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

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 (2012) - Movie Review


I'm only kidding.  Twilight: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 isn't that bad.  In fact, it's easily the best of the Twilight franchise, but that's like saying that Hurricane Katrina is only like the fifth worst natural disaster in the US.  Yes, the Twilight series is a natural disaster that the world may never recover from.

I turn around during the all the screaming during the opening credits, and I see a guy in a Raiders jersey sitting with his girlfriend with this look on his face.  I can only call it 'regret'.  There are moments where if you're willing to brave the crowds, you may find yourself regretting seeing this so soon, or plugging your ears.  Hell, I saw people who wanted to be there plugging their ears at points.

All kidding aside, it's really not that bad.  It's still not a particularly good movie though, but it seems that they finally realized how silly this all is and went with it.  There's actually a good amount of laughs in the movie, especially in the first half.  Some of this is intentional, and some of it is was more unintentionally hilarity.  I can't hate it too much for that, because even the audience seemed to be aware of it.

So, when we last left Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Bella (Kristen Stewart), Bella gives birth to Renesmee (a name I really hope that people don't start giving their kids), and is finally turned into a vampire.  Bella has to also deal with the weirdness of Jacob (Taylor Lautner) imprinting on their infant daughter.  Renesmee is rapidly growing (Mackenzie Foy), and the Volturi become aware of her and believe she's a threat.  Alice (Ashley Greene) has a vision that the Volturi are coming for her, so the Cullens gather other vampire clans to rally and prepare for the inevitable showdown. Carlisle (Peter Facinelli) hopes they can avoid a conflict, but where's the fun in that, right?

As more vampires arrive, we find that many of them have a superpower that normally you wouldn't attribute to vampires.  Even the others seemed to be surprised by what they could do.  It's like they were making an X-Men movie with how diverse their powers were, but then remembered this was a movie about werewolves and vampires.   Speaking of diversity, another thing that I found silly about this was that each clan that arrived was a total ethnic or cultural stereotype.  It's not offensive, but it was just kind of ridiculous at times.

While this is happening, Bella is learning to use her new powers.  This is a part of the film that irritated me in that Twilight tries to convince you that someone that's been a vampire for a few days/weeks is somehow stronger that someone that's been a vampire for years, or even decades. It goes against everything I've ever seen in vampire lore.  They also have to remind Bella how to be human again, and it was hilarious to see them remind Bella to blink, which is ironic considering how much Kristen Stewart blinked during the previous movies.  It felt like that was another example of the film being self-aware.

I wish I could tell you there's more to the story, but that's honestly all there is to it.  There's still no reason Part 1 and Part 2 couldn't have been easily edited into a single movie, but I get it: money. The pacing is languid for the first three-quarters.  It's just lots of boring conversation and people just setting around.  Many scenes go nowhere, and simply did not need to be in the film.  We all know what's coming, so just get to it.

Now this part is going to be a bit of spoiler, so skip to the next paragraph if you don't want anything spoiled. The ending of this film is a total cop-out.  I won't say exactly what happens, but the way it plays out, it basically means there was never any real consequence or sacrifice by anyone in the story.  It really undercut the film, and ruined the one truly tense sequence of the entire movie series.  It's especially irritating because this was the only part where I actually cared about what was happening, and then it's all gone.

I will say that that final 10-15 minutes of the movie are genuinely entertaining, and they got away with the maximum amount of violence you could probably throw into a PG-13 movie.  They even seemed to save all the best effects for that final sequence.  On the other hand, the special effects outside of that final battle were absolutely terrible.  They used CG in places where they could have just used practical effects, and it would have looked 10 times better.  What's wrong, were you trying to maximize profits by spending the absolute minimum you could to make the film? Seriously, there was stuff that looked worse than YouTube videos or commercials I've seen recently.  Hell, at one point they have a CG baby.  A baby!  You couldn't just use an actual baby? Plus, they used special effects where you didn't need to.  Vampires constantly use their super-speed power to simply walk across the room for no reason.  It didn't add anything to the story, and it just felt lazy.

I'm not going to say anything about the acting at this point, because you know what you're going to get by now.  I will say that I enjoyed more of the supporting characters.  Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) has a small, but enjoyable role.  Billy Burke does well, but takes a back seat again even though he's kicking ass on Revolution.  Michael Shannon is back as Aro, and he's so over the top that it was hard to not enjoy his screen time. Even "Bunk" from The Wire shows up for a cameo.

I have to credit director Bill Condon and writer Melissa Rosenberg for finally making something out of this.  Granted, there's only so much they can do with the story and dialog since the source material is so weak, but they were at least able to minimize the awfulness as much as they could. I was ready to give up after what they did with Part 1.

Twilight: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 succeeds simply because it's the first of the series that I didn't hate.  It is honestly the best of the series and I guess there's something to be said for going out on a high note.  It does suffer from awful special effects, slow pacing and the same bad acting and dialog, but what else can we expect at this point?  Fans should be pleased, and if you're someone that gets dragged to this by your girlfriend, just stay strong until that last 15 minutes.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, November 9, 2012

Skyfall (2012) - Movie Review

I don't want to be James Bond for Halloween.  I want to be Daniel Craig.

I have to confess that I've always had a 'take it or leave it' stance when it comes to the Bond series.  I watched many of them; liked some, hated others, but I don't geek out over Bond like others do.  I was one of the people that wasn't upset at the casting of Daniel Craig simply because I loved Layer Cake, but also because his casting got me interested in the series in a way I hadn't before.  Casino Royale was fun, Quantum of Solace was a disappointment, and now we have what I think is the finest of Craig's run: Skyfall.

Minor spoilers ahead...

Skyfall begins with a great opening chase scene that really sets the tone.  Bond is trying to recover a hard drive, but is shot in the process and presumed dead.  This failure has larger consequences, as the hard drive contains a list of undercover agents in the field.  An unknown hacker starts to expose the list and terrorize MI6.  This brings Bond out of hiding and to the aid of M (Judi Dench). M is dealing with issues besides the attack.  Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) is pushing M out the door, thinking she's past her prime.  At the same time, many think Bond has also lost a step.  Can these two still rally and stop the bad guy before it's too late?

I will say that after the opening sequence, the pace of the movie does slow a bit.  It's a little uneven at times, but not to the point where it's boring or you start to lose interest.  It's more of an issue of where it starts with such a great opening sequence, that it can't possibly keep that pace up for 140 minutes.  It's like a football game opening with a 107 yard kickoff return for TD, but then final score of the game is 14-3.

The pacing also brings up another issue for me in that we aren't introduced to the main villain, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), until the halfway point of the film.  He does, however, have a great entrance.  I was really excited to see Javier Bardem as a Bond villain.  He totally chews up the scenery, and is slightly over-the-top, but in a good way.  My only real complaint about Bardem is that he isn't in it more.  I also really liked that fact that his motivation wasn't something silly like sinking Silicon Valley, or an overused plot involving the theft and detonation of a nuclear weapon. It's much more basic than that.

It's also interesting that Silva is basically the flipside to Bond.  When you learn more about Silva, you find that he's actually a sympathetic character.  If things had gone differently for either him or Bond, you could see them switching places.  It's an interesting idea that I wish they would have played with a little more.

I had actually heard rumors that Ralph Fiennes was supposed to be an additional Bond villain. Maybe because when I think of him, I automatically think of Voldemort, but he seems like someone that would make a natural Bond villain   While watching the film I kept waiting for him to make that turn.  He does have a bit of an antagonistic role, but he has a surprising development to his character that I really enjoyed. The movie has a lot of shout outs to the Bond franchise throughout the film.

Another thing that kind of disappointed me was the Bond girls.  It has nothing to do with their appearance, as both women were beautiful, but it was mainly in that I felt they were underused. We're introduced to Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) and she has great scene with Bond, but then she's gone just like that.  She's absolutely gorgeous though, and I'm looking forward to her involvement in the upcoming Terrence Malick project.  Naomie Harris as Eve has some great chemistry with Bond, but disappears for long stretches of the film.  Like Fiennes though, she has a nice turn at the end of the film that Bond fans should get a kick out of.

I also enjoyed Ben Whishaw as the new Q.  Even though this Bond didn't feature much in the way of gadgets, it felt more modern and realistic as far as what they were doing technologically.  The movie even takes a shot at some of the gadgets they've used.

Let's not forget the star, Daniel Craig.  I liked how this time Craig showed more vulnerability and depth.  He's not perfect, and that made him and this whole world more believable to me.  I want him to stick around for a few more films, as I think he's the second best Bond after Sean Connery. On another note, does he go to the same awkward, upright-sprinting school that Tom Cruise goes to?  I couldn't help thinking he looked like a dork when running, and I hope they get him a spiriting coach for the next one.  Call up Usain Bolt.

The whole film is very slick and stylish.  Every scene looks great, and you never forget that you're watching a Bond film.  There's a very cool fight scene in the film that's done against a blue background and all you can see is their silhouettes, but you can still tell what's going on.  I saw this on IMAX, and while you don't need to see it that way, it's definitely a movie that looks great in the format.

Sam Mendes was a great choice to direct.  He was able to make a Bond film that stands on it's own, but still give enough shout-outs to previous films without overdoing it.  As I've mentioned before, he also kept the film grounded in reality.  It feels like more of a genuine spy thriller, rather than some kind of spy fantasy.  Normally, I often criticize a movie for having too many writers, but this time we have veteran Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, plus Gladiator and Hugo writer John Logan.  I think this helped the movie stay consistent to the character and Bond universe.

I understand making a movie PG-13 to appeal to a broader audience, but I feel like that rating softened the film too much.  We're watching a film about a guy that's famous for bedding women and killing people, yet there's no nudity and very little blood in the film.  In fact, it seemed there was hardly any on-screen death.  You don't need to be gratuitous about it, but when you don't show people get shot, it kind of takes the impact away.  There was one particular time were someone is shot, and you aren't even sure what happened or if that person is actually dead.  I don't even need to point out scene I'm talking about, as when you see the film, you'll know exactly what part I'm talking about.

Skyfall feels like the start of another new chapter for Bond, and made me want more.  If you're a newcomer to the franchise, this is a great place to come in.  It's not the best Bond movie, but it's certainly a very good one.  Fans should be pleased, as well as people that just like a good action flick. It's fun, thrilling and sexy. All the things it should be.  Check it out.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Jack and Diane (2012) - Movie Review

I never thought I'd see a movie about young romance with dialog worse than the Twilight films.  Congratulations to Jack & Diane for this accomplishment.

The movie starts with an unusual opening sequence of seeing blood in a bathroom, and then a monster's reflection in the mirror.  We immediately flash back to "Earlier" (that's what the movie tells us), where we see that Diane (Juno Temple) has lost her phone and goes into a store and asks to borrow theirs.  She sees Jack (Riley Keough) behind the counter.  Without any dialog or hint of anything, the next scene we see them hanging out.  Then, they are at a club where Diane is drunk off her ass despite only seeing her have a sip of beer (and neither is of drinking age).  I think Juno Temple is a talented actress, but I'm convinced she's never been drunk before, as I couldn't tell from her performance if she was trying to play drunk or her character was meant to be extremely stupid.

The film falls into a pattern of the couple sitting and staring at each other without saying much, or walking nowhere in particular.  Thirty minutes into the film, I knew almost nothing about the characters or why they should be together.  If anything it felt like Jack kind of forced herself on Diane, and she just kind of went with it.  I wonder how that would have played if Jack was a man. Jack came off as an extremely unlikable person.  She's rude and disrespectful to people for no reason.  Is this supposed to be her edge?  The only thing I knew about Diane was that she suffers from nosebleeds, and is moving to Paris in a week for school.  Yes, this is romance that takes place over just a week.

I couldn't even tell when this movie took place.  At first I thought maybe this was set in the  80's or 90's due to the use of tape decks and walkmen, and it was hilarious to see someone try to use a broken tape in a tape deck.  Are the people involved with this film so young they don't know how tapes worked?  But then I remember that the whole beginning of the film is about how Diane loses her phone and you see several other people using modern cellphones.  Was that tape deck stuff some quirky, hipster bullshit, or was this movie just not consistent at all?

The worst part of J&D is the weird, stilted (sometimes barely audible) dialog.  It's so bad and laborious I thought maybe they had gone to the Kristen Stewart school on how to speak more good.

This is an actual line of dialog from the film:

"Um...(five second pause)...it's just like...this...cheesy song over and over, and like...uh...but...(another five second pause)...I...(six second pause)...uh...(14 second pause!)...this is my brother's...um...and I've been like...saving it...um...I'm just gonna be...lame and say it."

This continues on, and ends with Jack asking, "Am I freaking you out?"  Yeah, your inability to string a coherent sentence together is freaking me out.  To be honest, I started tuning out at this point, but I already got the general idea of what this movie was about: two girls that were supposedly in love that can barely speak.  Throughout the film, I kept saying "line" from Rifftrax when there'd be a long pause in the dialog.

Oh, and the whole terrible looking werewolf-monster thing from the beginning?  Throughout the film we see these weird stop motion sequences of what appeared to be hair growing through internal organs or something.  They are really distracting and never really addressed by the characters in the film.  At one point Diane has a dream about turning into this monster and eating Jack, but then only casually mentions it to Jack, who just blows it off and asks to go back to sleep.  If the movie is trying to tell us that love is turning them into monsters, cause...you know...like...metaphor..and stuff, then they are going a really bad job of it.  Remember, this takes place over a week.  I don't even get why these two are a couple, let alone see anything that shows me that they are dealing with some kind of super intense love.

What kind of movie is this supposed to be?  It has horror elements that aren't scary and the romance isn't believable.

I've seen the actors do better work in other films, so do I blame them for not being able to deliver a natural sounding line of dialog, or is it that Bradley Rust Grey's script and direction solely to blame?  Normally when I watch a film, if there's at least some redeeming quality about it, then I'm motivated to go back and watch other films from the same writer or director.  This movie makes me never want to watch anything by this guy again.

Jack & Diane is honestly one of the five worst films I've seen this year.  It's a nonsense love story about two girls you don't care about, and features the worst dialog I've seen in a very long time.  I'm actually not dreading seeing the new Twilight film next week now.  It can't be any worse than this. This movie actually made me angry at how boring it is and how it wasted my time.

0 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph (2012) - Movie Review

I miss the days of video arcades.  I'm all for progress, and I love how far computer games and consoles have come, but there was just something about the experience of going to the arcade with a pocket full of quarters, getting excited when a new game comes out, or standing around a game and watching someone beat it.

That's not what Wreck-It Ralph is about, but that's the kind of nostalgia it evoked while watching it.  There were lots of video game references that older gamers should get a kick out of.  They'll be over the head of younger audiences, but it illustrates how Wreck-It Ralph is an example of Disney at it's best.  It's great when you have a movie that's essentially for kid's, but it doesn't pander to them and there's enough for everyone to enjoy.  I rarely mention an executive producer, but in John Lasseter I trust.  His track record (with the exception of Cars 2) is insane, and I'm so excited at his potential involvement in LucasFilm and Star Wars.

Anyway, I'm getting way off track.  Even though he's the title character of the movie, Ralph (John C. Reilly) isn't even the title character of the game he's in.  He's been the 'bad guy' of Fix-It Felix, Jr., a Donkey Kong meets Rampage type video game, for 30 years.  Ralph's grown tired of his role, and just for once wants to be the hero.  Even the lesser characters of the game ignore Ralph to the point where he's not even invited  the 30th anniversary party being thrown.  They do, however, tell him that they'd accept him if he were to win a medal like Felix.  I wonder if Donkey Kong was treated this way.

Ralph abandons his game, called 'going turbo', in an effort to find his medal.  He hops from game to game, but spends most of his time in one called Sugar Rush, where he's sidetracked by Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a character that has her own issues being accepted within her game.  Ralph reluctantly helps Vanellope in exchange for the medal.  

Wreck-It Ralph sets up a detailed universe with it's own rules for how the characters and games behave when nobody is around.  When the arcade closes, they are free to mingle with characters from other games, similar to something like Night at the Museum, except good.  There are lots of nice touches, like how they handled a first-person shooter game, how many of the characters were animated, and how older games were treated versus new ones.  This is what was missing from Tron: Legacy, where the movie would have been more fun if it reflected how much things had changed with computers, rather than it just having updated visuals.  Speaking of the visuals, I really enjoyed everything about the look of the film.  The animation is top-notch, and it's extremely vibrant.  I didn't see this in 3D, so I can't comment on that this time.

It's also expertly voice cast.  Sarah Silverman's voice was just perfect, and it's almost kind of scary how much she nails the child-like voice of Vanellope.  John C. Reilly was also perfect for Ralph. He's not someone I normally think of when thinking of great voices, but it's a natural fit.  Jack McBrayer as Felix (if this guy doesn't have voice for animation, then I don't know who does) and Jane Lynch are also fantastic  I've often remarked about how sometimes a recognizable voice can be distracting and take you out of the movie.  That doesn't happen here.  In fact, the opposite happens, where I didn't notice the voices of many recognizable actors until reading the credits.  I was surprised to see names like Alan Tudyk, Adam Carolla, Mindy Kaling and Ed O'Neill all lent their voices to the movie.

The story by Rich Moore (who also directed), Jennifer Lee, Phil Johnston and Jim Reardon does fall into familiar Disney territory.  It's a minor complaint, as it's still a nice story and message.  I only wish we had gotten more of the game world and references.  When Ralph starts to jump between games, you only get to see a few before he lands in Sugar Rush, and that was a little disappointing.  Then again, it gives them a lot of options for potential sequels.  Let's see some Final Fantasy-type RPGs in there, and some team-ups from more games next time.  It interesting Disney is already involved in the Kingdom Hearts series as that's where I see this going.

Oh, and there's a nice post credit scene for the gamers.

Wreck-It Ralph is a fun, nostalgic film, that while falls into typical, family-friendly territory, still provides enough wit and originality to make it stand out over other animated films.  It's enjoyable for all audiences, and a movie that I think kids won't take out of the DVD player, but that just will give you more opportunities to catch all the references.  I highly recommend it.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Man With the Iron Fists (2012) - Movie Review

Wu-Tang Clan might not be 'nuthin' to fuck with', but The Man with the Iron Fist, is.  I'm sorry, that was terrible.

The Man with the Iron Fists is a new martial arts film from RZA, best known from the Wu-Tang Clan, and Eli Roth.  In some ways this is a loving tribute to old school martial arts films.  Unfortunately, it's not a very good one.

I'm a little torn here, and I have mixed feelings about RZA's story and direction.  I was looking forward to this, as I know RZA is a huge fan of martial arts, so I was a little disappointed at what ended up on screen here.  However, I've heard that the original cut was intended to be over 4 hours long, and RZA suggested splitting this up into two films.  Eli Roth disagreed, and the movie was cut down to 96 minutes.  Apparently RZA was so disgusted with the editing process that he walked out at one point.  I can't say I blame the guy.  If the movie isn't what his intended vision was, can I really slam him too much for it?  The movie is poorly edited and I felt that there was very little backstory or character development for many of the characters. Maybe the original cut of the film had these elements though.

What's it even about?  Basically, from what I could tell, it's about gold and revenge.

The movie centers around the Blacksmith (RZA), who also narrates the film.  He needed to, otherwise, you wouldn't have known what was going on at all.  The Blacksmith is trying to save up enough money so he and his girlfriend, a prostitute played by Jamie Chung, can go away together. He eventually becomes the title character as the story progresses.

There's the Lion Clan, lead by Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and Brass Lion (Cung Le), who are after some gold being transported by the Gemini Clan on behalf of the Emperor.  They also killed the leader of the Lion Clan, Gold Lion.  The son of Gold Lion, Zen-Yi (Rick Yune) is after them to avenge his father's murder.

Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) - yes, his name is Jack Knife - is a British soldier sent to retrieve the gold on behalf of the Emperor.  I think.  This is where I think the editing came into play as I didn't get his motivation or role in the film at all.  Initially, it seemed like he was after the Blacksmith, but then allied with him almost instantly.  As much as I like Russell Crowe, I think he was really miscast here, especially when there were any action scenes involving him.  His performance was silly at times.

The movie starts out campy and I thought it was going to be a film that I was going to enjoy for it's intentional badness.  It did have those moments, but there were times where it was just plain bad or silly.  The dialog and narration is terrible, as is the acting.  When the audience would laugh, there were times it felt they were laughing at how bad it was, not laughing with it.

The one character I actually enjoyed was when Dave Bautista would shows up as "Brass Body".  I didn't think his acting was bad, and he was a character that I felt might had some depth to him had he been in it more.  He's a mercenary that can turn his body to metal, kind like a gold Colossus from the X-Men.  It was a cool effect, but his ability seemed more reflexive than controlled, as he doesn't use it all the time.  You'd think if he'd control it, he'd stay in the form for the duration of a fight, but maybe it was simply that they didn't have the budget to do the effect that much.

Speaking of, the overall look of the film is very nice and you can tell a lot of detail went into the sets and production design.  It's another example to me of RZA's knowledge of the genre.  Another thing I liked was the soundtrack.  There's something about the mix of hip hop and martial arts action that works.

Does it at least have good martial arts action?  Unfortunately, no.  It starts off hyper violent, but then devolves into a mess of bad CG-blood.  Once again, I hear that many of the gorier elements were removed from the film to appeal to a wider audience.  This seems bizarre to me, as this film ended up less violent than, say, Kill Bill or Hostel.  Do violent, martial arts films ever appeal to a wide audience?   I think violent and gory is exactly what the audience for this movie was looking for.  Plus, it suffers from many of the same poor fight editing and quick cuts you've seen in lesser action films.  There was some real bad wire-fighting, and many times where you couldn't tell what was going on at all.  It's a real shock to me when the actual fighting is not the strength of a martial arts film.  Even in the worst martial arts films, you can at least enjoy the fighting, but I didn't even get that here.

The Man with the Iron Fists is simply a bad movie.  It's poorly acted, edited and doesn't even deliver on kick-ass martial arts action.  I appreciate what RZA was trying to do here, but it's too heavily flawed and it's just a mess.  I really wanted to like it, even on that 'bad on purpose' level, but it didn't work for me.  If you're a fan of the genre, I advise you to save this for a rental.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, November 2, 2012

Flight (2012) - Movie Review

You gotta love when a movie starts with an out-of-focus boob shot...

Yes, in opening moments of Flight, the latest movie from Robert Zemeckis, airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) wakes up in bed with a hot, fully nude flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez).  The thing you learn from this scene is that Whip is a pimp.  Well, that's not all you learn, but we'll get to that.

Shortly after, on a short, routine flight from Florida to Georgia, there's a mechanical failure on the plane.  It's not a spoiler to tell you that Whip is able to miraculously crash-land the plane with a minimum of casualties.  Even though it's only a few minutes, it's another time where I wish the trailer wouldn't have shown as much as it did regarding the crash.  It's still an extremely tense scene though.  I would imagine if you fly a lot, then it's really going to play with your head.

In the aftermath of the crash, the NTSB investigates to find the cause.  This casts a light on Whip, as it was found he had drugs in his system at the time of the crash.  It's not as simple as him just having a few beers the night before or being a little hung over either.  This is a serious offense, and can mean prison time, so a lawyer, played by Don Cheadle, is sent in to help Whip get out of trouble.  That's where the movie takes a different turn from where you think it's going.  Flight is more of a character study about struggling with denial and addition.  Initially, the accident sobers him up, but once he realizes he's under investigation, the stress throws him in a downward spiral.

You get frustrated and angry watching him, and you see that he's not exactly a great guy.  There's a reason he's divorced and hasn't seen his son.  He pushes everyone away that is trying to help him, and just can't get out of his own way.  It's an example of a high-functioning alcoholic that doesn't see a problem with his behavior.  He points out that he just did this amazing thing that nobody else would have been able to do, and that his state has nothing to do with the mechanical failures of the plane.  While he has a point, there's still a certain responsibility he doesn't want to accept.

Despite all of this, Whip still manages to be sympathetic.  This is mainly due to the great performance from Denzel Washington. Is it an Oscar-worthy performance though?  You bet! Seriously though, Denzel is the type of actor where anytime he takes on a serious role he's going to get some consideration.  One thing that's great about his performance is that it's not larger-than-life or too similar to his performance in Training Day.  It's more subtle than that, and there's a sadness that comes through.  It is performance worthy of consideration, but he's going to have some stiff competition, like from John Hawkes in The Sessions.

It's isn't a perfect film though.  The story itself covers familiar territory, sometimes done better in other films.  While the movie is funnier than I expected, sometimes the humor seemed a little out of place.  Additionally, there's a character introduced at the beginning of the film, played by Kelly Reilly, that's also an addict.  As the movie starts you wonder why she's even in the film.  While it makes sense as the movie goes on, it seemed like they focused on her a little too much in the beginning for the amount of time she actually got as the story went on.  It's nothing against Kelly Reilly's performance though, as I also thought she was very good.

The supporting cast is another strength.  John Goodman has a small role and provides some comedy relief.  There's something about him lately where I simply enjoy seeing him on screen. Don Cheadle is strong as well, and it was fun to see him and Denzel square off during the film. Bruce Greenwood is also good as a friend of Whip's, who's just about the only guy left that's in his corner.  Melissa Leo even has a small role towards the end, but I was so focused on Denzel, I didn't realize it was her.  This is the Denzel show though.

Robert Zemeckis has always been a favorite director of mine, and he didn't disappoint me here after taking a long break from live-action films.  As mentioned earlier regarding the humor, the tone of the film can be a little uneven.  I did think it stopped short of being overly melodramatic though, which is a good thing.  There are a few times John Gatins' screenplay did some things that were a little frustrating to me, and could have almost ruined the film, but overall the strengths outweigh the weaknesses.  I always talk about pacing, and while Flight is almost 2 hours and 20 minutes, I felt like it was gone in a flash.  I was stunned when I checked my phone after the movie and saw what time it was.

Flight is a really good, but not perfect film.  If anything, I'm sure it will make you take a really hard look at the pilot the next time you fly somewhere, or maybe yourself the next time you take a drink.  All kidding aside, it's a tense character study that's worth seeing alone for Denzel Washington's brilliant performance (and the opening sequence).  I highly recommend it.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars