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Column Fri Apr 23 2010

The Losers, The Back-Up Plan, Oceans, Hubble 3-D, The Secret in Their Eyes, The Girl on the Train, and Soundtrack for a Revolution

The Losers

In the first of what promises to be a summer loaded to the gills with testosterone-infused films about groups of gun-toting, muscular men on a mission (The A-Team, The Expendables), this week's release The Losers, based on the DC/Vertigo comic book series, has the distinction of being, well, first. While there isn't a particularly original story at play here, and the visual style includes such tried-and-true favorites as a Right Stuff-style slo-mo walking toward the camera, The Losers' scores many points based on the strength of its enjoyable characters...some of them anyway.

You can literally draw a line between the characters that work and the ones that never quite make it past cliché action-movie staples. And team leader Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Clay straddles that line as the man who feels lost when his team is served up like sacrificial lambs after they break mission to save a group of children from a target that's about to be bombed. The man dishing out the orders, the mysterious Max (Jason Patric, who I'll get to in a minute), decides they need to die as a result of their transgression and blows up their extraction helicopter. Lucky for the team, they aren't in the chopper, and for a time, the world believes these guys are dead. The team tries to eek out an existence in Bolivia until they figure out how to return stateside safely. After seeing Morgan absolutely kill playing The Comedian in last year's Watchmen, it's tough to see him fall back on all the old tortured tough guy routines for this film. He's unshaven, gruff, and falling for the wrong girl--in this case the film's sole female lead Zoe Saldana (Star Trek, Avatar) as Aisha, who has a plan to return the men home as long as they agree to kill Max in a suicide mission financed by her. The men don't trust her, but they also don't have a choice.

From this point forward, the details of the constantly changing mission aren't important. There's a pretty spectacular sequence involving the extraction of an armored car in the middle of some big city's downtown. And there's also a fairly boring final act set on a port filled with storage containers. Double crosses and improvising entries and escapes are all part of process, and much of that feels familiar. So as I indicated earlier, this film lives or dies on the strength of its personality, and The Losers is front-loaded with personality. Morgan isn't wholly successful at creating a character that breaks the mold, although he's a lot more moody than your typical action hero and feels the break from his identity more than the other men, to the point where he asks them to stop calling him Colonel. An actor I like a great deal, Idris Elba, plays Roque, and he's the least interesting character of the bunch. Elba is playing a tough guy without really being one. He's quick to pull out his gun and spout lines about killing, but the threat just never seems credible, which is surprising since he played Stringer Bell on "The Wire," one of the greatest, smartest villains in TV history.

The rest of the team members are a whole lot more fun. The secret star of this movie is Chris Evans as Jensen, who is so comfortable in his masculinity that he sports pink t-shirts and spiky hair without fear of anyone mocking his manhood. He's funny, charming, and has the swagger of a man who might seem more comfortable in a club than a firefight. Evans is worth the price of admission. I'm also quickly becoming a fan of Columbus Short, who has shown both comedic and dramatic fortitude in such films are Whiteout, Cadillac Records, Armored, and last week's Death at a Funeral. I may not have liked some of these movies, but Short excels in all of them, and as Pooch in The Losers, he seems exceedingly at ease. Short is the real deal, and I expect to be seeing a whole lot of him in the years to come. Óscar Jaenada is an unknown quantity to me as Cougar, the quiet but most dangerous member of the team. Although he's had smaller roles in Soderbergh's Che and Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, this is the Spanish actor's highest-profile work in a U.S. production to date, and I thought he was extremely cool and creepy and the baddest bad ass in this movie.

Zoe Saldana certainly looks spectacular and holds her own as a brawler, particularly in her many hand-to-hand combat scenes. I'm just not sure the character is all that interesting, especially when we find out why she's such a mystery. But I'm willing to give her a pass because he wears a lot of skimpy or tight outfits that at least distracted me from just how underwritten Aisha is. Hey, I take my entertainment where I can get it. The Losers' biggest problem is in Patric's Max, a rogue CIA leader bent on supplying weapons to terrorists so they can use them against the United States and thus our government will tighten its grip on the world's security issues. Yeah, okay, that'll happen. Patric plays Max as such a foppish, cartoony bad guy that it's almost impossible to take him seriously. It seems he spent more time picking out his shiny suits than he did concocting his schemes. And his jokes are so lame, I suspect that Jay Leno's monologue writers had something to do with them. On no level does Patric's performance work. I truly wonder if director Sylvian White (Stomp the Yard) had problems reeling him in. He doesn't sink the movie, but he comes damn close.

The Losers works more often than it doesn't, and for that reason I'm recommending it. It's a tight little package of the movie that has very few wasted scenes and almost never stops moving long enough to take a breath. Punctuated by strong performances by most of the team members, I have to say that I was pulled through some of the plot holes and underwritten characters by the sheer force of some of the actors. With many of this summer's group-of-guys movies, I suspect this will be the primary criteria for judging success or failure. But with The Losers, the actors seize the day, and I had a mostly great time watching this film unfold.

The Back-Up Plan

The last couple of times I've reviewed films starring Jennifer Lopez, I've prefaced them by talking about a time in her career when she used to take chances and made solid films, such as Selena, Out of Sight, The Cell, and hell, I'd even throw Anaconda on the list. But like most actresses of her stature, she wants everyone to like her and find her adorable. The result has been a string of romantic comedies, many of which have been successful--Maid in Manhattan being one of the biggest. But with the exception of Monster-In-Law, nothing she has done to this point quite prepared me for the wretched, gooey, discolored bowel movement that is The Back-Up Plan.

Rather than go into detail about the ridiculous, unbelievable plot and grating characters, none of whom act like actual people with functioning brains in their heads, I'd like to describe one scene that sums up the entire movie, or at least it gives you a sense of what you're in for if you spend actual money on this ass of a film. Lopez plays Zoe, a woman who has been artificially inseminated after deciding she's done waiting to find the right man to have children with. She joins a single mom's support group during her pregnancy, and at one point during the film she lands up witnessing the home birth of one of the support group members. So far, so good. The woman giving birth is in a birthing pool with her legs spread wide in the water and Zoe positioned standing over her looking straight down at her pal's vagina. Suddenly Zoe's screams, "What is that?!" Someone in the group remarks that sometimes the bowels release during labor, and quickly another woman is dispatched to scoop out the offending floater from the pool with one of those little nets you use to retrieve dead fish from an aquarium. Welcome to the comedy stylings of The Back-Up Plan.

First of all, didn't women screaming in pain during labor stop being funny or even that revealing years ago? I'd say Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up was maybe the last time a birthing sequence was funny, and even that turned a bit serious and scary at the end. But a woman screaming until she's blue in the face and making bug-eyed faces while a baby is supposed to be break dancing down her uterus just isn't that funny anymore; it's just loud.

While we're at it. The way people argue in TV and movies isn't the way most people argue in real life. In real life, people will actually stay in the same room long enough to hear the explanation for a miscommunication or misunderstanding. They don't just suspect there's a problem and go storming out of the room. But they do in movies you need the obligatory two or three "I'm sorry" scenes. Count the number of times characters apologize in movies like this. It's unreal.

But the real problem with The Back-Up Plan is that neither Zoe or the man she meets the same day as her insemination (Alex O'Loughlin) seem like very interesting people. We are told they are in love without us seeing them have a full conversation that goes beyond flirting and/or seduction. Let's see them disagree about something but find a middle ground; let's see them work together to solve a problem that comes their way from the outside world; let's see them talk about things real people talk about instead of just giggle, fight, run, reunite. This film is such a vanity piece for Lopez, there's an entire sequence built around talking about how awesome her ass used to look before she got pregnant, and there's a fleeting glimpse of her thonged ass as she's checking it out in the mirror.

You know who would like a movie like The Back-Up Plan? People with mental deficiencies. Seriously, if you laugh even once during this movie, there might be a piece of your brain missing. Were you in a serious accident? If so, this is the movie for you. Enjoying even a minute of The Bullshit Plan might mean you have a brain tumor or an aneurysm. I guess the upside of this junk is early detection of certain ailments of the brain. So there's that. Please, I beg you. I know you don't all agree with me; that's fine. What I'm saying is just my opinion. But as God is my witness, you have to stay away from The Back Door Plan or whatever the hell it's called. I'm really, truly looking out for you here. Stay strong and good luck.

Oceans

I am a sucker for nature films projected on the big screen. I don't watch that many films about animals or wild weather stories or any other nature-themed shows on TV, but I won't miss a 45-minute IMAX movie about strange creatures that live underwater or in the mountains or wherever. And while last year's Earth from the newly formed Disneynature was basically a retread of a much longer miniseries of the same name, Oceans appears to be brand-spanking-new footage of the fish, mammals, plants, crustaceans, and other phenomenon that occur in all of the planet's oceans. The film doesn't shy away from violence and death--there's an image of a great whale catching a seal in mid-air that I will never get out of my head--but it's real intention is capturing beauty and awe-inspiring creatures, the likes of which you may never have seen before, at least not in this amount of detail.

Pierce Brosnan (the man refuses to go away for a while) provides an almost laughable narration that makes him sound stoned out of his mind, but even this bit of silliness can't take away from the power of the visuals. There are the occasional pleas about global warming and overfishing--and rightfully so--but even that is kept to a minimum. The footage that directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud is beautifully lit, framed, and edited. A sequence involving what appear to be tens of thousands of warring spider crabs would stack up against any CGI-created creatures in Clash of the Titans or Lord of the Rings. It's easy to understand after even this limited exposure to undersea life why so many filmmakers, like James Cameron, become obsessed with filming in the oceans. Each trip down opens up new opportunities to literally see something that most human being have and will never see. Oceans offers a rare chance to be blown away, not by 3-D alien beings from another world, but from life that exists on this very planet. You owe yourself a trip to see this film; just ask the theater manager if they can turn off the sound.

Hubble 3-D

Having been in limited release for a few weeks on institutional IMAX screens around the country (like the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., which is where I saw it), this exceptional look at the places in the universe that have been revealed to us thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope is now opening in commercial 3-D IMAX locations today. Narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, this film is actually interesting on two levels. First, the Hubble images are undeniably compelling--views of other galaxies and looks at black holes that are unimaginable can't help but make you feel just a little smaller in the grand scheme of things.

The film also functions as a history lesson as we see footage of the original Hubble being launched into space and of the subsequent space missions that took place to fix and adjust the lens and other technical snafus. The film focuses on what was the last space journey to fix Hubble before it was left to drift away forever, so we are treated to a 3-D IMAX shuttle launch, which I think knocked out three of my fillings with its awesomeness, and an IMAX look (shot by the Shuttle crew) of the repair mission, complete with dangers, mechanical issues, and a bit of improvisation.

There isn't much more to say about the 45-minute film other than it's cool beyond words. Watching astronauts on a space walk with the earth literally filling their field of vision is unspeakably worth the elevated price of admission. You are either so enamored with space, even as an adult, that you are just going to see Hubble based on the title alone, or you aren't. But this is one bad-ass movie that even those of you who aren't convinced either IMAX or 3-D is all that need to check out.

The Secret in Their Eyes

You could almost hear the collective "Huh?" at this year's Oscar's ceremony when the Best Foreign Language Film award was given to The Secret In Their Eyes from Argentina. With films such as The White Ribbon (the clear favorite) and the much-loved A Prophet also in the running, it was a kind of a shock, but maybe not for those Academy members that had actually watched the film. And after having seen it, I understand a bit better why this film was chosen. Despite the seemingly exotic location, the film has a familiar, slightly American feel to its construction, which isn't surprising since the director, Juan Jose Campanella, has been directing U.S. television series for years. He's done everything from various "Law and Order" configurations and "House" to "30 Rock" and "Strangers with Candy," with the occasional trip back to Argentina to direct a film, such as the 2001 Oscar nominee Son of the Bride.

To know Campanella's work is to know and respect the acting talents of his frequent collaborator Ricardo Darín (Nine Queens), who is one of my favorite actors working today and stars in The Secret in Their Eyes as a former criminal court investigator who decides to write a book about his most disturbing case, a 25-year-old rape-murder of a young woman. Darin's Benjamin returns to his old office to seek help and recollections from his former boss Irene (Soledad Villamil), who is now a judge. Split between flashbacks to the original case and Benjamin's current looking into loose ends in the case, the film essentially serves up two equally interesting mysteries.

We find out at about the halfway point in the story that the original investigators did catch and convict a suspect, who was then let out for the most awful reasons imaginable and was none too happy about being jailed in the first place. As much as the film is a taught police drama, it is also a stinging indictment of the Argentine judicial system and the political system in place years ago, where power was more important than justice. One of the many beautiful things about The Secret in Their Eyes is that it is utterly unpredictable; I did not have a clue where this story was taking me--which seedy alley it would walk me down and defile my brain. The film goes to some pretty dark locations. I was thunderstruck by how much I enjoyed the experience of watching this great, sweeping film, and the fact that I was virtually unaware of its existence before the Oscar nominations makes it all the more fascinating a trip to take. Speaking of which, please be sure to catch this exceptional work, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Girl on the Train

Whenever you get a chance to see Catherine Deneuve in a new film, you simply go see it and don't ask question. I first saw The Girl on the Train at last year's Chicago Film Festival and remember it being a rambling but still intriguing work about a stunning young woman, Jeanne (Emilie Dequenne), who seems against the idea of working steadily and has no trouble lying in small amounts, sometimes for no reason. Deneuve plays her understanding and perhaps overly indulgent mother. Jeanne gets involved with a rebellious young man, who is sent to prison for being involved in a drug trafficking ring. She responds to this heartbreak by inventing a wild fiction about being attacked by white supremacists on the train. After most of the nation including the French president decries what happened to Jeanne, portions of her story begin to get examined in detail and don't hold up. If that were all the story this film had to offer, I think I would have liked it even more. As it stands, more is piled on, some of it quite interesting, but also distracting as all hell.

There's a Jewish lawyer (Michel Blanc) who Jeanne interviews with for a secretary job and later is involved in the investigation of her case. Turns out her mother knew and was in love with him many years earlier, which further complicates matters. Then there's the lawyer's grandson, who is preparing for his bar mitzvah. Most of these characters probably deserve their own films, but in The Girl on the Train, many of them get the short shrift. Still, I wouldn't pass up any opportunity to spend time with the mysterious and complicated Jeanne or Catherine Deneuve for any amount of time, so I'm certainly recommending the film, which opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Soundtrack for a Revolution

Sometimes you hear a song that you've known all of your life, and you just immediately start singing along or clapping or tapping your foot. You may not know where you first heard songs like "We Shall Overcome" or "Eyes on the Prize" or "Wade in the Water" or "We Shall Not Be Moved" or "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," but odds are you know nearly every word. But to hear those songs in context, when their message and meaning and power were at their strongest--the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s--and you'll begin to see that there was a time when music was an extremely effective non-violent weapon. A favorite at last year's Chicago Film Festival, Soundtrack for a Revolution, from directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, is a rousing work of art that pieces together key events of the movement and the often-familiar songs that fueled those who fought and sometimes died to secure freedom and equality in the South.

Many of the songs are performed in modern versions by such artists as Joss Stone, The Roots, John Legend, Wyclef Jean, Angie Stone, Richie Havens, Mary Mary, and the Blind Boys of Alabama, while the tales of Martin Luther King and his many disciples are told by the men and women who worked directly with him, including his wife Coretta, Julian Bond, Harry Belafonte, and Ambassador Andrew Young. I was particularly impressed that the filmmakers never shied away from showing just how brutal these non-violent protestors were treated and the pure blinding hatred that many whites in the South felt not just toward Southern blacks but also toward white Northerners who come down by the trainload to join the struggle.

Again, most of this material isn't new, but seeing it edited in such a way gave a much clearer vision of the importance of these songs. When President Lyndon Johnson made a plea before Congress to enact Civil Rights laws in the hopes that "we shall overcome," you can't deny the influence one song can have to a people. And somebody please tell me where I can buy this damn soundtrack. I want these versions of these songs. A quietly powerful piece, Soundtrack captures something quite special both in American history and in music with dignity and force. The film screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, April 24 at 3:15pm.

 
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