In the cinematic desert that is the January-February movie-release schedule one gains a greater appreciation for mere competence. And that’s precisely what you’ll get with Man on a Ledge a mid-budget thriller with modest aspirations and genuine popcorn appeal. Sam Worthington (Avatar Clash of the Titans) stars as Nick Cassidy a former New York City cop wrongly convicted for the theft of a prized diamond. After exhausting all judicial avenues for exoneration he takes the unusual and seemingly desperate next step of planting himself on a ledge outside the penthouse of midtown’s Roosevelt Hotel and threatening to jump. An NYPD psychologist (Elizabeth Banks) is summoned to talk him down unaware that Nick harbors an ulterior motive. From his perch above midtown he is secretly orchestrating a scheme to take revenge against the corrupt corporate chieftain (Ed Harris) who engineered his demise and prove his innocence once and for all.
Director Asger Leth making his U.S. feature-film debut with Man on a Ledge keeps the pace brisk and never allows the tone to stray into self-seriousness which is crucial for a movie whose premise is so devoutly ridiculous. The script from Pablo F. Fenjves provides enough feints and twists to keep us engaged. Jamie Bell and Genesis Rodriguez aren’t the most believable of couples but there’s a screwball charm to their comic routine as amateur thieves charged with aiding Nick’s scheme. (Leth can’t resist inserting an entirely superfluous – but nonetheless greatly appreciated – scene of the criminally gorgeous Rodriguez stripping down to a thong in the middle of a heist.) Worthington makes for a likable populist protagonist even if his Australian accent betrays him on copious occasions and Harris’ disturbingly emaciated frame lends an added menace to his devious plutocrat villain.
Power producer Neal Moritz’ (Green Hornet Fast & Furious) company is called Original Film which is ironic because he hasn’t made a truly unique motion picture in some time. His latest effort Battle: Los Angeles isn’t groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination but packs enough punch to leave you saying “Thank you sir may I have another?”
Jonathan Liebesman (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) directs this massive movie about a race of aliens colonizing our planet but as the title suggests the action is centered on the City of Angels. Instead of watching the world at war we witness the American military’s last stand on the West Coast by following a single squad of soldiers on the ground as they fight their way through the city to pick up scattered civilians before the Air Force levels Los Angeles. 2nd Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) leads the troop but is too young to be calling the shots in a cataclysmic event like this. Thank heavens Squad Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) was called back in for one last mission because it doesn’t take long for the rest of the battalion to realize that the reluctant hero is their best chance for survival.
It’s a good thing that Liebesman and his technical crew are on the top of their game in Battle: LA because most of the other aspects of the production are just downright foolish. Writer Chris Bertolini took the framework from a handful of classic war movies and applied them to his script resulting in highly predictable scenarios and a pace that marches to the beat of past genre entries like Independence Day and Black Hawk Down. His dialogue filled with military jargon and 5th grade humor is quite literally laughable at some points while the thinly crafted characters are all token “team members” that you’ve seen before in films like Jarhead from the soon-to-be-father who’s not sure if he’s going to make it back to his wife to the new recruit/virgin who’s too young to die to the guy with the chip on his shoulder. We get brief glimpses of their back-stories in the first twenty minutes of the movie but as Nantz says during his Bill Pullman moment when the tide begins to turn “none of that matters now.”
What does matter is that Battle: Los Angeles is a roaring thrill ride that barely lets up from start to finish. From the moment the soldiers hit the streets they’re thrust into a tense and gritty survival situation that vaguely mirrors the urban environments in which our Marines are currently engaged in the Middle East. Liebesman uses handheld cameras and close-ups to capture the calamity of combat giving the picture a documentary quality that helps it find some semblance of individuality. Though his actors aren’t required to do much acting (save for Michael Pena whose small role as a dedicated father stands out) and the script as stated is noticeably sub-par capturing their facial expressions as hovercrafts blow fighter jets out of the sky brings out emotion that most of them wouldn’t be able convey in a more traditional performance.
As I continue to heap praise upon the film’s technical achievements I must also note editor Christian Wagner’s chaotic cuts that heighten the soldier’s state of paranoia and the overall sound design of the picture. Until we get up close and personal with one of the aliens Liebesman doesn’t show us much; we have a hard time seeing them because they move so fast but we can hear their quick movements and the affect is quite unsettling much like the performances from Michelle Rodriguez Ne-Yo and a slew of the films co-stars.
Whether or not the filmmakers originally intended on making a movie that was more than the average alien invasion flick is neither here nor there. Is it a rehash of the most exciting moments in War of the Worlds or Red Dawn? Sure it is but it’s also an electrifying film that manages to be engrossing and entertaining in spite of its flaws.
Based on Chris Van Allsburg's enchanting award winning children's book the story begins on a snowy Christmas Eve where a doubting young boy lies in his bed waiting to hear the sound he doesn't know if he believes in anymore: the tinkle of Santa's sleigh bells. What he hears instead however is the thunderous roar of an approaching train where no train should be: it's the Polar Express. Rushing outside in only a robe and slippers the incredulous boy meets the train's conductor who urges him to come onboard. Suddenly the boy finds himself embarking on an extraordinary journey to the North Pole with a number of other children--including a girl who has the tools to be a good leader but lacks confidence; a know-it-all boy who lacks humility; and a lonely boy who just needs to have a little faith in other people to make his dreams come true. Together the children discover that the wonder of Christmas never fades for those who believe. As the conductor wisely advises "It doesn't matter where the train is going. What matters is deciding to get on." Gives ya goose bumps doesn't it?
Talk about a vanity project for Tom Hanks. He portrays several of the characters in the film--the conductor the hobo who mysteriously appears and disappears on the Polar Express the boy's father. Wait isn't that Hanks playing Santa Claus as well? But if anyone can pull off some cheesy dialogue about the spirit of Christmas this Oscar-winning actor can. Interestingly the film also incorporates adults to play the children (none of the characters have names actually) with Hanks as the Hero Boy; Hanks' Bosom Buddies pal Peter Scolari as the Lonely Boy; The Matrix Revolutions Nona Gaye as the Hero Girl; and veteran voice actor Eddie Deezen as the Know-It-All Boy. Everyone does a good job but trying to make CGI-created people seem real is a difficult undertaking. With
The Polar Express director Robert Zemeckis has created an entirely new way to do computer animation called "performance capture." "[It's a process that] offers a vivid rendering of the Van Allsburg world while infusing a sense of heightened realism into the performances. It's like putting the soul of a live person into a virtual character " visual effects wizard and longtime Zemeckis collaborator Ken Ralston explains. Oh is that all? Problem is no matter how hard they try it doesn't work--not completely. Similar to flaws in the 2001 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within virtual characters just can't convey human emotion as well as real-life actors plain and simple. And with a touching story like Polar Express that real-life connection is missed at times.
Of course like the images in the book it's still an exceptionally beautiful film to watch. Zemeckis enjoys being a filmmaking innovator. He charmed audiences with a lively blend of live action and manic animation in the 1988 classic action comedy Who Framed
Roger Rabbit? and then wowed them with the 1994 Oscar-winning Forrest Gump blending authentic archival footage of historic figures with the actors. Now with The Polar Express it's this performance capture which gives Zemeckis unlimited freedom in creating the world he wants. And boy does he make use of it. True the story is a classic but the director knows he has to make The Polar Express exciting for the tykes-- simply riding around in a train to North Pole without any thrills certainly wouldn't be enough for the ADD world we live in. To accomplish this the film is padded with exhilarating scenes such as the train going on a giant roller coaster ride through the mountains and across frozen lakes (too bad Warner Bros. doesn't have a theme park) and the boy's race across the top of the snowy Polar Express. Even the North Pole is a booming magical Mecca filled with some pretty boisterous (and weird looking) elves who like to send Santa off in style Christmas Eve--watch out for Aerosmith's Steven Tyler making a cameo as a jammin' elf. Ho-ho-ho!
Supermom Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her geneticist husband Norman (Harrison Ford) are adapting to their only daughter's departure to college when Claire begins sensing an unearthly presence in the couple's lakeside Vermont dream home. Is she losing her marbles or is that the spirit of a beautiful young woman she keeps glimpsing? To say any more (as the too-explicit ad campaign does) would spoil some delicious twists.
The toplining Ford is his usual solid self in a role that plays cleverly on his familiar persona but the picture is Pfeiffer's from beginning to end. She delivers one of her most pleasing performances nicely disarming audience doubts about the story's supernatural elements with some judicious eye-rolling and embarrassed frowning -- her character is so painfully aware that what she's saying sounds crazy how can we possibly doubt her? Among the low-key supporting cast Joe Morton ("Terminator 2") stands out as an amiably down-to-earth psychiatrist.
Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump") takes Clark Gregg's highly derivative haunted house script and pours on the Hitchcockian visual flourishes unapologetically pilfering from the Master's "Rear Window" and "Psycho " among others. His extended homage results in scene after scene of almost unbearable tension as the audience waits for the next shock. There's some clunky storytelling in the first section but the all-suspense second half more than makes up for it with some classic work including what seems destined to go down in movie history as "the bathtub scene."