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Missing Link (2019)

The stop-motion animation wizards at Laika have made some of the most charming and visually impressive movies of the last few years, including The Box Trolls, Kubo and the Two Strings, and ParaNorman. They’ve built up enough trust that I will see anything that they attach their name to. Missing Link is probably their least successful big screen effort yet, though that still means it’s only perfectly fine rather than great-to-amazing. It’s a heartfelt buddy comedy about a Bigfoot creature (voiced by Zach Galfianakis) that seeks out mentorship from a dashing adventurer (Hugh Jackman). It’s a sweet story but not fully emotionally engaging because the characters are fairly simplistic. There isn’t a lot of depth here and, surprisingly, more crass jokes aimed at a younger audience than their earlier output. From a visual standpoint, it’s beautiful with vibrant colors and fluid animation that has become indistinguishable from CGI nowadays. The action set pieces, usually appearing at a regular clip with each new location change, are fun and have their clever moments, like a capsizing ship that reminded me of the spinning Inception hallway. It’s an amusing, lower tier animated movie for Laika, but I’m worried that there might not be more of these movies the way they’re going at the box-office. Laika was treading financial water with excellent movies, and anything “less than” seems like it could possibly tip the independent animation production company over for good. Missing Link is a cute, mostly harmless, mostly entertaining movie that just doesn’t have the same ambitions and level of execution that previous Laika films have had. With that being said, it’s still worth a watch on the big screen for any animation aficionado.

Nate’s Grade: B

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I Am Number Four (2011)

Despite being based upon a young adult book series, I Am Number Four is an unfortunate title. What do you call the sequel? I Am Number Four 2? I Remain Number Four? Let’s not even mention the obvious pan that is begging to be covered by that title (“I Am Number Four? More like I Am Number Two!”).

Number Four, a.k.a. “John” (Alex Pettyfer), is your normal teenage alien hiding on Planet Earth and trying to live a regular life while eluding intergalactic mercenaries. Numero Quatro has relocated to the town of Paradise, Ohio with Henri (Timothy Olyphant), his alien guardian who poses as dear old dad. The two are trying to keep a low profile because Number Four is one of the last nine super-powered aliens from a dead planet. The aliens develop different special abilities as they mature and Number Four has begun to notice that his hands glow in the dark. Number Four catches the attention of Sarah (Dianna Agron), a pretty gal whose ex-boyfriend happens to be the super jealous quarterback. Number Four also befriends the school’s nerd (Callan McAuliffe) who thinks his father was taken by aliens. He’s not exactly keeping the desire low profile. Numbers 1-3 have been killed by a pack of alien mercenaries who intend to dominate Earth, and now Number Four is next.

While neither special nor afflicting, I Am Number Four is a pretty mundane, mediocre, special effects driven goof aimed primarily at young teen males. The plot lacks any trace of nuance and seems fantastical in what should even be ordinary. The Ohio town is one of those small towns that exist in the minds of west coast studio executives, where everyone gathers round for a carnival and the roads are mostly of the dirt variety. Sarah’s family is one of those ideal, chatty families that exist primarily in the minds of nostalgia. They don’t just sit around and chew their food; they are actively involved in dinner cutesy dinnertime games and cutesy embarrassing interactivity. But the movie never lets you think about these inauthentic tidbits for long before more explosions or colorful special effects rattle you. The plot follows an almost mechanical process, supplying some PG-13 skin (ladies in low rise jeans! Cleavage!) or some rudimentary chase scenes at a fairly brisk pace. The story borrows liberally from many sources, including a dash of super powered loner Spiderman stuff, angsty teen romance from Twilight, and a sprinkle of whatever is playing on TV right now as you sit reading this.

The action is never really takes off beyond the general concept of Things Exploding and People Running. Director D.J. Caruso (Eagle Eye, Disturbia) can string together a series of pleasing visuals but they never amount to much. The film lacks real suspense and any risible sense of excitement. The action sequences are disposable but at least Caruso makes sure that the audience can follow along. I thought with all the sci-fi elements that the film would make more interesting choices, but alas I Am Number Four relies all too easily along commonplace action tropes like it’s an accomplishment. Number Six (Teresa Palmer) gets to walk away from an explosion in slow-motion (while she wears sunglasses). Nobody in town seems to ever pick up on the mounting collateral damage of this interstellar spat. Caruso and the screenwriters are too content to just be happy playing with the special effects toolbox, emulating the favorite moments of the sci-fi action genre. And one of those tropes is that ANIMALS CAN NEVER DIE. Number 4 has a shape-shifting guardian pet that decides to take the form of a dog. Then when things get rough, this dog mutates into a hulking CGI creature, which still looks like a dog. And when he gets wounded fighting another CGI monster, it’s not enough that we get the pained dog cry but the filmmakers decide that he also has to transform back into a regular Earth dog at this point to hammer home the image of pooch in trouble. Shameless to the very end. And then, during our resolution this space dog has to come hobbling out.

Fortunately for the audience, the actors are all rather beautiful. Pettyfer (Alex Rider) isn’t much when it comes to this thing called acting, but he’s got abs you could scrub laundry with and really that’s half the part of playing a hunk from outer space. I give the guy more credit just for having to be saddled with the lame superpower of glowy hands. It’s a long wait for those glowy hands to become instruments that launch glowy fireballs. For most of their screen time, Pettyfer’s power just looks like he’s clenching two very powerfully charged indigo-glowing cell phones. Olyphant (Deadwood, Hitman) is too young for me to be covering as the dad to a 17-year-old kid. I still remember Olyphant in 1999’s Go. Maybe that’s just my hang-up. The ladies are all gorgeous are all in the flawless skin and teeth variety, you know, the ones that populate every small town. No one truly makes much of an impression but they’re easy on the eyes. It’s like an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue come to life with extra explosions (and more clothes).

The only actor that stands out is Kevin Durand and he’s under pounds of makeup as the chief villain. Durand first came to serious attention as a season-long villain on TV’s Lost as Martin Keamy. He has a real distinct menace that doesn’t come across as self-satisfying or ironic. He’s got a real presence and it seems like casting directors have caught on to this former Canadian standup comedian. From there Durand has become something of a go-to guy when it comes to large intimidating men and men with some kind of mild speech impediment; his characters in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Legion, and even Robin Hood all sounded like they had their mouths stuffed with cotton. Durand always has a good time with his bad guy roles, whether they are flinty or over-the-top. I enjoy watching this man onscreen even if he’s under some fairly lackluster creature makeup that makes him look like a tattooed shark man.

The point that caught my attention, and was scantily mentioned but once without nary a rejoinder from any character, was the fact that the big bad evil aliens are killing the alien teens in order. No reason is ever attempted. There are nine super alien teens but for some reason these interstellar killers are uncontrollably anal-retentive (“We may be vicious monsters, but we respect the value of numerology”). It makes little strategic sense to stick to the doctrine of taking out your enemy one at a time and in a predetermined order that everyone knows about. It also means that presumably Number 9 will be the hardest to vanquish since they will have the longest time to master their super power. Later on, Number 4 gets an added boost from a sexy, slinky Aussie who happens to be Number 6. My first thought: “What the hell happened to Number 5?” Then I figured that Number 5 has to be locked away somewhere in a protective safe house at an unknown location. Because that affords Number 6 to do whatever the hell she wants; the evil aliens would just have to stop and say, “Look Number 6, we’d really, truly love to vaporize you right now, but first we gotta go find and kill Number 5 first. See ya later.” If that’s the case then Number’s 7-9 need to get off the bench and team up. Number 4 can’t keep this up forever, guys.

I Am Number Four is tailor-made for a young male audience that doesn’t have the urge to see something harder or edgier. It’s got superfluous jet-ski stunts, girls with flat tummies, explosions, cool space weaponry, CGI monsters, villains in long black trench coats, failed attempts at romance, a dog, and even a reference to famous Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar. It’s not an incoherent cacophony of light and sound like you’d find in a Michael Bay film; director D.J. Caruso is like Bay lite with more self-discipline. I Am Number Four is fairly derivative stuff but nothing worth getting upset about. After you see derivatives of derivatives, you start forgiving the final product for lacking any discernible flavor. All of the elements come together in rather harmless fashion making a rather empty but harmless sci-fi action flick.

Nate’s Grade: C

A Perfect Getaway (2009)

The movie looks gorgeous thanks to the pristine Hawaiian scenery. What is not as pristine is the overactive plot. This is a clever “who dunnit” thriller that isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. This murder mystery sets up a premise about killers on the loose in paradise and then introduces suspect couples. Every moment and every line of dialogue is overdone with foreboding to make you think every single moment is filled with suspicious intrigue. It pretty much becomes a parody of a suspense movie thanks to writer/director David Twohy. Then a second act twist retroactively rewrites the movie’s shortsighted history that doesn’t make sense. Why would the characters behave as they do when nobody’s around to watch them? Commitment to Method acting? It’s a harebrained twist up there with Perfect Stranger where it negates everything beforehand. There’s a 15-minute flashback that doesn’t need to be nearly that long and it breaks up the momentum. A Perfect Getaway does elicit some thrills and interest but you may grow tired of being beaten with overactive suspicion.

Nate’s Grade: C

Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

A lot has changed in the world and for Bruce Willis since last we saw John McClane in 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance a.k.a. Die Hard 3: Die Harder-er. Is a post 9/11 anxiety-ridden world, does someone like McClane feel quaint, like the remnant of a bygone era? Live Free or Die Hard, a.k.a. Die Hard 4, is Willis getting back to butt-kicking, wise-cracking basics. The film is a surprising and fun summer entry that could have been much much worse, and for that I am grateful.

McClane (Willis) is a pretty run down man thanks to the rigors of his job the heavy price being labeled a “hero.” He’s divorced, estranged from his teenage daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and retired from the force. He gets called to transport a hacker named Matt (Justin Long) from New Jersey to D.C. and into federal custody. Before he can leave Matt’s apartment, assassins start shooting at McClane and the hacker and the two go on the run for their lives. A former national security leader, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) has planned what is known as a Fire Sale, where the United States’ infrastructure is brought to a standstill by eliminating all power services, communications, and causing the nation to be consumed by chaos. Matt was one of the many that were contracted to unknowingly write code that would assist in Gabirels’ techno takedown. Now Gabriel is cleaning up his tracks and that involves removing an increasingly irritatable John McClane.

The film is nothing short of Bruce Willis trying to reclaim the action movie genre the way he sees it should be. Die Hard 4 is all about how computers and our complete reliance on modern technology put us all at risk if someone ever pulls the plug. Willis and the film are an efficient, and enjoyably retrograde Hollywood action flick that scoffs at kung fu, self-indulgent effects, and the gravity-defying acrobatics that have dominated action cinema since the rise of The Matrix. McClane shrugs and cannot understand this “kung fu shit” and mistrusts computers. Die Hard 4 puts most of its attention on good old-fashioned practical stunt work, not that the film’s sequences are practical, like when McClane is driving an 18-wheeler around a crumbling highway while being fired upon by a fighter jet. Live Free or Die Hard is crammed with gunfights, fistfights, and motor vehicles launched into the sky. People bounce around like pin balls. It pushes the boundaries of PG-13 action; the profanity of the previous films isn’t exactly missed, but it’s regrettable that cinema’s best catch phrase to ever use the term “yippee-ki-yay” has to be partially muffled by a sound effect to keep its more family-friendly rating.

Willis helps keep things grounded with an enjoyable acting style best be described as bemused crankiness. Throughout the long trip foes and intense obstacles beset McClane, and yet he remains the same grumpy Gus that can’t believe his own damn luck. Whenever he defeats a well armed opponent, or does something “so crazy it just might work,” and it does, he laughs to himself like he cannot believe his luck. He informs the bad guys that he is coming, and he will kill them, and they ask him how and even he doesn’t know and he doesn’t care. He’s a one-man wrecking crew, as he always has been, but there’s an added level of fun watching someone with an AARP card (who isn’t Clint Eastwood) kicking ass and taking cyber geek names.

Director Len Wiseman cut his teeth on the terrible Underworld movies (I’m sorry, but if you got a movie about vampires vs. werewolves, you don’t give them leather and guns and call it a night), but he now has won me over with his work on Die Hard 4. His careening, deep-focus visuals are like a mix of Michael Bay with an extra dose of the fetish-loving Wachoswki brothers. There are a handful of visual scrapes that really pop onscreen like some very close encounters with high-speed cars.

But let’s not get too wrapped up in the fun of Live Free or Die Hard. It’s still an out-and-out action movie complete with plot holes, logic gaps, stock characters (the movie loses steam every time we have to cut back to the FBI agents), and some one-liner groaners. The villains are pretty standard, though very tech heavy in their approach. The movie never explains why a good portion of the henchmen are French. McClane’s daughter will obviously get crafty and bullish when under pressure, proving herself a chip off the old block. The banter between Willis and Long is overdone in an attempt to add more frantic feeling to a tale about the end of all reliance on technology.

Live Free or Die Hard is an efficient and satisfying retro, macho action movie. The action is frenetic and focused on hard-nosed stunt work that brings so much more excitement to the film. The movie works, and that in and of itself is something of a miracle. McClane rattles off a monologue about what it means to be a hero, and in the end he says it’s just about you being the guy willing to do his job no matter what. Well, as far as I’m concerned, the John McClane job is about providing solid action-packed crowd pleasers. I don’t care how old the man gets, because under the right direction he delivers.

Nate’s Grade: B

Catch and Release (2007)

Catch and Release may in fact have the most bizarre meet-cute in movie history. Gray (Jennifer Garner) is mourning the loss of Grady, the man that would have been her husband. She seeks a refuge from all the well-wishers and lies down in a bathtub with the shower curtain drawn. Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), one of the deceased’s best friends, enters the room with a female caterer. They position themselves against a wall and engage in some opportune sex. Gray is trapped and forced to hear the whole thing. The caterer keeps screaming, “Sock it to me” in increasing orgiastic pleasure. I was waiting for some more 1950s hipster dirty talk, like, “Lay it in me, Daddy-O.” Eventually the sex comes to an end and Fritz lights up a post-coital cigarette. But then Gray flings the shower curtain back. Aha! It’s boy meets girl in the most preposterous fashion, but that’s Catch and Release for you, a romantic comedy with enough to be different but still too limited to become anything other than a lukewarm date movie.

Now absent one less earner, Gray is forced to move into a house occupied by Sam (Kevin Smith) and Dennis (Sam Jaeger). They were friends of Gray’s ex as well. Then life proceeds to give Gray a series of curve balls. She discovers that her dead fiancé had over a million dollars in the bank and an 8-year-old son with another woman (Juliet Lewis), a flighty New Age massage therapist. Grady might not have been the same man Gray thought she was set to have and to hold (her married name would have been Gray Grady?).

Things get off to an interesting start. The proposed wedding party has been transformed into a wake. Then as she is trying to cope with loss and put the pieces of her life together she’s further undone by revelation after revelation of secrets her ex kept from her. That’s pretty dark for a usual airy genre but also a pretty interesting setup for something different. Catch and Release flirts with being unconventional but then is on a fairly predictable trajectory once its promise settles down and completely dissolves.

Thankfully, despite all the doom and gloom there isn’t any grating sense of whininess. The perspective feels knowing and in search of wisdom through life’s unexpected calamities. Writer/director Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, Ever After) has a worthy adult sensibility that helps make the film feel a bit more credible and less like an inane melodrama. Catch and Release feels less pre-programmed and unlike most paint-by-numbers romantic comedies, and yet it still wears the weight of its genre around its neck and can never take a step forward without taking two backwards. There’s ample opportunity for a romantic comedy that begins at the literal end of a relationship, with the widow discovering more than she ever knew about her dearly departed (a rom-com version of The Constant Gardener? Call me, Hollywood). However, the movie seems too content to walk the same beaten path many have before it. It may be nothing more than a throwaway genre movie but it got my hopes up that it could have been something more. I feel spurned and betrayed, somewhat like Gray must have felt.

Catch and Release is a hit-and-miss date movie that can never really reel in what it wants to do. The film has some somewhat inspired moments but is also dominated by romantic comedy clichés and sitcom generalizations when it comes to its characters and setting. Of course the nice guy has had a lifelong crush on Gray. Of course the fat guy is also funny and rude. And of course we’re going to house all of these people under one roof so it will produce plenty of Gray-Fritz interactions that will lead to their eventual coupling. Plus, who could forget the classic eleventh hour misunderstanding followed by the pursuit that ends in a glib line like, “What took you so long?” The movie seems to be trying too hard to make Fritz seem like a suitable replacement when we never really know much about him. He’s kind of sleazy and he knows it, but when exactly does he become likeably sleazy? Their union feels forced and unrealistic, even by romantic comedy standards. It also feels like Grant named Garner’s character Gray just so she could include this passage:

Gray: “What’s your favorite color?”
Fritz: “Gray.”

This prompted an entire row of teenage girls to go “ahhhhh” in my theater. I wanted to laugh, but then I was grossly outnumbered in my theater.

Catch and Release is mostly a grab bag of other romantic comedies. It doesn’t even know what to do with the fly fishing metaphor it valiantly tries to lift into some deeper meaning. I don’t get it myself. Gray says that her dead ex was always a “catch and release” man; does this mean he never had the heart to finish off his prey, or that he was too sympathetic with struggling creatures? It doesn’t matter what the metaphor attempts are because it allows for the cast to put on their rubber boots and wade in the cool waters of predictability. At least only one character works in the usual romantic comedy job pool (publishing, advertising, theater). Though Sam does come up with quotes for boxes.

Garner is such a winning actress but still finding her stride. She’s being positioned to fill the void of Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts, which is fine, but when I see her more as a modern Sigourney Weaver, someone who can excel in light comedy but also kick your ass when the time came. Gray’s world goes into upheaval and Garner is up to the task balancing emotion and wry life observations, but too often there’s little else for her to do but pout or crinkle her eyebrows. Her cheekbones certainly get quite a workout in Catch and Release but I wouldn’t exactly call that dramatic acting. I have been a fan of Olyphant since 1999’s Go. He’s always had a scary sexiness to him, and works best playing assholes you just can’t help but love. Grant totally drops the ball on his character. Fritz is behind the eight ball early and never really recovers when it comes to audience loyalty. Olyphant is also given a problematic shaggy haircut that manages to neutralize his natural alluring danger and still make him seem aloof. His role is a stock role and nothing more.

Thank God for Kevin Smith. Grant wisely chose Silent Bob as her comic relief and Smith has such natural laid back charm and great timing that he should get more acting gigs full time. His presence is deeply missed when he steps offstage and the film returns back to its familiar roots. I don?t know why Grant has Sam eating or making food, or talking about eating in almost every scene. After the fourth scene in a row where Sam has a chicken leg in his fist, it gets tiresome, like she defined a character by hunger. Smith has the best scenes and the best chemistry, whether it’s with Garner, Lewis, or a little kid. I think someone should cast Kevin Smith as the lead of a romantic comedy. Now that’s an unconventional date movie I’d pay to see.

Catch and Release has some glimmers of promise before succumbing to the weight of the romantic comedy genre. The movie just cannot get past mounting clichés and shallow characters, plus some fairly contrived situations like the bizarre meet-cute. Garner and her dimples will survive to enchant another day. At the end of the day, Catch and Release is just like any other romantic comedy movie, and there’s plenty more of those in the sea.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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