FlixChatter Review: The A-Team

I originally wanted to post this as my weekend roundup, but haven’t got around to finishing it. Anyway, last weekend was a busy one but I managed to watch two movies that couldn’t be more different from each other: the action-packed The A-Team and Rob Marshall’s musical NINE (review forthcoming). Well in a way they have something in common, neither of them are ‘great’ movies by any means, but you know what, I quite enjoyed both and they met my expectations to some degree.

I was expecting a bombastic, loud, popcorn blockbuster and I got exactly what I asked for, nothing more, nothing less. I went in to see the movie for pure nostalgia sake as I watched the TV show as a youngster and the trailer just looked so darn entertaining. Now, the trailer is still far better than the movie, as is often the case, but fortunately the movie captured the whimsical and jovial spirit of the TV show. Every time the theme song comes on, I instinctively start grinning ear to ear.

The A-Team is a nickname for Operational Detachments Alpha (ODA), which they used to be a part of, but these four guys are now on the run from the military for being accused of a war crime they didn’t commit. The movie is an origins story of sort, as it shows how Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith finds the other three to form his team of four bad-asses. Each of the story is pretty amusing, but my favorite part is when he found Murdock in the mental institution.

The original A-Team: Dirk Benedict, George Peppard, Dwight Schultz, and Mr. T

Which brings me to the excellent casting. Each actor did their best in the role and work well together, which is key to the whole ensemble. I do agree with Novroz’s review that UFC champion Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson as B.A. is probably the weakest of the four, but then again the highly charismatic Mr. T really was a tough act to follow. But even so, he’s actually pretty good. It’s nice to see Liam Neeson having fun in the role of Hannibal, he takes it more than simply impersonating George Peppard with his cigar smoking smugness. I guess since his last actioner Taken, Neeson now adds ‘bonafide action star’ to his stellar resume.

Pretty boy Bradley Cooper fits the bill as the wise-cracking ladiesman Face, though he’s borderline afflicted with a Matthew McConaughey syndrome with his tendency to take his shirt off! I’ve talked about Quinton, now last but not least, Sharlto Copley‘s fantastic performance as the mischief maker Murdock. I initially frown that he chose this movie as his post District 9 role, but you know what, I’m glad he did. He’s the perfect comic relief and steals every scene he’s in. He’s proven to be quite a versatile actor and obviously has a knack for physical comedy.

This blinking contest leave Jessica & Bradley breathless

Besides the cast, all the movie is about is action, action, and more action. From start to finish, the fast pace hardly ever let up and we’re served with one overblown, logic-defying sequence after another. Director Joe Carnahan never takes the time to explain anything, so the plot always takes a back seat over the explosions and gunfights. It’s kind of mind-numbing after a while, but to complain that there’s too much action here is like going to a buffet and grumbles there’s too much food. The ending is shamelessly set up for a sequel with Jon Hamm in an uncredited role. It leaves the audience wondering who’s this Lynch character, the fishy CIA agent initially played by Patrick Wilson. Oh, Jessica Biel also stars as the lone female character in the testosterone-heavy flick. I’ve never been impressed by her acting but she doesn’t have to do much here than to appear breathless opposite hunky Mr. Cooper.

In any case, despite its flaws and absurdity, it was fun to switch off Saturday afternoon and just enjoy the brainless thrill ride.

Everyone’s a Critic: Two Twin-Cities natives review ‘A Serious Man’

Happy Monday, everybody! In this special edition of Everyone’s a Critic, I thought it’d be fun to have a couple of my Minnesota friends to offer their (slightly different) views on a movie that happens to be filmed in our neck of the woods. This is the first movie set in Minnesota from the Coen brothers since Fargo over a decade ago. I haven’t seen it but I’m definitely intrigued to check it out just to see the familiar places I’ve been to in Minnesota, i.e. the Embers restaurant shown in the movie was a regular hangout place for my friends and I in my college years.

Special thanks to Becky and Leslie for their contribution!

Leslie Thomson

So for the last few years I’ve made it my mission to see the best picture nominees before the Academy Award’s big night. And mission it was this year with the Academy changing the number of nominees from 5 to 10 movies. Not having seen any of the movies before the announcements, it was a scramble. Unfortunately I only made 8 of the 10, missing out on Up (should be an easy one to watch) and Precious (expecting a very hard one to watch and I admit I’ve been reticent to see it, but eventually I will).

Having seen 8 of the movies, I was asked my opinion of A Serious Man. With a large part of the production being filmed here in my home state I was obviously interested in seeing it. Friends were approached by one of the film scouts to look at the interior of their house for that perfect 60’s décor but they lost out to neighbors up the street. But we were given day by day descriptions of the numerous trucks, powerful arc lights illuminating their neighborhood at the crack of dawn and the constant parade of cars cruising by to see what all the activity was about.

 

Joel & Ethan Cohen

 

I’ve liked many of the Coen Brothers’ movies, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski (my mother’s favorite), O Brother Where Art Thou (my favorite) and No Country for Old Men. So of course as with their other movies, I expected a slightly twisted, quirky movie populated with slightly twisted, quirky characters. Well A Serious Man is all that. But I was bemused – missing – something. I watched the numerous scenes of a middle class, Midwestern Jewish family  moving through their life of Hebrew school, bar mitzvah, running from the school brute (whom I kept thinking of as a golem), a failing marriage, a nude neighbor, a rude neighbor, car accidents, rambling rabbis young and old, bickering siblings, etc, etc, etc. Was there more to this movie that I, as a goy, was missing? I don’t know. All I know was that my facial expression throughout the movie mimicked that of Larry Gopnick – slight head tilt, furrowed brow and an uncomprehending stare all until the final scene which snapped to black. Huh?

 

Michael Stuhlbarg
Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik

 


Becky Kurk
(Prairiegirl)
I liked this movie simply because it was so nostalgic for me. It’s also amusing, in the Coen Bros kind of way, with enough laugh-out-loud moments to satisfy the comedy junkie in me. It is set in 1967 and was filmed entirely in and around the Twin Cities, mostly in Bloomington, a second-tier southern suburb. I grew up in Roseville, a second tier northern suburb. (The Coen Bros grew up during the 60s too, in St. Louis Park, a western suburb of Minneapolis.) The 60s sets – interior and ex, the clothes and the music were so faithfully recreated I thought I had gone back in time, and it brought back a lot of memories. One of the most surprisingly delightful scenes (for me) was an exterior shot of a Red Owl grocery store (the precursor to Super Valu), with it’s distinct logo. I remember going to shop there with my mom a hundred times when I was a girl.

After a Jewish college professor’s (Larry Gopnik, played wonderfully by Michael Stuhlbarg, a 2009 Golden Globe nominee for Best Actor) wife asks him for a divorce, his life starts to come apart, and his search for “meaning” leads him on many paths. One of many laugh-out-loud scenes include a loose neighbor woman who indulges with him in the same recreational drug his young son smokes right before his bar mitzvah. Combined with his brother’s bizarre troubles, their Jewish traditions (of which I am not familiar with at all, but most of the time, you don’t need to be Jewish to see the humor involved), his kids (Larry has two teenage children, a 16-year-old girl, thoroughly embarrassed by her parents and obsessed with her hair, and a 13-year-old son who is beholden to a bully for $20 he owes him for the pot he and friends smoke in the high school bathroom), there is so much subtlety woven into the plot I can see how viewers can easily get bored. But I thoroughly adored the charm, loyalty and realness of this outwardly normal-seeming, inwardly dysfunctional, ultimately (probably) typical Jewish family living in the suburban Midwest in the late 1960s. With this film, I think you need to go with your instinct whether you should see it or not – either you will love it or hate it. I doubt there’s much room for anything in between.

FlixChatter Review: The Young Victoria

I love British period dramas and adore Emily Blunt, so put the two together and I expect an enjoyable movie experience. Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed. Not only is it a gorgeous movie to look at, but also believably-acted by both Emily in the title role, as well as Rupert Friend as Albert.

A bit of a background on the period where the movie is set: The year is 1837, when 17-year-old Victoria is the object of a royal power struggle. Being the heir to the throne her dying uncle, King William, Victoria is sheltered from the court by two people she despise: her domineering mother The Duchess of Kent, and her appointed regent Conroy (whose task is to administer a country because the monarch is a minor). The one person she relies on is her doting governess Lehzen, who also practically smothers her.

Ever since she was little, Victoria always felt imprisoned in her own palace, and it’s easy to see why. She can’t even come down the stairs without an adult holding her hand. So she lives a lonely life with a huge burden on her shoulder that her time to rule England is soon approaching. Miles away, her cousin Albert, the nephew of Victoria’s uncle King Leopold of Belgium has been constantly coached to win her hand. Given her upbringing, the young queen is naturally reluctant to the idea of marriage, weary of being under someone else’s control again. Albert shares that sentiment, as he too is controlled by those in power around him. Perhaps it’s that understanding that lead to an unlikely friendship between the two, and allows Victoria to be honest to Albert about her feelings and grievances. The scene when the two are playing chess together shows how Albert doesn’t seek to be the husband that ‘play the game for her, but instead to play it with her.’ It could’ve been a sly line Albert’s been versed to say all his life, but it’s delivered in such an earnest way that we the audience, along with Victoria sitting in front of him, take his words to heart. It doesn’t hurt that Friend, with his mild-mannered demeanor and convincing German accent, is so darn appealing in a wholesome kind of way.

When King William finally dies and Victoria is crowned Queen of England (in a breathtaking coronation), Victoria takes no time to banish her mother and Conroy to a remote apartment near Buckingham Palace. But it doesn’t mean she’s ‘free’ now as she immediately cuddles up to the charming but rather self-serving Lord Melbourne, England’s PM and sole advisor. For a time, the people loved their new queen, but not too long later, a conflict with Melbourne’s opponent Robert Peel painted her as being against the public’s will. That’s the time when Victoria realized how much she needed Albert’s support.

Amidst all that volatile political happenings, the heart of the film is the sweeping love story, as the poster tag line says: She was the queen of an empire, but her heart belonged to one man. She’s obviously more lucky in love than her distant cousin Queen Elizabeth I who’s known as the Virgin Queen (more recently played by Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth). The best part is, she need not have to wait for Albert to ask for her hand, as being the ruler of an empire means she gets to do the proposing!

It’s to be expected that any kind of Hollywood biopics usually take liberty with the historical facts, and this one is no different. In fact, this Telegraph UK article reported that the Queen isn’t amused by the inaccuracies depicted in the film, especially regarding the assassination attempt as the newlyweds were riding through the streets in a carriage. I can’t help wonder if the fact that this movie was co-produced by the Duchess of York (a.k.a Fergie) — along with Martin Scorsese — has something to do with the Queen’s feelings towards the movie. In any case, this extra dose of dramatization adds some vigor and suspense to an otherwise plodding pace, but also reminds us that this movie is more of a romantic drama than a historical narrative.

The script  by Julian Fellowes (who won Oscar for Gosford Park) is able to make the slow-burn romance and background story quite engaging as I wasn’t bored at all the entire time. When there’s not much action going on, I can feast my eyes in the beautiful cinematography of posh palaces, blinding jewels and sumptuous costumes. But all in all, the movie works largely due to Emily and Rupert’s enchanting performances, as the movie’s pace practically picks up when the two are together on screen. Emily at the age of 26 looks amazingly believable as a teen with her radiant face and flawless skin. She also makes the young queen relatable and someone regular folks can actually empathize with — she’s strong but vulnerable, no doubt a daunting task for any actress. Rupert as Albert shows a nice balance between being agreeable and resolute, as despite his meekness, he reasonably demands to be treated as his wife’s partner and equal.

Conroy and The Duchess of Kent

The largely British cast are also fabulous all around, most notably Jim Broadbent as King William, Miranda Richardson as Victoria’s mother, Paul Bettany as Melbourne and Mark Strong as Conroy. But having seen Strong as the sneeringly evil Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes, I feel he’s in danger of being typecast in villainous role (He’s reportedly in talks to play yet another villain in The Green Lantern). It’s too bad if that’s the case, as I quite like his whimsical side in Rocknrolla.

This marks the second movie about Queen Victoria I thoroughly enjoy. The first one is Mrs. Brown, starring Judi Dench and Billy Connolly. That movie takes place after the death of her beloved Albert, causing her to disappear from the public in mourning. That is until her Scottish servant John Brown helped nursed her back to life. Dame Judi Dench delivered a superior performance that no doubt merit her Best Actress Oscar.


4 out of 5 reels


What are your thoughts about this movie?

Everyone’s a Critic Part 3: Reviews from FlixChatter’s Readers

Welcome to the third edition of Everyone’s a Critic series! We’ve got a couple of new contributors today, thanks guys! Here they are in their own words:

The Hangover
by Mike Beery (now how appropriate is that??) 😀

It’s uncommon that one seeks out a comedy film a second time, as most of the jokes aren’t as funny twice through. The Hangover happens to be one of those films requiring a second stint – simply because you’re laughing so hard at the constant stream of bits that you miss an awful lot the first time through.

Perhaps the reason there’s so much humor in this comedy is the cast made up of 4 central characters, three of which are hilarious. The plot is simple: best friends head to Vegas for a Bachelor’s Party Weekend that goes a rye. When the three friends wake up the next morning from a night of whooping it up they find that they’ve lost the groom. On top of that they can’t remember a thing about what happened the night before.  This turns the film into a detective story. As they get closer to locating the groom they uncover more and more of their debaucheries behavior. Watching their reactions to their own behavior is priceless.

The character interaction between Phil Wenneck played by Bradley Cooper (the good looking “Player” buddy), Stu Price played by Ed Helms (the weak Dentist controlled by his bitchy girl friend) and the brother of the bride Alan Garner played by Zack Galifianakis (a simpleton ex-pedophile-like guy still living at home) is rich. They each present a different spin on the crazy situations they’re presented with. This comic chemistry is why I had to see it again. You’ll laugh at the initial gag, then if you’re careful, you’ll catch the subtle interactions between these guys as they react to some of the funniest situations caught on film.

….

Young @ Heart
by Stanley Prawiradjaja

Instead of giving review on some blockbuster (or not) movies that I watched recently (eg. Inglorious Bastards, Proposal, and Extract). I like to give my two thumbs up for an inspiring documentary that I recently watched called Young@Heart (2007). This documentary was aired free! at your local PBS (this is just to show why we should support our local PBS). This is an inspiring documentary on a group of 70’s-90’s (that’s their actual age, not calendar years) lead by a music director, Bob Cilman.

Started in 1982, the group was organized at an elderly housing project in Northampton, MA. Strive to bring happiness to the elderly through performance arts. The group would sing songs such as Coldplay’s “Fix You” or James Brown’s “I Feel Good”. I laughed and touched through their rehearsal and lost of their group members. This choir group gives them friendship, activities, and challenges as they try to sing some of the hard lyrics from rock songs. If you are looking for a good true story, look this up!

….

AVATAR 3-D
by Burke Hegrenes

With three kids, I don’t see a lot of movies in the theatre. And if I do, it’s probably a “family” movie. But the more I heard about Avatar, the more I wanted to see it in the theater as opposed to waiting for the DVD release. But not because of the story. (Fantasy is not my favorite genre. I’ve only seen the first Star Wars, and I haven’t seen any of the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter movies.) No, the reason I wanted to see it on the big screen was because I heard it was a visual masterpiece – especially in 3D. So I paid the extra $3 for the 3D and was expecting big things … big things coming at me in a way that makes me want to duck my head or reach out and grab something floating in the theatre. But that wasn’t really the case.

Don’t get me wrong … I thought the story was great. A little formulaic at times (it sometimes felt like I was watching “A Bug’s Life;” others have compared it to Dances with Wolves). But I liked it. A lot. And the visuals were great too. But I just got the feeling that watching it on Blu Ray would be just as spectacular.

So I guess this is more of a review about 3D than it is the movie. And I say 3D isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. I saw Ice Age 3D in the theatre with my kids last year, and after the movie, they all said “that wasn’t really 3D.” I agreed, and wondered if it was a bad projector in the theatre or just lame 3D effects. I’m now guessing it was the latter. My son went with me to Avatar, and after it was done he said something to the effect of “Next time we go to a movie, let’s not do 3D.”

If I go to a 3D movie, I expect the 3D gags … the kind you see at the 3D shows at Disneyworld. Yeah, they’re kinda cheesy because they make the action forced. But isn’t the purpose of a 3D movie to trick viewers into wanting to reach out and grab for something that isn’t really there? Or is it just to trick them out of another $3?

Everyone’s a Critic: Reviews from FlixChatter Readers

I sheepishly admit that I didn’t see ANY flick this long weekend. It’s been a hectic weekend of getting-together with friends, as well as bidding farewell to a dear, dear friend who’s moving to a different state. Needless to say, I had zero time to dash off to a theater or even to watch a DVD! But you know what, just to change things up, I thought it’d be cool to enlist fellow movie-watchers to contribute a brief review of stuff they did watch over the weekend. So thanks to Laura, Mike, Vince & Becky for taking their time to contribute to FlixChatter! Here they are in their own words:

New Moon
by Mike Beery
I had to endure seeing NEW MOON with my girlfriend and two daughters. Suffice it to say I’m still having some bad flashbacks about it. RTM told me she would skip it after having seen tolerated the first Twilight flick. In my opinion this one is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay worse!!!!! Mainly it’s the weak story, even my GF said it was a slow story. It was all about [Bella’s] heart break about being separated and depression. Little or no action or even much of a plot. No doubt this is a flick for teen girls though, as my 10 year-old girl was so moved by it she cried six times during the movie!
……


Blindside
by Laura Lewis
It was really good, nothing I wasn’t expecting, but that’s the kind of movie I enjoy. Therefore, I liked it a lot, and since I hadn’t done much research before hand it was nice to find out how recent it was. The onscreen chemistry of Michael (Oher) and SJ (Tuohy) was charming. Also, I was pleasantly surprised by the acting ability of Tim McGraw, and other acting unknowns to me. (Quinton Aaron, Jae Head, Lily Collins). Sandra Bullock was also good, but that was expected for her experience. Overall it was a feel good movie that leaves you smiling as you exit the theater. (A small trivia: Lily Collins is the daughter of English musician Phil Collins).
……
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— DVD REVIEWS —

Synecdoche, New York
by Vince ‘Rockerdad’ Caro

I walked into this Charlie Kauffman-written and directed first feature knowing nothing of its background and was genuinely intrigued – perhaps the of this decade. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays artistically tormented Caden Cotard, a successful Schenectady playwright and stage director whose personal life has unraveled with the departure of his painter wife (Catherine Keener) and child to the Berlin art world. After receiving a Macarthur Genius grant, he utilizes his new wealth to produce a humongous stage production – a small reconstruction of New York in a giant warehouse within New York City. He populates the play with hundreds if not thousands of his own life’s characters and doppelgangers while the city grows within the enclosed stage. He then leads them to perform pre-written roles in a “celebration of the mundane” – a seemingly endless depiction of his deterioration and ironically, his masterpiece. As surreal as the Kauffman-written Adaptation and just as bold in its scope as, Synecdoche, New York is challenging and will require multiple viewings – that is, if you’re open to Kauffman’s symbolic, heady and disturbing brushstrokes.
….

Heart & Souls (1993)
by Becky ‘Prairiegirl’ Kurk

One of the serendipities of Netflix is the sometimes surprising results of their recommendations based on how you’ve rated other movies. And just surfing the site and coming across a film you think you might like and putting it into your queue can bring the unexpected – sometimes good, sometimes not. So when Heart and Souls (1993) landed in my mailbox, I had no idea how, when or why it got on my list (I call this phenomenon my Netflix Genie at work). After seeing the first 15 minutes or so I thought I hope the pace picks up and starts to make sense, and suddenly, just like that, it did!

It’s a slightly oldie-but-goodie movie starring Robert Downey Jr. which tells the story of four souls (Tom Sizemore, Alfre Woodard, James Grodin, Kyra Sedgewick) who needed a body and one guy who needed some soul. It’s All of Me times four, plus Ghost.

The souls need to complete missions they left unfinished in life, and need a real person to do it through. RDJ finally obliges, and the episodes each spirit must go through is hilariously and expertly played out by Downey. The separate stories keep you guessing how they will ultimately be resolved, and each one turns out to be totally touching. And through helping them, he learns what he needs to do most in his life.

This movie was a very pleasant surprise. It is a light-hearted romp with touching, charming moments, and relevant connections. As an antidote to so many heavy-handed, serious films, this is a charming walk in the park (or, as in the film, the conservatory).

FlixChatter Review: Law Abiding Citizen

If you read my blog regularly, you know I’ve been pumpin’ this flick for quite a while. Yet, come Friday afternoon, after reading all the dismal reviews by top critics, I sort of had second thoughts about it. Now, it’s not because I give that much faith in what the critics say, but I was actually dreading what they called ‘unnecessary violence’ and gore, and the SAW horror gore-fest comparison. I’m very, very squeamish about stuff like that, so even with the prospect of seeing Gerard Butler in nearly every scene, I still had some reservations whether I could stomach the violence. Thanks to Becky, I went to see it anyway, and boy, am I glad I did!

First thing that came out of my mind when I got out of the theater: What’s the critics’ been smokin’? Did they even watch the same movie?

With the efficient running time of 1 hr 48 minutes, the film quickly grabs your attention and doesn’t let go until the end. It opens with a cuddly scene of a seemingly happy home of Clyde Shelton, tinkering with some kind of gadget whilst his young daughter makes a string bracelet. But within minutes, that idyllic existence is snatched away in a gruesome way that ended with his wife raped and killed in front of him whilst he helplessly watched. As if that weren’t enough, the same thug that raped his wife then went after his daughter, right about the same time Clyde passed out. Boy, that’s just within the first 10 minutes. It’s easily the most horrific opening scene I’ve ever seen.

We’re then introduced to Nick Rice, a successful District Attorney (Jamie Foxx) with his perfectly-pressed suit and a stellar record of 96% conviction rate (which he indignantly pronounces when his colleague mistakenly think it was ‘only’ 95%). The ambitious DA ends up cutting a plea bargain with the assailant, despite Clyde’s pleading that the jury would believe him if this case goes to court. Nick keeps blabbing about the DNA evidence being inconclusive — even using the fact that Clyde blacked out during the incidence against him — but it’s obvious the attorney only cares about maintaining his conviction rate. It was harrowing to watch what happened to Clyde in the beginning, but it’s just as painful to see him from a distance watch Nick shaking hands with the criminal that destroyed his life.

Fast forward 10 years later, and Nick’s humble home is now transformed to a luxurious dwelling that signifies his growing success. His daughter is nearly 10 but he has no time for her nor for her mother. His priority is his job, and he’d rather miss her daughter’s cello recital (again) but instead opt to see the execution of one of the thugs that robbed Clyde. A vicious ‘mishap’ happens during the execution by lethal injection, and we soon finds out that Clyde’s not going to take this ‘injustice’ laying down. He then goes after Darby, who only served 3 years in prison for what he did, and makes him suffer a barbaric death (I had my eyes closed the entire time, but Darby’s agonizing squeal is enough to make me squirm!). As part of his strategy, Clyde surrenders to the SWAT team that swarm his house, with nothing but his daughter’s bracelet on his wrist. The nude scene isn’t gratuitous as one would be inclined to think, but he did it to say, ‘I have nothing to hide.’

Nick visits Clyde in prison
Nick visits Clyde in prison

Critics compare Clyde with some movie nutcases such as Hannibal Lecter, John Doe from Se7en, even the Joker, but the difference is, Clyde is no psychopath. His grief and distraught state of mind obviously has taken over him, but he doesn’t kill people simply to satisfy his lust for blood. All the grisly murders are calculated tactics with one intended target: to send a message about the crooked justice system. Now, by no means do I condone such vengeful acts, but at the same time, I’d rather not have people like Darby roaming on the street freely to repeat his crime again and again. So I sympathize with why Clyde wants Darby dead, but it’s another matter when he starts targeting all the people of the legal system involved with his case, all from the confinement of his cell!

The rest of the movie plays out the mano-a-mano between the two leads. There are some memorable lines during the negotiations, including Clyde’s quoting 18th century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, “lessons not learned in blood is soon forgotten.” He manages to one-up Nick and blindside the entire city with his systematic killing spree. Even the mayor (played by Oscar nominee Viola Davis) was puzzled, “he’s locked up in a cell and still killing people?” The big question going through everyone’s mind was: how does Clyde pull it off? This is the biggest complaints from the critics, that it’s implausible and absurd that one guy can do all that. Well, this is a movie, of course some suspension of disbelief is to be expected. Even so, I actually find the ‘absurd’ plot in question to be quite sensible. Someone with Clyde’s skills and money devoting 10 yrs of his life to mastermind his ‘war’ against the broken justice system doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me. I mean, that seems an adequate amount of time to plot such a tactic, especially for such a weapons expert good enough to be hired by the US government for covert special ops.

What I like the most about this movie is the ambiguity and gray area of the lead characters, it’s not clear-cut who’s the hero or villain of the movie. Like a lot of moviegoers, I tend to side with Clyde, but becoming less so with the mounting body counts. It makes the face-off between him and Nick all the more effective, as we don’t know who we’ll root for next.

Gray directing Butler
Gray directing Butler

I also enjoy F. Gary Gray’s fast-paced and energetic direction and how he peppers the serious tone of the movie with sporadic wit and humor. It’s definitely far from boring. The movie also gives a noir-ish vibe that the director spoke about in his video diaries. The lighting and music captures that, even though I don’t really ‘notice’ the music that much, which is a good thing as it blends in nicely and helps set the mood, instead of being a jarring piece that sounds good but detach you from the movie. The  juxtaposition scenes, particularly between the cello recital and the death chamber, is an effective and captivating visual style. I also love the cinematography with its gorgeous aerial view of Philly.

It’s interesting to note the lopsidedness of the top critics’ ratings with those of the regular moviegoers (top critics’ 25% vs. average moviegoers’ rating of 94% @ rottentomatoes.com). The disbelief probably should be in the critics’ credence, as most people disagree with them (read a compilation of very positive users’ rating here). Their three main complaints are the implausible plot, what they call unnecessary violence and gore, and sub-par performances. I’ve addressed the first point above, but as far as the graphic scenes, it wasn’t as bad as they made it out to be. Even my friend Becky who can’t stand gory stuff said it was tolerable as the deed mostly happen off-screen.

The critics are also way off when it comes to the acting aspect. You might think I’m biased here because I like Butler, but truthfully, I think this is could be the best performance of his career. From his previous roles, I know he’s an actor that can bring a layer of vulnerability to his bad-@$$ performances. But he takes it another notch here with his sympathetic and convincing portrayal as both as a bereaved family man, as well as the menacing rogue hellbent on carrying out ‘justice’ at any cost. Jamie Foxx delivers an okay performance, I just don’t care with his character much, which is probably intentional. Naturally, the crazy-dude role is much more exciting and gets the best lines, so Butler’s role is the far more memorable one by a long shot. The supporting cast is terrific, too, especially Bruce McGill as a fellow lawyer and Colm Meaney as the detective, even Leslie Bibb makes for a sympathetic character. If I had to nitpick however, I actually find Viola Davis’ performance rather over the top, as she comes across as furious and cold the entire time.

In conclusion: It’s not a perfect movie (but then again what is?) and the ending could be more tightly written, as it feels too rushed and perhaps too ‘neat’ compared to the gritty events leading up to it. Yet despite its flaws, it’s still an enjoyable, edge-of-your-seat thriller that’s well-worth my 10 bucks. Though the film doesn’t necessarily have ‘answers’ to the foible of the legal system, it does leave me pondering about it, and creates some interesting discussion afterward.

DVD Pick: State of Play

Everything about this movie, from the premise, cast and even the poster screamed ‘smart, riveting thriller.’ The nice thing is, it lives up to my expectation, and then some.

This is Russell Crowe’s strongest performance since The Insider 10 years ago. Of course I loved him in Gladiator, but it’s his amazingly credible role as tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand that truly impressed me. He’s totally robbed of the Oscar that year as his character was far more compelling and heart-wrenching than even the Roman general Maximus.

Besides the remarkable performance, he also resembles his Wigand character in appearance, plump and disheveled as an old-school journalist Cal McCaffrey working for the Washington Globe. In typical Crowe fashion, he was instantly believable in his role the second we see him all shaggy-haired, chomping down his food whilst singing along to the tune of his radio in his ratty old Saab. He’s visiting the crime scene of a shooting the previous night we saw in the opening sequence.

The story begins to unravel with the death of congressman Stephen Collins’ mistress in a subway station. Stephen happens to be Cal McCaffrey’s college buddy. There can’t be more contrast between the two, as the congressman is as glossy and polished as they come. When the press moves in on Stephen as soon as they learn about his affair, he turns to his friend for consolation. Cal immediately suspects the woman’s death wasn’t suicide and embarks on a conspiracy theory involving a corporate giant PointCorp.

But nothing is what it seems as the plot thickens, loaded with whodunit plot twists and turns that demands every second of the viewer’s attention. It’s nice not to have to check your brain at the door when you watch a movie, and be rewarded for it. The suspense and edge-of-your-seat thrills is satisfying without so much of  a bomb explosion and there’s very little blood throughout the entire thing. The swift pace, witty and thought-provoking dialogue, as well as meticulous attention to detail also makes it feel all too real at times. Perhaps the fact that director Kevin MacDonald used to do documentaries might have something to do with that. He then moved on to do The Last King of Scotland that earned Forrest Whittaker his Oscar for playing the role of Idi Amin. Though his specialty is building suspense, MacDonald peppered this movie with humor, too. I like the scene where Stephen shows up at his door and Cal said with a smirk on his face if he were there to retrieve his old CD.

Now, I’m not saying this movie is flawless. In fact, the ending feels a bit rushed and confusing as I was left with quite a few key questions about the plot that I finally found the answers to on IMDB forums. Yet it proves that solid performances and skillful direction still make for a gripping and gratifying thriller. Besides Crowe, the rest of the cast deliver the goods as well. Ben Affleck is quite effective as the congressman and surprisingly credible opposite acting heavyweight like Crowe. Likable Rachel McAdams is pretty good as the young blogger Della Frye who learns an express course in investigative journalism as Cal’s protege (the movie takes a not-too-subtle stab at the world’s obsession with fluff over substance in an increasingly popular blogosphere filled with celebrity gossips and the like). Helen Mirren as the tough-as-nails editor and Robin Wright as Stephen’s wife round up the superb cast. Oh, even Jason Bateman, who seems EVERYWHERE these days, provides comic relief playing a slime-ball and wimpy PR guy. But it’s Crowe that holds up the whole movie in his burly shoulder as the ethically ambiguous truth-fighter.

So I’m definitely thankful Brad Pitt pulled out of this movie, as he’s originally slated to play Cal. Edward Norton reportedly also signed on as Stephen, so as cool as it’d be to see them together again since Fight Club, I’d rather see Crowe in this role, or any role for that matter as I’m not exactly fond of Mr. Jolie.

Based on a BBC drama of the same name that was set in the UK (starring Scottish actor James McAvoy), some reviewers argue that the movie version lacks the character depth. Of course that’s going to be the case because a feature film doesn’t quite have the luxury of time as a miniseries does, so I think screenwriter Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) does a pretty darn good job adapting this to the big screen. It’s definitely a more sharply-written piece than his previous work Duplicity, which we unwittingly watch a week before this one.

I definitely recommend this movie, it’ll keep you guessing until the very end. It’d have been worth the price of a theater admission, too.