Sunday, June 30, 2013

Despicable Me 2

As a huge fan of "The Office", and subsequently of Steve Carrel, I remember really looking forward to the original Despicable Me when it came out. I left the theater in the summer of 2010 pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Three years later, Illumination Entertainment hasn't really had another financial hit on the caliber of the first film, which seems like the reason for the sequel as much as anything. There weren't many reviews available when I went into the screening on Wednesday, and besides seeing the trailers I approached this sequel with as much of a clean slate as possible.

Gru has given up his lifelong dream of becoming the world's greatest villain, and has taken to throwing his newly adopted daughters lavish birthday parties instead. However, everyone around him seems insistent that he explore the dating arena. Before he can do much more than spurn the advances of would-be-cupids around his neighborhood, the AVL (Anti-Villain League) comes courting Gru for his firsthand knowledge of how a villain thinks and behaves. They are investigating a disturbing event where an entire research facility was stolen using a giant magnet. The perpetrator is using this facility to create indestructible creatures out of previously harmless animals. Partnered with a quirky AVL agent, the pair soon begins to realize that the villain they're searching for is closer than they think.

Despicable Me 2 doesn't break much new ground with this sequel, but it's a highly enjoyable diversion nonetheless. All the characters we loved from the original film are back (especially the ever-popular "Minions"), and the heart of the story remains the family dynamic of Gru and his girls. Some of the originality of the previous film is lost here as Gru is no longer a villain questioning himself as his goodness is brought out of him by the love of his girls, but what they give us is still very entertaining.

It took me a while to warm up to some of the supporting characters, particularly Gru's new partner, Lucy Wilde. However, their extreme quirks become slightly more endearing as the film progresses, even if we don't learn much about their backstory. Some of the humor would be over the top as well, if it wasn't for the hilarious Minions adding an extra layer that still feels fresh after two films. They are by far the funniest thing about both Despicable Me films, and they're used to great effect here.

This film never scales the heights of Pixar in storytelling, but this is still a pretty solid animated film. In fact, this might be the best animated film of the year so far (of course, I have yet to see Monsters University, so that could change). Despicable Me 2 might not be a great story, but you and your family will have a great time watching it. All the kids in my theater were much more enthusiastic here than in The Croods (thank goodness), and I think it's going to be the family film to beat this Independence Day weekend. I give this film a solid three stars.

DESPICABLE ME 2 is rated PG for rude humor and mild action

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Now You See Me

I can freely admit how odd it was that I wasn't super excited to see this film initially. I generally enjoy magician-themed films (The Prestige), and many of the actors featured in this movie are some that I really enjoy. Perhaps it was the abundance of competing releases that were more enticing (Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, etc.), but Now You See Me pretty much went unnoticed by me until about a month prior to its release. From the director of one of my guilty pleasure Marvel favorites, The Incredible Hulk, I hoped Louis Leterrier would be able to recreate the fun and excitement of that film in this very different kind of story.

Now You See Me starts with four magicians working separately but each catching the eye of a mysterious benefactor. Each of them is invited to an empty apartment where they are given blueprints to a fantastical contraption of some kind. One year later, they are known as "The Four Horsemen", bringing down the house after supposedly robbing a French bank as part of their Las Vegas act and spreading the wealth among the audience members. This attracts the unwanted attention of FBI agent Rhodes who begins an investigation to track down the thieves. Working with professional magician revealer, Thaddeus Bradley, Rhodes tries to uncover their secret and determine their next step before it's too late. The trouble is, the closer he looks, the less he actually sees.

I have to say, this was a pretty enjoyable film for about the first 2/3 of its running time. There were entertaining magic sequences, good performances, clever dialogues, etc. This movie looks really great and I was enjoying it on that level, but at a certain point the script bites off way more than it can chew as it tries to "blow your mind" at the expense of coherent storytelling. The film sets up an interesting mystery, and though I won't spoil anything in this review, I found the final act to be a little uneven when compared to the rest of the story.

Some of the performances are rather good, even if they are ultimately ill-served by the script. Jesse Eisenberg always plays a convincing jerk with a superiority complex, and Isla Fisher is her usual quirky, ball-busting self. However, the standout for me was Woody Harrelson, whose comic timing was probably the best thing about this film. It's too bad he didn't have more screen-time. Other than that, I found Michael Caine, who is normally great, to be a little flat with his line readings, and Morgan Freeman is best when he isn't playing a "bad" or even morally ambiguous character. Overall, I liked the players individually better than as a team and kind of wish the film had chosen to focus on just one or two characters.

There is a lot of on-screen talent, but I found myself disengaging when the realization struck me that this attempt at a great caper was not the clever movie I was hoping to see. Any script that does better when it isn't trying to be ambitious beyond typical "summer popcorn" entertainment, should probably just stick to its strengths. For those who haven't seen it, I weakly recommend checking it out for some of the eye-candy presented in the first 90 minutes, but with the disclaimer that I found the ending to be a little tacked-on and frankly nonsensical.

Speaking of eye-candy, I guess watching this movie is a little like gorging on Starbursts or jelly beans - it's fun at first, but isn't wholly satisfying or memorable and kind of leaves you wondering why you did it in the first place. There were a lot of things I liked about this film, and I do appreciate the story they were attempting to tell... it just didn't have the right talent behind it to pull it off. I understand a lot of the positive reviews from family and friends, but I guess I had the exact reaction the film warned me about from the get-go: the closer I looked, the less sense it all made. I give Now You See Me two and a half stars.

NOW YOU SEE ME is rated PG-13 for language, some action and sexual content

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

World War Z

At the height of pop-culture's obsession with everything zombie-related, World War Z seems ideally placed to be a surprise hit at the box office this summer. With a very popular book as it's source material (though apparently loosely so) and a name like Brad Pitt attached to it, the enormous budget of nearly $200 million seems like an understandable investment for the executives at Paramount Studios. Still, with Man of Steel tearing up the box office and a bevy of similar competition around the corner, it may be an uphill battle for World War Z to make an impression on audiences this summer. With all this in mind, as well as a marketing campaign that seemed intentionally coy (one only gets a good view of the zombies in the film itself), I had no idea what I was about to see when the opening credits began.

Gerry and his family live fairly normal lives, eating pancakes for breakfast and making the best of rush hour traffic playing guessing games. However, the streets soon turn to pandemonium as a hyper-violent mass of humanoid monsters begin attacking everyone in reach. Fleeing the scene in a borrowed vehicle, Gerry takes his family to safety and is recruited to discover the origin of this rapidly spreading affliction. Meanwhile, the death toll is rising dramatically and the safety of his family depends on his involvement in the preservation of mankind.

A few things were driven home from the opening credits of this film. Not just that Muse's "The 2nd Law: Isolated System" is a great way to build tension and intrigue, but also that this was going to be a different take on a zombie apocalypse than we've seen before. However, that isn't to say that the story-telling technique is necessarily groundbreaking. As recently as 2011 we had an extremely realistic and frightening take on a widespread pandemic in the exceptional Contagion. Though this film tries for realism in its portrayal of zombieism (which in and of itself is a losing battle), it tends to talk down to the audience in a slightly condescending way that Contagion was far too sophisticated to settle for.

Regardless of its similarities to other films, World War Z is undeniably intense. From beginning to end it keeps you on edge, constantly on alert for the next unexpected attack. Director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Finding Neverland) does a great job of building suspense, particularly in the first half of the movie. It's a little unfortunate that there weren't more character moments to really attach the audience to Gerry's family, but that's a complaint one only has after reflecting on the story after the fact. While watching the film, it's almost impossible to think about anything but when the next zombie outbreak is going to occur.

The performances are pretty great all around, particularly from Pitt. Though his character is relatively undefined, he does a good job of selling his emotional conflict between his obligation to his fellow men and his desire to keep his family safe. Other actors do passable work, but the balance of screen time is so heavily leaning towards Pitt that almost everyone else gets short shrift.

While the massive groups of zombies climbing over each other like insects might look a little cartoony in trailers, the effects are greatly improved when seeing it on a big screen. The rest of the action scenes are certainly thrilling and the suspenseful climax is possibly more-so. Though it may be a little predictable and slightly unsatisfying, the ending certainly leaves the door open for future installments should the film prove as profitable as studio execs are hoping. World War Z plays like a combination of The Walking Dead and Contagion, which ultimately makes it an exciting and intriguing experience. I give this film a solid three stars.

WORLD WAR Z is rated PG-13 for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images

*For more information about the film, check out the promotional feature of WWZ here!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel

Here it is. My most anticipated film of the year. So much expectation has surrounded the release of this latest incarnation of the world's greatest superhero that it was impossible to escape the word-of-mouth from critics who were privy to advanced screenings. I was shocked to hear so many naysayers reporting the film to be too dour and "serious", citing its differences from the original Superman film as a criticism. While I can greatly respect what the 1978 film was trying to do with the iconic DC character, I was ready to have this reboot veer away from what has been done before and tell a Superman story we didn't already know. With a visionary like Christopher Nolan shepherding the project from the beginning and an unparalleled master of visual spectacle (Zack Snyder) in the director's chair, I knew I was in for quite an experience once the IMAX screen ignited with the movie's explosive opening scene.

Man of Steel begins on Krypton, home to an advanced civilization on the brink of civil unrest and total annihilation. Jor-El, one of Krypton's leading scientists, pleads with the leaders of their world to allow him to preserve their race after discovering an impending calamity that will decimate the entire planet. The council is unwilling to side with Jor-El, however, and soon the planet's military leader, General Zod, enacts a coup to overthrow the government. In the midst of a massive battle, Jor-El places all of his hopes in his newborn son, Kal-El. After a tearful goodbye, Jor-El and his wife Lara send their only son to Earth with the power to restore their once great race to its former glory.

I really don't want to get too far into the story, as it's a masterful unfolding of character-enriching scenes and pulse-pounding spectacle that is far too enjoyable to spoil. This is perhaps one of the most beautiful-looking films I have ever seen, particularly for a story that requires so much CGI. Snyder has an incredible artistic instinct when it comes to visuals that makes every frame of this film a wonder to behold. Particularly the opening scenes are some of the most incredible visuals I've ever seen in a film. The enormous budget of Man of Steel was clearly well spent.

One of the great surprises of this movie was how effortlessly Henry Cavill inhabited the role of Clark Kent/Kal-El. His identity crisis is really quite moving and the struggles he encounters throughout his life are portrayed brilliantly through an emotional performance I didn't expect from the relatively unknown Cavill. He embodies the character of Superman and, as my wife can attest, he's also a pretty decent-looking guy as well (which the female viewers will surely appreciate). Another stand-out was Amy Adams as the ballsy journalist Lois Lane. Unlike previous incarnations, the cleverness of Lois is not lost on the screenwriters, who respect the character's intelligence enough to not expect a pair of glasses to fool an investigative reporter.

This film is a visual wonder, but the emotional power behind Kal-El's history is paid a great deal of care to properly convey throughout the narrative. Kevin Costner's scenes in particular do a terrific job of setting up Clark's conflict, as well as illustrating the growth of a superhero in the making. Of course, the heart of the film is made even more touching and, at times, heartbreaking by the incredible score delivered by one of the world's finest film composers, Hans Zimmer. There are moments of beautiful tenderness where a solitary piano tugs at your heartstrings, and also seat-rattling crescendos during the epic battle sequences. It's also incredibly inspiring, with the final moments providing the same feeling of hopefulness that Kal-El gives to the people of Earth as he embraces his destiny.

Just like another great superhero reboot of recent years, Batman Begins, this film does justice to one of the most iconic characters ever created. I can't wait to see where future installments take the character and what new heights the titular Man of Steel can scale as he gives the people of Earth "an ideal to strive toward." This may not be a perfect film, but it doesn't matter. It's tremendously entertaining, emotionally investing, and genuinely inspiring. I could go on and on about this film, but suffice it to say that Man of Steel is easily the best superhero film of the year and possibly the best film of the year so far. I give it a solid four stars.

MAN OF STEEL is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language.

Coming Soon: World War Z!

Release Date: June 21, 2013
Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Brad Pitt, Marielle Enos, James Badge Dale and Matthew Fox
Music by: Marco Beltrani

Based on the novel by Max Brooks, World War Z is the story of "United Nations employee Gerry Lane, [who] traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments, and threatening to decimate humanity itself." 

Coming at the apex of a zombie renaissance in pop culture, World War Z is not only a blockbuster epic starring one of the biggest Hollywood icons working today, but also the biggest production of a horror/zombie film ever attempted. Given the massive scope of the project, it may surprise some that the director is also responsible for Academy Award nominated dramas like Monster's Ball, The Kite Runner, and one of my personal favorites, Finding Neverland. However, he has also proven his skills at delivering high-octane thrills in films like Quantum of Solace. Throughout his career, Marc Forster has consistently subverted expectations and shown his diverse talents through a variety of genres. He seems to enjoy a challenge, which makes World War Z a worthy selection to his resume.

An army of zombies threatening to penetrate humanity's last defences in World War Z.

Not only does this film bolster an intriguing choice of director, but outside of the house-hold name given top-billing, the rest of the cast seems somewhat unknown by comparison. For instance, Mireille Enos (who studied at Brigham Young University, incidentally) received her first recognition for performing in a broadway musical entitled Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, for which she received a Tony nomination. She has since gone on to roles in other star-studded productions like this year's Gangster Squad as well as numerous TV appearances throughout the past two decades. Her most acclaimed role was perhaps her recurring stint on the TV series The Killing for which she received an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination. Perhaps the success of WWZ will lead to even greater exposure for Enos in years to come.

Her co-stars, however, have already participated in numerous blockbuster films and/or game-changing TV series. James Badge Dale, while not a household name by any means, has already been a part of a huge film this summer in Iron Man 3 as the villainous henchman, Eric Savin. Following World War Z's release, Dale will also be in Disney's upcoming reboot of The Lone Ranger. Another important character in this film is being played by the memorable Matthew Fox, most well known for his leading role of Jack Shephard in the incredibly popular TV series, Lost. Though none of these people have been tasked with carrying a film of this magnitude, their mere presence should be enough to provide depth to the secondary characters that so often are given short shrift in genre epics.

WWZ looks to be a somewhat risky investment, given the overall profitability (or lack thereof) of zombie pictures. Most horror films tend to scrape by with a tidy profit based on the extremely low budgets initially afforded them by somewhat reluctant studios. However, following the success of shows like The Walking Dead, the time seems to be ripe for a break-out zombie/horror blockbuster. One thing of which we can all be certain— World War Z is shaping up to be unlike anything we've ever seen.

*For more information about the movie, visit the official World War Z web site.