The Walk

October 9, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis (“Flight”)
Written by: Robert Zemeckis (“The Polar Express”) and Christopher Browne (“Operation Barn Owl”)

In 1974, a French high-wire artist named Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) snuck onto the construction site of the World Trade Center towers, hung a cable between them and performed an illegal high-wire act 1,350 feet above New York City streets. It was an astonishing feat, and was the subject of a documentary called “Man on Wire,” which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2009. With that kind of inherent drama, it’s surprising that director Robert Zemeckis couldn’t manufacture any in his biographical film “The Walk.”

Putting on a French accent and some blue contact lenses, Gordon-Levitt does his part and gives a solid, but rather unspectacular performance. It’s the most grounded performance of the bunch and other than an underutilized Ben Kingsley, is one of the few characters with any nuance at all. The others feel like unpolished archetypes that only serve narrative purpose, including a really bad interpretation of some unreliable stoners.

The tone of “The Walk” is by far its most troublesome aspect. The opening act of the film feels like rejected Disney material, complete with a lame meet-cute and imagery so stereotypically French that all it was missing was someone riding a bicycle with a basket full of baguettes. The film then switches gears and becomes more of a generic caper, which only pushes more towards silliness. There is, of course, some seriousness involved in the wire act itself, but the film feels overly family friendly, light, and tame.

The tone is also unfortunate because Petit is not established as a particularly talented or even competent wirewalker. In fact, much of the set-up of the film shows Petit clumsily falling for comedic effect, or struggling. It’s difficult to see him as a man with an incredible gift to pull off an amazing stunt when the guy is made to look like he couldn’t balance himself on a sidewalk. Other than the obvious point of safety, nothing ever really feels at stake.

While Zemeckis was incredibly successful in creating a visceral visual experience by using 3D to create a sense of depth and heights, “The Walk” has little else that is redeeming. Its goofy tone that shifts into drama during the walk itself does a terrible job of setting the table and even the wire-walking scenes, while visually impressive, are repetitive and anti-climactic. It’s a shame that a film about a tightrope walker could lack so much balance.

Self/less

July 10, 2015 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Kingsley, Natalie Martinez
Directed by: Tarsem Singh (“The Cell”)
Written by: David Pastor (“Carriers”) and Alex Pastor (“Carriers”)

Body-switching mumbo-jumbo has been popping in and out of theaters for the better part of my lifetime, cresting in the ‘80s with kid-friendly comedies like “Vice Versa” and “Like Father, Like Son.” Rarely, it seems, is the concept played for the drama and weirdness that it would result in, instead relying on jokes about how the guys end up dealing with convincing some woman they are who they say they are or having a different dick between their legs. “Self/less” attempts to fill this void, complete with body-swap comedy veteran Ryan Reynolds playing a man on the run, but the film shows its cards too early and follows too predictable a path.

“Self/less” opens with billionaire Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley, with an awful New York accent) dying from cancer. Some shady meetings with a clipped British scientist Albright (Matthew Goode) point toward a certain immortality afforded to the super-rich. You see, Albright has been growing blank humans in a lab and developed a technology to transfer the consciousness of the dying into a brand new body. After staging his death, Damian wakes up in a makeshift lab in the body/identity of Edward Kidner (Ryan Reynolds), a healthy, young (well, sort of…he’s 35) man living the high life in New Orleans. To keep the brain seizures associated with the mind transfer away, Damian must take some pills administered exclusively by Albright, who wants to keep an eye on his patients. But when one of the seizures seems to reveal suppressed memories, Damian grows suspicious and tracks down the woman (Natalie Martinez) from his new-found memory, with dangerous results!

Boring and predictable, “Self/less” could have benefitted from a lot more mind bending and a lot less store-brand Jason Bourne action. When the telegraphed twist kicks in—Goode’s Albright may as well have a maniacal laugh—and sends Reynolds on the run, the movie loses any sort of imagination the casually tossed off miracle of science mind-swapping plot device brings to the proceedings. I didn’t come to see Reynolds shooting oddly-loyal goons and kicking ass using muscle memory, I want to see what the devastating psychological toll of having your old self transferred into a new body that looks nothing like you. But no, Reynolds and Martinez spend the movie on the run with every move telegraphed leaving the movie with no tension whatsoever. Is Albright evil? Was the whole “lab-grown body” thing too good to be true? Will the former cutthroat industrialist end up having a heart of gold? Yes, now go see something better instead.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

December 12, 2014 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley
Directed by: Ridley Scott (“Gladiator,” “Prometheus”)
Written by:  Adam Cooper (“Accepted”), Bill Collage (“Accepted”), Jeffrey Caine (“GoldenEye”), Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”)

After the breakout success of “Gladiator” in 2000, director Ridley Scott seems determined to recapture the epic, action-packed period storytelling he and Russell Crowe delivered in the sword-and-sandals blockbuster, but with diminishing returns and emotionless digital matte paintings. From “Kingdom of Heaven” to “Robin Hood” to “Prometheus,” Scott has turned in some competent work buried in cold CGI to the indifference – or as with “Prometheus,” seething fanboy anger – of the movie-going public. “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” a big-budget retelling of the biblical story of Moses and his freeing the Jews from the control of Ramses, is ultimately another indifferent shrug.

Raised as brothers by the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro, first in a long list of WTF casting) the orphan Moses (Christian Bale) and heir to the crown Ramses (Joel Edgerton) fight battles for Egypt side by side. Before an upcoming battle, Seti tells the two men of a prophecy wherein one will save the other and become a leader. During the battle, Moses saves Ramses’ life, and is then sent to meet Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn) of Pithom, who oversees the Hebrew slaves. Moses is appalled by the treatment the Hebrews receive and, during his visit, is informed by Nun (Ben Kingsley) of his true heritage: that he is a Hebrew sent to be raised as a child of Phararoh. Two Jews overhear this information and report it back to Hegep. As Moses returns to Memphis, Seti dies and Ramses becomes Pharaoh. Hegep arrives and reveals Moses’ true heritage and, rather than see his sister tortured, Moses admits to his lineage and leaves the kingdom. Years later, Moses is injured in a rock slide, after which a burning bush and a boy named Malak (Isaac Andrews) command Moses to free the Hebrews from Ramses.

If you’ve seen “The Ten Commandments” or even “The Prince of Egypt,” the spectacle of the story of Exodus will be nothing you haven’t seen on a movie screen before. While the plagues that decimate Egypt – from locusts to frogs to rivers of blood rendered in photo-realistic CGI – are thrilling and frightening, they can’t smooth over the lumpy storytelling and warmed-over battle scenes. The screenplay, credited to a quartet of writers, attempts to humanize Ramses and give a moderately convincing scientific explanation to the plagues. Some elements work better than others, such as Moses’ conversations with Malek being made ambiguous enough to paint Moses as either a conduit to God or a brain-injured mad man. But by the climax, featuring chariots charging at one another in a mysteriously parted Red Sea as ocean-borne tornadoes loom in the background, you’ll be exhausted after meandering through a snazzed-up version of a story you’ve seen before. Let my people go…to see a better movie.

Iron Man 3

May 3, 2013 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley
Directed by: Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”)
Written by: Shane Black (“Lethal Weapon”) and Drew Pearce (debut)

After the roaring success of “The Avengers,” the biggest question facing the Marvel cinematic universe was “What’s next?” Since 2008, with the release of the original “Iron Man” film, everything that came afterward—vehicles for Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk—was a build-up (for better or worse) to the epic team-up adventure of last summer. And boy, did it deliver, wowing critics and audiences on its way to becoming the third-highest grossing movie of all time. But after all of that (Marvel calls it Phase 1), what could they possible have in store for fans?

Marvel’s answer: go back to square one and kick off Phase 2 with “Iron Man 3.”

While the film does reference the events that took place in New York City that involved gods battling aliens, “Iron Man 3” plants its feet as a stand-alone adventure. A rattled, sleepless Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has spent every waking moment since “The Avengers” tinkering with different designs for his Iron Man suit, which are at number 42 at this point. As a result of his erratic tinkering, though, Tony’s domestic life with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) has begun to suffer. Enter handsome Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist with connections to both Tony and Pepper. He’s come peddling his highly unstable treatment for regrowing lost limbs—a treatment that may be tied to murderous terrorist the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).

For having the unenviable task of following one of the biggest films ever, “Iron Man 3” does pretty solid work. Director/co-screenwriter Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”), stepping in for Jon Favreau, gets to stretch his legs in an adventure that’s refreshingly free of table-setting for whatever next year’s Marvel movie will be. Somewhat surprising is how little time Downey spends in the Iron Man armor, though the film’s climax more than makes up for it.

Not everything works, however, and the legacy of what came before it weighs a little too heavily on the film. Don Cheadle, returning as James Rhodes, again doesn’t get much to do. He flies around in his War Machine armor (now re-christened and repainted as the red, white, and blue Iron Patriot) for a little while busting up potential terrorist safe houses until he gets kidnapped and has the armor stolen from him like a punk. And the movie never really answers the nagging fanboy question: “Why not just call in the rest of The Avengers?” when Stark’s days get darkest. I appreciate that Tony Stark is a badass genius with incredible technology at his fingertips, but couldn’t the Hulk or Captain America or even that chump Hawkeye have chipped in to take out a goon or two?

The Dictator

May 18, 2012 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley
Directed by
: Larry Charles (“Borat”)
Written by
: Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat”), Alec Berg (“EuroTrip”), David Mandel (“EuroTrip”), Jeff Schaffer (“Bruno”)

It was only a few years ago that actor Sacha Baron Cohen could take one of his eccentric, ignorant and goofy characters across middle America and hold up a mirror to the country’s uneasiness with foreigners and homosexuals, among other things. But then “Borat” was released and became an instant comedy classic, shooting the extremely talented actor responsible for the hilarious “Da Ali G Show” into superstardom. Though he was still able to fool people in the less successful follow-up “Bruno,” Cohen’s box office success combined with his increasingly recognizable face and lanky frame made his formula of pestering oblivious people under the guise of a documentary become less possible. With this in mind, Cohen makes his first foray into the world of scripted narratives to bring another larger than life character to the screen in “The Dictator.”

While in the U.S. fixing to speak to the U.N. about a potential military intervention, the racist and nuclear weapon- obsessed Republic of Wadiya dictator Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen) is kidnapped and replaced with a look-alike. The plan is orchestrated by Aladeens uncle and advisor, Tamir (Ben Kingsley) in an effort to democratize Wadiya and open up its oil supply. While staggering around New York City, Aladeen runs into a local vegan store operator named Zoey (Anna Faris) who gives him a job while he plots a way to stop the decoy from signing the document to change Wadiya.

As usual, Cohen immerses himself in a character complete with a crafted accent and exaggeratedly unethical cultural customs. Like 2009’s “Bruno,” this film doesn’t feature one of Cohen’s stronger characters, though without question, he commits to a performance more than most comedic actors. As the love interest, Faris plays the role of Zoey pretty straight, mostly reacting to the absurdness of Aladeen. It makes for an okay, if not slightly disappointing performance considering how strong her comedic chops can be. The strongest member of the supporting cast is Jason Mantzoukas who plays Aladeen’s right hand man Nadal. Perhaps best known for his work on TV’s “The League,” Mantzoukas is able improvise lines and infuse great comedic timing to deliver some of the films funnier moments. Other than the role played by Kingsley, the rest of the cast is essentially a revolving door of cameos which work to varying degrees. John C. Reilly’s intensely racist character stands out in particular, while the Megan Fox cameo seen in trailers and commercials is particularly stale.

While the film misses more than it hits, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have humorous moments. The problem with these scenes, however, is that every single joke in “The Dictator” is easy. It isn’t just the excessive usage of shock and gross-out humor for an easy laugh. It’s pretty much every joke in the film. From the opening credits dedication of the film “in loving memory of Kim Jong Il” to the wacky customs of Wadiya to the androgynous appearance of Zoey, every joke can be spotted from a mile away.

There’s no question that Cohen is one of the most talented character creators in the film industry today. But based on the quality of his last two character-driven films, perhaps it’s time to move past the zany foreigner conceit. The fact that there are enough body hair jokes to count on two hands should inform potential audiences the humor in “The Dictator” can often be eye-rollingly lazy. And even when a joke comes around that works, one is more likely to crack a smile than bust a gut.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

May 27, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley
Directed by: Mike Newell (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”)
Written by: Boaz Yakin (“Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights”), Doug Miro (“The Uninvited”), Carlo Bernard (“The Uninvited”)

With the exception of 2004’s “The Day After Tomorrow,” Jake Gyllenhaal always seemed like the type of actor who couldn’t be wooed by the bells and whistles of mainstream Hollywood. From standout performances in unique films like “Donnie Darko,” “The Good Girl,” and “Brokeback Mountain,” so much of Gyllenhaal’s on-screen attraction has been the fact that there wasn’t much action-hero attitude in him begging to escape.

So, it’s a bit surprising (not only because he’s playing a Persian, but looks nothing like someone of Persian descent) that Gyllenhaal signed up to star in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” a movie adaptation of the popular video game series created by Jordan Mechner in 1989. While the title might sound like a gaudy Middle Eastern soap opera, there’s nothing remotely dramatic about this lazily-scripted story. Like most over-produced Jerry Bruckheimer mainstream hullabaloo (with the exception of the first “Pirates of the Caribbean”), “Persia” is not so much entertaining as it is a dizzying experience.

Adopted from the streets as a boy by the Persian king, Dastan (Gyllenhaal) – although he is not of royal blood – has been raised just the same as the king’s biological sons Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and Tus (Richard Coyle), who is next in line for the royal throne.

Disobeying his father’s wishes, Tus commands the Persian army to raid the Holy City of Alamut when he receives word from his uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) and his spies that the city is supplying weapons to Persia’s enemies. To make amends for their betrayal against the Persian king, Tus claims Tamina (the breathtaking Gemma Arterton), the Princess of Alamut, as his wife. It’s a short engagement, however, before the king arranges her to marry Dastan instead.

But when Dastan is framed for the murder of his father – an incident he has no motive for, but makes matters worse by fleeing – he and Tamina team up out of necessity. Now running for their lives through Persia, the duo must survive long enough to find the king’s real killer and, of course, fall in love. Mixed into the absurd narrative is a magical dagger, which possesses the power to send people back in time.

Don’t attempt to break “Persia” down any more than you have to. That would surely defeat the purpose of a Bruckheimer-produced film. The less brainpower used on the CGI-heavy fantasy, the more likely you are to appreciate its kitsch. In this instance, however, dumbing down “Prince of Persia” into gawky scenes of swordplay, romance and unintentionally funny anachronistic dialogue shouldn’t be enough reason to give Bruckheimer a blessing to fund another pointless journey into another of these sand traps.

Shutter Island

February 19, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley
Directed by: Martin Scorsese (“The Departed”)
Written by: Laeta Kalogridis (“Alexander”)

There are times during Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese’s (“The Departed”) thriller “Shutter Island” where you can feel the anxiety of the picture frothing up inside your gut. Once Robbie Robertson’s disturbing Hitchcockian score and Robert Richardson’s misery-stricken cinematography merge to create the ominous tone during the opening scenes, it is obvious Scorsese plans to keep you as uneasy as he possibly can for as long as he can.

There is only so much, however, that a masterful director like Scorsese and a few members of his technical crew can do before its foundation collapses from under them. Adapted from the Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”) novel of the same name, screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (“Alexander”) rides Scorsese’s coattail as far as she can before the work itself shrinks back into predictable dark corners. The twist and turns might be sharp, but that doesn’t make them any less dull.

Collaborating for the fourth time with Scorsese, Academy Award nominee Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Aviator”) plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. marshal investigating the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a murderess from a mental hospital known to house the most criminally insane patients. Teddy’s new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) joins him on his tour through the facilities where he plans to interrogate every one who knows Rachel, including psychiatrists Dr. Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) who aren’t exactly cooperating with Teddy’s methods of inquiry.

Teddy, however, has more to worry about than unsupportive head doctors who seem to be hiding the truth. Nightmares of his dead wife (Michelle Williams) and his time in the war begin to haunt him as he and Chuck end up stranded on the island during a vicious thunderstorm. They are the type of hallucinations that would easily be dismissed if they were in any other horror-type movie, but since Scorsese is directing the scenes we’re led to believe that they should be considered more artistic than overly-stylistic. However you want to identify them, they have no bearing on any emotional aspect of the story, which is unfortunate since they are revisited numerous times.

Most of the emotional pull comes from DiCaprio’s performance itself. Walking a fine line between awareness and madness, his on-the-spot portrayal of a man uncertain of his own mental welfare as he caves in on himself is frightening. Still, the suspense refuses to take another step forward once the pieces start fitting together more obviously. Once that occurs, it is only a matter of waiting out the rest of the unsubstantial plot points in “Shutter Island.” By then, all the dread has subsided and that ball of nerves that was floundering around inside you earlier feels more like bad indigestion.

The Wackness

August 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby
Directed by: Jonathan Levine (“All the Boys Love Mandy Lane”)
Written by: Jonathan Levine (debut)

For a film that prides itself in its 90’s references, “The Wackness” has a lot more to offer audiences that just a look back to a music era featuring the Wu Tang Clan and Biggie Smalls. Even though they’re high most of the time, the smartly-written characters are the most redeeming part of this independent surprise from director/writer Jonathan Levine.

In “The Wackness” (which is apparently slang for the opposite of dopeness), Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is spending his first summer after graduating from high school trying to figure out what he is going to do for the rest of his life. Set in 1994 in New York City, Luke spends his time dealing dope from his ice cream cart and crushing on his shrink’s stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby).

Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley, who can always play some great offbeat characters; see most recently “Sexy Beast” and “You Kill Me”), who doesn’t approve of his infatuation with Stephanie, really can’t use the fact that Luke sells drugs to deter the relationship. The reason: Squires trades counseling sessions with Luke for weed. Their interesting relationship isn’t in jeopardy despite the weird set-up. Luke and Squires need each other. Squires needs him for his pot and Luke needs him because he seems to be the only one that listens to him since his parents have been preoccupied with financial problems.

This makes for a very bizarre coming-of-age tale as both men use one another to grow out of their somber personalities. Squires’s middle-age crisis begins as his wife (Famke Janssen) becomes more distant to him. He finds physical satisfaction to ease his pain when he meets fellow hippie Union (Mary-Kate Olsen, who reminds me of Lisa Bonet’s character in “High Fidelity”).

As a stoner movie, “The Wackness” is presented a bit differently than the upcoming “Pineapple Express” or others of the past like the “Harold & Kumar” series. This one is character-driven and considerate of the relationships it nurtures throughout the film. Although it might overplay the nostalgic angle at times (the Nintendo reference is funny and the music does transport you back to the early ’90s), “The Wackness” manages to sail smoothly with some fine performances by its cast and a novice director who actually comes in with a reasonable vision.