The Raven

The Raven is not a very good movie. This is because John Cusack, while making a game effort, is not convincing and the plot is pretty much unappealingly repackaged suspense film tropes.

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The deets:

Released April 27, 2012

Written by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare

Directed by James McTeigue

Starring Alice Eve, Pam Ferris, John Cusack, Luke Evans, Brendan Gleeson, Kevin McNally, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Boston police detective Fields (Evans), notices that a grisly murder reminds him of a story written by local poet/story writer Edgar Allen Poe (Cusack). Poe is not the murderer, but when another murder occurs, also matching the writings of Poe, Fields asks Poe to join the investigation. Poe is currently experiencing severe writer’s block, possibly due to the steady stream of chemicals he is ingesting and also possibly due to the girl he has his heart set on being kept out of reach by her father.

The girl is Emily (Eve) and her father is police captain Charles Hamilton (Gleeson). Hamilton sees that Poe will only bring heartache to his daughter and is justified in keeping the two separate. However, Emily is in love with Poe, and love is as love does. (Why she loves the intemperate alcoholic is the biggest mystery of the film.)

The murderer is brutal and seemingly has limitless resources to recreate the dark murders of Poe’s stories, and we get to seem some pretty gruesome homicides in the course of the film.

Soon after Poe is looped into the case, he finds his writer’s block cured and he gets fully invested in the investigation. Which, you guessed it, endangers the woman he loves.

All of this story takes place over just a few days, the true history of which, in Poe’s life, are still a mystery. We know that Poe was found dead on a park bench in real history, but what preceded that death is unknown. This film does its best to shoehorn the story into known and unknown history.

Critique

The Raven has some very strong points, mostly from Luke Evans’ acting job, some fairly tense scenes and pacing, and Alice Eve’s remarkable ability to elevate every scene she is in. She makes her run of the mill, hard to understand love interest character strong and interesting.

What’s more, the premise of the film is pretty good and it is executed with some interesting development.

The main problem is that, although Cusack does nail some of the more intense scenes, in most of the film he is essentially a goatee’d John Cusack, in all of his mouth-breathing glory. The secondary problem is that we see most of the twists coming and the actual murderer is out of the blue, like an Agatha Christie culprit. Seriously. The murderer should have been someone we knew and who seemed murky in some way.

Not so much.

So this is a pretty good, somewhat too-gruesome film whose lead is hard to really like, whose love story is a bit hard to believe, and whose resolution is a little hard to swallow.

Content warnings: Some salty language, plenty of gruesome images.

Writing: 3.5          Acting: 3.5          Overall: 3

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Safety Not Guaranteed

Safety Not Guaranteed, while burdened with a far too cute genesis and production history, is adorable and ultimately a wonderful film. Everyone should see this clever, heartfelt, almost brilliant film.

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Released October 18, 2012

Written by Derek Connolly

Directed by Colin Trevorrow

Starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Karan Soni, and Jeff Garlin

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Darius (Plaza) is working as an intern at a Seattle magazine after struggling to find work. She seems to feel a disconnect from the world around her. One of the magazine’s writers, Jeff (Johnson), suggests that the magazine do a feature on a strange ad that he’d found in which the ad poster seeks a partner for some time travel. The magazine’s editor sends Jeff and Darius, along with Arnau (Soni), to the smallish town where the ad originated.

They track down Kenneth (Duplass), the man who posted the ad, and Darius is selected to make contact with him. Darius and Kenneth hit it off well, while at the same time Jeff, who apparently used to vacation in this town as a youth, tracks down an old flame, dragging Arnau along sometimes.

Kenneth and Darius’ relationship develops into a close friendship, and then, of course, romance, as they prepare to go back in time. Kenneth refuses to show Darius the machine he’s going to use to transport them, but he assures her it is real. They even raid a science lab for equipment for the machine.

So we have a few relationships that the story follows: the rather adorable one between Darius and Kenneth, Jeff’s odd relationship with his old flame, and Jeff and Arnau’s somewhat ‘mentor/student’ relationship.

Add to all of this the possibility that Kenneth might actually be onto something, that Darius never told him that she was doing a story on him, and hat Kenneth might have government agents following him– and  you have some nice conflict.

All of which leads to a rather unexpected climax and resolution.

Critique

The premise is a little cute and precious, but it has been developed quite well and it also helps that the actors turn in some very good performances.

Darius is maybe a little too convenient with her incredibly clever dialogue, but Aubrey Plaza pulls the character off convincingly, showing us a Darius who longs for something different and outside the normal, expected world.

Duplass turns in a straightforward performance. There is no tongue in cheek and this very odd character is not morphed into a goofball or caricature. Duplass keeps Kenneth accessible and quite pleasant. This kind of guy might actually live down the road from many of us.

Jeff’s rank selfishness grates and we want him to redeem himself. Arnau is perhaps too naive. Some of the other characters are somewhat convenient.

But the adorableness and heart of Safety Not Guaranteed makes it easy to overlook these issues and just let yourself be carried by the sweetness between Kenneth and Darius.

And the ending is exactly right on.

Content warnings: Language, some sexual content

Writing: 4           Acting: 4.5          Overall: 4

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Robot & Frank

Robot & Frank has an engaging premise and traipses along at a brisk pace, but as the third act rolls around, it loses momentum and then the ending wanders listlessly. At least Frank Langella is great.

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The deets:

Released September 19, 2012

Written by Christopher D. Ford

Directed by Jake Schreier

Starring Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, Frank Langella, Peter Sarsgaard, Rachael Ma, James Marsden, and Jeremy Sisto.

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Frank (Langella– yeah), is an aging and supposedly retired cat burglar. He is beginning to lose his mental faculties and is kind of a slob, so his son (Marsden) gets Frank a robotic servant (the voice of Sarsgaard with Ma in the robot) to help around the house and make sure Frank eats well and stays safe. Meanwhile, Frank’s other child (Tyler) is far away but is not happy about Frank’s son dropping off a robot. She may be a little prejudiced against them.

Frank quickly learns that his new robot butler can pick locks and he hatches a plan to rob some local pretentious jackwagons of their massively expensive jewelry. It’s possible he wants to do this to sort of get back at these people for changing the local library so much that it might put the pretty librarian (Sarandon) out of a job.

So Frank and the robot go about their caper. Unfortunately, the local cops, led by the Sheriff (Sisto), know that Frank is a ‘retired’ burglar, so the attention goes onto him. So we then have a bit of a heist/escape film.

Which then turns into a semi-tragicomic wandering exploration of dementia and friendship.

Critique

Robot & Frank starts well, with a scene of Frank robbing a house. Look closely at the scene after– What house was Frank robbing?

So we get an idea that he might be losing his mind, but soon after that, we learn that Frank is still sharp and still has hopes and dreams. He has a crush on the local librarian and spends his time reading and walking. Langella is a very accessible actor and he quickly establishes depth and realism for Frank’s character. Marsden is also very good with his frustrated devotion to his father– he wants to help but understands when his dad pushes back and fights for his independence. Tyler is also good as the daughter who decides that her brother is screwing everything up.

The writing is sharp, at least to begin with. There is some very nice dialogue between Frank and the robot and their interactions serve to shine a light on how friendship works and just who these characters are. We also get to see a bit of the toll aging takes on a vital, dynamic person.

Everything is lighthearted and fun, even the escape sequences, until we end up with Frank in a new place and we are not sure what just happened. Was the entire film a roundabout essay on dementia? Who was the librarian, after all?

When significant plot questions are posed but unanswered (ala Inception), that’s like having a gun on a mantle and not firing it (thanks, Chekhov). It’s confusing and you begin to wonder what the point was.

If the point of Robot & Frank was to give Langella a chance to essentially do a clinic on light-touch acting, it worked out. If the story was to tell a quirky story about friendship and family, we don’t really know what the story being told was all about.

In the end, Robot & Frank is pretty much harmless, overall pointless entertainment. No punches, no big laughs, no emotional catharsis. All pretty tame, really. Recommended if you can see it without incurring extra costs.

Content warnings: A bit of salty language. 

Writing: 3          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 3.5

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Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook provides just over two hours of extra good acting packaged in an entertaining, fairly harmless story. It’s a fact that Jennifer Lawrence is extraordinary in this movie.

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The deets:

Released December 25, 2012

Written by David O. Russell. Based on the book by David Quick.

Directed by David O. Russell

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Stiles, Jacki Weaver, Brea Bee, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher, John Ortiz, and Shea Wigham. 

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Silver Linings Playbook starts with a voice over from Pat Solitano (Cooper), who has just left a mental health hospital with his mother (Weaver) after being locked up for what is alluded to as a violent incident. On his way out, we meet his pal, Danny (Tucker) who tries to hitch a ride. When Pat and his mom get home, we meet Pat’s dad, Pat Sr. (De Niro). Now we start to understand what is going on.

Pat discovered his wife Nikki (Bee) having an affair with a history teacher and went nuts, beating the man to within an inch of his life. But it turns out that Pat had a history of volatility, and is now diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Pat has decided he doesn’t need meds and he can find the cure ala mind over matter. He just needs to have a plan and get fit and get his life together and then he can get Nikki back.

In the meantime, he’s still obsessive and smart and vulnerable and volatile. He’s trying to control himself, but– and this is important– he has an illness and he needs to take his medicine to treat it. Mind over matter ain’t going to cure this thing. The movie doesn’t quite highlight this well enough and almost intimates that love and discipline can cure Pat, which is not okay.

Moving on. Pat meets Tiffany (Lawrence) at his friend Ronnie’s (Ortiz) house. Tiffany is the sister of Ronnie’s wife, Veronica (Stiles), a controlling but well-meaning lady. Veronica also happens to be Nikki’s best friend.

Tiffany has recently gone through significant trauma and suffered through a rather noticeable and damaging breakdown. Thus, she, like Pat, has a tendency to say what is on her mind with little to no filter. These two kindred spirits have an instant connection, although Pat tirelessly points out he’s married still.

Tiffany agrees to get a letter from Pat to Nikki (there is a restraining order against Pat) if Pat agrees to help Tiffany prepare for a dance competition. On the side is Pat’s also volatile father who has lost his job and is now participating in illegal activity to make ends meet.

And thus the story unfolds. This is a romantic dramedy that is rated R. You can figure out that language will be used, tension will mount, stakes will be raised, and love will very likely conquer all.

Critique

Silver Linings Playbook was heavily involved in awards season for 2012 movies. There is a reason for this: it’s a wildly engaging movie because of a totally simple, accessible storyline delivered by spectacular performers.

The writing is not stupendous– although I do not speak for the book, which I haven’t read yet. There is nothing unpredictable about how the story unfolds– you can see every turn coming if you are familiar with tropes. That said, the dialogue is fresh, sharp, and extremely tight. What’s more, with David O. Russell helming this flick, the dialogue is delivered authentically and at a very natural rhythm.

The acting, particularly by Jackie Weaver as the mother and Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany, is astoundingly good. Both of these characters feel like they might almost be caricatures in the book– and on paper they are– but these ladies deliver characters with great depth of emotion and beautiful motivation. There is a particular moment where Tiffany accepts a dinner invitation that is very poorly timed– this moment had so many ways it could go wrong, but Lawrence keeps it even and delightful. That moment won Lawrence the Oscar. Everyone else does a great job too, even Bradley Cooper who has coasted on his stubble, looks, and fast-talking for far too long.

It’s unlikely that there is an adult that wouldn’t enjoy this movie with its fresh performances and perfectly accessible story.

Content warnings: There’s plenty of salty language mixed with a few fisticuffs. There is brief nudity that involves a woman’s backside and then her top for a moment.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 5          Overall: 5

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