Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

Non-Spoiler review. I'm gonna do a more spoilery review in a few days.

Okay, lets get this out of the way. I've already seen it more than once, and I loved it more the second time. Granted, it's probably still only the the third best Star Wars film, but that's not a bad thing. It kills all of the prequels (there were prequels?) by a long shot. The Force Awakens might as well been called "The Faith Restored". Thank you JJ Abrams for being the Star Wars fan I thought you were.

I've heard this is a Star Wars movie that can be seen by someone that's never seen a Star War before and still enjoy it, and that's definitely true. The Force Awakens has a short learning curve.

I'll get the bad out of the way first. The main issue I had with the film is that it recycles a lot of plot points from previous Star Wars films, but I look at that as if you're gonna try to restore faith and recapture a lost audience, might as well start from a safe place. Even with the basic Star Wars plot, it leaves a lot of questions open where you can see potential places where the sequels may go. It's not completely obvious where the next films will go. My only other real disappointment in the film is that the score wasn't all that remarkable. It has the old Star Wars musical cues we all know, but I didn't hear anything new that blew me away.

On to the light side. The new characters are fantastic! I wasn't sure how the new guys would play, but they totally carry the movie and you care about each of them. They succeed in bringing a new generation of fans to the franchise. Finn is a great, funny, original character. Rey is the new, upgraded Leia for the next generation. Poe wasn't in the movie all that much, but he just became the Star Wars character I'd most like to have a beer with. Kylo Ren plays the intimidating, conflicted villain that the series needs. I can't wait to see what they all do in the rest of the series.

The action is great and the film is shot beautifully. If you're worried about JJ Abrams lense-flare, then worry not. It's non-existent. There's a lot of creative and interesting shots that we've never seen in a Star Wars movie before. None of the long, walking exposition shots to be found here, nor any of the shot/reverse-shot style of dialog. The film is paced beautifully. I don't think I took a breath the first 30 minutes of the movie either time I saw it.

It's easily the funniest Star Wars film as well. JJ Abrams nails the humor and character interaction. The dialog is a vast improvement over anything the the prequels. The stunted dialog and robotic behavior is completely gone! It's an emotional film, too! I got choked up a few times the first time I saw it, but even more so the second time when seeing my nephews react to it. This is the nostalgia I needed.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the Star Wars movie you're looking for. While derivative, it delivers the fun, action and humor fans craved. It successfully restores faith in the franchise, and gives it the kick in the pants it needed. This is fun for the whole family!

5 (out of 5) Death Stars - Yes, I'm grading on a curve. It's a flawed movie. I don't care!

Mind Blown!

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Martian (2015)

Just to get this out of the way, I haven't read the book, so there will be no comparisons or anything like that. This is a movie review. I can barely read in the first place. On a related note, I talked to a couple after seeing The Martian that was all too happy to tell everyone within earshot that Andy Weir was his cousin. I had to fight every fiber of my being to respond, "Who's that?" Seriously though, The Martian is the kind of movie that makes you want to read the book.

The Martian doesn't waste any time. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars in the opening moments of the film. Since that's the whole premise of the film, might as well get it out of the way, right? No sense in building that up for 30 minutes when the trailer reveals this. Watney must figure out a way to make his supplies last and contact home. As said in the film, he sciences the shit out of it.

It made me happy to see a film where everyone is smart. Hell, the main character of the film is an astronaut-botanist. How geeky is that? Matt Damon might be the main character, but the hero of The Martian is Science. Anything that gets people interested in outer space and celebrates Science is already winning my book. Doesn't hurt when Neil deGrasse Tyson tweets that The Martian got "crucial science right." He did also say that it's still fantasy, but some of those comments seemed to in jest.

It's a testament to Matt Damon's acting and charisma that The Martian stays entertaining even when watching long stretches of just talking to himself, or doing repetitive tasks. Like many stranded films, it can be hard or tedious to watch a guy struggling to survive if you don't like the actor or can't root for the character.

The Martian is a good example of a great cast that isn't wasted. They exist in the Goldilocks zone where everyone's screentime and performances are just right. It's is also very funny with a lot of sharp dialog. I didn't realize Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) wrote the screenplay, so perhaps its humor shouldn't have surprised me as much. The script also does a good job of explaining everything just enough that it's not too complicated, so nobody will get lost. It's not bogged down with jargon or techno-babble.

I'm glad to see Ridley Scott knock one out of the park again. Feels like it's been a good decade since he really nailed a film, so it's nice to see him return to form. I was worried that he might have totally lost it

Funny, thrilling, and best of all, smart, The Martian hits on cylinders. This is one of the most entertaining films of the year, and you don't need to be a fan of the book to enjoy it. It's a must see!

5 (out of 5) Death Stars

The Walk (2015)

Do you ever get that weird feeling that goes right down to your bones when looking down at heights? It doesn't even matter if it's a picture or a video game, it's some automatic thing that you're just wired with. If you get that feeling, then be warned that a good 40 minutes of The Walk will do that to you.

The Walk is an interesting story about a real event, but it's unusually, and sometimes unnecessarily narrated by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing Philippe Petit, the man that actually walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers. It constantly breaks up the story and is an example of the movie telling you rather than showing you. This is especially unusual since The Walk hangs so much on the visual aspect of it. It's also a little weird to see so much narration to a story that's already has an Oscar winning documentary about it. If you want to know how Petit really felt about his walk, just watch Man on Wire on Netflix. It kind of makes the whole movie feel like overkill, only existing to show you how good the CG is.

The cast is good though, and I enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance. I didn't even find his accent annoying, and after a while I forgot I was watching JGL. He's done a pretty good job of doing roles that are different from film to film, rather than playing the same character over and over. The characters take a backseat to the real star of the film, the computer generated Twin Towers. It's done so well and they are shot so lovingly that much of The Walk feels like a tribute to them. Even the way Petit speaks about them seems like he's in love with them.

The final act of The Walk is what you're really waiting for, and it's a doozy. The effects and cinematography are both excellent. It's one of the few times where seeing something in IMAX 3D really felt worth it, as it adds that extra depth to the experience.

I found this to be an interesting contrast to what I saw in Everest. In Everest, I didn't have much sympathy for the characters, and thought what they were doing was nuts. I also thought Petit was nuts, but super ballsy, and oddly poetic. Perhaps it's because Petit considered himself an artist, and I connected with that on some level.

The Walk is a mixed bag of uneven drama, but great, thrilling visuals. I do think it's worth seeing on IMAX if available to you though. Also, if you haven't seen it yet, I'd really recommend you watch Man on Wire, which is a really great documentary about the real event.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice (2015)

Let's see what we have here. A movie about a guy with deep mental health issues, who's also a master at a game I've never been particularly interested in, or even played (honestly, I think I've played chess once in my life). Sounds perfect, right? Also, and maybe this is just me, or hasn't there already been a good amount of movies about Bobby Fisher? Well, fortunately Pawn Sacrifice a movie that's still interesting enough even if you know nothing about Bobby Fischer or chess.

As far as biopics go, it's pretty standard as far as how it's setup and plays out in the beginning. You get some glimpses of the man Fischer is going to become and the issues facing him, Where is gets interesting is once we advance a few years to where he's an adult trying to become the best chess player in the world. You get a view of a very disturbed man dealing with worsening mental health. An interesting thing they hint at, but don't dive into enough for my liking, is whether or his disturbed mind is what made him so great at chess, or does trying to master the game slowly drive you mad. Does it simply attract that type of person?

It's also a little frustrating to watch as his paranoia makes him harder to deal with and pin down. His friends try their best, but there's only so much they can do. Pawn Sacrifice also plays up the US vs. the Soviets at the height of the Cold War. It seems as if they weren't sure what kind of movie they wanted to make, so they just threw a little bit of everything in there. The film could have used some focus. Oddly enough, they spend almost no time at all explaining the game or the rules of these chess tournaments, but I get the feeling that's probably a good thing.

Tobey Maguire was pretty great. It may be his finest performance to date. I honestly can't thing of anything he's been better in. I also enjoyed Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg as part of Fischer's team, watching how they take different ways of dealing with Fischer, while playing off of each other. My only real disappointment is that Liev Schreiber didn't have a more prominent role. More Ray Donovan is always a good thing. I thought he nailed a Russian accent though.

Pawn Sacrifice is a well-made, well-acted film that doesn't tread any new ground as far as biopics go. While there are some interesting ideas and threads, it suffers from too many of them, and ultimately plays it safe with all of them. Not bad, but nothing you need to rush out and see.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Grandma (2015)

I guess calling it "Bad Grandma" would have been a little too obvious, and just a bit hackish. Actually, I wouldn't call her bad as much as I would call her surly. I'm sure we all know the cranky, outspoken grandparent, only it's funny to watch when they aren't yours. I'm already surly and cranky now, so I can only imagine how I'll be 30 years from now. There's a part of me that looks forward to the day when I stop giving a shit and just say whatever the hell I want.

Grandma is a good example of limited story telling. The film plays out over just a single day, but you get everything you need to know from the dialog and interaction. They don't waste time with pointless exposition or explaining all the relationships. It's all there on the screen if you pay attention (and it's not like it's hard to figure out). Depending on your political or religious views, the ultimate goal of this film might upset some of you, but I didn't have an issue with it. I wouldn't get hung up on that though, as the movie is funny and light.

Despite being a limited story, they don't rush things and the relatively short running time is tight and effective. It's refreshing to see a movie that doesn't pad it's runtime. Just put what what needs to be in the film, and if it ends up being just 88 minutes, then so be it. I wish more filmmakers would realize this. Grandma is the kind of movie where at the end, I wouldn't have minded seeing another ten minutes or so. I enjoyed watching the characters and how it all played out.

Lily Tomlin is great, and I'm already hearing Oscar buzz around her performance. I almost forgot we are approaching Oscar-bait season, but this isn't as in your face as maybe other offerings around this time of the year are. Tomlin really is fun to watch, and not just because of her general attitude. There's a wisdom there, but doesn't hammer you over the head with it. I also enjoyed an engaging performance from Julia Garner. She's a relative newcomer, but she has such a distinctive look that she's hard not to notice even in limited screentime. I can see her becoming the next indie queen and seems a likely candidate for playing the manic pixie dream girl type. Marcia Gay Harden is also great. They do an interesting thing with her character where they build her up, and you think she's going to be someone you're going to hate, but when you're finally introduced to her, she comes off as the most sympathetic and relatable. In a weaker movie she would have been a caricature of an overbearing mother. All of the characters in Grandma are more complex than on the surface and aren't perfect people. You know, like in reality.

Grandma is a funny, well-written and heartfelt character story that's driven by an Oscar worthy performance from Lily Tomlin. Since this is smaller release, most won't be able to see this in the theaters, but it's definitely worth checking out.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Everest (2015)

Beware of a movie that begins by telling you how difficult it is to climb Everest and how many people have died trying to do it. You actually want me to watch this movie, right? Throughout they continue to hammer home how dangerous it is and how things can go south quickly. Are you sure you want me to sit through this whole thing? Guess how the movie plays out?

Everest is rough to watch at times. You're seeing a group of people struggling with this feat, and then it continues to get worse and worse. It's no surprise that it's not going to end well for a lot of them. If you like seeing lots of people die or frozen solid, then this is for you. Joy and triumph are not words I'd use to describe Everest. I get the whole man against nature element, but I can't help but wonder why anyone bothers with such an extreme. Why not just do those Spartan Races, and I don't even like those things.

Ultimately. the biggest problem with the movie is that it's hard to feel sympathy for the characters. They never give much more motivation than, 'because it's there'. Nobody's making them do this. It's not like anyone's got a gun to their heads, and they are offered multiple times to turn around when it looks like it's going to be too risky. At the end, I was as cold as as Everest.

Just like how Black Mass shows you pictures of the real people involved, Everest does that too. Normally that helps me connect to the characters, but even seeing them I still couldn't. I also found it a little funny that the makers of the film weren't as concerned for nailing the look. Aside from being much better looking, most of the actors looked nothing like their counterparts. It's kind of irrelevant though, since most of the actors are unrecognizable through much of the film. If it's not their facial hair, then it's the layers and layers of clothing and facial covering obscuring their identity. I was usually confused as to who was who most of the time, unless they had a really distinctive voice. They could have cast a bunch of unknowns and gotten the same effect. Having said that, the performances are good even though it seems like a waste of a lot of big names. I thought Black Mass underutilized a great cast, but in Everest they are completely wasted. Jason Clarke and Josh Brolin stand out for the most part, but I think in her limited screen time I think the only performance I connected with was Keira Knightley's.

Great, great cinematography. Everest is a gorgeous film, even when it's at it's most perilous. I know there was some CG used, but it was used to good effect. I saw it on IMAX 3D. While IMAX was a good format for the film, the 3D did absolutely nothing for it. If you're gonna experience this on the big screen, opt for a larger format, but see if you can avoid 3D.

Everest is a great looking, well-made movie, but it's ultimately a downer. This is one of those movies you'll put in that category of a good movie that you'll never want to see again. I can't recommend anything above a matinee.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, September 25, 2015

Black Mass (2015)

Black Mass is one of those movies that I really look forward to. Even from the trailer, you can see it checks all of the boxes: movie about a real gangster, set in the 70's, a great cast and great actor diving deep into the main role. Black Mass delivers on all of this. Mostly...

Black Mass, from this point in the review will be abbreviated to BM, which will certainly not cause any confusion with anything else, starts off with great dialog and a compelling story. I had no familiarity with Whitey Bulger before seeing BM, but it took no time at all to get into it. The story builds and builds, but then due to the nature of how the real life events played out, it loses steam towards the end. I won't spoil it here, but if you're familiar with Whitey Bulger, you might already know what I'm referring to. It doesn't necessarily ruin the movie necessarily, but it's an unsatisfying climax.

Welcome back, Johnny Depp. We missed you. After a series of shitty movies and silly roles, it's nice to see Depp return to serious acting. He's freaking fantastic and unrecognizable at times. Colored contacts usually weird me out, but here they were used to great effect. It really made his performance of Bulger that much more chilling and creepy. Don't be surprised if gets nominated come awards time. Joel Edgerton is great as well (supporting actor nod?). Just when I thought The Gift was the best I've seen him, he takes it to another level here. Jesse Plemons also really surprised me at well. The cast overall is fantastic. It's so stacked that there just isn't enough time to dedicate to everyone. How often can you say that guys like Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon and Corey Stoll were underused?

BM also does one of my favorite things where at the end they show you pictures of the real people, and in some cases you'll see how much they really nailed the casting and look. They also use this to wrap up the loose ends to the story that they don't show you in the film.

Overall, Black Mass is an entertaining gangster drama and worth watching just for Johnny Depp's performance as Whitey Bulger. It's nothing you haven't seen before, but totally worth a matinee. If you wait for video, it would make a good double feature with The Departed or The Town.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars