Haywire

Haywire is a different kind of movie.  The film’s plot revolves around a Black Ops CIA operative named Mallory who gets framed by the government for a crime she didn’t commit.  Mallory has to figure out who in her organization framed her.  The plot of this movie is very thin.  I don’t mind that the story is thin because some superb fight scenes make up for a subpar story.

Haywire was directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Lem Dobbs.  Haywire is the second time Soderbergh has used someone who is not an actress as the lead character in a film.  The first time Steven Soderbergh experimented with this concept was in the 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience starring former porn star Sasha Grey.  Haywire’s lead actress comes in the form of MMA Fighter Gina Carano.  Carano has no acting skills and it shows in Haywire.  Carano substitutes fighting skills for acting talent as she disposes of one trained enemy after another.  The fights in the film not only keep the plot moving but also allow the movie to have a heavy dose of quiet intensity during the moments just before and just after a fight scene.   The realism of the fight scenes comes across thanks to not only some brilliant and believable choreography, but also the skillfully still camerawork done by Steven Soderbergh.

Steven Soderbergh used bright and dark color tone changes to evoke the emotions of Mallory in this film.  Color tones and emotions didn’t work well in Soderbergh’s previous feature Contagion but they work superbly here.  Haywire works best when lead character Mallory says absolutely nothing.  This lack of dialogue works in the favor of the audience because they don’t know where Mallory is or in some cases what she’s doing and are forced to watch the chaos of the film ensue.  The sets and locations are lit well so you can always see what’s going on in a scene as the camera moves.  For a film so thin on plot, being able to look at the environments and even character’s facial expression is an important tool in keeping the audience invested in the film.

Some A-list actors do their best to fill supporting roles for weak story.  Michael”Greed is Good” Douglas, Antonio “Zorro” Banderas, Channing “Step Up” Tatum and Michael “No Shame” Fassbender all do their best to give Carano the support she needs to make the story believable.

My main problem with Haywire is that I wanted a deeper story than the film gave me.  As an audience member I expect characters to have layers or dimensions.  There was only one emotion constantly expressed by Carano’s Mallory and that was anger.  I wanted to see Mallory be vulnerable when bad things happened while she was attempting to clear her name.  I wanted to see frustration as she had to fight off multiple assailants.  I wanted a true heart to heart moment when Mallory met up with her father but what I ended up getting instead was the equivalent of the father saying “go get your revenge.”  Screenwriting 101 is the idea that whatever your story is you must give your character a journey and Mallory didn’t have a decent one.

Haywire has its share of problems but the fight sequences and the film’s quiet intensity make the film worth the price of admission.

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Chronicle

Giving teenagers telekinetic powers is a bad idea.  Filming the same teenagers as they grapple with how to handle the powers they are given though, is an excellent idea.  Chronicle is one of those films that shouldn’t be good but it is fantastic.  Chronicle is a first time feature for director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis.  Found footage films are not a genre that I’m a fan of but this time it works.

Chronicle is one of those rare films that follows that old Spider-man theme of “with great power comes responsibility.”  The fun of Chronicle is watching the friendship and bond between these three teenagers grow stronger.  When they first get their powers they experiment with them as everyone would.  The teenagers push a cart, pick up a toy bear in a store and scare a girl with it, and move a red compact car just by using their mind.  The person who seems most affected by his new powers is Andrew.  Andrew has a very introverted personality and most of the reason why he is that way comes from the fact that his father is a disabled firefighter who happens to be an alcoholic.  Andrew’s father physical abuses him and blames him for the illness his wife is dying from.  Andrew has help in the form of his friends Matt and Steve.  All three teenagers got their powers when they investigated a small hole in the ground.  This hole lead to a giant rock that all three boys touched.  This rock gave them their telekinetic powers.  Each of Andrew’s friends has a distinct personality.  Matt is intelligent and genuine but is not popular in any way.  Steve is popular, friendly and social.  Together all three teenagers in their forced bond support each other except of course when a single event changes one of them.

The problem with found footage movies is that none of the films ever feel genuine.  Found footage films are used often to scare audiences.  That’s it.  Chronicle, as a film, is realistic.  Steve, Matt, and Andrew all feel like real people that I could meet anywhere in the United States.  The conversations that the characters have with each other feel organic.  Filmmakers often forget that genuine emotions and conversations elevate stories that would otherwise be forgettable.  Chronicle is elevated by realistic characters and honest emotions.  It’s rare to be able to sympathize characters that are fiction.  The actors in this film make their characters easy to relate to.

The major problem with this film is the fact that many of moments of the film have been shown in the trailer and thus expected and boring.  I hate the fact that I knew when certain events were about to unfold.  There was no suspense and that took my mind out of the film a bit.  One other minor gripe I have with this film is that other than Andrew, no one else in the film evolves or changes as a person.  Matt and Steve never do anything incredibly risky with their powers and they are not addicted to or interested in the fame they could gain from using their powers in public areas.  I would have liked to see the characters branch out and attempt to help or punish others more.  Despite these problems the film entertained me.

Chronicle gave me exactly what I wanted, a found footage superhero movie with action and heart.  While this film will not be for everyone, I hope filmmakers are inspired to bring more depth to the found footage genre.  Chronicle shows us ordinary people can be heroic.

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Underworld: Awakening

Underworld: Awakening is my guilty pleasure.  The Underworld franchise is one of those film series that people shouldn’t like but the over the top violence and attractive female lead played by Kate Beckinsale make it impossible not enjoy this horror action franchise.  The Underworld films focus on the war between Lycans also known as werewolves and vampires.  Awakening is the fourth installment in the Underworld franchise and the first in six years to have Kate Beckinsale’s character of Selene as the film’s lead.

The plot of Underworld: Awakening is very basic.  Humans have learned of the existence of Vampires and Lycans and now seek to eradicate both species from existence.  Selene is captured by the humans while attempting to escape with Michael Covin her husband from Underworld: Evolution.  Selene is held captive in a state of suspended animation for twelve years before someone named Subject 1 helps her escape.  Selene decides the best way to survive is to protect Subject 1 from the Lycans and Vampires as both species are on the hunt to harvest Subject 1’s blood in an effort to use it for themselves to become stronger.  Human’s are also on the hunt for Subject 1 as they believe she is the key to curing human being after they have been infected and transform into vampires or werewolves.

Underworld: Awakening is one of those movies you go to purely because you either like Kate Beckinsale or love violent action.  I happen to love both.  This film is an intense thrill ride with action that just keeps coming regardless of whether you are ready for it or not.  Directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein know how to keep the camera steady and focus during action sequences and still and focused during dialogue driven moments.  The color palette of the film is purposely dark keeping with the tone of the previous three films.  I love the moody atmosphere of the film.  The series has always felt apocalyptic and grim.  Kate Beckinsale doesn’t need to use much of her acting range in this film because most of the film revolves around well choreographed fight sequences.  Secondary characters aide in the protection of Subject 1 but do not deepen the lore the Underworld series is known for.

I think fans of the Underworld franchise will enjoy Underworld: Awakening a great deal because it delivers the spectacle and violence fans have come to expect.  I recommend viewing the film in 3D if you are a fan of the gore the franchise offers as the third dimension will immerse you in the experience rather than take you away from it.  Underworld: Awakening is the first solid action film I’ve seen in 2012.

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Red Tails

Red Tails is a film that has been George Lucas’s passion project for the last two decades.  The problem with passion projects is that they can be hard to finance.  The other issue inherent with making a passion project like Red Tails is that it is a film starring an all African-American cast and film studios don’t believe that a film with minorities as the main characters can appeal to an international audience.

Red Tails is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen who had to fight segregation in World War II because society did not want to accept them as true fighter pilots.  The fighter pilots that are essential to the story of Red Tails are Marty “Easy” Julian and Joe “Lightning” Little.  Joe and Julian are best friends and the film is essentially the story of their group’s determination to become accepted.   Red Tails is a fine example of what it means to have an ensemble cast.   There isn’t any actor who plays a lead role in Red Tails.  Every actor turns in a unique performance that adds to the story rather than having any standout leads.  Cuba Gooding Jr, Terance Howard, Bryan Cranston, Ne-Yo and Tristian Wilds all have roles in the film.

My problem with this film is the personalities of the characters.  All the characters in the film are stereotypes we’ve seen in other military movies.  Some of the archetypes present in this film include: the pilot with drinking problem, the pilot who’s viewed as “the kid”, and the impulsive pilot who constantly puts himself in danger.  Because the characters are so one-dimensional, it’s almost impossible to find someone to root for throughout the film.  I wanted to care about these characters and their struggles but the childish dialogue and actions of the characters made them seem not only immature but also unintelligent.  I love stories about overcoming obstacles and challenging perceptions on race, but the experiences depicted in this film only focused on the anger and disappointment the pilots felt because they were not given actual missions.  While I can see the undertone of the Tuskegee airmen not being respected by the air force, I would have liked to see that group of men struggle in more diverse ways. 

Another problem with this film is its setting.  The majority of the film takes place in Italy in 1948.  There’s not much room to tell a story about oppression in Italy.  Italy looks exactly like any tourist would expect.  The environments are picturesque and the local people are friendly.  The only opposition Joe and Julian face in the film other than the Germans are the white fighter pilots who don’t respect them.

The film feels unfocused at times because it’s trying to emotionally invest the audience but the situations these pilots are placed in while extremely difficult and unrewarding give us no reason to root for the characters.  An example where characters actually emotionally connect with an audience can be found in last year’s The Help when Aibileen Clark lectures Hilly Holbrook towards the end of the film because Hilly is a horrible parent.  Red Tails makes no attempt to try and deeply connect with the audience instead Lucas and his director Anthony Hemmingway paint Red Tails as a by the numbers period piece.  Any depth about the actual achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen will only be found just before the films end credits and that’s of very little use to those who viewed the film.  Red Tails attempts to fly high but crashes after takeoff due to poor character development and no focus on how the airmen conquered the oppression they faced beyond the dogfights they survived during the war.

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Carnage

Carnage is one of those films that felt simple at first, but underneath each character were layers of thoughts, feelings and ideas that were unexpressed. Carnage is a rarity. It’s one of those experiences that I wish I had more often at the movies. The entire film takes place inside an apartment.  Roman Polanski who wrote and directed this film crafts a story about two children. One child hit the other with a stick and the parents of both children agree to meet at the apartment of the injured child to come to an agreement about how the matter between the children will be resolved. The resolution of the fight between the two children is supposed to come in the form of an apology that the attacker states to his victim.

The first set of parents are Michael and Penelope Longstreet and their son Ethan is the victim of the assault.  Penelope and Michael played by John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster are very good natured relaxed people who believe in solving their problems in writing and being courteous and respectful.  The other married couple in this film is Nancy and Alan Cowan played by Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet. Kate and Alan are business professionals and want the assault matter solved quickly.  Over the course of the film’s hour and fifteen minute running time arguments arise regarding which child is at fault in the assault and which child should apologize to the other. The discussion leads to comedic mishaps, judgments, and anger on behalf of both parties. The film is essentially about an inciting incident that causes two couples who have different lifestyles to come into conflict. I loved it.

Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz do some of their best work here as Nancy and Alan Cowan.  Nancy is so refined and uptight I was just waiting for her to lose her nerve. Alan Cowan is basically a slow explosion that just builds every time something negative happens with the business he is a part of.  I am now convinced that Christoph Waltz is a master of controlled anger. He can turn his emotions on and off better than most leading men working in Hollywood today.  Penelope and Michael are people who you see every day. The couple will be nice to you in person and then talk behind your back the first change they get. The real shock of this film isn’t the damage the couples cause to each other, but the damage they cause internally to themselves.

I love the way this film is shot.  The camera moves with the characters most of the time rather than cutting away or cutting to the next scene.  Roman Polanski has a way of filming the expressions of actors so that every detail in an emotion is on display.  This technique makes it incredibly easy to tell when the tone will shift from hilarity to tense anger and back again.  At the end of the day, Carnage is a giant blame game between two couples that gets out of control.  Carnage made me conclude one thing, sometimes chaos is fun to watch.

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