In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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It's that time of the year again; When people flock from all directions to the south-westernmost tip of the United States and take in the festivities of the San Diego Comic-Con. This year, Fox Walden Studios offered up a fantastic new treat for some of us journalists making the trip down from Los Angeles; a railway train themed after the upcoming fantasy film City of Ember.
The film, based on the children's book series by Jeanne Duprau, tells of a vast underground city called Ember .The inhabitants have grown used to living in their specialized society and are kept away from the dark mysteries that lay at the city's edges, dwelling in an intricate construct illuminated by a generator that has been running for hundreds of years. History lost to the citizens of Ember, their generator has started to fail and it falls to two children, Lina and Doon, to uncover the answers that may lie beyond the city walls.
Arriving this morning at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, I was instructed to keep my eye out for people in blue jumpsuits. These "Citizens of Ember" lead me to the train car; an old-fashioned carriage decked out with props and costumes and everything on-board from serving bar to a working barbershop. As we boarded, a brass band played a cheery farewell from the railway platform and an Ember official lead the passengers through the city's rules, making us all swear a loyalty oath.
In Ember, children graduate at a young age and are -- through a lottery process -- given jobs that will stay with them for their entire lives. One costume near the back of the train is a long red cloak worn by messengers. Because there are no phones in the city, it becomes the job of the messenger to deliver news through the city streets.
Director Gil Kenan -- the creative force behind 2006's impressive Monster House -- gladly escorted us to an improvised screening room in the back of the train. The first thought of pairing Kenan against the footage is that he looks so young, as though he's fresh out of college, while his film has the determined style of a fantasy auteur.
The first scene he showed introduced us to the characters and the city (which, Kenan explained, was intended to play as vital and as personable a role as any of the actors). The streets have an almost art deco quality combined with a heavy influence of German expressionism. Imagine a utilitarian and fully-functioning rendering of the streets from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and you'll get a sense of some of the visual magic at play in Ember.
Bill Murray plays the Mayor of Ember in the perfectly deadpan way that only he can, presiding over the citizens and doling out the jobs on graduation day. The lead, Lina, is played by Saoirse Ronan, straight from her Oscar-nominated performance in last years Atonement. Arriving late to her graduation day, Lina is appointed a job working in the sewer system but manages to trade with her friend Doon (Harry Treadaway) and become a messenger instead. It's not long before her new job causes her to find out some secrets about Ember that propel the two of them into a quest to find the city's secrets and a way to keep the lights burning.
Though the original book was written for children, Kenan explains that movie is designed to play to all ages. It's a fantasy and an adventure film, complete with puzzles and chases. "If Indiana Jones were in it," laughs Kenan, "It would be an 'Indiana Jones' movie."
Caroline Thompson, the screenwriter behind cinematic classics Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas was charged with the task of transforming Duprau's world for the silver screen. The intent, she explained, was less about matching the novel exactly and more about providing the same sense of wonder. To that end, there are few creative additions including creatures (some bizarre and some beautiful) that our heroes encounter.
Gracious as he is, Kenan explains that the feel of Ember would have been impossible without the sizable contribution of Production Designer Martin Laing. Laing, coming off years of pre-production work on James Cameron's Avatar and Battle Angel, was overjoyed at the chance to get something up on the screen in such a major way. Ember was built as one massive set, based on sketches and paintings Laing created by hand.
Though a self-contained film, the trilogy of books leaves open the potential for Ember sequels, something to which everyone involved seems interested in potentially pursuing. As for me -- and as exciting as Comic Con is looking to be this year – I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed to step off the railway car in San Diego and leave the City of Ember behind.
I'm looking forward to returning for a full visit on Oct. 10.