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Review of Men in Black 3

Posted : 2 years, 8 months ago on 12 October 2014 06:01 (A review of Men in Black III)

In a world where second sequels tend to be disappointing, even by sequel standards, Men in Black 3 is something of a refreshment. It improves upon the uninvolving Men in Black 2, but I suppose that's a low bar to clear. More significantly, it comes as close as one could expect to duplicating the magic of the original. This isn't the blatant cash grab you may have been expecting. And if it is, well, it's a pretty entertaining one.

A one-armed baddie from space named Boris the Animal has broken out of jail and come to avenge Agent K, who shot off his arm 50-some years prior. But Boris wants more than mere revenge. He wants to rewrite history. So Boris warps back in time to kill Agent K before he the day when K shoots off Boris' arm. With Agent K dead, Agent J must warp back to the past as well in order to prevent any of this from happening. Or re-happening. Or whatever.

My review in a nutshell: Men in Black 3 is funny, with hardly a dull bone in its body. It's not as fresh or witty as the original, but it's a good time. More specifically, the fact that Men in Black 3 succeeds as much as it does is especially impressive since Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones don't share much screentime. In fact, Tommy Lee Jones has less than 15 minutes of screentime thanks to being killed off in the past so that J can save him from the future...into the past. Ugh, time travel gives me a headache.

Replacing Tommy Lee Jones is Josh Brolin, who portrays young Agent K. He really does talk, act and sound like Agent K, so it still works. The banter between K and J still isn't as strong as it was in the original, but it remains fairly sharp.

The real scene-stealer, though, is Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin, an alien that can foresee dozens of alternate futures at once. He shows up at roughly the half-way mark, and sticks around for most of the rest of the film, and he is riotous. Stuhlbarg's performance as the character is perfect, and he truly is the highlight of the film. If you need one reason to see Men in Black 3, Michael Stuhlbarg can be your excuse.

Men in Black 3 also wisely eliminates some of the more grating supporting characters from previous films. Frank the Pug is gone, and so are the David Cross cameos. The worm aliens (that had a particularly large role in Men in Black 2) are barely in the film at all. Instead, we get brief scenes from Will Arnett, Emma Thompson, and Keone Young that are surprisingly funny.

Of course, you can't have a Men in Black film without plenty of gross-out gags, weird-looking aliens, and a nasty villain. We get all of those in this film. The villain - named Boris the Animal - is of particular note. Portrayed by Jemaine Clement, Boris is everything you would want from a villain. He's smart, evil, funny, gross-looking, and a legitimate threat. He's not as bumbling as the antagonist from the first, nor as undefined as the one from the second. If there's one way in which Men in Black 3 outdoes the sequels, it's with its villain.

Well, that and Danny Elfman's score. Elfman's previous work on the franchise has been serviceable, but unremarkable. Here, his work stands out more. The franchise's main theme gets some fresh variations, and there are some very pretty choir bits in a couple scenes that are really lovely. While some unnecessary electric guitar gets in the way on at least two occasions, Elfman's writing here is notably good.

Men in Black 3 is not a perfect movie. A couple unexplained questions that the time travel situation creates may frustrate some audience members. And not only is K's wife forgotten about again, he seems to have a new love interest (it's only suggested, though). Still, Men in Black 3 is a surprisingly satisfying return to form. It clocks in at 106 minutes, and doesn't feel even a minute too long, and the whole film is an entertaining ride from start to finish. It's not great, but Men in Black 3 is enjoyable enough to neuralyze all memories of Men in Black 2.


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Review of X-Men: The Last Stand

Posted : 2 years, 8 months ago on 11 October 2014 06:57 (A review of X-Men: The Last Stand)

After the director of the first two X-Men films, Bryan Singer left the X-Men franchise (along with his two writers) to work on Superman Returns, Brett Ratner stepped in to direct the third and final installment of the (initial) X-Men trilogy. X-Men was already a very delicate film series, balancing camp with thrills, resulting in a very silly, but very entertaining film franchise. Alas, Ratner (and notably writers Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn) clearly lack the expertise Singer had in this field. Thus resulting in X-Men: The Last Stand - a film that has plenty of camp and silliness, but not much entertainment or thrills.

Well, it's a third installment, and as is usually the case with any franchise reaching this mark, The Last Stand is darker, more complicated, and features many more characters. The plot is extremely muddled, but you can still find it if you squint. A "cure" for mutants have been discovered which will relieve them of their supernatural abilities, but the cure has been met with controversy. Also, X-Men and Magneto square off. And there's a new villain. And a lot of new henchmen. And a new character with wings that's in this movie for some reason.

The first 45ish minutes of this film are actually fairly enjoyable. While it's immediately clear that both the directing and the writing are not up to par with the last two entries, The Last Stand's first 45 minutes provide the goofy fun and fine performances that one would expect. Alas, over the course of the film's 104 minute run time (which feels significantly longer than it really is), the entertainment value and plot coherence gradually deteriorates. All this boils down to a chaotic, explosion-filled finale that makes little sense and isn't engaging in the slightest.

There are so many unnecessary characters and sub-plots in this movie! My personal theory is that the film initially clocked in at about 70 minutes, and because that is far too short for a final installment in any franchise, these un-needed "first-draft-excrements" were forced to be used in the final movie.

The film delves into unintentional comedy on numerous instances. The best example of this is when a character named Angel (a winged X-Men) escapes from a lab and unexpectedly unleashes his colossal wings, breaks out a window, and soars into the sky. The whole scene is so silly and pseudo-triumphant that it's genetic makeup insures that it can only elicit chuckles and belly-laughs (I accepted the latter condition). There are other unintentionally funny scenes in both this film, and the franchise, but this particular one is the absolute highlight.

At least the acting hasn't slipped much. Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart are still positively wonderful, and share excellent chemistry whenever they're onscreen. Unfortunate, Stewart's screen time is even smaller than it was in the last film. The same is true for Rebecca Romijn as Mystique; such a shame considering what a vibrant screen presence she has had in all three films. Unfortunately, Wolverine is a bit more sarcastic (and a bit less likable) in this installment, but that hasn't affected Hugh Jackman's performance. Of all the characters suffering from diminished screen time in this film, it is Anna Paquin's as Rogue for which I am most grateful.

John Powell's score seems - in the context of the film - undistinctive. There is something odd about this X-Men franchise in which their scores don't do a thing for me in film, but garner massive praise on album. It is at times like this when one may question the importance of mentioning a movie's score in a film review when one's opinion of it can completely change when one hears it apart from the film. So, for what it's worth, it doesn't hurt the film one bit. But I struggle to recall a single scene in which it assisted it either.

The Last Stand came before Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and Spider-Man 3, so at this point, audiences weren't used to being so disappointed with third (and supposedly final) entries. Now, it is commonplace - and even expected. The Last Stand suffers from silliness, undefined powers, and a multitude of other problems. But many of these problems also plagued the preceding films. The difference here, though, is that The Last Stand does not have the entertainment value to compensate for this. What's more, it's sloppy, and extremely unsatisfying. Tom Rothman, president of Fox, said the following about the marketing of The Last Stand: "[I] wanted people to stop and not have it be so immediately apparent that we’re selling a movie. We’re interested in selling an emotion and an idea." So sad it is, then, that The Last Stand possesses little emotion or original ideas worth mentioning.


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Review of X2: X-Men United

Posted : 2 years, 8 months ago on 6 October 2014 10:18 (A review of X2 X-Men United)

After Brian Singer directed the silly, stupid, but reasonably fun X-Men, he returned to direct the sequel, entitled X2: X-Men United. Like the first film, it's silly and idiotic, but still oddly enjoyable in spite of its flaws. It lacks the self-awareness that the original possessed which made it a bit easier to digest, but X2 makes up for it with sharper directing and a story with more depth and weight.

After the X-Men discover that the genocidal William Stryker is in the process of unleashing a plan that will destroy every mutant on the earth, the X-Men even their enemy, Magneto, must temporarily team up to stop this monstrosity before it's too late.

Like the first film, X2 seems to have more cons than pros, but it still manages to succeed because of its sheer entertainment value. The characters are just likable enough, the story just engaging enough, and the performances just strong enough to support a film that would have otherwise been unbearable. On top of that, the action sequences are great fun, and the special effects look great.

Unfortunately, X2 suffers from many of the flaws that the first film dealt with. Most problematic is how undefined the X-Men's powers are. Some have the ability to control other objects and people, one of them can teleport, etc. And yet, they never seem to use their abilities to their full advantage. Sometimes this is explained later through sloppy exposition. More often, it's just poor scripting. If you were ever bothered watching Star Wars when the Jedi wouldn't simply force-blast their enemies out of the way, you could go mad watching X2.

In addition to this, there are at least two endings too many, and the film runs about a half hour too long. The first film carried a compact 104 minute run time, whereas this sequel is a lengthy 134 minutes.

The cast remains impressive. Ian McKellan's role as Magneto is slightly expanded, giving him even more time to be delightfully wicked - even when he's forced to help the X-Men. Unfortunately, Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier has a significantly smaller amount of time on screen compared to the first film. Hugh Jackman is still solid as Wolverine, as is newcomers Brian Cox and Alan Cumming, though the characters for the latter two are fairly bland.

John Ottman's score is more traditional than Michael Kamen's score for the previous film - which is a good thing. Unfortunately, within the film, it's just as unmemorable. It's a serviceable score, but I can't recall a note.

While it's just as stupid (if not more so) than the first film, X2 is still entertaining and delightful to watch. If you can ignore the problems with the script, you will certainly have a good time. But if you have no tolerance for the strange and nonsensical -especially in a straight-faced package - then run.


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Review of X-Men (2000)

Posted : 2 years, 8 months ago on 6 October 2014 09:41 (A review of X-Men)

Before Hogwarts - the school for wizards and witches - there was Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. These Gifted Youngsters are mutants look just like us, but have incredible powers that some believe to be an endangerment to those around them. This first entry in the X-Men film franchise kicked off a commercially successful film series, though their critical reception varies greatly. Simply titled "X-Men," this was among the first successful comic-book films, and more or less ushered in Marvel's eventual reign over the super-hero genre. And to be honest, I'm a bit surprised that this film was such a mainstream success.

X-Men focuses primarily on Wolverine who has the ability to self-heal, and can also extend huge, claw-like daggers from his knuckles. He doesn't remember anything about his past, but perhaps Charles Xavier - a mutant himself - can help him.

X-Men is really silly, and really stupid. But the film seems to know that it's really silly and really stupid. Whether its self-aware and almost parody-like environment was an intentional factor or not, the X-Men is a solidly entertaining super-hero film, despite its multitude of problems.

Even though Wolverine is the primary protagonist of the film, there's a massive array of other characters that the film tries to give ample screentime to. As a result, X-Men is cluttered and despite quite a bit of exposition, nothing really gets explained. The direction is all over the place, and the opening scene (a bit of backstory for the antagonist, Magneto) seems completely unnecessary.

And yet, X-Men is an enjoyable film thanks to solid performances and (mostly) interesting characters. Hugh Jackman plays Wolverine with just the right amount of heroism, frustration, and sarcasm to avoid falling into obvious cliches or stereotypes. The highlights of the cast are undoubtedly Ian McKellan as the evil Magneto, and Patrick Stewart as the wise Charles Xavier. They bounce off of each other brilliantly. Every scene they're in truly brings the film to life.

Unfortunately, there are several less impressive cast members. The worst of the bunch include Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, and Anna Paquinn - the latter of which occasionally uses a strong Southern accent, and at other times, forgets it.

Michael Kamen's score is less enjoyable than the film itself. While it has a smattering of tongue-in-cheek fanfares, it also contains dated synthetics, and unmemorable themes. It works well enough in the film, but I'm not inspired to seek any of it out elsewhere.

It's far from perfect, but it's a lot better than many other super-hero franchise-starters. It's got plenty of interesting action sequences, likable characters, and fresh ideas. I'm surprised that audiences have taken to it so much considering its many inconsistencies and notable problems, but it's an excellent time waster.


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Review of The Boxtrolls

Posted : 2 years, 8 months ago on 29 September 2014 06:15 (A review of The Boxtrolls)

The Boxtrolls upholds a fine tradition of stop-motion animated films. Beginning with Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (critically NOT directed by Tim Burton), and followed by nearly a dozen other notable efforts, the genre of stop-motion films have been consistently released to critical acclaim. And so, it's something of a testament to the strength of the genre that The Boxtrolls is the least well-received film of its kind, despite favorable reviews. Indeed, like the many stop motion films that have preceded it, The Boxtrolls is charming, funny, and visually stunning.

Every night, a race of creatures called boxtrolls (named for the boxes they wear as clothes) come out from hiding and plunder the streets of garbage and anything they happen to find that strikes their fancy. Among them is a boy named Eggs who thinks he's a boxtroll (his name comes from the label on his box). Unfortunately for Eggs and the boxtrolls, an evil man is in charge of exterminating every one of them, so the race begins to go into decline. But there's something strange about all of this, and Winnie - a young girl - is going to get to the bottom of this, along with Eggs.

There are several reasons why I think The Boxtrolls has been received less warmly than other stop-motion films. For one, it's more childish. It's louder and sillier. There's lots of slapstick and an unusually high amount of gross-out gags. The premise isn't developed much, and there's a surprising lack of heart. Also, the finale consists of a great, big action sequence that's more loud and silly than satisfying or engaging. With all that being said, The Boxtrolls is still a delightful picture; allow me to explain quite why.

The visual appearance of the film accounts for much of its charm (as is typically the case for stop-motion films). It's (needless to say) gorgeous, some sequences are unbelievably beautiful. And the character designs are hilariously fun. The overall art direction makes it look like it's come right out of a storybook. The Boxtrolls packs loads of visual splendor that's so strong, it could carry the movie if the script wasn't already enough to do the job.

That's not to say that the script is great, but it's very good. There's a bit of substance here (but not too much), and the gags usually find their mark. Even the gross-out gags work pretty well, never seeming too gratuitous or grating. Of course, the premise itself is very loosely explained. It's never understood why the boxtrolls must come out every night, other than desire for other people's junk. Surely the reason must be very important since they're risking their night each time they leave their habitat.

And as I mentioned, there's not as much heart as one might hope. The Tarzan-like origin for Eggs would suggest a more emotional, family-oriented storyline, but the film is low on profound moments. Most of the time, it aims to be a wacky adventure/comedy, and it works well in that respect. Still, one can't be faulted for being at least a little disappointed that it didn't embrace its more emotionally charged potential, especially after some very sweet opening moments.

The characters are generally more distinctive and interesting than other animated films. While the boxtrolls themselves are more or less the same (they play out like ickier versions of the minions from Despicable Me), the human characters are fairly diverse, though not always intricate. Eggs is very likable, and his youth and naivety makes him feel a little different from other bland, heroic protagonists. Likewise, the spunky Winnie differs a little bit from the feminist crowd by suggesting a curious interest in grim stories and violence (fueled by malicious rumors of the boxtrolls).

Various side characters are characterized by their lack of interest in younger children and their fondness for cheese. They never pay attention to our protagonists, no matter how important their discoveries are. Depending on the person, this will either be funny or frustrating. Likely both.

By far the strongest character in the film is the villain, Archibald Snatcher. A sort of cross between Syndrome from The Incredibles and the title character from Wreck-It Ralph, Archibald is determined to earn himself a white cap (a sign of prestige), and is forced to be a wicked person (by killing the boxtrolls), so that he can be perceived as a respectable person. Though the character's resolution is a bit anti-climatic, the depth of this character exceeds that of many other animated villains.

Likewise, Ben Kingsley's vocal performance as the villain is the standout of the cast. He's absolutely riotous at times, and one of the disguises he often dons - though completely unexplained - gives Kingsley a chance to be even more comedic and memorable. Isaac Hempstead-Wright and Elle Fanning are surprisingly strong in starring roles as Eggs and Winnie respectively. Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, and Simon Pegg are also wonderful in small roles.

Dario Marianelli's score is very much like the film; a little wacky, but utterly charming. The main theme's strong similarity to a primary theme from Danny Elfman's Frankenweenie is not the only resemblance to Elfman's work, but the sound is suitable for the picture. It's enjoyably quirky and contains some colorful instrumentation to brighten things up. Definitely a noteworthy step into animation, as this is Marianelli's first score for the field.

Yes, it's not as delightfully adult as Laika's Coraline (nor likely as much as ParaNorman which I have not yet seen), but it's a wonder all the same. I suspect The Boxtrolls will actually perform better with audiences in general, due to its less mature nature - and therefore, broader appeal. And yet, it still retains that edge that has made Laika releases such an occasion. It's not the strongest stop motion film to grace the silver screen, but it's absolutely worth a trip to the cinema.


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Review of The Golden Compass

Posted : 2 years, 9 months ago on 24 September 2014 02:26 (A review of The Golden Compass)

In the flurry of generic YA novel adaptions currently on the market - a newly created genre that shows no clear signs of stopping before 2017 - one would have to look several years back to remember the book-to-film trend that preceded these. This much more rewarding niche genre was the children's fantasy novel adaptations. Starting with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in 2001, dozens of other books/films have attempted to duplicate the boy wizard's box office. And while many such attempts were fairly entertaining (such as Spiderwick Chronicles and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events), disappointing box office returns (or lack of interest) prevented many would-be franchises from getting off the ground. The Golden Compass suffered the same fate, making very little profit due to overseas rights being sold and lukewarm reception in America. However, in this case, it's more of a blessing than anything that any sequels to The Golden Compass never came to fruition.

Honestly, the premise itself shows quite a bit of promise. The film takes place in a world like ours, where every person's soul actually lives as an animal creature called a dæmon that follows you everywhere you go. The plot itself, is much more convoluted, and honestly, it's very difficult to describe. Here's all you really need to know: The main character is a girl named Lyra. Her uncle believes that there are alternate worlds. The wicked Mrs. Coulter wants control of the universe. And then there's something about child kidnapping that doesn't really get explained.

There is nary a scene in the film that makes much sense. Every single one leaves some kind of puzzling question or hole in the screenplay. I suspect that Philip Pullman's book (which I have not read) gives a lot more detail regarding some of the curious character decisions and confusing plot devices, but the movie explains nothing.

And yet, at the same time, it seems to explain everything. At least, that's what you would think considering that 95% of the dialogue in this film is exposition. That is not an exact percentage, but I'd venture to say it's not too far off. Needless to say, the script is bad. If the dialogue isn't giving some form of backstory or information you'll need to know later, it's just plain cringe-worthy.

What's worse is that just about every scene is crammed with as much talking as possible, which wouldn't be a problem if the script was significantly better. As is, though, the screenplay is an atrocity, meaning that there's very little here that will remain in memory. The whole film is a tedious and forgettable experience - a waste of two hours.

But problems with the script don't stop there. The film has some major continuity issues. When enemies are killed in this film, they explode in a flurry of gold, sparkly dust. Needless to say, this effect disappears at several intervals, and reappears at later ones. Also, when the dæmons are hurt, the owners are affected as well (and vice versa). And yet, this is contradicted at several intervals.

The visuals are a frequent target of praise for this film, though I can't imagine why. The movie looks incredibly cheap. At times it seems like a made-for-TV production. When characters pick up and/or pet their CGI
dæmons, it always looks laughably phony. And the film has a limited number of special effects shots compared to other fantasy films. Also, several shots appear to be re-used, and while the polar bears do look pretty great, we unfortunately have to endure about a dozen shots of them roaring at the camera (this is approximately 11 more times than needed).

The art direction is also terribly misguided. The Golden Compass alludes to a steampunk-esque world, but outside of a few inventions and airships there isn't much "steampunk" here. Besides, most of the film takes place in the snow, anyway.

The cast is full of big names, though the characters themselves are thinly drawn and uninteresting. The protagonist is a spunky young girl named Lyra, who spends the entire film getting rescued by other people - often because of her stupidity and rash decisions. Dakota Blue Richard's performance of this character is adequate, but unremarkable. Child actors Ben Walker and Charlie Rowe fare much better in supporting roles.

Nicole Kidman portrays the films primary antagonist, Mrs. Coulter. It's never really clear if the character is entirely evil, or perhaps could be reformed (she has very strong feelings about Lyra). Unfortunately, that means the character itself is completely dissatisfying, and there is no resolution for this either. This is not a tastefully ambiguous artistic choice. This is weak writing.

We also have Daniel Craig who has all of three or four scenes (despite being featured prominently in promotional material), and is entirely forgettable (thanks to a bland character). For some reason, Christopher Lee is in this movie in one short and almost unnecessary scene in which he gets one (or perhaps two) lines of dialogue. Eva Green shows up to give more exposition and Sam Elliott is surprisingly tolerable as a Texan airship pilot (which is as strange as it sounds).

The voice cast, thankfully, is quite a bit better. Freddie Highmore voices Lyra's dæmon (a meerkat) and his performance is charming enough (though the character is forgettable). Ian McKellan is especially good as Iorek Byrnison (a polar bear), though once again, the character itself is extremely weak.

Alexandre Desplat's score is surprisingly restrained. While there were several scenes that were ripe for an explosion of grand fanfares or bold theme statements, they don't really show up. The score is pleasant enough, but completely unmemorable in the context of the film.

The Golden Compass is tedious and numbing in an irritatingly persistent manner - I liken the experience to getting eaten by a toothless camel. Nothing happens in this movie. The script is awful, the visuals look cheap, and the storyline is so loose and almost non-existent that the audience loses interest before it even gets off the ground (which it never does). It's a surprising disaster that fails to entertain or engage. If you're looking for a solid fantasy flick, The Golden Compass can only lead you astray.


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Review of The Maze Runner

Posted : 2 years, 9 months ago on 21 September 2014 01:48 (A review of The Maze Runner)

To say Maze Runner is derivative would be an understatement. I am well aware that these kinds of accusations are often met with protests like "but Maze Runner came way before other similar YA novels." In this case, that's fair, as James Dashner's The Maze Runner was published one year before The Hunger Games, a novel that has many notable similarities. But it makes no difference as to who was first; the fact is that audiences have already seen this movie many, many times. It doesn't matter which came first, audiences are seeing Maze Runner in 2014. We've already seen "dark dystopian futures" and "one special teenager that will change everything." If those responsible for this film really wanted to honor James Dashner's novel, they would not have made this movie after this sort of thing has become cliche.

The film opens with our main character, Thomas, in a dark elevator. It ascends to its peak, and then a hatch at the top is open. He is now inside the maze. There's a group of boys in the maze with him (about 50 or so in all), and they don't have idea why they're in this maze. What's more, they don't have any memories of their past, excepting their first names. But once Thomas shows up here, things start to get weird. Everything begins to change, and not in a good way.

While the film is partially salvaged by a small collection of interesting scenes, The Maze Runner is a largely bland affair. It's kind of dark, it's sort of dramatic, and it's almost satirical. It briefly attempts social commentary, occasionally tries its hand at humor, and has a handful of action-"ish" sequences. It never really decides what it wants to be, and ends up being a rough assemblage of 12 or so different movies - all of which we've seen before.

It isn't helped much by the fact that the Maze Runner is filled with plot holes. Any opportunity you may be given to become immersed in this (fairly generic) dystopian world is foiled by the distracting plot holes. Not to mention numerous continuity issues that completely ruin a couple suspenseful "race-against-time" sequences. Also, the film more or less requires you to be pretty familiar with source material, as some rather critical elements are left completely unexplained. I attended this film with two other people, and they both asked multiple questions during and after the movie. Had I not read the book myself, I would have been completely lost.

At times, the film traverses into the delightful realm of unintentional comedy. I am grateful for such instances, as there would be little here worth paying attention for otherwise. The sources of said comedy come from the aforementioned plot holes, remarkably stupid character choices, and of course: the acting.

The cast - composed almost entirely of teenage boys - show no evidence of talent or dramatic comprehension in their performances here (with very few exceptions). The lead actor, Dylan O'Brien is boring and lacks the kind of charisma a to-be-franchise lead must have. He has all of two facial expressions: One features him staring off in the distance with his mouth agape (signifying awe or confusion). The other is the same, but with his mouth slightly more agape (signifying fear, or perhaps he was just yawning). Also, he looks completely ridiculous in any scene where he runs (given the name of the movie, he does quite a bit of running). He flails his arms around like he's got a wet mouse in his shirt, and he comically slides along the ground whenever he turns a corner.

The rest of the cast does not fare better. Aml Ameen's primary purpose in this film is to give expository lines, whilst Ki-hong Lee succeeds at being impressively bland. Will Poulter does very little with a poorly written character. Only Thomas Brodie-Sangster escapes embarrassment. He is the only convincing actor in the entire film, though his character name presents a slightly humorous and likely unintentional problem. His name in the film is "Newt," though when another character refers to him by name, it often sounds like they're calling him "Nude."

Actually, most of the characters are completely unnecessary to the plot. Only about two or three of them influence the plot in any way. The others could have been written out and nothing would have changed. At least if there were only three actors, we would have been spared some of the preschool-level performances.

Joen Paesano's score can be divided into two categories. One, the generic synthy melody-less rubbish that encompasses so many other similar films. Two, surprisingly refreshing orchestral bits that are generally completely forgettable, but not unpleasant to listen to. A couple interesting brassy bits and an impressive action piece keeps things from being completely boring.

The Maze Runner is essentially Lord of the Flies (without the creative risks), The Giver (without the ambition), and The Hunger Games (without Jennifer Lawrence), all mish-mashed into a messy, poorly made, and completely forgettable YA adaption. It has all the expected cliches and story points (right down to the "to-be-continued" ending) and does almost nothing to distinguish itself from the many other YA adapted films on the market. Too often during this film, I found myself reminded of the things I enjoyed so much about the source material - which is interesting, because I actually found the book to be a pretty mediocre experience. Just another YA novel with an intriguing premise, wasted on poor writing and weak execution. With that in mind, you should have a pretty good idea about just how bad this film is. Skip it; there will probably be another movie out just like it in the next 6 weeks.


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Review of Men in Black 2

Posted : 2 years, 9 months ago on 15 September 2014 08:59 (A review of Men in Black II)

In many ways, Men In Black 2 feels like a remake of the first Men in Black. Same concept, similar story-line, a final scene that's a direct nod to the ending of the last film (but significantly less clever), etc. But like any good remake, tweaks have been made. For one, all chemistry between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones is gone and shriveled up. Two, there are very few successful gags. Three, the sense of energy and giddiness that the first film produced is not present here. Essentially, we get an 88 minute rehash of the first movie, that lacks any of its notable qualities (excepting special effects).

Because Agent K has been retired, Agent J is now responsible for the Men In Black organization (specializes in moderating alien activity on earth). But as expected, a dangerous alien desiring some important object lands on earth, and Agent J must bring back Agent K to help.

Similarly to Gremlins 2 (a film I reviewed just last week), Men in Black 2 is not content to merely be a bad sequel, but it must degrade the original film as well. By bringing K back to the MIB organization (thanks to the highly contrived device called the "deneuralyzer"), the poignantly bittersweet from the first movie is completely undone. And then, this leads to questions. For one, does K's wife (who never appears onscreen) wonder where he is? Does K miss her? Does K have any desire to see her again. The film pretends that K's wife doesn't even exist, which creates a decided lack of realism to the proceedings. We simply don't believe the characters are there because they have lost their third dimension inbetween the two films.

Everything about this sequel feels rushed, from the storyline, the character "banter" (a term I use very lightly), and especially the ending. The plot points for the last third of the movie seem to be made up as the film goes along. Everyone is on auto-pilot here; no one's using their brain.

A lot could be forgiven if the movie was actually funny, but the problem is that there are few working gags. I laughed from start to finish during the first Men in Black film. During this sequel, I laughed two or three times, and that's about it. There's one very funny gag at the beginning, and a meager amount of chuckles to cover 88 minutes of fairly static viewing.

The deadpan comedy that was used so effectively in the last film feels completely stale this time around. The slapstick comedy is weightless and unconvincing. And the sharp lines from the original has been replaced with tamer, more family-friendly dialogue (a few edits here and there, and this could've easily made a PG rating). One outburst of "Who Let the Dogs Out" will send some screaming from the room (I remained in front of the screen and quietly dabbed the blood flowing from my ears).

If nothing else, the special effects are good, and even improved over the last time. The aliens are integrated somewhat more seamlessly, and some of the alien designs are really fun. It's a shame that the movie itself didn't boast the same kind of creativity.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones return as Agent J and Agent K, though their performances are so bland (thanks to a very weak script) that they could have been played by anybody. Will Smith's comedy shtick starts to grate really fast, and Tommy Lee Jones is given only one scene (the first one he's in) to remind us of the witty, fast-talking official he was in the first film. The rest of the time, he has about as much energy as a sleeping koala.

New additions to the cast don't fare any better. Lara Flynn Boyle as Serleena is acceptable, but hurt slightly by a poor script. She undeservedly garnered a Razzie nomination for this performance. Much more deserving of said nomination is Rosario Dawson as Laurua Vasquez, a poorly written replacement for Linda Fiorentino's much more engaging character from the first film (she is given only a brief mention in this film). Dawson's character is written as a kind of damsel in distress with moxy. She's got the "damsel" part down pretty well, " and the "distress" bit is good too. The "moxy" part needs work. On top of that, Dawson's character is almost completely unnecessary to the story. In fact, she's so unnecessary, that the writers had to shoe in some plot contrivance at the end to give her character any kind of significance.

Tim Blaney voices Frank the Pug, who briefly appeared in the last film, but returns in this one. For this sequel, he has a significantly expanded role, which is unfortunate as he is as annoying as sidekicks get. He's the kind of character that makes one yearn for a more eloquent replacement - like Jar Jar Binks. David Cross returns as well and is only slightly less annoying than Blaney. Michael Jackson has a funny cameo. Tony Shalhoub and Patrick Warburton both get their names featured in the opening credits, despite boasting about two minutes of screentime apiece.

Danny Elfman's score, like the film it accompanies, also seems to be on auto-pilot. It's not bad by any means (and some trademark Elfman choir near the beginning earns a smile), but it's even weaker than his already mediocre score for the first film. At least this time around Elfman can fault the lifeless picture for lack of inspiration.

Not as funny, inventive, or entertaining as the original, Men in Black 2 is an empty, unengaging experience. The script is flat, the characters are bland, and the whole premise has been reduced to your typical sci-fi action film - but with more talking animals. All of the wit and energy from the first film is either nonexistent or diluted here. This isn't a film bad enough to be worth getting worked up about. It's just bland and disappointing. At least the effects are nice....


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Review of Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Posted : 2 years, 9 months ago on 8 September 2014 12:23 (A review of Gremlins 2: The New Batch)

I find it strange that while Gremlins 2: The New Batch was given a PG-13 certificate by the MPAA, and the first Gremlins was given a PG (and infamously spawning the PG-13 rating soon after), Gremlins 2 is the film that feels more childish. And when I say childish, I mean that Gremlins 2 is exhausting, far too silly, and unlikely to entertain anyone in the double-digit age range. It goes in an entirely different direction than the first Gremlins, trading in its more horror-themed elements for off-the-wall parody humor that is more painful than funny, and less clever than the more (comparatively) subtle satire themes of the first film.

Time has passed inbetween Gremlins and its sequel (6 years in real life), and Billy Peltzer and his fiancee Katie have moved to New York and now work at Clamp Enterprises. By a forced string of events, Gizmo ends up in the same building as Billy, and Billy finds him and tries to take him home. Unfortunately, Gizmo inevitably gets wet, which causes him to multiply, and we get more gremlins mayhem; this time its confined within the Clamp Enterprises building, where hundreds of unsuspecting employees may fall victim.

Now that director Joe Dante has the PG-13 rating at his disposal, one would expect him to crank things up a few more notches from the first PG rated Gremlins film (which was already a dark film in itself). But surprisingly, Dante has created a film that's tamer, more comedic (but not as funny), and far less entertaining than the first film. The PG-13 rating confuses me a lot, as it's significantly tamer than a lot of PG rated films of the same era (Dead Poets Society, Beetlejuice, etc).

One of the interesting things about the first Gremlins film is that there were few "deliberate" laughs. And by that, I mean that none of actors said something funny, then looked at the camera and smiled as the audience laughed appreciatively. Much of the humor was an effective balance of unintentional and intentional, which resulted in a film that was campy and almost self-satirical, but the formula worked, and no one really knows how or why. So I suppose it makes sense that Joe Dante would go in an entirely different direction for the sequel, for that kind of lightning would have been impossible to capture in the same bottle.

Essentially, Gremlins 2 is one giant parody. It has an obnoxious amount of self-referential gags and jabs at the first film, and there's also a horrifying amount of pop culture references. Phantom of the Opera, The Wizard of Oz, and Rambo are all parodied (as well as many other films). But that's all fairly painless compared to the gremlins' horrifying rendition of "New York, New York." Between the faux musical numbers and the jarring "fourth wall" jokes, Gremlins 2 begins to feel like a bad Muppet movie. And believe me; you do not want your movie to feel like a bad Muppet movie.

What's more, Gremlins 2 commits the ultimate sequel sin, in that it actually hurts the original film. One of several elements of the last film that really impressed me was its bravery to kill of a couple supporting characters during the gremlin mayhem in the film's latter half. In this film, we not only learn that these characters did not actually died (though the opposite was strongly suggested in the first), but they actually show up in Gremlins 2! So now, not only do we get this toothless sequel, we also have several teeth extracted from the first film as well.

Despite my bashing, Gremlins 2 is not without positives. Some of the gremlin mayhem works, especially when the spirit of the first film breaks through. There is one particularly gross and memorable gremlin murder early on in the proceedings involving a paper shredder that recalls the kitchen scene from the first Gremlins. And part-way through the film, the gremlins manage to get into some scientific genetic serums (or something like that), which results in the gremlins mutating into various different creatures, which results in some really interesting gremlin designs, though these are sadly underused for the most part.

The cast can mostly be split into two parts: Those that were bad because of the terrible script, and those that were just inexcusably bad by all standards. John Glover and Dick Miller make up the first category. Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, and Haviland Morris make up the latter.

There are a couple actors that don't fit into either category. Don and Dan Stanton play identical lab assistants, and they're amusing enough in two very small roles. Christopher Lee gets to camp things up as Doctor Catheter, but bizarrely enough, their is a very prominent role where a want-to-be news anchor dresses up as a vampire for the entirety of the film, and that part is played by Robert Prosky. In a film that is so pop-culture nuts like Gremlins 2, I'm fairly surprised that the film didn't take the obvious bait. Also, if you thought that Mr. Wing (the Asian shop-keeper) from Gremlins 2 was too obnoxious as a stereotype, wait until you see Gedde Watanabe as a camera-happy Asian tourist.

Jerry Goldsmith's sequel score lacks almost any of the energy from the first film. It feels content to simply regurgitate themes from its predecessor, and supplies no new ideas for itself. And oddly enough, while there are numerous references to the classic Gremlins Rag throughout the film, it never actually appears until the end credits (though its more orchestral arrangement is refreshing).

Largely devoid of the charm and entertainment that blessed the 1984 original, Gremlins 2 isn't completely joyless, but it does its best to get there. 40 minutes of tedious and inevitable set-up, only for the next 107 to be an extensive string of bad pop culture references and predictable slap-stick comedy. The first Gremlins had me in stitches from start to finish. But outside of a few chuckles, Gremlins 2 is fairly static in the laugh department. Bigger, staler, and far less enjoyable, the sequel formula is well at play here.


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Review of The Help

Posted : 2 years, 9 months ago on 2 September 2014 08:26 (A review of The Help)

I'm starting to wonder if I'm becoming "soft." I've recently written positive reviews to shamelessly manipulative and schmaltzy films like War Horse, Forrest Gump, and The Terminal (the latter of which I gave a perfect score to), and I intend to do so again with The Help. It now falls on me to explain why the obvious manipulation and tear-ripping scenes in The Help are credible as "artful" or "skillful." It's a hard case to deliver, but someone's got to do it.

Surprisingly NOT based on a true story (one of the only feel-good cliches this film doesn't follow) The Help is about a recent college graduate named Skeeter who is increasingly appalled by the casual racism that she is surrounded by. She decides to interview as many black maids as possible in order to write a book from their perspective so that white folk would see the injustice of their actions. This is easier said then done, though, as most blacks are terrified of their masters discovering their contribution to this book. Skeeter is only able to get two maids to help her; Aibileen and Minny.

Well, the film IS manipulative. And it's heavily flawed. But the film succeeds because of a number of things. For one, it's just plain entertaining thanks to an interesting premise and likable characters. For another, the acting is excellent. The characters are likable, but very thinly written. It's up to the actors to flesh them out into fully dimensional characters, and honestly, they do wonderfully.

The acting highlight is Viola Davis as Aibileen, the protagonist-ish of the film (shares this title with Skeeter). The subtlety in her expressions and dialogue delivery is astounding. She sells this strong, independent woman who is forced to subdue her opinions and dignity to keep her job. She is the heart of this film. Not far behind is Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson. Like Aibileen, she's strong and fierce, but she has an element of spunk. This is a tired cliche of a character that Spencer breathes new life into. We root for her, because we believe her.

The white cast is generally less impressive, but they also have a lot less to work with. Emma Stone does what she can with an offensively bland character (despite being the lead). Stone brings intricacies that are not in the script, but she's leagues behind Spencer and Davis. Bryce Dallas Howard has the thankless role of the antagonist, a blatant racist (though she considers herself a good Christian). She's venomous in her performance, and thus impresses. It's almost a shame to say, though, that the acting highlight for the white side of the cast is Leslie Jordan as Mr. Blackly, a newspaper editor. He creates more energy and entertainment than most of the other supporting characters (furthering the myth that newspaper editors are the best scene stealers). Also notable are child actors Emma and Elanor Henry portraying four year old Mae Mobley Leefolt. A scene between her and Aibeleen at the end is heart-breaking.

The Help has a wide variety of problems, let alone the film's obvious attempts at emotional poignancy that can be seen from a mile away. There's an unnecessary sub-plot about Skeeter finding a boy friend. When she does find one, we don't buy the relationship, and none of it has anything to do with the rest of the film anyway. This is a 146 minute film. And though it's fairly entertaining from start-to-finish, it could have been shorter had unnecessary characters and sub-plots like that had been removed.

Also uniquely problematic is Thomas Newman's score. On one hand, it avoids the cliche of including a swelling orchestra during emotional moments, instead offering reflective piano performances and some quiet strings. The problem is that his score doesn't really fit the picture. It's far too modern, and as expected from Newman, contains some wacky instrumentation and effects that are just distracting. It may be enjoyable out of context, but it doesn't fit with the film. Newman would accomplish a more fitting score for this time period when he scores Saving Mr. Banks a couple years later.

The Help is certain to annoy cynical audiences, but I think most will be satisfied with this interesting look at racism. It's pleasant, but it's not afraid to bare its teeth on occasion, which pushes this beyond your typical feel-good film. It's certainly not perfect, nor without ironic flaws (leave it to the white person to save the blacks), but it's charming and entertaining, and has real depth thanks to its talented cast.


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