Release: Friday, April 5, 2013 (limited)


Danny Boyle has a new look in 2013: his latest entry Trance shimmers with style and oozes with color. It’s editing and transitions, intentionally disjointed and jarring, provide a moviegoing experience unlike any other so far this year. It is superbly acted, and the overarching plot is reminiscent of the gleeful mischief we experienced in The Thomas Crown Affair, if only because of the coveting of one seriously expensive painting.

Trance is a work of art itself. While it offers a relatively straightforward premise, Boyle’s direction ensures that the hunt for the painting will become anything but a simple case of hide-and-seek. The movie takes great pains in providing unforeseen twists, abstract concepts, and visual stimuli. Cleverly, it also refuses to offer a simple way out of all of this.

We begin with a high-bid auction in London, where Goya’s “Witches in the Air” painting has just sold for £27 million. Simon (James McAvoy) leads us off with an explanation as to how this museum handles the protection of precious items in “the event” of a robbery. He has the inside knowledge because he works for the building; he also has a keen interest in this particular painting. His slow, measured words quietly foreshadow a looming disaster: when a team of expert thieves led by Franck (Vincent Cassel) are about to gain access to and abscond with the “Witches,” Simon suffers a blow to the head, rendering him unable to remember what became of the painting. It soon becomes clear Franck also does not possess it, and when torture and other forms of intimidation fail to produce answers from Simon, he enlists the professional help of a hypnotist (Rosario Dawson).

Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Dawson)’s job is to open up Simon’s mind in the hopes of prying out an honest explanation from his subconscious. And even though we saw the rules bending in a similar fashion in 2010’s Inception, the Trance is nevertheless unique and possibly even more alluring. With each “session” Simon is forced into entering with Dr. Lamb a different part of his memory seems to be jarred loose by the hypnosis.

We are just as much in his brain as Dr. Lamb, and it’s intimate. It’s awkward. It’s moving, to some uncomfortable degree. Unless I also have some unusual vulnerability to hypnosis myself, I never felt completely at ease in my chair. Boyle’s direction is very effective in this department.

Where the film’s hypnotic state begins to lose effect — where the movie quite frankly becomes a little silly — is in its handling of the relationship aspect. I can’t say much, but talk about analyzing something to death! You’ll need to see what I’m talking about to fully make up your own mind, but the great flaw in Trance is it abandons even the rules its laid out for itself in the beginning. What was a search for the answer to the location of a missing painting evolves into a psychoanalysis of what might ultimately be described as a typical obsessive mind.  Around the fifty-minute or hour-mark in the film, expect things to not make a whole lot of sense. This is not because you’re going crazy, or even that the story is dumb. Thanks to the frenetic editing in some places, it just becomes very difficult to follow along, like a conversation you’re having with someone who refuses to move their hand away from their mouth.

But much to its credit, Trance is trying something tricky. Manipulating visual effects is one thing; how an audience thinks and feels about the lead characters using the occasional slow-motion action sequence and extensive dialogue — dialogue that operates more as metaphor than practical relevance to the story — well, that’s quite the leap to the next level.

While it falls short of possessing a mostly coherent story, the story we get is pretty damn intriguing. Also, despite the characters being a mixed bag of sort-of-likable and simply tolerable, we feel for some of them. . . emphasis on the ‘some.’ Great acting does not necessarily equate to winning personalities, and this film is a role model in that way. It successfully blurs fantasy and reality together, even if success in this case is measured in how confused you become. Ultimately, it looks good and for an hour and forty minutes its a great dream.

And so it passes.


3-5Recommendation: (I’m almost going to straight rip this off the Rotten Tomatoes summary page, because I can’t think of a better way to say it…but….) fans of Boyle will take to it pretty quickly. It’s an interesting, new head space to be in when you’re viewing this film and even if the payoff in the end is less than it should be, most of the film is thoroughly engaging and visually pleasing. In more ways than one.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

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Release: Friday, April 19, 2013


Honestly, this is the perfect movie for an actor who has (or according to some, had…) feet firmly planted in the Scientology belief system. For someone who believes in aliens, Tom Cruise managed to pick rather appropriate territory by signing up for Oblivion, the new sci-fi adventure from Joseph Kosinski.

Aside from his intellectual curiosity about all things extraterrestrial, Cruise’s role in Oblivion seems to be a throwback to his performance in another futuristic thriller, Minority Report — some decade ago now. . . . . .and this would be right before he began to lose serious credibility with me.

Both of those films deal heavily in gadgetry, in human relations that have evolved (or devolved, take your pick) to the point of being robotic, and both are set well into the future. For both, the suspension of disbelief is a requisite. One major difference between Kosinski’s sci-try and Spielberg’s effort, is that Minority Report was rather successful in its mind-warping storytelling. And another: while many science fiction films do pay tribute to other films of the genre, Oblivion does this to a fault. Comparisons to other films run the gamut from Wall-E to Independence DayI, Robot to Inception. A lot of scenes throughout this post-apocalyptic-Earth story make up a collage of borrowed ideas that attempt to forge an original storyline that, ultimately, reverts to ripping off one of the aforementioned films (Independence Day) in a very obvious way.

But it’s hardly an original idea to argue how this film is not original. Again, the homages paid in many sci-fi “classics” can be obvious. Maybe the multitudes that are made do not surface all in one film as they do here, but hey whatever. What is more annoying and a bigger letdown is that it’s now 2013, and still we are being fed sci-fi soup with not a whole lot of flavor; and in particular, this one is very deflated in tone, and well-worn in its invention. Basically only the setting and its cast help distinguish the project.

Jack, along with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), comprise a mop-up team that ensures that the technology humans have employed to retrieve valuable resources from Earth are functioning correctly. Now, most people are either living on Titan (apparently one of Saturn’s moons has been deemed a reasonable place for us to live these days) or they’re preparing to go there, and soon Jack and Victoria will join. They live in luxurious quarters established high above the clouds. Jack’s mode of transportation looks like a concept helicopter for the year 2077. It is with this rather sleek vehicle Jack makes his drone repair missions frequently and the vantage point we have for a good portion of the first half, in experiencing the aftermath of a war which ravaged the planet.

Harper fills us in a little on the situation during a brief narration in the very opening scene, informing us that while humans won this war, Scavs destroyed the moon along with half the planet. The resultant landscape is something akin to the Halo maps, fully-realized on an IMAX screen. When we are out wandering around with Jack, it’s all very stunning and strangely beautiful seeing a planet devoid of human life.

In fact, I’d argue most of Oblivion‘s issues arise from the production design being a seriously tough act to follow, if you’re the script. I don’t see this film suffering from a simple case of a weak script. There’s always a pecking order amongst direction, production, and editing departments, and it’s clear where it all broke down for this one. (Academy Award-winner Claudio Miranda has his way with this set. Thanks, buddy.)

We get to feast our imaginations on the unfamiliarity the new landscape brings, one that cements the Empire State Building in several thousand feet of ash; a floodplain the size of the Mississippi on top of — yes, on top of — Washington D.C.

What must this war have been like? — we might ask ourselves as the camera sweeps dramatically out again across the land.

We almost couldn’t care less about what Cruise represents here, that he’s actually a part of the actual story actually taking place in this proposed world. We’re so overwhelmed by what Oblivion has done better than The Day After Tomorrow that we forget about the fact we are going to face plot turns, consequences and all that stuff specific to this movie. . . . if only we could just stop comparing . . .

The fact that the plot and especially some of the dialogue feels like it took a backseat to production values is not damnable, by the way. It’s just impossible to ignore. Riseborough, in particular, is terrible in this film. Morgan Freeman, as Beech, was handed some pretty dull assignment as well. And that’s exactly how his role feels, too: an assignment. He’s not operating in full Morgan Freeman capacity here, particularly given what you know and what you will know by the time his character is fully revealed. Tom Cruise seems to handle his job fine enough, but this is not his greatest performance of all time either. Olga Kurylenko plays a very soporific Julia, a character development that is also not too thought-provoking. As uninspired as she comes across, her character is rather crucial to understanding the film’s final destination.

It’s a passable story, though, and its dressed up in beautiful style. Altogether, Oblivion sells as quite a handsome marketing pitch, and it’s a cool-feeling movie when everything is said and done. Need there be no more involvement than your gut reaction, Oblivion works as a perfectly serviceable new-age actioner featuring a revamped alien version of Tom Cruise.

His role in Scientology makes perfect sense.


3-0Recommendation: It lacks the sophisticated premise that underlay some of the visually inferior works of Cruise’s early career, but style over substance might just do it for most people when standing on the edge of Oblivion.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t shake the feeling that Earth, in spite of all that’s happened, Earth is still my home.” 

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The Place Beyond the Pines


Release: Friday, March 29, 2013 (limited)


It’s been years since we have been handed a package as complete as Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. Beautiful cinematography, intense acting and a sprawling, morally exhausting plot come together to form the definitive crime drama that quite easily could pave the way for the rest of Gosling and Cooper’s career alike — and I’d be more than okay with that.

To get the elephant out of the room as quick as possible — I’ll go ahead and concur with many reviewers and say this is an early contender for Best Picture of 2013. The Place Beyond the Pines is a spectacularly well put-together piece of art, not just because Ryan Gosling continues to bolster his rough-around-the-edges persona as of late (in my opinion, he truly one-ups his performance in Drive here), but because the trichotomous story structure allows for so much growth and change to occur such that we experience entire lifetimes unfolding on film, rather than mere snippets of life that a vast majority of films, to their credit, choose to focus in on for their duration.

Indeed, what we get is a grandiose tale that explores the nature of father-son relationships and the often devastating consequences of either piece of the family puzzle going missing.

Gosling is once again playing the strong, silent type — but to degrees none of us really will ever be able to comprehend. He’s Luke Glanton, a talented stunt biker with all kinds of tattoos that at once distinguish his personality. When he discovers one day that he has a child, he leaves his job as a traveling performer in an attempt to be in his child’s life. The waters are further muddied because the girl he’s conceived the child with is living with a man named Kofi (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) who is more than adamant that he be considered the child’s father. Remaining determined that he will not be completely shoved out of Romina’s (Eva Mendes) and the kid’s life, Luke meets a back country car mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn) who instills in him the notion that he can still provide for his family……if he starts robbing banks.

Luke’s story arc — that is to say, the first third of the film — is arguably the darkest and most vulnerable psychological state Cianfrance visits  throughout the two-plus-hour affair. If it’s not either of those things, then it clearly establishes the film’s tone and style and foreshadows a lot more unpleasantness to come. His character is deeply troubled and the circumstances surrounding it are not so much conventional as they are physical manifestations of despair, even abandonment and isolation. The film is brilliant in this regard: its consistent placement of characters in places that substantiate the notion that one is a product of one’s own environment. In this case, most of the characters we encounter are going to be tragic.

As tensions in Luke’s life begin to escalate, we are seamlessly whisked into the story of another: that of Brad Cooper’s Avery Cross, whose immediate appearance is that of a dignified, well-respected officer within a corrupt Schenectady precinct. Exactly how Gosling and Cooper become entangled I can’t say unless you don’t mind spoilers, but suffice it to say that when they do meet it’s but one example of how well the stories flow into one another; of how necessary the extensive length of the narrative really is. Had these transitions been handled differently, or gone any other way other than how they work in Cianfrance’s follow-up to 2010’s Blue Valentine, perhaps the narrative would have seemed excessive or self-obsessed. But it doesn’t. Everything has purpose, everything has its own place, it’s own right to exist within the gray-and-green world of this place beyond the pines.

Cooper’s role as the policeman provides a different perspective on the father-son relationship, as well as sets up the final third act of the film, which takes place some fifteen years on after Avery Cross is first introduced. By this point, we have become invested enough in the individual worlds of the characters that this considerable shift in time is anything but a distracting, contrived plot device. In fulfilling what the film is endeavoring to reveal concerning fate and consequence, we transition into the turbulent lives of youths Jason (Dane DeHaan) and A.J. (Emory Cohen), the respective offspring of our two main protagonists (Luke and Avery).

Even if this third and final segment possesses elements that harken to the pathos of those “Above the Influence” anti-drug campaigns, and therefore seems less than original, these sentiments are no less compelling or befitting of this rather bleak picture. Both teens are archetypes of the troubled youth whose lives are mired in anger, drugs and a lack of personal identity. They come to symbolize the very actions and non-actions taken by those that have come before them, simultaneously comprising a storyline that is interesting in and of itself.

However, the main pride and joy of Cianfrance’s masterpiece is surely the combined efforts of Gosling and Cooper. Both actors are on their A-game and are never less than compelling to watch. Eva Mendes puts on an impressive and distinguished performance as well, diverting from her far-too-easily typecast role as the original Fast and the Furious babe. As Romina, Mendes certainly can’t escape her own attractiveness but her emotional fragility more than overwhelms and makes her character rich and dramatic, aiding the story of both Luke and Avery. And of course there’s Ray Liotta, the reliably gruff, crooked cop, Deluca. Ben Mendelsohn, as small a part as he’s provided here, rounds out a very talented cast as a wayward but still likable auto mechanic, Robin.

Taken as a whole, the experience of Beyond the Pines is something epic and unique. The story unfolds and keeps unfolding until the very last shot — a gorgeous one at that, with another brilliantly placed motorcycle ride out in the hillsides of eastern New York State. (If you check this out, you’ll see why it’s so brilliant.) Maybe you’ll also feel the running time, but only because you’ll also be feeling that you’ve journeyed through each one of the characters’ lives and shared their pain. It’s not always a pleasant ride, but it’s thoroughly engaging. It also rewards your patience with a very satisfying conclusion that’s neither overstated nor predictable.


4-5Recommendation: I believe this film to be the first film of 2013 that is an absolute must-see. An unforgettable experience, no matter if you come away with a profound impression or feeling so-so about it.

Rated: R

Running Time: 140 mins.

Quoted: “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder.”

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Olympus Has Fallen


Release: Friday, March 22, 2013


Olympus Has Fallen….just short of being a pretty incredible action flick.

Undercut by dumbed-down dialogue, unconvincing characters, and a thirst for blood which borders on the Mel Gibson-side of excessive, Antoine Fuqua’s latest feature seems interested in only one thing: making Gerard Butler look more of a man than he already does.

Ostensibly this is a film built around his character, Mike Banning — he finds himself caught in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse while trying to find and rescue President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and avoid being gunned down like virtually every other member of the White House and the Secret Service. Somehow he has escaped a torrential downpour of bullets and explosive devices and now finds himself inside the White House, which has more or less been converted into the North Korean terrorist stronghold. With the terrorists, led by a particularly brutal psychopath named Kang (Rick Yune), in full control of the most secure building on Earth Butler is once again charged with…well, saving the world.

That’s awesome, Mr. Butler. That’s just awesome! I would be more jealous of you, but knowing that the fate of the United States (possibly the world) basically hinges on the result of a series of hand-to-hand combat scenes, my envy is curtailed by my impatience and inability to take it all as seriously as anyone on-screen.

But even these people don’t really seem to be grasping the severity of the implied scenario. Look to accomplished actors such as Morgan Freeman (who plays Speaker of the House/Acting President Allan Trumbell), Angela Bassett (Banning’s higher-up, the Secret Service Director), and Melissa Leo (Secretary of Defense) for some very basic reaction shots in response to lines uttered by others that seemed to have been lifted from a child’s storybook. The dialogue and the acting in many of the scenes following some serious physical violence and/or tension simply do not match whatever else is going on in this film, and that is extremely frustrating. Also, predictable.

The lowest common denominator in this film is the mindless action sequences. Clearly with a name like Gerard Butler attached, I’m an idiot for not sniffing this out before walking into the theater. We can all identify and appreciate what Butler has done in action movies before, and what he’s doing here. But these scenes are smattered with so much blood that the overt patriotism offered up by Fuqua’s tense direction really just boils down to one color on the American flag: red. How much the Koreans come in and kick our ass in the dramatic scene where they invade Washington D.C. airspace has to be one-upped with every moment Banner has a moment to breathe and collect his thoughts. His treatment of the Korean invaders is justifiable to some degree, but then the movie crosses a line. The brains splattering everywhere in one particularly bloody fight goes a bit beyond that line. Again, predictable, given what Butler has done in the past.

I get that a film has one purpose — above all of its other purported intentions — to entertain. I understand this. Why do we have to feel like we’re being condescended to while watching the White House come under attack, though? Why does the director feel the need to pander to the dumbest of audience members? I’m sounding snooty while saying all of this, but I feel like I’m not at the same time. This is one case in a million of a movie sending the wrong message: ‘Let’s come up with some really f**ked up scenario, and then make light of it.’ Ultimately this is the ambition of the director of Training Day.


1-5Recommendation: Far from the most original or clever action movie ever put to celluloid and then some, Olympus Has Fallen plays to the audience who have absolutely no standards to be met at all. Pure popcorn poop. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

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