Mini Reviews (January 2014)
Vehicle 19, 47 Ronin, Back in the Day, Big Bad Wolves
Vehicle 19 (January 5/14)
The degree to which Vehicle 19 flounders and ultimately fails is, to put it mildly, rather disappointing, as the movie boasts a seemingly foolproof setup that is, at the outset, heightened by the promise of Paul Walker's turn as the central character. The spare narrative, which follows Walker's Michael Woods as he picks up a rental car with ties to a corrupt police detective, unfolds at an unconscionably deliberate pace that results in a total absence of momentum, with the viewer unable, at any time, to work up any real interest in or enthusiasm for the protagonist's increasingly perilous plight. And although filmmaker Mukunda Michael Dewil does a nice job of exploiting the movie's African setting, Vehicle 19, quicker than one might've preferred, inevitably establishes itself as just another generic actioner with few elements designed to separate it from its similarly-themed brethren. It's clear, too, that Walker's less-than-engrossing performance ranks high on the film's list of unimpressive attributes, as the actor, despite his best efforts, is simply unable to transform his thinly-developed character into a figure worth rooting for and sympathizing with. The only real respite from the otherwise pervasive tedium comes in the form of a surprisingly tense climax, with the strength of this short-lived stretch standing as an apt look into into what the movie could have been (instead of what it actually is) - with the end result a film that barely feels as though it would've worked as a 15 minute short (let alone a full-length feature).
47 Ronin (January 6/14)
Though hardly an all-out disaster, 47 Ronin suffers from a death of compelling attributes that ensures it remains, for the majority of its overlong running time, an utterly, hopelessly bland experience - with the movie's failure especially disappointing given the considerable talent on both sides of the camera. The routine (and predictable) storyline, which follows a group of disgraced samurai (including Hiroyuki Sanada's Ôishi and Keanu Reeves' Kai) as they set out to overthrow a ruthless warrior (Tadanobu Asano's Lord Kira), unfolds at an impossibly deliberate pace that's especially problematic during the uneventful opening hour, as scripters Chris Morgan and Hossein Amini's struggle to provide an entry point prevents the viewer from connecting to either the material or the characters - with, in terms of the latter, the Japanese actors' obvious discomfort with their English-language dialogue resulting in a series of stiff, stilted performances (ie only Sanada is able to make anything resembling a positive impact). The shift into the movie's episodic midsection certainly doesn't help matters, as it becomes more and more difficult to work up any enthusiasm for or interest in the title group's ongoing exploits. (There is, having said that, one decent sequence revolving around the heroes' efforts at procuring swords, but that's a rare exception to the film's otherwise uninvolving vibe.) 47 Ronin's perpetually middling atmosphere paves the way for a thoroughly underwhelming climax, with the ineffectiveness of this stretch compounded by director Carl Rinsch's decision to bathe it darkness - which, in the end, stands emblematic of the film's pervasive inability to establish itself as anything more than a barely-passable big-budget misfire.
Back in the Day (January 8/14)
Written and directed by Michael Rosenbaum, Back in the Day follows struggling actor Jim Owens (Rosenbaum) as he returns home to attend a milestone high-school reunion - with the movie detailing Jim's encounters with old friends (including Harland Williams' Skunk and Kristoffer Polaha's Len) and his teenage sweetheart (Morena Baccarin's Lori). There's nothing especially fresh or innovative about Back in the Day - the film does, for the most part, unfold exactly as one might've guessed based on the premise - and yet it's hard to deny that the movie remains surprisingly watchable virtually from beginning to end. First-time filmmaker Rosenbaum has infused the proceedings with an pervasively affable vibe that's impossible to resist, with the feel-good atmosphere perpetuated by a roster of appealing, charismatic performances - with Rosenbaum's engaging turn as the central character matched by an impressively strong supporting cast. (Folks like Baccarin and Polaha are very good here, yet it's impossible to deny that Williams, though clearly much older than his costars, stands out as the film's most valuable player.) It's worth noting, however, that even at 94 minutes, Back in the Day suffers from a handful of sluggish patches that prove a test to one's ongoing interest and wreak havoc on the movie's already-tenuous momentum - with the film, admittedly, recovering for a funny (and surprisingly unpredictable) final stretch. The end result is a better-than-average debut that bodes well for Rosenbaum's future endeavors as a filmmaker, with the movie ultimately earning a place for itself alongside such other amiable high-school-reunion pictures as Grosse Pointe Blank and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion.
Big Bad Wolves (January 22/14)
Big Bad Wolves details the bloody violence that ensues after a grieving father (Tzahi Grad's Gidi) abducts the man (Rotem Keinan's Dror) he believes murdered his daughter, with the film following Gidi as he and a rogue cop (Lior Ashkenazi's Micki) attempt to torture Dror into admitting his guilt. There's little doubt that directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado do a fantastic job of immediately luring the viewer into Big Bad Wolves' narrative, as the movie opens with a striking slow-motion sequence that sets a tone of impossible-to-resist lurid stylishness - with that vibe perpetuated by a first half that's similarly rife with memorable interludes and hypnotic instances of bravura filmmaking. It's only as the film shifts into its dialogue-heavy and unexpectedly stagy second half that one's interest begins to wane, with Keshales and Papushado's screenplay, past that point, adopting a stagy feel that wreaks havoc on the movie's momentum (ie the filmmakers seem to be going out of their way to pad the running time up to a needlessly overlong 110 minutes). And although it often does feel as though Keshales and Papushado are merely prolonging the inevitable, Big Bad Wolves manages to conclude on an unexpected and impressively mean-spirited note - which ultimately cements the film's place as an engaging yet uneven little revenge thriller.