Trouble with the Curve

Image_square_webby CosmicTwin3

2012, Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake. Directed by Robert Lorenz. Written by Randy Brown.

Clint Eastwood entertainingly growls and scowls his way through yet another film about an old curmudgeon unwilling to make meaningful connections with the people who want to be close to him.

Trouble with the Curve is this year’s response to last year’s Moneyball. Remember that one? It was the true story of how using a computer to analyze statistics could accurately indicate which players were necessary to build a winning team. This time around we are treated to a story about how no computer program can replace the human instinct for spotting true talent and detecting potential flaws in kids who hope to become the next great Phenomenal Baseball Player. And, of course, there is one outspoken idiot in the organization who insists that the traditional method of sending seasoned scouts to evaluate potential talent is outdated and unnecessary.

Clint Eastwood is Gus, an aging baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves with failing eyesight who is unwilling to admit that he will soon be unable to perform his job. If he can’t see young ball players perform on the field, how can he rate their potential for success in the major league? Amy Adams is Mickey, his successful high-powered-attorney daughter who keeps her distance from her dad and is all but completely estranged from him. Justin Timberlake is a pitcher Gus recruited some years ago who shows up to scout the up-and-coming talent for the Boston Red Sox.

Life has thrown some interesting curves at these people. Gus has had to deal with losing his wife when his daughter was only six years old; Mickey has spent years trying to understand why her father abandoned her – twice; Justin Timberlake blew out his pitching arm and is now hoping for a job as a broadcaster, desperate to remain “in the game.” Trouble with the Curve offers nice performances from all of the actors, right down to John Goodman, Matthew Lillard, and Robert Patrick as the executives in the Braves’ organization.

One thing left me puzzled – even though Atlanta is a huge metropolitan city of great diversity, I expected to hear that pleasant and soft Georgia drawl from at least one or two people who are presumably from there. I mean, even in giant law practices in Atlanta, surely there are some native Georgians? In this instance the director apparently believes that southern accents belong out in the boonies of North Carolina along with quaint little aging motels and bars where young attractive people spontaneously break into a specific type of folk dance known as clogging. The clogging-in-the-bar scene provided an opportunity to let Mickey loosen up a little bit but it felt entirely contrived.

The good old “Hollywood” ending was also completely predictable, yet entertaining and satisfying. Don’t lose any sleep if you miss this one in theaters, but do catch it on cable or disc. Clint Eastwood is still reason enough to see Trouble with the Curve.

Two boxes of popcornRating: Double Serving 

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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Image_square_webby Susan

 2012, Benjamin Walker, Rufus Sewell and Dominic Cooper. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov.

For whatever reason, I can never recall the actual title of this movie. I keep calling it Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer. I don’t know why, I guess it just sounds cooler to be a slayer than a hunter. Would Buffy have been as popular or successful if she had only hunted the undead without bothering to kill them? Never mind…

I admit it: I was drawn to this movie not by the strange hybrid it represents between historical drama and gory horror flick, but by the name TIM BURTON associated with it. I generally find Tim Burton’s weirdness very entertaining, especially when Johnny Depp is involved. Alas, Burton was producer not director and Depp had already made his vampirical debut as a sympathetic bloodsucker in the excellent Dark Shadows.

Honest Abe the Vampire Slayer is unique and quite bizarre, but I’m unsure about its entertainment value. While it was an interesting mash-up of genres, using vampirism as a metaphor for the evils of slavery is simply too heavy-handed and off the wall to make much sense. In fact, it makes more sense that, if vampires do exist, they sparkle in the sunshine and drink only the blood of wild animals. That Abe Lincoln had the time to become an axe-wielding superhero-vampire-killer by night as he whiled away his time as a store-clerk-law-student by day is just a little too ludicrous, even for such a preposterous film. I was never able to successfully “get into the zone” and temporarily suspend my disbelief while watching this movie; I had to compensate by constantly telling myself that the action was all taking place in a parallel universe where Abe Lincoln fought a clandestine war with the undead for decades before it erupted into the War to Establish a Country Just for Vampires.

With that said, there were some interesting and mildly entertaining aspects to be found. The iconic image of Abraham Lincoln in his stove-pipe hat wielding an axe like a modern-day superhero bent on defeating evil is almost enough to justify the entire project. It was a waaaay cool tricked out axe, by the way. The most memorable scene for me was the one where Lincoln and the vampire he was chasing were caught up in a horse stampede. I’ve never seen anything quite like that done with CG – it was very impressive and exciting. The climactic train-crossing-a-burning-bridge scene was also very well done, though it felt much more familiar.

All in all, watching the movie felt like reading a graphic novel. If I had wanted to read a graphic novel, I would not have spent my money on seeing a movie in a theater. There was some great artistic effort put into it, but the characters (other than Lincoln) were far too two-dimensional. Once or twice I even found myself hoping that one of Abe’s close associates would be defeated by the vampires just to liven things up. The vampires were quite gruesome both when they were killing and being killed, but it just came across as more yawn-worthy than scary.

I’m not sure how he managed to pull it off, but Benjamin Walker’s performance was very good. He made a believable and sympathetic Lincoln even as he aged from a naïve backwoods boy into a troubled and distressed president plagued by an army of the undead.

The bottom line: The premise had great promise but the execution lacked substance. The tone was too serious for such a ridiculous take on the personal life of Lincoln and the execution too ridiculous for the true horrors of the Civil War. Let’s hope Pride and Prejudice and Zombies translates to the big screen much better than this did. If it doesn’t, someone please drive a stake through its heart now (or blow its brains out, whichever is appropriate for zombies) and save us all from it.

One serving of popcornRating: Single Serving

Rock of Ages

Image_square_webby Susan

2012, Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Russell Brand, Alec Baldwin, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, et al. Directed by Adam Shankman.

Wonderfully funny, surprisingly entertaining, and gloriously filled with some of the greatest music of the late 20th century.

Movies based on Broadway musicals are usually not my first choice, and Rock of Ages was no exception. But I had already seen most everything else currently showing and I knew better than to expect my movie companion to go willingly to see Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. I didn’t have a lot of expectations going in, wasn’t familiar with the Broadway production, wasn’t sure who was in the cast, and just needed a relaxing break from a pretty stressful week. Man, am I glad this is the one we saw!

This movie ROCKED!! It’s thin on plot – no surprises there – as it only needs enough story to string together all of the amazing music. Awesome, incredible, stupendous, marvelous music – we were singing along, dancing in our seats, and laughing ourselves silly! People of a certain age or anyone who enjoys fantastic rock music should not miss this wonderfully funny, surprisingly entertaining, and gloriously nostalgic homage to the 1980’s.

Sherrie is a sweet, young innocent who goes to L.A. hoping to make a name for herself. Upon arrival she meets Drew, a closet musician working as a bouncer at the legendary Bourbon Room. They hit it off and immediately launch into song about their mutual desires to become famous music artists. Stacee Jaxx is a bizarre cowboy rocker and enigmatic former lead singer of Arsenal, the biggest (fictional) rock band in the world. The aging Jaxx is trying to ignite a solo career hampered by too much booze and a decadent lifestyle filled with willing groupies and an unforgettable sidekick named Hey Man. Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand operate the Bourbon Room and are depending on the revenue from Jaxx’s one-night performance to save the business. Jaxx’s nefarious manager, played by Paul Giamatti, is out to manipulate anyone and everyone for his own greedy purposes.

Just when Drew gets his once-in-lifetime big break, a terrible misunderstanding ruins his chances for fame, fortune, and love. Giamatti has big plans for him, but not exactly what Drew has always wanted. Brokenhearted, contemplating going back home, Sherrie discovers she has a talent that pays the bills better than waitressing ever did. Now that their paths have diverged so drastically, will the young lovers ever be reunited? Will Stacee Jaxx sober up long enough to perform on stage? Will Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand save the Bourbon Room – and finally realize what they mean to each other in the process? Will fresh-faced, dancing boy bands lip-synching sugary-sweet pop tunes replace real rockers?

There are a few other plot lines interspersed along the way providing more opportunities for even more fabulous big production numbers of the best rock-and-roll music ever. Plot is not important; as noted before, it’s all just a great reason to experience the music. With that said, regardless of the story’s predictability, it was hilarious and over-the-top F-U-N!

Brand and Baldwin were great, Giamatti was the perfect villain, Catherine Zeta-Jones was marvelous as the crusader trying to shut down the Bourbon Room, and Julianne Hough as Sherrie and Diego Boneta as Drew made it all work. Oh yes… Stacee Jaxx was portrayed by Mr. Miniature Man* himself, Tom Cruise. Of course it wasn’t any kind of stretch for Mr. MM; all he had to do was show up and be his everyday weird self. I can think of several better actors for that role…

*See my review of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol for more about Mr. MM.

Three boxes of popcornRating: Triple Serving

The Hunger Games

Image_square_webby Susan

2012, Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth. Directed by Gary Ross.

For a long time I didn’t understand all the hype for this movie, having not yet read the book upon which it is based. Thanks to a very good friend I was able to correct that egregious error; I finished the book mere hours before heading to the theatre.

What an intriguing story! What memorable characters! What heart-pounding action! This movie adaptation of a book should be the standard by which other adaptations are judged. It stayed true to the original story and characters while also including greater detail that captured the spirit of the novel completely. I was blown away.

There is much more to this story than just the cruelty of making teenagers fight to the death as entertainment in the ultimate reality show. The future inhabited by Katniss Everdeen is truly a bleak place. The one-percenters have taken over and rule the ninety-nine percent with an iron fist. Keeping the populace hungry, fearful, and destitute is a wonderful deterrent to rebellion.

As a teenage heroine, Katniss is a thoroughly refreshing alternative to whiny Bella Swan. No offense to any Twihards (some of my best friends are Twihards!), but Bella really started to grate on my last nerve before the second half of the last book. There is also a love triangle of sorts in The Hunger Games that is integral to the story, unlike Twilight where the love triangle is the story.

If you haven’t read the book first, please do so! If you’ve already seen the movie, please read the book! And then read the next two in the series.

A fellow blogger has written excellent reviews of both the movie and the book. I refer you to http://www.moviebrit.com (aka Kate) for her review of the movie http://moviebrit.com/reviews-2012/the-hunger-games/ and the book http://forwinternights.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/the-hunger-games-by-suzanne-collins/.

A full bucket of popcorn!Rating: Full Bucket

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Image_square_webby Susan

 2012, Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Amr Waked. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom.

Had I read this synopsis of the movie before seeing a trailer for it, I probably would have dismissed it as something terribly boring and never given it a second thought: “A fisheries expert is approached by a consultant to help realize a sheik’s vision of bringing the sport of fly-fishing to the desert and embarks on an upstream journey of faith and fish to prove the impossible possible.”

Huh? Fly-fishing? In the Middle Eastern desert? Government bureaucracy? Faith and fish? What a preposterous combination! As luck would have it, though, I saw a trailer for it quite some time ago and decided to look for it in my local theater. Okay, to be honest, the only thing I remembered about the trailer was that Ewan McGregor was in it. Sometimes that’s enough reason to see a movie; young Obi-Wan Kenobi is in my list of top five to seven favorite actors. (Spots two through seven are apt to shuffle about on any given day; only the number one spot is carved in stone.)

This one looked like it might be a nice respite from CGI-heavy, complicated epics oozing unreality as well as the standard and, quite frankly, these days just plain lame romantic comedies. I couldn’t recall from the trailer if it was supposed to be a comedy or a fantasy; I just knew it looked interesting, it didn’t appear to be a heavy drama, and Mr. McGregor was starring in it. I think I had the vague impression that it was a British movie as well; I was right.

The story goes like this: A hopelessly average, boring (and bored) bureaucrat (Ewan McGregor) in the Department of Fisheries who happens to also be the world’s leading expert on salmon, and by extension fly-fishing, is contacted by a consultant (Emily Blunt) to an incredibly wealthy (stinking rich, actually) Middle-Eastern sheik (Amr Waked) to help him bring the sport of fly-fishing to a dry and barren place. The sheik wants to improve the lives of the locals with public works projects that will help create a more stable economy. Said consultant is a nice-looking young woman who has just experienced the first sparks of romance with a new boyfriend. Said boyfriend is deployed on a secret mission to – guess where? – the Middle East, where he promptly joins the ranks of the missing in action. As the bored bureaucrat/expert insists that the project is doomed to failure before it starts due to numerous ridiculously impossible hurdles to overcome, the government is looking for some kind, any kind, of news in the Middle East that they can spin into a positive story. Bingo! A wealthy sheik who has fallen in love with fly-fishing in the U.K. wants to work with the British government to bring salmon to the Yemen after he has constructed a massive dam that will create a cool, refreshing river in the hot, dry desert. Yes, ma’am, that’s the kind of story the government is looking for and plans are made to create many positive-spinning photo ops.

The sheik is already trying to go against the grain (swim upstream, if you like) with his grandiose ideas of transforming the desert. Can the bureaucrat and the consultant find the courage to do the same? With many ridiculously impossible hurdles that must be overcome in their personal lives, will they be doomed to failure or will hope and faith triumph in the end?

This was a very pleasant little movie with fine performances from the entire cast. Kristen Scott Thomas as Patricia Maxwell, the government PR dragon, provided just the right dash of comedy. When the sheik explained his philosophy of life to the two leads, I had a momentary epiphany in which I actually understood the lure of fly-fishing and why some fishermen become obsessed with it. (That’s saying a lot for someone who would pretty much rather spend a day cleaning toilets than go anywhere near a fishing pole. Okay, just one toilet, but you get my drift – I don’t like to fish.) If you missed it in theaters, it will lose none of its charm if you view it at home on your television. And neither will Ewan McGregor’s Scottish accent.

Two boxes of popcornRating: Double Serving with a box of Milk Duds

21 Jump Street

Image_square_webby Susan

2012, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Ice Cube. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller.

In case you didn’t know, 21 Jump Street was a TV show created by Stephen J. Cannell in the late 1980s. I never watched it myself, although I know a lot of people who looooved it. I think they probably liked it so much because it featured nice-looking baby-faced actors playing cops who could, theoretically at least, infiltrate high schools and blend in as teenagers while conducting undercover operations. How cool is that!? Anyway, I didn’t discover Johnny Depp until the amazing Edward Scissorhands. Yes, that’s right, in case you’ve been living under a rock or a in a moon cave for the past 25 years or so, Johnny Depp was the heartthrob of a TV cop show before he made the big leap to the silver screen. (See how I resisted temptation to use the phrase “jumped ship” which would have called to mind not only 21 Jump Street, but also his Pirates of the Caribbean franchise? You’re welcome!)

The only possible way to pay homage to the 21 Jump Street of 80’s television is to make it a parody, and that can be tricky. A good parody must pay homage to its origin story and also be gut-bustingly funny in a warm-hearted, nostalgic sense without going overboard and insinuating that the original was just plain stupid or lame – even if it might have been. The movie triumphs in that regard; it is not only hilarious, thanks mainly to the two leads, but also true to the intent of the original TV show – good-looking grownup cops getting involved with teenagers. (If that wasn’t the original intent of the TV show, I don’t care because I never watched it, as I mentioned already.)

So, getting on with the review… To paraphrase a description of the old TV show: “21 Jump Street is the address of the headquarters for a squad of police officers who specialize in investigations relating to young people. Each of the Jump St. personnel was selected for their ability to pass for high school students, allowing them to operate undercover in areas where it is difficult for regular police officers to blend in unnoticed.” That’s pretty much the same synopsis for the movie, except that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play two police officers who sort of… “complete” each other. Hill was a hopeless nerd and Tatum was a popular dumb jock from the same high school; they discover each other again at the police academy and help each other graduate to become inept police officers on bicycles. Not content with such a lame assignment, they are given a chance to prove themselves when transferred to the Jump Street squad. Hilarity ensues as they revert to their old teenage personas of nerd and popular jock but their undercover identities have them switched; Hill must play the popular guy and Tatum must be the brainy one.

Confused by the social cliques, attire, language, sensibilities, and just about everything having to do with teenagerness of current times, the two cops must find a way to work together to take down a drug ring operating out of the high school before its illicit poison can spread through the city and beyond. Along the way they will become a little too immersed in their fictional roles as teenagers.

Tatum and Hill are both superb in their respective roles, the supporting cast is excellent, the script is sharp and witty, the action sequences are both over the top spectacular and spectacularly uproarious. There is plenty here to help fans fondly remember the old TV show but for those who never watched it – like me – this movie stands on its own, never faltering as it hurtles its way to an explosive climax with a few welcome surprises along the way.

In a word, it’s FUNNY. Go see it.

Three boxes of popcornRating: Triple Serving

The Artist

Image_square_webby Susan

2011, Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius.

Why would anyone make a black-and-white silent movie these days, you ask? Why not!? Particularly if it’s exceptionally good in its use of the style of a bygone era to tell a familiar story in a way that is fresh and appealing. And that’s what The Artist does so well – use a style of storytelling that is less dependent on dialogue and more about an actor’s ability to convey emotion and sentiment through facial expression and physical gesture.

George Valentin is a silent film star at the peak of his career enjoying all the trappings of Hollywood success: fancy car, big mansion, buckets of money, adoring fans, etc. He also appears to be a self-involved ham, stealing the spotlight from his co-stars (except for his faithful four-legged companion). A young lady, Peppy Miller, bumps into him, literally, at his movie’s premier and when the resulting photo is splashed across the newspapers, she decides to audition as an extra in the movies. Coincidentally she is cast in one of Valentin’s movies and reconnects with him on-set. And so begins the story of Peppy’s meteoric rise to stardom.

In the meantime, talking pictures have seized the public’s imagination and Valentin’s studio decides it must keep pace with the latest technology. Valentin will either make talking movies or get the boot. In a scene that makes magnificent use of sound effects – not dialogue – Valentin realizes that he will never be able to make the transition. The world is filled with sound but it will never hear his voice. One last desperate attempt to prove that the public would still embrace him in a silent film rather than flock to the “novelty” of talking movies ends disastrously.  Valentin is left clinging to the past as he descends into pennilessness and drunkenness. But even as Miss Miller ascends the ladder of fame and fortune, she remains attracted to him.

Another impressive scene uses the metaphor of a staircase where Peppy and George cross paths as some people are climbing up, some are walking down, some faster, others slower, to illustrate how their careers are progressing.  Or stalling, as the case may be. This is the genius that makes The Artist so mesmerizing – rich visual symbolism strategically employed to give depth to the actors’ performances. By its very nature a “silent movie” demands undivided attention; the viewer’s attention is rewarded from start to finish in this film.

The Artist is not about the silent movie era; most of the action takes place after the advent of talkies. It is about an iconic actor who cannot adapt to changing times, an homage to the earliest roots of filmmaking. In a broader sense it is also about an industry that must constantly adapt to new technologies, and the talented artists who might be left behind if they don’t adjust as well. The behind-the-scenes episodes depicting studio executives making business decisions taking priority over artistic sensibilities is a subtle commentary on how some things never change. But in the end, what matters most is the story being told. This one is told brilliantly.

A full bucket of popcorn!Rating: Full Bucket