Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Reviews Part Two

REVIEW: 42 ***

"42" is the story of how Jackie Robinson became the first African-American man to break the color-barrier in professional baseball. The film doesn't tell us anything new about the era of segregation in the United States, nor does it bring anything new to the sports genre in movies. Yet it does entertain, which is its main goal.

The cast includes newcomer Chadwick Boseman as Robinson. He is likable and dignified in the role. Accompanying him is veteran star Harrison Ford as Dodgers manager Branch Rickey, who chose to defy convention and hire Robinson for the team. Ford provides one of his best character portraits. Certainly it is one of the more interesting roles he has taken on in a long time.

Brian Helgeland (winner of the Oscar for co-writing "L.A. Confidential") focuses the film on how the legendary player overcame the initial backlash against his joining the league in 1947 and how the Brooklyn Dodgers team overcame their fears about integrating to eventually welcome him as a member. The script doesn't give us a lot of information on Mr. Robinson's life outside of these events, but it manages to be inspiring without revealing anything even the most casual sports observer wouldn't know.

Perhaps this is the main reason that "42" feels like safe entertainment, instead of aiming for greatness like some of the more popular baseball dramas of the past like "Pride of the Yankees" (1942) or "Field of Dreams" (1989). Having said that, "42" is worthwhile for the performances and its breezy telling of an inspirational story.

REVIEW:  A Good Day to Die Hard

John McClane (Bruce Willis) winds up traveling to Russia to help his estranged son (Jai Courtney), who is mixed up in a crazy plot that revolves around a secret file and assassination attempts and corruption. The son is reluctant to let John help, but eventually they find a way to reconnect.

The plot never really comes together as a cohesive action story, and just goes from one action set-piece to another without ever being particularly exciting. Worse, the father-son relationship never quite clicks, which makes it feel like the desperate plot device that it really is. If they make a sixth entry, I hope they find a better story to tell. What is surprising is how far from the quality of its predecessors, especially the original, this one is. It feels tired and uninspired.

REVIEW: Lovelace

"Lovelace" is a biopic about an innocent young woman who is thrown into the porn business by an abusive husband. Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried) comes from a strict religious home and is shy and trusting at first, but then she meets Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard). Traynor charms her into doing things she seems not so eager to do, including getting involved in the surprising hit porn flick Deep Throat, but then he turns into an all-out hustler and she goes through quite a lot of abuse before finally getting away.

Seyfried finds a way to make her innocence-to-maturity-to-survivor arc work despite the audiences' not-unreasonable question as to why she got so involved for so long. Some may find that some of Linda's past has gone unmentioned so this storyline can remain unbroken, but we come to like and believe her character. Sarsgaard has been good for a long time (see "Shattered Glass") and is convincing as the lousy husband gone greedy, using drugs and pimping his wife for money, while showing us why Linda found him so charming in the beginning. Lovelace's parents are well-played by Robert Patrick (forever remembered for his villain in "Terminator 2") and a nearly unrecognizable Sharon Stone (an Oscar-nominee for "Casino" and no stranger to controversy herself).

The film is flawed, as it occasionally feels like it could easily have been released to cable without any major changes. Still, it is an interesting true-life story of a woman who unwittingly becomes a porn star and national punchline, while surviving a nasty marriage.

REVIEW:  Olympus
Has Fallen **

Here is a film that might have felt right at home in the mid-90's. It features an all-out attack on a major American landmark, the White House, and features plenty of explosions. Then there is a flawed, but unstoppable hero (Gerard Butler) who is the one man who can save the president and the country once the White House is taken over by terrorists.

Some of this is fun, as Butler keeps in contact with the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman) who has been promoted to Acting-president while the real one (Aaron Eckhart) remains a hostage. The Speaker and the security team have to trust this guy, a former Secret Service agent, because he's the only one inside who can try to rescue the hostages being held in a bunker. So Butler out-smarts his enemies, while narrowly dodging bullets and engaging in fist fights. It's fun in a sort of mindless way.

The problem is that everything begins to feel like a kind of video game, rather than like real people are in real danger. It's also not as engaging as similar fare seen in films like Wolfgang Peterson's 1997 action classic "Air Force One," which starred a much more aggressive president than "Olympus Has Fallen" presents in Aaron Eckhart's portrayal. I never really felt invested in what happened to Gerard Butler's character, though he fills the bill as a sort of generic action hero type. And few lines from the movie stood out, until the end. The best exchange comes when someone complains about the destruction done to the White House, and another character shrugs and says "It's insured." That moment could also underline the basic feeling after viewing this movie: I enjoyed it on a basic level, but it doesn't carry any real impact with it.

REVIEW:  White House Down **½

U.S. Capitol police officer John Cale (Channing Tatum) wants to impress his young daughter (Joey King) by winning a job as a member of the president's Secret Service. He is unsuccessful, but he doesn't let her know the outcome and suggests they take a White House tour.

Turns out to be the wrong day for a stroll through the nation's most famous house, when a bomb explodes in the Capitol, creating chaos as the White House and President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) are soon under siege. But fear not, for our rejected would-be Secret Service man is on hand to rescue the president and help his defense team (led in part by frustrated high level agent Maggie Gyllenhaal) via the command center.

Just as preposterous as this spring's "Olympus Has Fallen," but somehow more fun. A lot of this has to do with the cast, including Tatum and Foxx who have fun with the film's lighter moments and the always dependable James Woods as a disillusioned villain orchestrating the attack on the White House.
The film never quite reaches the level of an "Air Force One" or director Roland Emmerich's own '90's classic, "Independence Day," but it does provide plenty of popcorn action entertainment.

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