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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Critical Mass

'The Vow' fails to live up to its promise, critics say

February 10, 2012 |  3:29 pm

The Vow

On paper, the new film "The Vow" might seem like a rom-com juggernaut. The film boasts swoony leads Rachel McAdams ("The Notebook") and Channing Tatum ("Dear John"), writing alums from "My So-Called Life" and "Valentine's Day," and a story inspired by true events: a newlywed couple trying to reconnect after the wife suffers accident-related amnesia. But while "The Vow" appears poised to win the box office this week, critical reaction to the film has been lukewarm.

In a mixed review, The Times' Betsy Sharkey calls "The Vow" "a movie that leaves you wanting more. To care more, to cry more, to love more." While Sharkey commends Rogier Stoffers' cinematography, Kalina Ivanov's production design and Jessica Lange's supporting performance, she also writes that "The problems start with a very lopsided script." Four people share the screenplay credit, Sharkey notes, and "you feel their separate sensibilities fighting for control." As for the lead actors, Tatum fares well enough, but McAdams is given less to work with ("a lot of smiles and blank stares") and thus feels wasted.

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'Chronicle': Teen superhero flick is time well spent, critics say

February 3, 2012 |  3:01 pm

Chronicle

Ever since the 1999 indie hit "The Blair Witch Project," found-footage-style films — which purport to document extraordinary events on home video — have been a popular subgenre, particularly in the realm of horror and monster movies. Recent examples include the "Paranormal Activity" series, "Cloverfield" and "The Devil Inside." The new movie "Chronicle" tweaks the formula with a superhero slant and some teen angst, as three high-school dudes record themselves gaining telekinetic powers and trying to keep them in check. The result is earning favorable reviews.

The Times' Betsy Sharkey finds "Chronicle" to be a fresh take on an established format. She writes, "While ['Chronicle'] might sound like just a YouTube/Facebook variation on the old coming of age story, it plays far fresher than that with filmmakers proving innovative in using the found-footage idea that made 'The Blair Witch Project' such a sensation." Sharkey commends "the keen eye of cinematographer Matthew Jensen" and says "the three teens are a well blended crew, anchored by [Dane] DeHaan, who strip mines the trajectory of teen repression, resentment and rage with a frenetic energy." Sharkey does say the film "is still rough around the edges and a little off the rails by the end," but overall it fares well.

New York Times critic Manohla Dargis calls "Chronicle" "a slick, modestly scaled science-fiction fairy tale with major box-office aspirations." Like Sharkey, Dargis applauds DeHaan, "whose vulnerability and physical awkwardness here can evoke the young Leonardo DiCaprio in 'What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,' and who "pulls you uneasily in." Dargis also compliments director Josh Trank's savvy visual treatment, noting, for example, that the film receives an effective image upgrade when DeHaan's character replaces his video camera with a more expensive model. In addition, the character's telekinetic use of his camera (handheld with no hands, you might say) leads to some imaginative cinematography.

In the San Francisco Chronicle, Amy Biancolli writes that "this brisk, brusque, disturbing little flick also deconstructs the conventional superhero narrative and reassembles it as a canny discourse on impulse control and the troubled teen psyche." What begins as "a goofy and infectious thrill" eventually "veers to the dark side," Biancolli says. Along with well drawn characters and convincing special effects, "Trank tells his tale with an emotional and visual crispness that gives the superhero genre its best crack at naturalism so far."

USA Today's Claudia Puig says the film "comes together surprisingly well under the inventive direction of Josh Trank and the capable storytelling of Max Landis, son of filmmaker Jon Landis." While Trank's direction keeps most of the film feeling grounded in reality, Puig writes, the finale, "which features spectacle in the form of major destruction around the streets of Seattle, grows almost numbing in its Godzilla-like extremes."

Among those less impressed by the film is Time's Richard Corliss, who deems "Chronicle" "simultaneously diverting and annoying." Corliss also says the found-footage approach, which requires that a character bring a camera everywhere, renders the film "sillier than it needs to be at times." 

And the New York Post's Kyle Smith offers this quip: "Attempting to blend a cinematic smoothie out of 'The Blair Witch Project' and 'Superman,' the movie instead feels more like what would happen if 'Jackass' suddenly started thinking it was about the nature of evil, with Johnny Knoxville mouthing quotations from Schopenhauer and Jung."

Now that would really be something. Who knows — maybe they're saving Knoxville for "Chronicle 2."

RELATED:

'Chronicle' director: Our film isn’t about good vs. evil

'Chronicle': Viral stunt takes flight in Manhattan [Video]

'Chronicle': Like 'Paranormal Activity,' but with superpowers?

— Oliver Gettell

Photo: Dane DeHaan in "Chronicle." Credit: Alan Markfield / Fox


'Haywire': Soderbergh thriller a cracking good time, critics say

January 20, 2012 |  2:44 pm

Haywire
Back in 2010, rumors swirled that director Steven Soderbergh would be retiring from filmmaking soon and focusing on painting. Since then, though, he's been as busy as ever, releasing the pandemic thriller "Contagion" in September and finding a new muse in the female mixed martial artist Gina Carano, who makes her theatrical debut in Soderbergh's first spy flick, "Haywire." The film, which opens today, has been appraised by many critics as well-crafted and entertaining, if not especially profound.

The Times' Betsy Sharkey declares that "Haywire" is "less a tightly plotted action film than an excuse to showcase Carano's substantial fighting skills." While the film doesn't represent the best work of either Soderbergh or screenwriter Lem Dobbs ("Dark City," Soderbergh's "The Limey"), Sharkey says it's neither's worst effort, and watching Carano kick butt "is thoroughly entertaining, highly amusing and frankly somewhat awe-inspiring." Also helping things along are Soderbergh's trademark dry humor ("dry, bone dry, 0% humidity dry") and "sheer technical wizardry."

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'Contraband' deals in illicit fun, not substance, critics say

January 13, 2012 |  2:59 pm

Contraband
After the end-of-the-year wave of prestige pictures and award-seasons hopefuls, the popcorn-movie machine is ramping back up. Case in point: "Contraband," the new heist flick starring Mark Wahlberg as a reformed smuggler pulled back into the underworld to bail out his hoodlum brother-in-law. The film, a remake of the 2008 Icelandic thriller "Reykjavik-Rotterdam," is receiving mixed and mostly moderate reviews.

Times film critic Betsy Sharkey deems "Contraband" a "very gritty bit of greased action [that] does a decent job of shaking the sluggish out of January." Wahlberg succeeds in "making lethal look neighborly and necessary," Sharkey says, and he pulls off the role of both man's man and ladies' man. Director Baltasar Kormakur, composer Clinton Shorter and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd all perform adroitly; only "screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski, in his feature debut, piles on a few too many new twists." All told, " 'Contraband' is an action-junkies playground. In January, sometimes that's enough."

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Meryl Streep wins over critics as 'Iron Lady' Margaret Thatcher

December 30, 2011 |  8:36 am

Mery Streep in 'The Iron Lady'
Much like "J. Edgar," the new biopic "The Iron Lady," starring Meryl Streep as onetime British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, features an A-list actor portraying a controversial figure of the 20th century over the course of many years, in an attempt to shed light on a complex subject (and presumably to snag some awards gold). Film critics are praising Streep's performance in "The Iron Lady," which opened Friday in Los Angeles and in New York, though some other aspects of the movie are not faring as well.

The Times' Betsy Sharkey calls the film "a memory poem" and "a movie that is highly personal in every sense of the word." Rather than exploring Thatcher's politics, the movie "instead offers up an affecting if not always satisfying portrait of the strong-willed leader humbled by age." The production design and makeup are well done, and the most striking aspect of the film is "Streep's uncanny ability to disappear inside her characters," Sharkey says. "But if you come expecting keen insight into the intrigues of her very long political life, or even something as simple as why the Soviets dubbed her the Iron Lady, consider a trip to the library instead."

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'War Horse' offers old-school polish and emotion, critics say

December 23, 2011 |  2:06 pm

War Horse
"War Horse," Steven Spielberg's second horse in the awards season race, arrives on the heels of his animated film "The Adventures of Tintin." A drama about the special bond between a boy and his horse separated by the horrors of World War I, "War Horse" is based on the 1982 children's book by Michael Morpurgo and its recent stage adaptation, a huge success in London and New York. Reviews for "War Horse," which opens Sunday, have been favorable, though not faultless, with many critics commending Spielberg's classical approach.

Times critic Betsy Sharkey says the film "has the sweep of a classic John Ford movie, the sentiment of Frank Capra and a spirited steed named Joey who will steal your heart. The film itself … is more difficult to love." Structurally, Sharkey says, "War Horse" is "the purest sort of love story," following the traditional three-act structure of introduction, separation and reunion. It's slow to start, "with the earlier scenes flat and too many subplots … that don't pay off," but the pace picks up when the war begins. Ultimately, Sharkey says, it's Joey's film: "The incredible emotive power of this horse and the way in which the filmmakers were able to translate it on-screen are what stay with you."

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'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' is cool and crafted, critics say

December 21, 2011 | 10:52 am

Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The story of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" has captivated audiences twice already in recent years — via Stieg Larsson's Millennium novels and their Swedish film adaptations — and introduced an iconic heroine in hacker Lisbeth Salander. Now David Fincher's new English-language version has the challenge of bringing Salander to life while bringing something new to the table. For movie critics, how well Fincher and his team fared depends on who you ask.

The Times' Kenneth Turan finds the film too frigid, writing that the combination of Fincher's steely precision and Larsson's bleak source material "feels, in a coals-to-Newcastle way, like shipping truckloads of ice to the far reaches of the polar regions." Turan also takes issue with the film's handling of Salander, whom he says is the heart of the franchise. Actress Rooney Mara "clearly did everything her director asked of her," Turan writes, "but this film's cold, almost robotic conception of Salander as a twitchy, anorexic waif feels more like a stunt than a complete character, and so the best part of the reason we care enough to endure all that mayhem has gone away."

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'Chipwrecked': Alvin and other chipmunks are lost at sea, critics say

December 16, 2011 |  2:11 pm

Chipwrecked
When it comes to movie franchises, many series seem to stumble on the third film. Now the same fate as "The Godfather: Part III" and "Return of the Jedi" appears to have befallen "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked." The combined live-action and CGI adventure about singing furballs and their human caretaker being stranded on a desert island has not fared well at all with movie critics.

The Times' Betsy Sharkey says the "Chipmunks" series "may have finally run completely aground," with its latest installment lacking the "inspired silliness" of the previous films. Despite "Chipwrecked" boasting the comedic talents of Justin Long, Amy Poehler, Anna Faris and Christina Applegate, Sharkey says, "their presence basically goes for naught, with any identifying traits or emotional range lost in the helium squeak of that trademark chipmunk sound." Sharkey also laments the film's pop song covers — until now a funny highlight of the series, but in this case "terribly tame."

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'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy': engaging espionage, critics say

December 9, 2011 |  2:07 pm

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The new Cold War spy thriller "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" had its work cut out for it, first in condensing the 400 pages of John le Carré's 1974 novel into two hours of screen time, and then in surviving comparisons to the beloved 1979 BBC television adaptation. But with an ensemble cast led by Gary Oldman as a veteran British spy hunting down a double agent, the film is garnering many positive reviews.

The Times' Kenneth Turan says "Tinker Tailor" is "endlessly rich in incident, atmosphere and personality, a film that leaves us hanging on by the barest skin of our teeth as we try to figure out who is doing what to whom and why." It is, Turan writes, "perhaps the great spy tale of our time." Calling the film "masterfully directed," Turan praises Swedish director Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In") and his handling of "a superb ensemble cast." Screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan also score points for "artfully compressing" Le Carré's novel.

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'Shame' can take pride in its performances, critics say

December 2, 2011 |  3:33 pm

Michael Fassbender in Shame
Much ink has been spilled over the rare NC-17 rating of the new drama "Shame," which stars Michael Fassbender ("A Dangerous Method," "X-Men: First Class") as a solitary sex addict whose life is disrupted by the unexpected appearance of his troubled sister, played by Cary Mulligan ("Drive"). After earning praise and sparking debate on the festival circuit, "Shame" opens in select theaters Friday, and so far movie critics are calling it a compelling, if difficult film with powerful performances.

The Times' Kenneth Turan calls "Shame" "a psychologically claustrophobic film that strips its characters bare literally and figuratively, leaving them, and us, nowhere to hide." He commends Fassbender, who brings "commanding magnetism and intensity"; Mulligan, who delivers an unflinching performance; and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, whose minimalist styling complements British director Steve McQueen's vision. Though Turan finds some plot elements unclear or contrived, these are "minor quibbles." In the end, Turan writes, "'Shame' is "difficult to watch but even harder to turn away from."

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