27 December 2012

The Best of 2012

The 10 best movies I saw in 2012:

 Daniel Day-Lewis, center rear, is shown in a scene from "Lincoln."
1. "Lincoln"

Steven Spielberg directing a film about our 16th president, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role—sounds like a slam dunk, right? Well, yes, it is, but expecting it to be great doesn't diminish its tremendous achievement.

Instead of being a biopic spanning decades, the movie is set primarily in January 1865, when Lincoln pulled out every political trick he could find to secure passage of the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery).

Day-Lewis fully inhabits Abraham Lincoln, bringing him to life in a way we've never seen before, whether he's delivering a passionate speech or telling one of his folksy stories. It's a performance of extraordinary power in a career filled with towering achievements. The supporting cast, including Tommy Lee Jones as the abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, is filled with many of today's best character actors.

This is the work of a restrained Spielberg, who allows the extraordinary performances to carry the film.

21 December 2012

Jack Reacher

Tom Cruise is shown in a scene from "Jack Reacher."

"You think I'm a hero? I'm not a hero. I'm a drifter with nothing to lose."

He's Jack Reacher, protagonist of the film of the same name, a former military police officer who now wanders the United States, regularly collecting his pension but leaving no other trace—no family, no home, no car, no driver's license, no clothes other than what he's wearing.

He's the star of a series of mystery novels by Lee Child (now at 17 and counting); "Jack Reacher" is based on the ninth, "One Shot," published in 2005. In the books, he's an intimidating physical presence—6 feet 5 inches tall, 250 pounds—not exactly what comes to mind when you think of Tom Cruise.

19 December 2012

Les Misérables

Hugh Jackman holds Isabelle Allen in a scene from "Les Misérables."

Let me put this out there right at the start: I don't "get" musicals.

Maybe I'm being shortsighted, but they just don't make much sense to me. I know the genre is no more artificial than any other, yet I can't help wondering how all the characters knows all the words, melodies and dance steps. (Maybe these are the original flash mobs, and the filmmakers left out the scenes of them planning their little get-togethers.) And I simply don't care for the music of most musicals, which probably is my biggest problem.

However, I can sit back and admire parts of "Les Misérables" without becoming remotely engaged in the material.

This is 40

Paul Rudd, left, and Leslie Mann are shown in a scene from "This is 40."

Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), the married couple we met five years ago in "Knocked Up," aren't always 100 percent honest with each other. They aren't guilty of lying as much as they are of omitting—Pete eats an extra cupcake, Debbie enjoys an occasional cigarette, Pete misses a mortgage payment due to his floundering record company. Not all omissions are created equal.

But their love runs deep, feels real, and even as they endlessly bicker and see their very different interests pulling them apart, it feels as though that bond, a connection that is not rational or explainable, will see them through it—not in a way that is trite or predictable, but in a manner that says these people are right for each other, and smart and mature enough to figure out how to make it work.

"This is 40," from writer-director Judd Apatow, deals head-on with the issues of the transition from young adulthood to middle age, of marriage, of being a parent, of coming to the realization that responsibility is not something that will go away. And it does so in a way that is often hilarious and always honest.

18 December 2012

Life of Pi

Suraj Sharma is shown in a scene from "Life of Pi."

Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" has grand ambitions. It aims to be an epic tale of survival and wonder, filled with exquisite special effects. It mostly succeeds but falls short in one crucial area.

This is the story of an Indian boy named Piscine Patel, after a swimming pool in France. He adopts the moniker "Pi" after schoolmates notice the similarity between his name and a term for a particular bodily function.

Raised at a zoo and as a Hindu, Pi spends much of his childhood exploring Christianity and Islam in an effort to love and understand God.

15 December 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Jennifer Lawrence, left, and Bradley Cooper are shown in a scene from "Silver Linings Playbook."

Pat Solatano's (Bradley Cooper) life appears to be in shambles. After eight months in a Baltimore mental hospital, where he's been diagnosed as bipolar, he's lost both his job and his house. He lost his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), earlier—finding her in the shower with another man triggered the breakdown that sent him away. She now has a restraining order against him.

He comes home to Philadelphia to stay with his parents: caring, supportive Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), who is obsessive-compulsive, highly superstitious and a voracious gambler—a potentially nightmarish combination when he's watching his beloved Philadelphia Eagles on TV (he's been banned from the stadium for fighting).

Yet Pat is upbeat and optimistic. "Excelsior!" is his motto. He knows he can win Nikki back by bettering himself, which he sets out to do through a combination of physical fitness and reading the books on the syllabus of her high school English class.

13 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Martin Freeman is shown in a scene from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

There's no other way to say it: Peter Jackson has done it again.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is an absolute triumph, possessing all the magic, adventure and excitement of his landmark "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

With the "Rings" movies, Jackson crafted one of the great epics in the history of cinema. Large-scale filmmaking with unprecedented visual effects combined with a moving, intimate, human story of friendship, love, cooperation, overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles and how even the people who seem the most insignificant of all have the power to change the world—all in a fantastical land that still feels like a place we might be able to visit.

With the three "Rings" films raking in billions of dollars worldwide and bringing home a host of awards (including an 11-for-11 Oscar sweep for the final installment, "The Return of the King"), all that's unexpected about "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is that it took nine years to find its way to the big screen and that it is the first in a trilogy based on that one book by J.R.R. Tolkien, published about a decade and a half before "The Lord of the Rings," that introduced the world of Middle-earth and the race of the diminutive, comfort-loving hobbits.

07 December 2012


From left, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren are shown in a scene from "Hitchcock."

Alfred Hitchcock is perhaps the most well known filmmaker of all time. Anyone into movies is in some way familiar with the Master of Suspense. Even someone who somehow has not seen one of his many classics probably recognizes his famous profile in silhouette or his slow, ominous, British-accented manner of speaking or maybe the theme music of his TV show, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

But for all his fame, we know little about the man himself. "Hitchcock," from director Sacha Gervasi ("Anvil: The Story of Anvil," 2008) tries to rectify that, giving us a peak into the relationship between Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), in 1959 during the making of "Psycho."

Coming off of "North by Northwest," the pinnacle and most extravagant of his "man on the run" movies, Hitch longs for a return to his filmmaking roots, when he wasn't weighed down by big budgets and bigger stars. He fixates on "Psycho," a novel inspired by real-life killer Ed Gein. Paramount Pictures executives are less then enthused about producing a picture of murder (including the death of the supposed heroine after only 30 minutes), matricide and crossdressing.

16 November 2012


Daniel Day-Lewis is shown in a scene from "Lincoln."

No figure in American history has maintained a more prominent place in the collective consciousness than Abraham Lincoln.

The image of his bearded face and top hat is burned into our brains.

We start learning about him as schoolchildren—how he rose from his meager beginnings, mostly self-taught, to become our 16th president, lead the nation through the horrors of the Civil War, free the slaves and die by an assassin's hand.

He is a towering figure, an icon, known to the average person more for what he did than how he accomplished those feats or who he was.

In "Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's masterful film covering the last three months and change of Lincoln's life, we see the politician at work, maneuvering and exerting all his influence to push through the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) and end the Civil War.

23 October 2012

Seven (1995)

Morgan Freeman, left, and Brad Pitt are shown in a scene from "Seven."

"Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light."

In "Seven" (1995), serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey), who chooses his victims based on the Seven Deadly Sins, leaves behind the quote from John Milton's "Paradise Lost" at a crime scene. Director David Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker spend the entirety of the film showing us just how long and hard that way is, carrying out an unrelenting examination of the evil that may or may not be festering inside every one of us.

Make no mistake: "Seven" is a bleak, unsettling picture, its setting a purposely unnamed metropolis where the only variation in the weather is the strength of the endless downpour; its antagonist left to plot and carry out his grisly work off-screen for the first 90 minutes (to maintain his anonymity, Spacey's name isn't in the opening titles); its protagonists doing little more than recording and cataloging the horrific scenes he leaves behind.

Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is at the end of the line. He's seen too much of this urban nightmare, and in exactly one week, he'll be retired, somewhere "far away from here." Enter his replacement: young Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), recently relocated with his wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), from "upstate." While Somerset is weary and cynical, Mills is eager and optimistic that doing his job will make a real difference.

The seven days chronicled change both men in profound ways.

12 October 2012


Ben Affleck is shown in a scene from "Argo."

Three films and three home runs for Ben Affleck the director.

From "Gone Baby Gone" (2007) to "The Town" (2010) to his latest, "Argo," he's steadily raised the stakes and widened his scope, this time leaving his native Boston behind and delivering his first true crowd-pleaser.

The meticulously crafted "Argo" seamlessly blends elements of the thriller, political drama, heist movie and comedy, with none of those disparate elements undermining any of the others. It's based on one of those real-life stories most probably would think is preposterous if it came solely from the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter.

In 1979, during the Iranian Revolution, Islamic militants storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage. Six Americans escape and find refuge at the home of Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), the Canadian ambassador to Iran. They're safe there, but for how long? The Iranians aren't letting Americans out of the country, and they have kids hard at work reassembling shredded files at the embassy. It's only a matter of time until they discover six people are missing.

30 September 2012


Bruce Willis, left, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are shown in a scene from "Looper."

"Looper" boasts an ingenius premise, a hook most other movies would introduce and simply coast on until the end. But writer-director Rian Johnson never stops working, using the science-fiction setup and trappings to delve into the characters and give us a story with some real meat.

"Looper" is the story of Joe. Actually, it's the story of two Joeswho really are the same Joe. One, in 2044, is a young man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a junkie who works for a ruthless mob boss known as the Rainmakerwho's running things three decades from now. "Time travel hasn't been invented yet," Joe explains in voice-over, "but in 30 years, it will have been." Joe is a "looper," an executioner who eliminates whoever the future mob sends back in time, no questions asked. The mob literally makes its enemies disappear and rewards Joe handsomely. Each looper does this knowing his future self eventually will be delivered to him. He's expected to pull the trigger as he always does, take the hefty payout that comes along with it and live out his remaining days however he sees fituntil it's time for him to go back and close his loop.

Everybody got that? Good.

25 September 2012

House at the End of the Street

Jennifer Lawrence, left, and Elizabeth Shue are shown in a scene from "House at the End of the Street."

"House at the End of the Street" borrows heavily from one of the all-time classics—revealing which classic film would be a big spoiler—and does so in a way that is both good and bad.

The good: It's disguised well enough that you might not see it coming.

The bad: I'm not sure if it makes sense. It feels like the filmmakers were so enamored of their twist on the well-known story that, along the way, they got a little lost in the details of the plot.

The setup is typical of a horror movie. Sarah Cassidy (Elizabeth Shue) and her 17-year-old daughter, Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence), move from Chicago to a small, rural town. Elissa appears to have been closer to her father, and we never learn why she lives with her mother now.

21 September 2012

Trouble with the Curve

Clint Eastwood, right, and Amy Adams are shown in a scene from "Trouble with the Curve."

The trouble with "Trouble with the Curve" is it feels outdated, as behind the times as co-workers accuse Gus, an octogenarian baseball scout with failing eyesight, of being.

But because Clint Eastwood plays Gus with his usual steely-eyed authority, and because his chief critic is a sniveling villain played by Matthew Lillard, we are expected to overlook that thought.

Gus, a longtime scout for the Atlanta Braves, pores over box scores in newspapers and frequently hits the road to evaluate young talent with his own eyes—even when those eyes aren't working anymore. The Lillard character prefers to use statistics and—gasp!—a computer. Though he had a different name, better actor and superior script, he essentially was the hero of last year's "Moneyball." Gus is the kind of dinosaur we saw ushered out in that film.

"Trouble with the Curve" asks us to ignore the reality of the sport.

11 September 2012

Sleepwalk with Me

Mike Birbiglia is shown in a scene from "Sleepwalk with Me."

Sometimes, a story is so good—so darn funny, so full of real, relatable, human emotion—and the storyteller so engaging that it not only works but flourishes in any medium.

Take comedian Mike Birbiglia's "Sleepwalk with Me." It's been a one-man, Off Broadway show; he's performed portions of it on the radio program "This American Life," hosted by Ira Glass; it is the title story of Birbiglia's book, released in 2010; and a live performance is available on CD.

The culmination of it all is "Sleepwalk with Me" the feature film, directed by Birbiglia, with co-director Seth Barrish; written by Birbiglia, his brother Joe, Glass and Barrish; and starring Birbiglia as an only slightly fictional version of himself, Matt Pandamiglio.

OK, so we all haven't jumped through a closed, second-story window, or found ourselves threatened by a jackal in our bedroom in the middle of the night, as Birbiglia has done in his life and Matt does in the movie. But who hasn't felt the anxiety that can come from a relationship, pressure from family and friends, and struggles in your chosen career path?

14 August 2012

The Campaign

Will Ferrell, left, and Zach Galifianakis are shown in a scene from "The Campaign."
With the presidential election less than three months away, "The Campaign," featuring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as dueling congressional candidates, couldn't be any more timely.

Director Jay Roach pulls from both sides of his career, attempting to mix the broad comedy of "Meet the Parents" and the Austin Powers series with the political drama of "Recount" and "Game Change." The movie doesn't have much to say beyond the obvious—politicians are not to be trusted, and campaigning is a dirty business. That's mostly OK, though, for what it lacks in incisive satire, it makes up in big laughs.

Ferrell is Cam Brady, a long-serving, philandering congressman representing North Carolina's 14th District, based in part on former Sen. John Edwards with a touch of Ferrell's George W. Bush impression. Brady serves not out of a desire to accomplish anything, but simply because he enjoys being "Congressman Cam Brady" too much to be anything else. His constituents keep electing him because he always runs unopposed.

News of Brady's latest affair creates an opening two industrialist brothers, Glenn and Wade Motch (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), hope to exploit. Searching for someone to serve as their puppet, they come across Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), a naive, small-town tourism director.

10 August 2012

The Bourne Legacy

Jeremy Renner is shown in a scene from "The Bourne Legacy."
How many times have you seen the fourth installment in a Hollywood franchise and left the theater thinking, "I hope I don't have to wait long for part five?"

It doesn't take long to count to zero.

But Tony Gilroy, screenwriter of the first three "Bourne films," should create that kind of anticipating with "The Bourne Legacy," which he directed and co-wrote with his brother, Dan Gilroy.

Like the films that preceded it, this is a movie that, even its (brief) quieter passages, is all about momentum. Things are happening, the good guys are on the move, the bad guys are closing in. Its pulse never drops, its pace never relents.

Gilroy might even take that edge-of-your-seat feeling a little too far, barely offering a moment to breathe before the end credits start to roll rather abruptly. Maybe that just goes to show how completely I was wrapped up in the movie's action to that point.

29 June 2012


Mark Wahlberg, left, is shown with the character Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) in a scene from "Ted."
There are many reasons we go to the movies—to be thrilled, to be scared, to think, to learn, to see the future, to visit the past, to travel to foreign countries and worlds, and one that never seems to get the respect afforded so many others, to laugh.

Being funny is hard, hard work, especially in a movie, when you're working without any real audience feedback until late in the process. If the timing is off or if a couple jokes bomb, that's serious trouble. Sometimes, a movie can be so bad it's funny; a comedy aims to be funny, so when it's bad, it's simply bad.

This is all to say that a good comedy—even if its goal is no loftier than to make us laugh—deserves more praise than we often give it. There should be no shame, even in the snootiest of film circles, in wholeheartedly recommending a movie about a man's friendship with the teddy bear that miraculously came to life when he was a boy—if said movie is bursting with laughs and tells a satisfying story.

I've just described "Ted," the feature-film debut of "Family Guy" mastermind Seth MacFarlane, in which young, friendless John Bennett makes a Christmas wish that gives him a best friend for life. This walking, talking stuffed animal becomes a media sensation, but 27 years later, Ted (voiced by MacFarlane, doing just a slight variation of "Family Guy's" Peter Griffin) has gone from trading quips with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" to being the boorish roommate a 35-year-old John (Mark Wahlberg) just can't bear to get rid of, even though the bear's presence obviously is wearing on his relationship with Lori (Mila Kunis), his girlfriend of four years.

22 June 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Benjamin Walker is shown in a scene from "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."
Honest Abe. The Great Emancipator. Vampire hunter.

At long last, the secret, undead-slaying life of our 16th president has come to light, first in the 2010 novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, now in the feature film of the same name, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

The premise might sound ridiculous—because it is, of course. The key is that Grahame-Smith (who also wrote the screenplay), director Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted"), Benjamin Walker in the title role and the rest of the cast play it deadly serious. Those expecting a high camp factor will be disappointed; this is a straight-laced action-adventure film with more than enough blood to earn its R rating and action set pieces at times bordering on spectacular.

Though events (some major) are omitted for the sake of pacing and running time, there is a real respect for history, the movie following Lincoln from a young boy in Indiana until his final day in the nation's capital.

10 May 2012

Dark Shadows

Johnny Depp is shown in a scene from "Dark Shadows."
"Dark Shadows," a daytime soap opera that aired from 1966 to 1971 on ABC, was popular in its time, adored by some (now forgotten by more) and unique in that after its run began, it introduced ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches and other sorts of supernatural happenings. It might seem a weird choice for a feature film in 2012—but not for director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp. For them, teaming together for the eighth time, it feels routine, safe.

After all, Burton has been mining "weird" at the movies for more than a quarter century, while Depp has become one of the world's most popular actors by disappearing into outrageous costumes, makeup and hair, and speaking in different variations of an English accent.

So there is a been-there-done-that feeling permeating all of "Dark Shadows," no matter how entertaining it might be at times.

03 May 2012

The Avengers

Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) left, and Captain America (Chris Evans) are shown in a scene from "The Avengers."
Five films in four years, plus an even longer wait for legions of comic book lovers—and the payoff, "The Avengers" (or "Marvel's The Avengers," as the studio insists on calling it), delivers all anyone could hope for.

Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) all are here, mostly ready to take on each other at first, then teaming up to battle Thor's brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and the army he intends to unleash upon the people of Earth.

More importantly, writer-director Joss Whedon makes sure the people behind the silly names and costumes always are present, as well [-] Tony Stark (Iron Man), Steve Rogers (Captain America), Bruce Banner (the Hulk), Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) and Clint Barton (Hawkeye).

So while the sheer spectacle—this is a vividly shot and designed film, even in dreaded 3-D—is almost overwhelming, especially during the climactic smackdown in which seemingly half of New York City is reduced to rubble, it is the quieter character moments that give the movie its beating heart, that make us care about whether these superhumans (or demigod, in Thor's case) can come together and cause us to think there is a chance they could be unsuccessful once they do.

27 April 2012

The Five-Year Engagement

Emily Blunt, left, and Jason Segel are shown in a scene from "The Five-Year Engagement."

Collaborating again, director Nicholas Stoller and star Jason Segel have made in "The Five-Year Engagement" sort of the opposite of their first film together, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (2008).

"Sarah Marshall" is about a man's struggle to move on after a bad breakup; in "The Five-Year Engagement," a man puts his life and ambitions on hold to stay with the woman he loves.

Segel is Tom, a chef who dreams of opening his own restaurant and is on the fast track to becoming a head chef, which is almost as good. But his fiancée, Violet (Emily Blunt), lands a dream job of her own. So Tom leaves behind his beloved San Francisco, following her to snow-covered Ann Arbor, where she works in the psychology department at the University of Michigan.

While Violet strikes up a close friendship with her new boss (Rhys Ifans), Tom is floundering, settling for a job making sandwiches at a deli, taking up hunting and growing a scraggly beard. The initial two years in Michigan become more, and a wedding is nowhere in sight.

13 April 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

Fran Kranz is shown in a scene from "The Cabin in the Woods."
If you are a fan of horror movies, or have even a passing interest in the genre, you must see "The Cabin in the Woods."

We're not debating this.

I don't even care if you read to the end of this review first.

Pull up the Fandango app on your phone, figure out when (sooner is better) and where you want to see it--make it happen.

Then we'll talk.


Still here?

OK, I'll give you a little more.

06 April 2012

American Reunion

From left, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Jason Biggs, Seann William Scott, Chris Klein and Eddie Kaye Thomas are shown in a scene from "American Reunion."
The kids from "American Pie" are all grown up.

When we catch up with the gang at the start of "American Reunion,"#<\p>Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), married since 2003's "American Wedding," have a 2-year-old son and a dormant sex life.

Oz (Chris Klein) is a famous TV sportscaster with a supermodel girlfriend.

Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is a happily married architect. And he has a beard.

Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) returns to East Great Falls with the tales of a world traveler.

And then there's Stifler (Seann William Scott).

28 March 2012

The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen in a scene from "The Hunger Games."
Does anyone else find it really weird that "The Hunger Games" is the book and movie that has captured the imagination of so many readers and viewers, young and old alike?

Playing like a cross between "The Running Man," "Lord of the Flies" and "The Truman Show," the movie tells a brutal, bloody story. You can talk about its themes of government control and how we glorify violence, but what it comes down to is teenagers killing each other, sometimes with their bare hands.

For a scene in which up to a dozen kids die in a matter of seconds, Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit") employs a handheld camera and quick cutting, never lingering on the horrific acts and minimizing the blood on the screen.

I'm not sure if that's good or bad.

16 March 2012

21 Jump Street

Jonah Hill, left, and Channing Tatum are shown in a scene from "21 Jump Street."
I have vague recollections of the late-1980s TV series "21 Jump Street." I know it starred Johnny Depp and involved police officers going undercover at high schools and colleges. I do not remember it being a comedy.

But that's what we get with the 2012 movie adaptation.

The bigger surprise? It doesn't just work, it works really well.

Star Jonah Hill and screenwriter Michael Bacall, who share the story credit, and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller ("Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs") run the basic scenario through the modern, R-rated comedy machine and give us a movie loaded with laughs, colored with a layer of self-awareness, peppered with action and built around a surprisingly sweet emotional core.

An even bigger surprise? Channing Tatum, whose acting in the past always has failed to be as interesting as his name, gives a fine comedic performance.

17 February 2012

This Means War

Tom Hardy, left, Reese Witherspoon, center, and Chris Pine are shown in a scene from "This Means War."
"This Means War" must have been an easy sell.

Reese Witherspoon, a romantic comedy veteran who also is an accomplished, award-winning actress, is at its center.

The two leads are rising stars: Chris Pine of "Star Trek" (2009) fame, and Tom Hardy, who appeared in the blockbuster "Inception," gave acclaimed performances in "Bronson" and "Warrior," and is set to be the villain in the next Batman movie, this summer's "The Dark Knight Rises."

The director, McG ("Charlie's Angels"), has had success with this kind of slickly made action-comedy.

And the premise, pure fantasy though it may be, bursts with potential.

10 February 2012

Safe House

Denzel Washington is shown in a scene from "Safe House."
You can watch "Safe House" and see the obvious influence of the "Bourne" movies on its many action scenes. You can see Denzel Washington synthesizing his various screen personas into what essentially is a greatest-hits performance. And even though characters talk about the hardships necessitated by a life spent in espionage, you can see a movie that doesn't really have anything meaningful to say.

It would be easy to think, "Been there, done that," and move on to the next disposable entertainment.

But almost in spite of itself, "Safe House" is an effective piece of genre filmmaking.

As Tobin Frost (one of those only-in-the-movies names), a CIA agent who turned traitor nine years earlier, Washington clearly is relishing the antihero role. He gets to be a bit of the bad guy, a bit of the do-gooder with a self-righteous streak. It's a role he could play in his sleep, but he still has fun with it. Frost has something a bunch of people will kill for, so with no other options, he turns himself in at the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town, South Africa.

From there, he's taken to a CIA safe house manned by young Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds, quietly becoming a versatile leading man), who's been desperate for something—anything—to happen there.

07 February 2012

The Woman in Black

Daniel Radcliffe is shown in a scene from "The Woman in Black."
"I think I'll work through the night."

Many stupid things have been said in movies, horror movies in particular. But "I think I'll work through the night" from "The Woman in Black" has got to be near the top of the list.

The speaker is Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a young attorney sent from London to a remote coastal village to settle the affairs of the recently deceased Alice Drablow.

He already has spent some time at her home, the Eel Marsh House, a place where the locals, except the friendly, wealthy Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds), are afraid to go. He already has seen the mysterious, black-clothed woman on the grounds. He already has learned of the violent deaths that occurred there in the past. And he already has seen how spooky the house can be in the daytime.

So when Sam tells him when he must return to pick him up before high tide makes the one road to and from the place impassable, Arthur, with all this knowledge, knowing he will be stranded there until the next day, doesn't hesitate a beat before saying, "Oh no, it's fine. I think I'll work through the night."

31 January 2012

Man on a Ledge

Elizabeth Banks, left, and Sam Worthington are shown in a scene from "Man on a Ledge."
It's called "Man on a Ledge." And sure enough, when the movie begins, there is a man. And within a couple minutes, before he has spoken his fourth line of dialogue, that man is on a ledge.

The movie has many faults, but false advertising is not among them.

The man is Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington), once a cop, now an escaped convict. The ledge is on the 21st floor of the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City.

Because this is a movie, we know with about 99 percent certainly that Nick will not jump to his death, that he is an innocent man, that he was framed for the theft of a $40 million diamond from businessman David Englander (Ed Harris) and that his innocence will be proven by his brother, Joey (Jamie Bell), and Joey's girlfriend, Angie (Genesis Rodriguez), who are across the street breaking into Englander's building. And, in accordance with Roger Ebert's Law of Economy of Characters (which states, "Movie budgets make it impossible for any film to contain unnecessary characters"), we know the people responsible for the frame job are on on screen right in front of us.

The Grey

From left, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Liam Neeson and Nonso Anozie are shown in a scene from "The Grey."
Pushing 60, Liam Neeson has seen his career take an abrupt turn in recent years. "Taken" (2009) and "Unknown" (2011) established him as a box-office draw in the early part of the year and an unlikely action hero with a world-weary, working-class approach to beating up the bad guys.

"The Grey" emphasizes that world-weary quality. The actor, at his very best, draws from his own experience—mourning the 2009 death of his wife, actress Natasha Richardson, in a skiing accident—to portray Ottway, a lonely, brooding man who also has loved and lost.

Working with an Alaskan oil-drilling team, patrolling the perimeter, shooting the dangerous wolves that venture a little too close, Ottway is on the verge of suicide when we meet him. Stronger instincts kick in, though, when he and a handful of others survive a plane crash and are stranded in the harsh Alaskan wilderness. They must contend with both the elements and a pack wolves that doesn't take kindly to guests in its territory.

26 January 2012

Narc (2002)

Ray Liotta, left, and Jason Patric are shown in a scene from "Narc."
Joe Carnahan, director of the new Liam Neeson survival thriller "The Grey," had his breakthrough with the 2002 cop movie "Narc."

Detroit cop Henry Oak is a beast of a man, an intimidating figure with an end-justifies-the-means attitude toward law enforcement. Brought to ferocious life by Ray Liotta in "Narc," written and directed by Joe Carnahan, he's a ticking time bomb hellbent on finding the killer of his former partner and friend, an undercover narcotics cop named Michael Calvess.

Oak is the man with whom Nick Tellis (Jason Patric), a narc who's been suspended since accidentally shooting a pregnant woman 18 months earlier, must work when he's brought onto the case. The departmental brass hope Tellis can use his old street contacts to get to the killer. With his captain (Chi McBride) dangling full reinstatement in front of him, he has to accept the offer even though it will take him away from his wife (Krista Bridges) and baby son. He tries to refuse, but he's as addicted to the job as he was to the drugs he got hooked on while working undercover.

The mean Detroit streets of "8 Mile" seem almost cheerful compared to the cruel world of "Narc." Carnahan employs every stylistic trick in the book to create this effect, including extensive use of handheld camera shots (used to great effect in the opening chase scene), filters, flashbacks presented with quick-hitting, violent edits, toying with the focus and using split screen (an economic method to get us through the more mundane period of the investigation). Used intelligently, these tools all serve to enhance the story, characters, mood and tone.

24 January 2012


Gina Carano and Ewan McGregor are shown in a scene from "Haywire."
Action film, spy movie, revenge picture—any way you slice it, the nuts and bolts of “Haywire” have been done to death. But never before by maverick filmmaker Steven Soderbergh.

In his hands, the movie becomes a bit of a puzzle, with cross-cut flashbacks, occasional shots of black and white, and an array of unconventional camera angles.

To top it off, Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Lem Dobbs (who also wrote Soderbergh's “Kafka” and “The Limey”), developed the movie around a performer with virtually no acting experience, former mixed martial arts star Gina Carano.

They tailored the script to her strengths, resulting in a terse heroine of the Jason Bourne variety and a narrative that, despite everything Soderbergh pulls from his bag of directorial tricks, is based on a handful of visceral hand-to-hand combat scenes.

12 January 2012

2012 Movie Preview: Part Two

Here's some of what Hollywood has lined up for the second half of 2012.

Andrew Garfield is shown in a scene from "The Amazing Spider-Man."
"The Amazing Spider-Man" (July 3)
Director: Marc Webb
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Martin Sheen, Sally Field
Plot: Teenager Peter Parker deals with human problems and new superhuman abilities.
Maki Meter of Anticipation (on a scale of 1 to 10): 7

"Ice Age: Continental Drift" (July 13)
Directors: Steve Martino, Mike Thurmeier
Stars: Ray Romano, Denis Leary, John Leguizamo
Plot: Manny, Diego and Sid embark upon another adventure after their continent is set adrift.
Maki Meter: 4

05 January 2012

2012 Movie Preview: Part One

Box office revenue and attendance at movie theaters were down in 2011, but Hollywood is eyeing a big year in 2012.

The schedule is packed with the latest adventures of Batman, Spider-Man and other superheroes, James Bond, the sparkly vampires of “Twilight,” Abraham Lincoln and a return to Middle-Earth.

Here is a sampling of what to expect at the movies in the first half of this year.

“Contraband” (Jan. 13)
Director: Baltasar Kormakur
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Kate Beckinsale
Plot: A former smuggler heads to Panama to score millions of dollars in counterfeit bills to protect his brother-in-law from a drug lord.
Maki Meter of Anticipation (on a scale of 1 to 10): 4