movie reviews January 2014

the secret life of walter mittythe wolf of wall streetmandela: Long walk to freedomwrong cops • The legend of herculesLone survivorAugust osage countyride alongjack ryan: shadow recruit

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

In reviving the adventures of the late Tom Clancy's CIA analyst Jack Ryan, actor-director Kenneth Branagh (Thor) seems to be under the impression that fans have been starving for plot exposition and origin stories. The action and intrigue that fueled previous Clancy adaptations like The Sum of All Fears and The Hunt for Red October can take a backseat to rehashing Ryan's roots, even thought Clancy fans already know about them.

Perhaps screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp figured that since it's been over a decade since the last time Jack Ryan reluctantly left his desk to go kick some bad guy butt, a little explanation of whom he is and what he does is in order. The problem is that by the time the film's new adventure sets in, Ryan's quest seems anticlimactic, even if the consequences are apocalyptic. The new story, which is not based on any of Clancy's novels, feels like an afterthought.

This time around Ryan (Chris Pine) quits the London School of Economics and joins the Marines, only to get wounded in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. As he struggles to walk again, a mysterious naval officer named Tom Harper (Kevin Costner) seeks out Ryan to put his analytical skills to better use by putting him to work in the CIA. Ryan is curious but first he has to get past the pretty but demanding therapist named Cathy (Kiera Knightley) who's trying to get him back on his feet.

For all of their flaws, the movies adapted from Clancy's books were made by people who understood that it's more fun to watch Ryan solve riddles and occasionally take on a bad guy than it is to watch him go to college.

As a person, Ryan is commendably noble and altruistic, but not all that colorful or interesting. That's why it's more fun to watch him crunch numbers or collect clues than to follow his personal life. He might be fun to share a beer with, but you'd never guess it by following him around in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. The other movie adaptations of Clancy's books revealed Ryan's backstory gradually during the tale. This kept the  pacing appropriately quick and allowed viewers to learn about him without sacrificing the plot.

While secretly working for a Wall Street firm, Ryan discovers that a Russian oligarch named Viktor Cheverin (Branagh) is trying to crush the United States by launching both an economic attack and a good old fashioned bombing. While Russians have become standard issue villains, the stakes involved in Cheverin's plot never seem dire enough to warrant much enthusiasm.

It doesn't help that Ryan reaches his conclusions out of thin air instead of through the story. As a result, viewers don't feel as if they have a stake in solving the case. For example, it might have been more suspenseful if Ryan and Harper had disagreements or if either of them made mistakes along the way. Because Ryan is a relative newcomer this time around, it would have made the story more credible and helped make the conclusion seem less foregone.

Branagh has a decent eye for action scenes, but the story is so moribund, that there isn't much he can do to enliven it. By sticking to the stale plotline, Branagh shortchanges his own performance because it might have been more suspenseful to learn that Cheverin is up to no good, instead of having it revealed from moment one.

The previous Jack Ryan films also benefitted for a good dose of humor, whereas Branagh's relentlessly earnest tone makes Shadow Recruit grating. About the only thing that amuses in the new film is the idea that Ryan can keep the world save despite the fact that he uses a smart phone running on the notoriously malfunctioning and insecure Windows 8 operating system. It's doubtful that the CIA or Paramount can do much of makeover for the image of a Microsoft product. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 01/23/14)

Haiku Review
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan in school
is not as exciting as
on a submarine.


Ride Along
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If a major studio unloads a movie in January, it's a safe bet the film in question wasn't entertaining enough to survive the Christmas or summer rush. With Ride Along, it's hard to think of any date where the movie's release would prevent embarrassment for all involved. 

It's pointless to fault Ride Along for being unimaginative. If the setup were too outlandish, it's doubtful that Universal would have agreed to distribute it. If you're going to spend millions on a film, it only makes sense to invest in something tried and true, like a buddy cop movie.

The problem with Ride Along is that it religiously follows the formula and produces no mirth or excitement in the process. One would think that pairing the surly Ice Cube with the manic Kevin Hart might produce some comic tension, but that requires more wit and imagination than director Tim Story and an army of credited screenwriters were willing or even able to muster. Unless the sight of Hart wrestling with a half-naked man covered in honey sends you in hysterics, expect a painfully long 100 minutes.

Ice Cube stars as an expectedly aggressive and foul tempered Atlanta detective named James Payton, who is waging a one-man war on an elusive mobster named Omar. Feeling those years of investigation and arm-twisting is finally getting him closer to his elusive prey, James should be elated. 

Instead, James is irritated because his sister Angela (Tika Sumpter) is about to marry a police academy recruit named Ben (Hart). James is still upset at Ben for accidentally setting him on fire at a barbecue, so it's no wonder he dreads the thought of having the younger man for a coworker and a brother-in-law. To scare Ben out of his life, James sets up a ride along, with the hope of creating enough unpleasant events to get Angela's suitor out of his life once and for all.

In more able hands, it might have been funny watching the gung-ho Ben losing his yearning for adventure or irritating James with his enthusiasm for keeping Atlanta safe. Instead, all that arises from Ride Along are poorly executed action scenes and weak physical comedy. Neither leading man gets much to do, which is a shame because Story once directed Ice Cube in the charming Barbershop. That film had heart and wit that are sadly missing here. Wrestling in honey is a poor substitute.

Perhaps Ride Along might have worked better as a video game. After all, Ben and Angela are gamers anyway. It might be fun to move Hart and Ice Cube through dangerous scenarios where players have to keep them alive and from getting on each other's nerves. It's likely that a computer could generate more exciting predicaments for our heroes than anything found in the patchwork screenplay. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 01/23/14)


August Osage County
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

There’s no escape from the close meanness in the film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County. Even by Letts’ standards — he’s the mastermind behind Bug, the accomplished 2006 one-room paranoid freak-out directed by William Friedkin and starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon — this is an oppressive and histrionic affair.

Three dissimilar sisters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), are summoned by their strung-out, spiteful mother, Violet (Meryl Streep), to their Oklahoma homestead in the dry heat of August when their minor poet father (Sam Shepard) goes missing.

In her hot box of a house — she stubbornly refuses to turn on the air conditioning — Violet eviscerates her daughters and their families, laying bare shocking secrets and shameful betrayals.

If it weren’t for the hateful maneuverings of Violet anyone over 40 might mistake this for an update of 1986’s Crimes of the Heart, another Southern gothic Pulitzer winner adapted for film with a Sam Shepard bonus. But here the sisters are second string to the main spectacle, which is Streep, who in bird’s nest wig, darting eyes and labored drawl is enjoying too much her status as the grand dame of overacting. Not even Roberts as the most capable daughter can turn the tables, even by physically tackling Violet away from it.

Although Letts has proven himself as a talented writer of spiraling micro-drama, the characters in this adaptation are shallow caricatures, able to only express themselves in loud outbursts. Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney and Benedict Cumberbatch all take their turns yelling in their own bad accents. Misty Upham as hired caretaker Johanna is the only member of the cast who understands the power of silence. Not to mention Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as Violet’s older sister, Mattie Fae, and her husband, whose nuances, though the two appear only briefly, hint at the substance of the original play before it was gutted.

More unpleasant still, director John Wells (The Company Men) forcefully holds the camera in too close proximity to his actors. He meticulously scouted locations for authenticity, settling on Pawhuska, OK, in the actual Osage County, to then spend most of the movie focused tightly on contrived expressions and static staging. That, combined with Gustavo Santaolalla’s syrupy score, creates an inescapable feeling of claustrophobia that comes not from the dysfunctional family, but rather from the dysfunctional filmmaking. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 01/13/14)


Lone Survivor
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Like the non-fiction book of the same name by Marcus Luttrell on which it’s based, Lone Survivor intends to be a testimonial to the courage and self-sacrifice required to defend the United States in its war on terrorism. The film does this largely through the vivid depiction of a disastrous 2005 Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan to remove a Taliban leader.

The problem is that in his portrayal of war and its participants, director and screenwriter Peter Berg wants to have it both ways — romanticized and unvarnished. Ultimately, these conflicting conceptions raise more questions than they answer.

Through the opening credits, we witness the grueling endurance training required to achieve SEALS status: near-drowning in swimming pools, bound hand and foot; endless running and climbing in the rain; forced hypothermia, lying nearly naked in the cold ocean surf. Clearly, these guys are BADASS, willing to push themselves to the verge of death.

Yet as the film unfolds, we never really get to know them. Despite brief mentions of an upcoming wedding and the occasional Skype visit with loved ones, these guys are indistinguishable. Down to their informal uniform of scruffy beard and t-shirt, they’re merely a type, their down time at base filled with braggadocio, one-upmanship and homophobic hazing rites.

Are they motivated by patriotism? Ego? Who knows? In a voice-over, Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) suggests they simply feel most alive when backed into a corner. These are guys who want a fight. And, as he adds, “We wanted that fight at the highest volume.”

In action, they're hardly so invincible. As soon as the operation encounters complications, they fall apart as though, in their arrogance, no one anticipated glitches. Despite a designated leader and clear Rules of Engagement, when an elderly goat herder and two young boys stumble upon them on an Afghan mountain ridge, the team breaks down into bickering over whether the interlopers should be murdered on the spot.

The three Afghans are ultimately spared — more out of fear for bad publicity than any morality or code of conduct — and within the hour, the team is pinned down by seemingly hundreds of Taliban fighters. Clinging to macho aphorisms, our SEALs make bad move after bad move, and in slow, agonizing detail are wounded, battered, crippled, and — except for Luttrell, the lone survivor — eventually killed.

Glorified — fetishized, even — by slo-mo shots and unnerving sound effects, the suffering, itself, seems to be offered as evidence of their heroism. Still, even in the heat of battle, we get no more sense of who these guys are. Our sympathy is strictly a product of witnessing the suffering of countrymen; the dozens of wounded and dead Afghans exist like Indians in vintage Western as enemies and targets.

The final 15 minutes seek to temper this nasty xenophobic streak through Luttrell’s deliverance at the hands of an Afghan villager, Mohammed Gulab, and his doe-eyed son, but it’s far too little, far too late. In a "Where are they now?"-style coda, much is made of the relationship between Luttrell and Gulab, including real-life reunion pictures. This, indeed, might have made an interesting film but in Berg’s hands, it really just serves as deus ex machina and a defense against ethnocentrism.

So who were these guys? Why were they willing to sacrifice their lives? What does it mean to be a hero? Lone Survivor is simply not interested in these questions. The suffering is the thing. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 01/13/14)


The Legend of Hercules
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

A cheap knock-off, rushed into theaters to cash-in on this summer's bigger-budgeted Hercules: The Thracian Wars (a tactic Millennium Films adopted last year when it released Olympus Has Fallen just months before the other president-under-assault flick, White House Down), The Legend of Hercules has been thrown together so shoddily that it might qualify as kitsch, were someone actually trying here.

Director and co-writer Renny Harlin (Cutthroat Island, Cliffhanger), jettisons most of the Hercules myth, attempting, instead, to fashion some sort of amalgam of 300 and Gladiator by cobbling together tropes from the last half-century of Sword-and-Sandal flicks. Harlin's hero is still a demigod--conceived by the willing coupling of Queen Alcmene (Roxanne McKee) with Zeus in a scene disturbingly reminiscent of Barbara Hershey's paranormal rape in The Entity.

Once the First Labour of the adult Hercules (the Nemean Lion) has been dispatched, however, the plot quickly devolves into a pastiche of elements from Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, Spartacus, even the hoary old Kirk Douglas vehicle, The Vikings — treacherous half-brother, exile to Egypt, sale into slavery, service as galley slave, gladiatorial fight for freedom (in a sort of Greek Thunderdome), public scourging, Samson-style destruction of a temple, and return to lead a rebellion.

All of which sounds much more exciting than it is. The film has the look and believability of a 10-year-old video game. The Nemean Lion is so ridiculously computer-generated it looks cut-and-pasted from a cartoon. Uniformly ripped and oiled warriors regularly employ mixed martial arts moves when not propelling themselves through the air as though shot from cannons.

Harlin's attempts to goose the proceedings with camera tricks and 3D effects quickly become annoying. Critical fighting moves and leaps are so manipulated with Matrix-style speed ramping — abrupt slow motion and fast-forward — that one suspects he just learned the technique. Likewise, scene after scene is filled with swirling rose petals, floating pollen, and torrential rain that change direction and density from shot to shot.

Lost amid all this is poor Kellen Lutz, the hunky Twilight star who comes off like a frat-boy that somehow time-traveled back to ancient Greece. Despite the requisite muscles, Lutz lacks anything approaching charisma and conceives of acting as alternating bland smiles with grimaces.

By the end, the entire thing comes completely unhinged as though the filmmakers have simply given up. Hercules swings huge temple stones to which he has been chained as weapons, then later, in the midst of battle, abruptly raises his sword aloft — like Prince Adam in the He-Man cartoon — and absorbs Zeus's lightning, creating a light-saber-ish whip that cuts down everyone in its path.

With a worse script, a truly inept director, or Z-list actors, The Legend of Hercules might have achieved a level of campy fun. This Hercules, however, can’t even manage spectacularly bad. (PG-13) Rating: .5 (Posted on 01/13/14)


Wrong Cops
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Because the police seem to be everywhere we are, they inadvertently become a ideal subject for satire. From Police Squad! to the Keystone Kops, the men and women in blue have been a frequent source of amusement. Curiously, that’s happening with Wrong Cops.

Writer-director Quentin Dupieux’s once managed to make a movie called Rubber, about a homicidal tire. Somehow the real world issues of police corruption and intimidation are a bit beyond his grasp. There are a couple of bits where Dupieux and his ensemble cast generate a few chuckles, but the most part Wrong Cops  is a mean-spirited bore.

The loosely interlocking stories include an officer named Duke (Mark Burnham), who spends most of his time on the beet selling marijuana. To ensure that buyers aren’t questioned about the weed, he stuffs the drug into the bodies of dead rats, figuring no one but a determined pot smoker would dig that far for the merchandise.

It’s gross, but not all that amusing.

In the meantime, Officer de Luca (Eric Wareheim, of Tim & Eric fame) hassles any woman unlucky enough to work out in one of the parks in Los Angeles, hoping to force one of them to expose her bosom for him. Apparently, this obnoxious fellow could have saved everyone some serious grief by renting a Russ Meyer movie.

There’s also an undercover cop named Sunshine (Steve Little) who needs extra cash to afford Duke’s weed and who really hopes his wife and daughter don’t discover some magazine photos he posed in years ago. Unless you find gay porn inherently hilarious, his vignettes won’t seem that funny either.

There’s also a subplot involving a long-suffering fellow who doesn’t even get the pleasure of dying after Duke shoots him accidentally and a policeman trying to make it as a musician even though he can’t play a listenable note. While some of these gags are certainly quirky, few ever lead to laughter. Most leave the viewer feeling like the guy Duke shot.

The cast is loaded with familiar faces, if not household names. Eric Roberts and Marilyn Manson each have scenes, and several characters actors pick up quick paychecks that should tide them over until something more substantial comes along.

Despite all the talent he’s assembled, Dupieux has little or no idea of what to do with them. Many simply wander through their scenes, and like the viewers stare blankly in search of a point. Dupieux even repeats gags, hoping they’ll get funnier the second time around (they don’t) and has a 16-year-old’s sense of comedy gold.

No, come to think of it, the average 16-year-old might get bored with all the unimaginative gags involving gay sex. Dupieux seems to think that he can coast on shots of Burnham in his tighty-whities.

It is too much to ask for Dupieux to be more ambitious than the sketchy characters he depicts? Depicting evil even as a joke requires more wit and moral courage than he demonstrates here. (N/R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 01/13/14)

Haiku Review
Wrong Cops

No, thanks. I’ll watch old
Police Squad! DVDs, not
Burnham’s BVDs.


Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Certainly, Nelson Mandela is as deserving a subject for film biography as any figure in modern world history. The iconic leader’s life is emblematic of, and inextricably intertwined with, the struggle for black equality that occurred in South Africa in the latter half of the 20th century and continues to serve as a beacon for human rights. The current biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, however, feels rushed and perfunctory, cramming in so much history and significance that it often loses sight of the man at its center in the process.

Granted, it’s a long story. When Mandela died earlier this month, he was 95 years old, so to tell his life story is to narrate nearly an entire century. Nevertheless, adapted from Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, William Nicholson’s (Gladiator, Les Misérables) script determines to tell the whole story from youth to president in a little over 2 hours, which allows little time to develop any particular event.

We are introduced to Mandela as he and other young male villagers engage in a tribal initiation to manhood. Three minutes later, he’s a successful lawyer in Johannesburg, resisting his friends’ solicitations to join the African National Congress. Before long, he’s protesting, then leading the ANC. As the film proceeds, you can almost tick off the mental checklist in your head — bus boycott? Check. Sharpeville Massacre? Check. Most scenes last just long enough to allow Mandela to utter an appropriately noble aphorism over a manipulative, obtrusive score that never lets viewers forget that this is history.

Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) introduces character traits just as neatly and superficially in disjointed scenes and montages. One moment, Mandela’s training as an amateur boxer; the next, he’s out womanizing in a bar. Once addressed, these character traits rarely are referred to again. The effect is like viewing a series of museum dioramas, rather than plumbing the psyche of a complex human being.

Missing are all the messy bits — the political and personal contradictions, the moral and ethical dilemmas. How did that rural village boy become the successful lawyer? What changed Mandela’s mind about the ANC? (The movie simplifies it to a 2-minute conversation revolving around a corny metaphor that reappears near the end). How does a leader of the MK (the armed wing of the ANC) become a pacifist while imprisoned? In fact, the movie fills in so little of his 27-year imprisonment that a viewer unfamiliar with Mandela might come away with an impression of him as merely a crusader for long pants for black inmates.

Idris Elba (HBO’s The Wire, BBC’s Luther) brings an easy charm to the young lawyer and has mastered the vocal cadences and facial expressions of the elder Mandela most familiar to viewers. Still, the performance often feels like an accomplished impersonation looking for a fully developed character to inhabit, a character that, unfortunately, does not appear in this film.

Despite good intentions, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom remains the equivalent of a statue — an impressive edifice that honors the man and his accomplishments but is unable to reveal his humanity. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 01/02/14)


The Wolf of Wall Street
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Martin Scorsese brings yet another version of hectoring masculinity to the big screen. But in this most recent release, the director of Raging Bull and Goodfellas provides three hours of greed-fueled, drug-addled buffoonery with only a token attempt at tempering the frat boy antics with real-world consequences.

How you respond to The Wolf of Wall Street will depend on how much you connect with Jordan Belfort. In real life, Belfort was the ideas man behind first selling penny stocks for big bucks and then offering IPOs through Stratton Oakmont, the Long Island, NY-based "over-the-counter" brokerage house he ran with co-founder Daniel Porush from 1990 to 1997. Both pleaded guilty to 10 counts of securities fraud and money laundering. And now Belfort, having served 22 months of his four-year sentence and ordered to repay $110.4 million to a victims’ compensation fund, claims to have reinvented himself, offering up his experience as a business consultant in the areas of ethics and sales.

This all sounds like the makings of a cautionary tale. But writer Terence Winter based the screenplay on Belfort’s autobiography, which carries the same arrogant title as the movie, and offers no reprieve or redemption.

For a Scorsese movie, the level of violence is uncharacteristically low, but the super speed at which hyper scenes of both consumerism and debauchery (which in most of these instances is actually just another form of consumerism) are flung throughout the film make it feels like an assault. It’s a Judd Apatow film all grown up, complete with Jonah Hill as sidekick.

The on-screen Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a smug blow-hard. Whether he’s likeable depends on the willingness to buy into his slick sales talk. Believe, and you may enjoy the ride; otherwise it’s a painful experience.

Belfort is given both voice-over and direct address platforms to spread his shallow philosophies about making money. But unlike Goodfellas, where Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill provided behind-the-scenes access to the machinations of the crime world, Belfort glosses over it. His jump from selling amped up penny stocks still on the right side of the legal system to manipulating stocks and laundering money might be the movie’s most interesting moment, but it barely stands still long enough to even recognize it. Kyle Chandler as the FBI agent tracking Belfort adds a modicum of needed gravitas, too. But Scorsese is more interested in midget tossing and sex in the office than the details of the subject of his movie. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 01/02/14)


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Ben Stiller’s update of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an introvert’s worst nightmare. For all its daring rescues of three-legged dogs and superhero chase scenes, the secret life referred to in the title isn’t nearly as remarkable as the one he lives without the help of CGI. But of course, that’s not realized until the end, after he’s been forced on adventures, both imagined and real, that lead him to this predictable conclusion.

At the start of the story, Stiller portrays Mitty as an unfulfilled George Bailey type, having put his dreams of adventure aside to help support his widowed mom (Shirley Maclaine) and dilettante sister (Kathryn Hahn). Mitty can’t stop daydreaming about world travel and skateboarding and ideas about romance with a co-worker (Kristen Wiig) that hint more at his severe arrested development than any adult’s dream deferred. It also seems like he might have epilepsy.

His job, negative assets manager for LIFE magazine, isn’t the loss accounting position it sounds like; but the actual photo negatives archive. It’s a dream job, and he seems good at it. At least, he has the trust of the magazine’s elusive star photographer (Sean Penn). But a bearded cadre of MBAs, led by alpha tool played by Adam Scott, has overtaken the ranks of the magazine and is planning on releasing only digital editions of the iconic print magazine. For the farewell issue, Mitty must track down a 35mm negative sent to him by the photographer.

Worse than the actual daydream sequences are Mitty’s real-life travels. An overpowering soundtrack accompanies Mitty through airports, as do distracting too-encouraging titles. Mitty’s life is no longer secret; it’s emblazoned across the screen at every opportunity. Writer Steve Conrad adapted this soulless screenplay from the brief story by James Thurber that appeared in The New Yorker in 1939. It required a lot of padding to get it to a feature film length, but turning Mitty into an actual daredevil is a lazy move. After all, George Bailey didn’t have to actually go anywhere to realize how to treasure the life he lived; he just needed the right guide.

There is some stunning scenery in the film. As Mitty searches for clues in Greenland and Afghanistan, the scenery scrolls slowly in bright, crisp frames. And when he finally reaches the photographer/guru at the top of the mountain, he’s given the excellent advice to stay in the moment without looking through a lens of any kind. But, in the end, Mitty is given the gift of looking through a lens at himself and what he had all along. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted on 01/02/14)

 

 

 

 



Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Mike Ireland can be contacted at mike.e.ireland@gmail.com


 

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