Monthly Archives: August 2011

Columbiana (2011)

Apparently, Columbians and several academic professors of Columbian descent have taken offense with the implications of the new action film from the stewardship of producer/co-writer Luc Besson (name a French action movie from the last 20 years and he’s likely had some hand in its development). The criticism being drawn is that Columbiana paints an unflattering picture of life in the South American country of the, almost, same name. I suppose that could be one charge against the film, but why be so limiting? Columbiana doesn’t make anybody look good, except for its star Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Star Trek), who could even stand to eat a few more sandwiches if you ask me.

10-year-old Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg, soon to breakout in a big way as Rue in next year’s Hunger Games) has the misfortune of watching her parents gunned down in front of her eyes. Her father ran afoul with the local drug lord, though we’re never told why. The drug lord’s main henchman, Marco (Jordi Molla), is looking for a microchip Cataleya’s father gave her. The girl stabs Marco in his hand and leaps out a window, darting through the streets of Bogotá with goons chasing after. She makes it into a U.S. embassy and offers up this microchip filled with significant data (what we’re never told) as her passport to America. She eventually finds her way to Chicago, where she lives with her Uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis, doing an accent on loan from Scarface). She wants to be a killer to avenge her parents, and her uncle agrees to help. Flash forward 15 years, and the adult Cataleya (Saldana) is working as a hired assassin. Her calling card is painting the cataleya orchid on the chests of her victims. Why? To attract attention from the right parties. She’s playing a dangerous game, as they always do, romancing an artist (Alias’ Michael Vartan), staying a step ahead of the authorities, and working her way up the Colombian goon food chain to get back at Marco and his boss.

This is one of the dullest action movies I’ve had the privilege of sitting through. I was actively counting down the minutes until it would be over about halfway in. It’s not because Columbiana is particularly bad, it’s just so staggeringly routine, a French-styled action thriller cobbled together from the leftover bits of previous French-styled action thrillers (take one part La Femme Nikita, some faux Professional gravitas, add some District B13 parkour, how about a few outlandish Transporter getaways, and bake for 30-40 minutes). There are a few decent action sequences but lots of time in between, time that lets the film’s momentum lag and allows space to start contemplating all the questionable aspects of the picture. There are so many lazy, recognizable pieces onscreen, from the idiot FBI agents, who are always late on the trail, to the underwritten romantic love interest who is only there for booty calls and to accidentally be endangered, to the oblique bad guys who are just bad, and sometimes rather bad at being bad. These guys couldn’t outrun a 10-year-old girl in Columbia, what makes me think they’ll get their act together and take out the adult version? And I absolutely hate it when movies, set in other lands, have the characters speak one line in their native tongue and then transition immediately into English spiced with the occasional foreign phrase. Columbiana has the notoriety of making me yearn for the days where a female assassin picking off men twice her size was a novel concept/image.

Turn after turn, beat for beat, the plot has characters behaving in contrived ways because the story would not work without these contrivances. Cataleya says she’s an expert killer, but much of her expertise involves an insane number of coincidences and variables that are impossible to account for. We’re talking about the bathroom habits of guards, the amount of coffee consumption, the placement of specific prison cells, the precise number of guards and their own attention spans, the fact that every single person would not notice security cameras being messed with, and even nitty-gritty stuff like the amount of water in a plastic cup and the exact size of a hole that would allow the right amount of liquid to drip and pool into a spoon. Not to mention the fact that this also works on the assumption that police finding a plastic cup and a spoon inside a security panel would not find any of this suspicious. What the hell? That’s not rigorous planning and flawless execution? That’s divine intervention and/or good luck. At least in other hitman films that would study their prey to make it look like an accident. Not our Cataleya. She’s been taking out goons and leaving her calling card in an effort to attract attention from a certain Columbian cartel leader. The problem is that it takes her 15 years and over 22 murders before her skills attract media attention. That’s a frustration that the Son of Sam might identify with. But how would murders in Chicago attract attention in Columbia?

The only thing noteworthy for an enterprise that is so inherently generic is the weird moments that catch your attention. First, Saldana’s emaciated, wiry, potentially malnourished frame certainly draws your attention. Has there ever been a skinnier assassin on screen? There’s a reason that this woman is able to constantly squeeze inside air ducts and other cramped spaces; she’s practically a contortionist with her body. Now the actress has always been petite but her diminished physicality makes everything she does seem so much less believable. When she’s slinking around with a humongous assault rifle, you’d think the rifle weighs more than Saldana. And then when she engages in hand-to-hand combat, you keep waiting for some bad guy to grab her by the scruff of her neck and just hold her at arm’s length, a safe distance from potential kicks. Despite all her steely glares, Saldana just does not come across as a believable hitman. To top that off, the way director Olivier Megaton’s (Transporter 3) cameras seem to worship her lithe, leggy body gives an unsettling support for Saldana’s teeny tiny body. Now people can be just as discriminatory toward thin people as they can be with the overweight, but with Columbiana, Saldana’s skinny body negatively impacts the reality of a story already riddled with logic gaps.

Then there’s Cataleya’s uncle who himself is something of a criminal under lord. She wants to grow up and be a killer and he just sort of shrugs and says, “Okay,” in the same tone of voice as if she had said she wanted to be a cowboy. But this is Movie World, a place where Cataleya’s father tells his driver, “We’ve got maybe an hour at most before he kills my whole family,” and then spends that fateful hour in such a lackadaisical fashion. He stops and walks around his car, sits down his little girl to have one last talk, waits for his wife to pack; there’s no sense of urgency here. People, you got one hour to supposedly live, you don’t pack a suitcase you just get in the car and run! But getting back to Uncle Emilio in Chicago. After he enrolls her in school, she’s sulky because she doesn’t think there’s anything she can gain from American education. She just wants to learn the ways of a killer. Her uncle, in a misguided feat to teach her a lesson, pulls out a gun and shoots randomly into a street, causing a car to crash and dozens of witnesses to huddle. “What can I teach you if you don’t learn?” he says, somehow giving the least inspiring case for public education. Then, preposterously enough, he and Cataleya scamper off at a mid-trot, casually eluding the police and all the dozens of witnesses who have clearly been able to see them this whole time.

Columbiana is one of those cookie-cutter action movies that just coasts on the apathetic expectations the audience has when they knowingly plop down money for a generic genre picture. And generic is certainly Columbiana. It’s a fairly standard revenge picture with some fairly standard action, devoid of any discernible kinetic style that might make for memorable sequences. Columbiana would not exist if it weren’t for a wealth of clichés and contrivances; the whole enterprise is bursting at the seams thanks to all its shortcuts in story and character. What does the title even mean? Is the film Columbia-esque? Is the depiction of skinny assassins and preposterous, illogical action supposed to be reminiscent of life in the country of Columbia? I think the film paints a worse picture of Chicago than Columbia, but at any rate this is an action thriller that can’t be bothered to thrill. Columbiana is generic to the point of desperation, where even the sight of Saldana in a skintight cat suit can become underwhelming in time, a tragedy of international proportions.

Nate’s Grade: C

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

I owe the makers behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes a huge apology. I have been vocally dismissive of a new Apes film from the first moments I heard about the project. I just thought rehashing this material was a stupid move. Then I heard James Franco (127 Hours) was going to be the lead, and I sighed. Then I saw the trailers and verbally impugned them in my theaters. Upon the conclusion of the trailer I yelled, “You can still shoot them!” and my criticism drew applause from those around me. The concept that we suddenly made apes smarter and they could now enter the Bronze Age, brandishing spears, didn’t overwhelm me. Just because the apes suddenly had tools didn’t seem like enough to topple mankind from the top of the evolutionary ladder. So in the months and weeks ahead I sneer, jeered, and overall dismissed Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And then the reviews came out and they weren’t just good, they were ecstatic. I went begrudgingly into the theater, waiting to hurl my own feces at the screen (figuratively, of course). Then I was completely taken aback by how much I unabashedly loved it.

Will Rodman (Franco) is a young scientists working hard at create a miracle cure for Alzheimer’s. His corporate company has been testing their drugs on chimps to mixed results. One day a promising ape, made smarter by a dose of ALZ 112, goes bananas and is put down by security. The lady ape left behind a baby ape that has taken on traits from the ALZ 112. Will takes the little chimp home to care for the “company property.” But then he ends up adopting the chimp, which his ailing father (John Lithgow) names Caesar. Due to the super drug, Caesar shows remarkable intelligence and looks to be getting even stronger. It looks like Will might have found his cure, and his boss (David Oyelowo) will make billions. But then complications ensue, as they always do, and Caesar is taken to an animal preserve facility run by a crooked father/son team (Brian Cox and Harry Potter’s Tom Felton). Caesar is mistreated and distraught to adjust to a life in pens. He makes plans to escape but then decides to rally his fellow imprisoned apes to a greater cause with the help of some of the ALZ 112.

Even through Franco is the headliner he’s really nothing more than a supporting character, a catalyst. The real star of the movie is undoubtedly Caesar the chimp. After about he 45-minute mark, Franco is reduced to making frowny faces while he scowls, trying to ascertain where his favorite monkey is. His dialogue is mostly reduced to different iterations of yelling Caesar’s name in different locations (the guy even manages to smirk in his sleep in one scene). But the major surprise is that Caesar is not only a compelling leading character but also a well-developed one at that. This is a living, breathing character brought to life thanks to top-notch computer wizardry and the talents of Andy Serkis, the leading authority for soulful motion-capture performances. Caesar may be the greatest single special effect of all time, not because of its life-like quality (it’s close, but again the creature’s features seem too waxy). But the reason Caesar is so impressive is because of the depth of emotion that can be read onscreen. This is a textured performance where you can read varying emotions through the looks of eyes, the twitching of facial muscles, the biting of lips. The emotions are genuinely recognizable; he flashes guilt, anger, frustration, heartache, disbelief, betrayal, fear, shame, just about everything in the book. From a DNA standpoint, chimps and humans share 96 percent of the same genes, so it’s understandable that we can relate to the plight of our distant relatives. Serkis is responsible for providing the groundwork for CGI creations like Gollum and King Kong, so he’s the world’s go-to guy when it comes to providing a framework for animators (Robert Zemeckis, why have you never called this guy?). It’s an amazing special effect accomplishment and works side-by-side with the storytelling to make Caesar a complicated, interesting, and deeply empathetic hero. He’s a terrific center for the movie and a figure that you root for, even with the tacit understanding that cheering on the apes’ escape is also tantamount to cheering the decline of the human race. But by God, during the apes-run-amok climactic sequences you are cheering for mankind’s downfall hardcore.

The Planet of the Apes saga (six films) is, let’s be honest here, rather abysmal. Everybody loves the first movie but the quality sharply drops from there, with four sequels in four years each managing to answer the depressing question, “Can this thing really get any worse?” The 2001 Tim Burton “re-imagining” was just embarrassing and filled with loopy logic (how can the apes take over Earth’s past when Marky Mark crashes on a DIFFERENT planet in the FUTURE?). Given that, the filmmakers behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes did not have to achieve much to separate themselves from the monkey-stank of the sci-fi franchise. The film serves as a prequel to the series but it’s easily the best film since the original. Easily. For one, the storytelling is not overwhelmed by the allegory of sci-fi packaging. The world is decidedly our own and the problems the characters grapple with are fairly relatable. Will may be responsible for the annihilation of the human race but his motivation is pure – he wants to save his ailing father. That’s a believable motivating force that would push the character to action over caution, testing his special serum without fully examining all the side effects. You know what they say about the road to Hell (my friend Eric Muller always suspected Franco would be linked to the end of civilization)? But in a Planet of the Apes movie there is a wealth of thoughtful human drama. Animal rights are one of the more obvious messages the movie deals with, but the film takes a character-driven approach following the animal himself. You care about these characters and when one CGI ape was cradling a dying CGI ape, I swear I was getting choked up over those computer pixels. That’s how emotionally involving this new Apes film can be. It’s refreshing to have a Hollywood action film that has more on its mind than blowing stuff up all good like.

But when the action shapes up, mostly during a stirring man vs. apes climax, the film easily delivers. The nimble screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (their first film since 1997’s Relic!) is a terrific example of economical big-budget pacing. Every scene moves the story forward and doesn’t waste a frame. The final running time is only 105 brisk minutes but it squeezes in so much entertainment and emotion. Director Rupert Wyatt keeps the thrills coming on a human-scale, never letting the enormity of the events getting too out of hand. Sure suddenly there are like 500 apes all of a sudden and all of them are super smart, but I can roll with that. The stakes are always clear and the action is easy to follow and easier to get swept up in. There are a few shout-outs to the original film’s iconic lines, which will either come across as fun or ham-handed. And thankfully a plausible scenario is put forth to explain why the humans would be overtaken by the apes. That’s not to say that everything is smartly woven into the narrative. Several of the side characters are but crude renderings. Frieda Pinto’s (Slumdog Millionaire) underdeveloped love interest could be completely taken out with minimal effect on the plot. Likewise the Evil Business Head seems to have nothing but speeches that remind you his sole interest is making lots of moolah.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a Hollywood movie with a soul. Finally late in the summer a major studio movie emerges that has the right balance of brains, brawn, and thrills. It’s an exciting action movie, a poignant drama from an animal’s point of view, a tour de force of special effects that manage to make the film more emotionally involving, and a sci-fi prequel that’s actually worthy of its name. Serkis’ gifts for physical performance are invaluable to the emotional core of the movie. By going back to its DNA, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has given new life to a franchise whose best days were 40 years ago. I don’t see where the series can go from here. A prequel to the prequel seems superfluous. A sequel would only really showcase the waning days of humanity and also seem superfluous. Then again, until the moment I was watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes I would have said this very movie was superfluous too. Instead this is the finest summer spectacle of the year and destined to make my top ten list for the year. If you can’t beat them, join them, damn dirty apes and all.

Nate’s Grade: A

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

In the summer of superheroes, you’ll be excused for feeling some fatigue when it comes to men in tights. Captain America: The First Avenger is a surprisingly enjoyable sepia-tinted action film that flexes enough might to pleasantly hark back to the days of 1940s adventure serials. Taking place almost entirely in the era of World War II, the film, and its hero, and unabashedly square and earnest. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) begins as a 90-pound weakling determined to fight for his country and gets transformed into a behemoth of beefcake by the Army. Captain America is devoid of the dark brooding that has come to encapsulate modern superhero movies, but it’s also playing its B-movie silliness straight. The flick has more in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Sky Captain than most other superhero product. Better yet, the movie finesses the in-your-face patriotism of the title character. I mean the guy is called Captain America. Yet the film finds a way to resonate a sincere nationalistic pride without falling back into Michael Bay-level jingoism. And who’s going to make for better villains than Nazis? Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park 3) turns out to have been the perfect choice to helm this rah-rah retro enterprise. The pacing is swift, the acting is engaging, the special effects are terrific particularly Evans’ transformation into a weakling, and the film is unexpectedly emotional at points. This is a comic book movie that would appeal to an older generation not normally interested in superheroes, namely people like my dad.

Nate’s Grade: B

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