Monday, January 20, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Dir. Kenneth Branagh

3 out of 5

Sitting through Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit reminded me of a question that gnaws at me anytime I watch a Hollywood espionage thriller: What's so alluring about creating an American version of James Bond?  The series of movies based on late novelist Tom Clancy's war hero-turned-intelligence analyst arguably represents the most consistent attempt at 'Americanizing' the Bond archetype and turning it into a modest cinematic institution, predating both Mission: Impossible and the Bourne cycle.  Shadow Recruit is the fifth film to feature the character of Jack Ryan, with Chris Pine the fourth actor to tackle the role since 1990's The Hunt for Red October.  And while it's a little unfair to lump Ryan in with a character whose origins lie in a completely different era of politics and filmmaking, the gap between the two is more indicative of a obvious difference in creative agendas that still tends to be overlooked - namely, the Ryan films are committed to action and intrigue, not iconography.

That's a perfectly noble goal, and one that Shadow Recruit achieves at times with great skill.  It's technically a reboot, tracking Ryan's career progression from the battlefields of Afghanistan, where he suffers a near-fatal back injury, to his civilian job as a compliance officer for a major Wall Street firm, which is actually a CIA listening post designed to keep tabs on suspicious financial activity.  For a while, the film is quite the low-key portrait of what it's like to be a rookie spy.  Ryan leans on the advice of his mentor (Kevin Costner)  and struggles to keep the true nature of his work secret from Cathy (Keira Knightley), the long-term girlfriend Ryan met while rehabbing his spinal injury.  She's reluctant to marry him, not fully understanding the true nature of Ryan's evasiveness until he's called to Moscow to investigate the shady dealings of wealthy Russian oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, who also directed).

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit could very well be the first post-post-9/11 spy movie.  Cherevin's nefarious plot revolves around a financial calamity as catastrophic as the concomitant terrorist attack planned by his sleeper agents inside the United States.  The movie's strongest setpiece is not the breathless pursuit of a bomber through the streets of New York City (which feels rather perfunctory), but an extended piece of nitty-gritty spycraft that involves Carol distracting Cherevin during dinner while Ryan infiltrates Cherevin's office to gather incriminating information.  Furthermore, Cherevin is no reclusive ideologue.  He's a lord of the realm who also happens to be a white-collar crook hiding in plain sight, and a character made more compelling by Branagh's subtle notes of pain in a man who's dedicated his entire life to settling old grudges.  He reminds Ryan that he fought in Afghanistan too, and keeps part of the American-supplied grenade that wounded him as a war trophy.

Alas, the film's breakneck pacing leaves the rest of the cast gasping for air when it comes to providing the type of shading that Branagh gives to Cherevin.  Shadow Recruit constantly charges into the next life-or-death situation, a strategy that prevents the movie from getting to flabby but doesn't help with character consistency.  Ryan is far more interesting when allowed to display vulnerability and fear, traits that are eventually thrown out the window in favor of making him another super-genius who knows exactly what to do and say to further the plot - a turn partly attributable to Pine, whose coolness and unflappability suits Star Trek's Captain Kirk much better than a greenhorn spy.  By transforming Jack Ryan into yet another do-anything superhero, Shadow Recruit joins a long line of films in succumbing to the Bond-ification of a promising character.  Sacrificing innovation for imitation, it's a middling attempt at a franchise relaunch that's far more successful in its more modest secondary aim: providing a diverting cloak-and-dagger caper.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Ride Along

Ride Along
Dir. Tim Story

2.5 out of 5

Imagine, if you will, the unlikely convergence of Training Day and Meet the Parents, and you might envision something like Ride Along, the latest benchmark in Ice Cube's decade-long mission to translate his tough guy bonafides into the language of comedy.  Here, Cube fills the Denzel/DeNiro role as James, an antisocial Atlanta cop and the tormentor of nice guy Ben (Kevin Hart), a diminutive police academy rookie in a long-term relationship with James' gorgeous sister Angela (Tika Sumpter).  Desperate to prove his worth to his imposing potential-brother-in-law, Ben agrees to accompany James on a single day's patrol, eagerly anticipating the chance to live out his heroic video game fantasies.  James, however, has a plan to disabuse Ben of his delusions and show him where he truly ranks within the family.

Ride Along is a textbook case of "two names on a poster" marketing.  The film's plot - from a script credited to four different writers - is mere window dressing for Hart's manic man-child shtick and Cube's gruff, glowering reactions.  Ben rarely seems to notice (or perhaps doesn't mind) that he's the butt of an elaborate joke.  He's an oblivious attention hound, but he's also a genuinely kind-hearted person who'll do anything to earn James' respect - even if it means wrestling a belligerent grocery store patron covered in honey.  Ride Along gives Hart plenty of opportunities to steal scenes, and he's mostly up to the challenge of making his eagerness to please seem sweet instead of wearying.

But while Hart is suitably hammy, Ride Along could use more meat on its bones.  The laughs dry up as the wacky pranks and hijinks are tabled in favor of the movie's action subplot involving Serbian arms dealers and a shadowy criminal figure known as "Omar."  While these scenes lead to a novel use for Ben's infinite braggadocio after James is captured by the bad guys, director Tim Story plays his cards far too modestly, babying the audience through a predictable series of action-comedy tropes.  As a latecomer to the ranks of recent comedies poking fun at the buddy cop formula, it would be nice if Ride Along aspired to clear the bar set by films like The Other Guys or 21 Jump Street.  Instead, it forces a tired template and an oddly neutered sense of humor onto a project designed to do little more than showcase the personalities of its stars, ironically content with the type of humdrum familiarity that its outsized, risk-taking protagonists would never abide. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Dir. Ben Stiller

3 out of 5

It's difficult for a movie that cost a reported $90 million to feel as unassuming as its painfully shy, sheltered protagonist, but here we have The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  Loosely based on James Thurber's seminal short story about a daydream-prone Everyman, this sweet-natured Walter (Ben Stiller) works in the photo department at Life magazine ("negative asset management"), processing images of daring deeds and exotic places far outside the boundaries of his hermetic comfort zone.  He frequently turns to his vivid imagination to escape the drudgery of daily life, becoming the heroic, fearless adventurer destined to win the heart of his office crush (Kristen Wiig) and stick it to the rude corporate lackey (Adam Scott) assigned to oversee Life's transition from an ink-and-paper magazine into a completely online entity.

While working on the cover for Life's final print issue, Walter receives a roll of film from the famed photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), who leaves explicit instructions to use a specific negative that contains, in his words, "the quintessence of life."  Unfortunately, said negative is missing, and Walter is forced to track O'Connell across the globe using only clues gleaned from his other recent photographs.  Soon he's taking the kind of risks he's only dreamed about, trekking to the ends of the Earth to fulfill his work assignment and, eventually, to discover a genuine sense of self.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty displays great affection for the outmoded and old-fashioned.  It charges itself with a purity of purpose that's decidedly unfashionable for a 21st century blockbuster, with Stiller imbuing the film with a disarming innocence, both as an actor and a director.  Walter always extends his fumbling interactions at least one beat too long, as if waiting for the situation to turn into one of his daydream scenarios.  Yet Stiller is able to express these flights of fancy as products of general world-weariness, not some sort of troubling mania or depression.  

Though an exploration of the darker hues in Walter's psyche might have made for a more intriguing film, we get one that much kinder, and stunningly beautiful to boot.  With help from cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, Stiller flashes some impressive visual chops in his most stylish film to date, fully utilizing on-location shoots in New York City and Scandinavia to create painterly landscapes that rival any high-def nonfiction travelogue. It almost - almost - allows the Stiller to get away with turning the story of a man's offbeat and somewhat troubling method of escape into a full-motion Patagonia catalog.  

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the type of cinematic comfort food that tends to pop up during the holiday season, an unabashed four-quadrant crowd-pleaser engineered for entertainment-starved families seeking a temporary escape.  Outside of that context, it's harder to reconcile the film's slow-burning sincerity with the obnoxious dream sequences strewn throughout the first act.  Tonally jarring and frequently unwelcome, several of them recall the wacky MTV Movie Awards sketches that helped launch Stiller into the mainstream, except less timely and edgy.  Once the story gets going, Stiller drops the daydreaming conceit entirely, a move that makes his movie more watchable yet perhaps less memorable.  I certainly can't impugn the effort and good humor on display in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (any filmmaker who clears a space for Patton Oswalt gets a thumbs-up from me), leaving only bemused contentment for a film that few will find disagreeable but, I fear, even fewer will champion.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

I Know That Voice

I Know That Voice
Dir. Lawrence Shapiro

3.5 out of 5

When an actor undergoes a physical transformation, it’s a conspicuous change that sometimes piques the interest of award voters – think of Jared Leto portraying a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club or Christian Bale’s Batman physique melting into his American Hustle pot belly.  But in the world of voice acting, where the boundaries of not only gender and body type, but also age and species are far more mutable, it’s simply par for the course.  That’s just one of several intriguing observations made by I Know That Voice, a fun and inviting new documentary that pays tribute to a large community of performers whose presence is very rarely seen, but most definitely heard. 

Directed by Lawrence Shapiro and executive produced by John DiMaggio – best known as Futurama’s Bender and Adventure Time’s Jake the Dog – I Know That Voice presents an overview of the voice acting profession, as told by some of the industry’s most familiar names.  It’s quite a broad topic for a 90-minute documentary, and the pacing is brisk as DiMaggio and Shapiro try to cover the business from as many angles as possible.  Some of the segments – particularly ones about legendary voiceover directors, the rise of voice work in video games, and the world-within-a-world of dubbing (discussed only within the context of anime) – warrant further exploration.  However, the goal here is to impress upon audiences the diversity of the field and the myriad differences between “doing a funny voice” and the skill of voice acting.

I Know That Voice is unquestionably by and for actors, filled with career advice and tips on technique that will appeal to people looking to break into the business.  The good news is that bloviating is kept to a minimum.  Even the driest shop talk segments don’t last very long and benefit from the interviewees’ laid-back, collegial nature, a quality that many actors credit to relatively low profile of voice work.  Animation enthusiasts will also appreciate the film’s many playful cul-de-sacs.  Planted firmly at the heart of the film – though never hogging the spotlight – DiMaggio possesses an infectious enthusiasm.  The best moments in I Know That Voice are ones that capture the joy of the profession, as when several actors relate how famous voices were born as failed impressions (Hank Azaria’s Simpsons bartender Moe is a bad Pacino, for example) or in a montage of actors reading a monologue from As You Like It as a succession of their most famous cartoon characters.

Though skewed towards talent from animated television series, I Know That Voice gets the most out of its abundant personality and the obvious passion that DiMaggio and his peers have for their jobs.  All of them take the “actor” portion of their job description seriously, but Shapiro and DiMaggio show a community filled with cut-ups: a quirky, back-slapping, generous subculture filled with the kind of people you’d like to meet.  In this way, the film cultivates affinity as well as respect for these versatile and prolific talents.  Not unlike its subjects, who trade the fruits of onscreen fame to toil (somewhat) anonymously on projects and with people they genuinely admire, I Know That Voice has a perfectly humble sort of ambition that’s both refreshing and worthy of appreciation.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Wide Angle: 2013 in Review

The important thing is not to rank, but to remember.

That's been the guiding principle behind my "year in review" articles and, as in 2011 and 2012, the following is intended to call attention to the embarrassing surplus of "good things” in cinema.  Once again I've eschewed a conventional top 10 because it's nearly impossible to rank works with such disparate goals - deciding whether Fast and Furious 6 is “better” than Stoker is like officiating a soufflé bake-off between LeBron James and Joan Didion.

For the next 2,000 words or so, we'll look back at 2013, including both the lows and the highs, noting the letdowns and the surprises, and, hopefully, end up affirming our faith in film.  Because I believe in movies.  I believe that they matter.  And I believe that all of them - well, almost all of them - are worth someone's time.

Top Whatever

In a year that was very good for people behaving badly, Spring Breakers sets the bar high by reflecting the American Dream in a funhouse mirror of Millennial generation hedonism, reveling in debauchery while questioning the motives behind unfettered pleasure-seeking.  The youthful Scottish rascals of The Angels’ Share are more traditional but still have plenty of chutzpah, a bunch of have-nots using the haves’ sacred values (work ethic, determination, courage) and not-so-sacred values (clever manipulation of the free market) against them to obtain a modest piece of the pie.

Iron Man 3 breaks many of the rules governing big summer movies; its genre-bending audacity and crackling wit make the rest of the year’s effects-heavy blockbusters seem like lumbering dinosaurs in comparison.  It was definitely a good climate for intimate films, as proven by Frances Ha and its charming tale of a footloose young woman just trying to find a place where she could belong.

Of course, appropriately-scaled ambition works, especially when it’s as sensual and seductively confounding as Shane Carruth’s sci-fi romance Upstream Color.  You’ll never look at a pig the same way again.  And the jaw-dropping documentary The Act of Killing examines the heady collision of violence and entertainment, vis à vis the perpetrators of decades-old atrocities in Indonesia, to wonder whether who’s the most complicit in letting the guilty off the hook.

Short Term 12 is a thinking person’s tearjerker, its sensitivity grounded in an easy humor and recognizable human emotion (as well as the director's actual experiences as a staff member at a group foster home).  But only The World’s End makes the apocalypse seem personal in a rollicking rebuke to nostalgia and mindless gratification, its themes expertly embedded even in throwaway lines and minor background details.

It’s a testament to the incredible quality of 2013’s movies that I’m just now getting to the so-called Oscar contenders, led by the amazing technical wizardry (and compelling human drama) of Gravity - a film that perfectly defines the meaning of “shock and awe.”  From one grueling experience to another, 12 Years a Slave engages the past on a visceral level and tackles weighty historical issues from the perspective of flesh-and-blood human beings.

Finally, a pair of compelling jerks:  the antihero of Inside Llewyn Davis is a bit more sympathetic due to the tragicomic nature of his (perhaps unending) fight against the riptide of his own life, even though his troubles only enhance the bittersweet beauty in his sad, soulful folk music performances.  The sleazy stockbroker of The Wolf of Wall Street, however, is a more difficult matter; chronicling a life of entitled excess with nihilistic glee, the film still takes care to note the difference between the symptoms and the causes of a society more interested in personal indulgence than personal accountability.

Other Good Stuff

2013’s deep bench includes the mesmerizing conspiracy theorists of Room 237, the feisty verbal sparring of Much Ado About Nothing, the brazenly entertaining The Bling Ring, and the pitch-perfect nerd opus Zero Charisma.

Two films showcase legendary actors still at the top of their games - Tom Hanks in the harrowing trauma tale Captain Phillips and Bruce Dern the offbeat family photo album Nebraska - while American Hustle features an entire cast relishing their turns as fumbling '70s schnooks.  And the one-two punch of Monsters University and Frozen shows that there’s still plenty of life in Dixnar,  though The Wind Rises is the cream of this year’s animated crop (even if it has to wait until 2014 for its English-dubbed release).

Other Things I Liked That Deserve A Brief Mention

- Ramin Djawadi's score for Pacific Rim, especially the main theme
- the amazing troll creature suit from Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
- Chung Chung-Hoon and Park Chan-wook's shot composition in Stoker
- the opening and closing zooms of Side Effects
- the fate of Lou Taylor Pucci's Evil Dead character, the dumbest know-it-all in the world
- San Diego Comic-Con 2013
- Stan Lee's cameo in Thor: The Dark World ("Can I have my shoe back?")
- the profane video game avatar of the future in Her
- the clothes, coifs, and needle drops in both American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street

Just the Worst

Wither Ryan Gosling?  First he's lost amid the clatter of the abysmally dumb Gangster Squad.  Then his taciturn charms can't save the blood-and-neon trolling of Only God Forgives.  At least those films give the appearance of effort, which is more than can be said about A Good Day to Die Hard, a joyless slog that makes the original Die Hard seem ever more miraculous.

But nothing this year compares to the mirthless Movie 43, a comedy where the relationship to actual humor or entertainment is entirely coincidental.  Ugly, mean-spirited, and misogynistic, Peter Farrelly’s omnibus film is a massive tragedy of wasted time and talent.

Flawed but Fascinating

It’s no great surprise when a Baz Luhrmann film garners mixed reactions, but The Great Gatsby is a especially strange creature: while its aggressive theatricality ruins the beautiful subtleties of the source material, I must admit that some of Luhrmann’s choices also heighten the story’s emotional impact to a level impossible to achieve in a straightforward interpretation of the text.

Man of Steel might be the weirdest Superman movie we’ll ever see.  It’s a poorly paced story that's curiously obsessed with alien mythology and the consequences of Kryptonian eugenics.  It handles a well-known backstory in a refreshingly natural fashion, but de-emphasizes the human element so much that by the end it feels like a freaky space vendetta movie that just happens to be taking place on Earth.

I only recommend The Counselor if you, like myself, sometimes enjoy movies that embrace a mission to make as little sense as possible.  Alternating between philosophical monologues about the existence of evil and a handful of brutal little action sequences, The Counselor kind of works as Ridley Scott’s tribute to his late brother, Tony, as well as a dodgy experiment in force-feeding literary opacity to multiplex audiences who just wanna see the new Cameron Diaz movie.

Biggest Disappointments

Not that I expected an instant classic, but it was kind of disheartening to see the damp squib that was Admission, especially considering the pedigrees of its two likable leads.  I did expect more from Star Trek Into Darkness, which distracted everyone with bright colors and fast action while trampling all over the covenant established in the great 2009 Star Trek reboot and squandering goodwill at warp speed.

But Neill Blomkamp's Elysium remains my biggest head-scratcher of 2013, bungling an intriguing premise by forcing it into a rather dull sci-fi action template, then garnishing the whole thing with ham-fisted social commentary.  And I’m not sure whether to credit commercial pressure or creative exhaustion for Elysium’s uncanny resemblance to District 9, from the look of the dusty future slums and ratty technology to its general plot and structure.

Most Pleasant Surprises

The combination of sports film and biopic is typically a recipe for cash-in treacle, but 42 defied the odds in presenting a well-acted, gorgeous-looking, and surprisingly intense tribute to Jackie Robinson that was worthy of the civil rights pioneer's amazing life.

A big-budget superhero character study is quite rare, but that's essentially what we got in The Wolverine, which weighted action and drama equally to add an extra layer of depth and a sense of urgency to what is now unquestionably Hugh Jackman's signature role.

There are all sorts of lurid places that Alexandre Moors could've steered Blue Caprice, his debut feature inspired by the events leading up to the 2002 D.C. sniper attacks.  Instead, he crafted a restrained and haunting tale about the banality of evil and the unseen rivulets of criminal life that can potentially lead to catastrophe.

Best Performances

This was a difficult section to write.  We all know that Blanchett and Bullock were spectacular in Blue Jasmine and Gravity, respectively; ditto Hanks and Ejiofor in Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave.  In the spirit of inclusivity, I've taken a different tack and tried to include some underseen or lower-profile performances while blending in some personal favorites.


Sam Rockwell has quietly built an impressive career as one of cinema's best utility players, always making the most of his screentime whether in a limited supporting role or as an underrated leading man.  His versatility is on display in The Way Way Back (a classic wiseass performance full of humor and pathos) and A Single Shot (as a rural loner facing several crises of conscience).  Both showcase his greatest skill as an actor: knowing exactly how he fits into the bigger picture of a film and pitching his performance to command precisely the right amount of attention.

James Franco breathes life into the most memorable (and quotable) character of 2013 - the rapper/gangster/hoodrat philosopher Alien in Spring Breakers.  Precious are the actors who can make a recitation of their possessions endlessly compelling.  His adorably winking turn as himself in This Is The End and a brief appearance as a slick sleazeball in a key scene of The Iceman add to the positive side of his ledger.  (Plus it's not entirely his fault for being horribly miscast as Oz the Great and Powerful.)

Brie Larson shines as a group home counselor in Short Term 12, projecting strength and maturity beyond her years, and combining them with a vulnerability that allows her to bend but not break.  Now the ball is in the industry's court to hire her for more than just the stellar work she does in obligatory (and nearly silent) girlfriend/sister roles in the likes of The Spectacular Now and Don Jon.


Leonardo DiCaprio pulls off a nifty trick in The Wolf of Wall Street, a role that not only tests the limits of his charisma in getting us to care about an irredeemable douchebag, but also reveals his prowess for physical comedy.  Similarly, Oscar Isaac finds the humanity in the prickly protagonist of Inside Llewyn Davis, and complements it with excellent singing performances.  And Michael B. Jordan shoulders the burden of Fruitvale Station's commentary on race and justice, compressing a multitude of heady issues into a single human life.


Amy Acker shows that there is a world of possibility beyond the limited perception of the actress-as-ingénue in Much Ado About Nothing, playing the romance game with fiery cunning and whip-smart comic timing.  Greta Gerwig is utterly winning as Frances Ha, even when she's losing, a platonic ideal of the endearing fuckup.  Judi Dench is a legend, but it takes something special for an actress who's normally so regal to work in subtle markers of a different social class and level of intelligence as she does in Philomena.

Duo or Group

12 Years a Slave didn't lack for depictions of cruelty, but the toxic coupling of Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson so encapsulates the many horrors of slavery - both physical and psychological - that it becomes difficult to tell which one is the bigger monster.

Edgar Wright excels at getting large groups of actors on his wickedly clever wavelength, but the main cast of The World's End - Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Martin Freeman, and Rosamund Pike - barrels through the material with a confidence that makes the film's escalating insanity seem like a perfectly natural progression of events.

The Golden Ham

With apologies to Javier Bardem's facial expressions in The Counselor, this year's award for the most exquisite scenery-chewing goes to Jonathan Pryce in G.I. Joe: Retaliation.  Pryce is vastly overqualified for his role as the evil shape-shifting duplicate of the U.S. President and knows it, so he proceeds to act like the least qualified authority figure that he can imagine.  Purring lines such as "They call it a waterboard, but...I never get bored!", he's on a rogue mission to add flavor to the thin gruel of the movie's dull machismo.