Monday, December 31, 2012

Les Misérables (2012) - Movie Review

Was the title, translated to "The Miserable", meant to describe my experience watching this?

Okay, it wasn't that bad, but let me just come right out and start by saying that I generally don't like musicals.  I don't mind it where they occasionally break into song, especially if it's a good song, but then there's the type of musical where almost every line is sung.  Les Misérables is an example of the latter.  There something about the singing of casual dialog that seems silly to me and it pulls me out of a movie, rather than bring me in.  This might work differently on stage, but in a movie it's odd to sing a line of dialog that could have more easily been spoken.  There many times I had to struggle understanding what's being said, and if I'm missing key details because of this, that's a problem.

Yes, I know that Les Misérables was based on a book by Victor Hugo, and that got turned into a musical, and this movie adaptation is based off the musical.  After watching Les Mis, I felt like this was a good story that was lost in all the noise of the film.

The story primarily follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a recently paroled convict.  Valjean skips out on his parole in an effort to restart his life.  I guess skipping out on parole is the best way to start clean, eh?  Apparently it's not, which is why a policeman/prison guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), spends the next 20 years trying to find him.  Valjean, under a fake name, is able to become a successful business man.  He promises a girl (Anne Hathaway) that used to work for him, but turned to prostitution, that he will take care of her daughter.  He fulfills his promise, and years later this girl falls in love with a man involved in a uprising.

I stole this, but I thought it get a great synopsis of the plot.

So, lets just get to my issues with the film.  The whole movie felt like volume was turned up to 11.  Even the quiet parts were loud.   It actually made it more difficult to hear things.  There were times where people were singing over each other and I had no clue what they were singing about.  Was this a rock concert?  How about some dynamics?  A good example of this was there's a scene where Valjean is singing at the top of his lungs surrounded by people that are sleeping, but nobody wakes up or is disturbed by this.  Was this song all in his head, or are these the heaviest sleepers ever?

That's not to say that I disliked Hugh Jackman's performance though.  I thought he was great and showed a huge range of emotion throughout his arc.  I might have felt something at the end of the film had I cared about any of the characters.  As the movie ended, I actually felt bad that there's this emotional climax where I felt nothing.  Granted, this may be due to my cyborg nature asserting itself over my humanity, but whatever.

I don't know if it was an issue with Russell Crowe's vocal range or that it was a one-note song he was forced to sing throughout the film, but I thought he came off as really stiff and out of place. Everyone was singing rings around him (again, not his fault).  Plus, I really didn't like the character he played.  He's been chasing the same guy down for two decades even when it's clear that he's changed his life around.  Let it go, dude.  Maybe his motivation is something that's better explained in the books, but in the movie he felt too much like a one-dimensional, musical Terminator.

Speaking of the music, does Les Mis only have three songs?  I get that in a musical it makes sense to have leitmotifs so that you can tie things together musically, but I kept thinking throughout the film, "Oh, this song again, just with different lyrics."  When you have a band where all of their songs sound the same, they usually go away pretty fast because it gets old, or people remember them as talentless hacks.

Much has been made of Anne Hathaway's performance, and while I did think it was a great performance, she's barely in the film.  I feel it was an issue of something being overhyped. Everyone knows she's going to perform this super emotional rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream", but when the song starts I'm saying to myself, "Already?  I don't even remember her character's name. This is her big emotional moment and we're only 15 minutes into the film."  Lots of people were sobbing during this song, but I wasn't invested enough in her character or that story at that point to be really moved by it.

Then, halfway through the movie, the backdrop changes to a French uprising and 'introduces' a bunch of new characters.  We have a huge influx of characters that have no backstory, or names that I can recall, yet I'm supposed to care about what's happening to them.  This is an area I wish had been cut down in favor of focusing more on Valjean, Javert and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). Also, this part of the film made me too aware of the fact that his is a French story brought to you by a bunch of English and Australian (and a few American) actors.  All of the poorer classes were even portrayed with Cockney accents.  This is something that used to not bug me, but it's the second film I've seen in the past month where you had all English actors playing non-English roles. When I see I bunch of French flags waving all over the place, but then don't hear a single French accent, it's hard for me to credit the film for attention to detail.

Another thing that bugged me about the second half of the film was that it centered around a love story of two people that have never spoken.  They simply saw each other in passing and both fell in love.  That's a bunch of crap.  It's the same issue I had with Anna Karenina.  I'm supposed to somehow identify with two super attractive people 'falling in love' simply because they looked at one another.  I wish love was that simple.

As the movie went on, it really because tedious to watch, particularly when yet another song would start by some random character.  I was like, "I get it, they like to sing all the time.  Can we please get on with the actual plot?!"  They weren't even really singing a song half the time, just some line of dialog.  This goes back to what I said at the beginning where it pulls me out of a movie to have the singing of dialog that could have just been spoken.  Singing it actually takes longer, which is one of the reasons why this movie is 158 minutes.

I didn't hate everything though.  One thing I did appreciate is that the actors actually sang their songs live while filming, rather than lipsync.  I think this made for better performances, and you got more feeling from them.  Plus, it helps when the singing isn't note-for-note perfect, as that's just not realistic.  Even the best singers hit a flat note from time to time.

The highlight of the film for me was every time Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were on screen.  They play a duo of innkeepers and thieves that show up throughout the film and Cohen in particular was hilarious.  Another standout to me was Samantha Barks as Éponine. She's not in the film much, but has experience playing same role in the West End production of Les Mis and that experience served her well in the film.

I also really liked the look of the movie.  The set and costume design really stood out.  As did the makeup, which did a good job of making a bunch of really attractive people look terrible.

While I do think the performances deserve the Oscar praise they've been getting, the movie itself fell short for me.  I think a lot of what didn't work for this film falls on director Tom Hooper.  As I've said before the story gets lost in all the volume and how bombastic it all is.  I wish he would have reigned it in a little and allowed for a little more nuance.   Normally, music is one of the things that draws feeling out of me, but here it just grew tiresome.  I have a feeling I'd enjoy the book or the non-musical version of Les Mis much more.

If you're a fan of musicals or are familiar with the story of Les Misérables, then I think you'll probably like this.  It does have fantastic performances from the cast and the movie looks great, but I think it might be a little too much for casual viewers.  It's length and loudness made it difficult for me to connect with, and the story got lost in the music.  I know the minority on this one, but I suggest it as a rental.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Happy New Year everyone!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Django Unchained (2012) - Movie Review

Bounty hunters, we don't need their scum.

A former dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), is in pursuit of a trio of slave trading brothers.  He frees a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), as Schultz believes Django can help identify the brothers. The unchaining and the adventure begins.  Django and Schultz hit it off and Schultz takes a special interest in Django once he tells him the story of how he was separated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Schultz makes a deal with Django to become his partner in bounty hunting for the winter and then he'll set Django free and help him find Broomhilda.

I'm often reminded of another tale of a bounty hunter named Jango, who was a simple man just trying to make his way in the universe.  I don't recall what happened to Jango, but I heard he lost his head over something a long, long time ago.  I heard Samuel L. Jackson was somehow involved.

Back to the unchaining.  They eventually track down Broomhilda, and learn she's been purchased by a plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).  They travel to his plantation, Candieland, to free her.  I hear Candieland was located next to Chutes and Laddersville.  Here's where the movie got a little odd for me, as their plan to free Broomhilda seemed needlessly complex.  When their plan is uncovered Candie still agrees to sell Broomhilda and seemed more upset about their deception.  I thought this was the one real weakness of Quentin Tarantino's story.

Another issue was the massive use of the 'n word'.  I expected to hear it from time to time considering the period and subject of the film.  I figured that's how slavers spoke, but it's said like every other second and by just about every character.  I can see this being really offensive to some, especially when it's used for comedic effect.  It was kind of shocking to hear it said, but then it's said so much that you almost become desensitized to it, which isn't a good thing.

The good news is that Django Unchained has that brutal, over-the-type violence you've come to expect from Tarantino.  One of the things I really appreciated about this was the lack of CG blood. It just has a better feel and I have a more visceral reaction when they use blood packs, and believe me, they use a lot of them.  It's the one area where I wish filmmakers would abandon use of computer animation.  Tarantino also understands how to use the anticipation of violence to build tension.  The longer the movie goes on, the more you keep expecting something to happen suddenly.  There's a great scene near the end of the film with Leonardo DiCaprio where the whole time I was expecting something to explode.

You also get much of Tarantino's off-kilter humor throughout the film.  Despite the overuse of the 'n-word', Tarantino is still a great dialog writer, which has always driven his films.  There's great chemistry between all of the actors.  Christoph Waltz is fantastic!  In relatively short period of time, Waltz has become one of my favorite actors and I love watching how much fun he he's having with role.  Dr. Schultz a flair for the dramatic, and you see he even has a code he follows.  I was kind of worried that Jamie Foxx was going to be the weak link, but he played off Waltz well and I really enjoyed the character.  I feared he was just going to try to play a bad-ass without any nuance about it, but turns out I haven't been giving him enough credit as an actor.  Leonardo DiCaprio infused some life into the second half of the film with his awesome portrayal of Calvin Candie.  He's a mustache-twirling villain if I've ever seen one.  There's never a moment where you don't see that he's a sick, evil man.  It's always more entertaining to watch a film when you can tell all the actors are really into their roles and having a blast with them.

It's interesting to me how a lot of Tarantino's films are tributes older film styles.  He clearly wanted make an old fashioned spaghetti western, and at times that's exactly what it is, just with Tarantino's flair.  I always look forward to seeing what genre or era he's taking on next.  Another recent trend of his is that the length of his films are coming dangerously close to getting out of control.  I didn't mind the length of Django Unchained, since I was entertained the whole time, but there were certainly scenes here and there that could have been removed or tightened up.  At 165 minutes, it felt like he either needed to cut it down, or split it into two films like he did with Kill Bill.

Whether you're a fan of old westerns or Quentin Tarantino, you should enjoy Django Unchained. It's definitely a little too long, and some might find it offensive, but if you can get past that, it's a fun ride with great performances and the type of humor and violence you've come to expect from Tarantino.  I strongly recommend checking it out.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Sunday, December 23, 2012

This is 40 (2012) - Movie Review

Was the working title of this film "This is Misery"?

I say that because if there was ever a movie where I felt the message they were trying to tell me that marriage and having kids is a miserable experience, it would be This is 40.  Billed as the "sort-of sequel to Knocked Up", we catch up with Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) a few years after the events of Knocked Up.  I thought it was odd that there was no cameo from either Katherine Heigl (you do see a picture of her on the wall though) or Seth Rogen, which seemed like a missed opportunity. Granted Heigl is probably on Judd Apatow's shit list after what she said about Knocked Up, but Rogen is still in Apatow's camp.  Also, as the movie centers around the relationship with their families and their 40th birthdays, it seems odd that known family members would have no mention or involvement in the film.

One of the biggest issues with This is 40 is that there's really no plot at all.  It's the Seinfeld of movies in that it's a movie about nothing.  You're just watching a short snapshot of these people dealing with their issues.  The other odd part was that the movie takes place over the course of a single week.  I only know this because the movie begins with Debbie's birthday, and they say Pete's birthday is in the same week (the film ends with Pete's birthday party).  Despite the short time frame of the film, I felt like I watched several months of their lives.  At one point you see their living room and notice there's a Christmas tree and wonder how much time has passed.  Were we in December the whole time?

Even with no plot and only a week elapses, I felt like there was too much going on and too many side characters.  How many issues do these people have?  You're watching Pete deal with the lack of success of his independent record label, and how that's causing financial strain he hasn't shared with Debbie.  Debbie owns small boutique store that seemed to have huge sales numbers, and they are alerted to a missing twelve thousand dollars, but didn't have any urgency over finding where it went.  This leads to a side plot involving an unnecessary Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi. Their oldest daughter Sadie (Maude Apatow) for some reason has a fascination with Lost even though that's been off the air for a few years, and never stops yelling.  There's a side plot involving the mother of a boy (Melissa McCarthy) after the boy and Sadie have a Facebook fight.  Debbie is dealing with the resentment she feels towards her absent father (John Lithgow), and Pete's father (Albert Brooks) has been guilting them into lending him money constantly.

In typical Judd Apatow fashion, the film is way too long and really needed to be cut down.  I don't understand why a movie with no plot needed to be over two hours.  Don't get me wrong, I don't mind a long movie, and I normally love Judd Apatow's style, but this is the first of his films where I really felt the meandering length of the film.  It just kind of ends without any resolution to any of their issues, and it doesn't cover enough time in their lives to show any growth of the characters.

Don't get me wrong, it's not all bad.  There are many hilarious moments, but the movie was arranged where all the laughs came in blocks or montages of funny scenes.  When there aren't laughs though, everyone is fighting and yelling and nobody seems happy.  Katherine Heigl had a complaint about Knocked Up where she said, "It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys,"  After watching This is 40, I have to say I understand what she was saying.  I couldn't help but think that Debbie was always bitching and shrill, where Pete was always made to look like a nice guy.  I find it odd that Judd Apatow would make a movie about marriage and family life that paints it in such a negative light and cast his own wife and children in the movie.  I hope he's not making a commentary about his own personal life.

For the most part the performances are all fine, even if I didn't necessarily love the characters. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are good as the leads and do the type of work you normally expect out of them.  I actually got more out of a lot of the supporting characters, even though there were too many of them.  I thought Albert Brooks was funny every time he was on screen.  Melissa McCarthy had the funniest moment of the film (stay for her scene during the credits).  Jason Segel has a good sequence involving Chris O'Dowd and Megan Fox, but again, many of these characters just seemed unnecessary or underdeveloped.

This is 40 is an uneven and overlong film.  It's a mixed bag of funny or insightful scenes, but then times that make you never want to get married or have kids.  If you're a Judd Apatow fan, I think it's worth a watch at some point, but save it for rental.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Jack Reacher (2012) - Movie Review

Jack Reacher would totally kick Ethan Hunt's ass.

It's interesting to me that just two months ago I saw Alex Cross, a movie based on off a popular book series that was meant to re-launch the character.  I wasn't aware of this before hand, but Jack Reacher is based off a book series by author Lee Child.  The big difference is that Jack Reacher is how you do it right.  This particular story was based off the book "One Shot", and yet another series of books I may have to add to my Amazon Wish List.

In a chilling and effective opening sequence, a sniper opens fire, killing five people.  It's a disturbing image and way to open the film, and then it occurred to me that considering recent events it might be a little too much for some to watch.  It's unfortunate timing for sure.  A former military sniper, James Barr, is captured by the authorities and only writes "Get Jack Reacher" when being interrogated.  Reacher (Tom Cruise) sees the news report about event and shows up on his own. While not much is known about Jack Reacher, we do learn he's a former ace Military Police officer that's been living off the grid.  He partners with Barr's defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), and they investigate what happened.  They find that this case isn't as open and shut as first believed.

I don't want to get into the plot much more than that, as one of the things I loved about Jack Reacher what how much it surprised me regarding what kind of film it was.  When you watch the trailers, it appears to be a straight-up action flick, but it's much more than that.  There's plenty of action, but it's also a mystery/thriller.  It's also funny in the right places, but that balances out the brutality in the fight scenes.  When I saw brutal though, I don't mean to say it's bloody.  In a later part of the film, you learn more about the victims and it really give the film an emotional depth that surprised me.

One of the things I loved about Christopher McQuarrie's direction (he also wrote the screenplay) were all the little things.  Coming back to that opening sequence, the first 5-10 minutes of the movie have no dialog and the sounds are muted.  It perfectly sets up the story without saying anthing.  Later in the film, there's a great car chase sequence that stood out to me because of the realism about it.  Reacher isn't an expert driver, so you don't see perfectly executed, high-speed turns.  He fishtails, spins out, even crashes a little.  When you contrast this with something like like Taken 2, where you have to believe that someone who doesn't even have their driver license is somehow having little issue driving at high speeds on narrow roads, it really made me appreciate what they did here.  Even in the fight scenes you see use of strategy and tactics.  Granted use of tactics are a large part of Reacher's character, but I liked that the action wasn't mindless.

I can't say it's a totally genius movie though.  One of the issues I had with the movie was that when the villain is revealed, someone known only as "The Zec" (a surprising appearance by director Werner Herzog), his back story is a little too over-the-top and super villiany for what his goal was. He wasn't even in the movie that much, so it seemed a little too much for a movie that otherwise had a grittier, realistic feel to it.  Herzog's creepy performance made the character tolerable though.  The only other issue I had with the movie is that it does run a tad too long, not to the point where you're getting bored with it, but it would have benefit from being tightened up a bit.

Just when I'm ready to write Tom Cruise off, he reminds me why he's the superstar he is.  Cruise doesn't physically resemble the character as written, which may upset fans of the book series, but he owns the role.  Cruise's Reacher plays off everyone well, whether it's Helen, or a local detective (David Oyelowo).  I've always enjoyed Rosamund Pike as Helen, but I think you'll notice there's a certain part of her anatomy that's a little distracting.  Those two were the uncredited stars of the movie for sure.  Richard Jenkins has a small role as the prosecuting district attorney (who's also Helen's father), and is great as always.  Lastly, Robert Duvall shows up to class the joint up. Everyone plays their parts well, but this is definitely the Tom Cruise show.

Whether I was just in really good mood when I saw this movie, or it appealed to my basic instincts, I loved the hell out of Jack Reacher.  It's a thrilling crime drama, with good action and moments of odd humor.  Tom Cruise anchors the film with another star performance, and he shows he still has 'it' even though he's north of 50.

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Guilt Trip (2012) - Movie Review

I think the moral of the story is that if you're mean to your mother, you look like a dick.

Andy (Seth Rogen) has invented a new cleaning product that he's having difficulty selling.  He's about to embark on a cross-country trip to pitch his product to several different companies.  He begins by returning home to see his mother, Joyce (Barbara Streisand).  In the short interaction before the trip, you learn that Joyce hasn't dated since Andy's father died when he was 8.  She also reveals that she had a love interest before she married her father.  Andy tracks this mystery man down and figures a way to fit a visit to this guy while on his trip.  He invites his mother along, which already kind of contradicts the title of the film, as I never felt like he invited her out of guilt or that she guilted him into coming along.

The actual 'Guilt Trip' begins and then the movie became tedious to watch.  I was squirming in my seat and was actually considering leaving, which is something I don't think I've ever done.  It wasn't insulting, but there was barely a laugh to be had and there wasn't anything particularly interesting about it.  The first half of the movie kind of hinges on setting up Joyce as a nagging and overbearing mother, and while her character is as cliched as they come, you don't have any reason to dislike her. So then your focus turns to how Andy's behavior towards his mother really doesn't make him all that likable. Andy craps on any suggestion Joyce gives him even though it's clear to everyone she's right.  It's not very entertaining to see him be extremely inflexible and rude when she's just basically being a normal Mom.

To The Guilt Trip's credit, there's a scene about halfway through the movie that changes the course and tone of the film.  From that point on it actually got funnier and I started to enjoy it more, as well as sympathize with everyone a little bit.

As I mentioned, one of the main issues of the film was that there weren't any laugh-out-lout moments.  Even a small chuckle here or there would have been nice.  The sad part is that Rogen and Streisand had good chemistry, but lacked the kind of banter that really would have driven the movie, pardon the pun.  You'll really notice this during the credits when they show you a series of deleted scenes that did show exactly that.  It also didn't help these scenes got the biggest laughs from the audience.  It's a shame and it illustrates what a missed opportunity The Guilt Trip had to really be a good comedy.  The supporting cast is also wasted in that they have several comedic actors (Casey Wilson, Adam Scott, Ari Graynor) in straight roles with barely any dialog.  I'm not sure why you'd go through the trouble of getting funny, recognizable actors and then not use them at all.

I'm surprised they decided to roll this out a week before Christmas, as there's nothing holiday-themed about it at all.  The performances from the leads, while not bad, aren't exactly going to blow you away either.  I actually enjoyed Streisand, and I can't really call myself a fan of hers.  The film does wrap up nicely and has some heartfelt moments towards the end, but the first half of the movie doesn't have a strong enough setup for those scenes to really have much of an emotional impact. You've seen many other movies do a better job with similar family themes.

I'm kind of surprised with how this turned out, because director Anne Fletcher had a fairly modest hit with her last film The Proposal.  Writer Dan Fogelman has written movies like Bolt, Tangled, and Crazy, Stupid, Love., so he's got a pretty good track record as well.  I even hear he based the story off a real-life trip he took with his mother from New Jersey to Vegas.  You'd think drawing from experiences would give the film a more personal feel to it, but it's about as generic as they come.

The Guilt Trip is a harmless, but formulaic and forgettable film.  It wastes a good cast by not having any significant laughs, and doesn't have enough heart to warrant seeing this over the holidays.  You can save this one for rental.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hitchcock (2012) - Movie Review

A movie based on a book about the making of a movie.  If this loops on itself more, it'll create a singularity that will destroy us all.

Hitchcock is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Psycho, a movie that starred Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn.  I'm kidding, of course.  That remake sure was a misfire, wasn't it?  I actually knew very little about the movie Hitchock going in, but I'm always up for a good biopic, especially when it's about such a fascinating person and iconic film.

We begin as Alfred Hitchcock is looking for an idea for his next film.  He wants to do something a little different, and thinks he's found it when he reads the book Psycho by Robert Bloch.  The studio, however, isn't too thrilled with his choice of project, so Hitchcock decides to take a risk and finance the film himself.  He's believes so strongly in the film, that he even has all copies of the book bought up, so that nobody would have the twists spoiled.  Even back then Hitchcock understood the value of no spoilers.  These days any asshat with a blog can spoil a movie for you.  Wait a second...

It's funny to me that a well respected director like Hitchcock didn't have full confidence from the studio when wanting to do a different project.  When you consider the crap that gets made these days, it blows my mind that he'd have difficulty getting a film made.  It also goes to show you how different the business is now.

Hitchcock is based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello. From what I hear, it's a fantastic and extremely well researched book that I'm going to have to pick up after watching the film.  Despite being based off such a well respected book, the movie version of it felt a little thin.  I think the problem director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil), and writer John J. McLaughlin had was that they couldn't decide on what to cut from the film.  There's a lot going on, so you have a mix of the film being a little tonally inconsistent and lacking depth in a few key areas.  For example, you learn about his relationship with his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) and their difficulties.  This was an area I wish the film would have gone a little more in depth into.

There are some funny moments, but you never feel like they were making a comedy, and there isn't enough about his personality to come away thinking it's a character study. Throughout the film you see these exchanges between Hitchcock and Ed Gein, an actual serial killer that the character of Norman Bates was based on.  I wasn't clear what these scenes were meant to represent, so they felt odd and seemed like they could have been removed in favor of focusing more on the making of Psychoand Hitchcock's personality and relationships.

I find it a little ironic that a movie about "The Master of Suspense" contained very little actual suspense.  We all know how this is going to turn out.  It's not like we're getting an alternate universe were he's never able to complete the film, or it's a bomb.  It's still fun to watch it all play out though.

As you'd guess, the strength of the film are the performances. Anytime you get Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as your leads, you know you're going to get a well-acted film.  Mirren is wonderful and you see how Alma was 'the woman behind the man'.  She would have carried the movie by herself were it not for the performance of Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock.  It seems like kind of an odd choice to get someone so well known to play Hitchcock, but the makeup job is so good, that it actually took me a bit before I realized it was him.  I thought Hopkins was playful and it made me like Hitchcock all the more.  Scarlett Johansson plays Anne Heche...I mean Janet Leigh and I found her to be very pleasant.  Jessica Biel and James D'Arcy have very small roles as Vera Miles and Anthony Perkins.  You'll recognize much of the supporting cast and I was surprised to see people of their caliber play such small roles.  Even The Karate Kid shows up.

Lastly, I wanted to give a small shout out to my favorite theater The Vine ( in Livermore.  They upgraded their screens and projectors just this past week, and boy what an upgrade! The film looked fantastic.  It was bright and clear, with HD quality that rivaled my 3D TV.

Whether you're a fan of Hitchcock, the movie Psycho, or just like a good behind-the-scenes biopic, there's a lot to like about Hitchcock.  I had fun with the film and enjoyed it, but couldn't help thinking there needed to be more.  You have great performances from the cast, but it only scratches the surface.  This isn't something you need to rush out and see, but I do think it's worth seeing.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) - Movie Review

At least these prequels don't have Jar Jar Binks.  Sorry, anytime I can take a shot at Jar Jar, I will.

It's really not accurate to compare The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to other prequels, as the book it's based on was actually written before The Lord of the Rings.  The Hobbit is not as much of a prequel as much as The Lord of the Rings was a sequel to it.  I've actually never read The Hobbit, and only have a vague recollection of seeing the animated feature as a kid, so I was going into this pretty cold as far as what the story was about.

The movie's backstory is spelled out in the first few minutes.  The dwarven city of Erebor is overrun by the dragon Smaug, and the Dwarves are forced from their homes and into a nomadic existence.  The film is framed as an older Bilbo is writing his story on his birthday (as seen in The Fellowship of The Ring), allowing them to link the trilogies together on screen, but it also gives Peter Jackson an excuse to have Ian Holm and Elijah Wood briefly reprise their roles as Bilbo and Frodo. I have to say it was nice seeing those two again and it gave me a comfortable feeling as the story began.

We then go back to a younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) as he meets Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and is forced to host a party of Dwarves as they assemble and await their leader, Thorin (Richard Armitage).  The Dwarves outline their plan on reclaim Erebor, and Gandalf explains why Bilbo was chosen as the fourteenth member of their party.  Bilbo initially refuses to join, but decides to embrace the adventure and come along.

I could keep talking about the plot, but there so much going on that I could be here all day.  I'm sure many of you are wondering how The Hobbit was stretched into three films (up until last Summer, it was originally planned for two). From what I understand, Peter Jackson is doing a combination of adding things that are just kind of hinted at or mentioned in the appendices, or in some cases just outright making Middle Earth-type stuff up. This isn't strictly going to be the story of The Hobbit anymore.  Again, as I haven't read the book I can't comment on how faithful it all is. However, I can say that the movie did feel stretched out at times (it's nearly three hours), and there were a few things introduced that weren't fully developed or felt thrown in.  We'll see if there's a payoff to these things in the later movies. I trust Peter Jackson's direction, and I don't think the next films will disappoint.

Despite the stretched feeling, I didn't really mind the pacing.  I was never bored or felt like it was too long.  It all felt very similar to The Fellowship of the Ring, where I wasn't totally into the film, but understood how it was building towards something. That's pretty much how I felt here, only this time I was actually disappointed it was ending, where with Fellowship I could felt like I could take it or leave it.  I want to see how this is all going to play out.

Another thing that kind of disappointed me was how familiar it all felt.  Sure this is the same world, so the look, locations and sounds should be familiar, but at times I felt like I was just watching recycled stuff from the first trilogy.  Much of the music is ripped straight from the other films, as well as some of creatures and even plot elements.

I saw this in IMAX 3D, and while I liked seeing it in the IMAX format, I didn't think the 3D was anything special.  I did see this in the HFR format though, so lets talk about that for a bit.  The Hobbit was filmed at a higher frame rate: 48-frames-per-second.  Films are normally done at 24-frames-per-second, which causes more of a motion blur and gives films that cinematic quality we're used to.  Since we're watching the film at higher frame rate, there's no blur at all and it has a super clean look about it.  If you own a Samsung TV, it's pretty much the same effect that the Auto Motion feature gives you.  I've had a Samsung 3D TV for a little over a year now, so I've gotten used to the way it looks.  Despite being used to the effect, I still found the 48-fps a little distracting in the opening minutes of The Hobbit.  There were times where things looked artificially sped up, which was a little off putting.  You may also notice that a lot of the effects-driven sequences have a video game look about them.  Overall, the high frame rate didn't bug me that much, and I think you'll get used it as I did.  It's probably just going to depend on how much of purist you are.  There is a standard frame rate version of the film in theaters, and depending on your location, this may be the only thing offered to you anyway, so this whole HFR thing may be moot.

The Hobbit does look great, and the effects are even better than in the first trilogy.  Nothing showcases this more than when Gollum finally shows up.  Gollum and Bilbo's scene is the highlight of the film and was worth the price of admission alone.  Andy Serkis is amazing again and I wish he'd get more recognition for the work he does.

Despite the large party involved in the adventure, the cast of The Hobbit really isn't all that large (it scrolls by rather quickly in credits).  The story mainly focuses on Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin, and I thought the performances Freeman, McKellen and Armitage are all fine.  I've always liked Martin Freeman and I think he did a good job as Bilbo.  It helps that as great as Ian Holm is, Bilbo wasn't a large character in the previous films, so it doesn't feel like Freeman is trying to live up a previous performance or hard large, fake feet-shoes to fill.

Another thing I liked was that it wasn't as jokey or silly as the trailers made me fear.  I was really worried that they were going to go for a lot of silly or slapstick humor, especially when the Dwarves were involved, but there are very few laughs to be had and the overall tone of the film was serious. It also helps that the individual Dwarves are developed to the point where they are more than just background characters.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a welcome return to Middle-Earth.  If you aren't already a fan of The Lord of the Rings, I don't think it's going to do anything to make you one though.  It is a gorgeous film (regardless of the format you see it in), has great effects, and thrilling action.  While it's probably a little too long, it's still entertaining and will leave you looking forward to the next installment. You don't need to see it in 3D, but I do recommend seeing it in the theater.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, December 7, 2012

Deadfall (2012) - Movie Review

A getaway after a robbery goes wrong.  Oh but wait, there's snow!

After a casino heist, siblings Addison (Eric Bana) and Liza (Olivia Wilde) get into an accident while making their getaway.  Even though they are in the middle of a snowstorm, they decide to split up (always a good idea) and reconnect later.  I've always wondered, why split up, if the goal is to meet up later?  Aren't you increasing the chances that one of you is caught or that something will go wrong?  Anyway, as this is going on, ex-con Jay (Charlie Hunnam) is headed home, but also runs into difficulty along the way.  Paths cross in the movie Deadfall, which could have been renamed Amazing Coincidences.

Yes, amazing coincidences are key in this movie directed by Stephan Ruzowitzky.  This wouldn't have been so bad, if Zack Dean's script wasn't also so cliched and predictable.  It's disappointing because it actually had an interesting beginning, and there are moments here and there where you think it might do something different, but there weren't any twists or surprises.  As a result, there is no suspense at all.  The mistakes made by the characters are so obvious or telegraphed that I had a hard time believing they were capable of robbing a casino in the first place. As the movie opens, Liza is counting a pile of money in the back seat of a car.  They all thought this was a good idea?  To have money out in the open of your getaway car.  Then both the driver and Addison turn around to talk to Liza in the middle of a snow storm, and you can't help but think someone should be keeping there eyes on the road.  WHAM!  A deer hits the windshield and the car flips.  Stuff like this continues throughout the film.

Even the supporting characters had my rolling my eyes.  We're introduced to the local sheriff (Treat Williams), and he was a bad, sexist stereotype.  He refuses to give a female officer an assignment, and you think it's because he's trying to keep her down, but then you find out she's his daughter (Kate Mara).  So then you might think he's being protective, right?  Nope, he continues to berate her throughout the film for being a screw-up (despite her passing an FBI entrance exam), and you get the feeling the real issue is that he wishes he had son instead of a daughter.  It's an awful character that I have a hard time understanding why he was written this way, since it wasn't essential at all to the plot.  Oh, and the kicker is that he ends up shooting his daughter on accident.  Idiot.

It's really not even an issue with the performances, as we're working with a good cast, but it's more how the characters were written.  Addison is initially portrayed as a criminal that appears to have a code, but then his character takes a turn at the end that makes him completely unlikable.  Plus, they appeared to throw in some implied incest angle between the two of them that wasn't fully explored, but just added to the creep factor.  I really like Eric Bana, and I think he tried to do the best with what he was given.  I also liked Olivia Wilde for a change.  Normally she seems to get these smaller roles where she's wasted, but I actually thought she got a chance to act a little and show some charisma that I'm not used to seeing from her.  I didn't mind Charlie Hunnam's performance either, but I found his voice kind of distracting.  I thought it might have been because he was doing an American accent, so I looked it up and sure enough, he's from the UK.

The two people I thought were wasted here were Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson as Jay's parents.  I wished the movie had focused on them and their relationship with Jay more.  They try to setup a overly complex relationship between them, but it all just kind of gets glossed over in favor of the main story.  Jay, a former boxer, was trained by his father, who's also a retired sheriff. They had a falling out after Jay blamed him for only getting the silver medal in the Beijing Olympics. Also, it's never really clear why Jay was in prison.  Something about him throwing a fight, but I'm not sure why he was in prison for that.  Do you see what I mean here about it being needlessly complex?

Speaking of unnecessary, the movie features two sex scenes between the same characters only about five minutes apart.  The first one does something that's kind of a pet peeve of mine in that you have two attractive, fit people having sex with their clothes on.  When you consider that Jay just got out of jail and this is the first action he's gotten in a while, you'd think he would've been tearing clothes off to see a woman naked.  The movie seemed to recognize this mistake, too, as in the second sex scene, they are both nude.  So, why not just edit out the first scene then?  It just kind of struck me as odd.  I'm sure they figured it was a tough sell to convince us these two connected emotionally in just 24 hours, so they just show them having sex again, because sex means they are in love.

Deadfall is a tepid thriller full of cliched characters and a telegraphed ending that provides no impact or satisfaction.  It's a nice looking film and the performances are fine, but the story is all over the place.  This one has 'wait for cable' written all over it.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Anna Karenina (2012) - Movie Review

When I try spelling Anna Karenina, I always want to add another 'na' to it.  I have the same problem when I spell bananana.

I have to admit that I've never read the novel by Tolstoy (some dead guy...kidding), or have much familiarity with the story. Sure, I've heard of it, but who hasn't?  Looking at the history, you could call Anna Karenina the Halley's Comet of movies, as it seems to get remade every 10 to 13 years.  Yes, I know Halley's Comet doesn't come that often, but I couldn't think of another occurrence in nature that happened with the same frequency.  Maybe a day will come where people will mark the ages by which version of Anna Karenina they identify with.

Even if you've never seen any of the previous adaptations of Anna Karenina the basic story is one that should feel familiar.  Anna (Keira Knightley) is married to a wealthy politician Alexei Karenin (Jude Law).  He's a little cold, but not abusive, and Anna seems to love their son more than she loves him.  While travelling to help a friend, Anna meets Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and it's love at first sight.  They have a passionate affair, but Alexei is no dummy and learns of it.  He wants a divorce, but Anna knows the disgrace this will cause her and that she won't be able to see her son any more.  Everyone becomes aware of her behavior and affair, which makes her an outcast.

After watching Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina, I have to wonder how faithful it is to the book.  I say this because I'm never given any reason to like the title character.  It didn't seem like her affair with Vronsky was triggered by anything more than making goo-goo eyes at each other at a dance party, which I have to admit the party was the highlight of the film.  Vronsky was even expected to propose to another woman, but one look at Anna and those plans are out the window.  He's this creepy looking guy with a bad mustache, and I just didn't get any chemistry that made me understand why they fell in love so fast.  Plus, Anna came off to me as selfish for wanting to continue her affair, but refusing to get a divorce because of what it would cost her.  I'm not sure if something got lost in the adaptation, or maybe it's that I don't think this kind of material holds up anymore.  Love as first sight seems to be something that you only see in old stories, and getting a divorce really isn't as big of a deal as it used to be.  I mean, when someone gets a divorce, you don't see everyone around her shunning her or ignoring her.  Adultery still isn't cool though.  How's that for taking a stand?

I just didn't connect with anything, and as the movie went on I found it boring.  There were many subplots and characters I cared nothing about, maybe with the exception of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander).  The problem is that they are never the focus of the story, so when the the film comes back to them, it's too infrequent for me to have become that invested in it. Another thing that took me out of the movie was that they open it by telling you that this takes place in Russia, but everyone spoke with a English accent.

It's not all bad though.  It's a well-acted film.  I've always liked Keira Knightley, and I think it's funny how she's become the go-to girl for costume drama's.  She gives a good performance, and I actually think she's an underrated actress, but roles like this don't seem to be much of a stretch for her anymore.  I'd like to see her step out of her comfort zone a little more.  The performance I got the most out of was Jude Law's.  I get the feeling that his character's cold demeanor was meant to make him unlikable, but I could only sympathize with him.  I found him to be very reasonable considering the circumstances.  As much as I liked Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Kick-Ass, I think he might have been miscast here.  He seemed too young to be paired up with Knightley, and maybe a more mature presence might have helped me buy into their romance.  Plus, that mustache bugged the hell out of me, but I know that's not really his fault.

As you'd expect with most period pieces, it's visually striking and the costume design is very detailed.  Many scenes are set on an actual stage, and the sets are built around them as the scene progresses and even transitions to other locations.  You'll see walls and objects move in and out seamlessly.  It was a very interesting way to shoot the film, but at times I found it distracting, especially when you'd see pulleys and ropes as part of the scene.  The set design was great though, and I can't imagine the amount of work that went into setting up shots done in the film.  I can see why they didn't do the whole movie in this style, and I think it would have detracted from it if they had.  In fact, perhaps it was Wright's focus on the visuals that made it so hard for me to connect with any of the characters.

Anna Karenina is a beautiful costume drama, and features some strong performances by the cast, but I came away from this with a cold feeling.  I didn't care about any of the characters, and couldn't connect with it.  I think it's worth watching if you like this type of film, but it's something best left for rental.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Killing Them Softly (2012) - Movie Review

I'll spare you from any puns about the title of this movie and the similarly named song.

We're introduced to a bunch of reject criminals planning their next 'job'.  The plan is to hold up a mafia card game, as there will be a lot of cash for the taking.  They believe it's the perfect crime because the person hosting the game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), previously admitted to robbing his own game, so they know Trattman will get blamed again if another of his games is robbed.

The crime actually goes as planned, but the mafia wants the people responsible to pay.  Jackie (Brad Pitt) is the hitman hired by the mob to take care of business. He knows that Trattman was set up, but believes that the people on the street will only believe he was responsible, so Trattman needs to take the hit.  A mob representative (Richard Jenkins) only wants him roughed up.  This frustrates Jackie as he doesn't like how the mob is becoming too corporate, with simple decisions needing to go through levels of management and red tape for approval.  This is where Killing Them Softly starts to show a very cynical view of corporate culture, the government, and even the U.S.

As the movie goes on, more hits are ordered, but Jackie needs to bring in another hitman because he has a close relationship with one of the people that needs to get taken out.  He calls on Mickey (James Gandolfini) to help him out.  However, you learn that Mickey has devolved into a drunk that can't be relied on, leaving Jackie to take care of everything.

Killing Them Softly is one of those movies that I think a lot of people are going to have a hard time getting into.  It starts off very slowly until Brad Pitt finally shows up, and even then it's still pretty slowly paced.  Many scenes linger on longer than they should.  While the dialog is very funny in parts, it seemed like any scene that didn't involve Brad Pitt didn't have a lot of weight.

I liked the gritty, noir feel about it, but where the movie really excelled was in the camera work.  I'm not one to normally notice stuff like that, but they did a lot of cool things with interesting camera angles and how they used focus.  There's a scene where a character is high on heroin and the way the scene was shot, you really got a feel for how the guy was tripping and how his friend was getting frustrated trying to talk to him.  In another scene, there was a hit where they used a very stylish use of super slow motion.  However, Dredd 3D did the same, stylish, slow-motion death over the summer, and I think it looked better and fit the context of the film more. Another thing that really stood out to me was the sound.  When someone gets punched, you feel the loud thud as if you were getting hit.  The gunshots in the film are jarring at times.

The other strength of the movie are the performances.  Brad Pitt is great and totally carries the film! My only complaint is that it didn't start with his character, as he doesn't make his first appearance until almost 20 minutes into the film.  While he's not a nice guy, you can't help but root for him.  I think it's because I sympathized with his frustration of having to deal with all the red tape and bureaucracy he encountered.  He was hired to do a job and just wanted to do it without having to wait for approval for every single thing.  I thought he was the very definition of an anti-hero and it totally worked for me.  James Gandolfini has a limited role, but his interaction with Pitt was fun to watch.  I also enjoyed Richard Jenkins as the mob liaison (simply billed as Driver), but Jenkins is always great.

As I mentioned before, the movie takes a very cynical stab at America, and depending on how you feel about the current state of affairs, this may or may not work for you.  The movie takes place during the time of Obama's first election, so throughout the film there are clips and soundbites of both Obama and George W.  It's interesting to note that this is based off a book written in 1974 by George V. Higgins called Cogan's Trade.  I haven't read the book, so I don't know if those messages were also in the book or inserted by writer/director Andrew Dominik.  Dominik is from New Zealand, so it seems like an outsider's perspective of America.

The film had a great final scene though.  It was the kind of ending that gives you that punch where you can only help but laugh a little.

Killing Them Softly is a bit of a mixed bag, and I can understand how this won't be for everyone.   The slow pacing may turn off some, as well as the statements they are making about our government and culture.  On the other hand, I enjoyed it for it's gritty, visual style and it's dark humor.  Plus, it has a great performance from Brad Pitt.  This movie reminded me a lot of last year's Drive, which had a lot of style, but not a lot of meaningful dialog.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) - Movie Review

This movie almost made me sympathize with Philadelphia Eagles fans...almost.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) is released from a mental hospital under the care of his parents.  His mental meltdown cost him his job and wife, but he's determined to get his life back on track with a new, positive outlook on life.  Even though his wife has moved away and filed a restraining order against him, Pat has a one-track mind, determined to get her back.

Shortly after coming home, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who's just as mentally unbalanced as he is.  The two of them form an unlikely friendship based around them needing a favor from each other:  Tiffany needs a partner for a dance competition, and Pat needs someone that can deliver a letter to his wife.  You might think it's a bad idea to get two crazy people like this together, but as the movie went on they seemed to balance each other out.  That's part of the charm of Silver Linings Playbook.

The movie started off a little 'off' for me.  Despite his new mantra of having a positive outlook and looking for the silver lining, you don't have a lot of reason to like Pat.  He comes off as delusional, stubborn and prone to violent outbursts.  They don't reveal what got Pat into trouble or what he's suffering from for about a quarter of the way through it.  Fortunately, this ended up working for the film, as when you do find out what big event got him into trouble, and the environment he was raised in, he immediately became sympathetic.  I obviously won't reveal what happened, but I couldn't help but think I would react in a similar way.  Does that mean I'm also bipolar like Pat, or just the 'AngryVader' you all know and love (or hate)?

You'll find that most of the people in the movie, Pat and Tiffany especially, have no real filter, saying pretty much whatever is on their mind, regardless of it's appropriateness. This leads to a lot of uncomfortable situations and humor throughout the film.  This was another area of the movie that I started on the fence about.  It felt too odd and quirky.  At the same time, I think many of us sometimes wish we could take off that filter, and just say what's really on our mind.  That aspect of the movie won me over around the same time I warmed up to Pat.

I also get the feeling this movie was set a few years ago.  They are huge Philadelphia Eagles fans (a fact that actually plays heavily into the plot), and thought I recalled a reference to DeSean Jackson being a rookie or it's after his rookie year, which would have been somewhere around 2008-2009.  Also, I believe they were on a playoff run, which would have put it around that same time, unless I'm to believe this is really a fantasy film.  Zing!  I don't really have a point with all of this, it was more of an observation.

None of this would have worked if it wasn't for all of the fantastic performances across the board. Bradley Cooper really impressed me here, and I think came away with his finest performance to date.  He really balances out all of his character's craziness with humor, and Pat manages to be both sympathetic and weirdly sweet.  He was a large driving force to getting this movie made (he executive produced), and I'm glad to see him step out of his comfort zone and take a chance on a movie and role he believed in.

As much as I like Jennifer Lawrence, I initially thought she may have been miscast, as she's playing a role older than her actual age, and then pairing her against a much older leading man.  Fortunately, she has great chemistry with Cooper, and her performance has a maturity about it, much like she showed in Winter's Bone.  I also think it was a smart decision to die her hair darker, which I think helped age her a bit.

Robert De Niro was also great as Pat's father.  In fact, this is the most I've enjoyed him in a while. He wasn't doing his typical role, where he plays a variation of a gangster or is just phoning it in (like in the Fockers movies), and his character had a lot of depth.  As you learn about him, you understand why Pat is the way he is.  His role isn't just thrown in either, as he has a large part in how the plot plays out.

The whole supporting cast is great.  Jacki Weaver is wonderful as Pat's month, and Shea Whigham also has a small role as his brother.  John Ortiz has some funny moments as Pat's best friend, and they even got Julia Stiles to play his wife.  But the biggest surprise of all, was how they managed to bring Chris Tucker out of hiding.  He hasn't been in a movie since Rush Hour 3, but he was a welcome sight.  His character has a running gag about breaking out of the mental hospital, and always seems to show up at the most random times.  He's very good in the role and used just enough that his gag didn't get old.

It's interesting how many of the characters are a little tough to take at first, but as the movie goes on you end up liking them.  I'm not sure if that was one of the points writer/director David O. Russell was trying to make, or just show a realistic take on mental illness.  It's not using the mental illness as a gag, and I liked how he challenged the audience with their perceptions.  He continues to be one my favorite directors that I wish made more movies.  This was adapted from the book of the same name by Matthew Quick.  It's a very eclectic story that has so many elements that normally it would be a mess, but Russell made something great out of it.

Silver Linings Playbook is a movie that surprised me.  I had heard a lot of good things, but didn't think it was going to live up to the hype.  Fortunately, it did and is one of the better movies of the year.  It's a definitely a sleeper that's going to generate a lot of Oscar buzz, but is totally deserving of all the praise.  It's sweet, funny, fantastically acted, and ends up becoming a surprisingly effective romantic comedy that isn't really a romantic comedy.

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, November 23, 2012

Life of Pi (2012) - Movie Review

Maybe if Siegfried and Roy were on the boat, they would have been able to handle the tiger...

This is a difficult movie to describe, because it's hard to talk about it and not sound like I'm high.  It's one of those movies.  Life of Pi is yet another movie based off a book considered 'un-filmable'.  The original book, by Yann Martel, is just as ambitious as something like Cloud Atlas, but Pi succeeds where Atlas didn't, both in story and visuals.

The movie follow the story of 'Pi'.  His given name was "Piscine Molitor", after a swimming pool at a French hotel, but shortened it in school as his name sounded like 'pissing' and got a lot of hell from schoolmates.  Actually, the story stars with a writer who's introduced to an adult Pi through a mutual friend.  He's been told that Pi has a story that will make him believe in God, and wants to hear it.  As some of you may know, I'm not the most religious person, so I sometimes tune out when a movie hits you over the head with religious ideas.  Life of Pi felt more spiritual than religious though.  Pi was raised as a Hindu, but was introduced to concepts from Christianity and Islam at a young age, and appeared to accept the 'best of breed' concepts on more of a philosophical level.

As Pi tells his story, we learn that his family owned a zoo.  They decide to sell all the animals and move to Canada, but while transporting everyone on a Japanese cargo ship, the ship sinks during a storm, and Pi is the only survivor to make it on the lifeboat.  A tiger, named "Richard Parker", named due to a clerical error, has also found it's way onto the lifeboat.  At this point, it's cat and mouse game of Pi trying to stay alive on a makeshift raft, while trying to survive both the elements and the Tiger.

The main flaw of the movie is that it does drag at points as we follow Pi and Richard Parker drifting at sea.  It seems to go on for ages, and even the movie loses track of how much time has passed. That's my only real gripe.  The pacing could have been better.

The movie is a visual feast though.  I'm upset this movie wasn't available in IMAX in my area.  Life of Pi totally deserves to be seen in IMAX and 3D.  The 3D in this movie is Avatar-esque as far as quality and immersion.  There are several scenes in the film that are just as bright and colorful as anything you saw in Avatar.  The CG is so fantastic that I had a hard time believing that the creatures, especially the tiger, was real.  Whether it was a combo of CG and real animals, it's an example of when the line and CG and reality is totally blurred.

Ang Lee succeeds again and cements himself as a guy that can film difficult stories and sell them to the audience.  While I didn't connect with it emotionally, because I'm more machine than man, I saw many people wiping their eyes at the end of the movie.  David Magee's screenplay is faithful to the book, from what I hear, but the movie could have lost a few minutes here and there.

Besides the amazing visuals, that standouts of the film are the performances of Pi, by both Suraj Sharma as the young Pi, and Irrfan Khan as the older Pi.  It's really amazing to find that this is Suraj Sharma's first acting role.  He carries the majority of the film while acting against either a green screen or an animal.  This isn't the type of performance you'd expect from a novice, and I'm looking forward to bigger things from him now.  Khan provides some emotional depth as the older Pi recounting his story.

Life of Pi is a visually stunning movie that rivals Avatar, but has more emotional depth to it.  It features some of the best CG and 3D I've seen in a long time, but has strong performances backing it up.  The story can feel like a bit of a marathon, but I think that was kind of the point. This is definitely worth seeing in the theater.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Rise of the Guardians (2012) - Movie Review

I never knew Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were such bad asses.

We meet Jack Frost (voice by Chris Pine) as he tells us how he got his name and power.  He's been alive for hundreds of years, but feels a little empty because nobody can see him or believes he exists.  The only joy he seems to get out of life is using his powers to mess with everyone (he actually comes off as kind of a jerk at first) or create a snow day for the kids in town.

At the North Pole, Santa Claus finds that Pitch Black, a.k.a. The Boogeyman, has returned.  Pitch's plan is to bring back fear to the children of the world.  Santa rallies the other Guardians of legend, the Sandman, the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) and the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) to stop Pitch.  However, the Man in the Moon tells the Guardians that he's picked Jack Frost to be their newest member.

One of the things I liked about Guardians is that it didn't follow into the familiar troupe of the reluctant hero. Sure, Jack's a little resistant about joining the Guardians at first, but joins the action almost immediately once he realizes how serious the threat is.  They don't have to twist his arm to join their cause, and that was a refreshing change.  His primary dilemma throughout the story is finding out what his purpose is and what it will take for people to believe in him.

I've heard more than a few people compare this to Avengers, and I didn't draw that comparison until I heard that.  It's totally true though.  You're watching a movie about a bunch of super-powered mythical figures throw down against a common threat.  On that level, I thought the action parts of the film were very entertaining.  When there's action in the movie, it doesn't feel too cartoon-ish.

The overall story felt a little thin to me though.  There isn't a ton of depth, and the story is pretty fundamental.  It's not a bad story at all, but it's message and humor is definitely geared towards kids.  There are a few clever things they do, and there are some twists to the familiar mythology that I really appreciated.  However, it was lacking that something extra to put this in that upper tier of animated stories.

The animation is fantastic though.  The character design was great, and each even had their own realm that had it's own life and uniqueness about it.  One of the cooler characters was the Sandman.  He has no spoken dialog in the film and communicates through 'thought bubbles' and facial expressions.  It was really interesting and effective. I did see this in 3D, and while it didn't detract from the film, I didn't think it added too much to it either.  Overall, it's colorful and gorgeous. Even if the story doesn't totally work for you, the animation and visuals will keep you interested.

Matching the animation was the great voice work.  I mention this a lot when reviewing animated films, while the voices might be familiar, they aren't distracting or take you out of the story.  You have familiar voices like Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher and Chris Pine, and all their voices fit their characters nicely.  I was really impressed with Jude Law's voice acting for Pitch Black.  His voice fit the character perfectly, and he wasn't over-the-top with his delivery. Equally impressive was Alec Baldwin as Santa.  He plays Santa with a Russian accent, so I had no clue it was even him until the credits rolled.

This was Peter Ramsey's feature directorial debut, and I thought it was a great first effort.  From his IMDB page, his background as a illustrator and artist really lent itself to the visuals and action here.  Guillermo del Toro was an executive producer on this, and you can see his influence on the visuals as well.  This was based on William Joyce's The Guardians of Childhood book series.  As it's a book series, I've already heard there are potentially going to be some sequels and I have to say that I'm really looking forward to what they do next.  There are a lot of different areas and characters they can bring into the series and I think that'll be a lot of fun to see.  I only wish David Lindsay-Abaire's script had just a little more edge and wit to it.  That was the only real weakness of the film for me, and the thing that prevented it from being great.

Rise of the Guardians is a great family-friendly, holiday movie.  The story and message are great for the kids, and the top-notch animation will provide entertainment for those not that into the story. This is another movie that I think your kids will want to watch over and over once it comes out on DVD and I think it will help keep their belief alive in things like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. Totally worth a matinee.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Red Dawn (2012) - Movie Review


Believe it or not, until this week I had never seen the original Red Dawn before.  I know the movie is heavily quoted and there's a lot of nostalgia for it, but I was never all that interested in going back and watching it.  I knew I was going to see the remake though, so I streamed it on Amazon the other day just so it would be fresh in my mind when watching the remake.

After watching this new Red Dawn, I felt that it only had a few similarities to the original and that it's yet another totally unnecessary remake that doesn't really live up to the original.  Hollywood, you have to stop this.  There's no point to doing a remake of a beloved film if you aren't going to do something really great with it, or address the weaknesses of the original.  The changes made here actually made the original film seem more realistic.

The basic story is still the same, only this time it's North Koreans that invade a small town.  As the occupation commences, a group of teens, led by Marine Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) form a a resistance force and fight back.  They still call themselves "Wolverines".  That much hasn't changed.

One thing that hurt the film was how rushed it all felt.  This is almost a half hour shorter than the original, so details are totally glossed over.  I don't recall hearing any mention of what town they were in until almost two-thirds of the way through the movie.  There's no explanation of how the North Koreans were able to overwhelm us and the extent of the invasion until about that time as well.  So, you're watching the whole film wondering where they are and how this happened.  Plus, it's never even stated what the North Koreans want or what their goal is.

This was the directorial debut of Dan Bradley and it feels like a first effort.  The script from Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore is to blame as well.  The lapses in the movie's logic is hard to get around.  The original was written by John Milius, who wrote movies like Apocalypse Now and Conan the Barbarian (also the original one).  These guys have written stuff like Disturbia and The Last House on the Left.  There's no comparison between the writing teams.

There's little to no character development.  You follow the same group of kids the entire movie and outside of Jed and his younger brother Matt (Josh Peck), you know almost nothing about any of these people, so we aren't given much to care about.  Matt's character in particular was the perfect example of having a someone you hate throughout the film, yet he's one of the good guys.  He's arrogant, selfish and impulsive, and his reaction to conflict is to either disappear or to ignore them. We're supposed to care about his growth, but you spend the movie hoping someone kicks his ass. Even members of the Wolverines didn't seem to have any emotion regarding their friends, and were relatively unfazed when someone got killed.  Another annoyance was that all the non-white characters are the first to die.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the remake is that the villains were changed to North Koreans.  I heard they originally planned to make them Chinese, but then were worried about the Chinese market, so switched it.  The problem is that are we really all that afraid of North Korea?  Do they actually have enough of an army to somehow overwhelm our entire military forces in a short period of time?  The original Red Dawn worked because it came out during the height of the Cold War, when there was genuine fear of nuclear war with the Russians.  You never feel any real threat from the North Koreans, and there nothing menacing about their leader (Will Yun Lee).  When a small group of kids doesn't seem to have any trouble causing havoc, how am I supposed to fear them?

This movie sat on a shelf for a few years due to the issues with MGM, and you can tell because of the age of the actors.  Both Chris Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson look significantly younger, and I would imagine had this movie been made now, that Hutcherson would have likely gotten a larger role due to his popularity after The Hunger Games.  I'm sure their current fame played a part in the timing of this release as well.  I did find it odd that it came out during the holidays, as this felt like something that should have been pushed out toward the end of August or March.

It did deliver a bit on the action though.  I think the reason I didn't absolutely hate the movie was that when there was fighting, it was pretty decent.  It wasn't cheap looking, nor was it over the top.  They actually employed strategy during their attacks, so I appreciated that   It is PG-13, so it's not particularly bloody.

Another strength of the film was the performance of Chris Hemsworth.  It's easy to say this in hindsight, but you can see when watching how he was clearly destined for greater roles.  Although, his American accent still needed some work back then, as there were a few times you could hear his Australian sneak out from time to time.  I also liked his chemistry with Adrianne Palicki.

Red Dawn is yet another unnecessary remake that doesn't do anything to justify it's existence. It features a story with even more logic holes and less character development than the original, and has a very abrupt and unsatisfying ending.  It's just not all that fun or entertaining.  You aren't missing anything here, folks.

1.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Lincoln (2012) - Movie Review

I'm just waiting for the day when someone asks why Daniel Day-Lewis is on the five dollar bill.

Has there been any President that's been the focus of more films than Abraham Lincoln?  Is there any President more iconic?  Even if you're not a history buff, everyone knows the broad strokes of what he did.  So, how do you make a movie about him that's still interesting?  Well, you start by getting the best actor on the planet to play the lead role.  Then, you focus the story not on the fighting in the Civil War, but more on the man and his drive add the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Based on the book 'Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln' by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln gives us a look at the lengths he went to to ensure the Thirteenth Amendment passed in the House of Representatives.  He faced considerable opposition, and even if every member of his party voted yes, they'd still fall short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass it.  People were going to need some convincing, and Lincoln brings in a group of "negotiators" (James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes) to sweeten the deal for those who's votes can be bought.  It's interesting to see that even back then you had these shady, back door political dealings.  The timing was also a factor, as the passing of the amendment would end the war, but if the South surrendered first the amendment would even be less likely to pass.  There was lots of talk about something called the Emancipation Proclamation which I'm not familiar with, because I don't listen to hip hop.  Yes, I'm kidding and quoting South Park.

Since the movie doesn't focus on any Civil War battles, Lincoln features lots of long conversations and meaningful looks at one another.  You might ask, why I would give Lincoln a pass for doing then when I slam movies like Twilight for doing the same thing?  It's mainly due to the strength of the performances, and the fact that what these guys are discussing is one of the most important things in American history.  It takes those strong performances to really feel the weight of it though.  You never lose sight of how important this was, and how much stress it brought them. There's a scene early in the film where Lincoln and Mary Todd are arguing, and he pauses for a few seconds before speaking. You can feel the weight of the world on his shoulders during this moment.

It's interesting when you compare this to Steven Spielberg's last Oscar-bait movie, War Horse, which was also a period piece.  While both films looked great and have the same attention to detail, the difference this time around is that besides the amazing performances, the score isn't as sweeping, and you're watching situations and characters that you actually care about.  It does have the same sentimentality, but I felt it was earned here.  War Horse got a best picture nomination despite nobody getting nominated for their acting in the film  That wont be the same case with Lincoln.

Daniel Day-Lewis gives an amazing performance, but that kind of goes without saying.  How many ways can you continue to describe how great an actor is?  In all seriousness, Lewis is so immersed in the role that you forget after a while what you're watching an actor, and you feel like you're actually watching the man.  If the real Lincoln was anything like what Lewis portrayed on screen, you can see why so many people were willing to risk their lives for him.  He's an Oscar lock at this point.  It's interesting to note that Liam Neeson was originally attached to the role, but dropped out because he said he had grown too old for the role.  I found that odd considering that Lincoln was 56 when he died, and Neeson is only 60.  It would have been interesting if he had stayed in the role, since the guy they played Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Benjamin Walker) bears a strong resemblance to Neeson.

Not to be outdone was Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens.  He was even more passionate about abolition than Lincoln was, and he steals every scene he's in.  As much as I expect DDL to get nominated for an Oscar, I also expect TLJ to get nominated for Best Supporting Actor.  It's probably the most underrated performance of the year, and he already was fantastic in Hope Springs.

Sally Field was also great. She was very emotional, and was powerful when she stood her ground against their opponents. I wouldn't be surprised to see her name mentioned during Oscar time either.  The whole supporting cast reads like a "who's who" of top tier actors.  I can imagine there was a dogfight between these guys trying to get a role in the film.  I'm sure some of them agreed to any sized role just to be in it.  I wonder if casting director Avy Kaufman's phone ever stopped ringing.  There are so many great actors here that it hard to mention them all.

David Strahairn plays Secretary of State William Seward and really excels in the role.  If you're a fan of SyFy's Alphas, it's great to see him in a mainstream role.  James Spader also really stood out me after his eccentric role on The Office.  Then, you've got guys like likely Oscar nominee John Hawkes (for The Sessions), or Joseph Gordon-Levitt (playing Lincoln's son) with smaller roles. Even the under-appreciated Jared Harris shows up as the Fifty-Dollar Bill.  Oh, and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is here, too.  The supporting cast is stacked with stars.  It's kind of like when you look at roster for the Yankees or Lakers and wonder how they ever lose a game.

Oh, and how awesome must it be for Lee Pace to be in both Lincoln and Breaking Dawn - Part Two the same weekend?  I always thought he got a raw deal when Pushing Daises was cancelled, and I've been waiting for him to get some meatier roles. It looks like it's happening now.

Lincoln is a fantastically acted film that doesn't focus on the typical aspects of Lincoln's life or the Civil War.  For that reason alone, I enjoyed the film and was able to stay interested.  However, if you're looking for something that is a true biopic on Lincoln or focused more on the Civil War, you're likely to be disappointed. It's definitely worth seeing for the performances alone though.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars