292 posts tagged Movie Reviews
There’s nothing like a racing rivalry to get one’s adrenaline pumping.
Ron Howard’s latest offering, Rush, is based on the fiery Formula 1 feud between Austrian racer Niki Lauda (played by Daniel Brühl) and English driver James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). Both men come from contrasting backgrounds and get to the top of the F1 ladder through drastically different means, but both have enough ambition and determination to be each other’s formidable opponents. The film is focused, riveting and exciting, balancing tension and levity in a very smart and concise manner. Although not quite as compelling as Asif Kapadia’s fantastic documentary Senna, Rush is a success in that it manages to highlight the spectacle of racing while at the same time introducing drama and conflict in a way that comes off as very organic. If you can help it, I would recommend watching this film knowing as little as possible about the competition. It was much more enjoyable for me that way. As someone who knew next to nothing about F1 racing before Rush, I found the film very accessible and easy to follow.
Peter Morgan, the scribe behind The Last King of Scotland and Frost/Nixon, accomplishes quite the feat in making both Rush's two leading men equally sympathetic and likable. Hunt, flamboyant, reckless and charming, is the complete polar opposite to the no-nonsense and brusque Lauda. Considering that Hemsworth is the more popular actor of the two (a fact further emphasized by the marketing posters for the film that prominently feature the Thor star), one would think that he would easily be the one to root for in such cutthroat competition. Morgan expertly paints the two characters in both favorable and compromising positions, and as a result, both men equally appeal to viewers, making for a much more interesting dynamic.
When Ridley Scott’s Alien debuted in 1979, it had the tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” At the time, it may have already seemed like a pretty chilling sentiment. But after seeing Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, that memorable musing has taken on new meaning. While the statement still holds all of the sense of terror and vertigo of floating aimlessly in space, it also gives off a feeling of loneliness that hasn’t quite been captured as well as perhaps Duncan Jones’s 2009 sleeper hit Moon. Sandra Bullock stars in Gravity as Dr. Ryan Stone, a rookie NASA scientist who goes through a grueling test of survival when she is involved in an accident aboard a space station.
The film, written, directed and edited by Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón, is a breathtaking experience that grabs audiences and dares you to let go. It’s so full of tension and suspense and heavy decisions that it’s almost interesting how these contrast to the weightlessness of zero gravity. From a technical standpoint, nearly everything about the film is masterful, from Cuarón’s precision editing to Steven Price’s atmospheric score, Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography to Bullock and George Clooney’s moving performances. This is about the closest a film of the last decade has ever been to flawless. It may seem like I’m laying on the hyperbole a bit too much, but having seen it in IMAX 3D and immaculately pristine sound, Gravity is definitely worth the hype and more.
It’s rare to find a film these days that challenges an audience on all fronts: mentally, emotionally and viscerally. Gravity is visually captivating and a feast for the eyes, that much was evident from the film’s well-cut teaser trailer. Whether the film would have emotional depth or interesting characters to ground its ambitious scale was uncertain. I was very pleased to see that Cuarón was able to successfully marry dazzling visuals with a simple story that was accessible and character-driven, even amidst the grandeur of space. This flick could have so easily turned into an action disaster movie set in space, but Cuarón clearly dug in his heels and ensured that he told a story that seemed very personal while remaining relatable to audiences. All in all, I found myself gripped by the film’s suspense, terrified and also enamored by the vast openness of space, moved to tears by Bullock’s heartfelt performance, and astounded by Cuarón’s cinematic achievement.
Spoilers under the cut.
SIDE EFFECTS (2013)
Exploring the perils of Big Pharma makes an interesting enough endeavor, but Steven Soderbergh’s twisty thriller throws in sex, lies and videotape to really sweeten the pot. Channing Tatum’s Martin Taylor is convicted and imprisoned for the white collar crime that made Martha Stewart notorious: insider trading. He is released from prison and into the loving arms of his doting wife Emily (played by Rooney Mara). The couple tries to settle back to normal, with Martin trying to repair his old financial industry relationships and Emily working to be supportive of Martin’s reintegration into society. The stress of a rocky marriage takes a toll on Emily and she ends up at the hospital, under the care of psychiatrist John Banks (Jude Law), who advises Emily to take antidepressant medication to help ease her troubles. Emily takes a turn for the worse, however, when under the daze of drugs she commits a crime that turns hers and everyone else’s lives upside down. Equal parts Basic Instinct and The East, complete with that trademark Soderbergh sepia glow, Side Effects is a tantalizing tale of a hypochondriac culture and the exploits that occur in it.
Rooney Mara was a fascinating femme fatale in this devious drama, with Jude Law going toe to toe with her as the doctor tasked with the unfortunate job of untangling the PR nightmare mess. Catherine Zeta-Jones was also impressive as Emily Taylor’s former psychiatrist. Channing Tatum, on the other hand, was sort of just there, and while the role he played wasn’t exactly demanding, at the end of the day anyone could have played the character, which doesn’t bode well for the Magic Mike actor. Mara approached her role in a very cerebral manner, which i found really interesting. While she looked a little young for the role, she certainly did it justice, acting with a multidimensionality that kept the audience on their toes.
Side Effects was also expertly filmed, which isn’t so surprising with Steven Soderbergh at the helm. Everything just looked clean and finished, with camera movements that were precise and deliberate, and shots that were well-composed. While I’m not a fan of Soderbergh’s love for that sepia hue he likes to wash over most of his recent films (it can be observed in Haywire, Magic Mike and Behind the Candelabra), I didn’t find it as distracting here compared to others. The film’s ending resolution also felt just a little bit rushed, and I would have liked for it to have unfolded at a much slower pace for the revelations to have more impact.
Side effects of prescription drugs have always been a hot topic of debate. Some feel they are a necessarily evil that offsets worse problems. Others think they cause much more trouble than the thing they are meant to cure. Scott Burns’ script takes the issue head on, oftentimes in a much more heavy-handed manner than what was necessary. Sure, a statement probably needs to be made about the pill-happy culture in America, but there are ways to do this without coming off as sententious. There was an incendiary story already to be told, and there simply was no need to be so emphatic about the underlying repercussions of taking medication.
Overall, Side Effects had an entertaining story and riveting drama, with twists and turns that made it really interesting. It’s not my favorite Soderbergh film and not something I’d care to watch again, but it kept me on my toes and I always enjoy when that happens.
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.