289 posts tagged Movie Reviews
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)
This is the movie Brave should have been.
Set in the fictional Viking village of Berk, How to Train Your Dragon is the coming-of-age tale of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), whose quest to become a dragon slayer like his renowned father Stoick the Vast leads him to discover some surprising things about himself and the dragons his people are afraid of. The film also features the voices of Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig and David Tennant. Wildly entertaining, heartwarming and thrilling, How to Train Your Dragon has all the elements of an epic fantasy. It’s a fantastic film that will appeal to the young and the adult, with plenty of humor, excitement and dazzling visuals to go around.
The film strikes a great balance between funny and dramatic, with a lovely tale about a tenuous relationship between a father and his son that turns into a meaningful one. The comparisons between Brave and How to Train Your Dragon are to be expected, considering both tried to accomplish similar themes despite one succeeding more than the other. Both stories are about villages being mired in misinformed tradition, and about a young protagonist’s struggle to meet or exceed their tribe’s expectations about what true courage entails. While Brave tried to appeal to the crowd that loved slapstick humor with its depiction of the obnoxious Scotsman, How to Train Your Dragon delighted in its protagonist’s naturally clumsy and non macho demeanor. From his pitiful name to unintimidating appearance, Hiccup is not your average hero, let alone the ideal representation of a Viking man. However, through his cunning, ingenuity and compassion, he emerges as his village’s unexpected hero. Instead of highlighting Merida’s skills and stubbornness in a manner that brought out the heroine in her, Brave instead chose to focus on her pettiness and recklessness, which made her less likable than the well-intentioned Hiccup.
How to Train Your Dragon wasn’t only about Hiccup’s rite of passage into becoming a man, but it was also the dragon Toothless’ rite of passage into becoming a full-fledged dragon. The parallels between the two characters were thoughtfully weaved into the story, with both struggling to become part of their respective communities in similar ways. Just as Hiccup wanted to prove himself worthy of being a Viking, Toothless also wanted to prove to be worthy of being a dragon. Both characters had different things that were holding them back; Hiccup suffered from a lack of self-confidence, while Toothless had a physical deformity that made him unable to take to great heights like his fellow dragons were able to. They both overcome their emotional and physical handicaps in a symbiotic manner that was inspiring and moving, taking the film to a much more transcendent level than a simple tale of a boy and his dragon.
Storytelling wasn’t the only impressive thing about How to Train Your Dragon. The film’s visuals were unique and engrossing, with action sequences that were absolutely breathtaking. When Toothless soared through the clouds with Hiccup on his back, bobbing and weaving through cliffs and crevices, it took the audience on a thrilling roller coaster ride. It also certainly helped that accomplished cinematographer Roger Deakins acted as visual consultant for the film; his expertise may have been a factor in making the animated adventure much more cinematic.
There was one minor gripe that I had with the film, however, which had to do with the way the dragons were animated. It was rather confounding the way the animators chose to give the dragons personalities that seemed closer to household pets than untamed reptilian creatures of the wild. For instance, Toothless often bounced between the characteristics of a quirky cat and a playful puppy. My guess is that this was supposed to endear Toothless more to the audience, however I believe this could still have been accomplished without using cute pets for reference.
With a sequel coming in early 2014, I can’t wait to see what else Dreamworks has in store for audiences. If the second film is as good as the first, I am sure it will turn out to be quite the enjoyable ride.
Denis Villeneuve delivers a taut and twisty thriller with Prisoners, a story about how desperation can push people to extremes. The film, featuring Hollywood heavyweights Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Melissa Leo, revolves around two families gripped by the disappearance of their daughters. Jackman, Bello, Howard and Davis play the distraught parents of the 6-7 year old girls who disappear during a cold Thanksgiving night. Gyllenhaal’s no-nonsense Detective Loki is tasked to investigate the disappearance, which leads him to uncover some very disturbing secrets in this sleepy suburban community.
The story is very reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, certainly matching that film’s intensity. It was well-paced, well-thought out and felt very complete. There were little details here and there that were dropped like bread crumbs, leading viewers to come to conclusions that were at times surprising, others validating. The use of very sparse but meaningful details contributed to a feeling of well-roundedness, especially for the characters involved. For instance, the film opens with Hugh Jackman’s character teaching his teenage son how to hunt, imparting words of wisdom to the boy about being prepared for anything. The scene was short, yet it spoke volumes about the character’s mindset. This was a man who clearly would go to any lengths to fight for his beliefs and his family. Another bread crumb that gave insight to the characters without spelling everything out was Gyllenhaal’s character’s rapid blinking, a tic that the detective may have developed from a rough past or the physical representation of the toll his cases were taking on him. This was a man who invested a great deal, physically and emotionally, into his cases and it showed. While some may have dismissed these things as unimportant, it was this attention to such minutiae that made Prisoners so compelling to watch.
It wasn’t difficult to get engrossed in the film, and Villeneuve certainly knew how to build suspense. From the editing to the use of deep focus, Villeneuve knew exactly when a cut was needed and when to linger. Sometimes filmmakers cut to spare the audience the sight of something grisly, and other times a choice is made not to cut in order to magnify the intensity of a scene. Villeneuve accomplished both, with the help of Roger Deakins, who is known for his brilliant cinematography. Deakins added an extra layer of bleakness to the film with his play on lighting and shadows. The movie was very atmospheric, which can be attributed to Deakins’ excellence in setting the mood through texture. The film’s overall look and feel reminded me of Harris Savide’s work in David Fincher’s Zodiac.
Following the film’s triumphant debut at the Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals, the web has been a-flutter with songs of praise for Hugh Jackman’s performance. While he was certainly powerful in it, Jake Gyllenhaal was the one who impressed me the most. He was able to show more with less, and that kind of nuance goes a long way, especially with a very dramatic film like this. Paul Dano was also brilliant, and I think he’s one of the most underrated actors around. From Little Miss Sunshine to There Will Be Blood and Ruby Sparks, Dano has shown a versatility and intensity that makes him such a pleasure to watch.
While Prisoners was, for the most part, well done, there were some aspects of it that didn’t quite work for me. There seemed to be multiple climaxes that became rather confusing, like there were a lot of fake-outs for endings. There were times when I felt that the story was going to end, only to find out that there was more to come, some of which I didn’t find all that necessary. The film meanders a little bit towards the end, which I think was rather unfortunate because it took away from some of the earlier parts that were wrought with tension. Melissa Leo, while usually fantastic, seemed to have a little too much fun with her character. The result was a sense of exaggeration that didn’t fit the grittiness of the whole film. I’m not sure if it was the way her character was written, or the way she performed the role, or the ultimate combination of both that led to some disappointment.
That said, I am a big fan of the film’s ending, which a lot of people found abrupt and unsatisfying. I will have to disagree with them, as I thought it ended just at the right moment. While closure is a good thing to have in some films, I think it’s much more interesting when things aren’t exactly tied up in a neat bow by the end of the movie. I like the sense of mystery, the nudge to use one’s imagination. I also think that audiences are smart enough to come to their own conclusions without having everything spelled out for them. Overall, Prisoners is riveting and suspenseful, with some really incredible performances from its talented cast. Villeneuve tells a story that seems big while also managing to be intimate, which is quite a feat. The film asks a question of the audience that it never tries to answer for them. How far would you go to protect your family? Presenting such moral quandaries in creative ways is always something that I find interesting in movies, and Prisoners does this without coming off as pedagogical.
Remember sweet-faced Joseph Gordon-Levitt with the horrific shoulder-length hair in Third Rock from the Sun? Or JGL the hopeless romantic in 500 Days of Summer, where he charmed the pants off of everyone with a dazzling dance number? How about the vulnerable Adam battling cancer in the surprisingly moving 50/50? Or the earnest, well-intentioned cop in The Dark Knight Rises? Who can forget his stint on Saturday Night Live where he effortlessly performed Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain?
Well, throw that adorable image of Gordon-Levitt out the window. The triple threat actor - who wrote, directed and starred in his debut film Don Jon - shed all that wide-eyed innocence for a raunchy role as a loathsome lothario with an addiction to porn. Gordon-Levitt plays Jon, a narcissistic casanova who jeopardizes his first foray into a long-term relationship when his girlfriend (brilliantly played by Scarlett Johansson) discovers his obsession with porn. The film, which also features Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Brie Larson and Glenne Headly, is an impressive debut for Gordon-Levitt, showing off the actor’s comedic chops, adventurous affinity for edgy roles and smart business acumen (he made good use of the connections he’s built over the years, from collaborators on his production company HitRecord, to composer Nathan Johnson, whom he worked with on various Rian Johnson films).
Don Jon is perhaps Gordon-Levitt’s biggest departure from anything he’s ever done. It’s loud, obnoxious and dripping with satirical machismo, all good things because this mirrors his lascivious character. The film also works on many levels. First as an exploration on male-female relationships, with Gordon-Levitt’s Jon obsessed with pornography and Johansson’s Barbara addicted to power and control. Clearly the two needs are polar opposites, because pornography is often about subjugation, and Johansson’s bombshell Barbara was far from eager to be tamed. There are plenty of scenes that show how different men and women are, which made the film sort of a fun battle of the sexes reminiscent of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. One scene involving an argument about how porn is a guy’s alternative to rom-coms was particularly hilarious.
The story also doesn’t shy away from making insightful commentary on various topics such as sexual behavior, religion and family dynamics (sure, it’s of the stereotypical Italian kind, but the film is at least self-aware about its exaggerations). It even touched on the commodification of women’s bodies with the use of various advertisements in pop culture, from Sisqo’s 90s hit “The Thong Song” to a Carl’s Jr. commercial that seemed to be selling something other than a burger. The film essentially makes the statement that the media we consume (may it be porn or “chick flicks”) can lead to us developing unrealistic expectations about real-life relationships. Jon’s obsession with porn shapes his world view, one that involves women being objectified on a daily basis. On the other hand, Johansson’s character believes that all men are supposed to give up everything for the love of a woman, because Channing Tatum films say that’s what real men do. So the takeaway is that media perpetuates a culture that is often very far from reality. Funny, intelligent and entertaining? Not bad at all for a film debut. I’d say Gordon-Levitt gets bonus points as well for bringing Tony Danza out of the attic for a stint as Jon’s football-obsessed, wifebeater-sporting father.
While there were plenty of confident and clever things in Don Jon, there were a few elements that could have been improved. There were some shots that were oddly constructed - unnecessary (or maybe even unintentional) use of the dutch angle, some repetitive framing and awkward camera positioning, to name a few. Speaking of repetitive, the film also kept emphasizing the same characteristics of Jon. For instance, there were multiple scenes of Jon during his fits of road rage, usually on the way to church. While the frequency of these scenes was effective in illustrating to the audience how the character is mired in a routine that is funny in its apparent hypocrisy, I felt that there were other, more creative ways that would have been able to achieve the same point. I also thought it was a shame that the audience didn’t get to know Julianne Moore’s character very well. Maybe less is more and that’s what makes her so intriguing, but at the same time I wanted to understand her perspective a little better. Whatever the case, anyone who has seen Boogie Nights will appreciate the poetry in having Julianne Moore doling out advice about truth in pornography. And although it goes without saying, I would like to state for the record that Julianne Moore is a goddess and can do no wrong.
One observation that I found interesting during my screening was that it seemed the audience was more uncomfortable with a passionate, meaningful lovemaking scene than the several scenes of raunchy, graphic sex. I thought this was really interesting because it almost suggests that people desensitize themselves to pornography, but a sex scene between two people who mean something to each other is considered a lot more intimate and perhaps deemed by the audience as intrusive to watch. Gordon-Levitt’s decision to use different filming techniques during these sex scenes also demonstrated an understanding of their individual effectiveness; he went with a handheld for the more intimate scenes and mounted for the ones that weren’t.
Overall, this is certainly a film that will appeal to both guys and girls. Guys will love its relatability and girls will enjoy its more satirical qualities. I also really liked the film’s heightened self-awareness. From Scarlett Johansson taking selfies for her character’s Facebook account to the reenactment of typical bar crawls (which apparently involve the same grinding dance between couples), Gordon-Levitt clearly drew from a lot of real world material for this over-the-top piece. It’s equal parts Entourage, Jersey Shore and Shame. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by such a combination? Don Jon prowls into US theaters on September 27, 2013.
INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 (2013)
It’s tough to recapture the magic of a wildly successful first movie. 2010’s Insidious saw the fantastic return of the creepy ghost movie, full of atmospheric tension, measured scares and a startling score by composer Joseph Bishara. Unfortunately James Wan’s 2013 follow-up seemed to be more focused on trying to repeat the success of the first film with an almost formulaic approach, instead of telling an interesting new story. The sequel is haphazard and harried, with none of the patience in dramatic unfolding that made the original fun to watch. The Lambert family returns in the sequel to face another remnant of the spirit world that shares a terrifying connection to the malignant entity that haunted them first. Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne and Barbara Hershey also return, although in a much different capacity than in the original film.
I wasn’t very impressed with this sequel’s story and found it really weak. It seemed clunky and confusing, with tie-ins to the original film that didn’t seem all that necessary. It’s also strange to do a sequel to a film where none of the characters really advance or grow. In that regard, Insidious 2 seemed more like a footnote than a chapter. While performances were fine (especially Patrick Wilson, who did a magnificent job bringing his creepy A-game), they weren’t particularly memorable. It just felt like the actors were running around without any sense of purpose or natural flow, pushed by the narrative instead of their personal motivations. It just seemed like they were secondary to the convoluted plot that writer Leigh Whannell came up with. The characters were also made to do rather absurd things. For instance, I thought it was unintentionally hilarious that during one particularly tension-filled scene, one of the characters actually decides to take a nap.
One of the things that can get old really quickly when watching horror movies is stacked scares. Stacked scares are when there is one jolt after another, resulting in the audience growing more and more conditioned to being startled the more surprises they encounter. It means that the scares are less effective when they are doled out generously instead of sparingly. Personally I find that successful scary movies are only peppered with a handful of scares. This makes them unexpected and more effective because they are few and far between. Insidious Chapter 2 has one scare after another, often in the same vein, which ends up being rather repetitive. Don’t get me wrong. There were definitely moments that made me jump, but not many of them felt organic or meaningful. Most were just there for the sake of being there. I also thought that, while there were some funny jokes in the movie, some of them were misplaced, taking away from the tension or mood of a scene.
Still, the film had some redeeming qualities. Joseph Bishara’s music was still frightening, although it didn’t deviate very much from the original score. The highlight of this film was definitely in its costumes and make-up. Apart from that, Insidious: Chapter 2 was pretty underwhelming fare. Yes there were some creepy aspects, but they weren’t anything to write home about (or entirely original). Its lack of focus and all-over-the-place vibe really made it difficult to invest in the story or its returning characters and was ultimately disappointing. Of Wan’s films this year, The Conjuring is definitely the stronger of the two.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In the case of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, the rip-offs are so blatant, they reach out and claw at the audience from the screen. The film, based on the series of books by Cassandra Clare, is a hodgepodge of fantasy elements, borrowing rather shamelessly from beloved stories like Harry Potter and even Star Wars. Unfortunately there’s nothing magical about Instruments; it spends most of its time trying to emulate other stories that it forgets to spend time building its own world and developing its own characters. It’s a shame, especially since there were some interesting aspects of the story that were intriguing yet were completely glossed over in favor of the more sensational.
City of Bones is the first installment in Clare’s Mortal Instruments series and introduces Clary (played by Lily Collins), a young girl who finds out that she is descended from a line of half-angel half-human demon slayers called Shadow Hunters. When her mother Jocelyn (played by Game of Thrones's Lena Headey) is captured by a rogue Shadow Hunter named Valentine (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), Clary must team up with other Shadow Hunters to locate a relic called the Mortal Cup, which is said to allow Valentine to breed his own army of renegade soldiers. Before I go any further, let me just say that it was already quite the challenge to boil down this movie into a quick synopsis, because the story is incredibly all over the place. There's your typical love triangle (something that is apparently deemed an imperative among YA fantasy fiction with female protagonists), parentage issues, battles between demons and Shadow Hunters, a bunch of brouhaha about runes that are basically just spells in tattoo form and a whole lot of hullabaloo over something called The Clave which barely gets a mention in the film but which is apparently kind of a big deal. So as you may have noticed, Instruments is basically the cinematic equivalent of engorging oneself in fantasy themes and then vomiting it all into one piece.
To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded so much that City of Bones borrowed from so many different sources had the film been at all well-written. After all, isn’t it true that hardly anything these days is ever really original? The key to making something so referential work is by rooting the story in its characters, developing them so that all the other elements are detail and what matters are the relationships that are built and the emotions that the audience can invest in these characters’ journeys. The problem with City of Bones is that it was so hung up on emulating all the other fantasy works that it forgot to tell its own story and as a result, someone like me, who hadn’t read the books, was left confused by much of the film. There was so much going on and yet so little substance came out of it. Clare lacked the ability to edit and went overboard with her zeal for the genre. I can’t blame her; as a fantasy fan myself I can get pretty enthusiastic when I talk about stories I love. But Clare did herself a disservice by not focusing her story on the more original aspects she came up with.
The blame also goes to the really shitty screenplay by Jessica Postigo. There was exposition when there should have been demonstration, omission when there should have been room for clarification. Plot points were forgotten as quickly as they were introduced and there seemed to be no patience for building the world or the characters who live in it. The climaxes were stacked and clumsy, and though the action sequences were enjoyable and hard-hitting, they seemed futile against the noisy background of a scatterbrained script. Worst of all, the romance in this film was so terribly written that I felt so uncomfortable and even sad for the actors on screen. Jamie Campbell Bower (who plays the brooding but quip-happy Shadow Hunter Jace) actually says the line, “I told you I had never met an angel. I lied.” I really don’t understand why these YA fantasy authors feel like forcing clichéd romances on their female protagonists is the key to appealing to their target demographic. The success of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia should be proof that you don’t need to do all that to drive a compelling narrative. I wish these authors would have enough faith in their female characters to trust them to drive a story without feeling like they need a love interest to complete her. This isn’t to say that there isn’t any room for romance in YA fantasy; just that it shouldn’t feel like ingredient number 1 when it should be more of an organic development after the characters have been appropriately developed.
I also thought that while City of Bones had many talented actors at its disposal - from Mad Men's Jared Harris to Being Human's Aidan Turner and Misfits' Robert Sheehan - they were all criminally underutilized. There was no depth to any of their characters, and some of them even got completely forgotten. For instance, we never know what became of Harris' Hodge or Kevin Zegers' Alec. Godfrey Gao's Magnus Bane was sort of just…there. While I think all of the actors performed as well as they probably could have given such poor material and direction, it was tough not to ultimately feel pity for such a plight. Lastly, this film's music was absolutely terrible. The score played during unsuitable moments in the movie, jarring the viewer from the scenes that came beforehand. And whoever decided that a Demi Lovato song should be playing during a romantic scene in the film needs to reexamine their life and choices.
Overall, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is an unoriginal hot mess of a movie with hardly anything redeeming save for perhaps Kevin Durand’s awesome accent and the unintentionally hilarious Shadow Hunter goth rocker get-up. Rumor has it that a follow-up has been put on hold (or even cancelled indefinitely) due to the film’s poor box office numbers. Maybe the angels are listening after all.
Between Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick, I had always considered the latter the stronger film of the series. Not only did it expand on the mythology of the Riddick universe, but it also developed the titular character to an extent that made him much more interesting than the baser, more animalistic man of Pitch Black. The Chronicles of Riddick ends with Riddick defeating the Lord Marshal of the feared Necromongers, and in doing so becoming the new leader of this dark army. I was excited when a new Riddick film was announced, since I was interested to find out what would happen now that the character was in a position of power, no longer hunted and capable of decimating entire planets with his newfound army. It opened up new story lines and offered many fascinating angles at which to approach a future sequel. Unfortunately, the 2013 follow-up to Chronicles, the unimaginably titled Riddick, ended up being a rehash of Pitch Black. Gone were the new and interesting characters and in their place, the same tired old figures of action fantasy. I really hoped that this film would be as good as Chronicles, if not better, but alas it left me pretty underwhelmed.
Riddick was one of the few fantasy franchises that I considered promising, not only because it was an original story, but it also had a character that wasn’t necessarily easy to like. Unfortunately all the character development that occurred in both Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick was thrown away in favor of a back-to-basics approach, which is a step backwards for the entire series. Instead of pushing the story and character further, Riddick doubled back and gave us something we’ve already seen before. I was disappointed that this ended up being the case, and while I enjoyed the film just fine, it was easily the weakest of the series. In this third film, Riddick is back on a desolate planet, once again being pursued by bounty hunters. While the characters who played the mercenaries were fun to watch as they bantered and puffed out their chests in pursuit of the universe’s most wanted man, they were characters we’d seen before. Jordi Mollà was so entertaining to watch, though and his Santana was someone the audience loved to hate but also someone who’s written in such an over-the-top manner that he almost becomes endearing. I also thought Matt Nable did a pretty fantastic job with the role he was given. Much as I loved seeing Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff kick ass and take names, I felt like her character (and everyone else, really) was pretty one-dimensional. It really pains me to see talented actors and actresses squandered with tired tropes to play when they are capable of much, much more, the least of which should be a bit of depth and duality. Katee's Dahl threw tough punches as much as the men did, but she was still objectified as the lone female in the cast, which was unfortunate. Don't even get me started on Karl Urban's waste of a cameo.
Riddick has action, some of which is entertaining (others cheesy), but ultimately it’s something you’re probably better off catching on DVD. Much as I’d like to support original stories like these, I think the producers of the film were misguided when they decided that giving viewers Pitch Black 2 was a better idea than expanding on the universe that Chronicles already laid the groundwork for. It was a huge misstep, and one I feel will cost the franchise any future sequels. If you’re a fan of the series, please do see this movie for yourself to arrive at your own conclusions, but just go in with adjusted expectations.
THE GRANDMASTER (2013)
Wong Kar Wai takes the familiar story of wing chun master Ip Man and weaves it into a breathtakingly beautiful film that is quite the highly stylized affair. While style may have won out over substance in The Grandmaster, this is not to say that there weren’t any gems. While not one of his best, The Grandmaster features plenty of the auteur’s trademark lingering shots, flirtations with color, moody lighting and theme of unrequited love. Whether these characteristics lend themselves well to a martial arts flick is a whole other story. Starring the director’s staple, Tony Leung, the film skips over the more turbulent times of Ip Man’s life, which occur during the Japanese occupation of China. Instead, The Grandmaster explores Ip Man’s rise to fame and his legacy, being one of the few martial arts masters who was able to make his teachings widespread. Since the story occurs over a wide span of time and follows Ip Man as he is forced out of his home of Foshan and into Hong Kong, it may be difficult for audiences to get a foothold. I found it in the romance between his character and Zhang Ziyi’s, who plays Gong Er, the daughter of the Northern martial arts master. Wong, a master at showing passion between lovers with a minimalism that keeps things interesting and fresh, pulls of the romance splendidly (and as expected). It’s a shame that this wasn’t the focus of the film, as it was far more interesting than the rest of it.
While everyone, from Leung to martial arts mainstay Zhang Ziyi, looked fantastic, I found myself underwhelmed by the action pieces. This was particularly disconcerting considering that iconic martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (of Drunken Master and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon fame) was behind all the work. It wasn’t that the choreography wasn’t good. Quite the contrary, actually. The problem was that for some reason, Wong filmed the action scenes with the same gaze as his more dramatic projects. Action scenes have to be snappy for them to look effective and blow people away. In The Grandmaster, there were too many slow motion shots and cutaways that chopped up Yuen’s choreography. Yes, it was awesome to see Ip Man fighting fifteen people under pouring rain, but I lost the flow of the movement amid all the close-up shots of raindrops and puddles. Stylistically: sure, it was beautiful. Suitable for an action movie? Not quite. As Wong’s first action flick ever, I’m willing to give him a pass. But I think he may be able to learn a thing or two from Ang Lee when it comes to adapting better to certain genres.
The Grandmaster wasn’t a complete letdown, however. As I mentioned, it’s visually breathtaking. All the panoramas of snow-covered landscapes and use of light and shadows almost made the film worth the price of admission. Seeing this film on a 30-inch TV won’t do it justice, as you would be missing out on all the vivid imagery. One of my favorite scenes from the film involved a duel between Ip Man and Gong Er. Not only was the characters’ chemistry electric, but it was probably one of the most sensual scenes I’ve ever seen with all of the actors’ clothes on. Kudos to Yuen Woo-ping for the choreography here, because the fight played perfectly like a dance - a tango or a paso doble. There was a playfulness to the choreography that made it a delight to observe and Leung and Zhang pulled it off well. I think one of Wong’s strengths is being able to convey so much with so little and this less is more approach has proved well for the auteur especially in films like In the Mood for Love. Wong applies the same techniques to The Grandmaster and they work to increase tension for the romantic scenes.
I also thought that while the historical accuracy of the film may have been a little shaky, there was an epic feel to it that reminded me of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles. Sure, I would have liked the film to have had more focus, but considering the manner in which Wong Kar Wai works (usually with barely a working script prior to production), this comes as no surprise. Overall, I enjoyed The Grandmaster just fine. While not my favorite of Wong’s works, I liked the sweeping drama of the romance and the choreography was excellent, even if it wasn’t shown off as well as it could have been.
KICK-ASS 2 (2013)
If you like needless violence masquerading as “fun”, then Kick-Ass 2 is the movie for you. The sequel to the Mark Millar-John Romita Jr. comic book movie follows Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) and Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) as they try to be regular high school kids in a world that has become more welcoming to both superheroes and supervillains. The first film was interesting because of the absurdity of its premise. What if regular folk donned costumes and fought crime without all the bells and whistles that super powers afforded? That was intriguing at least, and the 2010 flick was worth checking out if only for the way it parodied comic book culture. The sequel finds itself in the uncomfortable position of finding meaning after all the interesting commentary has been said and done, and unfortunately the result is a vapid, unnecessary project filled with eyeroll-worthy subplots and a theme of glorified violence that didn’t sit well with this moviegoer.
It’s understandable why Jim Carrey, who plays Kick-Ass 2's Colonel Stars and Stripes, refused to do publicity for the film; it quite shamelessly celebrates violence with a revelry that was unpleasant to watch. What's worse, the film's only remotely interesting statement - that the world needs more real life superheroes who aren't afraid to stand up for good sans costume - came too little and too late. I had also read something that infuriated me even more about the film. Apparently Moretz's Hit Girl had to be rewritten because they deemed she was “too masculine”. Writer/director Jeff Wadlow's solution was to saddle Hit Girl with a dumb subplot involving Mean Girls-esque makeovers and catty (and ridiculously crude) high school shenanigans. Making a character more feminine apparently means throwing in crises involving fashion, first kisses and frivolous popularity contests. It was insulting to watch.
Yes, Kick-Ass is supposed to be absurd, deliberately over the top and distasteful. But the difference is that the first film was at least tolerable because of its satirical portrayal of superheroes and their often ridiculous influence on our pop culture-obsessed society. The sequel, on the other hand, just seemed like an excuse to use gross punchlines. While there was some merit in the film’s message that trying to be some kind of hotshot vigilante can get you or your loved ones killed, I’m afraid that this was completely overpowered by the movie’s glorification of mindless violence. It may have been trying to preach peace, but I think it inadvertently made the case for more violence and gore instead.
"Justice Forever" may be the superhero motto in Kick-Ass 2, but there’s nothing just about the fact that this movie exists.
If you can ignore the cringeworthy premise of a white savior giving all the brown folk health care, Elysium isn’t a bad movie. In fact, it’s quite convincing and even rather entertaining. The film is set in the year 2154 on a dystopian Earth that has been depleted of most natural resources. Ridiculously overpopulated and virtually inhabitable, the planet has been abandoned by the white and wealthy in favor of an idyllic space station called Elysium. Elysium is like an exclusive country club where the price of admission is how well you can rock an argyle vest. One of the benefits to living on Elysium is access to health care that can cure pretty much anything - from critical stage leukemia to radiation poisoning. It’s no surprise then that everyone who is stuck breathing the poisonous fumes on polluted Earth would kill for a chance to make it up there.
Enter Max (Matt Damon), a working-class guy with a checkered past who barely lives paycheck to paycheck as an assembly line worker in a mech factory. When a workplace incident critically injures Max, he finds himself resorting to desperate measures to get himself to Elysium. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp incorporates plenty of socio-political themes that are at home in a dystopian film like this. From class inequality to health care issues, energy shortages to human obsolescence, Elysium tackles all of them, but never really in as thought-provoking a manner as District 9 addressed apartheid. The issues are raised, but never truly explored, and as a result they serve as mere frou frou amid all the fancier special effects and action sequences. Maybe that was Blomkamp’s intention: to bring these issues to light without making his film too propagandist or preachy. Perhaps he didn’t want the political statements of the film to overshadow the characters or the story. That’s all well and good, and even understandable, but science fiction has always been about making the big statements and daring to put a magnifying glass on social issues. Fahrenheit 451 warned of social disconnect and the loss of culture. 1984 predicted surveillance states and even the public fascination with reality television. Brave New World was a criticism of the Fordian assembly line and dehumanization of workers in an increasingly industrialized society. So for Elysium to back out of making any bold political statements seems uncharacteristically meek for a film that should feel comfortable in the science fiction genre.
THE SPECTACULAR NOW (2013)
Director James Ponsoldt has a knack for presenting people on screen in all their raw, blemished glory. He accomplished this with 2012’s Smashed, and this year he impresses with his third feature film The Spectacular Now, starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. The story, based on the book by Tim Tharp, centers on seventeen-year-old life of the party Sutter Keely (Teller). Everybody knows Sutter; his seemingly effortless charm gets him into or out of virtually any situation. He’s carpe diem personified. In fact, his motto is all about “living in the now”. But Sutter finds that his free-spirited attitude doesn’t seem like enough to the people he cares about, especially when they all seem to be moving on and leaving him behind. When he meets the meek and much more reserved Aimee (Woodley), Sutter takes it upon himself to motivate her so that she can stand up for herself. His relationship with Aimee brings him to the realization that, while he may have plenty of encouragement and words of wisdom for others, he seems to spare none for himself. The coming-of-age film follows Sutter as he struggles to come to terms with his absentee father, his difficult relationship with his mother, and his apprehension for the future, which he sees as nothing more than the constant threat of adulthood.
While it doesn’t necessarily explore themes that are new, The Spectacular Now succeeds because it portrays people - teenagers, especially - in an unglorified manner. This isn’t a teenage film that celebrates the young and the nubile. It’s 90 minutes of teenage bottled up anxiety for what adulthood can bring: responsibility, commitment, the possibility of disappointment, of heartbreak, of loss. The stories these characters tell are very reminiscent of the moving tales told by John Hughes’ Breakfast Club. In that sense, The Spectacular Now has no shortage of heart, thoughtfulness or talent. In fact, Teller and Woodley impress with their moving performances. My favorite thing about the film was that both actors seemed to play off each other in a very organic, genuine way. They didn’t seem like actors; they seemed like teenagers who didn’t always say the right things, weren’t endlessly witty like the kids in Kevin Williamson shows. Ponsoldt clearly had an idea in mind of what he wanted, and that was to portray these characters without all the brouhaha of caked on make-up, distracting outfits or dialogue that detracted from the very real, often heart-wrenching experiences of these teens.
Interestingly enough, I thought The Spectacular Now almost seemed like a prequel to Ponsoldt’s Smashed. There were similar themes of alcoholism, toxic relationships and accepting that we may have to leave behind people or habits that aren’t good for us. If there is one wrinkle in the film to point out, it is that perhaps it tried to tackle too many themes at once, resulting in a lack of clarity about what it was trying to say until the very end. A more focused theme may have resulted in a bigger emotional impact on audiences, or a much more insightful message. That aside, The Spectacular Now will have no trouble resonating with audiences because I think we’ve all had moments when we’ve asked ourselves (allow me to paraphrase Mass Effect's Tali'Zorah vas Normandy): When do we stop reacting to our parents and start acting for ourselves? All in all, it's certainly worth the watch. Check out Rob Simonsen's fantastic score for the film as well.