Friday, August 24, 2012

Review of THUNDERSTRUCK (2012)

- Rated PG for mild language and rude humor.
- Starring Taylor Gray, Kevin Durant, Brandon T. Jackson, Jim Belushi
- Written by Eric Champnella & Jeff Farley
- Directed by John Whitesell
- Running time: 1hr 33min.


* (out of ****)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Review of HOPE SPRINGS (2012)

- Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving sexuality.
- Starring Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell
- Written by Vanessa Taylor
- Directed by David Frankel
- Running time: 1hr 39min.

Usually I watch every trailer I can before I see a movie.  Not because I want to be spoiled, but I just love the anticipation of a film (good or bad). It drives my love for films.  Sometimes the anticipation can even be better than the actual movie.  But for HOPE SPRINGS, I didn't see anything.  Not sure exactly why, I just never got around to clicking on any of the trailers.  I didn't even really know anything about the movie at all, except that Meryl Streep was in it.

Streep stars as Kay, a middle aged housewife who has been married to her husband Arnold for 30 years.  They have a very routine marriage.  They sleep in separate beds, wake up together, eat breakfast while they Arnold read the paper, Arnold goes to work, comes home, they eat dinner and then Arnold falls asleep while watching golf shows on TV.  It's been this way for quite some time now and Kay wants something more.  She wants passion back in her life.  She hears about a marriage counselor named Dr. Feld (Carell) who offers a week long session in Maine to fix marriages.  Kay signs her and her husband up.  Of course Arnold refuses to go, but seeing how much Kay wants this, he reluctantly goes, complaining the whole way there.  During the sessions, Kay and Arnold discover that their problems stem with intimacy issues, so Dr. Feld tries to make them more open with each other by giving them various exercises (including sexual activities).  But will the stubborn Arnold open up, and is the main problem just his fault?

It almost starts off like a typical Nancy Meyer film (IT'S COMPLICATED, SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE), which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  It has a nice lighthearted feel going for it, but then when the sessions start I was pleasantly surprised by how much dramatic weight presented itself.  This is a pretty grown up movie about grown ups.  There aren't any cheap sex gags (though there are some clever ones).  Instead we get to see characters facing uncomfortable and honest sexual problems in realistic ways.  After seeing countless teen sex comedies, this mature approach was very refreshing.  These intimacy problems are things couples deal with every day, and not just old couples.

This movie would only be half as good as it was if the 2 leads weren't in this.  Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are just wonderful!  For a change, Streep is playing a bit of a frumpy housewife who keeps her feelings bottled up inside her.  She handles the dramatic moments very well, and is even terrific during some comedic moments (there's a pretty funny oral sex scene.  Yes, even in a PG13 movie).  It's nice to see Tommy Lee Jones play something other than a hard-nosed cop, a disgruntled military official or a lawyer.  He's an average, blue collar American who is afraid to express himself.  It's one of my favorite performances of the year. During the first half, when he's complaining about how much he hates the marriage sessions, he's a hoot.  It's not a showy performance either.  He incorporates several subtle touches that made me laugh out loud quite often, like when Kay is talking about their lack of a sex life to Dr. Feld, he vigorously plays with a crease in his pants.  It's little touches like this (as well as several amusing facial expressions) that make his performance and the movie rise above other titles from the same genre.  These two actors are so strong that it's easy to forget about Steve Carell, who thankfully doesn't try to upstage them.  He is simply there as a mediator for the 2 characters.  No ad-libbing, which is what I was expecting.  He does a solid job here.

I have often compared director David Frankel to TV directors.  No style.  Just standard generic work (MARLEY & ME, THE BIG YEAR).  But here he lets the actors do their thing by just leaving the camera on.  He doesn't try for any cute shots or montages.  This is essentially an actor's movie and Frankel understands that.  The script by Vanessa Taylor is mature, honest and smart.  There are so many movies that treat older couples in a juvenile manner, but that's not the case here, thank goodness.  My only real problem is that the music is quite distracting.  There were many serious moments that have either an over-sentimental score or schmaltzy songs dominating the soundtrack.  It sucks cause it takes you out of the moment emotionally.  The worst case is when Jones is thinking about something he did wrong and Annie Lennox's song "Why" is blasting loudly.  It feels too manipulative, which is too bad because most of the movie has a more honest feel.  I also thought it was a bit too short, because the resolution comes too soon.  I think there needed to be more of a lead up to it in order for the ending to be believable.

But, overall, it's a pretty darn good movie.  It's a very good take on how older couples deal with intimacy issues after several years of marriage.  The biggest reason to see this is for the performances of the always reliable Streep, and especially the great work from Tommy Lee Jones.  People who like stories about real people dealing with real problems should find enough to like (and possibly relate to) here.  It's not just a women's picture as Jones' character has just as much screen time as Streep.  This is just as much a guy's movie as it is a woman's.  I think the 2 perspectives are pretty equal.  This film is a terrific and welcome break from the loud and noisy films of the typical summer blockbuster.

*** (out of ****)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Review of TOTAL RECALL (2012)

- Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity and language.
- Starring Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy, John Cho
- Screen Story by Ronald Shusett & Dan O'Bannon and Jon Povill and Kurt Wimmer;  Screenplay by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback
- Directed by Len Wiseman
- Running time: 1hr 58min.

I better get this out of the way:  I am a huge fan of Paul Verhoeven's 1990 version of TOTAL RECALL.  Arnold is such an iconic presence, the action is ultra violent, there's several great action set pieces (and quotable dialogue), fun performances from Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox and especially Michael Ironside, and Jerry Goldsmith's score is one of my favorite scores of all time.  Is it one of the "best" movies ever made?  Hell no!  But it's one of my favorite comfort films to watch when I'm in a certain mood.  So when I first heard that there was going to be a remake, I immediately bitched and moaned just like every other fanboy on the planet.  I mean the guy that ruined the Die Hard franchise was going to direct it!  Yuck!  But then I saw the first trailer, and I was surprised by how much it didn't look bad.  I like Colin Farrell.  Maybe this could be good?  I went into the film not ready to hate it (like many, many fanboy Internet critics.  I'm looking at you "Aintitcool"!), but optimistic.  So I did what Kuato said in the original and "cleared my mind" of the Schwarzenegger version as I sat down in my seat.

The story takes place on Earth in the early 22nd century.  The world is mostly destroyed except for a great part of Europe (which is now just called the united world of Britain or something like that), and Australia (which is just called The Colony).  There is a underground subway-like thing called "The Fall" that goes through the Earth's core bringing people from Britain to The Colony daily.  This is all explained in a text at the beginning of the flick.  It's a lot of info to take in at first, as it's kind of confusing and raises many questions right off the bat, but I eventually went with it.

Even though no one goes to mars in this version, it still mostly follows every plot point of the original.  Farrell plays Douglas Quaid, a ruggedly handsome, but normal blue collar city worker who has a ridiculously hot wife and a snazzy home.  Even though he's got a decent life, he longs for something more exciting.  There's this place called Rekal that can implant memories in your brain so you can live out some fantasies that may be too taboo or dangerous to carry out in real life.  Even though his co-worker tells him not to, Quaid goes to Rekal, but before they implant the memory, it's discovered that his mind has already been tampered with and immediately government agents show up killing everyone in the room (except Quaid).  Just as he's about to be captured, Quaid suddenly takes out all of the agents.  You see, he's actually a secret agent who had his memory erased, but his subconscious still knows how to fight.

Okay, I'm being too descriptive here.  Anyway, he goes home to discover his wife (Beckinsale) is actually an operative assigned to play his wife, and now that he knows she spends the rest of the film trying to kill him.  She is working for the President of Britain, Cohaagen (Cranston), who wants Quaid alive because that used to be his best spy.  Quaid was something of a double agent.  Also in the mix is Jessica Biel who plays a resistance fighter who's trying to stop Cohaagen.  She rescues Quaid and they spend the rest of the movie trying to stop Cohaagen and his evil plans to wipe out The Colony.

As much as the inner fanboy in me wanted to say that they should have never remade TOTAL RECALL, the openminded critic in me found plenty to like here.  It did take me about 15-20 minutes to get into it at first.  But once Kate Beckinsale starts kicking Farrell's ass, the pace picks up at a relentless speed and barely slows down until the end.  The best thing about this movie is that it has great action set pieces.  There are 3 or 4 really awesome chases.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The visual effects that set up this futuristic world is some of the best CGI I have seen all year.  Even though THE AVENGERS is a better movie, I would say the visual effects are superior in this.  Every detail put into the buildings (like the way they are upside down and sideways) blew my mind.  Even though it resembles other Sci-Fi films like MINORITY REPORT and BLADE RUNNER (which were also based on stories by Phillip K. Dick), it didn't keep me from being very impressed by the way everything looked.  From the robot drones, to the hover cars, it's all super cool!

Collin Farrell is definitely a better actor than Arnold, but he's not as iconic.  But still, Farrell does solid work here as Quaid.  Jessica Biel does action very well and makes a great companion for Farrell.  Bryan Cranston doesn't have as much screentime as Ronny Cox did as Cohaagen, but that's okay cause I found him to be the weakest of the actors.  Very much to my surprise, I just loved Beckinsale in this.  During the first 20 minutes, when she's the loving wife, she was fine.  But when she's revealed to be a wicked government operative, the actress gets to cut loose.  Gone is the generic American accent and out comes her sexy British accent that gives her character a nice evil twist.  She's got some great action moments that got my film geek blood pumping (loved the elevator attack).  After watching her performance in this, I realized that Stephen Sommers dropped the ball by casting Sienna Miller as the Baroness in the G.I. Joe movie.  Cause Beckinsale is pretty much the Baroness here, and would have been perfect in the role.  Not only is she playing Stone's role from the first one, but Ironside's as well, as the 2 characters are condensed into one.  I guess it pays to sleep with the director to get a meaty role.

Fans of the original would probably really like this version if they would just get over their fanboy pride.  Sure, it's not rated R so it's not super gory like the first, but good movies can still be PG-13.  I mean, there are several PG-13 flicks that people love and don't mind that they're rated PG-13 (like THE DARK KNIGHT?).   There are several nods to the original, like "2 weeks" and the 3 breasted hooker (who actually bares it all despite the neutered trailers).  The finale is a bit different since they don't go to Mars, but the story is pretty much the same.  That doesn't bother me.  As long as the film is well made and fun.   And that's what Director Len Wiseman has made.  A fun popcorn movie that is the essential summer movie.  His action scenes are well crafted and thoughtfully storyboarded.  The first fight between Farrell and Beckinsale puts the husband and wife fight from the original to shame.  It's far more brutal and intense as it starts in their apartment, but then turns into a rooftop jumping chase across the city.  Then there's a terrific hover car chase, an elevator showdown, and an explosive finale.

I have read several other reviews complaining about the stupid dialogue and that the story is unbelievable.  You know what?  It's a movie!!!  The dialogue isn't any worse than the original, and in a Sci-Fi movie, I'm not looking for believability.  I'm looking for unbelievable things.  And that's what I got.  Good cinematography, sharp editing, solid acting, a fun chase scenario, outstanding special effects, and a decent score (it's not as good as Goldsmith's, but seriously, what is?) make for a pretty satisfying remake.  It's not without it's flaws (I didn't like a spoiler towards the end), but when a movie has such high energy and kicks major ass, it's easy to forgive it's minor shortcomings.

I prefer the original, but that's because I've seen it so many times and have grown to love it over the years.  But I wonder which one I would prefer if I saw both for the first time back to back.  It's possible that I might have liked this new one.  It is really good and I recommend opening your mind to give it a try.  Even though I would say that DARK KNIGHT RISES is a better film, I definitely had more "fun" at TOTAL RECALL. Perfect summer entertainment. 

*** (out of ****)