(On-demand Video, December 2012) After a year in which a singularly bland US presidential campaign still managed to dominate media attention, everyone was ripe for a silly comedy lampooning the American electoral process. So it is that The Campaign creates a face-off between gifted comedians Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as two men vying for a US congressman slot. This very local-level comedy works in part because it controls its lead comedians effectively, and in part because it tries to push the absurdity of modern US politics to its breaking point. Punching babies, hitting dogs, political ads spiced by amateur pornography, intentional shootings, pervasive profanity and other gags are all part of the plot, but the real insanity here is all-too-familiar. (The film gets its most acid laugh from a simple shot showing how deeply moneyed interest have perverted the electoral process at the ballot box itself.) Of course, it’s crude, blunt and unsubtle: It’s a Jay Roach film, after all, and he seems intent here on producing a gonzo counterpart to his more nuanced work on Game Change. As a comedy, it delivers: there’s a laugh every few minutes, and smiles throughout. Both lead actors are dedicated to their characters, and the level of obscenity seems carefully restrained to get laughs while avoiding going too far. While The Campaign may not have much of a shelf life in the long run, it’s good enough at the moment, and should find a modest audience.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) You’d think that the ending of The Bourne Ultimatum wouldn’t necessarily lead to a sequel, but there we have one: The program that created Bourne was only the tip of the iceberg, and other operatives are forced to react when their own programs (and selves) are terminated with prejudice. Add a few considerations about artificial cognitive enhancements and you have a plot: a threadbare, familiar plot, but a plot nonetheless. Fortunately, writer/director Tony Gilroy’s treatment of the premise is better than its foundation: The Bourne Legacy proudly continues its predecessor’s hyper-modern treatment of espionage thriller conventions with an acknowledgement to real-world moral dilemmas, high-technology used lethally and an exploitation of the possibilities of a network world under constant unaccountable surveillance. The blend is potent, and the headlining presence of both Jeremy Renner as a capable protagonist and Edward Norton as his pursuer anchors the film into a credible reality. (Amusingly, the film is able to use in a straightforward fashion a few speculative elements that would have been considered pure science-fiction a few years ago.) For its first hour, as mysteries are still presented, The Bourne Legacy is solid action filmmaking: the action scenes are well-handled, the atmosphere is grounded and the plot mechanics are decently handled as the film takes place concurrently to The Bourne Ultimatum. Things slow down to a far more ordinary result in the second half, as the plot stops advancing almost entirely and leaves all the screen time to an increasingly redundant chase sequence. The final result may not be as compelling as what was promised earlier, but it’s still a surprisingly energetic follow-up to a series most thought was finished. Don’t worry –from the unresolved threads left by the conclusion of The Bourne Legacy, it looks as if we’ll get at least another trilogy our of the Bourne name.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) Richard Gere turns in one of his best performances in recent memory here as a rich businessman with problems that grow bigger as the film advances: a mistress that gets killed, a bad investment that turns into fraud, tense family relationship that combust as everything else goes on. As a concept, Arbitrage is neither original nor gripping: we’ve seen this material countless times before. The twists and turns are familiar until the cynical ending, but even that seems ordinary in a world used to Wall Street duplicity. Still, the film itself is competently made, there are modest thrills in the details of the story and not enough good things can be said about Gere’s performance as a man able of the best as well as the worst. Despite the familiar subject matter, Arbitrage becomes compelling viewing: We can’t wait to see Gere either get his punishment or his escape, and this conflicted character study is probably the film’s chief appeal. Plus, it all takes place in the pleasant upper-crust of New Yrok City, offering another chance to live vicariously in an upper-class playground: Arbitrage also works well as an acid reminder that the rules don’t really apply the same way to the rich as they do to the poor: money can buy almost anything, including virtue.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) Is it possible to follow-up a modern classic such as The Dark Knight without making a few missteps in the process? Probably not, but writer/director Christopher Nolan makes fewer mistakes than most in trying to provide a definitive conclusion to the cycle he launched with Batman Begins: In The Dark Knight Rises, he’s willing to toy with the archetypes of superhero movies (Batman doesn’t make an appearance until 50 minutes in the film), blending it with real-world elements in order to deliver a thrilling, hefty, sometimes-philosophical take on the place of extraordinary people in society. Christian Bale once again stars as Batman/Bruce Wayne, once again flanked by Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, and this time ably supported by Tom Hardy as supervillain Bane, Joseph Gordon-Lewitt as a capable partner and less-ably by Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. (Let us be blunt: Hathaway has old-school grace and beauty, but it’s not the slinky-sex-kitten quality that the best Catwomen should have.) Still, the script is the most interesting element of the picture: it blends real-world markers with superhero crutches (so that we get CIA extraction planes, professional football games and references to social inequality alongside cities cut off from the rest of the world by hoodlums, people dressing up in amusing costumes and a quasi-mythical “League of Assassin”), scratches a little bit to reveal character motivations, re-uses elements of the previous two films to good effect and tells a surprisingly satisfying story despite numerous small flaws. For anyone else, The Dark Knight Rises would be an impressive achievement: as big and bold as an action blockbuster should be, while handled with a surprising amount of depth, darkness and complexity. Still, compared strictly to Nolan’s previous two films, it’s a bit of a letdown: the themes aren’t as strong as in The Dark Knight and the ingeniousness of Inception is considerably toned down. But never mind the comparative let-down: The Dark Knight Rises is an enormously successful film, another example that entertainment doesn’t have to be entirely brainless. It’s a spectacle with some depth, a daring way to handle an immensely popular protagonist and a subversive way to follow-up its previous two installments. It easily ranks as one of the good movies of 2012, and it should please even the most demanding fans.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) Nobody was really demanding a Total Recall remake when the 1990 Verhoeven film still holds up pretty well. But there’s no explaining Hollywood, and taking the film as-is rather than try to protest its existence is a good first step toward lowering one’s blood pressure. So it is that this 2012 version is most notable for its jazzed-up visual density: The 1990 film was made before the commodization of CGI, but this new version is filled with complex virtual environments, multi-layered visuals, swooping cameras moves, dazzling tracking shots and a tremendous amount of polish. (Also, alas, gratuitous lens flare.) It works insofar as the production design offers one of the most fully-realized vision of an Earthbound future since maybe Minority Report: robo-soldiers, hand-phones, surface-projection, skyways, interactive holograms, trans-core travel, hurrah! Never mind the lousy science of the film: the action sequences using those gadgets are quite nice: director Len Wiseman is adept at using the tools at his disposal to set up some impressive mayhem, and this translate into a number of remarkable shots, whether the characters are chasing each other through multidimensional slums, driving flying cars in future London, battling robots in three-dimensional elevators or using guns to propel themselves (unrealistically) in zero-gee. Collin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel all do well in their respective roles; you can even argue that Farrell, in particular, is quite a bit more credible in this particular everyman role than Schwarzenegger was in the original. Sadly, much of this Total Recall’s strengths are purely visual or superficial. When it comes to plotting, internal logic, world-building, character motivation or even moment-to-moment fun, this Total Recall is noticeably worse than the original’s sometimes-goofy charm. Making little attempt to truly go beyond the dream-logic of its progenitor, this remake frequently feels dull from a storytelling standpoint, especially for those who remember the original clearly. Still, especially for futuristic action junkies, the remake isn’t a complete waste of time: It frequently looks great, and it’s a decent showcase of what’s now possible when you throw enough special effects at the screen. It’s worth a look, but not a thought.
(On Cable TV, December 2012) Since his starring role in The Transporter (2002) Jason Statham has been successful at establishing himself as one of the few reliable action movie stars of the decade, with the unfortunate result that “Statham movies” often feel generic. Safe certainly won’t rank among Statham’s most distinctive efforts: A routine crime thriller set in the streets of New York with Statham mowing down opposing mobs while protecting a girl savant, it’s a satisfying but unmemorable effort that won’t do much to alter everyone’s perceptions of the actor. Statham gruffs his way through the plot, back-story gradually emerging to prove that he’s not the homeless guy we’ve been shown from the get-go. The math-genius girl plot thread is handled with a refreshing lack of sentimentality, but her place in the overall plot is tangential at best. The rest is more of that familiar triads-vs-mafiya-vs-corrupt-cops-vs-protagonist stuff, albeit handled with an absurd body count. Much of the fights and action sequences in the latter half of the film are fairly dull, which is a shame given that the first half contains two dynamic quasi-subjective extended shots in which we’re put in the middle of the action. Also noteworthy is the buildup to a major final fight between two characters, unexpectedly averted at the last moment. Statham is up to his usual standards… which should explain why his reputation will only benefit from this ordinary film. Otherwise, Safe is almost exactly the kind of film conceived to fill up an undemanding evening: it’s almost exactly what it’s intended to be, and competently made most of the time.
(On Cable TV, December 2012) Alongside the kind of frantic urgency that characterizes much of the so-called “thriller” genre these days, it’s a refreshing change of pace to find a film like The Hunter, which trades hyperkinetic editing for meditative long-shots, and character study in lieu of shootouts. Willem Dafoe is a convincing presence as a professional mercenary hunting down a rare creature while dealing with various opponents: He says a lot without saying much, and seems perfectly suited to an introvert lead character. (Meanwhile, Sam Neill also makes an impression in a generally unsympathetic role.) Dafoe’s rugged features reflect that the real star of The Hunter is the Tasmanian countryside: stark and colorful, majestic and harsh. The plot isn’t particularly complicated, but viewers sympathetic to a slower pace will find much to like in the way the film unfolds slowly, gradually ratcheting the tension on its taciturn protagonist. There’s some unexpected philosophical content here, tackling upon environmentalism and the choices that we make in-between duty and emotion. There’s a surprising amount of silence in what is supposed to be a thriller and while the result may not thrill those looking for a bit more movement, the result excels at what it intends to do.
(On Cable TV, December 2012) Looking at the quasi-complete success of The Muppets, it’s hard to fully recognize the challenges that its writers and producers were facing in reviving the Muppets for the twenty-first century’s big screen: Would fond memories of the Muppets translate well in this ironic age? Would it be possible to ground the Muppets into a contemporary reality? What to do with the iconic characters? The first surprise of The Muppets is that it works. The second surprise is that it works really well, carefully balancing itself between opposing objectives. It’s self-aware without being ironic, sentimental without being sappy and self-deprecating without being sardonic. Writer/star Jason Segel deserves a lot of credit for spearheading this revival: his affection for the Muppets is obvious, and he lets them grab most of the film’s glory. The winks to the modern audience are frequent without being annoying, and the way The Muppets plays with familiar tropes is amusing without being too annoying. Groaners accompany wit and the familiar is combined with the new. It’s a great film for the entire family, and it should herald more Muppets in the near future.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) I’m a forgiving fan of big dumb action movies, but there’s something just off in the way Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is handled. The one-joke premise (fully encapsulated in the title) is so outrageous that the only way to do it justice is to fully indulge in the madness: make it big, make it outrageous, make it as demented as possible. Indeed, the two best sequences of the film are those in which writer Seth Grahame-Smith (who adapted his own rather more serious eponymous novel) allows himself to go as over-the-top as possible: Flinging horses and jumping away from collapsing bridges are exactly what I expect of a film titled Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Unfortunately, the script calls for the rest of the film to be ponderous and reverential to the Lincoln mythos. This makes the end result feel far too heavy for its own sake and possibly insulting to the real-life history of slavery. Where is the fun? Where is the action? By trying to stand half-way between the historical record and the craziness of its ultra-contemporary premise, director Timur Bekmambetov (who’s capable of much better) ends up sabotaging the impact of his own project. At a time where campy irony is justifiably decried, I feel bad about calling for more of it… but the best moments of the film only highlight what it most missed. Fortunately, most of the actors do good work: Benjamin Walker is just fine as Lincoln (some camera angles late in the film make him look like Liam Neeson) and Rufus Sewell seems to have a lot of fun playing the antagonist. Aside from the stampede sequence and the train finale, through, there really isn’t much to Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter: the script is inconsistent, the dialogues are perfunctory and the pacing is slow enough to make anyone long for the next burst of madness. Unlike other reviewers, I had some hopes for the film. Alas, I can only register my disappointment.