Movie Reviews - 2014 postsMonday February 24, 2014
Movie Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
The last time we saw Jack Ryan he was played by Ben Affleck and his fall 2001 movie, “The Sum of All Fears,” became a spring 2002 release because of a little thing called 9/11.
So it makes a kind of sense that the new movie, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” begins on 9/11. Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is a student at the London School of Economics and wakes up from a nap on a campus bench. There’s a buzz, people rushing about, most running toward TV sets, where, yes, the twin towers are ablaze. Ryan is stunned. “You’re American, aren’t you?” a fellow student says. “Sorry, mate.” Like America, Ryan is awake now.
It’s not a bad beginning and it allows us to contemplate the various cinematic incarnations of Jack Ryan against the course of history.
He first showed up as Alec Baldwin to help Sean Connery defect from Russia a year before the fall of the Soviet Union. Two years later, he aged 18 years (from 32 to 50) by becoming Harrison Ford, who battled the smaller game after the Cold War: a renegade faction of the IRA and a Colombian drug cartel. With Affleck, he became young again (30) and matched wits with an Austrian neo-Nazi intent on blowing up Baltimore (hence the delay in the film’s release). Now, with Pine, though he’s a bit older (34), he’s starting over. This is a post-9/11 Ryan but oddly his foe is an old one: the Russians. An old Soviet faction wants to destroy America by 1) blowing up half of Wall Street at the same time it 2) sells off enough financial assets to sink the U.S. dollar and thus the world economy.
All in all, it’s not a bad action-thriller.
Zero to 60
For one, there are no “betrayals” within the CIA. That’s a nice change. (See the “Mission: Impossible” movies.) Plus the villain is good: director Kenneth Branagh. Plus some of the dialogue is very good.
At one point, for example, Ryan’s fiancée, Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), who only recently discovered Ryan was CIA, is having drinks with our villain, Viktor Cherevin (Branagh), in Moscow. He’s trying to win her over with Russian romanticism. She mentions regret, how awful it is, and he shrugs. “Regret, it piles up around us like books we haven’t read.” That’s a nice line. Adam Cozad (his first screenplay) or David Koepp (his zillionth)? Or someone else? Either way: good work.
But the movie takes a while to get going. After 9/11 we cut immediately to a helicopter in Afghanistan. Ryan is a lieutenant, arguing with his men about favorite football teams, when a missile strikes. He performs heroically but now we’re at Walter Reed hospital for rehab and recruitment into the CIA by Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who wants Ryan less for his heroic bod than for his analytical brain. Then they stick him undercover on Wall Street as a financial analyst. Then it’s 10 years later.
Nothing is really driving the movie at this point. He goes into work, helps a buddy win over a girl, can’t open an account—no, a bunch of them—from Cherevin’s company. There’s talk on the business channels of financial irregularities: Russia is opposed to some Turkish pipeline or something. That story is related to Cherevin’s accounts, of course. Aren’t they always? The background news story in the first act always blows up in the third.
At this point, Ryan, strictly an analyst, is pushed onto the field because nobody else can understand what he’s analyzing. He winds up in Russia for a meeting with Cherevin. Except the genial giant who picks him up at the airport (Nonso Anozie of “Game of Thrones”) tries to kill him in his hotel room. Ryan winds up drowning him in a foot of bathtub water, but he’s shaken. Harper has to come over to calm him down. Nice touch.
Costner’s good, by the way. So is Pine. Branagh is very good. Only Knightley, sadly, is off her game. Or maybe this is her game: to push her face into the scene with bright eyes and a curling, slightly self-aware smile. Plus her subplot—what secret is her boyfriend keeping from her?—is dull business.
The pace of the movie, to be honest, is uneven. It goes from zero to 60 too often. I like it revving at about 15, 20, but I know I’m an anomaly. I like the conversations between Ryan and Harper, Ryan and Cherevin. I like smart confrontation. At one point, Ryan and Cathy are arguing, and Ryan turns to Harper on a nearby couch:
Ryan: Can we have a minute, please?
Harper: No, you can’t.
That’s good. The last third is car chases and fist fights and damsels in distress. Ryan extracts Cherevin’s financial information from Moscow, sure, but could no one else stop the terrorist, Cherevin’s son, in lower Manhattan? Did that have to be Ryan, too? What are we paying the rest of the CIA for?
Zero to 50
The other Jack Ryan movies did OK box office. “The Hunt for Red October” was the sixth-highest-grossing movie of 1990 ($240 million, adjusted), while “Clear and Present Danger” (the Colombian one) was the seventh-highest-grossing movie of 1994 ($244 million, adjusted). This one is barely inching over $50 million.
At the end of the movie, about to meet the President, we get this exchange:
Harper: Any way you can get that boy-scout-on-a-field-trip look off your face?
Ryan: Not a chance.
Harper: That’s what I like about you.
Me, too. Apparently there’s not many of us.
Movie Review: Robocop (2014)
In the original “Robocop,” Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a Detroit cop, dies, is reborn as a machine, and slowly becomes human again.
In this year’s reboot of “Robocop,” Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a Detroit cop, dies, is reborn as a machine, freaks out and tries to run away, then is reprogramed to perform at high, machine-like levels so he becomes, in effect, a passenger within his own body. “Alex believes he’s in control," Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) says. “It’s the illusion of free will.” But when the database of all crimes committed in Detroit, including his own murder, is uploaded into his brain just before he’s trotted out to the press (smart, people), he freaks out again. So they drop his dopamine levels down to 2%, making him, in effect, so robotic he doesn’t recognize his wife and kid.
After all that, he slowly, sorta, becomes human again.
So, yeah, the story arc isn’t as clean.
Internecine vs. international
The original “Robocop,” directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumier and Michael Miner, was not only a great sci-fi/action movie; it was one of the better, more cynical movies I’ve seen about corporate malfeasance and infighting, big city bankruptcy, the marginalization of the news via entertainment, idiotic sitcoms and their catchphrases, as well as, you know, crime and the redemption of the soul. For most of the movie, Weller could only act with his mouth—everything else was covered—yet he still managed to convey so much. The movie had a lot of great lines, too, most of which I remember, some of which I still say:
- “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”
- “You a college boy?”
- “Oooh, guns guns guns.”
- “C’mon Sal, the Tigers are playing [raps on table] to-night. I never miss a game.”
- “I’ll buy that for a dollar!”
- “You give us a minute, we’ll give you the world.”
I don’t know if there are any good lines in this one. They revamp “I’ll buy that...” and “Dead or alive ... ” for the fanboys, but don’t come up with anything memorable of their own.
The news as infotainment, anchored by Leeza Gibbons, is gone now in favor of a Fox-News-like figure, Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), of “The Novak Element,” who proselytizes for robot police officers. It’s the near future and the U.S. uses a robot army in places like “sunny Tehran,” where they police the streets scanning and terrifying the locals. This early bit isn’t bad. I particularly like how cowed the journalists are. They are essentially PR.
In the U.S., though, we have laws against robots with guns, the Dreyfuss law, since most Americans still don’t trust machines. Although one assumes they’re still mad about guns, guns, guns.
Ah, but the head of OmniCorp, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), decides that if there’s an interim figure, a half-machine half-human figure, the public might accept him; and it might lead to the day, very quickly, when we accept robot police. At which point he’ll make a mint.
And hey, just around this time, Murphy is destroyed by a car bomb.
So while the battle between the Robocop and T-1000 programs in the original was corporate and internecine—WASPy Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) vs. scrappy Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer)—the new one is public and political. Also international. Murphy doesn’t wake up in Detroit, as in the original; he wakes up in China, where you’re allowed to test this kind of shit.
The corporate folks fit easily into niches: the glib young marketer (Jay Baruchel), the cold female general counsel (Jennifer Ehle), the sadistic head of robot testing (Jackie Earle Haley), who thinks the half-human idea is bonkers and keeps calling Murphy “Tin Man.” Give Haley credit. He’s the meatiest villain in the movie. The others barely register. Vallon (Patrick Garrow) is supposed to be the new Clarence Boddicker. Not even close. His henchmen? Nothing. Even Keaton is a blank. Throughout I kept wondering: Whither Paul McCrane? Whither Ronny Cox? Whither Kurtwood Smith?
The wife and son (Abbie Cornish and John Paul Ruttan) are more prominent here but to no exact purpose. To be honest, they’re boring. The son is most effective in flashback: Murphy seeing images of him running from the press at school. The wife is just ... you know ... the pretty wife. Loyal and pretty. But you do know your husband only has a head and some lungs left, right? Is someone going to bring this up at some point?
Meanwhile, Joel Kinnaman ... Well, bless his heart.
Robocop vs. Robocop
The one upgrade is in programming. This Robocop, like a compact NSA, can access anything and everything—phone records, surveillance videos, etc.—to immediately determine the guilt or innocence of all that he sees. That’s an interesting area to explore—and we get intimations that politicians, with their own dirty secrets, are vaguely wary of this power. But it’s just a device here. It doesn’t go anywhere. Maybe it should’ve led to Paul Novak, the other villain who registers. Of course Sam Jackson always registers. Unless he’s Larry Fishburne.
As I sat there, bored, I kept wondering if I would’ve liked this “Robocop,” written by Joshua Zetumer and directed by indie darling José Padilha (“Elite Squad”), if I didn’t know the original. Maybe. But I do know the original. And the reboot is a massive step back. It’s not as satiric, not as gritty, not as meaningful. The original is about a man struggling to find his way back to his humanity; it’s about what’s left of us after the corporations get us. This one? It’s all over the map. I wouldn’t buy it for a dollar.
Movie Review: The Lego Movie (2014)
“The Lego Movie” is a 90-minute commercial for a global product into which my nephew Ryan has already sunk (or we have sunk for him) something like $10,000. I believe that was his father’s estimate last Christmas.
It’s also the following:
- A satire of contemporary pop culture.
- A satire of overdone movie storylines.
- A meta-message on traditional Legos (the kind I grew up with) vs. its modern update (the kind with instructions).
- A morality tale about the folly of wishing for permanence in an impermanent world.
If, in other words, you’re going to see a 90-minute, synergistic, corporate commercial, this isn’t a bad one to see.
The ordinary special
Emmet Brickowoski (voice of Chris Pratt) is one of those Ken-doll-haired, construction worker Lego guys. He loves his life even though his life doesn’t really love him. His favorite song is everyone’s favorite song, “Everything is Awesome,” which plays all the time. His favorite TV show is everyone’s favorite TV show, “Hey, Where’s My Pants?,” which plays all the time. There are intimations that both of these things—song and TV show—are used as thought control for the masses. That’s the satire of contemporary pop culture I was talking about. It’s the world Emmet lives in. He goes to work, roots for the local sports team, buys $37 lattes.
But good ol’ Emmet, who has no close friends, gets caught up in a plot he hardly understands. He falls into a pit and winds up with the “Piece of Resistance” affixed to his back, which means he’s “The Special,” the one who has been prophesied to save the world from destruction—just as Neo was “The One” who would save his world from destruction, just as Harry Potter was the one who ... as Bilbo Baggins was ... as King Arthur .... as Jesus ... as yadda yadda. This plotline was the main reason I went to the movie in the first place. I wanted to see it satirized. I’m tired of how often it is used and how much it feeds into the id in all of us: making us think we’re the one rather than one in seven billion.
They don’t do a bad job with it:
Wyldstyle: You’re the Special! And the prophecy states that you are the most important person in the universe! That’s you, right?
Emmet: Uh ... Yeah. That’s me!
Except ... The Special is supposed to be a master builder and Emmet knows he’s not a master builder. He’s only good at following the instructions. He’s can’t do what the others can do: use his creativity to create virtually anything from the building blocks of their society, which are, of course, Legos. “I don’t think he’s ever had an original thought in his life,” says Wyldstyle, his kick-ass sidekick (voice of Elizabeth Banks).
The villain in all of this? Pres. Business (voice of Will Ferrell), who doesn’t like the notion that the building blocks of their society can be reconfigured into something else. He wants permanence and perfection. So he’s ready to use “the Kragle” to create that permanence. To keep everyone stuck in the same place.
In this battle, Emmet, despite having Wyldstyle on his side, along with the wise, wizened Vitruvius (voice of Morgan Freeman), who first prophesied the coming of “The Special,” not to mention Batman (voice of Will Arnett), and Superman (Channing Tatum) and Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) and the 2002 NBA All-Stars (including Shaq), despite all of these partners, Emmet still gets nowhere. He can’t do what he needs to do because he lacks both imagination and instructions. It’s not until he sacrifices himself—as Neo, Jesus, et al.—that he is able to return, stronger and smarter, and win the day.
“Sacrificing himself,” by the way, means falling into our world, a non-animated world, where we realize that this entire adventure is taking place in the mind of a young boy, Finn (Jadon Sand), who simply wants to play with his Legos. Unfortunately, his father (Ferrell again) likes creating the perfect Legos diorama and doesn’t like it messed with. He doesn’t want it changed. In fact, he’s ready, this Tuesday, Taco Tuesday, to use an old tube of Krazy Glue with several of the letters rubbed out so it reads “Kra--Gl-e,” to glue everything in place. To make it all permanent.
That’s what the battle’s been about all along. It’s a father-and-son battle over the son’s toys.
Old Legos vs. New Legos
Question: Does this final pullback into our world diminish any of the other levels of the movie? Early on, I was hoping for a better critique of our culture, a la “The Simpsons” in its heyday. But can you properly critique a culture through the mind of a young boy? It feels slightly off for me, less relevant, less cutting. It went the “Toy Story” route but without the big heart of “Toy Story.”
Plus the lessons of the movie, which was written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “21 Jump Street”), keep shifting. Trying to create permanence in an impermanent world is obviously a bad idea; but the movie doesn’t really resolve the conflict between the Legos I grew up with during the 1960s (use your creativity to build what you want) and the model-kit Legos reboot from the 1990s (follow the instructions). I suppose the movie, and the brand, doesn’t want to resolve this conflict. Creativity is obviously better to promote in a movie but no one wants to kill a cash cow. No one wants to suggest the cash cow is the lesser thing.
The final lesson of The Special, too, is that we’re all special, which is a bit of a fudge on the meaning of “special.” But what the hell. I guess the greater lesson is something Vitruvius tells Emmet in the middle of his hero’s journey: “Don’t worry about what the others are doing. You must embrace what is special about you.” That’s a lesson worth repeating, no matter your age.
Movie Review: The Monuments Men (2014)
It’s a surprisingly limp movie.
“The Monuments Men” is based upon a non-fiction book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter whose subtitle is more thrilling than anything in the film: “Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” Wow, cool! Except it isn’t. In the movie, I mean.
The book chronicles the exploits of 345 men and women from various countries who worked together to preserve the great art of Europe from Nazi greed and treachery. In the movie, these 345 are understandably pared down to seven. But were there no better stories to tell from the 345? The men in the movie seem disconnected from each other and from any kind of tension except a trumped-up kind at the end. I.e., Will they get to this-or-that mine before the Nazis, who want to destroy all the great art they collected? Will they get there before the Russians, who want the art as reparations for 20 million lost? And will they find the one piece of art, the Bruges Madonna and Child, that suddenly means so much?
Answer: generally yes, yes, and yes.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It’s a good seven, by the way. Every time one of them first showed up I smiled. Hey, Bill Murray! And Bob Balaban! Mon dieu, Jean Dujardin! Ah, good ol’ John Goodman. Then I stopped smiling. Because nothing interesting happened.
Richard Campbell (Murray) and Preston Savitz (Balaban) apparently don’t like each other. Why? Who knows? But they’re partnered up and they survive an encounter with a German youth with a gun. Later there’s a scene where they get packages from home. Savitz’s includes cheese and crackers; Campbell’s includes a phonograph his wife made and sent him. But where can he play it? He’s in the shower when Savitz plays it over the camp loudspeaker. It’s his wife talking, the kids talking, then the wife singing a very good rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But it’s like a not-bad scene from a not-bad episode of “M*A*S*H.” It has meaning only within our cultural memory. It pushes those buttons.
Garfield (Goodman) and Clermont (Dujardin) are also teamed. They, too, survive an encounter with a German youth with a gun. It’s a sniper, and Clermont storms the building only to find the sniper is, you know, 10. Again: meaning via cultural memory. Again: we’ve seen this movie before.
Meanwhile, in possibly the dumbest plotline, James Granger (Matt Damon) parachutes into the south of France then makes his way north to Paris, where he encounters Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who was forced to act as secretary as the Nazis plundered a French museum. She’s brave enough in her encounters with her Nazi boss, Viktor Stahl (Justus von Dohnányi), staring down his gun as he fled a step ahead of the Allies; but once Jimmy Granger shows up she turns into a complete idiot. She sits on crucial information she has because she doesn’t trust Granger, the Americans, or the Metropolitan Museum of New York. She sticks with the Nazis. Really? Those are her only options at this point: the Nazis or the Met. And she goes with the Nazis. When she finally has evidence we’re on the up and up—months later, after Campbell and Savitz recover art from Stahl’s home and incarcerate him—she’s ready to help Granger. More, she’s ready to sleep with him. There’s sexual tension. Actually, no, not even that. There’s sexual awkwardness. There’s nothing sexy about it at all.
The Monuments Men are led by Frank Stokes (writer-director George Clooney), who plays his usual glib professional. He quickly realizes his mission is meant to fail, since he has little authority, and since the military men he’s dealing with would rather save a life than a work of art. This leads to many speeches, many voiceovers, on the value of art. But Stokes doesn’t have a story until one of his men, Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey”), travels to Bruges, Belgium, to rescue, among other works, Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. The Germans still occupy the town so he sneaks in against orders, confronts them attempting to steal the Madonna, and is shot and killed. Was it worth the life of this man to preserve this work of art? Stokes doesn’t know. But he knows he’s gonna get the Bruges Madonna back.
Thus the search, amid the hundreds of thousands of stolen works of art, for this one piece. And guess when they find it? After the Germans have surrendered and the Russians are coming, and the men have recovered all 12 panels of the Ghent altarpiece in a mine in Altaussee, Austria, and everyone’s saying, “Go! Go!” before the Russians arrive, Stokes, hoping beyond hope, spies, in a back corner, a tarpaulin ... and uncovers it .... and there it is. Holy shit. That’s what the others say anyway, Balaban and Goodman and Murray, when they see it. Holy shit. But we don’t. We knew it was there. Because we’ve seen this movie before.
Smearing the glue
“The Monuments Men” should’ve worked. It had the talent, it had the story, it just didn’t connect things. If it did, it did so clumsily, smearing the glue, making the connection obvious.
Maybe it should’ve focused on two or three of the men rather than seven? Maybe it shouldn’t have relied so much on the cinematic shorthand and the face recognition of its stars?
It wants to be a World War II movie, a “Greatest Generation” movie, when maybe it should’ve been about crazy, obsessed art historians. Composer Alexandre Desplat, who usually does no wrong (“Un Prophete,” “The Tree of Life,” “Rust and Bone”), even composed a jaunty little whistling tune, some combination of music from “The Great Escape” and “Bridge on the River Kwai”; but it, too, is unconnected to anything on the screen. It falls flat. It recalls, as the movie itself recalls, Orwell’s Republican missiles from “Homage to Catalonia,” which, instead of thrilling with their whizz and explosion, sounded “like nothing so much as a man riding along on a bicycle and whistling.”