Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the breakout star—proving she has serious acting chops—of Smashed, an independent drama about the path of an alcoholic trying to find sobriety and the strains it puts on her relationship with her similarly alcoholic husband (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul). The story follows Kate’s struggles with her disease through her work and personal life. A well-crafted movie, Smashed could use about 20 more minutes to flesh out Kate’s transformation but on the whole it’s a worthwhile journey to take.
The extent of Kate’s problems are not initially evident. The film makes it seems that she and Charlie are just fun-loving, hard partying childless adults. But as the movie progresses we see just how bad things have become in their lives. Rather than portraying Kate with broad strokes, making her alcoholism obvious, writer/director James Ponsoldt slowly draws back the curtain, leaving us with the portrait of a broken woman who doesn’t realize just how far she has fallen. And once she’s sober, how hard it is to stay that way.
While there are elements of Alcoholics Anonymous in Smashed, it isn’t as preachy as the similarly-themed Flight. Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally and Octavia Spencer provide grounding, humanity and a sense of humor.
Nice performances and a gritty realism make Smashed stand out and while its inconsistent tone and rushed narrative keep it from fully connecting with the audience. Smashed is worth checking out.
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Skyfall is the rubber match for Daniel Craig’s turn as the iconic James Bond. Casino Royale was a revelation in the series, bringing a gritty, realistic edge to the character. Quantum of Solace was technically proficient but lacked any sense of emotional resonance.
I am pleased to report that the much-delayed Skyfall was worth the wait, cementing Craig as this generation’s definitive interpretation of the character. The film is loaded with action set pieces that keep you on the clichéd edge of your seat during its 2+ hour running time, but the multilayered story prevents you from checking out.
Skyfall’s script feels like a repurposed Batman story (and I don’t mean that as a knock) that gives us a glimpse of Bond’s backstory and features a cartoonish, Joker-like supervillain whose mental scars are matched only by the scars to his body. Javier Bardem inhabits the bipolar psychopath like few could, making the threat to MI-6 more than a stock storytelling device. While the character is an amalgamation of several past Bond villains including Blofeld, Dr. No, and Alec Trevelyan from Goldeneye, Bardem manages to make Silva his own.
As for the history of Bond, this could have come out one of two ways: This could have been needless information tacked on to a beloved character that bogged down the movie or it could help flesh out the character and give him more gravitas, deepening the audience’s connection to an icon. Thankfully it shook out as the later thanks in large part to performances by Craig and Albert Finney as Alfred the Butler Kincade, assistant to the once-rich Bond family.
It should need to go without saying but Dame Judy Dench is both a grounding and elevating factor in this movie, providing a commanding performance. Likewise Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) provides a clever twist on a clichéd character, the talented agent who might not have the right stuff for the field.
It is clear director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) is a Bond fan, as he litters this 50th anniversary film with references to past films in clever ways, never distracting from the story but winking to audience members who will pick up on his clues. Likewise he sets up the Bond franchise for a new direction, operating not in the light of the world but as part of a covert agency fighting new threats to the world. With the death of the villain (it’s not a spoiler, this is a Bond movie) we may have seen the death of the old Bond, reborn in a familiar package but with new trappings. There’s a new (Q)uartermaster (Ben Winshaw, Cloud Atlas) and some other clever setups but I’m excited to see this series move beyond its pulp roots while still honoring the expectations of the espionage genre. The Bourne Identity and The Dark Knight changed our perspective on what an action/spy movie could be, and it seems Sam Mendes wanted to rise to the occasion. That he has done, crafting a dynamite movie filled with action, suspense, and intrigue.
Skyfall is not a perfect movie, lingering on its action set pieces and straying into an unbelievable realm. Bond is known not for realism but for its over-the-top gadgets and stunts, and this film doesn’t perfectly balance that conceit. Too—in an effort to be a “Bond” film, the writer stuffs in some puns and witticisms that felt out of place in the gritty tone of this flick.
Still, there is enough to recommend this movie not just to Bond fans—though they will be very pleased—but to anyone looking for an action flick with some substance.
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It seems ironic that many people say Wreck-It Ralph looks like Disney is going to out-Pixar the studio known for making fun films with great stories. But when the lights came up after Brave, it’s easy to say that Pixar has out-Disney’d the Mouse House with the best princess-focused animated fairy tale ever made. A simple story by Pixar’s standards, Brave is about a young girl rebelling from her family and place in the world while learning just how important it is to respect tradition.
Kelly MacDonald gives life to the Scottish princess Merida who is destined to lead her nation—and must marry one of the kingdom’s other princes to keep the nation safe and strong. But, as rebellious kids do, she runs away and engages in a bargain to “change” her mother’s mind and runs into some unexpected consequences.
The story is familiar Disney but enjoyable nonetheless. There is enough simple entertainment to keep the kids engaged and a story that will keep parents riveted though neither is notably original. The filmmakers fall into the trap of having the characters narrate their innermost thoughts and emotions, rather than playing them out on the screen, which results in a superficial product that lacks emotional resonance.
Nothing stands out about Pixar’s Brave, which may be damning with faint praise a studio renowned for originality and ambitious storytelling. Even the 3D—usually an easy sell for animation—was lacking depth and substance. Despite its ambitious, epic beginnings the film is ultimately a simple fairy tale driven by the relationship between a mother and daughter.
Merida is a strong female protagonist who is still a recognizable free teenage spirit. Her journey is satisfying based on the internal structure of the film and yet I somehow was left wanting for something of more substance from this breezy flick.Brave’s story—down to the rousing final battle—is obvious and wraps quickly, leaving a conclusion that doesn’t quite make sense and yet makes enough sense to move forward since it’s just about the human relationships and not obscure prophesies or ancient history.
A film that opens with a lot of promise leaves the audience satisfied but wanting for more, a disappointing reaction for Pixar. Still, a solid film that will last the test of time, Merida and her clan are a welcome entry into the Disney Princess canon.
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Special Review by Scott Pagliaroni
Modern animated films continue to have more material within them to appeal more to parents, rather than the children they brought with them to the cinema. Pixar was a large contributor to this trend. Disney, not one to die due to lack of adaptation, has taken a fair number of notes on what its subsidiary has done in the past, and implemented them in their latest feature, ‘Wreck-it Ralph’. Nostalgia can be a powerful tool, and is frequently used in film currently, whether through the latest remake, reboot, reimagining, or reference. ‘Wreck-it Ralph’ focuses on the latter, utilizing plot devices familiar to most moviegoers while using the setting and context of videogames to appeal to the older members of the audience.
To note that the film’s titular character is the hero of the movie is to broach the primary subject of ‘Wreck-it Ralph’. Ralph, charismatically voiced by John C. Reilly (‘Cedar Rapids’, ‘Step Brothers’), has a lot in common with the old video game character Donkey Kong. He ‘works’ inside of an arcade game that looks like it debuted in the early 1980s. He gets angry and climbs a building, raining debris down upon the game’s hero, Fix-it Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer; ’30 Rock’, ‘Talladega Nights’). He gets knocked off the building when the player of the game passes the level. However, unlike Donkey Kong, we have a little more back story. Ralph was relocated when the forest he lived in was razed for the building he angrily wrecks. He lives in a dump of bricks and detritus. Also, the game is not even named for him, but for the game’s hero, Felix.
Over the years of the game’s existence, this ennui weighs heavy on Ralph, eventually leading to him joining a support group for the arcade’s video game villains. This is one of the scenes where ‘Wreck-it Ralph’ really shines, as it brings a number of real, not just archetypal, video game characters together that normally wouldn’t be, due to competitive and licensing issues. The scene allows the characters to have a little more personality than they normally had in their arcade homes, and it is these references throughout the movie that not only appeal to the older gamers viewing the movie, but really help to set it apart from most animated movies using similar plots and colorful characters.
To return to the plot, Ralph returns to find that he was not even invited to his game’s 30th anniversary party, as he is not a ‘hero’. He decides to leave, in search of proving his worth in other games. ‘Wreck-it Ralph’ cleverly builds its world of interconnected games, and, following the rules set forth, allow Ralph to travel to other game worlds, meeting other characters such as Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch; ‘Glee’, ‘The 40 Year Old Virgin’) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman; ‘School of Rock’). While the movie has plenty of actual video game references, these characters come from games that are a mash-up archetype of other games, paying homage from everything from ‘Call of Duty’ to ‘House of the Dead’, ‘Mario Kart’ to ‘Candy Land’. Alan Tudyk (‘Serenity’, ‘Death at a Funeral’) turns in a spectacularly unrecognizable performance voicing the leader of ‘Sugar Rush’, one King Candy.
With the increasing waves of video gamers entering adulthood, ‘Wreck-it Ralph’ seems like an easy method to make money off of kids and grownups alike. Disney, though, was clever with their insistence on obtaining the likenesses and rights to many actual video game characters, such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter combatants, Tapper, Q*bert, and many more. This lends authenticity along with recognition, which people generally enjoy. Even non-gaming references to pop culture icons such as ‘Star Wars’ or ‘The Wizard of Oz’ will bring unexpected laughter from an audience. It does feel that having obtained access to said classic video game properties, more could have been done with them. The game worlds where the main characters visit are entirely fictional, and nearly two-thirds of the movie is spent in only one of those. More diversity would have been welcomed, but perhaps Disney was limited with just how much and often they could use the characters within the film. Plus, most animated films are created with the hope that much money will be made off of merchandising and licensing of the characters. To do that, the primary characters needed to be Disney-owned.
This is not a blatant cash grab, though. It is fairly clear that the creators are video game fans, and treat the subject matter accordingly. While at times ‘Wreck-it Ralph’ may appear to be pandering to audiences, such as a reference to the infamous Konami code, for the most part it appears to have gamers in mind. While it is nice to believe that something such as a classic arcade of our youth could still exist in some form, the main issue is that this movie may be five or ten years too late. Most of the youth audience being targeted will probably quizzically ask after the movie just what an arcade is.
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On a side note, the short film ‘Paperman’ was aired beforehand. It was a stunningly beautiful black-and-white mélange of classic and computerized animation. The look of the film was something of a cross between a Hayao Miyazaki movie and a French art-house piece. It was a pleasant aperitif that was probably not short enough for the kids in attendance.
If it weren’t for the absolutely dynamite cast, starting with star Denzel Washington who—through sheer force of acting will—instills believable emotion into his part and a tip-top supporting crew—including John Goodman, Don Cheadle, and Bruce Greenwood—Flight would have crashed shortly after takeoff. Instead, thanks entirely to the cast who try to find nuance in a script that bashes home its message, the movie glides to a bumpy landing.
The plot of Flight is outlined in detail in the trailers and commercials pitching the film. Veteran commercial pilot Whip Whittaker (Washington) pulls a one-in-a-million maneuver to keep the plane from taking a nose dive into the turf. What follows, however, is an examination into every aspect of the crash and the reveal that Whittaker was both drunk and high on cocaine—plus he had marijuana in his system—when he was flying a commercial airliner. The movie follows him as he tries to get clean, beats the test, and sees everything fall apart because of his addiction.
That’s what Flight is about, you see. Alcohol addiction. We watch Whittaker hit absolute rock bottom and finally come clean. And it might be sponsored by Alcoholics Anonymous.
What’s fascinating about Flight is that the protagonist is a completely reprehensible human being. He’s a drunk, he’s abusive to the people around him, he’s without remorse and morals when he’s lying to keep his secret under wraps. And yet the audience begins to root for him, to have his positive drug test thrown out of court, thanks to the utterly soulless pilots union who is only interested in keeping their union intact.
There’s also a subplot about Nicole, a recovering heroin junkie who is trying to get clean (Kelly Reilly) and the abusive relationship that develops between she and Whip. Nicole’s recovery is quick and easy—one trip to the hospital and she’s cured.
Goodman manages to steal the movie with his limited screen time, playing a drug dealing Mr. Fixit, The Dude if he pushed powder instead of social justice.
The subject matter discussed in Flight could easily overwhelm audience, so director Robert Zemeckis imbues the movie with some timely humor to keep things light. Being preached at for 2 hours would be unbearable, so the decision benefits the film’s pacing. That is not to say the film’s pacing is spotless. In hammering home its message, the movie is about 20 minutes too long and the filmmakers stick around long after they should have rolled the credits, giving Zemeckis the schmaltzy ending he so loves.
Flight is not a bad movie. There are some great scenes, including the plane crash that sets things in motion which is one of the most intense experiences you’ll have this year. The performances, as mentioned, are great. I loved the score and how it was integrated into the film.
Flight has the hallmarks of a great movie but its underlying script is so preachy and melodramatic that it makes the movie hard to stomach. A neat concept is ruined by the heavy-handed direction.
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That chill in the air means that it is, indeed, November. October, we hardly knew ye.
The only movie I haven't seen this week is the one that intrigues me the most:
I love all of the genre goodness on display in the trailer for The Man with the Iron Fists. Like a mash up of Kung Fu Hustle and Kill Bill, this is fantastic genre entertainment.