Tuesday, November 29, 2011

THE MUPPETS - It's Time To Get Things Started


- For as long as I can remember, I've been a fan of The Muppets. I grew up watching The Muppet Show in syndication every day after school. Muppet Babies was my absolute favorite Saturday morning cartoon as a young kid - I hopped out of bed and ran downstairs to watch it - I even remember going to see the live stage version of the cartoon at one point. I never missed The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, or The Muppets Take Manhattan if any of them came on TV. And I religiously watched every Muppet special that aired, from childhood and into adulthood. From the time I was a young kid, I counted Jim Henson as one of my heroes and inspirations, and even though I was very young when he died, it was one of the first "celebrity" deaths I was aware of that completely threw me for a loop. Jim Henson and The Muppets were all about imagination, entertainment, wry yet silly humor, and an overall spirit of optimism - tinged with darkness - that was and is infectious and inspiring. Jim Henson and The Muppets made me want to tell my own stories, to create. "When your room looks kind of weird, and you wish that you weren't there, just close your eyes and make believe, and you can be anywhere." For a kid growing up in small-town suburbia, that simple statement was surprisingly powerful.

I don't know that The Muppets ever really left pop-culture, but THE MUPPETS is nonetheless being billed as their big comeback. And certainly, it's been a long time since the characters were this omnipresent. And the vibe of the new movie is that of a tribute to beloved characters that have been unearthed after years - even decades - of being relegated to the cultural scrap-heap. That's both good and bad. The good is that this is a movie that, clearly, is trying to do right by these characters. It's trying to make them feel big and important and special. It's not taking anything for granted. The bad? Well, the bad is that the movie sometimes feels too much like a fan-film - and I think it's fair to say that it's a movie that's less about plot, less about doing something new - and more about creating a sort of "greatest hits" package of all that we love about The Muppets.

But for those of us who grew up with the characters, well, the script by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller is designed to push all of our nostalgia buttons. It's a classic "getting the gang back together" sort of story, and this means that the Muppet crew gets torn down so that Segel and Stoller can build them back up again. Most of the character stuff works, although I had a couple of issues. Certainly, I never saw what the legendary Frank Oz saw when he criticized the film for not keeping with the spirit of the characters. The spirit, I thought, was definitely there. The humor was definitely there. There are even those moments where, dammit all, you just may find yourself reaching for a hankie. This is definitely the Muppets, no doubt about it.

I guess my issue with the script is that a lot of it feels either arbitrary or like a retread of stuff we've seen before. For instance, while a lot of the "gathering the team" bits are great for some laughs (Fozzie is a highlight), the big plot point that drives a lot of the script - revolving around Kermit and Ms. Piggy and their fractured relationship - is lacking. And yes, I realize how semi-absurd that sounds as a I type it. But I just found it odd that the movie makes this huge deal out of separating and reuniting the couple in such melodramatic fashion, without much in the way of explanation as to why they separated in the first place. It just felt a bit rushed, contrived. And a lot of the storylines around the familiar Muppets felt similar, like Segel and Stoller had thought up some decent siutations for them, but not exactly the *best* situations, the ones that would feel perfect. Like, Gonzo running a factory that makes toilets. Sort of funny, but also random to the point of not 100% clicking. It's funny, but it didn't make me smile and say "that's perfect, that's exactly what a retired-from-showbiz Gonzo *would* be doing." And yeah, talking about the Muppets like that, again, it might sound weird. But these are beloved characters, deep characters, characters that, through the magic of the performers who bring them to life - they practically are living, breathing creatures. Maybe it was just that the backstories weren't very fleshed-out. Why would Kermit and Piggy split and not talk for years? I mean, geez, that's pretty harsh. Why would Animal go to therapy to quit drumming? Did someone force him to? Why would Statler and Waldorff sell out the Muppets to the movie's villain - we know they like to rag on stuff, but I never realized that they actually hate their Muppet companions (although later in the movie they're a part of the revitalized Muppet Show, so who knows).

But like I said, this is a movie that makes the most out of the sheer iconography and lovableness of the characters. The way it's constructed, it's awesome when the gang finally does get back together, and cleans up the old Muppet theater and sings "We Built This City (On Rock & Roll)." When we first meet Kermit, it's not just, "oh yeah, and here's Kermit." It's "and here's Kermit T. By-God Frog, the most beloved fictional character of all time, and one legendary amphibian." Segel and Stoller's Muppet fandom is palpable. The movie is, basically, one giant geek-out.

To that end, a lot of parts of the movie sort of faded in awesomeness for me the more I thought about them. Because a lot of the thrill of the movie is in the geeking-out and nostalgia. "OMG, Kermit! Fozzy! Sweetums! Rizzo! The Swedish Chef!" But what I think people will remember about the film are Jason Segel, Amy Adams, and new Muppet, Walter. Through Walter and Segel, we sort of get beyond the greatest hits and get, I think, the movie's most interest twist on the Muppet mythos - a Muppet who wants to be a Muppet but is living in the human world. And a Man who spends all his time with a Muppet, and in doing so neglects the real world - i.e. his fiance. That's why the "Man or Muppet" song in the film is perhaps it's most memorable. Here, the movie dares to posit that we're all a little bit Muppet, and in turn, the Muppets are pretty darn human. It's a neat little meta-commentary on the fiction of this world. And of course, Segel and Adams pull off their parts extremely well.

At the same time though, THE MUPPETS also transcends tribute via its hipster-cool Flight of the Conchords influence. Director James Bobin, who cut his teeth on Conchords, infuses the film with quirky energy and a slight surrealist bent that will be familiar to anyone who was a fan of FOTC. Similarly, the original songs in the film feel very, very Conchords-ish, and that's no coincidence, as they were crafted by Bret McKenzie himself. The fusion of Conchords and Muppets sensibilities proves to be a great match, as the songs are funny, clever, quirky, and catchy. Occasionally, they're even pretty out there, like when Chris Cooper - playing the movie's vile villain - bursts out in a spontaneous old-school rap session. The songs aren't necessarilly as instantly memorable and timeless as other Muppet classics, but they give the movie a fun, bouncy energy. The movie also establishes its hipster cred - and reestablishes the Muppets as alt-comedy icons - thanks to its long list of cameos. Donald Glover, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris, Kristin Schaal, and many more show up, and stars like Rashida Jones and Jack Black play very prominent roles. The casting overall is pretty great. And certainly, while the movie will play well to kids, there's a metric ton packed in specifically designed to appeal to the Gen X and Y fans of the franchise.

And yet, I also give the movie credit for remembering to have heart. Yes, I complained a bit earlier about some of the script issues, but the movie does have a lot of little moments that tug on the heartstrings, whether it's Kermit reprising "The Rainbow Connection," or his somber song about the pictures in his head of his old Muppet pals. There's even a moment - nicely understated - where we see a photo of Jim Henson that will give some chills to any longtime Muppet fan. And really, what THE MUPPETS is ... is a great collection of fun and entertaining little moments. From Piggy karate-chopping a two-bit imitator to Animal rediscovering his love for bangin' on the drums. That's why I agree with a sentiment I've seen elsewhere, which is that THE MUPPETS almost works better as a prelude to a new Muppet Show variety show than as an argument for a new series of feature films. The connective tissue here is mostly stuff we've seen before - evil oil baron wants to tear down the Muppet Theater, and Kermit and co. have to put on a show to raise the money to stop him. As a big, big-screen-worthy movie, this isn't in the same league as The Muppet Movie or The Great Muppet Caper. But what it does a great job with is having the zany, anything-can-happen feel of The Muppet Show.

At the end of the day, this is simply one of the happiest, most fun, most feel-good movies we've seen in theaters in a long time. It's a noble effort, and its heart is in the right place. I think kids of all ages will be more than happy to share in this love letter to Jim Henson and the gifts that he gave us.

My Grade: B+

Monday, November 14, 2011

IMMORTALS: Does Tarsem Singh's Epic Achieve Glory?


- A few years ago, a friend of mine gave me a copy of The Fall on blu-ray. The move came highly recommended - a visual tour de force from director Tarsem Singh. I found a lot to like in the film - the movie's fantasy sequences were, visually, absolutely stunning. The movie flashed back and forth between these fantasy scenes and a more somber real-world setting, and a large part of me wished that this had just been an entire film set in that eye-popping mythological world. While the real-world elements dragged, and felt awkward - even tone-deaf - at times, the fantasy scenes showed that Tarsem was someone to watch. This was a guy who had an incredible eye for color, costumes, and perspective - a unique, new voice in film. To that end, I knew going in that IMMORTALS was going to be more than just a 300 or Clash of the Titans clone. With Tarsem at the helm, the movie would look and feel unique and special. And after seeing the movie, that is certainly the case. IMMORTALS is, once again, a visual tour de force - with psychedelic action, stunning cinematography, and an overall look and feel that is gaudy, extreme, and definitely not generic. By the same token, while Tarsem excels with visuals, he is still developing as a storyteller. Like The Fall, the pacing and overall narrative structure of Immortals feels somewhat off, and the movie rarely feels 100% cohesive. Still, these issues are not enough to totally derail the film. As sheer action-movie spectacle, Immortals delivers.

IMMORTALS is a highly-stylized take on ancient Greek myth, with an epic yet very simple story driving the action. Our hero is Theseus, a peasant whose homeland is invaded by the ruthless, conquering armies of King Hyperion. Hyperion's plan is to find and utilize a legendary bow that would make him unstoppable on the battlefield, and that also has a secondary purpose - to help free the long-imprisoned Titans of myth - fearsome demigods who once waged war with Zeus and the rest of the Olympians. So while Theseus leads a rebel faction (including a thief, a monk, and the fabled, prophetic vision-having Oracle) against Hyperion, the Olympians sit atop Olympus and wonder whether they should interfere, so as to avoid another heavenly war with their old rivals.

At least, this is sort of what I gathered to be the plot, as the movie doesn't dwell a lot on story, and even when it does, it's more about giving us melodramatic speeches and monologues than a cohesive plot. For the first several minutes of Immortals, expect to feel a bit lost. Eventually, things fall more into place - or at the least, the action picks up so we don't need to worry as much about the particulars of the plot. But this is one of those movies where I guess you sort of just have to go with the flow. A lot of things don't always make sense.

But, what does stand out is the charismatic cast, who more than ably steps up to make these heroes of myth larger than life. A couple of things stood out to me about this cast. One is that Mickey Rourke steals the show as the sadistic King Hyperion. We never find out much about the character's backstory or anything, but as played by Rourke, we do know that he's one badass sonofabitch. Rourke gives Hyperion a low, somber dialect that's brimming with barely-contained rage, and it makes all of his hate-filled speechifying that much more riveting. In short, he's awesome. The second thing that really was cool about this film was that, in my view, Henry Cavill did a great job in the lead role of Theseus. Sure, Cavill was saddled with some clunky dialogue, but he really showed some good intensity and yes, gravitas. I think fanboys will take note, because the impression I got from Immortals is that Cavill may just make for one hell of a Superman. In this film alone, he shows he's got the acting chops, the physicality, and the screen presence to be the Man of Steel.

The movie is rounded out by a pretty good supporting cast as well. Frieda Pinto for one, well, please just cast her as every exotic fantasy film female from now on, and I'll be happy. Pinto has the presence to pull off these sorts of roles with ease, and as the Oracle, she does a fine job - again, even if she's not given much to work with and is saddled with some groan-worthy dialogue. But Pinto's natural talent shines through (and no, I won't make a joke about her other, um, "assets" ... suffice it to say - men, there's your reason to see this one in 3D). The great John Hurt also turns in a nice performance as the mysterious and unnamed Old Man who materializes to give Theseus advice. I also enjoyed the performance of Luke Evans as Zeus - appropriately theatrical and melodramatic, it was an effective portrayal. A little less great? Stephen Dorff as a thief who acts a defacto sidekick for Theseus. Dorff is supposed to be the comic relief, but most of his one-liners are groan instead of laugh-inducing.

Now, Tarsem has filled his movie with some quality, larger-than-life actors, and the movie really sings when he's got them engaged in some crazy-ass action. The film's action scenes unfold in a videogame-like manner, seeming to take a lot of cues from the God of War series - replicating those games' chained attacks and elegantly-choreographed brutality. In fact, a lot of Immortals seems to follow a videogame-style logic structure. Like I said, the plot is a bit all-over-the-place and fairly bare bones, and in that respect, the movie follows some of the pacing of a game like God of War - swift, chaotic action quickly tempered by character-building "cut scenes" that serve as a brief respite between battles. Now, in a game, cut scenes provide cruscial storybuilding moments, as well as a break for your fingers. But this style of pacing is a bit awkward in a movie like this. It makes the film feel very jumpy - crazy-ass action often - and almost always awkwardly - transitioning into quieter, more dialogue-heavy scenes. Like I said though, so much of the movie is that videgame-y "find the weapon, beat the baddie - pull the crank, open the door" style of storytelling. It becomes less jarring as the movie goes along, and you realize that you're essentially watching a live-action Playstation game. At the same time though, there's a disjointedness that the movie never truly overcomes. Even simple things like "how did the characters get from Point A to Point B?" ... the movie lacks a sense of flow that ties its disaparate scenes together.

But man, even if this is just a live-action Playstation game, well, what a beautiful Playstation game it is. Tarsem colors his mythological world with gorgeous scenes of mountains, oceans, waterfalls, and fortresses. And the costume and character design is very cool - a mix of Greek myth, Eastern aesthetics, and Conan the Barbarian-style fantasy-adventure grittiness. The battles are all choreographed extremely well, and have plenty of bone-crunchingly-satisfying carnage.

Overall, there are glimpses of greatness in IMMORTALS. Mickey Rourke's memorable, villainous turn. The glimmers of action-hero awesomeness shown by Henry Cavill. And the painterly, eye-popping, brutal-yet-beautiful visuals of Tarsem Singh. If only the film had the drama, plot, and characterization to match, it could have been truly epic. So far, Tarsem Singh has proven that he is a visionary director when it comes to visuals - now he needs to match those amazing visuals with equally amazing ideas.

My Grade: B

Friday, November 11, 2011

A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS - Goodbye Whitecastle, Hello Wafflebot.


- You've got to love the Harold & Kumar movies. They're just inherently goofy and good-natured. So keeping with tradition, this latest H&K flick is good for some quality laughs. And it's in 3D to boot - shamelessly, hilariously in 3D, throwing all manner of cheerful ludeness right in your face. I wouldn't call this a great movie - or even necessarilly a must-see - but if you're in the mood for some lighthearted holiday silliness, you can't go wrong with this entertaining - and incredibly random - third adventure starring everyone's favorite minority stoners.

The movie opens with a tried-and-true setup. It seems that while Kumar, now pushing 30, continues to live the carefree life of the stoned-out slacker, Harold - now married and working at a high-paying Wallstreet job - has grown up and moved past his old, Whitecastle-craving ways. In the years since their last adventure, the dynamic duo has increasingly grown apart, and are no longer on the best of terms. But when a mysterious package shows up at Kumar's apartment, addressed to Harold, Kumar ventures to Harold's stately manor to drop it off, and possibly reconnect with his old buddy.

Harold is having problems of his own. His wife's huge Mexican family is staying over for Christmas, and it turns out that his father-in-law is an easily-peeved Danny friggin' Trejo. Trejo likes his Christmas celebrations to be just right, and anything less will unleash his presumably fearsome wrath (he is, afterall, Machete!). So when Kumar's visit leads to an accident that destroys Trejo's special, one-of-a-kind Christmas Tree, Harold and Kumar must once again venture out into the night together on an epic quest - a quest to save Christmas. Along the way, Kumar must struggle to prove that he can grow up and be a man. Harold tries to rediscover his inner manchild. Eventually, Neil Patrick Harris shows up, a baby tries crack, a Russian gangster tries to kill our heroes, and generally, much hilarity ensues.

Oftentimes, the movie is so all over the place and random that it feels less like a cohesive film and more like a thrown-together collection of short comedy bits. That's not necessarilly a bad thing, but it sometimes gives the film a made-for-TV movie sort of feel. The movie throws a ton of stuff against the wall just to see what sticks. This leads to some great gags (Wafflebot!), and some that are, well, not so great (Harold and Kumar's awkwardly unfunny dinner with Jewish friends). And some moments are just plain random - like a trippy claymation sequence that parodies the old-school holiday specials of yore.

But the movie has its share of memorable jokes. Neil Patrick Harris has some hilarious riffs on his status as an out-and-proud gay man. Danny Trejo and his humongous Mexican clan are the targets of some on-the-money jokes. And a scene where our heroes take on a bunch of bratty teens in a spirited game of beer-pong is a highlight, even if only for the amazing Jaden Smith joke that had me in stitches. Oh, and did I mention that there's a Wafflebot, and that it's awesome (want!)?

Kal Penn and John Cho slip easily back into their signature roles, and don't seem to have missed a beat (and the movie even playfully jabs at Penn's recent foray into politics). They've got a good supporting cast, too. There's the aforementioned Trejo, who does deadpan badassery like noone else. There's also Thomas Lennon as Harold's whitebread friend, Amir Blumenfeld as Kumar's dorky pal, and of course NPH, are all very funny. Lennon and Blumenfeld get a little lost in the shuffle once Harold and Kumar reunite, but NPH gives the movie some much-needed spark, right as it's starting to drag a bit around the 3/4 mark.

The 3D is gimmicky, but blatantly so. The movie even jokes about the fact that 3D has jumped the shark, but at least it has fun with the tech. Still, it may not be quite enough to justify the high ticket prices that 3D commands these days at the theater.

All in all, Harold & Kumar feels like a reunion with a bunch of old college buddies. Maybe not quite as awesome as you'd hoped, but it's still fun to hang out, laugh, and have some good times. The movie is hit and miss, but it's definitely filled with enough solid laughs to justify one (hopefully) last go-round.

My Grade: B

TOWER HEIST - Occupy This Movie?


- Tower Heist isn't terrible - it's mildly entertaining and plenty watchable. But it's also just numbingly average, never particulary clever, funny, or exciting. It's a thoroughly average effort from a cast that deserves better, and from a director - the now-infamous Brett Ratner - whose films tend to be workmanlike and serviceable - but devoid of personality or depth.

Often, Ratner has been able to sit back and rely on talent or f/x to make his movies work. I'm an unabashed fan of the Rush Hour movies, but those were just a great showcase for Jackie Chan and his incredible martial arts maneuvers. I'm even a huge defender of X-Men 3. I enjoyed the more comic-bookish tone, outlandish characters, and over-the-top action. In both the Rush Hour and X-Men flicks, Ratner to me displayed a real knack for staging exciting action set-pieces. But Tower Heist, lacking the awesomeness of a Jackie Chan or the visual pyrotechnics of the X-movies, is just sort of bland. In a heist movie, you need to have great characters, an intriguing setup, and a well-thought-out scheme. Tower Heist never really offers a compelling heist. And the action never really escalates to Rush Hour-levels of bigness. In short, the excitement-level just isn't there. Plus, this is a heist movie *and* a comedy - featuring big name talent like Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller, and Matthew Broderick. You need jokes and setups to match that level of comedic prowess. And sadly, Tower Heist just isn't that funny.

I put a lot of blame on the script. This is one of those movies that just never really crackles or pops. The few laughs seem to come from sheer force of will, with guys like Murphy giving their all to make the mostly weaksauce jokes zing. I know a lot of people are calling this film the return of the old-school Eddie Murphy, but this feels like a warmed-over version of the guy from so many 80's-era comedy classics. The PG13 limitations of the movie keep Murphy from ever truly cutting loose. And overall, his character here has little that's distinguishing. He's a street criminal who's been in and out of jail, who somehow grew up with Ben Stiller's character, and who knows a thing or two about pulling off a robbery. Inherently, of course, Murphy's character makes little sense in the context of the story - how is a low-level crook going to be of service in breaking into a high-security safe that's hidden away in a Trump Towers-like complex? But that could have been overlooked if Murphy was given more to do, or more memorable moments. As is, I hate to say it, but he comes off less like the Eddie Murphy of old and more like a ripoff of Leon on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The rest of the cast is similarly overqualified and underutilized. Ben Stiller helps to anchor the movie, but he also feels a bit too reigned in. He goes from mild-mannered Hotel Manager to eager thief all too quickly. And I couldn't help but be distracted by the exaggerated New York accent he tries to pull off here. Matthew Broderick's character - a down-on-his-luck ex-Wallstreet banker - is just sort of a wet blanket here - he does his best with it, but it's just not that interesting of a character. Actually, the standout might be Casey Affleck as one of Stiller's underlings at the hotel. Affleck is always good in dramatic roles, but he shows some good comedic timing and has a lot of the movie's best scenes. Again though, it's crazy how much talent is squandered in this movie - and yet it's that level of talent that keeps the movie from being far worse. Alan Alda is the villain - a corrupt tycoon who, after roping the hotel employees into a money-absorbing investment scheme, becomes the target of Stiller's Robin Hood-esque robbery plan. And Alan Alda is awesome, as per usual. He single-handedly gives us a reason to root for Stiller and co., as he creates a delightfully slimy and hateable villain. But it's all Alda. The script gives him very few great lines or moments. But at least Alda has a lot of screentime. Meanwhile, you've got the great Judd Hirsch playing a barely-there side character. It's craziness. Michael Pena, so awesome in 30 Minutes or Less, does almost nothing. Tea Leoni is pretty good as an FBI agent investigating Alda, who takes a liking to Stiller. But after she steals a few scenes, it's disappointing that she is ultimately such a nonfactor. How about Gabourey Sidibe of Precious fame? Her character had a lot of potential to bring the funny, but those scenes you saw of her in the trailer? Yeah, those are basically her best moments in the film.

Getting back to the overall heist aspect of the film - it's just not very well constructed. We never feel like we quite know what the plan is - things just happen. There are so many plot holes that you begin to lose track. At the least though, I thought the movie might be redeemed by a great action scene or two. But there's really nothing to get excited about - no cool car chases, no intense shootouts, no big, exclamation-point moments. Eddie Murphy is a walking quip machine, but he's never given any of that great, action-movie dialogue that made movies like 48 Hours so fun. Hell, even Rush Hour had some fun back-and-forth between Chan and Chris Tucker. In Tower Heist, the witty banter is scarce, to say the least.

There's one key thing that Tower Heist has going for it (other than the stacked cast). And that one thing is that it's incredibly, surprisingly timely in terms of its overall plot and sentiment. There's definitely an initial rush that comes with the realization that the film is taking on the same themes and tropes of the whole Occupy Wall St. movement. And there's a thrill to seeing a sort of revenge story play out where it's essentially the screwed-over 99% vs. the money-grubbing 1%. And the movie is at its strongest when it's playing off of those emotions and giving us that underdog story, Stiller-as-everyman vs. Alda-as-fatcat. If the movie had taken things a step further and really played up that conflict in the script, then maybe it could have been more effective. But as is, it's a strong element of the film, but one that's hampered by this being an action-comedy. And it's too bad, because the film gets interesting when it's an underdog comedy about class warfare, but a lot less so when it's doing action, or heist stuff, or more over-the-top comedy.

TOWER HEIST is never offensively bad or anything, and it's intriguing in that it's one of the first movies I've seen that seems to directly address some of the current economic tensions going on. But, it's also just not that great of a film. Lots of good, funny actors essentially wasted thanks to a bland script (suffice it to say, it was definitely premature to call this any sort of a return-to-comedy-form for Eddie Murphy). Not much in the way of fun action. And the plotpoint at the heart of the movie - the big heist - feels rushed, slapped together, and not well thought-out by the writers or director. To use Ratner-speak, it's more of a whimper, not so much a "bang."

My Grade: C

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

IN TIME is Timely Sci-Fi

IN TIME Review:

- There are so few hard sci-fi movies made these days, that when one comes along my interest is most definitely piqued. What do I mean by "hard' sci-fi, you might ask? I mean films that use sci-fi concepts as more than just a backdrop or setting for a story, but that, instead, actually go in-depth to explore scientific concepts beyond what exists today. Hard sci-fi is as much about *ideas* - logical ones, plausible ones - ideas spun out of real science, politics, and society - as it is plot, characters, and setting. Now, in recent years we've gotten some great entries in the genre. Moon. District 9. And now, along comes IN TIME - but is it worthy of being put into that same category of modern sci-fi classic? The film certainly can't be faulted for lack of ambition - it seems to aspire to match the high-concept sci-fi adventure of classics like Logan's Run and Blade Runner. It comes to us from writer-director Andrew Niccol, who perhaps crafted his masterpiece when he wrote the screenplay for The Truman Show, and who made 90's sci-fi flick Gattaca into a mostly well-regarded cult favorite.

In Time is very similar to Gattaca in many ways - it's got a dystopian conceit at its core, one that creates an oppressive future-world where one man is trying to buck the system. In the world of IN TIME, time itself is used as currency. The good part is that, thanks to genetic engineering - beginning at 25, your body no longer ages. You'll look and feel 25 for the rest of your life. But here's the bad news: once you turn 25, a countdown clock appears on your arm. From that point on, you have one year to live - unless you earn time like we, now, earn money. Working earns you time. You can get time at the bank, even take out a loan. But you also spend time to buy goods and services. So every cup of coffee that you buy is hours off your life. That is, unless you're one of this world's time-rich elite. In this future, you see, there is a staggering divide between rich and poor. The rich - blessed with so much time that they are essentially immortal, live leisurely lives of excess and luxury. The poor, confined to ghetto-like "zones" are separated by armed guards and fences from the rich. Most live day to day - literally. They have only one day's worth of time saved up, and if they don't get their next paycheck ... they're dead. Crime and time-theft is rampant. The poor steal, gamble, scrap, and fight to make extra time.

It's a far-fetched but incredibly intriguing concept. And the movie gives enough thought to this premise that all the in's and outs of this world are, in my mind, enough to make the film worth checking out. Even when I wasn't enthralled with the movie's plot or characters, I was fascinated with the rules and inner-workings of this crazy world that Andrew Niccol had devised.

So yeah, the core concept here is strong enough that it carries the movie, and the setup for the plot is also rife with potential. Justin Timberlake plays our hero, Will Salas. Basically, Will lives in the ghetto and lives day-to-day, making end's meat to keep himself and his mom (Olivia Wilde - singlehandedly redefining the meaning of the Oedipul Complex) afloat. One day, however, he meets a mysterious and wealthy man (Matt Bomer) who has ventured away from his home. The man, replete with time, has lived well past his natural expiration date and is looking to call it a day. But before he does, he's decided to give his time to one worthy pauper. When Timberlake's Will comes to his aid in a scrape with some devious gang members (a dapper group of rogues known as the Minutemen ...), the mysterious benefactor deems Will worthy to inherit his fortune. And so Will, long confined to a life of poverty - essentially living on borrowed time - now has all the time in the world. But his newfound time-wealth also makes Will a target of the law (the Timekeepers), who suspect him of murder. On the run, Will decides to infiltrate society's upper classes, and play the role of a futuristic Robin Hood. Will seeks out Phillipe Weiss - the man who runs the banks that control time and are responsible for its highly uneven distribution. With Phillipe's rebellious daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) in tow, Will aims to topple the oppressive class system that's left so many in this world constantly facing down death.

Again, it's a super-intriguing setup, and it's definitely a scenario that greatly reflects some of our current economic disparities. You can't help but watch this movie and think of the whole "99%" movement. Where IN TIME struggles a bit though is in making its characters more than just props in this futuristic allegory. In the last few years, Timberlake has proven that he's a capable actor - in certain types of roles. But here, because there's so much going on, the film really needed a leading actor who could convey a lot of natural intensity and gravitas. And unfortunately, Timberlake doesn't quite pull it off. This is a character who's living day-to-day, always on the edge of death, in a race for his life and full of long-simmering anger - and I just don't know that that is all conveyed in Timberlake's acting. To be fair, the script doesn't always give Will a lot of real inner motivation or depth. The plot demands that he become driven to the point where he'll risk it all to take down Weiss and become a revolutionary, but we don't get to see much of that character arc play out on screen - it just sort of happens. Same goes for Amanda Seyfried's Sylvia - her arc is a little more fleshed-out (so to speak), but still, we don't quite feel like she's playing a fully-formed character. Nor are she or Timberlake playing iconic, archetypal characters like you might see in, say, Blade Runner. That said, the guy who does sort of elevate things is Cillian Murphy as Raymond - the Timekeeper who's in dogged pursuit of Will and Sylvia. As written, the character is your typical cop who's so by-the-book that he loses sight of his moral compass. But as played by the always-great Murphy, there's a depth and cool-factor to Raymond not present in some of the film's other characters. Although, I will say that another standout is Vincent Kartheiser as Phillipe Weiss, the rich, world-weary mogul whose boyish facade belies his age and status. Like Murphy, Kartheiser gives his character depth by playing up the fact that these characters look young, but they are in fact old and have lived long lives.

The other problem with the film is the script. While the underlying premise is strong, Niccol gets too heavy-handed with all of his time-talk. Minutemen, Timekeepers, the endless array of time-related quips ... the cheesiness of it all betrays the intended seriousness of the film, and leads to a number of eye-rolling exchanges. In general, the dialogue is just awkward and stilted at times. Coupled with the rather generic-looking direction, you wonder if the movie could have benefitted from a more dynamic and stylized look and feel. You can't help but wonder what a visual master like a Ridley Scott might have done with this, because as is, the movie could use a little injection of awe and wonder. Everything is presented in such a straightforward manner visually - the world is convincing, but also kind of bland.

At the same time, I definitely enjoyed the movie overall, and it kept me guessing about where, exactly, this was all going. While Timberlake isn't a standout in the lead, he's decent enough, and the strong supporting cast helps keep things interesting. There's some exciting action, and some intriguing twists in the plot. Most of all, the movie presents to us a really cool, well-thought-out sci-fi world that is fascinating and thought-provoking. It's too bad that things couldn't have been tightened up and tweaked, that the movie couldn't have been imbued with a tad more style, drama, and gravitas. As is, this is a good movie that could have been great.

My Grade: B