Wonder Woman (****1/2): It’s about what you believe

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Wonder Woman – 2017

Director Patty Jenkins
Screenplay by Allen Heinberg
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis

It’s a miracle that it took 4 movies for the DC Extended Universe to finally find a gem upon which to place its foundation.  This is the film that should shape the rest of the series if they want to find their way out of the muck and mire of the previous entries. There has been much film making talent exhibited, but no one has told a half-way decent story until Patty Jenkins and Allen Heinberg shepherded the story of one of the archetypal heroes of the last 100 years into an approachably human tale of horror, frailty, heroism and the power that compels the best in all of us: love.

The story in brief is a flashback to the events in and around WWI, where a spy (Pine) is shot down over a mystical island sanctuary of Amazon warriors, lead by a Queen (Nielsen) and her supreme General sister (Wright). The Queen’s daughter, Diana, formed out of clay and given life by the dying light of Zeus, has been groomed as a defender of the planet by her aunt, and somewhat hidden by her mother. The presence of the spy changes everything, and sets Diana off on a mission to end the war to end all wars by taking on Aries, the God of War.

The strengths in this film are many. The casting of Gadot by team Snyder might be the best thing they’ve brought to the DCEU. She is one of the brightest lights of BvS, and this story allows us to find the motivation behind her mysterious debut in that film. We see every side of her here and Gadot hits every destination in the path on the super hero journey. She shows more range than most are allowed when they wear ridiculous outfits. Hers is a fully fleshed and feeling character that uses the emotions on her sleeve as a strength of her character. She acts as a passenger of the story when necessary, but when action is required, she literally steps onto the field and changes fate, rather than surrender to it.

This is a film I am glad I saw with my girls, because while I wanted to show them women could be heroes too. When I left, I realized that I had been duped. Instead of seeing a film in which a girl acted more powerful than men, we all saw a hero that did the things in ways and for reasons that only women would do. In the end, Gadot allows herself to learn lessons without condemning herself for what might be conceived as mistakes. Everything she does is with a soft nature that is simultaneously lethal. She is here to punish the punishers, but she’s also here to gaze with wonder at the beauty of living. This is such an intricate balance to achieve, I am astounded at the performance. It’s truly a star making role that in my estimation is worthy of a nomination for an Oscar as any comic based film ever has seen since Christopher Reeve’s Superman.

This says nothing about the exceptional physicality that Gadot expresses as the Wonder Woman of the title. It is obvious that her training as a member of the Israeli military. She is a physical specimen and is enjoyable to watch as a believable warrior. There are only a few times where they make her look goofy (long jumps especially). Her actions in going house to house saving the small town are delightful and epic as any super deserves.

Having the right kind of character to counter a super is essential. As Steve Trevor, Pine has found his second great role. He is a dedicated warrior and he plays as good a mentor for the human race as Diana of Themyscira could ever want. When he breaks through the mystical barrier (somewhat weakened by Diana’s discovery of her powers, presumably) he sets off a series of events that forever changes the future of the Amazon princess, and humanity. His dedication to mission parallel’s Diana’s own, even if they are not going after the same target. It’s the difference in target that allows his character to be more than Wonder Woman’s rib, to cross reference with the Bible. Along the way, they are somewhat equal but with different roles to play.

Pine has the right kind of assured persona to play a unique second fiddle. He is not a super power, but he’s got pluck and genuine feelings for Diana, that she learns to appreciate and reciprocate. Jenkins is a pro when it comes to the development of their relationship. We see it for a romance, not for a function of plot. It’s hard to disguise something you’ve seen 1000 times and make it feel fresh. And it takes a supreme confidence to make a passionate climax to said relationship and have it shown as a light in the window on a cold night.

Jenkins’ touch is exquisitely ornate. We get a real sense of the human tragedy in such a gruesome war with a minimal amount of blood and carnage. She shows herself  and cinematographer Matthew Jensen as masters of camera placement. There is no better example of this than when Diana rushes headlong into a town that has been bombed with poison gas. We get only the barest hint of the wasted lives but the full effect of horror just by watching the consuming grief on Gadot’s face. It’s a misery worthy of Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.

Just as effective is the sequence towards the end when we see what it means to sacrifice with no chance at escape. The effect of the decision of both leads could not have been more effectively exhibited or embraced by the camera.

The rest of the cast is as well-chosen as played. Robin Wright is never onscreen enough. I found myself as fascinated by her scar ridden beauty as I was Charlize Theron’s Aileen Wournos in Jenkins’ other masterpiece, Monster. Jenkins and Wright know as much about telling us the story that took place off-screen as the one that took place in front of us.

Where the heck has Neilsen been?  I am happy for her inclusion, as I thought we’d never stop seeing her after her breakthrough performance in Gladiator. Then we stopped seeing her. She did very little between 2006 through 2014, but she’s getting a lot of work lately. She will be in the upcoming Justice League film and hopefully subsequent Wonder Woman sequels.

Pine’s rag-tag United Nations team is interesting if for no other reason they provide things besides muscle and firepower. Giving one of them PTSD and how Diana helps the character find a use beyond it is a refreshing departure from the stereotype.

Danny Huston hits the right note as General Erich Ludendorff, a vile and despicable real life predecessor of the Nazi movement. His work with the fictional Isabel Maru (Anaya) succinctly represents the horror that emanates from that part of the world for the first half of the 20th Century. Huston is often the best thing in bad films. This time he is a good thing in a great film.

One of the big strengths of the film is the writing of Heinberg. He really understands the journey a hero has to take to be developed into an interesting character involves more than figuring out how the weapons and the outfit works. In blending the bad characters within the framework of actual events, he is able to give strength without having to go too far to find examples of how evil works its mechanations on us mere mortals. Giving us a devil hiding in plain sight as a whisperer is a stroke of genius. Too bad they didn’t let that impulse ride to a better showdown.

The film is nearly a masterpiece, were it not for some unfortunate computer animation choices towards the end. Making the final combat a collection of big, bigger and biggest strikes is a little too close to BvS territory, when a battle of wits would have more effectively matched the tone of seduction that was being applied. It’s almost someone in the producer’s office said “Yeah, that’s nice. But more explosions would be better.”

It’s not always better. In fact, it never is anymore. If we follow the feeling that Jenkins took time to formulate and sculpt in the future, this could show the redemptive force of a woman that comic book movies could really use.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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Hell or High Water (****1/2) is a bummer, well played

hellorhighwater

Hell or High Water – 2016

Director David Mackenzie
Screenplay Taylor Sheridan
Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Marin Ireland

“The things we do for our kids, huh?”

Two brothers seeking vengeance on a bank that tried to take everything from their mother. A Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement out for one last adventure with their partner. One wonders, not too hard, where this will end up. The first half of the film is replete with images of West Texas citizens buckling under a debt that seems insurmountable. Why is this? Don’t worry, you get plenty of chances to see.

Toby Howard (Pine) is living on his mother’s property after she has passed away. His ex-wife (Ireland) and two boys live near by, toiling in poverty for his inability to provide since he lost his job as a natural gas driller. The property is about to be reverted to the Midland Bank after a reverse mortgage and other shady dealings I could not explain to you even if I worked in the finance industry.

Toby’s brother, Tanner (Foster) has been out of prison for a year. This doesn’t dissuade him from following his brother’s plan of robbing sever Midland Bank branches to get the money they owe, pay the debt and leave it to Toby’s kids. Tanner is not the most patient person, but he’s not dumb. It’s important to know why he went to prison.

Bridges is Ranger Marcus Hamilton. He dreads the idea of retirement, if for no other reason than it will take him out of the game and away from his half-breed partner Alberto Parker (Birmingham). The interactions between the two is worth the price of admission. It’s also quite interesting to see how they piece together the evidence into an educated guess as to where the robbers may strike next.

Sheridan – whose previous work on Sicario shows that he is on a higher plane – shows similar ability here. Mackenzie is best when he lets off the gas a bit and allows the viewer to come to the point instead of being thrust into it. The story is a tad heavy handed in the first act. Eventually the sentiment is dripped out in small enough doses as not to drown the viewer with good intentions. Mackenzie frames Foster and Pine a little too much like poster boys for GQ Old West. This is remedied by the time we see a wonderful sibling moment at a gas station when stopping in for a Dr. Pepper.

Toby goes in to get his brother the drink. Inexplicably, a musclehead arrives in a muscle car. The musclehead starts something from literally nothing and before Tanner lifts a finger in reaction, Toby decimates the jerk completely.

Toby’s reaction when he opens the bag is priceless.

There is not one bad move in the last two acts. Birmingham and Bridges especially make a subtly remarkable team. It’s obvious these two have shared many miles together and it would be nice to have seen more.

The end of the film goes from absolute bummer, to fist pumper to a remarkably tense stand off of a kind not seen since the end of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

If you don’t like Sicario, this may not appeal to you either. It is arid and somewhat hopeless, depending on what you feed off of in a story. There are not many winners and losing is leavened only with the prospect of a future showdown.

(****1/2)

Star Trek Beyond (****) feels like films before

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Star Trek Beyond – 2016

Director Justin Lin
Screenplay Simon Pegg, Doug Jung
Starring  John Cho, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, Lydia Wilson

There is a scene it Star Trek First Contact when, for the second film in a row, they are on the verge of destroying the Enterprise.

Crusher: So much for the Enterprise E.
Picard: We barely knew her.
Crusher: You think they’ll build another one?
Picard: Plenty of letters left in the alphabet.

Including all television series, there have now been 6 times in which the Starship Enterprise has been destroyed. Some of these have been undone by time travel, but still, the bell has been rung enough to train Pavlov’s dog by now. Like those mutts, we keep coming back, thinking we’ll get another morsel or two. Those morsels can sustain us through some lean times (Star Trek V and more recently, Into Darkness) and they also have become an easy dramatic ploy that takes the wind out of the sails of what could be better stories (Generations and Star Trek III) if they had tried a little harder.

This time, the Enterprise is sacrificed to do a little of both. The story is a weak one: a nondescript bad guy (Elba in a wasted role) wants revenge. How the story is told is a good, sustaining nugget that reminds us why we go back to the well over and over.

The story starts out with a turn of Kirk the diplomat. His efforts to offer a piece of an ancient indeterminate space weapon fall into a chaotic fight. This is drawn for laughs, but it falls a little flat when they try to mess with visual perspectives.

We see that the ship has fallen into a routine on the 3rd year of its 5 year mission. This routine works for many, but Kirk and Spock are both looking over the fence, metaphorically speaking. The ship docks at the new starbase Yorktown. Seperately, Kirk and Spock seek out other options unaware of each other’s plans.

While here we also see Sulu, his mate and their child. This is a passing glance, but it made a big news splash when announced in the press tour. That Sulu is gay was a bone of contention for some, including the man (Takei) who originally played him in the series. Everyone who knows Takei understands the irony of his position. Pegg defended the decision, but honestly it’s hard to cite the source (Gene Roddenberry) for his opinion. For me, it seemed obvious by Sulu’s sense of fashion in Star Trek III if nothing else. Really though, where else but Star Trek?

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An escape pod arrives with a tragic tale being told by its survivor (Wilson). The Enterprise is sent out on a rescue mission. What it sees when it gets there has been shown through perhaps the worst ad-campaign for a good movie in years. Why they show you the destruction of the Enterprise and at the same time play Sabotage in the movie’s first (Super Bowl) ad, I will never understand. They could have shown many other things and the movie would have been much better anticipated and received.

Why and how Krall goes about his quest for vengeance is so inventive, it makes one wonder why he didn’t just do it years and years ago. Then, I suppose, he wouldn’t have been able to meet up with Kirk and company. Krall himself is not all that interesting as a bad guy. He’s kind of a combination of Insurrections Ahdar Ru’afo and Nemesis’ Shinzon. This translates to: not memorable and redundant. He has one agent working for him that is effective, however, in the ability to act as a chameleon.

Faring better this time is the tried and true method of breaking up the team into smaller segments and letting those smaller teams bond and coalesce into examples of forward thinking. This process worked well for many of the best Star Trek films in the past (IV and First Contact in particular) as it allows screen time and genuine moments to occur.

Pegg and Jung flesh out better performances by members of the cast short shrifted by the last film (especially Urban’s McCoy) and Lin keeps the action frenetic while allowing the natural wit of the cast acting out Pegg’s script to shine. My heart hurts seeing Yelchin shine as Chekov. His exuberance is engaging and it is sad to know this is the last time we’ll see him in uniform. Live Long and Prosper, Anton.

For everything but the lack of a compelling and properly motivated malevolent force, we have a good movie. Star Trek is not all of the way back, though. All movies except for Star Trek The Motion Picture and IV: The Voyage Home have relied far too heavily on having bad guys seeking vengeance. If they really want a challenge, they should try doing something more esoteric. It didn’t work with the first picture, but it wasn’t because of the plot. It was instead, the concentration of long, silent space scenes in a failed attempt to capture some sort of Kubrickian wonder.

There is an old ship, that lay dormant for years that is discovered in the midst of the chaotic pace. That ship has a story that is only touched upon for purposes of pushing forward with the action at hand. How and why that ship was there for so long is what I wonder about as the last act of the film takes place. What happened to its survivors?  They tell you what they want you to know. It would be more interesting to find out more about their story.

If you want to go where most Star Trek helmers have gone before, Lin is a great choice. His kinetic energy ramps up Abrams action 10-fold. Everything is a pleasure to look at, and he does not waste a single shot. The space fight in the last act is a pleasure both visually and sonically. It would have been even better if they hadn’t let that first trailer out. Only the start of the motorcycle ride looks out of place.

Star Trek in the movies is not a place of wonder and exploration anymore. It’s a jarring, violently paced existence. Do you ever wonder why Quinto’s Spock is not as curious as he is furious? It would take Paramount studios a tremendous amount of courage to go with a story that explores instead of pillages. This reviewer is ready for that type of film.

Even so, this one will suffice for now.

(**** out of *****)

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit needs to retire

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – 2014

Director Kenneth Branagh
Starring Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley
Screenplay Adam Cozad, David Koepp based on characters created by Tom Clancy

Once upon a time, this was a good series looking to become great.  About the moment Harrison Ford offered up a check from the U.S. Government to purchase a used Helicopter, it didn’t seem like Jack Ryan could get any cooler.  That was 1994.  Then, they released The Sum of All Fears.  Jack Ryan was younger, dumber (Affleck) and could not keep a dirty bomb from going off in the U.S.  That should have killed the franchise.

Twelve years later Jack Ryan is even younger (Pine), and supposedly smarter.  He’s some sort of financial guru now.  He’s done a tour in Afghanistan and a decade on Wall Street.  He can recognize interesting flight patterns as well as unnamed Russian bank accounts.  Thomas Harper (Costner) recognized his greatness though, and recruits him to join the CIA, and go to Russia to confront some bad guy (Branagh)  who is a Russian patriot.  Add to this Cathy Muller (Knightley), a “brilliant” doctor who fell for Ryan Florence Nightingale style and us there mainly to be a distraction in the second and third act.

Elements of all the spy junk is present here.  Sleeper cells, financial terrorism, Russians, bombs, Napoleon’s Waterloo and well intentioned but clueless agents.  There is only one person who will save the day, of course.

When The Hunt for Red October came out, there was pretty much James Bond and Jack McClane.  Since then, we’ve had too many more heroes to count.  Bond and McLane are still making films, but so are Bourne, Ethan Hunt, and even Agent Cody Banks got 2 films.  At the point where it takes several re-writes and there is no original source material to go off of, perhaps it’s time to retire the character.

There is nothing technically wrong with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.  Branagh directs this film with a minimal amount of flair, no doubt a natural reaction to his last film, Thor.  Whereas that film had the benefit of a magnificent turn by Tom Hiddleston as the bad guy, Branagh himself adds very little to the proceedings as an antagonist.  There would seem ample motivation for his character, but it’s hard to feel on the screen.

Costner and Pine are pretty low key in their roles as mentor and recruit.  There is a minimal amount of screen time dedicated to what his specialty is, and even less time dedicated to explaining what they are trying to prevent.  You know they’ve given up when they spend the last 20 minutes trying to prevent something from going “boom.”

The saddest part about the Ryanverse is that there was never a concerted effort to keep the same guy playing the character.  Even though his films were the best of the series, they backed themselves into a corner when they replaced Baldwin with Harrison Ford.  They were backed into a corner at that point, age wise.  When they moved the series from Ford to Affleck, it was like the raising of  a white flag.

This film just feels like they are waving the flag a little.

(*** out of *****)

Star Trek Into Darkness: Going where they’ve gone before

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Star Trek Into Darkness – 2013

Director J.J. Abrams
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Alice Eve, Peter Weller, Noel Clarke, Nazneen Contractor
Screenplay by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof

One of my favorite aspects to the Star Trek reboot (my very first review on this site) was the fearlessness with which they shed the mortal coil of the original timeline and gave themselves a brand new start with a thin, but strong connection to the past.  They even had the temerity to destroy the planet Vulcan.  Talk about no going back.  The end of the first film has the Star Fleet pretty much decimated, but The Enterprise still in one piece.  They should be the flagship for new adventures.

Frustratingly, Star Trek Into Darkness ignores these advantages and pretty much leaves The Enterprise hobbled to what lingers in the past.  We see what seems to be a mission of an undiscovered planet which is improbably undertaken.  Employing useless subterfuge, the crew is left with no option but to violate the prime directive.  There is a bunch of exposition that makes it seem like these were the only options, but, come on, it’s Star Trek.  Beaming should and could solve most things.  The Enterprise did look cool coming out of the ocean, however.

Who's the hot chick?  Not sure.  Let's let her on board to do Spock's job.  Okay.
Who’s the hot chick? Not sure. Let’s let her on board to do Spock’s job. Okay.

Back at Star Fleet HQ, we see Admiral Pike browbeating and then demoting Kirk, only to give him a chance back on The Enterprise before you realize it has happened.  This is just the first plot contrivance, so hang on.  Within a couple of shakes, we have Scotty kicked off the ship, a blonde bombshell “science officer” who checks in as okay with the two highest ranking members of the crew to board, and finally The Enterprise broken down in Klingon space.  After a purely expository fight with just enough Klingons to kill without starting a war, a clearly superior bad guy gives himself up after hearing some very specific information about the weapons on board Kirk’s ship.  Then, once the stowaway is revealed, they put her in charge, along with Bones, of seeing what those bombs are made of.  Sounds logical.

Too much talking, not enough thinking
Too much talking, not enough thinking

Speaking of logic, we find Spock battling with his desires even more this time around, and it’s not entirely clear why.  He seemed pretty well centered at the end of the last film.  More debate on the good of the one versus the good of the many ensues.  Haven’t they covered this stuff before?  Although I really don’t want to fault Quinto for it.  His Spock is certainly entertaining, even as a whirling dervish of emotion who keeps trying to ignore his human half.  The original is still better, but applaud Quinto’s effort.

Pine works the hell out of Kirk this time around.  He puts everything he’s got into it it.  He looks foolish a lot of the time, but given the road map to his character is Shatner, its still an upgrade.  The only thing he lacks that Shatner eventually mastered was subtlety.  As the Vulcans say: “…only Nixon could go to China.”  He will get there too.  In the meantime, he provides the pulse of the story, and because he believes this stuff, no matter how preposterous, we kind of do, too.

Bones is still magnificent.  He’s around mainly to throw one liners into the ether.  He does this as well as DeForest Kelley ever did.  He also manages to show the compassion that we so expect from the cantankerous Doc.  Urban is one of the better character actors of our time.  Its a shame we won’t see him in RED 2.

Saldona’s Uhura is the biggest single change between the two timelines.  This time around, we don’t have to worry about the shame of kissing a black woman on-screen (like there could ever be any shame in kissing Saldona), so they’ve gone inter-special and let ‘er rip.  The fight between her and Spock makes as much sense as anything in this plot, and taking her on these away missions doesn’t really detract anything, because she portrays herself so intelligently.   I would not mind her in a fight, even if I am not crazy about the Captain and Spock going on the same away missions.

Scotty and Sulu have their moments of solid ingenuity and bravery, even if the former’s happenstance is riddled with coincidence.  Sulu as third in command gives credence to both Cho and his predecessor George Takei’s confidence as an eventual leader.  Nicholas Pegg’s Scotty is such an inspired character, he feels underused no matter how much screen time they give him.

Chekov, however, is a mess.  Yelchin does what he can, but the way Kirk throws his character around in this one lends no credence to either the Captain nor the young Ensign.  The only possible explanation for promoting an Ensign to Chief Engineer over, say, the second engineer in charge, is for screen time.  Just because one studies something over the summer does not mean they should be placed in charge.  Well, unless that person is Tony Stark.

Cumberbatch does as much as he can with a role that is cornered by the past.  He may have been even more interesting if they had not chained him down with clever twists and instead given him more of an unleashed feel.  As soon as one knows who John Harrison is, though, they are no longer wondering what will happen.  They know what has to happen and hope that the film makers will be clever enough to avoid retracing better, more original steps.

They sure know how to show off a Starship
They sure know how to show off a Starship

Having Spock scream, however, was the worst.  It gives one pause when they realize that Abrams said he was not a Trekkie when he took the reigns of the franchise.  It’s not enough that they had him do it, but they really had not given him a precedent for why he would do it.  If he did not do it when his planet was destroyed, why now?

Of course the viewer would love to scream at this point.  We’ve seen enough apparently useless information spewed forth to realize what our smart, logical Vulcan is not allowed to realize, and the result is cheapening.  It cheapens the sacrifices, the reactions and the chase.  Why would one go after a man, when they have what he wants?  Even more, he’s already given up once for it.

All of this takes away from a movie that is still quite entertaining.  Even though our characters are abused by coincidence and irony more than in any Thomas Hardy novel, they still are good at what they do.  They are not aping the behavior of their counterparts.  They are living it.  The visual effects are astounding, unsurpassed by any Trek film and on par with Star Wars.

What are we left with?  Is the visual feast and the camaraderie enough to override the silly plot that is too clever for is own good?  Why the heck are we treading over familiar ground, with these twists, when the last film set us up to beat out-of-town and go for broke?  The work of Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof has been subject to criticism before, but this time it feels like they played it a bit safe.  They made the characters work really hard to ignore the obvious to do it.  There is a lot of talk at various points about The Enterprise being selected for the “five-year mission.”  Silly me, I thought they had already taken off.  Seems like they were stuck in port all along.

(***1/2 out of *****)

People Like Us is not quite like us, but it is getting there.

People Like Us – 2012

Director Alex Kurtzman
Starring Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jon Favreau, Philip Baker Hall, Michael Hall D’Addario, Mark Duplass
Screenplay Roberto Orci, Bobby Cohen, Clayton Townshend

There is a scene near the beginning of People Like Us when we find out about the father of  Sam (Pine) for the first time.  His father, a pioneering producer who missed it big, has been stingy with his affection, his money and his time throughout Sam’s young life.  Now, in a diner, the lawyer for his father gives the son that which does not seem to be right compensation.

“I let your father borrow the suit he was married in,” said the lawyer with the typical low-key brilliance that Philip Baker Hall, “I never saw that suit again.  Then I got the bill for the catering.”

Great, I thought, just like my friend Joey.  Cheap begets cheap, though, and his son, who is running out of money fast, feels a slight relief when he finds rolls of cash inside of a shaving back that he was given in his will.  This relief is offset almost by a note that the money is for a relative he never knew he had.  He meets the mother of this relative, finds that she is on the ledge of alcoholism.  Even so, he might just keep the money.  The movie’s drama is built on that “might.”

Pine tries to put the fun in “messed up,” and I do realize that’s not the right word for the phrase.  His character comes across as a less intense Tom Cruise circa late ’80’s.  He is a smooth operator, but not that smooth.  He practices lying on his mom, which must have been a habit he learned when he was much younger with his Dad.  She never buys it of course, and hardly anyone else does either.  Now he’s being forced to learn, grow, and…eventually hug, I am sure.

He enters the life of his half-sister and nephew peripherally at first.  This is, of course, so he can learn they are wonderful, they can learn he is wonderful, and then everyone can be offended later for a false crisis.  Then the hug, I am sure.

The film treats addiction like a plot point, as there are scenes where one character talks about the struggles and then in later scenes we see another character get hammered, and then, if that were not enough, spend time smoking a “J” with his mother.  This is so the two can get into the deeper levels of communication, which involves more yelling.

Elizabeth Banks’ performance as the sister is slightly more nuanced.  She seems every bit the part of a busy single mom, struggling to control the effects of her past on her present and future. Since her discovery in The 40 Year Old Virgin, her workload has been steady and has improved just as steadily.  The performance is not necessarily Oscar worthy, but she is heading in that direction.

The contrast portrayed between Pine and Banks has a sort of resonance.  One can see the joy that Sam is bringing into the lives of Frankie and her son, but when the gift you bring into a situation is deception, there is not much to build on.  While it is a predictable avenue, Pine, and in particular Bank’s performance give it more heft than one would expect.

As his girlfriend, Hannah, Wilde provides a Greek Chorus type of voice to the person she knows best.  Her moves in the film in the film are a tad unusual for the plot, but more effective than the normal harping one would see in a film like this.

Pfeiffer has a real, ragged look to her.  It’s a look I appreciate.  She is in a new phase of a career which, in the tradition of Searching for Debra Winger, might well be over by now.  I hope she continues to seek out these smaller roles, because even in one ridden with cliche as this one could be, she adds a strength and frailty to them which can only be shown with life experience.  It’s time to have a female Clint Eastwood.

So why did this film tank?  With all the acting prowess of Banks, and to a lesser extent, Pine and Pfeiffer, the creative combination of Orci and Kurtzman, two men behind much of J.J. Abrams best work and a soundtrack by A. R. Rahman that ekes along, gently moving the story at a pace that gives it a subtle strength?  All of this is good, but not great. And a little slow, according to my wife.  It’s as simple as that.

(*** out of *****)

This Means War is way better than the trailer

This Means War – 2012

Directed by McG
Starring Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Reese Witherspoon, Til Schweiger, Chelsea Handler, Angela Bassett
Screenplay by Timothy Dowling, Simon Kinberg

The weakest part of any screenplay is when one uses words for exposition when actions could do it much more effectively.  Lines like “This is a covert exercise” and “You know I’d take a bullet for you” don’t really prove anything other than a lack of imagination of those telling the story.  In the worst omen possible, this movie starts off with these types of nuggets.

Reese Witherspoon plays as Lauren Scott, who, the film makes obvious, is on a dry run.  This is something she can portray in her sleep.  Chelsea Handler, as her best friend, Trish, sets her up on a web site.  Then in a circumstance that only could happen in a movie, she meets both of the protagonists, CIA Agents, FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) within 5 minutes.  Stupid thing is, she was on a “successful” date with Tuck just 5 minutes before deciding to rent a movie, by herself.  Whereupon, she meets and is pursued by FDR.  This is not exactly a “meet cure.”  More of a meet forced.

The commercials for this film made it seem as though things were going peachy between Lauren and both of her suitors, and they relentlessly went after her and each other in an antagonistic way.  The movie takes a bit more leisurely way to the destination, thankfully.  Tuck is portrayed as an old-fashioned romantic, and FDR is more of a smooth player, and both fit within that role.

Things get ridiculous quick enough, and the use of CIA resources and staff seems silly, to be honest.  In the midst of it, they have a “mission” which requires that they occasionally go out and kill a few guys with Russian accents once in a while.  Having Trish along as Lauren’s motivator gives a pleasant and believable enough contrast to her situation.  It’s during one of their discussions that the film has its most amusing line,  while discussing the drawbacks to each character.  Lauren looks to Tish and says that Tuck, well, is “British.”

The action sequences are what one might expect from the director of the Charlie’s Angels movies and the unduly maligned Terminator Salvation.  Pine and Hardy are quite believable in the physical demands of their roles.  Hardy, in particular, has a hilarious interchange with a group of kid paintball players.  While most fans of these actors are looking forward to their next features, Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises and Pine in Star Trek 2, they are worth the price of admission here.

For her part, Witherspoon is not well served by the commercials for This Means War.  She has a unique, believable beauty which is relatable, but hardly the type of woman who would stand as a sex symbol for two men of the world.  When the film moves beyond its clunky beginnings, telling us instead of showing us, she is able to express herself as the well-rounded actress that she is.

Angela Basset, unfortunately, is wasted.  Easily the best actor of the entire bunch, she is made into a one-dimensional grouch here.  She might as well have been played by a mannequin.  One will have to watch Boyz In Tha Hood, City of Hope, What’s Love Got to do with It and Akeelah and the Bee to cleanse their palate of her obnoxious character here.

The trailers in no way do this film justice.  Aside from the bad lines here and there and the completely miscast Angela Basset, the film works, in a date night sort of way.  My wife liked this film, but I liked it more.

(***1/2 out of *****)