Movie Review: ’2 Guns’

2 gunsA version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on August 8, 2013.

The always diverting, sometimes funny, occasionally uninteresting “2 Guns” features Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg in a buddy-cop, action bromance that rivals Spock and Kirk’s warp-speed love story in the latest “Star Trek.” Their chemistry is the only constant in a movie rife with plot twists that comfortably swings between sly satire and generic shoot-em-up, indulging in both, but never committing to either.

The movie opens with two seemingly bad dudes, Bobby (Mr. Washington) and Stig (Mr. Wahlberg), who are about to set fire to a diner across from the bank they will rob the next day.

We don’t yet know that Bobby is undercover DEA and Stig is undercover NCIS.

Nor do the characters know the real identity of the other. They both think they’re going to catch the other red-handed by robbing the bank and exposing the profits of a Mexican drug cartel.

Things start to look fishy when they successfully rob the bank, but find $43.125 million instead of the believed $3 million.

The robbery sets in motion a series of dupes and double crosses that manifest themselves in loud shoot-outs and a mostly uninspired car chase that looks like something out of a Dodge commercial. These scenes are aided only by the witty banter between Bobby and Stig.

“2 Guns” is best when the leading men are firing words instead of bullets, partially because the action scenes lack any kind of stylistic wit. Though based on a comic book, “2 Guns” doesn’t have the visual flair of that medium, even if it shares some of its subversive elements.

For example, the movie constantly undermines genre conventions, forgoing cliched dialogue for its own brand of unique, often nonsensical witticisms.

“You ever heard the saying,” begins Bobby to Stig in one scene, “never rob a bank across from a diner that has the best donuts in 3 counties?”

“That’s not a saying,” replies Stig.

“Yes it is,” retorts Bobby.

“No it’s not. I get what you’re saying but that’s not a saying,” concludes Stig.

Another clever scene parodies the good cop/bad cop interrogation routine by staging it in a shabby garage that has motion-sensor lighting, making it hard for Stig to intimidate a suspect because he has to keep flailing his arms every time the lights go out. Pity that such a funny scene ends in a generic shootout that leads to nothing but a generic car chase.

The few actions scenes that aren’t boring have a charm that stems from their shameless implausibility. At one point, Stig and Bobby effortlessly infiltrate a naval base by outrunning the authorities in a run-down van that in real life wouldn’t pass inspection.

Throughout the movie, Bobby and Stig dispense with bad guys and expose corrupt government organizations without breaking a sweat, emerging unscathed from even the most dire of circumstances.

Their unruffled ease describes the experience of watching “2 Guns,” which is, in the end, nothing more than delightfully tolerable, a movie you might relish in the moment, but will have no problem walking away from as the credits roll.

3 stars out of 4

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Movie Review: ‘The Wolverine’

the wolverine

A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on August 1, 2013.

Featuring the buff and brilliant Hugh Jackman as Logan in the lead role, “The Wolverine” is more a solemn and stylish meditation on life and death than an action movie based on a comic book, distinguishing itself from the apocalypse-pandering spectacles we’ve come to expect from summer blockbusters.

In fact, the only explosion in “The Wolverine” takes place within the opening sequence and serves as the foundation of the central drama, introducing Logan as a man whose immortality has worn him down existentially to the point that when one character offers him a chance at a normal life, Logan has a tough decision to make.

Cut to many, many years later and Logan is lonely and despondent, somewhere in the wilderness. He’s unkempt, living off the land. One of his only possessions is the picture of a former lover whose tragic fate fills his nightmares.

“Everyone you love dies,” she reminds him before he wakes screaming in a cold sweat, his claws extended from his fists.

“Eternity can be a curse,” another character tells Logan later on.

Finally, we have reason to care for an indestructible man.

For those unfamiliar with the “X-Men” universe, Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine, is a mutant, whose genetic mutations allow him to rapidly heal from any wound, and grow indestructible claws from his knuckles. He also doesn’t age. For all intents and purposes, he is immortal.

But this isn’t an “X-Men” movie, though there are other mutants in “The Wolverine.” In the worst of the those films, the mutant powers were just plot devices to justify cartoonish special effects.

Here, they serve thematic purposes. Each character has a trait or motivation that helps Logan come to terms with the past that constantly haunts him in his dreams.

Logan gets the chance to consider his life through the prism of the supporting characters when a young and fierce, sword-wielding Japanese girl named Yukio, whose employer wants to repay a debt to Logan, approaches him.

The two team up, travel to Tokyo, and find themselves entangled in a family drama that sets in motion an unlikely, but earnest love affair, as well as some sensational action sequences that actually drive the narrative forward. One involves ninjas, and another that simply must not be missed takes place atop a 300 mph bullet train.

As Yukio, newcomer Rila Fukushima is sprightly with platinum-red hair and cheekbones as sharp as her sword. She’s a joy to watch; her face conveys a youthful optimism in contrast to Logan’s seemingly endless brooding.

As Logan, Mr. Jackman has never been better, and his muscles never bigger. He brings a physical gravitas to the role as well as an exhausting vulnerability. He can render so powerfully on the screen what might have once been laughable on the page. When he howls in anguish, we understand his pain and fear for his victims. It’s a role he was born to play.

Mr. Jackman’s balanced performance speaks to the overall tone of the movie, which is quietly fantastical yet relatable in a way that is refreshing for an otherwise bloated genre.

3.5 stars out of 4.

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Movie Review: ‘Before Midnight’

before midnight

A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on August 1, 2013.

“Before Midnight” is the beautiful and complicated third entry in a series of films about a relationship that began in “Before Sunrise” and continued in “Before Sunset.”

“Sunrise” introduces us to Jesse and Celine, attractive, eloquent twenty-somethings whose early flirtations on a train lead to a night-long conversation through the streets of Vienna. It ends with them promising to meet up again in six months to continue the undefined bond they’ve formed throughout the night. When the movie ends, they don’t quite know they’re soul mates, but we do.

“Sunset” takes place nine years later. Jesse is at a bookstore in Paris, promoting his new novel that depicts a young man who finds true love one auspicious night in Vienna. Celine shows up. They haven’t seen each other since that night. They go to a coffee shop to catch up and soon begin walking through Paris, talking around each other to avoid confronting their resurgent emotions.

Things are more complicated this time. Jesse is married and has a son. Celine has a boyfriend. Nonetheless, they end up at her apartment. They talk some more. There’s music and a little dancing. The credits roll.

“Before Midnight” fills in the gap between its beginning and the end of “Sunset.” Once again, about nine years have passed. Jesse and Celine are together, with twin daughters. They’re spending the summer in Greece with a group of aesthetes and writers. A conversation over dinner consists of arguments for and against romantic love. One character finds the notion ridiculous.

“I wish I’d been born to your generation,” she says, speaking highly of a younger, more carefree notion of romance.

We don’t believe her and neither does she.

But her arguments challenge the very foundation of Jesse and Celine’s relationship, as does the rest of the movie, through tender confessions, troubling revelations, and warm humor.

As in the previous entries, “Before Midnight” has no easy answers. Rather, it depicts the multifarious complexities of love, how it can flourish even against the implacable obstacles of time and space. It is about the logistics of passion, how raising children inevitably compromises relationships and personal aspirations.

Yet there’s a lurking optimism behind the negativity, an affirmation that unconditional love is resilient in the face of cheap and earnest payoffs.

More so than the first two films, “Before Midnight” plays with our expectations and desires, eschewing easy outcomes in favor of an ambiguous, yet satisfying realism. The movie is about foreplay itself, sexual and emotional, how the only type of time love knows is the present, how an impassioned lead-up can exist and be appreciated in the absence of a conclusion.

In one scene, Jesse and Celine argue over the compromises they’ve made for each other. As the tension deflates, Jesse starts to pour two glasses of red wine, signifying a resolution, but by the time the glasses are full, a new argument has already arisen. Not a sip of wine is taken by either character.

Because “Before Midnight” is fervently against resolutions, embracing sometimes ugly, but always honest romance over romanticizations.

It is a masterpiece.

4 stars out of 4.

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Movie Review: ‘The Conjuring’

The Conjuring

A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on July 25, 2013.

The demonic entity depicted in the haunted-house movie “The Conjuring” that elicits so many deafening shrieks from people on and off the screen has no taste for subtlety.

This isn’t the kind of ghost that rearranges your furniture for mere creep factor. No, this ghost skips the creeps and moves right to the frights, endlessly churning terror for an hour-and-a-half until the movie’s bone-chilling climax when the classic image of a ghost in a white sheet is literally turned on its head as you fear for the lives of everyone who’s there to witness it.

That image is where novelty begins and ends in “The Conjuring.” And that’s okay, because director James Wan uses his slavish appreciation for classic horror tropes to deliver the most terrifying movie since the first “Paranormal Activity.”

But “The Conjuring” is nothing like that movie, which slowly and delicately tapped into every last irrational crack in your psyche and lingered there long after the movie was over.

Instead, “The Conjuring” is an all-out assault on your senses that exploits, embraces, but never quite subverts your expectations.

It plays on your recognition of familiar sounds—the creaking of a door, the tightening of a noose—and then ups the ante: the mysterious death of a dog, strange bruises that keep appearing on one character, and crashing picture frames that symbolize the potential demise of a happy family.

Though the scares in “The Conjuring” are familiar, they’re wrought with such careful attention to detail and atmosphere that Mr. Wan doesn’t need to invent new ways to frighten audiences because the old methods work just fine. He uses his unique visual style, a great cast, obligatory religious iconography, and other reliable tropes to tell a story of the macabre that doesn’t have to be about anything in particular except its own scares.

Just as the ghastly demon in the movie arbitrarily manipulates individuals to its will, “The Conjuring” manipulates its audience into taking it seriously, becoming a metaphor for how we willingly allow movies to get inside us and make us accept outlandish premises that are unfit for the real world, even if many of them are “based on a true story,” as is “The Conjuring.”

It’s a needless detail, that all-too-common, ominous signifier of authenticity, because “The Conjuring” is so good you quickly forget that all the characters have real-world counterparts, one of whom consulted on the making of the film. But quite often the personal account of a horrifying run-in with the supernatural in someone’s youth many years ago is, like every “real-life” ghost story, dubious at best, and easily dismissed.

Ghosts and demons are much more entertaining and credible on the screen, especially under the direction of Mr. Wan, who gives them every opportunity to turn the faces of great actors—Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson—white with fear.

Watching “The Conjuring” is a nerve-wracking experience at times, but you share an oppressive sense of dread with the characters, so you’re never quite alone. Whether or not they survive is not for me to say. But if you do, congratulations.

You survived “The Conjuring.”

3.5 stars out 4.

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Movie Review: ‘Pacific Rim’

pacific rim

A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on July 18, 2013.

On a fundamental level of plot, “Pacific Rim” sounds like a nine-year-old’s dream movie of monsters versus robots. To adults, it sounds enough like “Transformers” to quickly deflate any initial interest you might have had in it.

But on the screen, “Pacific Rim” is an old-fashioned action movie writ large in 21st-century fashion, a visual and technological marvel infused with familiar story arcs and characters, and enough novelty and genre-mixing to become the most fun blockbuster of the summer.

The plot concerns human civilization’s resistance against giant monsters, called Kaijus, that have emerged from an interdimensional tunnel at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The world’s population has set aside their differences to combat their common enemy by creating colossal robots, called Jaegers, that are operated by two pilots.

The way the pilots work together to control the Jaegers reflects the movie’s moral center of teamwork and learning to understand your fellow human being as a way to ensure Earth’s future.

Inside a Jaeger cockpit, two pilots enter what is called The Drift, in which their minds become one, sharing memories and synchronizing their physical movements. Early in the life of the Jaeger program, it was discovered that a single person couldn’t sustain the physical and neurological strain of operating one alone. If two pilots aren’t “Drift compatible,” they run the risk of a malfunctioning Jaeger, which may have a dire outcome, considering their destructive potential.

In one scene, a first-time pilot gets lost in one of her own memories as she Drifts with her copilot, both of them revisiting a traumatic moment in her past. As she does so, she inadvertently activates the Jaeger’s cannon function, almost blowing the hangar to pieces, when such an attack is better suited in a battle against a Kaiju.

The fight scenes between the Kaijus and Jaegers are wildly entertaining, and visually dazzling. The giants move as if they abide by real laws of physics, with slow, lumbering punches and takedowns that give emotional and literal weight to each scene.

At one point of genuine grandeur, a Jaeger wields a naval vessel as a weapon and pummels his Kaiju foe to the ground with it.

But grandeur isn’t exclusive to the fight scenes. Each frame of the movie is full, bustling with life with rich characters and detailed sets depicting a gritty future that feels lived-in without sacrificing a sense of promise. The movie’s color palette is sumptuous, and has the overly-saturated pop of a Japanese anime, a clear influence on director Guillermo del Toro, who understands genre better than most.

All at once, “Pacific Rim” is a martial arts movie, a science-fiction film, a disaster movie, and a drama whose characters have clear and believable motivations. Each character is haunted by their past, sometimes paralyzed by it. If they want to move on, they have to see the world through each other’s eyes, to understand that no one is alone in fighting their own internal monsters, or the Kaiju behemoths that threaten all of humanity.

In this sense, “Pacific Rim” is about empathy itself.

3.5 stars out 4.

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Movie Review: ‘Despicable Me 2′

despicable me 2

A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on July 11, 2013.

In the first “Despicable Me,” the pointy-nosed super villain Gru was forced to choose between adopting three of the cutest orphans ever depicted on-screen, or become the world’s greatest villain by pulling off a heist so audacious that it would give Danny Ocean a few minutes pause to consider retirement.

In that movie, the stakes were high. Attempting to steal the moon will almost always put a few lives at risk, as well as reputations. If Gru’s problems in the sequel aren’t as simultaneously shallow and grave as they once were, they are at least more complicated, resulting in a movie not as funny as its predecessor, but just as fun and adorable.

“Despicable Me 2″ depicts Gru divorced from villainy and embracing fatherhood, doing whatever it takes to please his adopted daughters, such as dressing up as a fairy princess for little Agnes’ birthday party, or helping her rehearse her part for a Mother’s Day show.

“One more time,” Gru tells Agnes after she gives an uninspired performance, “but a teensy bit less like a zombie, okay?”

Agnes’ singing isn’t the only thing off about this scene. Why is she preparing for a Mother’s Day show when she doesn’t even have a mom?

Enter Lucy Wilde, a young, overly ambitious agent of the AVL (Anti-Villain League) who has come to recruit Gru to help the league track down the person responsible for the disappearance of a secret laboratory once stationed somewhere near the Arctic Circle.

Everyone seems to be smitten with Lucy, especially Agnes, who immediately recognizes her motherly potential, even if Gru is reluctant to admit his affections for her, citing the allure of “cool cars, gadgets, and weapons,” as his reasons for assisting the AVL.

If the relationship between Gru and Lucy is the heart of “Despicable Me 2,” then its soul is Agnes, Edith, and Margo’s need for a mother figure, and to see Gru become a happy man. In one funny scene, the girls try to set him up with someone through an online-dating service.

Adding to the movie’s hilarity is the franchise’s claim to fame: Minions, those little yellow, tic-tac-shaped creatures that embody pure giddiness and irreverence. Without them, the “Despicable Me” franchise would have been dead on arrival.

In “Despicable Me 2,” the Minions are not only central to the humor, but to the plot as well, and are responsible for the movie’s overall sense of intrigue and mystery. In one scene, two minions investigate a suspicious noise outside only to be abducted alien-style by a UFO.

As minions begin to disappear, the plot thickens. There are red herrings, underwater lairs, active volcanoes, sinister plots, and a scene in a wig shop so inappropriate it will make adults and children laugh for completely different reasons.

In the end, “Despicable Me 2″ is a worthy sequel because it deftly combines slapstick humor for children with subtle nods to the adult audience, all in the effort of telling an endearing story about an overprotective father who wants nothing more than to give his daughters the childhood he never had.

3 stars out of 4.

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Movie Review: ‘World War Z’

world war z

A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on June 27, 2013.

Director Marc Forster’s “World War Z” is a mostly successful globetrotter about the zombie apocalypse with barely developed geo-political pretensions. It’s also something of a conventional blockbuster, albeit in reverse. The movie gets all of its obligatory scenes of chaotic spectacle and destruction out of the way within the first act or so, ultimately becoming an atmospheric thriller with some truly unnerving, almost gut-wrenching moments.

Such a formula works to the advantage of Mr. Forster, who’s never been very adept at directing action (see his dismal “Quantum of Solace”). Even the most simply staged action sequences in this movie are disorienting and easily forgettable. It’s not until the movie settles down about halfway through that it becomes interesting, thanks to a restrained performance by Brad Pitt, a very powerful performance from the unknown actress Daniella Kertesz in a supporting role, and a taut, suspenseful conclusion that is quietly satisfying compared to the clunky bombast of the beginning.

The plot concerns Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former U.N. field agent forced out of retirement to track down the source of a virus that has turned much of the world’s population into ravenous flesh-eaters. In one word, zombies. Being bitten by a zombie means you only have a few seconds before turning into one. The transformation is guttural and painful. Some brave souls are unwilling to turn and end their own lives before the transformation is complete. In one great scene, Lane is unsure whether or not he is infected, so he teeters on the edge of a tall building willing to commit suicide to save his family from himself.

Lane is smart and resourceful, and never loses his cool. He’s just as fast-acting in a crisis as the zombie virus itself. In another scene, he doesn’t hesitate to amputate the infected hand of one character before the virus spreads to the rest of her body. It’s one of a few scenes of visceral horror and it works much better than any of the movie’s attempts to organically balance sensation and human drama.

Full of rabid, unsympathetic undead, “World War Z” tries to evoke emotional resonance by tethering the government protection of Lane’s wife and two daughters to the success of his mission. If he dies, his family will no longer be considered essential personnel and will be escorted off the aircraft carrier on which they initially found refuge.

But the strain Lane’s family feels in his absence, and the uncertainty surrounding their own safety never quite earns the audience’s empathy, probably because they aren’t given very much screen time. The movie favors consecutive thrills over interpersonal drama.

But that doesn’t mean it’s completely lacking in humanity. Kertesz’ performance as a young, severely wounded, but resilient Israeli soldier is the highlight of “World War Z” even though Mr. Pitt’s character is officially given the task of saving the world.

Thus, “World War Z” is worth watching if you’re willing to forgive its absurd, but familiar plot, and equally absurd first half.

3 stars out of 4.

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