Saturday, April 5, 2014

Shutting it down...

I don't mean to be indulgent, but if you're someone that's followed the blog for any length of time, I kind of owe this to you...

I'm shutting down the blog for a bit. Not sure how long: might be a few weeks, might be a few months, might be never, but on another site...

This has always been a hobby for me, but in the past months it's become more of a chore than fun. Writing have never been my strength, and at times it's felt more like homework than anything. Considering the lack of feedback I get, I don't get a lot of reinforcement to keep going.

I enjoyed this a lot more when I wrote half-drunk reviews right after seeing it. It has gotten too serious and not reflected my personality the way I wanted it to. I've always wanted the point of the blog was to feel like you know me. Like you sit next to me at a bar and then talk your ass off for like an hour about movies. That's what happens in real life, but not on the blog. Talking is my strength, not writing, so I want to transition that direction.

If you see me post in the next few weeks, it may be much different than what you normally see from me. I might be a little experimental, maybe just shortening the length. Something like that...

I registered a domain recently, so I'm likely to play around it. So when if return, it'll likely be in a much different format, and on a different site.

For the few of you that communicated with me on some consistent level, feel free to hit me up on Facebook or Twitter. I'm probably more active on Facebook though. My info is on the right...

Anyway, thanks for following along. See you on the other side...

Erik, The Angry Vader, signing out...

Friday, March 7, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

I can't say the word "rise" without saying like the Emperor. Riiiiiiissse...

300: Rise of an Empire isn't so much a sequel or prequel as it is a side quest. It begins with a little bit of backstory, but much of Rise runs in parallel to the events of 300. They even throw in a few stock shots from 300, in case you needed a reminder of what Gerard Butler looks like or that Michael Fassbender was in it. However, I do find it a little annoying when a film shows you a flashback to something you just saw like 30 minutes ago. I'm not talking about the flashbacks to 300 either. These were flashbacks from this movie.

During the first Persian invasion of Greece, Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) fought the Persian forces back, killing King Darius, father of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Before dying, Darius told Xerxes that only the gods can defeat the Greeks. After mourning his death, Xerxes is sent on a quest by their naval commander, Artemisia (Eva Green). He wanders the desert until finding some pool of dark power water that transforms him from a normal looking guy that wears a little too much eyeliner, to the cross-dressing, god king we all know and love. Xerxes returns to conquer Greece once and for all.

Knowing the Persians are returning, Themistocles attempts to unify the Greeks. He heads to Sparta where Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) basically tells him that they are all a bunch of pussies, and let the Spartans do the heavy lifting. Queen Gorgo was much angrier in Rise versus 300. To hear her speak, you'd think she was one of the villains and not one of the good guys. Maybe Headey was channeling a little bit of Cersei Lannister. Then again, it could have just been the dialog, which was pretty terrible, but that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Anyway, so while Leonidas is off to combat Xerxes' army at Thermopylae, Themistocles commands the Greek navy to fight back Artemisia and the Persian navy.

If you like fake blood spraying all over the place, 300: Rise of an Empire has buckets and buckets of it. Computer generated blood has always looked bad, and there are more than few parts in Rise where is looks even worse than normal. Granted Rise is going more for style points than realism, so despite it looking really bad in parts, it didn't bother me all that much. I suppose I'm getting used to it a bit, but I still prefer "real" fake blood over the CG version.

I was more disappointed with the overall quality of effects. It has the same style and aesthetic of 300, but has a cheaper overall look. The colors are so washed out in parts that it was really difficult to tell what's going on. Ships crash into each other leaving you to guess what side they are on. A few of the more complex action scenes had a cartoony, video game look.

Where Rise shines is during the actual swordplay. Themistocles and his fellow soldiers cut through waves of bad guys with a brutal and efficient style. A few times the typical, quick-cut, shaky cam action was a little too much, but it was kept to a minimum. The hand-to-hand action was much easier to follow.

I don't recall seeing Sullivan Stapleton in anything before, but he had a commanding presence. Normally, I'd be concerned when an action film doesn't star a more recognizable actor. He did a good job, and while he didn't quite replicate the physicality from 300, he held his own in that regard. It's interesting to note that the shape he's in seems to change from scene to scene, illustrating how he was likely working out as it was being made. It also shows an example of how films are not shot in order. Rise won't necessarily inspire people to sign up for Crossfit or 300-style workout classes like they way 300 did, but I did leave the theater thinking I should hit the gym on the way home. Swing the sledgehammer against a large tire or something like that.

Most will remember Eva Green's as the best thing about Rise with her cold and vicious Artemisia. She plays it with an awareness of the type of movie this is, and seemed to revel in the role. Plus, she's extremely sexy. That might be me though, I tend to be really attracted to women playing violent, warrior-types.

300: Rise of an Empire has enough gory violence to satisfy your bloodthirst. It's largely nonsense, but still manages to be a lot of fun if you can watch it for the mindless entertainment it is. That's not always a bad thing though. If you're not already an existing fan of 300, then don't expect to get much out this, but fans shouldn't hesitate to catch a matinee.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, February 28, 2014

Non-Stop (2014)

At this point, doesn't Liam Neeson seem way overqualified to be an Air Marshall? It used to be that he had a particular set of skills, but now it seems that he has every set of skills. If they ever did a celebrity season of Survivor, I'd put my money on him to win it all.

Bill Marks (Neeson) is manning a non-stop flight from New York to London. He's an apparent alcoholic, which seems to be a common character trait with flight films recently. This all comes into play later though. Shortly after takeoff, Bill receives a series of text messages saying they will kill someone on the plane every 20 minutes if $150 million isn't wired to an account.

He initially has everyone's cooperation, but it's found that the account is in Bill's name. This points all fingers and suspicion his direction, because I guess everyone believes Bill is dumb enough to hijack a plane and use an offshore account in his own name. You'd think that would be enough keep him in the clear, but his past and personal demons cast a cloud of doubt. Bill is desperate to uncover who's really behind this, with few people he can trust.

Non-Stop has an interesting enough premise and actually does a good job of building tension. Though it's all pretty standard thriller stuff where you are thrown constant red herrings. It seems that everyone has some kind of distracting character trait giving a reason to think they are the mastermind.

I found many of the characters annoying and rude enough that I entertained thoughts like maybe they should just shoot the plane down. As they board, you see the kind of self absorbed behavior that makes people hate flying and people in general. I was surprised they didn't have someone with a anxiety dog with them. Many refused to follow directions, while demanding they had the right to know what's going on. Nobody ever seems to consider that maybe it's best they don't know what's going when there's potential hijacking risk. Maybe you're guy he's looking for, so why should he tell you anything? Anyway...

The bigger problem is when we get to the conclusion it's wildly unconvincing and borders on the ridiculous. It's the kind of ending where they went too far out of their way to have an "original" motivation for the bad guys. It would have been a bigger twist if they just had basic goals in mind. Complexity isn't a requirement for a good thriller; you can still be relatively straight-forward. Why can't it just be about the money? Why do their actions have to make a statement?

There's also a terrible quick-cut, shaky-cam fight during this climax, which was a shame because earlier there's a fight that takes place in a bathroom stall that I thought was shot really well. More than a few things happen towards the end that had me shaking my head at how far-fetched they were. It's a shame the end subtracts so much.

Really the only reason to watch Non-Stop is for Liam Neeson. His commitment lends credibility and makes you take the film more seriously than if another actor had been cast. You get the wrong guy as your lead and you have another Passenger 57 on your hands. The rest of the cast is a waste, which is a shame because I love Julianne Moore and Corey Stoll. Stoll, in particular, was criminally underused. Fresh off her breakout role in 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong'o has a small role, but isn't asked to do much either. I didn't even realize it was her at first. Only Michelle Dockery stood out to me, as she's the only person besides Moore that has much face time with Neeson.

Here's one weird nitpick. At one point, Liam Neeson puts his hand on the seat in front of him and there's a close up shot of his hand. It's a totally unnecessary shot, but the weird thing about it was that the close up was very likely of a hand model. If you notice his hands in any other scene, or pretty much any movie he's ever been in, you can tell the hands and nails didn't match at all. This isn't a knock on Neeson, as he's the kind of rugged man's man that wouldn't get a manicure. It wouldn't fit his character either. Just a weird shot since there was no need for it at all.

Non-Stop is a serviceable thriller that's watchable mainly due to the presence of Liam Neeson. It's the kind of forgettable film that's best enjoyed if you don't think about it too much. If you're all caught up on your Oscar flicks, and have nothing else to do, there are worse ways to kill two hours. I'd recommend saving it for rental though.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Pompeii (2014)

Pompeii opens with a quote from Pliny the Younger as he witnessed the destruction at Pompeii. This the only thing about Pompeii I found genuinely interesting, but it's more because I'm a fan of Russian River Brewing. Beer aficionados all know and enjoy Pliny the Younger, and his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who actually died attempting to rescue people from Pompeii. A strong beer like Pliny the Elder or Younger is likely the only way you can get through or enjoy Pompeii, the latest masterpiece from director Paul W.S. Anderson.

The plot of Pompeii is basically a retread of Titanic, only Mount Vesuvius has replaced the titular ship, and then some half-assed gladiator and Roman junk thrown in. It's so packed borrowed ideas that I thought maybe Shia the Beef wrote it. Three people are credited with the "screenplay", where I imagine the writing session involved taking turns pulling movie cliches out of a hat.

It's not just the plot that's uninteresting, the characters are so forgettable and bland that some are barely ever mentioned by name. I had an easier time remembering them by names of other characters the actors played. Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) is a slave/gladiator, whose most distinguishing feature is his abs, but that's not all there is to him. He's also a horse whisperer, which basically means holding a horse down while breaking its neck. This is how he meets Baby Doll (Emily Browning), who isn't at all shocked or turned off by watching a man kill a wounded horse with his bare hands. They fall in love instantly, even though Jon Snow is just a poor slave. However, Baby Doll is expected to marry Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), who Jon Snow wants revenge on for killing his parents when he was a kid. Meanwhile, Jon clashes with another gladiator, Mr. Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), but they become best friends later.

I find it interesting the poster says "No Warning", when it seemed that they had plenty of warnings. In case you might forget that there's an active volcano in play, nearly every scene of the film features a shot of Mount Vesuvius or a loud rumble, sometimes interrupting dialog. It's nearly an hour into the film before Vesuvius erupts, so you have to squirm through the boring, tedious mess. You'll find yourself saying, "Can we just get on with it?" You care and feel nothing for these characters as they march towards their inevitable deaths. It's all rather pointless.

The effects, which you would figure to be the strong point, are also disappointing. Their quality is inconsistent, looking absolutely terrible at times. There's nothing about the destruction you haven't seen before in other disaster related flicks. There's even a scene of someone trying to outrun a shock wave on a chariot, similar to Keanu Reeves trying to outrun an explosion on a motorbike in Chain Reaction. The effect looks just as bad now as it did back in 1996. Only 3D was available to me, and I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear it didn't do anything for the visuals.

It's a waste of a decent cast having to play such wooden characters. I can't blame any of them, as it's not like they had much to work with. Like Carrie-Anne Moss is in the film, but it seemed the only point was to give her a less dignified death than Trinity had in the Matrix series. I'm surprised Anderson didn't just cast his wife, Milla Jovovich, instead. This is beneath Jared Harris as well. He's like Bill Nighy in that he's a good actor that always gets stuck in these lame action/fantasy films. Kiefer Sutherland seemed to be the only guy giving a real effort, but he has to be thrilled they are bringing 24 back so he doesn't have to take lame roles for a while.

I should have known the second I saw this was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson that I shouldn't have expected much. This is what I get for avoiding IMDB and Rottentomatoes before I see a film. I've often said that Anderson is basically Uwe Boll with a budget. Are his films profitable? Is he really easy to work with? I'm just amazed he keeps getting attached to films, and even more at the casts that star in them.

Even the soundtrack sounded borrowed, with parts having a familiar, Hans Zimmer feel. Some sounded lifted right from Man of Steel or The Dark Knight Rises. During the credits I noticed that one of the credited songs was from Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which made me wonder if originality was any kind of goal or objective here. Yes, I did stay until the end of the credits, but that's because I wanted to make sure there wasn't some post-credit sequel stinger. You know we'd all be excited for Pompeii 2: Electric Boogaloo or Pompeii 2: Vesuvius' Revenge.

Combining the worst aspects of Titanic, any disaster movie, and the Spartacus series, Pompeii puts the "disaster" back in "disaster flick". Featuring a contrived story, mediocre special effects and forgettable characters, Pompeii can't even be enjoyed as a guilty pleasure. I can only advise renting this for a dollar, and then skipping ahead 60 minutes. Won't miss anything if you do this.

1 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, February 14, 2014

Robocop (2014)

You can count me among the people that weren't looking forward to this Robocop remake. Nothing against the cast or anyone involved, but I love Robocop. Like many of you, I'm growing tired of all the remakes and reboots, and if there was any film that didn't need a remake, it was Robocop.

That's not to say a remake couldn't be good though. There have been some good ones, but there's been some really, really bad ones. Fortunately, this new Robocop falls somewhere in the middle. While it won't make anyone forget the original, it stands up as a solid, but flawed, action film. It's far from the trainwreck I feared it would be.

A word of warning, while I'll avoid spoilers as best I can, there are certain elements I'll be bringing up in comparing the two. If you haven't seen the original by now, then shame on you.

From the opening moments, this has a much different setup and tone. Outside of a few main points, there's not that many similarities to the original story. OmniCorp (OCP) has been supplying robot soldiers that are deployed overseas, and have been successful in decreasing confrontation. They want to bring this to the US, but due to something called the Dreyfuss Act, robot soldiers are outlawed. Despite their efficiency, they aren't trusted by the public to deal with the human aspects of law enforcement. The CEO of OmniCorp, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) decides that a cyborg police officer can be sold to the American public, bridging that gap and allowing them to overcome public opinion. Candidates are selected by lead scientist Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman), and it's just a matter of waiting for someone to "volunteer".

Meanwhile, Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) and his partner Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams) are tracking down a local crime boss, Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow). After an attempt to get Vallon fails, Murphy is targeted by Vallon and severely hurt by a car bomb. His only chance for survival is the Robocop program, and his wife (Abbie Cornish) gives her consent to save him.

This was one of the aspects I was concerned about. In the original, Murphy dies and his mind is wiped. One of the main themes is Murphy remembering things about his past life, and slowing regaining some part of his identity and humanity. In this remake, Murphy remembers all details about his life. Everyone seems to be aware of the fact that he's alive, and not many are surprised to see him as a cyborg, as if it's not that big of a deal. He struggles a bit with what was done to him, but gets over it pretty quickly. I also found it odd that they mentioned a few times publicly that he had died. If you're trying to gain the public trust, do you want that face of that to be someone that's been brought back to life? Just say he was severely hurt in the line of duty and OmniCorp technology allowed him to resume his duties, only better. Otherwise people might think he's some kind of cyborg zombie.

Also, his identity can't be in doubt when he has a retractable mask that doesn't obscure his face. I thought the new mask and exposed human hand were going to bug me, but in the context of the film it works. Without it explicitly being stated, you can tell it was a conscious choice by OmniCorp to give him more of a human look to identify with the public. At times he simply looks like a guy in fancy tactical armor.

The aspect of regaining his humanity is replaced with one regarding the concept of free will, when it's revealed the Murphy's brain has been altered, so that he's not always in control of his actions, even though he thinks he is. There are also some interesting themes though regarding media and political manipulation. It's very serious, which leads to probably the biggest problem with the remake: it's too serious. When talking to a few random folks after the film, one consistent complaint was the lack of funny commercials from the original. It's missing the all the campy satire and goofy lines. While there are a few funny parts, this isn't a film I would call fun.

Another issue I had is the lack of a strong villain. The original gave us the awesome Clarence Boddicker, played perfectly by Kurtwood Smith. His performance is still quoted to this day. There's really no central villain in the current film. Antoine Vallon is totally underdeveloped and you never feel any consistent threat from him. He's practically an afterthought halfway through the film. The lack of a central villain is made worse by a very sloppy and rushed conclusion that felt like it was improvised as they went along. It's so poorly conceived that it almost ruins all the good things setup in the first half of the film. This is the weakest aspect of Joshua Zetumer's screenplay. It seems odd that they would try to reboot a franchise with someone's first screenplay. It would have been a good idea to bring in a veteran screenwriter to punch up the script and come up with a better ending.

I was happy they didn't shoehorn a bunch of references and quotes from the original. The updated, original theme song was a nice touch.

The effects are good for the most part, but there are a few times where Robocop looks a little too much like a CG creation, especially in some of the bigger action sequences. With all the black on black, you can't always make out what's going on. There were a few creative scenes though, and it always cool to see Robocop taking out bad guys. I've never seen any of director Jose Padilha's other films, but he seems to have a good handle on action.

There were a few times where I had a hard time telling if Kinnaman was in a suit or some CG/green suit creation. It's just not the same as seeing Peter Weller in a big ass robot suit, and you lose some that tangible quality. On a side note, I've always heard stories about how Peter Weller worked so hard on making his moves robotic that directors in other works had to remind him to stop walking like a robot or turning at 90 degrees.

Robocop boasts a very strong cast and is well acted across the board. As much as I like Joel Kinnaman as Holder on The Killing, I wasn't sure if he was the right choice for Robocop. He showed some surprising emotional range and he did a good job overall. It was nice to see a different side of him. Gary Oldman was his dependable self always classes any film up. Michael Keaton was a welcome sight after what seems like years and years of not seeing him in anything. Kind of an inspired casting, but he did well. I'd like to see him in more roles like this. I also thought Abbie Cornish did a good job. She's always come of as kind of flat in other roles, but I actually thought she was really showing some emotion this time.

Samuel Jackson has the most fun as Fox News type television show host. He has some of the few genuine laughs of the film. These were also some of the parts I also though were the most interesting, as his character was attempting to use his show to sway public opinion.

As it's PG-13, there's very little blood, no nudity, and very little swearing I could recall. I think it's suitable for teens though.

It doesn't have the same fun or subversive satire of the original, but the Robocop remake manages to be a solid action flick. It's well acted, has good special effects, and outside of a messy conclusion, is smarter than expected. If you can get past the aversion to remakes, and go in with an open mind, I don't think you'll be that disappointed. It's worth a matinee.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Lego Movie (2014)

It's been said that The Lego Movie is little more than a extended toy commercial. Even if I agreed with that, my general response to this is, "Who cares?" Legos are awesome, and so is The Lego Movie!

How rare is it that you have a series of toys that has stood the test of time. I played with Legos when I was a kid, particularly the generic 80's Space Legos referenced in the film, and decades later my nephews are playing with them. Only they have much cooler Star Wars and Superhero themed Legos. Plus, there's the great Lego video game series, too. Admit it, you've played them. I suppose it helps when you film is based on a product that has a broad, built in audience.

The basic story is a Matrix-esque hero's quest. When attempting to protect a weapon called the "Kragle", Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) warns Lord Business (Will Ferrell) of a prophecy where someone known as the "Special" will find the Piece of Resistance, the only thing that can stop the Kragle.

Later, we meet Emmet (Chris Pratt), an average guy with no special skills or qualities. While working on a construction site, he sees a woman, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), frantically searching for something. When trying to catch up to her, he stumbles down a hole and finds the famed Piece. He has a vision and shortly after is arrested by Bad Cop (Liam Neeson). Emmet learns of Lord, now President, Business' plan to use the Kragle to destroy the world. Believing Emmet is the Special, she rescues him and off they go to thwart President Business' plan.

It's almost hard to put into words how much fun is packed into The Lego Movie. There literally is a laugh a minute, with the gags coming in such rapid fire succession that it's easy to miss everything that's going on. Like many of the better animated films, the humor doesn't pander to a particular age group. There's something for everyone. At times you'll hear a big laugh from the kids, then maybe a handful of adults at something a little more obscure. They even throw in a subtle dig at generic sitcoms and pop music aimed at the masses.

As we get to the conclusion, there's a slight twist that gives the story some weight and makes it more than just about jokes and pretty animation. You'll look back on the film and realize that some of it's creativity, and even the simpler moments, are really more about the imagination of a child. It also reminded me of times where I would refuse to let my nephews take a Star Wars action figure out of the package, as to not ruin it's condition or integrity, when they simply wanted to play with it. Toys, especially Legos, are meant to be played with and inspire creativity, not sit on some old guy's shelf hoping it will gain value some day. Sure collecting has its place, but it helps to be reminded about their true purpose.

Despite Legos not having a ton of articulation, the animation is surprisingly fluid. There some very creative use of Legos to animate rounded shapes like clouds and water. There's some great Transformers type stuff, as well. This is also one of the few movies that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend seeing in 3D. The format fits the the vibrant images and animation well.

Where The Lego Movie really shines is with it's voice cast. As I've mentioned in previous animated films, it's a strength when they can cast recognizable voices, but they don't distract or take you out of the movie. While the cast is filled with big name stars, you're likely to not recognize many of voices until you watch the credits. Many I thought were impressions until I saw they cast the actual person. Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, and the rest are all great, but I think most people will remember Will Arnett's portrayal as Batman as the best of the bunch. He's absolutely hilarious, and sings the best Batman related song of all time. Charlie Day was also another standout as his voice fit his character perfectly. I think you'll see a lot of people quoting his, and other lines, from the film for a while.

Lastly, I have to mention the directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. These are the same guys behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, so they are really knocking it out of the park so far.

The Lego Movie is truly a great animated family film that appeals to the kid in all of us. It's smart, hilarious and features both great animation and voice acting. I know it's early in the year, but I can already see this in my best of 2014 list and easily my favorite animated film. I can't recommend this movie enough.

5 (out of 5) Death Stars


Saturday, February 8, 2014

I, Frankenstein (2014)

As I, Frankenstein begins, Frankenstein's monster (Aaron Eckhart) states that the cold does not affect him. I beg to differ with Mr. Frankenstein's Monster. In the immortal words of Mr. Freeze, "Everything freezes." I'm pretty sure we can still make a Frankenstein popsicle out of you.

This is one of the many times you'll need to shut your brain off to get through I, Frankenstein. Criticizing I, Frankenstein for being dumb is like complaining water has too much moisture. Can you really get on a dumb movie for being exactly that?

The setup for I, Frankenstein reads like it's straight from a video game, and if you take it on that level it's interesting enough. Demons and gargoyles have been fighting a war for eternity. Who knew that the gargoyles were the good guys; they're so scary looking. The demons want Frankenstein's monster because his existence shows that life can be created without a soul. Unlocking the secret to how he was given life would allow demons to reanimate bodies that can be possessed by the souls of descended demons, giving them the upper hand in the war.

The gargoyles save Frankenstein's monster from being captured by the demons, and he's given the whole rundown by the gargoyle queen (Miranda Otto). She names him "Adam", because "Jesus Frankenstein" was already taken, I guess. Adam wants no part in their war, but has no problem with killing demons that pursue him. Centuries of isolation has honed his fighting skills, and matched with his superhuman strength and durability, he's an undead weapon.

Maybe Kevin "General" Grevioux's (who also has a small role in the film) graphic novel explains their universe better, but in the movie too many things don't hold up to any kind of scrutiny. If you spend too much time thinking about them, which you shouldn't, your brain goes into a derp loop that lasts until it's over. Like the gargoyles get mad at Adam for killing a demon in plain sight of humans, yet they do this many times themselves. When demons and gargoyles die, they do so in blinding red and bluish white flares. Are these things invisible to humans? Plus, much of this happens at night, making it look like a fireworks display. I guess nobody noticed their several large scale battles either? The gargoyles live in this giant cathedral fortress in the middle of the city. Is that a church people can attend, or is it just some huge building that everyone ignores? And why does Adam have superhuman strength and durability anyway? Wouldn't a body thrown together from 12 others be inherently weaker and easier to hurt? Does he need to sleep or eat? Uh oh, it's happening again...derp!

With those colorful effects and fight scenes, its aesthetic is very video game-esque and I found myself wishing I was playing this game instead of watching a movie. I even mimed using a controller a few times on instinct. The special effects aren't the greatest, but the sheer number of CG creatures and brightness kind of covers for that.

Bill Nighy, as the leader of the demons, tries to ham it up as best he can in a somewhat scenery chewing performance, but the material is beneath him. The makers of this film must have compromising pictures of Aaron Eckhart somewhere, as that's the only reason you can explain his (and several others) appearance in this film. Eckhart grunts his way through the film for the most part, and doesn't look like he wants to be there. I feel the worst for Yvonne Strahovski as this probably isn't what she had in mind after five seasons of Chuck. I'm still holding out hope that someone at Marvel/Disney casts her as Ms. Marvel. At least she's going to be in 24: Live Another Day, so there's that.

About the only thing I'll credit the movie for is not going the obvious route and putting Strahovski and Eckhart in a love scene. Eckhart has a few shirtless scenes where she's patching him up, so naturally I kept waiting for them to kiss and then eventually have sex. Thankfully this is avoided entirely.

I, Frankenstein is a movie based off a graphic novel, that should have been made into a video game instead. Not that I was expecting much, but it's one of the dumbest movies I've seen in long time. It's deafening, dull, and unintelligible, but ooooh, bright colors!

0.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

The Monuments Men (2014)

I heard the working title for The Monuments Men was Monument's Eleven.

Okay, I didn't actually hear that, but that's the vibe I got while watching The Monuments Men. George Clooney assembles a team, albeit an older one, but still happens to include MATT DAMON, to steal back a bunch of stolen art from some asshole. Sound familiar? Same general story, different locale.

In this case the asshole was Hitler, who had the Nazis going around Europe stealing works of art. So, not only was Hitler a genocidal maniac, he was a selfish hoarder. A team led by Lt. Frank Stokes (Clooney) is tasked with finding, recovering and returning these works of art. There's also concern that Hitler will destroy it all when they lose the war (since this is based on true events, we all know it's not going to go well for Hitler). Plus, the Russians are also trying to loot the art for their own collection.

Joining Stokes' team is Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville and Bill Murray. It's a great cast and they play well off each other, but we spend so little time with any of them that it seems like a waste. I can't recall many movies where I felt like Bill Murray was underused, but it happens here. Everyone is off in smaller, two man teams, rarely spending any time together as a full group. We barely learn anything about the Men as a result. Much like I complained in Lone Survivor, I could hardly remember any character's name by the end of the film.

Matt Damon spends most of his time with Cate Blanchett, but can you blame him? I'd much rather spend time with her than a bunch of guys. Blanchett plays a French national working at the Louvre who also wants to recover the art, but doesn't trust Damon and the American's intentions. Like the rest of the cast, Blanchett was underused, and it's a shame to get someone like her and have her do so little. She's not even on the poster, so it's not like she was cast for her star power or box office draw. There's nothing in the role that they couldn't have just gotten a lesser known, French actress. This isn't a knock on Blanchett, but more the lack of development in the characters.  Nobody is really required to do any heavy lifting.

The Monuments Men also runs a tad too long. After many, many scenes series of them driving back and forth, going through various art caches, it gets a little repetitive. Some scenes felt totally unnecessary. The narrative is very scattered as it randomly jumps around without any rhyme or reason.

There's very little tension (again, we know how it's going to turn out), and many of the moments where they attempt to build some suspense are immediately diffused with humor. It's surprisingly light, despite being framed around World War II and people dying around them. There are many times where it tries to pull on the heart strings a little, but fails to connect and comes off as sappy, especially with the overstated score.

I can see how George Clooney was trying to make a statement about the importance of art as their grander purpose, but this gets lost in the inconsistent tone of the film. Of Clooney's directed films, this is the weakest I can recall and felt like more of a pet project where he assembled a few friends to make a film.

The Monuments Men assembles a great cast and is pleasant enough, but substitutes charm for a compelling story or characters. It's ultimately forgettable, but the kind of film you'd probably enjoy if you caught on cable when flipping channels. Nothing you need to rush out and see, but not that bad either.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Saturday, February 1, 2014

That Awkward Moment (2014)

I don't have a ton to say about That Awkward Moment, so this may be one of the shortest reviews I've ever put out there.

It's not that I found That Awkward Moment particularly awful, but there's no plot, no real setup, and nothing happens.  The catalyst for the current situation is that Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) comes home, finds that his wife has been cheating on him and wants a divorce.  He seeks the solace of his buddies, Jason (Zac Efron) and Daniel (Miles Teller), who are living the single life.  They want to get Mikey back out there, but all vow that none of them will get into a relationship, which is just fine for Jason and Daniel, as neither one of them has any interest in that.  So how long before all of these guys find themselves in complicated relationships?

From that point, That Awkward Moment isn't much more than a mashup of buddy and romantic comedy cliches.  Again, it's not that it's terrible, but there's nothing original about it.  It really drags along as you wait for something, anything, to happen.

When you add that it's not particularly funny, it makes it that much harder to get through.  Even the one part of the film where you can tell they were going for the the big, funny event is all based on a misunderstanding that's taken to a ridiculous extreme.  It's one of the few "awkward moments" in the film.  Another one involving everyone walking into the same bathroom at the same time was so contrived that lost any believability.  What are the odds that three guys happen to walk into the same bathroom at a fancy house party at the same time?  Two of them had only arrived at the party just moments before.  Plus, nobody seemed to be interested in locking the bathroom door.  That will tend to lead to more awkward moments.  You could credit one of the characters for actually pointing the lack of door locking out, but a line of dialog doesn't explain how four different people committed the same behavior within a minute.

Tom Gormican's script, (he also directed), is very underwritten.  It's a shame, as the leads are all fairly charming and have good chemistry together.  I can't really fault any of the actors, as they did the best with the material.  There's just not a lot to their characters to really identify with, and nothing particularly distinctive about any of them.  They can pretty much be broken up into the following:

  • Funny guy that nobody takes seriously.  He's the first to get into a serious relationship.
  • Guy that's still trying to reconcile his previous relationship.  He can't get involved with anyone else until then.
  • Consummate player that's so afraid of commitment, that he doesn't recognize the good thing in front of him.

I'll let you guess who's who. Without even seeing the film, I bet you get them all correct.  Outside of some throwaway line about going to college together, we don't even know anything about how they met, or how long they've known each other.

It's interesting that two of the female characters had a lot more going on than the guys. Ellie (Imogen Poots) is an author that's getting a book published, and Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis) is a musician, but neither of these are explored with any kind of depth.  Chelsea also acts as the guy's perfect wingman, and appears to have been friends with them for a while, but their relationship is never really defined beyond that.  Was she related to one of them?  Was she also someone they knew from college?

That Awkward Moment is a collection of cliches you've seen in other films, lacking any creativity or a needed infusion of humor.  However, its biggest sin is that it's boring.  If you happened to catch it on cable or rented it for a buck, you might not think it was that terrible, but I can't recommend anyone going out to the theater and seeing it.  Don't waste your time and money.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Nebraska (2013)

It seems like the only good films I've seen so far in 2014 were actually all released in 2013.  Considering some of the stuff released so far in 2014 though, it's probably for the best.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) believes he's won a million dollars and is willing to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize.  His son, David (Will Forte), reluctantly drives him despite doing everything he can to convince Woody that this is all a scam and hasn't actually won anything.  While driving to Nebraska, they encounter various former friends and family members that all think they deserve a piece of the pie.  That's basically Nebraska in a nutshell.  It's kind of Seinfeldian in its about nothingness.

So, why all the Oscar buzz and hype then, you ask?  Even as a fan of director Alexander Payne's previous films, I was asking the same thing.  I wasn't quite sure what I was in for as Nebraska started.  I didn't know much more about it than who it starred and that it was in black and white.  I'm happy to report though that the praise is well deserved.  If you know me at all, then you know I tend to enjoy character based movies.  Nebraska is a very good one.  However, I can see this not being for everyone if you're not into quirky, slice-of-life stories where not a lot happens.

Based on the color palate, I was concerned that the tone of the film was going to be kind depressing. The choice to film it in black and white was a good one though.  One thing I've always liked about modern films in black and white is that you tend to notice things, particularly with the lighting, that you wouldn't otherwise.  It also forces you to focus more on the dialog and it's easier to pick up on some of the subtleties.  Nebraska is a lot like life in that sometimes things just happen, and there many shades of grey.

About halfway through Nebraska, the phrase "pleasant awkwardness" kept popping in my head.  It's never uncomfortable, even as we delve into the family's deeper issues.  We watch people gain an understanding and acceptance.  It gives the film a nice conclusion without delving into melodrama.  The script by Bob Nelson is on the lighter side and very funny.  If you check out his IMDB page though, it's odd to see that this is the only screenplay on his page.  There's only a few TV writing credits otherwise, and those aren't very recent.  Is that accurate?  If so, it's pretty interesting see him get nominated for best original screenplay on his first go around.  I know it's not the first time it's happened, but still.  It's a very understated script.  A lot of the humor comes from the reactions of characters.  It doesn't try too hard to be clever or goofy, and a lot is said with facial expressions and stares.  It reminded me me a bit of what I liked about The Descendants, but Nebraska doesn't quite pack the emotional punch that The Descendants did.  That doesn't make any less poignant though.

Bruce Dern's great performance as Woody is how I imagine myself when I reach his age.  Alcoholic, stubborn and generally disagreeable.  He says whatever's on his mind and just doesn't care.  It's why I'm looking forward to old age.  Well that and farting in public.  As the film moves on, you learn more about why Woody is the way he his, and Dern is able make him all that more sympathetic.

I also enjoyed Will Forte's performance.  Initially, I thought it was an unusual casting, as despite his time on SNL, isn't exactly a household name.  In just the opening minutes, you can see why he was perfect for the role.  There's something about comedic actors that really nail being able to sell frustration and uncomfortable situations without trying to be funny.  The same can be said for David's brother, Ross, played by Bob Odenkirk, who almost never disappoints and I wish he had been in the film a little more.

Everyone's talking about Bruce Dern, but I really got a kick out of June Squibb as his wife.  I can see why she got a supporting nomination and she has some of the best moments of the film.

Nebraska is a funny, insightful film about family and filled with great performances.  Again, it's one of those films whose quirk won't work for everyone, but if you like unusual character based stores, then I think you'll really enjoy it.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, January 17, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

I keep wanting to call this Jack Ryan: Shadow Hunter, but that sounds like some kind of Assassin's Creed game.

Just the other day I was telling someone how it bugs me when a movie shows you a cityscape with obvious landmarks, but then still bothers to put the name of the city on the screen, as if you were born yesterday.  Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit does this at least three times in the first few minutes.  I can understand an American not immediately recognizing London, but when you see the Statue of Liberty a few minutes later, do you really need to see "New York City" displayed?  Are we that stupid?  Yes, that's rhetorical.  This is done many times during the film, letting us know the names of buildings or airports despite having no bearing on the story or provide any useful insight.  Does it matter what airport they're at when we already know their destination?

Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is attending school in London when he sees the reports of the attack on 9/11.  He enlists in the Marines, but is shot down on a mission and has to go through vigourous physical therapy to regain the ability to walk.  During physical therapy he meets a medical student, Cathy (Keira Knightley).  They flirt, but part ways as she graduates.  He's also watched and then recruited by Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who wants him to be their inside man on Wall Street looking for financial patterns that may point to enemy action.

We fast forward 10 years and Jack's on Wall Street doing exactly that.  He's living with Cathy now, and you'd assume they hooked back up shortly after the previous events, but later there's a reference in the movie to that they've only been together for three years.  Did they reconnect after 7 years?  How'd they meet up again?  Plus, I'm a little disappointed that we jumped so far ahead, and don't get to see any of Jack's training or anything like that.  More than a few times details that would have helped invest in the characters or story were skipped or glossed over.

Anyway, Jack discovers a pattern of suspicious cash movement, and he's sent to Moscow to investigate and perform an audit on the company in question.  He's barely in Moscow ten minutes and someone tries to kill him.  I've heard of people not liking auditors, but this takes it to another level.  I guess Jack's on the right path, eh?

Shadow Recruit has an interesting enought setup, but then pretty much goes into cruise control.  It's not that it's paced poorly, or is boring, but theres nothing here you haven't seen before.  It has all the typical spy thriller tropes where plot holes and coincidences occur to always help the hero at the right moment.

Misunderstandings between characters occur when there was no reason to lie or mislead.  For example, he lies about seeing an old movie, which was really just a cover to exchange data with a CIA handler.  Cathy finds the ticket stub, and tricks him to see if he'll lie about it.  Instead of just telling Cathy he caught a film at lunch, he fumbles through a bad lie that only makes her more suspicious of him.  Plus, what kind of CIA agent wouldn't do a better job of covering his tracks, by you know, throwing the ticket away?

There's a moment during the climax where Jack is fighting a guy by a van, and then in the next scene he's driving that van, which probably should be undrivable due to water damage, with the guy he was just fighting now in the back trying to detonate a bomb.  How did that happen?  Did something get cut from the film?  Did my mind totally wander while it skipped ahead?  Also, why didn't either of these guys have a gun?  Would been pretty useful in that situation.

After a somewhat disappointing performance in Star Trek Into Darkness, I thought Chris Pine bounced back well here.  It was a good role for him and was one of the brighter spots of the film.  I always enjoy Keira Knightley, but there's not much to her character for her to really sink her teeth into.  Kevin Costner was goo, too, but was on autopilot for the most part.  Again, it's not an issue with the performances, but more that none of the characters are all that interesting.  Probably the most disappointing is Kenneth Branagh as the movie's villain. He's not particularly menacing, and they had to go out of their way to have him kill or beat his henchmen just so you'd think he was crazy.  About the only thing you learn about him is that he has advanced cirrhosis.  Just a generic movie bad guy otherwise.  Even his plan, which involves manipulating the dollar to collapse the U.S. economy, doesn't exactly instill any kind of primal fear.  When the plan is outlined, it's a bunch of financial mumbo-jumbo, and even Costner's character asks for it to be dumbed down when explained to him.

Also, the only available showtime to me was on IMAX, which I would definitely not recommend.  There's zero value to seeing this on IMAX, and I'm shocked that it's even being offered as an option.

If you really need your spy thriller fix in the middle of January, then I suppose you could do worse than Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.  It's an entertaining, but very paint-by-the-numbers thriller without a lot of originality or creativity.  I'd call it a solid rental and not something you need to rush out and see.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Her (2013)

Do you like hearing people have awkward phone sex?  How about stories showing people falling in love with inanimate objects?  Do you like movies set in the future, yet everyone dresses like 1970's grandparents?  Well then Her is the movie for you!

Clearly I'm oversimplifying when talking about Her, as it's anything but a simple movie.  Her is one of those unusual films that oscillates from being brilliant to just plain weird.  This probably shouldn't come as a surprise to people familiar with writer/director Spike Jonze previous work, especially where Charlie Kaufman was involved.

Her is about Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who is currently going through a divorce with Catherine (Rooney Mara).  They had a long, loving relationship, but drifted apart and Theodore's having trouble letting go.  He buys a new, artificially intelligent operating system, mainly to help organize his life.  The OS introduces itself as Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and explains how she's designed to grow and evolve.  As Samantha learns more about the world, they continue to bond and eventually develop an emotional relationship.

Based on the premise of the film, I was worried this was going to be another Lars and the Real Girl, which might as well been called "Entire Town Indulges a Sad Man with Mental Health Issues."  Fortunately, Theodore is more grounded than that.  He's actually a fairly normal guy, just a little introverted.  I still had a bit of an issue with someone falling in love with an AI, but after I thought about it for a bit, is it really all that different from a long distance or exclusively online relationship?  I've watched people have relationships where all the interaction was over the phone or at opposite ends of a keyboard.  Either way there's no physical intimacy.  Is that a requirement for love?  Who's to say that's not the direction we're headed.  Followers of my blog are probably aware of my dislike for online dating.  I share a similar dislike for long distance relationships.  I feel like some of the time it's a way of having an easy relationship where there's not as much at stake.  If things get too difficult, you can just end it without much complication.  This is actually a point brought up during the film, so I appreciated the fact they took this on.

Another interesting point Her made was how all of this technology is actually making us less connected.  In many scenes of the film, you see people walking around, talking into their PDA/phone devices, not even looking up at people immediately around them.  We see this all the time now where people stare into their phones, so zoned out that they bump into people, trip over stuff, or worse.  Recently, I was a bar and noticed that every single person sitting in the bar area was looking into their phone rather than interact with anyone around them.  Don't get me wrong, I've been guilty of this, but it's one of the reasons why I'm trying to move away from stuff like Facebook and Twitter.  It's great to be able to connect with people that live far away or you wouldn't have access to otherwise, but I think our future will be much better off if everyone steps away from their computers, puts down their phones, and works on interacting with those around them a little more.

There were a few little things I found distracting.  One of which was whatever Theodore's job was.  He's some kind of letter writing surrogate, but I never got exactly what he did or what the purpose was.  I didn't feel it was explained all that well, and normally I wouldn't have paid it any mind, but since there are a lot of scenes of him at work and interacting with co-workers (mainly Chris Pratt), it bugged me a bit that it wasn't clear.  Another thing that was too cute was the overall look of the film.  It's very 60's/70's styled with lots of reds and oranges.  People wore awful shirts, had unkempt hairstyles, and had those old man pants with the waistline just below their chest.  They even managed to make Amy Adams look frumpy, but not Olivia Wilde (could anything though?).  It was like hipsters take over in the future, which may be the most terrifying aspect of Her.  Lastly, at just over two hours, the film could have been tightened up a bit.  There were a few scenes that went on too long where the point had been made.  On the other hand, they play hilariously unusual video games and I wish I could have seen more of that.

Joaquin Phoenix was wonderfully nuanced.  As I mentioned earlier, you might want to write Theodore off as a weirdo, and he is kind of a dork, but Phoenix makes him sweet and very sympathetic.  He's searching for the same things we all are.  However, he blows it on a real date with Olivia Wilde's character when she was clearly into him, and that's unforgivable.  I was impressed with Scarlett Johansson's voice work, which had very cute sexiness about it.  I also enjoyed Amy Adams, but I wish she would have been in it more considering she was one of the few real-world friends Theodore had and they had previously dated.  I could have used a little more Rooney Mara, but I think that's due to the fact that I wanted to learn more about their relationship and why it failed.

Her is a smart, thought-provoking film that brings up some interesting ideas regarding love, intimacy and general interaction with people.  I can understand how it might be too strange for some, but I think if you give it a chance and go in with an open mind, you'll find yourself thinking about the film for long after.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, January 10, 2014

Lone Survivor (2013)

I realized before watching Lone Survivor is that the title itself is a spoiler.  Even without being familiar with the real events this was based on or reading Marcus Luttrell's book about his experience, all you have to do is look at the title to know how it's going to turn out.  It kind of a downer when the title saps some of the suspense of a film.  Imagine if The Sixth Sense had been alternatively titled He's a Ghost?

Lone Survivor is the true story of Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan.  Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) is part of a four-man Navy Seal team, the remainder played by Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch, on a mission to capture a Taliban leader.  While staking out the small village where he's hiding, a trio of goat herders, including two boys, happens upon them.  They have to make a difficult choice: let them go and hope they can get to safety before the Taliban finds them, or kill them and complete their mission.  They decide to uphold the rules of engagement and take their chances.  For the record, I voted for killing them, but I'm a murderous, cyborg psychopath.

Of course the Taliban catches up to them, and from there it becomes fight for survival.  A punishing, white-knuckle fight for survival.

Lone Survivor is just brutal at times.  This is not a glamorous film about war.  The amount of bodily abuse these guys take is superhuman.  It helps that the film begins with a montage of SEAL training.  When you see how grueling it is, it's easier to understand how these soldiers can keep going while taking so much punishment.  It's what they were trained for.

Their fight is unrelenting, and it's a little heartbreaking knowing in advance how it's going to turn out. This kind of leads into my only real issue with Lone Survivor.  We don't get to know the individuals very well. Writer/director Peter Berg decided to focus more on the action and overall heroism than any type of character moments. There are a few small details here and there, but we know almost nothing about them otherwise.  In fact, I struggled to recall anyone's name by the end.  We care because they are our soldiers and we want to see them survive, but not because of any emotional investment we have with them.  As the film is a tribute to these soldiers, I would have liked to know more about them personally.

Despite not getting to know the team, there is a clear sense of brotherhood and how much they care about each other.  Team is made up of a very strong cast that makes it a little easier to connect with them.  While Wahlberg is the star, I don't want to single anyone out as it kind of takes away from the sacrifice they collectively made.  It didn't take too long before I stopped seeing them as Marky Mark, Warren Worthington, the kid from The Girl Next Door and Tim Riggins, and just saw them as soldiers.  And of course no military-themed Peter Berg film would be complete without a Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) sighting.

The overall intensity of the action makes it easy to overlook these flaws.  Once the firefight begins, you'll be on the edge of your seat until the conclusion.  With the way the action was shot, there are many moments where you feel immersed in it.  I'm kicking myself for not seeing this in RPX as the sound was fantastic.  There are rattling explosions that made me jump in my seat a few times.  Nothing beats the throaty, metallic sound of the sniper rifle either.  Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it was an MK 12 (had to look it up).  A better sound system in the theatre would have really made this sing.

Sure, you might come out of it a little, "Rah, rah, USA," but what's wrong with that?  I'm sure that's a little bit of what Peter Berg was going for, but it's not over the top.  I didn't watch Lone Survivor and feel like it was a recruitment film or shoving politics in your face.  It's pretty neutral as far as that goes, and is more about the mission and the the sacrifice of the soldiers.

While Lone Survivor is a brutal war movie, it's also a powerful tribute to the courage and resilience of these soldiers.  If this wasn't based on a true story, it would be easier to watch this as simply a very good action film, but knowing the sacrifice behind it adds a solemn feeling.  Definitely worth a watch though and one of the more realistic films about war I've seen in a while.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

An interesting thing happened during the trailers to Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones.  They abruptly stopped, the lights came on, and I thought there was either a problem with the projector or the theater was doing some kind of gag involving the movie.  I turn around to see a few security guards and the theater management asking everyone to have their IDs and ticket stubs out.  Apparently someone noticed that there were a lot more people in the theater than the amount of tickets they sold, so they knew that underage teens (this is an R-rated movie) had likely bought a ticket for another movie and then snuck in.  They escorted about 30 kids out.  I've seen a few people get kicked out of movies recently, but never to this extent.  I wonder if the theater chain is getting pressure from corporate or outside sources to cut down on allowing kids into R-rated movies.

Anyway, it's no secret I'm not a fan of the Paranormal Activity series.  I thought the first was one of the most overhyped, boring horror films I've ever seen.  It had little going for it outside of the found footage gimmick; nothing more than poorly written characters reacting to pots falling, the wind blowing doors shut, and sounds off-camera.  Terrifying!  By the third film, I thought the series had totally run out of steam.  At least with the fourth installment, the writing and acting improved and gave us some likeable characters.  The newest film continues on that course.

The Marked Ones gives us a new locale and family to follow.  Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) is celebrating his graduation from high school in Oxnard, CA.  Shortly after a party in his apartment complex, his downstairs neighbor, who many believed was a bruja, or witch, is shockingly killed by class valedictorian, Oscar (Carlos Pratts).  Jesse and his best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz) break into the victim's apartment and find various black magic paraphernalia.  The next morning Jesse finds a strange bite mark on his arm.  He then develops bizarre abilities and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic and violent.  Desperate to find what's happening to Jesse, Hector and their hot friend Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) investigate and find that Jesse isn't the only person this has happened to.

One of the more fun aspects of the film was how Jesse experimented with his abilities.  They have fun with them at first, and it will remind many of the earlier parts of Chronicle.  There's creative use of the old electronic Simon memory game as a Ouija board that I thought was a clever twist.  As I mentioned earlier, the writing and dialog is an improvement over the first three films.  There's some very funny, and natural banter between Jesse, Hector and Marisol.  We don't learn much about them personally, but they aren't annoying.  They drink, smoke pot and try to get laid.  You know, the type of behavior you'd expect from kids their age.  As far as the cast goes, newcomer Andrew Jacobs did a good job and it's the kind of performance where you get that feeling he's got a bright future ahead of him.

Unfortunately, The Marked Ones is full of predictable jump scares that weren't remotely scary.  It was so obvious when one was going to happen, I would say to myself, "Cue someone jumping out of nowhere in 3..2..1!"  At this point, they need to be able to deliver more than cheap scares.  The whole formula of these films is stale.  You know they're going to end up in some house where witches ambush them and they can't get away.  The only question I had was were they at the house from the end of Paranormal 4 or Paranormal 3.  I'm pretty sure it was from Paranormal 3, but it could be the same house for all I know.  There is a really funny part during the climax that had me saying, "Finally!"  Unfortunately, it's short lived and falls back into the same crap from the others.

They're trying their best to link these stories together, but I'm at a loss what that the goal is.  It continues to be muddy to me.  That's really the issue with any film like this.  What are these demons/ghosts after?  They don't seem to want more than to mess with people and then occasionally kill those that dare investigate the weird events around them.  Seriously, it's been five movies now.  What's the end game?  Has anything been answered?

I don't know what it is, but I have a really strong urge to buy a GoPro after watching The Marked Ones.  Oh that's right, it's because most of the footage was filmed with either with a handheld or a GoPro.  Man, those GoPro cameras have sure gotten a lot of mileage in horror films, eh?  Seriously, it's a pretty useful piece of technology.

And I'm still dying to know who's actually been finding this footage...

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones might change things up slightly, and isn't quite as boring as the other installments, but it's still more of the same, predictable jump scares.  It doesn't provide any genuine chills and fails to haunt or leave any lasting impression.  I can only recommend this to existing fans of the series who want to stay up to speed, but I'd recommend fans of genuine horror to look elsewhere.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

I look forward to Coen Brother's films as much as any other cinephile does, but Inside Llewyn Davis was one of the few I wasn't all that wild about seeing.  It's mainly because I've never been that into folk music.  Was I going to be able to enjoy a film set around an era and style of music I've never been into, and starring an actor I don't think I had heard of?  Well it turns out they managed to make a movie that made me like and care about folk music.  That's the true genius of the Coen Brothers, not their great storytelling and unusual characters and situations, but that they made me care about folk music.  Okay, I'm kidding about that last part, but the Joel and Ethan Coen continue to prove time and time again that they are brilliant filmmakers and storytellers.

One thing you'll notice is that Inside Llewyn Davis isn't quite as quirky or as unusual as other Coen Brothers offerings.  While there are a few funny things here and there, this plays as a pretty straight forward character piece, following a few days in the life of Llewyn Davis.  Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk musician in New York.  He had a more successful act with his former partner, but he recently committed suicide, forcing Llewyn to try to make it as a solo act.  Effectively homeless, Llewyn crashes on the couches of people that can't say no to him even though he seems to overstay his welcome.  Llewyn isn't exactly the easiest guy to root for, it appears he has a habit of either straining or shitting on relationships.  He's not completely unlikeable though.

As the songs were all performed live in the movie, rather than lip-synched, it really added to the authenticity.  If I wasn't aware of many of the actors outside of the film, I would have thought they were all established folk singers.  Granted it's no surprise Justin Timberlake can sing, but I was impressed with Carey Mulligan's voice.  I am so generally clueless about the folk scene that I didn't even realize that most of these songs have been around for a long time.  I thought they were all originals.  Despite my reservations about the music, I ended up enjoying most of it, either tapping hands and feet along with it, or wanting to join in the singing myself.

I wondered if I actually knew about Oscar Issac from anything else, but then realized he was the best thing about 10 Years  He's actually been in a ton of stuff, but mainly supporting roles and he's one of those guys that seems to blend in.  In addition to being a great singer, he delivers a deep, soulful performance that lets you know he's moving on to bigger things in the acting world.  There's a scene where he's auditioning for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) that actually gave me the chills, and it's such an honest and vulnerable moment that I was moved to tears.  When Grossman gives his feedback, it's heartbreaking and I was concerned that Llewyn was moving towards a dark outcome, but was relieved when the story circles back.  His final performance also brought chills as it's powerful moment that shows you that Llewyn may be coming out of his funk.

As far as the rest of the performances, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake were funny.  John Goodman's character really stands out as one of most memorable of the film despite his limited time on screen.  He's paired with Garrett Hedlund, who could have been played by a mute for all the dialog he had.  Nothing against Hedlund, mind you, but I think he said like 5 words all film.

I also found an interesting parallel to complaints I heard about modern music.  Llewyn is a talented, frustrated artist that's having a hard time getting his music sold, even heard.  When Bud Grossman tells him, "I don't see a lot of money here," you see that anger and frustration in Llewyn's face.  Meanwhile, a catchier, radio friendly song seems to be headed towards hit status.  When about to perform it, he asks, "Who wrote this?"  It's clear he thinks it's a ridiculous song, and Jim Berkey (Timberlake) looks hurt by the question.

We only hang out with Llewyn Davis for a short period of time, but it's a journey worth taking.  Inside Llewyn Davis is a gloomy tale about a frustrated artist, but still has enough humor and heart that it's not depressing.  Oscar Issac surprised me with one of the better performances of the year, and I can say the same about the Coen's surprising me with the movie.  If anything, it kind of makes me want to get a cat, and I don't even like cats.

5 (out of 5) Death Stars