Universal via Everett Collection
Lone Survivor isn't a film for the faint of heart. It's a film that beats you down and only lets you up for a few precious moments before the credits roll, but that emotional throttling is what helps make the film such a powerful experience.
Peter Berg's Lone Survivor tells the story of Operation Red Wings, primarily focusing on a group of four Navy SEALs who are sent to the mountains of Afganistan to capture or kill a member of the Taliban. The plan goes wrong, and the team has to fight for their lives to escape the enemy-infested area. The film does a marvelous job of ratcheting up the tension before collapsing into its main action sequence, one that is as thrilling as it is unsettling. The long sequence brings forth memories of the infamous D-Day opening of Saving Private Ryan, except this film's fire-fight stretches out the violence like a medieval torture device. The langourous scene is, at times, hard to sit through. Each moment slips by in coiled tension. It's undoubtedly uncomfortable, and the film makes a point to never make the violence fun or enticing. The action isn't consequence-free, and every bullet fired carries weight, making the scenes brutal and unrelenting because of it. The film takes on the aura of a horror movie that wants you to feel every second that ticks by, and director Berg makes sure that a pressing hopelessness starts to weigh on the viewer just as it does on the soldiers.
Mark Wahlberg is plenty capable as Marcus Lutrell, a member of the SEAL unit that is sent on the mission. The supporting cast plays its parts admirably by believably infusing a diverse set of personalities and values into the soldiers, while still keeping them in tune with the same military culture that governs much of their thoughts and actions. There's a great scene where a difficult decision has to be made, and the viewer gets to see the different directions to which some of the character's moral compasses are tuned. Sometimes the right thing can mean different things to different people when the risk of death is on the table. The real standout in the cast is Ben Foster, whose SO2 Matthew Alexson swirls with barely contained fury. He is darkly intense and has electric screen presence that really starts to manifest when the bullets star flying and things become dire.
Universal via Everett Collection
For all the good will that the film builds up in its first and second act, the final third of the film hits some snags as history demands that the story take itself to a different location, sacrificing some of the tension that it has built up. In the last 30 minutes of the film, there are some odd tonal choices that don't gel with the tension brimming in the first half. A comedic scene involving a language barrier stands out in particular.
The movie makes a point to steer clear of any political judgment, and it doesn't try to lay blame for the botched mission on any one head. And while the film never outwardly states and opinion on the conflicts that America found itself embroiled in during this time period, the searing brutality depicted in the movie highlight that no one should be subjected to the pain that these men were faced with. Made abundantly clear is the soldiers' willingness to drop everything and serve their country the best way they know how. Lone Survivor tries to honor the soldier, but not glorify war.
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Lone Survivor is at its best when it makes you feel the worst. It gives soldiers their due reverence by showcasing the true terror of the battlefield, and while the film does start to sag a bit in its third act, it's still more than worth the experience in order understand the consequences of war, and its toll on the people in the trenches.
Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Making a spoof movie ain't what it used to be.
Comparing his latest endeavor, writing and producing this week's Scary Movie V, to his vast body of comedy work, David Zucker admits that life was a bit easier in 1980 when he and his collaborators set off to shoot Airplane!. Widely considered the pinnacle of spoof cinema, Airplane! riffs on a select number of films. It's Zero Hour!, Airport '75, and few dashes of Saturday Night Fever and From Here to Eternity for good measure. The Scary franchise is a different beast.
Following in the footsteps of the Wayans' first two Scary Movie films, modern spoofing had a new demand for Zucker when he took over the franchise for Scary Movie 3. "This is the hardest thing to do, to weave together plots from different movies," he says. "You have to make your best guess. In all these movies, we end up reshooting. You have to put it in front of an audience. What happened in [Scary Movie V] is that we used Paranormal Activity, elements of all of them, and Black Swan, and Planet of the Apes. What we found out was, none of those movies had an actual monster. We didn't realize that until halfway through. Fortunately, Mama came along."
When Zucker describes the Scary Movie process, it sounds grueling, sporadic, challenging, and ultimately gratifying when a moment of clarity emerges from the chaos. As a true auteur of comedic filmmaking, Zucker has long lived by a listed mantra, 15 rules that help keep him on track as he makes a movie. The glossary earns laughs on its own (terms include "Gilding the Lily," taking a joke so far that it's no longer funny, and "Floocher Dialogue," filler lines recited by foreground characters to enable the audience to focus on a background joke), but they're important to Zucker's approach to making movies.
"The rules are just us trying to not repeat the same mistakes," says the producer. "You disobey these rules at your peril… One of the things is, movies have to be grounded in reality. It's something BASEketball didn't have and Top Secret didn't have. They didn't have character arcs."
That's why Mama helped reinvigorate Scary Movie V — but not in the scripting stage. "Much later into production we incorporated Mama and even Evil Dead," Zucker says. "We actually spoof the trailer [laughs]. I always say, 'Kids, don't try this at home.'" The producer admits that Scary Movie V began production without an antagonist, a no-no in the Zucker book of comedy. Including the ghastly villainess of that film gave the movie a new arc. "How well a job we did, I can't judge, because I'm right in the middle of it. But for sure, we just really knocked ourselves out trying to make it into a cohesive plot structure. That's what Mama gave us, because Jessica Chastain had such a good character."
Don't get him wrong: Zucker prefers a calmer, more structured filmmaking style. He doesn't like endless nights of rewriting and reshooting. In fact, Zucker wasn't even planning on returning to the Scary Movie franchise until two of Hollywood's most influential producers asked him to. "The Weinsteins asked us to do this. They had to make Scary Movie, so I did it," he says. "It's not something I planned on doing, but it's still what I love to do."
Working on Scary Movie V with Bob and Harvey Weinstein is a bit of thankless task, rounding up all the ideas that must be in the movie, and piecing them together into something watchable. When asked if it's anything like writing Kentucky Fried Movie, his wonderfully manic sketch comedy film from 1977, Zucker politely says, "Well, that's a theory."
"There were some instances where we were directed to throw some things at the screen that didn't fit in the story," Zucker says. "And that's not the right thing to do, so those things didn't work. But we cut them out. No matter how crazy and zany these spoof are, and they're pretty crazy, we still have to obey plot, structure, and character. It has to be coherent. If you take a side track, it won't work."
One thing Zucker had little to do with was Scary Movie V's stunt casting, which brings back Scary Movie vet Charlie Sheen, and enlists newbies Lindsay Lohan and Mob Wives star Big Ang. Zucker was happy to reunite with Sheen ("[He's] just a dream to work with. It's like driving a fancy car."). The others… well, he didn't know who Big Ang was, but he made it work. "The studio has this franchise and they know what they want to do with it," he says. "So they have very strong opinions on who they want to cast. And we accommodate that." Zucker laughs at an on-set title he's earned from keeping production on its toes. "They always joke about me because I come in in my scrubs and operate on the patient."
The reason Zucker believes he can work in this fashion is because he's well aware of what has and hasn't worked past. One thing that didn't work: his 2008, right-wing skewing An American Carol. "If I had to do it over again… I don't think I ever would have done it," he says. "Again, it has to be more entertainment than preachy. The talking points were too much out front. I just wanted to make it funny." Zucker recalls having an amazing experience making the critically-maligned Carol, which he co-wrote with his writing partner Lewis Friedman (who he points out is "a liberal New Yorker and a far left Democrat!"), and thought would play to all audiences. "We just wanted to make it as funny as we could while poking fun at the left, which nobody does," Zucker says. "People who know me know I'm not that serious about anything. I don't take the politics seriously. I don't think Republicans go to see movies, that's the other thing! It was a misguided thing."
With Scary Movie V in the can, Zucker is ready to get back to the movie he originally intended to make before the Weinsteins rang him up. He says it will take its cues from The Naked Gun. "The Naked Gun style is a sane way of doing a movie," he says. He hopes to direct his next script, which preys on popcorn movies in a method akin to his police spoof series (a Bourne-style update, anyone?). He also sees potential in reviving Naked Gun.
"You could do another Naked Gun, with a reboot. Like Star Trek," Zucker says. The immediate retort is, really, how could anyone live up to Leslie Nielsen? "There are people who can do that and they're not famous. You wouldn't know who they were. But I know actors who can do it. Again, I think Paramount has an international brand in Naked Gun and I think there's something you can do." For now, he hopes to revive the spirit of Naked Gun rather than the actual property. "There's room for a Naked Gun style. A bumbling guy in a position where he's respected. Leslie Nielsen played Lieutenant Frank Drebin and nobody seemed to have a clue that he's an idiot. I want to do the character, but not the specific [job]. Not Naked Gun."
Zucker thinks Scary Movie V survived the turbulent process of tinkering on the fly. He came to the movie prepared to break it, start over, reconfigure, and put it out into the world while looking forward. It's in the rules. "That's another glossary term we have: 'Apollo 13,'" he says. "When your spacecraft is in trouble and you have to get it back alive. So you use spare parts and do anything that you can to save it." So however Scary Movie V is received, he's ready to go back to the drawing board and make new movies. "One of the important things is not to blame other people for your failures (and that goes for regular life too). If a movie tanks, you have to look at what you did and figure out what happened."
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[Photo Credit: Universal Pictures]
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The latest movie in the Step Up franchise aims for a politicized message behind all the flashy moves but it could do with a lot less plot and a lot more dancing. In Step Up Revolution the Miami dance group "The Mob" takes to the streets (and other random locations) to perform intricately choreographed routines with their own DJ a camera guy who uploads their videos to YouTube and a graffiti artist who leaves their signature behind. It takes at least that much effort just to get hipster New Yorkers to ride the subways without any pants on once a year; it's hard to believe that The Mob could pull off their elaborate schemes without getting caught but that's the magic of movies.
The Mob represents the more diverse working class side of Miami a young multiracial group of friends who create incredible works of art that disappear before they get shut down. One of the Mob's leaders Sean (Ryan Guzman) earnestly explains to newcomer Emily (Kathryn McCormick) that the group's reason is to give a voice to the voiceless or to be happy or to dance or something. It's not really clear but they have a lot of fun and look amazing doing it.
Once Sean and his friends find out that a greedy developer plans to raze their neighborhood to make way for another South Beach-style hotel monstrosity they have a reason to rally but until then they're just trying to win a cash prize by getting clicks on YouTube. The typical Step Up twist is that Emily is the developer's daughter. Mr. Anderson (Peter Gallagher) doesn't approve of Emily's love of dancing or other frippery and he certainly wouldn't approve of her hanging out with the people causing such mayhem in the streets of Miami.
Step Up Revolution biggest misstep is trying to give the movie more of a hook than the franchise's typical Romeo and Juliet-style love story and tap into "the Zeitgeist" (I swear that's from the studio-provided press notes) of flash mobs. The film could have cut out most of the plot and characters and still have a completely intact film insofar as the point of the film is its multimedia dance routines. The sort of productions The Mob pulls off are more akin to carefully planned art installations or music videos in terms of scope; it would have been better to at least make that somehow feasible in terms of the storyline. Yes we are here for a spectacle and we surely get a spectacle but it needs to have some roots in reality.
The dance scenes are fun sexy and occasionally a little sappy but overall quite enjoyable for people who enjoy "So You Think You Can Dance" type of shows. Kathryn McCormick and Stephen "tWitch" Boss both appeared on "SYTYCD" and their costar Misha Gabriel is a classically trained ballet dancer turned pro back-up dancer for folks like Beyoncé and Michael Jackson. Guzman doesn't have a dance background but he is an MMA fighter who obviously took his training very seriously. The entire outfit is pretty damn entertaining to be honest.
As far as the 3D goes it makes most of Miami look overcast and grey. The extra zings added in to make sure we get our money's worth like sand flicking out at us or a breakdancer whose foot seems to be aiming for our face only serves to distract from the real show at hand. There is also an awful lot of ramping and generally spazzy editing tricks that look cheap. The screenplay by Amanda Brody is definitely not its strong suit.
Step Up Revolution is the cinematic equivalent of a trashy beach novel. It's embarrassing to be caught actually enjoying it and you'll forget about it almost immediately but it's a decent way to spend a summer afternoon.
Spanish stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem have been lined up to star in a film adaptation of Broadway musical Nine, according to reports.
The pair are alleged to have been recruited for the movie by studio boss Harvey Weinstein, who recently traveled to Barcelona where the actors are filming Woody Allen's new movie.
Nine's script will be penned by Robert Marshall, who wrote the screenplay for 2002 hit Chicago, according to Fox News reporter Roger Friedman.
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