Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

There are certain actors I really respond to and movies that I anticipate because of their involvement. However, for some reason Ben Stiller has never really been one of those actors for me. Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed some movies of his and one of my favorite comedies is probably Zoolander. I just don't tend to mark a Ben Stiller movie on my calendar as one that I really need to (or even want to, for that matter) end up seeing. Having said that, the trailer for this film instantly grabbed me when I first saw it a few months ago. It was due more to the visual style and the fantastic song by Of Monsters and Men that drew my attention than Stiller, but I knew this was one I was going to see in the theater.

Walter Mitty is a middle-aged dreamer and not the most adventurous type. Working as a negative analyst for the soon to be web-based Life magazine, Walter is entrusted with a very important negative, a picture taken by legendary photojournalist Sean O'Connell. When the crucial negative #25 (which will serve as the cover of Life's final issue) is missing from the rest of the reel, however, Walter is encouraged by his coworker and crush Cheryl Melhoff to go on a journey to retrieve this lost photo. With his job on the line in the wake of the company's new direction, Walter decides to embrace life as he embarks on a globe-trotting adventure.

Self-discovery seems to be a big theme in Walter Mitty, and I wonder if this is the new direction Ben Stiller is hoping to take in his future films. Sort of a melding of independent creativity with big-budget spectacle, this film does a pretty good job of portraying and connecting the relationship between Watler's job, his family, his imagination and his newfound reality throughout his journey. On one hand, it's a solid juggling act Stiller does to balance all of these aspects while ensuring the themes are all served in the narrative. Part of where this film loses me, however, is its tendency to indulge in Walter's in-the-moment experiences that never quite translate the character's feelings to the audience. While the story strands and conceptual structure of the film work well, it doesn't really tell us anything that profound about Walter.

Thankfully the movie doesn't take itself too seriously, which allows me to forgive a lot of my complaints about its lack of emotional resonance. Stiller has great comedic instincts, and the subtleties of his performance and his engaging awkwardness often help the movie work much better than it probably should. He and Kristin Wiig do a great job of creating a believable chemistry between their characters while not taking the comedy or even the drama too far.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ended up being more or less what I expected. It was an artistic story about making your dreams a reality by stepping out of your comfort zone, and I think pretty much anybody can relate to that. Even though I wasn't particularly moved by Walter's arc as a whole, there are a few moments of poignancy (mostly involving Sean Penn's character) that definitely made the journey worth it. This movie is pretty funny, the characters are likable and the story is probably the best that Ben Stiller has ever directed. I give The Secret Life of Walter Mitty three stars.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is rated PG for some crude comments, language and action violence

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Anchorman 2

As I mentioned in my feature for this film, the original Anchorman was one of the most influential and quotable comedies of the last decade. It cemented Will Ferrell as a comedy king and greatly increased the exposure of supporting stars like Steve Carell. It's a double-edged sword coming back to such a beloved film. The popularity of the project will surely make the sequel profitable, but expectations might be difficult to live up to as well. With that in mind, I tried to temper my expectations going into this film and merely hoped for an entertaining diversion.

Ron Burgundy seems to have it all. He and his wife Veronica are a high-profile news anchor team, poised to fill an impending vacancy in the prime-time slot. When it becomes clear that the studio is only interested in Veronica, however, Ron goes into a downward spiral which culminates in his leaving his family. Constantly inebriated and suffering an existential crisis, Ron hits rock-bottom in the locker room of San Diego's Sea World where he's relegated to introducing the dolphin show. Thankfully, someone offers Ron a chance at redemption with a spot at the Global News Network, which introduces the world to the first ever 24-hour news service. With no other options and a hefty advance payment, Ron must reunite his news team to restore his reputation and make history yet again as the legend continues.

Again, this plot summary only covers the first 10-15 minutes of the film, so rest assured no spoilers have been revealed. You might not expect a comedy film like this to have "spoilers" per se, but indeed there are many moments in this film that work so much better if the audience doesn't see what's coming. One thing I should probably state right off the bat is that this movie is freaking hilarious! Fans of the first film will not be disappointed with this sequel as far as the humor is concerned, which is pretty much all that matters in films like this. The jokes are almost non-stop, and thankfully they're (mostly) a lot more inventive and clever than what we've seen in the trailers.

Having said that, I find that Ferrell has a tendency to over-do certain jokes and push the crudeness envelope to a slightly uncomfortable level. Anchorman 2 is no exception, and there are definitely moments where this film goes to crazy town. As funny as I feel this movie is, I don't think it's meant for all to enjoy equally. People over the age of 40 might not enjoy the style of humor as it's far more catered to the 20's and 30's crowd. That being said, they may understand some of the social commentary from the time period this movie is set, where that could just go over the heads of younger viewers.

It's surprisingly difficult to critique comedies, as to a certain extent they are the most subjective kinds of movies. Either you laugh at a joke or you don't, there's not really anything to judge beyond that. However, there are general story-telling nits I could pick in this film. Some of the subplots are completely arbitrary and seem thrown in without any intention beyond setting up gags. It also tends to lean a little too heavily on the reputation of its predecessor, relying on in-jokes and call-backs as opposed to creating new material.

Even with those criticisms thrown in, this is still a ridiculously fun time at the theater. It may be a little crude for some, but for fans of the original Anchorman, this film is pretty much all you could have asked for in a sequel. There are tons of hilarious cameos, clever exchanges and one-liners to the point that it will take multiple viewings to even process all of the humor intricately woven into this 2 hour comedy. It's not a perfect film by any means, but it's exactly what I expected and mostly what I hoped for. Time will tell how this sequel compares with the legacy of the original. I recommend Anchorman 2 and give it a very strong three stars.

ANCHORMAN 2 is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, drug use, language and comic violence

Monday, December 16, 2013

Coming Soon: Anchorman 2!

Release Date: December 20, 2013
Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Adam McKay
Written by: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
Starring: Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, and Christina Applegate
Running time: 119 minutes

With the 70's behind him, San Diego's top-rated anchorman, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), returns to the news desk in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Also back for more are Ron's co-anchor and wife, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), weather man Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), man on the street Brian Fontana (Paul Rudd) and sports guy Champ Kind (David Koechner) - All of whom won't make it easy to stay classy while taking the nation's first 24-hour news channel by storm.

One of the most memorable and quotable comedies of the twenty-first century is finally getting the long-awaiting sequel we've all been hoping for since 2004! For years the cast of Anchorman have teased a possible reunion, with even a couple of false starts keeping the expectations of fans at the breaking point. After eight years, some might think the novelty would have worn off, but clearly fans of the original are clamoring for the sequel's release later this week.

This film, like the original "Legend of Ron Burgundy", stars a comedic tour-de force of Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner. While the last film marked a break-out performance from cast members like Carell, the stars have only increased in fame and demand since 2004 (surely one of the contributing factors to the delay of the film's release). When asked about what made them want to return to this sequel when they virtually had their pick of roles, Paul Rudd said, "For me, mainly it was like working with these guys again who I love... it was such a blast doing the first one that... I would jump at the chance to come back and beat a dead horse."

Carell responded in a similar fashion. "I think we all felt exactly the same way. We all just wanted to do it for the sake of doing it, and I think we all would have done it in a vacuum. Even if there was no camera, we would have come back and done it, because it's so much fun." Clearly this is a sentiment shared by fans, as Carell can hardly go anywhere without lines from his Anchorman character, Brick, being shouted at him. "I love lamp," he said simply, when asked which line was quoted to him most. Even when doing public shoots for things like The Office, Carell is still besieged by rabid fans of his work in the first Anchorman film.

Koechner, Rudd, Ferrell, and Carrell (from left to right)

With all of the hype and build-up for this sequel, it's easy to assume that all of the stars are merely coasting on the good will of the first film. It seems fairly common-place for comedies to not only bring nothing new to the table, but to commit the cardinal sin of showing the funniest scenes (and often the only funny scenes) in the trailer. While this film's trailer does boast some hilarious moments, Carell assures us that there are plenty of great scenes in store. "There's so much more," he said. "You know, you look at the trailer and you think, wow... they put everything in that they could and that's the entire movie. But there's so much more than is in the trailer, and funnier. So, I'm kind of psyched about the whole thing."

Fans who may be tentative about the film need look no further than the entire creative team's return as well as a cavalcade of new faces and talents (not to mention almost twice the production budget of the first film). With tickets pre-selling in droves and hungry fans desperate for more from Ron Burgundy and company, it's safe to say that Anchorman 2 is shaping up to be the comedy hit of the year. Anchorman 2 is being released nationwide on December 20th. Empty seats may be hard to come by, so be sure to get your tickets now!

*For more information about this film, please visit the official Anchorman 2 web site.

For the full interview with Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, click here!

<-- (Don't forget to click a theatre link to find showtimes of Anchorman 2 in a theater near you!) 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Last year I attempted to describe the depth of my fandom for The Lord of the Rings films during my review of An Unexpected Journey. I bring this up now because I really care about films set in Peter Jackson's LOTR universe. If you see my "List" section above, you'll see that the original trilogy are some of my all-time favorite films. While I definitely enjoyed the first film as my review indicated, I felt that it would certainly improve in the subsequent installments of the trilogy. With the marketing campaign for The Desolation of Smaug focusing heavily on the titular dragon and the promise of a more action-packed experience, I had pretty high expectations for this movie going into the screening.

Having narrowly escaped Azog the Defiler (the pale orc from the last film) and still on their way to reclaim the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, Bilbo Baggins and company are forced to brave the treacherous paths of Mirkwood. Gandalf, being drawn to the seemingly abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur, promises to meet up with the company at the gates of Erebor, though he warns them not to enter the mountain without him. Frustrated at this apparent abandonment, Bilbo and the dwarves are overcome by the forest's enchantments, leading them in circles and right into a frightening encounter with several massive arachnids. They narrowly escape the spidery hoard only to be taken captive by the king of Mirkwood, even as an army of orcs surround the fortress intent on finishing the vengeful job Azog began...

It might seem like I'm giving away a large portion of the plot, but honestly this only encapsulates the first twenty minutes of the nearly three hour long film. This is truly an action-packed spectacle that deepens mysteries introduced from the first film while introducing even more intriguing sub-plots and intricacies. Peter Jackson seems to have saved the best material for these final two installments, as The Desolation of Smaug is a marked improvement over An Unexpected Journey (which I still enjoyed quite a bit). As I suspected last time, each story is setting up an elaborate domino pattern that will either pay out in next year's conclusion or in the Lord of the Rings films we know and love.

As I hinted at in my marginal plot summary, there is a scene in this film with dozens of massive spiders. For those with arachnophobia (like my wife, Lara), it may be a little unpleasant. She said it was like her nightmares were coming to life, which is certainly a compliment to the realistic visual effects by Weta. The effects across the board have been upgraded in this film and all of the beasts depicted here (we'll get to the big one later) are very convincing. Having said that, at times the 3D in this film does detract from the seamless integration of the effects. Though this isn't a problem unique to this film, for smoother quality I still think it's best to see it in a traditional 2D format if possible.

The scale of this film is much larger than last time, even approaching the scope of the Lord of the Rings films at certain points. That said, this Hobbit trilogy (so far) just isn't quite as epic or as strong as those films. The only thing that disappoints me going into these movies is the constant comparison to the incomparable greatness of the Lord of the Rings. It's a shadow that seems endless, so the fact that it doesn't quite match up is more of a testament to the mastery of the prior trilogy than the weaknesses of the Hobbit. Truly, its almost an unfair comparison since The Hobbit isn't the same thing as The Lord of the Rings, so I can allow myself to judge it for what it is. This one is definitely more of a serious film than last year's An Unexpected Journey, which is surely an improvement for most LOTR fans.

No matter what some people might say about this film, there is one thing that everyone should be able to agree on - Smaug. The titular dragon had so much build-up and so little exposure that expectations were through the roof for his inevitable appearance in this film. As Bilbo states in the trailer, Smaug is "stupendous". Voiced (and motioned) by the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug might be the coolest character in the entire Tolkien universe. Certainly in this incarnation, he's unequivocally the greatest dragon ever put to film. Cumberbatch's voice is absolutely perfect for the beast, and his facial expressions are captured alarmingly well. He's sinister, devilishly clever, and terrifying in his enormity. I've read that he embodies the evil tendencies of every race in Middle Earth, and it's totally true. If there is one reason to see this film, it's Smaug.

Overall, this is quite an achievement. There isn't a moment in this film where I wasn't enjoying what I was seeing, and the ending is truly spectacular (though it might frustrate some viewers with its abruptness). The stage is set for next year's There and Back Again, and after seeing this movie I cannot wait! I wholeheartedly recommend this film to anyone who even slightly enjoyed the last one, and if I can swing it, I'll definitely be seeing this again in theaters. It's tempting to give this movie four stars, but I'll settle for an extraordinarily strong three and a half stars.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images

*Leave a comment and let me know what you thought of the latest film in The Hobbit trilogy!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Like I said during my review of The Hunger Games last year, this wasn't my most anticipated film. In fact, while I was certainly excited for it, I doubt it was even in my top 5 movies that I was looking forward to when 2013 began. I ended up being a huge fan of the original movie and even included it in my top 10 favorite films of 2012. Having said that, I knew there was room to improve from the first film, and the trailers I saw in the months leading up to Catching Fire's release were early hints of those improvements. My only reservation was the somewhat unsatisfying arc in the novel, though it did set the dominos in place for a great (albeit controversial) finale in Mockingjay. I therefore went into this film with moderate expectations, even thinking that the highlight of the night might be the trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation Smaug. Now I'm left wondering if that film can even compete with this one.

Katniss Everdeen emerged from the Hunger Games a victor, but is haunted by the traumatic events from the arena as she tries to live a normal life. As she returns from hunting, however, she is surprised to receive a visit from the President of Panem, Coriolanus Snow. While snidely congratulating her on her victory, Snow also warns her that the defiance displayed at the conclusion of the 74th Hunger Games has led to civil unrest and threats of an uprising in many of the districts. Snow wishes her to convince the districts of her loyalty to Peeta as well as to the Capital as she visits Panem for the obligatory victory tour. However, seeing the grieving families of those who died in the arena (particularly Rue), Katniss offers words of condolences that result in a public execution. As President Snow begins to see the victory tour's inability to placate the riotous districts, he concocts another scenario with new head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee to eliminate the trouble-making victor - the 75th Hunger Games (or Quarter Quell), which will choose its tributes from the existing pool of victors from each district, giving Katniss no hope of escaping the arena.

For those of you who haven't read the book, I'll refrain from spoiling anything else about the plot. The movie does remain surprisingly faithful to the novel, and the script (written by Academy Award-winning Simon Beaufoy from Slumdog Millionaire and Academy Award-winning Michael Arndt from Little Miss Sunshine) does a wonderful job of fleshing out the thematic richness from the books while setting up the tension of not just the immediate danger, but of the revolution yet to come. It's a terrific screenplay, and everything moves so organically that the two and a half hour screentime flies by.

Though I was a champion of the first film, everything in Catching Fire is an improvement over its predecessor. For one thing, it clearly has a much larger budget (by about $50 million or so), which is evident in every frame. It's so great to see a film franchise that rewards its audience by investing in a sequel rather than penny-pinching and cashing in on unrequited loyalty by series devotees (ahem, Twilight). Also, the tension and the stakes in this film have escalated. It's no longer a simple story of survival, but its themes encompass a broader scope of consequences for the actions of each character. Though Katniss and company are thrust into the arena once again, the tagline "remember who the real enemy is" makes their struggles even more captivating. It's an emotional roller-coaster, eloquently portraying the dire circumstances of each character while making us feel the complexity of what they're experiencing.

This film is also incredibly intense, even before the actual Hunger Games are underway. The fact that the filmmakers can create such a tense experience for an audience who already know what will happen is a true testament to the mastery at work when crafting this film. New director Francis Lawrence (I am Legend) keeps continuity with the vision of Gary Ross from the first film, but he also expands on it and improves not just the weak aspects but the strong aspects of The Hunger Games. It's an impressive feat, and thankfully Lawrence will return to direct the final two films in the series as well.

Returning to this film are all of the previous cast members, and none are more impressive than Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Fresh off her Oscar victory for Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence brings her A-game to Catching Fire, surpassing her previous performance and the audience's expectations by expertly bringing Katniss to life. The supporting cast are uniformly terrific, with newcomers like Phillip Seymour Hoffman elevating the material with their commanding presence. Of all the characters in this film, the one I was most worried about was Finnick Odair, played by Sam Claflin. His previous performances (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Snow White & The Huntsman) were the worst things about each of those films. I distinctly remember groaning in agony when I initially heard of this casting, and I went into the theater honestly just hoping that it wouldn't ruin the film for me. Surprisingly, Claflin completely won me over from the moment he shows up on screen offering Katniss a sugar cube. He's a great choice for Finnick, both in selling the physicality as well as the charm of the character and I can't wait to see him in future installments.

It's a pretty frightening experience in the arena this time, as each of the participants are accomplished killers, let alone the tsunamis and poisonous gas threatening the tributes at every turn. But perhaps the most effective and terrifying scene of all comes in the form of a familiar voice shrieking in agony, mysteriously coming from deep within the jungle. The resultant chaos that ensues is spine-tingling and the better sound system you see the movie in the better it will be.

Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed by this film. It surpasses expectations, deepens thematic resonance and heightens anticipation for the subsequent finales. This is a tremendous adaptation of Suzanne Collins's thought-provoking novel and it's a near-perfect sequel to last year's blockbuster phenomenon. Catching Fire is one of the best films of the year, and I give it a strong four stars.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language

Monday, November 18, 2013

Coming Soon: Nebraska!

Release Date: November 27, 2013
Rating: R (Some Language)
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
Music by: Mark Orton

After the success of his last film, The Descendants, Alexander Payne's latest feature tells the story of an elderly man's emotional journey as he and his son embark on a cross-country attempt to collect a one million dollar prize. Filmed in black-and-white and promising the usual quirkiness one can expect from a Payne film, Nebraska is already garnering awards-season buzz from critics. Having said that, most people probably haven't heard of this film or even know about it's upcoming release. For those people I've compiled a list of background information on the people involved with this film to give some idea of what kind of picture they can expect from Nebraska.

Having won multiple Academy Awards for screenwriting as well as receiving multiple nominations for Best Director, Alexander Payne is a perennial awards contender who consistently releases unique and personal films that nevertheless relate to a broad audience. This film marks the first occurrence where Payne hasn't been credited for the screenplay. However, his directorial touch and his apparent confidence in the script makes this effort even more intriguing.

While the choice of black and white might seem strange, Alexander Payne described this choice as an immediate impression when he first read the screenplay. "When I first read the script nine years ago, I imagined it only in black and white," Payne said in a recent interview. "The very austere nature of the screenplay to me suggested a visual style in black and white." Payne is often seen as an "actor's director" and is known to give his cast the freedom to fully explore and deconstruct their characters in order to portray them as realistic as possible. Speaking of Payne, star Bruce Dern said "He doesn't want you to act in the conventional sense - he wants all the characters to become real people. He gets to a level where you are pouring out what's in your heart - and all the emotions and baggage that come with it." Clearly this method is successful, as many of the actors he's directed (Jack Nicholson, George Clooney, Kathy Bates and Thomas Hayden-Church) have been given awards recognition for their efforts.

Speaking of awards recognition, Bruce Dern was given the Best Actor award at the Cannes film festival for his portrayal as Woody Grant. No stranger to prestige, Dern has also been nominated for his acting in the 1978 film Coming Home. Speaking of his performance in Nebraska, Dern praised Payne's direction and allowing him to stretch his acting muscles in a role unlike any he'd played before. "For so many years I've been told, 'just be Dernsy"... And I don't want to be Dernsy, and Alexander has brought something more and demanded that of me. He wanted to see the qualities I could bring within Woody, not the qualities Woody brings to me. I relish the chance to do that." For Payne, he appreciated the seeming contradictions that Dern brought to the part. "He was able to be ornery and heartbreaking at the same time," he said. "The thing for which I was most grateful to Bruce was that he trusted me, a phenomenal gift to any director. He would try anything."

Bruce Dern (left) and Will Forte (right) on their way to Nebraska.

Another slightly unusual addition to the case is Will Forte as Woody's slightly exasperated son, David. Most well-known for his broadly comedic work on TV (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, How I Met Your Mother, etc.), Forte plays a much more subdued comedy for his character in Nebraska. If audiences are surprised to see Forte in such a "legit" film, the actor was just as excited at the prospect of stepping out of the box. Speaking of the unique opportunity, Forte said, "I'm used to doing crazy comedies and I didn't even know doing a film like this was in the realm of possibility." Speaking of Forte's never-before-seen quality of subtlety, Payne said, "I believed him. Will communicates a ready sincerity and sweetness, and also a sense of damage. Forte went on to describe this change in tone by saying, "It wasn't lost on me that this was an amazing opportunity to do something different. But it's been a big challenge too... David is actually the straight man."

The only actor of the primary cast working with Payne for the second time is June Squibb, playing Woody's wife Kate. Described as a woman of impenetrable strength with a "razor tongue (and a) wicked sense of humor", Kate Grant is unapologetic and blunt, something that June Squibb thoroughly enjoys playing. "There's no filter with her," Squibb said of the character. "Words come out of her mouth as she's thinking them... But I love her dearly. She's funny, yet she also protects the family and she's quite a formidable person." Without a large number of credits to her name, June has already started to garner awards buzz for her powerful performance in the film.

Coming in a very crowded year of Oscar contenders, it remains to be seen how much recognition Nebraska will receive at the end-of-year ceremony. One thing we can be sure of is that Alexander Payne and company have produced another emotional, funny, and thought-provoking film. Nebraska will be released in theatres this weekend (click on one of the links to your left to purchase tickets at a theatre near you). If Payne's previous efforts are any indication, this film will be well worth your time and money.

*For more information about this film, please visit the official Nebraska web site.

Do you want to see NEBRASKA before it hits theaters? If so, click on the link for your chance to download an advance screening pass for you and a friend on Monday, November 25 at 7:30pm in Salt Lake City! Seats in the theater are first-come, first-serve so PLEASE ARRIVE EARLY! NEBRASKA opens in Salt Lake City on November 27! 

For the full interview with Alexander Payne, click here.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Captain Phillips

Unlike most of the movies I cover on this site, Captain Phillips sort of snuck up on me this year. Despite being a huge fan of the Bourne series (see my review of The Bourne Legacy for more on that), I wasn't even aware of the latest film from director Paul Greengrass until it started to get pre-release Oscar buzz. I made a mental note to go and see this movie closer to its original release, but my hectic schedule prevented that from happening until last night. Just like with Gravity I'm a little late to the game with this review, but I'm very glad to finally have the chance to post about it now.

Captain of a large international transport vessel, Rich Phillips is particularly wary of his latest assignment which will take him around the coast of Africa on his way to Mombasa. Meanwhile, pirates on the shores of Somalia organize groups to take over and hold ransom a large ship in the hopes of earning an enormous payday from the insurance company. Captain Phillips gives in to his unsettled feelings and orders his crew to go through a variety of emergency drills just as two skiffs carrying armed pirates rapidly approach their ship from behind.

From the opening scene in this film, the cinematography and the performance by Tom Hanks combine to make your stomach clench in anticipation. Through subtle camera angles and nervous ticks, the title character's anxiety about the journey infects the audience as well, never letting up until the credits roll. Just like Gravity this is an incredibly intense film, and the real-life aspect of it makes it even more palpable. The casting in this film is tremendous, and only after the film was over did I even think about the characters being portrayed by actors. From the crew of the MV Maersk Alabama to the Navy officers and Somalian pirates, every one of the performances feel entirely genuine.

Of course, even in a film made up of terrific acting there are still standouts in this cast. Tom Hanks gives a tremendous performance as the titular Captain and everything from his tense interactions with pirates to the commands given to his crew couldn't be done any better. Even after all the great acting by Hanks throughout the film, it's his character's final moments on screen that really push this over the edge into Oscar-caliber. While I don't always agree with what the Academy deems worthy of it's end-of-year awards, you can count on Hanks being nominated for Best Actor for this commanding performance. The other standout is Barkhad Abdi, a relative unknown playing the emaciated-looking pirate named "Muse". His twitchy mannerisms and haunting visage give him an almost zombie-like quality that's incredibly creepy. Yet, throughout the film he somehow makes you feel a twinge of sympathy for the drastic measures he is forced to take.

A lot of what gives this film its reality isn't merely the true story on which it's based, but also the hand-held style of cinematography utilized for Captain Phillips. It's obvious that a lot of this film was shot on location, which really puts the audience in the environment that Captain Phillips is struggling to overcome. While this is a great strength of the film, it can also be a detriment to those averse to the "shaky-cam" used in the Bourne films Greengrass previously made. Though I'm not challenging its accuracy, the content in this film is also a bit tough for a PG-13 movie and some of the images and situations may frighten younger viewers.

While this is a great film, there are a few things that bothered me about it. For one thing, this movie is long. Running at almost two and half hours, the tension is so high for so long that it begins to exhaust the viewer by about the two hour mark. There's a tricky balance at play with movies like this, as the longer a film with such high stakes continues without any kind of release (like humor) the more the audience just wants a resolution, regardless of their feelings about the protagonists. The other problem I had was something that will only bother fans of Christopher Nolan's masterful Inception. While that movie is clearly a huge inspiration for almost every action/suspense film made since its release, the score at the end of Captain Phillips almost literally copies and pastes Hans Zimmer's ending music from the mind-bending 2010 film. I'm a big fan of Henry Jackman's work, and I don't necessarily blame the filmmakers for that decision, but it does take me out of the moment slightly when it's such an obvious rip-off.

Other than that, this is a terrific film that will keep you gripping anything within reach until the credits roll. You'll also want to talk about this film for hours after it's over, as there are so many nuances to the performances, characters and dialogue throughout. It's sure to garner a multitude of Oscar nominations, and I have to say that it deserves them. This is another film poised to make my top ten list (though it will definitely be crowded). I give Captain Phillips a strong three and a half stars.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is rated PG-13 for intense sustained sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Marvel Studios has released their second film of "Phase 2", which I've been anticipating for quite some time. Despite many people not loving the original Thor film, I actually thought it was very enjoyable. I admit that there may not be as much action as I was hoping for, but it still managed to crack my top ten films for 2011. Having said that, my opinion of the last Marvel effort, Iron Man 3 continues to fall the longer I've thought about it. With a poster that looked so similar and (though many won't have noticed) the composer from that film working on Thor: The Dark World, I was a little bit nervous that we might get a film of a similar quality. Thankfully, it didn't take long for my worries to vanish once the movie started.

Before the universe began, the cosmos were covered in darkness. Now, thanks to a race of Dark Elves, led by Malekith, and utilizing an ancient force known as the Aether, the elves sought to plunge the nine realms into a second darkness. However, eons ago this plan was thwarted by the armies of Thor's grandfather, Bor, and the Aether was hidden on the Dark World where it remained until the events of this film. Thanks to gravitational disturbances in London, Jane Foster encounters the Aether and awakes Malekith from hybernation. Now, Thor must seek his fallen brother, Loki, to once again stop Malekith and destroy the Aether before trillions of souls are once again flung into darkness.

From that plot summary alone, it's pretty easy to see that the stakes have been raised in this sequel. Not only do the events in this film lend credence to the subtitle, The Dark World, but it's also one of the most well-balanced superhero films we've had in quite some time. There are genuine moments of comedy to lighten the mood after a terrifying attack or a tragic loss. The script is much more put together than the previous film, and the twists and turns that were such a problem for me in Iron Man 3 are done so much better here. Hopefully nobody spoils the surprise for you on this film, as a few scenes will literally make you gasp.

As I'm a fan of movie music, I was a little concerned about the score for this film, as I thought that was one of the more clunky things about Iron Man 3; but I needn't have worried. Brian Tyler does a great job with this universe, which I feel he is much better suited for than the Iron Man series. Not only did the score improve, but the visual effects were far more impressive here than in the last Marvel film. Thor's powers have never been more fully realized and the use of real life locations really helps to sell the reality of a very fantastical universe.

The actors in this film are uniformly excellent, particularly Tom Hiddleston as the mischievous and enigmatic Loki. His nuanced take on the character makes us utterly loath him and somehow feel sympathy towards him in the same scene. Hiddleston takes the audience on a roller coaster ride with his terrific performance, and his interplay with Chris Hemsworth (who absolutely embodies Thor) is one of the best parts of this great film. Even bit players like Rene Russo (Frigga) and Anthony Hopkins (Odin) pepper the film with multi-layered line readings and subtle facial expressions. Some of the most enjoyable and scene-stealing characters are the earthlings, particularly Kat Dennings as  Darcy whose comic timing is absolutely perfect in the few scenes she's in. The only thing I was a little disappointed about was that Christopher Eccleston's voice for Malekith wasn't the way it sounds in the trailers, but he still comes off as very very menacing regardless of this change.

By the way, PLEASE don't leave until after the very end credits! I can't tell you how many people left our theatre early (I mean, have they never been to a Marvel film before?!), but there are TWO after-credits scenes that you aren't going to want to miss.

I could go on and on about all the things I liked about this film, but I'll finish up by saying that Thor: The Dark World is an incredibly entertaining film with great tension, great action and great humor throughout. I've been a little surprised at the critical reaction to this movie, considering how much I and the others in my audience ate up every single scene. This is one of the strongest Marvel films to date, and it will definitely make my top ten list at the end of 2013. I give this a very strong three and a half stars.

THOR: THE DARK WORLD is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

After Earth

Will Smith can't help but exude charisma when he's on screen. He's been one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood since Independence Day, but lately has shied away from the spotlight it seems. About a year and a half ago when I started hearing rumors of a film called After Earth that would star Will Smith and his son Jaden, I have to admit that I was a little excited about it. I pictured something with the emotional impact of The Pursuit of Happyness but with the special effects and post-apocolyptic flare of I Am Legend. The only thing that seemed like a wild card was the choice of director - M. Night Shyamalan. When the trailers looked fairly promising, I was pretty certain I'd be seeing it in theatres. The one thing that held me back happened on the day of its release... when the reviews for After Earth dashed my hopes entirely (it currently holds an 11% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). After that, I had little desire to see this film and chalked its disappointing reception up to Shyamalan's steep descent into obscurity ever since he burst onto the scene with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. Finally, when the opportunity came to see this movie for free (and when no other demands for my time were present) I resigned myself to sitting through this movie as I folded laundry.

General Cypher Raige is a legendary warrior who has mastered the art of "Ghosting" (masking his emotions from a terrifying species of blind alien creatures known as Ursas who can smell the pheromones produced by fear and thus track their prey). Leading the human race to a new settlement following an environmental catastrophe that makes Earth uninhabitable, he begins to train rangers with this skill so as to overcome their monstrous enemies should they ever return to Nova Prime. Cypher's son, Kitai, wishes to become a ranger and trains incessantly to emerge from his father's shadow. After failing to achieve the rank of Ranger yet again, Kitai is taken along on Cypher's final mission in space before retirement. However when unanticipated gravitron signals (yep, you read that right) announce an asteroid collision, the ship is thrown off course and crash lands on a nearby planet deemed "quarantined". As the father and son pair are the only survivors, and both of Cypher's legs have been broken during the crash, the inexperienced Kitai must brave the dangers of a post-human Earth in order to retrieve the homing beacon from the other half of the ship... all while avoiding the Ursa that escaped from imprisonment following the crash...

Even after seeing this movie, I can see where some people might have thought this was a good idea. Sure, the plot is needlessly complicated and the scenario is rather contrived, but the back story could actually be an interesting film in the right hands. Obviously, given my star rating above, this is not the film I was hoping for. What I am surprised to say, however, is that it wasn't entirely Shyamalan's fault as I had previously surmised (though he isn't entirely blameless). For starters, Will Smith plays an emotionless, up-tight military leader who won't crack a smile to save his life. In other words, he's not allowed to be Will Smith. Not only is he somehow transformed into a boring person to watch on screen, but his character is literally relegated to sitting in a cockpit giving orders over a headset. You don't hire Will Smith to "star" in your movie and not let him do what he's famous for.

That is the least of my complaints, however, as every other actor in this movie leaves no impression whatsoever. But even that would be bearable if the lead in this film weren't so utterly terrible. Jaden Smith did a credible job in the decent remake of Karate Kid, but he is far and way the worst thing about After Earth. His line readings are laughable, his facial expressions and body movements almost like a glichy android pretending to be human, and every time he tries to sell emotion it comes off as a whiny five year old crying for ice cream. I can't imagine how awkward this must have been for Shyamalan, who was clearly stuck with this blatant bit of nepotism (as Will Smith was a producer on the film). It almost seemed like his camera movements were trying to disguise Jaden's terrible acting, though it could have just been the cinematographer cringing at his pathetic performance.

The special effects are fairly well done, however, and with a serious re-writing of the screenplay and completely recasting the entire film, it could be an interesting sci-fi concept that might actually be enjoyable. It's frustrating sometimes when millions of dollars are invested in a story that an audience member feels they could have written better in an afternoon. After Earth is a wasted opportunity and something that I wouldn't recommend to anyone (except as an exercise in script doctoring). The only reason I'm giving this film two stars is for the intriguing concept and the decent visual effects. Don't bother with this one.

AFTER EARTH is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images

Monsters University

As I mentioned during my Brave review, I consider myself to be a pretty big fan of Pixar animated films. Truthfully I wasn't that taken with Cars 2, but I found Brave to be a welcome return to originality and heartfelt storytelling for the studio. Based on that upward trajectory coming off of Brave, I actually had fairly high expectations for Pixar's latest work, Monsters University. Having said that, I passed up multiple opportunities to see this film in theatres, which is something I rarely do with Pixar films. Perhaps deep down I expected a drop in quality, or maybe the return to Monstropolis was less inviting this time around, but it took almost four months beyond its release date until I finally sat down to watch this movie.

Mike Wazowski is a bright-eyed monster on his way to college with hopes of being an all-time great scarer. He takes his studies seriously and just as he's adjusting to college life with confidence in his future in the scare program, a rival in the form of James P. Sullivan steps into the picture. Massive and coming from a line of scare legends, "Sully" doesn't feel the need to study scare tactics or practice techniques. However this blatant negligence for homework comes back to haunt Sully as he struggles during his final exam of Scaring 101. Following a public display of mutual annoyance by Mike and Sully, Dean Hardscrabble drops both monsters from the scare program. But with the upcoming scare games comes a chance at redemption as Mike and Sully reluctantly join forces with the Oozma Kappas, a scare group denied entry to the games for lack of participants. The two rivals must learn humility and patience as they work together to fight their way back into the program.

Some of the teaser trailers for this film have been pretty entertaining, though most of the content that was presented never comes to fruition in the actual film. One of the great things about Pixar is their knack for weaving humor that adults and kids can enjoy. Given the college setting, one might think that the humor portrayed should appeal to college aged students as well as children, but the former half of that demographic is greatly under-served by the content of this film. Rather than ironic wordplay or hilarious scenarios (as is featured in Monsters Inc.), the film settles for juvenile sight gags and nudge-you-in-the-ribs joke telling. Some of the humor still works, but the majority is greatly disappointing compared to its predecessor.

The film also seems to lack direction, without a clear premise to guide it like the original film had. Monsters going to a university to learn how to scare can only take you so far before it runs out of steam. This seems to be the problem with forcing sequels to brilliantly conceived originals that felt completely unique and self-contained. It seems like the concept for a sequel came to writers relatively quickly, but then inspiration for where the story would go didn't seem to follow. The final result is a meandering attempt to recapture the magic of Monsters Inc. that works far less the older you are.

By the time the movie got into its final act, however, I was finding myself slightly more engaged in Mike and Sully's plight, routing for them to win the scare games and create the friendship we all know from the original. That all does come to fruition, but it takes far too long with forced moments of humor feeding desperate throwbacks to engender your good will for a film that doesn't really deserve it on its own merits.

Ultimately, it's a better movie than The Croods, but not quite as good as Despicable Me 2. The animation was as good as it needed to be, the voice performances were adequate, but the story and humor were the big sticking points for me. This along with Cars 2 make me unexcited for Pixar sequels (even the upcoming Finding Dori), as the studio seems to work best when breaking new ground. I give this movie a mild recommend for kids under the age of eight, but cannot recommend it to anyone else. This was a slight disappointment for me and I have to give it two and a half stars.


Saturday, October 12, 2013


Yes, it's been over two months since my last review, though that wasn't exactly by choice. If there had been some good movies to review (and if I wasn't so busy with school) I probably would have reviewed another film well before now. This particular project has always been on my radar and I knew I was going to find time to cover it upon its release. I've followed the production of Gravity since before casting was finalized, back when Robert Downey Jr. was set to star in the role that eventually fell to George Clooney. I knew Alfonso Cuaron's work (yes, primarily from the third Harry Potter film) and I had a feeling this film would be something special. However, after hearing rumors of production delays I was beginning to worry that the film might not pan out, or at least might fall short of its potential... well, rest assured that all of my doubts were quelled within the first ten seconds.

Gravity is a film primarily set in space, with a small group of astronauts working on the Hubble telescope orbiting Earth. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) doesn't have much experience being out in space, though she admits to her uber-confident companion, Matt Kowalski (Clooney), that she actually enjoys the silence. Everything appears to be going smoothly until Houston warns the astronauts of oncoming space debris caused by a destroyed Russian satellite. With orders to abort the mission, Kowlaski and Dr. Stone scramble to put away their equipment and return to the shuttle as shrapnel begins to tear the vessel apart. Still attached to an arm of the shuttle, Dr. Stone is hurled into space, tumbling uncontrollably and crying out in vain for rescue.

I'm a bit late to the game with my review of Gravity, but hopefully I can still find something to say about it that hasn't already become a cliche. The intensely dramatic opening to this movie (all contained in one stunning 12-minute uninterrupted sequence) instantly clutches the viewer and never relents until the closing credits. This film's unique setting and tone would be original enough to garner praise from me even if the tension and the emotion weren't perfected in the way they are in this movie. Alfonso Cuaron does a masterful job of balancing all aspects of this production, never letting the spectacular visuals overshadow or undermine the peril of outer space. There's a terrific juxtaposition between silence and destruction such as the chaos of a space shuttle being torn apart being accompanied by only the hyperventilating of the powerless astronauts.

This is one of the most thrilling films I've seen in a really long time, but it's also an incredibly emotional and moving story of a woman struggling to survive while questioning whether she even wants to. It's so impressive that both of these things can exist in the same movie, though it strangely mirrors the seeming contradiction of the expansiveness and yet claustrophobic environment the story is set. While the direction is spot-on, the performance of Sandra Bullock (who deserves serious Oscar consideration) and the powerful score are what really make those moments unforgettable.

At the risk of going into spoilers, I'll cut myself off at this point. Suffice it to say that Gravity is one of the most enveloping movie-going experiences I've ever had. It's terrifying, moving, and exhilarating at different times in the film while seamlessly transitioning from one emotion to the next. It's a movie that has to be seen on a big screen and (I can't believe I'm actually saying this) in 3D to fully appreciate the majesty of the visuals. This movie is daring and revolutionary, and I'll go ahead and say it's possibly the best movie of the year. If you couldn't tell, I definitely recommend Gravity and I give it a full four stars.

GRAVITY is rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language


In anticipation of Gravity's release (and because I've been meaning to see it for a while now) I decided to watch and review 2009's Moon. This is one of the rare times when a movie completely escaped my notice until it was already a couple of years past its theatrical release. Directed by Duncan Jones (who later directed the terrific Source Code in 2011), Moon actually first became known to me by listening to Pandora. I'm a big fan of film scores and several songs from this soundtrack kept playing on some of my composer channels. After listening to those songs, I decided to buy the entire album. It's been on fairly heavy rotation on my iPod ever since, and I feel my viewing of this film has a similar story. Though I was initially held up by the R-rating of this film, I decided (as it was merely for language) that I could handle the content and proceeded anyway.

Moon tells the story of Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell), an engineer on the lunar space station in charge of harvesting a mineral on the Moon's surface that is an incredibly efficient energy source. Contracted for a three year mission, Sam struggles with the communication malfunctions the station routinely encounters and longs for the remaining two weeks of his contract to go swiftly. He has left his wife and newborn daughter on earth and the extended isolation, apart from a robotic assistant named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), has caused Sam to hallucinate. One day on his rounds to repair the equipment, a vision of a young woman sends his lunar vehicle crashing into the harvesting equipment. He wakes up some time later in the infirmary without a single wound or memory from the accident. Though Sam wishes to explore the moon surface to see how he ended up in the infirmary, GERTY says it is temporarily out of bounds. He finds a way around that and drives a second vehicle up to the crash site... only to find another astronaut in the wreckage. Sam brings the man back to base and is shocked to see that the stranger looks identical to him...

As I have listened to the score quite frequently before even seeing the film, the song titles gave a way a few things about the plot (though I could have surmised as much just by watching the trailer). This is a fairly complex narrative, and the plot twists, while interesting, are not the most compelling thing about this independent sci-fi thriller. Sam Rockwell (from Iron Man 2) does a tremendous job portraying more than one character, and at times you even forget that it is the same person. His struggle to uncover the mystery surrounding the lunar base with the other Sam Bell is fascinating to watch as he bickers back and forth with himself. But even that pales in comparison to the emotional story of Sam's separation from his family.

The visuals for this movie are fairly well done (given the limited budget and means of the production), and the space station is exceptionally constructed. These aren't the reasons to see this movie, but it helps the viewer believe in the heightened reality of this universe. As you can probably guess, the thing that puts this movie over the edge is the score. It's a beautiful, haunting piece that I highly recommend to any fan of film music. Just listen to the heart-breaking "Memories" on iTunes if you don't believe me.

I wish I could talk about this movie in more depth, but I don't want to ruin the experience for anybody that hasn't seen it yet. This is a terrifically-written story and inspired many sci-fi films to come (ahem, Oblivion). Though the language does get a little harsh at times and the ending may be construed as slightly underwhelming (despite the last-second intrigue captured in voice-over), I highly recommend this movie to any fans of the science fiction genre. I give this film a very strong three and a half stars.

MOON is rated R for language

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

Thank goodness I saw this movie for free. I have to say I wasn't a huge fan of Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, but I found it fairly enjoyable for a February release. It attracted a lot of talent at the very least, perhaps from actors who thought they were jumping on the next Harry Potter-esque franchise. One of the most telling signs of quality when it comes to the sequel is how quickly all the experienced talent seems to have scattered in all directions. Gone is director Chris Columbus, stars Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Uma Thurman and even Kevin McKidd. Having said that, I still went into this viewing with a bit of slightly misplaced optimism if for no other reason than that this was a summer release, usually implying confidence from the studio executives releasing the film.

Percy Jackson is still a demigod, training perpetually at Camp Half-Blood and questioning his abilities to an unresponsive father (Poseidon). When a familiar foe returns to the camp and destroys its protective shield, Percy embarks on a quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece. The item has magical healing properties that can save the tree from which the shield originates. However, Percy soon realizes that a prophecy foretells his involvement in either Olympus's destruction or salvation and therefore departs from Camp Half-Blood with some trepidation.

Even writing that brief introduction was a struggle for me not to point out some of the blatant plot holes riddling this screenplay. The screenwriter for Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is also responsible for the (in retrospect) underwhelming film adaptation of the DC character, Green Lantern. The dialogue in this film is unintentionally comedic, the story almost nonsensical, and the conflict so unclear that my jaw literally dropped when I tried to boil down exactly why things happen the way they do.

Most of the characters here are new to the Percy Jackson universe, except for the three leads. While he did a remarkable job in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Logan Lerman puts in a pretty pathetic performance in his attempt to bring pathos to Percy Jackson. His line readings are so dull that I had to wonder if he knew the kind of film he was in and was just trying to get through it. The other performances are equally poor, but their lack of speaking lines makes them slightly more tolerable. New to the cast is Douglas Smith playing a goofy cyclops and Percy's long lost half-brother (yeah, they went there), Tyson. Not only does the character's presence feel like Scrappy-Doo, but his inexperience and lack of screen presence is one of the first of many "made-for-TV" vibes I got from this film. The saving grace from this cast is a bit part from Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). His genuinely funny and often self-referential lines make me think he must have ad-libbed most of them himself.

I haven't read the books, but if the titular "Sea of Monsters" is as pointless and non-existent as it is in the film then I never want to read them. The film shows exactly one sea monster and besides the fact that we never get a full view of the creature, it also only remains in the film for about five minutes. The rest of the plot hinges on contrived scenarios of Percy not using his water-manipulation abilities when it would easily solve the problem at hand. Nothing had me laughing at this movie as much as Percy and the villainous Luke riding atop a cartoon-looking wave like surfers heading toward a fleeing motor boat (despite Luke not sharing Percy's power over water).

Usually in a fantasy film like this the most impressive aspect is the visual effects, if not always the script. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters not only doesn't hold up to its peers in that respect, but the effects are often on the level of made-for-TV junk like Sharknado. Despite the summer release time, it's clear that 20th Century Fox wasn't willing to invest good CGI money to make these effects believable. Honestly, I couldn't help wondering why they even went back to this franchise in the first place with so little of what made the original a modest success.

Despite all of those complaints, I have to admit that this film isn't necessarily made for me; particularly since the new director was also responsible for films like Stuart Little 2 and Hotel for Dogs. Clearly he only knows how to cater to one age group, as my nine year-old niece (who actually enjoyed the film) can attest. This allows me to grant it the slightest of mercies, though the overall stupidity and lack of ambition really disgusts me as a film lover. When thinking of metaphors for this film, the clunky dialogue provided perfect examples with gems such as the sarcastically delivered "that was subtle" or my personal favorite, "I thought that was going to be a lot more fun". Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters isn't just bad, it's almost so bad it's good. It's predictable, plodding and preposterous, but beyond that it boasts a cavalcade of cliches that I just cannot abide. I do not recommend this film (in case you couldn't tell) and I give it a generous two stars.

PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS is rated PG for fantasy action violence, some scary images and mild language