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Review of Captain America: The First Avenger

Posted : 3 years, 6 months ago on 23 May 2014 12:01 (A review of Captain America: The First Avenger)

Though perhaps the term is slightly overused, there is no getting around it: Captain America: The First Avenger is a formula film. And I don't mean that it hits all the notes you would expect it to (though it does). Nor do I mean that it doesn't really make any attempt to surprise you (though it does not). Rather, I am directing your attention to the abundance of tired cliches that Super Hero movies (and even film in general) have exhausted. If not for the cast, this would have been a long two hours indeed.

Steve Rodgers aspired to be a soldier, but was deemed too small and wimpy to take on such a job. But because of his kind heart, Dr. Abraham Erskine decides that he wants to perform one of his scientific examples on the man. And he does so, which results in Steve Rodgers becoming the ultimate hero as all of his athletic abilities are dramatically enhanced. He is dubbed, Captain America. But what's a super hero film with a super villain? We get our antagonist in the form of Red Skull, commander of the Hydra (a terrorist organization) that is bent on world domination (aren't they all, these days?).

As each character is introduced, you can already predict their character arc, if they die, and what purpose they will serve to the story. There are no surprises.

Steve Rodgers (later Captain America) is terribly bland, as a result of him being the perfect person. He's sickeningly nice and good-natured, which makes him hard to identify with. A good protagonist needs to have flaws, and Steve Rodgers lacks these. Peggy Carter is Rodger's love interest, and the romance between the two unfolds in a tediously predictable fashion.

The villain himself, Red Skull, is also terribly dull. What separates him from any of the other power-hungry villains in cinema? His defining feature is that he looks like a rejected Voldemort design.

The action sequences are fairly unimpressive from almost any standpoint. The visuals are not strong enough to suggest awe or create a spectacle. And the characters are too bland to have a significant connection with any of them during these scenes, thus eliminating tension. And the sequences lack innovation. None of them are significantly different from any other action sequence in similar films. They are entirely unmemorable.

The first 30 minutes are the strongest in the entire picture. They are the most story-driven (the following 90 minutes have little story at all to speak of), as well as the most character-driven. This is before any of the action sequences, and focuses purely on Steve Rodger's origins as Captain America. There are fun bits here, and it moves along at a brisk pace. The talky 30 minutes of the beginning are far more enjoyable than the action-packed 90 minutes that follows.

The most problematic part of this film is the ending (specifically the last 15 minutes). A lot of it doesn't work for various reasons (difficult to discuss in a spoiler-free review). Without giving anything away, there are obvious things that are overlooked by the characters, a "cheat" that allows the impact of something serious to occur without actual consequence, and a very anti-climatic fight at the end. It's a mess.

Thankfully, the cast keeps things interesting. Chris Evans is solid in the lead, perfectly pulling of the nice-guy persona, even if that's the only thing his role requires. Hugo Weaving makes Red Skull less of a bore than he might have otherwise been. Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter continues the Marvel tradition of having weak female characters and weak female performances (though she is an improvement in both respects over Iron Man's Pepper Potts).

The acting stand-outs all come from supporting cast members. Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine is delightful (as always). And Tommy Lee Jones, while portraying the gruff, sarcastic character we've seen dozens of times, is still quite memorable. And Toby Jones is also enjoyable to watch as Arnim Zola, a Nazi Biochemist.

Alan Silvestri's score actually makes very few notable appearances in this film. There's nothing in the music that's especially memorable, perhaps less a problem with the score itself than with how it's presented in the film. Alan Menken contributes a song (lyrics by David Zippel) that's pleasant and retro, though unmemorable.

While not as enormously dull as many of the other Marvel films, Captain America: The First Avenger is too formulaic, too bland, and too uninspired to make a significant impact. A stray witty line now and then, and some fine performances keep the film from becoming too boring, but there isn't enough here that's new or interesting too remain in the memory for long.


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Review of Pacific Rim

Posted : 3 years, 6 months ago on 19 May 2014 06:27 (A review of Pacific Rim)

Mixed Bag - Noun - something that has both good and bad qualities or parts.

Pacific Rim is equal parts fun and awful. The highlights are delightful, but the bad parts are astoundingly terrible. There are immeasurable problems with this film, but there are an almost equal amount of noteworthy cinema. Pacific Rim could make for an ideal night with friends, when you can all laugh and enjoy the good with the bad. But as a viewing experience judged on its own terms, it's lacking.

Gigantic monsters called Kaijus are rising out of the ocean. And what are we going to do? Release the transformers! Or more specifically, Jaegers: giant robots that are controlled from within by two human pilots. Unfortunately, the Kaijus are increasing in number, and the Jaegers have been dismissed as too risky and too dangerous. However, Jaeger commander Stacker Pentecost is convinced that they can end the Kaiju outbreak by using the Jaegers to plant a nuclear bomb in the portal from which the Kaijus are spawning. In desperate need of capable pilots, Stacker contacts former pilot Raleigh Becket to assist him. Also, lots of backstories.

So let's get (at least some of) the bad out of the way first. There are a lot of laughably bad moments (on account of poor writing, poor acting, etc.). Also, there are a lot of bits where the characters lips don't match what they're saying, and they are always distracting. And the occasionally weak editing resulted in inconsistencies between shots.

But the editing isn't the only thing that's inconsistent. All of the technology involving the Jaeger is confusing, and some of its capabilities aren't clear. As a result, the film seems to contradict itself as suddenly new concepts are conveniently revealed in life-or-death situations.

The film is structured bizarrely. There's a quick beginning, a quick middle, a long end, and another middle, and a short end. Needless to say, the pacing is everywhere. And somewhere along the line, at least 20 minutes of this film must have been cut out, as significant problems are resolved in seconds, but never are these resolutions explained.

Almost all of the characters are incredibly boring. They're stuffed with backstories in a desperate attempt to get the audience to cling to these bland characters. Instead, these backstories only create unnecessary exposition, and barely impact the story at all.

But what this film gets right, is sublime. While the characters are mostly lifeless, there are 3 supporting characters that are almost enough fun to make this film worth watching. Dr. Newton Geiszler and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb are two doctors with opposite personalities (Newton, a bit fun loving, while Gottlieb is more stuck-up) forced to work in the same division. They are an absolute riot (even though they share far less scenes than one might expect), and their scenes are the highlight of the film. Along with them, there is the villainous (though not the antagonist) Hannibal Chau, who is hilariously over-the-top and his scenes are equally memorable to Newton's and Gottlieb's.

And, of course, the visuals are superb. The designs for the Kaijus are nothing short of incredible. They're unique, and frightening, and the Jaegers look impressive too. The fight sequences themselves are dazzling, but they also lack tension (likely a result of the slow-moving nature of both sides).

Charlie Hunnam, playing the lead, Raleigh Becket, is absolutely terrible. It is clear that Hunnam was not cast based on acting ability, but rather, how he looks without his shirt on. Rinko Kukuchi as the love interest, Mako Mori, is equally weak. Both of these performances are laughable, though the third lead, Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost manages to escape mostly unscathed. Mana Ashida, who has a small role as young Mako Mori, provides a more compelling performance than almost the entire cast.

Charlie Day is delightful as Dr. Newton, and he gets to display a surprising amount of range in this role. His counterpart, Dr. Gottlieb is also excellent, and very funny. Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau also supplies a substantial amount of laughs.

The score, composed by Ramin Djawadi, benefits from a strong (if hugely overused) main theme. Unfortunately, far too often, the electric guitar rears it ugly head, causing it to leave a more sour impression then it might have otherwise. Also, the horn of doom is used in an early sequence.

While there are moments of genuine fun, Pacific Rim gets too involved in tedious backstories and a lot of laughably terrible bits. The potential for a great film is absolutely there, but mostly poor acting, and a generally weak script bog this movie down. It's such a shame, because the highlights alone almost make this film worth watching. But how, in good conscience, can I recommend a movie that, at times, reaches almost unfathomable lows? I truly have no choice, for in spite of how good parts of this movie is, there is simply too much awful for one 2 hour film.


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Review of Godzilla (2014)

Posted : 3 years, 6 months ago on 17 May 2014 05:56 (A review of Godzilla)

Over the last few months, the newest Godzilla reboot has been generating a lot of steam, thanks to some marvelous trailers. It's not outlandish to call Godzilla the most hyped film of the year so far. But the funny thing about this, is that it will only appeal to a very specific group. I suspect most mainstream audiences will be disappointed by this reboot. Some will find it laughably bad. But if you find yourself in this film's (very small) target audience, then the hype will have all been worth it. Indeed, I find myself in that camp. Long live Godzilla!

Ford Brody has just returned from serving in the U.S. Navy, when he gets a phone call that his father has been arrested for trespassing in a quarantined area in Japan. Ford travels there to pick his father up, though his father is convinced that the Japanese scientists are hiding some mammoth secret. Needless to say, Ford's father proves correct. The scientists have been in possession of a MUTO, a large flying beast, and now it has escaped! But of course, there is a larger beast that makes his grand appearance later...

It is important, and I mean very important, to walk into Godzilla with the right expectations. Based on the trailers, one would expect Godzilla to be a more gritty and intense experience than say, Jurassic Park. And while it can be perceived that way, Godzilla is ultimately an homage to the Hollywood b-movie, which Godzilla shares its roots in. As a result, there are some scenes that very over-the-top, and even silly, but it's all part of the fun. Unfortunately, I suspect this will fly over the heads of many mainstream audiences.

Godzilla's b-movie mannerisms elicited chuckles at the screening I attended. In fact, an unexpected use of one of Godzilla's signature moves was met with uproarious laughter. Indeed, I was among those laughing, though I wonder how many of us realized we were supposed to be laughing with the movie, and not at the movie.

Is this a flaw of the film itself? That its intentions as a modern b-movie (though obviously, with a larger budget) is not defined clearly enough? I think this is more a problem with the marketing than anything. Audiences are expecting something more realistic. Though surely anyone walking into a film starring a giant lizard should know better than to expect absolute realism! If nothing else, the vintage feel of the delightful main titles should have given audiences a big enough hint.

Homages aside, Godzilla still packs a lot of fantastic bits that don't require b-movie know-how to enjoy. The special effects for instance, are breath-taking at times. There's a lot of build-up before the big reveal of Godzilla himself, but the tantalizing flashes we see of the beast here and there are enough to keep out attention. There are some shots in this film that are nothing short of mesmerizing. While the b-movie fun may disappoint some movie-goers, no one could possibly be disappointed by Godzilla himself. If one has trouble defining the word "spectacle," Godzilla is the antidote.

The interesting thing about the monsters in this film (Godzilla and MUTO), is that they are so abnormally large (Godzilla is taller than most sky scrapers), that they cannot target individual pedestrians. Indeed, we rarely see humans get eaten, because these monsters are too huge for that. Consequently, the monsters evoke less a feeling of terror or suspense, but rather, one of awe and excitement.

Unfortunately, like any creature-feature, it's occasionally slowed down by the less interesting humans. With the exception of Bryan Cranston's character (who is actually in much less of the film than the trailers would tell you), everybody is without personality. And unfortunately, the script tends to falter during these portions too. Still, no one comes to a film like Godzilla expecting strong characters or a strong script. They are preferred qualities, but when a film continues to dazzle you with eye-candy and Godzilla-madness, some flaws can be forgiven.

The actors do the best they can with half-baked characters. Aaron-Taylor Johnson is wooden in his performance in the lead (likely the reason he was not shown in any of the trailers), and so is Elizabeth Olsen in a much smaller role as Ford's wife (likely the reason she was not shown in any of the trailers). Ken Watanabe as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa has nothing to do in his role, but occasionally deliver exposition. Bryan Cranston is the clear stand-out, though he also possesses the unfair advantage of portraying the only character with a personality.

Alexandre Desplat's score is as loud and bombastic as any blockbuster score. And yet, it has melody. It has intelligence. And unlike Zimmer's disastrous Amazing Spider-Man 2, Desplat's score actually utilizes an orchestra! (So did Zimmer's, but how can you tell with the electric guitar and the dub-step in your face at all times?) Like the film itself, Desplat allows himself many homages to the classic b-movie, while also providing a score that is universally enjoyable. It is melodic, and yet, appropriately thrilling. Desplat has never scored a movie quite like this, but he has succeeded admirably.

Godzilla will not appeal to everyone. Only those that know exactly what they're in for will enjoy Godzilla to its fullest extent. It is essential to appreciate and understand Godzilla's b-movie sensibilities. If nothing else, audiences will be amazed by the stunning visuals. And how refreshing it is to see a movie that ends without unresolved story threads and un-learned secrets, and instead, just ends while it's ahead (I'm looking at you, Amazing Spider-Man franchise). It's unlikely that Godzilla will require the fanbase that one might have suspected 3 or 4 months ago. But it has the trimmings of a cult-classic.


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Review of The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Posted : 3 years, 6 months ago on 2 May 2014 06:39 (A review of The Amazing Spider-Man 2)

When you read this review, consider this perspective: While I acknowledge their flaws, I do legitimately like all 4 Spider-Man films preceding this one. Spider-Man 3 has its laughably bad moments, but it's entertaining enough to enjoy, and The Amazing Spider-Man - while lacking the intelligence of the previous entries - remains good fun. So it was a cruel surprise when I realized with great dismay that this not-so-super sequel playing before me is fairly bad. To put it kindly, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will not be found on anyone's list of favorite super hero films anytime soon.

Let's keep the plot section simple, yes? This is a super hero after all, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 makes no attempt to transcend the genre cliches, so what reason have I to dress things up? A worker at Oscorp falls into a vat of electric eels and is conveniently transformed into a electrical-powered villain dubbed Electro. Naturally, Spider-Man (mild-mannered secret identity is, of course, Peter Parker) must go off to fight him. There's also a subplot with Harry Osborne that's kind of glossed over, and relationship troubles with Gwen Stacy (because everyone was waiting with bated breath for more poorly written romance scenes, apparently).

Let me address the positives before I begin the shredding. The first 10 minutes are very enjoyable, despite (or perhaps because) of its silliness. The special effects look good, the Spider-Man/Peter Parker character remains likable, and there's one or two good performances, which I'll detail later. I wasn't bored for most of the 140 minute run-time, and therefore, I find it hard to hate this movie. But make no mistake; this is a bad movie. In fact, more so than being merely bad, it's a stupid movie.

There is no such thing as logic in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Every minute of this film poses a new question, typically falling under one of these categories: "Why in the world did [insert character name] do that?" "How does that make any sort of sense?" "Someone got paid to write this script?"

The Spider-Man films have never been revered for their romantic bits. In Raimi's trilogy, capable actors managed to make the sometimes dubious dialogue work. In Mark Webb's reboot, the romance did not work. In the case of this sequel, it's just plain awful. If you found yourself chuckling at the infamous line from 2012's The Hunger Games ("I watched you walk home from school everyday. Everyday."), you'll be in stitches during some of these scenes. Even outside of the romance scenes, there are unintentional laughs aplenty. One such part can actually be found in the trailer: Observe Rhino's terrible aim.

And speaking of the trailer, you could save a good deal of money and time by just watching that instead of the film. The entire movie is essentially in the trailer. All the funniest bits are in the trailer as well. Most people are coming to the cinemas to see more of the Green Goblin and Rhino. Won't they be disappointed when these characters get a grand total of, perhaps 10 minutes of screen-time altogether?

Even more unfortunate is this film's total predictability. It doesn't do anything to build upon the typical formula of super hero films. Other than a sort of twist at the end, the closest thing to an innovation this film makes is that Peter Parker switches from using Bing to Google.

The characters and performances really do go hand-in-hand here, so let's discuss them together. Andrew Garfield is as likable as ever in the role of Spider-Man. His quips in battle and his overly-friendly nature keeps the character itself a cut above the Spider-Man from Raimi's trilogy. The performance itself is just on par with Maguire's. Emma Stone portrays Gwen Stacy. Her entire role consists of her doing a lot of looking sad and crying occasionally. Jamie Foxx does what he can with a poorly written character. Foxx is Electro, and the entire character is dealt with very badly. He will probably evoke unpleasant memories of another sympathetic spidey villain; Sandman. Dane DeHaan is surprisingly wooden in his role as Harry Osborn/Green Goblin, until he makes the inevitable transformation. At this point, he's not over-the-top enough, nor menacing.

The best performances in this film belong to the supporting crew. Sally Fields as Aunt May improves over her performance in the predecessor. And while some will find Paul Giammati's Rhino unbearably corny, I was always smiling when he was onscreen (though brief this time is). The best bit, however (and the best part of this movie), is Marton Csokas as a German doctor, and head of Ravencroft Institute. He is hilariously campy and over-the-top. It's just a shame that his big scene lacks the fun it initially promises.

And then there's the music. Ugh. Replacing James Horner (who did a perfectly fine job on the 2012 reboot) is Hans Zimmer. One must admit that Zimmer's score, while unpleasant, is intelligently developed, and is unlike his usual work (despite the occasional dash of Inception popping in). It's simply bizarre to hear him writing a theme in a major key. And speaking of, this is Spider-Man's theme, which sounds more akin to a local news report fanfare, than for that of a super hero. More interesting is Zimmer's clarinet theme for Electro, which is only pleasant to hear until the whispering rap vocals come into play. And if I haven't lost the film music community yet, here's two more horrors of this unfortunate score: the infamous Horn of Doom (albeit, less bombastic than normal) and dubstep. Need I say more?

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 feels like a middle film. It's simply there because it has to be. No one is going to remember this film among the other, better Spider-Man films. In fact, I daresay this might knock Spider-Man 3 off its pedestal as the unanimous worst Spidey-film. Deservedly so.

At the end of the film, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 sets itself up for another sequel (and hits you over the head with a suggestion of a 'Sinister Six' film). Sony is clearly excited to reveal all of its ideas for sequels and spin-offs. It's enough to make one wish that Sony had focused a bit more on making The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a film worth being excited for, as opposed to the planned add-ons.


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Review of Dead Poets Society

Posted : 3 years, 6 months ago on 30 April 2014 04:32 (A review of Dead Poets Society)

It is difficult for me to simply describe my feelings towards Dead Poets Society. It's a film that lives on in your heart and your mind. It's an experience you'd be hard-pressed to forget. But at the same time, it's heavily flawed, and downright unlikable at times. Even frustrating. The third and final act of this film is worthy of applause, but the first and second leave a less satisfying impression.

In a tedious and brutal series of classes at the Welton Academy (a prep school for boys), a group of senior students have their outlook on life completely changed by their English teacher, John Keating. Though his methods are considered "unorthodox" by his peers, he quickly becomes a hero to the students of his class, as he teaches them to "seize the day!"

My mixed feelings towards this film are (partially) a result of the divide in quality between the first two acts, and the third. The first two acts are fairly light-weight. It's a mere suggestion of the depth to come. While the actors are in fine form and Robin Williams' performance as John Keating is mesmerizing and intensely likable, scenes without Williams (or two of the primary characters, Todd Anderson and Neil Perry, whom I'll discuss later) are either dull, distracting, or unlikable. This is partially due to the fact that many of the boys in this film are downright obnoxious. These depictions may be realistic, but an audience needs to like these boys if the film is to work.

John Keating's speeches and lessons are both interesting, and meaningful. They contain substance that is not found elsewhere (other than the third act). In the end, the first and second act lack the heft of the dramatic third act.

The final third of this film is truly enchanting. By means of an intense twist, the film is spun on its head. The acting is cranked up to an 11, and the story suddenly has weight. It has importance. It has intelligence. The final act of this film is nothing short of triumph. It's both poignant and rousing, but it is so very difficult to forgive the first two-thirds.

Part of the reason the first two thirds don't work very well, is that there is no clear main character. At first it seems to be Todd Anderson, but then the story sort of shifts to Neil Perry. Then back to Todd, and then back to Neil. Then Todd again. When one character takes center stage, the other one completely evaporates. Neither one ends up feeling like a main character. One could say that John Keating is the main character, but he isn't relate-able enough, as he portrays a sort of perfect human being, and his screen-time is insufficient for such a label anyway.

At any rate, when Neil and Todd ARE onscreen together, they are charming semi-leads. Their friendship is sweet and believable, and they remain the only truly likable characters, other than John Keating. The other boys are either undeveloped, uninteresting, or annoying. Though the two hour length serves the film well, in that one slowly grows on these characters over time, it's ultimately not enough time to develop all the characters, or remember them fondly.

The acting is top-notch. One has good reason to fret when a film takes place entirely around child actors (albeit, in the 18-20 range), but the performances are excellent. Robert Sean Leonard as Neil Perry must display the conflict between following his own passions, and following his father's rules and plans for him. Leonard turns a potentially one-dimensional character into a person with depth and personality. The same goes for Ethan Hawke as Todd Anderson, a performance that gets increasingly better as the film progresses. Of course, the performance that has achieved the most glory is Robin Williams as the miracle teacher, John Keating, and while the other performances are deserved to be lauded, Williams presence is truly magical.

The score, composed by Maurice Jarre, is - for the most part - atrocious. The film is scored with synthesizers, and as a result, the music is terribly dated. A dated sound is not necessarily a flaw, but the music is truly bad at times, and even distracting. Some of the beautiful shots in this film inspire grand music, and Dead Poets Society is without such. That is, until the final scene. This is when the score - like the film - becomes something truly important. In my humble and inexperienced opinion, this is one of the best and most notable uses of film music out there. It elevates the final scene to grand heights.

The final act is almost enough to save this film. It is something that feels both beautiful and important. And yet, the first two thirds feel so long, and they are so problematic, that it is difficult to forgive the film for this, no matter how lavishly wonderful the final act. Interestingly enough, while I was impatiently waiting for the film to end during the first two thirds, when the film ends, I almost felt as though it could have been longer. I wanted to know what was to happen after the credits roll. Does this prove I have become attached to the characters onscreen? Does this mean, that by almost starving for more at the end, that this film has overcome its problems that the first two acts possessed? Is this success? Ambiguity is not favorable in a critical review, but there it is.


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Review of War Horse

Posted : 3 years, 7 months ago on 13 April 2014 12:09 (A review of War Horse)

The most difficult part of writing a review is writing the opening paragraph. One stares off into space, or at an empty text box, waiting for the words to come to them. However, in the case of War Horse, much of my review from The Book Thief could be re-arranged to form the opening of this review. And that is because much of my criticisms and compliments regarding The Book Thief are completely applicable here. War Horse will absolutely divide audiences. The cynical will scoff. The sentimental will sob. And those representing the middle ground should be very impressed by what Spielberg has wrought from such a simple story.

War Horse is based off of a play, which was then based off of Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel of the same name. The film follows a horse named Joey as he is taken from place to place, owner to owner, changing and influencing the lives of those around him.

War Horse feels very much like a family film to me. In fact, it did not surprise me when I learned that Morpurgo's novel upon which the film is based is a children's novel. While most adults should find War Horse to be a satisfying experience, there is some humor and story concepts that seem to target a younger audience, or at least a broader one in terms of age. In fact, despite the PG-13 rating, I think War Horse is appropriate for someone as young as 10 years old (though various slow stretches and the extensive 2 and a half hour run time may test the young).

War Horse is as old-fashioned as a modern Hollywood movie will ever get. Old-fashioned to a fault, even. But it would take a pretty hard heart not to be moved by this film. Even though the various stories (there is no single plot) are fairly simple, the film is rich and layered. Even though most would argue the 146 minute run time is extravagant and unnecessary, I think it's nearly justified. War Horse contains the cozy feel of watching a cheesy Hallmark movie with your parents or grandparents at Christmas time, except with the steady veteran hands of Steven Spielberg, and a cast of talented actors.

The film's episodic nature is somewhat distracting. One gets familiar with the (seemingly) primary cast after the first 45 minutes. However, after that, the story moves on to a new set of characters. And then the same thing occurs (except within an even shorter span of time). This repeats a few times, and with each new set of individuals, one wonders what happened to the ones we left behind (some of this is explained, some is not).

Inevitably, some characters we meet and story-lines we are introduced to are far more interesting than others. Some characters are likable enough to spend an entire film around. Others get dull in mere minutes. But the film moves on like an odd sort of cake walk, moving from place to place. Person to person. This causes occasional pacing problems, but the film manages to feel mostly cohesive.

Despite this odd form of story-telling, War Horse is both entertaining and significant. There are a number of notable highlights peppered throughout the film. These include some riveting and deeply impacting battle sequences, a funny sort of friendship that develops between a German soldier and a British soldier, and the rousing, and effectively moving finale.

The visuals are often gorgeous. The very opening of the film contains some stunning cinematography, and there are many other moments of beauty in this field as well. The visual effects are integrated seamlessly, and the whole film is like a beautiful painting.

The performances are solid throughout, though the screen-time for most of the actors equates to roughly 30 minutes (or less). Jeremy Irvine as Albert Narracott has the biggest role (occupying about half of the run time). Irvine's performance is sincere and likable, and his relationship with his horse is easy to believe. Other members of the enormous cast, including Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Patrick Kennedy, are also very good.

The score, composed by John Williams, is beautiful. Rousing, majestic, and very exciting at times, John Williams proves for the umpteenth time his excellence in this field. Williams can truly do no wrong.

Some will find War Horse too cheesy. Others will find it too boring or too long. And others still will absolutely find it far too sentimental and old-fashioned. But War Horse wears these qualities on its sleeves. The story itself isn't especially strong (and the script makes little effort to hide this), but those willing to embrace this film will find themselves moved and even enchanted.


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Review of The Book Thief

Posted : 3 years, 7 months ago on 6 April 2014 11:58 (A review of The Book Thief)

I don't claim to have extensive knowledge in the field of literature, but Markus Zusak's novel, The Book Thief, is one the finest books I've ever read. It's darkly humorous, whilst being legitimately heart-breaking. But frankly, it didn't need a film adaption. Despite this, we have the 2013 film adaption of this modern classic. Inevitably, it doesn't come even close to matching the sheer perfection of Zusak's novel, but the film is surprisingly engaging, if deeply flawed.

Starting in the year 1938, The Book Thief is about Liesel Meminger; a young girl, who is adopted by a middle-aged German couple. Liesel's brother is adopted by them as well, though he dies during the train ride over. Shortly after Liesel's adoption, the family takes in a Jew named Max Vandenburg to hide him from the Nazis. In the mean time, Liesel learns to read and discovers the power of the written word.

The Book Thief is a very difficult book to adapt to film. The book has a slow pace and a meandering plot, which one can get away with in a book (especially because the writing itself is so beautiful, and the narrative is so ingenious), but in a film, this can become dull.

Also, the film has the impossible task of incorporating the most unique aspect of the source novel, and that is the narrator. The book is narrated by Death, which is, of course, a brilliant concept. But this idea is very difficult to convert into the film. Death doesn't speak much during the film, and when he does, it feels a bit jarring, and absolutely unnecessary. Death (as a character) has such a small part in this film, it's clear that he is only here to satisfy fans of the novel. As a result of his limited screentime, his character is much more watered down (most notable is his obsession with colors, which is completely gone in the film), making him seem more like an odd footnote than an integral part of the story.

The Book Thief is flawed; there is no getting around that. But at the same time, it's utterly fascinating. The characters are still as lovable as they were in the novel. And there are some very pretty visuals. In fact, had this film had the awards traction it had been hoping for, this certainly would have earned nominations for Costume Design, and maybe even cinematography. This film really does transport you to Nazi Germany in the same way the Hobbit films transports one to Middle-Earth (though not quite to that scale).

The novel upon which the film is based is roughly 550 pages in length, and in order to keep the film from obtaining an obscene run time (it clocks in at just over 2 hours), much of the subplots, and some of themes, have been dropped. But The Book Thief is truly at its best when the spirit of the novel manages to break though the many changes and alterations.

One theme and tone that The Book Thief consistently attains is innocence. This story is more or less told through the eyes of a child (meaning Liesel), and her interactions with a friendly neighbor boy named Rudy Steiner are cute without being cloying. Her relationship with the Jew that she helps hide is also very sweet. And her relationship with her foster father, Hans Hubermann, is very warm and endearing.

I really do hate to continue to bring up the flaws of this film, but there are several that need mentioning. The editing is a pinch choppy at times, and this is even more notable towards the end of the film where there is clear "Return of the King Syndrome," with false ending after false ending. And there are many times when the film is extremely sentimental (though there are definitely some earned emotions throughout). Also, there are many moments in the film that aren't explained well, which will absolutely confuse those that have not read the novel.

The acting is surprisingly great. Geoffrey Rush is excellent as Hans Hubermann, and Emily Watson perfectly combines irritable-ness and genuine sweetness in her role as Rosa Hubermann. Ben Scnetzer as Max Vandenberg delivers a sweet performance, and Nico Liersch as Rudy Steiner is another child actor that defies the child acting stereotype. The only hiccup comes from the lead performance, Sophie Nelisse as Liesel Meminger, delivering a performance that's adequate, but sometimes stiff, especially when reciting dialogue.

The score is composed by John Williams (the first non-Spielberg effort he has scored since 2005). The score is a bit understated, but there are several moments of unmistakable beauty. Even when the film doesn't always get the themes of the book right, the score always rings true.

The Book Thief is basically an art film for the mainstream. It's just different enough from most mainstream films of similar ilk to trick audiences into thinking they're seeing something truly spectacular, while providing something legitimately solid. Cynical moviegoers will have a field day with this film, but forgiving fans of the book, and perhaps a handful of patient newcomers will find The Book Thief to be mostly satisfying, it deeply problematic. At its peak, The Book Thief is masterful. At its worst, it's overly sentimental. But it's never less than watchable.


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Review of Planes

Posted : 3 years, 7 months ago on 6 April 2014 03:51 (A review of Planes)

Planes is just plane boring. And if you groaned at that pun, you'll probably agree with my assessment. Nearly every single gag is painfully corny, and not in an intentional manner. The story itself covers all the traditional underdog/feel-good movie hallmarks, and you can practically arrange the events of the film in your head before even watching it. Even children and fans of Pixar's (much more enjoyable) Cars movies will probably find themselves distracted or bored.

Planes is more or less Cars in reverse. Instead of a big-city racer learning to slow down and take it easy, Planes is about a crop duster plane that learns to race. The crop duster in question is named Dusty Crophopper, and because of his background in farming, no one (except for some close friends) believes in him. Will Dusty be able to overcome insurmountable odds to claim fame and success?

Take a wild guess.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear; Planes is NOT a Pixar film. It's not even a Disney film! Planes comes courtesy of DisneyToon Studios, whose last theatrical release was 2005's Pooh's Heffalump Movie. However, thanks to its tie-in with the Cars franchise (and a cameo by John Ratzenberger which is actually larger than his last 3 Pixar roles combined), Planes has been mistaken for a Pixar effort, which of course, it is not. In fact, it's odd to say it's an "effort" at all, since there seems to be little legitimate talent of thought involved in this production at all.

Let's be perfectly honest with each other, Planes exists for one reason alone, and that (of course) is money. The Cars franchise has made billions of dollars in merchandising, so why not get a piece of that pie? And yet, I cannot figure out what kid could possibly enjoy this film. Even as a fan of not one, but both of the currently existing Cars films, I found myself decidedly uninterested and bored out of my skull.

It's tempting to criticize Planes for being more of a "kid's film" than a "family film," but that would be implying that Planes is a film. It is, in fact, a product, and it's almost even more insulting that the "film" itself does almost nothing to conceal this fact. You can practically hear the cash registers chiming in melodious song during those (surprisingly dull) flight sequences.

There are only two things one can do during Planes to avoid drifting into slumber. A.) Count how many scenes are lifted directly from Cars. I counted at least four, but I'm willing to believe I missed a few as I was struggling to remain focused on the film while the slow movement of the minute hand on my watch seemed much more fascinating. The other game you can play is "How Many Racial Stereotypes Can One Movie Contain?" In this category, my number was around a half-dozen.

Even the animation itself- usually a strength in any modern animated film- is barely above direct-to-DVD quality. It never comes close to rivaling even the early days of Pixar, Disney, or Dreamworks. And the character designs are completely uninspired.

The only aspect of this film that came close to impressing me was the voice acting. While Dane Cook as the lead, Dusty Crophopper is not interesting (the character itself is deathly dull), the supporting cast is occasionally respectable. The highlights come courtesy of Danny Mann, Teri Hatcher, and Cedric the Entertainer.

The score, composed by Mark Mancina, is fairly pedestrian. There really isn't anything unique or exceptional in the score, though it's fine for what it is. The electric guitar that occasionally seeps into the music, however, I could have done without.

Anyone else would walk into a film like Planes with the lowest possible expectations (perhaps excepting small children). However, I had the tiniest glimmer of hope. And that is because in 2000, DisneyToon Studios released a little gem entitled The Tigger Movie. And while my adoration for that film may be partially influenced by nostalgia, I can all but guarantee that The Tigger Movie will provide a much more entertaining, thoughtful, and wholesome experience for you or your children, than the 90 minute commercial that is Planes.


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Review of Paranoia

Posted : 3 years, 7 months ago on 30 March 2014 07:11 (A review of Paranoia)

When one watches a movie like Paranoia, one cannot help but hypothesize what would drive a person to make a film this aggressively terrible. These kind of things do not happen on accident; this film must have been made with the intention of being hilariously bad. Paranoia is as bad as a film can get, and yet, it is 100% watchable, thanks entirely to its extremely successful unintentional comedy.

The film doesn't make a lick of sense- so much so that the actors themselves seem noticeably confused at various intervals. That is why it pains me to tell you the plot of this movie. As best as I can figure out, a young tech wiz named Adam Cassidy has been asked by a powerful CEO, named Nicholas Wyatt, to steal information from another powerful CEO named Augustine Goddard. However, Goddard also wants Adam's help stealing information from Wyatt. But please don't quote me on this, as the entire movie is an intelligible mess.

This is an odd kind of review to write, because while Paranoia is indeed awful, and it completely lacks any of the important elements of a good thriller (or even a mediocre thriller), it excels in the area of comedy (albeit, unintentional comedy). So while I am absolutely flunking this movie, it's a totally enjoyable watch, especially with friends.

Take for instance, Adam's relationship with a woman named Emma Jennings (a character that has probably set feminism back 40 years), which covers all the typical romance cliches, and is completely unbelievable. Or, you can laugh in amusement as the camera zooms in on a security lens for the umpteenth time. Or keep a running tally of how many scenes Liam Hemsworth gets to take off his shirt (at least 6 in the first half hour). And speaking of running, Hemsworth flails his arms out (akin to a jet plane) whenever he is running in this film (best highlighted in a chase scene that had me laughing so hard, I had tears streaming down my face).

There's also the script, which is simply crammed with lines that a 7 year-old could have written (and written better). Also ripe for mocking is the film's apparent message: Lie to your girlfriend, break the law, and abuse work funds, and your life will easily improve (and you'll still get to keep your girlfriend). Another laugh-worthy bit occurs when a secondary character is hit maliciously by a car, but appears shortly afterwards with only a rash-like scar on his cheek. There's also a plot twist, which seems so predictable and irrelevant, that it took me several moments to realize that it was actually meant as a twist. And then, of course, there's the acting.

To be fair, not all the performances are bad. Gary Oldman as Nicholas Wyatt is actually very good, making a perfectly menacing antagonist, while still being enjoyable to watch. Harrison Ford as Augustine Goddard is passable, though any other actor could have portrayed this character (I would also note that Ford has never seemed older than he does in this film).

The rest of the cast fares less well. Liam Hemsworth cannot make any of his lines sound smooth or natural, and despite being the protagonist, he grows fiercely unlikable by the film's third act. Amber Heard's role requires looking pretty (and clearly, there was very little emphasis on emotions or dialogue performance). There are also numerous supporting characters, whose names we never pick up on that are just as bad.

The score by "Junkie XL" (a name that hurt me to write), is entirely subdued, and likely for the better. When the music actually can be heard, it's very synthetic and ultimately indifferent.

Yes, Paranoia is a disaster, but rarely will you see a disaster that is so enjoyable. I laughed quite a bit during this film- much more than during the majority of today's intended comedies. So, for those of you wanting a real review, here it is: This movie is rubbish. Paranoia plays out like an extended commercial for Apple (and occasionally like a music video), and there are plot holes big enough to comfortable live in. But here's the review for those of you who just want a good time: Watch this movie. You'd be hard-pressed to find a film worse than Paranoia, but the laughs justify the film's immeasurable problems.


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Review of Muppets Most Wanted

Posted : 3 years, 8 months ago on 22 March 2014 11:43 (A review of Muppets Most Wanted )

Muppets Most Wanted seems to be under the "bigger is better" lane of thinking. Compared to 2011's smashing The Muppets, Muppets Most Wanted has more songs, more celebrity cameos, and more elaborate set pieces (though remarkably, it boasts a shorter run time). Despite this, Muppets Most Wanted is not nearly as hilarious, brilliant, or enjoyable as its predecessor. Still, while it's nothing if not inconsistent, most should be satisfied with this 2014 follow-up, even if it's lacking the effortless charm of the reboot.

Constantine, the world's most wanted villain has a deceptive plot to steal the royal jewels (or something of the sort). Incidentally, he looks exactly like Kermit the Frog, with the only visible difference being a mole on his right cheek. He frames Kermit for his crimes, and convinces the Muppet gang that HE is the actual Kermit.

Most of the crew from the first film returns, including director James Bobin, writer Nicholas Stoller, and much of the Muppet cast (leads from the previous film, Jason Segel and Amy Adams, do not appear). And yet, Muppets Most Wanted is no where near the comic brilliance of the 2011 reboot. It's still perfectly watchable (and recommendable) entertainment, but it fails to meet (or even come especially close to meeting) the standard set by its predecessor.

With that being said, Muppets Most Wanted is actually closer in feel and tone to Henson's original films than the 2011 reboot. With this in mind, Muppets Most Wanted actually might appeal more to fans of the original movies. Personally, Henson's films have been a bit of a hit-or-miss commodity for me, and I found the 2011 reboot to be much more accessible and entertaining. Nevertheless, Muppets Most Wanted finds something of a balance between the two, which might create an appealing middle ground to those who adored the 2011 reboot, and those that found it blasphemous.

The script isn't consistently funny, and this could be a major problem. However, in this case, the gags come at a reasonably rapid pace, so if a gag makes you groan, you won't have much time to consider that, because you'll be smiling a few seconds later. Alas, this reveals another issue with Muppets Most Wanted, and that is that it's rarely laugh-out-loud funny. You'll probably smile your way throughout most of the picture (and there's a generous array of chuckles dispersed throughout as well), but genuine laughs are rare. As a result, you may find the film to be much worse in retrospect.

As far as The Muppets themselves go, there is inevitably not enough screentime to give ample attention to all of them. Kermit, Constantine, Miss Piggy, Walter, and Fozzy get the most screentime (Animal and Scooter get a fair bit as well). The other Muppets, while mostly not forgotten (in fact, a lovely cameo references the Muppets that actually WERE forgotten in the last film), have much smaller bits. Often getting only a single memorable scene (or even line) to themselves.

But also problematic in this field is the roles of Kermit, Walter, and Scooter. Kermit is typically the level-headed member of the gang, but he's in a Russian prison for most of the film. So logically, this should leave Scooter as the one to take his place in this role, balancing the sanity with the insanity. Alas, this becomes sort of a shared role between Scooter and Walter, which makes the characters seem both redundant and unnecessary. Furthermore, this forces Scooter to do things that seem outside of his character in order to accommodate Walter. It's a bit frustrating, and certainly sloppy, but is there really any better alternative?

As I mentioned, there are absolutely more songs in this film. "We're Doing a Sequel" has some great zingers, and the tune is guaranteed to be a nostalgic one in (give or take) 20 years. But it's also a bit of a curiosity, has it decidedly names the movie during the song; but not as Muppets Most Wanted. Rather, it dubs itself "Muppets...Again." This was actually the original title, but it was later changed to the much less charming (but considerably less awkward), Muppets Most Wanted. This problem recurs in the closing number.

"I'm Number One" is a surprisingly funny number between Constantine and his partner, Dominic, where Constantine elaborates on how he is the most wanted criminal in the world, while Dominic, is only number two. "The Big House," detailing the Russian Prison is immediately forgettable, and relatively uninteresting. "I'll Get You What You Want" falls under the same criteria. The "Interrogation Song" is perhaps the highlight. It's not as flashy as some of the other numbers, but I daresay I chuckled the most during this song. "Something So Right," (which is this film's equivalent of "Man or Muppet") is notable for its camp value, but little else. Lastly, the closing number, "Together Again," (from The Muppets Take Manhattan) is sheer nostalgic bliss, even if the original number is superior. There's also a Spanish arrangement of the Muppet Show theme that's an amusing addition.

The performances by the Muppets are what you'd expect. Voices that mostly sound the same as the originals (though some differences are more apparent than others), that are perfectly zany, and capable of delivering punch lines. The human cast is seemingly enormous (due to a massive amount of cameos that I'll let you discover on your own), but there are really just three primary players. One is Ricky Gervais as Dominic Badguy (who is, as you can see, one of the film's antagonists). His performance is serviceable, but he doesn't do nearly enough scenery-chewing. Tina Fey as Nadya- a Russian GULAG officer- never feels right in this role. I personally think that this has more to do with the script than her character, but either way, it reflects badly on the performance. Lastly, there's Ty Burrell, portraying a French Interpol inspector, who is the highlight of the humans (and possibly, of the film). He completely gets the Muppet tone, and provides the right amount of camp and comic ability.

The score, composed by Christophe Beck, is notable for actually including a main theme; something the other Muppet films rarely accomplish. Still, the theme is not developed in the slightest, resulting in a repetitive sounding score. There's an instrumental arrangement of "Together Again" early on that really surprised me, though it felt much less inspired after I realized that it was only there to tie in the number at the end (as opposed to being a spontaneous scoring idea).

As a whole, Muppets Most Wanted is an odd kind of beast. While there are definitely gags that bomb, and inconsistencies that will certainly bother some, there are enough smiles and chuckles to satisfy most audience members. Kids will probably find themselves a little bored, and fans of Henson's films, or the reboot, will be mildly disappointed. But the entertainment value is absolutely there. Die-Hards may just have to squint a bit to see it.

Note: The film is preceded by a short film entitled Party Central, starring characters from 2013's Monsters University. It's got a few decent gags (particularly near the end), but it's nothing special. Younger fans of Pixar's prequel will enjoy it the most, while anyone older will find it passable. On the whole, it's more than a bit depressing that this is the only new Pixar film that audiences will see for over a year.


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