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

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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





The Grey

30 01 2012

I’m usually pretty good at predicting when a movie is going to scare me. The sudden lack of music, the subtle shift of the camera, and the uttering of phrases like, “Is that it?” are all clues that suggest something is going to jump out at you.

The Grey, however, shocked me every time.

Starring Liam Neeson as John Ottway, The Grey isn’t strictly a scary movie. Instead, it’s a survival-horror story about men fighting for their lives after crash landing in the cold, desolate wilderness of northern Alaska.

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Ottway works on an oil rig deep in the Arctic Circle. Like many of his coworkers, he prefers to keep to himself. He keeps his head down and quietly does his job, which consists mainly of hunting wolves that try to prey on rig workers.

However, Ottway is dealing with some serious personal problems. His wife recently left him, driving him into a deep depression. He doesn’t see a reason to live anymore, and he contemplates suicide on a daily basis.

While flying home on leave, the plane carrying Ottway and his coworkers goes down, killing most passengers on board and stranding the survivors in the middle of nowhere. Ottway miraculously lives and, as the only person who knows how to survive in the wilderness, appoints himself leader of the ragtag group.

At this point, I was beginning to think that The Grey was just another plane crash movie. I began to make predictions: some of the survivors are going to die, others will live, and one person is going to make some heroic sacrifice that allows the final one or two men to make it to safety.

Fortunately, The Grey isn’t like any survival movie I’ve seen. Before the men have time to set up a campfire, they become surrounded by a pack of ravenous wolves. Ottway, the wolf expert, claims that wolves have a 300 mile hunting range and a 30 mile kill range around their den. If the plane crashed in the wolves’ hunting range, then they should allow the men to pass through.

You can guess what happens if they’re in the kill range.

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As the men struggle to outwit the wolves, the combination of desolate winter conditions and raw fear start to chip away at their sanity. Since The Grey made me jump more than most horror movies I’ve seen lately, the adrenaline starts to pump, and the audience ends up feeling like they are there with the men, huddled by a campfire fighting for survival.

Suddenly, each crack of a tree branch gets your heart racing, and each wolf howl sends chills down your spine. These scares force you to pay attention, and fortunately, The Grey is a movie that deserves your attention.

Fear does strange things to the men. Some crack immediately. Others drink. A few put up a mask of false confidence. And some, like Ottway, choose to fight. The motivation behind each character’s actions is revealed in a surprisingly subtle way, and director Joe Carnahan is able to draw plenty of emotions out of the audience by the time the movie concludes.

The characters approach their philosophy in a very ‘real’ way. The men don’t speak eloquently: they’re rig workers, not poets, after all, and this makes the entire storyline more relatable.

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another survival-horror movie. But it’s not. With deep, moving characters and a compelling theme about struggling against all odds of survival, The Grey goes above and beyond what I expected of it.

Ultimately, it made me appreciate life a lot more, and it’s easy to see the entire storyline as a metaphor for survival against any adversity. No matter where you are in life, that adversity is something we can all relate to.

4.5 stars out of 5

 

 





Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

23 01 2012

When watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, you’re going to want to do one of two things: press the fast forward button, or press the rewind button.

Those who enjoy it will want to rewind to catch up on any scenes that they may have missed, while those who dislike it will be waiting a tortuously long time for the movie to end.

Most spy movies (I’m looking at you, James Bond and Jason Bourne) have lots of guns, girls, car chases, and explosions. Unfortunately, the real world of espionage isn’t quite as entertaining. Instead of constant action, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy features middle-aged men sitting in a soundproofed room arguing whose source is better.

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Shut up. My source is better.

Obviously, each type of movie has its audience, and if you’re not willing to sit through 2 hours of dialogue – as good as that dialogue may be – then you shouldn’t see this movie.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is based on a 1974 novel by John Le Carré. It’s the Cold War, and there is a mole within the very upper ranks of Britain’s MI6 spy agency. A former spy, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), is brought out of retirement in order to investigate.

Since the mole is supposedly placed in the very highest echelon of MI6, it can only be one of four different people. These men are code-named Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, and Poor Man. Smiley’s investigation forces him to revisit his past, and the plot twists and turns, and then twists some more, to eventually reach its conclusion.

It’s the kind of movie that rewards those who pay close attention and harshly punishes those who don’t. Brief, five-second scenes can have a profound impact on your understanding of the plot, and you can’t afford to let your mind wander.

Turning a classic novel into a 2-hour film is undoubtedly a challenge, which explains why the film version is so densely plotted. Where other directors might have lengthened it to 2.5 or 3 hours, Tomas Alfredson is able to squeeze it all into a relatively short timeframe.

Gary Oldman’s performance deserves to be mentioned, and his portrayal of the lead character, Smiley, is completely convincing. Smiley doesn’t speak very often, and the audience is forced to rely on minute facial expressions and body language in order to fully appreciate the character.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was released in a selected number of North American theatres a few weeks ago, and the general release was delayed until this past weekend. After watching it, I can understand why: while it will appeal to some people, modern audiences may be frustrated by its slow pacing and unforgiving plot density.

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Ultimately, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a movie that you will either love or hate. If you pay enough attention to understand what is going on, then you will be rewarded with a powerful character piece and an engaging, intelligent storyline.

If, on the other hand, your attention lapses for a few minutes, and you suddenly have no idea why anybody is doing anything, then you’re going to wish you had seen a movie like Haywire or Contraband tonight. Like I said, each movie has its audience.

In an age where studios often choose glitzy and brainless movies over powerful and intelligent ones, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a refreshing change from the norm. If you feel like giving your brain a bit of a workout, then Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one to watch.

4 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

 

 

 

 





The Devil Inside

9 01 2012

I’ve never heard a theatre audience get so angry about the ending of a movie. Just before the final credits of The Devil Inside started to roll, people were already talking about how much the movie sucked, and cries of “that’s it?!” were heard around the theatre.

It’s unfortunate, because the rest of The Devil Inside was almost half-decent.

The storyline follows a young woman named Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade) as she travels to Italy to visit her mother, who was convicted of murdering three clergy members twenty years ago. The clergy members were trying to perform an exorcism on her, and now she’s locked up at a psychiatric ward in Rome.

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As with just about every horror flick nowadays, there is a movie being filmed within this movie. Film director Michael Schaeffer is following Isabella to film a documentary on her story. He interviews the characters along the way in order to make what they are thinking even more obvious.

After arriving in Vatican City, Isabella receives a crash course in exorcism. She attends a lecture at a fictional ‘exorcism academy’, where she meets Ben and David. David (Evan Helmuth) is a medical doctor who suddenly decided to become an exorcist, while Ben (Simon Quarterman) comes from a family of Catholic priests.

Unfortunately, the courses at the exorcism academy consist entirely of theory. Ben and David prefer a more hands-on approach, and they become involved with Isabella’s story.

The movie isn’t always scary enough to make you jump, but it definitely has some creepy moments. The first live exorcism that we see is disturbing (in a good, horror movie kind of way), and I had chills running up and down my spine throughout the scene.

However, there are only a couple moments like this, and the movie struggles to develop any intensity or emotion outside of these scenes.

In fact, the only time I really jumped had nothing to do with exorcisms. Instead, it had everything to do with a barking dog. And no, that’s not a spoiler. In fact, I can virtually guarantee that anybody who sees this movie in theatres will jump at a barking dog, even if you know about it in advance.

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The ending cannot be ignored. While many horror movies have a sudden ending, it usually occurs after a clear and obvious climax. The Devil Inside doesn’t have that. Instead, the action rises steadily before suddenly cutting out, which is a good way to make audiences despise your movie.

Ultimately, The Devil Inside feels like it was written, directed, and produced by students in a high school drama class, who then hired their parents to act as the stars.

While it has a standard horror movie premise and some entertaining moments early on, the rest of the movie is average, and it culminates in an ending that insults the intelligence of audiences. Unless you’re a big fan of exorcisms, it’s tough to recommend this one.

1 star out of 5