Erased – Solid Genre Actioner

Erased

Country: United States
Genre: Drama/ Suspense
Director: Philipp Stölzl
Year: 2012

Rating: ★★★½☆

TRASH CINEMA RECOMMENDED MOVIE

CIA hotshot Ben Logan (Aaron Eckhart) left the agency six months ago to spend time with his teenage daughter Amy (Liana Liberato). Ben is now working in Brussels, troubleshooting security equipment.

One day, most of his co-workers are killed. Ben suspects that the only reason he and his daughter survived was because they were unexpectedly out of town.

With his daughter in tow, Ben must evade any assassins while he unravels the reason he’s targeted for death.

This is not exactly a new premise (it’s as least as old as Six Days Of The Condor), but it’s a solid basis for a thriller. Fortunately, screenwriter Arash Amel isn’t lazy or incompetent. He’s come up with solid characters and an intriguing story. There are enough twists to keep audience interest and everything Ben does is possible and logical.

Director Philipp Stölzl does his part by providing brisk pacing, crisp visuals, logical blocking for the action sequences, and supporting his actors. There aren’t any substandard performances, the sure mark of a professional director.

So far, this review is reading like a rave, so why the relatively low score?

Well, there is nothing exceptional about Erased. The plot, while logical and intriguing, doesn’t have any huge surprises or reversals. The action, while competent, doesn’t have that extra soupcon of brutality and viciousness to put it over the top. And there is one detail that bothered me a little. At one point, an assassin has Ben in the back of a car, about to be driven to his execution. Would the assassin really leave Ben alone, even for a second, to hand a stray document to the chief villain? At another point, screenwriter Arash Amel gives us a clump of exposition that, while logically presented, forced me to pause the DVD to think it through. It’s better practice to provide exposition in more digestible dribs and drabs.

But these are niggles. Erased is a solid piece of genre entertainment, exactly the kind of mid-priced action flick that’s hardly made anymore. It’s a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half.

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The Double – Family Is Everything

Double

Country: United States
Genre: Drama/ Action
Director: Michael Brandt
Year: 2011

Rating: ★★½☆☆

WORTH A LOOK

At first glance, The Double seems overly simplistic and even a little insulting. Minutes into the film, we realize that retired CIA hotshot Paul Shepherdson (Richard Gere) is actually hotshot Soviet assassin Cassius. When Cassius kills again after a 20 year hiatus, Shepherdson is brought in to assist young FBI technocrat Ben Geary (Topher Grace) in the search for Cassius. As Shepherdson never tires of telling Geary, hunting Cassius is no job for a family man.

But for some reason, even as Geary, in his bumbling way, comes ever closer to realizing Shepherdson is actually Cassius, Shepherdson cannot bring himself to kill this wet behind the ears numbskull.

Eventually, we find out the reasons, and they make a kind of literal sense, but the revelations aren’t all that interesting. Aside from that, they fly in the face of common sense and what any fool knows about spycraft. I can’t tell you why without a major spoiler, but let me just ask a rhetorical question. If you were a spy, would it be more conspicuous to be a lone wolf without community connections or to be a well respected family man?

Still, in a mindless, surface-y kind of way, I have to admit that The Double provides roughly 90 minutes of time killing entertainment. It’s just not very good. You won’t be moved and you won’t be challenged in any significant way. In other words, The Double isn’t as good as an average episode of The Wire, The Shield, Treme, or Justified.

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The Numbers Station – I Feel Like A Number

Numbers Station

Country: United States
Genre: Drama/ Action
Director: Kasper Barfoed
Year: 2013

Rating: ★★★☆☆

TRASH CINEMA RECOMMENDED MOVIE

Watching The Numbers Station, you get set up for low expectations pretty quickly. Emerson (John Cusack) and his boss Grey (Liam Cunningham) are sitting in a car, waiting for something. Grey regales Emerson with a anecdote that reeks of thematic relevance. With that, Emerson enters a bar and kills everyone without the slightest hesitation or compunction. You see, he’s a hitman for an unnamed intelligence organization.

Shortly thereafter, Emerson cannot bring himself to kill someone who is completely innocent, but who happens to witness him in action. The situation is resolved, but now Emerson is one step away from being terminated himself.

Any viewer with more awareness that an amoeba will have figured out by now that the big question of the movie is “Will Emerson be able to recover from the numbing of his soul?” We also recognize that the movie is addressing the utter immorality of the post 911 world, where drone strikes on wedding parties are a common occurrence, and collateral damage is taken for granted without blinking. This is pretty on the nose stuff.

Anyway, back to our movie.

As a way of proving that he’s “gotten his mind right,” Emerson is assigned as a minder to a coder in a numbers station.

This requires a little explanation. In the conceit of the movie, operatives in sensitive situations receive their instructions in the form of numbers, which are decoded on the spot using a specific key used for that one situation and consequently destroyed. A numbers station is the place from which these numbers are transmitted and a coder is the person who transmits the numbers.

The screenwriter of The Numbers Station, F. Scott Frazier, takes a cheap shot at the character of the coder Katherine (Malin Akerman), who imagines she’s “doing something for her country” but isn’t willing to take a cold hard look at the results of her actions. Obviously, she’s a stand-in for the technocrats who operate drones from a continent away and imagine that they don’t have blood on their hands.

Now, all that is well and good, and I don’t disagree with the writer’s point of view, but such points are better made obliquely in a genre film. Otherwise, it’s a bit insulting.

Anyway, the numbers station is attacked, predictably enough, and Emerson is forced to make hard choices that test his character.

How rote can you get, right?

And yet, The Numbers Station, while being pretty much by the numbers in some ways, is also professionally done. All of the acting is competent, the action is crisply shot and choreographed, the pace doesn’t drag, and there are lots of twists and turns to occupy the attention.

I found the ending altogether too hopeful, and not particularly believable, but then again, I’ve gotten awfully cynical.

The Numbers Station is not going to sway anyone’s political convictions. It’s too clumsy for that. The drama is too canned to be truly moving. But you know what? It’s a passable thriller, on the strength of professionalism alone.

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Life Of Pi – CGI As Art

Life Of Pi

Country: United States
Genre: Drama
Director: Ang Lee
Year: 2012

Rating: ★★★½☆

TRASH CINEMA RECOMMENDED MOVIE

CGI has been used for a variety of purposes in Hollywood. Mostly these days, it’s used for ugly pixelated videogame visuals, in the hope of snagging some of the sales of videogames, which leave movies in the dust, at least in terms of ROI (return on investment). But it’s been used for more enlightened purposes as well. James Cameron pioneered the use of CGI for photo-realism, which has become so widespread, it even shows up on television. Much more rare is the use of CGI for magic realism. Rarest of all is CGI as art. Other than Life Of Pi, the only other film I can think of that used CGI to create visual art meant to be appreciated as such is the insipid Robin Williams vehicle What Dreams May Come.

But Ang Lee takes CGI much further in this direction than it has ever gone before.

For large stretches of the film, Lee concentrates on Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Richard Parker is entirely a CGI creation. That is mostly true of all the other animals Pi encounters, which includes an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra, a tuna, hundreds of flying fish, sharks, a whale, and so on. Other CGI elements include waves, sky, storms, clouds, and weather in general.

The ocean sequences were filmed in a water tank and pretty much everything that actor Suraj Sharma reacts to is imaginary, created in post-production.

First, it has to be said that Suraj Sharma does an extraordinary job of reacting to the imaginary events of the story with little or no physical reality to work off of. He is never less than believable.

As for director Ang Lee, it would have been ambitious enough to strive for photo-realism alone, but he ladles on imagery sheerly for the beauty of it.

Perhaps that was a canny strategy because the animal CGI doesn’t work 100%, all the time. Certainly, there are plenty of times that it appears that you looking at a real tiger, but every once in a while, the CGI enters the uncanny valley. I’m thinking particularly of a moment involving a dying zebra rolling its eyes, which somehow betrays it’s digital origins, although I’d be at a loss to explain how.

Somehow, the choice to ladle gorgeous CGI clouds and seas into the imagery distracts from the few times the animal CGI doesn’t work. If we aren’t asked to accept the story on a purely realistic basis, but rather as magical realism, we can tolerate more CGI that doesn’t quite work without being pulled out of the movie.

Anyway, the point is, the CGI in Life Of Pi helps to tell the story and in fact enriches it, instead of getting in the way of the viewer’s immersion.

But is the story itself worth telling?

Well, yes. You would expect a story largely set on the high seas in a lifeboat to be rather static, and Life Of Pi doesn’t completely escape from that trap, but more often than not, it entertains. It helps that screenwriter David Magee has written charming characters (from a novel by Yann Martel). And there are plenty of plot complications and visual candy to wile away the time.

If Life Of Pi proves anything, it’s that from a visual standpoint at least, there is no such thing as an unfilmable novel anymore.

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