Saturday, December 22, 2012

Les Miserables

My parents got pre-screening tickets to see this movie a few days ago, and I was a little hesitant to see it. Not that I didn't want to watch the movie at all, but I knew Lara wouldn't be able to come as she had to work that night. On the other hand, if I didn't go I wouldn't be able to see it with Lara until Christmas Day. Though I initially felt bad about going without her, I couldn't resist seeing the movie that nearly brought me to tears just from the teaser trailer. I've never seen the play, and what I know of the story I have gleaned from the lyrics of songs I've heard. As this was my first experience with the tale of Jean Valjean, I have no baggage from previous incarnations or performances.

For those who don't know the basic story, it begins with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) in prison and pulling a massive ship into the bay with a multitude of other prisoners as Javert (Russell Crowe) looks on from above. He proceeds to inform Valjean that he is being released on parole, but that he will be watching to see if "24601" ever slips up again. Valjean leaves the prison but is unable to find work or even a place to stay before he is invited in by a priest, who goes so far as to give Jean Valjean his silver after he is caught stealing it by the guards. The priest gives Valjean even more than he attempted to steal with the sole condition that he use the money to become an honest man.

I won't go any further into the plot for those who want to avoid spoilers. Being a big movie fan, I've followed this project since it was first announced and was excited to see Hugh Jackman in the starring role. As the cast continued to fill out, however, I soon realized this was going to be something really special. Thankfully, this early realization was confirmed on Tuesday night as I saw one of the best films of the year. Les Miserables is a tremendous feat, a beautifully orchestrated masterpiece that honors the source material of the play and the book. The cast is uniformly fantastic, particularly Jackman and Anne Hathaway, who plays the tragic character of Fantine. Both are front-runners to be nominated for Academy Awards in their respective categories and I wouldn't mind seeing them both win. Even Russell Crowe, the wildcard in the bunch for me, portrays a dangerous and slightly unhinged inspector that feels like a suitable foe for Hugh Jackman.

There are so many flourishes of foreshadowing in the screenplay, facial expressions that completely sell the emotion of a song, as well as large-scale set pieces that really transport you into the French revolution that move this film from great to masterful. It can be somewhat hard to watch at certain points, namely the section where Fantine is thrown out into the street and falls into prostitution to care for her daughter; but it sets the stage perfectly for the emotional and spiritual journey each character will take, particularly Valjean. I can't count the number of times I teared up during this film, and the expression of humanity and grace depicted in the songs and actions of the characters make me want to be a better person. This is not just wonderful music, but the story itself is so iconic and poignant that I don't see how it would be possible not to be moved in some way by what unfolds.

Les Miserables is one of the best films of the year, and director Tom Hooper does a fantastic job of melding together the terrific production designs with the choreography and action while still allowing for the actors to express emotions that other directors might not be willing to attempt. It's fairly well known that this film, unlike other musicals adapted to the big screen, shot the actors singing live into the camera rather than recording the songs beforehand in a studio. It's this kind of organic quality that allows viewers to really experience the situations the characters find themselves in where other musicals have barricaded themselves from the audience forcing them to merely observe from a distance. This is a phenomenal achievement and I give Les Miserables a strong four stars.

LES MISERABLES is rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Of all of the movies that I have seen and loved, there are none more important to me than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I'm that guy who watches the extended versions multiple times, indulges in hours and hours of special features, and even listened to the commentary tracks on all three films. "Return of the King" is in contention for my favorite film of all time. Suffice it to say, I was monitoring the production of "The Hobbit" as closely as possible to see where they were going to take the story that was so precious to me (pun intended, obviously). I couldn't have been more excited for this film, though I went in with slightly tempered expectations. Of course, this film had a bit of controversy surrounding it with the first use of 48 frames per second. While I did not see it in the higher frame rate, I have heard it is a polarizing feature. Some reviews site it as a brilliant innovation providing higher clarity, while others call it a distraction and almost like a "soap opera" in quality. I did see this film in 3-D, and (because my work got me the ticket) I even tried the D-Box technology used in many seats in Larry H. Miller Megaplex Theaters. While initially a little distracting, the format eventually became second-nature and I can see why some people might enjoy it.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins, the uncle of Frodo, the main protagonist from the Lord of the Rings series. Bilbo is an ordinary, non-adventure-taking hobbit who gets swept up with a group of dwarves at the behest of Gandalf the Grey. Gandalf needs to find a "burglar" for their journey to steal something very valuable in their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from the dragon Smaug. Bilbo is apprehensive to join their company, as he enjoys his creature comforts surrounding him at Bag End. However, following a rambunctious party with all thirteen dwarves, Bilbo awakens to find his home completely restored to normal with a contract for him to sign if he changes his mind. Bilbo takes the challenge and runs to catch up to the company, many of whom were not expecting the hobbit to join them, and so their "unexpected journey" begins.

I heard many grumblings about the first half-hour of this film being arduous and slow paced. Having experienced it for myself, I can honestly say that I can see how some people might think that, though I never experienced boredom during this set up. Perhaps it has something to do with my love for the original trilogy, but any amount of time spent in this world was time well spent, in my opinion. Peter Jackson clearly loves these books, and when he's projecting his vision of Tolkein's universe on the big screen that attitude is infectious. It's so nice to see a big-budget franchise being brought to life by someone so passionate about the source material.

The technical aspects of this film have all been stepped up a notch, particularly with Gandalf and the hobbit/dwarves. Those scenes were cleverly crafted in the original trilogy so as to keep the illusion of their difference in size, but this time the effect is completely seamless. When I first saw the trailer, I was worried that I wasn't going to be able to tell the dwarves apart, and while for a couple of dwarves I do struggle, they all have their own distinct personalities for the most part.

This film instantly drops you into the world of Middle Earth, with brilliant set and costume designs as well as beautiful scenery courtesy of New Zealand. Not only that, but recurring characters like Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel provide connective tissue that takes the movie one step further in tying it to the original series. The performances from this cast are terrific across the board. Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as Bilbo, showing great potential as well as taking small steps in his evolution to becoming the globe-trotting adventurer we know him as in the Lord of the Rings. Ian McKellen is just as good as always, and the party of dwarves also brings their own unique flavor to the ensemble, particularly Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. He evokes a similar gravitas and commanding presence as Aragorn that I hadn't previously seen with dwarves. The best scene in the movie, however, is probably the altercation between Bilbo and Gollum. I am continuously amazed at how wonderfully Jackson is able to depict the tragic nature of Gollum's obsession and bring new elements to light each time.

Unlike the Lord of the Rings, however, this isn't as epic or grand. There are far more comedic and light-hearted elements found in this film than the original trilogy, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The premise of this film is the adventure, and there are more tussels and bombastic escapes as a result. However, there are interesting story threads that will surely come into play later, such as the oft-eluded to "Necromancer". The final scene in this movie also did a great job of piquing my interest for the sequel, "The Desolation of Smaug" coming out next December.

Watching this film I got the distinct impression that this was setting itself up to be the perfect lead up to the Lord of the Rings films. There are wonderfully poetic moments in this film where Bilbo shows the kind of inner strength later personified in his nephew Frodo, as well as moving lines from Gandalf that remind us of the symbolism at play here. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a very enjoyable experience, and I have a feeling the next two films in the series are going to get even better. I give this movie a strong three and a half stars.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.

Pitch Perfect

This is sure to be a controversial review to whoever reads it, but I have pretty strong opinions about "Pitch Perfect". Let me first just say, I don't dislike these kinds of movies in general. There are plenty of female-focused movies that I have enjoyed quite a bit. Having said that, I really was not looking forward to seeing this film. Lara and I went with some friends of ours, and while I probably would have seen any movie with them just because they're fun to hang out with, I just had a feeling this would be hard for me to sit through. For one thing, it reminded me (in a bad way) of "What to Expect When You're Expecting" from the humor they were selling as well as sharing many of the same cast members. Anyone who's read my review knows that I wasn't a fan of what that film was trying to do, so going to see a movie so similar was really not appealing to me. I will try to be as objective as possible, but, fair warning, if you really enjoyed this movie there might be some feelings hurt by the end of this review.

The film centers around Beca, an outcast of sorts who is only going to college to appease her father, a professor at the university she attends. Beca really only wants to be a DJ and move to LA, often shirking her educational responsibilities to construct mix tracks in her bedroom. However, when she is heard singing in the girl's bathroom one day, a prominent member of the Barden Bellas, an all-girls a cappella group, invites her to audition. She and an odd group of girls eventually make the cut and they compete against their rival group, the all-male Treble Makers. Together, the Barden Bellas must learn to put aside their differences in order to defeat the Treble Makers at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.

The story sounds pretty straight forward, like 90% of all other teen comedies, with a few minor adjustments. The thing is, this movie has no idea what it wants to be. On one hand, it has all these scenes of incredibly broad comedy, and then tries to take itself seriously with ridiculously forced "emotional" exchanges between Beca and her father. This movie played like an R-rated frat comedy that held back just enough to warrant the PG-13 rating. A lot of the comedy in this film might work better for me if it were a little more subtle, or at least not so repetitive. There are scenes where the leader of the Barden Bellas spouts projectile vomit from her mouth, not once, but three times. I can't tell you how many music-themed puns are thrown out during the film. Even on the poster they can't resist spoiling one of the only puns that I found amusing.

Despite all the things that I disliked about the movie, I cannot deny that some of the musical scenes are pretty enjoyable. Particularly the final performance by the Treble Makers where a barely seen character finally gets a moment to shine (even though it doesn't really make me root for the Barden Bellas to win...). There is also a nice little parallel between Bela's DJing and how the group uses those mixes to change up their act.

Regardless of whatever portions of this film I could enjoy, this script is a mess. It's infuriating that the movie tries to make parallels to "The Breakfast Club" while cherry-picking musical numbers from Glee (of all things) and implementing comedy on the same caliber as films like "Scary Movie 3". Even the characters that I occasionally found amusing (the announcers played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins) consistently go too far with their "funny" anecdotes. This movie is a complete mish-mash of genres that aren't constructed well enough to make sense, let alone coalesce into an enjoyable experience.

Having said all that, however, I know for a fact that the other three people in our group actually liked the movie (to varying degrees), and I can't completely trash it as a result. Girls always seem to be more game for this style of comedy than guys, as I said during my review for "What To Expect When You're Expecting". Even most critics found more to like about "Pitch Perfect" than I did, though I really don't understand how. So, because of the positive experiences of those around me, I'm giving this movie a generous two stars.

PITCH PERFECT is rated PG-13 for sexual material, language and drug references.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Life of Pi

My experience with Ang Lee has been hit or miss. On one hand, I remember enjoying "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", but I also didn't care for his iteration of the Marvel comics character in "Hulk". I therefore didn't want to get my expectations too high for the already critically hyped "Life of Pi", though the promotional material made that difficult. The poster looked intriguing, implicating a survival story of a young man stranded on a life boat with a Siberian tiger. The trailer also bolstered incredible visuals, which is a staple in Ang Lee films.

The story is told by an adult Pi, recounting his incredible life to a reporter looking for inspiration. Pi prefaces his tale by promising the young reporter that the story will make him believe in God. The reporter is skeptical, but clearly interested in what Pi has to say. Pi grew up in India, the son of zoo keepers. He has great interest in many types of religion, helping him gain a unique relationship with his creator. When the family is forced to sell their animals overseas and start a new life in America, however, the transport ship is sunk in a gargantuan storm, resulting in the death of Pi's entire family and eventually leaving him with no one but Richard Parker, a Siberian Tiger, for company.

This film has a fairly simple plot, but the experience of Pi's physical and spiritual journey is what makes this movie a must-see. "Life of Pi" is the best kind of storytelling in my opinion, as it asks the viewer to analyze and construct their own meaning from the material presented. There are many different interpretations that can be inferred from the movie, which is refreshing in a Hollywood climate of force-fed metaphors and explicit political agendas. It's the simplicity in the story that makes it so captivating in many ways. By removing all other superfluous motivations and boiling it down to survival and faith, the story becomes so much more relatable and accessible.

The only criticism I can think of is that some of it can be hard to watch at times. I am an animal lover, and seeing innocent creatures killed in front of you can be off-putting. Nevertheless, "Life of Pi" is a beautiful achievement, and a terrific adaptation of a book once believed to be "unfilmable". The Lord of the Rings was once categorized in a similar fashion, but such a challenge usually results in remarkable advances in technology and storytelling. This movie did for me something that the "Lord of the Rings" film series did: it made me want to read the source material. In short, this is a great film, an ambitious feat that needs to be seen to believed. I give "Life of Pi" a solid three and a half stars.

LIFE OF PI is rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

The Twilight series was never something I voluntarily sought out for entertainment. In fact, the only reason I watched the first film was because my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) really wanted to see it. Later, in order to convince her to read the Harry Potter series (you're welcome Lara) I subjected myself to Stephenie Meyer's prose. Overall, as one might imagine, the books were a lackluster experience. Since then, Lara has more-or-less forced me to see every film of the series in theaters, to varying degrees of enjoyment. The first film was kind of intriguing, though the awkward romance and corny special effects were hard to watch at times. The second film was a slight improvement, but only marginally. "Eclipse" was actually a fairly good experience when taken in the context of the previous two attempts at storytelling. It was by far the most action-packed and suspenseful of the films and actually developed some of the characters. Then came "Breaking Dawn"... First of all, let me just say how infuriating it is that Summit Entertainment felt the need to elongate the book (in which nothing really happens) into two movies I needed to sit through. The first film really heightened the uncomfortable exchanges, though it provided some unintentionally comedic moments (Jacob and the wolf pack having their telepathic argument, ala "Homeward Bound"). With the excess of baggage I was bringing into this film, it's a wonder that I stayed past the opening credits, but I am going to attempt to remove my bias when reviewing the final installment in this bloated romance.

The film opens up with Bella getting used to her Vampire abilities, hunting deer (or mountain lions...) while narrowly avoiding rock-climbing humans. They return to see their daughter, Renesmee, a creepy computer generated baby who Jacob has taken an even creepier clinginess toward, growing at an alarming rate. Within a few months, she has grown to the size of a seven year old, getting unwanted attention from a neighboring coven. Assuming the child has been bitten (which is apparently against vampire law), the girl who sees Renesmee goes to the Volturi to report the crime. Getting wind of the betrayal, the Cullen family begins to form a resistance to the army coming to kill Edward and Bella's new child. They feel that if they can build a strong enough case, the Volturi will see that she isn't a threat and will leave them in peace. The Volturi, however, may not be as easily persuaded as they had hoped...

This film is the shortest in the series, coming in at less than two hours, despite the best efforts of the film makers to elongate it in any way possible. In fact, the entire climax of the film seemed tacked on to placate the male viewers in the audience as well as to stretch the running time. I have a lot of problems with this film, which I will get into, but my main issue is the story itself. Nothing happens in this movie. Those who have read the book know how anticlimactic the film is, and all of the intrigue that the story was building toward fizzles out in the most unsatisfying way imaginable. The climactic fight scene was one of the only portions of this film in which I was actually engaged, but even that ended up being a total non-issue. At the end of this movie, the only thing accomplished is that they manage to convince a group of vampires not to fight another group of vampires. It seriously has to be the lamest ending to a series I've ever experienced.

Not only is the story completely pointless, but even the visual effects in this film are second rate. With all the money these films have made over the last five years, it's insulting that they have not only failed to improve the product they're selling, but have actually found a way to make it worse. The computer-generated wolves, despite having an additional three years of technological advancement, are somehow less convincing than when they first appeared in "New Moon". If you need any more proof as to how cheaply made these films have become, take a look at the poster. Even the "running" of the three leads looks laughably bad, not even taking into account the amateurish photo-shopping on display.

I could go on and on about the many things that infuriate me about this franchise, but I'd rather not. Suffice it to say, thank goodness this series is over. Finally some stories that are worth telling will be in theaters (ahem, Hunger Games), rather than ridiculously drawn-out love stories with half-baked plots and horrible production value. I haven't been this put-off by a mainstream film since "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" and that film at least had impressive visual effects. I give this movie a generous two stars.

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN - PART 2 is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sensuality and partial nudity.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dark Shadows

I don't necessarily consider myself a Tim Burton fan, but there are some of his movies that I really enjoy. In fact, one of his films is one of my absolute favorites ("Big Fish"). We all know he can be quirky, darkly comic, and slightly repetitive with his ideas. I've championed some of his more commercial-focused projects ("Alice in Wonderland"), but I have to admit that I was somewhat apprehensive when we sat down to watch "Dark Shadows". Maybe it's the fact that this is now the eighth collaboration between Burton and Johnny Depp, but this didn't seem as novel or interesting a concept as I was expecting. Nevertheless, I tried to watch the film with an open mind to see if there was something good I could latch on to.

The film tells the story of Barnabas Collins, a wealthy young man whose parents immigrated from Liverpool and established a fishing port in Maine. Barnabas later seduces the maid, who turns out to be a powerful and vengeful witch named Angelique, though he admits he doesn't love her. In a rage, she kills Barnabas's parents and bewitches his true love into throwing herself off a cliff. As Barnabas tries to follow her, however, he finds he's been cursed with immortality (in the form of a vampire). When the townspeople learn of his transformation, they bury him in a coffin, wrapped in chains. Almost two-hundred years pass before construction workers stumble upon the long-forgotten vampire and he attempts to re-acclimate himself with 1970's society. He isn't the only one who's survived to the twentieth century, as Angelique is still a prominent member of the small town, taking over the fishing industry and leaving the Collins family out in the cold. Barnabas decides to regain the family legacy, which he must do despite his past coming back to haunt him in the form of Angelique.

Dark Shadows is based on a gothic soap opera that aired in the late 60's, though I'm told the film itself shares little resemblance to the show. The story itself isn't all that complicated, but isn't exactly one that lends itself to a tale about vampires. The film has a lot of interesting elements to it, but none of them coalesce into a cohesive and organic plot. Burton loves his gothic imagery, but the strange amalgam of cheap-looking digital effects and lavish costume design undermines any attempt to convey realism in the movie. As garbled as the visual style is in this film, it's nothing compared to the tone. At some points it seems like a horror film with Barnabas ripping out throats and killing innocent hippies, and at other points it plays far more comedic and almost slapstick.

The performances are universally par for the course, with Helena Bonham-Carter perhaps doing the best work in the cast. Johnny Depp is his typical quirky self, and the Barnabas family (Michelle Pfiefer and company) all do a serviceable job. As much as I love Eva Green for her turn in "Casino Royale", I think this was a really weak performance. For one thing, her American accent isn't very strong, and she seems like she isn't sure how to play the character. Overall, this film seems passionless and I'm not even sure why Tim Burton wanted to spend  $150 million to make it. Perhaps some of the tonal inconsistencies are due to studio interference, or maybe Burton himself wasn't sure what kind of film he wanted to make. Regardless of the reason, "Dark Shadows" is just as mediocre as I was afraid of. I give it two and a half stars.

DARK SHADOWS is rated PG-13 for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


James Bond is officially back! This movie had a lot to prove, coming off the slight disappointment that was "Quantum of Solace" and facing inevitable comparisons to the terrific "Casino Royale". Then there was the big five-o. This year marks the 50 year anniversary of Bond in film, and thus expectations were high for not merely a solid entry that could coast on the good-will of its star, but a classic Bond that would stand as one of the best in the massively popular series. I've been anticipating this movie since I first heard its title, which certainly evokes some powerful and slightly ominous implications. Then I saw the impressive and mood-building teaser trailer, which also piqued my interest the moment I saw it. My hype has been steadily building  for the past several months, particularly given the famine of theatrical entertainment following The Bourne Legacy. Somehow, director Sam Mendes was able to not only live up to expectations, but provide possibly the best film of the entire series. As this is a new release, there won't be any spoilers (at least nothing that's not in the trailers) in the plot summary.

Skyfall begins with James Bond chasing after a goon whose employer has stolen a list of agents that are currently undercover. Despite a riveting chase scene through a Turkish city and an adrenaline-fueled fist fight atop a speeding train, the mission ends badly and Bond is presumed dead. Returning from a meeting with a government official who pressures her to retire, M's personal computer is hacked into and she is taunted with the phrase, "think on your sins" before her office is destroyed before her eyes. 007, who is using his supposed death as an excuse to retire, sees a news report of the attack and returns to London. However, despite his best efforts, Bond isn't the agent he once was and he must somehow overcome his lack of physical dominance as well as confront his past in order to stop a villain from assassinating his mother figure.

Unlike the previous two movies, I was able to catch this film in theaters, and I am so glad I did. This is a film that must be seen on the big screen. In my review of "Quantum of Solace" I complained that the editing style kept me at arms length by refusing to linger on anything for more than a second at a time. This film, shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, not only fixed the problem, but is without a doubt the most beautifully photographed James Bond film I have ever seen. Every frame is expertly lighted and captured and the editing allows you the time to revel in and truly appreciate the impressive scenery. The story also provides further insight into MI6, its director, M, as well as Bond himself, who has demons in his past that he must face in order to protect the people he cares about.

This film also features a wonderful villain, played exceptionally by Javier Bardem. His unnatural blonde hair is a perfect metaphor for the offbeat and disturbed former MI6 agent, Raoul Silva. He has a personal vendetta against M and a horrific past that almost justifies the lengths to which he goes for retribution. Judi Dench is also fantastic as M, whose dark history and questionable decisions are brought into sharp scrutiny throughout the film. But of course, this film belongs to its star, Daniel Craig. I am constantly finding myself more and more impressed with the man I believe to be the best James Bond of all. He can convey such subtle emotions with his eyes or a mere facial expression and brings a weight and depth to a character that has often been portrayed as just a figure to be idolized. This Bond has baggage and it's oddly refreshing to see that played with such care.

Skyfall is a love-letter to the expansive oeuvre that is the James Bond series. However, it keeps the same grittiness and intensity of Craig's previous films, melding a perfect combination of old and new for this latest installment. There are so many little homages that are paid to the previous films in the franchise that will absolutely delight anyone who enjoys the 007 films. This was obviously done in honor of the 50th anniversary, but it doesn't overshadow the narrative as there are still many insights and surprises that somehow manage to shed new light on familiar characters. Skyfall is an incredibly entertaining film, and one that I can see myself watching and enjoying for years to come. I plan on seeing it again in theaters and I can't wait. This is a great film, one of the best I've seen so far this year. I give Skyfall a solid four stars.

SKYFALL is rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Quantum of Solace

I am really excited for "Skyfall" on Friday. So much so that I've been watching the previous installments of the franchise to review for this blog. First, a little background. I got home from my mission and remember seeing advertisements for this movie thinking it must have been referring to the previous Bond movie my friends had told me about. It seemed odd that there would already be a sequel to the extremely successful "Casino Royale". However, after seeing the movie it isn't surprising at all. When I reviewed "Casino Royale", I talked about how much of an improvement it was in comparison to its predecessors. As much as I like James Bond, particularly Daniel Craig's incarnation, this is not going to be as positive a review. Again, as this movie has been available to home viewing for almost four years, I am going to be spoiling certain plot points as I explain the plot. If you haven't seen "Quantum of Solace", please skip the next three paragraphs.

James Bond starts the movie racing his sports car on his way to question Mr. White with M about his employer, the leader of the operation known as "Quantum". However, in the middle of the interrogation, one of the MI6 agents reveals himself to be rogue and  after killing a fellow agent, flees the scene, hotly pursued by 007. Bond kills the double-agent, much to the chagrin of M, who intended to question the traitor following Mr. White's escape. 

Bond tracks a lead named Slate and ends up killing him as well. He eventually winds up with Camille Montes, an attractive young woman who Slate was hired to murder by her employer/lover. Following her, Bond discovers she is working for environmentalist Dominic Greene. Apart from trying to kill Camille, Greene is helping an exiled Bolivian general in exchange for a seemingly worthless desert property. Bond rescues the girl from what he assumes will be her certain death, and follows Greene to an opera in Austria. There, Bond identifies several co-conspirators in the crowd though the mission is thwarted by the public death of one of Greene's security team. Bond is blamed for the death and all of his credit cards are immediately cancelled. Later, while under the close scrutiny of a fellow member of MI6, Bond attends a party held by Greene where he once again rescues Camille and takes her with him as they survey the recently purchased desert land by air. However, they are attacked midair by Greene's men and are forced to eject, skydiving into a sinkhole where it is revealed that Greene has not purchased the land for oil, as was previously assumed, but for water. He has built dams that have forced the area into an unprecedented drought. Greene is planning to monopolize the water supply in the area and doubling the price.

After learning that the woman keeping an eye on Bond has been drowned in oil, Bond and Camille catch up with Greene at the disaffected general's home, and the poorly placed fuel cells in the house cause the entire building to explode. Camille gets her revenge on the general, who had killed her family in front of her when she was a child, and Bond fights off Greene before helping her escape the flames. Bond later catches up with Greene, stranding him in the middle of the desert with nothing but motor oil for hydration. Later, Bond corners Vesper's old boyfriend in Russia, allowing him to be taken into custody after answering his questions. M is impressed he didn't kill the man and Bond admits to her that she was right about Vesper - she had given the money to Mr. White to spare Bond's life after all.

This is, yet again, a very convoluted plot. Unlike the last film, however, this film didn't quite have the exhilaration and the organic storytelling to keep it afloat for me. Daniel Craig is as good as ever, and I appreciated returning characters and plot threads from "Casino Royale", but this movie was clearly rushed in production following the critical and financial success of its predecessor. The story is serviceable, but nowhere near the previous installment. I was really hoping for something complex and thought-provoking rather than confusing and dumbfounding.

The movie instantly had me at arms length, with the rapid-fire editing of the first thirty minutes preventing me from connecting to any of it. While the cinematography had just as much going for it, I feel the editing style really did it a disservice by not lingering on anything for more than a couple of seconds at most. There were also several plot contrivances that were incredibly frustrating. For example, isn't it convenient that they just happen to parachute into a sink-hole where Greene is hiding part of the water supply? Does it seem odd that the architects who built the General's house installed large, unprotected fuel cells in clear view? It might as well have had an arrow pointing to it saying "architectural flaw, shoot bullet here to exploit". It wasn't helped by the fact that characters are literally spelling out the ending of the movie by saying stupidly obvious things like, "I hope those fuel cells aren't damaged or it could destroy the whole house." The laziness of expository dialogue like that is infuriating to me.

Regardless of the film's many flaws, I also found a lot to enjoy in "Quantum of Solace". The action scenes are still well-done, and the connection to Vesper Lynd's story was somewhat satisfying (even if I didn't wholly understand her boyfriend's role in her death). I also appreciated some of the script-writing flourishes such as Bond offering Greene motor-oil at the end, though these kinds of moments are few and far between. Overall, though, this seems like a pale imitator of the last film and wasn't nearly as good as I was expecting/hoping. Perhaps if they had taken a little more time to polish some of the script's weaker elements this could have rivaled "Casino Royale", but instead it falls into the already crowded category of disappointing sequels. I am giving "Quantum of Solace" a generous three stars.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some sexual content.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Casino Royale

This is the oldest movie I've reviewed for this blog, and it's obviously not a coincidence. I've been looking forward to the newest entry in the 007 franchise ever since it was announced, and have recently re-watched the previous installments in preparation for its release. I toyed with the idea of doing retrospective reviews of Christopher Nolan's Batman series when "The Dark Knight Rises" came out, and even considered reviewing all of the Bourne movies prior to seeing "The Bourne Legacy". Maybe it's because I haven't seen the Bond films as much as the other franchises, but I've finally decided to pull the trigger. I was on my mission when this movie was released in theaters, but younger companions who had seen it prior to entering the field absolutely raved about it. I therefore went into this film with fairly high expectations. Given that these movies have been out for several years, I am going to be discussing spoilers. If you haven't seen "Casino Royale", just skip the next three paragraphs entirely.

Casino Royale is a pseudo origin story about the famous James Bond (Daniel Craig). Bond is a tough, reckless agent for Britain's MI6 agency who has a reputation for causing headaches for M (Judi Dench), the agency's director. Following a particularly explosive outing in Madagascar while investigating a bomb-maker, M would like nothing more than to suspend Bond for his foolish escapades, but is forced into enlisting 007's help instead. MI6 is tracking a financer named Le Chiffre, who not only cries blood, but makes his living by short-selling stock in successful companies and sabotaging their share prices through terrorist attacks. Bond follows Le Chiffre to Miami, where he thwarts the terrorist's attempt to destroy an airline's latest prototype.

Following this devastating financial blow, Le Chiffre is forced into orchestrating a high-stakes Texas Hold 'em  tournament in order to recoup the funds. Though M doesn't trust Bond, she also recognizes him as the agency's most accomplished card player and assigns him to the Casino Royale. Bond meets treasury agent, Vesper Lynd en route to the tournament (who has been assigned to keep an eye on the rash 007) and quickly develops an attraction to the brunette. During the game, Bond discovers Le Chiffre's tell and, using the money given to him by CIA agent Felix Leiter, Bond once again spoils the terrorist's plans. Shortly after turning the villain's capture over to Leiter, however, Bond realizes Vesper has been kidnapped and follows in close pursuit. He narrowly avoids running over her bound and gagged body in the middle of the road but crashes his car violently in the process. Now captured, Bond is subjected to unspeakable torture by Le Chiffre, who wants the code to access the tournament winnings. Bond refuses, bolstered by the idea that Le Chiffre's clients will hunt him down for his terrible miscalculation. This happens much sooner than Bond expected, however, and a Mr. White interrupts the torture, killing Le Chiffre and his men. 

Bond awakens in a rehabilitation center in Italy, where he and Vesper rekindle their romance. 007 promptly tenders his resignation to M, choosing a path of "redemption" and travelling with Vesper to Venice instead. However, one day Bond realizes the winnings were never transferred to the treasury's account and he follows an apparently traitorous Vesper as she delivers the funds to Mr. White. A gunfight ensues and the floating building begins to sink as the inflatable supports keeping it afloat are punctured. Bond kills the men but is unable to rescue Vesper, who has locked herself in a steel cage and drowns. Meanwhile, Mr. White recovers the briefcase containing the Casino Royale winnings and escapes. Bond later learns that Vesper had a boyfriend who was kidnapped by Mr. White's organization and blackmailed for into cooperation. M insists that Vesper delivered the funds to Mr. White in exchange for Bond's life, though he doesn't believe it. After rejoining the service, Bond tracks down Mr. White demanding answers for Vesper's death, introducing himself as "Bond... James Bond".

As evidenced by the lengthy plot-summary, this movie has a lot going on and can be somewhat confusing. Indeed, it took me a couple of watchings to understand exactly what was going on and why. Needless to say, however, this movie is incredibly exciting. Daniel Craig personifies the ultimate gritty James Bond. His toughness is never in doubt and his emotional struggles are genuinely stirring. As far as the 007 franchise goes, this might be the best. It's certainly indicative of our time, as our modern culture tends to gravitate to more plausible and slightly harsh scenarios in our entertainment. Having said that, it's clear that the aesthetic of this movie was heavily influenced by the highly successful Bourne series. Sometimes it's hard to admit one's mistakes, but thankfully the Bond franchise did just that and performed a much-needed correction. While I was a fan of "GoldenEye", it's clear that the focus of James Bond and what made his story so accessible and enjoyable was completely lost in the decade prior to "Casino Royale". This is a well-deserved comeback for the 50-year old movie icon.

While there are so many things about this movie that I greatly admire, I also found it to be a little hard to watch at times. Not only Bond's torture (which will make any man shrink), but the repetitive, though not unenjoyable scenes at the Casino Royale. I can't necessarily blame the film for that as it seems to be a common trope of any card-playing film. Also, as I mentioned earlier, this movie is a little convoluted and seems to bite off more than it can chew at times. Then again, if the worst thing you can say about a movie is that you need to see it again, it doesn't seem like it's really much of a complaint.

Overall, this is a masterful spy movie. The action is incredibly intense, the espionage complex, and the cinematography beautiful. I highly recommend "Casino Royale" to anybody who hasn't seen it that enjoys action movies in the vein of the Bourne franchise. Those who have seen, I recommend they see it again. I really enjoyed this film, but am so on-the-fence about how many stars to give it. Ultimately I see some room for improvement (which hopefully "Skyfall" will take advantage of) and I've decided to give this film a strong three and a half stars.

CASINO ROYALE is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture and sexual content

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

This film's reputation had preceded it by the time I got to theater. Before I even knew what it was, I was hearing rave reviews about "Moonrise Kingdom" from multiple sources. I probably would have seen it at some point, mainly because of the star-studded cast this movie features. Rarely does a movie have such talented actors as Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, and Edward Norton on screen at the same time. I was also intrigued by director Wes Anderson, who has a distinct and slightly quirky sense of humor that I really gravitate towards. The two stars of this show, however, are newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, playing Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop respectively.

This movie at its heart is a love story between two "disturbed" twelve-year-olds (Sam and Suzy) who plot to run away together to a cove on the little island they inhabit. Sam has just resigned from the Khaki Scouts and  "flew the coop" during morning inspection at Camp Ivanhoe, much to the chagrin of his scout master, Randy Ward (Edward Norton). While Randy and the police captain (Bruce Willis) create a search party for the MIA Khaki Scout, Sam embarks on a journey to meet Suzy at a predetermined neutral location. Together, they brave the difficulties of dehydration, a ravenous scout troop on their tail, as well as the complications of ear-piercing. Once they are caught by Suzy's parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), the question becomes "what will happen to Sam?" Sam is an orphan, which Suzy thinks sounds exciting as many of the books she loves feature an orphan protagonist. He sets her straight, however, saying "I love you, but you have no idea what you're talking about." Later, after reflecting on their sin of ostracizing Sam, and with the fearful possibilities of his "brain getting cut outta him", the scout troop plans an escape of the disenfranchised youth in order to reunite him with his star-crossed love.

I could probably go on for pages and pages quoting the many funny lines in this film. In a way, I almost wish I could take this film scene-by-scene and describe how great it is to you. While that would be fun for me to relive the movie, it's much better for you to just see the film for yourself. This is a hilarious, wonderfully old-fashioned exploration of youthful shenanigans that everyone can enjoy. There are a lot of great characters in this film, which could have over-complicated the story and taken away more than it added. Thankfully, good writing allowed for each storyline to be featured in a way that was satisfying and provided good explanations that justified each character's inclusion in the plot. This is a movie I think will need to be experienced multiple times to fully appreciate, but I left the theater wishing I could remember every line of dead-pan delivered dialogue.

There are so many things I love about this film, but there are also a few things that kept it from being a wholly enjoyable experience for me. These are small caveats, and probably won't offend others as much as they did me, so take them with a grain of salt. There's a scene where the two kids are spending time on the beach  and they start to... "explore" each other that I thought could have been cut. It's a little inappropriate and I didn't feel like it belonged in this movie. Another part is when a dog is needlessly killed during an otherwise amusing scene. While the aftermath provided a pretty funny line, it was a little hard to see as a dog-lover. Also, there's a scene of underage drinking that kind of annoyed me. All in all, the combination of these scenes is less than five minutes, and I didn't let it taint my overall enjoyment of the film.

This is a great movie, and were it not for the little things that bothered me I would have had no hesitation in recommending this film. It's a hilarious diversion with some pretty great line deliveries, an imaginative score and brilliant camera shots that almost always made me smile if not laugh out loud. I give this movie a strong three and a half stars.

MOONRISE KINGDOM is rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

What To Expect When You're Expecting

This is a hard review for me to write. I know Lara's not going to like what I have to say... particularly since just looking at this poster makes me want to groan. As you can probably guess, this movie isn't from the genre that usually hits my sweet spot. I'm not the biggest fan of romantic comedies, particularly when it deals with subject matter that alienates my gender so completely. I'm not saying that every movie has to be entirely accessible for the husbands of the girls these movies are really meant for, but I would like to enjoy it on some level. I don't hate rom-coms. In fact, there are plenty that I actually enjoy. "While You Were Sleeping", "You've Got Mail", and even "The Switch" are examples of fun rom-coms that I can have fun with, while I would classify "(500) Days of Summer" as possibly my all-time favorite in the genre. Unfortunately, "What To Expect When You're Expecting" isn't that kind of movie... not even a little.

This movie is designed as the ultimate manifesto to pregnancy, showing different types of experiences that women often go through in an exaggerated and "comedic" way. It takes the template of an ensemble comedy, melding together various storylines in a rather clumsy, haphazard way like the recent "Valentine's Day" or "New Year's Eve" films. One woman is the uber control freak (Cameron Diaz) who is a host of a reality weight-loss TV show (an obvious play on Jillian Michaels from "Biggest Loser"). Another story is that of a woman who's greatest desire is to be a mother and experience pregnancy (Elizabeth Banks). She writes children's books about breast-feeding and can't wait to have a baby herself as soon as possible. The instant she gets pregnant, however, her father-in-law (Dennis Quaid) informs them that his trophy wife (Brooklyn Decker) is pregnant as well. Then, a young teenage girl (Anna Kendrick) gets pregnant after a "romantic" night with a high school crush. Meanwhile, an infertile photographer (Jennifer Lopez) plans an adoption from an African village with her slightly overwhelmed husband. To try to cope with the stress of it all, he is encouraged by his over-eager wife to start assimilating with the other husbands in the neighborhood who take daily strolls through the park with their kids (Chris Rock and co.). Each prospective mother goes through their own issues until they all conveniently wind up at the same hospital at the same time for the laborious (pun intended) climax.

There are a lot of different stories going on in this film. Clearly the movie wants to depict every single aspect of pregnancy from every angle imaginable (hence the title), but I would argue that it gives the short shrift to each of them by combining them in such an unsatisfying way. None of the characters feel fully developed and the only one I even care about (Elizabeth Banks) is probably due more to the actress playing her than the story arc she's given. Like I've already admitted, however, I am not this movie's targeted demographic, as evidenced by the fact that my favorite part of the movie was the Dwyane Wade cameo at the beginning. Every single joke in this movie fell completely flat for me, while Lara laughed at almost all of them. At one point she even asked me to leave because my lack of interest was starting to annoy her. I stuck it out, however, and was amazed at how much she ended up enjoying the film. She was so touched by the finale (spoiler alert, the pregnant women give birth) that tears were streaming down her cheeks by the time credits rolled.

I guess what that means is that I recommend this movie for women that are even remotely interested in pregnancy or motherhood. People like me, on the other hand (of the male gender), I advise to stay as far away from this film as possible. I say "as possible" because I know some of you won't be able to avoid this. If your significant other wants to see this movie, try to think of a polite way to get out of it... such as a sudden pile of homework you've been neglecting and really have to finish (trust me, it'll be more fun than this movie). In the end, I can't completely condemn it as it undoubtedly struck a cord with it's intended audience. I give "What To Expect When You're Expecting" a generous two stars.

WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, thematic elements and language.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Bourne Legacy

It has seriously been Jeremy Renner's time lately, hasn't it? The first time I ever heard of him was for his Academy Award nominated performance in "The Hurt Locker". Since then he was nominated for another Oscar for "The Town", starred alongside Tom Cruise in "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol", and assembled with the rest of the group as Hawkeye in "The Avengers". With all of the credits listed above, it's clear to see that Renner is a star on the rise, but I was still somewhat skeptical of another Bourne movie with him at the helm rather than Matt Damon. When I initially heard about the project (about a year and a half ago), I assumed he'd be playing the titular character of Jason Bourne, which definitely irked me. I am a fairly big fan of not just the Bourne movies, but of Matt Damon who I think is incredibly talented and charismatic. Whenever he's on screen you automatically root for the guy. So how was somebody else going to come into the franchise that really launched Damon's superstardom and take it in a new direction? Well, by taking it in a  new direction...

Jeremy Renner plays Aaron Cross, a special ops agent for a secret government program called "Outcome". The movie starts out with Cross in a frozen wilderness, evading wolves and climbing mountains, all the while taking mysterious blue and green pills. Meanwhile, thanks to Jason Bourne's presence in Manhattan, one of the directors of Outcome (played by Edward Norton) is busy trying to keep the program from being shut down. However, due to the debacle, he is ordered to terminate their work - which means eliminating each of the Outcome agents in one fell swoop. They accomplish this through the blue and green pills (a requirement for each agent), switching them out during their routine physical for a poisonous version which kills each of them in turn. Thanks to his solitude, Aaron is able to evade the extermination and teams up with a doctor that developed the drug (Rachel Weisz) who is also being hunted down. Aaron has run out of the medicine and must find a way to restock before something terrible happens.

As you might be able to tell from the plot summary, this story and "The Bourne Ultimatum" take place simultaneously, though Matt Damon does not make an appearance. Not only did this movie experience a change of lead actor, but also of director. Tony Gilroy, who wrote the previous three installments, has stepped into the director's chair along with his typical writing duties. As such, this movie is steeped in Bourne culture, and viewers will enjoy and understand this movie exponentially more if they've seen the original trilogy. Having said that, this is a very different Bourne movie. It has the basic structure and formula (special agent evading the authorities with a love-interest in tow), but a slightly different tone. Gone are the edge-of-your-seat chase scenes that were replete in the previous three, replaced by a more intellectual puzzle. What are these pills? Why is Aaron so dependent on them? The story isn't as action packed (perhaps Gilroy didn't have the confidence of Paul Greengrass), but I wouldn't necessarily call that a bad thing.

Overall, I can't really discuss the movie too much without going into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that this is a worthy chapter into the Bourne cannon. The movie does a great job of breathing fresh life into the franchise (though it ended on a great note with "Ultimatum"), and excites me about the possibilities of future sequels. There has been talk of a Damon/Renner team-up, which I would absolutely love. If you are a fan of action movies, particularly the Bourne series, check this movie out either in theaters or when it comes out on DVD. I debated going three stars, but eventually decided to give "The Bourne Legacy" three and a half stars.

THE BOURNE LEGACY is rated PG-13 for violence and action scenes.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan's name is synonymous with great film-making at this point in his career. His last effort, Inception, was a terrific piece of art that thrilled audiences with intense action as well as challenged them intellectually with his thought-provoking narrative. However, he is best known for his contributions to the Batman franchise, which cannot be undervalued. Before his first entry in the series, Batman Begins, the caped crusader was in a very bad place with the movie-going public. Batman Forever and Batman and Robin had tarnished the Dark Knight's reputation so badly there were some who thought he might never properly resurface. Thanks to Nolan's handy-work, Batman not only made a stellar comeback, but he is now a part of one of the greatest trilogies of all time. Christopher Nolan is famous for concentrating on one project at a time, and for a while it wasn't clear whether he would return to conclude his trilogy. Thank goodness he did.

The Dark Knight Rises is easily the most complex blockbuster we've seen all year. Nolan is a master at weaving together complicated storylines in such a way that even casual film fans can keep up. In this film, Batman is facing an eight year hiatus from patrolling the Gotham streets, thanks to laws passed in the wake of Harvey Dent's death keeping criminals from being granted parole. However, the citizens of Gotham have no idea the circumstances behind Dent's death, believing Batman to have murdered the once "White Knight" in cold blood. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is a secretive recluse, his health and physical fitness deteriorating from years of inactivity, not to mention the effect of the many injuries he'd sustained while cleaning up the streets of Gotham. He is called out of retirement, however, as a new evil rises from where it's been buried. Led by the menacing terrorist Bane, a new evil has come to destroy the city and fulfill the aim of "The League of Shadows". That's as far as I'd like to go in order to avoid spoilers, but the narrative really kicks into another gear once Bane reaches Gotham.

I was surprised to hear some critics judging this film as "not as good as The Dark Knight" as if it's in a competition. While I understand that it is a direct sequel and therefore invites the comparison, I think it's more complicated than that. For one thing, each film in this trilogy stands alone and has its own distinct themes and feel. I was actually glad that we didn't get "The Dark Knight Part 2" but rather we got a film that was clearly carrying on and ending the legend while also remaining self-contained and unique on its own. I love the aesthetic of The Dark Knight Rises and can appreciate it as a separate animal than its predecessors. To me, Batman Begins is an almost samurai-esque origin story, The Dark Knight is a gritty crime thriller, and The Dark Knight Rises is an all-out war movie. Bruce Wayne is at a different part of his life and faces different problems. He isn't in his prime physically, even going into situations expecting (and even hoping) he won't be able to escape. This movie is tremendous in the way it wraps up the trilogy while also telling a gripping, visually dazzling, and incredibly emotional story of its own. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and, while this may be controversial, I think this is the best film in the trilogy.

The acting across the board is top-notch. Christian Bale has his best performance to date as Bruce Wayne/Batman, perfectly portraying his inner demons as well as his emerging altruistic tendencies. Tom Hardy is immensely intimidating as the hulking Bane, acting more effectively with his eyes and body language than most actors do without a mask that obscures half their face (by the way, I really didn't mind his voice). Most surprising is Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, who I was most skeptical about. She turns in an impressive performance selling the audience on the conflict of the character and the physicality of the role. I could go on and on, as each actor brought something different to the table. Make sure to keep an eye out for the occasional cameo from returning characters to the series as well.

This film is dark, especially wherever Bane is. I didn't think they could get much darker than the previous film, but the brutality of some of the violence and the complete breakdown of order portrayed on screen can be difficult for some viewers to witness. Please do not bring young children to this movie. No little kid should have to see some of the ruthless acts of Bane and his henchmen particularly where the Dark Knight himself may or may not be involved.

As is common for Christopher Nolan's films, this is a densely packed screenplay that works on multiple levels. Even the title of the film has nuances that can be revisited and further examined. The cinematography is astounding and the visual effects groundbreaking, particularly the explosive opening. If you can, I definitely recommend seeing this film in an IMAX theater. More than an hour of this movie was filmed in the IMAX format, which makes the quality of the picture absolutely beautiful to watch. Do yourself a favor and check it out on the extra large screen. I absolutely loved this film. It's a thrilling and satisfying ending to this fantastic trilogy. I am definitely planning on seeing this movie again in theaters and I give The Dark Knight Rises a strong four stars.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language.

Friday, July 20, 2012

People Like Us

I went into this movie expecting to see a well-written, well-acted drama. It has some great actors and actresses such as Chris Pine (Star Trek, Unstoppable), Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games, 30 Rock), and Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy, Cowboys and Aliens). I really didn't think I had anything to worry about. The movie opens with Sam (Pine) and Jon Favreau (who never returns) discussing some needlessly complicated problem which is supposed to set up the fact that Sam is in dire need of $80,000 which he has somehow kept secret from his girlfriend, Hannah (Wilde). The cat is out of the bag shortly after Sam is summoned to his childhood home to attend the funeral of his estranged father, which he manages to weasel out of. This is to the great chagrin of his mother, played by Michelle Pfieffer doing all she can not to look glamorous. Sam's only real interest in returning is to hear the reading of his father's will, hoping to be left enough money to at least put a dent in his mountainous dept. To make matters even more complicated, however, his father left $150,000 to a struggling single mom named Frankie (Banks), who just happens to be Sam's half sister.

The story then becomes an escalation of awkward moments as Sam gets to know Frankie out of some bizarre curiosity, all the while harboring a secret that if divulged could... end the movie an hour early. The performances in this film were more-or-less up to par, however there were some aspects of the story that could have been excised to better serve the flow of the narrative. The entire sub-plot (if you can call it that) of the $80,000 dept really goes nowhere and is way too convoluted not to be cut.

Olivia Wilde puts in a great performance, but is also terribly under-utilized. I felt I could have connected with Sam's character better if I could have seen more interplay with Hannah. Chris Pine, whom I normally enjoy, did a decent job, but also became such a strange amalgamation of sympathetic and rebellious that it was hard to relate to. The best performance was from Elizabeth Banks, as her character was easy to understand and root for. She had some pretty funny lines but also sold the emotional struggle she was constantly subjected to as a single parent. My least favorite performance was definitely the annoying eleven year old kid who constantly causes destruction of school property, tortures his hard-working single mother (her being my favorite character didn't exactly help his case), eventually gets expelled, and the screenwriter still expects us to like him just because he somehow kindles a friendship with Sam...? I don't know, it just seems like he never gets any better even after Sam befriends him. He still makes life unnecessarily difficult for his mother and doesn't make any progress with his surprisingly unhelpful therapist.

So many things just didn't click with me. The final scene of the movie is clearly supposed to be touching, but the way Pine and Banks play it makes it feel almost like a Lifetime original movie. Perhaps it was the score that didn't connect with me, but something about the film just didn't work for some reason. Lara will probably be angry if she ever reads this review, but there you go. For what it's worth, I didn't dislike the move per se. I just didn't end up liking it as much as I was expecting, which instantly makes it a disappointment. Still, I'm giving "People Like Us" two and a half stars.

PEOPLE LIKE US is rated PG-13 for language, some drug use and brief sexuality.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Ten years... it's definitely rare for a film franchise as large (not to mention as profitable) as the Spider-Man series to be re-booted in such a short period of time. The 2002 version was not only a box-office sensation, but it was a critically acclaimed film as well. That movie as well as its sequels are still fresh in most people's minds, so the idea of starting the origin story over again came as a surprise to most fans. Luckily, the newest incarnation of the web-slinger's back-story is not only entertaining, but manages to explore new territory as well.

The "untold story" featured here is that of Peter Parker's parents. We all know that Peter lives with his aunt and uncle, but this movie goes a little further into explaining how and why. It's nearly impossible not to compare this to Sam Raimi's original, but there are pro's and con's to each. This one tells a similar story, but with notable differences. For one thing, our hero is played by a relatively new and very talented actor, Andrew Garfield. He does a terrific job with a part that will possibly always be associated with Tobey McGuire. In my opinion, Garfield's interpretation of the character is not only more relatable, but more fully depicts both the angst of the brooding Parker and the funny trash-talking Spider-Man. Another change is the love interest. Rather than Mary Jane Watson, we have Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone. Her family dynamic is a little more interesting and plays a further role in the plot, as her father is the police chief that leads the manhunt for Spider-Man.

A lot of the more familiar story beats are a necessary evil of following the source material, but one obvious improvement is in the visual effects department. Particularly when Spider-Man swings through the city, there is a physicality to his movements that completely sells the action (for instance, his webs actually connect to something rather than shooting off aimlessly into the sky). Not only that, but the new villain of the story is a marked improvement over the cartoonish Green Goblin from the original. The Lizard poses an actual threat to Spider-Man and actually has a connection to our hero that runs deeper than what is explored in this film.

Not everything in this movie is great. The final battle isn't quite as satisfying as what had been promised, some of the plot-points are intentionally left unanswered and the repeated aspects of the origin are a little hard to swallow, particularly in comparison to what came before. Despite its shortcomings, however, this is a fun and highly entertaining ride that should lead into even better sequels. I give "The Amazing Spider-Man" three stars.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence.

Thursday, June 28, 2012


I remember a time when Pixar could do no wrong. Even when people initially criticized them for retreading familiar territory with "Toy Story 3", it turned out to be a unanimous hit. Surprisingly, this was only two years ago. It's baffling to me that so much unfair backlash can be hurled at a studio that has continually raised the bar for quality in both animation and heart-felt storytelling after one misfire. "Cars 2" was, in all honesty, completely uncharacteristic of Pixar. It was totally boring, the dialogue horribly cliched... anyway, this isn't a "Cars 2" review.

The point is, I never lost faith in the studio that has brought me to tears on more than one occasion (nope, I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried during "Finding Nemo", wept in the five-minute montage at the beginning of "UP", and definitely choked up at the end of "Toy Story 3"). The studio is still synonymous in my mind with the absolute personification of quality. I had no doubt that "Cars 2" was a fluke. There's no question that it was made out of greed to capitalize on the explosion of merchandise that the original "Cars" generated. Their next original effort would more than make up for the betrayal that was their previous film. I can only report that I am delighted to be proven right! Brave is an absolute triumph. The animation is the most beautiful I have ever seen. The characters are funny and likable, particularly the protagonist, Merida. She's perfectly portrayed as a head-strong, emotional, and spirited young woman.

One of the best things about "Brave" is the Scottish setting. The voice actors are all native to either Scotland or at least the British Isles, which really transports the viewer to another world, one filled with magic, as the trailer points out. The story, possibly the weakest link for its sheer familiarity, is still very well done. The kicker, the thing that brought me to tears yet again by the time credits rolled, was the emotion wrought from a tense mother-daughter relationship that I completely understood. I have sisters, and I know that turmoil is almost to be expected between teenage girls and their moms. This story portrays that in such a relatable way, and develops it so carefully, that it really is one of the most touching things I've seen this year.

If you've seen the trailers, you still don't know the real plot, something that my mother actually pointed out when I showed it to her a few weeks ago. It is kept intentionally ambiguous, which is why I won't be doing a plot summary of this film. I will tell you that one overarching theme in this movie is the ability and the desire to change your fate, and I feel this is a good metaphor for what Pixar has done with this film. Despite the pundits sounding the alarm that Pixar's time as the pinnacle of animated storytelling was coming to a close, "Brave" proves that the studio isn't going anywhere. I absolutely love this movie and am just a hair away from giving it a full four stars. I give it a very solid three and a half stars.

BRAVE is rated PG for some scary action and rude humor.