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Majestic Preview: The Lincoln Lawyer

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After a week given over to the combined Joe Brogie shows and Grease Sing-Along, the Majestic Theater is offering The Lincoln Lawyer.

Summer blockbuster season started up last weekend with the release of Fast Five, so if you’re dreading another summer filled with explosions and screen-saturating CGI effects, the Lincoln Lawyer offers a smaller film experience of the sort you find in the in-between movie seasons, where characterization and nuanced stories have a better chance.  That doesn’t mean The Lincoln Lawyer skimps on the show.

The cast is deeper than the material, starting with Matthew McConaughy in the title role, Mick Hall, a cynic’s defense lawyer who know how to work all the billing angles and will take on any client.  Supporting McConaughy are several actors who would run away with the movie if they had been given more bandwidth, including William H. Macy as Hall’s investigator, Marisa Tomei as a D.A.’s office lawyer and ex-wife to Hall, John Leguizamo in a small part as a bond bailsman, and Ryan Phillipe as a dubiously earnest defendant.  Rounding out the cast are a couple of “oh-yeah” notables: Frances Fisher as an unusual helicopter mom, Josh Lucas as Hall’s adversary in the courtroom, and Trace Atkins as the front man of a motorcycle gang.

The story comes from Michael Connelly, who’s written lots of books I’ve never read but have noted in the bookstore for their prime shelf-position.  It is a story about lawyers and the movie can’t help but drift into a sort of complicated narrative that works better in prose.  Suffice it to say, I hit a point where I didn’t see how Mick Hall was going to extricate himself from his situation even though I knew he was bringing something to play.  The Lincoln almost rolled off its wheels in the last act, threatening to leave everyone unsatisfied.  Fortunately, the very lasts scenes return to a proper or, at least, completed ending.

Given a history of nothing-characters often stuck opposite the rom-com-of-the-moment starlet, it’s nice to see McConaughey get a role that suits him well.  Believe it or not, the man can actually act.  Perhaps he’s gaining the advantage of a bit of age, his presence on screen communicates a sort of harried unevenness, rather than the rock-solidity of a pretty-boy leading man.  He makes great work of portraying a character that doesn’t have the luxury of character-developing dialogue other than establishing a weird middle-ground that exists between him and his ex-wife and an obvious penchant for hard alcohol.

There is a great film to be found in this material, but The Lincoln Lawyer, while being a decent homage to the compromised heroes of film noir, misses the mark.  A longer treatment might have fleshed out more of the supporting cast and the moral ambiguities of the situation.

See Also

To build upon my comparison to characterization from film noir, I can’t help having a Samuel Fuller itch to scratch after watching The Lincoln Lawyer.  A darling of cineastes largely ignored by the general public, his stories have a kinetic realness mixed with subtle questions of justice.  From my viewing experience, I can recommend Pickup on South Street and The Crimson Kimono.

Marisa Tomei’s had a nice mid-career resurgence in the past several years, the hallmark role coming in The Wrestler.

And my left-field pick is Wallander, the six-episode series featuring Kenneth Branagh aired on Masterpiece Theater in the U.S. and now available on DVD.  Taking a longer pace, this is a good example of how a complicated leading character can be developed as well as providing plenty of plot movement.

Written by Bill

May 5, 2011 at 7:59 pm

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Majestic Preview: Diary of a Wimpy Kid Rodrick Rules

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You know I couldn’t pass it up.

In disclosure, I have not seen the first Wimpy Kid movie, although I did read the book.  I thought the book was entertaining, but didn’t see much point in reading the two (at the time) sequels.

The premise is understated and deceptively rich:  a seventh-grade Greg Heffley keeps a diary about the travails of growing up, weird parents, and the difficulty of being the middle child.  In the second installment, Greg’s parents have decided that Greg and his brother Rodrick must get along better.  Complicating issues is Greg’s motley crew of friends and the arrival of a new girl at school who catches Greg’s eye.

There is a lot to like in this Wimpy Kid film as it finds a sweet-spot between being to patronizing to children and boring adults.  The kids are all genuinely portrayed, despite the tendency of Greg’s narration to exaggerate.  Steve Zahn, playing Greg’s father, does some great face work as the silent backup to his wife’s tirades.  Best of all, when the boys break loose during the party sequence when their parents are away, it’s still sufficiently tame that parents needn’t worry about the film setting a bad example.

See Also

While animation seems to have over-run the family-movie genre, occasional mostly-live-action films like Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief make for decent, if not outstanding entertainment.

Written by Bill

April 22, 2011 at 1:11 am

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Majestic Preview: Limitless

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Another Thursday viewing this time.  Let’s talk about Limitless.

Limitless is a non-parable about self-improvement via pharmaceuticals.  Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) plays the lead reformed-schlub and provides copious voice-over narration.  He is a writer who doesn’t write, has lost his girlfriend (played by Abbie Cornish, Bright Star), and has an apartment a few 90-degree days away from becoming a Superfund site.  A chance encounter with his ex-brother-in-law provides the impetus to the story, in which Cooper quaffs his brain pills and normally does really smart things.  Along the way, we see a slightly-stiff Robert De Niro posing as a financial titan who has the capital Cooper needs to implement some ill-defined master plan.

This movie careens from incident from incident, sometimes with a sort of whimsical, willful transgression, and other times with plot-expedient-arbitrariness.  Director Neil Burger is a bit too enamored of tinkering with color palettes and fish-eye sequences, giving the film a techno-dance-club headiness that can be grating.  Burger has pulled the rug out from beneath the viewer before, in The Illusionist from 2006.  While I preferred The Illusionist over its premise-doppleganger from the same year (The Prestige), I’m not sure whether Burger has yet managed to establish a habit of great film execution.

As for the performances, they are adequate.  Cooper’s face, with the help of post-production, manages to span the cognitive gulf that is the dim-witted-non-pharmaceutically-enhanced slob and the wunderkind charmer.  Abbie Cornish plays a solid, mature woman, which is new territory for her, having produced a string of school-girl performances in Bright Star, Sucker Punch, and A Good Year.

Unfortunately, the story of Limitless is bound to irritate people who expect their plots to be well-constructed, sensible, and internally-consistent.  That doesn’t stop the film from being a great popcorn entertainment.  For example, the utterly ludicrous sequence in which Abbie Cornish makes creative use of figure skating to resolve a situation is a great wink to the audience.

Be warned that the following paragraph has several plot spoilers.

The trouble with a device like a smart-pill, is that it’s easy to paint the story into a corner.  Cooper’s magic drug puts him “Fifty moves ahead of everyone”, except for the screenwriter, who must compromise the internal consistency of the film to provide tension and advance the story.  At its worse point, Cooper’s supposed genius mentions that another character came out of nowhere, and yet fails to make the connection that this rival also has access to the wonder pill, while the audience should pick it up immediately.  Also unsatisfying about the story is the fact that there are a few loose ends–what really happened with the girl found dead in the hotel room?  We can only assume Cooper killed her and has escaped consequences, since it’s never established that the antagonists are responsible.  What is Cooper’s master plan, to which he refers in the prologue scene?  All  we can gather that it involves politics from the final scene, but there is no payoff.

Be warned: if you are sensitive to violence, there are a few moments which are gruesome towards the end of the film.

See Also

If you’re interested in a thriller, can tolerate a bit of science fiction, and are willing to pay attention, I recommend checking out Source Code, now in theaters.  Critics have complained about the ending, but it’s nowhere near as egregious as the sloppiness of Limitless.

The best Abbie Cornish role I’ve seen her perform is in 2009’s Bright Star, directed by Jane Campion.  If you have a taste for visually-lush costume drama, it’s definitely worth seeking out.

Having a literary stylishness, featuring morally-ambiguous protagonist(s), and a nice ending plot twist, I can’t help but think Fight Club was the sort of film Limitless was trying to be.  Another Chuck Palahniuk adaptation, Choke, also features Sam Rockwell as another hideous man.

Written by Bill

April 15, 2011 at 12:55 am

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Majestic Preview: Rango

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It’s another week and another film at the Majestic.


Rango is an unusual film, in that it’s an computer animated film with plenty of kinetic energy for young audiences, but delivers its best flourishes that only a niche audience will appreciate.  It tells the story using a wide selection of small fauna, including various rodents, lizards, and the occasional amphibian.  The protagonist Rango is voiced by Johnny Depp, who leads a surprisingly deep voice cast including Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Timothy Olyphant, and Ray Winstone.  In fact, there are so many different inhabitants of the town of Dirt, that it can be difficult differentiating the minor characters.

The story is as uncomplicated as one expects in a children’s film, in which Rango is deputized after killing a hawk that has plagued the town.  He must save the town by discovering what happened to the water supply.

The richness of the texture work on the character models gives a nearly photo-realistic appearance to the film, which also means there’s a lack of cuteness, outside of Rango’s asymmetrical form.  I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would take me to locate a broom, should I find a Rango-critter on my porch.  Younger children may also find the bad-guy rattle snake, voiced by Nighy, to be a bit too scary.

Despite everything working in its favor, including a focus on ensemble-performance of the voice characterizations, Rango seems to have just missed the cusp of success.  Even the numerous cross-references to other films and a general send-up of the western-stranger-comes-to-town genre can’t quite deliver.  Maybe they should have gotten Clint Eastwood’s help.  Rango, fails by a small margin to a level of greatness in animation often seen in the films of Pixar, like Wall-E or Ratatouie, or the best work from other animation houses like How to Train Your Dragon or Despicable Me.

Perhaps it is worse to fail by a small margin than to fail so utterly.  Don’t get the impression that you should, under no circumstances, go to this movie.  Rango is good for its breed and an engaging hour and forty-seven minutes.  Keep a sharp eye out in the Ride of the Valkyries chase sequence, which is the best action set of the film.

See Also

To properly orient yourself to the narrowly-defined western subgenre in which a stranger comes to town, check out classics such as Shane, Bad Day at Blackrock, and Pale Rider.

As it’s referenced heavily in one particular scene, watching Rango is a great excuse to dust off Apocalypse Now for its Ride of the Valkyries sequence.

The first Toy Story is also a stranger-comes-to-town story, making it closely related to Rango in plot and animation.

Written by Bill

April 5, 2011 at 6:34 pm

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Majestic Preview: The Adjustment Bureau

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Hello film fans, it’s a new week and a new film for the Majestic Theater in Wayne!  This preview is brought to you by the hyphen, for all your word-linking needs.

The Adjustment Bureau

Let’s get it established right now that The Adjustment Bureau is a science fiction film.  Perhaps one may also view it as a spiritual film, but it is not overtly so.  Even though the original story of The Adjustment Bureau comes from the mind of towering-science-fiction-idol Philip K. Dick, it’s not a ray-gun-oogy-alien-iPad-red-shirt science fiction story.

Matt Damon (the Jason Bourne films) takes the lead in this story, as a bad-boy politician in the middle of a scandal derailing his senate run.  At the worst moment of crisis, in which he take a moment to compose himself in the bathroom before giving his concession speech he meets Emily Blunt’s  (Young Victoria) intriguing party crasher.

As the story unfolds, we start to see how Damon is managed clandestinely by an inconclusively-defined group of beings referred to as the Adjustment Bureau.  Among their behatted ranks are front-line agents played by Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) and John Slattery (Mad Men).  More senior and certainly more scary is Terrence Stamp as a sort of heavy-handed fixer that reminds me indirectly of a fellow played by Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs.

The motivation of the story is that Damon’s character has fallen in love with Blunt’s character, even through the Adjustment Bureau is determined to keep them from ever meeting again, in order to maintain “The Plan”.  This is more than a first-college-then-job-then-marry-then-kids-then-midlife-crisis sort of plan.  I won’t spoil the plot further, but will admit that the sort of questions raised by the film regarding free-will might put you into an existential crisis, if you’re prone to such things.  All the best science fiction runs that risk.

The Adjustment Bureau is not a great film for all time, but it is a very capably executed film with a kinetic flow which builds slowly throughout the run time.  The only real sin committed by the director is to require Matt Damon to wear a fedora a few sizes too small.  It is a plot necessity, so we must all endure.  I feel that this film perhaps would have done immensely well had it been made in the nineties, but the target market for old-school-small-scaled-what-if science fiction has just grown up and/or old in the new century.

Everyone acquits themselves admirably on screen, although I find myself again flummoxed by Emily Blunt, of whom there never seems to be enough when she’s working at her top ability.   Mackie shows hints of great potential; this role has officially put him on my radar.  I’m also curious to see what first-time director George Nolfi will come up with next.

See Also

Emily Blunt has been stealing a scene here and there, most notably in The Devil Wears Prada.  For leading roles, I suggest digging up My Summer of Love for the edgier material, or Young Victoria for more safe territory.

Anthony Mackie might have been overlooked in all the hoopla over The Hurt Locker in 2009.  Renner was clearly doing excellent work, but Mackie was instrumental in contextualizing the Renner’s character.

Philip K. Dick’s works have spawned a number of science fiction films, the best of which is almost certainly Blade Runner.  Also worth checking out are Minority Report and Total Recall, the latter for which I must admit an embarrassing affinity at odds with my normal preferences.

Written by Bill

March 29, 2011 at 8:57 pm

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Majestic Preview: I Am Number Four

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It’s right up against the first showing, so you Thursday night folks might miss out on today’s preview.

This week at the Majestic Theater is…

I Am Number Four

(Rated PG-13)

If you know much about my personal film preferences, you might wonder, “why in the world is he writing about this movie?”

Let me enlighten you.

I watch a lot of movies and I take a fair amount of care to select things I’m bound to enjoy and/or from which I will learn something new.  Nonetheless, I do believe that almost every film ever made has something that justifies it.  Sometimes, it may be something as transient as an accidentally well-composed frame of New Jersey industrialia like what one would see in Sandy Hook Lingerie Party Massacre.  Not that I have ever seen Sandy Hook Lingerie Party Massacre.  You’ll never get me to admit it.

I Am Number Four is not a film targeted at my demographic.  If you fancy yourself a sophisticated viewer of movies, you’re bound to find the plot predictable, the stereotypes of high schoolers tired, and the action not very engaging.  As Timothy Olyphant is the biggest actor attached to the project, there are not any high-value marquee actors to watch at work.  So what does I Am Number Four offer?

The story is, in its largest strokes, similar to the Twilight films.  We have an alien from an advanced race hiding out on earth played by Alex Pettyfer (also in the recently released Beastly).  He is being chased by another alien race with gills on their noses, bad head tattooery, and trench coats.  Naturally, he chooses to hide out in a local high school where he can brood, have trouble avoiding fights with the local bully (Jack Abel, Percy Jackson), and make doe eyes at the arty girl (Dianna Agron, Glee).  Also on his trail is another of his race, a tough gal numbered Six (Theresa Palmer, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice).

Your intrepid author even attempted to read some of the source material for this movie, the book book of the same name.  I gave up thirty pages in, but I can honestly say the movie improves the experience.  It is competently made, sufficiently performed, and the special effects look as if proper care was taken.

It’s easy to lament the multi-plex model of film distribution, which seems to have reduced the film-going public to a single teen-aged demographic and given us a stream of screeching banshee films for short-attention spans.  At least a film like I Am Number Four doesn’t pretend to reach for every audience.  I can see that it should work well for its teen-aged fans, and I shouldn’t begrudge it.  If you like a little science fiction and action, go see it, even if you need to leave your expectations at the door.

See Also

The presence of Jack Abel wasn’t the only thing about I Am Number Four that reminded me of Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.  It’s another juvenile/young adult film that could be considered a bit underrated.

Twilight, duh.

I cannot recommend highly enough Easy A, which knows more about the social life of teenagers than all of the Twilight-grade high school fantasies put together.

Written by Bill

March 25, 2011 at 12:21 am

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Majestic Preview: The King’s Speech and Gnomeo and Juliet

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Showing at the Majestic from March 17th to March 20th is a pair of very British movies, The King’s Speech and Gnomeo and Juliet (in 3D).

Let’s start with the wee tots’ fare.

Gnomeo and Juliet is an animated version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which has been through more cinematic interpretations than any sane person can count.  The gimmick, this time, is to tell the story for a younger audience through garden gnommery.  Yes, those little tacky garden gnomes with the pointy hats, who apparently need to make up for the income lost from pitching for Travelocity.

For those deficient in the finer experiences in life, the story is about the doomed love of the title characters, who come from two different, feuding families.  While tension escalates, they dream of escaping their dilemma and being together forever.  Best of all, the star-crossed lovers never get to the let-down stage of normalcy in their relationship.

Like the best of Shakespeare, there’s plenty of death to go around, and it’s the major thing you’ll notice missing in this child-friendly rendition.  Gnomeo and Juliet side-steps this issue in a funny meta-technique, in which the bard (or rather, his statue) is brought forth into the story and told “That’s a horrible ending!”

Central to the movie is the music provided by Sir Elton John, who also was the executive producer.  The lyrics have occasionally been refit to support the story, so the purist might find the presentation grating.  Sometimes, I felt it was lost in the jumble of overloaded visual action.

Voice characterizations are provided by a solid ensemble of British character and costume drama actors, including Emily Blunt, James McAvoy, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Patrick Stewart, Stephen Fry, and…um…Dolly Parton.  Oh yes–I’m lying about Stephen Fry.  They must have locked him out of the building, since he seems to be in everything made across the pond.

I think Gnomeo & Juliet is average fare for children–they’ll probably enjoy it but won’t want to get the DVD and play it on endless repeat for the next three mispent years of their adolescence.  Unfortunately, in a trend I’ve noticed with many films, this movie reaches a bit hard for the adult audience, mostly through a series of clever Shakespeare cross-references.  It works for me, but I’m the guy who took the senior Shakespeare class in college for fun, even though I was a math major.

And where the heck was Kenneth Branagh?  I thought he held all the Shakespeare licensing…

Did you know that King George VI had a bit of a speech impediment?  Did you know that The King’s Speech won the Oscar for Best Picture just last month?  Did you know that Colin Firth looks all hunky when his shirt gets wet?  Now it’s your chance to see and judge (except for the wet-shirt, see “see also” below for further guidance).

The trailer lays out the premise of The King’s Speech quite adequatly, so let’s just say that the King (Colin Firth) needs help and he gets it from Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  The queen (Helena Bonham Carter, apparently all screamed-out from the Harry Potter films) facilitates their meeting and working together and provide wholesome moral support while the entire country moves into an inevitable conflict with Germany.

Tom Hooper directs, and it’s not surprising how successful this film is given his recent C.V., which includes the mini-series John Adams and The Damned United, which is the best soccer movie you’ve never seen.  In all three films, Hooper displays a fundamental understanding of the historical film form–that when you find the interesting truths about history, you don’t need heavy contrivances to make them engaging for the viewer.  Tell the story and don’t get too cute.

Honestly, I can say that if you’re the kind of person who likes movies like The King’s Speech, then you’ll like The King’s Speech.  If you are one of those people, you know what I mean.  I have a certain weakness for British costume drama, which often has good production values and makes use of a really strong cohort of British actors.  Along the spectrum of British costume drama from the past ten years, The King’s Speech comes solidly in above median–better than The Young Victoria, probably not as good as Romola Sadie Garai’s recent Emma mini series.

The heart of this film is the friendship and trust that grows between Logue and George.  The former is prone to unconventional behavior and therapy techniques, and eventually wears down his patient.  It retread a similar lesson to other films about power, that people in powerful positions are humans and sometimes need friends.

Backing up the central trio is a very solid supporting cast, which includes Guy Pearce, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Gambon, Dereck Jacobi, and Timothy Spall.  Ironically, Ehle and Firth are kept apart through most of the film, since Logue must keep the King’s confidence, but when they do finally share the same space on screen, it’s a nice moment to remember their pairing in Pride and Prejudice.

In short, neither of this weekend’s options is a bad choice and there’s a little something for everyone.

See Also…

The most essential Romeo & Juliet on film is Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo & Juliet, which won Oscars for Cinematography and Costume Design.

There isn’t really an obvious recommendation I can make for very-young-audience Shakespeare, but most production-code era films are relatively benign, such as those maid by Welles or Olivier.  There are some very indirect Shakespeare adaptations geared towards high school age audiences, such as 10 Things I Hate About You and O.

People who have somehow missed most of Colin Firth’s career until this point should start with the BBC television Price and Prejudice from 1995, which absolutely put Firth on the map.  From there are plenty of other options, only one of which I wish to strenuously suggest skipping (St. Trinian’s).  You should also take in the other role for which Firth would have won an Oscar, in A Single Man.

If you’re new to this whole British costume drama thing and suddenly want more, I might suggest starting something recent and popular, like Emma (2009) starring Romola Sadie Garai, before moving into the obscure, like She Stoops to Conquer (2009).

Written by Bill

March 14, 2011 at 9:42 pm

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