Lockout

18 04 2012

Going into the movie theatre, I didn’t expect much from Lockout. From the trailers, it looks like it has all the elements of a traditional action movie. That usually means a predictable plot, boring characters, and lots of explosions.

After watching Lockout, I was pleasantly surprised. While it does have lots of explosions, both the plot and characters are a cut above the average action movie.

Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace) is the President’s daughter who plays the damsel in distress. After embarking on a humanitarian mission to an experimental outer space prison, her life is put into danger when the prisoners stage a riot.

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"This is going to sound weird, but I need to stick this into your eye later in the movie"

There’s only one person who can save her, and that’s lead character Snow (Guy Pearce). Snow used to work with the Special Forces before becoming a ‘loose cannon’. He’s a risky asset, but he’s America’s only hope. How many times have we heard that one before?

Emilie’s life is in grave danger. After all, she is trapped in a prison surrounded by 500 angry men who have just been set free.

Oh, and did I mention that the outer space prison causes the men to develop psychosis and dementia?

Clearly, time is of the essence, and Snow fights his way through the prison in an effort to reach Emilie. Finding her is the easiest part: the hard part is escaping.

Lockout’s traditional plot is saved by a strong lead character. Snow is funny, arrogant, and abrasive, but still manages to be likeable. He has a witty one-liner for any situation and never seems to be caught by surprise. By the end of the movie, I realized he was one of the most entertaining action heroes I’ve seen in recent years.

I also liked Lockout’s self-deprecating attitude. Yes, it’s a cookie-cutter action movie in many respects, but it isn’t afraid to poke fun of itself for that.

In one scene, a Secret Service agent sacrifices himself in order to save the president’s daughter. They are stuck in an airtight chamber that is quickly running out of oxygen. After he shoots himself, the oxygen levels in the room jump back up (science doesn’t play a big role in this movie).

Usually when people sacrifice themselves in action movies to save a buddy, it’s meant to be a tear-jerking moment. In that scene, it felt almost comical, and I can’t help but feel that scenes like this were deliberately sarcastic.

This guy has the most terrifying Irish accent I have ever heard

There’s also a car chase that looks so bad that it needs to be seen to be believed. I think Lockout’s special effects crew had used up their entire budget on shots of the massive space station before realizing that they had one more scene to do. Thankfully, the chase is less than 20 seconds long.

If you look closely, there are even a few homages to Star Wars: A New Hope in Lockout. How do you dislike a movie that pays subtle tribute to a classic like that?

Lockout is a light-hearted way to spend an evening. Its lead character walks a fine line between irritating and hilarious, and there are more funny scenes than there are tense ones. While it still fits firmly into the mould of a traditional action movie, Lockout is well aware of that at all times, and it rarely misses an opportunity to make fun of itself.

If you like an action movie with less intensity and more humor, then Lockout is one to see. It’s cheesy action at its finest.

3.5 stars out of 5

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John Carter

13 03 2012

If you liked Avatar and Star Wars, then you might like John Carter. While it’s not as good as either of those movies, it heavy-handedly tells an epic story about a 19th century Civil War veteran’s trip to Mars.

The storyline is actually adapted from a series of eleven books by a man named Edgar Rice Burroughs. Published in 1917, Burroughs’ work is considered the forerunner of many modern science fiction stories. His first novel, called A Princess of Mars, forms the basis for this movie.

As you may have guessed from the title of the book, John Carter is set on Mars. In the movie, the characters call the planet ‘Barsoom’. It stars Kelowna-born Taylor Kitsch as the title character, a former Confederate soldier who stumbles upon a strange cave in the deserts of 19th century Arizona. Instead of finding gold nuggets, he finds a key that takes him to Mars.

Conveniently enough, Mars and 19th century Arizona are not all that different from one another. At least, not at first glance. They’re both dry, barren deserts that seem devoid of any major settlements.

However, it doesn’t take long for John Carter to meet up with a group of twelve-foot tall barbarian aliens with four arms called the Tharks. Just like the Anasazi in Arizona, these aliens have carved a dramatic looking city out of the sides of a cliff.

That’s not all that the Anasazi and the Tharks have in common. They’re also being pushed out of their land by white men with frightening technology. The two human cities on Mars have been battling for thousands of years, and a dangerous new technology threatens to give one group the upper hand.

John Carter arrives just as this battle is reaching its climax. One group has proposed to end the conflict by marrying a princess (Lynn Collins) to a prince. This seems like a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but, as the movie explains, one group has hidden intentions that threaten to destabilize the planet.

John Carter eventually gets wrapped up in this plot and makes an effort to rescue the princess from her unwanted marriage.

The plot shouldn’t be difficult to follow, but something about the storytelling makes it so. Some key aspects of the plot – like what exactly this strange new weapon can do – are never fully explained. None of the villains are ever fleshed out, and it’s difficult to figure out the reasoning behind many of the characters’ actions.

Fortunately, the storytelling is overshadowed by some fantastic visuals. The human and alien societies are especially interesting to look at. Stunning panoramas reveal massive Martian cities set against the desert background. Unfortunately, these societies are never investigated as fully as in movies like Avatar.

Releasing the movie in 3D was a poor decision. It is used so subtly that it never really adds anything to the movie. And, to make things worse, 3D tends to make many scenes appear darker than they actually are, as if viewing the movie through thin gauze.

This is particularly noticeable in any scenes that take place at night. And unfortunately, some of the most intense moments of the movie occur at night, making it difficult to follow the action. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a good 3D movie, and after watching John Carter, I still think that 3D has a long ways to go before I start to like it.

Like most Disney movies, John Carter has some cute and funny moments, as well as several thrilling action sequences. However, the storytelling and dialogue always seems to miss the mark.

Ultimately, the plotline behind John Carter seems interesting and epic. Unfortunately, Disney’s take on it doesn’t quite live up to the standards it sets for itself. The fantastic visuals and otherworldly setting can’t make up for poor dialogue and heavy-handed storytelling, and John Carter needs a few major tweaks before it can compare itself with films like Star Wars or Avatar.

3 stars out of 5





Project X

6 03 2012

Parents should stay far, far away from Project X.

In fact, anybody who cares about the safety of teenagers should avoid this one. Featuring absurd amounts of alcohol, ecstasy, and cleavage, Project X is the most ridiculous movie of the year thus far.

It starts off a lot like Superbad (I can’t help but compare every teenage party movie to that comedy classic). Three teenagers are tired of being loners at school, so they throw a birthday party that people will never forget.

Thomas, the birthday boy, hosts the party while his parents are out of town for the weekend. His parents tell him he can have four or five friends over, and Thomas agrees. Meanwhile, he tells his friend at school to invite a maximum of 50 people.

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Unfortunately, Thomas’ friend Costa, the chief organizer of the party, tells everybody he knows about the party, including local radio stations, colleges, and even Craigslist. By the time word of the party has spread, over 2000 people show up.

What follows is complete mayhem.

People start jumping off roofs into the pool. A pint-sized security guard tazes a neighbour who shows up to shut the party down. A dog even floats away on a bunch of balloons at one point while somebody yells “It’s like Up!”

To list all of the crazy activities here would spoil the movie, because that is the only content that Project X has. There’s no plot, no meaningful characters, and no semblance of realism. It’s just a bunch of drunken party scenes scrambled together to form a movie.

That’s not really a bad thing, since Project X has plenty of funny moments. The dialogue isn’t always clever, but it’s an accurate reflection of teenage humour, and the bantering between the three best friends is entertaining to watch.

With insults about fat people and mothers flying back and forth between the trio, it’s clear to see that Project X is designed for those who appreciate adolescent humour and slapstick comedy.

However, as funny as Project X can be, it has some serious and unforgivable faults.

First of all, this movie is going to be a nightmare for people trying to limit drug and alcohol consumption in high schools. At one point, somebody plays baseball with a garden gnome that was stolen from a drug dealer (don’t ask). After the gnome shatters into pieces, ecstasy tablets fly everywhere.

In a movie that tries to cross the line at many points, this was the only time I felt that that Project X pushed things too far. It’s uncomfortable watching hundreds of teenagers swarm onto the ground and pop ecstasy onto their tongues like candy.

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Hey kids, when you give ecstasy to 17 year old girls, they take off their clothes!

Second, most party movies suffer from one major problem: it’s more fun to throw a party yourself than it is to watch other people have one. It’s hard to live vicariously through any of the characters when you don’t even know their names, and no matter how ‘epic’ the party is, there’s nothing like being there.

Every party movie has this problem to some degree. However, since Project X is basically 90 minutes of party footage, this problem is especially noticeable.

I’ve never been to a party like the one seen in Project X, and I don’t think I ever want to. Somewhere between the cars driving into pools, the fireworks going off, and the random flamethrower attacks, I think I would die if I had gone to this party.

If you’ve seen the trailers, then you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into: a raunchy party movie with lots of boobs, booze, and bawdy behaviour. If you like watching other people have a really good time, then you’re going to love this movie.

3 stars out of 5





Act of Valor

28 02 2012

After Osama bin Laden was killed nine months ago, there were a lot of questions surrounding the U.S. Navy SEAL team that carried out the operation. Who are they? Where do they come from? What kind of training do they go through?

Act of Valor answers those questions. Produced in cooperation with real members of the Navy SEALs, it follows a team of soldiers as they fight against terrorism. This fight takes them on harrowing missions all over the world, and the audience gets an authentic taste of what it’s like to work at one of the most intense jobs in the world.

The plot isn’t complicated, but it does its job: an arms dealer has created an explosive jacket that can pass through any metal detector. As you can imagine, this is worrying for anybody who likes to fly, or spend time in public places, and it’s up to a team of Navy SEALs to prevent this technology from reaching cities in the United States.

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From Somalia to South America, the SEAL team comes face to face with terrorists in a number of intense firefights. One particularly memorable sequence had the team raiding a jungle compound to rescue a hostage. While a sniper in a ghillie suit provides covering fire, the team quietly enters the compound, neutralizing every narco-terrorist threat along the way.

Every step of the mission is meticulously planned, and even when things go wrong (which they inevitably do) the SEAL team quickly implements a backup plan.

The authenticity ends up being the most important part of the movie. With most movies about war, it’s easy to dismiss the action as being romanticized, over-dramatic, and ultimately, fake. While Act of Valor is no documentary, it has been sanctioned by the Navy SEALs as being an authentic portrayal of what they do on a regular basis.

The directors were so committed to authenticity, in fact, that they used real Navy SEALs in a number of roles. Working alongside professional actors on screen, these men are not even listed in the credits, as they wanted their names to remain a secret.

Some will like the camera angles, and others will not. The directors have used everything from gritty, first-person-shooter angles to shaky over-the-shoulder sequences to put the audience directly in the line of fire. In many movies, camera angles like this make it impossible to see what is going on. Fortunately, Act of Valor is not one of those movies, and I never had trouble following the action.

The first-person-shooter angles will delight fans of video games like Call of Duty. In fact, the entire movie is reminiscent of such games. Characters shout things like “reloading!” and some scenes – like the one that saw soldiers firing weapons out of the back of a flatbed truck – seem to be directly borrowed from Call of Duty.

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The dialogue can be painfully bad at points, but thankfully, there aren’t very many words spoken. The focus is always on getting to the next action sequence as quickly as possible, and, like Call of Duty, the lulls between combat are quickly forgotten.

Whether you call it Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, or Act of Valor, the end result is the same: audiences are treated to thrilling, intense action sequences that will keep them on the edge of their seats throughout.

If you’ve ever wanted to experience the intensity of antiterrorist combat without ever strapping on a Kevlar vest, then this is as close as you’re going to get in a movie theatre.

Verified by the Navy SEALs and chock full of intense gun warfare, Act of Valor proceeds just as you would expect, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

3.5 stars out of 5





Safe House

13 02 2012

Wikileaks has been in the news a lot lately, but have you ever wondered where that info comes from? Have you thought about the stories behind each and every data leak? Hollywood sure did.

The actual stories of data leaks are rarely exciting: an angry employee put some files on a USB stick and took it home. Nobody gets killed, goes on a dangerous car chase, or gets yelled at by Denzel Washington. Instead, that angry employee just gets fired. Good luck making a movie out of that.

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Ryan Reynolds wears that hoodie for the WHOLE movie

As clever readers may have guessed, all of those things do happen in Safe House, which features Ryan Reynolds as CIA agent Matt Weston. Matt is on the bottom rung of the CIA ladder: he is well-educated, but lacks the field experience that he needs to get a promotion. It’s a struggle that will sound familiar to many recent university graduates.

As such, Matt is stuck guarding a lonely CIA safe house in Johannesburg. This is a boring posting, because safe houses are generally only used to interrogate high-profile targets who have been captured nearby. Matt spends most of his workday bouncing a ball against the wall, praying for something exciting to happen.

Fortunately for Matt, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) walks through the door of the safe house one day, escorted by several heavily armed CIA agents. Frost is an ex-agent who turned rogue and started leaking sensitive data onto the black market, and he’s on every intelligence agency’s most-wanted list.

He is also known as an expert manipulator and is one of those guys who always seems to be armed and dangerous – even when he’s handcuffed to a chair and doesn’t have a weapon.

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Ready to kill

Frost has just come into possession of a microchip worth millions of dollars. It contains sensitive data that bad guys are willing to pay millions of dollars for. These bad guys somehow find the location of the safe house and attempt to set Frost free.

As CIA agents rush to defend the safe house, Matt stays behind to guard Frost. As the rookie CIA agent, Matt is clearly intimidated by Frost’s presence, while Frost sees Matt as a pawn that he can use to break out of jail. In just a few minutes, Frost has not only formed a bond with Matt (without Matt even realizing it), but he has also secured his release.

After the pair flee the safe house, Matt must protect Frost until his fellow agents can provide backup. Since the bad guys knew the location of the first safe house, there are no safe places to hide, and it becomes a game of cat-and-mouse.

Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington are very good as the lead roles. Denzel Washington has his usual “don’t mess with me” persona about him, but it fits perfectly with the character. Meanwhile, Ryan Reynolds and his puppy dog eyes are equally as suited to his role as Matt, the inexperienced-but-willing-to-learn CIA agent.

One problem I had with Safe House was that its storytelling seemed a bit off. The plot isn’t very complex, but it does have some twists along the way. These twists are revealed bluntly, with little lead-in or follow-up. While I wouldn’t say the plot is predictable, the twists are executed so poorly that it becomes tough to care about the characters involved.

This problem, combined with an annoying misuse of the shaky camera effect during action sequences, detracts from an otherwise decent movie.

Ultimately, Safe House doesn’t offer anything new to the international espionage genre. It’s good, but not great, and I felt like I was watching a shameless knockoff of the Bourne movies at times. However, with good action movies becoming increasingly rare, Safe House is certainly above-average.

3.5 stars out of 5





Big Miracle

7 02 2012

If you’re the kind of person who would jump at the chance to save a whale, then Big Miracle is the perfect movie for you.

Inspired by true events, Big Miracle tells the story of a family of whales that become trapped under the ice near the frozen town of Barrow, Alaska in 1988. As the hole in the ice shrinks, locals frantically put together a rescue effort.

But can’t whales hold their breath for a long time? Can’t they just bash through the ice using their powerful flukes and fins? Apparently, gray whales are relatively fragile, and are more accustomed to the warm waters of the Baja peninsula than the bitter cold of Alaska, which means that it’s up to humans to save them.

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Leading the rescue effort is Adam (John Krasinski), a young reporter who wants to leave boring Alaska for warmer, more exciting cities in the lower 48 states. Joining him is his ex-girlfriend Rachel (Drew Barrymore), who volunteers for Greenpeace.

To break through the ice surrounding the whales, a massive barge is being towed from nearby Prudhoe Bay. In the meantime, local Inupiat people cut away at the ice with chainsaws to give the whales enough space to breathe.

Soon enough, the president of the United States gets involved, as well as a major oil tycoon. The motivations behind their involvement are clearly explained: the oil tycoon wants to improve his company’s image, while President Reagan wants to boost his Vice-President’s political campaign.

International media outlets also crowd around the small hole in the ice, and before long, the tiny town of Barrow becomes packed with cameras, trucks, snowmobiles, and supplies. It’s a massive rescue operation for just a few whales, but it’s an operation that everybody feels is important.

While Big Miracle has its moments, it never really takes off. The audience is led to believe that the community of Barrow is tight-knit, but we don’t see nearly enough of that in practice. Meanwhile, some of the characters can seem superficial, and it can be difficult to relate to anything going on.

Big Miracle isn’t perfect, but it’s still a decent movie to take your family to on a cold winter night. There are plenty of small, touching moments that will delight audiences. When Rachel dives under the ice for the first time, for example, we can’t help but feel her wonderment as she swims alongside the trapped whales.

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There are also a few good laughs throughout, and the entire movie has a light-hearted air about it. While saving whales is serious business, the characters like to have fun while doing so.

Ultimately, the idea of this movie is good (who doesn’t like rescuing trapped wildlife?) but the execution feels heavy-handed. Dialogue can be downright silly at times, and director Ken Kwapis focuses too much on things that the audience doesn’t really care about.

I’m probably being too hard on Big Miracle. It obviously isn’t mean to be a stellar contribution to the world of film. Instead, it’s a carefree family drama that gently approaches some deep themes, and with enough content to keep both parents and children entertained, you could certainly do worse.

The movie makes the argument that ‘everybody loves whales’. By the time the credits roll, it’s hard to disagree with this statement. While it can be predictable and, at times, boring, there is still some magic to be found beneath the ice.

3 stars out of 5





Contraband

17 01 2012

Movies about smuggling are rare. While organized crime is a popular topic for moviemakers, the act of sneaking goods around customs and border patrol agents has not received the same treatment.

Contraband changes that. Starring Mark Wahlberg as smuggler-turned-family-man Chris Farraday, it’s a gritty look into the world of organized international crime. Yes, it has its faults, but as far as action thrillers go, it’s surprisingly gripping.

Chris Farraday is trying really hard to give up crime. After being a successful smuggler for years, he now runs a legitimate home security business. He has a loving wife and two kids, and he’s happy.

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Things don’t stay that way for long. His wife’s younger brother, Andy, is still smuggling drugs to make ends meet, and when he botches a job – leaving nearly a million dollars’ worth of cocaine at the bottom of the ocean – the leader of the smuggling operation threatens to kill him and his family.

Farraday steps in and makes a deal: if he can pay back the debt within two weeks, Andy’s debt will be forgiven and nobody gets hurt. Making that much money within two weeks isn’t easy in the home security business, so Farraday decides to pull one final smuggling run.

Contraband takes place in New Orleans and Panama, as well as on cargo freighters somewhere in between. The setting doesn’t play a huge role, although there are some beautiful aerial shots of the Panama Canal.

As Farraday travels to Panama to pick up a shipment of counterfeit currency, his wife and kids are at home running from Andy’s boss, who wants his money back as soon as possible. Their separation leads to several gripping scenes, and Farraday frequently has to bark instructions at his wife over the cell phone in order for her to survive.

Contraband, like many movies released around this time of year, is not without fault. It sometimes seems a little too brutal, and nobody likes to see guns pointed at screaming children. Yes, the movie is portraying the life of organized crime, but a lot of the violence didn’t really fit the theme of the movie – which is surprisingly light-hearted at times.

The camera movement can be irritatingly, and inexplicably, disjointed, and whatever feel they were going for with this effect didn’t work. Other minor problems, like having the characters frequently escape from some ridiculously perilous situations, also take a toll on the intelligence of the audience.

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What I appreciated most about Contraband was that it took us into a world that few other movies have gone. Smuggling is a multibillion (if not multitrillion) dollar per year industry. The ingenious ways in which Chris and his crew hide goods from customs agents is one of the most entertaining parts to watch.

Despite its shortcomings, Contraband is above average as far as action movies go. Its plot is easy to follow, but throws a few twists into the mix to keep audiences entertained, and while the acting is nothing to rave about, it does the job.

If you’re ready to take a peek into the dark world of international smuggling, then Contraband will fulfill that need. It’s a little rough-around-the-edges, but if you go in with low expectations (like I did) then you will likely get more out of it than you anticipate.

3.5 stars out of 5