“Water for Elephants” review.

Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, and their animal co-star in "Water for Elephants"

When people refer to the “conventional romance”, they’re harkening back to something that doesn’t really exist anymore. I submit that Hollywood’s too demographic-minded these days to put out any romance that doesn’t (awkwardly) cram numerous genres into the same product, one such example being your typical romantic comedy. Even the insanely popular “Twilight” franchise, both revered and scorned for its unabashed romanticism, incorporates elements of horror and action into its mix. Seeing onob, an acrobat, Marlene, and her violent husband, August, against the back-drop of a Depression-era traveling circus.

One thing that director Francis Lawrence totally nails? The visual angle. From the very first frame, he had me totally sold on its period setting. But when at about the 25-minute mark, when the circus comes to life for the first time, the movie turns a whole new cheek and becomes a total feast for the eyes. It’s lit and portrayed in a very lush, romantic way; a stark contrast from some of the more glum, violent events of the film.

Continuing with the positives, Robert Pattinson actually delivered a very effective performance. It’s no secret that the mention of his name is to the chagrin of most males of any demographic, but I’ve found him to be a pretty capable guy, and he doesn’t do much to prove me wrong here. And Christoph Waltz, who continues the unfortunate pattern of dallying in work beneath his considerable talent, nevertheless is excellent as August. He adds an angle of unpredictability and menace to the film not unlike, say, Heath Ledger’s work in “The Dark Knight”. It’s also cool to see one of my favorite elderly actors, Hal Holbrook, get some solid work as an elderly version of Jacob, that serves as a framing device for the film to be told in flashback.

It would be considered odd that the biggest star of the film is also the weakest link, but I’ve never taken much of a liking to Reese Witherspoon, so it doesn’t strike me much that shee such “conventional romance” is truthfully, a bit of an oddity. Enter “Water for Elephants”, a romance almost determined to sprint in the opposite direction of where the industry is taking its genre.

It’s got Oscar-winners (Christoph Waltz, Reese Witherspoon), teenage idols (Robert Pattinson) and an accomplished director, so essentially its exactly what one would expect for a pedigreed project of its sort. And really, that’s just what “Water for Elephants” is: Exactly what you would expect, in both in its strengths and its weaknesses. It tells the tale of a love triangle between a young veterinarian, Jac didn’t impress me. Whereas Pattinson and Waltz imbue some degree of personality to their performances, Witherspoon doesn’t bring much life to her work. She delivers her lines with a vague look on her face, never really in synchronization with the tone the film’s trying to strike. Unfortunately, this hampers what’s probably the most important aspect the film was trying to sell: The romance between Pattinson and Witherspoon. I was still invested, but not as much as they were shooting  for.

This segues a bit into my chief problem with “Water for Elephants”, which is that alot of times certain dramatic elements just don’t click. Due to some directorial (and in Witherspoon’s case, acting) slip-ups, some events that the film wants us to be swayed by or shocked by just don’t click. Prime example? The film’s grand climax, which everything in the film is supposedly building up to. But due the way Lawrence cuts and paces it, it simply doesn’t feel important at all. It ends the film on a very “meh” note, when it should have been cathartic and warming.

Generally speaking, those who see “Water for Elephants” know what they’re getting into; probably emerging from the theater completely loving it. The two I was with certainly did. And at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters. B

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“Jane Eyre” review.

Mia Wasikowska as the title heroine in Cary Fukanaga's "Jane Eyre".
(pictured above: Mia Wasikowska as the title heroine in Cary Fukanaga’s “Jane Eyre”.)
             Being the film fanatic and all-around arts obsessive that I am, I’ve never considered myself quite as educated on classical literature as I should be. I read voraciously, don’t get me wrong, but you’re far more likely to catch me reading an Eggers or a Wallace than an Austen or a Joyce.
             I only consider this little aside worth sharing because I’m reviewing “Jane Eyre”. Considered a member of the essential British literary canon (the existence of which is a little sad but a little easier to know what to read), it’s one of the monolithic terrors that I’ve been long aware of yet always eluded it. Put bluntly, the prose in which it’s written scares me off. Terribly. So hearing of this cinematic adaptation, I was excited to see this legendary story told in a language I consider myself fluent in: Cinema.
             “Jane Eyre” is the story of a woman (I’m sure you can deduce her name) who falls in love with an elusive landlord by the name of Mr. Rochester in a secluded 18th-century British manor. This is intercut with flashbacks to Eyre’s childhood, in which a resilient spirit was forged in her, when she was continuously abused by authority figures. Thus, “Jane Eyre” is both a story of a girl finding fulfillment in another person, and discovering a strength in herself she never knew she had.
             Directed by second-time-filmmaker Cary Fukanaga, “Jane Eyre” filmed with an eye that adapts depending on what mood it’s trying to convey. It’s quite a change of pace considering Fukanaga’s first work, the superb Spanish-language crime drama, “Sin Nombre”. But they’re directed very similarly, with mostly naturalistic lighting and slow paces. Basically, Fukanaga adapts the source material with his own distinctive style, which goes a long way towards making it involving and relevant.
             Mia Wasikowska, in her second role as an iconic literary character in as many years (the first being the creative black-hole “Alice in Wonderland”, brings depth, character and soul to Jane Eyre. That said, it’s one of my favorite actors who completely floored me here: Michael Fassbender, of “Hunger” and “Inglourious Basterds”, who as Mr. Rochester delivers what may be one of his best performances. He brings an eerieness to the character at the outset, but just as Jane finds a very real, human center to him, Fassbender finds it for his character.
             The film is surrounded by gorgeous sets and Oscar-worthy costumes, but I’m pretty sure you expected that already (Why the confusion? It’s a prestige period drama from Britain!). If there’s an issue with the film, it’s that the inter-cutting between Eyre’s past and present feels more than a little clunky, and off-beat at times. Luckily, that’s only for about the first third of the film, and it settles into a nice, natural pace after a while.
             I’m not sure whether being able to assess “Jane Eyre” independent of pre-conceived notions was for better or for worse — I was compelled and surprised by the material, but how can I know if it was done justice? Either way, “Jane Eyre” is a film one can lose themselves in; emerging more than a little shaken but more than a little dazzled. B+

“Your Highness” review.

James Franco, a brave prince, Zooey Deschanel, his fiancee, and Danny McBride as Franco's lazy brother in the medieval comedy "Your Highness".

A silly joke told once is funny. A silly joke told repeatedly, serving as the basis for a 102-minute, $50-million movie is not. “Your Highness” is that joke. It’s a juvenile premise: Two brothers, one a brave prince and the other a lazy stoner, go on a quest to rescue the prince’s fiancee from the clutches of an evil wizard. Basically, penis and weed jokes in the setting of a medieval adventure. But given the comedic talent behind “Your Highness”, I expected much more.

You have James Franco and Natalie Portman in the cast, who gave the best male and female performances of last year. It’s helmed by David Gordon Green, whose plunge from art-house-respectability (“George Washington”) to low-brow comedy (“Pineapple Express”) has been a thing of both beauty and sadness. The cherry on top is the fact that it stars Danny McBride, whose comic cocktail of cynicism and aloofness has been insanely fun to watch in his work.

But alas, “Your Highness” doesn’t click. It’s due to both the repetitive nature of the humor and the lack of enthusiasm with which the humor is executed. I’d blame the script, but since reportedly the movie was mostly improvised, I suppose the blame goes onto the performers. Is it because they realized the limited comedic potential and gave up? It’s possible, probable even. There’s honestly such little life in any of these people’s performances, which given my adoration for Portman (and man-crush on Franco) totally sucks to see.

Danny McBride is actually totally game here, bringing the requisite level of goofiness when no one else really bothered. He occasionally delivers a one-liner that totally floored me with laughter, serving as something of a tease of what could have been.

And that’s really all that “Your Highness” is: A lazily constructed tease, that’s frustrating not just because of how far from entertaining it is, but because it constantly reminds you of how much better it could have been. D

“Hanna” review.

Energy. A feeling so often portrayed yet so rarely conveyed in the movies these days. A feeling that often times eludes the films that are supposed to thrill us the most. It doesn’t elude “Hanna”. “Hanna” is about a trained, seasoned assassin on the run from CIA captors, with the twist that said assassin is a 16-year old girl, the title character.

Where this film gains its energy isn’t merely the fact that Hanna is constantly in motion, be it running, fighting, jumping, hiding. Rather, through a masterful blending of several elements: Cinematography, whose style adapts whenever the scene demands it: Elegant long takes in some instances,  The music, scored by electronic duo The Chemical Brothers, which uses throbbing beats and clashing sounds to complement the on-screen chaos and destruction. Masterfully choreographed (and more importantly, really exciting) action, fought between characters that are thoroughly developed if not always sympathetic.

It goes on. All of these elements, however varied and seemingly unconnected, come together in an unconventional, offbeat way that is, frankly, unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. “Hanna” is an engaging, thought-provoking drama and character study, that just so happens to have incredibly exciting action sequences throughout. It’s a dream mix.

Saoirse Ronan, whose work in “Atonement” and “The Lovely Bones” had highly impressed me, cements herself as no less than the greatest teenage actress working today. Her work as Hanna is deeply complex, portraying a person whose social skills are that of a toddler yet whose combat skills are that of a seasoned soldier. Ronan can effortlessly transition from vulnerability to blind fury and violence, sometimes in the same scene. She’s fantastic, bringing gravitas and physicality to this odd coming-of-age-tale.

Although Ronan is undoubtedly the star of the show, there’s alot of great actors showcased on the side. Eric Bana plays Hanna’s father, who’s mentored her and taught her all her skills. He’s long been an actor that I feel hasn’t gotten as much work as he deserves, and his great work here only makes me wonder why I’m not seeing him in more stuff. Cate Blanchett, though, is a total scene-stealer here. She plays the CIA agent devoted to wiping Hanna out, and is a total blast to watch. Given that Blanchett has a penchant for more meaty, awards-fodder parts, seeing her cut loose a bit is great.

In short, “Hanna” gave me all that I’ve been looking for. It’s a heavy, complex drama that still entertained and enthralled me every step of the way. A

“Insidious” review.

6

My general stance that PG-13 horror movies are often times lacking in genuine scares or creativity will not be changed by James Wan’s “Insidious”, but it will probably make me re-consider before I state it.

It’s the story of a married couple, Josh and Renai (played by Patrick Wilson & Rose Byrne) whose young son, Dalton, falls into a coma after an accident in their house. The less I reveal about the film, the better. Walking into it almost clueless allowed me to appreciate its various surprises all the more. But suffice to say, some very frightening things begin happening around the house.

There’s nothing really of note when it comes to the acting although I wouldn’t say they did poor work. The dialogue is fine initially, but as the film gets steadily crazier, the dialogue gets steadily worse.

To put it simply, “Insidious” is the most terrifying movie I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s a series of pounding attacks, both on the characters and our senses that would be exhausting were it not such a fun watch.

It’s a movie that has all the regular trappings of a horror flick, given its rating of PG-13: Over-reliance on jump-scares, thrashing chords every time an object pops out, et cetera. But where “Insidious” breathes a little bit of life and generates a little bit of excitement into the genre, is its effective use of imagery to convey a sense of atmosphere, a sense of terror. There’s a constant sense of uncertainty, of never quite knowing what’s around the corner or what’s going to happen next.

Speaking as someone who tends not to be frightened by movies, “Insidious” got to me, and often. It may not distinguish itself too much from the rest of the pack, but it does lots of things differently, and for the better, I felt. B

“Source Code” review.

SourceCodeTrailer 1

Few directors really hit the ground running right off the bat, and often times take several films to really develop a cohesive style and vision. So when one arrives with a tight, well-paced, memorable debut, I tend to take note of them. Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie) is one of those people, whose little-seen but much-praised science-fiction film “Moon” turned a lot of heads in 2009.

With the new film “Source Code” Jones is operating within the Hollywood studio system, with big-name actors and a moderately high budget. However, refreshingly, Jones is still working with an original concept: The government is testing out a program in which a person is inserted into the last 8 minutes of a deceased’s life.

After a train is bombed en route to Chicago, they decide to test out a subject. That subject is Army pilot Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s being inserted into the body of a passenger aboard that train. The hope is that he can find the bomb and identify the bomber, to prevent a second attack that is to be carried out later that day.

Stevens relives the memory repeatedly, using trial-and-error to identify who exactly is responsible. Problem is though, the clock is quickly ticking before the bomber carries out his next target.

“Source Code”s concept is both the best thing and the crutch of it: I say the best because it’s innovative, intriguing, and has lots of potential for exploration. It’s also the crutch because first-time scribe Ben Ripley doesn’t quite know how to properly capitalize on that concept. He builds an exciting scenario, he just can’t manage to maintain much tension or escalation. Basically, the movie isn’t quite as exciting or dynamic as it should be.

The pacing starts tense but then oddly enough experiences a slow, sloppy second act. There’s odd attempts at humor, random montages…it just hinders the film at a time where it really needed momentum. Also, the very end of the film feels tacked-on, and tone-wise really doesn’t gel with the remainder of the film.

The lead, Jake Gyllenhaal, however, is as excellent and convincing as always. No matter the quality of his projects, from a masterpiece like “Brokeback Mountain” or a dreary misfire like “Prince of Persia”, he’s always brought a degree, however small, of likability and depth. This is no different.

The supporting cast is unusually strong for a science fiction film: Jeffrey Wright and Vera Farmiga as the people running the program are very convincing, and Michelle Monaghan is solid as a female passenger that Gyllenhaal takes a liking to with over the course of the film.

And although I’ve complained that “Source Code” drags a bit at times, there are some genuinely thrilling moments. In the last third of the film save for the ending, it achieves a certain energy and excitement that felt missing from what proceeded it.

It’s odd that “Source Code” missed its mark as a thriller, but ends up succeeding in one regard I wouldn’t expect: The human drama. The film actually develops Gyllenhaal’s character a good deal, but keeps a couple surprises until the very end. For most of the film, I didn’t care so much about finding the bomb as I wanted to learn more about the main character.

“Source Code” wants to you think, and even if for me it didn’t succeed I am in no way going to take that away from it. It’s mostly compelling stuff that’s just a little too jagged and uneven to be anything more than solid. C+