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Column Fri Feb 05 2010

From Paris with Love, Dear John, Frozen, Fish Tank and The Last Station

From Paris with Love

The action genre should be kissing director Pierre Morel's feet for adding a little fire and insane fun back into its tired ass. Working for and under the production guidance of Luc Besson for several years (he's also set to direct the reboot of Dune), Morel directed two dynamite-in-your-pants fun movies, District B13 and last year's surprise hit Taken, with Liam Neeson. Both films seemed intent on making their action sequences feel as unrehearsed and unchoreographed as possible. The results are some of the most raw and shocking fight scenes I've seen in a long time. With his latest work (from a screenplay by Adi Hasak from a Luc Besson story), Morel takes his organic style adds a layer of crazy in the form of a bald John Travolta, playing the ugliest of ugly American operatives who enters the City of Lights and blows most of it up.

From Paris with Love begins with James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers in slight wimp mode) working as an aide to the U.S. Ambassador to France. On the side, he also does some low-level spying for the CIA, but is rarely put in any real danger or asked to do anything more than observe or plant the occasional bug. But he's itching to get into the shit. He also has an beyond-believably beautiful French girlfriend, who wants him home more and for them to get married. Rough life for Reece. No sooner does he voice his readiness to be a full-on agent then he's given an assignment to retrieve Charlie Wax (Travolta), a foul-mouthed operative, from French customs (he's stopped for trying to bring energy drinks into the country, but nothing is quite what it seems), then he quickly becomes partners with Wax on a mission that seems to be constantly changing. First it's about drug dealers, then it's about crime families, and eventually it ends up about terrorists and assassination plots.

The reason Wax and the CIA keep Reece in the dark about the true nature of the mission isn't entirely made clear, but it doesn't really matter because it's funny watching Reece react when the stakes get higher and higher with each new round of killing and blowing things up. I'm a genuine Meyers fan, although I'll admit the guy hasn't done a whole lot worth jumping over the moon for beyond Showtime's "The Tudors." Still, it's nice to see him in a role that doesn't require him to lean on his looks or charm. He's pulls of the "fancy lad stuck in a world of violence and evil" role really well.

The subtext about the way Europeans view Americans as roughneck cowboys who come into a foreign land and run ramshackle through property and civil rights is pretty apparent, but I actually found it really funny. As for Travolta, I haven't been much of a fan of his villain roles (The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 being the most recent failure to convince me that he can play a baddie without being obvious), but Wax isn't exactly a villain. As the film goes on, his intentions and apparent heartlessness adjust and come more into focus. It's a more complex character than the trailers would have you believe, and for the most part, he pulls it off convincingly. That said, many of the film's real bad guys are so blatantly evil and acted so poorly, it made me cringe. And when we get to one of the final action set pieces involving a gathering at the U.S. Embassy, some of the characterizations of the supporting character are laughably terrible. When a security agent tells an official that there's a threat, and the official says to "Ignore it," it takes me right out of the movie because I simply don't believe that would happen. Still, most of From Paris with Love is entertaining lunacy shot out of a bazooka right into your adrenal gland. Upon reflection, there's no way this film holds up in terms of logic or anything else, but is this really the kind of film that you tend to reflect upon? Of course not. Enjoy it in the moment, and then let is slip right out of your brain like pot smoke. It may not be good for you, but it's fun while it lasts.

To read my exclusive interview with From Paris with Love director Pierre Morel, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Dear John

What is this strange power that author Nicholas Sparks has over women and a few men? While not all of the films based on his novels have been successful, the ones that have been are actually fairly watchable. The most obvious example of this is The Notebook, which I defy any man to sit through without getting just a little weepy. Then we get crap like Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, and 2008's Nights in Rodanthe. They made me weep as well, for very different reasons. The latest Sparks adaptation is Dear John, which I had expected to hate with the full power of God and all his forces he commands. I did not. It's not a great movie, but it's a movie that surprised me when I had assumed it would be highly predictable and as transparent as a recently Windexed window pane. Under the direction of the usually reliable Lasse Hallstrom (What Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, Casanova, The Hoax), Dear John is not designed to appeal to teen girls as the young cast might lead you to believe, and for that reason alone I gave it an honest shot at moving me.

Channing Tatum plays John Tyree, a young Army man on leave at home with his uncommunicative father (Richard Jenkins), when he meets Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried from Mamma Mia) at the beach on the Carolina coast. In just a couple of days, they fall in love and promise to wait for each other while he's gone for a year. But when September 11 happens, John decides to reenlist for two more years, and heads home to let Savannah know of his decision. They try to keep things going, but eventually...well, the title of this film isn't just a play on John's name and the fact that the two write letters back and forth constantly. The titular letter, however, comes at about the halfway point in the movie, which surprised me, as did much of what happens after that point.

Also on hand in the film is a fully bearded Henry Thomas (Elliot from E.T.) as Savannah's single-father next-door neighbor Tim, who is quite protective of Savannah but in a friendly way that John immediately takes to, and the two become good friends as well. I don't think I want to reveal too much more of the plot, because the film's secrets are modest but good enough that they are worth keeping. And while I thought Dear John would be full-on mush and shallow acting from the leads, it's nothing like that at all, especially in the back half of the movie, which is quite emotional. I've seen Tatum play emotionally sensitive muscle man before (including in another Iraq War-era film, Stop-Loss), and I've always thought the guy pulled it off more often than not. Seyfried's talent, beauty and ability to get just a little deeper into a character than the writing might have called on her to have been her strengths for quite some time. She's the emotional core of this movie in ways I'd both anticipated and ones that truly surprised me.

It would be easy to just cap on this movie by labeling it a chick flick and moving on, but I can't remember the last chick flick that focused so much on the current war and the price couples have paid due to the conflict. Dear John is not a great movie, but there are a great deal of things to like, more than you might expect or believe. There are far better movies out there right now, but if you get dragged to this, you probably won't suffer. Let's end this by calling this the second-best Sparks-based movie since The Notebook and leave it at that.

Frozen

To be honest, there isn't a whole lot to say about Adam Green's latest work (following Hatchet and Spiral) beyond, "Just go see it as if your life depended on it." Anything more might ruin the fun of discovering the small but remarkable Frozen, a movie that has about the simplest plot summary in a long time: Three people are trapped on chairlift at a ski resort only open on the weekend...and it's Sunday night...and it's really, really cold. If you're a winter sports enthusiast, I bet you just got goose bumps. I'm not, and I still freaked out a little watching Frozen. Oh, and please consider this entire review a giant SPOILER WARNING!!!

The three people in question are best buddies Joe and Dan (Shawn Ashmore and Kevin Zeg), as well as Dan's tag-along girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell), who Joe likes but resents her presence at the traditional guy's ski weekend. He likes her a little bit more when she bats her eyes at the guy running the chairlift and gets them all free rides without tickets. Through a series of all-too-believable events, the one person who knows the three are doing one last night run abandons his post and the lift is shut down with them left hanging about 50 feet off the ground. What most impressed me about Green's script was everything that happens to the threesome from this point forward. Every action they take to seek rescue or save themselves is probably exactly what normal-thinking people would do. And the results seem all too believable and messed up. And what about inaction? Think about what would happen to your body if you just sat there hoping somebody would come by. Bathroom breaks? Ha! How about frostbite, sun exposure during the day, and might there be a critter or two in the woods below looking at you like a meat piƱata (if you've seen the trailer, you know the answer already)?

I didn't immediately recognize Bell and Zegers, but Shawn Ashmore I knew from The Ruins as his supporting roll as Iceman in the X-Men movies, and he's quite good as a de facto hero of the film and the only character who is willing and/or able to do what is necessary to get off the lift without killing himself (or so it would seem). But Frozen isn't as much about action as it is about suspense and character development. I loved watching all of the interpersonal drama between them basically vanish when the crisis sets in. Primal fear takes over and bad decisions are as likely as good ones. Panic sets in early and the reality of the situation soon follows. And that's about as much of the movie as I'm willing to talk about, because it's such a small, short experience that saying much more would be criminal.

With this film, Adam Green has gone from a filmmaker who knows how to mimic the style of the films he loved growing up to a full-bore director of fear-based movies, that tap into what scares us most and follows the path of human behavior that leads us to destruction as often as it leads us to safety. Taking nothing away from the three fantastic young actors who give us three distinct personas loaded with flaws and a few ideas on how to survive. Like Open Water from a few years ago, Frozen isn't as concerned with detailed backstory (like Jaws, which this film has been compared to in some reviews) as it is dealing with the here and now. And the here and now of this movie filled me with terror and anxiety, the kind only real life can embed in you. Good luck getting Frozen out of your head.

Fish Tank

I got almost the same bitter aftertaste about the world's youth from the British film Fish Tank as I did from Larry Clark's landmark bit of urban horror, Kids. Now, Fish Tank is a much better movie, but that same overriding sense of concern and flat-out dread for the priorities of younger people still burned into my brain after watching this feature from writer-director Andrea Arnold.

In many ways, the plot of Fish Tank parallels some elements of An Education, another recent story of a teen girl falling for an older guy. But the heroine in this film, Mia (played by the extraordinary Katie Jarvis), is growing up under much different circumstances than the bright, well-educated, financially stable girl that Carrie Mulligan portrayed. Fifteen-year-old Mia lives with her younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) and her still-young mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), whose occupation seems to be partying, bringing men home and insulting her children whenever possible. Mia responds in kind by being fiercely disobedient, foul mouthed, and destructive to herself and others. The only thing Mia seems remotely passionate about is dancing, specifically hip-hop dancing, and she's pretty good at it. She has crafted a makeshift rehearsal space in an abandoned building, and spends hours practicing routines and moves.

Her life takes two unexpected changes at the same time. Mom brings home a new boyfriend named Connor (Inglourious Basterds' Michael Fassbender), and Mia finds out about local auditions to become a dancer that specializes in hip-hop, funk, and R&B moves. Connor seems like a righteous dude and seems to genuinely care about Joanne and the girls. He's so respectful and interested in what the family is up to that even the hard-hearted Mia starts to develop a bit of a crush on him. As much of a girl of "the street" as Mia seems to be, we also get a sense from Jarvis' sublimely subtle performance that she doesn't have much in the way of experience with boys. She's got a bit of a thing for a local boy who lives in a trailer with his family, but they mostly just hang out. Mia's feelings for Connor are far more complicated and seem to unleash the hormones to the point where she spies on him and her mother having sex, a thing that both excites and angers her.

Mia's story is one of a girl who has already given up on most of her dreams and hopes of getting out of the life she lives. She's as tough as brick, but there's a clear sense that she wants to be anything but. She often wears her hair in a tight ponytail, but when she lets her hair down, her rough look vanishes and her vulnerability is on full display. Both Connor and the audition add a great deal of anguish and confusion to Mia's life. And trust me when I say that all you'll want for Mia is for something to go right in her life. Fish Tank may be difficult for some to handle on an emotional level, but the journey is worth the frequent heartbreak. The film takes some predictable and not-so-predictable turns in the final act, but even the twists that seem telegraphed from the beginning of the film didn't bother me because the players execute them with such authentic passion. Director Arnold has captured life in all its ugliness and occasional loveliness. Although this film played at many festival last year, I think it's safe to say this is the first truly great movie of 2010. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Last Station

The fact that this film has had such praise heaped upon it since late last year boggles my mind just a tiny bit, because I couldn't fucking stand this movie despite the fantastic cast and inherently interesting subject matter. All I got out of director Michael Hoffman's heavy-handed adaptation of Jay Parini's novel was a lot of yelling, puffed-out chests, and overwritten dialogue. In fact, other than a pretty special performance by Helen Mirren, I don't think I'd recommend a thing about this period melodrama that focus on the exciting worlds of inheritance, estates, and Russian literature.

Christopher Plummer plays Leo Tolstoy (looking an awful lot like he did on The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Coincidence?), who lives a very hippie-like existence on a massive estate that he wants nothing more than to see go to the people upon his seeming eminent death. His wife, the Countess Sofya (Mirren), is against this, for obvious reasons. She is afraid all of the money that should rightfully go to her will disappear, leaving her destitute. In a weird and unnecessary plot device, this potentially interesting tale is seen through the eyes of a fictional character named Valentin (James McAvoy), who is employed by Tolstoy as a personal assistant and thrown headfirst into the war-like chaos of the celebrated writer's life. On one side is his wife; on the other is Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti, using a weird generic European accent seemingly constructed from tubas), a Tolstoy worshiper and one of the writer's closest advisors. The power-hungry Vladimir also hates the Countess and sees her as a money-grubbing devil.

Much of the film consists of arguments, which, passionate as they may be, are tiring to listen to for two hours. Plummer is kind of amusing as the slightly doltish Tolstoy, and Mirren does so little wrong with any performance, she has essentially become the British Meryl Streep (which is not to say that both women don't involve themselves in crappy movies from time to time, they simply are never crappy themselves). I was impressed with her manic performance, which runs the gamut from hysterical to seductive to raging she-devil. I don't think McAvoy is going to gain any new fans with his work in The Last Station, which essentially calls upon him to watch and react to far more interesting people. I think the burden of the film's failure in the acting category belongs to Giamatti, who plays his slightly villainous character with far too obvious a demeanor. The only thing missing is the evil laugh.

But I kept coming back to the simple truth that this is nothing more than a movie about whether a guy changes his will or not, and if you know Russian history (and who among us doesn't) then you already know the outcome. And Hoffman's directing doesn't exactly add much spark to the proceedings. Shouting isn't acting, it's just shouting. And dressing up, shouting in period clothes and funny facial hair does not a compelling film make. If you don't believe me, please feel free to check out The Last Station, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

S. Reed / February 5, 2010 3:19 PM

I guess you don't know as much about Russian history as you thought, since Valentin Bulgakov was Tolstoy's real personal secretary, and not a fictional character. The character in the movie is based on his personal diaries.

LaShawn Williams / February 5, 2010 4:53 PM

I think I'll check out the new Travolta movie--he plays "bad guys" very well.

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