’ jobs with the normal lives they attempt to live outside of them. It’s strange to see them with their families, swapping wacky stories about how they met, or otherwise joking around and acting like a bunch of idiots in their time off, and then to see them back in this world of crime and death and poverty and disease. Their jobs seem a world apart from the rest of society, like they put on the uniform and step abruptly into a universe where morality, civilization, and ordinary codes of conduct don’t exist and cannot protect you. It is like an alternate reality. At a certain point, their “real lives” start to feel forced and put on, something they’re clinging to in an attempt to feel normal, to keep out of mind the things they’ve seen and the things they’ve had to do. There’s a poignancy to this, and the film is at its best when it’s trying to express its central ideas in this way.

It would have been better still if the movie had spent more time focusing on the wives and girlfriends and children of these men, if it developed them into anything more than a motivation waiting back at home. We don’t see enough of their normal lives, which keeps the theme from reaching its full potential.

The antagonists, too, are a bit of a mixed bag. On one level, some of them seem to function under this really unusual and yet surprisingly trustworthy honor code: you do right by me, and I’ll do right by you. One of the first scenes has Mike fist-fighting a repeat offender in an attempt to get him to submit to arrest. Afterward, he doesn’t rat out that offender for assaulting a police officer. As thanks, said offender is later the one to warn them about the hit the other gang has put out.

On the other hand, the main villains here… Well, I wouldn’t call them “cartoons,” because I suspect they’re not that far displaced from reality. At the same time, it’s very difficult to really wrap your head around the way that they function, and they also conform to some rather stereotypical notions of the Hispanic gang. Beyond that, while I’ve never met a member of a gang (that I know of, anyway), and therefore wouldn’t have the necessary expertise to make such a judgment, even if they do speak the way they do in this movie, I still almost think it advisable to tone it down at least a little bit so that they become understandable to people who are not gangsters, which I suspect is most of us. It is, as it turns out, possible to use profanity so often that you stop forming coherent thoughts. Most of the scenes from the gang’s point of view ended with me thinking, “Okay, what just happened?”

End of Watch isn’t exactly flawless on a technical level, either. For what it’s worth, the film’s action sequences (if they can be referred to as such; mostly, they’re investigative scenes that function off of quiet tension, and when shots are fired, it’s generally handled realistically and not presented as exciting eye candy) are just stupidly tense, partially because you care about the characters, but mainly because they’re just extremely well presented.

At the same time, the documentary format is really detrimental here. Taylor films most of it — for a class, he says. Apparently, his teacher will accept projects that feature actual, on-screen violence, including shots of gory, festering bodies. He has to edit out the f-words, which, yeah — good luck with that.

But it relies on everyone else pathologically filming everything, too. The gangsters have one member carrying around a camera, photographing them in the act of, you know, committing crimes. And it’s not their egos taking over; they’re frequently shouting at her to turn it off.

And then there are the scenes where there couldn’t reasonably be anyone standing there, filming everything. When Taylor and Mike are in the shot together, talking to another officer, who’s filming that? Who’s filming Taylor’s romantic moments with his girlfriend? The movie breaks its format often enough to leave you wonder why it has that format.

But I digress.

On the whole, outside of its characters, its effective tonal dissonance, and its tension, there’s one thing that really works about End of Watch, and that’s its two protagonists. These are characters whose relationship feels lived in and makes sense in the context in which it formed. The two actors have great chemistry and play off each other well. They feel like they have a history full of secrets that only they know and in-jokes that only they understand. The movie gets dull in stretches; it’s this one element that carries it through.

But as for the film as a whole, while it is generally well-made, features some strong performances, and maybe helps you understand the daily grind of the crime fighters in our worst cities, it leaves you with the sense that you’ve had your feet dragged through the worst of what humanity has to offer and emerged on the other side with only a bit to show for it. Its frankness is admirable; it’s a brave film. However, it’s not always a well-observed one.

There’s a lot to like about End of Watch, and clearly, a lot of critics found it. It’s a solid film. But it’s not for the faint of heart, and even for the strong, I’m not yet convinced it’s easily recommended viewing.

-Matt T.

Robot & Frank (2012)

Starring- Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jeremy Strong

Director- Jake Schreier

PG-13- some language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4y8YAMPFhk

Robot & Frank is a nice movie and one that is difficult to dislike. That generic opening is really just my way of admitting up front that, for whatever reason, I just don’t have a whole lot to say about Robot & Frank. It’s an enjoyable film that checks off a lot of the boxes filed under “good movie” — strong characters, strong performances, relatively strong writing.

That’s not to say there isn’t more going on underneath, but for whatever reason, it was just kind of a swing and a miss for me. I couldn’t say why, but it just didn’t quite connect with me beyond surface enjoyment.

But you know what? I honestly don’t mind. It’s a charming and enjoyable watch. That’s points in my book.

So, what’s the story? Well, in the near future, Frank (Frank Langella) is a retired former cat burglar who now lives alone in the countryside, his children having moved out and started their own lives and his wife having divorced him. He seems okay enough with being alone; he takes care of himself just fine, and he’s also starting up a budding romance with a local librarian (Susan Sarandon).

Unfortunately, he’s also developing a severe case of dementia — and it’s worse than he admits. His thieving ways reemerge; he shoplifts the same item from the same store semi-regularly. Worse still, his house is in a state of disrepair, partially because of his own inattentiveness but mostly because he sporadically forgets it’s his house and breaks into and ransacks it until he figures it out.

Concerned for his father’s deteriorating state and getting tired of having to sacrifice his own family on the altar of caring for him, Frank’s son, Hunter (James Marsden), arrives one day with a gift: a personal care robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). It cooks for him, cleans for him, and attends to his physical and mental health.

And, as Frank figures out, it can also steal for him. And thus begins the strangest heist movie duo in cinematic history.

Probably the strongest part of Robot & Frank is the relationship between Frank and the robot. Frank hates it at first but warms to it once he discovers its more ignoble uses. Once he does, he slowly becomes convinced that the robot is more than a machine and has the makings of a soul rattling around somewhere in its programming.

What’s great is that the film manages to convince the audience — at least, on an emotional level — that this is true as well, even though it frequently clearly isn’t. The robot is fully capable of appropriating emotion, telling something resembling jokes, and even making snap decisions not based on its owner’s instructions. But it’s all clearly part of a larger digital game plan. Everything it does conforms to its purpose. It cannot truly feel or do anything for Frank beyond presenting a comforting countenance and attempting to act human. It has no interest in itself, only in furthering the cause for which it was programmed. Nevertheless, the film manages to make the viewer understand why Frank comes to care for it, and it even gets you to share in that a bit.

To some extent, it’s clear that Frank is projecting himself onto the robot. He might not admit that his mental state is deteriorating, but it’s clear that he understands this to be the case somewhere in the back of his mind. As the film progresses, we find out the situation is far worse even than what we imagined; whole portions of his life start to go missing. Others already are. He views the robot as a perfect device, something onto which he can project his memories. If he can find some way to make it human, then it will somehow become his “legacy.” After all, he already feels as though he let his children down and is no longer a part of them.

In the end, the robot seems to be both good and bad for him. It sets him on a path toward healing in restoring to him a sense of himself and a sense of purpose going forward. But there’s a component of it that’s unhealthy; he uses it as a substitute for human companionship and begins to treat it like a son at a certain point. He returns to his life as a cat burglar seemingly to restore his memories or to relive the past. He sees it also as a way to share his life with someone — naturally, one cannot teach one’s children how most effectively to break the law.

In the end, the robot’s memory becomes the most important thing in Frank’s life — it is flawless and will never be lost on its own. A piece of him goes into it, and so he clings to it, even when it would be best for him not to. Through it, he retreats into a fantasy world of adventure that is ultimately dangerous and self-destructive, not easily accommodated by a world of harsh reality.

Frank Langella does a standout job here, taking a character who has few redeeming characteristics and finding a way to make him both likable and emotionally involving. Frank is understandable and surprisingly endearing, and it’s hard not to root for him, even though he’s only hurting himself in the end.

There is a certain silliness to the premise, though, that the film only halfway acknowledges. The world of the future is not much different from the world of the past, beyond the newfound prevalence of robots, so the machines start to seem like they don’t belong at a certain point. The main robot here resembles nothing so much as a guy in a suit pretending to move like a thing constructed of metal, wires, and gears, and it can be both distracting and a bit silly-looking. Animatronics might have suited it better.

In its efforts to convey the depth of Frank’s memory loss, it also starts piling on twists that aren’t necessarily out of place but also don’t particularly add much; they’re there to be surprising and not for many more reasons than that. They don’t cause the viewer to ask questions about Frank so much as about the motivations of some of the people surrounding him.

And, too, in the end, perhaps it swings just a bit too solidly to the “lightweight” end of the spectrum. It’s an emotional look at the loss of one’s identity and how to cope with so devastating a situation, but it sometimes feels like that idea is a wad of clay in the filmmakers’ hands, being tossed around idly and never quite taking shape.

Nevertheless, Robot & Frank is a nice and enjoyable watch, sometimes funny and ending on a largely earned emotional high. Its sad scenes are sad, and its happy scenes are happy. I suppose, when all is said and done, that makes it an effective piece of work.

 

-Matt T.

Movie Review: Taken 2 (2012)

Posted: February 16, 2013 in Movie Reviews
Tags: , , ,

Taken 2 (2012)

Starring- Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, D.B. Sweeney, Luke Grimes, Rade Serbedzija

Director- Olivier Megaton

PG-13- intense sequences of violence and action, and some sensuality

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpaT8NzkLgE

Writer’s Block Parade: where if you make it a hit, we watch it, no matter how bad it is! That’s our guarantee!

At some point earlier this week, I evidently, given a choice between Taken 2, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Robot & Frank, opted for, well, this. I can’t remember my thought processes at the time, but they were clearly very stupid.

I’ve never quite been able to decide exactly how much grace should be allotted a film while reviewing it, regardless of its actual quality, because I’m constantly burdened by the back-of-my-mind understanding that, yes, movies are not an entity unto themselves and were actually crafted by real human beings who — one would hope, perhaps naively — take some pride in the end result.

At the same time… You guys, it’s Taken 2. Emphasis on 2.

This time, Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is in Istanbul on a security job when ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and 16-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace, who is almost 30) decide to surprise him with a visit.

Unfortunately, Mills’ litany of victims from the first film — surprise, surprise — had families and lives of their own, and they choose that moment to exact their revenge.

They take Bryan and Lenore. Kim evades her captors. Now, from his cell on the inside, Bryan guides his daughter along the path to their rescue. And when she frees him… Well, those Albanians better look out.

Taken 2, by comparison to the first film, is kind of a mixed bag. And I definitely mean that in a comparative sense; taken on its own, it’s just a bag of awful. I had intended to open this review with a rundown of what I thought of the first Taken, but there’s no way I could’ve contained it to a paragraph. I hate it. Like, a lot. And I also understand that part of it is not so much the movie itself as it is a weird kind of personal experience I’ve had with it. Honestly, it’s just not worth getting into.

As for its sequel, well, technically speaking, it’s worse than its predecessor on just about every level — story, direction, pacing, atmosphere, mood, tension… Not that Taken was great or even particularly good at all of those things, but even so, the sequel is a step down. Any thrills the first one had are entirely drained out of Taken 2; there’s no pacing or buildup and never really any palpable chance that the protagonists might not succeed. The first one was about finding a missing loved one; the second one keeps them within spitting distance of each other. The events of the sequel probably only take place over the course of a day or so, and while that worked in say, Premium Rush, Taken 2 is lightweight without actually feeling lightweight, so it winds up with the sense of a dull action movie’s first act that still needs three-quarters of a film’s worth of story added to it.

At the same time, Taken 2 is also a less enraging experience than its predecessor, because it’s somewhat less of a violent, sadistic, macho revenge fantasy sanitized of gore and realism for easy consumption. Emphasis on somewhat.

The real problem with Taken 2, though, is that the central conflict really could end at any time, if the characters would just stop being completely stupid for two seconds. To wit:

Why Bryan Mills is stupid: after his kidnapping, he memorizes the route to the bad guys’ hideout through the sounds he hears along the way, most of which are made by humans and therefore could realistically be expected to have moved by the time he needs that information later on. That they don’t does not make this plan less idiotic. Moreover, he appears to have a phobia of authority figures, in that, once he determines his location with Kim’s help, his plan is less “okay, now call all the police you can to that exact building right now” and more “toss me a gun down the chimney and then get yourself chased for ten minutes, forcing me to save you and allowing your comatose mother to be re-kidnapped.”

Upon his escape, he immediately murders a cop who pointed a gun at him, because that’s easier than putting your hands up and explaining what’s going on. Yes, the cop is established in a useless scene as corrupt and in league with the bad guys. The reason this scene is useless is that Bryan does not know this, and the film actually makes a point of telling us that. Afterward, that’s his reason why he and his daughter cannot cooperate with the police to end the threat, even though, ten minutes later, it only takes a phone call to a guy Bryan knows to get him out of pointlessly plowing a car through a military blockade outside of the embassy and nearly killing a handful of soldiers.

For the record, he does not, then, ask them for their help either. Even though, again, he could pretty much just point them at the bad guys and sit back.

Why Kim is stupid: by proxy to not realizing how terrible her father’s plan is and simply calling the police, leaving him looking stupid.

And also because she steals a pair of clothes when accosted after leaving the hotel pool, despite the fact that the bad guys are gone, and she has unlimited access to hers and her parents’ hotel rooms. And also because she thinks her father’s book on strategic uses for waterways might be interesting.

Why the police/military are stupid: they’re apparently just sitting on their haunches, waiting to be asked nicely to assist and otherwise allowing random foreigners to mete out justice. Surely the military guys whose grasp Mills easily escapes are now aware of his plight and would consider getting involved, but nope. Kidnapping and sex trafficking rings? Nah, let’s just let Bryan get it. But the police are guilty, too; they don’t show up on the scene until long after the gunfire has ended. For frame of reference, the first third of the movie is people determining their location by having comrades blow up grenades on the rooftops of residential neighborhoods.

Why the bad guys are stupid: man alive. It is really difficult to feel any sympathy for them past a certain point. Mills is portrayed as a genius in these movies, and the only reason they succeed is that it’s amazing his foes aren’t wearing all their clothes backwards. After the rampage Mills undertook in the first film, you’d expect these guys to have massive amounts of respect for and fear of him and would take every possible precaution.

But, nope.

Is their revenge plot needlessly complicated and requiring that every piece be in place before simply killing him because it’s not satisfying unless he suffers every possible iota of pain we can inflict? Check. Honestly, if Mills had a dog, they’d have kept him alive and in custody until they’d successfully captured it.

Leave him in a room, alone and complete unsupervised with only his hands bound? Check.

Leave him alone in a room with visible openings to the outside world? Check.

Have only one guard on duty at that room, outside of it, and then not discipline him sternly or even acknowledge it in any way when he’s caught sleeping on the job? Check.

Have the other guards in a separate room up the hall loudly watching TV and carrying on, with their backs turned to the only doorway between them and Mills’ cell? Check.

In the process of capturing Mills, allow him to visibly pull out his cell phone and make a long and audibly instructive phone call to an outside party? Even when they’ve got hostages to ensure his cooperation? Check.

Search him so poorly that he somehow manages to take that cell phone into his cell with him? Check.

Bind him with easily sliced plastic ties when there are, like, chains in the exact same room in which he’s being held? Check.

Use every imaginable ambush point for the purpose of engaging him in a Mexican standoff instead of, you know, shooting him? Check. (Two-person Mexican standoffs are really stupid and inexplicable, by the way, Hollywood.)

Honestly, the most consistently intelligent and understandable human being in this movie is Lenore, and only on virtue of the fact that she spends most of it unconscious.

Yeah, Taken 2 is not for nitpickers, to the extent that the above complaints could be called “nitpicks.” A plot hole is a plot hole; movies can and frequently do survive them. But the buildup of all those things over time, at a certain point, simply has the viewer screaming at the characters to do something that isn’t profoundly dumb for once.

It’s kind of weird how the film almost accidentally becomes critical of the cycles of revenge and violence. It would’ve been funny if it had made it the whole way and been asked to look in the mirror and explain its protagonist. In the end, though, maybe it’s best it didn’t. The movie doesn’t run long, but it feels longer, even though it manages to accomplish almost nothing in that time. It keeps subjecting its characters to ridiculous trauma but never makes them experience anything as a result of it. A storyline involving kidnapping, revenge, and murder shouldn’t evaporate into thin air and leave the viewer thinking, “So, what?”

Then again, unlike the first one, I don’t really hate it so much as I’ve just immediately forgotten it, beyond continuing to be morbidly fascinated by it on some vague cultural level. This probably isn’t the end of it, but I won’t shed any tears if it is.

-Matt T.

Trouble with the Curve (2012)

Starring- Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Matthew Lillard, Robert Patrick, Joe Massingill, Jay Galloway

Director- Robert Lorenz

PG-13- language, sexual references, some thematic material and smoking

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aI9DfQaCI_U

Every draft of this review I’ve written (in my head, of course, because outlines and proofreading are for squares), includes, somewhere within it, the phrase, “Trouble with the Curve is not a bad movie. It’s inoffensive, just a little lightweight and generic.”

But then I stop and ask myself the question: what did I actually like about Trouble with the Curve? And the answer is always whatever the mental equivalent of radio static is.

So, I’ve decided that I need to revise my definition of what constitutes a “bad” movie, inasmuch as such statements can be made. Up until now, I’ve considered a bad movie to be one that levels actual offense against its medium, whether that’s moral, technical, or creative. I’m expanding it now, to include films that are not so much actively bad as “absent of good.”

In the latter sense, Trouble with the Curve is a bad movie. Not a terrible one. But bad.

Clint Eastwood plays Gus Lobel, an aging baseball scout trying to find his place in a world where technology and young blood have taken precedence over the personal touch he’s accustomed to in scouting. On top of that, his health is failing — most prominently, his eyesight, which has the potential to leave him entirely left untreated.

With up-and-comers threatening his job, his life’s work comes down to the decision he makes regarding one particularly promising player. He’s sent to scout him out, knowing full well it’s his last shot.

And as if that wasn’t hard enough, his estranged daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), has decided, rather against his wishes, to tag along.

Trouble with the Curve is the sort of movie that suffers almost as much from its time and place as from its actual quality. As one of the first movies ever made, it might have made a bigger splash.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have a few problems that would’ve been problems in any era of film history. While most of the cast is decent, it’s clear to me now why Justin Timberlake’s only acclaimed performance occurred in The Social Network, and that’s because The Social Network is his only movie to date that has played the insincerity of his glib, jokey, and faux-charming demeanor as exactly that. Here, it’s simply supposed to be regular-charming, coming off more as openly manipulative and deceptive.*

Speaking of which, it also quickly broadcasts the fates of its characters solely by the personalities they display in their introductions. The up-and-coming player Gus is sent to scout is an overwhelmingly obnoxious arrogant jerk-jock type, so it really can’t even be considered a spoiler that he eventually finds an excuse not to draft the guy. It can’t.

And, in the end, the resolution to the characters’ problems, which ought to have come about as the result of their own development and actions, is actually more the product of sheer, dumb luck, fate showing its hand and smiling fondly on all of the “nice” characters.

But honestly, the main problem with Trouble with the Curve is simply that I’ve seen it. Every single scene, every single character, every shot, every line, every theme, every concept, every idea. Some films are predictable; Trouble with the Curve is so much so that it almost begs a new word to describe it. The audience not only figures out the resolution of every characters’ arc within five minutes of their introduction, it can very well map out the specific steps the movie will take to get them there. You know based on the scene you’re watching at the moment what scene you’ll be watching next, because Trouble with the Curve never at any point differentiates from the standard formula for movies of its type, not even on one single, solitary beat. There are no surprises in it whatsoever. Honestly, even if not verbatim, you would have a decent shot at predicting the general gist of most of its upcoming dialogue in any given scene. It’s all just so obligatory. It, again, gives the sense that its creators are familiar with movies in the sense that they have a certain formula that must be followed for reasons they don’t understand. It’s like an imitation of a movie rather than an actual movie.

It occurs to me, discussing movies like this with people, that many of them think the aggravation they experience in the dramatic scenes between conflict resolutions is part of the movie, something that’s supposed to be there and is intended to elicit that particular emotion. No, those scenes are supposed to be sad, not annoying. But they were intensely irritating to me, because it was clear exactly how each conflict was going to be resolved, and I felt almost as though the movie was wasting my time, trying to trick me into thinking things might actually not end well when it’s abundantly obvious they will. Emotional scenes in Trouble with the Curve have the feeling of padding. They’re not showing a journey or progression toward character development; they’re just dragging their heels. They’re there because they have to be, because a few scenes of sadness and struggle are required to appear between conflict establishment and conflict resolution, even if said scenes display no measurable development on the parts of the involved characters. The anger will pass, the characters will reconcile, and they will live happily ever after — not because that was earned, but because that’s just how these movies are.

It’s all very tired, predictable, and clichéd. From the first scene, it’s clear exactly where Trouble with the Curve is going to go and how it’s going to get there, and it never deviates from that course. It might not be actively terrible, leveling one offense after another at good storytelling and quality filmmaking. But it also hasn’t an ounce of imagination. It has nothing to offer the medium, and it’d be hard pressed to find a viewer who’s seen a small enough number of movies to find any real takeaway in it. Trouble with the Curve is not a horrible viewing experience, but it’s an almost entirely empty one. It’s been done before, and better, and not just once or twice but dozens of times.

The fact of the matter is this: whether you know it or not, you’ve already seen Trouble with the Curve. And probably, you only thought it was okay.

-Matt T.

* I should indicate, as per the norm, that I’m talking right now about the personality he exudes as an actor and not who he is in real life. I haven’t met him, so I won’t assume.

Hotel Transylvania (2012)

Starring- Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, Fran Drescher, Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon, David Spade, CeeLo Green, Jon Lovitz

Director- Genndy Tartakovsky

PG- some rude humor, action and scary images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4RK3jY7AVk

Sometimes, in my weekend Netflix-queue-updating rush, stuff sneaks in there that I later decide I don’t actually want to put myself through but then subsequently forget to remove until it actually shows up one morning.

And that is the story of how I saw Hotel Transylvania.

Even in a world where most of Disney’s old animated features and much of Pixar’s canon exist, there still really is no way to review a dumb kids’ movie that doesn’t make you sound like the stoned college kid who starts off every day by shouting at Dora the Explorer, so, today, I’m not going to be that guy. Frankly, you’ve heard it all before anyway. We’ll keep it short and sweet, get everybody home early.

Like all other kids’ movies, Hotel Transylvania is the film equivalent of having someone shout in your ear for two hours. Once upon a time, it was considered humorous to subvert an audience’s expectations by breaking a serious moment with irreverence; now, it is the audience’s expectation.

Like all other kids’ movies, it attempts to get the phrase “loaded with heart” stamped on the back of its DVD case, but it has no idea what this phrase actually means and thus interprets it as “give everyone tragedy.” It’s very difficult to know how to feel in the middle of this insanity comedy when it’s revealed that fear-driven murder-by-fire plays into one character’s backstory, a fact that is then not really ever raised again.

And like all other kids’ movies, it ends with a profoundly awful song-and-dance number. These have certainly been more random and out-of-place in other films, but the song here is truly one of the most painfully awful I’ve ever heard. It’s likely to strike even this movie’s target demographic as being for kids a lot younger than they are.

I’ve heard Hotel Transylvania had a long production with multiple directors and writers, and while I’m not at all compelled to research that claim, yeah — I believe it. Maybe that’s just the excuse I’m using to let Genndy Tartakovsky, the animator of my childhood, to walk away from this scot-free. The movie had to be completely unsalvageable by the time he got there. You can see his fingerprints here and there; every now and then, the film emerges with some cleverly grotesque horror concept, like using shrunken heads as “do not disturb” markers.

So, uh, yeah, I think that about covers it.

 

-Matt T.