Saturday, February 11, 2012

One for the Money, Chronicle, The Woman in Black, Man on a Ledge, and Safe House

                              Fast Five   (sorry for any confusion, but no Vin Diesel or The Rock   
                                                       in this batch)
                                                       Reviews by Ken Burke

          This week I’m short on blogging time and the new-release 2012 movies I’ve seen recently are largely short on finesse or surprises, but any one of them might be worth your viewing time if their genre patterns intrigue you so here goes another attempt to be concise about a group of films (after-the-fact evaluation: mixed results, as the individual reviews are shorter than my standard Epistles to the Cinephilians but the end product requires the usual check-your-tires'-inflation warning because it's going to be a long ride ahead), completely separate in concept this time, with the assumption that “Just the facts, Ma’m” (from 1950s TV series Dragnet, for those of you not like me with one foot in the retirement home salad bar) will be all you need to know about whether you want to invest your cash or not.  I’ve organized them in ascending order of competence and impact, so we’ll begin with the one probably least worth your involvement, sadly to say.

                                                        One for the Money
Janet Evanovich’s bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum, gets her big-screen debut in a miserably underdeveloped rendition of some potentially great characters.

       Since 1994 Janet Evanovich has written 18 novels in a series about Stephanie Plum (plus 4 novellas out of the regular numbered order), a feisty, at times a bit incompetent, New Jersey bounty hunter with a wacky family, two hot love interests, and a constant tendency to be in harm’s way.  I’ve read a few of these—including One for the Money—and find Stephanie and her gang (along with some gangsters complicating her life in various ways over the series) to be a great combination of comedy, mystery, and action.  I was really hopeful that a film series could succeed with these stories because there have been few cinema detective-type characters of note in the past few decades except for the occasional Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley (Beverly Hills Cop and its sequels [Martin Brest, 1984; Tony Scott, 1987; John Landis, 1994]) or Morgan Freeman as Alex Cross (Kiss the Girls [Gary Fleder, 1997], Along Came a Spider [Lee Tamahori, 2001]) vehicle, not to mention a real dearth of on-screen female detectives after the tepid response to another literary investigator turned cinematic character, Kathleen Turner as V.I. Warshawski (Jeff Kanew, 1991, from Sarah Patretsky’s novels), despite a good number of successful, tough law-enforcing females in contemporary pop fiction.

            Hope may spring eternal but it mostly limps along in this movie (directed by Julie Anne Robinson, so don't blame too many of One for the Money’s problems with its female protagonist on a clueless male director).  While the humorous commentary from Stephanie, the exasperated reactions of her father to his mother-in-law, and the outrageous antics of Grandma Mazur (Debbie Reynolds on screen here, a great presence but one used too sparingly) made for a tasty Plum pudding to read, it settles into a rather bland concoction to watch, mostly because I just couldn’t get comfortable with Katherine Heigl in the lead  (it’s a shame these numbered mysteries couldn’t have come to the screen when Sandra Bullock was young enough to be right for the role because her Miss Congeniality persona would have worked marvelously for Stephanie as well).  Oh well, at least Heigl presents an easy-to-watch presence, although she might have been even more watchable if her handcuffed-to-the-shower-curtain-rod scene hadn’t been the sanitized PG-13 nude version because she shows great bondage potential for some other film (just look at the tight-clothes pose with the behind-the-back handcuffs in the well-travelled poster and note her comment that when former [and future] lover Joe Morelli [Jason O’Mara] sees her handcuffed naked in the shower that she’s already fantasized about some version of such an opportunity a couple of times already; others might do the same, but I guess that’s not really what this story’s supposed to focus on, darn it).  The basic plot elements are transferred competently from the book but it’s neither as tense or as comic as it needs to be.  Maybe if there are more of these Plums (although box office returns so far aren’t too encouraging) the taste will improve but if Heigl is to continue in a role not really suited for her (any more than the brunette hair) I have a bad feeling about this.  But, if you want more on One for the Money here are some suggested links:  (This one has Evanovich talking about Morelli and Ranger and other topics from her relatively new book, Smokin’ Seventeen, but there is an 18th novel since this was shot.)

A low-rent superhero movie: 3 young guys stumble onto superpowers but can’t handle the pressure, just as you probably shouldn’t handle this tale of their exploits.

            Chronicle seems to be named that because it’s another one of those every-image-you-see-is-supposedly-shot-by-a-character-in-the-film (along with some fill-in surveillance footage) faux documentaries, this time about what happens to three teenage boys when they mysteriously gain the superpower of telekinesis but can’t handle the changes the new talent brings to their lives.  In essence, this is like the ongoing Spider-Man series (returning again this July in Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man with The Social Network’s [David Fincher, 2010] Andrew Garfield taking over the title role from Tobey Maguire) without Peter Parker’s ability to mostly rise above the challenges created by his mind-blowing new lifestyle.  However, Chronicle could just as easily be named Chaos because these newly-endowed teens don’t gain any accompanying emotional powers over their adolescent angst and egos, especially with Andrew (Dane DeHann) whose seriously-ill mother, drunkenly-abusive father, and internal reluctance to command a corner of the all-important high school spotlight lead him into confrontations with his fellow transformed humans, cousin Matt (Alex Russell) the deep-thinker rule-maker of the group, and already confident proto-politician Steve (Michael B. Jordan) who once again gets to fulfill the destiny in so many movies of the black guy dying first (unless he’s Denzel Washington; see below with the review of Safe House).

            Chronicle is potentially intriguing because it deals with the fantasy concept of superpowered groups (which has proven to have a lot of box-office staying power in recent years with the mutants in the various X-Men films and the long-awaited group attack on evildoers from Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Nick Fury, Black Widow, and Hawkeye also coming in May this year with Josh Whedon’s The Avengers) but in the context of their burdensome aspects as the new “muscles” unintentionally intensify the fragile emotional state of the teenage male, especially Andrew, and lead to massively unintended consequences as the boys develop their skills beyond simply moving or levitating objects and learn to fly in a manner that would impress Superman.  For me, though, this film is too reminiscent of a lot of others, including Superman II (Richard Lester, 1981) where extraordinary beings battle it out in the skies and damage a lot of real estate but in Chronicle this results in surprisingly no physical harm to the human boys’ bodies (unless somehow invulnerability got added in the mix, but we see that not to be the case in the movie’s climatic conclusion); Hancock (Peter Berg, 2008) where a troubled, alcoholic alien abuses people and property with his powers because of his wounded psyche; Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) where an antagonized protagonist unleashes a fierce telekinetic rage on her tormenters; and, of course, The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) and Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008) where chaotic action occurs all around but what we see on screen is recorded only by the characters’ ever-present video cameras (a concept given some original flourish in Chronicle because Andrew seemingly has learned to keep one channel of his mind focused on his camera so that it follows him around recording every second of his existence, even with smoothly panning shots as he’s darting about in the skies; however, some of the movie’s images bend that premise a bit too far as you can see anyone with a camera on screen so they couldn’t be recording what we’re seeing, although that’s the least of the limitations this presentation has for me). 

          Chronicle, as directed by Josh Trank, has gotten a lot of very positive reviews (including in the San Francisco Chronicle [2/3/2012, E5]) and some decent ticket sales—more than any other current film in this review (although Safe House is just opening and appears to be well on the way to topping them all decisively), but I find it too derivative of too much else.  If you’d like to know more about it, though, here are some useful links:

                                                       The Woman in Black

Daniel Radcliffe continues to move beyond Harry Potter, this time with a spooky old-school ghost story, predictable in structure but effective in the use of fright tactics.

         Way back in the 1960s when I was a wee child ... OK, let's start again and be honest about my age. When I was a teenager in the early 1960s there was a Southern comedian named Brother Dave Gardner who had a comic story called  “Are you gonna be here when John get here?” (I think it's hilarious but that may just be my warped Texas-bred humor; you can listen to it for yourself if you like at the following link:, in which a guy takes a dare to spend a night in a haunted house where he’s visited by increasingly grotesque monsters, each of whom asks him the “when John get here?” question, with the payoff being that he tells the last, most frightening one: “If you ain’t John, I’m gone!”  James Watkins’ The Woman in Black taps into that “spirit” by presenting an old-fashioned spook-fest where there are plenty of carefully-calculated elements to give you an effective set of scares as legal agent Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe, in his first on-screen excursion after the Harry Potter films) visits his own haunted house in turn-of-the-20th century rural England in order to rummage through the paperwork of a deceased client.  She’s not the only one dead in this movie, as we soon find that Arthur’s grieving over his departed wife while trying to raise his young son and many people in this remote village of Crythin Gifford have seen their children die in mysterious manners as a ghost connected to Arthur’s former client seems to be avenging the unresolved demise of her own young son.  The only one of the locals to offer any comfort to Arthur the outsider, whose visions of the callous lady linked to the abandoned manor seem to set off more of her murderous acts, is Mr. Daily (Ciarán Hinds, known to us as the seemingly suspicious Roy Bland in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [Tomas Alfredson, 2011] and as another great friend of Radcliffe’s, when he was the world’s most famous boy wizard, as magic-master Aberforth Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows: Part 2 [David Yates, 2011]).  Further sympathy is offered by Daily’s disturbed wife, grieving over the loss of their dead son and channeling her parental needs to two dogs who regularly eat dinner at the table with their “parents” (Janet McTeer is very effective as the unhinged mother who gets psychic messages from her lost child and is so removed from her Hubert Page role in Albert Nobbs [Rodrigo Garcia, 2011] as to be unrecognizable from one film to the other).

            The Woman in Black has everything that you’d expect from a horror movie that takes a less gruesome strategy than the Saw-type grotesqueries of severed body parts and buckets of blood (the original Saw was by James Wan, 2004, but there have been six more of these and others like them in recent years).  Instead of assaulting the audience with the same intensity with which the characters are dispatched in more recent horrors, this starring opportunity for Radcliffe harks back to the likes of the early sound version of Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931) with Arthur in the Jonathan Harker role of an outsider traveling to an unwelcome destination where deadly supernatural acts threaten his sanity or very existence.  Once he arrives at the large abandoned house, cut off from the village by high tides for part of each day, he (and we) encounter the usual combination of cobwebs, shadows, shots from Arthur’s point of view that prevent us from knowing what may be creeping up on him, things that go bump-bump-BUMP in the night, emaciated apparitions, sudden appearances of frightening faces on window panes, and even the sight of the missing and assumed dead child of the mansion mistress’ sister rising up from the mud on a dark and stormy night.  None of this is likely to cause you to run screaming from the theatre but it will cause you many uncomfortably jumpy surprises, just as a good old-fashioned ghost story is intended to do.  The ending may be the biggest surprise of all, as what seems to be a last-minute rescue becomes a different sort of finale altogether.  Except for that resolution there’s not much that’s unpredictable about this tale, but it’s produced well and effectively achieves what it sets out to do so if you want to explore it further here are some suggested links:

                                                      Man on a Ledge
A bait-and-switch thriller which isn’t nearly as much as a ledge-jumper as you’re led to believe but with a decent amount of predictable yet functional, enjoyable action.

            Asger Leth’s Man on a Ledge is an interesting case because it seems like it’s set up to be a tension-building thriller about a desperate guy making a life or death decision but then it turns out to be a low-key but cleverly-planned heist film, more like the simpler but crafty plot of Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006, starring Denzel Washington, whom—once again—we’ll get back to below) than anything of the expanse of Ocean’s Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001) and its sequels.  For a change, I’m trying not to give away crucial plot details in these short reviews but maybe I’ve violated my intentions already with this one.  Still, you should know going in that’s there much more to the narrative of Man on a Ledge than audience tension over whether life has become too unbearable for former-police-officer now escaped-con Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington); the other main story elements generate their own tensions and provide a well-timed counterpoint to Nick’s breaking-news TV moment as he inches back and forth on the ledge and slowly reveals the needed back story to semi-successful jumper-prevention cop-psychologist Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), whose task it is to talk Nick out of his anticipated high dive from an upper floor of Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hotel.  Among the most notable of other recognizable faces in the cast are Ed Harris as David Englander, the repulsive one per-center whose secure safe is the object of the heist, and Kyra Sedgwick in a brief role as a sensationalistic TV reporter on the scene, for some reason named Suzie Morales although even with her emphasized accent she’s not remotely plausible as Latina nor does the role really call for such (especially from an Anglo-Jewish actress with only one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon—oh well, there have to be some reasons why this generally taut drama is worth only 2 ½ stars and may or may not be worth a little over an hour and a half of your time).

            When Man on a Ledge is done you can really have some fun backtracking through the plot (as long as you aren’t too demanding on probability and rationality) to see how all of the pieces were anticipated by Nick, his bumbling brother Joey (Jamie Bell), and Joey’s smokin’ hot girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) who wears less and less as the caper intensifies.  Despite all of their cleverness I’d be amazed if any governor would be so quick with the option of a pardon as we see here, but after the constant tension and release in this movie (a sport with filmmakers and audiences, similar to catch and release with fishermen and fish) there were plot elements that had to be wrapped up quickly (and one major one that links back to the event that set all of this action in motion that needs to be explained away as quickly as possible as far as that rationality aspect is concerned) so just let saucy Suzie Morales explain it all in a 60-second standup piece from in front of the hotel before we cut to commercial break and everything will be hunky-dory.  There’s not a lot of depth here (except the drop down from the ledge to the street, which is shown plenty of times in effectively dizzying point-of-view shots), but Man on a Ledge can be a pleasant diversion if you need a break from contemplating your own suicide.  If you’d like to know more, here are some suggested links:

                                                      Safe House
Ryan Reynolds redeems himself quite well after Green Lantern, Denzel Washington is always a pleasure to watch; the movie, however, is very violent so be warned.

            My wonderful wife, Nina Kindblad, saw all of these films with me, but this one was the hardest for her to eagerly attend because to keep up her near perfect record with Denzel Washington (see, I told you that we’d eventually get back to him) she had to accept that she’d be spending at least as much screen time with Ryan Reynolds, not her idea of a romantic leading man (As seen in The Proposal [Anne Fletcher, 2009] with the other star, Sandra Bullock easily one of my ideas for a romantic lead—but only to watch fictionally, of course [Nina, I just admire her performance talents, now quit frowning and give back my wireless mouse … please?]—and mentioning Sandra gets us back even further to above reviews with her non-connections to One for the Money.  Isn’t it brilliant how I weave all of this separate stuff together?  You don’t have to thank me, just send money) or a superhero (for Nina, Green Lantern’s [Martin Campbell, 2011] light was never lit as long as Reynolds was wielding the power ring [“No evil shall escape my sight” indeed!]; I think he was appropriate for the cocky, initially-out-of-his-depth Hal Jordan, but maybe my longstanding fondness for the comic book character clouded my judgment [You probably think you have adequate proof of my murky judgment anyway from the rambling comments of this final review of the group but remember that I warned you up top with a photo to prove it that only about 3 of my 10 functioning brain cells are even firing at this point]).  Well, she tolerated Reynolds much better than usual, finding him appropriate this time as out-of-his-depth CIA operative Matt Weston in Cape Town, South Africa, managing a safe house where rouge agent Tobin Frost (Washington) is brought while trying to turn himself in just before all hell breaks loose and these guys are on the run together for most of the rest of the film, with assassins coming at them from all sides.

            One thing that Nina didn’t appreciate much about Daniel Espinosa's direction of Safe House, however, is the constant level of brutal one-on-one violence, where bullets and fists are constantly flying as Weston and Frost attempt to repel their attackers and determine who, if anyone, in the CIA structure can be trusted.  There are some well-known supporting faces in this film also, especially with CIA bigwigs played by Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga, and Brendan Gleeson, but this time I’m going to shut up and not say anything about who’s running the scam here, or is it Frost himself, maybe not as forthcoming as he seems to be especially when he’s manhandling escape-buddy Weston even as they try to elude their relentless pursuers.  It all makes for a pounding ride with the usual commanding screen presence from Denzel, a constant level of tension and danger as every move intended to give relief just results in another heart-pounding (and face-pounding) crisis, and a gritty, grainy look to the images that underscores their sense of immediacy (unlike the generally well-polished look of Chronicle, supposedly shot with consumer technology, but maybe Andrew was able to buy a really expensive mini-camera—although I think he said it cost only $500—with the family food stamps—although he said he didn’t spend any of his dad’s money—but maybe he was able to make it float over from the bank the same way he floated some out of a cash register late in the movie [OK, I'm approaching 2-brain-cell level so I'd better wrap up quickly]).  About the only thing floating in Safe House is the question of how did the producers manage to round up such a stellar cast for scenes that don’t rise much above the level of World Wrestling Entertainment falls-count-anywhere matches, but I still find myself most impressed with this one of the five reviewed if only because of its relentless pace, the impactful acting in the two lead roles, and the effective portrayal of basic animal survival instincts when constant danger lurks.  If you can deal with its smash-mouth attitude, here are some further links for Safe House:

and ... Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace 

            (And just for an extra consideration, there’s always the return of the Jedi and their foes in the first chronological segment of the Star Wars saga, now in well-produced eye-candy 3-D (But beware:  Jar Jar Binks is still blathering around in there, bigger and more disturbing than ever).  If you’d like to really [re]invest yourself in this material you might start with this link:
And from there it’s on to infinity and beyond—oops, wrong space rangers but you get the idea.)

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