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VERONICA MARS (2014)
Kristen Bell reprises the role that endeared her to many, with her Veronica Mars returning to her hometown of Neptune, California to help a former flame exonerate himself from a case of sex, lies and videotape. The film is every bit an ode to the short-lived series, its colorful characters, and the millions of passionate fans who dub themselves “Marshmallows”. One might say it’s unapologetically fan service-y, perhaps as a final thank you to those who enthusiastically pitched in to fund the movie on crowdfunding website Kickstarter. On one hand it’s admirable that series creator Rob Thomas, who wrote and directed the film, unabashedly gave fans of the sassy sleuth exactly what they’ve been waiting for all this time. On the other hand, it’s quite unfortunate that expanding the Mars universe was put on the back burner instead. 

The movie takes place several years after the events of the show’s third and final season. Veronica has left Neptune in her rearview mirror and now resides in the Big Apple, where she’s traded in her sneaky sleuthing for high-powered corporate law. Just as she is preparing for an interview at one of the most prestigious firms in the city, she gets a call from former flame Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who has found himself in yet another tabloid-plastered mess. Veronica’s curiosity has always been both her biggest strength and weakness, and she can’t resist the pull of a suspicious case or a plea for help, especially not when Logan Echolls is asking. She returns to Neptune, to familiar faces, and to getting down in the dirt to uncover secrets that force her to revisit her hellish high school days.  
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Fans of the series will find no trouble getting right back into the saddle of things, especially since the film pointedly brings back the show’s roster of charming (and some chagrin-inducing) characters. The film, quite frankly, feels like an overlong episode. The mystery feels like small fish for the obviously talented and resourceful Veronica, who could be duking it out in the Supreme Courts if she wanted to. Some fans, Yours Truly included, were expecting Veronica to move on to bigger fish with this film, tackling some mob boss, perhaps, or an unscrupulous Wall Street fat cat. But the return to form in the film presents a very specific message instead. Veronica Mars concludes that sometimes, there’s a reason we keep returning to certain places, or continue putting ourselves in certain situations. For Veronica, it’s because she’s addicted to the rush of being on the trail, the excitement of the pretenses and charades that come with solving a small-time mystery. She’s always been one to roll up her sleeves and get down in the dirt, doling out her unique brand of justice. It’s no surprise that corporate law in New York City just didn’t give her the same high. On the whole, it’s rather poetic that Veronica worked so hard to get out of what seemed like nightmarish Neptune at the time, only to find herself back in her sunny, pseudo-seedy arms again. This time, however, she’s on her own terms. And you know, that counts as moving on.    
The jump to the silver screen wasn’t so easy for TV’s sassiest sleuth, but it sure succeeded at making waves for show business. The Kickstarter-backed project effectively transformed the landscape of independent film-making, leaving some wondering whether they should forgo traditional studio funding and appeal directly to consumers instead. The impact of Veronica Mars on legitimizing crowdsourced funding is a topic for another time, however, as the main question on most viewers’ minds since the film came out is whether the juice was worth all the squeeze. Certainly much has been written about whether it was wise for Rob Thomas and company to make a movie that appealed more to the fans than to those who had no inkling about what Veronica Mars was. Well, some may say that fans financed this film, so why not make a movie that caters to them? The better question, however, is whether this was the movie that fans really wanted.

As one of those self-proclaimed marshmallows, I have to say that I was pretty underwhelmed by the Veronica Mars movie, only because I felt it didn’t take advantage of its cinematic platform and shoot for bigger things, themes, trials and tribulations. While I appreciated all the inside jokes, references and enjoyed seeing all the familiar faces, for the most part (and as previously mentioned) the whole film felt like one long episode, and I’m not sure that was entirely worth the wait. The overall message of Veronica going back to her roots was interesting, and actually sort of refreshing, considering that the predictable route would have been to sort of Legally Blonde the story. I didn’t mind that approach at all, and actually quite liked where Rob Thomas decided he wanted the character of Veronica to go. I do think that there could have been a better way to reach this conclusion. Other reservations I had about the final product had to do with the main plot of the story requiring Veronica to revisit a lot of her high school experiences, which were a bit tedious and very been-there-done-that.
While the film was entertaining, it was difficult to be emotionally invested in Logan’s plight or Veronica’s struggle between her life in New York and Neptune. The central mystery also felt sort of haphazardly thrown together, almost like a funnier, albeit less stylish Pretty Little Liars episode - certainly nothing that gave the impression that it needed to be seen on the big screen. And hey, perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that. While I enjoyed the quips (Veronica’s line to Dick about playing Words with Friends had me cackling for days), the hijinks and the rehash of LoVe, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed that the film didn’t stray very far from home. But I suppose that’s the big message, right? You can take the girl out of Neptune, but you can’t take the Neptune out of the girl. Ah, that Veronica Mars. She was always a marshmallow.

VERONICA MARS (2014)

Kristen Bell reprises the role that endeared her to many, with her Veronica Mars returning to her hometown of Neptune, California to help a former flame exonerate himself from a case of sex, lies and videotape. The film is every bit an ode to the short-lived series, its colorful characters, and the millions of passionate fans who dub themselves “Marshmallows”. One might say it’s unapologetically fan service-y, perhaps as a final thank you to those who enthusiastically pitched in to fund the movie on crowdfunding website Kickstarter. On one hand it’s admirable that series creator Rob Thomas, who wrote and directed the film, unabashedly gave fans of the sassy sleuth exactly what they’ve been waiting for all this time. On the other hand, it’s quite unfortunate that expanding the Mars universe was put on the back burner instead. 

The movie takes place several years after the events of the show’s third and final season. Veronica has left Neptune in her rearview mirror and now resides in the Big Apple, where she’s traded in her sneaky sleuthing for high-powered corporate law. Just as she is preparing for an interview at one of the most prestigious firms in the city, she gets a call from former flame Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who has found himself in yet another tabloid-plastered mess. Veronica’s curiosity has always been both her biggest strength and weakness, and she can’t resist the pull of a suspicious case or a plea for help, especially not when Logan Echolls is asking. She returns to Neptune, to familiar faces, and to getting down in the dirt to uncover secrets that force her to revisit her hellish high school days.  

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t feel like a comic book movie. And that’s a very, very good thing. 
Not that there is anything wrong with comic book movies. It’s just that often, because of the fantastical elements usually involved in the stories of superheroes and their diabolical arch nemeses, the audience is used to suspending their disbelief from the moment the opening credits scroll. With The Winter Soldier, sibling directors Anthony and Joe Russo breathe new life into a genre that some may quickly be tiring of, effectively changing the game and pushing the boundaries of what comic book movies are capable of. The film unfolds in thrilling, rhythmic fashion, spinning a tantalizing tale of spies, secrets and a super soldier who gets a shocking blast from the past. This is still a comic book movie, and in every frame Cap never ceases to remind viewers that there’s a reason he’s dubbed The First Avenger. However, Winter Soldier feels like a grown-up comic book movie, with threats that aren’t as simple as a bad guy who wants to take over the world, and ideas that are very relevant in the increasingly paranoid society we are part of. Imagine if The Bourne Ultimatum and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had a baby and it grew up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The film takes place a little after the events in The Avengers, where S.H.I.E.L.D. has now grown in size and influence due to the organization’s efforts in the Battle of New York. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), head of the organization and ever the international man of mystery, sends Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and a group of S.H.I.E.L,D. commandos to resolve a hostage situation involving Algerian pirates. Cap expertly swoops in to save the day in what seems like a run-of-the-mill save-the-innocents exercise, only to find that there was more to the mission than he was told. When Fury, the man with usually most of the answers is ferociously attacked, Cap enlists Black Widow and former military man Sam Wilson (aka The Falcon, and played by Anthony Mackie) to help him get to the bottom of the mysteries behind S.H.I.E.L.D. Not only does he uncover the shadowy organization’s dirty laundry, but he also discovers the existence of an intimidating figure known as The Winter Soldier, a formidable enemy who has been responsible for a slew of assassinations and fatal incidents in the last 75 years. Cap has to untangle an intricate web of lies with S.H.I.E.L.D. at its center, and face enemies from his past. 
The Winter Soldier is perhaps one of Marvel’s best to date, packed with high-octane action, well-choreographed fight sequences, and a return to the roots of superheroes: namely the idea that it doesn’t necessarily take something super for anyone to be a hero. S.H.I.E.LD. is at the heart of the story and, well-trained as their agents may be, they are still human and therefore especially prone to manipulation, infiltration and defeat at the hands of forces greater than they. The audience is reminded that in the real world, war has a very real cost, and as such more people are especially needed to stand up to those who operate on a code of, to borrow Mass Effect's phrase, “ruthless calculus” - a sacrifice of the lives of millions to save billions. And who best to carry the mantle of regular Joes (and Janes) doing extraordinary things than the First Avenger himself? 
(some spoilers after the cut)
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The Winter Soldier isn’t only entertaining and exciting, but it’s full of interesting ideas. Sure, there’s still the age-old plea for good to triumph over evil, but the film also proves that real world issues such as privacy, national security, international relations, and geopolitics can be highlighted in the context of a superhero movie. While initially Cap expresses some disapproval of Fury’s heightened paranoia, believing it to be a poor mentality in the preservation of freedom, he is quickly disproven when Fury is attacked. What’s interesting, however, is that despite Cap’s qualms about the extreme measures of national security that Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. represent, in a way, this paranoia is a comfort zone for Cap, who lived during his own version of a Cold War, with spies and HYDRA and people trying to advance their cause in the name of the greater good.
It doesn’t have to be said that Captain America is easily the most boring character in The Avengers. He’s a boy scout, and compared to the snarky Tony Stark, the boastful Thor, the temperamental Hulk, steely Hawkeye or malleable Black Widow, he’s as vanilla as it can get. But this also makes the most capable of being improved. With The Winter Soldier, we still see a Cap trying to make sense of this brave new world he’s awakened in (his little notebook full of pop culture catching-up-to-do was adorable), but his unease is short-lived when he’s thrown into the mix of this business with S.H.I.E.L.D. We really see Cap shine in this film, whether it’s when he doling out punishment to bad guys, or when he’s delivering a heartfelt and rousing speech for help. The rest of The Avengers may be heroes of circumstance, but The Winter Soldier reminds viewers that Steve Rogers was a hero even before he suited up as Captain America. He’s the only Avenger who always and inherently wanted to do good, no ulterior motivates, no delusions of grandeur - just straight-up saving the world. At the time, he just didn’t have the hulking persona, the super strength or the indestructible shield to help him.
Cap’s code of honor, however, means that he needs a colorful supporting cast. And even though this film was entitled The Winter Soldier, this was really Captain America: S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s a shame that The Winter Soldier wasn’t as prominent as he could have been, because he certainly seemed like a fascinating character with a crazy (and sad) back story. But sharing screen time with livelier characters like Nick Fury, Natasha Romanoff, Maria Hill and Sam Wilson, however, benefited the film much more. It not only gave audiences an inside look into how S.H.I.E.L.D. works, but involving characters who didn’t have super powers and had to rely on their developed skills to combat enemies was a nice change from what audiences are used to. All supporting characters involved were fantastic indeed, however my personal preference would have been that there was less of them, and perhaps just a little bit more of The Winter Soldier or Cap.

What’s especially cool about The Winter Soldier is that while Marvel has proven before how they have mastered the formula for movie franchises and superhero movies, they haven’t remained complacent. The Winter Soldier ups the ante for all Marvel movies with its quick-paced action, flashy fight choreography, and the interweaving of the Marvel universe. The Winter Soldier took superhero fight sequences to a whole new level. While Cap is indeed a super soldier and his shield is one badass offensive and defensive weapon, he’s still only a man. So to see him vault himself through obstacles and use his shield in a variety of ways was a real treat, and it showed off not only his athleticism but also his tactical prowess. There was such great action in this film - from the closed-quarters combat in an elevator with Cap fighting 15 or so men, to Falcon’s graceful aerial invasions of pursuing jets. 
What Marvel also does best is tie-ins to the rest of their cinematic universe, from references to the Marvel One-Shot projects to upcoming films we have yet to see. For example, there’s a subtle namedrop of Doctor Strange, great foreshadowing for Frank Grillo’s Crossbones and the post-credits sneak (directed by none other than Joss Whedon himself) was a peek at Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) ensnared by upcoming The Avengers: Age of Ultron baddie Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). The post-credits sequence was slightly reminiscent of The Cabin in the Woods, which Whedon co-wrote with Drew Goddard. It certainly made me excited for the second Avengers installment.

There were also a few notable things that surprised me as a viewer. The very small role that Emily Vancamp’s Agent 13/Sharon Carter had in the film was both pleasantly surprising and disappointing. On the one hand it was awesome to see a film in this genre without a romance of some sort, but on the other I thought she was a character who was slightly underdeveloped and maybe should have just been cut from the film entirely and fleshed out better in the next film. I also thought it was great to see a platonic relationship between Steve and Natasha develop. Initially the promos made it seem as though something romantic was going to be forced between Steve and Natasha, so it was a pleasure to find that there was real camaraderie there between the two and that the writers took the opportunity to build this into a friendly relationship of trust between two characters who had drastically different world views. Other surprising and interesting takeaways: the emergence of HYDRA as a big player in the cinematic universe, Arnim Zola’s targeting algorithm which had a very Minority Report-esque/X2: United Cerebro vibe, and my favorite: the hint at a standalone Black Widow movie. Given how The Winter Soldier ends and where Black Widow’s state is, this is certainly a very good and exciting possibility.
Overall, The Winter Soldier is far and away the better Captain America movie. It’s grittier, much more exciting, and redefines what comic book movies can or should be. The film is worth seeing for its action scenes alone, which were so well done and incredibly riveting. Special mention also needs to be made to the visual effects team of the film, who totally outdid themselves with their flawless rendering of a pre-Captain America Steve Rogers. It was truly movie magic at its finest. Finally, The Winter Soldier also provided a great reminder of the symbolism of comic book heroes. Cap’s off-the-cuff speech to S.H.I.E.L.D. agents about taking a stand no matter what was inspiring - a hearkening back to the superheroes of old who wanted to inspire good in everybody, not just save the day every time a cat was stuck in a tree. Cap may be a boy scout, and he may be as vanilla as they come, but he can kick your ass sevens days til Sunday. In style. 

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t feel like a comic book movie. And that’s a very, very good thing. 

Not that there is anything wrong with comic book movies. It’s just that often, because of the fantastical elements usually involved in the stories of superheroes and their diabolical arch nemeses, the audience is used to suspending their disbelief from the moment the opening credits scroll. With The Winter Soldier, sibling directors Anthony and Joe Russo breathe new life into a genre that some may quickly be tiring of, effectively changing the game and pushing the boundaries of what comic book movies are capable of. The film unfolds in thrilling, rhythmic fashion, spinning a tantalizing tale of spies, secrets and a super soldier who gets a shocking blast from the past. This is still a comic book movie, and in every frame Cap never ceases to remind viewers that there’s a reason he’s dubbed The First Avenger. However, Winter Soldier feels like a grown-up comic book movie, with threats that aren’t as simple as a bad guy who wants to take over the world, and ideas that are very relevant in the increasingly paranoid society we are part of. Imagine if The Bourne Ultimatum and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had a baby and it grew up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The film takes place a little after the events in The Avengers, where S.H.I.E.L.D. has now grown in size and influence due to the organization’s efforts in the Battle of New York. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), head of the organization and ever the international man of mystery, sends Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and a group of S.H.I.E.L,D. commandos to resolve a hostage situation involving Algerian pirates. Cap expertly swoops in to save the day in what seems like a run-of-the-mill save-the-innocents exercise, only to find that there was more to the mission than he was told. When Fury, the man with usually most of the answers is ferociously attacked, Cap enlists Black Widow and former military man Sam Wilson (aka The Falcon, and played by Anthony Mackie) to help him get to the bottom of the mysteries behind S.H.I.E.L.D. Not only does he uncover the shadowy organization’s dirty laundry, but he also discovers the existence of an intimidating figure known as The Winter Soldier, a formidable enemy who has been responsible for a slew of assassinations and fatal incidents in the last 75 years. Cap has to untangle an intricate web of lies with S.H.I.E.L.D. at its center, and face enemies from his past. 

The Winter Soldier is perhaps one of Marvel’s best to date, packed with high-octane action, well-choreographed fight sequences, and a return to the roots of superheroes: namely the idea that it doesn’t necessarily take something super for anyone to be a hero. S.H.I.E.LD. is at the heart of the story and, well-trained as their agents may be, they are still human and therefore especially prone to manipulation, infiltration and defeat at the hands of forces greater than they. The audience is reminded that in the real world, war has a very real cost, and as such more people are especially needed to stand up to those who operate on a code of, to borrow Mass Effect's phrase, “ruthless calculus” - a sacrifice of the lives of millions to save billions. And who best to carry the mantle of regular Joes (and Janes) doing extraordinary things than the First Avenger himself? 

(some spoilers after the cut)

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300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (2014)
This 100-minute 24-hour fitness commercial was mildly entertaining, but each frame seemed like a desperate grasp to relive the glory days of the Zack Snyder/Frank Miller story of the 300 Spartans. Say what you will about Snyder, but 300 had as much of an impact on moviemaking as the Wachowskis’ The Matrix's had on making onscreen shenanigans look extra dramatic. Rise of an Empire's story is a bit strange, being part prequel part sequel and starting just prior to the events in Thermopylae and concluding shortly after the last of King Leonidas' Spartans fell. Centered on Athenian general Themistocles (played by Sullivan Stapleton with a little less gusto than Gerard Butler did his über macho Leonidas), Rise of an Empire tells the story of the events that led to the Battle of Thermopylae, and how the clash between the Greeks and the Persians ultimately came to a head. Themistocles is an interesting character; pragmatic to a fault, but a fierce warrior when needed. Unfortunately he wasn’t nearly as inspiring or menacing or charismatic as Butler’s fearsome Leonidas, and comparisons were inevitable when this project was announced.
The one interesting element of the film was the character of Artemisia (played by the always magnetic Eva Green), bloodthirsty leader of the Pesian navy. Having suffered at the hands of the Greeks, Artemisia vows to exact vengeance upon them, and her wrath is swift and relentless. A skilled swordsman and a cunning strategist, Artemisia is a formidable opponent for the equally shrewd Themistocles. Eva Green embodied the role with an  intensity that is characteristic of the roles she usually plays. Yet despite how inherently interesting her character already was, she was still forced to engage in a ridiculous sex scene that was meant to show off her insatiable appetites, a redundant thing to highlight considering Green was sexy enough without needing to take her clothes off. The scene served no purpose and seemed only like a box that director Noam Murro thought he should check off in his foray into this universe. 300: Rise of an Empire had an opportunity to show off a unique character in Artemisia, and it caved to the dumb expectation that strong female characters cannot exist without being sexually objectified. 
Despite this frustrating development, it was a treat to see Lena Headey and Eva Green dominate the screen with their portrayals of unrelenting mavens. One was an expert in battle, and the other a ruler with an iron fist. Both actresses were scene stealers, and Sullivan Stapleton and his band of Greek warriors seemed no more than toy soldiers at play. While the fight scenes were well-choreographed and Stapleton put on a passable performance as the hero of this piece, 300: Rise of an Empire is but a shadow of 300's glory. It was largely uneventful and as a whole mediocre; it may not have been worthy of association to the 2006 film. Snyder's 300 made viewers want to go thump their chests and swing from the trees in its soaring epicness. Murro’s Rise of an Empire inspires little more than a yawn and occasional flutter of an eyelid. Unless you’re a fan of man boobs pectorals on a 20-foot screen, save yourself a trip to the theater and rent this one instead.

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (2014)

This 100-minute 24-hour fitness commercial was mildly entertaining, but each frame seemed like a desperate grasp to relive the glory days of the Zack Snyder/Frank Miller story of the 300 Spartans. Say what you will about Snyder, but 300 had as much of an impact on moviemaking as the Wachowskis’ The Matrix's had on making onscreen shenanigans look extra dramatic. Rise of an Empire's story is a bit strange, being part prequel part sequel and starting just prior to the events in Thermopylae and concluding shortly after the last of King Leonidas' Spartans fell. Centered on Athenian general Themistocles (played by Sullivan Stapleton with a little less gusto than Gerard Butler did his über macho Leonidas), Rise of an Empire tells the story of the events that led to the Battle of Thermopylae, and how the clash between the Greeks and the Persians ultimately came to a head. Themistocles is an interesting character; pragmatic to a fault, but a fierce warrior when needed. Unfortunately he wasn’t nearly as inspiring or menacing or charismatic as Butler’s fearsome Leonidas, and comparisons were inevitable when this project was announced.

The one interesting element of the film was the character of Artemisia (played by the always magnetic Eva Green), bloodthirsty leader of the Pesian navy. Having suffered at the hands of the Greeks, Artemisia vows to exact vengeance upon them, and her wrath is swift and relentless. A skilled swordsman and a cunning strategist, Artemisia is a formidable opponent for the equally shrewd Themistocles. Eva Green embodied the role with an  intensity that is characteristic of the roles she usually plays. Yet despite how inherently interesting her character already was, she was still forced to engage in a ridiculous sex scene that was meant to show off her insatiable appetites, a redundant thing to highlight considering Green was sexy enough without needing to take her clothes off. The scene served no purpose and seemed only like a box that director Noam Murro thought he should check off in his foray into this universe. 300: Rise of an Empire had an opportunity to show off a unique character in Artemisia, and it caved to the dumb expectation that strong female characters cannot exist without being sexually objectified. 

Despite this frustrating development, it was a treat to see Lena Headey and Eva Green dominate the screen with their portrayals of unrelenting mavens. One was an expert in battle, and the other a ruler with an iron fist. Both actresses were scene stealers, and Sullivan Stapleton and his band of Greek warriors seemed no more than toy soldiers at play. While the fight scenes were well-choreographed and Stapleton put on a passable performance as the hero of this piece, 300: Rise of an Empire is but a shadow of 300's glory. It was largely uneventful and as a whole mediocre; it may not have been worthy of association to the 2006 film. Snyder's 300 made viewers want to go thump their chests and swing from the trees in its soaring epicness. Murro’s Rise of an Empire inspires little more than a yawn and occasional flutter of an eyelid. Unless you’re a fan of man boobs pectorals on a 20-foot screen, save yourself a trip to the theater and rent this one instead.

NEED FOR SPEED (2014)
Something about the film adaptation of the popular Electronic Arts racing game, Need for Speed, feels very indie. Sure, it features fast cars, beautiful people, adrenaline-fueled action, and a sympathetic protagonist hellbent on seeking retribution - all of which seem like ingredients for your run-of-the-mill Fast and the Furious-type blockbuster movie. Yet director Scott Waugh and writing duo George and John Gatins approached the project from a much smaller, less flashier angle, and the film is all the better for it. The story centers on small town mechanic Tobey Marshall (played by Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul) and his motley crew of racing enthusiast friends with whom he runs a custom car shop. Financial troubles come knocking at their door, forcing them to broker a deal with the devil, in the form of hotshot race car driver and entrepreneur Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who needs a custom car built. The deal goes sideways when a tragic accident occurs and lands Tobey in prison, where he begins to plot revenge for being framed. 
Many people will force a comparison between Need for Speed and the Fast and the Furious franchise, but there is a difference in the way the rush of racing factors into each film. In Need for Speed, the cars are only a means to an end, rooted deeply in Tobey’s quest to clear his name. He doesn’t race for power, prestige or the pursuit of supermodels. He just wants to enact righteous vengeance on the one who wronged him, and hitting the pavement with a fancy race car is the only way he knows how. In grounding the story in an emotional journey that audiences can easily invest in, the writers immediately set it apart from other films in its genre. Casting ultra-relatable everyman actor Aaron Paul also spoke volumes about the direction they wanted this film to go.  
And the film’s ace in the hole is certainly Aaron Paul, who has an almost effortless ability to make any viewer sympathize with his plight, whatever it may be. Had the role been occupied by anyone else, Need for Speed would have been an entirely different film. Paul’s likability makes him an easy character to root for, and he becomes the glue that holds the rest of the ho-hum film together. The movie also works because of the chemistry between the characters, especially between Paul and Imogen Poots. The very organic way the two’s relationship develops is a highlight of the film. The transformation of what initially seemed like an antagonistic relationship to one of mutual understanding and respect gave the story a lighthearted vibe that provided a nice contrast to what would have otherwise been a very straightforward revenge story. It was also a pleasure to see a female character who was not in the film for the sole purpose of baring skin. Poots’  Julia is smart, sassy, outspoken and remarkably perceptive, but viewers have to grow to like her (just like Tobey does), instead of instantly accepting her as the generic female flame to the wounded hero.
Now undoubtedly curious minds want to know how the action sequences are. They are very well done. According to director Scott Waugh, the decision to film practical stunts instead of CGI was a no-brainer; they wanted to give the audience a realistic feel instead of just doing them for show. The result is a surprisingly visceral account of what it would feel like hitting 220mph. There was also an interesting lack of pulsating music as the action occurs, which was refreshing because it gave the movie a totally different vibe than what audiences are used to when it comes to watching car chases on screen. One pleasantly surprising aspect of the film was that part of it is actually a road trip, giving the story some dimension. Tobey has to trek cross-country while both the police and a few unsavory folks trail him in hot pursuit. 

Need for Speed did suffer from a pretty one-dimensional villain in Dino Brewster. While Dominic Cooper played the spoiled rich kid very well, there just wasn’t anything interesting about his antagonism. There were parts of the film that also felt rushed, especially the ones involving Dakota Johnson, who seemed like more of an afterthought than a fully-formed character. Save for a few awkward shots here and there and perhaps one of the strangest uses of a helicopter in a movie, Need for Speed is an enjoyable ride. For some its story may be slightly more milquetoast than riveting, but it’s still an entertaining breath of fresh air in a usually predictable genre. Its down-to-earth vibe makes it appealing to viewers who’d like to see something different other than the larger-than-life scenes that so often pepper these high-speed chase movies. While not entirely groundbreaking or even remotely adventurous, and perhaps earnest to a fault, Need for Speed is a fun popcorn flick with a lot of heart, some excitement, a few good laughs and a romantic subplot that actually feels very natural, which is more than one can ask for in this genre.

NEED FOR SPEED (2014)

Something about the film adaptation of the popular Electronic Arts racing game, Need for Speed, feels very indie. Sure, it features fast cars, beautiful people, adrenaline-fueled action, and a sympathetic protagonist hellbent on seeking retribution - all of which seem like ingredients for your run-of-the-mill Fast and the Furious-type blockbuster movie. Yet director Scott Waugh and writing duo George and John Gatins approached the project from a much smaller, less flashier angle, and the film is all the better for it. The story centers on small town mechanic Tobey Marshall (played by Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul) and his motley crew of racing enthusiast friends with whom he runs a custom car shop. Financial troubles come knocking at their door, forcing them to broker a deal with the devil, in the form of hotshot race car driver and entrepreneur Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who needs a custom car built. The deal goes sideways when a tragic accident occurs and lands Tobey in prison, where he begins to plot revenge for being framed. 

Many people will force a comparison between Need for Speed and the Fast and the Furious franchise, but there is a difference in the way the rush of racing factors into each film. In Need for Speed, the cars are only a means to an end, rooted deeply in Tobey’s quest to clear his name. He doesn’t race for power, prestige or the pursuit of supermodels. He just wants to enact righteous vengeance on the one who wronged him, and hitting the pavement with a fancy race car is the only way he knows how. In grounding the story in an emotional journey that audiences can easily invest in, the writers immediately set it apart from other films in its genre. Casting ultra-relatable everyman actor Aaron Paul also spoke volumes about the direction they wanted this film to go.  

And the film’s ace in the hole is certainly Aaron Paul, who has an almost effortless ability to make any viewer sympathize with his plight, whatever it may be. Had the role been occupied by anyone else, Need for Speed would have been an entirely different film. Paul’s likability makes him an easy character to root for, and he becomes the glue that holds the rest of the ho-hum film together. The movie also works because of the chemistry between the characters, especially between Paul and Imogen Poots. The very organic way the two’s relationship develops is a highlight of the film. The transformation of what initially seemed like an antagonistic relationship to one of mutual understanding and respect gave the story a lighthearted vibe that provided a nice contrast to what would have otherwise been a very straightforward revenge story. It was also a pleasure to see a female character who was not in the film for the sole purpose of baring skin. Poots’  Julia is smart, sassy, outspoken and remarkably perceptive, but viewers have to grow to like her (just like Tobey does), instead of instantly accepting her as the generic female flame to the wounded hero.

Now undoubtedly curious minds want to know how the action sequences are. They are very well done. According to director Scott Waugh, the decision to film practical stunts instead of CGI was a no-brainer; they wanted to give the audience a realistic feel instead of just doing them for show. The result is a surprisingly visceral account of what it would feel like hitting 220mph. There was also an interesting lack of pulsating music as the action occurs, which was refreshing because it gave the movie a totally different vibe than what audiences are used to when it comes to watching car chases on screen. One pleasantly surprising aspect of the film was that part of it is actually a road trip, giving the story some dimension. Tobey has to trek cross-country while both the police and a few unsavory folks trail him in hot pursuit. 

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Need for Speed did suffer from a pretty one-dimensional villain in Dino Brewster. While Dominic Cooper played the spoiled rich kid very well, there just wasn’t anything interesting about his antagonism. There were parts of the film that also felt rushed, especially the ones involving Dakota Johnson, who seemed like more of an afterthought than a fully-formed character. Save for a few awkward shots here and there and perhaps one of the strangest uses of a helicopter in a movie, Need for Speed is an enjoyable ride. For some its story may be slightly more milquetoast than riveting, but it’s still an entertaining breath of fresh air in a usually predictable genre. Its down-to-earth vibe makes it appealing to viewers who’d like to see something different other than the larger-than-life scenes that so often pepper these high-speed chase movies. While not entirely groundbreaking or even remotely adventurous, and perhaps earnest to a fault, Need for Speed is a fun popcorn flick with a lot of heart, some excitement, a few good laughs and a romantic subplot that actually feels very natural, which is more than one can ask for in this genre.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)
The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps my least favorite Wes Anderson film.
It follows Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), concierge at the prestigious Hungarian hotel, and his lobby boy Zero Mustafa (Tony Revolori) as the duo embark on an elaborate series of misadventures and near escapes, fleeing from the murderous family of a wealthy, lonely matriarch (Tilda Swinton) whom Gustave has had numerous trysts with. While beautifully photographed, featuring incredibly detailed and impressive sets (not to mention those delightful miniatures we’ve come to know and love from The Life Aquatic and The Fantastic Mr. Fox) and quite the celebration of typography, Grand Budapest was even more emotionally barren than Moonrise Kingdom, and much less charming and humorous than all of Anderson’s other films. It played like an overlong high school skit, and even his impressive ensemble cast of usual suspects could not prevent the pan-tilt-track sequence of camera movements in the film from getting plenty tiresome after the nth repetition. This was also perhaps Anderson’s weakest screenplay, with drawn out punchlines that often relied on hammy performances. The highlight of the film was the painstakingly made-up Tilda Swinton, who was in the picture for maybe all of three minutes, and yet managed to be instantly recognizable and unrecognizable at the same time. I did appreciate Anderson’s homage to Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de…, a film that the auteur has mentioned before as a favorite. 
I suppose the problem with The Grand Budapest Hotel is that it has become a shining example that Wes Anderson views people as still life, as things that can photograph beautifully, instead of sources of genuine joy or delight. He seems so intent on how they appear on camera that he forgets about the importance of energy and the fascinating dynamics of human interaction. The result is an array of stories about characters, and not people. What’s more, Anderson has seemed to forget how real emotions are played on screen, because when he attempts a moment of earnestness between characters, it falls flat in excruciating failure. In his obsession with mimicking the colorful palette of culture and vibrancy of life, he ends up with a sterile, manufactured product that is completely devoid of warmth. For an audience, this style makes the material impossible to connect with, an exercise of ennui that makes one wonder if this whole venture was better off as a book of photographs instead of a film.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps my least favorite Wes Anderson film.

It follows Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), concierge at the prestigious Hungarian hotel, and his lobby boy Zero Mustafa (Tony Revolori) as the duo embark on an elaborate series of misadventures and near escapes, fleeing from the murderous family of a wealthy, lonely matriarch (Tilda Swinton) whom Gustave has had numerous trysts with. While beautifully photographed, featuring incredibly detailed and impressive sets (not to mention those delightful miniatures we’ve come to know and love from The Life Aquatic and The Fantastic Mr. Fox) and quite the celebration of typography, Grand Budapest was even more emotionally barren than Moonrise Kingdom, and much less charming and humorous than all of Anderson’s other films. It played like an overlong high school skit, and even his impressive ensemble cast of usual suspects could not prevent the pan-tilt-track sequence of camera movements in the film from getting plenty tiresome after the nth repetition. This was also perhaps Anderson’s weakest screenplay, with drawn out punchlines that often relied on hammy performances. The highlight of the film was the painstakingly made-up Tilda Swinton, who was in the picture for maybe all of three minutes, and yet managed to be instantly recognizable and unrecognizable at the same time. I did appreciate Anderson’s homage to Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de…, a film that the auteur has mentioned before as a favorite. 

I suppose the problem with The Grand Budapest Hotel is that it has become a shining example that Wes Anderson views people as still life, as things that can photograph beautifully, instead of sources of genuine joy or delight. He seems so intent on how they appear on camera that he forgets about the importance of energy and the fascinating dynamics of human interaction. The result is an array of stories about characters, and not people. What’s more, Anderson has seemed to forget how real emotions are played on screen, because when he attempts a moment of earnestness between characters, it falls flat in excruciating failure. In his obsession with mimicking the colorful palette of culture and vibrancy of life, he ends up with a sterile, manufactured product that is completely devoid of warmth. For an audience, this style makes the material impossible to connect with, an exercise of ennui that makes one wonder if this whole venture was better off as a book of photographs instead of a film.

AUSTENLAND (2013)
The real Jane Austen, were she alive today, would take offense that saccharine stories are being written in her name. From literary spin-offs capitalizing on the popularity of iconic characters like Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy to film adaptations of books such as The Jane Austen Book Club, the cult of Jane Austen continues to persist, yet it does the Sense and Sensibility author no favors. Instead, films like the 2013 rom-com Austenland (based on the novel by Shannon Hale) seem to make a mockery of the English novelist’s work, displaying none of their wit and even less of their charm. Austenland centers on thirtysomething down-on-her-luck Jane (played by Felicity's Keri Russell), who travels to England in pursuit of the ultimate Jane Austen experience. She does so on the premise that a whirlwind fantasy romance will help her chances of landing a real life one. When she travels back in time for this period piece pretense, however, the lines between fantasy and reality become blurred and Jane starts to wonder whether she is falling in love for real.   
To her credit, author Shannon Hale had a passable idea with Austenland. The notion of a Jane Austen fanatic taking her enthusiasm for the novels to a whole other level with this elaborately designed trip is rather delightful. The majority of the film’s problems, however, resulted from a poorly-constructed, often unfunny script and moments that were more excruciating than romantic. In its desperate attempt at appealing to the hopeless romantics in all of us, it failed miserably at inspiring swoons, eliciting facepalms and groans instead. While the male stars in the film tasked in doing the wooing were quite dashing, the scenarios that were set up in order for them to romance Jane were so hilariously inorganic that it almost seemed as though the viewer was forbidden from joining in on the love fest. For something that’s supposed to be a romantic comedy, the film was neither romantic nor comical, save only perhaps by some of Jennifer Coolidge’s character’s over-the-top frenzies. 

It’s quite ironic that the film was about actors trying their desperate best to portray certain characters from Jane Austen’s world, because at the end of the day, this was all that they really were. Keri Russell’s Jane is no more than a poor woman’s Elizabeth Bennet, and JJ Feild, no matter how brooding and dreamy, only seemed like he’s trying to put on his best Mr. Darcy. One might argue that this was the point of the movie, to show that there are real world people that resemble the much-loved figures in Austen’s books. Yet Austenland's glaring problem is that it is too lazy to construct characters who are interesting beyond who they are based on. Instead, it expects the audience to fall in love upon recognition of these characters. For instance, Russell's Jane is an insecure, hopeless romantic, yet she drops this at the earliest convenience, when the script demands she play the part of headstrong, opinionated Elizabeth Bennet instead of someone with her own personality and convictions. As much as one adored Austen's works, it was too much to ask the audience to unquestionably accept a character they are expected to know as representative of the smart and sassy Elizabeth or lovable curmudgeon Mr. Darcy.
For all its tributes and homages to Jane Austen, Austenland lacked substance and some Sense and Sensibility. Worst of all, the film is so unbelievably unromantic (despite the obvious chemistry between the cast members) that the sought-after feeling of butterflies was replaced by waves of nausea instead. The whole film might as well have been titled “ISN’T THIS ROMANTIC?” because it certainly seemed as though every scene was an attempt at convincing the audience that the trappings of their love were real. One might say that rom-coms shouldn’t be taken too seriously, as if it were enough of a lofty goal to show super sugary scenarios. However, the least that viewers ask for when going into a rom-com is the chance to piggyback on fake onscreen romance, and yet Austenland is so obviously contrived that it almost seems eager to stop us from floating above the clouds. 

AUSTENLAND (2013)

The real Jane Austen, were she alive today, would take offense that saccharine stories are being written in her name. From literary spin-offs capitalizing on the popularity of iconic characters like Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy to film adaptations of books such as The Jane Austen Book Club, the cult of Jane Austen continues to persist, yet it does the Sense and Sensibility author no favors. Instead, films like the 2013 rom-com Austenland (based on the novel by Shannon Hale) seem to make a mockery of the English novelist’s work, displaying none of their wit and even less of their charm. Austenland centers on thirtysomething down-on-her-luck Jane (played by Felicity's Keri Russell), who travels to England in pursuit of the ultimate Jane Austen experience. She does so on the premise that a whirlwind fantasy romance will help her chances of landing a real life one. When she travels back in time for this period piece pretense, however, the lines between fantasy and reality become blurred and Jane starts to wonder whether she is falling in love for real.   

To her credit, author Shannon Hale had a passable idea with Austenland. The notion of a Jane Austen fanatic taking her enthusiasm for the novels to a whole other level with this elaborately designed trip is rather delightful. The majority of the film’s problems, however, resulted from a poorly-constructed, often unfunny script and moments that were more excruciating than romantic. In its desperate attempt at appealing to the hopeless romantics in all of us, it failed miserably at inspiring swoons, eliciting facepalms and groans instead. While the male stars in the film tasked in doing the wooing were quite dashing, the scenarios that were set up in order for them to romance Jane were so hilariously inorganic that it almost seemed as though the viewer was forbidden from joining in on the love fest. For something that’s supposed to be a romantic comedy, the film was neither romantic nor comical, save only perhaps by some of Jennifer Coolidge’s character’s over-the-top frenzies. 

image

It’s quite ironic that the film was about actors trying their desperate best to portray certain characters from Jane Austen’s world, because at the end of the day, this was all that they really were. Keri Russell’s Jane is no more than a poor woman’s Elizabeth Bennet, and JJ Feild, no matter how brooding and dreamy, only seemed like he’s trying to put on his best Mr. Darcy. One might argue that this was the point of the movie, to show that there are real world people that resemble the much-loved figures in Austen’s books. Yet Austenland's glaring problem is that it is too lazy to construct characters who are interesting beyond who they are based on. Instead, it expects the audience to fall in love upon recognition of these characters. For instance, Russell's Jane is an insecure, hopeless romantic, yet she drops this at the earliest convenience, when the script demands she play the part of headstrong, opinionated Elizabeth Bennet instead of someone with her own personality and convictions. As much as one adored Austen's works, it was too much to ask the audience to unquestionably accept a character they are expected to know as representative of the smart and sassy Elizabeth or lovable curmudgeon Mr. Darcy.

For all its tributes and homages to Jane Austen, Austenland lacked substance and some Sense and Sensibility. Worst of all, the film is so unbelievably unromantic (despite the obvious chemistry between the cast members) that the sought-after feeling of butterflies was replaced by waves of nausea instead. The whole film might as well have been titled “ISN’T THIS ROMANTIC?” because it certainly seemed as though every scene was an attempt at convincing the audience that the trappings of their love were real. One might say that rom-coms shouldn’t be taken too seriously, as if it were enough of a lofty goal to show super sugary scenarios. However, the least that viewers ask for when going into a rom-com is the chance to piggyback on fake onscreen romance, and yet Austenland is so obviously contrived that it almost seems eager to stop us from floating above the clouds. 

THE WIND RISES (2014)
The Wind Rises isn’t your little brother or sister’s Hayao Miyazaki. It has none of the whimsy of Howl’s Moving Castle or the playful nature of My Neighbor Totoro. It’s a grown-up Miyazaki that is, in many ways, a return to more socially-conscious work such as Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind. Reportedly Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises is the story of young Jiro, who dreams of building beautiful airplanes. The audience follows his journey, from a young boy who devours magazines that talk about the latest in aviation to a man faced with the grim reality that his work may be used to destroy instead of giving joy. It’s a unique coming-of-age tale that sets out to impart an important message: that of the persistence of life. As the title borrows from poet Paul Valéry’s own version of carpe diem: ”The wind is rising…we must try to live.” 
The Wind Rises takes place in early 20th century Japan, a time when the country endured great upheaval that involved an economic crisis and the infamous Great Kantō earthquake of 1923. The film introduces its protagonist Jiro as a young boy who initially dreams of becoming a pilot, yet whose myopic vision prevents him from ever truly becoming one. This doesn’t deter him, however, from pursuing his love of flying. Jiro is a bit of a Walter Mitty, occasionally zoning out into these elaborate dream sequences where he talks to a quirky Italian airplane engineer named Caproni, his idol and a sort of benevolent, imaginary sage. It is Caproni who encourages Jiro to pursue his dreams in a slightly different capacity, as an aviation engineer instead of a pilot. After all, if he can’t fly airplanes, he might as well have a hand in building them! We then follow Jiro as he goes on to become a student of engineering, and onward to his employment at the prestigious Mitsubishi company, which at the time built airplanes for the Japanese military. We see that as Jiro grows older and his journey to become an engineer progresses, the Japanese landscape too changes. Soon Jiro becomes cognizant of forces beyond his control; forces that threaten to embroil his model airplanes into something bigger and more brutal than he ever meant them for. 
The Wind Rises is very much in keeping with Studio Ghibili’s portfolio of films that push the envelope of what animation can do. Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies is perhaps one of the bleakest, most anti-war films ever made, and yet in little pockets throughout the film, we see a sense of wonder, joy, and always, a plea to live. Despite its more adult themes, the same spirit is alive and well in Miyazaki’s latest. It may not be as emotionally devastating as Fireflies, but the reality depicted in the beautifully hand-drawn story is just as sobering. The film may be seen as a condemnation of war, but it is even more so a celebration of life. From its uplifting title to the soaring ambitions of young Jiro, it beckons the audience to think about the power of positive thinking, and how this can help fuel and fully actualize inventions through the dignity of hard work. It is in moments when the audience sees Jiro’s dedication to his craft, his openness to creative ideas, his own desire to pioneer and champion, that the realism of The Wind Rises becomes evident. Jiro isn’t blindly idealistic; he knows that one day his creations will be used for insidious purposes. But he chooses to build his planes anyway because he believes in the purity of his dream, and there’s something innocent and respectable about that perspective.


The film takes its time crafting Jiro’s story. As Roger Ebert brought up during his conversation with Hayao Miyazaki, there are beautiful moments of stillness to be found in the film. There are scenes where the characters are just sitting and looking out a window on a moving train, or having a cigarette on a hotel balcony during a quiet night. In these scenes, the story isn’t necessarily moving forward, but the characters are more and more alive in these snapshots, as they seem to ponder themselves or their situations. There’s a beauty in doing nothing at all, and for the audience it allows us to breathe, as Miyazaki pointed out. It is evident how much care went into this film as a result of such patient storytelling, allowing the characters to be shown in as many dimensions as possible. 
For instance, the poetry in Jiro’s nearsightedness isn’t lost on the viewer, because it is this myopic vision that becomes the foundation for his story. Jiro’s nearsightedness only allows him to see his dream to be an engineer and nothing else. He doesn’t see the big picture that is in store for his planes. He only sees beauty and craftsmanship, not the war and strife that were to follow because of them. Were he to take into consideration the death and destruction that would undoubtedly follow as a result of his creations, surely that would cripple him with fear and anxiety. Some critics think that this represents a fatal flaw in the film; that somehow Jiro contributed to the war by continuing to make these deadly bombers and fighter jets. The focus on whether this justifies the Japanese wars that followed is misguided, because it seems to idealize the notion of taking a stand at the expense of one’s dreams. Yes, ideally it would have been nice for the Japanese military not to have such firepower at their disposal. Perhaps it would have prevented the brutal military onslaught that followed. However, by demanding such conditions on Jiro’s arc, critics are also taking a deeply personal story and turning it into propagandist agenda, which is certainly not Studio Ghibli’s style.
It seems that these folks have unfortunately missed the nuances present in the film. The Wind Rises acknowledges the necessity of war, but doesn’t revel in it. It actually brings it up in a manner that seems almost regretful. The film implores the audience to look at large scale world events like war, famine, and natural disasters from a human perspective. Not everyone is always thinking about the bottom line, or the effects on geopolitical maneuvering when a young man decides to fulfill his dream of building airplanes. Miyazaki also makes the argument that just because bad things are going to happen, it doesn’t mean people should just lay down and accept it. Again, from the title based on a poem by Paul Valéry: “The wind is rising, we must try to live.”

This quiet struggle against the forces of inevitability is what Miyazaki champions in his last film. We see it in Jiro’s relentless pursuit of his childhood dreams and, most clearly, in his love for Nahoko, a woman he meets during disastrous circumstances, who even in her unwell state, mustered the strength to remind him of his will to live. Nahoko suffers from a severe case of tuberculosis and it seems inevitable that she won’t live long. She asks Jiro to wait for her to recover before they commit to each other; after all, who wants to be married to a dying woman? Jiro initially agrees, but after realizing that he could lose the woman he loves any day now, he races to her bedside and begs for her hand in marriage. It is a defiant decision; it is Jiro and Nahoko looking death in the eye and saying, “We know we don’t have long, but we’ll make the most of the time that we have.” It’s an unapologetically sweet sentiment, and Miyazaki layers this on in a subtle enough manner that the audience can feel it without necessarily being hammered on the head with it. 
Its stance against nihilism - which often states that we’re all going to die anyway, so what’s the point in living? - is also laid out in a simple yet profoundly affecting manner. Life is indeed fleeting, but this isn’t what makes it meaningless. What we do with the numbered days is what gives it meaning. And truly, if all we had to think about every day was how short our lives were, how painful love is, how the Earth is getting warmer and warmer and man-made catastrophes are becoming regular occurrences - if all we thought about was the inevitability of death, how would we ever manage to get ourselves out of bed, let alone wake up every morning? It’s these thought-provoking messages in The Wind Rises that really elevate the film. 

Yes, there’s a wistfulness to the story that would break hearts, and the sober reality of the world we live in is emphasized in every meticulously-drawn frame. The Wind Rises may not be a rallying cry to “suck the marrow out of life”, as Dead Poets Society's O Captain my Captain may say, but it succeeds in preaching the same message with a gentle prod that only an artist like Hayao Miyazaki can. The lesson that The Wind Rises hopes to leave viewers with is that everyone should dare to dream no matter how dire the situation we find ourselves in. Dreams exist in the realm between reality and fantasy where they remain pure, untouchable by the forces that wrestle with people’s lives - war, politics, the economy, natural disasters. People dream without necessarily wanting to escape their lot; instead they dream because they want to believe that things can get better. Isn’t that what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he gave that iconic civil rights speech? 
Overall, while it may not have the wild imaginings of Spirited Away or the flights of fancy in Kiki’s Delivery Service, The Wind Rises is a touching, thoughtful piece about ambition, hard work, love and the beauty in the persistence of life. These are all things that celebrate being alive, and lessons that everyone, regardless of age, creed, race or nationality, can appreciate. Perhaps it is your little sibling’s Hayao Miyazaki after all.

THE WIND RISES (2014)

The Wind Rises isn’t your little brother or sister’s Hayao Miyazaki. It has none of the whimsy of Howl’s Moving Castle or the playful nature of My Neighbor Totoro. It’s a grown-up Miyazaki that is, in many ways, a return to more socially-conscious work such as Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind. Reportedly Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises is the story of young Jiro, who dreams of building beautiful airplanes. The audience follows his journey, from a young boy who devours magazines that talk about the latest in aviation to a man faced with the grim reality that his work may be used to destroy instead of giving joy. It’s a unique coming-of-age tale that sets out to impart an important message: that of the persistence of life. As the title borrows from poet Paul Valéry’s own version of carpe diem: ”The wind is rising…we must try to live.” 

The Wind Rises takes place in early 20th century Japan, a time when the country endured great upheaval that involved an economic crisis and the infamous Great Kantō earthquake of 1923. The film introduces its protagonist Jiro as a young boy who initially dreams of becoming a pilot, yet whose myopic vision prevents him from ever truly becoming one. This doesn’t deter him, however, from pursuing his love of flying. Jiro is a bit of a Walter Mitty, occasionally zoning out into these elaborate dream sequences where he talks to a quirky Italian airplane engineer named Caproni, his idol and a sort of benevolent, imaginary sage. It is Caproni who encourages Jiro to pursue his dreams in a slightly different capacity, as an aviation engineer instead of a pilot. After all, if he can’t fly airplanes, he might as well have a hand in building them! We then follow Jiro as he goes on to become a student of engineering, and onward to his employment at the prestigious Mitsubishi company, which at the time built airplanes for the Japanese military. We see that as Jiro grows older and his journey to become an engineer progresses, the Japanese landscape too changes. Soon Jiro becomes cognizant of forces beyond his control; forces that threaten to embroil his model airplanes into something bigger and more brutal than he ever meant them for. 

The Wind Rises is very much in keeping with Studio Ghibili’s portfolio of films that push the envelope of what animation can do. Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies is perhaps one of the bleakest, most anti-war films ever made, and yet in little pockets throughout the film, we see a sense of wonder, joy, and always, a plea to live. Despite its more adult themes, the same spirit is alive and well in Miyazaki’s latest. It may not be as emotionally devastating as Fireflies, but the reality depicted in the beautifully hand-drawn story is just as sobering. The film may be seen as a condemnation of war, but it is even more so a celebration of life. From its uplifting title to the soaring ambitions of young Jiro, it beckons the audience to think about the power of positive thinking, and how this can help fuel and fully actualize inventions through the dignity of hard work. It is in moments when the audience sees Jiro’s dedication to his craft, his openness to creative ideas, his own desire to pioneer and champion, that the realism of The Wind Rises becomes evident. Jiro isn’t blindly idealistic; he knows that one day his creations will be used for insidious purposes. But he chooses to build his planes anyway because he believes in the purity of his dream, and there’s something innocent and respectable about that perspective.

image

The film takes its time crafting Jiro’s story. As Roger Ebert brought up during his conversation with Hayao Miyazaki, there are beautiful moments of stillness to be found in the film. There are scenes where the characters are just sitting and looking out a window on a moving train, or having a cigarette on a hotel balcony during a quiet night. In these scenes, the story isn’t necessarily moving forward, but the characters are more and more alive in these snapshots, as they seem to ponder themselves or their situations. There’s a beauty in doing nothing at all, and for the audience it allows us to breathe, as Miyazaki pointed out. It is evident how much care went into this film as a result of such patient storytelling, allowing the characters to be shown in as many dimensions as possible. 

For instance, the poetry in Jiro’s nearsightedness isn’t lost on the viewer, because it is this myopic vision that becomes the foundation for his story. Jiro’s nearsightedness only allows him to see his dream to be an engineer and nothing else. He doesn’t see the big picture that is in store for his planes. He only sees beauty and craftsmanship, not the war and strife that were to follow because of them. Were he to take into consideration the death and destruction that would undoubtedly follow as a result of his creations, surely that would cripple him with fear and anxiety. Some critics think that this represents a fatal flaw in the film; that somehow Jiro contributed to the war by continuing to make these deadly bombers and fighter jets. The focus on whether this justifies the Japanese wars that followed is misguided, because it seems to idealize the notion of taking a stand at the expense of one’s dreams. Yes, ideally it would have been nice for the Japanese military not to have such firepower at their disposal. Perhaps it would have prevented the brutal military onslaught that followed. However, by demanding such conditions on Jiro’s arc, critics are also taking a deeply personal story and turning it into propagandist agenda, which is certainly not Studio Ghibli’s style.

It seems that these folks have unfortunately missed the nuances present in the film. The Wind Rises acknowledges the necessity of war, but doesn’t revel in it. It actually brings it up in a manner that seems almost regretful. The film implores the audience to look at large scale world events like war, famine, and natural disasters from a human perspective. Not everyone is always thinking about the bottom line, or the effects on geopolitical maneuvering when a young man decides to fulfill his dream of building airplanes. Miyazaki also makes the argument that just because bad things are going to happen, it doesn’t mean people should just lay down and accept it. Again, from the title based on a poem by Paul Valéry: “The wind is rising, we must try to live.”

image

This quiet struggle against the forces of inevitability is what Miyazaki champions in his last film. We see it in Jiro’s relentless pursuit of his childhood dreams and, most clearly, in his love for Nahoko, a woman he meets during disastrous circumstances, who even in her unwell state, mustered the strength to remind him of his will to live. Nahoko suffers from a severe case of tuberculosis and it seems inevitable that she won’t live long. She asks Jiro to wait for her to recover before they commit to each other; after all, who wants to be married to a dying woman? Jiro initially agrees, but after realizing that he could lose the woman he loves any day now, he races to her bedside and begs for her hand in marriage. It is a defiant decision; it is Jiro and Nahoko looking death in the eye and saying, “We know we don’t have long, but we’ll make the most of the time that we have.” It’s an unapologetically sweet sentiment, and Miyazaki layers this on in a subtle enough manner that the audience can feel it without necessarily being hammered on the head with it. 

Its stance against nihilism - which often states that we’re all going to die anyway, so what’s the point in living? - is also laid out in a simple yet profoundly affecting manner. Life is indeed fleeting, but this isn’t what makes it meaningless. What we do with the numbered days is what gives it meaning. And truly, if all we had to think about every day was how short our lives were, how painful love is, how the Earth is getting warmer and warmer and man-made catastrophes are becoming regular occurrences - if all we thought about was the inevitability of death, how would we ever manage to get ourselves out of bed, let alone wake up every morning? It’s these thought-provoking messages in The Wind Rises that really elevate the film. 

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Yes, there’s a wistfulness to the story that would break hearts, and the sober reality of the world we live in is emphasized in every meticulously-drawn frame. The Wind Rises may not be a rallying cry to “suck the marrow out of life”, as Dead Poets Society's O Captain my Captain may say, but it succeeds in preaching the same message with a gentle prod that only an artist like Hayao Miyazaki can. The lesson that The Wind Rises hopes to leave viewers with is that everyone should dare to dream no matter how dire the situation we find ourselves in. Dreams exist in the realm between reality and fantasy where they remain pure, untouchable by the forces that wrestle with people’s lives - war, politics, the economy, natural disasters. People dream without necessarily wanting to escape their lot; instead they dream because they want to believe that things can get better. Isn’t that what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he gave that iconic civil rights speech? 

Overall, while it may not have the wild imaginings of Spirited Away or the flights of fancy in Kiki’s Delivery ServiceThe Wind Rises is a touching, thoughtful piece about ambition, hard work, love and the beauty in the persistence of life. These are all things that celebrate being alive, and lessons that everyone, regardless of age, creed, race or nationality, can appreciate. Perhaps it is your little sibling’s Hayao Miyazaki after all.

CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN (2013)
Charlie Countryman (or the movie formerly known as The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman) is a terrible movie. There may be a few ifs ands or buts, but they don’t amount to nearly enough to save this convoluted, hot mess of a movie. Shia LaBeouf is Charlie Countryman, an aimless twentysomething American who hops on a flight to Bucharest, Romania prompted by a vision of his dead mother. On the way there, the man next to him on the flight drops dead, and his last words were for Charlie to deliver a gift to his daughter, Gabriella (Evan Rachel Wood). Charlie tracks down Gabriella, falls in love with her, but gets caught in a scheme involving Gabriella’s former lover and mob kingpin Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen).
It’s amazing that this project was able to lure Mads Mikkelsen, Melissa Leo, Evan Rachel Wood, Aubrey Plaza and Vincent D’Onofrio, considering there were few, if any, redeeming parts of the film. While Shia LaBeouf deserves commendation for committing to the role, however underwritten it and all the others may have been, the film suffered mostly from its ridiculously awful script. Penned by Project X scribe Matt Drake, the screenplay suffered from an identity crisis, never quite deciding whether it wanted to be a crime drama, a romantic comedy or Project X set in Bucharest. It’s not a problem if a film doesn’t want to pigeonholed; in fact, some may even consider it ballsy to mix genres. However, Drake seems to only know of the clichés in every genre, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink into this film. There was nothing new, interesting, or insightful in this story, and worst of all, the audience couldn’t care less about its bumbling protagonist.
Mads Mikkelsen was perhaps the most ill-served by the lousy script. His crime lord spouted pretentious riddles and pop culture references in an effort to assert his power, which probably read well on paper but completely failed when finally translated on screen. Mikkelsen brings an intensity to every role he takes, and his Nigel was no exception. But his character was written in such an overly exaggerated way that it was impossible to take him seriously. Another usually reliable talent who wound up in such an abysmal role was Evan Rachel Wood. It’s unclear what accent Evan Rachel Wood was going for in this movie, but it sure wasn’t Romanian. She had a thick Russian accent instead, and was the only one in the film who spoke in this manner, which made the whole affair even more ridiculous. The worst offenders by far, however, were James Buckley and Rupert Grint, who played Charlie’s drug-addled English roommates. Matt Drake must have been heavily intoxicated when he came up with their characters, because they could not have been written in a worse way.  
While the film looked great and was well shot (thanks in large part to director Fredrik Bond’s music video background) and featured an excellent, atmospheric score by composer Christophe Beck, as a whole it felt empty and soulless. It didn’t evoke any particular emotions, except perhaps regret on behalf of the viewer, because watching this film meant roughly 90 minutes that they will never get back. Because Drake couldn’t make up his mind as to what kind of film he wanted this to be, it was difficult to really invest in Charlie’s story, let alone his romance with Gabriella or his troubles with Nigel. Usually stories that involve lost souls trying to find themselves while they go on exciting excursions around the world have some sort of big idea or thought-provoking message. Charlie Countryman doesn’t even bother with any of that, nor does it boast of any sort of whimsy or sense of adventure. Charlie Countryman was no fun, not funny and overall, painfully contrived. A terrible waste of time and good talent.

CHARLIE COUNTRYMAN (2013)

Charlie Countryman (or the movie formerly known as The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman) is a terrible movie. There may be a few ifs ands or buts, but they don’t amount to nearly enough to save this convoluted, hot mess of a movie. Shia LaBeouf is Charlie Countryman, an aimless twentysomething American who hops on a flight to Bucharest, Romania prompted by a vision of his dead mother. On the way there, the man next to him on the flight drops dead, and his last words were for Charlie to deliver a gift to his daughter, Gabriella (Evan Rachel Wood). Charlie tracks down Gabriella, falls in love with her, but gets caught in a scheme involving Gabriella’s former lover and mob kingpin Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen).

It’s amazing that this project was able to lure Mads Mikkelsen, Melissa Leo, Evan Rachel Wood, Aubrey Plaza and Vincent D’Onofrio, considering there were few, if any, redeeming parts of the film. While Shia LaBeouf deserves commendation for committing to the role, however underwritten it and all the others may have been, the film suffered mostly from its ridiculously awful script. Penned by Project X scribe Matt Drake, the screenplay suffered from an identity crisis, never quite deciding whether it wanted to be a crime drama, a romantic comedy or Project X set in Bucharest. It’s not a problem if a film doesn’t want to pigeonholed; in fact, some may even consider it ballsy to mix genres. However, Drake seems to only know of the clichés in every genre, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink into this film. There was nothing new, interesting, or insightful in this story, and worst of all, the audience couldn’t care less about its bumbling protagonist.

Mads Mikkelsen was perhaps the most ill-served by the lousy script. His crime lord spouted pretentious riddles and pop culture references in an effort to assert his power, which probably read well on paper but completely failed when finally translated on screen. Mikkelsen brings an intensity to every role he takes, and his Nigel was no exception. But his character was written in such an overly exaggerated way that it was impossible to take him seriously. Another usually reliable talent who wound up in such an abysmal role was Evan Rachel Wood. It’s unclear what accent Evan Rachel Wood was going for in this movie, but it sure wasn’t Romanian. She had a thick Russian accent instead, and was the only one in the film who spoke in this manner, which made the whole affair even more ridiculous. The worst offenders by far, however, were James Buckley and Rupert Grint, who played Charlie’s drug-addled English roommates. Matt Drake must have been heavily intoxicated when he came up with their characters, because they could not have been written in a worse way.  

While the film looked great and was well shot (thanks in large part to director Fredrik Bond’s music video background) and featured an excellent, atmospheric score by composer Christophe Beck, as a whole it felt empty and soulless. It didn’t evoke any particular emotions, except perhaps regret on behalf of the viewer, because watching this film meant roughly 90 minutes that they will never get back. Because Drake couldn’t make up his mind as to what kind of film he wanted this to be, it was difficult to really invest in Charlie’s story, let alone his romance with Gabriella or his troubles with Nigel. Usually stories that involve lost souls trying to find themselves while they go on exciting excursions around the world have some sort of big idea or thought-provoking message. Charlie Countryman doesn’t even bother with any of that, nor does it boast of any sort of whimsy or sense of adventure. Charlie Countryman was no fun, not funny and overall, painfully contrived. A terrible waste of time and good talent.

ROBOCOP (2014)
Smart, insightful, thought-provoking, and driven by emotion rather than high-octane explosions or CGI savagery, José Padilha’s RoboCop is a tin man with brains and a lot of heart. 
Remakes and reboots tend to bear the unfortunate burden of having to contend with an audience of extremes. If they stick too close to the original, they are deemed unimaginative and unnecessary. If they deviate too much from the source material, they become bastardizations and affronts to the original. It’s quite the tightrope walk for a remake to pay enough tribute to the original material to sate the often rabid appetites of fans, while at the same time forging its own identity. So when Brazilian director José Padilha decided to take on the 1987 Paul Verhoeven cult classic RoboCop, it not only opened the doors for nth degree concern trolling, but it also left viewers who were oversaturated by blockbuster reboots wondering whether this was a story worth retelling, and whether the Elite Squad filmmaker was the man to tell it.
In anyone else’s hands, the answer probably would have been a resounding no. But Padilha, no stranger to tackling political subject matter and certainly not shy when bringing up controversial topics, seemed to understand the audience expectations behind his endeavor. He adopted the right approach with this remake, seeking to update it both visually and thematically, while keeping the spirit of the original film intact. So to address the foremost question on everyone’s minds - does this 2014 remake live up to the original? - the answer is yes. Padilha’s RoboCop is relevant, well thought out and does what a good remake should do: pay homage to the original while establishing its own identity and universe. It also takes much of the subversive quality in Verhoeven’s film and incorporates it into the story in a new and interesting manner.
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RoboCop centers on Detective Alex Murphy (played by The Killing's Joel Kinnaman), who becomes enemy number one when he tries to uncover a corruption ring that has taken a foothold in Detroit's very own police force. Someone makes an attempt on Murphy's life using a car bomb, and the explosion renders his body completely useless. Murphy becomes the pet project of OmniCorp, a slimy corporation whose goal is to get robots on the street in the name of making profit combating crime. Due to Americans’ wariness of unmanned drones thanks to the military antics of a warmongering government (sounds awfully familiar, right?), public opinion is less than desirable in the initiative to put machines on the street. A Congressional bill also makes it impossible for OmniCorp to get any of their products on American soil. OmniCorp’s solution is to put a man inside a machine, an attempt to win over the public trust by using a human face to sell their inhuman exploits. And incapacitated man of justice Alex Murphy is the perfect guinea pig for their devious plans.
Just as RoboCop had three prime directives in Verhoeven’s film (Serve the public trust, Protect the Innocent, and Uphold the Law), there are three unspoken commandments when it comes to rebooting a film. Commandment One: Thou must not mimic the original material. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say, so the very attempt at remaking a film should already be enough praise. But the last thing anyone wants to see is a shot for shot remake of a two decade-year-old film, only with new faces and shiny special effects. A shot-for-shot remake only forces the audience to draw more comparisons between the different versions. Pro tip: the remake rarely fares better than the original. If audiences wanted to see an exact recreation of the original, they would watch the original, not some cheap knock-off. As for those who go into a remake expecting to see everything that was in their beloved cult classic, well, let’s just say they represent a faction of moviegoers that most of us prefer to ignore.

So how does Padilha’s RoboCop fare with the first commandment? Very well, actually. Save for a few throwaway nods to Verhoeven’s original, the new film has its own original look and feel. In lieu of stop-motion is shiny CGI, and instead of the now iconic silver suit, Alex Murphy (played by The Killing's Joel Kinnaman) sports a sleek, black exoskeleton that fits with the increasingly popular minimalist aesthetic of today. Many will note the absence of the gruesome violence that became its own character in Verhoeven's flick. Most of the action in Padilha's film is quite sanitized, perhaps to fit in with its PG-13 rating. While some people were undoubtedly dismayed by the rating change, this actually turns out to be advantageous for this film because it forces audiences to focus on its larger, more important themes instead of “ZOMG DID THEY JUST BLOW OFF THAT GUY'S ARM WITH A SHOTGUN?”
Which brings me to the second unspoken rule of remakes: Thou must forge your own theme and storyline, updating the film so it is relevant to both new and returning audiences. The 1987 version was more focused on corporate corruption. The 2014 update takes more daring stabs at larger issues society contends with today, from unmanned drone strikes to the Patriot Act. Joshua Zetumer’s screenplay raises thought-provoking questions about how far people are willing to go in the name of public safety. Does this mean impeding on a few civil liberties in the name of battling crime? Does it mean prioritizing efficiency and incorruptibility over conscientiousness and consideration? If machines are man-made and man decides what is right and wrong, and man somehow cannot be trusted to serve and protect, how can machines be trusted where men cannot? These are great questions for a science fiction film to ask, and even better questions for a PG-13 film to ask. Those who are apprehensive about the deviation from the original film’s R-rating should applaud the film for trying to provoke meaningful discussion about relevant topics such as these, instead of glorifying violence like so many in the genre do these days.
 
The film also deserves applause for taking no shortcuts and not relying on audience familiarity with the franchise to score points. It told its story patiently, pretending as though RoboCop was a completely new idea, custom-built for this society. It was surprising to see a film that was committed to laying down a foundation for its protagonist to stand on, instead of a rush to blow things up for the more restless, bloodthirsty variety of moviegoers. The use of Samuel L. Jackson as a tool for narrative exposition was also rather genius. Jackson plays Pat Novak, a TV demagogue cut from the same cloth as Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, and who represents this film’s sardonic take on America’s rapidly deteriorating journalism industry. Editorializing more than reporting, Novak is hellbent on pushing his own agenda, silencing opposing ideas with a swipe of a hand and that trademark Sam Jackson glare.
The final commandment in remaking a film is: Thou must inject something new or insightful that improves upon the original film. This is perhaps where Padilha excelled the most. His film makes up for what the original lacked (and yes, much as I enjoyed the original, it was lacking in some departments): emotion. Yes, it can be said that Verhoeven took the “less is more” approach with the original, only showing what needed to be seen to get the audience emotionally invested in Murphy’s character. It worked in 1987, but that might not have gone over the same way for the more skeptical viewers of today. Thus, Kinnaman had a little bit more face time with the audience - a good call because in this ADD age, audiences seem to crave a connection with a main character in order to root for him. We see Alex interacting more with his family, as well as the repercussions of his becoming RoboCop.
Personally, I wished the film went deeper emotionally, perhaps bringing up things like how Alex would never be able to be intimate with his wife, have any more children, or be like any other dad to his son, David. But from what little time it had, RoboCop did a good job getting audiences to invest in the story and its characters. Padilha and Zetumer knew that emotion was going to be the driving force for this storyline, and they made sure they emphasized it throughout the film. After all, it’s the question that leads to RoboCop’s inception in the first place. The public wanted a man, not a machine. They wanted a conscience, someone who feels and understands the weight of human life. Yet they wanted all this without all the unnecessary baggage that being human entails. You know, like pesky mortality and that bothersome hesitation that arises from dealing with ambiguity. 
As far as performances go, Joel Kinnaman, who has impressed audiences in AMC’s The Killing and who is no stranger to playing a cop with an unrelenting drive for dispensing justice, does a great job as Alex Murphy. One scene in particular shows off the actor’s skills, and it involved a big, grotesque reveal of what remained of Murphy’s body (hint: barely anything, which was quite a shock to see). Kinnaman was able to convey horror, self-pity, shame, helplessness in so short a span, successfully bringing audiences into the character’s headspace. Michael Keaton also did an excellent job in the role of OmniCorp founder Raymond Sellars, a man whose bottom line mattered more than a human life. Keaton played Sellars with a charisma that is all too familiar with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. There was a smugness and self-assuredness to the character that made him easy to dislike, but one couldn’t help but marvel at his drive and his ambition. Speaking of characters who are easy to dislike yet somehow endearing, the perpetually overlooked but brilliant Jackie Earle Haley won audiences over as RoboCop’s smarmy nemesis Maddox. Unsurprisingly, Gary Oldman stole much of the show here as Dr. Dennett Norton, the man tasked to transform Murphy into a machine. Torn between career mobility and ethics, he represents the age-old question of just how far should people go in the name of science? Far enough to deprive a man of his free will? Far enough to kill a man in the name of national security? Oldman brought an intensity to the role that elevated the whole film. 

The film does have a few failings. It could have used a bit more humor, and the underutilization of both fantastic Australian actress Abbie Cornish (who played Murphy’s wife Clara) and Boardwalk Empire's Michael K. Williams (playing Murphy's partner, Jack Lewis). Both are amazing talents, yet they had rather simplistic, grossly underwritten roles. One was basically in the realm of “stand beside him and look pretty”, and the other served more as a plot device rather than a person with individual motivations. Clara seemed like a very passive character, which is so unfortunate to see a talented actress resigned to. The audience is never privy to what she does or what her personality is like. Virtually anyone could have played this role and the film would have largely remained intact. It would have been a far stronger film had the audience known more about Clara. This would have allowed us to feel sympathy for her when she was being bullied into obedience by OmniCorp’s minions. On the other end of the spectrum was Jennifer Ehle, who was great in the role of Liz Kline, OmniCorp’s strong-arming legal/lethal weapon. It was refreshing to see a woman who was completely unapologetic about her employer’s insidious agenda and had no qualms intimidating a grieving Mrs. Murphy to compliance. 

The film’s effort to highlight the emotional drama of Murphy’s transformation might not appeal to viewers who go into the theater expecting a knock-down dragged out action-packed affair. This isn’t to say that the film is devoid of excitement. It does have entertaining and thrilling sequences, they just weren’t as compelling as the more dramatic parts of the film. What was fantastic, however, was that the action seemed to be driven by the story and not the other way around. In the original RoboCop, the action always seemed to stem from a need to show RoboCop dispensing justice in his unique, brutish way. In the new film, the action set pieces exist to highlight RoboCop’s advantages as a man in a machine. We see him duking it out with the familiar ED-209’s, formulating strategies to survive instead of punching through anything that moved. Murphy’s ability to improvise in ambiguous situations proves to be an invaluable trait, further driving home the message that both human intelligence and compassion is irreplaceable.   
While the film ends rather abruptly, and a little bit more closure would have been nice, Padilha does an excellent job taking a beloved cult classic and refreshing it for new audiences, while also embodying the satirical spirit of the original. RoboCop raises interesting questions but also manages to entertain with a more emotion-driven story and a strong cast. Dead or alive, you may want to get yourself to a theater to see this tin man in action. 

ROBOCOP (2014)

Smart, insightful, thought-provoking, and driven by emotion rather than high-octane explosions or CGI savagery, José Padilha’s RoboCop is a tin man with brains and a lot of heart. 

Remakes and reboots tend to bear the unfortunate burden of having to contend with an audience of extremes. If they stick too close to the original, they are deemed unimaginative and unnecessary. If they deviate too much from the source material, they become bastardizations and affronts to the original. It’s quite the tightrope walk for a remake to pay enough tribute to the original material to sate the often rabid appetites of fans, while at the same time forging its own identity. So when Brazilian director José Padilha decided to take on the 1987 Paul Verhoeven cult classic RoboCop, it not only opened the doors for nth degree concern trolling, but it also left viewers who were oversaturated by blockbuster reboots wondering whether this was a story worth retelling, and whether the Elite Squad filmmaker was the man to tell it.

In anyone else’s hands, the answer probably would have been a resounding no. But Padilha, no stranger to tackling political subject matter and certainly not shy when bringing up controversial topics, seemed to understand the audience expectations behind his endeavor. He adopted the right approach with this remake, seeking to update it both visually and thematically, while keeping the spirit of the original film intact. So to address the foremost question on everyone’s minds - does this 2014 remake live up to the original? - the answer is yes. Padilha’s RoboCop is relevant, well thought out and does what a good remake should do: pay homage to the original while establishing its own identity and universe. It also takes much of the subversive quality in Verhoeven’s film and incorporates it into the story in a new and interesting manner.

Read more

THE LEGO MOVIE (2014)
Everything is awesome about The LEGO Movie, and that’s not just hyperbole or internet bandwagoning.
Anyone who has grown up with LEGOs, or charted any meme-filled corner of the internet, will enjoy this fun, hyper-meta LEGO adventure, which features the voices of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson. Some misguided folks may think that animated films have no right to be this intelligent, but we’ve seen time and again that animation has a voice, and it has some pretty compelling things to say. With a touching story that celebrates imagination and creativity while also injecting some surprisingly thoughtful commentary on ideas of individualism vs collectivism, The LEGO Movie pulled off quite the feat. Charming, entertaining and brimming with great ideas, it’s a film that can be enjoyed by everyone, and it has a delightful message about the importance of creating things. 
The story is set in a dystopian LEGO world where a sort of weird (and colorful) totalitarian consumerism reigns supreme, thanks to the villainous President Business. President Business wants the whole world to be exactly as he envisioned it. Everyone is expected to follow instructions, and no one is allowed to break the rules. And the LEGO citizens seem perfectly content with this development. After all, what a relief to not have to think for oneself for a change - to have someone tell you what music, TV shows, food, movies you like instead of having to go through all the trouble of developing a taste of your own. Emmett (voiced by Pratt) is one such citizen, perfectly content in his blissful ignorance and the most painfully average construction worker in LEGO Land. His whole world is turned upside down when he is informed that a prophecy exists that tells of someone called The Special, a chosen one who will rid this LEGO world of its mindless sheep and the sinister shepherd who commands them. Emmett just might be The Special, but this would mean a whole lot of rule-breaking.
Potential spoilers under the cut.
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Chock-full of characters from all over pop culture - from DC comic book heroes to characters from Hogwarts and Middle-Earth - The LEGO Movie has something for everyone. For those who are animation buffs, this film is meticulous in its detail and clearly a labor of love for those involved. Now despite not actually being entirely filmed in LEGO (that endeavor would have been extremely time-consuming, not to mention cost-prohibitive - have you seen the price tags on LEGOs these days?), the film does a great job paying homage to the toys that many of us have grown to know and love. There was a great mix of what was actually computer-animated, what was physically built using real-world LEGOs and filmed in stop-motion.
Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the duo behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the 21 Jump Street remake, did an excellent job taking something incredibly familiar and making it fresh and new again. With the success of 21 Jump Street, it’s certainly no surprise that they have a knack for renewing interest in old material. Dan and Kevin Hageman, who were the scribes behind Hotel Transylvania, came up with a fantastic story that, while relying tremendously on the audience’s familiarity with action/adventure tropes, was infused with some really thought-provoking ideas and a heartfelt message that got some people (including Yours Truly) a bit choked up. Incorporating the live action bit in this movie was not only a surprise, but the scenes got to the heart of the movie. It talked to the audience - to parents who came with their children - and told them that imagination and creativity is something to be celebrated, not smothered. It told the audience that thinking outside the box is often where brilliant ideas come from. 

The winning ingredient in this film is this message that really resonates with both kids and adults. Sure, it celebrates individuality at the expense of conformity, which isn’t exactly a new concept, but the way it does this is in a totally refreshing and fun manner. For one, it doesn’t demonize conformity, which is a surprisingly pragmatic stance on the battling ideas of collectivism vs individualism. Yes, it makes fun of people who can’t think for themselves, but it also highlights the importance of teamwork and creative cohesion in accomplishing great things. Individuality is great, but when everyone is so concerned about making themselves heard, they lose sight of the greater good. Come to think of it: this actually sounds an awful lot like a case for democracy, doesn’t it? And you thought this was just a kid’s movie.
The film’s ending also comes as quite a surprise to people who are used to traditional action/adventure movie conventions. There’s always a good guy and a bad guy, a wise old sage who dispenses prophecies and soulful advice, the quippy female object of affection who can kick ass and look great doing it - The LEGO Movie incorporates all of this because this is a tried and true formula in the genre, but also because it presents an opportunity to say something new. What if there didn’t have to be a good guy and a bad guy? What if The Special is simply an idea and we’re all meant to take that idea and use it to better ourselves? What if villains are just misunderstood people with ambitions about how great society can be if we all just worked together, but who don’t have the patience to cut through all the noise?
Some short-sighted people thought the film was anti-business because its supposed villain was named President Business, and if this is the case, they completely missed The LEGO Movie's more nuanced message. In the film, Will Ferrell's President Business says something to the extent of “I didn't get a medal for just showing up”. This is something that pro-business people tend to say, a criticism of what they consider to be a society that is becoming stagnant and complacent because it rewards mediocrity instead of demanding genius. The problem with this line of thinking is that it doesn't appreciate the fact that it may only take a little encouragement to elicit amazing performances from people, and what starts out as mediocre (like our hero, Emmett) can turn into greatness if given the right push. The fact that Emmett reaches out to President Business and tells him that his hard work is not for naught, that he has something special in him too that makes him capable of great things - that's push that turned a villain into a hero. What a turnaround, and what a great way to end a movie!  
Again, surprisingly pragmatic, and definitely something kids should embrace because it’s not as black and white as other animated films might want us to think the world is like. Overall, The LEGO Movie is a fun family movie that aspires to be more than just pure entertainment. It acknowledges its potential to impart insightful, important messages and does so with a unique and creative flourish. It also does the brand justice. After all, LEGO stands for the ultimate in creativity: building things, and the film leaves everyone with the moral that everyone’s got a Master Builder in them. All you need is a little push. 

THE LEGO MOVIE (2014)

Everything is awesome about The LEGO Movie, and that’s not just hyperbole or internet bandwagoning.

Anyone who has grown up with LEGOs, or charted any meme-filled corner of the internet, will enjoy this fun, hyper-meta LEGO adventure, which features the voices of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson. Some misguided folks may think that animated films have no right to be this intelligent, but we’ve seen time and again that animation has a voice, and it has some pretty compelling things to say. With a touching story that celebrates imagination and creativity while also injecting some surprisingly thoughtful commentary on ideas of individualism vs collectivism, The LEGO Movie pulled off quite the feat. Charming, entertaining and brimming with great ideas, it’s a film that can be enjoyed by everyone, and it has a delightful message about the importance of creating things. 

The story is set in a dystopian LEGO world where a sort of weird (and colorful) totalitarian consumerism reigns supreme, thanks to the villainous President Business. President Business wants the whole world to be exactly as he envisioned it. Everyone is expected to follow instructions, and no one is allowed to break the rules. And the LEGO citizens seem perfectly content with this development. After all, what a relief to not have to think for oneself for a change - to have someone tell you what music, TV shows, food, movies you like instead of having to go through all the trouble of developing a taste of your own. Emmett (voiced by Pratt) is one such citizen, perfectly content in his blissful ignorance and the most painfully average construction worker in LEGO Land. His whole world is turned upside down when he is informed that a prophecy exists that tells of someone called The Special, a chosen one who will rid this LEGO world of its mindless sheep and the sinister shepherd who commands them. Emmett just might be The Special, but this would mean a whole lot of rule-breaking.

Potential spoilers under the cut.

Read more