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Column Fri Feb 17 2012
This Means War, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Secret World of Arrietty, Rampart & In Darkness
This Means War
Just in time to crap-up your Valentine's Day week, we have the latest shallow example of grown adults acting like special-needs children, This Means War, a romantic comedy set in the spy world that has as much to do with romance as a heart-shaped Peep and as much to do with the spy world as an episode of "Chuck." Actually, the "Chuck" comparison is appropriate since the movie is directed by the now-defunct show's executive producer McG (helmer of We Are Marshall, both Charlie's Angels films and Terminator Salvation).
What put me off to the film more than anything -- and I'm not saying this to be funny -- is that the two men pursuing the same lady story doesn't work for the pure and simple reason that I never bought it. Instead, I was rooting for the two CIA operatives (Star Trek's Chris Pine and Warrior's Tom Hardy) to finally realize their love for each other and simply come out of the closet for each other. Seriously, the chemistry between Pine and Hardy (as FDR and Tuck, stupid names both) is pretty great; their banter and playfulness with each other is fun and light, and their matching blue eyes look great reflected in each others'. Reese Witherspoon's Lauren seems like an interloper in this scenario, and maybe 10 years too old to be of any interest to these young bucks. She still looks like a million bucks, don't get me wrong, but I find it tough to see these particular guys battling each other and risking their friendship over this woman.
When FDR and Tuck start using the resources of the CIA to watch the other's dates with Lauren, all I could think of was that this was another example of government spending run amuck. The annoyance factor at the entire, implausible film is increased exponentially by the presence of Chelsea Handler as Trish, Lauren's married friend (or maybe sister; I can't remember), who is constantly giving her single pal some of the worst advice in the history of dating. It's meant to be funny, but it simply prolongs this tired and haggard concept well past its expiration date.
As fun as Pine and Hardy are when they're together, they are as poorly realized when they are apart, which is usually when they're out on their respective dates with Lauren. They become versions of themselves that are just variations of The Smooth Guy, The Confident Guy, The Sensitive Guy, etc., yanked from every terrible rom-com made in the last 10 years. I'm not going to lie: seeing Hardy in This Means War on the heels of the year he had last year (Warrior, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and filming The Dark Knight Rises) is nothing short of tragic. I whole heartedly like the idea of an actor of his caliber testing his limits and expanding his horizons, but he's floundering here and it's embarrassing to watch. The only sequence where Hardy shows us something kind of fun (without Pine sharing the screen with him) is a date he goes on with Witherspoon to play paintball, where he goes into paramilitary mode and pretend kills everyone else in the game. Pine seems a lot more at ease in this environment as he turns on the scoundrel vibe he used to great effect as Captain Kirk.
There are few things more aggravating than watching people play clever, when they're not doing anything particularly smart or fun. This Means War seems more like a dare to the audience not to get annoyed at at least two characters in the film. Toss in a meaningless supporting role by Angela Bassett as Pine and Hardy's boss, who seems more angry at them for not capturing a master terrorist than she does having them waste CIA resources on winning a lady, and you've got a big bucket of suck. There's also a sub-plot about the boys pursuing said terrorist, but that plays out even more predictably than the romance story.
Every scene in This Means War seems like a set up for one of the most obvious and predictable conclusions to any film I've seen in years. Of course, Lauren is going to find out that these guys have been playing this game with her affections; of course she's going to have to choose between them once she gets over being hurt; of course, the terrorist is going to find a way to involve Lauren in his scheme. If you ever want to make your own rom-com, just connect the dots, color within the lines, and always play it safe, and you'll come up with something remarkably similar (if not identical) to this messy affair.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
I guess some people thought the idea of hiring the directors of the Crank movies (which I really liked), Mark Neveldein and Brian Taylor (who also made the total shit Gamer), to regenerate the character of Ghost Rider with original star Nicolas Cage was an exciting and frenetic idea, and on paper it should have been. So why oh why does Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance come across as such a hack job with a few visual ideas to keep things fresh but a terrible plot that barely furthers the adventures of condemned soul Johnny Blaze, who becomes the skeleton in bubbling leather wrapped in chains?
In this sort-of sequel/sort-of reboot, Blaze has gone into hiding in Eastern Europe, where he is recruited by the head of a secret society (Idris Elba) to locate and protect a boy (Fergus Riordan), who may be the son of the devil, represented on Earth by Roarke (Ciaran Hinds). Blaze seems to have the Ghost Rider demon at bay for the time being, so he's hesitant to set him free, but eventually he sees the down side to allowing the Antichrist to be set free, so he lets loose the ultimate Hell's Angel.
And with that decent setup, Spirit of Vengeance allows itself to slowly chip away at any possibility of becoming a fun, inventive movie. Sure, there are some wacky camera angles and few clever special effects to keep the eyes entertained, but my brain went numb from tedium. There is one inspired sequence featuring Christopher Lambert as a tattooed monk who knows exactly how dumb it is and embraces the weird; I wish there had been a few more moments like that to balance out the over-cooked seriousness of so much of the film. Even Cage's patented brand of crazy seems in short supply here, and if for no other reason, a red flag should be raised for that shortcoming alone.
I don't really have much more to say about Spirit of Vengeance. The title means nothing, we learn or care even less about Blaze than we did in the admittedly worst first Ghost Rider installment, and no one in the front of the camera does anything to convince me they really want to be there. I can't remember the last time I saw so many people try so hard to generate some excitement with a film and fail so miserably. The spirit seems willing, but the flesh is weak, and that's a shame because I genuinely thought this one they'd get right.
The Secret World of Arrietty
Wonderful in any language is the latest bit of glory from Studio Ghibli, home to the great animated works of Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, who adapted the fantastic series The Borrowers, under the direction of Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The Secret World of Arrietty is a beautifully realized story of a family of extremely small people who live under a home in the countryside. The little people (known as Borrowers) don't exactly steal from the family that lives in the house above; they just take what won't be missed. The family is made up of a father (voiced in English by Will Arnett), mother (Amy Poehler) and spirited daughter Arrietty (Bridget Mendler), who is just beginning to go out on her own borrowing expeditions.
At one point, Arrietty is spotted by a sickly boy named Shawn (David Henrie) who has just arrived at the house for rest and relaxation before heart surgery. Eventually he and Arrietty became friends as he is able to confirm stories he heard as a boy about little people living among us. Unfortunately, the homes' housekeeper Hara (perfectly voiced by Carol Burnett, with just the right amount of crazy) wants to capture the "little thieves" and have them removed from the house.
In true Studio Ghibli fashion, the attention to detail in Arrietty is extraordinary and stunning, as the animators allow us to consider how tiny people would perceive bugs, rain, household pets, blades of grass, leaves and dozens of other elements we never consider. The borrowed items that make up their fully stocked home will make you smile at their resourcefulness. I was particular fond of the character named Spiller (Moises Arias), a wild child who protects the family and is called upon to guide them to a new home once their presence is dangerously close to being confirmed by the humans.
But at its core, Arrietty is a coming-of-age story of both the title character and Shawn, who develop a friendship that under normal circumstances might have become something more serious. There's no attempt at a conventional love story here (that would be weird and probably painful), but there is something sweet and borderline romantic going on that became the emotional center of the film. Ghibli never fails to draw me in completely, and absent of any supernatural or mystical undertones (fairly standard in the studio's works), Arrietty relies on its human qualities to keep it emotionally relevant and powerful.
I'm not sure if this film is being screened theatrically in the US in its native Japanese, but I'd love to see it that way some day (the UK version of the film has some impressive big names doing voice work as well; please include all versions on the DVD, Disney folks). But however you see it, the magic and heart are undeniable. I actually saw this twice before writing this review, just because I loved it so much. I miss the years when Ghibli doesn't put something out in the US, and this year just got a whole lot better as of this week because of a little girl who uses a small chip clip to hold her hair back. This really is one of the best things to be released so far this year; support this form of artistry or die trying.
Following their previous powerful collaboration The Messenger from a couple of years ago, director/co-writer Owen Moverman and actor Woody Harrelson have created a very different animal with the help of co-writer and crime fiction master James Ellroy. Rampart is about Los Angeles police officer Dave Brown (circa 1999), who seems to have free reign over the streets he patrols and the life he leads off the job. An admitted bigot, he pulls over people he simply thinks are trouble and administers justice in his own unique and awful manner. But we're meeting Brown at the end of his run, with the department tired of covering for him and Internal Affairs looking to run him out of business.
Brown's home life isn't much more cohesive. He has managed to father children with a pair of sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche), and has earned the nickname "Date Rape" because of what would appear to be a vigilante-style killing of a rapist he took part in. But even as the sisters attempt to get him to move out, a new woman (Linda, played by Robin Wright) has entered his life and given him hope that a life without the job might be worth living.
Based on a true scandal in the LAPD, Rampart is something of a beautiful mess burdened by oppressive visuals from Moverman. But the performances, especially by Harrelson, are so good, it's fairly easy to look past the style and into the substance. A great supporting cast includes Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube and Ned Beatty. But it's Harrelson who continuously impresses as a man who is impossible to pigeonhole as good or bad. He's a product of the system that he has remained faithful to for so many years, and it has corrupted him completely, and is no prepared to throw him under the bus to protect its sagging reputation. Rampart doesn't paint Brown as a victim, but he's far from a cut-and-dry villain either -- and Harrelson knows the difference.
Some audiences simply have a difficult time embracing a film with no strong central figure at the center to identify with or root for. Rampart has neither, but it does feature a strong, often terrifying character that kept me mesmerized despite the director's flawed visual take on the material. You may not like what you see but you won't soon forget it. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
With the Academy Awards happening next weekend, there's something of a scramble to get at least a few of the nominated works into theaters so the public can do a little better in their Oscar pools. Last week, the nominated shorts (animated, live action and documentary) began appearing in select cities; A Separation from Iran has gotten a fairly wide release; and this week, director Agnieszka Holland's best work in years, In Darkness, opens in a few cities after being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (from Poland). Holland first made a splash statewide with her moving work Europa Europa, then followed that up with the film version of The Secret Garden, and a regular stream of film and television, including key episodes of such shows as "The Wire," "Treme" and "The Killing."
Clocking in at just under 2.5 hours, In Darkness tracks the real-life story of Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a sewer worker in the Nazi-occupied city of Lvov, Poland, where a Jewish village existed until the Nazis decided to liquidate the ghetto and either transport the jews to death camps or simply slaughter them in the streets. A sizable number of Jews planned ahead and dug a tunnel into the sewers. Led by Benno Fürmann (played by German actor Mundek Marguilies of North Face; Joyeux Noel; Speed Racer), the Jews see the raids upon the ghetto coming and flee for the dark, disgusting, and impossible-to-navigate sewers only to be spotted by Socha (who is not Jewish), who charges them money to guide them to a section of the underground that is slightly more inhabitable and not turn them in.
Socha is an interesting antihero who cares more about money than human beings at first, but not surprisingly he begins to care for these poor people for the duration of what turned out to be a 14-month endurance test. He even starts referring to them as "my Jews." What a sweetheart. Aside from its strong acting and a compelling story, the strength of In Darkness (adapted by David F. Shamoon from the book by Robert Marshall) lies in the way Holland shoots the sewer-dwelling inhabitants. The film is murky, dank and beyond claustrophobic. Yet the Jews are somehow able to make this foul place something resembling a home for more than a year and maintain their sanity in the process. The threat of them being found is very real, so the film stays tense pretty much for the duration. There are moments of levity scattered throughout In Darkness, but for the most part, fear and drama rule the day.
It's fascinating watching Socha use his lowly status as a keeper of the sewers as a means of manipulating the Nazis and their collaborators. Some remember him as a pre-war friend, and he uses those relationships to get essentials to the Jews. Many of the Nazis don't want anything to do with him, so he's largely ignored by them, and the advantages of that speak for themselves. At different points in the plot, Socha lets his wife and young daughter in on his scheme, putting them in great danger but also revealing the heart of many of the Polish people resisting Nazi control of their country early in World War II. In Darkness is a deeply engaging, suspenseful, and beautifully acted work that will likely move you to tears at several points, but has a great deal to add to the conversation on human survival. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.