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Tarantino's Magnum Opus, A Tribute To Hollywood, About Hollywood Done As Only QT Could
Quentin Tarantino has always demonstrated a strong love for the art of film making. It isn't just a love for the industry or the culture, but for the medium itself, the stories it tells, and the way in which it's done. His films are full of tiny Easter eggs, homages, and call backs to films of yesteryear that have, in a sense, defined his specific style. Some find this off putting, going so far as to criticize him for doing nothing but aping other auteurs. But, by and large, Tarantino is considered one of the defining indie filmmakers standing as a tentpole of cinematic artists. It seems, then, that he is past due for a film that truly defines him and what his work means, and it's hard to argue that this film isn't that. A loving tribute to, at least by appearances, Quentin's most beloved era of film making, this is maybe the quintessential Tarantino film, even if it doesn't exactly bear repeat viewings.
More in line with something like Pulp Fiction, Once Upon A Time, taking place in 1969, follows actor Rick Dalton, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, his stuntman and all around confidant Cliff Booth, as played by Brad Pitt, and to a somewhat lesser extent Sharon Tate, the famous real life actress killed by the Manson family in 1969 as played by Margot Robbie. Each actor brings their best here, with DiCaprio back to his somewhat emotionally vulnerable and slightly unhinged form, while Pitt plays off him as cool, with swagger to spare, aggression, and even some slight bursts of violence. Robbie, who is disconnected from the two for pretty much the entirety of the film, counters the two old timers seeing their time in Hollywood sunset as Sharon, a starlet who is still seeing Hollywood through rose colored lenses and smiles wide at herself on screen and basks in the glow of a budding career. Supporting all three is a wide cast of cameos and guest spots, many of which are Tarantino regulars, including Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, and Michael Madsen, while a handful of new actors to Tarantinon's repertoire join in, like Timothy Olyphant, Al Pacino, and Dakota Fanning.
When Tarantino says this is a love letter to Hollywood, it isn't simply that he wants to tell a story about Hollywood from this period. It's that he wants to recreate a Hollywood of yesterday. There are long swathes of time where we spend time travelling with our characters, taking in all of the old businesses that once lined the streets of Hollywood, or listening to the music of the era. This isn't just about Hollywood as a business, but as a culture, as a geographical point in Los Angeles. It's about the entirety of Hollywood and a point of time it existed in, as well as the transition to the next phase of Hollywood. Tarantino makes an interesting choice in choosing to focus, in part, on Sharon Tate, but when put up against Rick and Cliff, it makes sense. Rick and Cliff are the old timers coming to terms with their fading careers, with Rick especially having a difficult time dealing with the fact that he may very well be in the last throes of his spotlight. Conversely, Sharon, the young starlet begins her career at the entrance of a new time period. And while much has been made about the involvement of the Manson family in the film, in reality their inclusion feels more symbolic than a core part of the film. While the finale of the film is fairly crazy and maybe the most Tarantino-esque part of it, like reality in which the Manson family murders were considered a definitive end to 60's Hollywood and the beginning of New Hollywood, here they act as a thematic transition for our characters from one era of Hollywood to the next.
While this is very much a Tarantino film, this is QT at his most thoughtful and contemplative. Perhaps he has put much of himself in the film, a film maker who has been making movies for nearly 30 years and is now planning to call it quits on big time movies. The film isn't littered with snappy dialogue, pop culture references, or even long bouts of dialogue exchange like we're used to. The pop culture exchanges typical of his movie seem to encompass the entire thing. We might normally see the Manson family become a one off gag. Here, it becomes an intrinsic part of the film. Make no mistake, the script is still excellent, as is the production itself, which gives us scenes from fake movies and TV shows that feel every bit like they belong in productions from the 50's and 60's. But it all feels like it's a much more natural and thoughtful part of the film than it is a gag thrown in for the sake of being in the film. These characters all feel real, like the kind of people Tarantino might look up to from a bygone era, rather than wanting to create for his own personal enjoyment. This isn't just Tarantino trying to entertain us, pay homage to scenes from movies, or have fun behind the camera. This is Tarantino trying to pay respect to the Hollywood he loves. As such, this feels like something more personal. Don't take that too seriously, though. This is still a very funny movie with plenty of fun inside.
If QT were to truly say goodbye to film making today, this would feel like an appropriate farewell. He pours a lot of love in what we see on screen, and more so than maybe any film, this feels especially personal to him. It's a tribute to everything Hollywood during a time when Hollywood was to change radically. If Reservoir Dogs marks Tarantino's dramatic entrance into Hollywood as one of its best indie directors, Once Upon A Time may stand as the kind of exit that only Tarantino could make.
A Fun, Edge Of Your Seat Man Vs. Nature Popcorn Flick That's Perfect For Summer
Ever since Spielberg gave us Jaws, it seems like the summer isn't complete without one vicious, man vs. nature flick to unease audiences. So, this year we get Crawl, a bloody, deadly serious thriller pitting our leads not just against a group of savage alligators hell bent on killing every person they come across, but a raging hurricane as well. The combo creates the kind of summer popcorn movie you'd come to expect, ridiculous and ultimately forgettable, but fun and thrilling nevertheless.
Kaya Scodelario plays Haley, a collegiate swimmer who, amidst a growing, dangerous hurricane, receives a call from her sister wondering about their father, who hasn't returned any phone calls. Despite warnings, Haley decides to go find him, and in so doing discovers him injured and immobile. It isn't long before they both find themselves surrounded by the vicious alligators and running against the clock as the hurricane threatens to put them under water. Both Kaya and Barry Pepper as Haley's father put on a good show. They do an excellent job for the kind of film this is, proving to play off each other well and turn in a convincing job. Their relationship is enjoyable, much more so than what I had expected. They also prove to be resourceful and tough, and seeing them bounce off one another and the performances are surprisingly touching, where I expected the film to be more shallow. It also helps that the film is consistently thrilling, putting you on the edge of your seat near the entire film. When the gators aren't silently sneaking up on every single person in the film, the hurricane poses a threat, with the movie trading one for the other.
Admittedly, it does take a little bit to go, with the beginning taking it's time to get going. The moment we get our first gator, however, things go from 2 to 10 real quick. The film is also somewhat surprisingly gory. It's not excessive, but there's plenty of blood, a few chewed and torn limbs, and some brutal gator attacks. The set pieces are taken full advantage of as well. While our leads are mostly confined to the single space, a two story house with a crawl space below, nothing is left to spare. The entire house is not only used, but the gators get access too, and it makes for some very entertaining and thrilling scenes.
All of this said, the film certainly has it's flaws. Haley and her father endure a pretty sizable amount of the violence and yet, somehow not only survive, but manage to put up a hell of a fight. As entertaining as it is to watch, it's hardly believable they're in the shape they're in when all is said and done. We also get some eye rolling decisions made by our characters, mostly Haley, who goes on to do typically cliche things that get people injured or killed, like following the scary noise. Aren't we past these cliches now? The film also doesn't really do anything new or memorable. As fun as the movie is, everything in it we've seen. It deserves credit for staying mostly grounded and making creative use of it's set, but this is firmly an enjoy-it-while-you're-watching-it kind of movie. Yet, it's exactly the kind of summer film you'd expect to pop up in a theater to turn your brain off to.
Obviously, this isn't going to be a film for everyone. In a time when we get some pretty glorious spectacles, shocking comedies, or head turning dramas, Crawl seems tame. But maybe it's the fact that it trades up grandiosity for some old fashioned creature-feature thrills that makes it welcome. Despite it's ridiculous nature and our character's unbelievable ability to survive, Crawl is a welcome change of pace and entertainment from what has become the standard for summer entertainment.
A Completely Forgettable Action/Comedy With One Dimensional Performances From Actors Who Deserve Better
Stuber is that unsurprising action-comedy you've come to expect. It's a fairly harmless movie featuring actors we know, but aren't overly familiar with, but are servicable enough to play the leads in what amounts to a fairly middling film. This is the kind of movie we might have expected to see in theaters earlier in the 2000's, but now comes across as something you'd expect more on Netflix. With a script that elicits chuckles more than laughs and some wanting performances from it's leads, this is the kind of comedy that one might see if they're bored on a weekend afternoon and need to kill some time.
Stu, as cranked up to 10 by Kumail Nanjiani, is the kind of guy we've come to know over years in these kind of comedies. Aimless in life, pining for the love of his life who he is waiting for as opposed to going after, and a push over to the younger, dimwitted, abusive manager at a job he hates for a sporting good store, this is exactly the kind of character we expect to see as a lead for this kind of movie. Fulfilling the dominant co-lead archetype is Bautista's alpha cop, Vic, who has his own issues in his obsession for bad guy Tedjo, played by a very game and entertaining Iko Kuwais, which has very nearly cost him his relationship with his daughter. Creatively forced to get a ride through Uber, Vic essentially kidnaps Stu and forces him on a buddy-cop journey through LA. The premise works better than it really should have, though within the first 30 minutes, it becomes apparent just how dimwitted the match up is. Stu being so spineless that he basically allows the overly aggressive and angry Vic kidnap him comes across as little more than an excuse to keep these two together. Sadly, neither Bautista, nor Kumail ever really feel like guys you want to follow. Now, I like these two, Kumail is great in Silicon Valley and Bautista proved himself capable of being a star in Guardians, but here they are their worst stereotypes. Stu is incessantly spineless, constantly whining without ever actually doing anything (like, oh, I don't know, calling the LAPD to complain that one of their own has kidnapped someone), and Vic is an alpha who constantly angry and makes decisions as a cop that seem archaic by about a decade.
The movie has some mildly amusing scenes and fairs better in the action department than I expected, but it's so laden with cliches, I am hard pressed to care. The best comedies today surprise or feel genuine. We can relate to the characters we're seeing on screen and accept even ridiculous, grand adventures they may go on. You can turn to Apatow or David Gordon Green or Adam McKay. These guys have all delivered similar comedies with similar characters, but they make their leads feel like more than just typical movie cliches cranked up. By the time our leads predictably grow and change for the better, we just don't care. We've seen it before and it's not entertaining. But again, this is a harmless movie. It doesn't really offend or do anything risky enough to turn off viewers. Some may be turned off by it's more modern sensibilities and attempts at deconstructing alpha masculinity. But these things are so insignificant in a movie that doesn't really matter anyway, I can't imagine anyone but the most triggered of people to look that deeply at it.
In a summer that has, at times, felt lazy, and at others been very entertaining and engaging, this movie feels like the former. I imagine it was fun for it's leads, who don't get to lead a major film too often, and hopefully it will get them more lead roles in major films in the future, but here they're just way too engaged in this material and too one dimensional to make the film memorable. This will be a rental for most, and a forgettable one at that.
The Lion King (2019)
A Fantastic Looking Retread Of The Original, Without The Magic That Made It So Wonderful
I was just getting into my teen years when the original Lion King came out, but it was still something special for me. And I wasn't alone. It was a critical smash, one of the highest grossing animated films of all time, award winning, and considered one of the best animated films ever. In some circles, it is even considered Disney's greatest animated film ever. For me personally, it remains the pinnacle of Disney's animated vault. With the recent spate of Disney live action remakes of their Disney classics (the second one this year alone after Aladdin), it seems like this remake was inevitable. And while it may rekindle some nostalgia for others, while capturing the attention of kids who didn't get to see the original during it's prime, the film largely left me feeling the same way Aladdin did, wondering why this was necessary at all. It still has some quality points, this is Disney after all, but it feels so derivative of the original, I have to wonder what the point of a remake at all was.
The story here is the same, almost scene for scene, so anyone who has seen the original will know what to expect going in. I will say, this may be one of Disney's best ever looking films. It begs the question of why you might call this live action at all, considering the film is almost 100% digital effects. And they are pretty spectacular. Disney has set a new standard for what can be done with photo realistic effects. It does create some immersion issues, which I will get to later, but as far as the films look, it's pretty spectacular when you consider how real it looks. Disney will almost assuredly go home with all the visual effects awards for this movie. The film also sounds great. The voice acting is top notch, the singing is excellent (minus some Seth Rogen singing....not a big fan), and the music is great (once again, minus some changes that left a bit to be desired, particularly the iconic Can You Feel The Love song). I think Disney will probably also find itself in some sound categories for this film. I also enjoyed much of the cinematography, which does an excellent job of pushing us through the African wilderness, sending us on exciting chases and adventures, from the ground up. It makes for a wild ride at times.
Sadly, for all the great technical achievements, the film left me with the same feelings I had when I left Aladdin, or pretty much any other live action remake. There's no way to distance myself from the original, so it's impossible to see this film with fresh eyes. Part of the issue for me was what the realistic animal effects done here loses from the original. The film is so driven to give us realistic looking and acting animals, that a lot of the magic of the original is gone. We don't get the expressive characters we got from the original, who told their story and sold their emotion as much on how they looked as how they sounded and acted. I will admit Disney did an excellent job not making the animals look weird when talking or singing, but the grounded nature of the film does away with the imaginative singing numbers that drove the original. By comparison, these scenes feel ordinary and kind of dull. Especially disappointing is the centerpiece song, Can You Feel The Love, which feels short and rushed. The original film set this up so well, but here, it feels like Disney kind of forced it into the film. What this film largely shows me is that these movies were animated originally for a reason. Not simply because of the technological constraints, but because the imagination of the script, story, and characters demands the kinds of things that can only be shown through the medium of animation.
While I applaud Disney's technical efforts, the film does little but reinforce what made the original such a timeless classic. While children of a new generation might find this film wonderful, it's hard to believe that same feeling of exhilaration is there. While the original animated Disney films because classics for their ability to bring our favorite stories to life, or bring us new ones for the ages, films like this, that are very nearly identical to their originals feel like the same old car with a new coat of paint. It makes one wonder if Disney is still interested in creating new classics, or if they are intent on remaking every original film into a pale imitation.
The Farewell (2019)
A Heart Wrenching Story of White Lies, Culture, and the Importance of Saying Goodbye
The trailer for The Farewell immediately struck a cord with me because it dealt with a topic that resonates with me emotionally, that being the subject of goodbyes. There's something about the act of saying goodbye to someone or something that often goes unnoticed, but I think is relatable for everyone. Even more so than loss, we are all touched possibly more by not being able to give off a proper farewell. Whether it's a story we never get the ending to, or someone we never get the chance to say goodbye to, being able to say goodbye to someone or something is possibly one of the most important actions we can take. The Farewell deals with this subject, as well as others, intimately. This could have been an ultra serious, sappy, melodramatic affair that manipulates it's audience emotionally, but the film turns into a surprisingly humorous, grounded, and natural film that uses it's comparisons of culture to great effect.
Billi, as played by Awkwafina, is a young Chinese woman living in New York who finds out her grandmother is possibly terminally ill. Making the trek to China under the guise of a wedding, Billi, along with her family, attempt to put on a happy face while keeping their matriarch's illness a secret from her. Billi finds herself struggling with this aspect of her family's culture, versus the traditional, western way of dealing with impending death in the family. Awkwafina shines here as Billi, doing an excellent job of not only conveying profound emotion, while at the same time having to hide that emotion, but also of giving us a character that has other troubles. She struggles at home, struggles with her parents, and struggles financially, all of which she tries to put on a brave face about. While we're used to seeing Awkwafina play more comedic roles, from her early career as a comedic rapper to her more energetic and playful film roles, here she completely flips the usual script as a down to earth, highly relatable young woman trying to make sense of both the situation with her grandmother and her own life. She is surrounded by a great supporting cast, most notably by Shuzhen Zhou, who is spirited, funny, and charming, despite her families mopey nature.
While the film could easily delve into topics of mortality, death, and other slightly morbid subjects, it instead chooses to focus on things surrounding the topic of death that are less explored. It is through these topics that the film branches into the larger subject of the lies we tell each other for fear of troubling those around us, or perhaps to simply keep from having to take on an emotional burden. It's biggest story stems from the cultural difference between what we might do here in the U.S., or in western culture, versus Chinese culture's understanding of death and how it's treated. Billi struggles to reconcile with the idea that the knowledge of death is withheld from her grandmother so as to alleviate the emotional burden, which is on the family, until a time close to death. It's an emotionally powerful idea because it asks questions about the importance of goodbye and whether or not it is better for someone to live in ignorance of their impending fate, or if it is better for them to know so that they may say their farewells to others. While we're quick to judge, the film makes a case for the opposite side of the argument.
The film also deals with the topic of lying, and it isn't just about the subject of death. From the first scene, amidst a phone conversation between Billi and her grandmother, the two lie to each other in small ways. It's clear these are white lies in an attempt to keep the other from worrying, but lying happens throughout the film between various characters. It's never examined implicitly whether these lies are good or bad, a lie is a lie, and the film argues for bother sides. But it is interesting that the film examines just how often we might lie to each other, whether it's about needing help, quitting smoking, or even death. Whether good or bad, big or small, these lies can have an impact not only on our own lives, but on the lives of those around us. These ideas the film conveys are wonderfully supported by technical film making that feels intimate and muted. It's cinematography tends to focus on close ups, making us feel close to our characters and their emotional struggles, while the music channels the somber mood.
The Farewell is a beautiful film showcasing a stellar performance from Awkwafina, who makes her leap into being a leading lady and dramatic actor. For anyone who has ever had to say goodbye to someone, or has ever missed the opportunity to do so, the film should resonate with them. It's emotionally charged, but not overpowering or cheap. It, thankfully, doesn't manipulate them into feeling the way they do, coming across progressively naturally and bringing up thought provoking questions for it's audience to ponder well after the credits.
Blinded by the Light (2019)
Springsteen is the inspired backbone of this heartwarming, if cliche, tale of growing pains, economic woes, and racial strife in small-town-80's England.
Bruce Springsteen, for a generation, was a songwriter who didn't just write about the average man, but for him. Many song writers coming out of the 60's and 70's wrote socially conscious music and tried to say something about the world around them, but Bruce had another view of America and tried to channel that spirit into music. Is it any wonder then that some might be so inspired, it changed their outlook on life? Such was the case for Sarfraz Manzoor, who's story is the basis for this movie. Springsteen is the backbone to a story that we've heard before, but this delightful tale is so proud, charming, and full of heart, it's hard not to watch it with a smile.
It is 1987 and Javed is a Pakistani teenager living in a small English city where he spends his days writing, whether it's essays, poetry, or lyrics for his friend's band. Politically minded and socially aware, Javed longs to get away from his town, as well as his old fashioned father, but doesn't see much of a way out...until a friend from school introduces him to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Through the lyrics of The Boss' music, he finds meaning and inspiration, moving him to be bolder, more proud of his writing, and chase his dreams despite the hurdles in his path. Blinded by the Light is the kind of film that wears it's heart on it's sleeve. It has no problem being a little silly and even it's most serious subject matter never feels too heavy. This is a feel good movie through and through that uses it's more dramatic elements as a backdrop, not just for Javed's story, but the story a society facing a tough economy, with job losses and racism against immigrants. The film touches on numerous subjects, from tradition and family vs. going after one's dreams, to the economic woes that many faced during this time in England. It's all balanced well, if it lacks nuance. But it's hard to ignore the spirit of the film, a spirit that translates Javed, his friends, and their families from the lyrics of Springsteen's music, a perfect combination that shows that it wasn't just America that could relate to his music, but anyone facing these same hardships.
The film isn't just about Springsteen's music though. The bigger picture here is the relationship between music and it's audience. While Springsteen's music is played throughout the film, specific focus is placed on the lyrics, what he was writing about. It's this poetry that dramatically changes Javed's life, right down to the clothes he wears. It demonstrates just how deeply music can affect us and how emotionally connected we can become to these words. Javed, until he hears Bruce, finds himself lost, so uninspired, he hides his own words from most everyone. This all changes, of course, and it all comes from hearing someone else sing about the very thing Javed feels. It plays to more than Bruce's msuic, but to any music that touches us and inspires us, whatever that may be.
The film focuses mostly on newcomers, all of who do a wonderful job. Viveik Kalra is excellent as Javed and proves himself to be a young actor worth following. He gets some great turns here and proves to be a charming guy who gets to do everything from emotionally charged dramatic beats to silly music-video-like dances through the streets. Kulvinder Ghir also has an excellent part as the father who, while coming across as somewhat cliche at times, still turns in a wonderful part. Hayley Atwell will no doubt be the most recognizable actor here, playing Javed's English teacher and mentor who encourages him to chase his dreams. The film also gets great support from a spirited Nell Williams as Javed's love interest, Deen Charles Chapman as Javed's best friend, and Aaron Phagura as Javed's newfound friend who introduces him to Bruce. The scenes with Kalra and Phagura are especially spirited and fun as they revel in and sing Springsteens music seemingly without a care in the world.
As I said, the film wears it's heart on it's sleeve, and so isn't afraid to tug at the heart strings, but it being so unabashed is part of what makes it so great. It's not afraid to let it's characters sing all over town or use Bruce's music to stick it to some racist bullies. It does have some serious parts to it, including some great, emotional beats, but it's never so dour or dramatic that you won't have fun with it. It may not come off as the most memorable movie of the year, but it's certainly worth going to check out.
Good Boys (2019)
Unoriginal, crass, and shallow, Good Boys probably looked better on paper than it does on screen.
Comedy has always evolved by pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in the face of the public. What constitutes as a typical for comedy in film and TV today would have been unheard of 50 years ago except maybe in comedy clubs and private venues. So, perhaps then, it's inevitable that we would arrive at a comedy about sixth graders cussing, drinking from a beer bottle, and talking about sex. And I am sure that there is an intelligent way to write about something like that. Unfortunately, Good Boys is not smartly written. It's funny to a point, but the film seems to be so smitten by the sixth grade boys poking around adult themes that it rarely tries to go beyond being raunchy and crass. Pre-teens saying fuck can be funny to a point, it worked for South Park, but after hearing it a dozen times, it kind of stops being funny. That's how much of the humor is in Good Boys. Mostly funny in concept or in a trailer, where you take the film in snippets, it's a film that doesn't go much deeper than shallow jokes and tired tropes.
I will say that maybe this simply wasn't for me. It is amusing in the same way it's amusing to see kids do shocking things that make us laugh. Maybe this film works better for young parents who are young enough to appreciate the raunchy and raucous comedies from the past three or so decades and now have little sixth graders of their own. Maybe the idea of pre-teens acting this way is hilarious to that specific crowd. I honestly have no idea. But the jokes here feel too easy and too shallow. Part of the problem here is that the film wants to convey the feeling of films we've seen before, but with sixth graders instead. When Seth and Evan go to get beer for a high school party in Superbad and end up getting wasted when they get there, it comes across as natural and relatable because, even if that wasn't us in high school, we at least heard about someone in high school like that. When a sixth grader goes to steal a beer and goes to a '"rager" at his sixth grade friends house, it enters a field of parody. Who knows, maybe this was meant to be a parody of those films. It would certainly make more sense. Here, though, it doesn't feel like a parody. Then again, maybe that's what sixth graders are in fact doing. The film does give the kids slightly more innocent things to focus on, like kissing and not getting grounded, and it would be more funny if the humor was written with more wit, but things essentially boil down to 'What are anal beads?', 'I want to learn how to kiss, so let's look up porn', and 'we're in sixth grade, but the cool kids take a couple sips of beer, so I want to too'.
It doesn't help that we're forced to spend time with kids that leave a lot to be desired in the way of acting. These kids certainly seem like they could be good actors, but the jokes they have to tell feel so forced and they're stuck in such cliched parts, it comes across as, once again, parody. Jacob Tremblay, playing lead Max, has a pretty decent resume, but here he's the typical lead, an everyman who wants the girl and goes to great, exaggerated lengths to get there. Brady Noon is drama kid Thor, who wants to be cool, but tries too hard. And Keith L. Williams is the nice, honest guy to a fault. These are all archetypes we saw in American Pie, shrunk down to pint size levels and who's cares and concerns are simpler forms of getting laid, getting drunk, and figuring out how to grow up. The only problem is that this film wants to apply the same standards of those comedies to this one. On paper, it probably seems like a great idea. In execution, we get characters who are conflicted in the worst ways and actors who try to exude both parts of the film, with neither the child like innocence or teen comedy aspects coming across with quality.
I found the trailer for the movie to be pretty funny. Perhaps, that is how the film is best enjoyed, in parts. As a whole, it's a better concept than a 90 minute film. There's probably a decent size audience for it too. The audience I saw it with seemed to find it hilarious and critics are giving it good ratings. For myself, I just didn't find it that funny. It didn't feel natural enough to be relatable or witty enough to make me genuinely laugh. Did I laugh? Sure, it was amusing. But as a comedy film, it left a lot to be desired.
Ready Player One (2018)
Great, nerdy fun in a great adventurous package
I'm not going to lie, I may be a little biased here. I'm both a huge Spielberg fan and a huge fan of 80's retro, not to mention a massive nerd. So, this movie, as well as the book, were for me through and through. If you're not any of these things, you probably won't understand the love for this property, and if you're only one or two of these things, you probably won't like the property as much. But for me, this was the most fun with a film I've had this year and may have all year long.
For those unfamiliar, Ready Player One is the geekiest of geek stories about a virtual world called the Oasis where the world spends much of it's time doing pretty much whatever they want. It's created has just died and he's left for the users of the Oasis an easter egg, hidden in the game, that when found will give them control over the Oasis as well as enough money to make them rich for life. After this egg is Wade Watts, aka Parzeval, and several of his friends, while the dastardly corporation IOI, led by evil corporate overlord Sorrento, try to get it to monetize the entire thing.
The book this is based on was never an amazing classic in the way some speak about it. The story elements of it felt very fanfictiony and rote. Typical nerdy protagonist whose a regular, losery guy in real life is an amazeballs dude in the Oasis who becomes the hero, gets the girl, blah, blah, blah. The movie isn't too different.The cast is all fairly good in their roles, though most of them feel very plain and relatively dull as characters. Tye Sheridan, who is an excellent actor, makes for a decent, if unremarkably white bread, lead. Olivia Cooke is the badass vixen and love interest, also very typical, but also with great presence and chemistry with Tye. Stealing every scene they're in is Lena Waithe as Aech whose both funny and badass. Opposite them is Ben Mendelson as very typical corporate baddie Sorrento and the usually funny TJ Miller voicing digital mercenary I-R0k, who is in fact funny here. Mark Rylance shows up in flashbacks as, what amounts to, the most emotionally meaty role with Oasis creator Halliday. For arguments sake, you could say that he is the lead character and that the real journey is his, with the characters all being just the witnesses to his story.
As you may be able to tell, there's a lot here that's fairly typical and cliche. That was true of the book too. But that's not really why people are here. It's not why people loved the book. And it is here that the movie actually excels in quality. Spielberg has crafted one of his best adventures in years and hasn't made something this fun in a long time. Though fans of the book may balk at the many, many changes made by Spielberg and novel-author-and-script-co-writer Ernest Cline, it's for the best as many of the events from the book wouldn't work as well on a visual level. And the movie looks absolutely amazing. The Oasis and it's avatars are a spectacle to behold and the action is fantastic. Other scenes, like one taking place in a very familiar and famous movie location, are fun, creative twists. While the real world scenes don't work quite as well, they still hold up with Spielberg's typically great attention to detail and world building.
Some of these scenes, in particular an early race and the climactic battle, are worth the price alone. And the geeky references, not just to 80's pop culture, but geek pop culture in general, come like shots from a video game weapon. The audience I saw this with had a blast and would giggle with glee every time something familiar and awesomely nerdy would show up on screen. There are moments that nerds everywhere may not know they needed to see that show up and it's truly a sight to behold. Some people may not be able to appreciate a film as pure spectacle, and they are certainly entitled to that opinion, but for the rest of us, the man who invented the summer blockbuster returns with another winner yet again. This is a love letter to geek culture and wins based almost purely on being a fantastic ride.
Ready Player One takes the blockbuster filmmaking bible to heart and delivers in spades on fun spectacle. I imagine Spielberg had a ton of fun with this and they could not have found a better director, someone who knows exactly what this film needed to succeed. It certainly won me over put my fears to rest as to whether it would be a good film or not. It won't be for everyone, but for anyone looking to just have a good time with the film, you can be rest assured too. This one's a winner.
A Stupidly Entertaining TMNT On Steroids, Go In With Your Brain Turned Off
I'll give the film this much: it's better than the first movie. That isn't saying much, but at least the free screening I went to wasn't a waste of time. If you liked the first film, you'll most likely love this one. But if not, you'll probably want to save your money. This is a big, stupid, action packed movie that eschews any sense of logic and is full of plot holes, but at least the action looks good and the turtles are a blast.
We find the turtles sometime after the first film with Shredder going to jail and our heroes in a half shell watching over New York from the shadows. Trouble starts again, however, when....actually, you know what, the story doesn't even really matter. There's Rocksteady and Bebop in the mix, Shredder returns, we meet Krang, and Casey Jones makes an ineffective, lame addition to the story. Seriously, you'll be wishing for Elias Koteas to come back to the role. The story here is built on conveniences and plot holes. And these have to be the stupidest, least skilled Foot Clan soldiers we've ever seen. Even the Foot Clan from the 90's film were more effective than these clowns and they were half made up of kids.
Luckily, the turtles here are a blast. The film at least gets their personalities right and they are more often than not quite entertaining. Rocksteady and Bebop are also very entertaining as the two bumbling, joke cracking brutes who become their mutant counterparts and put up a fight against the turtles. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the human counterparts. Every single human character seems to be there purely for the convenience of moving the plot along. April only seems to pop up when she needs to become a plot point. Casey has a few small action scenes, but mostly remains a useless part of the story that lacks the presence the aforementioned Elias had as the same character from the original films. Neither does he wear the title of vigilante very well, if at all. The fact that they've tried to ground Casey as more realistic (making him a cop, taking away his vigilantism, having him only use hockey equipment) actually works against most of what made Casey so fun to begin with.
All the villains, besides the two mentioned above, are limited to moving the plot along. Shredder's sole purpose seems to be for plot points, with him not even getting a fight in. An unnamed Karai even has a role in the film, but that role is limited to standing by Shredder's side and occasionally telling him things. And Megan Fox is hard to look as she returns for the plastic version of April O'Neill, who seems to be here to appeal to young male hormones and to have bits of dialogue that move the story along. But when you try to stuff this much into under two hours, what more can one expect?
Of course, whose really here for all that. Along with the great time spent with the turtles, the action is well done. One of the key problems with the first film is the lack of action. This ups it quite a bit. The film barely even wastes any time getting started when we've hit the road with the turtles in their brand new, souped up garbage truck. Think a pimped out, steroid version of the one from the cartoon. The film hardly takes a break, and it's quite welcome as it, at least, makes the film entertaining. The films seem to take very much after the cartoon, which is a shame because the comics have some genuinely good stuff to be mined. But I suppose it's hard to make an appealing TMNT movie that takes itself seriously and delivers a serious story. I won't be surprised to see them make a third one. If you can turn off your brain and sit through countless plot holes and story conveniences, then you will likely find this a solid action film with four classic characters. But if that's not enough, don't bother wasting your money.
Hilarious take on traditional action/comedy.
Key and Peele have established themselves with their show as two of the leaders of small screen comedy. Their brand of comedy pokes fun at stereotypes and generic film tropes, with heavy influences from the cinema world. Their skits are often cinematic and ridiculous, but in the best kinds of way. Now, they carry that over to an actual movie and the results are often times hilarious. While not always successful, when they are, Keanu is laugh out loud funny. With huge influences from traditional cinema, ranging from romantic comedy to 80's action, Keanu covers a range of genres, providing that same ridiculous kind of comedy fans are used to.
The film kicks off with a bang, delivering a stylish opening action scene that introduces us to the titular Keanu, a cute-beyond-words kitten that you immediately fall in love with. We're then introduced to our dynamic duo, Rell, a man-child lacking direction in his life who has recently lost his girlfriend, and Clarence, the straight arrow of the two who is happily married, but is so caught up in trying to please everyone else, he never takes time for himself. Once Keanu enters the picture, the two find themselves spiraling downward into a world of gang warfare, crime, and mistaken identity, all in pursuit of retrieving the adorable little Keanu.
If you've seen Key & Peele, the humor here will feel familiar. Working under the show's director, Peter Atencio, and with Peele in the writer's seat, all have a firm grasp of how to craft cinema and then skewer it. Both characters constantly feel out of place while at the same time handling themselves well, and much of the comedy comes from both the familiar fish out of water story and some surprises. What helps is that the film never really feels forced. Our heroes never feel too unnatural in their actions, though it is slightly mystifying that they are continuously believed to be tougher than they actually are. The action is well done too, with it feeling like it wouldn't be out of place in an action movie. And Keanu replacing what would be a person in distress makes for a hilarious spoof on traditional damsel- in-distress type tropes. Our villains also fare well, with one particular hilarious scene seeing Clarence bond with other gangsters over George Michael music.
As stated above, not every joke works, with several falling flat or getting little more than a chuckle, but more often than not the movie knows when to end a joke or just what to do to surprise or make the audience laugh. It also helps to know movies well to catch several of the references or tropes. Where the film could have made many missteps, it makes wise decisions in terms of balancing comedy, action, and drama and knows when it's comedy may be going too far and for too long. I often wondered if Key and Peele would take their comedy to the film world, as they have always clearly loved movies, and now that they've finally done so, they have delivered. Not a perfect comedy, but a very funny one and shows that the two have promise for a future in the cinema world. It's my hope that Keanu is just the beginning for these two.
Midnight Special (2016)
Slow Burning, This Sci-Fi Drama/Actioner Wins You Over In The End
Going into Midnight Special, I was excited. Jeff Nichols has made a name for himself crafting slow burn dramas with heart, mystery, and excellent acting. Having seen Mud and Take Shelter and enjoyed them immensely, I expected this one to be his best yet, with a plot that was right up my alley: A father protects his son, a seemingly supernaturally gifted young boy, as they go on the run from both the authorities and a cult. Low and behold, Nichols delivers once again, but not without a few bumps. But sure enough, this is his best film yet.
Nichols seems to be moving on up in his career, going from low key dramas like his two previous films to something more genre invested. Midnight Special is a sci-fi film, but it's very a-typical. Whereas we have seen films with these kinds of elements before, they've never been shown quite like this. As I said, however, the film takes some time to get going. When we start out, we are already in the midst of our primary characters on the run. From what, we're not entirely sure. We see scenes involving a cult that seems to worship the boy and we see the FBI also giving chase, but the reasons are never entirely clear. Over the course of the film, however, Nichols begins to slowly peel back what is happening. This is the perfect slow burn of a film. Nothing ever seems unnatural in it's explanation or reveal. What seems confusing and ambiguous at first, begins to unravel and a clear picture of what is actually happening and what truths lie beneath is revealed.
The film's true merit is it's heart. At the center of the story is Michael Shannon's Roy, a father who is willing to do anything for his son, Alton, a child who is seemingly gifted with powers, but at the same time seems to carry misfortune. Joining them is Joel Edgerton's Lucas, who we learn more about over the course of the film and why he is also sworn to protect the boy. Our antagonists don't fare quite as well, never really coming across as a great threat, but at the same time there's plenty of tension packed into scenes, and this is aided by truly excellent acting all the way around. Nichol's also has a way with his camera and editing, packing in gorgeous cinematography with editing that creates nail biting tension. The ending will have you on the edge of your seat, nearly ready to burst into tears.
However, I will also say this movie isn't for everyone. You may check out half way through, as I nearly did, and never come back. You also have to dig the sci-fi aspects of the movie, which I did. But if you've enjoyed Nichols previous films and want something different, this is an excellent choice. I don't want to spoil the surprises here, and the less you know going in the better, but if you want to be surprised, stick with this one and you may end up walking away loving it as much as I did.
Very Entertaining and Refreshing Action/Comedy
Veteran initially comes off as a typical, if still very good, action comedy in which we're introduced to Seo Do-cheol, a skilled detective who is in the process of busting up a car smuggling ring. In the first ten minutes we get both plenty of comedy and action as Do-cheol and his fellow officers show themselves as more grounded and relatable, despite Do-cheol's excellent martial arts skills. While we do get plenty of quick hitting action, we also get cops who get winded, criminals who run without shooting, and other foregone clichés that might exist otherwise. However, it isn't until we get to the meat of the story that we start to see the unconventional turns take place.
The story truly starts, about 30-40 minutes in, when Do-cheol meets Jo Tae-oh, a spoiled, rich, and sadistic executive at the powerful Sun- jin group. When Tae-oh becomes responsible for the near death of one of Do-cheol's friends. It sets in motion a cat and mouse game, with Do-cheol the unstoppable force and Tae-oh blocking him at every point. The film isn't especially action packed, though we do get a few moments of action here and there. Much of this is mixed between comedy and crime drama. What makes the comedy especially good is that it's not only somewhat unconventional for a crime drama of this sort, but that our characters are made relatable and realistic. Despite how they may be set up to be more than average, we're quickly reminded that they're still only human. The interactions are also wonderful, as we witness their personal connections and how they defy the clichéd character types. Do-cheol himself, played wonderfully and charismatically by the excellent Jeong-min Hwang, defies his first impression by having to navigate the legal system to catch Tae-oh in a way that is more about outsmarting his opponent than beating him up. He may act like a supercop, but as we see in the film, his more brutal actions come back to bite him. Tae-oh, played by an equally charming but far more sadistic Ah In Yoo, is a little more clichéd. He's a typically hated bad guy who has no problem embarrassing those around him, beating people up, and pushing his responsibilities onto others. Suffice to say, he plays a typical spoiled rich brat here. But it works. There's a scene early on which demonstrates this well, having a father get beaten in front of his son. He's a truly despicable.
The film is constantly entertaining all the way through and rarely lets up. We do get great scenes of drama and emotion, and the film does an excellent job of making Do-cheol likable, but it's at it's best when Do-cheol is navigating the roadblocks being placed in front of him and overcome his obstacles, which become increasingly more dangerous. When Do-cheol and Tae-oh finally confront each other, it will have been well worth it and the confrontation is something to be relished. This is a very well crafted film that balances all it's elements just right, never coming off as too melodramatic, and much of what works is owed to the excellent writing and acting by the two leads. Korea strikes gold again with this excellent film.
Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
Fantastic Fun, A Reinvention Of The Spy Film Game For A Modern Age
As a fan of the comic, I will say this, Kingsman actually manages to trump it's source material in many ways. Taking what we know about Spy films: the gadgets, the villain, the prestige, even the action, Kingsman gives us street level flair here by essentially reinventing the Bond formula and kicking it in the teeth. It's an exciting, action packed, and fun film that conforms to Matthew Vaughn's stylish take on the comic book film. Eggsy is a smart, talented young man living with his mom and her boyfriend in London with a penchant for trouble. With his dad having died when he was a child, Eggsy has lived a rough life dodging the law and local thugs. But when an old associate of his father's enters his life, he's given the opportunity to put his talents to good use and become part of an elite group of spies.
What a blast. From beginning to end, this movie is entertaining. And this is mostly thanks to the actors rounded up here. Colin Firth brings his usual wonderful skills as an actor, but it's his combat skills that make him so entertaining. Essentially the old fashioned James Bond of the film, Firth is as suave as ever, but he also commits violence that goes unparalleled in the film. This is most demonstrated in one of the film's biggest set pieces, taking place at a southern church which was briefly shown in the trailer. He steals the show, but the surrounding performances are just as great. Taron Egerton, a stranger to the States, is excellent as Eggsy. While this could have been a character who came off as thuggish and criminal, Eggsy is actually quite sympathetic from early in the film. He's clearly smart and a guy who wants to protect his mom and see her have a better life. However, like so many these days, he feels burdened by his lot in life and it has turned him into a less than stellar citizen. His transformation from a troubled kid to a master spy is incredibly entertaining and combines the charm and sophistication of the typical spy film with the rough edge of a street level action film. Sam Jackson brings the ham as an unusual villain, Mark Strong plays one of the most entertaining characters in the film as the youngsters spy trainer, and Michael Caine appears as the head of Kingsman, bringing his usual mix of seasoned professionalism and sense of fun.
As for the film itself, Matthew Vaughn does as good a job here as his previous comic book adaptations. He continues to demonstrate how to make a film fun, exciting, and hip without it being overly cheesy or appear to be trying too hard. He seems almost a perfect match up for Mark Millar's work, as he is able to almost perfectly convey Millar's mixture of rough edge, sense of fun, and intriguing bend of known tropes. In terms of breaking down a genre, this is similar to Kick Ass in that sense. The action is as superb as you would expect and we're always allowed to see it, with a lack of dizzying close ups and shaky cam, which is thankful. The climax is especially rousing and exciting, with plenty of varied action bits, from gun fights to a dual between Sofia Boutella's deadly, prosthetic leg wearing assassin and Eggsy.
It's something of a surprise to find this film playing in a month usually reserved for films studios have little faith in. This is summer blockbuster material and fantastic entertainment.
Jupiter Ascending (2015)
An ambitious, epic universe marred by one dimensional characters and a stumbling script
When I give this film a 6, it's being a bit generous. Trying to put myself in other people's shoes, I'd say this film probably range anywhere from a 3 to a 5, and then there will be those who hate it. Still, I am likely to lean on the side of one of the few who likes the film. But it's a mixed bag. Sure enough, the special effects, action, and other elements are fantastic. But the film does little to develop it's own character beyond their archetypes and the script seems content to stay average at best.
Jupiter Ascending actually paints a pretty fascinating sci-fi universe. As it turns out, Earth, and thousands of other worlds like it, are owned by a number of different families which act like corporations who seed these worlds. Once the worlds become over populated, their people are harvested to create a youth serum which keeps those living in the corporate society young for millennia after millennia. In this case, the Abraxis family is one of the most powerful and each of three heirs is vying for control of Earth. Standing in their way, however, is Jupiter Jones, who turns out to be the genetic reincarnation of the Abraxis' sibling's mother, and claimant to the throne of the family.
If all of that sounds like a lot to take in, it is, and easily the best part of the film. The Wachowski's have a talent for creating fascinating worlds that feel complete. Here, they have created a massive sci-fi universe the likes of which we haven't seen in at least a decade, maybe longer. It's very clear that their ambition extends beyond just this one story. In fact, there are hundreds of fascinating stories that could be told about this universe. The idea of a corporate controlled universe is timely, and where we've seen this story played out before about the giant corporation versus the little guy, it's never quite been told on this scale.
It's a shame then that this ambition is wasted on a story that doesn't seem to capitalize on such a universe. The story is good, but the script is lacking and the characters never really become all that interesting. They end up feeling like caricatures meant to introduce us to this world we've entered. They're histories are explained and they clearly have fleshed out back stories, but they feel almost lifeless in that they seem to be here only to be an aspect of this world and not a full character. Even as a lead character, Channing Tatum as Caine feels like little more than a body meant to perform choreography and defend Milas Kunis' Jupiter. At the very least, Jupiter is a sympathetic character who shows shades of change, but even she often feels like little more than a narrator meant to ask question for exposition purposes. Eddie Redmayne seems to have the juiciest part, and though he still seems to be a one dimensional villain, he shows emotional depth that the other characters lack.
Most people I suspect will have trouble forgiving the lack of a truly meaningful script and characters that are too one dimensional. But the good news is that the film isn't a complete loss. The action, which the Wachowski's have proved to have a handle on, is fantastic. This is Star Wars level stuff, with space battles and well choreographed martial art duels. The cool tech thrown in, like the gravity boots, add some imaginative spice that once again shows the Wachowski's propensity for finding ways to justify making a 12 year old's imagination a reality. It's some truly fun stuff. Likewise, the world we're introduced to looks fantastic. The special effects make believable some very interesting and exciting details, such as the multitude of gadgets and weapons we're witness to. It's clear that the Wachowski's have set out to create a unique universe, and in my estimation, they have succeeded. I'm a sucker for this kind of world crafting, and so they get higher marks from me.
Of course, I can see why the film was pushed back to the dumping grounds of February. This was meant to be a summer blockbuster, but up against so many big, successful films, it would have a hard time competing. I have the distinct feeling this is going to be a film that gets left behind this year, especially in favor of bigger films being released throughout 2015. Had the film been more focused on it's characters and less on exposition of the universe we're witnessing, then I feel it could have succeeded and become a modern sci-fi classic. But as is, it falls short. Honestly, I do hope for a sequel to this, if only to see this universe continue to get development. Perhaps a sequel would fulfill the ambition the Wachowski's clearly seek to build upon.
Project Almanac (2015)
Won't Reinvent The Genre, But It Is Entertaining
I liked Project Almanac. It didn't necessarily excite me. And I did scratch my head a few times. But ultimately, I liked it. It had an interesting, if slow moving, story. It stayed grounded, or at least tried to, and did it's very best to legitimize time travel as a possibility, even if it doesn't do a very good job of actually explaining the whole thing. Certainly some things are silly, like explaining being able to control the time machine with a cell phone as cell phones 'having enough power to put a rocket in space', but these don't really take away from a lot of the fun dealing with the time travel element.
The story is pretty simple, but actually feels heart felt. David, a genius level teenager newly accepted to MIT, finds himself short on the money to pay his tuition there. This inadvertently leads him to discover an unfinished time machine his absent father left hidden in his basement. While it takes a while for the time travel elements to ramp up, there is fun to be had in seeing these kids build, experiment, and ultimately successfully travel through time. The film does a good job in allowing us to escape certain illogical elements, like how a group of teens with a fairly limited budget could create a fully functioning time machine, much less create one when no one else on earth seemingly could. David and his buddy Adam are already established as being geniuses from the moment the film begins. So, it's not much of a leap that together they could figure out how to complete the already crafted instructions and blueprints sitting in front of them. You could even say there's legitimacy to the use of the found footage style they went for. They even comment on the use of the camera, which at least shows they recognize that it's there.
However, despite some explanation that helps solidify the camera's constant presence, the film , like so many found footage films, would have benefited from simply being shot like a typical narrative. The film even goes the lengths to, strangely enough, be somewhere in between. We see edits that don't make sense for someone whose recording and we have music play over things like a montage. It's just bizarre to see and hear these things play out over a film that is supposed to pretend to be found off camcorder footage. And these production elements aren't bad, they're just out of place and show the film could have benefited from simply eschewing the found footage style all together. There's also some head scratching moments throughout that can be eye-roll-inducing, but I tend to be able to suspend my disbelief, so it didn't bother me as much.
The film overall isn't one I'd probably tell people to run out and see. But I'd certainly tell them it's not a bad film. Far from it, it's a surprise in the sub genre of found footage. And while it doesn't reach the heights of Chronicle, which I consider to be the peak of found footage, I do think it's one of the better found footage films.
John Wick (2014)
Very Solid Action Film With A Great Turn By An Awesome Cast
John Wick was a pleasant surprise when it showed up in trailer form a little over a month ago. Coming out of nowhere, this indie action pic with a fresh director and great cast wowed a lot of people, and for good reason. It boasted the promise of excellent action, with Keanu Reeves returning to form as the badass lead. And a badass he is. John Wick is the kind of action film we don't get these days, and the director clearly knows what he is doing in delivering a truly excellent action film.
First things first, John Wick isn't going to win any big awards. It doesn't really do anything new, even in terms of innovative action. None of the characters are fresh and the story isn't really that original. But none of that matters because it's so stylishly crafted, the acting, direction, and writing so smooth, and the world so well designed, that any action junkie can get behind this slick, heavily stylized, action packed romp. After a flashforward, the film details the current state of John Wick's life. His wife has passed away and he is obviously taking it very hard. After her death, he receives one last gift from his wife, a puppy to help him keep from being alone. But it isn't long before he loses both his prized car and his last precious gift from his wife. With this taken from him, we find Wick falling back into his old life of assassination and violence. See, John Wick was once part of a world of criminals, assassins, and killers. And, according to the primary antagonist, he was the one who was hired to kill the boogey man.
And it is here where the film picks up. Where those first quiet moments in the film were somewhat slow and dreary, from the moment John Wick becomes the victim of crime to the very end of the film, it's almost non-stop action. The biggest challenge the film had was setting up Keanu to meet the legend he is described in as the film. But I can completely reassure you that Keanu is a complete badass here. While he still is not the fine, domineering actor you might find in other recently christened killers like Liam Neeson, he has the skills necessary to prove that you don't mess with John Wick. Whether it's playing up the role of a superman, capable of tackling a younger, equally talented killer while suffering a severe injury, or taking on a dozen men, all armed, in a matter of a few minutes, Keanu doesn't need to rage, pull out a booming voice, or make speeches filled with slightly ambiguous threats. All he has to do is flip you over his back and put two in your head with ease. If you don't believe Keanu is the feared killer he's trumped up to be at first, you will by the end of the film.
What helps pull this off are the thankful decisions of first time directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. As stuntmen, they clearly know their action. They eschew the typical, modern style of action of close ups and quick cuts in favor of nice, long medium and wide shots minus the quick cutting. This offers us practical action scenes and puts trust in the actors skills. Keanu has certainly proved himself capable physically, with his time spent in the Matrix and more recently Man of Tai Chi and Ronin 47. The directors allow him to use his skills to deliver action that never feels fake or trumped up. It's authentic and completely badass. Supporting him are an array of actors, including Wilem Defoe as an old friend in the business, Adrienne Palicki as a fellow assassin given an assignment to take John out, and Michael Nyquist and Alfie Allen as father and son gangsters, the latter of which who is the perpetrator of the crimes against Wick. Nyquist is especially good, a villain that isn't completely evil, and even a bit likable, who we're immediately introduced to as someone who doesn't necessarily want to do what he knows he has to do. He's entertaining in the role and makes for a criminal that, under different circumstances, might have actually been an ally to Wick.
Action films of the guns and martial arts variety have kind of gone by the wayside in the past few years, with few theatrical releases and most being VOD. But John Wick is a welcome addition to a legacy of great cinema action. For any action junkie, John Wick is an absolute must and I can only hope that this isn't the last time we'll see this Wick.
I have to admit, of all the Korean films I have seen over the years, The Attorney has to be one of the most relateable internationally. Through this film, I was constantly reminded of our own injustices within the American system, specifically during the times when the U.S. was going after supposed communists. But the film goes beyond, carrying a huge heart and an intense drama, well portrayed by it's actors. While it starts slow, it turns into a riveting and surprising court drama.
The focus is on Song Woo-seok, an attorney who, for the sake of his family, seeks to gain money and prosperity as fast as possible. In turn, however, he tries to keep out of the growing political movement of the times and focus on property and tax law. However, this changes when the son of a friend is arrested and tortured as a suspected communist. His attention turns to exposing the corrupt laws and officials responsible.
The film starts off slowly, with the first hour or so spent focused on Song's journey to building his practice, his motivations for doing so, and the troubles he faces as he does this. This beginning part is almost wholly different from the latter half of the film. Song is mostly carefree, with his budding, successful practice, the love of his family, and his growing relationships with those around him. It's both touching and humorous in some instances, and Song Kang-ho is incredibly likable as the ambitious, but big hearted Woo-seok. He's easily identifiable in his reluctance to engage in the changing political atmosphere and his ambitions to be successful for his family's sake. It would have been easy to turn him into a greedy, cold lawyer, but he is far from so. So, it is only that much more enjoyable to see him tackle such an important subject in the latter half of the film.
At the same time, it is quite riveting and you genuinely fear for the safety and security of Song as he takes on an entire justice system. While there are many surprises, it is ultimately pleasant to see Song take such a stand against an unjust system. It is at this point that the film becomes a courtroom drama, with cinematography that moves and edits that ramp up the pacing. There is genuine intrigue as to how this underdog will take on the system, and even if he can win. I won't spoil the surprises, but I will say that the film does have a few. The ending could be debated, but it is very fitting for this story and I was left with a smile. I can honestly say I was incredibly pleased with this film. Last year, Korea delivered New World, and it ended up being my favorite film of the year. This year, I had the pleasure of watching this film, and I can easily say this may very well end up as high, or nearly as high, on my list as New World. I can't recommend this film enough.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
I felt the same about the first film and had higher expectations of the sequel. With the villains involved, I had higher hopes for a better, more action packed sequel. And there were things I appreciated. But for the most part, this sequel suffered from some disappointing sequelitis, the same kinds of things we've seen in numerous other comic book flick sequels. Suffice to say, while I wasn't too disappointed, with lowered expectations, it is sad to see this film fall short. But let's talk about what's good first.
The best part of the film was easily the scenes between Garfield and Stone. Both actors are excellent in their roles and have fantastic chemistry together. When they share their scenes, their relationship is believable and it's something you can completely get behind. It's the one area of the film that Webb improves over the Raimi trilogy. There's also some decent action. The action involving Electro especially is great, with a fantastic display of special effects and an exciting sense of motion.
However, unfortunately, this is where a lot of the good stuff ends. Much of the rest of the film ranges from mediocre to bad. Pretty much anything involving Harry Osborne is cringe worthy, particularly when he starts losing his sanity. While the action involving Electro is excellent, everything about the character seems to lack depth and interest. His plight isn't the least bit interesting, and his motivations feel flimsy. While he may be sympathetic in a sense, it's a cheap kind of sympathy. He feels like a villain who is there merely to be a villain for Spider-man, with little in the way of actually being a meaningful character. Paul Giamatti makes two very brief appearances, and his character feels like little more than a nod to a future film that will probably, hopefully be much better.
The story itself isn't terribly interesting either. It's the same kind of inner conflict stuff we've seen in most other comic book films, but in particular, we've already crossed this territory. While Stone makes for a much better love interest as Gwen Stacy, it's still the same tried and true story of Peter Parker having to juggle his real life and his love for Gwen and his role as Spider-man and the danger that brings. I will give the film props for a twist at the end of the film that I think is a somewhat brave and unique thing to do in a comic book film, but it's one plot point in many other retreads that we've already seen. And the stuff involving Peter's parents still isn't all that interesting. It's a nice attempt to add changes to Peter's origin, but they're just not that interesting, which is too bad considering how much of Peter's inner struggle comes from that.
This outing of Spider-man feels much like the first: uninteresting villains, needless changes to the origin story, action that, while decent, fails to be really memorable. The biggest problem here is that it feels like the middle part of a bigger story. We've seen this with films like Iron Man 2, but there is no backing here with a larger cinematic universe. Instead, we just have to hope and wait for a better Spider-man movie to come.
There's a lot to love about Transcendence. Unfortunately, almost all of it is killed by a very poor script. The film is so full of holes and leaps in logic that it's hard to take any of it seriously or truly enjoy it. Character's that should be villains turn into saviors and characters that we expect to be allies turn into pariahs. There's no one to really root for here and the story telling seems to exist only to push certain ideas about technology and it's capabilities.
The story is fairly simple and can pretty much be seen in the trailers. Doctor Will Caster is a brilliant scientist working to push A.I. technology drastically. When he is fatally wounded with a time clock on his life, his partner in life, Evelyn, has the brilliant idea of transplanting his consciousness into a massive super computer. From there, we have a rapidly pushed story that leads to a bunch of silly, almost cool ideas about what computers could become capable of.
The first problem is evident in the first frame. We are immediately aware of the ending, which left a bad taste in my mouth. The mystery of how it is all going to end is immediately spoiled. So, all that's left is the how. And the how is almost completely preposterous. We're led to believe that the advancement of this super A.I. manages to grow to unbelievable potential in only a matter of a couple of years. Somehow, we're simply supposed to accept that everything we see is possible. It's a massive leap of logic and one that is too hard to digest. There's very little to suggest how any of it is possible, only simply that it is and that very smart people are capable of making it all so. We're also supposed to believe that the government never gets involved and that the antagonists know what's going on, despite getting rid of any technology that ties them to the world at large. You're simply expected to go along with it. If you're able to, then more power to you. I wasn't.
Much of the rest of the film is well done. The cinematography is as good as you would expect. The acting varies. Paul Bettany, Johnny Depp, and Rebecca Hall are all sufficient here. Morgan Freeman feels wasted as he has very little to do but get led around. But again, the entire thing suffers from a poor script and story. It's hard to give praise to something so completely let down by it's core, but there are glimmers of brilliance here. This being Wally Pfister's first film, it's not too surprising it falters. But with Nolan having his name attached and surely having guided the cinematographer who worked on most of his films, it's hard to believe that this managed to go through with such a faulty script. There are far too many holes and leaps in logic to ignore, which makes this a huge disappointment in my eyes.
Silicon Valley (2014)
Hilarious and Scathing
Silicon Valley is a TV show that was much talked about even before it's debut on HBO. With the Silicon Valley now finding a Hollywood-like atmosphere in the way it's viewed, the entertainment industry's focus on Silicon Valley and it's unique lifestyle and culture is somewhat new and has yet to find it's equilibrium of representation between the reality of the innovation happening there and the bizarre, comedy ammunition that lies in some of the more eccentric aspects. Mike Judge's Silicon Valley is a damn good start. It's witty and scathing, and takes an sarcastic approach to it with an outsider's eye. Of course, Mike Judge is no outsider, having worked in Palo Alto during the late 80's, and his disdain for it's people and culture shows.
What makes the series work is that Judge is able to focus on all the small, ridiculous things that have become such an icon of the culture. From CEO's innovators with Christ-like followings, to the idea that the industry is somehow spearheaded by college dropouts, Judge wastes not time and has no problem putting every Silicon Valley cliché/reality on a pedestal for people to laugh at. As a native, I can say that the show does exaggerate a lot of things, but it also gets a lot right. If you've seen Judge's other work, then you will quickly see how well this fits in. With Beavis and Butthead, we got a critique about the stupidity and waste of a generation, with King of the Hill, we got a look at Judge's insight into Texas culture and the ideologies of an American culture trying to cope with the changes of a modern world, and here we have a completely new sub-culture that Judges dives head first into.
The show most certainly has it's falls, but I was hard pressed to find them as I was too busy laughing most of the time throughout. I may have a skewed view of the show, with me observing this through a filter of the real Silicon Valley, in all it's great and weirdness. But in general, this bites down hard in the most hilarious way on a truly unique and fairly bizarre place in the world. And you don't even have to know the technobabble being spit out. I do think HBO has another winner here.
Serbuan Maut 2: Berandal (2014)
This Movie Will Blow Your Face Off
The first Raid remains one of my favorite action films of all time. It's a ruthless, brutal, and realistic approach to action films. So, it's hard to believe that they could top the film. And yet, they did, in almost every way. From a deeper story and plot, to more bone crunching, blood letting violence, everything here is bigger, better, and hits harder.
Picking up pretty much where the last one left off, our hero Rama is the last survivor of the original film and is wanted by a special, small law enforcement group attempting to out crooked cops. They want to use Rama to go undercover and get close to the head of the organized crime gangs in Jakarta in an effort to uncover names. What follows is a twisted plot of shifting alliances, as our hero navigates the underworld while punching, kicking, kneeing, and elbowing everything that gets in his way.
While the first film was confined to a single location with lots of closed in fights, this is all out, balls to the wall action that has little boundaries. And none of it is very pretty either. While stylized, this film continues the bone crunching, hard hitting, blood shedding violence of the first one. There are no soft punches here. There are some moments so hard hitting, you'll have expletives leaking out of your mouth. And once again, the true hero here is Gareth Evans, who is saving action films with a superior touch. His cinematography is fantastic, as is the editing which adds tension and suspense to every fight. And much like the first film, the action is greatly varied, but different enough from the first film that it never feels like we've seen it all before. Opening up the film to an entire city, we get a fantastic car chase scene and several changes of scenery. These are some of the most memorable action scenes captured on film, ones you will keep thinking about as you leave the theater.
But beyond this, a lot of other things have improved as well. The plot, while not all that original, does make strides in having some complexity and making Rama more sympathetic. For as brutal as the first film was, this film truly makes it seem like Rama isn't entirely safe. Yes, we believe he will win all his fights, but not without shedding some serious blood. It gets to the point that we're not entirely sure he'll survive in the end. But Rama is still a complete badass and every bit the action hero, but still coming off as more human than the average hero.
My one, minor gripe with the film is the pacing. The film is about an hour longer than the first one, with about as much action. This gives for a bit of a slow down. But again, that's a minor complaint. There's still more than enough fantastic action. Here's to hoping there's more Raid films in the future. This is, as far as I am concerned, a near perfect action film and I can't get enough. So bring on The Raid 3!
A Fantastic, Exciting Adventure
While I enjoyed the first Hobbit film, it did feel like it left a bit to be desired. This was no surprise, as everything that I loved about the book was in the second half. I knew that I would be waiting for all the good stuff with the second and third films. And sure enough, the second film delivers where the first film didn't quite excite as much as I had wanted. While it isn't perfect and does unnecessarily deviate a bit, this is easily better than the first film, giving us a bigger, bolder adventure and a more interesting Bilbo Baggins this time around.
Before I get to the good stuff, let me get my complaints out of the way. My biggest complaint are the unnecessary plot threads. There seems to be a big need for this series of films to tie into LotR, and I really don't understand why. A great deal of time is taken in this film to introduce us to things we already know the outcome of. We're, at points, taken away from the dwarfs and Bilbo to follow Gandalf as he goes off on his own adventure to uncover the growing evil of Sauron and his armies. Like the first film, it's completely unnecessary, but unlike that film, it's jarring. We're ripped from a fantastic adventure to a story that we don't really need to know and has no real relation to the dwarfs and their adventure. In fact, any time we're taken out of the company of the dwarfs, it almost feels cheap. The almost romance between Evangeline Lily's elf and the dwarf Kili feels something of the same, the whole lot of these stories coming off as filler in an effort to make time for three movies instead of just two. It feels like a stretch and brings a screeching halt to the momentum of the main story.
That said, the rest of the film is an excellent and expertly crafted adaptation. There is a definite sense of character growth, especially from Bilbo, who seems to struggle with the power of the ring and it's greed. We already know where this goes, but it is none the less fascinating considering who he was when we first met him. The dwarfs seem to almost take a back seat here. They are less prominent, with the exception of Thorin and Balin, who take front and center. That isn't to say they aren't entertaining, as they usually are every time they are on screen. Thorin is the real standout though, as he goes through similar changes as Bilbo, which lends them an interesting comparison in their mutual struggles. The actors are all excellent once again in their respective roles, with Freeman once again being the standout. Evangeline Lily is also a pleasant surprise in an original role as an elf created for the film. She adds a much needed feminine touch to an otherwise predominantly male cast. She proves herself to be a fine silver screen presence and hopefully this will net her some further film roles.
While the film does an excellent job of not simply being the middle film, something The Two Towers struggled with in the LotR trilogy, it is the action, set pieces, and effects which are the true stars. This may not be a LotR movie, but it's close. We almost immediately start out with a bang and it rarely lets up. Of course, much of what happens early on, as exciting as it may be, pales in comparison to it's explosive and lengthy climax. Smaug is quite possibly the best creation of any of the film, Hobbit or LotR. He is as awesome as you could have hoped for and Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent in the role. While effects have been applied to his voice to give it more boom, he does a fantastic job as the sneering, wise, and boastful dragon. Watching and listening to him face off against Bilbo is a delightful treat, and that is before we get to any fire breathing and chasing. What follows is a lengthy conclusion to the film that will excite and delight all. I have no qualms in saying that Smaug makes the entire film worth the admission of price. But don't go in expecting a solid conclusion. This is, after all, the second of a trilogy, so you can surely expect the film to leave you salivating for the next one.
While this new Hobbit film still doesn't reach LotR heights, it is superior to the previous film, especially when it comes to being an enjoyable adventure. It feels like it matters to the trilogy and delivers on being an epic. And I simply can't rave enough about Smaug. If you didn't enjoy the first film, you may find yourself feeling about the same here. But at least this one has a cool dragon.
A Surprisingly Good Movie That Surpasses It's Predecessor In Every Way
I wouldn't exactly call myself a fan of the books, but I did enjoy Hunger Games, despite it's tweenie appeal. I'm a sucker for these kinds of things. Maybe it's the Battle Royale and Lord of the Flies fan in me. I did enjoy the first movie. It was a very well done adaptation. However, having read the entire trilogy, I feared that adapting the rest of the material would result in something similar to the books: terrible follow ups. As someone who takes the content of these books and the things that themes and stories they are trying to tell just a bit more seriously than the target age group might, I groaned and moaned throughout the novels, especially the last one. However, the film has done something I didn't think it could do: not suck.
That's right, the movie does not suck. In fact, it's actually quite good. So good that it out does The Hunger Games in nearly every way, something that is quite the opposite of the novel. Where the original movie, while good, also came off feeling like it was feeding that tweenie audience it was aimed at, something about Catching Fire feels far more serious and far more mature. The film picks up right where we left off. Katniss and Peeta are on their victory tour, while the rest of the districts are showing signs of civil unrest due to Katniss defiance of The Capitol, that oppressive government regime that forces districts to send their children to die. To send a message to the districts that the capitol is still evil, they devise a new Hunger Games, this time forcing past victors back into the arena. Because what is a Hunger Games movie without the Hunger Games.
The first film, at times, felt like it was doing too much to introduce us into this world. Everything felt like some kind of obvious plot detail. While I enjoyed the film, I often felt disconnected to it and the issues it tried to present. There was so much focus on details of the world and the games, that the presentation of the world seemed to take a back seat. Lawrence was the major saving grace, though even she wasn't perfect. All of this has changed. With the games essentially taking a secondary part in the film, there is a stronger emotional connection. It helps that all the actors involved are not only a bigger part of the film but seem to be more comfortable and are much more convincing in their roles. Where the characters of Effie and Haymitch and even Gale seemed purpose driven, with little more than a role to fill, here they feel more fleshed out. They have a greater impact and there is more of an emotional connection, from Haymitch's clear frustration between his contempt for the Capitol and his attempts to keep Katniss and Peeta alive, to Effie's attempt to keep everyone as a team and sure signs that she is struggling with the facts of Katniss and Peeta once again thrown into turmoil.
The performances are the primary strength here. They do deliver on the emotion that is necessary to drive this story and don't feel like they are catering just to tweens, with the poorly written love triangle of the novel and the more trivial elements that are apart of the kind of writing that comes with novels aimed at tweens. Catching Fire feels like a serious movie with a serious story to tell. At it's heart is Jennifer Lawrence, who seems like a completely different person here. Since the original movie, as an actor, Lawrence has had several projects and has even won an Oscar. And so, it is no surprise that she feels like she is at an entirely different level. She seems more natural as Katniss and her acting is far more convincing. She comes off as someone who is not only conflicted, but scared. Even so, she remains strong and determined. Much like the first movie, as Katniss, she proves to be among the best of role models for young folk.
But beyond the performances, everything just feels elevated. The story has a better focus on the growing revolution that is clearly starting. The themes are more apparent and focused on. Everything feels less obvious and more natural. Gone are introductions to this world and it's elements, replaced by a futuristic vision carried purely by it's story and characters. Even the games are better, with more exciting action, better effects, and better character interaction, helped by a cast of new characters as fellow tributes.
I do seem to be gushing about the film, and it's not one I had expected to like nearly as much as I did, but I have to admit it: this was a very pleasant surprise. My fear now is that the next films won't live up to this sequel. But, I will give them more of the benefit of the doubt, considering how much this film blew me away as far as surpassing expectations. As I said in my review for the first film, fans will love this, and non-fans may also find themselves won over.
Man of Tai Chi (2013)
A Actionfest In The Tradition Of Martial Arts Films
Going into Man of Tai Chi, there's really only so much you can expect. The acting here is obviously not going to win anyone over and the story isn't anything special. But what is special is what we all know this movie is all about: the action. And it delivers in ways that most martial arts films don't these days.
The film follows a simple plot of Tiger Chen, a Tai Chi practitioner who seeks to find more application to the martial art than what he has learned. After seeing Tiger use Tai Chi during a championship tournament, Donaka Mark, the films chief villain and wealthy runner of underground fighting, seeks Chen out to fight for him. As Chen starts to fight, he also finds a blood lust rising from within.
Reeves is Reeves in the film and his acting is what you would expect. He's cheesy, revels in how bad he is, and gives some truth to just how wooden he can be. But he's still entertaining in a so-bad-it's-good kind of way. The other actors fare much better. Tiger Chen, playing the titular character named after himself, displays some acting talent, as well as major talent as a martial artist. Karen Mok, a fairly well known Hong Kong actress, plays a detective trying to track down Donaka, and does a decent job in her role. Thankfully, Reeves respects martial arts cinema and it's homeland enough to make this more of a Hong Kong action film than an American one. This could have easily been very Americanized, but it does mimic more of what we see come from Hong Kong, following a tradition of martial arts films from the mainland.
The real star of the film here is the action choreography and the cinematography. Reeves has done an excellent job of directing the action here and it all comes across as authentic. There is some obvious wire work here, but it's nothing distracting like the kind of wire work we see in Chinese operas. It's most authentic and well captured. And there is plenty of action to go around. The majority of the film is focused on the fighting and we get plenty of different styles here. Tai Chi as a focus is certainly a very interesting choice, as it is not inherently used for combative purposes. But it's well crafted here as a lethal martial arts and it gives the film a unique flavor that makes it interesting and entertaining. I will say it's a shame that the Bot and Dolly that Reeves had once intended to use wasn't actually used in this, but the cinematography still does an excellent job of not only leaving fights visible by avoiding too much quick cutting, but by also giving us decent frames that capture all the action instead of just a bunch of quick close ups that confuse the audience.
No one is going to write and rave about how wonderful this film is, but it sure is entertaining. The action is certainly very well done and I think the film fulfills it's purpose. I can wholeheartedly recommend Man of Tai Chi for anyone looking for great action.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
An Unflinching Look At Human Brutality Driven By Fantastic Performances
The slavery of blacks in the US is one of the darkest periods of the history of the country. And yet, it's easy to forget that it not only is such an ingrained part of US history, one that helped build it's foundations, but a piece of history that lasted a long period of time. In fact, the issue is less than 200 years old, and according to history, that's not a long time. So, a film like 12 Years is a deep reminder of not only how far we have come along, but of who we once were and who we can yet again become.
Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, we follow the man from the time he is kidnapped and forced into slavery. Based on the book of the same name, written by Northup himself, it's clear where the film eventually goes, but the journey is like little else in film that has dealt with the subject. No doubt this film will get much comparison to Tarantino's Django, which also dared to show slavery in a gloves off kind of way, but this is a film that deals with slavery in a much less entertaining or satisfactory fashion. Rather, the film is brutal and does not shy away from being ugly and emotionally charged. And while we may be quick to jump on this as being obvious and typical, it is anything but.
Northup's story is unique enough as it is. He's one of a few kidnapped, freed slaves to ever regain freedom, but he also manages to give a personal account. As Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent. He handles the character with a great deal of emotional layer and considering the brutal and realistic nature of the film, it's hard to imagine many who could take on such a brave role. But even beyond this being just another film about slavery, McQueen goes the extra length to depict the film in such a fashion that we are almost forced to feel something. There's a scene about halfway through in which Northup is left roped up with only his tiptoes to keep him from hanging. During this scene, McQueen carries the image in a single shot for several minutes, what seems to stretch into an eternity, during which everything around Northup all but ignores him. Slaves go about their day, while the slave drivers don't budge an inch to help. As Ejiofor is obviously not choking here in real life, it is to his credit that we are convinced he is suffering for such an extended period of time. And the rest of the performance carries on as such.
The other performers are also quite good, but a number of them are relegated to small appearances. Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbacth, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt all make brief appearances and are all excellent in their roles, but they are still brief and mostly one dimensional. Nothing new to a film about slavery. McQueen, however, manages to pump up the tension and emotion in the scenes by giving us an unfiltered look at slavery here. No punches are pulled. However, the runaway performance, by far, with the exception of Ejiofor, is Michael Fassbender, who plays Edwin Epps, a plantation owner who makes no qualms about driving his slaves and punishing them. He's cruel, and Fassbender truly makes him a monster of a man. Fassbender has gone on record for not wanting to push an Oscar nomination, and it's no wonder. Fassbender's Epps could be considered one of the great villains of the year for being such a despicable human being, but the fact that he is played to reality, as opposed to DiCaprio's more cartoonish Calvin Candy, makes him all the more frightening. When he engages with his slaves, you genuinely fear for their safety, and even their life.
Another star here is the cinematography. There are some truly beautiful shots here, which can only help to remind you of just how ugly the topic of the film is. I did talk a bit about the long shots here before, but to elaborate, there are moments when the camera is content to focus on something. The film certainly doesn't come off as speeding along, and it lends to being thoughtful, even in just focusing on the emotional state of the characters. There is an interesting shot that focuses on Northup's emotionally drained face, and you grasp a lot in that single shot. All in one, we witness a man who is driven by deep sorrow and pain, and yet he has had his hope and spirit driven from him. Though it's evident he wants to cry, it's almost as if he has been completely defeated.
12 Years truly is the film people say it is and may very well be one of the most important films on slavery ever created. It's depiction is raw and unflinching and there is little choice but to confront the ugliest humanity has to offer. Not an easy film to watch, nor entertaining, it is none the less important and well made. Worth watching simply for it's powerful performances and take on the subject at hand.