Tag Archives: 2012

Way late review: Blue Like Jazz


This is a difficult review to write. There is so much opportunity for commentary on Blue Like Jazz, a film based on the semi-autobiographical book written by Donald Miller. The movie is not a success but the themes and topics it touches on stirred up in me a need to delve deeper.

Don is on the verge of going to college. His parents are divorced. His mom is a devout Southern Baptist Christian while his dad is a hippie professor who loves jazz, lives in a trailer and enjoys the company of his much younger female students. Don is close to his mom and heavily involved at their church. He works with the youth pastor in making sure the kids are drenched in an entertaining environment sprinkled with references to Jesus. Puppet shows, junior high all-nighters filled with wacky games, Don dressing up with the “armor of God” (i.e. plastic Roman soldier gear) and slicing open a pinata. In other words, it’s your typical, modern Christian church in the US these days. Whether the theology aligns with historical Christianity is hard to say, both in the film and real life. Theology is a dirty word. Good morals, strong effort and self-affirming words trump the stuffiness of theologians.

Continue reading

Way late review: The Avengers


Comic book heroes are made for the movies and vice versa. Whether it’s the darker tones of Christopher Nolan’s Batman, the lighter comedic fare of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy or something in between yet all together different like Tim Burton’s take on Batman, the caped crusaders, mutants, and wildly skilled men and women of comic books make for promising cinema fodder. So why is it when you take an ensemble of these characters, some of whom have had solo features, the results are so bland? That is the question I have after watching The Avengers. I saw it closer to its release date and again recently at home, and both times I was bored even though the premise was intriguing, the director (Joss Whedon) would seem the perfect pick, and the cast is solid.

Kicking off with exposition promises problems early on. The magical energy source, the Tesseract, first seen in Captain America is back and gets our full attention. S.H.I.E.L.D. possesses the Tesseract and is performing all sorts of experiments. Loki, Thor’s half brother, wants the Tesseract so he can summon an alien force to put the Earth under Loki’s control. So Loki portals through into the headquarters, grabs the glowing blue cube, puts some people under his control and escapes from the compound. Desperate times call for desperate measures and the Avengers are assembled as a last gasp effort to save the world.

The time spent rounding up each of our heroes feels slow and dragged out. The only highlight is when Thor shows up and gets in a tussle with Iron Man and Captain America. Otherwise, the inevitable occurs. Those with super powers come together under one roof. They then spend much of their time holding conversations which are supposed to show us the evolving team dynamics at play. None of it matters or makes much sense. Loki is captured and supposedly doesn’t mind because he’s going to trick them all by somehow harnessing the Hulk to come out and play. How Loki is involved with making this happen, how it will help his cause, and how it will play out in theory or in reality is never made clear. The part we’re supposed to latch onto is how amazing it is to see all these super heroes together for the first time in a feature length film.

Aside from the initial action sequence that follows Loki’s escape with the cube of incredible power, there are two more big action scenes. There are three acts and each one is highlighted with a battle. Unfortunately the action is mostly a big ball of blah. When anything is possible (thanks to computer animation) the danger is to do everything which in turn results in very little feeling consequential, let alone real. The setting for the second big action scene is on a flying aircraft carrier which looks interesting from afar but serves as a lame action set piece. The last showdown is in New York, and while there are some interesting shots and decent attempts at humor, the battle between the Avengers and a generic alien force falls flat. The time wasted leading up to the final act makes the almost two and a half hour runtime feel like an eternity.

None of our heroes is given room to develop. Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) feels like a non-stop quip machine. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) mopes around as we’re promised he might explode into the uncontrollable (yet magically controllable later on) Hulk at any moment. Captain America (Chris Evans) should be a fish out of water but he adapts to the future so quick the opportunity is missed. Thor is Thor. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) walks around looking pretty while attempts are made to give her a bit of a back story. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is mostly absent and not missed.

A lot happens in The Avengers, yet not much of any consequence. Loki and his alien allies are placeholder villains at best. The threat they present is never all that real. Far too much time is spent between characters having conversations that neither develop character or the narrative. The end result is an ordinary film filled with characters who hold extraordinary powers. What a shame.

 ★★½☆☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Way late review: The Grey


Based on how some (many?) would describe The Grey, it was all about Liam Neeson punching some wolves in the face. When did Liam Neeson become 80’s circa Sylvester Stallone? I remember him most for his roles in Schindler’s List, Michael Collins, and Rob Roy. Certainly it’s the 2000’s where Neeson’s name becomes associated with big action with little brains. The Grey is a little more intelligent and nuanced than his action films of late. In other words, there is more to it than awesome action set pieces and our favorite Irish tough guy bashing in the brains of monster wolves.

Some rough and tumble guys make a living drilling for oil in Alaska. John Ottway (Liam Neeson) has the honor of protecting them from wolves. He uses a rifle to pick off the predators before the canines pick off the men. The team sets off for a new job on a flight. The ride goes from rough to tragic and crashes into the Alaskan wilderness. Seven men survive only to find themselves in a new battle for their lives. They’re being hunted by a pack of wolves whose territory they’ve intruded on. To call these animals “wolves” is like calling a T-Rex “Barney”. These wolves are on the Barry Bonds training program. In fact, Barry Bonds would likely advise these wolves to lay off the PEDs.

Ottway is the leader. While most of the others either suffer from trauma or varying degrees of immaturity, Ottway rounds up the troops and provides direction. One slight problem. Ottway was only moments away from ending his own life before making this trip. He is haunted by the loss of his wife. Now, thrust in the midst of a near death experience, the wolf hunter finds himself fighting for life – his and those around him.

Jump scares are plentiful. The sounds of wolf attacks are as brutal as anything actually shown. The dire situation makes for a non-stop survival thriller. And yet, in the quieter moments the thoughts about nearing death seeps in. The quip that there are no atheists in a fox hole doesn’t play out in The Grey. We don’t get to know the men alongside Ottway all that well, but we find that most cling to what they see and experience. There are moments where faith in a creator are displayed or called into question – or both at the same time; but the bulk of the men come back clinging to the observation made in the very book most of them mock: eat, drink and be merry. Of course, there is little to be merry about while ravenous wolves track your every footstep. There is no rest for these men. Death is inevitable for all, but for these men it feels inevitably close.

More than a wilderness survival thriller, The Grey takes the sub-genre and contemplates the biggest moment in all our lives – the end. There are no answers provided, no sermons preached. The men examine what matters most to them and often come up with little. Their fight against the odds is compelling. And, yes, you get to see Liam Neeson punch a wolf in the face.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: The Hunger Games


Young adult fiction is popular these days, for better or worse. The young adults who read it, obsess over it and turn out in mass for movies based on the source material aren’t always so young. The obsession over and popularity of a series like The Hunger Games makes it difficult to create a good flick. Fans these days tend to demand a faithfulness to the source or they’ll riot, digitally of course, but still. I’m in the envious position of never having read any of the three books. After all, my favorite novel is: I’ll wait for the movie. I consider this a blessing when taking in movies based on modern day popular books. I’m more interested in a good film than allegiance to the author’s writings.

The story behind the film is not completely original. I won’t mention other films which have used similar narratives before because it doesn’t matter. It’s not unlike those who bemoan the cycle of bands whose only purpose seems to be to reinvent what came before. The complaint is one of, why bother? What is missed is that it may have been done before but not for this audience, not by this set of artists. I view The Hunger Games in a similar manner. The story is an interesting one regardless of its originality or lack thereof.

The future is not looking bright. It’s dystopian outside and the select few with wealth and power lord it over the rest. The capitol city is bright, high gloss, wine and dine. The surrounding districts are dark and dingy. In celebration of society’s survival from a nuclear fallout there is a televised competition in which two kids from each district are randomly selected to compete. First prize is you live another day. Second prize is you’re dead. Fairly simple rules, if not the greatest way to commemorate mankind’s continued existence.

Long story short, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her younger sister who was picked. She and Peeta represent their district. They train and put on a show to win support of those watching. Viewers can provide help during the competition, though how this is done is not clear, it simply happens. The games begin and lots of kids are killed. For those disturbed by this tale being for a younger audience I will point out that fairy tales could be pretty gruesome as well. Granted, the deaths didn’t normally involved knives, swords, genetically modified dogs and insects, but there were plenty of children meeting their early demise in stories much older than The Hunger Games.

The vast difference of the world between those in the capitol city and those outside it are interesting. Those on the inside wear garish costumes while those on the outside are perfectly dressed for a Charles Dickens novel. The outside districts are about harvesting raw materials to keep those in the high tech city moving along. The dichotomy is intentional if not a little too on the nose. No matter, it’s made clear there are two classes in this society and one is there to work for the other. One class is so subservient it offers up its children to the world’s worst reality TV show.

Katniss is a teenage girl capable of taking care of herself. Early on we see how she moves fluently through the forest hunting food for family. She is convinced no one is looking out for her good. She probably has a point. Every year she lines up waiting to hear her name called for the honor to battle other kids to the death on television. When she discovers one of the keys to surviving and winning the game is to win the hearts of those in the audience, it’s as if she’s already lost. She is no nonsense; and pretending to enjoy the experience of being thrown into the lion’s den for entertainment purposes tips the nonsense scale. She and Peeta have advisors who guide them through the process. They attempt to make Katniss and Peeta as different and as winsome as any two competitors have ever been.

Once the games begin the excitement is less than one might expect considering the setup. The action set pieces are mostly not there. The moral dilemmas presented by the competition and the way the (mostly) reluctant participants go about it are often side stepped with quick and easy solutions. Since the focus is mostly on Katniss the other characters seem almost inconsequential, even as they die painful deaths. Thankfully there is enough cat and mouse action to hold interest. And while some have made a big deal about the shaky cam technique being awful, I thought it fit in nicely with the tight focus on Katniss’ story. Then again, I liked Cloverfield. Nothing goes too far off the rails until there are, inexplicably, miraculously created obstacles which appear out of nowhere on command from central control. Apparently we’re in a world where there is still a need for coal and other natural materials, but the ability to create fireballs and monster dogs out of thin air is easy peasy.

There is an unevenness to The Hunger Games, which is at least partially due to there being two more books to cover. The story is good and the execution is solid if not spectacular. Our reluctant heroine holds interest throughout, even in those moments when the parts don’t make a cohesive whole. There is enough here to serve as a good launching point for the next films. Of course, if we’re to read the tea leaves set forth by its predecessors (Harry Potter, Twilight), we’ll likely see more than two films follow this one. For better or worse.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Big Miracle

Finding films the whole family can watch is a challenge, especially when that family includes a first and sixth grader. In my weakest moments I’ve blacked out and woken up having finished films like True Grit and Rise of the Planet of the Apes with both my kids sitting eyes wide open by my side. Clearly, I’m next in line for father of the year. In my desperate attempt to strike the balance between age appropriate yet interesting films I gave Big Miracle a spin.

Based on the true story of the rescue attempt by various groups in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. government of three whales trapped in the Arctic Circle in northern Alaska, Big Miracle is a big mess. The film initially centers on Adam Carlson (John Krasinski of The Office fame), a TV reporter who wants to make it big but instead finds himself doing special segments on avocados in the tiny town of Point Barrow, Alaska. Everything changes For Adam when he breaks the story of three gray whiles trapped in the freezing waters of the Arctic. The whales make for national coverage. I suppose the media ran out of shark bite stories.

In place of a fun look at the many different people and interests represented, we get characters like Drew Barrymore’s Greenpeace activist, Rachel Kramer. Maybe it’s harsh but nonetheless true; Barrymore’s best work happened thirty years ago on the big screen. She is now relegated to playing odd characters who should get laughs (if nothing else), but in place of laughs we get aggravation – and lots of it. In fairness, Barrymore was at least playing a character in the story. John Krasinski played the role of Jim Halpert, Dunder Mifflin’s practical joker salesman, perfect. Too bad he was supposed to be Adam Carlson, a small time TV reporter stuck in the middle of nowhere Alaska.

In addition to a Greenpeace activist and Alaska TV reporter, the film includes native whale hunters, a big mouth oil exec who could care less about whales or pretty much anything but oil, worldwide media, the National guard, the President of the United States (a bad impression of Ronald Reagan), a Soviet icebreaker crew, and two entrepreneurs from Minnesota with their amazing de-icing machines. All that sets up a perfect screwball comedy but the ensuing antics are never screwy enough. What should be a briskly paced film full of colorful characters in conflict with one another bogs down into forced melodrama with awkward attempts for laughs. The result is an unevenly paced film with an unbalanced, yet ultimately bland tone. My daughter was asleep before the half way mark. I was (and still am) jealous.

Even though there would seem to be little in the way of bright spots, the story had its moments. There were times where Ted Danson, as the big oil exec with an over the top personality, was genuinely amusing. The two entrepreneurs from Minnesota with their de-icing machines also added some sincere yet lighthearted moments. The shots of Barrymore diving into the arctic waters and swimming beneath the ice with the whales made for a pretty amazing scene.

When the credits rolled there was a decent amount of real footage and photos from the event. It became clear then, Big Miracle would have made a much better documentary. In the hands of the right director a documentary could have captured the real tension and drama in the story. Plus, there would be no need for mundane performances. The real people couldn’t be anymore stale than the performances given by much of the fairly well known cast.

Big Miracle had promise being based on a true and somewhat bizarre story. Filled with conflicts between all the various people involved, the film could have been a decent little comedy. Unfortunately, we are put through an experience much like that of the whales. We’re stuck in a frigid film and the highlight is getting just enough decent moments every so often to keep us going. Those moments make for an almost tolerable experience. Almost.

 ★★☆☆☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.