Cinemania

Elysium (2013)

by Matt Friend. 0 Comments

DIRECTED BY: Neill Blomkamp WRITTEN BY: Neill Blomkamp STARRING: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner In the far off future (or perhaps closer than we think) humanity is divided into two classes: the poor, who live on a dirty, overpopulated Earth, and the wealthy, who live on an advanced space station called Elysium. Elysium is an absolute paradise, with no war, no hunger, and no sickness (mostly due to their med-pods, which can ... read more

The Way, Way Back (2013)

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DIRECTED BY: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash WRITTEN BY: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash STARRING: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Robb Corddry, Amanda Peet, Liam James Duncan is your standard mopey awkward 14 year old boy. He and his mother, Pam, are spending the summer at a beach house owned by his mother’s new jerk boyfriend and his daughter. While his mother plans on living it up and enjoying herself, Duncan fully intends on spending his whole summer ... read more

The Wolverine (2013)

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  THE WOLVERINE (2013) DIRECTED BY: James Mangold WRITTEN BY: Christopher McQuarrie, Scott Frank, Mark Bomback STARRING: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanda, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Brian Tee            Long story short: is it better than Origins? Yes, yes it is (though that’s not really saying much). Is it as good as First Class? No, not even close. The Wolverine occupies this weird, nebulous ... read more

ON DVD – CLOUD ATLAS (2012)

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DIRECTED BY: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski

WRITTEN BY: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski

STARRING: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Zhou Xun, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant

Cloud Atlas is not a perfect film. Actually, in a lot of ways, Cloud Atlas is an incredibly flawed film. It falls into the trap a lot of Wachowski penned films do in that it isn’t particularly subtle about its message. It constantly straddles the line between its sense profundity and overbearing preachy-ness. It’s incredibly long, and the last hour just feels like a constant climax. It lacks a sense of consistent pacing, and is self-indulgent to a fault. On their own, the “shorts” that make up this movie would never stand at all on their own as “good movies”. And yet…despite all this, Cloud Atlas, to me at least, is one of last year’s best movies, and in many ways its one of the most uniquely engaging films I have ever seen.

The film, like the novel it’s based on, is largely built around one single, core conceit: that being that this isn’t exactly just one film. The story of this movie is told through six very loosely connected stories, each one taking place in a different time period, and each one reflecting a different genre. One is a sea-faring adventure story, one is a 1930s romantic drama, there’s a political thriller, a modern British comedy, a science fiction epic, and a post-apocalyptic parable. While there are few narrative connections between these stories, they all carry one core thematic thrust: the perseverance of hope and love in the face of overwhelming adversity and cruelty. Instead of doing each of the stories sequentially, like other films might do, or in the “nesting doll” way the boom does it, all the stories play out at the same time, bouncing between each other along thematic and dramatic beats. Say a character is running away from somebody who’s trying to kill them, the movie might then jump to another of the stories at a point where the characters are running. Scenes of romance and moments of quiet reflection might be intercut with each other in a way that doesn’t so much interrupt as it does augment an emotional response in the audience along what could be called an arc. It doesn’t work all the time, but when it does I can’t help but appreciate just how incredibly complex the editing and planning for this movie must have been.

You may ask “How on earth can a narrative like that be in any way coherent?” What this film does, rather than merely imply the characters are reincarnated in each story like the book does, is outright spell it out to you by using the same cast of actors as different characters in each of the different stories. Some actors appear in all six of them, some in only three or four. Sometimes they’re only minor characters, sometimes they’re the main character. Sometimes they might even just be a background character, appearing for only a few seconds. The film employs heavy make-up and prosthetics to change the actor’s age, race, and sometimes even gender (Hugo Weaving and drag is just as hilarious as it sounds). While the makeup can sometimes dip into the uncanny valley (especially the “Asian” makeup) on the whole it accomplishes what it needs to: changing the look of the actors so that you usually still know it’s them while letting them embody entirely different characters within the different stories. Some of the makeup is so good that you can’t even tell who’s underneath it. The credits give a rundown on who is who in each story and, no lie, I was shocked at just how well they were able to hide some of these actors in plain sight.

On the whole, though, this really isn’t a particularly character driven movie, despite (or maybe because) of the cast of hundreds. The characters in this movie, for better or worse, act more as vehicles for the themes and emotions of the movie rather than narrative drives in and of themselves. We never stay with these characters for too long, and their moments are fleeting and without much weight outside of the limited contexts of their own stories. That, I think, is simultaneously the film’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. We are never really given a chance to truly connect with these characters, and for that reason some viewers might feel a little bit disconnected and kept at a distance. What that does allow, though, is for the viewer to not be caught up too much in one story, which helps the overall flow of the film as a whole. This also allows the film to really open up on repeat viewings where you’re able to shift your focus from the main thrust of the “narrative” and are able to see the subtler connecting threads, the personal journeys the “souls” of each actor goes through over the centuries. It’s not so much picking up on things you miss out on as it is looking at the film from a different perspective. It’s like a prism in that you’re able to look at the different facets of the same object and can discover a whole new way of experiencing the same thing.

In a way, how much you enjoy of Cloud Atlas depends largely on what you’re looking to get out of it. If you’re looking for a grand, interconnected story where everything ties together in a grand, uplifting climax…well this movie’s probably not for you. While there are a few direct connections here and there between the stories, their effect on the plot is either inconsequential, or effective, but innocuously mundane. This is a movie about big ideas; it’s about people and the connections and recurrences that drive the way we interact with each other both broadly and personally. It doesn’t have a cynical bone in its body, and is, at its core, an incredibly optimistic film. It shows that despite all the cruelty and suffering people go through in their lives, we can still find ways to connect and find meaning. You might love it, you might not like it, you might even hate it, but it’s hard to ignore it once you’ve seen it; truly a unique experience.

RATING: * * * * (out of four)

PACIFIC RIM (2013)

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DIRECTED BY: Guillermo Del Toro

WRITTEN BY: Travis Beacham, Guilermo Del Toro

STARRING: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Robert Kazinsky, Max Martini, Ron Perlman

Pacific Rim is awesome! I don’t mean the usual meaning of the word awesome, like “this is a really good movie”…which it is, but that’s not the point. What I mean is that this movie is awesome in the sense that my jaw hit the floor when giant mech suplexes a 2500 ton giant monster into the ground with a floor shaking thud. It’s awesome in the sense that a giant Russian mech with a cooling tower for a head just used its tesla coil fists to punch a giant monster in the face. It’s awesome in the sense that a nuclear weapon explodes and literally pushes the water back a half mile so it can rush in again in spectacular fashion. I could fill this whole page with just the awesome moments from this movie, but you’ve really got to see them for yourselves just to see how incredibly awesome it all is. As you’ve probably guess, I really liked this movie. I’ve also been hyping it up for quite some time. A high concept robot versus monsters movie by one of my favorite living directors? Sign me up!

Pacific Rim’s story, though layered in loads of jargon and characters, is at its heart a pretty simple one. In the near future, a dimensional rift opens in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, unleashing a horde of titanic beasts known as “kaiju” on the world (the word kaiju being taken from the name of the giant monsters from Japanese films like Godzilla). As tanks and jets seem to only aggravate the problem, the world’s scientists decide to team up to come up with an alternative. The solution: build giant mech warriors to fight these creatures hand to hand. Because the load on the brain to control one is too much for one person, each jaeger (as these metal monsters are called) has to be controlled by two people sharing a neural link called “the drift”. At first, it seems to be working, the monsters are being kept at bay and the jaeger pilots, now the saviors of humanity, become something akin to rock stars in the public eye. After a few decades, though, the program is in dire straits as more and more jaegers fall to the ever increasing flood of bigger and badder kaiju coming up out of the rift. It’s up to a rag tag team of jaeger pilots and scientists to fend off the apocalypse in one last ditch effort before the jaeger program is shut down, and maybe, just maybe, cancel the apocalypse for good.

This movie follows in the tradition of the Wachowski’s Speed Racer movie in that it is, by and large, an anime brought reverently to big budget life. What I mean by that is that it’s not a movie that tries to adapt a property or franchise to fit within a mold of modern sensibilities, nor does it try to change anything for the sake of some vague idea of “realism”. It takes every cliché, every ounce of un-cynical joy and boyish exuberance of punching monsters in the face inherent in the genre and wraps it in a compact two hour package so we can relive that sense of childish fun once again. And when I say un-cynical, I mean that this is a movie without a bone of irony in its body. It fully embraces its black and white story and cardboard cutout characters with a relish and gusto not seen in many modern blockbusters anymore. It’s part of a growing movement of films that seem to be rejecting the notion of superficial darkness and cynicism prevalent in a lot of movies in favor of unapologetic joy and waxing childhood nostalgia.

One of the major things that sets this movie apart from its competitors is its focus on teamwork and internationalism over an “America saves the world again” type story. Apparently this was a conscious decision on the part of Del Toro, who felt New York has been attacked by aliens just once too often. Even though it does have a “main hero guy” who happens to be American, he is only one player in an ensemble of international characters (with occasionally terrible accents) who have just as much a part to play in this story as he does. In fact you could say that one of the movies core themes is one of teamwork through adversity and working together to accomplish somehting. Even the jaegers are entirely dependent on two people working together, and it was only through the cooperation of the different governments and their pooling of resources that allowed humanity to have a chance at surviving. It was also refreshing to have the male and female leads NOT be romantically involved with each other despite the movie itself even hinting at it once or twice.

On a technical level, this movie excels in its use of vibrant colors and “used-future” production design to vividly illustrate its rough-and-tumble near-future setting. Hong Kong especially looks fantastic with its neon lit streets setting the stage of one of the movies most elaborate set pieces. I loved how there was a whole town that was built around the skeletal remains of a kaiju. It lends an already exotic location with an even greater sense of exoticism. The cinematography by Guillermo Navarro is outstanding, injecting a sense of movement and energy into the action scenes with minimal use of shaky cam (and only when it makes sense to do so like, say, an earth shattering punch to the face). The kaiju battles, which often happen in the rain or in bodies of water, could have easily just been an opaque mess of blurry monster-esque features tumbling about on the screen for ten minutes. Instead, the camerawork and lighting highlights the weight and impact of every movement these creatures have, along with their monstrous size and scale. This is large scale action as it should be shot. The score and sound design are incredible as well. When I saw this again in IMAX, you could literally feel every single impact vibrating through my legs and up my body. I’ve been a fan of composer Ramin Djawadi’s work on Game of Thrones, and here his penchant for emotionally powerful and catchy melodies makes this movie a treat for the ears as well as the eyes.

Where the movie begins to stumble in its stride, though, is its frequent, stubborn reliance on cliché and stereotype in its story, writing, and characters. There’s the geeky scientists, the world weary veteran, the tough military leader, the jerk who inexplicably has some beef with the protagonist. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure those clichés were used entirely on purpose on Del Toro and Beacham’s part, but it seems to me that the movie tries to straddle the line between going totally over the top with them and playing everything perfectly straight a little too closely. The characters I enjoyed more tended to be the ones that took the somewhat over-the-top approach. I feel like maybe some stuff might have been cut for the sake of pacing and time and that may be why the tone of this film kind of feels a bit inconsistent. It’s a movie that’s almost entirely surface level, with many character relationships being sidelined or aborted without any real cathartic resolution. It’s frustrating when you see some of these characters start to grow and then have their arcs either forgotten about or rushed into an unsatisfying conclusion for the sake of running time. I may just be bitter because some of the most awesome side characters in this movie get offed in a rather anticlimactic way halfway through, but I think this problem runs a bit deeper than just them.

With that said, though, Pacific Rim really does embody what I look for in a summer blockbuster. It isn’t philosophical or brooding, it’s a fun adventure romp of an incredibly high caliber, and more than once made me want to jump out of my seat and cheer. That isn’t to say that it’s a “dumb” movie, far from it. It never talks down to the audience; it never operates under the pretense that it needs to wink and nudge about how silly it is to appeal to a broader audience. What’s more, this is the first time I properly had fun at the movies in a very long time. I saw this movie with a friend of mine and he was practically bouncing out of his seat every five minutes out of sheer giddiness. In what has largely been a lackluster summer movie season, this film stands to remind me just how much I’ve been missing.

RATING: * * * ½ (out of four)

P.S. As for the 3D, I’d say don’t bother. However much the IMAX enhances the experience, the movie wasn’t shot for 3D, so oftentimes my brain would shut off at the glut of visual information 3D demands the eyes to take in (forcing me to focus more on the films incredibly corny dialogue). It wasn’t as offensively painful as some other 3D conversions (and I hear del Toro took his time with the conversion), but it didn’t enhance the experience enough to warrant compromising the films visual cohesion in favor of a bigger screen, louder sound, and comfier chairs.

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013)

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DIRECTED BY: Dan Scanlon

WRITTEN BY: Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird, Dan Scanlon

STARRING: John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Steve Buscemi, Helen Miren

How did the idea of this movie even come about anyways? I’m just imagining someone at Pixar bursting into John Lassiter’s office, sweat on his face saying “I have an idea for our next movie! Imagine Monsters Inc. but instead of Monsters at work, everyone will be in college!” at which point Lassiter (having been interrupted of his playing with toy cars on his desk) leaps from his seat, a look of vision gleaming in his eyes, and yells “Brilliant! I wish we had more men with good ideas like you at Pixar!”

It’s not a bad movie by any means, and by all accounts it’s much better than I expected it to be. Pixar’s recent track record hasn’t exactly been indicative of the masterpiece factory it used to be. Actually by most measures, Monsters University is a very solid, generally well made movie.

Of all of Pixar’s movies, this one is probably the most outright comedic one. What I mean by that is that, instead of being humorous in a general way like the first one, this film is filled to the brim with gags and jokes a mile a minute. In a lot of ways it feels a lot like a DreamWorks movie, or at least what DreamWorks movies used to be. This isn’t exactly a bad thing as much as it is a slightly disappointingly one. Now don’t get me wrong, the jokes in this movie are often very funny, with many of them making me laugh out loud in the theater. The characters, while stock, are memorable enough in a kind of stereotypical way.

Just as with any Pixar movie, the visuals on display here are pretty much the best of the best in CG animation. The company continues to prove that they’re at the forefront of technological innovation in the field (Just look at the animation of Sully’s hair!). Voice work is pretty good, music is pretty good, pretty much everything here is just “pretty good”. With that said, though, it does somewhat lack…I guess the infectious sense of personality that the first movie had. It almost feels a bit overcrowded in a way, every frame filled with colors and movement.

The visual gags trump emotional nuance which, while still there, takes a back seat to fun, goofy set pieces. Though the relationship of Mike and Sully is one of the first movie’s emotional focal points, the movie’s heart and soul was plainly Boo and how her interaction affected that relationship. The dynamic works here in this film to an extent, but we’ve already seen a lot of it. It tries to recapture the sense of “discovering” the world and how it works, but largely just delivers it to us again in a different package.

Probably this movie’s biggest problem is the fact that, as a prequel, this movie is undermined simply by what we already know from Monster’s Inc. There’s no sense of danger, no sense of doubt of whether Mike and Sully will become scarers or not, because we already know that they do. That we know that the whole scaring business is a sham anyways and that more than likely a lot of the people who get a specialized scaring education are out of a job casts a bit of a shadow over the joviality.

However, I do like that the film took a different route in its message than school related films for kids usually do, admitting that college isn’t the only way to get to where you want to be in life. It drives the point that some people aren’t cut out for certain things just because they want to do it badly, but at the same time understanding that natural talent won’t get you far unless you work hard and apply it. It’s a refreshing break from the “you can do anything you set your mind to” mentality that pervaded my childhood. So there is at least a measure of unpredictability as far as plot and story are concerned.

This still doesn’t change the fact the Monster’s University still relies just a bit too much on standard college movie tropes to fill out its runtime. Really, the fact that there isn’t all that much to say about this movie could either be a testament to how good it is, and how bland it is. Outside of a few memorable scenes there wasn’t really anything in this movie to make it stand out amongst the glut of CG kids movies that come out every year.

It may sound like I’m expecting a little too much out of Pixar, and that may be correct. When you have as consistently excellent an output as Pixar did in its prime, it’s hard not to have some slightly unrealistic expectations. It’s pretty much on par with Brave as being on the mid to low end of Pixar’s library, but hey, at least it’s not Cars 2!

RATING: * * * (out of four)

MAN OF STEEL (2013)

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DIRECTED BY: Zack Snyder

WRITTEN BY: David S. Goyer

STARRING: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne

Let’s talk about “darkness” in superhero movies for a moment. Christopher Nolan popularized the idea that superhero movies could be both mature as well thematically rich. He built his movies around ideas and thematic concepts rather than strictly character and plot. Hollywood has taken the superficial elements of this philosophy and regurgitated it in an attempt to emulate the success of Nolan’s Batman films. And now it’s come full circle and back to Nolan (well…maybe, I don’t know how much he was actually involved with this movie). Though Nolan tried to hide it under his pretense of “realism”, he still understood the appeal of superheroes is that they are fun, they embody a sense of wish fulfillment in the viewer even when the story might question why. No superhero embodies this sense of wish fulfillment and fun more than Superman, so by that logic a movie featuring him should also be one that is fun.

This movie is not fun.

This movie feels like it was made by a bunch of people who don’t understand what makes Superman interesting or appealing, instead basing their interpretation on some mistaken notion of what they think a “dark” Superman would be. The result here is a ponderous, boring slog of a film that beats you over the head with its message so much that it loses all its meaning by the time the film’s bloated, 4o minute climax begins. Even Han’s Zimmer’s score for this movie is overproduced, blunt, and monotonous in its insistency that yes there is genuine emotion here. It’s a superficial darkness that only goes as far as the washed out colors and explosive destruction and mayhem. What that does is make the attempts at fun and humor feel…weird and, honestly, kind of uncomfortable.

My reactions to aspects of Man of Steel aren’t in any way mild, that is there are things in this movie I really, really liked, and things I really, really, really hated. There is no mild reaction to what you see in this movie, but it’s such a mixed bag of greatness and garbage that it all adds up to an overwhelming and decisive “meh”. A week later and I can’t even remember half of what happened. It’s an hour and a half movie stretched out to two and a half hours, and in all that time I still know absolutely nothing new about these characters that I didn’t already know going into this. People spend more time here talking about why Superman is so great, and less time actually showing us. Of course once we get to the last 40 minutes, we’re bludgeoned over the head with sensory overload action and absurd gravity defying fistfights with suitable accompanying mayhem. Story? What’s that? I can’t hear you over the sound of Superman punching Zod through a building!

The editing and pacing on display here are shockingly poor. The movie bounces back and forth from modern day to Clark Kent’s childhood and back again. What’s weird is that these flashbacks aren’t even done in order. They seem to happen at seemingly random points and jumping back and forth along his life based on some loose context with what the characters happen to be talking about at that present moment. At the end of the opening, as the rocket carrying our hero crashes on the planet, the story instantly cuts to Clark working on a fishing boat and saving some people on an oil rig. There’s no transition, no indication of the passage of time. Even a title card at least would have been appreciated, but I don’t think even that came in until the credits. Even the cinematography was really weird. Not only does it have loads of completely unnecessary shaky cam, but there’s also this weird camera thing where the camera pans for a moment and then does a sudden crash zoom (sometimes two). They did this in Star Trek too, and I don’t know whether this is just some sort of new trend or something, but it’s really unnecessary and distracting.

With all that said, you might be thinking “wow, he really hates this movie, he must think it’s one of the worst movies ever!”, and, well…no, it’s not. I can’t really explain it, but there’s something that’s…weirdly endearing about a movie that completely ignores any semblance of a coherent story in favor of utterly mindless, utterly numbing action and special effects. Endearing, however, doesn’t really equate to “entertaining”, and for most of its run I wouldn’t really call Man of Steel “entertaining”. In fact, outside of some of the films explosive fistfights, the movie was actually kind of boring. It’s not as if the dialogue keeps the film propped up or anything, I mean it sounds like it was written by a 14 year old. It’s hard to believe that this was written by the same guy who wrote The Dark Knight. Then again, he also wrote The Dark Knight Rises…so it’s maybe not that hard to believe.

Essentially, this is a movie without a functioning brain. Everything that happens in this film is either utterly arbitrary, or committed under the pretense of complete idiocy. Why didn’t Zod and Co. just colonize another planet? Mars is practically right next door for them, seems as good a place as any to colonize. Zod gives some sort of justification that he doesn’t want to have people adjust to the pain of gaining super yellow sun powers…but changing Earth isn’t going to change the sun. Also, why couldn’t the Kryptonians have evacuated? We’re told by Jor-el they’re already dead…but they have space travel, and they got Zod and Kal-el off easily enough, what was the big deal? How is it that nobody seems to be able to discover the identity of Superman when it took Lois maybe a couple days and basic investigative skills to do so? What’s this codex thing everyone’s kind of sort of up in arms about? What does it actually do? Why is it important for Krypton’s future? Why is it basically forgotten about once its plot relevance is used up? The reason for all of the above things is because these things are what get characters from point A to point B, that’s it. It doesn’t move the “story” forward; it’s solely a vehicle for plot (which is different).

I kind of get what the Goyer was going for as far as building emotional conflict for Superman. Superman is a character driven by his legacy, torn between the expectations and teachings of two fathers, the desire to live a normal, human life, and a life that lives up to the promise of his heritage and abilities. Much speechmaking is made about one’s ability to choose what path he wants to take in life. There’s this underdeveloped idea of Kryptonians being artificially born and raised to fulfill a certain societal role, and that Kal-El, being “Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries”, somehow gives him the choice to chart his own course in life. It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t really go anywhere beyond some ponderous sermonizing and a cursory reference before the Zod fight. The film is so focused on the idea of Superman that it spends most of its runtime telling us over and over and over how wonderful Superman is, how much Earth NEEDS him to save him. They really push the Jesus imagery hard in some scenes, at one point basically putting Clark next to an image of Jesus just to hammer it home for us in case we didn’t get it before. It’s kind of ironic, really, that Superman’s very presence on the planet is what causes the problem in the first place. Clearly Jor-El didn’t think his plan all the way through…

Oh and speaking of Jor-El, probably my favorite part of the film is that opening scene on Krypton. Now don’t get me wrong, for all intents and purposes this whole segment is overlong, poorly written, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What it does have, though, is Russell Crowe saying “Nobody cares anymore, Kelix, the world is about to come to an end” completely straight without even the slightest hint of irony. Russell Crowe as Jor-El, by the way, is one of the best parts of this movie, and he was the first person I thought would be phoning it in for this movie. The sequences combination of beautiful visuals, creative design, silly story, booming score, and just how perfectly straight everyone plays it makes it teeter on the edge of being outright camp. It’s glorious and I loved every single minute of it.

As far as the other actors are concerned, I can’t really say any of them are bad exactly (the script doesn’t really give them a chance to). Cavill is a really good Superman. He certainly has the look, and he seems to be at least capable of conveying some genuine emotion despite the script. I wish Michael Shannon was given more to do as General Zod. I honestly can’t decide whether he should have hammed it up more or toned it down, but he tries to lend a superficial sense of nuance to a character that’s written to be pretty much lacking in one. Kevin Costner blands it up as only Kevin Costner can do as papa Kent. Probably one of the most unintentionally funny scenes was where he and Clark are having the whole “you’re not my real dad” talk. Then, out of nowhere, a tornado just pops up and forcing everyone to run for cover. Kent Sr. then goes back to rescue a dog, and just as Clark is about to save him, he holds up is hand and tells him not to so he won’t reveal his secret identity. He doesn’t even get sucked up into the tornado; he just gets enveloped by a grey fog while smiling in just about the cheesiest manner possible. It’s not that the idea of the scene was bad, it’s just its placement in the structure of the film and execution are so hilariously out of place that all it accomplishes is to make the audience snigger at the goofy martyrdom complex this movie seems to carry. Diane lane is…there. No, that’s not true; she does actually have one of the best scenes in the movie. Early on we see her comforting a young Clark who is just now dealing with his powers for the first time. In a movie pumped to the max with testosterone, it’s good to have at least some good female characters at least present actually doing something.

Oh that’s right! Lois Lane was in this movie, I almost forgot. Again it’s not like Amy Adams is “bad” or anything, but her character is so thinly written, so utterly superfluous to the plot, that she might as well have not been in the movie at all. It doesn’t help that Adams has just about zero chemistry with Cavill, so their spontaneous romance comes completely out of nowhere. Seriously! Out of nowhere! they just make out after the battle when there wasn’t any indication prior that they had romantic feelings for each other. On that note, the whole Daily Planet crew did next to nothing this whole movie except…be there, because the daily planet is in Superman so it obviously has to be in the movie too, right? It’s a waste of Laurence Fishburne to have him basically do nothing but be there to be there. It’s hard for me to care when the movie allocates large chunks of its running time to what these people are doing during the destruction of Metropolis.

Oh, and speaking of wanton destruction, let’s talk about that ending. There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding whether Superman should have brutally snapped Zod’s neck like he does here. Personally, I thought the decision to have Superman kill General Zod could have worked if it was executed right. It’s not like Superman has a rule against killing like Batman does, but discounting that does it work on a narrative level? Short answer: no. For one thing, for basically the past 40 minutes we’ve seen Superman not care about the thousands and thousands of people his building-shattering fistfights have killed through collateral damage. We’re never given any indication of his aversion to killing before, and the fact that he’s willing to condemn the Kryptonians to eternal torment in the Phantom Zone seems to gel well enough with his conscience already. There is no precedence to his (admittedly compelling) reaction to the deed, and thus it just comes off as callous and cold, a cheap stunt to make the film more “mature”. There’s also the fact that this moral conundrum is promptly forgotten the moment the next scene starts.

It’s all endemic of the problems that constantly take you out of the experience. This film displays all the worst excesses of those involved: Goyer’s juvenile storytelling, Snyder’s obsession with visuals and “cool” factor over story, Nolan’s focus on ideas over character. This is all present without the respective filmmakers strengths present, cancelling each other out in a way that obscures any sense of unified vision in the finished film. It’s a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas and bland characters obfuscated under the cover of superficial “darkness” and relentless, mind-numbing action scenes. There are occasional visceral thrills, but these moments outstay their welcome very quickly. It’s a cynical, bland movie hiding under the veneer of idealism and iconography, and of everything that’s probably what’s most frustrating.

RATING: * * (out of four)

P.S: I’m not sure but I think this movie might have wanted me to buy a Nikon DSLR camera, eat at IHOP, and shop at Sears. There’s product placement, and then there’s building whole set pieces around a brand name pancake restaurant. I guess all for the sake of making the world seem more real amiright?

P.P.S: Also, did, anyone else find it weird that kid Clark was playing around dressed up as a Superhero, cape and all, when his character is the character that invented such depictions of superheroes. I mean, he even does the pose! I mean, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that that kind of costume would exist in that, but wouldn’t people then say “wow why’s he dressed up like *insert equivalent comic hero here*”. I don’t know, I just thought it was kind of strange.

THIS IS THE END (2013)

by Matt Friend. 0 Comments

DIRECTED BY: Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg

WRITTEN BY: Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg

STARRING: James Franco, Seth Rogan, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson

Surprise is something that’s not all that common in films these days, with a lot of promotional material spoiling a film to the point where you go in basically knowing exactly what’s going to happen ahead of time. This is the End as you might have guessed by the previous sentence, surprised me, and I enjoyed it far more than I thought I did. What’s more, unlike some comedies I didn’t need to be surrounded by other people to enjoy it for what it was (empty theater, 9am showing). However I would recommend you, the reader, experience it with a group of people so as to get the full effect. I couldn’t see myself watching it again unless I was laughing alongside my friends. In other words, it’s a movie that needs to be shared for maximum hilarity, but one that can be enjoyed on a solo viewing.

The film is structured as a series of vignettes, almost as if each segment of the film was thought up individually while they were writing and/or filming. Its loose plot is mostly just an excuse to have a lot of funny situational jokes. The story itself is built largely around this one core concept: what would happen if a bunch of pampered actors (who play themselves) were trapped in James Franco’s house during the apocalypse. Simple, right? It’s amazing how many hilarious scenes can be pulled solely from that one concept. I have to say, it works really well, and carries a lot of the film through its flimsier elements (like the standard plot and “meh” special effects). In other words, it’s a film that’s simultaneously wildly original and sort of reliant on clichés and standard comedic plots in its foundation. It was kind of a smart move, though, to not rely too much on plot and special effects to support the movie. The filmmakers recognize their strengths for the most part and largely focus on that instead of trying to be something they’re not.

It’s rare that you see a film whose greatest strength lies in the obvious fun the actors seem to be having with their roles. From what I understand about half of the film was improvised on their part, and it shows so much through their performances. It certainly helps that the cast has some uncommonly good chemistry, bouncing off of each other to create a wondrously hilarious comedic dynamic that sizzles on screen in a glorious fashion. This, to me at least, is what carries the film through its hilarious first half. Once the characters figure out what’s going on and the plot kicks in, the focus of the humor kind of shifts from a situational one to one that relies a bit too much on excessive gross-out humor and audacity to get a laugh. That might just be me, though, because gross out humor for the sake of gross out humor never really “does” anything for me.

By about two thirds of the way in it became pretty evident that the film wasn’t really going to go anywhere you didn’t expect. Most of the jokes from then on generally follow this formula: Something bad or scary happens, and the characters present go “ooooohhhh!!” or “ahhhhhh!”. Yeah, the movie gets bigger and flashier and more audacious, but it’s not really all that funny to be perfectly honest. It stops being witty and clever and instead becomes kind of tedious and repetitive. It still has some seriously funny moments (including the surprise return of an earlier character), but it starts to fall into a number of clichés (both comedic and plot wise) that don’t always work in comparison to the other stuff. The ending really goes all out in terms of goofy spectacle, even to the point where it’s maybe…I don’t know...trying a bit too hard. It’s just so out there and over the top, though, that you can kind of forgive it based solely on just how all out crazy it is.

As you might imagine, setting your film in affluent Los Angeles sets up many an opportunity for celebrity cameos. I don’t really want to spoil any of them, because these sudden appearances are some of the best moments of the film. What I can say, though, is that you see a lot of these actors (probably purposefully) playing against type, or at least how people usually perceive them. That’s the thing, though. Really, the film is at its best when it revels in that sort of self-referential meta-humor and self-deprecation. In other words, It’s refreshing to see that the actors are so eager to take potshots, not only at each other, but at themselves and their popular image.

Really, there isn’t too much to say about this movie beyond that. It was very funny, I laughed frequently, and I was at least somewhat invested even when it started to run out of steam. How much you like it is largely dependent on whether you’re into its unique brand of gross out stoner humor. Even if you’re not, I still think there’s something to be found here, just don’t expect to be blown away by the production values or plot because that’s not what it’s about. In any case, I’d say wait for Netflix because there really isn’t much to be gained by seeing it on a bigger screen. If you’ve got some friends with a similar taste for what it has to offer, you’ll have a grand old time watching it. The film itself is like hanging out with friends…you know, except for the apocalypse and murder and stuff…in other words, a pretty good time.

RATING: * * * (out of four)

AFTER EARTH (2013)

by Matt Friend. 0 Comments

DIRECTED BY: M. Night Shyamalan

WRITTEN BY: Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan

STRARRING: Jaden Smith, Will Smith.

 

            *sigh*

What happened to you Shyamalan? I mean seriously, what happened!? One minute you’re at the top of the cinematic world, delivering fantastic movies like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. Now you’re working as a director for hire on a project you’re clearly had little to no interest in. I understand you have bills to pay and you want to keep working, but I don’t think this is how to go about it. Then again I could be wrong. Maybe his passion is shooting Will Smith’s son running through the woods for an hour, I don’t know. I can’t even decide at this point whether he’s even trying or not. He seems to keep getting jobs despite his outrageously poor reputation. The marketing team for the film even went out of its way to keep him out of the film’s promotional material, so it’s not even like they wanted to acknowledge he was a part of the film anyways! In all fairness, though, unlike some of his other movies I don’t feel like I can attribute all of its failings to him.

The film covers about a movie’s worth of backstory in about a minute and a half, but here’s the abridged version: sometime in the near future, humanity is forced to leave earth after humanity has made the planet inhospitable to live on (how is never really explained, they just show us stock footage of some natural disasters and industrial sites, so I guess pollution or something). After humanity has migrated to their new home, Nova Prime, they find that the universe isn’t such a friendly place and are attacked by aliens! Well…we never actually see the aliens, and they don’t really have anything to do with the plot, but there’s these creatures called the “Ursa” that were made by the aliens in order to kill humans. However, these creatures are blind (for some reason) and can only “see” by detecting the pheromones let off when someone is afraid. Will Smith plays super awesome space ranger hero Cypher Raige, who is, amongst other things, the first man to ever “ghost”, that is have no fear so he can walk undetected near the Ursa.

You got all that so far? Well, none of its really all that important except for the Ursa and ghosting thing so you can kind of ignore it. Jaden Smith plays Cypher’s son, Kitai Raige. He’s a reckless young boy training to be a ranger like his father (We of course know this because he runs faster than everybody else and the teacher/headmaster guy tells us he’s reckless). His father, after returning home from a mission, tells his family that he’s going to retire so he can spend some more time with them. In an effort to win his estranged son’s affections, he decides to take his son with him on his last mission so that they can have some bonding time. On this trip, however, they’re hit a surprise meteor storm and are forced to crash land on an alien planet. What planet is this? Why Earth of course! With everyone dead, and Raige Sr. in poor condition, it’s up to Kitai to travel across the dangerous wilderness to the tail end of their ship, track down the distress beacon (which I guess they didn’t fire when they realized they were going to crash land). Unfortunately, the ship they were on was also transporting an Ursa (for some reason) and now it’s out and ruthlessly hunting our hero. (Well, I think so…it doesn’t really show up until the climax.)

And that’s just the first 20 minutes, and If you think you know where this movie is going from there…well, you’re probably right. I can’t think of a moment in this movie outside of a few jump scares I didn’t predict at least 20 minutes ahead of time. The plot is strictly formula, and adheres to father-son movie tropes and survival movie tropes to an absolute fault. There is no suspense, no surprise, nothing that even resembles actual emotion from the actors. The film has a weird editing style the clashes horribly with Shyamalan’s deliberate, slow paced direction. That pretty much sums up the movie as a whole, really, a bunch of disparate elements that clash together in a way where none of them really work well on their own. It’s frustrating because, like many a Shyamalan movie, I can kind of see what he was trying to do, what he was trying to go for, but he fails out of some combination of laziness and circumstance (or maybe simple incompetence). It’s like he’s averse to any sort of self-revision or change to his vision and just goes with the first draft of everything he does because the initial idea was soooo brilliant. So many of the choices made here just don’t make any sense! 

I’m not even sure why this movie was set on Earth (you know, other than the name). This could have all taken place on an alien planet and it wouldn’t have made a difference to the story at all. There aren’t the landmarks, nods to civilization, or social commentary that usually come with post-apocalyptic stories. All we get here are woods, woods, river, woods, volcano, locations easily interchangeable with many a sci-fi alien planet. The trailers push this conceit that everything on the planet has evolved to specifically kill humans. Discounting how much of a stretch that idea already is, none of the creatures in this movie outside the Ursa (who aren’t from earth) act in a way that’s specifically antagonistic to humans. Mostly they’re just normal earth animals except…bigger…bigger and more CGish. Seriously, this movie has a budget of 130 million and they can’t make their CG creatures look just a bit more convincing. It’s not like they put any of that money on sets or costumes or anything.

However the major reason this film doesn’t work lies squarely on our film’s leading man. No, not Will Smith, he spends most of the movie sitting around delivering monologues and dispensing self-help book wisdom from the wreckage of the ship. The one who’s shoulders the film largely rests upon is Will Smith’s son, Jaden, and it’s abundantly clear that he is not up to the challenge. His acting has exactly two modes: confused pouting, and whining anger, neither of which is particularly engaging or resembling in any genuine acting ability. He was kind of the same way in the Karate Kid remake that his daddy also bought him, but there he could at least coast on his prepubescent charm (and Jackie Chan, whose mere presence makes any movie instantly better). I could never quite put out of my mind that the only reason he’s on the screen is because daddy paid for the movie to get made. It’s nepotism through and through. Speaking of daddy, I could never quite figure out what Will was going for here with his performance. For most of the movie he talks in this weird accent I can’t place where he over-enunciates everything he says. I don’t know whether it’s just Shyamalan’s direction or Smith not wanting to overshadow his son with his natural charisma. It’s not so much “bad” as it is just utterly bizarre. Some of the films best moments of unintentional hilarity come from when his accent breaks for just a few seconds and we hear him lapse into his usual, easygoing mode of speaking.

 Many of the things that usually redeem a Shyamalan movie are largely not present. The careful control of mood and atmosphere is pretty much entirely absent, pretty much cruising on neutral for the entire run. The camerawork and cinematography look like they were shot by a film school student making a student film in the woods because that was the only interesting looking place nearby that they could shoot. Even the score by James Newton Howard, usually a highlight of Shyamalan’s movies, lacks any strong, distinctive themes, saving all the best music for the end credits after most of the audience has left out of indifference.

In the end, this movie is and always has been nothing more than a bloated vanity project, a movie whose sole purpose for existing is to be a vehicle to make Will Smith’s precious gift from above a viable action star. Does it work solidly on any level? No, not really. It doesn’t even work on the level of a “so-bad-it’s-good” movie like The Last Airbender. This isn’t so much blatantly bad as it is…boring. Everything in this movie has been done frequently and often better. Most of the movie’s best moments come from when the façade breaks, the actor’s accents slip, or some forced moment of humor draws an uncomfortable laugh from the audience. I believe that M. Night Shyamalan can make good movies, though with each new movie it’s becoming harder and harder to do so. Honestly, though, I don’t think even Shyamalan at his peak could have done much with the material present here anyways, even if he is credited as a writer. Maybe the next movie will be his comeback, right…right?

RATING: * (out of four)

Oh, and to address the apparent elephant in the room, accusations of ties to scientology have dogged this movie a lot since its release. This movie shares a lot of imagery and philosophical underpinnings with the religion, so it’s kind of easy to draw parallels here and there. To be honest, though, most of the movie’s messages could be pulled from any self-help book at your local Barnes and Noble. Whatever the Smith Family’s tenuous connections with the religion are, I doubt the inclusion of those teachings here would matter all that much considering how incompetently everything else in this movie is conveyed. In other words, the issue is pretty negligible.

On DVD – LIFE OF PI (2012)

by Matt Friend. 0 Comments

DIRECTED BY: Ang Lee

WRITTEN BY: David Magee

STARRING: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall, Gerard Depardieu.

I wish I saw Life of Pi in theaters. I mean I really really wish I saw this in theaters. I’m watching this and thinking to myself “I’m missing out on so much by relegating this to a 50-something inch TV screen in my living room. Every frame of this movie is just so saturated with beautiful, vibrant colors that (literally) were meant to pop out of the screen. There are very few movies that can make me say this…but I regret not being able to see this in 3D. There! I said it! Call me a hypocrite if you want, but it’s obvious that this is a movie crafted from the ground up to be projected and watch in 3D, no post-conversion stuff here.

Life of Pi is based on the novel of the same name by Yann Martel. The vast majority of the narrative centers on the titular Piscine Patel, PI for short. His parents own a zoo in Pondicherry, India. After real estate issues force his family to shut down the zoo, the family is forced to pick up and move to Canada with their animals. After a shipwreck kills most of the passengers, Pi is stranded on a lifeboat and forced to survive while living with the surviving animals that share the boat with him. Just one problem, one of those animals happens to be a live Bengal tiger! Not only does Pi have to keep himself from starving, he has to do so without being mauled to death by a massive 400 pound carnivore!

I have read the novel, though it’s been some years since I’ve done so. I remember really liking it, and I appreciated the story's metaphorical elements, and its ambiguous ending. Both the book and the film are framed within the context of a writer looking for material for a novel. His search for inspiration eventually leads him to a now older Pi living in Canada. This works well in writing form, but in film form…not so much. It’s not so much that it couldn’t work, it just doesn’t in the way it’s done here…at all. The actual story, as told by the film, is engaging and powerful. The narration and framing device only seems to serves as a method of hammering you over the head with ham-fisted, stacked deck philosophizing and religious metaphors. It interrupts the sense of narrative flow and intrudes on the story it’s trying to tell. The book occasionally has this problem, but I rarely felt it was actually “taking sides”. It also doesn’t help that the actor playing the writer is just terrible!

On the inverse of that, though, Suraj Sharma’s performance as Pi is actually pretty incredible, and that’s not just based on his acting. The fact that he was able to give such a raw, heartfelt performance almost entirely against green screen alone is a pretty strong testament to his talent. It’s also very telling of the skill evident in Ang Lee’s direction. I envy a director who is able to so effortlessly move between wildly different genres whilst maintaining such a steady degree of quality, as well as the confidence in ones vision to adapt a book that many considered to be un-filmable. 2012 really was the year of the “un-filmable”, with seemingly impossible movies like Cloud Atlas and The Avengers making relatively successful transitions to the big screen (at least in my opinion).

With that said, though, it’s not exactly what I would consider a seamless transition. A lot of the darker, richer themes are disposed in favor of hackneyed messages and visual wonderment. I get that some things simply don’t translate well into a visual medium, which is fine as long as it doesn’t directly infringe on the core themes of the source material. In the books, the scenes on the boat with the tiger were “fantastic” in the sense that they straddled the line between believability and un-believability without really ever crossing it. The film, on the other hand, goes all out fantasy from the outset, and that makes the twist at the end hard to swallow.

If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read the next paragraph.

After Pi has been rescued after washing up onto Mexican shores, representatives of the Japanese fishing company (who owned the ship that sank) ask Pi what exactly happened so that they might learn why the ship sank. After Pi tells them the story we just heard and they don’t believe him, he tells a different one: there was no tiger or animals, they were just people. They were the ones that killed each other in an attempt to survive, and Pi was Richard Parker. The thematic crux of the book and the film centers on the characters and readers deciding which story was the one you wanted to believe, the fantastic one you just heard, or the “realer” one. The book doesn’t outright lean one way or the other (leaning towards the tiger story), instead just raising the question and letting the reader interpret it in their own way. The movie doesn’t afford that, and pretty much outright says the tiger story is the “correct” story. I also feel it kind of loses the point a bit making the tiger story a CGI visual wonderland full of pretty colors, as that skews the desirability of that story in its favor. I felt that it wasn’t necessarily the wonderment that made the story appealing, it was that there was that it was a “story”, with meaning and a sense of purpose. In that sense, it’s not just an argument for believing in god, but also a commentary on our preference for stories and narrative in our lives. It’s probably not as big of an issue as I’m making it out to be, but the book already walks a fine line, and I feel the movie stacks the deck too much in one side’s favor.

Ultimately, the film ends up devolving into a session of shallow sermonizing, which is a shame because the book leaves it far more up to the reader as to how the ending should be interpreted. I still enjoyed Life of Pi, and to be honest it’s probably the best version of the story we could have hoped to get on film. I might have even rated it higher if I’d seen it as it should have been seen, but I can’t really judge it based on what “might have been”. I don’t know if I would recommend you read the book or see the movie first, as both have benefits to not having read or seen one or the other. I’d probably suggest the book because of its darker, richer story, and stronger allegorical elements.

RATING: * * * (out of four)