Mini Reviews (February 2012)
Chronicle, One for the Money, Red Tails, Safe House, Goon, The Vow, Monsieur Lazhar, Contraband, The Flying Classroom, Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, Donovan's Echo
Chronicle (February 3/12)
A superior found-footage thriller, Chronicle follows three high schoolers (Dane DeHaan's Andrew, Alex Russell's Matt, and Michael B. Jordan's Steve) as they discover an unusual cave and are subsequently able to perform a wide variety of telekinetic tasks - with the film thereafter detailing the trio's increasingly flamboyant adventures as they discover and exploit their powers. It's rather remarkable just how involving Chronicle ultimately becomes, as the decision to emphasize Andrew's abusive home and school lives results in a disappointingly generic feel - with this vibe persisting right up until the three friends' discovery of the aforementioned cave. From there, although filmmaker Josh Trank, working from a script by Max Landis, curiously (and disappointingly) omits the characters' initial discovery of their powers, Chronicle becomes a far more involving endeavor than one might have initially anticipated - as there's just something inherently engrossing about the protagonists' efforts at using their newfound abilities to mess with one another (and, eventually, random bystanders). It is, as such, disappointing to note that the film does stumble in its decidedly repetitive midsection, with the emphasis on heroes' lighthearted exploits growing more and more tedious as time progresses. (On the positive side, however, there's really never a point at which one is able to comfortably guess just where all of this is going.) By the time it rolls into its enthralling, appreciatively over-the-top third act, Chronicle has certainly managed to establish itself as a seriously entertaining piece of work that's far, far better than the majority of its found-footage brethren.
One for the Money (February 4/12)
Based on a series of novels by Janet Evanovich, One for the Money follows unemployed and newly-divorced Stephanie Plum (Katherine Heigl) as she talks her way into a job as a bounty hunter for her irate cousin - with the film subsequently detailing Stephanie's ongoing efforts at tracking down and capturing her former lover (Jason O'Mara's Joe Morelli). It's a relatively decent premise that's squandered virtually from the opening frames by filmmaker Julie Anne Robinson, as the director, working from Stacy Sherman, Karen Ray, and Liz Brixius' screenplay, has infused the proceedings with a pervasively (and relentlessly) off-kilter feel that proves disastrous. The movie's atmosphere of forced quirkiness, which is, by and large, nothing short of infuriating, results in a palpable absence of momentum, with the ongoing emphasis on eye-rollingly hackneyed elements serving only to exacerbate this feeling. (There is, for example, a hopelessly tiresome sequence in which Stephanie's family attempts to set her up with a bland, boring appliance salesman.) Heigl's broad, sitcom-like performance proves to be the least of the movie's problems, although it's worth noting that her complete and total lack of chemistry with love interest O'Mara ensures that the pair's scenes together are especially tedious. The end result is a second-rate and consistently worthless Out of Sight knockoff - there's a jazzy score and everything! - that predominantly feels like a shelved television pilot, which should ensure that we've seen the last of Stephanie Plum on the big screen. (We can only hope, anyway.)
Red Tails (February 4/12)
Red Tails details the true-life exploits of several black soldiers during the Second World War, as the so-called Tuskegee Airmen are forced to overcome racism and other obstacles to prove their worth among their white colleagues. Filmmaker Anthony Hemingway has infused Red Tails with an unabashedly old-fashioned feel that's reflected in the film's myriad of attributes, with the movie's decidedly melodramatic narrative heightened by the presence of characters that, more often than not, feel more like types than three-dimensional figures (ie the cast includes, among others, an excitable newcomer, a cocky womanizer, and a pragmatic leader). The episodic nature of John Ridley and Aaron McGruder's screenplay ensures that Red Tails possesses a stop-and-start sort of feel, with the inclusion of hopelessly familiar interludes - eg the protagonists are thrown out of a whites-only bar - wreaking havoc on the movie's tenuous momentum and preventing the viewer from working up any real interest in or enthusiasm for the heroes' ongoing exploits. And although the storyline has admittedly been peppered with a small handful of compelling sequences (eg one of the airmen attempts to safely bring in an injured colleague), Red Tails' problems are magnified by an overlong running time that's never more evident than in its second half - as the movie reaches its peak with a pivotal mission about halfway through and subsequently keeps going long past one's ability to care. (It doesn't help, either, that Hemingway prolongs the proceedings by emphasizing a series of needless, uninteresting subplots, including one character's romance with an Italian native and another's efforts at escaping from a POW camp.) The end result is a well-intentioned piece of work that's simply never able to pack the visceral or emotional punch that's surely been intended, which is a shame, certainly, given that there is unquestionably a lot here worth liking and admiring (including battle sequences that are undeniably quite impressive in their execution).
Safe House (February 9/12)
It's ultimately difficult to recall a mainstream Hollywood movie saddled with as obnoxious and rage-inducing visuals as Safe House, as filmmaker Daniel Espinosa, along with cinematographer Oliver Wood, has infused the proceedings with a grainy, blown-out, and aggressively kinetic feel that immediately sets the viewer on edge - with the film's subsequent difficulties at holding one's interest, even fleetingly, stemming entirely from its consistently unwatchable appearance. It's worth noting that the movie, which follows Ryan Reynolds' green CIA agent as he attempts to hold onto a notorious traitor (Denzel Washington's Tobin Frost), establishes its atmosphere of loathsomeness right from the get-go, as Espinosa, working from a script by David Guggenheim, kicks the proceedings off with a long, drawn-out action sequence that's absolutely and utterly devoid of context - with the baffling nature of this interlude exacerbated by Espinosa's frustratingly incompetent directorial choices. From there, Safe House only grows more and more tedious as it progresses - with the midsection essentially coming off as one long chase scene. This, of course, proves especially disastrous given the film's decidedly subpar visual sensibilities, as there's simply never a point at which the viewer is able to wholeheartedly (or partially) embrace either the characters or the narrative (ie just as things are threatening to get mildly interesting, Espinosa offers up yet another in a long line of completely incoherent high-octane moments (eg a car chase that comes off as a jumble of images and colors). It's ultimately rather astonishing that Safe House is being released to theaters at all, as the movie is, for the most part, an interminable, amateurish waste of time that's almost entirely devoid of positive attributes - with Espinosa's pervasively wrong-headed choices rendering the promising setup and strong performances hopelessly moot.
Goon (February 15/12)
Based on a non-fiction book by Adam Frattasio and Doug Smith, Goon follows affable (and somewhat dimwitted) bouncer Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) as he's added to the roster of a minor-league hockey team due to his ability to take and land a punch - with the character's pugilistic tendencies making him an instant star within the hockey world. Despite the decidedly sports-centric nature of its premise, Goon, for the most part, comes off as a perpetually watchable and sporadically hilarious comedy that benefits substantially from the engaging work of its various actors - with Scott's consistently likeable performance matched by an eclectic group of co-stars (including Jay Baruchel, Kim Coates, and Liev Scheiber). Filmmaker Michael Dowse, working from a script by Baruchel and Evan Goldberg, smartly devotes just as much time to the characters' personal lives as he does to their on-the-ice exploits, and there's little doubt that the movie is at its best when focused on Doug's efforts at establishing himself among his teammates and his ongoing romance of a pretty yet promiscuous local (Alison Pill's Eva). And although the movie does lose a little momentum in its final half hour (ie the hockey stuff is finally, inevitably given the front-and-center treatment), Goon recovers for an unexpectedly engrossing climactic stretch that boasts an exhilarating (and astonishingly violent) confrontation between Doug and his mentor (Schreiber's Ross Rhea) - which ultimately does cement the film's place as a surprisingly decent sports flick that holds appeal for fans and neophytes alike.
The Vow (February 21/12)
The Vow details the chaos that ensues for married couple Paige (Rachel McAdams) and Leo (Channing Tatum) after she loses her memory in a car crash, with the film subsequently revolving around Leo's ongoing efforts at winning back the affections of his wife (who has now reverted back to her upper-class, teenage self). Though it eventually morphs into a seriously tedious little drama, The Vow, which boasts an easygoing, affable opening half hour, admittedly does start out with a fair bit of promise - as the perfectly watchable vibe is heightened by McAdams and Tatum's charismatic work together (ie the pair share a great deal of natural chemistry with one another). It's only as the details of Paige's memory loss emerge that the film begins to lose its hold on the viewer, with the absurdity of the character's circumstances ensuring that the narrative grows sillier and sillier as time progresses (eg Paige reconciles with her comically slimy former boyfriend, Scott Speedman's Jeremy). There is, as such, little doubt that The Vow fares best in its comparatively smaller moments (ie Paige's attempts at getting to know Leo all over again), as the film otherwise boasts the pervasive feel of a generic Lifetime movie-of-the-week - with the continuing emphasis on Leo's clashes with the snooty folks from Paige's old life exacerbating the decidedly tedious atmosphere. It's ultimately not surprising to note that the tearjerking finale falls completely and utterly flat, which effectively confirms The Vow's place as a sporadically passable yet consistently underwhelming romantic drama.
Monsieur Lazhar (February 26/12)
Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, Monsieur Lazhar chronicles several months in the life of schoolteacher and Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) - with the film primarily detailing the character's ongoing efforts at ingratiating himself within his new school's tightly-knit community. There's little doubt that Falardeau does a superb job of immediately capturing the viewer's interest, as the filmmaker opens the proceedings with a striking sequence involving the suicide of a teacher. From there, however, Monsieur Lazhar morphs into a fairly (and disappointingly) standard drama revolving around the comings and goings of several students and teachers within a small community - with the movie's decidedly deliberate pace effectively preventing the viewer from wholeheartedly embracing the spare narrative. And although Falardeau has peppered the proceedings with a handful of admittedly engrossing moments (eg one of Lazhar's students tearfully confronts the possibility that his behavior may have triggered the aforementioned suicide), Monsieur Lazhar's lack of affecting interludes ultimately ensures that the film is, for the most part, unable to pack the emotional punch that Falardeau is clearly striving for. Still, the movie is extremely well made and Fellag delivers a consistently impressive performance - with the pervasively affable vibe ultimately securing Monsieur Lazhar's place as a passable yet mostly underwhelming little Canadian drama.
Contraband (February 26/12)
Based on 2008's Reykjavik-Rotterdam, Contraband follows former smuggler Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) as he attempts one last job after his wife's (Kate Beckinsale's Kate) sketchy brother lands in hot water with a volatile criminal (Giovanni Ribisi's Tim Briggs) - with the film subsequently detailing the myriad of problems that inevitably ensue. Filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur, whose Jar City remains one of this new century's more intriguing thrillers, has infused Contraband with a generic, entirely uninvolving feel that immediately proves disastrous, with the aggressively dull atmosphere heightened by both Kormákur's bland visual choices and Aaron Guzikowski's hackneyed, conventional screenplay. It doesn't help, either, that much of the film's midsection follows Farraday and his crew as they run one illicit (yet utterly boring) errand after another, which, not surprisingly, results in a disastrous lack of momentum that prevents the viewer from working up any interest in the central character's increasingly perilous antics. (That Wahlberg delivers a closed-off, distressingly wooden performance certainly doesn't help matters.) The pervasive lack of tension ensures that the movie only grows more and more tedious as it progresses, and it's worth noting, too, that the film's "suspenseful" moments (eg Farraday attempts to clear out of a storage crate before the authorities show up) are simply unable to generate the excitement and energy that Kormákur is obviously striving for. And although there are a few bright spots here and there (eg Ribisi's entertainingly broad performance, an admittedly decent armored-car robbery sequence, etc), Contraband primarily comes off as a needless waste of time that's emblematic of everything that's wrong with the thriller genre.
The Flying Classroom (February 26/12)
The Flying Classroom follows a young boy (Hauke Diekamp's Jonathan Trotz) as he and several school chums discover a secret hideaway and eventually decide to put on a play, with the film detailing the turmoil that ensues after the kids learn that one of their teachers wrote said play decades ago (and is none too pleased that it's been unearthed now). It's a pleasant enough premise that's employed to consistently middling effect by director Tomy Wigand, as the movie boasts an extremely leisurely pace that effectively does heighten the uneventfulness of Henriette Piper, Franziska Buch, and Uschi Reich's screenplay. The film's far-from-engrossing atmosphere is exacerbated by the presence of sequences of a decidedly tedious nature (eg Jonathan must rescue a schoolmate that's been kidnapped by rival students), and there is, as a result, no overlooking the feeling that Wigand is spinning his wheels in the buildup to the finale - with this vibe perpetuated by the inclusion of one time-wasting subplot after another (eg Jonathan's friendship with a local girl, Jonathan's friend must deal with family problems, etc, etc). By the time the absolutely endless let's-put-on-a-show third act rolls around, The Flying Classroom has certainly established itself as a well-intentioned misfire that's sure to leave even small children checking their watches - although, to be fair, it's impossible not to get a kick out of Jonathan's mid-movie angry rant towards a teacher (ie the kid actually calls him a "pathetic panderer"!)
Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (February 27/12)
Based on the acclaimed 1971 children's book, Dr. Seuss' The Lorax follows a scrappy teenager (Zac Efron's Ted) as he leaves the confines of his small town, where natural vegetation has apparently been outlawed, to procure a tree for the girl of his dreams (Taylor Swift's Audrey) - with the choppy narrative also, via flashbacks, exploring just what happened to the trees within the aforementioned town. Filmmaker Chris Renaud has infused Dr. Seuss' The Lorax with a bright and vibrant animation style that immediately grabs the viewer's interest, with the movie's decidedly kid-oriented bent, as a result, initially not as problematic as one might've feared. (It does, however, go without saying that the 3-D upgrade is as useless and needless as ever.) The affable atmosphere persists right up until the first flashback rolls around, after which point it becomes increasingly clear that scripters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul have padded out the narrative to an almost unreasonable degree. It consequently does become harder and harder to work up any real interest in or enthusiasm for the characters' ongoing exploits, with this feeling exacerbated by the rather one-dimensional nature of the various characters (ie both Efron's Ted and Swift's Audrey are almost unreasonably bland). And although some of the movie's musical numbers are admittedly decent - eg the splashy "How Bad Can I Be?" interlude is an obvious highlight - Dr. Seuss' The Lorax is, for the most part, a terminally underwhelming animated endeavor that ultimately does a disservice to its literary predecessor (eg Ted's interest in saving the environment lies solely in his hopes for impressing a girl).
Donovan's Echo (February 29/12)
Donovan's Echo follows Danny Glover's title character as he returns to his hometown after a 30 year absence and eventually, through a bizarre form of déjà vu, becomes able to see into the future, with Donovan's newfound abilities bringing him into contact with a grieving widow (Sonja Bennett's Sarah) and her inquisitive young daughter (Natasha Calis' Maggie). Despite the sci-fi bent of its premise, Donovan's Echo, for the most part, comes off as a low-key and almost excessively slow drama revolving around a broken man's ongoing efforts at getting his life back on track. And while filmmaker Jim Cliffe does a nice job of peppering the film with intriguing sequences and interludes (eg Donovan saves Maggie from a falling hand saw), there's simply never a point at which one is able to wholeheartedly work up any real interest in (or sympathy for) the protagonist's continuing exploits. (This is despite a predictably solid performance from Glover, as the actor does a superb job of stepping into the shoes of this mentally-unbalanced figure.) It doesn't help, either, that the mystery at the movie's core, involving the identity of Sarah's husband's murderer, is just not intriguing or compelling in the slightest (and, making matters worse, it's always patently obvious just who the actual culprit is), which ultimately confirms Donovan's Echo as a passable short film that's been painfully, needlessly stretched out to feature length.