Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Despicable Me (2010)

Merry Maniacal Melodies

- The list of heroes on film is not a short one, especially in this day and age with the many superhero blockbuster franchises that populate the summer film season. While many films take the time to explore the nature and adventures of the super*hero*, few have looked exclusively at what gives every superhero his or her purpose: the super villain. Well, the 2010 animated film Despicable Me takes a look at the life of the super villain for a change.

Super villain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) was once at the top of the evil pecking order only to be recently shown up by the latest villainous up-and-comer. With a plan to steal a device necessary to steal the moon, Gru will once again be the best villain in the world! But the love of three little orphan girls Margo, Edith and Agnes may change all of that – and Gru himself – for the better.

In this Golden Age of animated films dominated by brilliant big studio blockbusters and clever independent projects, Despicable Me fills a unique spot in the animated genre’s modern standing. Epic films from Pixar (Up (2009)) or DreamWorks (How to Train Your Dragon (2010)) beautifully seize our imagination while dark independent films like 9 (2009) force us to reevaluate the possibilities of the entire animated genre. However, Despicable Me sets on a fresh path for a feature length animated film by reimagining the classic cartoon for a 21st Century audience.

Despicable Me features some of the most famous (though not necessarily best) comedic actors of our time (Steve Carell, Jason Segal, Russell Brand, Will Arnett and Kristen Wiig) but it is hardly a completely modern movie. In my opinion, this is its greatest strength. In striving to be classic inside a genre that often goes for ultra-timely elements for quick box office bucks or a specific niche audience, Despicable Me manages to be one of the most entertaining and warm animated films of the past few years.

Although certainly up to modern standards as far as the quality of its animation goes, Despicable Me chooses a classic direction and timeless themes. Rather than follow in the footsteps of many of its contemporaries that offer a very timely style of humor which tumbles out of style by the next year, the witty humor and outrageous slapstick (where a character will not only survive a mushroom cloud explosion or shark attack but walk away with only a sooty face) of Despicable Me is more akin to classic cartoons like “Merry Melodies” and “Tom and Jerry.” The film’s many memorable minion characters especially embody this aspect of the film.

Also following this timeless direction is the film’s central themes of familial love. Sure, Gru begins as a mean, albeit instantly likeable, super villain but his father-like relationship with the three orphan girls touches him to the core. This relationship between the main characters gives the film a big heart and ends up making Despicable Me more than just a fun cartoon.

CBC Rating: 7/10

The Switch (2010)

Luckily Forgettable

- I will generally watch any film starring Jason Bateman. This rule comes with certain risks however because although Jason Bateman is a talented and hilarious actor whose work I enjoy, his career has been less than perfect. Bateman’s duds are unfortunately not limited to Teen Wolf Too (1987) and I easily count the 2010 romantic(ish) comedy The Switch as an avoidable Jason Bateman flick.

Bateman stars as the neurotic New Yorker Wally Mars who is in love with his best friend Kassie Larson (Jennifer Aniston). Wally’s introversion has prevented him from ever working up the nerve to tell Kassie how he feels and his time finally runs out when Kassie reveals that she is going to have a baby via insemination with the help of the hunky sperm donor Roland (Patrick Wilson). She also wants to have the baby back home in Minnesota – too far for a relationship. This news is so devastating for Wally that he has only booze and anonymous pills to turn to - at Kassie’s own “Insemination Party” of all places. Here, while pretending to celebrate Kassie’s decision, he unwittingly destroys the donor’s sperm sample. Out of desperation, he refills the sample with his own - of course, he is too smashed to remember ever doing any of this. Seven years later, Kassie returns to New York with her son Sebastian (Thomas Robinson). Wally is excited for the chance to start again with Kassie but his own neurosis complicates things. To make everything worse, Roland comes back into the picture, trying to romance Kassie and kindle a relationship with Sebastian. But amidst all of this, Wally cannot help but notice that the odd Sebastian acts a lot like him and he is forced with dealing with the possibility that Sebastian might actually be his child.

Directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon (Blades of Glory (2007)), The Switch is a pretty bad movie despite boasting an impressive cast. Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Jeff Goldblum, Juliette Lewis and Patrick Wilson are all talented actors but their best work cannot be found here. Neither one gives a bad performance per se (Bateman in particular shows just how good an actor he can be in one especially emotional scene); the main problem with The Switch is its script, written by Hollywood hack Allen Loeb from Jeffrey Eugenides' original short story. The script is so bad that no actor could have possibly saved the movie by themselves. The script lacks stability in its general narrative, is not very funny (any comedy that does accidentally happen in the film can be traced directly to the quirky ticks of Jeff Goldblum) and does not feature any kind of sympathetic character. It is just terrible – a blue print for how not to write a comedic screen story.

Luckily, any lasting effects from this awful film are short-lived because The Switch is anything but a memorable film. Not too much time has passed since viewing the film and I have already nearly forgotten it in its entirety. As I write this, I am losing every scene, line- any fragment of memory regarding The Switch whatsoever. Thank heavens! If The Switch stuck around in my brain even for a moderate period time, I think I would go nuts.

CBC Rating: 4/10

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Haywire (2011)

Visually Stunning - Ass Kicking - Star Making

- Have you ever felt, looking back, that a film was practically tailor-made for your tastes? I felt this way about Steven Soderbergh’s little-recognized 2011 action/espionage film Haywire.

Mix Martial Arts (MMA) icon Gina Carano stars as Mallory, a world-class professional thief, killer, spy, liberator; whatever the job calls for, she will do. She kicks ass and takes names, if she needs to bother taking them at all. After much time aiming her talents at the targets designated by her employer and former lover Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), Mallory suddenly becomes a target herself when a line of seemingly unrelated assignments thread into one big strange event. On the run from nearly every criminal, private and governmental organization within reach, Mallory turns her talents inward for this struggle for survival and vendetta against those responsible.

Action films can be great – but not just any action film will do. One can employ the finest physical performers and stunt people on the planet but a film requires more than convincing action scenes to be worthwhile. With notable exception, I have had it with the massed-produced bloated action-packed blockbuster. I enjoy a well-done big, sweeping action film like The Avengers (2012) and The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars Trilogies as much as anybody but when it comes to more conventional ideas of an "action film" give me something slick and stylish like Taken (2008) and most of the James Bond series; or, if you really want to thrill me, throw in a strong sense of character into the story as well like in Blood Diamond (2006) or The Yakuza (1974).

By this criteria, Haywire is simply my kind of action film. Slick and cool from the action to the cinematography to the way the film flows; Haywire is a fun, action-packed but also thoughtful ride. The action is extremely well done, realistic but also fresh and expressive with its inclusion of MMA moves and great visual flare. Of course, a film rarely disappoints in the style department with director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven (2001)) at the helm. Choosing a strong but subtle sub-contextual presentation, where what is unsaid is more important in creating a thick atmosphere of mystery and intrigue, Soderbergh forms a stand-out action film. Although producing an unquestionably modern feel, Haywire includes a tangible throwback sense that channels the espionage atmosphere of the 60s and 70s with its focus on visual style over explosions or other sensationalist action film clichés. As an admitted fan of Mr. Soderbergh, I found the intricate but refined style of Haywire quite thrilling. From the sharp camera angling, swinging soundtrack and deep color palette, Haywire is classic Soderbergh.

One of the most notable aspects of Haywire is its star, who is new to Hollywood: Gina Carano. Haywire actually owes its very existence to Gina Carano. Director Steven Soderbergh caught some of Carano’s MMA fighting on TV and was so impressed by her that he wanted to craft a film around her – hence Haywire was born from talented screenwriter Lem Dobbs (Dark City (1998)). Creating a film from scratch completely around one person hardly even happens with actors, let alone athletes! Soderbergh obviously saw something real in Carano because, for someone who is not an actor by trade, she is extraordinary here in Haywire. Carano is undoubtedly well suited for the film’s unique action pieces as a world-class MMA fighter but as she thrills audiences with her raw athleticism, she also captivates with her incredible beauty. Whether this is a natural talent or the working of Soderbergh himself, Carano has a very strong and expressive and screen presence; she is quite convincing and compelling on screen, effortlessly selling her character and the story as a whole. Despite the fact that Carano is surrounded by an amazing cast (with the exception of a mumbling, vacant Channing Tatum) – Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton – all of whom give fantastic performances, she absolutely holds her own as the focal point of the film. 

With its stunning style, compelling story, unique action scenes and fantastic cast, Haywire has a lot to offer the often deficient action genre. I look forward to what is next for Gina Carano, as I think she has a lot to offer movies in general as well.

 CBC Rating: 8/10

Friday, February 22, 2013

Quantum of Solace (2008)

"I never left...."

- After 20 Bond films and the franchise's low point with the decade of 007 disappointment known as the Pierce Brosnan-starred James Bond films, it would not have been unjustifiable to doubt the likelihood of the Bond films ever returning to the danger and plausible fantasy of the films seen in the 1960s and late-1980s. However, the twenty-first Bond film, Casino Royale (2006), did just that and more - being one of the best Bond films ever made as well as breathing new life into the Bond franchise. The twenty-second film of the 007 series, Quantum of Solace (2008), continues what Casino Royale started and, although perhaps not eclipsing its predecessor, is a very fine follow-up for the 007 series. Picking up where Casino Royale left off (seriously, the story beings somewhere around a half-an-hour where we last left Casino Royale), Quantum of Solace sees Bond dealing with events from Casino Royale as well as investigating a newly discovered evil organization.

Quantum of Solace is a brilliant 007 entry: an energetically stylish and magnificently unusual addition to the James Bond film series. Not bogged down by any particular franchise cliché or formula, Quantum of Solace is a unique film within the Bond franchise. If you are looking for over-the-top gadgetry, pointless banter with Moneypenny or Q, catchphrases, bimbos, or megalomaniacal villains in your Bond films, Quantum of Solace may disappoint. In this Bond film, the story is dark and grounded with Bond lost on his own in a dark place and mad as hell. Unlike some films within the Bond series, James Bond is not an action-hero caricature, he is a human being who does great things. In his second James Bond outing, Daniel Craig somehow manages to equal his previous amazing performance in Casino Royale. Here in Quantum of Solace, Craig is at the top of his game with a cool but subtle performance of his very human James Bond: tormented, dangerous, and serious about what needs to be done.

Craig is supported very well - with many of the supporting actors reprising their roles from Casino Royale. Judi Dench makes a great showing as M, her character having a very entertaining role to play; Giancarlo Giannini returns as Bond's ally Mathis, giving one of the most emotional performances of the film; and Jeffrey Wright comes back to the Bond franchise as Bond's CIA friend Felix Leiter, developing the character further and just being as cool as can be. Bond Girls Olga Kurylenko and Gemma Arterton go beyond the stereotypical Bond Girl eye candy role and give impressive acting efforts - Kurlenko especially. Also, Mathieu Amalric plays the film's main villain: Dominic Green. Perhaps one of the least quirk-filled Bond villains, Amalric's Dominic Greene character is nonetheless one of the best villains of the series: he is sublimely entertaining as the weasel-like evil and completely insane villain.

The shortest Bond film ever to date (clocking in at 106 minutes); Quantum of Solace is also one of the most stylish, action-packed and character-oriented. 
Having never done an action film before, director Marc Forster proves that he was the right man to sit in the director's chair. Forster creates a stylish, taut, thrilling, moving, adrenaline rush of a Bond film. Luckily for us viewers, along with Forster putting his directing talents to great use, he also brings along his long-time collaborated cinematographer Roberto Schaefer to light the film. What a fantastic looking film Quantum of Solace is! It has a grainy and gritty yet bright and classic look to it - and Schaefer must have had fun bouncing light off of the fantastic art direction.

Casino Royale writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (with a little help from Paul Haggis) produced another wonderful script. Even though the film's title is based on the Ian Fleming short story of the same name and the script borrows a chapter from Ian Fleming's Casino Royale novel, Quantum of Solace is a mostly original story that piggy-backs onto the story seen in the previous 2006 Casino Royale film. Despite being created during a writers strike, burdening the remaining filmmakers who were left to finish what was written for the film, Quantum of Solace is easily one of the best written Bond films with an array of intelligent, character-centered, funny and thrilling elements. 

No better example of the quality in the writing, direction and acting within Quantum of Solace exists than the film's beautiful finale. Giving a powerful end to the story that began in Casino Royale, it also gives a taste of what is to come with the franchise. Bond is now a more seasoned agent with valuable experience; he has grown as a person and has put his armor back on: JAMES BOND WILL RETURN.

CBC Rating: 9/10