REVIEW: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

20 01 2014

Economics majors may be get some major wish fulfillment through “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” the latest reboot and recasting of Tom Clancy’s paperback protagonist. As the CIA’s best “analyst” on Wall Street, he’s a compliance officer with a badge! Ryan gets to audit some assets in Russia and uncovers a terrorist plot that’s being developed in tandem with an orchestrated economic meltdown.

While this may sound exciting, it’s far more appealing as a synopsis than as the actual movie that plays out. Kenneth Branagh’s take on Jack Ryan feels like a feature-length first act of a great film. Nothing ever seems to escalate to levels where we feel the need to engage and maybe worry. The action is drawn out rather than reigned in, and as a result, it feels like seeing an incomplete movie. The problem is reminiscent to those that plagued Branagh’s last outing, the first film of the “Thor” series.

Even scarier than Branagh’s directing of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is his acting in it. Playing the villainous Russian banker Cheverin with a heinously slapdash accent, he’s hardly menacing or intimidating. I found myself pining for a Philip Seymour Hoffman, a revelation in “Mission: Impossible III,” to put Branagh out of his misery.

Perhaps more troubling, though, than not having an antagonist to root against is the lack of a protagonist to root for. Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan feels copied and posted from his work as Captain Kirk in the “Star Trek” franchise. That’s not to say that one star cannot be at the helm of two series. But to be pulled off successfully, the two characters need to be distinct. For example, no one would mistake Robert Downey Jr’s smug Tony Stark from “Iron Man” for his cunning detective in “Sherlock Holmes.”

Pine’s bland acting brings nothing new to the Jack Ryan universe. His acting feels like it could be just any old script; he’s not creating a character that will really endure. As such, the only successful case that “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” makes is that its titular character should just be left behind in the ‘90s.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Star Trek Into Darkness

19 08 2013

I’ve been wrestling over my angle on reviewing “Star Trek Into Darkness” for quite a while.  I really did like the movie, although not nearly to the extent as J.J. Abrams’ 2009 rebooting of the franchise.  Just because it is not as good does not mean it is not any good, and I certainly do not want to imply that.

It’s still a solid summer movie, full of impressive and fun action as well as a dastardly star-making villainous performance by Benedict Cumberbatch.  Once again written by the dream team of Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, the story delivers in a big way.  No longer burdened with reintroducing the once-iconic characters to audiences, they can focus on weaving an allegorical tapestry of many moral issues facing the post-9/11 world.

I’m far from disappointed with the latest voyage of the USS Enterprise.  However, it never reached the levels of excitement that led me to declare it my second most anticipated film of 2013 back in January.  “Star Trek Into Darkness” is still a great movie, don’t get me wrong, but it’s definitely a notch below the giddily fun “Star Trek” from four years ago.  While that’s still light years ahead of summer blockbusters “Man of Steel,” J.J. Abrams heads into directing “Star Wars” on a bit of a down note.

He made a decently acceptable action film.  It just won’t be particularly remarkable in retrospect.  When I go back and think about summer 2013 a few years down the road, I suspect I might forget that “Star Trek Into Darkness” was even released (although writing that line in my review might change that).  B+3stars





REVIEW: This Means War

28 11 2012

Guilty pleasures.  We all have them, even people like me who put on the serious critic face and laud the potential contributions to cinema in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.”  Mine happen to be romantic comedies, which don’t disgust me as much as most reviewers (or men, for that matter).  As long as I buy the chemistry and the formula isn’t totally cloying or transparent, I’ll generally find some enjoyment.

Maybe the auditorium of my tiny seat-back on the plane ride home from France made me a particular captive viewer, but I was totally enthralled by “This Means War.”  I found myself laughing at inappropriately loud levels and thus the victim of a number of sharply cutting glances from my mom.  For whatever reason, I was just totally operating on this movie’s wavelength.

Sure, it’s brutally corny at times.  (What rom-com isn’t these days?)  Some of the melding of action with the inherently chick flick core of the film doesn’t always function as smoothly as it should.  The relationships aren’t always totally believable, probably a victim of how they are written on the page.  However, in spite of all this, I had a good time and was willing to put a lot of my issues to rest.

The fun probably came from just how much I enjoy these three actors.  I will probably always view any Reese Witherspoon film through a rosy lens because of my well-documented crush on her since around, oh, 2001.  As Lauren, she finds herself in a familiar predicament for Reese Witherspoon characters – choosing between two men vying for her heart (“Water for Elephants,” “How Do You Know,” and “Sweet Home Alabama” have all hinged on a similar dilemma.)

The competition is all the fun as her suitors are best friends from their work in the CIA.  Chris Pine’s FDR is the more suave, rom-com jerk that the audience and the girl eventually come around to like.  But Tom Hardy’s Tuck is a quieter, more sensitive guy and proves to be an interesting antidote to the typical kind of guy that screws her over.  Hardy struggles a bit with the romantic side of Tuck, and it’s clear that he’s best off in manly man movies like “Bronson” and “Lawless.”  In the latter movie, Jessica Chastain is the one who has to court him, and that seems more logical.

Oh, and as Lauren struggles to decide as she dates both men, we are treated to a running commentary of Chelsea Handler as her sister Trish.  She brings an incredibly beautiful sardonic and deprecating wit to “This Means War” that most genre flicks lack these days, voicing the frustrations we often have as viewers.  Leave it to Handler, one of the funniest women in the world right now, to turn the typical groans into side-splitting laughs.  B+





REVIEW: People Like Us

1 10 2012

“People Like Us” is the kind of tender, domestic drama that has become a specialty for writer/directors like Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, Tom McCarthy, and Noah Baumbach.  It’s a story meant to provide insight into the human spirit by focusing on a tortured soul in a time of great duress and total life upheaval, lifting up the power of our relationships to either make or break us.  All achieved with the power of pathos.

Well, this movie doesn’t have the Baumbach brain.  Nor the McCarthy might.  And it doesn’t even come close to achieving Payne and Reitman heights.  But consider the two movies that writer/director Alex Kurtzman, along with his co-writer Roberto Orci, scribed prior to “People Like Us;” they were “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”  Not exactly tender, heartfelt human dramas.

I’m not a proponent of grading on a curve (although I am a staunch proponent when it comes to my test being graded), but I will say that I’m wiling to cut Kurtzman and Orci some slack because they didn’t churn out “The Descendants” or “Up in the Air” on their first try.  (I will note, however, that “Citizen Ruth” and “Thank You for Smoking,” their respective debut features, are both highly impressive.)  All things considered, “People Like Us” is an entertaining and fairly keenly observed film.  It hits a few flat notes along its journey, but there are enough powerful and touching moments scattered throughout the film to make it redeemable.

As Sam, a barterer whose shady dealings lead him into hot water with the SEC at the time of his father’s death, Chris Pine shines in a role that allows him to shed the cocky exoskeleton coating him from too long in rom-com purgatory.  Baring flashes of his raw soul, he’s fairly easy to sympathize with in spite of his character’s frustrating actions.  Like Robert Pattinson in “Cosmopolis,” it’s not an announcement that a true dramatic virtuoso has arrived on the scene, rather a signpost pointing towards greater things to come.

The real story of “People Like Us,” though, is Elizabeth Banks.  Her struggling mother Frankie, a former alcoholic trying to keep her world in orbit, is the key to Sam coming to peace with a painful and unacknowledged part of his past.  It’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch her in all good intentions trying to restore her faith in others while we know she’s headed down a path that can only lead back to an all too familiar pain.  And it’s Banks who makes her such a light on the screen.  Frankie is not merely a character in her gifted hands.  She’s a person, with troubles, with issues, with worries, with anxieties, with struggles, with small triumphs … like us.  B





REVIEW: Unstoppable

19 06 2011

Unstoppable” is easily one of the best action films I’ve seen in a long time, and every filmmaker should be taking notes from Tony Scott here.  He takes a story that we all know very well – the worst case scenario coming to fruition – and makes it exciting again.  Scott keeps the movie paced as fast as the runaway train in the title and keeps us drawn in for the whole ride.  It’s solid entertainment done totally right, and even though it doesn’t engage the brain, it compensates by putting a pit in your stomach and keeping your heart racing throughout.

Thanks to the perfect storm of errors, a freight train carrying dangerous chemicals is barreling out of control towards Stanton, Pennsylvnia.  There are only two men who can stop it: old-timer Frank Barnes (the unbeatable Denzel Washington) and his trainee, new hire Will Colson (Chris Pine).  The two men, very different in their attitudes and approaches, must come together and grapple with the big issues of duty and death in order to save a hundred thousand lives.

Even without the movie being inspired by true events, we would already feel the inevitability of the ending.  Yet Scott’s high-octane cinema of adrenaline never lets up, still making us hold on to our seats until the exciting conclusion.  While we wait, he dazzles us with incredible aesthetics, which we can still appreciate even though they aren’t being thrown in our face like an Oscars “For Your Consideration” ad.  The film’s editing, cinematography, and sound are just as much responsible for the thrill ride of
“Unstoppable” as Washington or Pine.  By the time the credits roll, you’ll wonder why all action movies couldn’t have such impeccable production values and firm direction.  B+ /