REVIEW: “Enough Said”

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“Enough Said” is an interesting romantic comedy/drama from writer and director Nicole Holofcener. It’s one of those films that has magically latched onto critics who were giving it rave reviews. It has one of the highest aggregate scores on Rotten Tomatoes and it has found its way on numerous Top 10 lists from well respected critics. But what is it about this movie that has earned such high praise? Here are a few things that come to mind: charm, wit, an intelligent script, and two very strong lead performances.

The true magic of “Enough Said” starts with two fine leads. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Eva, a divorced single mother and self-employed masseuse. Her life is in a repetitive rut at least until she meets Albert played by James Galdolfini in the first of his final two roles before his death. He two is divorced with a young daughter. The two decide to go on a date which launches a very unlikely relationship. In some ways the two couldn’t be more different. She is a fit and attractive middle-aged woman while he is an overweight middle-aged regular Joe. The film points out these physical differences on numerous occasions and I feel it’s for a specific reason. At first Eva may be desperate to fill a void in her life but soon she sees beyond physical appearances to what really anchors a relationship.

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“Enough Said” develops one of the purest depictions of an adult relationship you’ll see on screen. For years Hollywood has been fixated on divorcees when it comes to depicting relationships. That has fascinated and at times frustrated me. But here it is very pertinent to the story and more importantly to the characters themselves. Dreyfus and Gandolfini are fantastic and have a remarkable chemistry. You do root for them to make it and overcome their faults and past mistakes. Dreyfus has always had this infectious wit that I’ve been attracted to, and Gandolfini shows a brilliant range that many of us didn’t realize he had.

Holofcener’s script is smart and authentic but I have a few quibbles with it. There are a handful of subplots that are vaguely introduced but never really explored. A couple of them do reflect on our two main characters but others feel tacked on and unnecessary. There is also a twist with a character named Marianne (played by Catherine Keener). She and Eva become friends and they have some good moments together, but I couldn’t really buy into the overall idea behind the twist. I can see where it would work in a film a little more focused on straight comedy. But here it felt like a stretch.

Still, “Enough Said” is an intelligent and refreshing alternative to the bulk of what passes for romantic comedies these days. It’s mature in the sense of its middle-aged focus and it’s grounded in its portrayal of fallible and believable characters. But the biggest treat is watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini effortlessly embody these two characters. Both are fantastic and they are the real heart of the film. And for me, it’s their performances that are the biggest draw.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Spectacular Now”

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It’s rare to find a teen movie that actually treats teens like real people with real problems and real emotions. So often these films peddle juvenile humor and exaggerated stereotypes in place of stronger and meatier stories. That’s why it’s refreshing to find a movie like “The Spectacular Now”. This intelligent and nuanced coming-of-age story steers clear of cliches and gimmickry by respecting its characters and portraying their circumstances in a thoughtful and naturalistic way.

Miles Teller plays Sutter Keely, a popular and hard-partying high school senior. He has a hot girlfriend, a great personality, and no real ambition for the future. Sutter tells several people he lives in the now, not worrying about anything other than the moment. But that attitude proves to be destructive – something he can’t see through his fog of hedonism. His girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) finally has enough and breaks up with him. He is warned by a concerned teacher that he may not have the grades to graduate. And his constant drinking becomes a growing concern. Sutter’s life “in the now” isn’t the happy, sunshiny place he projects. It’s just a facade to hide the truth of a troubled and conflicted life.

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Sutter’s life takes an unexpected turn when he meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley). She’s a shy and studious ‘good girl’ whose reserved lifestyle is in stark contrast to Sutter’s. The two opposites hit it off but it takes some time for their relationship to blossom. But several of Sutter’s issues get in the way – his ego, his ‘cool guy’ reputation, his fixation on old flame Cassidy, and his self-destructive behavior. We never really know how Sutter and Aimee’s relationship will turn out. The film doesn’t lay out a standard formulaic plot line and a big part of its success is the experience we have watching this authentic relationship play out.

The story is also helped by some nice performances by the two leads. Teller and Woodley have noticeably different acting styles yet they seem to gel nicely with these two characters. For Teller this film is wedged in between two run-of-the-mill raunchy comedies so I was pleasantly surprised at his work here. Woodley’s nice performance is no surprise. Her film debut in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” received rave reviews and here she delivers another eye-catching performance. The supporting work is also uniformly good. Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and especially Kyle Chandler each have some strong screen time.

One of the interesting things about “The Spectacular Now” is how it employs several familiar plot points, but it treats each of them with a fresh and prudent sincerity. There are moments where you can guess how certain things will play out, but the film also steadily surprised me by not going the conventional route. More importantly it is all grounded in a realistic portrayal of these two teenaged characters which separates this film from the bulk of teen pictures we get. That alone is something I welcomed with opened arms.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Escape Plan”

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Ever since the release of “The Expendables” in 2010 there has been a resurgence of 80s styled action pictures. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, the two biggest names from that once immensely popular genre, have returned to the big screen with a number of bullet-riddled movies. The two stars join together, bicep to bicep, to bring us the silly and implausible “Escape Plan”. But who would go to a Sly and Arnie movie looking for something with deeper meaning?

In many regards “Escape Plan” is big, dumb throwback fun. The entire premise is a bit goofy and writers Miles Chapman and Jason Keller trip over themselves in the telling of the story. But still, there is a nostalgic satisfaction that this movie provides. It hearkens back to ‘the good old days’ for these two stars. They have more gray hair, they’re slower, they need more camera trickery to make them appear like the big screen tough guys they once were. But both still have charisma and an air of confidence that makes this film fun even amid its occasional eye-rolling bad dialogue, gaping plot holes, and overall silly concept.

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The story goes like this: Stallone plays a fellow named Ray Breslin and he wrote the book on prison escapes and I mean that literally. He is the head of a security firm that evaluates the strengths of maximum security prisons. How does he do this? He develops a false identity, has himself placed in the prison, and then breaks out. Helping him in this odd but apparently lucrative business is his skittish business partner Lester (Vincent D’Onofrio), his trusted associate (and possible romantic interest) Abigail (Amy Ryan), and a computer hacker named Hush (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson).

One day Breslin and company are approached by a CIA operative (Caitriona Balfe) who wants him to test a top secret prison built for the worst criminals. It’s the mother of all prison breaks that comes with a healthy $10 million payday attached. Breslin decides the money is too good to pass up so he throws aside his standard safety protocols and allows himself to be captured, drugged, and transported to “The Tomb” (play ominous location music here). Once there he quickly learns he’s been set up and it will take the help of a surly fellow inmate named Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) if he hopes to get out.

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Swedish director Mikael Håfström does a fairly good job of keeping things moving once it gets started and there are some interesting twists along the way. The Tomb itself is pretty neat with its honeycomb glass cells and intriguing secret. The guards wear black uniforms and cool futuristic masquerade ball masks (although I’m not sure why). Then there is Jim Caviezel who is a ton of fun as the soft speaking sadistic warden. His deliveries and mannerisms offer an entertaining variation of a fairly familiar character type. And while Stallone is in serious mode most of the time, Arnie gives the film some humor. Amid his sometimes corny dialogue and patented wooden line reading, he tosses out some pretty decent laughs.

All of that sounds good but unfortunately the problems I mentioned earlier do stand out. You’ll have to accept its absurdity and understand that there are several questions you’ll never get sufficient answers for. The storytelling is a little sloppy in places, the dialogue a bit cheesy, and it doesn’t have many of those big moments that we’re used to getting from these fellows. But I still give the film some credit. Stallone and Schwarzenegger aren’t spring chickens any more but the fact that they still have those big infectious action-packed personalities says something. And that’s a big reason they’re able to make this film work.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Blue Caprice”

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If you remember the Beltway sniper attacks in October of 2002 you remember the terror that it brought to the Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C. areas. The sheer random nature of the killings made them all the more unsettling. “Blue Caprice” is the directorial debut of Alexandre Moors and it gets its name from the 1990 Chevrolet Caprice that killers John Allen Mohammed and John Lee Malvo used throughout their killing spree. It’s an impressive debut for Moors as he veers away from so many of the usual trappings that we sometimes get with pictures like this.

“Blue Caprice” puts its focus on the relationship between Mohammed and Malvo. It takes a few odd liberties with their stories, but it also effectively gets into their heads and tells things from their twisted points of view. It shows them first meeting in Antigua. Malvo is shown to be a lonely boy. Left alone by his mother, he is taken in by Mohammed who is first perceived to be a loving father of three. But we get hints that he is not what he seems. The film skips ahead to Mohammed and Malvo arriving in the Tacoma, Washington area. It’s here that the film peels back the layers of Mohammed’s insanity and Malvo’s emotionless violence.

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Moors does so much right with this film. It’s raw filmmaking which perfectly serves the story and the perspectives. It’s also undeniably atmospheric and the film maintains a cloud of chilling discomfort as we witness a slow mental collapse. Mohammed and Malvo are men fueled by hate and seeking to avenge their self-viewed victim status on the world around them. The entire film builds upon these two damaged psyches and the suspense burns hotter as we know exactly where their anger will end up taking them.

Another huge reason the film works so well are the two lead performances. Isaiah Washington is nothing short of brilliant in his depiction of Mohammed. He never goes too far or pushes the boundaries. He’s always in perfect sync with the film’s deliberate pace and steady tone. It’s a great performance. I also really liked Tequan Richmond as Malvo. It’s a more understated performance and it could be argued that he isn’t asked to do a lot. But Richmond tells so much of his character’s story in his silent moments. It also helps that he works extremely well with Washington.

“Blue Caprice” is a bit of a slow burn and that may turn off some people. Personally I think that works in the film’s favor. There are a couple of moments where I questioned the movie’s intention and I wanted more from the ending, but ultimately “Blue Caprice” succeeds because of its great direction, two strong central performances, and an atmosphere and tone that does the story justice. It grabbed me early on and never let me go.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

The Public Movie Defender – “Clash of the Titans” (2010)

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The idea behind The Public Movie Defender is to take up the cause of a particular movie that I believe is better than the majority of reviews it has received. These are movies which I feel are worth either a second look or at least a more open examination considering the predominantly negative opinions of them. The films chosen are ones that I like so therefore I’m taking their case and defending them before the court of negative opinion. Let the trial begin…

DEFENDANT #3 – “Clash of the Titans” (2010)

CLASH POSTERWhen I first came up with the idea for this fun little thing called The Public Movie Defender there were several movies that immediately came to mind for inclusion. Some are personal favorites that I am deeply passionate about and others are simply movies that I feel are good yet that get pounded a bit unfairly. Some aren’t that difficult to defend while others are a REALLY hard sell. 2010’s remake of “Clash of the Titans” is one of those hard sells. And while I wouldn’t categorize it as a personal favorite, I do think it’s a good movie that doesn’t deserve the level of disdain it has received.

“Clash of the Titans” had its work cut out for it. It’s a remake of a cult classic from 1981 that featured a wonderful fantasy adventure as well as the final work of stop-motion special effects master Ray Harryhausen. This time advanced makeup and a ton of CGI would serve to bring the world to life and that in itself was quite the task. While my deep affection for Harryhausen’s brilliance trumps the new computer effects, this “Clash of the Titans” features some fantastic effects that easily overshadows the few visual hiccups that we get.

And then there’s the story. There were two different approaches that the remake could have taken. The film could have taken a grittier and more serious look at the material or it could try and capture many of the nostalgic elements of the original. By that I mean the over-the-top language, the massive cheese, the classic fantasy movie plot dynamics. The filmmakers made a deliberate choice to modernize the story a bit but also tip their hat and incorporate a lot of these late 1970’s and 1980’s approaches to fantasy storytelling.

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I think this is what alienated some people. I think this clashed with people’s familiarity with modern filmmaking and current cinematic storytelling that we get today. Personally I ate it up. The stilted and uber cheesy dialogue along with several old school plot mechanics brought back memories of the “Sinbad” films, “Ice Pirates”, “Conan”, and “Kull”. These are films that I grew up watching and I clearly see how the movie uses and embraces them. The great actors Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes ham it up as Zeus and Hades. Are they cheesy? Yes, more so than a pizza. But they are supposed to be. I completely understand if that doesn’t work for some people, but I don’t see it as a deep flaw in the movie itself. I responded to it with a nostalgic smile and appreciation.

Now it’s not like everything in the movie imitates the original. A tightly shorn Sam Worthington replaces a mop headed Harry Hamlin as Perseus. Some have had issue with Worthington’s character and performance. Not me. I like this grittier and more solemn turn. Considering all that his character faces I can understand him being a bit angry and coarse. I think Worthington brings a toughness and physicality to the role that I welcomed. Add to that an interesting and fun supporting cast of traditional survival-fantasy characters (again a tip of the hat to those old-school flicks). None are better than the great Mads Mikkelsen as the gruff and tough Draco, captain of the King’s Guard.

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The movie features the classic fantasy tale. A quest is in place which takes Perseus and crew on a ‘who will survive’ adventure. Along the way they face threats such as witches, Medusa, and of course giant scorpions. And what a scene it is when the giant scorpions appear. Incredible visuals and a beautifully filmed sequence. And then there’s the Kraken. There’s perhaps nothing in this film ridiculed more than Liam Neeson’s command to “Release the Kraken”. And while I wouldn’t call it the equivalent of a great thespian’s oration, it’s not that bad of a line. Sure it’s absolute cheese, but the mockery was really fueled by the the line’s use in the trailers and TV spots. The Kraken itself looks cool and Neeson’s over-the-top unleashing fits in perfectly.

I believe that your opinion of this film will be dictated by expectations and preferences. It’s worth recognizing what the filmmakers are doing and the type of movie they’re making. I think they set a cool nostalgic target and hit it dead center. Now to be clear, I’m not saying this is a perfect film. But I really like what they did. It took me right back to those movies that I would lay in the floor and watch on Saturday afternoons. That made this a fun and entertaining experience and when considering the film in that light I see it as a success. The sequel was a massive disappointment, but for my money “Clash of the Titans” was a blast.

VERDICT: “CLASH OF THE TITANS” – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Raid 2”

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I’m not sure if anyone expected “The Raid: Redemption” to be such a worldwide success, but that’s exactly what happened with the 2011 Indonesian martial arts picture from writer and director Gareth Edwards. Now we get “The Raid 2”, a sequel armed with a bigger budget and much more ambition. This first film was built around minimal story but a very interesting premise. This film greatly expands the story while featuring the same entertaining, high-octane, and sometimes brutal action that energized its predecessor.

“The Raid 2” moves beyond the closed confines of a tenement and quickly develops itself as something bigger. SWAT Team member Rama (Iko Uwais) returns, and this time he finds himself in a web of two rival mob gangs and corrupt police officers. After his brother is killed by one of the gangs, Rama is persuaded to join a secret task force set on infiltrating the gangs and exposing the crooked cops. He befriends the ambitious but overzealous son of one the mob bosses which gives him an inside track. But as you may guess, things aren’t nearly as easy as Rama would like.

“The Raid 2” pulls from numerous classic crime films and mob movies. You can’t help but notice it throughout the entire story. If you’re familiar with some of these plot points you’ll know exactly how things are going to play out. While that did take away any sense of curiosity or surprise for me, Edwards still handles it very well and it’s the injections of action (a very unique style of action) that very much separates this film from the gangster movies it otherwise emulates. There are plenty of wickedly choreographed martial arts sequences, but there are also some insanely good shootouts and one particular car chase sequence that blew my mind.

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That’s really what “The Raid 2” is all about. It’s a full blown action picture and that is where it makes its money. And let me just say that some of it isn’t for the faint of heart. Blood splashes, arteries are severed, limbs are broken. After all this is the movie that gives us characters simply known as Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man. Now obviously she didn’t get her name because of her carpentry skills and he didn’t get his because of his high batting average. Both characters are outrageous but they are also good examples of how much fun the movie is.

“The Raid 2” is a film that will definitely be appreciated by fans of the first movie. It remembers what made its predecessor successful and it builds upon it. Surprisingly there is a lot more story this time around which isn’t necessarily original but it is entertaining. The acting is adequate, but no one is looking at this film for Oscar-winning performances. Most people will be coming to it for action and they will get plenty of it. And it’s no joke either. It’s exhilarating, violent, and jaw-dropping and it will unquestionably satisfy the thirst of any true action movie fan.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS