REVIEW: “The 33”

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I can’t help myself. I’ve always had a soft spot for disaster flicks and there has never been a shortage of them. Hollywood has found a way to make a movie about any and every conceivable disaster. The good ones are fun, exciting, and inspired. But many have been shallow, formulaic, and shamelessly melodramatic. “The 33” is the latest and let’s just say it falls somewhere in between.

Based on the 2010 Chilean mining accident, the title refers to the thirty-three miners who were trapped some 200 stories down after the San José Mine near Copiapó, Chile collapsed. The story gained global attention with news agencies from around the world covering the day-by-day rescue efforts. Concerned family members stood vigilantly by pressing for action which led to the Chilean government taking over the intense rescue operation.

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The film follows most of these main story points with its own bits of drama added in. We get the obligatory introduction scene when local families are having a big shindig. The following day the miners head to work 17,000 feet below ground. A foreman (Lou Diamond Phillips) has growing concerns over the mine’s safety but the owners dismiss his suggestions. As the men start their work the mine begins to collapse driving them deeper into the mountain. The thirty-three make it to a safe room called The Refuge only to find its food and water supply understocked and the radio broken. They are trapped with few supplies and no way of communicating.

Antonio Banderas plays Mario, the face of the miners and their de facto leader. Banderas is quite good spreading inspiration and emotion like butter on toast. I always find him entertaining and any fault with him can be tracked to the script. He is often asked to lay it on really thick, something he has no trouble doing. He is also given a few corny made-for-the-movies lines. After the mine collapses he says “That is the heart of the mountain. She finally broke.” You can’t help but laugh.

The second part of the story takes place above ground. The private company who owns the mine wants to keep things quiet, but their resources for a rescue are limited. Family members led by the fiery Maria (Juliette Binoche) grow tired of the lack of information about their loved ones. The young Minister of Mining (Rodrigo Santoro) convinces Chile’s President Piñera (played by Bob Gunton in an odd bit of casting) to send him to the site to oversee the rescue attempt. Gabriel Byrne is brought in as the chief engineer and James Brolin pops up as a drill operator.

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The topside story hops back and forth between the efforts of the rescue team and the families gathered outside the mine in a makeshift camp. There are several decent dramatic threads between the two but nothing that stands out. The same could be said about the drama inside the mine. After a really good opening the miners’ story grinds to a halt. In fact the entire movie drags its feet around the midway point. A good 20 minute cut to the film’s bulky 127 minute running time would have helped a lot.

There are some good performances, an inspirational true story, a really good beginning, an emotionally satisfying ending, and one of the final scores from the great James Horner. But aside from the laggy middle, the film mainly suffers from being glaringly formulaic. Being based on a true story obviously tips its hand in many regards, but “The 33” hits nearly every disaster movie tick. I still enjoyed the film overall, but I kept waiting for it to do something unique. It never quite does.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “Words and Pictures”

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Whenever you see a movie starring Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche you should automatically have a certain bit of excitement and expectation. These are two top level performers who have some of the most natural acting sensibilities. The two come together in the 2014 romantic drama “Words and Pictures”. The film is directed by 74-year old Australian Fred Schepisi. I wasn’t familiar with Schepisi’s work so while looking through his filmography the one film that stood out was the 1987 Steve Martin romantic comedy “Roxanne”.

The film is set in Maine. Jack Marcus (Owen) is a language and writing teacher at a prominent college prep school. He has been a successful writer and poet and has been successful as an educator. But it doesn’t take long to see that he has his own demons. First there is his strained relationship with his son. Then there is his self-destructive alcoholism that begins to bleed over into his job performance. He soon finds his teaching gig in jeopardy pending a school administration review.

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Binoche plays Dina Delsanto. She arrives at the school to serve as the new art teacher. She is an accomplished artist who has seen her career take a difficult turn due to her painful and worsening rheumatoid arthritis. Her frustrations with her conditions sometimes cause friction with her new students, but she genuinely seeks to increase their knowledge and love for art.

As you can probably guess the two teachers meet and Dina’s first impression of the smug Jack isn’t a great one. Dina wants nothing to do with him. Jack views his playful agitations as his own weird sign of affection. The two strong personalities clash over practically everything from their art forms to the prospects of a possible relationship. Owen and Binoche have a good chemistry and as you watch them you begin to hope that the walls between them will soften. These are two fabulous lead performances.

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Writer Gerald Di Pego tosses in a few unique dramatic elements which keeps the film interesting. His script is also smart enough to let his two wonderful leads act. But at the same time the story does end up following a fairly familiar blueprint. It sets itself up to be truly different but in the second half you’ll notice several things that feel all too familiar. Even the ending seems too neat and polished. It never kills the movie, but it would have been interesting to see some of the more unique directions this story could have gone.

Still there is enough here to like and I enjoyed “Words and Pictures”. Its main draw is Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche – two performers I never grow tired of watching. They make this film automatically worth your time. And even though the story isn’t that ambitious or new, the film has its moments that really work. It can be romantic, funny, and genuinely heartfelt. It also gives us characters we can actually care about. Those pluses outweigh the snags which keep it from being even better.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Godzilla” (2014)

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Last year brought us “Pacific Rim”, an unashamed homage to the old creature features of the 1950s. By all right it should have been terrible but “Pacific Rim” was a decent film. It was far from perfect but it was a fun and entertaining romp. This year we get “Godzilla”, another monster movie that didn’t have me a bit excited at first and that could have been really awful. But it’s actually not. In fact not only is this new incarnation of the well known reptile better than last year’s “Pacific Rim”, it’s one of the better recent blockbusters and it was some of the most fun I’ve had at the theaters this year.

It doesn’t take long to notice several surprising differences in this film from what you might expect. The movie is built upon a very deliberate and methodical story. It certainly has its huge creature-feature action but we are never bombarded with it. The film is also set apart by its spectacular cast. “Godzilla” features a number of great performers that automatically enhance the experience. Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, and David Straithairn make up the film’s great supporting ensemble.

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Cranston plays a nuclear physicist who was present during a 1999 disaster at a nuclear plant in Japan. Fifteen years pass and he is still dealing with the consequences of the disaster while also determined to expose what he believes is a cover up of the true cause behind the event. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays his son, a military man married to Olsen. Watanabe plays a scientist studying hidden findings at the disaster site along with his assistant Hawkins. Obviously towering monsters come into play as the story unfolds and revelations are made. The inevitable global threat takes center stage but not before an intense and very well conceived buildup takes place.

Almost every character is given their moments. At first I was wishing I had seen more of this person or that person, but each serve the plot very well. A couple of performers don’t get a lot of screen time but I’m okay with that mainly because they work really well within the story being told. Better yet, everyone is really good. Taylor-Johnson is probably the weakest of the talented cast but he is certainly adequate for what he is asked to do despite his moments of blandness. Cranston is fabulous and Watanabe is rock-solid as always. Hawkins is always good although she is reserved to an almost background character. Olsen continues to impress and Straithairn is a really nice fit as a Navy Admiral in charge of stopping this massive scaly threat.

But perhaps what I like the most is how the movie doesn’t cater to preconceived notions. As I mentioned, it very slowly develops its story but I found it to be incredibly intriguing and always tense. This may not impress those looking for a constant barrage of big creature effects, but I found it to be a wonderful approach which made those big creature moments all the more satisfying once they come. Director Gareth Edwards constructs his film well which hearkens back to the fun sci-fi monster movies of the 1950s. He uses their formulas of build up, buildup, slight reveal, buildup, big finale. I loved that.

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Now an argument could be made that the “big finale” is a bit too big. There is some merit to that. But even during those moments the story is moving in different directions which kept things interesting. Better yet, we had only seen passing glances of Godzilla up to that point so watching him duke it out in the finale was pretty exciting. It also helps that the movie looks great. There is a touch of the disaster genre here so we get several wide shots of massive destruction. They are always in context and they look fabulous. I also loved the look of Godzilla. Clearly there is CGI used, but yet he maintains an undeniable familiarity with the old classic Godzilla models. I got a real kick out of that. There is also a brilliant use of sound through the picture from big earth-shattering roars to perfect moments of ominous silence.

I think it’s safe to say that “Godzilla” is one of the biggest surprises for me this year. I had such a good time with the film and I was surprised at how well made and well written it is. The cast is committed and there’s no winking at the camera at any point. It literally had me glued to the screen for the entire running time and more than once I was smiling as it reminded me of those old monster movies that I still adore. Maybe there is a bit of nostalgia talking but I’m fine with that. I had a great time with “Godzilla” and I can’t wait to see it again!

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

TOP 5 BEST LEAD ACTRESS PERFORMANCES OF 2011

TOP 5 BEST LEAD ACTRESS PERFORMANCES OF 2011

I hate to repeat myself but this was a good year for women in Hollywood. It was tough narrowing down my favorite lead actress performances to just 5. But after painfully omitting some genuinely great performances, I’ve come up with a list that I think shows the talent and range found from women leads in 2011. Here’s my top 5 lead actress performances of the year:

#5 – Michelle Williams (Meek’s Cutoff)

While the movie’s out-of-the-blue ambiguous ending didn’t work for me, Michelle Williams’ performance certainly did. Williams’ acting range certainly can’t be questioned and she is fantastic in this rugged film about the Oregon Trail. She always stays controlled in a film that counts on deliberateness. While she’s received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe, I was drawn more to this unique and challenging performance.

#4 – Viola Davis (The Help)

The performances in “The Help” more than make up for the occasional stumbling blocks found in the writing and Viola Davis is particularly good. She gives a stirring performance that often times rises above the material and there are several scenes where she takes the movie and carries it. That’s a mark of a great actress and Davis certainly has the chops. She always feels genuine and she’s able to relay the raw emotion that many of her scenes call for. She has certainly earned the Oscar buzz she has received.

#3 – Saoirse Ronan (Hanna)

I really like Saoirse Ronan and her work in “Hanna” is just another reason why. It’s a tricky role in that it requires a child-like charm and an action movie-styled physicality. She keeps a steady balance to her character throughout the picture and had me sold hook, line, and sinker. Ronan shined in “The Lovely Bones” and I loved her in “The Way Back”, but this is her best performance yet and just a taste of what lies ahead for this immensely talented young actress.

#2 – Vera Farmiga (Higher Ground)

Vera Farmiga’s “Higher Ground” is a movie many people may have not seen, but it features one of the best performances of Farmiga’s career. She also directs the film but it’s her lead performance that carries the picture. She treats her material with care and compassion and I never found her anything but compelling. She was completely overlooked by Oscar which comes as no surprise. But there is no way I can’t include her performance as one of 2011’s best.

#1 – Juliette Binoche (Certified Copy)

From the start of “Certified Copy” I found myself absorbed in Juliette Binoche’s Elle. Who is she? I spent most of the movie mesmerized by her conversations and trying to figure out if she was real or simply a copy. I know that sounds vague but once you see the film you’ll know what I mean. Binoche is marvelous and her work stood above the other great female lead performances I saw last year. If you haven’t seen “Certified Copy”, see it. When you do you’ll be treated to a brilliant actress who knows her craft and shows it with her performance.

Agree or disagree? Please share you thoughts. Comment on who your Top 5 were.