281 posts tagged Movie Reviews
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.
Kanye West may be the king of hyperbole when he boldly declared Pacific Rim one of the best movies he’s ever seen. I’m not going to go so far as to affirm this audacious statement, but I will say that it’s a solid popcorn movie that is sure to entertain. I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty good about my chances of survival with Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi leading the charge against an invasion by giant monsters called kaiju. Guillermo del Toro’s newest offering, Pacific Rim, follows the three actors as they serve on the front lines of an impending apocalypse, using mecha robots called jaegers as humanity’s last defense. The film is pretty entertaining, with interesting characters played by a fantastic cast, some wild action and crazy visual effects. While it’s not del Toro’s best, it’s certainly worth checking out, if only for the privilege of watching young actress Mana Ashida steal the spotlight from everyone on screen.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just Henry Cavill’s bulging pecs.
At least that’s what Zack Snyder’s Man
Candy of Steel seemed like to me when summed up in one line. It’s nice to have a male superhero to simply objectify, and Henry Cavill is surely that in the newest cinematic incarnation of Superman. You don’t need x-ray vision to notice Cavill’s chiseled features or sculpted physique, and yes, I feel like these deserve special mention because they were almost characters themselves amid this special effects extravaganza. I would also like to prove that I am not blind.
So now that’s settled and I’ve drooled enough, let me muster up what little professional composure I have to get to the serious business part of this review. How was Man of Steel?
Well, as mentioned before, it was a graphics extravaganza, which is the least we can expect from director Zack Snyder, whose 300 and Watchmen were certainly feasts for the eyes. Another way of describing it would be that it was an exercise in just how outdated Hollywood could make every prior installment of Superman ever made. Suddenly Marlon Brando’s cloudy hologram appearing in ice seems like a cave drawing compared to Russell Crowe’s ultra high-tech, 3D Jor-El. The improved graphics were really what made this film a treat for audiences. Although the story was a little shaky and the dialogue a little simplistic, it was still an entertaining watch and a nice introduction to Superman.
We may already live in a world where Beyoncé reigns supreme, but imagine one where Beyoncé is queen of the forest, with dashing knights at her disposal and gawking plant creatures for fans. That should be enough to get you to see Epic, a fantastic animated film from the studio that brought us Ice Age: Blue Sky Studios. But if you’re still on the fence,I can assure you that Epic certainly lives up to its title. Full of breathtaking imagery, crazy detailed animation and boasting a phenomenal voice cast from the aforementioned Queen Bey and Colin Farrell to the always amazing Christoph Waltz, it’s a story that has a lot of heart, plenty of fun action and great humor. Rounding out the all-star cast are Amanda Seyfried, Josh Hutcherson, Jason Sudeikis, Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd, Steven Tyler and Blake Anderson.
The story follows Mary Katherine, a teenage girl who comes to live with her estranged father after her parents’ separation. Her father has some interesting preoccupations, such as an obsessive fascination with forest creatures, whom he’s convinced include tiny people living in advanced civilizations. This drives Mary Katherine (or as she prefers, MK) crazy and she becomes increasingly frustrated with what she considers her father’s erratic aloofness. When she is suddenly shrunk down to bug size, MK discovers that everything she thought her father had imagined is actually real, from the small soldiers called Leaf Men to their saddle-laden hummingbird transports. When the forest kingdom finds itself under attack, MK realizes her father may be the best person to help her newfound friends.
From a technical standpoint this movie is ridiculously detailed from the design aesthetic to the adrenaline-pumped, large scale action sequences. It’s readily apparent that a lot of thought and care went into the making of the story. For example, in one scene the characters go deep into the trunk of a tree, where the tree rings house scrolls that represent the history of the forest - a library of memories, if you will. This reflects the detail-orientedness of the writers because they took something scientific like the real use of tree rings to determine the age of a tree and put a whimsical spin to it. The visuals are also quite phenomenal, really drawing viewers into this magical secret world. There were epic battles that would make Peter Jackson proud, and cool camera work that would certainly garner Zack Snyder’s stamp of approval.
The voice cast also really delivered, making the film even more entertaining. Colin Farrell could not have been better cast as the gallant Ronin, commander of the Leaf Men. If I am not mistaken, this is the first animated film he has lent his voice to and he did an excellent job. Amanda Seyfried was also really amazing as MK. She probably has one of the best-sounding voices for animation. Christoph Waltz was perfect as the villainous Mandrake. He injected a lot of swagger and sass, as he is prone to do, to his shadowy character. Last but not least, a lot of the comedic elements of the film were provided by the snail and slug duo Grub and Mub, voiced by Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd. Add to all this Danny Boyle’s fabulous score, which enhanced the charm and whimsy of the film.
While there were many scenes that were laugh-out loud funny, the film is still very emotion-driven. At the heart of this story is a theme of family, unity, teamwork and an enduring legacy of passing the torch. I’m a big believer that animated films are this generation’s fables, and I think Epic succeeds (like most other great animated movies) because it balances exciting adventure with a moral that resonates with audiences young and old. There’s the moving tale of a daughter reaching out to her estranged father, and one of a hidden kingdom of forest creatures working together to restore order and community in their wooded home. Best of all, Epic has a subtle but relevant message about the environment: while mother nature can largely take care of the Earth, sometimes she could use a hand. This message is certainly not as heavy-handed as the themes of Fern Gully, but it shines through in the portrayal of teamwork between humans and nature.
Epic is a great adventure to embark on with family and friends, featuring some brilliant animation, a solid story and an entertaining cast.
Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey star in this dystopian thriller set in a “reborn” America where, during one night each year, citizens are allowed to commit any and all atrocities - an event known as The Purge. James and Mary Sandin (Hawke and Headey) live in a sprawling mansion in an idyllic community with their two children. They can afford the latest and greatest security equipment, a necessity in the year 2022 since the advent of The Purge. After they’ve locked down their home to ensure their family’s safety, a stranger appears outside their home pleading for help from Purge practitioners. They let the stranger in, only to find that doing so is just the start of the nightmare that follows. The film presents a moral quandary to the audience from the get go. Would you be able to stand idly by as people run rampant through the streets murdering, pillaging, and enacting all sorts of violence against each other? What rights would you give up in the name of national peace and prosperity?
It was interesting to see Ethan Hawke play sort of an unlikable guy. His James Sandin is an ambitious, domineering man who seems to be the type who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. As a fan of Lena Headey’s, I also thought it was awesome seeing her in a role different from anything we’ve seen her do before. She’s a lot more vulnerable in this role but she had no problem unleashing her inner Cersei Lannister when her family was threatened. The Purge has an interesting premise that is part The Strangers part Panic Room. It makes plenty of social commentary, although it falls just short of imparting a resonant message that transcends the specific story of the Sandins. I was surprised, however, at how self-aware the film was about what it was saying. It seemed to be written with a lot of relevant themes in mind. The film plays up stereotypes, for example, in the character of Edwin Hodge, who begs the Sandins for sanctuary when he is chased down their neighborhood by Purge enthusiasts. The situation certainly brought up comparisons to the tragedy of Trayvon Martin and it was interesting that the film tried to play into the audience’s prejudices.
There were also instances that were very meta, especially at my screening when the audience enthusiastically applauded during the most violent executions. I thought it was an interesting study that essentially proved the film’s point - the general public is a scary, bloodthirsty lot that thrives on seeing other people suffer. It’s why slasher movies are popular, and why violence in the media will never go away. There’s sort of a twisted pleasure in watching suffering, as long as it’s not done to us. This voyeurism was certainly explored in the film, although probably not in sufficient detail.
M Night Shyamalan’s After Earth is an unfairly maligned movie, and reports of it being awful or propagandist are greatly exaggerated. Although it’s neither compelling nor groundbreaking, I wouldn’t consider it deserving of being lambasted as motivated by a Scientologist agenda, let alone as one of the worst films of the year. In fact, I’m going to go right out and say that I’ve seen worse films this year than After Earth. A Good Day to Die Hard, G.I. Joe Retaliation and the more recent Now You See Me are just a few examples of films that are much, much worse than anything you would see in After Earth. But thanks to overzealous reddit hate along with low scores on metrics that the general public seems to bow at the altars of - Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB - the film has garnered plenty of negative buzz. While After Earth is, as mentioned at the top of the post, not an amazing movie by any stretch of the imagination, it’s really not as bad as movie critics and online forums want audiences to think.
The story takes place a thousand years after humans have abandoned Earth and settled on a new planet called Nova Prime. Although habitable enough, the planet is plagued by alien monsters called Ursa, a species that can detect humans by the pheromones we release when we are afraid. A group of elite soldiers (called Rangers) are trained to fight these monsters, excelling in their ability to suppress their fear and be virtually undetectable to Ursa (a rare talent that is called ‘ghosting’). Led by the unflappable General Cypher Rage (Will Smith), the Rangers are tasked with protecting the human race. On what seems like a routine mission to a nearby planet for some training exercises, the space ship General Rage and his son Kitai (played by Jaden Smith) are on suffers heavy damage from an asteroid storm and has to crash land on Earth, only the planet has now evolved with dangerous elements. With General Rage incapacitated, it is up to Kitai to venture across the treacherous terrain in order to send a distress signal to Nova Prime.
The story feels at home in science fiction, which is one of the reasons I am surprised that people are insisting that this is a movie about Scientology when, if audiences did not know Will Smith’s religious affiliation, it would sound like standard fare in this genre. It is also very much a father and son movie, or even more so a coming-of-age film, with Kitai striving to prove himself worthy of his father’s respect by surviving under dangerous conditions. There’s an interesting story to be told here, but it’s a shame that the film seemed more preoccupied in showing dazzling visual effects than developing the characters in a much more intimate way. Will Smith’s General Cypher was a bit one-dimensional, for example. I felt that more could have been shown to paint how closed off he became after a family tragedy and how he may have been wrongfully taking it out on his son. It was interesting to see him play sort of an unlikable character, though. There were also some editing choices made that I felt detracted from presenting the characters in full view. For example, in the trailer it shows how cocky and ambitious Kitai is. However, in the theatrical cut, we don’t see these character traits set up properly. Instead, the film sort of clumsily dives into the story, which prevents audiences from seeing Kitai develop fully as a character. So the film certainly could have benefited from a little more plot and character establishment.
On the upside, performances are strong from the father and son leads. As a fan of Jaden Smith’s from his work in The Karate Kid remake, I thought he did a great job in this movie. There is no question that this kid can act. I am certainly excited to see more from him. I would have liked to have seen more of Zoë Kravitz, though. While I knocked the film for concentrating more on imagery than on substantial character development, I have to admit that there are many visually impressive moments in the film. I really liked the costume and set design. I thought it was really cool, for example, how the “smart suits” worked and transformed like camouflage. There are some great set pieces in the film, such as a stalagmite cave underneath an erupting volcano. There are some breathtaking vistas in this film, but unfortunately that makes up the bulk of the good.
I don’t consider myself at all hard to please. I don’t mind the occasional mindless popcorn movie. I don’t mind B movie characters, cheesy one-liners, or sometimes even gratuitous nudity, violence, what-have-you. I’ve tolerated Battleship and even genuinely enjoyed the remake of Conan the Barbarian. What I can’t tolerate, however, is a movie that insults my intelligence, and Louis Leterrier’s Now You See Me does that on every level imaginable that I was close to throwing my hands up and leaving the theater.
"The number one rule of magic: Always be the smartest guy in the room," Jesse Eisenberg’s character cockily quips in the trailer for the movie. I guess Now You See Me is breaking all sorts of rules because it’s neither smart nor well-written, nor even remotely entertaining. It relies on cheap twists and showy antics, perhaps to gloss over the fact that underneath all that razzle dazzle and A-list casting, there’s really not much substance in that script. If this isn’t an absolute affront to magic and magicians everywhere, I don’t know what is. Because isn’t it the point of magic that something that may seem flashy on the surface actually involves a great deal of skill and showmanship behind the curtain? Now You See Me, instead, is what I would consider a rip-off; all show and no substance, and full of infuriating cop-outs that it makes one wonder how such a poorly-conceived project ever made it off the ground or attracted such a solid cast.
With a seemingly impressive assembly comprised of Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Dave Franco and Mélanie Laurent, one would think that something was bound to go right in this movie. I can tell you right now I’m struggling to find even one positive thing about this film. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t want to hate this movie. In fact, I’m a fan of magic tricks, illusions and clever storytelling. I’m a fan of the majority of this cast. But it’s hard to enjoy a movie that is so poorly written, it makes Gigli seem like the frontrunner for a prix du scénario at Cannes. The story follows a quartet of illusionists who catch the attention of the FBI after one of their tricks involves the robbing of a bank. And to be honest, that’s pretty much it. There’s a bunch of nonsense about an underground organization of magician misfits called The Eye, an attempt at injecting some sort of Robin Hood-type sob story into the mix, and an even more laughable attempt at forcing a romance between two characters who have absolutely zero development during the course of the tale. But none of that really matters because really the main problem with this film is that it never slows down enough to give audiences a chance to relate to its characters. More importantly, it doesn’t bother to lay the groundwork that would justify any big revelations at the end. After all, it’s hard to care about plot twists or character revelations when a movie doesn’t have the patience to set up its players, let alone the game.
The formula for Hollywood romances goes a bit like this: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, some kind of conflict occurs that tears the two apart, boy and girl ultimately reconcile, and the film ends with the suggestion that the two live happily ever after and that’s that. But what goes on after the happy ending? What happens after the big gesture, the mad dash through the airport, and the breathless exchange of declarations of love? What happens after the happy couple gallops off into the sunset? Before Midnight answers these questions in more ways than one. For fans of the Richard Linklater series that launched a thousand fantasies of meeting a lover on a train, plane, what-have-you, I can assure you that you will not be disappointed.
2004’s Before Sunset ended on such a wistful, romantic note that it seemed almost unjust that the team of Linklater and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke even dared to follow it up with Before Midnight. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned when it was announced that a sequel would be made, but it would also be disingenuous of me to hide my curiosity about what happened after the sun set on our lovers in Paris. That said, Before Midnight is a much-needed addition to the story of Jesse and Celine. Perhaps the most different of the trilogy, and rightly so, it transpires years after that sunny afternoon in Paris. There’s always been something interesting yet illusory about unrequited love, and it’s Before Midnight's awareness of this that allows its characters to delve deeper into ideas of real companionship in a way that doesn't just pander to the romantic or the cynical. Rather, the story gives audiences a realistic view of what passionate love can become a decade down the road.
FAST & FURIOUS 6 (2013)
I’m not the biggest fan of the Fast and the Furious franchise, but I admit it’s a guilty pleasure to watch. I thoroughly enjoyed the last installment, Fast Five, so I was looking forward to seeing Vin Diesel and his team back for Fast & Furious 6. The latest film follows Dom (Diesel) and his street-racing team as they go head to head with notorious criminal Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) to stop him from acquiring a valuable weapon. The whole pursuit is properly incentivized when Dom is informed by Dwayne Johnson’s Detective Hobbs that his presumed-dead old flame Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is actually alive and working for Shaw. Fast & Furious 6 features some pretty ridiculous stunts (some impressive, others unintentionally hilarious), but it underwhelms with a story that is kind of hackneyed and so all over the place that it becomes hard to invest in the different subplots. Despite the shoddy, often cheesy writing, I thought Justin Lin did a solid job making everything look good. This film does demand that the audience suspend a great deal of disbelief for many of its action scenes, but it manages to do so in a manner that is still quite entertaining to watch.
I was very pleased that the film featured a very diverse cast - probably one of the most diverse ones in terms of major cast - and especially placed the femme fatales front and center. Gina Carano, Michelle Rodriguez and Gal Gadot were all pretty heavily involved in the action of the film and I loved watching them throw punches and kick ass just as much as the guys. I especially loved that Gadot’s character Gisele has a pretty pivotal part in the film that is unexpected not only for a female character but for a female character in an action franchise dominated by men. One can argue, however, that despite all the strong women in the film, it still featured a great deal of female objectification. I don’t like saying that it’s just something we should come to expect from a series about fast cars and muscled men, but unfortunately that really does come with the territory. Whether this fact cancels out the female empowerment displayed by Rodriguez, Carano and Gadot, I’ll leave up to audiences to decide for themselves.