Mini Reviews (January 2012)
Apollo 18, The Artist, The Darkest Hour, Cold Sweat, Man on a Ledge, Miss Bala, Big Miracle
Apollo 18 (January 1/12)
An astonishingly incompetent and interminable piece of work, Apollo 18 details the chaos that ensues after several '70s era astronauts encounter a malicious entity during a routine trip to the moon. Apollo 18, which is presented as yet another found-footage documentary, proves unable to grab the viewer's interest virtually from start to finish, with the movie's unreasonably deliberate pace effectively highlighting its myriad of problems. Ranking high on the film's list of unconscionable deficiencies is its complete and utter lack of compelling characters, as filmmaker Gonzalo López-Gallego, working from Brian Miller's script, is simply unable to transform any of these one-dimensional victims-in-waiting into wholeheartedly (or even remotely) sympathetic figures. López-Gallego's ongoing efforts at perpetuating the film's found-footage conceit results in a visual style that's almost never not obnoxious and irritating, with the admitted authenticity of the movie's look rendered moot by the uneventful storyline and pervasive atmosphere of tedium. (There is, however, exactly one relatively decent sequence here, in which a survivor pleads with his superiors to bring him back home.) By the time the laughable cause of the astronauts' problems is revealed, Apollo 18 has certainly and unequivocally established itself as a misbegotten misfire of epic proportions - with the film's massive failure hopefully signaling the death knell of what is, more often than not, a consistently underwhelming genre.
An almost entirely silent film, The Artist, which unfolds in the late 1920s, follows silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) as his thriving career hits a major stumbling block with the inevitable arrival of sound - with this technical breakthrough proving a boon to an up-and-coming starlet named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). The archaic novelty of The Artist's execution is, aside from an overly gimmicky opening few minutes, never quite as problematic as one might've feared, as filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius does a superb job of immediately transforming the protagonist into a likeable and wholeheartedly compelling figure - with this feeling certainly cemented by Dujardin's almost unreasonably charismatic performance. It's only as the movie charges into its comparatively disastrous midsection that the viewer's interest begins to wane, with the pervasive emphasis on Valentin's downfall (ie the character loses his career, his house, his wife, etc, etc) lending the proceedings a palpably stagnant feel that persists right up until around the one-hour mark - after which point The Artist slowly-but-surely recovers in the build-up to its admittedly engaging (and appropriately feel-good) finale. The breezy and effortlessly entertaining third act confirms the film's place as a stirring yet uneven piece of work, with the inclusion of a few standout sequences during this stretch - eg Valentin's loyal dog saves him from a burning building - effectively compensating for the otherwise lackluster nature of the movie's padded-out midsection (ie it does seem, once everything is said and done, that The Artist would've been better off as a short film).
The Darkest Hour (January 8/12)
A familiar yet watchable thriller, The Darkest Hour follows four characters (Emile Hirsch's Sean, Max Minghella's Ben, Olivia Thirlby's Natalie, and Rachael Taylor's Anne) as their Moscow-based escapades are cut short after sinister (and invisible) aliens begin vaporizing everyone in sight - with the film subsequently detailing the foursome's ongoing efforts at staying alive. In its early stages, The Darkest Hour admittedly plays like a low-rent strangers-in-a-strange-land drama - as director Chris Gorak, working from Jon Spaihts' script, plays up the fish-out-of-water exploits of the two male protagonists. (There's even a silly subplot in which the pair's idea for an app is callously stolen by a smug Russian competitor.) The passable yet far-from-enthralling vibe persists right up until the initial attack by the transparent invaders, with the palpable energy of this sequence paving the way for an impressively consistent and engrossing final hour that's chock-a-block with exciting, tense interludes (eg the survivors meet up with an eccentric scientist who's transformed his apartment into a Faraday Cage). It is, as such, worth noting that the movie's occasional missteps become easy enough to overlook, as Gorak manages to sustain the progressively suspenseful atmosphere right through to the action-packed climactic battle - which ultimately confirms The Darkest Hour's place as an unexpectedly entertaining sci-fi thriller.
Cold Sweat (January 20/12)
Cold Sweat follows two friends (Facundo Espinosa's Roman and Marina Glezer's Ali) as they break into a mysterious old house to rescue a mutual pal (Camila Velasco's Jacquie) that's gone missing, with problems ensuing as it becomes increasingly clear that the two old men residing within aren't quite as harmless as they seem. Filmmaker Adrián García Bogliano offers up a slow-moving opening half hour that admittedly does hold some promise, as the appreciatively hoary setup is heightened by tantalizing glimpses of the horror that's clearly occurring within the aforementioned house. By the time the protagonists find themselves trapped, however, Cold Sweat has morphed into an underwhelming and surprisingly dull little thriller - as Bogliano's odd refusal to explain just what's going on lends the proceedings a distinctly muddled feel that proves disastrous (ie there is, as a result, simply no suspense or tension here). The time-wasting midsection - which seems to consist solely of scene after scene of the characters exploring the dark, creaky house - leads to a palpably anticlimactic finish that cements Cold Sweat's place as a seriously misbegotten endeavor, with the unreasonably ludicrous nature of the villains' modus operandi ranking high on the movie's list of hopelessly stupid elements.
Man on a Ledge (January 26/12)
True to its title, Man on a Ledge follows Sam Worthington's Nick Cassidy as he steps onto the ledge of a New York hotel and threatens to jump unless he receives assistance from a grizzled police psychologist (Elizabeth Banks' Lydia Mercer) - with the media circus that inevitably ensues acting as a cover for a heist being executed by two of Nick's cohorts (Jamie Bell's Joey and Genesis Rodriguez's Angie). It's a decent setup that is, at the outset, employed to impressively watchable effect by director Asger Leth, as the filmmaker, working from a script by Pablo F. Fenjves, offers up a compelling opening half hour that boasts a handful of intriguing flashbacks and an admittedly thrilling car chase - with the better-than-expected atmosphere heightened by the cavalcade of familiar faces within the supporting cast (including Edward Burns, Kyra Sedgwick, and Ed Harris). There does reach a point, however, at which the narrative becomes far too convoluted for its own good, as scripter Fenjves begins overloading the proceedings with periphery characters and subplots - with the aforementioned heist certainly ranking high on the movie's list of hopelessly uninvolving elements (ie it's just endless). It is, as such, impossible to overlook the feeling that the movie is simply spinning its wheels in the buildup to the action-packed climax, with the plodding nature of the midsection exacerbated by an almost total dearth of energetic interludes - which, perhaps predictably, ultimately cements Man on a Ledge's place as a decent 22-minute television episode that's been unnaturally stretched into a full-length feature.
Miss Bala (January 30/12)
Saddled with a spare narrative and a woefully underdeveloped protagonist, Miss Bala, for the most part, comes off as an audacious yet hopelessly uninvolving art-house thriller that peters out significantly in the buildup to its anticlimactic finale. The storyline follows aspiring beauty contestant Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) as she catches the eye of a vicious gang leader (Noe Hernandez's Lino) during a night out, with the film subsequently detailing the various (and illicit) hoops that Laura is forced to jump through by Hernandez's imposing character. Director Gerardo Naranjo admittedly does a superb job of initially drawing the viewer into the proceedings, as the filmmaker has infused Miss Bala with an engrossing and consistently inventive visual style that proves impossible to resist - with the movie's striking appearance heightened by Mátyás Erdély's often jaw-dropping camerawork (ie fans of widescreen cinematography and/or long takes will be especially captivated). It's not surprising to note that the pervasive lack of context is, at the outset, not as problematic as one might've feared, with Naranjo's propulsive sensibilities, coupled with the inclusion of a few admittedly tense interludes, ensuring that the film is generally carried along by its energetic atmosphere and strong lead performance by model-turned-actress Sigman. Miss Bala's transformation from watchable thriller to interminable mess is triggered by a series of underwhelming, time-wasting sequences in the movie's midsection, with the film's unabashed lack of expository elements growing more and more troublesome as time progresses (ie it becomes increasingly difficult to work up any real interest in or sympathy for Laura's perilous plight). It's finally impossible to label Miss Bala as anything more than a cinematic experiment gone hopelessly awry, which is a shame, certainly, given the strength of the movie's opening half hour and Naranjo's obvious prowess behind the camera.
Big Miracle (January 30/12)
Inspired by true events, Big Miracle details the media circus that ensues after a small-time reporter (John Krasinski's Adam Carlson) breaks the story of three whales trapped in the ice within the Arctic Circle - with the ensuing efforts to break the animals free eventually involving everyone from a local environmentalist (Drew Barrymore's Rachel Kramer) to a pair of struggling entrepreneurs (James LeGros' Karl and Rob Riggle's Dean) to the President of the United States. It's clear right from the outset that Big Miracle has no greater goal than to come off as an unabashed (and distinctly old-fashioned) feel-good drama, as filmmaker Ken Kwapis, working from a script by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, has infused the movie with a briskly-paced, pervasively likeable feel that generally does prove impossible to resist. The inherently compelling premise is, in the film's early stages, heightened by the efforts of an impressively diverse roster of performers, with, in particular, Krasinski's expectedly personable turn standing as a palpable highlight within the proceedings - although, having said that, it's certainly difficult not to get a kick out of LeGros and Riggle's lighthearted work as the project's possible saviors. It's not until Big Miracle rolls into its comparatively underwhelming midsection that the movie begins to lose its hold on the viewer, as Amiel and Begler, perhaps in an effort to pad out the running time, place an ongoing emphasis on elements of a distinctly needless variety (eg a rather pointless love triangle between Krasinski's Adam, Barrymore's Rachel, and Kristen Bell's Jill) - with the spinning-its-wheels vibe persisting right up until the film's appreciatively engrossing (and suspenseful) final stretch. The periodic inclusion of stand-out sequences - eg a generator must be transported to the site by helicopter without being switched off - ensures that the film retains its watchable feel even through its more aggressively superfluous portions, with the end result a perfectly competent crowd-pleaser that gets the job done in as inoffensive and blandly passable a manner as one could have envisioned.