Reel Report

This Means War

Chris Pine, Tom Hardy

Spy capers are big business in post-9/11 H’wood. From the reinvention of James Bond in Casino Royale (and its follow-up Quantum of Solace, the highest grossing Bond movie of all time) to the back (Identity) to back (Supremacy) to back (Ultimatum) success of the Bourne series, it has never been more profitable for spies to come in from out of the cold. Salt and Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, for instance, were two of the most successful releases of the last few years. In this PG-13-rated spy thriller-comedy, two of the world’s deadliest CIA operatives (Pine, Hardy) enjoy a close friendship until their love of the same woman (Reese Witherspoon) forces them to pull out all of the arsenal stops to defeat the other. The Plus: The players. Here, McG (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator Salvation) is directing Pine (Star Trek, Unstoppable), Hardy (Inception, Warrior), and Witherspoon (Four Christmases, Water for Elephants). The Minus: The price-tag. This Means War is budgeted at $70 million … and is being released in February, not the summer. Also, the movie reportedly got it’s release date bumped after advance screenings didn’t test very well.

 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Nicolas Cage, Violante Placido

Whether you love or hate his career choices, Nicolas Cage has cut quite a swath through

H’wood. From his days as a supporting player in cousin Francis Ford Coppola’s films (The Cotton Club, Peggy Sue Got Married) to his Oscar triumph (Leaving Las Vegas) to his time as a bona fide superhero (Ghost Rider), Cage has pretty much run the gamut from class to crass. When it was announced that the IRS was seeking millions of dollars in back taxes from the actor, however, this critic wondered if the quality of his moves would go south in lieu of a large paycheck. Then, the actor garnered some of the best reviews of his career for Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Kick-Ass … right before turning out the horrific duds Season of the Witch and Drive Angry. Now comes his latest, Spirit of Vengeance. In this PG-13-rated fantasy adventure sequel from directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank), a former stunt driver and bounty hunter of demons (Cage) leaves a self-imposed exile to protect a mother (Placido) and son from a man who may actually be the devil (Ciaran Hinds). The Plus: The players. His IRS troubles aside, Cage still ranks as one of H’wood’s highest paid actors according to Forbes Magazine. Here, he is joined by Placido (The American), Hinds (The Debt), and Idris Elba (Thor). The Minus: The odds. Marvel Studios has some hot highly anticipated properties coming this year (The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers) … but this isn’t one of them. Plus, Cage has turned in dud (Next) after dud (Bangkok Dangerous) over the last few years, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced The Sorcerer’s Apprentice included.

 

Safe House

Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds

Oftentimes as exciting as a House on fire, Denzel Washington’s explosively entertaining latest is the safest bet at the box office this week. Someway somehow, relatively new director Daniel Espinosa has made a no-holds-barred ’80s-style actioner with a post-9/11 consciousness. Like the love child of Tony Scott (Top Gun, Man on Fire) and Paul Greengrass (the Bourne trilogy), he utilizes a gritty panache with gnat’s attention span editing and a handheld herky jerky immediacy. Oh, the movie is at heart a textbook buddy cop movie with standard issue action movie dialogue (“Right now, Weston is all that we’ve got.”), but the shoes fit and Espinosa wears them well.

In the PG-13-rated actioner Safe House, a rookie CIA operative (Ryan Reynolds) running a Cape Town, South Africa holding cell finds himself in a deadly cat and mouse spy game when dangerous mercenaries come looking for his detainee, a renegade intelligence officer (Denzel Washington).

With a mere smirk, Washington conveys more menace and villainous undertones than the rest of the actors in the whole damn movie. And it’s not even because his supporting cast is second rate – in fact, they’re rather great. Reynolds has been restored to doing what he does best: team – not sole starring – work. This works especially well considering that many hands makes the load light and this load entails lifting some clichéd actioner moments – predictable turncoat, sneering henchman, third act face-off, and all of the Lethal Weapon meets Training Day-esque trimmings. Regardless, the incendiary set pieces set sparks a-flying. Bottom line: Bet on the house.

 

The Vow

Rachel McAdams, Channing Tatum

Swooning to its own overly discordant melody, The Vow plays out like a bad Nicholas Sparks movie. The shocker? Sparks never even penned this dreck. It’s neither A Walk to Remember nor romantic lines in a Notebook nor a Dear John letter, but it feels eerily reminiscent of all three in terms of tone, feel and lack of ambition. Watching this movie instead feels like Sparks spontaneously combusted and his ashes became this screenplay. Oh, it has a good enough premise … for a Lifetime Movie-of-the-Week starring Alyssa Milano. On the big screen, however, the whole amnesia plot point is as old hat as explaining away a whole unfortunately poor season of Dallas as a dream sequence, however thinly veiled on “real events.”

In this PG-13-rated drama supposedly based on a true story, a husband (Tatum) begins a difficult courtship with his wife (McAdams) after she loses all memory of their marriage.

At times, this reviewer thought that he was perhaps being a bit too harsh in regards to his disdain for this flick. After all, McAdams does a fine job of giving a deer-in-headlights look to the goings-on that have seemingly passed her by. And Tatum remembers his lines. It’s the arch plot point and wicked histrionics of McAdams’ scheming parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange munching up the scenery like a box of chocolates) in the third act that cemented this movie’s poor review, however. It’s a one-note turn of events for a Valentine’s Day movie that vowed to be something more … namely intelligent. Bottom line: A walk to forget.

 

The Artist

Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo

A rapturously entertaining and emotional love letter to cinema, creativity, and romance, The Artist says more with no dialogue than the rest of the talky Best Picture nominees combined. In this PG-13-rated black and white silent dramedy, an up-and-coming H’wood bit player (Bejo) falls for a moving picture superstar (Dujardin) just as the advent of talkies changes the business. Calling it a masterwork of pure motion picture artistry would be as gross an understatement as saying talkies might someday replace silent movies in the ’20s. It’s edifying filmgoing from its letter-perfect performances right to its beautifully lensed homage to classic H’wood, but the sure-to-be Oscar hat trick is that The Artist is far more than an homage – it hangs in its own gallery, a heartfelt masterpiece that’s not just a piece of throwback pop art. Bottom line: The gold rush.

 

The Grey

Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney

When it comes to playing a rough-hewn man’s man with the eyes of a bare-fisted fighter and the heart of a poet, there’s no Grey area for Liam Neeson. In this massively engrossing R-rated action-adventure, a plane crash strands a group of oilrig roughnecks (Neeson, Mulroney, Frank Grillo) in the wilds of Alaska with wolves in hot pursuit. His character is part of an ill-fated crew, but it’s Neeson who does the heavy lifting, bringing an air of believability to a character type that lesser actors would render with an implausible mix of chest-puffing and scenery-chewing. The Grey proves to be a helluva good thriller that’s an improbable but amazingly gripping mix of Jaws and The Edge that’ll keep audiences biting their nails down to their elbows straight through to the ace curtain closer. Bottom line: Black, white and rad.

 

One for the Money

Katherine Heigl, Jason O’Mara

One step removed from being a Lifetime TV Movie starring Angie Harmon and Meredith Baxter, this uneven Money won’t live to see Two for the Show. In her latest, this PG-13-rated adventure, a down-on-her-luck Jersey girl (Heigl) goes to work for her sleazy bail bondsman cousin, which leads her into an investigation involving a vice cop wanted for murder (O’Hara) – an ex who broke her heart years before. Katherine Heigl is good at some roles … it’s just that this reviewer hasn’t seen them yet. In her defense, the lines, laughs, and lucre are too heavy-handed even for Meryl Streep to bail the material out.

The dialogue sounds like it was probably snappy … in the novel, that is. Instead, poor casting and a screenplay that’s sadly P to the G despite clocking a ’13′ makes for One unfortunate bounty. Bottom line: Dog of a bounty hunter.

 

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace 3D

Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor

Even with a fresh set of eyes and the benefit of hindsight, George Lucas’s space epic still gets off to a menacingly misdirected start. In this, the first of six 3D-enhanced re-releases of his PG-rated sci-fi adventure series, two Jedi knights (Neeson, McGregor) get tasked with protecting a young slave boy (Jake Lloyd) who may bring balance to a galactic government verging on collapse. For all of the writer/director’s neat-o effects and inventive designs, this ADD adventure plays out like a one-note video game chocked full of clichéd storytelling and caricatures. For children, the ludicrously annoying Jedi-to-be and his clumsy alien pal Jar Jar Binks hardly prove troublesome. For everybody else, however, it’s a childish exercise in candy-coated excess that barely hints of the awesomeness to come. Regardless, the benefits of 3D are completely negligible. Bottom line: Starry-eyed demise.

 

Woman in Black

Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds

Scarily atmospheric, but frightfully redundant, betting on Black ultimately proves to be a mixed gamble. In this PG-13-rated thriller based on Susan Hill’s novel, a young lawyer (Radcliffe) travels away from his young son to a remote village where the ghost of a scorned woman reputedly terrorizes locals. Between his ace use of angles, lighting, and well chosen locations, director James Watkins gives the audience a haunted house thriller that perfectly conjures up hell’s fury, scorned Woman and all. There are genuine hair-raisers throughout, but one can’t help but shake their head at why seemingly intelligent but weak-kneed people seek out ominous sounds and specters when most of us would’ve yelled, “Exit, stage left even!” If Jane Goldman’s adaptation of this creaky story could’ve sold this, moviegoers would be talking Woman of the year. Bottom line: The deathly hollow.

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