Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Frozen (2013)

The cold never bothered me, either.  That line will make more sense after you see Frozen.  Despite being a California native, I've often wondered if I was meant for colder climates.  Then again, spending much of my youth stocking a cooler for hours at a time might have thickened my hide a bit.

Before I get started, allow me to rant for a second.  Dear parents, if your kids cannot get through even a two minute trailer without screaming out loud several times (and not even necessarily at the images on the screen), perhaps you should wait a few more years before bringing them to the movies.  It's not fair or courteous to the people sitting around you.

Before Frozen began, we're treated to a clever, "meta" short film framed around a classic Mickey Mouse cartoon.  It develops slowly, but once its 'twist' is revealed it was a lot of fun to watch.  It's no Paperman, but still a good short.

In just the opening scene of Frozen I realized I was in for a much different movie than I thought.  Based on the trailer, I expected some corny movie about a snowman and a reindeer (it's interesting to note that neither character shows up until around the halfway point).  Instead, Frozen is a classic story about a princess and true love.  It's a familiar and somewhat cliched story.  You could call this a weakness, but the classic versus cliched debate is splitting hairs in this case.  Both written and directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, they've added some twists and updates that worked very well and kept it fresh.  Frozen also has very strong central themes that make this the kind of film that parents will actually encourage their kids to watch.

Frozen is about two sisters, Elsa and Anna, who've grown apart over the years, and have been isolated from the outside world.  There's much more to their relationship, but I don't want to spoil anything since I was so pleasantly surprised by how the story developed.  I want you to be able to enjoy it the way I did.  I'll give you this one little tease to go on though.  If your favorite character from the X-Men is Iceman, with maybe a little bit of Emma Frost thrown in, then you're going to be in for a treat.  During many scenes in Frozen my mind would wander thinking about why they haven't been able to accurately portray Iceman in an X-Men film yet.  Future X-Men films may want to use Frozen as a template, because they really nailed it.

While I'm not exactly the biggest fan of musicals, I really loved the songs in Frozen and it's one of the best aspects of the film  They were cute, clever and funny.  By the second song, I was already in love with Frozen.  Yes, you could say that Frozen managed to thaw my icy heart.  Elsa's (Idina Menzel) defining song "Let it Go" is a highlight of the film, and the animation was perfect for it.  I can still hear the song in my head.  I wouldn't be surprised to see Oscar nominations for Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez for their original songs.  I expect that many copies of the soundtrack will be purchased this holiday season.

The animation is fantastic and some of the designs and scenery will likely evoke thoughts of things like Lord of the Rings or even Game of Thrones.  The character's look was also very appealing.  Despite all the ice and snow, it's still very vivid and colorful.  I actually thought the 3D was very good as well, and it doesn't get in the way.  I still don't think you need to make huge effort to see it in 3D, but it's not a complete waste if that's all that's available to you.

Frozen also features great voice acting.  I couldn't place the voice for Anna for much of the film, and was surprised to see it was Kristen Bell.  I never really noticed her voice before, but was impressed with how warm and effortless it was, and it turns out she's a great singer, too.  The entire cast is excellent and I applaud the filmmakers for not going with a bunch of big name actors, but rather ones whose voices fit the parts better.  I was very impressed with Jonathan Groff and Santino Fontana, as Kristoff and Hans respectively.  Josh Gad is perfect as Olaf the snowman.  I was surprised to see Alan Tudyk's name in the credits, and he's proving to be quite the chameleon as a voice actor.  However, the prize goes to Idina Menzel as the hidden gem here.  He voice is absolutely amazing!

Frozen is a classic Disney musical that everyone can enjoy.  It features gorgeous animation, great songs and wonderful voice acting.  It's clever, funny, energetic, and has the kind of heart I normally would expect from a Pixar film.  Disney has really stepped up it's game with their animated films in the past few years.  This is my favorite animated film of 2013 and was an absolute joy to watch.

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Delivery Man (2013)

A few years ago I heard about a story where there was some delivery guy or truck driver that actually had like 100+ kids in various cities around the country.  I though that's what Delivery Man was going to be about, which probably would have been a more interesting story. It turns out I can't find any links to that story, so I could have imagined it for all I know.

What I didn't realize was that Delivery Man is an American remake of  the French-Canadian film Starbuck, both directed by Ken Scott, and co-written with Martin Petit.  Why "Starbuck"?  It's the anonymous name used by David Wozniak (Vince Vaughn), when he made a large amount of sperm donations when he was younger.  The choice of name struck me as odd as David didn't appear to be much of a coffee drinker, nor a Battlestar Galactica fan.

Due to some issue at the sperm back, David's sperm was used repeatedly and learns that he is the biological father of 533 kids. A large group of these kids are suing to find out their father's identity, and David is given a file with their profiles.  David now has to decide if he wants to come forward.  Also, his girlfriend (Cobie Smulders) reveals she's pregnant, but isn't sure David would make for a good father.

David is that cliched screw-up that hadn't grown up yet, and always seems to be in some kind of mess.  Looking for some way to prove his value as a father, and an adult, he starts reviewing the profiles of his various biological children to check in on them and help them where he can.

He helps out a few of these kids and starts to feel better about himself.  He even views himself as a bit of a guardian angel.  These were some of the better moments of the film.  Unfortunately, many of these kids are not really well developed, so outside of one or two of them, you don't get invested in them at all.  They aren't much more than a single character trait or profession.  The main kid that they do focus on was a creepy guy that you wouldn't want to spend a lot of time with.  Even David talked about how much he was annoyed by him.

One of the issues I had a hard time wrapping my head around was what the actual conflict was.  The kids were only suing to learn his identity.  They didn't appear to be mad at him, or want anything from him financially.  It's mainly an issue of confidentiality, which David never really expresses that he has much of an issue with.  The only real problem comes from the fact once the story gets in the news, he's vilified as some kind of creep, but again, this isn't something he's at fault for.  It's the sperm bank's fault.  Also, for much of the film it's never a matter of if he's going to come forward, but when.  The way he chooses to do it I thought was pretty terrible considering the relationship he had with many of them by the end.  If I were some of the kids, I probably would have been upset by the way he revealed himself.  Oh, sorry, I guess that's a bit of a spoiler...if you couldn't tell that was going to happen during the opening credits.

Another big issue with the film is that it's really not that funny.  Most of the jokes fall really flat, and there's and overall lack of wit or punch to anything.  There's one particular gag that's repeated to the point where it gets annoying, and it wasn't even funny the first time.  I was disappointed that Bobby Moynihan as David's brother (really, you're trying to sell me on Moynihan being related Vaughn?) didn't get more to do, and it seemed like there was a missed opportunity to have more banter within the the family.

It also suffers from lack of focus and plot threads that don't really go anywhere.  There's a thread that persists throughout regarding David owing a large amount of money to some Russian loan sharks.  When this is finally resolved, it has no bearing on the film's conclusion, and you wonder why it was in the film at all.  It was a pretty pointless inclusion.

Vince Vaughn is his usual charming self, even if is trademarked energy isn't there.  He's much more subdued than what we're used to seeing, and I'm not sure that was the best direction.  The film needed a little more life and energy.  On a side note, in a few early scenes I had to wonder if Vaughn was dealing with some back issues.  As someone that's had his share of back issues over the years, I recognized the labored walk of someone dealing with a sore back or back spasms.  As much as I like Cobie Smulders, she's not given much to do here and felt like a wasted casting.  Chris Pratt had a few funny moments towards the end, but he's better than the material given to work with, too.  I just don't understand why you'd get comedic actors from successful TV shows and then not give them anything funny to say or do.

Delivery Man is a middle-of-the-road, sorta feel good, family film that fans of Vince Vaughn will still likely get some enjoyment out of.  It pretty much gets by on his charm.  I admit that I liked the end, but I'm a sucker for sappy endings.  It's one of those films where I can't say I really liked it, but can't bring myself to hate it either.  It's definitely not something you need to rush out and see in the theater, and is better suited for rental or cable.  In fact, if you were flipping channels and caught this you'd probably sit through it and not feel like you totally wasted your time.  Ultimately, it's pretty forgettable though.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

In the opening scene of Dallas Buyers Club, rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) helps another cowboy as he prepares for a bull ride.  I couldn't help but think how the other cowboy looked like he could be related to Steve Zahn.  Woodroof placed a losing bet on this cowboy, and in an attempt to avoid getting throttled by an angry mob, assaults a cop played by...Steve Zahn!  Is there such a thing as Steve Zahn foresight?  Do I have the gift?

Okay, I'm already getting way off topic here.  Woodroof later has an accident at work, and awakens in a hospital.  He's told by doctors that not only does he have AIDS, they estimate he has just 30 days to live.  Set back in 1985, this was when AIDS was pretty much an automatic death sentence, and many considered it to be a "gay disease".  Hell, I remember back then people were concerned you could get it from kissing or casual contact.  Some of you may even remember Eddie Murphy doing a joke to this effect from Delirious.  I'm not saying it was right, but it's interesting to see much differently AIDS was viewed 30 years ago.

Woodroof is able to score some AZT, which was in its early days of clinical trials, but the drug actually makes him worse and pushes him to the brink.  Desperate for alternative treatments, he heads down to Mexico where he's given a series of non-FDA-approved medications and supplements.  When his health improves and realizes he's been hanging on much longer than the doctor's guess, he sees an opportunity to make a lot of money.  Needing a connection into the community, he partners with Rayon (Jared Leto) to sell memberships to those that want the supplements.  The Dallas Buyers Club is born.

If you're someone that tends to think the FDA's is a good 20-30 years beyond current medical science, or controlled by big Pharma, then you're likely to appreciate what Woodroof did on principal.  Granted, he did this initially to make money, but as time goes on he does it as much to help people and to get them off drugs that were making them sicker.

Based on a true story, one of the things that makes Dallas Buyers Club work so well is that its protagonist is a charming enough guy, but definitely has some severe character flaws (gambling, drugs, homophobia).  Stubbornness can be a strength, and that's another thing I liked about Woodroof.  He doesn't feel sorry for himself, and he never gives up despite many setbacks or the constant harassment from law enforcement.  He's not going down without a fight.

His disease and association with gays isn't something that his friends look kindly on either, and is ostracized from them.  Even Woodroof can't get past his own homophobia at first, but eventually starts to sympathize with the very community he used to demonize.  He also slowly bonds and becomes friends with Rayon.  This aspect is a pretty predictable buddy story where you have two people that don't get along, are forced to work together due to a common goal, and then become friends.  Sure, it's a little cliched, but that doesn't make it any less satisfying to see play out.

While dealing with some dark subjects, another strength of Dallas Buyers Club is that it's peppered with humor and funny dialog.  Much of this is provided through McConaughey's performance, who always has the right, smartass thing to say.  The humorous moments actually make this extremely enjoyable to watch, when compared to some of the heavier films of this Oscar season.  I have to credit screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack for keeping it light, but smart at the same.  Director Jean-Marc Vallee could have tightened the pace a little bit, but was able to avoid having the film fall into melodrama.

Clearly the biggest strength is the out-of-the-park performance from Matthew McConaughey.  The physical transformation of dropping 50 pounds alone is an achievement that can't be ignored.  That's commitment to the role there.  Despite his frail appearance, there's a fierce strength in his performance and he felt like a bull charging with a full head of steam.  While this is definitely McConaughey's film, Jared Leto gives an equally great performance.  He also goes through a physical transformation, and I know many people that didn't even realize it was Leto until afterwards.  He's come a long way from My So-Called Life and Jordan Catalano.  I've never thought about it much until now, but he's in that category of underrated, under appreciated actors that are usually overshadowed by another cast member or two.  That doesn't happen here though, and I anticipate Oscar nominations for both Leto and McConaughey this year.  I wouldn't be surprised to see both win either.  Almost lost in the shuffle is Jennifer Garner who's also very strong as Dr. Eve Saks, but it's kind of hard stand out when you're in the shadow of two fantastic, Oscar-worthy performances.

I think I've mentioned this every time I seen a film with Matthew McConaughey recently, but has there been an actor that's had a more impressive career turnaround than he has in the past few years?  I keep writing this as if it's a surprise he turned in a good performance, but that's the thing, it's not a surprise anymore.  I see McConaughey's name on a film now and expect to be impressed and enjoy the film.

Dallas Buyers Club is a powerful and inspirational story anchored by the best performance of Matthew McConaughey's (and Jared Leto's) career.  It's an example of how a darker tale can still entertain with its surprising humor and lively spirit.  This is one film that's going to be counted among the years best and one you shouldn't miss.

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Which came first, Lady Gaga's fashion sense or the styling of Panem's residents in The Hunger Games?

Picking up shortly after their win in the Hunger Games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are about to take their victory tour of the districts.  However, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) warns Katniss that her actions have been seen as an act of defiance against the Capitol and have inspired many to rebel.  She better convince everyone that her relationship with Peeta is real, or else.  As the tour continues, civil unrest continues to escalate, and eventually Snow and new Head Gamemaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) decide that Katniss needs to go.  They throw a wrinkle in the next Hunger Games that the tributes will be picked from the existing pool of past winners.  None of the past winners are wild about this and don't hide their unhappiness with the situation.  As many of the past winners are older or have been out of the game for a while, alliances form as their best chance to survive in the games.  If you've ever watched a season of Survivor, it's pretty much just like that, except with better hygiene.

When we do eventually get to the action, there's thankfully no shaky cam this time.  One of the things that bugged me, and many of my friends, about the first was that many of the action sequences were ruined by shaky cam to the point where it was a little nauseating.  I watched The Hunger Games again just a few hours before seeing Catching Fire to see if I was remembering it correctly, and it's definitely there.  I have to give credit to director Francis Lawrence for this improvement over the first.  The effects were a definite step up, too.  With almost double the budget, you can tell a lot of it went towards improving the visuals.  One scene that stood out was where the tributes face off against a pack of baboons that looked much more convincing than those rubber dogs from the first.  Those things looked like the bad, mutated dogs from Ang Lee's Hulk.

It's a not a flawless affair though. The first hour's pacing is a little too slow.  I liked the politics and story that was being set up, but more than a few times I felt like they needed to hurry up and get on with it.  Also at 2 hours and 26 minutes, it's still way too long. This could have easily been edited down a good 10-15 minutes and not lost much of anything.  It's not like I was bored, or was desperate for a bathroom break by the end, but these issues are really apparent considering that the structure is pretty much identical to the first film.  In fact, if hadn't enjoyed Catching Fire as much as I did, I would have walked out of the theater saying, "I enjoyed Catching Fire much more the first time I saw it, when it was called The Hunger Games."  It makes me a little nervous when I see that the final book is being split into two films.  I know that's the cash grab these days, but I hope it's being done because there's actually enough material there, rather than stretching out the running time.  Overall, I liked Francis Lawrence's direction and think the series is in good hands for the upcoming films.  Anyone want the over/under at 5 hours for the total runtime?

The performances were a big improvement across the board as well.  Josh Hutcherson seems to have matured a bit since the first film, and Jennifer Lawrence keeps getting better and better.  I'm a little biased though, as Lawrence is one of my favorite female actors, period.  An observation I had after the film is that while Hutcherson appears roughly his age, Lawrence feels much more mature than her age or appearance would indicate.

Woody Harrelson's Haymitch was much funnier and overall Harrelson felt more invested in the role.  I thought that Elizabeth Banks showed a little more range with Effie, as you saw how she'd grown to care for Katniss and Peeta.  I was a little bummed that Lenny Kravitz didn't get more screen time as he was one of the surprises of the first film for me.  The PSH is always great, but we didn't get to see one of his trademarked outbursts.  I also enjoyed Sam Claflin as Finnick, as based on his poster I wasn't sure what to make of his character going in.

Two of the biggest scene stealers were Stanely Tucci with his campy and a little creepy return as Caesar Flickerman, and Jena Malone's sarcastic and sexy turn as Johanna, a former winner who never passes up the opportunity to tell you, or show you, exactly what she's thinking.  Malone and Tucci seemed like the two actors that were enjoying themselves the most.

Poor Liam Hemsworth.  He's still suck in third wheel mode while his brother gets to swing around Mjolnir.
If there's any issue I had with the cast it was that Thad Castle (Alan Ritchson) didn't have more screen time, and at no point did he mention the need to bone some sloots.  Such a waste...

On a side note, I know I complained about this in my Hunger Games review, but I still have a little bit of a hard time taking this seriously as I should with all the goofy, made up names given to these characters. There are guys named Gale and Peeta.  Other characters with names like Haymich, Cinna, Katniss, Beetee, and Mags.  Are these call signs from Top Gun?  Where are all the Johns, Daves or Jennifers?  I guess in the future, the winners were the people that name their kids stuff like Gunnar, Apple and Rumor.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is one of the rare examples of a sequel that's better than its predecessor.  It's an obvious comparison, especially coming from me, but this felt like the Empire Strikes Back of The Hunger Games series. With the exception of its length and some pacing issues, it's a definite improvement over the first.  Fans of the first film should be very pleased with what they see this time around.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Sunshine Award

I was recently nominated for a Sunshine Award by fellow blogger Cristina over at After "Cut" Reviews.  I didn't even know this existed until I was notified of the nomination.  I'm flattered by it and that there are people out there that like or appreciate what I do.  I consider myself a mediocre writer at best, so anything like this is always going to be a surprise to me.

There are a few rules to the nomination, which are as follows:

1. Include the award's logo in a post or on your blog. (above)
2. Link to the person who nominated you. (done, also above)
3. Answer 10 questions or offer random information about yourself. (below)
4. Nominate 10 bloggers. (cheating)
5. Link your nominees to the post and comment on their blogs, letting them know you they have been nominated. (working on it)


1- Why do you blog?

Initially, this actually started as a training blog when I stopped posting on a particular weight lifting forum I used to frequent.  In fact, if you go back far enough on my blog, you'll still see some of those posts.  I slowly started working in reviews, and eventually it took over the blog.  Around that time, I also changed the blog to its current name.

It's not like I don't work out anymore, but it got kind of tedious to post my daily workout, and since I'm not a fitness professional, is it really all that interesting to see that today I did six sets of squats with x amount of weight, followed by x sets of leg press, some leg extensions and curls, a little bit of calf work, and then 30 minutes of cardio?  I didn't think so.  A while back I used to have aspirations of getting into the fitness field, but if that ever becomes a thing again, I'd start a new blog for that.

2- If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?

Well, a full-time film critic would be obvious answer here.  It's one of the reasons why the blog slowly got taken over by movie reviews.  Most of my friends have always known about my love of movies and have encouraged me to write or blog about them.  Even on the old weight lifting forum I was known as a movie guy and used to post there frequently in the "Off Topic" forums about them.

I think most of my friends would tell you that I'm more passionate and articulate as a speaker, so I'd like to get involved with a video blog or podcast eventually.

Intergalactic smuggler/scoundrel would be my second choice.  I even have the vest.

3- Favorite Movie?

As you'd probably guess by the blog name, I'm a big Star Wars fan.  I saw A New Hope back in 1977 when I was four (and back when it wasn't yet called A New Hope) and was irrevocably warped.  I usually struggle between Empire Strikes Back versus A New Hope when deciding what's my favorite.  Do I go with the better of the two films: Empire, or do I go with the one that arguably had the bigger influence: A New Hope.  I'm sticking with Empire for now.

4- Favorite TV Show (Current and of all time)?

My current favorite show is actually How I Met Your Mother.  I didn't start watching it until recently, but I gave it a shot based on the cast.  I was close to giving up after the first few episodes, but it won me over.  I absolutely love Neil Patrick Harris as Barney Stinson.  I love the character so much that I've vowed to name my next dog...wait for it..."Barney!"  What did you think I'd name it "Legendary!?"

Of all time, my first choice is Cheers, with Seinfeld as a close second.

While I try to stay current with shows like The League, It's Always Sunny..., Modern Family, Parks & Rec, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, I have a tough time staying on top of most new shows, and usually have to binge watch them once they hit DVD or Netflix.  I often joke that I'm not taking any new applications for TV shows at this time, but I recently started watching Trophy Wife which I really like so far.  I'm also pretty encouraged by what I've seen from the first two episodes of Almost Human.

I love the model Netflix has taken with shows like House of Cards or Orange Is the New Black, and power through those once they get released.  I don't subscribe to any pay channels, but usually buy the current seasons of stuff like True Blood, Game of Thrones and Dexter once they become available.

5- Biggest guilty pleasure of 2013 (so far)?

If we're going by the criteria of a film that wasn't universally loved by both critics and fans, then my answer is Man of Steel.  I understand its flaws and the issues many have with it, but it just worked for me.  I've probably watched it more than any other film in the past year now that it's on Blu-Ray.  Don't get me wrong, by no means do I think it's the best movie of the year, it's just the one of the ones I've enjoyed watching the most.

6- What are some of this year's films you were not expecting to like and then enjoyed?

The Heat, Now You See Me, You're Next, We're the Millers, V/H/S/2, Pain & Gain, Olympus Has Fallen, Beautiful Creatures...

7- What films have disappointed you the most this year?

Star Trek Into Darkness (No colon? Really?), Insidious 2, Closed Circuit, Kick-Ass 2, Hell Baby, The To Do List, The Bling Ring, Trance...

I could probably come up with more on both of these lists, but I think you get the idea.

8- Recent film that not enough people have seen?

Robot & Frank.  Such a sweet, funny and surprisingly touching movie.  It's streaming on Netflix currently and is epic!  The end credits song by Francis and the Lights is fantastic, too.

9- Favorite Actors/Actresses working today?
Actors: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel-Day Lewis, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Michael Fassbender and Paul Giamatti are pretty much there, too.  I'll see pretty much anything with them in it.
Actresses: Cate Blanchett, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Lawrence, Melissa Leo, and Jessica Chastain.

10- Any Final Thoughts or random musings?
- I'm actually a huge dork, which I feel like doesn't always come across in my writing or in my day to day walking around.
- When it comes to beer I prefer Ales and IPAs.
- Whenever I worry I drink too much, I look in my liquor cabinet and see several unopened bottles of vodka, white wine, gin and rum and feel a little better about that. ;)
- I don't like veggies on pizza.  All meat for me!  Maybe olive or mushroom, but the pepperoni has to be there!
- I hate onions, but love onion rings.
- I've been driving the same car for nearly 12 years and have barely put over 100k miles on it.
- I think courtesy is a two-way street, and believe in the golden rule.  I also believe in random acts of kindness and small gestures, like holding the door open for people, and thanking them when it's done for me.
- I'm generally a very good tipper.
- I played drums pretty seriously for about 10 years, but currently don't even own a drum set.  I still screw around with the guitar a bit, and plan on buying a bass very soon.
- I'm can do several (bad) impressions of people like The Emperor, Tracy Morgan, Optimus Prime, Christopher Walken, but I'm kind of known for my Arnold Schwarzenegger.
- I don't consider myself an introvert, but I usually keep to myself, and many people think I'm very shy when they first meet me.  Along those lines, I've never been one to fish for invites when I don't have plans.  I'm pretty good at entertaining myself.
- I'm not a particularly religious or political person and I tend to keep those thoughts private.  On the same lines, I try not to let the same in actors or entertainers affect my judgement.  If I let the fact that I didn't like a certain actor's views or beliefs affect my viewing, I'd probably see a lot less films.
- In general, I'm trying to be less angry.  I try to avoid this in my writing as well, but sometimes it can't be helped.  I'm not talking about critique necessarily, but more about it being mean spirited (like Rex Reed's remarks about Melissa McCarthy earlier this year).  Having said that, I do love reading or writing a good rant.  I'm just trying to mellow out a bit as I get older.

Nominate 10 others.  This is the part that's going to be a little tough for me.  I'm not as active in the community as I probably should be.  With work and other commitments I find there are weeks I barely have time to get out my own reviews out, let alone have time to read other blogs.  It's something I'm trying to make a bigger effort towards, as I like being part of the movie blogger community and there are many people whose reviews and perspective I enjoy reading.  Having said that, here are the blogs that I most consistently read and nominate.

On the Screen Reviews
Dan the Man's Movie Reviews
This is Madness!
After "Cut" Reviews
3 Guys 1 Movie
Movies Hate You Too
Lights Camera Reaction

I guess 7 out of 10 isn't bad.

Kill Your Darlings (2013)

About twenty minutes into Kill Your Darlings I knew I was in trouble.  I was already having a hard time getting into it and still had well over an hour to go.  It didn't help that this featured some of the founding members of the Beat Generation, which I've never really cared much about.  Well, if you're not a fan of the Beat Generation, why in the hell did you see this, you ask?  I honestly didn't know that's was Kill Your Darlings was about.  I mainly saw this because it stars Dane DeHaan, one of my favorite young actors, and Daniel Radcliffe, whose career choices I'm following very closely post-Potter.

Believe it or not, I try to go into most movies knowing as little as possible about them.  I avoid trailers as much as I can, and stay off the web to avoid spoilers.  Many times I'm not even aware of who wrote or directed the film until the credits roll.  If it's based on a book, I won't touch it until after I see the movie.  I do this mainly to avoid going in with certain expectations, especially when I know it's from a writer or a director I may or may not like.  I know sometimes that's unavoidable with the bigger releases, or when the commercials or posters say, "Brought to you by the director of this and that."  Generally speaking, I try to go in as 'clean' as I can, and many times I usually don't know much more than the lead actors.

Kill Your Darlings follows the story involving the murder of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), and the early days of the Beat Generation.  As the movie begins with the murder and the accused, Lucien Carr (DeHaan) already in jail, there's little suspense at all to the remainder of the story.  We mainly watch Carr, Allen Ginsberg (Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) drink, do drugs, listen to music, and cause mischief.  I don't find it all that interesting to watch people do drugs, especially when I have no experience with their drug of choice.  I have no problem with alcohol and marijuana, but I have no knowledge at all of benzedrine.  Watching people listen to music is also pretty uninteresting to me, too.  Would like to see a Youtube video of me sitting in a bar watching a band you've never heard of that doesn't focus on the band or music?  Pretty fascinating, right?  Kill Your Darlings features much of the same general hedonism that I disliked about On The Road, only with less misogyny.  I guess if you think about it, this is sort of a prequel to On The Road.  The credits even specifically mention how Kerouac went on to write On The Road after this.  Okay...

After the opening sequence, we go back to just before Allen Ginsberg's heads off to Columbia University.  I was excited when I saw David Cross playing Ginsberg's father.  I thought maybe he'd lend some humor to the movie, but unfortunately this did not happen.  Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Ginsburg's mother, who is dealing with mental illness, but I found this subplot to be largely pointless as they didn't have any impact on the main story.  Maybe if Ginsberg had suffered from mental illness himself, it might have made more sense to include this, but it came across as unnecessary backstory.  After arriving at Columbia, Ginsberg meets Carr who introduces him to various members of the Beat Generation.  He begins to experiment with drugs and his own sexuality.

Another issue I had with the film was that I'm never made to feel why these people were important literary influences.  I didn't finish Kill Your Darlings wanting to know more about these guys.  The film features lots of scenes of Ginsberg writing and reading poetry, but the moments that worked best were the character moments, especially Carr's interactions with various members of the group.  They are inspired to create a "New Vision", and while there are several moments where you see them throwing out ideas, tearing up books, and working it out, what was the end result?  It wasn't clear to me.

As John Krokidas' feature directing debut goes, it's a decent effort.  I thought the pace dragged a little too much, and there were certain elements and characters that didn't add much to the story or were wasted entirely.  Part of the drag stems from how I mentioned that we begin with the ultimate climax of the film.  Lots of times this can work, but here it just made me antsy knowing I was going to sit through 100 minutes to get to a climax I already knew was coming.  Since this is a little-known story, spoiling how it turns out in the first five minutes was a mistake.  There's very little about the aftermath of this event, and it's all the lead up to it.

It's very well acted though.  Dane DeHaan was extremely charismatic as Lucien Carr, and it's one of those performances where he makes it easy to understand why people were drawn to him.  He plays off everyone well and it was interesting to see how manipulative he could be.  DeHaan's chemistry with Radcliffe is one of the strongest points of the film.  As for Radcliffe, if he wanted to distance himself from Harry Potter or make people start to forget about that part of his career, then he certainly accomplished that with a daring and earnest performance.  I think he even went "full gay."  It's bodes well for his future that he's willing to take risks like this, and it reminds me of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's earlier performance in Mysterious Skin.  Outside of wasting Cross, Leigh, and especially Elizabeth Olsen (an extreme waste), I found most of the performances to be good.

Kill Your Darlings is a stylish and well-acted story, but unfortunately meanders and suffers from lack of focus.  I didn't hate the film, it simply didn't work for me.  If you're someone who's a fan of the Beat Generation, or are interested in Daniel Radcliffe's career post-Potter, then you may get some value from watching it.  It's a rental at best.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

All is Lost (2013)

I've heard people say that Gravity was "Open Water in space", so does that make All Is Lost "Gravity in the ocean?"  Or is it "Open Water hung out with Gravity, got drunk, and nine months later All Is Lost was born?"  If so, are they still together, or do they share joint custody?

You're likely going to see a lot of comparisons to Gravity in this review.  Like your inevitable turn to the Dark Side, it's unavoidable, as there are many similarities.  It also doesn't help that they came out roughly the same time.  I apologize in advance if it gets a little annoying though.

I don't have a ton to say about All Is Lost, as it's a good example of limited storytelling.  There's virtually no dialog, only one character and we never learn his name.  It doesn't waste any time getting to the catalyst of his predicament either.  When sailing in the Indian Ocean, the man with no name (Robert Redford) is stirred by a random shipping container colliding with his sailboat.  He's able to dislodge from the container and eventually patch the hole, but this is just the beginning.  As his navigation equipment and radio were destroyed, he's unable to contact anyone for help, and has to rely on his instincts to survive.

Unfortunately for the Old Man at Sea, nearly everything that can go wrong does.  He runs into several storms, the boat capsizes, he's thrown overboard, and the boat eventually sinks.  After abandoning ship, his bad luck continues.  It would be easier to list all the things that go right for him, which is to say nothing.  When he manages to get into a shipping lane and Maersk cargo ship passes him, I could only wonder what the Old Man did to piss off Captain Phillips so much.  Does Tom Hanks have a secret beef with Redford?

All Is Lost is an example of a film where I can praise it for it's performance and recognize its technical merits, but somehow came away from it feeling cold.  I even had a hard time saying whether or not I liked it right after.  While just as dire, Gravity is more of an exciting thrill ride, compared to the bleak tone of All Is Lost.  Even the music, which I found repetitive, seemed to be saying "all is lost".  It's still an intense experience though, and right up until the very end you don't know how it's going to turn out.

I'm not sure why it didn't totally work for me.  Perhaps it is due to seeing a glut of intense films about struggle lately.  It may just be due to the fact that I don't find sailing all that interesting.  I find it a little crazy that someone would sail in the middle of the ocean by himself.  That's related to another thing that bugged me in the early part of the film.  I didn't see much urgency on the part of the Old Man.  He moved very deliberately, and while I understand the need for caution, I couldn't help think, "maybe you should do this a little faster."   Once he patches the ship, he seemed to sail aimlessly, where I would have immediately headed towards help or safety.  Even though he sees the first storm coming, he didn't appear prepared for it.  Take this all with a grain of salt though.  I'm not a sailor, and you wouldn't get me out on a sailboat in the first place.  I'd rather repair a satellite in Earth's orbit than sail on the high seas.

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor, this is much different film from his first offering, Margin Call, which I was a big fan of.  Where Margin Call was a dialogue heavy film, All Is Lost is more of a meditation about a man struggling to survive against the elements.  It bodes well for his future that his first two films are so dissimilar.

I don't think the film would have worked as well if it wasn't anchored (pun intended) by a great performance from Robert Redford.  It's a lesson in how to convey thought and emotion with just subtle glances and body language.  People that complained that Sandra Bullock's character talked to herself too much in Gravity will likely appreciate the contrast here.  Personally, I talk to myself all the time, so I identified a little more with Sandra Bullock's performance, but that's not to take anything away from Redford's.  I'm sure Redford will get some Oscar consideration, but it's already shaping up to be a crowded field this year, with favorites already appearing.

All Is Lost is a film that definitely lives up to its name.  While its gloomy tone left me feeling a bit cold by the end, it's a well-crafted and intense film.  It's also a testament to Robert Redford's ability to captivate an audience without saying anything.  It's definitely worth a watch if it's available in a theater near you.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

I remember when they announced the first Thor movie and wondered how in the hell they were going to get it to work on-screen.  Combing cool fantasy elements, and funny fish-out-of-water moments, Thor was a hit.  Just two years later, we're already on our third film featuring the character.  Sometimes it pays to just keep doing what you're doing.

In a very Lord of the Rings-ish prologue, we learn that long ago Odin's father fought with the Dark Elves, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston).  Malekith sought to control the Aether, a weapon of unlimited power, to destroy the Nine Realms and return the universe to darkness.  After being beaten back, the Aether was hidden where nobody would find it, which only means that some puny human is going to accidentally find it one day.

In the present day, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is busy at work trying to bring peace to the Nine Realms after the events of both the first film and The Avengers.  He's regained the respect of his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who wants him to take over his throne, but it's clear to all that he longs to reunite with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).  Personally, I would been all over Sif (Jaimie Alexander), but to each their own.  Jane is investigating weird physical anomalies in London, where she comes in contact with the Aether.  This awakens Malekith and he sets his sights on Asgard to reclaim it.  Thor is forced to turn to the one person he cannot trust for help: his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

Unlike the first Thor, much more time is spent in Asgard and you get a longer look at this realm, along with a few others.  It all looks great, and the effects across the board are very good.  There was a nice blend of sci-fi with the fantasy elements, and at times I was reminded of Krull.  I had a problem with the 3D in Thor, so I skipped that this time.  I didn't see anything about the visuals in The Dark World that screamed a need to see this in 3D anyway.

Many of the side characters get extended screen time and their moments to stand out, but I was left wanting much more of them, particularly Sif, Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), and Fandral (Zachary Levi, replacing Josh Dallas).  Heimdall's role was also expanded, but I think you can attribute much of that to the star power of Idris Elba.  Even Thor's Mom, Frigga (Rene Russo) gets in on the action, and she shares some time with Loki giving you a little more insight into their relationship.

The Dark World's story is a little messy and takes a little too long to really get moving.  If you take a look at the IMDB page, you'll see a lot of names involved with the story and screenplay, which is usually a bad sign.  It's not so messy that it's hard to follow or a complete wreck, but it seemed to lack focus and the tone was a little inconsistent.  You could see elements that were borrowed from other films, and I was also a little irritated with the consistent use of illusions to get a character out of danger.

Another weakness is that while there's a distinct villain and we understand what he's after, he wasn't all that interesting or menacing.  Christopher Eccleston as Malekith was completely unrecognizable and spoke in a made up language for most of the film, making his casting a bit of waste.  Much of Malekith's scenes felt really disconnected from the rest of the film.

Where Thor: The Dark World really shines are with any of the action scenes.  Director Alan Taylor's experience with shows like Rome and Game of Thrones served him well.  You're treated to several of these Lord of the Rings-esque fights, complete with illuminating swords, but with lasers and other technology thrown in.  When we get to the final battle, it's very creative and manages to stand apart from the rest.  It finished on a high note and fans should leave feeling satisfied.

The performances are great as well.  Chris Hemsworth has really settled into the role and has ramped up his Thor-iness.  In the first film, it felt like a guy playing dress up a bit, but now he truly feels like Thor.  Thor's relationship with Jane was much more natural, and I think that's due in large part to the improved chemistry between Hemsworth and Natalie Portman.  Finally, Tom Hiddleston knocks it out of the park as Loki.  I've said for a while now that Hiddleston really seems to love playing the role and just chews it up any chance he gets.  If anything, he makes a case for the first Marvel spin-off starring a bad guy.  Come on, Marvel, make it happen.  Loki: God of Mischief should be part of Phase 3.

Much like the first film, there's a good amount of humor sprinkled throughout the film.  Much of this is provided by the puny Earthlings played by Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard and Chris O'Dowd.  Sometimes their antics bordered on being silly, but the film benefit from these moments overall.  There are also a few great Easter eggs, and you'll definitely want to stick until the end of the credits.

Thor: The Dark World isn't likely to win any new fans, but there's enough of the humor and action that made the first work to please existing ones.  While the story is a little messy, the performances and action are a distinct improvement over Thor.  Overall, it's a highly entertaining film, so don't hesitate to check it out this weekend.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Sunday, November 3, 2013

12 Years a Slave (2013)

I've said a few times recently that a certain film is one of those good films that I never want to watch again.  Well, 12 Years a Slave takes the final prize for that crown.  No film this year will come close to matching the intensity, dread and emotion I felt.

It's kind of ironic that the film begins with a phrase I usually dislike, "based on a true story".  When I see that, I expect some wildly embellished story that only vaguely resembles the actual one.  Here you can't shake the feeling that this is pretty much exactly what happened.

This is based on the experience of Solomon Northup in his published book, Twelve Years a Slave.  Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born man living in Saratoga, NY, was a respected violin player.  After his wife and kids take a job out of town for a few weeks, he's approached by a duo that offers him a job playing for a circus.  After they arrive in Washington, D.C., Northup awakens after a night a drinking to find himself chained and sold into slavery.  With no way to prove he was a free man, he's advised by others to keep his mouth shut, do as he's told, and not even let on that he's educated.  He's forced to adopt the name of Platt as he's transported down south.

I never realized that it wasn't uncommon for a free man to be kidnapped and sold back into slavery.  It's absolutely crazy to me, but in those times without papers or someone to vouch for you, there wasn't much one could do once in that situation.

He's first sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who realizes Northrop's skills and treats him fairly well all things considering.  However, he butts heads with one of Ford's underlings, John Tibeats (Paul Dano).  After one particular encounter, Northrop suffers in one of many scenes that's truly difficult to watch.

Northrop is eventually sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a slaver known for his ability to break slaves.  Epps along with his wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson), are the living embodiment of evil.  Epps has his eyes on Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), a slave that consistently picks the most cotton, but his affection towards her doesn't go unnoticed by Mary.

Finally, Northrop befriends Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian carpenter working for Epps.  At great risk, Bass is able to contact Northrop's family and they are finally able to get a lawman down to the plantation to prove who Northrop really is.  I debated telling that part as a spoiler, but considering Northrop wouldn't have been able to write his account if he wasn't free again, you already know from the beginning what the eventual outcome is going to be.  Trust me, it won't affect your feelings during the film either way.

12 Years a Slave focuses much of Northrop's experience on Epps plantation, as this is when you truly see the ugliness of slavery and their condition.  The Epps' cruelty seemed to know no bounds.  Already a drunk, Epps is a twisted person, but he's equally matched by Mary, who takes almost any opportunity to turn her wrath towards Patsey.  You'll be shocked and appalled at that brutality of their treatment.  There are several very graphic scenes that make The Passion of the Christ look tame.  These moments are painful and agonizing to get through.  I'm not exaggerating when I say this is the most physically uncomfortable I've ever been watching a film.  You'll likely hear many people around you crying, and I defy anyone to not have a dry eye by the end of the film.  It's conclusion is absolutely heart breaking.

This is a rated-R film and not something I recommend for the faint of heart.  I was surprised to see many families with small children with them.  It's an important film though, so if you have an older kid that you think that'll be able to handle the images, then you will want to consider taking them.

It's a good thing they got recognizable actors that you normally like to play these roles, or otherwise you'd hate them for real.  I sometimes feel for actors that take on roles where they are forced to be so horrible, say the n-word and have to mean it.  It must be very uncomfortable to them at first, but kudos goes to the whole cast for their performances.  Paul Dano once again manages to play a creepy weirdo that you just want to see get the tar beaten out of him, and love it when it does.  Paul Giamatti and Benedict Cumberbatch are are great as they always are.  Alfre Woodard stands out in her lone scene.  Fassbender and Paulson are also fantastic.  Like I said earlier, they personify evil with their performances.  I get this feeling that Fassbender is going to one of those actors that's always great, but slightly overshadowed by another performance in the same film.  He's gonna deserve some hardware at some point for all these great performances.  Another standout performance belongs to Lupita Nyong'o.  Just her first major role, she shows that she's another actress to look out for in the future.  However, this is all about Chiwetel Ejiofor.  I've been a fan of his for a while, but this is finally the role that I think is going to put him up at the top of short list.  Every scene he's in captures your full attention.  There's one particular scene towards the end where he's just looking around, thinking, and it's so powerful.  It is truly a commanding performance.

I think you're going to see many, many Oscar nominations across the board for this film.  The screenplay by John Ridley is note-perfect.  There's no throwaway dialog here.  After just three films, Steve McQueen has proven to be a brilliant director, and this is his masterpiece.  Every shot in the film seems to say something.  He's gonna have hard time topping this, but I can't wait to see what he does next.  Even the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is haunting, and I was surprised to see that Zimmer did the music, as it didn't feel like one of his typical scores.  It felt more like the score from a horror film, which this is in a way.

Because of what 12 Years a Slave is about, I hesitated initially to call it great.  It feels wrong to call a film about slavery great, but that's what it is.  Brutal, emotional and powerful, it's a film that's going to stick with you long after viewing.  12 Years a Slave is a flawless film that's masterfully acted, written and directed and completely unforgettable.  I give it my highest recommendation.

5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ender's Game (2013)

I could have used a little more Death Blossom.

Throughout Ender's Game I was reminded of The Last Starfighter, a favorite film of mine when I was a kid.  It's interesting to note that the original book was released a year after The Last Starfighter.  I'm not saying Ender's Game ripped off The Last Starfighter, but I wonder how much inspiration was drawn from it, or was it all just a coincidence.  The Last Starfighter could use an update, so even if Ender's Game had been a direct rip-off, it wouldn't have bugged me that much.

I haven't read Ender's Game.  Hell, I was only vaguely aware of its existence the first time I saw the trailer, so if you're looking for a comparison of the book to film adaptation, you'll need to look elsewhere.  I've also heard people say it was unfilmable, which didn't seem like that case while watching.   Maybe at the time of writing it was.  Modern technology sure seems to be making a lot of these supposed unfilmable movies a reality lately.

In the future, Earth is attacked by an alien race known as the Formics.  They were beaten back, but humanity has been preparing for their return ever since.  Children a trained at a young age to find the best candidate to lead the fleet.  Why children?  They learn and adapt quicker, are more adept at thinking outside the box, and let's face it, they are better at playing video games.  Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is recognized early by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) as the strongest candidate.  He's put through a series of simulations and games to test his strategy and leadership abilities.  He quickly rises through the ranks and eventually gains the respect of his peers.  With the next battle likely determining the fate of the human race, will Ender be ready in time and handle the responsibility and pressure being put upon him?

At it's heart, Ender's Game feels like one of those classic stories of a child being told there's greatness within him and slowly gaining the confidence to realize that potential.  The kid in me found it easy to identify with and go along for ride.  While PG-13, I thought about how much my 8-year-old nephew would have enjoyed it, and I do think it's suitable for kids in that age range.  It helps that a lot of what's effective about Ender's Game is seeing how Ender deals with the consequences of his actions.  Not being familiar with the story, I was a little surprised with how it played out and thought it was a nice twist.  I've heard from some that the book is smarter, but when isn't that the case?  I also thought there was a nice message about standing up to bullies.  Bullies should also be on notice, as you never know when the guy you're picking on knows all your weaknesses and is ready to mop the floor with you.

Although considering the fact that the boy that saves the day was the best at games and video game simulations, you might want to avoid giving your kids the ammo that allowing them to play more video games may mean the difference between life and death in the future.  I do think it's interesting that book was written back in 1985, and had a pretty forward thinking view regarding the adaptability of children and how it relates to playing video games.  Maybe I'm reading a bit too much into that though.

The timeline felt a little rushed with how quickly Ender was progressing through the ranks.  It seemed like just a day or two would go by before he was being promoted again.  I remember at one point seeing a readout saying they had 20-something days before the next attack, but it wasn't quite clear to me.  Did only just a few weeks transpire or did this take place over a few months?  If it was a really short period of time, it might have helped to have some kind of throwaway line about accelerated learning technology or something.  However, there are a few scenes involving space travel where you can see they were in stasis, which would imply that more time was elapsing, so it felt like a few steps were being skipped in the transitions that might have explained it better.  Having said all that, I felt Ender's Game was paced well and wouldn't have minded if it was a few minutes longer.  I thought Gavin Hood did a good job with the material.  I can't comment on how faithful this is to the book, but after watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I'm just happy this wasn't a train wreck.  It certainly seems to lend weight to the belief that X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a case of massive studio interference.

I enjoyed the special effects and the overall look of Ender's Game.  It felt sufficiently futuristic without having technology that seemed impossible or way too ahead of its time.  I really liked the design of the Formics ships and worlds.  It had a very organic, alien look, and I was reminded of the Yuuzhan Vong from the Star Wars Expanded Universe.  Thankfully it's not in 3D, so you won't have to contend with that.  I did see it in IMAX, and while I always enjoy the format, you don't need to wait for IMAX as it's not that big of a deal.

I also enjoyed the performances.  The film is anchored by Asa Butterfield's sympathetic portrayal of Ender.  Let's face it, had they cast the wrong kid, or you don't buy into his performance, then the whole film kind of falls apart.  Butterfield's had a pretty strong start to his career and I think we can expect to see a lot more from him.  After a disappointing performance in the recent Romeo and Juliet, Hailee Steinfeld bounces back with a stronger performance here, and I thought she good chemistry with Butterfield.  It was fun to see Moises Arias' antagonistic turn as Bonzo, whom I totally thought they were calling "Bonesaw".  Wouldn't that be such a natural nickname for someone named Bonzo though?  Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis are also very good in their limited roles, but I'm convinced neither actor is capable of delivering a bad performance.  Finally, I was happy to see Harrison Ford not mailing it in for a change.  This is the most invested I've seen him in a long time, and you get the feeling he must have really cared about the story.

Ender's Game is a fun adventure that'll appeal to the kid in you.  It's well-acted, has great effects, and the whole family can enjoy together.  It's not a game changer, or something that's gonna make you want to throw out your copy of The Last Starfighter, but there's definitely enough entertainment value that makes it worth a watch.  I recommend a matinee.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars