Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Redbox Report - December 19, 2012

It's been a couple of months since the last Redbox Report. So before 2012 draws to a complete close, let's get one more batch of reviews in, shall we?


Many of you may be rolling your eyes at this one already. Hollywood's recent appreciation for B-Grade cinema with a big budget twist is in pretty full swing, and the story of Abe Lincoln's double life as a vampire hunter is just the latest manifestation. Don't expect it to stop here either. Based on Seth Grahame-Smith's book of the same name, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was a movie I was looking forward to seeing - expecting a guilty pleasure with lots of gratuitous violence and high wire cinematography. My expectations were more or less met in that department, but that wasn't quite enough to justify its existence. As I watched this movie, I was just overwhelmed by a complete lack of interest in its contents and spent most of its running time trying to figure out why. There's a measure of character development, the acting (while unmemorable) isn't terrible, the writing is far from the worst I've seen; there wasn't any one thing I could pin down as culprit for why this movie wasn't what it so visibly wanted to be. It had everything I expected and was looking for, and Rufus Sewell's turn as the main antagonist - the vampire Adam - was spot on perfect. But the film repeatedly falters and never flies. A handful of the action sequences were marvelously choreographed, and I'm a sucker for Zack Snyder-style ramping and slow-mo. But Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter lacks a definitive quality to its construction, which seemed strange considering the nature of its narrative. You might enjoy this one as a cheap thrill, but little else.


Do you like Will Ferrell? People seem to have a pretty solid opinion about the man, one way or another. His brand of silly-yet-raunchy humor can grow tiresome, undoubtedly. But personally I've always been a fan of him and his films, and The Campaign is no exception. The story is simple: Cam Brady (Ferrell) and Marty Huggins (Zach Galiafanakis) are pitted against each other in a small town run for a Congressional position. Cam is the incumbent with the perfectly coiffed hair, while Marty is the idealistic underdog. It's hardly high drama, but it works on multiple levels largely due to the comedic chemistry between Galiafanakis and Ferrell. Anyone familiar with Galiafanakis's work (most specifically Live at the Purple Onion) will recognize Marty Huggins as, for all intents and purposes, "Seth Galiafanakis"; Zach's fictional twin brother and comedic alter ego. There are a number of parallels to be drawn from the film to modern politics as well. Some of these are not the least bit subtle, like Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow as the Motch brothers; a thinly veiled jab at the Koch brothers. Other similarities are slightly more obscure, but the general lampooning of American politics and the influence of corporate funding are woven throughout. Having come out just in time for the 2012 presidential election, The Campaign certainly seemed to be striving for direct correlation. But post-election, the film is still quite funny and had me laughing out loud several times. Not every stab at comedy in this film lands on the funny bone (some of the bathroom humor is both superfluous and uninspired), but all-in-all The Campaign is a pretty solid comedy with some pretty solid commentary and some pretty solid casting.


Remember the days when watching certain movies with your parents became an exercise in embarrassment? I can recall vividly watching Braveheart as a youngster and having my parents give me "the glance" that indicated the shutters were to be drawn over my eyes during the main love scene. Regardless of which film it might have been, there were some films you just didn't want to watch with your parents because it got awkward. This is one of those films, but not for any of the reasons above. It's also not really one of those films, I'm just trying to be funny... *crickets chirping*
Hope Springs is the story of Arnold and Kay Soames (Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep, respectively) who, despite - or perhaps because of - decades of marriage, have grown estranged from one another. They haven't slept in the same bed for years, and their empty-nest routine is painfully drab. In an attempt to reignite the flames of their affection, Kay books them a series of appointments with a marriage counselor (Steve Carell) in spite of the protestations of her husband. Located in Hope Springs, a sleepy Maine township, the counseling requires them to make a vacation out of the experience. The film then follows them through the week as they tackle numerous interpersonal issues, the most prominent of which is their sexual hangups. That might sound a bit explicit, and the film is riddled with innuendo and sexual content of one kind or another - though (thankfully) no nudity. But Hope Springs scores on how brilliantly the subject matter is treated. We as an audience might side more with one spouse than the other, but the film is meticulous in charting why they're equally responsible for the marital stagnation. Performances all around are marvelous, as can be expected from a cast as acclaimed and beloved as this. Hope Springs is a fantastic feel-good movie, and one I whole-heartedly recommend. Just be mindful that if you watch this movie in the company of parents roughly the age of the main characters, consider avoiding eye contact.


It's a rare thing to find a three-quel worthy of its predecessors. It's rare enough to find even a sequel that does that. And to that point, Men in Black 2 was hardly worth watching in the first place. So I'll freely admit that I was downright shocked by how much better Men in Black 3 was than both of the movies that came before it. The original was undoubtedly iconic and laid all the necessary framework, but MIB3 capitalized on all the franchise's strengths beautifully. Taking place after the roller coasters of the first two films, MIB3 opens on Agents K and J (Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, respectively) in a bit of a rut - at least as far as K is concerned. J can tell K has a bur under his saddle - more than usual - but before he can get any answers K uses a time-traveling device to abscond, It's a Wonderful Life-style, leaving behind a world in which he passed away decades earlier. In search of answers, J travels back in time to meet the younger K (played by Josh Brolin) and find out what's going on. The rest of the movie plays out in typical MIB fashion, with a wacky and often macabre sense of humor to guide the principle action. As a time travel movie, MIB3 works quite well. Engaging a little suspension of disbelief of course, I found myself trying to find loopholes in its logic but was pleasantly surprised when none really came to mind. The movie is intriguingly cast, with all the returning members inhabiting roles they clearly enjoy. New cast members include Jemaine Clement as Boris the Animal, an interstellar criminal mastermind. Jemaine's true strength is comedy, so as a diabolical villain he tries to strike a balance between scary and goofy and it doesn't always work. On the plus side, Josh Brolin has always reminded me of a young Tommy Lee Jones so it would have been enough alone to have him cast in that role. But he completely embraces the character and does a pitch-perfect impression of Jones, to the point where I closed my eyes once or twice and couldn't tell the difference between their two voices. The visual effects are also fantastic, as plenty of CGI and in-camera makeup effects flesh out the world of MIB3. If you enjoyed either of the previous movies, you'll likely be adding this to your favorites list. And without any previous knowledge of the series, MIB3 is readily accessible to newcomers as well.


Love is a tricky thing. Being in a healthy romantic relationship with another person hinges on choice; we want people to be with us because they want to, not because they have to. But I'd be willing to bet we've all quietly thought to ourselves that it would be nice to be able to just make someone else magically think or feel a certain way; it certainly seems much easier and less risky. These themes are embedded in the Pygmalion legend, but explored in intimate detail via Ruby Sparks - a film that takes a few cues from the aforementioned myth. Calvin Wier-Fields (Paul Dano) is a once-successful writer in a bit of a slump. He's already achieved critical acclaim long before the film begins, but we open on him trying to piece together his next big work. A dream serves to ignite his creative spark, and before he knows it he's writing his next bestseller. But by some miracle, Calvin unwittingly manages to manifest the titular character from his book; a red-headed girl named Ruby Sparks. The film follows Calvin and his relationship to Ruby without flashy special effects or the kind of cinematic cliches you might expect from a movie like this. The real meat of the story is distributed through Calvin's obvious emotional deficiencies, and how he uses Ruby to self-medicate. While Ruby's existence is taken literally by the characters in the film, there's more than a measure of symbolism she brings to the story simply by being the girl that Calvin made up. Zoe Kazan (who plays Ruby) wrote the intriguingly nuanced script, and directing duties were handled by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris; whose other feature film credit is Little Miss Sunshine. Ruby Sparks feels very similar to that film, and not just due to the presence of Paul Dano and DeVotchka's Nick Urata - who provided the score. There's a bittersweet feeling to the whole affair that tenderly, while honestly, reflects the bittersweet qualities of our own lives. I felt a very strong connection to Calvin as a character, and as a result was emotionally invested in this movie throughout. Ruby Sparks is more or less a romantic comedy, but plenty of emotionally dense moments and even rather dark scenes give the film a unique balance. Ruby Sparks is the kind of movie you think you probably have figured out from the get-go, and for all its intelligence it's fairly predictable. But even without any plot-twists, Ruby Sparks might surprise you on more than a few levels.


The year 2012 has been the target of apocalyptic predictions for some time now, thanks to misinterpretation and just plain rumor-milling regarding Mayan culture and history. Plenty of films have dealt with the topic of the world's impending doom, but recent years have seen a surge in their number. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World stars Steve Carrell as Dodge Petersen. With an asteroid heading for Earth, the world is slowly devolving into disarray, but Dodge's life hasn't gone off the rails just yet. It isn't long before the chaos and anarchy of the city proves too dangerous, forcing him and his neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) to flee. They engage in a last minute (pun intended) road trip to deal with the hangups and regrets that have followed them throughout their lives, and predictably form a romantic attachment. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World looks and feels like a comedy...most of the time. Steve Carrell's involvement implies a comedic vibe, and there are a handful of funny moments throughout. But several rather jarring shifts in tone give the movie a bit of an uneven feel. Knightley is charming and plays her character with an engaging, rather than annoying, free-spiritedness. She's almost a manic-pixie-dream-girl, but she stops just shy of that trope and the movie definitely benefits for it. Where the movie is strong is in its sincerity, as you can readily relate to the character's foibles. And it succeeds in getting you to ask yourself what you might do in a similar situation; where your priorities are and if there are any regrets you don't want to leave this life with. But in attempting to merge a bittersweet sense of comedy with some real soul-searching, Seeking... doesn't quite find what it was looking for. There's a realism to the movie in how society devolves (riots in the streets, people committing suicide, at one point a spontaneous orgy that the main character narrowly manage to evade) that clashes with its more tender and heartwarming moments. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World isn't terrible, but it badly needed some script revisions. Either going with a purely comedic tone or an intense one, or finding a way to weave the two together a bit more comfortably, would have done wonders for a film which doesn't evince nearly as strong a sense of identity as it could have. Still, Carrell and Knightley have some wonderful onscreen chemistry and - if nothing else - the movie is worth seeing for them alone.


I like how comedy has evolved in the past decade or so. Thanks in part to the work of people like Judd Apatow and Mark Duplass, comedies of late are often a bit more bittersweet and honest than before. There's less staging, oftentimes dialogue is improvised, and on the whole these movies feel a lot more true-to-life. Such is the case with Your Sister's Sister, a movie about a guy named Jack (Mark Duplass) who is spiraling a bit in his personal life a year after the death of his brother. His best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) recommends he take a break from everything and visit her family's isolated lakeside cabin for a few days to clear his head. Upon arriving by bicycle in the dead of night, Jack discovers that Iris' sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is staying at the cabin - nursing her own emotional wounds after a breakup. The two decide to share a drink and after sufficient inebration sets in, they end up sleeping together. This is further complicated when Iris shows up at the cabin without warning the next day, setting the three up to each confront their relationships with the other. My description of the plot really doesn't do this film any justice, because reading back over it I'm not entirely sure I would see it on my own recommendation. Moreover the sequence of events sounds like the story of a screwball comedy replete with slide-whistle sound effects and jokes in poor taste. But Your Sister's Sister is nothing like that, thanks to the superlative performances from the three leads. It's a slow-going and fairly understated movie, largely character driven and without any flash or flare. But somewhere amidst the improvised dialogue, the handheld camerawork, and the predictable but pleasant acoustic/indie music soundtrack, Your Sister's Sister manages to emerge a moving and engaging film that had me at times laughing, and just as often misting up. The movie navigates through a number of interpersonal difficulties without flinching, and you'll likely shift in your chair once or twice at the recollection of your own familiarity with the relationships depicted. But Your Sister's Sister is ultimately a very uplifting film and one that truly surprised me with its depth and resonance.

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