Drive Review

October 18, 2011 at 11:04 pm (Movies)

Drive is a “love-it-or-hate-it” kind of movie, fortunately though I love it enough for several theaters full of those that full into the latter category. It’s admittedly mismarketed, and its art house sensibilities along with its strong emphasis on style is going to push plenty away expecting a more traditional thriller. However for those of us on the nerdier side of the film fence, “Drive” is the film equivalent of taking LSD, it’s simply a dream. The movie tells us the story of our “Hero Without A Name” Driver (Gosling), a Hollywood stunt driver by day and a getaway driver by night. Despite his best efforts with his zero attachment approach to his clients, the Driver ends up neck-deep with the West Coast mob after letting his emotional guard down for his down-the-hall neighbor. 2011’s been a tremendous year for ensemble casts, but as far as across-the-board quality goes, Drive easily takes the prize. Ron Perlman growls in a fantastic performance as an amateur mobster who has little idea what he’s doing alongside Albert Brooks who turns in one of the best, sure-fire Oscar contending performances of the season. Brooks nails the balance between seemingly innocent/friendly and at many times unpredictably sadistic and violent as well as intimidating like no other cinematic villain this year. Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks have solid, if not small parts in the film, and even Oscar Isaac joins in the fun with a surprisingly pleasant performance. Acting treasure Bryan Cranston steals every scene as Driver’s mentor, acting in sense as the film’s “Yoda”. Drive’s lead, Ryan Gosling, is one of the strongest reasons to see the film. Even though Driver is a man of few words, Gosling manages to bring a persona to him in both the calm but mysterious dialogue and his indeterminable silences is brilliant to see. Nicolas Refn, a foreign filmmaker with little American film experience aside from a few smaller action pictures similar to Drive, brings a totally unexpected yet phenomenal vibe of action to Drive. Although there’s probably only about 20-25 minutes of actual driving in the film, what driving there is in the film might just spoil you from standard action and suspense films. The movie opens with an incredible opener of a chase scene that perfectly introduces us to everything about Driver and what he does and how he does it. The action beats of the film are simply perfect; perfectly shot, perfectly paced, perfectly thrilling when they need to be and perfectly subtle in the next, and they’ll leave you breathless. Driver has a lot of vehicles at his disposal, and he puts them all to good use, depending on the job. Almost like a skilled marksman with an arsenal of firearms, Driver picks the right car, new or old, supped up or subtle, depending on what his client needs him to do. Drive also takes a meticulous and often hard-hitting, frantic stance on action sequences. In a very Tarantino-esque way, a lot of Drive’s action and violence comes out of nowhere and is often brutally, unflinchingly violent but never ceases to be thrilling. During one of the film’s biggest beats 1/2 way through I was practically in the floor in anticipation as if I was actually in the getaway car with Driver and his customer. Drive’s action sequences never shy away from being fast, appropriately furious, and when the situation calls for it and the audience least expects it, viciously violent. It finds a way to lull you back into that false state of security every time right before startling you with a huge action set piece or sudden attack. The film also takes advantage of this by using it to build its suspense more and more in seemingly mundane scenes; by the time the film’s over you’ve learned how this film treats silence: as target practice. There’s also a now infamous scene in an elevator that’s one of the most brutal and genius of the entire year. Refn also uses Drive’s slower pace and careful exposition to make it that much more suspenseful and the gruesome violence that much more effectively surprising and haunting. Sometimes you can feel the unease coming a mile away, other times it comes out of nowhere, other times its out of nowhere, but its always suspenseful and always effective. Unlike many other conventional action films, Refn brings “Drive” a tremendous sense of style. Also very similar to Tarantino and even Scorsese, Refn instills these long shots in the film shared by two characters where there’s little to no dialogue, instead it’s often just shared looks or facial expressions. Most of the time these are between Driver and his newfound love interest, played by Carey Mulligan. In any other film it’d be dry and even boring, but I’d be lying if I said Refn didn’t find a way to make it captivating. Driver is a naturally solemn and quiet character, he’s a mysterious, strong and even intelligent guy that lives by his set code and never gets to close to any of his clients. He’s naturally good at driving, and he’s extremely capable at that, but it’s thanks to Gosling phenomenal performance that you can visibly see in Driver’s face and actions that there are several instances in the movie that he has absolutely no idea what he’s doing, that and he’s often clearly in over his head here. Refn finds a way to beautifully tap into these subtle mannerisms and actions as a way of delivering profound exposition even in other characters, even though Gosling is the movie’s “Quiet Mouse King”. Instead of being explicitly told Driver and Irene have entered a sexual relationship, we see them hold hands for the first time, leaving the rest to be inferred by us as an audience. Instead of drawn out monologues where other directors would employ hammy explanation and heavy-handed clarification, we’re treated to glances, scowls and quick gestures, leaving much of the film an open interpretation. The dialogue we do get (mainly from the chatty Brooks and Cranston) is still superbly scripted and executed, all beautifully complimented by a gorgeous score by Cliff Martinez and a phenomenal set of 80s nostalgic songs that overlay the silent exposition in both tone and meaning, the meaning of both the song and film overlapping obviously yet efficiently. Also admirable is the simple fact that the film looks outstanding itself in terms of the color and shots going on in any given frame. The opening cinematic of a revolutionary car chase at the start of the film defies standards by never allowing the camera to leave the car, allowing that natural suspense to build even more, higher and higher. There’s also a beautifully framed, trademark shot involving a bullet and hammer that has some of the best staging and use of color I’ve ever seen, and it just so happens to be one of the film’s most violent, hardest-to-watch moments. It’s a beautiful thing Refn accomplishes in that you can appreciate it for its art and its muscle. The way Refn relies on his vibrant color palette of greens, purples, and reds along with the way he dresses his characters in these classical, noir-style jackets and dresses in their traditional dialogue and the previously mentioned musical choices he essentially creates a John Hughes take on a Fast and Furious sequel mixed with a modern day superhero story. “Drive” won’t work for everybody, but it definitely works for me. Each of the performances is top-notch, the action is unbelievably conceived and undeniably entertaining, and it’s all coated in a sleek, dazzling coat of paint. Drive is by far my favorite film of the year, it’s a film that’s easy to love, and it’s a film that’s a film nerd or action lover’s dream. If you’re both, well, then that just sweetens the pot. It’s the car that looks great on the outside and even looks great under the hood.  Drive succeeds as an art film, it succeeds as a high-octane action piece, and it definitely succeeds at being one of the best times your local cinema has to offer.

5 out of 5

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50/50 Review

October 12, 2011 at 7:17 pm (Movies)

“50/50” isn’t a movie about cancer. “50/50” isn’t a film about a bromance or how a family rallies together in the end despite their differences. Instead, “50/50” takes on the concept of how normal people react, whether positively or negatively, to one of the most tragic diseases of our time affecting someone with their entire life ahead of them. The movie comes from the perspective of Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a 27-year-old radio journalist who is slammed with the reality that he has a very serious type of cancer, a cancer with a slim 50% survival rate. But the film isn’t just about him; it also puts a great deal of emphasis on those that surround him. This includes his stoner/slacker best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) who shows Adam the many ways he can “take advantage” of his disease, his “supportive” girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard who has the burden of taking care of Adam thrown upon her, as well as his delightfully naïve psychiatrist (Anna Kendrick). Against his will, this also includes his “overbearing” mother (Angelica Huston) who already faces the task of taking care of her husband (Serge Houde). “50/50” is done a lot of favors by its exceptionally strong cast, led in part by Joseph Gordon Levitt, who carries a lot of the drama mainly centered around his character with ease, and has enough charisma, wit, and utter likability to help the film balance out the film’s constant juggling act of comedy and sorrow. Unconverted Seth Rogen fans won’t find much to like here, as he’s still essentially himself, but to someone like myself that’s never really grown tired of his shtick, he’s still a hilarious addition to the mix. As far as other note-worthy performances go, Bryce Dallas Howard has a pretty standard part, Anna Kendrick makes the film considerably more adorable every frame she’s in, and both Matt Frewer and Phillip Baker Hall have small, yet phenomenal parts in the film as Adam’s much older chemotherapy partners. Where “50/50” really finds its strength is how it manages to earn its humor and laughs throughout the film. The movie never flinches or backs down in its portrayal of the terrible disease its protagonist is suffering from. Almost like a slingshot there are these hilarious moments where Kyle is teaching Adam how to get girls out of sympathy for his cancer or introducing him to the world of medicinal marijuana, and then it springs back to how much this disease has uprooted his life and the lives of those around him, along with those very real consequences. There are several scenes where it’s almost overwhelming how desperate and one-sided this struggle has become, and it’s obviously where the movie finds its most dramatic moments and the best times to get the tears going. It’s not even as much of a spoiler to say you don’t know Adam’s fate (being 50/50) until the film’s last few minutes. However, in truly miraculous fashion almost against the odds defying the fear and sadness, “50/50” uses these same moments for some of its best comedic moments. “50/50” takes advantage of your lack of hope and vulnerability to fear and brings you to guttural, hysteric laughter because it recognizes how much we want and need to laugh in that kind of situation. There’s a beautiful moment towards the end of the film where Adam finally has to confront the “now or never” moment of his disease. Where other films would be crippling you with sadness, a clichéd inspirational song and a corny monologue explaining how “everything’s going to work out”, “50/50” reminded me of the harsh and very relatable reality of it all, and then somehow gets you to laugh along with it. I found myself laughing hysterically while still wiping tears away from my eyes; it was one of the most profound and touching movie-going experiences of my life. By the end of the film when it’s finally revealed how each character has met the challenge of Adam’s cancer, you gain an incredible understanding of each character and what the whole movie’s been about. “50/50” is a very special film; it recognizes the inherent fear and cruel, unsympathetic reality of cancer and it reminds you of that reality sporadically throughout the movie. However, instead of wallowing in the sadness, it does the impossible, and makes you laugh at the cancer and at the fear of it all. It’s a poignant triumph of humor over death, comedy over sadness; it’s one of the funniest films of the year but also one of the most emotionally resonant and powerful I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, all complimented by it’s fantastic cast and of course a healthy, if not at times raunchy, sense of humor. If anything else, “50/50” is worth seeing on the merit alone that it finally allows you to call a “cancer movie” hilarious.

50 out of 50/5 out of 5

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Crazy, Stupid Love Review

August 28, 2011 at 11:55 pm (Movies)

There’s always something I can find to love in a romantic comedy. I can always appreciate the sense of wish fulfillment, the authentic sweetness of some, or just how, well, love-able some of the characters can be. In Crazy, Stupid, Love’s case, it’s all three. Crazy Stupid Love (or “CSL” as it’s going to be known for the rest of this review) is, at times, predictable and it’s a film that by all means plays to the romantic comedy tropes, but it’s also a movie that uses those tropes to keep it familiar to it’s audience and take those tropes to the next level, setting a new standard for the genre. The movie follows three different stories of love, including Cal Weaver (Carell) who’s taking a passive-aggressive approach to his wife Emily’s (Moore) sudden infidelity and divorce, Jacob Palmer (Gosling) who has to deal with an entirely different approach to love when he meets “the one” (Stone), and Cal’s son (Courtney), who’s dealing with his own efforts in love trying to woo the girl of his dreams (Tipton) that also just so happens to be his babysitter. As you might can tell by the amount of last names in parenthesis, the film has one of the most impressive ensemble casts of the summer, and it uses each actor’s instinctive talent to make the film’s madly entertaining story complex even better. Steve Carell, while really still just playing up his Steve Carell shtick for the most part, still brings a great deal of emotion and comedic timing to what could have been a flat characterization, and his opposite lead Ryan Gosling has some surprisingly hilarious moments as the ladies’ man of the bar that knows all the tricks. Gosling, who’s helped out a tremendous bit by how well his character is written, really sells that charisma and goofball charm through the whole movie. Julianne Moore (who is surprisingly gorgeous to be pushing 50) also brings some life to her character, as does Emma Stone, who lends her impeccable comedic skill that we saw in Easy A to it all. Marissa Tomei briefly pops in for a handful of hysterical scenes as Cal’s first post-divorce swing, and this summer’s best bad guy Kevin Bacon appears briefly in all his smirky but inexplicably despicable glory. While the whole cast comes from very different backgrounds in an acting sense, they compliment each other admirably. The natural chemistry there that’s hard enough to nail just between two leads in any other romantic comedy is especially difficult in a six-person ensemble, but somehow CSL strikes it just right. The movie’s soundtrack is among the year’s best, hitting much like 2009’s 500 Days of Summer (another brilliant mid-summer chick flick), hitting the notes between inspirational and appropriately upbeat to accentuate the natural fun in some of the scenes where Cal’s trying to woo a new bride-to-be or Jacob’s on his merry way teaching the tricks of wooing said brides. CSL takes a unique approach to the romantic comedy with the somewhat-familiar approach of taking three seemingly unrelated stories and at the end tying them all together, teaching a different aspect of the same lesson from each one. Basically it acts as a more romantic version of an episode of Seinfeld or a less dramatized version of an episode of Scrubs. It works so well for CSL though because at the beginning of the story all three stories seem so dissimilar, and once they all do intersect in the cinematic equivalent of a train crash in the last 30 minutes of the film, you’ll start really realizing what this movie’s trying to say about the inherent insanity and the intrinsic stupidity of love and infatuation. One story’s teaching you the integrity of love, the other teaching you the persistence of it and the other educating us on love’s innate surprise at times as far as timing goes. I would have been more than willing to watch three separate films about each of these stories in one big Crazy-Stupid-Love trilogy, but I can’t say the frantic spirit of it all didn’t entertain me. The first third of the film where all these character arcs are being introduced is just a bit clunky, but as I’ve said as the movie goes on more and more that intersecting becomes more fluid and far more enjoyable. But the film doesn’t work just as an over-arching PowerPoint lesson on how love works (or doesn’t work in a lot of cases), the movie also knows how to carry its weight in the funny and the sweet moments. The whole series of events that follows Cal being trained by Jacob to be a ladies man that’s plastered all over the trailers is just as funny if not funnier than they make it out to be, and several other sequences thoroughly succeed at being tremendously hilarious or overwhelmingly sweet and romantic, if not both. There’s one particular scene in the movie where Jacob’s attempting to woo his “the one”, and instead of playing it up to romantic comedy standards of overbearing schmaltziness, it almost plays off of those types of scenes and those expectations to make a very charming scene of Jacob and Hanna beginning to fall in love. CSL is better than I thought it’d be, and that’s coming from someone who had really high expectations for the movie. Aside from being just a little predictable in spots, it’s ridiculously charming, consistently hilarious, and in the end of it all it has a terrific lesson that, in a rare occurrence for me, I actually was able to take to heart and think on. Led by a captivating cast and a script that goes beyond the romantic-comedy call of duty, as far as I’m concerned it’s set a new standard for how crazy stupid loveable a romantic comedy can be.

5 out of 5

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes Review

August 14, 2011 at 9:25 pm (Movies)

Now that the summer’s coming to a close, a focus is returning to the more idea and character-driven stories that signal the Fall Movie Season. Rise of the Planet of the Apes definitely feels like one of those slower films that works far better when it’s working on constructing an idea than when it’s trying to deliver on blockbuster action film. In the end though it’s still a emotionally dominant and technologically remarkable film that shouldn’t be missed. The film works of course as a prequel to the classic Charleton Heston film “Planet of the Apes”, telling the story of how this ape civilization came to be. A serious chain of events transpires and snowballs out of control after a young geneticist (Franco) develops what appears to be the cure for Alzheimer’s in an attempt to cure his dying father (Lithgow). After testing the drug on an ape named Bright Eyes that goes berserk, the only living trace of the drug left is her son, Caesar, who slowly develops in both intelligent and strength faster than any of the scientists at Genysis could have imagined. James Franco, a recurring underrated actor in the Hollywood system that earned a well-deserved nomination for his incredible part carrying the movie 127 Hours, turns in some awesome work here as well. Sure, it’s not Oscar-worthy, but it’s strong enough to make his expositional scenes interesting. Brian Cox also steals a few scenes as the owner of the ape reserve Caesar’s imprisoned in during the latter half of the film.  The real and only shame the film carries with its actors is Tom Felton as one of the employees at the reserve. Being as his character never really serves any purpose, as he’s never really given any depth, Felton’s “Snidely Whiplash”-esque portrayal often just doesn’t gel with the scenes it’s interlaced with, and rubs off a little annoying. John Lithgow, appearing in a few scenes as Franco’s father, absolutely steals the show every time he comes on screen. Portraying the disease of Alzheimer’s is no easy task, but Lithgow perfectly depicts the helplessness and subsequent anger that comes with it. The real beauty and majesty of this film comes in the form of its main star, Caesar the ape, played to perfection by motion capture patriarch Andy Serkis. If you’ve seen Lord of the Rings or Peter Jackson’s King Kong, you’re familiar with Serkis’ mastery of the motion capture art. The movie is worth seeing for it’s technical proficiency alone. It’s actually a genius move on Fox’s part to only spend $90 million on a film like Rise of the Planet of the Apes with there being little action set pieces in it (aside from one huge sequence at the end), allowing a majority of that money to be spent on perfecting these groundbreaking effects. There’s a shot or two that may look a little shaky, but the shots that need to work look spectacular. There are many sequences where the apes look so realistic thanks to the groundbreaking special effects that if you didn’t know any better you could be easily fooled into thinking it was all reality, especially towards the end of the film once multiple distinct apes are introduced and the special effects crew rises to the challenge of making them all unique and gorgeous. Coming down to Serkis’ performance itself, the man is an acting revolution that brings in an all-digital performance here worthy of the first Oscar nomination of it’s kind. Serkis really brings some personality to that character as he wore a motion suit on set and was really the one interacting with the other actors, and thankfully makes Caesar a living, breathing, fully developing character that becomes far more interesting than the nicely developed human characters. It’s almost realistic on a creepy level sometimes, as you can read all these emotions Serkis is bringing to the part so easily in Caesar’s eyes. The time spent developing his character both in the film and behind the scenes is time very well spent, as they’ve managed to mold one of the most startlingly engaging characters of the year. Certain things that happen to his character at the end of the movie will make you sympathize with him and his righteous cause, which is really remarkable considering some of the more villainous things that occur during the last 30 minutes. While I am very thankful Rise of the Planet of the Apes chooses to be a movie that spends a lot of time (especially in the second half) developing its ape characters, there are a few smaller missed opportunities with its human characters. We spend plenty of time with James Franco’s character in the first half and how his relationship grows with both his father and Caesar, but leaving the film I couldn’t help but be remiss that they didn’t take that the next step further and crafted a supremely interesting arc. There’s a major event in the middle of the film regarding Lithgow’s character that’s handled very callously, and it’s just unfortunate the filmmakers didn’t choose to indulge those ideas like the father/son relationship there and more into Franco’s desire to save his father. There are also a few characters that just don’t get enough time on screen. Freida Pinto’s character as Franco’s girlfriend/wife is hardly developed at all, and as I’ve said some of the character work at the Ape Sanctuary is a little spotty. Like I said the human stuff is by no means underdeveloped, just as a fan of character-rich stories; I was just left wanting more. Also, the latter half of the film that’s mainly ape exposition and thus the cause of the lack of human interaction is time well spent as you can already tell by the heaps of praise I’ve heaped on the movie’s effects and ape character development. One of the best things about the film is how engaging it ends up being despite how uninterested I originally was in the idea of a “Planet of the Apes” prequel. Thankfully there definitely appears to have been plenty of thought, effort, and creativity carefully poured into re-inventing this series for a modern age. Being dramatically different from the original series explanation for the beginning of the ape world, it almost feels like a Nolan-ized way of approaching the concept, and that recurring love and respect for the series carries it all the way to the fantastic, ominous ending that both wraps up this entry well but also leaves plenty of room for many more interesting sequels leading up to what occurs in “Planet of the Apes”. I had heard the comparison before, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes almost does for the “Apes” series what JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek did for the Star Trek series. If you’ve seen any ads for the film, you’ve seen a majority of the last 30 minutes of the film with the movie’s huge Golden Gate Bridge action sequence. Being the only really big action beat in the film, it did feel a little summer blockbuster cliché to me at times, but it definitely helps that the same action sequence is so darn impressive. From a staging, geography, or just pure exhilarating excitement standpoint, it’s hard not to be thrilled by that massive battle. There are apes climbing the towers, crawling under the bridge, and flanking from all sides. It’s by far the most amazing ape-themed action sequence I never knew I wanted this summer. Also, Rise of the Planet of the Apes works very well as a thriller. There are a few tension-filled scenes involving Caesar interacting with humans for the first time that had me on the edge of my seat, and other times in the film I was genuinely terrified of what could happen next on the screen concerning the unpredictable and often brutally violent nature of the apes. Despite a few missed character opportunities with its human characters that are more than made up for with its more apish counterparts and a finale that feels a bit too summer-blockbuster for its own good, Rise of the Planet of the Apes still ends up an excellent way to end Summer 2011. What could have been a cheap cash-in on an ancient series ends up becoming one of the biggest surprises of my summer, and definitely one of my favorites of the year. It’s the film I didn’t know I needed or didn’t believe in a thousand years I’d love, but against all odds Rise of the Planet of the Apes works exceptionally well at delivering the thrills, the technical wows, and the exceptional story beats to bring Summer 2011 to a close on a very, very high note.

5 out of 5

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Cowboys and Aliens Review

August 7, 2011 at 11:20 pm (Movies)

I’m generally a big fan of westerns, and I’ve been known to dabble in the science fiction genre from time to time. So on paper, Jon Favreau’s latest Cowboys and Aliens is a perfect fit. While I can definitely come to appreciate the general ridiculousness of it all and end up having a blast with it as the fun late summer film it is, the abundance of hands tweaking the script turns out being one of the movie’s biggest struggles. It’s not the best execution of a solid premise, but it manages to have enough fun thanks to a steady director’s hand to make it worth seeing on entertainment value alone. I think it’s fair to assume I don’t have to spend too much time explaining the premise of the movie. Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert, remembering nothing about who he is, where he’s from, or what the mysterious alien weapon on his wrist is. Whenever he enters into the town Absolution, he quickly runs into a crew of simple western folk, including local town mogul/cattle rancher Dollarhyde (Harrison Ford). Long story short, aliens show up, destroy half the town and kidnap their loved ones in one really long, really cool action sequence. I have to give the movie credit, with what citizens the aliens do kidnap, it’s left with a really notable cast. Sure Olivia Wilde’s really just plodding along through the whole film, but there are a few amazing performances brought by a few remarkable actors. The ever-reliable Sam Rockwell makes the “background” character Doc really shine with some fine charm, and both Clancy Brown and Keith Carradine fill in a beefy supporting cast. However as any of the movie’s posters or trailers would tell you, the real stars are Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, Indiana Jones/Han Solo and James Bond themselves. Harrison Ford’s pretty much playing Harrison Ford here, growling his lines out and still portraying the cantankerous old man we love like the forlorn, grumpy grandfather in our own lives. I couldn’t help but giggle though at how much fun the movie has with the fact that Harrison Ford’s in it. There’s a solid 15 seconds of the movie where it’s just Ford’s character slowly turning his head and speaking dialogue where we can’t see his face, coming to reveal the cinematic legend we all know he is. Daniel Craig also makes a good impact on the screen as our titular hero Lonergan, proving to us in multiple sequences he’s one of the most indisputable action stars of our time. That being said much like a lot of Favreau’s Cowboys and Aliens, Lonergan’s a few writing sessions short of a full character. Basically all you learn about him as a character is learned in the trailer. He doesn’t know who he is, where he is, or even why there’s a bounty on his head. I’ve seen the “mysterious hero” archetype played off well before, but here it just feels a little bit like a cop-out for not actually writing personality into the character, but instead just using “he’s brooding and mysterious” as an excuse to withhold too much information from us. Once we do find out about Lonergan and uncover the mystery behind a lot of things going on behind the action in the film, it’s never exactly a poorly executed explanation; it just leaves something to be desired. It’s never lazy, but never really affecting. I almost would have preferred it had Lonergan not had amnesia, but instead started the film off with a clear goal in mind to take down the alien menace and having to convince the town-folk to join him. The same goes for a lot of the other supporting characters. The infamous “first attack scene” at night comes about 15 minutes in when we’ve only gotten a brief glimpse into these peoples’ lives and who they are, so the rest feels a little haphazard because the ground foundation wasn’t exactly assembled with the most care. It’s a lot of fun to watch these two worlds collide and see how these frontier folk react to an intergalactic conflict, but one can only fantasize about what a more emotionally connected, finer written base could have done for it. The first half of the film bounces back and forth between a real bona fide western and a more out-there science fiction movie, but it’s not until the second half when most of the action takes place that the movie really finds its groove thematically and settles into the pure, B-movie fun to be found in a film called “Cowboys and Aliens”. I was a little disappointed to see the first few moments of the film fall into place one after the other in a semi-generic, predictable way. It just sort of felt like it was just a string of unrelated sequences happening one after the other. That being said, once the second half hit, 6 year old me practically reached out at the screen seeing a cowboy just like the little plastic ones I had as a kid firing his six-shooter at a ship the size of a cattle ranch. That childish allure alone is why I think Cowboys and Aliens is worth seeing, despite a few rather large dents in the writing. Jon Favreau’s amusement-centered approach to his films like the first Iron Man and especially the holiday classic Elf was a perfect fit for this property. Favreau also has a keen eye for shooting action, something else that naturally comes in here. He seemed to have as much fun making it and plotting this all out on paper as we’ve had getting to see it all unfold on the screen. Like I said the movie definitely lives up to its B-movie style title, and there are plenty of over-the-top, worlds colliding action set pieces especially in the latter half that exceeded my wildest expectations. The final battle isn’t as epic as I had hoped, but there are plenty of fights sprinkled here and there to quench the oddest of “Aliens fighting Cowboys with the help of the Indians” thirsts. Just coming from an action enthusiasts perspective, it’s neat seeing gunfire get mixed with laser-fire, and chases between starships and horses, it’s definitely something that’s never been toyed with before. Even from a visual design standpoint, Favreau’s got it down pat. The more traditional stuff involving the town of “Absolution” looks pretty standard but still has plenty of faithful, gritty flavor, but I was more interested in how Favreau made his aliens look. All of the spaceship interior stuff has a remarkably grungy and dirty vibe, and even the ships themselves take on a more practical, task-oriented aesthetic that looks great. The aliens themselves (despite some more odd choices involving retractable, miniature arms), look like a cross between a Predator and the District 9 aliens, thankfully crafting a creature that actually looks considerably formidable and extremely frightening, even compared to the rough and gruff cowboys. All in all, I’m not going to remember Cowboys and Aliens for being Jon Favreau’s best movie, or for being the best movie of Summer 2011. It’s like the film equivalent of wish fulfillment. Have I always wanted to see cowboys and aliens square off? Of course I have, what 7-year-old TN kid hasn’t at some point on a Saturday afternoon after Batman went off for the day? Does it come with it’s problems? Yes, the writing’s wobblier than it should be, but hey, you get what you wish for. The film could have benefited a lot from a lot less hands tugging at the script, but as ludicrous as the concept is and as hard as it is to get a movie made nowadays, we should be thankful for every ridiculously-fun-star-studded-clumsily-written-action-flick-based-on-a-crazy-idea we can get.

4 out of 5 

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Captain America: The First Avenger Review

July 27, 2011 at 9:44 pm (Movies)

Well, they actually pulled it off. Despite any and all odds, Marvel found the right set of directors, (Letterier, Favreau, Branagh, and Johnston) to bring their biggest heroes (Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, respectively) to the big screen. Iron Man and Hulk were simple enough, and with the respectively challenging Thor and Cap pulled off remarkably well, the stage is set for next year’s “The Avengers”, the biggest film in Marvel’s history with 5 films, billions of dollars, and millions of fanboys’ expectations all riding on the line. It would have been disastrous if Captain America hadn’t turned out as well as it did under Joe Johnston’s care, but fortunately through a slew of strong performances and a focus on the campy, nostalgic fun Captain America represents, all delivered in a nostalgic manner that serves Captain America in a beautiful way. It’s not Marvel’s best pre-Avengers effort, but a strong-headed cast and director to keep fans like me happy carry it well enough. The film whisks us back to 1942, where young, scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is turned down from joining the army for the umpteenth time. However because he has a great heart, he’s selected to be a part of a new program to breed an entire army of super soldiers. But because of some unforeseen Nazi-related interference, the program is halted and Steve’s going to be all they get for the time being. Pretty soon our hero Captain America fully takes shape, and is off to face off against Hitler’s worst nightmare, Johann Schmidt, a patient to a program similar to Super Soldier that morphed him into the Red Skull. Basically all you really should know is Schmidt wants to destroy the world (it was original for the 40s, back off) and Rogers is just a naturally awesome guy, he doesn’t really need a character arc or a lesson to be learned like Thor or Tony Stark. It’s actually really refreshing to see a hero who’s not tormented by fear and childhood anguish like Batman or battling how much he hates his powers like Bruce Banner, Steve’s just a guy who loves his country and is more than happy to take on the Captain America persona to help win the war. The movie actually got its subtitle “The First Avenger” to help market it overseas so it felt more like a superhero flick and less like an infomercial for America’s military and how awesome our country is. I can’t say how happy I am that Captain America: The First Avenger never crosses the line as “arrogant”. The film straddles a fine line between telling a distinct story about the character that is Steve Rogers and making the film about what his superheroic tendencies that just so happen to involve the U.S. military, and even the patriotic stuff is very subtle. The movie’s proud to be American, but it shows that love for America in a respectful way for both other countries and us as an audience. It would have been a perfect 4th of July release had it not been for Transformers 3 hogging the spot. Director Johnston also clearly has a clear eye for how a film set in World War II should look and feel. The costumes and uniforms of Peggy, Steve, and the countless other soldiers are as authentic as it gets, and the sets themselves achieve a great balance between nostalgic and gorgeous. Throughout the whole movie I kept thinking that the film reminded me a lot of Spielberg’s classic “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and that’s by far one of the best compliments you can give to a movie both thematically and aesthetically. The way characters behave and interact with each other, the overall “bigger picture” of the film’s theme and the way scenes are just set up and executed is classic cinema. It’s also worth noting that Captain America probably has the most costume changes in a single film. There’s a solid 15 minute stretch of the film where Steve works as an actor playing “Captain America” in shows to help sell bonds for the war, and while it’s obviously his cheesiest costume, it’s almost a self-referential wink to the character as we see “Captain America” become this huge figure in the public’s eye. We see him on posters like Uncle Sam, on newspapers, and even on comic books (get it?). Overall it’s just a brilliant idea by Johnston and the other writers, and helps realistically ground that character even more. Later on we get the more “improvised”, practical costume (my personal favorite) and then the final costume we see in all of the trailers, which still manages to keep a sensible yet faithful aesthetic. But it’s not enough just for a hero to look good, but much like Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine would say; it’s the man behind the mask, in this case being Chris Evans. I wasn’t a huge fan of Evans being cast as Rogers back in 2009 when filming started, but I’m pleasantly surprised with his representation of Rogers. For a character as “simple” as Steve Rogers, Evans brings a level-headed, pure and clean portrayal to the part. Hugo Weaving does a nice job as Red Skull, although it’s not particularly good enough to make him memorable or formidable enough to stand in the long list of fantastic Marvel villain performances, especially in this summer (mostly) filled with awesome villain performances. Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter fits her part well enough, and even Tommy Lee Jones brings a few laughs to what could have been a flat stereotype. It’s Stanley Tucci though as Dr. Erskine (Steve’s mentor of sorts) that brings the film’s best performance, although I expected no less from the marvelous Tucci.

Although Johnston’s had a thing in the past for coordinating solid action and as I said it carries a vibe of one of the best and most iconic action films of all time, I had just a small problem with Captain America’s action in the film. Let me get this out of the way, I think there are some incredible action sequences in Captain America. They utilize a lot of different locations to keep it fresh (one sequence in the snow-capped mountains and another on the streets of Brooklyn are particularly fantastic), and even the more standard, otherwise-boring set-pieces just between Cap and the Hydra soldiers are a blast thanks to some great shield-play, plenty of flashy explosions, and Johnston’s keen eye for great action staging. It was a great idea to incorporate Captain America, a hero that essentially just uses a gun and a boomerang-shield, into a war setting like WW2, mainly b/c he’s essentially just a buffed-up soldier and a regular guy. I found myself enjoying the bits with the Howling Commandos by far the most, giving the film an old-school “Dirty Dozen” type vibe. In case you’re not familiar, the Howling Commandos were the “best of the best” of the Captain’s military squad, the toughest, gruffest, manliest men they could find. There’s a really cool, fun sequence in the film that introduces the characters and every following scene afterward just seemed to have more and more fun with that crew. However, it’s around that aspect of the film that I also have my biggest problem with Johnston’s superhero epic. While the first act that’s mainly pre-buff Steve Rogers and him approaching the idea of becoming Captain America and the second act is really Steve coming to grips with becoming this hero and finding his place in the military along with discovering the Howling Commandos, the third act is really where I felt Captain America: The First Avenger had trouble finding its place. Being as the first and second acts are largely exposition with a few great action scenes thrown in, I got the feeling there was a little bit of pressure to make the final 40 minutes crammed with action. Not that I didn’t enjoy any of those moments, it’s just there’s a good bit of building up of this huge threat known as Hydra and Red Skull in the first two acts and when they finally take it on in the end, it seems a little too easy. Once we were finished with our final battle between Captain America and Red Skull (which is quite frankly a little underwhelming), I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t going to be an actual, far bigger battle to follow. I can understand the reasoning behind not wanting to make the film too long (it stands at a comfortable 2 hours 5 min), but I felt like some approach of trimming off some of the exposition at the front of the film, spending more time with the Howling Commandos in the middle, or padding on an extra 20 minutes of “now we’re accomplishing this goal” exposition at the end, it would have been a considerably stronger movie. There’s a huge montage during the middle of the film of the Captain and the Howling Commandos kicking all sorts of butt across Europe in a huge variety of locales, and while that does give us a great sense of elapsed time and progress and it’s more than likely a result of a smaller budget, that sequence could have been easily replaced with 2 or 3 big action setpieces towards the end with equally great effect. Also, as it’s revealed in the opening of the film, the way they handle Captain America having to be frozen at the end of the film in order to be able to fight with the Avengers was far different than what I was expecting. So it came as a bit of a surprise to me that the film ended the way that it did. It connects fairly well, but it still comes off a little emotionally distant in how it discards a few storylines in a cold way. As I said, an extra 30 minutes of padding would have done the film wonders. Also, much like this year’s earlier Marvel film Thor and much unlike last year’s Marvel film Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger works incredibly well as a teaser/lead-in for next year’s mega-blockbuster The Avengers but more importantly as a stand-alone film. Whereas Iron Man 2’s mistake was shoe-horning in as much Avengers info as they could at the compromise of that script’s original message, Captain America: The First Avenger doesn’t even mention the Avengers until the last 5 minutes. Plus, just as it should be, there are plenty of winks and nods to the Avengers world including Howard Stark’s huge involvement in the film and as always a great Stan Lee cameo. There’s also a greet feeling that comes from addressing Captain America as the first Avenger. After seeing all these other heroes get their own films and get established, Captain America almost functions as a prequel being the last Marvel film before the big meet-up next May. There is no Nick Fury, there is no Black Widow, you’re seeing the birth of this amazing organization and super-heroic fighting team, and it gives some really cool perspective. Also, it’s worth mentioning that there is an Avengers trailer with tons of footage after the credits, and it’s almost a little unfair to have to judge Captain America without taking into account how amazing that trailer is along with how excited it makes me for that finished project. Sitting through Captain America there were several moments I wasn’t able to contain my excitement whether it was the trailer or just a little wink-wink-nudge-nudge action in the film. The last time I remember being so excited in a film was first hearing about the Avengers project from Nick Fury himself after Iron Man 1. Overall, Captain America: The First Avenger may not be the best of Marvel’s current slate, but it’s the most entertainingly authentic, if that makes any sense. Captain America: The First Avenger is going to be a ton of fun for kids and even for somewhat misguided history buffs, but despite some awkward pacing issues and some unimpressive performances, it’s a film I greatly enjoyed for a director’s great eye for style and action, not to mention seeing this expansive Marvel universe come to life.

4 out of 5

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Green Lantern (2011) Review

June 26, 2011 at 9:16 pm (Movies)

Green Lantern is a very flawed movie-going experience. It’s by no means a “good” movie, but it doesn’t fall into the ranks of the “superhero movie gone wrong” league of the horrifyingly awful “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” or “Daredevil”, or even the “close but no cigar” category like “Batman Forever” or “The Spirit”. Instead, in a much more tragic fashion, Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern is an obviously great movie buried beneath a very bad movie. The movie follows the first human lantern, Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a jet pilot that is chosen by the dying lantern Abin Sur’s ring to be the next lantern. While this is going on an evil force known as Parallax is endangering the universe and takes hold of the scientist Hector Hammond to destroy Hal. Green Lantern is one of those movies that tries to do way too much with way too little time. The way I see it either Martin Campbell had no idea how to interpret the character of Hal Jordan and his world, or, the more likely alternative, there were far too many hands pulling and molding Green Lantern in the development process. The film opens with your typical exposition scenes where we’re supposed to get to know Reynolds’ interpretation of Hal, but they’re so forced they end up not serving a purpose at all. We’re given characters that the film never uses and given a “dead dad” back-story for Hal that’s handled so poorly and inappropriately cheesy it’s laughable. Pretty soon we’re whisked off to the planet Oa that’s basically a “headquarters” for the lantern corps, which, ideally is supposed to be the set-up for an awesome series of training sequences. Nope, basically what you se in the trailer is all you see in the film. There’s a punch, kick, a few lines of exposition regarding how Hal’s powers work that we’ve already been told, Michael Clarke Duncan shows up, and in one awkward transition after another, we’re back on earth with our “established” hero, ready to save the day. Basically think Batman Begins, but Bruce only spends 7 minutes with Ras Al Ghul, the murder scene of his parents is done with cheesy black and white and sad music, and instead of the movie being 2.5 hours, it barely clicks over 1.5 hours, barely squeezing all the information in. I really believe the scenes on Oa could have been some of the movie’s strongest, had we gotten a clearer idea of how the world worked, who these other lanterns are, and went farther into Hal’s reaction to being a Lantern than “I’m not good enough”. There are a lot of great ideas on the page there, but none come to fruition. Unfortunately this isn’t a trend that changes once we get to earth. Much like Oa, if the movie just decided where it wanted to go and what the final product should look like, it would have been an awesome sequence of scenes that made for a comprehendible film. Peter Sarsgaard does a commendable job as Hector Hammond, which in theory is an awesome villain for the Green Lantern’s first outing. But in a way the movie just collapses under the potential. There’s a rivalry that’s hinted between Hal and Hector for the main love interest, and sadly it’s one of the most-emphasized parts of the film, but naturally it’s one of the least interesting things the film has to offer in a story about a guy who can make ANYTHING out of energy from a ring. The typical romance between Ryan Reynolds’ and Blake Lively’s character is one of the few things in the movie that does work. With the more outlandish nature of the Green Lantern’s powers, the movie does have a heck of a time trying to find a balance between the serious and the silly. I love the idea of a hero that’s so new to the idea of the ring that he forms things like a hot-wheel track or a flamethrower, and I think there’s an awesome, light-hearted and fun movie there. But it’s a bit more jarring when the movie switches from themes of a very dangerous battle that threatens to destroy the universe over to the love rivalry between Hal and Hector and then all of a sudden we’re tossed a whimsical, cartoonish action scene involving something zany coming from Hal and the ring. I honestly have no idea how you would do a serious Green Lantern film with Hal forming flamethrowers and gatling guns on the cuff of his mind, but there has to be a better way than the tonal mess Campbell chooses to use here. As I’ve said, there’s a really great story there, I love the ideas the film presents with green representing will and yellow (the color of Parallax) representing fear and the ensuing rivalry, along with the goofball nature of Hal Jordan and his self-esteem conflict presented. Overall, had there just been a lot of ideas extended and some ideas (love triangle, clunky exposition not on Oa) completely scrapped, we would have gotten closer to the better movie buried underneath.

A lot of controversy went behind the film early on when it was announced Hal’s suit was going to be entirely CGI, and now that I’ve seen the final product, I can say I somewhat-totally-kind-of-stand behind the decision. On one hand, making the suit CGI brings about a whole lot of other problems because you basically have to make a lot of other things CGI, like the world of Oa, the alien lanterns, etc. Let it be said right now, some of the shots are phenomenal. While the artistic design of Oa isn’t particularly inspired, from a technical standpoint it’s created pretty darn well with a real actor having to interact with it all. The final battle with the Parallax cloud at the end that’s plastered all over the trailers is also gorgeous, and is one of the film’s better accomplishments considering I actually enjoyed the sequence. The suit itself is even pretty consistent, never looking remarkable, but only being distractingly bad in a few smaller doses. It is somewhat remarkable though that we are living in an age of digital effects that can do this sort of thing, in that a movie like this couldn’t exist ten years ago. However that’s where my praise for the movie’s special effects ends. When the CGI succeeds, it creates a gorgeous world that you’ll marvel at. When it fails though, you feel like you’re watching a PS2 game from 2004 in action. The chase sequence between Abin Sur and Parallax at the beginning of the film looks downright awful in spots, there are several places in the film where the effects just look unfinished, and as I said just sentences ago, a little more polish on the suit wouldn’t have hurt. For the most part the performances of the film work, but they’re never really anything special. Blake Lively is fun to look at, but gives it an uninspired run by the time it’s all said and done. Peter Sarsgaard is arguably the film’s best element, which is said considering how awkwardly that character is handled. Ryan Reynolds smirks his way through it although in his defense Hal’s never really given a personality that’s evident on the screen. Finally, it has to be said Tim Robbins, a normally great actor, takes bland to an awful new level as the senator, a.k.a. Hector’s dad, a relation that is nowhere close to believable considering the two actors’ 12 year age difference that looks more like 2 years age difference in the face. I felt bad for Martin Campbell by the time this movie was over. The guy’s super talented, as he managed to successfully reboot Zorro and James Bond twice, including the incredible Casino Royale, unfortunately it just seems to be a case of too many ideas being present at once to make a concise, cohesive, or even satisfying film. A lot of people have compared Green Lantern to this year’s earlier hit Thor, but unlike Green Lantern, Thor is considerably more fun, and you can actually reasonably describe to others what the movie’s story is. To top it all off, once Green Lantern does come to a somewhat pleasing ending when we’ve “wrapped up” all our story threads, we’re given a “Let’s make a sequel!” cliffhanger during the credits. If the film wasn’t already such a critical and commercial failure, I would have loved to see Campbell and the gang put their heads back together and learn from their mistakes for what could have been an awesome sequel based on the interesting concept they set up. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see it) the film’s probably never going to happen, instead Green Lantern will probably just end up with a new reboot in three or four years. Green Lantern sets lofty goals, and for a brief glimpse you can see what Martin Campbell really had in store for us: an epic, charming, and campy superhero space story, a movie I’m sure audiences would have loved. But as it stands, Green Lantern is a short, bloated movie with too many good ideas gone to waste.

2 out of 5

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Super 8 Review

June 18, 2011 at 12:50 am (Movies)

Super 8 aspires to be a lot. After the first few scenes of the film you can see the attempts at the charm of Spielberg’s charm from the 80s and 90s trying it’s hardest to fuse with Abram’s sensibilities about portraying suspense on the screen and his way of establishing mystery. Super 8 isn’t a bad film, in fact I actually really liked it. However I don’t think it’s as good as it thinks it is, or even as good as collaboration between two of the strongest filmmakers of all time could be, mainly undone by a clumsy final act. The film starts up in a small town in Ohio, where Joe Lamb is still grieving over the loss of his mother from a horrific factory accident. While Joe is helping his friends (including up and coming, young filmmaker Charles Kaznyk) shoot their zombie movie at the local train station, the kids narrowly escape a sudden, violent, and explosive train wreck. Pretty soon it appears that train crash is more than it appeared, as more and more strange phenomenon start occurring around town, people start vanishing, and the military begins an unwelcome and sinister participation in the “clean-up process”. The story’s been passed around a thousand times how Steven Spielberg’s always treated the kids in his films, in that he talks to them and directs them the same way he directs Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Robin Williams as Peter Pan, or Roy Scheider as Martin Brody. This is accredited to the phenomenal performances Steven gets out of his kids. Watching Super 8, you can sense that “Spielberg Tutoring” going on, as almost all the main kid actors’ performances in the film are trademark Spielberg. Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, and Zach Mills are all far better than most kid actors that are 99% of the time painfully phoning it in within the standard family film. I really liked Riley Griffiths’ role as the young director Charles, and I’d love to see him get more parts in the future even if it’s not with his best bud Spielberg. He really demands a lot of attention on screen, which is great and makes him really fun to watch. Plus his verbal sparring and comedic timing was fantastic. Noah Emmerich is your standard, tough-skinned military colonel as Colonel Nelec, and Kyle Chandler’s heart breaking take as Joe’s dad Jackson Lamb is a high point for the movie. Chandler convincingly brings that gruffness and hidden (sometimes not so much) sorrow to Jackson Lamb, all the while carrying himself with that stern “when I say no I mean it” attitude that reminded me a lot of my own father. Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota Fanning, comes out of nowhere and delivers a hard-hitting, very intelligent and yet still puzzling portrayal as Alice Dainard a.k.a. our love interest. I was also really surprised how much I was captivated by Ron Eldard’s role as Alice’s deeply troubled father Louis, and I found there to be a lot of honesty and genuine care put into making that character’s tragedy effective. Of course there’s also Joel Courtney as our lead Joe Lamb, and while it gets the job done (the kid has charisma), it was a bit discouraging that he got out-done by the adults in a movie about childhood. It’s these awesome performances (specifically the kids and in many scenes the super talented older cast) that give Super 8 its strongest pull. Much like JJ Abrams’ 2008 hit Cloverfield, Abrams makes sure to build a strong set of characters in a believable world before unleashing havoc. In contrast to the 15 minutes of exposition before the crap really hits the fan in Cloverfield, in Super 8 almost 3/4 of the film’s run time is thankfully dedicated to building the obscurity of this town’s new menace. There are a lot of great character moments in the time we get to spend with these kids, including some very dramatic family moments, some hilarious banter between the kids involving the kids attempting to finish Charles’ newest film, all sprinkled by a couple of incredibly effective thriller sequences that get the blood going and the anticipation rising as to what’s going to be revealed to us in the final act. I loved the fact that these moments with the kids feel so genuine, and that there’s a lot of time and care put into crafting a really interesting small town (much like the one I grew up in) and slowly sharpening our own anticipation to where we just can’t bear to think what might happen to these great characters in the final minutes. There’s a lot of exposition handed to us in chunks throughout the film, including some key explanations as to why certain characters behave the way they do all tossed at us at once and then the final, revealing description of the “force” invading the town being slapped on us in one awkward scene towards the end of the movie. I really dug the idea of telling this formulaic story in a very sweet, charming environment, as it makes the final moments all the more terrifying and real to us. We really care about what’s happening to the kids because they feel just like the kids that live down the street from us, and it adds an extra, efficient layer of impending doom and danger. But whether it’s because of a rushed script or just an inability to deliver on the goods, I felt like Super 8 played its cards too early in the film and mostly whimpers out in the final act. There’s not a single part of the film that’s “bad”, it’s just built up too much, both by the film’s immense hype in the film community brought on by the trailer and the hype within the film itself. It’s just sort of a bummer to see a character-driven, very suspenseful and heartfelt story of imagination and childhood delve into what felt like a monster-chase movie we’ve seen a thousand times before in the final 30 minutes. It just felt like a different film at times. It felt tonally different as well, taking on a darker, more morose vibe and ultimately playing it far too safe. As I said, even the strictly thriller final act is still a solid movie, it’s just like if someone overwrote the final act of your Die Hard VHS with Taken. Another thing that really helps the film stand out is the emphasis on style.

Much like Matthew Vaughn’s brilliant X-Men: First Class, the movie takes subtle advantage of its time period, submerging us in 1979’s America with the cars, fashion, and even technology (I had a heck of a time trying to figure out what year this movie took place in) without being overbearing. Through the film’s style it also becomes very apparent the film was built from the ground up for movie geeks. Spielberg’s style and Abrams’ style are a perfect marriage that I’d willingly pay to see get back together again. Like I said earlier the kid actors are obviously Spielberg-trained, and even the way the kids talk in such a sharp  entertaining way is somehow a clear cooperation b/w Abrams and Spielberg. The way the world has such a childlike wonder to it, the very sleek approach to concealing a mystery, and of course the gorgeous lens flares that infuriate some are just a few of the elements that show Spielberg and Abrams fingerprints all over the project. Speaking of the visual flourishes Abrams brings to the table, one thing Super 8 does really really well is its effect sequences. Like I’ve stated multiple times, there are a couple of “suspense” sequences that are really effective. Not only because they’re efficiently playing to the mystery of the monster, but also because a lot of the scene is done with practical effects. That car you see being demolished, the windows being obliterated, and the poor helpless soul being dragged out of the camera’s view, it’s all real. I’ve stood on my soapbox before about how I always prefer the real to the computer-generated whenever it’s possible; as it’s been proven in other films of Abrams and even Chris Nolan’s Batman films the physical presence of these effects adds so much more weight to what’s actually going on. While there’s no way it could have avoided using computer effect (it’s just not possible to put something like that on film), the much-advertised train-crash sequence that comes in about 20 minutes into the film is jaw-dropping in the most literal sense of the phrase. It almost felt like they were going to blow the speaker systems in our theater. There are so many quick shot changes that always give you a great view of what’s going on, so many huge explosions, an incredibly chaotic sense of destruction that leads you to believe death is waiting at any corner, and so much more surrounding children that haven’t even hit puberty yet. It’s a very tense, loud, and dangerous sequence that will leave you gasping for breath just like the kids who have narrowly escaped with their lives. It’s by far the film’s most brilliant moment, a moment that’s unfortunately not matched ever again. While the CGI shots (the few that stay on the screen long enough to be studied) during the train wreck sequence looked great, there are a few computer-generated shots that didn’t look particularly great and quite frankly a little unfinished, the majority of which came during the film’s climax I won’t spoil. I find it ironic how much this film works as a great inspiration to kids in that it does work really well to casually approach themes of letting go with the loss of a parent or even indulging in your creative passions and letting your imagination run wild. I had entertained the thought that the whole film could be a metaphor for imagination, and that the “conspiracy” of the town and even the train crash were all a made-up story as part of Charles’ and Joe’s wild imagination, but the film never comes close to supporting my notion. Either way, the movie does effectively take on these ideas and I feel taught the kids in my screening an important lesson by the time the movie was over. However because of the pervasive language (for a PG-13 film), there’s no doubt in my mind I wouldn’t have been able to watch this movie when I was 12 (around Joe’s age). There are a lot of “s-grenades” even by the kids, and it all compiles into enough to profanity to out-class this as a kid’s movie in my mind. Sure it’s a movie about childhood (and our own childhood depending on the viewer), but by no means is it a film made for kids, which is a little disheartening. This movie also fell into the trend, being a PG-13 film, of shoehorning in the one use of the “F-word” allowed in a PG-13 movie. It didn’t really bother me, but it was a really inopportune and ridiculously unnecessary addition to a movie that could have been a classic for kids. Super 8 is a good film. However I feel like it was planning on being the “breath of fresh air” Inception was last summer, which was an amazing film amidst a whole lot of crap we were force fed last summer. Thankfully, Summer 2011 has been a time of some really amazing films we’ve already seen, like Vaughn’s revival of X-Men and Todd Phillips’ wildly successful, wildly hilarious, and just wild The Hangover Part II, with plenty more potential greats on the way (Johnston’s Captain America, Bay’s Transformers, etc.). Basically, instead of being a diamond of normal beauty in a bed of rocks, it’s just a normal-looking diamond in a bed of gorgeous gems. I wish Super 8 had tried a little harder, had been more focused on being a knockout kids’ movie or just the nostalgic sci-fi film it is but with a third act that didn’t deliver on its promises. Super 8 taught me a lot of things; including how blessed we are to have filmmakers like Abrams to succeed Spielburg along with brilliant kid actors that exist outside of the world of Disney. More importantly though it teaches us the wonder of imagination and how wonderfully that can impose itself to the big screen, and that innovative ideas can still trudge through the maze of getting made into film. Had it spent a little more time on the development desk, there could have been a lot more to love here, heck it could have been a BIG stand-out this summer. However Super 8 ends up as a two-act wonder that, thanks to the wonder of those two great acts and some amazing effects, phenomenal characters, and creativity of the purest order, deserves to be seen.

4/5 

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X-Men First Class Review

June 8, 2011 at 11:38 pm (Movies)

Imagine if someone Nolan-ized X-Men. Ok, maybe we use the phrase “Nolan-ze” a little too often. But if Nolan ever did direct an X-Men film, it’d be something close to First Class. Whenever I was a kid I remember watching the Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films, and compared to bigger, more fantastical superhero movies I was accustomed to like Sam Raimi’s Spiderman series and even the pre-Nolan Batman films, they weren’t my favorite. In fact they bored me. Wolverine and Cyclops were the only characters that were “cool” enough to hold my interest, and a lot of the more serious elements like Professor X and Magneto’s rivalry and the Civil Rights subtext slipped right under my radar. I haven’t re-watched the original X-Men film all the way through in years, and with each repeated viewing of X2 I grow fonder of it. X3: The Last Stand, I myself being 14 at the time, was the first of the series I saw in theaters, and I remember loving it. Looking back now that movie has its problems, mainly due to Fox’s interfering nature throwing Brett Ratner on the project, but I stand by the fact that it’s a fun film, and at least more entertaining than 2009’s disappointing “Wolverine”. Somewhere in my room is that X3 poster that I need to dig up. In case you didn’t already know or are just now figuring out through my brief recap, the X-Men series has had it’s own troubled past. A tumultuous past that’s almost entirely redeemed by Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class”, which was produced and co-wrote by Bryan Singer himself. The film approaches the X-Men series with strong, loving reverence along with a very clear desire for a smart, stylistic, and emotion-charged restart of a series that was once in trouble of growing stale, but now feels just as fresh in a 5th film as it did 12 years ago. Wow, 12 years ago? Great job making me feel old, Bryan Singer… The film centers on the very beginning of the mutant conflict in 1962 (the year before the X-Men comics actually started in the real world) and the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union that eventually led into the Cuban Missile Crisis. However this just serves as a backdrop to the real story here, which includes Charles Xavier’s continuing research into the mutant genome including discovering new individuals with powers and the government’s involvement along with Erik Lensherr’s bloodthirsty hunt for Sebastian Shaw, the super-powered and slightly demented owner of the Hellfire Club that is out to recruit a few mutants of his own to start a third world war. That’s a very, very condensed version of this film’s sequence of events that you could condense down to a synopsis. There’s a whole lot going on in this movie, a lot of characters and a lot of material covered, the movie takes full advantage of its 2 1/2 hour run time. However I feel like I could spend just as much time talking about the commendable performances that we get to see because this movie exists. The X-Men series has always been outstanding with its casting decisions which included Singer’s excellent choice in having acting juggernauts (all pun intended) Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan define Professor X and Magneto, giving Hugh Jackman the chance to infamously portray Wolverine, and even the surprise in Kelsey Grammar’s awesome Beast from X3. Matthew Vaughn, while he’s not been in the film game nearly as long as some of these same actors, has made some great but more daring choices like attaching wild card Nicholas Cage to his 2010 movie Kick-Ass and helping Ellen Page become the huge star that she is today. It’s this marriage of casting divinity that’s going to be hard to forget in X-Men: First Class. As I said just a few sentences ago, the performances by Stewart and McKellan were what part of the reason the original trilogy was stood out so much, and were undoubtedly a big “sink or swim” element for the trilogy. As luck would have it, both James McAvoy as Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lensherr match the tone and most surprisingly the quality of the “original” portrayals, along with even exploring new, interesting facets of these comic legends. James McAvoy, portraying a mobile and much more naïve Charles, perfectly illustrates Charles’ immense wisdom while still giving it a touch of boyish arrogance underneath anything he says. Also, he does the thing any guy would do with telepathy, use it to pick up women. Michael Fassbender also really nails it as “pre-Magneto” Erik. He really pulls all of the emotional strings to give us a peek into Erik’s tormented mind that contains great intelligence, deep-seated hate, a lust for revenge, and what we’re told is an even stronger ability than Charles’. I’ll go ahead and say that seeing Erik take on the Magneto helmet by the end of the movie (it’s in the trailer, don’t act surprised) sent chills down my spine. Both actors convinced me of the vast emotion and turmoil within the characters but also the otherworldly power present there. It’s really astonishing that these actors have both crafted a remarkable portrayal of these mutant “brothers” but you can see that natural progression coming down the line that made them who they were in the original trilogy. Rose Byrne, who’s really been known just for her parts in comedies (Bridesmaids, last year’s Get Him to the Greek) does a surprisingly awesome job as the government agent McTaggert that’s there to escort the “First Class’s” efforts to stop Sebastian Shaw, portrayed magnificently by Kevin Bacon. I admittedly chuckled whenever I heard Bacon was cast in the film’s “main villain” role, but the guy pulls “fully despicable” off well, and does so in a surprisingly sincere and intimidating way. January Jones isn’t particularly amazing as Emma Frost, but she’s easy enough on the eyes most guys in my demographic won’t complain about her acting skills. Oliver Platt, Michael Ironside, and Nikolas Hoult all do considerably awesome jobs with the smaller parts they’re given (with the exception of Hoult as Beast of course), but it’s Hoult’s performance as Hank McCoy that rarely breaks out of the teenage movie stereotype but seems to want to go farther.

Whereas Vaughn’s 2010 “Kick-Ass” had a pretty profound color palette and visual sense, First Class does the same in a far subtler, but just as impressive way. The costumes at the end of the film that we see in all the trailers had a nice aesthetic that gave us just enough of a taste of the classic X-Men, and I’ll never be able to fully explain my love for Vaughn’s design of the Magneto helmet that is actually a critical crux to the story. Seeing Erik get that helmet by the end of the film (it’s in the trailer and it’s not a huge spoiler to say Magneto becomes Magneto) was really something to see, especially considering the setup to that moment in the seconds before. Of course the movie has a 60s vibe to it and while it’s never really as overbearing as a lesser-talented director would have made it, it lends itself to some great design choices in clothing, building architecture, and of course the classic cars. For the most part the visual effects looked fantastic in the movie as well as the action sequences; even if there were a few shots that didn’t look entirely impressive probably because the film was completed on a very tight schedule thanks to Fox not wanting to lose the X-Men rights. The action scenes range from your classic power vs. power chaos, the incredibly epic finale we see in the trailers, and to a far darker and more disturbing place especially when the film is delving into Magneto’s tormented past with a handful of scenes at the Nazi camp Erik discovered his powers. I can see where X-Men: First Class would be a huge risk for Fox. There’s no Wolverine, there’s no Patrick Stewart, heck, there’s literally no one in the official cast list that’s in the original trilogy. So it’s understandable that X-Men First Class covers such a HUGE RANGE of story here, and the fact that it does take a colossal, twisting story and just uses that to make it a stronger, more tremendous film with its story, that’s just fantastic. It’s almost dizzying to think about what all could be mentioned when rambling about the story Vaughn and Singer tell here. I mean you have all these concepts at work here like the ever-present X-Men theme of acceptance in a changing society, a strong tale of revenge that in the first few scenes of the film feels almost like a crossover of James Bond and Inglourious Basterds, a historical backdrop very reminiscent of Alan Moore/Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, an origin story of one of the greatest superhero teams ever, and most importantly of all to me, this tragic story of two patriarchal men with very different ideas of approaching the world slowly but surely falling in line against each other. Yeah, and all of this is told in two hours and 13 minutes. It’s a very streamlined flow of ideas that all make their way to the screen in their own sweet time, each one appealing to a different fan. I almost felt like the trailers for the film were a little misleading, considering 90% of those shots are in the last 40 minutes of the film. This is very much a spy thriller that just so happens to include superheroes, an idea I just can’t get enough of. Vaughn and Singer have such an eye for this series and an eye for making these characters believable that by the end when we reach this humongous ending where all these seemingly random story threads meet together, it’s one of the most ambitious and grand finales Marvel’s ever achieved.

There’s easily enough material here for 2 or 3 films in that the events of First Class could have been their own trilogy, but guessing that either Vaughn or Singer wasn’t sure they’d get a second run at this, they tell almost every single story they want to tell here while still not over-packing it. But still at the end of the movie we’re given a very ominous, almost cliffhanger conclusion with even a few story elements that could easily be explored. Once you’ve seen the film, you’ll know exactly the shot this film ends on, and just like me, you’ll be dying to see more. Once you’ve seen the film, you’ll know exactly the shot this film ends on, and just like me, you’ll be dying to see more. I could have easily spent another 2 or 3 hours in the theater watching more of the world Vaughn and Singer created, or rather, re-created. While this is such a loving tribute to the original trilogy and such a beautiful marriage of the old and the new that unifies the sensibilities and ideas of the originals while giving it the shot-in-the-arm revival it needed with this new spin and new world to explore, Singer’s script isn’t perfect per say. He does do an awesome job of connecting the films together here and giving you those “Ah ha!” moments where you realize how certain things came to be, but the way he writes some of those scenes felt a little on the nose. The whole sequence where Raven explains all the mutants names was hard to swallow, and there were a few times it was a bit insulting that the movie assumed we still didn’t realize what something was by writing it out a bit too obviously. That might sound obscure, but once you see the film you’ll know what I mean. The same goes for a few of the powers in the film, including one of the bad guy’s ability to throw tornadoes.  In the midst of a thankfully more serious and morose world where this epic clash of brothers is going on, a mutant line is about to be drawn between good and evil, and World War 3 is looming, seeing the cheesiness of some of these powers felt a little out of place and goofy. Also, a lot of people I knew had a big problem with how this film fit into the others continuity-wise, but when this film that apparently “breaks the timeline” is better than the timeline, I don’t have a problem accepting this as just that director’s own vision of how it happened. I really wouldn’t have wanted to see this film changed in any way. Thankfully also with Singer partially at the helm there are a handful of amazing cameos and winks to the trilogy to keep the older fans in delight. X-Men: First Class is an extraordinary film, and I’d go as far to say that it’s the first superhero film this year to truly break the mold and almost transcend the genre. It’s as powerful as any drama I’ve seen in the past few years, it’s got the action scenes that never fail to impress, it’s hilarious in several spots, it has style just oozing out of its pores like a James Bond film, and for those of us that have loved X-Men forever, it’s really rewarding to see this work of love really come to the screen. It defies the odds to tell one of Marvel’s greatest stories, the birth of the rivalry between Charles and Erik, in a perfect way. I think this is Marvel’s best film they’ve done in the past couple of decades of bringing amazing comics to life, if not it’s definitely tied with Spiderman 2, finally Marvel has a Dark Knight they can boast about. Underneath all the beauty of this film and even the dark places it goes, you know how this movie ends, you just don’t know how or by what measures it’ll get there.

5 out of 5

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Kung Fu Panda 2 Review

June 3, 2011 at 3:02 pm (Movies)

When an animated movie hits the right note for me, it really knocks it out of the park. I’ve sat through my fair share of awful animated movies, and when one screws up the formula, it’s really hard to sit through. You can see the resolution coming a mile away, and the jokes that fail to hit the golden balance between kids and adults makes you want to jump out of a window. Thankfully, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a classic benchmark for efficiently mixing humor, action, and a hybrid sort of story into a single awesome movie that’ll give any age group an unshakable smirk, and it might just teach you something. Kung Fu Panda 2 picks up a few years after Kung Fu Panda 1, where Po the Dragon Warrior Panda (Jack Black) has become a hero of China but is still the bumbling, “ska-doosh”-ing hero we love leading the Furious Five that includes Mantis (Seth Rogen), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). The movie focuses on Po and the gang’s attempt to overthrow the evil Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a vengeful peacock that with the help of a baffling new weapon plans on bring China and kung-fu itself to its knees. I’m usually not a fan of all-star casts like DreamWorks uses a lot of times, but the Kung Fu Panda series is one of those exceptions. Jack Black is practically the Picasso of the voice work art form. The guy clearly has a lot of fun in the voice booth getting to become Po, and it helps that they both have a lot in common personality wise. It’s just refreshing to have an actor bring so much fun, physicality, and innocence to what could have been a bland character. I like that certain characters like Seth Rogen as Mantis and Jackie Chan as Monkey get more time on screen, and I even liked what new-comer Danny McBride brought in as the leader of Lord Shen’s wolf pack. While he’s not really gotten a huge break, he has a very clear shtick in a lot of his films that for some reason was really funny to see animated. I’m pretty sure they even let him improvise on a few lines of the dialogue, which is pretty unheard of, but a perfect opportunity for the hysterical McBride to stretch his legs. James Hong, just as he was in the first film, is a hilarious addition to the movie as Po’s “father goose”/noodle storeowner. Gary Oldman though as the nefarious Lord Shen is almost unrecognizable. It’s a running joke on Internet message boards that Gary Oldman is in almost every movie that comes out, yet it was a huge surprise to me that he was in this. Surprise or not, Oldman’s incarnation of Shen is commendable, as he gives it just the right pause of words here, the right menacing flourish to make Lord Shen really intimidating. He clearly gives it his all, and easily becomes the best villain this series has and probably ever will see. The look of all these characters has also improved dramatically. Re-watching parts of the original Kung Fu Panda just the other day, the older models by no means look dated, but the increased quality in small things like shading and detail on the characters looks phenomenal. Take a moment to look at just the fur on Po or Tigress in the snowy mountain or harbor scenes, just to admire that painstaking detail. Also just on an artistic level these characters are a huge animation milestone. I really dug the aesthetic of the wolves and gorillas as sort of Shen’s “brute force”, and while we’re on the topic of Lord Shen, that character in and of itself is a wonder to behold. DreamWorks deserves a standing ovation for making a laughable conceit like a peacock as a villain one of the fiercest villains to ever be animated. Lord Shen must have been a pain in the rear to animate but is almost like a Swiss army knife, being as there are about 17 different things he can do with his unique body structure, including using his wreath of feathers as a shield AND projectile stash, using metal claws to gain traction and as a landing support, and oh yeah, he also has a sweet sword. This world that the characters inhabit is also gorgeous, the animators once again going out of their way to create a faithful but still creatively complimentary portrayal of ancient China. Each shot seems to incorporate a temple, mountain ridge, or just a peaceful but artistically vibrant Chinese marketplace, and it’s like some kind of amazing mosaic. While this is a small detail, I also really dug the idea of making everything around Shen a deep red and black any time he goes into a rant or is up to another nefarious deed, giving us as an audience an immediate feel that he’s got to be up to something. I might also make a point of picking up the movie’s score by Hans Zimmer, a very traditional but effective track that gave off a really old school kung-fu movie vibe. Would you think that’s the end of this movie’s artistic luster? Of course not, there are a handful of flashback scenes that use a really magnificent hand-drawn, 2D style to signify the shift in time. It reminded me a lot of the same historical Chinese style the film harkened back to in so many other aspects. It’ll go unappreciated by kids, but to a film nerd it’s an amazing touch. Kung Fu Panda 2 really is a remarkable feat in how it has a really great attitude about itself. A little too often we get these animated films that are a little too snarky, they’ve always got this smart-allecky smirk underneath all of its jokes and tender moments, but that never felt like the case to me with Kung Fu Panda 2. Everything it’s doing on screen always felt really genuine and sweet to me. I’ve discovered that I’m addicted to the recurring idea of normal people (and in a lot of cases people we’d normally associate as geeky, out of shape, or just a loser) doing amazing things. I mean I’m a huge fan of the show “Chuck” on NBC, and so many other pieces of work much like how Kung Fu Panda 2 with Po the very unfit Panda, probably because I can find a lot to relate to there. Once that hero gets to accomplish his goal at the end it means all that much more because he had a lot more to overcome, including other’s expectations. No one’s really surprised when James Bond saves the world for the umpteenth time, but when a down-on-his-luck nerdy guy with a heart of gold gets the girl or stops the bad guy, you just want to cheer. Much like Po from start to finish the movie does have a very innocent soul, and that helps the action and comedic moments hit so much better, mainly because the characters are just as astonished as you are that they just saved the day.

From a more creative standpoint, the filmmakers really did do a great job at stepping up their game on a lot of the fantastic aspects of the first film and telling the unique story they tell here. Kung Fu Panda 2 is very much an origin story, but some how it manages to not fall into the predictability of that or even make that the only focus of the film. They use Po’s origins that are touched on throughout to make the new story make more sense and to even advance that story farther, mainly because Lord Shen has a much stronger connection Po’s past than you’re initially led to believe. We get to learn who Po’s real parents were, what happened to them, and who Po really is in these 2D cell-shaded animated sequences that often go to some dark, scary places (thanks mostly to Executive Producer Guillermo Del Toro) without being too daunting for kids. I didn’t expect Kung Fu Panda 2 to match or even top Kung Fu Panda 1’s action or comedy, but somehow it managed to top it. Who knows, maybe I was in an awesome mood going into the theater, but I was floored by how funny Kung Fu Panda 2 was. Of course there’s your fat joke here and there, Po’s hysterical habit of shouting out plan names for completely unpredicted battle scenarios as if he had planned them months in advance, and several other kid-aimed bits of humor, I was laughing a good 15 minutes after some of the hilarious scenes I won’t even spoil here. The action sequences also aren’t just beautiful, they’re much more creative this time around, and often times really take advantage of the animation medium, creating some gorgeous scenes you just couldn’t ever do with live action. The set piece from the trailer where the Furious Five have to scale Shen’s palace is remarkable, and manages to be as hilarious as some the movie’s best jokes at the same time. Along with a chase scene in a Chinese marketplace between Po and the Wolf Pack Leader, of course the final battle between Po and Lord Shen, and a handful of other action pieces here and there throughout the film are just awesome. From start to finish I was never bored with the movie, I never had any idea where the story was going to go next, and I was constantly entertained in the best way by this absorbing story, engaging action and great moments of hilarity. I can only imagine what it would be like to see this as a kid. I’ll admit, I didn’t see the film in 3D but I cheaped out and went with the 2D print of the movie, and while I’ve heard the 3D print is actually worth it, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything without the glasses. Much like a lot of other cases I didn’t miss the glasses. If there’s anything I could really complain about here, it’s that I felt the movie was a little too short for me. While that’s a pretty good compliment of your film that I wanted to spend more time in the world you created, at about 90 minutes it felt just a little rushed in places like we were moving from plot point to plot point pretty quickly. Also, while I did love the fantastic cliffhanger ending to this movie, the concept that they’re setting up has set a few other animated series astray. I have the utmost faith in this crew, and hopefully we’ll see a Kung Fu Panda 3 in the next few years, but they’ll really have to knock it out of the park. All in all, I had an amazing time watching Kung Fu Panda 2; it’s a film I feel like I could recommend to any age group, knowing they’ll leave the theater satisfied. Not just in terms of improving and innovating the animation game, but when you’re trying to find a hilarious, sweet, good-natured animated movie with a sincerely great message, there are few animated movies this summer that’ll come close to topping Kung Fu Panda 2’s mastery of kung-fu. As I wrap up, let me make something clear, I am a firm believer in the lifestyle of being awesome. Be awesome to others, treat yourself awesome, do awesome things, live an awesome life, and it’s rare that a film embodies the spirit of awesome quite like Kung Fu Panda 2 does. It’ll be a film I re-watch over and over in a couple of months just to remind myself what “awesome” really is. It’s almost like a poster child for awesomeness, and I feel as if that’s one of the best compliments and best descriptions I can give it.

5 out of 5

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The Hangover Part II Review

June 1, 2011 at 11:05 pm (Movies)

I remember bragging to my friends back in 2009 that I was going to see the “little-known” comedy called The Hangover on its opening night, mostly because I had already heard some of the amazing buzz coming off the film’s advanced screening and thinking it could very well be the next huge hit. Apparently I have a great foresight for modern comedy classics (it’s totally like me to have a useless skill like that), as The Hangover (Part 1) was a colossal hit. It established new box office records for both live action comedies and the R-rated genre in general, and living in a guys’ dorm myself, I can assure it’s still gleefully quoted on a night-to-night basis. Now, The Hangover Part II (one of the funniest titles I’ve ever heard in my opinion) has landed in theaters, and to be honest, Todd Phillips didn’t even have to try here. Just put in the same cast, slap on a new location, and keep up the fantastic jokes that you know people will laugh themselves into tears with, and you’ve got another half-billion in the bank. I can’t say that Todd Phillips’ latest is the most profoundly original film I’ve ever witnessed, but being able to see arguably this summer’s biggest comedy hit first with a room full of other eager fans at 12:01 in the morning was a perfect setting for this immensely funny and infinitely amusing movie. The film takes place about 2 years after the original Hangover, with Doug still happily married and still afraid of rooftops, Phil still with his wife and with their new child, Allen still living with his parents at home and cherishing the memories from two years prior, and Stu now being the bachelor of the hour, arranged to be married in Bangkok, Thailand. Despite Stu’s stern precautions, after a bonfire and drinking night on the beach the guys wake up in a run-down slum in Bangkok with no idea where they are or where Stu’s future brother-in-law could be.

I would imagine finding leading men to take the comedic reins on your movies is a supremely tough task, but I think it’s one that Todd Phillips might just be one of the best at when it comes to consistency. Thanks to him the comedic brilliance that is Zach Galifianakis is as recognized as it is, and it’s been his pairing with Robert Downey Jr. in last year’s Due Date or his threesome with the remarkable Ed Helms and the suave Bradley Cooper that makes fans like myself feel better about making him an A-list director. Much like The Hangover Part 1, it’s this “modern day three stooges” that’s still one of the primary reasons this film works so well on a comedic level. They just play so well off of each other, their chemistry is unbeatable, and the fact that each one of the guys is just as funny as the other in different ways helps too. The underappreciated Ed Helms is a remarkable straight man as Stu, and his gross-out/freak-out reactions are still an uproarious staple of his character.Bradley Cooper, as an opposite to Zach’s far-left character, is calm and most importantly cool for the majority of the film just like last time, and allows his on-screen charm to carry him through. As I said earlier, it’s awesome that Galifianakis is getting the recognition he has been for this same role, and if you’ll watch any of his own stand-up bits on YouTube you’ll realize the guy has an incredibly sharp comedic mind. Just as you’d expect and much like last time, he’s the most bizarre character on screen and has most of the film’s best, most knee-slapping hilarious lines my hall mates will be citing well through August whenever school starts back. Ken Jeong as Chow also has a much larger part in this film than in Part One, which is a nice refresher from time to time popping into the story’s events without being annoying. Paul Giamatti even springs in about halfway through as a Russian crime boss, and while he doesn’t do particularly anything as interesting as he’s capable of, it’s still a fun bit. Being in Bangkok this time around, the film’s tone has also taken a much dimmer note. Instead of the barren deserts, brightly-lit and neon landscape that was Las Vegas last time around, Bangkok is a much filthier and grimier place, and we get to see this on every street corner, strip club and shipping port the guys visit. The buildings are filthy, the people are hostile, and it’s a rare sight that the Wolf Pack is in a building that doesn’t have electricity or more than 2 floors. It’s not exactly the most flattering portrayal of Asia, but the few shots that Phillips manages to get from the top of skyscrapers or a “P.F. Chang’s” monastery is a nice aesthetic touch. It’s great that Phillips seemed to want to raise the stakes and disparity of the situation just a little bit more by making it a more forlorn, dangerous and god-forsaken landscape, on top of the fact that no one speaks English. A lot of the greatest and funniest bits of the movie are also darker in spots. The 15 minutes we get before the gang gets to Thailand are pretty reminiscent of Hangover Part One even in joke tone, including a hilarious shot showing the jealousy between Allen and Stu’s new brother-in-law on the plane ride over. But after the beer bottles clink and we get the time lapse of the city over night just like in Part 1 as we know what’s to come, everything and I mean everything takes a turn for the worst, and by the worst I mean the funniest. The Hangover Part II pushes the boundary of “How far can we take this bit?” much farther than the original and ends up in some jaw-dropping places. Not to spoil any of the moments, but there’s a certain scene inside of a Bangkok strip club that you could almost tell by a rippling effect who discovered how that scene was going to end, and once that realization came it slowly sent laughter and shivers down our backs. It’s nowhere near unrecognizable compared to Part 1 (it’s still boys behaving badly through and through and for the most part it’s good clean drunken debauchery), you should know the film goes to some dark places in a few spots, pushing even its R rating. It’s interesting to also note that you could almost label The Hangover Part II as an action comedy. There are a handful of great action sequences in the film that are peppered in the trailer, greatly out-tailing the scope and action of the first film. There were a few spots that I felt like the new emphasis on action came at the expense of the humor, the ending credits clip show was a little bit disappointing, but there are still a slew of great laughs in this one, and the added action emphasis is appreciated, innovating on the comedy in a fun way. Plus it helps that Part II, much like Part One, is a genuinely funny film that’s only going to get funnier on repeated viewings, much like the first film, with expanded, yet still gut-bustingly hilarious set-ups for the Wolf Pack to overcome. I mentioned earlier that The Hangover Part II isn’t going to win any awards for originality, and I find that to be its biggest fault but also one of its best things about it. Much like the first film, The Hangover Part II has the same trio of guys waking up somewhere with no idea of what happened the night before. You could even argue that a lot of the plot elements are just duplicates, like how instead of a tiger there’s a monkey, instead of Chow there’s Paul Giamatti’s Russian gangster character, instead of a baby it’s a Thai monk, and so on. True, I think if Phillips had deviated from the formula just a little or tried something totally bold and crazy and made an entirely new format, we could have had an entirely new, fresh, and potentially amazing comedy, but these similarities that seem to really bother others with this film never really got to me. Sure, there were a few times in this one that I thought “Oh that thing’s like that thing from the original”, but it never got to the point where I thought I was being ripped off. Instead it became clear (at least to me) that Todd Phillips was patterning these new antics in a different, fresh way (and in many instances a darker way) that sometimes simply referenced the original in a demented, hilarious sort of way. In a lot of scenes it’s even part of the joke, and works to the joke’s benefit when both you and the character are thinking about the idea that they’ve already been through this torment. It’s almost like an inside joke between you and the Wolf Pack. Maybe that’s what I loved best about The Hangover Part II and what makes it better than the original in some regards, that it’s a loving work of fan service. They know what we love about these characters, and they give us more of it, polishing the bits that worked and tossing out the “dud” elements (however few there were) from the first film. Just like Part One, the movie opens with Phil calling Doug’s wife, telling her “we really screwed up this time, it’s bad”, and my midnight screening immediately burst into applause and tearful, anticipation-laced laughter. I love this movie, I love the wolf pack, and I’d be more than willing to see at least a half-dozen more hungover antics of this crew. And it doesn’t just rely on replicating the first film’s formula, it ratchets all the jokes to 11, widens the scale, pays homage to the things we love, gives us new things to love and new lines to quote, and tries its darn hardest to make sure each theater patron leaves satisfied. We know Phil, Stu, and Allen are screw-ups; it’s just great fun to see them again. The Hangover Part II, much like it’s wolf pack, is a real piece of work. I won’t be re-watching this movie months from now with friends because it’s the most original piece of comedic entertainment out there, but because it delivers and expands on what I love about this comedy series while pushing the envelope a little farther, daring to go there, and not being afraid to go the extra comedic mile. It’s a comedy I love waking up to.

4 out of 5

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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides Review

May 25, 2011 at 11:21 am (Movies)

It took me two different screenings to fully absorb Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, one being a midnight screening and the other being a repeat screening with my Dad (it’s one of my favorite traditions). I actually had a chance recently to re-watch the trilogy, and the latter two still stand out as my favorites. I really dug the supernatural parts of the story like Davy Jones and his crew and how things slowly built toward that colossal, one-hour scuffle between the Dutchman, the Black Pearl, and the East India Trading Company. Sure, the plot’s pretty pressed even at three hours, but it was still a larger-than-life conclusion to one of my favorite “trilogies” growing up. Now, even with Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom gone, we find ourselves at a fourth installment. As with any fourth installment where you’re breaking free of your “told and done” story of your trilogy, by the time the ending credits go up the viewer has to ask, “was it worth it, or should they have stopped while they were ahead?” Unlike a lot of other franchises, I’d like to think Pirates of the Caribbean has more longevity than other series. I could almost picture an elderly Geoffrey Rush opening up his storybook entitled “The Many Adventures of (Captain) Jack Sparrow” to tell his grandchildren of the many stories, all while sitting next to an open fire in a wingback chair. After defeating what was essentially the high sea’s equivalent of Satan and the Turners are out of the picture, Jack Sparrow, his First Mate Gibbs, and Privateer Captain Barbossa, now working for the Royal Navy, are all out to find the mythical Fountain of Youth. One of the reasons the second film in the series, Dead Man’s Chest, is still my favorite is because there’s one central goal in that film to find the chest of Davy Jones. We’re told whoever finds the chest essentially owns the sea, and no matter what’s going on it’s always going back to that main objective. I was relieved to find On Stranger Tides works on that same level in a sense, although things are a little bit twistier along the way. Johnny Depp returns of course as Captain Jack Sparrow, and it feels a bit redundant to talk about his performance. Sure the character’s starting to show its age, but you can’t hide that smile on your face seeing this man’s mastery of the myth that is Sparrow, he just believes in it so much, probably even more so since he was more than likely paid more to come back for this round-about. While Kevin McNally has had better turns as Gibbs, Jack’s best friend, his determination is really admired. If you’ve ever seen Geoffrey Rush in an interview or in another role and then watched a Pirates of the Caribbean film, you’ll swear you’re seeing a different person. It’s really a shame this guy hasn’t been recognized yet for this awesome role especially after four films. Even if he’s pushing his later 60s, it’s inspiring to see this guy put so much effort forth as Barbossa, and it pays off as he’s still the most developed character on the screen. Just that laugh of his in the final five minutes of the movie brings me back to 2006 where he made a similar “comeback” that caused a few gasps. Now I’ll go ahead and pick this bone, that the exclusion of certain Black Pearl members was noticeable. I can’t really blame the writers for not having the Turners in the film anymore considering how their story ended in At World’s End, but the fact that Pintel and Ragetti are nowhere to be found in this film is by far it’s biggest sin. There’s a story twist revealed at the end that potentially explains their absence, but it’s sort of like having a college graduation party where the two funniest guys from your dorm hall didn’t show up. Ian McShane joined the cast this time around as the main villain of the film, the dreaded Blackbeard. He does a pretty serviceable job as the nasty, remorseless pirate, but it’s a pretty tough act to follow Bill Nighy’s impeccable definition of Davy Jones. Penelope Cruz pops in as the former love interest to Jack/swash-buckling heroine Angelica, and gives the screen plenty of pop as a great piece of eye candy. She also fits into the whole mesh of the Pirates lore remarkably well.

Along with Cruz and McShane are a slew of new concepts to the film. I’ll concede that a lot of these ideas work, but certain structures just aren’t set up and followed through on. I had a lot of fun with the new mermaid subplot to the film, and I think there was a good amount of focus put into that on a writing level. The mermaid attack scene that’s shown a lot in the trailer isn’t quite as memorable as I’d like, but is creepy and diverse enough to warrant the inclusion. A lot of my friends that have seen the film liken the new characters to “mermaid vampires”, and without getting too nerdy on what exactly constitutes a vampire, that pretty much hits the nail on the head. They mold this idea together with our new “replacement” for Will Turner, a missionary that’s been imprisoned on Blackbeard’s ship that ends up “fancying” the mermaid Blackbeard imprisons for the Fountain voyage. While the romance never really meant a whole lot to me and I never really became that invested in it, it does have its sweet moments here and there that help it stay relevant and interesting, even if that particular story ends in a head-turning way that I won’t spoil here. Like I went over earlier Blackbeard is a pretty convincing villain mainly thanks to McShane’s own ability as an actor, but aside from a few moments of the film we’re never really given that much reason to be afraid of him. Sure, his boat has a flamethrower, and sure, he controls his ship with his sword and can bring the dead back to life, but aside from a few novelty moments you’ll wonder what the big deal is about “the pirate all pirates fear”. These ideas aren’t executed poorly by any means, but they lack some of the legroom we got with some of the newer notions from the other movies. This also sort of comes back to the script that handles a few of these plot developments a little clumsily. With Barbossa’s story we’re never really given a reason he’s working for the British Navy until the climax of the film, which adds a little too much mystery to his character, if that’s even possible. There also aren’t many stakes for Jack Sparrow this entire time; he’s almost an observer to a lot of the action. There are a few other plot contrivances that feel just a little phoned-in with this being a fourth installment and all. But for every new plot element that didn’t really feel all the way developed, there were some awesome inclusions like the Spanish Conquistador involvement that takes a surprise turn near the end or just how beautiful some of these new sets looked, in particular Blackbeard’s rust-colored ship. The film also hits the nail on the head in capturing the Pirates of the Caribbean humor that always keeps things at a level, energetic tone. In Pirates of the Caribbean 1-3 there was always one big set piece that I enjoyed, whether that was the water wheel chase in Dead Man’s Chest or the hour-long Maelstrom Battle in At World’s End, but I didn’t find that to be the case in On Stranger Tides. There are a handful of cool action moments, but never one that stood out more than the others aside from the London chase at the film’s intro. I did have way more fun with this than I thought I was going to, but the thought of considering what this series would have been like at just three films crossed my mind a time or two. I don’t think the film is as “unnecessary” or “lazy” as a lot of people seem to point out, I think it’s worth it’s weight in fun and intrigue. It has its moments of slothfulness that’s come to be expected when a series is practically a decade old, but it never became so apparent that the film lost its zeal to me. In the end I think that’s what charmed me most, the enjoyable and often “storybook” characteristics of the film. I wouldn’t call Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides a “great” film, but it’s definitely “good”, and it succeeds in pleasing its swash-buckling, pleasure-seeking audience including myself. It does have it’s fair share of problems, but most of them just came back to what appears to be conflict on a writing level where there seemed to be trouble deciding where to take the series now. While it’s showing it’s age, for a fourth installment it’s not half bad. I could see them doing this series on for at least a handful of other films, whether that’s continuing off of the post-credits chin-scratcher or, as I would prefer, having Captain Jack go on other quests for Pirate lore and booty. Heck, I’d even watch a film with just Geoffrey Rush in it as Barbossa. Who knows, the next Pirates go-round might just be its finest if they keep preserving the film’s fun nature it’s held onto so well, but work a little bit more on how they incorporates the new ideas that’s keeping it so fresh. Keep all these things in line and I’d be sorely remiss to ever walk the plank, that is unless you don’t brink back Pintel and Ragetti.

4 out of 5

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THOR Review

May 17, 2011 at 11:50 pm (Movies)

Three years ago on a rainy Friday night I sat in a semi-crowded theater and saw Jon Favreau’s larger-than-life adaptation of Iron Man. It wasn’t just the first film I was able to drive myself to go see, but it was also one of the single coolest theater-going experiences of my life. Something clicked that night. Maybe it was the overwhelming sense of freedom that came in the form of seeing a mega-blockbuster with my new driver’s license, maybe it was Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma that just melted off of the screen, or maybe it’s just because I like watching superheroes duke it out with other superheroes and seeing metal bang against metal, but that experience in that theater, including squealing in nerdy delight as Samuel L. Jackson stepped on the screen for the first time as Nick Fury to introduce the Avengers initiative, will be one that I hopefully never, ever forget. Three years and billions of dollars later, we’ve seen 1/2 the Avengers assemble with the inclusion of “The Incredible Hulk” (an entertaining, although flawed experience) back in 2008, and now in one summer we’re “assembling” the final half of the best crime-fighting team in the universe, The Avengers. Now that we have less than a year before Will Wheaton’s carefully handled, meticulously written, and ceremoniously protected take on Marvel’s “best of the best” hits the screen, people are getting nervous. Both Iron Man and the Hulk are big successes, and now not only does the currently filming “Avengers” obviously have to be a hit, but the two precursors, Captain America and Thor have to be a success or Marvel’s biggest project ever will be sitting on some shaky ground. Sure, Captain America makes me nervous because you have the hit-or-miss director Joe Johnston on a character who’s tone and subject matter you have to hit just right, but then there’s Thor, which on paper could either be a humiliating disaster or a daunting inspiration as to what Marvel can really do. Before the incredible buzz came rolling in I was convinced Thor was going to be the former, a film that can’t manage the formality of Asgard and the light-heartedness of Earth that balances the character out for the casual audience. I’ve never been happier to be wrong about a movie, because this is an unbelievable pairing of dedicated performances and a clear direction that knew from the get-go what it wanted to be. All together it’s a film that doesn’t just settle for being fun, but a very intelligent yet consistently entertaining jump start to Summer 2011 that rivals the quality of the classic that is Favreau’s 2008 Iron Man. The film is basically one of the sleekest origin stories ever, telling the wide tale of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), an arrogant king-to-be that is banished to earth by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) after starting a needless war with the neighboring Frost Giants. The film follows his quest on earth to prove himself to be a noble warrior by helping a local scientist (Natalie Portman) while his brother, the mischievous Loki, has some evil plans for the throne of Asgard. Let me start by saying the decision to put Kenneth Branagh, former helmer of Shakespearean projects like Henry V, as the head of Thor (arguably the most Shakespearean superhero ever created) was one of the most inspired creative decisions since Raimi was put on Spiderman or Favreau was assigned to Iron Man. Everything about Asgard looks spectacular, from the costumes all the way down to the rainbow road. There’s some apparent pain-staking detail in the costumes of Asgard’s residents including Thor and even the Warriors Three, and it brings out a very genuine aesthetic to the characters. Not to mention the simple fact that the costumes just look cool. As I mentioned earlier, Branagh is a Shakespearean vet, and it shows in some of the beautiful Asgardian sets. The dining halls, Odin’s sleeping chambers, heck even the more mystical elements like Rainbow Bridge, the Observatory, and the countless breathtaking shots of the city itself look like they were taken straight out of one of Shakespeare’s finest tales. Although less elegant, the small town Thor is banished to in New Mexico is also just as beautiful in a much different, more subtle way. It almost reminded me of my own small hometown, having a very compact feel that worked to both give you an very easy-to-grasp concept of location and to give even more weight to how out of place a mystical god like Thor really is. Matching up with these striking sets are some just-as-striking performances. Being the Anthony Hopkins fan I am, I found a lot to enjoy in his portrayal of Odin, even if it’s your standard Hopkins fare. Tom Hiddleston doesn’t quite knock it out of the park as Loki, but he’s menacing enough to keep your attention without necessarily breaking down genre standards, and both Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings are fun distractions during Thor’s stay on Earth. Idris Elba has a fun bit in the film as the gatekeeper and with his 20 minutes of screen time proves he’s ready for bigger parts. (Possibly Luke Cage anyone?) It’s Chris Hemsworth as our title character Thor that truly sets the film apart. While Hemsworth might give off the classic Hollywood meathead stereotype, the way he visibly dedicates himself to the role is awe-inspiring, and it’s something we haven’t seen the likes of since Robert Downey Jr. perfectly encapsulated the part of Tony Stark. Hemsworth’s bravado, the way he convincingly pulls off the Shakespearean drama, the Marvel big league action, and most surprising of all the hilarious nature of his character that there’s not a single doubt in my mind Hemsworth isn’t destined for greatness. I’ve heard different critics even compare him to 1977 Harrison Ford, and while that’s a high bar to set, Hemsworth is for sure within reaching distance of that. Needless to say I can’t wait to see what’s next for this guy aside from The Avengers and the almost assured Thor sequels. There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as seeing an actor on screen as their character for the first time in the film, and, having had all of these pre-conceived notions as to what they should look like, how they should sound, and how they should behave, seeing them knock it out of the park, leaving you with your jaw on the floor.

Finally, what impressed me most about Branagh’s Thor was just the fact that it didn’t suck. Maybe I should elaborate just a little bit more. Like I said earlier, whenever I first saw the trailers and press coverage for Thor, I was absolutely convinced the film was going to be terrible. Praise be to both Odin and Branagh for making an entertaining film that mixes immensely funny fish-out-of-water sequences and deftly molding that with very striking, imposing Asgard sequences with a few kick-awesome battles between the two worlds. It almost feels like there were two separate teams, one working on the Asgard scenes and the other on the Earth scenes to ensure maximum quality. Maybe I’m exaggerating here, I mean the film’s not Oscar quality (aside from visual effects and Hemsworth’s performance), but it means so much to me that it wasn’t the wacky-goofy shenanigans of Earth and then the overtly serious nature of Thor’s home world. The world of Asgard hits just the right balance between seriousness and not too serious that it’s almost laughable, and it was so refreshing just to be able to laugh at the genuinely funny Earth gags. I never
thought I would laugh so hard at a Norse god being hit by a car multiple times or the old face-smearing on a window trick we’ve seen abused so many times. The fact that the humor, action, and drama not only work, but excel and genuinely blend to make one cohesive result that’s so much fun to watch makes it one of Marvel’s finest and most impressive achievements to date. I’m also impressed that there was a good bit of effort into putting a lot of emphasis on his fierce rivalry with Loki that makes some of the film’s later scenes and even where we’re led to assume that character is going even more exciting. There’s also a lot of apparent respect for the source material here, thanks once again to Branagh’s filmography and I’m sure the other immense talent behind the camera. Thor, despite being one of Marvel’s B-Level heroes, is treated with as much respect as Spiderman or Iron Man, and while his arc is similar to Tony Stark’s in Iron Man 1, there are plenty of moments that give you genuine time to get to know Thor, his complicated relationships with Loki and Odin, laugh with him and even sympathize with him. As if the developed character wasn’t enough, the aforementioned beauty in the sets and costumes also does its fair share of showing the respect to Asgard’s finest. While I was a little disappointed at first at Thor’s $66 million opening weekend in America (almost half of Iron Man 2’s opening on the same weekend last year), the film is thankfully not a financial failure, mainly due to two facts. A) The film is based off of a very minor superhero, and it’s honestly a darn hard film to sell, and B) the movie is doing gangbusters overseas, making it’s budget back worldwide by the end of its first weekend here in America, almost guaranteeing a sequel that can do even better on U.S. shores. While staring at awe at the screen, I was dumbstruck thinking about how only in 2011 could we have made a film like this. Not just from a marketing point of view in that you just couldn’t sell a film like this 20 years ago in a cinema world dominated by straight-laced action conceits, but also from a visual effects point of view. The visual effects in Thor, not just from an artistic point of view but also just from sheer powerhouse standards are top of the line phenomenal. Thor’s metallic opponent “The Destroyer” that’s showcased heavily in the trailers and TV spots could pass off as a practical prop a few times in the film, and a number of effects including the rainbow bridge featured heavily in the final act look so real you’ll almost believe there’s a rainbow bridge out there somewhere. It goes without saying I’m thankful for the Thor film we have now. One thing that bothered me about last year’s summer opener Iron Man 2 was how heavy-handed a lot of the Avengers elements felt that were obviously shoehorned into Favreau’s script, and the film was undeniably more unorganized because of it. Thor on the other hand feels supremely more natural with its Avengers sub-plots, obviously designed from the get-go to showcase the inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Coulson. Their main involvement in the story (excluding the bone-chilling after-credits scene) actually is relevant to Thor’s main objective in the film and thankfully the film never forgets what it’s about, Thor, instead of the group Thor’s planning to join. Thankfully they also have fun with it, poking fun at the group’s ridiculously secretive nature, making very subtle references to Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk that will get fans excited but not confuse the casual viewer like Iron Man 2 did, providing what is possibly my favorite Stan Lee cameo, and even an extended appearance by an until-now-unseen member of the Avengers. Not to give too much away, but the solid 2-3 minutes we see this new character took me all the way back to that semi-crowded theater in 2008 seeing Samuel L. Jackson for the first time in that Nick Fury get-up. After the semi-disappointment of Iron Man 2, Thor, bringing two of its members to the screen at once, makes me incrementally more excited for next year’s cream of the crop, The Avengers. Thor is a film that can stand on its own as a fantastic piece of entertainment even if 2012’s The Avengers fails, mainly because the main priority of the film is always teaching us more about Thor. If there’s anything Thor does wrong, it’s being almost too fast of a film. The movie’s less than 2 hours long, which is totally effective in keeping the kiddies’ attention, but I just know with an extra 1/2 hour padding there would have been more time spent on the love interest relationship between Thor and Jane and even more slower stuff between Thor and Odin. By the time things get going it felt like they were already winding down to the big climax, which was kind of a bummer for me. On one hand there were certain elements that could have used more time, but also a pretty serviceable compliment to the film that I wasn’t ready to leave the world they created. The week before I was able to finally see Thor was a long one. Aside from my crippling anticipation for the film after hearing fantastic word of mouth for it, it was also my finals week at my university and I was having to endure a lot of tests that were going to decide if all of my hard work that semester was for naught. Having passed all of my finals and getting the grades I needed to in order to hold onto my scholarships that basically decide if I get to keep going to my university, Thor was hopefully going to be a fun release, a sharp tack to my balloon of stress. I’m so elated to be able to say Thor was all of that and more. It’s really a phenomenal piece of entertainment that doesn’t just rely on being dumb and fun summer popcorn entertainment like it easily could have been, but it’s an expertly crafted film that’s lovingly dedicated to fans of the genre. Most astounding of all is that amidst all the balancing acts of Earth and Asgard, the side splitting comedy and the stirring performances it never forgets to be a fun film the Summer’s known for. It’s going to be a film that I yearn to re-watch again and again when this Fall rolls around and I need stress relief from my new classes, and I firmly believe will stand in my memory much like Iron Man 1 did 3 long years ago. All I wanted was a fun film last Saturday night, what I got in return from Hemsworth and the Marvel gang was surely a gift from the gods.

5 out of 5

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Your Highness Review

April 10, 2011 at 11:05 pm (Movies)

I don’t smoke pot. I’ve never puffed the magic dragon, hung out with Cheech and Chong, or enjoyed the “wonders” of 420. That being said, I had no problem enjoying Your Highness, the newest stoner comedy by David Gordon Green, James Franco, and Danny McBride, alumni of one of my favorite comedies that’s also a big stoner comedy, Pineapple Express. Your Highness is obviously a pet project of Danny McBride’s and Green’s, containing elements any 13 year old would love, like scantily clad women, magic fights with unicorn blades, and of course stoners fighting enraged minotaurs. This makes the film a huge laugh from start to finish and perfectly quotable for any guys’ dorm room, but it also takes the film to new levels of vulgarity. Usually I don’t have too much of a problem with this, but Your Highness has a way of pushing certain scenes so far that it almost breaks my sense of stupidity the film’s put me under. I can follow you to a certain point, and I’m willing to buy into almost any stupid set up, but when there’s not even a joke tied to a gross-out setup, it’s hard for me to follow you any further. The film does follow Thaddeus and Fabius, two brothers accompanied by Thaddeus’ humble servant Courtney to save Fabius’ bride to be who has been kidnapped by an evil wizard who plans on deflowering her in order to unleash an evil dragon on their land. Yes, I know, it sounds ridiculous, but if you can make it past the opening credits of this movie buying into it, you’ll have no problem buying into the bizarre plot. Also keep in mind what I said about the “youthful ambition” of the movie, it pops up more than you’d think. Danny McBride (one of the most underappreciated comedic actors working right now) carries a large number of the movie’s gags as Thaddeus, and he’s really one of those actors you either love or hate. If you hate him, you’ll obviously hate this, but if you’re like me and you’d be willing to listen to this guy read the phonebook, he’s the perfect man for the job. James Franco, in a complete opposite to Pineapple Express, plays the straight man to McBride’s antics, and is appropriately hammy as the ”dream boat” hero we’ve seen so many times that’s being lambasted here. Natalie Portman, coming off of her Oscar win, and pushes a lot of the action scenes to the next level, and Justin Theroux puts in a fantastic performance as the film’s evil wizard. Rasmus Hardiker, who plays Courtney, plays up the role hysterically with what little has and kills it each and every time he’s on screen. Much like a lot of the film’s stars to some, the film’s humor can either be hysterical to you or as funny as the plague. Although knowing Your Highness, I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a plague joke. The film alternates between stoner comedy, the occasional slapstick to keep things even, and the same insanely quotable lines that keep the audience on their toes and have made or broken wildly successful movies like I Love You, Man or of course The Hangover. While I can’t speak for everyone that sees the film, I was laughing the whole way through. It was general enough to not get too specific to the fantasy crowd or the stoner crowd, while at the same time featuring some amazing writing coupled with some fantastic set ups that lead to big payoffs in the form of uproarious laughter. It’s greatly helped by McBride’s confidence in the material that’s so evident in the way he delivers it scene after scene as if it’s make it or break it time for him. It’s a bit of a shame though there’s no one on the film aside from Hardiker that carries the jokes quite as well as McBride, the film really could have used a second “killer comic” to put the film into the category of true greatness. It also helps that the movie actually works as well on its own as a fantasy/action epic. Each action scene is a heck of a lot of fun and carries enough sword, magic, and arrow play with the occasional fisticuffs that actually shows a lot of skill in front of and behind the camera. Your Highness is a very fun movie for a multitude of reasons. Maybe it’s because the action scenes are so much fun to watch and so nostalgic of those classic fantasy movies from the 80s, maybe it’s because McBride, Hardiker, and Franco apparently had a ton of fun making it, or maybe it’s just because it’s exactly what I needed after a rough week; a film I can quote for years to come with a close friend, a movie that might not necessarily be a “great” movie, but just giving credit where credit’s due, Your Highness has a lot of credit coming its way.

4 out of 5

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The Adjustment Bureau Review

March 17, 2011 at 1:13 am (Movies)

It wasn’t until the middle of February in 2010 that I found my first 5/5 worthy film in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island”, a heart pounding, gut-wrenching, brilliantly performed thriller that left my jaw on the floor and set a huge standard for the rest of the year, ending up as my #4 favorite by December. As February came and went and so did forgettable films like “I Am Number Four”, my hopes were starting to wane in general for 2011 in general when it came to movies and when exactly I was gonna get that first truly great film worthy of that perfect score. With immaculate cinematography one heck of a great execution that covers all bases on an already fantastic premise, The Adjustment Bureau is a knock out of a director knowing exactly what film he wanted to make and polishing it up just enough to make it an unforgettable adventure that is not only my favorite film of 2011 so far but if it doesn’t end up in the top five come December, it means the last half of 2011 had some phenomenal films that topped this colossal bar. The film follows Devin Norris, a hopeful senator that falls in love by happen stance with one of New York City’s best up and coming dancers. However, it’s soon revealed that falling in love with her isn’t part of his or her “plan” according to the “adjustment bureau” , a group of fedora-capped men in suits gifted with supernatural abilities that are there to make sure things in the world go to plan. The majority of the film works like a game of cat and mouse between Norris and these mysterious men with Norris trying to convince the bureau to let him write his own path. Whenever I first saw the trailer for the film back last March before the film was delayed, I was convinced that A) I wanted to see the film desperately and B) that there’s no chance the film could live up to my expectations and deliver on such a profound concept with themes of fate and “love that conquers all”.  I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Adjustment Bureau introduces this concept of a mysterious group of men that in control fate in a very profound but unexplained way. Towards the end of the film (without spoiling anything) part of their “powers” gets explained and exploited in a way that only sheds just a crack of light on this fantastic quadre of villains. Same goes for the rest of the film, you see these men maybe in the background of a scene or constantly doing something malicious to sabotage Norris. You’re never even told why these men are out to get him and his romance other than it’s “against the plan”, and that works brilliantly. They’re supposed to be mysterious, you’re never supposed to know just quite what these guys can do fully, and by the end you have just as many questions as you do answers. I 100% believe this was intentional and maybe there’s some deeper subtext there about how fate works in mysterious ways, or maybe I’m just reading too far into this. By the end of the film we’ve been told this modern day fable about this fascinating visualization of fate itself and how its taken a certain form that just so happens to marry these ideas of science fiction and romance in a way that’s honestly darn hard to leave the viewer wanting more. There’s no unexplored concept here, no stone left unturned when it came to implementing our own ideas of fate and even religion and molding them into a enthralling film inhibiting an amazing concept brought to life. It’s phenomenal and really shows talent on a director’s part when he can bring a concept like that to the table and leave me as a viewer that was asking quite a bit from the film walking away completely satisfied with how the answers (and even some lingering questions) were brought about. It’s insane to think he packs such a fascinating message in a two hour film and does it so efficiently. Matt Damon brought to life one of the best performances from last year in the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit:” as Texas Ranger “Labeouf”.  Half of the film Damon has to play a character with a speech impediment that at the same time is cocky and reliable. Here he turns in another awesome performance that makes us question why this guy hasn’t won an Oscar yet despite consistently great performances in “The Informant!”, “The Departed”, or heck even “True Grit”. Seriously, John Hawkes? Thanks for breaking out of that stereotype of being stuck up Academy Awards by nominating a guy for the movie 15 people saw. There are professional movie bloggers I follow that didn’t even watch “winter’s Bone”, in fact I think there are more people that saw “Mars Needs Moms” or “Take Me Home Tonight” than “winter’s Bone”. Also, Mark Ruffalo for Best Supporting Actor for “The Kids Are All Right” but absolutely no recognition for his smarmy, know-it-all role in Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom”. Now that my Oscar rant is out of the way cough *Melissa Leo stole the Oscar from Steinfeld*cough, we can move on to the performance at hand. One could argue that part is a tad bit underwritten by protagonist standards, but the guy is undeniably great in The Adjustment Bureau at bringing a character off of the page straddling the line between an everyday man sense of believability along with a really genuine way of reading his lines that makes it seem like he believes in every last word he’s saying. Also whenever the script calls on him to channel his inner action star Mr. Bourne is more than happy to assist. Emily Blunt is also fantastic as the romantic lead, and her British accent (whether or not it’s genuine is unbeknownst to me) adds a nice flavor to the film. On the “adjustors” side of things are Mad Men’s John Slattery and Terence Stamp as one of the bureau’s “higher ups”.  John Slattery does an unbelievable job as sort of the middleman for the adjustment bureau that likes to talk a big game but you get the feeling that he’s always just covering his tracks and planning his next move as it happens. Terrence Stamp, known for being the classic bad guy in a lot of recent films like the underrated comedy “Get Smart”, portrays the “second in command” for the bureau as a guy that is apparently so high up on the corporate ladder he gets to wear a fedora, a three piece suit, AND a scarf. I guess now would be the best time to explain that the adjustment bureau might just be the best-dressed squad of evildoers in movie history. I wanna shop where these guys shop. If Terence Stamp is as cool as he is being the film’s main bad guy and he’s still below the chairman, I’d hate to see how awesome his boss must be.

Back in January I took a trip with a group from my college to the Big Apple, New York City, and The Adjustment Bureau taking place in New York City created an added layer of enjoyment for it becoming a “Hey I’ve been at that place!” scavenger hunt. Some are complaining about the “drab” color scheme of the film, but believe me, that’s what New York looks like. Everything’s gray and a washed out shade of blue, plus the whole time the adjustment bureau was pursuing us. The filmmakers made the most of shooting in the gorgeous city grabbing every beautiful skyline they could and really provoking a sense of geography whether that’s coming in the handsome boardrooms or the final chase scene that I can’t praise enough for being a super effective showcase of such beautiful locations like the Statue of Liberty, Yankee Stadium, Radio City Musical Hall, and the final confrontation ending on the Top of the Rock, having seen 3 of those 4 sights in person the latter gives the best view of the city by far. Kudos to the filmmakers involved for getting a beautiful sunrise in there as well overlooking Central Park and even the Empire State Building in the far distance. For a relatively small budget the film also has a handful of phenomenal effects that even left me asking how they did it (a question I never asked last summer might I add) with a clever plot twist near the end involving the city’s doors that is vaguely reminiscent of Monsters, Inc. None of the effects draw attention to themselves, they’re just there to blow your flipping mind time and time again. Saying the film looks great gets the point across. The previously mentioned blue-ish color scheme gave the movie a nice hue, and there’s a nice understated feel to all of the costumes and sets that is worth another viewing just to admire. Speaking of subtle the movie also has a very delicate/restrained score to help add some flavor some scenes. You might not notice it as much as a Hans Zimmer eardrum-buster (I loved that score by the way), but any time you do recognize it you’re glad it’s there. Maybe it’s me putting words in the movie’s mouth, but there were moments it evoked the feeling of this sci-fi romance hybrid.  This hybrid is one of the film’s strongest aspects that I feel like will stand the test of time and bring people back over and over. Let’s say you’re a fan of science fiction and spend more time than you’re willing to admit on the Syfy channel on Sunday afternoon and you’re intrigued by the concept but fear it can’t live up to the potential nearly well enough? Fear no more you’ll be constantly asking questions and continuously inriqued by how this world works while at the same time questioning your own concepts of faith. Do you love romances? There’s never been a stronger force separating two lovers than the universe itself. As I said earlier the two elements are explored to their fullest potential in a devastatingly effective way that’s rare to see. Whenever Devin Norris gets the least bit of progress in his relationship you know the bureau isn’t far behind, and you’re rooting for him just to outsmart the men in fedoras. You can’t help but feel a tinge of pain in your heart when you see the two get separated time and time again because of what seems like an unstoppable freight train. I have no problem recommending “The Adjustment Bureau” to absolutely anyone. A few of my friends made a valid complaint that the movie doesn’t have as much action as they would prefer, and while I disagree, I can see how some of the ads are a little misleading in that the movie is more of a romance than anything else. Others might complain that the adjustment bureau itself is far too vague and they never full explain why they’re bothering Devin in the first place, and to that I say, “that’s kind of the point”. You don’t have to explain everything in the movie, especially when a villain’s mysterious nature is an essential part of that character. I even loved how the film even cements itself further as a classic love story by telling a story that takes place over many years. Without giving anything away, it’s not a stretch to say the film takes place over about a half-decade. This gives the viewer time to release this is a very important and very long struggle for Devin Norris and it’s his life goal to be with this woman. Sure it’s cheesy and sappy, but it’s sweet at the same time. Don’t worry guys if the romance throws you off there’s the cool way everyone dresses (or Emily Blunt) to keep your attention. The movie is exceedingly fun from start to finish on so many levels, it casts one of the most memorable and mysterious sets of villains I’ve seen in a long time, it has a beautiful color palette and score, a mind-bending story that sets itself apart and is boldly imaginative, and to top it all off there are the fantastic performances in the forefront of the film. “The Adjustment Bureau” is a bright shining light in the middle of a movie drought and I can only pray that it’s a sign of things to come in the next few cinematic months. I’ve already made plans to see it again. If you didn’t have plans on seeing the film, you need to adjust your own future to see it immediately.

5 out of 5

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