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.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

If any film needed no introduction, it's likely this one. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the major movie milestones of my generation. I was at the perfect age where my interest in fantasy and film were really starting to develop so I was able to enjoy those movies on multiple levels and haven't stopped enjoying them as I've grown up. It's been almost a full decade since The Return of the King conquered the box office and the Oscars, and after much deliberation and nearly immeasurable amounts of hype, The Hobbit is finally a cinematic reality.

I've been among the millions eagerly anticipating its release, having read the book some time ago and recalling it with fondness. And with that in mind, I knew that The Hobbit trilogy would have quite a tall order to fill in bridging the gap between the titular book and the much grander epic trilogy that came after. The critics haven't been as enamored of An Unexpected Journey as they were with The Lord of the Rings trilogy - but I'll address that a little further in my review.


There's a lot to be said about this film, and I'm tempted to just gush. But in the interest of efficiency we'll do this by the numbers.

First up on the list is casting, in particularly how Peter Jackson has once again fit actors to roles brilliantly. Martin Freeman makes a fantastic Bilbo Baggins, and without just doing an impression of Ian Holm. He's a bit on the timid side, but not annoyingly fragile - and his transformation as a character from apprehensive hobbit to unlikely adventurer is subtle and convincing. Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves and the hero figure of the troupe. Each of the dwarves possess unique characteristics and qualities that makes them easier to identify and understand, which is no small trick for a host of 13 warriors. All of the returning cast - Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, etc. - reprise their roles wonderfully. And it's a treat to see some of these characters before Sauron's rise in the later trilogy steals some of their fervor.

Visually, An Unexpected Journey is as stunning and impressive as any of the Lord of the Rings trilogy; perhaps even more so. The familiar set pieces (Bag End, Rivendell, etc.) are all presented in new ways, at different angles and with emphasis on other aspects of their architecture. This works wonders in keeping the film looking fresh and new rather than simply new scenes filmed in old sets. While the scope of the story is somewhat smaller here, the grandeur of moments like the Stone Giants slugging it out or Smaug's attack on Erebor are all wondrous to behold. And Gollum looks as fantastic as ever. In extreme closeups his skin looked so realistic I wondered if a few shots had been done in camera with makeup; to say nothing of Andy Serkis' superlative performance.

Howard Shore triumphantly returns to score this prequel trilogy, and the result is spot-on perfect. His music is familiar yet fresh; capturing the well established themes from the original trilogy with new orchestration while adding a host of new and intriguing Middle-earth melodies.

The biggest accomplishment of An Unexpected Journey, though, is in its narrative. The Hobbit as a book is problematic on a number of levels when considering a screen adaptation. There are basically 15 "main" characters, there are no female characters to speak of, silly songs abound on every page, a handful of conflicts are resolved in a very anticlimactic fashion; it's a children's story, lacking the emotional depth and intensity of the Lord of the Rings. Jackson has managed to preserve much of the existing narrative from the book while fleshing out a number of details and exploring peripheral lore courtesy of Tolkien's lesser known works. The resulting film is markedly different from The Lord of the Rings, but as the starting point of the bridge between the two works it's exactly what I was hoping for. Say what you will about milking a cash cow with another Tolkien trilogy, but I don't see any other way to really do justice to the man's work.


I personally loved this movie and really didn't find too much to take fault with. When first introduced it sounds like some of the dwarves don't really know what accent they're supposed to be using, but it's only a few lines of dialogue.

The movie is almost 3 hours long. Such a run time is fantastic news to me, but I've heard more than a fair share of people decrying its lack of brevity so perhaps you'll find this a deterrent.

An Unexpected Journey is a little slow in getting started, and there are a few scenes in the first 30 minutes or so that could have benefited from a re-edit. But once the principle action of the film gets underway, I personally lost all track of time and was swept up in the narrative.


The Hobbit is a children's book; The Lord of the Rings is not. Consequently, there are a number of things that will be tonally and thematically different by their very nature. Having read several reviews, I feel that much of the negative criticism leveled against this movie comes from people who were expecting a repeat of The Lord of the Rings and/or hadn't read any of Tolkien's work. So I don't think An Unexpected Journey is getting the credit it deserves. My suspicion is that as the next two films are released, critics and audiences will begin to see a progression throughout that trilogy that will serve to lead into The Lord of the Rings rather than simply recapture their experience.

For me, An Unexpected Journey succeeds on multiple levels and was quite literally exactly what I was expecting. Some of the film's sillier moments and sight gags felt right at home, as this movie is significantly less menacing than the trilogy that preceded it. For example, goblins and trolls speak in English accents and don't appear quite as feral or animalistic as a result. That's not to say the movie is without its fair share of frights, but it is a shade more light-hearted.

In spite of this, the film is still absolutely thrilling and while the action scenes and sword fights are a bit sparse - they're well choreographed, well shot, and downright exciting once they get going. My faith in Peter Jackson's ability to adapt this trilogy has never been stronger, and I can't wait to go back and see how it looks in 48fps.